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.

McFarland

Director: Niki Caro (2015)

Spanish students face an uphill climb in this aspirational high school sports drama.

It’s set in the world of competitive cross country running. Free from surprises, it’s a leisurely jog along the route to self-improvement.

When PE teacher Jim White is sacked for misconduct, the only job he can get is in the down market California town of McFarland.

It’s an hispanic area and his beautiful blonde family struggle with the language, food and local hoodlums.

Keen to move on, up and out of the school and the neighbourhood, he seizes upon an opportunity for funding for a cross country team as a means of resurrecting his career.

Jim sees potential in the seven pupils he recruits to form a team, but they must run up real and metaphorical mountains in pursuit of success.

Kevin Costner is well cast as the coach, the film capitalises on his decent demeanour, gruff charm and physical presence to good effect.

Sadly the talented Maria Bello hasn’t much to do as Jim’s wife, though she fares better than the youngest daughter who serves no purpose whatsoever.

The film is careful to treat Spanish culture with respect, placing an emphasis on the importance of family, food and hard work.

It’s a struggle to give the individual boys’ screen time or fully develop their characters but they’re an agreeable, engaging group. Carlos Pratts as Thomas Valles is given the closest to a genuine character arc.

Jim’s charges’ have to skip school and training runs to work in the fields. Though the script hints at domestic violence and gang culture, it shies away from showing it.

They race against teams of all-white privileged posh boys. Qualifying for the state championships offers the boys the chance of a university place, away from a future of fruit picking or prison.

As the team show signs of success, Jim faces a fork in the road between loyalty to his team or his career.

A nicely realised postscript saves this film from descending into a simple white saviour flick such as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Dangerous Minds (1995).

McFarland is competently crafted and nicely acted. Though the pace slows in the uphills of sentiment, it has sufficient reserves to provide a satisfying finale.

Bill

Director: Richard Bracewell (2015)

This celebratory and silly send-up of Shakespeare is a witty and affectionate tribute to the great Bard’s work.

It’s a thoroughly British entertainment,  created by the same people as the CBBC Horrible Histories TV series, which was based on the brilliant books by Terry Deary.

Performed with energy and respect, it’s full of knockabout humour and knowing jokes.

They even manage to slip in some Shakespearean verse from time to time.

Set in the wretched squalor of 1593, it focuses on the lost years of William ‘Bill’ Shakespeare prior to him becoming the world’s greatest playwright.

Played with an optimistic and gentle naivety by Mathew Baynton, Bill’s a failed musician who leaves behind his family and goes to London to become a writer.

He arrives in a filthy, villainous, murderous and plague-ridden Croydon.

As a former resident of the much maligned outer London borough, I promise you it’s no longer not quite as bad as all that.

Once there Bill takes writing tips from hard-up dramatist Christopher Marlowe, a marvellously morose and mendacious Jim Howick.

The pair unwittingly become involved in a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth.

Armed with bare chested vanity and a false moustache, Ben Willbond brings brio to the dastardly King Philip II of Spain.

Real-life husband and wife Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory play Sir Richard Hawkins and the Queen.

The former riffs on his role as captured soldier in TV’s Homeland, the latter is all yellow teeth and peeling face paint.

What follows is a series of comic misunderstandings, astonishing coincidences, unconvincing disguises, quarrelling lovers, ghosts, murders, betrayal and passionate intrigues.Basically everything you’d expect from a Shakespeare comedy.

Actors appear in several different roles, men can’t help but dress as women and there is a play to be performed before the Queen.

All’s well that end’s well and I imagine Shakespeare would love this caper, possibly nearly as much as I did.

Infini

Director: Shane Abbess (2015)

Daniel MacPherson gives an aggressively agitated performance as a marooned musclebound marine in this sci-fi thriller.

Sent to investigate a lethal biological outbreak, Whit Carmichael beams out to the galaxy’s most distant off-world mining-facility, leaving behind his pregnant wife.

Whit’s’s followed by an elite Search and Rescue team and together they must prevent the biohazard from reaching Earth.

It’s gruesome, violent and sadly derivative.

There’s impressive design throughout and it differentiates nicely between down here and out there.

However the use of JJ Abrams’ lens flare is one of many visual lifts from other, stronger films, such as Blade Runner (1982) and Aliens (1986).

Occasionally the Aussie writer-director over complicates his camerawork and there’s much pointing of guns while walking down corridors.

Plus it has much leaping out of dark spaces while soldiers take turns to out grunt each other.

At times the exposition is as cumbersome as a spacesuit and there’s a vacuum where characters should be.

Time is stretched for Whit due to the deep distances travelled. Similarly the film has nice moments but some very long minutes.

A Walk in the Woods

Director: Ken Kwapis (2015)

In no danger of ever straining an acting muscle, Robert Redford ambles through this genial adaption of Bill Bryson’s best-selling account of his trek along the Appalachian mountain trail.

After one funeral too many and perturbed by his well-heeled life of ease, successful author Bill decides to take himself out of his comfort zone by hiking over two thousand miles.

Emma Thompson pops up as his wife to warn Bill of the potential hazards and begs him not to go.

Only his raddled, rasping and rambling old friend Nick Nolte is mad enough to go with him. He’s as short of money as he is of breath.

It’s an odd couple comedy, less concerned with the journey travelled but the welcome home. It’s as charming and handsome as it’s lead and equally as empty of interest as his performance.

There’s slapstick buffoonery, unconvincing peril and light grumbling as the decrepit duo are tempted by soft beds, pretty ladies and motorised transport.

The script contains very little of Bill’s scientific curiosity, wonder at the natural world or understated warm wit which made the book such a joy. The lack of it tests our patience.

At 79 years old Redford is still a strikingly good looking man, even if he has borrowed Paul MCartney’s hair colouring.

He is of course still a magnet for the ladies. In true Hollywood style his screen wife is 23 years younger than himself.

It’s inferior to Reese Witherspoon’s one woman trek Wild (2014) which is inferior itself to Mia Wasikowska’s outback odyssey Tracks (2013).

If the bearded and portly former Fleet Street stroller Bryson can score for The Sundance Kid playing him on the big screen, then I’m not settling for anyone less than Keanu Reeves in my future biopic.