Archive for October, 2013

A(nother) Hijacking

Posted: October 28, 2013 in movie reviews

Captain Phillips ****1/2 (out of five)

hr_Captain_Phillips_10Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass’ film of the pirate hijacking memoir by Vermont-based Richard Phillips, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, is compelling, consummate filmmaking. From the first shot to the last, you feel that tremendous security you get when you are sure that the filmmaker is in total control of his material. Whether the story interests you or not, the technique is going to be sublime.

Well, the story is gripping. Phillips’ vessel was taken by a small boatload of Somali pirates in 2009; things developed from there. If you followed the story in the media then, or have heard about it more recently, you’ll know what happened, but, lest you didn’t, I will go no further with plot. Suffice to say, the events that transpired were more than gripping enough to make an excellent, at times brilliant, two hour and fifteen minute movie.

captain_phillips_2013_new_poster-normalTom Hanks is excellent as Phillips. I have not always been a fan of Hanks’ choices, but I have always admired his skill, and it’s on subtle, perfect display here. Greengrass has so much story to tell that backstory and character set-up has to be done in a scant few minutes at the very beginning of the movie; the rest of Phillips’ character has to come through in his responses to events barely any human beings on the planet will ever go through, often with little dialogue, and Hanks somehow gives us a full rendition despite these restrictions. This is a hard role: Phillips reacted, rather than acted: he is a passive hero, and I suspect Bruce Willis would never have accepted the role. Passive leads are almost impossible to pull off; this one is Oscar-worthy (I have no doubt Hanks will be nominated and he is certainly in the running to win).

E805EF4C-D1BE-40FF-A47E-9DA0D7A99C14_w640_r1_sThere could also be a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, the self-appointed leader of the pirates, though his actually winning the gold statue is far less likely. Like the other “pirates”, Abdi is a first time actor, found amongst the Somali community in Minneapolis (the four main pirates cast were all friends among the Minneapolis Somali community – an incredible piece of casting). His performance is ferocious, tenacious, layered and absolutely convincing, but the Academy shies away from bestowing awards on those performances that could be thought of as flukes or one-offs (have a look at all the kids who’ve been nominated over time; only Anna Paquin and Tatum O’Neal actually made it to the podium).

Greengrass’ house style is in full effect: multiple handheld cameras record the action in a documentary style, allowing the actors to dictate the blocking, the camera operators being directed to follow them, rather than the actors being placed within a frame. It’s a system he’s honed to a fine art (though, frankly, it’s always worked for him since his earliest films) and it serves this sea-bound tale well: life onboard an ocean vessel is far more “handheld” than stationary.

MV5BMTQ0NDI4Nzg1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjE2NjcyOQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_Unlike Tobias Lindholm’s recent film A Hijacking, which had very similar themes and settings while telling a very different story, the tale of Captain Phillips does involve greater forces than just him, his crew and the shipping company, and it is here that Greengrass shows a slightly more commercial sense than usual. The second half of the film, and particularly the third act, have a heroic, grand approach, with plenty of swooping helicopter shots that actually could work in a Bruce Willis movie. Although these moments are slightly atonal to Greengrass’ normal style, they do not dislodge the movie from its stable bearings: it’s a solid beast, immaculately paced, forcefully told, and absolutely worth your attention on the biggest possible screen. A multiple Oscar contender for sure – and I’m talking Best Film and Director here, amongst others – it’s one of the films of the year.

Say What Now?

Posted: October 25, 2013 in movie reviews

The Counselor *1/2 (out of five)

the-counselor-posterIncoherent to the point of being incomprehensible, Ridley Scott’s new film The Counselor, from a first-time (terrible) screenplay by novelist Cormac McCarthy, represents a low point for both of these highly acclaimed artists. It’s a total mess.

Michael Fassbender, seriously miscast (I can really only imagine Matthew McConaughey making anything of this terribly under-written role) plays a lawyer who finds his life going sour when he starts dabbling with the international drug trade. Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz play his three main connections into this shadowy world, each more over-costumed, over-made up and over-acting than the last.

"I'm firing my agent. You gonna fire your agent?"

“I’m firing my agent. You gonna fire your agent?”

