Horns  (2013)    46/100

Rating :   46/100                                                                   120 Mins        18

So turgid with its own premise it misses the point spectacularly, with even the actors looking bored come the finale. It’s adapted from the 2010 novel of the same name by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King) and stars Daniel Radcliffe as the hopeless sod who is accused of murdering his girlfriend and is so enraged by this that he sprouts horns from his temples and with them gains the innate, and completely without off switch, ability to bring out the worst in people, inducing them to not only speak the truth but also to give in to whatever base and carnal whim happens to be floating around their subconscious at the time. This aspect sounds quite promising, unfortunately the film only plays with it about circa fifteen percent of the time – the rest is spent watching Radcliffe moan endlessly about his horns instead of using them to have fun, and us the audience being forced to endure a constant traipse through the dullest murder mystery ever when it is painfully obvious who committed the crime in the first place, and we don’t really give a monkey’s about it in the second. Culminating in wasted special effects and dull acting in what is altogether a pathetically watered down version of what could have been. Also with Juno Temple, Max Minghella, Joe Anderson and David Morse.

What If / The F Word  (2013)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                       98 Min        15

The title (both versions – it was released as ‘The F Word’ in Canada) of this Canadian set romcom kind of sums up the very stretched premise behind it – what does one do when one really connects and falls in love with a girl who’s in a relationship, as if the writers were trying to think of a twist on the otherwise extremely formulaic and banal set-up and one of them thought ‘well, what if we do the same as usual but we make one of them unattainable so the other is tortured and that will form the tension, and we can get some young, up and coming actors in order to sell it as something worthwhile.’ The two actors in this instance are Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, who both do a pretty good job and both have recent success stories with ‘Kill Your Darlings‘ and ‘Ruby Sparks‘ respectively, but in terms of raw sexual and romantic chemistry the fireworks never really go off here.

There are a few nice and witty moments, and overall things are balanced enough, but it never escapes from the sort of desperate nature of the writing trying not to make the central pair out to be cheating scumbags, and yet portray ‘the boyfriend’ character (played by Rafe Spall) as being a bit of a douche, but not too overtly bad either. It purports to play with fire, but extinguishes it in fear of losing control, as ultimately it’s pretty dark and depressing territory they’re heading into, and they don’t really want to challenge the young couple demographic that they are hoping to appeal to. It’s kind of like a Nicholas Sparks take on an Ingmar Bergman film, and although there are moments of decent comedy, it feels like they arose through the invention of the actors themselves rather than the team behind the film – a resultant sweet distraction rather than something with deeper meaning or any resonance likely to be found.

The Unbeatables / Metegol  (2013)    53/100

Rating :   53/100                                                                       97 Min        U

Animated tale featuring a foosball table whose players all come to life in order to help their owner, Amadeo (Rupert Grint), defeat his town’s returning tyrant who is desperate for vengeance after Amadeo beat him at the table when they were kids, the only time he was ever beaten at anything, and despite becoming a real life international football star he hasn’t been able to come to terms with the humiliation ever since. This is an Argentinian film that has been dubbed in English and bizarrely, the people in charge of doing the English language version have taken the opportunity to play politics by making the winning foosball team English, with a few foreign players, and the side that is always beaten (Amadeo has never lost a game and seems to always play the same side – one could be forgiven for thinking the table was rigged) is entirely comprised of Scotsmen as far as we can tell. The English captain suggests that they have to work as one and are stronger together, which couldn’t be more obviously referencing the upcoming independence referendum next month, and the heavy suggestion that ‘we are better together because you are shite by yourself’ is unlikely to have the desired effect on voters. Why even go there? They could easily have mixed up the nationalities and kept this ‘better together’ theme going, and their direct referencing is surely going to fly over the heads of their young target audience anyway.

It reminds me of a perfectly pleasant and thought provoking debate on the matter I had with a young gentleman from England in the pub the other day, pleasant, that is, until he put his hands on his hips and triumphantly declared ‘And we both know who gets the most money out of the union,’ he smirked, ‘Scotland, haw haw’. Needless to say he wasn’t looking so pleased with himself when I burned him alive and scattered his ashes around Edinburgh Castle. I mean, it’s possible he’s right – but that’s the point, no one really does seem to know for sure.

