While We’re Young

Director: Noah Baumbach (2015)

A couple are re-energised when they hang with trendy new friends in this New York comedy drama.

Filled with topical commentary about social media, it’s well-paced with an engaging cast delivering strong performances.

But though it’s inspired by the New York films of Woody Allen it lacks his sharp one-liners. Plus there’s too much tired baby-orientated observational humour on the difficulties and disappointments of parenting and there’s some even weaker stuff about fading eyesight and creaky backs.

The relationship of forty-something childless couple Josh and Cornella (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) is thrown into relief by the newborn baby of contemporaries Marina and Fletcher (Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz).

Horovitz is better known as a former member of the once controversial hip hop group The Beastie Boys. It’s an achingly-knowing in-joke which threatens to stifle this world of middle-class comfort in a cloud of an intolerable smugness.

As an antidote to ageing, unfulfilled and angst-ridden Josh starts to hang out with twenty-something hipsters Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) whose generosity of spirit gives a fillip to Josh’s career and home-life.

Josh is a documentary film-maker whose latest film is an attempt to explain America in all it’s complex economic, political and intellectual glory. Production has stalled, eight years into production.

Clearly Josh is a surrogate for writer-director Baumbach who is attempting to explore contemporary America but through the medium of comedy-drama instead. Maybe he’s not an interpretative dance sort of guy.

While We’re Young is an enquiry as to how the development of technology has changed society’s relationship itself.

This runs parallel with a critique of nepotistic Hollywood’s obsession with youth and it’s struggle to adapt or even understand the way young people interpret their online experience as part of their everyday life.

Then Baumbach throws in another baby joke to lighten the mood.

While Josh’s baby boomer father-in-law Leslie (Charles Grodin) once made documentaries with integrity, Josh is consumed by the process not the end product. Millennials such as Jamie and Darby are obsessed with the success of the end product – not the product itself. They’re happy to twist any truth to create an online buzz to achieve the success they crave.

Josh and Jamie begin a documentary project and as it proceeds Josh descends into paranoia and jealousy. There’s betrayal, infidelity, drugs, an all night gay bar, hallucinogenics and vomiting.

Cinematographer Sam Levy producers some great camerawork, tracing characters through the streets as they have conversations on the move. One lovely reverse tracking shot follows two characters cycling – the shot itself raises a smile even if the laboured humour doesn’t.

Writer Baumbach cleverly exploits the audience’s awareness of Hollywood script structure to deliver a couple of twists on a traditional finale. Plus he creates several frequently annoying but believable characters.

The exception is Jamie’s sexy flatmate Tipper (Dree Hemingway) who is woefully under-written. Played by the daughter of one-time Woody Allen muse Mariel, she’s reduced to a couple of ironically logo’d T shirts and demonstrates Baumbach hasn’t yet mastered Allen’s art of creating characters with a couple of deft brush-strokes.

It ends with another wry baby joke. As far as baby jokes go it’s not awful and is in tune with Baumbach’s themes but it’s predictable and not funny.

There’s no shortage of ambition or craft to admire in While We’re young, I just didn’t find the self-obsessed characters as interesting or amusing as the film itself does.

Blade Runner watch – the soundtrack is used during a purging ceremony.

The Decent One

Director: Vanessa Lapa (2015)

This tightly-focused documentary portrait of high-ranking Nazi Heinrich Himmler is all the more gripping for being told in his own mundane words.

It is based on documents belonging to Himmler, his wife Margarete, daughter Gudrun and mistress Hedwig. Their diaries and letters were controversially not handed over to the post-war military authorities but kept hidden for years.

Actors to bring a voice to their words while personal photographs and home-movies provide visual insight.

Tracing Himmler’s life from birth, we’re taken through Himmler’s comfortable middle-class upbringing to his high-ranking Nazi career and eventual capture and suicide at the end of the Second World War.

He was a sickly child and a ‘B’ grade school pupil. His casual anti-semitism and support for a militarised Germany were evident at an early age.

