Wednesday 30 December 2015

My 'Best Films of 2015'.

So here we are - and I must say that it wasn't easy to pick just ten out of the mere seventy-eight I've seen. (Long gone are those times, never to return, when I'd see twice as many, and upwards, within one year). But competition for excellence just within these relatively few has been fierce, and I do rather hang my head to think of some of the worthies I've omitted from the final cut. (What! No 'Force Majeure', 'Far from the Madding Crowd', ''Irrational Man', 'Grandma', 'Mia Madre', 'Suffragette', 'Bridge of Spies' - nor even 'Brooklyn'? No. Sorry about that!) 

My adopted method was initially to choose thirty from this year's tally, next to select half of them, and then to jiggle and juggle a chosen final ten into an ordered list. In this way I've come up with the selection in sequence with which I feel most comfortable, ignoring, as far as I could, any sentiment that certain films ought to be included because they might have been expected to be there. It's my very own personal selection of the film experiences which have given me the most pleasure.

Oh, and before someone notices and complains that the order of the chosen few are not in the order of ratings I gave them at the time (nearly always decided immediately on returning home after seeing them), I have to state that there's the additional factor of the time taken for a filmic experience to 'mellow' in the mind. Thus, certain entries have gained in value in my mind's opinion over time (e.g. 'Lobster', 'Whiplash') whilst others have faded, if maybe only by a little (e.g. 'Sunset Song', 'The Lady in the Van'). 

So, this is it, in ascending order:-

10) The Lady in the Van - Dame Maggie Smith with the words of Sir Alan Bennett, both at the top of their game:-
http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/film-lady-in-van.html

9) Carol - Cate Blanchett, in a singularly brave-for-its-time, Patricia Highsmith story, showing us once more why she is one of the very best of all actresses around:-
http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/film-carol.html

8) The Lobster - modest, yet remarkably effective, quirky film with a near-unrecognisable Colin Farrell in untypically restrained mode:-
http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/film-lobster.html

7) American Sniper Taut, believable, Iraq-war, Clint Eastwood-directed thriller with pumped-up Bradley Cooper ably holding the focus:-
http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/film-american-sniper.html

6) Whiplash One of those films that rattles around the brain for a long time afterwards. Scary J.K. Simmons is the big bully, tyrannical tutor of a jazz 'big band' class. Timid Miles Teller is on drums:-
http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/film-whiplash.html

5) Still Alice

Julianne Moore in her deservedly Oscar-winning, heart-wrenching role as a 50-year old woman suffering from the onset of Alzheimers. A profoundly moving: film:-
http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/film-still-alice.html

4) Sunset Song

 
Director Terence Davies works his magic again, this time in rural north Scotland in a small-scale, family tale of romance, dreams and squabbles. Quite extraordinary.
http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/film-sunset-song.html

3) Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales)


 The Argentinians pull a rabbit out of the hat with this utterly marvellous, often outlandish, (subtitled) anthology of six short stories - unrelated apart from a very tenuous common thread. Part of its wonder for me was its total surprise, coming out of nowhere with no warning:-
http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/film-relatos-salvajes-wild-tales.html

2) 45 Years


There was no doubt that this had to be included, and in an exalted position too. Tom Courtnay and Charlotte Rampling (the latter never been better) attempting to celebrate their long-term wedding anniversary when a ghost from his past emerges and sows seeds of doubt in her mind. Intensely human drama which brought me as close to tears as I've been in a long time in the cinema, which itself is real rarity.:-
http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/film-45-years.html


And the winner is:-

1) Ex Machina


I was astonished at how good this was, even against my own expectations, being science fiction - not one of my favourite film genres (with one or two glorious exceptions) - though this is, gratefully, an earth-bound tale. It was one of those films where I felt like pinching myself to confirm that I wasn't dreaming that I could find something so enjoyable.  What makes it even more extraordinary is that it's the directorial debut of novelist Alex Garland, this film also being his own story. And, not least worth mentioning is the presence of (phwoarrrrr!) bushy-bearded and muscled-up Oscar Isaac as computer scientist with delusionally ambitious aims:-
http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/film-ex-machina.html

I think this will be the most controversial of my Top 10 inclusions, and furthermore, to have it nominated as my ultimate 'Film of the Year' may well be too much for some. Well, if so, I can live with it. The film did get, as far as I could make out, very good reviews all round on its release, only I would go so far as to rate it a step or two beyond being just 'very good'.



And as per convention, I'm going to end with my choice of 'Turkey of the Year'. No, not the recent Star Wars, though it was a close-run thing. No, this year's mouldy raspberry award goes to:-

Tomorrowland - which not only George Clooney's starring role could rescue. See it if you dare! Or perhaps if you're wanting something to send you to sleep:-
http://raybeard.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/film-tomorrowland.html


Now it's nearly time to dive into 2016 - and there are some pretty interesting items already on the list, such as...........



Monday 21 December 2015

Film: 'Star Wars - The Force Awakens'


Let's dispose of this quickly. It bored the pants off me, just as every other of this series has done, right back to 1977, when I just couldn't understand why everyone else was coming out so ga-ga over that first one. I've seen every Star Wars film in the cinema shortly after release (more out of a sense of 'duty' than any keenness to see them), lost interest in each very early on - and this latest is no great improvement, if it's any at all. 
If it hadn't been for the near-constant, surround-sound din I would surely have dozed off. My first yawn (of many) came just 15 minutes in. I just didn't care about what was happening to any of the characters, that's the top and bottom of it, leaving me cold and unresponsive.
However, I have to aver, the series has been a phenomenon, even though I'm so far outside its appreciation as to my being beyond the horizon. Current average rating on IMDb is 8.8 (from 165,000 viewers), which must be just about the highest I've seen for any film to date, so it's pleasing an awful lot of people, and how can anyone argue with that?

Can't be bothered to mention anything of the 'plot'. Anyone who's interested enough would know by now anyway. Shan't bother with the cast either. Appearances from earlier in the series only make me apprehensive about future releases, which I think I may as well give up on now. I doubt if I'll get an epiphanous awakening at this late stage.

