Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Film: 'Passengers'

Could hardly have wished for a more promising start to another year of cinema-going. When I first read what this was going to be about the story grabbed me - and on screen it's realised to near-perfection - though it hasn't been particularly well received by some critics. (Still, how would they know?) It's a terrific idea and one that is, so far as I'm aware, quite original.

It's set entirely in space on an enormous rotating ship transporting 5,000 passengers plus over 200 crew on a 120 year journey to colonise another planet, all of them sleeping through that time in individual hibernation pods. Okay, as expected in space-themed films, our first view is of the ship rumbling through airless (and therefore soundless!) space, followed by a series of combustive explosions (ho-hum!). But putting all that aside (filmic convention sometimes seems to dictate that an audience is not particularly intelligent), these disturbances provide the catalyst for the story, when a single one of the passengers (Chris Pratt) is awoken because of a computer malfunction, though there's yet another ninety years to transpire before arriving at the destination - and he's without the means to resume his hibernation. 
His only 'awake' companion is an android, a speaking and emoting bartender (Michael Sheen - with shades of the bartender scenes in Kubrick's 'The Shining') with human-looking top half only, otherwise gliding about hither and thither on wheels behind the bar, and eternally polishing up drinking glasses.
After a year of living without genuine human companionship Pratt is eventually joined by another passenger (Jennifer Lawrence), whose awakening and how she finds out about it I shan't elaborate on, as I also won't explain the appearance of a third wakened human being. Needless to say, romance between Pratt and Lawrence develops, at least up to point - resulting in a few treacly moments, mainly towards the film's end, but such episodes are sensibly kept in proportion.

Mention of the ship's location, its speed and the time elapsed since departure are figures which just don't compute to anything like what they ought to be (as I've now verified through Internet searches) though in the context of the story it's not material. And passing a star en route (in just a few seconds!) why isn't the view of it through an observation window rotating as the entire ship is turning? 
However, the special effects both inside the ship and in space are really stunning and I only wish I'd seen the film on a giant screen - and in 3D (though I don't think that format is available). But even as it is it still carries one hell of a visual punch.

Norwegian director Morgen Tyldum has pulled another rabbit out of the hat with this film. He already has 'The Imitation Game' (2014) and the marvellous 'Headhunters' of 2011 to his credit, and here comes yet another one deserving of meritorious consideration. He also gets superb performances from all four members of this cast. 

I don't exaggerate by claiming this to be, despite some decidedly sniffy reviews, the most impressive space-located film I've seen in, well, decades..............8

Saturday, 31 December 2016

My favourite films of 2016

As I saw only just over 10% of the films released in this country over the last twelve months, this can hardly claim to be a definitive list of the best films of the year. If I'd managed to see all those I'd wanted to see the list would certainly be looking very different. Be that as it may, here is my annual appraisal of the ten films out of the 83 which I did see and which I enjoyed the most, in approximate ascending order.

10. 10 Cloverfield Lane - Altogether unexpected, chilling, claustrophobic thriller with a dash of alien-type horrors.

9. Eye in the Sky  -  gripping and authentic-feeling terrorist saga set in Kenya

8. La Chambre Bleu - Another 'hemmed-in' piece leaving one gasping for air. Beautifully achieved with lingering questions tantalisingly left unanswered.

7. David Brent - Life on the Road - just had to include this somewhere, with Ricky Gervais on high form despite not having his familiar supporting cast, and yet delivering more (deliberate) laughs than I got from any other film this year.

6. Youth - remarkably watchable 'sunset' vehicle for Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel which I hadn't expected to enjoy even half as much as I did.

5. Nocturnal Animals
Cleverly constructed and realised thriller with a suspended ending which will frustrate some but which I loved. And Jake Gyllenhall - is he capable of making a film that's less than 'good'? Not so far.

4. Little Men

Near-perfect human interest drama with lovely ensemble casting, Greg Kinnear leading the honours, though only by a short nose. Managed to win me over quite easily despite the inclusion of two youngish boys among the major players, something which would normally have sounded warning bells.

