Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Film: 'EDGE OF TOMORROW' (in 3D)

I'd probably have given this a miss if it hadn't been for Harper's Valley's fairly favourable review at:-
  https://harpersvalley.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/edge-of-tomorrow/
as well as being able to catch it at a reduced-price, 3D screening. It was worth it.

Although not a particular fan of Tom C. I do find his screen-presence tolerable enough. I certainly don't share the aversion some have of him, so that helped.
Cruise is here in (yet another) futuristic science fiction extravaganza, set mainly in and around London, involving an end-of-humanity struggle with earth-colonising alien creatures (looking and acting quite effectively scary to me) with the added twist of a time-replay attribute which he discovers that he has and eventually gets to exploit to the aliens' detriment, though only after much trial and error. His partner in his saviour-role is Emily Blunt (at times uncannily resembling Uma Thurman, I thought) who used to have a similar time-re-setting talent and lost it by chance, so she now shows the militarily-inexperienced Cruise how to train, develop and use his ability to save the world. It's mostly good fun and fast action. The repetitions of situations are handled adroitly with good editing so it doesn't seem as repetitive as it could have done. I didn't find it boring, though only towards the end, during the final, predictable, big-scale confrontation, did I start to feel a little weariness and thought the film might have been improved with, perhaps, 15 minutes shorn off it. But, on the whole, it holds up well. (The individual armoured and armed exo-skeletons that the terrestrial soldiers have to wear must have been murder to have had to move around in. As well as having their visible bulk they give the impression of being really unwieldy.)

Director Doug Liman doesn't have a particularly auspicious pedigree in directed film work, though that does include 'The Bourne Identity' (2002), and here he also acquits himself well.

Most of us will have seen a few films before which play with  the idea of time-slip. It's always an interesting idea and keeps one alert with the 'if only' questions. This film doesn't shy away from the dangers of over-indulging in the replay of scenes already viewed, though with a purposed change to alter the outcome of events, and manages it with aplomb.

I rate this as one of the more successful of recent blockbusters and am pleased to give it a more-than-satisfactory.........................7.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

'Nineteen Eighty-Four' - Re-experiencing literary classics (for the last time?).

At my age (67), still trying to keep at bay the sixth age of 'the lean and slipper'd pantaloon', and without wishing to sound maudlin and fey, I thought it would be a good idea to use a higher proportion of my remaining allotted lifespan to re-read as many of the 'classic' books I can which I know I've enjoyed, and have another pleasurable bite of a given work in what could well be my final experience of it. 

I've always been an avid reader and, like as for films, I've kept a list of all the books I've read since 1970. (Films seen since 1964).

I last read George Orwell's seminal work in 1983, recalling that I wanted to re-read it then before the actual title year came around. I'd first encountered it seven years before that, so this was my third reading - and what a rewarding experience it was! This book has substance. After so many mediocre thrillers, replete with grisly murders, throwaway plots, laughable dialogue, unconvincing scenarios, it was a true pleasure to get back to a writer who knew how to write. (Though I must cite an exception in having recently read John Grisham's 'A Painted House' - Very impressive, and totally different from his usual contemporary courtroom dramas.)

I'd remembered '1984' well, of course. The book was and is still unique in its scary description of a future totalitarian society, which other authors have tried to emulate though none have yet equalled. Then, of course, there was also the John Hurt/Richard Burton film released (but only just) still in the year of the book's title - maybe worth watching on its own terms, but coming so far short of the reading experience itself that once is quite enough.

Even though in the novel I vaguely remembered the point happening at which Winston Smith was uncovered as a traitor to the system and 'Big Brother', and who had betrayed him, reading it again still sent a breath-stopping chill through me. This is what writing should be like!
False memories had misled me into thinking that long passages detailing society and its laws and prohibitions ('a novel within a novel') were borderline-boring and over-extended. This time I did not find them so - and though pages long, they were not as lengthy as I'd thought I'd remembered. I even read the novel's entire appendix ('The Principles of Newspeak') which I'd skipped on my earlier readings.

I'm glad I did this. It's given me faith in good writing again - and at a mere 250 pages it's concise as compared with many of today's bloated offerings. I've taken out 'Animal Farm' (a super-attractive 120 pages long) also for a third read, the last time being 23 years ago, but I think before that I might prefer to dust off an old Thomas Hardy again while I've still got eyes to read.

Looking forward to trawling through more classics. I find that in re-reading books it's quite likely that one can enjoy them at least as much as the first time, maybe even more. A new(ish) world has (re-)opened up!

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Film: 'FADING GIGOLO'

Reasonably diverting (though to me also somewhat confusing) film from writer/director John Turturro.
I think I'd not have been alone when hearing about this film for the first time and being told that Woody Allen was J.T.'s co-star in this, only to feel a bit deflated on learning that it's not one of Allen's own self-written and directed films. But his character here does have all his unmistakable traits (stumbling conversation, ever-victim, unfortunate scrapes etc) and quite a few funny, quick-witted repartees, which I'd guess were largely his own contributions to the script.

I haven't seen Allen in a film not directed by himself since 1991 in 'Scenes from a Mall' with Bette Midler (apart from a voice in the animation 'Antz') - and it is a refreshing change even though his character is the one we already know so well through his own films, and which is one you can either take or leave; which I do take.

The two main actors play lifelong buddies when Allen, having to close the bookshop he owns, has a wheeze to get some much needed income stemming from a chance remark from his female dermatologist (Sharon Stone - another 'long time no see', as is Turturro himself) that she fancies a menage a trois with another female and a suitable man, at which Allen proposes Turturro's name before even consulting him. With some persuasion, J.T., already holding several jobs simultaneously, finally agrees, sharing his earnings with Allen as his 'manager' as it becomes more than a one-off.
Another important, though more serious, strand of the story is Vanessa Paradis as a rather demure widow who also is the subject of Turturro's attention as masseur, her movements being observed by a curious and jealous Orthodox Jew Community Patrol Officer, Liev Schreiber, complete with big beard, ringlets, yarmulke and related garb.
In fact the Jewishness aspect has a particularly high profile in this film, culminating in a scene where Allen is abducted on the street and made to appear before a 'court' to defend his role in rumours about his breaching Jewish rules of permissible behaviour. I think there were chances missed to make this funnier than it turned out.

I found the film slightly more than merely passable. If it hadn't been for Allen's presence and that of Vanessa Paradis' quite luminous appearance on screen I would have marked it down a bit. But it makes for a reasonably satisfying and largely entertaining hour and a half................................6.







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!