Friday, 7 June 2013

'Populaire', 'A Hijacking', 'Fast & Furious 6', 'Behind the Candelabra' and 'The Iceman': review round-up

A bumper edition round-up this week, as I've not updated for a while. Been busy with other stuff, like hosting/writing the Hold Onto Your Butts film quiz at Komedia (in Brighton). Above is the latest of our picture rounds, as drawn by the excellent Joe Blann. Consensus is that this is the hardest of the picture rounds so far... I don't think anybody got the three point question!

'Populaire' - Dir. Regis Roinsard (12A)

Light, colourful and fluffy in a way that won't surprise those familiar with this brand of whimsical, middle-brow French comedy - 'Populaire' is an affable enough movie, mostly thanks to its supremely watchable leads: Deborah Francois as a clumsy, hapless secretary with a special gift for speed-typing and Roman Duris as her cold and competitive boss. Set in the late-50s, at a time when international typing competitions were apparently the hottest ticket in town, and a source of front-page news, it's a formula rom-com that's also equal parts 'Rocky' (with its heavy reliance on sports movie tropes), 'The Secretary' (in its power-imbalanced, sadomasochistic relationship between boss and employee) and 'Mad Men' (if only in its emphasis on the sartorial glamour of the period, as popularised by that TV show). It's chic and mildly diverting stuff, that provides a few gentle laughs - and just as many truly awful lines to go with its questionable gender politics.

'A Hijacking' - Dir. Tobias Lindholm (15)

An exceptional Danish thriller which takes an almost procedural approach to its realistic portrayal of modern day piracy, this is a tense, tightly-wound piece of filmmaking that explores what happens when a large freighter ship is commandeered by armed African pirates and its crew held for months on the open sea: a fate that's become increasingly common in the last decade. As the pirates haggle for ransom with the company that owns the ship, 'A Hijacking' follows both the struggles of the captured crew (mostly via Johan Philip Asbæk's traumatised cook) and the moral dilemmas facing those in the company board room - with Søren Malling's no-nonsense CEO taking a dangerously hands-on approach in negotiations, against the advice of a piracy expert (played with authority by real-life corporate security consultant Gary Skjoldmose-Porter).

Even-handed and intelligent, director Tobias Lindholm's film doesn't lay the blame at the feet of the corporation - it doesn't present the board as villains for not immediately caving in to all the pirates demands - and doesn't even really vilify the pirates (even if they are often quite frightening and capable of great violence). Instead it seems to simply present the experience as what it is: something terrifying and life-changing for everybody involved, right down the anxious families of those held captive. Malling's CEO is shown as a man under great pressure, who - though not subject to the appalling conditions of the ship's crew - has his life upended by events to a very similar degree. What the film doesn't do is explore any of the political or economic conditions that have made piracy increasingly common, but that's the subject for a preachier, less visceral movie: one potentially less devastating, shocking and emotional.

'Fast & Furious 6' - Dir. Justin Lin (12A)

I haven't seen any of the other films in this increasingly popular series, but I understand the franchise used to be about street racing - something that, save a pointless, mid-film diversion, doesn't really factor in this straight-up action movie. It's all shooting and punching and making things explode, whilst cops hire criminals to catch worse criminals - in a plot that involves some McGuffin weapon that, if sold to an unfriendly nation, could mean war and stuff. It doesn't really matter. What matters is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is in it, along with franchise mainstays Vin "The Mumbling" Diesel and Paul "Who Is This Guy" Walker. They drive fast and incredibly shiny cars - and they do ridiculous, physics defying things in the name of punching the bad dudes, scoring with chicks in hot-pants and safeguarding their "family".

That particular F-word gets bandied about a lot here, as the film goes to great lengths to show that it's actually a deeply emotional drama about a group of friends with feelings and character arcs such - just like in a real film. But it isn't and, frankly, it'd be better if they didn't bother pretending otherwise. The film is far more fun when tanks are crushing cars on a Spanish highway than when it's about gruff, musclemen explaining how they've got "to set things right" for some wrong committed five films ago that nobody remembers. Just explode more stuff already. Especially as the film's attempts to have anything approaching a plot always backfire, as our heroes repeatedly interrogate enemies in order to find out stuff they already knew - and one character even travels to another continent, has himself put in prison and very nearly dies, trying to unearth knowledge the rest of the gang seemingly already posses back in England. Very odd.

It's also amusing that nearly every scene in the first half of the film follows the exact same formula: a group of our heroes are ridiculed by unnecessarily rude people after asking a polite question, and respond by beating up everybody in the room. The message seems to be: don't mock Vin Diesel... he's, like, really strong and he'll probably smash your face in until you're unconscious. It's a difficult message to argue with, but it isn't revelatory, even to a 'Fast & Furious' series newcomer like myself. Don't pick on people with big muscles for no apparent reason, y'all.

