The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Director: Francis Lawrence (2014)

She’s scared and angry but Jennifer Lawrence fights on as reluctant warrior Katniss in this third, darker episode of the spectacular sci-fi series.

Mockingjay resumes the story with rebels led by President Coin (Julianne Moore) regrouped in a huge hidden bunker in the desolate District 13.

The Hunger Games arena, where children fought to the death, has been destroyed and a popular uprising was crushed by soldiers from the Capitol.

Coin, whose silver hair and two-faced nature mirror despotic leader President Snow (Donald Sutherland) wants Katniss to be the Mockingjay, a symbol of rebellion to inspire the repressed districts to rise against the Capitol.

Despite her fears, Katniss agrees. But only if her traitorous best friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is rescued and given a pardon.

As bombs and bodies start to fall, she and self-pitying soldier Gale (Liam Hemsworth) get closer and he volunteers to lead a daring mission.

Katniss is an expert archer and inspirational Games survivor yet, disappointingly, she barely fights because people are so protective. In the movie’s best sequence she is attacked when visiting a hospital.

There are speeches at the expense of action, the pace is thoughtful not thrilling and the story suffers as it is a bridge to the fourth and final film.

But the rebel base and splendid Capitol look excellent and Lawrence is so good that she makes ordinary actors like Hemsworth seem poor – and fabulous actors such as Sutherland and Moore look ordinary.

☆☆

The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorsese (2014)

Making money has never seemed so debauched as in this glossy, foul–mouthed and darkly comic biopic.

The fifth collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio colourfully captures the outrageous world of crooked Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort.

It’s a blisteringly charismatic turn by DiCaprio as Belfort, a rampant, ravenous and depraved monster whose ego dominates the film.

Margot Robbie plays his underdressed trophy wife Naomi, but to her credit she isn’t overwhelmed by DiCaprio’s gleeful grandstanding.

In typical Scorsese style, dynamic camera-work and a storming soundtrack thrust us through criminal, chemical and domestic abuse while dressed in trashy clothes and driving a fleet of flash cars.

It is Scorsese’s finest film since his mobster masterpiece Goodfellas (1990). It’s similarly structured and high with comedy – at times it’s hilarious.

As Belfort talks directly to camera while walking you through his life, the dialogue even features some of the same key words and phrases to underline how crooked Wall Street is.

A ruthlessly brilliant salesman – imagine Gordon Gekko on Class A drugs – Belfort’s rapid rise is powered by his ability to foster corrupt practises among his employees and his business partner Donnie (Jonah Hill).

He doesn’t bother to explain in detail to the audience how it works but points to his huge spoils to prove hat it does. There are beds full of cash, planes full of prostitutes, showers of drugs, monkeys on rollerskates and dwarf-throwing contests.

Eventually the FBI chase him for his insider trading and his career, house and marriage are at risk.

In his most exhilarating movie since Casino and his best since Goodfellas, Scorsese points out that the wolf can only exist as a result of our greedy gullibility.

It failed to win any of the Oscars it was nominated for; best film, director, male lead, male support for Hill and best adapted screenplay. As DiCaprio couldn’t win a golden statue for this titanic effort – he may as well give up trying.

Serena

Director: Susanne Bier (2014)

Love, madness and corruption collide with catastrophic results in this compelling Depression-era drama.

Based on the novel by Ron Rash, it brings together Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as on-screen lovers for the second time in an exquisite exploration of the pernicious power of passion.

George Pemberton (Cooper) is a logging company owner in North Carolina. In the wake of the Wall St. crash he’s struggling to finance an ambitious business project in Brazil.

Meanwhile as he tries to fend off central government plans for a National Park on his land, the local sheriff McDowell (Toby Jones) is investigating his firm for corruption.

At a society party George is smitten by the beautiful, strong-minded Serena (Lawrence). Following an impetuous romance, he whisks her off to the Smoky Mountains where she wins over a sceptical workforce with her knowledge and attitude.

With his leading man looks decked out in stubble, leather jacket and wide brimmed hat, Cooper is solidly convincing as the panther-hunting entrepreneur. Lawrence has yet to deliver a poor performance and doesn’t disappoint here. There is an easy comparison to be made between the characters of Serena and Lady McBeth – but Cleopatra may be a better fit.

