Walking on Sunshine  (2014)    53/100

Rating :   53/100                                                                       97 Min        12A

A musical which features various hits from the eighties, most of which are tortuously murdered by the young relatively unknown cast whose musical and acting abilities run the gamut. Oddly, said cast includes Leona Lewis in her film debut – and as the ace up the production’s sleeve not nearly enough of her is made, especially as she’s the strongest singer by quite a margin. It’s very obviously taking the majority of the leaves out of Mamma Mia’s (08) book, set as it is in an idyllic seaside location in Italy with three female friends as central characters (pictured above and played by, from left to right, Hannah Arterton {sister of Gemma Arterton}, Annabel Scholey and Katy Brand) and the context of one of their weddings as excuse for them all to be there. Scholey is the one to be wed after a five week whirlwind romance, although it turns out her husband to be (played by Giulio Berruti) used to be the lover of her sister (Arterton) who elects to keep this secret and hide the fact she is still in love with him, meanwhile Scholey’s ex (Greg Wise) is determined to win her back, but what could the outcome of all this possibly be …. ?

Most of the first two thirds is abysmal – indeed the opening rendition of Madonna’s ‘Holiday’ is probably the movie’s lowest point, but eventually it does get a little better, with maybe two or three scenes working as intended. One features Arterton singing live in a church and she does a great job – which makes you wonder why they didn’t do more of the same thing, à la ‘Les Mis‘, instead of dubbing the rest of it. Some of the other songs used include ‘Eternal Flame’, ‘Faith’, ‘The Power of Love’ (Huey Lewis and the News), ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ and of course ‘Walking on Sunshine’.

How to Train Your Dragon 2  (2014)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                     102 Min        PG

The Red Dragon feels the need to debunk the hubris of this animated franchise (this of course follows up on 2010’s successful, and quite enjoyable, ‘How to Train Your Dragon’). Dragons cannot, point of fact, be trained, least of all by humankind. At best we might lead you on a little for our amusement, or because we enjoy toying with our food before we devour it, but the idea that someone can push the right bits of our bodies and mystically have us at their beck and call is, I’m sorry to say ladies and gentlemen, an erroneous construct of the movie industry in an attempt to satiate those such as myself and supply us with a never ending stream of playthings. The possible exception to this would be the case of particularly attractive human females who like to engage in the activity of dragon riding bareback for private reasons, as this strokes our egos as well as said reasons.

Oddly, the film’s main problem also concerns this aspect. Having well established with the first film (where everyone was originally engaged in conflict with one another) the notion that dragonkind and mortals can exist cooperatively by virtue of each being reasonable entities, this foundation is then turned on its head with the introduction of an ‘Alpha’ dragon which can effectively tell the other dragons what to do and they will obey zombie like each command. This does not work. It completely obliterates the previously central concepts of friendship, morality, reason and, most importantly, free will. Imagine what the sales pitch to create an accord between the species must now become – ‘Yes, seriously they can be trained and become your new best friend that will be loyal until the very end. Unless there is an Alpha in the area in which case YOU ARE TOTALLY FUCKED, and should find the nearest cave to hide in unless you want to watch your family being barbecued’. Worse yet, this concept is used to deploy one of the most hackneyed plot devices for upping the ante and drama in a sequel (no spoilers).

The movie eventually tries to atone for this egregious error of balance but it’s too late by then, and it’s symptomatic of a lot of the loose writing going on. The trailer shows the appearance of main character Hiccup’s long lost mother (played by Cate Blanchett with one of the weirdest pseudo Scottish accents ever) but it turns out she was swept away by a dragon (yes, she too likes to ride dragons, Cate Blanchett could also definitely fit into the exceptions category mentioned above) during an attack on the Viking village leaving her infant son and husband (chief Stoick the Vast played by Gerard Butler) to assume she was eaten. She wasn’t. Her flimsy excuse for allowing her family to think she was dead for twenty years is that the dragons became her friends and she didn’t believe the rubes in the village would change their ways. C’mon. She obviously found something she wasn’t getting at home.

