Under Milk Wood

Director: Kevin Allen (2015)

This trippy and licentious adaption of the famous Dylan play is entertaining, coherent and consistently bold.

It’s my introduction to his nightmarish verse of seaside misery and is an eye and ear opening experience.

Commissioned by BBC as a radio play and later adapted for the stage, the play was completed in by the Welsh poet shortly before his death in New York aged 39.

Set in the fictional Welsh fishing village of Llareggub. The name is pointedly ‘bugger all’ spelt backwards.

Described as ‘a small decaying watering place’, it hums to the sound of pagan rituals, a male voice choir, much organ music and a brass band.

The visual cacophony of saturated colours, blurred focus and obscure camera angles creates a vivid and disturbing dreamlike world.

A first film version in 1972 starred Hollywood greats Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor. This one has a grizzled Rhys Ifans and a comely Charlotte Church.

The artist formerly known as the voice of an angel gamely joins in the bawdy business. She’s confident on camera and showcases her talent with a touching torch song in a slow jazz style.

Ifans narrates through the character of the blind Captain Cat. The Welshman relishes the poetry and his confident, lyrical delivery is a major strength.

The Captain guides us through the dreams and fantasies of the sleeping inhabitants with names such as Nogood Boyo, Sinbad Sailors, Mrs. Willy Nilly and Organ Morgan.

They’re a collage of gossiping grotesques preoccupied with lust, loss, longing, murder and madness.

The play’s lack of narrative flow and moral navigation leaves us bobbing about on a murky tide of humanity without the safe harbour of a climax.

I watched the English language version and the Welsh language version is the UK’s submission for the Best Foreign Language award at next year’s Oscars.

I wish it the best of British luck.

Spectre

Director: Sam Mendes (2015)

From the breathtaking beginning to the doom laden finale, the 24th James Bond adventure is an extraordinary explosive and epic episode of the franchise.

The spy filled cinematic year has included reasonably received riffs on the genre including Kingsman, Spy, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Man From UNCLE.

Now the daddy of espionage returns to slap down the young pretenders.

Returning in his fourth and possibly final film of an extraordinarily successful tenure, the 47 year old Daniel Craig offers an interpretation of Ian Fleming’s alter-ego at least equal to the very best.

Spectre is fresh and ambitious despite the weight of history and expectation.

So spectacular, sexy and superb in all departments, it sometimes feels less than the sum of its magnificent parts.

Yet British director Sam Mendes is playing a bigger game than merely creating a standalone action thriller.

He’s also made a fabulous final chapter in a four film reinvention of an overly familiar character.

Prior to Craig each Bond movie was a self-contained story connected not by story but by character.

It’s now clear we’ve been watching a long form story which began way back with the Englishman’s debut in the role in Casino Royale (2006).

It’s a bold strategic 9 year move inspired perhaps by the 10 year long Harry Potter series and a forerunner of Marvel‘s creation of a cinematic universe.

This approach won’t harm the home entertainment box-set sales.

The famous gun barrel opening sequence is re-installed and few themes create a shiver of expectation as effectively as Bond’s does.

Following on from Skyfall (2012), a message from beyond the grave sends 007 off-piste and outside the law.

As he follows a trail of clues from Rome, to Austria and Morocco, he once more encounters the deadly Quantum organisation.

It’s a procession vodka martini’s, dangerous women, gorgeous locations, terrific stunts, powerful henchmen and a completely cuckoo villain. Bond’s car is quite beautiful even by his standards.

There’s paranoia, conspiracy, betrayal, torture, sex and death.

And as a riposte to those who suggest Craig’s interpretation lacks humour, it’s also very funny.

A trio of European stars add indispensable talent and glamour.

As the oldest actress to be cast opposite Bond, Monica Bellucci’s widow riffs on a character on in The Italian Job (1969).

Lea Seydoux is an excellent foil and Christoph Waltz mercifully keeps a firm hand on his inclination to camp.

An intelligent script works hard to give ample screen time to Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw who return as MI6 stalwarts Moneypenny, M and Q.

They also contribute to the two and a half hour running time and if anything was to be trimmed, it would be this extra muscle.