Essentially composed of endless, nonsensical two-hander scenes groaning under the weight of unspeakably “literary” dialogue, nothing in the film rings true, makes sense, makes us care, or provides any of the regular dramatic ideals: suspense, humour, let alone… well, plot.

"You ready for a fluffy duck?"

“You ready for a fluffy duck?”

The Big Concept here seems to be that Fassbender’s character (who everyone in the film ludicrously calls “Counselor”) doesn’t entirely understand what he’s got himself into, and so, therefore, we the audience shouldn’t get to understand it either. He shuffles from (extremely ill-defined) place to place, always dressed well and always being handed a spiffy cocktail (everyone in the film is always drinking a spiffy cocktail, and wearing evening wear at any time of day, and generally behaving like they’re on Johnny Depp’s yacht) getting lectured by everyone he meets on either the nature of brutality and evil or the outrageous sexual shenanigans of women. Or both. It’s as though, say, every interaction you had with anyone involved them sitting you down and telling you the facts of life plus how often they’ve gotten laid. Bardem’s character has the looniest lines of all, but he plays his role so loony and loose that he’s the only watchable thing in the film. Perhaps his drinks – even more than the other characters, he always has a drink – were “quality” props.

"Shall we give this scene lesbian shades just for the hell of it, Ridley?"

“Shall we give this scene lesbian shades just for the hell of it, Ridley?”

Set in Mexico and the US, with a jaunt to Europe tossed in, but really only existing in the outer realms of ludicrous fantasy, The Counselor seems to want to be a cross between Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and Oliver Stone’s Savages. Soderbergh and Stone couldn’t make a film this bad if they were in a coma. Flatly shot, terribly acted (Cameron Diaz’s performance is completely ludicrous), uncinematic and not so much confusing as simply not even a story, The Counselor is a very strange beast: an unreleasable film that is getting a wide release. Stranger things have happened, but this is up there.

Partridge Triumphant

Posted: October 23, 2013 in movie reviews

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa ***1/2 (out of five)

movies-alan-partridge-alpha-papa-poster_1Steve Coogan’s character “Alan Partridge” may not be the longest-running comic creation of all time, but I bet he’s up there for crossing the most genres. He was born on the BBC4 comedic radio program On The Hour, moved into the ensemble of television news spoof The Day Today, then took on his own (fake) chat show, Knowing Me Knowing You in 1995. In 1997, and again in 2002, he was the centre of a one-camera half-hour sitcom, I’m Alan Partridge. In 2010 he returned in a series of webisodes called Mid Morning Matters and in 2012 there was an hour-long mockumentary / travelogue called Welcome to the Places of My Life.


All of these are worth checking out. Indeed, they’re bloody hilarious, and Alan Partridge, for me and millions of others, is one of the great comic creations, played by one of the great comedic actors. He’s way too intricate to be described pithily, but it’s safe to say he’s now in his mid-fifties and remains parochial, conservative, extremely “British”, self-important but insecure, arrogant and occasionally aggressive but not without at least some sense of decency and respect for others. There are media personalities all over the world just like him, including more than a few in Australia.

"Mid-Morning Matters".

“Mid-Morning Matters”.

Finally, Alan has his own movie, and it’s a cracker. For those who know and love the character there are cascading torrents of joy to be had, but even if you’ve never heard of Mr. Partridge, this movie packs a bucketload of laughs (I know, because I asked a couple of fellow critics who were not of the Alan club on the way out of the screening I attended, and they had a blast).

There were a few ways that could have been gone with a proper, big-screen Alan Partridge feature film. Divorced and commitment-shy, we could have been treated to an Alan Partridge rom-com, where he finally finds true love, or at least the Partridge version of such a thing. We could have had a workplace conflict, with Partridge’s old-fashioned ways coming into conflict with new trends, styles or management. Or we could have Partridge thrown into a completely different genre, such as an action movie.Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

With great bounty for us, we are given all three, although the emphasis is mostly on the latter. While facing new management and a restructuring at Partridge’s radio station, North Norfolk Digital, a redundant employee returns with a gun and causes a siege, complete with cops and crowds (and there are many quick sight gags referencing Dog Day Afternoon). Alan is caught in the thick of it, being, in a perfect example of the character’s inevitable predicaments, both the gunman’s only trusted spokesperson and the Judas who got him fired in the first place.

