Sunday, 15 February 2015

Film: 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

So, was it really as dire as some have said? Quite possibly, but with a few, very few, redeeming features.

Cards on the table - I have read the book. Last year. Readable enough, but no great shakes.

First of all, the film stands or falls on the credibility of the relationship between Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) and multi-billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). I think that she just about passes muster for believability in the role of a callow, slightly gauche, young woman unexpectedly swept off her feet by Mr Dominator in Seattle, whose immense wealth can't buy him love. I'm afraid that he did not convince me. Statuesque looks, maybe, but even if I didn't find him especially attractive there was barely any glimmer of sexual tension between the two of them that I could detect, though its existence was the whole point of their relationship - he doing the giving, she not only taking but begging for it.

I tried early on to try to dispel the memory of E.L.James' novel and to try to see the film on its own terms, but that was a big ask. For most of the book the Christian character remains something of an unfathomable cipher. Caught up in his emotions yet one has the feeling that a cold, detached intellect is always in resolute control. Here, by putting flesh on the concept of such a man, one sees straight away that he's subject to inner vulnerabilities, so one is always waiting for it all to come crashing down, whereas in the book I was wondering who would take the initiative to end it, if it did come to an end. (There are sequels to the original novel, which I shan't be bothering with - still less so seeing any further films that might come out of them).

And then there are the several S/M scenes- relatively tame by proper S/M standards, unrealistically clinical and as perfectly choreographed as one could wish - if one isn't aware of where to look for the genuine stuff on the internet (or participated in oneself? My own lips are sealed - though they may not have been at the time!) But those scenes were not the sine qua non of this film, although one suspects that many will be wishing that they were. But a major gripe for me, and this being one of my major detestations in any film, is why oh why, whenever two people make love/have sex/whatever, do we have to hear a supposedly smoochy-sounding pop song on the soundtrack? I just cannot flaming abide it! And here it happens not just once but several times! I wanted to retch, and came darned near to doing so. If I hadn't paid for my ticket I would definitely have walked out on its first happening, but I sat in my seat, silently fuming.

The film follows the book quite closely. Some say that it's better than the book. I don't know. Can't really get worked up about either of them.

My oft feeling of tedium was only interrupted on a few instances by the brief appearances of Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden as her mother and his step-mother respectively, which lifted my flagging interest sporadically.

Director is Sam Taylor-Wood who made the rather good 'Nowhere Boy' of 2009, the story of the early life of John Lennon. In this film, Dornan's presence aside (whom some may find more acceptable in the role than I did) I can't complain about Ms Taylor-Woods' accomplishment here. Given the material, I think  that on balance she's made a fair enough transfer to the screen.

I'm glad I've seen 'Fifty Shades', if only to have gotten it out of the way. If I hadn't read the book I might not have bothered. So has all the hoo-hah been justified? While declaring a bias in accepting that I'm not such a great admirer of the novel, I'd nevertheless say that it hasn't been............................3/10.


Saturday, 14 February 2015

Film: 'Love is Strange'

Attractive, modestly-pitched feature, coming in at a sensible and digestible hour and a half.

Alfred Molina (retaining his English accent) and John Lithgow play a New York couple who have been living together for 39 years and, at the start of the film, take the opportunity to get married. Their relationship is an issue only once in the whole film. Just after the wedding, Molina, a music teacher at a Catholic school, is told by the priest-headmaster that his wedding pictures have been seen on Facebook and that, since he signed an agreement to abide by the teaching of 'The Holy Mother Church' (Hallelujah!), notwithstanding that he was known by the school to be gay and in a long-term relationship, he must now, perforce, be dismissed. That is the only time that their relationship is 'challenged'. Of course his dismissal has consequences, mainly that the pair's income is vastly reduced and for that reason they must leave their apartment, temporarily living with, for Molina, a gay policemen couple (bearded Manny Perez, hot! - though with too little to do) and Lithgow ('Uncle Ben') with his nephew and his wife (Darren Burrows & Marisa Tomei) and their teenage son, the latter quickly becoming resentful of Lithgow's presence in having to share his bedroom and crowding his space.

There are no scenes of big-scale histrionics, certainly not in the Molina-Lithgow pairing, the only true disagreements are between the youth and his parents. In days past we might have expected a gay relationship (which would have been implied rather than explicitly shown), to have been littered with bitchy tiffs, maybe fighting, even with hard violence, as if to show to the world what sort of people they (we) really are like. No such thing here. It's a faithful, unspectacular coupling. In fact the film's title is misleading, the only 'strange' thing about it being, nowadays, the relative rarity of such longevity in the two mens love for each other.

