The Danish Girl  (2015)    49/100

Rating :   49/100                                                                     119 Min        15

What a horrific mess. A film fundamentally flawed by its not knowing, to put it mildly, what it wants to be or what it is trying to say. Based on David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel of the same name and adapted for the screen by Lucinda Coxon (‘Wild Target’ 2010), this loosely tells the true story of Danish painter Einar Wegener, who goes through a, long buried, crises of identity – suddenly now convinced he is a woman trapped in a man’s body. One would naturally assume this is really a mainstream attempt to portray a strong and explorative transgender theme on the big-screen, and that we would identify with Wegener’s plight and confusion on a human level, but we really, really don’t – in fact he just comes across as clinically insane, which he is diagnosed as at one point by ‘evil’ practitioners of medicine but actually they seem to be quite correct; he has been, for example, banging away quite happily at his young nubile wife Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) for six or seven years and now suddenly he refuses to even acknowledge this happened and recoils from her, as if every aspect of his previous existence that he can’t be bothered with is now taboo.

If he isn’t psychotic then he’s the most vain, self-absorbed obnoxious little shit one could have the misfortune to marry, as his ‘crisis’ justifies him doing whatever he wants – including cheating on his wife with various men. Eddie Redmayne plays Einar and by God is he terrible here – you would be hard pressed to find a worse example of overacting anywhere, as he cries and cries and whimpers and pretends to be injured (he gets beat up for no apparent reason, oh, and he decides he’s having his period as well at one point) something which he has effectively made a career out of doing. If we look at the header picture above I think even I would make a more convincing human female – although the film at least partially acknowledges this failure, or seems to at any rate, until near the end where people seem to genuinely believe he passes for a woman. The film in general smacks of this kind of insincerity throughout – Oscar bait with a modern-day politically charged topic, and I imagine any endorsement from the transgender community is purely down to lack of many other options.

Tom Hooper directs and to be fair he almost completely avoids having the camera too close to his performers’ faces after ‘Les Miserables‘, and a lot of his shots of countryside and the framing of scenic cityscapes are great; it’s really the story and acting that destroy the film, as melodrama takes an enormous bite out of history in their misguided creepy crawl in the direction of awards season glory. It’s a shame, there was a lot of potential to explore the subject – and indeed in the film’s frank portrayal of nudity there begins to form the semblance of something greater, before it all disintegrates in the second act. Also with Amber Heard, who’s dancing scenes were reportedly cut from the film. Fuck’s sake.

By the Sea  (2015)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     122 Min        15

A film written and directed by Angelina Jolie and starring both herself and her husband Brad Pitt, as Vanessa and Roland respectively – a couple whose marriage is on the not-so-subtle allegorical rocks below the Mediterranean French hotel in which they stay throughout the movie (it was filmed in Malta), was always going to arouse conjecture regarding possible correlations between fact and fiction (this is the first time the lady in question has listed herself as Angelina Jolie-Pitt, perhaps anticipating such gossip), much as orgy themed ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (99) did when it was released with its famous married couple Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise: shortly before they broke up. Given events in the film, the central pair here will be hoping no one reads into it too much, lest they should encounter whispers of ‘better not invite Angelina and Brad, they are massive perverts’.

There is a deliberate attempt to evoke arthouse film here, with influences from the likes of Antonioni, Fillini and even Bergman, and whilst it never comes close to the work of those masters, Jolie has nevertheless attempted something fairly, if you’ll pardon the pun, off-the-wall, which she deserves credit for – as former dancer Vanessa whiles away her miserable hours in their hotel room, her failed author husband drinking a bottle of beer for every line he thinks about writing, until one day she notices a sizeable hole bored so that the neighbours next door can be spied on at will. After very brief consideration, she partakes.

Jolie’s directing is better than her last attempt, ‘Unbroken‘, at a very fundamental level – early shots of the setting interject closer views of the characters and help to give us a framework, showing us the surroundings in much the same way we take mental snapshots of the most memorable views of the places we visit, and her work behind the camera feels at once marked in the right places and also disguised where it should be (though I note one of the opening brief shots is quite randomly of two cats. A reference to something perhaps?)

