Thursday, 30 January 2014

Film: 'AUGUST - OSAGE COUNTY'

Taut and verbally dense family drama, with cast of familiar or very well-knowns, which held my attention throughout.
Not being familiar with the stage play on which this is based (screenplay here is also by playwright Tracy Letts) I came to this without preconceptions, which most of a typical cinema audience will also not possess, though I was aware that this was a substantially pared-down version of the theatre piece. (One critic on the radio said that in the theatre it plays for four hours, which may be true but I think there must be some element of exaggeration in that claim. This film is two hours long and it's not one minute excessive.) I also understand that on stage it all takes place within one room, which is here naturally opened up, though the substantial and lengthy quick-fire dialogues do betray its theatrical origins.

Meryl Streep, all guns blazing, is the (medication) pill-popping, cancer-suffering matriarch, dominating proceedings during a rare, if ever before, family get-together following a funeral. She and her daughters (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianna Nicholson  - I was unfamiliar with the last name) form a quartet whose bickerings about relationships and their respective pasts reach heights of bitchiness and spite which I've hardly seen on screen since 'Who's Afraid of V.W.?". One occasionally gets such scenes as a basis of comedy but not so often in straight dramas - and I loved it! Though it's the women who determine the contours of the story, present for much of the time and drawn into its tawdry contentions are Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch and, like an anchor of sanity, Chris Cooper.
The big 'set-piece' is the post-funeral dinner in which stored-up and festering 'hometruths' (as seen from the speakers p.o.v.) come tumbling out at the slightest provocation, especially between the female family members, who say what they mean and what they really think, as though for the first time. Rather than clearing the air the revelations shift the family's dynamics big-style.
Meryl Streep delivers as only she can - and we've long since come to expect no less. But I was most surprised and impressed by Julia Roberts. I never knew she was capable of portraying such depths of emotion and wildness as she does, really letting her hair down when called for.

I believe that by reducing the original play's length the film's focus on the mother character has been amplified, and that in the theatre it's more of an equal-handed ensemble affair. But I can only judge it as a cinema piece.
I liked it a lot, with no serious reservations, and would happily sit though it again. I award it .................................7.5 

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Film: 'JACK RYAN - SHADOW RECRUIT'

All very deja vu, but thanks to taut direction by Kenneth Branagh, reasonably gripping.

The Jack Clancy-created character, Jack Ryan (Chris Pine), in an original story (though hardly original for film) is recruited by CIA senior, Kevin Costner (long time, no see), and discovers that Russian money has been poured into purchasing American stocks and shares, whereupon he is assigned to go to Moscow to root out why. There he meets the Russian who turns out to be, predictably, the arch-villain (played by Branagh himself, unsmiling, stiffly patriotic and complete with nefarious-sounding accent) and from there on it's a game of cat-and-mouse as Ryan attempts to get into the Russian's computers to find out what's really going on.
Keira Knightley plays the romantic interest whose curiosity about Ryan's secrecy (Does he have another woman? Heavens, NO!) pulls her into the centre of the action. But she remains essentially a peripheral figure, not having that much to do, aside from distracting the Branagh character during a meal, so allowing Ryan to get on with his treasure hunt quest.  

The whole film is so reminiscent of all those cold-war espionage thrillers (plus a good dose of 'Mission Impossible'). We get furtive meetings on benches in public areas, whisperings galore, instructions and communications through ear-pieces, surreptitious hand-transfers of information and evidence, 'goodies' who turn out to be 'baddies', car chases (plus a motor-bike pursuit), bombs with a helpful digital timer counting down to zero, hacking into computers while on the edge of being discovered, CIA operatives (all disconcertingly young) with lightning-speed typing skills (never a single mistake) - it's all here, and which of them have we not seen before? (Btw: Why is it that when a person, masquerading as an anonymous member of the public, 'accidentally' bumps into someone, the latter never checks immediately afterwards that his wallet is still in his possession? Don't these people ever go to the cinema?)

