Sunset Song  (2015)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                     135 Min        15

Adapted from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel of the same name, ‘Sunset Song’ firmly sets the central focus on Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), who grows up in rural Aberdeenshire and works the land whilst enduring an abusive father, before falling in love and watching in despair as the men in the village are forced by the church and the state to march off and join World War I. I feel I should warn you that this film made me quite intensely angry after viewing it (never a good thing when one is a dragon), but it did so by virtue of it being a great film masterfully created, bar just a few scenes with music that backfires (the novel ends with a song, so they kind of had to attempt it at some point) and a central character change that’s almost certainly displayed too abruptly for its own good.

Bizarrely, this was filmed in Luxembourg and New Zealand as well as Scotland (you’d think it cheaper just to stay in Scotland, although we have no film studio here which might be why – something there is currently a campaign to hopefully do something about), and one must be aware before watching this that it is looooooong and slooooooooow, absolutely not a film to bring popcorn into unless you are willing to piss off everyone in the auditorium including yourself. Many of the indoor scenes have a hazy quality to them and they are matched in contrast with crisply clear shots of beautiful countryside, indeed the former reminded me so much of Terence Davies’ ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ (11) that there was a definite internal high-five when I discovered he wrote and directed this too, and the film stands as a really good example of how it’s possible to make an incredibly still and slow movie work and resonate with an audience.

I’m additionally glad that it’s an Englishman who has chosen to take on one of the most famous of Scottish novels from the last one hundred years, because watching all the men leave to fight in a war that had nothing to do with Scotland and was naught more than a member measuring contest between pompous aristocrats is alone enough to make your blood boil, but becomes increasingly septic when combined with the current dragging of the nation into more military conflict, this time by dropping bombs on Syria, once again by rich English toffs (in parliament the Scottish National Party, which currently controls almost all of the seats in Scotland, voted unanimously against the bombing campaign) who almost certainly stand to personally gain financially given it makes no military sense whatsoever, pretty sure America and France don’t need any more bombs, and their party (the Tory party) has a long history of profiting from war (former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her son immediately spring to mind). Davies here is a most desperately welcome counterpoint to the all too common and pervasive feeling that English arrogance and greed constantly threatens and undermines Scotland and her people.

Deyn seems to grow much like her character does as the film progresses, gaining in personal strength and determination as time passes and leaving an enduring impression on the audience as we feel her various triumphs and heartaches, and the emotional, physical and claustrophobic recreation of her environment is fantastic, replete with realistic sex scenes – having the camera pan round while the man is on top (Kevin Guthrie in this case) to reveal an uncompromising view of a large hairy male arse is certainly something you’re unlikely to see in the mainstream …

Emotional and poignant, it’s a film that constantly threatens to drive you away with the intense silence and quiet; the close brooding with violent tempers ever champing at the bit, but instead it leaves us reeling from the reality that was, and still is.

Star Wars Episode VII : The Force Awakens  (2015)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                      Treasure Chest                  135 Min        12A

‘I have a bad feeling about this.’ Han Solo : Harrison Ford

Oddly enough, I felt no such feeling of trepidation over the continuation of cinema’s most famous saga and the biggest release of the year, due entirely to the fact that J.J.Abrams was on board as the director and he’d made such a wonderful job of rebooting Star Trek, indeed he also handles the scriptwriting duties here along with Lawrence Kasdan (‘The Empire Strikes Back’ 80, ‘Return of the Jedi’ 83) and Michael Arndt (‘Little Miss Sunshine’ 06, ‘The Hunger Games : Catching Fire‘). What the devoted cast and crew deliver is an extremely solid anchor for the future of the franchise, with obvious branches for expansion throughout and plenty for fans to love and be excited about. There’s something really comforting about George Lucas’s universe exploding on the big-screen once more, especially over Christmas, replete with original cast members and newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega.

