The Hunger Games : Mockingjay Part Two  (2015)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     137 Min        12A

I’m more than a little surprised by how good this is. It begins having to deal with the remnants of the especially deplorable melodrama left over from part one, but when it eventually gets going it begins to fire off with some really terrific special effects and production design, coupled with suspenseful direction that begins to introduce cross-genre elements, with scenes that feel very much like a part of the ‘Alien’ franchise, and, most importantly, really good writing that delivers an extremely fitting and poignant end to the series, one that at times had been dipping into repetition and seeming to rather meander along to a foregone conclusion.

Jennifer Lawrence is once again the central focus with her choice weapon of bow and arrow, equipped here with pyrotechnic arrowheads, as she leads her own personal thrust against the considerable military prowess of The Capitol, whilst the troops of the rebellion amass for the final push against their oppressors and their devilishly silken ways. Speaking of which, the images of Lawrence draped in fiery red combat gear plastered all over the advertising posters in fact depict something which is never shown in the film, a shame but since it would effectively be painting a large target all over her you can see why it wasn’t featured.

Lawrence has been captivating from the onset and she continues in the same vein for the finale here, although her character Katniss does seem to have a few iffy moments which somewhat go against the grain – such as blaming herself for her entourage’s current predicament when it’s blatantly not her fault, probably not putting her unit at great ease there, and not anticipating fairly obvious things, like being searched at checkpoints and so forth. All performers return from the previous instalments, including Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Natalie Dormer and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last ever film role, and for anyone put off by the last film, as I was, don’t let it prevent you from seeing Suzanne Collins’s trilogy finish on considerably more memorable form.

The Martian  (2015)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     141 Min        12A

Ridley Scott’s latest returns to space for a film steeped in science, and one which sees explorer Mark Watney (Matt Damon) left behind on Mars after the rest of his team (sent from NASA to establish a base on the planet) leave him behind when a storm forces them to abort and they assume him to be toast. Possibly sending into the popular domain phrases such as ‘I’m going to have to science the shit out of this’, and, ‘Nobody gets left behind, except Matt Damon’, the film begins sloooowly as we’re mostly dealing with Mark by himself wondering how to survive and indeed we’re greeted by multiple moments from the trailer, but at least that gets them out of the way and it’s not too long before the story flits between ground control on Earth and the other crew on the Ares III who are on their way home, which finally brings us back onboard as an audience (interesting if they had found life on the planet and had to explain coming in peace and yet naming their mission after the Greek god of war {Mars is the Roman equivalent of Ares}).

The science doesn’t always hold up; it’s been said the atmosphere wouldn’t actually be able to generate the initial storm, for example, and we see a manual docking procedure in space which is unlikely (after the collapse of the USSR the Russian space agency decided to save money by not paying for the now Ukrainian automated guidance system for supplying the Mir Space Station, with the resultant manual attempt a devastating crash that shut down half of the power to the station and left the Spektr module inoperable), but all these things are minor details and don’t ultimately matter – the science critical to the plot, especially relating to survival, is often both sound and interesting, although certain characters do seem to keep ideas to themselves for a questionable amount of time.

Adapted from Andy Weir’s 2011 novel by screenwriter Drew Goddard (‘World War Z‘, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ 12) and with several big names in support: Jessica Chastain (who actually gets to go into space this time after ‘Interstellar‘), Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Benedict Wong as the head of the Jet Propulsion Lab (not wise – apparently no one remembers Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine’ {07} come the 2030s) and they, together with Damon and great visuals of Mars (Martian scenes were filmed in Jordan, and visors were commonly omitted for the astronauts – they had to be made digitally afterward replete with reflections which is no mean feat) all create an involving human drama on a par with the memorable ‘Apollo 13′ (95). Look out for the bit with the sticky-tape, so annoying.

The Gift  (2015)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     108 Min        15

Written, produced and directed by one of its stars, Joel Edgerton, who teamed up with the current big name in horror production, Blumhouse (who are doing a good job of diversifying after last year’s ‘Whiplash‘), to make the film. In his big-screen directorial debut Edgerton has proven himself to be one to watch as a filmmaker, creating a brooding and involving psychological drama that combines some traditional horror moments with great pacing and storytelling. Happy couple Simon and Robyn move into a new home when they bump into Gordo at the shops, who once upon a moon went to school with Simon and so promptly decides to pop over uninvited and leave a number of mysterious gifts for them ….

