Thursday, 29 August 2013

We're The Millers (15)

Life, as the old adage goes, is what happens when you're making other plans, such as what to see at the cinema.

Take today, for example. I wanted to see Elysium. Life, however, decided I didn't really want to watch Matt Damon in an action-packed sci-fi flick, so conspired to make it not happen.

Instead, by the time I got there, the only thing I could really watch was We're The Millers. The lame-looking comedy that failed to make me laugh every time I watched the trailer. Great.

It's a bit like buying the new Nine Inch Nails album, opening the CD (I'm old skool, it's how I roll) and discovering a Coldplay disc. Sure, you could listen to it, but no one in their right mind would want to.

Still, beggars can't be choosers in this game, we can but review what's in front of our eyes, so heavy of heart and expectations duly lowered, into the screening I shuffled.

And something weird happened.

I laughed.

Within minutes.

And that wasn't the only laugh. There were many. There were much. And not smiles, no. Laughs. Proper laughs, where you actually bend over in your seat laughing. Those ones. There was much of such laughs.

That wasn't in the script.

And it's not that We're The Millers is groundbreakingly original, or bitingly satirical - it's neither. It's an idea that's been done to death, some gags you see coming, and it's got more than it's share of schmaltz. But damn it, it's actually funny.

Take that Grown Ups 2.

The story is, to put it mildly, contrived. David (Jason Sudeikis) is a small-time pot dealer. Rose (Jennifer Aniston) is a stripper. Kenny (Will Poulter, who was in the excellent Son Of Rambow) is a bit of a dork. Casey (Emma Roberts) is a spikey tear-away.

Casey gets in a scrap, Kenny tries to help, David steps in, David ends up getting mugged and losing all his drugs and money. David gets offered an 'out' by his boss - pop to Mexico and bring back a bit of the green stuff. But how to get over the border without arousing suspicion?

Simple, get yourself a quick family - a wife, son and daughter, should do it - and all will be well. Of course. Cue road trip, confusion, bonding gone bad, car crashes - basically every trick in the book.

Sure, it's not high-brow. Sure, it's not original - but (like this summer's other surprise, The Heat) it has a lot going for it.

For a start, the performances are brilliant. Aniston may make some dubious film choices (a lot of critics will have this among them), but the girl can do comedy. There's a reason why she's the one from Friends who still has a film career. Likewise Sudeikis hasn't always made the best films (Horrible Bosses was dreadful), but he's funny.

And the supporting cast are great as well, with Daily Show/The Office legend Ed Helms being a great drug overlord and Parks & Recreation's Nick Offerman wonderfully straight-faced as bedlam ensues and ears are violated.

Because, essentially, all you really want in a comedy is, well, comedy. Laughs. Jokes about skateboards that don't look like skateboards. Off-colour gags about teaching a boy how to kiss. Spider bites in unfortunate places. Idiots with tattoos. It's all good stuff.

But what really makes We're The Millers work is the fact you get to like the characters.

Sure, you know how it's going to end up, but the people involved are well-drawn, the dialogue is natural (OK, the odd bit of swearing is out of place, but not much), and everyone is essentially nice. And those that aren't have bad stuff happen to them. So that's all good.

Critics will have kicked this one around, and yes it's a bit long, and your concentration can wander a bit in the final third, but - dammit - it's funny!

And it's a genuine ensemble piece. Each Miller is given time to shine, and all do it with aplomb. Roberts has some real comedy chops, while Poulter is showing that Son Of Rambow wasn't a fluke. He's funny.

I do have one major gripe with the film, though, and it's huge. It's the scene where Aniston has to do a dance to try and get them out of trouble.

It's not the fact she's bouncing about in her pants for no other reason than she looks good (she's a big enough star to have said no), it's not the fact it's so OTT some might take it seriously (they will), it's what they do to Aerosmith's song, Sweet Emotion.

It's been edited.

Badly edited.

I mean to the point it sounds like it jumps edited.

