Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Film: 'Love and Friendship'

I'd thought there might be a good chance that I'd be singing the praises of this - and that would have made a refreshing and welcome change. Alas, it was not to be; main reason being that I just couldn't follow what on earth was going on!

Set in London and the Home Counties it's a romantic comedy of the Regency period based on the novella 'Lady Susan' by Jane Austen. Although I've read each of Austen's full length novels several times, this particular work has passed me by. It would have helped enormously if I'd been familiar with it - though clearly it hadn't mattered for other members of the audience who lapped up this film with appropriate responses.

Starring Kate Beckinsdale and Chloe Sevigny (the latter being seen far too rarely on the cinema screen, though I see that she's done considerable TV work) it involves a widow who's after a desirable second husband - while there are other pairings, some agreeable, others not quite so, among her friends and relations, along with the complication of a daughter who's been expelled from school. I can't go into more detail because I just didn't get it. I don't know whether it's because I didn't pay sufficient attention to the exposition scenes, or missed some of the early essential dialogue, but whatever the cause it was very frustrating, leaving much of the film a curious mystery.
The principal male love interest comes from one Xavier Samuel, an Australian actor whose name is new to me. Among the several minor characters are Jemma Redgrave, James Fleet and Stephen Fry.
Female fashion of the time is lavish and delightful to look at. Location settings are likewise convincing. The background score is mainly edited arrangements of classical pieces, sometimes a little distracting though not to any great degree.

Director (and writer, using some of Austen's own elevated dialogue) is Wit Stillman, whose 'Metropolitan' and 'Barcelona' of the 1990s I still recall with affection.

I'm still feeling strangely unsatisfied in having been unable to appreciate this film to the fullest, especially as some of the reviews I've seen have been very positive indeed. However, I can only tell of my own experience which, with great regret, cannot endow it with a rating higher than...............5.5.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Film: 'The Nice Guys'

This crime comedy caper involving two ill-matched private investigators working together (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling) has been well received in a number of quarters. However in my case, for several stretches I was bored close to distraction. Some of the audience with whom I saw it were amused from time to time though it never once raised a smile on me.

Set in 1977 L.A., while Crowe is asleep at home a car crashes right through the house, coming to rest in the garden where the only person involved is a female porn star who happens to be on a centrefold spread in Crowe's current glossy magazine. She apparently dies within seconds. 
Meanwhile, Gosling (living only with his potty-mouthed, wise-ass daughter of early teenage years) has been summoned to the home of the deceased's aged aunt who insists that she saw her niece well and alive two days later. This is the catalyst which brings the two men together to find out exactly what's going on. Cue the two of them crashing hedonistic parties for the super-rich and probes into the porn industry  - all very so what? Much violence, fighting both punching and with guns, all what one could predict.
Most of the 'humour', such as it exists, consists of deadpan lines, usually delivered by the unflappable Crowe to the nervy, excitable Gosling. There's hardly any situational humour.
Visual and aural references (fashions, music) to the 70s era are not as numerous as one might have expected. In fact it wouldn't have been a huge leap to have set the film in the present day, though I suppose there is something vaguely redolent here of crime films of that decade.

I can't say I'd be willing to fork out more money to see Crowe and Gosling doing a reprise of their double act, as they might well do since this film seems to be getting better-than-average reviews.
(There's also the appearance of Kim Basinger in just two brief scenes).

Director Shane Black cut his teeth directing one of the archetype 'buddy' crime movies, the original 'Lethal Weapon', and was also involved in its sequel, so it's familiar ground for him. I got the impression that some of the audience were well satisfied with this, but as for it engaging me, if it did it was only very marginally........................4.  

Monday, 6 June 2016

Film: 'Our Kind of Traitor'

Patchily effective espionage thriller, though also saggy at times.
Whenever there's a film based on a John le Carre work I brace myself expecting there to be significant brain work required to follow a twisty plot. This one transpires to be reasonably straight forward.

Ewan McGregor is a London University lecturer on holiday in Morocco with his barrister wife (Naomie Harris), their marriage clearly having seen better days. In a restaurant one evening she returns alone to their hotel while he gets pulled into a conversation with brash, hail-and-hearty heavyweight, Stellan Skarsgard, who's part of a rowdy Russian party, he insisting that the quiet new acquaintance comes along to a party. Once there, and in seclusion, Skarsgard reveals the fact that he's part of a Russian mafia and is desperate to leave them and have him, his family - wife and five children - flee to the west. To show his sincerity, he gives the reluctant McGregor a memory stick which he asks to be handed to MI5 back in England, while informing him that if he's found out it means a certain death sentence for him and all his family. Back in London, now with Secret Service boss Damian Lewis in charge, the memory stick reveals names of the mafia. But more information, including bank details, are required before the request for asylum can be taken seriously. There follows a cat-and-mouse game involving visits to France and Switzerland of McGregor and his grumpy wife, the latter resenting having been brought into an affair which had nothing to do with them. At each pre-planned rendezvous Skarsgard's moves are watched by increasingly suspicious Russian minders, he and McGregor having to resort to various methods of deception to exchange information and for Skarsgard to obtain what is necessary to secure his escape.  And it should be of no surprise to anyone if I say that double-crossing in high places of the British establishment is also involved.

