4 hours ago
Wednesday, 4 December 2013
To prepare myself for this I re-read 'Mary Poppins' so as to be better informed on the subject matter, though my first read was only a comparatively recent 12 years ago.
This film tells of Walt Disney's personal tussle with authoress P.L.Travers in order for him to acquire the film rights to her book, and her direct and obstructive interventions to prevent his and his team's depictions of book and title character straying from the way she'd envisaged them. Her displeasure at discovering that the film is to be not only a musical, but is also to feature scenes of animation, are well and amusingly conveyed. It's a most interesting story which I did know just a little about, though my scant knowledge was further filled in by a rather engrossing BBC TV programme a few evenings ago about the real Travers.
Emma Thompson, though looking nothing like the real-life person she portrays, does a marvellous job, conveying Travers' querulousness and obstinacy to perfection. I've yet to see Thompson fail to give a stand-out performance, and here she does it again. (Incidentally, during the close of the final credits an audio tape extract is played of the real Travers arguing with the film team about her demands for the look of the film - and it's clear that Thompson doesn't exaggerate her manner one jot).
Tom Hanks, despite the make-up team's best efforts, still looks like Tom Hanks, but he does put real flesh onto someone whom, to those of my generation, always seemed a somewhat aloof, rather sketchy figure, and even just a bit questionable in his motives, though there was nothing we knew then or now to suggest that there was really anything shady going on - at least that what I felt even before we had Michael Jackson taking troupes of young kids to Disneyland.
Colin Farrell, in regular flashbacks by Travers to her childhood in Australia, plays her wavy-haired, very affectionate father whom she adores, even though she's aware of his drink problem. I don't think I've seen Farrell play such a kindly, soft-hearted character before, and he does it quite convincingly.
It's a very entertaining film (directed by John Lee Hancock), alternately comic and profoundly moving. It attempts to show us what made Travers 'tick' and from whence her Poppins character was derived. There may well be over-simplifications in the way this is explained but I can accept that as being part of the liberties taken as 'film-speak'. Besides, it's intended to amuse and/or involve its viewers and it does that admirably.
By the way, those familiar with the book will know that Bert (as played by Dick Van Dyke in the 1964 film) is only a marginal character who appears for about 8 pages - and he's not a sweep anyway! Likewise, Mr and Mrs Banks, the former of which is very prominent in the film, are even more peripheral in the book.
When I first saw the Poppins film nearly (goodness me!) fifty years ago, although I did like it I wasn't really as overly enthusiastic as most of my contemporaries were. I thought it seemed to date rapidly on screen, and when another Sherman brothers product, 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' came out four years later (also, of course, with Dick Van Dyke, though this time not from Disney) I rated it as being the superior of the two. Even now it looks quite fresh. It must, however, be said that for songs and music, 'Poppins' was the Shermans' real triumph. It's a brilliant score with very strong songs throughout. However, in spite of that and even despite these same brothers' songs for 'Jungle Book', I'd still make a claim that the score of 'Chitty' is pretty damn good.
But that's all beside the point for now. Not having seen 'Poppins' for something like thirty years it's more than high time for a re-viewing - and possibly for a re-appraisal, which could see my opinion being revised upwards - just like a kite!
For originality, fun, deep emotion and very fine acting I award 'Saving Mr Banks' a robustly healthy.............8.
Thursday, 28 November 2013
A reconstruction of the few hours following the fatal shots, with concentrations on the 'Parkland' hospital where Kennedy (as well as Oswald, later) was taken - as well as the aftermath of the unwitting filming of the event by Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giametti). Others in the cast include Billy Bob Thornton, Zac Ephron and Marcia Gay Harden, they and others playing characters who were absolutely central to the drama, but all of whom, through history, are now relegated to being peripheral figures.
There's a protracted, bloody scene in the hospital as they try to hold onto the President's life - and another one much later when attempts are made to save Oswald.
There wasn't much here that was new to me, though what was new (or I may have forgotten about it) was Oswald's brother and his dreadful and scary mother's differing reactions to the news of first the shooting, and then of Lee Oswald's death. Oddly, it was at such moments that for me the film's tension, such as it was, drooped most noticeably.
What I did like about the film was that it didn't attempt to analyse or rationalise the events - or offer different versions of 'the truth', Mrs Oswald notwithstanding. We've had more than enough of that for half a century, thank you The film, to its credit, just played everything out as though witnessed by a dispassionate observer.
