Thursday, 23 July 2015

Film: 'Amy'

Documentary of the short, busy, spotlit life of 'jazz-singer', Amy Winehouse, who died four years ago at the age of 27 - featuring substantial home-movie footage and private snippets taken by others, with major talkover contributions from a number of those involved in her life, most notably her father, Mitchell, in addition to her friends, her music associates and collaborators - as well as her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil.
Her father has disowned this film on its release, despite his significant hand in providing material for it, on the grounds that it doesn't give a fair and balanced view, he claims, of the relationship between him and his daughter.

The film's director or, more accurately, compiler of the sequence of footages, is Asif Kapadia who made the well-received 2010 documentary 'Senna' (which, incidentally, bored me rigid). This 'Amy' is. for me, considerably more interesting.
There are no complete songs performed though we do see her at various venues, in the recording studios, sometimes singing privately. One aspect I really did like is that her words, otherwise practically indecipherable when she's singing, are shown on screen - and reveals what a profound and lyrical imagination she owned. Great shame that without knowing what she's singing about it gets lost in her warbling and wandering vocal style and mannerisms, which is for me one of the curses of today's pop-singing generation generally. This comes out markedly when, near the end of the film, we are shown her duetting with one of her life's idols, Tony Bennett. It's only very brief but the contrast between her and Bennett's singing style is so marked. With the latter one can hear every word, every syllable, but when she takes over it just becomes a fog of sound where articulation is relegated to unimportance, almost as though it's too much of a nuisance to be bothered with. It is indeed a tragedy because otherwise her voice, from the very start, had such power and weight. (With Ella Fitzgerald, another of her idols, one always could make out, although staying within the parameters of the jazz idiom, just what that great lady was singing about).

Apart from when Ms Winehouse is singing, there's hardly a moment when we see her without a glass of something or a cigarette (or something) in her hand. Her fighting against drugs and alcohol addictions and her attempts to become 'clean' are detailed, just about all of which has been well-publicised in the media - as well as her slavish and, perhaps, fatal adulation of her eventually imprisoned (for drug possession) husband, Fielder-Civil, who doubtless played a major part in her troubles. Her most spectacular decline in the full glare of cameras, was widely mocked by comedians of the time, some of whose clips are shown - and I must admit that then I most certainly would have at least smiled at the put-downs. She could hardly avoid her situation becoming public knowledge, though she and her minders did vainly try to shelter against them. There can hardly be any doubt that her premature death was a major loss of talent - as well as a dreadful loss to the world of show-business and music, the cause of which being not directly through drugs but rather through alcohol, though the former had, of course, played a major part in the weakening of her body's defences. Although there was an element of inevitability in her death, hers is yet another case of leaving us wondering how it all could have been so much different and so much better.

I think a lot of people will, like me, have known of Amy's life in broad terms. The film fills out some of the detail but I didn't think I learned anything significantly new about her. On the whole, though, I can think of worse ways to spend a couple of hours.........................................6.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Film: '13 Minutes'

Engrossing, disturbing and violent German film (English subtitles) telling of an assassination attempt on Hitler at the start of WWII, a true episode which has been unfairly and virtually completely eclipsed in history by the attempt, through similar method, of Claus Von Stauffenberg and his co-plotters nearly five years later.
The film's title refers to the short space of time at which Der Fuhrer made an unscheduled early departure from the Bier Keller in Munich where he'd been giving one of his rousing party speeches, and thus avoiding an exploding time-bomb, which actually did kill at least seven others.

The film is framed at both ends, as well as 'interrupted', by the capture and interrogation of the perpetrator, Georg Elser (played by Christian Friedel in very good form), with the refusal of his Nazi interrogators to accept the truth that he had acted entirely alone. The years of his life leading up to this incident are shown in flashback - his hitherto apolitical stance (despite accusations, he was never a member of the Communist Party, nor was he Jewish) being turned by witnessing the rise of Nazism and their anti-Judaism campaign and the rounding up of his Communist friends. So he sets out on his solo plan of assassination.
While this is going on he falls in love with a young married woman (Katharine Schuttler), wife to a brutal husband, and rapist. The feelings between the young pair are mutual and they must be ever careful in betraying any indication of their feelings, especially to the hot-tempered husband.

