MADE in 1939 for the staggering sum of 3.7 million US dollars, The Wizard Of Oz failed to cast a spell over audiences on its initial release.
More than 70 years later, Victor Fleming’s fantastical yarn is one of the most beloved family films in the cinematic pantheon and a staple of the Christmas television schedules.
In 1985, Disney revived the iconic character of Dorothy Gale in Return To Oz, based on two novels by Frank L Baum.
Like it predecessor, the unofficial sequel failed to curry favour with audiences.
Now director Sam Raimi, who propelled the Spider-Man trilogy to dizzy heights, has the unenviable task of helming this lavish prequel, which chronicles the arrival of the eponymous wizard in Oz.
In an affectionate nod to the 1939 film, Oz The Great And Powerful opens in black and white and only flushes the screen with vibrant colour once the story moves to the magical realm of flying monkeys and munchkins. Small-time circus magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is booed off stage in 1905 Kansas and finds himself in hot water with the resident strongman.
Bidding a hasty farewell to his sweetheart Annie (Michelle Williams), who is poised to marry another man, Oscar escapes in a hot air balloon.
The canopy is sucked into an approaching tornado and Oscar crash-lands in a wondrous realm, where ancient prophecy decrees that a wizard will fall from the sky and reign benevolently over Oz.
Beautiful witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) accompanies Oscar to the Emerald City, where her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and the other denizens live in fear of the wicked witch Glinda (Michelle Williams).
“I’m not too keen on killing a woman,” stutters the magician.
“She’s not a woman, she’s a wicked witch,” Evanora reminds him.
Oz The Great And Powerful is a visual treat, especially in eye-popping 3D, and it’s evident that most of the 200 million US dollar budget has been lavished on digital effects.
The film follows the template of the recent re-imaging of Alice In Wonderland, bombarding our retinas with outlandish set pieces.
Some of the visual trickery isn’t as slick as it should be – when human characters pick up a china doll character (voiced by Joey King), actors clutch thin air without any sense of weight in their hands.
Copious special effects come at the expense of plot and characterisation.
Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire’s script boasts a few snappy one-liners but it’s perilously flimsy.
Margaret Hamilton was far more terrifying as the green-hued Wicked Witch back in 1939 than anything Raimi conjures.
Oz The Great And The Powerful is now showing at Empire Cinema, Robin Park, Wigan - book your tickets on 08714 714 714.
HANSEL & GRETEL - Director Tommy Wirkola puts a bloodthirsty new spin on the classic fairytale in this gleefully violent fantasy.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters does exactly what it says in the snappy title: expands the story of two children held hostage by a crone in a gingerbread house into a full-blooded battle between the forces of good and evil.
The script marries action movie convention with an olde-worlde setting, providing the titular heroes with an arsenal of pithy one-liners as they despatch the enemy.
“She looks angry,” remarks Gretel, staring at one restrained hag.
“Wouldn’t you be if you had a face like that?” quips Hansel, who intends to make her face look far worse by unleashing twin barrels at point-blank range in stomach-churning 3D.
There is no such thing as overkill here.
Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and his feisty sister Gretel (Gemma Arterton) had their first encounter with witches as children when they stumbled into a house made of delicious candy.
Through luck and enterprise, the siblings flung the diabolical crone into her oven, establishing their reputation throughout the land as protectors against the dark arts.
Hansel and Gretel grow up with a hatred for these shape-shifting creatures and devote every waking minute to hunting down witches with their ingenious homemade weapons.
When several children from one sleepy village go missing, Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare) blames local woman Mina (Pihla Viitala) and prepares to burn her as a witch. The eponymous heroes intervene in the nick of time.
“I’m not going to have you telling me what to do!” barks the Sheriff.
Gretel settles the argument with a headbutt and frees Mina, who takes an immediate shine to smitten Hansel.
The siblings set about tracking down powerful grand witch Muriel (Famke Janssen), who is kidnapping local tykes as a sacrifice during the forthcoming night of the Blood Moon.
The witches are aided by a hulking ogre called Edward (voiced by Robin Atkin Downes), who carries off children into the night.
With the odds stacked against them, Hansel, Gretel and an enthusiastic protege (Thomas Mann) lay their lives on the line to save the children and send Muriel and her coven back to hell.
With lashings of gore and potty-mouthed humour, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is no slavish retread of the Brothers Grimm.
Wirkola splatters one crone’s guts all over the camera lens and another set-piece reduces a swarm of the villainesses to chunks of airborne flesh and entrails.
However, frenetic action sequences cannot compensate for flimsy plotting and a paucity of character development.
Hansel & Gretel is now showing at Empire Cinema, Robin Park, Wigan - book your tickets on 08714 714 714.
FLIGHT - DENZEL Washington soars to career highs in Robert Zemeckis’s emotionally wrought character study of an airplane pilot wrestling with alcohol dependency
Underpinned by John Gatins’s intelligent script, Flight is a provocative drama that refuses to cast judgment on the central character as he repeats past mistakes and attempts to dodge the repercussions of his reckless actions.
Instead, Zemeckis’s film accompanies the pilot on a turbulent journey of self-discovery as a major mechanical failure in the air puts his boozy lifestyle under the microscope of public scrutiny.
Captain William “Whip” Whitaker (Washington) wakes in a plush hotel room festooned with discarded bottles and the naked body of last night’s conquest, flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez).
Swigs of beer set Whip up for the day and he strides purposefully into the cockpit of his SouthJet flight to Atlanta while holding a bottle of orange juice spiked with vodka.
Katerina is on board, serving passengers alongside experienced colleague Margaret Thomason (Tamara Tunie).
A routine flight becomes a nightmare when the airplane suddenly loses altitude and hurtles towards the ground at terrifying speed.
Whip is forced to perform a daredevil manoeuvre to halt the rapid descent before crash-landing in a field.
A subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, led by Ellen Block (Melissa Leo), threatens to expose Whip’s alcoholism.
Union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) promise to help Whip survive the fallout on the proviso that he changes his self-destructive ways.
Whip agrees to exorcise his demons, supported by a recovering heroine addict called Nicole (Kelly Reilly).
Romance blossoms but while Nicole continues to get her life back in order, Whip struggles to resist his desires, turning to drug dealer Harling Mays (John Goodman) to take the edge off his anxiety.
Flight boasts a jaw-dropping centrepiece crash sequence that spins an entire airplane through 360 degrees.
Zemeckis orchestrates these intense scenes with brio but he is equally interested in quieter moments when Whip wrestles with his guilt and attempts to resist the temptations of a hotel mini bar.
Washington is riveting as a man in authority who can barely function without liquor.
He lays bare Whip’s insecurities and doesn’t resort once to currying our sympathy.
Reilly impresses in a pivotal supporting role and Goodman injects humour.
JACK REACHER - THE US premiere of Jack Reacher, an explosive action thriller based on the book One Shot by Lee Child, was postponed in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The decision was understandable.
Christopher McQuarrie’s film opens with heart-stopping scenes of a sniper taking aim at innocent bystanders on a riverbank, including a nanny cradling a terrified young child in her arms.
Viewed through the gunman’s high-powered rifle scope to the steady beat of his breathing, the massacre sends shivers down the spine as shots ring out and figures tumble like rag dolls to the ground.
McQuarrie accomplishes this haunting set piece with brio and restraint, replaying the slaughter from myriad perspectives later in the film as police uncover the clues to the shooter’s identity.
Nothing else in Jack Reacher comes close to this bravura sequence and the initial rush of adrenaline in our veins eases to a steady pulse.
Former military officer Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is a ghost in the system, even to the US government with all of the top-secret technology and resources at its disposal.
He is lured out of hiding when a mentally unstable sniper, James Barr (Joseph Sikora), is arrested for the murder of five innocent people outside PNC Park in Pennsylvania.
Before Barr slips into a coma, he writes down three words - Get Jack Reacher.
