Thursday 28 November 2013


It was only because, having to go to Brighton, I thought that being there I might as well pop in for this film. It's a matter-of-fact view of the events in Dallas immediately following the Kennedy assassination (as though we were wanting still more!), released to coincide with the recent anniversary. The reviews I'd seen indicated that it was a fairly efficient though perfunctory  effort.

A reconstruction of the few hours following the fatal shots, with concentrations on the 'Parkland' hospital where Kennedy (as well as Oswald, later) was taken  - as well as the aftermath of the unwitting filming of the event by Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giametti). Others in the cast include Billy Bob Thornton, Zac Ephron and Marcia Gay Harden, they and others playing characters who were absolutely central to the drama, but all of whom, through history, are now relegated to being peripheral figures.

There's a protracted, bloody scene in the hospital as they try to hold onto the President's life - and another one much later when attempts are made to save Oswald.
There wasn't much here that was new to me, though what was new (or I may have forgotten about it) was Oswald's brother and his dreadful and scary mother's differing reactions to the news of first the shooting, and then of Lee Oswald's death. Oddly, it was at such moments that for me the film's tension, such as it was, drooped most noticeably.

What I did like about the film was that it didn't attempt to analyse or rationalise the events - or offer different versions of 'the truth', Mrs Oswald notwithstanding. We've had more than enough of that for half a century, thank you  The film, to its credit, just played everything out as though witnessed by a dispassionate observer.

I'm sure that generations to come will continue to be fascinated by the subject. I think I've had just about enough of it as I can take, and happily leave it to future, wiser heads than mine to conjecture further - and there's little doubt but that they will......................................5.5.

Wednesday 27 November 2013


Sequel to last year's 'Hunger Games', there is little that is new about this one, directed by Francis Lawrence. It's one of those films which makes me feel evermore alienated from a mainstream cinema audience. A glitzy and vulgar public ceremony (which I can readily accept) leads up to a test of survival skills for a number of previously victorious competitors fighting it out to the death, both amongst themselves as well as against a manufactured hostile environment -  for the ostensible purpose of crowd-pleasing 'entertainment', though with the more sinister underlying motive of control of the masses.

With sentimental episodes, complete with music pointing to the emotion one ought to feel, it mirrors the first film in that the first half is all about the build-up to the 'Games', sketching out, very roughly, the characters - participants and organisers - with concentration unsurprisingly on the Jennifer Lawrence character, which she plays brilliantly, by the way - and the ensuing hour or more, which is the 'Games' itself. And 'games' is the operative word as time and again I was thinking that the whole concept reminded me of a computer game where lives are disposable and one tries to win at all costs (within pre-ordained rules, of course). Well, one's own life is at stake, after all.

I found it a film brutal to the point of nastiness, but that is precisely what the game is intended to portray.
Good to see Donald Sutherland again, and Stanley Tucci too, as M.C. (even more outrageous than before), Woody Harrelson - and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is a formidable presence in whatever film he appears.

Can't believe that I gave the first film a rating of 7.5. I did think higher of it than this one, though part of that will have been due to the novelty of the concept. Witnessing exactly the same formula all over again was borderline boring. Can't see myself mustering much enthusiasm for the next in the series, though I probably will go. Or will I?

I give 'Catching Fire'  a.........................4.5.

Friday 22 November 2013

How I heard the news........

Most of those who read this blog would not yet have been born on this day - and of those who were, very few will have been old enough to remember it. So here is a little indication of how it felt to this writer.

Fifty years ago today (also a Friday) I was 17. I'd left school that Summer and was two months into my first job as trainee accountant, at that stage a mere errand-running dogsbody.

On the actual day I'd have been home about one hour, had had my dinner and, at around around 6.45 p.m., was watching TV alone, my mother being in the back living room with my grandmother.
At that time there were only two TV channels, BBC and ITV (the commercial station).
I'd have watched the national news (nothing of note that day) and was probably then watching the succeeding local news, with diminished attention.
Then the sound of my mum hurriedly coming up the hallway, calling out to me - "President Kennedy's been shot!" (She'd had the radio on in the other room. There'd been no announcement yet on TV, which was carrying on normally.) My blood froze. I can still feel it. I can't recall what I said but it was probably something like "How is he?" and she would have replied "They haven't said yet."
I felt paralysed, willing the TV to say something, - anything!  - while I was switching between the two channels.
It would have been just a couple of minutes later when, mid-programme, an announcer appeared telling us what my mum had said. He'd been shot but had survived and was being rushed to hospital.
At that time I and my whole family were devoutly religious, and I may well have got down on my knees to pray that he'd be okay.

