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 Most Complex Form of Ventriloquism  (2012)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                          Short Film                          14 Min        PG

The Red Dragon’s baleful gaze happened upon this by chance, and it was indeed a happy discovery – a short, low budget production from some budding filmmakers in Louisiana and their friends, who have done quite a remarkable job of presenting a very polished and eminently fun final film, one that manages the difficult task of staying interesting with just the right level of understated comedy running through the veins of the performances and story.

That story sees the Earth accidentally smacked by the Moon one day in the 1920’s, sending us on a relentless trajectory toward Mars and allowing spiritual mediums to become the new opiate of the masses. All of the performances here are good, especially so from Maureen Iverson who plays the beautifully sardonic, and sardonically beautiful, Margery, and overall writer/director Ashley Brett Chipman has sculpted a rich, enjoyable period oddity that suggests a lot of promise for her future career in film.

Entertaining in a way that a lot of big budget productions could learn from.

You can watch the film here.


“To the Moon!”   Maureen Iverson/Margery

Compliance  (2012)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                       90 Min        15

This is a notably disturbing film, in no small measure due to the fact that it is based on a true story and pretty much follows events as they occurred in a Kentucky McDonald’s restaurant in 2004 (click here for some of the details). Indeed, if it hadn’t been based on real events then it would be very tempting to cry ‘as if that would happen in real life’, and although the film focuses on the people within this store, the full impact of the story doesn’t hit home until some way toward the end. It’s well acted to the point that we feel like we’re watching a documentary, and it aptly demonstrates just how pervasive the concept of authority is as we see one employee accused of robbing a customer, and how the chain of command deals with the accusation – purportedly coming from a trusted source and yet with a distinct lack of any real evidence. With Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker as store manager Sandra and the accused Becky respectively.

Mission to Lars  (2012)    59/100

Rating :   59/100                                               74 Min    Exempt from classification

As a Metallica fan I thought I’d give this a whirl. It’s a documentary following brother and sister Will and Kate Spicer’s attempt to facilitate the meeting of middle sibling in the family, Fragile X syndrome sufferer Tom, with the person he admires the most in the whole world – Lars Ulrich, drummer and co-founder, along with James Hetfield, of hard rock band Metallica. We get some insights about Fragile X from the parents, Tom’s carer and an expert in the field that they interview, and we learn that some of the things that people with the condition find difficult are changes to their normal routine and loud noises. So, as the siblings conclude half way through, dragging him half way across the world to Metallica concerts in Vegas, Sacramento and Anaheim on the last leg of their world tour, was perhaps not the most ideal way to spend more time with him. Especially not when they add filming him constantly into the mix.

Up until this point, it is very difficult to come close to understanding the other siblings let alone like them (Tom is much more agreeable), and it does beg the question of ‘Ok so you’ve decided to give this a try, but why make it into a documentary?’. We learn that Will is an amateur filmmaker, does this justify the project? Or just make it all the more exploitative? I suppose having cameras around may help sell their idea on the road …

Without giving away what happens, although I did want to see the film through to the end it just really isn’t altogether that interesting. In fact, it’s been filmed in a very cold, clinical manner that detaches the audience to a degree and not enough effort has been made to be either original nor to incorporate much in the way of music or information about Metallica (or indeed terrifically much about Tom and his condition) . Perhaps they were a little miserly when it came to the rights to use their tunes …

Thanks for Sharing  (2012)    61/100

Rating :   61/100                                                                     112 Min        15

There are shades of meaning here, but overall this is another American template film – cheesy fluff disguised as comedy and accompanied with repetitive chirpy music, interspliced with moments of real drama. The trouble with this ‘playing it safe’ formula is that it rarely satisfies, either as simple entertainment or as serious thought provoking art. The subject of the day is sex addiction, and two of the main characters, played by Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins, are sober former addicts who have bonded through their therapy sessions, where they meet new addition to the group Neil, played by Josh Gad. Ruffalo’s self will is put to the test with succubus Gwyneth Paltrow, Robbins must confront the long lasting effects his addiction has had on his family, meanwhile Gad is the only one who really convinces as having real problems as we see him trying to resist rubbing up against women in the subway and give up junk food at the same time – then in steps pop artist Pink as the sex addicted woman simply in need of a male friend and a good hug.

Comparing this to Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’ (11), which was a much more focused portrayal of the same subject, it’s impossible not to see this as almost laughably bad for the most part, and it is not really until the final quarter that it dares to show any real teeth at all. The inclusion of Pink doesn’t help – she is actually quite good in it, but there is a natural dismay at seeing someone who already has an established high profile career and image appear on film at the expense of another actress trying to get a foot in the door, especially when they appear onscreen out of the blue and look for all intents and purposes exactly as they do in their other career.

