Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Still here!

Lest my silence for some time has been wondered at, let it be known that I'm here, albeit suffering with particularly nasty, heavy cold. Happens once every few years, though this one has debilitated me to the extent that I'm retiring to bed half a dozen times a day or more, trying to sleep it off, without success.
Colds are much less frequent for me than with many. Doctor says it's because, living such an isolated life, I don't give the bugs a chance to take hold - except for rare times like this. Anyway, I keep feeling that it's improving then ten minutes later feel I've hit rock bottom again. No stamina, no concentration....you know the feeling. (Ah -choo!)

Only film I've missed so far that I'd planned on seeing was the Jennifer Aniston 'Cake', but of which reviews have not been particularly enthusiastic.

My only observations on the Oscars were  - (i) How did 'Boyhood' manage to lose out as Best Pictire to 'Birdman', of all films? and (ii) Pity again that Steve Carrell wasn't recognised for his role in 'Foxhunter', though being nominated as 'Best Actor' it would, of course, have pushed aside our very deserving Eddie.

Don't have much energy left to depress more keys, so a spluttery cheerio for now.........(ah...ah..... ah........... AH.......AAAAAAHHHH..............

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Film: 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

So, was it really as dire as some have said? Quite possibly, but with a few, very few, redeeming features.

Cards on the table - I have read the book. Last year. Readable enough, but no great shakes.

First of all, the film stands or falls on the credibility of the relationship between Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) and multi-billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). I think that she just about passes muster for believability in the role of a callow, slightly gauche, young woman unexpectedly swept off her feet by Mr Dominator in Seattle, whose immense wealth can't buy him love. I'm afraid that he did not convince me. Statuesque looks, maybe, but even if I didn't find him especially attractive there was barely any glimmer of sexual tension between the two of them that I could detect, though its existence was the whole point of their relationship - he doing the giving, she not only taking but begging for it.

I tried early on to try to dispel the memory of E.L.James' novel and to try to see the film on its own terms, but that was a big ask. For most of the book the Christian character remains something of an unfathomable cipher. Caught up in his emotions yet one has the feeling that a cold, detached intellect is always in resolute control. Here, by putting flesh on the concept of such a man, one sees straight away that he's subject to inner vulnerabilities, so one is always waiting for it all to come crashing down, whereas in the book I was wondering who would take the initiative to end it, if it did come to an end. (There are sequels to the original novel, which I shan't be bothering with - still less so seeing any further films that might come out of them).

And then there are the several S/M scenes- relatively tame by proper S/M standards, unrealistically clinical and as perfectly choreographed as one could wish - if one isn't aware of where to look for the genuine stuff on the internet (or participated in oneself? My own lips are sealed - though they may not have been at the time!) But those scenes were not the sine qua non of this film, although one suspects that many will be wishing that they were. But a major gripe for me, and this being one of my major detestations in any film, is why oh why, whenever two people make love/have sex/whatever, do we have to hear a supposedly smoochy-sounding pop song on the soundtrack? I just cannot flaming abide it! And here it happens not just once but several times! I wanted to retch, and came darned near to doing so. If I hadn't paid for my ticket I would definitely have walked out on its first happening, but I sat in my seat, silently fuming.

The film follows the book quite closely. Some say that it's better than the book. I don't know. Can't really get worked up about either of them.

My oft feeling of tedium was only interrupted on a few instances by the brief appearances of Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden as her mother and his step-mother respectively, which lifted my flagging interest sporadically.

Director is Sam Taylor-Wood who made the rather good 'Nowhere Boy' of 2009, the story of the early life of John Lennon. In this film, Dornan's presence aside (whom some may find more acceptable in the role than I did) I can't complain about Ms Taylor-Woods' accomplishment here. Given the material, I think  that on balance she's made a fair enough transfer to the screen.