There are some scenes which are very hard to watch, particularly some of the interrogation methods employed - as well as the violence meted out to the young woman by the husband.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel has already given us the first-rate 'Downfall' (2004) concerning Hitler's final days in 1945 in his Berlin bunker. He does us another service here in documenting a little-known episode involving, surely, an undisputed yet little acknowledged hero, whose name was certainly unfamiliar to me and, I'd guess, to many more, not only in the West but, perhaps, also in Germany itself, though I may have to be corrected concerning the latter claim.

This is one of those films that requires a strong stomach to watch, but if you can take it I'm sure you'll find it has been money and effort well spent..................................7.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Film: 'Love and Mercy'

Reasonably satisfying film re-creating two strategic periods in life of Beach Boys' key member, Brian Wilson.
The first strand takes place in the mid-late 60s as the group reach the height of their popularity with their hit singles and the 'Pet Sounds' album, and involves power struggles and squabbles both within the group (essentially with the other four becoming increasingly disillusioned at Wilson B calling all the shots), as well as friction with Wilson's controlling father. For most of us around at the time we had no idea that this was happening behind the scenes as we'd bought into the image of a carefree, happy-go-lucky, closely-bonded group.
The other strand, about 20 years later, has the middle-aged Wilson trying to recover from over-indulgences on drugs, battling his mental dark forces with the 'help' of tyrannical and short-fused psychiatrist Dr Latty, while simultaneously meeting and getting to know a new lady friend, both he and her having experienced unsatisfactory marriages and affairs, their acquaintanceship having the intense disapproval of Wilson's mentor-doctor.

The earlier Wilson, already showing evidence of mental instability, is played by Paul Dano, quite spookily close in facial resemblance to the Brian Wilson we were familiar with at the time. The later figure is John Cusack, who looks very little like the same Wilson we see Dano playing in parallel. That needn't necessarily have been a problem, but I do think that it was Dano who gives the stronger performance. The two periods are frequently cross-cut with no warning. Even though the later life is more dramatic in terms of personal interaction, especially with the startlingly be-wigged Paul Giametti, who, playing Wilson's ever-hovering Dr Latty, has diagnosed him as 'paranoid schizophrenic' - and Elizabeth Banks as his new love interest. She is quite perfect in the part and very impressive indeed in conveying her conflicting emotions as she learns of Wilson's mental state and the doctor's harsh influence.

Director Bill Pohlad, whose first significant feature this appears to be in that role, does quite well with this disparate material, hanging it together quite effectively. He gives us no full-out renditions of Beach Boy songs, preferring to show us how a small handful of them germinated and grew into the productions we are all familiar with and which many of us have never ceased to love.

Btw: The rather unhelpful film title comes from the name of a track from B.Wilson's reconstruction of the group's widely admired and much-postponed 'Smile' album. We actually see the present-day Wilson singing the song over the film's closing credits.

All in all, a fairly worthy experience without quite hitting the heights for which this particular fan had hoped.....................6.5.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Film: 'Mr Holmes'

A lot of British cineastes who were keen to see this film may well have done so by now. I just managed to catch it at the tail end of its theatrical release in this country before it travels on to DVD-land. So, for what it's worth, here's my verdict.

Not uninteresting, though a tad over-long, it's set in 1947 with Sir Ian McKellan as the original Sherlock Holmes character, and now nonagenarian in retirement on the Sussex coast (also where I am right now) - and he plays it most convincingly, I must say. He lives alone with his housekeeper (Laura Linney, exhibiting an alarming range of accents) and her young son (a rather impressive Milo Parker), whom Holmes introduces into his hobby of apiculture. (The difference between bees and wasps is a salient feature of this aspect of the story). While Holmes' memory is becoming disturbingly unreliable and patchy, a condition of which he's sadly aware, he dwells on an unresolved case of thirty years previously, involving the death of a young wife with mental 'issues' and her likewise young, but overbearing, husband. There are a number of flashbacks, which reveal how McKellan gets the difference between portraying his two screen ages exactly right.

McKellan, for a long time I've felt, is rather over-rated as an actor, but here he's perfectly suited to his role. Linney, it might be argued, is miscast, but she does convey very well indeed the buttoned-up emotions of a housekeeper to an increasingly dependent old man who's visibly slowing down and becoming increasingly absent-minded. She seems wanting to burst out, be rude, and stamp with her impatience but she holds it in effectively and believably, really only giving the full extent of her emotions when alone with her son. She also displays a growing misgiving about the friendship developing between the old man and the young boy.

