In the Heart of the Sea  (2015)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                     122 Min        12A

Director Ron Howard’s latest dramatic feature since ‘Rush‘ is based on the similarly titled 2000 novel by Nathaniel Philbrick and once again features Chris Hemsworth as one of the protagonists, here playing Owen Chase – first mate of the Essex, a whaling ship whose fateful 1820 voyage was one of the primary sources that inspired writer Herman Melville to pen his historic fiction ‘Moby-Dick’ in 1851 (the legend of albino sperm whale Mocha Dick, who frequented the waters around the Chilean island of Mocha, was another such real-life source). Here, shots of the Essex and her crew are occasionally interjected by scenes of an eagerly attentive Melville (Ben Whishaw) listening to the recounting of the story by one of the original crew (Brendan Gleeson), often visibly pained by the memories the writer elicits from him.

The Essex hailed from Nantucket in Massachusetts, and the most obvious thing that stands out from the opening chapter of the film is the truly terrible range of accents that the cast have attempted, chief turkey among them being Hemsworth’s – to be honest, they are so bad I’m not even sure if they are attempted something similar to the modern-day region, maybe even close to Bostonian, or something which for some reason they think must have existed once upon a time. It’s all, ahem, ropey to say the least, but as a crew their collective voices seem to coalesce together and eventually it all evens out.

The crux of the story is the Essex’s basic and ongoing attempt to hunt whales, especially the extremely lucrative sperm whales, for their oil (it wasn’t until the late 1840s that Scotsman James Young really began the crude oil trade, taking out the UK and US patents for Paraffin distillation from coal in the early 1850s) and the unfortunate dearth of aquatic activity they come across leads them to desperate searches further and further into the Pacific Ocean, whereupon they encounter one particular sperm whale, bedecked white and awash with the scars of many previous encounters with man, who isn’t especially keen to let the whalers have it all their own way, and so begins their real adventure.

All of this is against the background of tension between the first mate and the captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), as the latter is a posh dunderhead from a rich family, thusly gaining the position, whose manhood isn’t best pleased to find that his first mate is in fact Thor, swaggering around, vaunting up ropes, proving to always be right and seeming to single-handedly sail the ship. This element of the film never really climbs out of the doldrums of melodrama, but the recreation of the voyage amidst the setting of the ship is one of the highlights, and the story and effects, for the most part, unerringly draw us into their world for the movie’s duration, also providing the key to its eventual success as we really feel for them and the many maritime men for whom such journeys were a reality.

The additional horror of showing us the brutal reality of their line of work, with sanguinary depictions of the murder of innocent whales, will absolutely disgust many viewers, and indeed you can feel the film jitter with uncertainty over how to portray these scenes and the characters within them, but they are fascinating from a historical accuracy point of view and indeed these detailed features are in keeping with one of the many noteworthy aspects of ‘Moby-Dick’ itself, which, incredulously, was not a financial success during the author’s lifetime.

The Last Witch Hunter  (2015)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                     106 Min        12A

The premise of this film: Vin Diesel is a warrior in the Middle Ages battling an especially powerful witch who curses him with immortality, then he lives through the centuries fighting witches and evil with sword and flame, with Michael Caine as his priestly mentor and guide. The Red Dragon: Sold. Immediately. It’s as fun and carefree as it sounds with some glorious special effects and a well paced storyline containing easy to like characters – shades of Batman with Caine’s role and some of the music used, but it works well. Afore long the plot takes us to the modern age and we learn witches are still amongst us, both good and evil, and that Diesel as the hunter Kaulder is a vital cog in the peace keeping machine operating between the covens and humanity.

Directed by Breck Eisner (‘Sahara’ 05, ‘The Crazzies’ 10) and written by Cory Goodman (‘Priest’ 11), Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (‘Dracula Untold‘), the story actually apparently came about after discussions with Diesel regarding one of his Dungeons and Dragons characters, a concept which I think is fantastic (have a read here for more on his gaming hobby). With Elijah Wood, Rose Leslie, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and Julie Engelbrecht in support – should certainly prove fun for fans of fantasy action.

