In the Heart of the Sea  (2015)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                     122 Min        12A

Director Ron Howard’s latest dramatic feature since ‘Rush‘ is based on the similarly titled 2000 novel by Nathaniel Philbrick and once again features Chris Hemsworth as one of the protagonists, here playing Owen Chase – first mate of the Essex, a whaling ship whose fateful 1820 voyage was one of the primary sources that inspired writer Herman Melville to pen his historic fiction ‘Moby-Dick’ in 1851 (the legend of albino sperm whale Mocha Dick, who frequented the waters around the Chilean island of Mocha, was another such real-life source). Here, shots of the Essex and her crew are occasionally interjected by scenes of an eagerly attentive Melville (Ben Whishaw) listening to the recounting of the story by one of the original crew (Brendan Gleeson), often visibly pained by the memories the writer elicits from him.

The Essex hailed from Nantucket in Massachusetts, and the most obvious thing that stands out from the opening chapter of the film is the truly terrible range of accents that the cast have attempted, chief turkey among them being Hemsworth’s – to be honest, they are so bad I’m not even sure if they are attempted something similar to the modern-day region, maybe even close to Bostonian, or something which for some reason they think must have existed once upon a time. It’s all, ahem, ropey to say the least, but as a crew their collective voices seem to coalesce together and eventually it all evens out.

The crux of the story is the Essex’s basic and ongoing attempt to hunt whales, especially the extremely lucrative sperm whales, for their oil (it wasn’t until the late 1840s that Scotsman James Young really began the crude oil trade, taking out the UK and US patents for Paraffin distillation from coal in the early 1850s) and the unfortunate dearth of aquatic activity they come across leads them to desperate searches further and further into the Pacific Ocean, whereupon they encounter one particular sperm whale, bedecked white and awash with the scars of many previous encounters with man, who isn’t especially keen to let the whalers have it all their own way, and so begins their real adventure.

All of this is against the background of tension between the first mate and the captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), as the latter is a posh dunderhead from a rich family, thusly gaining the position, whose manhood isn’t best pleased to find that his first mate is in fact Thor, swaggering around, vaunting up ropes, proving to always be right and seeming to single-handedly sail the ship. This element of the film never really climbs out of the doldrums of melodrama, but the recreation of the voyage amidst the setting of the ship is one of the highlights, and the story and effects, for the most part, unerringly draw us into their world for the movie’s duration, also providing the key to its eventual success as we really feel for them and the many maritime men for whom such journeys were a reality.

The additional horror of showing us the brutal reality of their line of work, with sanguinary depictions of the murder of innocent whales, will absolutely disgust many viewers, and indeed you can feel the film jitter with uncertainty over how to portray these scenes and the characters within them, but they are fascinating from a historical accuracy point of view and indeed these detailed features are in keeping with one of the many noteworthy aspects of ‘Moby-Dick’ itself, which, incredulously, was not a financial success during the author’s lifetime.

Star Wars Episode VII : The Force Awakens  (2015)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                      Treasure Chest                  135 Min        12A

‘I have a bad feeling about this.’ Han Solo : Harrison Ford

Oddly enough, I felt no such feeling of trepidation over the continuation of cinema’s most famous saga and the biggest release of the year, due entirely to the fact that J.J.Abrams was on board as the director and he’d made such a wonderful job of rebooting Star Trek, indeed he also handles the scriptwriting duties here along with Lawrence Kasdan (‘The Empire Strikes Back’ 80, ‘Return of the Jedi’ 83) and Michael Arndt (‘Little Miss Sunshine’ 06, ‘The Hunger Games : Catching Fire‘). What the devoted cast and crew deliver is an extremely solid anchor for the future of the franchise, with obvious branches for expansion throughout and plenty for fans to love and be excited about. There’s something really comforting about George Lucas’s universe exploding on the big-screen once more, especially over Christmas, replete with original cast members and newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega.

They have very much played it safe with the concept by recreating everything that made the original films a success, which was almost certainly the right way to go about it, as thirty years on from the events of ‘The Return of the Jedi’ sees the universe still embroiled in conflict in order to supply the constant background tension, whilst the essential and compellingly truthful philosophy of good versus evil via the light and dark side of the Force, at once both simple and complex, continues to spur everything forward as characterisation goes into hyperdrive and the central players’ relationships draw in our attention, all against the backdrop of fantastic special effects.