There are a couple of situations giving rise to moments of high drama but otherwise it's a leisurely-paced film. Photography is first-class throughout. I was also pleased to see that the soundtrack was composed by Carter Burwell, one of my favourites of contemporary film composers, and as usual he pitches it just right - on the edge of ones awareness without it being obtrusive.
Screenplay was nothing special to talk about but director Bill Condon does succeed in drawing the very best from his high-quality, small cast, Linney's roaming accent notwithstanding.

This is a pleasant enough, reasonably diverting, though ultimately not particularly remarkable film.......................6.


Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Film: 'Going Clear - Scientology and the Prison of Belief'.

A most welcome documentary which attempts to lift the lid on the 'Church of Scientology' movement - and, boy, they do not like it! This so-called 'Church' (I personally prefer the word 'cult' - it riles them so) has already managed to prevent the publication in the U.K. (as well as Canada and certain other countries) of the same-named book by Lawrence Wright on which this film is based. However, the cult has been unsuccessful so far in getting this film banned here, although they are even now still trying their darnedest.

Writer and director Alex Gibney recently did, among others, exposes on Enron and the covering-up of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, both of which I saw. (The Vatican used all its considerable muscle, and failed, to try to get this latter film - 'Mea Maxima Culpa' - pulled as well. Funny that, isn't it?).

'Going Clear' is two hours long but riveting throughout - as well as being, by turns, scary and disturbing. It concentrates less on the cult's beliefs as one might have expected, such as that of an universal overlord, Xenu, and alien, hostile spirit forms or 'thetans' invading our bodies, thereby causing all our problems. Some of the dogma will be familiar to many people and it surely beggars belief that so many individuals who, one assumes, would otherwise be classed as 'intelligent', can fall for such crackpot notions without even asking for evidence, just because one megalomaniac, the cult founder L.Ron Hubbard, said so.
The bulk of the film consists of interviews, not just with the author of the book, Lawrence Wright, but also with former cult members, some who reached high seniority status, who talk of the cult's tactics at holding its members in thrall to it, its money-making activities (including its successful campaign to be recognised by the I.R.S. as a 'religion', thereby enjoying tax-exempt status in the U.S.A.), its public information campaigns (as squeaky-clean as a baby's newly washed and powdered bottom) and its harrassing of members who leave (including physical violence meted out to those who are suspected of just thinking of leaving, or who disobey their leader's orders or do not perform their tasks satisfactorily), separating them forever from their families with no contact at all permitted, and its attempt to destroy the ex-members' careers, or even lives (which would be preferable and neater for them).

If their gatherings didn't remind one so much of those of the Third Reich Nazi Party rallies it might have been comical, but it's truly disturbing to see such infectious mob-mentality among the attendees. It's not a place where even one individual would be brave enough to utter one syllable of dissent. And seeing Tom Cruise, their most prized possession, salute a large hanging photo of Hubbard just about took the biscuit! His fawning, submissive and effusive praise for current leader and Hubbard successor, David Miscavige (apparently, a professional bully who's not averse to using his fists and feet to get his own way, just like a spoilt child) is just another part of the horror story.

Their are excerpts of an oldish interview with John Travolta who seems to be just mouthing excerpts from Hubbard's basic Dianetics book, with not much conviction behind it. Travolta is not now considered to be such a pull for getting new members as he previously was, now that his superstar status has faded. In fact there's a hint that he would rather 'out' completely but, because they've got such a grip on him by having his confessional material (as they have for all members - clearly quite useful when it comes to blackmail), that he dare not  make any move, or even suggest that he's thinking about it.
Tom Cruise has been for some years now, their prize catch of course - their public, friendly face and magnet. Of course, they have all their octopoidal tentacles holding him fast too, and its working for exactly the same reason as for Travolta. However, at least Cruise seems enthusiastic, though one knows that this is precisely the image they want us to see. His relationship and marriage to Nicole Kidman is discussed, she who, having a psychologist as a father, was under suspicion from the start, as he was being regarded as 'enemy'. Apparently when Cruise and Kidman were making Stanley Kubrick's final film, 'Eyes Wide Shut', Cruise's interest in Scientology was at its lowest. However, as soon as it was over the cult pulled out all the stops to claw him back in - and succeeded - not only with threats if he didn't comply but giving him absolutely anything material that he wanted. So he's still there now as its engaging face..
At the end of this film there are showings of Cruise being interviewed on the subject by various people when he occasionally breaks out into what can only be described as manic laughter, particularly when something 'false' about the cult is suggested to him. I think the motive in showing this in the film is to make one doubt his sanity. (Sometimes his toothy smile and crazed laughing is slowed down for our further delectation)
Actually I did quite like both Kidman and Cruise anyway before seeing this film. Now my liking for the former has increased while that of the latter has sunk way down deep. He sounds like the sort of person from whom one would be well-advised to keep some distance.

