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.

Destry Rides Again  (1939)    79/100

Rating :   79/100                                                                       94 Min        PG

Classic western famous for a number of reasons – firstly, at its core the protagonist Destry (James Stewart) is called into the remote, fictional town of Bottleneck as deputy Sheriff and elects to try and enforce justice without the use of guns, indeed he doesn’t even carry any on him, and secondly the movie features what must be one of the longest, if not THE longest, catfight in cinematic history (excluding porn of course) between the legendary Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel – a fight extended when Jimmy Stewart gets involved (pictured above – the two famously embarked on an affair whilst on set, and it’s difficult to imagine the passionate fight scenes didn’t play a pivotal role).

What brings Destry there in the first place is the murder of the previous sheriff – something nobody in town wants to talk about or acknowledge lest they face repercussions from the gang operating out of The Last Chance Saloon (there were multiple locales carrying this name throughout the Old West, originally ones that offered the last opportunity to imbibe before heading out into the desert {and, presumably, the last chance to change your mind} before it became a generic metaphor). Duty bound, Destry sets out to get to the bottom of things and bring those responsible to justice, and just maybe play a little with the firekitten that is ‘Frenchy’ (Dietrich) along the way.

It’s a fascinating concept which will never get old, and the protagonist is properly tested – thrown into violent situations and forced to endure a ribald reception from the public for his stance but he, ahem, sticks to his guns and gracefully walks through it all with a self-assurance in himself and his belief, which eventually begins to win people over. He, then, has not only the philosophy but also the wherewithal that it will require a strategy and level of personal charisma in order for his approach to succeed.

Directed by George Marshall, who would remake the film again in 1954 (Much like Hitchcock did with ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ in 34 and 56), it’s impossible not to be curious as to how Destry is going to handle each situation and the overall feeling of the responses he provides is both satisfying and impressive, although there is a debate to be had regarding the finale and where it fits within the philosophy of the rest of the movie, and indeed you could argue it either makes, or breaks it …

Danny Collins  (2015)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     106 Min        15

‘Hey baby doll, what’s going on …’ Aargh! That song’s stuck in my fucking head! It’s not even like it’s stuck in there in the sort of ‘ah this is really catchy I’ll listen to it a few more times’ kind of way – it’s shit and it’s not even sung very well, noooooo ….

As you may have guessed, this film features a song called ‘Baby Doll’ and it is performed by none other than acting legend Al Pacino in the titular role of aged, drug abusing, successful, and yet distinctly disheartened Danny Collins, whose manager one day presents him with a hand written letter from John Lennon that tells him to stay true to his music and to give him a call sometime. Never having received the letter in the decades since it was written, and in his view having sold himself out artistically since then, Collins questions how different his life would have been if he’d been able to speak to his musical idol at the time, and he begins to take everything back to the drawing board to salvage his soul from ‘the road’ and endless performances of music he has long since lost interest in.

Shown after a brief credits role at the end is the real performer, Englishman Steve Tilston, this is based on (the central plot with the letter is true, though the rest appears to be fiction), and director/writer Dan Fogelman has done a great job of keeping us interested in what is a fairly low key film, one ultimately revolving around two dynamics – the main one of Collins trying to reconnect with a son (Bobby Cannavale) he has never had anything to do with before, and the second his attempt to seduce the manager, Mary (Annette Bening), of the hotel he permanently checks into and the ensuing relationship between them that results.

It’s very well paced for what it is and performances full of charm all round really ground the film in the characters, but mostly this works because it all feels very real, a lost soul trying to reconnect with what he has been missing for most of his life. Jennifer Garner plays his son’s wife and Giselle Eisenberg their young daughter, who is supposed to have ADD (attention deficit disorder) but really she seems just like a normal kid enjoying herself. The music comes predominantly from John Lennon with the occasional little ditty from Collins, although Al Pacino has apologised for his crooning in the film, and whilst billed as a comedy the focus is very much on the family drama here. With Christopher Plummer in support too (also, the brunette in the pic above is only in that one scene, disappointing I know).

Dumb and Dumber To  (2014)    44/100

Rating :   44/100                                                                     109 Min        15

Arguably difficult to pull this one off, given its release twenty years after the original ‘Dumb and Dumber’ and that principal actors Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels had to considerably regress into playing the goofy ‘one card shy of a full deck’ Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne respectively. My goodness do the writers make a mess of it though. One imagines them, the Farrelly brothers (also the directors), guffawing earnestly at their own jokes as they churn out toilet gags that a five year old would find off-putting, whilst they simultaneously commit the cardinal sin of thinking anyone in the audience is actually going to care about the particularly lame story that’s been sticky taped around their all but ineffective slapstick routines.

