Directed: Daniel Barnz (2015)

Jennifer Aniston learns suicide is far from painless in this dark, rich and tasty drama.

Playing a chronic pain sufferer who’s also coping with complex emotional issues, Aniston demonstrates how superb she can be with strong material. Hopefully this is a kick-start to an interesting new phase of her career.

With bad hair, baggy clothes and no make-up but copious scar-tissue, Claire Bennett (Aniston) is a divorcee with low self-esteem and high pain levels; sitting is awkward, standing is tricky and walking is difficult.

Despite months of physical therapy following an accident, her condition hasn’t improved. So Claire is self-medicating with wine and painkillers.

Doctors are scared of her and loyal maid Silvana (Adriana Barraza) is shouldering the emotional fallout as Claire indulges in unsatisfying trysts with the married pool guy and is kicked out of a support group due to anger management issues.

Nina (Anna Kendrick) was a support group friend who committed suicide by throwing herself from a multi-level motorway leaving only a succinct suicide note.

As an expression of Claire’s mental state, Nina now pops up for frequent fantasy conversations – in restaurants, in bed, even at a drive-in. Though Nina encourages Claire to commit suicide, these episodes are far more funny than morbid due to Kendrick’s sparky performance.

Claire is compelled to examine Nina’s life; visiting her grave, seeing the place where she died and even pitching up at the house where she lived – to the bemusement of widower Roy Collins (Sam Worthington).

Worthington’s screen presence can be underwhelming but here his dead pan delivery is warmly engaging and enjoys a sweet comic chemistry with Aniston.

Roy is not afraid to admit he’s bitter at his Nina’s choosing to leave him and their daughter. He and Claire bond over nachos, beer and anger issues. Both are looking for comfort and affection more than sex.

Aniston is the central ingredient of this sensitive, balanced, consistent and surprisingly humorous movie. With charm, intelligence, excellent timing and dramatic delivery she maintains our sympathies even when playing a complex, prickly and manipulative character.

Dusted with a light icing of hope this Cake is deeply satisfying, indulge yourself.


Director: Ron Howard (2013)

Roaring into the cinema is this amazing racing tale fuelled by testosterone, booze and occasionally petrol.

It charts James Hunt and Nikki Lauda’s rivalry as they race from Formula 3 to challenging for the F1 world title in 1976.

Both men have similar backgrounds of wealth and privilege – Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a champagne-quaffing show-off who sees racing as an extension of his social life. While Lauda (Daniel Brühl) is a yoghurt-eating Austrian who is arrogant, risk-averse and highly focused. He races because it offers huge financial rewards.

Each describes the other as assholes but only Lauda seems sufficiently self-aware to realise the term applies to both men equally.

The film creates great tension by focusing on the friction between the two men which is then released by the starter’s flag. The thrilling races are expertly staged, especially as they show how close stewards and spectators were to these ‘bombs on wheels’.

Among the parties, insults and weddings, Lauda suffers a near fatal crash that leaves him scarred yet defiantly he continues to race to the film’s gripping climax.

In this macho mechanical world the ladies fare badly; being married is seen as being incompatible with success and single women are disposable sex toys.

Sadly Hemsworth’s acting is hamstrung by the demands of maintaining an English accent and is at his best behind the wheel. Brühl is more convincing and the supporting cast are all excellent.

The film offers an great insight into the world of 1970s Formula 1. Smoking is allowed in the pit-lanes, rain is a common enemy and the drivers have to battle mechanical failure, financial disaster, personal demons, media interference and the politics of the racing authorities.

It’s a well-crafted story of competitive courage that’s told with humour and energy.


Director: Jean-Marc Vallée (2015)

Reese Witherspoon abandons her clean cut perky persona for sex and drugs in this meandering march to personal redemption.

Justifiably Oscar nominated she’s as engaging as ever playing the real-life Cheryl Strayed on whose memoir the story is based.

In order to distance herself from her chaotic past, Cheryl punishes herself by hiking alone over a thousand miles along the picturesque Pacific mountain trail; the barren deserts, snowy mountains and lush forests are all captured with tourist propaganda beauty.

Promiscuity, alcohol and drugs have contributed to a failed marriage, pregnancy and subsequent failed therapy. Despite her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) being a warm, inspiring and optimistic presence, it’s Bobbi’s story that has compounded Cheryl’s self-destructive behaviour and the trigger for her long walk.

Despite Cheryl’s anger issues we warm to her charm and humour, admiring her dogged determination and perseverance in maintaining a relationship with ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski).

With insufficient preparation she battles grief, guilt and remorse as well as extreme temperatures, rattlesnakes, gun-toting hillbillies, loneliness, lack of food, inelegant toilet facilities and large amounts of unwanted male attention.

