Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Soixante-neuf today! (15th)

Oh well, another one down = one less to go (to oblivion - and beyond?).

Don't know why I'm smiling so smugly above. It was taken yesterday when I'd just got home from doctor following my regular six-monthly diabetes (type 2) check, and where I'd learnt that my constantly high blood-sugar level was giving rise to concern. So now got to do a daily self-administered blood check - and this for someone who feels like flaking out at the mere sight of the red stuff. That's one prezzie I could have done without. Bad enough when it's someone else's blood but when it's your own.......! I'll try hard not to swoon away, though should I do so it will be in most demure and maiden-like fashion. True that the procedure only involves a little pin-prick but, as some of you are well aware from experience, even the tiniest of pricks can be very uncomfortable too. Let's hope I can avoid having a spell of the screaming(-queen) habdabs.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Film: 'Suffragette'

Another film where my verdict is at odds with most peoples. No big surprise there then. What may be less expected is that I thought it merited considerably more praise than IMDb's current low average rating of 5.9 would suggest (from over 900 viewers). 
It concerns events of the female emancipation struggle and campaign in Great Britain, specifically in London, in the pre-WWI years. (Complete voting equality with men was not achieved until 1928. This film deals with a time when women were not allowed to vote at all.)

I feared that the film might drown in its own proud sense of righteousness, but it doesn't come anywhere near doing that. I found it intensely moving throughout, and I can't imagine anyone with a social conscience not being stirred to anger at how long we tolerated this hopelessly unjust situation, some of it actually defended by some women themselves, such had been the effectiveness of 'brainwashing' over our history.
Incidentally, it got me wondering why I cannot think of another film (aside, of course, from 'Mary Poppins') which mentions the subject of women's voting rights, let alone treat it as a serious subject. It strikes me as fertile, unutilised ground for a film subject.
The story told here does demand sentimentality in parts, but it's not a cloying sentiment merely added in for dramatic purposes. Director Sarah Gavron keeps the emotions in sensible proportion.

Carey Mulligan is a laundry (entirely manual) worker, having to work more hours than men employed there but for less money than the men earn. Doing a delivery one day she witnesses a group of women protesting for the right to vote by turning, for the first time, to violence against property, in this case, breaking store display windows. Although initially cautious with her sympathies, this event turns out to be the catalyst in her involvement with the campaigning movement, but spurred further on by the demeaning attitude of her male boss towards her and her female co-workers. Meanwhile, her suspicious, unsympathetic husband (Ben Whishaw), assured of a husband's superiority, becomes more hostile towards her activities, particularly when her agitations lead to her spending time in prison. To punish her he eventually descends to using prohibition of her seeing their young son. 
She also befriends doctor and activist Helena Bonham Carter in a refreshingly unhistrionic role, and with whom she becomes bosom friends. Then there's Brendan Gleeson as a gruff, disapproving police detective determined to defeat this movement, using the police force and whatever means is necessary to stop the women - though there's a sense that he's reluctantly letting his heart be ruled by his head.
And we get a fleeting appearance from Meryl Streep as the movement's leading light, Emmeline Pankhurst. Her total on-screen time must be no more than two minutes, but she does make an indelible impression.

It's all shot in sober colours, as befits its constant serious mood, much of it shot at night-time. Director Sarah Gavron does a magnificent job holding it all together tightly, and with Abi Morgan's script too (she who also wrote 'Shame' and 'The Iron Lady'). The entire cast, female and male, is first rate.
If I do have any complaints at all it's the old bugbear of inaudible dialogue. In fact there were a number of short scenes where I could hardly catch a single word said, making me seriously wonder if it's my hearing that's getting defective. I did so badly want to hear everything as it's so important to the story.
But apart from that I was mightily impressed with this whole project.

A very good film in my books, without any doubt...........................8.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Film: 'The Martian' (in 2D)

It's getting alarming the frequency with which I feel at odds with majority opinion, but there's no avoiding that this is another one for that list.
Although he's made a handful of well-regarded films ('Alien' and Thelma and Louise' being among them), director Ridley Scott has never been one of my particular favourites, though must say that I do generally prefer his films to those of his late brother, Tony S.

With all 'space' or 'another planet' films I always come up against a very individual problem in that I find so many errors in depiction and execution that suspending my disbelief is distractingly tiring for an entire film's length. (For that same reason I find watching any of the 'Star Wars' films exhausting enough to detract from any enjoyment.) I do envy those members of an audience, the majority surely, who can go along accepting everything uncritically, and just enjoy the 'ride'. I dare say that if I knew a lot more than I do about, say, biology or computers, then I'd find any films with those subjects at their heart equally problematic. Just from the trailer of 'The Martian' I could see that this film would cause me difficulties.

