West (Westen) ****


The world may have forgotten life before ‘Reunification’ in October 1990, but the divisions are still there today, bubbling below the surface. Director Christian Schwochow’s film West (Westen) follows one young East German mother and child’s experience of making the dangerous journey to the West, long before Reunification was even considered a reality. West leaves you unsettle, using its microscopic focus on one family to intensify the paranoia felt at the time.

After the death of her Russian scientist partner in Moscow, Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) finally decides to illegally cross Berlin’s East-West German border in the late 70s with her young son Alexej (Tristan Göbel) to forget her past and make a new future. After a humiliating examination, she arrives and gets shelter and food at West Berlin’s Marienfelde Refugee Center, but the problems she thought she had left behind begin to haunt her again, as suspicion of Stasi sympathy is rife and life in the promised West is not as straightforward as she thought it would be.

It’s clear why Triebel picked up Best Actress gongs at Montréal World Film Festival 2013 and the German Film Awards 2014. The East Berliner makes a compelling lead, strong in character and determination, but without making Nelly too hard-nosed that we don’t empathise with her as the paranoia and need to protect grows. We ultimately want closure for Nelly at the end of her journey to ‘freedom’, something that Heide Schwochow’s (the director’s mother) screenplay – based on Julia Franck’s novel ¬- leaves up to you to decide whether Nelly has achieved in the end.

Watching this film from a parent’s perspective is a raw and emotive experience, as the urge to seek a better life for your offspring is the obvious hook. Naturally, with the global migrant crisis, the film is very current too. The casting of young Göbel as Alexej gives director Schwochow’s film its much needed hope. The young actor evokes a naïve spirit in a pensive Alexej that sadly gets knocked towards the latter part as reality sets in and he begins to see the struggles his mother is facing.

There is also the heart-felt addition of a ‘surrogate’ father figure in fellow defector Hans Pischke (Alexander Scheer) who is presented as a mysterious character with a dubious past and a possible threat to the mother and son. Ironically, he still provides the male protection Alexej needs that he can’t even guarantee for himself. This is where the story is at its strongest, in that we know little back story about all those that mother and son encounter, hence we are forever waiting for an unpleasant reveal, right up until the credits roll. This might frustrate some, but it’s West’s core strength – even Nelly’s past has a question mark beside it.

Although Jacky Ido’s secret service agent character John Bird is obviously there to hunt out Stasi and communist sympathisers among the refugees, his back story is equally sketchy and his reliability questionable. Like the other characters, we play a game of trying to figure out whether he is friend or foe for mother and child. However, Bird could have been further developed and less one-dimensional as merely ‘the face of the Allied Security Services’ in this.

West is an intense watch, perpetuated by the hand-held and urgent camerawork at moments. It relies on its strong characters to build the atmosphere and our imagination to fill in the deliberate gaps in their back stories. It certainly portrays the Schwochows’ personal input into getting the characters’ emotion just right – not too sentimental or too abstract to understand. In the end, the significance of the plight of the refugee is the overall impression that lingers.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Spy ****


Melissa McCarthy is an acquired comedic taste. We got a brief insight into her secret service ways when she accosted an air marshal in Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids (2011), which brought her to public attention. There was more to come with McCarthy laying down the law in Feig’s The Heat (2013) as a foul-mouthed Boston cop opposite Sandra Bullock’s uptight FBI Special Agent character.

Funnily enough, McCarthy tones it down her latest Feig collaboration, Spy, but only to begin with. She’s let lose again when she swaps desk work for field work as CIA analyst Susan Cooper. So expect all hell and McCarthy wrath to reign. Watch for her transformation into an American Dawn French lookalike too.

To overlook Spy as yet another McCarthy comedic vehicle is to do it an injustice. It’s actually a very funny pastiche of every spy-action movie out there, sent up by none other than British hard man, ‘Mr Transporter’ himself, Jason Statham at the fore as accident-prone spy Rick Ford. In fact, Statham steals the show as he lets lose funny line after funny line, all delivered in his usual menacing growl, while making a complete ass of himself in the process.