And you don't do that to the Bad Boys Of Boston. You just don't. Especially not with Sweet Emotion. That's sacred ground. Leave it alone. Either pick a shorter song or have Jen dance to the whole thing - either's good. Don't get busy with the digital chopping gizmos.

You've been warned.

Still, if THAT is the the only thing that annoyed me about it, I think we can agree this film has done what it set out to do.

Oh, and here's how it should sound:

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Lovelace (18)

A great thing happened this afternoon - thanks to the generous nature of friends, we cleared our charity fundraising target of £2,500.

To say this blew my mind would be an understatement. Clearly the milk of human kindness is flowing freely in some parts of the world (something which was celebrated with pizza and wine at the National Media Museum).

Bit of a culture shock then, to go from the warm and fuzzy feeling of people's kind efforts to watching Lovelace, where the milk of human kindness has at best turned sour.

For the uninitiated, Lovelace tells the tale of young Linda and her journey from a Florida backwater to the silver screen as the star of the biggest-grossing porn film of all time, Deep Throat. A journey that takes in rape, domestic abuse, drugs and exploitation.

It's not what you'd call an easy watch.

To be fair, it's not meant to be - the story of her life is harrowing, and as such the film does a top job in making you squirm and feel uncomfortable. You want to help Linda (played brilliantly by Amanda Seyfried) escape, want to lead her to sanctuary while everyone else just leaves her where she is.

But, of course, you can't. So you end up feeling almost complicit in the abuse she suffers at the hands of her husband, Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard with a performance so perfect you hate him from the outset).

You come out of the cinema feeling dirty and ashamed (there's a parallel to be had with Deep Throat itself, but I'm not sure that's what the directors were aiming for).

But let's start with the positives.

The filming and colouring of the film is great - it looks grainy and 70s, with the film and TV footage made grainier (if that's a word) to add to the feeling you've gone back to 1972. It places the film exactly where it needs to be.

And the performances are great as well. Alongside Seyfried and Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone almost steals the show with a wonderfully-weighted turn as Linda's mother, while Hank Azaria (otherwise known as Huff in Popcorn Towers) is worryingly convincing as Deep Throat's ambitiously pretentious director.

There's even the odd laugh. But as these come from Deep Throat itself (several scenes are re-created here), they too feel slightly awkward.

And if this was simply (I use the term loosely) a tough film about a tough life, then fine, not a problem.

But it's not. And therein lies one of the main problems.

At no point does this film attempt to draw conclusions, or even attempt to lead the audience to any. It makes no stand or statement on the exploitation of the porn industry, the tone is simply 'this is the way it was'. And that tone is carried throughout the film. It's almost as if the directors didn't fully believe in the story they were telling.

Then there are the photo shoots Linda is put through. Granted in these she at least looks like she's enjoying the moment (although one could equally argue that she would, it's the face she had to put on to survive), but given the life Linda is living through, given how she is being exploited - why the hell are we shown so many shots of Amanda Seyfried's breasts?

I get that those pictures exist. I get that it's an event that took place. What I don't get, given how exploited Linda Lovelace was, is the need for further gratuitous nudity.

The actual sex scenes are handled carefully, leaving everything to the imagination, so why the need to have Seyfried on full show? It adds nothing. We really didn't need to see THAT much of the photo shoot. It just appeared cheap.

I could be over-reacting of course (I'm not), but when care and a delicate touch are used in so many other areas...

And then there's the score. Seyfried's performance is masterful, it compels you to connect and feel what she is feeling. What you don't need is some over-zealous violinist layering it with pity music. Pity is not the emotion this film should be going for. Anger, fine. Empathy, of course. Sadness, naturally. But not pity.

It could, of course, go for triumphant survival, but by the time the ending rocks up you're two steps from calling the Samaritans, so it doesn't quite get you there.

There's also a problem with prior knowledge with this film, strangely.

