Magic Mike XXL

Director: Gregory Jacobs (2015)

The lord of the lap-dance returns in this sequel about sweet-natured strippers on the slide.

Buff, dim and sensitive, ‘Magic’ Mike (Channing Tatum) leaves his day job behind to re-join his dream boys: Ken, Big Dick Richie, Tarzan and Tito. (Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez).

Matthew McConaughey starred in Magic Mike (2012) but presumably now is too expensive or serious with his post-Oscar win credibility to appear, though his character of Dallas is often referred to.

With abs, pecs, biceps, baby oil and gold lame hot pants, the ageing entertainers fulfil the fantasies of their female fans – while yearning for emotional commitment in their private lives.

Recognising they’re getting too old for the bump and grind game, the boys take a road trip to one last performance to bow out in style.

En route to a stripping convention they lose costumes, a truck and a member, leaving them little time to put a new routine together.

Tatum is engaging and charming, a fine actor and a great dancer and holds the film together. The scene where he rediscovers his love for dance is a joy. The team are likeable and engaging and share a warm chemistry.

But the script isn’t as progressive as it strangely imagines itself to be, reducing the women to dollar-throwing sexual harpies who exist to show how kind, caring and sexy our heroes are.

Though there’s a lot of discussion about how women should be appreciated, celebrated and treated as be queens, one dancer describes his perfect woman as a glass slipper, which in context sounds extremely uncomfortable.

The notable female characters are played with conviction by Jada Pinkett Smith, Amber Heard and Andie MacDowell.

Pinkett Smith in particular gives a barnstorming performance – but in a role which is unnecessary and slows down the film. Written as man, her plot points could easily have been folded into the Andre character (Donald Glover).

With a loose-limbed improvisational feel Magic Mike starts strongly but there’s too long a tease for a disappointingly limp finale. Without a competitive element to the convention there is no conflict and no tension.

Plus the dance routines are underwhelming. Although the final dance is concerned with what the performance means to Mike, the success of the scene for we the audience depends on us believing Tatum is busting his own moves.

Now I don’t believe a dance double is employed, especially as the earlier scenes go to great pains to show us what a prime mover he is.

But not only is Tatum forced into a face-obscuring mask and hat, the awkward framing and rapid editing conspire to sow doubt in our mind as to who is really dancing.

This undermines the dramatic thrust of the scene and the resolution of the story.

Both editing and cinematography are by film-maker Steven Soderbergh, who really ought to know better.

His fingerprints are all over this film: such as the casting of McDowell who played a significant role in his breakout hit Sex, Lies And Videotape (1989). The shot of Mike watching fireworks weakly echoes the ending of Ocean’s Eleven (2001).

As director Jacobs is better known as producer than a director, it’s tempting to think Soderbergh had far more influence over the directorial vision of this film than we’re being told.

Tatum above anyone comes out in credit and manages to hold onto his dignity while wearing nothing but a silver G string which – take my word for it – is far more difficult than it sounds.

Magician: The Astonishing Life of Orson Welles

Director: Chuck Workman (2015)

There’s plenty of magic but little mystery in this documentary of Orson Welles, the hugely talented cinematic showman and raconteur.

It’s an enjoyable and celebratory rocket-ride through the much repeated highlights of his extraordinary career but has nothing new to say.

Best known as the star, director, producer and co-writer of his masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941) at the precocious age of 25, it draws on photographs, illustrations, interviews, clips of his work and footage from his many TV interviews.

His work casts a long expressionist shadow from which emerge a host of top drawer filmmakers to pay homage. These include directors Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Richard Linklater.

However Tim Burton doesn’t feature which is surprising considering how much debt his work owes to Welles. The director even featured Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) as a character in his finest work, the biopic Ed Wood (1994).

Various other screen portrayals of Welles are seen: Christian McKay in Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (2008), Jean Guerin in Heavenly Creatures (1994), Liev Schreiber in RKO281 (1999) and even John Candy in a TV skit opposite Billy Crystal.

All of which underline the stature in which he is held, as well as cementing his place in popular culture.

With the contributors agreeing Welles is a titan of cinema, no-one says a word in anger against him and there’s absolutely no muck-raking.

It’s an excellent introduction to the work of a man who above all else was a consummate if unreliable story-teller.

Slow West

Director: John Maclean (2015)

A lovestruck Scot hits the trail way out west in this confident and compelling western.

It rustles up great performances, pitiless action, majestic scenery, bone dry humour and a melancholy soundtrack.

Cast from the mould of Don Quixote, 16 year old Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a naive and romantic doe-eyed Bambi of an un-rough youth.

