About Tom Woodcock

Film, Media and English student in Wakefield, England

Film Review: The East

Tom says:

In Zal Batmanglij’s The East, former FBI agent and intelligence operative Sarah Moss, played by Brit Marling, is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group known as The East in an effort to discover their next target. In this politically-charged thriller, we see Sarah’s loyalties and morals tested as she gets to know The East and what they stand for. As formidable as The East sound, they certainly give off a different air when we see them in person.

Although there are around 10 members of The East in total, the main four members are Izzy (Ellen Page), Doc (Toby Kebbell), Luca (Shiloh Fernandez) and the leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), who resembles Jesus in both status and appearance. As well as being anarchists, The East are devout environmentalists, and their attacks, or “jams”, are often reactions to environmental abuse.

Although I agree with these philosophies, The East tend to take it too far. With their dumpster diving, mutual body washing and dinners while wearing straitjackets, the group sometimes feel less like fierce anarchists and more like a bunch of university students that decided to become hippies. Of course people do make these drastic life changes in real life, but perhaps the film would have benefited from adding an older member to the group. The great thing about this film, however, is that no side is either definitively good or bad. If you don’t agree with The East’s pro-environment sentiments, then it’s perfectly fine to root for the corporations. Like Sarah Moss, we have this choice.

But the best part of The East has got to be the jams themselves. Scenes such as the corporate party in which The East attempt to dose a pharmaceutical company with their own faulty drug will have you on the edge of your seat and perhaps even questioning your own morals.

In summary, The East is a fairly entertaining eco-anarchist thriller that has some great suspenseful moments. Unfortunately the group themselves don’t live up to their reputations.

Gary says:

The East is a thought-provoking and politically-relevant thriller starring Brit Marling as Sarah Moss, an undercover agent who is assigned the job of locating and infiltrating a mysterious group of anarchic eco-warriors known only as The East, in order to obtain knowledge of their upcoming targets, as well as their true identities. However, Moss struggles with her own sense of morality when she eventually locates and joins the group, and finds herself sympathising with their cause.

Under the charismatic and caring leadership of Benji, played by Alexander Skarsgård, the group proceed to hatch some truly thrilling, eye-for-an-eye plans (referred to as ‘jams’) against several seedy corporations, with the aim of gaining revenge for the harmful injustices they have caused to the Western world. Their questionable methods and self-righteous attitude create an interesting dilemma for both Moss and the viewer, as it’s often difficult to fully determine which side to root for.

The great cast provide strong, believable performances as the cult-like East, who live in a secluded area of the woods and partake in some frankly bizarre rituals. However, the breakdown of Sarah’s relationship outside of her undercover work, and eventual romance with Benji, would have benefitted from further development.

Drawing inspiration from their own personal experiences with the ‘freeganism’ movement and their time spent as part of anarchist groups, director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer Marling make their eco-friendly message clear throughout. The film opens with upsetting shots of oil-drenched birds, which understandably provoke sadness and anger but, although the intentions are mostly good, the script is heavily polluted with an overbearing, anti-corporate message that does eventually become fairly tiresome.

by Tom Woodcock & Gary Woodcock

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Film Review: Chasing Mavericks

Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted’s Chasing Mavericks is an overly-sentimental and clichéd biographical surfing film that attempts to ride Gerard Butler’s celebrity wave, but finds itself crashing against the rocks due to its lifelessness and bad writing.

Jay Moriarty (played by Jonny Weston in the film) was a Californian surfer who gained notoriety in 1994 when he attempted to ride the infamous waves known as Mavericks at the age of 16. In Chasing Mavericks we follow Moriarty from when he first became interested in surfing at 9-years-old, until the big moment 7 years later, which is made possible due to the intense training from his mentor and friend, Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler).

I’m sure, in real life, Jay Moriarty had a pretty interesting life, but this film doesn’t reach the same peaks. The script is packed full of trivial (though intended to be inspirational) talk and is anything but subtle; when Moriarty’s friend tells him his dream girl is too old for him, and Frosty dictates that he won’t train Moriarty to ride big waves, the film is blatantly telling us what is going to happen. Unfortunately those big moments are building far in the distance and there’s nothing we can do but wait for them to reach the shore.

