Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Film: 'Florence Foster Jenkins'

This film held a great deal of promise to me - and if, ultimately, it didn't quite reach the heights of unalloyed delight that I was hoping for, it missed it only by a fraction.

Unlike the recent French film 'Marguerite' which tells basically the same story though with fictional French characters, this Stephen Frears film attempts something nearer the truth - and I can believe that it's achieved it. It's certainly more multi-layered and touching than the other film.

Set in New York in the early 1940s (with Liverpool very credibly standing in for that city) it's the real-life account of the title character (played by Meryl Streep) who, deluded that she has a great singing voice when in fact it's hopelessly inaccurate and off-tune, she decides to embark on a career of professional classical concerts, culminating in an appearance at Carnegie Hall, which also turned out to be her last public engagement, she dying the very next month in 1944. Throughout her ambition she is resolutely supported by her English husband (here Hugh Grant) who does all he can to shield her from the truth and from others opinions. Suffering throughout this ordeal is her pianist, played by Simon Hellberg, whom I didn't know before, but I now read that he's a regular on TV's 'The Big Bang Theory', unseen by me.

It would have been so easy to portray Jenkins as little more than a vocal 'freak' whose entertainment value lies only in the laughs she evinces when 'singing', but this film is rather more profound than simply that. The emotional ranges which both Streep and Grant are required to display is quite wide. La Streep does what she seems capable of doing more than just about any other contemporary actress - making each part that she plays utterly different from anything that she's done before. There isn't the slightest hint in her performance here of any previous roles, she so submerges herself in this one. Totally extraordinary.   
I was no less impressed by Hugh Grant, and I'd have to agree with those reviewers who opine that he's never been better than in this film. He's acquired something of a reputation as being a one-note actor (that note being one to which I've always taken kindly, he being always very watchable in my books) but here his acting capabilities come to the fore - including dancing (here in jitterbug-type style), a requirement he actually hates to do, though one would never have guessed it. I found the relationship between him and Streep very moving indeed.

I've not seen every single one of Stephen Frears' films but I have seen most of them, and I can state that I don't think that he's ever made a dud - many of his films actually being not just very good but intensely memorable too. This film joins that august line.

I've been aware of Jenkins since the 1960s when I was still at school and then having no interest in classical music. Because I wanted to have a certain two classmates as friends, two boys who sounded so learned talking about the subject during recreation breaks, I started force-feeding myself with 'serious' music in order to emulate them and have a reason to converse. It was just by chance that one day, on the BBC classical music network from where I gained my knowledge, they happened to play one of Jenkins' recordings - and once heard, it's never forgotten. That experience lodged in my memory for the rest of my life. 
She's rarely mentioned nowadays if at all, at least until this film and 'Marguerite' - so I'd imagine that a lot of today's audience won't have been aware of her before now.

I can't quite put my finger on why this 'Florence Foster Jenkins' falls just the tiniest bit short of my highest hopes and expectations. Perhaps it'll come to me later. However, I haven't the slightest hesitation in recommending this film - and if you're as much as a Meryl S. fan as I am, it's positively unmissable................7.5.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Tom Hanks as guest on 'Desert Island Discs'

For a change from my regular film reviews I thought I would share with you an especially interesting BBC radio programme from this morning.

'Desert Island Discs' (which I and others have written about before) has been running since 1942 - and which I started following around 1960. 
The concept is that a celebrity, or someone who has made a positive achievement in a particular field, is interviewed about her/his life, while the chat (current presenter is Kirsty Young) is interspersed with eight tracks of music (or speech or sounds) which the guest 'castaway', marooned on a mythical desert island, would choose to be accompanied by - to last, potentially, for the remainder of that person's life to the exclusion of all else.
In addition, the guest castaway is allowed to choose one book  - the Bible and complete works of Shakespeare are already 'supplied' as they are choices which are considered as being rather too obvious, (though there's no compulsion to accept them). 
There's also the choice of one 'luxury', something that would not be helpful in attempting an escape from the island. A radio (as well as TV, of course) is also not allowed for obvious reasons.

Mr 'Nice-Guy's choices were particularly noteworthy in being largely, or even entirely, unpredictable. The reasons behind his choices were explained each time, in most cases they being evocative of times in his life which he takes pleasure in recalling:-

Dean Martin (with Line Renaud) - 'Relaxez-vous!'

The Beatles - 'There's a Place'

Dusty Springfield - 'Doodlin''

Opening music from '2001 - A Space Odyssey' (Richard Strauss' 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' - Karajan/VPO).

