Thursday, 21 March 2019

Film: 'A Private War'

Intense, often gruelling, depiction of the final few years of Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin who's ever brushing aside advice not to go to certain scenes of conflict as being too risky. She travels to a number of world hot spots, starting in Sri Lanka 2001 (where she loses an eye) then to Iraq, Libya and finally Syria where she was killed in 2011. Some of you will recall the mention on news programmes. There are many bloody scenes, as you might imagine, yet I did find there an unexpected distance between the showing of such horrible, violent events and my reaction to them. I didn't feel drawn in and being involved as much as I felt the story merited. 

Oscar-nominated Rosamund Pike throws entire conviction into playing the ill-fated, superficially unlikeable journalist, showing her as having problems with drink, with relationships, and with her mental health, but feeling her mission is to tell the world the truth of what was happening to innocent civilians contrasting with the propaganda of Islamic terrorists as well as that of Gaddafi, and Assad.   
Jamie Dornan is her intrepid, equally committed,  Irish photographer and companion on all her missions. 
Tom Hollander is the newspaper editor and, also in a few London scenes to where she returns every so often, is her final love interest in the person of a little-used Stanley Tucci.

This is Matthew Heineman's first feature length film after some TV work. I think it's a fair enough workaday product but one of no particular distinction. I can't see myself remembering it for as long as I should, considering the horrors of the well-documented background to a story which needs telling. Nevertheless, if it raises the topic to a general people's awareness it will have done its job..........6.

(IMDb...........6.7 / Rott. Toms...........6.4 )

Monday, 4 March 2019

Film: 'The Aftermath'

If all the films I've seen about World War Two were played back-to-back I shouldn't be surprised if they lasted very nearly as long as the conflict itself, and I'm more than a little weary of that being the pretext for yet another. In that mood of reluctance I took myself to see this latest which, admittedly, sounded a bit more interesting in that films dealing with what came immediately after the war had ended are really rare.

Hamburg, December 1946. - thus a few months after the Allied victory.
A British army colonel (Jason Clarke) is assigned to supervise the start of rebuilding the city from the rubble it was reduced to by allied bombing. He takes his wife (Keira Knightly) for them to reside in an undamaged mansion, currently occupied by a widowed German (Alexander Skarsgard) and his teenage daughter, plus a couple of female servants, the latter fully expecting to be turned out of their home to live in a camp. The meeting between the colonel and the German is formally polite enough but from the outset his wife puts on a scornful frostiness of not even acknowledging his presence.
From this opening scene it doesn't take much imagination to know how the story is going to develop.
A little way into the film we learn that its title is deceptive in not relating so much to the war itself as it does to a traumatic event which happened to the colonel and his wife a few years previous.  A similar back story involves an experience of the German and his daughter, the latter in particular being hostile to these 'intruders'. 
The colonel surprises his wife when he tells her that he's decided not to turn the German out with his dependants, but to let them stay and live in the upper section of the large house. She's not happy.

The story I found fairly predictable (though not entirely, I must aver), and with an ending so hackneyed and delivered so mawkishly I was hoping it just wouldn't 'do it' - but it did. If you like sentiment laid on thickly then this is for you!

As for the three actors at the centre of the story, Keira Knightly was as good as she always is, though I wasn't sure about Skarsgard who didn't seem very comfortable at all to my mind. However, I thought Jason Clarke as the colonel was the stand-out. Not a face I was familiar with but he was very convincing in a story which requires to be played out with absolute conviction.

Director James Kent (much TV work, less cinema feature experience) delivers in fairly matter-of-fact matter, with little exceptional enough to be retained in the memory. Still, the photography of this miserable Winter for the surviving Hamburgers is first-class throughout.

I don't think this film qualifies to be a genuine 'weepie' despite it being heavy on the overt sentiment. I do applaud it for the rare angle we see of the war's outcome, as well as for most of the acting. But I've got to hold back on any notion of a full-hearted recommendation.................5.5.