I've no doubt that the visuals are now more accomplished than they've ever been, which is only what one would hope for. But when one tries to sustain a level of interest by entertaining oneself in looking for gaffes in continuity (of which I noticed several, but am sure there were loads more, as there are in every film), well, that's not a good sign.

I'll close this on a kind(ish) note.......................3.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Film: 'Victor Frankenstein'

I found this an uneasy watch from several aspects. It takes the basic Mary Shelley story (much better conveyed by Kenneth Branagh's under-appreciated, sometimes unfairly scorned, 1994 film) and it opens out the back history of Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) who was to become Frankenstein's (James McIvoy) assistant.

Igor is a hunchback young man in a circus, graphically abused and cruelly treated as a grotesque for the audience's amusement. But he also has a large intellectual capacity which the scientist recognises when, on a visit to the circus in searching for parts from dead animals to use in his experiments, an accident occurs to a female trapeze artiste  (later the film's slender romantic interest - Jessica Brown Findlay) when Igor's knowledge saves her life. Frankenstein helps Igor escape and takes him under his wing and memorably (and laughably) manages to eliminate Igor's lifelong hump deformity within a couple of minutes.
McAvoy plays Frankenstein straight out of old film-acting portrayals - all crazed scientist, manic grins, eye-rollings and riddling pronouncements of his superior wisdom - he gives it the complete works in ultra-flamboyant style. Meanwhile Igor, grateful for his freedom, is keen to help the scientist in his quest with the use of his significant brain-power, a task which he discovers is no less than to create life itself out of dead matter - the latest attempt being in the hideous shape of a grisly amalgam of body parts taken from various animals. Meanwhile, a religious-driven Scotland Yard detective (Andrew Scott) is on the trail of both of them and determined to put on end to the 'Satanic' experiments. (There's also a welcome cameo appearance from Charles Dance). The film climaxes with the creation of the near-humanoid monster. (How come there are so many conveniently-located violent thunderstorms within these isles with which to empower the experiments? I suppose it's only playing along with the rest of the fantasy.)

I must say that all the settings are most handsomely depicted, both outside scenes and interiors. It's a busy film, hardly letting up at all in its frenzied action, but as the denouement advances it becomes increasingly mechanical and one could tell with ease where it was going - though, of course, we have the well-known story as a background anyway.
Director Paul McGuigan has given us some scenes at which I found myself recoiling, though it's all done with great energy and purpose. However, in the final analysis I found it a great deal of noise over nothing especially new............4.


Monday 14 December 2015

Film: 'Grandma'


I would dearly have loved to have given this an exceptional rating so that it might have been a contender for one of the very best films of the year. Sadly, I can't quite do that, though I'd still give it a strong recommendation.

The principal attraction is the presence of Lily Tomlin in every scene, and she's and in great form, alternately combative, reflective, sassy and sympathetic. (Why has she made so few feature films? I leave the question dangling). 
Another major positive is the superior screenplay by Paul Weitz, here writer as well as director - astute, perceptive and never sounding forced.
Then there's the strong supporting cast including Marcia Gay Harden (as the Tomlin character's dominating and argumentative daughter) -  and Sam Elliott who, as the only male of significance, and in only one (but long) scene, manages to leave an indelible impression, something he quite regularly achieves on film.
And last, but not least important, it all comes in at a commendably short one hour and a quarter (plus closing credits).

Elle (Tomlin), just having separated from her most recent, short-lived female relationship, is grandmother to Sage (Julia Garner, my sole reservation in the cast, she being the only one with the 'modern' tendency to mumble - though I have heard even worse - whereas I could hear every word of the remainder of the cast). Unmarried Sage is pregnant and, like her, the father (their affair is now over too) also doesn't want the baby. So impecunious Sage, having booked an appointment for an abortion later that very day, now comes to her grandmother to ask her for the money - though the latter is also broke, so the two of them have to quickly do a mini-round of those who might be able to help.

What is truly remarkable about this film is its non-judgmental stance on the issue of abortion, an attitude which would be bound to raise the hackles of so-called 'Pro-Lifers'. The subject is in no sense treated casually, rather it's seen throughout as a matter of the woman's choice. However, while on their rounds, the feathers of one or two are ruffled - and, as if to show just a token sense of balance, a sudden, very short event happens in the film's final scenes which would give such 'Pro-Lifers' at least something to cheer at. 
Another remarkable quality of the film is its matter-of-fact attitude towards same-sex relationships. It's just taken as a 'given', and not treated as anything out-of-the-ordinary or an added-on piece of exotica. That was refreshing, and not before time.

I'd expected this film to have been more of a comedy than it actually was - though there are some good and rather wicked one-liners, especially in the first half. However, I did think it became disappointingly flaccid about a quarter of an hour before the end as it wandered into sentimentality. Pity about that. It needed a bit of an unexpected jolt, or something as strong, to bring it to a more satisfactory conclusion, but that didn't come. It just fizzled away.

A good film but, regrettably, falling short of my high expectations, though not by a great deal. However, Lily Tomlin's presence alone ought to be sufficient to draw anyone.................................7.

Thursday 10 December 2015

Film: 'Sunset Song'

If this were to be the final film I see this year - though I hope it won't be - I'd be closing on one of my undoubted highlights. (I have to stress the 'my' because I see that on IMDb, the latest average viewer rating is a relatively paltry 6.4. That's too bad. I loved it).

Terence ("I utterly loathe being gay!") Davies has made just half a dozen feature films (plus one documentary on Liverpool), each one of them having been impressive to a greater or lesser extent. I'd put this one in the upper reaches of that range. He is now 70 years old - with another film in the pipeline. If 'Sunset Song' had turned out to have been his swansong it would have been a worthy one.