As cinema owners will be forced to have fewer screenings per day to accommodate Bond’s length, it will be interesting to see if this affects the box office.

This potential shortfall may be compensated for by more expensive IMAX tickets. The opening Mexico sequence certainly warrants the extra cost to the cinema-goer.

It’s dynamically photographed by Dutch-Swedish Hoyte van Hoytema. His work on Interstellar (2014) was one of the few high points of Chris Nolan’s pompous ego trip.

But here the rich wreaths of shadows he wraps around the players are more reminiscent of his glorious work which contributed so much to the success of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).

Sam Smith’s theme song sounds thin on the radio but works well in situ over the sensual opening titles.

Mendes encourages his actors to play every scene as if it’s their last. Which for Daniel Craig, may well be the case.

Mississippi Grind

Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck (2015)

A pair of gamblers chase a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow in this engaging bitter-sweet fable.

It’s flush with award worthy performances, an intelligent script and a tremendous soundtrack.

Ben Mendelsohn plays a real estate agent in hock to debt collectors. He spends his nights at spit and sawdust casinos.

Gerry’s luck changes for the better when he meets the charming Curtis at the tables.

Ryan Reynolds gives a career best performance as the charismatic storyteller with dreams of travelling to Machu Picchu in Peru.

Gerry is as untrustworthy and entertaining as a leprechaun. The first image we see is of an enormous rainbow which stretches across the screen.

Believing Curtis to be his lucky charm, Gerry throws the dice on a trip to New Orleans.

Together they plan to win enough money en route playing poker to buy their way into a high stakes game.

The Mississippi River leads the jokers into dangerous waters as they encounter whiskey, cardsharps and working girls.

Sienna Miller and Analeigh Tipton provide the possibility of redemption and soften what could be but never is a very macho experience.

Directors Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck co-wrote the script and Boden also edited. Cinematography is by Andrij Parekh and the film was well received and picked by at Sundance this year. (2015).

In a satisfying final hand we fear for the self-deceiving duo as reality threatens to deal the cards.

The Last Witch Hunter

Director: Breck Eisner (2015)

Chrome domed action hero Vin Diesel defies the dark arts in this deathlessly dull supernatural action adventure.

As a one man Papal super-weapon called Kaulder he uses his rubble voiced presence to brazen his way through a series of beautifully looking but dramatically inert action set-pieces.

As his handler, confessor and friend Father Dolan, Michael Caine provides lengthy exposition before retiring and being incapacitated by a spell.

Thus he spends much of the film comatose. Insert your own joke here.

This allows for the introduction of younger actors and to trundle in a laboured ticking clock plot device.

Meanwhile the star of the Fast Furious franchise is given a cool car to pose with.

Cursed with eternal life and so being generally indestructible is a bit of a tension killer, so he’s also provided with a couple of imperilled passengers.

Elijah Wood is a wide-eyed replacement for Caine who attempts to drag Kaulder into the digital age. Rose Leslie plays a breathy voiced barkeep with hidden powers.

When an 800 year old truce between the church and the witches is broken, a plot to destroy the world is uncovered.

The silliness is CGI heavy but logic light and soon I was longing for the camp majesty of Russell Mulcahy‘s Highlander (1986).

Diesel’s last role which wasn’t a talking plant or a Fast Furious franchise flick was Riddick (2013), a dimly misogynist sci-fi sequel to the brilliant Pitch Black (2000) and the third film in that series.

Similarly this film has a woeful attitude towards women. Witch Hunter begins with a preamble through the medieval period and Kaulder’s mindset remains rooted there.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the script paid more the most meagre lip service to the intervening years of emancipation.

Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless seem to have divvied up the writing into separate parts without ever consulting each other.

Kaulder’s employers the Axe and the Cross, a male religious order dedicated to protecting the world from evil witches.

This wouldn’t be a problem if some sort of balance or modern spin was put on the story, such a s portraying Kaulder as man comically out of step with the times.

Schwarzenegger could still make a very decent fist of that film, but Diesel lacks Arnie’s confidence to send himself up. After all, a man in his position can’t afford to be to look ridiculous.

