Mary and Max  (2009)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                  92 Min           12A

This is a wonderful animation based on a real life pen pal relationship between Australian youngster Mary (she is about eight years old when she first writes to a random person in New York) and forty-four-year-old asperger’s syndrome sufferer Max (the random person). An unlikely bond forms between them; as Mary’s bullying at school and the neglect of her parents strikes a chord with Max’s chronic isolation and difficulty with relating to the world. Their relationship continues over the years and becomes one of the most defining aspects of each of their lives.

It’s beautifully told – the artwork manages to be unique, somewhat warped, and yet stops just short enough of being grotesque to pull off endearing. And the voice work from Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Max and both Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette as Mary is just perfect. Be warned though, the film is sad from the beginning right through to the end.

Macbeth  (2015)    61/100

Rating :   61/100                                                                     113 Min        15

A little bit of a disappointment I have to say. Director Justin Kurzel’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play is very memorable for its bloody, bleak and beautiful visuals of the Isle of Skye and Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, but throughout almost the entirety of the film it fails to be very engaging. Too many moments feel like actors reading Shakespeare rather than living their parts or vocalising the minds and emotions of their characters, and the darkness, particularly the central character’s decent into it, isn’t offset against anything – it all goes pear shaped too quickly for us to care particularly about the unfolding tragedy.

If we compare this to one of the most famous examples of the protagonist going through a violent metamorphoses, Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather’ (72), there we like Michael, we see him at the wedding with his girlfriend, we learn he’s a good guy, a strong character – and indeed it’s primarily the bond for his family that begins the corruption of his soul, so we understand it and care about him as a character. Macbeth generally, and particularly here, is much more difficult to invest in, as are all of the characters. In real life he was considered to be quite a benevolent king, and in the play he begins as someone who commanded the loyalty of those around him – the film needed much more of this. As it is, we just have stylised bloodletting before his woman finds it a little too easy to sex him into devilry.

Michael Fassbender takes centre stage as the titular devil and he fits the role like a glove, although his portrayal is curtailed by the shortcomings of the film and doesn’t shine quite as brightly as it could have done. Almost none of the main cast are Scottish but all attempt very reasonable accents, with Fassbender and then Englishman Sean Harris in support as Macduff doing the best of the bunch. French actress Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth does stand out a little as the only one not attempting the accent and unfortunately it does jar with the others and the setting, and despite her being a great actress it nevertheless adds to the imprint of hollow characterisation. Critically, a lot of the dialogue is muffled and difficult to make out – it’s fine not understanding the, in parts, antiquated language Shakespeare wrote in, or getting confused by the poetry and its references, but one should at least be able to make out the words themselves.

To be fair to the film I did just watch Kurosawa’s version of the play, ‘Throne of Blood’ (57), a few months ago so I wasn’t really in the mood for the same story again so soon, but if you are similarly overly familiar with the play then visuals aside I don’t think you’re going to really gain anything from this retelling. Also with David Thewlis as Duncan, Paddy Considine as Banquo and Jack Reynor as Malcolm.

Miss You Already  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     112 Min        12A

Cancer drama that sees best friends Jess (Drew Barrymore) and Milly (Toni Collette) go through the lengthy horror of Milly being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing chemo. We see their individual family lives – Milly with husband Kit (Dominic Cooper) and their two children, Jess with lover Jago (Paddy Considine) who begin to consider having a child of their own, but Jess’s devotion to the more narcissistic Milly in her time of need begins to interfere with their private life as well. The two leads are fantastic (and as they remark in the film, Collette actually really suits being bald) which is why the films works as well as it does in its guise of dramatic, and perhaps cathartic, tearjerker.