There is a conceit with this man-made gap in the wall – as we view it there is no earthly way that the couple next door (played by Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) wouldn’t notice the thing, especially since they effectively look right at it several times over. However, we see what the protagonists do, which effectively means we’re looking through a lens to cover the space in the room that the view does – of course this is the conspicuous lens of the camera but since we never see the peephole from the victims’ room, who is to say it wasn’t created with an actual lens? If that were the case, whosoever created the thing would have probably also gone to lengths to disguise it, and indeed sound wouldn’t travel as well as it would through a simple hole.

Similarly, regarding the film’s central driving motif – the mystery over why their relationship is in tatters and what connection, if any, this has to the voyeurism, only so many options are dangled in front of us before all is revealed and you’re left both unsurprised and also wondering if it really fits with everything before. However, if you really read between the lines there are a couple of potential events in their past which you could say are hinted at and no more, and if true then they would justify events in the film to a much greater degree, but you really have to want to piece it together and the movie itself isn’t focused enough to deliver where it needed to.

Much of the premise does work, it’s really the middle section that needed to be a lot more intricate – as it is there’s a flatness to it, a cold distance between the voyeur and the act of viewing, as if it’s being done out of simple ennui and that perhaps Jolie wasn’t quite willing to go the full distance and show masturbation onscreen, for example. Though, again, if the lack of arousal was intentional then it’s only really justified by a significant investment from the audience (in the real world). Other peripheral elements could also have been tighter – like the local barkeep, played by Niels Arestrup, divulging his life story and philosophy almost straight away instead of attempting more poignancy later on perhaps.

Still, lots of elements are really well done – the visuals with their prevalence of white against the sunny, sandy landscapes all set in the 60s/70s, are beautifully shot and immediately bring to mind the recent ‘The Two Faces of January‘. Both leads deliver great performances, with Jolie rarely more radiant onscreen and evoking shades of Bardot when she gets dressed up for the evening, and there are a number of key moments that work well, especially when delving into the sadness and pain of each character. The film proves interesting enough to draw you in throughout, and even if it ultimately doesn’t reach the level of the kind of art that inspired it, it is still reasonably successful on its own terms. Plenty of signs of promise from the determined writer/director.

Carol  (2015)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                     118 Min        15

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel ‘The Price of Salt’ and adapted by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy in her feature debut, Todd Haynes (‘I’m Not There’ 07, ‘Far from Heaven’ 02) directs this tale of forbidden desire and romance set in the Big Apple in 1950 with an obvious loving devotion to the era and the setting, but it’s here that too much of the focus clearly lies, leaving his characters largely stifled and suffocating in all the hazy nostalgia. Rooney Mara plays Therese Belivet, a young and uncertain shop assistant, too accustomed to saying yes to people, who one day lays eyes on the well-to-do and elegant Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who enters her store in search of a gift for her young daughter and encounters an instant lustful attraction between the two of them.

The initial sexual atmosphere prompts the pair to arrange a meeting but it actually largely disappears from there on in, appearing in intimate moments in the future but never really creating the tension that was set-up at the onset. Indeed, their first moment of real physical contact comes when Therese places a comforting hand on Carol’s shoulder and their fingers deliberately touch – but then the camera cuts out and we are taken to a scene later in the evening when they’re outside talking about family matters. That’s terrible, we really needed to see that scene play out, to see the reactions and the body language, to feel either tense and uncomfortable or excited, or to at least see each of the characters’ reaction to the touch, as it is we view the moment from behind as well so we know nothing and then it’s all gone, much like the romance and the libidinous exposition from the film.

There’s an element of the material having lost some relevance, what was perhaps written to deliberately provoke and challenge readers in 1952 is simply no longer considered remotely risqué, and much of the background: Carol’s husband is vying for custody of their daughter now that he realises his wife prefers carpet munching to spending time with him and Therese’s boyfriend wants to get married but she thinks she might want to be a photographer and be gay instead, all carries the artificial feel of the movie with it, a set of traps placed to confine the women and potentially doom their affair, conveniently providing a framework for theoretical tension and reasons for them to want to be together – as much to share in an escape from their constrictive lives as friends as to begin a new physical and emotional entanglement.

