Monday, 4 January 2016

Film: 'In the Heart of the Sea'

Had to drag myself along to see this one. Having seen the trailer enough times to cause substantial irritation, the subject matter itself (whaling - in this case to obtain their oil), I find far from engrossing - in fact rather repugnant. Here I automatically sided with the great white whales - and one whale in particular which kept 'stalking' the whalers (well, wouldn't you be miffed if you had to go around with a harpoon stuck in your back?) - rather than identifying with the crew with whom one was, presumably, meant to sympathise. But even aside from that I found that, despite the spectacular effects (there seems to be absolutely no limit now on the images that can be created), and despite several sequences of high drama (all set, invariably, to busy orchestral chugga-chuggas to hold ones interest), it all felt curiously functional and only distantly-involving.

Ron Howard's film, 'based' on a true story (as every second film these days seems to be), is framed and interrupted by ageing old salt, Brendan Gleason, recounting to Hermann Melville (Ben Whishaw - yes, he again!) his experiences 30 years previously in 1820 as cabin boy and general dogsbody on a whaling ship at the age of 14 (Tom Holland, looking at times startlingly like the young Jamie Bell in 'Billy Elliott', such that I half-expected a demonstration of twinkle-toed, terpsichoreal skills). It hardly needs saying that Melville uses information in the account to furnish his 'Moby Dick'. 
Among the ship's crew the most recognisable name to me was Cillian Murphy. 
There's plenty of action - on ship, on small boats and in the sea itself. The crew's motivation changes halfway through the film from whale-hunting just to their plain survival, the whale having scuppered their main means of 'transport'. Many in the audience will recognise in the men's fate considerable echoes of Coleridge's epic poem 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.
Being a heavily male-dominated film there are no women's roles of real substance, and the couple that there are only appear on shore prior to the sailing and briefly at the end. 

I didn't find this a particularly satisfying film. If it had been a subject I could have warmed to my verdict might have been different, but apart from some truly remarkable visuals (we expect nothing less these days - and I saw it in 2D while I believe there is also a 3D version at certain venues), it's not a film I can honestly describe as being one that I 'enjoyed'..........................4.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

My 'Best Films of 2015'.

So here we are - and I must say that it wasn't easy to pick just ten out of the mere seventy-eight I've seen. (Long gone are those times, never to return, when I'd see twice as many, and upwards, within one year). But competition for excellence just within these relatively few has been fierce, and I do rather hang my head to think of some of the worthies I've omitted from the final cut. (What! No 'Force Majeure', 'Far from the Madding Crowd', ''Irrational Man', 'Grandma', 'Mia Madre', 'Suffragette', 'Bridge of Spies' - nor even 'Brooklyn'? No. Sorry about that!) 

My adopted method was initially to choose thirty from this year's tally, next to select half of them, and then to jiggle and juggle a chosen final ten into an ordered list. In this way I've come up with the selection in sequence with which I feel most comfortable, ignoring, as far as I could, any sentiment that certain films ought to be included because they might have been expected to be there. It's my very own personal selection of the film experiences which have given me the most pleasure.

Oh, and before someone notices and complains that the order of the chosen few are not in the order of ratings I gave them at the time (nearly always decided immediately on returning home after seeing them), I have to state that there's the additional factor of the time taken for a filmic experience to 'mellow' in the mind. Thus, certain entries have gained in value in my mind's opinion over time (e.g. 'Lobster', 'Whiplash') whilst others have faded, if maybe only by a little (e.g. 'Sunset Song', 'The Lady in the Van'). 

