Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Film: 'THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY'

Generally pretty fine, suspenseful thriller, let down only by a perfunctory conclusion when, before then, the spring had been coiled so tightly that I thought it must snap.

Set in 1962 Athens, Crete and Istanbul, Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst are an American couple on European tour when they are befriended by Oscar Isaac as an American, Greek-speaking tour guide. It's not long before we see that, with Isaac's knowledge of the native language and the couple's ignorance of it, he's fleecing their money without their knowing it, not spectacularly at first but still significantly.
Then Mortensen's own shady past catches up with him with an unexpected visitor to his hotel sent to trace him, resulting in a confrontation with an unfortunate outcome, with the couple fleeing their hotel, leaving their passports behind, and trying to get out of the country. Isaac offers to assist them and that's when the intrigue between him and the couple begins, mistrust and suspicion on both sides, Isaac having the knowledge to use as leverage to blackmail the couple, Mortensen knowing that Isaac is complicit in what happened and helping them evade justice.

We last saw Oscar Isaac very recently in the Coen's 'Inside Llewyn Davis', sporting a bushy beard which made me go all gooey inside. Here he's clean shaven and, though for me nowhere near as alluring, I'd still not show him the door.

I first became aware of Patricia Highsmith, on whose novel this film is based, through Hitchcock's 'Strangers on a Train' what must be about 50 years ago. I read her book and was hooked straight away, lapping up very nearly all her novels and short stories in ensuing years. She yet remains one of my very favourite authors. I love reading her characters whose self-interest is all-consuming with no time to worry about such inconvenient 'niceties' as morals and scruples. Ripley was such a character, and in this film it's both Isaac and Mortensen.
Unfortunately it's so long since I read 'January' that I can't say how close this film follows the novel.

The style and look of this film (Director: British, Iranian-born Hossein Amini) reflects the early-60s era in which it is based. Actually the background music (rather good) reminded me of some of Bernard Hermann's Hitchcock scores.

This is an above-average film, well shot, never boring, though I do regret the loss of tension towards the end when up to that point it had been kept taut. My rating might have been higher had they managed the consistency of thrills better but it still gets a very positive..........................7.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Film: 'GODZILLA' (in 3D)

This film starts very impressively. Do the opening scenes maintain and deliver their promise for the film's remainder? Yes, they do.

I had deliberately not seen the 1999 Roland Emmerich/Matthew Broderick version because of practically universal negative reviews so I can't compare. But whatever that was like, I'd say "Forget it! This one would be extremely difficult to surpass."

Director Gareth Edwards has already produced the high standard, minuscule-budgeted 'Monsters' of 2010 - an object lesson on how to deliver good quality entertainment on a shoestring. (I understand he produced all the CGI effects of that film on his own computer in his bedroom - and it doesn't show at all on screen.)
Here, for Godzilla, he's given his head with a multi-million dollar package to play with and, in no way disappointing, he yet again pulls out wonders, as he should with his many times huger resources!

Most of the first half of the film is set in Japan, disclosing how the monster inadvertently came to be generated through nuclear tests back in the 1940/50s. Then it moves briefly to Hawaii and then to California.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, an English actor whose name I didn't recognise until looking up his credits, plays the American lead, assisting the army in its fight by imparting information which his father (Bryan Cranson) had been collating about the effects of the nuclear tests. He actually plays someone one cares about, a character with more background than the usual ciphers  we see in such roles. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the marvellous Sally Hawkins whose appearance, almost entirely in the first half, is purely functional and could have been performed by just about anyone. After that we see almost nothing of her.

Not knowing the original story I'd assumed that there'd be only one monster, that of the title. Far from it. I say no more.

The special effects are really breathtaking throughout - and there are many imaginative touches involving bridges, trains, tunnels, ships, aircraft and God knows what, all looking as fresh as if we are seeing such for the first time
It takes a lot to impress me since CGI came along, but I have to aver that  some of these are truly amazing. I was sitting literally open-mouthed for much of the time.
The action rarely slows - only for the emotional scenes involving the male lead and his family, but they don't spoil the pace. In fact the entire film, at two hours in length is, though long (actually rather short for films of this ilk)  it doesn't outstay its welcome.