Opening credit music from the film 'How the West Was Won'.

Talking Heads - 'Once in a Lifetime'

LL Cool J - 'I'm Gonna Knock You Out'

Derek and the Dominoes - 'Layla' 

At the end of the programme, the guest is always pressed to nominate just one of his choices if only a single one were to be permitted. T.H. chose the '2001' opening music. 
His chosen book was William Manchester's 'A World Lit Only By Fire' - and his luxury a manual typewriter (specifically a 'Hermes 3000') with a plentiful supply of paper.

The conversations covered his childhood, his father's three marriages, his dislike of loneliness, and, naturally, his film career.

I thought this was one of the more interesting programmes of the series in recent times, and I do always think that the guests' choices of music tracks is at least as illuminating, if not moreso, regarding his or her personality than a lot of what is talked about. 
Jolly good, entertaining stuff!

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Film: 'The Jungle Book' (in 2D)

There's no denying that, visually at least, this is a singularly remarkable achievement.

My habitual antipathy towards films featuring animals in any major way, (because they take too heavy an emotional toll on me), was set aside by reading the widespread praise aimed at this film. Thus, winning over my reluctance, go I did. In the event the animals' anthropomorphic speaking helped in keeping a mental distance from too close an engagement of the creature's involvements and predicaments. 
There's no need to list the handful of big(gish) names who provide the voices (in both British and American accents), but Bill Murray's Baloo bear was a total winner. Mowgli himself is played by 12-year-old Neel Sethi - one of those child characters wise beyond his years, but so is Kipling's original conception of him. 

However, having said all that, if the visual spectacle is stripped away, it didn't pull me in as much as I'd have expected. My particular experience wasn't assisted one bit in that the screening I attended was a wet public holiday morning with, schools being off, the old-style, art deco, long, single-auditorium cinema (now 105 years old) was over 90% full, and at least two-thirds of them seemingly being kids of 10 years old and under. You can imagine the constant restlessness when any non-action sequence was playing, not to mention the talking (and even crying) - and, predictably, much traffic to and from the toilets. Still, I clung on till the finish - or at least until the closing credits where, I understand, if I'd sat through them I would have heard another of the songs from the original '67 Disney cartoon (remaining unseen by me). As it was, in the body of this film there are the two most famous songs from that early feature, the second of which is put in a context which is much more threatening, and even scary, than was ever meant for that cartoon. 

So all in all, with my purposeful detachment, it's no surprise that it didn't involve me as much as it has some, though I repeat that the visuals are a marvel, and must be even moreso when seen in 3D. In terms of the level of my own enjoyment, however, it rates a....................6.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Film: 'Bastille Day'.

I saw this yesterday morning and have to say that the more I reflect on it the more my original opinion, which wasn't very high anyway, slips down still further.

Set in Paris on the eve of the annual French national celebration parade, the film boils down to a fairly basic 'good man v evil gang' thriller, though, admittedly, with one or two adrenaline-pumping moments. Trouble is that the best of them comes early on in the film - a rooftop chase with much slipping on the tiles and threats of plunging a long way down onto the concrete below. As a sufferer of vertigo (though not anything like as acute as some people's), this particular chase really got to me. That aside it was fairly routine stuff. 

Idris Elba is an ex-CIA operative who, with the sanction of French intelligence, attempts to find out who and what lies behind a bomb going off in a street which kills four bystanders. A terrorist attack is the initial suspicion but it turns out not to be what it at first seems, involving a young woman (Kelly Reilly) who hadn't realised the full extent of what she'd be drawn into, as well as the coincidental and unintentional participation of a 'professional' American pickpocket (Richard Madden). The latter had been identified on CCTV as the likely terrorist perpetrator and it's Elba who takes the lead in seeking him out. (Incidentally, all three of these are British actors, the two males playing Americans).
Meanwhile behind the scenes of this superficially enemy attack, there's a plot going to foment public disquiet and anti-Muslim feelings, using whipped-up demonstrations to hide a dastardly plan to perform a heist on French national gold reserves and thereby destabilise the government for, oddly, an amount which, I would have thought, would have had not much more than a flea-bite effect. 

With no desire to reveal spoilers let it be said that the true villains turn out not be so much of a surprise at all. We live in times when corruption in high places no longer shocks us, so that when the 'big reveal' takes place my reaction was a plaintive "So what?" rather than the intended jaw-dropping "Well, well! Who would have thought it!" response which we are presumably supposed to have.