Between the wars at university in Munich, he joins an exclusive Apollo fraternity. They discuss degeneracy in society, the dangers posed by homosexuality and the ‘Jewish question’. He reads Oscar Wilde which puts him in a terrible mood.

An unprepossessing, balding man in round glasses, he is a natural, accomplished bureaucrat and quickly rises in the burgeoning Nazi party.

As Germany goes to war, he rises to the head of the SS and we’re provided with a contrast between the careerists comfortable life and the deadly consequences of his work.

He is supported and encouraged by Margarete and he describes her anti-semitism as charming. She takes great pride in his success and both enjoy the material benefits of his labour.

Beginning as flirtatious love-letters, the focus of their writing changes to the dull routines of his work and her domestic organisation. Their very ordinary concerns and casual bigotry puts the horror of his actions into sharp relief.

In the summer of 1942 he instigates the Final Solution, the systematic extermination of all Jews in German territory. As he father’s a child with his mistress Hedwig, he’s also exploring ways of sterilising all Jewish women.

The director (a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors) manipulates the material to create a well-paced and intelligent work with a strong narrative thread.

The film assumes an audience’s basic knowledge of twentieth century German history and politics. We see footage of the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 but we’re not told the significance of the event or even have described to us what we’re seeing.

Aeroplanes fly in swastika formation and there are book burning rallies. Hitler lurks mostly off-stage and is referred to as ‘the boss’.

As we hear Himmler’s thoughts on homosexuality, we treated to images of squads of healthy semi-naked german beefcakes exercising in the open air. It’s a small touch of humour and possibly the film’s last before it covers the war years. The tacit suggestion is perhaps Himmler protests too much.

There is horrific footage of the concentration camps with naked cadavers thrown into trucks by survivors. With no remorse from Margarete or Gudrun, the postscript is as eye-opening as anything else we witness.

The Water Diviner

Director: Russell Crowe (2015)

Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe makes an ambitious directorial debut in this handsome and exciting period action adventure.

Set in Turkey in the aftermath of the First World War, it’s a sweeping and occasionally sentimental story filled with sacrifice, suffering, grief, duty, mysticism and romance.

Crowe casts himself as Joshua Connor, a farmer and the titular water diviner. We first encounter him and his loyal dog in the digging in the red dusty earth for water. Crowe the director cheekily demonstrates his confidence by riffing on Daniel Day-Lewis in 2007’s There Will Be Blood.

After the tragic death of his wife he swears on her grave he will return with the bodies of their three sons. Four years earlier they were all lost in the battle of Gallipoli on the Turkish peninsular. The money-grabbing church offers no solace to Connor, he’s even smacked with a cross at one point.

He travels from the Outback to Istanbul where he struggles against pickpockets, the Turkish resistance, invading Greeks and the belligerent British army bureaucracy.

Connor’s helped along the way by Turkish soldiers Major Hasan and Sergeant Jemal (Yilmaz Erdogan and Cem Yilmaz). He also finds plenty of time to form a gentle bond with a beautiful hotel receptionist.

Turkish culture is treated with respect and in some detail. We see inside the fabulous Blue Mosque and witness several political protests. There are markets, religious ceremonies, brothels, cigarettes and raki. As a cultural exchange Connor teaches the Turks to play cricket.

The Water Diviner is built with the director’s virtues; it’s solid, honest, macho and hard-working, it’s easy on the eye and and offers unexpected moments of charm and humour.

Crowe underplays his own performance but still allows himself a lot of derring-do. There’s plenty of riding, fighting, drinking and even a rooftop escape to keep him busy.

As director he delivers some terrific action moments – especially an excellent sandstorm sequence – and there’s a harrowing depiction of trench warfare. We see the retreat form Gallipoli from the Turkish point of view, proving their soldiers are as brave and foolhardy as the ANZACS.