Some eight years ago, the BBC did a half-hour programme on the cult. Unfortunately all the attention was hijacked by the BBC interviewer, John Sweeney, not getting answers and completely losing it when trying to talk to some of the cult's senior members, he starting to yell uncontrollably at them. (He was described at going 'tomato-faced', which was apt). That moment was exactly what the cult members were wishing for, detracting all the attention away from them by letting the investigator make a fool of himself while they looked on impassively, smiling behind their stern facades. I heard nothing at all said about a couple of other interviews also in that programme - Juliette Lewis cringing uncomfortably when questioned about her beliefs, denying that she knew anything about Xenu, the bodies stored in volcanoes for 35 million years, etc (not at all convincing) - but even more than her, Anne Archer being interviewed and (I think because Sweeney had used the word 'cult') getting all schoolma'am-ish and, with all the dignity of a headmistress sternly telling off a pupil who'd farted loudly at morning assembly - "How dare you! How DARE you!"  It was a moment to savour, though unfortunately eclipsed by Sweeney's hysterical episode later in that same programme.
Incidentally, one of the cult members whom Sweeney was ranting at in his out-of-control moment, shortly afterwards actually left the cult. For him it was a watershed moment, as he then began seriously to ask himself just how long he had to go on telling blatant lies about the organisation to the outside world. He was one of the 'talking heads' being interviewed here.

I didn't know that the membership of the cult is dwindling (now down to 50,000), but its riches through investments, dicey(?) or above-board, are rocketing. That alone is alarming enough to continue our great concern. We all know that money equals power, and this cult is absolutely rabidly drunk on it!

I learned a fair bit through this film, but there weren't any too outlandish shocks. It just put it all together in an agreeable way and will be useful for future reference. 
The 'Church' has, of course, completely rejected all of the critical remarks made about it, saying that the  interviewees were only pursuing their own agenda. (I wonder if any of them will 'accidentally' come to some grief.) Oh, and by the way, they declined all requests to be interviewed themselves. Now, there's a surprise!

As this isn't in the nature of a 'normal' feature film I'll not be giving it a rating.
Oh, to hell with it................................7.5.


Friday, 26 June 2015

Film: 'Queen and Country'

John Boorman will be on many people's list of the most distinguished film directors Britain has ever produced.
It may sound mean, but he was never one of my own favourites, finding many of his films hollow or meandering or unconvincing or all three. So it also seems in this one which, if the very final shot is anything to go by, is to be the 82 year-old's swan song.

Boorman's C.V. as director contains a number of films which a lot will remember, not without some affection - 'Point Blank' (1967), 'Deliverance' (72), 'Zardoz' (74), Excalibur' (81) and 'The Emerald Forest' (85). Indeed, some will go so far as to call one or two of these 'masterpieces'. I did quite like 'Point Blank' and was fairly impressed with 'Deliverance', but after that I felt it was downhill all the rest of the way.

This latest (and presumabl, last) is a belated sequel to his 'Hope and Glory' of 1987. The young boy, Bill, in that earlier film, (identifiably Boorman himself as a child in wartime London) is now 18 (and played here by Callum Turner) and he's conscripted for two years compulsory army service. The date is 1952 and the Korean War has begun - though he doesn't actually get to be posted there. Conscripted with him is Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) whom he befriends and they jointly get up to the usual juvenile larks during training, near-the-edge insubordination and chasing after girls when they get the chance outside camp. Nothing really unexpected or outrageous here. In fact I was frequently wondering "Where is this going?" and "Why should we be bothered?" I was looking at my watch almost as much as I was watching the screen. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but it did try my patience.
Better known names in the cast are David Thewlis (excellent) as the two army buddies' immediate superior, Richard E.Grant as a humourless, rather world-weary Major (good to see him in a part where he's not required to smile), and Sinead Cusack as Bill's mother.