They have very much played it safe with the concept by recreating everything that made the original films a success, which was almost certainly the right way to go about it, as thirty years on from the events of ‘The Return of the Jedi’ sees the universe still embroiled in conflict in order to supply the constant background tension, whilst the essential and compellingly truthful philosophy of good versus evil via the light and dark side of the Force, at once both simple and complex, continues to spur everything forward as characterisation goes into hyperdrive and the central players’ relationships draw in our attention, all against the backdrop of fantastic special effects.

John Williams returns for the score, and interestingly if you watch early sci-fi epic ‘Metropolis’ (27) you’ll notice some overt influences on Star Wars generally but also hints of its various musical themes in Gottfried Huppertz’s original score (perhaps not surprising given both he and Williams were heavily influenced by Strauss and Wagner). Similarly, here there appears to be a nod to the space opera’s samurai roots (in particular the work of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa – especially ‘The Hidden Fortress’ {58}, wherein the droid characters’ origin is immediately apparent) with one of the central bad guys wielding a lightsaber in the shape of a longsword (one imagines a katana blade wouldn’t really be feasible).

Without giving away any details about the story, the downside of playing it safe is that there’s nothing especially original to be found, and the various hooks are very similar to devices commonly used in TV series, but again this is a conscious choice from the writers and happily the pace continues to steadily escalate from the onset to the finale, delivering an adventure that’s fun and engaging enough to overlook the obvious gears at play – although some of the most important scenes do feel a bit shaky, and, as with Star Trek, a little more subtlety and depth may not have gone amiss (you can spot a few lens flares from Abrams dotted around the place as well – he could’ve gotten away with a few more to be honest, it’s a nice effect).

Ridley and Boyega play Rey and Finn respectively (not the first Star Wars characters to have less than inspiring names) and both do a great job, especially the relatively inexperienced Ridley given the pressure involved (when she smiles she looks a bit like Keira Knightley actually – maybe she is a clone, spliced with DNA from Natalie Portman {both Knightley and Portman were in Episode I}), and although the casting of a young female and a young black male as the two new central characters was an overtly political choice, it actually makes sense here and doesn’t feel, ahem, forced, and it’s certainly quite rare to see a black male protagonist not played by the same handful of actors – for a film aimed at being a defining moment for a new generation of fans the significance of these choices makes their final selection a really good idea.

There is perhaps a slight concern that they’ve gone too far and robbed Rey of any femininity whatsoever, accidentally making her a boy in their strive for political correctness, but I think that argument quickly disappears into the metaphysical, and, frankly, she’s one of the best things in the film and easily my favourite character (new droid BB-8 is also sure to be a hit, which she also mothers to a degree actually). Curiously, the producers stated there would be no moments reminiscent of Princess Leia in a golden bikini (perhaps fearing a backlash similar to that of Alice Eve in her pants in ‘Star Trek : Into Darkness‘) and this overconcern about her attire has led them, accidentally and slightly ridiculously, to sport Rey in the same set of unrevealing, but also unwashed, clothes for almost the entire story, meaning, basically, she must reek to high heaven. It’s a perfectly decent outfit but her activities ensure she likely sweats more than anyone else in the movie – detecting her presence via the Force presumably became redundant as the film progressed.

Great support work throughout compliments that from the core performers, with Ford probably the best of the bunch and helping to settle the newcomers, and there’s even an evil Scottish guy at one point – you can tell he’s been given strict guidelines on how to deliver his lines by the way he pronounces all his t’s properly (we usually don’t bother with this in Scotland, we’re not great fans of glottal stops). I was fortunate enough to be at one of the IMAX preview showings and there was a terrific atmosphere with people cheering and applauding and I hope that’s repeated across the land – indeed I’m totally in the mood to go and re-watch all the previous films now.

