The Program  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     103 Min        15

Ben Foster gives the performance of his career as disgraced former cycling champ Lance Armstrong. I love how you always see that now – it’s quite an achievement to almost religiously have the word ‘disgraced’ precede your name, and this film focuses on showing exactly how that came to be, detailing how Armstrong actually operated his massive scam on the doping agency in cycling and indeed the public in general, with the secondary narrative of Sunday Times journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) who is ever suspecting and follows closely on the athlete’s heels with his hunch that something isn’t quite right (the film is based on Walsh’s 2012 novel, ‘Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong’).

It’s from director Stephen Frears, his latest film after the Oscar nominated ‘Philomena‘, and despite never personally following the sport I found the story fascinating throughout. Foster not only physically commits himself by undergoing multiple transformations, as we see him go through different physical approaches to cycling as well as his cancer ordeal (do we know if he really had cancer? He probably had like a sore throat or something), but he actually looks a lot like Armstrong to boot. His personal life is very much marginalised here, and the whole affair is a good companion piece to ‘Bigger Stronger Faster‘ which was a great exploration of doping in sports generally.

Armstrong was of course famously stripped of all his Tour de France titles, but, ironically, if everyone else was also doping then you could say he still won fairly. Rather, perhaps, the sport should be stripped of its competition. With Denis Ménochet, Lee Pace, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons and, briefly, Dustin Hoffman in support.

Miss You Already  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     112 Min        12A

Cancer drama that sees best friends Jess (Drew Barrymore) and Milly (Toni Collette) go through the lengthy horror of Milly being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing chemo. We see their individual family lives – Milly with husband Kit (Dominic Cooper) and their two children, Jess with lover Jago (Paddy Considine) who begin to consider having a child of their own, but Jess’s devotion to the more narcissistic Milly in her time of need begins to interfere with their private life as well. The two leads are fantastic (and as they remark in the film, Collette actually really suits being bald) which is why the films works as well as it does in its guise of dramatic, and perhaps cathartic, tearjerker.

At one point Milly desperately considers doing something rash, partially out of despair and misery but also partly to hurt her rather insensitive husband (whose behaviour is never properly explained), by travelling to Yorkshire from the film’s setting of London – the fact that she goes through with it is one thing, the fact that she gets there by taxi on their credit card is quite another and surely grounds for divorce alone never mind what she is contemplating doing once there. There is a link made with ‘Wuthering Heights’ which the pair of them love (it’s set on the Yorkshire moors) and indeed Kate Bush’s memorable 1978 song based on the novel (see below) – all I can say is beware following classic romantic literature too closely, it doesn’t exactly set many good examples – the Red Dragon still remembers the slew of youngsters shedding themselves of their mortality after publication of Goethe’s 1774 ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, wherein the protagonist kills himself over unrequited love, although ironically Goethe wrote it to successfully purge his own dangerously morbid obsession with a young woman.

Penned by actress and writer Morwenna Banks and directed by Catherine Hardwicke (‘Twilight’ 08, ‘Red Riding Hood’ 11) it comes as no surprise that the material, whilst fictional, is based on Banks’s memories of her friends going through similar events, and the film very much has that appeal of detailing something most people can relate to on some level, but it remains Barrymore and Collette’s performances that really anchor and sell the whole thing.

We Are Your Friends  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                       96 Min        15

A film universally panned but which actually works quite well within its own somewhat narrow purview – namely that of one young man’s attempt to make a living out of djing and trying to identify who he is and who he wants to be in the process, all while his friends effectively go through the same journey although he remains very much the protagonist. The style of dance music used throughout really isn’t my thing, so I was very surprised to find I enjoyed the track selection throughout, and the way it has been used and sound engineered to provide a distinctive feel to the movie has been really well executed. Surrounding something of a focus on sound the drama unfolds as one might imagine, with things going awry and the ensuing deep reflection, but Zack Efron as the central character Cole fits the part perfectly, and the support from Wes Bentley and Emily Ratajkowski compliment both Efron and the style of the piece to make this a well rounded out film that ought to resonate with many young people feeling a little lost as well as please aficionados of EDM (electronic dance music). Almost makes me want to go clubbing. Almost.

