Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Film: 'Foxcatcher'

Moderately interesting, fact-based story of two professional wrestler brothers training under the tutelage of a scion of 'the richest family in America' who wants them to capture gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Based on a book of the experiences of Mark Schulz, the younger brother, I had no inkling of this celebrated story - and if I'd known just the title of his book beforehand it would have pretty well given away the unexpected shock I received which comes very near the end of this film.

I hardly ever care for films where sport, any sport, takes centre stage. They invariably spend the time building up to a major competition at the end - and, as it is here, there's nothing more 'major' than the Olympics! The films always follow a tortuous path leading up to a big event, taking in the central players' highs and the lows on the way. So it is with this film, though I'm pleased to report that the showing of actual wrestling matches does not dominate, and none at all of these several scenes is extended. The true main concern here is the dynamics and drama between the three leads - Channing Tatum (emotionally withdrawn and envious of his brother's success), Steve Carrell (as the multi-billionaire mentor, creepy, dangerous and always simmering right on the edge of boiling over - and looking almost unrecognisable) - and Mark Ruffalo as David Schulz, the elder brother (liberal with his bearish hugs, particularly to his kid bro), full bearded, and looking woofier than he's ever looked, which alone is really saying something.

There are only two females in the film, both in the slightest of roles. Vanessa Redgrave plays the horse-loving, wrestling-disapproving matriarch, mother to Carrell's character, and who appears briefly and silently in a couple of scenes, and saying a few words in just a single one. With even less to say, and totally wasted, is Sienna Miller as Ruffalo's wife. (Did she end up mostly on the cutting room floor?)

The real Mark Schulz, on whose book this is based, has actually disowned the film in a spluttering rage, because of the way director Bennett Miller ( who also directed Philip Seymour Hoffman's 'Capote') has portrayed him through the Channing Tatum role. His indignation seems to stem from a subtext of implied attraction between the younger brother's character and his wealthy benefactor, who, I take it, he resents as being portrayed as  something of a sugar daddy towards him. If I hadn't known this beforehand I would have picked up on an implied erotic attraction from the apparently celibate Carrell character towards Tatum's, despite the fact that nothing on these lines is even slightly hinted at verbally - except for maybe a time when Carrell states that he's never had a true 'friend' until meeting Tatum. On the other side, I didn't detect anything at all to imply that, if indeed there had been any attraction between the two, that it was mutual. In any case, if the real Mark Schulz denies it so vehemently then it couldn't possibly be true. Matter closed!
Btw: The film's title is the name of Carrell's wrestling club, referring to his hippophilic mother's fondness for the hunt. (Oh dear!)

If I hadn't been knocked back by seeing a picture of Ruffalo in full beard (you'll have to look him up) I may well have given this film a miss. As it turned out, it certainly wasn't as bad as it could have been for me. In fact I wasn't at all bored despite its inordinate two and a quarter hours' length. In summary, quite good to watch but I wouldn't recommend going out of ones way to catch it.......................6.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Film: 'Into the Woods'

I approached seeing this with huge trepidation, mainly because I know the stage piece so well and like it a lot - but also my not being a big fan of filmed theatre musicals generally (though there has been a modest number attaining my approval). This is one which I found very agreeable on the whole.
I'd been additionally put on guard by reading only yesterday a distinctly unenthusiastic review, as well as a present IMDb average rating of a lukewarm 6.5.

Drawing together the four disparate well-known fairy tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Cinderella it adds another story, one of a baker (James Corden, 'surprisingly' good) and his wife (Emily Blunt) condemned to be childless by the wicked witch next door (Meryl Streep) who will only lift her curse if they obtain for her four key articles, one from each of the other tales.
There's also Johnny Depp playing the Big Bad Wolf in what is little more than a cameo.

The first part of the film goes swimmingly and I have no major complaints at all. It's good to be able to hear all the words of Sondheim at his acerbically finest and cleverest. But, as in the original stage version, there is a violent switch of mood about two-thirds through when it takes the tales beyond their 'happy-ever-after' conclusions and gets the characters darkly moralising on the consequences of getting ones wish. I wasn't sure if such a wide contrast between the frequent comic moments in the first part and the subsequent serious reflections worked successfully in the theatre and, to my mind, it works even less so in this film, the latter providing an over-extended longueur which was starting to try my patience even though I knew how and when it would end.

Rob Marshall's direction was pretty faultless and quite imaginative - and he used cinematic effects to the maximum which, of course, enabled it to be more literal than a stage production could ever be.
As to the cast, although Streep was as good as one comes to expect, I personally preferred Julia McKenzie in the part where she hammed it up gloriously with pantomime-like relish perfectly in tune with the part, and evincing hisses from the live theatre audience. I wasn't even slightly tempted to hiss Streep.
In the West End production I saw, the wolf was played by an actor wearing the full head of that animal rather than the minimally suggested one of Depp. I would have preferred it to have been so in the film too, and I think it would have made it more interesting than seeing Depp's familiar, hardly made-up, face yet again. But he plays the small part quite well - better than, I think, he did for 'Sweeney Todd' where he didn't look visually right for me.  
Others in the cast include Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski and.........Chris Pine. 