Carol’s daughter looks remarkably like a younger version of Therese, and this is both no accident and one of the more interesting elements of the film, the rest could have done with more insights into the human condition but alas the trysts never really bite, not even in bed, and moments of charm are leavened out by the dominance of effusive boredom and meaningless aesthetics, driven home by dressing Mara up like Audrey Hepburn at the end of the film, even though it’s too early for her to be copying her anyway unless she really took to Hepburn’s cigarette selling cameos. Similarly, if we look at the pic above, which is where the pair first meet, we can see all the thought gone into positioning and staging, much like a Vetriano painting with suggestive angles all over – note how the pen points phallically toward Therese following precisely the eager bent of Carol’s gaze and posture, see the way she pinches the card she’s holding and look at how Therese’s right breast is perfectly framed to be protruding proudly toward that which is making her heart race. All this is fine, but there’s too little soul beneath the surface artistry.

The leads both offer promise, especially Mara, but they never fully convince romantically and one hopes the affair doesn’t become another female Oscar winner purely because of its content and its brief moments of nudity – which one does question the film’s need for, and yet they provide some of the more memorable moments and I think there’s always going to be a certain, ahem, je ne sais quoi about watching two of Hollywood’s most attractive leading ladies going at it under the sheets. Visual peaks aside, I found myself wondering, would changing the sex of one lover alter the film in any way? No, is the answer, it would be just as tedious.

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.

The Lobster  (2015)    81/100

Rating :   81/100                       Treasure Chest                     118 Min        15

Easily one of the best films of the year, and indeed one so stylistically reminiscent of the equally great ‘Dogtooth’ (09) that it comes as no surprise to learn that it’s from the same creative team – Greek writers Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, with Lanthimos once again handling the directing duties. It’s a satirical black comedy examining relationships and the pressure and scrutiny society can put on them, as we watch a committedly overweight Colin Farrell check into a hotel after recently becoming single, a hotel where the guests must successfully pair up with another person or be turned into the animal of their choice and where, to gain extra days in the complex, reality TV style, they go out hunting loners in the forest with tranquillizer guns. Need I say more?

At its heart, the movie explores the concept of sameness, of bonding through commonality and the desire to adapt to become more alike, whether through love or desperation. The idea is wonderful and the filmmakers deliver what is by no means a frequent experience – the feeling that you are actually watching a film; you’re relaxed and yet immersed and slightly excited about the story, aware that you’re being entertained and equally so that this is really what you’re supposed to feel like in the cinema. The acting from everyone is fantastic, with the most recognisable faces being John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Olivia Colman, Michael Smiley, Ashley Jensen, Rachel Weisz and the lovely Jessica Barden (as nosebleed woman) all with Farrell as the central focus who is nothing short of brilliant, with flashes of his comedic talent displayed in 2008’s ‘In Bruges’ despite playing a much more demure character. It loses a little steam in the final third, but nevertheless one not to be missed.

Irrational Man  (2015)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                       95 Min        12A

Woody Allen’s latest begins in murky waters – Joaquin Phoenix plays an overweight despondent philosophy professor who likes more than the occasional drink or two, and Allen’s latest muse Emma Stone is the beautiful ingénue at college who will fall under his spell. It’s all a little clichéd and similar to his last film, ‘Magic in the Moonlight‘, with Stone’s early scenes each individually deliberately drawing the viewer’s attention to first her derrière, then her legs, and then finally her breasts. This is, however, a bit of a conscious red herring.

The professor is not interested in bumping uglies with the young nubiles around him, despite his reputation for doing just that, in fact, he isn’t all that interested in anything, other than continually mulling over wasted time and the little of any concrete value that his life has given rise to. Until, that is, inspiration strikes him in the most unlikely of ways – turning the story into a darker and more searching character portrayal, much as was the case in ‘Blue Jasmine‘, and although in that sense this isn’t quite so revealing or incisive, it is well delivered and likeable throughout, marking a return to form for Allen after a bit of a stray bullet the last time around.

