“Don’t move or my friend executes the bread”. De Niro and Statham do their best to seem tough.

“Life is like sucking honey from a thorn”. It’s a great quote spoken by the character of Hunter (Robert De Niro) in the film. Unfortunately there’s more spiky thorn than honey in this offering. Put simply this film really isn’t very good. It’s near dreadful for the most part and only picks up towards the end. So what’s wrong with it? Well for a start Jason Statham is the lead character. I always think of him as a B-list action hero, he can play “silent and enigmatic” very well but anything else (charismatic for example) severely stretches his abilities.

On this occasion Statham plays Danny Bryce, a contract killer. The film is set in the 80s to the soundtrack of the Clash and The Sex Pistols, there are no mobile phones and the characters drive thin-shelled (they didn’t worry about safety then) angular 80’s cars. Bryce’s friend and fellow assassin Hunter (De Niro) is taken hostage and Bryce is forced to take an assignment which involves killing 3 members of the elite British special forces – the SAS. Not an easy mission but made harder because ex-SAS Officer Spike Logan (Clive Owen) is on to him. Will Stratham complete his task or will Logan get to him first?

Robert De Niro really only plays a bit part as Hunter – Bryce’s mentor and friend – and you get the impression he’s only here for the money. The film isn’t very exciting and the first hour seems to be filled with ugly exaggerated caricatures of SAS men (the only accurate point seems to be that they have a lot of facial hair). The film improves for the last half hour but it’s still a largely dull turgid mess of a film, and appropriately, considering Statham is in it, feels like a B-movie action-flick and not one that is worth watching either. 4/10

“For the next 134 minutes let’s not say much to each other”. “Yep”

I have to be honest -while not (knowingly at least) homophobic, a film about two gay cowboys tending sheep on a mountain just didn’t appeal to me. So it was more with a sense of duty than anticipation that I started watching this. It is hard work at first – it starts slow. Yes beautiful scenery but still slow and I initially saw both Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger as actors pretending to be cowboys rather than real cowboys. However give it 20 minutes or so and it gets better, there’s more interaction (not just that sort) between the leads, and you begin to settle into the story. Somewhat ironically given the title, it only really gets going and becomes interesting as a film when the two come back down from Brokeback Mountain. 

Four years later and forced into ‘normal’ lives by the expectations and the always present threat of violence from society – both are now married with children. Deep down though neither is happy. Ledger tells Gyllenhaal during an rare meeting that they can never properly be together and have to keep living their sham lives – he recounts a story from childhood about 2 men who lived together on a ranch and how one was “beaten by an iron bar, and dragged around by his d*ck until it came off and left to die”. You get a real sense of the tragic hopelessness that came with a homosexual relationship for a cowboy at this time. (the film begins in the 1960s)

Despite my initial misgivings both actors are actually very good in their roles and Ledger especially shines as the more masculine and monosyllabic of the two. He manages to convey an amazing amount with just a few facial gestures and words. The film is also a hell of a lot better than many movies about straight cowboys.

Interesting and touching but should have been heartbreaking too (things falls down a bit here with a far too detached portrayal of a very dramatic event late in the story) 7/10

Two of the best things about the film: The Invisible Girl (Jessica Alba) and The Silver Surfer (Laurence Fishburn).

It’s easy to say that this film isn’t great but it’s much harder to work out exactly what’s wrong with it. It’s not terrible. I think it’s just that nothing is taken seriously enough to allow you to become fully immersed in the story and as a result you don’t feel much emotion or tension. It’s stuck between a comedy and an action film but is not funny enough to be the former or serious enough to be the latter. So you smile weakly and are only slightly invested in the action sequences.

There’s not doubt however that as in the first film, Chris Evans is great as Johnny Storm – his ego-driven, narcissistic personality here a mile away from his more subdued and honourable, but just as impressive performance as Captain America. Jessica Alba definitely acts and looks the part as The Invisible Girl. In the film she is frequently described as “The Hottest Girl on Earth” and it’s hard to argue with that description. Ioan Gruffudd is merely ok as Mister Fantastic. The role would have better been filled by an actor who has more weight and charisma. He is the FF’s leader after all. The the less said about The Thing’s cheap lumpy polystyrene-looking make-up the better – it’s just as well his girlfriend is blind.

One of the better things about the film is the Silver Surfer – an alien who er.. flies about on a surfboard scouting out planets suitable for his master Galactus to consume. He is both earnest and enigmatic. He has chosen the Earth as Galactus’s next target. In doing so had made himself an enemy of The Fantastic Four and at the same time become of great interest to their usual enemy Dr Doom (Julian McMahon).  Galactus – I have no opinion on although I know it annoyed comic fanatics that he is represented here as a galaxy eating cloud. But you know… maybe an alien on a surfboard is ridiculous enough? without adding a huge purple guy who can eat planets to the mix?

I struggle to say whether this is better or worse than the first film but it felt to me a little worse – it certainly seemed to end the franchise. There is however a reboot with new cast coming very soon.

A very average pre-Thor, pre-Avengers superhero film. 5/10

Matt (Josh Whitehouse) is pumped for soul.

It’s 70’s Britain and in the North of England a new sub-culture is being born :  Northern Soul – where teenagers dance to the latest US Soul records. The basic dance step looks a bit like Bruce Lee’s fighting-stance, where he gracefully jigs from foot to the other. Flourishes include spins, kicks and semi-breakdance moves.

This is the era before the internet and where communcation with the US is both expensive and difficult. For this reason sometimes the kids don’t even know the names of the records they are dancing to. The DJ’s all have ‘cover-ups’ – vinyl records with their label covered up, so that other DJs can’t find out what they are.