As a worthy aside since the film attempts to also dis Scotland’s footballing credentials, England’s media love to laboriously mention they won the World Cup in 1966 (although many of you might have picked up on how little they mentioned that fact during this year’s Brazilian tournament – this is a direct result of the looming vote), but they are less inclined to remind people that during the following British Home Championship it was Scotland that was the first to beat that very same team. Nor were they terribly happy when we beat them at the last ever international to be played at the old Wembley Stadium, in fact they were so miffed they fudged in another international to avoid the humiliation (which they also lost anyway, one nil to Germany). Indeed, the Unofficial Football World Cup actually has Scotland sitting at the top of the all time rankings table, and England’s worst home defeat ever was to Scotland, 6 – 1 way back in 1881.

Although it is fair to say Scottish football at this precise moment in time leaves a lot to be desired. Personally, The Red Dragon thinks they should ban foreign players and managers and just focus on the game for the people of the country – levelling the playing field, increasing domestic support and promoting home talent until we have a decent international team again, get rid of the reliance on business and money and focus on the game. They should promote women’s football as much as the men’s too – it’s just as good, in fact they should have a friendly between the two national teams every year.

Anyway, back to the film – you can often tell the quality of the animation you’re dealing with by looking at how well they render the humans, and here that quality is definitely running at a minimum. The foosball players look much better, but backgrounds and secondary characters are predominantly basic and sometimes even garish, although the creative camera flourishes of director Juan José Campanella do occasionally shine through (Campanella directed best foreign film Oscar winner ‘The Secrets in their Eyes’ 09). The story plods on uninterestingly until the finale is set up – an actual football game between the residents of the town against villain Flash (Anthony Head) and his professional teammates. A match which is to decide the fate of the town, and one that is oddly not as one sided as the recent Germany vs Brazil semi-final. Here the film picks up and delivers a rewarding ending, but there’s not much of value in the rest of the movie, and the animated players spend most of the time just trying to find each other before giving a prep talk to Amadeo, ultimately not doing a great deal over the course of the film.

The House of Magic  (2013)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                       85 Min        U

Animated adventure aimed at younger children and featuring an abandoned ginger cat, later nicknamed ‘Thunder’ for no especially good reason, who ends up taking refuse within a spooky old magician’s house. Once inside, the magician turns out to be able to do real magic, not just conjuring, and has a small devoted retinue of animated trinkets dotted around the house, all de facto led by the performing mouse and rabbit who do not take kindly to the arrival of the newest member of their troupe, the former primarily concerned she is about to become a tasty snack at any moment. Thunder is put upon to prove his worth to the rest of them and try to find a place for himself within this new family, and although it would have been most amusing if he had achieved this and then turned around and ate the mouse anyway, before turning his attentions toward the rabbit, this is not the direction the film goes in.

The primary villain is the magician’s nephew – who once loved magic but has since become a real estate agent and is now only interested in money, tsk tsk, eyeing up the old manor with dollar signs in his eyes. The animation is a little basic and rudimentary, but it is quite likeable, and similarly the automatons in the house initially seem garish and liable to scare little ones but they are quickly humanised and presented as friendly creatures, greatly ameliorating their image. Not a huge deal of magic is performed as the owner of the house ends up spending most of the film in the hospital, leaving the other occupants to fend off the nephew, and although there is nothing in here for adult viewers it should prove to be a pretty decent film for the intended audience. A conspicuously large number of famous names provide small voiceover parts – including Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Kiefer Sutherland, Ron Perlman and William Shatner.

Begin Again  (2013)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                        Treasure Chest                    104 Min        15

Keira Knightley’s latest sees her as a young singer/songwriter, Gretta, somewhat awash in New York City after a break up with her long time boyfriend, played by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, who has just been singed to a prestigious record label and whom she herself helped launch into stardom by writing many of his songs. Enter down on his luck record producer Dan, played by Mark Ruffalo, who is at the bottom of a particularly destructive curve after the break up of his marriage and the parallel nosedive of his career, when he hears Gretta play one of her songs and something in it stirs up long forgotten hope within him. This is where the film opens, as we watch Gretta reluctantly being pulled onto the stage during an open mike night to perform, and as anyone who has ever played or sang in front of people for the very first time will know – you feel like a TOTAL KNOB, and Keira plays out the scene with the perfect mixture of nerves, anxiety and the frustration of being put on the spot.

