Thursday, 24 March 2016

Film: '10 Cloverfield Lane'

I'm pleased to report that I found this to be a cracker!
One proviso, though. If anyone remembers the equally enjoyable 'Cloverfield' of 2008, it would be better to ditch any thought that this might be some kind of sequel. Anticipating a connection between that film and this is unhelpful, and if there is one it's only tangential.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a young woman driving alone when she's involved in a car crash. She wakes up to find herself apparently a prisoner in a sparsely furnished locked room, chained to a wall, and with a medical drip attached to her injured body.
When her 'gaoler' (John Goodman) arrives with some food for her, he explains that he's saved her life by bringing her down to his underground residence as the air above has been contaminated and that there is no one left alive. How and why this came about is left rather vague (warfare? accident? aliens?). She finds the story hard to believe and doesn't trust him, thinking that he's made up a pretext for keeping her imprisoned with him, despite his assuring her that he's no 'pervert'. She then discovers that she's not the only one being detained. In another room is a young man of similar age (John Gallagher Jnr) who's been here for several days and been fed the same story, which he seems to accept more readily than she does. They are both shortly given free access to the rest of his subterranean abode where they have meals together, though they both have to spend periods alone in their respective quarters behind locked doors. Otherwise, all doors and windows to the outside world are bolted and sealed. Goodman remains disappointed by her sceptical attitude to his being her 'saviour' and her continuing desire to be released.

At first I found John Goodman in the role not so easy to take - his considerable backwork of memorable characters (quite often funny) in previous films always leaving a deep impression, no matter how weighty or short his appearance is. But soon I found him exuding the true menace and ambiguity that this character requires - a dormant volcano which can erupt spectacularly at any time, and does. He's terrific here! The other two actors, not yet having anything like the same body of work to their credit, are both very good too.

In this claustrophobic setting there are some truly nail-biting sequences with the tension ratcheted up to max in most effective manner. If there were one or two 'clunky' bits they didn't detract from the effectiveness of the whole. (Why do so many women have their ear-rings drop off in the most 'convenient' places?)

The final slice of the film may well be regarded as not quite as satisfying as all that went before - it certainly lets rip with being 'wild'! - but it rounds off the film fairly well, and at least it gives a sort of reason as to why the Goodman figure was keeping these two captive, even though on reflection it raises rather more questions than it answers.

Director Dan Trachtenberg (his first full-length directing feature here?) is a name to look out for on this evidence.

Overall, it's good, taut, escapist fun. I enjoyed it and can heartily recommend...................7.5

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Film: 'Hitchcock/Truffaut'


I found this a fascinating documentary, as I suspect most cineastes will - most especially, those admirers of Alfred Hitchcock films. 
It's based on interviews over several occasions which the then 30-year old French film director Francois Truffaut made with the then 63-year old Hitch in 1962, and which Truffaut then used as material for his 1966 publication 'The Cinema According to Hitchcock'. 
We see stills from the interview sessions, with interpreter on hand, while we listen to part of the audio tapes, each of the two speaking in his own native language.
My sole disappointment was that the conversations are very desultory, covering a range of aspects of Hitchcock's techniques though hardly ever going into significant depth on any of them. These discussions are punctuated by comments from several notable present-day directors (Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Wes Anderson, plus others) who are remarking on thoughts thrown up by their reading of Truffaut's book. 
Right through this film we are shown clips from quite a number of Hitchcock films (some very brief indeed), including the few he made subsequent to the interviews. There are also a few short excerpts of the handful of films that Truffaut had made up to that point. 
The two Hitchcock films discussed the most are 'Vertigo' and 'Psycho', though even these are not gone into with the searching profundity for which I'd been hoping. It was just beginning to get interesting when Hitch (and Scorsese) remark on how the story of 'Vertigo' doesn't hang together, despite Hitchcock considering it as one of his better films, but then this aspect is curtailed. In fact, quite frequently it became regularly exasperating in that whenever I felt that something searchingly illuminating was going to be said, the subject was switched.
(A sad footnote is that Truffaut, despite being 33 years younger than Hitchcock, survived him by just four years).

