Creed  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     133 Min        12A

‘Creed’ marks the seventh instalment in the Rocky franchise, after Sylvester Stallone wrote, directed and starred in the original back in 1976 – guiding it to Oscar glory for the best picture win, and giving him his one and only acting nod for his iconic turn as Rocky Balboa, beaten posthumously by Peter Finch for ‘Network’. His only nod until now, that is, as his emotional return to the character saw him deservedly nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar, whilst Michael B. Jordan takes the lead playing the titular Adonis Creed; illegitimate son of Rocky’s original opponent Apollo Creed, who was of course wonderfully portrayed by Carl Weathers in the first three movies.

Written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington, and directed by Coogler who worked previously with Jordan on their hit ‘Fruitvale Station’ (13), the film suffers initially from a lack of any emotional connection to the central character. Taken out of juvie and the foster care system to be raised in opulence by Apollo’s widow, Adonis shows a determination to fight just as his father did, but as the screenplay points out he has all the advantages in life that his father before him did not, giving him many more avenues to explore. In the beginning we see him receiving a promotion and promptly leaving his office job to pursue his fighting career, and whilst his office job presumably wasn’t all that fulfilling, he is wealthy and educated enough to try his hand at any sport or endeavour, there’s no need to pick one that could leave you fatally wounded or brain damaged.

The screenplay acknowledges this conceit, and there’s a wonderful piece of dialogue from Phylicia Rashad (playing Mary Anne Creed) where she explains she had to wipe Apollo’s ass because he couldn’t do it himself after some fights. The whole premise is that Adonis is trying to prove his own self-worth given his roots and his never having even met his father, but lack of emotional depth early on still leaves this feeling like a struggle foisted onto the main character by a plot blind to its weaknesses in its eagerness to make and justify another Rocky film.

Similarly, we find the young character of Bianca (Tessa Thompson) who is working as a singer, her passion in life, but suffering from permanent gradual hearing loss, although she seems quite content to listen to music full blast in her apartment; without so much as a thought for her neighbours let alone herself. Later on a key theme of the movie is anchored when Adonis tells someone who is sick to fight it and not give in – but this is completely at odds with the character of Bianca, as she says she just wants to do what she loves for as long as she can, and yet is actually caving in to her condition by propelling it ever forward at the fastest rate possible, doing things that would stand a good chance of damaging anyone’s hearing.

From a writing stance all of this fails and comes across as far too naïve, good general concepts poorly realised, but then enter Stallone, who reluctantly agrees to train Adonis and the two develop a father-son relationship that is both convincing and touching at times, and it looks for all the world like that very relationship had its effect on the performers too, as all the raw nerves that were only really there in print in the beginning exist on the surface by the end. Jordan delivers not only a likeable, and believable given how ripped he is for the role, performance throughout, but also a vulnerable and sympathetic one by the end, with Stallone on top form and really operating as the pulsating heart behind the movie.

Coogler has managed to shoot the film in such a way as to make it feel modern and down-to-earth, perfectly in keeping with the original, but also reasonably cinematic where it needed to be, although they’ve tried too hard to fit in bites of the original soundtrack into the new one and it usually feels out of place. When the story gets going though, the pace and momentum is such that it’s easy to be carried along with it, and Stallone’s guidance grounds and carries everything forward, not particularly hindered by the weaknesses of the first half.

It’s well shot throughout, although some scenes don’t come off as well as intended – such as a fight ambitiously done in one take, all the rage these days, that sees the camera in all the wrong places and a distance created between us and the action, and although the performers have done the scene well, the nature of it being a fight means the slightest of hesitations and going through their paces is really noticeable. Comically, the ending sees Adonis given an affectionate shove by Thompson, who unintentionally pushes him back several feet – at the culmination of that arduous and probably stressful scene, the irony isn’t lost on the cast.

Oddly enough, they watch ‘Skyfall‘ just afterward, which not only has a parallel with a protagonist deemed physically below par compared to his task, but also had Sam Mendes in his next instalment, ‘Spectre‘, attempt his own one-take scene.