On cue, Jack makes contact with lead detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) and District Attorney Rodin (Richard Jenkins), convinced that the cops have caught their perpetrator.
“I didn’t come here to help (Barr). I came here to bury him,” growls Jack.
However, Rodin’s daughter, defence attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), isn’t convinced of Barr’s guilt and she hires Jack to check the forensics.
A scattershot chain of evidence leads Jack to criminal mastermind The Zec (Werner Herzog) and his sharp-shooting henchman (Jai Courtney), whose business interests may play part in the unfolding mystery.
Jack Reacher is the first chapter of a potential new franchise for Cruise, based on the ninth book in Child’s ongoing series.
It’s a solid genre piece, punctuated by smartly orchestrated action sequences, including a night-time chase through city streets and a couple of bruising fist fights.
Cruise isn’t stretched in the lead role, so thankfully, Robert Duvall’s appearance as the owner of a shooting range in the second half prevents the film from capsizing.
SEVEN PSYCOPATHS - A Hollywood screenwriter with crippling creative block finds inspiration in the most unlikely places in Martin McDonagh’s twisted black comedy that builds on the promise of In Bruges.
Like that impressive 2008 debut, Seven Psychopaths balances giggles, gore and giddiness, spattering the screen with lashings of crimson blood.
Most scenes of carnage unfold in flashback as figments of the lead character’s febrile imagination: a vengeful father slits his throat with a razor, a monk sets himself alight to make a forceful political statement.
London-born writer-director McDonagh isn’t afraid to sacrifice some of his most likeable and sympathetic creations, and he pokes glorious fun at the film industry when his hard-drinking hero suggests a spot of animal cruelty in his script.
“You can’t let the animals die in a movie. Just the women,” observes his best friend, tongue wedged firmly in cheek.
The paucity of detailed female protagonists in McDonagh’s film suggests that this might not be a joke after all.
Booze-swilling Irish scribe Marty (Colin Farrell) has reached an impasse with a script called Seven Psychopaths, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish).
“I got the title – I just haven’t been able to come up with all the psychopaths yet,” Marty tells best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), a jobbing actor who is involved in a dog-napping scam with elderly associate Hans (Christopher Walken).
Billy places a newspaper advert asking bona fide psychopaths to share their life stories with Marty, and mad man Zachariah (Tom Waits) answers the call.
In return for sharing his grisly past, Zachariah asks Marty to include a message to his accomplice during the film’s credits, jesting that he will kill the screenwriter if the declaration is cut.
Meanwhile, Billy and Hans kidnap a shih tzu called Bonny, unaware the pooch is the pride and joy of sadistic gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson).
When Charlie discovers that the four-legged object of his affections has been abducted from dog walker Sharice (Gabourey Sidibe), retribution is swift and brutal.
Billy appears remarkably calm about his predicament.
“This dog is my Patty Hearst,” he quips, “except I’m not going to bag it, keep it in a closet, and make it rob a bank.”
Seven Psychopaths falls agonisingly short of In Bruges but is nevertheless an entertaining ensemble piece, which aims a shotgun squarely between the eyes of political correctness.
Farrell is somewhat bland but Walken, Rockwell and Harrelson savour their colourful supporting characters, whose fates become inextricably entwined in the desert.
THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN PART 2 - With more showings than you can wave a stick at, there is no chance of getting away from The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2.
The final instalment of the film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling books captures the next part of Bella’s existence – living as a newly-married vampire with a half-mortal baby who has been imprinted on by wolf.
The cast are back to their eerily beautiful selves with Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) giving probably their best performances throughout the whole of the Saga.
No Twilight film is complete without a battle scene.
As the Cullens come face to face with the Volturi who have been told a false allegation that puts Bella’s baby in danger, a long, drawn-out but equally fascinating, pulse-racing fight ensues.
Breaking Dawn Part 2 is a must-see.
OK so it’s a little cheesy in some places but it’s one of those films that you just can’t dislike – we all want to be loved by somebody as much as Edward loves Bella.
TSBDP2 is now showing at Empire Cinema, Robin Park, Wigan - book your tickets on 08714 714 714.
ARGO - Fiction couldn’t be any stranger than the truth in Argo, based on real-life events following the 1979 storming of the US Embassy in Tehran.
Ben Affleck is a deserved front runner for the Best Director statuette at next year’s Academy Awards for his work on this gripping thriller that keeps us teetering on the edge of our seats for the entire two hours.
The handsome, California-born leading man has been a solid presence on screen for more than 30 years but it’s more recently, behind the camera, that he has truly excelled.
His script for Good Will Hunting, co-written with Matt Damon, won the Oscar and critics have lavished superlatives on his directorial efforts Gone Baby Gone and The Town.
Argo restores Affleck to thriller territory, working from a lean script by Chris Terrio, based on an article written by Joshuah Bearman.
On November 4, 1979, simmering tensions outside the US embassy finally boil over.
Militants break through the barricades and storm the building.
“Don’t shoot anybody!” orders one guard, “You don’t want to be the person who started a war!”
Iranians capture 52 Americans and hold them hostage but six members of staff - Bob Anders (Tate Donovan), Joe Stafford (Scoot McNairy), Kathy Stafford (Kerry Bishe), Mark Lijek (Christopher Denham), Cora Lijek (Clea DuVall) and Lee Schatz (Rory Cochrane) - manage to escape to the nearby residence of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). They hide in a basement crawl space while awaiting news from the outside world.
Back on American soil, CIA extractor Tony Mendez (Affleck) concocts an elaborate scheme to rescue the escapees: he will pose as a film producer who has come to Iran to scout for locations for a sci-fi epic called Argo.
The six stranded embassy staff will adopt the guise of his crew and they will leave the country together under false passports.
Bona fide Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) throw their weight behind Argo to give the plan credibility.
When Tony arrives on Iranian soil, he soon realises all of his smooth talking and experience might not be enough to save the embassy staff from an Iranian firing squad.
Argo holds our attention hostage in a vice-like grip and refuses to let go.
Taut pacing, slick editing and escalating tension are underpinned by emotionally wrought performances from a sensational ensemble cast.
Arkin and Goodman provide the comic relief as the Hollywood veterans who realise they must spend serious money to create the illusion of a blockbuster in the making.
“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit!” growls Lester.
The nail-biting climax succumbs to dramatic licence but by that point we forgive Affleck everything.
Argo is now showing at Empire Cinema, Robin Park, Wigan - book your tickets on 08714 714 714.
SKYFALL - Time waits for no man, not even the suave and sharply attired 007.
In the 50 years since Ian Fleming’s debonair secret agent introduced himself to Sylvia Trench at a card table in Dr No, global politics have changed beyond recognition.
The Iron Curtain has fallen, the Cold War has thawed, the People’s Republic Of China has emerged as a superpower and terrorism has shifted into the digital realm, forcing James Bond and his colleagues at MI6 to evolve.
The latest Bond, Daniel Craig, has rugged physicality in abundance but his one-note interpretation of the spy who is shaken but never stirred remains devoid of personality.
It’s telling that the abiding memory of Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace is a pair of tight, blue swimming shorts.
Skyfall will do nothing to dispel those concerns but is undoubtedly the best instalment of Craig’s tenure to date.
Director Sam Mendes sensibly surrounds his leading man with an ensemble of award-winning actors, who bring gravitas and humour to their iconic roles.
In the brilliantly orchestrated action sequences, Craig is in his element and Mendes opens with a breathtaking 12-minute pre-credits sequence, which draws heavily from the Bourne franchise to propel Bond and field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) through the winding streets of Istanbul.
Bravely, the 23rd Bond assignment pares back the slam bang thrills to concentrate on characterisation and plot, putting Dench’s authority figure at the centre of the betrayal.
The film dazzles during verbal jousts, whether it’s M discovering Bond in the shadows of her London apartment (“You’re bloody well not sleeping here!”) or Silva fondling Bond’s inner thighs and asking what regulation training suggests he do.
