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'

 9) 'Mr Turner'

 8) 'Nightcrawler'

 7) 'Gone Girl'

 6) 'Calvary'

 5) 'American Hustle'

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'

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'

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'

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'

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!)

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. .