‘Creed’ marks the best instalment in the Rocky story for decades, and although it doesn’t have the thrills and spectacle of ‘Rocky III’ or ‘Rocky IV’, its character based realism, for the most part, delivers a very ‘real’ feeling film.

Our Brand Is Crisis  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     107 Min        15

Much maligned but actually delivering a very astute, interesting and accurate dissection of modern-day politics, possibly why it was shunned by the Oscars, in a way that’s very easy to follow, and within a story that’s interesting and moves everything along at a very decent pace – only really falling down when it tries to deal with its characters outwith the confines of its central arc, where it mostly feels a little cold and flat.

Sandra Bullock stars as ‘Calamity’ Jane Bodine, the political strategic ace, brought out of retirement to help flagging ex-general Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) try to become Bolivia’s next president, and who’s rival in the arena is being coached by Jane’s old archnemesis Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton).

Fictional, but based on Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary about American campaign tactics in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election, the movie feels very real with, on the face of it, connections to British politics, as we hear one story of someone spreading a rumour about their rival having fucked pigs purely so they could hear them deny it – in Britain the former Prime Minister, David Cameron (who resigned after declaring ‘why should I do the hard stuff?’), apparently actually did fuck a dead pig, or at least he inserted his penis into it’s mouth (there is reputedly photographic evidence of this). The pig probably had a tag on it that read ‘Poor People’. Similarly, we watch as Jane’s team runs with the ‘crises’ dialogue, with their candidate the only one that can save the country – here the Tories used the word ‘chaos’ relentlessly when talking about what would happen if they lost the vote, effectively assuming the voting populace were of a combined intellect equivalent to that of a herd of cattle (or swine perhaps). Lo and behold, they won all the elections.

Bullock is immense in this film, utterly convincing in the moments when she has to appear commanding and equally convincing when displaying restrained emotion. I was dead against her Oscar nomination for ‘Gravity‘ but I don’t understand why she didn’t get a nod for this, especially given some of the performances that did sneak in that year. Directed by David Gordon Green (‘Stronger’ 2017) and with Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan and Scoot McNairy in support, this is a really clever and understated film that deserved more attention that it received – it only lasted a single week on release here, which really smacks of political intervention given even a crummy film with Sandra Bullock that gets universally slated and bombs at the box office will still last at least two weeks normally.

Joy  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     124 Min        12A

David O. Russell writes (or rather rewrites, with Annie Mumolo penning the original script), directs and calls upon Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, much like he did with ‘Silver Linings Playbook‘ and ‘American Hustle‘, to star in the semi-fictional tale of self-made business magnate and inventor Joy Mangano (played by Lawrence). The film gets off to the worst possible start, with titles dedicating it to strong women in general … and one in particular. It’s a little condescending, as if David O. Russell had only recently discovered women were actually capable of doing something interesting enough to make a film about, and there are numerous hints of force throughout the film: Joy when she is a child (played by Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) saying she doesn’t need a prince in the fantasy future-life she’s playing out, for example. We can see what the intention was of course, but the tone is a little too blatant. Why not simply tell the story?

A story which sells itself entirely. It’s not easy to see where fact and fiction collide here, but it certainly appears on the face of it that the main details are correct and the most important showdowns and moments when the protagonist really has to take the bull by the horns actually did happen. We begin in 1989 with Joy frantically running her household and her father (De Niro) appearing on the doorstep, who is promptly thrust into the basement in order to share it with her now divorced husband (Edgar Ramirez), whilst her kids are looked after upstairs – supervised by her grandmother (Diane Ladd) – kids that occasionally accompany her mother (Virginia Madsen), who seems to permanently engage with vegetating in front of her favourite soap opera on the tele in her room.

