In the Heart of the Sea  (2015)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                     122 Min        12A

Director Ron Howard’s latest dramatic feature since ‘Rush‘ is based on the similarly titled 2000 novel by Nathaniel Philbrick and once again features Chris Hemsworth as one of the protagonists, here playing Owen Chase – first mate of the Essex, a whaling ship whose fateful 1820 voyage was one of the primary sources that inspired writer Herman Melville to pen his historic fiction ‘Moby-Dick’ in 1851 (the legend of albino sperm whale Mocha Dick, who frequented the waters around the Chilean island of Mocha, was another such real-life source). Here, shots of the Essex and her crew are occasionally interjected by scenes of an eagerly attentive Melville (Ben Whishaw) listening to the recounting of the story by one of the original crew (Brendan Gleeson), often visibly pained by the memories the writer elicits from him.

The Essex hailed from Nantucket in Massachusetts, and the most obvious thing that stands out from the opening chapter of the film is the truly terrible range of accents that the cast have attempted, chief turkey among them being Hemsworth’s – to be honest, they are so bad I’m not even sure if they are attempted something similar to the modern-day region, maybe even close to Bostonian, or something which for some reason they think must have existed once upon a time. It’s all, ahem, ropey to say the least, but as a crew their collective voices seem to coalesce together and eventually it all evens out.

The crux of the story is the Essex’s basic and ongoing attempt to hunt whales, especially the extremely lucrative sperm whales, for their oil (it wasn’t until the late 1840s that Scotsman James Young really began the crude oil trade, taking out the UK and US patents for Paraffin distillation from coal in the early 1850s) and the unfortunate dearth of aquatic activity they come across leads them to desperate searches further and further into the Pacific Ocean, whereupon they encounter one particular sperm whale, bedecked white and awash with the scars of many previous encounters with man, who isn’t especially keen to let the whalers have it all their own way, and so begins their real adventure.

All of this is against the background of tension between the first mate and the captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), as the latter is a posh dunderhead from a rich family, thusly gaining the position, whose manhood isn’t best pleased to find that his first mate is in fact Thor, swaggering around, vaunting up ropes, proving to always be right and seeming to single-handedly sail the ship. This element of the film never really climbs out of the doldrums of melodrama, but the recreation of the voyage amidst the setting of the ship is one of the highlights, and the story and effects, for the most part, unerringly draw us into their world for the movie’s duration, also providing the key to its eventual success as we really feel for them and the many maritime men for whom such journeys were a reality.

The additional horror of showing us the brutal reality of their line of work, with sanguinary depictions of the murder of innocent whales, will absolutely disgust many viewers, and indeed you can feel the film jitter with uncertainty over how to portray these scenes and the characters within them, but they are fascinating from a historical accuracy point of view and indeed these detailed features are in keeping with one of the many noteworthy aspects of ‘Moby-Dick’ itself, which, incredulously, was not a financial success during the author’s lifetime.

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.

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.

Insidious : Chapter 3  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                       97 Min        15

One of the more infamous horror franchises of recent times returns to the fore after a fairly lacklustre second outing, on this occasion taking us back in time to before the hauntings of the Lambert family with spirit medium Elise (Lin Shaye) the link between the films, as young Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) seeks her guidance regarding contacting her recently deceased mother. Elise tells her to do one (I’m paraphrasing) as she’s haunted by an evil entity bent on destroying her whenever she enters the spirit world, the same one from the previous films, leaving poor Quinn to her own devices and to making the rookie error of contacting the wrong spirit who, unfortunately, decides to try and make her his own little pet in the nether realm. Though, in the spirit’s defence, Quinn does look good enough to eat, so you can’t blame a (dead) guy for trying, right?

Everything has been improved dramatically since the last outing with Leigh Whannell bolstering his screenplay this time around and indeed his appointment as director as well appears to have paid dividends as there are some genuinely scary moments and ideas in there, much like there was in the first one. It’s not as taught throughout as the original was – everything in part one was about turning the screw on the tension in tandem with the story unfolding, here there are multiple moments of ‘hmm, OK just have the dead thing scare the pretty girl and chuck her around the room for a bit, that’ll do’, and most of the support here is pretty lame, but Shaye and Scott do a great job and with more attention given to the story this time the franchise is (ahem) alive and kicking again.