movies-alan-partridge-alpha-papaAlong with This Is The End, there are way, way more laughs-out-loud per minute in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa than any film I’ve seen thus far this year. Coogan is not only at the top of his game, he knows this character beyond intimately, and gives a consummate performance. Many characters and actors from previous Partridge incarnations show up and there are many nods to the entire back story, but you can go in a complete novice and have a great time. I wouldn’t, though: if I were you, I’d bone up on as much Partridge as you can, while still making sure you catch this delightful film at the cinema, preferably with a large audience. You’ll be surrounded by a lot of hearty laughter, and emerge very happy indeed.

Not Quite Comatose

Posted: October 20, 2013 in movie reviews

Patrick *** (out of five)

Patrick-TeaserPoster-250x350Mark Hartley knows, and loves, movies, and particularly genre movies. His two documentaries Not Quite Hollywood and Machete Maidens Unleashed! show this in spades. Both are thoroughly – indeed deliriously – entertaining and guaranteed to teach almost any geek on the planet a thing or two.

It’s quite a perfect match, then, for Hartley’s debut fiction feature to be a remake of Australian horror “classic” Patrick (1978). Lurid and fun, the original Patrick, directed by Richard Franklin, featured a comatose man in a dodgy private hospital who develops telekinetic powers as he falls for a new nurse. Mayhem ensues.

Hartley’s remake is extremely faithful to the original, and what is most fun about it is the style and tone. The first act is extremely enjoyable, featuring a suitably haunted-house like hospital (constantly covered by the most forbidding skies of the year, if not of many years), fruity, genre-inflected performances by Charles Dance and Rachel Griffiths as the lead Doctor and lead nurse of the institution, and, most strikingly, evocatively and nostalgically, an original score by none other than Pino Donaggio (Seed of Chucky, Raising Cain, Body Double, Blow Out, The Fan, Dressed to Kill, Piranha, Carrie (the original) and Don’t Look Know – along with 184 other credits!) More than anything, Donaggio’s bold, over-the-top, old-school horror score reminds us that we are in an homage, and to enjoy the ride as such. The more horror films you’ve seen from the 70s, the more the first half hour or so will tickle your fancy, and perhaps, as they did for me, give you a big fat guilty grin.patrick-remake-trailer-2

Unfortunately, as the movie goes on, it becomes more and more disjointed and unsure of itself. While it constantly maintains its raison d’etre, which I, at least, assume is to celebrate the kind of films Hartley loves so much, and honor the original film, the storytelling becomes confused, the editing choppy, and the focus diluted. It’s as though two things were at play – the first being that the film was shot in order, and too much time was spent on the first act, leaving the crew having to rush for the rest of the movie, with a resultant lessening of assurance, and the second being the film being seriously hacked down in the editing room to achieve its genre-appropriate ninety-two minute running time. I don’t know if either of these is actually be the case, but there’s no denying the film’s quality drops as it progresses.

zoostThe biggest shame is that the carnage, when it comes (and it occupies a hell of a lot of the second half of the movie) is surprisingly uninspired. Telekinetic murders are a license to thrill, and we remember the great ones (almost every single one from the first two Omen movies, for example, are seared onto my brain – watch out for that glass pane David Warner!) but Patrick, which had every opportunity to create a raft of memorable such murders, creates none. Some are gruesome, some are deliberately, enjoyably ludicrous, but none is truly inventive and eye-opening (except, actually, the very first one, much earlier in the film – and the pun is intended).

Patrick is by no means a bad movie, and Hartley will definitely get better at this fictional feature game. He knows his movies, and gets tone, style and genre. Confidence will come, and with it, perhaps more inventive originality, which is what this faithful but inconsistent remake cries out for.