The central storyline focuses on the discovery of an old long forgotten bad guy who’s building an evil dragon army, and our young hero will once again try to find a peaceful solution. Jay Baruchel returns to bring Hiccup to life but, as he speaks predominantly through his nose, he does not make a natural choice for voice acting, and he also plays him in the exact same way he does all his characters – the hopeless geek routine that will have you wanting to gouge your eyes out at points as he tries to tell people utterly crucial things that they need to know and continually lets them interrupt him – spit it out for God’s sake!

There are nice moments, and the animation is colourful, detailed and slick. All of which makes this exactly the same as most of Dreamwork’s output – skilled but with everything undermined by woeful writing. It’s not even morally robust enough to recommend for family viewing unfortunately.

Cold in July  (2014)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     109 Min        15

A film that begins in darkness and yet still becomes relentlessly more and more opaque. Michael C. Hall plays a husband that shoots dead an intruder at the witching hour in his livingroom, without really meaning to. The police tell him he has nothing to worry about, but he is rather understandably shaken up by the ordeal and things start to intensify when it is revealed that the perps father (Sam Shepard) has just been released from prison and isn’t too thrilled at learning his son has been popped off, irrespective of the circumstances.

A few of the character choices will have you asking questions, but mostly it holds up quite well – although the wife (played by Vinessa Shaw) is incredibly irritating. Hall fits bars on the windows the day after the incident and buys a new sofa since the old one has been splattered a new shade of crimson, all of which seem like perfectly reasonable things to do, and all his wife can offer in support is to give him a hard time about not consulting her about his interior decorating choices, the fist of a few out of place whines and gripes.

Adapted from the 1989 novel by Joe R. Lansdale and directed by Jim Mickle (‘Stake Land’ 2010) the film is set in the early eighties and sports a retro synthesized score, giving it a slightly unique feel for a contemporary piece, and with its fast pace and decent if not fantastic acting it should prove compelling throughout, just expect to encounter some pretty horrid stuff while you’re in there. Also with Don Johnson.

Chef  (2014)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     114 Min        15

Jon Favreau writes, directs and stars in this feel good film about a divorced chef experiencing creative restraints at work and trying to connect properly with his young son. A showdown with the biggest critic in town (played by Oliver Platt) leads him to embark upon a self employed adventure with his own food truck, where he bonds with his son (Emjay Anthony) by showing him some of the tricks of the trade as they travel from Miami to California.

Sumptuous shots of food being prepared feature heavily throughout – from the never to be underestimated classics like cheese on toast to dishes which, as far as I’m concerned, have no name, with meats and vegetables ranging from the common to the exotic, and a similar infectious passion for some of the locations shines through, especially Miami and New Orleans. It’s a convincing and enjoyable drama that, bar a couple of slightly contrived moments of confrontation, simply focuses on the story it’s trying to tell, with the acting and character interactions feeling grounded and real, and just enough moments of comedy thrown in for relish on top. With Dustin Hoffman, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara and Favreau’s chums Robert Downey Jr. (at one point, during a brief father-son montage, we can tell from the sound effects that they are watching Iron Man at the cinema) and Scarlett Johansson in support.

Whiteout  (2009)    0/100

Rating :   0/100             COMPLETE INCINERATION            101 Min        15

This is one of those rare films that has left The Red Dragon genuinely quite sad at the couple of hours of life wasted watching it. Normally, even if a film is bad, I may not necessarily regret having given it a go, but here there really is nothing good to say about the film whatsoever, it’s just a solid block of endless shit. Kate Beckinsale stars as the law official at an Antarctic outpost who must solve the mystery of bodies turning up in the snow, despite being so poor with her firearm she might as well be wielding a banana, all occurring a couple of days before she was due to leave for civilisation again. It’s primary sin is that the story is catatonically dull, but it soon degenerates from boring to gratingly daft, with Beckinsale at all times looking more like she’s just left a beauty parlour than been braving extreme arctic conditions. Whiteout itself deserves to be blotted out of history.

