Thursday, 4 December 2014

Film: 'Set Fire to the Stars'

Moderately diverting story which chronicles a particular few days in the life of Dylan Thomas during a recital tour of the United States in 1950, three years before he died in New York. Unlike most contributors to IMDb site, two thirds of whom have scored this with a rating of 8 or above, I found this widescreen, monochrome film oddly inert. There's not that much difference between its conclusion and from where it began.

Elijah ('Frodo Baggins') Wood comes of age here, playing a little-known American would-be poet who is trying to steer his much-admired and famous portly friend, Dylan Thomas, (Celyn Jones) around various colleges where he's booked to give readings of his, Thomas', poetry. The dramatic focus is on the struggle to keep the alcohol-fuelled, blood-coughing, Thomas in a sufficiently grounded state to deliver his performances, Thomas' behavior veering from what one might call  'free spirited' to that of spoilt child - ever impetuous, often violent and totally nonchalant about the embarrassments he's causing, his interludes of sobriety occasionally coming within a whisker of maudlin self-pitying. The film basically concerns the Wood character's frustration at his inability to keep the rebellious poet's sometimes outrageous conduct under control.

I was struck by how often Celyn Jones' voice uncannily resembled that of Richard Burton, so near as to be almost interchangeable. He surely almost certainly modelled his delivery on that of Burton.
Just about everyone in this film seems to be a chain-smoker, though that was probably historically accurate for the time.

Directed by one Andy Goddard, whose first feature film this looks to be, and who also co-wrote it with the aforementioned Celyn Jones, I'm not sure that this film would find general appeal to those who know very little of Dylan Thomas' life or are not familiar with some of his works. If one does not have either of these as a mental reference point I fear that the whole thing may look like an episodic series of one man's unruly behaviour.
Interesting, then, but only up to a point. Yet again my personal minority view reveals itself in a score of.............5.5.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Film: 'My Old Lady'

It's always nice to have one's expectations confounded in a positive way. So it was with this film, which I hadn't been aware would be a cinema version of prolific playwright Israel Horovitz's Paris-located theatre piece. Here, now in his mid-70s, he makes his belated debut as director of a feature film, and a fine finished product it is too.

My ignorance had me suppose that this would be a feeble comedy, played very broadly, perhaps with some slapstick thrown in. But it turns out to be much deeper than that.

Things started badly for me when, over the opening credits, the music features - yes, that sure-fire, Gallic cliche - an accordian! And this sound crops up quite regularly throughout the film, I suppose to remind us where we are. (Pleeeeeeeze!). But the downers are far eclipsed by the film's more worthy attributes. I was fearing that we'd see the usual touristy compulsory sights but, though we do indeed see Notre Dame several times as well as a number of scenes on the river bank, with the Ile St Louis in the background, it's not overplayed to distraction. And I'm thankful that we're spared any sight at all of you-know what!

Kevin Kline flies in from New York, having inherited a large apartment in the fashionable Marais district (an arrondisement I used to know quite well). Impecunious, he arrives with the intention of putting the flat up for sale at a tidy sum in order to get himself back on his feet, but he finds it already occupied by both Maggie Smith (French, and of 90 years or more) along with her unmarried, though involved, daughter, Kristin Scott Thomas. (We've seen the latter in so many French films of late, where she speaks only that language. Here she has the opportunity to use both her languages of fluency). It turns out that the mother has the legal right not only to remain there until death, but she can also claim rent from Kline if he decides to move in, which he has to do, having nowhere else to go. Complications and arguments develop, a lot hanging on how much longer can the Maggie Smith character survive. At this stage I thought it was going to turn into Kline trying to plot how to kill off Smith fiendishly and without suspicion, in which case it would have been a good vehicle for the likes of Danny de Vito. But it doesn't go that way at all and gets much more serious.

When Kline and K.Scott Thomas first meet one knows which way the arrow is pointing in their relationship as their first scenes are all squabbles and heated arguments. But that thought doesn't dull the edge of the denouement.

I thought all three main characters were at the top of their game. The two women we have seen doing excellent work many times in the past, but for me it was Kline who really steals the show. I don't think I've seen him in a straight dramatic part since Ang Lee's very impressive 'The Ice Storm' of 1997. In 'My Old Lady'  he runs the gamut of emotions, retaining credibility throughout. I doubt if he's been better on screen. 

The screenplay betrays its theatrical origins in no bad way, one of which being that it's far superior to many a modern-day film script. It may be that the film has opened the whole thing up from being based on being a three-person stage play. I don't know, but it still works well. (Good also to see Dominique Pinon again, here as an estate agent).

My cavils relate only to the predictable one of too much music on the soundtrack, though I have heard worse - and that maybe the film, at an hour and three-quarters, stretches out the material a shade too much.
But otherwise I'm very glad to have seen it, and doubly so in that it wasn't at all the creature that I'd been expecting................7. .

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Film: 'Night Train to Lisbon'

Moderately interesting, though ultimately formulaic, story of a Swiss professor (Jeremy Irons) on a mission to discover details of the life of a deceased young Portuguese doctor, who was also a luminary in the resistance against the Salazar dictatorship.
The film boasts an additional stellar mini-cast of mainly British 'mature' or advanced age actors - Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay , Christopher Lee - plus Bruno Ganz and, as the young resistance fighter, John Huston (nephew of Anjelica and Danny - and not at all bad-looking).