Nevertheless, despite my reservations, I found it totally absorbing, and - very rare for me this - I only wish its 83 minutes had been double the length................................7.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Film: 'The Witch'

Whilst cogniscant of some very high opinions of this saga of witchlore and demonic possession, I am not of like mind. The first half I found quite static, concentrating on building up an atmosphere of spookiness (thanks largely to eerie soundtrack effects) which, when it's delivered in visuals in the second half, complete with obligatory gore (as well as a mysterious rabbit and a black goat), struck me as pretentious and verging on the just plain silly.

The setting is New England, 17th century. In a kind of prologue, an apparently devout Christian family is awaiting a verdict from a kind of official inquiry into their supposed dabblings in witchcraft, their sentence being to be exiled to live in seclusion from the rest of society, which they do, the parents caring for a number of children within a wide age range, including a baby. They also subsist on the produce of a small menagerie. The first indication of something supernatural going on is when the baby literally disappears from in front of one of the daughters even while she is playing with it. Of course, being religious-minded the parents and the other children come to the 'reasonable' conclusion that some negative influence is at work - which it is, of course. Accusations of being in league with this evil force start flying between adults and between children.

I didn't know the names of any single person in the cast, though I see that one or two have been in films which have previously come my way.

In this film, where stretches are in virtual monochrome, if director Robert Eggers (whose first full-length feature this appears to be) achieved what he had in mind, then I've seen films of similar genre done better and more convincingly realised - and I'll be generous and draw a veil over the very last two or three minutes! 

But if you're curious enough then do go and see it for yourself. A lot more people have been highly impressed by this product than there are those of my opinion. Myself, I can only award it a.......................3.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Film: 'Anomalisa'

A curious, puzzling, yet intriguing film - made in what they call 'stop-capture-motion animation', depicting characters near enough to reality so as not to be a continual distraction, yet sufficiently off-kilter to be mildly unsettling.
Imaginatively written by Charlie Kaufman (who also wrote 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' and 'Being John Malkovich' among other notable creations), this is based on his own play, and he here shares directing credits with Duke Johnson

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is an English lecturer and writer who gives inspirational motivation to service providers, flying in to Cincinatti from L.A. for one day to deliver a lecture. He settles into his hotel room - but before then in the aeroplane, in the taxi, the hotel staff, we've become aware that all the other characters (except one) with which he interacts, male and female, have identical or very similar faces - and as if to underline their 'same-ness' they are all voiced by Tom Noonan, men and women alike, in same-sounding voice.
The sole exception is a young woman (the nickname of the film's title) whom he by chance encounters in the hotel, slightly different facially, and voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. He invites her back to his room - where things develop. But right from the film's start we've seen that Stone's own interaction abilities with others are somewhat stunted and less than the ideal on which he himself lectures.

This is another of those films without clear resolution, which may well leave some unsatisfied. Not so myself, though ever since it was over (about three hours ago) I've been reflecting on whether there was a key element of the story, or its realisation on screen, which was staring me in the face but which I failed to recognise and appreciate. Re-reading now some of the reviews I come to the conclusion that this is not so. So I accept it being left as an enigma dangling in the air, which itself is perfectly fine.
Btw: There's a parallel with a certain scene in Kaufman's 'Being John Malkovich' where everyone has that actor's face, whilst here they all have the same facial features - well, all except Stone and the young woman.

I did like 'Anomalisa' but doubt if it's going to leave a lasting impression on my memory, though I may be wrong. However, its strangeness (in a positive sense) carries it..............6.5.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Film: 'Truth'


Another film about investigative journalism, and by no means the first to set blood pressures rising, particularly for those Americans of a Republican persuasion.
Based on a book by, and featuring as main character, Mary Mapes, a name I didn't know (Cate Blanchett - the acting range of this woman is extraordinary!), it also features CBS political commentator, Dan Rather (Robert Redford), a name I was aware of, but little more than that.