Based on a 1935 novel by one Lewis Grassic Gibbon (both title and writer of which I'd never heard), the idea of making this film has been gestating in Davies' mind for a decade and a half. 
Set in northern Scotland in the early years of the last century it follows the story of Chris Guthrie (Agness Deyn, quite remarkable, who carries the entire film on her shoulders) starting as teenage schoolgirl, through her early life with a violent, abusive father (hot, straight, grandaddy, Peter Mullan, who's in danger of getting typecast into unattractively brutish roles) and her young-adult brother, the principal victim of his father's short-fused ire -  with both belt and fists being employed. There are also two younger boys while the passive mother gives birth to a further pair of twins. 
The family runs a farm in the desolate, windswept highlands, all the family mucking in. As she becomes a young woman, Chris becomes mutually attracted to Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), and they eventually marry.

Davies shows his expected skill at filming sweeping vistas, without distractions, aural or otherwise.  In a sense it's a leisurely approach but it's ever ravishing to look at. He homes in on a mood and captures it exquisitely and accurately with no sense of falsehood.
It's a long film at 135 minutes. I had determined in advance to leave early (in order to get back in time to let Blackso in who'd be waiting outside for me, his fur now alarmingly and distressingly coming out, giving him a scruffy look, which makes him an even more likely target for the mischievous kids when a nearby school comes out) - but I'd been well hooked on the film and I just had to stay till the very end. (As it turned out I was in time getting back to 'rescue' Blackso from a possibly unfortunate fate).

All acting is every bit as fine as one would have hoped for in this near-epic. Soundtrack is perfection itself. I really wasn't expecting to like it as much as I did, but I can't escape the fact that this is one of my films of the year. A quite singular achievement................8.5.

Tuesday 8 December 2015

Film: 'The Dressmaker'

This is a queer one - as it's intended to be, and as I was expecting. It certainly has its moments but I do think it over-reaches itself in being too long (two hours) to sustain the whimsy, lacking consistency in holding onto its initially promising, curious mood.


Based on an apparently well-regarded book by Rosalie Ham, this Jocelyn Moorhouse directed film is set in 1951, Victoria, Australia, where Kate Winslet returns to her aged and frequently ga-ga, amnesiac mother (Judy Davis) living in a small outback town where everyone knows everyone else. She was sent into exile as a 10-year old having, reputedly, killed a boy. But now she's in total control, bursting with self-belief, and taunting the drooling, local males with her femininity, while simultaneously determined to get to the bottom of what really happened regarding the dead child, her own almost non-existent memories of what happened not supporting the 'official' version of events. But - and this is a major part of the film - she is now an accomplished dressmaker, acutely aware of fashions and how to dress the ladies, a talent which gets much noticed and causes her talents to be in great demand, despite her unfortunate reputation as an alleged killer, something of which everyone is aware.  
Among the residents of the place is the one-man police force of Hugo Weaving (always very watchable), who is greatly partial to women's clothing, going all gooey at the sight and feel of the fabrics, and wearing dresses in his own time. Hunky romantic interest is provided by Liam Hemsworth from 'The Hunger Games'.

It ought to have been zany throughout, at least that would have made it a more successful film (though I guess it's only following the novel), but it does rather go to pieces about three-quarters of the way through when a sudden accident occurs and the Winslet character loses her mask of self-confidence - though she does resume it again before the close.   
Now and again I was thinking of the Coen brothers and how they would have handled the prevailing, off-key mood. They are (or were, in their heyday) total masters in sustaining the bizarre feel of strange, often comedic, circumstances throughout their films. 'The Dressmaker', in my view, has too many contrasts, and latterly with a serious edge, to be put in the same class as theirs. But it's by no means devoid of some enjoyable, even a couple of delicious, moments.......................6.

Thursday 3 December 2015

Film: 'Carol'

I had exalted hopes for this for a number of reasons. If it doesn't quite attain my aspiring wishes it doesn't come short by much.


What it has going for it is:-
Cate Blanchett
Director Todd Haynes
Book by Patricia Highsmith
Music by Carter Burwell

All come together to make a far above-average product.

I've read the Patricia Highsmith book twice, a writer who has been one of my favourite authors for just about all my life since I started serious adult reading. Her novel was originally called 'The Price of Salt' and published in 1952 under a pseudonym (only reluctantly agreed to by the author) because it was felt that the lesbian love story at its heart, truly remarkable for its time, would damage the sales of her other novels, she being an already established writer (most famously then, as now, for 'Strangers on a Train', the murder-swap thriller filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, who, being Hitch, altered it so that the camp, unmarried, mother-loving, father-hating one of the pair of potential murderers [played by thrice-married Robert Walker] was the 'evil' one; the other, portrayed as a 'safe' heterosexual, being a duped innocent [actually played by the gay Farley Granger]. The original Highsmith novel is much more ambiguous about both men).
Anyway, 'Carol' is not in the same vein. It's basically a romance, gently paced and subtly developed.  

Carol is Cate Blanchett, an affluent divorcee, who comes into the toy department of a large store, looking for a doll for her daughter. She is served by assistant Therese, (Rooney Mara, whom we last saw in a major role as the title figure in the American re-make of the Swedish 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' in 2011. The difference between her role then and this one is astonishing. Here she is the quieter one of the couple). From their initial meeting, unspoken, lingering glances are exchanged. Carol is fighting her ex-husband for shared custody of their young daughter. He wants to have sole care because of Carol's alleged past liaison with another woman (not Therese, at least not yet). Carol and Therese (who is living with her boyfriend) meet up again and their friendship grows into an affair. (There is one brief bedroom scene, not too specific).

Being the early 1950s, there is a lot of smoking. Interior decors are in tasteful cafe-au-lait and dark choc. Music is unobtrusive. Being mainly set during Christmas season there are one or two Xmas records of the time on the soundtrack. Fair enough.
There are only two or three scenes where voices are raised, all involving Carol, but containing none of the hyperactivity and hysteria that characterised her deservedly Oscar-winning turn in Woody Allen's 'Blue Jasmine'.

Director Todd Haynes has one really major film to his credit so far. I regard his 'Far from Heaven' (2002) as one of the ten or so best films of the last twenty years. If you haven't seen it you really must. Having Julianne Moore in the lead part should be enough to persuade any doubters.

