Category Archives: mini reviews

Mini movie reviews for the weekend!

I live on an island, and I have to get a boat to see most of the cooler stuff on at cinemas. But with movies coming out so fast on digital platforms and DVD, why spend all that money on choppy trips to the multiplex?

Flatliners 

How did the Oscars miss this little gem about five medical students stopping their hearts to experience the afterlife?

It starts out strong thanks to a talented cast including Ellen Page and Diego Luna. Keifer Sutherland cameos but he’s not reprising his role from the original and imparting any wisdom like “Don’t stop your hearts!” so it seems pointless.

With such a great cast, I’d have loved a dark psychological drama about ambitious, cutthroat young medics playing God. Sub-par horror.

Ingrid Goes West 

Aubrey Plaza gains your sympathy and alarm as a woman with an unspecified mental disorder whose only meaningful connection comes via Instagram. With inheritance money she heads to California to trick her way into insta-star Taylor Sloane’s seemingly perfect life.

But where Instagram is just a career tool for blandly commercial Taylor, for needy Ingrid it’s toxic. After a suspenseful and sun bleached hour of social media satire, the final act becomes more of a “psycho” thriller, and possibly sends confused messages about mental health.

The Limehouse Golem

The late Alan Rickman was set to lead this lurid, Ripper-style mystery, until his illness meant Bill Nighy took over as the elegant Inspector Kildare, investigating the grisly Limehouse murders.

Music-hall star Lizzie Cree is on trial for killing her husband – who Kildare suspects may have been the infamous Golem. Hoping to save the angelic-looking accused from the gallows, he dashes around an atmospheric Victorian London (it’s a treat to see Karl Marx pop up as a suspect).

An entertaining spin on the never-subtle dead prostitute genre. Nighy is softly restrained, but Olivia Cooke – who looks like a cross between Carey Mulligan and Jenna Coleman – is the standout.

Victoria & Abdul 

Queen Victoria had her summer home, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight. She holidayed here with her family, and it’s where she retreated during her long mourning for Prince Albert.

The widowed Queen’s relationship with John Brown was dramatized with Judi Dench and Billy Connolly in 1997. Dench returns opposite Ali Fazal as Indian manservant Abdul, who incited jealousy and panic among her household and the imperialist government, including son Bertie (Eddie Izzard).

Dench’s frail old lady might be Empress of India, but she’s outlived her loved ones, and feels trapped and lonely. It’s a devastating depiction of old age. I think it’s meant as a feelgood, comedy-drama like The King’s Speech, but the larky tone and silent comedy jar with the classism and racism of the British Raj.

Viceroy’s House 

Following WWII, the British Empire was dying, and Victoria’s great-grandson Louis Mountbatten was dispatched to the Indian subcontinent to bury the Raj with dignity.

The 1947 partition of India triggered one of the bloodiest upheavals in history. Here it gets the Downton Abbey treatment, with a fictional ‘upstairs, downstairs’ romance between two servants in the Viceroy’s palace. It’s a stately, well-lit costume drama. Not my cup of tea.

mother!

Jennifer Lawrence is in an unpleasant relationship as dutiful wife to selfish creative Javier Bardem. When her quiet home is invaded by uninvited guests Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, Bardem won’t tell them to shove it, much to Lawrence’s dismay.

mother! feels like a bad M. Night Shyamalan, before it becomes an unmistakable Darren Aronofsky fever dream. An ambitious climate change allegory which draws incoherently on the Bible, it’s messy and chaotic, but JL is a force of nature.

All the Money in the World

This is where they recast Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer so that audiences and Oscar voters wouldn’t be distracted by the misconduct allegations against the former. It’s based on the 1973 kidnapping ordeal of tragic John Paul Getty III in Italy, and how the boy’s tight-fisted billionaire grandpa had to have his arm twisted to pay the ransom.

Of all the movies I’ve just reviewed, this is the one with the most general appeal. It’s watchable, but there’s something airless about it.  It’s strongest point is Michelle Williams and her chemistry with negotiator Mark Wahlberg.

 

Mini Reviews: Doctor Strange, Deepwater Horizon, Kubo And The Two Strings

Well, there was a monumental flub at the Oscars ceremony just over a week ago: I wasn’t invited. I know right! (The organizers obviously read my blog and know that I don’t like travelling. Yes, yes, that must be it.)