During the course of the film I did find myself being fairly entertained, though when it was over it all seemed  insubstantial and memory-disposable. Efficient enough, then, but not a contender for my 'Best of 2014' list................5.5.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Film: 'INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS'

Any film by the Coens is an 'event' for me - and here, boosted by the presence of hot-as-hell Oscar Isaac in the title role, it was looking good. Unfortunately the frequent appearance of cat(s), of which I've been long since aware, transformed a lot of the eager anticipation into apprehension. As it turned out, apart from just one short but heart-stopping scene involving said feline, there was little to have been too nervous about, though that particular incident did cut deep. And because a cat keeps re-appearing at various points during the film it was not possible to let it go. But I accept that most of a typical audience won't be distracted by this as much as I was.

I never knew the name of Oscar Isaac till now but I see that he has had minor roles in two or three films I've seen (almost certainly without that magnificent face-fur), including that folly of Madonna's, 'W.E.'.

In this one he plays the surviving member of a locally fairly renowned singing duo, in Greenwich Village over a few days in the deep Winter of 1961. (Lots of smoking in this film, as there would have been around then.) Trying to further a solo career we see him singing in clubs and elsewhere a number of songs (largely pretty good, I thought), accompanying himself on guitar. (All Isaac's own singing.) Circumstances thwart his attempted progress at every turn. But his personal life is a mess as well. It's noteworthy that he seems to take more care of the cat he befriends and has to carry around than any beings of the human variety. Carey Mulligan ('The Great Gatsby', 'Shame', 'Drive', 'An Education'), of whom few of us had heard until a very few years ago, turns in another highly impressive performance, as his one-time relationship turned sour, for reasons I shan't divulge. Mention should also be made that one Justin Timberlake is in the cast. Also, the ever-reliable Coen Brothers'  frequenter, John Goodman, appears in a minor-ish role.

What I like most about Coen films is their quirkiness. This one has some deliciously funny dialogue, but the 'quirks' are sporadic rather than being sustained for the film's entire length, as they did manage to be in just about all of their films up to and including 'The Big Lebowski'. Since then, although their films have definitely still been worth a watch, sometimes two watches, I don't think they stand for the multiple viewings that their earlier films can bear with ease. If 'Inside Llewyn Davis' doesn't quite come up to the standard of entertainment that I yearn for them to return to, it's not so far short of it..............................7.5


Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Film: 'THE WOLF OF WALL STREET'

I didn't think this film was anything like as remarkable as some opinions had led me to believe. With Martin Scorsese's name to it most people, including me, would automatically sit up and pay attention. Without his name I think this film would quickly have been forgotten.

Between Leonardo DiCaprio's lead character's rocket-like ascendancy to the stratospheric heights of wealth (through stock market fraud and bribery) and his inevitable fall, the film's drama is curiously inert. The attenuated central section is a plateau of excess marked by frequent drug-taking and debauchery, in which unclothed female bodies are everywhere in evidence yet male participation is only cursorily depicted, if at all (and coyly at that) - all illustrated by flashy lights, quick jump-cuts and brash, pumping soundtrack, obviously reflecting the effects of the copiously ingested drugs. The absence of any arresting development is broken only by our witnessing the falling apart of DiCaprio's marriage, which is itself as predictable as ABC.
At a full three hours the film is too long by far. After DiCaprio, with his slick telephone sales technique, has recruited his handful of loathsome, bratpack young cronies, without a single redeeming feature among them, we quickly get the point, as his office expands into a hundred or so employees whose sole conscience is dependent on making more money for themselves and the firm, where nary a sentence can be uttered without the obligatory f-word - as well as (naturally) regular 'c/sucker's and a few 'fag(gots)'. After the 'boss' has reached his pinnacle of greed it's only a question of waiting to see how and when he gets his comeuppance. But it's a long wait - and a not especially interesting one at that. (Even when it eventually happens I was expecting he'd be punished with something rather more severe).
There's only a little bit of physical violence, once to the DiCaprio character's wife in long-shot and another, being the sole instance which results in the appearance of blood, is that inflicted on a marginal figure, the only character in the film who, significantly or otherwise, happens to be gay.

