Hector  (2015)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                       87 Min        15

A Christmas film with a decidedly more depressing angle than is the norm. Hector (Peter Mullan) is a homeless pensioner living rough in Scotland and has been doing so for many years – although he has managed to make some friends, played by Keith Allen and Natalie Gavin, and indeed has become a regular at a Christmas shelter in London, which he is determined to reach this year as well via a lengthy bout of hitchhiking. This time, however, he needs a crutch to walk and ailing general health means he is scheduled for an operation after the holiday season, though for exactly what we aren’t told.

From first-time writer and director Jake Gavin, it’s as bleak as it needed to be for the first half of the film, as we watch Hector survive in the face of bitter elements opposed to that very purpose, and choosing to ground it as a Christmas movie was perfect as it reminds us of those less fortunate than ourselves and the hardships they will be enduring right now. Thereafter, the film warms up thematically as Hector’s backstory is explored amidst the arrival of friendlier faces and it’s here that a massive opportunity has been missed – the current political climate in Britain with the Tory party in power has left many vulnerable people homeless and destitute for no good reason and yet the exact mechanisms for this are very much under the public radar, reason being a decidedly right-wing and pro-Tory media (evinced by the somewhat pantomime attack on left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn – especially by the BBC, who seem to enjoy camping outside his front door ready to insult him every time he leaves home).

The story could have explored this dark facet of modern Britain, and indeed the medium of film is one bastion that can illuminate current circumstance, but alas the retirement of Ken Loach from feature films has left a noticeable void in British film for the cries of the voiceless, and the character of Hector is very much a victim of both chance and his own feelings of hopelessness. Dramatically fine, but given the bigger picture perhaps a little easy overall. Mullan is convincing throughout and the beautiful Sarah Solemani also shines as the care worker whose relationship with the people around her may be more symbiotic than is apparent.

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.

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 Book of Life  (2014)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                       95 Min        U

From Dallas based Reel FX Creative Studios whose last output was the dire ‘Free Birds‘, the creative team behind this, led by director and co-writer Jorge R. Gutierrez, were determined to match the adroitness of their concept art with the visual splendour of the final film, and I think they can congratulate themselves on a job well done as I don’t believe I have ever seen an animated movie quite so colourfully rich and involved as this one, easily the film’s best selling point. Voiced comfortably by a cast including Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Kate del Castillo, Ron Perlman and Ice Cube, this tells a story from the Book of Life, a book which contains all stories, of a love triangle involving two young male friends and the local beauty, also the general’s daughter, naturally, in the Mexican village of San Angel – a recipe for disaster that the spirit rulers of the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten place bets upon, but over the years which one will win the hand of the fair lady, and what will the consequences be? It’s good fun, with its own take on lots of modern songs (at least two of which appear in The Red Dragon’s first playlist, so they obviously have good taste …) but unfortunately it tries to take the main characters on too many journeys and the central concept ends up meandering as a result, leading to a very average finale. Overall a warm and heartfelt endeavour though.

As Above, So Below  (2014)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                       93 Min        15

A handheld genre horror film with marvellous use of location shots and with a real sustained feeling of claustrophobia throughout. Every now and then you come across a film that details something in the real world and you think to yourself, ‘why have I never heard about this before?’, and for The Red Dragon this was precisely the case here as a group of youngsters head down into the Parisian Catacombs, which apparently spread for many, many miles under the City of Lights and exist as the final resting place for millions of her residents, adapted from old stone mines in the late eighteenth century as a solution to the lack of graveyard space in the city, and now one of the fourteen City of Paris Museums that constitute the Paris Musées.

The story follows the exploits of Scarlett (Perditta Weeks), the beautiful English rose (although Weeks is actually Welsh I should point out) whose father was obsessed with finding the Philosopher’s Stone – an obsession that may have driven him to suicide. She follows in his footsteps quite convinced that legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel not only had possession of the stone, but also left clues for others to follow and find its location. Legend has it the stone can turn lead into gold but also heal the most grievous of wounds (it can, I posses it), and of course both it and Flamel were immortalised in the public imagination by J.K.Rowling in the first of her Harry Potter novels. What ensues has a strong treasure hunt feel to it, and in fact the film is more successful in this regard than, for example, either of the Tomb Raider films.

