Closed Circuit ***

Boy A director John Crowley’s new British thriller starts by meaning business with the shocking but understated power of CCTV in its opening scenes that prompt us that we’re all under surveillance. Indeed, the UK is one of the most ‘watched’ lands, but how much good does it do us? This is one of two points Closed Circuit aims to explore, along with the usual government conspiracy theory and cover-ups.

Crowley’s classy-looking thriller feels more small-screen than big though, even with it’s A List cast of Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall as a couple of on-the-run lawyers, Martin Rose and Claudia Simmons-Howe. It’s like TV’s Spooks – but with the legal professional uncovering the clues, only probably more realistic in representing the less-than-perfect Secret Service in action. It does hold the attention well enough, even if it treads the same path as other legal thrillers, plus it deals with very current and topical issues.

Rose (Bana) is asked to take over a high-profiled London terrorism case, after the former lawyer is found dead. This sees him defending the main suspect in court with former lover, Simmons-Howe (Hall), a younger barrister with family connections and a glittering career ahead of her. However, Rose begins uncovering more than he bargains for, and he begins trending on some powerful but ambiguous toes – as warned by the Attorney General (Jim Broadbent). This puts him and Simmons-Howe on a dangerous course.

The plot promises a blood-pumping ride, sort of British Bourne set in Soho’s alleyways. Though Closed Circuit captures the imagination and does a decent job of keeping things relatively tense, there’s a little too much English stiff upper lip in emotional impact. Indeed, the lawyers are supposed to be former lovers, but there is little to suggest their affair was anything but mediocre, as the professional barriers never crack enough to show a burning passion on the back boiler.

Bana and Hall deliver as directed, and are sassy poker players with their thoughts most of the time and the game they have been invited to play. It’s Broadbent in one of his more chilling roles to date that steals the scenes as the complex legal character that we are never quite sure is merely advising and/or threatening.

There are some plot oversights, such as why does the network of powerful foes never work out where to find rowing fanatic Rose and the prime witness he is protecting until his time in court the next morning, by hiding him in his boathouse? Perhaps there is no CCTV on the banks of the Thames…

Crowley’s Closed Circuit is a handsome-looking thriller that picks up a steady pace, but feels emotionally stunted, in terms of the protagonists’ history. The bombshell in court feels more like a damp, old firecracker as we have been party to, too much information to make it astounding. Still, it’s all an interesting premise that feels tired in execution and full of standard clichés, even though Bana and Hall make an attractive team to watch.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 *****

Food alive! It’s the much-awaited sequel to the 2009 film that includes marauding cheeseburgers, shrimpanzees and a feast full of colourful silliness on the menu. The relief is it’s as funny, if not zanier than the first – complete with some of the worse puns this century (check out the trailer), thanks to some new direction from Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn. Meatballs 2 still has loyal inventor Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) tasked with saving the day, backed by his faithful girlfriend, intrepid TV reporter Sam Sparks (voiced by Anna Faris) and friends – even dad Tim (voiced by James Caan) comes along for the adventure and befriends some sardine-loving gherkins.

Flint has banished his Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator, or FLDSMDFR for short, to the sky after his hometown, Swallow Falls, is covered with food debris, following the hostile food weather. Still keen to invent something unique, he’s desperate to go work for his idol, celebrity tycoon inventor Chester V (voiced by Will Forte) – think Steve Jobs or Bill Gates in status and power.

Flint, Dad and friends are convinced to leave Swallow Falls while Chester V’s The Live Corp Company go in to clean up. Meanwhile, all are relocated, and Flint gets his dream job. However, Chester V has a more sinister plan in mind, and is searching for the FLDSMDFR for his own malevolent purposes. Flint soon learns his most infamous machine is still operational and churning out menacing food-animal hybrids.

There’s definitely something for everyone to enjoy here. Cloudy 2 does not disappoint and ups the bar in its visual cleverness, with living-and-breathing food forming a sort of Jurassic Park-style wilderness of imagination. Coupled with the visual awe are a crackpot script full of groan-inducing puns and the same bunch of loveable characters from the first film, all intrepid explorers this time, rallying together to defeat Chester V in the end. This puts a price on the value of friendship and loyalty.