(IMDb.........6.4 / Rott. Toms.........awaited )

Monday, 25 February 2019

Film: 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

My first vital query on last night's Oscars is why this most remark-able film didn't get even a nomination for 'Best Picture' when it's the first sure-fire entry for my Top Ten of 2019. It surely can't be that the 'deciders' had deemed that there were already 'too many' of the eight choices which included prominent roles for or featured a largely black cast, so they couldn't have another one. Perish the thought! Still, it did pick up one Oscar, for Regina King as Best Supporting Actress, and a well-merited one it was. It deserved much more.

Based on a novel by James Baldwin, with whose writings I was not acquainted until about 25 years ago when three of four of his novels were lent to me all at once by an admirer, and which I devoured one straight after the other. Having annoyingly misplaced my list of books read a few years ago (by then the titles had numbered over 2,000, excluding re-reads) I can't be sure that this wasn't one of them. I recall 'Go Tell It On the Mountain' and 'Giovanni's Room' but can't remember what else. Barry Jenkins, director of this film (and also of 'Moonlight') has made a superb picture from his own adaptation of the novel - involving and heart-rending, with a masterful, original method of film-making, with slow, languorous camera work (and music) to capture the mood of the moment spot-on. 

The New-York based film starts with 19-year old Kiki Layne visiting her 22-year old boyfriend (Stephan James, looking rather older) in prison for something which we only find out about later, and there she tells him that she's expecting his baby. She hasn't even told her family yet - though when she does, despite her apprehensions, her mother (Oscar winner, Regina King), her father and her sister are all supportive of her with no recriminations. The only sour note is when her boyfriend's mother comes round and blames her for 'corrupting' her son.
The film employs liberal use of flashbacks (too many?) of the couple's intimacy, before the event which got him locked up.
It's the mother who does the running around and leads the investigation to try to prove her prospective son-in-law's innocence, and a very fine job Regina King makes of it. In fact the whole cast shines and some real affection between the young couple is evident throughout.

It might be a film too slow for some but I think it needed to take its time for one to savour the emotions it brings up. The music soundtrack is itself remarkable - mainly string, quasi-chamber music reflecting the intimacy of the relationships both of the couple and familial.

It's a film unusual in its executions and I've no complaints at all about that as it perfectly suits the atmosphere it evokes. My sole reservation remains is that there are rather a lot of flashbacks, all without warning or indication. I don't mind retrospective scenes in general though there will inevitably come a point where one wishes that its application was used just a bit more sparingly.
However, on the whole, this small-scale film works a treat, and I'm content to place it in the rarified ranks of an.............8

(IMDb...................7.8 / Rott. Toms..................8.6 }

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Oscars 2019 - some early first thoughts

I'm surprised as anyone that 'Green Book' won 'Best Picture'. Not that it was in any way bad - it was in no way that! - but that out of the seven nominated films I'd seen (the sole exception being, maddeningly, 'Roma', it not having had adequate theatrical release. [Yet?]) I would have placed 'Green Book' in 6th place, beating only 'Black Panther' which was the only one I felt overwhelmingly negatively about. Perhaps it's an age thing. I didn't respond to 'Panther' in any positive way at all.  
From those seven seen I would have given it to 'BlacKkKlansman'. 

I thought Rami Malek was possibly justifiably given 'Best Actor' out of those listed, for his extraordinary Freddie Mercury turn, though I wouldn't have complained if either Bradley Cooper or Christian Bale had clinched it.

Olivia Colman best actress? Okay, but I still feel a bit aggrieved for Glenn Close (truly formidable in 'The Wife') who has to carry on being formally 'unrecognised' by an Oscar award. I'm sure the time will come for her - though it had better be soon!

I'm not over-fussed by Mahershali Ali winning Best Supporting Actor for 'Green Book', though that reflects my feelings for the film as a whole, which required him to maintain a rather aloof, slightly supercilious, pose for the entire film - at least except for one episode where he's in danger and another where he's crumpled up in a state of humiliation. I thought his winning 'Best Actor' two years ago for 'Moonlight' was a more worthy and deserving accolade. I'd have given this year's supporting award to Adam Driver for his part in Spike Lee's first-rate drama, 'BlacKkKlansman'.

