Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Film: 'The Imitation Game'

Fine dramatic production of the Alan Turing story, creator of, perhaps, the first 'computer' - a prototype 'Enigma' machine constructed in the early 1940s, specifically to decipher intercepted Nazi war messages from their HQ to fighting units and between the units themselves. The key to the code being used was changed by the enemy every successive midnight, theoretically leaving the allies with over 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible solutions, these being different every day.

The story is told in flashback, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, complete with facial tics and stutters. (Oscar possibility? A nomination would be well deserved, at least). He's telling his story in 1951 to a semi-sympathetic senior police detective (Rory Kinnear) in an interview room after being arraigned for 'gross indecency' in a casual encounter with another man. (At that time, all physical touches between men, however slight, automatically carried the tag of being 'grossly indecent').

There are additional more distant flashbacks to Turing's schooldays where he is already being victimised by other boys for the 'offence' of being 'different' (more withdrawn and socially inept), as well as being cleverer than they are. He makes a close (non-physical) bonding with another extra-intelligent classmate.

The main thread of the story deals with Turing's dogged determination to succeed in building the Enigma apparatus while he battles against authorities (including a coldly efficient and sceptical Charles Dance, answerable directly to Winston Churchill) and Matthew Strong (particularly good), Turing's immediate superior. Turing also has arguments and fights with the other members of his small team. Only he himself has absolute faith in achieving his object.
Also on his team is Keira Knightly, the only female member, who is selected by solving a problem quicker than any of the other entirely-male candidates. She sticks by him throughout. I know that the story is based on fact but her character struck me as almost too good to be true.
In her very first scene someone makes a remark to her which drew a loud gasp of disbelief from the audience, something I'd imagine will happen in just about all cinemas - or at least I'd like to think so. But those of my generation will know that what's said to her reflected a fairly widespread attitude to women in those thankfully far-off days.

From what I'd heard about the film I was expecting that the issue of Turing's sexuality would be hovering uneasily in the background without being expressly referred to unless it was impossible to avoid it. But, although there are no sex scenes at all (thank heavens!), the topic does come up quite frequently and explicitly, and always handled tastefully - though I thought that there would be more out-and-out hostility from those 'in the know' and the police, which was certainly a characteristic of attitudes I remember from the 1950s.

The film holds interest from first to last even though, I'd guess, that a significant proportion of the audience knows how it develops, all the way to its tragic and appalling conclusion.

One of my complaints, a frequent one for me, is the too-pervasive mood music on the soundtrack. Others will be less bothered by it than I was.

This film is a fine tribute to the man, overlooked, ignored and cold-shouldered disgracefully because of his sexuality for so many decades. It was only last year that he was granted a posthumous Royal Pardon for his 'crime', over 60 years after his death - something which the film states categorically as suicide, though a bit of a question mark has been put over that scenario in recent years, suggesting that it just might have been a tragic accident arising from Turing's habitual carelessness and untidiness. No matter - at least as far as his place in history is concerned. Even if it was an accident it in no way diminishes his monumental achievement for which we all should acknowledge a profound indebtedness to him.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (he of the excellent 'Headhunters' of 2011) does a very good job here. No complaints at all. He keeps the story buzzing along without longueurs (so no watch-checking), which is some achievement for a film of an hour and three quarters.

I was fortunate enough to see Derek Jacobi in the Hugh Whitemore play 'Breaking the Code' in the late 1980s, which he reprised in a BBC TV version of 1996. I think that 'The Imitation Game', with more emphasis on illustrating the genius of the man rather than on his personal life, which is also extensively captured here, is a much more rounded portrait. In truth, it ought to do his memory proud.....................................7.5.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Film: 'Nightcrawler'

Chillingly credible story of a ruthless freelance newsreel photographer in LA who'd do anything, with no scruples at all, in order to film a scoop of a gory news story, which he can then flog to a TV company at his demanded price. Think of the news-pack in Paris descending on the wreck of the Princess Di car crash while she was yet alive and you'll get the picture.

