The Martian

Director: Ridley Scott (2015)

Blast off to the red planet in this breathless, big budget sci-fi adventure which rockets along to a disco beat.

Based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, director Ridley Scott has rarely had so much fun or provided so much clever, crowd pleasing entertainment.

Scott washes away his reputation as a dry visual perfectionist by splashing wild torrents of humour and humanity over his typically brilliant design and cinematography.

When a Nasa team is forced to abort their experiments on the surface of Mars, Mark Watney is assumed dead and left behind.

Intelligent and likeable, Matt Damon is terrifically cast as the marooned astronaut forced to improvise to survive.

His resourcefulness allows him to farm water, oxygen and food but is constantly beset by technical problems, not least having no communications with colleagues in space or on Earth.

The operation he performs on himself is not as graphic as the one Noomi Rapace endured in Scott’s flawed Prometheus (2012) but still not for the squeamish.

Meanwhile Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara and Michael Pena begin the long journey home in their spacecraft.

When a Nasa technician discovers Watney’s alive, his now not-dead presence presents a tricky PR problem, especially if they fail to keep him alive a second time.

It’s a race against time, budgets, office politics and technical limitations.

As harassed Nasa officials, the comic ability of Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig are used to good effect in straight roles.

British Oscar nominated star of misery memoir 12 Years A Slave (2013) Chiwetel Ejiofor brings charm and warmth.

Sean Bean is a gruff conscience who brings heart to the constant equation crunching and scores for a big laugh.

The huge success of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) combination of humour, action, state of the art effects and pop tunes is clearly an influence. But this is more grounded and less smug.

With the exception of a strangely retro-titled ‘advanced supercomputer’, an excellent script offers plenty of plausible sounding sciency stuff.

Remember the killer scene in Apollo 13 (1995) when the Nasa techies have to improvise a new gizmo from old hairdryer parts and a vacuum cleaner? Most of The Martian is that scene – but bigger.

There are scenes in China which may well be extended when the film is released in that market. Unlike films such as Iron Man 3 (2013) the Chinese element feels a necessary part of the narrative.

Ideas and motifs touched upon in Silent Running (1972) Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964) appear.

There’s little bitterness, fear or insanity but vast amounts of hope, hard work and optimism.

The Martian celebrates the courage, ingenuity and loyalty of humanity. It is a cry from the heart for the return of to an age of space exploration.

Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski worked on Scott’s flawed Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). Scott often has him shoot from a low angle to include ceilings and skies in his shot, heightening the sense of Watney’s captivity and suffocating isolation.

Special effects by British SFX house Framestore bring the same bravura technical skills we saw employed to Oscar winning effect in Gravity (2013).

Having made two definitive pieces of sci-fi early in his career with Alien (1979) Blade Runner (1982), Scott has finally added a markedly different but triumphant third at the tail end of it.

Although much of the humour is as dry as the beautiful Martian landscapes, with music by Abba, Donna Summer and the O’Jays, there’s no shortage of atmosphere in this outer space epic.

MacBeth

Director: Justin Kurzel (2015)

This bold and bleak adaption of Shakespeare‘s Scottish play is violent and visually arresting but curiously unmoving.

A moody, macho and masochistic Michael Fassbender frets for a couple of hours upon the stage.

He drips with menace and blood and there is much sound and fury.

After serving his King by quelling an insurrection, Macbeth encounters three witches who prophesy a royal future.

Encouraged by his wife he murders his way to the throne, and becomes consumed by madness.

A macabre tone is struck from the start with the burial of an infant. Among the battles, murders, ghosts, and witches, the rural feudal society is chillingly and chillily realised.

The relentless rain-lashed realism captures the grim hardships of the era, but there is also beauty is the landscapes, a children’s chorus and the craftsmanship of cloaks and daggers.

Fiona Crombie’s strong production design offers fine detail and heavy weathering, anchoring the actors in the period.

It’s a consistent vision, utilising wild exteriors in what was a gruelling shoot for cast and crew.

Interiors were filmed in the magnificent and contemporaneous Ely Cathedral.

Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw frames some lovely images but fellow Australian, director Kurzel rarely use his camera to fully bring out the drama of the verse.

The pair are stronger on the hoof, creating some terrific moments in battle and in the hunt.

Kurzel’s brother Jed adds to the tone with an unsettling screeching soundtrack.

Three writer’s have acceptably trimmed Shakespeare’s verse. But it’s sadly compromised through frequently flat recital, caught within beards or lost thick fog of a Scots brogue.

There’s also tendency by most of the men to employ a throaty whisper as often as possible, so we have to strain for understanding.

Only Englishman Sean Harris as Macduff and the French actress Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth offer engaging readings. Both characters are motivated by grief for lost children.

Elizabeth Debicki has a moment on fire but David Thewlis, Jack Reynor and Paddy Considine seem oddly removed from events around them.

Shakespeare put humour in his tragedies to emphasise his antagonists’ fall and make their doom compelling.

