Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Film: 'Maps to the Stars'

This is an oddity - too weird and insufficiently endearing to be considered as quirky. But that's David Cronenburg's films for you - mentally challenging, rarely dull, but when it's over I find myself asking "What was that all about?"

Set in Hollywood (cue celebrity name-dropping - hence the film's title - and a brief cameo appearance from one of the younger big names of today), John Cusack plays some kind of New Age guru who writes on self-improvement, and is the father of an obnoxious, wise-ass, spoilt brat of a boy actor who, despite being all of 13, appears to be totally clued up on drugs and sex. His once-institutionalised (for starting a life-threatening fire) and estranged older sister (Mia Wasikowska) travels from Florida to re-connect with her family who are far from happy to see her.  Mother (Olivia Williams) plays a bundle of nerves - but overshadowing them all is Julianne Moore as a client of Cusack, a seriously dotty woman intent on making a film of her deceased mother, whose role she wants to play herself. Both she and little brat actor keep having disturbing visions of departed ones

As she always does, Julianne Moore gives the film dramatic weight. Without her it would have been a much slighter affair. However, as it turns out the film isn't one I'll remember for long, because apart from the latter's episodes of crazy behaviour and intensive emoting (which are, admittedly, a good watch) there's little to latch onto and really no one on whom to pin ones sympathies.
The film is well shot though with nothing much to retain in the mind.

There is at least one extremely brutal and gory scene, plus a couple more which some may flinch at.

Reasonable enough entertainment while it's running, but for this viewer it seemed vacuous at heart.................5.5

Monday, 6 October 2014

Film: 'Gone Girl'

When I see that a film is going to be two hours long I groan. When it's two and a half hours it had better be good! Reviews have largely said that this film is so - and I can now confirm that in my opinion, it's far better than just 'good', it's mightily impressive.

A thriller that wrong-foots the audience time and time again, helped enormously by the fact that Gillian Flynn, the writer of the popular novel (not read by me, yet) has also written the screenplay. The story reminded me of the first time I read John Fowles' 'The Magus', when I could never be certain that by turning the next page all that had gone before wouldn't be demolished for the umpteenth time, leaving the reader having to make a corresponding mental adjustment.

Gillian Flynn has produced a superior script that crackles along and left me breathless trying to anticipate what comes next. Director David Fincher has the two spotlit main parts played excellently by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. I can't imagine either roles could have been done better. (I ought to report that I couldn't quite catch some of the early exchanges, the same fault which ruined Fincher's recent success for me, the entire film of 'The Social Network'. But any dialogue I missed here was nowhere near as extensive as in that film, and there wasn't anything I felt which I ought to have heard but didn't).

As for a precis of what happens, I can only say that Affleck returns to his Missouri home one day to find that his wife of five years (Pike) is missing, there being signs of a struggle. He then calls in the police - and the roller-coaster ride begins. Assumptions one has made of the situation start being subverted only for the then revised situation to be similarly dismantled, and so it continues till one never knows where one's sympathies are or should be. Twists and turns come thick and fast and by the time the end had been reached I felt giddy without having a solid, reliable base on which to stand.

Mention must be made of Kim Dickens as the chief detective assigned to solving the disappearance, with Patrick Fugit as her police officer 'sidekick. They make a fine 'double-act'. In fact, throughout the film I found that humour is not far below the surface, occasionally popping up right up into view. It works well.
Another most interesting feature is the gullibility of the general public tuning into TV News and chat-show programmes, shifting their allegiances according to the 'requirements' of the TV producers. (If I may be allowed another reminder of a parallel situation, I thought of  'Julius Caesar' and Mark Antony's funeral oration, where the crowd's sympathies are played like a musical instrument).

If you like films that require one's attention throughout (which this holds without any difficulty at all, it so pulls you in) and you enjoy a mental fun-ride, this will suit you down to the ground. A major achievement in all respects, I find very little to criticise about it..............................8


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Film: 'Lilting'

An impressive, touching, undemonstrative little film depicting an unusual situation, deserving of a wide viewing.

This was next on the list to see before I had my very public tumble on a Brighton street seven weeks ago, thereby having to cancel my intention. It's very fortuitous that a second chance came along, especially since I see it already being advertised as now available on DVD and Blu-Ray (whatever that is!).