I wasn't sure if Jake Gyllenhall could carry off playing such an odious character as up to now he's been almost typecast in playing roles with which one can sympathise. But he pulls it off with aplomb - creepy, glib liar, entirely self-centered, all with an impenetrable veneer of utter self-confidence in his own ability, only cracking once in the privacy of his own home.
He targets a news company managed by Rene Russo (excellent - where's she been all these years?) whose TV ratings are in the doldrums so badly needs a boost. She doesn't take long to see that Gyllenhall can produce something really special and regularly. There's a telling scene in a Mexican restaurant when the two of them are dining (at his cheeky invitation) where, despite their age difference and relative statuses it becomes clear as to which of them is calling the shots - and it's not her, reluctant to let such an able provider of compelling footage go to another company.
He employs (thanks to some imaginative untruths) as a sidekick, British actor Riz Ahmen (also very good), who captures the quandary he's in in needing the pittance of payment he's offered, being otherwise unemployed, yet having grave doubts about the nature of work he's in and having to put up with Gyllenhall's bullying and bluster.
Bill Paxton also appears as a more experienced, rival freelancer in the same business, the two of them bumping into each other covering the same news events. 
Throughout the film I was waiting for the Gyllenhall character to come a cropper and get his just deserts.
The film ends with a tense, expertly built-up climax, partly deviously-engineered to make it more 'newsworthy', which itself is crowned by a most appalling act.

My only slight quibble with the film was how did Gyllenhall manage to become such a hot and expert film-shooter just about immediately? At the film's start he didn't even own a camera!

Director Dan Gilroy (this his first as director) does a flawless job. No reservations here at all.
Was there any background music? If there was I didn't notice, which is a big plus.

A very good film, not easy to watch but certainly holding the attention all through, with some rivetting moments........................7.5

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Film: 'Interstellar'

A major disappointment and an expensive one.

Because of all the hype and commotion regarding this release I had high hopes that it would be a rare and wondrous experience, so I took the advice to see it on the largest screen available, travelling twenty miles to Chichester to a newly opened Imax screen. (The last time I'd been in an Imax cinema was 1989, 'La Geode' in Paris). Yesterday, the combined cost of admission price plus train fare was four times what I usually pay for a regular cinema ticket, even with Senior Citizen concessions on both ingredients.

Comparisons are being made of 'Interstellar' with my own all-time favourite film, '2001 - A Space Odyssey'. In the event there was no comparison at all. It wasn't even within sight.
There's no doubt that technology has advanced far further than where it was placed a quarter century ago, let alone the 46 years since the release of '2001' - and many of the scenes in this new film really are completely astonishing, though there are no long, sustained sequences in extra-spacecraft space as there are in the other. But even by using state-of-the-art computer effects not available for the earlier film, despite all 2001's laboriously-produced effects in modelling and ultra-long exposures to capture intricate detail, it's still Kubrick's film which yet outdoes everything produced since.
But I don't want to base my evaluation of this 'Interstellar' on unfavourable comparisons with an older film when it was in no way director Christopher Nolan's intention to compete - though there are strong homage-like evocations of the 1968 film, not least in a recurring, highly effective blast on the soundtrack.

In 'Interstellar', Matthew McConaughey is the strangely scientifically-ill-informed leader of a crew of four astronauts (plus an ambulant, emotion-expressing computer) seeking out a new and habitable world in another galaxy (courtesy of a mysteriously placed 'wormhole' in the vicinity of Saturn, enabling them to cover unimaginably immense inter-galactic distances in little time) so that humankind, faced with the imminent threat of starvation on Earth, as a consequence of climate change, can continue its existence by propagation on another planet. It's a one-way ticket, as McConaughey well knows, but, putting a brave face on it, he attempts to convince those left behind that he'll be back. (Tearful farewells? - certainly not shared with one key family member, much to his grievous disappointment.)
Another of the crew is Anne Hathaway, with her own issues coming to the fore during the protracted journey cooped up with the others, where the tragic loss of a crew member seems to be regarded as no more than an unfortunate, though minor, irritant on the way.
Nolan regular Michael Caine is in the unlikely role of McConaughey's father, and Jessica Chastain is in the cast too.
There's also the unforeseen (by me) appearance of a major star in a quite significant part when the film is well advanced.