“What makes you think it’s my first time?” cheekily replies 007.
Bardem is deliciously camp and menacing, recalling classic villains of yore as he berates M for her deceptions in one breath (“Mummy was very bad!”) then guns down innocent bystanders without mercy.
Dench is wonderful as ever and really excels when she abandons her desk for the field of action.
Supporting actress Oscar nominations have been bestowed for far less.
Whishaw asserts himself as a gadget geek with a terrific introductory scene in an art gallery, warning Bond that “age is no guarantee of experience.”
A throwaway visual gag with his coffee mug is a hoot.
Fiennes and Harris acquit themselves well but sultry Bond girl Marlohe is forgettable.
Director Mendes gets high on nostalgia to the obvious delight of Bond purists.
However, he spends slightly too long looking back and not enough looking forward, and consequently stumbles with the lacklustre final showdown more befitting of an episode of The A-Team than the second biggest film franchise in history.
HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA - Bram Stoker’s bloodsucking anti-hero is given a family-friendly, computer-animated makeover in Hotel Transylvania.
Set in a leafy corner of Romania, Genndy Tartakovsky’s lively romp imagines the Prince of Darkness as an overly protective father who has spent 118 years filling his daughter’s head with horror stories about vicious humans.
The Count doesn’t even feast on the neck of buxom wenches.
“Human blood is so fatty and you never know where it’s been!” he explains.
This cuddly Prince of Darkness is joined by a menagerie of famous ghouls, ghosts and grotesques, all of whom turn out to be deeply misunderstood, fun-loving misfits, who are tired of being the target for torch – and pitchfork-wielding villagers.
They just want to be loved, festering limbs et al.
Built in the late 19th century, Hotel Transylvania is the five-star home of Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) and his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez).
Creatures of the night flock to the hotel every year to celebrate Mavis’s birthday and to catch up with their fellow denizens of the dark.
Frankenstein’s monster (Kevin James) and his wife Eunice (Fran Drescher) excitedly check in along with Griffin The Invisible Man (David Spade), Murray The Mummy (Cee Lo Green), and Wayne Werewolf (Steve Buscemi) and his wife Wanda (Molly Shannon), whose litter of pups gnaw through the furnishings and relieve themselves in the lobby.
Thankfully, flying witches keep the property spick and span, while mummified porters shuffle up staircases with the guests’ luggage.
A wayward backpacker called Jonathan (Adam Samberg) stumbles upon the hotel and Dracula hurriedly hides the new arrival in a storeroom, explaining to the human interloper that the clientele won’t kill him “as long as they think you’re a monster”.
“That’s kind of racist,” replies Jonathan.
So Dracula ruffles Jonathan’s hair and applies some grey make-up to transform the teenage tourist into Johhny-stein.
When Chef Quasimodo (Jon Lovitz) and his pet rat Esmeralda scent a human in the hotel, poor Dracula must risk everything to keep Jonathan’s true lineage a secret.
Adding to the fanged host’s woes, Mavis experiences a ‘zing’ of true love with Johhny-stein and she nurtures dreams of running away with her beau to experience life outside of claustrophobic hotel walls.
Hotel Transylvania is colourful and fast-paced, and the friction between Dracula and his inquisitive daughter sparks an occasional smart one-liner (“You’re barely out of your training fangs!”)
However, there’s a paucity of originality in the script and characterisation is reduced to bestowing each monster with a single quirk.
Vocal performances are solid if unremarkable and, surprisingly, director Tartakovsky doesn’t tailor any of the scenes to the 3D format, so it’s a pointless expense to shell out on the uncomfortable plastic specs.
KILLING THEM SOFTLY - Crime does pay and the price tag is your life in Killing Them Softly, an artfully composed, slow-burning crime thriller based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V Higgins.
Writer-director Andrew Dominik, who previous helmed The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, transplants the setting of the book from 1970s Boston to 2008 Louisiana, using the passing of the political baton from outgoing president George W Bush to Democrat rising star Barack Obama as a backdrop to the skulduggery.
Television sets continuously spew out sound-bites from the two politicians.
“Each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will,” affirms Obama in one keynote address, which some of the characters take to heart and suffer the direst of consequences.
Dominik reunites with Brad Pitt (left) to delve deep into the psyches of men who operate on the wrong side of the law, and he elicits a strong performance from his leading man.
Indeed, the entire ensemble cast is in excellent form, including James Gandolfini as a hit man who has allowed his penchant for booze and women to cloud his killing instinct.
Unlike other film-makers who are in a hurry to get to the action set-pieces, Dominik allows conversations to breathe: veiled threats hang in the air, murderous glances are held uncomfortably long and every scene crackles with tension.
And we teeter nervously on the edge of our seats for the entire 97 minutes.
LAWLESS - Based on a true story, Lawless knocks back a drink with three brothers who become kings of their close-knit community by running moonshine across the state line.
Set in early 1930s Virginia, and adapted from Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County In The World, Nick Cave’s script corrals its fair share of rootin’ tootin’ cliches to a fine bluegrass-tinged soundtrack.
Yet, for its dramatic simplicity, John Hillcoat’s film packs a hefty punch, exploring the bonds of trust that are tested to their limit when the bootleggers are pummelled senseless by the long arm of the law.
In the mountains of Franklin County, local cops turn a blind eye to the illegal activities of Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) and his siblings Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf).
The brothers run a successful bar and eke out a comfortable living by trading moonshine, made at secret distilleries maintained by Jack’s disabled pal, Cricket (Dane DeHaan).
The siblings’ business empire threatens to crumble when sadistic special deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives from Chicago on a mission to shut down distilleries at the behest of District Attorney Mason Wardell (Tim Tolin).
However, the eldest Bondurant isn’t threatened and rudely dismisses the big city hotshot.
As young love blossoms between Jack and preacher’s daughter Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), Rakes sets about dismantling the brothers’ operation from the inside, targeting weak links including dancer Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a waitress at the bar.
The subsequent, blood-spattered feud between the cop and a defiant Forrest underpins Hillcoat’s gritty Prohibition-era thriller.
Lawless pulls few punches in its depiction of the senseless violence meted out by the two sides.
Hardy delivers a brooding central performance, maintaining his stoic hard man image around Chastain’s emotionally-battered love interest.
However, it’s Pearce who scorches every mud and blood-smeared frame as an obsessive-compulsive bully who hides behind his police badge.
“Have you any idea what a Thompson sub-machine gun does to a mortal,” he giggles to one petrified cop.
The Oscars love a bad guy and a Best Supporting Actor nod might well be Pearce’s reward for this simpering villainy.
Gary Oldman is underused in an eye-catching role as the suave mobster, who Jack hopes to emulate.
LaBeouf’s tender romance with Wasikowska sweetens Hillcoat’s bitter pill, but don’t expect a happy ever after.
When these varmints stray beyond the point of forgiveness, death is the only absolution.
BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES - Parting is such sweet sorrow. Director Christopher Nolan completes his dark and brooding trilogy based on the DC Comics crime-fighter in suitably grandiose fashion, delivering not only the longest film in the series but also the most brutal, violent and satisfying.
It’s to the London-born film-maker’s credit that he resisted the urge to jump on the 3D bandwagon for the caped crusader’s swansong.
Certainly, the breathlessly orchestrated action sequences, including the spectacular opening aboard a huge C-130 Hercules transport plane, would draw bigger gasps in the eye-popping format.
However, Nolan has always focused on the characters and their twisted psychologies, and he puts all of them and us through the emotional wringer in this final chapter, co-written by his brother Jonathan.
The script is a little too cute in places, inadvertently giving away one major plot point well in advance, but it certainly doesn’t hurt our enjoyment to be two steps ahead of the good guys.
Christian Bale brings typical intensity to the title role and the tender bond with Sir Michael Caine’s lackey continues to tug heartstrings.