Jason Bateman and the ridiculously attractive Rebecca Hall play the recipients of the pressies with Edgerton as Gordo, and the success of the film is down in no small measure to the strength of all three throughout – with somewhat lingering and understated direction that allows space for a sense of menace, something that equally applies to the writing that mixes the stress given to the hints it has scattered around for the audience. The trailer brutalises a number of the plot points so avoid it if possible, and the finale isn’t as well rounded-off as you might wish it to be, but bar that this is a great suspense and character driven film.

Son of a Gun  (2014)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     108 Min        15

Eminently watchable and oddly enjoyable crime thriller, made so by an extremely strong performance from Ewan McGregor revelling in his role as hardened convict Brendan Lynch who is about to recruit a new member into his gang whilst they serve time together, before attempting to break out and score it big. He is also clearly enjoying being able to bring his natural Scottish accent to the fore for a change, indeed there are moments that harken back to the work in his early career with the likes of ‘Shallow Grave’ (94) and ‘Trainspotting’ (96). It’s an Australian film from writer and director Julius Avery (his first feature film after various shorts), and the new blood in question is played by Brenton Thwaites, with support from Alicia Vikander sporting a fairly ropey Polish accent – both the youngsters are pretty annoying, but this actually aids the film as it feels real for their characters and there is no special attempt to portray them as anything other than themselves, they are not the ‘heroes’ of the piece for example, whilst McGregor vents audience frustration and grounds the film by also losing his rag with them at several key points. Good, gritty fun.

Ex Machina  (2015)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     108 Min        15

A close quarters sci-fi mystery that locks three characters – an A.I. Machine Ava (Alicia Vikander), her/its creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and a nerd Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), all in an isolated modern and luxurious complex in Norway for one week (at least, that is where the location shots were filmed at any rate), where the visiting competition winner Caleb will administer the Turing test in order to determine whether or not Nathan has successfully created an android convincing enough to pass for human (for more on Turing, see ‘The Imitation Game‘). It is slow and some of the delivery is equally drawn out and annoying (mainly from Gleeson) and it does meander for a long time but ultimately the plot delivers a satisfying conclusion via smart mechanics with a few nuggets of intellectual fodder strewn around to chew on (like the brief mention of the theory that we don’t really learn language, we already ‘know’ it and just learn to map words around it, interesting) and insights into the conditions of life and survival which are both understated and yet ubiquitous, rounding off the film nicely.

There’s no real action here, which caused a palpable sense of restlessness in the audience who I think may have been expecting something more akin to the explosions and effects of the likes of ‘I, Robot’ (04) – there were lots of gingerly delves into bags of popcorn throughout the predominantly conversational structure of the film. The acting is good from all three leads, perhaps most of all from Vikander who has less lines than the other two but who never flinches in her ethereal portrayal of Ava, and the screenplay is itself constantly aware of what the audience is likely to guess is going on, immediately introducing that concept in the next conversation and dashing it as a conclusion. A sense of claustrophobia and menace is created in the complex, especially under the frequent power outages, and there was a lot of potential to really turn the screw on that which may have delivered some much needed punch at various points, but nevertheless author (‘The Beach’ 96), screenwriter (’28 Days Later’ 02, ‘Sunshine’ 07, ‘Never Let Me Go’ 10) and first time director Alex Garland has created a polished and clever science fiction drama that stands proudly within a genre fairly overcrowded with A.I.

The title is pronounced ‘ex makuhnuh’ and comes from the phrase ‘deus ex machina’, which literally translates as ‘god from a/the machine’ and is used to term the introduction in fiction of some godly or outlandish solution to a problem, a fudge if you will, referencing plays of old when a statue of a god would be mechanically made to appear on stage and perform whatever service was required of it to save the protagonist’s bacon.

Foxcatcher  (2014)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     129 Min        15

A finely acted and yet supremely depressing true story about Olympic wrestlers Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) and their coach Jean du Pont (Steve Carell), who describes himself as one of the richest men in America at the time and who takes on Mark as a way to engage with the sport that he loves but which he has never competed in himself, we are led to conclude that this is largely because his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) very much looks down on the activity as a ‘lowly’ sport. He’s not much of a coach, his body and mannerisms are more like Monty Burns from the Simpsons than anything resembling an athlete or a figure of authority and respect, and the story focuses on the psychological effects of a lifetime spent futilely trying to please an aloof parent, a situation complicated by wealth and indulgent privilege, as well as Mark’s situation growing up and competing in the shadow of his, loving, brother David.