Last year I watched part of the show, but that was only because I was up all night with a streaming cold. This year I went to bed, knowing full well there wouldn’t be any nice surprises. Sigh. #OscarsSoDull.

But I don’t want to write about the awards and their tedious machinations and untrammelled sexism/ageism. Instead, I’m going to concentrate on the fact that some of the films I’ve got the most enjoyment from over the last few years have tended to be nominated in the technical categories.

Out of this year’s crop of visual effects nominees, I’d seen Rogue One and eventual winner The Jungle Book, but it was time to check out the other contenders…

Doctor Strange 

A bunch of baddies led by Mads Mikkelson rip some pages out of a book and chuck it on the floor, so Smug Superior Being Tilda Swinton goes all Inception on them. Meanwhile, Doctor Strange, an arrogant surgeon with a good grasp of popular culture, has a horror car crash and damages his hands.

When he goes to Smug Being for a cure we swap medical blah blah for spatial paradoxes and continuum probabilities. The Avengers may protect us from physical perils, but Smug’s Sorcerers, including Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), guard against mystical threats.

Smug doesn’t want to train Strange because she fears he may fall to the dark side like Mads and start damaging library books, but po-faced Mordo vouches for him. Cumberbatch and Ejiofor score some very actorly shouting matches, while Mads and Strange’s GF Rachel McAdams have settled for the more thankless Marvel roles.

At least we don’t get the usual metal-clanging-against-metal final showdown that superhero movies usually give us. Instead, Strange and the crew do some Parkour and freerunning over buildings and stairways that move and shift like Hogwarts on acid.

Anyway, thanks Doctor – I nearly made it through a Marvel thingy without resorting to the headache pills.

Deepwater Horizon

In Peter Berg’s re-staging of the 2010 offshore rig disaster, early scenes set electronics technician Mark Wahlberg up as a family man married to Kate Hudson, who will be pulling worried-wife-on-the-phone duties.

There’s a scene where their cutesy movie daughter demonstrates her school project (“My daddy’s job”) on deepwater drilling (which goes right over my head because these things always do), and then we’re off to the rig!

Once the predictable one-liners and jokey banter have been mined to completion, we get a volatile situation onboard the rig where wild-eyed BP exec John Malkovich is riding roughshod over Transocean employees, including Wahlberg and Kurt Russel. If you’ve ever seen the SNL sketch of Kylo Ren as an Undercover Boss – it’s like that.

Once the first thing goes wrong on the rig it seems to start a chain reaction and from there the action doesn’t let up. This is devastating movie mayhem that makes Titanic and every other disaster movie look tame, with Berg letting the explosions do the talking.

Watching Horizon, I got the impression the explosion occurred because Malkovich was a money-hungry %$&*. “We just the help ya’ll hire to drill a hole”, grumbles Russell. The reality was more complex, but the movie does its best to serve as a tribute to the bravery of survivors and those that lost their lives.

Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo is the latest stop-motion from Laika studios, the same people behind The Boxtrolls and Coraline. This latest offering got a major thumbs up from all quarters, and was hailed as the animation movie of the year.

Set in ancient Japan, young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson – Rickon in Game of Thrones) lives in a cave with his ailing mother. No ordinary boy, he is a one-eyed storyteller who can bring his origami figures to life. He uses his magical gifts to entertain local villagers, but he must be home before it gets dark.

This is because his grandfather and wicked aunts (who dwell in some kind of cold spiritual realm) plan to steal his other eye. When Kubo stays out one night, the aunts appear, and his mother uses the last of her magic to spirit him away.

Charlize Theron voices Kubo’s monkey-guardian in the kind of bored, superior tone she might use for press interviews, while Matthew McConaughey plays a dopey samurai-figure cursed to live as a beetle. Ralph Fiennes resurrects the ghost of Voldemort for the Moon King, and Rooney Mara memorably lends her voice to the fluttering Dementor-like aunts.

Kubo definitely has atmosphere to spare and a beautiful soundtrack, but I could see the plot surprises coming. I have to acknowledge the painstaking work that goes into creating something like this, but I know the child version of me would have been bored.

Mini Reviews: The Girl on the Train, Hell or High Water, Captain Fantastic

It’s that time of year when it’s chilly outside and the stars are busy traipsing up and down red carpets without so much as a coat on and covering themselves in shiny awards, while I’m staying home and covering myself with a giant blanket.

