Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Broken Circle Breakdown (15)

D'ya know what you should watch, said a smart-arsed chum of mine, that Belgian flick - the one based on a play. Got loads of country music in it. Heard it's good.

Well, with a sales pitch like that, who's to say no?

Turns out he was on about The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium's entry in the Film Not In The English Language category at next year's Oscars.

And it's not country, it's bluegrass.

Granted, ol' cloth ears may have got the genre of music wrong, but after that he was on the money.

It is indeed based on a stage play - one written by Johan Heldenberg, who stars in the film as Didier, a man who's life we follow for an hour and 50 minutes.

Didier is banjo player in a bluegrass band, who has fallen in love with first Elise (played by Veerle Baetens, seen here recently in The White Queen) and then their daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse).

Didier never planned on this being his life, but equally he never planned for the highs and lows the following years throw at him - but with a wonderfully strong performance by Heldenberg, we share everything with him.

Let's be clear early on, though - this is not a gentle, easy film to watch. It's a bugger to explain because so much of what happens would be plot spoilering to the nth degree - and the real beauty of this film is not knowing what's coming.

You get a few hints, sure, but the warmth of this film will keep you entranced and full of hope.

If emotionally tense dramas are not your thing, particularly ones in Flemmish with subtitles and lots of bluegrass, then chances are you're going to struggle - but you should still see it.

You really, really should. And here's why.

The Broken Circle Breakdown is a brutal, warm, funny, traumatic, sweet, tragic, beautiful film. It tugs on your heartstrings and will have you bawling your eyes out inside the hour.

It's simply stunning.

And it's stunning for simple reasons - the characters are lovable, the story is heartfelt and passionate, the central three performances are amazing, it's beautifully shot, it's not too long... and the music is great.

In Baetens we have a woman who can be sexy and fragile, strong and weak, who captivates in every scene she's in. Alongside Heldenberg, that's no mean feat. And boy can she sing.

The film is stolen, though, by young Nell. Not only does she melt your heart with a performance of fragile beauty, her performance carries a depth and weight that belies her tender years.

If I seem to be gushing a bit here, I am. Partly because it's not easy to type when your eyes are a tad moist - but mainly because, much like Broken earlier this year, I feel like I have been on a huge emotional journey.

In a very, very good way.

The whole of life is in this film, the whole gamut. Every extreme high, every worst low, and because of the power of the writing, the strength of the performances and the warmth that flows from every frame, you feel you've gone through the emotional wringer.

There are wider themes at play here as well - God is given both sides of the debate, George Bush Jnr gets to trash a pro-American's dreams, different approaches to grief are explored, but none of it is done in a heavy-handed manner.

And the deft touch adds more weight to the drama.

This film could have been maudlin, depressing (and doubtless some people will still see it that way), but it's not.

The Broken Circle Breakdown is, ultimately, a celebration of life and love. With added bluegrass music.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 (U)

As is often mentioned in these hallow pages (and the new podcast, when I get it edited), the best children's films work on many levels - so the adults can enjoy it as much as the youngsters.

And that was certainly the case with the first Meatballs movie, where we met Flint Lockwood and revelled in his many failed inventions - right up to the point one worked, rain became food, and then it all went to hell in a tornado of spaghetti.

It was anarchic, zany, slightly surreal and was laden with jokes both visual and audible.

So would a second helping be as tasty?

This time Flint (voiced brilliantly again by Bill Hader) is trying to put everything right after the food storm, only for his science hero Chester V (Will Forte), owner of Live Corp, to come along and whisk him away to his dream job.

As ever, dreams don't tend to go well in film world, and Flint and his friends have to overcome all manner of nefarious doing to save the day. Again.

Part of the original formula is repeated (many, many puns and gags), but there have been some changes too.

This time round there's a bit more sugar in the mix, a few musical montage moments (kudos to Sir Paul McCartney for getting one of his crackin' new tunes in there) and a less than subtle anti-corporation message - but it's still zany, mad, fast-paced and has it's surreal elements.

Where last time we had roast chickens coming to life, this time around we're invoking the memory of Jurassic Park and Return Of The Jedi as food has become a species of it's own, and the indigenous population of fruit, veg and marshmallows team up to help our friends.

The food gags are particularly inspired - we have shrimpanzees, banostriches, cantelopes, melophants and Barry the strawberry, each with their own innate personality and character traits.

