CAPTAIN PHILLIPS ****1/2 (134 minutes) M
A gang of financially-pressed Somali pirates side-step the weak security measures of a giant American freighter, climb aboard with their AKs and take the ship over. Or try to.
While its unpopular captain, Phillips (Tom Hanks), tries negotiating with the angry intruders as they poke the tips of their guns into his cheek, his crew hide below deck, both in fear and in wait. As Phillips told them moments earlier, they know the vessel, the pirates don't. They're scared, but also eager to use their home-ship advantage and put up what fight they can.
With the increasingly stressed pirate leader (a film-stealing performance by newly-minted Somali actor Barkhad Abdi) eager to get a monetary return for his efforts, he and his crew jump ship in a lifeboat with Phillips as hostage as the might of the US navy closes in.
Based on the harrowing 2009 event, Captain Phillips is a prime example of Hollywood's unrivalled ability to rapidly reprocess a story from headline to marquee. And it's a splendidly mounted, nerve-racking thrill ride, building to an almost unbearably tense climax involving Navy Seal snipers, warships and a bizarre combination of negotiating skill, marksmanship, bluff and plain old luck.
Even though you know how it all ends, director Paul Greengrass hard-wires triple-digit degrees of tension into the scenario as military hardware and hundreds of people surround the tiny orange boat they can't get control of.
Along with Kathryn Bigelow (Hurt Locker; Zero Dark Thirty), Greengrass has proved himself a master of verite film-making with The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93 and Bloody Sunday. As one of the few sensible exponents of shakycam, his style has always been to place humanity at the centre of docu-drama technique.
Here, he intuitively grounds all the chaos with the behaviours and thought processes coursing through the minds of the harried participants, vividly evoking how hard it is to think straight when your mind is being pumped with adrenalin and your head is being threatened with a gun.
And while your sympathies are mostly with the American victims - thanks largely to a typically great and gutsy everyman performance from Hanks - you also get a strong sense of the social and economic desperation that drives these Somalis to piracy. Yes, they're criminals, but they're also hungry, poor and oppressed. It's not as if piracy is a career choice for them.
The film certainly deserves special kudos for the casting of the pirates, drawn from an audition process involving some 700 hopefuls. This is not Hollywood central casting! These guys look and feel like the real deal; Abdi is so raw and convincing you get to see beyond the gun to the frail, angry individual trying to make a living. And at the end, you do kind of feel sorry for him.
There has been some controversy over the film's portrayal of Phillips, which an anonymous member of the ship's crew has slammed as inaccurate. Through a New York Post article he claimed Phillips was a questionable, ignored warnings and had a problem with disciplining his crew. (Tension between Phillips and his crew are incorporated in the film.)
The issue of factual accuracy pops up almost every time Hollywood makes a big film based on real events. It came up with Zero Dark Thirty. It's coming up now with the Formula One film Rush and the WikiLeaks film The Fifth Estate. Just how big an issue is it?
Whenever real-life characters and events are adapted into a movie they have to be reshaped, condensed, modified and truncated into a coherent narrative. That's the only way the film will have a chance of connecting emotionally with an audience.
Captain Phillips is designed as an entertainment that tells an engaging, human story, not as a dramatised documentary obliged to incorporate every fact and point of view. If it did it would have been seven hours long.
Participants in an event will always find fault with a film adaptation, but the only time objections really matter is when there is an issue with the spirit and essential truth of a story.
That's not the case here. In Captain Phillips we see what happens when ordinary men are pushed to extremes by extraordinary circumstances; it is a high-seas adventure underpinned by bravery, desperation and the unstoppable instinct to survive.
MACHETE KILLS *** (106 minutes) MA
Loud, fun, ultra-violent sequel to Machete, with unsmiling crater-faced Danny Trejo as the buffed Mexican hero slashing and slaughtering his way to justice. Director Robert Rodriguez does what all good, trashy sequels do, which is to deliver more of the same, but with added oomph. So it's a clear case of "if you liked the first one..."
The plot is typically crazy, exploitation-era hokum, with Machete charged by the US president (Charlie Sheen, joining that long list of actors who've played the prez) to face down a demented, joke-spouting arms dealer, played by a perfectly cast Mel Gibson.
Along the way we're treated to a dizzying carousel of cameos, including Lady Gaga, Cuba Gooding Jr, Vanessa Hudgens, Antonio Banderas and Sofia Vergara wearing a machine-gun bra.
Of special note is Amber Heard, whose kick-ass bad girl role opposite the ubiquitous Michelle Rodriguez can be taken as a correction for the stupid character she played in Paranoia.
And here's an unexpected virtue: beneath all the Mexploitation mayhem of Machete Kills is a lesson in good story-telling that other films need to heed. For as nutty, tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top as things get, you always know where you are. Even though there's a million things going on with a plot turn every minute or so, the film is never confusing, confounding or contradictory.
For something intended as a loving parody of old-school exploitation cinema, Machete Kills actually serves as a timely reminder that narrative drive is nothing without clarity. If only 2 Guns, Mortal Instruments and Pacific Rim had followed Machete's example.
ALAN PARTRIDGE: ALPHA PAPA ** (90 minutes) M
Steve Coogan's best-known comic creation is Alan Partridge, a former TV talk show host turned small-time radio disc jokey. He's been the subject of two good TV series - Knowing Me, Knowing You; I'm Alan Partridge - and now finds himself dusted off and put at the centre of a tepid comedy.
Working at a struggling Norwich radio station, Alan convinces management to sack his colleague Pat (Colm Meaney), who then takes over the station with a gun and very little idea of what he is doing.
With Pat unaware of his treachery, he accepts Alan as a negotiator. He tries hard to free the hostages as well as keep his secret safe.
Sadly, Alpha Papa is the cinematic equivalent of trying to retell a joke for the tenth time to the same person. It's a tough assignment laughwise, as Coogan pushes an overdone, over-the-hill character uphill in what looks like a quickly cobbled straight-to-DVD comedy afterthought.
There is a smattering of titters throughout, but the comic energy never really builds. And while the film will be of passing interest to fans of Steve Coogan, real fans of his work might very well wonder why he squandered a whole film on such an admittedly delightful, yet mono-dimensional caricature while overlooking his own brilliant Basil Fawlty.
Coogan's most dramatically rich comic creation is Tommy Saxondale, an ex-roadie from the 1970s who tries maintaining his rebellious rock'n'roll aura while enjoying the comforts of middle-class life. Saxondale ran for two seasons (six-episodes each) and was some of the best character comedy to come out of Britain in decades.
He surely was far more deserving of a film than Partridge, who has clearly run out of puff.
RENOIR *1/2 (111 minutes; subtitled) M
Beautiful-looking but largely boring film about ageing painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) who, while daubing the canvas in 1915 on the Riviera, hooked up with a spunky young muse Andree (Christa Theret). Mixed into the inert, muted musings about life, art and lust is his son Jean (Vincent Rottiers), who's just returned from the war.
Andree has the hots for him but she's such a selfish, awful character that returning to the trenches doesn't seem like that bad an option.
There have been some terrific films about artists, but this isn't one of them, chiefly because it only hints at the lust that drove Renoir's adoration of his new subject.
Indeed, the film is so boring it makes you want to rewatch Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life (1956) just to remind you about how good films about artistic passion can be.