Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Film: 'CLOUD ATLAS'

After a fortnight's dearth of new films I'd been rather hoping that my first experience on return would be something special - and, very happily, it most emphatically was!

I first read David Mitchell's renowned novel two years ago. (It had been short-listed for the 2004 Man Booker prize). Consisting of half a dozen tales, each set in a different period, starting in mid-19th century and ranging up to the 24th century, with connections between them which are both character-wise and manifested in various aspects of the stories. Each segment is given its own style of language and mode of presentation - the latter including first-person narrative in journal form, epistolary format, Q & As as part of an interrogation and third-person espionage-type thriller. Must confess that in my first reading I did find the book perplexing and tough to get through. However, on hearing that it had been filmed, I re-read it recently - and this time did find it quite an astonishing achievement.
 
The book arranges its parts starting with the earliest in time, then going forward in leaps until the central, most-futuristic episode, then retreats in reverse order, ending back in the 19th century where it had begun.
The film, quite understandably, doesn't adopt this pattern but has the six tales running linearly in parallel, jumping between them, seemingly randomly, sometimes for quite a few minutes uninterrupted, at other times for just a few seconds, all with no single tale dominating the others. This may sound confusing but I didn't find that at all. It might also sound off-puttingly heavy, but in both book and film, at least one of the segments is very funny indeed.

As if to underline the connections between the stories, all the major actors (among them Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon) take on multiple roles, each appearing in several of the stories, sometimes close to unrecognisable, and even gender-crossing for some. One really ought to sit and wait for the final credits to find out which ones you will almost certainly not have spotted, some of which made my jaw drop! Great fun! (The last film I remember which employed this feature to a significant extent was Lindsay Anderson's excellent 1973 film 'O Lucky Man' - but 'Cloud Atlas' goes way beyond that in this particular respect. Incidentally, both films are also almost exactly the same length, at just under three hours - though neither of them feel like it).

It had crossed my mind as to whether I would have enjoyed this film as much as I did if I hadn't known the book. At first I thought I might have gone with a positive bias, but then recalled several very favourable reviews I've seen or heard where the person had not been familiar with the novel and were likewise impressed.

In sum, I found this the single most satisfying film I've seen in a very long time - challenging, thrilling, sad, thought-provoking, funny, intriguing, philosophic - you name it, it's all here. So, not for nothing I'm going to award 'Cloud Atlas' a rating I haven't given to any film since I started reviewing on these blogs. An extraordinary film like this deserves an extraordinary score:-

So, applause please for an ..................8.5. 




Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Film: 'HITCHCOCK'

My closest cinema multiplex has eight screens of various sizes. It's not a good sign when a newly-released film is, within a few days, demoted to the smallest screen - euphemistically called "our mini-cinema" -  though there's no reduction in admission charge. So had to catch this quickly before it disappeared entirely; unless it gets a much-needed second wind from its BAFTA-nominated turn from Helen Mirren doing Mrs H., though I doubt if it will.

Anthony Hopkins looks totally unrecognisable under all that bulk. More's the pity then, that despite all the effort, he doesn't look much like Hitch either - a face that was so familiar to those of my generation watching his weekly TV appearance in the late 1950s, when he introduced 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents', half-hourly playlets, usually with slightly bizarre scenarios or twists.  There was actually nothing too outrageously shocking - they were, after all, screened on Tuesday evenings at 7 o'clock at a moment in history when there was a choice of just two channels, BBC and ITV. 

But, accepting that Hopkins is portraying an approximation rather than an imitation, back to the success or otherwise of the actual film.
It deals with his trials and struggles, both with the film companies and censors, to make the famed 'Psycho', a film I was too young to see on its initial release in 1960, though I do clearly recall all the associated hullabaloo, such as how that no one would be admitted into the cinema after the film had started (which turned out to be an added, though unnecessary, gimmick to draw in even greater numbers). I caught it on its re-release in 1966 (in a double-bill with the 1953 'War of the Worlds') and by then it had acquired the enticing allure of 'forbidden fruit'. Since that viewing I have never heard such screams for another film from a cinema audience, or anything even approaching it. Of course 'Psycho' is pretty old hat now, and I know complete stretches of the script off by heart. All subsequent viewings have long since become exercises in filmic analysis rather than the impossible task of recapturing any of the initial thrills and shocks. (I think it was only first shown on our TVs here in the late 1990s).

