To The Wonder  (2012)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     112 Min        12A

‘To The Wonder’ is the latest film from highly acclaimed director Terrence Malick, and of all his work to date it is closest to his last piece, ‘The Tree of Life’, in that it is for the most part a series of beautiful shots of nature and people, as part of the natural world, and the narrative, such that it is, is told via the character’s thoughts in poetic voice over. The pivotal character is played by Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams play two of the women in his life, and Javier Bardem acts in support as the local priest with issues regarding his waning faith.

The story really focuses on the fidelity of Affleck’s relationship with girlfriend Kurylenko, and there is a sense of each character here suffering from sensory deprivation – the diligent priest who never stops working but gets no physical satisfaction, the wandering eye of Affleck, his bouncy joie de vivre girlfriend stuck with him in a dead end town, the oppressive weight of society’s expectations and limits contrasted with the wonderful landscape images of rolling hills and running streams. It is a reflective piece, and so interpretation is of course open, but there is an interesting sermon from the priest which mentions how a person can make a mistake and regret it, but hesitating and not acting is much worse. In a sense it’s a redemption for the darker moments of the film but I can’t help but wonder if perhaps Malick has not been thinking along the same lines himself, as the famously selective director, whose films to date are ‘Badlands’ (73), ‘Days of Heaven’ (78), ‘The Thin Red Line’ (98), ‘The New World’ (05) and ‘The Tree of Life’ (11), has suddenly gone into colossal creative overdrive with three full feature films currently in post production, one of which, ‘Voyage of Time’, is all about cosmology, and with his expertise in photography that really should be something special.

This is not going to be for everyone (about one third of the audience left before the end, and there were audible cries of delight when it did finish) and you have to be prepared for the majority of the film focusing on natural visuals – there is almost no character to character dialogue. It is in danger of being labelled pretentious, certainly it’s debatable whether or not he crosses the line here, where probably some of the earlier parts come off worse as we are introduced to the young lovers and it feels like we’re watching a twenty minute condom commercial. However, I think Malick is a director who takes his work very seriously and very personally (‘The Tree of Life’ for example is about a young family that very much mirrors his own upbringing) and over his films you can see his style evolving, and perhaps his confidence growing to the point where now he feels he can do a poetic film and not feel constrained by mainstream notions of story and dialogue. Feeding into this he has a very curious casting taste, usually casting the most beautiful people of both sexes that he can, indeed going for looks over acting quality – Brad Pitt, Colin Farrell, Ben Affleck, all known as male heart throbs but at times perhaps a little hit or miss on the acting front. Has he chosen them to try and match the perfection of his photography? Or for the bigger box office draw for what will be termed an art house film? There is almost a sense that the director is intensely shy and wants to be as far away from us as possible, and this film does suffer from a slight feeling of alienation that never quite goes away.

In the case of Affleck here, Malick very wisely gives him almost nothing to say for the entire film, he just sort of struts around looking brutish, and is rewarded for good behaviour by being allowed to break a wing mirror. He does have I think two, possibly three voice over bits of brief poetry, but then it really does sound hopelessly pretentious, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were a lot more left lying on the cutting room floor. His lady friend speaks in French a lot of the time, and it’s fairly plain to see from the look on Affleck’s face he has no idea what she is saying. The one time he replies in French we know very well it has been dubbed with someone else’s voice, partly from him having his back to us and omitting a small shout a second later with a different audio quality, and partly because there is no way he would be able to produce such a convincing French accent. Interestingly, one of the love scenes in the film, often the most difficult thing to do and usually completely pointless in terms of the story or visual experience for the audience, was superbly done, brief, but showcasing the bodies of the protagonists in a way they will never have any reason to be shy about.

Having said that, the camera does seem to have a constant gravitation toward the breasts of the various females who feature in the film, which begins to feel a little perverse, unless of course Malick is saying they are a part of the wonderful, beautiful landscape of nature which, you know, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with, or perhaps he intends the viewer to almost see through the eyes of Ben Affleck’s character. Art house film can justify almost anything. There is a trend generally in modern film with the fairly ubiquitous use of shaky or hand held cam, to various degrees, to have a sneaky extra dip with the camera – even yesterday whilst rewatching Les Mis there was a noticeable perv on Samantha Barks when she’s in the rain singing against the wall.