There are moments of high tension, more frequent in the film's first half (complete with a chugging background score), but there are longuers too. Naomie Harris has little to do other than act disgruntled at being dragged along for this intrigue. Even McGregor's role is little more than that of a one-note,n helpless innocent, while Damian Lewis acts his laid-back authority figure. I thought the film belonged to larger-than-life Skarsgard, a powder keg of a figure who is easily given to explosions, yet remains vulnerable under the skin.

While director Susanna White (a lot of TV work, plus the 2010 'Nanny McPhee' film) doesn't exactly set the world alight with this one, stronger material with more unexpected twists might have helped.  However, I do have to own that there were definitely a few moments early-ish on where I was quite gripped........................6.5.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Film: 'Alice Through the Looking Glass"

It really must have taken some nerve to have given this film its title, with the clear expectation that it was going to be based on  Alice in Wonderland's sequel book, 'Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There'. It's nothing of the sort. Other than Alice climbing through a mirror any further passing resemblance to the book is utterly discarded in a convoluted, hodge-podge tale involving characters we've already encountered in the 2010 film and just about every one of which here outstays their welcome. In fact, since the story is totally invented why did they misleadingly have to use the mirror device at all? Why not use the rabbit hole again and call the film 'Alice in Wonderland II'? Also, there's now the dubious addition of a lead character, one 'Time' (played by Sacha Baron Cohen), to furnish a reason for imposing an attempted consistent direction and coherence to events rather than the largely disconnected, discursive episodes of Carroll's original work. Furthermore, and to cap it all, the film begins with a preposterous and fatally superfluous prologue in which the now adult Alice (Mia Wasikowska again) has become, of all things, a skilled ship's captain(!) with an all-male, burly and unkempt crew, returning home to London after braving wild and stormy high seas, she now having to face consequences for her having rejected an unsuitable marriage proposal. And this is all before the mirror is entered and the 'proper' story even starts!

Writer Linda Woolverton quite wisely calls the other-side-of-the-mirror domain, 'Underland', though all the characters from Wonderland, which we've got to know only too well from the 2010 film, are present and correct - and played (or voiced) by a veritable roll-call of present-day, mostly younger, British actors too numerous to name. Johnny Depp, he of currently damaged reputation, looks as uncomfortable as ever as The Mad Hatter. (I feel that whenever he plays a fantasy character, be it Edward Scissorhands, Willy Wonka, the wolf in 'Into the Woods', or as here, he never looks completely at ease in the role). He, along with the Alice, the Red Queen (played again by...well, H.B.C. of course) and the 'Time' character are the main players in this hopelessly tangled plot involving time travel in a spherical vehicle, trying to foil the evil machinations of the time lord who, with his huge Gothic castle stuffed with clocks and gadgetry, regulates the time aspects of everyone in Underland, including their pre-determined lifespans. 

I was waiting all the time for other characters to appear - but no talking flowers, no white and red knights, no walrus nor carpenter - and the jabberwock is only briefly glimpsed, if it's recognised by anyone at all. Lewis Carroll this definitely is not.

It's a mighty din of a film though there's no denying that the special effects are spectacular. But they had to be, and it would have been a major talking point if they fell short in any way, and they do acquit themselves well if that's what you want to see. However, throwing everything at the screen does not make it any more interesting. Quite the reverse in fact, as ones visual sense quickly tends to tire and be blunted with so much going on. (Unlike the 2010 Alice, which I saw in 3D, I saw this in flat-screen.)

If any child sees this and is inspired to read the original, that girl or boy is in for a big shock, finding that virtually nothing of the book, apart from some of its characters, feature in this over-long film.

The earlier 'Alice' film was directed by Tim Burton, and I scored that with a '5'. This one has a James Bobin as director, whose main claim to fame so far is having directed a couple of recent Muppets films as well as several 'Ali G' TV episodes. Way to go yet, Mr Bobin. Maybe you'll have better material to work with next time.........................3.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Film: 'A Hologram for the King'

An agreeable enough, quite restrained Tom Hanks feature, most notable in being a rare film set virtually entirely in Saudi Arabia - despite it being, apart from a few exterior shots, filmed in Morocco.