Star Wars returns to mark a great end to a very mediocre year at the cinema, and hopefully it will become a Christmas tradition for future years in much the same way journeys to Middle-earth were in the past.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl  (2015)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                     105 Min        12A

Great emotional film, with a multitude of references to other great films via central characters Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (RJ Cyler) who make small-scale parodies of the films they love, eventually coming a cropper for ideas when they have to make one for a young girl, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), whom they both befriend due to her being diagnosed with leukaemia (initially at Greg’s mother’s insistence). Moments of genuine comedy mix effortlessly with those of drama – you at once appreciate the dynamics of the youngsters getting to know one another at a pivotal moment in their lives as well as understand their individual neuroses and self-doubts, and the limitations they give rise to. Jesse Andrews wrote the screenplay, adapting his own 2012 debut novel, and with direction from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon it’s the latest in a run of films featuring a young cute girl diagnosed with cancer – after ‘Now is Good’ (12) and ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘, and this is most well rounded of the lot, anchored by convincing performances from Mann and Cooke, although the parodies we see a little of are never quite as funny as you want them to be.

Straight Outta Compton  (2015)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                     147 Min        15

Dramatisation of the rise to prominence of N.W.A.(Niggaz Wit Attitudes), the seminal rap group consisting of focal members Eazy-E (played by Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), detailing its foundations, socio-political effect and its bitter infighting and eventual split (the film’s name is taken from the title of their debut album and the first track on said album – Compton is a city south of L.A.). Both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are listed as being among its producers, so you can probably take a lot of it with a pinch of salt, and it’s not a biography of any one of the individuals per se so it has controversially not made any mention of Dre’s several physical abuses of women, but as a cinematic account of part of the music industry it is remarkably refreshing in the energy of the film, the performances, and the way it involves the audience in the music itself.

Mitchell, Hawkins and O’Shea Jackson Jr. all hand in great turns and are performers to expect more from in the future (O’Shea Jackson Jr. is of course Ice Cube’s son, and is indeed his spitting image) – interestingly, one scene features the crew receiving some police harassment courtesy of the L.A.P.D. and the main instigator of it is a black cop – much like was the case in ‘Boyz n the Hood’ (91), which was Ice Cube’s Hollywood breakthrough. With Paul Giamatti in support as N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller and directed by F.Gary Gray (‘Law Abiding Citizen’ 09, ‘The Negotiator’ 98), the film has been given a sinister seal of authenticity by portraying Marion ‘Suge’ Knight (played very well by R. Marcos Taylor) as a bit of a psycho – Knight who reportedly during filming got into an argument onset, one that was ended permanently by him running the other conversants over, killing one outright. In July of this year he was told he would stand trial for the murder.

North Sea Hijack / Ffolkes / Assault Force  (1979)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                     Treasure Chest                      100 Min        15

I LOVE this film. Roger Moore gives a fantastic performance, in fact it’s the best I’ve ever seen him deliver, as an unashamedly misogynistic, whiskey-toting, iconoclastic, ex-navy, freelance, anti-terrorist trainer operating out of Scotland when he and his men are called upon to try and neutralise a hostage situation in the North Sea which threatens several of the oil rigs there – a crises masterminded by a decidedly unhinged Anthony Perkins (not that he was typecast or anything), with James Mason’s far from convinced navy admiral overseeing the unorthodox counterplay.

From veteran director Andrew V. McLaglen (son of early Academy Award winner Victor McLaglen – who took home the best actor Oscar for John Ford’s 1935 classic ‘The Informer’) and penned by prolific writer Jack Davies as his last ever cinematic screenplay, fittingly adapted from his own novel ‘Esther, Ruth and Jennifer’ (also released in 1979).

This is by no stretch of the imagination a well known film nowadays but it has the unique talent of getting the comedy value spot on (listening to Moore flip out whenever a woman is mentioned is very amusing) and also creating an incredibly decent story out of something that, given the low-key look of the film and its under-the-radar status, certainly primes low expectations (often a significant boon). Indeed, it’s amazing how well the story is written from a number of angles, and if people are looking for a film to rework in light of the success of ‘Captain Phillips‘ then this is absolutely perfect – just so long as they stick to the writing and delivery that give the film its charm, an injection of the kind of tension the likes of Paul Greengrass can deliver would be perfect.

