The Giver  (2014)    58/100

Rating :   58/100                                                                       97 Min        12A

Bland, and almost self-defeatingly too simple, this may yet satisfy some of its intended early teenage audience, although it certainly pales in comparison with the much more adroit adaptations of other teen franchises like ‘The Hunger Games’ (2012) and ‘Divergent‘. Based on Lois Lowry’s hugely successful 1993 novel of the same name, which spawned three sequels and found its way onto the recommended reading list of many primary schools, expectations were understandably high for this relatively late translation to the big screen, especially considering the casting of acting goliaths Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges – although Streep’s role is almost identical to Kate Winslet’s in Divergent, in that she plays the female authoritarian at the helm of a dystopian future human civilisation and her actual screen time is very limited.

Bridges plays the ageing and indeed retiring ‘Giver’ in this society, whose role had been to experience human emotion, vitality and creativity in all its wonder and devilry in a community where the other humans do not experience any of what we would take for granted – rather, theirs is the loss of individual identity for the gain of being part of a cohesive unit. Also operating as a retainer of the memories of mankind, the Giver’s role is partly to just exist in case the others should require access to the wisdom he is a custodian of and so he has a unique role to play in their world, yet it is one also fraught with peril and secrecy and the time has come for the passing of the torch onto a younger candidate – Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who must come to deal with the socially isolating nature of the work chosen for him by the state, and also contrast what he learns with the neutered bliss that everyone else seems to think they are living in – then there’s the mystery of what happened to the previous hopeful for the job, and what could lie beyond the edges of their known world … (they live in isolation in the clouds, much like on the tepui of southern Venezuela)

Visually, seasoned director Phillip Noyce (‘The Quiet American’ 02, ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’ 02, ‘Salt’ 10) has decided to show us the world as Jonas initially sees it, so a huge early section of the film is in black and white before Jonas experiences colour for the first time, and although there is a logic to the decision it isn’t great for the audience and will doubtless leave those unfamiliar with the plot thinking perhaps something has gone wrong with the screen. The story has so much potential scope and yet what the film delivers is entirely humdrum – the not in the least bit surprising conclusion trundles towards us with a number of ropey moments, chief amongst them what a baby is subjected to at one point and unreasonably survives, and it seems fair to say that the novel offers more than this does – when we see Taylor Swift appear as one of the secondary characters the priority for financial success over artistry seems clear. At times an easy distraction, but it certainly should have been something more than that.

Wish I Was Here  (2014)    0/100

Rating :   0/100             COMPLETE INCINERATION            106 Min        15

The cloying title matches the substance of this entirely egocentric vanity project from ex Scrubs actor and smug twat Zach Braff, for whom this is his second time directing a feature film after 2004’s ‘Garden State’ although Braff is probably more famous for beating up a twelve year old kid the following year after his mates set him up for Ashton Kutcher’s ‘Punk’d’ and he didn’t exactly take it in the right spirit. Co-writing this with his brother and casting himself in the leading role he plays, wouldn’t you know it, one of two brothers – a struggling actor full of questions as to the meaning of his life as his father (Mandy Patinkin) is diagnosed with terminal illness and his wife (Kate Hudson) operates as the primary bread winner. We read from this then a large degree of autobiography, and when we couple that with the fact Braff funded the film via Kickstarter it’s difficult not to see this as someone asking the public to pay for him to make a film about how hard his life is, and it is equally difficult to sympathise with actor (Scrubs wasn’t exactly a minor success) or character as in the grand scheme of things the family portrayed are far from living on the bread line.

Braff has no children in real life, and this would explain the quite hopeless father figure he presents onscreen – which is partly a failed attempt to generate comedy, but allowing his young son to sleep with a charged power tool under his pillow and being unable to resist snide dope references in front of the kids make it all but impossible to see anything other than the immaturity of the filmmaker at the fore rather than any pretence at drama or storytelling. A fudge to drive events sees one of Hudon’s work colleagues make a few creepy comments to her, personifying his male member, but when she tells her husband later she describes it in such a way that gives the concrete impression he whipped it out and pestered her with it – leading to consequences which effectively destroy the rest of this guy’s life, and the audience are supposed to think this is great and justified. Josh Gad plays the brother and both he and Hudson are punching way, way below their weight here  (in fact the role of the wife is so awful it should really have gone to someone still in drama school) as we are continually bombarded with clichéd garbage and even some CGI sci-fi daydreams, where Braff is the hero, that are shoddy and inflated enough to leave you in desperate want of a paper bag to vomit into – Patinkin as the father is the only thing of any merit at all in the entire film. Sometimes there’s a good reason the studios say no to a project, and this is a prime example of how not to go about making the transition from acting to directing.

