Joy  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     124 Min        12A

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

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

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

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

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

Daddy’s Home  (2015)    56/100

Rating :   56/100                                                                       96 Min        12A

A very standard Will Ferrell comedy that sees the stepfather (Ferrell) in a family compete with the unexpected arrival of the testosterone-fuelled biological father (Mark Wahlberg), coupled with the usual level of predictability, over-the-top antics and, in this case, some particularly ropey CGI. It’s actually the second time the two actors have headlined together, after 2010’s ‘The Other Guys’, and Ferrell has once more ended up with the hot wife (here played by Linda Cardellini) though his caring and overly-sensitive husband is about to be emasculated by the motorbike riding, musclebound and well-hung Wahlberg (again, not a first onscreen … ). The leads engage to some extent as they play off one another, and there’s a slight upward trajectory as the plot unfolds, but it’s pretty desperate stuff throughout and it really needed more social bite with higher-impact comedy moments, not to mention less cringeworthy effects. Go and watch Star Wars instead.

Krampus  (2015)    62/100

Rating :   62/100                                                                       98 Min        15

Comedy horror focusing on the travails of a family and their relatives one especially cold winter’s eve when Krampus, the pagan god of cramps, descends upon them, resulting in numerous involuntary and sudden spasms in the family members whilst they go to the bathroom and about their normal business of bickering, fighting, cooking and vaguely trying to be merry and pretend they actually like one another, often to comic effect. No, not really. Rather Krampus represents the sinister anti-Santa, thought to have originated in Austria and one of numerous similar figures in European folklore and tradition, he is usually represented as a horned, hoofed, towering menace, whisking misbehaving children off to some unknown, and presumably grim, chastisement, although oddly enough he doesn’t seem to have made it as far north as Scotland – he was probably deep fried and eaten by the same kids he came to collect.

Certain members of the principal family, basically all of them, have forgotten what Christmas is really all about, or rather their rotund gun-totting relatives staying over have steamrollered whatever seasonal cheer they had left, bringing the decidedly unfestive house to the initial attention of Krampus, who elects to pay them a little visit and pick them off one at a time along with the help of his animated companions: grisly werebears and despotic gingerbread men (and possibly women) and a sort of Christmasy version of The Thing. Nothing brings people together like common adversity – unfortunately common adversity also sometimes drives them further apart, and Krampus has a field day with nary a sensible decision made to stand in his way. In fact, he has such a good time, he decides to pay the neighbours a visit while he’s at it too.

Directed by Michael Dougherty (‘Trick r Treat’ 07) and co-written by him, Todd Casey and Zach Shields, the entire thing feels like there’s a really good movie constantly threatening to come out, but it never really does bar a few nice touches here and there, and although the cast, including Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner and Krista Stadler, all at least carry their roles, their characters simply have too many moments when they act in a horribly stilted way, pausing hopelessly when they need to finish off daemonic foes and always two or three steps behind what is clearly right in front of them. Similarly, the direction and writing continually show signs of promise but fall down too readily, with many action scenes difficult to view clearly – and the most promising characters dealt with too summarily. It’s a great concept though, which may witness ‘Krampus’ carry its weight a little farther than it really ought to.

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 Dressmaker  (2015)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     118 Min        12A

‘The Dressmaker’ stars Kate Winslet as Tilly Dunnage, returning to her small hometown in rural Australia in 1950 to greet the hics that forced her to leave in the first place, after she was accused of murdering a young boy when she herself was a child: only now she possesses god-like haute couture abilities that will see them falling over themselves for the use of her craft, whilst she determines to try and piece together what actually happened all those years ago and make amends with her slightly dotty mother in the process, played quite wonderfully by Judy Davis.

It’s a black comedy with moments of drama (sixty/forty in favour of the former) based on Rosalie Ham’s 2000 debut novel of the same name and adapted by Australian director and screenwriter Jocelyn Moorhouse, who has managed to bring to life the characters as skilfully and colourfully as she’s displayed the resplendent and juxtaposed myriad dresses that Tilly churns out from her austere shack overlooking the corrugated roofs of her outback town, and although the two genre strands are similarly clashed at times, the movie still works really well overall.

Equally vibrant support work all round from the likes of Liam Hemsworth and Sarah Snook but especially so from Hugo Weaving (interestingly, whilst filming it was Snook who actually informed Winslet of the auditioning for ‘Steve Jobs‘), with Winslet not only as great in the role of the protagonist as we’ve come to expect her to regularly be, but she’s also rarely sizzled more seductively on the big-screen as she does here.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse  (2015)    50/50

Rating :   50/100                                                                       93 Min        15

Woeful writing ruins what wasn’t a completely awful premise for a zombie comedy film. Ben (Tye Sheridan), Carter (Logan Miller) and Augie (Joey Morgan) are best friends and scouts who suddenly have to put everything they’ve learned whilst earning their badges into practice in order to try and survive their town being randomly overrun by zombies, although they appear to actually inaugurate the incursion by running over a deer near the beginning and somehow turning it into a member of the undead, which is at least original even if nothing much else in the film is.

