Thursday, 17 September 2015

Film: 'Irrational Man'

I always seem to like those Woody Allen films which are widely considered 'inferior' more than the critics do. So it is with this one. Everyone seemed to agree that his 'Blue Jasmine' of 2013 was nothing short of magnificent. But since then, his 'Magic by Moonlight' was deemed a sorry return to less than fine form and this one has been likened to be similarly disappointing. Although I thought 'Moonlight' was just 'okay', I found 'Irrational Man' much better, while not hitting the stratospheric heights of which Allen is capable. Having seen on the cinema screen every single one of the films which he's written and directed, though accepting their variable quality, there isn't one of them I wouldn't watch a second time, and more than a few of them not just several times but endlessly. This one for me is in the 'three or four times' category.

Joaquin Phoenix (in an unusually withdrawn and reflective role for him) is a university theology professor newly arrived on campus, wasting little time in getting involved, or at least attempting, an adulterous affair. (with Parker Posey - known best to me as being a cast regular in Christopher Guest's excellent mockumentary series, including 'Best in Show', 'Mighty Wind' and 'For Your Consideration').
His life is wearisome, turgid and aimless - as well as impotent - he frequently reaching for his hip flask to take a slug of scotch. One of his students, Emma Stone (who was also in Allen's above-mentioned 'Magic by Moonlight') becomes fascinated and then infatuated with him despite her having her own keen boyfriend - though she insists to Phoenix that she hasn't committed herself yet. They start seeing a lot of each other and, eventually, begin a parallel affair.
Before that happens, one day they are both in a diner when they overhear a woman at an adjacent table tearfully telling her friends how her life is being ruined by a certain judge who keeps frustrating her attempts to get a separation, and the longer the tussle goes on the more and more it's costing her. Her tragic plight moves both Phoenix and Stone (as pictured above). When alone, Phoenix dwells on this woman's situation and then gets the outlandish notion that if he murders this judge (for purely philanthropic reasons!) then he'll not only have helped this woman but done the world a service in getting rid of this obnoxious character - and, having no connection with his intended victim he wouldn't be traced. So he does the deed, and surprises himself to find that he's now got a 'zing' back into his life, giving it a purpose. (He's rediscovered his 'mojo'!) It is from this point that he embarks on his affair with the much younger Stone, his former impotence now not an issue. But, as you might guess, his attempt at the perfect murder gradually unravels, right up to its very dramatic conclusion.

For the first twenty minutes or so I found this film meandering a bit too much. It didn't seem to settle down and had no strong focus. But all that changes with the diner scene, and from there on it's sure-footed all the way.
One critic complained that Woody Allen's presence as director was hardly noticeable, that he must have been 'sleep-walking' through this. I didn't find it so, and saw quite a number of his trademark touches. His script is occasionally quite sharp and I never cease to love the expressive hand-waving conversations his actors always seem to give. It's a relatively small cast at the core - just a quartet, if one includes the cuckolded boyfriend. But it's never less than interesting.
Casting, particularly of the two main women, Stone and Posey, is first-rate.

At first I felt cagey at the thought of giving this the same rating as I did for my previous post, 'Legend'. However, I can't get away from the fact that I liked this just about equally but in a completely different way. So I shall........................7.  

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Film: 'Legend'

(If you've missed all the hype, or it hasn't reached you yet, I must say at the outset that, despite appearances on this film still, the film is emphatically not about a gay wedding!)

The Kray twins (both of them most impressively played here by Tom Hardy) remain among the most notorious criminals that Britain has ever produced, with their London gangland power, influence and corruption covering police, judiciary, politicians as well as dwarfing all other crime syndicates in the capital and beyond. This film documents the height of their baleful power during the mid to late 1960s.

Both men were, frankly, bullies of the most horrific kind - and extremely volatile. Like powder-kegs they could and did go off with an ultra-violent reaction to the smallest slight or provocation. In fact, this is probably the most violent film I've seen in several years, so if you can't bear the sight of blood (as a result of fights with fists, sticks, knives, guns, glass...whatever) this is one to avoid. In addition, there's a particularly grim torture scene. However, despite the subject matter, humour is frequently present, mostly of the 'black' variety, sometimes underlined by the hit songs of the time playing as background to the vicious fights.