Kids will love the bizarre food-animal hybrids and trying to figure out what they are made up of. Be warned: some of the hybrids are a tad scary for very young kids though (cue the Tacodile). That said a talking monkey called Steve (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) would have them back in stitches in no time, as he hilariously does his own background clown show while the main plot progresses in the foreground. There is also a cute strawberry the gang pick up on the way. One of Flint’s new inventions explodes in a blast of party colour, which provides some of the biggest laughs, as does his free takeaway coffees, seemingly to mock our reliance on corporate coffee brands.

Those with kids need only think of TV series Jelly Jam in terms of the zippy characters – it all goes to further enhance the bonkers nature of Cloudy 2. It’s definitely the energy that brings a true uniqueness to Cloudy 2, and though we have already been overstuffed with food in the first film, the filmmakers have thought of new ways to cook up a storm and kept us satisfied again, complete with a brilliant animated action adventure.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa ***

Jackass front man Johnny Knoxville resurrects OAP character Irving Zisman for his very own movie, Bad Grandpa. We first saw the 90-year-old’s high jinx back on MTV in 2001. He seems to be doing well and aging backwards as he’s now 86 years old in this – must be the fresh cheek of youth rubbing off on him from grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) who comes along for the ride. Fear not, this is Jackass with the crude knob turned down a touch but the odd toilet humour gag and latex prosthetics body parts are on show.

Zisman has just lost his wife, had his eight-year-old grandson he barely knows dumped on him by his junkie daughter Kimmy (Georgina Cates) who scarpers at Mum’s (co-writer Spike Jonze in drag) funeral to avoid doing jail-time, and is then forced to make the trip across America to hand his grandson over to his waster father he detests. All widower Zisman wants to do with his newfound freedom is to go to a strip bar, have a good old drink and get laid. Life has other ideas and hiccups along the way as both Grandpa and grandson get themselves in some sticky, messy and totally outrageous situations that include male strippers, beauty pageants and biker bars.

Dickhouse TV’s production reunites Knoxville with his diminutive Fun Size (2012) co-star Nicoll. It’s basically ‘Jackass the Road Trip’ with a sentimental family plot made up of a series of sketches played out using hidden cameras on an unsuspecting public. Admittedly, the first penis joke is within the first ten minutes and it brings tears to the eyes, through laughter then through pain. The rest of the sketches are a mixed bag, either cry-out-loud hilarious (store ride) or drag on (bingo gathering). Some situations seem to mimic the likes of Brüno or Little Miss Sunshine, say, where the gag has been seen/done before. On the whole, it’s the admirable restraint certain members of the public show when an OAP is involved that’s fascinating to watch, plus the near cardiacs others have when things go haywire.

Quite often the scenes with both Knoxville and Nicoll in usually end up with the young star stealing Bad Grandpa’s thunder. Billy is a chubby-faced cutie who needs rescuing from the bad influences in his family. However, he grows to respect his grizzly Pops, probably as he’s just as immature as him. Nicoll commendably plays the straight-laced sidekick most of the time, but other times it’s questionable whether the kid is in on the Jackass joke as his reactions seem too natural to be an act. Knoxville just has a ball in disguise but there are moments beneath the latex mask when even he wonders just how far the joke will go. The end credits show the filmmakers’ reveals to the unsuspecting ‘stars’ in the public.

Bad Grandpa is a blast of light entertainment, however crude things get for some. On a surprise note, it’s the most charming of the Jackass bag of tricks to hit the big screen because of the basic Grandpa-Grandson bonding plot. Knoxville and team have fashioned a unique angle to take the Jackass brand, with Zisman at the helm as the new mascot.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: Like Father, Like Son *****

The dilemma facing two sets of parents in Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest taut drama, Like Father, Like Son (Jury Prize winner at Cannes 2013), is the stuff of nightmares for any family: What if your child was not your biological child, and you knew where your real flesh and blood was – would you swap? Hirokazu Kore-eda’s story explores the possible next steps to resolving such a horror story, steeped in Japanese tradition and mentality. As a new father, Hirokazu Kore-eda puts a real emotional energy into his project that feels so draining in coming to its decision you want it to be the stuff of an urban myth, something that has never occurred in reality.

