Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Film: 'A Walk in the Woods'.

This was entertaining enough though I didn't join much of the large audience with their guffaws and whoops of laughter as I felt much of the humour was forced.

One doesn't readily associate Robert Redford with non-serious films, and here he's given as his foil a bumbling, grizzled, overweight, out-of-condition character in the old friend shape of Nick Nolte, as they together hike the over 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail. They strike sparks off each other, alternately grumbling and bickering, only having come together because the Redford character's (travel writer, Bill Bryson) wife, played by Emma Thompson - seen only in the opening scenes (with brief glimpse also at very end) - didn't want Bryson to go off alone on this madcap idea. Homely Bryson leaves his wife and three children to go on this personal expedition.

I've always liked Nick Nolte though haven't seen him on screen for some years. Although I knew that he'd be the main supporting star here, he's so bulked up (just for this film or in real life?) that had I not known I might not have recognised him.

It's an episodic film, the pair having to deal with events thrown up by the oddball, sometimes dotty, characters they meet on the way - including, briefly, Mary Steenburgen as a flighty hostel owner. Many of the episodes seem to fizzle out without any resolution with a strange cumulative effect, which is much the same as life, I suppose.

Director Ken Kwapin deals with the thin material capably enough, giving us the ravishing, breathtaking scenic shots we expected.

I've read a few Bill Bryson books, though it did take me a little time to get onto his wavelength. I am a fan, most recently getting through his eminently readable 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' - an astonishingly comprehensive expose of sciences for lay people like me - and next is his 1994 'Made in America' in my pile of books yet to read.

The film wiled away a couple of hours pleasantly enough. Nothing to go overboard for, but certainly agreeable......................6.


Film: 'Miss You Already'

This is one for the 'weepie-lovers' and, by golly, does it lard it on thickly!
Despite a cast almost to die for - Drew Barrymore, Toni Collette, Paddy Considine (for whom I've developed rather a crush) as well as that hottie, Dominic Cooper - all additional to a strong script (well. for the most part), when stripped down I found this essentially formulaic stuff.

I'm sure I wasn't alone on immediately thinking of 'Beaches' when I heard that the basic story involved two women, best friends since children, their relationship fractured following an almighty row after which they stop seeing each other, only for the impending death of one to bring them together in climactic scenes of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Barrymore character at the start is an American child coming to London where, at her new school, she and Collette immediately become best buddies, a solid friendship which lasts through adolescence and on into their respective marriages - Collette to wild, anarchic Cooper, whom marriage soon tames into reliable domesticity, and Barrymore to oil-rig worker Considine, periodically absent from their houseboat on the River Thames, the two of them trying hard to have children with no success, while Collette has two little brats, cheeky and making pronouncements and responses beyond their scant years (ugh! again!). The main human drama is Collette's incipient breast cancer, (not a 'spoiler' as it's revealed near the film's start) and which, after failed chemotherapy (involving, of course, dramatic hair loss/removal) soon requires a double mastectomy. It's Barrymore who tries to provide a brave anchor for Collette's understandable mood swings, though it's not always successful.

Acting throughout is very strong, with Collette carrying the honours for a role which requires a wide gamut of emotions in her behaviour, much of it heart-breaking, though one episode being dismayingly callous. However, the other three members of the central quartet are terrific too.
Apart from the two little kids mentioned already, I was also turned off by the frequent intrusion of 'mood-setting' songs on the soundtrack (why can't they just let the story speak for itself?), though most of them aren't much more than snippets. However, one can forgive the inclusion of REM's 'Losing My Religion' at any time.

Director Catherine Hardwicke and writer Morweena Banks keep events moving forward at a fair lick, though I have to say that there really weren't that many surprises, even though the emotions of the story did pull even me in.

Overall I felt a bit let down. Full marks for top-class acting all round, but some of my blog followers will already know of my strong antipathy against displaying overloaded sentiment in the way of 'entertainment', a school to which I don't subscribe. Others will love this film, I'm sure. But for me it gets the distinctly average................5.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Film: 'Bill'

I did not get this at all. An all-British 'comedy' based on, and with the cast of, a children's TV series, 'Horrible Histories', not one programme of which I've ever seen. But as I knew that this was an irreverent take on Shakespeare (specifically, his trying to find fame as a playwright) I thought that it might be quite amusing. It wasn't. At least not to me (Laughs...0: Half Smiles....2) nor did I notice any reaction at all from any other member of the 20-or-so strong audience, all adults as far as I could see. I was minded to go because one of our leading film critics said that he was chuckling all the way through. Chuckles from me were there none. In fact this is the first film in several years where I have left before the conclusion, in this case about 15 minutes from the end.

Playing fast and loose with the facts (with which I have no problem) we see the 30-year old Will S. (Michael Baynton as the 'Bill' of the title) leaving Stratford-on-Avon (where he was a member of lute group 'Mortal Coil') for London, where he's taken under the wing of Christopher Marlowe, who encourages the others writing talent. But in order to make ends meet in the short term both are reduced to dressing up as vegetables, giving out leaflets encouraging members of the public to eat their 'Daily Two'. (Yes, I know that the 'tomato' pictured above is, technically, a fruit.).
The year is 1593, five years following the repulsion of the Spanish Armada by the already ageing Queen Elizabeth's forces. But here the dastardly Catholic King Philip of Spain has sneaked himself into England with a small gang in order to blow up the Queen in a Gunpowder Plot (a decade before the actual failed Catholic plot against King James). Simultaneously, the Queen has commissioned a new play and everyone wants to use the talents of the then unknown Shakespeare, while putting it forward as his own creation.
The only name in the film's cast which I recognised was Damian Lewis.

So, not exactly a barrel of laughs, but it could have worked. If I'd been familiar with the TV series or even the Terry Deary books on which the 'Horrible Histories' is based I almost certainly might have appreciated the film more. But, as it was, for me it was a complete snooze-fest.
Director Richard Bracewell does his best with an unsubtle script, aimed more in an adult direction than towards children, though the one thing that the film definitely does have going for it is that it is very handsomely mounted and photographed by perfect camerawork.

There clearly is an audience for 'Bill' but I am not part of it. So, to be brutally frank in rating it, and in terms of the amount of 'enjoyment' I experienced, all I can give is a measly.......................2/10.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Film: 'Everest' (seen in 3D)

Whether the extremely impressive, dizzying shots are enough to hold ones attention in flat-screen, 2D format I can't say, but it's the mountain vistas that are the real star of this film - and jaw-dropping they are too. Otherwise, it's a fairly insubstantial film, largely of bit-parts, apart from one particular dramatic family situation.

Based on a true story of a climbing expedition in 1996 it's not giving much away to say that deaths of some of the participants was involved (though I don't recall the news item myself). Some big or biggish names feature in the cast - Brolin, Gyllenhall (J), Worthington, Knightley - as well as Emily Watson whom, on screen, it is never less than a pleasure to see.

I was a bit surprised to find that the summit was reached just before half-way into the film - though it's the descent that is far and away more eventful and emotionally involving, featuring, as it does, a terrifying storm.

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur obviously knows his stuff and how to capture it visually.
I'm one of those people who, when at the top of a high building, gets a nervous tickle on the soles of my feet (and another part of the anatomy), coupled with an almost compelling urge to throw myself off. I don't know how common this is, though a niece of mine gets the same sensation. During this film several times I felt emotions akin to this which, I'd imagine, wouldn't have been nearly as acute had I seen it in 2D.

It's a film that's a bit different from the usual entertainment. Although not one for those prone to vertigo, it's definitely a visual stunner..............................6.

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.
Good..............................7. 

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.