Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Film: 'Ocean's 8'

The selling point of this is clearly the 'celebrity' female cast in all the major roles - and there's nothing at all wrong with that. In fact it's more than welcome, being so overdue. The names, big names, which I recognised without having to investigate further were Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena you-know-who and Rihanna. In addition James Corden makes an appearance in the film's final segment, an appearance which some have found grating but, surprising even myself, I thought was one of the film's more laudable features. However, after considering the star-bestrewn cast the qualifications start.

The plot concerns a super-valuable diamond heist during a gala dinner at New York's Metropolitan Museum, planned by the Sandra Bullock character while spending years in prison (don't ask!) she playing sister to her late brother, Danny Ocean - who'd been acted by George Clooney in the franchise trilogy of films. This Ocean family idea is obviously a ruse on which to hang the plot and draw more money for this film at the box office, and it probably will do exactly that. Other than that connection it could have worked just as well, perhaps still better, if they'd ditched the idea of a connection at all and just run with an all-female gang.

The film tries to borrow the slickness and zaniness of the earlier Ocean films and to some extent it succeeds but by now it's already started to look a bit tired and dated. The script itself, where every other rejoinder is intended to be witty, is no great shakes. The film throughout has an arch knowingness as though thinking itself ever so clever that it often nudged towards tedium. More than once I was reminded of bank robbery thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s with their now outdated explanations of the plot so we can follow it, though in this case we are expected to keep up with the rapid twists and turns which are finally laid bare in the post-heist exposures - where not everyone is what they seemed to be, you know the kind of thing - which, I surmise, was supposed to take our breaths away but for me got just a bit too close to unbelievable silliness.

The meatiest of the roles goes to Sandra Bullock who carries it off well - getting a chance to show off her first language, German - as does Blanchett. These two as well as Hathaway and Helena you-know-who have considerably more than mere bit parts.
Direction by Gary Ross (the first 'Hunger Games' film) who also wrote this story and was co-screenplay writer, is okay with nothing especially memorable enough to make the film stand out in ones mind.
As for 'fun' in the execution of the heist, there was a bit of that, though not as much as, say, in the re-make of 'The Thomas Crown Affair' (1999) with Pierce Brosnan. Here I missed any significant build up of tension, the mechanics of the actual crime seeming more clockwork-y, which strained credulity with so little going wrong.

Incidentally, at the matinee screening I attended, out of an audience of perhaps fifty or so, I noticed only about half a dozen men. I wonder if this is indicative of there being a turn-off for those male audience members who demand to see a bit more testosterone on screen, If so, more fool them. On that level there was no lessening at all in the acting and depiction of the action scenes - though in this film there are, unusually, no chases at all.  

It's a passable film. As it allies itself to the Ocean's franchise, which may or may not have been a wise move, it's not really worse than any of those earlier three films. On the other hand, apart from the novelty of it having such a high quotient of female presences, it's definitely not better than any of them either....................5.5.

(IMDb............6.3 / Rotten Tomatoes...........6.2)

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Film: 'McQueen'

Not knowing much about, nor even caring about, the world of women's, or any other, fashion, the name of (Lee) Alexander McQueen had been a feeble bleep on my radar of awareness - at least until his suicide in 2010 at the tragically young age of 40 (and on the eve of his own mother's funeral whom he'd adored). So this documentary was destined to be an education for me as much as anything else. 

Lots of footage of talk by members of his immediate and extended family, his former relationships, professionals he'd worked with and fashion celebrities who'd known him - all intercut with film of many of his catwalk fashion shows.
I knew about his reputation for the outrageous, and his creations shown here don't disappoint in that aspect - though I have to say that I just don't 'get' him, thus my being nonplussed by all the fuss over them.  
The catwalk exhibitions are less advertisements of what one might want to wear than a series of tableaux, usually modelled in singles, sometimes in groups. 
It may be obvious, but I have to assume that none of his costumes are seriously designed to be worn. Even if someone wishes to create a sensation in, say, a nightclub, it's a very transitory thing - once seen one doesn't especially long to see it again, and the person sporting such uncomfortable costume must be hoping that they don't again bump into someone who's already viewed it. I'd have thought that once worn it may as well be binned - often the material used is very basic anyway. 

McQueen's determination to succeed at what he liked to do manifested at an early age in London (to his father's displeasure) and he could be rude in his convictions and single-mindedness - as well as giving rise to worries over his dabbling in drugs, specifically cocaine. 
His suicide (by hanging) was hinted at before the event, though not when and how - and when it did come it was a shock that reverberated through the fashion world. 

