Tuesday, 29 October 2013

'Philomena', 'Captain Phillips', 'Le Week-End', 'The Pervert's Guide to Ideology', and 'How I Live Now': review round-up

'Philomena' - Dir. Stephen Frears (12A)

It's a testament to star Steve Coogan's screenplay (written with Jeff Pope), Stephen Frears' light-footed direction and Judi Dench's nuanced lead performance that 'Philomena' isn't the most depressing film of the year, even if it's still a reliable tearjerker. It's based on the heartbreaking real-life story of just one of many teenage girls became indentured servants to nuns in 1950s Ireland after falling pregnant, many having their babies taken from them by the Catholic church - and sold to wealthy families overseas. It's a story almost tailor-made to provoke outrage, indignation and buckets of tears from an audience - and rightly so, but the strength of this film adaptation lies in its steadfast refusal to wallow. In fact it's frequently quite funny amid the weeping and ruminating on the pros and cons of religious faith, as Coogan - playing journalist and former Blairite spin doctor Martin Sixsmith (upon whose book the film is based) - and Dench's Philomena Lee go on the road in search of the latter's long lost son.

When I say the film looks at the nature of "faith" I don't mean that it does so in that nebulous, infuriating, shallow way most movies use the term - as a byword for all that's good and noble, and insisting that those without "it" are less fully realised individuals. No, 'Philomena' genuinely looks at the nuts and bolts of day-to-day faith and how it can impact on a person's interactions with the world around them, for good or ill. How it can be both a great help to Philomena in her times of need and, in some cases, a great hindrance - giving her lingering feelings of institutionalised guilt and shame where none need exist. Her unwavering Catholicism also prevents Lee from seeing her continued abuse at the hands of the church for what it is, as nuns conspire to withhold information from her and cover their tracks decades down the line. Coogan is restrained and effective as Sixsmith, eschewing anything like Partridge mannerisms or phrasing (something which couldn't be said for his portrayal of Paul Raymond in 'The Look of Love'), whilst Dench just about steals the show creating a compelling, fully-formed character unlike anything she's played in recent memory.

'Captain Phillips' - Dir. Paul Greengrass (12A)

The unlikely hybrid of a hi-octane, shaky-cam Bourne thriller, an Oscar-baiting "true life" drama, and the 'Home Alone' franchise (courtesy of some nifty booby-traps), Paul Greengrass' 'Captain Phillips' - which stars beloved everyman Tom Hanks as the title character and based on his controversial memoir - manages to turn failure, incompetence, regional strife and neo-colonialism into a great American success story. Whereas this year's other Somalian piracy film, taut Danish thriller 'A Hijacking', provides a fairly dry, procedural account of a modern piracy ordeal, mostly focussing on the shipping company board room and their reluctance to lose too much money versus the unravelling mental state/physical health of a crew incarcerated for months on the open ocean, this is (in the pejorative sense I usually stay away from) a very "Hollywood" account of similar events.

There's a selfless hero, punch-ups, gun battles, booby traps, and even little on-ship espionage missions as the plucky crew battle the intruders like an elite counter-insurgency outfit. There's lots of army hardware on show too via lengthy and gratuitous tracking shots of aircraft carriers, shots of marines suiting up for duty, and of army men jumping out of planes for reasons that aren't clear but presented in a way that hopefully looks cool. By the time the climatic half-hour is playing out there're no less than three huge American warships, a squadron of gunboats and an air-dropped platoon of elite commandos versus a tiny (distractingly cute) orange lifeboat manned by four variously rubbish Somalian pirates. It's a bold and unconventional storytelling technique to try and get you to root against the underdog. Maybe this is an accurate account of how it all went down, but it's difficult to stomach all the bluster and bombast regardless.

Though credibly performed by Somali non-actors, the pirates each have one defining personality trait and narrative purpose. There's the angry one who's a potential liability, the delusional leader with a little man complex, the young, doe-eyed one we're given permission to feel empathy towards, and the guy who drives the boat and says or does nothing else of note (poor bastard). Meanwhile our hero is your average all-American ship captain, which we know because of a ludicrous monologue to his wife (Catherine Keener, no less) at the start of the film, which gives us plenty of "life is hard" truisms about the state of modern America to let us know he's just a regular schmo like the imagined audience. For his part, Hanks delivers a fine performance, especially when dealing with the post-event shock at the film's conclusion - even if his Mayor Quimby-style Boston accent comes and goes.