And there are monsters too, with a giant cheesburger running rampant and a run-in with a tacodile. You're not in Disney any more, Dorothy, that's for sure.

The cast are clearly having fun. With just one change (Terry Crews has replaced Mr T as town cop Earl), Anna Farris, James Caan, Neil Patrick Harris ("Steeevvveee") and Andy Samberg are all delivering gags and, when needed, emotion with aplomb.

It's bright, colourful, mad as a box of leeks (a fine running gag) and pays tribute to Terry Pratchett with its ape joke. What's not to like?

Granted, the tone is a bit more 'mainstream' (an obvious shift seeing as they now have an actual audience to aim at) and the messages of choosing your friends over flattering strangers is a smidge laboured - but is that a bad message to teach children?

And, yes, three musical moments is a tad OTT when the first film managed just fine with none, but I'm nitpicking here.

It's a family film that has everything for the family to enjoy together. You'll laugh a lot and, by the end, be so caught up in the adventure you'll start feeling emotions grown people shouldn't be feeling when watching cartoons.

It's simply a great film. Just don't ask where Steve got his brown crayon from.

PS: I saw it in 2D. It was great. It might work in 3D, but it won't add anything major to the essential elements of the film - which are the jokes.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Captain Phillips (12A)

The growing problem of piracy off the coast of Africa has been in and out of the news in the past few years.

Here in Britain, we had the tale of Paul and Rachel Chandler - a couple who were kidnapped while spending their retirement sailing round the world.

In America, you had Captain Phillips. For those who missed this one, Somali pirates boarded his container ship but left with just him. In a lifeboat. Not a great success, this particular raid.

While both stories were big news in their home countries, I'm pretty sure neither washed up on the opposite nation's radar - so the story of Phillips and his time with a small band of Somali pirates in a lifeboat had passed me by.

Fortunately, as is the modern way of dealing with a traumatic event, Captain Rich Phillips wrote a book  (A Captain's Duty) which was then optioned as a film, and here we are. With Tom Hanks.

And Paul Greengrass.

And it needs Greengrass, as a counterpoint to Hanks. With Hanks at the helm, you know you're going to get Acting and Emotion. With Greengrass, you're getting in-your-face action. An interesting mix.

And, for the most part, it really, really works.

Starting off with Phillips (played by Hanks) setting off to work, arriving on the Maersk Alabama and then setting sail, the opening scenes are intercut with our Somalian pirate gangs getting ready for their day at the office.

And this is important, because we get to see that, essentially, these are people who are doing something out of desperation and fear. They're not freelancing freeloaders stealing for fun, they have warlord bosses who have revolutions to fund.

The pacing of the opening scenes is perfect, slowly allowing the two stories to unfold as they converge at the point the pirates board the ship.

Which is where Greengrass hits the throttle.

Making fast-paced action scenes is no mean feat - container ships are not quick, nippy things after all - but Greengrass ratchets up the tension, making shots of rudders and engines pounding and integral part of the action and drama.

And it works so well.

You'll be holding your breath before you know it, you won't be able to take your eyes off the screen, as shouting and gun pointing becomes the order of the day.

It's here that Greengrass' signature hand-held style comes into it's own, allowing the fear and tension to be shoved right down your throat - even when all people are doing is hiding in a cold store. The drama is pretty unrelenting from here on in.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about all this is the fact that Barkhad Abdi is making his debut here. As the leader of the pirates, he's going toe-to-toe with a Hollywood veteran - and he's holding his own.

The other pirates are all equally good, and equally making their debuts, but as the central figure Abdi almost steals the film from Hanks.

He comes into his own once they're adrift in the lifeboat, perfectly capturing a man trapped by situation and circumstance.

And it's here that Greengrass' introduction of the back story comes in. Without it, it's just some nasty criminals with that nice Mr Hanks in a small boat. With it, the pirates are human, desperate, trapped and afraid.

You'll almost be rooting for them as much as you are for the Navy Seals arriving cavalry-like off the starboard bow.

And if you thought the scenes on the container ship were tense, they're nothing compared to the lifeboat.

Four pirates and Tom Hanks, shouting, screaming, scared, afraid, violent, angry - and you're in the middle of it all. It's claustrophobic, tense, and utterly thrilling.