Thankfully, Tom Hardy’s electronic vocals have been improved since the early trailers for the film so his masked villain is largely intelligible and Anne Hathaway slinks away from Michelle Pfeiffer’s memorable portrayal of Catwoman but still purrs some choice one-liners.
It is eight years since Batman falsely assumed responsibility for the death of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in order to bring the anti-crime legislation into effect and crush Gotham’s criminal fraternity.
The caped crusader is a fading memory and crippled billionaire Bruce Wayne (Bale) has become a virtual recluse, holed up in his manor with trusty butler Alfred (Caine).
An encounter with wily cat burglar Selina Kyle (Hathaway) draws Bruce into the orbit of hulking terrorist Bane (Hardy), who intends to complete the work of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and destroy Gotham and its money-oriented denizens.
A dastardly plot unfolds but Bruce is physically and mentally unable to stop gangs of gun-toting mercenaries from overwhelming Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the Gotham police force, including idealistic officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). As Bane’s uprising gathers momentum, Bruce turns to technical genius Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and loyal board member Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) to protect his beloved Wayne Enterprises.
Alas, money can only go so far and Bruce must don his cowl one final time, putting his life on the line to save the residents of Gotham.
DR SEUSS: THE LORAX - Based on the book by Dr Seuss, The Lorax is an environmentally conscious story of one boy’s noble quest to restore balance between avaricious mankind and Mother Nature.
It’s a timely message in light of a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, warning that by 2050 global greenhouse gas emissions will far exceed levels deemed safe by scientists.
Nurture that cheery thought as you watch the film’s gangly, computer-animated hero risk his life in breathless action sequences to plant a tree.
While The Lorax might hope to galvanise young audiences into action - free packets of seeds with every children’s ticket would have been a nice touch - this is primarily escapist entertainment, melding comedy, mystery and a hint of pre-teen romance.
Vocal performances are solid, including a suitably gruff Danny DeVito as the titular forest sprite, whose premonitions of ecological disaster fall on deaf ears.
Twelve-year-old Ted Wiggins (voiced by Zac Efron) lives in the carefully controlled utopia of Thneed-ville with his mother (Jenny Slate) and feisty grandmother Norma (Betty White).
Town mayor Aloysius O’Hare (Rob Riggle) provides the residents with all they need including blissful sunshine – everything except for real plants, which are manufactured in a factory.
Ted pines for the girl next door, Audrey (Taylor Swift), who tells him dreamily: “What I want to see more than anything in the whole world is a real-life tree growing in my backyard.”
So the smitten lad seeks out a hermit called the Once-ler (Ed Helms), who apparently knows why all of the Truffula trees disappeared from Thneed-ville.
In exchange for 15 cents, a nail and the shell of a great, great, great grandfather snail, the Once-ler recounts how he inadvertently devastated the lush landscape for generations to come and “summoned the legendary and slightly annoying guardian of the forest” known as The Lorax (DeVito).
Through these reminiscences, Ted realises that Aloysius O’Hare doesn’t want real trees restored to Thneed-ville because the miracle of photosynthesis would jeopardise the mayor’s lucrative oxygen supply business.
Aware of the perils that lay ahead, Ted resolves to bring green back to Thneed-ville and win Audrey’s heart.
Dr Seuss’ The Lorax is rendered in lurid, sherbetty hues that radiate off the screen.
Indeed, Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda’s film is so bright, you feel like donning sunglasses and SPF 25 rather than cumbersome plastic 3D specs, which are de rigueur nowadays.
Efron and Swift’s honey-toned voices perfectly fit their cutesy characters, while the animators let their imaginations run amok.
ICE AGE 4: CONTINENTAL DRIFT- Scrat and the gang are back and up to more mayhem in Ice Age 4: Continental Drift.
Only this time, they are battling to return home to Manny’s loved ones after a huge earthquake (triggered by that pesky Scrat, of course) triggers a continental cataclysm and sends Manny, Diego and Sid - and his senile old granny - sailing across the seas clinging to an iceberg.
And if getting home wasn’t tricky enough with no sails or power to turn their makeshift boat around - trouble arrives in the form of the conniving Captain Gutt and his ramshackle, ragamuffin, reprobate bunch of misfit pirates, who want Manny’s berg.
The only silver lining comes in the form of Shira; Gutt, the primate captain’s right-hand woman - a rather dishy sabre that catches the eye of Diego.
With sultry tones provided by the gorgeous Latino singer J-Lo, Shira could turn any red-blooded big cat’s head - animated or not!
But how will Manny, Diego, Sid and granny battle to safety and find their way home? Will Shira turn on Gutt and help our friends. And will Scrat ever get to bury his flipping nut without causing chaos?
Only time will tell and as the continents drift farther apart, forcing Manny’s better half Ellie and daughter Peaches and the rest of the animals to flee - the situation looks bleak.
One thing’s for sure, an amazing adventure and laughs galore.
Ice Age 4: Continental Drift is non-stop entertainment. My boys have grown up with Manny and Co and love all four films.
This one is better than the first according to them, followed by the first, then the third, then the second!
We didn’t watch it in 3D but the lads agreed it would have been “sick” (a modern-day term for cracking!)
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN - Every story has a beginning.
Spider-Man now has two: Sam Raimi’s action-packed 2002 blockbuster and this emotionally richer though equally exhilarating opening chapter directed with verve by Marc Webb.
Rebooting the franchise 10 years after Tobey Maguire donned the red and blue skin-tight suit as the eponymous web-slinger seems premature.
The Amazing Spider-Man recounts the same origins story, albeit without cackling arch-nemesis Green Goblin or love interest Mary Jane.
Twists and turns in the script are the same: the bite from an Oscorps spider that imbues weakling Peter Parker with his superhuman powers; the senseless tragedy that propels the student on his heroic quest.
Technology has advanced in gargantuan bounds in the past decade and Webb’s film soars in the action sequences, some in first-person perspective to take full advantage of the 3D format.
Casting is also better here.
Andrew Garfield tugs the heartstrings as a teenager wrestling with a destiny he never asked for.
Screen chemistry with Emma Stone sizzles. It’s no surprise they are reportedly dating off-screen.
What The Amazing Spider-Man lacks is a scenery-chewing villain or that one defining moment that lingers in the memory like the upside-down kiss or Uncle Ben intoning solemnly, “With great power comes great responsibility”.
High school student Peter Parker (Garfield) is haunted by the disappearance of his parents (Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz).
He lives with his uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and aunt May (Sally Field) and contends with all the usual growing pains, including persistent bullying from jock classmate Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka).
A tender romance with fellow student Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), daughter of police chief Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), keeps Peter on an even keel until he is bitten by a genetically modified arachnid.
At the same time, Peter discovers evidence linking his parents’ disappearance to his father’s business partner, Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans).
Little does Peter realise that Connors also has a secret alter ego: reptilian menace The Lizard.
Sequences of the hero swinging between skyscrapers look stunning.
However, director Webb is equally interested in what goes on behind the mask.
The tentative romance with Gwen affords a pleasing change of pace from the frenetically edited skirmishes with The Lizard.
A tantalising additional scene, in the closing credits, whets our appetite for the sequel, which is pencilled for release in summer 2014.
The Amazing Spider-Man? Almost.
THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT - Nicholas Stoller’s romantic comedy about a doe-eyed couple whose rose-tinted dreams of marital bliss are undone by the pressures of everyday life.
Penned by leading man Jason Segel and director Nicholas Stoller, who recently collaborated on the script for The Muppets, The Five-Year Engagement trades heavily on the winning rapport between Segel and British actress Emily Blunt.
The leads, who are friends in real life, gel delightfully in front of the cameras and kindle sparks of sexual chemistry that have us rooting for their soon-to-be-weds when fate conspires to tear them apart.
Mirroring the central relationship, Stoller’s slick confection woos us with a terrific opening 30 minutes of zinging one-liners and colourful supporting performances.