3 Days to Kill  (2014)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     117 Min        12A

Kevin Costner stars as a CIA operative diagnosed with terminal brain and lung cancer and given three months to live, inducing him to visit his estranged wife and daughter in Paris to make amends before he kicks the bucket – enter sex on legs Amber Heard to throw a spanner in the works and offer him an experimental life extending drug, if he does just one more job for the agency that is …

It’s a lot more light hearted and fun than it sounds with numerous comedic moments, decent action and several beautifully iconic shots of Paris. In fact, it is exactly what you might expect from mixing writer Luc Besson (‘Leon’ 94, ‘The Fifth Element’ 97) with director McG (‘Charlie’s Angels’ 2000, ‘Terminator Salvation’ 09). It doesn’t start off too well, with the intro intelligence brief telling us about primary terrifying villains ‘The Wolf’, and, ‘The Albino’, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, nor does it take long to settle either.

Costner brings his wealth of experience to ground the central role and he plays it in the same subtle and subdued way that he did in ‘Jack Ryan : Shadow Recruit‘, again playing a CIA operative there, and the support from the likes of Hailee Steinfeld as his daughter is equally good.  A return to form for many involved and a suitably likeable and entertaining weekend action film.

Jersey Boys  (2014)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     134 Min        15

This is one film that’s tough to go the distance with, slicing fifty minutes out of the beginning would certainly improve matters as the first half is lacking in almost every department. It’s Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort (one of his older films makes a brief appearance, but he remains behind the camera this time around) and it’s based on the award winning musical of the same name which documents the rise to fame of sixties sensations Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, with John Lloyd Young as Valli and Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda playing band members Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi respectively.

It’s really the same old story that seems to chart the progress of nearly every band and musician immortalised on film – humble beginnings, success, excess and then infighting that brings an end to the group. Initially, the cinematography and funeral march pace to the film cause huge problems – everyone and everything has a horrid eerie paleness that makes the people look more like spectres than live actors, but the singing and acting doesn’t really fit the bill either, with Valli at times about as vocally emotive as a dying squid. Eventually, as time passes in terms of years, more colour comes back in, or rather less is taken out, and when it comes to the larger numbers, everything is a little more polished and fluid. It suggests that a famous scene from Billy Wilder’s ‘Ace in the Hole’ (51) is responsible for one of their biggest hits ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ (and it’s a really terrific film if you haven’t seen it, although if it’s the scene I think it is the clip here cuts off before the main event as it were). Unfortunately, despite picking up significantly, it never really proves terribly interesting, although it is at least partially successful in extolling the virtues of looking out for family and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

The Fault in Our Stars  (2014)    32/100

Rating :   32/100                                                                     126 Min        12A

Well, the stars are indeed faulty in this terminal cancer themed drama, one hot on the heels of 2012’s ‘Now is Good’ and thematically almost identical, yet nowhere near as well done (this is based on the novel of the same name by John Green which was published in 2012, ‘Now is Good’ is based on the book ‘Before I Die’ by Jenny Downham which was published in 2007). I think there were no less than one million teenage girls bawling their eyes out through the final, massively drawn out over at least forty minutes, emotional act – all delivered in a maudlin and cheesy way on a pathos level with the Twilight saga. I don’t think I’ve witnessed such an event since ‘Titanic’ hit the big screen back in 1997, and The Red Dragon couldn’t quite suppress a smile of amusement at the spectacle.

It is painfully obvious how the entire film is going to play out from the opening five or ten minutes (and indeed the trailer), where we see terminal lung cancer patient Hazel (played very well by Shailene Woodley) enter a cancer support group for the first time where she will meet romantic interest and cancer survivor Gus (not played very well by Ansel Elgort), who’s ‘thing’ is that he likes to hang around with a fag loosely hanging out of his mouth. Hazel pulls him up on it, stating it’s a pretty disgusting thing to do given the scenario – then he explains he never lights it and it’s actually a metaphor, which was apparently the right thing to say to get her pants wet. YOU ARE STILL ADVERTISING CIGARETTES YOU INGRATE FUD, especially when we watch the fool showing it off in at least seven or eight scenes. Ridiculous.

