A Walk in the Woods  (2015)    61/100

Rating :   61/100                                                                     104 Min        15

Adapted from Bill Bryson’s 1998 novel that recounted his expedition along the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine, and starring Robert Redford as Bryson and Nick Nolte as his mate Stephen Katz, who turns up for the trek in a less than ideal physical state. Both the leads deliver very likeable performances and, along with the occasional vista of wonderful scenery, they are what make an otherwise far too light, breezy and unremarkable film quite reasonable, if underwhelming, entertainment.

Along their journey they meet various other people – none of whom seem in any way real, rather they have been accentuated to an extreme for the sake of comedy, and yet we’re supposed to be watching a retelling of a real adventure for the pair so it does largely detract from what the film could have aspired to be, and indeed it’s been done so heavy handedly that it also ruins what should have been decent comedy.

Having said that, it never really goes so far as to be completely off-putting, but relating to Bryson’s remarks – that his initial jolt of excitement at having the work adapted and himself played by Redford quickly gave way to foreboding that the story was about to be taken out of his own hands (it was adapted by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, each making their screenwriting debut, with ‘Big Miracle’ {12} director Ken Kwapis at the helm), this indeed definitely has the feel of a much diluted version of the source material. With Emma Thompson and Mary Steenburgen briefly in support as respectfully Bryson’s wife and a random hot innkeeper they meet on the trail, and in the end it’s not great but remains a pleasant enough Sunday afternoon film to watch and relax with.

American Ultra  (2015)    40/100

Rating :   40/100                                                                       96 Min        15

Utter rubbish – two stoner lovers are living out their pointless existence until one day one of them is ‘activated’, turning out to actually be a highly trained killer programmed by the government. He doesn’t really know what’s going on, but has a knack of annihilating all agents sent to destroy him before he can find out (his program is to be liquidated by some office politics), although he has to make sure his girlfriend also survives so he can propose to her. It perhaps could have worked, but there’s no reason to care about anyone in the film – the central two have no depth and nothing interesting about themselves or their somewhat lacklustre romance and we know the bad guys are going to line up to be killed without the main character having to really think about it otherwise the film would be over pretty quickly – and if the main character is making no effort and doesn’t seem to overly care much about what’s going on, why should the audience? With Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as the doped up daring duo.

Absolutely Anything  (2015)    25/100

Rating :   25/100                                                                       85 Min        12A

Simon Pegg is granted the power to do absolutely anything by a bunch of aliens and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing with it of any interest whatsoever. What. A. Surprise. This is the latest in a lengthy list of Simon Pegg led films that have no real point to them – soft comedies that feel sanitised and apologetic from the offset, much like the characters he relentlessly plays, and where the laughs effectively have someone standing there with a sign saying ‘This is funny. You can laugh now’, and are greeted with silence.

Naturally, the core concept is Pegg’s character is a dork who can’t get the woman he likes (Kate Beckinsale), or rather he thinks he can’t and that by ultimately doing the right thing everyone will live happily ever after. Watching this it’s impossible not to feel ashamed at the amount of money that must have been spent on gags which are beyond terrible, with acting that’s just a complete waste of biomatter. Speaking of which, things we see the superpowers used for range from some dog excrement being told to clean-up after itself, and then it promptly forms into a pair of legs and marches into the bin, lovely, to helping out his mate by having the girl he is infatuated with fall head-over-heels for him, which sees him run off immediately in the opposite direction. LAME. I mean, come on – you wouldn’t get tired of that scenario for a pretty, long, time.

Sad beyond sad is that the aliens in question, who are testing mortals to see if the Earth should be annihilated or not, are actually played by the entirety of the extant members of Monty Python (Terry Jones directs the film, and co-wrote it along with non-Python Gavin Scott), and when the protagonist’s dog is made to speak he is voiced by none other than Robin Williams in his last ever acting role, but their combined talents are drowned by the indulgent drudgery running rampant onscreen. Pegg recently had the audacity to launch a public tirade against the ‘dumbing-down’ of the movie industry and more specifically the success of superhero films, movies beloved by millions, but then I suppose he is an actor/screenwriter who has been mired in gritty, surrealist/realist exposés of the human condition and has struggled for recognition and to have his work shown in more than a few thea… Oh no, wait a minute, he’s made millions effectively becoming the live-action equivalent of Jar Jar Binks and continues to headline vacuous, inert, twaddle. Hmm.