We Are Your Friends  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                       96 Min        15

A film universally panned but which actually works quite well within its own somewhat narrow purview – namely that of one young man’s attempt to make a living out of djing and trying to identify who he is and who he wants to be in the process, all while his friends effectively go through the same journey although he remains very much the protagonist. The style of dance music used throughout really isn’t my thing, so I was very surprised to find I enjoyed the track selection throughout, and the way it has been used and sound engineered to provide a distinctive feel to the movie has been really well executed. Surrounding something of a focus on sound the drama unfolds as one might imagine, with things going awry and the ensuing deep reflection, but Zack Efron as the central character Cole fits the part perfectly, and the support from Wes Bentley and Emily Ratajkowski compliment both Efron and the style of the piece to make this a well rounded out film that ought to resonate with many young people feeling a little lost as well as please aficionados of EDM (electronic dance music). Almost makes me want to go clubbing. Almost.

This is the song the film takes its name from:

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).

Gemma Bovery  (2014)    10/100

Rating :   10/100                                                                       99 Min        15

Pretentious, snobbish, perverted and dull – the latest modern French attempt to dramatise mediocrity and indeed not even the first, second or third time Gemma Arterton’s figure has been exalted to centre stage as the entire story revolves around it and the desire it evokes in the men she encounters: young, old, married and single. She is presented as a sensualised femme fatale with little to no character to speak of, seemingly motivated by lust only – but specifically other people’s lust, operating as little more than a vent for male desire.

Adapted from the 1999 graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, Arterton plays the titular Gemma Bovery, who moves to France from London with her husband Charlie (Jason Flemyng) where they encounter their neighbours Martin (Fabrice Luchini) and Valérie Joubert (Isabelle Candelier). Lover of literature Martin can’t help but pair in his mind the beautiful Gemma with Madame Bovary, the eponymous character from Gustave Flaubert’s classic 1857 debut novel. The film does have spoilers with regard to the novel, although exactly how many parallels exist between the two I can’t say – I once began the novel when a certain lady remarked how fateful it was we were reading the same book, having served its purpose, I never finished it.

In any event, Martin’s curiosity becomes an obsession and he can’t help but keep tabs on her love life and indeed even interfere on occasion, all leading to the most ridiculous finale you can imagine – one where you find yourself internally screaming ‘that makes no sense!!!’ as various characters befuddle everything to the point of insanity. You were always kind of hoping for a point to the thing but in the end there isn’t one other than being able to ogle at a few memorable shots of the lead actress’s curves. It’s impossible to imagine anyone really liking this for any reason other than it’s set in France and references classic French literature (it also ruins the ending of Anna Karenina incidentally, which it can’t justify doing).

Trainwreck  (2015)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     125 Min        15

Judd Apatow’s latest effort behind the camera, after ‘This is 40‘, is based on a screenplay from comedian Amy Schumer and indeed stars Schumer as the eponymous trainwreck – Amy (Schumer has acknowledged autobiographical input), a young girl working as a journalist in NYC and happy to have numerous casual love affairs whilst most of the people around her have things more ‘nailed down’, so to speak. Really, though, none of this makes her different from huge swathes of the populace, thus the film’s hoped for appeal, and so it hardly seems justified to refer to herself as a trainwreck, and indeed a number of her co-workers at the magazine’s HQ would probably do the title much more justice.

Schumer’s work is strongly reminiscent of Greta Gerwig’s, as in the likes of ‘Frances Ha‘ for example, and indeed there are nods to Woody Allen here and there as we watch Amy try to start something meaningful with sports injury doctor Aaron (Bill Hader), whom she is sent to interview one serendipitous day despite her protestations (she hates sport). In this sense the film ends up becoming a very traditional romantic comedy, and its long running time does leave you with the sense a lot of the slightly self-indulgent and predictable dramatic meanderings in the second half could easily have been removed – although much of the comedy that remains is quite fun, making Schumer one to watch for the future. With strong support from Tilda Swinton, John Cena and NBA star LeBron James.