Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Film: 'Victor Frankenstein'

I found this an uneasy watch from several aspects. It takes the basic Mary Shelley story (much better conveyed by Kenneth Branagh's under-appreciated, sometimes unfairly scorned, 1994 film) and it opens out the back history of Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) who was to become Frankenstein's (James McIvoy) assistant.

Igor is a hunchback young man in a circus, graphically abused and cruelly treated as a grotesque for the audience's amusement. But he also has a large intellectual capacity which the scientist recognises when, on a visit to the circus in searching for parts from dead animals to use in his experiments, an accident occurs to a female trapeze artiste  (later the film's slender romantic interest - Jessica Brown Findlay) when Igor's knowledge saves her life. Frankenstein helps Igor escape and takes him under his wing and memorably (and laughably) manages to eliminate Igor's lifelong hump deformity within a couple of minutes.
McAvoy plays Frankenstein straight out of old film-acting portrayals - all crazed scientist, manic grins, eye-rollings and riddling pronouncements of his superior wisdom - he gives it the complete works in ultra-flamboyant style. Meanwhile Igor, grateful for his freedom, is keen to help the scientist in his quest with the use of his significant brain-power, a task which he discovers is no less than to create life itself out of dead matter - the latest attempt being in the hideous shape of a grisly amalgam of body parts taken from various animals. Meanwhile, a religious-driven Scotland Yard detective (Andrew Scott) is on the trail of both of them and determined to put on end to the 'Satanic' experiments. (There's also a welcome cameo appearance from Charles Dance). The film climaxes with the creation of the near-humanoid monster. (How come there are so many conveniently-located violent thunderstorms within these isles with which to empower the experiments? I suppose it's only playing along with the rest of the fantasy.)

I must say that all the settings are most handsomely depicted, both outside scenes and interiors. It's a busy film, hardly letting up at all in its frenzied action, but as the denouement advances it becomes increasingly mechanical and one could tell with ease where it was going - though, of course, we have the well-known story as a background anyway.
Director Paul McGuigan has given us some scenes at which I found myself recoiling, though it's all done with great energy and purpose. However, in the final analysis I found it a great deal of noise over nothing especially new............4.


Monday, 14 December 2015

Film: 'Grandma'


I would dearly have loved to have given this an exceptional rating so that it might have been a contender for one of the very best films of the year. Sadly, I can't quite do that, though I'd still give it a strong recommendation.

The principal attraction is the presence of Lily Tomlin in every scene, and she's and in great form, alternately combative, reflective, sassy and sympathetic. (Why has she made so few feature films? I leave the question dangling). 
Another major positive is the superior screenplay by Paul Weitz, here writer as well as director - astute, perceptive and never sounding forced.
Then there's the strong supporting cast including Marcia Gay Harden (as the Tomlin character's dominating and argumentative daughter) -  and Sam Elliott who, as the only male of significance, and in only one (but long) scene, manages to leave an indelible impression, something he quite regularly achieves on film.
And last, but not least important, it all comes in at a commendably short one hour and a quarter (plus closing credits).

Elle (Tomlin), just having separated from her most recent, short-lived female relationship, is grandmother to Sage (Julia Garner, my sole reservation in the cast, she being the only one with the 'modern' tendency to mumble - though I have heard even worse - whereas I could hear every word of the remainder of the cast). Unmarried Sage is pregnant and, like her, the father (their affair is now over too) also doesn't want the baby. So impecunious Sage, having booked an appointment for an abortion later that very day, now comes to her grandmother to ask her for the money - though the latter is also broke, so the two of them have to quickly do a mini-round of those who might be able to help.

What is truly remarkable about this film is its non-judgmental stance on the issue of abortion, an attitude which would be bound to raise the hackles of so-called 'Pro-Lifers'. The subject is in no sense treated casually, rather it's seen throughout as a matter of the woman's choice. However, while on their rounds, the feathers of one or two are ruffled - and, as if to show just a token sense of balance, a sudden, very short event happens in the film's final scenes which would give such 'Pro-Lifers' at least something to cheer at. 
Another remarkable quality of the film is its matter-of-fact attitude towards same-sex relationships. It's just taken as a 'given', and not treated as anything out-of-the-ordinary or an added-on piece of exotica. That was refreshing, and not before time.

I'd expected this film to have been more of a comedy than it actually was - though there are some good and rather wicked one-liners, especially in the first half. However, I did think it became disappointingly flaccid about a quarter of an hour before the end as it wandered into sentimentality. Pity about that. It needed a bit of an unexpected jolt, or something as strong, to bring it to a more satisfactory conclusion, but that didn't come. It just fizzled away.