If you have no interest in the mechanics of surfing, then you may find yourself, like I did, completely bored until the last 30 minutes – which is admittedly thrilling. Many of the scenes take place, expectedly, in the sea, but the writing is as dead as the water that Moriarty and Frosty often find themselves in. The two of them seem to be unable to have a normal conversation and, even though I agree with the sentiments of being passionate about hobbies and goals, they take it to another level. Chasing Mavericks breaks right through the barriers of seriousness into completely cringe-worthy cheesiness.

The writers and directors did seem to realise that you can’t make a film consisting entirely of conversations while treading water, so they tried to keep things fresh with some extra story-lines. However, this filler content is comprised of a clique rivalry and a childhood sweetheart love story that feel like they have been pulled straight from a high school drama on the Disney Channel.

One thing the producers didn’t seem to realise was the importance of casting. Not including Gerard Butler, who acted comfortably, the cast didn’t seem experienced enough to make anything out of the badly-written script, and many of the actors, even the main star Weston, found themselves being overly-dramatic. As a whole, there is a strong sense that the film is taking itself a little bit too seriously.

The good moments, rare as they are, all seem to happen near the end of the film. There are some big character developments, and with the huge finale you will find yourself caring (even if just a little) for characters that just weren’t interesting for the first hour-and-a-half. But this great gasp for air at the end doesn’t save Chasing Mavericks from its inevitable fate.

by Tom Woodcock

Film Review: Hummingbird

Always the anti-hero, Jason Statham is back again to clean up the streets in Steven Knight’s Hummingbird, the story of a now-homeless war veteran who turns vigilante after his fellow street-dweller Isabel is murdered. Unfortunately for Knight, the plot is anything but killer.

Jason Statham plays Jason Statham Joseph Smith, an ex-Royal Marine living on the streets while on the run from the Military Court for committing a heinous act in Afghanistan. As we were introduced to Smith, with his long dirty hair and grimy tracksuit, I thought to myself: “Finally! A Jason Statham film where he isn’t smartly dressed and rich – or bald!” and when the two cockney gangsters started pummelling him: “And he doesn’t know how to fight!” Well I soon felt like an idiot for thinking that would be the case because not 5 minutes later he just so happens to stumble into the house of a very wealthy photographer, who also, coincidentally, is out of town for months. And the first thing he does when he breaks in? He shaves his head and puts on a suit – damn it. Well there’s still the lack of fighting ability, right? Nope! By shaving his head, Statham pulls some sort of reverse-Samson and never gets hit by a single punch, kick or bullet in the remainder of the film. This is the exact type of role that I’m bored of Statham playing. I would be much more interested in seeing The Adventures of Hobo Statham but, as in a lot of his other films, he always finds a way to become the perfect street-fighting action hero.

Well he’s not entirely perfect. One thing that did stop Hummingbird from being a total disaster is the way that it shows Smith’s damaged mind. Occasionally Smith will experience surreal, sometimes disturbing, visions and flashbacks, such as the vision of a man hanging by a noose with a bag on his head or the imaginary hummingbirds flying around his bedroom. I found these dream-like elements to be an entertaining way to show Smith’s state of mind and how his days in the war still affect him now. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen frequently enough, as most plot elements – including avenging Isabel, which I assumed was the main storyline – is pushed aside to make way for what I believe to be the most ridiculous part of the film: his relationship with a nun named Cristina.

Cristina, played by Agata Buzek, is a sex attack victim who turned to the sisterhood at a young age after being raped 17 times by her ballet instructor. She met Smith while serving food to the homeless on the streets of London and, when Smith luckily becomes wealthy, he decides to thank her by giving her £500. Now, bearing in mind that, at this point, Smith has made it his aim to avenge Isabel, he seems to lose all chivalry as he attempts to woo Cristina by buying her a dress and inviting her to a gallery of male nudity photos. And, of course, it works, because nothing would get a sexually-abused nun to give up her lifelong vow of abstinence than a date with Hobo Statham In A Suit in a museum of dick-pics. It’s one of the most ridiculous and pointless displays of masculinity and vanity that I have seen in a long time.