John Williams returns for the score, and interestingly if you watch early sci-fi epic ‘Metropolis’ (27) you’ll notice some overt influences on Star Wars generally but also hints of its various musical themes in Gottfried Huppertz’s original score (perhaps not surprising given both he and Williams were heavily influenced by Strauss and Wagner). Similarly, here there appears to be a nod to the space opera’s samurai roots (in particular the work of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa – especially ‘The Hidden Fortress’ {58}, wherein the droid characters’ origin is immediately apparent) with one of the central bad guys wielding a lightsaber in the shape of a longsword (one imagines a katana blade wouldn’t really be feasible).

Without giving away any details about the story, the downside of playing it safe is that there’s nothing especially original to be found, and the various hooks are very similar to devices commonly used in TV series, but again this is a conscious choice from the writers and happily the pace continues to steadily escalate from the onset to the finale, delivering an adventure that’s fun and engaging enough to overlook the obvious gears at play – although some of the most important scenes do feel a bit shaky, and, as with Star Trek, a little more subtlety and depth may not have gone amiss (you can spot a few lens flares from Abrams dotted around the place as well – he could’ve gotten away with a few more to be honest, it’s a nice effect).

Ridley and Boyega play Rey and Finn respectively (not the first Star Wars characters to have less than inspiring names) and both do a great job, especially the relatively inexperienced Ridley given the pressure involved (when she smiles she looks a bit like Keira Knightley actually – maybe she is a clone, spliced with DNA from Natalie Portman {both Knightley and Portman were in Episode I}), and although the casting of a young female and a young black male as the two new central characters was an overtly political choice, it actually makes sense here and doesn’t feel, ahem, forced, and it’s certainly quite rare to see a black male protagonist not played by the same handful of actors – for a film aimed at being a defining moment for a new generation of fans the significance of these choices makes their final selection a really good idea.

There is perhaps a slight concern that they’ve gone too far and robbed Rey of any femininity whatsoever, accidentally making her a boy in their strive for political correctness, but I think that argument quickly disappears into the metaphysical, and, frankly, she’s one of the best things in the film and easily my favourite character (new droid BB-8 is also sure to be a hit, which she also mothers to a degree actually). Curiously, the producers stated there would be no moments reminiscent of Princess Leia in a golden bikini (perhaps fearing a backlash similar to that of Alice Eve in her pants in ‘Star Trek : Into Darkness‘) and this overconcern about her attire has led them, accidentally and slightly ridiculously, to sport Rey in the same set of unrevealing, but also unwashed, clothes for almost the entire story, meaning, basically, she must reek to high heaven. It’s a perfectly decent outfit but her activities ensure she likely sweats more than anyone else in the movie – detecting her presence via the Force presumably became redundant as the film progressed.

Great support work throughout compliments that from the core performers, with Ford probably the best of the bunch and helping to settle the newcomers, and there’s even an evil Scottish guy at one point – you can tell he’s been given strict guidelines on how to deliver his lines by the way he pronounces all his t’s properly (we usually don’t bother with this in Scotland, we’re not great fans of glottal stops). I was fortunate enough to be at one of the IMAX preview showings and there was a terrific atmosphere with people cheering and applauding and I hope that’s repeated across the land – indeed I’m totally in the mood to go and re-watch all the previous films now.

Star Wars returns to mark a great end to a very mediocre year at the cinema, and hopefully it will become a Christmas tradition for future years in much the same way journeys to Middle-earth were in the past.

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 Last Witch Hunter  (2015)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                     106 Min        12A

The premise of this film: Vin Diesel is a warrior in the Middle Ages battling an especially powerful witch who curses him with immortality, then he lives through the centuries fighting witches and evil with sword and flame, with Michael Caine as his priestly mentor and guide. The Red Dragon: Sold. Immediately. It’s as fun and carefree as it sounds with some glorious special effects and a well paced storyline containing easy to like characters – shades of Batman with Caine’s role and some of the music used, but it works well. Afore long the plot takes us to the modern age and we learn witches are still amongst us, both good and evil, and that Diesel as the hunter Kaulder is a vital cog in the peace keeping machine operating between the covens and humanity.

