Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Film: 'CARRIE'

It would have been a tall order to expect anyone to better Brian De Palma's 1976 version of this very early Stephen King novel, which has an assured place in my 'All Time Top 100 Films'. This one doesn't improve on it, and by some margin, but it's still not without some merit.

I didn't know the name of either director Kimberly Peirce nor of the young actress in the title role, one Chloe Grace Moretz, though I now see that the latter did appear in 'Hugo' and 'Kick-Ass'.

The film is the tale of Carrie White who, on reaching puberty with her first period (quite 'publicly' at high school) finds that she has telekinetic powers, which operate both involuntarily when she's emotionally charged or, as she discovers, she can operate at will. She lives alone with her religiously-fanatic and near-demented, Bible-toting mother who is fixated on the notion that we're all born into sin, though women especially grievously so - and who strives to force her daughter to accept it.
Carrie is seen as something of an 'ugly duckling' at school, ridiculed by her female classmates and their boyfriends, when a jape is played by inviting her to attend the school prom at which she's to be cruelly humiliated in front of all.

Moretz, as Carrie, is several years younger than Sissy Spacek was for De Palma, and is therefore closer to being the authentically-aged girl which King had in mind in his story. I thought she carried it off very well.
Julianne Moore (one of the reasons I bothered going to see this) plays her part with most of her religious feelings pent up inside whereas Piper Laurie in the 1976 version was much more demonstrative in her loopiness. I have to say that I thought the latter was the more effective of the two, conveying better the histrionics we still see in current day evangelism.

In the pivotal scene at the prom, De Palma showed off a whole range of cinematic tricks - split-screen, filtered-out sounds, slow motion - all of which worked brilliantly. Some of these are also employed at the same moment by Peirce, though not the use of split-screen. When Carrie wreaks havoc with her revenge for the extreme prank played on her I think that this new film had no alternative but to try to outdo De Palma in spectacular effects, which it does.

Incidentally, I'd hoped that with additional sensitivities of a later generation (so I thought) the pig-slaughtering scene would be a little less graphic than in the earlier film. Unfortunately not so.

By the way, when the 1976 was first released, among the cast was a hitherto unknown name (at least to cinema audiences) of a certain John Travolta. It wasn't highlighted in the opening credits, his name being just included among the rest of the cast. Then, a few years later in the wake of the screen success of 'Grease', 'Carrie' was given a cinema re-release but now with the opening credits re-vamped to show Travolta as one of the  main stars, despite his role not being that big. I think it was on the lines of - "And featuring JOHN TRAVOLTA"!

I only saw this film because of Julianne Moore's presence plus the fact that there was a Senior Citizens' screening for just £3.50. If it wasn't that good it wasn't too much to lose - besides, I have to confess to being a bit curious as to whether it could compare with the earlier version. As it turned out, with no regrets at having made the effort, I give the 2013 'Carrie' a.............6.


Monday, 9 December 2013

Film: 'NEBRASKA'

This has been an exceptional year for a high proportion of 'quality' films - and here's yet another to join that select number, which it does with ease.

Alexander Payne is justly gaining quite a reputation for directing really worthwhile films. In recent years we've had 'The Descendants', 'Sideways', 'About Schmidt' - and this latest one just about sets the seal on his being a name to watch and whose films can be anticipated with pleasure.

Bruce Dern plays the edge-of-senility husband and father who is taken in by an advertising scam which, he thinks, informs him that he's won a million dollars. He won't take persuading from his younger son (Will Forte, a name I didn't know, and not at all bad-looking) on the reality of the company's ruse, designed just to push their magazines. His son, unable to convince him, agrees to take him the two-day drive to Lincoln to enable him to collect the prize to which he thinks he's due. En route, circumstances force them to detour to stay a while in the small town of Hawthorne with his brother and wife, with their two burly, scoffing, adult sons (like Tweedledum/dee). One evening in a bar, despite his son's warning not to do so, the father lets out that he's on his way to collect his prize winnings, and it doesn't take long for word to get around. He not only finds himself surrounded by new 'friends' but old relatives and acquaintances come out of the woodwork, directly or indirectly hoping or excepting to join in his good fortune, including Stacey Keach who expresses his own expectation more like a threatening demand. All this to the son's frustration, even when he tells them all that his father is mistaken. They are joined in Hawthorne by June Squibb, Dern's dutiful wife who's ever ready with her acid tongue to cut anyone down, Dern not least.

Small-town America is brilliantly observed in this film. Hawthorne is a world where just about everybody knows everybody else - as well as their mostly being past retirement age. (The average age of the cast must be over 60, I reckon). The cast is all excellent. The script is on its toes - and mostly very funny. (It could have been condescending to the old generation but it isn't). And what a correct choice it was to film it in monochrome - so right! - and the big-sky, flat landscapes are breathtaking.

It's a very unusual storyline, and one which holds the attention throughout. It gives one heart to know that there are these little stories out there in someone's imagination and that we don't need to be ever subjected to banalities to entertain us.

If I did think that 'Nebraska' drooped ever so slightly near the end it would in no way prevent my giving it overall a hearty recommendation. It's another one that scrapes the ceiling with an..................8

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Film: 'SAVING MR BANKS'

Very enjoyable film, with a broad spectrum of moods, high and low.
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

Film: 'PARKLAND'

It was only because, having to go to Brighton, I thought that being there I might as well pop in for this film. It's a matter-of-fact view of the events in Dallas immediately following the Kennedy assassination (as though we were wanting still more!), released to coincide with the recent anniversary. The reviews I'd seen indicated that it was a fairly efficient though perfunctory  effort.

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

Film: 'THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE'

Sequel to last year's 'Hunger Games', there is little that is new about this one, directed by Francis Lawrence. It's one of those films which makes me feel evermore alienated from a mainstream cinema audience. A glitzy and vulgar public ceremony (which I can readily accept) leads up to a test of survival skills for a number of previously victorious competitors fighting it out to the death, both amongst themselves as well as against a manufactured hostile environment -  for the ostensible purpose of crowd-pleasing 'entertainment', though with the more sinister underlying motive of control of the masses.

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

How I heard the news........

Most of those who read this blog would not yet have been born on this day - and of those who were, very few will have been old enough to remember it. So here is a little indication of how it felt to this writer.

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

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.