Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Film: 'L'INCONNU DU LAC' / 'STRANGER BY THE LAKE'

It's been a disgracefully long six months since I last saw a non-English language film, and considerably longer (several years) since the last one where being gay is an intrinsic part of its character(s), rather than sexuality being an immaterial, 'added-on' feature. Now they both come together in this film (director: Alain Guiroudie) - and, were it not for one particular aspect, which I'll spell out shortly, I'd class it as a 'corker'.

(I might mention that on IMDb at the moment one of the most prominent reviews submitted is completely damning, classing all the characters as losers and cannot understand why this film is being "championed by the gay community". He gives it a rating of 2/10. I shall not concur.)

Set only and entirely around a geographically unspecified lake where nude sunbathing in an informally recognised gay area takes place (all flaccid, by the way), together with cruising for casual sex in the adjacent foliage where both participators and voyeurs abound, this entirely male (nearly all of whom are gay) film tells of an unattached young man who starts visiting the locality and who, shortly after getting to know one or two of the regulars, witnesses (unnoticed from a distance) a murder take place. All the action happens over the ensuing few days (and dusk-times) where this chap, initially shaken by what he's seen, tries to mentally bury it, telling no one - (and this is where credibility is really stretched, my only complaint) - he not only responds to the physical advances of the murderer, admittedly with great apprehension initially, but actually strikes up a regular relationship with him. The perpetrator of the crime (an attractive 'bit of rough', I thought - right, above) does not know that he'd been seen and his new affair does not let on. As the relationship turns a bit less idyllic over the next few encounters the witness finds it harder to keep suppressed what he knows.
(Incidentally, at a couple of points there are, just for a few seconds, some hard-core action shots at which you may want to be prepared to avert your gaze).

A parallel strand of the story is when the witness guy also strikes up an unlikely friendship with a middle-aged chap who's started coming to this area, sitting in solitude after the break-up of his hetero relationship. There's no physical attraction between the two men, in fact this other guy is one of several seen in the film who has let his body go to the dogs, huge pot-belly and all. But they have a frank exchange of views on cruising, sexuality and the like.

We all know of these outdoor cruising areas, don't we? (ah, the memories!), and that side of it looks completely authentic, at least from my own experiences. But in this story, as I say, it does take a huge leap of faith to wonder how a witness to a shocking killing could, without too much protest, succumb to the charms of the murderer. I can only surmise that the desire of the flesh clouded and overwhelmed his judgment. But if you can look beyond this I do think you might agree with me that this is a superior film. Intensely atmospheric, with the blessing of having no music at all, it holds its tension throughout, culminating in a vicious final few minutes. (Maybe I also ought to add that the film's close will not satisfy those who demand a clear-cut ending).
As a piece of drama I admired it a lot - and it shows that you do not need more than a very modest budget to make an effective film.

Truth to tell, I had considered scoring this with an '8', but because of the aforementioned hole at the centre of the story, I cannot allow it onto such hallowed ground. But I have no hesitation in ultimately awarding it a silver medal's worth........................7.5

(2/10?......Hah!)

Monday, 10 March 2014

Film: ' THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL'

Wes Anderson is a director whose films have yet to endear themselves to me - and 'tis pity that this isn't the one to do it, though it did hold promise. The trailer looked most attractive.

No one could reasonably deny that the film is a feast for the eyes - sumptuous colours, carefully staged shots and impressively choreographed action - though most of it shot in square frame, this latter begging the question "Why so?"

It's told in flash-back by the present owner (F. Murray Abraham) of a super-palatial East European hotel, who started out as bell-boy (newcomer to feature films, Tony Revolori - rather good) to concierge Ralph Fiennes (perfect in this comedic role) in the 1930s. The list of celebrity appearances is as long as one's arm, all but one being quite easily recognisable, that one being Tilda Swinton, as a filthy-rich octogenarian, regular hotel guest in the briefest of all the cameo roles here. (I do have to confess that I did miss, until the final credits, that a certain character was Harvey Keitel.) There is a goodly number of what's becoming a 'Wes Anderson Repertory Company' here too.
Fiennes becomes, or wishes to ensure that he remains, chief beneficiary of the late aged lady's will, which involves purloining a valuable painting of hers into his possession. From there on it's a game of chase, police, prison, red herrings, subterfuge and disguises - all set against the backdrop of political change as WWII looms. At first his bell-boy is merely a menial servant to be kept 'unseen' as far as possible, but as the action develops the boy becomes his confidante and most faithful friend with a dog-like loyalty.