Directed by Breck Eisner (‘Sahara’ 05, ‘The Crazzies’ 10) and written by Cory Goodman (‘Priest’ 11), Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (‘Dracula Untold‘), the story actually apparently came about after discussions with Diesel regarding one of his Dungeons and Dragons characters, a concept which I think is fantastic (have a read here for more on his gaming hobby). With Elijah Wood, Rose Leslie, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and Julie Engelbrecht in support – should certainly prove fun for fans of fantasy action.

Spectre  (2015)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                     148 Min        12A

‘Spectre’ couldn’t really be more of a film for our times if it tried. Its shortcomings are frequently noticeable and include such cardinal sins as elements which are boring, flat, cheesy, stupid, and with numerous hammy moments for essentially all the characters. Although expectations were always going to be too high after Bond’s last outing, the wonderful ‘Skyfall‘, became the most successful British film of all time, I can nevertheless see Bond fans being fairly divided over this one.

This was aimed as the crowning jewel in the Daniel Craig (the actor currently playing Bond) era of films, linking the threads of the stories from ‘Casino Royale’ (06), ‘Quantum of Solace’ (08) and ‘Skyfall’ (12) with Bond’s traditional evil arch-enemy Spectre – the sinister organisation that dominated the early films, beginning with the first one in 1962, ‘Dr No.’ (SPECTRE was previously an acronym standing for ‘Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion’), before intellectual property rights issues eventually seen it nosedive into a chimney, if memory serves. Here, there seems to be a reference put in to what must be every single Bond film prior to Spectre’s release, and it kind of feels like when your favourite TV series has a ‘recap’ episode and you feel cheated because you’ve already seen everything in it before.

It all takes a step backward from where the modern films had been correctly heading, with stunts becoming much less believable than before, well executed technically but nobody in their right mind would attempt them in the first place, as Bond shows shades of his ‘too cocky for his own good’ persona of the past, replete with cheesy terrible lines and a hard-on for wafer-thin female characters – in fact, it feels like someone was sitting with a checklist of what should be included in the ‘typical’ Bond film and they just went through it, there’s no real heart to the film, whereas in Skyfall we felt Bond was a real person, fighting real enemies in a reasonably believable manner, with real tension and consequences.

Sam Mendes has returned as director, alas no Roger Deakins as cinematographer this time (Hoyte van Hoytema as his replacement does a god job though), and there was initial praise for giving Monica Bellucci a role, for casting someone a little older than your average Bond girl – but she’s barely in it! You don’t cast Monica Bellucci and then give her a couple of brief moments onscreen during which she essentially just gets banged by the protagonist – indeed, she is expecting assassins to come for her at any second so Bond dutifully takes her clothes off and beds her, next scene she is sitting atop the bed wearing sexy lingerie, as if she thought ‘even though I’m waiting to be killed at any moment, let me change into this sexy outfit I’ve been wanting to show off for ages before you go’, and then Bond tells her not to worry as he’s contacting Felix Leiter for her, who will presumably also take some time in being able to offer her any form of protection.

This ungrounded feeling to the writing continues throughout: we see a bad guy growing a conscience because women and children are involved although we can infer from what we already know that this cannot possibly be a sudden realisation but rather a blasé convenience, ‘The Dark Knight’ (08) references abound with bad guys talking about ‘aggressive expansion’ and something the villains do at the end which seems completely out of the blue as if several scenes are missing as in many other parts of the film, and, most terrible of all, the main villain Franz Oberhauser (played by Christoph Waltz) has been scrubbed and battered with an unhealthy amount of soap-opera, someone that should be terrifying and brilliant, or at least believable, comes across as anything but that, with Waltz miscast in a role that needed a much more intricate and daring treatment to work.

Having said that, the same plot ingredients, including Oberhauser, done in different ways could have worked out, but they needed a much smarter, involving and less self-referential final product. Mendes has his ‘Touch of Evil’ (58) moment with the opening scene all filmed in one continuous shot until the action begins (also likely inspired by last year’s best picture winner ‘Birdman‘) and this section of the film works really well, with the music memorably setting the tone amongst the wonderful backdrop of the ‘Day of the Dead’ festival in Mexico City, and it’s likely this will be the scene most remembered, although stylistically it’s not the only highlight and certainly a fight later on aboard a train also stands out for its bleak and uncompromising brutality.

