Saturday, 22 March 2014


Phantom (2013)

Starring Ed Harris and David Duchovny

Directed by Todd Robinson

"Phantom" is by no means a perfect movie but it is a very well made, effective, and entertaining one. And it's Independent.  The setup is simple; an about-to-retire Soviet Submarine Commander is sent out on one last mission in his old boat, some "special" operatives join him with their own hidden agenda and a top secret cloaking device... Is their intention to defect, or to launch a first nuclear strike against the US? Our captain suspects the latter.

The film certainly plays on, or fits neatly into, depending on your point of view, the traditional tropes of both Cold War thrillers and Submarine movies. The claustrophobia of the vessels generally makes for an extremely atmospheric tension, and this film is no exception. In a way, it's at a bit of a disadvantage because the rules of the genre mean it will immediately be compared to "Run Silent Run Deep" or "The Hunt for Red October". But this isn't to detract from the achievement here. Unassuming, effective direction aside, the real winner in this film is the cast. Ed Harris is simply a superb actor, he's a banker every time and no less effective in embodying his character here than he was in diverse fare varying from "Pollock" to "The Rock" to "The Abyss". David Duchovny is a surprise as the nasty-piece-of-work KGB operative; I've always liked him as an actor ("Return to Me" is an unexpected favourite) and I fear it will be a tag that haunts him for years to come, but here I didn't think about Fox Mulder (one of the all time iconic characters from one of my favourite TV shows ever) or Hank Moody for a second. And particularly, William Fichtner, the supporting actor at the top of any casting director's list, surely, is great as the man torn between loyalty to his captain, duty to the state, and the opportunity for promotion. I can't believe he hasn't been cast as a lead more often. The other supporting cast members were less familiar but also all played well.

It is to be commended, in my opinion, that this was independently made on a fairly tight budget. It just goes to show a good film can be made without a $150 million budget.  In comparison to, say, the ludicrous Tony Scott submarine film "Crimson Tide" it comes out streets ahead.  Sure, there are factual errors here and there, but not that many people would recognize, and the strength of performance and direction win through.

See this movie if you like Cold War or Submarine movies, or are just looking for a slightly offbeat thriller. At just over 90 minutes it doesn't outstay is welcome, and I found the climax to be quite moving. I liked.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Jokers

The Jokers (1967)

Starring Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed

Directed by Micahel Winner

Although he's probably best known now for those "Calm down dear" insurance adverts, in which he appeared before he passed away in 2013, there was one a time when Michael Winner used to make films, most infamously the Charles Bronson vigilante movie "Death Wish" and its two sequels, and one or two were rather good, particularly his comedies of the 60s. His last film, "Parting Shots" was in 1998.  His direction here is vibrant and with a deftness one doesn't normally associate with him. "The Jokers" is a jaunty little caper movie with a wicked sense of humour and an engaging twisty-turny plot. The script, by veteran scribes Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, whose partnership ranges from "Porridge" and "The Likely Lads" to "The Commitments" and "The Bank Job", by way of uncredited rewrite work on faux Bond film "Never Say Never Again", contains some priceless lines, including a couple which only an Englishman could find funny ("I was in the same house as his newphew.  He was an idiot too... Roger Gurney-Simms.  Went off to Tanganiyka and the bl**dy place became independent as soon as he got there!")

I remember when I was about 5 years old I saw a film about two soldiers (sic) who steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. Latterly, I didn't remember much about it (obviously) or even what it was called, only that I enjoyed it. So I was pleasantly surprised recently, when I stayed to watch the late movie on telly one night and it all came flooding back... Quite why I would have loved "The Jokers" so much when I was five is beyond me, as most of the humour would have probably gone straight over my head. I must have loved the ingenuity of the brothers' scheme and the twists at the closing stages. But then, this movie is so incredibly easy to like - it rattles along at a cracking pace, it looks like a tourist film of London, it's a pleasing thriller, and it's pretty funny to boot. There are many advances in technology which would render crucial details of the plan unworkable today, making the movie very much a product of its times; but baby, what times! The Swinging London of the late 60s, as so affectionately sent up in the "Austin Powers" flicks, is presented here as decadently appealing, if shallow, an endless round of booze and birds. If there's any sour note it is that the "system" which the brothers want to ridicule seems to have been very kind to them along the way. But it's hardly a film to be making profound political statements, so one can't complain. Instead just sit back and enjoy this superbly entertaining little sparkler, as much fun now as it was when I was five years old!

Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed play two brothers, Michael and David Tremayne.  Michael is in the army, whilst David seems to do nothing but womanising his way around the aforementioned Swinging London, dining in fine restaurants, hanging out in nightclubs, and attending parties.  When David plays a prank on Michael which sabotages a training exercise on Salisbury Plain, Michael is drummed out of his regiment.  On his return to London, David suggests that they make "a grand gesture".  After scouting London for suitable targets, they hit upon the idea of stealing the Crown Jewels from the White Tower, but later returning them to the authorities.  The point is not for the robbery to be about profit, but to shock "the establishment" and show up how lax the security is.  They phone in a bogus bomb threat and gain entry to the tower posing as army bomb disposal officers, before staging an explosion and escaping in an ambulance.

The robbery itself occurs relatively early on in the film; the fun part is what happens when the time comes to hand the jewels over.  Double-crossing occurs and the Police desperately try to catch their suspect.  Crucially, at this stage the film keeps its audience guessing, and the outcome is genuinely unexpected (although I have to admit, the final moments are a little silly).  Crawford is charming and funny - although this is no "Condorman"! - whilst Reed is charismatic, if a little gruff.  They are ably supported by, amongst others, Harry Andrews, Michael Horden, Brian Wilde, Warren Mitchell, and Edward Fox.

There's a distinct sense of time and place about "The Jokers".   It's (what I believe is known as) an enjoyable romp.  For a caper movie it's original and memorable.  If you should happen upon it, it's well worth a watch.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips (2013)

Starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi

Directed by Paul Greengrass

As this film is based on the book (and true story) "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea" by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty, it's fairly safe to say it's no spoiler to reveal that Phillips survives the ordeal depicted in this film.  But the big questions are how did he survive?  What transpired along the way?  Therein lies the glory, and amazing, gripping telling of this film, one of the tensest, most dramatic films that I've seen in a long while.

In 2009, Captain Richard Phillips takes command of the MV Maersk Alabama, a US registered container ship, and sets off on a voyage from Oman in the Middle East down the coast of Africa.  This is the first time he has sailed in this particular ship, so the crew are unfamiliar with his methods, which are somewhat rigourous.  Early in the voyage he notices that the doors and hatches are unsecured, and orders several security drills.   

Meanwhile, in a village in Somalia, Abduwali Muse (Abdi) is ordered by a group of mercenaries working for a warlord named Garaad to go out and find something to provide money for said warlord.  The local young men all clamour for a spot on the mission.

The "pirates" duly close in on the ship, and despite efforts to see them off, they manage to board the cargo vessel.  A tense standoff immediately ensues with Muse telling Phillips "I'm the Captain now" and demanding millions of dollars in ransom.  Phillips has told the crew to hide below decks, barring the crew members serving on the bridge.  He arranges for them to slow the engines, pretending that the ship is crippled, and offers the money from the bridge's safe - $30,000.  This does not satisfy Muse and his band of raiders.

What ensues is an utterly enthralling game of cat and mouse, as the pirates attempt to find the crew, fix the ship, and continue to demand their ransom.  Phillips, for his part, attempts to disrupt their plans, protect his crew, and find a way to freedom.  The brilliance of the film lies in the even-handed treatment of the antagonists and protagonists.  The Somali pirates are shown to be under duress from the warlord, so one can understand their motives for taking such desperate actions.  Morally, it's ambiguous.  But likewise, we can fully sympathise with Phillips' desperate attempts to look after his crew.  With the US Navy fast closing in, the pirates, in frustration, decide to kidnap Phillips and they cast off in one of the ships' lifeboats, setting up a nail-biting final act in which the Captain comes within inches of death.

As one would expect from director Paul Greengrass, pioneer of the documentary-style "shaky cam" look in such films as "United 93" and "The Bourne Supremacy", the film is completely immersive.  It feels at times as though one is a part of the action, or at least as if this is a documentary.  There were some reports on its cinematic release that moviegoers were experiencing sea-sickness due to the camera motion!  It's also extremely exciting and absorbing.

The performances are uniformly superb - Hanks in particular has seldom been better, the final scene, dialogue free, is so, so powerful; and the previously unknown Abdi is wonderful as Muse (deservedly winning a BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actor), but they are also well supported by the ensemble cast of crew members (great to see "Twin Peaks"' Chris Mulkey on board!)

It's emotionally draining - I was stuck to my seat as the end credits rolled - but it's also thrilling, dramatic, skillfully played and directed.  All in all one of the best films I've seen in quite some time.