Jacki Weaver is a hoot as the heroine’s sardonic and cynical mother who has suffered her fair share of heartache and scoffs at the myth peddled by Hollywood of a fairy-tale romance in which Tom Hanks gets the girl.
“The sad fact is, most relationships end up like Saving Private Ryan or Philadelphia,” she snipes.
For all its barbs and grim predictions of impending anguish, Stoller’s film is engineered with clinical precision to rouse and entertain, so you can be confident that the tears and bitter recriminations will be sweetened by a suitably feel-good denouement.
San Francisco sous chef Tom (Segel) meets psychology graduate Violet (Blunt) at a Make Your Own Superhero party.
On their one-year anniversary, he nervously pops the question with help from his best friend Alex (Chris Pratt).
Tom’s parents Pete (David Paymer) and Carol (Mimi Kennedy), and Violet’s mother Sylvia (Jacki Weaver) are thrilled and at the subsequent engagement party, bed-hopping ladies’ man Alex has an encounter with Violet’s emotionally volatile sister, Suzie (Alison Brie), that he will never forget.
Soon after, Violet secures a doctoral position at Michigan University, studying under Professor Winton Childs (Rhys Ifans), and Tom selflessly sacrifices his career to follow her to the frozen Midwest.
However, the move puts the relationship under intolerable strain and Tom and Violet contemplate breaking off the engagement to pursue their career ambitions in separate states.
The Five-Year Engagement begins promisingly and establishes a brisk tempo with rapid-fire dialogue and some amusing vignettes.
Then the malaise sets in.
Our attraction to the script and the characters wanes and we almost fall out of love entirely with the film during a plodding and bloated middle section that noticeably treads water.
Thankfully, our disenchantment is tempered by unerring affection for Segel and Blunt, and some lovely set pieces such as an animated discussion between Violet and Suzie that forces the sisters to adopt the voices of Elmo and Cookie Monster from Sesame Street to conceal the forcefulness of their argument from Suzie’s inquisitive young daughter.
C is for cute.
MEN IN BLACK 3 - Third time’s a charm for the sharp-suited Men In Black, who rediscover their swagger 10 years after the lacklustre second instalment.
Set largely in July 1969, MIB3 is a hare-brained time-travelling caper which ties up loose threads into a neat bow, suggesting this could and perhaps should be the end of the Smith and Jones double-act.
It would be an entertaining swansong for a franchise which burst on to the big screen in 1997 and became one of the year’s biggest hits behind Titanic and The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
Working in 3D for the first time, director Barry Sonnenfeld imbues each breathlessly orchestrated scene with impish humour, from a protracted kiss that churns stomachs to a slime-slathered skirmish with a giant fish.
A couple of the showpiece sequences merit the eye-popping format including a final showdown that inserts J and K into an iconic moment in history.
As usual, visual gags include the flickering video wall at MIB headquarters, which monitors alien activity on Earth and outs Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Tim Burton as extra-terrestrial visitors.
The film opens in the Lunar Max high security prison where a Boglodite assassin called Boris The Animal (Jemaine Clement) engineers a daring escape with help from his sexy girlfriend (Nicole Scherzinger).
The snarling supervillain plans to travel back in time and kill the man who put him behind bars and shot off his left arm: Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones).
The ripple effect causes Agent K to disappear from the future, heralding a full-scale Boglodite invasion of Earth.
“K’s been dead for over 40 years,” Agent O (Emma Thompson) tells a confused and disoriented Agent J (Will Smith) when he turns up for work.
Having ascertained the past has been altered, J also travels back to 1969, where he meets the young Agent K (Josh Brolin), who claims to be 29 years old.
“You got some city miles on you...” quips J, speaking for us all.
With assistance from the young Agent O (Alice Eve) and a soothsayer called Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), J races against the clock to save his best friend.
Men In Black 3 initially treats us to Smith and Jones in full flow, the former turning to his grizzled partner and sighing, “I am getting too old for this. I can only imagine how you feel.”
Invariably Smith’s wise-cracking and the imaginative production design are the constant sources of wonder.
THE DICTATOR - Sacha Baron Cohen atones for the sins of Bruno with this gleefully bad taste fish-out-of-water comedy, which kicks sand in the eye of political correctness.
We’re in a perpetual state of discomfort during The Dictator, unsure where the scriptwriters might venture next for uneasy laughs.
No subject is off limits – the September 11 attacks, rape, sexual equality, Judaism – and Larry Charles’s film tramples merrily over social taboos, hitting more targets than it misses as the titular despot runs amok in the capitalist playground of New York City.
We can’t resist a wry smile when Cohen’s abominable protagonist makes a speech to American dignitaries and exposes the Land Of The Free as a dictatorship in all but name.
A flash of full frontal male nudity takes us by hysterical surprise and Megan Fox and Edward Norton embrace brief cameos as themselves.
Like Borat and Bruno, Cohen is at the centre of the madness, relying on a script this time rather than inspired improvisation with the unsuspecting public.
He plays Admiral General Aladeen, tyrannical ruler of the African state of Wadiya, who is hiding the real Bin Laden in one of his opulent palace’s spare rooms.
“You go to the bathroom after Osama, you will know the true meaning of terrorism,” he confides.
During a visit to “the Devil’s nest” of America to address the United Nations about his nuclear arsenal, Aladeen is usurped by his duplicitous brother Tamir (Sir Ben Kingsley) and cast adrift on the streets, without his trademark beard of any form of identification.
Zoey (Anna Faris), the tomboyish manager of a vegan feminist non-profit co-operative, takes pity on Aladeen, who she accepts as an immigrant called Allison Burgers.
Sparks of romance are continually extinguished by Aladeen’s bigotry.
“I love it when a woman goes to school,” he sniggers to Zoey, who boasts a college education. “It’s like seeing a monkey on roller skates – it seems important to them, but it’s so adorable for us.”
Eventually, Zoey discovers the truth and is horrified.
“You lied to me... and you’re wanted for war crimes!” she gasps. “That stuff never sticks,” Aladeen assures her cheekily.
The Dictator delights and disturbs, careening from razor sharp satire to a Monty Python-esque birthing scene, shot through the dilating cervix of the expectant mother (Kathryn Hahn).
If you judge Charles’s film based on the number of belly laughs it packs into 83 minutes and ignore the occasional lulls, it’s a rousing success.
Some gags are so jaw-droppingly offensive, you can feel the oxygen being sucked out of the cinema, such as when Aladeen excitedly plays the Munich Olympics level of his Wii Terrorist 2K12 video game and guns down helpless Israeli athletes.
Faint hearts beware.
JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME - FILM-MAKING brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, two key exponents of the low-budget mumblecore movement, err dangerously close to the mainstream with this quirky comedy of ill manners.
Like their previous work, Jeff, Who Lives At Home is distinguished by flowing, naturalistic dialogue and winning performances from an impressive ensemble cast.
Jason Segel and Ed Helms are extremely well matched as brothers from opposite ends of a shallow gene pool, whose humdrum lives are devoid of excitement and meaning.
Neither man is willing to confront the regret that wafts off them like cheap cologne, until a bizarre series of events unexpectedly sheherds the siblings to a life-or-death crossroads.
Ordinary men are capable of extraordinary feats, when they put their simple, addled minds to it.
Thirtysomething layabout Jeff (Segel) lives in the basement of his mother’s home, where he rhapsodises about the Mel Gibson sci-fi thriller Signs.
“I can’t help but wonder about my fate, my destiny,” he ponders aloud, convinced that the universe has big plans for him.
Until then, Jeff will happily moulder in the basement, throwing a tantrum like a truculent teenager when his mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) has the temerity to ask him to get some milk from the local convenience store.
A wrong caller asking for someone called Kevin sparks Jeff’s febrile imagination and the waster becomes convinced that the enigmatic Kevin is going to play a pivotal role in his future.
