Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Farewell, you sweet, dear, little furball.

I'm distraught, even though he wasn't mine. At 6.45 a.m., going out for a morning jog, I discovered Ginger lying on the pavement about 100 yards down the road, beside some refuse bins outside a garage, apparently run over, with back legs askew and not breathing. I'm gutted. I so very much hope that it was over quickly and as painlessly as possible.

He's been a regular, prominent feature of my life for about four or five years, a daily visitor from a few doors away, another of the cats I seem to 'collect' who prefer my hospitality to that of their own homes. A bit of a scamp, undoctored, he had a bad habit of doing a wee on whatever was near at hand, as un-neutered males often tend to do, I'm told. But I loved him to bits.
Three months ago his owner came knocking at my door with a veiled warning for me to stop feeding him as it was making him reluctant to stay where he belonged. I did stop - but only for a while. I couldn't bear to see him crying and going hungry. (My 'Noodles' came from the exact same house about 10 years ago. It seems that, for some reason, this owner's own cats prefer not to live there. I wonder why?)
I've put a note of my tragic discovery through the owner's door.

Unusually, just yesterday, having a midday nap, Ginger joined me on the bed, purring loudly and rubbing against me. He hadn't done that for months, and unlike Blackso, only did it very rarely.
But now he's gone. (I can't bear to think how I'm going to cope when the time comes for Blackso and Noodles).  

Thank you for all the happiness and pleasure you gave me over the last few years, my precious little friend.
R.I.P. and bless you.


Thursday, 27 March 2014

Film: 'A LONG WAY DOWN'

I'd heard that this might be something of a dud, but with the opportunity for a cheapo ticket nothing can deter me, particularly while the sublimity of 'Under the Skin' on my previous posting was still vivid in my mind. In the event, however, this film (Director: one Pascal Chaumiel) turned into a bit of an endurance test.

Based on a Nick Hornby novel (unread by me) it involves  four would-be suicides meeting by chance atop a tall London building on a New Year's Eve - and all, coincidentally (if you'll excuse the pun) with the same end in mind.

Pierce Brosnan, as a widely recognisable TV chat-show host, appears first and sets himself up for the drop. But as he steels his nerve, he's interrupted by the arrival of Toni Collette. Up to that point the film had promise. That was about three minutes in. From there onwards the film lives up to its title. Charging onto the scene is teenager Amanda Poots, all hyperactive and gobby as if she'd overdosed on Red Bull, and irritatingly world-savvy way beyond her years. Then the quartet is completed by bearded and slightly hunkish (and not unattractive) Aaron Paul. Naturally they all want to know why the others have made their choices. They postpone their final acts of desperation, signing a pact on a piece of paper that each will not consider carrying out their threats until at least the following Valentine's Day, six weeks away.
Poots is the daughter of a prominent politician (Sam Neill, whose heavyweight appearance also doesn't salvage the film) and it's not long before, with her own fame-through-daddy, coupled with that of the universally-known Brosnan, the story becomes public knowledge with the media demanding to know the whys. In order to escape the hullaballoo the foursome, now in a cosy, close-knit, little gang, jet off together for a break in the sun.
Toni Collette is far and away the most interesting of the group. She lives alone with her quadraplegic son, now a young man, and it was only for her that I could work up any care at all. Of course her situation is milked for sentiment for all its worth, complete with obligatory mood music. In fact throughout the film there are not only constant nudges on the film soundtrack pointing to the emotions one ought to be having (as though we are all infants needing to be spoon-fed!) but there is also - one of my betes-noires - snatches of songs (Gawd help us!) as much as three times, in addition to another one over the closing credits. Grrrrrrrr!!!

When the film wasn't irritating it was, frankly dull. (Much watch-checking!) And when it came to the end scenes, would you believe it, it turns out that life is worth living after all. Well, who would have thought it? (Cringe, cringe)

I might have guessed that this depiction of the lives of four people intending to top themselves would not have been all downbeat. But I had hoped that it wouldn't have been, by turns, quite so annoying and so boring.
To demonstrate that I can be generous here's a................................3/10 


Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Film: 'UNDER THE SKIN'

Despite being warned that an early scene featured a drowning dog, it was imperative that, by hook or by crook, I had to see this film. Verdicts to date have displayed a wide divergence between enthusiastic praise and loud raspberries, the former currently being in the majority. I'll say outright that, come December, it'll be surprising if this film isn't a strong contender for my 'Best Film of 2014'. (Btw: We see the aforementioned dog only very briefly and in long shot - and it's nowhere near the most troubling thing to occur in that particular scene.)

Director Jonathan Glazer, whose contributions includes the very entertaining crime caper, 'Sexy Beast' (2000), pulls it off again, and with flying colours.

