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‘.

Annie  (2014)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                     118 Min        PG

Having being tortured by the borderline pathological repeat of the original ‘Annie’ (82) by a particularly over zealous family member, and given the overwhelmingly negative reception of the new version, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this (both are loosely based on the 1977 Broadway musical), but figured why not give it a go – it is always good to remain open minded when it comes to film generally. Surprisingly, it is actually a lot of fun – due in no small measure to the adult parts being well written and delivered by the likes of Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale and Stephanie Kurtzuba. Annie herself is played by Quvenzhané Wallis and she appears to be significantly better off than her 80’s counterpart, living in what seems to be a fairly warm and safe foster home rather than an orphanage for example.

She does have to put up with Diaz stropping around and being a general bitch to the girls, but it’s not like she’s renting them to the local Catholic priest for smack or anything, and it isn’t long before Foxx’s Will Stacks, who is running for New York City Mayor, has a fateful encounter with the young lass and invites her to come and live with him to increase his rating in the polls, quickly bonding with her and realising what has been missing from his work centric bachelor lifestyle – a young vulnerable homeless girl in his bed. His spare bed that is, though his serpentine public affairs manager (Cannavale) does complicate matters by trying to use her status for his own profit. There are songs aplenty and at least half of them are quite good – a couple from the original musical survive but the rest are newly penned with principal cast members all performing in the recording studio.

Unfortunately, the songs have been produced via heavy use of Auto-Tune, which is effectively cheating and explains why there is an eerie similarity between them all – and it further sheds light on why when we’re given clear indication Cameron Diaz is about to skydive off tune she doesn’t, in reality she probably did exactly that. Diaz is up for a Razzie for this which is a little unfair – she is ironically completely in character here as the sort of pantomime bad guy who’s ultimately not that bad.

In tandem with post production vocal manipulation is the similar falsification of Annie herself – gone is the struggling orphan with the strong sense of what is right and an earnest belief in hope, whose character was formed by, and endured, adversity. This Annie seems all too comfortable with the cushy environment she is thrust into – Wallis received much critical acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination for this but if anything when she’s around her chums at the foster home they all appear to be better performers than she is. I think perhaps being a young girl of eleven and being told how wonderful you are all the time (being the youngest person ever nominated for the best actress Oscar for ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ in 2013 etc.) is not the greatest environment in which to get into the character of supposedly poor and hard up against it Annie, and whilst she has lots of shouty energy this does not in itself make her an acting prodigy, it simply makes her an irate little girl. Could it be Hollywood is busy creating a MONSTER? Time will surely tell, although her singing certainly appears to be very impressive – but with the technique they used it’s very difficult to tell how much is her and how much is being churned out by a machine.

If you aren’t too concerned about the lack of any real emotional depth or anything but the barest scent of a moral lesson to learn then the film is quite fun, and I see no reason that youngsters wouldn’t enjoy it. Rose Byrne in particular delivers exactly the right warm touch, and at one point she sarcastically refers to Foxx as Batman : Jamie Foxx would be a completely awesome Batman, an at least ten times more respectable choice than Batpuss Ben Affleck. Affleck is apparently going to channel his rage into the character, the rage he no doubt feels at the internet calling him a gigantic pussy that will have criminals rolling around laughing in puddles of their own wee – I mean seriously, if you were a hoodlum would you be scared of Ben Affleck growling in a costume? You might surrender out of pity.

Walking on Sunshine  (2014)    53/100

Rating :   53/100                                                                       97 Min        12A

A musical which features various hits from the eighties, most of which are tortuously murdered by the young relatively unknown cast whose musical and acting abilities run the gamut. Oddly, said cast includes Leona Lewis in her film debut – and as the ace up the production’s sleeve not nearly enough of her is made, especially as she’s the strongest singer by quite a margin. It’s very obviously taking the majority of the leaves out of Mamma Mia’s (08) book, set as it is in an idyllic seaside location in Italy with three female friends as central characters (pictured above and played by, from left to right, Hannah Arterton {sister of Gemma Arterton}, Annabel Scholey and Katy Brand) and the context of one of their weddings as excuse for them all to be there. Scholey is the one to be wed after a five week whirlwind romance, although it turns out her husband to be (played by Giulio Berruti) used to be the lover of her sister (Arterton) who elects to keep this secret and hide the fact she is still in love with him, meanwhile Scholey’s ex (Greg Wise) is determined to win her back, but what could the outcome of all this possibly be …. ?

