Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Film: 'The Falling'

Quite an oddity, this one. It ought to have been more satisfactory than it was.
Set in an English all-girl school at the end of the 1960s, it concerns a contagion of fainting among the mid-teen pupils (plus one of the teachers) after a girl dies, with the friend who seemed to have a bit of a schoolgirl crush on her, seemingly being the centre of this rash of spontaneous passing out - some lying still, some with twitchy fits.

Like 'Madding Crowd', which I wrote about yesterday, this film too has an illustrious predecessor, at least as regards to both being in the general same milieu of a girls school where the pupils are the passive victims of some unexplained goings-on - though 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' was, of course, an Australian film and set several decades earlier. Comparisons quickly run out as the earlier film, now exactly 40 years old and directed by the young Peter Weir, has haunted me ever since the first time I saw it back in 1975, and since then has remained in my list of all-time favourite films. 'The Falling' is not in that class by a long chalk.

One assumes that here, the mysterious 'force'; that is causing the fainting is connected to the girls' burgeoning physical maturity, though that is what one can only assume. There are no clues as to what's at the bottom of it.
The biggest name in the cast, Greta Scacchi, is almost unrecognisable as the chain-smoking headmistress who doesn't let the presence of pupils deter her from lighting up. The only other name I knew was Maxine Peake, likewise a chain-smoker in this, as the withdrawn mother of the girl, Lydia (Maisie Williams), who's believed to be the cause of the commotion. The only other significant male in the cast is Joe Cole as Lydia's brother.

One of the things that marred the film for me was (yet again), over-insistent and loud music in the form of pop-folkish songs on the soundtrack, some being Dylan-esque in a nondescript kind of way. There were far too many of them and in no way did they enhance the mood but, rather, took it down.

I think I know what writer-director Carol Morley was aiming at with this feature, but if I'm right then she didn't achieve it.

I get the sense that there was a better film under the surface but there were too many disparate and distracting layers for it to come across as a memorable item. I'll grudgingly concede that they could have been onto something worthwhile  in my rating of...............5/10.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Film: 'Far from the Madding Crowd'

This is a lovely film.
I'm surprised and delighted to be able to say so because for me it had two high hurdles to jump, yet achieved it in masterful fashion.
First, it's based on the much admired (deservedly so, I think) and loved Thomas Hardy novel - which, to coincide with this film, I'm currently reading for at least the fourth time - maybe it's the fifth. It's one of my favourite books of all, by one of my very favourite writers. ('Twas not always so. I eventually fell for him when I was around 40, and now few other authors give me such delight).
Second, casting a long shadow, is the 1967 John Schlesinger film, surely one of the seminal movies of that decade, unforgettable after just one viewing. This latter had a formidable cast, Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Peter Finch all already having become established stars by then, with Terence Stamp not yet quite having reached the fame of the others. That casting was well-nigh perfect, as was the film, with Richard Rodney Bennett's evocative background score hauntingly binding it all together.

So to this new release, actually shorter than its predecessor by about three-quarters of an hour. Events gallop along with hardly time for us to draw breath, though it's by no means muddled.
The director is Dane, Thomas Vinterberg, who gave us the very superior 'The Hunt' three years ago.
The central role in this is played by Carey Mulligan, whom I'd never heard of until 'An Education' (2009), since when she's had some terrific 'plum' roles, including 'The Great Gatsby', 'Never Let Me Go', 'Shame' and 'Drive'. I did have misapprehensions about her taking the part of Bathsheba Everdene, fiercely independent and self-confident farm owner, partly because of Julie Christie's indelibly memorable act in the Schlesinger and I wasn't sure that Mulligan could pull off the trick of displaying such a wide spectrum of emotions. But she really does shine.
I was no less impressed with Matthias Schoenhaerts as the most prominent of Bathsheba's three suitors. (We've only very recently seen him in 'Suite Francaise' and 'A Little Chaos', and he's shortly to appear in 'A Bigger Splash'). As a Belgian, his Dorsetshire accent was, to my ears, as perfect as could be wished.
Then there's the redoubtable Michael Sheen, in the role previously played by Peter Finch - the emotionally buttoned-up, middle-aged bachelor, living in desperate hope that he'll attain Bathsheba's hand. Totally convincing and almost heart-breaking.
As the third suitor, the bumptious, forward, rather obnoxious Sergeant Troy, is Tom Sturridge. It's a thankless, difficult part for which I thought Terence Stamp gave his all in the 1967 version, which Sturridge perhaps doesn't quite equal, though he does give it a fair crack. (Incidentally, in a recent radio interview, Stamp tells how gay director John Schlesinger took an impassioned dislike towards him during film, to which Stamp responded by providing an acting turn such as he'd never done before then.) I thought Stamp had a magnetism in the part of his dislikeable character which Sturridge didn't match. Unlike as with Stamp, it was difficult to think why Bathsheba should ever have fallen for him.

