Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Film: 'Trainwreck'

An unusual film, though yet again I'm finding myself out of step with most critics (but not as distant from viewers) who have given it high praise. I think it's attracted positive opinions because the principal character, Amy, played by Amy Schumer, also the screenplay writer, is a thirties-something woman who enjoys a life of one-night stands and short-term, non-serious relationships - while the film displays not the slightest hint of judgment, let alone censure, over her chosen lifestyle. This is indeed refreshing. A man making the same choices would, on film, nearly always be roguishly portrayed as a bit of a 'Jack the Lad' - perhaps getting a comeuppance later, if at all, because of his non-commital acts, but rarely attracting any of the condemnations to which women would usually be subjected.  Additionally, this Amy is not a conventionally glamorous person, visibly a bit overweight and lacking the 'Stepford Wives' concept of manufactured physical beauty, facially and elsewhere. So all that is in its favour.

The film begins with the nine-year old Amy and her sister, younger by four years, being given a lesson from their soon-to-be divorced father that monogamy is not a desirable state. Then it jumps to where we see the approaching middle-aged elder sister in New York living out that very lifestyle, while her younger sibling has been drawn into conventional, though solid marriage, and with a young son. There's no suggestion of envy on the part of Amy. So far so good.
She works writing for a magazine with a hard-hitting, no-nonsense, sassy boss (Tilda Swinton - completely unrecognisable. I was amazed after the film on finding that it had been her!) In their morning meetings with staff (sexual references given free rein of expression) she's given, to her dismay, a project to do an article on a subject she has no inclination towards, sport - and sportsmen.
Her first meeting is with a physio for a team (don't ask me for which sport - netball?). Although she gets off to a prickly start in her first interview, in subsequent meetings there's a mutual melting down of defences between her and (single) Doctor Aaron - and before too long a relationship develops. And at this point I felt that any promise the film had at the start began to dissolve for (wouldn't you know it?) she finds herself falling in love and has to question whether her father-inducted presumptions about life and monogamy were accurate after all. She struggles as she doesn't quite know how to react with her new feelings of wanting, but afraid of, deeper commitment. In some ways I felt that the film betrays itself by joining the dots towards conventionality until, at the very end, the concluding scene is of such astonishing cheesiness and banality that I wondered how it could have been part of the same film. Talk about cringe!

The film's director is that doyen of 'blokey' films, Judd Apatow who, one would think, would have been the polar opposite of what seemingly-feminist writer Amy Schumer wanted to achieve with her material. But the way it ends leads me to think that he may well have been the appropriate one to direct her after all.

There are also several cameo appearances of quite big names, which it might be spoiling things to mention individually, but I wasn't expecting them.

A film of failed promise, then. There are some very good moments but there are also those sloshing around in mushy emotions. Also, at two hours long, it overstayed its welcome by a good half-hour.

A fair enough view - and, I repeat, the initial idea was a very worthy one. Pity it didn't quite live up to it.....................4.5.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Film: 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'

This is a story based on a rebooting of characters from the generally well-regarded American TV series of more than one hundred hour-long episodes which started transmissions in 1964, Henry Cavill here taking the suave, urbane, unflappable Napoleon Solo role (originally played by Robert Vaughn), and Armie Hammer as his Russian sidekick, Ilya Kuryakin, a character of fierce loyalty created by David McCallum, here much more shaded with a level of mistrust between the two of them which keeps on re-surfacing.
We also have Hugh Grant as Commander Waverley of British Intelligence (Leo G.Carroll in the TV series) who has a rather more hands-on role than his earlier TV counterpart, where he'd been reduced to little more than uttering wise words and bon mots from his H.Q. ivory tower.

However - and I do need to say this before going further - I found this an unexpectedly dull film! Unexpected, particularly because it's directed by none other than Guy Ritchie, whose trademark is non-stop action punctuated by scenes of graphic violence, sometimes sustained to inordinate length. There is violence here too, certainly, but it's much more toned down from his usual style.  

The story starts in Berlin at a time when it was divided into sectors, the Russian quarter divided from the other three by heavily guarded fences and a 'no-man's land', before the Wall had gone up. American agent Solo and Russian Kuryakin, pursuing each other as enemies, are thrown together and find they have to work together because of an agreement between the Russians and the West to foil a megalomaniacal Nazi plot intent on taking over the world. This is, in fact, the back story as to how the two main characters are found to be in an unlikely partnership, nearly all of which was dispensed with for the duration of the TV series, though it has a high strategic importance here.
After Berlin the action moves to Italy where it remains for the rest of the film, in Rome and off the Italian coast. There's the expected involvement with Italian hoodlums as well as teasing from female, power-hungry personages - and a climax drawing in warheads, both conventional and nuclear. It's all very 1960s, cold war, sub-James Bond-style. In fact the TV series, which I generally found more compelling than this film, was one of several of the spy genre in various guises to emerge out of the the popularity peak of Ian Fleming's Bond novels - and the concept, looking dated now, doesn't wear very well when trying to recreate it for 21st century viewers. (I do wonder whether much of the audience will know sufficient about this period of history anyway - or have even heard of the 'Cold War'!).

Although I'd watched the series back in the 60s (in black and white, of course, though later episodes had been made in colour) I was never a really avid fan. It did used to pass away an agreeably entertaining hour on Friday evenings at a time when there were only two channels to choose from. It was also decidedly 'family' viewing, which this film is for only part of the time.
I heard Hammer saying that both he and Cavill had never seen any episodes of the original series. (In fact, I think he said that they'd never even heard of it - which is not so surprising in that it has, rather unfairly I'd suggest, dropped out of collective memory).