When the film is well-advanced there is a sudden lurch forward in time which may make some of the audience feel they've been cheated. It did give me a bit of a start but it did also underline the 'normality' of the couple's life together.

Two slight criticisms. The soundtrack is entirely Chopin (solo piano, naturally) which at times was played, or at least relayed on the soundtrack, far too loud, occasionally obscuring the dialogue.
Then, in just one but fairly extended scene, there's young, good-looking English actor, Christian Coulson whose acting I found so mannered as to be a distraction. Others may disagree, though as he was only on screen for a little while it wasn't a serious point.

I see this film has been given an 'R' certificate in America. One can only wonder why - and despair! Do those who decided on it, are they the same people who are nervous that younger people seeing two grown men kissing each other (which is not overdone), and hugging, touching hands etc - nothing more racy than that - is it going to turn them gay? Oh horror! I should have imagined we would all have been past that kind of thinking by now, but apparently there are still such people in the film industry and they still wield power!
In the U.K. it gets a '15' certificate because of the occasional 'strong language ', though thinking back, I can't recall a single incidence of that, though I concede that there must have been.

I'd be interested to know what the Catholic Church's position on this film is. They must, surely, be satisfied that their teaching is so accurately portrayed, but I'd guess they might be less happy that the gay couple are depicted as being so, well, 'normal' - not exactly the notion that I think they'd like to be conveyed.

'Love is strange' is a good film (Director and co-writer: Ira Sachs). Small-scale certainly, but none the worse for that. I recommend it with a solid ....................7.

Film: 'Ex Machina'

This is the first film of 2015 to really blow me away - and it was such a surprise when I had no inkling that it would turn out to be so. On the subject of humanoid robotics, I'd expected this might be something on the lines of Spielberg's 'A.I.', which had failed to impress me as much as some of its admirers. Both films also play with the notion of artificial intelligence as manifested by a human replicant being so close to that of the human mind that if there's any difference at all, can it be detected?
In the event I found this 'Ex Machina' an altogether more accomplished and interesting film and, astonishingly, it's the directorial debut of novelist Alex Garland, also this film's writer. What a terrific start he's made!

A variation on the 'Frankenstein' theme, Domhnall Gleason ('Calvary' & 'Frank', both 2014) plays computer worker, Caleb, who unexpectedly finds himself winning a place to spend some time at a secluded mountain retreat in America of the creator of a robot, who wishes him to interact with this 'creature' to see if he can detect any differences in intellect from a real person. The 'creation' is able to use logic, make enquiries of the visitor, emote, all the mental functions one would expect if it had been human, its only observable giveaway as to its true nature being that its physical body has transparent 'skin' in places - abdomen, neck, brain, parts of limbs - which allow one to see its inner computer workings. It's difficult to say much more without revealing how the story develops, a story which, after the first few minutes, becomes so loaded with tension that it gets to be almost palpable as the underlying intentions of Nathan, the 'creator', in his use of Caleb become questionable. It's virtually a four-actor piece, the final member of the quartet being Nathan's put-upon, brusquely-treated and silent female servant.  

The robot, 'Ava', is Alicia Vikander, whom I only very recently saw as the lead in 'Testament of Youth', while Nathan is (yet again, and very pleasingly) Oscar Isaac, someone of whose name I'd barely heard a year ago and who is rapidly becoming one of my very favourite actors. No matter what part he plays - and in the four films I've seen him in up to now, they are all very different roles - he displays such on-screen authority, range and consummate skill that I'm already running out of words to express my admiration. I look forward to seeing him sometime as romantic lead.
This role of his caps them all up to now, so much so that for some reason I hadn't realised that he was going to be in this film, and even when he appeared I hadn't realised it was him for a good part of the film. (As is frequently the case nowadays, there are no opening credits or title at all). He wears a thick beard, as he did for 'Inside Llewyn Davies', only this time even bushier, and as magnificently woofy as hell. In fact my immediate reaction on seeing him was that he could just as easily have stepped straight out of that most interesting blog of 'Fearsome Beard'

My only real complaint is that regular one of inaudibility, when 'Ava' speaks in such a soft, gentle voice that, especially during her early exchanges with Caleb, were it not that we see her lips moving and hear his replies, I wouldn't have been aware that she'd said anything at all. No such problems with the two males. 

I never knew which direction the film would take and its conclusion I did not foresee. It's a remarkable work and though it hasn't been universally given the praise which I am happy to accord it, I have to own that it pleased me personally no end.

As for Alex Garland, I thought the Danny Boyle film (with Leo DiCaprio in 2000) based on his book, 'The Beach' was good, as was the novel, though I'd rather read the book again than re-see the film. After that I read 'The Tesseract' twice, but just couldn't get a handle on it, so gave up on Garland - prematurely and mistakenly it seems. This film rekindles my interest in him in a big way.