A good film but, regrettably, falling short of my high expectations, though not by a great deal. However, Lily Tomlin's presence alone ought to be sufficient to draw anyone.................................7.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Film: 'Sunset Song'

If this were to be the final film I see this year - though I hope it won't be - I'd be closing on one of my undoubted highlights. (I have to stress the 'my' because I see that on IMDb, the latest average viewer rating is a relatively paltry 6.4. That's too bad. I loved it).

Terence ("I utterly loathe being gay!") Davies has made just half a dozen feature films (plus one documentary on Liverpool), each one of them having been impressive to a greater or lesser extent. I'd put this one in the upper reaches of that range. He is now 70 years old - with another film in the pipeline. If 'Sunset Song' had turned out to have been his swansong it would have been a worthy one.

Based on a 1935 novel by one Lewis Grassic Gibbon (both title and writer of which I'd never heard), the idea of making this film has been gestating in Davies' mind for a decade and a half. 
Set in northern Scotland in the early years of the last century it follows the story of Chris Guthrie (Agness Deyn, quite remarkable, who carries the entire film on her shoulders) starting as teenage schoolgirl, through her early life with a violent, abusive father (hot, straight, grandaddy, Peter Mullan, who's in danger of getting typecast into unattractively brutish roles) and her young-adult brother, the principal victim of his father's short-fused ire -  with both belt and fists being employed. There are also two younger boys while the passive mother gives birth to a further pair of twins. 
The family runs a farm in the desolate, windswept highlands, all the family mucking in. As she becomes a young woman, Chris becomes mutually attracted to Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), and they eventually marry.

Davies shows his expected skill at filming sweeping vistas, without distractions, aural or otherwise.  In a sense it's a leisurely approach but it's ever ravishing to look at. He homes in on a mood and captures it exquisitely and accurately with no sense of falsehood.
It's a long film at 135 minutes. I had determined in advance to leave early (in order to get back in time to let Blackso in who'd be waiting outside for me, his fur now alarmingly and distressingly coming out, giving him a scruffy look, which makes him an even more likely target for the mischievous kids when a nearby school comes out) - but I'd been well hooked on the film and I just had to stay till the very end. (As it turned out I was in time getting back to 'rescue' Blackso from a possibly unfortunate fate).

All acting is every bit as fine as one would have hoped for in this near-epic. Soundtrack is perfection itself. I really wasn't expecting to like it as much as I did, but I can't escape the fact that this is one of my films of the year. A quite singular achievement................8.5.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Film: 'The Dressmaker'

This is a queer one - as it's intended to be, and as I was expecting. It certainly has its moments but I do think it over-reaches itself in being too long (two hours) to sustain the whimsy, lacking consistency in holding onto its initially promising, curious mood.


Based on an apparently well-regarded book by Rosalie Ham, this Jocelyn Moorhouse directed film is set in 1951, Victoria, Australia, where Kate Winslet returns to her aged and frequently ga-ga, amnesiac mother (Judy Davis) living in a small outback town where everyone knows everyone else. She was sent into exile as a 10-year old having, reputedly, killed a boy. But now she's in total control, bursting with self-belief, and taunting the drooling, local males with her femininity, while simultaneously determined to get to the bottom of what really happened regarding the dead child, her own almost non-existent memories of what happened not supporting the 'official' version of events. But - and this is a major part of the film - she is now an accomplished dressmaker, acutely aware of fashions and how to dress the ladies, a talent which gets much noticed and causes her talents to be in great demand, despite her unfortunate reputation as an alleged killer, something of which everyone is aware.  
Among the residents of the place is the one-man police force of Hugo Weaving (always very watchable), who is greatly partial to women's clothing, going all gooey at the sight and feel of the fabrics, and wearing dresses in his own time. Hunky romantic interest is provided by Liam Hemsworth from 'The Hunger Games'.

It ought to have been zany throughout, at least that would have made it a more successful film (though I guess it's only following the novel), but it does rather go to pieces about three-quarters of the way through when a sudden accident occurs and the Winslet character loses her mask of self-confidence - though she does resume it again before the close.   
Now and again I was thinking of the Coen brothers and how they would have handled the prevailing, off-key mood. They are (or were, in their heyday) total masters in sustaining the bizarre feel of strange, often comedic, circumstances throughout their films. 'The Dressmaker', in my view, has too many contrasts, and latterly with a serious edge, to be put in the same class as theirs. But it's by no means devoid of some enjoyable, even a couple of delicious, moments.......................6.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Film: 'Carol'

I had exalted hopes for this for a number of reasons. If it doesn't quite attain my aspiring wishes it doesn't come short by much.


What it has going for it is:-
Cate Blanchett
Director Todd Haynes
Book by Patricia Highsmith
Music by Carter Burwell

All come together to make a far above-average product.

