Thursday, 3 January 2013

Film: 'PITCH PERFECT'

I might have given this film a wide berth had it not been for reviews talking about an oblique kind of humour, and that was enough to sell it to me. As it turned out, it wasn't quite as edgy or as quirky as I'd hoped, though it was by no means a waste of time and money.

It concerns an a capella female group at an American university aiming for an annual title, their previous year's attempt having been thwarted by a gross-out, mid-performance 'accident' by one of their members. Their main rivals are a similarly-numbered male group. (Cue - M/F rivalries, romantic links, suspicions of 'betrayals' and so on.) All the musical stagings are done with distinct verve, even exhileratingly so, though it's not until the very end in the final competition that we get to see a number performed complete and without interruption. Throughout the film all the acts (and there a satisfying number of them) consist of medleys of pop hits of very recent decades.

I don't think I winced at the antics on screen even once, which is really saying something, considering the ages of the main characters. The musical numbers certainly gave the film a lift, but in between them, the storyline was of no more than very moderate interest, though not being exactly vacuous either.

Not greatly disappointing then, though maybe my hopes had been just a wee bit too high........6/10 would be fair.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Film: 'QUARTET'

This was a most agreeable start to my film-viewing year - something I wasn't expecting one little bit! It's Dustin Hoffman's first venture into feature film directing, and one of which he has every right to be pleased, even proud.

A quintessentially English tale (though the subject could be pretty well universal) by the veteran British playwright, Ronald Harwood and based on his stage play, performed with a stalwart, stellar, and entirely British cast.
The 'quartet' of the title refers to four former opera-singer residents of a largish home for retired musicians, while the impetus of the story arises from their wishing (or otherwise) to perform together a quartet from 'Rigoletto' in a small-scale concert at the home to commemorate Verdi's birthday.

The cast is uniformly first-class, as one might expect, but Billy Connolly deserves special mention for his mischievous twinkling and impish humour - while Maggie Smith (is there no getting away from that woman?), as the 'fly-in-the-ointment' late arrival at the home, shows just why she is such a very good actress, conveying both depths and subtle switches of emotion with no more than a pursed lip, or the raising of an eyebrow or a slightly altered tone of voice.

I was dreading all the 'old people' cliches - bitching among themselves, cantankerous exchanges, toilet functions, the residents being patronised by the younger members of staff etc. There is certainly the first three of these but it's all carried off without appearing over-hackneyed. Must confess that I wasn't particularly looking forward to this film, being one of several in recent months which has had aged people in central roles. Given my own years it's a subject I don't want to have my nose rubbed into, so it was with some surprise to find that I was enjoying it so much. (The dialogue in particular needs commending. It's a first-rate screenplay.)
An added bonus for me was that I hadn't realise that one of the smaller roles is taken by none other than the Dame Gwyneth Jones, whom I've seen a few times on the operatic stage, the last occasion being when she sang the title role in 'Turandot' at Covent Garden in the early 90's. Although I've never actually met her in person, she is, or was, an acquaintance of a gay friend with whom I still have contact. Must ask him if he knew that she was going to be in this film. She has a small speaking role but near the end of the film, at this concert, she's allowed to sing a truncated version of a particular well-known aria (I'm not saying which!)

So, that was a happy start to 2013. May it continue in this vein. Meantime I'm more than pleased to award 'Quartet' a.......7.5/10






Monday, 31 December 2012

Film: 'MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN'

Based on his book, which I read many moons ago, Rushdie both adapts it for the screen and he himself provides the voice-over narration. So one has to assume that he is satisfied with the result.

It chronicles the life of a baby boy born to a poor couple, who is the victim, shortly after birth, of a hopelessly misguided, though well-meaning, baby-swap in a maternity ward into an affluent household. (A sort of 'Prince and the Pauper' scenario). We see the boy growing up right into his 30s - all against a backdrop of Indian independence in 1947, war with, and separation, of Pakistan and the secession from the latter of Bangladesh in the 1970s. The boy, then man, with whom he was swapped becomes his rival - the secret kept by the woman who did the swap becomes his (the upper class one's) ayah or nanny, until when he's a young man, conscience-stricken, she blurts out to his purported 'parents' what she did.