It goes without saying that not everyone will share my intense liking for 'Ex Machina', but if you think it might be your 'bag' then I do urge you to go further and give it a try. It's my cinematic 'event' of this year so far..............8.5.


Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Film: 'Selma'

Powerful film depicting a few months in 1965 in the struggle enacted in American South, led by Martin Luther King, to secure parity of enfranchisement of negroes with whites.
Unremittingly serious, often bleak, sometimes anger-provoking and tear-producing (apart from final jubilatory moments of the campaign's vindication) the film follows the historical tussle between a beleaguered President Johnson, a resolute King who would not water down his demands, and with Governor Wallace of Alabama, stubbornly refusing to accept defeat.

I strongly recall these three characters who regularly appeared on our news bulletins of the time - perhaps not so frequently with the last of these, though we did still hear quite a lot from him. But therein lies some of the film's weakness for me in that I found the patent lack of facial resemblance of Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth to the actual Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace respectively, an almost non-stop distraction. Even the formidable David Oyelowo as King only bears a passing resemblance to whom he was playing. (In one brief scene we also see a J.Edgar Hoover who similarly looked utterly unlike the person I remember, as is plain from photos and film footage of the time.) I'm sure that younger members of the audience, not around or aware of the politics of the time, would not be nearly as troubled on this point as I was.

However, that aside, King's speeches were certainly stirring and powerfully delivered by Oyelowo, despite King's original words having to be paraphrased because it wasn't possible to obtain permission to use them , they having been legally allowed to be used only by Steven Spielberg's company in a film of the subject which never materialised. But it didn't really matter a great deal as the essence was the same and they were profoundly effective.

The savagery with which demonstrations are put down and the brutality of the confrontation by state troopers of the 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery are believably and horrifically re-enacted. It would take someone of inhuman emotional detachment not to be profoundly moved by the events. (I actually found myself shaking at one point).

We see Oprah Winfrey (she also being one of the film's producers), several times as Annie Lee Cooper, one of the film's key female demonstrators, though she doesn't have that much to do apart from appearing now and again. The acts of the campaign are virtually entirely male-decided. There's also Cuba Gooding Jnr in two shortish scenes, as well as the increasingly seen Alessandro Nivola, here in a role of still less screen time.

The director is one Ava DuVernay whose first cinema feature this appears to be. She ought to be satisfied with the final product as it achieves what it set out to do.
However, it being such a sombre subject, there was little sense of any light and shade which, admittedly, might not have been appropriate. The film was useful for me in that it 'joined the dots' of events with which I was only sketchily familiar because of the passage of time, though I do remember well the main protagonists of the drama.

It's an accomplished film but I did find it slightly over-bearing in its earnestness. I think those who are ignorant of the events and are prepared to learn some recent history will take away from it rather more than I was able......................6.5.


Monday, 9 February 2015

Film: 'A Most Violent Year'

Good crime drama - quite original in plot, always interesting, several times pulse-quickening, all dominated by the pivotal role of Oscar Isaac, who moves on the screen with effortless authority, despite his manifesting of recurring vulnerability and puzzlement (and sporting a camel-hair overcoat to die for!). He's extremely ably assisted by Jessica Chastain as his independent-minded, self-willed, but generally supportive, wife (the fragility of their relationship keeps surfacing). Also by British actor David Oyelowo (currently appearing as Martin Luther King in 'Selma') as senior police officer in several scenes, more interested in nabbing tax dodgers than investigating violent crime. Unfortunately, Oyelowo doesn't have a great range of varied notes to play in this particular role. Additionally, in just a few minutes of screen-time, is the eye-catching Alessandro Nivola. 

It's New York, 1981 when Isaac's oil company finds that his road tankers are being mysteriously hijacked, later being found emptied of their loads. His losses accumulate to considerable proportions till there's a threat that if he doesn't find money to tide him over his business will have to fold. He has no idea who is doing this to him, there being any number of suspects, all parading as being his friends. To add to his worries, the police suspect his past transactions have fallen foul of tax declaration probity.
A number of chases ensue, a few shocks, some bloody violence, but the film never loses its thread. There is one glaringly unlikely revelation towards the final section but the pitch by then was so tensed up that I was able not to dwell on it.

The film's title refers not to the particular situations as presented here but to the year of 1981 being a particularly crime-violent one in New York generally.

Director and writer J.C.Chandor ('Margin Call' 2011) keeps it all buzzing along effectively.

I enjoyed it.......................7.5.

