Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Film: 'Bridge of Spies'.

This is a rattling good film. 

I tend to be wary of Spielberg as, for me, despite his mastery of the genre, his single greatest weakness is to lay sentiment on with a trowel such that it overwhelms all else. Not so here. Although he does let emotion have its head in the closing few minutes with a cosily reassuring domestic epilogue, as to the previous two hours and a quarter I was totally engrossed throughout. And all is achieved with no showy action sequences or special effects, and with a superior script whose writers include both the Coen brothers.

It starts in 1957 with the East-West Cold War now in full swing. In New York, a Russian man believed to be a Soviet spy is arrested (Mark Rylance - a major name in British theatre, with a fair bit of TV work also; less so in film up to now.). A private insurance lawyer (Tom Hanks) is roped in, reluctantly, by the CIA to defend the suspected spy, the American government wanting to keep their involvement at arm's length because of the politically sensitive nature of the case. After the trial an American pilot, Gary Powers, operating a spy plane over the Soviet Union is shot down and arrested, giving the Russians a publicity coup which they milk for all its worth. A situation of brinkmanship between the two major powers develops and Hanks is slated to arrange a spy exchange, with a most unwelcome complication of an American student being arrested in Berlin by East German authorities just as the dividing wall is being constructed. 

The cast also includes, in a small role, Alan Alda as a CIA chief, now looking, sadly, very old (though he is now nearly 80!). The very few female roles are merely peripheral, the main one being the Hank's character's wife, who has very little to say.

I am old enough to recall the news of pilot Gary Powers being used as a bargaining tool by the Soviets, as well as the heartbreaking building of the Berlin wall, with desperate Germans being shot and openly left to die while trying to flee to the west side, in the razed 'no man's land' area near the wall. At the time I knew hardly anything of the the Russian guy being held by the Americans. 

The first half of the film is set in America, the second (in which Rylance only appears at the end) is in Berlin, with the climactic spy exchange scene on a snowy bridge. (Apparently Hanks' conspicuous sniffling cold throughout this second part was genuine.)
The film maintains its suspense throughout even though we can guess that it'll probably work out okay - and those of us who recall the actual news at the time know that it does. But it's still gripping stuff.

One of Spielberg's best in my view - and that's from someone who's only really liked a handful of his films - his very early ones and just a very few of his from the 90s and 00s. But this is certainly one to see....................8.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Film: 'Steve Jobs'

Goodness me, but this is a 'talkie' film!
I wasn't at all keen to see it because of the subject matter, computers - which, if it doesn't go above my head (and much does), I find that what I can understand is deadly dull. Part of that will be my resentment in having to be dragged into this particular technological world at an advanced age which, although it has opened up my life in positive ways, at the same time gives me more frequent headaches than I care to have.
I was persuaded to go see by it having the ever-charismatic Michael Fassbender in the title role, as well as it being directed by Danny Boyle, who has the ability to lift virtually any subject into being interesting enough to hold my attention. And this he largely achieves here, though, as I suggest, virtually all the action is verbal, and, in terms of comprehension, it didn't take very long to lose me.

It's in three 40-minute segments, 1984, 88, and 98, each dealing with the late CEO of Apple (who died four years ago at the age of 56) making a big-splash public launch of the latest developments in personal computers. (Please don't expect me to elaborate!).
All three parts take place in the minutes before a major unveiling while the large, eager audiences are assembling, hungry to hear the latest advancement. 
Kate Winslet plays his hard-boiled, fiercely loyal assistant (and one-time relationship?) who isn't afraid to stand up to him and tell him what she thinks. 
There's also Jeff Daniels as his former boss with whom he had serious disagreements, as well as a previous affair which resulted in a daughter, though Jobs has doubts that she's his. The impecunious mother (Katherine Waterston) resents being stranded by Jobs and having to rely on welfare for herself and her girl, while he is now a multi-millionaire, later a billionaire. We see the daughter, first at the age of five, then nine, and lastly at nineteen, by which time she has become somewhat alienated from her father, influenced by her mother's grievances.
You might correctly imagine that arguments abound on all sides, which they always do just as he's due on stage (much to the exasperation of the Winslet character, who's trying to keep Jobs on schedule), and that's the three foci of the film, not exactly 'shouty' but always very disputatious. 

Screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin whose biggest success to date was another computer-based film, 'The Social Network', one which I'd found the dialogue so indecipherably mumbled that I just couldn't work out what the hell was going on. No such problem here, and I must admit that the script is pretty sharp.

When this film opened in America recently, initial box-office takings were so depressed that the venues screening it were drastically scaled back. I don't think it's entirely the film's fault in itself, but it's not a film for everybody. Those who go looking for more action than mere words will feel let down. Danny Boyle does his best and manages to make it absorbing enough, though it's not one which I'd care to sit through for a second time................................6.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Film: 'Brooklyn'

Modestly-pitched, yet moving and involving, film which eschews those great emotional histrionics that make for showy romantic dramas - and this is all the better for keeping sentiment under control throughout.
Written by no less than Nick Hornby, this is based on Colm Toibin's novel of the same name (which I read only one year ago), and captures the atmosphere of that book to perfection.

Set in the early 1950s, it tells of a young woman (Saoirse Ronan, with a face on which it's easy to paint any character as required) who leaves her home in County Wexford, Ireland, to go to work in a job as sales assistant in a department store in Brooklyn New York, work which has been arranged for her by a parish priest and family acquaintance over there (Jim Broadbent). She has to leave her mother to be cared for by her similar-aged sister.
Once in America, in a ladies-only lodgings with a matriarchal, no-nonsense landlady (Julie Walters), she eventually loses her fish-out-of-water discomfort when she meets the affable Tony (Emory Cohen, with a screen presence that leaps out at you) a friendship which blossoms into something more serious. Unexpectedly called back to Ireland, she reluctantly returns, harbouring a secret. But her divided allegiances between the two places puts her in a quandary, exacerbated by an emotional involvement, and coming to a head when it's clear that the expectation is that she'll remain to live in Ireland next to her mother. 

Director John Crowley, a name unknown to me, has created a small-scale but deeply effective, human-scale work which, by any justification, ought to be seen by a wider audience than this kind of unassuming film normally has the chance to view................................7.5.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Film: 'Pasolini'

A curious and, to my mind, less than satisfactory film dealing with the (some say "notorious") Italian film director's last day in 1975 before he was murdered at the untimely age of 53 by a picked-up rent-boy. More were suspected to have participated in the assault and running over (with Pasolini's own car) but only the one was jailed. I recall hearing the news after it had just happened, there being a predictable attitude in much of the then more 'popular' right-wing British press that he'd merely reaped what he'd sowed. In the arts world his passing, especially in such violent circumstances, was widely mourned
Gay and Communist, Pier Paolo Pasolini is played here by Willem Dafoe - somewhat unlikely casting, I think - though facially he's not a million miles away from the original.

Although at just 86 minutes it's a commendably short film, it was not long before I found myself fidgetting, not least because I didn't have a clue as to exactly who most of the characters were, apart from the director himself  and his live-in, adoring, ageing mother. All the actors other than Dafoe are Italian, mostly speaking in that language, Dafoe speaking both English and the other, sometimes answering in the first even when being addressed in Italian.

Chronicling just his final day, the film concentrates on his unrealised writing project and his hopes of it being published and filmed - though it's all merely a prelude to the final act of his murder, and the film's final twenty minutes or so posits a likely situation as to what could have happened, the protracted view of his mangled body being left in the mud, sound-backgrounded by a soprano aria. 

Director Abel Ferrara gives us his very personal take on this director, who had made such memorable films as 'The Decamaron', 'The Canterbury Tales', 'The Arabian Nights' (in all these, the bawdy aspect of some of the tales taking a disproportionately prominent place) - as well as the earlier 'Accatone'  and, probably most famously and praised of all, the very matter-of-fact, gimmicks-free, black-and-white 'The Gospel According to Saint Matthew' of 1964.