In this film Helen Mirren was at her usual high standard but I didn't feel it was so outstanding as to have merited her BAFTA nomination, but I'm not complaining about that.
Could have done without the occasional 'ghost' appearances of the character who carried out the murders on which the Robert Bloch book was based. It just muddied the waters and felt as though it was put in to give the film added meaning when none was actually needed.
Scarlett Johannson as Janet Leigh and James D'arcy as Anthony Perkins were both very good.

During the course of the film I was wondering if it would appeal to those who know little or nothing of 'Psycho' or have even heard of Hitchcock - and might therefore miss a lot of the allusions. I dare say that perhaps the majority of today's audience might plead ignorance on both accounts, but I may be mistaken.
The film ends pleasingly enough, allowing one to exit with a little bounce in one's step.

A bit more entertaining than I was expecting, I award it a...................6.5/10



I hope the next Pope is another die-hard bigot.....

.......because it'll continue the R.C. Church's alienation of increasing numbers of its members and give further cause to outsiders to shrug their shoulders and just give up on its absurdities, not to mention the damage done by its pronouncements.
I do find it strange how there seem to be so many still-practising members who only seem to use the Church to go to weekly or occasional mass, and even receiving communion, and then return home and do their own thing, ignoring the Church's strictures on the most personal aspects of their lives. But that's only a feeling I get. Maybe I'm wrong, and they all do, in fact, practice what is preached to them.

    I see that among the contenders to fill the papal red slippers, the most 'liberal' is considered to be Ghanaian Peter Turkson - at 64 a mere chit of a child. However, I think it's safe to conclude that 'liberal' is a relative term in an organisation where anyone with even slightly progressive thoughts about the status of women and gays would never have been allowed to advance to the position of cardinal in the first place. And half of those voting for the next Pontiff were appointed by His Holiness the present ailing one himself - and he would never have allowed any back-stabbers to sidle in unsuspectingly. I shouldn't imagine that there is a single one of those 'qualified' to vote who will support the election of anyone (if such a one exists) who is going to rock the boat and tell them, at their advanced ages, that all their lives they have been wrong!  No, whoever gets this 'crown of gold - sorry, thorns' I'm sure we can look forward to more stern finger-wagging and 'naughty boy' tellings-off at our 'sinfulness', and how we are such a force for corruption and a dire threat to humanity's very existence. And that our only possible salvation lies in our return to grace through repentance - whether we believe in a God (let alone one of the Papal-approved variety) or in an after-life at all.
As a former R.C. myself (why is it such a palaver to 'resign' one's 'membership'?) I eagerly look forward to further instalments of Papal Bull - and whoever sits on the still-warm throne, I'm pretty sure he won't be disappointing us. I think my desire for a suitably qualified bigot to succeed will indeed be fulfilled. The odds are very encouraging.
Deo Gratias.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Film: 'I GIVE IT A YEAR'

I went to this fearing that it might be a waste of time. But it's actually not at all bad.
Nineteen years after the release of 'Four Weddings', that film still casts a long shadow, and comparisons are inevitable.
When this new British comedy starts with a wedding ceremony with an officiating priest being the cause of a single over-extended joke, followed by a deliberately cringe-worthy best man's speech (albeit a funny one), well my resistance was already solidifying. But, must admit, that as the film progressed I did find myself warming to the characters - and there are certainly quite a few funny moments, several of them LOL ones.

