Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Film: 'The Beguiled'

Never having seen the 1970 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood film of this title  - my recollection is that although I was aware of it coming out at the time, it didn't get a wide general release - I didn't have any preconceptions about this new version, which is partly based on that earlier film as well as on the original novel by Thomas Culinnan. Director of this new version, Sofia Coppola, has taken both sources and fashioned, in my view, a product of some distinction.
In any case, with two of my current favourite actors, Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman as the leads (both as good as one could hope), I would never have resisted seeing this, and I'm glad it turned out as pleasing as it did. (Quite a number of reviews I've seen are damning, on the "boring!" line). It's true that there's little dramatic action for the first two thirds of its 90 minutes, an hour that is completely devoid of any music (apart from a couple of songs in subdued fashion) and with no sound effects. When they come it's all sensibly understated as to be hardly noticeable.

It's a couple of years after the start of the American Civil War, and Colin Farrell, a Unionist corporal, is found wounded in the woods by one of the half-dozen pupils of a small residential girls' school in Virginia (actually shot in Louisiana). He is taken in by the girls under the instruction of head Nicole Kidman who nurses his leg wound and keeps his location secret to the outside world (a passing troop of soldiers). Among the school staff is also Kirsten Dunst. There's much submerged sexual feelings among both the elder female players and Farrell, but it's not over-played at all - only the occasional very slight suggestion of a smile. Kidman, all the while, tries to maintain a starchy, governess-like, no-nonsense mien. 
One can imagine jealousies arising among the females, with their hopes and expectations of being the object of Farrell's attentions - and resentments when it's discovered where they actually are directed.  
Photography is just stunning - nearly all in whites, ochres, sepias and browns - sun's rays filtered through leafy tree branches (which was the sort of scene one saw a lot in photographs which used to grace L.P. sleeves - e.g. 'Pastoral Symphony'), but it's not out of keeping with the sultry, pent-up mood of the first hour or so.
Criticism has been made of Coppola's decision to excise out of the story a significant, and the only, non-white character. All the participants in this film are white. That complaint may well be justified - this is, after all, the Civil War! But I didn't find the omission distracting.

The film for me was engaging throughout, including the first hour where very little happens. It's beautiful to look at and, not knowing the story, I was intrigued as to where it would go next and how it would end.
This is the fifth of Sofia Coppola's films that I've seen, 'Lost in Translation' included, of course. But I do think that 'The Beguiled' is her best to date.......................7.5.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Film: 'It Comes in the Night'

Once more I've been lured to see a film because of some good reviews and a rather high current average rating of '7' on IMDb - and now regret that I bothered with it. 

We don't get to know what the 'It' of the title is. All we learn is that a small family of father (Joel Edgerton), mother (Carmen Ejogo) and 17-year old son (Kelvin Harrison Jr), with their dog, are holed up in their isolated home of wood in the middle of a forest (State unidentified - film shot in Woodstock, NY) trying to keep a low, 'invisible' profile - venturing outside only when they have to, and then additionally wearing gas masks - presumably prevent their catching some kind of infection which has taken over the world? We never really find out.  
Then a stranger (Christopher Abbott) discovers and tries to enter their home, a youngish man who is mistrusted from the outset. ("Are you sick?") He is mistreated and threatened until it's revealed that he is only trying to find food and safety for his family of wife and infant son. These three move in with the first three, there always being an air of suspicion over the new arrivals.

It's more a film of suspense than a genuine 'horror' film as such but, dear me, how it predictably ticks all the boxes of cliche, every one of which is repeated several times. All so dull and unimaginative - including many entries into dark rooms clutching lamp or torch to investigate strange noises outside (door knob turning or being rattled). The methods used to make one jump are all so tired - an ominous, low humming sound which suddenly stops (you're supposed to give a sigh of relief now) - a few seconds of silence then..........thump! The number of times this is employed is just shameful. I could forecast with over 90% accuracy exactly when the 'frights' would come. Or there's a startling sound which turns out to be something everyday, only raised by a number of decibels in order to surprise one. (Thankfully we're spared any sudden appearance of a squealing cat!) At one point we've got the threadbare and unforgivable technique of viewing a dream which turns out be within another dream. This is not skilful or original filmic technique - it's simply damned lazy!  

