Thursday, 19 June 2014

Film: 'OCULUS'

Why the pretentious title? 'Oculus' = 'eye' in Latin; now meaning a round window, especially a window in a dome. Is the title referring to an 'Evil Eye' or a 'Window into an evil world'?  I can only conjecture.  I didn't hear the word being used at all in the film. It's a bad choice, and its subconscious resonance with the word 'octopus' adds to the confusion.

It sounded intriguing and the film has been quite well-received, so, with the intention of experiencing some good and, nowadays, rare escapism into the horror genre, I gave it a go. Unfortunately, though not bad, it didn't really live up to hopes.

Mike Flanagan's film features a cast entirely unknown to me, running two time sequences in tandem - the earlier one of two children with their parents, the adult couple becoming increasingly influenced by a malevolent antique mirror, and then thirteen years later with the same children trying to exorcise that same piece of furniture's malignancy, which has caused the deaths of several of its owners and more over two centuries in England and in America.
The younger boy in the earlier story was put away in a mental facility for a killing. Now, on his release, his sister is out to prove that the deed was brought about by the mirror's baleful influence and that her brother was not really the one responsible. She also intends to destroy its power for good.
I might mention in passing that both the early-time family and the now-grown brother and sister each have a pet dog. I was dreading for either or both of these animals to come to nasty end. Although it's a minor plot-spoiler, I'm relieved to report that such does not transpire.  

The film is deadly serious throughout, which I think is a mistake if one is going to be graphic with the horror effects as this is at times, though there's nowhere near the OTT blood-and-guts visuals we've all seen in other films. The horror films of old (especially in the 'Hammer' films of the 1960s and 70s) where there was gore by the buckets-load had a way of winking at the audience which made the horror more telling. Here, where the incidence of visual horror rises as the film progresses it's played straight and earnestly, with the result that it just gets silly - and I found myself smiling at the film rather than with it, as we used to do with those oldies I mention.
Another error, I felt, was to have the later-time two young adults, particularly the young man, watching and witnessing himself as a boy, even sometimes in the same frame. It just seemed to weaken the effect of the horror.
Some of the shocks are quite effective - far better than the ones where we are jumping in our seats not at what's on screen, but rather at a sudden loud thump on the soundtrack, which always annoys me as I see that as 'cheating'.

The most genuinely disturbing films of recent-ish years for me have been The Blair Witch Project' (which, I know, has had people wondering what all the fuss was about, but I found chilling) and 'Paranormal Activities' (the original one). I've only seen both on the cinema screen and even now, all this time later, the memories of each of them send shivers up my spine. They both work because they are under-stated. The clinching 'pay-offs' in both films don't happen until the very final frames, and they both leave more questions than answers. In fact no answers are supplied at all. But, by heavens, I do find them disturbing.
In 'Oculus' the pitch of horror climbs steadily until, towards the end, it seems to assume that the more we actually see on screen the more terrified we'll be. It's not true. Flanagan ought to have kept it reined in right to the very end. Then it would certainly have worked better, though I bet that a lot would have complained that they didn't get their money's worth!

'Oculus', I found, is an 'okay' film. I've seen worse horror, but this could and ought to have been so much better.........................5/10

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Film: 'AVANT L'HIVER' / 'BEFORE THE WINTER CHILL'

I'll declare at the very outset that I did find this Philippe Claudel film most satisfying. Usually when I'm at odds with the majority of critics and viewers I am the one who's marking down. For a change this time my contrary opinion is a positive one.

Daniel Auteuil, who used to be a regular in French films of the 1980s and 90s (at least those which reached these shores) makes, for me, his first appearance since the impressive and disturbing 'Cache' ('Hidden') of 2005. He plays a neurosurgeon married to Kristin Scott Thomas, the latter seeming to appear more often in Gallic films these days than in English-speaking ones. Nothing at all wrong with that. KST is a delight to watch in any language.