My viewing companions were not aware of the story of Linda Lovelace and her brutal marriage, so they didn't get the same sense of nasty foreboding the moment Sarsgaard appears on screen. It's there, but maybe only if you're looking for or expecting it.

(There's also seemingly a row to be had with how a later Sarsgaard scene plays out. I argue the score is deliberately going for a sad, almost pitying tone - which is so out of place I almost threw a shoe at the screen. Two others agree it could be read that way, but didn't get that on first viewing, and the fourth of our party disagrees completely - but admits to not actually noticing the score at that point. Your thoughts are welcome below...)

My other problem is with the telling of the story. The story is told once, straight, and then we go back over events seeing a different, darker version. The "real" story, if you will. This creates further discomfort in the audience (as if there wasn't enough already) by pointing out what you should have been seeing.

It's not a necessary device, it doesn't add anything major to the story (it actually adds bits that make you sit up and want to yell at the screen again - I say 'you', I mean 'me). A straight, linear telling of the tale would have been just as effective.

There are other things I probably ought to say, and probably things I want to say, but I'm still in a state of mild shock.

I knew it wasn't a happy tale of one girl's bid for fame using skills she didn't learn in school, but nothing prepared me for just how violated I was going to feel by the end.

The scenes of domestic violence and sexual exploitation pull no punches - and they shouldn't - making it a harrowing cinematic experience. But that's not what leaves me feeling as I do.

No, it's the fact that no statement is made, no blame is apportioned, no accountability is made, no stand taken. All things that led Linda to be in her situation in the first place, sadly.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Out Now(ish) On DVD

You know how it is, we all lead busy lives - and that future classic French arthouse film isn't showing at your local multiplex. Sure, you could drive 45 minutes to that lovely independent cinema you've always wanted to go to, but it's only on next Tuesday afternoon and getting time off work can be a real arse...

Fear not, intrepid film lover, we here at Popcorn Towers share your plight. The list of films we want to see is longer than the list of ones we have - hence this missive.

Grabbing any spare hours we have, we'll be watching the ones we didn't get the chance to see on the big screen and telling you if you should bother. We'll be adding others here as we go along, so pop back often.

And being helpful, we'll point you to where you can buy it too. 'Cos we're nice like that...

Breathe In (15)
Last year, the sublime Like Crazy impressed enough to make it to second spot in our films of the year top ten - so imagine our excitement when the same team set about making another film almost instantly.

Director Drake Doremus and his writing partner Ben York Jones, aided and abetted once more by the lovely Felicity Jones, this time teamed up with Guy Pearce, Amy Ryan and relative newcomer Mackenzie Davis to deliver another look at life, love and relationships.

Only this time, things are different.

Where Like Crazy was warm and inviting, Breathe In is cold, stark and almost haunting. Set at the same slow pace, Breathe is a study of how a marriage can fall apart if you don't pay attention.

Pearce is brilliant as a man who has given up his dreams of playing music to teach it, while Jones is as good as ever as the young exchange student piano prodigy who causes the many ripples in a previously still pond. Ryan, meanwhile, is more than up to the job of playing the cookie jar-collecting wife who thought everything was OK.

Sadly, with three actors delivering their A-game, Davis is the one to fall by the wayside a little bit as the daughter who is seemingly usurped by the English interloper. She flaps well, and looks lost on cue, but there's not the same depth to her performance the other actors are able to bring.

And this throws the balance of Breathe In off a weenie, which makes it harder to watch. And make no mistakes, Breathe In is a hard film to watch. So good are the performances, you feel every pang of a heartstring, every smash of a cookie jar, the pain and guilt of every stolen glance as teacher and pupil set about pleasing themselves at the expense of everything else.

It's for the audience to apportion blame here (and you will). Doremus is simply telling his tale, capturing the chaos allowing you to relate to whatever hits home and then explain yourself over a glass of wine afterwards.

There's no levity here, no fluff and smirk. It's muted colouring sets the sombre tone early on, with only a brief trip to New York offering respite. The result is a tough watch, but one that lingers long (in a good way) after the TV has been switched off.