It was a very big deal for us Catholics that JFK, being the first and so far only R.C. President, should be seen to be as successful and popular - and in our eyes up to then he had been  - while also being such a perfect family man! In fact he was head of a model, good, Catholic family. We always felt particularly proud whenever his name was mentioned, though we were also aware of his increasingly vociferous critics, which I dismissed as coming from 'sour grape Protestants'.
It hardly needs repeating here, it being so often documented, that at that time we hadn't the slightest clue about the realities of his private life, nor of the truth of his lifelong difficult medical condition. He was a hero for so many of us, the closest to a Superman that we had ever seen. He was all set to become a truly outstanding President.

Meanwhile on TV the announcer said that we'd be kept informed if there were any developments in the story, and the interrupted programmes returned. Of course my mind couldn't take in anything else on TV. I kept switching channels until - maybe something like 45 mins later, an announcer re-appeared to repeat the news when the telephone beside him rang. He picked it up....."Yes......yes......okay."  He replaced the receiver and, to the camera, "We regret to inform you that President Kennedy has died." Nothing else. The screen faded to dark. It was a hammer blow even though there was an inevitability about it.  (I was wondering why he seemed to be smiling as he made the announcement. But on reflection I don't seriously think it was a smile - more a 'pained expression', which under the pressure of the moment might have been capable of being misinterpreted.)
It was ITV who had beaten the BBC to the announcement. I switched to BBC and a good 5 minutes or more later their own regular news-reader appeared, grim-visaged, to tell us what we had already just heard.

The BBC showed their daytime test card over silence - then, all of a sudden, music, which I recognised as the opening movement of Bach's Orchestral Suite Number 3 in D, an unfortunately-chosen, gloriously jubilant sound, complete with celebratory trumpets and triumphant drums (very likely the first track on a classical music record which they happened to have on hand). ITV, after a similar few minutes silence, showed a recording of a classical concert, Sir John Barbirolli conducting Brahms' Variations on the St Anthony Chorale', a slightly less insensitive choice.
What happened then on BBC I thought was little short of a scandal. After maybe half an hour of classical music as a background to the static test-card, they returned to its normal programming schedule - and actually screened, unbelievably, two situation comedies, back to back - Harry Worth (a big-name English comedian of the time) and 'The Rag Trade' (with Miriam Karlin and Sheila Hancock), both pre-recorded with canned laughter.
I thought at the time that that was unforgivable. There was strident criticism in the papers the following day, pointing out that even Soviet Radio and TV had cancelled all their programmes in order to play solemn music for the remainder of the night.
We were later to learn that on this fateful day all the BBC big-wigs happened to be away together attending a conference on the other side of the world and had been unreachable. There'd been no one left behind in London to make a high-level decision as to what to do. I believe that because of what happened there are now contingency plans always in place to ensure that no such fiasco ever recurs.

The ensuing days are less clear to me. Masses for Kennedy's soul were being held all over the country and I attended one at my local parish church.
I remember feeling that the funeral seemed to be taking place with immoderate haste, and looked somewhat disorganised. All the major world leaders were there but I searched in vain for even just a glimpse of our then Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who did actually attend but was nowhere to be seen on film. It was French President Charles De Gaulle who was pre-eminently conspicuous.

Then it was over. Johnson had been sworn in as President within minutes of Kennedy's death being announced. Shortly afterwards Oswald himself was shot. Life tried to return to something like it was before even though there was a chunk of it missing. I carried around for some time a heavy feeling of the injustice of it all. Why did God allow it to happen? (Good question!)