This is the song the film takes its name from:

Paper Towns  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     109 Min        12A

In many ways an unlikely success as it continually threatens to career off-path but always manages to reel itself back in. Central character Quentin (Nat Wolff) has grown up with a borderline unhealthy obsession with the girl next door – Margo (Cara Delevingne), whom he was once good friends with but the vanities of high school societal status have long since removed him from. Until one eve, that is, when she elects to pop in through his bedroom window, as only hot girls in movies know how to, and instantly denigrate him to hopeless sidekick duties whilst she destroys several of the lesser beings who have slighted her recently, committing various felonies in the process and using him literally as a tool but which he thoroughly enjoys nevertheless.

Now even more obsessed with her than before he is promptly gutted to learn she’s eloped from school, until he finds she has left numerous clues for him to follow in order to discover her new location. Thus he embarks on an epic quest of undying love and truancy, enlisting the help of several of his friends in the process and experiencing a jolt of excitement and adventure in an otherwise staid existence of quiet academic success and acceptance.

Adapted from John Green’s 2008 novel of the same name for the big-screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who have a long history of collaboration – having written the screenplays for ‘500 Days of Summer’ 09 and ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘ together, amongst others) and directed by Jake Schreier (‘Robot and Frank‘), the story treads a thin line between promoting, well, stupidity, and showing teenagers learning to live a little, take the initiative, and enjoy being alive whilst pursuing things that matter to them – and in the end it succeeds in the latter, with fitting support from the likes of Austin Abrams, Justice Smith and Halston Sage, playing the protagonists’ friends, and a breadcrumb trail that, like the rest of the plot, teeters on being ridiculous but eventually rings true. There’s also a cameo from Ansel Elgort (who of course starred in Green’s previous adaptation ‘The Fault in Our Stars’) during which he shows off a dragon tattoo to Sage and asks if she likes dragons, and she answers ‘no’ – is this a reference to something in the novel? Or could it be, they didn’t like my previous review? Surely not, I can’t think why that would be the case …. and yet they must know all girls love dragons, tsk tsk (It’s like with horses but with significantly more encouragement).

Sinister 2  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                       97 Min        15

Surprisingly, an improvement on the original from 2012. The horror story surrounding the bogeyman (a monster myth that transcends multiple cultures worldwide incidentally, often being referred to as The Black Man, and always used to terrify children into obedience by their parents – the Slavic word ‘bog’, meaning god, is thought to have been one possible origin for the word ‘bogeyman’ as a devil and to have given rise to the likes of ‘bogle’, meaning hobgoblin in Scots, and ‘bugbear’, for example) continues with the police deputy from the previous film, played by James Ransone, now having left the force and on a mission to protect those still in danger from this ancient evil, specifically in this case Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon) and her two young sons Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan). Ransone and Sossamon together with the story really sell this film – forming a sympathetic core that allows what are fairly ordinary, albeit well executed, horror thrills to work, and deliver a modern film in the genre that is actually watchable because we care about the characters, as Bughuul attempts to recruit Dylan and Zach into his legion of undead kiddies who have all brutally murdered their parents (membership is quite exclusive).

Hot Pursuit  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                       87 Min        12A

Perhaps alarmingly, I quite enjoyed this. It’s a buddy film with two female leads in place of the usual male ones – indeed, most of the chatter surrounding its release has revolved around this element combined with its being helmed by a female director: Anne Fletcher (‘Step Up’ 06, ‘The Proposal’ 09). This combination of the sexes, earth shattering as it is, has seen several criticisms lain at some of the jokes, but in each instance there often equally appears to be a unique omittance that the screenplay was written by two men – David Feeney and John Quaintance. These socio-political elements aside, the story follows Reese Witherspoon’s extremely-by-the-book cop Cooper as she attempts to both protect Sofia Vergara’s Riva and to also make sure she testifies against a criminal heavyweight, as without her testimony the case is set to collapse.

