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.

The Messenger

Director: David Blair (2015)

 Scruffy, sarcastic, and self-medicating with alcohol, Jack is not always welcome at the funerals he gatecrashers.

At the behest of the bothersome ghosts he conveys messages from the deceased to the bereaved.

We see his troubled life in flashback as the scripts toys with whether his powers are really the manifestation of mental illness.

In a dubious subplot featuring no surprises, a dead journalist is badgering Jack to visit his TV presenter girlfriend.

Robert Sheehan is nicely abrasive as he manfully holds the film together.

Former model Lily Cole offers sympathy as Jack’s sister and Joely Richardson appears as a psychiatrist.

There’s nice location work but the script is uncertain and the ghost of Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense haunts throughout.

The Visit

Director: M. Night Shyamalan (2015)

You’d best pretend to be out when this confused comedy horror calls round for tea.

It’s an inconsistent, dull and exploitative example of the over-used found footage format.

When a single mother Kathryn Hahn heads off on a weeks holiday cruise with her boyfriend, she packs her kids off to their grandparents whom they’ve never met.

Played with by Olivia De Jonge and Ed Oxenbould the young pair are as un-endearing a pair of teenagers as you could possibly hope to avoid.

Rebecca is a fifteen year old budding documentary maker. Her high minded if half hearted attempts to deconstruct cinematic technique has no bearing on proceedings.

The germaphobic Tyler raps on demand.

Pop-pop and Nanna live in a creaking farmhouse miles from everywhere. The kids are banned from the cellar.

Despite the vomiting, nudity and scratching at the walls, They’re never too scared to pick up their cameras.

Most frightening is the Frankensteins’ monster of a script, stitched together to form an incoherent whole, lurching in tone from scene to scene.

The Visit is broadly sympathetic to dementia sufferers but happy to mock the criminally insane; a contradictory position which it never attempts to reconcile or even seems to be aware of.

It seems as if Shyamalan wrote a script based on the idea the effects of mental illness may appear to others as disturbing and horrific.

Then the producers Blumhouse wandered in and said we’ll give you the cash to make the movie but only if you give us a cheap, tawdry and predictable third act.

Legend

Director: Brian Helgeland (2015)

This barnstorming biopic of cockney crime lords the Krays is a double barrelled blast of brutal and funny entertainment.

The exhausted tale of London’s most infamous gangsters is given a fresh impetus by a pair of magnetic performances by Tom Hardy as twins Reggie and Ronnie.

So well defined are their characters at times I forgot I was watching the same actor.

London is in transition from fifties post war austerity to the swinging sixties. The Krays see an opportunity to expand from their poor East end roots to the moneyed lights of the celebrity-filled West end.

We see their rise through the eyes of Reggie’s wife Frances. Their mother who normally looms large in their legend is a minor figure.

The script rockets through the boys’ rivalries with the Richardson mob, their dealings with the mafia and the murder of Jack ‘the hat’ McVitie.

Reggie is the older of the brothers, a charmer with brains. He’s an ambitiously ruthless businessman who owns clubs, runs protection rackets and wants to break into the casino trade.

Ron is a philosopher fool with fists of iron. His tenuous grasp of reality and impulsive behaviour are disastrous for those nearest to him.

Though unquestionably devoted to each other, the nearest the boys come to affection is beating seven bells out of each other.

Their fall is framed as a tragedy with Greek references peppering conversations.

Reggie is seemingly destined for great things but is thwarted by his love for his brother Ronnie; the most unpredictable of loose cannons.

Frances is a fragile pill-popping poppet who struggles as her husband fails to become the straight businessman he professes he wants to be.

Ozzie actress Emily Browning is fine but forced to deliver a terribly written and utterly unnecessary voice over. It ruins every scene it witters over.

Tara Fitzgerald plays her disapproving mother and antagonises Reggie by wearing black to their wedding.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson is played with pipe-wielding gusto by Kevin McNally. Christopher Eccleston is always two steps behind as Keystone cop Detective Superintendent ‘Nipper’ Read.

There’s great support all round from Colin Morgan, David Thewlis, Paul Anderson, Taron Egerton and Chazz Palminteri. The latter plays Angelo Bruno, the head of the Philadelphia crime family with whom the twins strike a lucrative deal.

The occasionally larky tone may chafe with those who believe it inappropriate in a story where real people are murdered.

However it’s titled Legend for a reason. It makes no attempt to be definitive or exhaustingly accurate. Nor does it offer an apology for not being so.

It presents a glamourised, heightened view of a specific period and is anchored by the emotional truth it offers of the twins’ complex relationship.

Write-director Brian Helgeland won Best Screenplay Oscar for LA Confidential (1997), more recently he wrote Ridley Scott‘s Robin Hood and Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone. (Both 2010.)

Previously he directed Mel Gibson in the thriller Payback (1999) and baseball biopic 42 (2013).

Legend is extremely confident and ambitiously crafted. There is excellent production design by Tom Conroy and gorgeous costume by Caroline Harris.

The dynamic soundtrack and expertly executed camera moves are hugely influenced by Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic Goodfellas (1990).

HIs famous Copacabana tracking shot is transplanted to Frances’s introduction to Reggie’s club. It’s one of several ambitious and expertly executed camera moves.

