A Most Wanted Man  (2014)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     122 Min        15

Spy thriller set in modern day Hamburg and based on John le Carré’s 2008 novel of the same name. Directed by Anton Corbijn, his clinical and perhaps slightly austere artistic approach suits the genre well, as we see both the grubbiest and some of the more upmarket areas of the city feature and we are treated to the same slow, thoughtful and considered build up that was evident in ‘The American’ (10), and indeed seems to reflect the director himself if you’ve ever seen the documentary ‘Anton Corbijn Inside Out’ (12) about his life (he is arguably more famous for the music photography of bands like U2 and Depeche Mode than his movies as of yet).

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, who leads a team of counter terrorist operatives in the city that must evaluate the potential threat of a Russian rebel, one who may have been radicalised through torture and who is seeking to withdraw a huge amount of money bequeathed to him by his father – presenting both funds and human collateral that could potentially be used by all sides in the local and global games of espionage and extremism at play. Robin Wright plays the CIA agent sent to make ‘suggestions’, Willem Dafoe plays the head of the bank holding the funds, and Rachel McAdams plays the idealistic lawyer with good intentions and tight jeans, which again present a dual opportunity for state appropriation.

It’s good, it holds attention throughout and the performances deliver – notably from leading man Hoffman as always, but it never reaches the level of intrigue or intensity of the likes of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ (from 2011 and based on le Carré’s 1974 novel), although it has almost definitely been stylistically inspired by that film and it is ultimately a deserving addition to the canon. Look out for the scene with Hoffman and one of his informers on a boat talking about matters of deadly consequence whilst a barrage of seagulls swarm around them squawking noisily in the background. They determinedly carry on and Corbijn keeps the take – it’s a nice touch and shows his dedication to try and create something that feels gritty, but authentically so.

The Happy Lands  (2012)    85/100

Rating :   85/100                       Treasure Chest                     108 Min        12

A Scottish film from Edinburgh based production company Theatre Workshop, focusing on the 1926 Miner’s strike in Fife (the East coast region between the rivers Tay and Forth), which was in itself part of a larger worker’s strike throughout the United Kingdom playing a hugely important role in the Labour and trade union movement in the 20th century. The film manages that most difficult of things for any historical drama – balancing the importance of the event from a socio-political standpoint, and also relating the events to us in a believable and human way, evoking genuine emotional empathy for the characters onscreen.

The cast seems to be comprised of a mix of experienced and new actors alike, but they all unanimously do a great job – Jokie Wallace in particular as both the local magistrate and the principal organiser of the strike. In fact, for anyone wanting to gain more exposure to the Scots language, this is a very good film to practice with as a lot of the vocabulary that features is in common usage throughout the land and here both the pronunciation and the sound quality are excellent (the film is subtitled in English, much like ‘Trainspotting’ 96 was for American audiences).

Initially, and for the close of the film, we are shown interviews with the cast, talking about the impact the events told had on their forefathers and how they, by extension, have had an effect on their own lives and their shared heritage. The dramatisation that forms the movie’s heart focuses on the friendly local community that brings the strike to the fore, a community where nobody felt the need to lock their doors and who immortalised the slogan ‘Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day’ after mine bosses attempted to squeeze them for all they were worth.

It’s a story that is incredibly relevant for today, with the right wing eroding worker’s rights up and down the country once again, all in the name of their own profit with the ‘economic crisis’ the perfect excuse for a carte blanche attack on civil rights and liberties, and the continual extension of privatisation allowing the few to abuse the many who enjoy worse public services charged at ever higher rates, although this is something that Scotland has the opportunity to end in tomorrow’s independence referendum … Films like this are wonderfully educational with regards to the long fight people had for the rights that we now take for granted, the same principals that the Tory party in Britain, and the right wing further afield, are doing their best to obliterate. I don’t really understand why this didn’t get a much bigger general release when it came out (political reasons?) but for very good companion pieces to this see Ken Loach’s wonderful ‘The Spirit of ‘45’ (13) and the recent Polish film ‘Walesa – Man of Hope’, and to be honest there were moments in this that brought me uncomfortably close to actually shedding a tear.