Inherent Vice  (2014)    60/100

Rating :   60/100                                                                     148 Min        15

Paul Thomas Anderson (‘The Master’ 12, ‘There Will Be Blood’ 07, ‘Boogie Nights’ 97) directs and adapts for the big-screen Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, about dope addled private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello in 1970’s Los Angeles who is sent on an abduction case, against the backdrop of a cultural kickback taking aim at the ‘free love’ of the hippy generation. The novel is comedic as well as serious and Anderson’s writing sometimes hits the mark with the comedy but it fails on every other point, neither giving us a realistic or engaging sense of the issues of the day nor making the noir style detective story comprehensible or engaging. Even the actors, Benicio Del Toro especially at one point, look irked by the lack of structure around them and if you are looking for an involving story then you can absolutely forget this.

The director’s skill behind the camera, however, has allowed to him to create a very unique quasi-surrealism, in fact just watching it makes you feel as if you are on drugs which is a singularly impressive feat, if at times an uneasy one. Similarly, sex appeal is littered around the movie but when, at one moment in particular, there is a deliberate attempt to be erotic it falls pretty short of it. Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant as Sportello and he is accompanied by Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Hong Chau, Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon and Joanna Newsom who narrates the story but unfortunately the style of narration adds to the underlying soporific nature of the film and is a major hindrance. Anderson has successfully recreated the same feeling that must have inspired him to adapt the novel in the first place, but failure to properly fire the comedy more often and the complete absence of a decipherable plot leaves the film’s appeal unnecessarily limited.

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‘.

Interstellar  (2014)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     169 Min        12A

You would be hard pressed to find a more contrived film than this, given that it deals with the concepts of space and time as variables and yet everything seems to happen dramatically at the same moment. Sadly, this is just the beginning of the screenplay problems which burden the whole movie and, notwithstanding the often intriguing and satisfying visual space opera we are treated to, all but destroy it. This is Christopher Nolan’s latest film since releasing ‘The Dark Knight Rises‘ and he is joined by his brother Jonathan on writing credits, together delivering not only clichés of science fiction but of their own work as well.

Set in a troubled future where crop blights have made survival on planet Earth very difficult, the story focuses on Coop (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut who now runs a farm with his father (John Lithgow) and two young kids, Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet). Mysterious anomalies in the area lead the inquisitive Coop and Murph to a secret governmental institution which will eventually be responsible for the former adventurer once again taking to the skies – this time in an attempt to find a new habitable planet for the future of the human race to colonise (it’s also the second major science fiction epic for McConaughey after ‘Contact’ in 97). The core of the film focuses on family, humanity and adventure whilst making several attempts to treat us to a healthy dosage of real physics – in fact, the filmmakers combined forces with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, whose work initially inspired the film, and used real maths and data (many hundreds of terabytes worth of it) to produce the visualisation of a supermassive rotating black hole that they are fairly certain is what the thing will actually look like out there in space (it’s pictured above), and scientific papers based on their efforts have gone into publication, unusually uniting film with rigorous academia.

True to Nolan’s style, however, he takes a really interesting premise that he’s gone to great efforts to ground in reality and feasibility, and then he just rips everything up and writes a load of absolute gibberish, abruptly halting the journey he’d been taking us on. Think back to ‘The Dark Knight’ (08) when you had this wonderfully atmospheric and tense delivery, full of real stunts and real machines that actually operated as shown – and then right in the middle of the film he has his main character, Batman, jump off a skyscraper and land on a car below, damsel in distress in tow, completely unharmed despite having absolutely nothing to break or slow their fall (other than the aforementioned car). It’s completely ridiculous – why go to all that effort to make it realistic if you’re then going to blow it for no reason, and I love the Batman films so I still enjoyed them but I really wish he’d stop destroying the worlds and universes that he is so adept at creating.