The film’s title is mentioned as the main couple visit Mont Saint-Michel in France (also reputedly one of the inspirations behind Minis Tirith’s design in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy). I thought at one point there was something about the film that reminded me of ‘There Will be Blood’, which has a similar feel in terms of the landscape acting as a character for the first act of the movie, and sure enough the head of the art department on that film, Jack Fisk (also husband to Sissy Spacek), reprises that role here, being a long time colleague of Malick. With ‘Blood’ the technique worked really well because it was used in collaboration with the actions, if not initially the words, of an intense character played by Daniel Day Lewis, but here the characters are too flimsy and don’t really get interesting until later on, which is ultimately why this isn’t as good as his previous work. There does remain some very beautiful imagery throughout the film that it will be a pleasure to have endure in my memory, and overall I’d say I liked it despite its overly indulgent tendencies, though it would be interesting to know where exactly the division here exists between Malick, Fisk and the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Not for the first time in his career, Malick has axed footage of other famous actors from the movie entirely, amongst them Jessica Chastain and Rachel Weisz. Perhaps Affleck’s character was getting too much action. Christian Bale was originally slated for the role that Affleck plays but he pulled out and will feature in Malick’s next two films instead.

One can imagine the casting…

MALICK :   Ok, Olga, love your limited work so far by the way, so we’d like to cast you so we can have you frolic around sensually showing off your body, and then have you lie down on some manky wet marshland, how does that sound, exciting yes?
OLGA :   Em, why?
MALICK :   There is no why …. Only beauty…
B.AFFLECK :   Hey Malick can I be your movie and then have it released around the time of the Oscars so I can say I was in an art house Terence Malick flick, and am therefore a SERIOUS GUY, and my torrid history bashopic ‘Argo’ can have better odds of winning best film?
MALICK :   Yes. But you may not open your mouth again for the entirety of the film. Unless it is in wonder at the beauty….
B.AFFLECK :   Well can I least take my shirt off?
MALICK :   Let me have a look. Beautiful, yes we can work together.

Argo  (2012)    31/100

Rating :   31/100                                                                     120 Min        15

The sheer and unequivocal arrogance of this film is grotesque and abhorrent to say the least, as the filmmakers rewrite a now well documented piece of history giving the American authorities credit for other people’s bravery and work, and making cheap political digs at Iran’s expense in the process.

Leaving aside the factual debacle for the moment, the film follows the events surrounding the storming of the American embassy, and subsequent hostage taking of the diplomats, in Tehran in 1979 by a mob of angry Iranians (many of them students) over Jimmy Carter’s decision to allow sanctuary in the States to the deposed Iranian Shah. During the panic a small group of Americans managed to get away and find secret refuge with Canadian diplomats elsewhere in the city. CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendes (Ben Affleck – also the director of the film) is hired to think of a way to get them out of the country, and comes up with the notion of passing them off as a Canadian film crew, location scouting for a new, fake, Sci-Fi film entitled ‘Argo’. The rest of the film follows that escape attempt.

The style and feel of the film is accessible and noteworthy, with a lot of attention being paid to the fashion and trends of the day, and a decent amount of humour has been sewn into the script for the first half of the film. The direction is also well paced and involving for the first half, music is well used throughout, and there exist a lot of nice touches, especially with the fake Sci-Fi movie, even if some of them feel a little too modern, such as the robot they create for it. It is perhaps easy to see why people in the industry love this film, as we get a glimpse of the behind the scenes world of Hollywood via Oscar winning makeup artist and CIA helper John Chambers (John Goodman) who aids the set up of Argo to look authentic, one of the few things it gets historically correct. There are more than one or two digs at Hollywood as an industry, and nods in the Academy’s direction with mention of multiple Oscar winners ‘Network’ and ‘Kramer versus Kramer’ (‘Argo’ itself is nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture).

The film suffers a severe problem with its marketing, in that if you’ve seen the trailer, you can pretty safely infer several key things about the film. With that in mind, a lot of the tension that Affleck tries to create feels entirely artificial. This is taken to the point of lunacy as, despite the fact they have been in hiding for seventy nine days, about four or five things converge at pretty much the exact moment in time in order to try and escalate the tension as much as possible, but to say it’s unbelievable would be like saying it’s a little chillier in space than it is here on Earth. At one point an Iranian guard has a huge rant in Farsi at a befuddled Affleck and co even though we’ve already been told these members of the military were likely educated in the west, and sure enough we later hear him speaking in English, all purely so the situation seems more extreme. It ends up being much the same as watching an action film where the hero escapes by always being one second faster than the hail of bullets and explosions dogging his shadow, and by the lack of any real intelligence in the bad guys.

