Joy  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     124 Min        12A

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

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

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

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

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

Jurassic World  (2015)    58/100

Rating :   58/100                                                                     124 Min        12A

Daring to hope for some originality in the script for this, the fourth film in the series after ‘Jurassic Park’ (93), ‘The Lost World’ (97) and the less imaginatively titled ‘Jurassic Park 3’ (01), was perhaps asking for too much really, as the exact same storyline from the previous films is played out once again. Taking place twenty years after the events of the original, which was one of the most successful films of all time, we are back on the same island just off Costa Rica, which has long since put tragedy behind it and become the thriving titular theme park attraction of Jurassic World, where young and old alike can enjoy the thrill of watching real life dinosaurs tear chunks of flesh apart in a feeding frenzy, safe in the knowledge that Plexiglas and the best and brightest of human engineering and ordinance will protect them from the little beasties, or will it ….

Bryce Dallas Howard plays head park manager Claire Dearing with Chris Pratt as rugged animal trainer Owen Grady, who must save the day together but to be honest they seem more akin to a sixties version of Tarzan and Jane than believable characters in their environment (there is an obligatory potential budding romance between them). The impetus behind everything is super-dino Indominus Rex, which has been genetically modified and spliced with pretty much everything from an amoeba to a budgie to make it super intelligent and super scary, in fact it’s easily smarter than all of the humans in charge, but the story never properly gets past the fact that it’s still just one solitary and fairly sizeable creature (a T-Rex was in the mix, naturally) that ought to be pretty easy to sort out with all the hardware at the island’s disposal. The rest of the story is one massive fudge just to keep the decidedly carnivorous ball rolling, including a smaller and also not great arc involving Owen’s imprinting on a Velociraptor pack as its alpha. Difficult sell that one really, though it’s still a massive improvement on the bit in ‘The Lost World’ where the little girl drop-kicks a raptor in the face resulting in its complete annihilation, if memory serves.

The central characters are further rounded out by two kids Zach (Nick Robinson) and Grey (Ty Simpkins) who are even more two dimensional than the adults and seem to exist purely to be put in not very believable peril. They are, of course, the nieces of Ms Dearing and as such she wilfully abandons her duty to try and protect the many thousands of other people on the island to go chasing after them in the hope of avoiding many awkward Thanksgiving moments in the future, in fact nobody seems terribly concerned with the masses of visitors – not even the tourists themselves. Indeed, there’s no real bite, ahaha, to any of the suspense and too many parts of the story simply don’t add up. Films one and two were directed by Steven Spielberg, who was a producer for this one, but here relative newcomer Colin Trevorrow (‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ 2012) takes the helm and shares writing credits with Derek Connolly, Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, although the four worked on multiple drafts over the years. The actors do the best they can with what they’re given (though I fear they didn’t exactly make the most of Irish hottie Katie McGrath’s talents) and although it’s largely disappointing, it still delivers on the spectacle front and the effects are worthy of the film. The best part is the theme tune from the first one.

The film’s release coincides with the announcement of a new dinosaur species found in Wales which is quite excitng, though they have yet to find any dragon fossils, largely because we are simply hiding amongst you all. Like in ‘Highlander’ (86), but with dragons. Our eyes are everywhere …

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.

Jersey Boys  (2014)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     134 Min        15

This is one film that’s tough to go the distance with, slicing fifty minutes out of the beginning would certainly improve matters as the first half is lacking in almost every department. It’s Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort (one of his older films makes a brief appearance, but he remains behind the camera this time around) and it’s based on the award winning musical of the same name which documents the rise to fame of sixties sensations Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, with John Lloyd Young as Valli and Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda playing band members Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi respectively.

It’s really the same old story that seems to chart the progress of nearly every band and musician immortalised on film – humble beginnings, success, excess and then infighting that brings an end to the group. Initially, the cinematography and funeral march pace to the film cause huge problems – everyone and everything has a horrid eerie paleness that makes the people look more like spectres than live actors, but the singing and acting doesn’t really fit the bill either, with Valli at times about as vocally emotive as a dying squid. Eventually, as time passes in terms of years, more colour comes back in, or rather less is taken out, and when it comes to the larger numbers, everything is a little more polished and fluid. It suggests that a famous scene from Billy Wilder’s ‘Ace in the Hole’ (51) is responsible for one of their biggest hits ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ (and it’s a really terrific film if you haven’t seen it, although if it’s the scene I think it is the clip here cuts off before the main event as it were). Unfortunately, despite picking up significantly, it never really proves terribly interesting, although it is at least partially successful in extolling the virtues of looking out for family and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

Jimmy’s Hall  (2014)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                     109 Min        12A

Based on the true story of James Gralton (Barry Ward) who returns to his native county Leitrim in Ireland in 1932, after having previously fought in the Irish Civil War and then lived in New York for a decade, and, at public bequest, he then sets about resurrecting the town hall for all sorts of social events like dancing and lessons, things that inject a new lifeblood into the heart of the community. Not everyone, however, is thrilled about this, and the local Catholic priest sees naught but Lucifer at work in the Jazz hands that are shaking in the night (I’m making this sound like ‘Footloose’ 84, it’s not), and thrown into the mix are the thoughts of the IRA with the hall labelled as a Marxist hub, as well as the Devil’s playground.

