Monday, 21 July 2014

Film: 'ARTHUR & MIKE' (aka 'ARTHUR NEWMAN')

This is an oddity - which makes it sound more interesting than it was.
The film is actually two years old and has probably been languishing on a shelf, gathering dust, before being transferred to DVD. It only came here for a one-off, morning screening and, notwithstanding the omens (and indifferent reviews), it looked okay enough on paper for me to toddle along. Bad decision.

Colin Firth and Emily Blunt (latter as 'Michaela' or 'Mike') play American. Is there nothing the man Firth cannot do - apart from giving us all a break? (At least six more films from him in the offing, including the new Woody Allen. Oh, saints preserve us, please!) Anyway, this time he plays an identity-switching former golf-pro who fakes his own death by drowning in order to escape his ex-wife (with resentful son, annoyed at his dad's greater interest in golf than in himself). His ex is played by Anne (closet gay or closet straight? Take your choice) Heche, though with nose that's definitely straight, who doesn't seem terribly cut up about his vanishing act. However, Firth (no fool he!) 'disappears' with a bagful of $29,000 in low denomination notes.Very soon circumstances throw him and self-pitying, whingeing Emily Blunt together who, by one of those coincidences that only happen in film, find that not only do they both have assumed identities but they also share a penchant for travelling hither and thither, breaking into strangers' homes (after checking on their times of absence) and availing themselves of the 'facilities'. (Oh, what merry japes they get up to! Laugh? I could hardly contain my ennui!) An engaging couple in the style of Bonnie and Clyde they are not! I found them off-puttingly exasperating from the start. The prevailing mood engendered in yours truly was one of wanting them to be nabbed, caught in flagrante delicto, which they actually are (literally) at one point - but, maddeningly, they always manage to scarper before being caught.

I couldn't relate to this film one bit. If it had tried to pass itself off as something a bit zany in the style of those tongue-in-cheek crime capers of the 60s and 70s it might have worked. If that was indeed the mood it was aiming at, I can only think that it misfired badly.
This is director Dante Arola's first feature film, so I suppose by starting on such a 'downer' he ought only to get better - though after this I shan't be rushing to find out his next project..............................3/10.


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A rare theatre outing - to see 'The Mousetrap'.

My first visit to any theatre in over three years. If ticket prices weren't so prohibitive I'd be making such excursions every week.

This is the first national touring production of the Agatha Christie murder mystery play that's been running continuously in London for 62 years - around 25,000 performances to date and counting - so, coming to my home town, not to have made the effort to see it might have been a bit perverse for the lover of live theatre which I am.
Even though I've known 'whodunit' for around 55 years I just wanted to take this probable final chance to see the famed play, despite there being a general consensus that it's over-rated and its playing so long is blocking a fine West End theatre from putting on worthier productions. (These very same criticisms were being voiced as long ago as the early 1970s, I clearly recall - and maybe before then.)  

I had thought that by now just about everybody would have known who was the murderer but the audible gasps of astonishment from the audience at the moment of disclosure was a surprise - and quite a pleasant one, I must say.
I'd only got to know the 'solution' because when I was around 12 or 13 I was coming home from school with a classmate who'd just been to London and was telling me excitedly about this play to which his dad had taken him. He reeled off a list of the characters on stage and said "Now who do you think was the murderer?" It may have been that he'd given an unconscious emphasis when naming that particular individual, but since then I've not only known but have managed not to tell anyone else - exactly as one is exhorted to 'keep mum' by one of the cast at the curtain call.

The single stage-setting  is the lounge of a secluded country guest-house (during a heavy snowstorm, would you believe?) where a motley collection of patrons arrive in ones. We learn at the outset that there has just been a murder in the vicinity at a seemingly unconnected location and the police have a vague description of a suspect. I shan't attempt to list the various guests without a programme in front of me as if I inadvertently miss one or my description of a particular person is wanting one may conclude that that individual is not the killer. Suffice to say that anyone who has read any of the authoress' murder mysteries will recognise the stock type of characters she's created here.

It's a 'wordy' play, despite there being a second murder, this time on-stage. I gather that at some performances in London a significant proportion of the audience nowadays consists of Japanese or other non-English-speaking tourists, who wouldn't have a clue as to what's going on - and are tempted to take photos during the performance despite strictures not to do so. No such distractions in the packed-out performance I attended.

I'd thought some of the acting might have been pretty ropey (no 'big' names in the cast). Some of it was indeed a bit mannered but I must say that on the whole it was surprisingly good. Of course one can also speak of the dated-ness of the dialogue, which does sound creaky at times, but that's like criticising the language of Priestley, G.B.S. or Wilde, even though we're all aware that Christie hardly rises to their standards. But if one accepts it as a product of its time, it passes muster.