Paltrow’s character almost laughs off sex addiction as an excuse for men to play around – and it is fair criticism for something that isn’t really in the public domain, asides from Michael Douglas publicly claiming he was a victim of it, and the aforementioned ‘Shame’. Is it a real condition on a par with alcoholism? This film did not leave me especially convinced. Could it perhaps be that it is more the cocktail of chemicals that must be floating around the body of someone who is constantly chasing tail – a mixture they enjoy but also suffer from: the weight of society’s watchful gaze, the lies and deception that might come with that: the stress of worrying about infection constantly: the knowledge one day it would have to end in order to have a family: the boredom of mundane work compared to the adrenaline fix of trying it on with every hottie around (especially the ones at work). With a substance addiction even though the body can’t handle what’s being thrown at it, that same body can continue to physically administer it – but with sex the body will reach a point where it’s simply no longer possible to continue with it, and surely drive must fall when that happens?

Probably it is also a question of loneliness, or emptiness – and perhaps it is possible to become addicted to anything that can be used to fill that void, forcing any addict to stare into it whenever the fix has run out, spurring them to run back to their crux with ever increasing desperation. The film shows the support group giving up on masturbation for extended periods of time (possibly indefinitely) – I was always under the impression human males have to ejaculate a certain amount of times a week in order to keep various bits and bobs healthy. Naturally, I was never sufficiently interested to investigate this further – I can only advise that easily the most satisfying way to end a sexual encounter is to quickly EAT your partner. Interpret that how you will.

Any Day Now  (2012)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                       97 Min        15

Touted as Alan Cumming’s best performance to date, a statement I would not disagree with, this tells the true story of an American homosexual couple’s fight in the 1970s to win custody over a child with Down syndrome from his drug addicted, and neglectful to the point of criminality, mother. Cumming (who, incidentally, grow up around Carnoustie in Scotland – the same home town as Ian McDiarmid, a.k.a. the emperor in the Star Wars franchise {episodes I, II, III & VI}, a character that in light of the new films currently lined up may or may not have survived the events of ‘The Return of the Jedi’ 84) plays Rudy Donatello, the more flamboyant and outspoken of the two, whose occupation at the opening of the film is as a miming drag queen in a gay nightclub, whilst his partner Paul Fliger, played by Garret Dillahunt, is a district attorney.

It’s a tough, and yet important story, highlighting human prejudice and the failings of the legal system in America designed to safeguard vulnerable minors. Despite its worthiness, however, I would be lying if I said I found it easy to become especially emotionally involved with the film. It is perhaps due to the story spending too much time focusing on the adults and the ramifications of their sexual orientation, rather than the experiences of the child, Marco (played here by Isaac Leyva), which is where the connection with the audience should be centred. It’s still a good film though, and Cumming gets the opportunity to show us he can sing as well as act (the title comes from a line in the song ‘I Shall be Released’ by Bob Dylan).

Interestingly, Cumming and fellow actor Brian Cox (who is from Dundee, just west of Carnoustie) were two of the speakers at the launch of the ‘Yes campaign’ for Scottish independence, a launch that took place at Cineworld in Edinburgh and seen politics nod very heavily to the powerful influence of cinema. Indeed, analysts are predicting the ‘Braveheart generation’ to play a key role in deciding the vote in 2014 – that is, the people who were growing up when the film was released in 1995. Ah humans, bless them. I remember the olden days of independence and the comings and goings of the English, the French, the Vikings, the Scots, the Picts, the Romans, the Celts, the Africans … everyone who came to Scotland eventually fell in love with the land and were welcomed by the natives. Or we killed them. One of the two.

What Maisie Knew  (2012)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                       99 Min        15

Emotional tearjerker based on the Henry James novel of the same name, focusing on the breakdown of a marriage and the effects for the young innocent girl, Maisie, caught in the middle of it. Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan play the self absorbed parents who’s priorities primarily lie with their careers, that of an ageing rock star for Moore, and a travelling arts dealer for Coogan, and although initially the mother comes off as by far the worse of the two, by the end of the film you will pretty much hate the pair of them.

Enter two young adults in the life of the child, one her regular and somewhat traditional ‘hot babysitter’ played by Scottish newcomer Joanna Vanderham, and the other a handsome male boy toy for the mother in the shape of Alexander Skarsgård, both of whom fall in love with Maisie but are also caught in the venomous crossfire of the separation. The film is well shot and well acted throughout, including by young Onata Aprile who plays Miasie, a performance accentuated by the single tear that she sheds after effectively being abandoned by everyone she loves. A great film, and one which thankfully has the kindness and affection of non family members to balance out the lack of care from those who should know better, suggesting that blood isn’t necessarily always thicker than water.