Comparisons with certain other films are plain. In terms of location, milieu and script it is not a million miles removed from 'Glengarry Glen Ross', which is also stuffed with many of the same 'cuss words'. I'm familiar with both the original stage play and the successfully expanded film version of 'Glengarry' and there's no doubt to my mind which is the superior in terms of drama, construction and screenplay - and it's not 'Wolf'.
DiCaprio's other recent equally frenetic offering was, of course, in the recent Laz Buhrmann version of 'The Great Gatsby' - and once again it's the latter which takes away the honours, not least because the ups and downs of F.Scott Fitzgerald's intensely interesting story is something to which this vapid film cannot hold a candle. And Buhrmann's direction is far more involving than Scorsese's approach of 'sit back and watch'.

I have to say that DiCaprio is really good here in 'Wolf'. Since the time he began to be noticed some 20 years ago I always regarded him as being a bit stiff, but here he shows himself in total command, displaying a range of which I never knew he was capable.
I didn't know any other of the actors (well, apart from Matthew McConaughey, who disappears not far into the film - and Joanna Lumley in a small role!) so I don't find it so easy to divorce them from the almost exclusively odious characters they are portraying.

I don't think 'Wolf' is anywhere near the best that Scorsese's capable of nor what he's achieved to date, and I can't see this one being listed as being one of the greatest in his catalogue. But if I'm wrong, I'm wrong. Meanwhile...............................5.5/10

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Film: 'THE RAILWAY MAN'

This is the third film I've seen on the trot in which human suffering is to the fore. At least this one, coming in at under two hours, doesn't have the near-epic length of either 'Mandela' or '12 Years', so that's a plus. Unfortunately there aren't that many more 'pluses'.

Based on a true story, (aren't they nearly all?), Colin Firth plays an English survivor of a Japanese-run POW workers unit forced to build a railway in Burma during WWII ('Bridge on the River Kwai' territory.) We first see Firth a couple of decades later approaching late-middle age, as a steam railway buff, chance-meeting Nicole Kidman in a railway carriage in England, Kidman having yet again to adopt an English accent, which she always does very well. In no time at all they're married, he having kept in the dark from her his periodic flashbacks to wartime experiences, reflecting his barbaric treatment by a particular one of his Japanese tormentors, who is also the group's only translator. The action switches back and forth between his Burma experience (the young Firth character played by Jeremy Irvine quite convincingly) and later complications with his wife who is desirous to know the truth of what happened though he is reluctant to reveal it. We do actually see the treatment to which he is subjected. (One more difficult watch!) He has also kept contact with other survivors, one of whom is unassumingly played by Stellan Skarsgard (who was one of Firth's co-lead players in 'Mamma Mia'!). Skarsgard's low-key and measured performance seems to me a bit at odds with how the film develops concerning his character, though it might have been intended to be a case of 'holding it in' as Firth's character was also trying to do. When Firth is informed that his Japanese torturer is also still alive he becomes intent on seeking revenge.

I haven't seen any of director Jonathon Teplitzky's other films, none of which is particularly well known. I didn't think this was actually bad, just rather not special enough for the story it tells. And if it hadn't been based on fact I simply would not have believed the heavy sentiment of the very final scene, though I concede that it might well have taken place.

One to wile away a little time, then, but without it lingering in the mind anything like yesterday's did. I give it a...............6.

Film: '12 YEARS A SLAVE'

I approached seeing this film with considerable foreboding, having heard how gruelling are several of its scenes. My apprehension was well-placed. This is one of the most harrowing films I've ever seen. In fact, outside the horror genre, it could well be the most. At least with horror, even at its goriest, there comes a point where it becomes so ridiculous as to be laughable. Not so here, by a long chalk.

British director Steve McQueen has now begotten a consecutive trio of distressingly hard-to-watch films ('Hunger', 'Shame') - this latest one being the toughest to sit through.

 '12 Years....' has just won the Golden Globe award for 'Best Drama', and I wouldn't argue with that. But as to it being in the classification of  'entertainment', that is hardly an appropriate word.

