Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Film: 'Pasolini'

A curious and, to my mind, less than satisfactory film dealing with the (some say "notorious") Italian film director's last day in 1975 before he was murdered at the untimely age of 53 by a picked-up rent-boy. More were suspected to have participated in the assault and running over (with Pasolini's own car) but only the one was jailed. I recall hearing the news after it had just happened, there being a predictable attitude in much of the then more 'popular' right-wing British press that he'd merely reaped what he'd sowed. In the arts world his passing, especially in such violent circumstances, was widely mourned
Gay and Communist, Pier Paolo Pasolini is played here by Willem Dafoe - somewhat unlikely casting, I think - though facially he's not a million miles away from the original.

Although at just 86 minutes it's a commendably short film, it was not long before I found myself fidgetting, not least because I didn't have a clue as to exactly who most of the characters were, apart from the director himself  and his live-in, adoring, ageing mother. All the actors other than Dafoe are Italian, mostly speaking in that language, Dafoe speaking both English and the other, sometimes answering in the first even when being addressed in Italian.

Chronicling just his final day, the film concentrates on his unrealised writing project and his hopes of it being published and filmed - though it's all merely a prelude to the final act of his murder, and the film's final twenty minutes or so posits a likely situation as to what could have happened, the protracted view of his mangled body being left in the mud, sound-backgrounded by a soprano aria. 

Director Abel Ferrara gives us his very personal take on this director, who had made such memorable films as 'The Decamaron', 'The Canterbury Tales', 'The Arabian Nights' (in all these, the bawdy aspect of some of the tales taking a disproportionately prominent place) - as well as the earlier 'Accatone'  and, probably most famously and praised of all, the very matter-of-fact, gimmicks-free, black-and-white 'The Gospel According to Saint Matthew' of 1964.

Maybe I didn't work my mind hard enough to enjoy this film. It had attracted me because I well remember Pasolini when he was churning out films at a fairly prodigious rate and I'd managed to see quite a lot of them, though without exactly being overawed by any. Ferrara's film does little to alter my mind and didn't tell me much more than I already knew.............................4.5

Monday, 16 November 2015

Film: 'The Lady in the Van'


As good as I hoped it would be, this film is based on playwright Alan Bennett's original stage play of the same name about a long-term, real-life situation which developed, opened out considerably with a much larger cast for the big screen.

Maggie Smith plays the cantankerous, embittered, ungrateful and enigmatic Miss Shepherd (with distinctly dubious habits concerning personal hygiene) living in her van which she parks on the road in Camden, north London, near Bennett's own home. Threatened with having committed a parking offence, she tells Bennett she'll put it in his driveway for just a few weeks - which actually turns out to be right until her death fifteen years later.
Bennett is played by Alex Jennings (voice uncannily accurate) in a double role as Bennett the writer and the same character trying to get on with his 'normal' life - allowing the two of them to talk to each other, replacing the internal monologues of the stage version. (I thought this the least successful aspect of the film adaptation. A simple voice-over or talk direct to camera would have been more effective and looked less strange.)
The film follows Bennett's impatient turns with this old lady imposter to whom he is too timid to say to her face what he really feels about her unwelcome presence - so he just puts up with her with muttered grumblings to himself. Meanwhile, gradually more is revealed about the lady's past, including her young years, heavily influenced by an early religious phase, the sensibilities of which have carried on into her present old age. (The film's very opening minute also tells us something that happened to her which isn't fully revealed until much later, something which she carries as a burden throughout the rest of the story.)

Although I didn't see the stage version there was a radio adaptation a few years back, with Smith again, but with Alan Bennett playing himself (as he did on stage), a version which I really liked - so I was to a degree familiar with the story. 

As one comes to expect, the writer gives us a number of really funny one-liners, virtually all arising from the lady's intransigence in her determination to get her own way and the put-open Bennett's reaction to having to face up to her unwanted presence daily. 

There's a cracking backing cast of near-neighbours, chipping in with their various thoughts on the lady's presence, some more tolerant than others, and her effect on the neighbourhood, including Roger Allam - as well as shady ex-policeman Jim Broadbent who knows her 'secret' and puts his knowledge to self-gaining use - and, significantly, the redoubtable Frances de la Tour as neighbour Ursula Vaughan Williams, someone whom I did actually once meet in person at a barbecue party in London at the time when this 'van lady' would have been in her terminal years at Bennett's address. I had no idea that U.V.W. and Bennett were actually living so close to each other, and had I known I would have wanted at least to have mentioned my admiration for him instead of confining my questions to her late husband's compositions. De La Tour's portrayal was actually not that far off from the Ursula V.W. I remember.