Purely viewed as entertainment and ignoring history completely, I would rate this somewhere in the lower sixties. However, what this film has done with history simply cannot be ignored. Jimmy Carter has said himself in interview with Piers Morgan (something showing in itself a lack of political savvy) that ninety percent of the entire rescue operation was Canadian, whereas ‘Argo’ would have us believe that statistic belonged wholesale to the U.S. administration. A secondary great evil is that in the film it is stated very clearly that both New Zealand and The United Kingdom refused to give sanctuary to the American diplomats, something which is an outright disgraceful lie, both countries actively helped – one of those involved in the events, Bob Anders, said after seeing the film “They put their lives on the line for us. We were all at risk. I hope no one in Britain will be offended by what’s said in the film. The British were good to us and we’re forever grateful.” How in the name of hell do George Clooney and co. (he is one of the producers) think it is ok to rewrite history as they see fit? I mean, they have actually stated the very polar opposite of what actually happened, both here and generally (although Tony Mendez did come up with the Argo idea and did work for the CIA). Affleck has said that he lied about the other countries involvement as he wanted to show that these people had nowhere else to go, but since they ended up with the Canadians eventually, because everyone agreed it was becoming too dangerous everywhere else anyway, why in the name of bloody hell don’t they just tell the truth!!! The Red Dragon watches a good many films, and when it comes to history in the movies you learn to always take it with a pinch of salt, however even I, though I thought it strange, was inclined to believe them when they said sanctuary was denied because it is presented as fact, and it’s the sort of thing that you think well surely they wouldn’t make that up?

This is just the beginning of the gross make believe that was put into the film, indeed, almost everything in the second half is a complete fabrication. Including the Iranians forcing children in a sweat shop at gun point to reassemble shredded mug shots of the consulate staff – there were no mug shots, and consular documents were reassembled by the Iranian students who could read English. There are several ironies here too, one being when Alan Arkin’s character (another fiction by the way) bemoans the Canadians taking the credit for the operation, and another the efforts taken to make the actors playing those in hiding look like their real life counterparts as they show during the end credits – if they are going to go to those lengths for cosmetic details which do not matter ultimately why in the name of God not make the actual story accurate, or for that matter cast Affleck as Mendez who is in fact Mexican? Indeed, in reality it seems Mr Mendez, come the day of the actual exfiltration, slept in by half an hour, and had to actually be woken up by one of the New Zealand diplomats that the film claims turned the Americans away! See the Guardian article here for more details.

Another outrageous lie is delivered via a sinister choice of quote from Jimmy Carter, also as the end credits play, as he states “Eventually we got every hostage back home safe and sound, and we upheld the integrity of our country and we did it peacefully” – this is with regard to the remaining hostages who were the ones actually seized by the Iranians and properly held captive, whose fate ‘Argo’ makes no other reference too. Well, in reality the Americans attempted a military rescue which was a complete and unmitigated disaster, resulting in abortion half way through and the death of several American service men and one innocent Iranian civilian. It is generally thought to have been a major factor in Carter losing the presidency later that year, and indeed literally minutes after he had left office, Iran released all the hostages.

This film is an absolute disgrace, and it deserves to be lambasted, not rewarded as, unfortunately, it is in danger of being at the upcoming Oscars. Even its inclusion of a dilapidated Hollywood sign on Lee Hill is ironic as it had actually been repaired by the time of the events depicted, and the film itself represents Hollywood at its most careless. On the back of this we can look forward to Affleck’s next project about the Americans who invented ice hockey, and then his piece on the beginnings of the industrial revolution, in Philadelphia. His last two films (‘The Town’, ‘Gone Baby Gone’) were both great, but if you can’t make the truth work on film, to the point where you’re advocating and propagating a lie, then you have no right to be working in the medium.

Argo fuck yourself Ben Affleck.