I found the whole film a very heavy experience. It's of almost epic-length (very nearly 2 1/2 hours) and is virtually entirely humourless from start to finish. I don't recall one single, fleeting, smile-worthy moment. Even the festivities of wedding celebrations are comparatively staid.
Naturally, to cover some 60 years (it starts with the main character's grandfather in 1917) it must necessarily be episodic, but the jumps in time were not handled any more than perfunctorily.
I would single out for acting honours Satya Bhabha playing the main character, Saleem, as adult - but even moreso, Seema Biswas as the ayah harbouring her dreadful guilty secret. 

It's by no means a bad film - but neither is it one to remember for long afterwards. It's failure to set my interest alight compels me to score it no more than a...................5/10

Monday, 24 December 2012

My TEN most enjoyed films of 2012

1. HUGO
A prime example of what cinema can do best. Near-faultless, fantastical tale of human emotions, adventure, whimsy and suspense. Scorsese continues to surprise us with the astonishing range of his cinematic artistry. A stand-out production in all respects.





2. ANNA KARENINA
An object lesson in how to adapt from one medium to another with imagination, confidence and panache. It mightn't have worked - indeed, for some, it didn't - but I find it hard to point to anything here I'd like to have changed. Even its modest and digestible length, compared to what the original source might have demanded, was one of its strengths - and that, coupled with acting of a uniformly high order, made it a peak of my cinema-going this year.



3. CARNAGE
Possibly my most controversial choice for inclusion here. Relentlessly funny, though many didn't see it as such. I was on the required wavelength from the word 'go' - watching with delight as those four masks slipped and poses cracked. It's the old cliche about being on a roller-coaster and can't get off, but this is exactly where this quartet finds itself. The trajectory they must follow is advance-determined. Terrific entertainment.




4. HYSTERIA
Another funny one, but with more light and shade. Humour concerning manual manipulation of the female leading to the invention of the vibrator. Exceedingly amusing without being overly vulgar. All coupled with top-notch acting equals high entertainment value.







5. ARGO
One of the true surprises of the year. A real achievement to make such a suspenseful film out of a fact-based story whose outcome is known, even if the final escape as depicted was somewhat engineered for filmic ends. A hugely significant contribution from Affleck and his team.



6. THE DESCENDANTS
Original (to me) story and a gripping family drama. Clooney proves again that he can really pull something out of the hat.

7. KILLER JOE
Corrupt police, drug dealing, characters scarily unhinged, bloody violence - what's not to like? Effective drama. A surprise.

8. SIGHTSEERS. 
Modest, British crime caper involving two caravanners who inadvertantly become serial killers. Despite the sombre subject, some funny moments and, though only seen a couple of weeks ago, I already want to see again. It got under my skin.

9. THE ARTIST
I'd have to include this somewhere, though in many people's lists it might be higher than this position. It earns its place for me by being an original concept (at least for these days) and, despite its flimsy storyline, still being compelling entertainment.

10. HEADHUNTERS
Norwegian thriller, twisting and turning with such effectiveness as is rarely seen. Keeps one on one's toes right to the end - and beyond!


And the films I saw which, though well-deserving of a place, didn't quite make the final cut:-

The Iron Lady
The Deep Blue Sea
The Hunger Games
Blackthorn
Woody Allen - a Documentary
The Imposter
Skyfall
Amour


Films I really badly wanted to see but couldn't or wouldn't - 'Martha Marcy May Marlene', 'End of Watch' and 'Tyrannosaur', the last one I deliberately missed because it starts with the kicking to death of a dog. Pity, as it had everything else going for it.


It's been, on the whole, an exceptionally good year, with real clunkers being less in evidence than at other times. Here's hoping that 2013 follows the pattern!

Friday, 14 December 2012

Film: 'THE HOBBIT - AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY' (in 3D)

I see from the IMDb site that, as at now, over 60% of people who have seen this film give it a 'couldn't be better' score of 10/10. I wouldn't go that far by quite some way, but I certainly did enjoy it as superior entertainment.

