We Are Your Friends  (2015)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                       96 Min        15

A film universally panned but which actually works quite well within its own somewhat narrow purview – namely that of one young man’s attempt to make a living out of djing and trying to identify who he is and who he wants to be in the process, all while his friends effectively go through the same journey although he remains very much the protagonist. The style of dance music used throughout really isn’t my thing, so I was very surprised to find I enjoyed the track selection throughout, and the way it has been used and sound engineered to provide a distinctive feel to the movie has been really well executed. Surrounding something of a focus on sound the drama unfolds as one might imagine, with things going awry and the ensuing deep reflection, but Zack Efron as the central character Cole fits the part perfectly, and the support from Wes Bentley and Emily Ratajkowski compliment both Efron and the style of the piece to make this a well rounded out film that ought to resonate with many young people feeling a little lost as well as please aficionados of EDM (electronic dance music). Almost makes me want to go clubbing. Almost.

This is the song the film takes its name from:

Wild  (2014)    35/100

Rating :   35/100                                                                     115 Min        15

A film that wavers all over the place as to its own merit, in particular the believability and credibility of the central character Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) who embarks on a solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail that runs up the western mountains of America (on average, 200 km in from the Pacific coast) all the way from the Mexican to the Canadian border. Set in 1995, it is actually based on Strayed’s 2012 memoir ‘Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail’, but the beginning shows us Witherspoon rolling around on the floor in a vain attempt to get off the ground with her pack on, forcing us to sincerely question the premise that she is then going to traverse thousands of kilometres on foot by herself. It’s not only preposterous, but dangerous – every year people are killed going on adventures or hill walking by dire luck but tragically sometimes also thanks to their own poor preparation, and the constant undertow to this film is that she has to suffer a bit but her gutsy determination as a woman is all she needs to conquer all and eventually overturn the darkness of her previous life to go on and be fruitful. In reality, it’s amazing she isn’t bird food after a mere week.

A wonderful moment to sum this up is when A MAN advises her to take extra water with her due to the heat. Seeming to take offence at this guy’s arrogance in assuming she doesn’t have a clue she ignores him, and then thinks ‘fuck it’ as she’s walking and needlessly downs her remaining water – sloshing the last of it over her face and hair for no real reason, before realising the tank to get a refill is empty. It is completely impossible to feel sorry for her. At this moment she meets two men one of whom will, naturally since he’s male, suggest he is going to try and rape her, and is only prevented from doing so by the chance return of his mate.

Although it is of course possible the event occurred exactly like this, it also fits the whole sinister agenda throughout the film (the film is directed and written by men I should point out – Jean-Marc Vallée and Nick Hornby respectively), if she had been raped here it would have been a terrible advertisement for walking the P.C.T. but merely suggesting it avoids this whilst adding drama and showing that most men are pigs, and yet she seems more than happy to spread her legs for anyone whom she likes the look of or who is willing to offer her drugs. Indeed, if she isn’t banging them, then they are trying to sexually molest her – even her father is shown to be a villain in flashback by putting his fist up to her face as a child and asking if she wants ‘a knuckle sandwich’ – and that’s it, that is the complete summation of his character, with no mention whatsoever of the stepfather she then had for many years including during the period that her mother (played by Laura Dern) was sick, and it seems they even changed her lung cancer to spinal, no doubt in an effort to make it seem ‘so unfair’ when possibly her mother was a heavy smoker (could be she wasn’t a smoker of course, but then why else change it).

In fact, the film begins to redeem itself a little when we see, during several more fast cut and reasonably irritating flashback sequences, that she was until recently a junkie, albeit one who never really seems to have any withdrawal symptoms, and we think ‘ah, OK, she is an idiot, that explains and justifies her borderline suicidal adventure’, but then it flips things once more, by showing us she simply went off the rails for a while, slutting herself around town and doing heroin in response to her mother passing away, all behind the back of her loving husband. Regarding her travelling escapade she at one point remarks ‘well, it’s more difficult for us women as we have children and parents to look after’ – erm, what?? I have to offer the disclaimer that feminism has had many great and important triumphs for the equality of the sexes, but there is an ever growing strong and nasty postmodern element that has evolved and which seems to grant women equal status in all things with the one hand, and then with the other it absolves women from responsibility for their own actions – indeed, it was recently announced on the BBC that there are plans in the works for no less than fifty percent of female prisoners in the UK to be released, because …. they’re female!!!