“’Hmm let’s see. Well, this one’s got an MA in English, she should be your screenwriter. Sometimes they go along on scouts, because they want their free meals. Here’s your director.’ {Chambers}
‘You can teach someone to be a director in a day?’ {Mendez}
‘You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day.’ {Chambers}” John Goodman/John Chambers and Ben Affleck/Tony Mendez

“So you want to come to Hollywood, and act like a big shot, without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in.” John Goodman/John Chambers

“If he could act he wouldn’t be playing the minotaur” John Goodman/John Chambers

“Ok, you got six people hiding out in a town of what, four million people all of whom chant death to America all the live long day, you want to set up a movie in a week, you want to lie to Hollywood, a town where everybody lies for a living, then you’re gonna sneak 007 over here into a country that wants CIA blood on their breakfast cereal, and you’re going to walk the Brady Bunch out of the most watched city in the world…. Right. Look, I, I gotta tell you, we did suicide missions in the army that had better odds than this.” Alan Arkin/Lester Siegel

“Hi, I only got a couple of minutes, I’m getting a lifetime achievement award… I’d rather stay home and count the wrinkles on my dog’s balls.” Alan Arkin/Lester Siegel

“If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit” Alan Arkin/Lester Siegel

“Well, what can I say. Congratulations. But see, it kinda worries me when you say that, and let me tell you why. Couple of weeks ago I was sitting at Trader Vic’s enjoying a Mai Tai, when my pal Warren Beatty comes in, he wishes me well, we have a little chat. Seems he was attached to star in Zulu Empire, which was going to anchor that MGM slate, but Warren confided in me that the picture’s gone over budget because the Zulu extras want to unionise. They may be cannibals, but they want health and dental so the movie’s kaput, which means that the MGM deal ain’t gonna happen, and your script ain’t worth the buffalo shit on a nickel. So, the way it looks to me, through the cataracts I grant you, is that you can either sign here, and take ten thousand dollars for your toilet paper script, or you can go fuck yourself. With all due respect.” Alan Arkin/Lester Siegel

“Bad news, bad news. Even when it’s good news it’s bad news. John Wayne’s in the ground six months, this is what’s left of America.” Alan Arkin/Lester Siegel

“Fade in on a star ship landing. An exotic middle-Eastern vibe. Women gather offering ecstatic libations to the sky gods. Argo, science fantasy adventure.” Ben Affleck/Tony Mendez

“Hi, my name’s Kevin Harkins and, I’m going to get you home.” Ben Affleck/Tony Mendez

“This is what I do. I get people out. And I’ve never left anyone behind… My name is Tony Mendez, I’m from New York, my father worked construction, my mother teaches elementary school, I have a wife and a ten year old son. You play along with me today I promise you I will get you out tomorrow.” Ben Affleck/Tony Mendez

“Brace yourself, it’s like talking to those two old fucks on the Muppets.” Bryan Cranston/Jack O’Donnell

“This is the best bad idea we have sir, by far.” Bryan Cranston/Jack O’Donnell

Cloud Atlas  (2012)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     172 Min        15

This isn’t actually all that bad. It is way too long at just under three hours, in fact I’m pretty sure an entire hour could have been axed from it somewhere in the middle. Half way through I couldn’t wait for it to end, but come the end I was actually quite enjoying it. The best way to think of this film is traditional adventure storytelling done in a multi-layered way, with each layer a different story in space and time over Earth’s history but each featuring the same actors playing multiple parts, ultimately trying to make the point that our actions, every crime or kind deed as the film puts it, can have repercussions for evermore, and forwarding the belief that life is both transient and ever renewing.

It features an ensemble cast including Jim Broadbent, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry (why does she always get all the worst lines? Does she improv them?), Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess and Hugh Grant to name some of the most familiar faces, all often wearing prosthetics and sporting different accents, to varying degrees of success. It’s adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by David Mitchell and directed by the Wachowski brothers (or perhaps siblings is more correct since one of them has undergone a sex change, they are joined by Tom Tykwer {‘Run Lola Run’} on director duties) of ‘The Matrix’ fame, and just as in that series Hugo Weaving makes a marked appearance as the bad guy/assassin in most of the stories, and he clearly relishes being able to do so.

The script needed to be reworked as it’s pretty consistently terrible, featuring cartloads of cheese and an evolved future language that sounds altogether like gibberish, something made all the worse by the actors mumbling it as they attempt to deliver it to us. Some nice shots of Edinburgh, as well as a Scottish bar fight gag at the expense of some supposed English patrons, which went a long way toward warming the audience to the film….