'Under the Skin' is not going to be enjoyed by those demanding explanations, answers neatly tying up the many loose ends, and all the dots joined. It's weird - in upper-case lettering! 

An extra-terrestrial arrives on earth, in Glasgow of all places, and inhabits the human form of Scarlett Johannson. (And why not?). Having been set up by a mysterious motor cyclist, for unstated reasons she starts driving around the city in a transit van, mostly at night, stopping to ask directions from a number of lone, local, young men, going on to invite them into the vehicle, ostensibly to guide her driving route. But then she lures them back to her strange house (pitch black interior), with the implied promise of more, where she seductively strips off her clothes while they also divest expectantly. I can't say any more, but it's mighty unsettling.
During her encounters with these strangers she sports an English accent, while most of her quarry have broad Scottish ones, which I found not at all easy to understand - though with her superior alien faculties it's no problem for her to converse with them.
We see early on that she is capable of emoting when necessary, at least superficially. What she does lack, however, is any sense of empathy - clearly brought out by her cold, detached observation of the 'dog event' and its extremely disturbing aftermath.
The first part of the film stays in Glasgow, the camera playing on random pedestrians, in shopping malls, on the streets, unaware that they're being filmed, as though caught on CCTV. It's hard to be sure whether all her encounters (not all of whom she picks up) were real actors or just members of the public who just happened to be there at that particular time. This first half, I thought, was the stronger part of the film.
Then it locates to outside of the city where, paradoxically, the film's increased sure-footedness plays against the haphazard and unpredictable quality that made the first section so suspenseful. Though the level of tension is reduced marginally, the strangeness of the story remains as strong, compelling and as mystifying as ever.
Incidentally, for those who don't like them, I don't think there are any really jump-out-of-your-seat moments. The 'surprises' feel as though they've always been lurking below the surface, creepily insidiously into one's awareness rather than being in-your-face sudden shocks.

This is my type of film - one that haunts the memory, tantalises the brain, and is a fruitful subject for discussion for a very long time. It might all be dismissed as pretentious nonsense. It certainly seems slow-paced at times, though that only builds up the heavily brooding feel of it most effectively. The film provides a myriad of questions without eliciting a single answer. But it's fun, deeply thought-provoking and one of those rare events, a cinematic experience to enjoy with relish. An easily earned............................8








Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Film: 'STARRED UP'

Emphatically not for those of a delicate constitution, this brutal prison-set drama makes me wonder when I last saw such  extreme and protracted screen violence.

In this David Mackenzie film, Jack O'Connell plays a teenager transferred from juvenile detention to adult prison (somewhere in England, though filmed in Northern Ireland) which is populated by inmates seemingly all banged up for murder or GBH, he owing his own presence here to having attacked a paedophile for unwanted advances. 
The already tightly-coiled attitudes of the other prisoners meet their match in him as he doesn't just have a short fuse, his fuse is non-existent, liable at any moment to lash his fists out at anyone who challenges or sneers at him, this in a micro-world where every one is on the look-out for others who might display a lack of 'respect'. Scores have to be settled, sometimes with the help of conniving guards, and pecking-order rank has already been well established by the time he arrives. The big difference in this story is that one of the 'big guys' there who calls the shots happens to be his own convicted father (Ben Mendelsohn). Their interchanges are fraught with tension, the father caught between regard for his offspring and the need to maintain his status, which is being challenged by his son's arrival.
Even the 'classes' which the son attends (anger-management?) are taut with suspense, boiling over into physical mayhem at the slightest provocation, intended or not. The well-meaning but strugglingly-ineffective class monitor (Rupert Friend, particularly good), a member of staff employed from outside, finds it almost impossible to retain order for more than a minute or so.
The prison governor, trying to keep everything at arms-length regarding his own involvement, while striving to keep the inmates in check, is still not above taking the law into his own hands, most especially in a particularly shocking scene when the film is well advanced, when he loses all self-control.

There's very frequent use of the 'f' and 'c' words throughout, which is only to be expected. There's hardly any respite at all from the suspense as even the non-violent 'interludes' carry an expectation that a human explosion might go off at any time, which it does.
All the characters are very clearly delineated even if their back stories are not always fully explained. We know by hearsay and documentation the world in which they exist and that is basically all that is necessary to give the drama forward impetus.
It's set entirely and claustrophobically within prison walls with an all-male cast - save one or two background female warders plus the small role of a prison psychologist. I consider all the acting to be as fine as could be wished.

Until the last frames little of significant change occurs in the situation of the young inmate in this uniformly bleak film. Not one to watch if you're searching out comfortable viewing. I think some alcoholic beverage might help to get through the several bloody scenes without flinching, which I was doing all the time.

'Starred Up' belongs to the class of what is frequently termed a "powerful' film". It undeniably is!..........................6.5

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.