Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Film: 'Dad's Army'.

When I first heard about this film being made my reaction was simply "Why?"

Taking the characters from one of Britain's most successful and popular TV situation comedies (9 series starting in 1968 - nearly all the original actors now being deceased; the two surviving ones having short cameo roles here), a clutch of currently moderately well-known names, some of whose faces will be familiar even if their names are not, with general physical approximations to the original actors are allotted their parts. Less an exercise in attempting authentic imitation they do their best to give a vague idea of the original players - some quite successfully, it must be said - with the original characters' individual catch-phrases inserted, though with variable effect.

This film and the TV series was set in 1944, telling of the Home Guard, the body of British men (and some women) who were not conscripted into the fighting forces due to age, disability or other reasons, and who were on ever-ready guard to defend the country in the event of a Nazi invasion. (I recall in the 60s when the idea of the series was first being mooted there was significant concern that it would be an irreverent and mocking take on the brave souls who had actually given up their time ready to defend the country - to the death, if need be. But it was accepted by viewers more in affection than ridicule).

I was uncertain of the wisdom of making this film though, of course, the motivation is to make money. At the time of the original series there was another feature film made which was moderately well-received but I found it rather flat - and, as in the case of nearly all full-length films made from a TV series, it hopelessly outstretched itself beyond any of the TV programmes' original attraction - the latter being, in effect, a series of extended vignettes, each half-hour independent of the other.. The experience always seems to be that bigger budgets emphatically do not mean funnier. In fact it's almost always the case that 'more equals less'. And so I found it with this film - a so-so product to which the large audience with which I attended reacted with polite chuckles of moderate amusement now and again (and in which I joined) but there was nothing approaching the hilarity which sometimes showed itself in the original TV programmes. (Incidentally, I don't think the BBC has ever stopped repeating the originals - and always on one of their two main channels too, and in peak-viewing time. It seems to be on some kind of permanent 'loop'.)

Now the names. The most internationally well known will be Tom Courtenay, with Bill Nighy also probably being well-recognised. Then, as the south coast's platoon's (actually filmed in Yorkshire) bumbling, self-important captain is Toby Jones. Other reasonably well-known names are Michael Gambon and Bill Patterson.

There is one major difference to the original series on which it's based. At that time, women, if they were present at all, were effectively sidelined as very minor players, many of the shows having no female appearances whatsoever. Not so here. To its credit it has one woman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, at centre-stage, as an undercover German spy, her true nature being revealed very early on in the film.
Then, also important is the Captain's wife, here (played by Felicity Montagu) a true Amazon of a figure whereas in the TV series Mrs Mainwaring, as she was, was regularly mentioned but never seen. There's also the redoubtable Alison Steadman and some other female names I recognised, all to the film's advantage, opening out the situations to beneficial effect. 
But even that can't disguise the fact that it's not a very good film - though certainly not exactly 'bad' either - which doesn't serve the original series that well. The script, lacking the inventiveness of its original writers (one of them yet survives) is clunky, especially when well-known phrases are crowbarred in - "They don't like it up 'em", "We're doomed!", "Stupid boy!" etc - and only underlines how far this film comes short of the original TV series.

Btw: This is a current British film without Ben Whishaw. Wasn't he available? A rarity indeed!

However, it's an honest effort. Director is Oliver Parker who, in recent years, has directed three of Oscar Wilde's works on film. As might be guessed, this one is too long by a good way, despite my liking for the conspicuous female presences, particularly that of Ms Z-J. But overall I must give a score that reflects it being a so-so accomplishment......................5.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Film: 'Spotlight'

Like the contemporary 'The Big Short' this is another film where all the 'action' is verbal, with a cast every bit as stellar, though with the bonus that this time I could understand all of it. I liked this one even more than the other.

The subject is the true one of the investigation in 2001 by the Boston Globe newspaper of the Roman Catholic Church's cover-up of cases of historical child abuse, specifically in the diocese of Boston, and its protection of paedophile priests, of which the then Archbishop Law of Boston was fully aware and who was actually a chief player in the actions of concealment.