Of course, we are shown that what the protagonist has created is not only innocent and devoid of any overt political or religious intent, but is also a spark of something worthwhile for the people, rejuvenating the young and old alike in an area where opportunity rarely deigns to show its face. Unfortunately, the opponents of the gatherings have such strong views that they make its very existence political, and what begins as an isolated thing becomes the focus for something much bigger, as Jimmy ends up involved in what is voiced as a major problem throughout the land – that of an enormous divide between the landed gentry and the working class and the resultant eviction of poor, hard working tenants from their family homes that they’ve lived in for years as they can no longer afford the rates.

Where the film finds its main success is with its discussion of the role of the church regarding events and its influence over matters at the time, as well as its attitude towards them, and it highlights the issue well. Where it is less successful is in detailing the political makeup of Ireland at the time – we are given a mention of the background of the Civil War, and the IRA, and get a feel for the what the situation is, but it’s not as clear as it could be, and it feels like a slightly missing segment, nor is the emotional connection to the story as strong as you perhaps might want it to be, but it still resonates enough to hold interest throughout.

This is the latest film from director Ken Loach, who also so happens to be one of The Red Dragon’s top three directors of all time, and who has pulled a bit of a Miyazaki by announcing he was to retire from feature film work after this film, and then hinted he might change his mind – which was wonderful news, but he must never retire as he is one of the few directors who constantly carries a torch for the common man, often using real local people in his films as well as actors, and dramatising real events or social concerns – social realism as it’s called, and although this isn’t for me one of his best films, his work is always of value and always has a relevance for the present day.

The kind of social enterprise at work here, for example, is still something that is largely lacking in many places, even in a city the size of Edinburgh where there’s lots going on, you can easily find people at something of a loss as to what to do with themselves to socialize and just meet people, other than the standard drinking in bars and clubs. There are lots of groups and opportunities to be found online of course, and Ceilidh culture is thriving which is great, but the idea of a centralized hub that everyone is aware of where they can find all sorts of activities and events to just turn up to and then join in with, regardless of who they are or their experience, kind of just doesn’t exist. Seems like a bit of a societal oversight to me …

Jack Strong  (2014)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     128 Min        15

The timing of coming to write this review couldn’t be any more topical. This is a well acted and well executed Polish film focusing on the real life exploits of Ryszard Kukliński, codename Jack Strong, who, throughout the 1970’s, used his position within the Polish military to pass on Soviet secrets to the CIA. The story has a strong connection with that of the rise of the Solidarity movement, documented in Walesa – Man of Hope, as both historical narratives were largely generated by the brutal and lethal suppression of the 1970 riots in the Polish north, riots begat by a crippling rise in food prices.

Marcin Dorocinski gives a wonderful and sympathetic central performance as Kukliński, and the rest of the cast, including Patrick Wilson, Maja Ostaszewska and Dagmara Dominczyk all do a convincing job of selling a tension fraught scenario of espionage and political consequences. The language oscillates between Polish, English and Russian, with Wilson’s verbal adroitness in Polish a bit of a revelation (until I realised he’s married to Dominczyk – interestingly, commentary has been made in the media of late on the dramatic rise in the number of Scottish men learning Polish, a rise no doubt directly proportional to the large influx of incredibly beautiful Polish ladies to our shores …) and the most poignant aspect of the plot involves one Russian general’s secret plan to effectively use Eastern Europe to start World War III, and how the plan was thwarted.

How many of the facts have had liberties taken with them here is difficult to tell, but in light of Russia’s recent belligerent activity in the Black Sea, it hardly sounds fanciful. This, then, is very much an important political film of our current time and not just a dramatic retrospective of what the whole world thought was a bygone era. Indeed, it seems like Putin regards international politics as markedly similar to a game of Diplomacy (wherein Sevastopol is one of the most hotly fought over areas for its strategic port) and comparisons with Hitler’s annexation of Austria are not only merited, but quintessential to the furore of debate going on. In the game of Diplomacy it’s vital early on to get the territories you want whilst seeming as reasonable as possible to the other players in the vicinity – if you take a look below at Hardtalk’s Stephen Sackur interviewing Putin’s spokesman and long time major player in the Russian government’s media machine Dmitry Peskov, aired just a few hours ago, you don’t have to be an expert at reading people to tell he’s not quite the full shilling.

