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The stars rising in The East

THE EAST Thriller. Starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Toby Kebbell. Directed by Zal Batmanglij. Cert 15A

It's not all superheroes and exploding robots emanating from Hollywood, you know. This year has shown a marked increase in the low(ish)-budget conspiracy thrillers which hark back to the mainstream movies Tinseltown was turning out in the early 1970s.

Arbitrage and Side Effects are two great examples of intelligent movies which entertain and make you think at the same time, and we can now add The East to that list.

Co-written by its star Brit Marling (who played Richard Gere's daughter in Arbitrage) and director Zal Batmanglij, The East is their second collaboration, after last year's examination of the power of cults, The Sound of My Voice. They're going over similar ground here, with two opposing factions asserting the supremacy of their actions and beliefs.

SUSPICION

Marling plays Jane Owen, a former FBI agent who's recruited by the head of a company specialising in corporate security (Patricia Clarkson, magnificent as always) to infiltrate a group of anarchists and eco-terrorists known as The East. The group have been carrying out high-profile attacks on those they believe to be responsible for environmental catastrophes, and Clarkson wants to know if any of her clients are next in line to be hit.

After several attempts to meet up with The East, Jane (or Sarah as she's now known) manages to work her way into the group, although not without raising some suspicion, particularly on the part of the perpetually disgruntled Izzy (Ellen Page). More problematic is the fact that The East's charismatic leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), may be playing a longer game than he initially appears and, as is the way of these things, the pair fall for each other.

The notion of someone going undercover and forming ties with the people they're supposed to be investigating is hardly a new one – we could go back to White Heat and before that again for examples – but the thing with The East is that Jane/Sarah's core values appear to be changing and on the occasions when she's back from the field she's finding it hard to adjust.

The performances are excellent, with Marling very good at doing determined but vulnerable, and Skarsgard convincing as the anarchists' leader. Certainly, there are times when the film does become a wee bit preachy, but at least Marling and Batmanglij have the courage of their convictions and are determined to get their point across. And if we're going to be picky about film-makers doing that then maybe we should just stick to superheroes and exploding robots. HHHHI

THIS IS THE END Comedy. Starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchal, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Chris Robinson, Michael Cera, Emma Watson. Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Cert 16

Just when you think, 'D'ya know what, maybe a comedy about the end of the world wouldn't be a bad idea?' along come two of the things in the space of a month. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's The World's End arrives next month, but in the meantime there's this pile of garbage to endure.

Self-indulgent to an unbearable degree, the idea here is that writer-director Seth Rogen and his buddies are all playing exaggerated versions of themselves at a party in James Franco's house when the apocalypse strikes. Now, there are some who regard Rogen, Franco and their pals – Jonah Hill (the sight of his fat head makes me angry), Danny McBride, Jay Baruchel and Chris Robinson – as comedy golden boys. However, a look at the charge sheet for crimes against comedy perpetrated by this crew reveals The Watch, The Sitter, Observe and Report, Your Highness, The Guilt Trip and Pineapple Express. Not many laughs in that lot.

Anyway if you think comedy is all about dick jokes and inane vulgarity, then this is probably for you.

Maybe I'm becoming a prude but the fact that one or two people at the press screening thought there was something even remotely funny about a sequence in which the lads argue about which one of them is most likely to rape Emma Watson was truly disturbing. May Rogen, Hill and the rest of them burn in Hell.

1 STAR

DESPICABLE ME 2 Animation. Featuring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, Benjamin Bratt. Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud. Cert General

With 2010's hugely enjoyable Despicable Me pulling in over $540m at the box office, a sequel was inevitable and, sadly, it's not a patch on the original. Steve Carell returns as the voice of Gru, the former supervillain who tried to steal the moon only to fall for the charms of three orphaned girls by the film's end. Now retired and hoping to create a line of jams, Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help track down a villain who can turns even the most placid creature into a monster.

The problem with the film is that while it looks great, the script is as flat as Gru's nose is pointed. In fact, the whole thing seems to have been written by compiling results from focus groups of people who liked the first one. Thus, Gru's little yellow minions provided the light relief and were popular with the kiddies so let's double their screen time this time out, thus halving their effectiveness.

Despicable Me 2 isn't totally terrible but it is terribly disappointing. Oh, and surely at least a couple of actual jokes could have been written into the plot to give Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig something to work with. HHIII

STORIES WE TELL Documentary. Featuring Sarah Polley, Michael Polley, Harry Gulkin. Directed by Sarah Polley. Cert 12A

Following the success of Away From Her and Take This Waltz, Canadian director Polley turns to documentary for a complex and unusual look at her own family's history. The focus of the story is her late mother Diane, a bohemian actress who may or may not have had an affair when she was working in theatre in Montreal during the 1970s, leading Sarah to suspect that the man she always knew as her father wasn't her biological one. It's a story which delves into family secrets and is fascinating for the recreations of super-8 footage to drive the narrative along, so much so that it wasn't until the credits that I realised they they were, in fact, restagings. A curio for the curious. HHHII

ALSO out THiS WEEK

I Am Breathing (Cert 15A, HHHII Lighthouse) is a heartbreaking yet uplifting documentary about Neil Perry, a thirty-something architect who was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and recorded his life as it gradually killed him. Perry's resilience and gallows humour is an admirable tribute to the human spirit. Hummingbird, featuring Jason Statham and Stand Up Guys, starring Al Pacino and Alan Arkin, weren't screened for the Irish media.


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