Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Film: 'Elvis and Nixon'

You need to forget that Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey look nothing like the original figures they are portraying. What Spacey lacks in the actual President's physical stature he makes up in his voice and mannerisms, whereas I found Shannon's Presley voice more lightweight than I'd have expected though, it must be said, there is very little of the King's everyday speaking voice recorded for posterity, apart from that in his film acting roles. 
Having got over these hurdles, I found this a reasonably entertaining film, improving as it went along.

It centres on Elvis' wish to meet with the President in 1970 in order to offer his 'services' as an undercover agent(!) to assist with the fight against drugs which he sees as part of an endemic wholesale corruption of the young. When Nixon first hears of the attempt to meet him he laughs it off, showing no interest at all, but then it's put to him that it could be played to political advantage. So Presley's persistence eventually pays off with a reluctant President allowing him an audience of five minutes max. 
One of the things we surmise about the meeting (no records were kept) was that it lasted significantly longer. The absence of any record of the conversation between the two men allows the film's storytellers to create a scenario in which the singer wins the politician over, and achieves - though there's considerable doubt about it - most of his desire. This is a fiction rather than an attempt at historical accuracy, and we can go along with that. 
We see little of Nixon in the film's first half - he features in a brief opening scene. The remainder of this under-90 minute film is all about the meeting, the humour arising from Elvis' ignoring or forgetting to observe the instructions of dos-and-don'ts on acceptable behaviour given to him before being ushered into the Oval Office, and then Nixon being confused and put out by his guest's bold conduct, together with his own gaucheness regarding social etiquette in a situation outside his experience.

Both stars do well with the material they are given, which is quite strong. It's a pleasant little diversion, hardly earth-shattering, but director Liza Johnson hadn't intended that it should be.
A fair recommendation........................6.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

European Union - Bye, bye! (while holding back tears).

Still heavy-hearted after yesterday's result, but I'm trying to put a brave face on it and move on. I'll almost certainly not be around long enough to see the U.K. re-apply to join (if we'd even be accepted back) after realising what a ghastly error it's just made. But, hey, let's hope I'm wrong about it being a 'mistake'.

It wasn't long after the official campaign officially began a few weeks ago that I began to feel uneasy that it was all going to turn on immigration - and so it was to be, despite best efforts on both sides to talk about the economy, a subject which, to our cost, goes over the heads of too many people. It's the simpler things like foreigners - 'us' and 'them' - that people seem to want to talk about, but carefully couched in terms not that far removed from "Some of my best friends are black but........."  Some were disconcertingly frank - "Our British culture is disappearing!", "We're getting taken over!" "We can't recognise our town any more!" And for one of the 'Leave' posters to display a seemingly endless queue of Syrian migrants fleeing for their lives, crossing the border from Turkey as though they were all hell-bent on coming over to Great Britain, that really was the pits! I felt just sick to my stomach. The tragedy now is that such tactics seem to have worked.

Of course I can't deny that some on the 'Leave' side were every bit as sincere as those in the 'Remain' camp though, very strangely, I did find that when it came to their nailing colours to their mast, there wasn't a single one politician of the former group whom I admired or even liked. (There were plenty on the 'Remain' side whom I disliked as well, but they were a much more balanced, motley collection.)

I feel particularly aggrieved for the younger generations, many of whom didn't even have the right to vote, whose future has now been determined largely by a section of the electorate (i.e. my generation and older) who won't even be alive to see the effect they've made on those surviving after them. If those presently younger ones wanted to remove themselves from the European Union at a later date then that would be up to them, and good luck with that!

Anyway, can't do anything about it now. A result is exactly that and we have got to live with it for better or worse. However, one Mr D. Trump hails it as a 'great' decision - so that's all right then! May the gods help us!


Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Film: 'Chicken'

With no exaggeration, this is probably the most most unpleasant and gruelling film I've seen in years, and only wish that I hadn't put myself through it.
I was attracted by the high IMDb rating (currently 7.8) as well as very positive reviews, including a rapturous endorsement from Sir Ian McKellan, no less.
It's relentlessly bleak, a story from which all moments of levity have been vanquished. I just can't imagine anyone coming out after a viewing and feeling well-satisfied that they've just had an 'enjoyable' experience.

