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’ 10), this loosely tells the true story of Danish painter Einar Wegener, who goes through a, long buried, crises of identity, suddenly 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 ‘crises’ justifies him doing whatever he wants and 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 award 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.

The Good Dinosaur  (2015)    56/100

Rating :   56/100                                                                       93 Min        PG

Not exactly living up to its family friendly moniker, Disney Pixar’s latest after the equally unbalanced ‘Inside Out‘ focuses on a young Apatosaurus, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), separated from his family and forced to survive with his unlikely primitive companion, Spot (Jack Bright), a young boy of around seven who still squirrels around on all fours for the most part. The two become erstwhile friends and begin the arduous task of finding their way back to Arlo’s homestead (the film is to my knowledge the very first animated dinosaur western, with the Apatosaurus as ranchers struggling to eke out a living from the land, and the T’Rexs as cowboys, or drovers – all after the asteroid that may or may not have originally wiped out the dinosaurs sails harmlessly past Earth for the purposes of the movie), during which time Arlo must find his courage, which is a nice theme for a film very much aimed at a younger, family audience, albeit one common to children’s fiction, see ‘Blade of the Poisoner‘ for another example.

Given its target demographic, however, there are at least three particularly dubious scenes (not to mention a ‘Lion King’ (94) moment that you will see coming a mile off): we see an enormous insect presented as food to Arlo, who is of course a vegetarian so he is confused by it, before its head is quickly wheeched off by Spot to demonstrate its purpose. Now, it wasn’t the cutest creature to ever be presented in a Disney film, but still such an abrupt execution begs the question of ‘was that really necessary to show?’. As too does a pterodactyl eating whole a, this time very cute, little wolf thingy, leaving a distinct queasy aftertaste to the moment, but chief sin of the three has to go to the two protagonists getting high on wild berries and then starting to hallucinate and trip out, seeing each other with multiple heads and so on.

I mean seriously, what on earth were they thinking. I don’t think even in the early days of Disney where now you can pick holes in the content to a degree, such as Tinker Bell and all the mermaids in ‘Peter Pan’ (53) trying to murder Wendy in rather ungrounded fits of jealousy for example, do they reach the depths of kids taking hard drugs, although actually John does smoke Wampum in ‘Peter Pan’ come to think. The scenery and landscapes are incredibly well rendered and brought to life, the dinosaurs look a little weak in that respect, but the story proves continually misguided with all of the above and multiple character decisions that don’t really make any sense, as well as numerous survivals from altogether too extreme scenarios. Another disappointment from Pixar, which suggests releasing two feature films in the same year, the first time for the company, may have perhaps stretched creative resources a little too far.

The Dressmaker  (2015)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     118 Min        12A

‘The Dressmaker’ stars Kate Winslet as Tilly Dunnage, returning to her small hometown in rural Australia in 1950 to greet the hics that forced her to leave in the first place, after she was accused of murdering a young boy when she herself was a child: only now she possesses god-like haute couture abilities that will see them falling over themselves for the use of her craft, whilst she determines to try and piece together what actually happened all those years ago and make amends with her slightly dotty mother in the process, played quite wonderfully by Judy Davis.

It’s a black comedy with moments of drama (sixty/forty in favour of the former) based on Rosalie Ham’s 2000 debut novel of the same name and adapted by Australian director and screenwriter Jocelyn Moorhouse, who has managed to bring to life the characters as skilfully and colourfully as she’s displayed the resplendent and juxtaposed myriad dresses that Tilly churns out from her austere shack overlooking the corrugated roofs of her outback town, and although the two genre strands are similarly clashed at times, the movie still works really well overall.

Equally vibrant support work all round from the likes of Liam Hemsworth and Sarah Snook but especially so from Hugo Weaving (interestingly, whilst filming it was Snook who actually informed Winslet of the auditioning for ‘Steve Jobs‘), with Winslet not only as great in the role of the protagonist as we’ve come to expect her to regularly be, but she’s also rarely sizzled more seductively on the big-screen as she does here.

The Hunger Games : Mockingjay Part Two  (2015)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     137 Min        12A

I’m more than a little surprised by how good this is. It begins having to deal with the remnants of the especially deplorable melodrama left over from part one, but when it eventually gets going it begins to fire off with some really terrific special effects and production design, coupled with suspenseful direction that begins to introduce cross-genre elements, with scenes that feel very much like a part of the ‘Alien’ franchise, and, most importantly, really good writing that delivers an extremely fitting and poignant end to the series, one that at times had been dipping into repetition and seeming to rather meander along to a foregone conclusion.

Jennifer Lawrence is once again the central focus with her choice weapon of bow and arrow, equipped here with pyrotechnic arrowheads, as she leads her own personal thrust against the considerable military prowess of The Capitol, whilst the troops of the rebellion amass for the final push against their oppressors and their devilishly silken ways. Speaking of which, the images of Lawrence draped in fiery red combat gear plastered all over the advertising posters in fact depict something which is never shown in the film, a shame but since it would effectively be painting a large target all over her you can see why it wasn’t featured.

