Black Mass  (2015)    58/100

Rating :   58/100                                                                     122 Min        15

Detailing the exploits from the mid-seventies onwards of infamous Boston mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp), directed by Scott Cooper (‘Crazy Heart’ 09, ‘Out of the Furnace‘) and written by Jez Butterworth (‘Edge of Tomorrow‘, ‘Spectre‘) and Mark Mallouk in his screenwriting debut, ‘Black Mass’ feels from start to finish like a poor man’s ‘The Departed’ (06), as we simply watch brutal killing after brutal killing take place at either the bequest or the hands of the protagonist, with the ludicrously overt antics of a complicit FBI agent as the only real countermeasure to the bloodshed, bar a few moments with Bulger’s young son and wife (Dakota Johnson) where the film finds some rare flashes of humanity.

It’s a vile film, gritty to be sure, but with nothing more than Bulger killing everyone that slights him as the heart of the piece it becomes difficult to the see any point to the movie other than a warning not to get involved with psychopaths. Joel Edgerton plays FBI agent John Connolly, who manages to persuade his boss (Kevin Bacon) and colleagues (David Harbour and Adam Scott) that bringing in Bulger as an informant is a totally sweet idea and that his childhood friendship with the man in question isn’t in any way a conflict of interests. If it wasn’t true, you would never believe it, but the way Connolly comes across onscreen wouldn’t sell to the least discerning of officials, never mind the Bureau.

Johnny Depp gives a, much touted, thoroughly transformative performance as Bulger, but this is exactly what Depp has being doing his entire career really – even recently in films that underperformed like ‘The Lone Ranger‘ and ‘Mortdecai‘, where the media largely ignored his work and preferred to lay claim to his career being over instead, and even though it’s a noteworthy turn the especially dark writing and material are unlikely to do him many favours come awards season. Indeed, there’s no immediate reason for the movie’s title other than its story representing a relentless physical amalgam of disturbing and pathological violence.

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.

Legend  (2015)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                     131 Min        18

Tom Hardy plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the infamous London gangsters who terrorised the city throughout the fifties and sixties, in a film that is about as unreal a historical depiction as you can imagine. The whole movie has a strong comic vibe to it, feeling primarily like an excuse for Hardy to show off artistically, and indeed it works better in this sense than in any other – partly because laughs were written into it but unfortunately also because there are numerous moments when it just feels a bit silly watching Hardy beat-up on himself. ‘The Double‘ was much more successful in putting the same actor onscreen as multiple characters – here Ronnie is depicted as a schizophrenic lunatic with a love for anarchy and violence, with Reggie as the more respectable and intelligent but an equal in terms of his propensity for bloodied destruction.

Emily Browning is a highlight as Frances Shea, Reggie’s lover, and Hardy skilfully creates numerous indelible moments but writer and director Brian Helgeland (here adapting the works of the man the Krays’ hired to immortalise them in print – John Pearson) takes the conspicuous easy road too frequently – often the face of one Kray is in shot whilst the back of the other is in the foreground etc., and indeed, despite several gory, brutal and menacing scenes, he has managed to more or less write out the entirety of the Krays’ criminal misdeeds, they’ve become ‘Ronnie and Reggie’ from down the pub and the only people we see suffering are those personally involved with them rather than the innumerable innocents concerned – all leaving the whole thing feeling about as realistic as an episode of ‘Eastenders’.

Irrational Man  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                       95 Min        12A

Woody Allen’s latest begins in murky waters – Joaquin Phoenix plays an overweight despondent philosophy professor who likes more than the occasional drink or two, and Allen’s latest muse Emma Stone is the beautiful ingénue at college who will fall under his spell. It’s all a little clichéd and similar to his last film, ‘Magic in the Moonlight‘, with Stone’s early scenes each individually deliberately drawing the viewer’s attention to first her derrière, then her legs, and then finally her breasts. This is, however, a bit of a conscious red herring.

The professor is not interested in bumping uglies with the young nubiles around him, despite his reputation for doing just that, in fact, he isn’t all that interested in anything, other than continually mulling over wasted time and the little of any concrete value that his life has given rise to. Until, that is, inspiration strikes him in the most unlikely of ways – turning the story into a darker and more searching character portrayal, much as was the case in ‘Blue Jasmine‘, and although in that sense this isn’t quite so revealing or incisive, it is well delivered and likeable throughout, marking a return to form for Allen after a bit of a stray bullet the last time around.

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.