Ben Whishaw plays the surviving member of a co-habiting couple after his partner dies. (We only get to know the cause of death just before the film's end.) He tries to make an approach to his partner's Chinese-Cambodian, non-English-speaking mother (Pei Pei Cheng), now single and in a residential home, in order to fulfil the obligation he feels to ensure she is well cared for. But she keeps a cool distance from him, resenting his having taken her son from her when she feels the son's first duty should have been towards her own welfare. She sees the couple as having had nothing more than a close friendship - or does she suspect the truth and is unable to accept it?
The Whishaw character brings in a young woman (Naomi Christie) to translate, ostensibly at first  for a counterpoint strand, namely a growing romance between the mother and another single, elderly English resident of the home, Peter Bowles (a well-known face for British TV viewers, and an actor whom I've also seen on stage a few times).  These two older 'love-birds', being unable to communicate in words, the translator is called in as a favour on Whishaw's part, to try to ease their relationship along, if and when they need it.  Inevitably, the translator also begins translating conversations between Whishaw and the mother, which at times gets painfully close to the bone when truths and underlying attitudes start coming to the surface. The young woman then finds herself as more than just a go-between and reluctantly finds herself being drawn into their world.
We see Whishaw with his late partner (Andrew Leung) several times in flashback, and though they superficially seem to be a fine-looking, loving couple, I got the feeling that the two of them could have had the occasional blazing row, both having fiery temperaments. But that was only my impression.

Much of the dialogue is in Mandarin - or was it Cambodian? ( I think not Cambodian, as actress Pei Pei Cheng - previously of 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' - is Chinese). All the conversations between her and her son, in flashback, are translated through subtitles, while between the mother and Bowles, and mother and Whishaw are translated directly by the young woman.

I was hooked on the story from the outset even though there's hardly any 'action'. It's a very emotion-based piece, but never monotonous for all that.
Every one of the quintet of actors was quite astonishing. It would be invidious to pick just one of them out for special praise. Nevertheless, that's exactly what I'm going to do, and name Naomi Christie (the translator) who manages to write her conflict and inner turmoil on her face as she witnesses things being said when she knows she ought to exercise detachment. Her under-the-skin performance is extraordinary. And then there's the mono-lingual mother, all emotion tightly constrained and knotted up in her body.

All in all a very satisfying and moving miniature drama. I'm glad to have had the chance to see it on screen. Director Hong Khaou (excellent and faultless) has shot it in wide-screen for some reason, when I would have thought that for something so domestic and intimate as this a normal ratio might have suited better. However, I'm not going to carp at that.

This has a good chance of finishing in my year's Top Ten.............7.5.




Monday, 29 September 2014

Film: 'What We Did On Our Holiday'

I'd feared that I'd be disliking this film. It had all the 'right' ingredients for that result. And thus it turned out to prove.

The title has a certain resonance with the slasher-horror series 'I Know What You Did Last Summer', but dismiss that from your minds.

The first half of this film is played as broad comedy, during which it didn't raise even the ghost of a smile from me. Then an event happens which lurches it into a different world, veering uneasily between black comedy and farce - and which gave me two occasions for half-smiles at the most. It ends with thickly laid-on sentiment to make one wince and double-wince. Oh dear!

I went because it's co-scripted and co-directed by Andy Hamilton, whom I like (with Guy Jenkin). Hamilton is a prolific comedy writer for radio, as well as being a regular panelist on light-hearted quiz shows for both radio and TV. So I thought it might be a cut above the usual. Sadly, not so.

David Tennant (one of the recent incarnations of Doctor Who, as well as having played the finest 'Hamlet' I've seen for decades - there was a television version of the RSC production a few years ago) plays the father of a three-child family. His wife, Rosamund Pike, I'll be seeing again shortly in 'Gone Girl'.
The five of them drive from London to Scotland for the 75th birthday celebrations of Tennant's father, Billy Connolly, who's suffering from terminal cancer and who is bravely trying to keep his suffering hidden from others. When they arrive at Tennant's wealthy brother's (Ben Miller) palatial house where all are to meet, naturally Connolly gravitates towards the children, wisecracking with them and taking them on an excursion to the beach while the many dozens of guests arrive to participate in the elaborate celebrations - several marquees, Scottish band, a veritable banquet prepared.
Not only is Connolly trying to hide his true condition from everyone, Tennant and Pike have to keep up the pretence of a happy marriage when they're actually on the edge of divorce, bickering like anything when they're alone.

There's an added poignancy to Connolly's role in that only a few weeks ago it was revealed that in real life he is not only suffering from prostate cancer, but the onset of Partkinson's has also been diagnosed.

The children aged (I'm guessing) around 11, 7 and 4, were particularly irksome, the two youngest most of all. Why did they give the youngest so many lines when at least three quarters of what she said was lost to me in infant burbling? I suppose what we're supposed to think is "Aw, so sweet!"

I was shifting in my seat all through this film and looked at my watch more than a few times. If you're one of those who doesn't have my resistance to being manipulated and carried along, suspending your critical faculties, then I can well understand how you may well like it - and I wouldn't dare to venture that that view is any less valid than mine. But, for my own terms on what constitutes a film that entertains me, I must give this a lowly......................2.5/10 




'Billy Elliot - the Musical' - live, transmitted into cinemas.

