Friday, 13 June 2014

Film: 'JIMMY'S HALL'

Ken Loach's filmography is a distinguished one, going right back to the widely admired 'Kes' of 1969 and covering notable contributions such as 'Hidden Agenda' (1990), 'Riff-Raff', 'Ladybird Ladybird', 'My Name is Joe' and 'Ae Fond Kiss' (2004). This one is another well above-average offering, though I must admit that though I've not disliked a single one of his films that I've seen I don't think that any of them would qualify in my list of 'all-time greats'.

Set in the aftermath of Irish independence and civil war in the late 1920s and early 30s thus rural-set story ("inspired by" true events rather than "based on") tells how a politically headstrong young man (Barry Ward, excellent) sets up a village dance hall as a community adhesive where society activities have heretofore been largely determined by Church and state, the latter still with residual English landlords. Much to the Church's disapproval, in addition to promoting 'lewd' dancing he brings in records of 'corrupting' American music, which his stern and humourless, elderly parish priest denounces as 'jazz' (actually more swing-time) and - shock, horror! - with negro voices, instead of good, wholesome, traditional Oirish music! The authorities, the state (in the form of police), colluding with Church, try to bring an end to his 'unholy mission'.
Jimmy himself is politically radical, accused of being a Communist (which he doesn't deny), and is the subject of attempts to have him deported for his dangerous political activities.
 Drama is heightened by friction between his supporters and the English landlord on whose land the dance hall is built, as well as by his romance which he attempts to prevent being doomed to separation.

It's an engaging tale, not boring in the slightest, though I was concerned that, like several of Loach's past works, it might get a bit politically-preachy - and it does lean towards that, especially in the film's second half. Otherwise the historical setting looks exactly right, with just about all the acting being of high or very high standard - and the dance scenes are toe-tappingly effective and uplifting. (I could have done with seeing more of this).

Just a small point: Would an Irish Catholic priest of advanced age be so free with use of the swear-word 'bloody', particularly to another, younger priest, when he must surely be aware of its likely derivation? Perhaps he would, I dont know. It just struck me as sounding incongruous.

A good film, then, though if not spectacularly so it's only by a small margin. Of a modest scale yet it admirably achieves its object to entertain..............................6.5.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Film: 'COMMON PEOPLE'

And it had all sounded so good - what, with a rare high average rating on IMDb of 8.3, this just had to be seen! How could anyone possibly not like it? Read on.....

Six stories interwoven into a sort of anthology, sometimes connecting, more often not. The sort of  idea which Robert Altman was master at putting on screen.

Set on one of London's public commons (either Clapham Common or Hampstead Heath, I'm not sure) it follows a day's progress in the lives of a disparate set of characters which includes:-

An advanced-elderly, lovey-dovey couple getting around on their mobility scooters, a guy out with his dog which has a mind of its own (and which doesn't even understand basic English, for heaven's sake!), a widower with his sweet-as-syrup five-year old daughter ("I miss Mommy." "So do I, Princess."), an ex-soldier, now homeless and bench-sleeping after serving in Afghanistan, a young, heavily-pregnant, single mother-to-be (the last two being in the picture above), a middle-aged male fitness fanatic who is joined by acquaintances who take delight in ribbing him, and a posse of a dozen slappable, pre-teen adventure scouts out on a 'twitching' expedition under the watchful eye of their mature Canadian (so explaining the accent) troop leader, and accompanied by a second adult who is conversant with matters avian.
The film cuts from story to story with occasional overlaps. It could have been interesting. It wasn't. It was intensely irritating.

First, the script - unrealistic and improbable, more detached from real life than banal, but nevertheless, hopelessly unsatisfactory. - and delivered by such an inexpert set of actors seeming to attempt to act the required emotions as per a chart. There was little connection between the words and their delivery. 'Unconvincing' is not really the right word. 'False' is closer.
Next the situations - largely dull and inert, apart from incidents involving (separately) the two characters in the picture. Would you believe that the young lady actually gives birth on a bench? - and surrounded by a group of scouts all going "Yuk" and various other expressions of disgust - until the actual appearance of the child (no umbilical cord, apparently) when the distasteful vocalisations from her young audience give way, at the flick of a switch, to applause and admiration. And so they ought to clap her as it must be the cleanest birth in history (no sign of blood and other gunge) - a nativity of which, I should imagine, even the Virgin Mary herself would have been sorely envious.

If you're at any time not sure how to react to the on-screen antics, worry not! Mood music on the soundtrack will give you a helpful nudge. 

Early in the film, when the scouts are on their quest to espy feathered creatures, they notice discarded condoms, (having clearly ventured into a gay cruising area) which they take to their leader on the end of sticks. Suitably embarrassed, he brushes off their finds ("Balloons for grown-ups") when (Goodness me, and pat on cue) enters into their zone a campy, lone guy, complete with eyes a-rolling (Get the picture?) who hails the tubby ornithologist as someone he's 'encountered' before (nervous clearing of throat), much to the added embarrassment and surprise of the troop leader.

The most interesting of the motley characters is the former soldier - and not, I ought to stress, because he's the only one with a beard. It might be significant that, practically mute, he has the advantage of uttering hardly a word of the dire script, even when he's being being talked to - especially by chatty preggers lady who's incapable of keeping her trap shut.

This is co-director (and writer) Stewart Alexander's first film in that role (along with one Kerry Skinner). All I can say is that now "the only way is up!"

I was fidgeting and looking at my watch within ten minutes of the start of this sorry 90-minute offering. Too long by approx 75 mins, I very unusually left the cinema with a quarter of an hour still to go.

To rub salt in the wound, this film was playing at the same cinema, for today only, as another new film I dearly wanted to see, 'Cheap Thrills', was also showing only for this single day. I'd chosen the wrong one and I'm still smarting at it even now.

I don't know if this will turn out to be my single 'worst film of the year' (there are already other contenders) but there's no doubt that, so far, it is the most disappointing. Fuming yet, I award it a...................2/10.




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.