Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Film: 'The Mercy'

The story of one Donald Crowhurst's brave but foolhardy (only on hindsight?) attempt in 1968 to become, in a race, the first person to sail around the world non-stop and solo, when up to then his sailing experience had been little more than localised boat trips. I can just about recall the news at the time on his having been found to have falsified his submitted locations in order to mislead the public and media back home into thinking that he was making spectacular progress on his venture, but I couldn't remember how it had ended. 
It's this cheating aspect that gives this otherwise 'not another!' story its unusual, more interesting angle. If it had not been based on fact we might have seen the intrepid, would-be hero courageously taking to the high seas and battling the elements, all with a cat on board which would have come to a nasty end. Thankfully there's none of that here.  

Colin Firth, in a role that seems to fit him like a glove, plays Crowhurst, who leaves his wife (Rachel Weisz) and two young children behind in Devon (the film's director, James Marsh - who also did 'The Theory of Everything' - hails from next-door Cornwall), to enter a round-the-world race, he having staked his house as security for financing the building of his trimaran vessel and his attempt, success in coming first would guarantee him fame and riches. Local interest is fierce, played out foremost by local newspaper reporter, David Thewlis (too little seen on screen these days).
It's not long after his feted departure that Crowhurst's problems start appearing and mounting up, making him quickly aware how ill-equipped he is, both in terms of his own expertise and the dubious reliability through ill-construction of his boat - not to mention the mental capacity he requires to see his difficulties through. His near despair at lack of meaningful progress takes him to the fateful decision to phone in fictitious locations to give the lie that his speed is surpassing all expectations. (I suppose that nowadays there'd be some means of satellite tracking to verify where the person actually is?) And the outcome? As you almost certainly won't know the story you'll just have to see it.

I felt it was a reasonable enough film. It's hard to see how else they could have played it out, being tied to the facts as we now know them looking back. There's little room for imagination, though all the players come out of it with heads held fairly high - though, Rachel Weisz gets to be little more than a shadow for her husband who is, unsurprisingly, the film's strong focus.     

An unusual story, certainly, though its curious nature results in a mere momentary pause before one passes onto the next item of interest - much like this film itself.............6.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Film: 'Journey's End'

You're not likely to come out of seeing this with a song in your heart. But if you're hankering after a practically unremittingly bleak World War One drama set almost entirely within the narrow muddy confines of a dug-out trench and its adjacent quarters, with an all-male cast (apart from a few seconds of a female form just before the close), then this should fit the bill for you.

You may well be familiar with the film's title as I was from the stage play (1928) by R.C.Sheriff, and which I'd seen some decades ago - the play being followed by a novel based on the theatre version. Even in this film adaptation it's pretty clear that it's tailor-made for the stage. There is little attempt here to open it up cinematically, which is good for it retaining its essentially claustrophobic atmosphere.

It takes place in 1918 in northern France, a few months before the Armistice, where a British contingent is holed up right on the front line, and knowing that a German offensive will be launched two days hence. They have been drawn the short straw in that in interchanging manning of the trench they are the ones who will be there to try to stop or hinder the German advance. It's these two days of waiting which creates the film's tension, and this is indeed ratcheted up quite effectively. Much understandable bickering and loss of tempers between the men reveals their suspense of waiting, not knowing which of them, if any, will survive to tell the tale. Attempts at humour are brief and usually fall flat.

Sam Claflin plays the nervous wreck of a Captain, finding it hard enough to keep his own composure never mind the jumpy men under his command. He's joined by Asa Butterfield as a wet-behind-the- ears young officer eager to play his part while trying to conceal his natural anxieties. It's the first time I've seen Butterfield since his appearance as the titular 'Hugo' in Scorsese's 2011 film of that name, a film for which, having now seen four times, I still retain considerable affection. In 'Hugo' Butterfield was then a boy. Now, of course, he's become a young man, and showing good potential as an up and coming actor.  

Among the rest of the cast there's Paul Bettany, as well as the always reliable Toby Jones, though his is little more than a bit-part.

Director Saul Dibbs ('Suite Francaise', 'The Duchess') does a fine job of transferring the play (as adapted by Simon Reade) to the screen, though it does still betray its theatrical source. I felt myself  wishing that I'd rather have seen it again with the immediacy and involvement of a live production. Perhaps anyone coming to this film without knowledge of its origin will appreciate it more.

Violence in the climactic battle scene is not shown in lingering close-ups, so there's little need to shield the eyes.
Colour throughout is in appropriate sepia and muddy tints.

