Wednesday 24 December 2014

My Ten Most Enjoyed New Films of 2014

To describe this list as the 'best films of the year' would be inaccurate as the 84 films I've seen represent only about a quarter of new releases in this country - and this year there has been a significant number which I would have seen were it not for personal circumstances (such as injuring myself in taking a heavy fall) or through inconvenient showing times and venues.
One of the more recent ones I had to miss was the Bill Murray comedy 'St Vincent' which has had good reviews, albeit with its sentimentally mushy ending - a film which some of my followers recommended but, regretfully, was not to be seen by me. There were maybe another 10 or 12 others through the year which I  similarly wanted to see.

Anyway, that notwithstanding, 2014 was an exceptional year for high standard, 'quality' films and it was by no means easy to whittle them down to just ten. There are omissions in the list e.g. '12 Years a Slave' which was outstanding in every respect except that its subject matter was so heavily serious I could not honestly say that I enjoyed it. Other regretful omissions which I thought were going to make the final cut included 'Lilting' and 'Blue Ruin', but in the last lap they just had to make way for others I considered even more noteworthy.

So, in reverse order of enjoyment:-

10) 'The Imitation Game'
      http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/film-imitation-game.html

 9) 'Mr Turner'
     http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/film-mr-turner.html

 8) 'Nightcrawler'
     http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/film-nightcrawler.html

 7) 'Gone Girl'
     http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/film-gone-girl.html

 6) 'Calvary'
     http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/film-calvary.html

 5) 'American Hustle'
     http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/film-american-hustle.html

Pure pleasure almost from first frame to last, this hasn't been universally highly regarded but I loved it, helped by a five-star cast, not least of whom, a certain Mr Cooper who, in my books, is the hottest film actor of the moment - well, at least when he's bearded. But a most intriguing story too. Genuine entertainment in a value-for-money film.

 4) 'Locke'
     http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/film-locke.html


A taut, virtually single-actor film (Tom Hardy) in the claustrophobic world of his own car, juggling with responsibilities and loyalties on his (hands-free) phone while on the move. Very effective drama which keeps one guessing as to which direction it's going to develop.

 3) 'Under the Skin'
     http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/film-under-skin.html


A film that came out of nowhere (if you'll pardon the expression), about a predatory alien being who arrives on earth, in Glasgow, in the unlikely form of Scarlett Johannson. Could have been a calamitous, or even an unintentionally comic, disaster but I don't think any film this year has haunted my memory more than this one. And it's all achieved within the confines of a modest budget. It's so darned creepy!

 2) 'Deux Jours, Une Nuit'
     http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/two-new-films-deux-jours-une-nuit.html



Intensely human drama concerning worker in a small firm on the verge of being discharged from her job (in Belgium) trying to gather support for her being kept on. The subject matter may not set the world alight but it's a small scale, very sincere, minor miracle of a film. Despite repetition in that the lead character (Marion Cotillard) has to garner sympathy by seeing her co-workers individually it doesn't flag at all and I found myself rooting for her throughout. I'm also pleased that a non-English language film has turned out to be, for a change, my number two film of the year.

 1) 'Boyhood'
     http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/film-boyhood.html




Much of my decision to give this my accolade must stem from the fact that it was precisely the kind of film that I'd have expected not to have liked. In the event this extra-long film turned out to be mesmeric - though it's not easy to identify exactly why as there are no really 'major' events in this chronicle of a boy growing into a man, shot over a number of years in real time, and with no sign of more advanced film techniques being evident for the latter part of the film as compared to the start. I left the cinema quite stunned - and, to use the title of another film in my list, this one really got under my skin. Superb.


And, finally, my least enjoyed film of the year, which I'm apprehensive in naming because a number of my esteemed blog-pals really liked it, and liked it a lot. In fact I'm the only one I know who disliked it so much, to the extent of  being irritated by it for its entire length. Soppy (just my own reaction) teenage romance which, death(s) apart, I'm glad and grateful to say that I've never experienced. I give you:-
        'The Fault in our Stars'  (Take and keep it - please!)
       http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/film-fault-in-our-stars.html

I wouldn't advise anyone not to see this, as the chances  are that they will 'get' it despite the 'it' having evaded me completely. It could well turn out to be your own Number One film of the year.

                                                 ______________________________

And finally, on this Christmas Eve, as I sit here surrounded by five pussycats, I'd like to take the opportunity to wish each and every one of my much-valued followers a Very Happy Xmas, and if I don't 'see' you again during the next week, a prosperous, contented and (most of all) a healthy 2015! My heartiest best wishes to all.




Monday 15 December 2014

Film: The Hobbit - 'The Battle of the Five Armies'

Well, thank goodness that's over! The concluding part of the over-protracted 'The Hobbit' trilogy is every bit as visually impressive as the earlier episodes and anything in the preceding 'Lord of the Rings' sequence, even though this was the only one of the aggregate six parts that I viewed in flat-screen 2D. But impressive visuals alone do not an engrossing film make and I'd become weary of this entire franchise several parts ago.

Continuing their characters' stories after 'The Desolation of Smaug' are all the names with which we've become so familiar - Freeman, McKellan, Bloom, Armitage, Blanchett etc - and Christopher Lee again making a brief, but welcome, re-appearance.  
The story assumes that we'd remember what had happened before this one picks it up again. But a year ago my interest had already become so depleted that then I just let it wash over me. So for the most part in this final take I had nary a clue what was going on so once again just sat back in my seat and watched the spectacle - of which there's no shortage.

There's big-scale fighting galore, as noisy as one might expect - with elves, dwarves, wizards, dragons, flying reptiles and monsters of various types and dimensions, but it quickly all became so ho-hum for this viewer. It didn't hold my attention and I found myself consulting my watch frequently. I think one would have to be a die-hard enthusiast to enjoy these films to the full. I had actually enthused about the first of the LOTR films, 'The Fellowship of the Ring', but then it had helped having read the entire 'Ring' volumes four times by the time that first film was released. However, after that particular opening instalment I found the appeal to see the remainder decreased, so that by the time the first of 'The Hobbit' series of films arrived (I've only read that slender book twice), and knowing that it had been expanded so far as to make the original literary work almost irrelevant, I was far from keen. Still, the first 'Hobbit' film was hardly bad - just so much of a lesser event following after the mighty LOTRs.

This final episode is also the shortest, though still coming in at over 2 hours 20 minutes. For me it felt as long, or longer, than it actually was.

Director Peter Jackson has accomplished two major trilogies which will probably be considered as 'significant' in the annals of film history. I've no quarrel at all with his role in directing the six parts. They are all pretty seamless in structure - and continuity fluffs have been much rarer than I normally notice. But in the final analysis, the films just didn't do it for me as I didn't find them interesting enough. I wouldn't care to see any of 'The Hobbit' parts again ('LOTR', maybe).
As for this 'The Battle of the Armies', relating to my own enjoyment, a generous rating would be...............4/10.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Film: 'Paddington'

Fairly standard entertainment which delivers what is expected. Passably pleasant enough, but with (for me) no 'WOW!' nor 'LOL' moments.

I'd never seen any representation at all of the eponymous being in comics or TV programmes, but I'd gleaned enough to know what I was in for - viz that P.B. hailed from Peru, spoke English, had a large penchant for marmalade, wore a duffle coat - and was created by Michael Bond.

Voiced agreeably by Ben Whishaw, the bear finds himself on London's Paddington station, having expected that the English would be falling over themselves to take care of him. Far from that being the case, he is eventually pitied on and picked up by a family consisting of all-sweetness and sympathy Sally Hawkins, with uninterested hubby Hugh Bonneville and their two teenage children (of whom, mercifully, we only see a modicum). Taking him to their central London home (which must have cost them several million £s) where there's also ageing, slightly doddery but wise relative, Julie Walters, P.B. creates havoc with various domestic appliances, especially in the bathroom.  There's also cantankerous neighbour, Peter Capaldi, (the current Dr Who), who wants rid of the bear - but above all, Nicole Kidman, playing arch-villainess up to the hilt with icy precision, whose aim is to have the bear as a stuffed exhibit, he being the sole captured specimen of that species.

Although it's all very efficiently done (these days one demands nothing less) in a fairy tale-like, impossibly clean, idealised London, there's little originality to hold one's attention - kidnapping, break-in, rescue being foiled, eventually the 'baddie' getting her just deserts, it observes the rules of a children's story - and I dare say that children will be satisfied by it. But for adults, despite the originality of the title character, I didn't see anything distinctive enough about it to make it memorable.
Director Paul King, whose first feature film this appears to be, does what he can with the relatively flimsy material.

Undemanding fayre for the festive season then, but might have gone down better with a glass of port or sherry beforehand.........................5/10.

