Director: Gore Verbinski (2017) BBFC cert: 18


Gore Verbinski administered shock treatment to Johnny Depp’s career by directing the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, and the magnificent mess, The Lone Ranger.

The appropriately named director now turns his hand to horror, with equally mixed results.

It’s beautifully designed on a grand scale, and stunningly photographed.

Brit actor Jason Isaacs is wonderfully measured as the governor of an exclusive Swiss sanitarium. Forever pale and interesting, Dane DeHaan is suitably cast as a young US executive sent to Switzerland to rescue his CEO from hydrotherapy.

In the vein of the venerable Hammer House of Horror, the story draws heavily on the European folktales which inspired Dracula and Frankenstein.

Distended on a diet of eels and red herrings, the constipated storytelling puts a strain on the audience. It needs a good dose of leeches. Movement in the bowels of the castle allows for a necessary and explosive purge of plot, providing great relief all round.


Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

Director: David Yates (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Let the magic of J.K. Rowling cast you back in time for another fabulous fantasy adventure. This prequel to her astonishingly successful Harry Potter series is a visually rich, fully realised world full of warm characters, cute critters and exciting action.

Set a full 70 years before Harry’s story starts, the story is shifted from the UK to New York in 1926. Our hero is Newt Scamander, an English wizard with the air and appearance of a foppish Edwardian gentleman adventurer. He carries a magic wand and a battered brown suitcase of surprising capacity. There are elements of TV’s Dr Who to his character. These include being expelled from his home, picking up companions to help out and describing himself as ‘annoying’ to other people.

However actor Eddie Redmayne is far too endearing a screen presence to be the spiky mannered Timelord and no-one in this film finds Newt annoying. If there is one major fault in the film it is this disparity between the script and the performance. This is not to say Redmayne is poor, far from it. His boyish charm encourages empathy at every turn and he gently underplays his scenes to allow others to blossom.

While shopping for a birthday present in New York, some of Newt’s beasts escape and the tourist falls foul of the President of wizards. As he tracks them down he is pursued by Colin Farrell’s dapper Director of Magical Security and his trench coat-clad henchmen.

Meanwhile an invisible creature is terrorising the city and a dark wizard called Grindelwald is on the loose and threatening war. There are chases, potions, magical battles, a speakeasy full of house elves and a menageries worth of extraordinary creatures.

Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol’s magical sisters provide the opportunity for romance. This is smart move by Rowling who recognises her key target demographic of longtime Potter fans are now adults. They may even have children of their own.

Redmayne’s generosity to Waterston, Sudol and Dan Fogler as a bumbling baker allow his co-stars to steal the heart of the film. We know we’ll meet Newt again, but we want to meet Jacob, Tina and Queenie again.

Samantha Morton, Ron Perlman and Jon Voigt add to the weight of acting talent and there’s a cameo by Johnny Depp. There are far fewer British actors in this film than in the Potter stories, possibly because those films attempted to exhaust our nations entire supply of thesps.

Rowling infuses her script with contemporary social commentary. She touches upon civil rights, the welfare of children, education and the conservation of endangered species. There are also asides on the demonisation of women in the media and their marginalisation in the workplace. The forces of darkness include a powerful newspaper magnate who are in cahoots with politicians, while an anti-witch cult is a barely concealed avatar for mainstream religion.

However Rowling’s tone is rarely preachy and she offers optimism, gentleness and nurturing. Building is emphasised over destruction and craftsmanship over mass production. The focus is kept firmly on entertaining the multiplex hordes.

There is a lot of detailed world building. We’re introduced to a city full of new characters, organisations and locations, many who will undoubtedly take centre stage in the next four films. We learn Newt has an older brother of some repute. I wonder if Benedict Cumberbatch’s agent is waiting by the phone.

Warner Bros are taking no chances with the continuation of their franchise phenomenon. They put the trusted director of the last four Potter films in charge and have backed him with all their creative, financial and marketing muscle. The opening moments are careful to include familiar images such as Hogwarts school to reassure us of their good intentions.