Later on, during a life affirming trip to the Netherlands, things are not going so well for Hazel’s spirits courtesy of Willem Dafoe and so to cheer her up his rather comely secretary (Lotte Verbeek) decides to take them out for a while, to Anne Frank House. Because that’s the most uplifting place to visit in Amsterdam. Inside, they discover many, many flights of stairs (who knew? It’s not like she famously hid in the attic or anything. They also describe the bookcase there as being the actual one used to hide the entrance to the Achterhuis. It isn’t), presenting a fairly major problem for someone with lung cancer and a machine that she has to carry around with her everywhere, we then watch as she practically passes out and dies there and then on each flight, and yet those around her are fine to keep going to the very top. Once there, the lovers kiss and all the random tourists, who were not actually aware of the Edmund Hillary style effort to reach the summit, all give them a round of applause. I kind of doubt kissing is what tourists normally find themselves applauding when they visit Amsterdam.

Even her doctors, who raise objections to her trip, are hopelessly caricatured – shouting at her she’s JUST TOO SICK, rather than explaining anything to do with the physics of the flight and her condition. The character of Hazel is one of the few things that actually work in the film, mainly due to Woodley herself – her cohort not only suffers from the aforementioned character issues but Elgort also played Shailene Woodley’s brother in ‘Divergent‘ released only a couple of months ago, and certainly I don’t remember seeing him in anything before or after, thus creating a sense of THIS. FEELS. VERY. WRONG. Which further undermines the romance.

Ultimately, it’s a film designed to sell the double-hitter of idealised romance with its drawn out obliteration, combined with lots and lots of sad modern songs and music, to its intended audience, again conceptually similar to Titanic. Watch ‘Now is Good’ instead, it’s miles better.

Belle  (2013)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     104 Min        12A

The trailer for this made it look a lot more melodramatic than it is, a shame as it’s a solid film with a strong political context and an actual historical trial as framework for its main protagonists to flit around. Although the court case was real and seminal for the law of England and Wales, taking place in 1783, very little is known about the main characters other than their existence and their familial setup, so director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay had a lot of leeway with where to take them and the two pictured above are most famous for a painting of the pair of them, which can currently be seen in Scone Palace in Scotland.

Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the heroine of the piece, and as the daughter of a rich white man and a black slave she is raised by the family of the former whilst he goes off around the world never to return. She is accepted into the family, the rest of whom are played by Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton and Sarah Gadon, but she must always know ‘her place’ until her and her sister reach the age of coming out, when they must quickly be married before consumption gets them or they decide to go frolicking in the rain and then die, often the fate of females in British period dramas.

The pace is perfect, the costumes are rich and the locations suitably grandiose with burgeoning bosoms in abundance – did ladies really wear corsets to breakfast? Doesn’t seem particularly conducive to digestion, nor so for their male companions who must have found it tricky to concentrate on their food, especially with the visible threat of explosion and the potential loss of one’s eye. The trial of the deplorable Zong massacre, which forms the backbone of the story, concerned the drowning of all the slaves onboard the Zong and her captain’s subsequent insurance claim against loss of earnings through unavoidable jettison of cargo – his claim being low water supplies only sufficient for his crew necessitated the killings. This presented the law with a rather thorny moral and monetary point to consider, and the head of Belle’s household, Lord Mansfield, is the man who must make the ruling.

In terms of film, it supplies a nice backstory to that of the fight for the abolition of slavery in the UK detailed in ‘Amazing Grace’ (06), but it is dangerous to think of it as a relic of the past as it still rears its ugly head in modern day Britain with recent rulings against the government in the high court in England to try to curb it. This refers to the forcing of those out of work for a certain amount of time (it was originally to be one year, but reports abound of less time than this) into work, which in principle I’m not sure many people would argue against, but work that they weren’t paid for, instead they just continued to receive state benefits working out at two pound something an hour (the legal minimum wage for anyone over 21 is more than six pounds an hour) – often for large companies like Tesco (who did at least eventually pull out of the scheme on moral grounds) immediately demonstrating that they could have in fact offered the individual a paid position, but would rather take on slave labour. If people didn’t comply, they were left with nothing and, as far as the government were concerned, to die.

