Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Film: 'THE BUTLER'

No one can deny the laudable intentions of Lee Daniels' true story version of this chronicle of the working life of a White House servant - set against the backdrop of the American Civil Rights movement, from its burgeoning in the 1950s, to becoming a force to be reckoned with and to be ignored at a President's peril, in this case a sweep of Presidents from Eisenhower right through to Regan (but skipping Ford and Carter). However, despite it undoubtedly having its heart in the right place I found the whole enterprise bordered on the ponderous. (My patience was further tested by seeing it on a cold, rainy morning in an unheated cinema!)

Forest Whitaker plays the eponymous manservant, Cecil Gaines, his gradually ageing features from young adult to retiree, through make-up and prosthetics not being as successful as it ought to have been, sometimes looking old before his time then in a following scene appearing to be facially rejuvenated. The same applies to Oprah Winfrey's features as his rather domineering, ciggie-puffing wife. However, in this film it is she who is always the more formidable on-screen presence, and for me carries the acting honours, moreso than Whitaker, who in his working persona is trained to withhold from showing his true feelings, and only in domestic settings, such as when he is arguing with his two sons, is he allowed to give his emotions full rein. But even at such times he appears relatively subdued while it's still Winfrey who time and again steals the show.
British hottie David Oyelowo (who, I've just seen, was born in Oxford a few months after I moved there myself) plays Gaine's headstrong, militant son, Louis, and is one of those actors who effortlessly draws one's attention to whereever he is on the screen. I recall him playing a 'colour-blind' title role in the Henry VI plays with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He deserves to become a much bigger name, and no doubt he will.

A succession of well-known stars play the Presidents (as well as at least three of the briefly-seen female characters) though it's Alan Rickman's Reagan who is the only one to achieve a close facial resemblance. However, that's not really material as each President is a cipher for the developing (or regressing) civil rights politics of the time.
I did find a number of scenes to be near heart-breaking. For those of my generation it was poignant to see again news footage, now tempered by hindsight knowledge of what such struggles eventually were to achieve - not to mention how far they have still to go, in attitudes if nothing else. 

I'd have liked to have enjoyed this film more but I don't think it's as remarkable as it strives to be, though the personal story in itself certainly is noteworthy. A score which I think would fairly reflect the sum of its impact on me is................6.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Film: 'THE COUNSELLOR'

With a cast of five A-list stars (or very near it) plus high-expectations of writer Cormac McCarthy, director Ridley Scott comes out with.............an unpleasant, unnecessarily wordy, sporadically violent and, ultimately, rather silly 'thriller'.

Set in the ruthless world of drug trafficking between Mexico and USA, where the lives of the 'inconvenient' are as disposable as paper tissues, Michael Fassbender is the centre of the tale as an affluent lawyer who gets himself involved with this criminal fraternity, initially giving the appearance of being as hard-boiled as anyone, but only to become, during the course of the film, something of a powder puff, thanks largely to his feelings towards his intended, Penelope Cruz. He meets up first with Javier Bardem and then with Brad Pitt, both of whose salutary cautions as insiders of the 'industry' with first-hand experience, go unheeded and he soon finds himself up to the neck in trouble and the target of unlikely, rich-as-Croesus hell-cat, Cameron Diaz, who is pulling strings and is vengeance incarnate.

While watching I found that I kept myself tensed up and braced for something ultra-violent to happen - which it does several times, but it's all heavily signposted stuff.
I thought that with so many big names at least some of their contributions would be no more than cameo appearances. In fact they all have substantial roles. Pity that in the end the film doesn't live up to its promise. The only redeeming feature for me was the pleasure of seeing all these stars at one go, particularly Fassbender who is always worth watching.

I may not have bothered seeing it had I seen any reviews but I went to this completely 'blind'. As it turned out, on my exit from the cinema I immediately turned on my 'Walkman' (remember them?) and caught Mark Kermode's review on Radio 5 of the very same, and was quite satisfied to hear that his opinion was not that very different from my own. However I think that if he'd given it a rating it wouldn't have been nearly as generous as my own one of................4.

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

Film: 'PHILOMENA'

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

Film: 'ONE CHANCE'

(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

Film: 'CAPTAIN PHILLIPS"

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.