Maybe I didn't work my mind hard enough to enjoy this film. It had attracted me because I well remember Pasolini when he was churning out films at a fairly prodigious rate and I'd managed to see quite a lot of them, though without exactly being overawed by any. Ferrara's film does little to alter my mind and didn't tell me much more than I already knew.............................4.5

Monday, 16 November 2015

Film: 'The Lady in the Van'

As good as I hoped it would be, this film is based on playwright Alan Bennett's original stage play of the same name about a long-term, real-life situation which developed, opened out considerably with a much larger cast for the big screen.

Maggie Smith plays the cantankerous, embittered, ungrateful and enigmatic Miss Shepherd (with distinctly dubious habits concerning personal hygiene) living in her van which she parks on the road in Camden, north London, near Bennett's own home. Threatened with having committed a parking offence, she tells Bennett she'll put it in his driveway for just a few weeks - which actually turns out to be right until her death fifteen years later.
Bennett is played by Alex Jennings (voice uncannily accurate) in a double role as Bennett the writer and the same character trying to get on with his 'normal' life - allowing the two of them to talk to each other, replacing the internal monologues of the stage version. (I thought this the least successful aspect of the film adaptation. A simple voice-over or talk direct to camera would have been more effective and looked less strange.)
The film follows Bennett's impatient turns with this old lady imposter to whom he is too timid to say to her face what he really feels about her unwelcome presence - so he just puts up with her with muttered grumblings to himself. Meanwhile, gradually more is revealed about the lady's past, including her young years, heavily influenced by an early religious phase, the sensibilities of which have carried on into her present old age. (The film's very opening minute also tells us something that happened to her which isn't fully revealed until much later, something which she carries as a burden throughout the rest of the story.)

Although I didn't see the stage version there was a radio adaptation a few years back, with Smith again, but with Alan Bennett playing himself (as he did on stage), a version which I really liked - so I was to a degree familiar with the story. 

As one comes to expect, the writer gives us a number of really funny one-liners, virtually all arising from the lady's intransigence in her determination to get her own way and the put-open Bennett's reaction to having to face up to her unwanted presence daily. 

There's a cracking backing cast of near-neighbours, chipping in with their various thoughts on the lady's presence, some more tolerant than others, and her effect on the neighbourhood, including Roger Allam - as well as shady ex-policeman Jim Broadbent who knows her 'secret' and puts his knowledge to self-gaining use - and, significantly, the redoubtable Frances de la Tour as neighbour Ursula Vaughan Williams, someone whom I did actually once meet in person at a barbecue party in London at the time when this 'van lady' would have been in her terminal years at Bennett's address. I had no idea that U.V.W. and Bennett were actually living so close to each other, and had I known I would have wanted at least to have mentioned my admiration for him instead of confining my questions to her late husband's compositions. De La Tour's portrayal was actually not that far off from the Ursula V.W. I remember.

There are very brief cameos from some (or all?) of the original boys from another of Bennett's major successes, 'The History Boys' - on both stage in London and Broadway as well as in the film, directed as in this film, by Nicholas Hytner. I recognised five of the 'boys' - now all grown into or approaching middle age. In addition, Frances de la Tour was a prominent member of the cast of both the stage production and the film.

This is Maggie Smith's film, of course - one of her very best screen performances for some time - playing someone with few, if any, endearing features, yet managing to hold it all together most convincingly.
If the film's penultimate scene was somewhat over-the-top it rounded things off nicely enough, so I'll forgive it for being so. Also, in the very final scene there's a glimpse of the great Yorkshireman himself, Bennett, coming into view on his bike to see himself being filmed in the persona of Alex Jennings.

I liked it a lot. With little to cavil about, I give it...........................8.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Film: 'Burnt'

Oh dear! I did find this a bit of an endurance test - and none too surprised at that as I'm so out of sympathy with the subject matter - a sweary, prima donna-ish chef yelling at his staff in the kitchen of a swanky London restaurant which specialises in all this silly nouvelle cuisine stuff, producing dishes which guarantee that those leaving after their 'meal' will be at least as hungry as when they came in, though their wallets would have been considerably unburdened for the 'satisfaction' of the experience. 
He, predictably, is all hissy fits, hurling plates against the wall amid the constant clatter of kitchen utensils - while his disgruntled, humiliated, verbally abused staff work sullenly and slavishly like beavers. We've seen it all before on reality TV, even though I myself have never been able to sit through a single entire programme of the kind.