Thursday 4 December 2014

Film: 'Set Fire to the Stars'

Moderately diverting story which chronicles a particular few days in the life of Dylan Thomas during a recital tour of the United States in 1950, three years before he died in New York. Unlike most contributors to IMDb site, two thirds of whom have scored this with a rating of 8 or above, I found this widescreen, monochrome film oddly inert. There's not that much difference between its conclusion and from where it began.

Elijah ('Frodo Baggins') Wood comes of age here, playing a little-known American would-be poet who is trying to steer his much-admired and famous portly friend, Dylan Thomas, (Celyn Jones) around various colleges where he's booked to give readings of his, Thomas', poetry. The dramatic focus is on the struggle to keep the alcohol-fuelled, blood-coughing, Thomas in a sufficiently grounded state to deliver his performances, Thomas' behavior veering from what one might call  'free spirited' to that of spoilt child - ever impetuous, often violent and totally nonchalant about the embarrassments he's causing, his interludes of sobriety occasionally coming within a whisker of maudlin self-pitying. The film basically concerns the Wood character's frustration at his inability to keep the rebellious poet's sometimes outrageous conduct under control.

I was struck by how often Celyn Jones' voice uncannily resembled that of Richard Burton, so near as to be almost interchangeable. He surely almost certainly modelled his delivery on that of Burton.
Just about everyone in this film seems to be a chain-smoker, though that was probably historically accurate for the time.

Directed by one Andy Goddard, whose first feature film this looks to be, and who also co-wrote it with the aforementioned Celyn Jones, I'm not sure that this film would find general appeal to those who know very little of Dylan Thomas' life or are not familiar with some of his works. If one does not have either of these as a mental reference point I fear that the whole thing may look like an episodic series of one man's unruly behaviour.
Interesting, then, but only up to a point. Yet again my personal minority view reveals itself in a score of.............5.5.

Monday 1 December 2014

Film: 'My Old Lady'

It's always nice to have one's expectations confounded in a positive way. So it was with this film, which I hadn't been aware would be a cinema version of prolific playwright Israel Horovitz's Paris-located theatre piece. Here, now in his mid-70s, he makes his belated debut as director of a feature film, and a fine finished product it is too.

My ignorance had me suppose that this would be a feeble comedy, played very broadly, perhaps with some slapstick thrown in. But it turns out to be much deeper than that.

Things started badly for me when, over the opening credits, the music features - yes, that sure-fire, Gallic cliche - an accordian! And this sound crops up quite regularly throughout the film, I suppose to remind us where we are. (Pleeeeeeeze!). But the downers are far eclipsed by the film's more worthy attributes. I was fearing that we'd see the usual touristy compulsory sights but, though we do indeed see Notre Dame several times as well as a number of scenes on the river bank, with the Ile St Louis in the background, it's not overplayed to distraction. And I'm thankful that we're spared any sight at all of you-know what!

Kevin Kline flies in from New York, having inherited a large apartment in the fashionable Marais district (an arrondisement I used to know quite well). Impecunious, he arrives with the intention of putting the flat up for sale at a tidy sum in order to get himself back on his feet, but he finds it already occupied by both Maggie Smith (French, and of 90 years or more) along with her unmarried, though involved, daughter, Kristin Scott Thomas. (We've seen the latter in so many French films of late, where she speaks only that language. Here she has the opportunity to use both her languages of fluency). It turns out that the mother has the legal right not only to remain there until death, but she can also claim rent from Kline if he decides to move in, which he has to do, having nowhere else to go. Complications and arguments develop, a lot hanging on how much longer can the Maggie Smith character survive. At this stage I thought it was going to turn into Kline trying to plot how to kill off Smith fiendishly and without suspicion, in which case it would have been a good vehicle for the likes of Danny de Vito. But it doesn't go that way at all and gets much more serious.

When Kline and K.Scott Thomas first meet one knows which way the arrow is pointing in their relationship as their first scenes are all squabbles and heated arguments. But that thought doesn't dull the edge of the denouement.

I thought all three main characters were at the top of their game. The two women we have seen doing excellent work many times in the past, but for me it was Kline who really steals the show. I don't think I've seen him in a straight dramatic part since Ang Lee's very impressive 'The Ice Storm' of 1997. In 'My Old Lady'  he runs the gamut of emotions, retaining credibility throughout. I doubt if he's been better on screen. 

The screenplay betrays its theatrical origins in no bad way, one of which being that it's far superior to many a modern-day film script. It may be that the film has opened the whole thing up from being based on being a three-person stage play. I don't know, but it still works well. (Good also to see Dominique Pinon again, here as an estate agent).

My cavils relate only to the predictable one of too much music on the soundtrack, though I have heard worse - and that maybe the film, at an hour and three-quarters, stretches out the material a shade too much.
But otherwise I'm very glad to have seen it, and doubly so in that it wasn't at all the creature that I'd been expecting................7. .

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Film: 'Night Train to Lisbon'

Moderately interesting, though ultimately formulaic, story of a Swiss professor (Jeremy Irons) on a mission to discover details of the life of a deceased young Portuguese doctor, who was also a luminary in the resistance against the Salazar dictatorship.
The film boasts an additional stellar mini-cast of mainly British 'mature' or advanced age actors - Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay , Christopher Lee - plus Bruno Ganz and, as the young resistance fighter, John Huston (nephew of Anjelica and Danny - and not at all bad-looking).

The film makes some big demands on the credence capacity of the audience from the very start. Irons, a Swiss teacher (whom I'd have assumed had been English were it not for his name) is on his way to school in Bern when he espies a young woman about to jump off a bridge. He forcibly pulls the distraught person away and, unable to get information from her, takes her to his class temporarily, where he's teaching about Ancient Rome. She slips out without a word, leaving her coat. Not knowing her whereabouts he examines the coat, which contains in a pocket a book of the collected writings of the aforementioned resistance fighter - in Portuguese. But, not to worry, he is not only familiar with the book (so one would have thought that it's fairly well-known, but it is, in fact, obscure) and, wouldn't you know it, he can also read Portuguese! - at least enough to translate it with ease. Then falling out of the book is a train ticket from Bern to Lisbon, the train due to leave in a few minutes time. So, (no slouch he!), he drops everything without a word, leaving his school class and superior in limbo, and he hops luggage-less onto that train - exactly in the way anyone else would!
Reading the book on the journey he becomes absorbed with the mysterious writer and, on arriving in Lisbon for an impetuously-decided and open-ended stay, he starts seeking out the author's surviving relations and acquaintances to find out about his story. Meanwhile, the rescued young woman has dropped from his concerns. (She does pop up again towards the end.)
His meetings with all these sundry people are the cue for multiple extended flashbacks, using younger acting 'doubles' as they relate events.

It's curious that the Irons character, familiar with Portuguese, never once attempts to speak in that vernacular - and doubly curious that everyone he meets, even in casual encounters, immediately responds in accented English. (A cyclist he accidentally knocks off his bike calls him an "idiot". Perhaps that is the first word a native of that country would come out with, for all I know!). I accept the viability of cinematic conceit, as we do in, for example, war films where all sides speak in English. But here so many speak it with various continental accents while the supposedly Swiss Irons converses in faultlessly-sounding Queen's English.

It will come as little surprise to learn that the weight of the dramatic action (with romantic dimension) takes place in the past-narrated episodes of resistance-struggle arguments and fighting , including at least one gruesomely violent scene.

I was hoping the film would show us more views of the Lisbon which has been so infrequently captured in feature films up to now. From the brief views we have of it it does look spectacular and photogenic, but the opportunity is mostly thrown away. I think there were four short scenes all on the ferry crossing the Tagus estuary. I wish we'd have seen a lot more of the inner city itself.

Danish director Bille August (who directed 'Les Miserables' - no not that one, but the 1998 Liam Neeson, straight dramatic version) deals with the material fairly enough. I have to say that he did pull out some of the best from his very professional cast (both present day and those depicting decades previous) which gave the whole project a higher estimation than it otherwise might have had.

I might also mention that whenever I see Jeremy Irons in anything there's always something that gets in the way for me, viz his vocal support for blood sports and, in particular, for fox hunting. I find the same thing for the precise same reason whenever I hear a song by Bryan Ferry  as well as (with rather greater regret than with these two) reading some of the marvellous writings of the late John Mortimer. It's like a pebble in the shoe which can never be removed. But knowing that people have opinions which diverge from ones own is just one of the facets of life one has to put up with.

As to a final verdict on this film, although I never found it boring, it also wasn't memorable enough to be classed as 'exceptional'. I think a fair mark would be..................6.

Monday 24 November 2014

Film: 'The Hunger Games - Mockingjay: Part 1'

It really needs an aficianado of the Suzanne Collins books and/or the previous films of the series to give this a fair review. I've not read the novels but I have seen the lead-up films which, for me, were just okay. Such had been my (lack of) interest on where the last instalment ended that throughout this film I had hardly more than the foggiest notion what was going on here. If I do go to the forthcoming concluding part it'll only be in order to have seen them all, rather than demonstrating any enthusiasm. I dare say that when I see it what happened at the end of this one will already have faded from memory.