I've read the Patricia Highsmith book twice, a writer who has been one of my favourite authors for just about all my life since I started serious adult reading. Her novel was originally called 'The Price of Salt' and published in 1952 under a pseudonym (only reluctantly agreed to by the author) because it was felt that the lesbian love story at its heart, truly remarkable for its time, would damage the sales of her other novels, she being an already established writer (most famously then, as now, for 'Strangers on a Train', the murder-swap thriller filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, who, being Hitch, altered it so that the camp, unmarried, mother-loving, father-hating one of the pair of potential murderers [played by thrice-married Robert Walker] was the 'evil' one; the other, portrayed as a 'safe' heterosexual, being a duped innocent [actually played by the gay Farley Granger]. The original Highsmith novel is much more ambiguous about both men).
Anyway, 'Carol' is not in the same vein. It's basically a romance, gently paced and subtly developed.  

Carol is Cate Blanchett, an affluent divorcee, who comes into the toy department of a large store, looking for a doll for her daughter. She is served by assistant Therese, (Rooney Mara, whom we last saw in a major role as the title figure in the American re-make of the Swedish 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' in 2011. The difference between her role then and this one is astonishing. Here she is the quieter one of the couple). From their initial meeting, unspoken, lingering glances are exchanged. Carol is fighting her ex-husband for shared custody of their young daughter. He wants to have sole care because of Carol's alleged past liaison with another woman (not Therese, at least not yet). Carol and Therese (who is living with her boyfriend) meet up again and their friendship grows into an affair. (There is one brief bedroom scene, not too specific).

Being the early 1950s, there is a lot of smoking. Interior decors are in tasteful cafe-au-lait and dark choc. Music is unobtrusive. Being mainly set during Christmas season there are one or two Xmas records of the time on the soundtrack. Fair enough.
There are only two or three scenes where voices are raised, all involving Carol, but containing none of the hyperactivity and hysteria that characterised her deservedly Oscar-winning turn in Woody Allen's 'Blue Jasmine'.

Director Todd Haynes has one really major film to his credit so far. I regard his 'Far from Heaven' (2002) as one of the ten or so best films of the last twenty years. If you haven't seen it you really must. Having Julianne Moore in the lead part should be enough to persuade any doubters.

What slightly let me down about 'Carol' was that I didn't think it came properly alive until about halfway through - though when it did it was superb. I don't know why I felt it to have been so inert at first, though my own fatigue could well have been the culprit. I had a very poor night's sleep last night so I wasn't at my most receptive. It would really need me to watch this film again to confirm the way I felt - and I certainly wouldn't in the least mind sitting through it once more.

There's talk of another Oscar nomination for Cate Blanchett. I'd have no real argument with that, though in this role she isn't required to display quite the range of emotions as she did in 'Jasmine'. If she does get it again I won't be a complainer.

An extremely good film, then, without being quite as exceptional as I'd hoped. When I do watch it again it could be that I'd wish to revise my present rating upwards. Nevertheless, even now I'd warmly recommended it - and anyway, it's not often we see a drama with two, maybe three, of the principal stars being women....................................7.5.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Film: 'Bridge of Spies'.

This is a rattling good film. 

I tend to be wary of Spielberg as, for me, despite his mastery of the genre, his single greatest weakness is to lay sentiment on with a trowel such that it overwhelms all else. Not so here. Although he lets emotion have its head in the closing few minutes with a cosily reassuring domestic epilogue, as to the previous two hours and a quarter I was totally engrossed throughout. And all is achieved with no showy action sequences or special effects, and with a superior script whose writers include both the Coen brothers.

It starts in 1957 with the East-West Cold War now in full combative mode. In New York, a Russian man believed to be a Soviet spy is arrested (Mark Rylance - a major name in British theatre, with a fair bit of TV work also; less so in film up to now.). A private insurance lawyer (Tom Hanks) is roped in, reluctantly, by the CIA to defend the suspected spy, the American government wanting to keep their involvement in the Russian's defence at arm's length because of the politically sensitive nature of the case. 
After the trial an American pilot, Gary Powers, operating a spy plane over the Soviet Union is shot down and arrested, giving the Russians a publicity coup which they milk for all its worth. A situation of brinkmanship between the two major powers develops and Hanks is slated to arrange a spy exchange, though with a most unwelcome complication of an American student being arrested in Berlin by East German authorities just as the dividing wall is being constructed. 

The cast also includes, in a small role, Alan Alda as a CIA chief, now looking, sadly, very old (though he is now nearly 80!). The very few female roles are merely peripheral, the main one being the Hanks' character's wife, who has very little to say.