Not everything is terrible, however. I can’t fault the camera-work, fight choreography or psychological aspects of the film, and despite not being the greatest actor, Statham certainly knows how to play these kinds of roles. But unfortunately all of this does not save Hummingbird from being an unfocused mixture of happenstance and needless male prowess.

by Tom Woodcock

Film Review: This Is The End

Tom says:

James Franco throws a party of biblical proportions in directors Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s first venture into horror comedy. In true Goldberg/Rogen fashion, expect to see familiar faces from both Superbad and Pineapple Express, as well as many other celebrity appearances, in this apocalyptic cameo-fest that is hilarious from start to finish.

Forget high-school house parties and drug deal getaways, Goldberg and Rogen leave no expenses spared in This Is The End, a tale not restricted to our dimension. After arriving in Los Angeles to visit his good friend Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel is invited to a house party hosted by none other than James Franco, who has just moved into the neighbourhood. On arrival, the place is packed full of famous faces. In the same style as the sitcom Extras, the actors in this film are playing over-the-top caricatures of themselves, such as the overly-loving Jonah Hill, the foul-mouthed Emma Watson and, best of all, the coke-fiend Michael Cera who definitely deserves his own film.

Many of these faces are not around for long, however, as a giant sinkhole opens up outside Franco’s house, swallowing dozens of party guests. The film then takes a turn down the end-of-the-world route which would feel unimaginative and overdone if it was not for the opportunities for comedy that it creates. As with Goldberg and Rogen’s previous films, This Is The End features the same loose-scripted, improvised humour that manifests itself when you put people like James Franco, Danny McBride and Jonah Hill in the same room and, with judgement day happening right outside the door, that happens a lot.

The lack of creativity story-wise slightly lets it down, but that is easily excusable as the non-stop laughs more than make up for it. This Is The End may be the best comedy you see all year.

Gary says:

Evan Goldberg and his hilarious writing partner Seth Rogen, the comedy minds behind the excellent Pineapple Express and Superbad, leap on to the apocalyptic cinema bandwagon and ride it straight to hell with their devilishly funny directorial debut, This is the End.

A packed party at James Franco’s ultra-cool Los Angeles home is the setting, as the world begins to fall apart – dragging doomed celebrities into a fiery sinkhole. The special effects team demonstrate that the devil really is in the detail, with impressive CGI demons and realistic gore affording the film with some truly blockbuster moments.

This is the End’s main strength is undoubtedly the incredibly likeable cast. Rogen and Franco continue their endearing bromance last seen in Pineapple Express, with Danny McBride, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Jay Baruchel also portraying fictional, and quite often bizarre, versions of themselves. There are also plenty of great cameos; particularly from Channing Tatum and the typically innocent Michael Cera who, in this world, is actually an unruly cocaine addict. The film’s bright white climax also provides several surprises that make it very difficult to leave the cinema without an enormous smile across your face.

If you are easily offended, this is not the apocalypse film for you; with a large portion of This is the End’s more lowbrow moments coming from jokes involving the cast’s various bodily fluids. However, this is not to suggest it’s a film void of intelligent humour, as the highly improvised dialogue provides plenty of witty spontaneity.

If you can stomach the gross-out moments, This is the End is a brilliant horror comedy which, for fans of Goldberg and Rogen’s previous work, is completely unmissable.

by Tom Woodcock & Gary Woodcock

Film Review: Stand Up Guys

Fisher Stevens’ sophomore feature-length, Stand Up Guys, is a bitter-sweet and sentimental story about an ex-stickup man trying to get the best out of the remainder of his life, after being released from prison to find out his old partner has been assigned to kill him.