Reflections on yesterday's British Film Awards (BAFTAs)

There are only two evenings annually when I purposely stay up beyond about 9.30 p.m. One is for the 'Eurovision Song Contest', the other - well, here are a few apercus on last night's BAFTA awards:-

Nothing to violently disagree with, really, though I suppose the single thing that rankled a bit was Steve Carrell not being recognised as 'Best Supporting Actor' for his astonishing turn in 'Foxcatcher' - mesmerisingly creepy and totally outside what we'd thought had been his 'comfort zone' - showing of what a wide range he's capable. Not that I thought J.K.Simmons didn't deserve it for his scary-bully tyrant of a music tutor. He too was amazing. It was just a pity that there couldn't have been two awards for this category. If I'd had to choose between the two of them I'd have given it to Carrell.

'Still Alice' hasn't opened here yet, though I was pleased to see Julianne Moore, one of my very favourite screen stars in the entire world, picking up the award as 'Best Actress' (in revealing, cleavage-exposing red dress). She's never given a poor performance, always totally committed and believable, and there's no reason to think why she isn't so in this latest film too.

I can't argue with 'Boyhood' getting 'Best Picture'. It was, after all, top of my 2014 list. Fairly satisfied with Richard Linklater getting 'Best Director', having taken such a risk in creating a product which took twelve years to make, and at the end of that period, producing such an exceptionally fine work out of what might have been thought unpromising material.
Patricia Arquette picking up 'Best Supporting Actress' was fair enough. I think the only serious competition she had was in Rene Russo ('Nightcrawler') and Emma Stone ('Birdman')

Eddie Redmayne had to be the right choice for 'Best Actor', though I did fear that Michael Keaton might actually pip him to it, which would not have been such a earth-shattering travesty. However, Redmayne's portrayal of Stephen Hawking was beyond uncanny.
Bit surprised that 'The Theory of Everything' picked up so many awards in total and that 'The Imitation Game' won none at all. I thought the latter was the better film. Even though we knew the destination each of them would end up at - the first being the predictable, though tragic and harrowing, decline in physical capabilities of the subject, while 'Imitation' followed a much more sinuous and interesting path.

And all those awards for 'Grand Budapest Hotel'? Well it was, admittedly, ravishing to look at and has some clever and witty lines, but I found the whole experience bordering on the vacuous.

Great to have seen Mike Leigh being recognised with a BAFTA Fellowship award which, if you ask me, is long overdue. The close of his overlong acceptance speech was well worth waiting for.

And whose idea was it to have the show opened by group 'Kasabian' with their song 'Stevie'? I didn't think they were anywhere near distinctive enough, nor special, nor even appropriate enough, to occupy this most coveted of spots .

Eyebrows have been raised that the film 'Selma' wasn't nominated for anything at all. Even if it wasn't to win anything it's difficult to credit its being totally ignored in all categories. At the very least one would have thought that David Oyelowo would have been nominated for 'Best Actor'. A nod as a nominee would have been expected for this most notable of film roles - it has 'award' written all over it - and his name not being put forward seems to imply that there was something unsatisfactory with his acting, which, from what I gather, is absolutely not the case - quite the reverse, in fact. Very curious. (I hope to be seeing the film myself  later this week). (Since writing this para I've read that 'Selma's' exclusion from nominations was because it was released too late to qualify this year. It was released in this country only last week. However, 'Still Alice' still hasn't been released here at all, yet was included - and won an award  for Julianne Moore! So does inclusion for a British award nomination have to be dependent on American release dates? Search me! But in any case I see that I've got to eat my words and apologise, which I now do.)

In the section where we are reminded of those who have died over the last year there was a conspicuous omission that I noticed while it was going on - Bob Hoskins, who died last April. I hear that it was an inadvertent error, his intended mention being lost in the evening's planning. Still, it was an unfortunate slight to a readily recognisable British actor of multiple film appearances.

Stephen Fry, on his tenth appearance as 'emcee ' held it all together with panache and some comments which were well off the 'risque' scale, but it all seemed to work well.  Just 3 weeks married, he's been the subject of much tut-tutting from our tabloid press for now having a husband who is 30 years his junior - naturally, those being the very same newspapers which opposed equal marriage.
Many flirtatious comments from Fry, and two full-on kisses from Cuba Gooding Jnr (amongst others of both sexes) - and you couldn't help but applaud his downright cheeky introduction of the final guest award presenter - "It's Tom Fucking Cruise!"

Gotta go now -  to see a film!

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Film: 'American Sniper'.

Impressive, viscerally powerful, Clint Eastwood-directed feature, with many tense moments and situations, several of them distressing. Not a film to be 'enjoyed' in the usual sense of the word, but absolutely not one to be ignored either.