There are very brief cameos from some (or all?) of the original boys from another of Bennett's major successes, 'The History Boys' - on both stage in London and Broadway as well as in the film, directed as in this film, by Nicholas Hytner. I recognised five of the 'boys' - now all grown into or approaching middle age. In addition, Frances de la Tour was a prominent member of the cast of both the stage production and the film.

This is Maggie Smith's film, of course - one of her very best screen performances for some time - playing someone with few, if any, endearing features, yet managing to hold it all together most convincingly.
If the film's penultimate scene was somewhat over-the-top it rounded things off nicely enough, so I'll forgive it for being so. Also, in the very final scene there's a glimpse of the great Yorkshireman himself, Bennett, coming into view on his bike to see himself being filmed in the persona of Alex Jennings.

I liked it a lot. With little to cavil about, I give it...........................8.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Film: 'Burnt'

Oh dear! I did find this a bit of an endurance test - and none too surprised at that as I'm so out of sympathy with the subject matter - a sweary, prima donna-ish chef yelling at his staff in the kitchen of a swanky London restaurant which specialises in all this silly nouvelle cuisine stuff, producing dishes which guarantee that those leaving after their 'meal' will be at least as hungry as when they came in, though their wallets would have been considerably unburdened for the 'satisfaction' of the experience. 
He, predictably, is all hissy fits, hurling plates against the wall amid the constant clatter of kitchen utensils - while his disgruntled, humiliated, verbally abused staff work sullenly and slavishly like beavers. We've seen it all before on reality TV, even though I myself have never been able to sit through a single entire programme of the kind.

What really drew me to bother to see this was the magnetic presence of the star. (I wonder if the said Mr Cooper filmed this while over here appearing in 'The Elephant Man' on stage in the evenings?) Even when acting totally repulsive as here, B.C. continues to have something compelling about him. His main 'punch bag' is Sienna Miller who, while not quite giving back as good as she gets, certainly knows how to stand up to his very public put-downs. Both are undoubtedly on their top form, and I have no quibble at all about any of the acting from any quarters in a strong cast all-round.
He is on a journey of self-redemption after his experience at a restaurant in Paris where all went belly-up, involving drugs and his debauched lifestyle. His past follows him to London where, confident in his own self-esteem, he forces himself into a particular high-class restaurant to show them what's what and to promote their status by the acquisition of Michelin stars, something which had evaded him in France.

Daniel Bruhl is also good as head chef in a nearby rival restaurant. In a fleeting appearance there's Uma Thurman, whom I probably wouldn't have recognised had I not known it was her. In a slightly more substantial role is Emma Thompson as Cooper's sympathetic doctor-cum-confidante.

Director John Wells, whose first main feature film for the cinema this appears to be, fulfils expectations, so no complaints on that score.

There's no doubt that the camerawork captures the exquisite detail of the 'meals' produced - in effect, more 'works of art' for the eyes than satisfying quantity-wise for the stomach. (There are a number of shots of raw meat and fish being carved up for which I had to look away, though most won't be bothered by it.)

It was a personal irritation at what I see as the complete ridiculousness of these stratospherically overpriced 'meals' which prevented any real enjoyment of the film for me. If it's your 'thing' then you're welcome to it, though I see it at the heart of a not-so-interesting story of the Cooper character.

Opinions of the film have been varied but I think few have been overwhelmingly positive about it. Having put my own stance forward, that is the reason for my own rating of a lowly......................4.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Film: 'The Intern'

I thought that this would be just a bit of disposable fluff, and so it was - but also, for around three-quarters of its two hours I found it unexpectedly endearing too.

Robert de Niro is nowadays as invariably typecast as a respectable, ageing, worldy-wise, rather meek gent not given to great displays of emotion, as much as he used to be typecast as a toughie in his earlier violent mobster films. In this later guise I do find him still watchable, even though, as here, he has less to do despite being on-screen for a great deal of the film's length.

He plays a 70-yearold retired widower who finds life unfulfilling and takes up employment as a lowly intern (I had to look that word up as it wasn't in use for my generation) in an on-line fashion store firm which has rocketed to success in a short time and run with cold efficiency by human dynamo, Anne Hathaway. Their initial contacts, though not unfriendly, are formal - she hadn't wanted to take on staff of advanced age, but was obliged to do so. However, it's plain that she is the boss, which all her staff know, and which De Niro gets straight away. But, as you might guess, circumstances bring them closer together and she eventually melts towards him and exchanges confidences, though both keeping their proper emotional distances. She and her house-husband have one of those (ghastly) infant daughters at whom you're supposed to intone "Aw, how sweet!" - whereas some of you, like me, might prefer to retch.
Hovering around in the firm is in-house staff-relaxor and masseuse Rene Russo - De Niro and she making mutually admiring eyes from the off.
As the film progresses a domestic crisis appears for Hathaway, though luckily good old R.D.N. is on hand to offer words of sage advice - all so predictable from the very opening minutes, of course.

