Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Film: 'GRAVITY' (in 3D)

If this film were to be judged on visual effects alone it would score as near a 'Perfect 10' as dammit. To call that aspect merely "impressive" would be to do it an injustice.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are two astronauts carrying out extra-craft repairs when disaster strikes. From that point onwards the story is simple and ruler-straight linear (which is no bad thing), with the entire focus on how they can survive.

The qualification which made my enjoyment slightly less than some people's is very personal, viz: in any attempt to depict a level of reality in space-located, science fiction films my observations have a tendency to become over-critical. I wish I could just sit back and enjoy the film as an exciting piece of fiction but I do find it difficult to let my cavils go. I won't spell out those occasions (very few in this film, I must admit) when my credulity was over-stretched but it contributed to a sense of detachment, alien to many of the reviews I've read which called it "very absorbing" or similar.

Little else to say, other than that I'm glad I saw it in 3D - and this is probably the most successful use of that format in any film I've seen to date.

In terms of my own personal reaction, and fully aware that some others will certainly consider my opinion as sullenly over-harsh, I would certainly still recommend 'Gravity', with a rating of.............7.

Thursday, 7 November 2013


Director Stephen Frears can usually be relied upon to come up with a film that is both significant and superior. He's already been responsible for so many of them over the last three decades or more - and here, with the flawless contributions of the acting masterclass that is Judi Dench, and the increasingly and impressively versatile Steve Coogan, he's given us a film that is right up there with the very best of them. This is an exceptionally fine film!

It is based on the true story of an Irish woman, Philomena Lee, as recorded by Martin Sixsmith, his being a household name in the 1980s and 90s for us news-junkies as, among other things he was, for a time, chief BBC correspondent in Moscow and in Washington - before joining Tony Blair's government as adviser, only to later fall out with them.

This film concerns Philomena's (Dench) 50-year search for the child she had to give up (actually sold!) for adoption, by the nuns of the institution she attended (one of the notorious 'Magdelene Laundries' for orphaned and disowned girls run in Ireland by the 'Sisters of Mercy'), because it was born illegitimate to her  when she had barely entered her teenage years. Coogan, as Sixsmith, is the writer who, initially reluctant to take up the story, becomes driven by a curiosity followed by a steely determination to assist, then taking her to America where the track leads.

I was aware of the vague outline of the story but I was totally unprepared for a certain most interesting  dimension to develop, which I shan't disclose here.

The film contains a strong indictment of the Catholic Church's attitude of the time (and still continuing in places) regarding the 'heinousness' of extra-marital sex. Any consequent birth, attended by the nuns, has all anaesthetics and pain relief withheld, in order that the young mother experiences the excruciating pain brought about by her grievous 'sin'.
The Sixsmith character is a former Catholic, now atheist (rather like me, in that respect) who articulates condemnations of the Church on this issue with words which, I'm sure, a lot of us would wish to have delivered ourselves. In fact in the climactic final confrontation I was half-inclined to cheer him on. Philomena, meanwhile, retains her faith despite the lifetime of hurt that the Church has done to her.

Coogan is also one of the script's two co-writers - and it's a magnificent one, concentrated significance with hardly an extraneous word. Most satisfying to listen to.

It's incredible to think that Dench is only one month away from turning 79. Whenever she decides to retire, which surely can't be far away now, she'll have left us a body of work which any other respectable actor would die for. If she has been somewhat over-frequent on screen in recent years I don't mind that in the least. My attitude is to treasure her while we've got her. Besides, she never delivers a dud. (If you haven't yet seen her in 'Notes on a Scandal'  [2006], I'd urge all serious cineastes to catch it. It's a performance that left me transfixed with admiration.)

'Philomena' is a wonderful film. Sentimental, yes, but it's not a contrived sentiment created to get the audience's sympathy. That's already there under the cruelty to which she was subjected.

In the remainder of this year if I see another film as fine as this one then I'll have been very lucky. As at now  there is a good handful of films already jostling for my title of 'Film of 2013'. This is another one............8.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013


(Lest it be thought that I've been unduly negligent in my duty of reviewing recent releases, in my defence it ought to be pointed out that in the over two weeks since my last posting there has been a dearth of films circulating which I wished to see. In fact there was only one, 'The Selfish Giant', now been and gone, which was a possibility but which I eventually couldn't bring myself to attend on knowing that it featured horses quite prominently.)

I'd assumed that this present film was going to be a bit of an oddity, especially for someone like me whose knowledge of the central personality being portrayed is seriously wanting.

It claims to be based on the true story of one Paul Potts, a sort of male equivalent of Susan Boyle, who found fame by winning a T.V. talent show, in this case, 'Britain's Got Talent', with panel of judges led by Simon Cowell who appears as himself in this film, and is also one of its producers. (I've only ever seen this T.V.  programme 'accidentally' when switching channels, and never been able to endure it for many minutes longer).