It's a fairly gory film though many of this genre are a lot more so. Director (and writer) Trey Edward Shults thinks he's onto a winner with this. Maybe it will make more money than it cost by a younger audience going to see it who are less familiar with the methods employed to give one a 'thrill' than I was. I just found the whole effort pretty dismal................3

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Film: 'Alone in Berlin'

I needed something to lift my prevailing mood, still rather depressed. Unfortunately all that was available was 'Despicable 3' (which might have fitted the bill, but it's not my kind of film), 'War for the Planet of the Apes' (I've only seen the Tim Burton 2014 ' 'Dawn of.....' since they resurrected the franchise in 2000 and wasn't impressed enough to see any more) - and this grim wartime (yet again!) true-ish story. 

It's absolutely the case that the courage shown by some of the characters depicted in this intense drama, 'Alone in Berlin', is uplifting, but I'm so weary of having my nose rubbed in the horrors and miseries of Nazism which (maybe unlike some younger generations, perhaps?) I've been aware of my entire life, that I'm coming to the end of my tether on the subject. However, in this film there are no mass atrocities shown, though there is some individual brutality. But there's still the reportedly ultra-harrowing 'Dunkirk' to come! Oh, saints preserve us!
I think that after seeing 'Dunkirk', any more war films, most particularly WW2 dramas, will go on my 'no-no' list - unless they are a must-see, which I understand 'Dunkirk' is.

Btw: May I just make an aside regarding the 'Planet of the Apes' films? I saw the 1968 original, starring Charlton ("Mr Green-teeth") Heston in the large, then single-screen, 1200-seater Odeon in Middlesbrough - and that experience spoilt me concerning all the rest. I also saw the four progressively increasingly dismal sequels culminating in 1973 when we thought (and hoped?) the theme had been exhausted for good. Little did we then know!
But that first viewing of the original film was a seminal moment in my cinema-going life, with the most jaw-dropping conclusion that no one, least of all me, saw coming. The startled intakes of breath and gasps from the astonished audience I recall as much as I do the screams on seeing 'Psycho'. And I had spent the entire film of 'Planet' up to that moment sitting there and silently fuming at the silliness of seeing apes on another world speaking English - and in American accents too! But all of a sudden, in the final seconds, all was explained. I don't think the surprise of the ending has been topped by any other film before or since. 

Anyway, back to 'Alone in Berlin', which I thought an impressive, very moving film, one which most effectively wound the tension almost up to snapping point, without relaxing for an instant.  
It's 1940 in the German capital shortly after the fall of France, and a husband and wife (Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson) have just heard that their only son has been killed fighting in Poland for the Nazis. This provides the trigger for their commencing a campaign of resistance against the German government, taking the form of Gleeson writing out on postcards anonymous injunctions and slogans to encourage people at large to rise up and resist Hitler and the Nazi tyranny. These postcards he, and sometimes she, deposits singly in various locations around the city. The tension in the film is simply and strongly "How long can they get away with it until they are identified?" 
The main investigator into finding the culprit is played by Daniel Bruhl (excellent) as a police chief detective leaned on heavily by the Nazi machine to bring the perpetrator(s) to 'justice' with speed.

While Brendan Gleeson, as a factory manager, displays an impassively neutral expression almost throughout the film, it's Emma Thompson who is as good as we know she can be, which is outstanding. Superficially, she's a Nazi-supporting women's group worker, but increasingly reluctant to participate since the death of her son. Her face, conspicuously without any make-up all through, betrays a formidable range of emotions. I thought she was amazing.

The only dubious point in the film was, I thought, the very final minute which seemed to me rather implausible considering all that had gone before. But the film is based on a novel (by Hans Fallada) which in turn is based on a true story. If the end of the film actually happened then I think a slightly nuanced clue in the film's body as to the conclusion might have improved its credibility. But in the context of the whole it's a minor point.
You also have to accept the entire cast (all apparently German from their names apart from the leading two) speaking in English with German accents, including Gleeson and Thompson  - though after the first few minutes, it didn't distract me too much.

This seems to be the first film I've seen directed by a Vincent Perez, who also has quite a body of acting on his C.V., mainly in French. He controls the tension in this film flawlessly and I'll be looking out for his next project as director. 
Impressive. indeed................7.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Journey's end for Blackso. Goodbye, my very dearest friend.