He dreams of building railway to the moon and is given to gnomic utterances such as ‘love is universal, like death’ – though he has no real understanding of either.

Riding a horse weighed down with the gentlemanly essentials of a teapot and guide book, he has abandoned his privileged Sottish home to find his love Rose (Caren Pistorius) in the wild west of Colorado.

She left Scotland after an accident and now lives in rural isolation. We see their romance in flashbacks.

Through shoot-outs, robberies and flash-floods he encounters Native Americans, musicians, writers, orphans, soldiers and outlaws.

Unprepared for the violent and treacherous road, he employs a taciturn, cigar chomping sharp-shooter called Silas (Michael Fassbender) as a guide. He has more knowledge of Rose than he lets on.

Even next to the experienced and charismatic Fassbender, Smit McPhee sits tall in his acting saddle and never in the shade.

The chemistry between these travellers reveal facets of their character, altering our perception of them.

Fassbender gives a thrillingly controlled performance, hinting at nerves and a conscience hiding behind the facade of an ice-cold killer.

The film is so well constructed his voice over seems redundant – perhaps it was a commercial decision made by the producers.

With it’s surrogate family-building subplot there are echoes of Eastwood’s directorial masterpiece The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).

Not content with riffing on one classic, Slow West also utilises the three pronged dynamic of Sergio Leone’s magnificent spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966).

While Silas has strong echoes of Clint Eastwood‘s The Man With No Name, a dog-collared bounty hunter called Angus The Clergyman (Tony Croft) draws on Lee Van Cleef’s introduction as The Bad where he is similarly attired.

Ben Mendelsohn completes a trio of competing mercenaries as an outlaw called Payne. He’s a swaggering presence in a bearskin coat, reminiscent Butler (Hugh Millais) in McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971).

Though the scale of Slow West is smaller than those films, it hits it’s ambitious targets with a Silas-like accuracy.

This a wonderfully composed movie; cinematographer Robbie Ryan only moves his camera if it serves his purpose. He previously shot Fassbender on Andrea Arnold’s gritty Brit drama Fish Tank (2009).

Musical supervisor Lucy Bright has the London Contemporary Orchestra provide a mournful string accompaniment to Ryan’s strong eye.

This is the second excellent western of the year after Kristian Levring’s The Salvation, suggesting the genre is a long way from Boot-hill. That was filmed in South Africa, Slow West was shot in New Zealand.

Despite disparate location work, both offer a fresh and defiantly European perspective on the ultimate American genre. They are intelligent, action-orientated and intense additions to the canon.

Minions

Director: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda (2015)

Bask in the giggly yellow glow of the golden-hearted helpers of Despicable Me (2010) as they take centre-stage in this animated prequel.

Supremely silly from singing start to riotous finish, this fabulous fanfare of fun is your kids new favourite film.

Following their film-stealing role in Despicable Me 2 (2013) this is the third outing for the employees of wannabe super-villain Gru (Steve Carell).

Prior to working for Gru the minions have happily toiled for the most despicable figures of history; the Pharaohs, Napoleon and err, a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

But now in 1968 the minions are miserable without someone telling them what to do.

So Kevin, Stuart and Bob (all voiced by co-director Pierre Coffin) leave their brethren and set off to find a new master to serve.

A feast of frivolity follows as the innocents abroad search for a father-figure.

Kevin the tall one is the leader of the trio. Bob the youngest carries a teddy bear, Stuart plays guitar.

In Orlando the trio are employed by the world’s first female super-villain, Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock).

She’s zooms about in nuclear-powered armoured dresses, lives in a castle and acts as if she’s the evil doppelganger of Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds.

Her inventor husband Herb (Jon Hamm), equips the yellow trio with a stretch suit, a hypnotising helmet and a lava lamp laser gun.

Scarlet instructs them to steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth II. The toothy monarch has nerves and fists of steel and enjoys a royal night out.

She’s voiced by Jennifer Saunders in easily her funniest comic performance.

Steve Coogan played Silas Ramsbottom in DM2, here he appears as a nutty Professor and a Tower Guard. Geoffrey Rush narrates.

Michael Keaton and Allison Janney have brief roles as Walter and Madge Nelson. Along with their baby-faced son they pick up our hitch-hiking heroes.

Elderly beefeaters, tea-drinking bobbies and fake moon-landing conspiracies bump against Arthurian legend as the jokes play fast and loose with history and geography.

Swinging London town is painted yellow to a soundtrack of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and suitably Donovan’s Mellow Yellow.