James Corden plays Potts very well, I thought. (His singing voice is dubbed by Potts himself) He's an untrained, opera-obsessed amateur tenor who has to be pushed to jump through hoops to get the acknowledgement he yearns. He seems to have led a very eventful life. I'm willing to believe that no fictional events were added, but no doubt some of it was hyped up to make it more interesting as a film. If it was then that is fair enough too.
His pre-fame life in Port Talbot (South Wales, look you) living with his doubting and confrontational father (Colm Meaney) and his sympathetic mother (Julie Walters) is well caught - as is his romantic interest and subsequent marriage. Trouble is, notwithstanding the reality of events depicted, the film piles cliche on cliche, non-stop. One can guess the graph of his progress - but one knows where it's going to end anyway.

I hadn't realised, until I looked it up, that Potts has found a degree of international fame, though for an outsider like me it's nowhere near as high profile as Susan Boyle's. But, unlike the latter,  he is strictly classical. (The standard gamut of well-known tenor arias is run through - nothing unfaniliar).

I've only noticed Corden on film in the marvellous 'The History Boys' (of Alan Bennett, 2007), but I see he has had small roles in quite a number of films of recent years - and will be part of the cast in the much anticipated screen version of Sondheim's 'Into the Woods'. He's been a regular face on British TV for a number of years and is now particularly well known for his highly-praised starring role on stage in 'One Man Two Guvnors' in both the West End and on Broadway.

I'd also mention in the cast of this film Alexandra Roach as Potts' down-to-earth love interest, and Mackenzie Crook as his hyperactive and scene-stealing best pal.

I enjoyed this film rather more than I expected, but it's all very light, easily disposable viewing. Worth a watch but nothing to shout loudly about....................................6.

(Coming soon: 'Philomena')

Tuesday, 22 October 2013


If anyone goes to this hoping for two hours plus of highly charged excitement, I doubt if they'll be demanding a refund. By the time it finished I felt quite drained as director Paul Greengrass turns the screws real tight and keeps them in that position.

A lot of people have already seen this so I won't bother to repeat anything other than it's an essentially simple tale (claiming to be based on true story) of Somali pirates highjacking a container ship off the Kenyan coast for a several million dollar ransom. We are all familiar with the relatively new hazard of piracy in that area and though I'd have heard the news about this one I couldn't recall the details nor how it had ended. I also hadn't realised that this was the first major event of its kind.

Tom Hanks, as the captain, here and so often elsewhere, presents an all-round good guy (with family, of course, though it is based on fact), this admirable quality almost certainly spilling over from the persona he presents in real life which, I dare say, he could well be, and I would certainly like to think he is. However, I do tend to find this a bit of a problem in his films as I can't always get beyond the man who is acting - and he almost always plays a 'goody'. (That's why I thought it was a refreshing change to see him in a negative role in the excellent 'World Atlas' at the start of this year). But for this film he is ideally cast as the conscientious, no-nonsense man in charge.

Brakhad Abdi as the chief pirate is a revelation. Totally convincing, he shows us how terrifying such a figure can be, a man who refuses to recognise that he, along with everyone else, has feet of clay. Incidentally, I found it interesting that neither side at any time invoked the name of God/Allah. If they did I missed it. Or maybe it's a mistake to assume that pirates who also happen to be Islamic (I assume) are all religious zealots.   

It's a very loud film. Once the action starts in earnest there's hardly a break from the thumping soundtrack. Also, there's quite a bit of shouting. In fact the entire experience at the cinema I went to approached quite close to aural pain. (I'd forgotten to take my cotton wool ear plugs, which I would have used without doubt.) But I find sound turned up to max is a common feature of many cinemas nowadays, much more than it used to be. It's as though they want to make sure we don't doze off, which is hardly likely in a tense drama like this.

As entertainment this film is very high quality, superior to many other reconstructed real-event dramas I've seen. For that reason it would be unfair if I awarded it anything less than a well-deserved.......................7.5.

Monday, 21 October 2013


The predictable question to ask is: "Does knowing that this was James Gandolfini's last but one completed film make one more favourably disposed to it than would otherwise have been the case?" My answer is "Emphatically not!". I'd have found this screenplay to have the potential to be a delightful film with any cast - though here they are all uniformly excellent. Moreover, it's assuredly secured a place as one of my 'films of the year.' One of the 'invisible stars' was the script, which I found alert, intelligent and believable, without being too contrived or too glib.

I knew the names of neither main star Julia Louis-Dreyfus nor of director Nicole Holofcener before now, though I see they've both done substantial TV work. Toni Collette affords solid support as Louis-Dreyfus' friend.