A Dangerous Game  (2014)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     102 Min        PG

A documentary from filmmaker Anthony Baxter and essentially a follow up to his hit 2011 film ‘You’ve Been Trumped’, which showed the effects of Donald Trump’s exclusive multi-million dollar golf course built in the rural landscape of the Northeast of Scotland, Balmedie in Aberdeenshire to be precise, and here we continue that story (he finally even manages to bag an interview with Trump himself after the shock waves the first film caused) whilst it is expanded to look at the environmental and economic impact of building courses in other areas of the world, in particular the historic seaside town of Dubrovnik where one is planned for the summit of the hill overlooking the town and would require syphoning off huge amounts of the town’s water supply, and indeed the issue sparks the first local referendum in Croatia’s modern day history.

Golf is a hideous game for the rich as far as The Red Dragon is concerned, in theory I have nothing against it and the activity should be a nice enterprise for those who would like some moderate exercise outdoors, in practise it is dominated by snobs and we have, in Scotland, golf courses all over the place – Edinburgh alone seems to have about five or six of them, all areas that could be public parks for general use. When I was young I was told I wouldn’t be allowed onto my local course as, despite turning up with my friends and having saved enough money to play, I apparently did not own enough clubs. I had a driver, a putter and maybe four or five irons – basically they were saying I was too poor to play as, after all, what would it look like if they let local kids that couldn’t afford a full golf set onto their greens? I mean, they can’t be seen to be encouraging young commoners to play, right? We might even beat them, imagine! We got our own back by sneaking onto the course at night for free anyway.

In short, fuck golf.

The game has also recently become one of the new sports added to the Olympic Games, and it beat squash to claim the place, which is just about the most ridiculous thing ever and of course has everything to do with the money that the ‘sport’ will bring to the games. Sad to say golf was invented in Scotland, although it is amazing the number of outdoor activities Britain in general has given the world given our somewhat inclement weather.

The documentary invites poignant discussion on the sheer amount of precious water that is used and wasted to keep the greens green in places where grass does not naturally grow – like the desert in Nevada where we see an exclusive retreat going out of business, or in the Middle East where a Tiger Woods designed course has had to be put on hold indefinitely because IT’S STUPID. We hear an interview with Alec Baldwin who has fought against a new golf enterprise in his native Long Island amid legitimate fears that the chemicals used on the grass can and will sink into the water supply for the area, and back in Scotland we see the effects on the local people of the building of Trump’s monstrosity, as one elderly woman in her nineties is left permanently without any running water and walls of earth are deliberately erected around other homes – and all of these people are constituents of Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond, who appears to have fobbed off the beleaguered locals and done absolutely nothing to help them. Not content with this destruction, we learn Trump plans a second course beside the first and has the audacity to complain, legally, about the building of an offshore wind farm as he reckons it might ruin the view of the pigs he’ll have over for dinner. Unbelievable.

The Dubrovnik course is another very interesting major part of the film. However, criticism has to be levelled at the documentary as to how balanced a view we are receiving. Here, for example, an important vote is ruled invalid by the mayor of the town as, according to him, not enough people turned up to vote. Baxter tells us that the vote was carried by eighty percent of the ballot voting against the new construction, but the film never actually tells us what percentage of the town’s populace did come out to vote, so we are given the distinct impression that the mayor is corrupt but if ultimately only, say, ten percent of the township bothered to vote then the mayor would be quite right in considering it insubstantial constitutionally. It’s a little subtle with the momentum of the film strongly in opposition to all of the golf courses featured, but it’s important to consider how balanced a story we are being told – we also briefly hear from some people in Scotland who are happy that Trump has arrived to build an extension of his empire, but we don’t really hear why they think that, we are not given access to their insights on the matter. Similarly in the interview with the man himself, Trump repeatedly says the director will probably edit whatever he says in his favour, and no doubt in response to this the interview plays out in a fairly uninterrupted manner – but the same cannot be said of all the other interviews in the film.

