American Hustle  (2013)    79/100

Rating :   79/100                     Treasure Chest                   138 Min        15

A film which could deservedly take home a clean sweep at this year’s Oscars ceremony, with fully merited nominations in the best film, director, actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress categories.

It’s from writer/director David O. Russell (Eric Warren Singer wrote the original version of the screenplay, which was more focused on the real events that inspired it) hot on the heels of his success with 2012’s ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ and once again featuring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper – this time in supporting roles, with Christian Bale and Amy Adams taking the lead as two con artists forced to work for the FBI in order to try and catch bigger fish, specifically the mayor of Camden, New Jersey – played by Jeremy Renner. The only problem is, the mayor and his associates are willing to break the law in order to speed the wheels of a deal which would reap great benefits for the local community, cue certain moral dilemmas.

At its heart though, this is a story about the central characters and their relationships with one another, told against the backdrop of high crime and egotistical one-upmanship. The same strong vein of comedy that existed throughout Silver Linings is once again in fine form here, possibly to the extent that if you liked that movie you almost certainly will enjoy this too, and naturally the converse of that is likely just as true.

It’s difficult to think of that many films where all of the cast do such a universally impressive job, together with O. Russell, and it is nice to see it getting the attention it deserves, with Bale in particular giving one his finest performances in an already illustrious career, here once again replete with a physical transformation – gaining a very noticeable amount of excess baggage for the role.

Set around 1978, the film very cleverly opens with the line ‘Some of this stuff actually happened’, partly because the story is very loosely based on the Abscam sting operation, but it’s also perhaps a jibe aimed in the direction of ‘Argo’, which beat Silver Linings to win the best picture Oscar but which also came under heavy fire (including from The Red Dragon) for saying ‘Based on a true story’, and yet it fabricated almost everything…

47 Ronin  (2013)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     118 Min        12A

Based on Japan’s epic legend and visually very nice, but at the same time somehow completely flat throughout. The true story this is based on is a fascinating tale of honour, feudal Japan, and the way of the samurai, or Bushido, as the forty seven warriors are forced to become ronin (the Japanese term for a samurai without master) when their lord is ordered to end his life, and they spend the next couple of years planning a reckoning. Here, however, the filmmakers have opted to mix the story in with fantasy elements from mythology, which may have worked but there’s no real skill in the delivery, no real scope or tension to bait the audience with.

Keanu Reeves is the token famous western actor to sell the film with and who had his part deliberately augmented with that in mind, although he is actually pretty good in it – the rest of the cast is comprised of well know actors in Japan, but with that in mind it would have been a much better idea to film the dialogue in Japanese and then subtitle it as their delivery of the English lines leaves a lot to be desired and arrives, at times, painfully slowly. Where the film is successful, is in painting a wonderfully rich image of eighteenth century Japan with fairly grandiose sets and the costume department in particular outdoing themselves (although they too have not always pinioned themselves with historical accuracy). The fighting though, is nowhere near as good as in the likes of ‘13 Assassins’ (10) and there is a very average feel to what had the potential to be very spectacular indeed. It may still satisfy though, if you just happen to be in the mood for a bit of light fantasy action.

Walking with Dinosaurs 3D  (2013)    43/100

Rating :   43/100                                                                       87 Min        U

A big budget animation based on the BBC documentary series ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ which aired in the late nineties. This was financed by both the BBC and independent investors in the states and so all the main characters have American accents, with Justin Long being the biggest name to lend his talents to the voiceover work. We follow the adventures of two young brother dinosaurs, two Pachyrhinosaurus to be exact, as they mature from following the herd to leading it. The animated work is very good and everything looks slick and realistic enough, with Alaska and New Zealand providing visually splendorous backdrops (in fact the same mountain that can be seen in the Desolation of Smaug review also features here), but the story is simply terrible. Early on the two bros witness their father being torn to shreds, and then an instant later they’ve forgotten about it and they continue on regardless – in fact they assume their mother has met a similar fate, they don’t actually bother to try and find out.

They become part of a particularly lame love triangle which attempts to be both part of the animal kingdom and also relate to human relationships, with the potential conclusion being that the alpha male will get the woman who will bow down to him even though she thinks he’s a moron, and the way to counter this is to attempt to beat him to a pulp – and if that fails wait until hopefully someone else does it for you. It does tell you the name of each of the species that they encounter and what the name means which is nice – the bad guys are the gorgosaurus, which translates as ‘fierce lizard’, and also lends more depth to Lena Headey’s sexy queen Gorgo in ‘300’ (06).