The pairing of McCarthy and Miranda Hart from BBC’s Miranda fame is a curious one. It feels a little stilted to start with, as though each funny lady is being too modest and polite about the other one taking the comedic lead. It’s only when the momentum gets going that each blossoms and their timing clicks into place.

This is helped by another Bridesmaid veteran, Rose Byrne, who is stereotypical in character as the villainous vixen, Rayna Boyanov, in this but is equally hilarious. It’s another Feig show of female comedic ingenuity that, regardless of the rehash of spy comedy tropes, puts the women in charge. Just check out the fight scene between Cooper and Lia (Nargis Fakhri), reminiscent of Kill Bill.

There are some entertaining performances from Jude Law as Bond-styled Bradley Fine, having a ball in a tux, while Peter Serafinowicz plays the most irritating continental spy, Aldo, with equal, gleeful campy affair. Feig certainly embraces the stereotype, which is why Statham’s Ford is a nice twist.

Spy is an espionage hoot with lots of action, silliness and Bond-style antics. It’s easy on the brain, consumable comedy with strong female leads that’s always a breath of fresh air in Hollywood – something Feig is instrumental in pursuing.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2014: Queen and Country ***


For such a patriotic title, writer-director-producer John Boorman’s new period drama, Queen and Country is quite the anti-establishment film set in post-war, Fifties Britain. It goes about this in a rather delinquent fashion, highlighting the pomposity of hierarchy through its varied characters’ experiences.

The sequel to Boorman’s semi-autobiographical Hope and Glory (1987), Queen and Country sees a grown-up Bill Rohan (Callum Turner) drafted into the Army, where he meets and becomes best mates with the eccentric and free-willed Percy (Caleb Landry Jones). To pass time during their conscription, they battle with their snooty superiors and traditions, while chasing girls and finding love for Bill in the mesmerizing shape of the mysterious and melancholy Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton).

There is a great sense of spirit and fun to this drama that interestingly focuses on the feelings of youth still coming out of the shadows of World War Two. However, conflict is always looming, what with drafting young Brits – to young to serve in WWII – for the Korean War. Through Bill and Percy, you completely relate to the frustration of young lives placed on the line for a far away hierarchy.

Boorman does touch on the grim effects of war, but this is more about the institutionalized antics of two maturing men in very different ways. It’s a coming-of-age film, first and foremost that relies on our investment in the boys characters to roll with it, greatly supported by some wonderfully enjoyable performances from David Thewlis as the by-the-book Sgt. Major Bradley, Richard E. Grant as the ever-bothered Major Cross, Brían F. O’Byrne as the barking-mad RSM Digby, and Pat Shortt as a Dad’s Army-styled joker, Private Redmond.

Quite honestly, without these characters – and the ‘missing mess clock’ gag, the film would feel rather flat, even though Turner and Landry Jones make a fine pair of cads, and Egerton looks divine with ease. It is very theatrical in style, egged on by its high spirits – very much stamping a Boorman presence – but often tonally uneven it what it’s trying to achieve, almost a touch of Carry On in places (cue another naughty nurse episode like Barbara Windsor’s Nurse Susan Ball).

Queen and Country is far from a harrowing piece of film period drama that some might come to expect and very much a mixed bag of surprises – though poignant – that will leave some fulfilled and others wanting. It will make you laugh at the lunacy of old-school British etiquette that is still alive and kicking in certain institutions today.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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San Andreas ***


If your world is crumbling around you, the one thing you want is a ‘rock’ of a man to come to the rescue. Enter Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, a man mountain who seems to grow in muscular stature in every new film he appears in. The earthquakes in San Andreas might be enormous, but Johnson seems to power his way to the heart of the problem, giving this rather silly but entertaining disaster film its natural arch enemies: Johnson verses the rock.