Reggie was slightly more considered and in control, though nevertheless still liable to go to extreme lengths to settle scores, wheras his dour, bespectacled, gay brother, Ronnie, was the more impulsive and pathological (though that is relative) of the two, his behaviour made still worse by his neglecting to take the medication prescribed to dampen down his emotions. Both men are doted on by their adoring tea-and-cakes serving mother who, despite her sons' enormous ill-acquired wealth, still lives alone in a terraced house. Whether she is aware of the true nature of their business is doubtful, though it's more likely that she just doesn't ask questions.
One particular police detective (Christopher Ecclestone) doggedly watches the pair's movements from a car in full view of them, failing to bring them to justice because of being repeatedly frustrated by the stranglehold the Krays have on the judicial authorities through threats and corruption, as well as the Kray's uneasy and unenthusiastic alliance with another East London gangster (David Thewlis).
There's a prominent romantic strand to this film in Reggie's courtship and brief, turbulent marriage - his wife (Emily Browning) trying, to no avail, to get her husband to forsake his criminal ways. Rather curiously, it is she who keeps popping up on the soundtrack to deliver a voice-over narration. To me that seems a rather strange choice of character to do it, if any was needed at all, which I don't think was. It gets even odder in the light of a certain later event.

When I first heard about this film with Hardy playing both leads, I was excited at the prospect of seeing it. Then I started wondering whether this double-role might skew the focus of the film in that the audience would be more interested in wondering "How did they do that?" when both characters were on screen simultaneously, rather than attending to the story itself. In the event it didn't distract me unduly. Hardy delivers two tour-de-force performances that are so different, yet are so believable of them being brothers. It left me admiring both the actor and the technical way in which the trick was convincingly and flawlessly realised. I noticed no 'slip-ups' at all. (This feat of one actor portraying twins was also famously achieved by Jeremy Irons [that vociferous opponent of gay marriage and vocal supporter of blood sports] playing twins in David Cronenberg's 'Dead Ringers' of 1988).

I do remember, with some admiration and affection, the 1990 film 'The Krays', where the twins were acted by real twins Gary and Martin Kemp, of one-time 1980s pop group 'Spandau Ballet'. That film also boasted in a prominent role, the great, recently-late, Billie Whitelaw as the formidable, doughty mother, fearlessly championing her boys, whereas in this 'Legend' the mother is almost a background figure. The earlier film (director, Peter Medak) also featured British stalwarts like Steven Berkoff, Victor Spinetti and the then veteran comedian Jimmy Jewel in its cast. I've not seen 'The Krays' since 1990 but even after that single viewing, 25 years later it continues to linger in the memory most agreeably. I'm not sure if 'Legend' will also retain its impact, but if it does it will surely be principally because of Hardy's superbly realised double role.

Incidentally, I wonder whose idea it was to give this film the title of 'Legend', with its associated overtones of admiration and deserved fame. If the title was intended to be ironic I think it misfired.

This is a good film. American director Brian Helgeland, who's been known so far mainly for writing a number of significant films including 'L.A.Confidential' and 'Mystic River', acquits himself well in this busy and bloody affair, with not a dull moment. I spent much of the time gripping the arm-rest of my seat, wondering when either of the two brothers (one or both on the screen for almost the entire time) would explode without warning in a particularly bloody way, which they often did.

If you can take the blood and guts, I give it a clear recommendation......................7.  

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Film: '45 Years'

In view of all the superlatives that have already been aimed at this modest film in under just two weeks, I was a little nervous about it not coming up to the praise it's attracted. It was needless concern. This film really is something special.