As for the story itself, a British film set in southern East Anglia, it centres on two brothers living in a dilapidated caravan in an open field - the younger one, fifteen years old (Scott Chambers), is what in my day used to be referred to as being "a bit simple". He has a pet hen which he dotes on and talks to, either in its ramshackle 'coup', or carrying it about under his arm.  He alternately worships and fears his domineering and irascible brother of twice his age (Morgan Watkins), who drifts from job to job, picking up any work he can in order to keep them both surviving, though it's clear that the elder is tired of having the burden of the other, and always puts himself first. There are heated exchanges between them, culminating in an horrific assault on the younger - one of several points in the film where I just had to look away.
Meantime (and I did find this questioned the plausibility of the story) there's a chance encounter between the younger man and a well-to-do young lady of twenty-one (Yasmin Paige) who lives nearby with her mother, and she befriends him.
There is a slight condescension in her attitude but it's not without sympathy to both his plight and his 'condition'. They start seeing each other occasionally, his behaviour trying her to the limits.

Something I haven't mentioned yet which, as many will know, is a big thing with me though less so with most others. (I don't think that this aspect - animals - has affected my final verdict on the film).
Within the first few minutes we see a slaughtered pig close-up, hung up by its hind legs. Then immediately after that we see a run-over rabbit which the younger man picks up and takes back where he has a small shed of such recovered animal corpses which he places in various poses and makes clothes for them. (I shan't say what happens to the hen.)
It took some mental effort but I do think I managed to put all that aside and concentrate on the story of the two men and the young woman.

One major criticism I have of Joe Stephenson's debut feature film (he's also done a bit for TV) is that there's far too much mood-setting background music - and what I objected to particularly is that on a number of times when the younger brother is seen, we have underlining pizzicato strings as if to emphasise the character's playfully child-like quality. Totally unnecessary, I felt. Why not just let the person and the situation speak for themselves?

One good thing going for it is that it's under 90 minutes in length, even though it felt longer.

If the film hadn't ended on just a glimmer of hope, albeit fragile and just passing, I would have found the entire venture so depressingly downbeat that I'd have needed a stiff drink immediately on my return an hour ago - which is actually quite a good idea right now, anyway.

Most will call this a 'powerful' film, and there's no doubt that it does pack quite a punch (oops, sorry!). All the acting is top drawer stuff - and I'm sure the director is pleased with achieving what he aimed for. As for 'entertainment', in my books I'd call it as being one for the die-hard masochists. Now, where's that whisky? - Neat!....................3.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Film: 'The Measure of a Man' ('La Loi du Marche')

Low budget and modest film, this 'human interest' story easily held my attention - the focus being on a slice of the life of a 50-something husband - and father to a special-needs, late-teenage son. Set in an unnamed French town, he was a factory worker until the firm closed down, so he's then looking for a new job at a late stage of life, with especial reasons for needing one that pays adequately enough for him to finance the care work needed and ambitions of his limited-ability son. With his wife, with whom he has a still affectionate relationship (even though when we see them together, they hardly once speak directly to each other) the three of them get by, if only just, taking some recreation time in an adult dancing class. However, through their newly straitened circumstances, sale of their mobile home is necessary - in course of which, during one episode, a gradually heated exchange takes place between him with his wife and the prospective buyers. His new job, after some painfully humiliating experiences in being recruited, is to be a security officer in a supermarket, involving looking out for, and intercepting, shoplifters, as well as spying, through CCTV cameras, on dishonest staff at check-out tills.

What is unusual about this film is that the man (Vincent Lindon) is a man of very few words, and of whom we know little of what he's thinking, except for seeing shots of his face, usually impassive, though clearly bearing a burden of pain underneath. The verbal interactions that he does have relate almost entirely to the situations arising at work rather than revealing anything of what's going on inside his mind regarding his own life, personal and familial. Nevertheless, he is the film's sole pivot.

Director Stephane Brize's work may well leave some feeling frustrated that it doesn't delve deeper into the central character's psyche, neither adding to nor taking away from what we can see with our own eyes. It may also disappoint in not closing off the story in a conclusive way, but rather just leaving it hanging. Some would be asking "So what happened next?" I see it more as an observational film, as though we are mere witnesses with no personal involvement, and on that level alone I found the film more than satisfactory......................6.5.

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.