The Book Thief  (2013)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     131 Min        12A

Director Brian Percival’s dramatisation of Markus Zusak’s best selling 2006 novel of the same name is a remarkable example of how one or two critical errors at the end of a movie can do irreparable damage to any and all good work prior to it. The plot centres around a young ten year old girl, Liesel Meminger, given away by her mother to foster parents, the Hubermanns, living in Nazi controlled Germany. As war approaches and then begins, a young Jewish man in desperate need of shelter arrives and the family agrees to hide him in the basement, where he forms a close friendship with Liesel who shares with him her new found love of reading, fuelled by her regular theft of novels from the Mayor’s house and all instigated when she took, despite being illiterate, a book accidentally dropped by the grave of her brother, who passed away along the journey to the Hubermann’s town, perhaps in a desperate attempt to have something to remember him by.

Despite the grim setting, there is a kind of light and slightly airy feel to the film, but rather than paint too rosy a picture it should make it more palatable for younger viewers, which is good since it’s kind of aimed at them thematically with the focus on Liesel growing up against the backdrop of the war, and there’s still enough dark elements present to assuage the demands of history. The film is narrated intermittently by Death, voiced by Roger Allam, but unfortunately this kind of sees the Grim Reaper come over as a little too posh and sanctimonious, a tad incongruent with what one might imagine Death personified would sound like, meanwhile Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson give sterling performances as the Hubermanns, but the lion’s share of credit has to go to young Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse who embodies Liesel perfectly.

One or two decisions toward the end, and a scene that really should have been reshot, sadly destroys much of the impact of the film. It isn’t really fair that this should be the case, but it is the feeling you walk out of the cinema with that mostly shapes your view of a film. It’s still quite good, but it was close to being something more.

In the Mood for Love / Fa yeung nin wa  (2000)    77/100

Rating :   77/100                       Treasure Chest                       98 Min        PG

The constant linking motif throughout this film is the slender, beautiful and delicate figure of Maggie Cheung, accentuated by a menagerie of elegant dresses that relentlessly hug her frame, constraints of time and place, perpetuating an almost haunting, nostalgic image of perfection with the way the film has been shot, and its poetic reflection of love. On several occasions, once very near the beginning, director Kar Wai Wong uses to great effect brief images of simply Cheong’s hand and arm on a doorframe and then later a banister to powerfully convey sensuality and sexuality respectively. Throughout the film the same score of moody string laden music plays, mixed with the sonorous baritone of Nat King Cole singing in Spanish which, together with the elegance of the leads and their costumes, creates the atmosphere of a tango being danced throughout the narrative, with all its dark heady promise verging on catastrophic despair.

Cheong plays the wife of a husband who is having an affair with the married woman next door in 1960’s Hong Kong. Circumstances bring her closer to that woman’s husband, played by Tony Leung, and the two find solace in each other’s company as they ask each other how their partner’s infidelity could have come to pass. A crutch for one another, they are in many ways isolated in their own company, unable to share their turmoil with anyone else and yet unable to admit they are falling for each other, hoping to resolve their marital difficulties eventually but also unwilling to consider themselves in the same category as their other halves, that perhaps the simple act of their partners spending time together whilst they were at work was enough for their existing love to shatter.

The film has an almost voyeuristic feel to it – the camera is often at a distance from where the actors are talking, and at times it is allowed to remain stationary whilst the characters move past it to continue conversing somewhere out of shot. It kind of fits with the increased secrecy of their meetings, but the time frame is also very cleverly, and subtly, used to great effect here, both in a localised and a general way, and with the inclusion of the iconic and ancient setting of Angkor Wat and the film ending, as it begins, with a line of poetry that uses the imagery of looking through glass, the style of the piece is finally, and triumphantly, consummated.

It’s achingly beautiful in many ways and wonderfully acted, and it will involve you in the onscreen romance, but it just might break your heart a little in the process too.

Jack Strong  (2014)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     128 Min        15

The timing of coming to write this review couldn’t be any more topical. This is a well acted and well executed Polish film focusing on the real life exploits of Ryszard Kukliński, codename Jack Strong, who, throughout the 1970’s, used his position within the Polish military to pass on Soviet secrets to the CIA. The story has a strong connection with that of the rise of the Solidarity movement, documented in Walesa – Man of Hope, as both historical narratives were largely generated by the brutal and lethal suppression of the 1970 riots in the Polish north, riots begat by a crippling rise in food prices.