The Riot Club  (2014)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                     107 Min        15

A vile film brimming with vile characters, but a good one nevertheless. Laura Wade adapts her own 2010 play ‘Posh’ for the big screen and together with director Lone Sherfig (‘An Education’ 09, ‘One Day’ 11) weaves a tale of toffy nosed excess amongst an elitist society of prigs at Oxford university, the titular Riot Club, almost certainly based on the real life Bullingdon Club (which the current British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, were both members of). We enter the main story at the same time as the two central characters do, with Miles (Max Irons) and Alistair (Sam Claflin) beginning their time at uni and quickly coming to the attention of the established RC who only recruit the very crème de la crème of the males on campus, effectively sourcing the best looking and most affluent available. Alistair is arrogant, snooty, calculating, evil and essentially everything you imagine an upper class snob would aspire to be like, contrasting with Miles who is naïve and excited at being singled out for membership but is essentially good at heart, something which also garners him the amorous attentions of the delectable Lauren (Holliday Granger).

We see a little of their very laddish exploits, which largely seem repugnant more than anything else (pretty sure if I joined a group and they broke into my room, ransacked it and then spunked over my notes, that group’s membership would swiftly be reduced by at least one), and the potentially corruptive interplay of group dynamics predominantly rears its ugly head, but the staging of the film is mainly a direct extrapolation of its theatrical origin and politics frequently takes centre stage. Indeed, it is no surprise whatsoever that this was released the weekend after the Scottish independence referendum as the heart of the movie takes place in a restaurant where the group debauch themselves and consistently rub up against the Scottish proprietor (Gordon Brown), resulting in increasingly difficult scenes to watch.

Equally, the nationality of the landlord, who employs his daughter (Jessica Brown Findlay) and is shown to be fairly jovial and proud of his business, is quite deliberate as not only do the Riot Club espouse absolutely everything that we the Scots hate about the English, but they also represent everything the English hate about the English, and indeed everything the rest of the entire world hates about the English for that matter (indeed, whenever anyone from Scotland refers to the English in a negative context we mean these twats, not people from England generally. It’s important to make this distinction), stemming from this much ingrained marker of arrogance as a sort of national symbol – one that has long been the backbone of the money laden elite traditionally filling the halls of power in every walk of the British establishment, and still very much holding Westminster in thrall today.

The film has a modern day setting, which hammers home the point that it is still a current issue despite being somewhat associated with an aloof aristocracy of centuries past, and the film is well acted to the point that it may be difficult to shake off some of the character associations with the performers. A drama of blood privilege that highlights the lunacy of the gulf between the people that run Britain and the majority of the people that live in the country.

Hercules  (2014)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                       98 Min        12A

Dwayne Johnson stars as the titular hero of Greek mythology (it should be entitled Heracles though, Hercules being the romanised version of the demigod) and he was pretty much the perfect choice for the role. He’s come a long way since the days of ‘The Scorpion King’ (02), delivering a slew of entertaining performances to become a dependable leading man and command one of the highest fees in Hollywood (Forbes currently places him in second place overall) and here his onscreen presence serves the character perfectly, as he stands on two tree trunk legs, each wider than the nearest warrior behind him, wielding his giant olive-wood club and adorned with the skin of the Nemean lion.

Rather than following in the footsteps of the likes of ‘Clash of the Titans’ (10) and ‘Immortals’ (11), this is more concerned with Hercules the man and how the myth is wrapped around him, and it is essentially a battle film with pretty decent set pieces and costumes – there’s nothing outstanding or brilliant about the movie but it is pretty good overall, notwithstanding the cheesy dialogue and historical inaccuracies (Athens is shown to have a king, for example, when at this time, circa 350 BC {which is actually way too late for Heracles’ era anyway}, her democracy was flourishing and kings had been done away with, and indeed they are using the misplaced king, Eurystheus, of variously Argos or Tiryns depending on which source you read) that we expect to find anyway. It’s based on a graphic novel and it has that kind of feel to it – similar as well to ‘King Arthur’ (04) in that we follow Hercules and his friends as they are hired to help defend the kingdom of Thrace from an usurper (Hercules is a mercenary, one tormented by a brutal personal event in his recent past), and we don’t get to know them in any great depth – but well enough to like them and care if they get cut to pieces or not.

