Under the Skin  (2013)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     108 Min        15

This is only director Jonathan Glazer’s third feature film (the other two, ‘Sexy Beast’ 2000 and ‘Birth’ 04 are definitely both worth watching too) and as an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name it’s his most ambitious project yet. The essence of the plot is that aliens have come to Earth and managed to don themselves in our skin, and they go around collecting live human specimens for some nefarious purpose. Interesting, but nothing especially new – however the delivery mechanism is uncomfortably captivating. Scarlett Johansson plays the primary alien honey trap and we watch her drive around the streets of Glasgow in a white transit van (it was nice of the aliens to target our mercurial ned population) trying her hand as a pick up artist, though one imagines her perhaps not having too much difficulty with this, she is after all Scarlett Johansson even with a black wig on. The necessity for the wig becomes obvious when we realise that some of the film is actually comprised of real footage and features members of the public rather than actors.

I love this concept – not only is it daringly unique but, especially with what happens to the men she seduces, it is a very powerful statement on what could lie beneath the skin of any potential partner, whether the viewer wants to interpret that in terms of disease, personality or both. Does it also perhaps imply Scarlett Johansson has a fetish for Scottish men? She is welcome to a cup of tea courtesy of The Red Dragon if so, although I am reliably informed by one of my pregnant female friends (I impregnate human females on a regular basis) that miss Johansson is expecting, so many congratulations to her and her fiancé.

As the film progresses it moves away from this concept somewhat to focus on the character of the main alien herself (assuming it has a gender) as she has a bit of a moral/personality crisis. This is where the film is at its weakest – we spend a lot of time with the director trying to convey this change across to us, but it usually amounts to little more than the principal lead staring into space, or at a wall, and the sci-fi concept of something non human coming to consider their humanity is something that most audiences will be overly familiar with.

There are plenty of moments of darkness and just as many of contemplation, creating several very, very memorable scenes, and there are many physically brazen performances from the cast to accompany them, none more so than from the leading lady herself. She is wonderful throughout, but in this physical aspect she was also the perfect choice. Consistently held up as an ideal in terms of both beauty and sex appeal in the real world, we see her examine her naked skin and body in the mirror in growing curiosity, though it is an opportunity half realised as personally I would have liked to see more focus on this aspect – not for the sake of perving but rather to show that everyone, even the most supposedly flawless person, can find parts of their bodies that are not ‘ideal’ and from certain angles look pretty far from it. The film does at least delve into this denuding of perfection.

A movie like this is always worth going to see if only to appreciate an artist trying to create something original. It’s largely a success and it will certainly stay with you for a long time, just be prepared for lots of nudity and sinister, yet not entirely alien, concepts.

Scarlett Johansson enjoying the Scottish sunshine

Need for Speed  (2014)    34/100

Rating :   34/100                                                                     132 Min        12A

Adapted from the computer game of the same name – a fact alone that sounds a fairly deafening alarm bell, and sure enough we witness a concept that is fine on a console but does not work at all on the big-screen. It was always going to be a dubious attempt with the Fast and Furious franchise already well established within the niche market of motorhead fuel injected action, and doubtless the makers here were hopeful of a franchise of their own, with only bad acting, poor scriptwriting and tensionless directing standing in their way.

The central character is Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) who is of course the most talented driver ever to have lived but for some reason is working in a garage in financial arrears, forcing him into the sphere of influence of bad guy Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who despite being evil to the core is remarkably successful and is the reigning driving champion, but deep down he suspects Tobey could beat him. Inevitably juvenile egos clash and a street race takes place between the two and Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), one of Tobey’s good guy buddies, and we see them dodging oncoming traffic at a million miles per hour in flashy sports cars as they heedlessly drive down the wrong side of the road until bad guy Dino commits a dastardly deed and sends Little Pete careering off to a spectacular crash and immediate cremation. GOOD RIDDANCE. If they are going to drive like madmen in public and put the lives of hundreds of innocent people at risk then, frankly, they all deserve to die as far as I’m concerned and the intention to gain the audiences sympathy at this point is woefully misplaced, plus Lil Pete was so completely artless and innocent it was entirely obvious he was about to splattered all over the place anyway.

Bad guy Dino pegs it when he realises he might have made a boo-boo, leaving Tobey to take the blame and go to jail as unfortunately for him it seems his lawyer was too lazy to interview the many countless witnesses they almost killed who could testify to there being three cars, and they were going too fast for any cameras on their journey to have recorded them. Eventually he gets out and so begins his long and very tedious journey to right this wrong as well as try and win a highly secretive race that’s in fact so secretive all the security forces and police know exactly where it is and try to stop it, just so he can rub it in bad guy Dino’s face that yes, he is in fact the better driver as well as being the innocent guy (though he also deserves to die) who will somehow prove his innocence. Oh, and bad guy Dino is banging Tobey’s ex-girlfriend, because they obviously felt they didn’t have enough clichés in there already.

