Crimson Peak  (2015)    58/100

Rating :   58/100                                                                     119 Min        15

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

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

Sicario  (2015)    72/100

Rating :   72/100                                                                     121 Min        15

Emily Blunt flees to Mexico after insulting the Republican presidential candidates in the States – not really (Blunt did recently commit this faux pas after becoming a U.S. citizen but has not, as yet, had to flee south of the border) rather she plays F.B.I. agent Kate Macer who is recruited by other intelligence officials to facilitate further strikes against the major Mexican drug cartels that had begun to make heavy inroads into her locale of Arizona. Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, of ‘Prisoners‘ fame, directs and Taylor Sheridan pens his screenwriting debut (he is better known for acting in TV series ‘Veronica Mars’ and ‘Sons of Anarchy’) to create a tense and beautifully shot thriller, with a level of realism on a par with ‘The Counsellor‘.

Villeneuve is one of the hottest rising stars behind the camera in Hollywood and here many of the early sections work really well, feeling immersive, real and exciting – but he’s not quite there yet, the good work begins to peter out a little as the movie goes on, largely due to a change in dynamic with the character interplay, a shift in focus away from the central character, Macer, may have helped allay that but as it is the film is still successful. In support are Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro and Daniel Kaluuya – the acting is unwavering throughout and as with ‘Prisoners’ you do think there may be Oscar calls involved, although it’s a bit early to say for sure.

Sometimes if you follow up a really good film, that probably deserved a mention, with another solid one then that’s when the Academy pays attention (kind of like Michael Fassbender missing out for ‘Shame’ {11} and then getting nominated the year after for ‘12 Years a Slave‘, and indeed he’ll almost certainly get another nod this year too). Blunt is the strongest candidate for awards glory and she is long overdue more recognition. Her role may indeed come to be packaged as a strong female one, but in reality she’s really playing an overly headstrong character out of her depth, it’s not a particularly great endorsement of feminism even though it may end up being championed as just that. Cinematographer Roger Deakins also adds a great deal of expertise that allows many of the desert shots, both aerial and of the horizon, to really stand out, rounding off a grittily memorable film.

Solace  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     101 Min        15

A movie dealing with a psychic who helps the F.B.I. solve crimes and which is, surprisingly, not total rubbish. It sounds like ‘Species’ (95) but the film very quickly just posits the fact that John Clancy (Anthony Hopkins) has far-reaching mental gifts and you basically think ‘OK great’, partly because it’s Hopkins playing him and as always he is brilliant to watch. Clancy has retired after family tragedy, but agents Merriweather (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the disbelieving Cowles (Abbie Cornish) request his services to trap a particularly skilled serial killer.

It’s a thriller that’s eminently easy to watch and its better moments are very reminiscent of ‘Se7en’ (95), indeed the initial script was intended as a sequel, and although it’s not really in the same league as that seminal film it does tick a number of the same boxes. From director Afonso Poyart and writers Sean Bailey and Ted Griffin and with some solid support from Colin Farrell, the film keeps the audience engaged throughout with a fairly eloquent delivery of what prove to be quite interesting core ideas.

Paper Towns  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     109 Min        12A

In many ways an unlikely success as it continually threatens to career off-path but always manages to reel itself back in. Central character Quentin (Nat Wolff) has grown up with a borderline unhealthy obsession with the girl next door – Margo (Cara Delevingne), whom he was once good friends with but the vanities of high school societal status have long since removed him from. Until one eve, that is, when she elects to pop in through his bedroom window, as only hot girls in movies know how to, and instantly denigrate him to hopeless sidekick duties whilst she destroys several of the lesser beings who have slighted her recently, committing various felonies in the process and using him literally as a tool but which he thoroughly enjoys nevertheless.

Now even more obsessed with her than before he is promptly gutted to learn she’s eloped from school, until he finds she has left numerous clues for him to follow in order to discover her new location. Thus he embarks on an epic quest of undying love and truancy, enlisting the help of several of his friends in the process and experiencing a jolt of excitement and adventure in an otherwise staid existence of quiet academic success and acceptance.