Marcin Dorocinski gives a wonderful and sympathetic central performance as Kukliński, and the rest of the cast, including Patrick Wilson, Maja Ostaszewska and Dagmara Dominczyk all do a convincing job of selling a tension fraught scenario of espionage and political consequences. The language oscillates between Polish, English and Russian, with Wilson’s verbal adroitness in Polish a bit of a revelation (until I realised he’s married to Dominczyk – interestingly, commentary has been made in the media of late on the dramatic rise in the number of Scottish men learning Polish, a rise no doubt directly proportional to the large influx of incredibly beautiful Polish ladies to our shores …) and the most poignant aspect of the plot involves one Russian general’s secret plan to effectively use Eastern Europe to start World War III, and how the plan was thwarted.

How many of the facts have had liberties taken with them here is difficult to tell, but in light of Russia’s recent belligerent activity in the Black Sea, it hardly sounds fanciful. This, then, is very much an important political film of our current time and not just a dramatic retrospective of what the whole world thought was a bygone era. Indeed, it seems like Putin regards international politics as markedly similar to a game of Diplomacy (wherein Sevastopol is one of the most hotly fought over areas for its strategic port) and comparisons with Hitler’s annexation of Austria are not only merited, but quintessential to the furore of debate going on. In the game of Diplomacy it’s vital early on to get the territories you want whilst seeming as reasonable as possible to the other players in the vicinity – if you take a look below at Hardtalk’s Stephen Sackur interviewing Putin’s spokesman and long time major player in the Russian government’s media machine Dmitry Peskov, aired just a few hours ago, you don’t have to be an expert at reading people to tell he’s not quite the full shilling.

Indeed, if Peskov was playing the board game he would be promptly laughed out of Europe on the basis of this interview. It was interesting too that Sackur makes mention of the recent referendum and how not only did it take place under the threat of Russian guns, but that the people had no option in the vote to the keep the status quo in place. This is a pretty major point that the BBC have elsewhere repeatedly not made mention of in their regular updates – in fact they actually seem to be giving the impression there is a level of legitimacy to the vote, with one of the correspondents asking a Ukrainian politician if he didn’t simply have to now accept Crimea has become a part of Russia, which is way, way off the mark for independent journalism.

There would seem to be, at this juncture when tensions and military aggression are rising, a rather opportune way out for the Ukrainian leadership. They should first settle and unite the rest of the country, using every ploy they can think of and perhaps with the timely bringing forward up of the upcoming May presidential election, and simultaneously the majority in their parliament, the Rada, should unite in promising a new referendum in Crimea should the Russians leave voluntarily as speedily as they arrived – a referendum that would be fair and monitored by the international community, including Russian delegates. This would put the ball back into Putin’s court and throw their claims of legitimacy right back at them. It’s very unlikely Russia would back down now given Putin has signed the papers accepting Crimea, but it would make their position much more difficult and buy the Ukrainians more time, and if they somehow did retreat even if the Crimea still went and joined Russia, it’s still better than bloodshed and the escalation and destabilisation that most likely Moscow is hoping will arise. Plus it would give Russia a graceful way of regaining some international favour, as they’d surely fancy their chances at Crimea willingly joining them, and indeed it could set a favourable precedent for them with other Russian speaking areas along their border, but a diplomatic battle to win over the people of a region, is always a million times more preferable to an armed struggle against vastly superior military forces, so it’s kind of a win-win given the current powder keg sizzling away on the peninsula.

Interestingly, toward the end of ‘My Perestroika’ one of the interviewees voices his concern that the current Russian government is heading back down the path of the old Soviet ways of repression and indoctrination, a view which seems to be borne out by events. It would perhaps be telling to see a fair and free independence referendum taking place in Chechnya, or indeed throughout many of the other constituent parts of Russia …

Here’s that interview

Only Lovers Left Alive  (2013)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     123 Min        15

Another journey into the mindscape of Jim Jarmusch travelling along the familiar pathways of his love for music and physics, but this time delivered via the unexpectedly ethereal, and at times amusing, blackened world of vampires. Tom Hiddleston (Adam) and Tilda Swinton (Eve) are the lead vamps and have been lovers for countless decades, with John Hurt and Mia Wasikowska in support, aided by Anton Yelchin and Jeffrey Wright as two of the few mortals in the film. The performances are great, especially from the leads, but the use of music throughout the film is very well balanced creating not only a sombre tone for the shadowlands of their lives, but also a unique ambience for long reflective moments, as we spend most of the film in Adam’s home musing along with his lugubrious melancholy at the state of the world.

