Friday, 13 March 2015

Film: 'Chappie'

Under all the bluster, bangs and bullets this robot fantasy, set in the near future, is essentially pretty formulaic stuff. My main reason for going at all was to see the HUGE Jackman, in this as eye-poppingly delectable as he's ever been (despite alarming hairstyle), in super-macho, baddie mode, cavorting up and down sometimes in crotch- and bum-clinging shorts - and in that I wasn't in the least disappointed.

Set in and around Johannesburg (Director Neill Blomkamp's home city) Dev Patel is the young office nerd who succeeds in making one of a damaged army of shut-down police robots intelligence-independent and emotionally-sensitive, with abilities to mimic and repeat human actions as instructed. He and his pet robot are kidnapped by an anarchic and violent street gang who have to supply a rival group with an enormous monetary sum within a week. Patel is then forced to enlist his robot (the 'Chappie' of the title) into assisting with criminal heists in order to obtain the ransom. Jackman, working at the same organisation as Patel, has his own ideas on what to do with the decommissioned force of police robots, and is not best pleased when he susses out that Patel has achieved an advance in making this particular robot near-human - only to then discover that he has also been coerced into assisting with criminal activities.
Also in the cast, and playing her standard, cold, ruthless authority figure, is Sigourney Weaver, whose on-screen time must total no more than five minutes max.  

Much of the action centres around Chappie's learning how 'he' should act by copying the mannerisms, talk and gun-toting activities of the gang whom he sees as his mentors, despite Patel's efforts in trying to protect him from their undesirable influence. Some of the audience found his antics while training amusing but it left me uncomfortable in the same way I'd feel seeing a dog being trained to perform illegal or morally unacceptable acts. And when Chappie, in order to be trained, is thrown in the deep-end by being left stranded with another gang who taunt, fling missiles at, and try to destroy it, I felt very uneasy. It had clear resonances with real life in seeing the robot as being the victim of a baying, hostile mob, intent on destroying  simply for its being 'different'. Perhaps I'm carrying the analogy too far but I'm certain that the notion must have been in the director's (also the co-writer's) mind.

Acting throughout was reasonable enough. Special effects, through CGI of course, as flawless as one has come to expect. However, the 'signpost' music soundtrack was rather too invasive and insistent to the extent that it became a bit irritating.

Btw: I thought that Dev Patel (recently seen in 'The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel'), here in a 'straight' role, points up just how much his part in 'Hotel' was a caricature, and I now feel a bit guilty of a certain condescension as having seen much of his role in that film as arising from him as a person rather than being the quaint-Indian-type he was acting. 

'Chappie' is not a great film, certainly nowhere near as good as the same director's first foray into robotics, 'District 9' of 2009, but it's okay enough. And if you, like me, are also a great fan of Mr Jackman (and I do appreciate that not everybody is), then his presence alone makes the whole thing more than worthwhile. If you're not a fan, however, you'd better deduct a point from my.............6.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Film: 'Inherent Vice'

This is weird, though not in the quirky, positive way that I found his, Thomas Paul Anderson's, 'Magnolia' of 1999.

Director Anderson has an impressive record of having made some pleasingly off-beat films in recent years, among which I'd cite 'The Master' and 'There Will be Blood' as being particularly fine. (There was also his 'Boogie Nights' which others have liked more than I did). And now comes 'Inherent Vice', certainly odd, though in a far less satisfying way than some of his others.

I assume that this film, with all its dope-smoking, is meant to reflect the unreal, semi-dream quality of Thomas Pynchon's novel (unread by me). I was quickly lost in its incoherence - the essential story being of Wolverine-sideburned, sprawling-haired Joaquin Phoenix, playing an LA private detective in the 70s, trying to find out what happened to a missing former girlfriend, and meeting all sorts of strange characters on the way, including a coterie of leathered-biker Nazis (or so it's assumed).
To maintain interest in a close on two-and-a-half hour film is a tall order and requires a firmer anchor than is provided here. Not that there aren't the occasional moments of amusement, though hardly sufficient to make the whole a watchable event.

