Danny Collins

Director: Dan Fogelman (2015)

Al Pacino goes full showbiz as a jaded rock star seeking redemption in this entertaining comedy drama.

It’s vaguely based on the true story of folk singer Steve Tilston who belatedly received a letter from John Lennon long after the Beatle’s death.

Although unforgivably sentimental fluff, it’s saved by the talent and charm of its cast.

Plus the soundtrack of John Lennon’s greatest hits doesn’t hurt.

Danny Collins (Pacino) lives in a world of private jets, fast cars, mansions and age-inappropriate women.

In a girdle, fake tan and stack heels he looks alarmingly like TV’s David Dickinson on dress down Friday.

But Danny is weary from playing his greatest hits to his ageing fan-base.

His insufferably catchy pop anthem ‘Hey Baby Doll’ (written by Ciaran Gribbin and Greg Agar) sounds like something Neil Diamond would have discarded as too populist.

On Danny’s birthday his manager Frank (Christopher Plummer) gifts him a framed letter bought from a memorabilia collector.

It was written by John Lennon – but never delivered – 40 years earlier.

It inspires Danny to abandon his tour, give up drugs and drink (sort of) and check into a cheap hotel to start writing songs.

He also wants to correct his life’s mistakes and reaches out to his estranged son Tom (Bobby Cannavale).

Jennifer Garner plays Tom’s knowingly sweet wife Smantha.

Through sparky banter with hotel manager Mary (Annette Bening) Danny rediscovers his muse and his mojo.

The engaging actors plough their years of craft and experience into making their performances seem natural and effortless.

It’s an enjoyably loose performance from Pacino who refrains from his usual hoohah histrionics and is all the more engaging for it.

One wonders how much autobiography drew Pacino – himself a titan of 1970’s cinema and hasn’t had the most successful run in the last twenty years – to the role of a man who was huge in the 70’s and has been coasting on former glories ever since.

Pacino is very generous towards his co-stars, allowing them to dominate scenes and has his thunder stolen repeatedly by a motor-mouthed moppet; Tom’s precociously cute daughter, Sophie (Giselle Eisenberg).

Pacino’s not a terrible singer but he’s forced to growl his way through a dirge called ‘Don’t Look Down’ like a latter-day Johnny Cash.

The script holds up John Lennon as a paragon of artistic integrity – which is interesting as his musical estate is the biggest sell-out in the movie.

It also lacks confidence in being able to sell it’s tale of redemption to the audience, so it throws in ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and cancer to keep our sympathies on board.

This isn’t hugely successful as Danny’s solution to any problem is to throw money at it or write a song – not options many people can identify with.

As a result the film runs out of steam and ends abruptly – with the happy benefit of not out-staying its welcome.

Results

Director: Andrew Bujalski (2015)

Feel the lack of comic burn in this gym-based romcom which is stubbornly resistant to breaking a sweat in order to raise a smile.

Impressively buff former lovers Trevor and Kat (Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders) are happy working in the same gym even though he  is a mellow new-age financial incompetent and she is an aggressive control freak.

When millionaire pizza-eating slob Danny (Kevin Corrigan) signs up to get fit, the professional and personal lives of all three become entangled.

Not that we care as all three characters  are irritating and lack any chemistry.  This is due to the actors failing to display any flair for comedy – despite at least two of them normally being warm and engaging on screen.

Plus they labour under depressingly witless dialogue – but as a great deal of it seems ad-libbed they only have themselves to blame.

There’s a montage which weakly parodies training scenes in far better movies.

Haphazard editing allows too many scenes to linger and yet still end abruptly.

While lacklustre cinematography is kept lowkey in an attempt to create a naturalistic almost documentary feel.

The uncharitable or the clear-eyed may describe the effect achieved as cheap, uninspired and dated.

Though it’s commendably avoids being lascivious when approaching the studio full of gym bunnies, the ending is misjudged and creepy.

Moomins On The Riviera

Director: Xavier Picard (2015)

Enjoy a well-earned staycation and avoid this slow sojourn to the sunshine of southern France.

This is the first full-length feature based on the Moomin comic strips by Tove Jansson and Lars Jansson.