Now, if you don't know how this all plays out (as I didn't), don't look it up. Don't Google it. Just go see the film. Because when the whole situation is resolved, you'll be holding your breath again.

If only the film had ended at the same time.

It's a long film, that could lose 20 minutes without detracting from the experience, and it could start with the final ten.

It's not a spoiler to say Captain Phillips survives (he wrote the book leading to this film after all), but did we really need to have Tom Acting in those closing scenes?

He's been wonderfully measured and understated throughout the film. He's been believable and watchable in a way I've not seen in him for quite a few years. But then he has to go and ruin the whole thing by having some scenes at the end where he Acts and Emotes.

It actually feels like they were bolted on at the end to show how Tom can 'do' Emotion. And it almost ruined the film.

For two hours I'd been engaged, gripped and thoroughly enjoying (OK, sounds wrong, but you know what I mean) this tale of piracy on the high seas.

And just when the film's natural ending arrives, Tom has to go overboard and provide ten minutes of pure Hanks - making me wish they'd left him on the lifeboat.

It didn't quite ruin the film, but I would have rather left the screening feeling I'd watched a great film than leave - as I did - feeling annoyed at someone's blatant attempts to yank at my heart strings.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Fifth Estate (15)

Truth is a funny thing - it's all a matter of perspective. Ask anyone of my ex-girlfriends why we broke up, and they'll tell you a very different story to the one I'll tell.

But we'd each insist ours is the real version of events.

So who is telling the truth in The Fifth Estate, a "dramatic thriller" about the birth of Wikileaks - the game-changing website that published all the things we were never meant to know?

Based, in part, on the book written by co-founder (or employee No1, depending on who you ask) Daniel Domscheit-Berg, The Fifth Estate attempts to show the birth of an idealistic dream.

What it also attempts to show is the flawed character of Julian Assange, the man who definitely started Wikileaks and is now Ecuador's most celebrated resident.

Directed by Bill Condon (a man with an eclectic CV, going from Gods And Monsters to Twilight via Dreamgirls), The Fifth Estate is trying to adhere to a simple journalistic principle of laying out the story and leaving the audience to draw conclusions.

Sadly, it struggles to do it in any cohesive manner. And it's certainly not a thriller.

This is not a terrible film. It just lacks a clear focus. Watching it, you are left with no real sense of who the story is about. Or what.

It could be about Daniel (played brilliantly by Daniel Bruhl, seen recently as Niki Lauda in Rush), it could be about Assange (another faultless performance by Benedict Cumberbatch), it could be about the battle to have the truth heard, it could be about how dangerous the truth is, it could be about the people harmed by the truth, it could be about how governments were slow to appreciate the strength of Wikileaks. It could even be about Bradley Manning, the soldier who leaked a tonne of stuff and is now doing time in an American prison.

But The Fifth Estate is actually about all those things, which is where the film hits a problem.

There's no clear focus. No central theme. And there are certainly no thrills (with the exception of the moment the US decide to get their man out of Tripoli).

In a way, the film falls down by clinging to the Wikileaks ideal of putting all the information out there at the same time - leaving us to pick through the start of the site, the involvement of journalists, the fall out in The White House and the cat.

Such an approach works fine on Wikileaks, because people have the time to plough through all the information - but in a film, we're just left with an overview, there's no real depth.

It's well acted, well shot and makes some good use of imagery of the imagined Wikileaks world inside the Assange bonce.

But it could have been so much more.

By narrowing the parameters we could have been given either more sense of what the founders went through, or the panic that flowed through the corridors of power (apparently only America was really bothered, the Russians a tad, but no other government is mentioned), or the damage caused by the Manning leaks.

Instead, we get a bit of all that. And a lot of Julian Assange. Which is another problem.

Because Assange has seemingly had no involvement in the project, we are left with the word of a man who fell out with him. Unsurprisingly, this doesn't paint him in a good light.

Similarly, my friends will say nice things about me. My ex-girlfriends not so much.

As I said earlier, truth relies on perspective - and the perspective of The Fifth Estate is skewed. It doesn't make it a bad story, you understand, but it forces you to ask how much you can really believe.

That Assange was a tad delusional is clearly a central theme here, a liar who wanted other people's truths revealed. But we can only know if that is true by hearing from him. We need another source.

