Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Film: 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer'

I'd been greatly regretting having missed this film through circum-stances on its original screen distribution six weeks ago. But then a Heaven-sent additional opportunity came my way and I seized it.

It's one of those profoundly disturbing films where I wished I'd seen it in the comfort of company and been able to discuss it afterwards. (The film's title becomes clear as it progresses - no animals are involved, only peripheral glimpses of a family dog, unharmed.)

Director Yorgos Lanthimos was responsible for last year's compelling 'The Lobster' (also starring Colin Farrell) and he's here pulled off another haunting feature, though much, much darker.

Filmed in Cincinatti, Farrell is a hospital surgeon, leading invasive operations, the film commencing with close view of two minutes of open-heart surgery (forewarned, I could avert my eyes for the duration) with a seemingly idyllic family life - wife (Nicole Kidman) plus teenage daughter and younger son. (We saw Farrell and Kidman together as recently as in this year's 'The Beguiled'). 
The surgeon has struck up a cordial but matter-of-fact relationship with a teenage boy (Barry Keoghan - creepily convincing), the son of a man he'd operated on previously (the subject of the open-heart surgery at the start). At first we wonder who this boy actually is and what is he doing being so friendly with Farrell - and why, indeed, is the latter letting him get so close at all. Slowly as things reveal it becomes creepier and things start to impinge on the surgeon's life and, crucially, on his family. It would be a spoiler to give any more away but, boy oh boy, it does venture into very dark territory! I was drawn in almost against my will but felt forced to keep watching, dreading the next turn, which only realised my worst fears. The tension is screwed up extremely tightly, it bring clear that I wasn't the only audience member who was transfixed.

I must admit to some relief when it was over. Being put through an emotional wringer can leave ones nerves in shreds as well as being thoroughly satisfying. 

Farrell is excellent - this film confirms yet again that he can play vulnerable and fragile as effectively as hard-man or criminal. Kidman is also as good as she always is, though I felt that her role here was slightly underwritten, particulatly as compared with Farrell's.

Lanthimos' directing (he's also the co-writer) is exemplary throughout, could hardly be bettered, in fact. Time and again I was reminded of Kubrick (as well as some Hitchcock) in the roving camera work, up and down lengthy hospital corridors, with occasional long-shots, sometimes in silence.

A film that well paid off my yearning to catch it. Not a film for the faint-hearted or for those of a nervous disposition, but there's no doubt it's a film of disturbing (and grisly) 'significance'............8.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Film: 'Happy End'

You know that with a Michael Haneke film, if it has an up-beat title it's going to be heavily ironic. And so here too - though it's not so much a case of there being an  'end' as we being left to ask "So what happened next?"

The Austrian Haneke is one of the small handful of directors whose films I'd actively go out of my way to see, though we don't always get the chance to view his creations. Those we do have an opportunity at are tantalisingly enigmatic, usually deeply unsettling on some level, and always significant. Those films of his that I have seen - 'Cache', 'The Piano Teacher', 'The White Ribbon', 'Amour' - linger in my mind more than those of just about all other contemporary directors. However, his 'Funny Games' (1997) has seared itself in my consciousness as one of the most disturbingly horrifying films I've ever seen, though with all the violence (and there's a fair bit of it) taking place off-screen! (I refer to the original German-language version, not the American re-make of ten years later, also directed by Haneke, which I haven't seen). Twenty years later, 'Funny Games' still haunts me.

Back to 'Happy End' which is set in Calais, on the northernmost French coast (the location is significant). 
A multi-generational upper-class family is drawn through various circumstances to live together uneasily, prominent among which is Isabelle Huppert as a divorced, businesswoman-owner of a construction company, with troubled 13-year old daughter (correction: the girl is actually Huppert's neice. Thanks due to Rachel for her comment below) who has hacked into her father's computer account and is reading sexually- charged exchanges he's having with his new lover. Several members of this extended family make suicide attempts for varying reasons, not all having the same level of 'success'. One of them is the advance-aged grandfather who feels his time is up and wants to end his life, despite his family thwarting his attempts. Other family members have their own secrets and inter-familial frictions. So far so jolly!  The only non-French member of the cast is Toby Jones as an English family acquaintance, he also being the only one whose few scenes are in English, the rest of the film being, of course, in the Gallic tongue.