Bachelorette (15)

Strange thing with this film. It actually came out last year in America, but wasn't released over here.

Then it was, this summer, but if you blinked you missed it. Never saw a trailer, or an advert - if there hadn't been press screenings, it would have gone totally unnoticed. Which was a pity, because the reviews were very positive.

So, never one to let things get in the way of doing what we want we hit the Amazons, and two short weeks later the DVD rocked up. Free postage too. Call that a win. (The UK release looks like being in October.)

And so we settled down to see what all the fuss was about...

The story is becoming very well-worn. It's a wedding comedy a la Bridesmaids, whereby four friends who don't really like each other that much anymore have to gather because one of them has gotten herself all engaged and is about to have one of them there weddings.

With liberal use of booze, Columbian marching powder, a strip club, an ex's mum's house and the hotel, hilarity ensues.


It's a weird thing that I wanted to laugh a lot more at Bachelorette than I actually did. That's not to say it isn't funny - it is, in places. It's just that those places are a bit too far apart.

And it's not the performances, either. Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher are good, Rebel Wilson does what she does, and Lizzy Caplan is excellent at doing dark humour... Nope, that's all good.

Sure the male characters aren't up to much, but they're really just there for garnish anyhoo. It's the women who are taking centre stage here.

So why, why, why, why, why is it not a riotous laugh-in gag fest?

Part of the reason is the characters are so flawed and so damaged that the dark side of their personalities actually becomes a central theme, bringing the drama to the fore at the expense of the comedy.

The other issue is believability. By going for the traditional 'odd-ball mix of characters' (tight-ass, druggy loser, air head, normal but fat), writer Lesley Headland has actually pushed things too far. Dunst's character is SO uptight, there is no way she would lower herself to hanging out with Caplan's sluttish boozer or Fisher's empty-headed party girl. And she's certainly too shallow to still be friends with someone she once referred to as pig face.

Having said all that though, it does have its sweet moments. It's a bit 'comedy-by-numbers' at times, but when it works it really works (Caplan's chat over a wedding dress with a stripper in the club's toilet is a particular highlight) and there are romantic moments to keep things ticking along.

Sure, getting people to like the unlikeable (Dunst, Fisher and Caplan's characters don't have a lot to commend them) is a tough gig, but it can be done. Bachelorette is no We're The Millers, but it's still a thousand times better than Movie 43.

NO (15)

Way back in the mists of time - or 1988 as it's sometimes known - the world woke up to the fact that Chile's General Pinochet (all-round oppressive dictator and friend of Mrs Thatcher) wasn't the nice, cuddly, uniform-loving general people thought he was.

Not sure what tipped them off - the excessive censorship, the way people who disagreed with him disappeared, the fact he had taken over during a military coup and then decided to stick around - but someone somewhere thought all was not well, and so the international community came up with an ultimatum: Have a vote. Or else.

Of course, he wasn't too bothered. He ruled by fear, so let's face it no one - when asked - was going to choose option 'B'. He was fine.

Only he wasn't. Because people actually decided to take back control, and so began the No campaign, urging the people of Chile to grasp democracy by the scruff and make a change.

The story of that campaign is told here - and it's told damn well. Leading the way is the wonderful Gael Garcia Bernal (he of Y Tu Mama Tambien and The Motorcycle Diaries), who plays the advertising guru who is persuaded to drive the No bid.

The story is touching, heartwarming and thrilling. Shot in mock-documentary style, which lends a certain guerilla feel to the whole, it's worn-VHS tone and 4:3 ratio adds to the feeling that this is capturing events as they happen.

Even the subtitles are 'of the time'.

With 'cameos' from the celebrities who added their weight to the call for change, No captures perfectly the human spirit and how the impossible can be made possible if people are prepared to fight for what they believe in.

A message that needs to be heard today more than ever.

