Gemma Bovery  (2014)    10/100

Rating :   10/100                                                                       99 Min        15

Pretentious, snobbish, perverted and dull – the latest modern French attempt to dramatise mediocrity and indeed not even the first, second or third time Gemma Arterton’s figure has been exalted to centre stage as the entire story revolves around it and the desire it evokes in the men she encounters: young, old, married and single. She is presented as a sensualised femme fatale with little to no character to speak of, seemingly motivated by lust only – but specifically other people’s lust, operating as little more than a vent for male desire.

Adapted from the 1999 graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, Arterton plays the titular Gemma Bovery, who moves to France from London with her husband Charlie (Jason Flemyng) where they encounter their neighbours Martin (Fabrice Luchini) and Valérie Joubert (Isabelle Candelier). Lover of literature Martin can’t help but pair in his mind the beautiful Gemma with Madame Bovary, the eponymous character from Gustave Flaubert’s classic 1857 debut novel. The film does have spoilers with regard to the novel, although exactly how many parallels exist between the two I can’t say – I once began the novel when a certain lady remarked how fateful it was we were reading the same book, having served its purpose, I never finished it.

In any event, Martin’s curiosity becomes an obsession and he can’t help but keep tabs on her love life and indeed even interfere on occasion, all leading to the most ridiculous finale you can imagine – one where you find yourself internally screaming ‘that makes no sense!!!’ as various characters befuddle everything to the point of insanity. You were always kind of hoping for a point to the thing but in the end there isn’t one other than being able to ogle at a few memorable shots of the lead actress’s curves. It’s impossible to imagine anyone really liking this for any reason other than it’s set in France and references classic French literature (it also ruins the ending of Anna Karenina incidentally, which it can’t justify doing).

Precinct Seven Five  (2014)    66/100

Rating :   66/100                                                                     104 Min        15

Documentary that details the corruption proven to be endemic in New York City’s Precinct Seven Five in the eighties – as told via interviews from the actual officers involved as well as some of the drug runners they helped out and some actual footage from the events described. If someone told you this was a comedy spoof, a ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ (84) of policing, you would believe them, you can’t help but think throughout ‘what a bunch of absolute, complete idiots’, although the film itself feeds into the problem with a racy delivery, much like the multitude of cop-chase TV shows on both sides of the pond, and a severe lack of any real consequences for much of the film.

Eventually, the real world hits home for the characters in the narrative and the audience, but it still lacks a lot in terms of the silent voices of several decades worth of victims. Despite large chunks appearing as an opportunity for the corrupt to boast of their various misdeeds, the film does manage to be both depressing and carnally compelling at the same time, and given its access to primary source material and the perps themselves, this does, despite its faults, stand as a very useful record for insights into what turns officers to the other side of the law in the first place, as well as how they can infect others like a virus if allowed to go on unchecked.

Love and Mercy  (2014)    74/100

Rating :   74/100                                                                     121 Min        12A

Biopic of the life of Beach Boys member and key song writer Brian Wilson, told as a dramatic interpretation in two different time frames – the first with Paul Dano as a youthful Wilson in the sixties just beginning to establish himself creatively and struggling to convince the others of the need to outgrow their initial pop hits, and the second with John Cusack portraying him as a deeply troubled adult who’s life is dominated by the attentions of his almost live-in psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) whilst he tries to embark on a romantic relationship with serendipitous car sales rep Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).

Both performers have done a really great job of identifying with that period of Wilson’s life – especially true for Cusack who throws in a number of clever nuances here and there, with Banks and Giamatti predictably good in their supporting roles too. As you might imagine, Beach Boys tracks feature heavily throughout (though composer Atticus Ross has often rearranged the wealth of original material they had access to, using their music to subtly create something unique for the film), including their enduring ‘God Only Knows’ and it’s fascinating seeing the negative and damaging reaction that Wilson gets from his father, and one time manager, regarding the song which would go on to become significant to so many people. Indeed, I used to have a young lass tied up in my dungeon for whom the song was the most important in her life. She likely has a different interpretation of it now, but nevertheless the film manages to take a lot of these music industry clichés: familial opposition, drugs, not appreciated in own time etc., and put them into a narrative that not only neatly absorbs them but also makes you appreciate them anew with a compelling story and a sympathetic main character.