Even so the walk itself is fairly uneventful and she receives the frequent help of strangers plus a welcome taste of romance.

With a far from satisfactory script structure from Brit writer Nick Hornby, the reasons for her trek revealed in a series of flashbacks. This means most of the drama has happened before the film has even begun, creating a void where the tension should be.

In heavy-handed fashion inspirational phrases are scrawled across the screen as if we’re not capable of listening to or understanding literature. Worse, there’s no consistent application of the conceit.

It’s an unusual criticism to make – but what this film seems to be lacking most is a train of camels.


Grace of Monaco

Director: Olivier Dahan (2014)

How is it possible to have made a terrible film like this out of such a remarkable story – the life of a Hollywood star who married into European royalty?

The tale of Grace Kelly, later Princess Grace of Monaco, has terrific elements – real-life drama, Tinseltown glamour, riches and royalty, fast cars, great locations, intrigue and international conflict.

But this is an insult to our intelligence. It is poorly cast and packed with unsympathetic characters who deliver dreadful dialogue with appalling accents. The script is terrible and the film looks like it has been edited with a hacksaw.

Stunningly beautiful and an Oscar-winner, Grace gives up her film career for a fairytale life in Monaco on the French Riviera. But now she is bored.

You need an actress who can make an audience sympathise with the plight of a beautiful, pampered, wealthy woman. Instead we get ice queen Nicole Kidman.

The self-pitying princess passes time watching videos of her wedding and, preposterously, is portrayed as an international diplomacy mastermind.

Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) pops by to offer her the title role in the film Marnie – playing a disturbed woman who was molested as a child. Grace, with the backing of her hubby Prince Rainier (Tim Roth), gladly accepts.

Dithering Rainier is trying to preserve his family’s lengthy rule by keeping Monaco as a tax haven for wealthy petrol-heads and gambling addicts.

However he’s driven to chain-smoking by the grasping president Charles de Gaulle (Andre Penvern) who wants to impose taxes on Monaco, exploiting the ‘scandal’ of Grace’s planned return to acting by trying to tax Monaco and threatening to blockade it.

In desperation, Grace takes a shopping trip to Paris and organises a jolly banquet to bring everyone together. Hoorah! And Marnie? In the end the role was taken by Tippi Hedren.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Director:  Jonathan Liebesman (2014)

Crawling out of New York sewers after a seven year hibernation these turtles really stink.

This is a damnably dull and witless reboot of a dormant franchise cobbled together with the least possible inspiration.

The plot, for what it’s worth, follows ambitious TV reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) as she teams up with the four mutant turtles to thwart criminal samurai Shredder and his Foot Clan gang’s plan to rule New York.

O’Neil is unwittingly used as bait by the clan to catch a vigilante who foils a dockside heist. The vigilante turns out to the four computer animated kickass turtles – Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael, voiced by Johnny Knoxville, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard and Alan Ritchson.

The quartet were raised in the sewers by the giant mutated rat and sensei master Splinter (Tony Shalhoub). They squabble, eat pizza, say ‘Cowabunga!’ and wear colour coded masks. Michelangelo is the most easily identifiable because he’s the most annoying.

April recognises them as the turtles she kept in her dad’s lab before he died in a mysterious fire. He was developing a mutagen that would eradicate disease. Luckily she kept all his scientific notes.

She tells her dad’s ex-partner turned industrialist Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) but he’s now in cahoots with Shredder and planning to use the turtles’ mutated blood to blackmail the city.

There are fights, chases, rocket launchers, exploding cars and remote controlled flying daggers. The film is sufficiently self-aware to be happy in pointing out how ridiculous it all is – but it’s the sloppy execution not the premise that’s the problem.

In another film Fox’s expressionless face and lack of dramatic range would be a severe hindrance – but here they’re just part of the overall ooze of ineptitude.

Mutants, ninjas and turtles all deserve better than this – probably teenagers as well.



Director: Dan Gilroy (2014)

Cut-throat and violent, the dark world of TV news is under the spotlight in this slick satirical thriller that is sharply written, wonderfully observed and terrifically performed.

With his gaunt face, sunken eyes, manic grin, lank-hair and soft-spoken measured delivery, Jake Gyllenhaal is mesmerisingly intense as a nightcrawler; a feral TV paparazzo prowling for the most bloody news footage.

Ambitious, articulate and cunning, loner Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a fervent believer in the American Dream.

Seeing opportunity everywhere he is permanently touting his (limited) skill-set and promoting his enthusiasm to any potential employer.

Inspired when he sees TV cameramen film police rescuing a woman from a car crash, he buys a camcorder and begins cruising the streets of Los Angeles at night, filming crimes to sell to TV.