Said story focuses on Harry’s discovery that he has a long lost child combined with Lloyd’s discovery that he wants to bone her (curiously Rachel Melvin, who plays the daughter, looks rather similar to Emma Stone, whom Carrey rather publicly declared his undying affection for a couple of years back), all leading them on a road trip to a scientific conference where she is due to give a speech on behalf of her highly regarded academic foster father, whose wife is plotting to kill him and take his money. To be fair I did laugh a few times, and loyal affection for the original characters carried me through to the end but an air of desperation never quite leaves the film and it’s full of unfortunate moments, like watching Carrey swallow a hot dog whole and then visibly suffer for it a moment later. They needed a genuine spark to make this work, maybe even putting Lloyd and Harry into the background more often possibly with leading straight characters for contrast, but it never really gets off the ground and is dramatically weighed down by simple crassness throughout.

Dracula Untold  (2014)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                       92 Min        15

This had loads of potential but alas it is disappointingly humdrum. Mooted as possibly rebooting Universal’s old Monsters franchise (a series of films featuring the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and their pals, which ran from the silent era in the 1920’s through to 1960), it still might, but it’s not exactly Batman Begins (05). This takes the original etymology of Bram Stoker’s titular character from his infamous 1897 novel ‘Dracula’ and runs with it – Stoker named his character after the equally infamous Vlad the Impaler, a moniker he acquired after death, who was born Vlad III Prince of Wallachia or Vlad Draculea, meaning son of Dracul – a title given to his father when he joined the Order of the Dragon (a military order founded in the early fifteenth century to defend Christianity and which formed a crucial presence in Eastern Europe to countermand the invasions of the Ottoman Turks, although really I founded this order to use humans as my pawns) as in Romanian Dracul used to mean dragon (now it usually refers to the Devil). Here, Count Dracula (Luke Evans) actually is Vlad the Impaler and we are transported to fifteenth century Transylvania where his small kingdom operatives as a vassal state for the unruly Ottomans, and the uneasy peace between them is bought at an increasingly heavy price.

Quite a promising way to retell the story, but I did wonder to myself ‘how are they going to make this interesting and not just a rehash of the myth?’ – the reply to that is they put Charles Dance into a cave as a mysterious old and deadly vampire, and when Vlad gets desperate to help his family and his people he turns to this creature for power and agrees to a sinister pact: ungodly vampiric abilities to smite his foes with and he can return to normal as well, if he can resist drinking human blood for a few days that is. Then of course he quickly wants to eat everyone around him, and Sarah Gadon playing his buxomly corseted wife doesn’t help matters as she looks good enough for normal men to want to feast on never mind her preternaturally starving husband. Again, this was a nice direction to take, the overriding problem is the execution continues to deflate as the film goes on until it culminates in a tedious and, at moments, plain silly ending against the less than fearsome evil Ottoman ruler (Dominic Cooper), which ultimately ruins the intermittent moments of promise from before. Indeed, Gadon’s bosoms are undoubtedly the most memorable thing about the film, together with the farcical nature of what eventually happens to them.

Dolphin Tale 2  (2014)    60/100

Rating :   60/100                                                                     107 Min        U

The sequel to 2011’s original and once again set in Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium – the real world rescue centre where director Charles Martin Smith continues the story of Winter, the bottlenose dolphin rescued in the first film and given a prosthetic tail after losing her own in a crab trap. Like its predecessor this is a dramatisation of real events and features a return of all of the main cast members as well as Winter herself – this time with a number of new dolphins that will drive the story forward as Winter’s condition sadly deteriorates after the loss at the beginning of the film of the elderly dolphin Panama, who seems to have been her sole aquatic friend. The narrative follows Winter’s state closely and pairs it with the effect on the park and primarily on the two youngsters working there who have bonded the most closely with her (played by Cozi Zuehlsdorff and Nathan Gamble), and who face choices about their own future and the associated new responsibilities that come with them.

It’s a good companion piece to the original and both the story and the acting are engaging enough to merit the currently mooted possibility of a third outing for cast and crew – all except for one moment, when the camera shifts to Winter’s vantage point and when she eyes Dr Clay (Harry Connick Jr.), who is in charge of the centre, the dolphin literally flips out, falsely suggesting some untoward connection between Clay and Winter’s depression. You keep waiting for some horrible revelation that’s probably going to result in police custody and therapy sessions for the kids – I guess it is supposed to intimate blame via proxy for the death of Panama, but it’s very misleading and it’s never really brought up again after the incident.