The Moomins are strange, cow shaped-creatures – possibly trolls – from Finland. Moominpappa (Nathaniel Parker) wears a top-hat, Moominmamma (Tracy Ann Oberman) an apron and their son Moomin (Russell Tovey) goes without.

His sort of girlfriend Snorkmaiden (Stephanie Winiecki) wears nothing but an ankle bracelet but frets about showing off too much flesh when wearing a tiny bikini.

It’s a strange message to send – especially to kids as young as the presumed target audience. I doubt they’ll understand the mild social satire either. I’m not sure I did.

Living in the peaceful Moomin Valley they keep pets and plant potatoes. Moominpappa has worrying pyrotechnic tendencies which attracts the attentions of pirates.

After reading about the glamorous lives of celebrities, they sail to the French Riviera braving storms, sharks, sea urchins and an irritating stowaway en route.

Once there Moomin (Russell Tovey) is jealous when his girlfriend Snorkmaiden (Stephanie Winiecki) is romanced by the raffish Clark Tresco (Dave Browne).

Among the gossipy jet-set are stampeding gendarmes and starving artists. The Moomins suffer snobbery, fine art, cocktail parties, roulette and a duel.

The traditional hand-drawn animation has  a lovely innocent hand-drawn style and the music is jolly and vaguely familiar. But the weak jokes and gentle tone won’t prevent you from enjoying a decent snooze.

Tomorrowland

DIrector: Brad Bird (2015)

Take a smooth roller-coaster ride with George Clooney in this well-oiled but preachy theme park-based adventure.

Inspired by the Disneyland Tomorrowland attraction which opened in 1955, the film wants to inspire us to be creative and free – but only if we follow the Mickey Mouse rules.

Disney have had huge success turning their Pirates of the Caribbean ride into a Johnny Depp starring mega-movie franchise and no doubt secret plans are already afoot for a sequel.

Young Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) sneaks out at night to blow up the bulldozers who are due to tear down Nasa‘s defunct launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

Not only will the closure of the base put her engineer Dad Eddie (Tim McGraw) out of work – but it will also signal the end of humanity’s dreams of a gleaming future among the stars.

Casey finds a small badge decorated with a corporate logo which miraculously transports her to another dimension.

The badge only works when it touches Casey’s skin – with heavy-handed symbolism she has to literally grasp the future.

It transports her to the futuristic city of Tomorrowland where citizens use jet-packs to fly among the soaring silver skyscrapers. It gleams with orderly sunshine and prescribed happiness – and she’s wowed.

Amusingly Casey has to navigate the geography of both world’s simultaneously, allowing for some well-executed physical comedy.

When the battery power of her badge runs out, Casey finds herself back home but determined to return.

Tracking down another badge, Casey is attacked by sharp-suited robot agents with laser-guns and rescued by a mysterious 13 year old called Athena (Raffey Cassidy).

Part bodyguard and part spirit-guide, Athena is named after the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, and inspiration who’s also the patron saint of cities. She delivers Casey to the home of reclusive and grumpy inventor Frank (Clooney).

He was ejected from Tomorrowland for building a machine which broke the future – but he’s persuaded Casey can fix the machine he created. So the three of them team up to try to save the world.

Brad Bird has a mixed directorial track record; The Incredibles (2004) is brilliant, Ratatouille (2007) is dull and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) is excellent but only in parts.

With it’s love of the space-age, hints of government conspiracy and a young boy with a robot best friend; Tomorrowland is similar to Bird’s wonderful The Iron Giant (1999) – though not as entertaining.

Demonstrating Tomorrowland’s admirable if misguided confidence in itself, the opening scene riffs on The Princess Bride (1987). Also easily recognised as influences are The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Phantom Toll Booth (1970) and The Matrix (1999). The ghost of Pinocchio is never far away.

The wheels of this roller-coaster are greased by glorious design. Referencing the work of modernist architect John Lautner and filmed in the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia; the sleek buildings and costumes have a retro-futuristic feel.

This contrasts with the gorgeous Jules Verne-inspired steampunk rocket-ships which riff on Disney’s Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

Charming performers navigate the decent action scenes with aplomb and employs freeze rays, time bombs and flying robots to dazzle the eye.

