Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Film: 'THE BOOK THIEF'

Gott im Himmel!!!
Every once in a while I see a film which so riles me as to render me practically speechless, not wishing to expend the energy required in collecting a few words together and write about it. But, as I owe it to my faithful readers to produce an opinion, here goes with an attempt.

I ought to say at the outset that this is only a very personal reaction  For all I know the film (director, one Brian Percival) could well be a masterpiece. (Heh heh!)

I'd already sat through the trailer several times over recent days, aware that it is based on a famed book (unread by me), and had got the idea that it was going to be about a spirited young girl stealing books and reading them to a young Jewish man secreted away from the clutches of those dastardly Nazis in some hidey-hole, while she outwits the entire Third Reich machine (the plucky little thing!). Well, it turned out to be not quite that - yet much worse.  

Ach, Scheisse! Where do I start?

It's Deutschland 1938. Kristallnacht is the latest in the unfolding saga of horrors. Everyone, adults and children alike, speaks in English with thick, cartoonish, cod-German accents which would not have been out of place in a Monty Python sketch. And just so we don't forget where we are, despite swastika flags and pennants all over the damn place, conversations have to be littered with words and expressions like "Dummkopf!", "Schnell!", "Was ist los?" u.s.w. - as well as "Ja" and "Nein" being the obligatory rejoinders.

The film wastes no time in establishing its credentials as a 'weepie'. Within the very first few minutes the girl's younger brother dies in his mother's arms, even as they're being taken to live with foster parents, Geoffrey Rush (all avuncular sympathy, sweetness and understanding - complete with accordian) and Emily Watson (cold, austere, humourless and forbidding). The girl (Sophie Nelisse) befriends a blond-haired boy of similar age (as Aryan-looking as Der Fuhrer himself could have wished) and they hang around together, though she finds herself having to withhold from him the secret that her foster parents have taken in a young Jew, hiding in their basement. She starts out (strangely?) as completely illiterate, but thanks to her kindly foster-Vater she makes massive strides in a short time and before you can say "Gesundheit!" she's reading H.G.Wells to the refugee from a book she's rescued from a public bonfire of  'degenerate' works, to the strains of (would you believe it?) 'Deutschland Uber Alles' from a brown-shirted youth choir and its approving audience. Books also feature a little more when, during her delivery of her mother's laundry services to a wealthy German couple, she is allowed freedom to browse in their large library.

The film takes events up to 1944 and the arrival of the American army in the Fatherland. But I do hope you'll still have your hankies at the ready because you're going to need them for the tearful finish. (There is, in addition, a tiny epilogue for those who've felt inclined to stay). I'd been willing the blasted thing to just get over and done with since a good half hour before the close - or even from a few minutes after the start.

Don't ask me what these points are for but I'm going to give this a resounding................2.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Film: 'THE INVISIBLE WOMAN'

I found this quite tedious.
Ralph Fiennes, as Charles Dickens late in life, himself directs this film telling of the author's infatuation with a young woman, Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), several decades his junior, whilst he's still living with his wife who, after having endured multiple childbirths, has physically expanded into a Junoesque figure and no longer of interest to him, not intellectually and certainly not amatory. The lack of feeling is mutual, though because of the writer's status, and the 'male-superiority' mores of the time it is he who can call the shots in their loveless marriage, employing a degree of dismissive cruelty towards her. Being the mega-celebrity of his age through his publications and public readings he struggles to keep his potentially shocking affair from being general knowledge, finding himself having to deny gossip, despite his attempts being ultimately futile.
Kristin Scott Thomas is the acquiescing mother who, while knowing what a catch the man is for her daughter, is fearful for the girl's reputation, particularly in the light of Dickens' public married state.
Tom Hollander plays a lively Wilkie Collins, famed author himself and Dickens' friend, living openly with his common-law wife, he not believing in the institution of marriage.

There are a number of slow-moving scenes, especially between the two central characters, where dialogue is minimal or absent altogether. I suppose these were intended to be 'artistic', though the absence of music as well as words made them just about bearable. If they'd been set with cloying music it would have been insufferable. But to me they were self-conscious and rather tiresome. However, more crucially, I experienced no detectable emotional charge between Fiennes and Jones, though there surely must have been some as I'd imagine that he would have had a large part in selecting who should play his love interest. If any was there I didn't see it transferred onto the screen.

I thought the peripheral characters, notably K Scott Thomas and Hollander, were of far greater interest than the two central ones, and those were the only times when the film came alive. (Incidentally, during the film I had leisure to muse on whether this is the first film in which Fiennes and Kristen S T have appeared together  since the absurdly over-garlanded 'The English Patient' of 1996, a film which has all but been forgotten now.)

I'll stick my neck out and say that I think I may have known a little more about the background story than some members of the audience and I had hoped that because of this it would have held my interest, but it didn't really. (Though I was pleased to see the famous train crash depicted).

As an enthusiast of the novelist's works I can't honestly recommend this. Another Dickens fan, the esteemed Dr Spo, may beg to differ. As it is, I endow this film with an unexceptional..................4/10.

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.