Hitman : Agent 47  (2015)    27/100

Rating :   27/100                                                                       96 Min        15

Why did they bother. The first Hitman, back in 2007 and adapted from IO Interactive’s video game series of the same name, had its moments but never really set its aims high enough – here, in this non-sequel, they are directly pointed at the ground, with a ridiculous story ripping off parts of the Terminator and Matrix franchises amongst other much better source material put together with heavily stylised action sequences that are so tiresome and predictable they’re even less interesting than your average video game cut-scene. Rupert Friend plays the central Hitman character (Agent 47), a cloned assassin who has his targets set on one Katia van Dees (Hannah Ware), the daughter of the genetic assassin programme’s creator who is trying to trace her father whilst the mysterious John Smith (Zachary Quinto) sets out to interfere with Agent 47’s plans. Friend does his part, but Quinto is slipping noticeably down the greasy pole a little, at once reminiscent of his role as Sylar in TV series ‘Heroes’ (06-10). One can only assume he was a big fan of the games.

Hot Pursuit  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                       87 Min        12A

Perhaps alarmingly, I quite enjoyed this. It’s a buddy film with two female leads in place of the usual male ones – indeed, most of the chatter surrounding its release has revolved around this element combined with its being helmed by a female director: Anne Fletcher (‘Step Up’ 06, ‘The Proposal’ 09). This combination of the sexes, earth shattering as it is, has seen several criticisms lain at some of the jokes, but in each instance there often equally appears to be a unique omittance that the screenplay was written by two men – David Feeney and John Quaintance. These socio-political elements aside, the story follows Reese Witherspoon’s extremely-by-the-book cop Cooper as she attempts to both protect Sofia Vergara’s Riva and to also make sure she testifies against a criminal heavyweight, as without her testimony the case is set to collapse.

The first third or so will probably make you want to kill yourself, but eventually the corny story is buried in the infectious fun the two leads are clearly having together and their chemistry alone gives the fairly run-of-the-mill comedy the lift it needed to actually generate some laughs. Indeed, I found myself sniggering away several moments after some of the jokes had been delivered, and any film that can do that and then finally send me away from the cinema in a good mood deserves some credit. Flawed to be sure, and by the end it has begun to peter out a little again, but very likeable and some lovely stealth laughs in there for those not too proud to admit it.

The Legend of Barney Thomson  (2015)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                       96 Min        15

A reasonably solid first attempt behind the camera (notwithstanding an episode of Stargate) for Robert Carlyle, but sadly one let down by a common fault within the black comedy genre – over reliance on a concept to be continually be amusing in its own right; much like filming squirrels going rogue and deciding to collect human nuts for the winter could be quite funny, but it may also become incredibly tedious watching the little critters continuously emasculate runners in the park (actually, I think this concept would work no matter how it was done). Here, Carlyle plays nondescript local Glasgow barber Barney Thomson (he only knows two different styles of cut, although this is already one more than most of the barbers in Scotland) who accrues a habit of accidentally killing people who would otherwise have been in a position to cause him significant hardship. Alas, he spends most of the film whining and stressing about it and we simply don’t care – it’s not a terribly amusing concept to begin with, better if he laughed manically every time it happened and then started to create scenarios that induced a high likelihood someone he doesn’t like might ‘accidentally’ bite it.

The film is based on the novel ‘The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson’ by Douglas Lindsay and there are a number of nice comedy moments but unfortunately the majority were spoiled for us by the trailer, and whilst Emma Thompson as Barny’s mum and both Ray Winstone and Ashley Jensen as the cops investigating the murders all give really strong performances, everything just becomes increasingly humdrum as the film progresses, the story continually bogged down by the protagonist’s lugubrious outlook and demeanour turning everything as stale and depressing as indeed the choice of cinematography, with its hazzy late-fifties vibe, had always been suggesting we could expect throughout. With Tom Courtenay, James Cosmo and Martin Compston in support.

Knock Knock  (2015)    54/100

Rating :   54/100                                                                       99 Min        18

The latest take on the home invasion scenario, from director Eli Roth and cowritten by himself, Nicolas Lopez and Guillermo Amoedo. Roth’s involvement was for me slightly balanced out by Keanu Reeves’ appearance in top billing here, leading to the conclusion that this probably wasn’t going to sink to the lows that Roth’s ‘Hostel’ (05) did, for example, and that assumption proved accurate although much of this film simply doesn’t lead anywhere at all with a ratio of about twenty percent horror to sixty five percent flat nothingness with limp direction, writing and, at times, acting – having said that the other fifteen percent is occupied by some very convincing scenes of sexual tension thanks to the ‘invasion’ this time being carried out by two nubile, fit young women.