With only five weeks of this year having lapsed I was already getting alarmed at the number of films which I badly wanted to see passing me by in having awkward or impossible screening times. I thought this one was going to be another which would extend the list. Then, as if by special request, and on the very last day of its three-week run, a cinema puts on a single morning matinee screening. Naturally I couldn't miss out on the chance. 

Bradley Cooper (beefed up for the major part of the film) plays the titular Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal on a succession of tours of duty in Iraq, taking periodic leaves of absence over a few years, to return home to Texas to his wife (Sienna Miller) and their growing family. If I'd been paying more attention to the reviews I should have realised that this was based on a true story. As it was, it hit me like a punch in the gut in the closing credits.
The action scenes on duty are believably tension-ridden. When trying to root out the enemy and their hideaways, which native Iraqis can be trusted? Any of them, children included? Sniping is a feature of both sides of the conflict. Kyle's expertise and successes gives him a commendable reputation among the troops as he witnesses a number of his comrades-in-arms being shot down, some killed outright - and he is steadfast in trying to mete out the same to the enemy.
He makes periodic phone calls to his wife back home, sometimes while on intense duty (slightly strange that it seemed to be vaguely the same time of day in both locations), assuring her of his next visit. I also found the relative scarcity of non-white faces a bit odd, but what do I know?
On his home visits his wife senses a growing alienation in Kyle which, during his final home visit, gets to be a bit scary. One wonders how the horror of what he's seen on duty has affected him, and if it's going to be carried over into his personal life.

There's been talk and criticism about the film 'waving the flag' too much. I can just about see why but I'm not sure that it's fair. There's no large-scale triumphalism at all. The political issues are left unaddressed, but surely just about everybody knows what's going on. (We see TV footage of 9/11 early in the film). Of course there's the ongoing question as to whether the invasion of Iraq was legal at all, which I think may well colour many people's opinion of the film. It's a position I tend to lean towards but, being no expert in international law and the U.N., I leave it for others to argue. If one is adamant that it was indeed illegal, I suppose any film that doesn't present that point of view or imply it will be considered unsatisfactory. (The first review I saw on IMDb called it 'tripe' and rated it 1/10!)  But the film is not about the wider picture. It's simply a personal story of one man on active service.

Acting and direction is of a high standard in all aspects. As usual, Eastwood has his finger on the pulse of what works, and this is a good example of his capabilities.
It's not a film I'd care to see again, only because of the raw emotions involved. I'm tempted to score it with an '8' but, in the final analysis, because of my frequent discomfort while watching, I'll have to mark it down a tad, though that's not a fault of this film intrinsically..........................7.5.  


Btw: I  see that Bradley Cooper is coming to London with the full Broadway production of 'The Elephant Man', for just 12 weeks starting in May. I'd give so much to be able to see it, but its location as well as price, put it, for all practical purposes, beyond my reach. If it's not already booked out for its run it very soon will be. It's playing at London's prestige (and hence most expensive) theatre for 'straight plays', the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. 
When I had lavish resources at my disposal I attended there a few times seeing, among others, Jack Lemmon, with Michael Gambon, in (the unfortunately inferior), 'Veteran's Day'; Liv Ullman in Harold Pinter's 'Old Times' - and one-time hottie, Jean-Marc Barr, with Redgrave (V) in Tennessee Williams' 'Orpheus Descending'. Those were the days! Would that they could re-commence with Mr Cooper in this play!







Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Film: 'Kingsman - The Secret Service'

Well, stab me vitals! Could that be the ever present Mr Firth yet again? Yes, indeed it is. Why, it must be all of a fortnight since we last saw him on the big screen. Welcome back, Sir! It's been such a long time - not!
I shouldn't be at all surprised if I were to be told that he's appeared in more films than I've had nocturnal emissions - the releases always coming with a big splash, lacking only a fanfare of silver trumpets. (His films, I mean!).

Truth to tell, I quite enjoyed this. Took me quite a while to tune in to the necessary wavelength, but once I'd homed in it carried me along rather nicely.

Based on a comic book of the same title (unknown to me) it concerns Firth as a British secret agent, all of whom are known as 'Kingsmen', recruiting an unlikely, anonymous, young protege to train as and replace an agent who's recently met his end. The secret agents' look and manner is a dapper one - superficially a gentlemen in etiquette and dress, but covering a lethal underside when provoked or on a mission.  It reminded me a lot of the John Steed character in the 1960s TV series, 'The Avengers'; debonair, bowler-hatted, brolly-carrying.
There is a dastardly, maniacal villain played by Samuel L. Jackson, bent on 007 nemesis-style world domination (through widespread implants in the head to control behaviour), while Firth's boss at the head of the Secret Service is Michael Caine. Most of the screen time focuses on the young pupil, acted by one Taron Egerton  (no significant feature film on his C.V. until this production) - as well as on Mark Strong, on the side of the 'goodies'. Two young females also feature, both unknown names to me - one, another young trainee alongside Egerton, aspiring to replace the lost agent - and the other, a blade-walking sidekick to Jackson's 'Dr Evil', whose blades are rather more versatile than for merely walking on. 