Of course, we have another source here - Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange's War On Secrecy, written by David Leigh and Luke Harding and published by Guardian books (and serialised by The Guardian).

Incidentally, The Guardian comes out of this film looking like a reputable, respectable newspaper that acted responsibly. Just saying.

Sadly, this is a film that raises more questions than answers (not least how one man with no apparent income could afford to be jaunting all round the world). Maybe that was the point (Assange himself says you have to search for the truth), but it just leaves a big gap in the story.

Ultimately, The Fifth Estate should have been a really important film. In the same way All The President's Men catalogued the Watergate affair, so this movie should have told the story of the new game-changer in world affairs.

Sadly, something gets lost in the mix, leaving you to ponder on what could have been - and what really happened.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Machete Kills (15)

Here's a puzzle - how do you manage to make a film that's meant to be bad, really, really bad? Is it a case of doing your job too well?

Because somehow, despite the dumb fun and blood that was Machete, the sequel is dull. How this has happened is a mystery, although I think I know the answer...

For those of you who have missed the history of this Mexican masterpiece, some history - director Robert Rodriguez and his mate Quentin Tarantino had a fun idea a few years ago, deciding to pay homage to the grindhouse genre with the double bill of Death Proof and Planet Terror.

Amidst all the fun and guns, there were some trailers for fake films. These turned out to be rather popular, and before you can say 'in-joke', Machete went from being a pretend trailer to a real film.

And it was good. Guns were fired, heads were cut off, limbs flew like leaves in the breeze and Lyndsay Lohan was a nun. It was bonkers brilliant.

Inevitably, there had to be a sequel - so here we are.

The wonderful Danny Trejo is back as the titular blade-wielding hero, Michelle Rodriguez (no relation) is back as the leader of the underground movement, Jessica Alba reprises her role as Sartana Rivera - it should all work.

And for about twenty minutes, it does.

Having been recruited by the President Of The United States (Charlie Sheen, performing under his birth name of Carlos Estevez to add to the Latino flavour), Machete must go into Mexico and come back with the man who is pointing a missile at Washington.

And again, limbs are hacked off with gay abandon, heads roll, things go boom and bang - it's a rollicking laugh.

Then it stops being fun.

Part of the problem is a switch in humour. Rather than sticking to the tried-and-tested approach of just killing people in entertaining ways, Rodriguez decides to try and be actually funny.

The writing's on the wall when we see 'The South West Wing' on the President's office door, and it's down hill from there.

Later we get to meet Mel Gibson's Luther Voz, the man with the plan and a love of Star Wars, and it's at this point you realise Rodriquez has been watching too many Naked Gun movies. Only no one laughs.

In fact it almost descends into a bad Bond film by the end, which is a horrible place for anyone to end up - especially when you probably think you're being funny while you do it.

Because, for the fans of the first film (and I count myself as one) the joy was in the brutal simplicity. It was an 18-certificate film (Kills is a mere 15 you'll notice) with lots of blood, guts, gore and violence. Which is what I wanted.

Now I'm being force-fed unfunny, sanitised pish - without Lohan in a habit, but with Mel Gibson. This is not good.

You see, what a lot of people don't realise is there is actually a knack to acting badly. You have to be able to act well to pull it off - because the people in the original films thought they were actually acting well.

And that's something Trejo gets, Rodriguez (the Michelle one) gets it too. Gibson not so much.

Then there's Amber Heard. Sure she looks good, and she showed in The Rum Diary that she can actually perform in front of the camera, but here she's terrible. She's trying to do the 'bad acting' thing, but just ends up acting very badly.

The poor performances are highlighted further when Antonio Banderas rocks up (and, to a lesser degree Cuba Gooding Jnr). Suddenly the screen returns to life and the joy and abandon of those almost forgotten opening 20 minutes are back with us. He gets it. And we get it.

No one gets Gibson though.

Even Sheen is in on the idea, although in his case it's how he's been acting ever since he decided he was "winning", but hey - if it works, it works. It's just a pity that Gibson's own meltdown hasn't had as good an outcome...

You may have heard that Lady Gaga also appears. But if she didn't, you'd have missed nothing.

Basically this is just a long list of 'could have beens'. This could have been more violent, this could have been funnier, this could have been good.