Despite the ticket prices (even at the reduced 'Senior' price, still four times the cost of a 'normal' cinema ticket) this one-off event was reassuringly well-attended - considering too that it was showing in both of the two double-screen cinemas in this town.

It got off to, for me, an inauspicious start - much, much too loud, though that was hardly the fault of the production beamed in from London's Victoria Palace Theatre. If the sound level wasn't quite on the edge of distortion it was pretty well near headache level, with the result that a lot of the scene-setting lyrics were lost. (I'd wished I'd brought some cotton wool with me for ear-plugs, but instead had to use the ear-pieces of my Walkman throughout the show) Amid all the rowdiness in the opening scenes I was also a bit put out by some heavily demonstrative acting, though once again one couldn't blame the cast entirely, acting technique for the stage necessarily taking physical movement up a notch for an audience at a physical distance, as against acting for a camera in close- up, where all facial, muscular inflections can be captured. So it was here, with many cameras making it look more like a film than the live theatrical event it was.  
   Having said that, and accepting that none of it so far was the production's fault, I was nevertheless a trifle underwhelmed until well into the first half (precisely 50 mins into the 1 hour 10 mins) when I did find, to my great pleasure, that the experience had taken flight and I was gliding along with it. (I'd seen the film on which this musical is based just the once when it was first released in 2000. It's such a singular story that one can't help but remember the path it takes.)

      I thought the music was good. Not being familiar with any of the songs, I'd had doubts whether Elton John could write a wide range of numbers of different moods and styles to hold the narrative drive on a convincing course without getting monotonous - and he does.
    Acting was good also, stand-outs being the dancing teacher (Ruthie Henshall - the only name in yesterday's cast I'd recognised) and the 'Billy' of the day, Elliott Hanna (aged 11) was nothing short of extraordinary - such confidence and verve.
I was initially not convinced by Billy's father (Dekka Walmsley), his brother and his grandma, but the first of these, at least, really started to shine towards the end of the first part and all through the remainder so that by the end I was totally won over.

I've never ever heard so much 'blue' language on stage, not even in a straight play. It was darned near relentless - not just among the grown-ups, not just between grown-ups and kids, but also among the kids alone. Maybe it shows my age, but I did find it just a tad off-putting. Perhaps that is the way children speak nowadays. The original film had far fewer expletives, though they'd probably been reduced in number so as to have the film achieve a more acceptable censorship category. At yesterday's screening there were many children, some very young, with their parents. I couldn't help wondering if some of the latter were a bit embarrassed at having to sit through such a barrage of sexually-slanted invectives.  
Which brings me to the fairly frequent gay slurs. I well know from my own experience that around the time of these events (early 1980s) such vocabulary as used here was regularly spat out with purposeful venom from many quarters, including the more 'popular' newspapers. Of course the climate has changed beyond all recognition over the last 30 years. Nevertheless I wonder if the audience's cosily-humoured reaction to them, in both theatre and cinema, was really a reaction out of affection or there's some residual homophobia still present, which is 'validated' by hearing them again in this public 'official' context. I'd like to think it had subsided enough not to be an issue now though, regretfully, I doubt it. Maybe I'm making too much of a mountain out of it.

It's a strange coincidence that this screening event should have happened just at the same time as the film 'Pride', which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, is still doing very well at the cinemas, a film which covers the same period of history - miners strike, Mrs Thatcher, gay rights - as this musical does. (I've heard that this feel-good film is frequently getting applause from cinema audiences at its finish).

Before the musical began there were filmed introductions from Elton John, Ruthie Henshall, Elliott Hannah, who guided us around backstage - and then out on stage came director Stephen Daldry, who told us that not only was that performance being beamed into no less than 550 cinemas in the U.K. alone, but also throughout Europe, in the east including Finland, Lithuania, Poland (pointedly no mention of Russia) as well as to Japan, Malaysia and Australasia - and, with a time delay, to the U.S.A. (The performance is also being released on DVD in a couple of months).
He also told us that 'Older Billy' is being played on this occasion by the very original child actor in that role - Liam Mower, now 22. And not only that, but in the show's curtain call numbers there was to be a special appearance of no less than 27 former Billys in an ensemble number - and so there were, and it was magnificent!

As an aside, I must mention that the last time I was in the theatre from which this was transmitted,  (Victoria Palace - just over the road from Victoria station), was in 1986, when I was enjoying my then prosperity to the full, and I saw there the musical 'Charlie Girl' - with Paul Nicholas, Cyd Cherisse (yes!), Dora Bryan (recently departed, and a lovely lady and comedienne who'd done so much to support the HIV hospice where I'd done a bit of voluntary work in the 90s) - and Nicholas Parsons. One of the things I remember about that lively, otherwise happy, show was the disappointing and unimaginative choreography, which took it down a few marks!  Yesterday, several times at the shows end, as well as before it started, the cameras panned the theatre audience, and I could poignantly identify the very aisle seat in which I'd sat, that occasion still being a few years before my life was to turn topsy-turvy and never recover.........at least not yet.

