Thursday, 23 October 2014

Film: 'The Judge'

If I say I found this disappointing, overlong and lugubrious I'd once again be parting company with majority opinion (currently an average rating of 7.6 on IMDb).
Despite it having a cast of major stars, Duvall, Downey Jr, and B.B. Thornton, as well as Vincent D'Onofrio, all of whom I like, it wasn't a film that afforded me a pleasurable experience.

The cast was, effectively, the only 'plus' - after that there were several irritants, of which more in a minute.

Downey is a major lawyer who's long since fallen out with his veteran judge father (as well as his own wife) and only re-connects, albeit abrasively, on attending his mother's funeral. His two brothers are also there, D'Onofrio, his elder, and his home-movie obsessed, wimpy younger bro, Jeremy Strong. The relationships with his brothers is more equable than that between him and his recently-ailing, cantankerous father, Duvall, who, on the very day of the funeral appears to have killed in a driving 'accident', a recently-released man he'd put away in prison for 20 years for murder. Duvall claims lapse of memory over events around the ex-con's death. Downey, after overcoming obstacles, gets to defend his father on a charge of murder. Billy Bob Thornton plays the prosecutor, appearing only in the courtroom scenes during the ensuing drama of the actual trial.

Now for the negatives:-
Over-indulgent background music, sentimental throughout, treating the audience as though we were idiots and shouldn't be allowed to think for ourselves. After an early scene in which RDJ views his departed mater lying in an open coffin and he touches her folded hands, by then we all knew that this was going to be a film burdened with sentiment. We don't need additional help to tell us what we should be feeling, thank you.
The music rarely leaves off - and several times I found myself wishing "Oh, for goodness sake, give it a rest!"  And not only that, at one point there's an actual song on the soundtrack, presumably to provide extra emotional 'weight' - a feature that always gets my back up. And there's even a further song over the final, pre-credit scene. (Groan!)
The story of a familial patriarch gradually losing his mental (and, at one point, graphically, his physical) faculties was quite good, but I found the script largely uninspiring as it attempted, unsuccessfully at times, to be light and witty with Downey's romantic attachment (Vera Farmiga) and his little girl. 'Light' it never was, even though the circumstances might have required it.
Then there's the said 'little girl' - and, blow me down if she wasn't one of those single-digit-year, wise-ass, know-all-about-life infants whose attitudes and remarks would have been considered mature for someone three times her age or more. Clearly, we were supposed to think "Aw, how cute!" - and judging from most of the audience's reaction, they actually did. Luckily, she only had two scenes, neither very long, but that was two too many for me. I only wish there'd been a garotter at hand!

Direction, by one David Dobkin, was fairly conventional, with nothing standing out as particularly memorable.

This could have been a powerful vehicle for such a starry cast, and all the main players, Duvall especially, rose to it ably. But the film was also cliche-ridden. A bit of originality, aside from the premise of a son defending his father on a murder charge (though is that really original?) would not have come amiiss.

I think a lot of people's reactions to this lengthy (2 hrs 20mins) film will be more positive than mine was. In fact I know that already to be the case. However, I can only report honestly on my own feelings, that if it hadn't been for such an all-round good cast I would have scored 'The Judge' lower than..................4/10.





Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Film: ' '71 '

Very tense, very brutal thriller set at the height of the Northern Ireland troubles, the title referring to the year of this story.

Paris-born, London-raised director, Yann Demange, creates a highly impressive, nail-chewing drama in which, once the situational scenario has been set, never lets up on the suspense for an instant.

An English rookie soldier in the British army is sent to Belfast where, as  part of a unit trying to flush out IRA-supporting Republicans, he gets caught up in a local riot and, through a lapse on checking by his commanding officer before a hurried withdrawal, he finds himself left alone in a predominantly Catholic, and hence vehemently anti-British, area where he has no alternative but to try to survive by wits and subterfuge. This is a part of Belfast where everyone has to be on one of two sides. Violent hostility between the two communities rules, as well as full-on hostility against the British army from the Catholic side (of all ages), with swift 'justice' meted out where it's seen to be 'required'. Prevaricators are not tolerated, neither by Catholics nor Protestants. This film dwells mainly on the republicans' anti-British army stance.
The tension is immediately palpable after the initial scene-setting, when the terrified lone soldier (Jack O'Connelll - totally believable in the role) tries to find his way back to barracks without drawing attention to himself. There are several very violent scenes, including at least one extended and especially grisly section where I had to look away.

The angle the film is aimed for is that the audience be willing the young soldier to survive, he being a reluctant pawn in the horrific situation he's found himself, not through his own fault. But even so, there are no 'goodies' and baddies' in this world. To cloud the issue even further, can we be absolutely sure of the loyalties of people claiming a particular allegiance?

I jumped in my seat once or twice at unexpected sudden events. It's all very skilfully managed, though with a bit of background music, which wasn't too obtrusive. There was also the obligatory, torrential downpour at one point, though in this case it did effectively underline the nervous tension.