Orchestrating this were middle men, private agencies, modern day slavers who did the same thing in Australia before they came here, where I believe their schemes were eventually brought to an end. Meanwhile here the high court ruled it wasn’t slavery but that it had been delivered in an illegal manner, which was a cop-out for the state really, but it did mean those affected could claim money back for any welfare suspension borne from refusing to comply with the system – and it was an individual who stuck her neck out to fight the Conservative government and achieved partial victory (The Red Dragon himself broached this issue with no less than two parliamentarians, with what can only be described as very limited results, proving the old adage ‘If you want something done, you have to do it yourself’).

Belle then is both a fascinating footnote in this story of human bondage and a well balanced drama with good performances from old hands and new faces alike, and it would be a wonderful idea indeed if the powers that be took heed of the more emotive and full of gusto speeches it delivers, since they can’t even muster a whimper in opposition to evil today unless they consider it to be within the purview of their own interests.

Devil’s Knot  (2013)    64/100

Rating :   64/100                                                                     114 Min        15

What is a thoroughly compelling story from start to finish is nevertheless constantly held back by ludicrous casting choices and major flaws from screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, and critically from director Atom Egoyan, preventing this from becoming surefire awards worthy material. It’s adapted from the 2002 novel of the same name by Mara Leveritt, which detailed the harrowing true story of the disappearance of three young boys in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, in the early nineties, and the ensuing criminal trial of three teenage suspects thought to have been involved.

The film on the one hand plays with the potential innocence of the accused, but on the other we are shown right at the beginning an event taking place just after the kids go missing involving a man going into a restaurant and arousing suspicion, then legging it before the police arrive. It couldn’t be more heavily suggested he is involved, and yet no further mention of it is made until much farther into the movie, undermining everything in-between because we know of its existence and continually ask ourselves ‘why is nobody talking about this pretty major smoking gun event that the police are aware of?’. There are other major developments in terms of the evidence that feel like they aren’t being dramatised to the degree they should be, and in fact they get little more than some sighs of surprise in the courtroom, and a number of casting choices which immediately point suspicion due to their respective back catalogue of roles all continues to undermine the unfolding plot. Indeed, there are basic forensic questions which are never touched upon in the film and yet they absolutely must have been in the actual trial.

Even some of the characters seem dubious – Colin Firth plays an investigator who offers his services pro bono out of a sense of safeguarding justice, with the accused potentially facing the death penalty, and we see him constantly eyeing Reese Witherspoon (who plays the mother of one of the missing children). We assume that there is some connection there which will come to light later on but it turns out there isn’t one, he simply feels a lot of empathy for her. That kind of sums up the whole film – all of the right ingredients just orchestrated together poorly.

The performances themselves are all fine, though possibly Firth is stretching the most here, with an American accent which is good but quietens further his already quite reserved voice. Once upon a time a law student friend of mine took me to the public gallery in court for an afternoon’s excursion, which I have to fully recommend to anyone who has never been as it is utterly fascinating to watch the process of real trials unfolding, but I’ll never forget one poor woman who was taken into the court in cuffs and within a matter of minutes the judge had ascertained that the police hadn’t in reality secured a single piece of evidence against her and, understandably unhappy about this, she demanded that the accused be immediately released after having been in custody for a period of some weeks awaiting the hearing. I simply couldn’t believe that in this day and age something like that could happen, and along these lines films like this are very important because they highlight not only the effects of serious crime, but also the fallibility of officers who may care more about getting ‘a result’ than unearthing the truth of the matter at hand (if you ever have any dealings with the police ALWAYS make sure you exercise your right to have a lawyer present).

A courtroom drama that could, and should, have been much more intricate still remains compulsive viewing, and a story that will stay with you for a very long time.