It concerns the 2004 rumoured story that George W. Bush, then on his campaign to attain a second term as President had, in the early 1970s, taken a safer alternative to doing active combat service in Viet Nam thanks to familial and political influences in Washington D.C., and even then he hadn't fulfilled the minimum requirements of attendance. Blanchett, as Mapes, gets her teeth into the story and sets about finding validation by interviewing those senior army personnel around at the time who can confirm what happened regarding Bush. She opens up this story with Dan Rather who is keen to run with it, reporting its progress on CBS's widely-viewed 'Sixty Minutes' TV programme. Then the 'other side' starts to claim that some key documents are forgeries and it helps even less when at least one strategic witness modifies his story. Was he leaned on for political reasons? Meanwhile the investigation is raising tensions within Mapes' own family life. Is she really after the truth or is she determined at any cost to discredit Bush in order to help the Democrats Presidential campaign for Kerry?

As the evidence is explained to us I felt in danger of becoming lost, though I wasn't completely. However, the case isn't as clear-cut as it was in the recent 'Spotlight'.

In the large cast (every single one a white face!) is also Dennis Quaid and they are all of a high standard, though once again it's Blanchett who carries the acting honours.

This seems to be James Vanderbilt's debut as feature film director and he manages a more than respectable achievement, as well as writing the screenplay from Mapes' book. The film is good and I'd recommend it, though not above some recent films of a similar genre of story...........................6.5.

Film: 'Hail, Caesar!'

I'd seen the trailer for this so many times that the initial excitement which I always feel when I learn that a Cohen Brothers film is on the way had dwindled close to apathy and was in danger of coming out the other side. But I retained hope that the actual film would fulfil my original hopes, my expectations boosted by numerous positive and very enthusiastic reviews (One critic on the radio said she "laughed like a drain all the way through!") So did it redeem itself for me? Alas, no. And I'd go further by saying that I rate this as one of their weakest efforts for some years. Such a let-down when it held great promise from that first view of the trailer, at least until I started growing weary of it.


Set in early 1950s Hollywood, a time when Biblical epics were 'big' in all senses, Josh Brolin is the professional 'go-to fixer' who learns that the super-star (George Clooney, playing an actor who can't remember his lines) of the current religioso screen extravaganza  has been kidnapped by a blacklisted Communist writers' collective for a ransom of $100,000. (Clooney wears the same Roman centurion costume in which he was abducted, throughout the film). 
Meanwhile English director Ralph Fiennes has had foisted on him as the star of his film, a young 'cowboy' who can't act (Alden Ehrenreich, a name I didn't know though now see that he featured in Woody Allen's excellent 'Blue Jasmine'). 
Then there's Scarlet Johannson  in an Esther Williams-like formation-swimming set piece, she herself having to display a happily beaming face while she's actually in stroppy mood, pregnant and husband-less, another situation that requires 'fixing' to avoid the curtains coming down on her career with all the consequent losses to Hollywood.. 
As yet another strand of this disparately focussed film is a sailors' dancing number in a bar - exhilaratingly choreographed, one of the film's true (and few) highlights - and featuring Channing Tatum, who has appeared in a number of significant films in recent years, most recently in Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight'. 
Amid all this, Tilda Swinton, as both of two rival gossip-writing sisters (Was having two of them really necessary? It didn't add anything.) has got scent of the Clooney kidnapping and threatening Brolin with exposure of the fact in her columns while he's already having to juggle with all the above elements and, most importantly of all, have the Clooney character released or rescued.
So, to say that there's a lot going on would be something of an understatement.  

I found it all a bit messy. No situation was held onto long enough to grab and hold my interest. If there's one central character it's Brolin who, for me, didn't exhibit quite enough of the haplessness and vulnerability such a figure ought to be to make the character convincing.

The script sparkled only periodically, though when it did it showed what it ought to have been like all the time, something which the Cohens have demonstrated that they are capable of doing. It's clear that others - most others, in fact - disagree with me and rate this film not only as a 'return to form' but one of their very best. I really do wish I was of the same mind.