During the passing of the last five decades revelations have come out about the personal lives of the Kennedys which we never dreamt could be so at the time, and which was, frankly, a severe disappointment to a lot of us. Do I think that I'd have reacted differently had I known? Yes and no. There is still no doubt that whatever his many personal foibles were JFK was the most magnetic leader I've known in my lifetime. The 'electricity' poured out of him, right through the TV screen - and there's been no one who has come even near that since - maybe Obama before he started having to make disappointing compromises, and perhaps Blair at the beginning, before we realised what a hopeless let-down he would turn out to be. But Kennedy's star, to my mind, outshines them all by far. He was 'charisma' itself.
In the days following the shooting we'd heard how, in a school somewhere in the southern States, a grinning teacher had gleefully announced the assassination to the assembled pupils, and the children clapped and cheered. I'm sure it wasn't unique. But I'm also sure it wasn't typical.

Within a very few years after this event Kennedy's reputation started turning big-time sour, in fact that of all the Kennedy's. (Not helped at all later by Edward and Chappaquiddick.) When Jackie Kennedy announced her intention to marry Greek multi-millionaire magnate and divorcee, Aristototle Onassis, the Church's disapproval was unambiguous, culiminating on her wedding day itself by the Vatican denouncing her as a 'public sinner'.
Re-appraisals of JFK's political legacy came thick and fast, mainly claiming that his radical credentials had been exaggerated and that his successor, Johnson, had actually been a greater President. There is no doubt that the latter was the one who had steered civil rights legislation through to its fulfilment, though would Kennedy have managed that anyway if he had survived? His political enemies were, at the time of the assassination, flexing their muscles for a fight to the end. His sudden death put them back in the box for while.
Robert Kennedy's politics were also being called into question long before he himself was gunned down in 1968.

And yet, half a century later, 1963 was a time of 'innocence' for which I still feel nostalgic, whilst being aware that it cannot return. The world has moved on too far for it to be repeated, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

On my only visit to the USA in 1969 I managed to make a visit to Arlington cemetery to see the grave with the eternal flame (and with Bobby's then as yet unconstructed grave set off slightly to the side). I recall being close to tears standing at the stone monument with his (or, more likely, his speechwriters') most-quoted words carved into them, six years after the event - and something of that same sadness remains in me even now.

This day 50 years ago will undoubtedly stay with me for my remaining time, and its power won't diminish now. It's poignant like few other memories. It's also a beautiful memory. Nothing in world affairs has left its mark on my mind like that event - and, while naturally profoundly regretting the tragedy itself,  I value enormously the experience of having lived through that time.

Wednesday 20 November 2013


No one can deny the laudable intentions of Lee Daniels' true story version of this chronicle of the working life of a White House servant - set against the backdrop of the American Civil Rights movement, from its burgeoning in the 1950s, to becoming a force to be reckoned with and to be ignored at a President's peril, in this case a sweep of Presidents from Eisenhower right through to Regan (but skipping Ford and Carter). However, despite it undoubtedly having its heart in the right place I found the whole enterprise bordered on the ponderous. (My patience was further tested by seeing it on a cold, rainy morning in an unheated cinema!)

Forest Whitaker plays the eponymous manservant, Cecil Gaines, his gradually ageing features from young adult to retiree, through make-up and prosthetics not being as successful as it ought to have been, sometimes looking old before his time then in a following scene appearing to be facially rejuvenated. The same applies to Oprah Winfrey's features as his rather domineering, ciggie-puffing wife. However, in this film it is she who is always the more formidable on-screen presence, and for me carries the acting honours, moreso than Whitaker, who in his working persona is trained to withhold from showing his true feelings, and only in domestic settings, such as when he is arguing with his two sons, is he allowed to give his emotions full rein. But even at such times he appears relatively subdued while it's still Winfrey who time and again steals the show.
British hottie David Oyelowo (who, I've just seen, was born in Oxford a few months after I moved there myself) plays Gaine's headstrong, militant son, Louis, and is one of those actors who effortlessly draws one's attention to whereever he is on the screen. I recall him playing a 'colour-blind' title role in the Henry VI plays with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He deserves to become a much bigger name, and no doubt he will.

A succession of well-known stars play the Presidents (as well as at least three of the briefly-seen female characters) though it's Alan Rickman's Reagan who is the only one to achieve a close facial resemblance. However, that's not really material as each President is a cipher for the developing (or regressing) civil rights politics of the time.
I did find a number of scenes to be near heart-breaking. For those of my generation it was poignant to see again news footage, now tempered by hindsight knowledge of what such struggles eventually were to achieve - not to mention how far they have still to go, in attitudes if nothing else. 