Britain’s glitzy BAFTAs were on Sunday, with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in attendance. My top fashion picks were Nicole Kidman, Felicity Jones and Thandie Newton – although by sheer dint of her royal status the Duchess managed to outshine the stars.

Anyway, I’m not going to harp on about fashion. I’m wearing a blanket, after all.

Some of the BAFTA nominees for Best Film etc. are in the cinema, but a few are available on DVD and digital already. And I’m lazy. So I’ve been watching…

The Girl on the Train

They’ve both got ‘girl’ in the title and they were both publishing sensations before becoming movie adaptations, but that’s where the similarities between Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train lie down on the tracks to die.

This Emily Blunt-starrer is as much fun as the time I had a migraine and had to get a train from Southampton to Portsmouth, but got on the train to London instead and spent all day trying to get back home.

Blunt is alcoholic Rachel, in such a committed performance you can taste the booze on her breath. She’s divorced, and quasi-stalks her ex Justin Theroux and his new wife Rebecca Ferguson.

Every day on her train, Rachel passes a beautiful house with beautiful couple Luke Evans & Haley Bennett – who looks like a foxier Jennifer Lawrence mixed with Rebecca De Mornay circa The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.

Rachel becomes obsessed with the couple, blackouts, and then wakes up covered in blood with a determined cop (Alison Janney) on her case. Yet despite the cast and all the potential, this adaptation feels like it got left on the platform….zzzz 

Captain Fantastic 

Dad Ben (Viggo Mortensen – nominated for Best Actor at Sunday’s BAFTA ceremony), is raising his brood of six kids in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. The children follow an intensive literature/philosophy home school program, while undergoing rugged survival and endurance training.

Mom is bipolar and in a psychiatric facility, when news filters through to the wilderness that she’s committed suicide. Meanwhile eldest son Bod (George MacKay – really good) has secretly applied to and been accepted into every Ivy in the land.

There’s two redheaded interchangeable sisters and a pair of smaller blond moppets, but the only other sprog to emerge from the picture is angry preteen River Phoenix/Leonardo DiCaprio lookalike Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton).

The family all hop aboard a school bus and trek off to mom’s funeral and disapproving grandpa Frank Langella, where brothers Bo and Rellian (and their siblings, if we must) discover they aren’t really able to deal with the outside world, while their real world cousins are Typical Western Teenagers in all their ignorant, idle glory.

I expected a fish-out-of-water comedy; then I was convinced it was going to be an intensely personal, stormy teen drama about a monstrously overbearing, misguided parent. It’s neither. It’s a neat little drama with some funny moments that holds back from portraying Ben as either a megalomaniac cult figure or as a saintly man with all the answers.

Hell or High Water

Nominated for Cinematography, Best Supporting Actor for Jeff Bridges, and Best Original Screenplay for Taylor Sheridan at the BAFTAs, Hell or High Water is the surprisingly simple story of divorced dad Toby (Chris Pine) and his explosive ex-con older brother Tanner (Ben Foster).

The brothers carry out a couple of highly-planned robberies (driving past huge signs screaming “DEBT”) at branches of a Texan bank threatening to foreclose on their family land.

I loved all the supporting Texan characters, from the old man in the bank (“You’re damn right I got a gun on me”) to the sweet-voiced diner waitress who befriends Toby.

Ben Foster brings his trademark twitchy intensity, and you can see the training he underwent for such roles as a Navy SEAL in Lone Survivor, although I don’t 100% believe him as the dimwit that Tanner is considered to be.

Texan Ranger Jeff Bridges and his partner Gil Birmingham lie in wait for the outlaws to strike again. A screwup like Tanner is always going to screw up, and the movie quickly and quietly builds to thrilling chase and shootout scenes.

Fleur Delacour

A Wimp’s Guide to Halloween Movies

It’s Halloween, surely a time for a movie fan like me to seek out traditional scary flicks: The Blair Witch Project, Poltergeist…

Only I’m not very brave. I have a long list of fears, and horror movies are on it. They frighten me so much, my coping strategy used to be that on the rare occasion I watched one, I’d immediately go and see another one to stop the nightmares from the first.

So if I’m too scared to go downstairs at night because of the Babadook (no way), a dose of The Woman in Black (forget it) would calm my fears. After all, they can’t both be real right?! Right?