The first thing you notice about the film is the altered physical aspect that all three central performers have sewn into their portrayals – in fact, the three all hunch to some extent, two of them from muscular strengthening and combat, the other via atrophy, but their look and style are all very well nuanced and delivered. Indeed, for Carell this is not only a rare non-comedic role but an extremely transformative one with prosthetics and a deserved Oscar nod for his lonely and fractious study of du Pont – with Ruffalo getting an equally merited supporting nomination although Tatum is every bit their equal. Set in the eighties and directed by Bennett Miller (‘Capote’ 05, ‘Moneyball’ 11), a slightly grainy texture has been applied to the film, which I think is to the movie’s detraction – it is already somewhat dark and miserable without a further visible layer being applied, but it remains a taught and very believable exploration of the themes and characters, and the real story both intrigues and saddens throughout.

The Hobbit : The Battle of the Five Armies  (2014)    73/100

Rating : 73/100                                                                       144 Min        12A

Despite the rather bombastic advertising poster shown above for Peter Jackson’s conclusion to The Hobbit trilogy, it does not feature very much in the way of the rather fine example of dragonhood depicted, which, needless to say, was disappointing. Similarly, the methods by which the hero of Laketown, Bard (Luke Evans), attempts to defend it are PRE-POST-EROUS, in fact the humans throughout the film are easily the worst aspect and by far the least interesting. Who cares about Laketown? Let it BURN, they were asking for it anyway, dragons like to sleep a lot but we always wake up eventually. I do, however, like the central concept that Middle-earth hears on the grapevine that the dragon has finally awoken and left the doors to his gargantuan hoard of treasure agape, thrusting the titular five armies together to duke it out for the spoils – it makes sense, and it’s a good excuse for an almighty clash.

What it should have been, though, is the five armies versus me, I mean, Smaug – which might have been close to a fair fight. Through working together they could all have become better friends – the humans could have been regaled by the comedic wit of the dwarven leader Billy Connolly (he plays Dáin), the elves could have come to take pity on their inbred and fucked up cousins the orcs and offered them counselling, and the eagles, well, fuck the eagles the stupid little creatures, they can provide a tasty little snack for the dragon – the whole blood soaked affair is their fault anyway, ‘the eagles are coming!’, well they took their sweet time about it and best make the most of it because they’ll bugger off again in exactly two seconds anyway. All the while Bilbo runs off with both the Arkenstone and The Ring and secretly masturbates with them in a corner somewhere (we never really learn what the hell the Arkenstone actually is, only that’s it’s EVIL and essentially the MacGuffin that allows for lots of hammy acting surrounding its corruptive influence) – this all would have made for a better story, as would Bilbo then becoming the new dark lord.

As it is, all the characters come together for the big fight and everyone gets to do their bit and a commendable amount of creativity has gone into some of the choreography, although throughout the film there is the constant feeling that we are supposed to be more moved than we are – in fact comparing this to ‘The Return of the King’ (2003: the conclusion to Jackson’s earlier ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy) where there were many audible tears falling, only a single poor sobbing soul sounded around the auditorium for this and indeed no more than three people stayed for the credits at the end, compared to the truly unique sense of atmosphere generated at the screening of ‘The Return of the King’ where not a single person moved until the entirety of the credits had played through.

This is, nevertheless, a fitting conclusion to the trilogy, even if it still feels like a watered down and aimed at a slightly younger audience version of the previous one – though this is in fitting with the source material. I think overall the new technology used for the films with its super high frame rate was a huge mistake, with many parts looking tarnished and tawdry by its use, but it is possible that it will work better on the small screen. As with ‘An Unexpected Journey‘ and ‘The Desolation of Smaug‘ there are numerous tie-ins with the story in the rings trilogy which I think fans of Tolkien’s universe will appreciate (notwithstanding the silly looking ‘flashing Sauron’ sequences) and despite various criticisms of the liberties taken with the novel I believe the embellishments as a whole add more than they detract and are at least faithful in spirit.

Indeed, there is a huge wealth of material for further development so don’t be at all surprised if Middle-earth is readied for adaptation once more in the not too distant future. Above all else, it is the audience’s reintegration within a fantastic world where the devotion of the filmmakers, in particular Weta Workshop, really tells, together with enduring tales of friendship, adventure and courage that make the films work and will no doubt ensure their ability to be enjoyed many times over, continuing a long established Christmas tradition for many fans of both Tolkien and Jackson’s overarching and monumental works. Evoking the spirit the films were made in, Billy Boyd (who played Pippin in the Rings trilogy) wrote ‘The Last Goodbye’ and performs the song as it plays over the credits, a member of the family aiding The Hobbit to conclude its epic three year journey.

