The East  (2013)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     116 Min        15

Written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, and directed by the latter, the two spent some time investigating and experiencing the ideals of freeganism – whereby one only eats food which has been discarded, usually by restaurants and supermarkets who are required to do so by law, but which is essentially perfectly edible. Using their hands on research for how their characters might live day to day, they created the story of a group of anarchists calling themselves ‘The East’, who have taken it upon themselves to teach large, corrupt corporations a lesson, and give them a taste of their own medicine, quite literally in the case of one pharmaceutical company. We perceive events through the eyes of Sarah (Brit Marling), a former FBI agent attempting to infiltrate the cell and alert the authorities about their forthcoming attacks, as per her current employment with a private intelligence firm.

The film is a sort of conjoined twin – a spy thriller spliced with sociopolitical polemic, with each element good, but not strong enough in its own right to bear witness to the best fruits of their genre. Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, and Alexander Skarsgard (son of Stellan Skarsgard, here initially looking very much like Viggo Mortensen in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’), play the most recognisable members of ‘The East’, and most of the screen time focuses on the group, and Sarah’s interaction with them. It is at pains to show they aren’t just a bunch of hippies, none of them take any drugs for example, and it is shot in an authentic location – the house they all live in is used in real life by a band of people attempting to live outwith society’s norms. However, focusing so much on a group with an alternative lifestyle that for many will have negative shades of cultism, or the stereotype of Eco-terrorists, but who are active against issues that the vast majority of the populace in today’s world share a common sense of inept outrage about, kind of feels like a betrayal against the film’s primary hook.

The tactics used by the organisation are grounded in their own moral code, but one that is balanced enough to bring the audience into the debate. It is essentially a well put together film, but we see exactly what we expect to, and the climax manages to be both a little messy, and a little obvious. Indeed, bar an appearance in ‘Arbitrage‘, Marling is most well known for staring in, along with co-writing, 2011’s ‘Another Earth’ and although her character there is markedly different from Sarah, they walk similar paths in terms of the narrative and their function toward concluding the story. With a little more incendiary risk, and a little more tightness to the writing it could have been both more thought provoking, and more gripping.

With regards to the pharmaceutical company targeted by The East, scroll down to the end of the review of ‘Side Effects‘, and have a listen to an important, eye opening TED talk delivering a real world insight into the industry.

This Is the End  (2013)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     107 Min        15

The latest offering from the new wave of comedy writers, actors and directors that have dominated Hollywood for the last few years, this time all playing parodies of themselves. Jay Baruchel meets up with his old comedy buddy Seth Rogen (they are both Canadian) and they all go to the number one party hangout in L.A. – James Franco’s house. Jay wonders how close he and Rogen really are anymore, but before he can find answers to this and other quasi-existential problems, disaster strikes. An actual disaster, that is, with earthquakes galore and a hefty mortality rate, and North America’s funniest are forced to band together in an effort to survive.

Initially, the first thing that comes to mind in the opening quarter is ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (04), with the mixture of comedy and bloody violence that we are greeted with. Given the team behind that zombie-comedy hit have their new film coming out in a matter of weeks, and that it’s called ‘The World’s End’ with the definite appearance from the trailer of a doomsday scenario, it hardly seems like a coincidence. First out of the blocks then, how does this one perform? Well, once it gets going it’s not long before it establishes its own voice, and it becomes a lot of fun, with good performances from everyone and some nice cameos from the likes of Emma Watson and Michael Cera, and indeed a certain famous band from the nineties, along with a fantastic appearance from Channing Tatum.

Look forward to gory, sweary violence, and, well, everything else you might expect to find at a party held at James Franco’s humble abode….

Despicable Me 2  (2013)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                       98 Min        U

A reasonable sequel to 2010’s ‘Despicable Me’, featuring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig and Steve Coogan. From Illumination Entertainment (who’s other films to date are ‘Hop’ in 2011 and 2012’s ‘The Lorax’, with a release planned for next year based entirely on the Minions from this series… ) it’s easy to watch and just as easy to forget, but should be fine for families and for fans of the original. Also introduces a love story arc for main character Gru. Not very despicable.