But it never reaches the emotional pitch it aims for or delivers the magic and wonder the orchestral score by Michael Giacchino frequently promises.

The plot is powered by an on-brand corporate message rather than drama, excitement or internal logic, and it’s too easily distracted by its own whizzy visuals.

The talented trio of bickering leads do their best to distract you from a message-laden script. In true baby-boomer fashion the film suggests all the the world needs to be a better place is to transmit a positive vibe. Man.

It also demands we choose to feed the wolf of our optimism not the wolf of despair. It’s a small world after all.

The closest there is to a villain is rival inventor David Nix (Hugh Laurie) – but the subdued TV star seems reluctant to project any of the menace, gravitas or camp the role needs and he desperately resorts to comedy swearing.

Even when playing grumpy Clooney is reliably charming. He is generous to his younger co-stars and careful never to overpower their performances. Not that they give him much opportunity to do so.

Robertson gives Casey a feisty energy and is courageous, smart and likeable. However the real star of the film is Cassidy who has a deft comic touch and whose calculated poise is remarkably effective at suggesting wisdom beyond her years.

In order to save the world Frank must reclaim his childhood innocence and imagination by symbolically destroying the source of his unhappiness and negativity.

However this means he also rejects adulthood and those messy adult complications such as love, sex and fear.

The film openly derides the dystopias of Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Huxley’s Brave New World and their negative view of the future, while Frank equates politics and bureaucracy with greed.

But Frank’s vision of utopia is an exclusive enclave of beautiful creative thinkers with admission by invitation only. It’s a sterile, sexless land of infantilised adults and scarily squeaky-clean children who could have sprang from The Village Of The Damned (1960) – now where does that remind you of?

If suitable names are already taken, perhaps Frank could call it Hollywoodland.

Spring

Director: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (2015)

A young American suffers the holiday romance from hell in this seductive supernatural shocker.

Having lost his mother and his job and finding himself wanted by the police, Californian cook Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) high-tails to Italy to sort his head out.

Having hooked up with foul-mouthed Brits Tom and Sam (Nick Nevern, Jonathan Silvestri) Evan accompanies them on a road trip to the beautiful port of Bari.

Once there Evan is picked up in a bar by a raven-haired beauty in a startling red dress. She says she’s called Louise (Nadia Hilker).

She’s a forthright and well-travelled genealogy student who has a secret skin-care regime and may be lying about her age. Louise is also averse to having her photograph taken and says she tries to be vegetarian.

Evan is smitten and as his Brit friends disappear to Amsterdam, he takes a labouring job on a farm in order to stay close to the enigmatic Louise.

His boss is taciturn widower Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti) whose melancholic devotion to his crops adds depth to the slowly gestating romantic tone.

Evan tries to woo Louise with dinner dates, boat trips and museum visits. Together they’re charming and funny and we want them break through the emotional barriers keeping them apart.

Unknown to Evan, Louise suffers a condition and it’s getting worse. Macabre tones twist up through the romance as maggots, insects and snakes begin to intrude.

For reasons which become horribly clear, Louise enjoys unprotected sex and there are discarded needles on her bathroom floor.

We appreciate the danger Evan is in long before he does and the fate of their relationship is dependent on the arrival of the imminent spring equinox.

Inventive, intriguing and gently hallucinogenic, Spring benefits from deliciously visceral physical effects, a confident and precisely constructed script and two likeable leads who share an engaging chemistry.

Their deadpan banter is cut from a similar vein to the horror classic An American Werewolf In London (1981) – but also sweet and tart like the fruit of Angelo’s grove.

Co-director Benson wrote the script and his partner Moorhead acted as cinematographer. Both are in healthy command of their respective disciplines and combine to create a film substantially more than the sum of its low budget parts.

Moorhead’s camerawork is fluid and controls the rhythms of the story, contributing to the sly and slightly trippy tone. He makes the old town quarter of Bari look fabulous, as much a character as Vienna was in Don’t Look Now (1973).

The romantic touchstones would be Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and of course F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (1927).