I went to see this more as a 'dutiful' viewing rather than with great enthusiasm. Not that I dislike the books, far from it, but I don't belong to the hordes of avid fans of the characters as portrayed in both the four novels and on screen. Also, not being quite as familiar with the source material of this particular film than I was for the 'Rings' trilogy, it probably helped in that I hadn't a ready recollection of what was going to happen next - notwithstanding the fact that this film and its two forthcoming companions greatly expand the tale as written.

There was obvious padding out, unusually and needlessly, towards the start of the film. Of course the link with its sequels-in-time had to be done, but for some time after that the scene-setting did go on more than I needed to see. But, when that was over, I found the film getting progressively more interesting. The scenery throughout  is absolutely ravishing, I'd claim even more so than it looked in the 'Rings'. Perhaps C.G.I. was used for part of it, particularly in superimposing figures onto a particular landscape, but most of it looked authentic - and quite breathtaking too. 

The high point for me was, as it was in the previous films, the appearance of Gollum. What a magnificent job Andy Serkis and the computer chaps have done in creating one of the most memorable characters ever to appear on the cinema screen. His appearances alone (not very long in the totality of the film), were worth the price of the ticket. Compulsive viewing indeed.

I liked Martin Freeman as the young Bilbo Baggins (one can imagine easily him ageing into Ian Holm) - and just about all the other characters were well up to the demands. Particularly pleasing to see Christopher Lee back, even for just a very few minutes, after cruelly being excised out of 'Rings 3'.

I'm quite looking forward to the next part - something I wasn't expecting to be saying. Meantime my own rating for 'An Unexpected Journey' is a fine...............7/10


Thursday, 13 December 2012

Film: 'GREAT EXPECTATIONS'

I had to fight hard against a strong resistance to liking this film for the totally unfair reason that I've got Dickens overflowing out of every single orifice by now, having (yawn!) re-read all the novels in this bi-centennial anniversary year of his birth. (Sorry, but I promise not to mention it again - at least in 2012.) But, pleased to report, it won me over.

This is the celebrated tale of a boy being elevated from his menial life in a smithy by a mysterious benefactor, to be brought up in London as a 'gentleman', among a largely odious bunch of Hooray Henrys. His required attendance on the enigmatic and embittered Miss Havisham who entertains herself by making him associate with the snobbish and spoilt Estella to whom he finds himself increasingly attracted - unrequited love, his see-saw of fortunes, revealed identities - all these are the ingredients of a quite masterful story, certainly one of the author's very best - and that really is saying something!

The film has a good momentum, fine location shooting, very atmospheric and a good cast among whom I would single out Jason Flemyng, totally convincing as Pip's uneducated uncle Joe Gargery.
Now, as to the ubiquitous Helena Bonham Carter, whom even I thought was far too young for the role of Miss Havisham, a character I think we all see as a senile, wizened beldam (and made even more of a substantial part in this film than she is in the novel)  - I heard an interview with her only last week when that very point was put. She explained, quite convincingly, that if one worked out her age from what Dickens reveals about her late in the novel, she would be unlikely to have been aged mid-40s at most. I've checked this out and I'm inclined to agree. H.B.C. suggests that we have become so dependent on thinking of the character portrayed in visual representations, films and TV adaptations as a brittle and hardened old crone that we take this as Dickens' vision too. (Mind you, if the author had got his own calculations wrong, it would be by no means a unique case!) I'm prepared to accept that what she says is true, and next time I read 'Gt.Exp.' I'll bear it in mind.

My only real complaint (yet again) is the insistent music which tries to dictate the emotions we should be feeling at any given point. But it's not a serious blemish on an otherwise very worthy adaptation..............7/10 





Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Film: 'SIGHTSEERS'

The second comedy film in two days to feature a series of murders as the raison d'etre of its black humour. And not only that, but both films have a significant, though not central, canine element. I enjoyed this one more by some way.

'Sightseers' has a small cast (entirely unknown to me), a clearly much smaller budget than 'Seven Psychopaths', lower ambitions, more restrained in execution and shorter than yesterday's film by half an hour - and it all works a treat!