The balance between each timeline is perfect and it really tells that director Bill Pohlad (more usually known as a producer on such films as ‘12 Years a Slave‘ and ‘Into the Wild’ 07) was determined to tell a real, accurate story with precious little in the way of embellishment. Indeed, the film has been heralded by all as remarkably true to events and if anything it seems to make the villainous characters seem nicer than they were in real life. All of which makes ‘Love and Mercy’ (the title coming from the opening track of Wilson’s debut solo album) not only a great film, but a sterling example of what biographies and historical films should be trying to achieve.

The Connection / La French  (2014)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     135 Min        15

A thriller centred on the true story of the French Connection in Marseilles throughout the 1970s and early 80s – the drug smuggling cartel immortalised by William Friedkin’s Oscar winning 1971 film of the same name (it won best film, director and actor for Gene Hackman, as well as best adapted screenplay and editing). I’ve seen this film billed as a remake of the original but that’s not accurate as this is a French language film focusing the story on the police investigators in Marseilles trying to combat the organisation whereas Friedkin’s movie was largely concerned with the operation on the other side of the pond in New York City. The French Connection themselves were responsible for the vast majority of the heroin that found its way onto the streets of the U.S. at the time and there is a wealth of material there for storytellers going all the way back to just before World War II, and then also the French Gestapo during the Nazi occupation and in some cases even a few of the resistance fighters.

Indeed, it is perfectly possible that ‘The French Connection’ had an impact on real events as the year of its release saw an intensification in international efforts and resultant successes in tackling the organisation. Here, Jean Dujardin plays new magistrate in town Pierre Michel, who very much personally spearheads fresh efforts to tackle the trade, and he gives his best performance since his Oscar winning turn in ‘The Artist’ (11), one well matched by his opposite number Gilles Lellouche playing crime lord Zampa. It’s a well executed, thoroughly traditional and enjoyable crime thriller and one positively influenced by Marseillais director Cédric Jimenez’s familiarity with the city and its past. Expect violence from start to finish from a film that also works really well as a missing piece in the puzzle previously illuminated by both ‘The French Connection’ and its 1975 sequel, but also to a lesser extend ‘The Godfather’ in 1972.

The Interview  (2014)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                     112 Min        15

Surprisingly, Seth Rogen (who joins Evan Goldberg on directing duties here – the pair of them working with screenwriter Dan Sterling on the story) and James Franco have managed to pull this one off, a satirical comedy about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un which has now become one of the most infamous films of all time after a group which may, or may not, have been linked to North Korea hacked production company Sony in revenge for the film’s content, and even managed to halt its general release for a time. If Sony had read my review of ‘Red Dawn‘ they could have saved themselves the trouble…

Franco plays populist and successful TV chat show host Dave Skylark, who works happily alongside his producer and best friend Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) until their showbiz bubble is burst when Aaron realises his peers mock him for the lowbrow entertainment he produces and the idea is hit upon to conduct a much coveted interview with none other than Kim Jong-un himself. The CIA decide, however, to throw a substantial spanner in the works by appropriating their outing and requesting they assassinate the North Korean supreme leader instead. Reluctantly deciding they should do as they are told for the good of humanity they are then, as Skylark begins to bond with their would be target, forced to consider whether he is such a bad guy after all …

With noteworthy support from Diana Bang and a great scene with Eminem the film takes a while to get anywhere, but once it does the balance between the unfolding plot and the comedy is very well judged and it successfully entertains right through to the finale – thanks in no small measure to a winning performance from Randall Park (‘The Five Year Engagement‘) as Kim Jong-un. You do wonder if it wouldn’t have been wiser to make it a fictional country and leader but one with obvious connections, but they have dealt with the material really well in the end. Imagine, though, if the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, had been the target – the film would never have been made, simple as that, and yet what he and his party have done, starving thousands of people up and down the country and forcing them to use food banks (places where food is donated by the public and where people can collect it for free) and forcing those out of a job to work for private companies for free is arguably far, far more pernicious and evil as democratically not-elected (they did not get a majority in Parliament) representatives of one of the richest nations on Earth, one that in theory, but not in practise, looks after its citizen’s human rights, than the actions of one single solitary autocrat who inherited a legacy already mired in human rights abuse from his father.