It's a fairly violent film, though nowhere near as extreme as it might have been. But what unsettled me still more, even to the point of being near risible, was Elba's own invincibility. He comes out of each of his many physical conflicts (both with fists and guns) with individuals and gangs - 'baddies' and authorised armed forces following orders - without a single scratch. His own gunfire talents have unbelievably unerring accuracy of aim while those trying to stop him are hamfistedly hopeless, as if in a comic-book superhero caper. (Groundwork for Elba's possible - though, I think, unlikely - future Bond role?) 
The action here is close to being parodic in its depiction of good against evil. 
I also felt to be being cheated by some over-deft editing - Elba often jumps from one location on set to another so quickly that his movement is not caught on camera, and is certainly beyond the perception of his foes.

James Watkins, as director, gives us fairly standard fayre, though if one lets oneself be caught up in the moment I dare say it might pass as functionally successful. (I did quite admire his 'The Woman in Black' of 2012, which I thought superior to the stage version, of which I remained unimpressed).

My doubts about this film were coming to the surface even as it was playing, though I might at that time have given it a score of 'average'. As at now, I wish to knock it down a notch from that level, so I'd better get on with rating it before it sinks yet lower...............4.5.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Film: 'The Man Who Knew Infinity'

Heavily sentimental, unexceptional film, based on true story of young Indian mathematics prodigy, S. Ramanujan, of whom I'd not heard, though feel I ought to have - with Dev Patel ('Slumdog Millionaire', the 'Marigold Hotel' films) in the main role. It focusses on his cerebral achievements and fight for recognition at Cambridge University. before his premature death from T.B. at just 32. It's a film that is very near a hagiography, with the young man having the forbearance of a saint in tolerating the condescension, the sneering, and even the racial epithets openly hurled at him, one particularly shockingly by one of his own professors in class, as well as his being attacked in the street. All this happens against the background of the outbreak of World War I.

Ramanujan hails from Madras (now Chennai), India, his job being a lowly clerk, when his boss, grudgingly recognising his prodigious mental abilities, along with colonialist incumbent Stephen Fry (in little more than a cameo role), refers him to Cambridge University to where he's then invited by Maths prof, Hardy -  a pacifist/atheist (the latter mentioned too many times, methinks), played by Jeremy Irons, with his academic colleague Toby Jones, as well as Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell. (I've seen as many films featuring Jeremy Irons in the last few weeks as I have in the last ten years. He's suddenly all over the place, though in this film he's given his most substantial part in decades, probably having as much screen time as Patel himself.) 
Travelling to England means that Ramanujan has to leave his young wife and mother behind, his extended absence unsurprisingly giving rise to marital tensions by letter.

Despite the subject's near-miraculous mathematical abilities, little attempt is made in this film to illustrate what it entailed by showing us examples. What I did gather is that it related to equations involving prime numbers, and that he claimed to have discovered what was something of a 'Holy Grail', which had evaded all mathematicians up to then. Needless to say, the University's brains, Irons included up to a point, remain stubbornly sceptical, especially in the light of Ramanujan's racial and humble origins.

I found the subject's relentless saintly qualities hard to take, though it might well have been the truth as far as I know. I can't imagine admirers of the man complaining at the uncritical treatment he's given here. But true or not, I was particularly annoyed by frequently present background music, always in sentimental mode, and at least once supported by a 'heavenly choir', for crying out loud! Far from enhancing what was happening on screen, for me it detracted from it, his decline and succumbing to the illness that eventually killed him bestowing the final seal of martyrdom upon his short life. However, apparently even today his accomplishments and fame live on in academic circles.

This seems to be Matt Brown's first feature as director, and he really indulges himself here, but too much on the mushy side for me.   

I'm not sure the Ramanujan's memory is particularly well served by this one-dimensional portrayal. Certainly, if you are not put off by this treacle-ish treatment you will probably have greater appreciation for this film than I could muster...................5.


Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Film: 'Eye in the Sky'

I thought this a humdinger. I can't recall the last time I was so gripped from within the first few minutes of a film which holds itself taut with tension right up to the final climax.
It concerns a joint British-American attempt, played out in continuous time, to eliminate by armed drone three leading members of an Al-Shabab terrorist group in Kenya who, it is discovered, are about to set in train two suicide bombings intended to kill many civilians.  