Before Midnight  (2013)    72/100

Rating :   72/100                                                                     109 Min        15

The continuation of a story focusing on a relationship under the microscope, in this case all before midnight on a certain day, and previously ‘Before Sunrise’ in 95 and ‘Before Sunset’ in 2004. The couple are Jesse and Celine, played respectively by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, both of whom helped write the screenplay along with the director Richard Linklater. The vast majority of the film is a dialogue between the two characters, whilst they holiday in Greece with their two twin daughters, with the only real notable exception being a dinner table scene with friends, but even if you haven’t seen the previous two films and are unfamiliar with the characters, as I was, this is still easily accessible. Both central performances are engaging, and though there are shades of whiny melodrama, the story touches on just enough common relationship issues and overarching themes of transience and mortal companionship to keep us interested. It’s not Bergman (Ingmar), but it is charming and involving, with a decidedly bittersweet aftertaste.

World War Z  (2013)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                     116 Min        15

This is a reasonably good zombie film, but one massively hindered by a director who hasn’t learned from previous mistakes. The man in question, Marc Forster, was criticised on a grand scale for his ultra fast editing of the action sequences on the Bond film ‘Quantum of Solace’, and here the same problem all but ruins the opening section of the film, where we are granted our first visual treatment of the zombie hordes (they are effectively the same as the zombies infected with the rage virus in 2002’s ‘28 Days Later’) and everything is so completely frenetic we can’t make out what on Earth is going on. The idea was to put the audience in the situation as much as possible, but ironically it has the very opposite effect, deadening our perception of events, in much the same way as watching a tense scene in fast forward would do.

It’s based on the novel by Max Brooks (the son of Mel Brooks), and after the first half an hour or so things start to pick up, and the story gets going. Brad Pitt does a good job of playing the central character, Gerry Lane, employed to investigate the source of the outbreak due to his military connections with the U.N. At one point he awakens to find himself tied to a stretcher and facing none other than Malcolm Tucker (well, Peter Capaldi) from ‘The Thick of it’, which is potentially far scarier than any of the zombie attacks. Decent, but never as tense as it should be.

The film is already famous throughout Scotland for being partly filmed in Glasgow, doubling up as Philadelphia, most notably in the city centre for the aforementioned starting attack. It is great to see the city on the big screen, and it’s obvious not just because of its architecture, but also because it looks decidedly coooooold and dreich (for anyone not familiar with Scots, this word is almost always used in connection with the weather and means dreary and miserable, we use it a lot) and I wonder if local business won’t be able to milk that to some degree, a zombie cafe perhaps, or the occasional zombie flash dance on unsuspecting tourists would be interesting …

The film is planned as part one of a trilogy, so the studios may return to Scotland’s largest city in the future. On a similar vein, Neil Marshall’s ‘Doomsday’ (08) revolved around a deadly killer virus which, naturally, began with one person coughing on the streets of Glasgow city centre. England’s response to the outbreak is to build another wall to keep us out, much like the Romans did, and the rest of the world pretty much leaves Scotland to die. Being a hardy bunch we don’t, of course, but we do degenerate into cannibalism and tribal warfare. All, that is, except for Dundee, which essentially carries on as normal.

Stuck in Love  (2012)    37/100

Rating :   37/100                                                                       97 Min        15

This film actually managed to make The Red Dragon pretty irate (not in itself altogether unusual), both for its blatant double standards on serious issues like drug use, and for its grating, and inevitable, conceit of ‘everything will be alright in the end because this is a film designed to showcase upcoming talent featuring a score sounding very much like every other romantic drama released over the last half decade or so, not a film featuring any real characters’. The film focuses on one family, whose parents, played by Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly, have divorced (we never find out why) and it looks at the effect on their children, played by Lily Collins and Nat Wolff, as well as the current state of each family member’s love life. Three of them are writers, and the idea of a shared favourite book resulting in cosmic romance is played out in a particularly dreary and nasty manner, transforming the daughter from a wanton and desperate slut into the hopeless romantic that the film preaches we all secretly are.

In the same way, the story bizarrely shows the parents to not really care their young son is heavily into smoking weed, until a certain point when it does randomly begin to worry one of them, and then we see cocaine appearing and cue the evil music. One is obviously medically more severe than the other, but the grotesque pretension of the narrative seems to miss the fact that endorsing one can also potentially lead to the other – we are to assume the young girl onscreen has been introduced to the drug by her aggressive boyfriend and his friends, but it is unlikely they began with the hard stuff. It’s simply not responsible enough to have a blasé approach to soft core drugs in order to try and look ‘hip’ to a younger demographic, something which has been creeping into Hollywood output (though this is an independent film) for a while, often in throwaway scenes. Lilly Collins smiles approvingly when her brother says he has a stash of weed to smoke, so she endorses it as she sits with him outside and watches him smoke, but is very careful not to have any herself, as at this point in her fledgling career (her biggest role to date is as Snow White in last year’s ‘Mirror Mirror’) it wouldn’t be wise, effectively highlighting the issue. A film can easily be pro or against soft drugs but there has to be a context, a point even, to the very conscious decision to introduce it. Later in the film there is an uproar for, shock horror, giving a sixteen year old a glass of champagne, which somehow leads her to automatically go off and try to get laid with another guy (she is dating Wolff’s character) and go back to abusing coke.