Trash  (2014)    56/100

Rating :   56/100                                                                     114 Min        15

Mainly in Portuguese with English subtitles and slightly living up to its name, this is directed by Stephen Daldry (‘Billy Elliot’ 2000, ‘The Hours’ 02, ‘The Reader’ 08) who oddly appears to very much be trying to mimic the style of Danny Boyle with the editing, choices of colour scheme and the high tempo music used to tie the threads of the story together. Written by Richard Curtis (whose last effort was ‘About Time‘), and based on the 2010 novel by Andy Mulligan, the plot follows the exploits of three young boys in the slums of Rio de Janeiro who stumble upon a wallet in the city trash one day, a wallet that holds the vital clue to the location of a huge stash of money. Corrupt city police are also hot on the trail and soon find themselves chasing after the streetwise youngsters in a sort of ‘Slumdog Goonies’ escapade, although it doesn’t ever feel very realistic, nor tense, and indeed the ability of the three central characters to make us feel for them varies as much as the acting between them does. The corrupt officers are so bad as to make them pantomime villains, and it all culminates in a scene that will leave you thinking ‘you seriously didn’t just do that. I’m so annoyed right now’. Martin Sheen plays the priest trying to look after the shantytown district the boys live in, and rather strangely Rooney Mara plays the Westerner doing a spot of travel and teaching English but her part is so, well, pointless that you have to wonder why Curtis bothered with it in the first place, unless he just figured a pretty white girl was needed in there somewhere …

Kingsman : The Secret Service  (2014)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                     129 Min        15

From director Matthew Vaughn and featuring the same sort of vibrancy that was evident in his ‘Kick-Ass’ (10) although also the same slight lack of cohesion – the gap between its moments of fanciful entertainment and more serious drama being just big enough to fall through at times. Based on ‘The Secret Service’ comic by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, Kingsman are a secret British spy organisation who recruit and train the best and brightest in order to keep the world safe – at this particular moment in time from evil technology giant Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). ‘Eggsy’ (Taron Egerton) is the unlikely working class hero battling local neds and hoodlums, and whose connection by birth to Kingsman will see him brought into the fold by veteran agent Galahad (Colin Firth), but will he make it through the gruelling and highly competitive training regime?

The camera is all over the place for a number of the action scenes and, especially in the beginning, it is really distracting. The film settles somewhat as it goes on but then it just starts to drag – all until one absolutely fantastic scene which inaugurates the final third, you’ll know it when you see it, and leads to an entertaining finale, again a very similar progression to ‘Kick-Ass’. The music sounds rather like a cross between a Bond score and that from 2012’s ‘Avengers Assemble’ (unusually it was composed by two people, Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson), Michael Caine plays the head of Kingsman and Mark Strong appears as one of the senior operatives (Merlin) and also sports a Scottish accent – which initially will have you thinking, ‘is he trying to do a Scottish accent? No, it can’t be, wait – what on earth is that?’ but eventually he gets it down pretty well. Also with Sophie Cookson and Mark Hamill, it’s an enjoyable action adventure film even if it does leave you with a slightly uncertain feeling overall.

The Gambler  (2014)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     111 Min        15

Mark Wahlberg gives one of the finest performances of his career so far in this remake of Karel Reisz and James Toback’s 1974 classic. He plays university lecturer Jim Bennett, whose demonic gambling addiction eats away at every sinew in his body and mind until it defines everything about him, although he is adamant that he isn’t in fact a gambler, to the point that even the audience question why he is so determined to pursue his singular course of obliteration. Perhaps, as is suggested when he gives a wonderful monologue to his entire class that only one person present has the talent to ever be a writer and the rest are deluding themselves, he is simply spiralling through a depression, questioning his own validity and that of everything around him and becoming obsessed with questions of fate, luck and grand design. Whatever the reason, the film successfully captures the decidedly uncomfortable nature of watching someone endlessly self destruct.