And the last 'word', for now, goes could it not?.......Billy Porter (whose name I had to look up to remind me who he is).

Not quite the last word as I've only just watched the evening's opening given by Adam Lambert & (2 members of) Queen. Great credit for the good sense of whomsoever it was who decided not to give an impression of Mercury/Malek, which would have gone down like a lead balloon even if it had been a good one, or at least ought to have done. But that was one damn fine blinder of a start! Phew!

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Film: 'Boy Erased'

Had to suspend my own rule of not being out after dark to get to this 'must-see' film -  leaving at dusk and returning at my bed-time. Turned out to be a good decision.

The second film within twelve months (following 'The Miseducation of Cameron Post') on the subject of religious 'gay conversion therapy', this has had generally fairly positive reviews but more than once I've seen unfavourable comparisons with the earlier film. I'm not so sure such 'criticism' bears out.

Set in recent past (and filmed in Atlanta, Georgia) it's directed and written by Joel Edgerton in only his second feature film as director (based on memoir of actual experiences by Garrard Conley), Edgerton himself takes the frighteningly credible major role of 'conversion centre' chief to which the teenage Lucas Hedges ('Three Billboards', 'Manchester by the Sea') is sent by his parents after their son has been 'outed' to them, he willingly agreeing. The father (Russell Crowe) is a firm but soft-spoken Baptist pastor and his wife (Nicole Kidman - in startling bouffant wig!) devotedly religious though superficially sympathetic. Both Crowe and Kidman are quite superb, convincingly skirting round the topic while hardly daring to directly confront their son - except when his father does one time ask outright "Are you homosexual?"   
At the institute there are about a dozen or more new 'entrants' with various 'problems' as perceived, of which being gay is the most prominent. Regime is strict, possessions removed, all communications supervised and monitored - with regular open confessions of 'sinfulness' to the group, with details demanded by the martinet of a facilitator which Edgerton plays. The son is not totally isolated, however, with him able to spend some nights in a hotel with his mother, though forbidden to divulge details of his 'treatment'. 

The requirements of the institute and its treatment of its 'inmates' made me progressively angrier. Often the way a film is made will exasperate me and get my ire up, but here the subject matter itself was the explosive issue which raised my temper. We must assume that the methods of attempted 'conversion' depicted here are reasonably accurate and if so, one can only wonder how they are still allowed to be practised. (Unlike in Germany, where 'conversion therapy' has recently been outlawed nationally. despite the British government pledging last year to do the same, it yet remains a promise unfulfilled. In America, one can only hope that Veep Pence, ardent supporter of such harmful and ineffective devices, will see this film, though it's unlikely that he would - and even if he did I fear it wouldn't make any difference to him.)

This present film, unlike the earlier 'Cameron Post', did get a strong visceral response of outrage in me, even though I found it easier to relate to the characters in the other, notwithstanding the fact that Cameron Post was a young lesbian. However, I did dock a half-point from my rating for 'Post' for the too prevalent inaudible mumblings of the main star. In this one there was a bit of that same fault from the young Hedges (not from the three main adults, however), so when it comes down to it I'm pleased to adorn 'Boy Erased' with an untrimmed..................7

(IMDb..........7.0 / Rott. Toms............6.9 )

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Film: 'Green Book'

Following the recent 'The Upside' here's another 'odd-couple' feature. 

Mahershala Ali, principal actor in the truly marvellous 'Moonlight' of a couple of years ago, in this is the renowned, sophisticated, poised, unflappable (usually), classically-trained pianist performing as part of a trio (with violin and cello) whose music I find difficult to categorise - jazz with little improvisation and with classical slant?  Nevertheless, he is nationally celebrated. 
Viggo Mortensen (with paunch) is employed as his heavy-smoking driver to take Ali on a tour of southern states. It's 1962 so racial prejudice and, indeed, discriminatory and demeaning laws are rife. The film is (this time) 'inspired' by a true story, the two main characters being real and friends until they both died just a few years ago.