Adapted from John Green’s 2008 novel of the same name for the big-screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who have a long history of collaboration – having written the screenplays for ‘500 Days of Summer’ 09 and ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘ together, amongst others) and directed by Jake Schreier (‘Robot and Frank‘), the story treads a thin line between promoting, well, stupidity, and showing teenagers learning to live a little, take the initiative, and enjoy being alive whilst pursuing things that matter to them – and in the end it succeeds in the latter, with fitting support from the likes of Austin Abrams, Justice Smith and Halston Sage, playing the protagonists’ friends, and a breadcrumb trail that, like the rest of the plot, teeters on being ridiculous but eventually rings true. There’s also a cameo from Ansel Elgort (who of course starred in Green’s previous adaptation ‘The Fault in Our Stars’) during which he shows off a dragon tattoo to Sage and asks if she likes dragons, and she answers ‘no’ – is this a reference to something in the novel? Or could it be, they didn’t like my previous review? Surely not, I can’t think why that would be the case …. and yet they must know all girls love dragons, tsk tsk (It’s like with horses but with significantly more encouragement).

The Gift  (2015)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     108 Min        15

Written, produced and directed by one of its stars, Joel Edgerton, who teamed up with the current big name in horror production, Blumhouse (who are doing a good job of diversifying after last year’s ‘Whiplash‘), to make the film. In his big-screen directorial debut Edgerton has proven himself to be one to watch as a filmmaker, creating a brooding and involving psychological drama that combines some traditional horror moments with great pacing and storytelling. Happy couple Simon and Robyn move into a new home when they bump into Gordo at the shops, who once upon a moon went to school with Simon and so promptly decides to pop over uninvited and leave a number of mysterious gifts for them ….

Jason Bateman and the ridiculously attractive Rebecca Hall play the recipients of the pressies with Edgerton as Gordo, and the success of the film is down in no small measure to the strength of all three throughout – with somewhat lingering and understated direction that allows space for a sense of menace, something that equally applies to the writing that mixes the stress given to the hints it has scattered around for the audience. The trailer brutalises a number of the plot points so avoid it if possible, and the finale isn’t as well rounded-off as you might wish it to be, but bar that this is a great suspense and character driven film.

Self/less  (2015)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     117 Min        12A

An odd film from director Tarsem Singh (‘The Cell’ 2000, ‘The Fall’ 06, ‘Immortals’ 11, ‘Mirror Mirror’ 12) and writers David and Alex Pastor, concerning the invention of a method by which one person’s consciousness can be transferred from their body into that of another. The film opens with Damian Hayes (Ben Kingsley) thinking about undergoing the expensive and highly secret procedure; the cancer that his body is riddled with having metastasised and left him with mere months to live. Deciding he’d rather not die, his soul and mind are plonked into a much younger, fitter body (that of Ryan Reynolds), a body he has been told was built in a lab with no prior mind of its own. Afterward, Damian finds if he doesn’t take his regular medication, given to him by the set-up’s organiser Prof. Albright (Matthew Goode), strange and compelling visions begin to dance before him, although he is told it’s nothing to worry about …

The potential for discussion on life, death and the morals of humanity falls completely flat here, so in a sense the central story doesn’t deliver where it should, and indeed there is an awful lot of slow padding before what we know must eventually happen does – but at this point Singh begins to put together some really well-staged action sequences and the film picks up considerably. Ultimately, Reynolds and Goode manage to anchor what evolves into a fairly enjoyable action film, although further mishaps do arise surrounding the writing of the main female character and alas also her portrayal by Natalie Martinez. A film whose secondary aspects deliver enough to save it from complete annihilation, but don’t expect anything approaching the complete package here.

A brief interview with Singh on what he has learned about the art of directing over the years:

True Story  (2015)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                       99 Min        15

The dramatisation of Michael Finkel’s memoir of the same name based on his utterly bizarre experiences with Christian Longo, who was arrested in 2002 whilst falsely using Finkel’s identity in Mexico. At the time, Longo had briefly made the FBI’s ten most wanted list and was subsequently remanded in custody under suspicion of having murdered his wife and three young children. Finkel was, until shortly before these events, a respected New York Times journalist, up until one of his articles was proven to have contained false information, but he is thusly thrust into the strange circumstances and agrees to write his book based on Longo and the interviews he conducts with him in prison.

