Sunday, 21 September 2014

Films: 'Salome' + 'Wilde Salome'

My belated first experience of one of these live relays into a cinema from, well, not a theatre in this case, but a live Q & A session from the National Film Theatre on London's South Bank, of Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain, hosted by Stephen Fry. It was preceded by two films, the first being of the Oscar Wilde play itself and then the other, a documentary film of Mr Pacino's trials and frustrating attempts to put the play on in a Los Angeles theatre, which he eventually succeeded in doing, while simultaneously trying to shoot the very film which we had just seen.
The following Q & A section lasted just 40 minutes, and with there being a 10 minute interval between each of the three parts of the programme, it made for a rather long 4-hour afternoon/evening, which was actually a small price to pay for the experience (unlike the actual monetary price!).

Salome
For anyone who doesn't know the play it's unique among Wilde's works - a shortish one-act piece written in highly elevated, florid language (I'd forgotten that it was actually originally written in French) bursting with analogies and similes, decorative, vivid language (oft repeated) with minimal action. The bible-based scene is where King Herod's (Pacino) step-daughter, Salome (Jessica Chastain) is asked to dance by Herod, for which he'll grant her anything she wants. After dancing she demands the head of garrulous prophet and prisoner, John the Baptist (Kevin Anderson) - to the shock and horror of Herod himself who fears repercussions if he allows her wish.
Pacino says somewhere that he thought Wilde expected the play to be read aloud rather than acted out, and I can see that. I know it quite well, not just from having read it several times over the years, but seen it once on stage, which was actually the same production (Steven Berkoff's 'slow-motion' take on it in the early 1990s) which Pacino also saw and made him acutely aware of the play which has obsessed him ever since. (He actually said in the documentary that when he saw that West End production he hadn't known who'd written it until he looked at the programme when it was over, there being no interval. I find that hard to believe, but that's what he claims.)
Others might be familiar with the Richard Strauss opera (so much dissonance, even for Strauss - though not nearly so much as 'Elektra'!) which is based on a German translation of this same Wilde text. ('The Dance of the Seven Veils' is a famous set piece sometimes played as a separate short item in an orchestral concert.)
The play itself is only about one hour and twenty minutes, but it's language is exceptional, even by the author's standards, which carries the story through with consummate ease. There is no need for acting histrionics as it's already in the words, so minimal physical action is to be preferred, and that's the treatment it's given here, on basically a plain stage-set (no audience). It's also in modern dress, which works fine. Theatrical conceits, where needed, should not be overplayed  and here once again they are done intelligently.
Pacino as Herod is quite a wonder to behold, at times playing his part with a twinkle in the eye, sometimes mischievously. He runs the whole gamut of emotions - blind rage, tender beseeching, humouring, impatience, disdain - it's quite a tour de force. Herod clearly has the hots for Salome, much to his wife's/Salome's mother's, Herodias', displeasure (Roxanne Hart). Chastain is good enough in a part with long speeches. Kevin Anderson as Jokanaan (Hebrew for John the Baptist) is suitably fierce as the doom-foretelling prophet, resisting Salome's flesh-driven overtures.
I liked the production a lot and think it must have worked well as a piece of live theatre. It's in no way pretentious and gives due regard to the real 'star' of the piece, the language of the play itself.
I'll rate this particular film with a........................7.5

Wilde Salome follows Pacino investigating  the background of the play, including, of course, Wilde's life, visiting key locations in London and Paris to find out more about this writer for whom he clearly has enormous respect and admiration. He talks to Melvin Holland, Wilde's grandson, about his illustrious forefather - and there are interpolated comments from Tom Stoppard, the recently departed Gore Vidal and (would you believe it?) from none other than Bono himself!
This documentary has significant extended scenes from the film which we'd only just been watching so, although of course it was a pleasure to savour them again, it did get a bit tiring having to sit through them anew after only just experiencing them. I would have found it much more effective if I'd seen this second film only after a decent interval.
There are sections of the film showing Pacino losing his cool about having such a short timetable to film the first 'Salome' while simultaneously rehearsing and putting on the stage production. There were also scenes in the middle-east desert (complete with camels) where he took the entire film crew, presumably to soak in some authentic atmosphere. I didn't quite 'get' that as none of it is actually used in the play's production.
But it  was interesting enough. I think I'd have enjoyed it more if I'd seen this documentary at a separate sitting. It didn't seem to me quite as interesting as his own 'Looking for Richard' a few years back, when he was doing background work in preparation for his playing Richard III on stage.