Johnson plays ex-Army-cum -rescue-chopper pilot Ray who makes it his mission to save hapless females in deadly situations, until the predicted – and long overdue – mega earthquake runs the full length of the San Andreas Fault line, causing havoc on West Coast America. He also has to find and save members of his estranged family in the carnage.

Johnson musters as much charm as possible to match is inherent reliability in this when the chips (or buildings) are down, and you can’t fault him for his efforts. He is more than watchable, but follows a predictable path of estranged husband who reunites his damaged family through disaster that’s been done countless times before.

What’s a little more interesting is not all the action scenes are reserved for him and his biceps; striking-looking Alexandra Daddario plays his college-bound older daughter Blake uses what survival skills she’s learnt from ‘daddy’ to rescue her own pair of Brit victims from the San Fran masses. It’s kind of like watching a ‘how to survive an earthquake’ video at times. Even mum, Emma (Carla Gugino), is not without a few action skills, managing to dodge damaged skyscrapers and maneuver a speed boat like a female Bond with ease.

There is a lot of CGI carnage to be thrilled by, without any blood-letting, hence humans defy falling debris without a scratch, much like in a video game. In fact, the film takes itself a little too seriously for a disaster flick, making it laughable in this respect. The only earnest character appears to be Paul Giamatti as world-renowned seismologist Lawrence who encounters the unfolding catastrophe personally at the very beginning, and gets to plead with everyone who’s listening to take heed.

Canadian director Brad Peyton – who worked with Johnson on Journey 2: The Mysterious Island in 2012 – certainly has gleeful fun carving up and flattening California in his film, acting like a prophet to remind current residents of the region of their impending doom with ‘The Big One’ due. Perhaps that’s the reason the film takes itself more seriously as the reality is there?

Whatever the reason, San Andreas may well be clichéd, predictable and rather daft sometimes, but its cast is easy on the eye and characters promote family values – with a little shake up of the earth beneath their feet. It’s an easily digestible flick that ultimately makes some of us relieved we aren’t living in the Sunshine State for once.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Man Up ***


The thought of Simon Pegg as a leading man in a romcom might make you hesitate before parting with cash at the box office, especially after the lacklustre Hector and the Search for Happiness. But you have to hand it to him – what with Kill Me Three Times, he’s certainly trying his hand at various the genres, so why make an exception with romcoms?

To be honest, his leading lady, Lake Bell, makes a formidable, comedic partner-in-crime in this, matching Pegg’s usual heart-on-sleeve repertoire and often stealing his thunder.  Man Up refers to what both of their characters should be doing in this very modern-day London ‘romance’ tinged with cynicism and knowing experiences of ‘life after 30 in relationships’. However, it does descend into something resembling a less-padded Love Actually in the end.

Bell plays Nancy, a thirtysomething Brit – with a flawless accent for an American – who has been less than successful in love. After another awkward ‘set-up’ at an engagement party, Nancy is on her way to her parents’ wedding anniversary party. She meets a girl on a train with a self-help book on Love. Deliberately leaving the book behind – with some much needed tips, Nancy races off the train after her, knowing she’ll be waiting under the clock in Waterloo station, armed with said book so her blind date can recognise her. Instead, Jack (Pegg) mistakes Nancy for his blind date, and she just runs with it, having promised herself she’ll become more adventurous in life. What transpires are deceit, brutal honesty, fun and budding romance.

Man Up has some great, knowing moments and a script that allows Pegg and Lake to rift sublimely off each other – even if the latter gets the best lines. Theirs is played out more like a platonic relationship that’s got possibilities. Things do get a little rom-com gushy towards the end as the Love Actually factor kicks in, resulting in predictability, but not necessarily spelling old-fashioned ‘romance’ (cue end reconciliation). It’s the fun had getting to this point that is the film’s forte and when it does get too sincere or sentimental, that’s when it veers off mark.