A youngish London couple go off for a caravan (and 'bonking')  holiday to Yorkshire and the Lake District. Immediately on reaching their first destination they encounter a litter lout and, being given the finger, he silently snaps inside - running the chap over 'accidentally' and killing him. She is shocked and he feigns remorse - but he has now been bitten by the 'killing bug'. When he gets irritated by another couple's pretentiousness he disposes of the guy - and she steals their dog to replace her own pet, which had met its end in a brief, grisly flashback, by accident a year previously. But she has now also been 'infected' by the same murder bug. They continue on their travels, each of them now putting an end to those people to whom each takes a dislike. (There aren't, in fact, that many of them). A lot of the humour arises from their shared nonchalance at killing which was not at all premeditated when they'd embarked on their travels. They both retain a sense of detachment from the consequences of their killing spree though she develops an additional 'nasty streak' culminating in a slight twist in the very closing moments which, despite being not entirely surprising, leaves me with an uncomfortable after-taste. Unlike the film I saw yesterday, this one manages to maintain its darkly comic tone almost right through to the end.

The two main characters make an engaging couple who certainly have their laughs together. However, also with regular tiffs and sulks, we are still on their side from the very start, and can smile along at their outrageously criminal behaviour. (Shame on me!) Incidentally, the killings, though brutal, are not depicted quite so egregiously as in yesterdays '7 Psychos'.

It's a very 'English film' and I fear that there's a parochial appeal to it which may not find a ready market outside this country. But one never knows - such unexpected turn-outs have happened before. I certainly hope it does in this case.

No reservations at all in rating 'Sightseers' a .................7.5/10


Btw: I saw this film on my first visit to Brighton's newest cinema - a 2-screener above a theatre mainly for stand-up comics. This particular auditorium is a very plush and ultra-comfortable 90-seater with, proportionally, a huge screen. Pity that I was one of an audience of only five. But it was an 11.15 a.m. showing - and it's early days yet so here's hoping that word is yet to spread around. I do so want it to survive, despite the extra calls which will be made on my own wallet. 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Film: 'SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS'

I had almost decided not to see this film, on the grounds that it featured the kidnapping of dogs in order to extract rewards from their owners. I was afraid we were going to be shown the depiction of animals in distress or suffering, even if they were not so in real life. In the event my concern was misplaced.

I was eventually drawn into going, not just by the high-quality cast list, but it also being director/writer Martin McDonagh's first film since the well-above-average 'In Bruges' of 2008.

Colin Farrell plays a heavy-drinking, Hollywood screenplay writer who already has the title of his next project, the name of this very film. All he's got to do now is to write a story to fit it. His live-in chum, Sam Rockwell, offers his own suggestions and more. They search out likely candidates to fit the bill - and unwittingly find themselves having got involved with the criminal underworld. Here the film deliberately (I assume) mixes fantasy with reality. We don't know if certain scenes, a lot of them extremely violent with bucketloads of gore (though none is lingered over), happen in reality or are part of his creative mind's invention.

I thought it all started splendidly and in highly original fashion. In fact for about the first hour it was, despite, the gruesomeness, very funny indeed, appealing to those who recognised its skewed sense of humour - which, I dare say, some will just not 'get' and may even find tasteless. But I liked it a lot.
    However, as the film progressed it got steadily heavier and more philosophical in tone, which I found a pity. By the final half hour it had all but shed the light and whimsical touch with which it had begun, descending into an unfocussed hodge-podge of ideas on death, vengeance and heaven knows what else. I don't know if this was the path the film maker wanted to take but that's the way it came over to this viewer. In a film shy of two hours length by just a few minutes some judicious editing, particularly in the second hour, could have paid dividends.

One particular issue troubled me - as it also did in 'In Bruges'. The homophobic use of language - the words 'fag', 'queer', 'homo',  even 'gay' - all applied as insults with the implication that the person being addressed will recognise them as hurtful epithets indicating inferiority. This was also the context of their use in 'In Bruges', my sole complaint about that particular film. However, they are not used here very often - maybe half a dozen times. (Just what is it with McDonagh that he feels the need to write these words into his scripts? )  Actually there is also in this latest film a pejorative single use of the 'n' word by the Woody Harrelson character - and the person he's addressing repeats it back to him, but with sarcasm.