The first third or so will probably make you want to kill yourself, but eventually the corny story is buried in the infectious fun the two leads are clearly having together and their chemistry alone gives the fairly run-of-the-mill comedy the lift it needed to actually generate some laughs. Indeed, I found myself sniggering away several moments after some of the jokes had been delivered, and any film that can do that and then finally send me away from the cinema in a good mood deserves some credit. Flawed to be sure, and by the end it has begun to peter out a little again, but very likeable and some lovely stealth laughs in there for those not too proud to admit it.

Terminator Genisys  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     126 Min        12A

Surprisingly good. I say surprisingly as I don’t think anyone seriously believed this was going to be anything other than terrible, in part due to the continual decline of the franchise beginning with ‘Terminator 3’ in 2003 but also thanks to an atrocious trailer for this instalment, one which did have the boon of lowering expectations but also critically blows several key moments in the film so I would strongly advise against viewing it if possible, though this may indeed be difficult given its appearance on multitudes of high profile websites right now. It should have been the easiest thing in the world to create an exciting teaser for what is not only the return of one of the most famous franchises of all time but also a film that reunites it with its principal star – Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s face made a digital appearance in ‘Terminator : Salvation’ (09) but who was otherwise absent from the film which he himself describes with: ‘It sucked!’. An accurate, if somewhat succinct, critique.

It’s very apparent here that director Alan Taylor (‘Thor : The Dark World‘) and writers Laeta Kalogridis (‘Shutter Island’ 10, ‘Night Watch’ 04) and Patrick Lussier (long term horror editor, on the ‘Scream’ franchise amongst others) have a lot of reverence for ‘The Terminator’ (84) and ‘Terminator 2 : Judgement Day’ (91) and I think fans of those two pretty fantastic films are going to appreciate the constant one eye kept on the roots of the story. Indeed, hopes were raised for Genisys by none other than the series founder and director of the first two films – James Cameron, who enjoyed this interpretation and has said he regards it as good enough to stand as the legitimate next part in the story following on from T2 (and thus annihilating everything between then and now, presumably including the TV series ‘The Sarah Conner Chronicles’ 08-09).

The story … actually, I shan’t say anything about the story as most of it is meant to be a surprise and I assume everyone knows the basic premise from the others, wherein machines take over in the near future (originally in 1997) and nuke the Earth (despite being great films, in terms of sci-fi there are obvious weaknesses – they take out humans and then … what? The machines have no real purpose when you think about it, they can produce more of themselves but with no discernible emotions or pleasurable senses or threats of any kind by that point, including that of ageing, why bother?), but humanity persists and both sides send warriors back in time to variously slay/protect the mother of the future resistance leader and perhaps prevent him from ever being born.

The core concept doesn’t exactly speak very highly of humanity given it seems people are not only stupid enough to let the world’s first AI play around with nuclear toys but there too only exists one mortal capable of adequately fighting back, never mind the multi-faceted space-time conflicts which immediately arise, but none of that gets in the way of a fun story and, following in the modern blockbuster tradition, this is very much the focus here. Indeed, you can well imagine the writers thinking ‘hmm, does that make sense? What about this, and that, and … O let’s just get on with it. Actually, let’s throw this in as well, why not’.

In this central aspect the film is a hit and, although there are probably a few too many one-liners, the cast, comprised of Arnie, Emilia Clarke, Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney and J.K. Simmons, all carry the film really well – in particular Emilia Clarke who is nothing short of fantastic as Sarah Conner (possibly getting tips from her ‘Game of Thrones’ co-star Lena Headey who played Sarah in the TV series). This focus on the ride, though, does mean opportunities for more atmospheric tension and scenes with a heavier sense of build-up have been missed and it is a shame a blend of the two approaches wasn’t attempted. However, given the dreary duds that fans have been greeted with over the last twenty years this is a deserving shot in the arm for the series – there’s a brief post credits scene too after the iconic music, from composer Brad Fiedel, finishes playing.