Criticism has been made that this new film shies away from showing the reality of the muckiness of farm life. That may be so but it wasn't distracting. And, very importantly, neither was the music, for which gracious thanks!

I had two little personal apprehensions, knowing the novel as I do. How were they going to depict the two tragedies involving, on two separate occasions, two different flocks of sheep? - and how were we going to see what happens to a dog not far into the film. In the event I survived both with very little to haunt my mind for days afterwards as sometimes happens.

Another slight worry was a few occasions of imbalance in sound, which may have been partly due to the speakers in the cinema where I was. One such time was in church where a congregation is singing while, simultaneouly,  Bathsheba and her female servant are engaged in whispered conversation. It so happened that I did remember what they were talking about but as regards the film, I couldn't make out a single word they were saying to each other. That's only one instance. There were a couple more, though not enough to spoil the overall enjoyment.
If the film does marginally run short on steam and impetus in the final quarter, despite their being no lessening of 'action', I think that's also true of the book where a little more concision might have increased its effectiveness. But that's only my view. 

I think this is a triumph, confounding all my expectations and fears. It doesn't replace the 1967 version for me - it sits happily beside it, sharing the honours...............................8.5.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Film: 'The Water Diviner'

If you're into 'weepies', this is for you. I found it so heavy with sentiment (complete with gushy orchestral strings to ensure that you're emoting sufficently) that my 'cringe-muscles' soon tired out.

Starring Russell Crowe, also in his first full-length feature as director, he's the water-diviner of the film's title, as played in the opening scene and not repeated.
 The story, set in 1919, has him in softly-spoken, gentle-giant mode as Aussie father to three teenage boys who had set off to fight as ANZACs in what turned out to be the disastrous Gallipoli campaign four years previously, and never returned. Spurred on by guilt and triggered by a harrowing domestic incident, he travels to Turkey to try to discover what had happened to them.

I take the opening credit "Inspired by actual events" with a pinch of salt as the coincidences take some believing, with his persistence in his searching for information, winning, against all odds, over the reluctance to assist from both the occupying British army and Turkish authorities. But being Crowe, his efforts cannot fail. And don't go thinking that he's a pussy cat who'll roll over as for a tummy-tickle! Oh no! If he's provoked or put in a tight corner, goodness me, he can lash out like a thing possessed!
For those demanding a bit of female interest, that's catered for too in the Angelina-esque (face and body to match - phwarrrr!) hotel assistant (Olga Kurylenko) working in her uncle's establishment. When Crowe turns up at the hotel, after she finds out that he's from Australia she turns cold and argumentative towards him. I won't say how their relationship progresses from there because you ought to have the 'fun' of finding out for yourself.
It's a world where allegiances can turn in a split-second so that you're not sure who's going to be helpful to his quest.
The flashbacks to Gallipoli were, I must admit, very well done. Believably vicious and horrific, there's actually only very little blood seen. One thing that I don't think I've seen on film before is the depiction, in the quietness of night, of the pitiful cries and groans of the wounded necessarily left on the battlefield untended. Common sense tells one that this must have been what is was like.

Most of the action takes place in Turkey, of course, and it's all very well captured on film, with handsome grandeur of scenery, both rural and inside Istanbul.