Lame comedy, drama and character interplay are interspersed with loud jolts, as zombies pop up everywhere to irritatingly assault the senses, whilst the boys are the traditional fat kid, the one who thinks he’s way cooler than he is and the central straight guy in love with a girl he doesn’t know how to talk to. Precious little use of the theme and an all too traditional arc of ‘Scouts is lame … actually no, it’s pretty cool, and now I’ve realised how important our friendship really is’ leave this suffering from the same level of boredom as the likes of ‘Life After Beth‘ and ‘Warm Bodies‘. Although, as you can see from the pic above, Sarah Dumont in support does give teenage boys a pretty good reason to enjoy the film, not me you understand …

The Lobster  (2015)    81/100

Rating :   81/100                       Treasure Chest                     118 Min        15

Easily one of the best films of the year, and indeed one so stylistically reminiscent of the equally great ‘Dogtooth’ (09) that it comes as no surprise to learn that it’s from the same creative team – Greek writers Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, with Lanthimos once again handling the directing duties. It’s a satirical black comedy examining relationships and the pressure and scrutiny society can put on them, as we watch a committedly overweight Colin Farrell check into a hotel after recently becoming single, a hotel where the guests must successfully pair up with another person or be turned into the animal of their choice and where, to gain extra days in the complex, reality TV style, they go out hunting loners in the forest with tranquillizer guns. Need I say more?

At its heart, the movie explores the concept of sameness, of bonding through commonality and the desire to adapt to become more alike, whether through love or desperation. The idea is wonderful and the filmmakers deliver what is by no means a frequent experience – the feeling that you are actually watching a film; you’re relaxed and yet immersed and slightly excited about the story, aware that you’re being entertained and equally so that this is really what you’re supposed to feel like in the cinema. The acting from everyone is fantastic, with the most recognisable faces being John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Olivia Colman, Michael Smiley, Ashley Jensen, Rachel Weisz and the lovely Jessica Barden (as nosebleed woman) all with Farrell as the central focus who is nothing short of brilliant, with flashes of his comedic talent displayed in 2008’s ‘In Bruges’ despite playing a much more demure character. It loses a little steam in the final third, but nevertheless one not to be missed.

The Intern  (2015)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     121 Min        12A

From writer and director Nancy Meyers (‘Something’s Got to Give’ 03, ‘The Holiday’ 06, ‘It’s Complicated’ 09), ‘The Intern’ sees Ben Whittaker (Robert de Niro) becoming increasingly fed up and bored with retirement, leading him to apply for an internship within a new and quickly expanding business – office positions specifically aimed at those in or near retirement as part of a sort of public outreach program. The only problem is Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), the boss of this company, hasn’t been informed and isn’t especially interested in it – but since one of the new recruits is de Niro she quickly warms to him and the pair start to become close friends as a result.

It’s a little wishy-washy – especially with the writing of Jules’s husband Matt (Anders Holm) who comes across more like a closet serial killer than a house husband, in fact he’s been neutered by screenplay design to a rather extreme degree and even Holm doesn’t know how to play it (look out for Hathaway greeting at the bad acting she’s confronted with). Some of the emotional scenes do still manage to hit the mark though, as the experienced Ben helps Jules through her uncertainties and marital problems, and even though it’s all a bit loose and moody the characters do espouse the sort of ineloquent dialogues that tend to accompany such moments in real life, and indeed when Jules remarks she’s part of the generation that taught women they could do anything and should always go for it and she reckons men got left behind along the way she raises a very salient point –it seems to me that more and more these days men are criticised simply for being men, or, perhaps, not being women. Sometimes I’m amazed the human race survives.

Funny in places and likeable throughout – de Niro is dependable and charming and Hathaway is as good at appearing stressed and vulnerable here as she was at portraying strength in ‘The Dark Knight Rises‘ (she also fits in a reference or two to another of her films, ‘Rachel Getting Married’ 08). Look out for the moment that ought to reward anyone with a not-so-supportive parent ….

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.

The Visit  (2015)    51/100

Rating :   51/100                                                                       94 Min        15

M. Night Shyamalan writes, directs and produces his attempt at the handheld horror genre with occasional success, as Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are shunted off to visit their grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) in their mother’s home town – minus the mother (Kathryn Hahn) though as she apparently did something heinous to them when she ran off with their father, who eventually ran off with someone else and hasn’t been seen since. The only problem is the grandparents are psychos and scare the living shit out of the kids, who are then determined to find out exactly what their mother did to them that was so bad.

In essence, Shyamalan has principally written a decent story, if not a screenplay, for the film but the delivery lacks any real tension – the kids are by turns likeable, and we see the after-effects of their parents divorce on them psychologically which was a rare nice touch for the genre, but then they are also really irritating; Tyler, for example, tries his hand at rapping and he’s no good, to put it lightly, but there are nonetheless three lengthy takes of him giving it a go. Perhaps worst of all, the film’s climactic moment is delivered with no real force whatsoever all but ruining it, and, well, it’s sandwiched between a lot of nonsense in terms of the regular scares together with the mere occasional moment of amusement, as the film continually threatens to ramp up both the comedy and the horror, and then simply doesn’t. Shyamalan reportedly had a lot of trouble editing the film as the final product kept flitting radically between genres – kind of suggests he didn’t really know what he was trying to do in the first place though …