His home is in a rundown area of Detroit, where he lives as a mysterious and reclusive musician lamenting on the fact that his distancing himself from commercial interests only seems to make his music even more popular, which is the perfect setting, subtly adding to the not so cheery vein running through the film after Detroit last year was forced to declare itself bankrupt, the largest scale event of its kind in US history, with her population considerably under half of what it was in the 1950s. The vampirism is part anchor and delivery mechanism for the philosophy, but it could also easily be read as a thinly veiled metaphor for drug use and dependence, especially when they speak of contamination of the blood supply, in today’s HIV conscious world.

Continuing the protagonists commentary on the general malaise of mankind, comparing his centuries of scientific learning and cultural experiences to the modern world, we find mention of the work and theories of nineteenth century electronics pioneer Nikola Tesla, just as in Jarmusch’s ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’ (David Bowie gives a nice turn playing him in ‘The Prestige’ (06) as well, incidentally), and when Adam points to the mess of cables and wires around the place that pass for a supply of power and waves it off as woefully rudimentary and wasteful, he is absolutely right. In today’s world, the technology and know how exist to completely transform the way we live, making it a hundred times more economically viable as well as environmentally friendly – for those with a Facebook account take a look at this clip from Physicist TV to see what I mean, or watch the excellent documentary ‘Who Killed the Electric Car’ (06) to see how big business stamps its regressive boot down on technology that threatens its profits.

For fans of Jarmusch this is a must see, and for everyone else it’s worth delving into for the shades of legitimate grey contrasted with the unhurried, yet enduring and passionate romance of the two main characters.

Endless Love  (2014)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     104 Min        12A

This is a very, very familiar story of the local mechanic’s boy who falls for the hot blonde soon to be studying medicine shy girl next door, only daddy doesn’t like it, in small town rural America. Bizarrely, it’s kind of likeable for what it is. The leads are appealing enough and never really grate, the dialogue isn’t off-puttingly cheesy, and the story doesn’t bore to death, all of which is a bit of a surprise. Alex Pettyfer and Gabriella Wilde (Carrie) play the two leads with Bruce Greenwood as the latter’s father and Joely Richardson as his wife, and the story focuses as much on their relationship as it does the two young lovebirds. It’s loosely based on the novel of the same name by Scott Spencer, previously filmed by Franco Zeffirelli in 1981, which may explain why there’s a little more going on than in the usual teen romance drama, and although it fulfils its purview reasonably well, the romance is not exactly going to set the world on fire either.

Non-Stop  (2014)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     106 Min        12A

Liam Neeson continues his winning streak of action films, following in the successful footsteps of the likes of his ‘Taken’ (08), ‘Unknown’ (11) and ‘The Grey’ (11), and this is another taught and very enjoyable thriller, predominantly sold by a trademark commanding performance from the leading man himself, here playing an alcoholic air marshal who begins to receive mysterious threats to his passenger’s lives whilst in mid-air. He knows that someone onboard is sending them, but who? The plot thickens when the instigator’s demanded money is requested to be transferred to Neeson’s own bank account …

The tension is held throughout, and, all in all, it’s a satisfyingly involving mystery.

Ride Along  (2014)    33/100

Rating :   33/100                                                                       99 Min        12A

A completely mirthless and soulless cop buddy film featuring Ice Cube and Kevin Hart, the latter of whom is a rookie trying to prove his policing chops to the hardened veteran of Cube – who also happens to be the disapproving brother of his fiancée. Despite an energetic and committed performance from Hart, there really isn’t anything of any interest or comedy value throughout the entire film, with the rudimentary attempts at humour matched by the equally pathetic attempts at an original story.

Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy  (2014)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                       78 Min        U

There were a good many sheepish adults trying to melt into the shadows of the auditorium at the screening for this, and although their uneasiness is merited since this is aimed primarily at eleven year old girls, so too is their bravery to watch it as it’s actually a lot of fun. This is the continuation of the Disney fairy line with Tinker Bell (curiously, her name is often misspelled as Tinkerbell, the ‘Tinker’ part denotes her skills and place within fairy society, as a tinker, as well as the way her voice, and that of all the fairies, is heard as the tinkling sound of a bell to those not fluent in their language) as the central anchor, with ‘The Secret of the Wings’ being the last instalment.