Lawrence has been captivating from the onset and she continues in the same vein for the finale here, although her character Katniss does seem to have a few iffy moments which somewhat go against the grain – such as blaming herself for her entourage’s current predicament when it’s blatantly not her fault, probably not putting her unit at great ease there, and not anticipating fairly obvious things, like being searched at checkpoints and so forth. All performers return from the previous instalments, including Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Natalie Dormer and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last ever film role, and for anyone put off by the last film, as I was, don’t let it prevent you from seeing Suzanne Collins’s trilogy finish on considerably more memorable form.

The Lady in the Van  (2015)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     104 Min        12A

Alan Bennett adapts his stage play of the same name for the big-screen, and for the third time he enlists the help of director Nicholas Hytner to helm the project, after two previous successful adaptations of his work in the past – ‘The Madness of King George’ (94) and ‘The History Boys’ (06) with the cast of the latter all finding cameos here, bar Richard Griffiths who has sadly passed away since. Taking centre stage as the eponymous anti-hero is Maggie Smith, for whom this marks the third time she has embodied ‘lady in the van’ Mary Shepherd (having appeared as her onstage and in a radio adaptation), a homeless woman who parked her van on Bennett’s London street in the 1970s and then eventually ended up living in his driveway for the next fifteen years, after he befriended his unlikely neighbour.

The dichotomy of Bennett’s thoughts on the matter are represented to us onscreen by two versions of himself (each played by Alex Jennings) talking to each other and mulling over the rights and wrongs of the situation, whether or not he’s simply being used as a mug, and indeed whether or not he will eventually feel compelled to pen her life story or that of the curious happenstance of their friendship. However, it may well be a little darker than that – Bennett is clearly not exactly hard up at this time in his life, he was already a successful playwright and writer, and it’s impossible not to think he must have been able to do more to help, rather than sit back and complain about the growing public health concern on his doorstep. It’s perfectly possible he allowed the situation to develop precisely because it was an opportunity to garner new and original material, or observe the human condition from a unique vantage point but without getting too close, without giving her the spare room and a new set of clothes, for example, or helping her to find a home through the council.

Instead, the film charts what actually happened as Mary continues to live in her van almost like a human limpet attached to the side of Bennett’s drive, eternally surrounded by the stench of damp paper and faeces whilst being closely watched by those who want for nothing in a rich area of the capital, and as we learn more about her life prior to becoming homeless things don’t get any less dark, featuring betrayal by both nuns and family members who should have know better, all leading to a lifetime of nothing but Catholic guilt for a bedfellow and her prayers for sanctuary.

The acting from Smith is great as always and the tone is kept fairly light throughout to match the somewhat comic situation, but even this well intentioned artifice cannot cover up the depressive reality that permeates the entire film, leaving it as a fascinating but deeply sombre snapshot of modern day life that has us ask numerous questions of ourselves, as we wonder how secure our lives are and what we would do if confronted by a similar social problem.

The Last Witch Hunter  (2015)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                     106 Min        12A

The premise of this film: Vin Diesel is a warrior in the Middle Ages battling an especially powerful witch who curses him with immortality, then he lives through the centuries fighting witches and evil with sword and flame, with Michael Caine as his priestly mentor and guide. The Red Dragon: Sold. Immediately. It’s as fun and carefree as it sounds with some glorious special effects and a well paced storyline containing easy to like characters – shades of Batman with Caine’s role and some of the music used, but it works well. Afore long the plot takes us to the modern age and we learn witches are still amongst us, both good and evil, and that Diesel as the hunter Kaulder is a vital cog in the peace keeping machine operating between the covens and humanity.

Directed by Breck Eisner (‘Sahara’ 05, ‘The Crazzies’ 10) and written by Cory Goodman (‘Priest’ 11), Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (‘Dracula Untold‘), the story actually apparently came about after discussions with Diesel regarding one of his Dungeons and Dragons characters, a concept which I think is fantastic (have a read here for more on his gaming hobby). With Elijah Wood, Rose Leslie, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and Julie Engelbrecht in support – should certainly prove fun for fans of fantasy action.

The Program  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     103 Min        15

Ben Foster gives the performance of his career as disgraced former cycling champ Lance Armstrong. I love how you always see that now – it’s quite an achievement to almost religiously have the word ‘disgraced’ precede your name, and this film focuses on showing exactly how that came to be, detailing how Armstrong actually operated his massive scam on the doping agency in cycling and indeed the public in general, with the secondary narrative of Sunday Times journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) who is ever suspecting and follows closely on the athlete’s heels with his hunch that something isn’t quite right (the film is based on Walsh’s 2012 novel, ‘Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong’).

It’s from director Stephen Frears, his latest film after the Oscar nominated ‘Philomena‘, and despite never personally following the sport I found the story fascinating throughout. Foster not only physically commits himself by undergoing multiple transformations, as we see him go through different physical approaches to cycling as well as his cancer ordeal (do we know if he really had cancer? He probably had like a sore throat or something), but he actually looks a lot like Armstrong to boot. His personal life is very much marginalised here, and the whole affair is a good companion piece to ‘Bigger Stronger Faster‘ which was a great exploration of doping in sports generally.