The film stars James Franco as Longo, with Jonah Hill as Finkel and Felicity Jones as his girlfriend. The central performances are both very good, and the progression in the dynamic of their relationship and the corresponding variations in their acting are spot on – Jones is predominantly in the background although her character plays an important role in terms of the screenplay; interesting to know if this element was true to real life or not. Where the film is let down, however, is with the relative inexperience of director Rupert Goold who fails to create any lasting tension and punctuates the narrative with lulls in momentum. We can see what he was trying to do, much like in a scene staged at dusk such that sunlight streams in diffuse bands from just behind a hut in the background and at moments it looks very nice, but equally the rays cut in and out of shot which is really distracting to the viewer.

The actors just manage to hold interest up until Longo’s trial, and there the actual story kicks in and the real impact of events can be felt. Ultimately memorable despite never reaching the levels of drama that it perhaps ought to have done.

Mr. Holmes  (2015)    64/100

Rating :   64/100                                                                     104 Min        PG

The most recent Sherlock Holmes adaptation features none other than current acting goliath Sir Ian McKellen as the man himself but is not adapted from any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s works (incidentally, you can visit the grave of Joseph Bell, the Edinburgh University medicine lecturer who was the inspiration behind the character of Holmes, in the Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh), rather it is based on the 2005 novel ‘A Slight Trick of the Mind’ by Mitch Cullin, and unfortunately it does show. The story has three interlinking narratives with the primary one being Holmes’ present day (1947) self, now in his 90’s living in a remote farmhouse in the country with only his bees and his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) for company, combined with the ghosts of his final case which begin to haunt him as he attempts to write his version of events to counterbalance their much ameliorated publication by a now long since passed away Dr. Watson, along with another story he recounts regarding a recent trip to Japan where he witnessed the aftermath of Hiroshima.

Holmes is ailing in bodily health and in mind, his memory clutching at physical props to drive his faculties back to the time of the events he is trying to piece together, and he becomes close to Roger whose mental adroitness and eagerness for adventure and stories inspires him to a degree, much to the chagrin of Roger’s concerned onlooking mother. Indeed, she appears to have good cause for worry given the fragility of Holmes, whose care the boy is too oft put into through their mutual friendship, and McKellen’s depiction whilst committed as you’d expect (he handles the bees in their hive with no gloves on for example. Fuck that) has the unfortunate effect of making Holmes appear more than a little creepy at times, whether by design or accident it isn’t clear. This maternal alertness actually provides the tension through most of the first half of the film and prevents it from grinding to a halt as the other threads are delivered piecemeal with continual breaks and very little apparent point or value to them, although scenes in the atomic aftermath are striking if somewhat curtailed.

In essence it becomes an investigation of Holmes’ soul, a final and most difficult case for him to solve and there’s a lot of merit in some of the material it covers, with the other strands eventually at least partially delivering and making sense, but the primary problem is that this isn’t really Sherlock Holmes. If one were to take this and place it astride Guy Ritchie’s interpretation back in 2009 then the real detective and his investigations would fall somewhere in the middle, and there comes a point where I think audiences going to see a Sherlock Holmes film ought to reasonably expect to be given exactly that. Constant revisionist takes on something which in itself does not need to be revised can easily become detrimental to the theme. There is precious little in the way of his famed deductions in this one, and some that do crop up are iffy to say the least, including one that will have you seriously doubting that nobody noticed certain evidence before. Similar doubts exist too over major key elements of plot and philosophy but some contemplative value is to be found nonetheless, though expectations for many overtly clever reveals are unlikely to be met.

Possibly published in anticipation of the film’s release, this article is a worthy little eye opener on the world of bees, dastardly little bastards that they are – though nothing compared to the envoys of Satan that are wasps (many villages have been inadvertently scorched in my attempts to deal with said evils).

Tomorrowland : A World Beyond  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                                  130 Min        12A

There really is a lot wrong with this film, and yet it somehow manages to deliver its upbeat message of ‘the world needs dreamers’ in a really effective manner and coupled with a brilliantly precocious performance from twelve year old Raffey Cassidy (who plays Athena) the overall effect convinces you to overlook its many faults. It’s a live action Disney film based on a story from Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen with Bird directing the project too – you can see Lindelof’s imprint throughout as he has a penchant for putting the focus on the spectacle rather than the details (his past credits include the ‘Lost’ TV series, ‘Prometheus’ (12), ‘Star Trek Into Darkness‘ and ‘World War Z‘) and there’s a definite loose feeling permeating the structure of the film.