I am old enough to recall the news of pilot Gary Powers being used as a bargaining tool by the Soviets, as well as the building of the Berlin wall, with heartbreaking scenes of desperate Germans living on the east side being shot in their vain attempts to escape over to the west, horrifically and tragically publicly bleeding to death on the razed 'no man's land' area near the wall. However, at the time I knew hardly anything of the the Russian guy, the Rylance role, being held by the Americans. 

The first half of the film is set in America; the second (in which Rylance only appears at the end) is in snowy Berlin, with the climactic spy exchange scene on a bridge. (Apparently Hanks' conspicuous sniffling cold throughout this second part was genuine.)
The film maintains its suspense throughout even though we can guess that it'll probably work out okay - and those of us who recall the actual news at the time know that it does. But it's still gripping stuff.

One of Spielberg's best in my view - and that's from someone who's only really liked a handful of his films - his very early ones and just a very few of his from the 90s and 00s. But this is certainly one to see....................8.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Film: 'Steve Jobs'

Goodness me, but this is a 'talkie' film!
I wasn't at all keen to see it because of the subject matter, computers - which, if it doesn't go above my head (and much does), I find that what I can understand is deadly dull. Part of that will be my resentment in having to be dragged into this particular technological world at an advanced age which, although it has opened up my life in positive ways, at the same time gives me more frequent headaches than I care to have.
I was persuaded to go see by it having the ever-charismatic Michael Fassbender in the title role, as well as it being directed by Danny Boyle, who has the ability to lift virtually any subject into being interesting enough to hold my attention. And this he largely achieves here, though, as I suggest, virtually all the action is verbal, and, in terms of comprehension, it didn't take very long to lose me.

It's in three 40-minute segments, 1984, 88, and 98, each dealing with the late CEO of Apple (who died four years ago at the age of 56) making a big-splash public launch of the latest developments in personal computers. (Please don't expect me to elaborate!).
All three parts take place in the minutes before a major unveiling while the large, eager audiences are assembling, hungry to hear the latest advancement. 
Kate Winslet plays his hard-boiled, fiercely loyal assistant (and one-time relationship?) who isn't afraid to stand up to him and tell him what she thinks. 
There's also Jeff Daniels as his former boss with whom he had serious disagreements, as well as a previous affair which resulted in a daughter, though Jobs has doubts that she's his. The impecunious mother (Katherine Waterston) resents being stranded by Jobs and having to rely on welfare for herself and her girl, while he is now a multi-millionaire, later a billionaire. We see the daughter, first at the age of five, then nine, and lastly at nineteen, by which time she has become somewhat alienated from her father, influenced by her mother's grievances.
You might correctly imagine that arguments abound on all sides, which they always do just as he's due on stage (much to the exasperation of the Winslet character, who's trying to keep Jobs on schedule), and that's the three foci of the film, not exactly 'shouty' but always very disputatious. 

Screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin whose biggest success to date was another computer-based film, 'The Social Network', one which I'd found the dialogue so indecipherably mumbled that I just couldn't work out what the hell was going on. No such problem here, and I must admit that the script is pretty sharp.

When this film opened in America recently, initial box-office takings were so depressed that the venues screening it were drastically scaled back. I don't think it's entirely the film's fault in itself, but it's not a film for everybody. Those who go looking for more action than mere words will feel let down. Danny Boyle does his best and manages to make it absorbing enough, though it's not one which I'd care to sit through for a second time................................6.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Film: 'Brooklyn'

Modestly-pitched, yet moving and involving, film which eschews those great emotional histrionics that make for showy romantic dramas - and this is all the better for keeping sentiment under control throughout.
Written by no less than Nick Hornby, this is based on Colm Toibin's novel of the same name (which I read only one year ago), and captures the atmosphere of that book to perfection.


Set in the early 1950s, it tells of a young woman (Saoirse Ronan, with a face on which it's easy to paint any character as required) who leaves her home in County Wexford, Ireland, to go to work in a job as sales assistant in a department store in Brooklyn New York, work which has been arranged for her by a parish priest and family acquaintance over there (Jim Broadbent). She has to leave her mother to be cared for by her similar-aged sister.
Once in America, in a ladies-only lodgings with a matriarchal, no-nonsense landlady (Julie Walters), she eventually loses her fish-out-of-water discomfort when she meets the affable Tony (Emory Cohen, with a screen presence that leaps out at you) a friendship which blossoms into something more serious. Unexpectedly called back to Ireland, she reluctantly returns, harbouring a secret. But her divided allegiances between the two places puts her in a quandary, exacerbated by an emotional involvement, and coming to a head when it's clear that the expectation is that she'll remain to live in Ireland next to her mother. 

Director John Crowley, a name unknown to me, has created a small-scale but deeply effective, human-scale work which, by any justification, ought to be seen by a wider audience than this kind of unassuming film normally has the chance to view................................7.5.

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.