Monday, 16 January 2017

Film: 'Live by Night'

(First word to rhyme with 'give') 

After directing and appearing in the extraordinarily impressive 'Argo' of 2012 Ben Afffeck must have thought he could walk on water. Well, this one (in which he's main star, screenplay writer and director again) proves his mortality. Although far from being a turkey it does beckon in that direction. Ennui started setting in within minutes of the opening despite our being presented with a miscellany of gangster shootings, inevitably including one victim in a barber's chair. 'The Godfather' this is not.

I can't give a cohesive summary of the story because I'm not entirely sure what it was. It's set in 1920s Prohibition-era, Tampa, Florida where Affleck arrives to do some pushing around (including assassinations of 'inconvenient' characters) with shady clientele, among whom are police, law officials and property developers, all of which are drowning in corruption. While popping off sundry persons who get in the way, he's got to deal with the K.K.K. who are not too keen on his relationship with the dark-skinned Zoe Saldana with whom he has a son. Add to the mix a generous dose of Evangelicism with strongly anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiments, as well as heroin use, this all ought to have contributed to a heady concoction with, potentially, gripping results. However, notwithstanding that and even with the multiple shootings it's all a fairly dull affair.

Among the cast is the ever-reliable Chris Cooper, and he is one of the film's best features. I was looking forward even more to the formidable screen presence of Brendan Gleason as Affleck's father, though he's gone for good after just thirty minutes.

 The film with colours muted down, is shot in sepia or near monochrome, which gives it some of the atmosphere of the time. The exterior scenes in the city are large-scale and remarkably good to look at, but all comes to little in the film's larger context. 

As I say at the outset, the film is not so much a turkey, it's closer to being a curate's egg. One felt it really should have been so much better, more exciting - but I actually yawned more than once! In summary, I'll be kind...................5.5.



Thursday, 12 January 2017

Film: 'La La Land'

Exceeding my expectations by some margin, I thought this a lovely film.
Musicals are such a rarity now so it's doubly satisfying to sit through this 'throw-back' to cinema's glory days with almost unalloyed pleasure. 
It's an additional achievement in that all the songs (music: Justin Hurwitz. lyrics: Benj Posek & Justin Paul) are originals. Not show-stoppers, granted, but they more than do their job of being interesting enough in their own right while pushing the action forward. (There are also two or three 'golden oldies' at one point, played as background music).

Taking virtually exclusive acting honours are Ryan Gosling (doing all his own piano-playing, a lot of it near-virtuosic) and Emma Stone, who together sing and hoof some numbers very capably, with tightly synchronised, agreeble choreography demonstrating some nifty footwork . The sole large-scale song in terms of number of performers is the opening, pre-title, smiley, sing-along number.
Other than Gosling and Stone, the only other member of the cast I recognised was J.K.Simmons (also from director Damien Chazelle's very fine, though opinion-divisive, 'Whiplash') in what is little more than a cameo role. And I suppose I really ought to have recognised John Legend, though I'm now getting increasingly out of touch when it comes to contemporary culture. 

Emma Stone is a counter-waitress in a Hollywood Cafe, also attending endless auditions, aspiring to become a theatre and screen actress. Gosling is a jazz pianist in a swanky bar where he soon gets fired by Simmons for not following orders on what to play. He moves onto more humble locations where he's spotted by Legend who invites him to join his jazz group.

The storyline is as corny as they come. Stone and Gosling's first encounter shortly after the film proper starts is one of animosity, and the hostilities continue when they meet up by chance a little later, though not for long. We all know the only route their acquaintance can take is that they'll soon be melting towards each other, falling in love - and singing and dancing, literally, in the air. But it's what I'd been hoping for, and it's delivered flawlessly and very nicely indeed.

The film, set nearly entirely in L.A., is broken up into parts titled with seasons of the year, and my only significant gripe is that it does sag a bit in the centre - and in the final parts, where song and dance become sparser, the drama between the two principals threatens to weigh down the story, increasing the contrast between the first and second halves, which I thought got a bit too heavy for the piece of fluff which this film is. A bit more judicious editing might have avoided this. However, it does seem to be a characteristic of virtually all musicals that about two-thirds through their drama becomes more intense, and risks subsuming all the rest. It's important, then, that it doesn't teeter over into melodrama - though in this case there's little chance of that happening. A bit over-serious, nonetheless.

Director Damien Chazelle, as well as writing this film, also has writing credits for the aforementioned 'Whiplash' as well as '10 Cloverfield Lane', the latter also attracting an elevated opinion from self.

Photography in this film is sumptuous throughout, as well as the effects. Direction, and the considerable imagination and originality that went into it could hardly have been bettered.