For some episodes, Haneke employs his trademark technique of showing a scene between players from a distance, out of ear-shot, we only being aware of the gestures of the actors, some of it argumentative, confrontational and, in one case here, violent. We don't know why or what was said - and it's often left unexplained. We are left to join the dots ourselves. But the method is always intriguing and it kept me hooked.

I ought also to mention that if there are any viewers of this as hyper-sensitive to the suffering of animals as I am, the film is preceded by a 10-min 'essay' on Haneke's methods, which includes brief shots of a few animals being killed, and though lasting maybe just one minute, I had to look away. When the film 'proper' starts the very opening shot is of a harmless little hamster being deliberately poisoned. Nothing else similar happens in the rest of the film. Hardly worth mentioning for some, I'm sure, but it did start me off on an uncomfortable footing.

I think the general consensus is that  'Happy End' may ultimately be not quite as remarkable as some of the director's other films. Nevertheless, despite my accepting that its lack of a clear conclusion might well infuriate some of its audience, as is the case with all the rest of Haneke's films which I've seen, I always feel that he delivers ones money's worth, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of other directors around today..................7.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Film: 'The Man Who Invented Christmas'

There have been more than one or two damning critiques of this festive-sounding film, and I'm not totally out of sympathy with them. The title ought to have been more accurately - 'The Man Who Wrote 'A Christmas Carol', which helped consolidate some of the Yuletide traditions which are still prevalent today.', but the ambitious title it's been given will just about do for shorthand purposes. 
I know a fair bit about Dickens' life (Peter Ackroyd's massive biography is a must-read for the writer's admirers) but I couldn't recall the true circumstances of his penning of this justly well-loved tale. However, I'm told that enormous liberties have been taken here with the historical facts. No surprise there then!

It's 1843 and Charles Dickens, feted after huge initial success, has seen his fortunes slump in the wake of three consecutive unsuccessful novels, and now he badly needs another 'hit' to come to his financial rescue. 
The young Dickens (must be about the first time I've seen him portrayed as clean-shaven) played by Dan Stevens in quasi-histrionic mode, and best known as 'Beast' in 2014's 'Beauty and....', is feverishly trying to come up with a workable idea in the weeks leading up to Xmas and (would you believe it?) fate comes to his aid in the form of people in his life dropping phrases, hints and usable names which his mind garners and puts together as a kernel of an idea for a shortish story appropriate to the season, he having little time available to come up with a viable plot on which to write and get it published while Christmas is still in the offing. 
His family of young wife (Morfydd Clark) and three little children get an unexpected visit from his father (Jonathan Pryce) and mother - which allows for the (too many) interruptions of heavy, miserable flashbacks of when his father (and rest of family) was taken away for debt while he, as eldest child though yet a young boy, had to work in a blacking factory with other similar-aged children.    
There's also the dour, real-life Mr Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) with all the characteristics of the book personage, who keeps popping up not just as an acquaintance but in his imagined fantasies too, acting out scenes from the eventual tale which Dickens then quickly commits to paper, the story being written for him rather than he having to work it out. He additionally meets in his imaginings, Marley, as well as the three ghosts, their appearances he similarly hurriedly has to write down.

The film seems to rely on the audience having more than a passing knowledge of the finished work, and perhaps they will. If they don't, then a lot of the references will have been wasted. (I've read 'Carol' more than any other Dickens work, perhaps around 20 times - though it is, to be fair, just a short story, excellent as it is).

The look of the film is perfect for what it is, but otherwise I found the product tedious with an unexceptional script, and an exceptionally mannered Dan Stevens in the Dickens role. Plummer's appearances as Scrooge, both in life and in imagination, are too frequent and overplayed, and even Jonathan Pryce as Charles Dickens Senior outstays his welcome, something I thought I'd never say about that actor.

I didn't find the Christmas mood particularly effectively captured. All those gloomy flashbacks and the quarrels with his printer and publisher as he comes right up to the deadline knocked the stuffing out of the turkey for me (the fact that I don't eat turkey is neither here nor there!) - though, mind you, the finished tale itself is likewise written with much sobering, thoughtful life-messages.  

