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.

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.

A Most Violent Year

Director: J.C. Chandor (2015)

Visually and morally murky, this brooding New York crime thriller throws insubstantial punches from behind interesting shadows.

Shy on story this is a sombre exploration of the compromises necessary in perpetuating the myth of the American Dream.

In 1981 Oscar Isaac‘s immigrant self-made businessman, Abel, has put down a huge cash deposit to buy a derelict dockside property to expand his oil interests.

When David Oyelowo‘s District Attorney charges Abel for fraud and tax evasion, the bank refuse to loan Abel the money to complete his deal.

With seven days to raise the cash or lose everything he’s worked, Abel runs around the decaying, filthy and graffitied streets for meetings in back-rooms and barbershops.

Meanwhile his truckers and salespeople are being beaten up by rivals and his family are being threatened in their new home.

Jessica Chastain captivates as Abel’s beautiful and mob-connected wife, Anna, but she’s mostly there to spur him on and cook the books on his behalf.

Abel is naively unaware of his own inconsistencies with corruption and violence taking him by surprise, despite being mobbed up to the eyeballs and knowingly guilty as charged.

Everything is captured in a low key register: the lighting, the performances, the mood. It’s carefully calculated but struggles under its weighty self importance.

Brian De Palma’s gaudy masterpiece Scarface is deliberately referenced in Chastain’s icy style and the synthesised score, but this has none of the energy, bling, coke, violence or fun.

Only occasionally violent and taking place over a mere thirty three days, A Most Violent Year is a mis-named disappointment.

★★☆☆☆