Btw: In about 1990 I attended in London a one-person charity benefit by Sir Ian McKellan raising funds for AIDS research and care. He told the story about how he'd been accosted by a rude gentleman in the foyer of the theatre where 'The Mousetrap' was playing (Sir Ian may at the time have been raising funds for the same cause there). This person was about to enter the theatre proper when I.M. exacted his revenge. He called out to the guy "By the way, ....... did it!"
He apologised to the audience at the benefit for revealing the killer's identity but he thought that by now just about everybody knew in any case, though as this performance I went to proved, a lot of people even now still don't. 

I've bought and kept the programme for every single play, concert and opera I've attended in my entire life -  until now. The price of this one was a crippling £8 (about $14 Am.), a third of the price of the actual ticket! So, with great regret, no thanks.

I'm pleased I saw it. It wasn't an experience of memorable cherishment as far as theatrical events can be, but it was quite good fun - and is, after all, (justifiably or not), a landmark play in British theatre.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Film: 'BEGIN AGAIN'

This turned out to be a most satisfying watch. I probably wouldn't have bothered with it (the trailer wasn't particularly interesting) were it not that I recall how captivated I'd been by the same director's (John Carney) 'Once' of 2006. In fact there are a number of storyline features in common with the earlier picture, and if this one doesn't quite rise to the heights of the other it was a formidable hurdle to jump. But definitely pleasing, nevertheless.


Keira Knightly once again shows what a major acting talent she is, getting better at every appearance.
Here she's a singer/songwriter in New York, now performing her songs alone in noisy bars (courtesy of friend, James Corden) after her composing partner and boyfriend has found another female muse. She's heard on chance by slobby, drinking, dishevelled, separated Mark Ruffalo (his ex, Catherine Keener), recently self-ejected from the recording company where he works as executive. He recognises Knightly's talents and wants to publicise her by means of his contacts with his former firm. (Here Mr Rrrrrrrrruffalo is as an attractive piece of 'rough/ruff' as one is ever likely to see - though, speaking personally, I could well have done without that seemingly endless supply of stinky, black cigs he's always puffing on. Yuk!) He also has a 14-year old daughter with a knowing, rebellious attitude whom I also found oddly attractive. (No not in that way!)
There's a greater number of songs one might have expected, and which I did find surprisingly appealing for the most part. Miss Knightly has a very capable voice; though firmly in today's style it's one of those where I feel that a little more projection would have improved it. With a hastily convened supporting group consisting of keyboards, guitar, drums, violin and cello, some of the songs are performed and recorded alfresco at various city locations. (The setting for one of the climactic numbers reminded me of the Beatles' rooftop performance in 'Let It Be').

I was half-expecting that a romance would develop between the two leads, but all I'll say is that the main romantic focus remains between her and her former live-together, songwriter-partner, (Adam Levine, also fine) and it's not a dull one. Maybe the film's very end was ever-so slightly cheesy, but it wasn't detrimental to the whole. (Note: There's a gathering together over the final credits of some loose ends, which I very nearly missed.)
The script is a further 'plus' - consistently alert, sharp and, to me, un-guessable.

The rating I feel inclined to give makes me feel a little guilty that it would make it higher than some recent films I've seen which, on reflection, deserve a mark higher than I allowed at the time. But all my scores are very much 'snapshot' feelings of the moment which can change with time in either direction, which most of them do - and anyway life is just too short to keep on adjusting for evermore. So, as at now, 'Begin Again' gets a....................7. 

(For a very alternative review do visit Blobby's Blog @ 
http://www.blobbysblog.com/2014/07/do-it-again.html )



Thursday, 3 July 2014

Film: 'COLD IN JULY'

While watching this I was thinking what a good film it was, a thriller with real punch! Coming home while reflecting, and now the morning after, I'm a little bit more ambivalent (reasons upcoming) but it's still darned fine.

First of all, high marks for the storyline which veers off into unexpected by-ways, such that it's difficult to say a lot without giving too much away. Then there's the quality acting by all the main players, each being well-differentiated and played with real conviction and credibility.

It begins simply enough, though troubling, when an intruder is heard in the house of Michael C. Hall and his wife  - (plus infant son, wouldn't you guess!) His fumbling to load his gun and his nervousness in confronting the burglar reveal his practical inexperience with firearms. All that can safely be said is that much of what follows hinges on the true identity of the imposter, the attitude of the small town where it occurs, and the family being menaced because of it. This is only the start of a twisty road.