Tuesday, 11 March 2014


50/50 (2011)

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen

Directed by Jonathan Levine

You have cancer.  You're going to die.  You have a massive tumor in your body which will not go away.  It has to be killed by doctors, if they can manage.  They're all politely speculative.  Or you will need life-threatening surgery. Otherwise, it's curtains time.  Think about it.  How do you react?  Are you calm? Are you angry?  Are you sad? Withdrawn? Positive?  Can you even be positive about such a crappy situation?  Do you draw up a bucket list and prepare for the end?  Or are you determined to fight?  How do your friends and family respond?  Are they selflessly supportive? Are they consumed by grief themselves for the perceived outcome?  Are they considerate?  Do they listen?  Are they even aware of your feelings as they struggle to cope with the idea that their loved one (perceived or real) could be coming to the end of their life?  Is their thought about you, or about them?   How do you cope?  Your odds of survival are said to be half in half. Not bad, says your best friend.  Deadly, you think.  These are some of the themes examined in the amazing drama / comedy "50 / 50".  

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, already celebrated for roles in the likes of "Looper" and "The Dark Knight Rises" (Not a word against Ben Affleck but why couldn't JLG have been cast as Batman in the next Superman film?) but who is a certainty to become a *massive* star in future, plays Adam, the cancer sufferer, and Seth Rogen, who has already established his comedic credentials, plays his deeply caring (although it might not often be apparent) best friend Kyle.  This is a story of an ordinary young man, Adam, a polite unassuming, easy-going, journalist for a Public Service radio station, who discovers early on in the film that he has a cancerous growth in his spine, and goes about dealing with that through chemo (evidently), Psych therapy at the hospital, and thinking on life.  It's a beautiful meditation of a picture which touches on all those things mentioned above, and more, without a hint of judgment.  We just see things play out, and are drawn, tremulously, into the human drama of Adam's story.  Adam is in a somewhat unfixed relationship with an artist called Rachael, (not a great artist, at that) who seems unwilling to commit.  He isn't in any way close to his overbearing Mother (Angelica Houston).  His father suffers from Alzheimer's disease and doesn't recognise him each time they meet.  His closest relationship is with his workmate and best buddy (Rogen), although the two are as different as chalk and cheese.  Kyle is loud, lewd and brash, always there with a cheap gag or a one-liner.  Adam is quiet, introspective, withdrawn.  He's the type of guy who will stop at a red pedestrian light whilst jogging, even if it's 6am and there's no traffic on the road.

The main thing to note about this film is that it approaches the cancer as a simple fact.  There's no "Why me?" style angst.  It is what it is, we all have to die eventually.  Sometimes, life sucks.  But sometimes that can make it great.  As the story progresses and Adam comes to terms with his illness, there's a surprising amount of humour.  Most of it comes through his relationship with Kyle, who will, for instance, use a trip to a bookshop to look for books on cancer to pick up the shop assistant, but also through the relationship with a group of fellow chemo sufferers, significantly a pot-smoking group of old men (including Max Headroom himself, Matt Frewer).  It's as much about Adam as it is about those around him - I'd say about half and half...

The power of the film comes from the balance between the two emotional phases of Adam's condition.  For the most part he is cold about it - this is happening, there's nothing I can do, leave me alone.   On the other hand there is a huge amount of humour, and pain all around him.  Having read certain user comments about the movie, they range from "It's outrageous, how do they dare make fun of cancer?" to "I suffered from this, and the movie perfectly nails the gallows humour you experience".  As such, I really bought into it, from the latter perspective.  The movie doesn't make fun of cancer, it simply depicts the way one individual might react to it.  Added into the mix is the tender relationship between Adam and his Psycho-therapist at the Hospital, Katherine, played with immense charm by Anna Kendrick ("Up in the Air", "End of Watch").  She is a rookie, still studying, and Adam is only her third patient - she doesn't have a good survival rate, as he figures out.  There's a great running gag wherein she feels that during sessions it will comfort him if she places a hand on his knee or his arm, but he recoils violently.  She can't figure why, as that's what it says to do in her manuals; he can't understand as it's so obvious he has shields up.  It just injects so much humanity into those scenes. And there's a good Doogie Howser joke.

Without giving wanting to give away anything, the climax of the film is genuinely unexpected, tense, and extremely emotional. "50/50" is an very well made film in my opinion, unfussy but packing a punch.  Although I, thankfully, have no direct experience of cancer, it strikes me as a movie which is true.  It speaks to such a range of emotions - love, sorrow, anger, regret, humour, acceptance - perfectly balanced, that I just loved it.

Oh, and fair played to Joseph for shaving his head on camera!