Outlander  (2008)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     115 Min        15

Sci-fi that sees Jim Caviezel’s soldier from another humanoid race (who seem to be exactly the same as us, something never touched on – nor is their relationship with Earth explained) crash land in Norway in the year 709 AD, releasing his deadly cargo onto the harsh and beautiful Norwegian landscape (although it was mostly filmed in Canada). Encountering a local tribe led by John Hurt, he must help the natives defend themselves against the extra terrestrial beastie he has forced upon them, and will inadvertently garner the lusty attentions of the king’s daughter, played by Sophia Myles (who is essentially recreating her character from ‘Tristan + Isolde’ 06), but how will the local churls react to potentially losing one of the two attractive women we see in the village? Well, they are about to get eaten anyway, markedly improving our hero’s chances.

A reasonably interesting story with convincing sets and average-decent swordplay, but one that is sadly let down by having an all too traditional resolution and increasingly improbable action sequences.

Irresistible  (2006)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                     103 Min        15

A fairly intricate psychological drama but one that’s hindered by slightly odd editing choices, though it is still worth a look and features strong central performances from Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill and Emily Blunt – for whom this was her third feature film, billed just before her appearance in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ the same year, though you would never guess she was new to big-screen productions based on her onscreen confidence here. Blunt plays the ‘irresistible’ bait, the attractive young woman Sarandon’s husband, played by Neill, is working with who is seemingly obsessed with their relationship and seems to have taken to sneaking into their home and stealing items on a regular basis, but is this really the case – or is it just a series of strange coincidences, or indeed has the stress of the wife’s pressing artwork and the recent loss of her mother taken too much of a mental toll on her?

The sympathetic and involving performances certainly hold attention throughout, and ultimately it’s a decent film, it just lacks anything to elevate it beyond that, other than an abundance, or a parliament if you prefer, of owl related things which the central character has a thing for – in fact in a dream sequence a deck of owl themed playing cards can be seen. I WISH TO POSSESS THESE ARTEFACTS.

To date the most recent film to have been written and directed by Australian filmmaker Ann Turner.

Blade of the Poisoner   (Novel)    68/100

Rating :   68/100
Author :   Douglas Hill
Genre :   Children’s Fantasy
Date of First Publication :   1987

The Red Dragon was wondering what to select for his first book review – should it be the rather voluminous and somewhat dusty ‘Don Quixote’ reclining a little too comfortably on his shelf, the fancy hardback classics of English literature that cost an excessive amount of money to buy even though they can be downloaded for free because they’re all in the public domain now anyway, or the little known fantasy book once read and enjoyed in his youth many moons ago. It was a no-brainer really, and, since I enjoyed it once again, it did answer a question that had long been burning in the back of my mind – does going back to books that you enjoyed as a kid still work? At least for the most part this still proved an enjoyable, if very light, read.

At just under two hundred pages of fairly short text this can potentially be devoured in one sitting, and if enjoyed there is a concluding part of equal length waiting to be discovered, entitled ‘Master of Fiends’. It’s a children’s fantasy novel from Canadian novelist Douglas Hill set in an unnamed universe full of monsters, magic, heroes and Talents – unique humans that have special innate powers, such as the power of telekinesis or mind trickery. These special few are being collected by the powers of good, led by the mage Cryl, before the ruling forces of evil, led by he who shall not be named, can detect and eliminate the threat to their tyrannical over-lordship that they potentially represent.

The central character is twelve-year-old Jarral, a very ordinary, very average young boy, who suddenly finds his world turned upside down after the enemy he knew very little of, destroys his entire peaceful woodland village. Very much a trope of fantasy fiction taken to excess here as we firstly learn Jarral’s parents were both killed long ago, and then within a couple of pages his parent’s cousins that raised him are also swiftly sent into the afterlife. This can only point to one thing, that not only is Jarral destined to become powerful – but EXTREMELY powerful – will the Talents that Cryl has sent to find and protect the boy be enough against the far superior forces of darkness and the titular ‘Poisoner’ who commands them?

The narrative has a common trait running through most of it, wherein the protagonists will go through stark oscillations of moments of relaxation immediately followed by moments of austere panic, there is a lot of ‘and Jarral was finally able to rest his eyes for the first time since everyone he knew was brutally murdered. No sooner had he done so, than every sinew in his body was suddenly fraught with forthright terror as a new form of potential death descended on him from above. Fortunately, the skill of his comrades despatched the enemy, leading to a collective sigh of relief. Mandra made a joke at Jarral’s expense to lighten the situation – and then the tree beside her spontaneously EXPLODED …’ etc. etc. It’s not a major complaint though as this does keep the story going forward at a quick pace, all leading up to a suitably dramatic and tense finale.

At its heart, this is a coming of age tale as Jarral finds comradeship for the first time in his life but must learn to deal with the cruel blow fate has dealt him and, most importantly of all, he must learn to find his courage in the face of overwhelming odds – with the message of the novel encapsulated in the line

“Yes, even those for whom fighting is a way of life will feel fear before a battle. Courage isn’t an absence of fear, it’s refusing to give in to fear.” Scythe p103

Definitely worth a read for fans of the genre, and for any adults so long as they don’t have overly high expectations – should be perfect for any youngsters around the age of the main character.