Good Vibrations (15)

The 70s wasn’t the greatest time to be alive, no matter what anyone tells you – especially if you lived in Belfast.

Thank goodness, then, for punk music and the wired and wonderful Terri Hooley (the man who introduced John Peel to The Undertones), whose one-man crusade to bring music to the masses or go bankrupt trying is told here.

With stunning performances from Richard Dormer (as Terri), Popcorn favourite Jodi Whittaker (as Terri’s long-suffering wife) and Dylan Moran among many others, Good Vibrations is as heart-warming and funny as it is graphic in its portrayal of a nation torn in two.

Mixing laughs with real tension and the odd surreal moment with Hank Marvin, Vibrations will leave you grinning with moist eyes.

You’ll be wanting the soundtrack too.

Friday, 9 August 2013

The Lone Ranger (12A)

You know, I've been to the cinema a lot over the years, and I've thought a lot of things - Where have all the staff gone? Why do people eat crunchy snacks? What's that sticking to my foot? You know, normal thoughts.

But I have never wandered into a darkened screen and thought 'what a great place to leave my two young boys unattended for three hours'. It's a cinema, where people have better things to do than keep an eye on your offspring, it's not a creche.

Now, to be fair to the little scamps, once The Lone Ranger started all the bouncing about, kicking of railings and chattering stopped and they became engrossed. Which was great. Still say there should have been an adult knocking about somewhere though.

As for the film itself, it's had a stormy few weeks since being released in the States. Sniffy critics have taken turns to lay into the re-imagining of the 1950s TV classic, causing star (and producer) Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski to blame the critics for the film's poor performance.

Which is unfair. Film fans don't hang on the words of the critics. They watch trailers and talk to friends. If critics held that much sway, the Fast And Furious franchise would have come to a halt after the first film. Same with the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise. No, you can't blame the critics.

The problem, sadly, is I think people just didn't get it.

There's also the possibility that people don't have the same warm nostalgia for the masked bringer of justice that Depp and Verbinski do.

Which is a shame, because behind all the quirk and odd storytelling lies a fine homage to classic westerns, with heart, violence, drama, warmth, humour, tension and a man with a bird on his head. What's not to like?

The story starts in 1930s San Francisco, as a young man pays his nickle and wanders into the tent promising to recreate the Wild West. Look, a stuffed buffalo, look a stuffed bear, look a geriatric Tonto...

From here, having overcome his shock at discovering the Wild Savage was in fact alive, our young boy - resplendent in his Lone Ranger get-up - listens in awe as Tonto tells the tail of how good, honest John Reid (played by Armie Hammer) became The Lone Ranger. And it kind of works.

Kind of.

The boy is able to ask the questions the audience have, but I'm not sure we need to keep cutting back to the 1930s to carry on telling the story we're watching unfold. It's not annoying, don't get me wrong - and I enjoyed the to-ing and fro-ing - but I can see it annoying the less quirk-friendly folk.

Depp's performance itself is fine. Unusually underplayed for him, and wonderfully deadpan, it could be that a lot of people haven't got the humour at play here - and there's a lot of it. Tonto is flush with one-liners and wry looks, and Depp's comic timing has never been in question. But it is VERY deadpan. There's no sitcom-style trumpeting of an upcoming punchline here.

Which is good, because that would set the wrong tone, but you could see people missing the gags.

Especially when there's quite a lot of violence and drama around. No punches are pulled as entire native American tribes are wiped out in the name of progress and greed. Verbinski is quite happy to portray the white man as the evil looter, highlighting the atrocities that were committed back then.

Now it's no mean feat to mix flippant with war, but the film just about pulls it off. Sometimes to the detriment of what could be a dramatic scene, but to be honest by the time the tones start to shift like the desert sands, I was enjoying myself so much I figured it can't be that big a problem.

Others will disagree, I guarantee.

But this is a fun film. The tone of the old Western films is captured perfectly, bleached-out scenes, lingering shots of horse chases, grandiose frames of men walking in the desert, this bit Verbinski nails.