I shan't summarise the plot as I'm bound to get something wrong and I can't be bothered to research it.  Please look elsewhere.

With a cast led again by Jennifer Lawrence it also includes previous regulars Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci, as well as Julianne Moore and, in definitively his final film (though also due to appear in Part 2), Philip Seymour Hoffman in subdued, low profile mode. This film is dedicated to his memory. Pity that it's a relatively thankless part, which in no way stretches him, when he's made so many astonishing screen appearances in his career. But that's the way it goes.

Director Francis Lawrence (who also made 'Catching Fire') does alright with the material. Some of the CGI-created scenes are quite impressive, but it's what one comes to expect these days.

Whereas the previous film concentrated more on person-to-person combat this one deals with big forces and armies - therefore more explosions and gunfire rather than physical conflict.

I'm going to make one of my regular moans now. Virtually throughout the entire film there's music on the soundtrack - dramatic, menacing or tender, contemplative. Hell, why can't they just STFU!!! We don't need it!

To add to any irritations at the screening I attended, just four seats away from me was a lone woman who, for all the two hours, munched through sweets, with rustling of papers, and opening drinks cans. I was willing someone else (being the coward that I am)  to tell her to, for goodness' sake, just sit still and be quiet, but no one did - or dared (Wimps!)
When the lights went up at the end I was a bit surprised to see that she was quite mature, maybe 40 - but not too surprised to determine that she was, well, rather 'large'. I had to breathe in and squeeze my way past her as getting up for me was obviously too energy-expending.

I doubt if fans of this series will be disappointed. The series failed to carry me along from the very first film. But having said that, I'd rather see this than any of the 'Star Wars' films, for instance.

However, when it comes down to it, I was, frankly, quite bored..........................3/10

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Film: 'The Imitation Game'

Fine dramatic production of the Alan Turing story, creator of, perhaps, the first 'computer' - a prototype 'Enigma' machine constructed in the early 1940s, specifically to decipher intercepted Nazi war messages from their HQ to fighting units and between the units themselves. The key to the code being used was changed by the enemy every successive midnight, theoretically leaving the allies with over 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible solutions, these being different every day.

The story is told in flashback, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, complete with facial tics and stutters. (Oscar possibility? A nomination would be well deserved, at least). He's telling his story in 1951 to a semi-sympathetic senior police detective (Rory Kinnear) in an interview room after being arraigned for 'gross indecency' in a casual encounter with another man. (At that time, all physical touches between men, however slight, automatically carried the tag of being 'grossly indecent').

There are additional more distant flashbacks to Turing's schooldays where he is already being victimised by other boys for the 'offence' of being 'different' (more withdrawn and socially inept), as well as being cleverer than they are. He makes a close (non-physical) bonding with another extra-intelligent classmate.

The main thread of the story deals with Turing's dogged determination to succeed in building the Enigma apparatus while he battles against authorities (including a coldly efficient and sceptical Charles Dance, answerable directly to Winston Churchill) and Matthew Strong (particularly good), Turing's immediate superior. Turing also has arguments and fights with the other members of his small team. Only he himself has absolute faith in achieving his object.
Also on his team is Keira Knightly, the only female member, who is selected by solving a problem quicker than any of the other entirely-male candidates. She sticks by him throughout. I know that the story is based on fact but her character struck me as almost too good to be true.
In her very first scene someone makes a remark to her which drew a loud gasp of disbelief from the audience, something I'd imagine will happen in just about all cinemas - or at least I'd like to think so. But those of my generation will know that what's said to her reflected a fairly widespread attitude to women in those thankfully far-off days.

From what I'd heard about the film I was expecting that the issue of Turing's sexuality would be hovering uneasily in the background without being expressly referred to unless it was impossible to avoid it. But, although there are no sex scenes at all (thank heavens!), the topic does come up quite frequently and explicitly, and always handled tastefully - though I thought that there would be more out-and-out hostility from those 'in the know' and the police, which was certainly a characteristic of attitudes I remember from the 1950s.

The film holds interest from first to last even though, I'd guess, that a significant proportion of the audience knows how it develops, all the way to its tragic and appalling conclusion.

One of my complaints, a frequent one for me, is the too-pervasive mood music on the soundtrack. Others will be less bothered by it than I was.

This film is a fine tribute to the man, overlooked, ignored and cold-shouldered disgracefully because of his sexuality for so many decades. It was only last year that he was granted a posthumous Royal Pardon for his 'crime', over 60 years after his death - something which the film states categorically as suicide, though a bit of a question mark has been put over that scenario in recent years, suggesting that it just might have been a tragic accident arising from Turing's habitual carelessness and untidiness. No matter - at least as far as his place in history is concerned. Even if it was an accident it in no way diminishes his monumental achievement for which we all should acknowledge a profound indebtedness to him.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (he of the excellent 'Headhunters' of 2011) does a very good job here. No complaints at all. He keeps the story buzzing along without longueurs (so no watch-checking), which is some achievement for a film of an hour and three quarters.

I was fortunate enough to see Derek Jacobi in the Hugh Whitemore play 'Breaking the Code' in the late 1980s, which he reprised in a BBC TV version of 1996. I think that 'The Imitation Game', with more emphasis on illustrating the genius of the man rather than on his personal life, which is also extensively captured here, is a much more rounded portrait. In truth, it ought to do his memory proud.....................................7.5.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Film: 'Nightcrawler'

Chillingly credible story of a ruthless freelance newsreel photographer in LA who'd do anything, with no scruples at all, in order to film a scoop of a gory news story, which he can then flog to a TV company at his demanded price. Think of the news-pack in Paris descending on the wreck of the Princess Di car crash while she was yet alive and you'll get the picture.

I wasn't sure if Jake Gyllenhall could carry off playing such an odious character as up to now he's been almost typecast in playing roles with which one can sympathise. But he pulls it off with aplomb - creepy, glib liar, entirely self-centered, all with an impenetrable veneer of utter self-confidence in his own ability, only cracking once in the privacy of his own home.
He targets a news company managed by Rene Russo (excellent - where's she been all these years?) whose TV ratings are in the doldrums so badly needs a boost. She doesn't take long to see that Gyllenhall can produce something really special and regularly. There's a telling scene in a Mexican restaurant when the two of them are dining (at his cheeky invitation) where, despite their age difference and relative statuses it becomes clear as to which of them is calling the shots - and it's not her, reluctant to let such an able provider of compelling footage go to another company.
He employs (thanks to some imaginative untruths) as a sidekick, British actor Riz Ahmen (also very good), who captures the quandary he's in in needing the pittance of payment he's offered, being otherwise unemployed, yet having grave doubts about the nature of work he's in and having to put up with Gyllenhall's bullying and bluster.
Bill Paxton also appears as a more experienced, rival freelancer in the same business, the two of them bumping into each other covering the same news events. 
Throughout the film I was waiting for the Gyllenhall character to come a cropper and get his just deserts.
The film ends with a tense, expertly built-up climax, partly deviously-engineered to make it more 'newsworthy', which itself is crowned by a most appalling act.

My only slight quibble with the film was how did Gyllenhall manage to become such a hot and expert film-shooter just about immediately? At the film's start he didn't even own a camera!

Director Dan Gilroy (this his first as director) does a flawless job. No reservations here at all.
Was there any background music? If there was I didn't notice, which is a big plus.

A very good film, not easy to watch but certainly holding the attention all through, with some rivetting moments........................7.5


Sunday 9 November 2014

Film: 'Interstellar'

A major disappointment and an expensive one.

Because of all the hype and commotion regarding this release I had high hopes that it would be a rare and wondrous experience, so I took the advice to see it on the largest screen available, travelling twenty miles to Chichester to a newly opened Imax screen. (The last time I'd been in an Imax cinema was 1989, 'La Geode' in Paris). Yesterday, the combined cost of admission price plus train fare was four times what I usually pay for a regular cinema ticket, even with Senior Citizen concessions on both ingredients.

Comparisons are being made of 'Interstellar' with my own all-time favourite film, '2001 - A Space Odyssey'. In the event there was no comparison at all. It wasn't even within sight.
There's no doubt that technology has advanced far further than where it was placed a quarter century ago, let alone the 46 years since the release of '2001' - and many of the scenes in this new film really are completely astonishing, though there are no long, sustained sequences in extra-spacecraft space as there are in the other. But even by using state-of-the-art computer effects not available for the earlier film, despite all 2001's laboriously-produced effects in modelling and ultra-long exposures to capture intricate detail, it's still Kubrick's film which yet outdoes everything produced since.
But I don't want to base my evaluation of this 'Interstellar' on unfavourable comparisons with an older film when it was in no way director Christopher Nolan's intention to compete - though there are strong homage-like evocations of the 1968 film, not least in a recurring, highly effective blast on the soundtrack.