I'd strongly recommend that this be seen in 3D and on the biggest screen available to you. It would be a shame if the capacity to knock one back in ones seat is diluted.

I'm within a whisker of endorsing this film with an '8', and if I did I wouldn't have been afraid of inviting potential ridicule. But I think if I had done so I might be regretting it on the morrow as it being not as profound as other films to which I have already accorded that very rare score. So, seeing that 7.75 is not available in my own rating system, I'm more than happy to award this 'Godzilla' with a still splendid ........................7.5

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Film: 'FRANK'

Not quite the bizarre, homourously-slanted film I was expecting, this is a tale of an aspiring young composer and keyboard player (Domhnall Gleeson) who gets reined in, almost by accident, with an ambitious group of odd-ball musicians, somewhere in England, fronted by lead vocalist and composer, Frank (Michael Fassbender), permanently wearing a pumpkin-sized false head, even when eating and sleeping. Also part of the group is scowling, opinionated, contemptuous Maggie Gylenhall, who is also its sobre 'anchor'.

I wasn't acquainted with the journalistic origin of the source idea for the film and its characters, which are apparently quite well known in music circles, so I came to it as an 'innocent'. I don't think that not knowing the background to its inception hinders its appreciation.

The film (Director: Lenny Abrahamson) does have its comedic moments but it also goes to some very dark places.
Only Gleeson's fresh-faced newcomer seems curious to find out the reasons why that head is being worn, the others either already knowing and won't tell as it doesn't matter any more or, more likely, it's unimportant. I was ready to go along with the latter viewpoint as part of that character's quirky personality. When they travel from their isolated Irish island recording 'hide-out' to attempt to hit it big in America, there the head is not commented on or even given a second glance by members of the public who are coming across the group for the first time. Still fair enough. But all this is undercut by the fact that, near the film's close, we are given an explanation-of-sorts for the head. (I shan't say whether or not we are ever given a view of the real Michael Fassbender underneath.)

I'm aware of my tendency to mark down a film where my expectations are confounded, even though it shouldn't necessarily be so, and one ought to treat elements of surprise as the positive attribute they can be. Having said that there was something about this that didn't really gell with me. It seemed to strive to be both ambitious yet small-scale but tripped over itself in its execution. I think the Coen brothers could have melded the moods more successfully with their ability to give a delicate touch to situations which, in other respects, could be seen as tragic.

A flawed film, then, though it certainly does have some entertainment value - and throughout one is always wondering about that massive head even though this particular viewer would have felt more satisfied if it had been left as unexplained..............................6.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Film: 'TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM'

I'd been hoping for something extra-special from this Oscar-winning documentary (director: Morgan Neville), but for me it failed to muster up anything more than moderate interest.

Dealing with backing singers to world-famous celebrities from the 1960s up to date (here almost exclusively African-American and female) on both recordings and on stage, it's a series of talking heads, plus some live singing, by a few surviving singers themselves, most prominently Darlene Love (whose name was only on the margins of my awareness) and Merry Clayton (who wasn't). These are interjected by brief comments from the likes of Springsteen, Wonder, Jagger and Sting, all of whom basically say what marvellous voices these singers have. Hardly surprising.
There's some relating of failed attempts to achieve fame in their own right, only to be stymied by such powerful pop moguls as Phil Spector, determined that there were to be no rivals to Diana, Tina, Whitney, Mariah etc.
There were no great insights for me. I felt that all that needed to be said could have been achieved in twenty minutes instead of the ninety that this takes.

I think one needs to be keenly interested in the subject  before making an effort to watch it. I thought I was but if I'd started to watch this on TV for the first time it wouldn't have been long before I'd be channel-flicking................................5/10.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Film: 'THE LOVE PUNCH'

Spectacularly unfunny crime-caper 'comedy'. An object lesson in how to be UNamusing - by thinking that a situation in itself just needs to be filmed in order to have us all rolling in the aisles. Well, it won't. Successful comedy requires effort, effort which must be invisible. It has to masquerade as a light touch, not be delivered as leadenly as this. If you want to experience something with more sparkle I'd suggest you try a glass of tap water!