I did smile a few times, 'few' being the salient word. But there were no wickedly funny situations, of which there are in so many of the brothers' earlier comedy-dramas. In fact the only extended piece of nonsense was the splendidly and joyously choreographed sailors' dance.

Even though I do consider this film a disappointment, it's a measure of my regard for the Cohens that I can yet rate this film as being a little above average...............................5.5.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Film: 'Youth'

Loved this to bits, though I regretfully doubt whether it will have very wide appeal.
After getting a paltry, restricted release some weeks ago I was pleased to have a chance to catch it at a one-off, belated, special screening this morning - and, boy, was I lucky!

Michael Caine, a retired classical conductor/composer, and Harvey Keitel, a continuingly active film director, have been close friends for decades, and are now together at a health resort in Switzerland catering for all ages with large staff contingent, therapists and assistants. Caine is accompanied by his daughter (Rachel Weisz) who has been dating Keitel's son.. Also staying as temporary resident is Paul Dano, star of Keitel's current film, as well as its team of scriptwriters.
In addition, there's a late appearance from Jane Fonda, whom I disgracefully failed to recognise until seeing her name in the final credits. Oh, and there's one Paloma Faith 'doing her thing', as well as a bit of acting too.
Most of the dialogue is discursive conversation between the two male leads, reflecting on the past, relationships and on life generally - as well as commentaries on the lives of their respective offspring. Their exchanges are sometimes amusing, sometimes poignant.

Knowing what this film was about, I had serious doubts that Caine could credibly pull off playing someone with such a sophisticated background, his characters more often than not seeming to be the antithesis of a sophisticate. But I have to admit that I was agreeably surprised to find that he nails it perfectly.

In some respects it's quite a stylised, 'arty-type' film - occasional statuesque poses, non-sequiturs, unexplained puzzling images, silences - but in no way did all that trouble me. It melded into a very satisfactory whole. Photography throughout, especially of the alpine scenery, is top-notch.  

Director/writer Paolo Sorrentino has had considerable experience in both these fields, though none of his previous projects have exactly set the film-world alight. This one deserves to set that right.

My only real reservation was that there were a few moments in the script where the obvious was needlessly stated, where I felt that a simple silence would have carried more weight. But that's a relatively minor quibble.

This is the first film I've seen this year for which I have reasonable confidence in its appearing in my ultimate Top 10 of 2015, and I accordingly award it a rather rare..............................8.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Film: 'Grimsby' / ('The Brothers Grimsby')


I thought that this latest Sacha Baron Cohen offering might engender at least a couple of laughs. I was wrong - by two.
There had been moments in both his previous 'Bruno' and his 'The Dictator' which made me chortle. Not so here. And yet he's frankly bigger than these wastes of time and money - though because of his fan-base I deem that this'll give him his invested monies back

So good in 'Sweeney Todd', where he was the only major cast member who wasn't miscast, good in Martin Scorsese's 'Hugo', (though bringing nothing special to 'Les Mis'), he here adds to his very own original compendium of outlandish characters using their 'oddness' as an excuse for vulgar-drenched 'humour' - and this one outdoes anything gone before. Trouble is, it just ain't funny, at least to me - and also to a substantial part of the audience I was watching this with, that I could discern.

Ought to explain at the outset that Grimsby is a smaller-than-medium-sized town on Lincolnshire's North Sea coast, and was once this country's primary fishing port. However, since the collapse of the fishing industry in the 1970s it now remains a sad relic of what was once a flourishing seaport, now a run-down town of high unemployment - or so we are given to believe. (Incidentally, the few short scenes supposedly to be taking place in Grimsby were actually shot in the East London docks area.)