Oddly, we are constantly greeted with scenes from this same show throughout the first chapter of the film, demonstrating the nightmarish pull of the humdrum and banal void as Joy struggles to fit the bill as house matriarch whilst working as an airline reservations manager, but these sections are far too wayward, indulgent, lengthy and frequent and could mostly have been axed, although showing the pervasive sickness that can arise from such garbage on television and the isolating effect it has on families is to be applauded, it nevertheless simply becomes another overplayed element of the movie.

Spiralling out of another chaotic dream about the soap opera, Joy awakens with zest and inspiration for a product that will ignite everyone and everything around her – the Miracle Mop, designed to address the simple everyday practical issues she, and everyone else doing any floor cleaning, were met with every day, namely having to wring out the thing by hand (although surely they had buckets with strainers back then?) and buy a new one all too frequently. Thus begins her adventure as she attempts to produce and market her creation, bringing into the frame two new characters: her father’s new wealthy girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) and a head executive of the QVC advertising channel (Bradley Cooper).

It’s an inspirational tale that ought to speak volumes to anyone who’s ever tried to create anything themselves and despite the film’s many self-imposed setbacks, including twists and turns that continually have you thinking the movie is over when it’s not, it ultimately delivers, thanks in no small measure to another fantastic and Oscar worthy performance from Lawrence herself. A sizeable amount of trimming and a little less force would have ensured this came out of the blocks at the same pace Silver Linings and Hustle did, but in the end the heart of the true story and strong acting all round ultimately atone for its artistic hiccups.

Solace  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     101 Min        15

A movie dealing with a psychic who helps the F.B.I. solve crimes and which is, surprisingly, not total rubbish. It sounds like ‘Species’ (95) but the film very quickly just posits the fact that John Clancy (Anthony Hopkins) has far-reaching mental gifts and you basically think ‘OK great’, partly because it’s Hopkins playing him and as always he is brilliant to watch. Clancy has retired after family tragedy, but agents Merriweather (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the disbelieving Cowles (Abbie Cornish) request his services to trap a particularly skilled serial killer.

It’s a thriller that’s eminently easy to watch and its better moments are very reminiscent of ‘Se7en’ (95), indeed the initial script was intended as a sequel, and although it’s not really in the same league as that seminal film it does tick a number of the same boxes. From director Afonso Poyart and writers Sean Bailey and Ted Griffin and with some solid support from Colin Farrell, the film keeps the audience engaged throughout with a fairly eloquent delivery of what prove to be quite interesting core ideas.

Irrational Man  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                       95 Min        12A

Woody Allen’s latest begins in murky waters – Joaquin Phoenix plays an overweight despondent philosophy professor who likes more than the occasional drink or two, and Allen’s latest muse Emma Stone is the beautiful ingénue at college who will fall under his spell. It’s all a little clichéd and similar to his last film, ‘Magic in the Moonlight‘, with Stone’s early scenes each individually deliberately drawing the viewer’s attention to first her derrière, then her legs, and then finally her breasts. This is, however, a bit of a conscious red herring.

The professor is not interested in bumping uglies with the young nubiles around him, despite his reputation for doing just that, in fact, he isn’t all that interested in anything, other than continually mulling over wasted time and the little of any concrete value that his life has given rise to. Until, that is, inspiration strikes him in the most unlikely of ways – turning the story into a darker and more searching character portrayal, much as was the case in ‘Blue Jasmine‘, and although in that sense this isn’t quite so revealing or incisive, it is well delivered and likeable throughout, marking a return to form for Allen after a bit of a stray bullet the last time around.

Amy  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     128 Min        15

The latest documentary from director Asif Kapadia follows in the footsteps of ‘Senna‘ with another collage of primary source material, this time used to portray the life and tragic death of jazz singer Amy Winehouse. There is a stylistic difference between the two films in that with Senna the majority of the material was filmed whilst Ayrton Senna was already in the spotlight and aware cameras were rolling, whereas here a lot of the footage used was filmed among Amy and her friends before she hit the big time, no one presumably imagining many people, if anyone at all, was ever going to view it, so in a sense you are getting a snapshot of what someone might be like, but you’re also at times seeing someone doing the kind of random things anyone might do if a camera was suddenly thrust in front of their face.