Good enough, then, but I don't think it says anything that can't be said more effectively in the setting of live theatre..................6.5.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Film: 'Phantom Thread'

Well, only five weeks into the year with just nine films seen and I can already declare that in my opinion this will be the film of 2018 - and possibly even the decade! I returned home one hour ago after an hour's bus journey, and I haven't come down yet.

Self-proclaimed by Daniel Day-Lewis as being his filmic swansong appearance, if it's true then he's going out on a high which simply could not be any higher. He has never been better - and considering every single role he's taken where he's never been even a shade less than breathtakingly impressive, here he reaches the summit. 
No less deserving of praise is the Luxembourgoise actress, Vicky Krieps, she and Day-Lewis making a riveting companionship in acting, augmented by the august presence of Lesley Manville. These three are the only significant characters of this totally absorbing film. 
American director Paul Thomas Anderson has made some extraordinarily memorable films (incl. 'There Will Be Blood', also with Day Lewis - and 'Magnolia' , though I do wish I'd had the chance to see his 'Punch Drunk Love') - and here once again his characteristic spell works wonders.

London 1950s, it's in the world of haute couture, where slightly ageing bachelor, Day-Lewis, runs a much-in-demand dressmaking business for 'society ladies', assisted by his sister (Manville). In a 'normal', everyday restaurant he's served by a waitress (Krieps) to whom he takes a fancy, and after a little gentle verbal teasing by him this is reciprocated. They quickly become friends and he takes her back to his large residence/workshop, where he has about ten experienced, mature women who come in daily for dressmaking work, his sister presiding over everything yet ever deferring to his will and decisions. The arrival of the new young woman raises a few eyebrows but nothing is said. Meantime, the Day-Lewis character is all quiet gentleness exuding affability - but could that be the cover for something rather like a tightly coiled spring...........? 
The story carries on from there, basically following the relationship between the two central individuals. Anyone familiar with Daphne du Maurier's excellent novel 'Rebecca' (one of my all-time favourite books) will pick up on the strong resonances between that work and this film - but situation-wise rather than denouement.

It's hard to say more without giving away more than I'd wish to. It's far better not knowing which way the compelling story's going to turn. I'll only say that the film is close to being flawless, though my sole quibble is that right at the end something happens, the reaction to which by one of the three principals is just a fraction less convincing in the light of what we know about that person's character through what's gone before. But it didn't affect my overall appreciation one jot.  

Mention must also be made of the outstanding soundtrack. In addition to original music written by Jonny Greenwood there are excerpts of both jazz and classical (mostly chamber) music, all expertly chosen without being distracting. I loved it all, nothing being jarringly out of place.
Oh yes, and there's a high quality script too.

The film may not be to everybody's tastes, but there's no doubt that it hit the spot for me. If you suspect it just might be the kind of film you'd like, I do urge you to go, please!...............8.5.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Film: 'The Post'

Spielberg shows here that he can still really deliver when he keeps a tight rein on his sentimental side. I found this film better than just 'good' - yet somehow not having quite the sharp bite that the last major journalistic film had, namely 'Spotlight' of 2015. That's perhaps to do with the subject matter of the latter being right up to date (Catholic Church cover-up of child molestation by clergy - still just as topical even now!) and this present film dealing with an historical event (1971), albeit with very pertinent resonances to today relating to control of the press by the American President. 

 Meryl Streep (that well-known actress described as over-rated by you-know-who) is Kay Graham who has just become head of 'The Washington Post' and is plunged into a baptism of fire. She and her lead reporter Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, smoking more than I've ever seen him before - in fact, that I recall him doing at all since his self-celebratory cigar in 'Philadelphia') get wind of a crisis looming at neighbouring 'New York Times'.
Background is 'The Pentagon Papers', the results of a study commissioned way back in the 1940s by then President F.D.Roosevelt into the feasibility of winning the then Indo-China War which morphed into the VietNam War. The conclusion was that victory against the Communist forces was well nigh impossible. Successive administrations under Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and right up to then President Nixon had all colluded to keep the results secret from the public while futilely continuing to send out hundreds of  thousands of troops, many thousands to their deaths and many more coming back with life-maiming injuries, all under the public deception that America was winning. No President wanted to be the one who was seen to be in charge when defeat came.
The White House discovers that the N.Y.Times has received copies of that report and intends to publish the story, so Nixon weighs in with forceful threats of dire consequences of wholesale prison terms if they go ahead. Graham and Bradlee (Streep and Hanks) are watching on the sidelines until they themselves receive the very same source material - and so the question becomes one of should they then publish, irrespective of which way the 'Times' decides to go, though especially if the Times decides not to go ahead.

