Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Film: 'Stan and Ollie'

I'm not sure if you have to be a fan of Laurel and Hardy to appreciate this film fully but I'm certain that it helps. I must have been into my 40s when the penny finally dropped and since then I've found their films just about the funniest ever caught on celluloid, repaying repeated viewings.

This is a labour of love and respect towards the incomparable duo, covering a late stage of their career which has been little documented, on what turned out to be their final live tour of all, through Great Britain and Ireland in 1953, 16 years after the height of their popularity (making 'Way Out West' in Hollywood) and now, in an attempt to revive their fading careers, initially playing to sparse audiences in small English and Scottish venues, though this somewhat improves later. The impetus for their tour is to help finance a projected film of theirs on Robin Hood. (Writer Jeff Pope plays fast and loose with the facts here, but it does give the film a purposeful framework). 

The transformations of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly into the pair is beyond remarkable, and through them credibly carries the whole film.

There are flawless re-creations of some of the double act's most famous encounters on film, now replayed on stage, yet beneath the laughs there's a very evident layer of melancholy, even sombreness, which actually pervades the entire film.  
The friendship between L & H has become frayed at the edges, perhaps with over-familiarity, resulting in regular bickering, though one never loses sight of the recognition that they will always need each another, and they know it.
Their wives (Nina Arianda as Mrs L; Shirley Henderson, Mrs H) come over from America to support them and, though they are loving enough to their respective spouses in expected fashion neither seem particularly enthusiastic towards their husbands' efforts.  

It's a strong script (by the aforementioned Jeff Pope - book by A.J.Marriott) and direction by the Scottish John S.Baird is exemplary with no flagging or excess fat, coming in at a satisfyingly concise 97 mins.
Among the many locations is a five-minute scene in my current home town, Worthing (a beauty contest in the Lido), actually shot here on the seafront, this town's name being mentioned twice!

Watching the film was a bitter-sweet experience, perhaps with fewer laughs than I'd been expecting, but that's because it was so effective in depicting the pain beneath surface.

I liked this as much as I'd hoped I would, despite not having expected it to have been as dark as it was. The film's title gives no clue as to this angle being taken but it is a worthy contribution towards the duo's history on a little regarded stage of their careers - and it does them credit..................7.5.  

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Film: 'Colette'

I really liked this. Although I knew the name of Colette (like a lot of people?), I had to look her up to find out/remind myself why the name was familiar.

Set in Paris during the closing years of the 19th century and the start of the ensuing one, it relates to the woman writer, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightly) who creates stories which her husband, nicknamed Willy (Dominic West, whom I would never have recognised under that facial hair) passes off as his own and gets published, the reason being that French society (or indeed many others) at that time would never have accepted a female author being so talented as she evidently was. Her novels involving her creation, 'Claudine', are hugely successful and widely read, her husband taking all the praise and credit, which she goes along with (at first) in order to keep the creditors at bay - her husband and herself living lavish lifestyles in high society way beyond their means. 
The film deals exclusively with the period of Colette's marriage to Willy, her first, even though there's plenty of subject matter for further events in the remainder of her life (she only died as recently as 1954) which are not touched on here. 
It's a 'loose' marriage at least from his p.o.v., he having dalliances and one-night stands which he tries to keep from her, though not very successfully, and she putting up with it - until she starts exploring her own sexuality. (Cue for lesbian affairs!)  

It's all very atmospheric, capturing Parisian fin de siecle society life very well. All dialogue is in English, of course, though whenever we see her writing it's in French.
Both central characters have roles of real substance and both actors are superb in fleshing them out. 

With Budapest standing in for Paris locations (apart from scenes by the Seine) director Wash Westmoreland (who was responsible for the first-rate 'Still Alice' with Julianne Moore in 2014) has done a much-better-than-capable job of evoking the milieu of the time and place, and draws fine performances from the entire cast. I look forward with great interest to his next cinematic venture. 

A fine achievement which stimulates my interest in finding more about the woman at the centre of the story.................7.

(IMDb................6.8 / Rott, Toms.................7.3)

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Film: 'The Favourite'

The last, lingering vestiges of flu weren't conducive to having an appropriately receptive frame of mind to watch this historical royal bedchamber drama, though one thing that stood out is that no one can justifiably complain that it isn't handsomely mounted. Awards in several fields, acting included, are on the cards. It's also a most welcome three-woman tale, the few male characters being little more than background figures.