Definitely still one to search out and become a disciple of as it stands though!


Quotes

“You see, I, together with my five elder sisters, was raised by an maiden aunt – both my parents died tragically in childbirth. Until the age of ten, I was forced to wear my sisters’ hand-me-downs. Then when I married I discovered, to my horror, that my wife also had five sisters. All unmarried. And all expecting my support. I find cats a far superior breed. Just on the off chance, I have made a will – I’ve left everything to my cats. I want it testified that I’m sound of body and mind. Well go on!” Roger Moore/Rufus Excalibur ffolkes

Magic Mike XXL  (2015)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                     115 Min        15

I did have concerns about this when the film started and I realised I was the only male in the audience (the story focusing on the world of erotic male dancers as it does) – the original ‘Magic Mike’ (2012) was directed by Steven Soderbergh and I remember it as one of his typically intimate films rather than something that could have easily degenerated into flashy nonsense. Soderbergh did at least stay on to produce the sequel and although Matthew McConaughey is absent this time around, leading man Channing Tatum (whose autobiographical tale the first film was, having been a stripper in real life before beginning his film career) returns to reprise the titular role, along with his crew Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Ken (Matt Bomer) and Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias), and director Gregory Jacobs manages to keep the film very true to the feel of the original, albeit with a screenplay less drama heavy than before (Jacobs’ long standing experience as Soderbergh’s assistant director, including on ‘Magic Mike’, no doubt has a lot to do with this).

Mike is lured back to the adrenaline fuelled world of stripping off in front of hordes of flustered, aroused women (there were reputedly close to a thousand female extras used for the final scenes) for wads of cash and assumed fringe benefits (to be fair, he didn’t require much persuasion), tempted away from his carpentry business for one last trip with the Kings of Tampa to compete at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. It sounds like another ‘Step Up’ film but the narrative is well balanced between really well choreographed and superbly delivered dance sequences, on and off stage, and believable scenes of camaraderie with moments of reflection as they all take stock of where their lives are heading. A solid amount of comedy, great performances and some fantastic individual scenes easily make this the match of its predecessor – be prepared for a lot of dancing led from the hips and not always aimed there shall we say. With support from Amber Heard, Jada Pinkett Smith, Andie MacDowell, Elizabeth Banks and Donald Glover. The current ratings discrepancy on the IMDB between the genders is also quite amusing, seems you mortals are easily intimidated by size …

The Theory of Everything  (2014)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                     123 Min        12A

Eddie Redmayne annoyed me intensely throughout ‘Les Miserables‘, but I have to admit he is very good in this as the talented and cruelly fated cosmologist Stephen Hawking who developed motor neuron disease when he was just 21, and for once Redmayne does put his hair down for the role (it would have been most amusing had he not done so). It’s an extremely sad story and so the physicality of what happens to the main character necessarily takes up around half of the film’s focus as the disease slowly destroys his ability to use all of the muscles in his body, with the other half zoning in on Hawking’s relationship with his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) from when they meet at Cambridge in 1963 until more or less the present day, in fact the screenplay is based on her memoir ‘Travelling to Infinity – My Life with Stephen’ published in 2008.

The title refers to the ongoing search in physics for a unifying equation that will cover all of the fundamental forces of nature and will bring quantum mechanics and general relativity into harmony with one another, as currently they don’t completely work together suggesting something is wrong with at least one of them somewhere. What is actually more fascinating than the physics (the film doesn’t really delve too deeply into the science involved) is the effect on the marital relations of the Hawkings of other people being introduced into their interpersonal space, and one could easily put the disability issue to one side and extrapolate similar effects for any relationship, and perhaps argue for a more general equation surrounding this type of natural force. Redmayne and Jones are both up for awards – in fact Redmayne has already won the Golden Globe so he may be running as the most serious contender to ‘Birdman’s‘ Micheal Keaton for the Oscar. Despite the seriousness of the film and a story that is quite painful to watch, this is nonetheless a wonderful and heartfelt biography from director James Marsh (‘Shadow Dancer‘, ‘Man on Wire’ 08).