Talented and handsome, the leading couple share a resonant chemistry. They nicely underplay a ripe script which helps to navigate some unsteady plotting littered with symbolism and told at a measured pace.

The Swedish director is fascinated with cultural context, mixing superstition and religion with labour disputes and a keenly observed social hierarchy. It’s a shame the many interesting minor characters are too often pushed into the background.

Electricity, the railroads and mechanisation are changing a landscape filled with bears, eagles, snakes and horses; the impressive attention to period detail and epic landscapes are captured by the rich cinematography of Morten Søborg.

Gradually George’s devotion to his bride begins to cloud his judgement and she exploits every opportunity to encourage his independence away from his business partner Buchanan (David Dencik). An accident sees a hunting guide called Galloway (Rhys Ifans) declare his loyalty to her.

When Serena is unable to provide George with the healthy heir they crave; deceit, jealousy and murder follow.

Grace of Monaco

Director: Olivier Dahan (2014)

How is it possible to have made a terrible film like this out of such a remarkable story – the life of a Hollywood star who married into European royalty?

The tale of Grace Kelly, later Princess Grace of Monaco, has terrific elements – real-life drama, Tinseltown glamour, riches and royalty, fast cars, great locations, intrigue and international conflict.

But this is an insult to our intelligence. It is poorly cast and packed with unsympathetic characters who deliver dreadful dialogue with appalling accents. The script is terrible and the film looks like it has been edited with a hacksaw.

Stunningly beautiful and an Oscar-winner, Grace gives up her film career for a fairytale life in Monaco on the French Riviera. But now she is bored.

You need an actress who can make an audience sympathise with the plight of a beautiful, pampered, wealthy woman. Instead we get ice queen Nicole Kidman.

The self-pitying princess passes time watching videos of her wedding and, preposterously, is portrayed as an international diplomacy mastermind.

Alfred Hitchcock (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) pops by to offer her the title role in the film Marnie – playing a disturbed woman who was molested as a child. Grace, with the backing of her hubby Prince Rainier (Tim Roth), gladly accepts.

Dithering Rainier is trying to preserve his family’s lengthy rule by keeping Monaco as a tax haven for wealthy petrol-heads and gambling addicts.

However he’s driven to chain-smoking by the grasping president Charles de Gaulle (Andre Penvern) who wants to impose taxes on Monaco, exploiting the ‘scandal’ of Grace’s planned return to acting by trying to tax Monaco and threatening to blockade it.

In desperation, Grace takes a shopping trip to Paris and organises a jolly banquet to bring everyone together. Hoorah! And Marnie? In the end the role was taken by Tippi Hedren.

☆☆☆☆

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Director:  Jonathan Liebesman (2014)

Crawling out of New York sewers after a seven year hibernation these turtles really stink.

This is a damnably dull and witless reboot of a dormant franchise cobbled together with the least possible inspiration.

The plot, for what it’s worth, follows ambitious TV reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) as she teams up with the four mutant turtles to thwart criminal samurai Shredder and his Foot Clan gang’s plan to rule New York.

O’Neil is unwittingly used as bait by the clan to catch a vigilante who foils a dockside heist. The vigilante turns out to the four computer animated kickass turtles – Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael, voiced by Johnny Knoxville, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard and Alan Ritchson.

The quartet were raised in the sewers by the giant mutated rat and sensei master Splinter (Tony Shalhoub). They squabble, eat pizza, say ‘Cowabunga!’ and wear colour coded masks. Michelangelo is the most easily identifiable because he’s the most annoying.

April recognises them as the turtles she kept in her dad’s lab before he died in a mysterious fire. He was developing a mutagen that would eradicate disease. Luckily she kept all his scientific notes.

She tells her dad’s ex-partner turned industrialist Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) but he’s now in cahoots with Shredder and planning to use the turtles’ mutated blood to blackmail the city.

There are fights, chases, rocket launchers, exploding cars and remote controlled flying daggers. The film is sufficiently self-aware to be happy in pointing out how ridiculous it all is – but it’s the sloppy execution not the premise that’s the problem.