So, the acid test for this 'Billy Elliot' would be - do I regret having spent the money on it? - and the answer is a clear 'No'. But what it has not done is to take away the wish to see it performed live 'in the flesh'. Yes, I really would like to see it again. Watching a transmission of a live show is very much a second-hand experience. There is very little of the electric charge one gets when one is actually there - and that is precisely what makes theatre a different, and I'd say, an ultimately more exciting art-form than cinema can be. It's the knowledge that the performers are up there working for you that clinches it. But as for yesterday's experience - definitely one to be remembered with considerable pleasure. I was entertained!





    

   

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Film: 'Magic in the Moonlight'

Anyone who knows my blogs will have long ago picked up how much I generally like Woody Allen films, one of a very few directors for whom I'll go out of my way to see anything new.
If I were to categorise his films into, say, 'Exceptional', 'Good', 'Middling' and 'Disposable' (his previous, 'Blue Jasmine', was right up there in Category I) here's one which struggles to find a place in the lower reaches of 'Middling', a section which is becoming, alas, rather over-populated of late.
The story is light as a bubble, though insufficiently equipped with wit or drive. In fact it gets to be rather tedious.

Set at the end of the 1920s, Colin Firth plays a Chinese illusionist, suitably made-up of course, on the European theatrical circuit. (Remember the name - that's F-I-R-T-H - because, mark my words, you'll be seeing more of him before long, I guarantee it. He ought to go far. Very far.) Incidentally, there's a welcome, brief cameo appearance in this early part, from Ute Lemper - singing in a Berlin night club. (Where else?).
A long-term friend of Firth's character (Simon McBurney) tells him of this amazing young American medium he knows with extraordinary psychic powers and who holds seances. Firth, a great believer in the rational only,  had already made it his mission to debunk such fraudsters, which he claims all such to be, and rises to the challenge of investigating this young woman (Emma Stone). Scene moves to south coast of France where it stays for rest of film, with some ravishing scenery. Convenient because Stone is staying in a place which also has Firth's aunt (the formidable Eileen Atkins) living in the neighbourhood. Stone, already engaged to a ukelele-playing, wealthy young man, is intrigued by Firth and his scepticism. It doesn't take long for unexpected emotions to surface on both sides.

(Spoiler alert!) Long before the end of the film a certain feeling of deja vu came to my mind - and I managed to wheedle out what it was - 'My Fair Lady'! And, wouldn't you know it? The very end of the film is exactly like the close of that piece.

Woody Allen (director and writer) seems not to have his heart in this one. It ought to have been light and fluffy instead of being largely flat. Potentially funny situations were thrown away. There were no laugh-out-loud moments at all, only a couple of weak chuckles-worth.
No real quarrels with the acting from anyone - well, apart from one or two moments of sounding forced.
Another disappointment was that the music seemed to be a roll-call of only the most popular melodies and songs of the period, like ticking them off on a list. I don't think that there was a single number with which I wasn't familiar. I'd have thought that Allen, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of music, jazz above all, could have chosen some lesser-known pieces to make the film more interesting, because that's what was needed.

A disappointment, then. But second-rate, or even third-rate, Woody Allen is not to be dismissed lightly even if, as here, he seemed to be running on auto. I just had to see it anyway. Now that I have I shan't be rushing to give it a second watch. My rating will illustrate the extent to which I'm willing to give Allen the benefit of any doubt. I confess I wouldn't be so accommodating to many other directors ...........................5.5.



Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Film: '20,000 Days on Earth'

I was enticed to see this because it held the promise of being the kind of quirky and wayward type of film I'm favourably disposed towards, as well as it having received some positive reviews. It was with some disappointment, then, that it turned out to be much more straight forward than that.

