Thursday, 20 February 2014

Film: 'HER'

Sorry, but this is going to be yet another review lacking in significant praise. However, those who don't share my hard-wired resistance to overplayed sentiment will, I think, find an adequate quota of satisfactions in this film.

Spike Jonze (he who gave us the dazzling 'Being John Malkovich') comes up with this superficially whimsical tale set in a near-future world, where the fashion is for high waists and where everyone walks around speaking into their invisible contraptions in a way which would have been considered as looking demented until fairly recently. It centres on an unassuming, recently split-up, professional letter-writer (for those who are too busy or unwilling to write for themselves) who goes in for a new computer system with interactive voice and independent super-intelligence and functionality. Having at the outset opted to have a female voice speaking to him he gradually finds himself being attracted by its personality, playful conversation and scarily realistic emotional range, as well as being drawn in by its/her curiosity about his own romantic situation (or lack of) and her eagerness to help him in this direction. It's not long before he realises that he's falling in love with this disembodied artificial voice, provided by Scarlett Johansson.
Incidentally, I hear that as the film was being shot the voice being used was that of the marvellous Samantha Morton, who was actually present on set, though off-camera, of course. So Joaquin Phoenix (in as down-played a role as he's ever done), looking near-unrecognisable, 'tached-up' and bespectacled, was actually reacting to Morton's promptings. For some reason, later on in production, Morton's voice was replaced with Johannson's. Although the words are undoubtedly the same I'm sure there must have been some variations in intonations. Changing the stress of one single word can alter the entire meaning of a sentence. However, I didn't myself notice any glaring mismatches between the two sides of the conversations, though I do regret S.M. being jettisoned, for whatever reason.

There are a few comedic touches, though not as many as one would have thought, despite the set-up lending itself to that potential. For me the film's fatal flaw was its easy descent into sentimental mush. The film had a good basic idea but took the route of accenting the romance going on between Phoenix and the voice - as well as that between him and others (I'm saying nothing more!) - and it becomes a romantic-comedy without laughs, or not that many. Added to which, it's a full two hours plus!  Strewth! A crisp 80 minutes, playing on the zanier possibilities of the tale, would have been so much more effective and memorable. But instead it aims to get you reaching for the hankies.

Joaquin Phoenix is perfection itself. I didn't know that he was capable of playing in the modest style that this role calls for. Just as good is Amy Adams as his faithful, understanding friend. Rooney Mara as his soon-to-be ex-wife also impresses.

It's not the film I would like to have seen. In defiance of some reviews I've read I do think that Jonze has miscalculated, but maybe that was only in pleasing me. Perhaps he really did achieve the film for which he was aiming. Anyway, despite my disappointment, in recognition of very high-quality acting all round, I'm going to be generous and award this film a......................5/10.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Film: 'DALLAS BUYERS CLUB'

Maybe I shouldn't have hoped for something exceptional because I found that this film (director: Jean-Marc Vallee), although pretty good, didn't come into that category.
Starting in the mid 1980s, Matthew McConaughey is totally convincing as a Texan, drug-addicted, 'redneck', with all the "I'm-a-real-man" rampant homophobia one tends to associate with such characters. His scary loss of weight as the film progresses is remarkable. I was wondering into what dangers he'd put himself, as he surely must have done.

Yet another film 'based' on a true story, I have heard it said that not only is there no record that the real Ron Woodroof was anti-gay, but he may well actually have been bisexual. However, true or not, dramatic licence makes it more effective if he is shown as having been a bigot of the first order when he's told the result of a blood test revealing him as being HIV+, he having acquired the virus through contaminated needles. His initial reaction is one of incredulity, seeing it necessary to underline his macho 'credentials' by slurring gays - and pointing out that he rides in the rodeo! However, through his experience and association with other AIDS sufferers he gradually comes to the realisation of the error of his attitudes. His frustration at having to wait for clinical trials of hopeful drugs to be successful and approved before acquiring them, which might possibly delay the onset of full-blown AIDS, leads him to Mexico where he obtains a number of medications, at first just for himself at first. But then he sees business potential in offering to service the clear demand for the drugs, smuggling them over the border back into Texas in significant quantities, which he can dispense to fellow sufferers for free, his costs being recouped by a hefty monthly subscription to the 'club' of the film's title. In this he's assisted by a transexual (Jared Leto) with whom he'd become a reluctant acquaintance in hospital. The principal enemy against his 'enterprise' is not just the F.D.A. (employing the police to seize his stocks periodically), but also the drug companies whose main concern appears to be to protect their own profits.
The principal female role is Jennifer Garner as a sympathetic, white-coated hospital doctor torn between knowing that what he's doing is highly illegal yet wanting him to survive and succeed.