Overall though, I think this is a well balanced, passionate and eye opening documentary, and the few areas of uncertainty are ironed over by numerous clips of real reactions to Baxter’s probing questions, as well as copious interviews with the people most affected by the issues at hand and a mind toward the politics of each situation as well, all edited and paced with enough skill that the audience’s appetites are kept suitably wetted throughout, for a subject that initially sounds a little too dry to be especially engaging.

The Hundred-Foot Journey  (2014)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                     122 Min        PG

A feel good film to watch before you go for dinner rather than after, featuring as it does many shots of sumptuous food being prepared – both French and Indian cuisine mmmm (if you are ever in Edinburgh, be sure to visit the Mosque Kitchen for awesome and affordable curries). Based on Richard C. Morais’ 2010 fictional novel of the same name, this tells the story of one Indian family who leave their home after the personal tragedy of the loss of their mother in a fire, and seek to put down roots somewhere else, eventually settling in the picturesque French village of Lumière (French for ‘light’ but a fictional town, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the south of France was used as the primary shooting location). The only trouble is, they set up their Indian restaurant directly opposite the town’s only other one – a very well to do establishment that already has one Michelin star (France’s highest critical honour) and its owner Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) is absolutely determined to achieve another. War ensues. Mirren is wonderful as always, as is her adversary, Om Puri, playing the head of the Indian family, as both sides are forced to reconcile their differences and appreciate what each has to offer, even including the possibility of romance. Also with Charlotte Le Bon and Manish Dayal, pictured above, produced by Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake and directed by the legendary Lasse Hallström (‘My Life as a Dog’ 85, ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ 93, ‘The Cider House Rules’ 99, ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ 11) it’s an endearing film charmingly infused with picturesque surroundings and an abundance of food to salivate over whilst you enjoy them.

The Guest  (2014)    51/100

Rating :   51/100                                                                       99 Min        15

From director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, the creative team behind ‘You’re Next‘, this opens really strongly as ‘David’ (Dan Stevens) appears at the Peterson residence telling them that, as his buddy in the army, he promised their son who died in the Middle East that he would come to his home to deliver his dying words. There appears to be an initial joke in the direction of ‘The Lucky One’ (12) which lets us know there will be a strong undertow of comedy running throughout and sure enough he is invited to stay for a while as a welcome guest, whilst the detractors of the family in the town soon find themselves on the receiving end of a rather pissed off army vet, with one especially great scene involving the local bullies at a bar as David orders the girls in their company shots, and Cosmopolitans for their male counterparts ….

The pace, style and music of this section are all great, and with the right audience it’ll be a lot of fun (I was the only one laughing at various points, infidels) but as soon as the plot brings into focus the daughter of the family (Maika Monroe) things start to unravel and never really stop, largely because she attempts to question the motives and sincerity of the mysterious stranger, taking the story on a different path where it is much more difficult to keep the black humour working as well, and ultimately it falls almost completely flat. The acting is good from all (Leland Orser appears as the father of the Peterson family and does a reasonably good job of persuading us he isn’t the guy who fucked the prostitute in Seven (95) with a balded dildo, but HE WILL ALWAYS BE THE GUY WHO FUCKED THE PROSTITUTE IN SEVEN WITH THE BLADED DILDO) but it’s a major disappointment given the film’s early promise, although Wingard and Barrett are definitely a pair of collaborative filmmakers worth keeping an eye on for future projects.

Sex Tape  (2014)    30/100

Rating :   30/100                                                                       94 Min        15

An oddly necrotic and narcissistic film, devoid of almost any humour or value from start to finish. Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz play married couple Jay and Annie, who are reasonably happy, successful and content with their two young children, only thing is they haven’t really been having sex for a while due to their busy lifestyles and, in an effort to spice things up, they decide to make a sex tape together. They are supposed to typify the average young family going through the sort of mundane problems common to all and in this sense the comedy will arise by throwing them into out of the ordinary circumstance – beginning with their epic porno being uploaded to the cloud and then synced with several ipads they gave out to friends and co-workers as presents.