As in my previous film blog there may well be those who refuse to see this film because of an antipathy to its star. All I can say is that his presence, per se, didn't put me off and has nothing to do with my final verdict.

It's true that the story lends itself to sentiment so I can't fault it for delivering just that, but it really does positively wallow in it. If you don't mind that aspect then you'll like this film. For myself it was just too much to take, hence my........................5/10.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Film: 'While We're Young'

I thought I might enjoy this but it was not to be. My hopes were based on this being a Noah Baumbach film (writer and director) whose previous feature, 'Frances Ha', I liked. Also, it has an interesting cast - unless you're one of those who has a Ben Stiller aversion - here additionally with Naomi Watts, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. In the event, after the first few scenes its slightly over hour-and-half became increasingly sombre in mood, resulting in the film seeming longer.

It did start quite promisingly with Stiller and Watts as a middle-aged childless couple, whose non-parental status is a recurring motif throughout. There's a certain staleness which has invaded their lives, but when they meet another couple twenty years or so younger than he is, with zest and enthusiasm for doing what they want, it infects their mood, waking them up as to how they ought to be living their lives to the full. The younger man (Adam Driver), stetson be-hatted, is trying to make a documentary of a certain encounter he's had and gets Stiller interested as he is also laboriously trying to compose a documentary film of an aged philosopher he knows, and getting nowhere fast. The older couple, particularly Stiller, are at first fascinated and almost smitten by the younger pair's easy-going relationship which they wish to emulate, though Naomi Watts has a more cagey attitude towards the younger pair.

There are a few moderately comic moments but they become rarer as the film progresses, until I thought, approaching the end, the whole affair became very heavy weather, with Stiller delivering a homily on truthfulness and trust, having discovered that the Driver character is not all that he was assumed to be. By this time I was stifling yawns.

Acting was okay, but for situations which could have delivered a number of bon-mots, I found the screenplay, by and large, pretty unexceptional.

A competent enough film, though not one to go out of ones way to catch. I think it deserves a...............5/10

Monday, 27 April 2015

Film: 'A Little Chaos'

I felt a little more favourably disposed to this costume drama (France, late XVIIth century) than some of the tepid reviews I've seen. True, it may be no great shakes in the annals of film-making but it's quite an interesting, though totally fabricated, story of widowed female landscape gardener (Kate Winslet) and her efforts to create a water/amphitheatre feature in the wild-growing site of the proposed gardens of Versailles for 'Sun King' Louis XIV (Alan Rickman, also the film's director). There's a gradually developing romantic element involving her and the garden's architect, Matthias Schoenaerts (seen recently in 'Suite Francaise').
It's been said by some that the direction leans towards being leaden, though I felt that its leisurely pace, at least for the most part, agreeably suited the ambience of the shenanigans of the Royal Court of the period it depicted.
Among the supporting cast is Stanley Tucci. More's the pity, then, that he's given so little screen time in total, seeing as he's one of those actors who has the ability to raise the quality of any film in which he appears. Not that this is devoid of its own merits, but it would have been to its advantage to have had a lighter touch in places, which Tucci could so readily have supplied.

Winslet is as fine as we've come to expect though Rickman as the royal persona took a little swallowing, while Schoenaerts proves himself capable enough of providing the male love interest. Photography and camerawork do full justice to the subject matter. All in all, not bad, I'd say.......................6.


Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Film: 'Relatos Salvajes' ('Wild Tales')

This is my kind of film - and it's an absolute cracker!

When it opened a couple of weeks ago in this region it was showing at such ridiculously inconvenient (i.e. late) times I was distraught to be missing it in the light of the practically unanimously positive reviews it had received. But the gods heard my prayer and unaccountably, it being neither a blockbuster or of 'popular' taste, brought it to my home town for a limited showing. And was it worth it? YES and double YES!

An Argentian film, a compendium of six separate, unconnected stories played out sequentially, written and directed by one Damian Szifron, clearly a talent to be watched.
The tales do, in fact, have something in common - they all involve circumstances spiralling out of control and downwards, some of them unconsciously triggered by the most insignificant happening or strange coincidence. Even the one that begins with a tragedy descends ever deeper into the mire.
One might expect that the individual six stories would be uneven in quality. Maybe they are so, but not by a huge margin - and each is vastly entertaining, never boring for an instant.