The film makes some big demands on the credence capacity of the audience from the very start. Irons, a Swiss teacher (whom I'd have assumed had been English were it not for his name) is on his way to school in Bern when he espies a young woman about to jump off a bridge. He forcibly pulls the distraught person away and, unable to get information from her, takes her to his class temporarily, where he's teaching about Ancient Rome. She slips out without a word, leaving her coat. Not knowing her whereabouts he examines the coat, which contains in a pocket a book of the collected writings of the aforementioned resistance fighter - in Portuguese. But, not to worry, he is not only familiar with the book (so one would have thought that it's fairly well-known, but it is, in fact, obscure) and, wouldn't you know it, he can also read Portuguese! - at least enough to translate it with ease. Then falling out of the book is a train ticket from Bern to Lisbon, the train due to leave in a few minutes time. So, (no slouch he!), he drops everything without a word, leaving his school class and superior in limbo, and he hops luggage-less onto that train - exactly in the way anyone else would!
Reading the book on the journey he becomes absorbed with the mysterious writer and, on arriving in Lisbon for an impetuously-decided and open-ended stay, he starts seeking out the author's surviving relations and acquaintances to find out about his story. Meanwhile, the rescued young woman has dropped from his concerns. (She does pop up again towards the end.)
His meetings with all these sundry people are the cue for multiple extended flashbacks, using younger acting 'doubles' as they relate events.

It's curious that the Irons character, familiar with Portuguese, never once attempts to speak in that vernacular - and doubly curious that everyone he meets, even in casual encounters, immediately responds in accented English. (A cyclist he accidentally knocks off his bike calls him an "idiot". Perhaps that is the first word a native of that country would come out with, for all I know!). I accept the viability of cinematic conceit, as we do in, for example, war films where all sides speak in English. But here so many speak it with various continental accents while the supposedly Swiss Irons converses in faultlessly-sounding Queen's English.

It will come as little surprise to learn that the weight of the dramatic action (with romantic dimension) takes place in the past-narrated episodes of resistance-struggle arguments and fighting , including at least one gruesomely violent scene.

I was hoping the film would show us more views of the Lisbon which has been so infrequently captured in feature films up to now. From the brief views we have of it it does look spectacular and photogenic, but the opportunity is mostly thrown away. I think there were four short scenes all on the ferry crossing the Tagus estuary. I wish we'd have seen a lot more of the inner city itself.

Danish director Bille August (who directed 'Les Miserables' - no not that one, but the 1998 Liam Neeson, straight dramatic version) deals with the material fairly enough. I have to say that he did pull out some of the best from his very professional cast (both present day and those depicting decades previous) which gave the whole project a higher estimation than it otherwise might have had.

I might also mention that whenever I see Jeremy Irons in anything there's always something that gets in the way for me, viz his vocal support for blood sports and, in particular, for fox hunting. I find the same thing for the precise same reason whenever I hear a song by Bryan Ferry  as well as (with rather greater regret than with these two) reading some of the marvellous writings of the late John Mortimer. It's like a pebble in the shoe which can never be removed. But knowing that people have opinions which diverge from ones own is just one of the facets of life one has to put up with.

As to a final verdict on this film, although I never found it boring, it also wasn't memorable enough to be classed as 'exceptional'. I think a fair mark would be..................6.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Film: 'The Hunger Games - Mockingjay: Part 1'

It really needs an aficianado of the Suzanne Collins books and/or the previous films of the series to give this a fair review. I've not read the novels but I have seen the lead-up films which, for me, were just okay. Such had been my (lack of) interest on where the last instalment ended that throughout this film I had hardly more than the foggiest notion what was going on here. If I do go to the forthcoming concluding part it'll only be in order to have seen them all, rather than demonstrating any enthusiasm. I dare say that when I see it what happened at the end of this one will already have faded from memory.

I shan't summarise the plot as I'm bound to get something wrong and I can't be bothered to research it.  Please look elsewhere.

With a cast led again by Jennifer Lawrence it also includes previous regulars Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci, as well as Julianne Moore and, in definitively his final film (though also due to appear in Part 2), Philip Seymour Hoffman in subdued, low profile mode. This film is dedicated to his memory. Pity that it's a relatively thankless part, which in no way stretches him, when he's made so many astonishing screen appearances in his career. But that's the way it goes.

Director Francis Lawrence (who also made 'Catching Fire') does alright with the material. Some of the CGI-created scenes are quite impressive, but it's what one comes to expect these days.

Whereas the previous film concentrated more on person-to-person combat this one deals with big forces and armies - therefore more explosions and gunfire rather than physical conflict.

I'm going to make one of my regular moans now. Virtually throughout the entire film there's music on the soundtrack - dramatic, menacing or tender, contemplative. Hell, why can't they just STFU!!! We don't need it!

To add to any irritations at the screening I attended, just four seats away from me was a lone woman who, for all the two hours, munched through sweets, with rustling of papers, and opening drinks cans. I was willing someone else (being the coward that I am)  to tell her to, for goodness' sake, just sit still and be quiet, but no one did - or dared (Wimps!)
When the lights went up at the end I was a bit surprised to see that she was quite mature, maybe 40 - but not too surprised to determine that she was, well, rather 'large'. I had to breathe in and squeeze my way past her as getting up for me was obviously too energy-expending.

I doubt if fans of this series will be disappointed. The series failed to carry me along from the very first film. But having said that, I'd rather see this than any of the 'Star Wars' films, for instance.

However, when it comes down to it, I was, frankly, quite bored..........................3/10

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.