Thursday, 3 July 2014


While watching this I was thinking what a good film it was, a thriller with real punch! Coming home while reflecting, and now the morning after, I'm a little bit more ambivalent (reasons upcoming) but it's still darned fine.

First of all, high marks for the storyline which veers off into unexpected by-ways, such that it's difficult to say a lot without giving too much away. Then there's the quality acting by all the main players, each being well-differentiated and played with real conviction and credibility.

It begins simply enough, though troubling, when an intruder is heard in the house of Michael C. Hall and his wife  - (plus infant son, wouldn't you guess!) His fumbling to load his gun and his nervousness in confronting the burglar reveal his practical inexperience with firearms. All that can safely be said is that much of what follows hinges on the true identity of the imposter, the attitude of the small town where it occurs, and the family being menaced because of it. This is only the start of a twisty road.

For much of the first hour of this Jim Mickle-directed film I was on the edge of my seat. The tension worked up from the outset is held exceedingly well, only slightly relaxing after this point, but  then gripping again as the conclusion approaches. 
It's set in 1989, and we are given evidence of the period in large mobile phones and the presence of videos, on which we see one especially appalling violent incident (only just cut away a split-second before it happens) which, I feel, has almost scarred my mind. 
The style of the film reminded me a lot of the 'glory days' of Sam Peckinpah - bullet-riddled, blood-drenched, and with the occasional obligatory slow-motion shots of violence. At the time (1960s and 70s) he was the only major director doing it and was accordingly criticised for giving physical violence a veneer of beauty, a quality which (they claimed), it doesn't intrinsically possess (which itself is debatable). Then everyone started emulating Peckinpah and blood and guts has become standard fare for a number of today's directors, Scorsese (at least in his films of old) and Tarantino being most prominent. However, in this film the excesses do seem to hark back particularly to those past days of no-holds barred, show-it-all-on-screen, blood-fests.

Sam Shepherd and Don Johnson do sterling service, the former as a most unappealing and scarily volatile ex-con, the latter as Texan lawman and pig-farmer, complete with gaudily embroidered shirts and high boots -  so red-neck, so camp!. Also notable is Michael C. Hall's shakiness with guns at the start transforming into assuredness as the film progresses.

I could have done without two too-appropriately timed thunderstorms to underline the action. Such uses have long since become so hackneyed, indeed ever since the invention of film sound, that I find them every bit as distracting as over-emphatic soundtrack music, of which there is also quite a bit here.

I ought to mention that I heard one reviewer say that the American (pro-gun) NRA would give this film their seal of approval. I think that's far too simplistic an interpretation. If anything, I think at heart it depicts, in a most direct way, the destructive mayhem that easy access to firearms can bring.   

Despite my reservations, I'd argue that this is a good, unusual film. My immediate feeling of satisfaction when it was over of having got my entertainment's worth led me to think that I'd be awarding it a lofty 7.5, but pondering afterwards on the feeling that it had all been a tad over-manipulative I feel bound to mark it down a notch or two. It's another one that requires warning for those of a sensitive nature, but if you feel you won't be put off by its graphic, visceral thrills I would urge you to go see......................6.5.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Film: 'CHEF'

From the trailer this looked to be passably entertaining - and so it turned out to be. Nothing more than that, but not less either.

There was one particular reason why I was reluctant to see it. I never watch any of the TV programmes concerning 'reality' cooking/competitions. Not because I wouldn't find them interesting, rather that I try to avoid the sight of meat or fish either being cooked or the finished product on a plate. In a restaurant with companions it's a mental hurdle to block out what others are having, which can be just a few inches from my face, though I've never mentioned it - at least until now, here. Luckily(?), restaurant visits these days are far less frequent than at one time. In the last twenty years, perhaps twice or thrice.

So, braving it with gritted teeth, I thought that, nevertheless, the film looked like it could be fun. In the event there was only one on-screen incident that was particularly difficult to watch, and it comes in the very opening few minutes - an entire pig's carcase being decapitated - though it's not shown with any protracted, grisly relish.

Jon Favreau takes both Director's helm and main role. (He directed the first two Iron Man films - as well as having minor parts in each).
He is senior chef at Dustin Hoffman's (just three brief appearances) L.A. restaurant (public face - Scarlett Johannson, with black hair) when he clashes with his boss on the menu after getting a stinking review from an influential restaurant critic (Oliver Platt), which goes viral on Twitter. He wants to change the menu but Hoffman insists on sticking to the tried and tested reliables. Result - Favreau leaves.
Visiting Miami with his ex (Sofia Vergara) and their 10-year old son, she suggests he turns to cooking and selling Cuban specialities. With a filthy and rickety mobile kitchen supplied by his ex's ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr in just a single scene) and with the help of his former, earthy-humoured assistant chef (John Leguizamo, whom I don't think I've seen since 'Moulin Rouge' of 2001), who has also left his newly-promoted sous-chef position at the restaurant, they get themselves set up, son assisting in major way, and are out on the road, their food products being a huge success immediately with money being raked in.

That's it, really. A film of two halves, the first in the restaurant, the second in the mobile kitchen - both halves equally entertaining without being anything extra-special. I did find much of the food, while being prepared and cooked, and in finished form, looked ravishingly tempting. I don't think mine was the only stomach that was rumbling.