Rose Byrne and Rafe Spall (centre, above) play newly-weds seeking counselling help for a marriage which has very quickly foundered. (Spall is the real life son of the now-veteran actor, Timothy Spall. Spall Snr tended to make his name playing bulbous-bodied grotesques and even now he retains his portly figure - so it's a bit surprising that I'm starting to find this sprog of his rather hot.) His character provides behaviour which his 'wife' deems tiresome or obnoxious but which we, seeing it from a distance, is quite amusing.
Among the cast is also the welcome presence of Minnie Driver, whom I don't think I've seen since the film of 'Phantom' nine years ago.
There's also Stephen Merchant (Ricky Gervais' ineffectual, lanky agent in the excellent 'Extras' TV series) whose one-note contribution to this film's humour is to come out with outrageously 'rude' remarks without realising how 'offensive' they are to others present - rather in the manner of Steve Coogan's 'Alan Partridge' character (of which I was a huge fan), though now all with a full-on sexual element. But he delivers his lines well and, I have to say, many of them are very funny.

The film does dip into sentiment towards the end in order to wrap things up neatly, but by then I was interested enough to know how it would turn out.
Still not a patch on 'Four Wedding' though, which was always going to be a tough act to follow, it's not as cohesive as that film was, and there isn't the range of characters here. Nevertheless, I had a pleasant afternoon - and I think when it comes on the telly and I sit down to watch it again, I'll possibly laugh even more....................................6.5/10


(Post-script added following day)
I went to this film yesterday having been aware of Mark Kermode's very thumbs-down review in which he said that he couldn't engage with the characters and hence didn't care what happened to them. As you can see from above, I didn't agree. Now this morning I read Philip French's review in the 'Observer' in which he blows an even bigger raspberry at the whole enterprise. (I wouldn't be surprised to read that he'd been humming the 'Dies Irae' at the time of writing!) So what am I supposed to do? Apologise for having laughed?

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Film: 'HYDE PARK ON HUDSON'

Based on the diaries of Daisy, the real life (several-times- removed) cousin of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, I found this film a disappointingly mundane affair.

Taking place in 1939, Daisy becomes, to her consternation, the object of infatuation - and wandering hands - of the married FDR. (Ooh, the randy devil!) The entire dramatic momentum of the film is provided by the conflicted emotions of Daisy, played by the excellent Laura Linney, almost all the time in sullen mood, reflecting her confusion at being given such unexpected and unwanted attentions. Bill Murray as the Pres is okay.

The film starts in pleasant enough and gentle style but I felt it translating into sluggishness quite soon.   I didn't think the script was especially memorable or noteworthy.
Comic relief is presented in the forms of Samuel West and Olivia Colman as the stammering King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the later-to-become 'Queen Mother', of course). Both resemble nothing like the real royal couple they impersonate, the former especially looking even less like 'Bertie' did than Colin Firth, appearing in 'The King's Speech'. The regularly interspersed  'humorous' scenes featuring this couple relate to their gaucheness, discomfort and ignorance in the unfamiliar milieu of American society (on the first ever visit by a reigning British monarch) - as exemplified in the oft-mentioned 'hot dogs'. (Actually, I don't think I myself knew what this 'snack' was until the 1960s.)

Btw: A film cliche is unimaginatively included. When a character says that s/he doesn't smoke, you can guarantee that before long you will see them puffing away with gay abandon. Oh dear!

A film of passing interest perhaps, but nothing more substantial than that.........................5/10
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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Film: Second time round for 'LES MISERABLES'

For the fifth occasion in the last ten years I've now paid to see a film in the cinema for a second time. (Others were - 'Hugo', 'Inception', 'Mamma Mia!' and 'Chicago')
In my posting of three weeks ago, although I said that I'd quite liked the film I was markedly less enthusiastic about it than just about all the other reviews I've read and blogs seen since, as well being cooler than the opinions of my sister and her hubby who both, on their annual visit to a cinema, were completely bowled over by it. 
So I felt it my 'duty' to give it another go while it was still showing in the medium for which it was intended.