And Hammer's good. With Depp toning it down, there's space for the good man of the law to shine, delivering more deadpan humour well and being a thoroughly believable Good Man.

He's joined on the side of good by Kent's very own Ruth Wilson, who as the sassy Rebecca combines looks with bite. She again more than holds her own, and again doesn't go overboard.

The more cartoonish villains kind of do that, but even William Fitchner's sinister Butch Cavendish isn't TOO overboard. He's evil, he's got scars, but he manages to stop short of being an evil clown.

The star of the film, however,  is the horse. There's no getting around it. Silver acts everyone off the screen, making it the best animal performance since Lassie. Or Frasier's Eddie. He earns his hay, that you can be sure of.

So what are people complaining about?

It's got big set-pieces, explosions, chases on trains, chases on horseback, chasing of trains on horseback, shootings, humour, a bird on Tonto's head - what's not to love about all of this? It's everything a summer blockbuster should be.

OK, the use of old Tonto to tell the story is odd, and there are some weird moments that seem out of place (yes devil rabbits, I'm talking to you), and the tribal spirituality could be a tad less laboured - but against everything else, these are things you should be able to live with.

This film does have points to make about the treatment of the native Americans, and it makes them well, but it doesn't ram them down your throat.

Instead, it sets out to be an old-fashioned Western epic, with big everything, lots of action and a man with a bird on his head.

Ignore the critics (well, not this one, obviously), just go and see it. It's so good it keeps unattended kiddies quiet.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (15)

If history has taught us anything - and despite Michael Gove's best efforts, occasionally it does - it's that the transition from TV sitcom to full-blown movie is not an easy one.

For every In The Loop (off of The Thick Of It) there's a Guest House Paradiso, for every The Inbetweeners Movie (born, unsurprisingly, out of The Inbetweeners) we have to endure The League Of Gentleman's Apocalypse (I'll leave you to work out where that came from). And then there's Ali G and Keith Lemon...

So how, then, would Norfolk's most famous son (after Lord Nelson and Trisha) fare switching from the small screen to the multiplex (or, in my case, the wonderfully cosy Cubby Broccoli cinema at the National Media Museum)?


Let's start with the good news. It's not a Lemon. Far from it. For a start, it's funny. And it doesn't rely on endless celebrity cameos to cover over the fact it's a giant turd of a film. No, it's definitely not that.

But, somehow, it's not quite the film I was hoping for.

The premise is good - a disgruntled former DJ on the now rebranded Shape (previously North Norfolk Digital) has decided to show the corporate owners what he thinks of their decision by taking over the station in an armed siege.

Once the police are involved, he'll only negotiate through the one man he trusts to do the right thing and be honest and straight with him. Alan Partridge.

Now, if you've never seen Steve Coogan's most famous creation before, this isn't the place to start. Built entirely on presumed knowledge, no time is given to setting up the characters. This isn't a problem if you're familiar with all of Alan's foibles - but if you're coming in to this cold, it could cause you a problem.

For fans, however, things play pretty much as you'd expect, with Alan getting himself into more and more awkward and absurd situations of his own making. And that's good. For fans, that's what you want - and there are a lot. Coogan's physical acting comes into its own in places, and his portrayal of a man ill-at-ease in his own skin has never been better.

Something, though, is missing.

The character of Lynn (played as ever by Felicity Montagu), his much put-upon personal assistant, seems a little flat. Nothing to do with Motagu's performance, but there's something missing in the script. It's as if they knew Lynn had to be in it, but didn't know what part she had to play. As a result, she seems somewhat left in the shadows.

It's the same with Michael, once the doorman at the hotel where Alan was forced to live back in the '90s TV show, now the security man at North Norfolk Digital as was. Again, there's nothing wrong with the performance - Simon Greenall's played this part long enough to know what he's doing - but if you took the character out, you wouldn't miss him.

