Exodus : Gods and Kings  (2014)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                     150 Min        12A

There is a clue in the title to this that it isn’t going to be all that great – ‘Exodus’ sounds grand, epic and serious. ‘Exodus : Gods and Kings’ sounds shit, like they want to make it clear they are using the story from the Old Testament but ‘not really’, or ‘we’re doing our own thing with it’, well, what’s the point then? The film is about the life of Moses (Christian Bale) in ancient Egypt up until the moment of the Exodus itself, opening with his time as the Pharaoh’s right hand man and here the man in charge actually prefers him to his real son, Ramesses II (Joel Edgerton), I don’t remember this from the old sermons I once heard (before I burned the church down) but OK.

Visually it’s very nice with wonderful costumes, sets and scenes of warfare and carnage which director Ridley Scott is no stranger to, but it suffers from the basic problem of just plodding on and running out of steam very quickly. ‘Noah‘ had an artistry to it and delivered things that were unexpected, and even the melodrama with the characters worked on some levels, here though it is very much a case of OK now this plague will arrive, and then the next one and then … and so on, all leading to a graphically impressive crossing of the Red Sea, which is crowned off by an example of complete and utter ridiculousness that is frankly embarrassing for Scott, where we witness central characters surviving being smacked in the head by A TIDAL WAVE right in the middle of the Sea. Hmm. There is also a somewhat confused morality within the screenplay – God’s wrath seems to inflict equal suffering on Hebrew and Egyptian alike, for example. In fact, it’s really difficult to discern what the point in making the film was.

As is always the case for biblical films there have been numerous controversies surrounding the story and production, ultimately though it simply isn’t good enough to care that much about, though criticisms about the ethnicity of all the actors (complaint being that all the leads are white) are difficult to allay when, as you see above, the actors with very black skin are clearly shown to be slaves. Is this inaccurate though? As you travel south from the Med through to the tropics the skin colour of the people naturally darkens (as presumably it still would have done in antiquity, although interestingly the early dynasties arose not too long after the time the Sahara is estimated to have become a desert in 3500 BC, after a shift in the Earth’s orbit), would it make sense for the Egyptians to trade for slaves around their southern borders? Do we even know what the colour of the ancient Egyptians’ skin was? Modern day North Africa is genetically dominated by the legacy of Islamic conquest and Mediterranean trade, and Egypt has always been at the confluence of three continents so I think it’s safe to say that it is difficult to know for sure, and Bale and Edgerton are at least suitably sunned so I’m not convinced it’s fair criticism.

There is an interesting moment when Christian Bale rides forth on horseback with his men flanking him on either side, and then he draws his sword ready for battle. Or at least, he tries to, it actually gets stuck briefly and it’s perhaps telling they decided to keep the take – it is precisely what you could imagine happening if you were suddenly asked to film a climatic scene as ‘leader’, or indeed do it in real life for some reason, that or falling off your horse after tugging too hard, so in a way it’s nice it’s in there. Support from Ben Kingsley, María Valverde, and Sigourney Weaver – even though she only has about two lines.

Unbroken  (2014)    45/100

Rating :   45/100                                                                     137 Min        15

Just about everything in this film is broken, from insane casting choices to a host of continuity errors and lacklustre infrastructure. This is Angelina Jolie’s third time directing and so far she’s been met with a lot of opposition – I haven’t seen her other films, but you kind of think to yourself maybe she’s getting stick because of who she is. Well, she is bad. I mean, bad in the sense that she reeks of raw eggs fermenting inside of dead rabid cats behind the camera – she has no idea where to put a camera, how to pace a film, or even assemble and tell a story. It’s all over the place, slow, and is a stark and painful trope of three cinema staples: the bullied kid who trains hard and becomes a successful hero, the survival in the face of physical extremes and certain death flick, and the prisoner of war drama. Sadly, it’s actually based on a real story and you have to feel for Louis Zamperini, whose life story this is, and who alas passed away the year of the film’s release.