From director Rupert Wyatt (‘The Escapist’ 08, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ 11) and writer William Monahan (‘The Departed’ 06, ‘London Boulevard’ 10) there’s very strong, if fairly brief, support from John Goodman and Jessica Lange, and Brie Larson provides both sex appeal and the suggestion of redemption for Bennett, but it’s really Wahlberg that convincingly and intriguingly holds our attention throughout. I may be wrong, but I could also swear the dealer in the opening casino scene actually wins a hand and then plays another card anyway …

Selma  (2014)    0/100

Rating :   0/100             COMPLETE INCINERATION           128 Min        12A

This film is nothing short of revolting, and is the direct descendant of ‘Argo‘ which set the tone and bad precedent for bastardising history and not only getting away with it, but being rewarded for doing so by winning best film at the Oscars – a feat which ‘Selma’ could technically repeat in a few hours time later this evening, but the fact is the only reason it’s been nominated is because it’s a film about the Civil Rights Movement, not because it is any good and as Dr King quotes in the interview below “I think it was T.S. Eliot who said that ‘there is no greater heresy than to do the right thing for the wrong reason’” (also, note how composed Dr King is compared to the interviewers that surround him in that clip) and as much as this episode in history has long deserved a proper retelling on the silver screen to be promoted and propagated, this is most certainly not it.

As far as The Red Dragon is concerned, Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most awesome human beings to have ever existed, and he is absolutely one of the most influential and important figures of the twentieth century and by extension the modern world. This film centers on the march from the city of Selma in Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery, which took place in 1965 and, occurring when the Civil Rights Movement was already in full swing, was to force the issue of equal voting rights for all people irrespective of colour onto the nationwide agenda. Taking place after the 1963 march to Washington, the Selma series of events would prove to be arguably even more galvanising with the aftershocks quickly swaying the mood of Washington as well as huge swathes of the American public.

Here David Oyelowo plays Dr King and much has been made of his ‘snub’ for best actor at the Oscars, but the truth of the matter is he simply isn’t good enough. At no point does he remind you of Dr King either in mannerism or accent, and if you are familiar with Oyelowo’s previous roles you can see precious little difference between them and this. His first line is ‘It ain’t right’ as he stands in front of the mirror dressing and talking to his out of shot wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), and you think to yourself, ‘hmm, this just seems a bit off – I can’t imagine the eloquent and extremely well spoken Dr King talking like that’, maybe he did when he wasn’t on camera, but it’s an instant bad start for the film. Oyelowo puts a lot of gusto into his delivery of the speeches but from an acting point of view this is arguably not all that difficult with a crowd of people you know are going to cheer you on.

Treated with a hideous and sickening level of triteness is Coretta herself – here there is not only a suggestion that her husband is sexually jealous because she has briefly spoken with Malcolm X, and indeed it is suggested that the government might be secretly trying to break up their marriage, but at one point she has a go at him for severely stressing her and their family out with the work he is doing. Bollocks. She was utterly supportive and understanding of the movement, eventually even leading it, and she was an extraordinarily strong character in real life. She also had way more right to be angry than most given her entire family were constantly threatened and indeed their home was bombed, this screenplay is quite content to reduce her to a useless device in service of an equally useless plot. During her ‘confrontation’ with Dr King she asks him if he first of all loves her, to which he replies in the affirmative, and then if he ‘loves the others’ – which others? He says no, but it is deliberately vague as to whom she is referring, it could be the kids, it could the people in the movement, but there is a horrible and sinister suggestion that it could be other women, but the film just wants to put that seed out there it doesn’t want to go so far as to accuse the devoutly faithful (he was after all a fully ordained Baptist minister who made sure he visited his congregation as often as he could even while trying to change history) Dr King of playing the field.

All of this leads to the primary cardinal sin of the movie – at one crucial point we watch as Dr King leads, after a previous violent encounter which he wasn’t present at, a sizeable march from Selma, and a wall of police that had been standing in front of them, the same police responsible for the previous violence, suddenly parts down the middle leaving the way open for the marchers. Dr. King stops, kneels on the ground in silent contemplation, or prayer, and then decides to turn the march around and head back to where they came from. Understandably, his supporters are a little confused by this and he simply tells them the equivalent of ‘I had a bad feeling about it’ as if it were a trap and he was concerned about more violence, but the audience share in the feelings of the marchers at having been let down – the way was after all clear and even if it was a trap and the lines of police were waiting to close in, it would have been the pinnacle of King’s strategy as the affair would have been caught on camera for the world to see and after that deed who could not stand with his cause. At this moment there is also a federal injunction against the march, but the movement had deliberated and decided they had a duty to march despite the temporary ruling. Point is, this critical event didn’t happen this way. Let’s see what Dr King himself has to say about the matter …