The familiar songs kick in to give oomph to the weaker action sequences suggesting a lack of confidence in certain scenes.

Although the tie-dye colours of the ’60’s make for a colourful spectacle, there’s no benefit gained from being set in 1968. Plus it makes Gru more a grandfather than a father to his adopted children.

That said the year feels like an idea abandoned halfway through production. It has no bearing on the plot and isn’t explored in depth – which is something of a relief.

Madcap chases and choreographed song and dance numbers are joyously created by the top class animation.

A hall of mirrors, the Palace of Westminster, Trafalgar Square and especially the feathering on Scarlet’s hair are all beautifully rendered.

My good-natured giggles regularly erupted into huge guffaws and if you don’t enjoy this movie, I’ll set my minions on you.

Everly

Director: Joe Lynch (2015)

Despite starring the pneumatic Salma Hayek as an imperilled prostitute, this exploitation action thriller repeatedly falls flat.

If you consider my intro to be tasteless and/or sexist then it’s a pretty accurate reflection of the film.

The concept of Everly has strength in it’s simplicity; blood-licking Yakuza boss Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe) has discovered his sex slave Everly (Hayek) is trying to shop him to the police.

Taiko is determined Everly will never leave her apartment so she has to defend her daughter Maisey (Aisha Ayamah) and mother Edith (Laura Cepeda) from waves of hit-men sent to assassinate her.

But the premise crumbles under pressure of a weak script, terrible dialogue, mediocre performances, an uncertain tone and blunt stabs at humour. A couple of moments of choreography aside, the direction is uninspired.

Other than tag-team villains The Sadist and The Masochist (Togo Igawa, Masashi Fujimoto) the bad guys are indistinguishably dull cannon fodder. Plus they don’t seem terribly clever, competent or keen to accomplish their mission.

It is frequently unintentionally and insufficiently funny.

Hayek looks fabulous and gives good shout but is miscast playing a role which feels written for a considerably younger actress.

Her cinema break-through was in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado (1995) and followed it a role with in his From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) written by her co-star Quentin Tarantino.

Both twenty years ago. Dear Lord.

Rodriguez and Tarantino teamed-up on their Grindhouse (2007) double-bill. The creators of Everly are apparently in thrall to that poorly received work.

This is worse; a poor pastiche of the master magpies of cinema.

Following her nomination for a Best Actress Oscar for her self-directed Frida (2002), Hayek has combined TV work with Adam Sandler comedies Grown Ups (2010) and Grown Ups 2 (2013).

Now a naturalised US citizen, Hayek first established her acting credentials as soap opera star in her native Mexico.

Here she demonstrates the depth of her soap opera training, oscillating between angry and scared but never both at the same time.

Possibly inspired by the late success of the older Sandra Bullock (48 years against 50) as a sort of action heroine in Gravity (2013), Hayek could be applauded for taking her career in a new direction.

The excellent box office of Scarlet Johansson’s Lucy (2014) demonstrates a demand for female-led action movies – but this is a poor choice of material.

Hayek seems to lack the subtlety, wit or desire to make her character interesting or entertaining and her Jessica Rabbit-esque frame amply reflects her character’s cartoon quality.

The framing of cinematographer Steve Gainer draws attention to Hayek’s breasts at every opportunity generating an unthinkingly voyeuristic feel.

And in it’s gleeful offing of prostitutes in non-inventive ways and violent prosecution of the lead, the film seems determined to punish all the women onscreen.

However with it’s protective mother dynamic Hayek presumably imagines the film errs on the side of redemption not misogyny.

Everly is a series of unexplained contradictions failing to be a coherent character: She massacres a room full of men but is squeamish about frisking their dead bodies.

She can operate a variety of weapons with deadly effect while straight-faced suggesting she’s never held one before. She forgets she has wounds and brushes off explosions and blood loss and worries about her choice of outfits.

For a single location film – essentially an apartment block turned brothel but mostly taking place in the one room – the geography is poorly articulated, making for confusing action scenes.

Despite it’s 18 certificate, brothel setting and cast of prostitutes, there’s a staggering lack of sex or nudity.

Unlike the excellent John Wick there’s no sense of a coherent wider society existing beyond the gangland world exists within, creating a drama-and-suspense-killing lack of consequence.

There’s an Edgar Wright-style burst of energetic editing when a drink is served but rather than feeding the rhythm of the film, it trips it up.

Similarly a gag involving Hayek’s leopard-print heels isn’t developed, leaving it on the shelf without a punch line.

It’s typical of the film this idea is not followed up, just another idea thrown thoughtlessly into the mix along with sulphuric acid, an Alsatian dog and a pink teddy bear.