Despite being about a completely different personality, this is thematically quite similar to Senna in that there’s an underpinning narrative of destruction with a heavy dosage of blame lain at the feet of the industry and a world that she was propelled into by the popularity of her music. Arguably, there is an unavoidable dismissive initial reaction to the scenario from a neutral perspective, given the well publicised story of another young musician whose life is dragged ever downward by drugs and fame until an all but inevitable early death. Tragic, but also a cliché and with a strong element of self annihilation. The film does successfully allay some of this by showing a tortured and talented soul with some fairly villainous influences on her life, indeed one of said villains gets arrested at one point for perverting the course of justice but we never find out what they actually did, which stands as a curious oversight.

Similarly, there is a degree of ambiguity over the role of Amy’s father, both in her life and in the film. He has appeared on the Victoria Derbyshire show on the BBC denouncing the film, and indeed he brought in transcripts to show that where the film has his voiceover saying Amy didn’t need rehab, it actually cuts out before he goes on to stipulate he meant at that point and that later on she absolutely did. We don’t get to see these transcripts in detail of course and I’m not sure it ultimately makes too much difference, although he shouldn’t have been cut off like that, as it does become quite difficult to sympathise with someone who invites a reality TV crew to film themselves with their daughter in St Lucia, against her wishes, whilst he is supposed to be there helping her to recover.

Neither is there any mention of the two year relationship she’d been in with film director Reg Traviss before she passed away, but the pivotal role her marriage played in events is shown in great detail and just as Senna ended with a line meant to give you something to take away from the film, so too do we here learn from her bodyguard that right before her death she’d admitted if she could sacrifice all her singing ability in order to simply be able to walk down the street without being harassed by the paparazzi, then she would. Indeed, we see multiple scenes where she is severely hounded by the press and it’s no surprise at all it took its toll on her.

I never really got into her music, partly because I found it really difficult to make out the lyrics – and the film seems to at least partly acknowledge this problem by showing us subtitles every time she sings, which was a great idea as it’s a prime opportunity to showcase the poetry of her work, and the songs play alongside the chapters of her life in the film that they relate to. We also see a number of illuminations as to her no nonsense approach to interviews which often proves quite endearing – perhaps chiefly when onstage at the Grammys and she hears the album titles of her competitors read out, disdainfully remarking ” ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’? Did he really call his album that?” in reference to Justin Timberlake. Most amusing.

There is a suggestion that chunks of important material and information are missing, but the film nevertheless rehumanises a person that the media too often milked as a cash cow and Kapadia is once again successful in delivering his intentional exposé of the sort of dangerous and destructive world that the modern public eye can be.

Spy  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     120 Min        15

Comedy adventure that reunites its main star Melissa McCarthy with her ‘Bridesmaids’ (11) and ‘The Heat‘ director Paul Feig, who this time also penned the screenplay and indeed will repeat this feat for the forthcoming Ghostbusters reboot with its all female central line up including, you guessed it, Melissa McCarthy. Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is the overqualified but shy CIA tech support for suave spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law), whom she is also hopelessly in love with, providing vital comms intel until something goes awry and she volunteers to go into the field to try and help catch dangerous criminal kingpin Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) before she can offload a nuke for a load of cash, much to the chagrin of seasoned agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) who is quite convinced he can handle things alone. Rather than the overdone routine of the ‘buddy’ film, the two agents effectively do go it alone, travelling to Paris for the first leg of their mission.

All the main players are on form here and the story is a lot of fun, full of the sort of improv zeal we can expect from McCarthy but also random inanity which works quite well, such as the spy headquarters having multiple random pest infestations every time we see it. The beginning chugs precariously along but it’s not long before kinks get ironed out and although there is on occasion a little too much patter and perhaps a few too many chase/action sequences, the film retains attention throughout and has enough gas and gags to stand as a proud addition to the canon of its director and star. Also with Miranda Hart, Allison Janney and Bobby Cannavale in support.