“You have to do what you can’t not do”   Halle Berry/Luisa Rey

Mama  (2013)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                     100 Min        15

Decent horror film with a few moments of palpable fear, exec produced by Guillermo del Toro (‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, ‘Hellboy’) after seeing director Andres Muschietti’s Spanish language short film of the same name. The eponymous mama appears in traditional tattered rags and multi-flex atrophied limbs, whereupon she decides to become the protector of two young girls, which is all well and good to begin with but eventually leads to relationship problems with other family members, and some much needed counselling. Many clichés, but also various successful attempts to avoid cliché – we end up with the buxom female (in this instance a convincingly gothed up Jessica Chastain) as the central adult focus, with ample cleavage as her most visible weapon, but as she avoids monstrous devourment (apparently, despite The Red Dragon using this for years, this is not a real word. It has to start somewhere though…) we are spared endless pointless chases, the ghost pretty much just gets on with it when it can be bothered, or rather when it is bothered. One of the hand drawn pictures in the girl’s bedroom is pretty scary, featuring some sort of creepy zombified Goofy. Hmm, yes try not to look at that actually (you can see it above).

Song for Marion  (2012)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                       93 Min        PG

Nice little film. Cancer patient Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) cajoles her moody husband Arthur (Terence Stamp) to allow her to indulge in a local singing group for retirees, taught by buoyant girl next door Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). It starts off shakily, especially with the direction, but when the group performs outdoors and we hear the obviously pre-recorded sound of the backing choir play, suddenly Vanessa Redgrave takes the mike and performs a heart felt solo, live, and with no accompaniment. It’s a very brave move, and it lifts the tone of the whole film, with the two central performances (and good support from Arterton and Christopher Eccleston as their son) moulding what could have been humdrum into something more meaningful. Stamp has such an expressive face, he can go from growling thunder in one second to playful innocence in the next, it’s a shame that here more originality wasn’t put into the screenplay as, good performances aside, there’s nothing we haven’t seen many times before.

Amour  (2012)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                     127 Min        12A

‘Amour’ deals with elderly couple Georges and Anne, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emannuel Riva respectively, as they both deal with the anguish incurred when Anne suddenly suffers a stroke. It is the latest French language film from Austrian auteur Michael Haneke (‘The White Ribbon’, ‘Funny Games’, ‘Hidden’) and although a lot of thought has gone into each scene and line of dialogue, and the film is both thought provoking and well acted, and indeed successful at showing what the impact of a serious stroke can be, The Red Dragon found it nevertheless to be suffering from a certain design flaw. If you are familiar with Haneke’s work, then you can tell not only what will happen in the end by the first ten – fifteen minutes of the film, but also the manner in which it will develop. Through this lens it takes on the guise of an artificial construct, an example of what The Red Dragon likes to call dehumanised cinema, where the script is written to a sort of signature template, no matter how involved, and the characters have little to no, or in this case inverted and anaesthetised, positive human connection, and instead function as cogs in a large artistic wheel. In effect, we watch a play of smoke and mirrors, rather than one full of human characters.

It is a subtle distinction in this case, so much so I decided to watch it twice, and whilst I found it difficult to change my initial reaction to the piece, I certainly came to appreciate its attention to detail a lot more. The film opens with the discovery of the body of Anne, and with regards to her husband we are presented with a duality as to his character, given in uncertain but equal measure until a very clear distinction is arrived at and quickly followed by a trademark Haneke flourish. Therein, however, it is trying to be too clever for its own good, with a lot of the story and direction designed to keep us guessing rather than invest in the two octogenarians as people, and the flourish is vile in its predictability and austere anti-reason character skewering. Haneke also fits in a bit of art house indulgence in the form of a pigeon that mysteriously flies in through an open window twice, and each time proceeds to devour the food crumbs that have very obviously been put down to keep it there long enough for the shot.

Riva is up for Oscar glory thanks to her performance in this, which is merited, and she is the oldest actress to receive the honour, especially nice since the ceremony will be taking place on her birthday (she will be turning 86). It’s one of three high profile French films this year to focus on serious physical impairments, the others being ‘Rust and Bone’ and ‘Untouchable’, the latter of which is by far the most rewarding and deserving of the three. Similarly, the American film ‘The Sessions’ fits into that category, also an award contender and a bit more positive in its outlook, but with something of a forced sense of comedy. ‘Amour’ is also nominated for best film, director, and original screenplay at Sunday’s Academy Awards, and although it is a film I wanted to like more than I did, there remains a certain beauty to the performances, and a certain icy warmth in their relationship to the title.

