The Boy Next Door

Director: Rob Cohen (2015)

A reckless one night stand leaves school-teacher Jennifer Lopez fearing more than detention in this sensationally silly stalker flick.

Indifferent direction, terrible dialogue and a soundtrack that rumbles with unintentional comic effect make this a thriller to avoid.

Struggling mum Claire (Lopez) is rescued from a descending garage door by the hunky Noah (Ryan Guzman). New to the neighbourhood he’s the 19 year old great nephew of the cancer sufferer next door.

With chiselled good looks, perfect grooming and oiled-up abs, Noah looks and acts as if he’s stepped out of a coke commercial. It turns out he’s a transfer pupil to the high-school where Claire teaches.

Noah fixes the family car and makes himself useful around the house. He befriends Claire’s teenage son Kevin (Ian Nelson), intervenes with the local bullies, takes him for target practice and teaches him to box.

As soon as Claire’s estranged husband Garrett (John Corbett) takes Kevin on a camping trip, Noah and Claire are bonding over literature. He pops round to gift Claire a first edition of Homer’s The Iliad.

One dark and stormy night while the boys are away, Noah seduces Claire with the aid of a frozen chicken. She’s quickly demonstrating a nice line in lingerie and her own buff abs – but their steamy night of passion is secretly filmed.

When Claire wakes up she realises her career, family and life are at stake. But overnight Noah has developed a raging Oedipal complex and breathtaking anger management issues.

Claire’s attempts to gently reject him are not well received and Noah takes to playing rock music really loudly in his car as a sign of how truly peeved he is.

Noah tries to pressure Claire into a repeat performance by leaving incriminating graffiti and photographs around the school, so she confides in her vice-principal and best friend Vicky (Kristin Chenoweth).

There’s an unconvincing car crash, some computer hacking, a fractured skull and people are tied up in a barn.

Dutch camera angles, an awry colour palette and a shuddering dissonant soundtrack are employed to illustrate Noah’s inner anguish and rage. Possibly because Guzman is reluctant to project it himself.

Lopez is a decent actress who excels with strong direction, a decent script and talented co-stars – none of which she benefits from here.

This could have been a gleefully vicious and hilarious black comedy similar to The Guest, instead it’s an insipid and stupid compendium of recycled riffs and ideas.

☆☆☆☆

It Follows

Director:  David Robert Mitchell (2015)

The sex life of a young girl returns to haunt her in this teen queen scream horror show.

Employing intelligence, tremendous technique and a great central performance, this is an original, nerve-rippingly tense and supremely scary shocker.

Jay (Maika Monroe) is attacked by kind-of-boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) after sex in the car. She wakes to find herself strapped into a chair in an abandoned carpark.

As a naked woman slowly walks towards them, Hugh explains he has passed a curse onto Jay.

Unless she can pass the curse on through sex to someone else, she will be stalked forever by the monster – the It – until she’s caught and killed. When she’s dead the monster will move back down the line to Hugh and kill him and so on.

The relentless, slow moving It always takes on the form of a loved one and is disturbingly effective as it lumbers after Jay

Armed only with a conscience Jay shies away from what she sees as nuclear option of making others a victim to save herself. Her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friends Paul, Yara and Greg (Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi and Daniel Zovatto) rally to help.

Everything is played at face value and is more involving for it. There’s no comedic meta banter about how teenagers behave in horror films.

Up to the point when Jay’s willpower breaks there’s intrigue in guessing who her choice will fall on. The film is canny enough to suggest she pays an emotional price for her behaviour.

Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis carefully controlled camera is often stationary but will occasionally turn in hypnotic loops. The editing by Julio Perez IV is equally seductive.

Set in Detroit, the decaying city is a major character, suggestive of an Eden destroyed. After a few days hiding, their shared bedroom begins to resemble a drug-ridden squat.

The first house we see is number 1492, linking the history of America with sex, violence and death.

Although set in contemporary USA, the production design is rooted in the past with cathode ray TV’s, clamshell phones and classic films playing at the cinema. There is too much stonewashed denim.

Sparse dialogue is punctuated by a thunderous industrial synth soundtrack that belongs in the 1980’s, strengthening the It as an AIDS metaphor. But there’s no heavy-handed message to interrupt the assured and creepy storytelling.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Director: John Madden (2015)

In this sedate comedy drama sequel, the ex-pat British residents of the Indian hotel offer comfy accommodation and make few demands on your attention.

A colourful backdrop can’t brighten up dull goings-on as familiar faces tread a predictable path over a well worn plot.

Sonny (Dev Patel) and Muriel (Maggie Smith) want to expand their hotel business by buying the Hotel Splendid. So they travel to San Diego to meet potential investors to finance the deal.