Phoenix is good, as he generally is, as is also Josh Brolin, playing a humourless, abrasive, anti-hippie officer of LAPD, creating sparks whenever he and Phoenix encounter each other. There's a bit of violence here and there but nowhere near as much as one might expect. We also see, in a minor role, Reese ("Do you know who I AM?")  Witherspoon - whom we saw together with J.P. recently in the Johnny Cash film "Walk the Line" - as well as Owen Wilson and an oleaginous Benicio Del Toro. But the film belongs to Joaquin Phoenix who plays spaced-out perplexity quite convincingly.

I saw the film 24 hours ago but it's already fading in my memory, which is curious in that its oddity might have been expected to be longer-lasting mentally, but its confusion does it no favours. It's a long haul. Maybe it might have been improved by doing what so many of the characters do, watching it while drawing on a spliff....................5/10.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Film: 'The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel'.

So, cinema-visiting now resumed, in this year which has got off to a disappointing start in that, through circumstances, I've already had to miss a number of notable films. (Much appreciation again to those who left good wishes on my previous post).

I had no enthusiasm at all to see this sequel to a film which, to my amazement, was seen as long ago as four years. I could have sworn it was only as recent as 2013, maybe even just last year. Also surprising to see that I gave this original a rating of 6, when my memory of it is having enjoyed it markedly less than that.
This latest film seems to have been pushed through as an afterthought on the back of the first having unexpectedly done as well as it did - so let's have another shot at it and make even more money.

Most of the original cast are here reprising their former roles - Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup - and again with the chirpily watchable Dev Patel, here trying to keep his self-willed mum in check -  plus, this time, the seemingly incongruous figure of Richard Gere as an unexpected hotel guest of whose true identity Dev Patel has suspicions.
There's none of the cast whom I dislike and they are all given a reasonable share to do, though nothing that carries great weight. Being a collection of disparities, there is a far weaker dramatic thrust than in the earlier film, the principal focus this time being on Patel's upcoming wedding as well as his proprietorship of the hotel that was the central feature of the original film, now with the addition of an adjacent dilapidated hotel being renovated. There's much romantic twisting and turning too among the older members of the cast, Gere included, leading to employment of excessive sentiment which I found embarrassing, as well as being unlikely.
The script is up to the mark most of the time, Patel's stilted and entertaining use of English being one of the joys. Scenes of Indian city life as well as some panoramic views from the train are very impressive.

John Madden ('Shakespeare in Love', 'Mrs Brown', 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin') gets through it all with the efficiency one would expect.

An okay film (just), made on the flimsiest of pretexts. The cast obviously enjoyed themselves making it, which can be a fatal flaw, though here it squeezingly passes muster. Only please, let's now call it a day and don't go and make yet another one..................4.5/10.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Still here!

Lest my silence for some time has been wondered at, let it be known that I'm here, albeit suffering with particularly nasty, heavy cold. Happens once every few years, though this one has debilitated me to the extent that I'm retiring to bed half a dozen times a day or more, trying to sleep it off, without success.
Colds are much less frequent for me than with many. Doctor says it's because, living such an isolated life, I don't give the bugs a chance to take hold - except for rare times like this. Anyway, I keep feeling that it's improving then ten minutes later feel I've hit rock bottom again. No stamina, no know the feeling. (Ah -choo!)

Only film I've missed so far that I'd planned on seeing was the Jennifer Aniston 'Cake', but of which reviews have not been particularly enthusiastic.

My only observations on the Oscars were  - (i) How did 'Boyhood' manage to lose out as Best Pictire to 'Birdman', of all films? and (ii) Pity again that Steve Carrell wasn't recognised for his role in 'Foxhunter', though being nominated as 'Best Actor' it would, of course, have pushed aside our very deserving Eddie.

Don't have much energy left to depress more keys, so a spluttery cheerio for now.........(ah...ah..... ah........... AH.......AAAAAAHHHH..............

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.