Diplomacy   (Board Game)    93/100

Rating :   93/100

Diplomacy. There are few other games more likely to see a group of civilised, well mannered, Homo sapiens devolve into a murder of squawking scurrilous beasts, at one another’s throats over who promised who control of The English Channel, which coast of Spain was supposed to have been written down, and the various meretricious long term benefits of the temporary and unexpected secession from a trusted alliance and, unfortunately, sometimes real world relationship. Once touted as the favourite, or perhaps favorite, game of both John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger, and no doubt many other diplomats since its first release in 1959, ‘Diplomacy’ has treachery as a major component part of its gameplay and it is often used, though not strictly necessary, to achieve victory.

The simplest way to think of the game is; if you like strategy games, then you will love this. Conversely, if you don’t like them then you probably won’t enjoy playing it – though there may be an exception to this rule depending on the style in which you do so. The board is based on Europe shortly before the outbreak of World War I, although the setting begins in 1901, and you take control of the armies and fleets of one of the ruling powers of the day. The objective is to take over as many supply centres on the board as you can until more than half of them are yours, and the number of troops you have is determined in equal measure by the number of centres you control. This in itself doesn’t make the game different from many others, what distinguishes it from the competition is that everyone makes their moves at the same time, and before revealing their orders there is always a round of diplomacy where players are encouraged to have secret, or open, discussion with one another and make, or break, alliances. Then, when everyone’s orders are revealed you find out just how well placed your confidences, or well oiled your machinations, were.

It really is a fantastic game, nerve wracking and exciting with plenty of scope for intricate plan making and deviancy, which is why if you are perhaps more into social interaction than spending hours around a board game working out all the permutations of possible moves, you could focus entirely on the diplomacy section as one’s people skills, or perhaps manipulation techniques, are every bit as important as your military tactics. Indeed, working in teams to combine the best of both worlds is to be encouraged. Players are welcome to play ‘gunboat’ diplomacy with no tactical communication between each other should they wish, and the simplistic rules, with only a few moves available for each piece (attack, support, hold, convoy), mean that it works as a fantastic pure strategy game, with no chance element (such as rolling dice or drawing cards) whatsoever. Similarly, there are guidelines for play with less than the full quotient of seven players.

‘Diplomacy’ is the brain child of Allan B. Calhamer, who came up with the idea whilst studying at Harvard university and had to finance the production of the first five hundred games himself, having been initially rejected by every publisher he approached. He sold all five hundred with relative ease, publishers were somewhat more welcoming afterward. Given Calhamer studied law, nineteenth-century European history, and political geography, it is a little disappointing to say the least that the political geography of the board looks like it was created by an uneducated school boy. Some of the regions have been geographically altered for the sake of game dynamics, but others are plain wrong, such as the United Kingdom being labelled England for example. The Red Dragon has deducted points for this. The rulebook has undergone several revisions over time, but it still could be written in a much clearer way, and with more, and indeed better, examples used throughout. Sometimes, since the idea is ultimately to win for yourself, it can feel like a negative experience – you know the alliances you make will probably end badly at some point. However, the cunning player can find ways around this, draws can be agreed upon by surviving players at any point, and the popularity of the game on the internet allows for the accruing of points per supply centre, and table rankings by points – so that as long as you gain something from your starting position you will still climb up the ladder, even if you don’t end up winning (you still have to survive until the end though).

Prior to the internet, ‘Diplomacy’ became the first commercially produced game to be played by mail, and its popularity continues to grow with several international competitions, including a world cup and world championship, and thousands of fan based (and a couple of official) variations published – check out the ‘Diplomacy’ wiki and the variant bank for a huge variety of different versions to try. In fact, ‘Diplomacy’ style rules were adopted for one of the earliest documented forms of both traditional and live action roleplaying – Slobbovia, played by post but ironically dying out just prior to the internet age that would have saved it. Playing ‘Diplomacy’ online also has the advantage of being able to choose how often to make a move, anything from once a few minutes to once a few weeks, but the disadvantage of not being able to try and read people through body language as the game goes on. There have been experimental attempts to create decent AI to represent missing players, but so far they have been universally easy to defeat and most online games, such as the server used on Facebook for example, require seven human players to sign in before the game will start, though play is anonymous via the adoption of usernames.