S.B.C. is a slovenly, big-mouthed, Grimsby man and football fanatic, living with his girlfriend (Rebel Wilson) and nine crudely sweary children (Ho ho ho! Such hilarity!). Twenty eight years previously he'd been separated from his brother (Mark Strong), now an MI6 agent and professional assassin, and during all this time he's been yearning for a reunion. Strong is already heavily involved in attempting to foil a world take-over through germ warfare by the depthlessly wicked Penelope Cruz, no less - she as unconvincing a villainess as one can imagine, though I suppose that's part of the film's intended 'fun'. 
S.B.C., having found Strong, hitches along with him, joining in his exploits and narrow escapes much to Strong's displeasure - taking them to South Africa and then (what passes for) Santiago, Chile. The 'jokes' maintain their crudeness throughout - in South Africa involving Gabourey Sibide as an hotel maid (the perspective taken here for the 'joke' making me feel particularly uncomfortable), as well as the two male leads at one point secreting themselves to hide from their pursuers by climbing intro the capacious vagina of an elephant, just prior to its being the recipient of multiple matings. (Laugh? I couldn't even start!).

There are a number of unfunny cameos from British comedy TV personalities (John Thomson, Johnny Vegas, Ricky Tomlinson and others) though I doubt if any of them would feel especially proud when they see the final product with which they've been involved.

Director Louis Leterrier (best well-known so far for the gritty and moderately enjoyable 'Transporter' and its sequel) doesn't add any specially distinctive touches to this product, but he does maintain its momentum - though to what end? 

It sounds like I was left completely unamused throughout but I must confess that I did manage to raise half a smile at one point when (spoiler alert!) in a health spa, S.B.C. sees one of the staff going about his business with the word 'Therapist' on the back of his work-coat - and he reads the word as 'The Rapist'. That was the only point when my straight-faced observance cracked a little. Otherwise I maintained a serious front with no effort at all.

If I were to rate this film solely on my amusement quotient it would be low indeed. In the end I've decided to award it with one point for its unflagging energy, and the remaining point for........for.......well, I dunno really.............2.


Monday, 29 February 2016

Film: 'Room'

I don't share the widely-held admiration for this. In fact, now having seen all eight of the films nominated for the 'Best Picture' Oscar, I rate this one as being the least satisfactory. 

My opinion largely stems from such an unlikely incident about half-way through, when the camera goes out of the titular room for the first time, and then suddenly things happen at such an incredible pace that for a long time into this second hour I thought "No way! This has just got to be in the mother's imagination - and soon it will all dissolve and we'll revert to seeing her once more being kept as a prisoner with her 5 year-old son." (Just as it happens in so many inferior horror films). But no. We're supposed to take this as an actual, reality stage of the denouement.
The first hour, entirely in that room, at least held the promise of extended suspense being wound up like a coiled clockwork spring, but after this 'event' it was dissipated.

Brie Larson has just taken the 'Best Actress' Oscar for her part here as the mother of young, luxuriantly long-haired, Jacob Tremblay. She's fine in the role, quite good in fact, though I didn't think anything in particular marked her out as more deserving of the award than the other nominees.
The circumstances of her imprisonment in this small but all-purpose room are not fully explained, the incarcerator bringing in regular supplies of food and other needs, including toys, and occasionally stays for the night, the boy watching him through the slats in the door of his 'sleeping-cupboard'. The only world he knows is that on TV (the room's sole window is a skylight) and he can't imagine anything other than that when his mother attempts to explain. His occasional yelling bouts (mercifully short), close to headache-inducing,  continue into the different setting of the second half of the film.

Apart from the full motivation of the perpetrator being left unexplained, other than his just being a sadist, there are other loose ends - such as what was the reason behind grandpa William H. Macy's perceived odd attitude to the boy? It was just left hanging in the air. Macy did say something to the effect of talking about it later, but he didn't - he just disappeared. Very odd. Did that part of the story end up on the cutting room floor?
Why wasn't the boy's very girlish-looking long hair mentioned by anyone until near the very end. It's true that on his first encounter outside he was mistaken for a member of the other sex, but after that no one seemed to be that bothered. I've never in my life seen an infant boy with such long hair. Any girl of similar age would have envied to have possessed such.

I'll give the film marks for being original - the author of the book on which this is based, Emma Donaghue, also wrote the screenplay here.
Director Lenny Abrahamson also directed the much better 'Frank' of 2014.

But this film, I felt, was at best, not much above run-of-the-mill stuff despite the promising premise, though I'll be surprised if anyone who's seen it agrees with me......................5.