In another film Fox’s expressionless face and lack of dramatic range would be a severe hindrance – but here they’re just part of the overall ooze of ineptitude.

Mutants, ninjas and turtles all deserve better than this – probably teenagers as well.

☆☆☆☆

Nightcrawler

Director: Dan Gilroy (2014)

Cut-throat and violent, the dark world of TV news is under the spotlight in this slick satirical thriller that is sharply written, wonderfully observed and terrifically performed.

With his gaunt face, sunken eyes, manic grin, lank-hair and soft-spoken measured delivery, Jake Gyllenhaal is mesmerisingly intense as a nightcrawler; a feral TV paparazzo prowling for the most bloody news footage.

Ambitious, articulate and cunning, loner Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a fervent believer in the American Dream.

Seeing opportunity everywhere he is permanently touting his (limited) skill-set and promoting his enthusiasm to any potential employer.

Inspired when he sees TV cameramen film police rescuing a woman from a car crash, he buys a camcorder and begins cruising the streets of Los Angeles at night, filming crimes to sell to TV.

His inexperienced enthusiasm leads to taking risks, falling foul of the law and his competitors such as the abrasive Joe Loder (Bill Paxton).

But he quickly learns to manipulate criminal events to further his career,

He sells his graphic footage to morally compromised, ageing and acerbic TV News chief Nina (a wonderful Rene Russo and real-life Mrs Dan Gilroy).

Nina’s show is struggling in the ratings and despite Lou being infatuated, exploits her perilous employment situation to secure a sweetheart deal for himself.

A driver Rick (Riz Ahmed) is employed on exploitative terms and provides the film with more black comedy; but he’s mostly a script device to give Lou someone to spout corporate career advice to.

Without any moral framework to guide him and driven by his love of the dollar, he has no compunction manipulating events even they spiral into violence and gunplay.

Bloom is a cartoon monstrosity and had he an ounce of doubt or remorse the drama would be improved. Instead he’s a one joke act lecturing us on the vicious amorality of capitalism. It is however, one hell of a joke.

Fury

Director: David Ayer (2014)

Hollywood big gun Brad Pitt rolls into action as a battle-hardened tank commander in this mud and guts war epic that takes no prisoners.

Engineered to a familiar and straight-forward narrative, US army Private Norman (Logan Lerman) is sent straight from basic training to the frontline as the Second World War draws to a bloody conclusion.

Despite being a uniformed clerk, recent losses mean he has to join a Sherman tank unit under the merciless leadership of Sergeant “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt).

Pitt is a trusted father figure to the crew who have been with him since the North African campaign  and include mechanic Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan – a barely recognisable Shia LaBeouf, plus driver ‘Gordo’ (Michael Pena) and gunner ‘Coon-Ass’ (Jon Bernthal).

Struggling to adapt to his close-knit and de-sensitised comrades, the raw recruit is pounded as their tank – nicknamed Fury – rumbles into a series of battles as they cross the muddy fields of Nazi Germany.

Bravery is matched by savagery as soldiers are blown up, burnt, decapitated, shot and stabbed. There’s a brief and tense period of R&R in a small town where liberation comes at a very personal price for the local women.

Then Wardaddy leads a convoy that encounters a militarily superior enemy Tiger tank and only the Fury survives to continue the mission to the ferocious finale.

Riveted together with excellent acting and direction, the phenomenal fight sequences leave you battered and bruised. Macho down to its army boots, this brilliant and brutal war movie that magnificently depicts war as hell.

Mr Turner

Director: Mike Leigh (2014)

Brilliant Timothy Spall was surprisingly overlooked by Oscar for his grunting, growling portrayal of superstar artist J.M.W.Turner.

This masterful biopic is a rich canvas covering the last 25 years of the genius’s life until his death aged 76.

Hangdog and whiskered, the man often hailed as Britain’s greatest ever painter is hard on his contemporaries, kind to his patrons and horrible to his servants and children.

With Spall dominant in the foreground, there is a wealth of emotional colour swirling around in the background to ponder.

Never married, Turner has complex relations with the many women in his life. He refuses to acknowledge the children he has with his former lover Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) despite her constant appeals.

Meanwhile the artist regularly takes sexual advantage of his devoted housekeeper – and Sarah’s niece – Hannah Danby, played by Dorothy Atkinson.