Hanks is a divorced company executive whose mission is to put on a display for the Saudi king a new technique of communication which enables an individual to interact with a life-sized hologram of another person and to speak and interact as though both were in the same room. (In his demonstrations there are fleeting appearances of Ben Whishaw, whom I haven't seen on screen for as many as ,what, five or six films now!)
There are a number of moments of levity, mainly between Hanks and his unofficial and self-appointed, bi-lingual Arab driver/chauffeur (Alexander Black, completely convincing in the part. I was astonished when I discovered that he wasn't a genuine native of the country) as the Hanks character tries to find his way around the country's strict religious and social mores.
Much of the time is taken by Hanks being frustrated at the king's postponing time and time again his visit to the area where an entirely new, large city is being constructed in the desert, still in its embryonic state. He also has parallel difficulties in meeting the royal spokesman to request assistance to him and his American/European staff of three who don't have the essentials to fulfil his objective, such as reliable WiFi connection.
There's a parallel strand about Hanks finding a mysterious, ugly and disturbing swelling on his back near the spine, for which he visits the local hospital and is surprised to find himself examined and treated by an obligatory headscarved, female doctor/surgeon (Sarita Choudury), with procedures which lead to an operation.

I won't state explicitly what happens at the end but I did feel that the film's final few minutes did jerk the whole enterprise into an area which I thought was widely improbable - though I've no doubt that such things do occur now and then. It just seemed to me to detract from all that had gone before and dragged it down a notch to what it might otherwise have been.

The director is German Tom Tykwer, who has directed at least two of my very favourite films in relatively recent years, viz. 'Cloud Atlas' and 'Perfume: The Story of a Murderer'. 
He does okay with this material, but I maintain that the single most memorable thing about it is its very rarely depicted Saudi Arabian setting............6.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Film: 'Money Monster'

Tense hostage drama directed by Jodie Foster, with some very effective nail-biting moments - and, importantly, at a commendably concise length of just 90 minutes or so.

New York. A flamboyant and wackily glitzy TV financial adviser (George Clooney) is interrupted on air during his live TV show, 'Money Monster', by a gunman from Queens (the young English actor, Jack O'Connell) who demands answers as to how his recent advice led to losses for himself and millions of others in their investment in a certain firm (its American boss is played by another Englishman, none other than hottie, Dominic West, whom I wasn't aware was in this film). The producer of Clooney's TV programme is Julia Roberts, directing cameras and instructing studio participants, but suddenly finding herself trying to regain control of the situation through telephone contacts with NYPD and others, whispering instructions to Clooney through an earpiece and, crucially, trying to find answers to the gunman's questions and hysterical demands. At the gunman's insistence, all the action is played out live on the screen, not only nationally but relayed worldwide.

Some reviews of this film haven't been especially endearing, in a could-have-been-better kind of way, but I'm not as down on it as some that I've read. It reminded me a lot of films of the 70s where a single, seemingly deranged, manic character holds an entire  city, or even a nation, in the palm of his hand by threats of gunshot or explosion if his demands aren't met.

For me the weakest point was, unfortunately, hostage-taker Jack O'Connell - who was really good a couple of years ago in the film '71, as a British army squaddie lost in an enemy Irish nationalist area of Belfast, In this present film I felt he lacked something of the hard-hitting, heavyweight on-screen presence which the role demands. (I read that Jodie foster herself at first wanted the part to be played by an older, American actor but was won over by O'Connell's audition).But he's up against three actors, each with huge charisma along with their physical presences,  and at least two of whom are celebrity giants. (Incidentally, Clooney and Roberts are hardly seen at all in the same camera shot - he being in the TV studio for most of the film while she's in the control room.).

I didn't follow all the financial explanations re the stock exchange and shares rising and collapsing due to unrest in South Africa, but that hardly mattered, I was fairly gripped throughout and certainly not at all bored at any time.
An hour-and-a-half very satisfactorily expended..................7.5.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Film: 'Sing Street'

I had some dread about going to see this, but as there's been a bit of 'buzz' about it, plus positive reviews, felt I ought to give it a go. In the event it wasn't so bad at all, and apart from a couple of very cheesy aspects of the story it carried me along quite agreeably.

An Irish film - Dublin, mid 1980s - it concerns a teenage schoolboy (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), starting off in a priest-run boys school where he occasionally gets bullied, though that doesn't stop him holding his head up. He's intrigued by the tantalising presence of a girl of similar age (Lucy Boynton) who hangs around outside the school gates with little apparent purpose. His attempt to make friends with her flounders, but not put off by her dismissive attitude he hits on the idea of forming a pop group (as you would!) with himself as lead singer, trying to emulate the likes of 'Duran Duran'. He also has the talent to write his own songs, reflecting the current life situations he's experiencing. 
The film tracks his attempts to be a member of this group and impress the stand-offish girl. No prizes for guessing where this goes. However, director John Carney manages to create a film with some verve. The several songs are quite listenable to and performed with gusto. One problem I did have though, was that I found the heavy Irish accents, all authentic I don't doubt, not always easy to decipher. At times some of the audience were laughing at lines delivered which I was unable to catch.