Ant-Man  (2015)    56/100

Rating :   56/100                                                                     117 Min        12A

Marvel Studios’ worst release since ‘The Incredible Hulk’ (08) and presumably directly suffering from the project’s departure of the person who founded it, Edgar Wright, shortly before production began in earnest. Wright had been working on an Ant-Man screenplay for many, many years (along with his writing partner Joe Cornish) and had finally been given the go-ahead from Marvel but, citing creative differences, he left the project (although given they both worked on the screenplay for ‘Tintin‘ I’m not wholly convinced this was a bad thing). Taking his place to alter and finish the script were Adam McKay (‘Step Brothers’ 08, ‘The Other Guys’ 10) and Paul Rudd, the latter of whom plays the titular superhero himself, and it is the story that really lets the film down. Peyton Reed (‘Yes Man’ 08, ‘The Break-Up’ 06) also filled Wright’s shoes as director.

We can predict exactly what will happen, how it will happen, when it will happen, and what all of the details concerned will be. Even for a superhero film this is remarkably two dimensional, and again for the genre it’s also really difficult to suspend our disbelief enough to get behind it fully. Rudd plays ex-con Scott Lang who is just out of jail and determined to help support his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), whose stepfather is a cop of course, but finds getting a normal job with his record next to impossible. Opting to do another heist with his mates, played by Michael Peña, T.I. and David Dastmalchian (who seems to have gone to great lengths to disguise his identity as the Joker’s patsy in ‘The Dark Knight’ 08), he enters into the world of tech genius Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly – almost unrecognisable with a new bobbed jet black hair style); all of which sees him don a suit which can shrink a human to the size of an ant and back again at will, but he must use it to steal a competitor’s prototype before they can use it for nefarious purpose (there’s a very dubious ownership element regarding the powers, much like the screenplay, which is part of the movie’s problem).

As such, it is pretty much the same story as ‘Iron Man’ (08) with two pillars of the same company fighting each other for control of the same invention, leading to the inevitable punch-up at the end. An attempt at comedy has been made but it’s all far too simple and usually revolves around the same constantly regurgitated joke. The effects and the acting are fine but it just gets really, really dull, although it should certainly keep a younger audience fully entertained. There is both a mid-credits scene and a post credits one as well, the latter apparently taken from the next Captain America film no less (‘Ant-Man’ marks the end of ‘Phase Two’ in Marvel’s cinematic universe – ‘Captain America : Civil War’ will start ‘Phase Three’ sometime next year). Also with Corey Stoll as the villain (also bald like in Iron Man, coincidence?) as well as Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale in support.

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.

American Sniper  (2014)    76/100

Rating :   76/100                                                                      132 Min       15

Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort has replicated the success of many of its predecessors by finding its way into the Oscars race (best film and best actor for Bradley Cooper), this time around though it has been beleaguered by controversy over its portrayal of both the war in Iraq following nine eleven and also the accuracy of the depiction of real life central character Chris Kyle, the titular American sniper and indeed the most successful one in US history going by his number of kills. I don’t think the naysayers are in this case justified – I fail to see how anyone can view the film as anything other than a very strong statement against war in general, and as for the content and the focus on one side of the conflict, well, there is a pretty big clue in the title as to what one can expect from the plot.

Oddly enough, there is no back story to any of the reputed 255 kills that we see Kyle ratchet up and many of the details to do with individual events are inventions or elaborations, though nothing that doesn’t fit with the setting, and throughout the movie there is a narrative following an enemy sniper which is purely to make the story more engaging, although the sniper himself did exist. These changes work well, the film is genuinely quite exciting in some places – evoking similarities between it and ‘Zero Dark Thirty‘, and the license taken doesn’t interfere with the central concepts of what the condition of war in general is like to fight through and what the lasting effects can be for the combatants (civilians and the wider political context are very much not the focus here). The elements of jingoism are to be utterly expected, we are after all watching men going in to a war zone where their lives are guaranteed to be in jeopardy. Some of the editing is more reminiscent of the kind of way a traditional action film might be put together, but it’s the mere tiniest distraction from the seriousness of the film.

