Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Film: 'Eddie the Eagle'

Even at the height of his national (and, briefly, international) fame in the late 1980s I never bought into the adulation of English amateur ski jumper, Eddie Edwards, who attained quasi-mythical status. Right from the start I'd found him an intensely irritating man, while others at the time cheered on his hopelessly flopped attempts to make a mark in a sport for which he'd had no formal training or even experience, culminating in his participation in the 1988 Winter Olympics at Calgary, Canada. I just wished he'd go away - rather like crabs.
However, it must be said that he did endear himself to many, with his clenched teeth and thrusting-chin determination to succeed. These fans took him to their hearts with what was perceived as a plucky, try-and-try-again spirit - whereas I didn't view him as quite the national embarrassment that some did, rather as just a tiresome individual.

This film, overloaded with sentiment, though very ably accomplished by director Dexter Fletcher (the admirable 'Sunshine on Leith' of 2013), ticks all the right boxes of the threadbare formula in this old-fashioned, 'inspiring' tale of fighting against the odds, despite it being 'based' on Edwards' own story - though how much of the background story is invention I've no idea, and don't really much care.

In the adult title role, Taron Egerton cuts a convincingly gauche figure with single-minded ambition. Having made up his mind to be a ski jumper while still at school, he travels against his parents' wishes (Keith Allen and Jo Hartley) to an Alpine ski training centre in Germany where he meets up with washed-up, alcoholic, chain-smoking, former star skier, Hugh Jackman - though you'd never have guessed, retaining as he does his athletic body and ruggedly handsome looks. The relationship between them follows the predictable path of Jackman's initial animosity, then indifference - and then, recognising Edwards' serious aims, helping him to train, and finally accompanying him on his participation in major events.
Even if you don't know the story you can guess where all this is going - and, no, it's not giving anything away to say that he doesn't win an Olympic medal, but for all the worshipful attention he gets from the media and the public (complete with triumphal music, of course) you'd think he'd come away with a gold.

Towards the end of the film there are a couple of shortish appearances from Christopher Walken, as well as Jim Broadbent as the ski-ing commentator at Calgary.

The audience I watched this with lapped it all up with glee, laughing their heads off every time he clumsily bumped into something or fell over (though not on the actual ski jumps). I felt all this aspect was overplayed for effect.

It just wasn't my type of film. If you liked the character (assuming you even remember him) then you may well be entertained by this. I found it all a bit of a bore........................5. 

Film: 'Victoria'

This film (in English and subtitled German) has at least one remarkable feature which you may have heard about, namely that it's filmed in one long, continuous take (with hand-held camera), uninterrupted for its entire two hours and a quarter's length. (This has been tried - or at least attempted to give the impression of being so - famously in Alfred Hitchcock's 'Rope' - where one can actually make out the 'joins' for oneself, he in 1948 being restricted by cameras that had to be replenished with new film every few minutes. Also, very recently it was attempted with only partial success in 'Birdman'.) 

'Victoria' is set in present-day Berlin (refreshingly, we see none of those 'touristy' sights) where a bubbly, twenty-something Spanish woman (Laia Costa) who speaks no German, is dancing the night away in a disco and attracts the attention of an English-speaking German of similar age (Frederick Lau). Once outside she's introduced to his three pals, an unsavoury trio of rowdy yobs busy breaking into a parked car - and, unbelievably, she decides to stick with them. After her clubbing she's certainly light-headed, though hardly too drunk to explain her unaccountable action. (She even gets into a lift/elevator with two of them, already acting familiar to her - and she'd only met them a few minutes before!) This is just one of a whole series of stretches of credibility which pervades the whole film.
It's too late for her to return home as she's got to open up the nearby coffee shop where she works in a few hours time, so she takes the first guy back there, after a little shoplifting, (Ho ho! What larks!) with his three hell-raisers in tow. Things take a strange turn when it turns out that all four males are required to do something for someone else, only one of them finding himself indisposed, she offers to fill his place - and soon gets into deep water, their meeting with the man demanding the 'job' being done, with his armed 'heavies' manhandling them and turning out threats if they don't comply. It all gets very serious!

During the film's course there were moments where the suspense screws were effectively applied and I was drawn in, but time and again this agreeable mood was demolished by the unlikeliness of the development, usually to do with the decisions of Victoria herself.

Director Sebastian Schipper has no doubt achieved a pioneering product in terms of continuity. How on earth they managed to keep the whole sequence going for so long with no breaks, and without needing to re-shoot is beyond me - and how everyone knew what to do and say the whole time was really something. That aspect alone was singularly quite breathtaking. However, pondering afterwards on what I'd just seen I began on hindsight to recognise flaws in the timing aspect. Twice during the film the actual time of night/dawn is stated - and as it was set in 'real time', which it indeed was, then only just over two hours had elapsed between dead of night and full morning daylight. It seemed, on reflection, something like five hours had gone by. 

But it was the strains on my credulity which took the biggest toll. I think if more care had been taken to make the story-line more plausible then it might so easily have been an even better film than it was....................6.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Film: 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice'

Oh, poo! Why bother?......................1.

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.