It is her actually singing throughout the film, with a combination of live and dubbed recordings (she has sung on film before in ‘The Edge of Love’ (08), and was due to play Eliza Doolittle in a modern version of ‘My Fair Lady’ before the project fizzled out), which was a tremendously brave decision and although her voice is soft and tinged with uncertainty, The Red Dragon LOVES IT – it is affectionately sweet, and it also fits her character perfectly, as we learn Gretta simply writes and sings for her own pleasure and has no real interest in putting her work on the likes of Facebook and so on for commercial purposes, preferring to simply entertain her cat with it instead.

Herein lies a central aspect of the film, and one which I really love – the idea of taking music away from the stranglehold of large record companies and back into the hands of the musicians themselves. It’s revealed that the standard rate of return for an artist is about ten percent with their label taking the rest, and a comparison is made with the publishing industry where authors get about the same. This always seemed outrageous to me – in reality I’d be surprised if it weren’t below ten percent, and it’s great that the internet and technology in general have started to dismantle this monopoly. Keira herself is uniquely placed within this scenario as she’s married to the Klaxons’ keyboardist and co-vocalist James Righton.

Gretta and Dan decide to record their own album (the latter having effectively been kicked out of his own company) using creative guile and various locations around the city as backdrops, which is a great idea, and on the way they rediscover how to enjoy themselves and what music means to them, minus the pretension that can sometimes accompany films about the industry. The acting is universally great, including from supporting players Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Catherine Keener, CeeLo Green, Mos Def and the aforementioned Levine. I actually appreciated this more the second time around (I admit it, I’ve seen it three times now – each time it feels like a different movie somehow), and it managed to not only convince me to dust down my guitar (it was practically white) and finally put some playlists into the ‘Song‘ section, but also consider sorting out the large digital blob which is my music collection.

Written and directed by John Carney, the creative talent behind the indie favourite ‘Once’ (06), this is an uplifting film in which it looks like the actors had as much fun as the characters themselves, further advancing Keira’s penchant for choosing varied and interesting roles, in this case one that absolutely made The Red Dragon fall in love with her just a little bit more …

(for the film’s official website click here, and you can also currently download Keira’s version of ‘Lost Stars’ for free from Amazon)

 Begin Again 2

The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared  (2013)    60/100

Rating :   60/100                                                                     114 Min        15

An adaptation of Jonas Jonasson’s 2009 debut novel of the same name that flits between English and Swedish, and has garnered a lot of praise from its domestic run and on the festival circuit, but my goodness does it take a long time to get going. The first forty to fifty minutes are so brain deadeningly dull that there are a couple jokes that might normally elicit a laugh or two, but your focus feels like it’s been hit by a sledgehammer so they don’t register at all.

The story follows the adventures of Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson), who is indeed one hundred years old and does climb out the bedroom window of his retirement home and effectively disappear as far as his carers are concerned, but we the audience witness him accidentally acquire a suitcase full of money from a gang of hardened criminals, who chase after him and his growing entourage of unlikely friends that accumulate throughout the movie as chapters of his eventful life are relived for us whilst they are on the run – a life which just so happens to have played an important role in several historically pivotal moments over the last century.

It has many, many similarities with lots of other films, most notably ‘Forrest Gump’ (94) and ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ (08) and the works of Tarantino, but it also suffers from Allan in the current time frame looking rather like Johnny Knoxville under prosthetics in ‘Bad Grandpa‘. It constantly has the feeling of something derivative and a little in love with itself, but it eventually gets going and becomes more endearing and even funny on occasion, although not as often as director/writer Felix Herngren would like. It’s also quite frequently gory, for anyone put off by that kind of thing.

Belle  (2013)    71/100

Rating :   71/100                                                                     104 Min        12A

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devil’s Knot  (2013)    64/100

Rating :   64/100                                                                     114 Min        15

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

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

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

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

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

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet  (2013)    49/100

Rating :   49/100                                                                     105 Min        PG

Dull as ditch water and with moments that will have you thinking ‘did they actually just do that?’ – in concern rather than amazement. Director and auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet created one of the most loved films of the century so far with ‘Amelie’ in 2001 but the rest of his work, some of it nevertheless very well regarded, has had a tendency to focus on quirkiness rather than story, with elaborate and fanciful props, costumes and characters. No surprise then that Helena Bonham Carter, who has effectively fashioned a career out of doing exactly the same thing, has found her way into one of his films in this, a rare English language departure from his usual French productions (the only other is 1997’s ‘Alien Resurrection’).