The action isn’t completely dire, but it’s very run of the mill and the way the camera continually cuts from a first person view to a shot of the driver from around the gear stick, constantly destroys any real involvement or tension in the driving scenes. Morally bankrupt central character behaviour continues to the point of lunacy, the supporting characters are tragic and poorly delivered, Aaron Paul acts throughout like a grown angry baby, and really the only things of any value in the entire film are Michael Keaton’s supporting role as a radio disc jockey and race organiser, and Imogen Poots with her infectious smile and a stunt that she is obviously performing herself. Alas, neither of these two actors are enough to give this any appeal other than to perhaps undiscerning teenage boys with nothing better to do.

The Zero Theorem  (2013)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     107 Min        15

The latest film from Terry Gilliam is entirely autorepresentative even if one was initially unaware he was at the helm, set as it is in a dystopian Blade Runner-esque future on Earth and replete with the sort of cynical corporate outlook and the many imaginative, varied and urban physical props that consistently appear in his work, ‘Brazil’ (85) and ’12 Monkeys’ (95) in particular, and also his sense of humour (we see posters reading ‘The church of Batman the Redeemer needs You!’). Here, the story focuses on a social outsider, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), who lives alone in an abandoned church in the heart of town, and the film opens with him begging the management at his work (some kind of mass processing plant of intellectual/virtual goods) to allow him to work from home which, he argues, would be much more productive for the company as there would be no time lost in transit etc. and he would prefer it as he wouldn’t have to be surrounded by people he doesn’t want anything to do with. At least, that is the assumption as we see him suffer great difficulty under normal social conditions and continually use ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ in conversation. The head of the company (Matt Damon, who last worked with Gilliam on ‘The Brothers Grimm’ 05) comes to the conclusion that he is borderline insane and so consents to his wish, so long as he works on ‘The Zero Theorem’, a project which is notorious for driving people bonkers and so he figures Qohen has nothing to lose anyway.

The opening third of the film is a little too ungrounded to work properly – we see Qohen at a party, for example, where the socialites there are dressed in what passes for fashionable garb, each holding modern tablets while they dance as if they’re sending out some social signal trending in the future, whether it be simply an alternative statement or some kind of status symbol, relationship or otherwise, we don’t know, and that’s the problem – it’s too loose, an attempted commentary on the dominance of technology and perhaps social media in our lives at the expense of human interaction, but it’s too vague to have any real meaning.

Eventually though, the film settles and finds more resonance with modernity and physics, in particular the ‘big crunch’ theory which would see the universe eventually contract and end with the opposite of a big bang (the universe is currently expanding, but different, conflicting ideas about its future abound). Qohen, we learn, has been waiting all his life for the one call that will explain the meaning of his life to him, but is ironically forced to work obsessively on the imposed Zero Theorem, which attempts to prove that the sum total of everything, all knowledge, matter and experience, amounts to absolutely and figuratively nothing, and thus everything is pointless.

As we watch him work at his computer we see him trying to fit endless arrays of boxes with formulae written on them into structures comprised of many such boxes – when he puts the right one into the right place he ‘solves’ that part, bringing order to chaos, but when he makes a mistake entropy ensues and that structure collapses, causing much mental anguish to the would be mathematician, compounded by his exponentially increasing workload, all of which threatens his already dubious mental stability.

Interestingly, this could be read in a number of ways. It will certainly seem familiar to the many programmers out there who work under such infuriating circumstance all the time, but there is also a connection to the modern rise of ultra cynical computer games, usually found online or available as apps, that are designed with the sole purpose of tying people into them, forcing them to invest more and more of, not just their time, but also their money into the game and for no real gain in terms of enjoyment or any satisfaction to be gleamed from the gameplay, simply to keep consumers using their product as much as possible. The ‘grind’ as gamers will often refer to some instances of this phenomenon. All of these games are a complete waste of time, and the creator’s main job is to dress it up as something rewarding so that you don’t realise just how bad it is until you’ve already been playing for a while, and they quite often target a younger market that are easier to hook. At the same time, it also has echoes of the drive in modern physics to search for a ‘unified theory’ of everything, as currently two of our major understandings of the universe, namely relativity and quantum theory, do not match up with one another, meaning something is wrong with at least one of them somewhere.