Not even the likes of the wonderful Emma Thompson, plus Pierce Brosnan, the ever-watchable Timothy Spall with Celia Imrie can pull this together.

Brosnan and Thompson are divorced from each other but have to get together to save themselves from financial ruin when Brosnan's firm is bought out by a young and dastardly French magnate - who happens to have bought a multi-million dollar diamond for his new wife, something which Thompson, by chance, happens to catch on Sky News. They hatch a plan to steal same. Bickering, as only ex's can, they go to Paris to meet the villain (La Tour Eiffel - tick! L'Arc de Triomphe - tick! And oh, in the film's final shot, Notre Dame - tick!) How on earth will they manage to survive together while being forced to spend time in each other's company? (Don't hold your breath.) They then follow their target to, where else, but the south of France to accomplish their clever little scheme, reining in local friends Spall and Imrie for assistance. Oh, and one more thing, Thompson is allergic to flowers, Brosnan to cats. Wouldn't it be a hoot if they found themselves together in a room full of both (as one does), each of them trying to stifle sneezes?. Laugh? I almost cried!

I was yawning within 15 minutes of the start of this sorry feature. But I must say it just might have been my own lack of sense of humour that stopped me enjoying it. There was one single chap in the audience who was splitting his sides. I concluded that he was either high on something (though, being of my generation, that seemed unlikely, though not impossible) or he had a canister of nitrous oxide from which he was inhaling.

I didn't know of writer/director Joel Hopkins. Including this one I see he's directed only four films to date, all of which he's written himself. If this is anything to go by I shan't be looking forward with any measure of eagerness to his next feature.
The only thing that makes me give this as 'high' a mark as I do is because I don't want it to be any lower than the score I gave to 'Labor Day'. At least the latter wasn't boring - and it was funnier.........2/10

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Eurovsion Song Contest 2014 - a post-event reflection.


The sole night of the year when I stay up beyond 11 p.m. - and it wasn't without its usual quota of excitements and controversy, especially the latter, this year in Copenhagen. Lots of it like a circus - we had a trapeze, a trampoline, a see-saw, skating, 'rain', a man-sized hamster-wheel and a circular keyboard to boot! But, hey, what else did you expect?

Final scores:-





Biggest talking point was participation of bearded drag queen, Conchita Wurst (real name: Tom Neuwirth) performing for Austria - and coming first (not entirely unsurprisingly), becoming that country's first win since 1966.  Since her participation became known certain bodies, particularly in Russia and Belarus - as well as Austria's own extreme right - have been dismayed and, spluttering with rage, petitioned  the Eurovision authorities to exclude her from the competition or, if not, not to screen her performance on grounds of it being 'perverted' and having a 'corrupting influence'. Of course such requests were quite rightly given short shrift. Russia's opposition to Conchita no doubt boosted her chances to win with her over-earnest, power-ballad, 'Rise Like a Phoenix' which in my own ratings wouldn't have made it into the top half of the 26 participants. But it was satisfying for Russia to be given two fingers (non-British readers read 'one finger'). The final winner appeared to be likely early on with only one or two other countries coming even close. At the very least it was good to have a country winning again which had had to wait for nearly half a century.


Not only was Russia's own entry (two sisters joined by their hair, at least at the start, but coming a respectable seventh) unfairly booed for, no doubt, this very reason, but in the voting section every time another country gave a substantial number of votes to Russia that got booed too. Not very pleasant and not at all fair on their act, even though I didn't think much of their song.

My own telephone vote went to Belarus, hottie Teo singing 'Cheesecake' with four backing male dancers/singers - a perky number performed with some nifty little snake-hip moves. A happy song, which is always a plus for me. 