It could be that the fault of the film lies in that to me none of the actors on screen (and several off-screen crew too, I'd surmise, including Ritchie himself) seem to have their hearts in it.  There's little flair to the acting, directing or script. Even the few attempts at some dry, sardonic humour largely fall flat.

Btw: For those who didn't know (and I had to look it up to remind myself), the acronym U.N.C.L.E. = United Network Command for Law Enforcement - which in today's political contexts sounds almost quasi-reactionary.

This is another of those films where my opinion is out of step with that of the majority which, as at now on IMDb, give it an average rating of 7.6. I can't go anywhere near that score. I'd hoped that this film would have delivered more - and I don't think my verdict was solely affected by my remembering the TV series on which it was based, though maybe my opinion just might have been a wee bit higher had I not been aware of its origins.
I've seen nearly all of Guy Ritchie's films, and out of those I think that this one is his least satisfactory to date. I can only award it a disappointing..................3.5.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Film: 'The Diary of a Teenage Girl'

San Francisco, 1976.
15-year old Minnie has her first sexual experience(s), she being played by the actually 23 year old, English actress, Bel Powley - and, I must say, making a most convincing depiction of that age, as well as her acting American. (She was also very recently seen as a Princess Margaret of similar age in 'A Royal Night Out').

Needless to say, things get complicated from the outset when her mutually-attracted partner is her mother's (Kristen Wiig) live-in boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard), he being a fair bit more than twice her age.

Minnie's sexual awakening is the cue for several such 'experiences' (fairly explicit in a 'soft porn' kind of way) - and not solely with the man who is, in all but name, her 'step-dad'. All the while, her coke-snorting, heavy drinking, chain-smoking mother is oblivious as to what's going on. Minnie, meanwhile, is recording her thoughts onto tape - from which you might be able to guess how the film's climax comes about.
Minnie is an aspiring and talented cartoon-illustrator, a good excuse for the screen at certain moments briefly to feature animated figures and patterns in quite impressive and entertaining ways.

I was afraid that the story might feature sequences of cloying sentiment but it does largely avoid these. However, although the film's central focus on Bel Powley's character is reassuringly very strong, I was wondering at several points whether this Minnie was portrayed as a bit too emotionally self-controlled for these watershed moments in her life's learning and development.

First time director, Marielle Heller, is also the film's co-writer, based on a novel by the other screenplay writer, Phoebe Gloeckner. Heller does a pretty good job and all the acting is of high quality. Such soundtrack as there is is basically (too loud for me) rock tracks of the era, played as part of the story's incidentals.

It's a star vehicle for Bel Powley who deserves praise for her portrayal of someone so much younger than the actress actually is. However, in the end I was left with a general feeling towards the whole film of "So what?"

I've given quite a number of films that I've seen recently a rating which leans towards the 'better than average' side without being in the 'must-see' category. This is another.....................6.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Film: 'Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation'.

There's been a dearth of films worth stirring oneself for lately but this major release always held the promise of superficial thrills in the manner of previous in the series. And this it delivers - brash, noisy, almost unintelligible plot (but does it matter? Not really) - and, dammit, it's pretty exciting. One of those 'leave-your-brains-at-the-door' films, and no worse for that.

Cultist Tom Cruise does his Superman act as FBI agent Ethan Hunt again, aided by miniaturised computer gadgetry and aps galore (not to mention his own physical prowess and skills), assisted by the welcome, uplifting presence of Simon Pegg as his MI6 partner. Then there's Rebecca Ferguson (whose first major screen role this appears to be) - as an enigmatic side-shifting agent (or is she?) with all of Hunt's skills and sharing his ludicously unerring firearm accuracy in which, unlike their opponents, they score a bullseye with every shot. Hunt and Pegg are trying to find out who is at the root of a nefarious international organisation called 'The Syndicate', bent on hijacking the world's finances for their own dastardly ends. In addition there's Alec Baldwin and Jeremy Renner as FBI big-wigs, never quite sure of how far to trust Hunt, and both practically soiling their pants in the process, especially the former. Another 'biggish' name is Ving Rhames who, if he gets any broader, will soon be a human walking rectangle!

Most of the film takes place in London (that's England, we're informed), with a very short early sequence in Havana (Cuba!) and more substantial episodes in Casablanca (Morocco - including an extended car chase through the narrow streets and alleys in broad daylight, with not a soul about!) and Vienna (yes, that's right, the Vienna in Austria). The latter is a very entertaining section at the opera (where I've actually been) during a performance of Puccini's 'Turandot', the music cut and pasted about, but crucially including, what else, but 'Nessun Dorma'. Aficianados of Alfred Hitchcock films will note the resemblance of this scene to the climactic Royal Albert Hall scene in 'The Man Who Knew Too Much'.
As required, the London scenes had to include a number of the usual touristy backdrops. I thought the inclusion of the Tower of London was an interesting and unusual move but, sadly, the location wasn't exploited at all.

The film's director (and writer) was Christopher McQuarrie, probably best known for his screenplay for 'The Usual Suspects'. He does what one would expect here, without blazing any trails.

The film passed a Summer's afternoon pleasantly enough, and if you like this sort of mindless, forgettable stuff it'll be right up your street. Importantly, I don't regret the expense and time I invested....................6.

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.