The ever-fine Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a well-connected, respected and comfortably well-off, New York husband and father who is tricked into visiting Washington under the pretext of displaying his violin-playing skills. There he is drugged, kidnapped and sold off as a slave, firstly to a half-sympathetic Benedict Cumberbatch, then to the cruel and sadistic Michael Fassbender with his equally scornful white foremen and his dismissive family who regard all their slaves as being their property to do with what they will. The kidnapped victim's protestations about who he actually is are contemptuously dismissed and he quickly learns that in order to survive his appalling situation he has to accept his imposed-on new identity, suppress his true feelings and try to stand apart from the horrific suffering around him. The internalising of emotions captured by lingering shots of his motionless face during unspeakable acts of savagery meted out to him and other slaves is extraordinary.

Throughout the film all colours are subdued with many scenes being dimly lit.
I don't wish to give away the vicious severity of incidents depicted, save to say that this film scored very high on the number of times I flinched or had to look away from the screen.
I saw Spielberg's 'Amistad' just the once when it was released in 1997, another film with a slavery scenario. Scenes from that film have haunted me for the last decade and a half. '12 Years a Slave' goes quite a way beyond that and I know that I will be unable to dismiss recollections of it for the remainder of my life. If such scenes were to be shown on TV I'd be changing channels - and I could only survive this one by telling myself that what's on screen is not real, even though the events depicted are based on reality as documented in Solomon Northup's (Ejiofor's character) own book.

I found all the cast remarkable. In the recent 'Golden Globe' awards the 'Best Actor' category was won by Matthew McConaughy for 'Dallas Buyers Club', a film which hasn't opened here yet. Having pipped Ejiofor, surely his closest rival for the award, I can only assume that McConaughy must have produced something truly astonishing, which I really look forward to seeing.
In '12 Years' it might be said that the appearance of Brad Pitt in a couple of late final scenes was distracting.  So it was, but it was a distraction I welcomed in helping bring me back to my own reality.

I don't seriously think that many people who see this film will afterwards just shrug their shoulders in 'so what?' style, consigning it to their memory banks along with all the other films they've seen. It does stand out, heart-breakingly so. If I'd had the choice I would have preferred not to have seen it, as the memory will linger with some pain. But there's no denying that it is a significant film, and for that reason should to be experienced by anyone who loves the medium of the cinema.

It would be impossible, despite my own having been put through the mill, to endorse this film with anything less than an......................8.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Film: 'MANDELA - LONG WALK TO FREEDOM'

Following the very recent death of the man himself and the subsequent protracted lying-in-state, memorial service and  actual funeral, with all the saturation TV and radio coverage plus special tribute programmes, I still haven't quite got over 'Mandela fatigue'. So the opportunity to see this now was unfortunate timing. Still, duty called!

I knew this wasn't going to be a hagiography and thankfully, it's far from that, at least regarding his pre-prison life. (It's actually based on his own auto-biography). However, I'm not sure if it was my weariness of the subject matter (surely remarkable enough for being the subject of any film) that caused me to see this as being, by and large, rather flat. True, there are a number of short scenes of harrowing violence on the part both of the South African authorities and the ANC (largely shot in 'newsreel footage' style) but they didn't really tell this audience member anything of which he wasn't already aware. I would have thought that the same went for far younger viewers than myself. But I suppose these events had to be told somehow in order to illustrate the context of the story. They could hardly be omitted.

I wasn't familiar with a single name in the cast though I understand that some will be familiar to ardent TV viewers. Idris Elba does a sterling job in the title role. He got the voice very close though facially his resemblance to Mandela is less than slight. Additionally, he lacks the man's trademark radiant-sunshine smile - but how many others do have it?.
Naomie Harris does just as well playing Mandela's second wife, Winnie, transformed by her own months of imprisonment  from dutiful wife and mother into firebrand militant. Though she was by no means glossed over in this film I regretted that her part in it didn't merit greater focus. However, we do get to witness the couple's estrangement up to his time of release.