Where the film does fall down, however, is with the role of the ‘weepy moaning wife’ left behind whilst her husband endures hell. Sienna Miller has the rather joyless task of playing the part and although it certainly makes sense that she would be concerned for her husband and want him to stop returning to the war zone, she is just relentless from even before they have had their first date. She is about as stereotyped as they come and bemoaning how terrible soldiers are for potential mates doesn’t apparently stop her from eagerly bedding, tying the knot with and then opening her oven door for them, not to mention then living off their pay check. Nonetheless, this is a well made and powerful film – one that very unusually deliberately invites you to look up more about its central character, and Cooper is great in delivering a performance that one can very easily imagine as typifying the attitudes and experiences of many young American men signing up for the army. He even manages to convey that perhaps Kyle may not have been the sharpest tool in the shed at times, assuming this was deliberate of course ….

A Most Violent Year  (2014)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                     125 Min        15

Given the title, this is not nearly as violent as one might expect (it is still violent, but predominantly in an atmospheric way rather than a graphic one). Even more surprisingly, there is a whopping amount of philosophy in this – really good thought provoking philosophy as well which slightly goes against the grain for mainstream crime dramas on the big-screen. The plot revolves around Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales, who runs a fuel delivery company in NYC in the early eighties and whose rivals would dearly love to see him out of business. He and his family are threatened, his drivers are assaulted, his shipments are stolen, and the authorities are investigating him and his company for alleged dodgy practices, but he attempts to stoically remain true to his guiding principles – refusing to arm his employees, for example, looking two steps ahead at the potential consequences and teaching them that the men who attack them with weapons are nothing more than cowards for doing so.

Those around him, however, including Jessica Chastain as his wife and Albert Brooks as his business partner, are not so keen on philosophy when the going gets tough. Written and directed by J. C. Chandor (‘All is Lost’ 13, ‘Margin Call’ 11) it’s a strong performance from Chastain and a really great turn from Isaac, who utterly convinces and gains our sympathy bar a brief moment with his wife that almost doesn’t ring true, and this is a movie that may survive and even merit more than one viewing despite its slightly difficult and grim premise. One plot point involving a salesman working for Abel ultimately feels a little loose, but it’s a small niggle and one easy to forget about in an otherwise great film.

Annie  (2014)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                     118 Min        PG

Having being tortured by the borderline pathological repeat of the original ‘Annie’ (82) by a particularly over zealous family member, and given the overwhelmingly negative reception of the new version, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this (both are loosely based on the 1977 Broadway musical), but figured why not give it a go – it is always good to remain open minded when it comes to film generally. Surprisingly, it is actually a lot of fun – due in no small measure to the adult parts being well written and delivered by the likes of Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale and Stephanie Kurtzuba. Annie herself is played by Quvenzhané Wallis and she appears to be significantly better off than her 80’s counterpart, living in what seems to be a fairly warm and safe foster home rather than an orphanage for example.

She does have to put up with Diaz stropping around and being a general bitch to the girls, but it’s not like she’s renting them to the local Catholic priest for smack or anything, and it isn’t long before Foxx’s Will Stacks, who is running for New York City Mayor, has a fateful encounter with the young lass and invites her to come and live with him to increase his rating in the polls, quickly bonding with her and realising what has been missing from his work centric bachelor lifestyle – a young vulnerable homeless girl in his bed. His spare bed that is, though his serpentine public affairs manager (Cannavale) does complicate matters by trying to use her status for his own profit. There are songs aplenty and at least half of them are quite good – a couple from the original musical survive but the rest are newly penned with principal cast members all performing in the recording studio.

Unfortunately, the songs have been produced via heavy use of Auto-Tune, which is effectively cheating and explains why there is an eerie similarity between them all – and it further sheds light on why when we’re given clear indication Cameron Diaz is about to skydive off tune she doesn’t, in reality she probably did exactly that. Diaz is up for a Razzie for this which is a little unfair – she is ironically completely in character here as the sort of pantomime bad guy who’s ultimately not that bad.