I'm glad I've seen 'Fifty Shades', if only to have gotten it out of the way. If I hadn't read the book I might not have bothered. So has all the hoo-hah been justified? While declaring a bias in accepting that I'm not such a great admirer of the novel, I'd nevertheless say that it hasn't been............................3/10.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Film: 'Love is Strange'

Attractive, modestly-pitched feature, coming in at a sensible and digestible hour and a half.

Alfred Molina (retaining his English accent) and John Lithgow play a New York couple who have been living together for 39 years and, at the start of the film, take the opportunity to get married. Their relationship is an issue only once in the whole film. Just after the wedding, Molina, a music teacher at a Catholic school, is told by the priest-headmaster that his wedding pictures have been seen on Facebook and that, since he signed an agreement to abide by the teaching of 'The Holy Mother Church' (Hallelujah!), notwithstanding that he was known by the school to be gay and in a long-term relationship, he must now, perforce, be dismissed. That is the only time that their relationship is 'challenged'. Of course his dismissal has consequences, mainly that the pair's income is vastly reduced and for that reason they must leave their apartment, temporarily living with, for Molina, a gay policemen couple (bearded Manny Perez, hot! - though with too little to do) and Lithgow ('Uncle Ben') with his nephew and his wife (Darren Burrows & Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son, the latter quickly becoming resentful of Lithgow's presence in having to share his bedroom and crowding his space.

There are no scenes of big-scale histrionics, certainly not in the Molina-Lithgow pairing, the only true disagreements are between the youth and his parents. In days past we might have expected a gay relationship (which would have been implied rather than explicitly shown), to have been littered with bitchy tiffs, maybe fighting, even with hard violence, as if to show to the world what sort of people they (we) really are like. No such thing here. It's a faithful, unspectacular coupling. In fact the film's title is misleading, the only 'strange' thing about it being, nowadays, the relative rarity of such longevity in the two mens love for each other.

When the film is well-advanced there is a sudden lurch forward in time which may make some of the audience feel they've been cheated. It did give me a bit of a start but it did also underline the 'normality' of the couple's life together.

Two slight criticisms. The soundtrack is entirely Chopin (solo piano, naturally) which at times was played, or at least relayed on the soundtrack, far too loud, occasionally obscuring the dialogue.
Then, in just one but fairly extended scene, there's young, good-looking English actor, Christian Coulson whose acting I found so mannered as to be a distraction. Others may disagree, though as he was only on screen for a little while it wasn't a serious point.

I see this film has been given an 'R' certificate in America. One can only wonder why - and despair! Do those who decided on it, are they the same people who are nervous that younger people seeing two grown men kissing each other (which is not overdone), and hugging, touching hands etc - nothing more racy than that - is it going to turn them gay? Oh horror! I should have imagined we would all have been past that kind of thinking by now, but apparently there are still such people in the film industry and they still wield power!
In the U.K. it gets a '15' certificate because of the occasional 'strong language ', though thinking back, I can't recall a single incidence of that, though I concede that there must have been.

I'd be interested to know what the Catholic Church's position on this film is. They must, surely, be satisfied that their teaching is so accurately portrayed, but I'd guess they might be less happy that the gay couple are depicted as being so, well, 'normal' - not exactly the notion that I think they'd like to be conveyed.

'Love is strange' is a good film (Director and co-writer: Ira Sachs). Small-scale certainly, but none the worse for that. I recommend it with a solid ....................7.

Film: 'Ex Machina'

This is the first film of 2015 to really blow me away - and it was such a surprise when I had no inkling that it would turn out to be so. On the subject of humanoid robotics, I'd expected this might be something on the lines of Spielberg's 'A.I.', which had failed to impress me as much as some of its admirers. Both films also play with the notion of artificial intelligence as manifested by a human replicant being so close to that of the human mind that if there's any difference at all, can it be detected?
In the event I found this 'Ex Machina' an altogether more accomplished and interesting film and, astonishingly, it's the directorial debut of novelist Alex Garland, also this film's writer. What a terrific start he's made!