It's late in the short reign of Queen Anne (ruled 1702-14), played by Olivia Coleman, a figure who has the dubious historical reputation of being the most boring of all this country's sovereigns. Plagued and increasingly incapacitated by advancing gout, Coleman makes the figure a little more colourful than one might expect, displaying a short-fused temper with a vulnerability exacerbated by her exhaustion of life. Before she became queen she'd been through no less than 17 pregnancies, more than any other English/British queen, with all except five being stillbirths or miscarriages, only one of the survivors living beyond four, a son who'd died at eleven. (Anne's husband, Prince George of Denmark and Norway had died in 1706).

In Anne's increasingly fragile condition, she'd played into the confidences of her friend and intimate, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), to whom she'd already delegated some royal duties, a character who's not afraid to stand up for herself and even directly answer the monarch back, something no one else would get away with. Into the scene comes one Abigail (Emma Stone), the product of a brief dalliance by an aristocrat, who presents herself as a willing and able servant to the royal household, which Lady Sarah is attracted by and takes her on, though making sure she doesn't overstep the mark in propriety, and the Queen herself is similarly impressed. It's not long before competition for the ailing Queen's attentions and favours between these two becomes manifest, becoming quite bitter in time. All this is set against battle campaigns against the French.

It's quite an accomplished film, very atmospheric throughout, not holding back on illustrating prevailing crudities of the day, both in language and behaviour, none of which should surprise anyone. Script is lively enough too.
Being me, I was several times distracted by the presences of both indoor ducks and rabbits (the latter freely jumping around in the Queen's boudoir), dreading if anything untoward were to happen to any of them, though there was little to be concerned about.......just a little!

At two hours, the film's a bit on the long side, though I must conceded that it never flags. It has meaty roles for the three actresses, all about of equal weight.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos' previous two films ended up in my 'Ten Best' of that particular year. I liked 'The Lobster' a lot when I first saw it at the cinema, though quite recently I tried to watch it again when it was premiered on TV - and found it so unwatchable I had to turn it off. I similarly loved his 'The Killing of the Sacred Deer', but haven't seen it again since its cinema screening. I don't know if I'll get the same reaction on attempting a re-watch. 

At the moment I very much doubt if 'The Favourite' will find a place in my ultimate list of 2019 - though note the current exalted ratings on other sites, below. To be fair to it, maybe I ought to see it again, next time without the inconveniences of weakened health condition around................6.

(IMDb..................8.2 / Rott Toms................8.5 )

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

My Most-liked Films of 2018

I'm coughing, wheezing, spluttering and dribbling copiously as I write this, with the additional inconvenience of a fever I've had which suddenly came over me on Sunday, since when most of my time has been spent under the duvet, only getting up to feed the five pussycats (at latest count) who are relying on me to satisfy their appetites, something I don't possess myself under current conditions.

I haven't been in appropriate frame of mind to spend time anguishing over my choices this year or their respective placings in the list so here are the ones which leapt out for me. Both choices and positions may well change tomorrow. Too bad if they do 'cos there'll be no updates! 

10. The Wife - Glenn Close shows again why she deserves the accolade of 'star'.

 9. Widows - Steve McQueen pulls off a thoroughly enjoyable heist romp with a spectacular twist.

8. The Post - lucid account of struggle between American newspaper and government. With Streep and Hanks leading the cast it could hardly have been bettered.

7. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again - Many said that this was even  better than the original. I'll only say that it was at least as good, which is sufficiently handsome praise in itself.

6. A Quiet Place - one of those films, in this case a 'horror', which haunts the mind and will stay with me probably forever.

5. American Animals
Based on audac-ious, true story of stealing certain price-less library books, the film makes for a near-perfect entertainment which I wouldn't have thought could possibly have been real. Good stuff!

4. BlacKkKlansman
Spike Lee gives one of his punchiest films yet in this true tale of black American infiltrating the K.K.K.

3. Mary Poppins Returns
I reckon this might be my most contro-versial inclu-sion. I don't care, having had a whale of a time, and if I wasn't feeling so under the weather I'd have been to see it again. Still want to.

2. Three Billboards Ourside Ebbing Missouri
Profound, troubling story flawlessly brought to screen with casting that's perfection itself. 

And a drumroll, please, for...........

1. The Phantom Thread

Totally hypnotic from start to finish, though you do need to be a Daniel Day Lewis fan to appreciate it to its fullest. Even if this turns out not to have been his final screen appearance he's going to find it very hard indeed to top this. My idea of cinematic perfection.

My short list consisted of 32 films (out of 87, one less than 2017) but I don't have time nor inclination to argue why so many of them missed out on final inclusion. Gripe if you want to!