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are a couple living with their large dog in rural Norfolk, and coming up to their 45th wedding anniversary for which they've arranged a large celebration party in a local hall, they having some years previously had to cancel the intended party for their 40th due to illness.
Just a few days before this celebration, he receives a communication from Switzerland, telling him that the vanished body of an early girlfriend he had when they were in their twenties has been found, perfectly preserved in an icy crevasse. The reason why the Swiss authorities have contacted him was that the couple had, in order to get accommodation in that area, to pretend that they were married - and that he is now therefore assumed to be the young woman's next of kin. He tells his wife, having thought that he'd already told her about Katya, his deceased friend, before. But if his present wife had been told about her at all it was only in a casual off-hand kind of way which had made little impression at the time. After now being told that he is being regarded as the next of kin she is at first more curious about this former 'friend' and gradually becomes unsettled, wondering exactly how deep their relationship was - until she snaps at him and tells him that she can't bear to hear Katya's name mentioned again. Yet the thought of their relationship haunts and then obsesses her until she surreptitiously tries to find out for herself  the details of how deeply he felt for this Katya.

It's essentially a two-actor piece for 95% of the time, the only other figure of any significance is her close friend played superbly by Geraldine James. (I did wonder if this screenplay could be adapted into a two-person stage play. I think it might work quite effectively).
It's the ageing couple at the heart of the story that carries the entire weight of the drama - and for both Rampling and Courtenay praise cannot be too high, he wordlessly bemoaning or expressly articulating his physical deterioration due to his advanced age, she reassuring and consoling him - until this sudden, unexpected news becomes an unwelcome, looming interloper between them. If anything, Charlotte Rampling is the true star of the film, not necessarily because Courtenay is not as good, but because his emotions, despite the predicament thrown up by this revelation, are plainer to understand, whereas Rampling's confusions are complex, not just wondering about the relationship that she didn't know about but trying to evince how much her husband had been holding back from telling her.

The film is written and directed by Andrew Haigh whose previous works include the also well-received 'Weekend' of 2011, depicting a gay relationship over two days - a film to which I see I gave a fairly unspectacular rating of '6', and wrote of as being "boring". But other critics generally thought it better than I had. However, there can be little doubt that Haigh here has made a truly well-crafted, intense and deeply affecting film. The film's final few seconds' shot is heart-rending. Surely BAFTA, and even Oscar, nominations beckon?

This is ordained to appear in my personal Top 5 of 2015's best......................8.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Film: 'Ricki and the Flash'

This won't be to everyone's taste but, despite expectations, I was presently surprised to have enjoyed it.

Ms Streep (yet again!) does her chameleon act yet again - and very effectively too (yet again!)

She's the singer (the 'Ricki' of the title) with a still-performing rock band of yesteryear, the ages of at least three of the back members vying with those of the present-day Rolling Stones. (One of the group died shortly after this film was completed). The other lead singer, and Ricki's lover, is Rick Springfield, he being occasionally publicly put down by her acid remarks on the stage of their small venue.

With the peak of her short-lived fame long since left behind her (she'd made one album), to achieve some kind of regular income she's been reduced to working as check-out assistant in a local supermarket where she's exhorted to be more helpful to customers and to smile more.

Some decades previously Ricki had left her husband (Kevin Kline) and their three children, to pursue her rock career, maintaining only minimal contact with them. He, now re-married, and having brought up her children with his second wife, contacts Ricki to tell how their daughter (Mamie Gummer, Streep's real-life offspring), having just experienced a traumatic separation after her own brief marriage, is in a desperate state, acting irrationally and, as is later revealed, has attempted suicide.
Leaving California for Indianapolis to re-unite with her family for her daughter's sake, it's the cue for all the resentments built up over her years of absence to spill out, not just between Kline and Ricki (as well as Kline's 'new' wife), but also between the three children (including a gay son and another son about to be married), but the main action is between Ricki and her daughter.

I must say that my heart sank on the early interchanges between Streep and Gummer as the latter, after her first shouty 'greeting' at Streep, became one of those 'mumblers' I do so detest, when you can hardly make out a single word being uttered, supposedly to reflect her morose moodiness, but most unhelpful to us, the audience. But she did pick up a bit later. Added to that, the band's first song at the film's start was so unattractively loudly delivered (as were some later songs) that I really expected the whole film would be a waste of time. Mercifully, it turned out not to be so. It did significantly improve as I found myself gradually warming to the film.