I was brought up with a bit of a jolt by Mandela being the object of scorn and contempt by the prison guards at the start of his Robben Island incarceration to his quite suddenly being regarded as a political leader with influence earning the respect of much the same officers. Of course the jump takes place over quite a number of years but I don't think it was handled very adroitly.

English director Justin Chadwick, whose work to date has been hugely dominated by television, ends this story when Mandela becomes South African President, which was fair enough, though predictable.

On the whole I thought the film was okay. It might have been my own exhaustion at seeing yet more of the central figure but I did leave the cinema feeling that he really deserved something rather more interesting than this offering which was only one step above being humdrum.....................................5.5.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Film: 'AMERICAN HUSTLE'

I needed this film to be a salve in discovering that ticket prices at my favourite and most frequented art-house cinema have been hiked by a stupefying 50%. Whether this will necessarily entail a reduction in my cinema-going only the future will show.

By and large it turned out that the entertainment value of this picture eased the initial pain and surprise more than a little.

Much has already been said about the involved and intriguing plot, concerning the FBI carrying out a 'sting' aimed at exposing corrupt congressmen, along with their mafia connections and sympathies, by getting them to accept hefty monetary bribes in exchange for giving the nod to otherwise controversial schemes.
The leading FBI officer is played by Bradley Cooper, for whom I've long since had the hots, but who here looks the most scrumptious I've ever seen. If I could ever have had the looks which he exhibits in this film, if it were a requirement, I swear I would even have gone down on Mother Theresa herself - provided she agreed, of course. (A modest price to pay, surely?)
Con-artists Christian Bale and Amy Adams play his reluctant accomplices coerced into helping execute the sting. Add to the mix Jennifer Lawrence, the Bale character's tricky wife and potential trouble-maker - and Jeremy Renner as big-shot politician at the centre of the dupe, then it's a particularly fine ensemble cast. (Btw: During the course of the film the remarkable facial similarity struck me of Renner to Liberace.)

This super-slick film (good, alive script) has an interesting selection of pop hits on its soundtrack, from vaguely around the time of the film's (late)70s setting. Made me want them to play the entire things!

If I'd been on my toes I might have guessed the big twist in the film's close, and I'm sure a lot of people did. But it didn't detract from the pleasures of the build-up. I've got to say, though, that the film was just the timiest shade less impressive than I'd expected in the light of so many exceptionally positive reviews. But if I score it slightly higher than my previously-seen film, 'All Is Lost', it's only because the latter is a film I'm pleased to have seen the once, whereas I'd look forward to seeing 'American Hustle' a second time....................7.5

Friday, 3 January 2014

Film: 'ALL IS LOST'

Commendably simple and effective story of a man's lone survival struggle in the midst of the Indian Ocean. Writer/director J.C. Chandor keeps this virtually wordless drama clutter-free by furnishing us with no details at all of Robert Redford's character's (the film's only person) background, work or family, if any. So we are mercifully spared those cringeworthy "I love you, Daddy!" moments.

The film opens with Redford's voice-over uttering just a very few words of resigned despair and apology for finding himself in the hopeless situation which has developed. It then reels back "Eight Days Earlier" to reveal how he arrived at this point, when he woke up to find the sea invading his yacht, it having been rammed and holed by one of those huge, sea-transit metal containers floating free on the ocean. The entire film then depicts his fight to stay afloat and alive. 

There are only so many situations one can meet alone at sea, all of which we have seen before in numerous films - leaky craft, tempestuous weather, communications not working, hostile marine life, ships passing unobserved, starvation/dehydration, I think that covers it all (other than the far less likely intercession of aliens). Several of these are covered in this tautly-told story.

It must have been a nightmare to shoot, with the film crew always having to be out of camera-shot. It is believable, as is Redford in the part, with his already weather-beaten features undergoing still further deterioration in the course of the film, which mirrors the mountain of stresses he undergoes and his helpless moments as he strives against the odds to survive. He is so rarely seen on screen nowadays in any case so that by itself ups the interest level.