There’s a host of good supporting actors – some of them regulars of the genre such as Rufus Sewell, John Hurt and Ian McShane, but also Peter Mullan, Aksel Hennie, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal – playing the Amazonian Atalanta and looking very much like a young and super fit Nicole Kidman. It’s good fun with some nice locations and sets and it’s a lot better than the likes of the Conan reboot and the aforementioned ‘Immortals’ (truly, an episode of ‘Total Spies’ is more worthwhile than that film), and although it is lacking any kind of spark to really ignite it, enough has been done to merit a sequel and it probably won’t disappoint if you’re in the mood for a weekend action film.

Oddly, Johnson’s real life buddy Arnold Schwarzenegger had his first movie role playing the same part in ‘Hercules in New York’ back in 1969 (one of Schwarzenegger’s inspirations, Steve Reeves, also played the Grecian hero on two occasions). The two friends managed to share a brief onscreen moment together in ‘The Rundown‘ 03, which is also worth a watch incidentally.

The Two Faces of January  (2014)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                       96 Min        12A

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel of the same name (which isn’t one of her Tom Ripley stories), this is a character portrait of two fairly petty criminals and one woman who gets caught up in the middle between them. Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette MacFarland (Kirsten Dunst) are married and holidaying in Athens in the early 1960’s where they meet tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who is busy skimming extra profits off of his naive tourists. Chester has accumulated large amounts of money through various scams, and some of the people who lost their savings have hired a private eye to get it back for them – queue an accidental murder and the three central characters trying to evade capture and secure new passports via Rydal’s contact, although both he and Colette are unaware the P.I. has actually died.

Rydal sees an opportunity to squeeze a fat cat for money before realizing he’s in over his head, and indeed he also has an eye for the pretty Colette, who is in turn not exactly pleased with her husband for landing her in the current situation. What unfolds is an almost inevitable story of jealousy and doubt, anger and fear, but it’s well brought home to us, with an understandable balance very well distributed between all the characters, and a good exposé of that moment probably everyone has experienced when three really is a crowd. Taking its title of course from the fact January is named after the (literally) two faced Roman god of transitions, Janus, this adaptation is the feature film directorial debut of Hossein Amini, who also adapted the screenplay, and as such it is quite impressive, being well paced, set and acted right from the very beginning.

Frank  (2014)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                       95 Min        15

This, to me, looked like a garish nightmare – some guy in a creepy head mask who used to be on TV sometimes (he was then Frank Sidebottom, comic persona of Chris Sievey, who sadly passed away a few years ago) – I never knew what the show was about, but I absolutely knew I didn’t want to watch it. However, the fact that Michael Fassbender was playing said guy in mask made me wonder … and actually it’s pretty good. The titular masked Frank is a mysterious, reclusive musician who never takes off the head – even when he’s in the shower. Him and his band, which includes Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy, are in need of a new keyboardist, which central character Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) sees as his big break, when he happens upon the event of their previous keyboardist trying to drown himself in the sea.

Gleeson was the perfect person for the role as his character begins as the sort of maudlin standard slightly posh ‘nice guy’, with a penchant for social media, that often populates British London centric films (this is a British-Irish film incidentally, directed by Irishman Lenny Abrahamson and largely set in Ireland), much as his character was in ‘About Time‘, but then it turns out he’s a total creep, which is not only a satisfying arc to follow, but it puts into wonderful perspective the other much more diverse and interesting characters, none more so than the delicate and passionate Frank.

An original film exploring the value of individualism and the old adage of not to judge a book by its cover, or in this case a person by their head. Some of the music they make is actually pretty good too.

Plastic  (2014)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                     102 Min        15

A fairly low key British crime thriller featuring lots of up and coming talent, and it’s actually quite good if you can stomach the preponderance of Cockney accents that verge on the hammy. A group of fledgling credit card thieves get in over their head and are forced to recruit someone working on the inside for a large card company in order to score it big and loosen the noose that’s been placed around their necks. The group, pictured above, are played by (from left to right) Sebastian De Souza, Alfie Allen, Emma Rigby, Ed Speleers and Will Poulter. Rigby shows a lot of promise but, as you can get a hint of from the picture, sadly the film plays a little too much on her womanly assets. The entourage head to Miami to bait their primary target, and so we are treated to some nice weather which makes a change for the London gangster genre, and the story holds its own for the duration of the film, as the group must contend with issues of infighting, greed and trying to keep their strongest resource in the dark as to their real motives.