There's loads of comic-style violence, very vicious (nothing unduly dwelt on), very stylised and utterly impossible - often with a single character against an entire group rather than one-to-one combat, sometimes on a spectacular scale. It's all delivered with a significant measure of boys-own-comic-book humour, quite effective for the most part. No shock to learn that director Matthew Vaughn has directed a number of films in this genre, some of which contain extreme violence. ('Lock Stock....','Snatch', 'Layer Cake', 'Kick-Ass', 'X-men: First Class' plus 'Stardust'. Quite a list!)

The fantastic story wrong-footed me a few times, though at the start I wasn't at all sure how one was supposed to take the turns in plot. It's really another of those films where it's best not to ask too many questions, but just to allow it to get on.

Good fun, then. It ought to please those who are looking for undemanding entertainment - and we are all, at least sometimes, in the mood for that........................7.



Monday, 2 February 2015

Film: 'Testament of Youth'

Based on the memoirs of Vera Brittan, a name which will, or ought to be, familiar to many British people as pioneering pacifist and progressive political campaigner (and mother of Baroness Shirley Williams*), this film relates to her life immediately preceding WWI, her commencing studying at Oxford and her giving it up to be a war-time nurse - with familial and romantic war casualties on the way.

It's a grimly intense film and, at times, predictably sentimental. Not at all poor in any respect, yet I did get the strong feeling that we've seen it all before. Based on true events it may well have been but there's very little that's original to see here. I think one is expected to be heavily involved in and get carried along by the romantic story. In that respect it held my attention not much more than minimally.

The lead is taken by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, a name which I didn't immediately recognise until seeing that she'd also appeared in 'A Royal Affair' and 'Anna Karenina' (2012), both of which I liked a lot . She does pretty well with the almost entirely humour-free material. I didn't recognise any of the other younger stars either - only knowing the more mature Dominic West and the excellent Emily Watson as Vera B.'s parents, as well as the always fine Anna Chancellor and Miranda Richardson.
The direction of James Kent (plenty of TV work, this being his first feature film) keeps it all moving efficiently enough, there being no over-prolonged scenes. I must mention that the feeling of deja vu came over me most forcibly when a vista scene appeared with a strong resemblance to an iconic image in 'Gone with the Wind' - and for a roughly parallel situation. I can't help wondering if that was deliberate. Rather curious if it was.

The film is quite heavy in the emotional sense, not heavy-going exactly, but after its two-hours-plus was over I rather did long for something a bit airier and lighter...............................6.



*Shirley Williams (now 84), daughter of this Vera Brittan featured in the film, is one of the three most prominent female politicians of my lifetime (the others being Socialist Barbara Castle and, of course, Mrs T.)  She's something of a curious figure in my books. I used to be an admirer of her liberal stances on a range of issues in the 1970s when she first started being noticed, first as a member of the then Labour government, and then her defection to what eventually became the Liberal Democratic Party, which she still represents in the House of Lords. However, her ensuing Parliamentary voting record is, for 'progressives and radicals', a disappointing one, as she tends to follow the official Roman Catholic line on 'social issues' - opposing moves for easier abortion, easier divorce and all gay adoption, and most recently opposing equal marriage. (Strangely, her lifelong, deeply-held religious faith did not prevent her getting divorced and re-marrying while her first husband was still alive!). Additionally, during the furore after 'The Satanic Verses' was published she seemed to be taking the line that Rushdie only had himself to blame for writing that particular piece of fiction. I wonder what her mother would have thought of any of these attitudes. One can only surmise.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Film: 'Wild'

Unexceptional film of true story depicting the 1,100 mile solo hike of Cheryl Strayed along the Pacific Crest Trail - roughly Mexican to Canadian borders, the subject being played by Reese Witherspoon. (In 2013, in inebriated condition to State trooper - "Do you know my name? You're about to find out who I am!") She's been nominated for an Oscar for this part but I didn't think it was that special enough to have been singled out for praise. I can see at least two or three worthier nominees in the list.