Descending underground leads to some very, very uncomfortable scenes and unusually for this type of film none of the characters are particularly annoying, where it does falter is in the opening segment which is notably weak, and later on when more supernatural elements come into play – all of which were done reasonably well, it’s just that they are also reasonably traditional and you kind of wish for that final spark that would really make this into something special. As it is, this is a uniquely polished production with moments of real intensity and at the same time one that isn’t simply content with trying to torment its audience like most of its contemporaries do, instead it plays out like a cross between ‘The Goonies’ (85) and ‘The Descent’ (05), producing a final concoction that is just as memorable in its own right.

Sin City : A Dame to Kill For  (2014)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                      Treasure Chest                   102 Min        18

Wow. I don’t believe I have ever seen a film where the lead actress’s breasts are essentially the main character and focus of the visual narrative, to the point where significant discussion and storyboarding must have taken place as to exactly how to shoot them in each scene, and just how much exposure to give them each time. The actress in question, and the appropriately titular dame to kill for, is Eva Green, who is running a fairly impressive bare breastage to big screen appearances ratio so far (see ‘The Dreamers’ 03 and ‘300 : Rise of an Empire‘ for two exemplary examples), possibly giving Penélope Cruz a run for her money, and my goodness you can see why, with a visage of sassy and tempting perfection that surely leaves all mortals of both sexes in silenced awe.

This is the long anticipated (too long really) sequel to 2005’s monster hit ‘Sin City’, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels of the same name and both produced in strong collaboration with Miller himself – director Robert Rodriguez wanting to create as faithful a rendition as possible, to the point that only Miller is given any of the writing credits for either film and they shared the directing duties on both (they have a brief cameo scene together here too). Again, it’s a compendium of interlinking stories which take place chronologically both before and after events in the first film, with two of the sections written solely for the screen this time around (alas, these are the weaker chapters). Lots of familiar faces return – Mickey Rourke wonderfully portraying Marv again, for example, and Jessica Alba as high class striptease Nancy (who does an especially memorable routine, also one of the highlights of the film), although Clive Owen is replaced by Josh Brolin as Dwight, Jamie Chung takes over from Devon Aoki as Miho, and of course tragically both Birttany Murphy and Michael Clarke Duncan have passed away since the first film, with Dennis Haysbert taking over the latter’s role of Manute.

It’s not as accomplished as its predecessor, with a jittery start and less compelling stories, and although they have remained true to the green screen noir style of the first one and have certainly paralleled its violent and bloody body count, it is within the depiction of the lavish and diverse femmes fatales that the film is singularly successful. Initially Green’s womanly assets are nude but partially obscured, inducing The Red Dragon to muse ‘Oh come on, that’s crap’, you don’t have to wait too long until they are revealed in all their glory though, to the point where even I had to concede they probably dominate one scene too many. I’m not sure though, I think I’ll have to go and see it again. Too much is always better than too little anyway …. kinopoisk.ru

The Rundown / Welcome to the Jungle  (2003)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                     104 Min        15

A surprisingly fun action film with equally surprising audacity when it comes to the set pieces. Dwayne Johnson (or, ‘The Rock’ as he was billed as back then, before a transitory period of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and now just Dwayne Johnson) stars as a debt collector for a local personage who you do not want to get involved with, but he wants to get out of the racket. No problem, but he has to do one last job – go get his employer’s son, currently faffing around in the Amazon jungle (played by Seann William Scott) and drag him back home. Upon arrival he’ll meet the local hottie (Rosario Dawson), the gringo exploiting the land and its people (Christopher Walken) and realise that the son in question is actually looking for a rare, and thought to be lost forever, treasure, whereupon things get more complicated.