Another thing in the film's favour is that it's a comfortable, mere 100 minutes long (always music to my ears).

A very taut thriller, expertly accomplished, and I'd defy anyone not to be gripped by it...................7.5.


Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Film: 'Effie Gray'

Fairly likeable Victorian drama documenting the inconsummated 'marriage' between teenager Euphemia Gray (played by American, Dakota Fanning) and artist John Ruskin (Greg Wise) - with his close friend and fellow-artist, Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) hovering between them and falling for the luckless and loveless young 'wife'.

Supporting parts are played by a veritable roll-call of readily recognisable British actors, some with little more than a very few words to say, but the meatiest of these lesser roles are for David Suchet and Julie Walters (here playing aristocratic, against her usual type of part) as Ruskin's parents. Others include James Fox, Robbie Coltrane, Linda Bassett and Derek Jacobi - as well as Emma Thompson who wrote the screenplay. (There are also a couple of brief appearances of living legend, Claudia Cardinale).

The reason for the marriage's lack of relationship is not spelt out explicitly. We see Ruskin's rejection of his wife on their wedding night but not shown exactly why it happens, only from then on he treats her with disdain, put-downs and carelessness of feeling. Delicacy prevents me from enlarging on what's believed to have been the actual historical cause of why he should suddenly have felt this way, but rumours exist to this day which, for reasons of discretion, shall not be elaborated on here.

Richard Laxton directs this film. (He also directed 2009's 'An Englishman in New York - the latter years of Quentin Crisp, with John Hurt reprising the role).

'Effie Gray' is a stately-moving story - not boring, but also not one that gripped me very keenly. It's very well photographed indeed and all impressively acted. If you like period dramas I doubt that this will disappoint you. An agreeable way to occupy a couple of hours ...............6/10.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Another year notched up.

Yes, this is where I've arrived today - at a somewhat nondescript number with few associations (unlike next year's!). What first comes to mind for me was 1968, when I was 21/22, being such a tumultuous year in a number of ways, largely negative, though that was mostly only labelled so in hindsight.

Here is this year's portrait, taken yesterday in mood un poco serioso:-



And here's some recent pics of my two co-habitees as well as two of the most regular visitors.

My dear, sweet Blackso (at least 15 years old) enjoying late Summer sun.



Noodles (12 or 13), having recently had his annual check-up and jab.

Heckie (Hector), next door's pussy, who gets locked out so often that he seems to spend more time here, where there's always a welcome at the permanently open window. Not yet 2 years old, he hasn't been neutered, unfortunately, (despite my mentioning it to the owner) - and his behaviour is now showing that he hasn't been. A bit of a disruptive little scamp, but a sweetie nevertheless.

Patchy (about 7) whose home is round the corner, about 300 yards away, where he's one of a number of cats, but for well over a year he's been coming here at least twice a day, for 'breakfast' and 'dinner', and now started sleeping here overnight too. I could never turn him away, the big, plump 'cushion' that he is.



Blackso again, taking some 'Golden Slumbers'
So that's where things are at, dear people - surviving by toddling along from day to day, with some grand company of contented pussies. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

Film: 'The Maze Runner'

The premise of this film shares much the same territory as 'The Hunger Games' trilogy. In this case I don't have much enthusiasm for catching the further two projected episodes, though for the 'Hunger' series I did see them all..

Set in some vague future, a selected group of racially-diverse youngsters (here, all teenage boys/young men, some of whom look barely out of school) find themselves mysteriously appearing one by one at monthly intervals in an enclosed pasture and woodland enclosed by a massive circular maze whose walls change position daily and which appears to be the only means of escape. If anyone finds themselves trapped in the maze he is left to the mercy of large, semi-mechanical(?), spider-like creatures with voracious appetites. Then one day a young woman is delivered by the usual means, an elevator from below ground. Like all the others, she  doesn't remember why and how she arrived.
The reason for their being held captive in this way is only explained as the film reaches its conclusion. Meanwhile, with no idea as to what they are supposed to do they survive by living off the land in primitive fashion (shades of 'Lord of the Flies'?).

Director Wes Ball manages the action sequences fairly enough with some reasonably impressive CGI work, though throughout the film the dialogue doesn't rise to any inspiring level to reflect the desperate situation of the 'prisoners' as they try to discover an escape route.

It's a noisy film and it's largely derivative, plot-wise. Will Poulter plays the most interesting character, the one who doubts the sincerity of the latest arrival (Dylan O'Brien) who seems most intent on getting to the bottom of what's going on. Poulter suspects that he must be part of the overall plan to test them somehow, whatever that plan is.
I found it quite easy to identify which ones in this group would not survive into the next episode, having enough leisure-time to guess - and I was correct.

I'll only go to see the sequels if there's nothing of more interest playing. As for this one.................5/10.



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!