This is actually an improvement on the last film, which was also pretty good, as here the focus is on a group of friends on a traditional adventure with themes of inclusion and the freedom to be creative, all beginning when Zarina (Christina Hendricks), operating as the fairy equivalent of Antoine Lavoisier, does the unthinkable and EXPERIMENTS WITH FAIRY DUST (actual fairy dust that is, not meth), resulting in her being ostracised by her peers when one of her experiments goes awry and she creates a FUSION BOMB (no, not really). Her response to this? She goes off and becomes a pirate, which, admittedly, is an impressive response.

The animation as you would expect from Disney is very good (although, oddly, Tinker Bell’s face doesn’t look quite right), there are a few songs in there, one of which is very catchy, the spirit of the film is completely perfect for the target audience (despite the lack of male characters to relate to even boys should enjoy it {the fairies are quite fit} unlikely they would admit to it though), the timeline within this particular universe is set, and there are some good laughs with a lot of nice touches to appreciate, such as when Zarina orders “Earl Grey. Hot” à la Captain Picard from Star Trek and when, despite the size of the fairies, a bee tries to buzz into the ear of one of them. I HATE THAT. Despite the secondary nature of the Tinker Bell line of films compared to Disney’s official feature animations, this holds its own very well. Also with Tom Hiddleston, Lucy Liu and Angelica Huston as some of the more recognisable voices in the ensemble cast.

Cuban Fury  (2014)    53/100

Rating :   53/100                                                                       98 Min        15

So derivative, it’s a wonder they bothered at all. Starring leading man Nick Frost – the whole concept for the film allegedly originates from a drunken email he sent to his producer, although it operates as essentially his own version of his pal Simon Pegg’s ‘Run Fatboy Run’ (07). He plays Bruce Garrett, a shy and introverted office worker who has a passion for salsa that he’s buried deep inside after some kids gave him a beating for dancing when he was a kid. The fact that this incident was a one off, doesn’t really speak highly of the main character, but that also forms the core of the story as he falls for burgeoning salsa enthusiast Julia (Rashida Jones) and must regain his self confidence and win her away from the affections of office rival and massive sleaze Drew (Chris O’Dowd).

The main problem, asides from the dire lack of any originality, is that’s it’s just so overwhelmingly drab, set in some uninteresting corner of England with very intermittent dance scenes all shot with such poor editing and direction that it’s not easy at all to say whether or not Frost is physically any good in the role, all asides from one scene where he has a dance-off in the car park at work with O’Dowd, which was quite well worked. The only other scene of any real note is when his quasi-mystical dance instructor (Ian McShane) has Bruce play board games with him and needles him when he refuses to properly engage with it, eventually producing a pretty impressive Scarface impression from him, making board games more fun for the pair and curing his self esteem issues in the process.

If you’re a big fan of Frost then you’ll probably still enjoy this to some extent, but if you’re simply a fan of salsa or otherwise then this isn’t really worth the time.

Escape from Planet Earth  (2013)    61/100

Rating :   61/100                                                                       89 Min        U

The first animated theatrical release from Rainmaker Entertainment, which hits UK shores over a year after its release in the States – was it worth the wait? Well, not especially, but for its target audience of young kids it should prove visually and thematically entertaining enough, with the occasional nod to films like ‘The Artist’ (11) and ‘Monsters’ (10) to try and keep adults interested.

The story focuses on two alien brothers, one full of machismo but not the sharpest tool in the shed and the other a tech nerd and family man (his son is initially more impressed by the showmanship of his brother) at mission control – when the former is captured by the US military (many of their number have mysteriously gone missing on Earth) the more cautious brother is forced to ‘man up’ and go into the field to try and rescue him. The animation is slick and colourful, and although the story is very simple, exploring the rivalry of the brothers along with the relative pros and cons of their strengths and weaknesses, it should hold youngster’s attention throughout, although it is unlikely to become an enduring family favourite.

With voice acting from Rob Corddry, Brendan Fraser, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jessica Alba, William Shatner and Ricky Gervais.