In 'Interstellar', Matthew McConaughey is the strangely scientifically-ill-informed leader of a crew of four astronauts (plus an ambulant, emotion-expressing computer) seeking out a new and habitable world in another galaxy (courtesy of a mysteriously placed 'wormhole' in the vicinity of Saturn, enabling them to cover unimaginably immense inter-galactic distances in little time) so that humankind, faced with the imminent threat of starvation on Earth, as a consequence of climate change, can continue its existence by propagation on another planet. It's a one-way ticket, as McConaughey well knows, but, putting a brave face on it, he attempts to convince those left behind that he'll be back. (Tearful farewells? - certainly not shared with one key family member, much to his grievous disappointment.)
Another of the crew is Anne Hathaway, with her own issues coming to the fore during the protracted journey cooped up with the others, where the tragic loss of a crew member seems to be regarded as no more than an unfortunate, though minor, irritant on the way.
Nolan regular Michael Caine is in the unlikely role of McConaughey's father, and Jessica Chastain is in the cast too.
There's also the unforeseen (by me) appearance of a major star in a quite significant part when the film is well advanced.

One has to avoid giving too much away as the higgledy-piggledy 'plot', such as it is, is littered with give-away potential spoilers and I wouldn't like to ruin the enjoyment of the many others who consider this film something of an achievement. (Currently on IMDb 59% of contributors have scored it with a perfect '10', while just 3% with a 5 or less.)

Now at last I come to what for me was the principal let-down of the film, and one I was not expecting - the film is heavily loaded with sentiment. And when I say loaded I mean positively weighed down by it till I found it close to being unbearable. Some people can take it, I cannot. All I'll say further is that it arises not from the likely demise of the human race, rather from it being familial. This reaches a climax in the final half hour when McConaughey.......(Oops! Better shut up).

I can take all the scientific jargon, and theorising that Y may happen when X happens. The time-warping in super-speed space travel has been well established for a very long while now, so that presented no problem to me, however alarming the effects. Black holes, event horizons, singularities, theoretical wormholes?....all fine and dandy
What I did especially like about this film was that it's only the third film I've ever seen which has had the guts to grasp the fact and demonstrate that without atmosphere there's no sound. Additionally, it was refreshing to have acknowledged on screen that the enormous majority of planets will have gravity forces which do not equate to that of Earth (though it's difficult to show that convincingly on film) - or, indeed, where one day can be the length of several earth-days (or actually much shorter than 24 hours - witness our own Jupiter and, by contrast, Venus, where a day is actually  longer than a Venusian year).
I also liked that there was no time spent showing preparations for the flight and training of the crew for the venture, thus saving us a lot of valuable time and boredom. 

I found the Hans Zimmer music score was trying so hard to be gently insinuating rather than in-your-face that it became all the more noticeable for trying to do just that. In spite of its low-key approach I felt it was over-persistent.

Acting was, on the whole, played very earnestly but, being so intense almost throughout and where all humour had been outlawed, I found it got tiring for a close-on three hour film.

The philosophical angles, of which there were a number of references amidst the stodgy emotions presented, were never adequately explored, only hinted at.

The film's ending, I found hopelessly unsatisfactory. Suspending one's disbelief didn't help. I felt more like shouting "Oh, for goodness' sake, pull the other one!"
Contrast that with the close of '2001' - enigmatic, certainly; provocative, absolutely; daring and imaginative, yes - but, (thanks largely to Arthur C.Clarke's ideas relayed through Kubrick), all portrayed with eye-popping majesty, positing part-answers to questions which have crystallised through centuries, though in a way which generates yet many more questions - and in a manner which has resounded down the decades since that film first appeared. 'Interstellar's conclusion, on the other hand, was simply weak and forgettable. 

It pains me to be negative about one of today's director's for whom I have huge enthusiasm.
If I were to compile a list of, say, my twenty favourite films of the last twenty years, it's quite likely that two of Christopher Nolan's would appear in that list, specifically 'Memento' and 'Inception'. He may, in fact, be the only director to get two mentions. So it's with great regret to say that, in my opinion and contrary to the majority of cinema-goers, 'Interstellar' is his least satisfactory film to date.

If you like your films spread thickly with gooey sentiment then you will not be troubled, and may well admire this product. However, I myself look forward to his next project being a substantial improvement. Meantime, I award this one a humble...................4/10.





Monday 3 November 2014

Film: 'Fury'

Almost relentlessly grim, frequently ultra-violent, and ultimately exhausting, mud-coloured tale of a tank unit of five led by (usually) equable-tempered Brad Pitt, who seems to have an invisible shield around him to deflect bullets, shrapnel and flying debris.

The scene is Germany 1945 (it's actually filmed in England) with the Nazis almost on their last legs, though with superior panzer power and sheer desperation on their side, giving all they've got to the survival of their 'Vaterland'.

To Wardaddy's (Pitt's) dismay he has callow, bible-scrupled Shia la Beouf seconded to his unit, less than two months in the army and incapable of shooting anyone at all, even under orders.
Much of the film is set in the claustrophobic tank (nicknamed 'Fury') with crew getting in each others way and barking at each other, including predictably crude humour.

The only respite from the actions of tank advance interrupted by gory visions of warfare, is a significantly prolonged central scene when Pitt and La Beouf enter a house to find two youngish, German, non-English speaking women. (Pitt speaks a modicum of German here as well as in patches elsewhere). The two Americans try to gain the nervous women's respect until, a few minutes later, the rest of the tank unit arrive..........

It's a well-made film. No quarrel at all with the effects which were totally convincing to me. But as to having light and shade, there was virtually none. Although the violence (all of it being the effects of warfare), is very graphic, none of those shots of killing and maiming are lingered over.
Occasionally the heavy, sombre music did get in the way, and I found some of the depictions of the German soldiers barely avoiding tipping over into being hackneyed.

Acting was good and, though it might pain me just a little to say it, the honours go to LaBouef who really nails the portrayal of his green, reluctantly-serving character. Pitt played his superman persona much as one would expect. I'd also single out Michael Pena as the Mexican-born member of the tank crew.
Direction by David Ayer was all one could wish for.

It's not a film I can say I enjoyed - it wasn't intended to be one of those. It's a gruelling journey, but if you like a generous quota of blood and guts, this will supply it for you.
Current average IMDb score exceeds 8. My personal rating is...................6.

Friday 31 October 2014

Film: 'Mr Turner'

I always look forward to a new Mike Leigh film. Very few  have disappointed, and this one not only met my expectations, it far exceeded them. It's a marvellous film.

Portraying the last couple of decades or so of the life of world-renowned English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner, Timothy Spall grunts, growls and harumphs his way through the role more convincingly than many another actor could have achieved. Despite the film's near-epic length of two and a half hours, it doesn't outstay its welcome at all. It's a major achievement, easily one of Leigh's very best, which has already collected several awards and deserves to be garlanded with more than a few more come BAFTA and Oscar season.

Although my aesthetic appreciation of the visual arts isn't as pronounced as it is for music and literature, Turner is one of the very few I was attracted to from the very moment I first became aware of him in my teens. I realise that there are some who have a problem with his works. Happily, not so with me. But I don't think you have to be an admirer of his to like this multi-faceted film, containing hints of comedy, sadness, relationship and family drama, as well as capturing his working method in convincing fashion, and the range of reactions his paintings provoked.

Acting is faultless throughout. Although Spall is immediately physically recognisable in whatever part he plays, such is his bodily frame, here he has never been better. I don't know how close he came to the real artist. In fact I'll readily admit that I knew next to nothing about Turner's life, and was only vaguely aware of his dates (1775 -1851). I might have guessed that he'd been 20-30 years earlier. But this didn't matter. This film makes him into a solid and believable figure.
Once or twice I thought there was a physical shade of a Quasimodo in him (more Charles Laughton than Lon Chaney) but it didn't detract from my enjoyment.

In the acting honours mention must be made of Paul Jesson as Turner's father who, unlike some in society, recognises his son's talent
Also, Dorothy Atkinson as his morose and obedient housekeeper whom he uses now and again for sexual relief. (He actually has a stroppy former mistress and daughter from whom he's become estranged) But most of all I'd commend Marion Bailey (in picture above) as the owner of his regularly-visited guest house in Margate, who becomes something more than just that to him. When she was on screen, I was thinking "We've all known someone like that." - pleasant, attractively self-deprecating with a knowing sense of humour.

We see his paintings on display at the Royal Academy among that of other contemporary artists (some serious historical name-dropping here, though it doesn't jar) - and the varied attitudes to them, often contemptuous.

Photography all through is exceptionally fine - and the script is superior and non-predictable.

