Monday, 15 December 2014

Film: The Hobbit - 'The Battle of the Five Armies'

Well, thank goodness that's over! The concluding part of the over-protracted 'The Hobbit' trilogy is every bit as visually impressive as the earlier episodes and anything in the preceding 'Lord of the Rings' sequence, even though this was the only one of the aggregate six parts that I viewed in flat-screen 2D. But impressive visuals alone do not an engrossing film make and I'd become weary of this entire franchise several parts ago.

Continuing their characters' stories after 'The Desolation of Smaug' are all the names with which we've become so familiar - Freeman, McKellan, Bloom, Armitage, Blanchett etc - and Christopher Lee again making a brief, but welcome, re-appearance.  
The story assumes that we'd remember what had happened before this one picks it up again. But a year ago my interest had already become so depleted that then I just let it wash over me. So for the most part in this final take I had nary a clue what was going on so once again just sat back in my seat and watched the spectacle - of which there's no shortage.

There's big-scale fighting galore, as noisy as one might expect - with elves, dwarves, wizards, dragons, flying reptiles and monsters of various types and dimensions, but it quickly all became so ho-hum for this viewer. It didn't hold my attention and I found myself consulting my watch frequently. I think one would have to be a die-hard enthusiast to enjoy these films to the full. I had actually enthused about the first of the LOTR films, 'The Fellowship of the Ring', but then it had helped having read the entire 'Ring' volumes four times by the time that first film was released. However, after that particular opening instalment I found the appeal to see the remainder decreased, so that by the time the first of 'The Hobbit' series of films arrived (I've only read that slender book twice), and knowing that it had been expanded so far as to make the original literary work almost irrelevant, I was far from keen. Still, the first 'Hobbit' film was hardly bad - just so much of a lesser event following after the mighty LOTRs.

This final episode is also the shortest, though still coming in at over 2 hours 20 minutes. For me it felt as long, or longer, than it actually was.

Director Peter Jackson has accomplished two major trilogies which will probably be considered as 'significant' in the annals of film history. I've no quarrel at all with his role in directing the six parts. They are all pretty seamless in structure - and continuity fluffs have been much rarer than I normally notice. But in the final analysis, the films just didn't do it for me as I didn't find them interesting enough. I wouldn't care to see any of 'The Hobbit' parts again ('LOTR', maybe).
As for this 'The Battle of the Armies', relating to my own enjoyment, a generous rating would be...............4/10.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Film: 'Paddington'

Fairly standard entertainment which delivers what is expected. Passably pleasant enough, but with (for me) no 'WOW!' nor 'LOL' moments.

I'd never seen any representation at all of the eponymous being in comics or TV programmes, but I'd gleaned enough to know what I was in for - viz that P.B. hailed from Peru, spoke English, had a large penchant for marmalade, wore a duffle coat - and was created by Michael Bond.

Voiced agreeably by Ben Whishaw, the bear finds himself on London's Paddington station, having expected that the English would be falling over themselves to take care of him. Far from that being the case, he is eventually pitied on and picked up by a family consisting of all-sweetness and sympathy Sally Hawkins, with uninterested hubby Hugh Bonneville and their two teenage children (of whom, mercifully, we only see a modicum). Taking him to their central London home (which must have cost them several million £s) where there's also ageing, slightly doddery but wise relative, Julie Walters, P.B. creates havoc with various domestic appliances, especially in the bathroom.  There's also cantankerous neighbour, Peter Capaldi, (the current Dr Who), who wants rid of the bear - but above all, Nicole Kidman, playing arch-villainess up to the hilt with icy precision, whose aim is to have the bear as a stuffed exhibit, he being the sole captured specimen of that species.

Although it's all very efficiently done (these days one demands nothing less) in a fairy tale-like, impossibly clean, idealised London, there's little originality to hold one's attention - kidnapping, break-in, rescue being foiled, eventually the 'baddie' getting her just deserts, it observes the rules of a children's story - and I dare say that children will be satisfied by it. But for adults, despite the originality of the title character, I didn't see anything distinctive enough about it to make it memorable.
Director Paul King, whose first feature film this appears to be, does what he can with the relatively flimsy material.

Undemanding fayre for the festive season then, but might have gone down better with a glass of port or sherry beforehand.........................5/10.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Film: 'Set Fire to the Stars'

Moderately diverting story which chronicles a particular few days in the life of Dylan Thomas during a recital tour of the United States in 1950, three years before he died in New York. Unlike most contributors to IMDb site, two thirds of whom have scored this with a rating of 8 or above, I found this widescreen, monochrome film oddly inert. There's not that much difference between its conclusion and from where it began.