No Room For Heroes

Posted: October 17, 2013 in movie reviews

A Hijacking **** (out of five)

MV5BMTQ0NDI4Nzg1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjE2NjcyOQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_Not to be confused with – though totally understandably to be confused with – Paul Greengrass’ film Captain Phillips, Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking takes a cold, almost procedural approach to what happens when a Danish cargo ship is taken hostage by Somali pirates. Playing out as much in the boardrooms of the Danish parent company as it is on the cargo vessel itself, the film is a real eye-opener: when this stuff happens, there’s no-one to call for help.

a-hijackingFans of Borgen will instantly recognize – and be delighted by – the two leads. Pilou Asbæk plays the ship’s cook, through whose perspective we witness the assault on, and takeover of, the vessel; back in Denmark, the great Søren Malling (whose English at least seems good enough for him to hop over the icy waters into some British films, if he so desired) plays the CEO of the shipping company. When word comes that the ship, in the Indian Ocean, has been invaded, negotiations begin.

a-hijacking_02-LARGEThose negotiations are the spine of the film, and the cut and thrust of them are chilling. No police are called, because what police patrol the Indian Ocean? No navy has jurisdiction, and this is a real world without Bruce Willis, let alone superheroes. Indeed, there are no heroes here, only men rising to a terrible task. Malling’s character Peter must deal with the pirate’s well-spoken spokesman, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar) through an echoey, crackling phone line and a fax machine; he is supported by a British hijacking negotiation specialist and his 2IC, but, really, it’s him and his supposedly brilliant negotiating technique being put to the test. The trouble is, the people he’s negotiating with have a completely different world-view, set of values, and agenda to his; they are like a disembodied, terrifying ghost, whose greatest ace in their hand is their complete disregard for time. The film plays out over hundreds of days.

Shot formally in the austere offices of the shipping company and hand-held on the vessel, with spare sound design and long stretches of silent tension punctuated by sudden bursts of piratical activity designed to break the spirits of the onboard captives, A Hijacking is an exercise in precise filmmaking. It is a fascinating look at a problem that very few of us will ever face; I haven’t seen Captain Phillips yet, but it will make, I’m sure, for a fascinating comparison.

Lindholm wrote one of 2012’s best films, The Hunt, and is the chief writer on Borgen. A Hijacking is only his second feature as director; I will now make it my mission to see all of his coming work, and I can’t wait.

Both films this post deal with similar themes: young girls kidnapped or killed, and the men who try, against great odds, to rescue them or find their tormentors. Both are artful, skilled pieces of filmmaking, and both will have many fans – and, I daresay, each will have its detractors as well.

Prisoners **1/2 (out of five)

B5076A3E-FCA0-8194-C45B645A3A435F26Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is a nasty piece of work. Indeed, it is about as bleak and unforgiving as mainstream, studio moviemaking gets.

The inciting incident – two gorgeous little girls are kidnapped in a Pennsylvania town – is enough to deter some potential viewers. If you are indeed the parent of a little girl, this is certainly not for you.

What happens next is a lot grimmer, however, as a cop (Jake Gyllenhaal), stymied by the necessities of carrying out his job in a lawful manner, comes up against one of the girls’ fathers (Hugh Jackman) who decides that no action is too severe in the pursuit of finding his daughter.jackman-prisoners

The film is a dichotomy: it is beautifully and thoughtfully constructed on a technical level (while obviously being hugely influenced by the work of David Fincher, particularly Zodiac) while also being, occasionally, tasteless and extremely ugly. The camerawork (the great Roger Deakins) is sublime and the soundtrack is spare; scenes unfold at a pace that suits the material – that is, with the plodding, methodical laboriousness of a difficult and obfuscating police case. Villeneuve has a voice, however derivative it may be.

prisoners-trailer-05302013-202442But that voice also seems to want to draw attention to itself by showing just how naughty it can be, and the film’s violence – which, I have to put here, include very disturbing scenes of torture – is somehow self-congratulatory. I love dark cinema, and I have sought out and seen the most disturbing films in existence (I would put A Serbian Film at the top of that bleak list), but most of those reside in the horror category. Prisoners seeks to be a top-notch, A-List drama, but actually reveals itself to be a squalid exploitation film with A-List credentials. It seeks to ask heavy questions of us – the most basic being “How far would you go?” – but the way the characters themselves respond to these questions is pretty ludicrous. They service the demands of a nasty plot, rather than the plot arising from more realistic character intentions.www.indiewire

At two hours and thirty-three minutes, the film is way too long, and becomes more unbelievable – and loose with its own internal logic – as it goes along. By the time it’s over, its immaculate style has given way to a yucky experience; the film, frankly, feels like it’s grim for grim’s sake.