Thus, the film becomes more relevant and more interesting as it progresses. Matt Damon hires a digital prostitute Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) to keep Qohen interested in the project, presumably also to relieve some of his pent up rage, but the two develop real feelings for one another, throwing the unstable variables of love and desire into the equation. Here too the science fiction aspect really works, as Bainsley explains she doesn’t actually engage in any physical intercourse because it isn’t safe but focuses instead on the cerebral, and eventually we see the pair of them connect themselves to the internet where they can experience the real thing in virtual reality – something which could become available in the not too distant future with current technology able to ‘read thoughts’ (electrical impulses, see below) and deliver an element of tactile sensation, and with experiments to link this to cybersex and the adult entertainment industry being conducted by various interested parties.

A delightfully dark and yet hopeful film in some ways, as we at least see Qohen’s passion for something compel him to strive ever forward, all counterbalanced by the warmth Bainsley provides, and so long as you can live with its flirtation with whimsy, there are a lot of nice touches to appreciate too. Well acted throughout, also with David Thewlis, Tilda Swinton and Lucas Hedges in support.


The Grand Budapest Hotel  (2014)    60/100

Rating :   60/100                                                                     100 Min        15

Wes Anderson’s (‘The Darjeeling Limited’ 07, ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ 09, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ 12) latest sees the return of the auteur’s signature style both behind the camera and within the screenplay, with another ensemble piece featuring Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori in the central roles and a raft of familiar faces in support – Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Harvey Keitel, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, to name but a few.

Fiennes plays Monsieur Gustave, the concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel, which is a lavishly decorated and suitably grandiose primary set, looking like a camp version of the hotel in ‘The Shining’ (80), where he develops a close friendship with his young lobby boy, played by Revolori. The fictional region of Zubrowka they are in descends into civil unrest just as Gustave is set to inherit a priceless painting from one of the old birds he had been shagging in the hotel, who has just been murdered, which the rest of the lady in question’s extended family are violently unhappy about.

I’m a fan of Anderson’s work in general, but here the story tails away once the main characters are separated for an extended period of time, sucking the heart out of it. ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ had at its centre a wonderful story of two youngsters falling in love with each other, with all of Anderson’s usual inanity frolicking around them courtesy of the adults – here the inanity is much more centre stage with a weaker core dynamic, the comedy aspect of Gustave’s posh vulgarity works initially but then becomes a little too obvious (Fiennes did something similar but to much greater effect in ‘In Bruges’ 08) and what begins as something quite interesting, soon ends up as incredibly boring to sit through.

300 : Rise of an Empire  (2014)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                     102 Min        15

The sequel to 2006’s phenomenally successful ‘300’, this time with director Noam Murro replacing Zack Snyder (who acts as producer and writer here) and focusing on the Athenian’s story, in particular their leader Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), during the Greco-Persian wars in ancient Greece, with events primarily unfolding both during those of ‘300’ as well as immediately afterward. The story is burdened somewhat by an untruth told in the first instalment where Leonidas is shown to be more or less acting of his own accord when he marches 300 Spartan hoplites (soldiers) to the ‘hot gates’ of Thermopylae. In reality, a confederation of Greek city states had selected Leonidas to lead the ground forces in defence against Xerxes’ invasion, and in unison with the army a Greek fleet (of which Athenian ships were to form the bulk of) would engage the vast Persian navy at the pass around the cape of Artemisium, preventing Leonidas’ troops from being flanked.

After the infamous deeds at Thermopylae and the battle of Artemisium, there was to be a third conflict around the isle of Salamis near the Isthmus of Corinth, which forms the climax of the movie and was to prove one of the most important battles in the history of western civilisation. Technically, Themistocles wasn’t actually in charge of the Greek navy – for diplomatic reasons a Spartan, Eurybiades, had been elected overall commander as Sparta had but a handful of ships and Corinth, another seafaring city, did not want to see her Athenian rivals in charge, but in reality Themistocles seems to have called all the shots.

The film misses the chance to put all of these events into the proper context, and instead we end up with a much more contemporary action orientated, attempted spectacle. Although a lot of the details do fit into the real story somewhere, just not necessarily in the order or way that they are presented to us. One of the most egregious inventions is when we are shown the battle of Marathon, 490BC (Thermopylae, Artemisium & Salamis took place in 480BC), which is where the Athenians triumphed against the odds to defeat the first attempted Persian incursion into Attica (and of course where our modern day Marathon run originates as Pheidippides supposedly ran from Marathon to Athens to tell the people of the victory {having just ran to Sparta and back}. Admittedly, he collapsed dead from exhaustion immediately afterwards) and we see Themistocles kill the Persian king Darius I, who was in fact not even present for the battle. It is, however, true that after this Darius planned a full scale invasion before an Egyptian revolt prevented it, and that his son Xerxes would fulfil his plans after his death due to ill health, whilst Themistocles would climb ever higher within the political structure of Athen’s greatest gift to the world, its democracy, to convince the people that the city needed a navy to better protect itself from the Persians he was sure would return. Interestingly, their democracy was a direct one, wherein the people did not elect representatives to vote on their behalf, but rather voted on each issue themselves – sadly the renaissance does not seem to have reinstated this virtue in the west.