One has to avoid giving too much away as the higgledy-piggledy 'plot', such as it is, is littered with give-away potential spoilers and I wouldn't like to ruin the enjoyment of the many others who consider this film something of an achievement. (Currently on IMDb 59% of contributors have scored it with a perfect '10', while just 3% with a 5 or less.)

Now at last I come to what for me was the principal let-down of the film, and one I was not expecting - the film is heavily loaded with sentiment. And when I say loaded I mean positively weighed down by it till I found it close to being unbearable. Some people can take it, I cannot. All I'll say further is that it arises not from the likely demise of the human race, rather from it being familial. This reaches a climax in the final half hour when McConaughey.......(Oops! Better shut up).

I can take all the scientific jargon, and theorising that Y may happen when X happens. The time-warping in super-speed space travel has been well established for a very long while now, so that presented no problem to me, however alarming the effects. Black holes, event horizons, singularities, theoretical wormholes?....all fine and dandy
What I did especially like about this film was that it's only the third film I've ever seen which has had the guts to grasp the fact and demonstrate that without atmosphere there's no sound. Additionally, it was refreshing to have acknowledged on screen that the enormous majority of planets will have gravity forces which do not equate to that of Earth (though it's difficult to show that convincingly on film) - or, indeed, where one day can be the length of several earth-days (or actually much shorter than 24 hours - witness our own Jupiter and, by contrast, Venus, where a day is actually  longer than a Venusian year).
I also liked that there was no time spent showing preparations for the flight and training of the crew for the venture, thus saving us a lot of valuable time and boredom. 

I found the Hans Zimmer music score was trying so hard to be gently insinuating rather than in-your-face that it became all the more noticeable for trying to do just that. In spite of its low-key approach I felt it was over-persistent.

Acting was, on the whole, played very earnestly but, being so intense almost throughout and where all humour had been outlawed, I found it got tiring for a close-on three hour film.

The philosophical angles, of which there were a number of references amidst the stodgy emotions presented, were never adequately explored, only hinted at.

The film's ending, I found hopelessly unsatisfactory. Suspending one's disbelief didn't help. I felt more like shouting "Oh, for goodness' sake, pull the other one!"
Contrast that with the close of '2001' - enigmatic, certainly; provocative, absolutely; daring and imaginative, yes - but, (thanks largely to Arthur C.Clarke's ideas relayed through Kubrick), all portrayed with eye-popping majesty, positing part-answers to questions which have crystallised through centuries, though in a way which generates yet many more questions - and in a manner which has resounded down the decades since that film first appeared. 'Interstellar's conclusion, on the other hand, was simply weak and forgettable. 

It pains me to be negative about one of today's director's for whom I have huge enthusiasm.
If I were to compile a list of, say, my twenty favourite films of the last twenty years, it's quite likely that two of Christopher Nolan's would appear in that list, specifically 'Memento' and 'Inception'. He may, in fact, be the only director to get two mentions. So it's with great regret to say that, in my opinion and contrary to the majority of cinema-goers, 'Interstellar' is his least satisfactory film to date.

If you like your films spread thickly with gooey sentiment then you will not be troubled, and may well admire this product. However, I myself look forward to his next project being a substantial improvement. Meantime, I award this one a humble...................4/10.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Film: 'Fury'

Almost relentlessly grim, frequently ultra-violent, and ultimately exhausting, mud-coloured tale of a tank unit of five led by (usually) equable-tempered Brad Pitt, who seems to have an invisible shield around him to deflect bullets, shrapnel and flying debris.

The scene is Germany 1945 (it's actually filmed in England) with the Nazis almost on their last legs, though with superior panzer power and sheer desperation on their side, giving all they've got to the survival of their 'Vaterland'.

To Wardaddy's (Pitt's) dismay he has callow, bible-scrupled Shia la Beouf seconded to his unit, less than two months in the army and incapable of shooting anyone at all, even under orders.
Much of the film is set in the claustrophobic tank (nicknamed 'Fury') with crew getting in each others way and barking at each other, including predictably crude humour.