Director (and this film's writer), Nancy Meyers, is in her element here and is clearly comfortable with her story and her actors (the two leading roles are never uninteresting), and she achieves her aimed-for film practically unblemished, though it is really too long by at least 30 mins for its relatively shallow subject matter.
However, I must say I did enjoy it more than I thought I would, and for that reason I allow it an above par...............6.5.


Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Film: 'Do I Sound Gay?'

On the slow, laborious ascent of recovery from a miserable, largely bed-ridden week of having succumbed to the seasonal bug (the worst attack in several years this time), I wanted something none too serious and, maybe, a little uplifting for my mood. And this fitted the bill quite nicely, showing at a single-day screening, with the added attraction of being barely one and a quarter hours long. Were I to be subject to a fit of the coughs, sneezes and snifflings which I'm still getting (though decreasing in frequency), in a documentary-type film it I wouldn't matter too much if a temporary absence had been necessary, which it wasn't.

Director David Thorpe (above, with George Takei) having lately split with his boyfriend, finds himself living as a single man with two cats - and, moreover, is now in his forties (Oh, horror of horrors, David! Do tell me what that's like.) With time to muse on his life, which he does extensively to camera, though always interesting, he focuses on one particular aspect of his life, viz his 'gay-sounding voice'. These days one would like to think that it's not a big deal if ones manner of speaking gives an indication of ones sexuality, whether that impression is erroneous or not, though it is a thought-provoking subject. I don't recall myself being concerned about sounding gay in my teenage and later years before I came out of the closet. I didn't think I did anyway - though on hindsight I think I was mistaken. I was more concerned then about giving away my sexuality in how I dressed, walked and unintentionally revealing myself through stereotypically 'campy' body language - that was what I was most nervous of. Of course I'm talking about a time when being known to be gay was about as undesirable as being a known paedophile is now. Everyone will have their own stories of experiences on the subject.

Thorpe interviews relatives, friends and more celebrated personages on their own thoughts, and tries to find out whether his own manner of speaking as a youngster had given himself away before he himself had realised it. There are some very interesting responses from those who grew up close to him.
I was familiar with at least the names of nearly every one of his 'celebrities' (all American), prominent among whom is David Sedaris. He also conducts street interviews in New York and London.

However, lurking behind it all is a feeling of 'so what?' as regards the subject matter. I can see some taking issue with his attempt to eliminate any gay traces in his voice by undergoing sessions with a voice coach. It's not quite clear why he feels he needs to do it. Is he afraid of turning off any new potential partners? Does he fear for future employment prospects? It all seems to be left up in the air and unresolved, but yet his exploring the matter remains entertaining throughout. (A few laughs there were, though not that many - also a couple of brief video extracts showing kids being beaten up just for sounding 'faggoty'.)
He also touches on when films in the 1940s and for several decades onwards used gay-sounding voices as a shorthand for 'evil' (often along with effeminate physical mannerisms - looking more pantomimic than reality). There's also a reference to the way that in Disney animations the same technique is used - hardly conducive to giving children a healthy attitude towards what might be considered to be gay 'mannerisms'. However, this very interesting aspect is not treated with any real depth in this short, snappy film, but it just being addressed at all makes it worthwhile..

Now something very curious has happened on the IMDb site for this film. As I write this, 430 site users have given it an average rating of a mere 4/10, but this is because 47% of these have, apparently, given it a score of just '1', which is patently absurd. (A fairer average would, I think, be around 7 - 7.5). I surmise that someone has picked up on the word 'gay' in the title and tried to sabotage others from supporting the film by, in some little known way, submitting this ridiculous score repeatedly. Another scenario is that a gay person has taken exception with Thorpe for treating this as a worthy subject anyway, and has similarly found a way to blow his particular own opinion out of all statistical proportion. I think if either of these two possibilities has happened, the first is the more likely.
But, I did like it and the score I have submitted on IMDb is........................7.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Film: 'Spectre'

So, was it worth all the fuss and the wait? I regret to say "No", and that being by quite some way.


First, some things I did like about it:-
Christoph Walz makes for a credibly creepy, psychopathic, interesting villain as head of the nefarious, acrostically-named organisation bent on world domination (ho-hum!) which gives the film its title.
Ralph Fiennes as 'M' and Ben Whishaw's 'Q' play more participatory roles than previously.
Daniel Craig is as good a Bond as ever, though for the first time here I had the niggling feeling now and again that he was starting to act on auto.
The most spectacular sequence is the pre-title opening set in Mexico City. Nothing in the body of the film comes even close to it.
There's not much else that I felt really positive about.