If there is a dominating role among the ensemble cast it's taken by Mark Ruffalo as a headstrong, earnest reporter, looking younger than ever - but also strangely less attractive this time, at least to me. But there are also several other cast members with substantial, meaty roles - Michael Keaton as senior reporter,  Liev Schreiber as the paper's boss and Rachel McAdams (whose name I had to look up, appearing in several recent films, the best known to me being Woody Allen's 'Midnight in Paris' of 2011). She, as another investigative reporter, has the only significant female role in the film, one in which she meets some of the victims of abuse, now all adults. In addition there's Stanley Tucci, an irascible figure who knows the situation from his own experience but found his own earlier investigations being foiled at every twist and turn by the obstructive Church which, understandably, doesn't want the story to get into the public domain. The Globe staff are determined to gather the evidence to blow the whole story open to the world, despite the Church's continued efforts to do all it can to keep a lid on it. The story becomes even more sensational when it's discovered that paedophile priests are not just a 'few bad apples' but that their presence in Boston is, in fact, rife - and, as the closing notices make clear, is so throughout the entire world. It's a situation which has now, sadly, become so familiar - namely that when it comes to finding justice for the victims of abuse and for punishing the criminal perpetrators, it all comes second to the Church's own self-ordained top priority of protecting the 'reputation' of that same 'Holy Mother Church'. If that means doing shady and hopelessly inadequate deals with victims to keep them quiet, and moving these same priests to other parishes where they can continue their abuse, then so be it.

I found the film quite rivetting, even though we know where it's going. It's fast moving and always interesting, and the cast is of uniformly very high standard.

Director (and sometimes actor) Tom McCarthy keeps it all driven along at a cracking pace in a film for which I have no appreciable complaints at all. I've seen slightly unfavourable comparisons being made for this as against another investigative reporting film, 'All the President's Men' (1976), about the Watergate break-in and cover-up. There's no doubt that this latter is a very fine film, though I haven't myself seen it since its appearance those 40 years ago. However, I do think that 'Spotlight' can hold its own in comparison, and for that reason I award it a well recommended..................7.5.

 


Monday, 1 February 2016

Film: 'The Revenant'

Well, I'm glad that's out of the way!

I should imagine that most of those who had any interest in seeing this film will have done so by now, which gets me rather neatly off the hook, not wishing to go on at length about this deeply uncomfortable experience. I only felt I ought to go at all because so much has already been said about it and it's going to figure large in the forthcoming awards ceremonies. If Leo DiC does get the 'Best Actor' Oscar and BAFTA, for which he's currently favourite to win, I shan't be forward in complaining. Tom Hardy was good too but I did find his speech often incomprehensible - not inaudible, but I just couldn't understand what he was saying much of the time.
Many scenic panoramas, mostly snow-covered, which are quite breath-takingly spectacular.
As for director Alejandro Inarritu, I almost got the feeling that he was relishing the showing of so much gore and violence, some of it even meted out on humans! Felt my nose was being rubbed in it so that I didn't fall asleep, which I don't think I'd have done anyway, despite the film's almost three hours' length.

In terms of my own 'enjoyment', I award it a fairly reasonable....................6.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Film: 'The Big Short'

A serious subject for sure - the origins and effects of the worldwide financial crash of 2008 (though here only from the American angle) - and very much a high-powered 'yakety-yak' film, i.e. virtually 100% of the 'action' being verbal. It's expected to pick up a sheaf of awards in the upcoming ceremonies and I think it might deserve at least something.
If you see this film referred to as a 'comedy' - and there certainly are some amusing asides and one-liners - don't let that sidetrack you from its having a dark tone which points up the fragility and vulnerability of claims of economic stability.

I can't help making comparisons with another financial 'talkie' film, 'Glengarry Glen Ross' of 1994 (significantly extended for the screen from the original stage play) which fizzed along at great pace, always involving, managing to keep me engrossed all the way through and leaving me practically out of breath by the close. 'The Big Short' didn't quite make it to that standard but there is a roughly equivalent high level of testosterone-fuelled energy. Of course, this new film is about money dealings on a national and international scale, whereas 'G.G.R.' was completely localised within one commercial firm.

I'm afraid the technicalities of all these financial transactions didn't take longer than a few minutes to completely lose me. But what do I know? I was an accountant for only 25 years! However, the terminology is American-speak, so words and phrases particular to that country will probably be called something else in Britain. Even so, I can't say that even if I'd known the terms it would have been much clearer to me. 