The first of these plays a travelling masseuse, a divorced mother of a teenage daughter, with, among her clients, Catherine Keener, another divorcee (also with teenage daughter) and who, during her sessions, offloads her negative opinions about her ex. Keener listens sympathetically, not realising for quite some time that this 'ex'  also happens to be the guy (Gandolfini) whom she herself is currently dating, they having met up earlier at a social function and 'clicked'. (Okay, a co-incidence too far, maybe, but this is meant to be a light-hearted story.) When the revelation dawns on her she tries to juggle both her client-friend and her man-friend without wishing to betray what she's found out to either of them, probing each to elaborate on their opinions of the other.

It's a gentle rom-com, small-scale but very agreeable. Without any genuine laugh-aloud moments (at least for me, though there were some occasional guffaws among the audience), it's rather one of those aimiable, feel-good films, and on those terms alone it works a treat.

I find it hard to find fault with this film. I could have done without the insertion of a song on the soundtrack towards the end (but that's one of my perpetual bug-bears) and if the very close comes near to swimming in sentimentality it doesn't last so long as to drown in it.
If this had actually turned out to be Gandolfini's very final screen appearance it would surely have done him proud.

I was set on giving this a rating of 7.5 but now, three hours after it finished, I can still feel the after-glow, and for that reason I'm going to push it a notch further up to.........................8.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Many Happy Returns, Ray! Well, thank you, Raybeard. Very nice of you to have remembered.

Tues 15th October

Three score and seven, not a particularly meaningful number per se, but another step on the way to either oblivion or immortality (I tend to favour the former.).

Three birthday cards. I expect just one more, from a 74 year old brother, who doesn't always remember, but it's not a big deal. One of the cards yesterday generously contained my only 'gift', a bit of money from a teacher friend in Munich. Very opportune it was too as I can now use it to get Noodles his long-overdue annual check-up, then use the remainder (if any) on more nutrition to continue keeping seven pussies happy, content and satisfied  - three or four times a day!.
But shan't neglect myself.  As a special treat I'm going to gorge on three fried egg sandwiches! And not only that - as I've been to the pictures the last seven days on the trot, I shall today spoil myself with the luxury of not going.

The most famous 'celebrity' who shares my birthday (actual, rather than anniversary) is Richard Carpenter,  half of one time world-renowned singing duo, who in his time has penned a number of high-quality ditties which will last much, much longer than either of us will, even if they've now practically been consigned to easy-listening 'armchair and slippers' music.

Here's a pic taken when I was still 66 - yesterday.

So, let 67 fire at me what it will. Bring it on!


Julian Assange's condemnation of this film, based on two books which, he claims, are hostile to him, has been widely reported (I'm assuming that he's watched the film) - as has his refusal to meet Benedict Cumberbatch, who portrays him.

I liked it. Frenetically-paced, it tells the story of Wikileaks from its inception right up to almost today - though Assange's ongoing self-sought sanctuary in London's Ecuadorian Embassy, and his reasons for being there, are not addressed in the body of the film and only mentioned in the film's final captions.
It's true that the rapid-fire, consecutive, short scenes doesn't give much scope for arguing the rights and wrongs of making the leaks, but all the same I found it quite an adrenalin-pumping tale (assisted by Carter Burwell's insistent-beat background score). It was also good to have the back story of some of the leaks (which most of us are familiar with), fleshed out a bit more, and I did learn a little.
I knew hardly anything at all of Assange's colleague, Daniel Bruhl, author of one of the contentious books (played capably by Daniel Domscheit-Berg) and didn't realise the extent to which the two of them were working in tandem (or is that perhaps Bruhl's own self-serving gloss?). It's only towards the very end of the film that we are shown their rupture of their partnership and what caused it.
Director Bill Condon keeps the action tight and fast. There's hardly a let-up in it - hardly.

The supporting British cast includes David Thewlis (whom we don't see enough of, these days) as a reporter for 'The Guardian' and Peter Capaldi (the new Doctor Who) as that newspaper's editor.
The main American contributors, both as senior White House staff, are Laura Linney, who's fast becoming a stalwart of largely better-than-average films, and who always seems to raise the standard - as well as Stanley Tucci, who's already been a stalwart for some time.

It's really impossible to say if Assange's denouncement of the film is justified, for who knows where the truth lies? - and is there an absolute truth anyway? Of course there isn't. All I can say that the treatment here of him and his cause is not unsympathetic while not being defiantly 'pro' either. Speaking for myself, although my heart is supportive of his cause (Yeah - go for it!) my head is rather more equivocal.

I'm surprised to see that the average rating on IMDb as at now is as low as 5.8, so clearly my enjoyment isn't shared by most. But that doesn't alter the fact that I left the cinema feeling well-satisfied at having expended time, money and effort on this entertainment.................................7