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 Pefect Crime Drama” apparently. Not “Slow and Slightly Dull” …

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 as you might describe 300 as homoerotic this is just cheesy gayporn.

The original 300 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

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), and Call (Winona Ryder) are about to find out that aliens can swim…

I haven’t seen this for a long time, but I felt like watching an Aliens film and this happened to be on. If you ignore the franchise-extending way Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) – she died at the end of Alien 3 – has been brought back. It’s actually pretty good for the first 25 minutes – it’s just the rest of the film that’s the problem.

It’s now 200 years since the events of Alien 3 and Ellen Ripley has been genetically re-engineered – complete with alien queen gestating in her chest. This is purely so research scientists can extract the alien and breed more. They want to experiment with training the Aliens for military purposes. Predictably this doesn’t end well with the aliens escaping and trying to kill everyone…

The main problem with the film is that once the aliens escape, it’s not even a good Alien film. It feels like a B-movie sci-fi complete with a low standard of acting and unrealistic tension-destroying moments. Like when an alien quickly moves it’s head from side to side to dodge incoming gunfire.

The protagonists – a crew of smugglers, who include Annalee Call (Winona Ryder) and originally brought fresh alien-hosts (live humans) for the experiment – don’t even have that much contact with the Aliens overall. Ripley, now a human/alien hybrid is largely relegated to muttering over-dramatic soundbytes and doesn’t have a huge role here. Then there’s the step too far of the alien queen growing a human womb and giving birth to an alien with human qualities. This alien thinks Ripley is it’s mother. You can’t say that the film isn’t ambitious at least…

A mish-mash of crazy ideas mostly poorly implemented which result in a B-Movie action sci-fi 4/10

Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) shows an unimpressed P.L.Travers (Emma Thompson) around Disney Land.

This is based on the true story of how the book of Mary Poppins came to be adapted into a live-action film by Walt Disney. I know what you’re thinking… at best this will be charming but also no doubt twee and formulaic. Surprising though, it’s actually very good.

It’s funny watching Mary Poppins’ author – prim and proper Pamela J. Travers (Emma Thompson) – frequently admonish well-meaning Americans for daring to call her by her first name, and repel all approaches towards her that border on anything more friendly than ‘distant’. When one of the song-writers she is working with at Disney mentions “The Great” Dick Van Dyke (you’ll remember he played the ‘cockney’ chimney sweep in Mary Poppins)  Her response is “Olivier is great, Guinness is great, Dick Van Dyke is NOT!”. You also get to watch as those famously catchy songs are composed : Let’s Fly a Kite, A Spoonful of Sugar, Feed The Birds etc.

Adding an extra layer of depth and emotion is well-told backstory showing Traver’s troubled childhood in Australia with her much-loved but alcoholic father (Colin Farrell). Travers’ character of Mary Poppins was based on a brisk and well-mannered Aunt who came to the family’s rescue when her father was seriously ill. In real life things didn’t work out very well so she made sure they did in her fantasy version…

Tom Hanks makes a good Walt Disney, often smoking (Walt Disney died from lung cancer), but warm and generous and also very business savvy. He desperately needs Pamela to sign the release papers for Mary Poppins but it turns out to be a lot harder than he ever imagined.

Funny, touching, charming and only a little twee 7/10

Point 1 on the blackboard is Opposing Forces. For some reason that’s all Mr Dunne (Ryan Gosling) seems to teach, even going so far as to arm-wrestle one of his pupils.

This tells the story of crack-addict teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), whose life is gradually disintegrating. His job is the one thing that keeps him on an even-keel, but it’s looking increasingly like he may lose that soon. One of his pupils, 13-year-old Trey (Shareeka Epps) finds out about his crack addiction and becomes curious about him and they form a kind of friendship. Trey’s life isn’t easy either – her brother is in jail and her mother works as a police officer all day and most evenings, leaving her alone. Crack dealer (Anthony Mackie) is the only person looking out for her, which isn’t exactly ideal…

I haven’t got a lot to say about this really. The film is a life and relationship study that’s not overly dramatic. There’s lots of lingering shots of Dunne looking rough and holding his head in his hands. Similarly there’s lots of shots of Trey riding her bike by herself observing what’s going on around her. Describing it like this, it doesn’t sound great but it works well and the story rings true and is absorbing.

A good film, impressively filmed and well acted. The subject matter is a bit depressing. You wouldn’t say it’s exactly enjoyable but it is interesting and gritty and has no problem depicting people as they really are – flawed.

7/10

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