What slightly let me down about 'Carol' was that I didn't think it came properly alive until about halfway through - though when it did it was superb. I don't know why I felt it to have been so inert at first, though my own fatigue could well have been the culprit. I had a very poor night's sleep last night so I wasn't at my most receptive. It would really need me to watch this film again to confirm the way I felt - and I certainly wouldn't in the least mind sitting through it once more.

There's talk of another Oscar nomination for Cate Blanchett. I'd have no real argument with that, though in this role she isn't required to display quite the range of emotions as she did in 'Jasmine'. If she does get it again I won't be a complainer.

An extremely good film, then, without being quite as exceptional as I'd hoped. When I do watch it again it could be that I'd wish to revise my present rating upwards. Nevertheless, even now I'd warmly recommended it - and anyway, it's not often we see a drama with two, maybe three, of the principal stars being women....................................7.5.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Film: 'Bridge of Spies'.

This is a rattling good film. 

I tend to be wary of Spielberg as, for me, despite his mastery of the genre, his single greatest weakness is to lay sentiment on with a trowel such that it overwhelms all else. Not so here. Although he lets emotion have its head in the closing few minutes with a cosily reassuring domestic epilogue, as to the previous two hours and a quarter I was totally engrossed throughout. And all is achieved with no showy action sequences or special effects, and with a superior script whose writers include both the Coen brothers.

It starts in 1957 with the East-West Cold War now in full combative mode. In New York, a Russian man believed to be a Soviet spy is arrested (Mark Rylance - a major name in British theatre, with a fair bit of TV work also; less so in film up to now.). A private insurance lawyer (Tom Hanks) is roped in, reluctantly, by the CIA to defend the suspected spy, the American government wanting to keep their involvement in the Russian's defence at arm's length because of the politically sensitive nature of the case. 
After the trial an American pilot, Gary Powers, operating a spy plane over the Soviet Union is shot down and arrested, giving the Russians a publicity coup which they milk for all its worth. A situation of brinkmanship between the two major powers develops and Hanks is slated to arrange a spy exchange, though with a most unwelcome complication of an American student being arrested in Berlin by East German authorities just as the dividing wall is being constructed. 

The cast also includes, in a small role, Alan Alda as a CIA chief, now looking, sadly, very old (though he is now nearly 80!). The very few female roles are merely peripheral, the main one being the Hanks' character's wife, who has very little to say.

I am old enough to recall the news of pilot Gary Powers being used as a bargaining tool by the Soviets, as well as the building of the Berlin wall, with heartbreaking scenes of desperate Germans living on the east side being shot in their vain attempts to escape over to the west, horrifically and tragically publicly bleeding to death on the razed 'no man's land' area near the wall. However, at the time I knew hardly anything of the the Russian guy, the Rylance role, being held by the Americans. 

The first half of the film is set in America; the second (in which Rylance only appears at the end) is in snowy Berlin, with the climactic spy exchange scene on a bridge. (Apparently Hanks' conspicuous sniffling cold throughout this second part was genuine.)
The film maintains its suspense throughout even though we can guess that it'll probably work out okay - and those of us who recall the actual news at the time know that it does. But it's still gripping stuff.

One of Spielberg's best in my view - and that's from someone who's only really liked a handful of his films - his very early ones and just a very few of his from the 90s and 00s. But this is certainly one to see....................8.

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Film: 'Steve Jobs'

Goodness me, but this is a 'talkie' film!
I wasn't at all keen to see it because of the subject matter, computers - which, if it doesn't go above my head (and much does), I find that what I can understand is deadly dull. Part of that will be my resentment in having to be dragged into this particular technological world at an advanced age which, although it has opened up my life in positive ways, at the same time gives me more frequent headaches than I care to have.
I was persuaded to go see by it having the ever-charismatic Michael Fassbender in the title role, as well as it being directed by Danny Boyle, who has the ability to lift virtually any subject into being interesting enough to hold my attention. And this he largely achieves here, though, as I suggest, virtually all the action is verbal, and, in terms of comprehension, it didn't take very long to lose me.

It's in three 40-minute segments, 1984, 88, and 98, each dealing with the late CEO of Apple (who died four years ago at the age of 56) making a big-splash public launch of the latest developments in personal computers. (Please don't expect me to elaborate!).
All three parts take place in the minutes before a major unveiling while the large, eager audiences are assembling, hungry to hear the latest advancement. 
Kate Winslet plays his hard-boiled, fiercely loyal assistant (and one-time relationship?) who isn't afraid to stand up to him and tell him what she thinks. 
There's also Jeff Daniels as his former boss with whom he had serious disagreements, as well as a previous affair which resulted in a daughter, though Jobs has doubts that she's his. The impecunious mother (Katherine Waterston) resents being stranded by Jobs and having to rely on welfare for herself and her girl, while he is now a multi-millionaire, later a billionaire. We see the daughter, first at the age of five, then nine, and lastly at nineteen, by which time she has become somewhat alienated from her father, influenced by her mother's grievances.
You might correctly imagine that arguments abound on all sides, which they always do just as he's due on stage (much to the exasperation of the Winslet character, who's trying to keep Jobs on schedule), and that's the three foci of the film, not exactly 'shouty' but always very disputatious. 

Screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin whose biggest success to date was another computer-based film, 'The Social Network', one which I'd found the dialogue so indecipherably mumbled that I just couldn't work out what the hell was going on. No such problem here, and I must admit that the script is pretty sharp.

When this film opened in America recently, initial box-office takings were so depressed that the venues screening it were drastically scaled back. I don't think it's entirely the film's fault in itself, but it's not a film for everybody. Those who go looking for more action than mere words will feel let down. Danny Boyle does his best and manages to make it absorbing enough, though it's not one which I'd care to sit through for a second time................................6.

Monday 23 November 2015

Film: 'Brooklyn'

Modestly-pitched, yet moving and involving, film which eschews those great emotional histrionics that make for showy romantic dramas - and this is all the better for keeping sentiment under control throughout.
Written by no less than Nick Hornby, this is based on Colm Toibin's novel of the same name (which I read only one year ago), and captures the atmosphere of that book to perfection.