With it’s expertly mixed combination of horror, comedy and romance, Spring is a smart, enjoyable and accomplished addition to the cinema of 2015.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Director: George Miller (2015)

This barkingly brilliant reboot of the 1979 action classic brings the Road Warrior thundering back into cinemas in a cacophonous cloud of craziness.

Writer/director George Miller returns and though the central character is a former cop called Max (Britain’s Tom Hardy in the role Mel Gibson made famous) there are few connections to the original trilogy.

The Mad Max franchise began with the low budget Mad Max (1979) followed up with the western influenced Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) before concluding with the weak Beyond Thunderdome (1985) which co-starred Tina Turner.

This is altogether a bigger, badder and more bonkers movie. Clearly there was a meeting where all ideas were left on the table and ended up on the screen.

A reckless pursuit of spectacular entertainment which could have easily ended up as a six lane motorway pile-up. It’s credit to Miller and his team we’re not watching another Dune (1984) or Jupiter Ascending (2015).

They’ve created a frantic metal circus on wheels and populated it with clowns, midgets, acrobats, showgirls and bare-chested warriors. Then they’ve sent it blasting across the desert to the power chords of it’s own onboard guitarist.

An exhilarating chase, it is far closer in epic sweep, energy and colour to Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006) with which it would make a dazzling demented double-bill. Gibson has no connection to this production.

It’s another left turn for Miller who directed Babe (1995) the charming family fantasy about a talking pig. He then went on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for Happy Feet (2006).

The  script is co-written by artist Brendan McCarthy who first achieved success as an artist on 2000AD‘s Judge Dredd comic strip. Dredd himself was visually influenced in part by the poster for Death Race 2000 (1975) which itself was an influence on the first Mad Max movie.

The dialogue is as sparse and hard as the desert location with location work in Namibia, South Africa and Miller’s native Australia – where the first films were made.

Miller is aided in his pursuit of a no-holds barred cinema experience by cinematographer John Seale, editor Margaret Sixel and production designer Colin Gibson.

Seale’s colour palate is dominated by blues and oranges with controlled explosions of white and green, a moving canvas created with the absolute control of Mondrian. His saturated colour levels add to the intensity of the action.

Sixel’s manic and itchy editing puts us inside the addled mind of Max. Although it generates a ferocious pace it allows time for us to draw breath before the next assault on our senses.

Colin Gibson’s designs are nasty, brutal and far from beautiful – but they are brilliant. 150 wildly different vehicles are fused from different eras and give a new meaning to the expression ‘hybrid motor’.

The greatest of them is Furiosa’s War RIg, a character in itself and one resembling a giant rusting Ninky Nonk. There are also design nods to The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and The Dark Crystal (1982).

Dutch multi-instrumentalist, producer Junkie XL provide an incredible, raucous, unforgiving soundtrack.

There’s conspicuous CGI to facilitate the 3D experience but the CGI used for the background vistas is convincingly realised.

In the original film, Max is driven to righteous anger by the murder of his family – this time he is insane from the start; a feral, lizard-eating animal. He gradually acquires a new identity and Max’s emerging sanity is reflected through his shifting appearance.

Interested only in his personal survival, Max is haunted by the loss of his daughter in the oil wars that have turned the world into a barren wasteland. It’s a post-apocalyptic future and all resources are in short supply, especially gasoline and water.

Captured by the tribe of War Boys, Max is made a slave of the Citadel and chained to a warrior called Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who is farming Max for his blood.

The Citadel is a water-producing fiefdom owned by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne – he played the psycopathic villain Toecutter in the first film). People are property; cattle for producing milk, blood and babies.

Max escapes and reluctantly teams up with the renegade Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who’s stolen a War Rig and a tanker full of precious fuel.

Also on board are are Immortan Joe’s five wives. He’s not best pleased at losing his valuable property and unleashes three heavily armed war parties to bring them back.

The wives are angelic beauties who possess economical clothing and extravagant names  – such as The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley).

Whereas the rest of the toothless population are blistered and ravaged by disease, these girls resemble chastity belt-wearing Victoria Secrets models.