I'd have liked to have enjoyed this film more but I don't think it's as remarkable as it strives to be, though the personal story in itself certainly is noteworthy. A score which I think would fairly reflect the sum of its impact on me is................6.

Friday 15 November 2013


With a cast of five A-list stars (or very near it) plus high-expectations of writer Cormac McCarthy, director Ridley Scott comes out unpleasant, unnecessarily wordy, sporadically violent and, ultimately, rather silly 'thriller'.

Set in the ruthless world of drug trafficking between Mexico and USA, where the lives of the 'inconvenient' are as disposable as paper tissues, Michael Fassbender is the centre of the tale as an affluent lawyer who gets himself involved with this criminal fraternity, initially giving the appearance of being as hard-boiled as anyone, but only to become, during the course of the film, something of a powder puff, thanks largely to his feelings towards his intended, Penelope Cruz. He meets up first with Javier Bardem and then with Brad Pitt, both of whose salutary cautions as insiders of the 'industry' with first-hand experience, go unheeded and he soon finds himself up to the neck in trouble and the target of unlikely, rich-as-Croesus hell-cat, Cameron Diaz, who is pulling strings and is vengeance incarnate.

While watching I found that I kept myself tensed up and braced for something ultra-violent to happen - which it does several times, but it's all heavily signposted stuff.
I thought that with so many big names at least some of their contributions would be no more than cameo appearances. In fact they all have substantial roles. Pity that in the end the film doesn't live up to its promise. The only redeeming feature for me was the pleasure of seeing all these stars at one go, particularly Fassbender who is always worth watching.

I may not have bothered seeing it had I seen any reviews but I went to this completely 'blind'. As it turned out, on my exit from the cinema I immediately turned on my 'Walkman' (remember them?) and caught Mark Kermode's review on Radio 5 of the very same, and was quite satisfied to hear that his opinion was not that very different from my own. However I think that if he'd given it a rating it wouldn't have been nearly as generous as my own one of................4.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Film: 'GRAVITY' (in 3D)

If this film were to be judged on visual effects alone it would score as near a 'Perfect 10' as dammit. To call that aspect merely "impressive" would be to do it an injustice.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are two astronauts carrying out extra-craft repairs when disaster strikes. From that point onwards the story is simple and ruler-straight linear (which is no bad thing), with the entire focus on how they can survive.

The qualification which made my enjoyment slightly less than some people's is very personal, viz: in any attempt to depict a level of reality in space-located, science fiction films my observations have a tendency to become over-critical. I wish I could just sit back and enjoy the film as an exciting piece of fiction but I do find it difficult to let my cavils go. I won't spell out those occasions (very few in this film, I must admit) when my credulity was over-stretched but it contributed to a sense of detachment, alien to many of the reviews I've read which called it "very absorbing" or similar.

Little else to say, other than that I'm glad I saw it in 3D - and this is probably the most successful use of that format in any film I've seen to date.

In terms of my own personal reaction, and fully aware that some others will certainly consider my opinion as sullenly over-harsh, I would certainly still recommend 'Gravity', with a rating of.............7.

Thursday 7 November 2013


Director Stephen Frears can usually be relied upon to come up with a film that is both significant and superior. He's already been responsible for so many of them over the last three decades or more - and here, with the flawless contributions of the acting masterclass that is Judi Dench, and the increasingly and impressively versatile Steve Coogan, he's given us a film that is right up there with the very best of them. This is an exceptionally fine film!

It is based on the true story of an Irish woman, Philomena Lee, as recorded by Martin Sixsmith, his being a household name in the 1980s and 90s for us news-junkies as, among other things he was, for a time, chief BBC correspondent in Moscow and in Washington - before joining Tony Blair's government as adviser, only to later fall out with them.

This film concerns Philomena's (Dench) 50-year search for the child she had to give up (actually sold!) for adoption, by the nuns of the institution she attended (one of the notorious 'Magdelene Laundries' for orphaned and disowned girls run in Ireland by the 'Sisters of Mercy'), because it was born illegitimate to her  when she had barely entered her teenage years. Coogan, as Sixsmith, is the writer who, initially reluctant to take up the story, becomes driven by a curiosity followed by a steely determination to assist, then taking her to America where the track leads.

I was aware of the vague outline of the story but I was totally unprepared for a certain most interesting  dimension to develop, which I shan't disclose here.