At one point Milly desperately considers doing something rash, partially out of despair and misery but also partly to hurt her rather insensitive husband (whose behaviour is never properly explained), by travelling to Yorkshire from the film’s setting of London – the fact that she goes through with it is one thing, the fact that she gets there by taxi on their credit card is quite another and surely grounds for divorce alone never mind what she is contemplating doing once there. There is a link made with ‘Wuthering Heights’ which the pair of them love (it’s set on the Yorkshire moors) and indeed Kate Bush’s memorable 1978 song based on the novel (see below) – all I can say is beware following classic romantic literature too closely, it doesn’t exactly set many good examples – the Red Dragon still remembers the slew of youngsters shedding themselves of their mortality after publication of Goethe’s 1774 ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, wherein the protagonist kills himself over unrequited love, although ironically Goethe wrote it to successfully purge his own dangerously morbid obsession with a young woman.

Penned by actress and writer Morwenna Banks and directed by Catherine Hardwicke (‘Twilight’ 08, ‘Red Riding Hood’ 11) it comes as no surprise that the material, whilst fictional, is based on Banks’s memories of her friends going through similar events, and the film very much has that appeal of detailing something most people can relate to on some level, but it remains Barrymore and Collette’s performances that really anchor and sell the whole thing.

Maze Runner : The Scorch Trials  (2015)    61/100

Rating :   61/100                                                                     131 Min        12A

The sequel to last year’s first instalment, ‘The Maze Runner‘, and based on the second novel in the series by James Dashner (published in 2010) this follows in much the same vein as before – again with really good special effects and an impressive production overall, but still with an overall weakness that taints everything. Looking at the still above you can see a sort of cleanliness that covers everything, with actors that never look like they’re more than two seconds fresh from a scrub in their trailer and everything decidedly aimed at a younger audience that they presumably assume is going to care less about any sense of realism. The end result is Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) running away from the latest thing trying to kill him and his friends for the majority of the film, mouth agape in the same sort of nullified perpetual shock, all in a sterilised but otherwise well realised world.

Following on from part one, the survivors of the maze are taken to a fortified sanctuary that is currently under siege from unknown forces. It’s a time for everyone to regroup and recuperate but with Thomas’s memories only partially returned the past is as murky as the future, and they must ask where they, their rescuers, and the latter’s assailants all stand in their blighted and overtly dystopian new world. The overarching story is actually petty good and full of promise – and visually it is often done justice, but the characters never interact realistically with each other, nor their environment – cue lots of moments of ‘we really should be as stealthy as possible here, la la la la la, what’s your favourite colour?’, and equally unforgivable scenes where scarce weapons are just carelessly discarded. Too loose and too whitewashed for a ‘safe’, although not totally unsatisfactory, final product. New support from the likes of Aidan Gillen, Barry Pepper, Alan Tudyk, Lili Taylor, Rosa Salazar and Giancarlo Esposito.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl  (2015)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                     105 Min        12A

Great emotional film, with a multitude of references to other great films via central characters Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler) who make small-scale parodies of the films they love, eventually coming a cropper for ideas when they have to make one for a young girl, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), whom they both befriend due to her being diagnosed with leukaemia (initially at Greg’s mother’s insistence). Moments of genuine comedy mix effortlessly with those of drama – you at once appreciate the dynamics of the youngsters getting to know one another at a pivotal moment in their lives as well as understand their individual neuroses and self-doubts, and the limitations they give rise to. Jesse Andrews wrote the screenplay, adapting his own 2012 debut novel, and with direction from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon it’s the latest in a run of films featuring a young cute girl diagnosed with cancer – after ‘Now is Good’ (12) and ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘, and this is most well rounded of the lot, anchored by convincing performances from Mann and Cooke, although the parodies we see a little of are never quite as funny as you want them to be.

Max  (2015)    48/100

Rating :   48/100                                                                     111 Min        12A

Preposterous little film supposed to showcase and extol the value of the bond between man and dog as Max (a Belgian Shepherd) is adopted by a rather introverted, and somewhat disconnected from his family, young kid in his early teens, Justin (Josh Wiggins). It does have some success in that regard and the central performances, including Thomas Haden Church and Mia Xitlali as justin’s father and new friend respectively, are fine but they are all completely buried under the ridiculous story that falsely moves the drama along, a plot that sees Max witness the murder of Justin’s brother by his best friend whilst on a tour of duty in the Middle East (the suggestion is that it’s murder concealed by a firefight, although it is far from clear what actually happened) – a traitorous friend who also happens to run a heavy-duty illicit arms operation, replete with corrupt police official, in Justin’s small home town which will ensnare the family who will then, of course, have to rely on Max to help save them. Features supposedly fake combat between Max and some pit bulls although it really does not look like they are play fighting, as well as the father locking Max up in an open-air metal cage in their garden, leaving him to his own devices out in the hot sun for several indeterminate periods of time with no food, water or shelter. Nice.