Easy to become obsessed with and, once again, if you are a fan of pure strategy, quite likely to end up taking pride of place on your games shelf. Make a point of emphasising to new people before you play that back stabbing is a perfectly legitimate part of the game and, hopefully, you will avoid the main pitfall of having players fall out over nothing, or everything depending on how in the moment they are. If you manage this, similarly encourage everyone to be creative with their style and, once everyone is familiar with the core game, with taking the rules and/or scenario to ever more interesting and rewarding levels.

For a look at the official rules click here.

Wonder Witches   (Android Game)    71/100

Rating :   71/100

‘Wonder Witches’ is an apt name for a lovely little android game currently available for free download from the Kindle app store, and Google Play for your pc. It hails from Johann Digital Works in Seattle, and the developer has stated it was a personal project worked on at weekends and evenings after his full time job, so it gets instant credit for that. The premise is for you to guide a series of witches on their broomsticks up and down vertically  by tapping and holding down the right hand side of the screen which then causes a boost to be injected into your wee witch on the far left of the screen as she desperately swoops and dives to avoid an increasingly difficult onslaught of birds, bats, randomised walls that appear, clouds that obscure your vision, light changes as day turns into night, and random scrolling speed fluctuations all designed to keep your intrepid teenage witch on her flighty aerial toes.

The ultimate goal is to reach the moon, though no one seems quite sure whether that is actually a possible goal, or if it just keeps on generating more obstacles. Having logged in around 12.7k points on easy in one sitting, I can confirm there is a little change, in that the wildlife disappears altogether, but there was no end in sight for the ever deadly series of walls (the graphics of which could really do with a lick of digital paint). The dynamics of the game are nothing new, but what makes it really appeal is the endearingly cute witch icons and the sound effects of them whizzing around, and indeed the fairly humorous crack and squeal as one of them nose dives into something. Speaking of ‘which’, the collision detection is excellent and even allows for an element of grace, so that when your hat or the bristles of the broom touch something it counts as a mere scuffle and you can continue your journey unabated. It is only really when the tip of your broom bashes into something that are you plummeted to an unknown fate on terra firma.

As you accrue points you unlock more witches to play with, each with their own broom and its special power that can be utilised by collecting special power icons – three per broom use. The icons are regular and easy enough to collect, best saving them for liberal use later on. Currently the final broom, ‘The Whizz’ is not available, and whereas mostly points and power ups are cumulative over games, the second last broom, ‘The Wunderbar’ no less, can only be unlocked by gaining 4000 points in one go. It’s quite fun once you get it, but the ‘Firestorm’ before it is much more useful when the going gets tough. There are three difficulty levels, easy, fun, and hard, and the difference between them has been well judged. A good way through to the Wunderbar would be to school it on easy where you don’t really need to use the power ups, then once you’ve unlocked the Firestorm you could play on easy or fun and just blow everything out of the way.

Initially this was pretty tiring for both the eyes and the right thumb, but after a warm up it’s easy to last a short while – repetitiveness sinks in after about fifteen to twenty minutes, but it’s still a great game to have stored on Kindle or your hard drive and it was pretty exciting unlocking the more difficult Wunderbar. It’s possible that there is a way to get to the moon, getting so many points in one sitting on hard with a certain broom maybe, but hopefully updates will flesh out the groundwork that has been done, and add The Whizz too of course.

Woohoooo!           (Witch clarion call)

This is 40  (2012)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     134 Min        15

The latest from producer/writer/director Judd Apatow focusing on two of his previous characters, specifically married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) from 2007’s ‘Knocked Up’, as they both reach the milestone of their fortieth birthday. Their two daughters are played by Mann’s children with husband Apatow, namely Maude Apatow as hormonal teenager Sadie, and Iris Apatow, who is a bit of a scene stealer, as her much younger sister. Good use is made of Megan Fox in support, or perhaps more correctly, her body, as she is accompanied by Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd and Melissa McCarthy, although each of these feature too briefly in a film that is the latest in a cinematic trend of movies that are fifteen to twenty minutes too long. Fans of the actors and director will certainly enjoy this, and the cast do bring the characters and story to life with relish, delivering a steady stream of pretty decent comedy.