A Walk Among the Tombstones  (2014)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     114 Min        15

Gestating for many years, Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel finally reaches the big screen with Liam Neeson as central character Matthew Scudder, a recovering alcoholic operating as a private detective some years after deciding to leave the NYPD. Neeson was apparently Block’s top choice for the role (Harrison Ford was reportedly attached to the project at one point) and it’s easy to see why, with a string of very successful ‘Liam Neeson versus’ films in his recent back catalogue, Non-Stop being the most recent example, and this time he’s up against COMPLETE SCUMBAGS in the guise of crooks that abduct girls and collect the ransom money but then butcher their captives anyway, so there is a somewhat gleeful element of – ‘Liam Neeson is on your case, you are totally fucked’.

The film opens very strongly, with a visceral scene of violence that fits completely the rather macabre title and sets up what is to follow very promisingly indeed. As the mystery unfolds it’s easy to get caught up in it, although unfortunately it never again reaches the intensity of the opening ten minutes. Come the end, it feels like the story is clutching at straws – trying to remain interesting whilst delivering something original, but only really succeeding at very average padding to round the film off with. Part of the problem is it begins with a very Dirty Harry esque character who then goes on a redemptive arc, which may be realistic, considerate and even gritty in its own right, but it’s also a little tedious when the narrative is trying to create scenarios to then justify the retribution or violence that the character is trying to avoid. Good enough to merit future adaptations of Block’s work though (Jeff Bridges previously played Scudder in ‘8 Million Ways to Die’, back in 1986), and a decent directorial effort from Scott Frank, better known for his work on screenplays, such as ‘Malice’ 93, ‘Out of Sight’ 98, ‘Minority Report’ 02 and The Wolverine. Also with Dan Stevens and David Harbour.

Pride  (2014)    76/100

Rating :   76/100                                                                     120 Min        15

A fantastic, moving and historically fascinating British drama chronicling the gay community of London’s attempt to help the Welsh miners picketing in 1984 as part of the larger nation-wide miner’s strike, one which encapsulated a major attack on the Thatcher government of the day and whose outcome would affect the fabric of British commerce forevermore. The community see a commonality between their struggle for the promotion of gay rights and the fight that the miners are engaged in, and when their good intentions are originally rebuffed they decide to take their money direct to the source – rural Wales, where not everyone is quite as liberal and pleased to see them as they would have hoped.

Lots of good performances from the likes of Dominic West, Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton, and a particularly strong one from Ben Schnetzer playing the leader of the London group whose single minded determination drives forth the entire narrative. The story also introduces some of the earliest diagnosed British victims of HIV, and the contrast between what happens to the people it mentions is worthy of a film in its own right. This is one of the best treatments of inclusivity and equality in recent memory, with great moments like when one of the local Welsh girls breaks out into song in a crowded hall and everyone feels compelled to join in, as well as a fascinating political backdrop that certainly has strong echoes with the Tory government in power now, as well as interesting titbits of information, like how the same seam of coal runs along the Atlantic connecting Wales, Spain and North America.

Love, Rosie  (2014)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     102 Min        15

No one could have been more surprised than me to discover this is actually a very solid film, detailing the travails of two friends who grow up together and fall in love – neither willing to bridge the dangerous chasm of potential romance and risk all by admitting it. Instead, they both hook up with randoms before making plans to go and study together overseas. Unfortunately, male random dastardly sticks a bun in Rosie’s oven, throwing something more substantial than a spanner in the works for the star-crossed lovers.

Chronicling events for the pair over the next decade or so, this in many respects tells the same story as ‘One Day’ (11) but not only is it miles better, it’s also based on Cecelia Ahern’s second novel ‘Where Rainbows End’ (renamed ‘Love, Rosie’ for the States – Ahern’s debut novel was the already immortalised on film ‘PS, I Love You’) which was published in 2004 and thus predates David Nicholls’ 2009 novel One Day. There are a few forgiveable silly moments here, but what really sells the film is the strength of the two leads – namely Lily Collins as Rosie Dunne and Sam Claflin as Alex Stewart, both giving very sympathetic and engaging performances that had a number of people shedding tears in the audience, and for once I didn’t feel like laughing at them.