Indeed, if Peskov was playing the board game he would be promptly laughed out of Europe on the basis of this interview. It was interesting too that Sackur makes mention of the recent referendum and how not only did it take place under the threat of Russian guns, but that the people had no option in the vote to the keep the status quo in place. This is a pretty major point that the BBC have elsewhere repeatedly not made mention of in their regular updates – in fact they actually seem to be giving the impression there is a level of legitimacy to the vote, with one of the correspondents asking a Ukrainian politician if he didn’t simply have to now accept Crimea has become a part of Russia, which is way, way off the mark for independent journalism.

There would seem to be, at this juncture when tensions and military aggression are rising, a rather opportune way out for the Ukrainian leadership. They should first settle and unite the rest of the country, using every ploy they can think of and perhaps with the timely bringing forward up of the upcoming May presidential election, and simultaneously the majority in their parliament, the Rada, should unite in promising a new referendum in Crimea should the Russians leave voluntarily as speedily as they arrived – a referendum that would be fair and monitored by the international community, including Russian delegates. This would put the ball back into Putin’s court and throw their claims of legitimacy right back at them. It’s very unlikely Russia would back down now given Putin has signed the papers accepting Crimea, but it would make their position much more difficult and buy the Ukrainians more time, and if they somehow did retreat even if the Crimea still went and joined Russia, it’s still better than bloodshed and the escalation and destabilisation that most likely Moscow is hoping will arise. Plus it would give Russia a graceful way of regaining some international favour, as they’d surely fancy their chances at Crimea willingly joining them, and indeed it could set a favourable precedent for them with other Russian speaking areas along their border, but a diplomatic battle to win over the people of a region, is always a million times more preferable to an armed struggle against vastly superior military forces, so it’s kind of a win-win given the current powder keg sizzling away on the peninsula.

Interestingly, toward the end of ‘My Perestroika’ one of the interviewees voices his concern that the current Russian government is heading back down the path of the old Soviet ways of repression and indoctrination, a view which seems to be borne out by events. It would perhaps be telling to see a fair and free independence referendum taking place in Chechnya, or indeed throughout many of the other constituent parts of Russia …

Here’s that interview

Jack Ryan : Shadow Recruit  (2014)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     105 Min        12A

Finally – a new Keira Knightley film woohoo! No doubt everyone was as distraught as I was when last year didn’t feature miss Knightley in any film on general release, but here she is back on fine form as Cathy, the wife of the late Tom Clancy’s long running fictional character Jack Ryan, with Chris Pine filling in his shoes – he has been previously played by Alec Baldwin (‘The Hunt for Red October’ 90), Harrison Ford (‘Patriot Games’ 92, ‘Clear and Present Danger’ 94) and Ben Affleck (‘The Sum of All Fears’ 02). The role of his wife was a fairly small one in the previous films, and screenwriters Adam Cozad and David Koepp have done a good job of writing her a larger part whilst managing the difficult task of avoiding it becoming too cheesy or predictable, although despite the end of the cold war, the Russians are still the bad guys.

Clancy passed away last October (the film is dedicated to him), and this is the first movie to feature his characters but to not be based on one of his novels, and one does wonder what he would make of it. It’s a series reboot, with Ryan initially an economics student in London who becomes galvanised to join the Marines after the 9/11 attacks on New York. He receives a crippling back injury and is close to despair when he is recruited as an analyst for the CIA but also meets Cathy as the undergrad doctor who promises to go to dinner with him if he dedicates himself to his physical recovery. If only Keira had won the role of Catwoman in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, poor old Bruce Wayne wouldn’t have had to get punched in the back and thrown down into a grotty hole to recover from his spinal fracture. Indeed, pretty sure if she went around the NHS wards and made similar propositions we might see a remarkable recovery rate in patients ….

“Keira Knightley says she’ll go on a date with you if you get better.”
“…what?”
“Yeah, she said she wanted to give sick people something to live for.”
“Are you fucking shitting me?! Quick, cancel all my visits – give me that fucking water {stands} I’m better! {vomits} Get off me! I’ll be fine!”

The film has almost certainly been inspired by the reboot to the Bond franchise, and there are possibly a few nods in its direction, with an inaugural fight in a toilet and a few camera shots of glass elevators similar to the ones in both ‘Casino Royale’ (06) and ‘Skyfall’ (12) as well as a set up not too dissimilar to the one in Skyfall’s Shanghai skyscraper scene, not to mention putting the character name in the title of course. Kenneth Branagh directs and stars as the Russian bad guy, with the trailer making his accent sound a little ropey (the trailer and marketing for the film was not great in general) but its actually pretty good, and Keira sports a new American one (she has several – she is very talented), the two of them, Pine, and Kevin Costner as Ryan’s CIA contact all sell the film well with their combined talents and, together with tight direction, it all comes together nicely as a good, fun, spy thriller. It amply supplies the base for a new franchise and although it’s not quite in the same league as ‘Casino Royale’, there are plenty of good things to build on for the next one …