Some of the better marketing for the film at Madame Tussauds …

Insidious : Chapter 3  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                       97 Min        15

One of the more infamous horror franchises of recent times returns to the fore after a fairly lacklustre second outing, on this occasion taking us back in time to before the hauntings of the Lambert family with spirit medium Elise (Lin Shaye) the link between the films, as young Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) seeks her guidance regarding contacting her recently deceased mother. Elise tells her to do one (I’m paraphrasing) as she’s haunted by an evil entity bent on destroying her whenever she enters the spirit world, the same one from the previous films, leaving poor Quinn to her own devices and to making the rookie error of contacting the wrong spirit who, unfortunately, decides to try and make her his own little pet in the nether realm. Though, in the spirit’s defence, Quinn does look good enough to eat, so you can’t blame a (dead) guy for trying, right?

Everything has been improved dramatically since the last outing with Leigh Whannell bolstering his screenplay this time around and indeed his appointment as director as well appears to have paid dividends as there are some genuinely scary moments and ideas in there, much like there was in the first one. It’s not as taught throughout as the original was – everything in part one was about turning the screw on the tension in tandem with the story unfolding, here there are multiple moments of ‘hmm, OK just have the dead thing scare the pretty girl and chuck her around the room for a bit, that’ll do’, and most of the support here is pretty lame, but Shaye and Scott do a great job and with more attention given to the story this time the franchise is (ahem) alive and kicking again.

The Connection / La French  (2014)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     135 Min        15

A thriller centred on the true story of the French Connection in Marseilles throughout the 1970s and early 80s – the drug smuggling cartel immortalised by William Friedkin’s Oscar winning 1971 film of the same name (it won best film, director and actor for Gene Hackman, as well as best adapted screenplay and editing). I’ve seen this film billed as a remake of the original but that’s not accurate as this is a French language film focusing the story on the police investigators in Marseilles trying to combat the organisation whereas Friedkin’s movie was largely concerned with the operation on the other side of the pond in New York City. The French Connection themselves were responsible for the vast majority of the heroin that found its way onto the streets of the U.S. at the time and there is a wealth of material there for storytellers going all the way back to just before World War II, and then also the French Gestapo during the Nazi occupation and in some cases even a few of the resistance fighters.

Indeed, it is perfectly possible that ‘The French Connection’ had an impact on real events as the year of its release saw an intensification in international efforts and resultant successes in tackling the organisation. Here, Jean Dujardin plays new magistrate in town Pierre Michel, who very much personally spearheads fresh efforts to tackle the trade, and he gives his best performance since his Oscar winning turn in ‘The Artist’ (11), one well matched by his opposite number Gilles Lellouche playing crime lord Zampa. It’s a well executed, thoroughly traditional and enjoyable crime thriller and one positively influenced by Marseillais director Cédric Jimenez’s familiarity with the city and its past. Expect violence from start to finish from a film that also works really well as a missing piece in the puzzle previously illuminated by both ‘The French Connection’ and its 1975 sequel, but also to a lesser extend ‘The Godfather’ in 1972.

The Gambler  (2014)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     111 Min        15

Mark Wahlberg gives one of the finest performances of his career so far in this remake of Karel Reisz and James Toback’s 1974 classic. He plays university lecturer Jim Bennett, whose demonic gambling addiction eats away at every sinew in his body and mind until it defines everything about him, although he is adamant that he isn’t in fact a gambler, to the point that even the audience question why he is so determined to pursue his singular course of obliteration. Perhaps, as is suggested when he gives a wonderful monologue to his entire class that only one person present has the talent to ever be a writer and the rest are deluding themselves, he is simply spiralling through a depression, questioning his own validity and that of everything around him and becoming obsessed with questions of fate, luck and grand design. Whatever the reason, the film successfully captures the decidedly uncomfortable nature of watching someone endlessly self destruct.

From director Rupert Wyatt (‘The Escapist’ 08, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ 11) and writer William Monahan (‘The Departed’ 06, ‘London Boulevard’ 10) there’s very strong, if fairly brief, support from John Goodman and Jessica Lange, and Brie Larson provides both sex appeal and the suggestion of redemption for Bennett, but it’s really Wahlberg that convincingly and intriguingly holds our attention throughout. I may be wrong, but I could also swear the dealer in the opening casino scene actually wins a hand and then plays another card anyway …