Starting in New York, Mortensen is a plain-speaking, down-to-earth, family man of Italian origin with an insatiable appetite for junk food and with some racial hang-ups himself - also possibly with dubious contacts. Ali lives in a luxurious flat actually located above Carnegie Hall!  
As in 'The Upside', the rougher-mannered character is offered the post but starts by refusing it. But here again his prospective employer takes a shine to him and convinces him to take the post. Incidentally, despite in an early scene Mortensen having displayed a crude prejudice against two non-white policemen who came to his home for a drink of water, when meeting the black Ali for the first time he shows no sign of discomfort in his presence or the prospect of being alone in his company for twelve weeks. (It's almost as though a key scene had been cut!) 
The events depicted are pretty predictable and formulaic. (I was mentally ticking them off) - arguments between the two of them, Mortensen rescuing Ali more than once when the latter gets into trouble and defending him against discrimination (even from the hosts of venues where he's booked to perform, as well as the police), a 'thaw' between the two men with Ali being persuaded to try Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time and, to cap it all, a finale of an Xmas dinner with the driver's family meeting Ali for the first time and welcoming him in to join them! All smiles, then, guaranteed to have you leaving with that 'feelgood' factor.  

Mahershala Ali took away the 'Best Supporting Actor' BAFTA award for this film only last Sunday. Although not begrudging him it I do wonder if it was fully deserved considering that the emotional range he was required to display was quite circumscribed, breaking away less than a handful of times - though that was the character's personality, certainly not the actor. 
Viggo Mortensen was nominated for BAFTA Best Actor for this same film, though didn't win, of course. His was a more varied role - brusque certainly, though also with an underlying subtlety. 

Director Peter Farrelly ('There's Something About Mary', 'Dumb and Dumber', 'The Three Stooges') handles the often unusual material satisfactorily without setting anything alight. 

I've no complaints of substance. It just didn't grab me to the extent that it has a lot of others. In this case it was clear that the audience I saw it with were enjoying the film more than I was..........5.

(IMDb.............8.3 / Rott. Toms.............7.3 )

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Film: 'Vice'

Busy, smart, densely-packed film of Dick Cheney's political career, up to and including his being Vice-President to 'Dubya' Bush - and very disturbing it is too, more than I thought it would be. 

Christian Bale, spectacularly transformed (as impressively as Gary Oldman recently 'became' Winston Churchill) claimed that his inspiration in playing Cheney came from Satan and if so it's evident in every frame. There's hardly any redeeming feature shown about the man. 
Although Cheney is, rightly, the focus of the film, it deals in some depth with Republican Party politics and shenanigans. No one could seriously claim that the film is 'impartial', or that it strives to be so. Liberal - or, perhaps better expressed, anti-Republican - sentiments are to the fore all the way through, something with which I myself find quite comfortable. Others may not. I should have thought that anyone from or sympathetic to the 'other side' having to sit through this would have their blood pressures go through the roof. Too bad! 
The film starts with a brief episode from Cheney's wild, hard-drinking, student days when he's hauled in by the police. Just one of several similar incidents, we gather. He meets and marries his lifelong wife Lynne (Amy Adams - just as impressive) who, when he doesn't reform his own behaviour, gives him an ultimatum which is crucial in turning his life around. 
His tentative entrance into politics in the 1980s under the wing of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell turning in yet another outstanding performance) quickly smacks of ambition as he starts climbing the ladder, and he's not averse to using ruthlessness to get his way.
There's a gliding through the mainly Republican presidencies of Ford, ( + Carter), Reagan and Bush Senior. After jumping over any mention of Clinton, it comes to the election of the younger Bush who calls Cheney (suffering increasingly with heart trouble which had already caused concern) out of retirement to serve under him. 
Then the Twin Towers in 2001, and, as Vice-President, it's Cheney rather than Bush (Sam Rockwell, perhaps a shade less convincingly played than the other lead characters, though it's not intended to be a totally accurate impersonation) who starts calling the shots, and that's the way it stays for the rest of the the Bush Jnr double-term. 

