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 Good Dinosaur  (2015)    56/100

Rating :   56/100                                                                       93 Min        PG

Not exactly living up to its family friendly moniker, Disney Pixar’s latest after the equally unbalanced ‘Inside Out‘ focuses on a young Apatosaurus, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), separated from his family and forced to survive with his unlikely primitive companion, Spot (Jack Bright), a young boy of around seven who still squirrels around on all fours for the most part. The two become erstwhile friends and begin the arduous task of finding their way back to Arlo’s homestead (the film is to my knowledge the very first animated dinosaur western, with the Apatosaurus as ranchers struggling to eke out a living from the land, and the T’Rexs as cowboys, or drovers – all after the asteroid that may or may not have originally wiped out the dinosaurs sails harmlessly past Earth for the purposes of the movie), during which time Arlo must find his courage, which is a nice theme for a film very much aimed at a younger, family audience, albeit one common to children’s fiction, see ‘Blade of the Poisoner‘ for another example.

Given its target demographic, however, there are at least three particularly dubious scenes (not to mention a ‘Lion King’ (94) moment that you will see coming a mile off): we see an enormous insect presented as food to Arlo, who is of course a vegetarian so he is confused by it, before its head is quickly wheeched off by Spot to demonstrate its purpose. Now, it wasn’t the cutest creature to ever be presented in a Disney film, but still such an abrupt execution begs the question of ‘was that really necessary to show?’. As too does a pterodactyl eating whole a, this time very cute, little wolf thingy, leaving a distinct queasy aftertaste to the moment, but chief sin of the three has to go to the two protagonists getting high on wild berries and then starting to hallucinate and trip out, seeing each other with multiple heads and so on.

I mean seriously, what on earth were they thinking. I don’t think even in the early days of Disney where now you can pick holes in the content to a degree, such as Tinker Bell and all the mermaids in ‘Peter Pan’ (53) trying to murder Wendy in rather ungrounded fits of jealousy for example, do they reach the depths of kids taking hard drugs, although actually John does smoke Wampum in ‘Peter Pan’ come to think. The scenery and landscapes are incredibly well rendered and brought to life, the dinosaurs look a little weak in that respect, but the story proves continually misguided with all of the above and multiple character decisions that don’t really make any sense, as well as numerous survivals from altogether too extreme scenarios. Another disappointment from Pixar, which suggests releasing two feature films in the same year, the first time for the company, may have perhaps stretched creative resources a little too far.

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.


The Walk  (2015)    72/100

Rating :   72/100                                                                     123 Min        PG

Robert Zemeckis takes us on another technological cinematic leap by recreating the Twin Towers in New York City, as he dramatises the story of Frenchman Philippe Petit’s 1974 attempt to put a high-wire between the buildings and walk along it unaided at a height of some 412m. One imagines it may have been the challenges involved that peaked the director’s interest, having embraced technical frontiers before with the likes of ‘Back to the Future’ (85), ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (88), ‘The Polar Express’ (04) and ‘Beowulf‘, but the story in itself wonderfully captures the human spirit for adventure and the desire to challenge oneself in spite of the odds, and indeed the naysayers.

The events have already been famously filmed of course as part of the Oscar winning documentary ‘Man on Wire’ (08), and to be honest I wasn’t convinced dramatising it was necessary. Initially, these thoughts were echoed throughout the first half of the movie, which plays out as a dreamy fairytale; whimsical, loose, cheesy and not really leading anyplace worthwhile – all with a disembodied Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) occasionally interjecting his own backstory from no less than astride the top of the statue of liberty, itself of course a gift from France.

Here is where a major pitfall, ahem, of the film lies – trying to walk the narrative tightrope between an appropriate homage to the Twin Towers via Petit’s endeavours without becoming jingoistic, and it doesn’t always succeed – perhaps most tellingly when the plot completely omits a major event in the story, which in effect there wasn’t really any need to bring up, but they actually go so far as to fudge central character reactions to mask the truth, ironically bringing attention to the fault. I won’t ruin what it is that’s missing, but suffice to say it’s been done in a typically Hollywood way and obliterated one of the most interesting moments and talking points of ‘Man on Wire’.

Had they not done this, then I would have loved to give the movie a higher grade as when it finally gets going, the high-wire scenes are fantastically breathtaking, with Zemeckis very much pulling off a coup-de-grace to completely salvage the film. Based on my recollection of the documentary, Gordon-Levitt similarly gives a memorably enthusiastic and believable imitation of Petit, although in such instances I think you really have to be French in order to tell if his accent sounds authentic (he studied French literature at university, and was aided by the French cast so it seems likely), or more like someone’s taking the piss. A real shame they played games with the truth but a strong Oscar contender nonetheless. With Charlotte Le Bon and Ben Kingsley in support.

Pan  (2015)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                     111 Min        PG

The latest reimagining of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan operates as a prequel, with Peter (Levi Miller) abducted from his London orphanage during a WWII blitz raid by a flying pirate ship belonging to the dreaded Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), a slaver frigate that whisks him off to Neverland and the servitude that awaits him; hard labour digging in the mines for the life giving elixir that is fairy dust, wherein he will meet and befriend none other than fellow slave James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), ultimately taking the two on an adventure that will bring them, along with Smee (Adeel Akhtar), into the sphere of influence of the colourfully kick-ass Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) as they attempt not only to escape Blackbeard’s clutches, but also to discover what happened to Peter’s parents, who left him naught but a silver pendant of some panpipes that he has worn religiously around his neck ever since.

Written by Jason Fuchs and directed by Joe Wright (‘Pride and Prejudice’ 05, ‘Atonement’ 07, ‘Anna Karenina’ 12), the film is notable for its unique visuals where the emphasis of the movie has really been placed, but to be honest, they sent me to sleep the first time around. Thinking this was probably due to torturing foolhardy rubes all night rather than the movie, I watched it again and on 3D this time as it very much looked like it was meant to be viewed that way – alas, it actually looks much worse on 3D with large sections appearing too unreal and layered, to the extent that the flashy sequences matched with a whimsical story and a lack of any real depth to the thing does indeed make it quite soporific.

Light hearted family adventure was clearly the aim, and whilst it may please some youngsters and the wardrobe department have outdone themselves (with clear inspiration from Spielberg’s far superior ‘Hook’ 91) the final result is an ungrounded mess; half-realised ideas with committed performances that are drowned by a visual aesthetic that was way too experimental and ultimately fails. Rooney Mara is as radiant onscreen as she always is, just as Garrett Hedlund continues his growling acting career where he tries way too hard to be hard – this time attempting to be Indiana Jones for most of the film, although to be fair his style isn’t completely out of place with the movie here and he along with the rest of the cast are charming enough.

Ironically, the best moments in 3D are actually the stars twinkling through the credits at the end, credits that state ‘characters introduced by J.M. Barrie’ – ‘created by’ surely? As if the film is trying to take some sort of ownership over the much beloved inhabitants of Neverland, tsk tsk.

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.

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.