An involving story, efficiently told, which, for a change in so many of today's films, doesn't outstay its welcome...........................7

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Film: 'ANCHORMAN 2 - THE LEGEND CONTINUES'

Well I can't deny that I did laugh a bit.

Will Ferrell, reprising his act as TV anchor Ron Burgundy, is fired from his job for gauche on-screen incompetencies while his co-presenter wife is promoted. He gets a chance to host a graveyard shift on a rival network's new 24-hour rollings news programme and he corrals three of his former workmate-buddies (Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner) to share in his opportunity and come up with ideas to make his programme a television sensation as well as to surpass the ratings of his cartoonishly arrogant and repellantly good-looking peak-time competitor.

Much of the 'humour' of this appeals to base instincts, often sexually crude or scatalogical with occasional slapstick - and including an infamous dinner scene in which Farrell, the only white man sitting round the table with a number of African Americans, can't control his tongue from mouthing stereotypical attitudes towards and assumptions of the latter. At least three of the reviews of this film I'm aware of considered this scene grossly racist-offensive in going much too far and being too prolonged. I have to confess that I did find a lot of it funny. (To my shame? Perhaps).

However, as with so many comedies, this film finds it can't sustain the laughs for its two-hour length, and runs out of steam about two-thirds through. In fact the aforementioned dinner scene also marked my own final chortles. There's no doubt it would have been a stronger film had it been shaved of the excesses of its final 30-40 minutes - and one knows they are clutching at straws when a handful of famous names appear (a number of them uncredited) as though to 'shore up' the enterprise. When they come on screen are we supposed to laugh at their participating in this enterprise or to be merely self-congratulatory amused at our own recognition of them? Whatever it is it does no favours to the film itself, smacking more of desperation than anything. All this plays simultaneously with the inevitable mawkish finale involving Burgundy's young son and estranged wife.

When I first went to see the original Anchorman film I was the only person who turned up, so, lacking a 'quorum', the cinema cancelled that particular showing, (At that time the name of Will Farrell was completely unknown in this country.) But I did attend a later one and I did find the original film not all that bad, perhaps a tiny bit lower than the level of this follow-on.
This film was reasonably well attended and I had the impression that the audience largely got its money's worth.
As I say, that did include me for just over half the film, but then once it started to slide there was no stopping it.........................5/10.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Film:'THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY'

When I posted my 2013 Top Ten yesterday I took a gamble that this film wouldn't disturb that list. Well, it's just as well that I hadn't also posted a Bottom Ten!


Not being familiar with the Danny Kaye 1947 film nor with the James Thurber short story, and although I knew the basic idea of a fantasist regularly inhabiting his dream world, I had prepared myself for a gentle, even quite amusing, comedy peppered with whimsy. What I saw was a sporadically engaging (infrequently) romantic tale which didn't have to progress very far before being weighted down with cloying sentiment. Maybe my skewed and unfair expectations didn't give it the chance it needed. However, if I'd known what it was going to be I probably wouldn't have bothered going.

Ben Stiller (also directing) plays a hard-done-by character who works for 'Life' magazine, trying to attract the attentions of a female co-worker he's fallen for. Simultaneously the firm is on the edge of closure prescribed by a bearded trio of young executives, with prospects of mass redundancies. Meanwhile he's trying to save the day by searching for an elusive photographer who somehow holds a talismanic photo-negative of a picture he's required to produce for the magazine. (Don't ask. I got lost!) His search involves excursions to Greenland, Iceland (fabulous severe landscapes) and the Himalayas via Afghanistan - where the  mysterious photographer (Sean Penn) finally appears for one scene. Stiller's return is all sentiment with no laughs, which had started to fade out long before then anyway.
There are only a few excursions into fantasy, nearly all of which are towards the start of the film, and only a single one (a chase) being in any way engaging in its relative length and extravagance.
Also appearing in three briefish subdued scenes is Shirley Maclaine as Stiller's mum. At least her presence helped to maintain my minimal interest.

If I'd left this to be seen in 2014 I'd be saying "Things can only get better!" As it is I hope the new year of cinema-going gets off to a more promising start.............................3.5/10