Whenever the (Republican-supporting) Ricki is present, two-way bitchiness abounds, she herself delivering no less than she gets, though invariably on the back foot trying to defend her lack of family concerns and involvement over the years.

The film ends with the anticipated wedding and reception, Ricki having been invited and accepting after some deliberations on both sides, turning up and meeting and greeting other guests whose reaction to her presence mostly ranges from her being cold-shouldered to utter disdain - and being introduced to, among others, her son's new boyfriend (she making acquaintance through gritted teeth as she'd been hoping he would have found a 'nice girl'). And then, inevitably, I suppose, she and her band close the film by doing some of their 'numbers' and they actually do succeed in carrying the film off on a real 'high', which gave me a totally unexpected glow, which I can still feel even now, the morning after.

Streep learnt guitar especially for this film and she manages to bring off her playing and performing with aplomb. We wouldn't have expected anything less from her. 

Veteran director, Jonathan Demme, coaxes fine performances all round from his cast, and is as good as he usually is. There's very little 'fat' in this film, and it does rub along nicely, the real peaks being the interchanges between Ricki and the members of her family, all fighting to keep a decorum 'lid' on top of their inner seethings and resentments. It's really a small-scale family drama belying its unlikely big-screen presentation.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Film: 'Best of Enemies'

One has to be interested enough in the subject matter of this documentary to pay money to see it. I was, and have no regrets.

It's about the series of 10 TV debates between arch-conservative William F. Buckley and irrepressibly liberal Gore Vidal during the Republican and Democratic party conventions in 1968, in Miami and Chicago respectively.
I knew next to nothing about Buckley, nor about these debates, but anyone who was around at the time and politically aware will recall the news reports about the rioting in Chicago during that particular convention, incidentally coming, as it did, in the wake of the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

Directors Robert Gordon and Gordon Neville have created quite a riveting film here, concentrating mainly on the verbal duelling of the two proponents and their barely concealed reciprocal loathing of each other. I have to confess I was a bit disappointed that there wasn't more shown of the discussion on the political issues of the time. Essentially, it was the sparring of two personalities that was at the centre. To have gone into just modest depth on any of the myriad of political matters might have greatly extended this film's sensible 88 minutes.

We are told a bit about the background of each, together with extracts (quite brief) of their debates, interrupted by some 'talking heads' still alive when this film was made - among them Buckley's brother and his female personal assistant, and one of Vidal's closest friends, as well as Christopher Hitchens - and also various luminaries of broadcasting and publishing. There's also quite a bit of contemporary newsreel footage.

As to the extracts from the TV programmes, it's impossible for me to say whether or not what was chosen was representative. From what we see it's Vidal who is the smoother talker with superior command of language and who gives the impression of exercising self-control, whereas Buckley always seems to be on the edge of exploding - which he eventually does when Vidal refers to him as a "crypto-Nazi" and he responds with a threat to "smash (Vidal's) face in" calling him "You queer!" - a directly addressed epithet, until then never before heard on American TV (and this being broadcast live!)
It seems that Buckley regretted his intemperate outburst right until his death seven years ago. Vidal also never forgot it and, in fact, used the episode to wonder in a published essay if Buckley was a closeted gay - and even incorporated into one of his novels a rampantly homosexual character which is thought to be a tenuously veiled reference to Buckley. After Buckley's death, Vidal's valedictory R.I.P. message to him was "Burn in Hell!" (or was it "Rest in Hell"?)  - the incident clearly a festering sore within Vidal too.
Although Gore Vidal himself died in 2012 there's no reference to his departure in this film.

In the chosen TV extracts it was also noteworthy that whenever Buckley said something which Vidal took issue with, which was practically every sentence of Buckley's, Vidal would interrupt and talk over him. Rarely did Buckley do that with Vidal. When not interrupting, the young Vidal would just sit there with a winning, endearing smile. Buckley was much more starchy both in speech and demeanour.