I must also mention that there's a short but stunning sequence of the actual scene on which he based his most celebrated painting, 'The Fighting Temeraire'. Okay, it will have been helped a lot, or even entirely(?), by camera-computer techniques, but it's still ethereally beautiful. My jaw dropped on seeing it.

So, as you can see, I liked this film a great deal. I'm strongly tempted to score it higher than what I am going to do, though it's more than safe with a splendid and rare.............8.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Film: 'The Judge'

If I say I found this disappointing, overlong and lugubrious I'd once again be parting company with majority opinion (currently an average rating of 7.6 on IMDb).
Despite it having a cast of major stars, Duvall, Downey Jr, and B.B. Thornton, as well as Vincent D'Onofrio, all of whom I like, it wasn't a film that afforded me a pleasurable experience.

The cast was, effectively, the only 'plus' - after that there were several irritants, of which more in a minute.

Downey is a major lawyer who's long since fallen out with his veteran judge father (as well as his own wife) and only re-connects, albeit abrasively, on attending his mother's funeral. His two brothers are also there, D'Onofrio, his elder, and his home-movie obsessed, wimpy younger bro, Jeremy Strong. The relationships with his brothers is more equable than that between him and his recently-ailing, cantankerous father, Duvall, who, on the very day of the funeral appears to have killed in a driving 'accident', a recently-released man he'd put away in prison for 20 years for murder. Duvall claims lapse of memory over events around the ex-con's death. Downey, after overcoming obstacles, gets to defend his father on a charge of murder. Billy Bob Thornton plays the prosecutor, appearing only in the courtroom scenes during the ensuing drama of the actual trial.

Now for the negatives:-
Over-indulgent background music, sentimental throughout, treating the audience as though we were idiots and shouldn't be allowed to think for ourselves. After an early scene in which RDJ views his departed mater lying in an open coffin and he touches her folded hands, by then we all knew that this was going to be a film burdened with sentiment. We don't need additional help to tell us what we should be feeling, thank you.
The music rarely leaves off - and several times I found myself wishing "Oh, for goodness sake, give it a rest!"  And not only that, at one point there's an actual song on the soundtrack, presumably to provide extra emotional 'weight' - a feature that always gets my back up. And there's even a further song over the final, pre-credit scene. (Groan!)
The story of a familial patriarch gradually losing his mental (and, at one point, graphically, his physical) faculties was quite good, but I found the script largely uninspiring as it attempted, unsuccessfully at times, to be light and witty with Downey's romantic attachment (Vera Farmiga) and his little girl. 'Light' it never was, even though the circumstances might have required it.
Then there's the said 'little girl' - and, blow me down if she wasn't one of those single-digit-year, wise-ass, know-all-about-life infants whose attitudes and remarks would have been considered mature for someone three times her age or more. Clearly, we were supposed to think "Aw, how cute!" - and judging from most of the audience's reaction, they actually did. Luckily, she only had two scenes, neither very long, but that was two too many for me. I only wish there'd been a garotter at hand!

Direction, by one David Dobkin, was fairly conventional, with nothing standing out as particularly memorable.

This could have been a powerful vehicle for such a starry cast, and all the main players, Duvall especially, rose to it ably. But the film was also cliche-ridden. A bit of originality, aside from the premise of a son defending his father on a murder charge (though is that really original?) would not have come amiiss.

I think a lot of people's reactions to this lengthy (2 hrs 20mins) film will be more positive than mine was. In fact I know that already to be the case. However, I can only report honestly on my own feelings, that if it hadn't been for such an all-round good cast I would have scored 'The Judge' lower than..................4/10.





Tuesday 21 October 2014

Film: ' '71 '

Very tense, very brutal thriller set at the height of the Northern Ireland troubles, the title referring to the year of this story.

Paris-born, London-raised director, Yann Demange, creates a highly impressive, nail-chewing drama in which, once the situational scenario has been set, never lets up on the suspense for an instant.

An English rookie soldier in the British army is sent to Belfast where, as  part of a unit trying to flush out IRA-supporting Republicans, he gets caught up in a local riot and, through a lapse on checking by his commanding officer before a hurried withdrawal, he finds himself left alone in a predominantly Catholic, and hence vehemently anti-British, area where he has no alternative but to try to survive by wits and subterfuge. This is a part of Belfast where everyone has to be on one of two sides. Violent hostility between the two communities rules, as well as full-on hostility against the British army from the Catholic side (of all ages), with swift 'justice' meted out where it's seen to be 'required'. Prevaricators are not tolerated, neither by Catholics nor Protestants. This film dwells mainly on the republicans' anti-British army stance.
The tension is immediately palpable after the initial scene-setting, when the terrified lone soldier (Jack O'Connelll - totally believable in the role) tries to find his way back to barracks without drawing attention to himself. There are several very violent scenes, including at least one extended and especially grisly section where I had to look away.

The angle the film is aimed for is that the audience be willing the young soldier to survive, he being a reluctant pawn in the horrific situation he's found himself, not through his own fault. But even so, there are no 'goodies' and baddies' in this world. To cloud the issue even further, can we be absolutely sure of the loyalties of people claiming a particular allegiance?

I jumped in my seat once or twice at unexpected sudden events. It's all very skilfully managed, though with a bit of background music, which wasn't too obtrusive. There was also the obligatory, torrential downpour at one point, though in this case it did effectively underline the nervous tension.

Another thing in the film's favour is that it's a comfortable, mere 100 minutes long (always music to my ears).

A very taut thriller, expertly accomplished, and I'd defy anyone not to be gripped by it...................7.5.


Wednesday 15 October 2014

Film: 'Effie Gray'

Fairly likeable Victorian drama documenting the inconsummated 'marriage' between teenager Euphemia Gray (played by American, Dakota Fanning) and artist John Ruskin (Greg Wise) - with his close friend and fellow-artist, Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) hovering between them and falling for the luckless and loveless young 'wife'.

Supporting parts are played by a veritable roll-call of readily recognisable British actors, some with little more than a very few words to say, but the meatiest of these lesser roles are for David Suchet and Julie Walters (here playing aristocratic, against her usual type of part) as Ruskin's parents. Others include James Fox, Robbie Coltrane, Linda Bassett and Derek Jacobi - as well as Emma Thompson who wrote the screenplay. (There are also a couple of brief appearances of living legend, Claudia Cardinale).

The reason for the marriage's lack of relationship is not spelt out explicitly. We see Ruskin's rejection of his wife on their wedding night but not shown exactly why it happens, only from then on he treats her with disdain, put-downs and carelessness of feeling. Delicacy prevents me from enlarging on what's believed to have been the actual historical cause of why he should suddenly have felt this way, but rumours exist to this day which, for reasons of discretion, shall not be elaborated on here.

Richard Laxton directs this film. (He also directed 2009's 'An Englishman in New York - the latter years of Quentin Crisp, with John Hurt reprising the role).

'Effie Gray' is a stately-moving story - not boring, but also not one that gripped me very keenly. It's very well photographed indeed and all impressively acted. If you like period dramas I doubt that this will disappoint you. An agreeable way to occupy a couple of hours ...............6/10.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Another year notched up.

Yes, this is where I've arrived today - at a somewhat nondescript number with few associations (unlike next year's!). What first comes to mind for me was 1968, when I was 21/22, being such a tumultuous year in a number of ways, largely negative, though that was mostly only labelled so in hindsight.

Here is this year's portrait, taken yesterday in mood un poco serioso:-



And here's some recent pics of my two co-habitees as well as two of the most regular visitors.

My dear, sweet Blackso (at least 15 years old) enjoying late Summer sun.



Noodles (12 or 13), having recently had his annual check-up and jab.

Heckie (Hector), next door's pussy, who gets locked out so often that he seems to spend more time here, where there's always a welcome at the permanently open window. Not yet 2 years old, he hasn't been neutered, unfortunately, (despite my mentioning it to the owner) - and his behaviour is now showing that he hasn't been. A bit of a disruptive little scamp, but a sweetie nevertheless.

Patchy (about 7) whose home is round the corner, about 300 yards away, where he's one of a number of cats, but for well over a year he's been coming here at least twice a day, for 'breakfast' and 'dinner', and now started sleeping here overnight too. I could never turn him away, the big, plump 'cushion' that he is.



Blackso again, taking some 'Golden Slumbers'
So that's where things are at, dear people - surviving by toddling along from day to day, with some grand company of contented pussies. 

Monday 13 October 2014

Film: 'The Maze Runner'

The premise of this film shares much the same territory as 'The Hunger Games' trilogy. In this case I don't have much enthusiasm for catching the further two projected episodes, though for the 'Hunger' series I did see them all..