Pegg demonstrates he can do homegrown romcoms in a quirky sense, but only if his character is as self-depreciating as the female role traditionally is. Man Up may have its feminist ‘wobbles’ in parts – like the typical embittered ex-wife character (played by Olivia Williams) and Nancy’s vulnerable moments – but it is surprisingly contemporary, fresh and punchy in delivery. More so, we grow fond of Lake very early on that helps matters greatly.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2014: The Goob ***


Norfolk gets its film outing at this year’s festival, portrayed in both a good and bad light in debut feature-film writer-director Guy Myhill’s The Goob. Apart from the sinister (and consistently impressive) Sean Harris as the star attraction, the other highlight is the Norfolk countryside, both alluring and achingly desolate, simultaneously.

Young Goob (newcomer Liam Walpole) celebrates his last day of school by dumping the uniform and going for a dip on a balmy summer’s day. However, his short-lived freedom ends when he returns home to his mother’s bleak roadside diner and reality sets in. His young mum Janet (Sienna Guillory) lives with boyfriend Gene Womack (Harris), a violent womaniser and wannabe stock-car racing professional who he detests. A prank involving Womack’s prized banger ends up with Goob’s older brother in hospital, and the kid put to work by Womack guarding the family’s pumpkin farm.

Goob’s insular world is challenged by two outsiders; camp, fun-lover Elliot (Oliver Kennedy) who enrages Womack with his frivolity, and eastern European summer worker Eva (Marama Corlett) who Womack leers at. Both give impressionable Goob a sense of a greater world outside his home county to explore, if only he could be free to do so.

It’s hard to say what Myhill’s goal for film is, apart placing Norfolk centre stage – near Swaffham in the west of the county to be precise. The cinematography by Simon Tindall has a gritty realism to it, much like that in the Andrea Arnold vein, breathing real life into the landscape that’s depicted at all times of day and making it as much a lead character as the others.

There is also a great sense of locality and hidden charm to the area, even with a sad, overwhelming feel of abandonment too, that the area’s glory days are long past, even with a strong agricultural presence attracting migrant workers today. Myhill’s local documentary pedigree is evident, especially the racing scenes that are a throwback to his TV film about the Swaffham Raceway.

The film presents a series of moving picture postcards of the area in fact, not an entirely coherent plot-line, but the combination is still a captivating one all the same. The glue is Goob and the dysfunctional family, a standard cliché, but the strong acting and technical quality balance the film’s lack of character development and directorial vagueness. The latter is perhaps deliberate but with too many subplots not satisfactorily concluded, it seems sloppy rather than purposefully poetic in an indie style.

Harris is typecast again, but being Norfolk-bred, you respect him for committing to the project and lending his trademark screen nastiness. It’s not a taxing role by any account, but Womack’s monstrous personality gets a full, ugly airing, and one that Harris must have relished playing.

Gangly Walpole makes a striking visual presence, producing a susceptible innocence pierced by authentic adolescent rage for a debut performer. A lot of his scenes are highly comparable to other such coming-of-age dramas of past, including the prerequisite motorised escape (moped, car etc). Nevertheless, here is actually a youngster who sticks to his family duty, which is refreshing, rather than scarpering at any thrill-seeking opportunity – either that, or Myhill suggests no-one really ‘escapes’ this scenery.

The Goob is an affecting debut film from Myhill, one fascinating for its rich regional persuasion. It’s also another treat for Sean Harris fans that can’t get enough of the actor’s natural knack for screen callousness. Indeed, Walpole and Kennedy (The Chemist), the other young actor who injects a buzz into the listless environment as Elliot, get to perfect their art in this and present exciting prospects to come. Even former S Club 7 star Hannah Spearritt makes a notable supporting contribution.

What The Goob’s plot needed was less rather than more distracting us from the central family nucleus which is powerful enough. That said there is a certain whimsical yearning for the characters’ undemanding lifestyle, the irony being it’s far from this working on the land. In that sense, Myhill’s proposal may be demonstrating the lure of why Goob stays put, in raising Norfolk’s appeal to the outsider too.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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