Special mention must be made of the first one, which is the shortest (and also pre- the title credits) which, unknown to the film-makers at the time (completed last year), uncannily and closely predicts a horrific event on everybody's news just a few weeks ago. It's one hell of a chilling start, and if the film had been made after that particular event it would certainly have been dropped or the story altered. Of course it's pure coincidence.

Each of the tales has an edge of black humour to it, to which some may not be in tune. Myself, I laughed aloud several times during the two hours, which seemed to fly by.

The grisliest story is a section which only features two motorists. Talk about events 'snowballing', this caps the lot! - and it's rounded off with a killer (if you'll excuse the word) of a final line which just had me in stitches despite the most macabre of scenes.

Others include - a guy's reaction to being charged with a common parking offence which escalates out of all proportion; a customer arriving at a restaurant and being recognised by the waitress holding a long-term grudge; a tragic motoring accident with an attempt to cover the truth of the driver's identity; and, in the final segment, a wedding reception such as never before.

My only very slight reservation is that one of the stories (or, arguably, two) ends on a bit of an upbeat which, I suppose, is intended to act as a counterpoise to the rest. I would have found it more satisfying if they had all ended in the depths of hell, but maybe it was felt that that would have been expecting the audience to accept more than it was capable of doing. But it's by no means a serious criticism.

Great acting throughout. I simply loved it - and, along with 'Ex Machina', it's my favourite film of the year so far..................8.5

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Film: 'Force Majeure'

Belying the title given in the English-speaking world  (though it is set in the French Alps), this is actually a Swedish film, most of the dialogue being in that language. It's been garlanded with very high praise in some quarters - and if I don't entirely concur with that opinion it's still a film with more merit than many I've seen.

A Swedish family of parents and two little children are on a ski-ing holiday when a pivotal event takes place ten minutes in, the aftermath of which completely dominates the rest of this two-hour film.
All four are on the hotel restaurant balcony having a meal, with spectacular views of surrounding snow-scaped mountains, when in the distance, high up, an avalanche commences. At first the father (Johannes Kuhnke), capturing it on his phone, reassures the others that its effects will be 'controlled'. It soon turns out that that is not to be the case and as the snow wall approaches it threatens to engulf the entire building. Crucially, in the ensuing panic, the father's first instinctive reaction is to hang onto his phone and rush to escape, leaving his wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) with their children screaming by the table as the avalanche covers everything in sight. It's all over in seconds. No one is hurt and the father returns. However those few seconds was all it took for the foundation of trust from wife to husband to shift irrevocably.
At first not a word is said by anyone but it's the children's silence that is most telling. Their unvoiced sense of betrayal simmers underneath while the mother tries to keep her feelings buttoned down. She then gently breaks her concern to him. He sees what happened somewhat differently though it's clear that what he's keeping in is a sense of guilt. The pair are already acquainted with two other separate couples, and in their social chatting, the wife, perhaps assisted by the wine, gently relates to them what had occurred, though with a certain levity in her telling, which the husband superficially brushes off as being only her version, while silently resenting her mentioning the subject at all. (We know that what she says is absolutely what happened). The male of one of the couples tries to justify the his friend's action as being a spur-of-the-moment, unthinking reaction for self-survival, though his defence leads to some tension with his own female partner.