Helen Mirren is the British colonel in charge of operations in London, watching events in Kenya through miniature cameras, some mobile, where a terrorist meeting is being held in an otherwise ordinary simple native house. Also watching is a group of British government officials in the Home Counties, presided over by Lieutenant-General Alan Rickman (in, sadly, his final film), as well as American army personnel in the U.S.A., including the one, Aaron Paul, who is ultimately charged with pressing the trigger.  
In Kenya on the ground the 'spy' of the allies is Barkhad Abdi (picured) whom we saw recently as the totally believable terrorist hijacking chief in 'Captain Philips', and here he gives another strong performance.

What I particularly liked about this film was its simplicity. With no technical terms calculated to bamboozle one, it's a straightforward human story of a dilemma posed when what would otherwise have been an unequivocal decision to attack is foiled by an accidental innocent player on the ground. Decisions must needs be made, weighing up consequences of, in this case, one unintended casualty as against the probability of a much larger number of fatalities if the opportunity is not taken. Opinions differ and much buck-passing goes on while the chances of carrying out the attack at all are diminishing by the minute.Terrific nail-biting stuff. I was completely enthralled right to the end.

Director Gavin Hood couldn't have raised the tensions any higher. The audience I was with was, like me, completely hooked.
This superior film has a very high likelihood of appearing in my Top Ten of the year, and I heartily recommend it...................8.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Film: 'Midnight Special'

Not a film for those who like all loose ends neatly tied up by the end - and don't waste time wondering why the title either.

Difficult to say too much about the story for fear of revealing spoilers. However, it's basically a pursuit film, involving a young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) with unusual powers being rescued from a religious cult by his father (Michael Shannon) and his hunky friend(? - Joel Edgerton), the boy being reunited with his mother (Kirsten Dunst) and all of them being chased by authorities, military and police as well as by the cult now deprived of their 'prize possession'. I never quite understood the relationship between the two adult males, as well as that between Edgerton and the boy. In at least one of the reviews I read that it was explained in the film so perhaps that was at the point where I walked over the aisle and told off a young woman with crutches for repeatedly checking her mobile for messages every ten minutes, the light from it being maddeningly distracting.
I must also state that the last ten minutes or so of the film really need to be seen on a big screen for full impact, an episode the sight of which I found mightily impressive and quite breathtaking.

I liked this film, though opinions about it are divided, some complaining that it's much too slow, though I found it exciting throughout.

Director Jeff Nichols draws very high acting standards from his entire cast, which also includes Sam Shepherd. (I've never seen Nichols' 2012 film 'Mud', which got some very positive reviews).

This one is not a film for everybody. I can see why some might dislike it, even a lot, especially if you like your films to be 'cut and dried'. But if you can just accept what you see on screen without asking too many questions about it when it's over, as I managed to do, you may well find yourself liking it as I did.................................7.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Film: 'Marguerite'

I had high anticipation of this one and, although I found it agreeable enough, it did fall a little short of my hopes for it.
Foreshadowing the imminent release of, and 'inspired' by the same true story of the American, Florence Foster Jenkins (the upcoming film of that title starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant), this French film, actually shot in the Czech Republic, is set in the 1920s and relates how the middle-aged Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot - magnificent in the part), self-deluded into being unaware that her execrable singing is being derisively laughed at by everyone except herself, while she believes that she's widely loved and admired by the audiences at her informal concerts and recitals. Her long-suffering and philandering husband (Andre Marcon) has for years played along with allowing her to retain her fantasy. But now, as she becomes determined to achieve fame as a renowned opera singer, and taking professional singing lessons for the first time, his uneasiness, as also the disquiet of all those who've been humouring her, becomes the source of conflict which he doesn't know how to resolve without letting her know the truth about her hopeless vocal 'skills' and hurting her deeply.

Right through Xavier Giannoli's film I was longing for a lighter touch. It's true that there's a serious undercurrent to this otherwise superficially whimsical story, but it does get over-heavy at times. Other than Marguerite's hilariously bad singing, there are one or two other laughs to be had, but no more than that. All the arias she 'performs' (as well as two or three by 'proper' singers) will be familiar to opera lovers.
Perhaps I've been unfairly spoilt by the trailers currently playing of the Stephen Frears/Meryl Streep film, and that one really does look like great fun. So through this French film I kept reminding myself to see it on its own terms. Though that did make it slightly better I yet felt something wanting, which wasn't helped by it being a colour film shot largely in what looked like matter-of-fact monochrome.

But it's an interesting take on a story - or at least its central character - of which I've been aware for something like 50 years. The remarkable thing is how it's taken so long for a film to be made about it. I hope I'll like the forthcoming 'Florence Foster Jenkins' even more when I see it in a couple of weeks time or so, but in the meantime I award this French version of the story a fairly commendable................6.5.