The film follows Zamperini’s life, from being a troubled kid through to becoming an Olympic runner and then war hero who was singled out to endure extreme brutality whilst interred in a Japanese P.O.W. Camp during World War II, and it opens with a perilous mission in a bomber over the Pacific with scenes even less convincing than the ones in ‘Memphis Belle’ (90). We see, for example, Zamperini show us he is a hero by caring for one of the wounded gunners – instead of grabbing the bleeding vacant gun and trying to help shoot down the plane threatening to kill the rest of them. The lame attempt at believability is continued with such fare as showing some of the men adrift at sea after a few days and they have all allowed the skin on their faces to burn badly, despite having ample materials to cover up with, then we see them many days later and they all look healthier. The Japs give Zamperini a good hiding and force him to eat gruel on the ground, but then apparently give him a shave before sticking him in a camp to be tortured again, wherein Zamperini is punched in the face by every single other prisoner, and then looks none the worse for ware next we see him (we at least don’t know the time frame in this case, but still, it can’t have been that long), and so on.

There are better moments toward the end of the film, and some of the concentration camp scenes convince, but it takes more than half of the film for them to get there and the rest is terrible. It’s also a casting catastrophe – who would be one’s first choice to play an Italian American war hero who deserves recognition in film? Would it be an actor who thus far has only been convincing at playing violent and sadistic English thugs? No. And yet yes it seems – Jack O’Connell is the man in question and the only time he really convinces here is when he punches a fish right in its beady eye to, I’m not kidding, knock it out. Often seeming to do the acting equivalent of twiddling his thumbs he is exceptionally poor in this – and who is he given to be his all American buddy? Domhnall Gleeson, another actor from this side of the pond who’s character portrayal here is weepy to the point of sycophancy. Then who should show up in the camp, who could possibly make the casting any worse than it is already, but Garrett Hedlund who has still not learned that staring off into space whilst growling neither makes for convincing masculinity nor acting.

The writing is as bad as everything else in the film (from the Cohen brothers, amongst others) – I feel sorry for cinematographer Roger Deakins who has made an effort and received an Oscar nod for it, but it must have been by way of compensation really, I mean in the Olympic Games scenes it’s painfully obvious there is no real crowd thanks to the rubbish digital work. In fact, I didn’t even believe O’Connell was running most of the time, there’s barely a bead of sweat on him and his competitors are clearly allowing him to pass. A tragic film, one which also has two further Oscar nods for sound editing and sound mixing – and alas it could well be these are simply to placate various parties after the movie’s failure to make it into any of the major categories.

Taken 3  (2014)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     109 Min        15

This is the king of THE TRAILER SPOILS VARIOUS ELEMENTS OF THE FILM scenarios – the main element in question here occurs (relatively) near the beginning of the movie but in this case that is no excuse. This is part three of the successful Taken series (the first was back in 2008) starring Liam Neeson as Brian Mills, the man with an especially deadly skill set and whose daughter you definitely don’t want to kidnap and sell as a sex slave, and for this reason people are going to go and watch the film regardless of the trailer so it ought to be possible to create one that gives minimum details away. I’m not very happy with the indifference shown to their product, but also the characters that have been fleshed out to various degrees thus far and we have come to like.

No surprise that this will again put Mills and the people he cares about into jeopardy, and it is entertaining and fun to engage with just as before. However, other than the aforementioned, what detracts from the film and story is the direction, from Olivier Megaton, which on several occasions ruins action scenes with far too rapid editing that makes it extremely difficult to make out what on earth is going on. There’s a sloppiness to some of the execution as well, Mills survives peril at one point simply by escaping it, not by doing anything clever or having the drop on the bad guys, and some of the gun fights have that feeling of ‘my character is going to win this so I don’t have to be too careful’. All this is perhaps best summed up by the final stunt which you see coming a mile off and has you kind of groaning to yourself – but when it happens it is actually really cool, it’s just been delivered so poorly that they’ve mostly blown it. Such a shame.