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – if they have come up with a better, more progressive system than imprisonment to rehabilitate offenders then great, but it should damn well be applied to men and women for Christ’s sake, and this film buys in to that whole sexist garbage by showing the central character wonder, as she begins to resuscitate her life, that maybe all the random sex and drugs and all the pain she caused her friends and family was perhaps in the end a good thing because it led her to where she is now – the complete and utter avoidance of any accountability for her actions. That’s like saying the Holocaust and the Second World War was a good thing because we got lots of new technology and the United Nations out of it. Witherspoon is good in the role for what it is, and she’s been nominated at the Academy Awards but I really hope she doesn’t get the Oscar, you can’t avoid the feeling that it’s due to who she is and a ‘triumphant leading female role’ – which when you look at in detail it really isn’t, although she does get her tits out a few times and the Academy does seem to love that.

It’s also true to say that without the seemingly uncredited help of several males in the film Cheryl would have perished many times over – including before the trek as it’s her then poor husband, who could easily have been riddled by all manner of venereal disease by this point, that forcibly rescues her from the drug dens she was frequenting. It wouldn’t be in the least surprising if she gave him a hard time about it for ‘interfering’, or ‘not wanting her to have a good time’ – reportedly Witherspoon’s production company Pacific Standard optioned this for film months before the book was even published, perhaps suggesting familiarity with Strayed’s writing or, rather more cynically, opportunism for the kind of story that can easily be spun into awards bait in a market that rarely stops to question the validity of anything with a ‘strong female lead’. Maybe the real story is an inspiring and fascinating one, but the Devil is in the detail and decent acting and cinematography are not enough to mask the many faults in this overtly pernicious adaptation.

Whiplash  (2014)    72/100

Rating :   72/100                                                                     107 Min        15

Another best film contender at this year’s Oscars, ‘Whiplash’ is the up-close and intense story of one music teacher’s bullying of his students in an effort to drive them to greatness. Determined potential drumming prodigy Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is numero uno on the list of students to break, and J.K.Simmons is abrasively and brutally brilliant as the demonic instructor hell bent on validating himself through ‘discovery’ of talent, whose determination is no doubt driven relentlessly on by his seeming failure to uncover any diamonds in the rough so far in his career, thus he feeds his own sadistic cruelty quite convinced the pain and suffering he causes is justified.

Teller is miles (ahaha) better in this than in anything I’ve seen him in so far (see ‘That Awkward Moment‘), and since it is him drumming (albeit with a lot of great editing from Tom Cross: the film’s solo, for example, took two days to film) he deserves a lot of credit, as does Nate Lang, who plays one of his competitors, for training him (Lang spent months tutoring him in the discipline of jazz drumming, differing considerably from his previous tenure drumming for both a church youth group and his band ‘The Mutes’ in high school). Teller, though, doesn’t yet have the emotional range to fully light up the film, to really, really make us feel for him.

It may perhaps seem a little too far fetched, that Simmon’s Terence Fletcher has been exaggerated beyond what would simply be allowed anywhere, but it’s partly based on writer/director Damien Chazelle’s own time in a jazz band (whose previous writing credits oddly include ‘The Last Exorcism Part II‘) and in The Red Dragon’s experience it’s bang on, and reminded him perfectly of one individual who was so despotic that he received bodily threats from concerned parents and yet who was still allowed to continue teaching unabated, resulting in a mass exodus of distressed and scarred students. No doubt many in the classical music industry will see similar shades of someone from their own past, or present …

What We Did on Our Holiday  (2014)    77/100

Rating :   77/100                                                                       95 Min        12A

Based on the successful TV show ‘Outnumbered’, which began in 2007 and aired its final episode this year, writers and directors Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin have adapted their take on dysfunctional family life for the big screen, as we follow the comedic and fundamental misadventure of the McLeods visiting their patriarchal roots in the highlands of Scotland for their summer vacation. Ad-libbing featured prominently in the show (the adults having scripted lines and the kids just being handed rough notes on the day) and it certainly looks like they have kept true to this spirit as the three young children (played by Emilia Jones, Bobby Smalldridge and Harriet Turnbull) easily steal the show, especially the youngest Jess (Turnbull), as we watch them behave in a believably childlike way but also show signs of maturity and understanding that seem to exceed those of their bickering and possibly soon to be divorced parents (David Tenant and Rosamund Pike). Billy Connolly plays the terminally sick grandfather and he is his usual wonderful self – he was also recently on tour in Scotland and performed solo on stage for two and a half hours without a single break – impressive for anyone never mind someone in their early seventies with advanced Parkinson’s, something which he relished making fun of too. There’s a nice warmth to this film and, most importantly, it is genuinely very funny, and it ought to be a reasonably safe bet to please the entire family with.