After the death of his beloved father William (Paul Jesson) Londoner Turner goes to the Kent coast to stay in the Margate lodging house of Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey), a warm, gentle and touching bond develops, accelerating on the death of her husband.

Supremely confident in his creative talent, Turner takes pains to guard his place at the top of the intensely competitive art world.

With his sketchbook for company, he strides across landscapes, walks for miles along the coast and pays prostitutes to show him their bodies for anatomy lessons, we’re left to ponder at what else he may be paying for.

He even has himself tied to a ship’s mast in a storm to study the light. As his work becomes ever more revolutionary he is mocked by satirists, which hastens his decline.

Rich and famous, Turner is still hurt when a young Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert – philistines both – are too shallow to appreciate his art.

The gentle ending, the most heartbreaking of 2014, is all the more powerful for lacking sentimentality.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Director: Bryan Singer (2014)

Hugh Jackman sharpens his claws for the seventh time as superhero Wolverine in this action-packed adventure with added time-travel thrills.

The film has exciting set-pieces, a terrific cast, some good jokes and an entertaining new angle on the Kennedy assassination of November 1963.

Yet the script struggles to find time for a plot amid the cacophony of characters – so the special effects have to do the dramatic heavy lifting.

The story begins with mutants under attack by super-powered robots called the sentinels.

Mutant leaders Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) send the mind of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 to inhabit his younger self’s body.

He has to find the young Xavier (James McAvoy) and convince him to help recruit Magneto (Michael Fassbender).

Magneto is jailed inside the Pentagon so they recruit a lightning fast mutant called Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to break him out.

This leads to a brilliant action comedy sequence set to the wonderful music of the late singer-songwriter Jim Croce whose music was also used in Tarantino’s bloody opus Django Unchained (2012).

Next the mutants have to stop the shapeshifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from carrying out a revenge killing of the scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).

She decides to take direct action not realising his death could lead to the annihilation of the mutants by giving the the US government the excuse they’re looking for.

Fassbender and McEvoy have great fun in costume but neither has to squeeze himself into an unforgiving blue leotard like Lawrence.

It’s not uncanny of the film-makers to put the world’s most popular actress centre story. But even she can’t steal the show from the prowling, growling Jackman.

☆☆

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director: Wes Anderson (2014)

Let Ralph Fiennes lead you through the lobby for a romp around the rooms of this funny and sweet comic caper.

With typically deft and deliberate sweeps of his camera, director Anderson sculpts a sweet trifle and by virtue of keeping the screen-time of his regular actors Bill Murray and Owen Wilson to an absolute minimum, he’s created his best and funniest confection yet.

In the fictional middle-European country of Zubrowka, The Writer (Jude Law) is staying in the once opulent but now rundown hotel where he meets the aged Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham).

The Writer is regaled with the tale of how as young man, Zero came under the tutelage of the now legendary hotelier Gustave H (Fiennes) and so eventually became the owner of the establishment.

Known more for his intensity of his dramatic performances, uber-thesp Fiennes shows his flair for comic charm as Gustave H – a velvet-tongued concierge and romantic adventurer with a fondness for seducing the blonde, rich, vulnerable old ladies who frequented his hotel.

We see Gustave parade through the lobby issuing a multitude of instruction, insistent on respecting the correct manner in which everything must be done. Perpetually purple-clad and poetry quoting, even his perfume is called Panache.

Young Zero is played by Tony Revolori, he and Fiennes make an unlikely but lovely double act with Gustave showering his protege with advice, not least concerning the pastry girl (an excellent Saoirse Ronan) Zero has fallen is love with.

Gustave is bequeathed a very valuable painting, Boy with Apple by Madame D (Tilda Swinton). Her family whom hoped to inherit it are outraged.

Doors are opened, windows peered through and corridors ran down as Gustave and Zero are pursued by a villainous leather-clad investigator J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe).

What follows is unexpected violence, an alpine chase, punch ups, murders, an interrupted game of cards, a secret society of concierges and a most unfortunate cat.

Like the hotel of the title this immaculate pink and white wedding cake of a creation is textured, rich and slightly nutty – though it may be something of an acquired taste.

 ★★★★