It all gets ‘blown’ away, however, when they go to the home of Annie’s potential future boss (she is trying to sell her ‘mummy’ blog to him) and she sends Jay to look for the ipad while she distracts him, and to do this she decides quite casually to snort coke with him. Indeed, she really enjoys it, seems quite excited by it, and if Jay hadn’t made a reappearance she probably would have began fucking her boss to be pretty soon as well – it’s essentially an advert for doing blow. Jay pulls her up on it briefly when he finds out, but quickly forgets about it. It’s the continuation of the promotion of drug abuse through American comedies that has been going on for some time – for example, if we look at light hearted romcoms like ‘Going the Distance’ (10), where the two romantic leads start socialising to get to know one another and then they start taking hits from a bong together (I think it was a bong, it was a while ago) as if this is a fundamentally socially acceptable thing for all young people to be doing, and similarly with ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ (07) where Ben Stiller marries the wrong person and then he meets the girl of his dreams, Michelle Monaghan, whilst on his honeymoon and they sit smoking marijuana on the beach together – the assumption being that the other girl is square and the two leads are hip and relaxed. Incidentally, it’s a little known fact that marijuana can kill, as was the case for two young men in Germany recently after it stopped their hearts, and indeed in the cases of many such deaths the drug is rarely even tested for.

What we are looking at here is agenda, nothing to do with characterisation, plot, comedy or social commentary but filmmakers who basically want to show off that they think drugs are cool, some of the rich elite in Hollywood that not only have a rather skewed insight into the drug scene compared to the rest of the world but also seem to gloss over the famous and numerous deaths in their family from overdoses, Philip Seymour Hoffman for a recent example. Jason Segel in this film does not look particularly healthy – you can see it in the picture above. He looks decidedly gaunt in the face compared to certainly the last thing I seen him in, which I think was ‘The Five Year Engagement‘, now, for this role he has had to get into pretty good shape for all the nudity scenes and perhaps the stress of this combined with maybe a new diet, or maybe even just stress in general, could account for this – or maybe he is doing cocaine. Given he is one of the screenwriters for this, it would certainly fit the bill. If this was to be the case, and, obviously, I have no idea if it is or not, then he would simultaneously be glamorising drug abuse and also showing the side effects – and that is of course the problem with the casual nature of what they’ve done, they have made it look fun without any thought to the physical harm and the psychological devastation it can wreak on people’s lives and the lives of the ones that love them, and really the market shouldn’t tolerate it.

In contrast, Diaz looks absolutely great and we see a lot of her naked body, and by that same token it’s impossible not to think she only agreed to do the film in order to essentially show off. Annie also continually has a go at Jay for forgetting to delete their recording since, because she is a ‘woman’, she is incapable of doing it herself or for that matter checking that he had deleted it if she was so concerned about it. The website YouPorn features in the film with Jack Black playing its founder, and so again we have to look behind the scenes and realise YouPorn must have a cushy business arrangement with the producers, and by and large the entire film just drags on feeling ever more lame and corrupted, I think I might have laughed once or twice but the jokes were so uninspired that I can’t for the life of me remember when.

Before I Go to Sleep  (2014)    60/100

Rating :   60/100                                                                       92 Min        15

This is the second feature film directed by Rowan Joffé, son of legendary director Roland Joffé (‘The Killing Fields’ 84, ‘The Mission’ 86), after his 2011 adaptation of ‘Brighton Rock’ and once again he has returned to the realm of literary fiction for inspiration, ‘Before I Go to Sleep’ being S. J. Watson’s 2011 debut novel of the same name, written in his spare time whilst working as an audiologist for the NHS. The story centers on Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman), who suffered serious head trauma many years ago and has since been left with the living nightmare of anterograde amnesia, which means her mind can’t record new memories and the events of any given day are effectively wiped whilst she sleeps, very much the opposite of the more traditionally portrayed retrograde amnesia that erases all memories recorded before trauma. She lives with her husband Ben (Colin Firth – whom Kidman requested to work with again after a successful collaboration on ‘The Railway Man‘) and we enter the story as a mysterious new man, Dr Nash (Mark Strong), who claims to be trying to help her, requests that she keep a video diary that she can watch and add to each day, only she should keep this secret from Ben …