I think most cinema audiences won't know the stage musical - or even that this is a musical at all. If they don't know it I'd be surprised if they don't like the first main section, but may well come to be perplexed when the big switch happens, as I was the first time I saw it on stage.  But this is a faithful rendition of the original and I can't really suggest a major way in which it could have been improved.
Btw: Sitting a few rows behind me was a group of four 'mature' adults. One of the men had one of those infectious laughs, the kind that makes one laugh all the more - and, very importantly, he was laughing in all the right places. His welcome presence enhanced my experience.

I may well go to see this film again..............................7.5.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Film: 'The Theory of Everything'.

So, after a hiatus of over three weeks, back to the old routine, whilst noting films that I'd wanted to see but didn't (owing to unpropitious circumstances) disappear over the horizon, very likely to end up on my sad 'Never Seen' list.

This particular feature follows the widely-known true story of Stephen Hawking, from nerdy, rather arrogant and annoying student at Cambridge Uni, surviving through the onset of muscular dystrophy and its expected short life-survival, to world recognition in his quadriplegic and electronic-voiced  state, as one of the most prominent astro-physicists, certainly the most famous, in the world today - or, possibly any age, maybe on a par with Einstein himself.

I have absolutely no quibble with the portrayal of the two central characters, played by Eddie Redmayne as astonishingly believable as one can wish, and Felicity Jones as his (first) wife, Jane, giving him selfless support throughout his alarmingly rapid physical deterioration. The couple are at the centre of screen attention for the whole two hours.
It's not the film's fault that Hawking's story is so celebrated that it would have been distracting and troubling to have deviated from it. I have little doubt that it is as faithful a representation as we are ever going to see. But fore-knowledge also confines it. Of course there were details of certain events in his life which I hadn't appreciated, but none of them were so big as to surprise one. A lot of people, me included, knew that his first marriage hadn't lasted and that he married his nurse. So the story really had nowhere else to go.

Director James Marsh gets the very best out of all his cast, minor characters too. As we approach the time of the Oscar short-list announcements it would be a gigantic error not to include Redmayne, and if he were to actually receive the award I shan't be complaining. In the BAFTA awards, which precedes the Oscars by a few days, it looks as though 'Best Actor' is going to be a two-horse race between Redmayne and that Cumberbatch chappie (for 'The Imitation Game'). Between the two I'd have to give it to Eddie R. for this, surely one of the most jaw-dropping and believable performances put on screen  - ever!
I was also particularly struck by how different Felicity Jones looked near the film's start, all youthful and fresh-faced - but by the end her features were so careworn, the understandable result of years of uncomplaining ministrations to her husband. Remarkable.

It's a fine, fact-like (presumably) representation of a significant chunk in the life of an extraordinary man. I believe the film has had the thumbs-up from both Hawking himself and Jane (this film is actually based on her book of her years with Hawking). It would have been deeply disappointing if it hadn't. But by attempting to be so faithful to the facts the film came out to me as being a bit lacking in 'edge' - maybe even a trifle sterile? Still a recommendation, though........................6.5.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

My Ten Most Enjoyed New Films of 2014

To describe this list as the 'best films of the year' would be inaccurate as the 84 films I've seen represent only about a quarter of new releases in this country - and this year there has been a significant number which I would have seen were it not for personal circumstances (such as injuring myself in taking a heavy fall) or through inconvenient showing times and venues.
One of the more recent ones I had to miss was the Bill Murray comedy 'St Vincent' which has had good reviews, albeit with its sentimentally mushy ending - a film which some of my followers recommended but, regretfully, was not to be seen by me. There were maybe another 10 or 12 others through the year which I  similarly wanted to see.

Anyway, that notwithstanding, 2014 was an exceptional year for high standard, 'quality' films and it was by no means easy to whittle them down to just ten. There are omissions in the list e.g. '12 Years a Slave' which was outstanding in every respect except that its subject matter was so heavily serious I could not honestly say that I enjoyed it. Other regretful omissions which I thought were going to make the final cut included 'Lilting' and 'Blue Ruin', but in the last lap they just had to make way for others I considered even more noteworthy.

So, in reverse order of enjoyment:-

10) 'The Imitation Game'

 9) 'Mr Turner'

 8) 'Nightcrawler'

 7) 'Gone Girl'

 6) 'Calvary'

 5) 'American Hustle'

Pure pleasure almost from first frame to last, this hasn't been universally highly regarded but I loved it, helped by a five-star cast, not least of whom, a certain Mr Cooper who, in my books, is the hottest film actor of the moment - well, at least when he's bearded. But a most intriguing story too. Genuine entertainment in a value-for-money film.