The story revolves around the adventures of a young boy of ten, the titular T.S. Spivet (played by Kyle Catlett), who deals with his feelings of guilt over the accidental death of his brother and the lack of acceptance from his family regarding his scientific endeavours by running away from his home in Montana and heading for Washington D.C., having created an operational perpetual motion device and received invitation to give a speech at the Smithsonian, although they are unaware of his age. It’s based on American author Reif Larsen’s debut novel ‘The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet’, and despite the serious nature of the plot it’s delivered to us in a fairly light hearted and whimsical way, trying to evoke the youthful spirit of invention and adventure that Spivet is imbued with. At it’s core though, there is a fluctuating chasm of moral ambiguity as we don’t really see or feel the consequences for his family after he leaves – and they are shown to be relatively loving, decent parents. Similarly, on his journey he hitch-hikes with a trucker who remarks that a couple of Spivet’s ribs are probably broken, but rather than do anything about it he just drives on and takes his photo, which he explains he does with everyone – queue shot of a series of creepy photos with various female passengers and even one with him showing off holding a rifle at the head of what we assume is a Taliban prisoner from his tour of duty in the Middle East.

The way it has been filmed continues this uneasy feeling – we see a goat with barbed wire attached to a fence and looped around its neck and Spivet and his father attempting to free it. Presumably, it isn’t barbed wire that was used, and yet whatever the material actually was how can you film it in that way whilst guaranteeing the animal isn’t going to be hurt? Later on we see a dog apparently being visibly made to chew on an iron bucket, and the same dog being forced fed, by Spivet, something it doesn’t want to eat (the camera cuts off before anything is actually ingested), but the worst is reserved for the humans on set as we watch Spivet hiding under a train when it begins to move, and then he crawls out between the wheels whilst it’s actually in motion. Now, surely this must have been done with camera trickery (if it wasn’t then Jeunet deserves to be in jail frankly) but it certainly looks pretty real, and what wasn’t faked is a stunt later on that sees the youngster take a leap and make a fairly painful looking grab for his intended target (thus the broken ribs). Catlett had a stunt double, but taking all these things together if Jeunet can’t make an adventure film without having it appear he’s putting animals and children in actual harm’s way then he really shouldn’t be operating behind the camera in any capacity, let alone directing big budget films.

Despite all of this, the film’s largest drawback is simply that it drags on with nothing particularly interesting really happening. Catlett is fine in the role, but struggles when the larger emotional moments are called for, and the visuals of some of the countryside are wonderful, but they can’t atone for a lacking and morally uncertain central story.

Oculus  (2013)    61/100

Rating :   61/100                                                                     104 Min        PG

Horror film featuring the supposed shenanigans of an EVIL MIRROR THAT CAN CONTROL MINDS, in this case the minds of Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) the surviving members of the Russell family, their parents having been brutalised in front of them when they were kids. Now in their early twenties, Tim is released from psychiatric care (where he has been ever since mirrorgate), convinced that his mind used the irrational to rationalised horrible instances of domestic violence – his sister’s first response to him being released is to cajole him into turning up at their old home again to immediately confront the mirror and try to tease out the evil within so she can record it and prove their parents weren’t completely mental. This will severely test the effectiveness of Tim’s therapy sessions, as well as his love for his older sister, who has effectively toughed it out by herself through the foster care system, intent on a danger fraught reckoning with the old heirloom of Balmoral castle (a nod, no doubt, to Gillan being Scottish but also an opportunity missed with no mention or link to any of the Royal Family that stayed there).

Gillan sports an understated and entirely convincing American accent and is herself the strongest element in the film, with Thwaites having the difficult, hackneyed and irritating role of conveying the ‘I don’t believe any of this’ trope across to the audience. Throughout the entire movie we have a dual narrative – what’s happening with the two main characters in the present, spliced with showing us what happened to them and their parents when they were kids and here the biggest difficulty arises, as one not only detracts from the other but they both eventually become deliberately intertwined, which is a pretty ambitious strategy and, well, the film doesn’t really pull it off. There are lots of silly moments, like Kaylie earnestly saying ‘OK, from now on we’ll stick together’ and then hotfooting it right out the door and leaving her brother to stare into space in growing stupefaction (he does this a lot). The enemy they are ostensibly up against seems too powerful as well, with the pair unable to tell what is real and what isn’t, especially when Kaylie has prepared the scenario already armed with this knowledge.

Despite never really hooking the audience it does have its moments, and it’s still better than the majority of horror films churned out nowadays because it at least attempts to have a story, even if that story does, at times, become a convoluted mess.