Justin and the Knights of Valour  (2013)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                       90 Min        PG

A fairytale adventure story aimed at a young audience, but one that should still be fun and likeable for adults too. Justin lives in a medieval village where valorous knights have been banished from the realm thanks to a draconian series of bureaucratic laws, largely instigated by his lawmaker father and aimed at creating a more civilised kingdom, but in reality ruining everyone’s lives. Rather like living in modern day Britain. As it turns out, heroism runs in Justin’s veins as his grandfather was one of the bravest knights of all, and despite his father’s wishes that he enter into the law profession himself, he instead sets out to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a knight and to perhaps win the affections of the local rich hottie in the process. On the way he will encounter villains and feisty barmaids, dour Scottish sword masters and war game playing monks and ultimately his faith in fighting for what is right will be put to the test. It’s a Spanish film (in English), indeed it opens with ‘Antonio Banderas presents’, with a pretty sterling voice cast including Banderas himself, Freddie Highmore, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong, James Cosmo, Alfred Molina and Julie Walters to name but a few. The animation is warm and has a unique feel to it, although the human faces look somewhat blood drained at times, and notwithstanding a few slightly irritating character moments, it’s a nice film. Should be fine for young children due to the lack of any real blood letting despite all the sword play. There’s also a nod to mechanical owl friend/pest Bubo in ‘Clash of the Titans’ (81) – but why just a nod? They should have recreated the entire character – who doesn’t want to go adventuring with a fully functioning owl automaton?

Jack the Giant Slayer  (2013)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                     114 Min        12A

A fantasy adventure film from director Bryan Singer (‘The Usual Suspects’ 95, ‘X-Men’ 2000) surrounding the legendary children’s tales of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and ‘Jack the Giant Killer’. Jack, played here by ‘Warm Bodies’ Nicholas Hoult, is forced to go on an errant hike up the mythic plant to rescue the young princess, played by relative newcomer Eleanor Tomlinson, whom he has, understandably, developed the horn for, accompanied by several of the perhaps less keen of the King of Cloister’s guards. Included in the entourage are old ‘Trainspotting’ (96) Scottish pals Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremnar, along with Eddie Marsan, perhaps having acquired a taste for fantasy after appearing as one of the dwarfs in last year’s ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’, along with American Stanley Tucci as the next in line to Ian McShane’s throne. Tucci always invests in his roles with playful relish, and here is no exception with his tone perfect for the film, as is McGregor’s posh gallantry. Bill Nighy also voices the leader of the giants, with his accent wavering between the one he used for Davy Jones and a reasonably convincing Irish one.

The effects are good, I don’t believe seeing the film in 3D really adds anything, although that is hardly anything new, and the efforts made with the story to make it interesting are successful in a lot of ways, although despite good intentions a certain drag factor does creep in, which for adult viewers will probably not see this advance beyond the ‘likeable’ category, which is a shame. Overall though it remains an enjoyable fairytale romp, which should see both romantic hopefuls prove likeable and attractive enough to hold interest to the end.

Jack Reacher  (2012)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     130 Min        15

Tom Cruise stars as the titular character in this detective style thriller: a highly decorated ex-military drifter mysteriously called in to help solve a high profile, brutal crime at the bequest of one of the suspects. The character is the central one in a whole line of novels by British writer Lee Child (real name, Jim Grant), and this is his first venture onto the big-screen, courtesy of screenwriter and director Christopher McQuarrie (winner of the best original screenplay Oscar for 1995’s ‘The Usual Suspects’), and, based on the success of this, it’s likely not to be his last. The film stays satisfyingly true to the genre whilst at the same time turning a number of clichés on their head, often to comical effect. All of the cast are good, from the very beautiful Rosamund Pike as the defence attorney working with Reacher, to renowned auteur Werner Herzog (‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’ 72, ‘Stroszek’ 77, ‘Rescue Dawn’ 06, ‘Bad Lieutenant : Port of Call New Orleans’ 09) as one of the bad guys, and a smaller role for Robert Duvall. It’s a little obvious what’s going on, but at the same time not everything is put on display and Reacher’s sarcastic wit is pleasant countermeasure to the ruthlessness of his enemies.


Quotes

“You think I’m a hero? I am not a hero. I’m a drifter with nothing to lose. You killed that girl to put me in a frame. I mean to beat you to death, and drink your blood from a boot. Now this is how it’s going to work, you’re going to give me the address and I’ll be along when I am damn good and ready, if she doesn’t answer the phone when I call this number, if I even think you’ve hurt her, I disappear. And if you’re smart that scares you. Because I’m in your blind spot. And I have nothing better to do.”   Tom Cruise/Jack Reacher