I was aware of Nick Cave, Australian singer and front man of 'The Bad Seeds', but he wasn't much more than a peripheral figure to me. I'd always associated the name with a gloomy demeanour, semi-reclusive and even maybe a trifle misanthropic. I was way off target in that assessment. (He surprisingly does actually smile a fair bit). This film purports to document his 20,000th day, during which he discourses and reminisces about events in his life to various others, including a counsellor (or psychotherapist?) about his early life and about his father in particular. He talks to a member of his group, recounting performing at the same gig as Nina Simone ('Jekyll and Hyde'). He comments on his life, including spiritual aspects, to the camera and off it - and, riding up and down the seafront at nearby Brighton (with which I'm very familiar), takes on as  chat-passengers, first Ray Winstone (above) and later the divine Kylie, with whom he'd duetted and had his biggest and only U.K. Top 20 hit, 'Where with Wild Roses Grow', in 1995.
   The film is interesting enough, never really dull, but also nothing exceptional. I was expecting something on the 'stream of consciousness' line but it's not much more than a vehicle for letting him say what he wants about particular events. Whether it's all true I don't know and, frankly, I'm not too fussed about it either way.
   His diehard fans or those who have taken more interest in him than I have will get more out of it than I did. In its favour I must say that I wasn't really bored and the hour and a half never seemed to drag. But by the end I was asking myself "So what?" It won't be on my list of the more memorable films of the year..........................5/10.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Films: 'Salome' & 'Wilde Salome'

My belated first experience of one of these live relays into a cinema from, well, not a theatre in this case, but a live Q & A session from the National Film Theatre on London's South Bank - Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain, hosted by Stephen Fry. It was preceded by two films, the first being of the Oscar Wilde play itself, and then the other, a documentary film of Mr Pacino's trials and frustrating attempts to stage the play for a run in a Los Angeles theatre while simultaneously trying to shoot the very film which we had just seen, which he did eventually succeed in doing.
The following Q & A section lasted just 40 minutes, and with there being a 10 minute interval between each of the three parts of the programme, it made for a rather long 4-hour afternoon/evening - which was actually a small price to pay for the experience (unlike the actual monetary price!).

'Salome'
For anyone who doesn't know the play it's unique among Wilde's works - a shortish one-act piece written in highly elevated, florid style (I'd forgotten that it was actually originally written in French) bursting with analogies and similes in decorative, vivid language (oft-repeated) with minimal action. The Gospel-based scene is where King Herod's (Pacino) step-daughter, Salome (Jessica Chastain) is asked to dance by Herod, in gratitude for which he'll grant her anything she wants. After dancing she demands the head of garrulous prophet and prisoner, John the Baptist (Kevin Anderson) - to the shock and horror of Herod himself who fears (celestial?) repercussions if he allows her wish.
Pacino says somewhere that he thought Wilde expected the play to be read aloud rather than acted out, and I can understand that. I know it quite well, not just from having read it several times over the years, but seen it once on stage. This was actually the same production (Steven Berkoff's 'slow-motion' take on it in the early 1990s, stretching a short play into a full evening's worth) which Pacino also saw and which made him acutely aware of the play, which has obsessed him ever since. (He actually said in the documentary that when he saw that West End production he hadn't known who'd written it until he looked at the programme when it was over, there being no interval. I find that hard to believe, but that's what he claims.)

Others might be familiar with the Richard Strauss opera (so much dissonance, even for Strauss - though not nearly so much as in 'Elektra'!) which is based on a German translation of this same Wilde text. ('The Dance of the Seven Veils' is a famous set piece sometimes played as a separate short item in an orchestral concert. Btw: In Ken Russell's cheeky and entertainingly daft throwaway,1987 film, 'Salome's Last Dance' he uses part of the Wilde text but has Salome stripping off to 'Grieg's 'In the Hall of the Mountain King'!)

The Wilde play itself is only about one hour and twenty minutes long, but it's language is exceptionally vivid, even by the author's standards, which helps to carry the story through with consummate ease. There is absolutely no need for acting histrionics as it's already in the words. Minimal physical action is to be preferred, and that's the treatment it's given here, on basically a plain stage-set with no audience. It's also in modern dress, which works fine. Theatrical conceits, where needed, should not be overplayed, and here once again they are done sparingly and intelligently.
Pacino as Herod is quite a wonder to behold, at times playing his part with a twinkle in the eye, sometimes mischievously. He runs the whole gamut of emotions - blind rage, tender beseeching, humouring, impatience, disdain, irritation - it's quite a tour de force. Herod clearly has the hots for Salome, his executed brother's daughter, much to his wife's (Salome's mother's, played well by Roxanne Hart), Herodias', displeasure. Chastain is good enough in a part with some long speeches. Kevin Anderson as Jokanaan (Hebrew for John the Baptist) is suitably fierce as the doom-foretelling prophet, resisting Salome's flesh-driven overtures.
I liked the production a lot and think it must have worked well as a piece of live theatre. It's in no way pretentious and gives due regard to the real 'star' of the piece, the language of the play itself.
I'll rate this particular film a........................7.5