Oh, and my 'Turkey of the Year'? That goes to 'Stanley: Man of Variety' which you almost certainly won't recall or will ever have heard of, despite it virtually solely starring that dependable stalwart, Timothy Spall. But that's the way the cookie crumbles, is it not? 

Friday, 21 December 2018

Film: 'Mary Poppins Returns'

Loved it - and I mean loved it! This had so much to live up to, being a sequel to one of the most iconic films of all time, one which everybody knows and knows well, yet it rose up to the bar and cleared it, pretty faultlessly re-creating the style, whimsy and exhilaration of the original, with fine casting, and embracing a clutch of big production numbers which I wished could have gone on and on. In fact none of the songs really outstays its welcome - music by Marc Shaimann [of 'Hairspray'] and lyrics by Scott Wittman with Shaimann - all uncannily close to the spirit of the Sherman brothers' creations, whether reflective ballads or infectious toe-tappers. (The surviving Sherman brother, Richard, is one of the consultants on this).
I'd been trying to avoid seeing or hearing any reviews of this but did accidentally catch a glance at one which carped that the film "never really takes off" (I beg to disagree) and that you won't come out humming the tunes (wrong again!). For the mountain of expectation it has to climb I'd say that it could hardly have been improved on.

Emily Blunt in the title role is a bit more convincingly stern and school-ma'amish than as portrayed by Julie Andrews. Her singing and dancing are not a jot less than impressive.
Lin-Manuel Miranda (whose name I hadn't known pre-'Hamilton'), in his first major film role, is a highly appealing lamplighter Jack, every bit as screen-stealing as Blunt, and enjoying with clear relish his song and dance numbers. To my ears he makes a good stab at a Cockney accent, not anything like as jarring as Dick Van Dyke's. Whenever the original Poppins film is mentioned it's been compulsory for the last fifty years, at least in this country, to mention Van Dyke's misfiring attempt at the accent. I trust that Miranda's much more honourable effort won't get the same laughing, dismissive reaction. 
Ben Whishaw plays (child) Michael of the earlier film a couple of decades further on, now widowed but with three young children, while Emily Mortimer plays his sister Jane who's moved in with her brother (subsequent correction: She's just popped in to help). - and Julie Walters as their maid appears again in one of those fill-in roles to which she seems to be consigned in her later years.
Whishaw (who actually has a song!) is a rather dour Mr Banks, not quite the martinet that David Tomlinson was as his father, but very staid, which is hardly surprising considering that he's only just lost his wife and discovers that he's about to lose his house, thanks to his deceptively evil bank boss Colin Firth. (Boo! Hiss!).
There's also David Warner as the Banks' neighbour, navy obsessed and roof cannon-firing on-the-hour - and in addition there are three other big names, only one of which appears in the opening credits. If you don't already know who these are (though I did) I'll hold it back as I wouldn't like to spoil the surprises.

Criticisms are few. The first song (from Miranda) appears before the opening credits and although it's fine in itself I think it might have done better by being an upbeat number to grab you by the lapels and draw you in. Then the second song is Whishaw's, rather nondescript and melancholy, especially when compared in hindsight with the jolly and fun moments to come. But once the film gets going there's no holding back, and it really is an unalloyed delight.

As in the first film, there are two musical sequences here where animation appears alongside live action, this time perhaps slightly less cross-involving than it was before, though nevertheless still immensely enjoyable.
Btw: There's no equivalent in this film of the 'Feed the Birds' song, which some may miss as I did, though that tune does appear briefly as background soundtrack towards the end.

Director is Rob Marshall ('Chicago', 'Into the Woods') who draws out perfection all round. I'm sure his contribution to the choreography was considerable and he does evince some breathtaking precision in some nifty movements, all completely in tune with the earlier film's conception.

If this is to be my final film of 2018, as looks possible right now, the year could hardly go out on a more positive note. A most happy experience which I'm delighted to push................8

(IMDb..................7.6 / Rott Toms...............7.3 )

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Film: 'Sorry to Bother You'

I found most of the first half of this really good, with a fair share of smiles raised plus a couple of chuckles. Unfortunately, somewhere towards the middle it all goes off-tangent bizarre, and, for some like me, very disturbing, as well as it floundering in a lack of directorial discipline.
There's also a strong resonance with one of my all-time 50 favourite films, viz Lindsay Anderson's 'O Lucky Man' (1973). Pity that though this present film has the aspiration and imagination to emulate it, it can't compete with the assured touch of the earlier, and it fatally lacks 'O Lucky Man's' neat (though admittedly over-self-referential) conclusion. 