The movie works far better on IMAX than on a standard screen (IMAX doesn’t always make a big difference) and after three sittings and an initial disappointment it does become easier to appreciate it and also to enjoy the numerous wonderful visuals that Mendes and Hoytema have dotted the film with (there’s even a location very reminiscent of the PC game ‘Riven’ for those familiar with it). Writing this just over a week after the terror attacks on Paris and Beirut (I notice the BBC have barely bothered to report on the latter incidentally) it’s impossible not to see numerous correlations between many of the plot elements and recent events – global intelligence agencies quickly announced they are going to work more closely together and share information, for example, just as they do in the film, indeed you do have to question a strategy from fundamentalists trying to retain physical territory in the Middle East that effectively unites the entire world against them, and notwithstanding the plot of Spectre one hopes that this united spirit will ultimately be a great and defining thing for the twenty-first century, although, ironically, this idea also brings us back to the plot of the film.

Just as 9/11 inspired a more gritty Bond with ‘Casino Royale’, so too will the plot for Bond 25 reflect recent events, and with both Britain and France announcing a recruitment drive for the intelligence services the world really is looking for more real-life Bonds, as well as heroism from the public in situations where help simply isn’t going to arrive on time – such as that displayed by Adel Termos, who sprung on a suicide bomber during the Beirut attacks resulting in an early detonation and preventing the scores or perhaps even hundreds of deaths that would have arisen if the bomber had been allowed to reach his intended target. Watching ‘Spectre’ display its wonderful locations from around the globe: Mexico City, Austria, London, Morocco, Rome, and pondering the reality now that everyone is united against a common enemy – life and creation vs pointless death, one is suddenly struck by just how romantic and hopeful a concept that truly is.

Dave Bautista plays henchman villain Mr Hinx, with Léa Seydoux as primary Bond girl Madeleine Swann in a role that, despite Seydoux having a lot of onscreen presence and being one of the best things in the movie, remains rather in servitude of Bond and his desires. Interestingly, all the best Bond movies for me had, well, good writing generally, but real female characters that were original and existed in their own right rather than as thinly veiled pieces of apparel for the protagonist – for anyone not familiar with the films I’d recommend, in order of their release, ‘Dr No.’, ‘From Russia with Love’, ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Thunderball’, ‘On Her Majesties Secret Service’, ‘Live and Let Die’, ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, ‘Goldeneye’ (slight nostalgia for the N64 game on this one), ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘Skyfall’, although some of the others had their moments too.

Curiously, the plot for ‘Spectre’ is also remarkably similar to a certain other big release from earlier this year, it often happens in the industry for one reason or another, although confidential emails relating to ‘Spectre’ were put into the public domain during the Sony hack, did any of them contain plot details? Hmm …

The theme song ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ from Sam Smith kind of sums up the film – you can see what it could have been and what the aim was, but the execution is off in too many important places. ‘Spectre’ works well as an homage to the franchise and as a culturally relevant piece of filmmaking, but as a stand-alone, artful, involving, believable and clever action film in the vein of Skyfall … not so much.

Spectre2

Sicario  (2015)    72/100

Rating :   72/100                                                                     121 Min        15

Emily Blunt flees to Mexico after insulting the Republican presidential candidates in the States – not really (Blunt did recently commit this faux pas after becoming a U.S. citizen but has not, as yet, had to flee south of the border) rather she plays F.B.I. agent Kate Macer who is recruited by other intelligence officials to facilitate further strikes against the major Mexican drug cartels that had begun to make heavy inroads into her locale of Arizona. Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, of ‘Prisoners‘ fame, directs and Taylor Sheridan pens his screenwriting debut (he is better known for acting in TV series ‘Veronica Mars’ and ‘Sons of Anarchy’) to create a tense and beautifully shot thriller, with a level of realism on a par with ‘The Counsellor‘.

Villeneuve is one of the hottest rising stars behind the camera in Hollywood and here many of the early sections work really well, feeling immersive, real and exciting – but he’s not quite there yet, the good work begins to peter out a little as the movie goes on, largely due to a change in dynamic with the character interplay, a shift in focus away from the central character, Macer, may have helped allay that but as it is the film is still successful. In support are Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro and Daniel Kaluuya – the acting is unwavering throughout and as with ‘Prisoners’ you do think there may be Oscar calls involved, although it’s a bit early to say for sure.