In tandem with post production vocal manipulation is the similar falsification of Annie herself – gone is the struggling orphan with the strong sense of what is right and an earnest belief in hope, whose character was formed by, and endured, adversity. This Annie seems all too comfortable with the cushy environment she is thrust into – Wallis received much critical acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination for this but if anything when she’s around her chums at the foster home they all appear to be better performers than she is. I think perhaps being a young girl of eleven and being told how wonderful you are all the time (being the youngest person ever nominated for the best actress Oscar for ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ in 2013 etc.) is not the greatest environment in which to get into the character of supposedly poor and hard up against it Annie, and whilst she has lots of shouty energy this does not in itself make her an acting prodigy, it simply makes her an irate little girl. Could it be Hollywood is busy creating a MONSTER? Time will surely tell, although her singing certainly appears to be very impressive – but with the technique they used it’s very difficult to tell how much is her and how much is being churned out by a machine.

If you aren’t too concerned about the lack of any real emotional depth or anything but the barest scent of a moral lesson to learn then the film is quite fun, and I see no reason that youngsters wouldn’t enjoy it. Rose Byrne in particular delivers exactly the right warm touch, and at one point she sarcastically refers to Foxx as Batman : Jamie Foxx would be a completely awesome Batman, an at least ten times more respectable choice than Batpuss Ben Affleck. Affleck is apparently going to channel his rage into the character, the rage he no doubt feels at the internet calling him a gigantic pussy that will have criminals rolling around laughing in puddles of their own wee – I mean seriously, if you were a hoodlum would you be scared of Ben Affleck growling in a costume? You might surrender out of pity.

Annabelle  (2014)    56/100

Rating :   56/100                                                                       99 Min        15

If your average human were to pick up the main character Mia in this film (played by Annabelle Wallis {no joke}) they may be forgiven for thinking ‘whoa, she is absolutely gorgeous it must be my lucky day! But wait, what am I missing? It can’t be this easy, I must be missing something here. Oh, that’s it, she collects creepy fucking dolls. Great. Next thing I know she’ll be sleeping with one of them between us and calling it mommy. Time to leave a note on a pillow I think …’. The husband here, unfathomably, actually encourages her obsession and even sources one of the super scary porcelain little misses as a present. What. An. Idiot. He really was asking for trouble there – of course the doll he so dotingly gives her is ‘Annabelle’, soon to be possessed by demonic spirits after the local version of the Manson family invade the couple’s neighbourhood and cause all manner of gory mayhem, leaving the young Mia with numerous psychological and emotional scars as well as an anthropomorphic satanic doll.

Speaking of which, did anyone ever read the comic ‘The Doll’? Now that was scary. This is distinctly less so, in fact there is very, very little in terms of the doll actually being personified, it’s mainly just lots of bad things happening around it – the worry may have been crossing into farce if the thing starting running around the place smirking and sticking crucifixes between its legs. As par for horror films many of the secondary characters are hopeless but there are a few well executed and tense scenes in here and Wallis is fine as the damsel in distress – a major pitfall though is the disturbing level of violence at times employed, as if writer Gary Dauberman had thought to himself ‘OK, what’s one of the most sickening things you can imagine happening …’, but really this kind of writing is rudimentary and it’s not something anyone really wants to witness for a good reason. At least the film doesn’t continually go there, à la the likes of ‘Hostel’ (05) and its brethren.

The story is also one of the canon belonging to the two paranormal investigators featured in ‘The Conjuring‘ – alas marketing ‘Annabelle’ with this connection was a bit of false advertising as the pair don’t really feature in the film itself.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day  (2014)    61/100

Rating :   61/100                                                                       81 Min        PG

Adapted from the 1972 children’s book of the same name by Judith Viorst, part one of a three part series, this effectively shoots itself in the head right at the very beginning by showing us what is due to happen to the Cooper family, consisting of mum, dad, eleven year old Alexander, his older siblings Anthony and Emily, and his baby brother Trevor, as they experience the titular very bad day. All instigated, it seems, by Alex, who felt everyone around him had the Midas touch whilst he was the perpetual victim of misfortune, thus inducing him to make a wish that the rest of his family should experience what he is used to for a change, a wish that he quickly comes to regret as a series of reasonably catastrophic, though family friendly, events befall each of them, including even the baby. Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner are the famous faces that play the parents and the delivery and essential story is all fine, it’s just that since we are going one or two days back in time within the narrative there seems precious little point to setting up each of the unfortunate events when we’ve already seen what their outcome is going to be. It was a really daft way to open the film, and though it is still a reasonable family movie extolling the virtue of sticking together no matter what, it could easily have been much better.