Indian director Bharat Nalluri does what he can with the, to me, misguided material, though I felt his heart wasn't in it and it shows. I can't see this being added to the considerable pantheon of worthy Christmas films to be watched annually on Xmas Eve or on the afternoon of that very day. A Christmas cracker which lacks the crucial 'bang'...................4.5.  

Film: 'Beach Rats'

Largely unconvincing story of unemployed New York teenager (Harris Dickinson), one of a gang with another three similar youths, hanging around the beach and funfair looking for girls and smoking weed, getting by through pick-pocketing, and the occasional 'kindness' of strangers - only this particular young guy is leading a double life, at night hooking up on his p.c. with older men (not elderly) on gay websites for online 'chatting' and occasional meet-ups for quick sex. He hangs onto a girl who'd picked him up, thinking him sexy (which I couldn't see at all, though we'll let that pass - 'Beauty in the eye of.....' etc) and he indulges in a hot-cold relationship with her, while leading this private double life, even taking her home to stay overnight in full view of his quietly 'understanding' and protective mother (Kate Hodge) who doesn't approve of his male friends, and his stroppy little sister who's also engaged in a physical relationship. 
After maintaining this deception to his mates for much of the film, he opens up to them and tells them what he's been doing. Instead of asserting their 'macho' credentials by seeing who could outdo the others in homophobic put-downs, as I'd have expected to happen, their reaction is unbelievably relaxed about it, displaying little more than mild amusement - never mind that up till then he'd been like the rest of them, wanting "women, women, women!" He explains his conduct by saying that this is how he manages to obtain a reliable source of weed, and he'll do what it takes to get it, which they accept.
I can't deny that the film captures well the double-life that a lot of us have gone through to maintain a veneer of 'respectability' with our peers and equals by talking about relationships with girls either completely fictitious or, if the girls existed at all, inwardly praying that they weren't tracked down and interrogated so as to reveal the lie we had spun of a 'relationship'. I know it well, I've been there - growing up at a time when all gay acts were criminal, even in private, when as little as a misjudged touch on a knee could result in the loss of one's job, or much, much worse. But as far as this gang of four are concerned their only constraint is, as far as I could tell, their own opinions of each other - and, of course, there was no need for Dickinson's character to lie about the real person he's seeing.
Throughout the film I was expecting a sudden burst of violence to break out, and to that extent it did keep me tensed up.

This is director Eliza Hittman's only second feature film. She's still young and I'm assuming that this is one of the misfires that she'll encounter on her way to establishing her reputation as someone to be reckoned with - though it won't be with this...............4.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Film: 'Suburbicon'

The most uncomfort-able film I've seen in quite some years. I've yet to read a review that is defiantly 'kind' to it, and following a disastrous opening in America where it's quickly been withdrawn from cinemas, it gets a more limited screening here. All this despite it being directed by George Clooney, no less, and starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac. It did look really great from the trailer, I must say - more than interesting enough to entice me in to satisfy my curiosity.
All the negativities spouted about it seem to centre on its uneven-ness of tone and having too many strands - even a 'mess', some say. But it's not that at all. Disorientating it most certainly is.

Clooney has taken an early, late 1980s, script of the Coen brothers and (together with one Grant Heslov) has extended it and added layers - and this is where I think most critics judge that it misfires.

Set at the end of the 1950s, Damon plays a successful businessman living with his wife and 10 year-old son, and his sister-in-law, in a pristine, idyllic, storybook-like, small town enclosing a dream-creation of a perfect society. It starts off in a light tone but within five minutes something takes place which challenges the inhabitants' peace of mind, and within a further five minutes an event happens which hurtles us down to a very dark place.  One cannot say much more because the surprises come tumbling on top of each other. The initial levity tries to return now and again but now that we've seen the dark underbelly, from about halfway it's futile to pretend that it's not there and so the darkness is left just to rip its way to the end. Some of the unexpectedness is very unpleasant indeed, with some violence and blood - while the several suspenseful moments are handled with great expertise, with tension screwed up tight almost to screaming point.  
During the exposition we learn revelations about the central family, the attitudes of some of them - and far from questions being answered, the film concludes with more queries and imponderables hanging in the air than those with which we'd started - so not a film for those who like clean-cut endings.