The film is less steady when Crowe approaches the delicate subject of the opposite sex, demonstrating he’s more comfortable with animals and children than he is with women. Connor even confesses he’s no good at courtship – it could be the director speaking.

There’s a decent stab at providing the character of Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) with more to do than just being the love interest. She’s intelligent and proud yet realistic about life. As well as beating carpets and fetching wood, she runs the hotel and cares for her invalid father. She faces choices about her future which will affect her son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades).

Kurylenko seems uncertain in her early scenes though she improves as the film progresses – however the candlelit romantic subplot with Connor slows down the story when it should be gathering pace.

Faring far less well as a rounded character is her friend Natalia the prostitute (Isabel Lucas). She’s ever so jolly and lives upstairs in the hotel.

Crowe has thrown himself into the deep-end with this film but it’s no surprise he swims not sinks under the pressure.

Fast & Furious 7

Director: James Wan (2015)

Despite the mid-shoot death of star Paul Walker, the latest high-octane vehicle to roll off the Furious production line demonstrates there’s no end of the road in sight for this glossy franchise juggernaut.

It’s a typical cacophony of tanked up car-nage powered by the winning performances of Walker and a billiard of bald action co-stars; Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel and Jason Statham.

Racing from London to Azerbaijan, Abu Dhabi and Los Angeles in a whirl of screaming tyres, knuckle-crunching fist-fights and shoot-outs, it picks up camels, military drones and helicopter gunships along the way.

What the series lacks is an easily identifiable theme for when the action kicks into gear, such as enjoyed by James Bond and the Mission Impossible films.

Following directly from the previous instalment, former British Special Forces Assassin Deckard Shaw (Statham) swears revenge for the injuries sustained by his brother.

Holding Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his crew of drivers whom responsible, Shaw uses the office computer of Special Agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) to discover their whereabouts – and then beats him up for good measure.

This allows Johnson to spend the greatest part of the film recuperating in bed. Despite being plastered prominently in the advertising posters, Johnson bookends the film rather than play a major part. His eventual reintroduction towards the end sees him striding about like Schwarzeneggar in Terminator 2.

When Toretto discovers his former comrade Kang has been murdered by Shaw, he sets out to find the assassin before Shaw can find him.

In walks supercool special operative Frank Petty (Kurt Russell) and puts Toretto’s team back together. Regular franchise watchers will recognise them as Brian, Letty, Roman and Tej (Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson and Chris Bridges).

It takes a while to adapt to seeing Russell – who earlier in his career played Snake PlisskenJack Burton and Elvis – as a government suit.

Petty works in an extremely busy yet surprisingly quiet car factory. He offers the team the use of the God’s Eye, a super-powerful computer program that will trace the whereabouts of Shaw.

But there’s a catch; the hacker who created it – Megan Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) – has been kidnapped and Toretto’s team have to rescue her before they can access the God’s Eye.

This results in a brilliant mountainside chase is the movie’s best sequence and seems partly inspired by Michael Caine’s classic car caper The Italian Job (1969).

Another nod to a major a movie occurs in Los Angeles when a line of mannequins is destroyed immediately before a chase down the 2nd Street Tunnel. I doubt many of 2015’s mega-plex fillers will have the confidence to casually throw in a Blade Runner reference.

Fast Furious 7 works because no matter how preposterous the excellently executed action, all the actors play their roles with cast-iron conviction without once mugging or winking to the camera.

However the film does run away with itself. Except for the brief scene where Shaw is cornered in an old factory, the entire middle section set in Abu Dhabi could be jettisoned.

Although it provides for yet more bikini opportunities, a decent high-rise stunt and some cultural damage involving Chinese Terracotta soldiers, the film would be tightened up and considerably improved without it.

Due to Walker’s accidental death, various techniques were used to complete his scenes in a mostly seamless way.

His brothers Cody and Caleb stood in for him in certain shots and the director added footage of the actor from the earlier films. Some digital manipulation was also used to complete certain scenes.