Sometimes if you follow up a really good film, that probably deserved a mention, with another solid one then that’s when the Academy pays attention (kind of like Michael Fassbender missing out for ‘Shame’ {11} and then getting nominated the year after for ‘12 Years a Slave‘, and indeed he’ll almost certainly get another nod this year too). Blunt is the strongest candidate for awards glory and she is long overdue more recognition. Her role may indeed come to be packaged as a strong female one, but in reality she’s really playing an overly headstrong character out of her depth, it’s not a particularly great endorsement of feminism even though it may end up being championed as just that. Cinematographer Roger Deakins also adds a great deal of expertise that allows many of the desert shots, both aerial and of the horizon, to really stand out, rounding off a grittily memorable film.

Maze Runner : The Scorch Trials  (2015)    61/100

Rating :   61/100                                                                     131 Min        12A

The sequel to last year’s first instalment, ‘The Maze Runner‘, and based on the second novel in the series by James Dashner (published in 2010) this follows in much the same vein as before – again with really good special effects and an impressive production overall, but still with an overall weakness that taints everything. Looking at the still above you can see a sort of cleanliness that covers everything, with actors that never look like they’re more than two seconds fresh from a scrub in their trailer and everything decidedly aimed at a younger audience that they presumably assume is going to care less about any sense of realism. The end result is Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) running away from the latest thing trying to kill him and his friends for the majority of the film, mouth agape in the same sort of nullified perpetual shock, all in a sterilised but otherwise well realised world.

Following on from part one, the survivors of the maze are taken to a fortified sanctuary that is currently under siege from unknown forces. It’s a time for everyone to regroup and recuperate but with Thomas’s memories only partially returned the past is as murky as the future, and they must ask where they, their rescuers, and the latter’s assailants all stand in their blighted and overtly dystopian new world. The overarching story is actually petty good and full of promise – and visually it is often done justice, but the characters never interact realistically with each other, nor their environment – cue lots of moments of ‘we really should be as stealthy as possible here, la la la la la, what’s your favourite colour?’, and equally unforgivable scenes where scarce weapons are just carelessly discarded. Too loose and too whitewashed for a ‘safe’, although not totally unsatisfactory, final product. New support from the likes of Aidan Gillen, Barry Pepper, Alan Tudyk, Lili Taylor, Rosa Salazar and Giancarlo Esposito.

The Transporter Refueled  (2015)    53/100

Rating :   53/100                                                                       96 Min        15

The Transporter hasn’t actually been refuelled, rather he’s been replaced, Jason Statham no longer appearing in the lead role after having done so for the first three films in the action franchise that begun with ‘The Transporter’ in 2002. Ed Skrein takes on the reigns as central character Frank Martin, with Ray Stevenson playing his father who gets kidnapped by several hot women (not that he minds too much – concerns about venereal diseases are apparently non-existent in the Transporter universe), that have escaped a criminal gang’s prostitution ring and are now out for vengeance – forcing the transporter to offer his elite and discreet delivery services for free, but also entangling him in the girls’ troubles. Skrein isn’t bad in the role, and it delivers fairly sleek, easy to watch action from start to finish in sunny locales like Nice, France, but there’s unfortunately just no real point to any of it, with tensionless drama and continuous resolutions that are either too easy or just plain daft.

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.

No Escape  (2015)    51/100

Rating :   51/100                                                                     103 Min        15

Fairly ill-conceived thriller set in a fictitious country, one which also borders Vietnam and has a major river crossing that border, which kind of makes it Cambodia really (they also create a fake flag which seems to be an amalgam of one from the north of South America crossed with Bhutan’s for some reason). Owen Wilson, who is actually one of the film’s saving graces, takes his entire family to live with him in a foreign land he knows nothing about, all because his position within a large water company (which he apparently also doesn’t know much about) demands it of him.

Unfortunately, there is a military insurrection against evil Westerners the very next day and armed militia wander around the streets ethnically cleansing the entire city of white people, and anyone else who gets in their way. Lake Bell plays the wife and my goodness is her performance annoying in this, as neither she nor her admittedly cute but slow witted daughters click that their life is in danger and they are going to have to make a significant effort to survive. Initially, when the blood splattered shit hits the fan, things look set to deliver a really intense thriller, but it’s quickly ruined – firstly by adding traditional crummy music telling us to be excited where before there’d been more of a realist approach, and then secondly the basics of the story just become thicker and thicker slices of well matured action movie cheese. They even camp out on a lit, open-air roof that can be seen from all directions at one point. Mince. With Pierce Brosnan in support.