You may accurately guess that I just don't appreciate this wunderkind of the fashion world. A genius? I must give way to more knowledgeable opinions than mine while I put my own view in suspension. Reviews I've seen, and ratings I quote below, tell me that I'm out on a limb on this one, though that's hardly anything new. 
But it's by no means a dull film. McQueen's boyish charm and exuberance comes over time and time again, though as for anyone who crossed swords with him, it's easy to see who would come out on top. And whatever one thinks of McQueen, one has to conclude that his premature demise was a very sad and needless waste......6.
( Imdb.........9 / Rotten Tomatoes.........8 )

Monday, 11 June 2018

Film: 'Edie'

Were it not for my having depressed expectations for this, I may well have found it less satisfying than I actually did.

Sheila Hancock, a regular on British TV in years past plus a few films, and still appearing in theatre and on radio (and, incidentally, widow of the late John Thaw, best known, perhaps, for being 'Inspector Morse'), plays an 83-year old who, when clearing out old stuff following the death of her husband, comes across an old postcard sent from Scotland featuring a picture of the imposing Mount Suilvan on the far north of the Scottish mainland. She determines to travel up all the way from London and to climb it - alone.

Most of the film is set in the unspoilt, breathtaking, rocky and heathen grandeur of this area - and for me this aspect carries the film. There aren't that many films made in this location and it's here used in glorious fashion. The unusually shaped 'mountain' is, in fact, less than 2,500 feet high though its steep sides make it a genuine climbing challenge - more arduous, especially for someone of Hancock's age, than perilous.

Edie (Hancock), on her arrival by train at Inverness, immediately meets by accident a young man (Kevin Guthrie), about one third of her age, and it's agreed that he will offer his paid services as driver, climbing expert and companion (up to a point). You can easily guess that their relationship will go through the usual stages - cordial, argumentative, some lighter moments, some cool, some accidents - you know, the oft-employed formula. 

Director Simon Hunter keep things moving with no great surprises, though it always remains watchable.
It hardly needs saying that the film is essentially a vehicle for Sheila Hancock (whom I've seen live on stage a couple of times), who here does all her own film work - no body-double employed for the climbing scenes, and she fills the role with all the satisfaction one would expect from such a veteran as herself.

As I say above, it really is the Scottish scenery which carries the film. More than once it simply took my breath away, and the images get better and better as the film progresses. It's one of those films that demands to be seen given big screen treatment. 
Without these spectacular visuals I don't think I may have been so pleased with it. But as it turned out....................6.
(IMDb.............6.4 / Rotten Tomatoes.............5.8)

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Film: 'Book Club'

Well, at least I gave it a chance!
My interest in this had been hovering between near-moderate and minimal anyway, but in the course of its hour and three-quarters it was seriously flagging several times. 
The novelty that carries it is, of course, the chance of seeing four, now veteran, actresses, on screen together in ensemble - Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen. The pretext is their having organised a book club just amongst themselves, and the chosen reading for the purposes of this film is E.L.James' 2011 novel 'Fifty Shades of Grey' - a book apparently so erotic (pah!) that it'll spice up the lives of these four ladies and get them panting for sex in next to no time. No matter if there's no man in their lives at present, they'll want to search one out and bed him. Anyone who reads extensively and has read this 'oeuvre' of Ms James will be as aghast as I was that it could in any way be considered as the catalyst that gets anyone rooting for sexual fulfilment more than any other book available. Anyway, one has to accept it as a conceit on which this film depends - that book getting little more than a very few mentions anyway.

The men involved are Andy Garcia, Craig T. Nelson and Ed Begley Jr, with cameo appearances from Richard Dreyfuss and a disappointingly short one from Wallace Shawn, whose rare on-screen appearances are all exceedingly welcome for me.

We see the women together discussing their respective situations, Candice Bergen being the one most actively searching for a date, whilst the others have either just met a man or is already 'involved' (in a sense, in one case).

It's a gentle 'comedy' (I use the word advisedly), intending to be personable and fluffy - and it just about qualifies as both of these - yet I know I'm going to find it supremely forgettable.
There are moments which are supposed to be ones of high hilarity, and some of the audience I was with thought they were, but I was, for the most part, left unmoved. Even the Viagra episode, which some members of the audience thought was the funniest thing ever put on screen, raised no more than the merest ghost of a smile with me.

It seems to be director (and co-writer) Bill Holderman's first feature-length film. So he's cut his teeth on this one. Let's see what else he can do.

