Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Film: 'Trumbo'

A film of 'quality'!

The story of Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood screenplay and script writer (mainly in the 1950s), and his struggle with the film industry, through the McCarthy 'witch-hunt trials', trying to blacklist and ostracize him for his membership of the Communist party.

Bryan Cranston, a name I didn't know (I see he's done a lot of TV work), plays the title character - and Diana Lane plays his wife, another name I was unfamiliar with though I see that she has appeared in a number of films I've seen in less up-front roles. Helen Mirren is the obnoxious and viperish (under a velvet glove), reactionary and flamboyantly fashion-conscious gossip writer, Hedda Hopper, all-powerful with her ability to influence public opinion through her bitchy magazine columns, which can determine the fate of anyone to whom she takes exception, especially political opponents. (She'd have been a shoo-in for 'Fox News' these days!)

It's a rivetting sweep of a story even though I knew where it was going. Although I was too young myself at the time to be aware of the trials, a number of well-known names are depicted here which show with clear effect which side they were on (if anyone didn't already know) - John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Otto Preminger - and, most significantly, here in the earlier portion of the film Edward G.Robinson, and, in the latter part, Kirk Douglas.
If the film does momentarily run low on steam in the final third it does pick up speed again effectively. I could have done without the long concluding speech where we might have made our own identical conclusions through all that's gone before, but I suppose it wraps it up neatly (maybe too neatly?)
I must also mention with some regret that there were some howlers of continuity lapses. Why do they let these get through? Do they really think we wouldn't notice? Unfortunate - as well as being distracting! 

Director is Jay Roach, that same director of the Austin Powers films, who demonstrates that he can manage high drama every bit as successfully as he can do comedy.

The filmed story told, with liberties taken to simplify, has a lot going for it and I left the cinema feeling well-satisfied, though also aware that it's a story still being played out in Hollywood - not now with a campaign against card-carrying 'reds' of course, who'd be every bit as much of pariah status as before (their number must now be down to minuscule, almost non-existence levels anyway) - but the saga continues. As we are all currently reading, where money talks, the spotlight right now has settled on 'minorities' (including women) represented on screen. So in that sense, the general air of self-congratulation in eliminating the Communist hunt that this film ends with is now transferred to other areas not mentioned, though naturally without such penalties and the threats/realities of unemployment that were utilised in the case of McCarthyism.  

I've heard unfavourable comparison being made of this with another film concerning the same issue of blacklisting at the same period, namely Martin Ritt's 'The Front' of 1976 (with Woody Allen in a non-comedic role). I liked that earlier film a lot too but this new one takes a different slant, concentrating on Trumbo's personal struggle with others of his ilk and amongst members of his own family. If the earlier one did carry a bit more punch, it's only by a slight margin.

In the final analysis, though, this one did leave me feeling it was a well-spent couple of hours of entertainment..............7.5.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Film: 'Triple 9'

Brutal, frequently grisly, but also a trifle tedious, Atlanta-set tale of double-faced police corruption and its involvement with the Russian 'Mafia', a film peopled with unlikeable characters in a sequence of set shoot-out pieces, which includes 'good cop' Woody Harrelson. Then there's Casey Affleck and Chiwetel Ejiofor (the latter good to see in any role) filling the main male leads while Kate Winslet is a Russian matriarchal and chief-villainess figure.

It's okay, on the whole, but little more than that. I've seen this sort of drama done better and more excitingly, and there's not much here that is genuinely new. I wasn't really rooting for anyone - and when the guilty parties did meet their just terminations in one form or the other I couldn't have much cared, with some of the developments being pretty predictable. It's all forgettable fodder though will probably fulfil the needs of anyone demanding diversion for a couple of hours, then for them to to file it away in the 'seen' folder. 

Director John Coathill achieved a much more satisfying film with his 'The Road' of 2009. Here he proves he's one of the 'lads' with a 'thriller' of all guns and bluster but little underneath.

Nothing too special, then - it just about fits the bill, but only just...........................5.

(Following day - I'm wondering if my rating is just a wee bit on the generous side.)

Friday, 19 February 2016

Film: 'Deadpool'

Lively, violent in extremis - and quite amusing, this comic book caper of a completely costumed protagonist with super-human powers presents a moving version of a comic magazine strip, with all the bone-crunching confrontations one would expect to be depicted in that format, only here blown up into forensic, microscopic detail, complete with slo-mos and freeze-frames to enable us to savour to the fullest the gory physical details of the numerous combats. If it has one saving grace (though it's not the sole one), it's in having a sharp, witty, self-knowing script, containing frequent references to other films and various aspects of modern 'culture', mostly delivered direct to camera by Mr Dead Pool - the name adopted by the principal, Wade Wilson, and confidently played by Ryan Reynolds -  in very dry humour style. Some of these 'asides' I got; at other times the audience laughed though I wasn't sure for why. Reynolds' character's  manner regularly reminded me of Jim Carrey when being one of his manic characters (i.e. most of them) - physically hyperactive and ever-zany in talk. 
I must admit to gritting my teeth a little at the wise-guy opening credits, which looked as though it was straining for forced comic effect. However, it wasn't too far into the film itself that I was chuckling, and indeed laughing, along with the audience with no assistance.

The story is a slender one. Set in a nameless American(?) city (actually shot in Vancouver, that increasingly frequent stand-in for an anonymous North American metropolis - and even London recently), a government law enforcer (I think) is abducted and subject to gut-churning surgical procedures by a crazed English surgeon-scientist, 'Warlord', (Canadian Michael Benyaer) to transform him into being his slave with super-human capacities and self-repairing invulnerability, through operations which turn his skin hideously pock-marked, hence the head-to-toe costume, he covering his face in Spiderman fashion. Before this happens the 'Pool' figure had started a relationship with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and is, understandably,  now rather peeved that his physical transformation has made him unattractive to her, so he keeps himself back from revealing himself to her. The entire film concerns Mr Pool seeking revenge on the one who enacted his metamorphosis, a mission in which he gets assistance from a metal giant(!) and a miniature flame-weapon of a young female, to fight against Warlord and his seemingly inexhaustible human resources. .

Tim Miller's film (this being his first feature as director),  has a number of lapses of logic and continuity that I picked up on but, of course, one overlooks these in a comic-style production, and I certainly don't hold such lapses against it.  
If it wasn't for the incisive script - many of the best bits being addressed  to the audience, and much of it sexual, I wouldn't have rated the film that high. But it's that factor more than any other that distinguishes it.

Usually I write my reviews immediately on my return home from the cinema, so that you get a spontaneous reaction which may change with time, and regularly does. In this case I made a rare evening-venture out so have had nearly a full day to reflect on what I've seen. 

'Deadpool' fulfilled its mission to divert and gave me some genuine laughs, though in the final analysis it wasn't intended to be any more profound than the forgettable 'popcorn' entertainment which it comprises. So all in all, I think a fair rating would be a reasonably wholesome...................6.


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.