This time there was the advantage of seeing it not just in another cinema which, though much smaller, was recently constructed (with superior sound) and with a screen/auditorium-size ratio much larger than my first viewing. There was, consequently, more opportunity for it to overwhelm me. It also helped in watching it in warmth whereas in my first visit during snowy weather the heating had been under-effective making me aware of my freezing feet the entire time.
So, with the latter distraction out of the way I went, fearing that I might be the sole member of the audience there as it's now coming to the end of its cinema run. But the 90-seater was a quarter full for this 10.30 a.m. showing, which itself was reassuring. (Were some of them also seeing it a second time, I wondered.)

Of course re-seeing a film with which one is already familiar alters one's perceptions. There is none of the prior expectation or possibility of disappointment. One hopes that things are observed which one hadn't noticed before - and that did happen, principally in the film's direction. I hadn't realised what a fine job Tom Hopper had done as director. Subtle reactions of the actors' developing situations (including those in the minor roles) are extremely well observed and caught on camera in close-up - all of which cannot, of course, take place in a live theatre where the audience is several or even many yards distant from the stage, requiring those players to be unrealistically demonstrative in their actions and gestures. Hooper transfers it very well to make the most of the different, more intimate potential of the cinema screen. I was very impressed.
Having now examined and played my recordings I see that the excisions from the film are not as extensive as I thought they'd been. (2 hrs 38 mins for the film as against 2.48 on CD, though the former does have an additional short song.)

I've not changed my opinion re the cast, all of whom are good or very good - apart from the two Thenardiers who, I still think, are badly miscast, though it hardly seems fair to complain too much about lack of realism, in a musical of all things!


I'm being willingly drowned in 'Les Mis' at the moment. Not only am I following a radio dramatisation of the Victor Hugo 1,000-pager on the BBC in 25 X 15 min episodes, I'm also re-reading that mighty tome for the second time - as at now, one third through. Hadn't realised before how similar in form it is to 'War and Peace', actually pre-dating it by some 7 years. Like Tolstoy, Hugo muses for pages on end on military campaigns and strategy, both books involving the same man, Napoleon - though whereas in W & P it's mainly about the Emperor's Russian campaign and his disastrous retreat from Moscow, in the Hugo it's Waterloo and its aftermath, the political consequences of the treaty of Vienna and ensuing student unrests. All fascinating stuff.

Anyway, back to the film. In summary I confess that my opinion has now changed. I am now a fair bit more enthusiastic, and would therefore like to award it a promotion by one entire point on what I scored it previously. It now gets a ...........7.5/10!

Monday, 4 February 2013

Film: 'ZERO DARK THIRTY'

Just about everyone will know by now that this film concerns the hunt for, and 'elimination' of, Osama Bin Laden. Since it was released (only just now in the U.K. but weeks ago in a number of other countries) it has been garlanded with superlatives. Some have commented that certain scenes (nearly all towards the film's beginning) show that torture is effective in producing desired information, while some say that the film indicates the precise opposite. Then there have been criticisms from both left and right that it takes up a position sympathetic to the other side. I went with an open mind to both its purported political stance(s) and the validity or otherwise of applying torture (uneasy watching, predictably), but I really have no worthwhile comment to offer on these points, and it didn't hold back my appreciation.
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I have no hesitation in saying that it is indeed a very good film - and yet, I didn't find it had quite the visceral impact which I felt when watching the recent 'Argo', which had gripped me throughout. I do wonder if I'd seen this one before the latter I'd be feeling that it was 'Argo' that was the slightly inferior film. Maybe, but I didn't, and can only recount my own reaction.
Difficult to pinpoint why I don't rate it a bit higher. No complaints about the acting, which was uniformly of a high standard, the construction of the film was taut enough, direction good, script was as fine as was demanded - but yet....... Maybe it was my mood this afternoon whereas I might have been more favourably disposed at another time.