Their long marriage (with a 30-year old son) has not quite gone stale yet, though it's certainly gone off the boil. When having a casual drink he is approached by a barmaid who tells him that as a girl she was operated on by him. He acknowledges her identity and thinks no more of it. Then he starts to receive, anonymously, bunches of red roses, first at work, then also at home and even one left on the bonnet of his parked car. He is, of course, troubled by who it could be. Then, through an accident of happening to be at a certain spot, he jumps to the conclusion that it's this very girl who's the one who is stalking him, and he makes a public scene - with him apparently being shown up as mistaken. (Or was it an error?). The roses deliveries continue and he finds himself becoming obsessed with the girl, by this time he assuming she has nothing to do with the mysterious flowers. She responds to his advances until he finds out something about her which deeply concerns him, but he carries on their friendship.
Meanwhile KST is growing suspicious that there's something going on in hubby's life which he isn't letting on about. Her attempting to get him to talk, as well as her unspoken 'reaching out' to him, is well conveyed. They only seem to be together when doting on their infant grand-daughter. Meanwhile, another complication is KST's sister with mental problems which gets her 'institutionalised', so already nerves are frayed.

I've seen the film described as 'slow-paced'. I not only didn't find this but I actually thought events were moving forward with some urgency - at least until about half an hour before the end when I was fearing that the narrative was in danger of becoming static. And then something happens, totally unexpected and devastating, which requires one to re-assess all that has happened before that point.

I've no major criticism at all of this film. Acting is good and solid by all parties throughout, and it's well-directed and beautifully shot. It certainly drew me in and it got a very low tally on my watch-checking count....................7.5




Monday, 16 June 2014

Film: 'BELLE'

If historical costume romances are your bag then this is for you. All that's missing in this very properly-spoken, sentimental tale (complete with swooshy strings) of English high society in the late eighteenth century is a ball, for which I give thanks. Otherwise I found this a stifling affair. I do, however, give it top marks for its unusual, fact-based story.

In Amma Asante's film, Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Dido Belle, the half-caste daughter born out of wedlock, of the great nephew (and a black female slave) of the country's Lord Chief Justice (Tom Wilkinson). Left at this aristocratic home by her loving father, who has to leave on a sailing expedition, she is accepted as a child of his own blood by his great-uncle's family -  a bit reluctantly, not so much because of her colour than that of what 'society' might think. Although she is treated as an equal in familial surroundings, when visitors arrive she is required to make her presence less conspicuous, such as not joining the gathering for meals. The Justice's own similar-aged daughter, meanwhile, has taken this new 'arrival' to her bosom and they remain firm friends throughout.
Complications arise when both Dido and the daughter 'come out' in society and are wooed for marriage purposes, Dido having been smitten by a liberal-minded, anti-slave clergyman's son whom Tom Wilkinson does not think suitable. There is other competition for Dido's hand, some of it well-meaning, some not.
A parallel story is the Lord Chief Justice, who is also liberal-minded to some extent but much more pragmatic, having to deliberate and rule on a case involving the deliberate drowning of some slaves being transported as human cargo, their murder being in order to claim insurance on their 'loss'.

I liked the fact that Dido seems to have caught some of the haughtiness of the aristocratic family she has been brought up with. It would have been so easy and predictable to have made her a downtrodden, sympathetic figure from the start, but she isn't. She's quite sassy with a mind of her own.

The film is handsomely mounted, well shot and quite convincingly acted. The presences of Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton and Matthew Goode all helped to make it a bit more bearable than it might have been.
It all ends with the legal ruling and verdict, swimming in sentiment underscored by full orchestra, which I found hard to take.

A lot of people are not as averse to heavily laid-on emotion as I am so their opinion of this film is likely to be higher, and I am indeed aware of some very positive reviews. However, for my own tastes, it strays too often on the side of tugging at the heart-strings. So, as I'm only able to score it in terms of my own enjoyment, I offer a ...........................5/10.

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.