Mission : Impossible – Rogue Nation  (2015)    72/100

Rating :   72/100                                                                     131 Min        12A

Great fun, and coming as the fifth instalment in the franchise (after ‘Mission : Impossible’ 96, ‘Mission : Impossible II’ 2000, ‘Mission : Impossible III’ 06 and ‘Mission : Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ 11) it perfectly mirrors the trademarks of its predecessors – fast pace and fantastic stunts with supporting characters that essentially just pass muster, and a take it or leave it story that exists to primarily facilitate the action. This time around Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) must do battle with an elite super-secret nefarious organisation hell bent on seemingly random acts of evil – a group so secret that even the CIA disbelieve its existence, forcing Hunt to go dark and avoid capture himself as the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) are annexed by the Agency at the bequest of its director (Alec Baldwin) who apparently also thinks it more likely Hunt himself may be to blame for the aforementioned acts of terror.

Cruise has well and truly outdone himself on the action front here. Always one to step up to the plate and perform his own stunts, this film will absolutely be remembered for the set-pieces involved, chief among them the opening scene which was well reported in the media prior to the film’s release but I shan’t ruin it in case you remain unawares, suffice to say they filmed the thing eight times with naught but a single wire used as safeguard for the film’s star, and given the nature of the stunt I wouldn’t exactly be keen to put all my trust in that solitary wire. Indeed, not long after this Cruise puts to shame everyone who’s ever been handcuffed to a vertical object in a film before, and numerous impressive displays of acrobatics are spread throughout the movie.

Accompanying Cruise’s showmanship as one of the main attractions is Rebecca Ferguson (‘Hercules‘) as a mysterious female member of the shadowy organisation who is nothing short of completely fantastic in the role, imbuing it with physical prowess, sex appeal and solid acting to boot. There are the perhaps to be expected parallels with the Bond franchise, ‘Skyfall‘ in particular, and indeed look out for the several nods to the earlier M.I. films, but this is a very strong, entertaining blockbuster in its own right and it would be surprising not to see the cast and crew return for a decidedly merited number six. Indeed, this is also the fourth collaboration between Cruise and the film’s writer/director Christopher McQuarrie after he directed ‘Jack Reacher‘ and worked on its screenplay, along with that of ‘Valkyire’ (08) and ‘Edge of Tomorrow‘. With Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner, Sean Harris and Simon McBurney in support.

Tom Cruise chats about his infamous stunt (spoiler alert) :

Maggie  (2015)    46/100

Rating :   46/100                                                                       95 Min        15

A bizarre film starring Abigail Breslin and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as her doting father, in a blight infested world that sees infected people turn into zombies. Nothing remotely original about the concept then, but here the focus is on the human and familial trauma of dealing with a loved one who has been infected, in this case Breslin’s character, as families are permitted to look after the inflicted up until a certain point whereafter the dreaded quarantine, from which there is no hope of return, must be enforced before they start eating the neighbour’s chickens and defecating blood and teeth all over the freshly cleaned kitchen floor.

Naturally, many wait a little too long before bringing themselves to say goodbye once and for all, and despite the abundant scope for allegory (especially in the wake of the most recent, and deadliest yet, Ebola outbreak – although hopes are high a dependable vaccine has now been engineered) the artfully shot drama about a father’s, ahem, undying love for his daughter suffers the irredeemable sin of simply being flat-out-dull throughout. It’s an awful long time before we hear any substantial dialogue to make us invest in the characters and despite being a zombie flick there is very, very little in the way of tension in any sense, never mind action or excitement. The principal acting is good, so too from Joely Richardson as the step-mum, but first time director Henry Hobson is no Terrence Malick and the well meaning cinematography, that comes in multiple shades of grey, does not unfortunately make any real substitute for the void that exists where pace and story ought to have been drawing the audience in.