“I held on to my decision to march despite the fact that many people in the line were concerned about breaking the court injunction issued by one of the strongest and best judges in the South. I felt that we had to march at least to the point where the troopers had brutalized the people, even if it meant a recurrence of violence, arrest, or even death. As a nonviolent leader, I could not advocate breaking through a human wall set up by the policemen. While we desperately desired to proceed to Montgomery, we knew before we started our march that this human wall set up on Pettus Bridge would make it impossible for us to go beyond it. It was not that we didn’t intend to go on to Montgomery, but that, in consideration of our commitment to nonviolent action, we knew we could not go under those conditions.

We sought to find a middle course. We marched until we faced the troopers in their solid line shoulder to shoulder across Highway 80. We did not disengage until they made it clear they were going to use force. We disengaged then because we felt we had made our point, we had revealed the continued presence of violence.”

‘The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.’ Edited by Clayborne Carson, chapter 26 ‘Selma’, pages 281-282

In real life, if presented by the invented scenario of the film, Dr King would have continued the march – doing what the imaginary Dr King in the film does could very well have sounded the death knell of the movement, and the decision to do this with the plot breaks the entire spine of the movie. This insanity is continued with the choice of music in the film – at one point a music only version of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ plays, which can have only negative connotations when played over a film like this, and then crucially, as the people march on one of their attempts to reach Montgomery we hear a version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ play – let me reproduce some of the lyrics of the song, lyrics that are cut off in the film:

That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.

It’s a song brimming with bitter unforgiving hatred and diametrically opposed to the nonviolent and Christian philosophy of Dr King – a philosophy he learned and adopted after thinking for a long time about both the morally and politically correct way forward for equal civil rights for all people in America, and eventually he came across the achievements of Gandhi and realised nonviolent opposition was the way forward: meaning people fight for their rights but in a nonviolent way, such as with marches and demonstrations etc. to raise public awareness and shame the enemy, especially if they themselves react in a violent manner as had happened at the initial march attempt in Selma.

It’s very telling that at no point in the film is there any actual footage of Dr King, and at the very, very end of the credits there is a note saying the film is not meant to be a documentary, but they are basically hiding the statement and, frankly, no one should be able to make and release films like this about critically important events which sees the filmmakers’ egos supplant and rewrite history in the overt way that this attempts to.

Inherent Vice  (2014)    60/100

Rating :   60/100                                                                     148 Min        15

Paul Thomas Anderson (‘The Master’ 12, ‘There Will Be Blood’ 07, ‘Boogie Nights’ 97) directs and adapts for the big-screen Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, about dope addled private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello in 1970’s Los Angeles who is sent on an abduction case, against the backdrop of a cultural kickback taking aim at the ‘free love’ of the hippy generation. The novel is comedic as well as serious and Anderson’s writing sometimes hits the mark with the comedy but it fails on every other point, neither giving us a realistic or engaging sense of the issues of the day nor making the noir style detective story comprehensible or engaging. Even the actors, Benicio Del Toro especially at one point, look irked by the lack of structure around them and if you are looking for an involving story then you can absolutely forget this.

The director’s skill behind the camera, however, has allowed to him to create a very unique quasi-surrealism, in fact just watching it makes you feel as if you are on drugs which is a singularly impressive feat, if at times an uneasy one. Similarly, sex appeal is littered around the movie but when, at one moment in particular, there is a deliberate attempt to be erotic it falls pretty short of it. Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant as Sportello and he is accompanied by Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Hong Chau, Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon and Joanna Newsom who narrates the story but unfortunately the style of narration adds to the underlying soporific nature of the film and is a major hindrance. Anderson has successfully recreated the same feeling that must have inspired him to adapt the novel in the first place, but failure to properly fire the comedy more often and the complete absence of a decipherable plot leaves the film’s appeal unnecessarily limited.