Altogether they pull off the film, but the drama behind the story, supposedly focusing on a couple going through difficult times triggered by money issues and the passage of time, doesn’t really work for several reasons. Firstly, Leslie Mann could easily pass for someone ten years younger (she is actually forty in real life) and comparing her body to that of Megan Fox, as her character does in the film, isn’t really fair, although even Fox has reputedly had at least a slight nose alteration since her rise to fame with ‘Transformers’ in 2007. Debbie constantly has a go at Pete for eating cupcakes and we suppose his increasing weight is putting a ‘strain’ on their relationship, and yet he seems to do a lot of fairly serious cycling and looks quite fit in general. There are a lot of relationship issues thrown together over a very short time frame, and it gets particularly overdone, repetitive and messy toward the end, but overall it doesn’t detract too much from it being an enjoyable film. Stay through some of the credits at the end for a great outtake scene with Melissa McCarthy too.

A Good Day to Die Hard  (2013)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                       98 Min        12A

Bruce Willis reprises the role of John McClane that made him officially a movie star way back in 1988 with the original ‘Die Hard’, a movie that set the benchmark for every action film made ever since and became a Christmas/family tradition to watch every year (partly because it’s set at, and aired, every Christmas, and also partly due to a similar tradition set by Joey and Chandler in ‘Friends’).  The original film was followed by ‘Die Hard 2: Die Harder’ 1990, ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance’ 95, and ‘Die Hard 4.0/Live Free or Die Hard’ (also the state motto of New Hampshire incidentally – minus the ‘Hard’ part of course) 07.  All four of the previous films were worthy additions to the canon, featuring the world’s hardest cop vs. money grabbing pseudo terrorists, but what of the fifth one?  Well, it’s a lot more action focused than even its predecessors, and with a relatively short running time a lot of that action is extremely tightly cut, making it quite fast paced but also at times difficult to make out what’s going on.  Perhaps especially true during a huge car chase sequence which is otherwise packed full of impressive stunts, but is mostly reduced to a visual blur and a series of loud metallic crunches.  For a sequence that took weeks of filming, all the effort put into it deserved a better final product.  Similarly there’s a scene where Bruce Willis’ hands go from being tied to being free to beat the hell out of the bad guy, and I guess you’re supposed to assume he unties himself offscreen somehow, but there’s a constant thread of unbelievability throughout the action sequences, and one of the things that made the previous films a success was that even though they were, quite literally, over the top, efforts were made to make it seem plausible.

A plot does exist here, but so much emphasis is placed on the action that it’s been degraded in the process.  John McClane’s kids are alluded to in ‘Die Hard’, but whereas the introduction of his daughter worked with the great story in the fourth instalment, here the appearance of his son, played by Australian actor Jai Courtney (the bad guy in ‘Jack Reacher’), feels a little tawdry and allows for more than one overly cheesy moment, and although the always lovely Mary Elizabeth Winstead appears briefly as the daughter again, she only has about thirty seconds or less screen time.  If they are grooming Jai to take over the franchise they may be in for trouble as although he has the physique of an action star, he is so far lacking the onscreen charisma that would be needed for the role, in a similar way to the general reception of Indy’s son Mutt in the last Indiana Jones film.  The action all takes place in Russia, the latest in a list of Hollywood films to do so (‘Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol’, ‘Chernobyl Diaries’, ‘The Darkest Hour’, a tiny bit of the last Transformers movie), although it was filmed in Hungary, and anyone who has played ‘Call of Duty’ will see some very familiar scenes in Chernobyl.  Indeed, one can easily imagine the filmmakers sitting playing the game and having a ‘brainwave’, “Hey I know, let’s put John McClane in Chernobyl and have him blow the shit out of it!”.  Hmm.  The game is actually more realistic than the film, with radiation treated as a minor irritation to fitting Chernobyl into the story.

Despite all this, The Red Dragon still gained some nostalgic pleasure from investing in another Die Hard film, but alas it is a mar on a franchise that had thus far put paid to the widely, and falsely, held notion that sequels only dilute the original.  It was a great idea to release the film on Valentine’s Day, but an extremely questionable one to pick a director and a writer (John Moore and Skip Woods respectively) with only a small number of ok-ish films under their belt, including video game adaptations for each of them.  It seems that British audiences have been treated with the disdain of being given a heavily cut version so that the film can have a 12A rating (it’s rated R in the states), which is absolutely disgraceful.  The fact that the director has already started working on his director’s cut suggests he is far from happy with the released version on either side of the Atlantic, and we can hopefully expect to see a better one appearing on dvd in the future.  Good to see the continuation of some of the music from the other films, and indeed a classy Rolling Stones song play over the credits at the end, one knew to The Red Dragon, and one that you can see the video for, featuring Noomi Rapace, below.  If Bruce Willis and company can make number six something special, then all will be forgiven.