In all seriousness, it's hard to get over how brazenly sexist this film is in order to sit back and enjoy the popcorn. It's all gyrating women in bikinis, dancing around cars, whilst our protagonists watch and say "damn", possibly whilst bumping bro-fists. At one point a character explains that cars are better than women because "when you trade up for a better model they don't take half your shit". This isn't an ironic statement and it says a lot about who these douche bag characters are and who they think this film is for. The Rock admittedly has a really appealing screen presence - self-aware and charming - but the rest of the lunk-heads that make up the cast, including a sadly under-utilised Gina Carano, are just grunting meat-puppets. Aside from a couple of jaw-droppingly ridiculous set pieces, this is a film that could have been gloriously trashy and over-the-top - in a way that compensated you for the aforementioned stupidity of it all - but ended up merely being a bit dull.

'Behind the Candelabra' - Dir. Steven Soderbergh (15)

Following his supposed "last ever film" - 'Side Effects', released earlier this year - Steven Soderbergh returns to cinemas with this blackly comic and extremely bleak portrait of glamorous entertainer Liberace, which focuses on the famously closeted pianist's peculiar relationship with a man named Scott Thorson, upon whose recollections the film is based. A TV movie in the US, produced by HBO after studios reportedly rejected the film as "too gay" to be commercial, 'Behind the Candelabra' is the fruit of a long-running passion project of the prolific director and sees Michael Douglas and Matt Damon deliver brilliant performances as Liberace and Thorson respectively. Douglas in particular is in inspired form, with his turn potentially career-defining, seemingly coming out of nowhere. In many ways his performance is the obvious joy and appeal of the film, with Liberace an outrageous, larger than life figure, so credit must also go to Damon for being the emotional center that gives meaning to all the mincing.

Even as it follows Liberace in his twilight years, with his peak decades behind him, the film manages to show us the highs and lows of his life: giving us glimpses of his performances on Vegas stages, in front of adoring fans, as well as showing us the loneliness and pitiful sadness born of that mix of hyper-fame/wealth and keeping such a large aspect of his life a (admittedly poorly kept) secret. He's a paranoid figure and a man with few (arguably no) real friends - or meaningful connections of any kind, beyond the revolving door of pretty boys that he keeps in his "palatial kitsch" mansion. We can only speculate about how close to reality the film gets, being based on the memoirs of a man who unsuccessfully sued Liberace, but the film is quite perfect at plunging the viewer headlong into the despair and loneliness we can imagine comes with extreme celebrity.

Where the film really excels is in its portrayal of the power imbalance shown in the relationship between Thorson and his self-described "father, brother, lover and best friend" Liberace. This has a universal quality, as Thorson - so in thrall to, and financially dependent on his partner - has almost no agency. He is in a precarious position, and is all too aware of that fact, which means he is to a certain extent unable to resist much of his cruel and often abusive treatment. He's a man who offers and gives so much to his lover but whose contributions are overlooked and frequently denied the moment there's an argument - a situation that's probably familiar to many. It's this transcendent bit of drama, along with Soderbergh's hauntingly sterile cinematography, the black wit of the script and the fine central performances, that means the film stands up very well next to the director's other minor masterpieces of recent years.

'The Iceman' - Dir. Ariel Vromen (15)

An impressive cast - lead by the intensely watchable Michael Shannon - doesn't stop this "based on a true story" biopic about a notorious hitman from being deadly dull. Basically, it's the tale of a guy who murders hundreds of people in cold blood - seemingly because he has a cold detachment that renders him indifferent to human life, brought on by an abusive childhood and lapsed Catholicism - but who's alright really because he doesn't want anything bad to happen to his young daughters. That's about the depth of it. Chris Evans and David Schwimmer are nearly unrecognisable in supporting roles, which is at least mildly interesting, but otherwise we have Ray Liotta as the schlubby, unpredictable head of an Italian crime family and Winona Ryder as the shiny-eyed innocent who doesn't know where her husbands money comes from. Maybe it's a victim of art imitating life, but it's a story we've seen played out a million times before, and with a lot more vigour and imagination.

For a movie about a contract killer, there's no style or panache to how he does his business. Some key "hits" occur off-screen and most are left to montage - with the only exception being a hit on James Franco, which many may find cathartic in the wake of his extreme over-exposure. This is fine if we aren't being sold the crime as glamour bit we usually get in mob movies, but the film offers nothing compelling in its place. The only consequence to violence and a life of crime that we see is that, eventually, people might be violent towards you and your loved ones. Aside from that it's a passionless film with nothing to offer.

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