The only respite from the actions of tank advance interrupted by gory visions of warfare, is a significantly prolonged central scene when Pitt and La Beouf enter a house to find two youngish, German, non-English speaking women. (Pitt speaks a modicum of German here as well as in patches elsewhere). The two Americans try to gain the nervous women's respect until, a few minutes later, the rest of the tank unit arrive..........

It's a well-made film. No quarrel at all with the effects which were totally convincing to me. But as to having light and shade, there was virtually none. Although the violence (all of it being the effects of warfare), is very graphic, none of those shots of killing and maiming are lingered over.
Occasionally the heavy, sombre music did get in the way, and I found some of the depictions of the German soldiers barely avoiding tipping over into being hackneyed.

Acting was good and, though it might pain me just a little to say it, the honours go to LaBouef who really nails the portrayal of his green, reluctantly-serving character. Pitt played his superman persona much as one would expect. I'd also single out Michael Pena as the Mexican-born member of the tank crew.
Direction by David Ayer was all one could wish for.

It's not a film I can say I enjoyed - it wasn't intended to be one of those. It's a gruelling journey, but if you like a generous quota of blood and guts, this will supply it for you.
Current average IMDb score exceeds 8. My personal rating is...................6.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Film: 'Mr Turner'

I always look forward to a new Mike Leigh film. Very few  have disappointed, and this one not only met my expectations, it far exceeded them. It's a marvellous film.

Portraying the last couple of decades or so of the life of world-renowned English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner, Timothy Spall grunts, growls and harumphs his way through the role more convincingly than many another actor could have achieved. Despite the film's near-epic length of two and a half hours, it doesn't outstay its welcome at all. It's a major achievement, easily one of Leigh's very best, which has already collected several awards and deserves to be garlanded with more than a few more come BAFTA and Oscar season.

Although my aesthetic appreciation of the visual arts isn't as pronounced as it is for music and literature, Turner is one of the very few I was attracted to from the very moment I first became aware of him in my teens. I realise that there are some who have a problem with his works. Happily, not so with me. But I don't think you have to be an admirer of his to like this multi-faceted film, containing hints of comedy, sadness, relationship and family drama, as well as capturing his working method in convincing fashion, and the range of reactions his paintings provoked.

Acting is faultless throughout. Although Spall is immediately physically recognisable in whatever part he plays, such is his bodily frame, here he has never been better. I don't know how close he came to the real artist. In fact I'll readily admit that I knew next to nothing about Turner's life, and was only vaguely aware of his dates (1775 -1851). I might have guessed that he'd been 20-30 years earlier. But this didn't matter. This film makes him into a solid and believable figure.
Once or twice I thought there was a physical shade of a Quasimodo in him (more Charles Laughton than Lon Chaney) but it didn't detract from my enjoyment.

In the acting honours mention must be made of Paul Jesson as Turner's father who, unlike some in society, recognises his son's talent
Also, Dorothy Atkinson as his morose and obedient housekeeper whom he uses now and again for sexual relief. (He actually has a stroppy former mistress and daughter from whom he's become estranged) But most of all I'd commend Marion Bailey (in picture above) as the owner of his regularly-visited guest house in Margate, who becomes something more than just that to him. When she was on screen, I was thinking "We've all known someone like that." - pleasant, attractively self-deprecating with a knowing sense of humour.

We see his paintings on display at the Royal Academy among that of other contemporary artists (some serious historical name-dropping here, though it doesn't jar) - and the varied attitudes to them, often contemptuous.

Photography all through is exceptionally fine - and the script is superior and non-predictable.

I must also mention that there's a short but stunning sequence of the actual scene on which he based his most celebrated painting, 'The Fighting Temeraire'. Okay, it will have been helped a lot, or even entirely(?), by camera-computer techniques, but it's still ethereally beautiful. My jaw dropped on seeing it.

So, as you can see, I liked this film a great deal. I'm strongly tempted to score it higher than what I am going to do, though it's more than safe with a splendid and rare.............8.

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.