If the film was more sympathetic to Vidal (some may argue that it wasn't), it wasn't by a huge margin. I think they did a good job of keeping fairly close to a non-partisan middle way.

I came out of the cinema well-satisfied with a film which felt like good brain fodder. If you're interested in the world of American politics (even though this is more interested in the two feuding individuals rather than their political stances) I'd strongly recommend it.............................7.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Some recent pussy pics - after being chivvied along to post some.

These pictures were all taken within the last three months.
After going through busy periods in my home 'drop-in centre' when there could be as many as seven or eight different neighbouring pussies coming through the window for a snack, these three are the only ones in my life at present, which is quite enough! I dare not think what became of the others though I do know that at least one was run over on the road, a sorry fate which was quite as possible for all the others.

The first two here are the old stalwarts, Blackso and Noodles, who've been with me 15 and 8 years respectively. Blackso has got to be at least 16 years old, maybe 17, and Noodles around 13-14.

 Blackso now starting to lose fur on his back and hind legs but other than that he's doing very well for his age. No sign of any pain or suffering in any respect - and he's never once been ill. Very occasionally he'll bring up food when he's eaten too much but I think that's quite common with cats.

Noodles spends his entire life sitting and looking out of the kitchen window or sleeping there. Starting only in the last few months, whenever I go into the kitchen for any reason he'll stir himself and cry for food, any time and all the time, despite there being, more often than not, anything up to half a dozen open trays of food available on the floor of food for him, Blackso or 'visitors'. He must think I'm made of money. I throw more cat food out than is ever consumed by any of them. As with Blackso, Noodles has also never been ill or suffered any injury.

And then there's Patchie - whose home is actually around the corner, where they have several more cats, but like my above two he's made it absolutely clear that he wants to move in with me. He already sits Buddha-like, supervising who's allowed to come in and out, and for some months now has started sleeping all night in my bed with me, usurping Blackso's right of privilege. He's unusually fat-bellied though it's not through over-eating. He actually consumes far less than the other two. I think there's something peculiar going on physically with him although he's not noticeably suffering. He's bigger than the others though probably quite a bit younger than them. His owners know he's here and I suppose they're glad to have one less mouth to feed, while it's me who has to pick up the bill.

Now in the final picture, please don't get alarmed, but this is what I have to put up with what Blackso does, especially in the Summer, going and lying in the road in the most heart-stopping places. He really does sometimes turn my nerves to shreds. Is it any wonder I so dislike going out for any reason? - and when I do all the time is spent worrying about him. I suspect he does it deliberately to taunt me, the little scoundrel!

(I don't know why this picture came out dark. It's actually brilliant, warm sunlight, the only conditions in which Blackso does this.).

So that's my family as at now. If there are any changes or additions (I hope neither) I'll do another post - then, if not before.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Film: 'Gemma Bovery'

I'm so pleased I stirred myself to see this most satisfying Anglo-French film. It's been some time since I last gave any film a good thumbs-up so this one is all the more welcome.

A French-speaking, English couple (Gemma Arterton and Jason Flemying) arrive to set up home in a small town near Rouen, moving into a large, run-down house neighbouring the home of the local baker (Fabrice Luchini), an enthusiast for the nineteenth-century novelist Gustave Flaubert. When he introduces himself, routinely rather than with any overt warmth, he is amazed to find that not only is her surname the title character of one of his favourite books, 'Madame Bovary' (the literary one being with an 'a' rather than 'e'), and that fictional personage having as first name 'Emma', against the new neighbour's 'Gemma'. Yet furthermore, both fictional and factual characters are married to a 'Charles'! It might be thought too much of a risible coincidence but it's a conceit of this film's story that I was more than happy to go along with. It gets even more entertainingly unlikely when, because of the baker's unspoken reservations about their being his neighbours, he spies on their lives and is dismayed to discover that the arc of her experiences actually parallels that of the fictional Mme Bovary. This real one embarks on an adulterous affair with a much younger man living nearby, and the baker is concerned that she will come to an unfortunate end as the fictional one does. In fact we know that this Gemma dies right at the film's start because virtually the entire film is a flashback, though we don't know how she arrived there - and it's not the ending one (i.e. me) might have expected.
If it sounds to be a bit on the grim side it's not completely heavy by any means. There are quite a number of amusing touches, mostly involving the baker and his observations.