'Wilde Salome' follows Pacino investigating  the background of the play, including, of course, Wilde's life, visiting key locations in Dublin, London and Paris to find out more about this writer for whom he clearly has enormous respect and admiration. He talks to Melvin Holland, Wilde's grandson, about his illustrious forefather - and there are interpolated comments from Tom Stoppard, the recently departed Gore Vidal, as well as (would you believe it?) none other than Bono himself!
This documentary features extended extracts from the film which we'd only just been watching. Although it was a pleasure to savour them again, it did get a bit tiring having to sit through them anew after only just experiencing them. I would have found it much more effective if I'd been watching it after a decent interval of several days.
There are sections of this film showing Pacino losing his cool about having such a short timetable to film the first 'Salome', while simultaneously rehearsing and putting on the stage production. There were also scenes in the middle-east desert (complete with camels) where he took the entire film crew, presumably to soak in some authentic atmosphere. I didn't quite 'get' that expensive excursion as none of that aspect is actually visibly used in the play's production.
But it  was interesting enough. I'm sure I'd have enjoyed it more if I'd seen this documentary at a separate sitting. It didn't seem to me quite as interesting as his own 'Looking for Richard' a few years back, when he was doing background work in preparation for his playing Richard III on stage.

The Q & A came over well but with no big surprises. Pacino appeared very affable, quite charming and modestly self-effacing, though I must say that poor Jessica Chastain seemed to be crowded out by Al P. and Stephen Fry, though her short career so far can hardly compare with that of either of the other two. There were maybe seven or eight questions from members of the audience at the National Film Theatre, nearly all addressed to Pacino - about his first acquaintance with the play, his continuing friendship with Berkoff, his stage acting v film acting - though in most cases the answers seemed to get lost in a detour through various anecdotes, some of which were quite entertaining. I could have done with watching a longer session were it not that I was getting anxious about returning home, very unusually in the dark, with my pussycats wondering what on earth had become of me, so it was not without some relief that it came to an end when it did. Nevertheless, a fruitful experience.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Film: 'A Most Wanted Man'

Ah, here's another instalment in the long, well-regarded series of 'One of Philip Seymour Hoffman's Last Films'.
So is that it? Actually, 'no'. You'll have to wait and see.

Dutch director Anton Corbijn makes a good fist of adapting this John le Carre thriller - just as he did for 'The American' (2010).
Set entirely in Hamburg, Hoffman plays a chain-smoking, senior German intelligence officer, trying to identify and nab Islamic terrorists before any atrocities occur. (Hamburg was where 9/11 was masterminded.)
A young Chechnyan, tortured by Russians, smuggles himself into the city harbour, having travelled via Turkey, and is offered the assistance of a young female civil rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams) who can help him with his request for asylum in Germany. But there's a question as to whether this devout Muslim is really a jihadist, which we're not sure of ourselves until fairly well into the film. He's given a place to hide by his lawyer until his status can be resolved.
He's come to Hamburg because it turns out that he's inherited a huge sum of ill-gotten money here (he doesn't how large it is - millions of Euros), which he decides to donate to charities and philanthropic causes because it's tainted - and it's left to a wealthy Muslim business man to distribute, someone who's been the object of suspicion from the authorities for some time. So a trap is set. Unbeknownst to this man (and to the young asylum-seeker), he's given the chance to divert a part of these funds to a seemingly respectable organisation which is actually known to be a front for terrorism. Will he take the bait? Willem Dafoe plays the bank manager who is reluctantly roped in to help set the trap.

Even though there are no explosions, car chases, gun-fights - in fact no big set-pieces at all - the tension is created from the start and maintained throughout with no let-up.
Hamburg is a good, interesting  backdrop for the story, and it certainly makes a refreshing change from all the Londons, Parises, New Yorks etc of which we see so much.
Acting is of a very high standard from all the cast. There have been mutterings about Hoffman's German accent which some have thought strange or even comical, though I wasn't too distracted by it. He performs to the standard we always expected of him, i.e. high.
Very importantly for a Le Carre thriller, I didn't get lost as much as I sometimes do. Another noteworthy fact is that, dealing with subterfuge, I thought that a lot of the dialogue might be whispered and lost in incoherent mumblings, but that turned out not to be the case at all.

I've got little to fault with this film. It's a full two hours long and although there's not much physical action it didn't feel slow or boring. Better than merely satisfying...............7

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Film: 'Before I Go to Sleep'

This could have been a consistently fine, nail-biting thriller. And so it was for the first hour and ten minutes. In the penultimate scene, as the revelations start coming, suspense is replaced by the expectation and portrayal of extreme physical violence which, thanks to some nifty editing, is still quite watchable even through the horror of it. Up to and including that point the film might still have held up.    However the very final scene is a catastrophic, protracted, over-sentimental, 'wrapping-up-the-loose-ends' which so debases all what's gone before as to make it risible - and, what's worse, it was so needless. As it went on and on my overall rating started to descend. I'd much rather have had questions remaining unanswered than this overblown triteness, seemingly inserted to satisfy a market that demands clear-cut answers. It's a great pity - and it's also one of the worst film endings I've seen since the hopelessly unsatisfactory conclusion of the otherwise very admirable 'The Game' (1997 Michael Douglas/Sean Penn).