As it is, I give it a significantly above-average.................7/10



Thursday, 31 January 2013

Film: 'IN LOVE WITH ALMA COGAN'

Drawn to this 2011 film by the name in the title (for more about that major British singing star of the 1950s, see below), I went along hoping that it might be one of those ignored little gems which is only appreciated for its worth when word gets around. Unrealised hopes, alas.
Maybe I should have 'read the runes' in that it had only got a very selected theatrical release and I caught it at a one-off 11 a.m. screening for 'Senior Citizens', many of whom, being of my generation and older, could well have been attracted by the title as I had been.

Modestly budgeted, quintessentially British production, with no really big names to be recognised outside the world of British TV (though John Hurt has a cameo five minute appearance near the start), it's directed and written by Tony Britten, another veteran TV (and one-time classical theatre) actor who also wrote the music soundtrack (Very 'in-your-face'!).
It concerns the aged owner of an end-of-the-pier theatre in one of our English resorts (Cromer, Norfolk), struggling to come up with ideas to keep it alive and viable during the Winter months, while financial bodies are breathing down his neck. After a number of duff ideas someone comes up with an imitation-tribute act to Alma Cogan (died 1966), on whom he'd not only had a teenage crush but actually, for a few brief moments, took it further - and has been obsessing over her for all his life since. (The girl in the film who attempts this tribute-imitation bears no more than a passing resemblance to the star, which I can forgive, but she's even further away in trying to capture the distinctive voice.) There's also a tangential involvement with a criminal gang.

It could have been an interesting and captivating film but I found it rather clunky - and surprisingly, (considering that so many of the cast were veteran actors), much of the acting seemed self-consciously forced, though Keith Barron was okay.

Barely time-passing entertainment, certainly nothing to write home about...................4/10


Alma Cogan (for non-British readers and Brits too young to have known) was one of the really big British female singing stars of the mid-late 1950s, having a string of hits at the same time as Ruby Murray, Shirley Bassey and Petula Clark (the last two being still with us and still performing),  She died of cancer at the tragically young age of 34, by which time she'd been sidelined by changing fashions and the onset of rock and group-pop music. Though she did attempt to extend her regular repertoire of upbeat, chirpily optimistic songs into something more mature and sophisticated, her altered style never really caught on with the public. She'd been known as the 'Girl with a Giggle in her Voice', referring to the inserted, vocal 'catch' when she sang, which became her distinguishing gimmick. I liked her. She had a bouncy, sunny personality which always made me feel good - though what lurked underneath we were never quite sure (at that time such questions were never asked!) If she'd lived in a more enlightened era I'm pretty sure she would have had a large gay following - and she may well actually have done so in the then hidden gay underworld. Listening to her voice even now, it has a pleasantly infectious quality.


Monday, 28 January 2013

Film: 'THE SESSIONS'

Despite its unimaginative title this is a decent enough film - sporadically engaging, even sometimes charming, but not one that'll lodge in my memory for a long time.

Set in 1988, and based on the true story of a 38 year old man, a quadraplegic after contracting polio in childhood, who has to spend several hours a day in an 'iron lung'. (I didn't know that they still had these things. I always associate them with the 1950s and prior times, and had assumed that, by now, they might have been succeeded by another, more effective, method of treatment.)

The paralysed Mark wishes finally to lose his virginity - and, more specifically, to have penetrative sex for the first time - and he hires, for this purpose, a sort of sex-therapist surrogate. (Another thing I've learnt - I didn't know such people existed). Without even a blink, she takes on the 'task' of giving him his first experience. For me, Helen Hunt, in this role, carries the film. (We also see a couple of full-frontals of her - for those who like that sort of thing).
Then there's also the always reliable William H.Macy as a sympathetic R.C. priest - sporting some alarming, shoulder-length hair.

The film's principal point of interest is Mark's yearning for emotional involvement while his hired surrogate tries to maintain a professional distance, (she has a husband and son), causing her predictable feelings of guilt and pain. 

A fair enough film, then, but it was no great shakes for me, even though some members of the audience laughed uproariously on cue at some of the lines. I rate it a .......................6/10