It's an over-long film (nearly two hours), too lengthy for such a slight, though unusual, story, but it did hold my attention for most of the time. Passes the time satisfactorily (just).......................5.5   

Wednesday, 25 June 2014


My expectations were not high for this film, but I'm happy to report that I liked it.

I'd heard that director Clint Eastwood's evident greater interest in the back story (of the Four Seasons, with lead vocalist Frankie Valli) than in the songs which feature along the way, would tip the film in the wrong direction; after all, most people who pay to go to the stage show (not seen by self) would be looking forward  to seeing the songs performed - and the same goes for the film.
I was therefore apprehensively thinking that the songs might be presented rather mechanically in hum-drum fashion. In the event they carried me along with ease and got my adrenalin pumping gleefully.

John Lloyd Young plays the diminutive leading role with considerable appeal. The tale follows Valli from pre-fame criminally-involved days in New Jersey when he was a naive youngster drawn into a world he didn't seem to naturally inhabit; then the discovery of his extraordinary falsetto voice, one of the first to recognise it being avuncular figure Christopher Walken with connections to, and influence with, 'the mob'; the forming of the singing foursome and their being publicised by their theatrically gay record producer (Mike Doyle).
Valli's marriage (three daughters) predictably hits the rocks through his long absences from home and his philandering. There's in-fighting within the group which includes the brain creating the songs, Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and fallings-out. One can  guess the story even though it's based on fact. It's really par for the course for nearly all rock groups, though in the 1960s no one suspected this was going on. I have to say that until seeing this film I knew nothing at all about the Four Seasons other than their hits (about a dozen Top 20 records in the U.K., including one Number 1 in 'Oh What a Night')

There's quite a bit of talking to camera by various characters - I can just imagine on stage that at that point he is highlighted by a spotlight while the rest of the stage is darkened, or (please not!) the characters 'freeze' till his address to the audience is complete. 
There are one or two very fleeting homophobic slurs, though if there'd been none at all it would have stretched credibility for the period in which this is set.
I wonder how many of the audience recognised a milli-second's appearance of Eastwood himself on a b/w TV as Rowdy Yates in the western series 'Rawhide' (of which I was an avid fan), just before he made it big in cinema with the excellent 'The Man With No Name' trilogy.
I thought Eastwood's direction was rather better than just efficient, finding the film absorbing throughout. It's maybe a bit more dramatic than one might expect in a 'frothy' musical but not to its detriment. I did, however,  regret that a few of the songs weren't performed in full or were largely talked over. I should imagine that this doesn't happen in the stage show as, I think I'm right in saying, it's become one of those musicals where the audience gets to its feet for the songs and joins in - which, if so, would be the sole reason for my not wanting to see it in a theatre - an infuriating and spoiling distraction. However, other songs are given their full head - and when they're done straight like that they really are marvellous.

I'm old enough to remember the first time I heard the first of the Four Seasons' British hits on its release ('Sherry' in 1962) and I recall thinking then "What a strange sound!". However, becoming familiar with Valli's soaring vocals, I quickly got to like their records a lot. This film does, I think, Valli and the group justice...............6.5

Monday, 23 June 2014


Based on successful play by American David Ives I found this two-person French language film shot on an actual theatre stage (as demanded), a plodding affair.  Roman Polanski has an exceptional filmography that few can equal let alone surpass, so this turned out to be double the disappointment, more especially since I still recall with affection and pleasure his recent 2011 'Carnage', also based on a stage play (though which some have disliked but I still find the funniest film that I've seen in latter years).

The ever-watchable Mathieu Amalric is here the director of a play he has adapted from a late 19th century work of Sacher-Masoch (that same, of course, from whom the word 'masochism' is derived). As the film starts he has finished auditioning, unsuccessfully, too many hopefuls for the single female part and is just packing his things to go home for the night when, who should brusquely appear but gum-chewing, pushy, Emanuelle Seigner (a.k.a Mrs Polanski), all dishevelled from the obligatory thunderstorm raging, and absolutely determined to audition for the part despite his weariness and lack of enthusiasm to see yet another likely failure. He reluctantly gives in to her rude insistence and, once she starts at the beginning of the play - who would have guessed it? - she's all sophistication, elegance, poise, gently-spoken and demure. Not only that, but apart from the briefest of glances at the script, she's absolutely word-perfect. (Goodness me! There must be a real talent at work here!)
He himself reads/plays the single male role with her even though he says he's a director rather than an actor, but he gradually gets drawn into the character he's playing.
The two of them keep jumping in and out of the script, she at some points criticising his play as being untrue to the female character, and telling him off for his flat reading of his own lines. They argue. Then each time they carry on as though nothing happened. And so it continues - until the S/M element starts to take prominence. However, remember that the play being read is set 150 years ago so there's nothing too graphic to be seen other than she in her dominatrix skimpies.
After things start to heat up between the players there's the question of exactly who is dominating whom, but for me it was clear within the first few minutes what path this film would take. Anyone who remembers Polanski's much better 1976 film, 'The Tenant' will know too.

At least twice I found myself falling asleep, even though it's only slightly over an hour and a half long. I just wasn't that interested in either of them. However, I did hold out to the end although the totally unsurprising 'twist' in the final minutes didn't exactly set the film alight.

In my books a failure though, damning by faint praise, it's not the worst I've seen this year..........................3/10

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


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


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.