The Christmas setting allows us to be treated to a selection of festive follies on the soundtrack, another example of the misjudged humour and wavering tone.

In more than one way Everly’s final shot is the best.

Les Combattants

Director: Thomas Cailley (2015)

A hot summer in southern France leads to a smouldering romance to in this tinder dry romcom.

Landscape gardener Arnaud (Kevin Azais) is tricked into a self-defence exercise at an army recruitment fair.

His sparring partner is the aggressive Madeleine (Adele Haenel) against whom he resorts to cheating to win.

Commissioned with his brother to build a wooden garden frame Arnaud is shocked to discover his clients are Madeleine’s parents.

He’s intrigued and quickly enamoured of the intense Madeleine, a university drop-out whom Arnaud sees undertaking a punishing exercise regime.

Madeleine’s a strong, sexy, sarcastic and an aggressive problem solver who is convinced the end of the world is nigh.

She’s applied to a military camp for survivalist training. Intrigued by her intensity, Arnaud signs up for the course too.

The plastic inflatable beds and stalls of the army are contrasted with Arnaud’s natural and solid constructions.

In a gender twist typical of the intelligent script, it is Arnaud who gently applies the camouflage makeup on Madeleine.

The two great leads are captured by fluid camerawork and natural light. The pace is picked up by a scorching 1980’s-inspired synth soundtrack.

It‘s just a shame the story doesn’t commit fully to Madeleine’s character or to it’s apocalyptic leanings.

Mr Holmes

Director: Bill Condon (2015)

The game is afoot for the last time in this elegiac postscript to the magisterial career of retired detective Sherlock Holmes.

As the Baker Street sleuth, Ian McKellen delivers a beautifully honest performance. It’s full of humour and sadness without ever lurching into sentiment or self-pity.

We see Holmes at two points in his life: first as a semi-invalid retiree who is all too aware of his fast diminishing mental faculties. Secondly as the arrogant Victorian investigator at the height of his fame and intellectual power.

Beginning in 1947, the 93 year old former detective spends his time beekeeping on the Sussex coast

He has returned from a trip to Japan where he was the guest of Matsuda Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) on a mission to secure a herb called Prickly Ash.

Holmes hopes to use it as a remedy to halt the decline of his once brilliant mind, an idea looked upon with scorn by housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney).

Together with her 10 year old son Roger (Milo Parker) the three form a surrogate family whose combustible chemistry threatens the uneasy equilibrium of their existence.

We expect and receive great performances from the McKellen and Linney but young Parker is also at times exceptional.

In order to understand his present a frustrated Holmes is trying to remember the details of his last case.

He knows it’s unsatisfactory conclusion lead to his retirement but he can’t fathom why.

Several mysteries run in parallel as through flashback we see the Case of the Grey Glove which occurred 30 years earlier.

Holmes is commissioned by Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) to investigate the behaviour of his grief-stricken wife Ann (Hattie Morahan).

With a story involving vials of poison, exotic musical instruments and forged cheques, Holmes is lead to the mysterious music teacher Madame Schirmer, played by a show-stopping Frances de la Tour.

Discussions of the afterlife are filtered through his failing memory, adding to a layering of fictions.

There are frequent references to the gap between the image of Holmes and his reality. He is not the infallible scientist of public and private perception.

He struggles to engage his emotions or accept leaning on his lifelong crutch of logic will not protect him from regret, loneliness, or guilt.

We see Holmes reading Dr Watson’s novelisations of their adventures and in the cinema watching his fictionalised life portrayed by actors. (Nicholas Rowe is credited as ‘Matinee Sherlock’.)

Presenting versions of Holmes draws the sting of familiarity from previous incarnations and makes McKellen’s Holmes all the more real, boosting the emotional power of the gripping final scenes.

Mr Holmes is adapted from Mitch Cullin’s 2005 book ‘A Slight Trick of the Mind‘ with a screenplay by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher.

The dignified score by Carter Burwell strikes a sombre tone from the off is combined with the graceful cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler.

They create a richly sympathetic and melancholy tone similar to the tone of the excellent The Madness of King George (1994).

From Basil Rathbone to Roger Moore and Robert Downey JnrArthur Conan Doyle‘s enigmatic detective has been portrayed by more than 70 different actors in over 200 films.

He’s also been portrayed on radio, on stage and of course extremely successfully in the slick TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

This intelligent and moving version is produced with admirable care and is always true to the spirit of Conan Doyle‘s brilliant novels.

It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce this will be an award-winning movie.