3. Spotlight

Another 'ensemble' film with its entire cast on blazing form, dealing with the infuriating subject of R.C. Church cover-up of historic child abuse. The subject haunts one, just as it ought to, this film doing a tremendous service in keeping it in public consciousness.

2. I, Daniel Blake

Anyone who fails to be profoundly moved by this Ken Loach-directed saga of unemployment and the frustrations of officialese when trying to survive on state-handouts for the disabled can only be lacking a pulse in their arteries. Brought me closer to genuine tears than any other film I've seen this year - a once in several years rarity in any case.

1. Julieta

What can one say? Pedro Almodovar excels even himself, which alone is some achievement, in this flawless, mysterious tale with perfect casting. After seeing it I was, very unusually, totally lost for words to describe the experience. Quite took my breath away.

Finally, of course, we have to nominate the suppurating, pus-filled boil of the year. There were rich pickings indeed, but eventually I just could not avoid going for 'Batman vs Superman', a film which annoyed me to death from the moment I'd first heard of the concept of making these two heroes fight against each other. I'm by no means an avid comic-book hero fan, but even I knew that this was going to be nothing short of sacrilege. Such characters exist only in the hermetically-sealed environments which justifies them. They must be totally oblivious of each other. It just does not work any other way. Putting them together, and even worse, as foes, was unforgivable - and watching the whole sorry mess played out on screen only confirmed the blindingly obvious. Talk about scraping the barrel for a new 'gimmick' to draw in the crowds! Trouble is, to my regretful amazement, it worked for them, darn it - though taking less at box-office than anticipated. So a small mercy!

Wishing every single one of my readers the happiest of all New Years. See you in 2017!

Friday, 30 December 2016

Harold Pinter's 'No Man's Land' - live relay from West End theatre into cinemas

A most agreeable afternoon spent in my local cinema watching a live relay from Wyndham's theatre in London's West End of this utterly marvellous Harold Pinter play (though which of his plays does not qualify for that adjective?) with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in the main roles. Totally mesmerising, this was being relayed live not only to cinemas throughout the country but also to various venues around the world, including New York (which would have meant an 8 a.m. start) and China. Attending it cost me nearly three times my usual cinema price, but taking the opportunity was totally justified.

I do so love practically anything by Pinter. His plays are so , angular, off-kilter and mystifying, yet engorged with some hilarious black humour - and this is one of his very best, a play I already knew quite well.
It was first produced in 1975 (the play being firmly set around that time) with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson,  a production that was later recorded for TV and which I watched twice. I also have a radio recording made in the early 1990s with Dirk Bogarde and Michael Horden.

Exactly what it's about is anyone's guess - and therein lies a large part of the attraction. Two ageing men are talking, drinking and reminiscing about their lives in the home of the more affluent one (in this case, Stewart) though exactly what their relationship is to each other is left up in the air. They banter and bait one another, occasionally getting quite nasty and bitchy - then suddenly Stewart will ask McKellen "Who are you?" There are long monologues (always riveting) from one and then the other while the other remains silent giving the occasional quizzical look.
There are, now and again, odd remarks, such as when McKellen asks Stewart, ""Did you ever hang around Hampstead Heath?" (an area in north London that was - and I think may still be - notorious for anonymous, quickie gay encounters). The non-committal response is left ambiguous. (The McKellen character, at least, is married with two adult daughters - and is shocked to hear that the other once seduced his wife.) 

Then there's the appearance of two mysteriously unexplained men, one middle aged - the older character's 'butler'? - the other shady one, a younger (here Owen Teale and Damien Maloney) both of whom have a threatening menace about them, verging on the bullying of the two older men, and certainly deliberately provoking them.

The play finishes unresolved, as do just about all of Pinter's works, and we are left wondering what it was all about - but in the most satisfying way.

At the end of this performance there was an audience Q & A session with the director and the four members of the cast. Ian McKellen said that a lot of people make the mistake of trying to read too much into and over-interpret Pinter's plays, and that we shouldn't try to think too hard about it but just take it as you experience it. Easier said than done. 
The very interesting comment was also made that the play is about something that was never discussed or hardly even recognised at the time it was written: viz the onset of dementia. I think this must be true.