Though suspicious of each other Max and Furiosa team up to and what follows is a ridiculously rollicking race from A to B across the desert to the Green Zone of Furiosa’s youth.

There is no romance but through deeds not words the two lost souls begin a healing process in each other. Character is action and there is nothing here but character and action.

Both are the product of a tight script and propelled by demented performances. The actors are uniformly excellently, especially the three leads; Hardy, Theron and Hoult.

Hoult puts his youthful zeal to good use and commits to the madness in a strikingly physical performance and also contributes much to the tender heart of the film.

Theron eschews glamour for cast-iron attitude and she’s as damaged and driven as Max; a feminine hard-nut to rival Ellen Ripley of Aliens (1986).

Although women are treated badly they are portrayed as tough, courageous, resourceful, compassionate and in all ways the equal of men.

In Locke (2013) Hardy did nothing but talk – here he barely talks at all, mostly grunting and occasionally barking out demands.

The mythology is as patched together as the vehicles and just as entertaining. The name Fury Road is an allusion to the Greek furies; goddesses of vengeance – Furiosa is their battle-hardened representative on Earth.

Her cargo of wives represent the classical virtues, identified by Furiosa as hope, life and redemption. The War Boys seek a glorious death to enter their viking Valhalla.

Though madness screams from every character, scene and stunt, it’s optimistic about humanity’s return from the brink of destruction and offers green shoots of hope.

In conception and execution this is a thrill-ride of chaos, an extraordinarily epic and apocalyptic nitrous charge of pure cinema.

You’d be mad to miss it.

A Royal Night Out

Director: Julian Jarrold (2015)

A pair of incognito princesses roll out the barrel and celebrate VE Day among their unsuspecting subjects in this entertainingly light-hearted fictional romp.

It’s the evening of 8th May 1945 and the UK is having a right royal knees up. Heir to the throne Princess Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) and younger sister Margaret (Bel Powley) are determined to join in the fun they can see from their palace window.

Their plan is drop in on the festivities in Trafalgar Square and head on to The Curzon Club before an crashing all night party at Chelsea barracks.

Margaret is the more wayward, wilful and ditzy of the two and happy to lead Elizabeth astray. In a switch from real-life, Margaret is presented as the more dowdy when compared to the raging beauty of Elizabeth.

It’s a lovely and lively comic performance by Powley who gives it plenty of royal welly. Gadon is ravishingly bewildered as her big sister.

There’s more than a hint of Cinderella and The Prince and the Pauper and it’s played with the infectious feel-good energy and saucy innocence of the original St Trinians movies.

Among much enthusiastic flag waving, fisticuffs and spiked drinks, there’s a pair of engaging central performances, some choice period dialogue, all manner of alarming accents and Glen Miller on the soundtrack.

Julian Jarrold has form with quality period drama having previously directed Great Expectations (1999) Becoming Jane (2007) Brideshead Revisited (2008). With energy and an eye for detail he convincingly recreates the foggy demob-happy delirium of the sepia-tinged era.

Sipping champagne and slipping their chaperones, the girls head to the teeming Trafalgar Square and adopt the names ‘Lizzie’ and ‘Mags’  – perhaps not travelling as incognito as they imagine.

Soon separated by the throng of celebrants, Lizzie must locate Mags and return her to the palace before midnight and the king realises they are missing.

The stammering King George VI is played by Rupert Everett haunted at every turn by Colin Firth‘s Oscar-winning role as the same character in The King’s Speech (2010). Everett also appeared in the successful if lacklustre St Trinians remakes.

His screen wife Queen Elizabeth the Queen mother is played by Emily Watson.

Unsure of her way around and naturally not carrying any cash, Lizzie falls in with a hunky working class airman called Jack (Jack Reynor).

She coyly persuades him to help her in her mission and he reluctantly agrees – even though her cloistered worldview keeps landing her republican-leaning would-be saviour in trouble.

Among the characters they encounter in the gambling dens and knocking shops of Soho are royalist gangsters, Scottish henchmen and warm-hearted whores. The British officers are weak-chinned, drunk, philandering incompetents – which seems fair enough.

If I ever thought the royals were this much fun in real life I’d almost consider voting for them.