Wish I Was Here  (2014)    0/100

Rating :   0/100             COMPLETE INCINERATION            106 Min        15

The cloying title matches the substance of this entirely egocentric vanity project from ex Scrubs actor and smug twat Zach Braff, for whom this is his second time directing a feature film after 2004’s ‘Garden State’ although Braff is probably more famous for beating up a twelve year old kid the following year after his mates set him up for Ashton Kutcher’s ‘Punk’d’ and he didn’t exactly take it in the right spirit. Co-writing this with his brother and casting himself in the leading role he plays, wouldn’t you know it, one of two brothers – a struggling actor full of questions as to the meaning of his life as his father (Mandy Patinkin) is diagnosed with terminal illness and his wife (Kate Hudson) operates as the primary bread winner. We read from this then a large degree of autobiography, and when we couple that with the fact Braff funded the film via Kickstarter it’s difficult not to see this as someone asking the public to pay for him to make a film about how hard his life is, and it is equally difficult to sympathise with actor (Scrubs wasn’t exactly a minor success) or character as in the grand scheme of things the family portrayed are far from living on the bread line.

Braff has no children in real life, and this would explain the quite hopeless father figure he presents onscreen – which is partly a failed attempt to generate comedy, but allowing his young son to sleep with a charged power tool under his pillow and being unable to resist snide dope references in front of the kids make it all but impossible to see anything other than the immaturity of the filmmaker at the fore rather than any pretence at drama or storytelling. A fudge to drive events sees one of Hudon’s work colleagues make a few creepy comments to her, personifying his male member, but when she tells her husband later she describes it in such a way that gives the concrete impression he whipped it out and pestered her with it – leading to consequences which effectively destroy the rest of this guy’s life, and the audience are supposed to think this is great and justified. Josh Gad plays the brother and both he and Hudson are punching way, way below their weight here  (in fact the role of the wife is so awful it should really have gone to someone still in drama school) as we are continually bombarded with clichéd garbage and even some CGI sci-fi daydreams, where Braff is the hero, that are shoddy and inflated enough to leave you in desperate want of a paper bag to vomit into – Patinkin as the father is the only thing of any merit at all in the entire film. Sometimes there’s a good reason the studios say no to a project, and this is a prime example of how not to go about making the transition from acting to directing.

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

Rating :   63/100                                                                       98 Min        15

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

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

Walking on Sunshine  (2014)    53/100

Rating :   53/100                                                                       97 Min        12A

A musical which features various hits from the eighties, most of which are tortuously murdered by the young relatively unknown cast whose musical and acting abilities run the gamut. Oddly, said cast includes Leona Lewis in her film debut – and as the ace up the production’s sleeve not nearly enough of her is made, especially as she’s the strongest singer by quite a margin. It’s very obviously taking the majority of the leaves out of Mamma Mia’s (08) book, set as it is in an idyllic seaside location in Italy with three female friends as central characters (pictured above and played by, from left to right, Hannah Arterton {sister of Gemma Arterton}, Annabel Scholey and Katy Brand) and the context of one of their weddings as excuse for them all to be there. Scholey is the one to be wed after a five week whirlwind romance, although it turns out her husband to be (played by Giulio Berruti) used to be the lover of her sister (Arterton) who elects to keep this secret and hide the fact she is still in love with him, meanwhile Scholey’s ex (Greg Wise) is determined to win her back, but what could the outcome of all this possibly be …. ?

