Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Film: 'Loving'

Virginia 1958. Mixed-race couple Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), a bricklayer in an all-white gang of builders, and Mildred (Ruth Negga) are deeply in love and decide to get married following her becoming pregnant. Because such inter-racial marriages are not recognised in their state they go to Washington D.C. to have their very modest ceremony. Returning home, one night their house is invaded by police, they are dragged from bed and carted off to police cells where he is temporarily released the following morning, she remaining imprisoned until the magistrate can hear their case a few days later. Obviously he is distraught at having had to leave her in police custody. When the case is heard they are each given a one year prison sentence, suspended provided that they leave Va. and do not return together or see each other again in the state for 25 years. They move to Washington D.C. to live. She has the baby - then the story jumps five years and another two babies later. They both long to return home and it's suggested that she writes to Attorney General Robert Kennedy about her case, which she does, and the matter gets passed on to the American Civil Liberties Union to pursue, first in Virginia itself and then, if necessary all the way up to the Supreme Court - which, of course, happens.

There's no doubt that the real-life subject matter is powerful and, indeed, distressing, though I did find the film for at least the first half a little understated. There were no real surprises and it seemed pretty standard stuff, upsetting though some of it is. However, in the second half I did find myself gradually warming to the film.

Ruth Negga has been nominated for 'Best Actress' Oscar and although she was good, I found the un-nominated Joel Edgerton in the role of her blond, crew-cutted, hunky, quiet husband as the one who made the greater impression. Although he's a man of few words and he keeps his understandable anger internalised, he appears in more scenes than she does and one never knows what he's going to do next, whereas her actions and emotions are fairly by-the-book predictable.  

Another thing I liked, which some may see as a weakness, was that there was no grandstanding or triumphalism at the Supreme Court verdict - which you can guess at if, like me, you didn't know about this case.

It's an unassuming film, not at all preachy, and left to speak for itself - though some may feel that it missed a chance in not pushing it, especially when such reactionary attitudes which were relatively widespread in the middle of last century are, very regrettably, worryingly and horribly, becoming more 'acceptable' again, even if it's only occurring in pockets. 

I didn't know the name of director and writer Jeff Nichols at all, this being just his fifth film to date, but he did enough here to keep me interested - even if in the end it wasn't a particularly exceptional cinematic experience.......................6.5.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Film: 'Jackie'



Jacqueline Kennedy is the subject (played by Natalie Portman), interviewed a few days after the funeral of President J.F.K. by a nameless newspaper reporter  (Billy Crudup), and now revealing a very different persona to the manufactured one that she'd displayed to the world up to just a few days before. 
The film concentrates on two aspects - viz. the period between the assassination in 1963 and the burial in Arlington National Cemetery - and the televised 'tour' of the White House that Mrs Kennedy filmed in 1961, a few months after her husband's inauguration.

Even though the film, when shorn of the opening titles and end credits, is only a little over an hour and half long, I did find the material rather thin to be stretched over that time, with the result that it seemed needlessly attenuated now and then.
But even more importantly, as one who still vividly remembers those earth-shaking days, as well as the earlier TV programme, I did find myself constantly struggling to see Natalie Portman as the (former) First Lady. Hair style and clothing is, of course, presented to perfection, but I think that facially she only resembles her very, very approximately. I had to keep reminding myself that Portman was doing a portrayal rather than an impersonation but I did find the lack of close resemblance off-putting. (I am perfectly aware that Portman has received an Oscar nomination for the part). I'm sure that those younger viewers for whom the image of Mrs K was not an intrinsic part of their lives will be able to accept Portman's role easier than I could.
Robert Kennedy, J.F.K.'s brother, is played by Peter Sasgaard (also not looking very like the original) and Jackie's female assistant and confidante is Greta Gerwig, whom it is always good to see. A more poignant note is struck by seeing John Hurt, who died only a few days ago, here in his final role, as Jackie's wise old priest, one of the few to whom she can open up her mind.

The interview which frames the film, as well as frequent returns to it, shows Jackie taking absolute control, demanding complete editing rights - a steely side which we weren't aware of at the time. On the other hand, in the White House tour she is portrayed as unsure, a bit shaky and nervous, and having to look to the side for prompts, aspects which I don't recall picking up from the actual programme at the time. But then I haven't seen it since then. Maybe I'd notice such things if I saw it again.

The funeral arrangements are laboriously drawn out, with Mrs K changing her mind, arguing with others of different opinions such as whether to follow the hearse in a closed car or to walk behind it, leading all the foreign dignitaries, and thus risk another assassination attempt, not least to herself and her two young children.
The showing of the actual assassination is held back until near the end of the film, and it is rather bloody (though brief), resulting in her iconic, pink two-piece being blood- and brain-spattered, an image we see a number of times earlier in the film.