During a city-wide search for the elusive Kevin, Jeff helps his brother Pat (Helms) patch up his marriage to Linda (Judy Greer) with a spot of covert surveillance.
Meanwhile, their mother hunts for a secret admirer at her workplace, who keeps instant messaging compliments to her PC.
Framed by the tug of war between free will and destiny, Jeff, Who Lives At Home is an engaging portrait of lives in a rut that mines a rich vein of earthy humour.
Banter between Sege and Helms rings true and there is a lovely, touching moment when they pause to consider the answer to their father’s favourite riddle: “What is the greatest day in the history of the world?”
Humour and heartfelt emotion are happy bedfellows, especially when the characters speak from their aching hearts, such as when Jeff tells Pat and his mother, “You and mum will never understand me and you’re all I have left.”
Equally gorgeous is a tender sequence involving Sarandon’s lovesick mom, who has always dreamed of being kissed beneath a waterfall.
In the hands of another director, this bold romantic overture might have jarred, but it works beautifully here, illuminated by Sarandon’s warm and unself-conscious portrayal.
The twists of the final five minutes, which tie loose plot threads together, feel slightly contrived, but are satisfying nevertheless.
AVENGERS ASEMBLE - More is less in Avengers Assemble, the special effects-laden amalgamation of four Marvel Comics franchises.
Bringing together characters from Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk, Joss Whedon’s frenetic romp deftly knits together plot strands from the earlier films, threaded with tongue-in-cheek humour.
There’s a clear presumption that audiences will have seen the pictures that inspire this battle royale, accounting for a paucity of fresh character development, which undermines the relationship between the two heroes without a franchise.
However, exhilarating action-packed sequences abound, choreographed at breakneck pace by writer-director Whedon, who knows how to seamlessly meld live action with digital trickery.
Interestingly, he keeps the Avengers disjointed for most of the film, only bringing everyone together in the same location for the protracted final showdown to decide mankind’s fate – and the likelihood of a sequel.
Thor’s evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) plots to exterminate mankind by harnessing the power of the pulsating Tesseract cube.
Aided by an army of aliens, Loki steals the artefact from the subterranean headquarters of the international peacekeeping agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D, and enslaves scientist Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and ace marksman Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to do his nefarious bidding.
“As of now, we are at war,” declares Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), director of S.H.I.E.L.D, to the dismay of fellow agents Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg).
Desperate times call for innovative measures and Fury scours the globe for the ultimate team of superheroes, uniting the inflated egos and rippling muscles of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).
Fury has great faith in his team, if they can overcome their petty jealousies and insecurities.
Avengers Assemble doesn’t scale the dizzy heights of the original Iron Man, but for almost two and a half hours, we’re entertained and energised by Whedon’s vision of the Marvel universe.
The writer-director gifts many of the best lines to Downey Jr, while there is also a lovely moment when Thor attempts to defend the actions of Loki, only to learn his scheming sibling has killed 80 people in two days.
“He is adopted,” deadpans the hammer-wielding god.
So basically, sit back and marvel at the outrageously overblown special effects.
Gwyneth Paltrow cameos as Iron Man’s valiant assistant Pepper Potts, but Oscar winner Natalie Portman was clearly too busy with motherhood to put in a physical appearance for Thor’s back story.
When Ruffalo mutates into the not-so-jolly green giant, the final battle becomes hilariously one-sided. “Hulk smash!” he growls. Avengers Assemble is simply smashing.
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS - You have to give writer-director Drew Goddard full marks for effort.
With tongue wedged firmly in cheek, he lampoons hoary cliches and attempts to reinvigorate the horror genre with this slick tale of kids in peril, that is three parts bonkers to one part twisted genius.
Not since poor Drew Barrymore answered a crank call in Scream has a film exploited stereotypes with such lip-smacking glee, and subverted our expectations at every blood-spattered turn.
Joss Whedon, creator of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer television series, co-wrote the script and his droll humour percolates throughout, inviting us to become whooping, cheering voyeurs as characters meet a grisly demise.
For the opening five minutes, making sense of the madness in Goddard and Whedon’s hare-brained method takes up most of our attention, which is no bad thing, given how thinly characters are sketched.
Plot twists are the key selling point of The Cabin In The Woods, and the big reveal in the closing minutes is a humdinger, including a cameo from a big name Hollywood star, who clearly relishes their five minutes in the spotlight.
Yet for all of its audacity and deliciously off-kilter humour, the various elements don’t gel seamlessly and once the writers’ grand plan is laid out before us, we feel slightly underwhelmed.
Bookish college student Dana (Kristen Connolly) is looking forward to a jaunt into the great outdoors with blonde friend Jules (Anna Hutchison) and her jock boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), and slacker Marty (Fran Kranz).
Curt invites along his shy and sensitive buddy Holden (Jesse Williams), principally as a date for Dana, and the five thrill-seekers head off to a remote log cabin.
Meanwhile, deep within an underground bunker, scientist Richard Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Steve Hadley (Bradley Whitford) stare at a bank of CCTV screens, which seems to be following the progress of the students towards the cabin.
They invite the rest of the team to bet on the quintet’s chances of survival, but new guy Truman (Brian White) resists.
“How can you wager on this when you control the outcome?” he asks.
“They don’t transgress, they don’t get punished,” smirks Sitterson.
The Cabin In The Woods has some big laughs and lashings of gore, while the young cast embrace their genre archetypes, screaming or disrobing on cue.
At certain points, Goddard probably gives us too much information – a throwaway shot of an eagle tracking the students’ van along a winding road should have been cut to make one character’s death more startling – but the crescendo certainly doesn’t skimp on the digital effects or blood letting.
Goddard knows how to end with an almighty bang.
THE PIRATES: IN AN ADVENTURE WITH SCIENTISTS - Bristol-based Aardman Animations, Oscar-winning creators of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, discover their sea legs in this salty escapade based on the book by Gideon Defoe.
Five years in the making, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists showcases the extraordinary craftsmanship and dedication of director Peter Lord and his team, who have brought this colourful world vividly to life through the painstakingly slow process of stop-motion animation.
Their artistry is astonishing and backgrounds are crammed with detail and sly visual gags which warrant a second or even third viewing.
Defoe’s script is peppered with wry one-liners, and a centrepiece chase sequence down the winding staircase of a house is hysterical.
For all its dazzling qualities, there’s no escaping a nagging feeling that this madcap voyage stops short of the brilliance of Aardman’s earlier works.
It’s the mid 19th century, and Queen Victoria (voiced by Imelda Staunton) has declared war on all pirates who dare to sail Britain’s waters.
Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) is the leader of a ragtag group of seadogs, whose enthusiasm far exceeds his questionable ability to plunder booty.
His subordinates include Pirate with Scarf (Martin Freeman), Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey) and Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), whose glaringly obvious gender is concealed behind a false beard.
Consequently, the Pirate Captain and his crew are a laughing stock, derided by rivals such as Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry).
To prove the naysayers wrong, the Pirate Captain sets out to capture a Bank of England treasure ship, but inadvertently storms The Beagle, and captures a young Charles Darwin (David Tennant) and his primate manservant, Mister Bobo.
The scientist leads the pirates on a merry dance. But first they must venture to the capital without being spotted by the Queen.
“London smells like grandma!” grimaces one of the crew as they adopt a succession of silly disguises and discover the greatest treasure of all has been in their clutches all along.
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists draws on Aardman’s trademark visual style and playful sense of humour.
Grant is a snug fit for the misguided Captain, and the supporting cast have fun with their roles, including Brian Blessed as the Pirate King.
The script, adapted by Defoe from his book, walks the gangplank of belly laughs and gentle emotion although none of the characters threaten to usurp Wallace and his resourceful pooch in our affections as they sail off into a perfectly animated sunset.
THE HUNGER GAMES: Death is a lottery – literally – in Gary Ross’s nail-biting survival thriller based on the first chapter of Suzanne Collins’s post-apocalyptic trilogy.