April 2015

This is the day I was dreading. The end came at 5.45 a.m., in my presence - leaving an irreplaceable void in my life.

I'm fully aware that some may feel I go on and on too much about the subject, writing as if nobody else has gone through a similar experience, but I have no one else in the world to talk to about it and I need somehow to relieve the pressure built up inside me. So if I indulge myself, you don't have to read any further if you'd rather not:-

There were signs last night that the end could be approaching. Two particular things changed about his condition which alarmed me (I won't go into detail). Added to which, instead of Blackso's normal croaky miaow he started a periodic kind of wail, though for nothing in particular that I could see. As I combed his rather emaciated, fur-sparse body I started noticing with some horror that fleas had already started being attracted to him, despite his regular flea drops. I could even see them darting in and out on his face. Giving him more drops, I tried to soothe him by gentle strokes and whispering that if he really wanted to let go during the night that was okay. 

I had a restless night, checking on him lying in his litter tray in the kitchen. Getting up at 4.30, I found him fast asleep and still breathing, one of his front legs rising and falling with each intake of breath. He showed no signs of moving nor indicating that he was wanting breakfast. Noodles was also there in the same room but unconcerned and he ate his breakfast as usual (which surprised me a bit as I thought he might have picked up on the situation). Blackso remained motionless until, at 5.45, he suddenly stirred and made two big soundless gulps of air. and nothing else - then rested back in repose. I immediately checked though couldn't detect any rise and fall of his breathing. I feared the inevitable had happened though I desperately didn't want it to be so. Leaving him there, I sat myself in the living room - and gushed.

With mind in a spin, I kept looking in on him and checking for signs of life without touching. Then at 9 o'clock I put some of his favourite food under his nose. No reaction. I touched him and he was cold and stiff with rigid tail. I could see also that he'd voided himself in the tray and was lying in it.

What had to be done couldn't wait so I picked him up, his entire body now as stiff as a board, and wrapped him inside a large, plastic carrier bag putting it in a shoulder bag. Rang vet at 9 who told me to bring him in at 10.

Once there in the treatment room I couldn't keep myself from blubbing as the young lady had a look at him and confirmed that he had definitely gone. I put my hand gently over him, still in the carrier bag, and wished him farewell and thanks.

(Given the choice of an individual cremation with ashes returned, which I've heard can be very expensive, or a communal cremation, I, of course, had to opt for the latter).

So that was the departure of my very best friend in the world, the only one who gave me absolute and unconditional affection, reciprocating exactly as I gave him - and not just when he wanted his eats but all the time. (Noodles only gives a soft purr when it's feeding time. Patchie can be loving but it's variable. With Blackso it was always there, guaranteed.)

Thank you for giving me so much for over 17 years, Dear Heart. Your unique place in my memory is assured for eternity. Sleep in peace with all my blessings and my most profound gratitude. 

Sunday, 9 July 2017


I'm still not sure about putting this on my blog - but I've got no one else to tell. It happened 24 hours ago and I can still feel my pulse racing. It was easily one of the biggest confrontations of my life, maybe even the worst.

My downstairs 'neighbour' (in the flat below me) and I have always had a fragile relationship - superficially 'friendly' though deep down we've never really trusted each other. 
The initial trouble first began soon after he moved in downstairs six years ago when he warned me with overt hostility about my letting out my little Blackso around 5 o'clock every morning, waking him up when he was trying to sleep. He threatened to tell my landlord about my having a cat (which my landlord already knew about) when we tenants are not supposed to have pets of any description. (Incidentally, he himself has now got a dog! - a lovely, friendly little mongrel who wails piteously whenever he's left alone, which is too often.) 
Since that time years ago our chance encounters have been kind of strained 'polite' on top but after that incident I've never been able to bring myself to accept him as someone I can rely on as a friend. I habitually refer to him as 'Mr Nasty'. 
He's 59 years old but, quite honestly looks 20 years older, with battered face, apparently toothless apart from one prominent upper central tooth; he's separated from his wife and with a now 16 year-old daughter who, he told me only recently, now refuses to visit him. 
Every so often he plays loud pop music (mainly of the 70s and 80s, a lot of it unfamiliar to me) thumping up through my floor, very probably when he's got himself pissed. I can hear him daily on his phone swearing liberally at whomsoever  - his ex-wife? his 'friends' (of whom he has quite a number)? those he works with? 
It's plain that he's almost certainly had a violent past, possibly including  a prison term or more (the dog he's got belonged to a friend who's now been recalled to jail) - and he drinks and smokes, despite having had a large part of one lung removed as well as having a heart by-pass. Oh, and his work is as a 'carer'!  