There are long pauses in dialogue, visually matched by superb close to white-out visuals as the family take their ski-ing sessions. I could have done without the regular use of an over-familiar snippet of Vivaldi on the soundtrack. Also, as the father wrestled with his own inner turmoil, I thought his mental self-flagellation became so intense as to be indulgent. It may well have been an accurate portrayal of what can happen to an individual in such a situation but I found it becoming dangerously close to exasperating.
But more than these points, I felt that it would have been an even stronger film if the final quarter hour or so had been lopped off. It still would have been a longish film. In these last minutes two more events happen. Without giving too much away, I'll only say that the first seemed to attempt to put a quasi-redemptive gloss onto the father, while the second happening, utterly different from and unconnected with anything elsewhere in the film, showed (rather clumsily for me, I'm afraid) that there had indeed been a transformation - while the mother, so prominent before, is curiously side-lined in the final shots. No, I would have preferred it with an open ending leaving one to surmise what happened next. Others may not agree. I've not usually had a problem with unresolved situations at ends of films as some others do - after all, life itself does not happen with events occurring in parcels, each closed off and tied up with a ribbon, but they meld into the next one, situations change and compete with each other for prominence. I see life as more like a number of unbroken  parallel threads, criss-crossing and getting tangled up, than one like a chain of separate happenings. At least that's my thought, so it doesn't worry me unduly to see films (or novels) ending on irresolution.

Acting throughout was very good indeed. However, I did sometimes think that the little girl, while saying her serious (few) lines, was smiling underneath, maybe self-consciously.
Director Ruben Ostland draws brilliant performances from the adults, particularly both parents.

A good film then, but a shame that, with some judicious pruning, an even better one was so near its grasp.....................6.5.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Film: 'Woman in Gold'

Another film, this one unexpectedly severe-toned, based on a true story!
Dame Helen Mirren, who never seems to be out of work, appears in this drama involving the reclaiming of an unusual painting, (incorporating gold-leaf effect), by Austrian Gustav Klimt, under the assumed title which is used for this film. This family-heirloom painting (actually of Mirren character's aunt, whose name is the work's true title), having been removed from her home by the Nazis after the Austrian 'Anschluss',  it remained post-war on public display in one of Vienna's principal art galleries. Mirren is resolved to get it back into her possession in L.A. where she now lives, enlisting the assistance of attorney Ryan Reynolds, who happens to be the grandson of influential composer Arnold Schoenberg. (Did you get all that?)

I thought the film rather stodgy in execution, over-serious and heavy-going with little to lighten the mood, most especially in numerous flashbacks of the young Maria Altmann's (the Mirren character when a child) Jewish family life during the German invasion, starting with house arrest. There are a few fairly distressing scenes of the public humiliations of Jews, though as Maria manages to get out before things reach their extreme depths, we don't see anything of their later horrific fate. Nevertheless the mood is unremittingly grim.
Even in the present-day legal scenes, first in Vienna and then in America, as Maria and her lawyer have to jump through hoops to achieve her dream, it all remains very sombre.

Helen Mirren, retaining an Austrian accent, is as good as we've come to expect.
Director Simon Curtis had exhibited for me a better, more assured, touch with his 'My Night with Marilyn'.

Incidentally, reading the film's credits just now, I see that what stood in for Vienna's airport was, in fact, our own local Shoreham airport, just five miles from where I am now sitting.

This is a film that takes its subject with a seriousness which, arguably, it merits. However I think it was less 'entertainment' than history lesson. Although I was aware of the work of art in question, I had no idea of its story, so in that sense it was an education. But I didn't exit the cinema thinking "Wow, that was worth the effort!" even though on one level it had enlightened me. The truth was that I felt rather weighed down by the  story and came out longing for some light relief...............................5.5.

Film: 'Big Eyes'

I was expecting that the curtailed frequency of my cinema-going (reasons explained in another recent blog) would result in my being offered mere 'crumbs from the table', with the films that I do manage to see being determined by what's available rather than those which I'd like to see or feel ought to be seen.  But if these 'scraps' all turn out to be as entertaining as this one then there'll be no complaints.

Actually released around Christmas time, this got a singular  one-off morning screening in my home town. It's an enjoyable and interesting caper (based on a true story, wouldn't you know?), never dull, and directed in untypically restrained fashion by that reveller in flashy shots, Tim Burton.  