Elijah ('Frodo Baggins') Wood comes of age here, playing a little-known American would-be poet who is trying to steer his much-admired and famous portly friend, Dylan Thomas, (Celyn Jones) around various colleges where he's booked to give readings of his, Thomas', poetry. The dramatic focus is on the struggle to keep the alcohol-fuelled, blood-coughing, Thomas in a sufficiently grounded state to deliver his performances, Thomas' behavior veering from what one might call  'free spirited' to that of spoilt child - ever impetuous, often violent and totally nonchalant about the embarrassments he's causing, his interludes of sobriety occasionally coming within a whisker of maudlin self-pitying. The film basically concerns the Wood character's frustration at his inability to keep the rebellious poet's sometimes outrageous conduct under control.

I was struck by how often Celyn Jones' voice uncannily resembled that of Richard Burton, so near as to be almost interchangeable. He surely almost certainly modelled his delivery on that of Burton.
Just about everyone in this film seems to be a chain-smoker, though that was probably historically accurate for the time.

Directed by one Andy Goddard, whose first feature film this looks to be, and who also co-wrote it with the aforementioned Celyn Jones, I'm not sure that this film would find general appeal to those who know very little of Dylan Thomas' life or are not familiar with some of his works. If one does not have either of these as a mental reference point I fear that the whole thing may look like an episodic series of one man's unruly behaviour.
Interesting, then, but only up to a point. Yet again my personal minority view reveals itself in a score of.............5.5.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Film: 'My Old Lady'

It's always nice to have one's expectations confounded in a positive way. So it was with this film, which I hadn't been aware would be a cinema version of prolific playwright Israel Horovitz's Paris-located theatre piece. Here, now in his mid-70s, he makes his belated debut as director of a feature film, and a fine finished product it is too.

My ignorance had me suppose that this would be a feeble comedy, played very broadly, perhaps with some slapstick thrown in. But it turns out to be much deeper than that.

Things started badly for me when, over the opening credits, the music features - yes, that sure-fire, Gallic cliche - an accordian! And this sound crops up quite regularly throughout the film, I suppose to remind us where we are. (Pleeeeeeeze!). But the downers are far eclipsed by the film's more worthy attributes. I was fearing that we'd see the usual touristy compulsory sights but, though we do indeed see Notre Dame several times as well as a number of scenes on the river bank, with the Ile St Louis in the background, it's not overplayed to distraction. And I'm thankful that we're spared any sight at all of you-know what!

Kevin Kline flies in from New York, having inherited a large apartment in the fashionable Marais district (an arrondisement I used to know quite well). Impecunious, he arrives with the intention of putting the flat up for sale at a tidy sum in order to get himself back on his feet, but he finds it already occupied by both Maggie Smith (French, and of 90 years or more) along with her unmarried, though involved, daughter, Kristin Scott Thomas. (We've seen the latter in so many French films of late, where she speaks only that language. Here she has the opportunity to use both her languages of fluency). It turns out that the mother has the legal right not only to remain there until death, but she can also claim rent from Kline if he decides to move in, which he has to do, having nowhere else to go. Complications and arguments develop, a lot hanging on how much longer can the Maggie Smith character survive. At this stage I thought it was going to turn into Kline trying to plot how to kill off Smith fiendishly and without suspicion, in which case it would have been a good vehicle for the likes of Danny de Vito. But it doesn't go that way at all and gets much more serious.

When Kline and K.Scott Thomas first meet one knows which way the arrow is pointing in their relationship as their first scenes are all squabbles and heated arguments. But that thought doesn't dull the edge of the denouement.

I thought all three main characters were at the top of their game. The two women we have seen doing excellent work many times in the past, but for me it was Kline who really steals the show. I don't think I've seen him in a straight dramatic part since Ang Lee's very impressive 'The Ice Storm' of 1997. In 'My Old Lady'  he runs the gamut of emotions, retaining credibility throughout. I doubt if he's been better on screen. 

The screenplay betrays its theatrical origins in no bad way, one of which being that it's far superior to many a modern-day film script. It may be that the film has opened the whole thing up from being based on being a three-person stage play. I don't know, but it still works well. (Good also to see Dominique Pinon again, here as an estate agent).

My cavils relate only to the predictable one of too much music on the soundtrack, though I have heard worse - and that maybe the film, at an hour and three-quarters, stretches out the material a shade too much.
But otherwise I'm very glad to have seen it, and doubly so in that it wasn't at all the creature that I'd been expecting................7. .

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Film: 'Night Train to Lisbon'

Moderately interesting, though ultimately formulaic, story of a Swiss professor (Jeremy Irons) on a mission to discover details of the life of a deceased young Portuguese doctor, who was also a luminary in the resistance against the Salazar dictatorship.
The film boasts an additional stellar mini-cast of mainly British 'mature' or advanced age actors - Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay , Christopher Lee - plus Bruno Ganz and, as the young resistance fighter, John Huston (nephew of Anjelica and Danny - and not at all bad-looking).