I still enjoyed this and it is by no means a dire sequel – Neeson, Maggie Grace and Forest Whitaker are all good and little touches like Whitaker constantly playing with a chess piece (he’s a detective) are cheesy, but appreciated nonetheless. If you have not seen the trailer then the advantage will be yours.

Annie  (2014)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                     118 Min        PG

Having being tortured by the borderline pathological repeat of the original ‘Annie’ (82) by a particularly over zealous family member, and given the overwhelmingly negative reception of the new version, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this (both are loosely based on the 1977 Broadway musical), but figured why not give it a go – it is always good to remain open minded when it comes to film generally. Surprisingly, it is actually a lot of fun – due in no small measure to the adult parts being well written and delivered by the likes of Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale and Stephanie Kurtzuba. Annie herself is played by Quvenzhané Wallis and she appears to be significantly better off than her 80’s counterpart, living in what seems to be a fairly warm and safe foster home rather than an orphanage for example.

She does have to put up with Diaz stropping around and being a general bitch to the girls, but it’s not like she’s renting them to the local Catholic priest for smack or anything, and it isn’t long before Foxx’s Will Stacks, who is running for New York City Mayor, has a fateful encounter with the young lass and invites her to come and live with him to increase his rating in the polls, quickly bonding with her and realising what has been missing from his work centric bachelor lifestyle – a young vulnerable homeless girl in his bed. His spare bed that is, though his serpentine public affairs manager (Cannavale) does complicate matters by trying to use her status for his own profit. There are songs aplenty and at least half of them are quite good – a couple from the original musical survive but the rest are newly penned with principal cast members all performing in the recording studio.

Unfortunately, the songs have been produced via heavy use of Auto-Tune, which is effectively cheating and explains why there is an eerie similarity between them all – and it further sheds light on why when we’re given clear indication Cameron Diaz is about to skydive off tune she doesn’t, in reality she probably did exactly that. Diaz is up for a Razzie for this which is a little unfair – she is ironically completely in character here as the sort of pantomime bad guy who’s ultimately not that bad.

In tandem with post production vocal manipulation is the similar falsification of Annie herself – gone is the struggling orphan with the strong sense of what is right and an earnest belief in hope, whose character was formed by, and endured, adversity. This Annie seems all too comfortable with the cushy environment she is thrust into – Wallis received much critical acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination for this but if anything when she’s around her chums at the foster home they all appear to be better performers than she is. I think perhaps being a young girl of eleven and being told how wonderful you are all the time (being the youngest person ever nominated for the best actress Oscar for ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ in 2013 etc.) is not the greatest environment in which to get into the character of supposedly poor and hard up against it Annie, and whilst she has lots of shouty energy this does not in itself make her an acting prodigy, it simply makes her an irate little girl. Could it be Hollywood is busy creating a MONSTER? Time will surely tell, although her singing certainly appears to be very impressive – but with the technique they used it’s very difficult to tell how much is her and how much is being churned out by a machine.

If you aren’t too concerned about the lack of any real emotional depth or anything but the barest scent of a moral lesson to learn then the film is quite fun, and I see no reason that youngsters wouldn’t enjoy it. Rose Byrne in particular delivers exactly the right warm touch, and at one point she sarcastically refers to Foxx as Batman : Jamie Foxx would be a completely awesome Batman, an at least ten times more respectable choice than Batpuss Ben Affleck. Affleck is apparently going to channel his rage into the character, the rage he no doubt feels at the internet calling him a gigantic pussy that will have criminals rolling around laughing in puddles of their own wee – I mean seriously, if you were a hoodlum would you be scared of Ben Affleck growling in a costume? You might surrender out of pity.