Sad to say, sassy little Teo only came in 16th place, one place above the uninspiring (though a lot liked it) UK entry of Molly Smitten-Downes and her self-penned (We are) 'Children of the Universe.' - which, I suppose is an advance on the Bee Gees singing that "We are children of the world." - and including 'aspiring' lyrics like "Power to the people!"  (Oh dear! Straight out of John Lennon/Vietnam War days!) Still, we managed to finish two places higher than last year's Bonnie Tyler effort, though I think in this case 17th was about its deserved slot even though the bookies had placed it Top 5.


My second favourite, from host nation Denmark, Basim singing 'Cliche Love song' had quite a bit in common with my first choice of Belarus, another chirpy, toe-tapping, smiley number with front man and four backing singer/dancers. Unfairly finishing in 9th place. (Dooby-dooby-dup-dup).



My number three choice was the Netherlands with an attractive, unassuming,  c/w duet, 'Calm After the Storm'. This was the only highly placed of my own choices, coming in at a good second.



My fourth was Switzerland (actually finishing 13th)  with whistling and violin playing, another up-beat entry, and my fifth, above, would have been Rumania (ending up in 12th), a duet with the guy rather like a good-looking David Gest, not everybody's definition of handsome though, despite an alarming haircut (clump on top) I found him attractive.

Two acts stood out from the rest for being 'different'. One was Netherlands (above), the other was Iceland, 'Pollaponk', a (mostly) bearded sextet decked out in their regular, trademark, cartoon colours, brash, loud and crazy, just like their song. (I thought red and pink were the hottest). The song itself was a little better than okay. It finished 15th though felt it maybe ought have scraped the Top 10, just.

So this year we had it all - controversy, the good, the bad and the boring. I always mark the entries on a list as the contest progresses. Until this week I hadn't heard any of the songs, not even the U.K. entry. I didn't think the overall standard this year was quite as high as 2013. In fact my scores for 8 of the 26 entries was a big fat '0'. - only Belarus getting my max of '5' and Denmark being the only one to which I accorded a '4'. 
But all in all it was good fun - and one can't help but be thankful for that poke in the eye from Austria and supporters for Putin and his thuggish friends. Good on ya!





Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Film: 'BLUE RUIN'

Lean, efficient and sparely scripted revenge drama with a handful of moments which score high for gruesomeness.

I'd heard of neither director/writer Jeremy Saulnier nor of principal actor Macon Blair who carries the entire weight of the film and is, in fact, hardly off-screen at all.

Little, if any, background information is provided when we see the unkempt and straggly-bearded Blair at the start, apparently a hobo leading an aimless life in small-town Virginia. When he learns that someone who killed both his parents is about to be released from prison he's determined to exact revenge, which he does but without thought that he himself would then become a target as a consequence. Undergoing a radical transformation by having a shave and tidy-up, it's then a matter of his awaiting and being prepared for his pursuers before he becomes their victim, while also attempting to secure the safety of those near him who could additionally be targeted for further vengeance

It's a simple but suspenseful tale. He learns, as do we, of the motive behind the murders which started off this chain of events. There were at least two points in the story where I was reminded, bizarrely, of 'Home Alone' and, more pertinently, 'Straw Dogs'.
Macon Blair takes on the central role brilliantly and credibly, conveying well his internal struggles between self-preservation and the utter distaste for his necessary actions.

At a sensible ninety minutes this film shows yet again that one doesn't need a sprawling discourse of epic length nor a bank-busting budget to deliver good quality entertainment. Well recommended, though one does need to have a strong stomach for more than one of the happenings............................7.5.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Film: 'TRANSCENDENCE'

Aware of the lack of enthusiasm (and worse) that this has received on both sides of the Atlantic I took the BBC's chief film reviewer, Mark Kermode, at his word. He actually did like it and suggested we might look beyond the gobbledygook and plot weaknesses and just go and enjoy. So I did - well, at least the first part.
It wasn't long into the film before I was struggling to evince some sense out of what was going on, the reason being that much of the expository scene-setting dialogue is delivered in dialogue that's little more than mumble-talk. More on this later.