I found the film's earnestness and good intentions, which it really wore on its sleeve throughout, a bit over-bearing. Comparisons will be made with the Tom Hanks film, 'Philadelphia', and when that is watched now, over 20 years later, it possesses those very same traits, perhaps even moreso. But that latter film was a trailblazer for depiction of the subject of AIDS, at least for mainstream cinema. Now, with the significant advances of medicine in recent years, it's become very much a period piece. The attitudes of the 1980s, though still unchanged in certain areas, have, I think, become less commonplace, so that too fixes 'Dallas Buyers Club'  in that era, though there's nothing wrong in that, being a chronicle of the time.

I think there are very few scenes lasting more than about three minutes, those with Leto barely giving him much to do in extended fashion, but I did like the film's snappy jump-cutting which treats its audience as having the intelligence to follow it, as well as having the very practical advantage of keeping me on my toes.  But at just slightly under two hours (which now seems to be the new standard length of films these days) I felt it a good 20 minutes too long. It seemed to be prolonged without saying anything new or showing any significant development in storyline. Having said that, McConaughey's final appearances were extraordinary, looking so thin, light and fragile that any slight breeze could blow him away.

Overall, it's still a recommendation, but I think anyone with lower expectations than I had may take more from it than was the case with me.....................................6.5

Monday, 10 February 2014

Film: 'ROBOCOP'

I was in one of my occasional sour moods approaching this one, wishing that it had rather been 'Dallas Buyers Club' (with overwhelmingly positive reviews here) which has been showing for several days, my attempts to see it having been thwarted by (a) inconvenient showing times and (b) horrendous weather of the 'moist' variety. Hope it lingers longer or comes back in the light of the upcoming BAFTAs and Oscars as it sounds like a 'must see'.

I found this particular 'Robocop' (a re-make of the 1987 Paul Verhoeven 'classic', with Paul Weller in the title role) a surprisingly satisfying romp, much against my expectations. It has a lot of energy, which doesn't flag, and a clutch of stars in significant screen-time roles, rather than the cameos which I thought - notably Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman. Add to that a pretty substantial part in a feature film at last for Marianne Jean-Baptiste after too long a time - though she's hardly stretched in this. Then there's Jennifer Ehle as well as Samuel L. Jackson. The titular character is played by Swede, Joel Kinnaman, and at the helm is Brazilian director, Jose Padhila, the last two names with which I was unfamiliar.

It's Detroit a decade and a half on, where mobile robots are doing the work of protecting the populace from terrorism. But they lack the human element of making rational decisions underscored by emotion. 'Robocop', in his completed state (disparagingly referred to by one cynical character as 'Tin Man' for obvious reasons), was a policeman with wife and young son (cue a bit of sentiment) who's been successfully targeted by a car bomb which leaves his physical body about 90% destroyed, save for his head and upper torso. Keaton, motivated by profit for his company, persuades scientist Oldman to incorporate these surviving parts into a robot to produce a thinking 'super-robot'. (The motivations throughout this film are muddy, to say the least.)  He's then let loose with physical and mental powers for which the Caped Crusader himself would have died. It's then a battle to keep him under control, especially when he's hell-bent on seeking out those who had targeted him.

It's longer than the original film, though still just under two hours. The content doesn't actually linger in the mind for very long, being essentially a vacuous, leave-the-brain-behind, story. Maybe my expectations, being low, enabled me to enjoy it more than expected. But it's efficient enough, with fairly impressive special effects. Reasonable enough to pass the time, then...........................6.

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