I thought the film was okay, but not special enough to be as memorable as I'd been banking on. Chilean director Pablo Larrain manages fair enough with his material, but there weren't any moments which made me sit up and think "This is good!" It was useful in finding out things which I didn't know, such as that she was a heavy smoker, something which had been kept from the public. I wasn't even aware that the president himself smoked - and of course it was only years later that we got to know of his serious physical ailments, details of which, nowadays, it would be impossible to keep out of the media.

It's not a bad film, but it's not one that I'd urge people to see unless, like me, you are curious about filling in the gaps of your knowledge around this momentous, tragic event..........6.


Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Film: 'T2 Trainspotting'

Oh, how I really do wish I could have rated this even higher than I have. But although I can recall only a little of the original film, to which this is a 20-years-later sequel, I do remember experiencing the extraordinary adrenalin rush the 1996 release had given me. I didn't quite get that here, though part of the reason for that could well be how I (along with everyone else, naturally) have aged since.

Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner and Johnny Lee Miller reprise their much younger characters, meeting up again (or re-confronting each other) in Edinburgh after a couple of decades of prison, criminal activities, debauchery, marriages and separations, fathering children, drug involvement etc etc - you get the picture. They've learnt little from mistakes of the past - though its Begbie (Carlyle's completely crazed character) who is the one who's least reformed, angry as hell about everyone else rather than himself, now with a son in teenage years whom he derides as the boy tries to make himself respectable, something his father has never even attempted. Meanwhile Renton (McGregor - as the most matured of the four, at least up to a point) comes on the scene, having run off in the earlier film with everbody else's share of ill-gotten cash, and Begbie is the last person in the world who knows forgiveness, out to wreak revenge and demand atonement. Johnny Lee Miller and Ewen Bremner show few occasional flashes of maturity but are liable at any time to return to former ways - and then there's younger, east European Veronica (Anjela Nedyalkova) hovering around them with knowing silences and sober platitudes. 
There are some impressive set-pieces, such as Renton's (McGregor) 'Choose Life' soliloquy. Quickfire verbal exchanges and arguments can turn in a split-second into horrific punch-ups, and not just with fists but with anything that's near at hand - though, curiously, with mostly blood-free results. 
Soundtrack pieces chosen often refer back to the earlier film, as well as there being quite a number of short, visual extracts from T1.

As in 1996, this film is based on writings of Irvine Welsh. Director Danny Boyle, along with his quartet of actors, has well re-caught the spirit of his earlier effort and he doesn't try to make them overdo physically what their decades-younger selves could easily accomplish with their then much suppler and stamina-fuelled bodies, although there are echoes of their attempting to emulate those earlier young men, especially in at least one long, running pursuit. 
Boyle also delivers his expected full panoply of mind-dizzying, arresting images, often in heady, quick succession. I couldn't help being reminded of Ken Russell at his most manic - which I intend as a compliment.

Although set in Edinburgh - and we do see some good exterior shots of that most photogenic of cities, including a climb right up to the summit of  'Arthur's Seat' (the prominent high 'hill' which overlooks the capital with a fabulous view) - most of the film, including all the interiors, was actually filmed in Glasgow.

Though I did find this film very entertaining indeed, it ultimately lacked for me that final 'kick' which so marked out the earlier film as being something exceptional. Nevertheless, I still would thoroughly recommend it, especially to fans of the first. If you're not familiar with the original (which I've not seen again since that 1996 release) then I would recommend this even more as you'll probably be in for a terrific surprise, though you may well be shocked as well, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

If this film hadn't been a sequel, having an original with which to compare it, I may have been even more impressed than I was, and which I'd been dearly hoping to have been. But even so, I have no hesitation in giving it, in my terms, a hefty score of..........7.5.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Film: 'Hacksaw Ridge'

I'm aware that there are more than a few people around who'd discount going anywhere near this film because of its (infamous?) director, and I must admit to having, figuratively, to hold my nose on purchasing my ticket. But it's had such astonishingly good reviews that I was curious to see what the fuss was all about.

Mel Gibson (for 'tis he!) seems to be hell-bent on making the most violent films in history, and here he's at it again. However, apart from a brief bloody battle prologue (Okinawa 1945) all the guts and gore is confined to the second half.

Based on a true story (as every second film now seems to be), Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, Seventh-Day Adventist and conscientious objector, who enters the army and refuses to even touch a weapon, much to the ridicule of his co-conscriptees and the exasperation of his senior officers (including Vince Vaughan and Sam Worthington).
Before we get there we see Doss as a young boy in Virginia, with his brother, their strict, emotionally-distant father (the doughty Hugo Weaving) and their more protective mother (the ever-excellent Rachel Griffiths). 
Then it jumps forward ten years and we see the teenager (looking at times alarmingly like a young Anthony Perkins) taking a fancy to a hospital nurse (Teresa Palmer) in what looks like love-at-first-sight or, at least for him it is. They decide to marry but first he has to do his army service. Then the rest of the film's first hour is devoted to his training and the difficulties he faced with in following his religion. He stoically takes the barrage of ridicule aimed at him, and eventually the army gives in and posts him as medical officer, which absolves him from participating in actual combat.