Carrie  (2013)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                     100 Min        15

The remake of the 1976 classic horror film (based on Stephen King’s 1974 novel) does a pretty convincing job, but unfortunately loses its way toward the end. Chloë Grace Moretz takes on the titular role of Carrie White (originally immortalised by the wonderful Sissy Spacek) a shy and bullied young girl in high school who discovers she has telekinetic powers, and who also has to contend with her unhinged religious zealot of a mother (Julianne Moore). Moretz is convincing throughout – not an easy role for her given the existing iconic status of Carrie, and also the fact that her character here is in many ways the opposite of her own immensely popular onscreen persona of Hit-Girl in the ‘Kick-Ass’ franchise. It’s just a shame there isn’t a more rewarding release of all that tension that is successfully built up in the first two thirds of the film. It should mostly satisfy, but is unlikely to either delight, or overtly offend.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler  (2013)    68/100

Rating :   68/100                                                                     132 Min        12A

The true story of Eugene Allen – or at least it should have been. This is a heavily fictionalised account of Allen’s life, so much so they changed the central character’s name to Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker). I won’t list the principal story elements which were invented for the film as it will to no small degree ruin it, but their inclusion is ameliorated by the material at least arguably being representative of real experiences for African Americans at that time. In any eventuality, Allen served several of the American presidents, from Eisenhower in the 50’s right up to Reagan in the 80’s, as one of the White House’s butlers (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz play two of the others). With his occupation as an anchor for the story, what unfolds is an uncompromising reflection on the Civil Rights Movement in America, as we see the murderous brutality Gaines witnesses in the deep south as a child and the struggle his own son (played by David Oyelowo) goes through when he becomes an activist in the movement, mirrored with his unique employment and the very real effect he and his co-workers most certainly will have had on influencing the perspective, thoughts, and decisions of the presidents themselves.

It’s the latest film from talented director Lee Daniels, after last year’s ‘The Paperboy’, and it’s interesting that even the very difficult and harrowing brutality of racism, is still seemingly more palatable to audiences than the, ahem, touchy area of onscreen masturbation that was evident in that film (which I liked incidentally {the film that is, not John Cusack masturbating}), although some of the less effective after effects used there to make the film seem a little dated do also crop up here, giving early periods of the film a decidedly pallid feel to them. His latest movie is an emotive, strong piece that is well acted by its principal cast and its equally strong, and extensive, supporting cast members. I won’t spoil the long list of big name actors who appear as the various presidents throughout the film, although one was particularly surprising as he’s British, and another has played a president before … If so much of the screenplay hadn’t been mere invention, and if it wasn’t still being billed as a biography, then this would be a fantastic film – as it is, it’s still pretty good.

The Frozen Ground  (2013)    68/100

Rating : 68/100                                                                       105 Min        15

Based on the true story of Alaskan serial killer Robert Christian Hansen, and the police investigation to try and ensnare him before he can strike again. John Cusack plays Hansen, with Nicholas Cage as the lawman tasked with sowing the net of evidence against him, and Vanessa Hudgens appears as prostitute Cindy who narrowly survives becoming another homicide victim, but whose testimony is deemed questionable by the authorities due to her profession.

It’s a feature film debut from writer and director Scott Walker, and although it’s not as tense as it could be, it does deliver a successful amount of intrigue as to how they are actually going to manage to prove in a court of law that he is the man they are after (we the audience are left in little doubt as to his guilt from early on). Curiously, one of the worst moments of the film is during the end credits when we see photographs of the real life victims whilst what sounds like a cheery soft rock song plays, which comes across as somewhat disrespectful, though admittedly an understanding of the lyrics may have altered this perception, if it had actually been possible to make them out that is.

The film largely sticks to the real events, and it is at its least successful when deviating from them, certainly with the contrived relationship between Cage and Hudgens’ characters which borders on soap opera and partially necessitates the sidelined character of ‘the wife’, played by Radha Mitchell. Nevertheless, this is a good film for a greenhorn director, chillingly portraying an especially macabre series of killings. See the following documentary for details of the actual events (naturally, this will contain spoilers if you intend on seeing the film too).