Set in the early 1950s, it tells of a young woman (Saoirse Ronan, with a face on which it's easy to paint any character as required) who leaves her home in County Wexford, Ireland, to go to work in a job as sales assistant in a department store in Brooklyn New York, work which has been arranged for her by a parish priest and family acquaintance over there (Jim Broadbent). She has to leave her mother to be cared for by her similar-aged sister.
Once in America, in a ladies-only lodgings with a matriarchal, no-nonsense landlady (Julie Walters), she eventually loses her fish-out-of-water discomfort when she meets the affable Tony (Emory Cohen, with a screen presence that leaps out at you) a friendship which blossoms into something more serious. Unexpectedly called back to Ireland, she reluctantly returns, harbouring a secret. But her divided allegiances between the two places puts her in a quandary, exacerbated by an emotional involvement, and coming to a head when it's clear that the expectation is that she'll remain to live in Ireland next to her mother. 

Director John Crowley, a name unknown to me, has created a small-scale but deeply effective, human-scale work which, by any justification, ought to be seen by a wider audience than this kind of unassuming film normally has the chance to view................................7.5.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Film: 'Pasolini'

A curious and, to my mind, less than satisfactory film dealing with the (some say "notorious") Italian film director's last day in 1975 before he was murdered at the untimely age of 53 by a picked-up rent-boy. More were suspected to have participated in the assault and running over (with Pasolini's own car) but only the one was jailed. I recall hearing the news after it had just happened, there being a predictable attitude in much of the then more 'popular' right-wing British press that he'd merely reaped what he'd sowed. In the arts world his passing, especially in such violent circumstances, was widely mourned
Gay and Communist, Pier Paolo Pasolini is played here by Willem Dafoe - somewhat unlikely casting, I think - though facially he's not a million miles away from the original.

Although at just 86 minutes it's a commendably short film, it was not long before I found myself fidgetting, not least because I didn't have a clue as to exactly who most of the characters were, apart from the director himself  and his live-in, adoring, ageing mother. All the actors other than Dafoe are Italian, mostly speaking in that language, Dafoe speaking both English and the other, sometimes answering in the first even when being addressed in Italian.

Chronicling just his final day, the film concentrates on his unrealised writing project and his hopes of it being published and filmed - though it's all merely a prelude to the final act of his murder, and the film's final twenty minutes or so posits a likely situation as to what could have happened, the protracted view of his mangled body being left in the mud, sound-backgrounded by a soprano aria. 

Director Abel Ferrara gives us his very personal take on this director, who had made such memorable films as 'The Decamaron', 'The Canterbury Tales', 'The Arabian Nights' (in all these, the bawdy aspect of some of the tales taking a disproportionately prominent place) - as well as the earlier 'Accatone'  and, probably most famously and praised of all, the very matter-of-fact, gimmicks-free, black-and-white 'The Gospel According to Saint Matthew' of 1964.

Maybe I didn't work my mind hard enough to enjoy this film. It had attracted me because I well remember Pasolini when he was churning out films at a fairly prodigious rate and I'd managed to see quite a lot of them, though without exactly being overawed by any. Ferrara's film does little to alter my mind and didn't tell me much more than I already knew.............................4.5

Monday 16 November 2015

Film: 'The Lady in the Van'


As good as I hoped it would be, this film is based on playwright Alan Bennett's original stage play of the same name about a long-term, real-life situation which developed, opened out considerably with a much larger cast for the big screen.

Maggie Smith plays the cantankerous, embittered, ungrateful and enigmatic Miss Shepherd (with distinctly dubious habits concerning personal hygiene) living in her van which she parks on the road in Camden, north London, near Bennett's own home. Threatened with having committed a parking offence, she tells Bennett she'll put it in his driveway for just a few weeks - which actually turns out to be right until her death fifteen years later.
Bennett is played by Alex Jennings (voice uncannily accurate) in a double role as Bennett the writer and the same character trying to get on with his 'normal' life - allowing the two of them to talk to each other, replacing the internal monologues of the stage version. (I thought this the least successful aspect of the film adaptation. A simple voice-over or talk direct to camera would have been more effective and looked less strange.)
The film follows Bennett's impatient turns with this old lady imposter to whom he is too timid to say to her face what he really feels about her unwelcome presence - so he just puts up with her with muttered grumblings to himself. Meanwhile, gradually more is revealed about the lady's past, including her young years, heavily influenced by an early religious phase, the sensibilities of which have carried on into her present old age. (The film's very opening minute also tells us something that happened to her which isn't fully revealed until much later, something which she carries as a burden throughout the rest of the story.)

Although I didn't see the stage version there was a radio adaptation a few years back, with Smith again, but with Alan Bennett playing himself (as he did on stage), a version which I really liked - so I was to a degree familiar with the story. 

As one comes to expect, the writer gives us a number of really funny one-liners, virtually all arising from the lady's intransigence in her determination to get her own way and the put-open Bennett's reaction to having to face up to her unwanted presence daily. 

There's a cracking backing cast of near-neighbours, chipping in with their various thoughts on the lady's presence, some more tolerant than others, and her effect on the neighbourhood, including Roger Allam - as well as shady ex-policeman Jim Broadbent who knows her 'secret' and puts his knowledge to self-gaining use - and, significantly, the redoubtable Frances de la Tour as neighbour Ursula Vaughan Williams, someone whom I did actually once meet in person at a barbecue party in London at the time when this 'van lady' would have been in her terminal years at Bennett's address. I had no idea that U.V.W. and Bennett were actually living so close to each other, and had I known I would have wanted at least to have mentioned my admiration for him instead of confining my questions to her late husband's compositions. De La Tour's portrayal was actually not that far off from the Ursula V.W. I remember.

There are very brief cameos from some (or all?) of the original boys from another of Bennett's major successes, 'The History Boys' - on both stage in London and Broadway as well as in the film, directed as in this film, by Nicholas Hytner. I recognised five of the 'boys' - now all grown into or approaching middle age. In addition, Frances de la Tour was a prominent member of the cast of both the stage production and the film.