Apart from a single scene featuring another character this film is an exclusively three-actor piece - Colin Firth (yes, yet again), Mark Strong and Nicole Kidman. (We already saw Kidman and Firth together only earlier this year in 'The Railway Man'). Now I'm aware that there are some people around who refuse to see any of Ms Kidman's films 'on principle', as they are to her former hubby Tom C. I'm not part of that number. Although Cruise, I think, is okay but not exceptional, I think she is the latter, and here once again she gives a high-powered and believable performance. (I didn't see the universally derided 'Grace of Monaco', though now wish I had as I'm old enough to remember all the hullabaloo surrounding Grace Kelly's giving up film-acting in order to marry Prince Rainier.)

This film's opening situation is highly intriguing (Director: Rowan Joffe):-
Somewhere in Outer London, Kidman wakes up in bed one morning with a strange man she doesn't recognise, as she also doesn't with her surroundings. When she finds the bathroom the wall is plastered with photographs of herself with explanatory labels - her own wedding (with this same 'strange' man), holidays, parties etc. Firth wakes up and, to her evident astonishment explains, as he's done every morning for years, that he is her husband and that, following an accident some years previously, whenever she sleeps her memory is wiped clean of the years since their marriage. It's a good basic idea which holds one's interest. After Firth has left for work she's rung up by her hospital psychiatrist (Strong) who, like Firth, every morning has to explain who he is and remind her to make a short selfie movie with a hidden camera on which to record who she is, and to replay it on the following morning when, after waking up, he'll have to explain it all over again. But she must not disclose to her husband this contact with him as it could be detrimental to her treatment of which he may not approve. They meet up regularly in his car, he taking care to  maintain a professional distance between the two of them. (Occasionally she has very brief mental flashbacks to a terrifying, bloody event of the past in which she was involved, but she can't quite focus on what actually happened).

The best film concerning memory loss of the last couple of decades must be Christopher Nolan's 'Memento', which I would maintain is the greatest film on that subject of which I'm aware. This film isn't in that league but it's (mostly) pretty darned good. It keeps one guessing and more than once I was wrong-footed, trying to work out what was behind the situation Kidman had found herself in. I always like to be kept on my mental toes and this did just that.

So it's a great shame about the conclusion. The film would have been far stronger without that misty-eyed epilogue, but it's there and for that reason it must be judged as an intrinsic part of this film. I would have given the film a good '7' but the the final scene is so glaringly crass that for that reason alone it slips an entire point to...............6.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Film: 'Pride'

Already attracting a large number of superlatives, when I first heard about this 'feel-good' film around a month ago I inwardly groaned. On no account because of the subject matter (gays and lesbians supporting the Welsh Miners strike against the Thatcher government in 1984), more because I feared that, 'based on real events', it would play fast and loose with the facts. Of course I accept that dramatic licence is a time-honoured tradition and has a viable place in the arts, but I have such sour memories of another recent-ish film viz the dire 'The Boat That Rocked', which even a Richard Curtis screenplay and no less a figure than the formidable and late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman couldn't save from capsizing. This purported to show another socio-political event, the criminalising of pirate radio stations in the 1960s, which was such a ridiculous inversion of what actually happened that I thought 'Pride' might follow the same path. In an interview with writer Stephen Beresford he claimed that everything that happens on screen here actually took place. A bold claim indeed.

This film had a big advantage for me over 'The Boat that Rocked', namely that it's a total mystery how I don't recall the issue at all, even though it had happened nearly 20 years after the pirate radios. Of course I remember the miners' strike. I was at my most trade-union militant then (me being the single departmental trade union representative for several years)  - and, not only that, only shortly before 1984 I'd have resigned from having been national treasurer of the Local Government Officers Gay Association - which was nowhere near as grand as it sounds. (From memory I think we only had about 60 members!) So I was very politically aware on at least two fronts - as well as having attended, between the mid-1970s and late-80s something like half a dozen of the annual Gay Pride marches in London. This film begins with the 1984 march and ends with the following year's, so there's a good chance that I was at one or both - yet memories of this particular subject have I none.

The film (Director: Matthew Warchus) boasts a cast that could hardly be bettered - Bill Nighy, more restrained than he's ever been, and also the best I've ever seen him - the doughty Imelda Staunton (whom I've seen several times on stage) - the self-effacing, likeable and ever-impressive Paddy Considine - and, playing a scene-stealing, camp, middle-aged gay man, the busy Dominic West, who gets, near the film's start, a fairly extended turn on the dance floor. (Above pic of him with Staunton).