I'm sure that generations to come will continue to be fascinated by the subject. I think I've had just about enough of it as I can take, and happily leave it to future, wiser heads than mine to conjecture further - and there's little doubt but that they will......................................5.5.
Wednesday, 27 November 2013
With sentimental episodes, complete with music pointing to the emotion one ought to feel, it mirrors the first film in that the first half is all about the build-up to the 'Games', sketching out, very roughly, the characters - participants and organisers - with concentration unsurprisingly on the Jennifer Lawrence character, which she plays brilliantly, by the way - and the ensuing hour or more, which is the 'Games' itself. And 'games' is the operative word as time and again I was thinking that the whole concept reminded me of a computer game where lives are disposable and one tries to win at all costs (within pre-ordained rules, of course). Well, one's own life is at stake, after all.
I found it a film brutal to the point of nastiness, but that is precisely what the game is intended to portray.
Good to see Donald Sutherland again, and Stanley Tucci too, as M.C. (even more outrageous than before), Woody Harrelson - and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is a formidable presence in whatever film he appears.
Can't believe that I gave the first film a rating of 7.5. I did think higher of it than this one, though part of that will have been due to the novelty of the concept. Witnessing exactly the same formula all over again was borderline boring. Can't see myself mustering much enthusiasm for the next in the series, though I probably will go. Or will I?
I give 'Catching Fire' a.........................4.5.
Friday, 22 November 2013
Fifty years ago today (also a Friday) I was 17. I'd left school that Summer and was two months into my first job as trainee accountant, at that stage a mere errand-running dogsbody.
On the actual day I'd have been home about one hour, had had my dinner and, at around around 6.45 p.m., was watching TV alone, my mother being in the back living room with my grandmother.
At that time there were only two TV channels, BBC and ITV (the commercial station).
I'd have watched the national news (nothing of note that day) and was probably then watching the succeeding local news, with diminished attention.
Then the sound of my mum hurriedly coming up the hallway, calling out to me - "President Kennedy's been shot!" (She'd had the radio on in the other room. There'd been no announcement yet on TV, which was carrying on normally.) My blood froze. I can still feel it. I can't recall what I said but it was probably something like "How is he?" and she would have replied "They haven't said yet."
I felt paralysed, willing the TV to say something, - anything! - while I was switching between the two channels.
It would have been just a couple of minutes later when, mid-programme, an announcer appeared telling us what my mum had said. He'd been shot but had survived and was being rushed to hospital.
At that time I and my whole family were devoutly religious, and I may well have got down on my knees to pray that he'd be okay.
It was a very big deal for us Catholics that JFK, being the first and so far only R.C. President, should be seen to be as successful and popular - and in our eyes up to then he had been - while also being such a perfect family man! In fact he was head of a model, good, Catholic family. We always felt particularly proud whenever his name was mentioned, though we were also aware of his increasingly vociferous critics, which I dismissed as coming from 'sour grape Protestants'.
It hardly needs repeating here, it being so often documented, that at that time we hadn't the slightest clue about the realities of his private life, nor of the truth of his lifelong difficult medical condition. He was a hero for so many of us, the closest to a Superman that we had ever seen. He was all set to become a truly outstanding President.
Meanwhile on TV the announcer said that we'd be kept informed if there were any developments in the story, and the interrupted programmes returned. Of course my mind couldn't take in anything else on TV. I kept switching channels until - maybe something like 45 mins later, an announcer re-appeared to repeat the news when the telephone beside him rang. He picked it up....."Yes......yes......okay." He replaced the receiver and, to the camera, "We regret to inform you that President Kennedy has died." Nothing else. The screen faded to dark. It was a hammer blow even though there was an inevitability about it. (I was wondering why he seemed to be smiling as he made the announcement. But on reflection I don't seriously think it was a smile - more a 'pained expression', which under the pressure of the moment might have been capable of being misinterpreted.)
It was ITV who had beaten the BBC to the announcement. I switched to BBC and a good 5 minutes or more later their own regular news-reader appeared, grim-visaged, to tell us what we had already just heard.
The BBC showed their daytime test card over silence - then, all of a sudden, music, which I recognised as the opening movement of Bach's Orchestral Suite Number 3 in D, an unfortunately-chosen, gloriously jubilant sound, complete with celebratory trumpets and triumphant drums (very likely the first track on a classical music record which they happened to have on hand). ITV, after a similar few minutes silence, showed a recording of a classical concert, Sir John Barbirolli conducting Brahms' Variations on the St Anthony Chorale', a slightly less insensitive choice.