It’s the work Brit cinematographer Dick Pope was Oscar nominated last year for Mr Tuner and is a regular Mike Leigh collaborator.

Hardy is currently 3 to 1 to be the next James Bond, but on this showing he might just be too good an actor.

Ricki and the Flash

Director: Jonathan Demme (2015)

Strip out Meryl Streep’s charisma and we’re left with slim pickings in this redemptive rock ‘n’ roll drama.

She plays plucky Ricki, a divorced middle-aged check-out operator who rocks out with her own band in the local spit and sawdust joint at night.

News of her daughter’s divorce and depression sends Ricki flying to her bedside, only to discover her presence is barely tolerated never mind welcomed.

There’s squabbles aplenty as retail therapy replaces psychotherapy, but not much else happens.

There’s talk of attempted suicide and bankruptcy but the most eventful scene involves spilt ice cream and teenage-like strops.

Full of life’s regrets and the guilt of poor parenting, Ricki faces the hardest gig of her life as she struggles to gain the love and respect of her estranged family.

Streep’s acting is as relentless as her singing as she dominates every scene with scant regard to her fellow performers. She delights in being lewd and revels in her pot smoking, hard drinking rock persona.

Mamie Gummer as Ricki’s daughter Julie isn’t over-awed by sharing the screen with her real life-life mother.

Kevin Kline is far form the master of his own house as ex husband Pete and Rick Springfield is whiny as lead guitarist Greg of her racially representative backing band, The Flash.

Fans of the triple Oscar winner and weak cover U2 versions will probably find more to enjoy here than I did.

★★☆☆☆

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl

Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (2015)

This tiresome coming-of-age cancer flick should have been titled Me, Myself and I.

Thomas Mann plays gangly geek Greg Gaines. He spends his high school life avoiding everyone but his friend Earl.

As they remake their favourite movies, a large volume of film references are dropped heavily on the viewers’ head.

Greg’s mother packs him off on a mercy visit to Rachel, a fellow student who’s dying of cancer.

Olivia Cooke is a picture of perky good health until suddenly sporting an array of fetching hats and wigs.

The script has no interest in her or the disease. She’s made to suffer only so Greg can develop as a character.

Played by Ronald Cyler II, all we learn of Earl is he hails from the wrong side of the tracks and has a hankering for titties. His word, not mine.

Poor Katherine C. Hughes is cast as the high school hot girl whose breasts the camera invites us to admire.

There’s inappropriate adult behaviour, accidental drug taking and fisticuffs in the cafeteria.

Quirky camera angles and cute animations are as provocatively passive aggressive in their behaviour as Greg is.

Ideas such as receiving advice from movie stars via their image on bedroom posters are never developed.

The young cast have charm and there are fleeting funny moments but the tone is teeth grindingly twee.

Kiwi screenwriter of Brit comedies Richard Curtis would be impressed by the random quirks masquerading as characters who populate Greg’s world.

I empathised mostly with a coma victim.

★★☆☆☆

Straight Outta Compton

Director: F. Gary Gray (2015)

Busting out of Los Angeles with exhausting attitude, this self-serving musical biopic is an occasionally exhilarating ride of ego and excess.

Straight Outta Compton takes it’s name from the 1988 controversial breakout album of N.W.A., the groundbreaking five strong rap group. It charts their rise and demise.

Central trio of lyricist Ice Cube, producer Dr Dre and rapper Eazy E are played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell. The script isn’t too interested in the other two members, MC Ren and DJ Yella.

With endless macho posturing and ferocious music, they established their reality brand of gangsta rap as a cultural force.

Paul Giamatti plays their shifty, silver-haired manager Jerry Heller whose close relationship with Eazy E threatens the band’s harmony.

Suffering brutal discrimination at hands of the militarised police, their anger and frustration finds a voice in music and reaches a peak with their incendiary and provocative track ‘F** tha Police’.

Sold out concerts bring a heavy police presence and strongly worded letters from the FBI.

There’s barely a female character to speak of though several acres of nubile flesh. And it’s a surprisingly drug light experience.

An indulgence of guns and groupies keep the band occupied, with the former far more highly valued than the latter. One particularly unpleasant post-gig party is disturbingly played for larks.

A parade of unlikeable characters pass through the story which rhymes with a general perception of the music industry. At times even the band are hard to root for.

This is surprising given they produced the movie themselves and Ice Cube is played by his real-life son.

Like many vinyl records, the first side is strong but the second side is weak. Bubbles of soap opera froth up as the story dissolves into contract disputes and ill health.

Even when their millions of dollars have bought huge mansions and flash cars, they’re still breaking the law and getting arrested.

This is where the film loses it’s audience. It wants to suggest regardless of extreme financial and cultural success the band can’t escape the racist behaviour of the state.

And though this may be true, it’s also true for anyone that driving one’s car at extremely high speed through downtown LA will attract the attention of the police, regardless of the officers’ prejudices.

Up until this moment I was mostly on board. But any film which fails to hold the audience sympathies close to it’s own point of view is failing on at least one level.

We’re left with the feeling it’s possible to take the boys outta Compton but not Compton outta the boy.

They wouldn’t seem to want it any other way.

 ★