Set in some vague future, a selected group of racially-diverse youngsters (here, all teenage boys/young men, some of whom look barely out of school) find themselves mysteriously appearing one by one at monthly intervals in an enclosed pasture and woodland enclosed by a massive circular maze whose walls change position daily and which appears to be the only means of escape. If anyone finds themselves trapped in the maze he is left to the mercy of large, semi-mechanical(?), spider-like creatures with voracious appetites. Then one day a young woman is delivered by the usual means, an elevator from below ground. Like all the others, she  doesn't remember why and how she arrived.
The reason for their being held captive in this way is only explained as the film reaches its conclusion. Meanwhile, with no idea as to what they are supposed to do they survive by living off the land in primitive fashion (shades of 'Lord of the Flies'?).

Director Wes Ball manages the action sequences fairly enough with some reasonably impressive CGI work, though throughout the film the dialogue doesn't rise to any inspiring level to reflect the desperate situation of the 'prisoners' as they try to discover an escape route.

It's a noisy film and it's largely derivative, plot-wise. Will Poulter plays the most interesting character, the one who doubts the sincerity of the latest arrival (Dylan O'Brien) who seems most intent on getting to the bottom of what's going on. Poulter suspects that he must be part of the overall plan to test them somehow, whatever that plan is.
I found it quite easy to identify which ones in this group would not survive into the next episode, having enough leisure-time to guess - and I was correct.

I'll only go to see the sequels if there's nothing of more interest playing. As for this one.................5/10.



Tuesday 7 October 2014

Film: 'Maps to the Stars'

This is an oddity - too weird and insufficiently endearing to be considered as quirky. But that's David Cronenburg's films for you - mentally challenging, rarely dull, but when it's over I find myself asking "What was that all about?"

Set in Hollywood (cue celebrity name-dropping - hence the film's title - and a brief cameo appearance from one of the younger big names of today), John Cusack plays some kind of New Age guru who writes on self-improvement, and is the father of an obnoxious, wise-ass, spoilt brat of a boy actor who, despite being all of 13, appears to be totally clued up on drugs and sex. His once-institutionalised (for starting a life-threatening fire) and estranged older sister (Mia Wasikowska) travels from Florida to re-connect with her family who are far from happy to see her.  Mother (Olivia Williams) plays a bundle of nerves - but overshadowing them all is Julianne Moore as a client of Cusack, a seriously dotty woman intent on making a film of her deceased mother, whose role she wants to play herself. Both she and little brat actor keep having disturbing visions of departed ones

As she always does, Julianne Moore gives the film dramatic weight. Without her it would have been a much slighter affair. However, as it turns out the film isn't one I'll remember for long, because apart from the latter's episodes of crazy behaviour and intensive emoting (which are, admittedly, a good watch) there's little to latch onto and really no one on whom to pin ones sympathies.
The film is well shot though with nothing much to retain in the mind.

There is at least one extremely brutal and gory scene, plus a couple more which some may flinch at.

Reasonable enough entertainment while it's running, but for this viewer it seemed vacuous at heart.................5.5

Monday 6 October 2014

Film: 'Gone Girl'

When I see that a film is going to be two hours long I groan. When it's two and a half hours it had better be good! Reviews have largely said that this film is so - and I can now confirm that in my opinion, it's far better than just 'good', it's mightily impressive.

A thriller that wrong-foots the audience time and time again, helped enormously by the fact that Gillian Flynn, the writer of the popular novel (not read by me, yet) has also written the screenplay. The story reminded me of the first time I read John Fowles' 'The Magus', when I could never be certain that by turning the next page all that had gone before wouldn't be demolished for the umpteenth time, leaving the reader having to make a corresponding mental adjustment.

Gillian Flynn has produced a superior script that crackles along and left me breathless trying to anticipate what comes next. Director David Fincher has the two spotlit main parts played excellently by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. I can't imagine either roles could have been done better. (I ought to report that I couldn't quite catch some of the early exchanges, the same fault which ruined Fincher's recent success for me, the entire film of 'The Social Network'. But any dialogue I missed here was nowhere near as extensive as in that film, and there wasn't anything I felt which I ought to have heard but didn't).

As for a precis of what happens, I can only say that Affleck returns to his Missouri home one day to find that his wife of five years (Pike) is missing, there being signs of a struggle. He then calls in the police - and the roller-coaster ride begins. Assumptions one has made of the situation start being subverted only for the then revised situation to be similarly dismantled, and so it continues till one never knows where one's sympathies are or should be. Twists and turns come thick and fast and by the time the end had been reached I felt giddy without having a solid, reliable base on which to stand.

Mention must be made of Kim Dickens as the chief detective assigned to solving the disappearance, with Patrick Fugit as her police officer 'sidekick. They make a fine 'double-act'. In fact, throughout the film I found that humour is not far below the surface, occasionally popping up right up into view. It works well.
Another most interesting feature is the gullibility of the general public tuning into TV News and chat-show programmes, shifting their allegiances according to the 'requirements' of the TV producers. (If I may be allowed another reminder of a parallel situation, I thought of  'Julius Caesar' and Mark Antony's funeral oration, where the crowd's sympathies are played like a musical instrument).

If you like films that require one's attention throughout (which this holds without any difficulty at all, it so pulls you in) and you enjoy a mental fun-ride, this will suit you down to the ground. A major achievement in all respects, I find very little to criticise about it..............................8


Wednesday 1 October 2014

Film: 'Lilting'

An impressive, touching, undemonstrative little film depicting an unusual situation, deserving of a wide viewing.

This was next on the list to see before I had my very public tumble on a Brighton street seven weeks ago, thereby having to cancel my intention. It's very fortuitous that a second chance came along, especially since I see it already being advertised as now available on DVD and Blu-Ray (whatever that is!).

Ben Whishaw plays the surviving member of a co-habiting couple after his partner dies. (We only get to know the cause of death just before the film's end.) He tries to make an approach to his partner's Chinese-Cambodian, non-English-speaking mother (Pei Pei Cheng), now single and in a residential home, in order to fulfil the obligation he feels to ensure she is well cared for. But she keeps a cool distance from him, resenting his having taken her son from her when she feels the son's first duty should have been towards her own welfare. She sees the couple as having had nothing more than a close friendship - or does she suspect the truth and is unable to accept it?
The Whishaw character brings in a young woman (Naomi Christie) to translate, ostensibly at first  for a counterpoint strand, namely a growing romance between the mother and another single, elderly English resident of the home, Peter Bowles (a well-known face for British TV viewers, and an actor whom I've also seen on stage a few times).  These two older 'love-birds', being unable to communicate in words, the translator is called in as a favour on Whishaw's part, to try to ease their relationship along, if and when they need it.  Inevitably, the translator also begins translating conversations between Whishaw and the mother, which at times gets painfully close to the bone when truths and underlying attitudes start coming to the surface. The young woman then finds herself as more than just a go-between and reluctantly finds herself being drawn into their world.
We see Whishaw with his late partner (Andrew Leung) several times in flashback, and though they superficially seem to be a fine-looking, loving couple, I got the feeling that the two of them could have had the occasional blazing row, both having fiery temperaments. But that was only my impression.

Much of the dialogue is in Mandarin - or was it Cambodian? ( I think not Cambodian, as actress Pei Pei Cheng - previously of 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' - is Chinese). All the conversations between her and her son, in flashback, are translated through subtitles, while between the mother and Bowles, and mother and Whishaw are translated directly by the young woman.

I was hooked on the story from the outset even though there's hardly any 'action'. It's a very emotion-based piece, but never monotonous for all that.
Every one of the quintet of actors was quite astonishing. It would be invidious to pick just one of them out for special praise. Nevertheless, that's exactly what I'm going to do, and name Naomi Christie (the translator) who manages to write her conflict and inner turmoil on her face as she witnesses things being said when she knows she ought to exercise detachment. Her under-the-skin performance is extraordinary. And then there's the mono-lingual mother, all emotion tightly constrained and knotted up in her body.

All in all a very satisfying and moving miniature drama. I'm glad to have had the chance to see it on screen. Director Hong Khaou (excellent and faultless) has shot it in wide-screen for some reason, when I would have thought that for something so domestic and intimate as this a normal ratio might have suited better. However, I'm not going to carp at that.

This has a good chance of finishing in my year's Top Ten.............7.5.




Monday 29 September 2014

Film: 'What We Did On Our Holiday'

I'd feared that I'd be disliking this film. It had all the 'right' ingredients for that result. And thus it turned out to prove.

The title has a certain resonance with the slasher-horror series 'I Know What You Did Last Summer', but dismiss that from your minds.

The first half of this film is played as broad comedy, during which it didn't raise even the ghost of a smile from me. Then an event happens which lurches it into a different world, veering uneasily between black comedy and farce - and which gave me two occasions for half-smiles at the most. It ends with thickly laid-on sentiment to make one wince and double-wince. Oh dear!