Given the problems with this logic and my sensitive disposition, I just avoid horror. But I blog about movies now, so I thought I ought to gingerly dip a toe back into the world of toil and trouble…

The Ones Below

OK, it’s more of a psychological thriller than a horror, but the film’s title sounded reminiscent of the Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer classic What Lies Beneath.

Clémence Poésy is married to a nice man (Stephen Campbell Moore) – they’re both media/creative types and they have a gorgeous pet cat, a lovely flat and a baby on the way.

A new couple move in downstairs – only it’s the Governor from The Walking Dead (David Morrissey- shouty) and his blonde wife (Laura Birn), who are also expecting a baby. Despite the fact the two couples are clearly never going to get along, they have a dinner party.

An unfortunate combination of factors leads to tragedy, and middle class competition turns to revenge.

David Farr is the first time film director, from a script he wrote (he also penned the recent much-loved The Night Manager mini-series).

The Ones Below felt more like a one-off TV movie than a feature film, but the echoes of Polanski, the combination of Poésy’s emaciated, tomboyish appearance with Birn’s heady perfection, and the loopy music, give it a woozy, memorable vibe.

JUMP SCARES: Zero

NIGHTS HIDING UNDER THE COVERS: None, but my aversion to unfriendly dinner parties and The Walking Dead still stands.

It Follows

Aaaargh what was I thinking?! David Robert Mitchell’s modern horror masterpiece already has me hiding under the covers.

An evil, unstoppable force takes on the guise of various gruesome-looking randoms (and half-dressed family members) and stalks people to death.

The ‘thing’ is passed around like a virus – you have to sleep with someone to infect them, but if it kills its victim it comes back down the chain to snuff you out.

A cast of relatively unknown actors help make it fresh and disorientating.

JUMP SCARES: One

NIGHTS HIDING UNDER THE COVERS: Two so far!

The Gift

“It’s just one dinner and it’s over…” No no no it’s NEVER over. The past returns to haunt thrusting tech professional Patrick Bateman when he moves to California with his wife Rebecca Hall.

An unrecognizable Joel Edgerton stars as Bateman’s old school friend colleague, an unattractive misfit (“Gordo the Weirdo”) who wrecks havoc with his target’s marriage.

Edgerton wrote the screenplay and makes his directorial debut, and the result is impressive. Hall is great, her character’s reaction to Gordo veers so far from movie convention and the ending is wonderfully subtle.

JUMP SCARES: One but I really jumped!

NIGHTS HIDING UNDER THE COVERS: Nope, but when will people stop having uncomfortable, wholly avoidable dinner parties?

Mini Reviews: Burnt, Paper Towns, Spectre

A very eclectic grouping, I know!

But there are some movies I look forward to watching, like The Revenant. Then there are movies I look forward to, just not quite so much. But I had questions, questions, questions! Is Spectre as silly as Skyfall? How bad is BurntCan Cara Delevingne act?

Paper Towns

Quentin (known as Q) has his whole life mapped out – graduation, college, medical career, marriage, kids. But that’s only if the really cool girl across the street doesn’t get him arrested.

Q (Nat Wolff) has grown up idolizing his neighbour, Margo, but his kooky little playmate is now Cara Delevingne  – waayyy too popular to speak to him.

That’s until one night when she needs him to help inflict revenge on her lying in-crowd pals. Faced with his perfectly understandable reluctance, she gives him some spiel about “living for the now”, and not waiting until you’re 30 to be happy.

We’ve only known her for seconds, but she’s clearly a menace. Does clever Q challenge her, and insist life can be worth living while working towards your goals? He doesn’t, because he’s blinded by her awesomeness, and because he’s a sap.

After a vandalism spree and a slow dance, Margo vanishes. Convinced she’s left clues for the timid lad to follow her, Q leads his geeky friends and Margo’s impossibly beautiful former BFF (Halston Sage) on a road trip.

Nat Wolff is one of those scruffy, shaggy, sort-of-handsome young stars, but the road trip really drags, and a boy urinating into a empty beer can mid-car journey isn’t as funny as the filmmakers think.

Adapted from a John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) YA novel, Paper Towns suffers without the mercurial Margo. Delevingne is really great casting – Margo is a flawed person, but you understand why other teens project enormous mystery and importance onto her.

The lack of parental involvement rings false, as if the film doesn’t know how to work the adults in. When Margo goes all Gone Girl, her parents just shrug. What kind of people just allow their cars to disappear from the driveway, or teenagers to skip school for a road trip? Surely not the parents of this amiable, well-adjusted crowd.