To give 'Captain Phillips' its due it's a technically "well made" thriller with its share of tense moments, though - for me at least - a lot of that tension evaporates once the pirates are off the ship (about half-way through the movie) and the bulk of the crew are safe. Again, 'A Hijacking' is compelling because it's about helplessness and a complete lack of control for a frightened crew effectively abandoned by those in authority, whereas this one's about a single, brave hero - a leader of men - trying his best at every turn to outsmart, outmanoeuvre and out fistfight his captors. It's hard to feel as much concern or empathy for that, especially when Captain Phillips himself is the only thing at stake for more than half the movie. And as the American warships circle, and reconnaissance drones fly overhead, we're all too aware that he comes out OK, because the damn thing's based on his book. That leaves the pirates as the sole "victims" of the film's last act, as we grimly wait to see how the mightiest military force in history will erase them from existence with sick inevitability.

'Le Week-End' - Dir. Roger Michell (15)

From writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell - collaborators on 'Venus' and BBC TV series 'The Buddha of Suburbia' - 'Le Week-End' is a bittersweet comedy about an old married couple whose kids have finally left home, leading them to go to Paris to see if anything at all remains of their love aside from a pathetic mutual dependency. Played to perfection by Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent, Meg and Nick Burrows are an all-too recognisable middle class English couple, quietly despairing and getting on each other's nerves. Both are charming and infuriating in almost equal measure, though you wouldn't necessarily want to spend any time with these people - especially when they are together. The film's at its best in a quiet and considered first half during which they squabble about hotel wallpaper and ponder which Parisian restaurant to eat in - careful not to pick one that's too touristy. This stuff is nuanced and compellingly watchable.

However, the film suffers from excess amounts of contrived incident and an over-reliance on coincidence, as if somebody at a meeting somewhere along the line decided something more traditionally filmic had to take place for fear we'd all get bored. A compromise in the name of box office that would be entirely in keeping with Michell's half-hearted desire to make the film in black and white that resulted in two versions of the movie appearing in some cinemas (I saw it in colour, for the record). It becomes bogged down by grand gestures, big, public displays, and contrived wacky happenings involving Jeff Goldblum (funny though his appearance here may be) that distract from a very honest and real depiction of relationships that had been taking place up to that point. It ends up feeling like a missed opportunity, though Broadbent and Duncan are reliably brilliant throughout so it's never a slog to sit through.

'The Pervert's Guide to Ideology' - Dir. Sophie Fiennes (15)

Essentially it's over two hours of Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek directly addressing the camera, broadly outlining some of his cultural theories in a wry manner for the documentary camera of director Sophie Fiennes. He shows a lot of movie clips to illustrate his points - citing examples of his theories in everything from Nazi propoganda documentary 'A Triumph of Will' to forgettable Will Smith vehicle 'I Am Legend' - and frequently appears in costume on mock sets of various films as he analyses them, but enjoyment of this hinges entirely on one's interest in the nature of ideology - or at least this man's particular take on it.

For my part, with an amateur interest in philosophy, I found it interesting though a little scattershot in approach, darting quickly between ideas before I felt they'd been adequately explained and at times making broad, unsubstantiated statements that could have benefited from a more rigorous engagement with the subject matter. But overall - speaking as someone not previously acquainted with Žižek and not well-read on philosophy in general - it was a decent and illuminating way to spend some time. Though I do know a few philosophy students who thought it was facile and a complete waste of time, so take my view on this subject with a great big chunk of salt.

'How I Like Now' - Dir. Kevin MacDonald (15)

Perhaps Meg Rosoff's original novel is worth a read, with a glance at Wikipedia confirming it's very different from this movie adaptation, but this film is boring, laugh-out-loud stupid and pretty darn cynical in its attempts to milk pennies from the 'Twilight' crowd with its tween romance plotline - with shirtless falconry and well-lit cow-whispering uncomfortably dominating proceedings that otherwise include: children being executed, an atomic bomb going off in London (killing "thousands" apparently), and a grisly rape scene. It also doesn't help that our "hero" Daisy, played by Saoirse Ronan, is a terrible prick for no reason at all (unless we buy into the film's hand wave explanation of "daddy issues") - moving to England to stay with her cousin's and being nakedly horrid to all of them immediately upon arrival in the face of constant kindness.

The tone is jarringly all over the place, the characters make no sense, and the near-future dystopia depicted is lacking in any commentary or satire: all that we're supposed to care about is whether Ronan will be able to continue bonking her hunky cousin once the ill-defined "terrorism" stops. This is a film where a young boy starts swigging alcohol from a previously unseen hip-flask during one supposedly poignant scene and we're not supposed to laugh. It's a film in which the lead character says the title out loud. A film where handsome farmhands display an unexplained - and never again mentioned - ability to communicate with cows, which is brushed off with a shrug and another surly pout from our infuriating, charisma-less lead One of the year's very worst - and I'm a self-confessed sucker for an apocalypse movie.