Instead you get a great opening, a few bright spots towards the end, and a long dull wait for a reprieve in the middle. Even gun-toting hookers with machine gun bras and strap-on pistols can't save this.

Can't remember the last time I watched a film thinking it could have been improved by Lohan.

Oh, and there's also a trailer at the start about Machete being in space. It's funny until you get to the end of the film, when you realise you've basically watched 100 minutes of set-up for the next movie.

Which, if we're really lucky, they won't get to make.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Filth (18)

You've got to hand it to James McAvoy this year - hitting the mark in Welcome To The Punch, entrancing in Trance and now up to his piggy little ears in Filth.

He's having quite the year.

And it's a measure of just how good he is performing at the moment that, unlike the Ryan Goslings of this world, each performance stands on its own merits - no repeating a formula here, no siree Bob.

There has been quite a buzz about Filth, and we've been giddy here at Popcorn Towers since seeing the full, filthy trailer recently (family-friendly version here, obviously, but the one you really want is on YouTube).

And the film does not disappoint.

Based on the Irvine Welsh novel of the same name (and, not having read it, I can't comment on the accuracy of the adaptation - but I'm guessing the phrase "based on" is key), Filth tells the story of bloated, bigoted, corrupt cop Bruce Robertson.

Bruce, played wonderfully by McAvoy, is not having a good time. It's Christmas, his wife seems to have left him (he's not sure if, or why, she has) and he's chasing a promotion at his Edinburgh cop shop.

Then there's a murder to solve. And an obscene caller to track down. A copper's work is never done.

And it's not easy work, especially when there's so much coke to snort, colleagues to discredit, booze to drink, women to shag, parties to organise and Masonic meetings to attend.

Bruce is a busy boy and no mistake.

He's also having a total meltdown as past events, current events and all that coke (not to mention the proper drugs he's prescribed) combine to bring his various mental walls crashing down.

This is, I think it's fair to say, not an easy film to watch.

It's gritty, dirty, visceral, surreal, nasty, violent, sexual, foul-mouthed and coked off its knockers.

Put more simply, it's great.

Part of me thinks it shouldn't be. The lead character is loathsome - and it's a mark of just how good McAvoy is that you find yourself liking him. Even when he's spiking his only friend's beer in a gay club in Germany.

Because, underneath it all, he has moments of genuine warmth and empathy. He's become this monster, but buried way underneath nice old Bruce is still lurking - even if it takes a total stranger (the delicately fragile Joanna Froggatt of Downton Abbey fame) to make him actually feel something.

Although how she manages to get through all that coke is a mystery. I've never touched the stuff and even my nose was tingling from about halfway through.

But for all the grit and filth and nastiness, there are some lighter moments and fun to be had. You will laugh. You will also squirm and feel sick - particularly when humble accountant Bladesey (Eddie Marsan in another great performance) is honking up in his hand after popping to see Bruce and having 'just the one'.

McAvoy's ability to switch from fear to anger to, well, any one of the myriad of emotions Bruce's crazy cranium throws up, is just wonderful to behold - he literally IS Filth - but he somehow manages to not steal any of the spotlight from the supporting cast.

Jim Broadbent as a mad Aussie doctor, John Sessions as his superior officer, Imogen Poots, Jamie Bell and Emun Elliott (yup, him from Threesome) as his colleagues, all put in stellar performances, balancing out the madness McAvoy's Bruce is immersed in.

And also, look out for David Soul, in one of the weirdest yet perfect cameo roles you'll see this year. Or any year.

As I've said, Filth is not a relaxing film to watch. It's enthralling, though, and you find yourself being dragged (and drugged) along for a smidge over 90 minutes without noticing.

It's as much a look at police corruption and abuse of power as it is a look at one man battling his many, many demons. It's a rollercoaster, a rude, sweary, sex-fuelled, coke-riddled, whiskey and beer-soaked rollercoaster, which takes no prisoners but does beat up and threaten a few.

You can't relax, and by the end you feel drained, but you'll have had fun. Sort of.

There will, of course, be some who will make obvious comparisons with Trainspotting (it's Scottish, written by Welsh and full of drugs), but that's unfair.

Filth deserves to stand (slumped against a wall looking as rough as a badger's bottom, granted) on its own.

Now, if you'll excuse me, having seen both Blue Jasmine AND Filth this week, I feel the need to check myself into a rehab clinic...