Some of the songs used alongside the score are pretty good, but with the casting of attractive actors (who all do a good job) and the promise that pining after the object of your affection, even if they are with someone else, will yield positive results, not to mention that promiscuity and soft drug culture carry no significant threats whatsoever, ‘Stuck in Love’ has chosen an extremely ill conceived way to try and appeal to its audience.

Man of Steel  (2013)    51/100

Rating :   51/100                                                                    143 Min         12A

This is a pretty major disappointment for what was hoped to be the reboot to the Superman franchise. Helmed by Zack Snyder, whose previous films are often much more notable for their special effects than their ability to engage the audience with the story or characters {‘Watchmen’ (09) and ‘Sucker Punch’ (11), for example}, his Superman suffers from this same central problem – it feels like we’re watching a series of storyboards put together without any thought whatsoever as to what goes between them, or even why some of them are there in the first place, other than as excuses for more explosions. This is a big surprise, given the screenplay is from David S. Goyer, based on a story from himself and Christopher Nolan, both hot off the success of their Dark Knight trilogy, though it is certainly fair to say plot holes abounded in the escapades of their Batman, but Nolan’s skill behind the camera made them much more palatable than Snyder is able to do here.

Even the director’s normal artistic and stylistic flair looks here to be very much aping the work of others – in particular J.J.Abrams’ success with the recent Star Trek films, including his trademark lens flares and the way the camera will hover above the action and then zoom in or out abruptly before a cut, particularly noticeable with ‘Man of Steel’s intro section where we see the birth of Superman, or Kal-El, on his home planet of Krypton. With ‘Star Trek – Into Darkness’ released just a few weeks ago, featuring the line ‘Looks like we have a superman onboard’ at one point, one wonders if this was an acknowledgment of the fact – perhaps the two directors are good friends? Although these same visuals are one of the film’s redeeming features, their unoriginality is a little disappointing from Snyder, indeed the story itself has shades of many recent blockbusters that have gone before it – the changes to the backstory of Clark Kent’s foster parents echoes Spiderman’s relationship with uncle Ben, the present threat of alien invasion mirrors the one that raked in millions at the box office for last year’s ‘Avengers Assemble’, and so on.

Storywise, the biggest let down is that precious little of it makes any sense at all. They try to explain Clark’s powers using physics, and the fact that our sun’s radiation and the gravity on Earth is different from those experienced on Krypton. Nonsense. He can FLY for goodness sake. At one point his foster father Jonathan, played by Kevin Costner {still reeling from ‘Waterworld’ almost twenty years ago now}, suggests he perhaps should have let a bunch of children die rather than risk revealing his identity. There just seems to be no real thought or intelligence in the script at all, to the point where come the end you’re thinking, ‘O, of course that character shows up here out of the blue miraculously in time for the kissy kissy drama shot’. Are Goyer and Nolan trying to sabotage a rival superhero outfit to their own?

The acting is generally fine, and leading man Henry Cavill does well and could easily reprise the role if they find a different team to work on it (I believe Snyder has been given the tentative go ahead for the next one – he may have to reboot his reboot), though to be fair he doesn’t really have to do a tremendous amount of acting. The fight sequences do start to make the film a bit more interesting, but it’s not long before they begin to drag, degenerating into the same super-powered stunt repeated again and again, ultimately leaving the movie bland, flat, silly, and completely devoid of any real character. Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Michael Shannon and Laurence Fishburne appear in support. {Look out for the name on some of the chemical trucks toward the end – also, perhaps the most promising aspect of the entire film is that this is planned as a prelude to a ‘Justice League’ team up of several of DC Comics’ super heroes (again, no doubt spurred on by the success of rivals Marvel, with their ‘Avenger’s Assemble’ box office smash). It will be very interesting indeed to see who makes it into the League (Batman is a DC character, in case you didn’t know, but usually only dabbled infrequently with the League)}

The Last Exorcism Part II  (2013)    7/100

Rating :   7/100                                                                         88 Min        15

Being exorcised, or, for that matter, being possessed (at least, judging by the amount of time young girls spend masturbating while possessed), is likely a lot more enjoyable than the tragically dull experience of watching this film. Do yourself a favour and avoid it like the proverbial plague.