This enable the producers to deliver a coherent movie which doubles as a fitting and touching tribute to the much-missed action star.

Robot Overlords

Director: Jon Wright (2015)

In this determinedly old school sci-fi adventure, a British teenager rallies the resistance against giant alien robots.

It has an energetic and engaging cast and some nifty design but with a story which might just squeeze as a last minute filler into the pages of 2000AD – still the galaxy’s greatest comic – it feels and looks too much like an extended episode of Dr Who.

For three years alien invaders have locked up the Earth’s population in their own homes. They claim they will leave when they have finished studying the human race.

Incineration is the penalty for breaking the nightly curfew, it’s enforced by heavily-armoured robots who patrol the streets and the skies.

Electronic implants are used to identify the population and track their whereabouts.

When an accident leads to the discovery of how to disconnect his tagging device, teenager Sean (Callan McAuliffe) goes looking for his Dad who went missing in action fighting the initial invasion.

He’s accompanied more or less willingly by friends Nathan and Alexandra (James Tarpey and Ella Hunt).

Meanwhile his mother Kate (Gillian Anderson) is left to fight off the attentions of collaborator Robin Smythe (Ben Kingsley).

The robots are nicely designed in a Robocop Ed-209 kind of way which is definitely this year’s most popular model.

Nor can there be enough sci-fi films using WWII Spitfires in an airborne attack.

Anderson and Kingsley add a touch of acting gloss and there’s an undoubted effort to entertain – but charm and enthusiasm can only engage or interest for so long.

A couple of characters are pointedly seen reading an old copy of 2000AD.

Shotgun toting, bullet-headed cockney hard-man Wayne (Tamer Hassan) seems based on Invasion!’s Bill Savage. He even looks a little like Stanley Baker on whom the character was originally modelled.

I’ve read 2000AD since Prog 64 and would love to see more films adaptions of its characters but It’s possible the complexity and scale of the writing defeats Hollywood’s finest.

2012’s excellent Dredd was a vast improvement on Sylvester Stallone’s maligned 1995 effort.

Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 Robocop which comes closest to capturing the comic’s manic satirical spirit and this year’s Ex Machina shows how intelligent and entertaining sci-fi can be done.

Robot Overlords is as straightforward as it’s title, I just wished I enjoyed it more than I did.

Seventh Son

Director: Sergei Bodrov (2015)

A young pig farmer is taught to battle supernatural forces in this ploddingly derivative fantasy adventure.

A bombastic score can’t drown out laughable dialogue while eccentric and uneven performances wrestle with a dull script.

In an unspecified medieval country, seventh son of a seventh son Tom Ward (Ben Barnes) lives a humble life on a remote lakeside farm.

He suffers premonitions which give a glimpse of what the film holds for us but don’t benefit him in any way.

One day a Spook (witch-hunter) called John Gregory (Jeff Bridges) arrives to buy Tom from his family to serve as an apprentice. Before Tom leaves, his Mam (Olivia Williams) gives him a medallion.

In Gregory’s hideaway full of weapons and potions – like a medieval Bat-cave – Tom learns the names of a lot of useful sounding potions and how to throw a knife.

He also nicks a joke from James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven – which turns out to be the best joke in this film.

Tom discovers Gregory is the last in a line of an order of Knights called the Falcons – which makes them sound like a witch-hunting Rugby Club.

Meanwhile the evil shape-changing queen witch Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore) has escaped the pit Gregory had nailed her inside. She wants revenge and to rule the world.

In seven days there’s a one-in-a-hundred-years blood moon whose mystic powers will make Malkin unstoppable. I’m still not sure why.

Tom and Gregory are assisted by the indestructible and much maligned manservant Tusk (John DeSantis). This loyal and hard-working creature is the butt of a cruel running gag about his looks.

The only other humour comes from Bridges habitually boozing. There are only so many jokes you can steal from a classic Western after all.