Most of the first two thirds is abysmal – indeed the opening rendition of Madonna’s ‘Holiday’ is probably the movie’s lowest point, but eventually it does get a little better, with maybe two or three scenes working as intended. One features Arterton singing live in a church and she does a great job – which makes you wonder why they didn’t do more of the same thing, à la ‘Les Mis‘, instead of dubbing the rest of it. Some of the other songs used include ‘Eternal Flame’, ‘Faith’, ‘The Power of Love’ (Huey Lewis and the News), ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ and of course ‘Walking on Sunshine’.

Muppets Most Wanted  (2014)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     107 Min        U

The sequel to 2011’s ‘The Muppets’ and the 8th theatrical release to feature Jim Henson’s hand puppet creations (the other six for the trivia minded among you are ‘The Muppet Movie’ 79, ‘The Great Muppet Caper’ 81, ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan’ 84, ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ 92, ‘Muppet Treasure Island’ 96 and ‘Muppets From Space’ 99, as well as a number of TV and direct to DVD releases) follows directly on from the previous story, here with the Muppets touring show being used as a vehicle for several high profile robberies after Kermit the frog is replaced by CONSTANTINE, a Russian criminal master mind who happens to look almost identical to poor Kermit, who is ousted from his position at Muppet mission control and forced into the Gulag under the supervision of Tina Fey, who is admittedly sporting quite a sexy Russian accent.

As before, the film is directed by James Bobin and jointly penned by him and Nicholas Stoller, and it once again features a raft of cameo roles from well known actors – some of which are amusing, Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo as singing prisoners in the Gulag for example, and some of which are so brief there was precious little point to them (though this is in keeping with the show). Overall, there is a little less singing and dancing than last time around, but the same feeling of a show on display and its family friendly orientation is very much at the forefront here again, it’s just a little too safe and a little too bland, with large sections that don’t deliver much, such as the two detectives, one Muppet and one human, following the trail of thefts which just drags on. Constantine is probably the film’s strongest element, an amusing character with an accent that is a lot of fun to try and mimic, but he’s not used to full potential and he’s paired up with Ricky Gervais who seems to almost be trying to atone for previous sins, as if he’s been cuckolded by Tina Fey’s superior run at the Golden Globes and feels the need to be the but of a few sparse jokes rather than attempt to really make any.

Essentially the film is pleasant, but completely lacking any sting. ‘Muppets Tonight’ had the capacity to absolutely hit the nail on the head from time to time – I remember sitting in a friend’s living room with his entire family, none of whom I had ever met before, whilst he finished off masturbating or whatever he was doing, and everyone was watching the show in silence when the Baywatch sketch came on, featuring two fairly hopeless pigs as lifeguards who discover a mysterious object lying on the beach and decide to play volleyball with it, thoroughly enjoying themselves, unfortunately this object is very obviously shown to be a land mine which promptly blows up and kills everyone on the beach. This had me in stitches laughing. None of the others in the room, however, found it amusing which, heightened by the awkwardness of meeting someone’s family for the first time, made it EVEN FUNNIER. Shortly after I calmed down and they started desperately talking about something that was so completely unrelated that I couldn’t help but burst out laughing again, in fact, I think I was actually crying it was so funny whilst they all ignored me as the growing gibbering elephant in the corner of the room until my friend arrived to rescue me. I mean, that’s funny right?   {This also reminds me of the time another friend told me he was so obsessed with a mortal female that he’d started to see her everywhere, including presenting the weather on TV and reading the news. I laughed at him FOR FOUR HOURS}

Neither of these two recent films feature any kind of real hilarity, and the Muppets need that, they need the sort of devilish risqué humour that works so well because they are puppets and are ostensibly aimed at a younger audience. Hopefully the next one will focus more on comedy than fluff and padding – we want brazenly impish revelry, not plodding run of the mill storytelling.

Frozen  (2013)    85/100

Rating :   85/100                       Treasure Chest                     108 Min        PG

A dazzling, emotional and thoroughly entertaining Disney animated musical that takes the studio back to the work of Hans Christian Andersen with a tale loosely based on his ‘The Snow Queen’, and this is every bit as good as their previous reworking of his ‘The Little Mermaid’ back in 1989. Two new princesses get added to the canon of Disney hotties as we are introduced to Anna (Kristen Bell), a playful redhead full of energy, and Elsa (Idina Menzel), the elder of the two but who, as she ages, sees her mysterious powers to shape ice grow, effectively becoming a Nordic version of Doctor Manhattan and a danger to everyone she loves. But will she turn to the Disney dark side and kill everyone whilst laughing maniacally? That is, indeed, the question.