Valentine, or Val as he likes to be known, played by Al Pacino, has just been released from prison after 28 years, which he served for accidentally killing mob-boss Claphands’ son. Waiting to meet him at the gates of the prison is his old crime-buddy Doc, played by Christopher Walken. What Val soon finds out is that Claphands has told Doc that, in order to save his own life, he must kill Val. And so Val, Doc and their old wheelguy Hirsch, played by Alan Arkin, who they pick up from a nursing home, go on a series of escapades in order to feel alive again before that dreadful moment.

This film is at its best when it is serious. There are moments, in cafés and on late-night strolls through the city, when Val and Doc take the time to talk about past jobs and the lives they used to lead. And I don’t think these moments would work as well with any random old guys playing them. They work because it’s Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, two men that have lived so many lives on screen, two men that, just like Val and Doc, are in the twilight of their careers. These moments work so well because the roles of Val and Doc are so similar to the roles that they’ve played throughout their career, that it almost feels like it’s Pacino and Walken reminiscing about their life’s work, and it makes the hair stand up at the back of your neck.

Overall, the script is not that great but, as you would expect, Pacino, Walken and Arkin make it work – mostly. With such vast experience between them, the trio can pretty much make any character seem believable. But one thing that, if written badly, won’t work well – great actor or not – is comedy. Unfortunately, this film is not very funny. Contrasting those great sentimental moments I mentioned is terribly sad moments, such as the scene where you see Al Pacino sat on a hospital bed with a massive erection. And I say you see Al Pacino, not Val, because it’s Al Pacino. It’s Michael Corleone, Tony Montana and Vincent Hanna. And he’s sat there pretending that he has a massive erection, while Christopher Walken stands and watches the doctor assess it. This is not what I expected such great actors to be doing near the end of their careers, and I don’t know whether to be annoyed at them for taking the roles, or the writer for having the audacity of writing scenes like this.

With such sombre and heartbreaking highs and, for different reasons, sombre and heartbreaking lows, Stand Up Guys is a very polarizing film. But if you choose to forget the middle section, where sincerity is replaced with childish humour, and where Val’s imminent death seems to be forgotten, you might actually find that this film is quite touching.

by Tom Woodcock

Film Review: World War Z

Loosely based on Max Brooks’ much-acclaimed novel of the same name, Marc Forster adds to the recent zombie craze with World War Z: the story of a retired United Nations operative who is forced to leave his family behind for the sake of ending a zombie pandemic. Noted for its realism and social commentary, the 2006 novel was critically acclaimed on release, yet the film adaptation leaves all this behind, instead opting for a generic apocalypse survival narrative that, although satisfactory, feels like it didn’t need to be made.

I’ve never been a fan of zombies. As antagonists, I feel they are bland; by definition, they don’t possess the power of thought, meaning their objective is always the same: infect others. Because of this, zombies feel less like a powerful, independent enemy than the physical embodiment of a virus. The zombies’ mindlessness and predictability leaves it down to the survivors to provide the real entertainment in these films, and it all depends on how they deal with the zombie threat: do they slaughter them or avoid them?

Unfortunately for large parts of World War Z, they choose to slaughter. In large groups, the zombies in this film act much like a swarm of krill or a tidal wave, and ex-UN employee Gerry Lane, played by Brad Pitt, and his army buddies are often found picking them off with high-powered rifles or sometimes even hand-grenades. The zombies in these scenes are cannon fodder, the tension, although great to begin with, dies fast, and it usually ends with a race-against-time situation to get to a helicopter or plane. It’s like Left 4 Dead: The Movie.
The real suspense comes from the scenes in which there is no obvious escape route, or where their objective is obstructed by zombies, such as my favourite scene, in which a passenger on a commercial flight is found to be infected. These kinds of scenes are truly exciting and suspenseful, but unfortunately they are few and far between.