In an average year I normally award about half a dozen films a stratospheric (in my terms) rating of 8/10. Yet here we are, with only four films seen so far, and a second one with that elusive...........8.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Film: 'Silence'

My God, but sitting through this was a trial and a half! And not only because it's a whopping two hours and forty minutes long. If it hadn't had director Martin Scorsese's name attached I wouldn't have bothered, particularly as I was aware of it being gruelling viewing with more than a few scenes of torture and execution.

As I advance even further into old age, despite probably having seen more violence on film than most, the experience hasn't inured me against such scenes. In fact quite the reverse in that I find depictions of suffering increasingly upsetting. Watching the news on TV nowadays, for instance, I've always got to have the remote in my hand ready to switch channels when acts of violence or their aftermath are shown. It's only in about the last twenty years that I started doing this and such switching is getting increasingly frequent.
But with no such remote available in the cinema, I was reduced to having to look away at difficult moments, usually at my watch to find out how much longer there was to have to bear it.

The idea of filming this novel has been gestating in Scorsese's mind for close on two decades, and the story reflects his devout(?) Roman Catholicism, dealing as it does with persecution and martyrdom (in 17th century Japan) for the Christian faith. For most of the time I'd have guessed that the film would have received enthusiastic Papal approbation and even a blessing. Then something happens which made me think "Well, perhaps not." But right at the very final shot something is shown which, irritatingly for me, undercuts the story as it's just been played out. So, perhaps Papa Frankie may be smiling after all!

Two Portuguese priests (Andrew Garfield and Andrew Driver) hear via a letter from another priest - their one-time teacher now in Japan (Liam Neeson, who appears only in the first few minutes then not again until the film's final segment) - of horrors taking place in that country where Christianity is being tried to be stamped out - Christians being driven out to live in the wild and in caves, and being put to death if they are caught and refuse to renounce their religion, which they symbolically demonstrate by putting a foot on an etched image of Christ, which if they do they can then go free. Of course, many can't do it and are therefore condemned to execution - a variety of means employed, sometimes quick, sometimes lingering. Priests are particular targets, they even requesting to be tortured to show the steadfastness of their faith.
The two Portuguese clerics are not even sure if the Neeson character has survived, but with the intention of not only seeking him out but also to be missionaries, they sneak themselves into the country.

I couldn't work out how communication worked between the Portuguese priests and the otherwise entirely Japanese characters in the cast. Of course in this film English is used by everyone (by the Japanese sometimes haltingly), which is perfectly acceptable within the conceit of the film. But how do the priests manage to hear the confessions of the hiding or imprisoned peasants? Surely the priests wouldn't be fluent in the Japanese language - and no one believes for one second the absurdity of the Japanese speaking Portuguese.
But we've just got to accept that somehow communication between the races was achieved,

And so to the violence. Well, everyone knows that Scorsese is a master of the violent film, possibly the current exemplar, along with Tarantino. But in the former's gangster films the violence is sporadic, usually sudden and, though it can be bloody, it's generally over in seconds. Not so here. It's not only drawn out but it appears throughout the film in various guises and not just confined to climaxes, if there are any of those at all. So that makes this film in this respect harder to watch than some others of this nature. 
Incidentally, I didn't have to try too hard to remind myself that historically around this time (and later) Christians have been at least as barbaric to other faiths and to each other. In fact, it hardly needs saying that most religions have a poor track record of tolerance towards those who don't share their own view of what they regard as the inviolable 'truth'.

In arriving at a rating which this film would justify I'm torn between pulling it down because of my considerable discomfort at the torture and execution scenes, while recognising that the film is an accomplishment. Photography is superb throughout. Editing perhaps less so, betraying the occasional religioso-preachy longueur which came very close to being boring. But after watching this I now crave for something lighter. (Btw: For some reason, Mel Gibson's 'Hacksaw Ridge', which was due to start screening by now has been put back two weeks, while 'La La Land' has been brought forward by a few days.) 
It's a 'La La Land' that's exactly what I need to counter the heavy and depressing effect of 'Silence', so I'm now looking forward to that as an antidote even more than I was. 
But as for the film 'Silence' itself, although I'm stretching my score upwards a bit, in terms of a mix of 'enjoyment' (very little) and 'achievement' (quite high) I'll settle on awarding it a...........4.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Film: 'Rogue One - A Star Wars Story'

Will this series never end? We've had sequels, prequels and here comes one supposedly off-route from the mainstream saga but every bit as muddled, over-complicated and, frankly, boring as any of the others. I only see them in order to maintain my 100% viewing record (similarly with the 'Star Trek' films, which I find marginally more entertaining than the S.W.s) but it's doing me no favours at all, yet costing money and time. So I think this one may well be the end of the line for me.   