I went because it's co-scripted and co-directed by Andy Hamilton, whom I like (with Guy Jenkin). Hamilton is a prolific comedy writer for radio, as well as being a regular panelist on light-hearted quiz shows for both radio and TV. So I thought it might be a cut above the usual. Sadly, not so.

David Tennant (one of the recent incarnations of Doctor Who, as well as having played the finest 'Hamlet' I've seen for decades - there was a television version of the RSC production a few years ago) plays the father of a three-child family. His wife, Rosamund Pike, I'll be seeing again shortly in 'Gone Girl'.
The five of them drive from London to Scotland for the 75th birthday celebrations of Tennant's father, Billy Connolly, who's suffering from terminal cancer and who is bravely trying to keep his suffering hidden from others. When they arrive at Tennant's wealthy brother's (Ben Miller) palatial house where all are to meet, naturally Connolly gravitates towards the children, wisecracking with them and taking them on an excursion to the beach while the many dozens of guests arrive to participate in the elaborate celebrations - several marquees, Scottish band, a veritable banquet prepared.
Not only is Connolly trying to hide his true condition from everyone, Tennant and Pike have to keep up the pretence of a happy marriage when they're actually on the edge of divorce, bickering like anything when they're alone.

There's an added poignancy to Connolly's role in that only a few weeks ago it was revealed that in real life he is not only suffering from prostate cancer, but the onset of Partkinson's has also been diagnosed.

The children aged (I'm guessing) around 11, 7 and 4, were particularly irksome, the two youngest most of all. Why did they give the youngest so many lines when at least three quarters of what she said was lost to me in infant burbling? I suppose what we're supposed to think is "Aw, so sweet!"

I was shifting in my seat all through this film and looked at my watch more than a few times. If you're one of those who doesn't have my resistance to being manipulated and carried along, suspending your critical faculties, then I can well understand how you may well like it - and I wouldn't dare to venture that that view is any less valid than mine. But, for my own terms on what constitutes a film that entertains me, I must give this a lowly......................2.5/10 




'Billy Elliot - the Musical' - live, transmitted into cinemas.

Despite the ticket prices (even at the reduced 'Senior' price, still four times the cost of a 'normal' cinema ticket) this one-off event was reassuringly well-attended - considering too that it was showing in both of the two double-screen cinemas in this town.

It got off to, for me, an inauspicious start - much, much too loud, though that was hardly the fault of the production beamed in from London's Victoria Palace Theatre. If the sound level wasn't quite on the edge of distortion it was pretty well near headache level, with the result that a lot of the scene-setting lyrics were lost. (I'd wished I'd brought some cotton wool with me for ear-plugs, but instead had to use the ear-pieces of my Walkman throughout the show) Amid all the rowdiness in the opening scenes I was also a bit put out by some heavily demonstrative acting, though once again one couldn't blame the cast entirely, acting technique for the stage necessarily taking physical movement up a notch for an audience at a physical distance, as against acting for a camera in close- up, where all facial, muscular inflections can be captured. So it was here, with many cameras making it look more like a film than the live theatrical event it was.  
   Having said that, and accepting that none of it so far was the production's fault, I was nevertheless a trifle underwhelmed until well into the first half (precisely 50 mins into the 1 hour 10 mins) when I did find, to my great pleasure, that the experience had taken flight and I was gliding along with it. (I'd seen the film on which this musical is based just the once when it was first released in 2000. It's such a singular story that one can't help but remember the path it takes.)

      I thought the music was good. Not being familiar with any of the songs, I'd had doubts whether Elton John could write a wide range of numbers of different moods and styles to hold the narrative drive on a convincing course without getting monotonous - and he does.
    Acting was good also, stand-outs being the dancing teacher (Ruthie Henshall - the only name in yesterday's cast I'd recognised) and the 'Billy' of the day, Elliott Hanna (aged 11) was nothing short of extraordinary - such confidence and verve.
I was initially not convinced by Billy's father (Dekka Walmsley), his brother and his grandma, but the first of these, at least, really started to shine towards the end of the first part and all through the remainder so that by the end I was totally won over.

I've never ever heard so much 'blue' language on stage, not even in a straight play. It was darned near relentless - not just among the grown-ups, not just between grown-ups and kids, but also among the kids alone. Maybe it shows my age, but I did find it just a tad off-putting. Perhaps that is the way children speak nowadays. The original film had far fewer expletives, though they'd probably been reduced in number so as to have the film achieve a more acceptable censorship category. At yesterday's screening there were many children, some very young, with their parents. I couldn't help wondering if some of the latter were a bit embarrassed at having to sit through such a barrage of sexually-slanted invectives.  
Which brings me to the fairly frequent gay slurs. I well know from my own experience that around the time of these events (early 1980s) such vocabulary as used here was regularly spat out with purposeful venom from many quarters, including the more 'popular' newspapers. Of course the climate has changed beyond all recognition over the last 30 years. Nevertheless I wonder if the audience's cosily-humoured reaction to them, in both theatre and cinema, was really a reaction out of affection or there's some residual homophobia still present, which is 'validated' by hearing them again in this public 'official' context. I'd like to think it had subsided enough not to be an issue now though, regretfully, I doubt it. Maybe I'm making too much of a mountain out of it.

It's a strange coincidence that this screening event should have happened just at the same time as the film 'Pride', which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, is still doing very well at the cinemas, a film which covers the same period of history - miners strike, Mrs Thatcher, gay rights - as this musical does. (I've heard that this feel-good film is frequently getting applause from cinema audiences at its finish).

Before the musical began there were filmed introductions from Elton John, Ruthie Henshall, Elliott Hannah, who guided us around backstage - and then out on stage came director Stephen Daldry, who told us that not only was that performance being beamed into no less than 550 cinemas in the U.K. alone, but also throughout Europe, in the east including Finland, Lithuania, Poland (pointedly no mention of Russia) as well as to Japan, Malaysia and Australasia - and, with a time delay, to the U.S.A. (The performance is also being released on DVD in a couple of months).
He also told us that 'Older Billy' is being played on this occasion by the very original child actor in that role - Liam Mower, now 22. And not only that, but in the show's curtain call numbers there was to be a special appearance of no less than 27 former Billys in an ensemble number - and so there were, and it was magnificent!

As an aside, I must mention that the last time I was in the theatre from which this was transmitted,  (Victoria Palace - just over the road from Victoria station), was in 1986, when I was enjoying my then prosperity to the full, and I saw there the musical 'Charlie Girl' - with Paul Nicholas, Cyd Cherisse (yes!), Dora Bryan (recently departed, and a lovely lady and comedienne who'd done so much to support the HIV hospice where I'd done a bit of voluntary work in the 90s) - and Nicholas Parsons. One of the things I remember about that lively, otherwise happy, show was the disappointing and unimaginative choreography, which took it down a few marks!  Yesterday, several times at the shows end, as well as before it started, the cameras panned the theatre audience, and I could poignantly identify the very aisle seat in which I'd sat, that occasion still being a few years before my life was to turn topsy-turvy and never recover.........at least not yet.

So, the acid test for this 'Billy Elliot' would be - do I regret having spent the money on it? - and the answer is a clear 'No'. But what it has not done is to take away the wish to see it performed live 'in the flesh'. Yes, I really would like to see it again. Watching a transmission of a live show is very much a second-hand experience. There is very little of the electric charge one gets when one is actually there - and that is precisely what makes theatre a different, and I'd say, an ultimately more exciting art-form than cinema can be. It's the knowledge that the performers are up there working for you that clinches it. But as for yesterday's experience - definitely one to be remembered with considerable pleasure. I was entertained!





    

   

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Film: 'Magic in the Moonlight'

Anyone who knows my blogs will have long ago picked up how much I generally like Woody Allen films, one of a very few directors for whom I'll go out of my way to see anything new.
If I were to categorise his films into, say, 'Exceptional', 'Good', 'Middling' and 'Disposable' (his previous, 'Blue Jasmine', was right up there in Category I) here's one which struggles to find a place in the lower reaches of 'Middling', a section which is becoming, alas, rather over-populated of late.
The story is light as a bubble, though insufficiently equipped with wit or drive. In fact it gets to be rather tedious.

Set at the end of the 1920s, Colin Firth plays a Chinese illusionist, suitably made-up of course, on the European theatrical circuit. (Remember the name - that's F-I-R-T-H - because, mark my words, you'll be seeing more of him before long, I guarantee it. He ought to go far. Very far.) Incidentally, there's a welcome, brief cameo appearance in this early part, from Ute Lemper - singing in a Berlin night club. (Where else?).
A long-term friend of Firth's character (Simon McBurney) tells him of this amazing young American medium he knows with extraordinary psychic powers and who holds seances. Firth, a great believer in the rational only,  had already made it his mission to debunk such fraudsters, which he claims all such to be, and rises to the challenge of investigating this young woman (Emma Stone). Scene moves to south coast of France where it stays for rest of film, with some ravishing scenery. Convenient because Stone is staying in a place which also has Firth's aunt (the formidable Eileen Atkins) living in the neighbourhood. Stone, already engaged to a ukelele-playing, wealthy young man, is intrigued by Firth and his scepticism. It doesn't take long for unexpected emotions to surface on both sides.