Though shot at Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden, UK, the tremendous sets and faultless CGI never suggest we’re not in the US. Several scenes were also shot on location in London and Liverpool. There are nods to the Men In Black franchise (1997-2012) and a particular work of Terry Gilliam.

There’s no sex, drugs, booze or blood to scare the kids and you don’t have to be a Potter fan to thoroughly enjoy this as a stand alone story. But if you are a fan of Rowling’s fantastical world, you’ll love it.






Alice Through The Looking Glass

Director: James Bobin (2016)

It’s six long years since the staggeringly successful but forgettable Alice In Wonderland (2010) from director Tim Burton.

And time drags in this muddled sequel which has even less connection to the fantastical novels of Lewis Carroll.

There’s no lyrical sense of wonder just hack handed sentiment, blunt slapstick and plodding special effects.

It jettisons familiar characters into two distinct and parallel plots of its own invention, respectively involving time travel and female empowerment. The resolution of family conflict joins the two strands loosely together.

Never forget Hollywood’s golden rule of scriptwriting; a film is always about family, regardless of how appropriate it is to the material.

Burton butchered Carroll’s whimsical masterpiece, replacing its playful intelligence, charm and wit with flamboyant gothic design and an excruciating mannered performance by Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.

Against the odds, Burton’s replacement James Bobin has made an even more unwieldy and incoherent film.

Previously Bobin directed The Muppets (2011) and Muppets Most Wanted (2014). He began in TV with The 11 O’Clock Show (1998) where he collaborated with Sacha Baron Cohen. The comic actor features heavily if sadly not hilariously in Looking Glass.

Despite Alice being reinvented as an action heroine, the pale Mia Wasikowska gives a pallid performance as Alice. Perhaps she’s miffed she’s billed a humble third after Depp and Anne Hathaway.

Alice steps through a mirror and falls into Wonderland, immediately signalling to us nothing in this world can hurt her. Which destroys any potential sense of danger in one dull thud.

She is told her friend the Mad Hatter has gone more mad but in a bad way, and is dying.

In white face paint, orange wig and tweeds, Depp’s Hatter resembles Ronald McDonald’s eccentric great uncle after confinement to a suitable attic.

To cure him Alice must do the impossible task of stealing a device called the chronosphere and go back in time to rescue his long lost family.

Removing the time travelling machine risks destroying Wonderland and everyone in it. But this threat is quickly forgotten about as the film is more interested in whizzing Alice about. There’s a surprise incursion to an insane asylum.

Alice is chased by Time who wants his contraption back. The film can’t decide if the black clad and German accented Sacha Baron Cohen is the baddie.

Also vying to be the baddie but failing in villainy are Helena Bonham Carter and Hathaway. They make a squabbling return as respectively the large headed and rude Red Queen and the elegant and duplicitous White Queen.

The presence of Bonham Carter, his now ex-wife, may explain Burton’s exclusion from the director’s chair.

The sepulchral tones of the late Alan Rickman offers a fleeting moment of gravity. While in her brief appearances as Alice’s mother, theatrical Scots stalwart Lindsay Duncan makes more of an impression than Wasikowska achieves.

Lending their voices to the advertising poster in some un-necessarily expensive casting choices are Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, John Sessions, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse and Toby Jones.

Usually my heart despairs whenever Matt Lucas appears so it says a great deal about the film I found his presence curiously bearable.

Alice won Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design, as well as being nominated for Best Visual Effects.

No doubt Looking Glass will follow the first film in being in the running for similar awards. It’s rich and detailed production design gives us plenty to look at while everyone busily runs around.

The chronosphere is a golden mechanical marvel Alice sits in to blast back in time, a design nod to George Pal’s teen culture embracing adaption of HG Well’s The Time Machine (1960).

