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.

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 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.

Crimson Peak  (2015)    58/100

Rating :   58/100                                                                     119 Min        15

Visually rich and well acted but lacking in almost every other department, Guillermo del Toro’s latest after ‘Pacific Rim‘ is a fairly traditional take on the horror genre with a 19th century haunted house mystery, except pointless gore predominates where there ought to be suspense and, critically, the entire premise is undermined by poor writing from the very offset. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, the virginal, one presumes, young beauty about to come to the attention of one Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and the cardinal sin of the screenplay is that it lets us know these two are up to no good all the way through, with nothing about their ultimate purpose proving to be very interesting nor surprising.

The sets and costumes are impressive enough, and as with the director’s other work he has overly committed to the aesthetic, albeit successfully, whilst not paying nearly enough attention to the storytelling (he was joined by Matthew Robbins for the screenplay). Everything simply plods along delivering nothing we haven’t seen before, apart from perhaps ghosts with all their flesh still on but minus the skin, simply for ‘shock’ value, all dancing around the loose thread of the siblings trying to mine the grounds around their crumbling English manor for the lucrative minerals in the earth surrounding it, and travelling to the States in the beginning to petition Edith’s business magnate father for investment. Fans of both horror and del Toro are likely to be disappointed, although the latter probably won’t completely hate it at least.

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.

Inside Out  (2015)    62/100

Rating :   62/100                                                                       94 Min        U

Disney Pixar’s latest is unsurprisingly ambitious and technically accomplished, but on this occasion they’ve overshot their own creative mark and landed a little too close to the dead zone of thematic ambiguity for comfort. The plot is theoretically about one family: father (Kyle MacLachlan), mother (Diane Lane) and young eleven-year-old girl Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) who relocate from Minnesota to San Francisco, causing Riley to suffer numerous quite natural insecurities and regrets as she waves goodbye to several friendships and a hallowed place on her ice hockey team.

In reality, the movie is focused on what’s going on inside Riley’s brain as we see Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader) brought to life as individual entities at the helm, ‘Headquarters’, of Riley’s entire personality and normal function. Herein lies problem number one – an attempt to personify characters as representative of one distinct and solitary emotion but also as characters in their own right who must necessarily exhibit more of a range.

The whole motif behind the movie is that it’s OK to feel sad sometimes, as this can be a visual signal to others that we are in need of help. Sadness initially messes everything up before her place in the grand scheme of things becomes apparent, and as her chaotic influence sweeps throughout the labyrinthine corridors of Riley’s grey matter we watch as entire elements of the host’s personality are completely and irrevocably annihilated by mistake, whilst in the real world her life is equally devastated as a result. All of which has the effect of largely distancing Riley from being in any way in control of herself and her own state of being, which in turn is conceptually very alienating for an audience.

Similarly, there are a lot of very eerie goings-on; we see a large creepy clown lurking around in locked away memories, entire characters begin to fade into nothingness as Riley starts to forget them. Notwithstanding this, there are funny moments and the artwork involved is top-notch, as we’ve come to expect, just as the adventure the central personality profiles go in does more or less hold interest until the end. Still, the film’s premise hasn’t been satisfactorily fulfilled and The Red Dragon is by no means convinced this is a good film to be taking youngsters to go and see.

Jupiter Ascending  (2015)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                      127 Min       12A

Hmm. If you have seen the Wachowski brother’s (sorry, that should be sibling’s – one of them has had a sex change) last outing ‘Cloud Atlas‘ then whatever you felt watching that is almost certainly going to be replicated by this over the top sci-fi blunder/extravaganza, which this time around is both written and directed by them. It often looks quite impressive, and there is action galore, but it encapsulates the very definition of ‘popcorn entertainment’ and there’s a bountiful smorgasbord of cheese dripping and then exploding from start to finish. The opening section is easily the worst, with poor performances and a bad delivery of what’s already a ropey premise – that one Earth woman, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is the reincarnation of the mother of the Abrasax triumvirate, the Princess and Princes who rule our section of the universe, and as such she is hot property to be contested for by all, queue lots of men fighting over the pretty girl and rubbish wedding attempts and the inevitable falling for the rugged bounty hunter with a heart who’s the first to reach her – Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) who is also part canine. Yes. It must have taken them a while to think of the character name.