Magic in the Moonlight  (2014)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                       97 Min        12A

Woody Allen’s latest oddly bears a lot in common thematically with the short film ‘A Most Complex Form of Ventriloquism‘ (it’s not outwith the realm of possibility that he viewed the film and was influenced by it – I believe it played in at least one festival in the States), set as it is in the 1920’s and focusing on Colin Firth’s Stanley Crawford, a notable stage magician with an equally infamous acerbic wit and sarcastic/pessimistic view on life, who is requested by an old colleague (Simon McBurney) to attempt to debunk Emma Stone’s alarmingly adept and attractive young Sophie Baker, who seems in possession of the gift of second sight – but is she the real McCoy?

Unfortunately, we can tell very quickly how things will unfold and there is nothing especially meritorious about the inevitable and arguably unfounded romance between the leads that develops, as Sophie manages to squeeze out some youthful vitality and hope that there could be an afterlife from Stanley. Firth is a natural at playing the gentleman and Stone equally so the ebullient Sophie, but the wit Stanley displays is more akin to that which people politely get used to and ignore rather than laugh at directly or under their breath and as such the comedy element falls decidedly dead. If you are in any way familiar with Woody Allen then you can unfurl the plot in two seconds, and we see not only the familiar motives from his work that also drew him to that of Ingmar Bergman, such as his fear of and obsession with death (indeed, it is most likely Bergman’s 1958 classic ‘The Magician’ played a role in coming up with this film), but also perhaps less muted shades of his own personal life as we see an older and successful male become victoriously infatuated with a much younger female. The set design and costumes are wonderful, but the lacking human connection and story leave the whole thing feeling stilted, like a sad ornament overly polished out of sheer boredom.

Fury  (2014)    54/100

Rating :   54/100                                                                     134 Min        15

When a film purports itself to be ‘The most realistic war film ever’ it had better be able to put its money where its mouth is, and alas this could quite easily qualify as the one of the most UNREALISTIC war films of all time. Screenwriter and director David Ayer is one of the most childish writers working in Hollywood today, and his obsession with nonsensical violence evinced by his previous films ‘Sabotage‘ and ‘End of Watch‘ continues – in a normal film a character might open a box and find a new clue, or something that sparks an emotional trigger for them and a moment of reflection, in a David Ayer film that box is guaranteed to contain not only pictures of a family member skull fucking genetically modified babies but also pieces of remaining flesh tanned for personal use. He can get away with this to an extent with a war film and the associated potential for real and visceral horror, but when we see the inside of a tank at the beginning of the film and the remains of someone’s face on the metal, looking like a fried egg, we realise he just can’t help himself.

Not to say that’s necessarily unrealistic, rather unlikely granted, but it is the following which render the film silly – 1) The soldiers do not fire weapons, they fire lasers. I kid you not, green laser fire (red for the Allies) issues forth from the German troops looking for all the world like a scene from Star Wars (ironically, this is to show the use of tracer fire which helped gunners and infantry adjust their aim and was certainly used extensively by both sides in the war, it’s just been taken to a daft extreme here). 2) The tactics are at best dubious. We see three tanks versus one and the three of them just bunch together instead of trying to use both flanks. 3) Reason number 2 is taken to the point of lunacy as (this is a spoiler so you might want to jump to the next paragraph, but it was also used as the main selling point in the trailer if you’ve seen it – another thing they shouldn’t have done) we watch Brad Pitt opt for a stand-off between his immobilised single tank versus several hundred SS troops. During this event daytime becomes night in less than about forty seconds and Pitt and his four strong crew have ample time to leave and fight another day, or indeed come up with a better plan, but they all decide to stay largely because it is Brad Pitt saying they should and they are all afraid of him. It’s not heroic, or exciting – IT’S JUST FUCKING STUPID. I also have a large doubt over whether or not that tank has a 360 degree firing arc with its machine guns when the hatch is down, I rather suspect it doesn’t making the decision even worse.