Actually, a number of tropes are wisely turned on their head here, and the company have made sure to fill the movie with their trademark wit and intelligence to allow all members of the family to enjoy it. The contrasting voices of the two sisters, with both lead actresses doing all their own singing, works really well, and a number of the songs are delivered with memorable gusto and power. The animation is simply terrific, making the snowy landscape look wonderfully crystalline and at the same time inviting with their choices of rich, decorative and intrinsically beautiful colour schemes. One of the main scenes doesn’t work quite as well as intended, but this slight hiccup doesn’t prevent the film from being great from start to finish. It’s simply the perfect Christmas film.

There is a small post credits scene – the wait is a long one, but if you stay, look out for the brief note regarding one of the characters right at the end.


“I want you to take me up the North Mountain…. I’ll rephrase that. Take me up the North Mountain!.” Kristen Bell/Anna

Sunshine on Leith  (2013)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     100 Min        PG

Does the sun ever shine on Leith? It is an interesting metaphysical question. The Proclaimers certainly seem to think so – and have celebrated both their songs and the city of Edinburgh with this musical, based on their previous successful stage production (for non Edinburghers, Leith is the dockland area of the city). There are six central characters – two young men Davy and Ally (George MacKay and Kevin Guthrie respectively) returning from military operations in the Middle East, Davy’s sister Liz (Freya Mavor) and her pal from England Yvonne (Antonia Thomas), and the sibling’s parents Rab and Jean, played by Peter Mullan and Jane Horrocks, who are about to celebrate their twenty fifth wedding anniversary.

Initially we are confronted by a war scene, and the effects from this underlie much of the ensuing drama, but for the most part returning to Edinburgh sees the story become all sunshine and rainbows and it is not until areas of conflict arise half way through that it starts to become more interesting. There is a freshness to the acting, although inexperience does show through for some of the youngsters, but in the musical department, which matters most, this shouldn’t disappoint. Even Jason Flemyng, close pal of director Dexter Fletcher and often appearing in the same films as him, manages to belt out a brief number with enough gusto to be charming and cover up the fact that he is probably not a regular at the karaoke machine.

Overall the film is fun and likeable, but it’s lacking any major gravitas. It is, however, very successful at showing off the city of Edinburgh – in fact for possibly the first time in history the city features as the main setting for two major feature films screening in cinemas at the same time, this and ‘Filth’, although they are somewhat juxtaposed together. I believe the reason for this is the Scottish government’s decision to offer a tax incentive to film companies, so probably we can look forward to seeing more of Scotland on the big-screen (there are several more recent films that have made use of this, such as ‘World War Z’, ‘Fast & Furious 6’ and the opening plane hijacking sequence in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ filmed around Inverness).

Oddly, The Red Dragon himself was in the crowd for the climatic scene of this film – shot between the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Gallery on Princes Street. Sadly, I believe they edited out the reels of people screaming in horror  …

Les Miserables  (2012)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     158 Min        12A

A tremendous rendition of the stage musical that achieved that rarest of things in the cinema – a rapturous round of applause, a perhaps even more impressive feat given the viewing in question was a matinée. A lot of the music has been echoing with increasing vigour around the scaly skull of The Red Dragon since that viewing and, with no sign of this abating any time soon, I feel somewhat mysteriously compelled to go and invest further in the onscreen majesty of the ensemble cast.

It opens boldly, in France 1815 with the imprisoned Jean ValJean (Hugh Jackman) and his fellow members of a chain gang hauling a huge ship in to dock, all under the watchful eye of Javert (Russel Crowe). These two begin as the protagonists: one a desperate and unjustly punished man looking to begin again, the other a relentless hunter serving a law that is above questioning. They mirror divides in French society at the time, and the story fleshes out around the conflict between the two of them and, eventually, the other characters that come into their lives – leading ultimately to a youthful band of would-be revolutionaries and the fates that befall them in their struggle to uphold the ideals of liberty.