I'd say that this is a film to watch only if you've got nothing better on, though I'm aware that there are some who'd rate it considerably higher than that. It's surely pleasant enough, though only just, but I'd find it hard to think that it would set most people's interest alight, which is also what most of the reviews I've seen opine........4.

(IMDb........6.3 / Rotten Tomatoes.........5.2)

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Film: '2001 - A Space Odyssey'

I don't usually write about 'old' films, but there's nothing 'usual' about my single all-time favourite, now re-released to selected cinemas marking 50 years since its initial appearance, now in a pristine new print, cleaned up both visually (with colour restored) and sonically, to provide those of us who retain a unique awe for it offering a repeat of a truly glorious, cinematic experience. 
Don't waste your time writing about how it's one long yawn or series of yawns, enigmatic to the point of being unfathomable - or even 'daft'! I've heard it all before and people are entitled to their opinion, as am I. Nor will I attempt to explain it (including the mysterious, travelling plinth and the 'Star Child'). If the director himself and the writer of the original story didn't know then how can I? 

I dare say that just about everybody has seen it in one form or another so I'll say very little about the content. I must have viewed it at least fifteen times in various cinemas (still not the film with my most cinema viewings!), the last time being some 30 years ago in Munich on what turned out to be a smallish screen in a multiplex and, even worse, dubbed into German - even the computer HAL's singing of 'Daisy, Daisy' was substituted with a German nursery song! So, despite my having videos of it - though of course all videos are very much inferior to seeing a film in the medium for which it was created - I needed something to reassure me that my former thoughts and evaluation of the film remain unchanged. And I can now repeat with assurance that it remains my absolute favourite film of all.

My first encounter was in February 1969 when I saw it on a cinerama screen - the long arc-wide screen, about a third of a circle or just a little less - a format which was to become defunct in the 1970s. This was when film was shot on a single, extra-wide lensed camera rather than the earlier method of using three cameras simultaneously with the films then melded together (when one could sometimes 'see the joins'!). This was one of the final films shot in cinerama format, the only remaining major ones being 'Ice Station Zebra' (also 1968)  and 'Krakatoa: East of Java' (1969).
I was living in Middlesbrough at the time, the nearest cinerama screen (one of less than a dozen in the country) being 42 miles away in Newcastle upon Tyne. But I didn't wish to miss the chance so took the train up even though I knew the film would come to my local cinema in 70mm format. It was well worth the effort and expense - and remains my sole experience of cinerama. 

This showing today was one of just four screenings in the area - at the same large screen Brighton cinema I mentioned recently when I was one of a tiny handful of spectators in a 274-seat auditorium. I was afraid that this time I might have a similar experience. Thankfully not. The cinema must have been 90% full, and at a midday matinee too, though it being a weekend helped, no doubt. The audience was attentive and despite, I guess, nearly all of them having seen the film before in some way or other, perhaps this was the first time most of them were seeing it in a cinema. In the soundless space sequences you could have heard a pin drop, with no whisperings or extraneous noises, the entire audience being every bit as rapt as I was. And at the conclusion there was general applause - so I reckon that many of them were as huge fans of the film as I am.  

I've mentioned in previous blogs that I've had a lifetime passion for Astronomy and one of the positives of this film is that 50 years after it first appeared it's by far still the most accurate portrayal of space travel than any film since, amazing - and frustrating - as that is. It's primarily due to the influence and direct involvement of that science genius, Arthur C.Clarke who, incidentally, later said that he would never agree to working with Stanley Kubrick again, even if he was offered all the money in the world!.

I've read more about this film than any other - as, for instance, it being released in the same year as the original (and splendid) 'Planet of the Apes', but it was the latter which picked up the Oscar for 'Best Make-Up' because, the rumour goes, it was thought that the apes in '2001' must have been real! 
Arthur C. Clarke who wrote the original short story 'The Sentinel' which was expanded and morphed into '2001' is quoted as saying that he made two major errors in the film. First, he didn't foresee the extreme miniaturisation of computers (in this film, HAL is huge!) and secondly, when astronaut Dave Bowman is trying to get into the mothership without a helmet, HAL having denied him entrance, before diving through the open door into the airless docking bay he takes a deep breath, which actually would have made his lungs explode when in a vacuum, even for a couple of seconds!  This time around I also especially thought the astronauts walking on the surface of the moon had a gait that looked too heavy for the much weaker lunar gravity. But in the context of sound scientific principles as a whole - and where it really matters - these quibbles verge on nit-picking.  