San Andreas  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     114 Min        12A

A traditional and yet very well executed disaster film that effectively detonates the San Andreas fault line that runs up much of the coast of California. The film’s release comes just after the recent devastating earthquakes in Nepal, and like all good disaster films this works precisely because there is a strong element of reality permeating the movie – things are taken to an extreme here, but if anyone remembers the quakes in L.A. in 1994 and the enormous amount of damage they caused it really is only a matter of time before the next large scale disaster happens in the area. Cinematically, this isn’t the first time the story has been told – 1974’s ‘Earthquake’ with Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner has, from memory, essentially the same storyline replete with early scenes on the Hoover Dam.

Paul Giamatti plays the scientist working on magnetic resonance technology that can help predict earthquakes coming – leading to several moments of him looking slowly up toward the camera to declare ‘no, it’s even worse!’ or words to that effect, but the main story surrounds fire department air rescue extraordinaire Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), his ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino – look out for the scene that plants her firmly between the proverbial rock and a hard place) and their extremely fit and happily unsuitably dressed for the film daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) as all hell breaks loose throughout the Golden State and Ray tries desperately to save his family. Decent support from Ioan Gruffudd and Hugo Johnstone-Burt, and bizarrely there’s even an appearance by Kylie Minogue, but strong central performances from everyone make a big difference here, combined with a story that never feels too silly (well, almost never) and effects that convince throughout, making this one of the better of its kind of the past two decades.

Tomorrowland : A World Beyond  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                                  130 Min        12A

There really is a lot wrong with this film, and yet it somehow manages to deliver its upbeat message of ‘the world needs dreamers’ in a really effective manner and coupled with a brilliantly precocious performance from twelve year old Raffey Cassidy (who plays Athena) the overall effect convinces you to overlook its many faults. It’s a live action Disney film based on a story from Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen with Bird directing the project too – you can see Lindelof’s imprint throughout as he has a penchant for putting the focus on the spectacle rather than the details (his past credits include the ‘Lost’ TV series, ‘Prometheus’ (12), ‘Star Trek Into Darkness‘ and ‘World War Z‘) and there’s a definite loose feeling permeating the structure of the film.

The beginning shows us what would appear to be a countdown – toward what, we can only guess as George Clooney and Britt Robertson (who play Frank Walker and Casey Newton respectively) provide voiceover letting us know they are about to regale us with their story that will eventually explain the clock. What unfolds is a sci-fi adventure that crosses time and space to the mysterious ‘Tomorrowland’ with strong warnings about our effect on the Earth’s environment as well as deeper, and yet often overt, philosophy on the nature of man, such as the metaphor that we are beset by two wolves, one representing fear, hatred, despair, anger and jealousy and the other hope, forgiveness, love and compassion and we decide which wolf wins by electing which one to feed, this is not an original concept but I quite liked seeing it in there nonetheless. Indeed, in terms of philosophy the film has its origins in what Walt Disney was working on at the time of his death, a new age cityscape teeming with innovation that was meant to create a real world Tomorrowland and inspire the world to solve its many problems of pollution and overcrowding, alas nobody really continued with his vision and the area of land he bought for the project in Florida was turned into just another part of Disney World, Tomorrowland demoted to a mere attraction at the company’s parks.

Detracting heavily from the merit worthy foundation of the film is its execution, over the top product placement for the likes of Disney’s recently acquired Star Wars franchise begins to grind and there are simply too many moments of silliness, such as characters enduring accidents that ought to leave their limbs dangling in tatters but they emerge with tiny cuts, and then watching them make decisions that are incredibly stupid given the information they have and yet they seem somehow surprised by the inevitable consequences. Much of this is by way of a failed attempt at comedy but it would be a much better film with it all removed, and it’s also true to say there is an equally unnecessary level of brutality involved with many of the fight scenes as well, commonly feeling very out of place for a Disney film. There is one amusing scene, possibly unintentional, which riffs off the Terminator franchise, you’ll know it when you see it …

Performances vary, but Cassidy is really the star of the show and easily the best thing in the film – you can absolutely expect to see a lot more from her in the future, although sadly one of the film’s key moments with her character seems a little hurried and ought to have more oomph than it does in the end. It’s in many ways amazing that the film carries its own weight at all, but ultimately it manages to prove a fairly memorable and worthwhile adventure, although by no means expect anything consistent or approaching perfect.