A fascinating and exciting backdrop for the film then, but unfortunately its biggest problem is the fairly childish overuse of blood effects which splatter over the screen in ever increasing amounts, which is bad enough, but what they have used looks absolutely nothing like blood and more like some sort of purple, thick, goo that splurges out of bodies over the screen constantly, more akin to raspberry jam than someone’s insides. An element of this would be ok, and fitting with ‘300’, but its obvious some scenes have been orchestrated purely with this effect in mind, rather than any focus on tension or the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

The same cinematography and stylisation from its predecessor is used once again, and it mostly looks as good as before, although there are a number of scenes with ropey CGI soldiers milling about – some of the action is reasonably satisfying, but then other elements are far too over the top. ‘300’ was the perfect blend of stylised filmmaking with a story based on truth, but here there are a lot of moments where you can say with certainty that never in a million years would what we’re watching be feasible. Stapleton has a difficult job to do, following in the footsteps of Gerard Butler’s iconic turn as Leonidas, but he does quite well overall, though it is difficult to fully get behind him, partly due to the obvious character conflict with his Australian accent (much like Sam Worthington’s as Perseus in ‘Clash of the Titans’ 2010 and its sequel) and partly because unlike in 300, we never really see the protagonist not in ‘battle mode’ as he is effectively waging war from start to finish and, ultimately, it is a bit tiring to watch someone constantly trying to look stressed, shouting and giving rousing battle speeches. In terms of Greek history he is one of the most important characters, and more of a back story and characterisation would have been much better, perhaps focusing on his rise from the poor quarter to the heights of Athenian society.

The naval battles are once again a mixture of real tactics thought to have been used on both sides (not always the correct ones though) and pure invention. Estimates for the forces involved put the Persians setting sail with 1200 ships versus the Greek navy of about one third of that, and the scale in itself is fascinating, with the film exhibiting both great artistic detail and yet tactical execution that is at once enthralling but also dubious. One of the best aspects, which the film actually gets correct, is that the Persian fleet was commanded by a female, somewhat ironically named Artemisia, the Queen of Halicarnassus. Played onscreen by the wonderful Eva Green, she was held in high esteem by Xerxes and by generals on both sides, indeed the film sees her challenge the other commanders under her to impress her and in real life the legend is that during Salamis she was being chased down by a Greek vessel and so hoisted the Greek flag and rammed into one of her own general’s ships (one she had recently disagreed with) shaking off her pursuer having convinced him she was a defector, and apparently watching from above Xerxes and his generals were equally convinced that she had just sunk an enemy ship causing the ‘god king’ to infamously comment “My men have become women, and my women men”.

The movie plays with the rivalry between Themistocles and Artemisia turning it into sexual tension – perhaps not so unmerited given the Greeks had put a high price on her head for a live capture, ostensibly, history argues, because they were so offended at being outmatched by a female, but in reality what could possibly make a greater prize and conquest for a male general? Sadly, she is treated with perhaps the greatest historical disdain with what occurs at the climatic battle.

Returning to reprise her role as Gorgo, queen of Sparta, is Lena Headey, who incredibly looks EVEN BETTER than she did in the first one, and she sizzles onscreen with a reinforced confidence that success with ‘Game of Thrones’ has no doubt brought her. Another strong and wonderful character from antiquity, she delivers lines like the one below with such relish that it is impossible not to love her.

Overall, it is a little disappointing but still reasonably fun, and it does inspire interest in the subject matter, perhaps even more so than the already well known story displayed in ‘300’. If you don’t mind much of it being ruined to some extent by self indulgent and silly effects then it might still be worth a look in, and the story is yet to be completed with the events of the following year, 479 BC, required to conclude everything. They will need a better team to helm the project if they take it that far though.


“Themistocles. You’ve come a long way to stroke your cock whilst watching real men train.”   Lena Headey/Queen Gorgo

“Artemisia whispered the seed of madness that would consume him … He surrendered himself completely, to power so evil and perverse, that as he emerged no part of a human man survived… Artemisia watched her flawless manipulation take shape.”   Lena Headey/Queen Gorgo

“Only the gods can defeat the Greeks. You will be a god king.”   Eva Green/Artemisia

“Today we will dance across the backs of dead Greeks.”   Eva Green/Artemisia

“SEIZE YOUR GLORY!”   Sullivan Stapleton/Themistocles

“Let it be shown, that we chose to die on our feet rather than live on our knees!”   Sullivan Stapleton/Themistocles

Interviews with the leading ladies …