The Q & A came over well but with no big surprises. Pacino appeared very affable, quite charming and modestly self-effacing, though I must say that poor Jessica Chastain seemed to be crowded out by Al P. and Stephen Fry, though her short career so far can hardly compare with either of that two. There were about half a dozen questions from members of the audience at the National Film Theatre, nearly all addressed to Pacino - about his first acquantance with the play, his friendship with Berkoff, stage acting v film acting - though in most cases the answers seemed to get lost in a detour through a number of anecdotes, some of which quite amusing. I could have done with watching a longer session were it not that I was getting anxious about returning home in the dark with my pussies wondering what on earth had become of me, so it was not without some relief that it came to an end when it did. Nevertheless, a fruitful experience.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Film: 'A Most Wanted Man'

Ah, here's another instalment in the long, well-regarded series of 'One of Philip Seymour Hoffman's Last Films'.
So is that it? Actually, 'no'. You'll have to wait and see.

Dutch director Anton Corbijn makes a good fist of adapting this John le Carre thriller - just as he did for 'The American' (2010).
Set entirely in Hamburg, Hoffman plays a chain-smoking, senior German intelligence officer, trying to identify and nab Islamic terrorists before any atrocities occur. (Hamburg was where 9/11 was masterminded.)
A young Chechnyan, tortured by Russians, smuggles himself into the city harbour, having travelled via Turkey, and is offered the assistance of a young female civil rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams) who can help him with his request for asylum in Germany. But there's a question as to whether this devout Muslim is really a jihadist, which we're not sure of ourselves until fairly well into the film. He's given a place to hide by his lawyer until his status can be resolved.
He's come to Hamburg because it turns out that he's inherited a huge sum of ill-gotten money here (he doesn't how large it is - millions of Euros), which he decides to donate to charities and philanthropic causes because it's tainted - and it's left to a wealthy Muslim business man to distribute, someone who's been the object of suspicion from the authorities for some time. So a trap is set. Unbeknownst to this man (and to the young asylum-seeker), he's given the chance to divert a part of these funds to a seemingly respectable organisation which is actually known to be a front for terrorism. Will he take the bait? Willem Dafoe plays the bank manager who is reluctantly roped in to help set the trap.

Even though there are no explosions, car chases, gun-fights - in fact no big set-pieces at all - the tension is created from the start and maintained throughout with no let-up.
Hamburg is a good, interesting  backdrop for the story, and it certainly makes a refreshing change from all the Londons, Parises, New Yorks etc of which we see so much.
Acting is of a very high standard from all the cast. There have been mutterings about Hoffman's German accent which some have thought strange or even comical, though I wasn't too distracted by it. He performs to the standard we always expected of him, i.e. high.
Very importantly for a Le Carre thriller, I didn't get lost as much as I sometimes do. Another noteworthy fact is that, dealing with subterfuge, I thought that a lot of the dialogue might be whispered and lost in incoherent mumblings, but that turned out not to be the case at all.

I've got little to fault with this film. It's a full two hours long and although there's not much physical action it didn't feel slow or boring. Better than merely satisfying...............7

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Film: 'Before I Go to Sleep'

This could have been a consistently fine, nail-biting thriller. And so it was for the first hour and ten minutes. In the penultimate scene, as the revelations start coming, suspense is replaced by the expectation and portrayal of extreme physical violence which, thanks to some nifty editing, is still quite watchable even through the horror of it. Up to and including that point the film might still have held up.    However the very final scene is a catastrophic, protracted, over-sentimental, 'wrapping-up-the-loose-ends' which so debases all what's gone before as to make it risible - and, what's worse, it was so needless. As it went on and on my overall rating started to descend. I'd much rather have had questions remaining unanswered than this overblown triteness, seemingly inserted to satisfy a market that demands clear-cut answers. It's a great pity - and it's also one of the worst film endings I've seen since the hopelessly unsatisfactory conclusion of the otherwise very admirable 'The Game' (1997 Michael Douglas/Sean Penn).