What really drew me to bother to see this was the magnetic presence of the star. (I wonder if the said Mr Cooper filmed this while over here appearing in 'The Elephant Man' on stage in the evenings?) Even when acting totally repulsive as here, B.C. continues to have something compelling about him. His main 'punch bag' is Sienna Miller who, while not quite giving back as good as she gets, certainly knows how to stand up to his very public put-downs. Both are undoubtedly on their top form, and I have no quibble at all about any of the acting from any quarters in a strong cast all-round.
He is on a journey of self-redemption after his experience at a restaurant in Paris where all went belly-up, involving drugs and his debauched lifestyle. His past follows him to London where, confident in his own self-esteem, he forces himself into a particular high-class restaurant to show them what's what and to promote their status by the acquisition of Michelin stars, something which had evaded him in France.

Daniel Bruhl is also good as head chef in a nearby rival restaurant. In a fleeting appearance there's Uma Thurman, whom I probably wouldn't have recognised had I not known it was her. In a slightly more substantial role is Emma Thompson as Cooper's sympathetic doctor-cum-confidante.

Director John Wells, whose first main feature film for the cinema this appears to be, fulfils expectations, so no complaints on that score.

There's no doubt that the camerawork captures the exquisite detail of the 'meals' produced - in effect, more 'works of art' for the eyes than satisfying quantity-wise for the stomach. (There are a number of shots of raw meat and fish being carved up for which I had to look away, though most won't be bothered by it.)

It was a personal irritation at what I see as the complete ridiculousness of these stratospherically overpriced 'meals' which prevented any real enjoyment of the film for me. If it's your 'thing' then you're welcome to it, though I see it at the heart of a not-so-interesting story of the Cooper character.

Opinions of the film have been varied but I think few have been overwhelmingly positive about it. Having put my own stance forward, that is the reason for my own rating of a lowly......................4.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Film: 'The Intern'

I thought that this would be just a bit of disposable fluff, and so it was - but also, for around three-quarters of its two hours I found it unexpectedly endearing too.

Robert de Niro is nowadays as invariably typecast as a respectable, ageing, worldy-wise, rather meek gent not given to great displays of emotion, as much as he used to be typecast as a toughie in his earlier violent mobster films. In this later guise I do find him still watchable, even though, as here, he has less to do despite being on-screen for a great deal of the film's length.

He plays a 70-yearold retired widower who finds life unfulfilling and takes up employment as a lowly intern (I had to look that word up as it wasn't in use for my generation) in an on-line fashion store firm which has rocketed to success in a short time and run with cold efficiency by human dynamo, Anne Hathaway. Their initial contacts, though not unfriendly, are formal - she hadn't wanted to take on staff of advanced age, but was obliged to do so. However, it's plain that she is the boss, which all her staff know, and which De Niro gets straight away. But, as you might guess, circumstances bring them closer together and she eventually melts towards him and exchanges confidences, though both keeping their proper emotional distances. She and her house-husband have one of those (ghastly) infant daughters at whom you're supposed to intone "Aw, how sweet!" - whereas some of you, like me, might prefer to retch.
Hovering around in the firm is in-house staff-relaxor and masseuse Rene Russo - De Niro and she making mutually admiring eyes from the off.
As the film progresses a domestic crisis appears for Hathaway, though luckily good old R.D.N. is on hand to offer words of sage advice - all so predictable from the very opening minutes, of course.

Director (and this film's writer), Nancy Meyers, is in her element here and is clearly comfortable with her story and her actors (the two leading roles are never uninteresting), and she achieves her aimed-for film practically unblemished, though it is really too long by at least 30 mins for its relatively shallow subject matter.
However, I must say I did enjoy it more than I thought I would, and for that reason I allow it an above par...............6.5.