The film makes some big demands on the credence capacity of the audience from the very start. Irons, a Swiss teacher (whom I'd have assumed had been English were it not for his name) is on his way to school in Bern when he espies a young woman about to jump off a bridge. He forcibly pulls the distraught person away and, unable to get information from her, takes her to his class temporarily, where he's teaching about Ancient Rome. She slips out without a word, leaving her coat. Not knowing her whereabouts he examines the coat, which contains in a pocket a book of the collected writings of the aforementioned resistance fighter - in Portuguese. But, not to worry, he is not only familiar with the book (so one would have thought that it's fairly well-known, but it is, in fact, obscure) and, wouldn't you know it, he can also read Portuguese! - at least enough to translate it with ease. Then falling out of the book is a train ticket from Bern to Lisbon, the train due to leave in a few minutes time. So, (no slouch he!), he drops everything without a word, leaving his school class and superior in limbo, and he hops luggage-less onto that train - exactly in the way anyone else would!
Reading the book on the journey he becomes absorbed with the mysterious writer and, on arriving in Lisbon for an impetuously-decided and open-ended stay, he starts seeking out the author's surviving relations and acquaintances to find out about his story. Meanwhile, the rescued young woman has dropped from his concerns. (She does pop up again towards the end.)
His meetings with all these sundry people are the cue for multiple extended flashbacks, using younger acting 'doubles' as they relate events.

It's curious that the Irons character, familiar with Portuguese, never once attempts to speak in that vernacular - and doubly curious that everyone he meets, even in casual encounters, immediately responds in accented English. (A cyclist he accidentally knocks off his bike calls him an "idiot". Perhaps that is the first word a native of that country would come out with, for all I know!). I accept the viability of cinematic conceit, as we do in, for example, war films where all sides speak in English. But here so many speak it with various continental accents while the supposedly Swiss Irons converses in faultlessly-sounding Queen's English.

It will come as little surprise to learn that the weight of the dramatic action (with romantic dimension) takes place in the past-narrated episodes of resistance-struggle arguments and fighting , including at least one gruesomely violent scene.

I was hoping the film would show us more views of the Lisbon which has been so infrequently captured in feature films up to now. From the brief views we have of it it does look spectacular and photogenic, but the opportunity is mostly thrown away. I think there were four short scenes all on the ferry crossing the Tagus estuary. I wish we'd have seen a lot more of the inner city itself.

Danish director Bille August (who directed 'Les Miserables' - no not that one, but the 1998 Liam Neeson, straight dramatic version) deals with the material fairly enough. I have to say that he did pull out some of the best from his very professional cast (both present day and those depicting decades previous) which gave the whole project a higher estimation than it otherwise might have had.

I might also mention that whenever I see Jeremy Irons in anything there's always something that gets in the way for me, viz his vocal support for blood sports and, in particular, for fox hunting. I find the same thing for the precise same reason whenever I hear a song by Bryan Ferry  as well as (with rather greater regret than with these two) reading some of the marvellous writings of the late John Mortimer. It's like a pebble in the shoe which can never be removed. But knowing that people have opinions which diverge from ones own is just one of the facets of life one has to put up with.

As to a final verdict on this film, although I never found it boring, it also wasn't memorable enough to be classed as 'exceptional'. I think a fair mark would be..................6.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Film: 'The Hunger Games - Mockingjay: Part 1'

It really needs an aficianado of the Suzanne Collins books and/or the previous films of the series to give this a fair review. I've not read the novels but I have seen the lead-up films which, for me, were just okay. Such had been my (lack of) interest on where the last instalment ended that throughout this film I had hardly more than the foggiest notion what was going on here. If I do go to the forthcoming concluding part it'll only be in order to have seen them all, rather than demonstrating any enthusiasm. I dare say that when I see it what happened at the end of this one will already have faded from memory.

I shan't summarise the plot as I'm bound to get something wrong and I can't be bothered to research it.  Please look elsewhere.

With a cast led again by Jennifer Lawrence it also includes previous regulars Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci, as well as Julianne Moore and, in definitively his final film (though also due to appear in Part 2), Philip Seymour Hoffman in subdued, low profile mode. This film is dedicated to his memory. Pity that it's a relatively thankless part, which in no way stretches him, when he's made so many astonishing screen appearances in his career. But that's the way it goes.

Director Francis Lawrence (who also made 'Catching Fire') does alright with the material. Some of the CGI-created scenes are quite impressive, but it's what one comes to expect these days.

