Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Film: 'Joy'

If I'd paid more attention to the reviews I wouldn't have gone thinking that this was going to be a light-hearted, breezy comedy. I knew it was based on a true story (but how many films are not, these days?) though I was also misled by the film's optimistic title which, in fact, is simply the name of the lead character, Joy Mangano, played by Jennifer Lawrence.
She is the inventor of the 'Miracle Mop', a device which can be rinsed without getting ones hands wet and dirty. The film follows her fight to achieve recognition as well as her due fair payment for the product.
However, the first third or so of the film sets the scene by revealing her domestic situation, living in the same large house as her mother, grandmother and her own infant daughter. Her former husband, divorced from her two years previously, lives in the basement. Then her twice-divorced father, in the form of Robert de Niro, comes round without warning, to move in as well. 

There are indeed some laughs in this first section, arising from the abrasive exchanges between the various family members who have uneasy relationships with each other. But then, after an accident involving being cut by small shards of broken glass while cleaning up, Joy invents the mop and tries to find a market for it, meeting on the way, influential industrial big-wig Bradley Cooper who invests faith in her and the product. Before this point has been reached, however, nearly all humour has been vanquished and it becomes very serious, especially when Joy finds that her trust in various people who indicated they could help her, is found to have been misplaced. Indeed, she finds that she has been taken for a ride and income which should have accrued to her has been siphoned off in other directions. She, meanwhile, in order to get her product off the ground, has had to re-mortgage her house and is up to her neck in debt. 

I'm not going to blame the film for my own mistaken expectations, but I did find it increasingly heavy-going as it progressed. De Niro himself, well to the fore after his first appearance near the film's start, has less and less to do as the film moves on until he's hardly present at all. Jennifer Lawrence herself is as fine as she usually is, and so is Bradley Cooper, in a rather smaller role than we are used to seeing him in. 
David O. Russell is the director and joint writer of this venture, he who also guided Lawrence and Cooper in 'Silver Linings Playbook' as well as both again in 'American Hustle'. I don't think this latest came up to the level of either of those two, but it was still fair enough.

Go if you wish, but if you do I'd advise you to be wiser as to the type of film it is than I was........................6.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Film: 'The Hateful Eight'

Quentin Tarantino's eighth film - of an ultimate ten, if he's to be believed. This one is stretched way beyond the point it needs to be, and is every bit as gory-grisly as any of his previous films, especially in the final hour of this 2 hour 53 minute film. Mind you, this was the 'shorter' version which I saw. In case you think that that might leave you feeling short-changed there is another print doing the rounds at 20 minutes longer still.

Set a short time after the American Civil War, the film takes its time to really get started. The first two screen-headed 'chapters' introduce us to four of the characters. In an oncoming blizzard a stagecoach containing bounty hunter Kurt Russell has Jennifer Jason Leigh as his prisoner who is being taken to a small town to face justice. The coach picks up another bounty hunter, a Major (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as the incoming new sheriff (Walton Goggins, a name I didn't know but one to watch) of the town to where Russell is taking Leigh to be delivered up - to be hanged. To wait out the snowstorm the coach stops at an isolated haberdashery store where is found the remainder already there who are to comprise the 'eight' of the title, including Michael Madsen, Tim Roth (with exaggerated lah-di-dah English accent) and Bruce Dern as an aged General in the recent war. But - and this is the crux of the film - is everybody really who they say they are?

My main criticism is in the long preamble before the story starts in earnest, well over half an hour into an already too long film. If the purpose of this extended opening was to furnish us with information which would explain later actions or motivations, even in hindsight, it took way too long to do so and, in any case, there's a lot of extraneous stuff there. 
After the shelter of the store has been reached the scene rarely shifts outside again for the remainder of the film, except for a couple of briefish flashbacks and one or two short action sequences.
The real tension only starts about half way through the film when questions start to be asked about exactly who each of these people really are. It does become interesting, actually very absorbing, as the audience is no wiser about the truth of everybody's identity than the characters themselves are. 
Being directed and written by who it is, it hardly needs saying that tensions are only broken through blood-lettings, almost entirely with guns - and some of it is very graphic indeed, some of the victims of the bullets' targets surviving to continue their confrontations even whilst bleeding heavily.

It's all very handsomely shot in Panavision's widescreen, now rarely-used, 'letter-box' format, with the opening snowbound scenes particularly impressive, and all set to a suitably ominously-sounding Ennio Morricone score. 

I haven't actively disliked any of Tarantino's films. This one is not, I think, one of his best, being over-indulgent, lacking discipline and, crucially, being needlessly over-long. But when it eventually does get going it did draw me in and from then on I wasn't at all bored, though some of that alertness was having to steel myself against witnessing yet more gore, usually arriving suddenly and sometimes not quite as expected. 
But on the whole, I derived more entertainment from it than I do for most films.....................................7.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Film: 'Sisters'

A jumble of a comedy, this - and that very much seems to be the consensus. Some of it works - including a couple of very funny moments, though no more than that. But a lot of it misfires, some of that being the too rapid repartee which is lost in indecipherability, or is simply not amusing at all when it's clear that it's intended to be. In fact through a lot of this film I thought it was too self-knowing for its own good, and it shows. There are few more effective ways to kill a comedy than to act it as if its funny.

Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are the titular unmarried siblings, now with their respective own homes. They are shocked by the sudden news that their parents (Josh Brolin and Dianne Wiest) have decided to sell their house, the very place in which they grew up, with all their memories and artifacts within, including the one-time shared girls' bedroom kept in the state in which they left it. They decide to mark the house's changing of owner by holding the mother of all parties in their parents' absence, to which they invite all and sundry - virtually unlimited booze and, later, drugs being available - plus bedrooms. Eventual result - mayhem. So far so predictable. If the film intended to make at least one of the loud-mouthed invitees as irritating and unfunny on screen as he would have been in reality, it succeeded very well.

I didn't know Amy Poehler at all and Tina Fey is a name I'm only familiar with through being mentioned in our more recent news programmes for her political sketches. The other name I recognised is John Leguizamo in a bit part, reflecting, I suppose, his decline into low-level celebrity status. Mention must also be made of (mmmm mmmm!) stud, Ike Barinholz, a new name who really lit my fire.

Much of the humour is heavily sexual, and a lot of the vocabulary reflects the same, coming from virtually all the participants. But its success is patchy. The 'plot' is simple enough, though the whole thing finishes with completely foreseeable and cringe-making tying- up of loose ends.

Director Jason Moore achieves about the same level of laughs with me as he did with his 2012 'Pitch Perfect', so it would not be inappropriate to rate this film with approximately (in fact, one step lower) than I gave that particular film. So................................5.5.

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.