With the added element that the Abrasax family process human beings into chemical compounds that produce a life extending elixir, the story appears to be a simple splicing of ‘Flash Gordon’ (80) and ‘Dune’ (84) and it rarely proves interesting, though things do start to pick up once Sean Bean enters the fray (as ‘Stinger’, he is part honeybee), a past master at making rubbish plots sound feasible. With support from Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton. If you are just in the mood for watching something flashy that doesn’t engage your mind in any way at all then this does tick a lot of the right boxes, but if we compare this to Marvel’s similar space adventure mash-up ‘Guardians of the Galaxy‘ it becomes clear that the Wachowskis have yet to really learn from their multitudinous and oft times glaring mistakes of the past.

Into the Woods  (2014)    54/100

Rating :   54/100                                                                     125 Min        PG

A musical that is so forced it’s painful. This is the Disney film interpretation of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway show, adapted for the screen by Lapine and directed by Rob Marshall (‘Chicago’ 02, ‘Nine’ 09), which sees several of the Grimms’ fairy tales (specifically Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel; with a random witch, two prince charmings, and the baker and his wife thrown in for structural cement) woven together in the most pointless and dull way imaginable – the baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) have to go ‘into the woods’ to fetch various items for the witch to lift a curse, which is where they will meet everyone else – all of whom are busying themselves with their normal respective stories.

Not much time ever passes between each song and not much variation exists between them either – each registers no differently than someone banging, strumming or blowing repetitively and inarticulately on the instrument of choice for the number whilst someone sings over it in a similarly predictable, and achingly dull, crescendo of ever higher but constantly monotone pitches. In fact, the musicality of the film has as much originality and merit as the script does. Eventually things stop going according to plan and the film becomes a little darker, at the time I was thinking ‘noooooooo! I thought this was about to finish!’, but actually this section (about the last half an hour or so) is way more interesting than the rest of the film, but even this part is a watered down and much weaker version of what happens in the stage show.

Also starring Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone – who played Gavroche in ‘Les Mis‘, a film which this is clearly trying to ape with its similar production design and cinematography but which in this context doesn’t do the film any favours as it’s way too devoid of light, leaving large sections feeling overly drab and reflective of the somewhat pointless story. Streep is up for a supporting Oscar for this but it’s really not deserved – she has her moments but there are precious few of them and even her main song has a hiccup or two with the recording (for the vast majority of the film the cast were not recorded live, unlike Les Mis). Emily Blunt is significantly better, and at least deservedly got a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, finally losing out to Amy Adams for ‘Big Eyes‘.

Night at the Museum : Secret of the Tomb  (2014)    62/100

Rating :   62/100                                                                       98 Min        PG

This is essentially completely identical to parts one and two of the ‘Night at the Museum’ franchise, which began way back in 2006 although it seems like just yesterday. The majority of the characters return for this instalment, including the protagonist Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), Jed (Owen Wilson), Octavius (Steve Coogan), Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek) and the late Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt, together with new faces Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens), La (also Stiller) and security guard Tilly (Rebel Wilson) as well as some great cameos. A very loose thread throughout explores Larry’s relationship with his son Nick (Skyler Gisondo) who is determined to take a year out before college to basically chill out in Ibiza, much to the chagrin of his concerned father, but can Nick convince Larry that he’s mature enough to make his own decisions?

The main story arc follows the somewhat mouldy decline of the golden tablet that brings all the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan to life at night, and just as the previous film took everyone on a trip to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., this time the British Museum in London is where they hope to find answers to the imminent cessation of all their nocturnal activities. The film works as a really great advert for the museum and the not too distant Trafalgar Square area – indeed, these are two of The Red Dragon’s favourite places to visit in London (although usually I am paying more attention to potential new slaves than exhibits, I once met a rather charming girl called Mona Lisa in the National Gallery (no joke) and indeed was similarly distracted in the British Museum and thoroughly enjoyed the visit along with the hieroglyphics merchandise from the shop, until I remembered the Rosetta stone is there and I had neglected to see it. Pesky human females). The film is perfectly in keeping with Stiller’s usual zany, light and family friendly comedy adventures and for precisely that reason this delivers exactly what you would expect – a film that’s easy to watch with colourful performances and the occasional laugh but nothing to make it stand out and overall somewhat banal, with an ending designed to finish the series rather than really make much sense.