Big Eyes  (2014)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     106 Min        12A

Tim Burton proves once again that he is much, much better at directing more serious story and character focused dramas than he is at helming off-the-wall slices of his own rather repetitive imagination. This is probably his best film since ‘Big Fish’ (03) and it tells the true to life story of the Keanes, the husband and wife soon to become household names in 1950’s America as the ‘Big Eyes’ paintings take the art world by storm. Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz play the central couple and they are both a delight to watch here – in fact Adams has just netted herself a well deserved Golden Globe for her performance although an Oscar nomination was conspicuous by its absence, which she can feel legitimately miffed at.

Burton is himself a long time collector and admirer of the artwork, which no doubt goes some way to account for his dedication to the project and should hopefully ensure a largely truthful retelling of the tale, which explores what a marriage as a united entity can mean within a cultural background where the man was very much king of his castle, alongside Mrs Keane’s growing sense of self confidence and a determination to not be ruled by that same social convention and as such the story can easily be cited as anecdotal of feminist struggles and successes of the era. With a light and airy feel, it’s dramatically both fascinating and unfolds slowly but is never disappointing – bar moments where Burton simply can’t help regressing into his penchant for overindulgence, such as when Danny Elfman’s score pounds heavily to tell us this character IS NOW GOING TO ACT IN A VILLAINOUS MANNER and comedy elements in the final furlong are somewhat overplayed. Suitably haunting songs from Lana Del Rey (see below) that were written for the movie and play on multiple occasions throughout round off a very polished and, in terms of popular culture and art history, enlightening biography.

Night at the Museum : Secret of the Tomb  (2014)    62/100

Rating :   62/100                                                                       98 Min        PG

This is essentially completely identical to parts one and two of the ‘Night at the Museum’ franchise, which began way back in 2006 although it seems like just yesterday. The majority of the characters return for this instalment, including the protagonist Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), Jed (Owen Wilson), Octavius (Steve Coogan), Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek) and the late Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt, together with new faces Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens), La (also Stiller) and security guard Tilly (Rebel Wilson) as well as some great cameos. A very loose thread throughout explores Larry’s relationship with his son Nick (Skyler Gisondo) who is determined to take a year out before college to basically chill out in Ibiza, much to the chagrin of his concerned father, but can Nick convince Larry that he’s mature enough to make his own decisions?

The main story arc follows the somewhat mouldy decline of the golden tablet that brings all the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan to life at night, and just as the previous film took everyone on a trip to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., this time the British Museum in London is where they hope to find answers to the imminent cessation of all their nocturnal activities. The film works as a really great advert for the museum and the not too distant Trafalgar Square area – indeed, these are two of The Red Dragon’s favourite places to visit in London (although usually I am paying more attention to potential new slaves than exhibits, I once met a rather charming girl called Mona Lisa in the National Gallery (no joke) and indeed was similarly distracted in the British Museum and thoroughly enjoyed the visit along with the hieroglyphics merchandise from the shop, until I remembered the Rosetta stone is there and I had neglected to see it. Pesky human females). The film is perfectly in keeping with Stiller’s usual zany, light and family friendly comedy adventures and for precisely that reason this delivers exactly what you would expect – a film that’s easy to watch with colourful performances and the occasional laugh but nothing to make it stand out and overall somewhat banal, with an ending designed to finish the series rather than really make much sense.

Dumb and Dumber To  (2014)    44/100

Rating :   44/100                                                                     109 Min        15

Arguably difficult to pull this one off, given its release twenty years after the original ‘Dumb and Dumber’ and that principal actors Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels had to considerably regress into playing the goofy ‘one card shy of a full deck’ Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne respectively. My goodness do the writers make a mess of it though. One imagines them, the Farrelly brothers (also the directors), guffawing earnestly at their own jokes as they churn out toilet gags that a five year old would find off-putting, whilst they simultaneously commit the cardinal sin of thinking anyone in the audience is actually going to care about the particularly lame story that’s been sticky taped around their all but ineffective slapstick routines.