Set in San Francisco and starting in 1958, Any Adams (first class) is a divorcee with a little girl who bumps into Christoph Waltz (also very good) when they both happen to be merchandising their respective artistic talents to passers-by - she painting urchin-esque children with exaggeratedly huge, round eyes (sometimes with a cuddly animal), he displaying Parisian street scenes. They hit it off straight away and go for a quick marriage. By accident one day an admirer assumes that he is actually the artist of a painting hanging on a wall which was actually hers, and he goes along with the notion without realising the full potential. He tells her about it and, dawning on them both, though she more reluctantly, plays along, both spoilt by how lucrative the little wheeze could transpire. And it turns out to be exactly that, her paintings in his name becoming a national phenomenon, quickly bringing them riches of which they'd never dreamed. You may well guess that she pretty soon tires of her own talent being palmed off as someone elses while he takes all the credit and gets the kudos - and their relationship sours.
Supporting cast, including Danny Huston and Terence Stamp, are also very fine, as both always are.

If it tips over towards ludicrousness towards the very end, it doesn't spoil the whole film. Besides, for all I know, this may be precisely how it did happen.
It got me in such a good mood throughout that I could even almost forgive the one song on the soundtrack - but only almost.
A good, unsensational film. I'm still feeling a bit of a glow as I go out now to see my second film of the day. For this one, though, an easy.........................7.5.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Eurovision Song Contest 2015 - My evaluations and choice for winner.

It doesn't take place until towards the end of next month (with the two semi-finals in the days preceding), but for the first time, taking a leaf out of Craig's blog......

..........I've listened to each of this year's 40 entries, giving all of them my complete attention. After careful consideration, I've now come up with my choices, ordinally placed as follows:-

1) Estonia (current betting odds puts it 3rd)     
2) Austria (19th)
3) Denmark (30th)
4) Russia (7th)
5) San Marino (40th, i.e. last!)

I have high hopes for the U.K. entry, a M/F duo with a 'Roaring-20s' pastiche. Present betting places it 10th.  I think it's a brave choice, unlike any other entry this year - or maybe it's a sign of desperation to try to get something noticed after many years of finishing in unillustrious positions, even last or near to last (except for Andrew Lloyd Webber's [pretty good] song, which finished 5th in 2009). If the U.K. doesn't make the first ten with this one there ain't no justice. If it ends up in the bottom half it'll be a travesty; but travesties have always been second nature to this infuriatingly watchable event.

A few further comments:-
Current favourite is Sweden (it usually is!) which I don't rate at all. It didn't even make my 'long list' of 12 from which I chose the above five. But it's a rare year indeed when my own favourite song wins, the last one being (also 2009) with Alex Rybak, the little happy hottie from Norway with his fiddle.

My top choice of Estonia clearly won't be to everybody's taste, but it has an attractive originality about it, both melodically and lyric-wise.

Austria's song, which I place second, is a very Lennon-esque arrangement (think 'Imagine'), though putting that aside I think it's a quality song.

Denmark's entry (a throwback to 1960's pop groups) reminded me a lot of the title song of the Tom Hanks written-and-directed film 'That Thing You Do', but it's no worse for being that. It's a cheerful little number.

Russia gives us one of those rather predictable, aspirational big ballads but I've heard a lot worse, and it's actually not that bad. The video features mainly little kids but also adult couples, most of advanced age, only one (or two?) of which could possibly be considered as a possible same-sex couple (both couples being female), though they are much more likely to be familial-related. Anything suggesting that gay couples can be okay (oh, horror!) would be contravening their 'gay propaganda' laws. ("We Believe in Dreams", indeed - but dreams for whom?)
The accompanying video mimics but is very different from Madonna's video for her abridged version of 'American Pie', which was gratifyingly upfront about showing us gay couples. (I loved her version of the song itself, by the way, which had an infectious drive to it, even though it was generally panned and Madge herself regretted having acquiesced to Rupert Everett's pestering her to release it.)

Australia's offering wasn't at all bad. It very nearly got into my Top 5 with it's jazzy inflections. However, I doubt if it'll be highly placed, unless the novelty of having that country enter for the first time gets it noticed.

You can hear (and see) all the songs here:-

So there you are. Make of my choices what you will - and we'll see if they come to pass on May 23rd.

The second part of the above is easy, at least for some of us - the first, well-nigh impossible!