A wholesome teen movie with an edgy star, perhaps Paper Towns just didn’t translate easily to screen. Worth it for Delevingne’s brief performance.

Burnt

Bradley Cooper used to play Jennifer Garner’s housemate on J.J. Abrams’ spy drama Alias. The actor played a clueless chump whose job was to get punched in the face by the CIA.

Now Cooper’s piercing gaze stares out from many a movie poster. He’s been nominated for four Academy Awards – three for acting and one for producing.

Burnt, a star vehicle meant to cash in on the actor’s heat, received a universal panning and a flurry of one-star reviews. But is it a complete turkey? ‘Cos sometimes when the critics sharpen their knives, you find the movie isn’t half-bad, or is only as half-baked as everything else…

Cooper is Adam, a boozy, bad boy chef who got his beloved mentor’s Paris restaurant shut down. After a self-imposed exile shucking oysters, he’s in London, dodging his drug debts and planning a comeback. He rallies his resentful, sceptical old kitchen crew (plus new recruits) like a crime boss back for One Last Job – swiping a Michelin star.

Cooper looks like he knows his way around a kitchen and every dish looks delectable, but the movie isn’t about food or doing the restaurant world justice. It’s about a burnt out, unlikable man with a world class talent. It’s an intense lead performance, but Cooper never gets to explore Adam’s personal demons and raging perfectionism.

Sienna Miller is decent as a sweaty sous chef/single mother/love interest, while Alicia Vikander is glamorous as Adam’s old flame. But it’s a lukewarm romance yoked with a gritty drama about the need for redemption.

Sadly, Burnt has its fingers in too many pies.

Spectre

Spectre is Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as Bond, and again it appears he outgrew the character after 2006’s Casino Royale. Reportedly sick of Bond, the actor has been ambivalent about reprising the role for a fifth time.

In Spectre, a taped tip-off from his dead boss Judi Dench has Bond chasing a shadowy international crime organisation. He takes himself off to Mexico on a terrorist-hunting vacation, where he causes mayhem in a fantastic opening sequence.

The trail leads first to the iconic Monica Bellucci, whose highly publicized appearance is pretty disappointing. Instead, sleepy-eyed French actress Léa Seydoux is our supposedly strong, savvy female character. She looks very young next to craggy Craig, and can’t compare to the memory of Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. Sob.

While Bond is busy moping over the latest love of his life, Ralph Fiennes get to display why he would have been a better fit as Ian Fleming’s spy. As the new M, Fiennes has to deal with a snotty little upstart codenamed “C” (Andrew Scott), who is pushing to shut down the 00 programme and usher in a global surveillance network.

I preferred the Fiennes/Scott confrontations to the ones between Christophe Waltz’s villain and Craig’s 007, who I kept forgetting is a ruthless government assassin.

Look, it’s a Bond movie (the most expensive one ever made), so it’s easy to be entertained by the scale and the stunts. It really isn’t as silly as Skyfall, with its much-mocked Home Alone-style final battle. But it still isn’t the sequel Casino Royale deserved.

Mini reviews: Suffragette, Brooklyn, Macbeth

Awards season is over. But before we greet the arrival of 2016’s summer blockbusters, some of the Best Picture nominees are still on the big screen, possibly enjoying a little post-Oscars boost.

There are also got some great recent and recent-ish movie releases available on DVD/Blu-ray and on digital.

March is Women’s History Month, so therefore, I thought I should start with…

Suffragette

The fight for women’s voting rights in the UK is a complicated narrative that began in the nineteenth century and dragged on for years. The campaign took many forms and involved various divisions and splinter groups.

Director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan have set their story just before the outbreak of the First World War, when the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) were intensifying their demonstrations and acts of militancy.

The movie’s focus is not on the famous Pankhurst family or other powerful, real-life figures, but on the fictional character of plain old Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan). She’s a London washerwoman who becomes involved in the turmoil when she sees a co-worker lob a brick through a shop window.

Maud has few joys besides her small, sickly son. As she becomes increasingly drawn in to the movement she discovers a different way of looking at life. She takes up the WPSU’s motto: “Deeds not words”. Her new stance brings her into conflict with her husband, her employer and of course, the authorities.

Mulligan is inescapably modern and patrician, no matter ‘ow much she drops ‘er h’s. But her palpable intelligence serves the film well. She throws herself into the role with such furious conviction it’s impossible not to care.