But back to yesterday. It was all about Blackso again, now surely in the advanced twilight of his life (18 years old), hardly able to walk (yet eating well and still usually with a wet nose), spending all his time in the kitchen sleeping in a litter tray on the litter 'gravel', often relieving himself just where he lies (which I don't in the least mind cleaning up for him). Anyway, I've been taking him outside two or three times a day and leaving him in the overgrown back garden to give him a change of scenery and some fresh air while checking up on him every hour or so before bringing him in again. In the recent hot weather I've been laying him down in the shade but despite the heat I've seen that he drags himself to lie in the sun - maybe as a consequence of losing so much fur which makes him feel cold? Every so often I offer him water as well as occasional eats. 
Yesterday afternoon came a hammering at my door. 
Mr Nasty - "Will you bring your f*ckin' cat in! He's suffering out there under the sun in the heat." (I normally get a speechless, all-over shock-paralysis when someone directs heightened anger at me, and so it threatened to be so again, but I didn't allow it to happen this time.)  
"I've had a word with someone and they tell me to report you to the RSPCA!" (= American ASPCA). 
"Hang on" I said "If he's in the sun he's moved there. I left him in the shade." 
But Mr Nasty wasn't listening to my words. I assume he'd had a few beers or more, as he does daily. 
"How can you be so f*ckin' cruel? Just bring him inside, watch him and let him die. If you leave him there in the sun I'm going to report you". 
It didn't matter what I said, he wasn't listening.  
"I'm also going to tell the landlord!" 
My protestations were in vain. 
"And I know all about you - where you've come from!"
"Where I've come from? What do you mean?"
"I know that you used to live in a f*ckin' tent!(Spitting out that last word with forceful venom, as though I'd been a member of a paedophiles' collective!)
"I've never lived in a tent." I protested with incredulity at the 'accusation', trying to explain to him that the predecessor in his own flat had indeed been homeless and used a tent for sleeping on roadside grass verges.
"Well, that's what I was told."
"Who told you that?" (and anyway, why was being homeless such an awful thing as though one ought to be ashamed of to be in that position?)
But he was only listening to himself getting out what he had to say about my cat. 
After so much of this barrage of effing and blinding straight at me I finally slammed the door in his face . He shouted through "Right, I'm now going to f*ckin' report you to the f*ckin'  RSPCA." 
"Do that!" I shouted back. 
I came back upstairs, sat down, heart racing like mad, mind in a complete whirl. How dare he suggest I'd ever be deliberately cruel to my pets, letting them suffer. He already knew full well the high regard I have for each of the three of them - and Blackso most of all, my best friend in the entire world.  
About five minutes later a softer knocking at the door:-
 "What?" I yelled. 
"Can I just have a word with you?" 
With a sigh, and half expecting him to be standing there, ready for me with a knife, I went down and warily opened the door. 
"Look, I only mean it for the best." (No apology). 
"I know how fond you are of your cats but you really shouldn't leave them out in the sun." (His windows have a better view of the back garden than I have so he can see always see where Blackso is lying). 
I said "Have you reported me? I hope you have because I want the chance to explain to them." 
"No", he said "I'd never report you". (Yeah, right! So why the threat?)  
After stammering out further self-justification for his threats he offered me a hand to shake. I did little more than touch it though I wish I hadn't done even that. 
When he'd finished rambling on, feeling more sorry for what I might think of him than how he made me feel, I coldly closed the door and went up to sit and think again.
Of course I had to the bring Blackso inside to the kitchen, with the window blind down, but with a shaft of sunlight which Blackso dragged himself around to follow so he can lie in it.