This is Maggie Smith's film, of course - one of her very best screen performances for some time - playing someone with few, if any, endearing features, yet managing to hold it all together most convincingly.
If the film's penultimate scene was somewhat over-the-top it rounded things off nicely enough, so I'll forgive it for being so. Also, in the very final scene there's a glimpse of the great Yorkshireman himself, Bennett, coming into view on his bike to see himself being filmed in the persona of Alex Jennings.

I liked it a lot. With little to cavil about, I give it...........................8.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Film: 'Burnt'

Oh dear! I did find this a bit of an endurance test - and none too surprised at that as I'm so out of sympathy with the subject matter - a sweary, prima donna-ish chef yelling at his staff in the kitchen of a swanky London restaurant which specialises in all this silly nouvelle cuisine stuff, producing dishes which guarantee that those leaving after their 'meal' will be at least as hungry as when they came in, though their wallets would have been considerably unburdened for the 'satisfaction' of the experience. 
He, predictably, is all hissy fits, hurling plates against the wall amid the constant clatter of kitchen utensils - while his disgruntled, humiliated, verbally abused staff work sullenly and slavishly like beavers. We've seen it all before on reality TV, even though I myself have never been able to sit through a single entire programme of the kind.

What really drew me to bother to see this was the magnetic presence of the star. (I wonder if the said Mr Cooper filmed this while over here appearing in 'The Elephant Man' on stage in the evenings?) Even when acting totally repulsive as here, B.C. continues to have something compelling about him. His main 'punch bag' is Sienna Miller who, while not quite giving back as good as she gets, certainly knows how to stand up to his very public put-downs. Both are undoubtedly on their top form, and I have no quibble at all about any of the acting from any quarters in a strong cast all-round.
He is on a journey of self-redemption after his experience at a restaurant in Paris where all went belly-up, involving drugs and his debauched lifestyle. His past follows him to London where, confident in his own self-esteem, he forces himself into a particular high-class restaurant to show them what's what and to promote their status by the acquisition of Michelin stars, something which had evaded him in France.

Daniel Bruhl is also good as head chef in a nearby rival restaurant. In a fleeting appearance there's Uma Thurman, whom I probably wouldn't have recognised had I not known it was her. In a slightly more substantial role is Emma Thompson as Cooper's sympathetic doctor-cum-confidante.

Director John Wells, whose first main feature film for the cinema this appears to be, fulfils expectations, so no complaints on that score.

There's no doubt that the camerawork captures the exquisite detail of the 'meals' produced - in effect, more 'works of art' for the eyes than satisfying quantity-wise for the stomach. (There are a number of shots of raw meat and fish being carved up for which I had to look away, though most won't be bothered by it.)

It was a personal irritation at what I see as the complete ridiculousness of these stratospherically overpriced 'meals' which prevented any real enjoyment of the film for me. If it's your 'thing' then you're welcome to it, though I see it at the heart of a not-so-interesting story of the Cooper character.

Opinions of the film have been varied but I think few have been overwhelmingly positive about it. Having put my own stance forward, that is the reason for my own rating of a lowly......................4.

Thursday 5 November 2015

Film: 'The Intern'

I thought that this would be just a bit of disposable fluff, and so it was - but also, for around three-quarters of its two hours I found it unexpectedly endearing too.

Robert de Niro is nowadays as invariably typecast as a respectable, ageing, worldy-wise, rather meek gent not given to great displays of emotion, as much as he used to be typecast as a toughie in his earlier violent mobster films. In this later guise I do find him still watchable, even though, as here, he has less to do despite being on-screen for a great deal of the film's length.

He plays a 70-yearold retired widower who finds life unfulfilling and takes up employment as a lowly intern (I had to look that word up as it wasn't in use for my generation) in an on-line fashion store firm which has rocketed to success in a short time and run with cold efficiency by human dynamo, Anne Hathaway. Their initial contacts, though not unfriendly, are formal - she hadn't wanted to take on staff of advanced age, but was obliged to do so. However, it's plain that she is the boss, which all her staff know, and which De Niro gets straight away. But, as you might guess, circumstances bring them closer together and she eventually melts towards him and exchanges confidences, though both keeping their proper emotional distances. She and her house-husband have one of those (ghastly) infant daughters at whom you're supposed to intone "Aw, how sweet!" - whereas some of you, like me, might prefer to retch.
Hovering around in the firm is in-house staff-relaxor and masseuse Rene Russo - De Niro and she making mutually admiring eyes from the off.
As the film progresses a domestic crisis appears for Hathaway, though luckily good old R.D.N. is on hand to offer words of sage advice - all so predictable from the very opening minutes, of course.

Director (and this film's writer), Nancy Meyers, is in her element here and is clearly comfortable with her story and her actors (the two leading roles are never uninteresting), and she achieves her aimed-for film practically unblemished, though it is really too long by at least 30 mins for its relatively shallow subject matter.
However, I must say I did enjoy it more than I thought I would, and for that reason I allow it an above par...............6.5.


Tuesday 3 November 2015

Film: 'Do I Sound Gay?'

On the slow, laborious ascent of recovery from a miserable, largely bed-ridden week of having succumbed to the seasonal bug (the worst attack in several years this time), I wanted something none too serious and, maybe, a little uplifting for my mood. And this fitted the bill quite nicely, showing at a single-day screening, with the added attraction of being barely one and a quarter hours long. Were I to be subject to a fit of the coughs, sneezes and snifflings which I'm still getting (though decreasing in frequency), in a documentary-type film it I wouldn't matter too much if a temporary absence had been necessary, which it wasn't.

Director David Thorpe (above, with George Takei) having lately split with his boyfriend, finds himself living as a single man with two cats - and, moreover, is now in his forties (Oh, horror of horrors, David! Do tell me what that's like.) With time to muse on his life, which he does extensively to camera, though always interesting, he focuses on one particular aspect of his life, viz his 'gay-sounding voice'. These days one would like to think that it's not a big deal if ones manner of speaking gives an indication of ones sexuality, whether that impression is erroneous or not, though it is a thought-provoking subject. I don't recall myself being concerned about sounding gay in my teenage and later years before I came out of the closet. I didn't think I did anyway - though on hindsight I think I was mistaken. I was more concerned then about giving away my sexuality in how I dressed, walked and unintentionally revealing myself through stereotypically 'campy' body language - that was what I was most nervous of. Of course I'm talking about a time when being known to be gay was about as undesirable as being a known paedophile is now. Everyone will have their own stories of experiences on the subject.