Apart from a single scene featuring another character this film is an exclusively three-actor piece - Colin Firth (yes, yet again), Mark Strong and Nicole Kidman. (We already saw Kidman and Firth together only earlier this year in 'The Railway Man'). Now I'm aware that there are some people around who refuse to see any of Ms Kidman's films 'on principle', as they are to her former hubby Tom C. I'm not part of that number. Although Cruise, I think, is okay but not exceptional, I think she is the latter, and here once again she gives a high-powered and believable performance. (I didn't see the universally derided 'Grace of Monaco', though now wish I had as I'm old enough to remember all the hullabaloo surrounding Grace Kelly's giving up film-acting in order to marry Prince Rainier.)

This film's opening situation is highly intriguing (Director: Rowan Joffe):-
Somewhere in Outer London, Kidman wakes up in bed one morning with a strange man she doesn't recognise, as she also doesn't with her surroundings. When she finds the bathroom the wall is plastered with photographs of herself with explanatory labels - her own wedding (with this same 'strange' man), holidays, parties etc. Firth wakes up and, to her evident astonishment explains, as he's done every morning for years, that he is her husband and that, following an accident some years previously, whenever she sleeps her memory is wiped clean of the years since their marriage. It's a good basic idea which holds one's interest. After Firth has left for work she's rung up by her hospital psychiatrist (Strong) who, like Firth, every morning has to explain who he is and remind her to make a short selfie movie with a hidden camera on which to record who she is, and to replay it on the following morning when, after waking up, he'll have to explain it all over again. But she must not disclose to her husband this contact with him as it could be detrimental to her treatment of which he may not approve. They meet up regularly in his car, he taking care to  maintain a professional distance between the two of them. (Occasionally she has very brief mental flashbacks to a terrifying, bloody event of the past in which she was involved, but she can't quite focus on what actually happened).

The best film concerning memory loss of the last couple of decades must be Christopher Nolan's 'Memento', which I would maintain is the greatest film on that subject of which I'm aware. This film isn't in that league but it's (mostly) pretty darned good. It keeps one guessing and more than once I was wrong-footed, trying to work out what was behind the situation Kidman had found herself in. I always like to be kept on my mental toes and this did just that.

So it's a great shame about the conclusion. The film would have been far stronger without that misty-eyed epilogue, but it's there and for that reason it must be judged as an intrinsic part of this film. I would have given the film a good '7' but the the final scene is so glaringly crass that for that reason alone it slips an entire point to...............6.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Film: 'Pride'

Already attracting a large number of superlatives, when I first heard about this 'feel-good' film around a month ago I inwardly groaned. On no account because of the subject matter (gays and lesbians supporting the Welsh Miners strike against the Thatcher government in 1984), more because I feared that, 'based on real events', it would play fast and loose with the facts. Of course I accept that dramatic licence is a time-honoured tradition and has a viable place in the arts, but I have such sour memories of another recent-ish film viz the dire 'The Boat That Rocked', which even a Richard Curtis screenplay and no less a figure than the formidable and late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman couldn't save from capsizing. This purported to show another socio-political event, the criminalising of pirate radio stations in the 1960s, which was such a ridiculous inversion of what actually happened that I thought 'Pride' might follow the same path. In an interview with writer Stephen Beresford he claimed that everything that happens on screen here actually took place. A bold claim indeed.