Deliver Us from Evil  (2014)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     118 Min        15

A modern horror film that has not only a story but … acting as well! No one could have been more surprised than The Red Dragon by this, indeed it’s quite an interesting plot despite being littered with various tropes of the genre – lots of sustained flash light scenes in dark places, exorcism and little girls with music boxes (I mean seriously, who in their right mind would buy a child one of those – here you go my dear, this will practically ensure you will one day be enslaved by a demon who will give you your first sexual experience, or at the very least you’ll have regular nightmares for the next ten years). Eric Bana plays an NYPD cop who, along with his partner Joel McHale, must investigate several mysterious and violent events in the city, all of which lead back to a tour of duty in the Middle East for three ex-military personnel, and their discovery of some ancient ruins ….

Part of the reason for the grounded structure of this is that it’s actually based on the 2001 novel ‘Beware the Night’ by none other than the officer Bana is playing, Ralph Sarchie, who gave up fighting a life of crime to fight against another type of evil, becoming a demonologist (not a dermatologist, as Wikipedia currently suggests) after tutelage and inspiration from father Mendoza, here played by Édgar Ramírez (who has played not only Simon Bolivar and Carlos the Jackal, but was of course the lucky duck who gets it on with Keira Knightley in ‘Domino’ 05). So all of the events in the film are purportedly real from that perspective, but director and scriptwriter Scott Derrickson does a very good job of creating tension and has the right tempo for the story, although it should have been trimmed by maybe fifteen to twenty minutes as the overall length and that of some of the scenes starts to undermine the otherwise taught atmosphere.

There are quite a few throwaway aspects to the narrative too, such as the police connecting events they don’t yet have the information on to be able to do and references to the music of The Doors which seem somewhat spurious. Possibly Derrickson is just a fan, and ultimately the good acting and story make it easy not to mind these faults, especially if you also happen to like The Doors. For some reason, when they are trying to force a demon in possession of a body to reveal its name I could have sworn it replied ‘Jimmy’ (imagine, ‘Hey you, Jimmy! Get oot ya fanny!!’) which would have been awesome, and there are more than a couple of moments when the film is knowingly poking fun at itself to slightly lighten the tone. Worth going to see if you are a fan of the genre.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes  (2014)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                   130 Min          12A

The sequel to 2011’s very successful, and very good, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ continues with the story a decade further down the line, with Caesar and his motley bunch of intelligent apes living free in the wild whilst humanity attempts to deal with the deadly ‘Simian Flu’ virus unleashed at the end of the previous film. In a nutshell, this is nowhere near as good (although it is still a country mile better than Tim Burton’s take on the story back in 2001) but it does just about enough to pass mustard as the next chapter in the franchise.

This has a significantly increased action quotient compared to its predecessor, and in terms of the script it’s much more, ahem, primitive – at times it even feels like scenes must have been omitted that were necessary to explain certain things, and at various points the characters feel a little forced and silly. The plot centers on what’s left of the human populace in San Francisco trying to access a hydroelectric dam in the ape controlled forest in order to restore power, which proves to be a diplomatic nightmare for both sides, eventually setting precedent for relations between the two species in the future.

The human protagonists are played by Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman, with Andy Serkis returning to play Caesar and Toby Kebbell (who’s slated to play Doctor Doom in the Fantastic Four reboot, incidentally) giving a very good performance as the other main monkey, I mean ape, Koba. This has a similar feel to the original series of films which started with the magnificent ‘Planet of the Apes’ (68) and kind of then went steadily downhill with ‘Beneath the Planet of the Apes (70), ‘Escape from the Planet of the Apes’ (71), ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’ (72), ‘Battle for the Planet of the Apes’ (73) and a couple of TV series before the eventual appearance of Burton’s aforementioned attempt which choked and died instantly. Interestingly, the original film is based on a novel by French author Pierre Boulle, who also penned ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, which of course then inspired another of the most famous movies of all time. This particular outing in the Apes series is reasonably entertaining, but I think it’s best to go in with pretty low expectations …

Devil’s Knot  (2013)    64/100

Rating :   64/100                                                                     114 Min        15

What is a thoroughly compelling story from start to finish is nevertheless constantly held back by ludicrous casting choices and major flaws from screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, and critically from director Atom Egoyan, preventing this from becoming surefire awards worthy material. It’s adapted from the 2002 novel of the same name by Mara Leveritt, which detailed the harrowing true story of the disappearance of three young boys in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, in the early nineties, and the ensuing criminal trial of three teenage suspects thought to have been involved.