Successful, workaholic businessman Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) places emphasis in life on money, talent and stature, qualities he is trying to instil into his six-year-old son, Keita (Keita Ninomiya) when he sees him. A call out of the blue from the hospital where Keita was born brings horrifying news for Ryota and his wife (Machiko Ono): Keita is not their biological son – though Ryota admits he always had doubts due to Keita’s moderate talent and drive, and after a blood test.

Their ‘real’ son called Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang) who is living with the Seiki couple (Rirî Furankî and Yôko Maki) and their two children is, and Keita is actually this couple’s biological offspring. A disgruntled nurse at the time was responsible for the swap, and admits this in court. Economic worlds apart, hard-up repair shop owner Seiki San and Ryota eventually decide to swap sons but with harrowing effect.

Hirokazu Kore-eda sets the scene in the strict but affluent Nonomiya family, giving us enough crushing insight into Keita’s world to establish how traumatic being sent away from it all will be. At the same time, we are exposed to snippets of the fun-loving Seiki household, who act as the film’s moral reminder that money does not buy happiness – loving surroundings and quality parental attention do. The chalk-and-cheese couples, different in social status, do have common ground – wanting the best for their children, even if Ryota first believes Seiki San is a bad role model for Ryusei, due to his playful, childish nature. The film gives some pitch-perfect performances from adult and child actors alike, making proceedings feel very real.

The shock is how clinical the swap goes ahead, with the loving mothers reluctantly going along with the plan, packing away their child’s belongings like they never existed, and resolved to the fact that they will not be in contact with the child they have raised as their own ever again. This harsh reaction may well be a factor of Japanese culture and mentality, but it brings tears to the eyes all the same to witness.

It all boils down to the ‘nature or nurture’ argument: Logically, the child who has been with you for six years must surely be your child? Hirokazu Kore-eda explores this question through his character Ryota’s actions, said to be a loose self-portrait of the writer-director, in terms of his workaholic ethic. The whole project feels like a release of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s inner demons and is incredibly involving, especially when Ryota finds pictures taken by Keita on a camera, proving memories cannot be simply erased. The story’s outcome still feels ‘unresolved’ but as appeasing as it will get after such a distressing journey that will pull on the heartstrings in a matter-of-fact fashion, without any schmaltz accompanying events.

It is said Steven Spielberg wants to remake this story; let’s hope it translates well enough. Part of the fascination of Like Father, Like Son is the cultural aspects at play here in the big decision and the influences on this from other family members. That said Hirokazu Kore-eda’s riveting and deeply affecting drama is an absolute revelation alone, and good source material for any Hollywood remake.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: Enough Said *****

Watching this film pains you to think just how pivotal this role could have been for the late Sopranos star James Gandolfini, who although was a larger-than-life character in the TV Mafioso series, was only just getting a foothold in big-screen leading roles. In the past, he’s played an alcoholic hitman (Killing Them Softly), a general (In The Loop) and only close to leading man status in 2005’s musical Romance & Cigarettes. Romantic comedy Enough Said shows how tender and naturally funny the big guy could be. It’s a heartbreaking watch as it’s one of his finest performances.

Divorcee Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a masseuse, meets poet Marlanne (Catherine Keener) at a party. She also meets Albert (Gandolfini), recently divorced. Although she says she’s not attracted to him to best friend Sarah (Toni Collette) and her hubby Will (Ben Falcone), she agrees to go on a date, if only for the companionship, especially as her only daughter is off to college soon. Meanwhile, Eva starts massaging her new client, neurotic Marlanne who bitches constantly about her ex and his bad habits. As her relationship with Albert blossoms, her friendship with Marlanne does too, but connecting the dots, she realises with horror that her new beau and her friend have a past.

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener has penned a wonderfully awkward and touching story that manages to keep the ‘foot-in-mouth’ syndrome suffered by its bunch of hapless characters going until the very end in a marvellous set of familiar everyday scenarios. Louis-Dreyfus – Golden Globe winner for Seinfeld in 1994 – is an absolute gem in this, grimacing her way through uncomfortable silences, tabooed subjects and harsh comments like she’s naively navigating the social scene for the first time. Collette, Falcone and Keener add some superb support to enhance, albeit subtly at times, the comedy value to the tension.