So, this is it, in ascending order:-

10) The Lady in the Van - Dame Maggie Smith with the words of Sir Alan Bennett, both at the top of their game:-

9) Carol - Cate Blanchett, in a singularly brave-for-its-time, Patricia Highsmith story, showing us once more why she is one of the very best of all actresses around:-

8) The Lobster - modest, yet remarkably effective, quirky film with a near-unrecognisable Colin Farrell in untypically restrained mode:-

7) American Sniper Taut, believable, Iraq-war, Clint Eastwood-directed thriller with pumped-up Bradley Cooper ably holding the focus:-

6) Whiplash One of those films that rattles around the brain for a long time afterwards. Scary J.K. Simmons is the big bully, tyrannical tutor of a jazz 'big band' class. Timid Miles Teller is on drums:-

5) Still Alice

Julianne Moore in her deservedly Oscar-winning, heart-wrenching role as a 50-year old woman suffering from the onset of Alzheimers. A profoundly moving: film:-

4) Sunset Song

Director Terence Davies works his magic again, this time in rural north Scotland in a small-scale, family tale of romance, dreams and squabbles. Quite extraordinary.

3) Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales)

 The Argentinians pull a rabbit out of the hat with this utterly marvellous, often outlandish, (subtitled) anthology of six short stories - unrelated apart from a very tenuous common thread. Part of its wonder for me was its total surprise, coming out of nowhere with no warning:-

2) 45 Years

There was no doubt that this had to be included, and in an exalted position too. Tom Courtnay and Charlotte Rampling (the latter never been better) attempting to celebrate their long-term wedding anniversary when a ghost from his past emerges and sows seeds of doubt in her mind. Intensely human drama which brought me as close to tears as I've been in a long time in the cinema, which itself is real rarity.:-

And the winner is:-

1) Ex Machina

I was astonished at how good this was, even against my own expectations, being science fiction - not one of my favourite film genres (with one or two glorious exceptions) - though this is, gratefully, an earth-bound tale. It was one of those films where I felt like pinching myself to confirm that I wasn't dreaming that I could find something so enjoyable.  What makes it even more extraordinary is that it's the directorial debut of novelist Alex Garland, this film also being his own story. And, not least worth mentioning is the presence of (phwoarrrrr!) bushy-bearded and muscled-up Oscar Isaac as computer scientist with delusionally ambitious aims:-

I think this will be the most controversial of my Top 10 inclusions, and furthermore, to have it nominated as my ultimate 'Film of the Year' may well be too much for some. Well, if so, I can live with it. The film did get, as far as I could make out, very good reviews all round on its release, only I would go so far as to rate it a step or two beyond being just 'very good'.

And as per convention, I'm going to end with my choice of 'Turkey of the Year'. No, not the recent Star Wars, though it was a close-run thing. No, this year's mouldy raspberry award goes to:-

Tomorrowland - which not only George Clooney's starring role could rescue. See it if you dare! Or perhaps if you're wanting something to send you to sleep:-

Now it's nearly time to dive into 2016 - and there are some pretty interesting items already on the list, such as...........

Monday, 21 December 2015

Film: 'Star Wars - The Force Awakens'

Let's dispose of this quickly. It bored the pants off me, just as every other of this series has done, right back to 1977, when I just couldn't understand why everyone else was coming out so ga-ga over that first one. I've seen every Star Wars film in the cinema shortly after release (more out of a sense of 'duty' than any keenness to see them), lost interest in each very early on - and this latest is no great improvement, if it's any at all. 
If it hadn't been for the near-constant, surround-sound din I would surely have dozed off. My first yawn (of many) came just 15 minutes in. I just didn't care about what was happening to any of the characters, that's the top and bottom of it, leaving me cold and unresponsive.
However, I have to aver, the series has been a phenomenon, even though I'm so far outside its appreciation as to my being beyond the horizon. Current average rating on IMDb is 8.8 (from 165,000 viewers), which must be just about the highest I've seen for any film to date, so it's pleasing an awful lot of people, and how can anyone argue with that?

Can't be bothered to mention anything of the 'plot'. Anyone who's interested enough would know by now anyway. Shan't bother with the cast either. Appearances from earlier in the series only make me apprehensive about future releases, which I think I may as well give up on now. I doubt if I'll get an epiphanous awakening at this late stage.

I've no doubt that the visuals are now more accomplished than they've ever been, which is only what one would hope for. But when one tries to sustain a level of interest by entertaining oneself in looking for gaffes in continuity (of which I noticed several, but am sure there were loads more, as there are in every film), well, that's not a good sign.

I'll close this on a kind(ish) note.......................3.

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.