What happened then on BBC I thought was little short of a scandal. After maybe half an hour of classical music as a background to the static test-card, they returned to its normal programming schedule - and actually screened, unbelievably, two situation comedies, back to back - Harry Worth (a big-name English comedian of the time) and 'The Rag Trade' (with Miriam Karlin and Sheila Hancock), both pre-recorded with canned laughter.
I thought at the time that that was unforgivable. There was strident criticism in the papers the following day, pointing out that even Soviet Radio and TV had cancelled all their programmes in order to play solemn music for the remainder of the night.
We were later to learn that on this fateful day all the BBC big-wigs happened to be away together attending a conference on the other side of the world and had been unreachable. There'd been no one left behind in London to make a high-level decision as to what to do. I believe that because of what happened there are now contingency plans always in place to ensure that no such fiasco ever recurs.
The ensuing days are less clear to me. Masses for Kennedy's soul were being held all over the country and I attended one at my local parish church.
I remember feeling that the funeral seemed to be taking place with immoderate haste, and looked somewhat disorganised. All the major world leaders were there but I searched in vain for even just a glimpse of our then Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who did actually attend but was nowhere to be seen on film. It was French President Charles De Gaulle who was pre-eminently conspicuous.
Then it was over. Johnson had been sworn in as President within minutes of Kennedy's death being announced. Shortly afterwards Oswald himself was shot. Life tried to return to something like it was before even though there was a chunk of it missing. I carried around for some time a heavy feeling of the injustice of it all. Why did God allow it to happen? (Good question!)
During the passing of the last five decades revelations have come out about the personal lives of the Kennedys which we never dreamt could be so at the time, and which was, frankly, a severe disappointment to a lot of us. Do I think that I'd have reacted differently had I known? Yes and no. There is still no doubt that whatever his many personal foibles were JFK was the most magnetic leader I've known in my lifetime. The 'electricity' poured out of him, right through the TV screen - and there's been no one who has come even near that since - maybe Obama before he started having to make disappointing compromises, and perhaps Blair at the beginning, before we realised what a hopeless let-down he would turn out to be. But Kennedy's star, to my mind, outshines them all by far. He was 'charisma' itself.
In the days following the shooting we'd heard how, in a school somewhere in the southern States, a grinning teacher had gleefully announced the assassination to the assembled pupils, and the children clapped and cheered. I'm sure it wasn't unique. But I'm also sure it wasn't typical.
Within a very few years after this event Kennedy's reputation started turning big-time sour, in fact that of all the Kennedy's. (Not helped at all later by Edward and Chappaquiddick.) When Jackie Kennedy announced her intention to marry Greek multi-millionaire magnate and divorcee, Aristototle Onassis, the Church's disapproval was unambiguous, culiminating on her wedding day itself by the Vatican denouncing her as a 'public sinner'.
Re-appraisals of JFK's political legacy came thick and fast, mainly claiming that his radical credentials had been exaggerated and that his successor, Johnson, had actually been a greater President. There is no doubt that the latter was the one who had steered civil rights legislation through to its fulfilment, though would Kennedy have managed that anyway if he had survived? His political enemies were, at the time of the assassination, flexing their muscles for a fight to the end. His sudden death put them back in the box for while.
Robert Kennedy's politics were also being called into question long before he himself was gunned down in 1968.
And yet, half a century later, 1963 was a time of 'innocence' for which I still feel nostalgic, whilst being aware that it cannot return. The world has moved on too far for it to be repeated, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
On my only visit to the USA in 1969 I managed to make a visit to Arlington cemetery to see the grave with the eternal flame (and with Bobby's then as yet unconstructed grave set off slightly to the side). I recall being close to tears standing at the stone monument with his (or, more likely, his speechwriters') most-quoted words carved into them, six years after the event - and something of that same sadness remains in me even now.
This day 50 years ago will undoubtedly stay with me for my remaining time, and its power won't diminish now. It's poignant like few other memories. It's also a beautiful memory. Nothing in world affairs has left its mark on my mind like that event - and, while naturally profoundly regretting the tragedy itself, I value enormously the experience of having lived through that time.
Wednesday, 20 November 2013
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
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
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
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' , 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.