Cheney's family life is given a high profile with his devoted, reactionary wife, always there to give her hubby a hand and even stand in for him at rallies when his heart plays up again. He's also close to his two grown-up daughters and, if there's anything to be said in his favour at all it's his reaction (though only after some silent reflection) on assuring his Lesbian daughter that he loves her no matter what after she comes out to her parents - in sharp contrast to her mother's shocked, stony, wordless glare. But does he maintain his supportive stance? When his other daughter enters politics she's questioned and initially prevaricates about her own attitude to the then vexed topic of gay marriage, eventually putting her own ambitions above support for her now gay-wedded sister.

Throughout the film there are split-second shots of hideous atrocities perpetrated from both sides, mainly following the invasion of Iraq in the (as we all know) erroneous belief of Saddam Hussein's possession of WMDs. Many of the brief excerpts we have seen in newsreels, or at least heard about them - suicide bombings, mistreatment and torture of prisoners, waterboarding, Guantanamo Bay - but they are still hard to watch. Cheney is an enthusiastic advocate of any means being employed against the enemy (as perceived) despite the identification of such individuals being problematic, to say the least.
He also pushes the Nixonian notion that the President, by virtue of who he is, is immune to criminal prosecution no matter what he does - and not only that but, crucially, the Vice-President too. 

Now I have to mention a certain section of this film that made me more uncomfortable than any other film I've seen since 1979's 'All That Jazz' when the Roy Scheider character (playing a putative Bob Fosse) undergoes open-heart surgery, I think, which is shown in extended fashion in all its exquisitely grisly detail. While this film doesn't quite go to the same graphically gory distance (here it's a heart transplant) its depiction - clearly an actual operation is being shown - made me so queasy that if I hadn't averted my eyes I would without doubt have fainted clean away. But then I'm one who can't even look when given my annual flu-jab - and as for when a blood sample is taken for a periodic routine check, well I feel the need to lie down before I pass out, and to be offered tea and biscuits, being the soppy 'snowflake' that I am. So, if you're one like me I only give fair warning. If you're able to watch such things without flinching, how I envy you! (The said surgical passage occurs around 10 minutes before the film's close, or getting on for two hours after the start). 

Incidentally, just under an hour into the film there's a rather clever false ending when the film's credits come up, listing the actual actors. If it had been much later then no doubt some would have left the cinema, but being so early on we quickly cotton on to what's happening - and I'm sure you'll 'get it'.

I thought in many respects this film was an eye-opener which surprised me in revealing how much I hadn't yet known. I'm only familiar with Cheney through the newsreel shots of him giving speeches or interviews (both rare enough) or shuffling silently a few feet from the President like some hovering, malevolent spirit. Many Americans will be more familiar with his impact on political lives, as well as their own, than I am. 

Director and writer of this, Adam McKay ('The Big Short' 'Anchorman' films), clearly revels in expounding his opinion of the subject, and I think he's done a service to many of us who needed to know more. He uses both flair and imagination, and there's no chance of anyone getting bored - you'll be too many times shocked and/or outraged for that to happen. This might have ended up as a parochially-based American-leftish polemic, but it's much more intelligent than being just that, with a universal perspective towards politicians in all countries.

It was an informative film, though must confess too that I found it somewhat exhausting. I'd like to see it again because it's so full of facts and opinions that I'm curious as to finding out what I missed first time. However, I'd only watch it again if I had the means to skip over the many unsavoury images - or was prepared to keep leaving the room.
Given my personal reservations, it's a goldmine for those who are politically-minded - though, importantly, unless willing to take offence on the chin, it's especially not comfortable viewing for those of conservative leanings....................6.5.

(IMDb...........7.1 / Rott.Toms..............6.7 )