This film had a big advantage for me over 'The Boat that Rocked', namely that it's a total mystery how I don't recall the issue at all, even though it had happened nearly 20 years after the pirate radios. Of course I remember the miners' strike. I was at my most trade-union militant then (me being the single departmental trade union representative for several years)  - and, not only that, only shortly before 1984 I'd have resigned from having been national treasurer of the Local Government Officers Gay Association - which was nowhere near as grand as it sounds. (From memory I think we only had about 60 members!) So I was very politically aware on at least two fronts - as well as having attended, between the mid-1970s and late-80s something like half a dozen of the annual Gay Pride marches in London. This film begins with the 1984 march and ends with the following year's, so there's a good chance that I was at one or both - yet memories of this particular subject have I none.

The film (Director: Matthew Warchus) boasts a cast that could hardly be bettered - Bill Nighy, more restrained than he's ever been, and also the best I've ever seen him - the doughty Imelda Staunton (whom I've seen several times on stage) - the self-effacing, likeable and ever-impressive Paddy Considine - and, playing a scene-stealing, camp, middle-aged gay man, the busy Dominic West, who gets, near the film's start, a fairly extended turn on the dance floor. (Above pic of him with Staunton).

The drama is around the acceptance of an offer to help to raise funds for striking miners by a small London  group of gay young men (plus Dominic West - and one young, spikey-haired and unattractively abrasive lesbian) who decide which miners to direct their efforts towards by, more or less, sticking a pin in the telephone directory. They settle on a small town in South Wales - which is also this film's location - their actual visit there engendering suspicion, distrust and, of course, homophobia, mainly suppressed and whispered but which flares up in pockets all through the film.
I accept that the film would start with hostile parties, their enmity melting with acquaintance and finishing with total acceptance. And so it does. What I found harder to believe was how quickly entrenched attitudes could change. On the other hand, there are some characters throughout the film who do cling onto their bigotry no matter what, including some physical violence, but I was doubtful that in reality they would be not only in such a minority but that they'd be vehemently put down for their opinions by members of this most macho of occupations and their families. But if they say that's what actually happened who am I to argue?

There are several mentions of AIDS. This was at a time when the Murdoch press and all the tabloids were gifted by being allowed to peddle the 'gay plague' myth with impunity. Even without being handed this subject homophobia was at its height, perhaps as a reaction against the demands for equality which had grown louder  - and Thatcher's odious Section 28, which criminalised 'promoting' homosexuality in schools, was still just around the corner. Yet all that is not really reflected in this mining community. Despite most of them having  strong socialist leanings, I'd guess from my own experience that most trade union members would not have extended equality to gays, let alone any extension of the then restricted 'tolerance' (the age of consent for gay men was still 21). But that doesn't seem to be the case in this film when from the outset many of the Welsh locals are shown as being vocally supportive.

Among the seven or eight gay activists portrayed here one or two are verging on stereotype (including the goth-like lesbian), which may or may not be accurate.

It's an interesting film (a little too long at two hours), only a bit preachy but definitely enlightening for people like me who didn't know about the episode. (Archive TV footage played does reveal that the story did, in fact, hit the national news at one point)
It's good fun at times but it didn't quite succeed in carrying me along gleefully as much as it did for some of the reviewers whom I've heard and read. Comparisons have been made with 'The Full Monty' but to my mind that was a better film.

Good enough, then, but nothing too special............................6.


Monday, 8 September 2014

Film: 'The Hundred Foot Journey'

I'm risking losing a number of friends by saying this, but I found very little to like about this film - save for multiple sumptuous shots of food, pre-, during and after preparation - and the luminous presence of Helen Mirren at her most endearingly watchable, even when playing haughty, as she does for the first hour before a certain epiphanous event.  But I'm not going to pretend that I was impressed. Otherwise, if you like gooey sentiment served in XXL spadefuls, complete with almost all-pervading music telling you what emotion you are to possess at that point, then do go along  - and suffocate! But if that still isn't enough in this overlong, two-hour film, don't forget to note the obligatory downpours (we all know it can never simply rain in films), sightseer-shots of Paris, complete, in at least one point, with accompanying accordian music just in case it slipped your mind in which country La Tour Eiffel is located - and then there's parallel double romances, young and old (well, in the latter case, a promise of it).