The tension in the film grows quite effectively, though the subject being historical, it lacks the present-day indignation which I'd felt in the 'Spotlight' film, and it therefore was not like being screwed to quite the same high level pitch.

The acting is as remarkable as one might expect from its two main stars, though seeing Streep transform in the course of the film from a slightly nervous and gauche novice company head among all-male work colleagues and board meetings, into someone with a confident mind of her own, was a object lesson for an actor's 'how-to-do-it' manual.   

It's a significant film, not without ever-growing relevance to today's politics, and everyone comes out of it well. I'll be surprised if it fails to pick up the Oscar or two it deserves, though if it happens it'll probably be in the 'lesser' categories. Nevertheless, 'The Post' gets my unequivocal approval......................7.5

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Film: 'The Florida Project'

Following yesterday's let-down, this was decidedly better.
It's been around a few weeks and I caught it on its very final screening in this area. Not being seduced by some good reviews, I'd avoided it on knowing that it featured young kids, and there's little that riles me more on film than to see little brats spouting bons mots and advice on how to live life in a manner way beyond their years to adults who are amazed at the kids' precocity. There being nothing else on which I hadn't already seen and wasn't a kiddie-aimed film, I decided to give it a go - with gritted teeth. As it turned out, my apprehensions were groundless.

In the hinterland around Disney World, Willem Dafoe (in a role which fits him like a glove) is the manager/odd-job man for a group of cheap residential apartment blocks, out beyond the expensive hotels and motels or even mid-priced ones. The residents consist mainly of families in difficult circumstances, with kids running amok and engaged in anti-social behaviour, tenants sometimes in rent arrears, some with alcohol or drug-related problems . 
One of the residents is single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, excellent) with 6-year old daughter, Moonie (Brooklyn Prince, also very good), the little girl having been infected with the 'so what!' attitude of her mother as well as her cheekiness, and roams around (no school attendance) with her similar-aged friends (mainly one boy and another girl) causing annoyance in all directions with their antics.  But mother doesn't give a fig what they get up to, as long as there's no danger of their being evicted. She's continually behind on her rent but manages to pay on time - just. It's not hard to guess where her income comes from, but we aren't shown anything of her 'trade' nor any of her 'customers'.
She and her daughter run riot in stores and eateries, all of which she just about gets away with, thanks to bare-faced lies which come as easily to her as breathing, much to the exasperation of staff and managers. It's Dafoe who's most sorely tried and he keeps issuing ultimata about the behaviour of the two of them, though he also exhibits a soft spot for their plight, particularly warmly towards the little girl. Then the authorities get involved.........

It's an unassuming little story, totally credible as well as being captivating in its way. Dafoe is marvellous. Even being aware of his considerable acting experience it was easy to see him as the put-upon apartments manager.

Director (and co-writer) Sen Baker demonstrates a sensitivity to the difficult subject and I'd be hard-pressed to point out where it could have been improved.  

I liked it..................7.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Film: 'Molly's Game'

I was drawn to seeing this by majority positive reviews, though the story turned out to be largely lost on me. So uninvolving it was that I felt like an outsider looking on to a subject which left me cold, and a female protagonist whose fate I couldn't really care much about. I can only assume that the Jessica Chastain character, at the centre of the 'Molly' story, was supposed to attract one's sympathies. Not me.

Filmed mainly in Toronto, a former ace-skier (reflecting the true story) Molly Bloom - a name which some might recognise from a certain 20th century literary classic, referred to in this film -  sets up her own poker joint for celebrity clientele (stars, sportsmen, and other affluents) after being slighted too many times by her former employer who had lured her into working for him in his gambling den, she taking most of his famous clients with her in an act of hubris. Unfortunately, and not exactly unsurprisingly, gambling $ooo's at a time running up into millions, these men include big-time mobsters, a state of affairs which eventually has violent consequences for her personally. Legal ramifications and possible criminal violations also ensue with her activities - and Idris Elba appears as her lawyer in basically functional appearances. There are a few illustrations of poker games, but it all goes so fast that I quickly got tired of trying to keep up with it.  