It's by no means a perfect film. The section of 'Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite' is too long and indulgent to sustain fascinated interest, and one is left with the time to muse on how they achieved such and such effect - but it's not a critical fault. Also, we now know that even as the film was in progress, neither Kubrick and Clarke had any idea how to bring it all to a conclusion. I must say that what they eventually came up with, for me could hardly have been bettered, even if it had turned out to be only by a fluke.

One final point. The soundtrack music had, in fact, been composed, as Kubrick requested, by one Alex North (his score is available on CD). Apparently, just before release, and without telling the composer, the director decided to substitute North's score with the classical pieces we're now familiar with. In fact the first the composer knew about it was when he attended the premier in blissful ignorance, only to find himself bewildered when, instead of his 'Sunrise' music at the start, he heard Richard Strauss' imposing opening bars from  'Also Sprach Zarathustra' - and waited in vain throughout the rest of the film for his own music to be heard. Obviously someone forgot to rescind his invitation or, more likely, it was just overlooked - or, perhaps, Kubrick or someone else was just too embarrassed to tell him what had happened. Must have given him quite a nasty start to have found it out the way he did. 
I'm not sure that using the 'Blue Danube' waltz was such a good idea. It's just a bit too familiar, and I've never been able to hear that music in all the years since without it conjuring up that particular sequence in the film - not necessarily a bad thing, but I do wish it hadn't been so firmly embedded in my mind. Before he decided on 'Danube', Kubrick had toyed with the idea of using (same composer) Johann Strauss' 'Music of the Spheres' at this juncture, which would have had more obvious titular resonance, but decided that the swing of the 'Blue Danube' was more in keeping with his vision. Again, it's not a make-or-break matter.

And then there's the title, '2001'. The film was made just a year before the first moon landing and no one could at that time foresee that lunar expeditions would completely dry up within two or three years because of the costs. So it's necessary, on hindsight, to see the title year as a kind of shorthand for an unidentifiable future time. It doesn't invalidate the concept of future space travel potential at all, unfortunate as it superficially might seem - nor of contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence. which I believe will happen, even if hardly likely in my own lifetime.

I've said a lot about a film I wasn't even going to post about at all. At least it's off my chest now. 
Observe the following rating very carefully. You won't see its like again for a very long time indeed, if ever..............9.
(IMDb........8.3 / Rotten Tomatoes........9.2)

Monday, 28 May 2018

Film: 'On Chesil Beach'

I'd been bracing myself to feel let down by this, having been mightily impressed with Ian McEwan's novella (which I've read twice) which had been shortlisted for the 2007 Booker prize. It turned out that I was not disappointed in the least, the screenplay written by the author himself and very successfully put on screen by Dominic Cooke, whose debut as feature film director this is.

The basic story is set in 1962 on the south English coast where two newly-weds, Saoirse Ronan ('Lady Bird', 'Brooklyn' ) and Billy Howle ('Dunkirk', 'The Sense of an Ending') arrive directly after their wedding to spend their honeymoon in a fairly standard hotel. Both completely inexperienced, the consummation of the relationship doesn't go as either of them would wish (to put it mildly), and subsequent recriminations abound.
In flashbacks we see their first meeting at a CND meeting in Oxford where they are both studying, their introductions to their respective parents - her upper-class, rather snooty ones (Samuel West, Emily Watson) and his brain-damaged mother (Anne Marie-Duff) and dutiful father (Adrien Scarborough).  
She is a violinist in a string quartet/quintet, he more interested in rock (Chuck Berry) but is open-minded enough to extend his own horizons to embrace her repertoire.

The atmosphere of the book is well captured, considering that much of the written word was a spelling out of what was in the minds of the young couple - their initially held promise of the expectation of a loving life together, before it all comes crashing down - with consequent bitter and hurtful words from both parties. 

There is a two-stage epilogue, in this film given a bit more weight than the mere six pages (out of 166 in my copy) in the book. I was starting to think that it was an error to have gone this far but I must admit it was largely redeemed by a highly emotional moment near the very end where I could feel my own tears welling up. Quite beautiful it was, and took my breath away.

It's a small-scale film but sentiment is writ large without the deep wallow, which for me would have been fatal. 
Although Saoirse Ronan has shown herself to be a fine actress, her face is one which, until she acts, looks to me like a blank parchment awaiting someone to write on it before she captures the personality, which she does most ably. In contrast, Billy Howle (whose name hadn't registered with me until now, and looking at times very like a young Michael York) has a face which reveals his hand of cards straight away, a characteristic which plays itself extremely well in a film like this.