The always reliable Om Puri plays the patriarch of a family, who decides to leave his native India with his five children after his restaurant is destroyed by a mob, his wife perishing. They go to Europe and, by chance (or maybe 'fate', we are led to believe), end up in a small town in southern France, where he decides to open up a new Indian restaurant in a derelict property he notices, which happens to be exactly on the other side of the road from a very fashionable and celebrated restaurant run by the domineering Madame Mallory (Mirren). Cue rivalry and hostilities.
Very early romantic interest is provided between the father's eldest son (Manish Dayal) and the sole young female employee (Charlotte le Bon) in the kitchens of the restaurant opposite. Cue friction and conflict of interest.
The culinary expertise of the son takes off like a rocket and, before you can order more onion bhajis, he's a national celebrity, and is lured to work in the capital. (Being stopped outside by members of the public asking to take his photo. How often does that happen to cooks who are not even regularly on the telly, especially to one barely out of his teens? - if even so 'old' as that?)

I also found much of the script flat and predictable. In fact, early in the film I started playing a game of, when someone said a line, guessing the rejoinder - and more often than not I was right or very close. They might as well have played it in silence.

Swedish Director Lasse Halstrom has created some notable films in his career. Some of them I have liked, even a lot - while others I just failed to 'get'. You know in which category I place this one.

I ought to mention that the sight of meat, poultry and fish (very occasionally in 'living' form) did not affect my overall opinion. My reaction in this respect is very personal and it wouldn't be fair to use it against a film which might have been considered 'worthy'. However, even that aside, I did find this very heavy going - and without Helen Mirren to lighten the moments I would have found the entire venture unbearable.  
No doubt many will enjoy it. It's already collected a current high average rating of 7.6 on IMDb. The score I submitted was...........................3/10


Friday, 5 September 2014

Two new films: 'Deux Jours, Une Nuit' + 'The Keeper of Lost Causes'.

After computer troubles we're back in circulation. Only hope this ancient contraption will hold up long enough to enable me to make a significant number of further posts before it gives up again, as well as continuing my ability to comment on those of other blogpals. 
Many thanks to those of you who've wished me both for the computer problems and my own health situation, the latter of which is also continuing to improve, thank you - though there is still a little way to go yet. But I'm very moved indeed by your caring remarks.

So, catch-up time:-

Deux Jours, Une Nuit.

In the light of some very positive reviews I suspected that I might like this. I wasn't prepared to be so blown away by it.

Marion Cotillard, appearing in every scene, is the only bread-winner in a family of four (two young children). At the firm in Belgium where she works there has just been a ballot among a score or so of her co-workers as to whether to keep her employed or to agree to her being made redundant. If she goes the firm could afford to pay the rest of the staff a bonus of 1,000 Euros each (about £800 or $1,300 American). The vote was heavily in favour of dismissing her, thereby claiming their bonuses. However, she and her friend convince the reluctant boss to hold a re-ballot, on the grounds that the section's foreman exercised undue influence on the workers in letting her go because he was biased due to her history of absence due to depression. The new ballot is to take place on the following Monday - the film's title referring to a week-end she has in which to plead with her co-workers to change their votes in favour of her remaining. Much of the action is taken up by her doing the rounds of these colleagues and getting a range of reactions to her imploring, she being distressed at the thought of not being able to keep the family together in their flat should she lose her job. But some of them state their own cases for desperately needing the bonus money.
All the while she is taking her medication for her depression. Her husband, driving her around to make her requests, is afraid of her overdosing by her habit of reaching for her pills every time she feels down, which is often.

It's a heart-breaking tale, directed by Dardennes brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc.
Marion Cotillard excels throughout. Her face, even when alone, is a wordless script for her emotions, continually swinging between optimism and deep despair. It's a truly amazing performance.
It's also a modest film - not over-bearing in ambition, modest in length (and presumably in budget too), and with no emotion-nudging music! It all works itself into a little miracle. My only slight reservation was that maybe the ending is ever-so-slightly too pat, but the route getting there made it a thoroughly worthwhile journey. One of my films of the year............................8.


The Keeper of Lost Causes

Grim Danish-language thriller which has had some very good reviews. Mine is not going to be one of them.