A variation on the 'Frankenstein' theme, Domhnall Gleason ('Calvary' & 'Frank', both 2014) plays computer worker, Caleb, who unexpectedly finds himself winning a place to spend some time at a secluded mountain retreat in America of the creator of a robot, who wishes him to interact with this 'creature' to see if he can detect any differences in intellect from a real person. The 'creation' is able to use logic, make enquiries of the visitor, emote, all the mental functions one would expect if it had been human, its only observable giveaway as to its true nature being that its physical body has transparent 'skin' in places - abdomen, neck, brain, parts of limbs - which allow one to see its inner computer workings. It's difficult to say much more without revealing how the story develops, a story which, after the first few minutes, becomes so loaded with tension that it gets to be almost palpable as the underlying intentions of Nathan, the 'creator', in his use of Caleb become questionable. It's virtually a four-actor piece, the final member of the quartet being Nathan's put-upon, brusquely-treated and silent female servant.  

The robot, 'Ava', is Alicia Vikander, whom I only very recently saw as the lead in 'Testament of Youth', while Nathan is (yet again, and very pleasingly) Oscar Isaac, someone of whose name I'd barely heard a year ago and who is rapidly becoming one of my very favourite actors. No matter what part he plays - and in the four films I've seen him in up to now, they are all very different roles - he displays such on-screen authority, range and consummate skill that I'm already running out of words to express my admiration. I look forward to seeing him sometime as romantic lead.
This role of his caps them all up to now, so much so that for some reason I hadn't realised that he was going to be in this film, and even when he appeared I hadn't realised it was him for a good part of the film. (As is frequently the case nowadays, there are no opening credits or title at all). He wears a thick beard, as he did for 'Inside Llewyn Davies', only this time even bushier, and as magnificently woofy as hell. In fact my immediate reaction on seeing him was that he could just as easily have stepped straight out of that most interesting blog of 'Fearsome Beard'

My only real complaint is that regular one of inaudibility, when 'Ava' speaks in such a soft, gentle voice that, especially during her early exchanges with Caleb, were it not that we see her lips moving and hear his replies, I wouldn't have been aware that she'd said anything at all. No such problems with the two males. 

I never knew which direction the film would take and its conclusion I did not foresee. It's a remarkable work and though it hasn't been universally given the praise which I am happy to accord it, I have to own that it pleased me personally no end.

As for Alex Garland, I thought the Danny Boyle film (with Leo DiCaprio in 2000) based on his book, 'The Beach' was good, as was the novel, though I'd rather read the book again than re-see the film. After that I read 'The Tesseract' twice, but just couldn't get a handle on it, so gave up on Garland - prematurely and mistakenly it seems. This film rekindles my interest in him in a big way.

It goes without saying that not everyone will share my intense liking for 'Ex Machina', but if you think it might be your 'bag' then I do urge you to go further and give it a try. It's my cinematic 'event' of this year so far..............8.5.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Film: 'Selma'

Powerful film depicting a few months in 1965 in the struggle enacted in American South, led by Martin Luther King, to secure parity of enfranchisement of negroes with whites.
Unremittingly serious, often bleak, sometimes anger-provoking and tear-producing (apart from final jubilatory moments of the campaign's vindication) the film follows the historical tussle between a beleaguered President Johnson, a resolute King who would not water down his demands, and with Governor Wallace of Alabama, stubbornly refusing to accept defeat.

I strongly recall these three characters who regularly appeared on our news bulletins of the time - perhaps not so frequently with the last of these, though we did still hear quite a lot from him. But therein lies some of the film's weakness for me in that I found the patent lack of facial resemblance of Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth to the actual Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace respectively, an almost non-stop distraction. Even the formidable David Oyelowo as King only bears a passing resemblance to whom he was playing. (In one brief scene we also see a J.Edgar Hoover who similarly looked utterly unlike the person I remember, as is plain from photos and film footage of the time.) I'm sure that younger members of the audience, not around or aware of the politics of the time, would not be nearly as troubled on this point as I was.