Instead we’re invited to admire Kaulder’s macho effectiveness at slaughtering his way through waves of women and their compliant male underlings.

With exception of Leslie’s character Chloe and a sexually willing flight attendant, women are portrayed as youth obsessed sexpots or foul midnight hags intent on ruining the lives of man.

Poor Chloe is caught somewhere between being an unsuitably aged romantic interest and a surrogate daughter figure.

In Gladiator (2000) Russell Crowe‘s Maximus sought to rejoin his murdered family in Elysium, a state of peace and grace.

When Kaulder’s real daughter and her mother appear in his dreams they represent weakness, capitulation and subjugation.

Everything the unrepentant, unreconstructed and fiercely heterosexual Kaulder lives to combat.

As the big bad villain, the queen witch is an anonymous shrieking harpy with vaguely explained plans of evil.

She’s less an evil protagonist than just another obstacle to be overcome, her existence serves only to underscore how heroic and manly Kaulder is.

However as her future vision of New York is to transform it into a pastoral idyll, the script may be rooting for the wrong team.

Crimson Peak

Director: Guillermo del Toro (2015)

This lavishly stylised and violent fairytale splashes around buckets of blood but is sadly anaemic.

Inspired by the Hammer House of Horror films, the period sets and costumes are fantastic though the story is predictable and lacks bite.

It begins as a sumptuous and intriguing gothic romance bubbling with ideas, filtered through the director’s usual motifs of steampunk contraptions and ladies of letters.

But once the story leads to bleak estate in the north of England where red clay oozes from the mansion’s every pore, proceedings become bogged down in sticky CGI.

There’s a workshop in the tower, many doors are locked and Edith is warned not to go down to the cellar.

it all sadly ends with all the suspense of a steroid-filled episode of Scooby Doo. But without any of the fun.

Talented Mia Wasikowska is at her insipid worst as young heiress Edith Cushing who follows her new husband Sir Thomas Sharpe to his crumbling gothic pile.

The baronet is pallid, impoverished and played in impeccable black by the devilishly charming Tom Hiddleston.

The pair played vampiric siblings in the superior Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) in which they vividly essayed far more interesting characters.

Here Jessica Chastain plays Hiddleston’s screen sister who keeps her brother’s best interests close to her heart. With barking intense piano playing and a choice wardrobe, she dominates her every scene.

An anonymous Charlie Hunnam plays a lovelorn ophthalmologist left looking for clues, probably as to where any sense of mystery or danger is.

Pan

Director: Joe Wright (2015)

Set sail to the stars with the boy who never grew up in this magical family fantasy.

Based on the tales of J.M.Barrie, it’s the action packed story of how the young orphan Peer first encounters the fantastical world of Neverland and discovers his destiny.

Die-hard fans of the book may be aghast at the liberties taken with the characters.

But there are compensations in this old fashioned adventure which is bolstered by some lovely design and beautiful animation.

Levi Miller is tremendously confident and engaging as the orphan Peter who is kidnapped from London by a flying pirate ship and whisked off to Neverland.

It’s a riotous place of broad humour, acrobatic fights, circus colours and rock songs, populated by Never-birds, crocodiles and fairies.

He’s set to work in a huge mine where he has to dig for Pixum, the powerful pixie dust.

It’s craved by the villainous pirate chief Blackbeard, performed in a lively pantomime by Hugh Jackman.

Peter escapes with the future Captain Hook, a two-handed rascal in the mould of Han Solo from Star Wars (1977).

Garrett Hedlund strives manfully in an unenviable role which requires a physical performance full of charm, humour and an edge of mystery and danger.

It’s too bad he’s not a young Harrison Ford but then again, who is?

He flirts unconvincingly with the kick ass princess Tiger Lily who’s from a multi-racial tribe of natives.

The character is described as a ‘redskin’ by Barrie and by allowing itself to be accused of whitewashing the role, the film scored a soft publicity own goal.

I’m far more concerned with Rooney Mara’s forgettable performance in a disappointingly thinly written female lead.

Her and Hedlund seem cast by committee.