Thorpe interviews relatives, friends and more celebrated personages on their own thoughts, and tries to find out whether his own manner of speaking as a youngster had given himself away before he himself had realised it. There are some very interesting responses from those who grew up close to him.
I was familiar with at least the names of nearly every one of his 'celebrities' (all American), prominent among whom is David Sedaris. He also conducts street interviews in New York and London.

However, lurking behind it all is a feeling of 'so what?' as regards the subject matter. I can see some taking issue with his attempt to eliminate any gay traces in his voice by undergoing sessions with a voice coach. It's not quite clear why he feels he needs to do it. Is he afraid of turning off any new potential partners? Does he fear for future employment prospects? It all seems to be left up in the air and unresolved, but yet his exploring the matter remains entertaining throughout. (A few laughs there were, though not that many - also a couple of brief video extracts showing kids being beaten up just for sounding 'faggoty'.)
He also touches on when films in the 1940s and for several decades onwards used gay-sounding voices as a shorthand for 'evil' (often along with effeminate physical mannerisms - looking more pantomimic than reality). There's also a reference to the way that in Disney animations the same technique is used - hardly conducive to giving children a healthy attitude towards what might be considered to be gay 'mannerisms'. However, this very interesting aspect is not treated with any real depth in this short, snappy film, but it just being addressed at all makes it worthwhile..

Now something very curious has happened on the IMDb site for this film. As I write this, 430 site users have given it an average rating of a mere 4/10, but this is because 47% of these have, apparently, given it a score of just '1', which is patently absurd. (A fairer average would, I think, be around 7 - 7.5). I surmise that someone has picked up on the word 'gay' in the title and tried to sabotage others from supporting the film by, in some little known way, submitting this ridiculous score repeatedly. Another scenario is that a gay person has taken exception with Thorpe for treating this as a worthy subject anyway, and has similarly found a way to blow his particular own opinion out of all statistical proportion. I think if either of these two possibilities has happened, the first is the more likely.
But, I did like it and the score I have submitted on IMDb is........................7.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Film: 'Spectre'

So, was it worth all the fuss and the wait? I regret to say "No", and that being by quite some way.


First, some things I did like about it:-
Christoph Walz makes for a credibly creepy, psychopathic, interesting villain as head of the nefarious, acrostically-named organisation bent on world domination (ho-hum!) which gives the film its title.
Ralph Fiennes as 'M' and Ben Whishaw's 'Q' play more participatory roles than previously.
Daniel Craig is as good a Bond as ever, though for the first time here I had the niggling feeling now and again that he was starting to act on auto.
The most spectacular sequence is the pre-title opening set in Mexico City. Nothing in the body of the film comes even close to it.
There's not much else that I felt really positive about.

Several of the set pieces are derivative - situations and locations straight out of previous Bond films. One gets all the expected chases and fights - cars, helicopters, train - as well as the climactic confrontation (with obligatory torture) between Bond and his nemesis in (where else?) but in the latter's secret, secluded lair - lavishly furbished and equipped as always..
The main romantic interest is provided by Lea Seydoux whose character observes the standard formula of initial mistrust, even deep antipathy, being transformed to a realisatory enlightening that Bond and she are on the same side.
I felt that the encounters between the two of them significantly slowed the action down, such that there were several points at which I found myself stifling yawns. The film is close on two-and-a-half hours long, the longest Bond to date, and at times it felt like it.

If Sam Mendes's direction is efficient enough for the purpose (he also directed the superior 'Skyfall') the story could have done with a strong injection of imagination and originiality.
Apart from Mexico City (and London) other locations are Rome, the Austrian Tyrol and Tunisia.

And then, as a post-script, there's the indifferent (to my ears) title song by Sam Smith - not quite the worst ever (which honour surely belongs to Madonna for her utterly dismal 'Die Another Day') - but nowhere near as memorable as some that the series has produced. And I hadn't a clue what on earth he was singing about. When he goes into falsetto mode his consonants disappear like Adele's do in her 'Skyfall', leaving me tantalisingly in Limbo until I look up the lyrics, though Adele did have a stronger melody.

The first Bond film I ever saw was the fourth in the series, 'Thunderball', in 1965 (it was also the very first time that I went to a cinema alone) and caught up with the earlier ones shortly afterwards. By then I'd have read most, or perhaps all, of the Bond novels - a series which I've now read half a dozen times. I still remember watching the film of 'Thunderball' and marvelling at how exciting it was. I was practically gripping the arm-rests! Since that time, of course, we've all grown wiser and more demanding in our entertainment requirements. We can all spot a ropey back projection now, for example. But I think all those early Bond films of the 60s, 70s and some into the 80s, plus maybe two or three of them since then merit a second or even multiple viewings. Regrettably, I do not think that 'Spectre' deserves to be on that select list of mine.................................6.

Friday 23 October 2015

Film: 'Pan'

 I'd have by-passed this were it not that I've got the hots for the HUGE Jackman. It unexpectedly turned out to be a veritable visual feast, and I'm not only referring to the aforementioned star. Director Joe Wright ('Atonement', 'Anna Karenina') proves without doubt that he has a remarkable flair for visual imagination - and he's still only in his early 40s. This is an almost non-stop extravaganza for the eyes, reminding me frequently of the fertile mind of Terry Gilliam, and 'Baron Munchausen' in particular.