Mulligan’s performance, along with support from Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff (plus a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Meryl Streep) make this well-made historical drama engrossing and moving.

Brooklyn

Brooklyn is a wholesome, refreshing drama that casts a spell on the viewer. Based on Colm Tóibín’s award-winning 2009 novel (which I haven’t read), it follows a young 1950s Irish woman starting a new life in the titular New York borough.

Eilish (Saoirse Ronan) is from a small town in the Emerald Isle, where her only bonds are her mother and older sister. Eilis’ part-time job comes with a gossipy, bitter boss known as Nettles Kelly (Brid Brennan).

Across the sea in Brooklyn, Eilish lives in a boarding house with other women, attends night classes and meets a charming Italian boy, Tony (Emory Cohen). Best of all she has Julie Walters as her landlady and a kindly priest (Jim Broadbent) to watch over her as she battles homesickness.

Just as Eilish is blossoming, deaths and marriages call her back to Ireland. She meets the reserved Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), the kind of lad who wasn’t around when she left. (Or maybe, her new experiences mean she sees people in a different way.) Ultimately, Eilish has to make a wrenching decision.

It is a beautiful film – lovely and gentle without ever becoming boring or syrupy. .

Macbeth

I won’t be the first to say that this is Shakespeare for the Game of Thrones generation, where the production values of HBO collide with the Bard’s verse. The playwright based his famous tale of treachery and tyranny on historical accounts of Scottish rulers, while George R.R. Martin’s books are hugely inspired by the country’s history.

Director Justin Kurzel’s re-working of Shakespeare’s classic tale is one of stark landscapes, mud and battle scenes. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran was heavily influenced by Norse clothing and architecture, and there is a distinct Vikings-feel, while Kurzel’s brother Jed composed the breathtaking, hypnotic score.

Out of the cold Scottish mist comes Michael Fassbender as warrior nobleman Macbeth. Fassbender’s Macbeth is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress; he endures flashbacks in slow-mo while soldiers slain in battle haunt him with their thousand-yard stares.

Marion Cotillard is Lady Macbeth, urging her husband to gain the throne from King Duncan (David Thewlis). Cotillard is the first French actress to portray Lady Macbeth on film in an English-language production.

She makes the character more sympathetic than expected – in this version, her scheming is linked to grief and a lost child. She goads Macbeth into his first evil act, which seems to totally unhinge him for good. Cotillard then seems to slink back in terror as Fassbender gets scarier and bloodier.

Mini reviews: Sicario, The Martian, Crimson Peak

It’s February. That means cold, freezing weather.

It is also the culmination of the awards season. Yes, it’s nearly time for the biggest, glitziest celebrity ceremony of the year – The Oscars.

Chilly, horrible weather, and awards season? I think I better start with…

THE MARTIAN

Ridley’s Scott’s latest space offering is set on the red planet, where things get pretty cold. It is nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Actor for Matt Damon, and Best Picture.

In a tale of human strength and the will to survive, NASA botanist Mark Watney (Damon) is abandoned on Mars after being struck by debris. Believed dead by the rest of his team, they blast off and leave him behind ET-style.

Setting the tone for the movie, Watney has to patch himself up after getting harpooned in the gut. It’s realistic and gritty, unlike my beloved Prometheus (also directed by Ridley). It’s clear that Ridley and Watney are going to “science the shit” out of this one.

Based on the 2011 Andy Weir novel, it contains laughs – more than in some so-called comedies – even if the Earth scenes get as dry as Martian soil. Luckily, whenever things get a bit boring or lofty at NASA HQ, something goes wrong for Watney and the film becomes engrossing again. (Not that I actively wanted him to suffer or anything.)

The red planet looks like a beautiful destination and the astronauts have cool space suits in a kind of burnt amber that match the scenery. Eventually, the lonely Watney almost looks like part of the rocky landscape.

It’s not as good or moving as Gravity, but it’s still a fantastic ode to human endeavour and ingenuity. There’s no doubt Matt Damon is the Best Actor on Mars.

CRIMSON PEAK

Before I watch Crimson Peak I have it pegged as a not-very-good Victorian horror.  I know it has a pedigree, with stars like Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain, and cult director Guillermo del Toro. Yet Crimson Peak flopped at the box office.