Alice visits vast gothic halls and traverses a tumultuous ocean of time. The world is populated by  mechanical assistants, vegetable guardsmen, giant chess pieces, a fire breathing Jabberwocky, walking frogs, talking dogs and of course the disappearing Cheshire Cat.

Bookending the film is a framing device featuring Alice’s adventures at sea pursued by pirates. Because the world needs another big budget CGI fest involving Johnny Depp and pirates.

The story stresses the importance of not wasting ones time. Which is strange as I wasted two hours of my life watching this joyless merry go round of a movie.

Mind you, it felt much longer.






Black Mass

Director: Scott Cooper (2015)

After series of flops including Mortdecai (2015), Transcendence (2014) and The Lone Ranger (2013), Johnny Depp’s career is in desperate need of a hit.

Here he hides his leading man looks under extensive make up, false teeth and a receding wig.

Although he’s great as the ruthless American gangster ‘Whitey’ Bulger, it’s a clunking biopic that’s far less than the sum of it’s parts.

It’s fine looking with a nice contrast between the faded grandeur of the locations and unfortunate 1970’s fashions.

Boston is inherently photogenic and offers a variety of unfamiliar settings.

But strong performances from a great cast are undermined by an unfocused script and uninspired direction.

Whitey feeds information on his mafia rivals to childhood friend turned FBI agent in return for a blind eye to his gangster activities.

Joel Edgerton’s central character is sidelined in order to give more screen-time to Depp.

Neither are sympathetic, despite early attempts to portray Whitey as a loving family man.

Supporting characters such as Jesse Plemons’ are introduced, forgotten about and wheeled back in again.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s role is even more reduced as Whitey’s Senator brother.

There’s an interesting story to be told how the lives of these two brothers took very different directions.

But the film ignores this, preferring to indulge in macho posturing and bloody violence.

The setting, soundtrack, language and violence are very much the milieu of director Martin Scorsese.

However not only does Black Mass feel like Martin Scorsese lite, it feels like poor Martin Scorsese lite.

Black Mass calls to mind the maestro’s weak, albeit Oscar winning The Departed (2006).

What’s more interesting is it’s also Ben Affleck light. Black Mass suffers in comparison with the actor turned director’s Boston set crime thrillers Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010).

I say that as a fan of both Affleck’s films.

Depp may have to wait a while longer for his next success.

Into The Woods

Director: Rob Marshall (2014)

Disney embraces the dark side in this dazzling big budget live-action adaption of the award-winning magical musical fairytale.

Based on the stories of the Brothers Grimm, the wicked lyrics of songwriting maestro Stephen Sondheim are performed by an all-star cast on top form.

Plus as great sets and costumes boost the sometimes uninspired direction, it all makes for a spooky and frequently funny fantasy.

Once upon a time, a baby-stealing witch (Meryl Streep) has cursed the house of a poor baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) so they cannot conceive a baby.

Corden and Blunt share a bickering chemistry and play commendably straight which allows the more fantastical characters to showboat.

Streep indulges herself with may a shriek and cackle as the witch who is also under a spell, forcing the couple to help her before she will lift their curse.

They must go into the woods to find a white cow, a golden slipper, a red cape and some yellow hair before the full moon in three days’ time.

On the way, they meet familiar characters such as Little Red Riding Hood, played by an astonishingly confident and scene-stealing teenage Lilla Crawford.

She is of course preyed upon by the big bad wolf, an excellent Johnny Depp in an extended cameo.

There’s also Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), Jack of the beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone) giants, ghosts and some golden eggs, Anna Kendrick is pitch perfect as Cinderella.

She is pursued by a a philandering Prince (Chris Pine). He’s wonderfully vain, self-centred and thoroughly enjoys himself delivering the funniest song and the best line.

Proving you should be careful what you wish for there are betrayals, mutilations and deaths as well as some unpardonably poor parenting.

As greed is punished and bravery and honesty win out, you won’t fail to be charmed by this wonderful tale’s dark magic.