Back in Jaipur, silver haired and silver tongued American writer Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) arrives unannounced. Snobbish and insecure idiot Sonny is convinced he is a secret inspector sent by the investors to spy on their business.

Sonny is so pre-occupied with keeping Guy happy he neglects bridezilla fiancee Sunaina (Tena Desae), pushing her towards the handsome, wealthy Kushal (Shazad Latif).

Patel’s agitated playing grates rather than charms or entertains, Smith’s cockney charlady accent is inconsistent while Desae mostly spends her time dancing or scolding.

Meanwhile it’s all a little Are You Being Served? on the Costa Plonka as several hotbeds of passion are in full swing. Guy has his glad eye on Sonny’s glamorous mother Mrs. Kapoor (Lillete Dubey). Madge (Celia Imrie) is after anything in or out of trousers.

As Evelyn (Judi Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) work up the courage to seize the day – and each other – his wife Jean (Penelope Wilton) turns up.

There’s a bit of a carry on when Norman (Ronald Pickup) inadvertently hires a tuc tuc driver as a hit-man to assassinate his girlfriend Carol (Diana Hardcastle).

Among the stunning scenery of rural Jaipur there are elephants, cows and camels. Street markets bustle with hard bargaining and backhand payments. Mumbai has airports, air conditioning, business conferences and heavy traffic.

Residents are affected by the universal ailments longing, loss and loneliness but room is also found for optimism in late middle age.

The ending suggests a loss of nerve by the scriptwriters who otherwise bandy creaky knee jokes about with abandon. As well as equally creaky ones about hips, eyes, backbones and mortality.

The actors aren’t asked to exert themselves so much as to risk an injury and it’s all far too familiar to be exotic. Definitely second best, at best.

☆☆☆

Focus

Director: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa (2015)

Using the glossy glow of its stars and dazzling colour palette, this stupid and sexist heist movie tries to distract our focus from its failings.

In a buddy movie without a buddy, there’s no intelligence, danger, tension, fun or sexual frisson. Jokes fall flat from a 1980’s throwback of a script with Will Smith‘s once assured delivery the most culpable.

With no-one to riff off he delivers an unusually tired performance from a self-satisfied script. It works like patchwork not clockwork and seems stitched together from other films, all better than this one.

Incompetent pickpocket Jess (Margot Robbie) fails to hustle super-slick conman Nicky (Smith). It’s hard to tell whether Jess is playing dumb or simply dumb.

Nicky explains that a successful con relies like a magic trick on distracting the victim’s focus. One of his cons is strikingly similar to the work of British illusionist Derren Brown.

Persuading Nicky to mentor her, Jess joins his huge crew of high-living con-men as they fleece unsuspecting tourists in New Orleans. We’re supposed to be impressed by their flash tricks as they callously steal wallets, cameras, phones and watches from ordinary people.

Jess and Nicky share an over-abundance of banter but no chemistry and can’t keep their hands off each other.

There’s an interlude at an American football game which has no relevance to the rest of the story. It does at least have an entertaining performance from BD Wong as the wealthy gambler Liyuan.

Characters such as Nicky’s right hand man Horst (Brennan Brown) are written in and out on a whim and act without comprehensible motivation.

After making a huge stash of cash, Nicky abruptly terminates their relationship for no explained reason and abandons her at the airport, albeit with a considerable financial advantage.

Three years later in Argentina, Nicky is hired by racing car team boss Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) to indulge in a little corporate skulduggery.

In the close knit world of professional racing Nicky pretends to be a disgruntled engineer defecting with technical secrets to the opposition, ran by boorish Australian McEwen (Robert Taylor).

However when Jess turns up as Garriga’s girlfriend Nicky must confront his feelings for her, threatening the big con.

We’re given no reason to like the lead characters other than they’re insanely glamorous. He has a vaguely troubled personal history and she’s avoided becoming a prostitute. Far from being a romance the most important relationship is between Nicky and his father.

Nicky is always presented as powerful; wearing shades and suits while leaning out of soft-top cars. Jess suffers the camera leering over her as she parades in bikini and heels.

The coarse and laugh-free dialogue has Nicky spouting science says women are easily persuaded by soft words and trinkets. He stalks, seduces and exploits Jess before reducing her to being a nurse with a meal ticket.

Jess is possibly the only female with a speaking role.

It ends with an astonishingly predictable sting in the tail stolen from a far superior couple of con-men.

★☆☆☆☆

The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorsese (2014)

Making money has never seemed so debauched as in this glossy, foul–mouthed and darkly comic biopic.

The fifth collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio colourfully captures the outrageous world of crooked Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort.

It’s a blisteringly charismatic turn by DiCaprio as Belfort, a rampant, ravenous and depraved monster whose ego dominates the film.