Whereas the previous film concentrated more on person-to-person combat this one deals with big forces and armies - therefore more explosions and gunfire rather than physical conflict.

I'm going to make one of my regular moans now. Virtually throughout the entire film there's music on the soundtrack - dramatic, menacing or tender, contemplative. Hell, why can't they just STFU!!! We don't need it!

To add to any irritations at the screening I attended, just four seats away from me was a lone woman who, for all the two hours, munched through sweets, with rustling of papers, and opening drinks cans. I was willing someone else (being the coward that I am)  to tell her to, for goodness' sake, just sit still and be quiet, but no one did - or dared (Wimps!)
When the lights went up at the end I was a bit surprised to see that she was quite mature, maybe 40 - but not too surprised to determine that she was, well, rather 'large'. I had to breathe in and squeeze my way past her as getting up for me was obviously too energy-expending.

I doubt if fans of this series will be disappointed. The series failed to carry me along from the very first film. But having said that, I'd rather see this than any of the 'Star Wars' films, for instance.

However, when it comes down to it, I was, frankly, quite bored..........................3/10

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Film: 'The Imitation Game'

Fine dramatic production of the Alan Turing story, creator of, perhaps, the first 'computer' - a prototype 'Enigma' machine constructed in the early 1940s, specifically to decipher intercepted Nazi war messages from their HQ to fighting units and between the units themselves. The key to the code being used was changed by the enemy every successive midnight, theoretically leaving the allies with over 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible solutions, these being different every day.

The story is told in flashback, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, complete with facial tics and stutters. (Oscar possibility? A nomination would be well deserved, at least). He's telling his story in 1951 to a semi-sympathetic senior police detective (Rory Kinnear) in an interview room after being arraigned for 'gross indecency' in a casual encounter with another man. (At that time, all physical touches between men, however slight, automatically carried the tag of being 'grossly indecent').

There are additional more distant flashbacks to Turing's schooldays where he is already being victimised by other boys for the 'offence' of being 'different' (more withdrawn and socially inept), as well as being cleverer than they are. He makes a close (non-physical) bonding with another extra-intelligent classmate.

The main thread of the story deals with Turing's dogged determination to succeed in building the Enigma apparatus while he battles against authorities (including a coldly efficient and sceptical Charles Dance, answerable directly to Winston Churchill) and Matthew Strong (particularly good), Turing's immediate superior. Turing also has arguments and fights with the other members of his small team. Only he himself has absolute faith in achieving his object.
Also on his team is Keira Knightly, the only female member, who is selected by solving a problem quicker than any of the other entirely-male candidates. She sticks by him throughout. I know that the story is based on fact but her character struck me as almost too good to be true.
In her very first scene someone makes a remark to her which drew a loud gasp of disbelief from the audience, something I'd imagine will happen in just about all cinemas - or at least I'd like to think so. But those of my generation will know that what's said to her reflected a fairly widespread attitude to women in those thankfully far-off days.

From what I'd heard about the film I was expecting that the issue of Turing's sexuality would be hovering uneasily in the background without being expressly referred to unless it was impossible to avoid it. But, although there are no sex scenes at all (thank heavens!), the topic does come up quite frequently and explicitly, and always handled tastefully - though I thought that there would be more out-and-out hostility from those 'in the know' and the police, which was certainly a characteristic of attitudes I remember from the 1950s.

The film holds interest from first to last even though, I'd guess, that a significant proportion of the audience knows how it develops, all the way to its tragic and appalling conclusion.

One of my complaints, a frequent one for me, is the too-pervasive mood music on the soundtrack. Others will be less bothered by it than I was.

This film is a fine tribute to the man, overlooked, ignored and cold-shouldered disgracefully because of his sexuality for so many decades. It was only last year that he was granted a posthumous Royal Pardon for his 'crime', over 60 years after his death - something which the film states categorically as suicide, though a bit of a question mark has been put over that scenario in recent years, suggesting that it just might have been a tragic accident arising from Turing's habitual carelessness and untidiness. No matter - at least as far as his place in history is concerned. Even if it was an accident it in no way diminishes his monumental achievement for which we all should acknowledge a profound indebtedness to him.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (he of the excellent 'Headhunters' of 2011) does a very good job here. No complaints at all. He keeps the story buzzing along without longueurs (so no watch-checking), which is some achievement for a film of an hour and three quarters.

I was fortunate enough to see Derek Jacobi in the Hugh Whitemore play 'Breaking the Code' in the late 1980s, which he reprised in a BBC TV version of 1996. I think that 'The Imitation Game', with more emphasis on illustrating the genius of the man rather than on his personal life, which is also extensively captured here, is a much more rounded portrait. In truth, it ought to do his memory proud.....................................7.5.