The film contained one of those elements that irk me the most - insistent background music. It just would not let go for hardly any stretch at all, as though the audience needed to be guided to feel anything, which may have been good if it hadn't been so annoying. For goodness sake! Why didn't they think of putting a sock in it?

One curiosity of chronology - the film starts in 1952 with King George on the throne. We all know that he died in February of that year. Yet the moment when he does expire, by then the film is already halfway through. After the flag is lowered out of respect, Private Bill is off on leave to visit his parents. While there the family acquires a television specifically in order to watch the upcoming coronation of Queen Elizabeth. But there was actually an almost sixteen month interval between the death of the king and the crowning of his successor. So where, in this film, did all that time go? It's true that when Bill returns to army life he's risen in the ranks, but no other indication is made of what happened to that well over one year period, more than half of his actual service time! Very strange!
He returns to more talk about the Korean War - the other 'big' event being the mysterious disappearance of the regimental clock. Honestly, I ask you! Are we supposed to care?

The film ends with Bill having been demobbed and returning to his family - and that's it! Oh dear! What was all that effort for? Was it meant to be a vanity project for John Boorman? That's the kindest interpretation I can give it............................3.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Film: 'London Road'

Not only have reviews of this unusual film been largely very positive, but some critics have been overloading superlatives into their columns. In consequence I feel that although I did like it, I ought to have been more enthused. However, no one can deny that it's a singular achievement.

It's based on a successful stage play of a 2006 actual news story involving a serial killer in Ipswich (medium-sized town about 80 miles north-east of London) who picks five prostitutes as his victims. The play uses the real words employed by members of the public in the locality (the road of the film's title) in newsreel interviews and - arguably with some risk concerning the seriousness of the subject matter - it sets them to music.
The cast is largely of little or complete unknowns, save for Olivia Colman, Anita Dobson (a long-time fixture of one of this country's most popular soaps) and, in not much more than a cameo role, a star of no less stature than Tom Hardy, appearing for five minutes or less as a taxi driver.

The 'music' that the cast speak, lilt or sing to, in singles, doubles or in ensemble - much of it direct to camera as if in interview -  is determined by the inflections and stresses of the actual spoken words used in interviews of the time - some of the content of which is quite shocking, being 'gut-feelings' spontaneously expressed. Whereas in true musicals the shape and stress of the lyrics is determined by the music it lies alongside, here the reverse happens - the lyrics (without rhyme, of course, unless a line or word is being repeated) shape the music. None of the 'melodies' (such as they are) are particularly memorable, but it wasn't meant to be that way. It's almost entirely a sung-through affair, though often the speaking voice gradually transforms itself into a singing one, so it's nothing like 'Les Mis' or 'Sweeney Todd'. Neither is the singing anything like Rex Harrison's 'Talking on Pitch'. When the cast rise into song they really let rip.  

The story covers the time when the last of the victims was found, the surrounding area's residents already nervous and suspicious of everybody else due to multiple news items and warnings to be cautious, and on to the suspect being apprehended and, seen from the outside through TV news reports, his trial and conviction - and in a final flourish, onto the all-round relief and attempt of London Road residents to reclaim the area's reputation in appropriately flamboyant manner.

It certainly held my attention all the way, because one was hanging onto every word uttered through song, all of which was admirably clearly enunciated. So why didn't I like it more? (Director: Rufus Norris). I find it hard to pin down exactly. I would imagine that in the theatre the piece would have significantly more bite. By its nature it's very piecemeal, jumping from character to character - and it would take a heart of stone not to feel for some of the surviving prostitutes we see. One of the characters displays possession of such a heart - though I must ask myself how I'd be feeling if prostitutes operated in the area in which I lived, and left behind evidence of their 'work'.

Those who remember 'Les Parapluies de Cherbourg' of 1964 will get the  idea of the nature of this type of sung-through film. I seem to recall that only a few years ago there was another one which tried the same thing but I just cannot recall the title.
I can't help feeling that although we'll always recall 'The Cherbourg Umbrellas', after fifty years we may find it harder to remember 'London Road'..........................6.5