A pleasant enough film. I can't quite hold with it as being as remarkable as some reviews have suggested, but I did enjoy it considerably more than I anticipated.....................6.5.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Yippee! It's my new laptop, folks!

Well, here it is! Only got it this morning, and needing a little time to navigate round it but we're getting there. Looking good, though.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Film: 'Mustang'

I can't recall ever having seen a film before entirely in the Turkish language, and this Oscar-nominated one was a really good place to start.

Set in a small town on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, five orphaned sisters, ranging in age from (I'm guessing) about 11 to 16, attending the same 'westernised', mixed-sex school are returning home one day and get into some high-spirited, completely innocent, larking around with some boy pupils, including being carried on the boys' shoulders. Their play is disapprovingly seen by a neighbour who reports it to their staunchly conservative grandmother who, in the absence of parents, has raised the girls, together with their (widowed?) uncle. She is horrified at hearing of their conduct, and on the girls' return home, physically chastises each of them in turn. The two adults clearly believe that girls should be brought up to be demure, dignified, ever-obedient, subservient to men - and, most importantly, to remain in a virginal state until being married to the young men who have been chosen for them. The girls' western-type dress is, at least in public, replaced by more modest attire, though when they are alone at home the sisters retain their fashionable, teenage wear, including bikinis, as well as their youthful ebullience and boisterousness towards each other. Meanwhile, 'corrupting' influences such as computer and their telephones, are locked away out of reach. While their uncle puts up fences and barbed wire around their detached country house, and bars the windows, making it a virtual prison, the girls do manage to find ways to sneak out secretly, the elder ones engaging in illicit friendships. The two adult guardians see it as a priority to get them all married off, sometimes to young men they haven't even seen until their engagement is announced.

In spite of the bleakness of subject matter, there are a few genuinely comic moments - though particularly in the latter part of the film, it does just touch onto some very dark places.

Director/co-writer Deniz Erguven works marvels with her mainly young, all-Turkish cast in this clash-of-cultures film. If I have any criticism it's that with seven or eight principal characters there isn't the time or opportunity to delve much more than fairly shallowly into the personality of any single one of them, so any insight into their feelings must necessarily be quite superficial. But that goes with the nature of the story.

I'd been of two minds whether to bother to see this or not. I'm pleased that I did......................7.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Just so's y'all know.....

This pre-historic (11-year old) computer went down last Friday, which explains my absence of late - that's if anyone had noticed. Computer chappie came this morning and said the problem was my hard drive, whatever that is. Anyway, upshot is that he's done a temporary, 'sticky-tape' fix which could hold out for a while longer but also may give up again at any moment.
I'd already decided that there's no other option but to go for a brand new, up-to-date laptop (with Windows 10, as against the Windows XP I'm still using) to replace this primitive. monster-sized desk-top contraption, and that's what he's going to help me to buy sometime within the next month. So, just in case I disappear again, just assume that I'm still here, alive and kicking, until I re-emerge in new guise.

Btw: The situation meant that I missed the chance to do a posting on this year's Eurovision Song Contest, which I do every year, but the interest has been and dissipated by now. In any case, as this year it was broadcast live on American TV ('Logo' channel?) for the first time, some of you may well have watched it along with yours truly. 
As nearly always seems to be case, I can't for the life of me understand why the winner won - this year that shouty, dismally political, Ukrainian entry - and as for the Aussies taking second with that young lady yelling the bejeesus out of her song, 'The Sound of Silence' (original title, what?) - how the headache-inducing chanson got to be runner-up, well I'm blowed if I know. The Russian entry coming third was at least worthy to be high-placed, and better by far than the two finishing above it. And, naturally, U.K. followed tradition by coming 24th - or third from last (getting nul points from the public vote!). Could have been worse, I suppose, even though I deemed it deserving enough to finish in the first 10 or so. (My own vote was for the Austrian entry - sung in French! - which finished in an uninspiring 13th place).

Btw2: For some reason since the computer chappie's been and gone I'm now unable to access certain blogs. Dunno why. So far I've found that I can't get into Fearsome's and Stephen Chapman's blog. There may be more. Might be something to do with Firewall but I'll keep persevering to see if I can get them all up as before.

Anyway, now you know - all here, present and correct. Hoping to do at least one film review later this week, if computer will allow.

See ya!

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.