The film on the one hand plays with the potential innocence of the accused, but on the other we are shown right at the beginning an event taking place just after the kids go missing involving a man going into a restaurant and arousing suspicion, then legging it before the police arrive. It couldn’t be more heavily suggested he is involved, and yet no further mention of it is made until much farther into the movie, undermining everything in-between because we know of its existence and continually ask ourselves ‘why is nobody talking about this pretty major smoking gun event that the police are aware of?’. There are other major developments in terms of the evidence that feel like they aren’t being dramatised to the degree they should be, and in fact they get little more than some sighs of surprise in the courtroom, and a number of casting choices which immediately point suspicion due to their respective back catalogue of roles all continues to undermine the unfolding plot. Indeed, there are basic forensic questions which are never touched upon in the film and yet they absolutely must have been in the actual trial.

Even some of the characters seem dubious – Colin Firth plays an investigator who offers his services pro bono out of a sense of safeguarding justice, with the accused potentially facing the death penalty, and we see him constantly eyeing Reese Witherspoon (who plays the mother of one of the missing children). We assume that there is some connection there which will come to light later on but it turns out there isn’t one, he simply feels a lot of empathy for her. That kind of sums up the whole film – all of the right ingredients just orchestrated together poorly.

The performances themselves are all fine, though possibly Firth is stretching the most here, with an American accent which is good but quietens further his already quite reserved voice. Once upon a time a law student friend of mine took me to the public gallery in court for an afternoon’s excursion, which I have to fully recommend to anyone who has never been as it is utterly fascinating to watch the process of real trials unfolding, but I’ll never forget one poor woman who was taken into the court in cuffs and within a matter of minutes the judge had ascertained that the police hadn’t in reality secured a single piece of evidence against her and, understandably unhappy about this, she demanded that the accused be immediately released after having been in custody for a period of some weeks awaiting the hearing. I simply couldn’t believe that in this day and age something like that could happen, and along these lines films like this are very important because they highlight not only the effects of serious crime, but also the fallibility of officers who may care more about getting ‘a result’ than unearthing the truth of the matter at hand (if you ever have any dealings with the police ALWAYS make sure you exercise your right to have a lawyer present).

A courtroom drama that could, and should, have been much more intricate still remains compulsive viewing, and a story that will stay with you for a very long time.

Divergent  (2014)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                     139 Min        12A

Teenage fiction that is very obviously hoping to ape the success of ‘The Hunger Games’ (12), which is no bad thing, and it largely does a good job with only the cheesier elements of the writing letting it down. The film is based on Veronica Roth’s debut novel of the same name, part one of a trilogy, whilst Neil Burger (‘The Illusionist’ 06, ‘Limitless’ 11) directs. The immediate difference between this and The Hunger Games is that whilst both have a preposterous central storyline the other franchise makes it work on film in a very believable way, whereas here it takes a while to settle and doesn’t work to the same degree.

The world of Divergent is a dystopian future where mankind has struggled to survive after global war ruined everything. We are specifically taken to Chicago which is surrounded by enormous defences (beyond which no one is quite sure what exists anymore) and where the people are divided into factions when they are young, denominations they will belong to for the rest of their lives. These factions are : Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), Erudite (the intelligent), Abnegation (the selfless), and Candor (the honest), with each supposed to represent your nature and where you’ll be happy and productive and essentially ‘belong’. If you exhibit personality that fits in to more than one then you are a freak, divergent, and are to be killed instantly before you mess everything up. Getting this notion across to the audience in a way that doesn’t sound ludicrous is the first major challenge of the film and it remains one of its biggest pitfalls.

It does, however, immediately remind The Red Dragon of playing countless role playing games and trying to get ranks in as many different classes or disciplines as possible, one just never seemed enough. Guess I’m divergent, or schizophrenic, or GREEDY mwahaha! Our protagonist ‘Tris’ (Shailene Woodley) finds herself in a similar spot when her time to choose her faction arrives. Inevitably, her split personality disorder and strength of character will see her life put in danger, but also allow her to resist and fight against the sinister plot at work within faction management and inevitably attract the amorous attention of the male lead ‘Four’, Theo James. Kate Winslet appears as one of the faction chiefs but even though she was used heavily in the marketing it’s little more than a cameo role for her.

The style has been chosen to make it look as realistic as possible, and they’ve made it quite a lengthy piece, again much like The Hunger Games, and this all works in its favour, but it’s really the strength and charisma of the two leads that sell it overall. Decent, and good enough to merit a sequel.