En route to thwart Malkin they meet the comely Alice (Alicia Vikander) who is accused of being a witch. She looks fetching in leather trousers and makes a pretty pair with Barnes, even if they struggle to establish a rapport.

With a young apprentice called to adventure by a magi to rescue a princess, this is a sorry trudge through the familiar tropes of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The bones of the perfunctory plot are fleshed out with impressive CGI and weighty production design. ‘Legends and nightmares are real’ claims Gregory.

But due to the lack of rounded characters or careful crafting of a convincing universe, we never engage with the story.

It can’t be bothered to invent it’s own encompassing mythology. A ghast is called a level six creature as if this was a game of Dungeons and Dragons – but who knows what the other levels are.

There’s no attempt to fill in cultural details such as history, geography or language. Plus a lack of place names and no relationship between locations.

The major conurbation is ‘The Walled City’. It’s two days travel from somewhere but we’re never told where. There’s no coherent sense of distance or time. Everyone simply moves and arrives.

Bridges delivers a wildly eccentric performance, pitching his accent somewhere between Tom Hardy as Bane in the The Dark Knight Rises and Sean Connery in anything – though most likely The Name of the Rose.

Julianne Moore is distracted or possibly bored. When she and Bridges square off I giggled at the memory of their appearance in 1998’s The Big Lebowski – particularly the Gutterballs scene. It’s more fun and inspired than anything here.

Kit Harington wanders through as Gregory’s former apprentice Billy Bradley. He appears in a tavern scene which may or may not be inspired by Val Kilmer in Tombstone.

Assassins and inquisitors rub shoulders in the shabbily thought out mythology. There’s lots of sword fights and incinerations and people shapeshift into bears, leopards and dragons.

At different times Tom is attacked by a giant mole and a possessed suit of armour, but only because current Hollywood lore demands an action scene every ten minutes. Neither episode contribute to plot or character development in any meaningful way.

One four-armed swordsman recalls the work of the great Ray Harryhausen but this shambolic load of warlocks lacks the charm and narrative clarity of his brilliant work.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water

Director: Paul Tibbitt & Mike Mitchell (2015)

With a collision of competing animated styles and live action scenes, this animated sequel is a disposable trippy adventure.

Stuffed to the gills with daft innocent fun, not all the jokes work but so many are thrown at you some are bound to make you laugh.

Having never experienced the global phenomenon of the TV series or the first SpongeBob Squarepants movie added to my bewildered enjoyment.

The story pinballs around from a fast food spat to industrial espionage, the apocalypse, inter-planetary collision and an Hawaiian beach fight.

Someone has clearly paid attention to the success and appeal of Marvel superheroes  and The Pirates of the Caribbean franchises as the finale involves a battle between superheroes and a pirate.

There’s a magic book, dinosaurs, talking seagulls and rainbow vomit. By the time the laser-sporting space Dolphin arrived I was powerless to resist the good-natured chaos.

In SpongeBob’s underwater home town of Bikini Bottom, the theft of the Krusty Krab Krabby Patty secret formula leads to a shortage of the popular fast-food, Krabby Pattys.

This results in pitchfork waving townsfolk and a reign of terror. For a moment it’s all very reminiscent of 2007’s The Simpsons Movie which also had an apocalypse theme.

Annoying voiced SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) is nauseatingly optimistic and nice, very much in the mould of Roger Rabbit.

He sets out to forge a team out of his dim, cowardly and selfish friends to regain the secret formula and restore order.

This leads him and his friends Patrick, Squidward, Mr. Krabs and Sandy Cheeks (Bill Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Clancy Brown and Carolyn Lawrence) joining with their enemy Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) to build a photo booth time machine to search through time and space.

Eventually they confront the villainous Burger-Beard (Antonio Banderas) who is using the formula to sell his own pirate burgers and plans to conquer the fast food world.

Like it’s fast food plot, this sequel is best enjoyed while its hot and fresh and will probably lose it’s appeal after more than one serving.