The fictional story takes place in Germany toward the end of the Second World War with the very beleaguered and war weary crew of the tank ‘Fury’ receiving a new greenhorn gunner (Logan Lerman) who has never even been inside a tank before which enrages them all, and they proceed to slap him around the head at every opportunity. Lerman actually does the best out of everyone in this film for managing to react/act to the treatment he gets appropriately for his character – as a performer it can’t have been easy to temper his responses to the right level, and he consistently delivers on what is the core character arc of the story as he bonds with Pitt’s veteran whose soul has been ravaged by violence, death and stress to the dangerous brink of perhaps losing sight of himself completely. Pitt does a reasonable job of anchoring the piece but his performance is hampered by ridiculous hero worship from Ayer as well as having more than a few ropey lines of dialogue to try and do something meaningful with.

It is within the work of the wardrobe and art direction departments that a very high level of authenticity has been achieved – it looks fantastic (laser shows aside) and the tanks used were real ones from museums and collectors which are more or less the correct models for the time. The rest of the crew are played by Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal and they had to live in the tank for a week together before shooting began (LaBeouf reportedly refused to wash himself to help achieve a new level of ‘realism’. I’m surprised nobody fired real bullets at him too). Despite the egregious setbacks there is still a definite satisfaction to be gained from some of the action scenes, and here Ayer the director definitely outstrips Ayer the writer – it’s really the ludicrous and utterly forced central decision by the characters and the ensuing battle that destroys the credibility of the entire film.

Bogowie  (2014)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                     120 Min        15

Polish language film documenting the work of maverick surgeon Zbigniew Religa, as he attempts to lead the way in helping pioneer heart transplant surgery from within the confines of his desperately hard fought for clinic in Zabrze in early 1980’s Poland. There is a distinct Frankensteinian air to the core of the debate as to concerns over the morality of the surgery that the bulk of the medical profession raise (as well as in the very notable portrayal of Religa himself by Tomasz Kot) as we see the man bombarded with accusations of egotism and we witness the increasing toll that stepping into the dark against the odds takes on him.

To an extent, the film unfortunately gives credence to these accusations – we are never given the appropriate information to see how the story fits into a wider global or medical context. Almost nothing is said of the work going on elsewhere, and yet any audience has a reasonable chance of knowing the first successful human heart transplant was carried out by doctor Christiaan Barnard in South Africa in 1967 – as we see Religa struggling for success we are thereby unsure if the rest of the world has hit a roadblock, if the first success was short lived/a one off, and if this is then one man determinedly setting out to advance medical science and save lives, or if he is motivated by ego and there is a wealth of other research from elsewhere that he is ignoring. At one point he comes in and announces a solution to a part of the problem they have been experiencing – and yet it appears to have simply come out of thin air one day, inviting more questions than it answers.

Similarly, we do see some graphic images of surgery (which some viewers may find difficult), but we are never really given much in the way of scientific information about the medicine of transplants specifically nor generally, which is disappointing and denies us historical context from a medical progress point of view. Indeed, what transpires is a fairly traditional ‘hero’ film that is interesting and well acted, but is so linear that it feels almost attached to an artificial pump of its own, with the same music continually droning in trying to force the tension as our hero struggles on with nary a moment of sunshine in sight, leading us to potentially doubt the authenticity of all but the most well documented of events.

More flair was definitely needed, and although it makes sense to show that Religa wishes to remain detached from his patients, for the audience adding more emotional connection may have been a better idea as we know next to nothing about the people that are wheeled through the doors of his clinic, their lives very much in his hands. Similarly, showing most of the characters smoking fits the time period, but there was no need to take it to the ridiculous degree that it does – miring the entire movie in a nasty cliche that the industry has moved on from, as we see the main character smoke in virtually every single scene he is in, and if he isn’t smoking he’s drinking. Even if that is historically accurate (and since he was a heart surgeon, one can be forgiven for considering it a little dubious) on film it’s overkill and symptomatic of a movie trying to create a certain style that we’ve seen many times before, rather than a story that feels more real and balanced.

Still, this is a very reasonable film, it’s just a shame that the filmmakers didn’t dare to be more original and take more chances with it, or put more humanity in there to make it feel more authentic. The ending is also delivered with an anticlimactic abruptness that highlights what could have been, as we walk away reasonably sure that we’ve learned about someone of importance, we’re just not entirely sure to what degree. Interestingly, the ending also pointedly omits the fact that Religa, who sadly passed away in 2009, went on to become a very prominent figure in Polish politics, even campaigning for president before eventually giving his backing to Donald Tusk (Prime Minister of Poland from 07- Sep14, and due to become President of the European Council in exactly one month’s time) and instead becoming the minister for health – his successor, Ewa Kopacz, herself a doctor too, is currently the reigning Polish Prime Minister.