If the subject matter grabs you, I'd unreservedly recommend this film - one of the few in which I think that having read the book ought to make little difference to your opinion of this visual interpretation, which has, of course, the blessing of the writer himself - and you can't ask for much more than that.................7.5.
(Imdb...........6.3 / Rotten Tomatoes..........6.4)

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Film: 'Filmworker'

For the most part I was enthralled by this. However, if you're not stirred by the idea of a documentary about working with director Stanley Kubrick, you may as well stop reading now.

I was at one of just two screenings. both at this area's largest (and the country''s oldest) surviving single-screen cinema - part of an audience of nine in a 274-seat auditorium. 

Kubrick (died 1999) is probably my most revered of all film directors, his sparse life's catalogue including my singular all-time favourite film.
This documentary is built around an interview with Kubrick's indispensable right-hand man and jack-of-all-trades, Leon Vitali, who explains early on why he doesn't like to be described as 'assistant', preferring the film's title. From what we learn of him it sounds like he has good grounds.
Most of us will have heard stories about the director's excessive demands - a lot of 'takes' for virtually every scene - and that he was volatile, moody, exacting, rude and unforgiving. (Stories were that in filming his final feature, 'Eyes Wide Shut', both Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh walked away, the former being replaced by Sidney Pollack). 

Vitali himself, although he had appeared before on TV productions, I was only aware of from his playing the teenage. father-hating son of Ryan ONeal's 'Barry Lyndon' (1975) - and I'd given him no further thought since. (He did also appear in 'Eyes Wide Shut', unrecognisable as the masked, red-robed senior at the likewise fully masked 'erotic'(?) secret ceremony which the Tom Cruise character attends).
I remember Vitali only as the fresh-faced youth he played in 'Lyndon' (though at the time he was, in fact, well advanced into his 20s) so it rather took me aback seeing him as he now is, with his well lived-in face (over 40 years later, of course), now 69 years old, and looking rather like a survivor of the late 1960's 'flower-power' movement.
After 'Barry Lyndon' Vitali was determined to devote his future life to working entirely with Kubrick behind the camera, and when the director became aware of his promised dedication he took him on, developing him as the most trusted member of his crew, giving him all sorts of jobs to do which, it appears, he performed to Kubrick's satisfaction. The director''s well-documented mercurial demands and mood swings couldn't put Vitali off, and he stayed with Kubrick from 1975, working on his films 'The Shining' (1980), 'Full Metal Jacket' (1987) and 'Eyes Wide Shut' (1999) until his death in that year. Dying with this final film not quite complete, it was left to Vitali to put it into a final condition for for release.  

There are very short excerpts from these final four films (some of them a mere few seconds long) as well as the three which preceded them - 'Dr Strangelove' (1964), '2001 - A Space Odyssey' (1968) and 'A Clockwork Orange' (1971). 

There are numerous present-day interjections from the likes of Ryan O'Neal, Danny Lloyd (playing the then 4-year old 'Danny' in 'The Shining') and Matthew Modine ('Eyes Wide Shut') and several other crew members and film industry executives.

A common criticism of Kubrick's films are that they are "cold and clinical", something with which I cannot entirely disagree. I can see from where this opinion arises. However, and going on a slightly different tack, I think none of his films are perfect, all having at least one major flaw (a 'hole' I like to call it) which varies from one film to another - it could be in construction, casting, the inclusion of a failed sequence which doesn't work, or any of several other aspects. Nevertheless, I do maintain that for standard of overall excellence, with every single film of his being 'significant' to a greater or lesser degree, in my opinion Kubrick is unrivalled among directors. 

I found this documentary (directed by Tony Zierra) fascinating. The only time it lost its momentum was when Vitali was talking about his own life and how it had been affected by his life's dedication to his idol. It's only natural that we should be told something of this, he being the principal interviewee and the sine qua non of the film, though knowing of his own circumstances couldn't compare with  learning additional details of Kubrick himself, of whom there are many shots, with quite a bit of off-camera footage of his working on the films in progress.

I liked this a lot, and if there's anyone reading this who shares my esteem for the director I don't think they are going to be disappointed. Even for those who don't ascend to the same heights of admiration as I do for his films I think there's still a lot to be learnt from this. If you're shrugging your shoulders with a "meh!", then by all means walk round it. Nevertheless, in terms of my own personal enjoyment I award it a good................7.
(Current IMDb.........7.6  - Rotten Tomatoes.......also 7.6)