It is, of course, the film adaptation of the enormously popular and successful stage show first shown in Paris in 1980, with music from Claude-Michel Schönberg, itself based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name. Schonberg composed an entirely new song for the film, ‘Suddenly’, and the whole shoot was done with live performances from the cast rather than lip synching to a pre-recording, which no doubt adds to the fresh and emotional feel of the film and is extremely rare in a made for cinema musical, a decision which has been unanimously praised by the cast.

The quality of the singing is high generally, with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway (who plays Fantine, a young mother out of luck, rather like all of the characters which can be somewhat inferred from the title) both garnering themselves Oscar nods for their performances. Just as she did with ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, Hathaway proves her detractors wrong by becoming one of the best things about the film, indeed the movie is now a hot contender to take the best film Oscar in February just as she is to take best supporting actress. The role sees her real hair cut off during one scene, and scenes with actresses having their hair removed are generally pretty memorable for the raw emotion they evoke (Natalie Portman in ‘V for Vendetta’ 05, as another example).

Russel Crowe might surprise a few given the overwhelmingly negative reception of his singing, as although he doesn’t have the range of some of the others, and I think at least twice in the film doesn’t reach, nor carry very well, the note he’s going for, and it is noticeable, he uses the range he does have to good effect, and it matches his character perfectly. After all, most of the cast, including Jackman, have their comically off moments, but the whole film gels together nicely, and is it really necessary to have your rugged, bloodhound lawman singing perfectly like an angelic canary? Before appearing in TV and film, he began his performing career on the stage in musicals such as ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and ‘Blood Brothers’, even fronting his own band ‘Russ Le Roq’, and here he gives a solid, commanding performance, so good on director Tom Hooper and co. for not casting someone who may have demoted Javert to the detestable, and yet popular, realms of a dilettante boy band/X factor contestant, although casting someone who had played the role successfully onstage would probably have been a better idea.

Some of the actors from the West End production, though, have happily made it into the film, one of the most impressive of whom is Samantha Barks, who plays Eponine the daughter of local crooks, and not only has a wonderful singing voice, and is drop-dead gorgeous, but appears to be able to act too. Also worthy of note is Aaron Tveit playing Enjolras, friend and comrade in arms to love interest Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne. Tveit seems to be a very natural singer, and would have been much better cast as Marius as, although Redmayne’s singing is pretty skilful, he at times looks like he’s going to explode with the effort it exacts from him, compared to the completely relaxed Tveit beside him.

This leads to the film’s biggest downfall, Redmayne himself, who was entirely the wrong person for the role athough he definitely puts his whole heart into it, and the introduction of the love story arc between Marius and Cosette. There is a large presumption on the part of the narrative, in that Marius and Cosette glimpse one another briefly on the street and instantly fall head over heels for each other, and we are expected to invest in this relationship as the light of hope in an otherwise bleak and ‘miserable’ landscape. We don’t, of course, as it’s nonsense. It needed one, or a few more scenes outwith the normal musical to make it more believable onscreen and perhaps to dramatise a little more of the politics going on; eg. Marius is brought to his lowest point, whether through despair or violence in his fight against the oppressive state, whereupon, as if heaven sent, Cosette appears to help him out, and she should physically do something not just bat her eyelashes at him, and thus, spirit rekindled and perhaps life saved, when he now fights he fights for her. Something along those lines.

The set design suffers slightly here too, as the film leads towards a fight on the streets of Paris the stage is set for a bloody climax and yet it looks just like that – a stage. From the grandeur and vision shown so far, we suddenly feel like we are in a theatre watching the stage production. Although they use the set well for what it is, I wonder if a further injection of artistic largesse would not have gone amiss, though the street set with the purpose built elephant that opens and closes the final act is perfect.

The young rebels do a very good job, especially so for young Daniel Huttlestone playing Gavroche, but when it comes to Redmaynne, well, the camera doesn’t exactly love him in this, but my goodness does it try to. I’ve seen the movie three times now, and each time I am determined to try and change my mind about his performance, and each time I get a little further in before I finally can’t take anymore. It is perhaps the occasion or inexperience showing, but he is massively not helped here by Hooper, who favours having the camera close to his cast throughout but with Redmayne he practically has the lens strapped to his face throughout several scenes. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and unless you have a particular hankering for Redmayne flesh you may find yourself being forced to avert your eyes, especially if you are sitting near the front of the auditorium.