The film contains a strong indictment of the Catholic Church's attitude of the time (and still continuing in places) regarding the 'heinousness' of extra-marital sex. Any consequent birth, attended by the nuns, has all anaesthetics and pain relief withheld, in order that the young mother experiences the excruciating pain brought about by her grievous 'sin'.
The Sixsmith character is a former Catholic, now atheist (rather like me, in that respect) who articulates condemnations of the Church on this issue with words which, I'm sure, a lot of us would wish to have delivered ourselves. In fact in the climactic final confrontation I was half-inclined to cheer him on. Philomena, meanwhile, retains her faith despite the lifetime of hurt that the Church has done to her.

Coogan is also one of the script's two co-writers - and it's a magnificent one, concentrated significance with hardly an extraneous word. Most satisfying to listen to.

It's incredible to think that Dench is only one month away from turning 79. Whenever she decides to retire, which surely can't be far away now, she'll have left us a body of work which any other respectable actor would die for. If she has been somewhat over-frequent on screen in recent years I don't mind that in the least. My attitude is to treasure her while we've got her. Besides, she never delivers a dud. (If you haven't yet seen her in 'Notes on a Scandal'  [2006], I'd urge all serious cineastes to catch it. It's a performance that left me transfixed with admiration.)

'Philomena' is a wonderful film. Sentimental, yes, but it's not a contrived sentiment created to get the audience's sympathy. That's already there under the cruelty to which she was subjected.

In the remainder of this year if I see another film as fine as this one then I'll have been very lucky. As at now  there is a good handful of films already jostling for my title of 'Film of 2013'. This is another one............8.

Wednesday 6 November 2013


(Lest it be thought that I've been unduly negligent in my duty of reviewing recent releases, in my defence it ought to be pointed out that in the over two weeks since my last posting there has been a dearth of films circulating which I wished to see. In fact there was only one, 'The Selfish Giant', now been and gone, which was a possibility but which I eventually couldn't bring myself to attend on knowing that it featured horses quite prominently.)

I'd assumed that this present film was going to be a bit of an oddity, especially for someone like me whose knowledge of the central personality being portrayed is seriously wanting.

It claims to be based on the true story of one Paul Potts, a sort of male equivalent of Susan Boyle, who found fame by winning a T.V. talent show, in this case, 'Britain's Got Talent', with panel of judges led by Simon Cowell who appears as himself in this film, and is also one of its producers. (I've only ever seen this T.V.  programme 'accidentally' when switching channels, and never been able to endure it for many minutes longer).

James Corden plays Potts very well, I thought. (His singing voice is dubbed by Potts himself) He's an untrained, opera-obsessed amateur tenor who has to be pushed to jump through hoops to get the acknowledgement he yearns. He seems to have led a very eventful life. I'm willing to believe that no fictional events were added, but no doubt some of it was hyped up to make it more interesting as a film. If it was then that is fair enough too.
His pre-fame life in Port Talbot (South Wales, look you) living with his doubting and confrontational father (Colm Meaney) and his sympathetic mother (Julie Walters) is well caught - as is his romantic interest and subsequent marriage. Trouble is, notwithstanding the reality of events depicted, the film piles cliche on cliche, non-stop. One can guess the graph of his progress - but one knows where it's going to end anyway.

I hadn't realised, until I looked it up, that Potts has found a degree of international fame, though for an outsider like me it's nowhere near as high profile as Susan Boyle's. But, unlike the latter,  he is strictly classical. (The standard gamut of well-known tenor arias is run through - nothing unfaniliar).

I've only noticed Corden on film in the marvellous 'The History Boys' (of Alan Bennett, 2007), but I see he has had small roles in quite a number of films of recent years - and will be part of the cast in the much anticipated screen version of Sondheim's 'Into the Woods'. He's been a regular face on British TV for a number of years and is now particularly well known for his highly-praised starring role on stage in 'One Man Two Guvnors' in both the West End and on Broadway.

I'd also mention in the cast of this film Alexandra Roach as Potts' down-to-earth love interest, and Mackenzie Crook as his hyperactive and scene-stealing best pal.

I enjoyed this film rather more than I expected, but it's all very light, easily disposable viewing. Worth a watch but nothing to shout loudly about....................................6.

(Coming soon: 'Philomena')