Said story focuses on Harry’s discovery that he has a long lost child combined with Lloyd’s discovery that he wants to bone her (curiously Rachel Melvin, who plays the daughter, looks rather similar to Emma Stone, whom Carrey rather publicly declared his undying affection for a couple of years back), all leading them on a road trip to a scientific conference where she is due to give a speech on behalf of her highly regarded academic foster father, whose wife is plotting to kill him and take his money. To be fair I did laugh a few times, and loyal affection for the original characters carried me through to the end but an air of desperation never quite leaves the film and it’s full of unfortunate moments, like watching Carrey swallow a hot dog whole and then visibly suffer for it a moment later. They needed a genuine spark to make this work, maybe even putting Lloyd and Harry into the background more often possibly with leading straight characters for contrast, but it never really gets off the ground and is dramatically weighed down by simple crassness throughout.

The Hobbit : The Battle of the Five Armies  (2014)    73/100

Rating : 73/100                                                                       144 Min        12A

Despite the rather bombastic advertising poster shown above for Peter Jackson’s conclusion to The Hobbit trilogy, it does not feature very much in the way of the rather fine example of dragonhood depicted, which, needless to say, was disappointing. Similarly, the methods by which the hero of Laketown, Bard (Luke Evans), attempts to defend it are PRE-POST-EROUS, in fact the humans throughout the film are easily the worst aspect and by far the least interesting. Who cares about Laketown? Let it BURN, they were asking for it anyway, dragons like to sleep a lot but we always wake up eventually. I do, however, like the central concept that Middle-earth hears on the grapevine that the dragon has finally awoken and left the doors to his gargantuan hoard of treasure agape, thrusting the titular five armies together to duke it out for the spoils – it makes sense, and it’s a good excuse for an almighty clash.

What it should have been, though, is the five armies versus me, I mean, Smaug – which might have been close to a fair fight. Through working together they could all have become better friends – the humans could have been regaled by the comedic wit of the dwarven leader Billy Connolly (he plays Dáin), the elves could have come to take pity on their inbred and fucked up cousins the orcs and offered them counselling, and the eagles, well, fuck the eagles the stupid little creatures, they can provide a tasty little snack for the dragon – the whole blood soaked affair is their fault anyway, ‘the eagles are coming!’, well they took their sweet time about it and best make the most of it because they’ll bugger off again in exactly two seconds anyway. All the while Bilbo runs off with both the Arkenstone and The Ring and secretly masturbates with them in a corner somewhere (we never really learn what the hell the Arkenstone actually is, only that’s it’s EVIL and essentially the MacGuffin that allows for lots of hammy acting surrounding its corruptive influence) – this all would have made for a better story, as would Bilbo then becoming the new dark lord.

As it is, all the characters come together for the big fight and everyone gets to do their bit and a commendable amount of creativity has gone into some of the choreography, although throughout the film there is the constant feeling that we are supposed to be more moved than we are – in fact comparing this to ‘The Return of the King’ (2003: the conclusion to Jackson’s earlier ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy) where there were many audible tears falling, only a single poor sobbing soul sounded around the auditorium for this and indeed no more than three people stayed for the credits at the end, compared to the truly unique sense of atmosphere generated at the screening of ‘The Return of the King’ where not a single person moved until the entirety of the credits had played through.

This is, nevertheless, a fitting conclusion to the trilogy, even if it still feels like a watered down and aimed at a slightly younger audience version of the previous one – though this is in fitting with the source material. I think overall the new technology used for the films with its super high frame rate was a huge mistake, with many parts looking tarnished and tawdry by its use, but it is possible that it will work better on the small screen. As with ‘An Unexpected Journey‘ and ‘The Desolation of Smaug‘ there are numerous tie-ins with the story in the rings trilogy which I think fans of Tolkien’s universe will appreciate (notwithstanding the silly looking ‘flashing Sauron’ sequences) and despite various criticisms of the liberties taken with the novel I believe the embellishments as a whole add more than they detract and are at least faithful in spirit.