Mystery Road ***1/2 (out of five)

mystery_road_xlgIvan Sen’s Mystery Road is, in terms of story beats, a completely conventional – indeed, by-the-numbers – police procedural. It opens with the discovery of a body; proceeds to introduce us to a lone cop, just returned to his old beat, who, under-resourced and mistrusted by the community, must not only deal with the baffling mystery and unresponsive and antagonistic locals but also with the indifference, and potential corruption, of his own police department. Along the way he discovers a personal connection to the crime. So far, so well-thumbed.mystery_road

What lifts this atmospheric and affecting film from its genre limitations are its milieu, its striking visual style and its truly enjoyable, low-key performances. Mystery Road is a dirt road near an outback town populated by a mix of Aborigines and whites; our protagonist, Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) is indigenous, straddling the blackfella and whitefella worlds and comfortable in neither; and the various townsfolk he encounters are played by some of Australia’s best actors doing subtle, precise work. (For his part, Pedersen, mark my words, will have Hollywood calling once they see him in this: he’s a modern hero, a Bogart or Eastwood for the 21st Century.)

Sen: Director, writer, cinematographer, editor, composer...

Sen: Director, writer, cinematographer, editor, composer…

Sen shot the film himself and his images are superb. He uses formal compositions, dollies and a particularly striking motif – a helicopter shot, directly perpendicular to the ground, that follows Swan’s car as it slowly navigates the quiet streets of the town, looking for all the world like a toy car on a dusty toy set. It’s effective in many ways, simultaneously speaking to the town’s character, Swan’s isolation and the sheer difficulty of the mystery: Swan’s car seems almost aimlessly moving in a maze of streets that are so similar, they must almost inevitably reveal nothing.

Mystery Road takes its time, which is to say it has a slow pace, but it’s a deliberate pace, measured and precise, and, although the film is not hugely suspenseful per se, it always maintains a particular tension. The finalé is absolutely terrific and one of the best examples of its kind in recent years – Hollywood could learn a thing or two from it. This is an engrossing, unique film and well worth a look.mystery-road


Posted: October 7, 2013 in movie reviews

Thanks for Sharing *1/2 (out of five)

Thanks_for_Sharing_PosterSex addiction is not funny, I guess, if Thanks for Sharing, a grossly misjudged misfire of a movie, is anything to go by. Wildly inconsistent in tone, it is impossible to know whether the film aspires to comedy; it’s certainly not funny, but I think it’s trying to be, when it’s not trying to shock us into submission: okay, we get it, it’s a disease, we should feel sorry for these people!

The ensemble structure focuses on three men in group therapy for sex addiction. Mike (Tim Robbins) is the sponsor of Adam (Mark Ruffalo), who, in turn, sponsors the less committed Neil (Josh Gad). Each has problems relating to their addiction: Mike is dealing with his recovering son, Adam is dealing with a new relationship with Phoebe (Gweneth Paltrow); and Neil is just… dealing.

It’s astonishing that actors of this calibre signed on to a script of this banality; Edward Norton is an executive producer: is this his revenge on Rufflo for stealing The Hulk?

You're a sex addict? Then you'll love this...

You’re a sex addict? Then you’ll love this…

Scenes of supposed hilarity (fat guy rides bike, gets sweaty anus stain examined by mother, played by Carol Kane, no less!) buck up against Ruffalo having a “relapse” that is like a Funny Or Die parody of Shame, the movie about sex addiction that is actually worth seeing. Paltrow gives the year’s worst performance in an atrociously written role. (Example: having learned that her new boyfriend is a sex addict, and therefore needs to “take it slow”, she dresses up in lingerie and gives him a lap dance.)

At nearly two hours, this is an overdrawn, over lit, over acted movie and I was over it by the half hour mark. To his credit, Robbins turns in a surprisingly good performance, and Pink, in her first movie role, is excellent. Everything else is cringe-worthy.