As for the acting in this film, I would say it’s mostly fine. Brad Pitt, as he often does, seems comfortable and believable in his role as Gerry Lane. Mireille Enos, who I rate as an actress and feel is criminally underused in this film, plays Karin Lane, his devoted and concerned wife. Generic as that character may be, Enos plays her well. As a side note, why do casting directors struggle to find child actors that aren’t annoying? Everybody needs to take a leaf out of HBO’s book after Game of Thrones.

The biggest disappointment in World War Z is the plot. This film has been done many times before; be it with zombies or a deadly disease, there are countless movies in which it is left down to a single man/woman to try and save the world from a deadly pandemic and, with very few other original elements, I’m simply left wondering if the producers felt they were making an original, meaningful contribution to the zombie genre with World War Z, or if they just wanted to jump onto the recent zombie bandwagon.

All in all, this film can be exhilarating at times, but its uninspired story and characters stop it from being a potentially good zombie film and leave it as an okay, generic one. I think we all need to take a step back from the zombie genre for a while, until someone comes up with something new.

by Tom Woodcock

Film Review: Behind the Candelabra

Based on Scott Thorson’s memoir of the same name, Steven Soderbergh’s biopic Behind the Candelabra is a touching, funny and tragic tale of forbidden love between a fame-hungry pianist looking to build a legacy, and an animal trainer searching for a father figure.

“What’s important is to be yourself” the eccentric entertainer Liberace tells his young lover, Scott Thorson – fitting advice from a man who, up until his death, fought to hide his true nature from the public. Walter Liberace, played by Michael Douglas, was, in essence, two separate men. He was Liberace: the charismatic, extravagant heartthrob; the charming, winking showman; the first great television entertainer. And in private he was Lee: the materialistic, greedy yet warm-hearted friend; the closet homosexual; the man in need of the latest accessory, be it a coat, a ring or a lover. Liberace was Lee’s mask, an important mask, as a gay pianist would not be able to build the legacy that he strived for, not in the days where homosexuality was not only frowned upon, but illegal. Any accusations of a secret sex life were met with libel cases, and often a television message, directly to the viewer, reaffirming his heterosexuality. In fact, this mask was so vital to the longevity of the Liberace name that he requested to be cremated as soon as possible after his death, as public knowledge of his AIDS contraction would be detrimental. This request was rejected by the coroner, and where is Liberace’s legacy now? In Behind the Candelabra we see his struggle to balance his love for the fame he feels he was made to have, and his lust for the lifestyle he was told he can never have.

Michael Douglas slips seamlessly into the diamond-encrusted role of Liberace and is, as Liberace was in life, the star of the show; each of his lines delivered with the same gentle, loving warmth that Mr. Showmanship himself emitted, not to forget the gracious yet phony smile. But also worth a mention is Matt Damon, who takes the role of Scott Thorson, an animal trainer working in the film industry who, after a meeting backstage, becomes Liberace’s new plaything.  Damon plays the part with the vulnerability and apprehension you would expect from a man suddenly thrown from dog-handling into the centre of Flamboyancy Incarnate’s life. Thorson, who lived in foster home after foster home, sees Liberace not only as a lover but also as a father figure – almost literally at one point – but it becomes apparent to Thorson that he is not so much of a son to Liberace than one part in the play that Liberace calls life – and a part that can very easily be recast. Although sincerity is at the heart of this film, Robb Lowe provides comic relief as Liberace’s hilarious plastic surgeon who seems to have gone to work on his own face; clearly not an advocate of putting his best wares in the shop window.

Visually, this film sparkles. In every frame there is either a hint of gold or the lens will catch the light, causing it to glitter like a diamond.  The set pieces and costumes are fantastic too, be it giant crystal chandeliers or immaculate fur capes, the extreme flamboyancy is a fitting tribute to a man who once bought a golden Cadillac.

As with every biopic, there are strict limitations on the story in Behind the Candelabra, which admittedly do create a few slow moments. However, Liberace’s life was theatrical enough to make sure that you don’t stay bored for long in this revealing and occasionally scandalous story about one of entertainment’s oft-forgotten influences.

by Tom Woodcock