John (Elliot James Langridge ) is an introverted school boy who secretly fancies a nurse (Antonia Thomas) he sees on the bus each day. An encounter with older Northern-Soul dancing Matt (Josh Whitehouse) starts to bring him out of himself and give him more confidence. He gets into the ‘scene’ and learns the dances. John and Matt’s dream is to start their own club-night and to earn enough money to go the States to buy all the latest records.

Thankfully this isn’t  “Step Up : Northern Soul”. It’s not a dance show-off film. John and Matt are both good but not spectacular dancers. It has a decent script and a story that takes in drug-abuse, fights, deaths of friends, euphoric highs and crushing disappointments. The soundtrack is superb and is packed full of soul dance classics. It’s probably true however that outside the context of the film many of the songs just won’t sound as good.

Negatives: Although impressively edgy for a dance film, the overall story arc is a still a little formulaic. It’s also fair to say that while good, the story does come second place to the music and authentic depiction of the Northern Soul ‘scene’.

An interesting and eventful (and privately funded) film about a subculture 70% of people will never have heard of. Worth a watch. 7/10

This film is “Scalpel-Sharp and Shocking” and “The Perfect Crime Drama” apparently. Not “Slow and Slightly Dull” then…

So what moves at night? Your bowels? Long-distance haulage? Well.. the answer here is a boat full of explosives.

This is the well-made but sloooow story of Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard). Three environmental activists who want to make a statement by blowing up a hydroelectric dam. I know… what are they thinking?? It might be spoiling fish bio-diversity (or something) but this is clean electricity right? Surely a coal-fired power station would have been a more appropriate target? All that pollution belching out into the clean air…

Did I say this was slow? At the time though, you are always convinced something exciting is about to happen so you don’t mind, but nothing ever really does. They blow up the dam, there’s the predictable consequences of this and then one of the three does something that is too far out of character to be believable. Then the film just ends, leaving you to cogitate on what happened before, or if you are like me you immediately watch a more exciting film (Guardians of the Galaxy) to wake yourself up.

An interesting character study which starts off tense but soon succumbs to dullness. A great film to relax to though. 5/10

Things are about to get ugly…

This is one of the best films I’ve seen for a while. Gritty, uncompromising, with a strong emotional undercurrent. It’s compulsive viewing. It tells the story of Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) who is ‘Starred Up’ (English prison jargon for when a young offender is transferred early to an adult prison, usually because they are too violent to deal with).

You realise this will be a violent film when the first thing Eric does is melt a tooth brush into an improvised knife and then hide it in a ceiling light. Almost the next thing he does is beat a fellow inmate unconscious, who he mistakenly thinks is going to attack him. It’s not long after that, he has his teeth clamped down over a prison-officer’s ball-sack and is threatening to bite down harder. This film is that kind of violent.

Complicating matters for Eric – and also adding emotional depth to the story – is that his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) is also an inmate at the new prison. Eric and Neville have a less than ideal relationship but Dennis (Peter Ferdinando) a high up prisioner is insisting Neville brings his son under control. Dennis is threatening to have Eric killed if he doesn’t make progress fast. 

This is an enjoyable and unpredictable film. The violence although strong isn’t shocking or strong enough to be repulsive and there’s a superb central performance from Jack O’Connell who nails both the physicality and emotional vulnerability of his character. Ben Mendelsohn as Eric’s father is also very good, alternating between authoritative and shambling father-figure depending on the situation. The corruption in the prison runs deep, maybe a little too deep to be realistic in this day and age but this is an intense, compelling and realistic story well told.

8/10

It’s a good thing Thermistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) remembered to shave his chest and legs before going into battle…

The Persians led by the “God-King” Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) have invaded Greece with a huge army. The defending Athenian and Spartan warriors have spent a worrying amount of time shaving their body hair. Yes it’s the sequel to 300, there are more greased hairless gym-pumped chests but where 300 could be described as homoerotic this is just cheesy gay porn. The original film was an enjoyable mish-mash of testosterone, slow-motion action sequences and set pieces that became internet memes (“This is Sparta, Hear me roar!” etc). It even spawned the the spoof film Meet The Spartans (2008). Rise of an Empire isn’t exactly a a prequel or a sequel though. It’s more an ‘equal’ – since events take place both before, after and at the same time as the original 300. Instead of Spartans however, this time the focus is on the Athenians and instead of land battles, all the battles are at sea. By their nature boats aren’t very manoeuvrable, so things have to be spiced up with them ramming each other with precision strikes, suicide bomber attacks and the much larger Persian navy being led into obvious traps by the Greeks. The leader of the Athenians, Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) even somehow manages to ride a horse into battle while at sea – which is impressive. The chief enemy this time is not Xerxes but the Persian naval commander and master swordswoman Artemisia (Eva Green): “Her beauty is only matched by her devotion to her king” according to the very cheesy voiceover. There is a strange, aggressive and almost at-a-distance sex scene between her and Themistocles which presumably is to provide counterbalance to all the man-on-man action going on elsewhere. There are Spartans are in this film but they are now led by the annoyingly over-earnest Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey).  Equally annoying are the over-the-top blood spurts that seem to issue forth every time a sword even partially strikes home. I presume these were added for the 3D effect in movie theatres but they often give the impression that you are watching a video game. Hopefully the next film will be back with (non-irritating) Spartans and set on land. But no doubt some suit at the studio will try to find a way to set it in space with aliens or underwater with sharks. Over the top, historically dubious, cheesy, often over-earnest and not as fun or enjoyable as 300. 5/10

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