In this, Lakeith Stanfield (from 'Get Out', 'Selma') plays a rookie telephone salesman (in Oakland, Ca.), or telemarketer, as apparently they're now called, who only took the job as he was desperate for anything. Tessa Thompson, with ghastly over-sized ear-ornaments and a co-worker, supplies his bed-interest. (Who she? Precisely). Working alongside dozens of others in large open-plan office, Stanfeld soon finds out that he can't make any sales (was it of insurance?) because when his voice is heard it sets up a resistance in the person being cold-called who'll then hang up on him or argue into being incapable of concluding a deal. A sympathetic work colleague of relatively advanced age (Danny Glover) advises him that he'd have more success if he spoke with a 'white man's voice', and he finds he has a ready aptitude to do just that. (We can accept that when he mouths words in this film [actually he and one other] it's really another white actor's voice on the soundtrack, but one goes along with the conceit). It's odd that having been shown several instances of him having been cold-shouldered on early calls with his 'normal' voice we are not given any examples of when his luck turns around and he starts successfully closing sales. But we are told this is so and as a result of his effectiveness he gains promotion to the prestigious position of 'power caller' with pay and status of which he'd never dreamed. So up to this point it's all been quite entertaining. Then during an encounter with his ultimate boss (Armie Hammer) who offers him a line of coke, a jarring jolt of weirdness takes over. Was he hallucinating? This surreal backdrop dominates the remainder of the film (also taking in workers' militancy and demonstrations) when he finds out that the firm is engineering a most disturbing societal shift in its workers, with sights on wider application. A couple of audience members managed to continue laughing through this remainder of the film, which I think we were meant to. 
Additionally, there's a highly popular TV show which will raise a few eyebrows, in which contestants get humiliated by being physically beaten up. 

At least one magazine review calls the film "hilarious" but I wasn't anywhere near as amused. In fact the whole experience left me with an unwelcome aftertaste.  

This is Boots Riley's first full-length feature and he's also the writer of this. He's to be congratulated on his imagination without doubt. Although there is the evocation for me of that British film of 45 years ago, Riley himself may well not be aware of it, and even if he is this new one is not overly derivative. I'm sure that he's achieved in putting on the screen very much what he had in mind. 

The film has generally been well-received (just look at ratings below!), even rapturously in some quarters. My own failure to go along with it is very much a personal reaction, and your own take may be 180 degrees different to mine. If I'd never seen 'O Lucky Man' and consequently not had such a high regard for that film I might have been more amenable to having had a positive view on this new release. Sadly, it's not so..................5.

(IMDb.....................7.0 / Rott. Toms...............7.7 )

Monday, 17 December 2018

Film: 'Disobedience'

There's been no lack of what I'd class as 'quality' films in 2018 - and here's another one. 

Rachel Weisz is the single, estranged, only child of her father, a recently deceased Chief Rabbi (Orthodox), and is recalled to London from New York by a best friend (Rachel McAdams) to pay her respects. It's not made clear what exactly had given rise to the split with her father. On arriving in London she finds that another childhood friend, Alessandro Nivola, now an aspiring rabbi himself (and desired successor to the deceased Chief Rabbi) and McAdams have, to her surprise, married. Weisz is, if not directly shunned by the Jewish community, made to feel uncomfortable in its presence, largely on the grounds of being seen as having deserted her father in his time of ill health. She is questioned about her being not yet married, and reminded of her 'duty' to raise a family.
One day when she and McAdams are out alone, a relationship between the two women which, one assumes, had been instigated some years previously, is resumed, to which, the husband, noticing his wife's absences grows suspicious, though unexpressed.

I found this an absorbing story, very well played by the three at the centre. There's much simmering emotion going on underneath for each of them so they have to show us what they're thinking through expressions and reactions. The services in the synagogue are also excellently handled.
As well as starting with questions that aren't answered the film ends on the same unresolved note, though I didn't find this in any way detracted from the overall satisfaction of the piece.

It's mainly filmed in Golders Green, the principal Jewish area of the capital.

I don't know much about Chilean Director (and co-writer of this) Sebasian Lelio's background, but he handles the subject matter with great sensitivity as well as sympathy for the situation in which the two women find themselves. I've no significant complaints there.

It's a story that drew me in and kept my attention throughout its close on two hours' length....................7.

(IMDb.................6.6 / Rott. Toms...........7.2 )