Johnny Depp is joined by a trio of British stalwarts, Rebecca Hall, Cillian Murphy and Paul Bettany, with Morgan Freeman also along for the ride.
Wally Pfister take's the director's helm, having past form on contributions as Director of Photography  on such fine films as 'Inception' and 'Memento' among others.

Depp is a leading scientist in the subject of artificial intelligence, with ambitions to create a virtual brainless mind without limits on knowledge and mental capabilities. He's shot by.....who? Religious fanatic? Luddite? Political enemy? Science rival? All becomes clear in time......or it ought to have done. The good doctor dies shortly after, but not before his wife, Hall, downloads all that's in his conscious and subconscious mind. For the major part of the film Depp only appears on computer screens as his consciousness is resurrected and he's once again able to communicate with the physical world, despite the fact that his body has been cremated, giving instructions as to what to do next to further his wishes. (We'll gloss over the question of the whereabouts of the camera which shows his talking, after-life face.)
The plot goes into lengthy development of an idea to regenerate physical injuries, which confused me. And who exactly is this mysterious gang kidnapping Depp's colleague (Bettany), and trying to find out all about the project? Do they want the secrets for themselves or to destroy it all? Search me! There's some, what I take to be, unexpected changes of allegiance between the main players but by then I'd given up caring.
Freeman (not playing God) is always a significant presence on screen, but doesn't really have much to do here. Maybe they wanted to give the film some added weight, which on the whole he does supply.
There's quite a bit of computer-image trickery during the entire course of the film, but nothing that we haven't seen before. 

Yes, while the film was playing I was wondering when this now common practice of indecipherable mumbling began. I think it was about 20 years ago. In films up to then it was a rarity to have an actor mouthing incomprehensible words. Now it seems like they are being told "Don't worry. Just say the line any old way and the mike will pick it up." They are wrong. It's just total indolence on the part of actor, director, sound engineer et al.
It might be thought that at my age (67) my hearing will be failing and giving me a problem that younger people may not have. That may well be true to some extent, though it doesn't explain why it's only in the cinema that I have problems in deciphering conversations at all. In everyday life, never. If in reality  people talked to me at the sound level I experience in contemporary films I'd be saying "Eh? What did you say?" all the time. But I never have to. 

So I may be misjudging this by not having taken on board all one had been intended to take. But whereas yesterday's film was just plain daft and justified the low rating I gave it, with 'Transcendence' I'm willing to concede that at least part of the 'fault' may have been my own and that it's really a better film than I give it credit for. Having said that, it's still the case that a fair score which reflects my own level of 'enjoyment' would be..............3.5/10

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Film: 'LABOR DAY'

A film that'll linger in my memory - just like the smell of one of my window-visitor Tortie's stinky-poos deposited in the litter tray after I've scooped it up and flushed it away.

This film was actually released here a few weeks ago but I'd forgotten about the risibly absurd premise that the story is based on. If I'd recalled what had been said I'd probably have thought twice, but I caught it today on a screening obviously intended to mop up mugs like me who hadn't  seen it up to now. And - oh dear!