The remainder of the film is this battle in Japan, a struggle to take the strategic clifftop site of Hacksaw Ridge against tremendous odds. Gibson pulls out all the stops and more to show the reality (I assume) of battle - and it must be the most extended battle scene I've seen in any film. (There is only one brief respite when night falls.) Plenty of gory killings, to be sure - mainly gunshot or grenades, also with some stabbings, but no slaughter is actually unduly lingered over, scenes being mercifully short while intensely graphic.

Garfield has been nominated for a 'Best Actor' award for this main part (as well as Gibson as director and the film itself as 'Best Picture'). I can't help feeling that what's behind it is more an effort to recognise the little-known story of the real Desmond Doss (who died just 11 years ago) rather than Garfield's performance who had to do little more than maintain a saint-like mien amidst all the belittling and rebuke he gets and then adopt the same tone in battle while struggling to assist as many injured as he can. It's been said that he well displays the character's emotional turmoil. Again, I'm not so sure. I think that his religious faith was so strong that there was little inner conflict for him. He knew how he was supposed to act according to his beliefs, so that's what he did, simple as that.
(I also can't yet forgive Garfield for the mumble-fest that was 'The Social Network'  of 2010).

I found it a very conventional film, despite the sensationalism of the depiction of battle violence and its being based on fact. One could guess where it was going to go, with Doss displaying scarcely believable extreme heroism throughout, putting just about everyone else to shame - the film's concluding captions telling how many lives he actually saved and that he was the first conscientious objector to be awarded a medal of honour for bravery.  

One thing I couldn't work out was, why were just about all the Americans white? Was this the way it was? During the army training scenes every single face was white. If there were one or two black faces in the battles I wasn't sure if they looked so because that was their actual complexion or were they white faces blackened by war-ravages, explosions etc? Certainly throughout the film, even in the early part, no non-white character had any spoken part. I don't recall seeing even a single such person in the early hospital scenes. Very odd.

I'm pleased that I saw the film, not least for having satisfied my curiosity - but as to giving it a rating I'm going to go way out on a limb with practically every other reviewer and confess that my experience was, basically, a shallow, memory-disposable one, and therefore I accord it with.................5.5.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Film: 'Manchester by the Sea'

Although I think that this is indeed a fine film, I can't quite go along with all the 'oohs' and aahs' that have been conferred on it. For one thing, at two-and-a-quarter hours long, I feel that it is too long for its subject matter - though, having laid that claim down, I can say that I was never bored by it - only a trifle exhausted.

Casey Affleck is an itinerant plumber with a personality like a coiled spring, ready to go off at little, even imagined, provocation. (He's not alone in this respect!) His work entails doing thankless tasks for sometimes thankless clients. Close to his brother's young son (Ben O'Brien) with whom he goes on fishing trips, a few years later, his brother dies and Affleck finds to his surprise, and not without some irritation, that he's been nominated by his brother to be the guardian of the now 16-year old boy (Lucas Hughes). Their relationship has become spikey with both of them holding a simmering resentment of the situation - not helped at all by the boy having two girlfriends which he juggles simultaneously, each not being aware of the other, to Affleck's evident disapproval.
In a disappointingly (to me) rather meagre role is Michelle Williams as the Affleck character's former wife, who opens out her heart to him late in the film. There's a past between them which lurks over their continued regard for each other.  

The film is serious throughout, though I've seen at least one review which describes the awkwardness between Affleck and his nephew as 'funny'! If so, I missed that aspect.
If it's a violent film, very little physical violence is actually seen - rather more like an undertow of potential emotional violence which may or may not erupt into the physical.
The photography of the small town Manchester, particularly in the deeply snowbound season, is impressive.
On the soundtrack there are one or two pieces I could have done without - including two long excerpts from Handel's 'Messiah' - as well as the over-used Albinoni/Giazotto 'Adagio for organ and strings'.

Director Kenneth Lonergan really is given his head in this film and he takes it to the utmost. Although Affleck is remarkable in the main role, I did now and again feel that the director was breathing down the necks of his cast. I think it might have been improved if he'd stood back a little more.

I don't doubt that it's an interesting film, perhaps on the severe side, but not one that will appear on my list as a 'must-see again' (unlike 'La La' which I'm ready to see once more at anytime). After maybe ten years, if I last that long, I might feel differently about 'Manchester'. As at now I rate it with a still considerable..............7.5.