Margot Robbie plays his underdressed trophy wife Naomi, but to her credit she isn’t overwhelmed by DiCaprio’s gleeful grandstanding.

In typical Scorsese style, dynamic camera-work and a storming soundtrack thrust us through criminal, chemical and domestic abuse while dressed in trashy clothes and driving a fleet of flash cars.

It is Scorsese’s finest film since his mobster masterpiece Goodfellas (1990). It’s similarly structured and high with comedy – at times it’s hilarious.

As Belfort talks directly to camera while walking you through his life, the dialogue even features some of the same key words and phrases to underline how crooked Wall Street is.

A ruthlessly brilliant salesman – imagine Gordon Gekko on Class A drugs – Belfort’s rapid rise is powered by his ability to foster corrupt practises among his employees and his business partner Donnie (Jonah Hill).

He doesn’t bother to explain in detail to the audience how it works but points to his huge spoils to prove hat it does. There are beds full of cash, planes full of prostitutes, showers of drugs, monkeys on rollerskates and dwarf-throwing contests.

Eventually the FBI chase him for his insider trading and his career, house and marriage are at risk.

In his most exhilarating movie since Casino and his best since Goodfellas, Scorsese points out that the wolf can only exist as a result of our greedy gullibility.

It failed to win any of the Oscars it was nominated for; best film, director, male lead, male support for Hill and best adapted screenplay. As DiCaprio couldn’t win a golden statue for this titanic effort – he may as well give up trying.

After Earth

Director: M. Night Shyamalan (2013)

Young Jaden Smith takes top billing over his megastar dad Will in this handsome and old school sci-fi adventure.

The pair are travelling on a space ship across the cosmos 1,000 years after Earth has been abandoned because of pollution.

Will and Jaden play father and son Prime Commander Cypher Raige and Kitai Raige – who are the only survivors after they crash on a quarantined world.

Warrior Cypher is injured and Kitai must travel alone to recover the signalling device from the other half of the wrecked craft, which lies nearly 100 miles away.

Kitai sets off with limited oxygen supplies, his dad’s nifty electric sword and his own smart survival suit, which changes colour to indicate danger.

Because Cypher has a broken leg, Will spends most of the film confined to a chair barking radio orders to his son. Kitai is headstrong but brave as he encounters baboons, snakes, leeches, giant eagles, tigers and a large, angry, alien beastie.

For the most part the film is an exciting adventure story of a young man striving to grow up and be the measure of his father.

Some of the CGI creatures are not as convincing or as impressive as the beautifully presented cities and spacecraft.

It is an interesting experiment to cast the two Smiths and then ask both of them not to make jokes or attempt to be funny.

Jaden strains every sinew of his acting ability to carry the film while Will keeps his charm and sense of humour mostly buried beneath a stern exterior.

☆☆

Serena

Director: Susanne Bier (2014)

Love, madness and corruption collide with catastrophic results in this compelling Depression-era drama.

Based on the novel by Ron Rash, it brings together Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as on-screen lovers for the second time in an exquisite exploration of the pernicious power of passion.

George Pemberton (Cooper) is a logging company owner in North Carolina. In the wake of the Wall St. crash he’s struggling to finance an ambitious business project in Brazil.

Meanwhile as he tries to fend off central government plans for a National Park on his land, the local sheriff McDowell (Toby Jones) is investigating his firm for corruption.

At a society party George is smitten by the beautiful, strong-minded Serena (Lawrence). Following an impetuous romance, he whisks her off to the Smoky Mountains where she wins over a sceptical workforce with her knowledge and attitude.

With his leading man looks decked out in stubble, leather jacket and wide brimmed hat, Cooper is solidly convincing as the panther-hunting entrepreneur. Lawrence has yet to deliver a poor performance and doesn’t disappoint here. There is an easy comparison to be made between the characters of Serena and Lady McBeth – but Cleopatra may be a better fit.

Talented and handsome, the leading couple share a resonant chemistry. They nicely underplay a ripe script which helps to navigate some unsteady plotting littered with symbolism and told at a measured pace.

The Swedish director is fascinated with cultural context, mixing superstition and religion with labour disputes and a keenly observed social hierarchy. It’s a shame the many interesting minor characters are too often pushed into the background.

Electricity, the railroads and mechanisation are changing a landscape filled with bears, eagles, snakes and horses; the impressive attention to period detail and epic landscapes are captured by the rich cinematography of Morten Søborg.

Gradually George’s devotion to his bride begins to cloud his judgement and she exploits every opportunity to encourage his independence away from his business partner Buchanan (David Dencik). An accident sees a hunting guide called Galloway (Rhys Ifans) declare his loyalty to her.

When Serena is unable to provide George with the healthy heir they crave; deceit, jealousy and murder follow.