It's a tricky line between a film thinking that it's amusing and one that shows that it thinks it is. In my opinion this fell all too often on the wrong side of this delicate line. Of course all makers of a comedy hope that their finished product will be funny, otherwise they might just as well not have bothered. But in order to be effective it needs that expectation to be kept at arms length. Nothing kills a comedy quicker than one that acts as if it's one - and in this there's a lot of 'nudging and winking'. When I can see that there's an expectation that the audience ought to laugh my resistance to doing just that sets in - rather in the same way when I find music that tries to point one in a particular direction it makes me dig my heels in not to go there. (I ought to say that Mark Kermode, the BBC's top film critic, thought the film riotously funny, so my opinion may be in a minority - as it already seems to be, looking at the submissions so far on IMDb). However, to be fair, there were two or three moments when I did laugh, though that was certainly well below the quota for which Anderson and his team were clearly hoping.

As I said at the top, all of Anderson's films to date have by-passed my appreciation, which is odd because I'm a great lover of quirkiness, and his films can be guaranteed to display that quality in bucketfuls.
'Moonrise Kingdom' and 'The Aquatic Life of Steve Zissou' both left me largely cold. 'The Darjeeling Limited' was okay, I suppose. On the other hand, 'The Royal Tenenbaums' I really loathed with a passion. 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' was not dislikeable at all, though I also strangely felt no warmth towards it.
So, maybe worth a watch but, in my case, not one on which to have pinned my hopes on for significantly superior entertainment............................................6.





Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Film: 'ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE'

Any film by Jim Jarmusch (director and screenplay writer in this) is a must-see in my books. They are so infrequent anyway and nearly always worth the wait.

This is a vampire tale, very gently paced, in all-nocturnal settings - and not at all scary. It isn't intended to be. (There is only one single fleeting shot of anything approaching 'grisly').

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are blood-sucking lovers in a long term relationship - actually straddling several centuries! He, in Detroit, keeps a store of illicitly purchased blood supplies from a local hospital through a corrupt researcher. His abiding interest is in composing and jealously guarding his music (a sort of electro-heavy rock) produced through synthesisers and musical instruments of all types and periods, and allowing only his lover to hear them.
The story starts with her in Tangier, where John Hurt makes an appearance as another vampire, Kit Marlowe (yes, the very same!) who, it transpires, actually did write the entire Shakespeare canon. She then travels to Detroit where she and her lover savour and imbibe their special 'beverage' like wine. Swinton's rebellious, spoilt brat of a sister, Mia Wasikowska (also a vamp), unexpectedly turns up and puts a spanner in the works though her uncontrollable appetite, after which Swinton and Hiddleston return to Tangiers in a state approaching desperation, meeting Marlowe once again. Throughout the film there's a bit of name-dropping of past literary luminaries with whom they've socialised.

It's an odd film which, though I didn't find at all dislikeable, I doubt will linger in the memory as some of Jarmusch's earlier films have done ('Down by Law', 'Stranger than Paradise', 'Mystery Train', 'Night on Earth', 'Coffee and Cigarettes'). He tends to point up idiosyncrasies in others while making them seem the most natural thing in the world. This film, on the other hand, is a very placid affair. Very little real drama actually happens. I reckon it's the kind of film which might be most effective when letting it wash over one while sipping at a glass of quality wine (red, of course!). Some of the darkly-lit visuals are quite eye-catching and in tune with the languorous pace of the story-telling.

Several of Jarmusch's earlier films lodged themselves in my memory on very first viewing, making me eager to want to watch them again. I don't think this one is in that category but time will tell. However, just a couple of hours after having seen it to the end, as at now I'll give this a...........................6.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Film: 'THE MONUMENTS MEN'

I'd been hoping that, not before time, this might at last be a film that I could say I liked. Alas, it was not to be.
It could have been.
An aspect of WWII which is hardly ever told, let alone widely known, about the attempted rescue of millions of pieces of art plundered from galleries, churches, private collections etc by the Nazis during their conquest of Europe.

Heading the team on this mission, to rescue as much as they can and to return the pieces from whence they were taken, is George Clooney (also the film's director and co-scriptwriter) with an assortment of recognisable names, mostly American, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban - and Matt Damon who, I read, was a stand-in for Daniel Craig who was forced to withdraw. Then there's Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville, as well as Cate Blanchett who plays a sour and reluctant assistant to the Nazi invaders of her native Paris. (Shot of Eiffel Tower - caption: "Paris, France").
There should have been excitements aplenty but I found it all quite dull, not helped one bit by a curiously lacklustre and predictable script. Background music is, at times, obtrusive too. ("You can laugh.......now!").
The film sits uneasily between the seriousness of events going on around the central tale of salvaging art-works and a few isolated moments of uneasy humour. I didn't pick up that much enthusiasm appearing on screen from the cast either, seeming to treat it all as a perfunctory exercise.

So, one to forget, with the gnawing feeling that it ought to have been something a bit more special. If I see many more films before I catch something noteworthy I'll start to doubt whether my judgment has any credibility at all. But as it is, I can't give this one any more than.......................3.5/10

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.