Some interesting background mythology regarding the lore and characters of Tolkien’s fantasy realm :

The Judge  (2014)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     141 Min        15

Acting giants Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. play an estranged father and son, the former a highly respected judge in their fictional home town of Carlinville, Indiana, and the latter a defence attorney living in the Windy City, Chicago, and about to go through divorce procedures with his wife, something he’d prefer not to admit to when he returns home for his mother’s funeral. Filial responsibilities are about to be severely put to the test when Duvall is accused of a hit and run murder, but he’d rather someone local defend him than his own son, and to make matters worse he claims he has no recollection of events and therefore no idea if he is actually guilty or not. A long and quite involving legal case pans out and the narrative intertwines it with the main characters’ own relationship, past and present – both leads are great, although Downey’s particular acting style can muffle some of the dialogue at times, and the film is as convincing at exploring a real and difficult father/son relationship as it is at giving us a suspenseful courtroom drama. With support from Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester and Vera Farmiga – who interestingly makes another choice comment about playing with herself (she did the same in ‘Up in the Air’ 09) – is this her stealthy trademark, much like eating onscreen is Brad Pitt’s? I think we ought to really see it next time if it is ….

The Boxtrolls  (2014)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                       97 Min        15

The latest from stop-motion animation company Laika (after ‘Coraline’ in 09, and ‘ParaNorman’ in 12), and based on the 2005 young adult novel ‘Here be Monsters!’ by Alan Snow, this is a particularly skilled production, especially so from directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi along with tremendous voiceover performances from Ben Kingsley and Elle Fanning. The Boxtrolls are trolls that dwell in the underdark of the city of Cheesebridge, creeping out in the night to snatch children away from their families, dragging them back to their rat infested lairs to feast on the blood and bone of the city’s innocents. At least, that is what Dickensian bad guy Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) would have you believe. In reality they are a peaceful and frightened group of creatures, ones who wear boxes instead of clothes and who do have a human child in their midst, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), who, along with posh girl Winnie (Fanning), generates the central story as the two of them attempt to thwart the dastardly plans of Snatcher as he uses Boxtroll scaremongering to try and wrest political power from the town elite, including Winnie’s father Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris).

The trolls are a little garish and could potentially frighten small children, at least in the beginning – their austere introduction is ameliorated as the film progresses and they are all really secondary characters, certainly for older children this is fine and is not in the same ballpark as the genuinely too scary for youngsters ‘Coraline’. It is interesting how much animation aimed at a younger audience has a garish/creepy edge to it outwith the realm of Disney and Dreamworks, perhaps that’s why, to distance themselves from the larger fish in the pond, but perhaps the reason runs a little deeper – after all, anyone who grew up watching ‘Watership Down’ (78) or the animated ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (78) isn’t going to forget cute little bunny rabbits getting torn to pieces or real orcs (there were breaks in the animation with live actors) splattering blood all over the screen in a hurry.

The story is fun and interesting with standing up and thinking for yourself the central theme, and although it’s good enough for adults to enjoy too, they will notice a lull in momentum going into the final third. One of its strengths is the nuances that have been put into the bad guys which makes them much more interesting as characters, and, along with Snatcher, they are well brought to life by Richard Ayoade,Tracy Morgan and Nick Frost (Simon Pegg also has a brief role). It’s clear to see the amount of work that has gone into the film, and if you sit through the credits there is a wonderful scene at the end showing one of the animators at work with a voiceover from Ayoade, poking fun at the amount of work involved, saying ‘it’s more like a hobby really. You should get a real job’, something no doubt familiar to artists everywhere ….

The Hundred-Foot Journey  (2014)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     122 Min        PG

A feel good film to watch before you go for dinner rather than after, featuring as it does many shots of sumptuous food being prepared – both French and Indian cuisine mmmm (if you are ever in Edinburgh, be sure to visit the Mosque Kitchen for awesome and affordable curries). Based on Richard C. Morais’ 2010 fictional novel of the same name, this tells the story of one Indian family who leave their home after the personal tragedy of the loss of their mother in a fire, and seek to put down roots somewhere else, eventually settling in the picturesque French village of Lumière (French for ‘light’ but a fictional town, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the south of France was used as the primary shooting location). The only trouble is, they set up their Indian restaurant directly opposite the town’s only other one – a very well to do establishment that already has one Michelin star (France’s highest critical honour) and its owner Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) is absolutely determined to achieve another. War ensues. Mirren is wonderful as always, as is her adversary, Om Puri, playing the head of the Indian family, as both sides are forced to reconcile their differences and appreciate what each has to offer, even including the possibility of romance. Also with Charlotte Le Bon and Manish Dayal, pictured above, produced by Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake and directed by the legendary Lasse Hallström (‘My Life as a Dog’ 85, ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ 93, ‘The Cider House Rules’ 99, ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ 11) it’s an endearing film charmingly infused with picturesque surroundings and an abundance of food to salivate over whilst you enjoy them.