However, it’s opposite Gandolfini that Louis-Dreyfus really blooms: there is an easy, sympathetic chemistry between them, as if they have been in a real relationship for years that resonates profoundly – ‘the one’ sought and found, so to speak. That said as the title goes, some things are better left unsaid and it’s the power behind the words and their true meaning that’s a delight to witness unfold. Both actors play with nervous giggles and light teasing in a charming fashion. Unlike other standard rom-coms, this never feels false but achieved in a sophisticated and highly plausible manner, without any schmaltz in idyllic surroundings ­– there’s a strong suggestion that both lead characters make a modest income and are happy with their lot.

Holofcener and cast try to create something familiar that we all can recognise to an extent and smile at. The beauty is how the ups and downs play out so realistically and how effortlessly the outcomes arrive, minus prompts. Enough Said is superior romantic comedy once again from the writer-director of Please Give and Friends With Money. It’s just a great shame we won’t see her work with Gandolfini again, like she has with Keener.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: Captain Phillips ****

A fitting film to open this year’s BFI London Film Festival, Captain Phillips holds one of Tom Hanks’s finest and most raw performances to date. Coupled with Green Zone and United 93 director Paul Greengrass’s snappy direction and multitude of camera angles to capture every moment and reaction, the pace never eases and the intensity becomes almost unbearable.

Based on the memoirs of Captain Richard Phillips, ‘A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea’, the story follows events in 2009 when Somali pirates hijack the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama. When things go wrong, the pirates take Captain Phillips prisoner on the ship’s life raft, resulting in the US Navy coming to his rescue.

Admittedly the story all sounds like another tiresome, far-fetched, gun-ho demonstration of US military might on screen, if it wasn’t for it being based on real-life events. In fact the American muscle doesn’t come in until mid-way through: It’s actually an exhilarating cat-and-mouse game first and foremost between vessel and pirates, followed by one man’s tactical mental manoeuvring to survive a life or death ordeal. The very end scene is perhaps the most affecting of the lot; when Hanks as Phillips finally has time to reflect and the shock hits home.

In order to counterbalance the pressure both sides feel mounting and to allow the fraught negotiation process to begin, Greengrass wisely adds some background understanding to the pirates’ motivation (money) and gives us fleshed out foes. This points to his documentary schooling, seeing two, unbiased sides to any story.

Somali actor Barkhad Abdi’s debut is highly impressive, creating a worthy adversary as pirate leader Muse to Hanks’s Captain Phillips. The two ‘enemies’ seem to have a bizarre kind of mutual respect for getting the desire outcome, respectively, with the minimum amount of fallout, further avoiding the two-dimensional portrayals of other pirate films – something the much lauded A Hijacking was guilty of.

Greengrass seems to hone his hand-held style with every new project, and Captain Phillips is no different. The filmmaker very much gets right to the moment of the action with a variety of shots to construct the edgy momentum while never missing his protagonists’ emotional journey in any one frame. We are always acutely aware of what is going through their minds while being swept away in an urgent ‘newsgathering-style’ motion.

Captain Phillips is a triumph for both Hanks and Greengrass, a seemingly physical film of dynamic proportions that looks great on the big screen. For the right balance of depth of character and action, it’s a must see.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Machete Kills ***

The violent, sexist silliness that is Robert Rodriguez’s Mexploitation action saga Machete, starring Danny Trejo as ex-Federale assassin Machete, is back with another equally violent, sexist, silly sequel. If you enjoyed the 2010 film, it’s much the same gleeful juvenile B-movie humour the second time around. In fact, according to Rodriguez, this film was not on the cards – nor the third (Machete Kills Again… In Space) whose trailer opens for this one to whet the appetite for more Machete mayhem.

Machete Kills goes bigger in plot and cast, distancing itself from The Network and the taco van of the first, with Machete being hired like some Mexican James Bond by a skirt-chasing President of the United States (no, not Clinton, but Charlie Sheen introduced as birth name Carlos Estevez) to save the planet – and meeting a Bond-like villain at the centre of it all (played by Mel Gibson). Thankfully, there are some hilarious über-camp star turns to keep things ticking nicely, even though Machete often gets sidelined in the process. Never fear, though, there are still some creative killing sprees and wicked blade upgrades, along with the growling Machete one-liners that don’t extend past ‘Machete don’t xxxx’. These alone continue to make the big Mexican an unlikely action hero icon.