A lot of this film consists of numerous flashbacks during her journey - to her childhood with her brother and late, doting mother (Laura Dern); her infrequently seen, violent father; her earlier teenage and adult life. These are all presented with many jump-cuts which I found difficult in that just when I thought I was getting a handle on the situation it would return to her reminiscing in her tent or wherever. (Incidentally, towards the end I had to look away from the screen at the [edited] shooting of a horse).
She meets an assortment of characters on her way, mainly men, sometimes singly, other times not, getting one to invariably wonder whether they can be trusted. (Well, yes and no). Then there's unsurprising difficulties with the provisions and camping equipment she's brought with her (adequate? right sort?), plus a couple of brushes with creatures encountered.
I found it all somewhat run-of-the-mill, which is surprising in that the screenplay is by none other than Nick Hornby. But if the raw material, Strayed's own memoir, was fairly standard stuff then what else could be done with it? Inventing incidents that didn't happen wouldn't be fair.
The scenery is sometimes as spectacular as one might expect though there are fewer grand vistas than I might have thought, a fair amount of the film taking place in various tree-surrounded  locations, which could just as well have been anywhere else.
Director is Jean-Marc Vallee, he who directed the far superior 'Dallas Buyers Club' of 2013.

I'd imagine that the book might make a more interesting read than this film - though to be fair, the film has been generally well received. But it failed to light my campfire..................5/10.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Film: 'Whiplash'

Before writing about this film I might point out that yesterday, on the way to the cinema, I suffered yet another physical mishap. Preparing to alight from the moving bus, making my way downstairs I missed my footing and twist-wrenched my knee. Painful it was too, and is still so after one night. I'd already been limping because of a callous on my right sole, which was supposed to have been removed at the local podiatry clinic a couple of weeks ago (free under our Socialist-inspired National Health Service!), but it's still there and causing pain. Now I'm hobbling about with incapacities in both legs and can only take flights of stairs one step at a time. I mention this because once again it's going to mean missing films which I'd intended to see. Looks like the first casualty will be day after tomorrow's 'The Homesman' (Tommy Lee Jones) - and that may well not be the last. Will try an ice compress shortly but as at now things don't exactly look rosy.

Watching this in considerable discomfort could not detract from my recognition that this film has real clout. It's an unusual scenario in that I don't recall any other fictional film where the focus is on a drummer - with a tutor from the depths of hell itself. It's also remarkable for its utterly blistering two central performances.
The plain-faced Miles Teller plays a first year student jazz drummer at a music conservatory where J.K.Simmons ('Spiderman', 'Juno') is already scaring the bejeesus out of his class, he being an horrific martinet of a professor whose mood can turn on a sixpence from all sweetness and light to yelling and barking his head off, sometimes with snarls and put-downs, as well as flinging conveniently-snatched missiles at members of class who displease him, cowing them into submission. Talk about 'blood, sweat and tears' - it's precisely all three of those things!

I'd call the music 'Big Band' - here with a group of a dozen wind players plus piano, guitar, bass and drums - though I'm happy to be corrected as to the category into which it falls. It worked for me even though this kind of music fails to achieve any 'inner response in my soul' - unlike classical, popular, musicals, as well as folk and even some pop. I've never really 'got' jazz, despite lifelong efforts to remedy that and discover why so many are emotionally moved by it, wanting to share the experience. There's seems to be something of a mental block there for me. Anyway, that being the case, it was even more astonishing that this film managed to hold my attention with ease.

The conservatory class is up for a competition (who would have thought it!) and no one,  but no one,  is going to get in the way of the tutor getting his class to win. His regular tirades are littered with profanities - all the expected ones, of course - although quite a number of them do also have a measure of wit attached. He does make a brief, sexist put-down to the only female member of the group, who is only rarely in shot. But afterwards I was wondering why, out of all the ones he selected for his ritual humiliation, he didn't once choose to abuse any of the several African-Americans there.
Of course it wouldn't have been the film it was if the story hadn't focussed on the relationship between tutor and the new drummer member - and from the very off it's no-holds-barred. The mild-mannered Teller's feeble attempts to stand up for himself very quickly fizzle out into accepting his degradation.
It won't be any surprise to learn that among the insults used against him is homophobic language ('faggot' and 'cocksucker', of course), those expressions being, predictably and regrettably, of first resort to anyone wishing to humiliate. (There's no suggestion at all that the Teller character might be gay. Anyway, he's got a girlfriend for at least part of the story, so there!.) However it's a measure of the writer's restraint (Damian Chazelle, also the film's Director) that these particular words are used so sparingly among all the other invectives. I counted only three instances. But that got me also wondering whether, if he had chosen to rail against one of the African-Americans, would his language also have been in-your-face, thick with racist epithets? Or would that be beyond-the-pale unacceptable - both to the character's position as being on the conservatory staff, as well as to the film-makers in selling their product? Food for thought.