Director Mikkel Norgaard's film has Nikolay LeKaas as a hard-boiled detective in Denmark returning to work following recovery from being injured by a bullet in a shoot-out. But instead of being given his old job back he's shunted to one side, to his obvious and understandable displeasure, to look at and close old cases still left open on the records. He's given a middle-eastern assistant (Fares Fares) whose earnestness far exceeds any enthusiasm he has for the work himself.
He decides to focus on the case of the disappearance five years before of an aspiring young female politician who vanished from a ferry while accompanying her mentally incapacitated and mute adult brother. It had been assumed that she'd committed suicide by jumping overboard, though no body was ever found.
Despite his boss' insistence that he close the case-file he's too intrigued to let it go and he and his assistant go on a quest to find out what actually happened.
I don't think it's too much to say that we see the young woman and how she's being kept after being abducted. It's a very disturbing scenario, putting me in mind of the horrible fate of some of the Third Reich's concentration camp inmates. And if I add that when the villain is revealed he, physically, would fit so easily into that role of a sadistic 'experimenter'..........well, there's hardly any need to say more about what he looks like. If the film wasn't so serious he'd be a stereotypical caricature.

It's a dark film all through, in every sense of the word - but it's also curiously old-fashioned. In fact I found little that was 'new' about the story. It certainly has suspenseful moments, and the situation of the victim's prolonged detention made me shudder. Buy there are really few real surprises.

I haven't seen any of the Scandinavian TV thrillers that have been all the vogue for some time, but I see this as fitting into that genre, the only difference being that this is on large, wide screen, though it needn't have been.
I'd give the film high marks for conjuring up the menacing atmosphere it requires. Acting is very good from all concerned. However, overall, it didn't leave me with a strong enough impression to retain long in the mind, apart from that one aspect I've referred to.......................5.5



Monday, 1 September 2014

Film: 'Lucy'

Further to my blog of yesterday in which I told of the situation of my computer workability being precarious, well it still remains so though I've managed to find a 'sticking-plaster' solution. How long it will hold remains to be seen. Truth is, I badly need a new computer but current financial conditions make that impossible - or even finding just a professional short-term solution. So as long as this position persists, please don't be surprised if I 'disappear' without notice. If I can see it coming I'll do my best to give due warning, though as we all know, things seem to go down rather suddenly.

'Lucy' is a strange film, not without some merit, though it does seem to fall in love with itself in the final parts.

The increasingly impressive Scarlett Johansson (whom I actively disliked when I first noticed her in 'Lost in Translation' - not any more) plays a reluctant drug mule for a Japanese criminal gang forced into the role in Tokyo by an exploitative acquaintance. She displays her initial vulnerability convincingly well, but when the bag sewn into her abdomen bursts (she is the only female of four similar mules) the effects of the drug (actually used in small doses in pregnancies) affects her brain and gives her superhuman powers, including telekinesis, telepathy and even, eventually, physical metamorphosis. Meantime, Morgan Freeman, whose screen appearances have become a watchword for 'wisdom', keeps popping up in the midst of giving a lecture on the effects of humans using more than the usual capacity of their cerebral powers - currently about 20%, we're told. The effects of the drugs on Johansson become more spectacular as the percentage grows on its way to an ultimate goal of utilising 100% of the brain's potential.

It's a pretty violent film with some grisly scenes. I think too much effort was given into putting a scientific rationale into what was happening to Johannson. Of course with such a fantastical story it needs at least the bare bones of explanation, but I think it got bogged down in its own theorising. It might have worked better if they'd trusted the audience to just go along with it 'for the ride' rather than keep giving stodgy little sermons.
As for the final scenes, director Luc Besson, who has made a fair number of watchable films in his long career, many of which are in the more 'popular' vein, looks as though he was trying to show how clever he can be with his tricksy cinematic effects, which are, it must be said, not at all bad - and with more than one nod to Stanley Kubrick - though, frankly, I could have done without a certain 'Creation of Adam' moment.

I found 'Lucy' a bit better than merely passable entertainment, though far from being exceptional.......5.5.