Behind the Candelabra  (2013)    80/100

Rating :   80/100                                                                     118 Min        15

Michael Douglas gives what may very well be the crowning performance of his illustrious career, as the secretly, but very obviously, homosexual pianist and entertainer Liberace. Matt Damon plays his young love toy, and he appears on the scene looking like a groomed and buff Prince Adam as both he and Douglas prove committed to the full, giving emotional and engaging performances replete with physical alterations to match their character’s changes over time (Rob Lowe is also good in support). The film focuses on the evolution of the relationship between the pair, with the emphasis naturally leaning toward Liberace, though the story is based on the memoir of Scott Thorsen, Damon’s character, and I think I’d put down Michael Douglas as the heaviest contender so far this year for Oscar nomination in the winter (he has one previous best actor win for portraying Gordon ‘greed is good’ Gekko in Oliver Stone’s 1987 ‘Wall Street’).

At time of writing this is set to be the last feature film from director Steven Soderbergh as he takes a break of undetermined length (not ‘Side Effects‘, as was originally reported, although they were likely filmed around the same time) and it would be a ‘fabulous’ way to bow out of cinema, featuring as it does many refinements to his craft, especially the use of music in the narrative, with here the sound never imposing a viewpoint and yet still driving the story forward – with that of the ensuing scene repeatedly preempting the transition by appearing in the current one, and also the subtle thread of devilish comedy (see his excellent ‘The Informant’ (09) for more along that vein, again with Matt Damon). Filmed not long after Michael Douglas’ was given the all clear regarding his throat cancer, you can be sure this will be work he will never forget, as you can tell by his heartfelt press release below. (Incidentally, his cancer was caused by the sexually transmitted HPV virus, of which there are many strains, so much so that many cannot currently be detected and those that can be are often not tested for at health clinics, in many senses it’s assumed that if you’re sexually active, you are probably carrying some version of it. Worth reading here for more, albeit succinct, info).

(As a further aside, in a fantastic strategic move, a couple of years ago researchers looking to solve a genetic problem in the search for an AIDS cure, sent the real life puzzle out to gamers on Second Life, and one of the many thousands of players actually did solve it. Creatively using the computer game trained minds of gamers to help solve humanity’s problems was a great idea, and indeed it remains so for the future)

The Iceman  (2012)    72/100

Rating :   72/100                                                                     105 Min        15

Michael Shannon stars as real life New Jersey hitman Richard Kuklinski, who reputedly snuffed out over one hundred people in his long running career, in this violent tale of one man’s rage fuelled impulses and his conjoined determination to protect his family, together with his need to keep his underworld business with the Mafia a secret from them as a necessary part of that protection. Shannon is fantastic in the role, and Ray Liotta is just as good as the gangster that ‘funds’ his murderous enterprise, although this is hardly surprising since Liotta is pretty much the professional gangster of the big screen, someone should really make ‘Shoot Them One More Time Just to Make Sure’, the Disney musical biography of Ray Liotta’s onscreen career.

Winona Ryder plays Kuklinski’s somewhat faithfully naïve wife, whilst Chris Evans, Captain America himself, turns up as a rival assassin, and David Schwimmer convinces us he’s not Ross from ‘Friends’ this time round. Bizarrely, there is a court room scene at one point that seems to have mostly CGI members of the public sitting in the gallery. It’s a little odd, but otherwise this is a noteworthy gangster film sold primarily on the back of Shannon’s ability to embody the relentless killer that Kuklinski is, whilst also gaining our sympathy for him and his family.

The age certificate screen that appears before the film proper describes it as rated 15 for strong violence, sex and bad language, but I fail to see how graphic images of people having their throats sliced open doesn’t qualify it to be an 18 – neither is the sex especially strong (which is a shame since Winona Ryder is in it). It reminds me of when the computer game ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’, which was rated 18, was pulled from shelves not because you could run around chainsawing old grannies in the street and then rob and kick their corpses, but because a mod version was found to exist whereby once you’d shacked up with whichever one of your lady friends you’d impressed by doing all manner of pointless things, and the screen switched to an outside view of the house whilst you went in for some ‘hot coffee’, you were now able to view the actual act of, ahem, procreation, and could perform different sexual manipulations with the control pad. The game was made in Edinburgh, by Rockstar North, I’m proud to say, but the absurdity of the ban highlighted a bigger problem with censorship in general. Likewise, this should have been an 18, but the lack of genital shots rather than brutal executions are what prevent it from being so. Naturally.