Just when we thought the film was starting to glide to its conclusion with a level of smoothness having been attained between the two main characters, who seemed to have come to some mutual understanding, something nasty occurs between them. The film ends with the expected virtuoso display - a performance which succeeded in taking my breath away, despite my not appreciating to the fullest that genre of music.
(The title of 'Whiplash', by the way, is the name of one of the pieces the band is rehearsing).

A highly recommended film. Although the general line of the story might be familiar, the means it employs, a young drummer, is certainly unusual - and the two lead actors carry it off forcefully,  penetratingly and convincingly.....................7.5

Friday, 16 January 2015

Film: 'Birdman'

This film has received fulsome praise from multiple directions. However, I'm not going to pretend to join the applause. I feel I ought to have liked it more, and could well do so on second viewing, but for an initial reaction more positive feelings are wanting.

First of all, must admit that I wasn't in a very receptive mood yesterday. 'Birdman' has been around on screens here since before Xmas, and now at the tail-end of its cinema run I was determined to catch it on the big screen, particularly as such marvellous things have been said about it. Unfortunately this meant taking a chance that it would be okay to leave my ageing black cat, disappear for five hours and return in the dark, expecting to find him sitting outside, lone and vulnerable, awaiting my re-appearance. Anyway, I'm afraid that his plight kept returning to my mind whilst travelling to and from the cinema, and on and off while the film was playing, wondering if I'd done the right thing and would regret it. As it turned out, I returned to find him sleeping on my bed in the very same spot in which I'd left him!

In 'Birdman' Michael Keaton plays an actor approaching advanced years, most renowned for having appeared as the film's eponymously-titled hero in a three-film franchise. He's now trying to transform and lift his career from the doldrums into a live theatre actor through a Raymond Carver relationship drama, while having to put up with know-it-all Edward Norton who comes in to replace his injured co-principal lead in the play.  Most of the action is concerned with the sparks these two strike off one another outside the play through their respective highly abrasive and confrontational  personalities. Keaton also has, incidentally, telekinetic powers (don't ask!), as well as he being regularly sniped at by the snarky, critical voice of the 'Birdman' character he'd created. There are a number of highly surreal moments in the film, the most extended one being in the film's final quarter when the owner of this ghost voice makes a fully-feathered appearance.

For me the most distracting aspect of the film (and this is one which is being remarked on as a brilliant tour-de-force) is the camerawork. It's all done very smoothly as if it to suggest that the entire film has been made in just one single camera take, with its continuous perspective gliding here and there, inside the theatre and its rooms and out on the street, veering round corners, up and down stairs, glancing this way and that - I found myself wondering where it would go next and who would be the next player to come into shot, more than the film's actual content. (Alfred Hitchcock tried much the same thing in his film 'Rope', though that was all set in a single room and the technical limitations of the time mean that one can tell where the 'joins' are - around every 10 minutes.)  I wouldn't deny that the camerawork in 'Birdman' is an accomplishment, but to what end?, I ask myself.
The non-cliche script was, on the whole, impressively constructed.
Acting from all parties is excellent. I'd single out Naomi Watts - and there's the unexpected two-scene appearance of the marvellous Lindsay Duncan as a blood-freezing theatre critic determined to destroy the play and Keaton's career along with it. As for Keaton himself, his performance has 'award' written all over it, and he'd not be an unreasonable choice as winner. I doubt if he's ever been so stretched on film up to now. (The Oscar nominations were actually announced yesterday while I was in the cinema. I'm still rooting for Eddie Redmayne to win, with Keaton as an also-ran.)

'Birdman' is a curious, unusual film, presented with total visiual confidence through the unfettered imagination of Mexican director Alejandro Innarritu, who fully utilises cinematic technique the way it's possible be used. Though after it was all over I did look back and find it all somewhat a bit overburdened with camera tricksiness which skewed it away from a strong central focus. Incidentally, I gave similar very qualified approval for the widely well-received 'Grand Budapest Hotel' (also nominated for Oscars) which was remarkable visually, often glorious to look at, but otherwise over-dressed for the slightness of its story. I offer rather different reasons for giving 'Birdman' a like-reserved 'yes'.
Oh, and one more thing. I've seen/read critics calling this a 'funny', even 'very funny' film. Apart from a few amusing one-liners I didn't really see much to laugh at in it at all.

As I say at the start, if I were to see 'Birdman' again I'm pretty sure that my opinion would be higher than it is now - and hope that next time I wouldn't have to be battling thoughts again about my cat! But for an initial appraisal, after just one viewing, and fully aware that my judgment may make some shake their heads at my failure to recognise a 'masterpiece', I must be honest - which means awarding it a..................6..