Most of the first two thirds is abysmal – indeed the opening rendition of Madonna’s ‘Holiday’ is probably the movie’s lowest point, but eventually it does get a little better, with maybe two or three scenes working as intended. One features Arterton singing live in a church and she does a great job – which makes you wonder why they didn’t do more of the same thing, à la ‘Les Mis‘, instead of dubbing the rest of it. Some of the other songs used include ‘Eternal Flame’, ‘Faith’, ‘The Power of Love’ (Huey Lewis and the News), ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ and of course ‘Walking on Sunshine’.

Whiteout  (2009)    0/100

Rating :   0/100             COMPLETE INCINERATION            101 Min        15

This is one of those rare films that has left The Red Dragon genuinely quite sad at the couple of hours of life wasted watching it. Normally, even if a film is bad, I may not necessarily regret having given it a go, but here there really is nothing good to say about the film whatsoever, it’s just a solid block of endless shit. Kate Beckinsale stars as the law official at an Antarctic outpost who must solve the mystery of bodies turning up in the snow, despite being so poor with her firearm she might as well be wielding a banana, all occurring a couple of days before she was due to leave for civilisation again. It’s primary sin is that the story is catatonically dull, but it soon degenerates from boring to gratingly daft, with Beckinsale at all times looking more like she’s just left a beauty parlour than been braving extreme arctic conditions. Whiteout itself deserves to be blotted out of history.

Walking with Dinosaurs 3D  (2013)    43/100

Rating :   43/100                                                                       87 Min        U

A big budget animation based on the BBC documentary series ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ which aired in the late nineties. This was financed by both the BBC and independent investors in the states and so all the main characters have American accents, with Justin Long being the biggest name to lend his talents to the voiceover work. We follow the adventures of two young brother dinosaurs, two Pachyrhinosaurus to be exact, as they mature from following the herd to leading it. The animated work is very good and everything looks slick and realistic enough, with Alaska and New Zealand providing visually splendorous backdrops (in fact the same mountain that can be seen in the Desolation of Smaug review also features here), but the story is simply terrible. Early on the two bros witness their father being torn to shreds, and then an instant later they’ve forgotten about it and they continue on regardless – in fact they assume their mother has met a similar fate, they don’t actually bother to try and find out.

They become part of a particularly lame love triangle which attempts to be both part of the animal kingdom and also relate to human relationships, with the potential conclusion being that the alpha male will get the woman who will bow down to him even though she thinks he’s a moron, and the way to counter this is to attempt to beat him to a pulp – and if that fails wait until hopefully someone else does it for you. It does tell you the name of each of the species that they encounter and what the name means which is nice – the bad guys are the gorgosaurus, which translates as ‘fierce lizard’, and also lends more depth to Lena Headey’s sexy queen Gorgo in ‘300’ (06).

Walesa – Man of Hope / Czlowiek z nadziei  (2013)    69/100

Rating :   69/100                                                                     127 Min        12

A very interesting film that charts the rise of electrician Lech Walesa, from dockland worker in Gdansk in the early seventies to the co-founder and leader of the first independent trade union movement in Poland (and indeed the Soviet bloc) over the next two decades, and eventually the winner of the Nobel peace prize and the presidency of the Polish nation. Internationally respected director Andrzej Wajda had in mind to simply relate a factual account of events, without the traditional sort of narrative that we might expect from a Hollywood biography – and the result is a fascinating story, albeit one that does lack a certain emotional connection at times.

Mixed in with the relation of events chronologically is an interview with Walesa that seems to try and provide insights into his character not given elsewhere, but here the film is at its weakest, with the meaning a little too ambiguous and unclear (anyone under the microscope in an interview is already giving us an out of context glimpse of their personality, likely with an agenda behind their answers) and the heavy stylised use of cigarettes – smoking certainly fits into the historical context here, but with the interview it serves no real purpose, and for a film decrying the corruption of big business it seems markedly odd to be kowtowing to one of the most pervasive, corrupt and destructive businesses there has ever been.

Notwithstanding the occasional drifting of one’s attention, the tale is a fascinating and important one, promoting the rights of the common man as well as the power of self belief and determination to accomplish truly great deeds, as we watch Walesa battle against severe, and at times deadly, political forces. Robert Wieckiewicz as Walesa is believable throughout and seems perfect for the role, with Agnieszka Grochowska as his beautiful but constantly stressed out wife just as good. Real archive footage was used throughout – sometimes with Wieckiewicz’s face digitally imposed on top, and the style of the film very much mirrors one shot in the seventies.