However, that aside, King's speeches were certainly stirring and powerfully delivered by Oyelowo, despite King's original words having to be paraphrased because it wasn't possible to obtain permission to use them , they having been legally allowed to be used only by Steven Spielberg's company in a film of the subject which never materialised. But it didn't really matter a great deal as the essence was the same and they were profoundly effective.

The savagery with which demonstrations are put down and the brutality of the confrontation by state troopers of the 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery are believably and horrifically re-enacted. It would take someone of inhuman emotional detachment not to be profoundly moved by the events. (I actually found myself shaking at one point).

We see Oprah Winfrey (she also being one of the film's producers), several times as Annie Lee Cooper, one of the film's key female demonstrators, though she doesn't have that much to do apart from appearing now and again. The acts of the campaign are virtually entirely male-decided. There's also Cuba Gooding Jnr in two shortish scenes, as well as the increasingly seen Alessandro Nivola, here in a role of still less screen time.

The director is one Ava DuVernay whose first cinema feature this appears to be. She ought to be satisfied with the final product as it achieves what it set out to do.
However, it being such a sombre subject, there was little sense of any light and shade which, admittedly, might not have been appropriate. The film was useful for me in that it 'joined the dots' of events with which I was only sketchily familiar because of the passage of time, though I do remember well the main protagonists of the drama.

It's an accomplished film but I did find it slightly over-bearing in its earnestness. I think those who are ignorant of the events and are prepared to learn some recent history will take away from it rather more than I was able......................6.5.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Film: 'A Most Violent Year'

Good crime drama - quite original in plot, always interesting, several times pulse-quickening, all dominated by the pivotal role of Oscar Isaac, who moves on the screen with effortless authority, despite his manifesting of recurring vulnerability and puzzlement (and sporting a camel-hair overcoat to die for!). He's extremely ably assisted by Jessica Chastain as his independent-minded, self-willed, but generally supportive, wife (the fragility of their relationship keeps surfacing). Also by British actor David Oyelowo (currently appearing as Martin Luther King in 'Selma') as senior police officer in several scenes, more interested in nabbing tax dodgers than investigating violent crime. Unfortunately, Oyelowo doesn't have a great range of varied notes to play in this particular role. Additionally, in just a few minutes of screen-time, is the eye-catching Alessandro Nivola. 

It's New York, 1981 when Isaac's oil company finds that his road tankers are being mysteriously hijacked, later being found emptied of their loads. His losses accumulate to considerable proportions till there's a threat that if he doesn't find money to tide him over his business will have to fold. He has no idea who is doing this to him, there being any number of suspects, all parading as being his friends. To add to his worries, the police suspect his past transactions have fallen foul of tax declaration probity.
A number of chases ensue, a few shocks, some bloody violence, but the film never loses its thread. There is one glaringly unlikely revelation towards the final section but the pitch by then was so tensed up that I was able not to dwell on it.

The film's title refers not to the particular situations as presented here but to the year of 1981 being a particularly crime-violent one in New York generally.

Director and writer J.C.Chandor ('Margin Call' 2011) keeps it all buzzing along effectively.

I enjoyed it.......................7.5.

Reflections on yesterday's British Film Awards (BAFTAs)

There are only two evenings annually when I purposely stay up beyond about 9.30 p.m. One is for the 'Eurovision Song Contest', the other - well, here are a few apercus on last night's BAFTA awards:-

Nothing to violently disagree with, really, though I suppose the single thing that rankled a bit was Steve Carrell not being recognised as 'Best Supporting Actor' for his astonishing turn in 'Foxcatcher' - mesmerisingly creepy and totally outside what we'd thought had been his 'comfort zone' - showing of what a wide range he's capable. Not that I thought J.K.Simmons didn't deserve it for his scary-bully tyrant of a music tutor. He too was amazing. It was just a pity that there couldn't have been two awards for this category. If I'd had to choose between the two of them I'd have given it to Carrell.