The beginning shows us what would appear to be a countdown – toward what, we can only guess as George Clooney and Britt Robertson (who play Frank Walker and Casey Newton respectively) provide voiceover letting us know they are about to regale us with their story that will eventually explain the clock. What unfolds is a sci-fi adventure that crosses time and space to the mysterious ‘Tomorrowland’ with strong warnings about our effect on the Earth’s environment as well as deeper, and yet often overt, philosophy on the nature of man, such as the metaphor that we are beset by two wolves, one representing fear, hatred, despair, anger and jealousy and the other hope, forgiveness, love and compassion and we decide which wolf wins by electing which one to feed, this is not an original concept but I quite liked seeing it in there nonetheless. Indeed, in terms of philosophy the film has its origins in what Walt Disney was working on at the time of his death, a new age cityscape teeming with innovation that was meant to create a real world Tomorrowland and inspire the world to solve its many problems of pollution and overcrowding, alas nobody really continued with his vision and the area of land he bought for the project in Florida was turned into just another part of Disney World, Tomorrowland demoted to a mere attraction at the company’s parks.

Detracting heavily from the merit worthy foundation of the film is its execution, over the top product placement for the likes of Disney’s recently acquired Star Wars franchise begins to grind and there are simply too many moments of silliness, such as characters enduring accidents that ought to leave their limbs dangling in tatters but they emerge with tiny cuts, and then watching them make decisions that are incredibly stupid given the information they have and yet they seem somehow surprised by the inevitable consequences. Much of this is by way of a failed attempt at comedy but it would be a much better film with it all removed, and it’s also true to say there is an equally unnecessary level of brutality involved with many of the fight scenes as well, commonly feeling very out of place for a Disney film. There is one amusing scene, possibly unintentional, which riffs off the Terminator franchise, you’ll know it when you see it …

Performances vary, but Cassidy is really the star of the show and easily the best thing in the film – you can absolutely expect to see a lot more from her in the future, although sadly one of the film’s key moments with her character seems a little hurried and ought to have more oomph than it does in the end. It’s in many ways amazing that the film carries its own weight at all, but ultimately it manages to prove a fairly memorable and worthwhile adventure, although by no means expect anything consistent or approaching perfect.

Spooks : The Greater Good  (2015)    76/100

Rating :   76/100                                                                     104 Min        15

Anyone familiar with the TV series this is based on (which ran on the BBC from 2002 – 2011) will no doubt remember with fondness the show’s winning identifier – you never knew when one of the main characters would get completely annihilated. It made for an exciting watch and it felt more realistic too, given the central players, the spooks, are all MI5 intelligence agents engaged in bullet laden espionage and intense skulduggery. Indeed, I remember getting a boxed set for a season I’d missed and questioning if I’d picked up the right thing, thinking ‘Wait a minute – none of the characters on the front cover of this are in the next season’, didn’t exactly bode well for their survival chances. Speaking of which, anybody remember Keeley Hawes in the series? She was definitely a prime reason for watching it as well …

The film, the first and hopefully not the last big-screen outing, very much follows in that spirit – there are many instances of ‘hmm, are you about to get shot right now?’ and the plot unfolds at a tense pace with enough clues to make you feel like you might be solving the mystery at hand, and yet there’s enough going on to drive the equation just ahead of the audience too.

The central plot involves series stalwart Harry (Peter Firth) taking the heat for a botched op and enlisting the help of someone outwith the agency, Will Holloway (Kit Harington, who is happily on form here), to investigate what really happened, as a serial terrorist and worldwide most wanted man is left at large to plan his next large scale attack. The focus is very much on the twists and turns of the story and it’s easy to get carried along with the constant energy throughout – equally it should also prove exciting enough to forgive the occasional moments where the agents don’t really seem to do a terribly professional job. Though, they are all basically red shirts anyway so I guess it’s to be expected really. Good fun.