Set in a dystopian future where teenagers compete in a gladiatorial death match, The Hunger Games was always going to struggle to meet the dizzying expectations of the book’s ardent fans.
However, the film is suspenseful, exhilarating and genuinely moving, galvanised by strong performances and breathlessly orchestrated action sequences.
Screenwriters Ross, Collins and Billy Ray remain faithful to the source novel, including chilling scenes of adolescent protagonists slaying each other to survive and impress the viewing public.
It’s no wonder UK censors recommended cuts and alterations to the intense scenes of carnage to achieve a 12A certificate.
Gore is plentiful though never excessive. Parents of small children should exercise caution.
North America lies in ruins and in its place stands the deeply divided autocratic nation of Panem, comprising the wealthy Capitol and 12 surrounding, poorer districts controlled by President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
Every year, one boy and one girl from each district are selected by lottery to take part in The Hunger Games: a televised contest designed by Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley).
Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields), joining baker’s son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) as the tributes from District 12.
The teenagers are escorted to the Capitol by Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and alcohol-sodden mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), whose first advice is to “embrace the probability of your imminent death”.
Katniss and Peeta are prepared for the tournament by stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), while television coverage hosted by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) creates an atmosphere of feverish excitement.
Eventually, the pair from District 12 must face their rivals including sadistic Cato (Alexander Ludwig) and weakling Rue (Amandla Stenberg).
Only one can survive.
The Hunger Games is a terrifically entertaining opening salvo that whets our appetite for the romance and rebellion to follow.
Oscar nominee Lawrence beautifully captures the steeliness and despair of a resourceful daughter, who would die for the people she loves.
Hutcherson is equally compelling and the menage a trios with Liam Hemsworth’s rugged best friend is swiftly established.
Ross employs handheld cameras to sprint alongside competitors, giving a palpable sense of their disorientation and mounting dread as whooping rivals close in for the kill.
Katniss is a classic underdog and we’re rooting for her every blood-stained step of the way.
DISNEY’S JOHN CARTER - Intended as the first instalment of an action-packed trilogy, John Carter is a fantastical and fantastically battle beyond the stars based on the novel A Princess Of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Oscar-winning director Andrew Stanton, who collected golden statuettes for Finding Nemo and WALL-E, makes a lacklustre live action debut with this sprawling epic.
The miasma of digital effects, which hopes to emulate Avatar by immersing us in an eye-popping alien world, feel flat in 3D and the quality of the computer trickery doesn’t match the ambition of Stanton’s own script, co-written by Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon.
Like the monstrous white apes, which the eponymous hero fights in a gladiatorial setting reminiscent of the Rancor pit sequence from Return Of The Jedi, the film lumbers.
The bloated running time certainly tests our patience, especially with so little to hold our attention on the screen.
Young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) is summoned to the home of his beloved uncle and former Confederate soldier John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who has perished in mysterious circumstances.
Leafing through Carter’s cherished journal, Burroughs learns that his uncle sought sanctuary from Apaches in a cave and was magically transported to the Red Planet. There, Carter was captured by the Tharks – a savage race of 15-feet-tall green warriors with tusks protruding from their mouths, who live in the deserts of Barsoom (the alien word for Mars).
Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and his plucky daughter Sola (Samantha Morton) attempted to protect Carter from power-hungry rivals Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church) and Sarkoja (Polly Walker).
Meanwhile, Matai Shang (Mark Strong), the leader of the Holy Therns, took charge of the planet’s destiny by orchestrating the marriage of Prince Sab Than (Dominic West) of Zodanga and Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) of the besieged city of Helium.
The spunky princess raged against the arranged nuptials, despite the pleadings of her father (Ciaran Hinds), and when Dejah captured a glimpse of Carter’s rippling chest, her rebellion intensified.
Opening with a computer-generated aerial battle in one of the sandstorms that rage across the surface of Mars, John Carter is a soulless spectacle.
Technical wizardry overwhelms one or two flickers of emotion and we give up caring well before the plodding 132 minutes are up.
Kitsch is devoid of charisma as the eponymous time-travelling soldier, who tips the balance of power in favour of the pacifist good guys by scything through hordes of computer-generated beasts.
Strong and West are pantomime villains, and their comeuppance is swift and unsatisfying.
A convoluted race-against-time finale neatly tees up a second film in the series but unless John Carter magically strikes box office gold, it’s doubtful that his adventures will go any further than the closing credits here.
SAFE HOUSE - Safe House is a high-octane, adrenaline-fuelled action thriller that borrows liberally from The Bourne Identity and its sequels, replicating the same jittery handheld camerawork as a serpentine conspiracy plot reveals skullduggery at the blackened heart of the US administration.
Director Daniel Espinosa doesn’t stint on the pyrotechnics, gun battles or breathless chases.
He opens with a protracted game of cat and mouse through the teeming streets of South Africa that lights a fuse on two hours of double-crossing and betrayal.
The lines between right and wrong are continually blurred in David Guggenheim’s lean script that sacrifices character development for edge-of-seat excitement and macho posturing.
Agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is caretaker of a CIA safe house in Johannesburg.
Humdrum routine is thrown into disarray by the arrival of grizzled agent Daniel Kiefer (Robert Patrick) with a prisoner: rogue operative Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), who sold out the agency to the highest bidder.
In the middle of a highly-charged interrogation, the building’s defences are compromised by a gang of gun-toting thugs led by Vargas (Fares Fares).
Matt escapes the hail of bullets with Tobin, bundling the prisoner into the boot of a car as he makes a hasty exit, alerting his boss David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson) and senior agent Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) to the clear and present danger.
Safe House accelerates into top gear in the frenetic opening 10 minutes and barely touches the brakes as director Espinosa orchestrates each set piece with aplomb, including an extended car chase that culminates in vehicles smashing through the central reservation into oncoming traffic.
A race through the crowded favelas of Johannesburg has obvious similarities to the highly charged Morocco sequence from The Bourne Ultimatum, but still gets our blood pumping as corrugated iron roofs give way under the strain of stampeding feet.
Washington may be in his fifties but he physically matches his younger co-star and relishes the verbal sparring such as the first time Tobin gets the upper hand and pulls a gun on Matt.
“Are you going to kill me?” whimpers the fledgling agent.
“I only kill professionals,” replies Tobin coolly, wounding the younger man’s pride.
Reynolds copes admirably with the rigours of his underwritten role, and Nora Arnezeder willingly fulfils her brief as Matt’s scantily clad love interest.
The identity of the mole within CIA ranks is obvious, but we play along with screenwriter Guggenheim as he attempts to convince us it is not the most likely candidate.
“People don’t want the truth any more. Keeps them up at night,” claims one CIA operative explaining their shameful actions.
People might not want the truth but they certainly want to be entertained, and Safe House confidently delivers.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK - For a 12A rated film, The Woman In Black is a frightener.
The disturbing thriller features Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe as a young lawyer who discovers the vengeful ghost of a grieving mother.
Radcliffe sticks around the remote village he’s been sent too long enough to figure out how to let the woman in black rest in peace ... or does he?
To most people Radcliffe will always be Harry Potter and nothing else, but this role of a young dad still mourning the loss of his wife, shows him in a new light, shrugging off the wizardry and magic moves we’re so used to.
The Woman In Black is an edge of the seat and enticing film from beginning to end.
It is one film I have watched at the cinema this year and not actually looked at my watch to see whether it was close to finishing.
Despite being so scared that I viewed half of it through my fingers and also knocked my glasses off my face, I enjoyed it.
The dark scenes, the intense music and the frightening shots of the woman in black make this film a very worthy watch and one for the horror collection when it comes out on DVD.
But it should come with a warning – not for the faint-hearted or downright soft ... like me!