Kathy Burke has fun as a devious nun and Cara Delevingne is alluring as a pod of mermaids.

Tiger Lily is mostly there to explain to Peter his part in a prophecy.

In order to fulfil it he must learn to believe in himself if he wants fulfil his destiny.

Director Joe Wright has form with making very theatrical film versions of classic books, such as in his Anna Karenina (2012).

He brings out the spectacle of the source material which was of course originally written for the stage.

Go on this awfully big adventure and you will believe in fairies.

★★★☆☆

Suffragette

Director: Sarah Gavron (2015)

Political passion and personal punishment power a prodigious performance in this stirring historical drama.

In the dark, violent world of 1912, a young mother risks everything as she battles the government for the right to vote.

Fictitious characters mix with real people and events to create a gripping story filled with emotional truth.

Following her excellent turn in Far From The Madding Crowd (2015), Carey Mulligan gives another mesmerising performance as factory worker and reluctant activist Maud Watts.

Her young son George is ominously diagnosed by Helena Bonham Carter’s chemist as ‘a bit chesty’.

Hardworking and aspirational, Maud is drawn into the bosom of the suffragettes and their world of nighttime rallies, back room meetings and property attacks.

Soon she feels the full force of the law in the form of the intelligence gathering Special Branch and truncheon wielding constables.

With Maud’s behaviour considered to be madness not badness, she’s ostracised, beaten, jailed and endures a hunger strike.

Radicalised by her experiences, she is soon waging a guerrilla war alongside veteran campaigner Emily Davison.

It mostly involves blowing up the UK’s communications infrastructure. i.e. postboxes.

Corrupt politicians collude with the media to keep the violent campaign off the front pages.

In desperation to  be heard, the women seize upon a target so big as to be impossible to ignore.

At times the heartbreaking events resemble the grimmer moments of Les Miserables (2012). With the thankful exception of the awful sing-alongs.

It’s an inspiring tale of kindness, courage and comradeship Which at times tries too hard. We’ve long since been won over by Maud by the time she’s reduced to waiting in the rain.

An intelligent script insists the women are fighting a war and the dialogue includes frequent exhortations for them never to give up.

It celebrates their bravery and solidarity against the state who use covert surveillance and brutality to suppress a popular political uprising.

However it aligns the direct methods and organisational prowess of the suffragettes with historical and contemporary terrorist groups such as the IRA.

This may prove problematical to viewers. It’s certainly the starting point for an interesting debate.

Cinematographer Edu GrauIt captures the drama in palettes of browns and greys, as films of this sort so often are.

Better known as James Bond’s Q, soft spoken Ben Whishaw is counter-intuitively cast as Maud’s working class barrow boy husband Sonny.

His subtle acting suggests a marriage of convenience and as the story progresses, Sonny’s feebleness adds perspective to Maud’s situation.

Geoff Bell stops shy of pantomime as an abusive factory boss and the film is not too sure what to do with Brendan Gleeson’s cop. His concerned reasonableness challenges you to remember he’s one of the guys.

Meryl Streep makes a brief and typically stagey appearance as head girl Emmeline Pankhurst. It veers towards an impersonation of Maggie Smith in TV’s Downton Abbey.

In The Iron Lady (2011) cinema’s grand dame won an Oscar for playing the famously unsisterly first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

During her divisive time in office she was not for turning when it came to civil unrest and terrorist campaigns.

Spoken of in hushed voices in her absence, Pankhurst addresses a crowd messianically from a balcony and a signed book is passed around as if a holy relic.

This is the nearest religion comes to being referenced in the film.

There are no priests in the church which offers sanctuary to the dispossessed and the position of the established church seems to be one of benign neutrality.

This despite organised religion having a poor track record in the public arena of women’s rights.

Made In Dagenham (2010) showed car factory workers campaigning for equal pay in the 1970’s. Suffragette is a spiritual prequel and in the 60 odd years between the periods portrayed, it’s sobering to realise how little progress had been made.

As a representative of all the foot soldiers of the suffrage movement, Mulligan’s emotional performance puts us at the heart of their struggles against the established order.

She easily wins my vote for 2016’s Best Actress Oscar.