His inexperienced enthusiasm leads to taking risks, falling foul of the law and his competitors such as the abrasive Joe Loder (Bill Paxton).

But he quickly learns to manipulate criminal events to further his career,

He sells his graphic footage to morally compromised, ageing and acerbic TV News chief Nina (a wonderful Rene Russo and real-life Mrs Dan Gilroy).

Nina’s show is struggling in the ratings and despite Lou being infatuated, exploits her perilous employment situation to secure a sweetheart deal for himself.

A driver Rick (Riz Ahmed) is employed on exploitative terms and provides the film with more black comedy; but he’s mostly a script device to give Lou someone to spout corporate career advice to.

Without any moral framework to guide him and driven by his love of the dollar, he has no compunction manipulating events even they spiral into violence and gunplay.

Bloom is a cartoon monstrosity and had he an ounce of doubt or remorse the drama would be improved. Instead he’s a one joke act lecturing us on the vicious amorality of capitalism. It is however, one hell of a joke.

Fifty Shades of Grey

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson (2015)

There’s lashings of domination but no romance in this steamy and silly fantasy as a billionaire grooms an eager student for his power-trip sex games.

A kinky combination of Pretty Woman and American Psycho lacking the charm of the former and the satire of the latter.

It’s based on the best selling novel by E. L. James and the writer keeps director Sam Taylor-Johnson on a short leash.

This is a shame as her great visual sense and sly wit are hamstrung by being bound tightly to the source material’s ropey plot and dialogue.

Anastasia ‘Ana’ Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a breathy, blushing brunette in a bad cardigan. She receives the opportunity to interview Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the university magazine. He’s a hunky, mega-wealthy, smart-suited super-creep.

Christian recognises the virginal Ana as a  suitable victim to be tutored to serve his own specific needs and begins to ply her with gifts.

He turns up at the hardware store where she works to buy some hobby materials; electrical cabling, grips and so on.

Soon she’s introduced to his private and exquisitely stocked dungeon, ‘the red room’.

In an entertainingly boardroom scene Christian asks Ana to sign a legally binding contract. In eye-watering detail it lists everything permissible in their future activities.

She must agree to be the submissive participant in his bondage sessions which are to include blindfolds, handcuffs and whips.

Both actors have impressive modelling CV’s and demonstrate excellent skills at looking great naked.

The most convincing fetish here is for a designer lifestyle of clothes, suits, accessories and furnishings: it’s a glossy centrefold advert of a production so edgy it features music by pop muppet Ellie Goulding.

There’s a trip in a glider because that what’s rich people do to emphasise how free-spirited they are.

As Ana is overwhelmed by passion for her new found pursuits, she grows more assertive which threatens the strict dynamic of their relationship.

If you liked the book you’ll probably enjoy this film but don’t tie yourself up in knots if you miss it.



Director: James Ward Byrkit (2015)

When a passing comet causes a space-time anomaly, it turns a dinner party into disaster in this dull and derivative sci-fi thriller.

Glossy, arty, unlikeable and poorly established characters bicker their way through a catastrophic storm of hyperactive camerawork and weak writing.

When phone signals, the internet and external power fail, Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Amir (Alex Manugian) head off to the only other neighbourhood house with lights on.

They intend to call Hugh’s physicist brother who warned about possible ill effects of the comet, it’s a wonder the brother isn’t called Bill Mason.

With no obvious leaders, the guests start squabbling like contestants on The Apprentice. Glamorous Emily (Emily Baldoni) starts to give partner Kevin (Maury Sterling) a hard time over a perceived slight at the table. Others make passes at each other’s partners. Their sense of priorities are more puzzling than their situation.

Someone turns to the bottle which seems a reasonable response to being cooped up with these idiots.

With close ups, shallow focus, jump cuts and restless shaky cam we’re treated to a full range of found-footage effects without this being a found-footage film – which is annoying when we realise there’s no character behind the camera to interact with the ones we can see.

Presumably the intention is to create intimacy and suggest forthcoming danger while visually preparing the ground for when these effects will be usefully employed.

But this distracting approach heightens the script’s failure to sufficiently identify the characters for the audience; we fail to engage with them or care what is happening. At times it would have been useful if they’d worn names on the backs of their clothes.

Having being lost in the dark space between houses, Hugh and Amir return injured and with a metal box. They’d encountered the inhabitants of the other house who were unfriendly and disturbingly looked exactly like themselves.

The box contains photos of themselves taken that very evening. Notes are stuck to their front door written in their own handwriting and personal items unexpectedly appear.