For much of the first hour of this Jim Mickle-directed film I was on the edge of my seat. The tension worked up from the outset is held exceedingly well, only slightly relaxing after this point, but  then gripping again as the conclusion approaches. 
It's set in 1989, and we are given evidence of the period in large mobile phones and the presence of videos, on which we see one especially appalling violent incident (only just cut away a split-second before it happens) which, I feel, has almost scarred my mind. 
The style of the film reminded me a lot of the 'glory days' of Sam Peckinpah - bullet-riddled, blood-drenched, and with the occasional obligatory slow-motion shots of violence. At the time (1960s and 70s) he was the only major director doing it and was accordingly criticised for giving physical violence a veneer of beauty, a quality which (they claimed), it doesn't intrinsically possess (which itself is debatable). Then everyone started emulating Peckinpah and blood and guts has become standard fare for a number of today's directors, Scorsese (at least in his films of old) and Tarantino being most prominent. However, in this film the excesses do seem to hark back particularly to those past days of no-holds barred, show-it-all-on-screen, blood-fests.

Sam Shepherd and Don Johnson do sterling service, the former as a most unappealing and scarily volatile ex-con, the latter as Texan lawman and pig-farmer, complete with gaudily embroidered shirts and high boots -  so red-neck, so camp!. Also notable is Michael C. Hall's shakiness with guns at the start transforming into assuredness as the film progresses.

I could have done without two too-appropriately timed thunderstorms to underline the action. Such uses have long since become so hackneyed, indeed ever since the invention of film sound, that I find them every bit as distracting as over-emphatic soundtrack music, of which there is also quite a bit here.

I ought to mention that I heard one reviewer say that the American (pro-gun) NRA would give this film their seal of approval. I think that's far too simplistic an interpretation. If anything, I think at heart it depicts, in a most direct way, the destructive mayhem that easy access to firearms can bring.   

Despite my reservations, I'd argue that this is a good, unusual film. My immediate feeling of satisfaction when it was over of having got my entertainment's worth led me to think that I'd be awarding it a lofty 7.5, but pondering afterwards on the feeling that it had all been a tad over-manipulative I feel bound to mark it down a notch or two. It's another one that requires warning for those of a sensitive nature, but if you feel you won't be put off by its graphic, visceral thrills I would urge you to go see......................6.5.



Monday, 30 June 2014

Film: 'CHEF'

From the trailer this looked to be passably entertaining - and so it turned out to be. Nothing more than that, but not less either.

There was one particular reason why I was reluctant to see it. I never watch any of the TV programmes concerning 'reality' cooking/competitions. Not because I wouldn't find them interesting, rather that I try to avoid the sight of meat or fish either being cooked or the finished product on a plate. In a restaurant with companions it's a mental hurdle to block out what others are having, which can be just a few inches from my face, though I've never mentioned it - at least until now, here. Luckily(?), restaurant visits these days are far less frequent than at one time. In the last twenty years, perhaps twice or thrice.

So, braving it with gritted teeth, I thought that, nevertheless, the film looked like it could be fun. In the event there was only one on-screen incident that was particularly difficult to watch, and it comes in the very opening few minutes - an entire pig's carcase being decapitated - though it's not shown with any protracted, grisly relish.

Jon Favreau takes both Director's helm and main role. (He directed the first two Iron Man films - as well as having minor parts in each).
He is senior chef at Dustin Hoffman's (just three brief appearances) L.A. restaurant (public face - Scarlett Johannson, with black hair) when he clashes with his boss on the menu after getting a stinking review from an influential restaurant critic (Oliver Platt), which goes viral on Twitter. He wants to change the menu but Hoffman insists on sticking to the tried and tested reliables. Result - Favreau leaves.
Visiting Miami with his ex (Sofia Vergara) and their 10-year old son, she suggests he turns to cooking and selling Cuban specialities. With a filthy and rickety mobile kitchen supplied by his ex's ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr in just a single scene) and with the help of his former, earthy-humoured assistant chef (John Leguizamo, whom I don't think I've seen since 'Moulin Rouge' of 2001), who has also left his newly-promoted sous-chef position at the restaurant, they get themselves set up, son assisting in major way, and are out on the road, their food products being a huge success immediately with money being raked in.

That's it, really. A film of two halves, the first in the restaurant, the second in the mobile kitchen - both halves equally entertaining without being anything extra-special. I did find much of the food, while being prepared and cooked, and in finished form, looked ravishingly tempting. I don't think mine was the only stomach that was rumbling.

It's an over-long film (nearly two hours), too lengthy for such a slight, though unusual, story, but it did hold my attention for most of the time. Passes the time satisfactorily (just).......................5.5   


Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Film: 'JERSEY BOYS'

My expectations were not high for this film, but I'm happy to report that I liked it.

I'd heard that director Clint Eastwood's evident greater interest in the back story (of the Four Seasons, with lead vocalist Frankie Valli) than in the songs which feature along the way, would tip the film in the wrong direction; after all, most people who pay to go to the stage show (not seen by self) would be looking forward  to seeing the songs performed - and the same goes for the film.
I was therefore apprehensively thinking that the songs might be presented rather mechanically in hum-drum fashion. In the event they carried me along with ease and got my adrenalin pumping gleefully.