Interstellar suffers from three major problems – one, the trailer completely spoils the central part of the film, and this is where the tension is really supposed to bite. Two, the writing of Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) is diabolically poor, in fact she is easily the worst character they have ever created (they probably would have been well served enlisting the help of a female touch with the screenplay here) and unfortunately this combines perfectly with fault number one. Thirdly, alas in no small measure also combining with fault two, the plot asks us to make enormous galactic leaps with our suspension of disbelief which are comically too big. There is an attempt to bring a spiritual, emotional, human element into play which is often done in science fiction (1968’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ for example, achieved it sensorially via artful direction and classical music) but it has to be done in such a way that the audience are going to be willing to take the leap because, well, why not? By simply going to the cinema there is an inherent willingness to invest in the movie and good art should expand our horizons anyway – it is not supposed to, as in this example, have the audience guffawing and sighing in irritation.

The visuals are a very curious mix of impressive (the black hole is terrific, especially when we realise it’s the most realistic depiction science is currently capable of), mainly average (background stars in our Solar System are conspicuously lacking, and generally the views of space aren’t as inspiring as they should be) and downright terrible (for some unknown reason there is a docking sequence where the models used look like they came straight out of the cupboards for ‘Space: 1999’, best case scenario is they were deliberately going for 70’s nostalgia), the score from Hans Zimmer is simple, atmospheric and very memorable although it does drag on throughout most of the film without changing all that much (I’ve seen the film twice now – the effects of this stack), a number of famous faces appear which continues to dilute the believability, and all in all I did still enjoy a lot of what is on display, but there is just no getting around the level of ridiculousness involved and the directly proportional disappointment, and I am often all for getting behind science fiction that wants to take artistic vaults into the unknown. The heart of this is uplifting, but the delivery is catastrophic.

Through the Eyes of The Red Dragon

I Origins  (2014)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                     106 Min        15

This is hardly the first time I’ve said this, nor is it likely to be the last, but the trailer for this spoils a major element of the film, essentially telling us what’s going to happen to a central character, which is a real shame although the film nevertheless manages to be both intriguing and thought provoking. Ian (Michael Pitt) and Karen (Brit Marling) are two young scientists investigating the biological evolution of the eye, when Pitt falls in love with the artistic and free spirited Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) who sparks not only romance but also provides the kindling that sheds a light on a more spiritual outlook on life than the somewhat cold rigour Ian is used to. Ultimately, this leads them to examine in detail the old adage of the eye being the window to the soul as they question whether the seemingly random colour pattern of our irises may have a deeper significance.

This has a lot in common with the likes of ‘Transcendence‘ and ‘Lucy‘ where we have a somewhat far fetched story, but one that has enough tangents with real possibles that it remains interesting and presents questions that the audience can go off and try to research answers to if they feel so inclined – here though the focus is on the story and characters, rather than special effects as in the other two films. It’s the old clash of science and philosophy and it’s always fascinating to consider how much one has influenced and penetrated the other and yet the amount we ‘know’ in a scientific sense is always dwarfed by that which we have no answers to, the quintessential questions of life and death. The classic example of debunking astrology as nonsense, and yet science tells us the atoms in our bodies were once burning away at the hearts of stars somewhere in the universe and so that idea of some kind of cosmic interconnectivity is not as nonsensical as it first seems (I’m not saying I believe in astrology I should point out, although the Chinese have a better system than the Zodiac anyway, as they have a DRAGON in it).

The film is written and directed by Mike Cahill, who worked with Marling before on ‘Another Earth’ (11) and as with that film there are shades of pretension that it could have done without. Such as Karen dramatically writing screeds of information on the window panes instead of just using paper like a normal person, and Ian smoking throughout many scenes in the first half of the movie – since smoking makes thousands of people every year go blind it seems very unlikely a studious eye researcher and biologist would take it up in this day and age. Pretentious. They also go on a trip to India, but really this is to drive the story forward rather than being justified by the statistics they use – they could easily have sought the proof they were after closer to home. Some more ropey science together with these errors doesn’t detract too much from the story overall so long as you find the central hook conceptually interesting to begin with.