'Still Alice' hasn't opened here yet, though I was pleased to see Julianne Moore, one of my very favourite screen stars in the entire world, picking up the award as 'Best Actress' (in revealing, cleavage-exposing red dress). She's never given a poor performance, always totally committed and believable, and there's no reason to think why she isn't so in this latest film too.

I can't argue with 'Boyhood' getting 'Best Picture'. It was, after all, top of my 2014 list. Fairly satisfied with Richard Linklater getting 'Best Director', having taken such a risk in creating a product which took twelve years to make, and at the end of that period, producing such an exceptionally fine work out of what might have been thought unpromising material.
Patricia Arquette picking up 'Best Supporting Actress' was fair enough. I think the only serious competition she had was in Rene Russo ('Nightcrawler') and Emma Stone ('Birdman')

Eddie Redmayne had to be the right choice for 'Best Actor', though I did fear that Michael Keaton might actually pip him to it, which would not have been such a earth-shattering travesty. However, Redmayne's portrayal of Stephen Hawking was beyond uncanny.
Bit surprised that 'The Theory of Everything' picked up so many awards in total and that 'The Imitation Game' won none at all. I thought the latter was the better film. Even though we knew the destination each of them would end up at - the first being the predictable, though tragic and harrowing, decline in physical capabilities of the subject, while 'Imitation' followed a much more sinuous and interesting path.

And all those awards for 'Grand Budapest Hotel'? Well it was, admittedly, ravishing to look at and has some clever and witty lines, but I found the whole experience bordering on the vacuous.

Great to have seen Mike Leigh being recognised with a BAFTA Fellowship award which, if you ask me, is long overdue. The close of his overlong acceptance speech was well worth waiting for.

And whose idea was it to have the show opened by group 'Kasabian' with their song 'Stevie'? I didn't think they were anywhere near distinctive enough, nor special, nor even appropriate enough, to occupy this most coveted of spots .

Eyebrows have been raised that the film 'Selma' wasn't nominated for anything at all. Even if it wasn't to win anything it's difficult to credit its being totally ignored in all categories. At the very least one would have thought that David Oyelowo would have been nominated for 'Best Actor'. A nod as a nominee would have been expected for this most notable of film roles - it has 'award' written all over it - and his name not being put forward seems to imply that there was something unsatisfactory with his acting, which, from what I gather, is absolutely not the case - quite the reverse, in fact. Very curious. (I hope to be seeing the film myself  later this week). (Since writing this para I've read that 'Selma's' exclusion from nominations was because it was released too late to qualify this year. It was released in this country only last week. However, 'Still Alice' still hasn't been released here at all, yet was included - and won an award  for Julianne Moore! So does inclusion for a British award nomination have to be dependent on American release dates? Search me! But in any case I see that I've got to eat my words and apologise, which I now do.)

In the section where we are reminded of those who have died over the last year there was a conspicuous omission that I noticed while it was going on - Bob Hoskins, who died last April. I hear that it was an inadvertent error, his intended mention being lost in the evening's planning. Still, it was an unfortunate slight to a readily recognisable British actor of multiple film appearances.

Stephen Fry, on his tenth appearance as 'emcee ' held it all together with panache and some comments which were well off the 'risque' scale, but it all seemed to work well.  Just 3 weeks married, he's been the subject of much tut-tutting from our tabloid press for now having a husband who is 30 years his junior - naturally, those being the very same newspapers which opposed equal marriage.
Many flirtatious comments from Fry, and two full-on kisses from Cuba Gooding Jnr (amongst others of both sexes) - and you couldn't help but applaud his downright cheeky introduction of the final guest award presenter - "It's Tom Fucking Cruise!"

Gotta go now -  to see a film!