As Fassbender’s Macbeth moves from military machine to murderer to madman, the actor fails to find the humanity.

Devoid of love, humour or a conscience to lose or regain, the tragedy is missing in action.

What remains is a blood-soaked slog through the fog of 10th century war.

 

Convenience

Director: Keri Collins (2015)

Offering limited discount fun, this budget stretching British black comedy is long shift for all concerned.

The film trades heavily on the acerbic gum popping presence of shop assistant Vicky McClure who suffers a bad night in a 24 hour petrol station.

She’s held up by desperate dimwits Ray Panthaki and Adeel Akhtar. They’re in a hurry to steal the 8 grand they owe to Russian gangsters.

But the time locked safe won’t open until 6am and having taken hostages, are forced to front the shop until dawn.

Comedy swearing grannies and light-fingered taxi-drivers wander the aisles. Anthony Head is very depressed as Verne Troyer pops by in a cowboy outfit.

There are a couple of nicely played moments of self discovery but far too few comic moments succeed.

It’s a relief when a shotgun stand-off eventually arrives and smartly allows for a character arc to come to fruition.

It’s great to have a film where the gender and race of the three lead characters is accepted without comment and is of no importance to the plot.

It would be nice for this not to be a remarkable occurrence in cinema.

The director is unable to restrain his camera and an ill advised gag reel is included in the end credits.

Palio

Director: Cosima Spender (2015)

Making the UK’s Grand National look like a Blackpool beach donkey ride, this sleek documentary captures the ritual, spectacle and danger of Italy’s centuries old horse race The Palio.

Featured in the opening scenes of Bond movie Quantum Of Solace (2008), it takes place twice a summer in the centre of the ancient city Siena.

We follow young Sardinian hopeful Giovanni Atzeni who hopes to wins his first Palio.

But to do so he must overcome his formidable former mentor Gigi Bruschelli who is one win short of the all time record.

Local pride is at stake and the public are as unforgiving as the hair-raising track, inside the city’s ancient central piazza.

Staggering levels of mercenary behaviour and corruption are accepted while whips are used against fellow jockeys as much as the horses.

The jockey’s allow their egos to talk far too much but the racing speaks for itself.

 ★

Captive

Director: Jerry Jameson (2015)

Based on a true story but failing to hold the attention, this kidnapping drama becomes an empowering experience for at least one of those involved.

With a shaved head and a pec-tastic physique, lauded British actor David Oyelowo stars as paranoid psychopath Brian Nichols.

He also produces and gives his wife a small role, so he must shoulder some of the blame for this uninspiring turgid mess.

After shooting his way out of a courthouse, Brian breaks into a random house to use a hide out.

This is bad news for Kate Mara playing home alone meth addict Ashley.

She’s desperate to be at a fashion show in the morning.

After years of addiction it’s her last chance to prove she’s capable of looking after her child. If she fails to turn up, her cute as a button infant daughter won’t be allowed home.

In this high stress situation she goes cold turkey. It’s her story and she’s sticking to it.

She reads self-help manuals and makes pancakes while he waffles to himself and watches TV.

Feeling like an advertorial for said self-help book, it features an appearance by the TV queen of over-empathy, Oprah Winfrey.

Michael K. Williams is in charge of SWAT teams as the none too sharp and distractingly named Detective Chestnut.

Move along, there’s nothing to see here.

Miss You Already

Director: Catherine Hardwicke (2015)

If Richard Curtis, the writer of About Time (2013) ever made a film about cancer, it would look and sound a lot like this.

It’s cringingly sincere, sentimental, smug and worthy.

Kids and adults swear for comic effect and there’s a romcom style madcap dash to a maternity unit.

Occasional flashes of quality allow for some almost bearable moments.

Toni Collette plays irritating London fashionista Milly whose idyllic life is quite spoiled when she contracts breast cancer.

Refreshingly the disease brings out the worst not the best in her. But sadly it doesn’t make her any more likeable.

Her two children are brattishly annoying.

Meanwhile best friend Drew Barrymore is a houseboat-dwelling hippie with fertility issues.

Spouses Dominic Cooper and Paddy Considine are sidelined. One is emotionally adrift, the other all at sea on an oil rig.

Neither couple convince but the friendships among genders are believable.

Jacqueline Bisset and Frances de la Tour raise the acting bar in their brief moments. The former full of regret as Millie’s glamorous mother, the latter dispenses wigs, advice and a little tough love.

Among the doctor’s appointments, liquid lunches and surprise parties, there’s a shouting match on the glorious North Yorkshire moors.

The script is very keen to point out she missed a potentially life-saving check up and it’s commendably honest about the physical realities of treatment.

Curious camera angles and clunky changes in pace and tone fail to offer insight or add dramatic interest. The actors’ seem perpetually in danger of the camera smashing them on the forehead.

Once again a film fails to eke out any humour from a birthing scene. One day filmmakers may realise there is nothing humorous in childbirth.