In Order of Disappearance / Kraftidioten  (2014)    53/100

Rating :   53/100                                                                     116 Min        15

Norwegian film starring Stellan Skarsgård that features a now fairly commonplace Scandinavian model of gory violence coupled with black humour, and just as with a number of its contemporaries the slow delivery coupled with language translational issues all but ruins the comedy for the most part, in fact many of the scenes themselves have been visually slowed down in the editing suite making things even worse and resulting in a final film that’s pretty tough to remain interested in. Skarsgård plays a grieving father who has just lost his son, and only child, but when he discovers that a murderous drug dealing gang were responsible he goes on the warpath, hell bent on deadly vengeance.

The first section of the film is dark and serious as the body count rises, then more comedic elements come in and by the end the film doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to be. The tone has been lowered to the point where we no longer care about who lives and who dies and all notions about the morality of revenge have disappeared, swallowed by mundane and unoriginal gangster film clichés as a rival gang, the Serbians, get involved, no one realising that a one man army is responsible for the sudden disappearance of many of the region’s less respectable citizens. It’s almost certainly better if you understand Norwegian, but it still needed a lot more skill behind the camera and from the screenplay itself. Also with Bruno Ganz as the head of the Serbian family.

If I Stay  (2014)    45/100

Rating :   45/100                                                                     107 Min        12A

Another teen WEEPY, hot on the heels of its sister film this summer ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘, and it is equally without any worth, featuring as it does universally poor acting and trashy writing. Based on the 2009 novel by Gayle Forman, we watch as Chloë Grace Moretz’s young naïve and virginal Mia falls in love with the older about to graduate from high school front man in local band Adam (Jamie Blackley), all before a brutal car accident sees her spend the rest of the film on a bed in hospital as we watch her ghost debate whether or not to completely kick the bucket or to re-enter her material form, using flashbacks to fill in the interim romantic details and help her decide. Unfortunately, the medical staff at the hospital seem to be particularly inept as the other members of her family appear to be in a better state when they first arrive compared to several hours later in their care and she is continually given less incentive to return to the mortal coil, not to mention the fact they threaten her boyfriend with imprisonment for no good reason when he tries to visit her.

Conceptually, it is very, very typical of the dire literature aimed at young teenage girls and it suffers from one of its biggest pitfalls – setting up this ‘idyllic’ boyfriend without any realistic consideration as to his character, leading scores of young girls down the garden path when the man in question is never in a million years going to be faithful to her. In fact it’s painfully obvious he doesn’t care that much about Mia here, as she continually waits around twiddling her thumbs whilst he completes his latest gig, and then he drops her off at home before going out on the lash with his mates – this person has multiple, equally naïve girls dotted around the place that he rotates, meanwhile showing off to his band members with regard to the latest hottie he has duped, and yet he will be just as incapable of scoring with a girl his own age who is a little wiser. In the second half it is more convincing that he actually cares about her, but then she is after all literally at death’s door (the hospital exit it seems).

The music is the completely banal T-Mobile-advert-esque twonk for the first half, and then the expected repetitive couple of piano notes for the second, with a few songs sung by Adam although they all sound pretty much the same and are a far cry from doing the film any favours. Mia is trying to get into an exclusive music school to specialise in playing the Cello, a school which is on the other side of the county wouldn’t you know it, and some of the Cello playing is actually the only decent thing in the film. A soft glossy sheen has been applied to most of the images throughout the movie which, together with the constant toing and froing that the timeframe is held hostage to, continues to grate, and it’s chock full of silly moments – like the two splitting up because Mia says she can’t guarantee she’ll be able to spend the following New Year with Adam, despite the fact she doesn’t even know if she’s even going to get into this school (the letter is opened whilst she’s comatose and they read it out to her – will she have made it, or will it be another reason to kiss her teenage life goodbye?) and it is pretty normal for all students everywhere to be going home for the festive season, and indeed there is nothing really stopping Adam from visiting her at uni either. The predictability level of this will probably make you feel sick, and if you have ever lost anyone under tragic circumstances, twaddle like this will probably just leave you feeling slightly angry too.