The pair, played by Lorenza Izzo (Roth’s wife, incidentally) and Ana de Armas, turn up unannounced at architect Reeves’ swanky house with their overtly soaked wet nips and a sorrowful tale of being late for a party and … actually I don’t remember the rest of their excuse, I was distracted – as is Reeves who lets them in to dry off whilst wondering what they might really be after. I have this problem all the time – the best thing to do is to tie them up and gag them as quickly as possible just to be safe, you cover all your bases that way. Needless to say, market research tends to bypass my cave these days but unfortunately Reeves isn’t quite so savvy when it comes to psychos, or teenage girls, and, well, he doesn’t get much work done over the weekend put it that way.

The film is a remake of 1977’s ‘Death Game’ and its troubles begin just shy of half way through when it all but runs out of steam and it becomes apparent there was no real thought given to the theme other than to replicate the sort of scenario better displayed in ‘Funny Games’ (97 & 07) and its imitators but with a visual overemphasis and indulgence on the aspect of sex appeal, where it is at least successful, and yet there was a lot of scope for development. A surprising lack of even traditional screw turning both relieves and disappoints and they could easily have put in a lot more black humour, just as it ought to be much more tense than it is – worst of all, though, are multiple moments where solutions to problems are presented and not acted upon, which any horror or thriller can only get away with for so long. Ana de Armas is the film’s best revelation with a largely believable delinquent romp and a body possibly worth enduring a certain degree of discomfort for, but even for male audiences her and her partner in crime’s charms won’t be enough to overlook the frayed narrative that occupies the latter half of the film.

Mr. Holmes  (2015)    64/100

Rating :   64/100                                                                     104 Min        PG

The most recent Sherlock Holmes adaptation features none other than current acting goliath Sir Ian McKellen as the man himself but is not adapted from any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s works (incidentally, you can visit the grave of Joseph Bell, the Edinburgh University medicine lecturer who was the inspiration behind the character of Holmes, in the Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh), rather it is based on the 2005 novel ‘A Slight Trick of the Mind’ by Mitch Cullin, and unfortunately it does show. The story has three interlinking narratives with the primary one being Holmes’ present day (1947) self, now in his 90’s living in a remote farmhouse in the country with only his bees and his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) for company, combined with the ghosts of his final case which begin to haunt him as he attempts to write his version of events to counterbalance their much ameliorated publication by a now long since passed away Dr. Watson, along with another story he recounts regarding a recent trip to Japan where he witnessed the aftermath of Hiroshima.

Holmes is ailing in bodily health and in mind, his memory clutching at physical props to drive his faculties back to the time of the events he is trying to piece together, and he becomes close to Roger whose mental adroitness and eagerness for adventure and stories inspires him to a degree, much to the chagrin of Roger’s concerned onlooking mother. Indeed, she appears to have good cause for worry given the fragility of Holmes, whose care the boy is too oft put into through their mutual friendship, and McKellen’s depiction whilst committed as you’d expect (he handles the bees in their hive with no gloves on for example. Fuck that) has the unfortunate effect of making Holmes appear more than a little creepy at times, whether by design or accident it isn’t clear. This maternal alertness actually provides the tension through most of the first half of the film and prevents it from grinding to a halt as the other threads are delivered piecemeal with continual breaks and very little apparent point or value to them, although scenes in the atomic aftermath are striking if somewhat curtailed.

In essence it becomes an investigation of Holmes’ soul, a final and most difficult case for him to solve and there’s a lot of merit in some of the material it covers, with the other strands eventually at least partially delivering and making sense, but the primary problem is that this isn’t really Sherlock Holmes. If one were to take this and place it astride Guy Ritchie’s interpretation back in 2009 then the real detective and his investigations would fall somewhere in the middle, and there comes a point where I think audiences going to see a Sherlock Holmes film ought to reasonably expect to be given exactly that. Constant revisionist takes on something which in itself does not need to be revised can easily become detrimental to the theme. There is precious little in the way of his famed deductions in this one, and some that do crop up are iffy to say the least, including one that will have you seriously doubting that nobody noticed certain evidence before. Similar doubts exist too over major key elements of plot and philosophy but some contemplative value is to be found nonetheless, though expectations for many overtly clever reveals are unlikely to be met.

Possibly published in anticipation of the film’s release, this article is a worthy little eye opener on the world of bees, dastardly little bastards that they are – though nothing compared to the envoys of Satan that are wasps (many villages have been inadvertently scorched in my attempts to deal with said evils).