This could, and should, have been an absolute powerhouse of a movie. As it is, it’s still very good. Make sure you sit in the sweet spot in the cinema for the best of the sound system (especially important for this film, as is the quality of the system the cinema screen is using {it sometimes varies between screens}) and be aware it’s one of those films where everyone will have a different opinion about performances and casting choices, especially so with Tom Hooper’s style of fairly up-close and personal filming, whereby if you’re not taken with one of the cast you’re about to get a fairly severe eyeful of them for the better part of three hours. It will be a major upset if Anne Hathaway doesn’t win for best supporting actress at the Oscars – victory isn’t quite so assured for Jackman. With powerful music that will bury itself deep into your grey matter, this is, in general, a superbly stylish and heartfelt interpretation that will rekindle fond memories for fans, and deservedly make some new ones along the way.


“I’d never been on a film like this where we were doing something that had never been done before, there’s so much expectation, and a hell of a lot of fear, that really bonds people. We had nine weeks of rehearsals so by the first day of shooting we all knew each other really well, and it was the closest I’ve ever had to the feeling of the theatre, and the ensemble you get with the theatre, in a film experience. We were very together.”   Hugh Jackman on shooting ‘Les Misrables’ taken from an interview with ‘Facebook Chat’

The clip below shows how some of the cast warmed up before shooting – look out for the rather unique (and cute) technique from Samantha Barks…

The Phantom of the Opera  (2004)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     143 Min        12A

To be fair, I’ve never seen the musical, nor any of the previous film versions, but with Andrew Lloyd Webber on both production and screenplay duties it’s probably fair to say this film was made in much the same spirit as his stage version that captivated audiences around the world and has become the longest running and most financially successful show in Broadway history, claiming many such accolades from around the globe (just to be clear, this is the cinematic version of that same show, as opposed to another film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1909 novel, from which the musical is adapted). It’s directed by Joel Schumacher who not only manages to fit in a Batman reference with one of the masks in the masquerade scene, but injects a certain fiery passion into the whole. From the lustre of the rich and vibrant set design and costumes, to the sense of naïve innocence rocking in the wake of the Phantom’s damned passion, (here played by an intense Gerard Butler with Emmy Rossum and Patrick Wilson as Christine and Raoul respectively) it’s a tale of social isolation and interminable lust that proves vivid and alive enough to enthral even those normally turned away at the prospect of watching a musical.

The Beatles Magical Mystery tour  (1967)    58/100

Rating :   58/100                                                                       55 Min        PG

The Beatles psychedelic patchwork of seemingly incongruent ideas and visual oddities was released nationally on the BBC on boxing day of 1967 and it caused an immediate small furore, departing radically as it did from many people’s image of the Beatles as clean cut nice young boys as well as straying from any familiar sort of storytelling. It follows the loose story arc of a group of people, including the Beatles themselves, albeit in character, boarding a bus for a mystery tour that takes them around the English countryside and eventually to Cornwall.

It’s quite fun, and the suffusion with their music of the period and the wonderful colours throughout (it’s recently been restored and digitally remastered, which doubtless ‘helps’) makes it very easy to watch and to allow one’s mind to meander as the experimental film unabashedly progresses. The Red Dragon’s main complaint with the film is that it’s way too short!

In preparation for the film, the whole of the storyboarding procedure comprised of a single pie chart, with each part of the film occupying one wedge (some parts were idea-less and simply filled in with a smiley face). It’s impossible not to see the imprint of drugs throughout everything, which doubtless had many concerned parents outraged, but there are bad trips in there as well as good ones. Parents had good cause for concern, the Beatles were leaders in the counter revolution not just in the UK but in America too and, by osmosis, many other parts of the world (the spelling of their name is a reference to the ‘beat generation’). This film is a fascinating footnote, not just of the story of the Beatles, but perhaps the story of drugs in rock and roll in general.

At the planning stage their producer Brian Epstein, sometimes referred to as the fifth Beatle, showed a lot of interest and eagerness at getting the project off the ground, perhaps desperate to get his teeth stuck into a new project since the Beatles were on a small hiatus at the time. Whilst the Beatles have maintained their image of experimenting with drugs and coming out afterwards unharmed (though that is debatable), producing some great music and having a pretty good time doing it, Brian Epstein died of a drug overdose before the film was begun. It’s a dark shadow that contrasts vividly with the luminous greens and purples of their Magical Mystery Tour, and one that is often eclipsed by their successful and iconic status, intermingled with acid trips and narcotic inspirations – but there it remains, the other side of the same coin.