The drama is around the acceptance of an offer to help to raise funds for striking miners by a small London  group of gay young men (plus Dominic West - and one young, spikey-haired and unattractively abrasive lesbian) who decide which miners to direct their efforts towards by, more or less, sticking a pin in the telephone directory. They settle on a small town in South Wales - which is also this film's location - their actual visit there engendering suspicion, distrust and, of course, homophobia, mainly suppressed and whispered but which flares up in pockets all through the film.
I accept that the film would start with hostile parties, their enmity melting with acquaintance and finishing with total acceptance. And so it does. What I found harder to believe was how quickly entrenched attitudes could change. On the other hand, there are some characters throughout the film who do cling onto their bigotry no matter what, including some physical violence, but I was doubtful that in reality they would be not only in such a minority but that they'd be vehemently put down for their opinions by members of this most macho of occupations and their families. But if they say that's what actually happened who am I to argue?

There are several mentions of AIDS. This was at a time when the Murdoch press and all the tabloids were gifted by being allowed to peddle the 'gay plague' myth with impunity. Even without being handed this subject homophobia was at its height, perhaps as a reaction against the demands for equality which had grown louder  - and Thatcher's odious Section 28, which criminalised 'promoting' homosexuality in schools, was still just around the corner. Yet all that is not really reflected in this mining community. Despite most of them having  strong socialist leanings, I'd guess from my own experience that most trade union members would not have extended equality to gays, let alone any extension of the then restricted 'tolerance' (the age of consent for gay men was still 21). But that doesn't seem to be the case in this film when from the outset many of the Welsh locals are shown as being vocally supportive.

Among the seven or eight gay activists portrayed here one or two are verging on stereotype (including the goth-like lesbian), which may or may not be accurate.

It's an interesting film (a little too long at two hours), only a bit preachy but definitely enlightening for people like me who didn't know about the episode. (Archive TV footage played does reveal that the story did, in fact, hit the national news at one point)
It's good fun at times but it didn't quite succeed in carrying me along gleefully as much as it did for some of the reviewers whom I've heard and read. Comparisons have been made with 'The Full Monty' but to my mind that was a better film.

Good enough, then, but nothing too special............................6.


Monday, 8 September 2014

Film: 'The Hundred Foot Journey'

I'm risking losing a number of friends by saying this, but I found very little to like about this film - save for multiple sumptuous shots of food, pre-, during and after preparation - and the luminous presence of Helen Mirren at her most endearingly watchable, even when playing haughty, as she does for the first hour before a certain epiphanous event.  But I'm not going to pretend that I was impressed. Otherwise, if you like gooey sentiment served in XXL spadefuls, complete with almost all-pervading music telling you what emotion you are to possess at that point, then do go along  - and suffocate! But if that still isn't enough in this overlong, two-hour film, don't forget to note the obligatory downpours (we all know it can never simply rain in films), sightseer-shots of Paris, complete, in at least one point, with accompanying accordian music just in case it slipped your mind in which country La Tour Eiffel is located - and then there's parallel double romances, young and old (well, in the latter case, a promise of it).

The always reliable Om Puri plays the patriarch of a family, who decides to leave his native India with his five children after his restaurant is destroyed by a mob, his wife perishing. They go to Europe and, by chance (or maybe 'fate', we are led to believe), end up in a small town in southern France, where he decides to open up a new Indian restaurant in a derelict property he notices, which happens to be exactly on the other side of the road from a very fashionable and celebrated restaurant run by the domineering Madame Mallory (Mirren). Cue rivalry and hostilities.
Very early romantic interest is provided between the father's eldest son (Manish Dayal) and the sole young female employee (Charlotte le Bon) in the kitchens of the restaurant opposite. Cue friction and conflict of interest.
The culinary expertise of the son takes off like a rocket and, before you can order more onion bhajis, he's a national celebrity, and is lured to work in the capital. (Being stopped outside by members of the public asking to take his photo. How often does that happen to cooks who are not even regularly on the telly, especially to one barely out of his teens? - if even so 'old' as that?)

I also found much of the script flat and predictable. In fact, early in the film I started playing a game of, when someone said a line, guessing the rejoinder - and more often than not I was right or very close. They might as well have played it in silence.

Swedish Director Lasse Halstrom has created some notable films in his career. Some of them I have liked, even a lot - while others I just failed to 'get'. You know in which category I place this one.

I ought to mention that the sight of meat, poultry and fish (very occasionally in 'living' form) did not affect my overall opinion. My reaction in this respect is very personal and it wouldn't be fair to use it against a film which might have been considered 'worthy'. However, even that aside, I did find this very heavy going - and without Helen Mirren to lighten the moments I would have found the entire venture unbearable.  
No doubt many will enjoy it. It's already collected a current high average rating of 7.6 on IMDb. The score I submitted was...........................3/10