Wasikowska is aspiring writer Edith Cushing, whose genuine sweetness is never overshadowed by the movie’s darkening atmosphere. Edith’s dad is a decent, bearded fellow; her mother is a creepy, inky ghost. Edith also has a suitor in the shape of Charlie Hunnam’s mild-mannered physician Dr Alan McMichael.

Enter Tom Hiddleston as Sir Thomas Sharpe. Sharpe is a British aristocratic with a crumbling estate back home, and he’s seeking investors for his mining inventions. Pa instantly dislikes him – he certainly seems a bit ineffectual, especially next to his Bronte mean girl sister Lucille (Chastain).

Edith marries the brooding Hiddles and returns to England with him to live at said crumbling estate. There’s a gaping hole in the roof and gross red clay oozing through the walls and the floors. The cast and the decomposing goo-mansion seem to breathe and sigh as one soggy, yet determined and talented mess.

Although it is sinister, it doesn’t deliver shocks or scares like the Victorian Gothic The Woman in Black. This is probably because it isn’t intended as a horror/ghost story. It’s a dark costume drama, a weird Tim Burtonish fantasy and a brooding romance – I’m not sure. I wonder if anyone in charge of the marketing knew either.

Kudos to the movie’s strange warmth and passion, and to a great cast and costumes.

SICARIO

There’s horror in Sicario, a fictional war-on-drugs action crime thriller. From the start, it is so brutal I actually had to wonder what I was doing watching it.

Idealistic young FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt) is a kidnap response expert who makes a particularly gruesome discovery in Arizona. She gets hauled into a narcotics task force led by the morally ambivalent Matt (Josh Brolin), a DoD advisor/CIA- somebody-or-other, and his even shadier partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro).

Blunt is wide-eyed and vulnerable – enough to be affecting, but not so much to be miscast as a door-kicker rolling with Delta Force. If she were named Jennifer Lawrence, she’d have another Oscar nomination in the bag.

There probably isn’t enough there though, for Blunt to have garnered awards consideration. She’s the audience’s proxy, and she doesn’t have many lines or really drive the story forward. She’s along for the ride, just staring in horror at the violence depicted on both sides; in this movie, the good guys have decided to fight very dirty.

Del Toro gives a most enigmatic performance. He actually turns waking up from a nap into compelling onscreen action. Kate can’t tear her eyes off him; neither can the audience.

The two characters have a murky relationship. She appears attracted to him, even if he scares her. He wants to protect her, even as he threatens to kill her. Intense stuff.

Sicario is nominated for cinematography, original score and sound editing at the Oscars.

reviews

Heroines in space entertainment: Star Wars, Gravity, Prometheus

[*Update 20/10/16* I’m hoping more readers will find this post as we approach the release of Rogue One, which, like The Force Awakens, will star another female lead. Will Jyn Erso be as big a success as Daisy Ridley’s Rey?]

The Force Awakens is released this week!

And the latest installment of Star Wars looks set to have more active and intriguing female characters than either the originals or the prequels. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o and Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie will appear alongside the female lead, newcomer Daisy Ridley.

The production has been shrouded in secrecy, so little is known about their roles – but in honour of The Force Awakens, here are my favourite movies set among the stars, and the heroines they feature…

Prometheus (2012) 

It probably helps that I’m no scientist.

In fact, I was terrified of the school lab because of all the stories other pupils told me about accidental immolation and experiments gone wrong. Besides, the teacher was as scary as the Engineer Noomi Rapace tangles with in this Alien prequel.

Perhaps because of my unscientific bent, I can ignore some of the sillier twists, errors and logical issues in Prometheus.

I mean, I can appreciate that having an 8ft alien land on your abdomen after you’ve had a caesarean might hurt a bit more than it seems to here. Or that hand-to-hand combat, rappelling and running might be a tad impossible after surgery.

But while Rapace’s archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw isn’t as hard-as-nails as Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley (the “no weapons” stance to exploring an alien planet is annoying), she is a woman of epic determination.

She leads an expedition of doomed idiots to answer the biggest question of all: Why are we here?

Once the feeble team have been picked off, she dusts herself down and as the only mortal survivor of Prometheus she continues her quest for knowledge and truth.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Danish pastry hair buns debuted by Leia in Star Wars and the metal bikini she wore in Jedi are iconic. But I’ve always admired the white jumpsuit and loopy-braid hairdo combo she showcased on Bespin’s Cloud City, complete with blaster.

It’s a practical but chic get-up for her roles as soldier, spy, royal and diplomat.