Oh, and by the way, there was indeed a small number of dogs featured, though this is very much a lesser aspect of the tale. None of them were seen to be in any discomfort - and though one had a gun put to its head as a threat to its owner, it worked out okay - at least for the dog.

It's a film which starts out very well, and to which I thought I could be awarding a high mark. It certainly did have some marvellous comedic moments but which, unfortunately didn't sustain their initial frequency. As an entity, therefore, I really can't give it any more than a still reasonably respectable................6/10


Thursday, 6 December 2012

Film: 'AMOUR'

Michael Haneke is one of the small handful of directors whose every film nowadays is, for me, an 'event' - and this one is no exception. His recent films have included the chilling 'Hidden', 'The White Ribbon', 'The Piano Player' and, probably the most disturbing film I've seen in all the last 20 years, 'Funny Games' (I mean the Austrian version of 1997. Couldn't bring myself to see the recent American re-make. In any case, why did they feel the need to make one? Answer: Because a re-make in English would make more money!)

This new film, 'Amour', won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year. 'Entertaining' is not the right word for it; 'troubling' it most definitely is. I knew it was going to be a tough watch - and one certainly does have one's emotions put through the wringer

Near the start of the film we see a long-term married couple in their 80s having breakfast together, talking normally. Then, out of the blue, the husband discovers that his wife has gone into a sort of trance, totally frozen and unresponsive. He starts to dress himself, resignedly, to go for help - then, hearing sounds from the kitchen, finds that she has returned to 'normal' - and she doesn't believe it when told what had just happened. It had been her first stroke, of course. In the next scene we see her returning home from a stay in hospital, now in a wheelchair but still fully compos mentis. The film chronicles her deterioration both physical (she loses control of one side of her body) as well as her mental slide, while her husband tries to manage care for her at home, at first alone, then with a nurse. He resists, among arguments, their daughter's earnest and well-meaning calls for her mother to be put in a home in order to get professional round-the-clock care.
It's harrowing to watch the descent into advanced senility and helplessness, all captured so gradually, seamlessly and believably. There are no awkward jerks in time which might have made it look contrived. A lot of the scenes are filmed using a completely stationary camera, viewing what happens like a detached observer. Towards the end there's a shocking event which I hadn't expected - part of which is left unresolved at the film's  conclusion, something which tends to be a feature of Haneke's works. He is not one to tie up loose ends.

This film got under my skin for two particular reasons:-
I am nearer in age to the sad fate (if it is also to be mine) of the woman here than nearly all of my blog-readers.
Also, my own mother, at about the age that I am now, suffered her first stroke, with a very similar effect, when she was in a restaurant with my sister and her husband. An ambulance had to be called. And that event probably signalled the start of her own physical (though not mental) deterioration over the ensuing years.

It's not a film to see if you want a 'happy' experience. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't recommend it. In fact I would do so, but only if you're prepared to steel yourself for a grimly moving, but also strangely satisfying, viewing. 7/10.



Why me? Why now? - a wallet double-whammy!

What have I done to deserve this?
Just a few weeks after having major computer problems here they are again - I can only load this posting slowly and trust to luck that it'll appear correctly.

But not only that, last night my TV went dead - as in 'doornail' - and it remains so this morning.
Of course both problems can be remedied - but they need an input of dosh, something I'm very far from being flushed with right now.

So, re the first one, if I  unaccountably 'disappear' from blogland for a few days you'll know the reason.
I'm still going to try to see a planned film this morning. If I don't go, as it's a one-off showing it's going to be missed forever. Can only keep my fingers crossed that on return I'll be able to post a review.

In addition, next week, a further two art-house cinema screens open in nearby Brighton, giving cause for concern that even if enough money was availble to see all that I want to see (which is extremely doubtful in any case) I'll be spending more time in the cinema than at home, thereby neglecting my pussies. (There was even a new pussy - number five! - at the window this frosty morning). Oh, will these problems never cease?
But at least this computer is still just about working, I think. Definitely going to have to get something done about the telly. Being a news-junkie if I don't hear and see what's going on in the world, gonna go bonkers!
Come on, you lottery - Look this way!