Three or four hours later I took the cat outside again, but in the front where I stayed with him (the main road is too dangerous to leave him there alone). Mr Nasty came out:- 
"Look, I'm sorry for what I said."
I told him straight that what upset me particularly was that he could come out immediately with a threat, even of blackmail, when he knew perfectly well my regard for the cats which I would never contemplate coming to any harm. 
"I know" he said "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come on as strongly like I did." 
It was an apology of sorts, but really only made because, as he himself admitted, that as we live in such close proximity we really need to get on with each other. 
He offered me his hand again - "Here's my hand with my heart. Will you take it?" I did, though part of me wished I hadn't. "Are we still friends?" ("Still"? I hadn't realised we were!) Not wishing to prolong the hostility, what could I do but answer that, yes, we were?  

I haven't seen him since then though I can hear him moving about below right now. As I say at the start above, it wasn't the first blow-up between us, and I doubt if it'll be the last. 
I don't want another experience like that with anyone!

Meanwhile Blackso is lying in the kitchen, oblivious of the stirring that went on - sleeping in a shaft of sunlight.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Film: 'Spider-man: Homecoming' (in 2D)

Bold claims are being made that this is a fresh take on the Spiderman saga. On the contrary, I found it tired and jaded, and with a pervading sense of deja vu, using thin material which is stretched beyond what it can reasonably take. 

This, the sixth in the current franchise, now boasts its third actor to play the webbed hero and 'force for justice' in an adequate Tom Holland to follow Tobey Maguire (3 films) and Andrew Garfield (2). The only new and most interesting aspect of this film is Spiderman's nemesis, 'Vulture' - here played by Michael Keaton - surely more than a mere nod to his 2014 Oscar-nominated turn in 'Birdman'. Also in this, but with more limited screen time, is Robert Downey Jr in his 'Iron Man' guise.
But the fights are all just as we have seen before. I don't know what else they can do to make them original. Dull, dull, dull!  

Director Jon Watts is a name I didn't know, and this is only his third feature film. I can only hope his next involvement has a higher interest level. 

I really feel they've come to the end of the line here though I dare say there'll be yet more films to follow this. It'll have to make a truly unique claim to make me want to see it. Failing that I can only assume it will be yet more of the noise and routine spectacle that we've become so over-familiar with....................3.5.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Film: 'Baby Driver'

This is a film like no other that I've seen - and I'm saying that in a positive sense. Most of the film is shot to synchronise with the music that the title character continuously listens to through his ear plug-ins (which he plays to drown out the non-stop noise he hears due to a hearing disability) - and it's not all heavy rock; in fact little of it is, some tracks being quite unexpected. However, although the sound level where I saw the film was not at the pain threshold I did wish I'd had something to plug my own ears somewhat and take it down a level. But the soundtrack does give the film a terrific non-stop energy which is exploited to the full in sharp visual editing - and this is coupled with an intelligent, sassy script. 

Ansel Elgort (who was male lead in 'The Fault in Our Stars' of 2014) is the 'Baby' of the title who is 'employed' by smarmy crime boss and mastermind Kevin Spacey (menacingly unruffle-able) to do the driving for him as the sole permanent fourth member of a crime quartet who are assigned to carry out bank robberies.  He's the standing member because Spacey has faith in him as he's never let him down and regards Baby as his 'lucky charm'. Others in the gang of varying membership include Jamie Foxx and John Hamm. Baby Driver's involvement in these violent capers (invariably with shootings and deaths) makes him increasingly reluctant to continue, especially when he meets fast-food waitress Debora (Lily James) with whom he wishes to strike up a relationship, but Spacey won't let him go, complete with threats.  

One relatively minor reservation I had was that I could have done without the epilogue. It's not long but it plays like a needless attempt to wrap things up neatly when a more effective ending in my view would have been just to cut the film off as soon as we're shown what's going to happen, which would have been more in character with the body of the film.

British director Edgar Wright, best known for his Simon Pegg/Nick Frost 'Cornetto' trilogy ('Shaun of the Dead', 'Hot Fuzz' and 'The End of the World' - each of which I think stands up to repeated viewings) certainly pulls out all the stops for this film, directing sure-footedly with enormous gusto and originality.

I hadn't realised until just now that most of the film was shot in New Orleans, though the location isn't betrayed, and nor is it important to know.

This gets my sure recommendation and I can practically guarantee that most of you will be carried along for a heady two-hour pleasure ride. Great fun..................7.5.