A book containing Hugh’s brother’s lecture notes is discovered in the back of a car. They offer a mercifully brief explanation using the coherence variation of quantum mechanics. Gwyneth Paltrow is mentioned alongside Schrodinger’s cat – which must be a first.

There’s more bickering and another splinter group wander off outside. A second Hugh arrives claiming to be the first Hugh and it dawns on the inmates there are more than two houses with identical occupants, increasingly mixed up between identical houses.

But when the comet passes the quantum anomaly will collapse and everyone must find their correct house – or be trapped in the wrong dinner party forever. Paranoia, suspicion and violence follow.


Two Night Stand

Director: Max Nichols (2015)

This sweet twenty-something rom-com is happier cuddling on the sofa than swinging from the chandeliers.

A pair of perky performers employ their personalities to massage some heat into the weak script. It’s observations on dating or life are not fresh, clever or funny enough.

Megan (Analeigh Tipton) is an unemployed med-school dropout. One evening she’s to be sex-iled for the evening by fun-loving Faiza (Jessica Szohr) and her hot boyfriend Cedric (Scott Mescudi).

Their rampant relationship exists to highlight what a sad loser Megan is for being single.

To get her out of the apartment they kindly suggest Megan goes online to search for a hookup; guilt-free casual sex with a stranger.

Signing up for the first time to a website, she quickly establishes a rapport with Alec (Miles Teller) and trots off to his place on the other side of New York.

He’s cocky, she’s ditzy and both are charming. Although it’s pleasant hanging out with the pair, our smiles never give way to laughter.

While trying to sneak out the morning after a night of passion, Megan accidentally wakes Alec up. Before Megan can say Meg Ryan they’re arguing – but an unexpected and heavy over night snowfall means she can’t leave the apartment.

Having fallen out but now forced to spend time together, they agree to pretend they didn’t have sex. They play ping pong, get high and build a den with fairy lights.

When Megan blocks the toilet and they break into next door to use the facilities, it’s a sign the script is straining; to keep us engaged and the couple at each other’s throats, not at each other’s pants.

But there’s only so much to occupy them before they are dragged by the gravity of romantic comedy back to the bedroom.

As the conversation returns to sex, they agree to critique last nights performances; discussing along the way topics such as whether girls should fake orgasms.

Generally the advice they share is not earth-moving but this is the standout scene. Otherwise neither have much to say.

Possibly through boredom, desperation or a desire to shut Alec up, Megan impulsively decides to road-test their advice.

Alec enthusiastically agrees. Forewarned is forearmed and their earlier critique leads to improved foreplay, as well as success in other departments.

As the medium to longterm outlook for the relationship seems full of promise, it’s discovered one of them has lied about their single status. There’s a fight, the snow storm abates and Megan heads home.

Once the snow is clear the script has little idea what to do and resorts to a New year’s Eve party and a night in the police cells. It jumps through hoops chasing a happy ending.

Two Night Stand takes a staggeringly optimistic view of online dating and raises unrealistic expectations of what one’s first online date will be like.

Rather than embracing its open approach to the singles sex scene it retreats to reinforce the persistently perpetuated myth of the perfect one existing somewhere for everybody.

For all it’s emphasis on honest talk, it never explains why Alec wakes up the morning after the night before wearing a T-shirt and boxer shorts.



Director: David Ayer (2014)

Hollywood big gun Brad Pitt rolls into action as a battle-hardened tank commander in this mud and guts war epic that takes no prisoners.

Engineered to a familiar and straight-forward narrative, US army Private Norman (Logan Lerman) is sent straight from basic training to the frontline as the Second World War draws to a bloody conclusion.

Despite being a uniformed clerk, recent losses mean he has to join a Sherman tank unit under the merciless leadership of Sergeant “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt).

Pitt is a trusted father figure to the crew who have been with him since the North African campaign  and include mechanic Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan – a barely recognisable Shia LaBeouf, plus driver ‘Gordo’ (Michael Pena) and gunner ‘Coon-Ass’ (Jon Bernthal).

Struggling to adapt to his close-knit and de-sensitised comrades, the raw recruit is pounded as their tank – nicknamed Fury – rumbles into a series of battles as they cross the muddy fields of Nazi Germany.

Bravery is matched by savagery as soldiers are blown up, burnt, decapitated, shot and stabbed. There’s a brief and tense period of R&R in a small town where liberation comes at a very personal price for the local women.

Then Wardaddy leads a convoy that encounters a militarily superior enemy Tiger tank and only the Fury survives to continue the mission to the ferocious finale.

Riveted together with excellent acting and direction, the phenomenal fight sequences leave you battered and bruised. Macho down to its army boots, this brilliant and brutal war movie that magnificently depicts war as hell.