The girls with their luscious locks and pouty petulance range from government agent Amber Heard to ‘Madame’ Alexa Vega and her posse of tooled-up working girls. Rodriguez sends up the typical B-movie female role a treat while giving his women characters a bizarre sense of post-feminism in their business acumen and independence, regardless of most dressing like vengeful, on-heat hussies. Jessica Alba and screen tough nut Michelle Rodriguez are present – just. However, it’s Lady Gaga’s debut feature role that ignites curiosity, perfectly written for her but a tad underused in this, along with the other faces that ‘share’ the role. Still, like a pop video, we are presented with Gaga snippets, like Rodriguez is testing the water with the pop diva’s ‘acting’.

The scene stealers that place Machete on the proverbial backseat include Sheen and Gibson who seem to think ‘what the hell, let’s just have some fun with this as how can it possibly harm our careers further?’ For such a decadent attitude, there is a mark of respect. This further heightens our enjoyment of both, however drawn-out Gibson’s part is at the end. Further credit goes to Demian Bichir as a kind of Statham-Crank/Downey-Jr-Iron Man figure, the demented, split-personality villain/mercenary Mendez. Bichir has a blast (literally) that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Still, without the stoic, pitted-faced Trejo nearby to reflect their lunacy off, it would be a bunch of panto dames at play.

Machete Kills is a deliberately controversial ‘cartoon’ of violence, sexism and gore with dubious CGI that knows it’s such and makes no apologies. ‘Machete don’t apologise’ so don’t expect anything else and just revel in the zaniness that throws political correctness to the wind then dices and splices it in its path.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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How I Live Now ***

It’s safe to say, there would be little of interest to Kevin Macdonald’s (The Last King of Scotland) How I Live Now if it weren’t for the ever-beguiling Saoirse Ronan at the helm. Perhaps he knows this as the production compliments her every thought and expression in this apocalyptic story set in the not-too-distant-future in our fair land.

Based on Meg Rosoff’s novel of the same name, emo-dressing American teen Daisy (Ronan) reluctantly arrives in the UK to visit her aunt and cousins in the countryside, only to find she has arrived when World War III breaks out in Europe, and her aunt gets stuck in Geneva. She must fight for survival while searching for the brief idyll she encountered before her dream existence was shattered.

Surprisingly, there is a certain ‘upbeat’ attitude to the whole affair, given the bleak subject matter. It’s like a wake-up call to embrace the simpler things in life. Experiencing events via a bunch of independent kids emphasises this too. There is also an eccentricity, a quaintness that highlights the film’s ‘Englishness’ too, with the country life creating a false comfort before things are turned upside down. After that anything goes, complete with some shocking scenes as a consequence of wartime.

Ronan as Daisy is set up as the unsettling factor to the status quo, initially, a girl with very many issues and unhealthy mantras playing out in her head, who subsequently grows into a leader. Think Hunger Games minus the archery in the English undergrowth, coupled with a bit of Children of Men, and you’re not far off. There’s also a lingering vulnerability that arises from children being left in charge, made all the more apparent by the lack of information about who has attacked and why?

As appealing as Ronan is to watch, there doesn’t seem to be enough on-screen brooding time for love interest George MacKay as Edmond to firmly melt teen hearts, however ‘wounded’ he mopes around as. Hence, the attraction for the teen crowd – aside from knowing the novel – is Ronan, plus the dream of independence and how liberating and scary that must feel simultaneously. It’s these qualities that underpin the film, including the foreboding that anyone, whatever age, is a potential victim.

Ronan, who has a commanding presence for such a young actor, may have brought Rosoff’s anti-heroine Daisy convincingly to life but it’s subjective whether enough of the character’s personality shines through for fans of the novel. The problem with adaptations is often what makes a character really tick is lost in screen translation, and there may be an element at play here in the rush to get to the dramatic, traumatic parts. Still, How I Live Now is a solid enough, homegrown apocalyptic drama with some very relevant concerns, as well as another nice showpiece for Ronan’s growing popularity.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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