Several of the set pieces are derivative - situations and locations straight out of previous Bond films. One gets all the expected chases and fights - cars, helicopters, train - as well as the climactic confrontation (with obligatory torture) between Bond and his nemesis in (where else?) but in the latter's secret, secluded lair - lavishly furbished and equipped as always..
The main romantic interest is provided by Lea Seydoux whose character observes the standard formula of initial mistrust, even deep antipathy, being transformed to a realisatory enlightening that Bond and she are on the same side.
I felt that the encounters between the two of them significantly slowed the action down, such that there were several points at which I found myself stifling yawns. The film is close on two-and-a-half hours long, the longest Bond to date, and at times it felt like it.

If Sam Mendes's direction is efficient enough for the purpose (he also directed the superior 'Skyfall') the story could have done with a strong injection of imagination and originiality.
Apart from Mexico City (and London) other locations are Rome, the Austrian Tyrol and Tunisia.

And then, as a post-script, there's the indifferent (to my ears) title song by Sam Smith - not quite the worst ever (which honour surely belongs to Madonna for her utterly dismal 'Die Another Day') - but nowhere near as memorable as some that the series has produced. And I hadn't a clue what on earth he was singing about. When he goes into falsetto mode his consonants disappear like Adele's do in her 'Skyfall', leaving me tantalisingly in Limbo until I look up the lyrics, though Adele did have a stronger melody.

The first Bond film I ever saw was the fourth in the series, 'Thunderball', in 1965 (it was also the very first time that I went to a cinema alone) and caught up with the earlier ones shortly afterwards. By then I'd have read most, or perhaps all, of the Bond novels - a series which I've now read half a dozen times. I still remember watching the film of 'Thunderball' and marvelling at how exciting it was. I was practically gripping the arm-rests! Since that time, of course, we've all grown wiser and more demanding in our entertainment requirements. We can all spot a ropey back projection now, for example. But I think all those early Bond films of the 60s, 70s and some into the 80s, plus maybe two or three of them since then merit a second or even multiple viewings. Regrettably, I do not think that 'Spectre' deserves to be on that select list of mine.................................6.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Film: 'Pan'

 I'd have by-passed this were it not that I've got the hots for the HUGE Jackman. It unexpectedly turned out to be a veritable visual feast, and I'm not only referring to the aforementioned star. Director Joe Wright ('Atonement', 'Anna Karenina') proves without doubt that he has a remarkable flair for visual imagination - and he's still only in his early 40s. This is an almost non-stop extravaganza for the eyes, reminding me frequently of the fertile mind of Terry Gilliam, and 'Baron Munchausen' in particular.

It's been noted that the chronology is all to pot, this story being a prequel to that of the Peter Pan novel which the whole world knows, yet the framing story-device of the baby growing up to be a boy (abandoned by his mother, in an orphanage run by hideous tyrant-nun Kathy Burke) is set in WWII London, i.e. several decades after the original tale. Okay, as the entire saga is a flight of fantasy I suppose we can go along without thinking too much about it.
The story here is 12-year-old Peter (Levi Miller, rather colourless, if you ask me) and other boys in the establishment are abducted by the crew of a flying pirate ship captained by the villainous Blackbeard. Jackman, even when playing evil can't but help charisma oozing from his every pore. (It got me wondering what a terrific Satan he'd be in, say, 'Jerry Springer - the Opera'!). Peter discovers his talent for flying which he has to practice at in order to perfect it, meanwhile striking up a friendship with one James Hook, (the future 'Captain H.') in the person of Scandinavian-American actor, Garrett Hedlund, at this stage still possessing both his hands (strange that his name should be so prescient of his hook-wearing future), he being a 'goody' character, sympathetic right to the film's end. There's also Amanda Seyfried and Rooney Mara providing some feminine allure to what otherwise would have been a heavily male 'boy's own adventure' (There's no Wendy here!).
Peter's main driving force is to find out who is mother was who'd given him up and what had become of her. (Blackbeard is involved, if it's not giving too much away).

The special-effect pyrotechnics throughout this extremely busy film are jaw-droppingly good - probably the best I've seen in any film to date - and I saw it in only the 2D version, wishing I'd gone for the other. Otherwise the story is not very substantial though it's largely aimed at a kids audience, so that won't matter too much. I wasn't actually bored at any time despite it's nearly two hours length.

A pleasant surprise, then, though it really does need to be seen on the big screen. Other than the presence of our Hugh - who, I know, isn't appreciated by everyone - its saving grace is those most astonishingly impressive CGI effects........................6.