Far From the Madding Crowd  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                                  119 Min        12A

A very solid period drama with great performances from central players Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts and equally well balanced direction from renowned auteur Thomas Vinterberg (whose last feature film was ‘The Hunt‘). Based on Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel (although he did revisit the text significantly in 1895 and again in 1901) of the same name, I had fully intended on reading the book before watching the film so as to get a proper historical context but alas my plans were thwarted on this occasion, which is a shame as the feminist aspect of the story for the time period (the Dorset countryside is the setting, incidentally, and the film was largely shot on location) in itself suggests it may be a worthy read. Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene is the central character (Hardy appears to have relished coming up with character names – the other significant ones here being Gabriel Oak, Sergeant Francis Troy, Fanny Robin and William Boldwood {could Bathsheba have been the inspiration behind Katniss Everdeen?}), and we essentially watch as the local men in the area vie for her attention with a mixture of gentile sensibilities as to how to go about doing this, and then the, erm, not quite so gentile, as the fortunes of Bathsheba herself wax and wane, going from educated but poor into the inheritance of a sizeable farm with a score of staff and potential profits to be made admixt with mishaps delivered by the whims of nature.

So, in this sense there is an overt feminist aspect in that Bathsheba is a strong willed, intelligent and capable young woman surrounded by men whom she must on the one hand with their amorous advances reject, whilst on the other she must lead and command the respect of and also be able to barter with and hold her own against the competition. Mulligan is nigh on perfect in the role as she brings to the fore through subtlety the difficulties this incurs – we can see the adrenaline pumping as she faces off against one of the larger men bearing down on her, and yet her steely nerves carry her through, just as the imperfections and naivety of the character are also there to see as she makes mistakes and allows her ego, bolstered by position, to occasionally overstep the mark.

Yet, the absolute central crux of the story remains rooted in the fact that she is considered physically desirable by the majority, if not all, the males around her – would the novel have been commercially viable if she was perceived as a munter and no one wanted her? Now that would be interesting – men wanting to her marry her for financial gain only, she desiring someone but unable to woo him and at a loss what to do about it given the special constraints of the time, ravaged by the vagaries of her lust and jealousy. Male writers engage with the notion of extreme feminine beauty primarily because it’s what they themselves ultimately desire and thus it provides them and their characters with the most efficient fuel, and yet if literature is to endorse the idea of a universal enchantress then the opposite must also be true, feminine ugliness, generic repugnance, therein you would find a much more hard hitting and relevant expose of humanity. Art in general has always been more than happy to sidestep this concept and indeed you almost never see this kind of story told, although Vinterberg would have been the perfect person to tell it really – Far From the Madding Crowd: Redux.

As it is, the director gives us a distinct duality – the moments of expected beauty where we are spoiled by lovely scenic shots of the countryside with its rolling drumlins, valleys and sunlit lustre, coupled with much more down to earth scenes which look exactly as they would if one were standing there while they were being filmed, lacking much in the way of any filmic sheen but working really well because of it. Make no mistake though, this is much closer to a traditional romance than an exploration of the human condition, as there are several resolutions in the plot that will leave you thinking ‘hmm, that’s convenient’, or deus ex machina if you prefer, and Vinterberg himself buys into this, cue kissy moments with rotating camera and rays of sunlight flitting between mouths and bodies. Support from the likes of Tom Sturridge, Michael Sheen and Juno Temple proves continually apt and fitting and certainly if you are a fan of period dramas and classical romance then you should enjoy this one, and indeed it’s been done well enough to please the casual dabbler in the genre as well.