The fight scenes are good fun to watch, as pretty much everyone wants a piece of Johnson but he stoically refuses to use any firearms, instead relying on being awesome together with a little bit of wire fu. Some parts are just plain silly, and the editing is often borderline woeful – especially in the opening fight (which is immediately preceded by a cameo from Schwarzenegger just before he entered the world of politics, in an almost ‘passing of the baton’ moment with his real life friend Johnson) situated in a nightclub which has the worst excessive use of strobe lighting I’ve seen … well, ever I think, but armed with low expectations this can still be a little known, entertaining action frolic in the Brazilian rainforest.

Jimmy’s Hall  (2014)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                     109 Min        12A

Based on the true story of James Gralton (Barry Ward) who returns to his native county Leitrim in Ireland in 1932, after having previously fought in the Irish Civil War and then lived in New York for a decade, and, at public bequest, he then sets about resurrecting the town hall for all sorts of social events like dancing and lessons, things that inject a new lifeblood into the heart of the community. Not everyone, however, is thrilled about this, and the local Catholic priest sees naught but Lucifer at work in the Jazz hands that are shaking in the night (I’m making this sound like ‘Footloose’ 84, it’s not), and thrown into the mix are the thoughts of the IRA with the hall labelled as a Marxist hub, as well as the Devil’s playground.

Of course, we are shown that what the protagonist has created is not only innocent and devoid of any overt political or religious intent, but is also a spark of something worthwhile for the people, rejuvenating the young and old alike in an area where opportunity rarely deigns to show its face. Unfortunately, the opponents of the gatherings have such strong views that they make its very existence political, and what begins as an isolated thing becomes the focus for something much bigger, as Jimmy ends up involved in what is voiced as a major problem throughout the land – that of an enormous divide between the landed gentry and the working class and the resultant eviction of poor, hard working tenants from their family homes that they’ve lived in for years as they can no longer afford the rates.

Where the film finds its main success is with its discussion of the role of the church regarding events and its influence over matters at the time, as well as its attitude towards them, and it highlights the issue well. Where it is less successful is in detailing the political makeup of Ireland at the time – we are given a mention of the background of the Civil War, and the IRA, and get a feel for the what the situation is, but it’s not as clear as it could be, and it feels like a slightly missing segment, nor is the emotional connection to the story as strong as you perhaps might want it to be, but it still resonates enough to hold interest throughout.

This is the latest film from director Ken Loach, who also so happens to be one of The Red Dragon’s top three directors of all time, and who has pulled a bit of a Miyazaki by announcing he was to retire from feature film work after this film, and then hinted he might change his mind – which was wonderful news, but he must never retire as he is one of the few directors who constantly carries a torch for the common man, often using real local people in his films as well as actors, and dramatising real events or social concerns – social realism as it’s called, and although this isn’t for me one of his best films, his work is always of value and always has a relevance for the present day.

The kind of social enterprise at work here, for example, is still something that is largely lacking in many places, even in a city the size of Edinburgh where there’s lots going on, you can easily find people at something of a loss as to what to do with themselves to socialize and just meet people, other than the standard drinking in bars and clubs. There are lots of groups and opportunities to be found online of course, and Ceilidh culture is thriving which is great, but the idea of a centralized hub that everyone is aware of where they can find all sorts of activities and events to just turn up to and then join in with, regardless of who they are or their experience, kind of just doesn’t exist. Seems like a bit of a societal oversight to me …

The Amazing Spider-Man 2  (2014)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                     142 Min        12A

The second instalment in Sony’s Spider-man reboot, one of the most pointless restarts in the history of cinema after the hugely successful Sam Raimi Spider-man films which have hardly faded from the public consciousness at all. One possible reason for the decision may be the limited number of Marvel characters that Sony have the rights to, and if that’s so we can expect to see another reboot in four or five years time, but they most certainly based much of their premise with the first film on the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Here, once again, we see echoes of that trilogy, but with another action orientated and largely forgettable storyline (as I was watching this I was surprised how difficult it was to remember what happened in the previous one).