 4) 'Locke'

A taut, virtually single-actor film (Tom Hardy) in the claustrophobic world of his own car, juggling with responsibilities and loyalties on his (hands-free) phone while on the move. Very effective drama which keeps one guessing as to which direction it's going to develop.

 3) 'Under the Skin'

A film that came out of nowhere (if you'll pardon the expression), about a predatory alien being who arrives on earth, in Glasgow, in the unlikely form of Scarlett Johannson. Could have been a calamitous, or even an unintentionally comic, disaster but I don't think any film this year has haunted my memory more than this one. And it's all achieved within the confines of a modest budget. It's so darned creepy!

 2) 'Deux Jours, Une Nuit'

Intensely human drama concerning worker in a small firm on the verge of being discharged from her job (in Belgium) trying to gather support for her being kept on. The subject matter may not set the world alight but it's a small scale, very sincere, minor miracle of a film. Despite repetition in that the lead character (Marion Cotillard) has to garner sympathy by seeing her co-workers individually it doesn't flag at all and I found myself rooting for her throughout. I'm also pleased that a non-English language film has turned out to be, for a change, my number two film of the year.

 1) 'Boyhood'

Much of my decision to give this my accolade must stem from the fact that it was precisely the kind of film that I'd have expected not to have liked. In the event this extra-long film turned out to be mesmeric - though it's not easy to identify exactly why as there are no really 'major' events in this chronicle of a boy growing into a man, shot over a number of years in real time, and with no sign of more advanced film techniques being evident for the latter part of the film as compared to the start. I left the cinema quite stunned - and, to use the title of another film in my list, this one really got under my skin. Superb.

And, finally, my least enjoyed film of the year, which I'm apprehensive in naming because a number of my esteemed blog-pals really liked it, and liked it a lot. In fact I'm the only one I know who disliked it so much, to the extent of  being irritated by it for its entire length. Soppy (just my own reaction) teenage romance which, death(s) apart, I'm glad and grateful to say that I've never experienced. I give you:-
        'The Fault in our Stars'  (Take and keep it - please!)

I wouldn't advise anyone not to see this, as the chances  are that they will 'get' it despite the 'it' having evaded me completely. It could well turn out to be your own Number One film of the year.


And finally, on this Christmas Eve, as I sit here surrounded by five pussycats, I'd like to take the opportunity to wish each and every one of my much-valued followers a Very Happy Xmas, and if I don't 'see' you again during the next week, a prosperous, contented and (most of all) a healthy 2015! My heartiest best wishes to all.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Film: The Hobbit - 'The Battle of the Five Armies'

Well, thank goodness that's over! The concluding part of the over-protracted 'The Hobbit' trilogy is every bit as visually impressive as the earlier episodes and anything in the preceding 'Lord of the Rings' sequence, even though this was the only one of the aggregate six parts that I viewed in flat-screen 2D. But impressive visuals alone do not an engrossing film make and I'd become weary of this entire franchise several parts ago.

Continuing their characters' stories after 'The Desolation of Smaug' are all the names with which we've become so familiar - Freeman, McKellan, Bloom, Armitage, Blanchett etc - and Christopher Lee again making a brief, but welcome, re-appearance.  
The story assumes that we'd remember what had happened before this one picks it up again. But a year ago my interest had already become so depleted that then I just let it wash over me. So for the most part in this final take I had nary a clue what was going on so once again just sat back in my seat and watched the spectacle - of which there's no shortage.

There's big-scale fighting galore, as noisy as one might expect - with elves, dwarves, wizards, dragons, flying reptiles and monsters of various types and dimensions, but it quickly all became so ho-hum for this viewer. It didn't hold my attention and I found myself consulting my watch frequently. I think one would have to be a die-hard enthusiast to enjoy these films to the full. I had actually enthused about the first of the LOTR films, 'The Fellowship of the Ring', but then it had helped having read the entire 'Ring' volumes four times by the time that first film was released. However, after that particular opening instalment I found the appeal to see the remainder decreased, so that by the time the first of 'The Hobbit' series of films arrived (I've only read that slender book twice), and knowing that it had been expanded so far as to make the original literary work almost irrelevant, I was far from keen. Still, the first 'Hobbit' film was hardly bad - just so much of a lesser event following after the mighty LOTRs.

This final episode is also the shortest, though still coming in at over 2 hours 20 minutes. For me it felt as long, or longer, than it actually was.

Director Peter Jackson has accomplished two major trilogies which will probably be considered as 'significant' in the annals of film history. I've no quarrel at all with his role in directing the six parts. They are all pretty seamless in structure - and continuity fluffs have been much rarer than I normally notice. But in the final analysis, the films just didn't do it for me as I didn't find them interesting enough. I wouldn't care to see any of 'The Hobbit' parts again ('LOTR', maybe).
As for this 'The Battle of the Armies', relating to my own enjoyment, a generous rating would be...............4/10.