Which is a shame. Having included him, we needed him to be more involved. As a fan of the TV show, I needed to know how he got the job - especially given how Alan was never that fond of him. As with Lynn's character, it feels like they new they wanted him in it (he's been a stalwart over the years) but didn't know what to do with him.

The same can't be said of Tim Keys, a recent addition to the Partridge universe playing Simon - the straight man to Alan's wacky radio antics. He's in the action, and rightly so, but should have been much more than the victim of the piece. Yes, some bits where funny, but I wanted more of him dammit.

Now, there are a lot of negatives, but there are positives too.

Coogan's on top form, and the assembled cast all put in fine performances, and many of the scenes are classic Partridge - but it just seems to fall short. Alan's world was never one of huge laughs, it always mined a rich seam in underplayed, almost cringey moments where Alan was ill at ease - putting those around him in the same situation. And that's a good trick which works well in half-hour bursts.

Over 90 minutes, it wears thin.

There are parallels to be made between Alpha Papa and The World's End. Both have a central conceit of trying to gain empathy (if not sympathy) for a predominately unlikeable man - but where Simon Pegg's Gary King had an army of people around him with whom you could empathise, Alan's on his own.

The one person who does get you, and you do really care about, is Pat (excellently portrayed by Colm Meany) - the old man of the airwaves being slung on the scrapheap. Yes, he may be holding a gun to Simon's head (sometimes without using his hands), yes he may be holding people hostage, but you can understand why and you find yourself rooting for him throughout the film.

And then there's the music, the use of which is nothing short of genius. In a recent Wittertainment interview co-writer/producer Armando Iannucci was saying how much thought Coogan put into the songs they chose - and it shows. Some just set the right tone, but most use the lyrics to underline the story. And they're all songs played on low-rent local radio. It's perfect.

The really weird thing about Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is this: Driving home, it was bugging me as to what was wrong with it. Why hadn't I enjoyed it more? Why hadn't I laughed more?

And yet, writing this now, I'm beginning to think I enjoyed it more than I thought. Granted, that doesn't make a lot of sense, but the more I think back to it, reflecting on what I watched and how it was made (good direction by Declan Lowney, who's also making the jump from the small screen), the more I'm finding bits I actually really liked.

The ending's wrong - it has a great ending, but they add another five minutes, which is a shame - but there are some classic Partridge moments here. And you can't fault Coogan.

It's certainly not a Lemon.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Only God Forgives (18)

A few years ago, Mrs Popcorn and I decided to spend a week in Bangkok - taking in the temples and wotnot, risking life and limb in a tuktuk and generally being amazed by the sound and feel of what is essentially chaos with added tower blocks.

Two things hit you as you arrive in the city from the airport - the heat, and the bustle. Bangkok is alive like no other place I've ever been - it feels like one giant organism, with every individual a living and breathing part of a bigger beast.

Which makes setting the ice cold, detached Only God Forgives there just one of the things that will smack you between the eyes as you wallow in Nicolas Winding Refn's latest work.

Now, let's be clear from the off - this is not an easy film to watch. If fast-paced wossinames and shooty shooty bang bang is your thing, jog on - you'll only join the hoards of people who are moaning how dull Only God Forgives is. If however, like me, you thought Drive was a stunning piece of work, then grab a pew. You're in for a treat.

From the start this film has you by the throat, barely allowing you to breathe as you watch the action slither and glide across the screen. And there's no let-up in the tension, not for a second, it doesn't ebb and flow, there's just two settings - on (when the film is running) and off (when it's stopped).

There are moments of relief, but this is done through some genius use of lighting - and the colouring of this film is as much a character as any of the human players in this near-Shakespearian tragedy.

If the buzz around this film has escaped you, the plot is quite simple. Julian (Ryan Gosling) has a brother, Billy (Tom Burke). Billy does a bad thing, so Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows him to be punished by the victim's father. He then punishes the father as well, just to make his point.