There are some big names in the cast. Christian Bale, whose own story (a wise-brain who foresees the inevitable sorry outcome) is somewhat set apart from the hustle and bustle of the centrally depicted, over-heated arguments. I gather that the questionable issue is something akin to pyramid selling, though with home mortgages as the building bricks. It's only a matter of time before individuals and financial institutions become aware of what's going on, and general nervousness spreads like a forest fire before the whole caboodle gets incinerated.
Then in the central roles there's Steve Carrell, (very ably once again playing serious after his impressive 'Foxcatcher'), Ryan Gosling, Rafe Spall - and Brad Pitt (who's also one of the executive producers) in a slightly more marginal part.
There's quite a bit of talking to camera by various cast members which works rather effectively.
The few women taking their short turns on screen are peripheral figures, nearly all seen just once and then gone.

There are very few scenes longer than two minutes. In fact much of the film looks like a pop video - fleeting images that hardly have time to register. It's all busy-busy-busy, never less than interesting, notwithstanding the fact that I was lost from the discussions for much of the time.
However, the conclusion, of which we all know, carries a terrific punch - namely showing how those responsible for this folly were baled out by the government (as also happened in the U.K.), whose largesse they could use to financially further reward themselves for their 'success' in escaping justice and avoiding gaol, while those who suffered most by losing jobs and homes, were the poorest and most vulnerable. And at the close there's the warning that it's all bound to happen again. In fact the seeds of a repeat scenario are sprouting again right now.

Adam McKay (director of the two 'Anchorman' films) manages this film capably in very flashy style, which befits the Las Vegas gambling milieu it parallels.  
I have a feeling that my opinion of this may well rise in time. I can't say for sure, whereas for 'Glengarry' I knew it was a superior film from the first time I saw it, and having seen it several times since, it doesn't pall. 
If I give that '94 film an '8', then my rating for 'The Big Short' is.......................6.5.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Film: 'The Danish Girl'

Although good, I found watching this a rather exhausting experience, so relentless is it in its intensity, with no real let-ups. In fact, the first time I looked at my watch I'd thought that by then it must be approaching its conclusion, only to find it was only just past halfway through.

There's no doubt that the film belongs to Eddie Redmayne and I would take nothing at all away from his astonishing performance. When last year he deservedly won awards all round for 'The Theory of Everything' we all knew the path his role as Stephen Hawking was going to take. For this one he's nominated as Best Actor for both BAFTAs and Oscars, and it's a much more widely ranged and subtly nuanced role - as well as being a far lesser known true story too. He'll probably get the BAFTA, but the loud buzz for the other is that it's Leo's turn for going through hell in his part in 'The Revenant', which I'm yet to see.

This story starts in 1926 Copenhagen with married artists Einer Wegener (Redmayne) and Gerte (Alicia Vikander - 'Ex Machina'), he being the more compliant of the pair, she more spiky and liable to fly off the handle. I knew nothing at all of the story except what I'd read beforehand. Although from the outset he is heterosexual, I'd have thought that it would have been his own self-awakening as to his feelings for feminine attire that would be the catalyst, rather than the actuality of her encouraging him, first by getting him to pose as a female model for her painting, and then encouraging him to go the full distance wearing dress and make-up and accompanying her, as a 'game', to a dance as a woman friend in the new identity of Lili Elbe. Of course she has no idea that the stirring up of these latent feelings in him would grow so powerfully and so quickly until he can't control his dressing as female - and he not only has no wish to stop but eventually wants to go the entire way and have his body surgically transformed. Despite his new-found personality, time and again, even in woman's clothes, he declares his love for his wife. One does wonder if her patience can last out, it being as much a trial for her as for him while she supports him in his seeking help for his feelings from a brutally (though not entirely) unsympathetic psychiatric profession - merely a reflection of the times, of course. 

Also in the cast is.....guess who? Yes, it's our old-young friend, Ben Whishaw, yet again - who surely must have a clause in a unique contract with the British Film Institute that he is to appear in every single British film. There can be no other possible explanation! Having said that, he's still as good as he always is.
Then there's also the incresaingly familiar face of hottie Matthias Schoenarts ('Far from the Madding Crowd', 'Suite Francaise' - as well as the upcoming 'A Bigger Splash', to which I'm especially looking forward).

Director Tom Hooper ('Les Miserables', 'The King's Speech') brings it all together satisfactorily enough but there's very little light and shade in the proceedings. Although Redmayne's character and that of his screen wife do exhibit a range of emotions I felt the film's storyline itself was almost stiflingly one track, such that it did wear me down pretty quickly.. 
The film's selling point is, naturally. the central performance of Redmayne as a transexual, which will probably be seen in years to come as a pioneering role. However, in the final analysis, I felt that his appearance transcended the rest of the film itself......................6.5.

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.