The bad guys are Electro and the Green Goblin, played by Jamie Foxx and Dane DeHaan respectively, with a little extra help from Paul Giamatti having a lot of fun as Rhino, and Emma Stone reprises her role as love interest Gwen Stacy, Spidey’s occasional bit of stuff when MJ wasn’t around. Helming the web slinging hero himself is, once again, Andrew Garfield who looks the part of the geek but who has all the charisma of a brick swinging its way through the streets wrapped in spandex, even his jokes leave you feeling embarrassed for the criminals that have to suffer them. Spider-man was my favourite comic growing up, but even though I read it as a child the Peter Parker it featured was in his twenties, more grown up and masculine (and he actually was funny) and it still worked, I really wish they’d ditch this coming of age hopeless geek routine that was already plotted across Spider-man 1-3 with Tobey Maguire, they should simply have carried on where they left off and made it ten times more interesting.

One of the film’s biggest selling points is the technology behind it. As one would expect from Sony, the picture quality is great and in fact it might be one of those rare cases when it is slightly better to view it in 3D (this is conjecture rather than a comparative suggestion) with fairly inspiring visuals of Spider-man flitting and diving between buildings. The rest of the acting is fine, and the special effects are pretty good. Essentially it’s a polished superhero film that although lacking anything distinctive or special, it does do the basics well enough to be worthwhile, and although it is a little corny to say it, I think you do always get something out of almost any film in the genre. It also sets up the ‘Sinister Six’ – a collective of various supervillains which were great in the comics, something which has no doubt been inspired by the success of the Avengers film, much like the upcoming Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman flick from Zack Snyder. Interestingly, there is a post credits scene that is actually from the upcoming X-Men film – could a cross company collaboration be on the cards … ?

Divergent  (2014)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                     139 Min        12A

Teenage fiction that is very obviously hoping to ape the success of ‘The Hunger Games’ (12), which is no bad thing, and it largely does a good job with only the cheesier elements of the writing letting it down. The film is based on Veronica Roth’s debut novel of the same name, part one of a trilogy, whilst Neil Burger (‘The Illusionist’ 06, ‘Limitless’ 11) directs. The immediate difference between this and The Hunger Games is that whilst both have a preposterous central storyline the other franchise makes it work on film in a very believable way, whereas here it takes a while to settle and doesn’t work to the same degree.

The world of Divergent is a dystopian future where mankind has struggled to survive after global war ruined everything. We are specifically taken to Chicago which is surrounded by enormous defences (beyond which no one is quite sure what exists anymore) and where the people are divided into factions when they are young, denominations they will belong to for the rest of their lives. These factions are : Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), Erudite (the intelligent), Abnegation (the selfless), and Candor (the honest), with each supposed to represent your nature and where you’ll be happy and productive and essentially ‘belong’. If you exhibit personality that fits in to more than one then you are a freak, divergent, and are to be killed instantly before you mess everything up. Getting this notion across to the audience in a way that doesn’t sound ludicrous is the first major challenge of the film and it remains one of its biggest pitfalls.

It does, however, immediately remind The Red Dragon of playing countless role playing games and trying to get ranks in as many different classes or disciplines as possible, one just never seemed enough. Guess I’m divergent, or schizophrenic, or GREEDY mwahaha! Our protagonist ‘Tris’ (Shailene Woodley) finds herself in a similar spot when her time to choose her faction arrives. Inevitably, her split personality disorder and strength of character will see her life put in danger, but also allow her to resist and fight against the sinister plot at work within faction management and inevitably attract the amorous attention of the male lead ‘Four’, Theo James. Kate Winslet appears as one of the faction chiefs but even though she was used heavily in the marketing it’s little more than a cameo role for her.

The style has been chosen to make it look as realistic as possible, and they’ve made it quite a lengthy piece, again much like The Hunger Games, and this all works in its favour, but it’s really the strength and charisma of the two leads that sell it overall. Decent, and good enough to merit a sequel.