I shan't outline the story because I can't. It's very loud and it's hard on the eyes with multiple explosions, flashes and misc effects. (Peter Cushing making a C.G.I. 'resurrection' 22 years after the actor died made me feel distractingly uncomfortable, in a smallish but significant role. Also, a young Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in a 3-second appearance right at the film's end).

Main role goes to Felicity Jones with some quite interesting younger male support, but it's all very formulaic stuff.
And as always, there are the inevitable heroic acts of self-sacrifice, from both humans and robots, to make one feel really 'involved'.

Surprised to find that the director was one Gareth Edwards whose credits include the well-praised (also by me) 'Monsters' of 2011.

This film has got a current very high rating of 8.1 on IMDB. My submission isn't quite that high.....................3.




Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Film: 'Passengers'

Could hardly have wished for a more promising start to another year of cinema-going. When I first read what this was going to be about the story grabbed me - and on screen it's realised to near-perfection - though it hasn't been particularly well received by some critics. (Still, how would they know?) It's a terrific idea and one that is, so far as I'm aware, quite original.

It's set entirely in space on an enormous rotating ship transporting 5,000 passengers plus over 200 crew on a 120 year journey to colonise another planet, all of them sleeping through that time in individual hibernation pods. Okay, as expected in space-themed films, our first view is of the ship rumbling through airless (and therefore soundless!) space, followed by a series of combustive explosions (ho-hum!). But putting all that aside (filmic convention sometimes seems to dictate that an audience is not particularly intelligent), these disturbances provide the catalyst for the story, when a single one of the passengers (Chris Pratt) is awoken because of a computer malfunction, though there's yet another ninety years to transpire before arriving at the destination - and he's without the means to resume his hibernation. 
His only 'awake' companion is an android, a speaking and emoting bartender (Michael Sheen - with shades of the bartender scenes in Kubrick's 'The Shining') with human-looking top half only, otherwise gliding about hither and thither on wheels behind the bar, and eternally polishing up drinking glasses.
After a year of living without genuine human companionship Pratt is eventually joined by another passenger (Jennifer Lawrence), whose awakening and how she finds out about it I shan't elaborate on, as I also won't explain the appearance of a third wakened human being. Needless to say, romance between Pratt and Lawrence develops, at least up to point - resulting in a few treacly moments, mainly towards the film's end, but such episodes are sensibly kept in proportion.

Mention of the ship's location, its speed and the time elapsed since departure are figures which just don't compute to anything like what they ought to be (as I've now verified through Internet searches) though in the context of the story it's not material. And passing a star en route (in just a few seconds!) why isn't the view of it through an observation window rotating as the entire ship is turning? 
However, the special effects both inside the ship and in space are really stunning and I only wish I'd seen the film on a giant screen - and in 3D (though I don't think that format is available). But even as it is it still carries one hell of a visual punch.

Norwegian director Morgen Tyldum has pulled another rabbit out of the hat with this film. He already has 'The Imitation Game' (2014) and the marvellous 'Headhunters' of 2011 to his credit, and here comes yet another one deserving of meritorious consideration. He also gets superb performances from all four members of this cast. 

I don't exaggerate by claiming this to be, despite some decidedly sniffy reviews, the most impressive space-located film I've seen in, well, decades..............8

Saturday, 31 December 2016

My favourite films of 2016

As I saw only just over 10% of the films released in this country over the last twelve months, this can hardly claim to be a definitive list of the best films of the year. If I'd managed to see all those I'd wanted to see the list would certainly be looking very different. Be that as it may, here is my annual appraisal of the ten films out of the 83 which I did see and which I enjoyed the most, in approximate ascending order.

10. 10 Cloverfield Lane - Altogether unexpected, chilling, claustrophobic thriller with a dash of alien-type horrors.

9. Eye in the Sky  -  gripping and authentic-feeling terrorist saga set in Kenya

8. La Chambre Bleu - Another 'hemmed-in' piece leaving one gasping for air. Beautifully achieved with lingering questions tantalisingly left unanswered.

7. David Brent - Life on the Road - just had to include this somewhere, with Ricky Gervais on high form despite not having his familiar supporting cast, and yet delivering more (deliberate) laughs than I got from any other film this year.

6. Youth - remarkably watchable 'sunset' vehicle for Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel which I hadn't expected to enjoy even half as much as I did.