Next thing we know, Julian's mummy (Kristin Scott Thomas in possibly her finest ever role) is in town and wants answers and revenge. But not in that order. Or with any answers.

And now the blood REALLY starts to flow. And the bodies pile up. And you squirm in your seat as ice picks and fruit knives are put to alternative uses. But you won't look away, because this film will make you watch.

This film really shouldn't work. It operates at a very slow pace - a pace that never changes, even when people are running away - and every character is deeply flawed, operating their own dubious moral code, but you like them and you care about what they're doing and why.

Well, all except for mummy. You won't like her.

In Crystal, Ms KST has created one of the best, cold, evil, villainous women of modern cinema. She's like Maris without the warmth (if you're a Frasier fan), a woman who when told her dead son raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl simply says, in an almost bored way, "well I'm sure he had his reasons".

She doesn't care why, she just wants the person who killed him dead. At any cost.

And this is where both the pacing and colouring of this film come into their own. By mixing opulent, sinful reds with stark, cold whites and deep, bruising blues to keep you abreast of the emotions the characters are repressing, the slow steady pacing of the film actually allows the tension to build and build as the final showdown looms. And when it does, you'll be captivated.

The sound of this film is also key. Where as some films (naming no Wolverines) use the score to smack you over the head, Refn uses subtlety, making silence as important as the often off-kilter score (there's a scene in a brothel that is pure genius). It's as much about what you don't hear as what you do.

But all of the stylings would be for nowt if it weren't for the actors. Cool and slick can get you so far, but you still need human warmth to connect to.

Not that there's much of that here.

And this is another Refn masterstroke. The characters are, almost to a man, unlikeable. Gosling's Julian as his good side, Chang is on the side of good but has a unique sense of justice, but both do things that make you fear them. Or, in the case of Julian, really want to not ever meet him.

Not always a fan of Gosling's - he seems to have got a bit stuck in his cold-detached approach to acting - here he is right at home. Julian is damaged, so detached from humanity he can't even have sex normally. It's no wonder when you see his mother, sure, but you still shouldn't like him.

It's a measure of just how good Gosling is here that you actually do care about him. He has his own sense of right and wrong (he's not after revenge, as he figures Billy got what was coming to him), and having been played by his mother to finally carry out revenge, he still does it on his terms.

Essentially, Julian is an off-shoot of Driver (off of Drive) - and Gosling wears that particular suit so well. His ability to convey thoughts and feelings facially, with minimal effort, is perfect here. An award or two will surely be flung his way come January.

While Gosling's name is on the title, however, he is neither the focus nor hero of the piece - this is a team effort.

Going up against him is Vithaya, who balances menace with heart and a bit of quirk. Yes, he may be fairly brutal in his judgements, yes he may be the only policeman to carry a massive sword, but he loves his young daughter and he cleanses his soul by singing at his local bar at the end of a long, blood-splattered day. So it's hard not to like him.

In reality though, this film belongs to just one person. Yes, Gosling and Vithaya are playing for your affections, and yes Refn has created this cold, detached world, but this is Kristin Scott Thomas's baby.

Already well known, Kristin has been making a 'new' name for herself in French cinema (Tell No One and I've Loved You So Long both deserve your attention) - and here it's clear to see why. She steals every scene, she owns every frame, her performance is so perfectly weighted and measured you'd stand and applaud at the end of the restaurant scene if you weren't so damn scared of her.

KST stands out and that's the nature of her character, but she couldn't do it without the others. The characters are a collaboration, with Chang, Crystal and Julian all needing each other to give their lives meaning and purpose.

This film is not going to be for everyone. The violence is brutal, the cold detachment almost alienating, but if you like being gripped, fascinated, mesmerised and feeling you've almost been violated, you'll love it.

Refn has crafted another masterpiece. No shot is wasted, no moment unnecessary, every scene is framed perfectly.

Yes it is slow-paced but that is the key to feeling fully immersed in the mood and style of this film.