Magic Mike XXL  (2015)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                     115 Min        15

I did have concerns about this when the film started and I realised I was the only male in the audience (the story focusing on the world of erotic male dancers as it does) – the original ‘Magic Mike’ (2012) was directed by Steven Soderbergh and I remember it as one of his typically intimate films rather than something that could have easily degenerated into flashy nonsense. Soderbergh did at least stay on to produce the sequel and although Matthew McConaughey is absent this time around, leading man Channing Tatum (whose autobiographical tale the first film was, having been a stripper in real life before beginning his film career) returns to reprise the titular role, along with his crew Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Ken (Matt Bomer) and Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias), and director Gregory Jacobs manages to keep the film very true to the feel of the original, albeit with a screenplay less drama heavy than before (Jacobs’ long standing experience as Soderbergh’s assistant director, including on ‘Magic Mike’, no doubt has a lot to do with this).

Mike is lured back to the adrenaline fuelled world of stripping off in front of hordes of flustered, aroused women (there were reputedly close to a thousand female extras used for the final scenes) for wads of cash and assumed fringe benefits (to be fair, he didn’t require much persuasion), tempted away from his carpentry business for one last trip with the Kings of Tampa to compete at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. It sounds like another ‘Step Up’ film but the narrative is well balanced between really well choreographed and superbly delivered dance sequences, on and off stage, and believable scenes of camaraderie with moments of reflection as they all take stock of where their lives are heading. A solid amount of comedy, great performances and some fantastic individual scenes easily make this the match of its predecessor – be prepared for a lot of dancing led from the hips and not always aimed there shall we say. With support from Amber Heard, Jada Pinkett Smith, Andie MacDowell, Elizabeth Banks and Donald Glover. The current ratings discrepancy on the IMDB between the genders is also quite amusing, seems you mortals are easily intimidated by size …

Minions  (2015)    33/100

Rating :   33/100                                                                       91 Min        U

Early marketing for this looked promising, with one ad for broadband showing the Minions eagerly awaiting a picture to download in the early days of the internet, three of them salivating in anticipation, and it’s a picture of a banana – hopes were raised for some level of adult humour and engagement. Alas, no such luck. This is the spin-off film from the ‘Despicable Me’ (2010) franchise featuring the eponymous Minions who were a big hit in the original films whilst they served their evil master with a soft side Gru. Here we see a brief origin story that leads to America and then England in the 1960s where the wide eyed yellow wannabe Igors are in search of someone suitably despotic to follow, and they decide upon Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) who is determined to steal the Queen’s crown jewels (her monarchic crown jewels).

She is erroneously referred to as the Queen of England – she is the Queen of the United Kingdom, there hasn’t been a king or queen of England in the sense the film means for many centuries, and indeed the numerous vaguely offensive stereotypes of Englishness which permeate the film may have been responsible for a BBC journalist’s pretty horrid interview with Ms Bullock at the premiere in London – from memory (it’s mysteriously absent from the BBC’s website) it began ‘As an older woman in Hollywood …’ imagine saying that to anyone, never mind Sandra Bullock (who can still easily pass for someone in her thirties) on live TV at the premiere of her new film, I was originally outraged but after seeing the film, not so much. Similarly, Napoleon is presented as an evil overlord at one point – why? For proliferating the metric system?

For adult audiences there really is nothing here worth watching at all, no matter how much you may have liked the characters from the other films. Its much younger target demographic will hopefully get more out of it, but there are still some garish bad guys in there (an evil clown on a unicycle at one point for example) and there were a mere couple of titters throughout from the family dominated audience at the screening I was in. Pretty disappointing all in all, with voice support from Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders and Geoffrey Rush.