It's a film that's going to haunt me for quite some time, so unsettling I found it. It clearly won't appeal to everyone and I can appreciate why it's engendered some of its hostility. But if you like a challenge and something to think about, even though having seen it you may be wishing you could get it out of your mind but can't, this is a film for you. Do I regret having taken the chance? Not at all...................7

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Film: Battle of the Sexes'

I truly loved this, and it's an emotion for which you don't have to be an ardent tennis fan (which I'm not, anymore) to share. Furthermore, being so hardly even helps, the essential drama being played out, not so much in the climactic tennis game, than in the battle of wills between superstar Billie-Jean King (ladies' championship credentials newly eclipsed by Aussie, Margaret Court) and her challenger, Bobby Riggs in 1973. 

I was a keen tennis watcher (and hopeless player) back in the 1960s when this spoilt teenage kid, a brattish upstart named Billie-Jean Moffat, came on the scene, the enfant terrible of the time, yelling her way to victory ("Oh NOOOOO!") through temper tantrums and unsportsman(/woman)like, immature behaviour, drawing boos from the spectators for her loutish, non-existent 'gamesmanship' - and paving the way for the yet more outrageously behaved John McEnroe. But it was she who had by then killed off any interest I had in watching the sport, something from which I have never recovered. (Incidentally, in this film nothing at all is shown of her displaying the childish playing antics which were then as much her trademark as her excellence at tennis).
Of course, everyone knows what a lovely LGBTQ icon King has now become - as well as being a personal friend of Elton, no less! (I take it that the brief inclusion of his 'Rocket Man' on the soundtrack is an acknowledgment of that fact.) 

I must confess to not having become aware of the subject at the heart of this film until some 20 years after it had happened. Apparently the ultimate game was televised live around the world at the time though I don't recall it. I dare say it must have featured in news programmes, though low-down on the list of matters of significant import.

The film starts with B-J.K. (Emma Stone) expressing disapproval that in an American tournament, the men victors will earn a prize eight times that of the women, on the grounds that male players are a 'better watch' and generate more public interest - despite the fact that ticket sales for both games are in about equal demand. King pulls herself, along with other female player-supporters, out of the tournament until this injustice is rectified. Now national news, it comes to the attention of former champion, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), who immediately gets a bee in his bonnet about men being the better players and therefore deserve a higher scale of prizes. He is so incensed that he issues a challenge that he will play and beat any woman, putting up $100,000 of his own money as stake.  Newly-crowned women's champion, Margaret Court, takes up the challenge. (I wasn't aware of this at all until this film).

But while this is going on, the married, 28-year old King, finds, much to her own surprise, that she is quite suddenly attracted to her new hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) - their initial encounter while she is getting her hair done being quite beautifully realised. The  slow dawning on Emma Stone's face of her being attracted to another woman is something to behold.
The realisation of King's husband (Austin Stowell) that something is going on which he didn't foresee is excellently and sensitively portrayed, capturing the confusion and emotional turmoil as he doesn't know how to express his feelings, yet not wishing to give up on loyalty to his wife. I found this aspect particularly moving.

I must also register that Emma Stone's bespectacled likeness to whom she plays is quite remarkable, her smile having a particularly uncanny resemblance.

Then there's Steve Carrell, whom I only first noticed when he was playing second fiddle to Jim Carrey in 'Bruce Almighty' (2003). I'd never been a great fan of his, at least not until his extraordinary appearance in 'Foxcatcher' (2014) where he totally subsumed his scarily domineering role - and since then I recognise that he is indeed an actor of astonishing versatility. 
This role as Bobby Riggs is a tricky one to pull off successfully without it descending into cartoon-like silliness, looking back on it from over 40 years down the line, voicing male attitudes towards women which were very prevalent at the time - and which I can verify, some of it much to my own shame! Riggs wears the soubriquet of 'Male Chauvinist Pig' proudly on his sleeve, a 'badge of honour', opining that women belong in the kitchen and should give their energies to raising families. His own wife (Elizabeth Shue) can only take so much from him, more for his own pig-headedness than his general m.c.p. attitudes. 
His contention, frequently aired on radio, includes the belief that men being (generally) the stronger sex in muscle terms, it stands to reason that they will outclass women on the tennis court - and besides, women can't handle the mental pressure of it all! Of course, all this to King is like showing a red rag to a bull - and so she decides to take up the challenge.