Kate Winslet, divorced mother of a 12(?)-year-old son, on a routine shopping trip is approached by escaped convict Josh Brolin in a store. (Cue a bit of 'regulation' shop-lifting!) He, bleeding a bit and with leg injured by his escape jump out of a window, implies threat to her accompanying son if she doesn't drive him away (to her house!) in order to rest his leg "just for a few hours". To be fair, she puts on all the concern, apprehension and fear which the script calls for, especially when he discloses that he's on the run from a sentence for murder. All this happens in the first ten minutes.
Well, I was going to say "to cut a long story short" but you don't really have to wait that long before he's moved in, helping around the house, mending the car, giving the son baseball tips - even ironing, for goodness sake! But all that's as nothing compared with his showing both mother and son how to make........a peach pie! So is that the apex of his talents? Not by a long chalk! Before you can say "Bossa Nova!", gammy leg notwithstanding ('scuse the pun), he's teaching her how to dance! You'll have gathered that by now the scales have long since fallen from her eyes and she sees him for the fine and caring specimen of manhood that he is. One assumes that by now or very soon they are bonking with gay abandon. (True love sure works in mysterious ways!) Thankfully we are spared the sight of any such bed scene, which would surely have been accompanied by sultry, sexy, saxophone sounds, though I'd bet such a scene finished up on the cutting room floor - where nearly all the rest of this shameless farrago deserved to be. While they're watching TV there's a flash warning about her 'guest', telling all to be alert to this convict who's escaped from an 18-year murder sentence. But is she deterred while she lovingly rests her head on his shoulder. Not a bit of it! (What's the odd murder between friends?) How about another dance?
Of course his presence in the house has to be kept scrupulously under wraps, with police on the streets and his mug-shot nailed to trees - while all the while the son is, understandably, far from happy at the developing relationship.

I must, however, give due positive regard to a few minutes towards the end of the film where director Ivan Reitman (the good 'Juno' + 'Thank You For Smoking' among his worthier credits) really cranks up the suspense most effectively. Unfortunately, this is soon dissipated in an extended epilogue over several scenes, long outstaying its welcome. I wanted to scream "Yes, we get it. Now let it GO!!!"

It would have been nice to say that one could just forget the ludicrous notion that the Winslet character would so easily fall for a sinister, convicted murderer to the extent of 'shielding' him from due justice, and just get on with enjoying the rest of the film. But there's no getting away from it. Their situation looms large in every single scene so you're not allowed to forget it.

Nothing else to say, really. Don't know why I'm giving it this score - let's just say it's for those suspenseful few minutes near the close ....................................2/10





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Monday, 28 April 2014

Film: 'YVES SAINT LAURENT'

I found this film francais, (Director: Jalil Lespert), depicting a decade-and-a-half slice of YSL's life from his rapid rise to fame up to middle age, only moderately engaging, and otherwise unremarkable. Specifics shortly.
I knew next to nothing of the person behind the universally-recognised name in the world of fashion so, gleaning from some reviews of this film (none of which seemed to be positively glowing with praise - at least the ones I read) it was largely an education for me.

Pierre Niney plays the bespectacled eponymous role, a spoilt kid with a short fuse from the very start. Guillaume Gallienne is his lover/assistant-cum-manager who, for me, had much more on-screen magnetism than Niney. This created a void at the film's heart which I felt - the question as to why so many, male and female alike, found YSL so fascinating and, indeed, attractive? Surely not just because of his rapidly-acquired wealth? Can only have been his artistic talent, then.

The pair of them get hitched up very near the beginning and from there on it's a chain of tiffs and fights, some of it physical, arising from their jealousies and infidelities (both sides).
It took me a bit aback to see it, but I suppose the very matter-of-fact acceptance of homosexuality in that milieu in late 1950s/60s Paris would be well documented. Apart from YSL relating how he was beaten up over being gay (which we don't see) and which contributed to his emotional fragility and volatility, there is no open hostility to him for that reason in the fashion world he inhabits. In fact there seems to be an all-pervading air of poly-sexuality!
We see some of his fashion shows, given with sumptuosity and flair. For me these were actually more interesting and watchable than the story of his life. Paris itself, and the Ile Saint-Louis in particular, looks lovely.

Btw: Though knowing hardly anything about fashion myself I do like to watch designers in action - as in the TV shows of Gok Wan, Trinny and Susannah (alas, gone from our TV screens) - and, oh, how I miss 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy'! It's the utter confidence displayed in decisions that just floors me every time, not giving a fig as to what others think. Especially with 'Queer Eye', I was just amazed at the certitude of their opinions while they were yet so young. I wouldn't have had the guts to openly disagree! There's a touch of that particular aspect in this film too. But I digress. (A bit of daydreaming!)

I reckon that YSL delivers what it was intended to but I shouldn't imagine it will be active in my memory for very long. But I never really got bored - I was just waiting for the next fashion show............5.5