THE MUPPETS - For more than 35 years, Kermit The Frog, Miss Piggy and their fun-loving friends have been firmly engrained in our rose-tinted childhood memories, with their slapstick routines and song and dance numbers.
The popularity of Jim Henson’s creations has never waned thanks to endless repeats of the award-winning television series The Muppet Show, which ended in 1981, and subsequent film adventures, including madcap re-imaginings of A Christmas Carol, Treasure Island and The Wizard Of Oz.
Director James Bobin taps into that nostalgia with a glorious throwback to the days of yore that sees the colourful critters facing an uncertain future in a world of technological advances and fleeting celebrity.
The script, co-written by leading man Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, strikes the perfect balance between affection and irreverence.
The only way to save the Muppet Theatre from demolition is to raise 10 million dollars in two weeks.
The film opens in Smalltown, population 102, where a muppet called Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) lives with his human brother Gary (Segel), who is about to celebrate 10 years with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams).
The trio visits Los Angeles, where Walter discovers that scheming oil man Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to bulldoze the Muppet Theatre and drill for the black gold beneath.
Walter galvanises Kermit (Steve Whitmire), Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson), Fozzie Bear (Jacobson again), Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and the gang into organising a televised appeal in the company of celebrity guests, including Whoopi Goldberg and Selena Gomez.
The Muppets is a perfect family film, with broad humour to appeal to all ages, interspersed with delightful ditties written by Bret McKenzie from Flight Of The Conchords, including the exuberant Life’s A Happy Song.
Segel and Adams embrace the ridiculousness of the premise with gusto, like when Kermit initially refuses to spearhead the telethon and she despairs, “This is going to be a really short movie!”
The addition of Kermit’s mechanised manservant, 80s Robot, sparks another moment of genius, when the little helper wonders, “Mr Kermit, may I suggest we save time and pick up the rest of the Muppets using a montage?”
Director Bobin milks laughter and tears in generous, equal measures, leaving us hankering for more.
A delightful new Toy Story short called Small Fry, in which Buzz Lightyear is locked inside a fast food restaurant and joins a support group for discarded meal toys, plays before the main feature.
It’s the icing on an already delicious cake.
THE GREY - Air transport may well be trumpeted as the safest form of travel but for film-makers, the possibilities of disaster above terra firma are irresistible.
Set in the frozen mountains of Alaska, The Grey is a nightmarish thriller about a group of oil-rig workers who survive a devastating plane crash, only to find that they have plummeted into the hunting ground of a pack of snarling wolves.
It’s a classic showdown between man and Mother Nature, and as usual, our arrogance, believing we stand tall atop the food chain, is swiftly punished by the wily predators.
The pivotal crash sequence is orchestrated with brio by director Joe Carnahan, who depicts the carnage through the eyes of the central character as he drifts out of consciousness, flames licking the air above his head as the fuselage disintegrates.
Visual effects really come to the fore once the survivors stumble out of the wreckage when digitally rendered wolves are combined with trained live animals and puppet animatronics.
Unfortunately, the computer-generated creatures don’t look realistic and the script, co-written by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, has bark but no bite.
The order in which the cast will perish is clearly telegraphed and characterisation is thin, giving us scant reason to care about the men, when tragedy stares them in the eye.
Sharp-shooter Ottway (Liam Neeson) is employed by a refinery in Alaska to shoot the wolves that sometimes target the roughnecks as they carry out their exhausting work.
After a gruelling five-week shift, Ottway boards the plane home only for a brutal storm to wrench the craft apart, depositing the widower and seven other men - Burke (Nonso Anozie), Diaz (Frank Grillo), Flannery (Joe Anderson), Henrick (Dallas Roberts), Hernandez (Ben Bray), Lewenden (James Badge Dale) and Talget (Dermot Mulroney) – into the Alaskan tundra.
The men huddle together for warmth but the local wildlife quickly encroaches on the crash site, attacking one of the men.
With the howls of wolves chilling the survivors even more than the icy blasts of wind, Ottway tries to galvanise his co-workers into action.
“We’ll kill ‘em. One at a time. Tip the numbers. That’s what they’re doing to us,” he growls, determined to fend off the flesh-hungry beasts.
The Grey is a testosterone-fuelled survival thriller that casts Neeson as the hard man haunted by tragedy.
Physically, the actor is more than capable of taking on an entire ecosystem, but he fails to fully convey Ottway’s underlying grief that drives the hero onwards when other men fall.
Supporting cast are largely dispensable, earmarked as fresh meat for those starving wolves.
Tension dissipates in the second half as some of the plot twists and decisions strain credibility.
J EDGAR - DURING a turbulent and contentious term in power spanning almost 50 years, J Edgar Hoover was instrumental in the fight against mounting criminality on the streets of America.
In 1924, he was appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation, which became the FBI, and he threw his weight behind the latest developments in forensic science.
Hoover championed the creation of a centralised fingerprint database that allowed the agency to track offenders across states.
His achievements were considerable but his methods were heavily criticised, including supposed heavy-handed treatment of suspects and secret dossiers on important figures, such as the presidents and their wives, which could be used to strengthen his position on Capitol Hill.
As Hoover, played with scenery-chewing gusto by Leonardo DiCaprio in Clint Eastwood’s handsomely crafted and slow-burning biopic, tells a close ally, “No one freely shares power in Washington.”
Eastwood crafts a meticulous and elegiac portrait of the man, whose professional travails were almost as fascinating as the swirl of rumours surrounding his close relationship with FBI assistant director Clyde Tolson.
Following Hoover’s death, Tolson accepted the flag draped over his mentor’s coffin and inherited J Edgar’s estate, and they are buried close to each other in the Congressional Cemetery.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won an Academy Award for Milk, underpins his history lesson with a tender and chaste romance between the two men.
The film opens with Hoover (DiCaprio) clinging to power, assisted as ever by loyal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts).
He begins to dictate his memoirs to Agent Smith (Ed Westwick) and drifts back in time in hazy reminiscences to the 1919 bombings which sent shockwaves through Washington DC.
With Clyde (Armie Hammer) by his side, Hoover becomes embroiled in the ill-fated search for the missing infant son of aviator Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas) and clashes with Robert F Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan).
Away from the corridors of power, Hoover strives tirelessly to impress his domineering mother, Anna Marie (Dame Judi Dench), who instructs him to hold firm when others doubt him: “Faith, Edgar, don’t wilt like a little flower.” J Edgar is over-long at 136 minutes and the ageing make-up used to transform DiCaprio into a liver-spotted septuagenarian isn’t convincing.
But Hammer cuts a fine figure as the loyal protege and Watts makes the most of her small role.
Dench offers sterling support, sending a chill down the spine as she pointedly makes clear her views on homosexuality to her boy: “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.”
The love story, which culminates in a kiss in a hotel room and an unconventional declaration of feelings, is handled with sensitivity and restraint – two qualities which eluded the great man.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO - IF there is one film you watch this year, make it The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Ok so there are another 11 months to go and hundreds of films to be released before the year is out, but this intense thriller starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara is one that cannot be overlooked.
Based on the Swedish novel by Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not one for the faint-hearted.
Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) is asked to find out what happened to a teenager forty years ago.
Hacker Lisbeth Salander (Mara) joins in the search and not only uncovers some very gruesome details, goes through quite a few traumatic ordeals herself.
Not only is this film based on a book, but it is a remake of the 2009 original, Swedish picture.
And while many Hollywood remakes of European films rarely do them justice, this one does.
Having to fit a very complex plot into a Hollywood blockbuster that will translate well to the worldwide audience is not an easy task, but this works.
Acclaimed director David Fincher has created a work of art with this film, which includes one of the best opening credits sequences I have ever scene.
I’m rarely hooked from the first second of a film, but with this I was.
Mara and Craig are sublime together and it was refreshing and interesting to see Craig in a role as dark as this and featured in such heavy scenes.
This is one that has had had me thinking for days, it’s a must-see, the original is a must-see and the book is a must-read.