5. Nocturnal Animals
Cleverly constructed and realised thriller with a suspended ending which will frustrate some but which I loved. And Jake Gyllenhall - is he capable of making a film that's less than 'good'? Not so far.

4. Little Men

Near-perfect human interest drama with lovely ensemble casting, Greg Kinnear leading the honours, though only by a short nose. Managed to win me over quite easily despite the inclusion of two youngish boys among the major players, something which would normally have sounded warning bells.


3. Spotlight

Another 'ensemble' film with its entire cast on blazing form, dealing with the infuriating subject of R.C. Church cover-up of historic child abuse. The subject haunts one, just as it ought to, this film doing a tremendous service in keeping it in public consciousness.

2. I, Daniel Blake

Anyone who fails to be profoundly moved by this Ken Loach-directed saga of unemployment and the frustrations of officialese when trying to survive on state-handouts for the disabled can only be lacking a pulse in their arteries. Brought me closer to genuine tears than any other film I've seen this year - a once in several years rarity in any case.

1. Julieta


What can one say? Pedro Almodovar excels even himself, which alone is some achievement, in this flawless, mysterious tale with perfect casting. After seeing it I was, very unusually, totally lost for words to describe the experience. Quite took my breath away.


Finally, of course, we have to nominate the suppurating, pus-filled boil of the year. There were rich pickings indeed, but eventually I just could not avoid going for 'Batman vs Superman', a film which annoyed me to death from the moment I'd first heard of the concept of making these two heroes fight against each other. I'm by no means an avid comic-book hero fan, but even I knew that this was going to be nothing short of sacrilege. Such characters exist only in the hermetically-sealed environments which justifies them. They must be totally oblivious of each other. It just does not work any other way. Putting them together, and even worse, as foes, was unforgivable - and watching the whole sorry mess played out on screen only confirmed the blindingly obvious. Talk about scraping the barrel for a new 'gimmick' to draw in the crowds! Trouble is, to my regretful amazement, it worked for them, darn it - though taking less at box-office than anticipated. So a small mercy!

Wishing every single one of my readers the happiest of all New Years. See you in 2017!

Friday, 30 December 2016

Harold Pinter's 'No Man's Land' - live relay from West End theatre into cinemas

A most agreeable afternoon spent in my local cinema watching a live relay from Wyndham's theatre in London's West End of this utterly marvellous Harold Pinter play (though which of his plays does not qualify for that adjective?) with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in the main roles. Totally mesmerising, this was being relayed live not only to cinemas throughout the country but also to various venues around the world, including New York (which would have meant an 8 a.m. start) and China. Attending it cost me nearly three times my usual cinema price, but taking the opportunity was totally justified.

I do so love practically anything by Pinter. His plays are so , angular, off-kilter and mystifying, yet engorged with some hilarious black humour - and this is one of his very best, a play I already knew quite well.
It was first produced in 1975 (the play being firmly set around that time) with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson,  a production that was later recorded for TV and which I watched twice. I also have a radio recording made in the early 1990s with Dirk Bogarde and Michael Horden.

Exactly what it's about is anyone's guess - and therein lies a large part of the attraction. Two ageing men are talking, drinking and reminiscing about their lives in the home of the more affluent one (in this case, Stewart) though exactly what their relationship is to each other is left up in the air. They banter and bait one another, occasionally getting quite nasty and bitchy - then suddenly Stewart will ask McKellen "Who are you?" There are long monologues (always riveting) from one and then the other while the other remains silent giving the occasional quizzical look.
There are, now and again, odd remarks, such as when McKellen asks Stewart, ""Did you ever hang around Hampstead Heath?" (an area in north London that was - and I think may still be - notorious for anonymous, quickie gay encounters). The non-committal response is left ambiguous. (The McKellen character, at least, is married with two adult daughters - and is shocked to hear that the other once seduced his wife.) 

Then there's the appearance of two mysteriously unexplained men, one middle aged - the older character's 'butler'? - the other shady one, a younger (here Owen Teale and Damien Maloney) both of whom have a threatening menace about them, verging on the bullying of the two older men, and certainly deliberately provoking them.

The play finishes unresolved, as do just about all of Pinter's works, and we are left wondering what it was all about - but in the most satisfying way.

At the end of this performance there was an audience Q & A session with the director and the four members of the cast. Ian McKellen said that a lot of people make the mistake of trying to read too much into and over-interpret Pinter's plays, and that we shouldn't try to think too hard about it but just take it as you experience it. Easier said than done. 
The very interesting comment was also made that the play is about something that was never discussed or hardly even recognised at the time it was written: viz the onset of dementia. I think this must be true.


All in all, a highly positive and rewarding afternoon's experience.