It’s a mystery thriller that leads us to question what the circumstances surrounding the primer for her illness could have been (no one around her seems to know), and it’s well acted by the experienced cast, but it is immediately limited by the lack of depth for the setup and somewhat by the lack of experience of the director, who never really manages to create any sense of real tension or excitement. It’s an interesting concept but one also a little forced, and there are only so many different permutations to consider. Managing nonetheless to at least tread water throughout, there must surely be more to the novel than has been transferred to the big screen here as the book became an international bestseller and you would never guess it from this adaptation. We are also treated to a candid view of Kidman’s derrière in the opening scene as she looks at the bathroom wall covered with pictures of her life put up as memory aids, and one can’t help but wonder why this particular angle was selected, or indeed why it was necessary to have her naked at all – it kind of feels like a desperate lack of anything original to grasp the audience with, and the film never quite escapes from a continued similar sense of weak structural integrity.

If I Stay  (2014)    45/100

Rating :   45/100                                                                     107 Min        12A

Another teen WEEPY, hot on the heels of its sister film this summer ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘, and it is equally without any worth, featuring as it does universally poor acting and trashy writing. Based on the 2009 novel by Gayle Forman, we watch as Chloë Grace Moretz’s young naïve and virginal Mia falls in love with the older about to graduate from high school front man in local band Adam (Jamie Blackley), all before a brutal car accident sees her spend the rest of the film on a bed in hospital as we watch her ghost debate whether or not to completely kick the bucket or to re-enter her material form, using flashbacks to fill in the interim romantic details and help her decide. Unfortunately, the medical staff at the hospital seem to be particularly inept as the other members of her family appear to be in a better state when they first arrive compared to several hours later in their care and she is continually given less incentive to return to the mortal coil, not to mention the fact they threaten her boyfriend with imprisonment for no good reason when he tries to visit her.

Conceptually, it is very, very typical of the dire literature aimed at young teenage girls and it suffers from one of its biggest pitfalls – setting up this ‘idyllic’ boyfriend without any realistic consideration as to his character, leading scores of young girls down the garden path when the man in question is never in a million years going to be faithful to her. In fact it’s painfully obvious he doesn’t care that much about Mia here, as she continually waits around twiddling her thumbs whilst he completes his latest gig, and then he drops her off at home before going out on the lash with his mates – this person has multiple, equally naïve girls dotted around the place that he rotates, meanwhile showing off to his band members with regard to the latest hottie he has duped, and yet he will be just as incapable of scoring with a girl his own age who is a little wiser. In the second half it is more convincing that he actually cares about her, but then she is after all literally at death’s door (the hospital exit it seems).

The music is the completely banal T-Mobile-advert-esque twonk for the first half, and then the expected repetitive couple of piano notes for the second, with a few songs sung by Adam although they all sound pretty much the same and are a far cry from doing the film any favours. Mia is trying to get into an exclusive music school to specialise in playing the Cello, a school which is on the other side of the county wouldn’t you know it, and some of the Cello playing is actually the only decent thing in the film. A soft glossy sheen has been applied to most of the images throughout the movie which, together with the constant toing and froing that the timeframe is held hostage to, continues to grate, and it’s chock full of silly moments – like the two splitting up because Mia says she can’t guarantee she’ll be able to spend the following New Year with Adam, despite the fact she doesn’t even know if she’s even going to get into this school (the letter is opened whilst she’s comatose and they read it out to her – will she have made it, or will it be another reason to kiss her teenage life goodbye?) and it is pretty normal for all students everywhere to be going home for the festive season, and indeed there is nothing really stopping Adam from visiting her at uni either. The predictability level of this will probably make you feel sick, and if you have ever lost anyone under tragic circumstances, twaddle like this will probably just leave you feeling slightly angry too.