John Lloyd Young plays the diminutive leading role with considerable appeal. The tale follows Valli from pre-fame criminally-involved days in New Jersey when he was a naive youngster drawn into a world he didn't seem to naturally inhabit; then the discovery of his extraordinary falsetto voice, one of the first to recognise it being avuncular figure Christopher Walken with connections to, and influence with, 'the mob'; the forming of the singing foursome and their being publicised by their theatrically gay record producer (Mike Doyle).
Valli's marriage (three daughters) predictably hits the rocks through his long absences from home and his philandering. There's in-fighting within the group which includes the brain creating the songs, Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and fallings-out. One can  guess the story even though it's based on fact. It's really par for the course for nearly all rock groups, though in the 1960s no one suspected this was going on. I have to say that until seeing this film I knew nothing at all about the Four Seasons other than their hits (about a dozen Top 20 records in the U.K., including one Number 1 in 'Oh What a Night')

There's quite a bit of talking to camera by various characters - I can just imagine on stage that at that point he is highlighted by a spotlight while the rest of the stage is darkened, or (please not!) the characters 'freeze' till his address to the audience is complete. 
There are one or two very fleeting homophobic slurs, though if there'd been none at all it would have stretched credibility for the period in which this is set.
I wonder how many of the audience recognised a milli-second's appearance of Eastwood himself on a b/w TV as Rowdy Yates in the western series 'Rawhide' (of which I was an avid fan), just before he made it big in cinema with the excellent 'The Man With No Name' trilogy.
I thought Eastwood's direction was rather better than just efficient, finding the film absorbing throughout. It's maybe a bit more dramatic than one might expect in a 'frothy' musical but not to its detriment. I did, however,  regret that a few of the songs weren't performed in full or were largely talked over. I should imagine that this doesn't happen in the stage show as, I think I'm right in saying, it's become one of those musicals where the audience gets to its feet for the songs and joins in - which, if so, would be the sole reason for my not wanting to see it in a theatre - an infuriating and spoiling distraction. However, other songs are given their full head - and when they're done straight like that they really are marvellous.

I'm old enough to remember the first time I heard the first of the Four Seasons' British hits on its release ('Sherry' in 1962) and I recall thinking then "What a strange sound!". However, becoming familiar with Valli's soaring vocals, I quickly got to like their records a lot. This film does, I think, Valli and the group justice...............6.5

Monday, 23 June 2014

Film: 'LA VENUS A LA FOURRURE' / ''VENUS IN FUR'

Based on successful play by American David Ives I found this two-person French language film shot on an actual theatre stage (as demanded), a plodding affair.  Roman Polanski has an exceptional filmography that few can equal let alone surpass, so this turned out to be double the disappointment, more especially since I still recall with affection and pleasure his recent 2011 'Carnage', also based on a stage play (though which some have disliked but I still find the funniest film that I've seen in latter years).

The ever-watchable Mathieu Amalric is here the director of a play he has adapted from a late 19th century work of Sacher-Masoch (that same, of course, from whom the word 'masochism' is derived). As the film starts he has finished auditioning, unsuccessfully, too many hopefuls for the single female part and is just packing his things to go home for the night when, who should brusquely appear but gum-chewing, pushy, Emanuelle Seigner (a.k.a Mrs Polanski), all dishevelled from the obligatory thunderstorm raging, and absolutely determined to audition for the part despite his weariness and lack of enthusiasm to see yet another likely failure. He reluctantly gives in to her rude insistence and, once she starts at the beginning of the play - who would have guessed it? - she's all sophistication, elegance, poise, gently-spoken and demure. Not only that, but apart from the briefest of glances at the script, she's absolutely word-perfect. (Goodness me! There must be a real talent at work here!)
He himself reads/plays the single male role with her even though he says he's a director rather than an actor, but he gradually gets drawn into the character he's playing.
The two of them keep jumping in and out of the script, she at some points criticising his play as being untrue to the female character, and telling him off for his flat reading of his own lines. They argue. Then each time they carry on as though nothing happened. And so it continues - until the S/M element starts to take prominence. However, remember that the play being read is set 150 years ago so there's nothing too graphic to be seen other than she in her dominatrix skimpies.
After things start to heat up between the players there's the question of exactly who is dominating whom, but for me it was clear within the first few minutes what path this film would take. Anyone who remembers Polanski's much better 1976 film, 'The Tenant' will know too.

At least twice I found myself falling asleep, even though it's only slightly over an hour and a half long. I just wasn't that interested in either of them. However, I did hold out to the end although the totally unsurprising 'twist' in the final minutes didn't exactly set the film alight.

In my books a failure though, damning by faint praise, it's not the worst I've seen this year..........................3/10