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

Edge of Tomorrow  (2014)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                        Treasure Chest                      113 Min        12A

‘Groundhog Day’ (93) meets ‘Gears of War’ (XBox franchise) in this sci-fi action adventure starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. The film looks fantastic throughout, although it feels a little jittery in the beginning before Bill Paxton arrives to settle things, no doubt his ‘Aliens’ (86) credentials highlighting him for the role, and he makes sure to nod in James Cameron’s direction with mention of Judgement Day as we are introduced to our recognisable modern day world – except aliens called Mimics have decided to invade Europe, and with the threat barely contained there humanity plans a D-Day style invasion to be launched simultaneously on every available front, with our viewpoint being the Normandy launch from London. Cruise is a spokesperson for the military who gets himself on the wrong side of Brendan Gleeson, never wise, and finds himself very much dropped in at the deep end where he quickly gets obliterated but, mysteriously, instead of dying he finds himself back where he was twenty four hours ago …

Based on the 2004 ‘light’ novel ‘All You Need is Kill’ by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Tom Cruise was the perfect choice for sympathetically selling a potentially difficult story to ground, and Blunt is every bit as brilliant as the successful war veteran, or the ‘Full Metal Bitch’ as the military PR dubs her (a wonderful moniker I fully intend to appropriate for personal use – you know who you are). The action is relentless, with the humans all armed with robust mechanised exosuits, real props, again much like ‘Aliens’ or ‘Avatar’ (09) but on a more manageable scale – similar to the one in ‘Elysium‘, together with elements common to computer games. Blunt, for example, often wields an enormous ‘Soul Calibur’ esque blade. Don’t expect much on the philosophy front, but this is almost seamlessly put together by director Doug Liman and despite a couple of hiccups, it’s rock solid entertainment.

An interview for breakfast telly with the two main stars …

Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy  (2014)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                       78 Min        U

There were a good many sheepish adults trying to melt into the shadows of the auditorium at the screening for this, and although their uneasiness is merited since this is aimed primarily at eleven year old girls, so too is their bravery to watch it as it’s actually a lot of fun. This is the continuation of the Disney fairy line with Tinker Bell (curiously, her name is often misspelled as Tinkerbell, the ‘Tinker’ part denotes her skills and place within fairy society, as a tinker, as well as the way her voice, and that of all the fairies, is heard as the tinkling sound of a bell to those not fluent in their language) as the central anchor, with ‘The Secret of the Wings’ being the last instalment.

This is actually an improvement on the last film, which was also pretty good, as here the focus is on a group of friends on a traditional adventure with themes of inclusion and the freedom to be creative, all beginning when Zarina (Christina Hendricks), operating as the fairy equivalent of Antoine Lavoisier, does the unthinkable and EXPERIMENTS WITH FAIRY DUST (actual fairy dust that is, not meth), resulting in her being ostracised by her peers when one of her experiments goes awry and she creates a FUSION BOMB (no, not really). Her response to this? She goes off and becomes a pirate, which, admittedly, is an impressive response.

The animation as you would expect from Disney is very good (although, oddly, Tinker Bell’s face doesn’t look quite right), there are a few songs in there, one of which is very catchy, the spirit of the film is completely perfect for the target audience (despite the lack of male characters to relate to even boys should enjoy it {the fairies are quite fit} unlikely they would admit to it though), the timeline within this particular universe is set, and there are some good laughs with a lot of nice touches to appreciate, such as when Zarina orders “Earl Grey. Hot” à la Captain Picard from Star Trek and when, despite the size of the fairies, a bee tries to buzz into the ear of one of them. I HATE THAT. Despite the secondary nature of the Tinker Bell line of films compared to Disney’s official feature animations, this holds its own very well. Also with Tom Hiddleston, Lucy Liu and Angelica Huston as some of the more recognisable voices in the ensemble cast.