I did read 'Madame Bovary' some years ago, but distant enough in time to have made me forget what happens in the novel, though one doesn't need to know. The film character's life's resonances with the book are mentioned several times, and even the film's Gemma herself is aware of them. (In most circles this film would have just been based on the Flaubert story without any reference to it within the film itself, perhaps only in the opening or closing credits. Here it's full-on and unapologetic and this unusual film is all the better for it).

Most of the dialogue is in French, with only the odd sentence or word in English when the main couple lapse into their own language.

I found the entire film absorbing, at turns funny and at other times dramatic or suspenseful - but never tedious.

Full marks due to the trio at the film's heart - and particularly Luchini as the suspicious town baker.

Anne Fontaine's direction too is exemplary, with the semi-rural, small town atmosphere well captured.

Most enjoyable.........................7.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Film: 'Trainwreck'

An unusual film, though yet again I'm finding myself out of step with most critics (but not as distant from viewers) who have given it high praise. I think it's attracted positive opinions because the principal character, Amy, played by Amy Schumer, also the screenplay writer, is a thirties-something woman who enjoys a life of one-night stands and short-term, non-serious relationships - while the film displays not the slightest hint of judgment, let alone censure, over her chosen lifestyle. This is indeed refreshing. A man making the same choices would, on film, nearly always be roguishly portrayed as a bit of a 'Jack the Lad' - perhaps getting a comeuppance later, if at all, because of his non-commital acts, but rarely attracting any of the condemnations to which women would usually be subjected.  Additionally, this Amy is not a conventionally glamorous person, visibly a bit overweight and lacking the 'Stepford Wives' concept of manufactured physical beauty, facially and elsewhere. So all that is in its favour.

The film begins with the nine-year old Amy and her sister, younger by four years, being given a lesson from their soon-to-be divorced father that monogamy is not a desirable state. Then it jumps to where we see the approaching middle-aged elder sister in New York living out that very lifestyle, while her younger sibling has been drawn into conventional, though solid marriage, and with a young son. There's no suggestion of envy on the part of Amy. So far so good.
She works writing for a magazine with a hard-hitting, no-nonsense, sassy boss (Tilda Swinton - completely unrecognisable. I was amazed after the film on finding that it had been her!) In their morning meetings with staff (sexual references given free rein of expression) she's given, to her dismay, a project to do an article on a subject she has no inclination towards, sport - and sportsmen.
Her first meeting is with a physio for a team (don't ask me for which sport - netball?). Although she gets off to a prickly start in her first interview, in subsequent meetings there's a mutual melting down of defences between her and (single) Doctor Aaron - and before too long a relationship develops. And at this point I felt that any promise the film had at the start began to dissolve for (wouldn't you know it?) she finds herself falling in love and has to question whether her father-inducted presumptions about life and monogamy were accurate after all. She struggles as she doesn't quite know how to react with her new feelings of wanting, but afraid of, deeper commitment. In some ways I felt that the film betrays itself by joining the dots towards conventionality until, at the very end, the concluding scene is of such astonishing cheesiness and banality that I wondered how it could have been part of the same film. Talk about cringe!

The film's director is that doyen of 'blokey' films, Judd Apatow who, one would think, would have been the polar opposite of what seemingly-feminist writer Amy Schumer wanted to achieve with her material. But the way it ends leads me to think that he may well have been the appropriate one to direct her after all.

There are also several cameo appearances of quite big names, which it might be spoiling things to mention individually, but I wasn't expecting them.

A film of failed promise, then. There are some very good moments but there are also those sloshing around in mushy emotions. Also, at two hours long, it overstayed its welcome by a good half-hour.

A fair enough view - and, I repeat, the initial idea was a very worthy one. Pity it didn't quite live up to it.....................4.5.