As Above, So Below  (2014)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                       93 Min        15

A handheld genre horror film with marvellous use of location shots and with a real sustained feeling of claustrophobia throughout. Every now and then you come across a film that details something in the real world and you think to yourself, ‘why have I never heard about this before?’, and for The Red Dragon this was precisely the case here as a group of youngsters head down into the Parisian Catacombs, which apparently spread for many, many miles under the City of Lights and exist as the final resting place for millions of her residents, adapted from old stone mines in the late eighteenth century as a solution to the lack of graveyard space in the city, and now one of the fourteen City of Paris Museums that constitute the Paris Musées.

The story follows the exploits of Scarlett (Perditta Weeks), the beautiful English rose (although Weeks is actually Welsh I should point out) whose father was obsessed with finding the Philosopher’s Stone – an obsession that may have driven him to suicide. She follows in his footsteps quite convinced that legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel not only had possession of the stone, but also left clues for others to follow and find its location. Legend has it the stone can turn lead into gold but also heal the most grievous of wounds (it can, I posses it), and of course both it and Flamel were immortalised in the public imagination by J.K.Rowling in the first of her Harry Potter novels. What ensues has a strong treasure hunt feel to it, and in fact the film is more successful in this regard than, for example, either of the Tomb Raider films.

Descending underground leads to some very, very uncomfortable scenes and unusually for this type of film none of the characters are particularly annoying, where it does falter is in the opening segment which is notably weak, and later on when more supernatural elements come into play – all of which were done reasonably well, it’s just that they are also reasonably traditional and you kind of wish for that final spark that would really make this into something special. As it is, this is a uniquely polished production with moments of real intensity and at the same time one that isn’t simply content with trying to torment its audience like most of its contemporaries do, instead it plays out like a cross between ‘The Goonies’ (85) and ‘The Descent’ (05), producing a final concoction that is just as memorable in its own right.

Million Dollar Arm  (2014)    55/100

Rating :   55/100                                                                     124 Min        15

This had a lot of potential – the true story of baseball coaches and sales reps starting a reality TV talent competition, the eponymous ‘The Million Dollar Arm’ tryouts, in India in 2008 to find two cricket players that could potentially make the transition into playing for a major league baseball team in the States. It was the brainchild of main character J. B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) largely borne out of struggling finances as he fails to sign anyone of any significance to his sports management firm. Unfortunately, it feels too much like a Sunday afternoon live action Disney film with a far, far too traditional character arc for Bernstein (actually, this is a live action Disney film, maybe it’s about time they updated their formula … ), he will put money first but then realise what’s in front of him with regard to his friends, the hot girl next door, and the youngsters he takes from India back to America, before putting money first again and giving everyone else a hard time, promptly getting slapped around by the aforementioned, once more forced to acknowledge what really matters at heart etc. etc.

Nothing that happens as this see-saw continues is particularly interesting, and attempted comedic moments with the likes of grumpy baseball scout Alan Arkin never really work as intended. It’s yet another hopelessly contrived drama based on a real story that, if given the few base facts required, you could probably storyboard yourself in ten minutes and do a better job, and it likely would have worked much better as a documentary given the wealth of primary footage they must have had at their disposal. The acting is fine but essentially fits the entirely humdrum nature of the whole shebang, with support from Lake Bell, Bill Paxton, Aasif Mandvi and Madhur Mittal (‘Slumdog Millionaire’ 08) and Suraj Sharma (‘Life of Pi’) as the two potential superstars Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh respectively (neither of whom, ironically, like cricket). We don’t even get to see the pair actually play any games of baseball, it just concentrates on them learning to throw the ball the whole time and whether or not they can do it fast and accurately enough – probably not particularly exciting to do, never mind sit and watch.