Monday, 16 January 2017

Film: 'Live by Night'

(First word to rhyme with 'give') 

After directing and appearing in the extraordinarily impressive 'Argo' of 2012 Ben Afffeck must have thought he could walk on water. Well, this one (in which he's main star, screenplay writer and director again) proves his mortality. Although far from being a turkey it does beckon in that direction. Ennui started setting in within minutes of the opening despite our being presented with a miscellany of gangster shootings, inevitably including one victim in a barber's chair. 'The Godfather' this is not.

I can't give a cohesive summary of the story because I'm not entirely sure what it was. It's set in 1920s Prohibition-era, Tampa, Florida where Affleck arrives to do some pushing around (including assassinations of 'inconvenient' characters) with shady clientele, among whom are police, law officials and property developers, all of which are drowning in corruption. While popping off sundry persons who get in the way, he's got to deal with the K.K.K. who are not too keen on his relationship with the dark-skinned Zoe Saldana with whom he has a son. Add to the mix a generous dose of Evangelicism with strongly anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiments, as well as heroin use, this all ought to have contributed to a heady concoction with, potentially, gripping results. However, notwithstanding that and even with the multiple shootings it's all a fairly dull affair.

Among the cast is the ever-reliable Chris Cooper, and he is one of the film's best features. I was looking forward even more to the formidable screen presence of Brendan Gleason as Affleck's father, though he's gone for good after just thirty minutes.

 The film with colours muted down, is shot in sepia or near monochrome, which gives it some of the atmosphere of the time. The exterior scenes in the city are large-scale and remarkably good to look at, but all comes to little in the film's larger context. 

As I say at the outset, the film is not so much a turkey, it's closer to being a curate's egg. One felt it really should have been so much better, more exciting - but I actually yawned more than once! In summary, I'll be kind...................5.5.



Thursday, 12 January 2017

Film: 'La La Land'

Exceeding my expectations by some margin, I thought this a lovely film.
Musicals are such a rarity now so it's doubly satisfying to sit through this 'throw-back' to cinema's glory days with almost unalloyed pleasure. 
It's an additional achievement in that all the songs (music: Justin Hurwitz. lyrics: Benj Posek & Justin Paul) are originals. Not show-stoppers, granted, but they more than do their job of being interesting enough in their own right while pushing the action forward. (There are also two or three 'golden oldies' at one point, played as background music).

Taking virtually exclusive acting honours are Ryan Gosling (doing all his own piano-playing, a lot of it near-virtuosic) and Emma Stone, who together sing and hoof some numbers very capably, with tightly synchronised, agreeble choreography demonstrating some nifty footwork . The sole large-scale song in terms of number of performers is the opening, pre-title, smiley, sing-along number.
Other than Gosling and Stone, the only other member of the cast I recognised was J.K.Simmons (also from director Damien Chazelle's very fine, though opinion-divisive, 'Whiplash') in what is little more than a cameo role. And I suppose I really ought to have recognised John Legend, though I'm now getting increasingly out of touch when it comes to contemporary culture. 

Emma Stone is a counter-waitress in a Hollywood Cafe, also attending endless auditions, aspiring to become a theatre and screen actress. Gosling is a jazz pianist in a swanky bar where he soon gets fired by Simmons for not following orders on what to play. He moves onto more humble locations where he's spotted by Legend who invites him to join his jazz group.

The storyline is as corny as they come. Stone and Gosling's first encounter shortly after the film proper starts is one of animosity, and the hostilities continue when they meet up by chance a little later, though not for long. We all know the only route their acquaintance can take is that they'll soon be melting towards each other, falling in love - and singing and dancing, literally, in the air. But it's what I'd been hoping for, and it's delivered flawlessly and very nicely indeed.

The film, set nearly entirely in L.A., is broken up into parts titled with seasons of the year, and my only significant gripe is that it does sag a bit in the centre - and in the final parts, where song and dance become sparser, the drama between the two principals threatens to weigh down the story, increasing the contrast between the first and second halves, which I thought got a bit too heavy for the piece of fluff which this film is. A bit more judicious editing might have avoided this. However, it does seem to be a characteristic of virtually all musicals that about two-thirds through their drama becomes more intense, and risks subsuming all the rest. It's important, then, that it doesn't teeter over into melodrama - though in this case there's little chance of that happening. A bit over-serious, nonetheless.

Director Damien Chazelle, as well as writing this film, also has writing credits for the aforementioned 'Whiplash' as well as '10 Cloverfield Lane', the latter also attracting an elevated opinion from self.

Photography in this film is sumptuous throughout, as well as the effects. Direction, and the considerable imagination and originality that went into it could hardly have been bettered.

In an average year I normally award about half a dozen films a stratospheric (in my terms) rating of 8/10. Yet here we are, with only four films seen so far, and a second one with that elusive...........8.