(Spoiler alert!) Long before the end of the film a certain feeling of deja vu came to my mind - and I managed to wheedle out what it was - 'My Fair Lady'! And, wouldn't you know it? The very end of the film is exactly like the close of that piece.

Woody Allen (director and writer) seems not to have his heart in this one. It ought to have been light and fluffy instead of being largely flat. Potentially funny situations were thrown away. There were no laugh-out-loud moments at all, only a couple of weak chuckles-worth.
No real quarrels with the acting from anyone - well, apart from one or two moments of sounding forced.
Another disappointment was that the music seemed to be a roll-call of only the most popular melodies and songs of the period, like ticking them off on a list. I don't think that there was a single number with which I wasn't familiar. I'd have thought that Allen, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of music, jazz above all, could have chosen some lesser-known pieces to make the film more interesting, because that's what was needed.

A disappointment, then. But second-rate, or even third-rate, Woody Allen is not to be dismissed lightly even if, as here, he seemed to be running on auto. I just had to see it anyway. Now that I have I shan't be rushing to give it a second watch. My rating will illustrate the extent to which I'm willing to give Allen the benefit of any doubt. I confess I wouldn't be so accommodating to many other directors ...........................5.5.



Tuesday 23 September 2014

Film: '20,000 Days on Earth'

I was enticed to see this because it held the promise of being the kind of quirky and wayward type of film I'm favourably disposed towards, as well as it having received some positive reviews. It was with some disappointment, then, that it turned out to be much more straight forward than that.

I was aware of Nick Cave, Australian singer and front man of 'The Bad Seeds', but he wasn't much more than a peripheral figure to me. I'd always associated the name with a gloomy demeanour, semi-reclusive and even maybe a trifle misanthropic. I was way off target in that assessment. (He surprisingly does actually smile a fair bit). This film purports to document his 20,000th day, during which he discourses and reminisces about events in his life to various others, including a counsellor (or psychotherapist?) about his early life and about his father in particular. He talks to a member of his group, recounting performing at the same gig as Nina Simone ('Jekyll and Hyde'). He comments on his life, including spiritual aspects, to the camera and off it - and, riding up and down the seafront at nearby Brighton (with which I'm very familiar), takes on as  chat-passengers, first Ray Winstone (above) and later the divine Kylie, with whom he'd duetted and had his biggest and only U.K. Top 20 hit, 'Where with Wild Roses Grow', in 1995.
   The film is interesting enough, never really dull, but also nothing exceptional. I was expecting something on the 'stream of consciousness' line but it's not much more than a vehicle for letting him say what he wants about particular events. Whether it's all true I don't know and, frankly, I'm not too fussed about it either way.
   His diehard fans or those who have taken more interest in him than I have will get more out of it than I did. In its favour I must say that I wasn't really bored and the hour and a half never seemed to drag. But by the end I was asking myself "So what?" It won't be on my list of the more memorable films of the year..........................5/10.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Films: 'Salome' & 'Wilde Salome'

My belated first experience of one of these live relays into a cinema from, well, not a theatre in this case, but a live Q & A session from the National Film Theatre on London's South Bank - Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain, hosted by Stephen Fry. It was preceded by two films, the first being of the Oscar Wilde play itself, and then the other, a documentary film of Mr Pacino's trials and frustrating attempts to stage the play for a run in a Los Angeles theatre while simultaneously trying to shoot the very film which we had just seen, which he did eventually succeed in doing.
The following Q & A section lasted just 40 minutes, and with there being a 10 minute interval between each of the three parts of the programme, it made for a rather long 4-hour afternoon/evening - which was actually a small price to pay for the experience (unlike the actual monetary price!).

'Salome'
For anyone who doesn't know the play it's unique among Wilde's works - a shortish one-act piece written in highly elevated, florid style (I'd forgotten that it was actually originally written in French) bursting with analogies and similes in decorative, vivid language (oft-repeated) with minimal action. The Gospel-based scene is where King Herod's (Pacino) step-daughter, Salome (Jessica Chastain) is asked to dance by Herod, in gratitude for which he'll grant her anything she wants. After dancing she demands the head of garrulous prophet and prisoner, John the Baptist (Kevin Anderson) - to the shock and horror of Herod himself who fears (celestial?) repercussions if he allows her wish.
Pacino says somewhere that he thought Wilde expected the play to be read aloud rather than acted out, and I can understand that. I know it quite well, not just from having read it several times over the years, but seen it once on stage. This was actually the same production (Steven Berkoff's 'slow-motion' take on it in the early 1990s, stretching a short play into a full evening's worth) which Pacino also saw and which made him acutely aware of the play, which has obsessed him ever since. (He actually said in the documentary that when he saw that West End production he hadn't known who'd written it until he looked at the programme when it was over, there being no interval. I find that hard to believe, but that's what he claims.)

Others might be familiar with the Richard Strauss opera (so much dissonance, even for Strauss - though not nearly so much as in 'Elektra'!) which is based on a German translation of this same Wilde text. ('The Dance of the Seven Veils' is a famous set piece sometimes played as a separate short item in an orchestral concert. Btw: In Ken Russell's cheeky and entertainingly daft throwaway,1987 film, 'Salome's Last Dance' he uses part of the Wilde text but has Salome stripping off to 'Grieg's 'In the Hall of the Mountain King'!)

The Wilde play itself is only about one hour and twenty minutes long, but it's language is exceptionally vivid, even by the author's standards, which helps to carry the story through with consummate ease. There is absolutely no need for acting histrionics as it's already in the words. Minimal physical action is to be preferred, and that's the treatment it's given here, on basically a plain stage-set with no audience. It's also in modern dress, which works fine. Theatrical conceits, where needed, should not be overplayed, and here once again they are done sparingly and intelligently.
Pacino as Herod is quite a wonder to behold, at times playing his part with a twinkle in the eye, sometimes mischievously. He runs the whole gamut of emotions - blind rage, tender beseeching, humouring, impatience, disdain, irritation - it's quite a tour de force. Herod clearly has the hots for Salome, his executed brother's daughter, much to his wife's (Salome's mother's, played well by Roxanne Hart), Herodias', displeasure. Chastain is good enough in a part with some long speeches. Kevin Anderson as Jokanaan (Hebrew for John the Baptist) is suitably fierce as the doom-foretelling prophet, resisting Salome's flesh-driven overtures.
I liked the production a lot and think it must have worked well as a piece of live theatre. It's in no way pretentious and gives due regard to the real 'star' of the piece, the language of the play itself.
I'll rate this particular film a........................7.5

'Wilde Salome' follows Pacino investigating  the background of the play, including, of course, Wilde's life, visiting key locations in Dublin, London and Paris to find out more about this writer for whom he clearly has enormous respect and admiration. He talks to Melvin Holland, Wilde's grandson, about his illustrious forefather - and there are interpolated comments from Tom Stoppard, the recently departed Gore Vidal, as well as (would you believe it?) none other than Bono himself!
This documentary features extended extracts from the film which we'd only just been watching. Although it was a pleasure to savour them again, it did get a bit tiring having to sit through them anew after only just experiencing them. I would have found it much more effective if I'd been watching it after a decent interval of several days.
There are sections of this film showing Pacino losing his cool about having such a short timetable to film the first 'Salome', while simultaneously rehearsing and putting on the stage production. There were also scenes in the middle-east desert (complete with camels) where he took the entire film crew, presumably to soak in some authentic atmosphere. I didn't quite 'get' that expensive excursion as none of that aspect is actually visibly used in the play's production.
But it  was interesting enough. I'm sure I'd have enjoyed it more if I'd seen this documentary at a separate sitting. It didn't seem to me quite as interesting as his own 'Looking for Richard' a few years back, when he was doing background work in preparation for his playing Richard III on stage.

The Q & A came over well but with no big surprises. Pacino appeared very affable, quite charming and modestly self-effacing, though I must say that poor Jessica Chastain seemed to be crowded out by Al P. and Stephen Fry, though her short career so far can hardly compare with that of either of the other two. There were maybe seven or eight questions from members of the audience at the National Film Theatre, nearly all addressed to Pacino - about his first acquaintance with the play, his continuing friendship with Berkoff, his stage acting v film acting - though in most cases the answers seemed to get lost in a detour through various anecdotes, some of which were quite entertaining. I could have done with watching a longer session were it not that I was getting anxious about returning home, very unusually in the dark, with my pussycats wondering what on earth had become of me, so it was not without some relief that it came to an end when it did. Nevertheless, a fruitful experience.