Okay, so having got that confession off my chest, here Matt Damon is stranded alone on the 'Red Planet' after the rest of the crew have departed to return to Earth, they having assumed that Damon had been blown away, lost and died as a result of a ferocious storm (in Mars' very tenuous atmosphere? - and that's only one error! Lots more to come but I shan't enumerate them all). At first it looks as though he can't be rescued for around another four earth-years, while his provisions and oxygen supply won't last more than a few months at most. However, with some necessary ingenuity he comes up with a few wheezes to lengthen that period.
Meanwhile, on Earth first at NASA (boss Jeff Daniels), then shortly the entire world (cue; international co-operation - with one country in particular), discover that the Damon character is still alive so all the stops are pulled out to expedite an ultra-speedy rescue..
There's a good cast - including Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean (the latter in untypical low-key mode) - and the drama flows on seamlessly though also, it must be said, in pretty mundane and formulaic fashion. There were hardly any true 'surprises'.
Some of the space shots are most impressive and must be even moreso in 3D. But one expects no less these days, so I've got no complaints at all on that score.

It's a long film at a fair bit over two hours. I dare say that it was suspenseful enough to have kept some of the audience quite wrapt, though me only sporadically so. However, I've got to give it its due and, turning aside from my factual criticisms, it was pretty solid entertainment. If you're less bothered with inaccuracies than I was then it's a good recommendation, notwithstanding my own very personal rating of.......................5.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Film: 'Macbeth'

If you're one who considers the audibility of the play's text to be relatively unimportant, and is subservient to the looks and atmosphere of this film, then you'll have a higher regard for it than I did. I was in a state of virtually constant frustration at being unable to decipher what most of the cast were saying (apart from title lead Michael Fassbender) that I would have welcomed subtitles. The worst offender by far was Marion Cotillard as Lady M, who was 90% indecipherable, totally unable to deliver lines in prescribed iambic rhythm when verse-speaking - and in single words of more than one syllable she'd frequently fade her voice out to a practically soundless whisper,  gasp or sigh, surely leaving most of the audience not one iota wiser as to what she'd just said. Sad to say, Paddy Considine as Banquo and David Thewlis as Duncan also had their faults for inaudibility some of the time. I can only imagine that the entire cast was instructed not to be too worried about articulation because, other than Fassbender, they weren't. Oh, and I ought to say that I'm more familiar with the text of this play than any other in the playwright's canon.

With exterior shots filmed mainly on the Isle of Skye, it's all lowering, threatening clouds and heavy mists, beginning and ending with bloody battles - with plenty of gore in between too, including, of course, at least two key murders.
Visually raw in tooth and claw, it shifts texts around - or at least what's left of it after a severe pruning of what is already Shakespeare's second-shortest play - and liberties are taken with the action and motivations, which is fair enough, though I personally found at least one change quite jaw-dropping. But if one doesn't know the play then it will hardly matter.

Australian director Justin Kurzel has created an 'entertainment' which uses the original text as little more than a pretext to film an 'interesting', action-packed story. As a vehicle with which to get to know the original play there are major shortcomings, not least of which is the lack of clear enunciation. I felt let down, If it wasn't for Michael Fassbender's central performance I'd be rating it significantly lower than....................4.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Film: 'Mia Madre'

Nanni Moretti's films have never been dull. Here, as director, writer and actor, he's made a beautifully judged film, possibly his finest to date.
Based on the loss of his own mother during the making of his previous film 'Habemus Papem', this one, with Margarita Buy in the central role (Moretti himself playing her brother) chronicles the decline of their mother, alternately in hospital or at home, suffering from a terminal respiratory condition.

Buy is a film director currently working on a project showing an industrial dispute, she trying to hold herself and the project together amid frequent visits to her mother who's also given to mental wanderings, and in one case, an impetuous 'escape'. Buy is not helped in her film project by importing a famous American actor (John Turturro - speaking both Italian and English) who's so full of himself and exaggerated fame, yet when it comes to work he can't seem to remember his lines. His scenes provide welcome light relief to the sombre mood prevailing on the visits to the mother by son (Moretti, in a very downplayed, but sensitive role), herself as daughter, and the latter's own teenage, Latin-learning, daughter. To complicate matters even further she has just moved out from living with her partner, much to his disappointment. So she has a lot on her plate, trying to juggle conflicting emotions demanding her attention while she fights on trying to get the film progressed. Meanwhile Turturro's character, as the new factory boss, is distrusted by his workforce suspecting imminent lay-offs, while he himself, amid fluffed or forgotten lines at which he frequently loses his cool, tries vainly to reassure the employees.

It's a perfectly balanced film - moving, yet not over-sentimental, when it could so easily have fallen into that trap. There's no doubt that the film's focus is Margarita Buy's marvellous performance, a lot of her emotions written on her features rather than verbally expressed - she trying to supervise her film project yet being the victim of family and personal circumstances, inconvenient to say the least. Moretti's story and screenplay is perceptive, realistic and totally believable.
I liked this film so much that I can forgive it for including one of my pet detestations, a couple of songs (in English) on the soundtrack. Nevertheless, a most satisfying experience..................7.5.

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.