All in all, a highly positive and rewarding afternoon's experience.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Film: 'Why Him?"

Now back in business following prolonged absence. I wish to express my gratitude once more to those of you enquiring after my welfare during my indisposition. Am 95% recovered now, thank you.

My final film of the year, like 2016 itself (largely), is a stinker. Spectacularly unfunny, gross-out 'comedy' which only drew me because of the presence of James Franco - someone who, I'm quite aware, is a great turn-off for a lot of people but for some curious reason I continue to find fascinating.  
He plays a heavily tattooed, brash and potty-motormouthed billionaire with huge gadget- and computer-driven home complete with nerdy staff and an unfunny, slightly campy bodyguard character who tries to keep Franco alert by subjecting him to surprise combat attacks, as was meted out to Inspector Clouseau in the 'Pink Panther' films which, incidentally, had also left me unsmiling. 
Franco is dating the daughter (Zoey Deutch) of parents Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally - whom I've not seen since 'Will and Grace' and would not have recognised her if I'd not known. 
The Franco persona invites the family (including a 15-year old son), the members of which he's not yet met, to spend a few days at his home - an entirely 'paperless' environment, so it's hardly a surprise that there's an extended 'jokey' toilet section. (Ha ha ha! Laugh? I did not!)
Franco's language is liberally peppered with coarseness in words and expressions, much to the horror and disapproval of both parents - though once the mother takes a sample of 'grass' her personality alters and she gets all flirty. Cranston, as the father. is adamantly opposed to his daughter's choice, notwithstanding the fact that Franco is on the verge of actually proposing, and making his new wife a President in his company. 
All so drearily unimaginative. To make matters still worse, the whole boring business is wrapped up in the final scenes by Cranston giving sage, homely, paternal advice to his daughter and her intended. Oh, PLEEEZE!

Director and co-story- and screenplay writer, John Hamburg, who was involved in 'Meet the Parents/Fockers' and both 'Zoolanders' has hardly stretched himself with this material. It's one of those films that I think will only appeal to those who have a very limited acquaintance with such 'comedies' to date - very much a 1970-80s thing, I think, with the formula practically unchanged, only the language assuming that the cruder it gets (including here an explanation of 'bukkake') ergo it must be funner. Wrong!..............2.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Film: 'Sully'

Film based around the January 2009 incident of plane making emergency landing on River Hudson, New York, with all 155 on board surviving - the achievement gaining the title 'Miracle on the Hudson' - which most of us ought to recall from news bulletins at the time. We all know the outcome from the word 'go'.

Tom Hanks plays chief pilot Chesley Sullenberger in this Clint Eastwood directed film, with Aaron Eckhart as his co-pilot. Laura Linney is underused as Mrs Sullenberger (though it is based on fact) on the other side of the country when it happened, has a few shorts scenes communicating with husband by telephone.
From very near the start of the film we see 'Sully' commencing his being interrogated by the investigation committee, which almost immediately takes on an accusatory tone - why did he risk the lives of his passengers by attempting such a dangerous landing (following his plane being disabled by colliding with a flock of birds), when he could have made any of at least three alternative far safer landings, chief one being returning to La Guardia airport from whence it had taken off just a few minutes previously?

The actual incident only covers a couple of minutes so it might have been tempting for Eastwood to have built up to the crucial time with an excessive preamble. Happily, that doesn't happen. There are a few flashbacks to the critical moments, but not as many as I'd feared. 
Likewise, we see a few passengers before they actually board for what was going to be a routine flight. Once again, these are kept to a minimum, with no attempt to sentimentalise. So, Eastwood's restraint is to be commended.
With Sully's reputation on the line, and with the media starting to suggest that his decision and subsequent action, far from being brave, he'd actually been reckless, the film successfully explains how he was, in fact, deservedly accorded being dubbed 'hero'.

It's a good film, always interesting. However, as we know how it ends, it can hardly be wildly exciting, gripping though the depiction of the actual landing on water and the rescue are.  
Competent-double plus........................6.5.