Frances Ha  (2012)    66/100

Rating : 66/100                                                                         86 Min        15

Starring and co-written by Greta Gerwig (‘Greenberg’ 2010, ‘To Rome with Love‘ 2012) this is a sweet little black and white film following twenty seven year old Frances, as she suddenly realises her career and relationships are perhaps not really heading in the directions she had thought they were. Set in New York City, it’s a drama acted out via situational comedy, primarily revolving and depending upon the lovability and appreciation of the slightly ditsy, but fun loving, Frances, and her deep but soon to be strained connection with her soul mate and best friend Sophie (played by Sting’s daughter, Mickey Sumner). It is largely successful in its premise, but it is a little pretentious in places, with lots of stylised images of ‘artists’ smoking, which is not only a cliché but an outdated one, with smoking’s social acceptability on the steady decline (something which some of the dialogue seems self conscious of). It feels like the characters are living in the cinema of the sixties rather than now, a feeling deepened by a random trip to Paris at one point for Frances – although this also mirrors modern successful films, with the likes of ‘2 days in Paris’ (07), sequel ‘2 days in New York’ (12), ‘Paris, je t’aime’ (06) / ‘New York, I Love You’ (09) and Woody Allen’s migration from his love affair with The Big Apple to European cultural hotspots, most recently with his much lauded ‘Midnight in Paris’ (11) and the aforementioned ‘To Rome with Love’.

It’s directed by Noah Baumbach (‘Margot at the Wedding’ 2007, ‘Greenberg’) who teamed up with Gerwig for the script. Overall it meanders a little too much, and is a little vain, but nevertheless it successfully crafts a delicate and artful expression of friendship.


Chasing Mavericks  (2012)    73/100

Rating : 73/100                                                                       116 Min        PG

Gerard Butler stars in this ‘Karate Kid’ esque (both also star Elisabeth Shue, coincidentally) true story about how one man’s lifelong love of surfing helps inspire a similar desire in his young neighbour, Jay Moriarity, whom he reluctantly takes on as his protege in order to train him to tackle the giant, dangerous waves at the North California location of Mavericks, waves that have claimed the lives of some of the biggest names in surfing and are formed by an unusual rock formation under the water (the name comes from that of the dog who accompanied the location’s founding surfers). The film does stray dangerously close to Nicholas Sparks level melodrama, with the small town, the small town bully, the small town cute girl the protagonist wants to get with, and the ever present danger of the waves, but it eventually sidesteps this dead end territory and fleshes out as a pretty decent drama.

Newcomer Jonny Weston does a good job as the wave hungry Jay, and the film’s visuals of the surfing, and the fact that it’s a true story, are its biggest strengths, with the waves at the end looking sufficiently catastrophic – projecting surfing as at once deadly (Butler himself almost drowned and was hospitalised whilst filming after a succession of waves pulled him under for forty seconds), and a lot of fun. Co-helmed by respected directors Michael Apted (‘Gorillas in the Mist’ 88) and Curtis Hanson (‘L.A. Confidential’ 97), the shoot was difficult and dangerous, going on for a lot longer than expected thanks to bad luck with the weather – all the surfers featured, bar the two leads, are professionals.

Have a peek at the interview below with Butler and Weston, with one of them constantly interrupting the other …

Stuck in Love  (2012)    37/100

Rating :   37/100                                                                       97 Min        15

This film actually managed to make The Red Dragon pretty irate (not in itself altogether unusual), both for its blatant double standards on serious issues like drug use, and for its grating, and inevitable, conceit of ‘everything will be alright in the end because this is a film designed to showcase upcoming talent featuring a score sounding very much like every other romantic drama released over the last half decade or so, not a film featuring any real characters’. The film focuses on one family, whose parents, played by Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Connelly, have divorced (we never find out why) and it looks at the effect on their children, played by Lily Collins and Nat Wolff, as well as the current state of each family member’s love life. Three of them are writers, and the idea of a shared favourite book resulting in cosmic romance is played out in a particularly dreary and nasty manner, transforming the daughter from a wanton and desperate slut into the hopeless romantic that the film preaches we all secretly are.

In the same way, the story bizarrely shows the parents to not really care their young son is heavily into smoking weed, until a certain point when it does randomly begin to worry one of them, and then we see cocaine appearing and cue the evil music. One is obviously medically more severe than the other, but the grotesque pretension of the narrative seems to miss the fact that endorsing one can also potentially lead to the other – we are to assume the young girl onscreen has been introduced to the drug by her aggressive boyfriend and his friends, but it is unlikely they began with the hard stuff. It’s simply not responsible enough to have a blasé approach to soft core drugs in order to try and look ‘hip’ to a younger demographic, something which has been creeping into Hollywood output (though this is an independent film) for a while, often in throwaway scenes. Lilly Collins smiles approvingly when her brother says he has a stash of weed to smoke, so she endorses it as she sits with him outside and watches him smoke, but is very careful not to have any herself, as at this point in her fledgling career (her biggest role to date is as Snow White in last year’s ‘Mirror Mirror’) it wouldn’t be wise, effectively highlighting the issue. A film can easily be pro or against soft drugs but there has to be a context, a point even, to the very conscious decision to introduce it. Later in the film there is an uproar for, shock horror, giving a sixteen year old a glass of champagne, which somehow leads her to automatically go off and try to get laid with another guy (she is dating Wolff’s character) and go back to abusing coke.

Some of the songs used alongside the score are pretty good, but with the casting of attractive actors (who all do a good job) and the promise that pining after the object of your affection, even if they are with someone else, will yield positive results, not to mention that promiscuity and soft drug culture carry no significant threats whatsoever, ‘Stuck in Love’ has chosen an extremely ill conceived way to try and appeal to its audience.