Indeed, there is a huge wealth of material for further development so don’t be at all surprised if Middle-earth is readied for adaptation once more in the not too distant future. Above all else, it is the audience’s reintegration within a fantastic world where the devotion of the filmmakers, in particular Weta Workshop, really tells, together with enduring tales of friendship, adventure and courage that make the films work and will no doubt ensure their ability to be enjoyed many times over, continuing a long established Christmas tradition for many fans of both Tolkien and Jackson’s overarching and monumental works. Evoking the spirit the films were made in, Billy Boyd (who played Pippin in the Rings trilogy) wrote ‘The Last Goodbye’ and performs the song as it plays over the credits, a member of the family aiding The Hobbit to conclude its epic three year journey.

Some interesting background mythology regarding the lore and characters of Tolkien’s fantasy realm :

Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast  (2014)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                       76 Min        U

The latest in the Tinker Bell series has less going on for adults, and indeed for everyone, than the last outing ‘Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy‘, very much focusing on one character, Fawn (Ginnifer Goodwin), this time rather than a group adventure. Her task in Pixie Hollow is to look after the creatures of the area and nature in general (she is an animal fairy). One day, she encounters a strange and hitherto unknown to her beast, or Neverbeast to be more correct, which is thoroughly busied in its somewhat odd practice of erecting stone arcs. Pulling a thorn from its many times larger than her paw the two bond, though she is keen to keep her new animal friend away from the prying eyes of Nyx, leader of the guardians (the Scouts) of Pixie Hollow that may be a little concerned about the Neverbeast’s overt potential for destruction (Incidentally, Nyx is the Greek goddess of the night, born of Chaos, whilst nix is Latin for snow which may suggest a connection to the race discovered in ‘Tinker Bell and the Secret of the Wings‘). When an ancient tome is discovered telling of a mythic creature fitting the Neverbeast’s description that appears every thousand years or so and is depicted calling forth death and destruction, Fawn must question whether aiding her friend is indeed the right thing to do after all. It’s a good film about the importance of not judging a book by its cover (although I religiously buy books based on their cover) and understanding those who may be different to ourselves, it’s just not a tentpole of the franchise, indeed the future of the series sadly appears to be in jeopardy with plans for future film releases abandoned for the time being. Boo.

The Homesman  (2014)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                                                     122 Min        15

Tommy Lee Jones tries his hand behind the camera for the second time, the first being with 2005’s ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’, this time adapting Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel of the same name (incidentally Swarthout also wrote ‘The Shootist’, the big-screen adaptation of which was to be John Wayne’s final film in 1976) and co-writing the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver. Taking place in the American Midwest of the 1850’s (the continuous forty eight States are divided into the West, Midwest, South and Northeast, for those unaware), specifically Nebraska and Iowa, Jones plays George Briggs, a scallywag strung up by a rope and left to perish when he is rescued by Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy who, by way of a life debt, enlists him to help her in her temporary role of ‘homesman’ transporting three troubled ladies back to more civilised territories, a role which, as you may imagine from the name, is normally reserved for men.

Saying these three women, played by Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter and Grace Gummer, are troubled is a bit of an understatement, they are in fact all locked in the wagon for everyone’s general safety, including their own, the three having lost their minds whilst living on the harsh and unforgiving Nebraska plains. The western genre often focuses heavily on the terrain and landscape, the wilderness giving rise to questions of morality and justice where no law exists or, as in this case, encouraging aberrant character traits and/or destruction, the problem is none of the three women ever really convince that they’ve lost their marbles, and the first half of the film is not well paced or put together at all. Swank and Jones are both solid in their roles, as one would expect, and the idiosyncrasies of their relationship and by extension the film begin to kick in halfway through, markedly improving matters as more interesting events begin to develop. With brief support from John Lithgow, Meryl Streep, William Fichtner, James Spader and David Dencik, this adds its own unique flavour to the genre, it’s just a shame central elements of it are somewhat undercooked.