Despite Carrie Fisher’s recent admission that she was, in fact, higher than the stars when she filmed Empire, Leia is at her best in this movie.

In the first film she’s a brash rebel who witnesses her entire home planet destroyed. By the final film, although still committed to her cause, she appears softer – much like Padme in Revenge of the Sith.

In Empire she is as combative as Han Solo, while starting to show actual feelings for the scene-stealing smuggler.

And given what we’ve been told about the development of the Star Wars plot, there are some uncertain nods to her true identity and origins.

While her brother has a reputation as one of cinema’s greatest whiners, and there are real moments where it looks like the men might not make it, there’s never any doubt Leia is a survivor.

Gravity (2013)

Watching Sandra Bullock spin through space, I unfortunately discovered that Gravity triggers vertigo, so it’s definitely not one I can go back to watch again and again.

Balance issues aside, this is a beautiful and thoughtful drama. Given the hype, the seven Oscars, and the theme of sheer adversity, I wasn’t expecting the movie to be so tender.

Grief-stricken following the loss of her young daughter, newbie astronaut Dr Ryan Stone finds herself stranded after debris wrecks her space shuttle. She must contend with a dwindling air supply, no communications with mission control and the loss of George Clooney.

Gravity is not sci-fi, and the fact that Stone is from our own present-day earth with our real technological limits makes her even more engaging than a character in a futuristic or fantastical setting.

Stone is self-reliant. She is human. She hallucinates and loses the will to live – and then summons it again.

The movie’s message is never give up, and that through perseverance you can achieve the impossible.

FILM REVIEW: Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)

Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd is the story of the lovely and independent Bathsheba Everdene.

It has been called the author’s “sunniest and least brooding” novel, and director Thomas Vinterberg’s film adaptation is a beautiful affair that successfully manages to harmonize even the more disturbing elements into a glossy production.

Mulligan is certainly a thoroughly modern Bathsheba to appeal to today’s audiences.

I’ve always found her acting to range between adequate and insipid, but as most critics and viewers seem to adore her, I must be missing something.

Matthias Schoenaerts is great as shepherd Gabriel Oak and Juno Temple is wonderfully touching as the tragic Fanny Robin, abandoned by Bathsheba’s third suitor, the vain Sergeant Troy.

Unfortunately it’s tricky to understand Bathsheba’s passive surrender to Tom Sturridge’s Troy, while Martin Sheen’s Boldwood barely gets a look-in.

Presented as a gorgeous love quadrangle, Sheen’s lack of screen time means that it’s more of a straightforward love triangle, and Boldwood’s actions at the end feel inexplicable and rushed.

A lavish and absorbing, if flawed, costume drama.

Great minds on celluloid – The Theory of Everything & The Imitation Game

It’s awards season, when ‘prestige’ movies captivate susceptible audiences. Sometimes these movies are genuinely beautiful, inspiring, thought-provoking feats of cinema. And even when they’re not, it’s easy to get swept away by subject matter, high-mindedness and publicity campaigns.

Although there’s no guarantee, films about real-life people – especially notable historical figures or those with physical or psychological ailments – tend to be attractive to award voters.

Enter The Imitation Game, about pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). Tragically persecuted for his sexuality, his codebreaking had a profound impact on the course of the Second World War.

It is a fine showcase for the popular Cumberbatch. But The Imitation Game does not feel truly Best Picture-worthy. Or rather it does – it just doesn’t feel like great film-making. It’s one of those worthy biopics that glosses over complex, messy lives. It’s a watchable film with a conventional narrative, as crisp as fellow star Keira Knightley’s vowels.

Knightley is a surprise. She has struggled, but seems to revel in playing eccentric, intelligent women. She actually manages to connect with her character and mean what she says as cryptanalyst Joan Clarke, striking a deep chord as the lone woman on Turing’s code-cracking team.

The Imitation Game is not our only awards-bothering British academic biopic, as Eddie Redmayne transforms into Stephen Hawking for director James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything.

I saw this movie in a packed, expectant theatre, and it has taken the top spot at the UK box office.

Based on Hawking’s first wife’s memoirs, it’s on the sentimental end of the biopic spectrum. It does stay with you a bit longer, not because it is genuinely more affecting but because it drags a bit.

Once you get past predictable scenes with annoying Oxbridge types down the pub, the two leads, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones (as Jane Hawking) are fantastic.