Always hovering in the background is the watchful (baleful?) presence of the 'wholesome', baby-carrying Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who is quick to pick up on King's infatuation (and more) with Marilyn, and she doesn't waste any time in not-so-subtly making her displeasure at their relationship known.
If this is an accurate depiction of Court's attitudes back in the 1970s, she certainly hasn't advanced at all since those days, as evidenced in her prominent opposition to equal marriage in Australia's recent referendum 'debate'.  

It's a busy film on the whole, thanks to some snappy editing - though the few scenes of genuine intimacy between King and her lover do threaten to develop into longueurs, which they thankfully don''t. The film gallops along pleasurably, feeling nothing like the two hours of its actual length.
I must also add that there aren't any overlong tennis-playing sequences. Even the climactic match is shrewdly put together with only a few of the salient shots shown - and excellently edited too.
The film also demonstrates that, despite their polarised views, King and Riggs had a surprisingly respectful and playful regard for each other.

Screenplay is by Simon Beaufoy, best known for the original 'The Full Monty', and it's a good, sharp script with scarcely a word too many. 

If I have one major qualification it's the character of Marilyn, King's lover. In many reviews I've seen Andrea Riseborough is given credit for her part in this role. I found the character insipid, such that I was confused as to why King would have been attracted to such a colourless personality. Though Emma Stone's high quality acting did bring me to the belief that she was, against the odds as I saw it, really attracted to this Marilyn, I found little emotional chemistry between the two of them. But obviously I'm out on a limb in thinking this. That was the only major defect for me in this film. 

The regular two-person team of directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (both also directing the rather fine 'Little Miss Sunshine' of 2006) take the helm here and I have no quarrel at all with their finished work. It's hard to see how it could have been improved, apart from my one personal reservation above.

All in all, then, a thoroughly enjoyable experience which I've no doubt will be shared by many................8.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Film: 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool'

When I first read about this story (which I hadn't known until a few weeks ago) I thought that it could make for a terrific film. I'm afraid that except for the final intensely moving minutes, it largely left me uninvolved, even rather cold.

The true story is of one-time, big screen star, Gloria Grahame (played by the wonderful Annette Bening - not looking much like the original, though that shouldn't get in the way) in her late 50s and towards the end of her life, falling for an amateur English stage actor of half her age, well played by Jamie Bell. Their romance begins in California 1979 and two years later she, while on an acting engagement in England, rather than stay in a hotel, decides to move in with Bell's family in Liverpool - a family including the conspicuously bewigged Julie Walters, who is required to give not much more than a one-note performance as the mother. (We recall Bell and Walters appeared together in the original 'Billy Elliott', the film on which the musical was later based). The action here keeps shifting (a little annoyingly for me) between 1981 and 1979 and back again numerous times.

You might guess that tender moments of love-making between the two main characters are interspersed with tumultuous rows, she taking repeated umbrage at any slight hint of his, however innocently expressed, that she might be a bit on the old side. She is clearly mentally fragile - and, as it turns out, not just mentally.

The whole viewing experience felt a bit constrained for me, despite the range of emotions demonstrated, particularly by Bening. It just didn't grip me to the extent I'd hoped. It's also one of those annoying films where much is spoken so sotto voce that I didn't have a clue what they were talking about - and when that goes for the two main actors it doubly surprised and disappointed me.

I've not seen any of director Kevin McGuigan's previous films, and after this one his is not a name which will by itself entice me to see further productions of his. 

I only first became aware of Gloria Grahame herself on seeing 'Oklahoma' (1955) in which she hopelessly 'over-cookied' her character. Later I caught up on some of her previous more famous b/w films from an era when she was rightfully feted. But after the 1950s her significant film parts were few, and her rather more numerous bit-parts in numerous TV roles were not solid enough to make a lasting impression.

As I say, I wasn't aware of this particular story being played out at the beginning of the 1980s, though I suppose that by then Grahame's name had so faded from public consciousness that it wouldn't have been a major news item to generate more than a modicum of interest.

I feel I ought to point my rating of the film upwards for the single reason that Annette Bening really does give it her all............6.5.