Armstrong was of course famously stripped of all his Tour de France titles, but, ironically, if everyone else was also doping then you could say he still won fairly. Rather, perhaps, the sport should be stripped of its competition. With Denis Ménochet, Lee Pace, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons and, briefly, Dustin Hoffman in support.

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.

The Walk  (2015)    72/100

Rating :   72/100                                                                     123 Min        PG

Robert Zemeckis takes us on another technological cinematic leap by recreating the Twin Towers in New York City, as he dramatises the story of Frenchman Philippe Petit’s 1974 attempt to put a high-wire between the buildings and walk along it unaided at a height of some 412m. One imagines it may have been the challenges involved that peaked the director’s interest, having embraced technical frontiers before with the likes of ‘Back to the Future’ (85), ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (88), ‘The Polar Express’ (04) and ‘Beowulf‘, but the story in itself wonderfully captures the human spirit for adventure and the desire to challenge oneself in spite of the odds, and indeed the naysayers.

The events have already been famously filmed of course as part of the Oscar winning documentary ‘Man on Wire’ (08), and to be honest I wasn’t convinced dramatising it was necessary. Initially, these thoughts were echoed throughout the first half of the movie, which plays out as a dreamy fairytale; whimsical, loose, cheesy and not really leading anyplace worthwhile – all with a disembodied Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) occasionally interjecting his own backstory from no less than astride the top of the statue of liberty, itself of course a gift from France.

Here is where a major pitfall, ahem, of the film lies – trying to walk the narrative tightrope between an appropriate homage to the Twin Towers via Petit’s endeavours without becoming jingoistic, and it doesn’t always succeed – perhaps most tellingly when the plot completely omits a major event in the story, which in effect there wasn’t really any need to bring up, but they actually go so far as to fudge central character reactions to mask the truth, ironically bringing attention to the fault. I won’t ruin what it is that’s missing, but suffice to say it’s been done in a typically Hollywood way and obliterated one of the most interesting moments and talking points of ‘Man on Wire’.

Had they not done this, then I would have loved to give the movie a higher grade as when it finally gets going, the high-wire scenes are fantastically breathtaking, with Zemeckis very much pulling off a coup-de-grace to completely salvage the film. Based on my recollection of the documentary, Gordon-Levitt similarly gives a memorably enthusiastic and believable imitation of Petit, although in such instances I think you really have to be French in order to tell if his accent sounds authentic (he studied French literature at university, and was aided by the French cast so it seems likely), or more like someone’s taking the piss. A real shame they played games with the truth but a strong Oscar contender nonetheless. With Charlotte Le Bon and Ben Kingsley in support.

The Martian  (2015)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     141 Min        12A

Ridley Scott’s latest returns to space for a film steeped in science, and one which sees explorer Mark Watney (Matt Damon) left behind on Mars after the rest of his team (sent from NASA to establish a base on the planet) leave him behind when a storm forces them to abort and they assume him to be toast. Possibly sending into the popular domain phrases such as ‘I’m going to have to science the shit out of this’, and, ‘Nobody gets left behind, except Matt Damon’, the film begins sloooowly as we’re mostly dealing with Mark by himself wondering how to survive and indeed we’re greeted by multiple moments from the trailer, but at least that gets them out of the way and it’s not too long before the story flits between ground control on Earth and the other crew on the Ares III who are on their way home, which finally brings us back onboard as an audience (interesting if they had found life on the planet and had to explain coming in peace and yet naming their mission after the Greek god of war {Mars is the Roman equivalent of Ares}).

The science doesn’t always hold up; it’s been said the atmosphere wouldn’t actually be able to generate the initial storm, for example, and we see a manual docking procedure in space which is unlikely (after the collapse of the USSR the Russian space agency decided to save money by not paying for the now Ukrainian automated guidance system for supplying the Mir Space Station, with the resultant manual attempt a devastating crash that shut down half of the power to the station and left the Spektr module inoperable), but all these things are minor details and don’t ultimately matter – the science critical to the plot, especially relating to survival, is often both sound and interesting, although certain characters do seem to keep ideas to themselves for a questionable amount of time.

Adapted from Andy Weir’s 2011 novel by screenwriter Drew Goddard (‘World War Z‘, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ 12) and with several big names in support: Jessica Chastain (who actually gets to go into space this time after ‘Interstellar‘), Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Benedict Wong as the head of the Jet Propulsion Lab (not wise – apparently no one remembers Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine’ {07} come the 2030s) and they, together with Damon and great visuals of Mars (Martian scenes were filmed in Jordan, and visors were commonly omitted for the astronauts – they had to be made digitally afterward replete with reflections which is no mean feat) all create an involving human drama on a par with the memorable ‘Apollo 13′ (95). Look out for the bit with the sticky-tape, so annoying.