Kevin Costner as Molly's psychiatrist father pops up at the start in brief exchanges when she's a young skier (warning: this opening sequence includes what must be the grisliest image of a surgical operation I have ever seen. It lasts for little more than two seconds but will now haunt me for my remaining days. Why do they do this? To make sure we don't fall asleep just a few minutes in?Thanks, director/screenwriter Mr Sorkin!).  Costner makes another unwelcome and too long appearance towards the end where he irritatingly tries to psycho-analyse his daughter to determine where she is in her life. (Who the hell cares? Well, as her father I suppose he might, but we do not!)
Chris O'Dowd also appears as one of the more significant gamblers.

This is writer Aaron Sorkin's first feature as director, a script writer now so (incomprehensibly) revered that for some he can do no wrong. He was responsible for the script for 'The Social Network' (2010), another film where I felt left out in the cold, but which was lauded from all directions for some reason. Granted that a lot of my problem with that film was that with so much lazy mumbling of the lines I didn't have a clue as to what was going on. There isn't quite that problem with this film, though the lines do come so fast that I found it hard to keep up with it, and if I'd been with someone I'd have felt stupid if I'd asked "What the hell is going on?" - though I suspect I'm far from being alone. (I must say that I found Sorkin's script for 'Steve Jobs' better than 'Social Network' - or what I heard of it - or for this film.) 

I don't understand why there's been quite the buzz about this film that there is. Maybe poker connoisseurs will get more out of it than I did - but did it really merit its near-epic length of 2hrs20? I suggest a "NO!"...........5.


Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Film: 'Darkest Hour'

Another  film about Winston Churchill? It needed a very fine director like Joe Wright to raise it to the high interest level - and he's achieved it. But it's Gary Oldman's extraordinary physical transformation which makes this depiction of the man little less than sensational. He'd have been one of the last people in the profession who I'd have thought could have pulled it off this successfully.

Confined to the days preceding and following Churchill's appointment as Prime Minister, it covers his first major challenge, the 'baptism of fire' which was Dunkirk (May 1940) when almost the entire British army, stranded on the northern French coast, was threatened with wholesale annihilation.

It's a very wordy film with minimal actual pictorial 'action'. Two-thirds of the way through I found myself feeling exhausted with the relentless ins and outs of politics and arguments over war policy and campaign tactics, dominated by whether the country ought to accept a Mussolini-offered peace intervention with the Nazi regime in order to prevent impending slaughter.

Oldman works miracles with his towering and believable performance under all that make-up, though you can still discern that characteristic twinkle in his eyes and the shadow of a smile on his lips - which may actually have been authentic as regards the man he's playing for all I know. 
Everyone else in the cast takes a back seat, even Kristin Scott Thomas as his dutiful but sternly loyal wife, Clemmie. Remarkable as she always is, she doesn't have much to do other than offer support to the P.M. in a few scenes, none of which is extended very far.
Much the same applies to Lily James as his faithful, patient secretary, obedient to a fault.
Among the rest of a strong cast it was good to see stalwart Ronald Pickup as outgoing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a more substantial role than we've seen Pickup in for many a year.
Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI is also deserving of mention.

There was one cheesy episode, an invented scene where Churchill, exasperated with the slow progress of his taxi in traffic-clogged London streets, gets out, and alone and unprotected, decides to use the underground system to get to Parliament. In the train carriage everyone immediately recognises him. (Would they, considering that then hardly anyone had a TV? Would the odd newspaper photo have been enough? Then there'd also be cinema newsreels, I suppose, so maybe.) During this time, in what must be the longest one-stop underground journey in central London ever, they all show him solid support, giving him the confidence to banish any doubts he had about his actions. At this point I half expected someone to start humming the 'God Save the King' (or better still - 'There'll Always be an England'), only for others to gradually take it up, standing erect, and ending in a free-for-all sing-along - the sort of thing that would happen only too readily in a film of the 1940s or 50s.

Having just won the Golden Globe for Best Actor, Gary Oldman must surely win the equivalent upcoming BAFTA prize. It would hardly do for him, who has not yet won any film acting award, to be overlooked when a non-British organisation has awarded him this prestige. But it would be well deserved - he's never been better, and very few other actors have been this good!

This film confirms Joe Wright as one of my favourite younger directors, following his remarkable 'Atonement' (2007) and 'Anna Karenina' (2012). He has a lively imagination and a keen eye, always seeking to avoid the hackneyed. His mastery of the film medium, despite this being a highly verbalised film, is practically flawless - and he's still so young!

For the first hour or so of this two-hour film I might have been inclined to award it a rating of '8', equal to yesterday's viewing. But then an aural exhaustion started setting in and by the end my opinion had sagged slightly. Even so, I must score it almost as high if only for Gary Oldman's extraordinary appearance and incredible performance.............7.5.