It's been noted that the chronology is all to pot, this story being a prequel to that of the Peter Pan novel which the whole world knows, yet the framing story-device of the baby growing up to be a boy (abandoned by his mother, in an orphanage run by hideous tyrant-nun Kathy Burke) is set in WWII London, i.e. several decades after the original tale. Okay, as the entire saga is a flight of fantasy I suppose we can go along without thinking too much about it.
The story here is 12-year-old Peter (Levi Miller, rather colourless, if you ask me) and other boys in the establishment are abducted by the crew of a flying pirate ship captained by the villainous Blackbeard. Jackman, even when playing evil can't but help charisma oozing from his every pore. (It got me wondering what a terrific Satan he'd be in, say, 'Jerry Springer - the Opera'!). Peter discovers his talent for flying which he has to practice at in order to perfect it, meanwhile striking up a friendship with one James Hook, (the future 'Captain H.') in the person of Scandinavian-American actor, Garrett Hedlund, at this stage still possessing both his hands (strange that his name should be so prescient of his hook-wearing future), he being a 'goody' character, sympathetic right to the film's end. There's also Amanda Seyfried and Rooney Mara providing some feminine allure to what otherwise would have been a heavily male 'boy's own adventure' (There's no Wendy here!).
Peter's main driving force is to find out who is mother was who'd given him up and what had become of her. (Blackbeard is involved, if it's not giving too much away).

The special-effect pyrotechnics throughout this extremely busy film are jaw-droppingly good - probably the best I've seen in any film to date - and I saw it in only the 2D version, wishing I'd gone for the other. Otherwise the story is not very substantial though it's largely aimed at a kids audience, so that won't matter too much. I wasn't actually bored at any time despite it's nearly two hours length.

A pleasant surprise, then, though it really does need to be seen on the big screen. Other than the presence of our Hugh - who, I know, isn't appreciated by everyone - its saving grace is those most astonishingly impressive CGI effects........................6.


Wednesday 21 October 2015

Film: 'Sicario'

Few could deny that this film is a cut above most, though I don't go all the way with the many adulatory opinions being heaped upon it, which was the chief reason for me going out of my way to catch it.

Grim throughout with highly suspenseful episodes and graphic violence at several points (much of which is actually off-screen or in long-shot, though not all), we have Emily Blunt as an FBI agent seconded onto a military squad trying to wipe out a long-standing  drug-smuggling operation from over the Mexican border. She represents, in effect, the film's 'conscience' working with (or fighting against?) the seemingly callous attitudes and conduct of her all-male colleagues, chief amongst whom is Josh Brolin. Riding along with them is the mysterious and taciturn Benicio Del Toro participating in the operations but holding himself at a distance at key moments, and whose real aims are revealed later in the film. No real surprise at that.

Their are a few grisly sights, particularly near the start, after which the the film concentrates on the mechanics of the operation to obliterate the drug-smuggling route and finding and disposing of the gang leader(s) operating it.

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve keeps the screws tightened for virtually the whole film, though it's clear that any moments of relaxation from the suspense will follow the well-tried formula of being followed by a sudden, highly-charged event, or a tense sequence complete with thrumming, menacing bass music background.
One reviewer in particular has made much of a traffic jam episode which, though effective, found left me expecting something rather more exciting than I found it.

One of the personal difficulties I had with it, which many will not share, is the casting of Emily Blunt. Fine actress though she undoubtedly is, in my mind she carries the 'baggage' of earlier successful films she's made, most notably 'Young Victoria', and all through this film my mind kept nudging me that this was that youthful queen. Not her fault, I know. That film was six years ago, and she's made quite a number since then, including 'Into the Woods'. But I found myself unable to dismiss the constantly recurring thought of her portraying royalty, such that whenever she swore in 'Sicario' it sounded more outlandish than it ought to have done. I'll agree to put this down to my own little, though unfortunate, quirk. 

I did think this was a powerful film overall but it's not one that will ingrain itself on my memory as much as some other recent thrillers have done...............................6.5.

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Film: 'The Lobster'


Way beyond being merely 'odd', this is the most bizarre film I've seen in quite some years.
It's the world the characters inhabit rather than the goings-on themselves that makes it strange. Very funny in patches (particularly in the first half as we learn how this 'world' operates), it won't carry everyone along with it, but I liked it on the whole.

Some critics have described this British-Irish production as being set in a dystopian future but I think it's more in an alternative social setting in which the rules of living have been shifted sideways, rather than it being science-fiction futuristic.

Colin Farrell (right, above - almost unrecognisable, having also put on weight for the part), is a recently widowed, rather timid, man who, now being single, has to attend a strange hotel (managed by a steely Olivia Colman) and given 45 days to form a genuine relationship with another of the attendees (bisexuality is not recognised. You're either hetero- or homo-) or he'll be classed as an undesirable 'loner' and turned out into the woods to become one of those hunted down by those still in their trial period, and eventually be changed into any animal of his choice - in his case this being a lobster. (He gives the reason for opting for this creature early in the film) The drive behind the first part of the film is his attempt to avoid the fate of becoming one of these dreaded loners.
In the hotel, two of his 'co-guests' are Ben Whishaw (who seems to be in every second film these days, and with 'Spectre' just coming up as well. I'm not complaining.) and John C. Reilly, here disappointingly under-used. Then the action moves to the woods where he meets up with Rachel Weisz, also attempting to survive as a prey-target of the regular hunts.

This film, stretched a bit too long at close on two hours, has a number of disturbing moments and  gets bleaker towards the end. Throughout, though, there are peculiar and unexpected one-liners which, when funny are really so, that I was wondering how the actors could keep a straight face while delivering them. (I ought to mention also that there are two or three instances of deaths of animals that made me flinch, the first occurring within the very first minute, though none of them are prolonged.)

This is Greek director and joint writer, Yorgos Lanthimos', first English-language film and he makes a good job of it. If there are a few moments of ennui they all come in the second half but otherwise he keep a tight rein.The first hour or so is excellent.

If you like to see a film that's a bit strange and more than being just quirky, I'm sure you'll like this one....................7.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Soixante-neuf today! (15th)







Oh well, another one down = one less to go (to oblivion - and beyond?).

Don't know why I'm smiling so smugly above. It was taken yesterday when I'd just got home from doctor following my regular six-monthly diabetes (type 2) check, and where I'd learnt that my constantly high blood-sugar level was giving rise to concern. So now got to do a daily self-administered blood check - and this for someone who feels like flaking out at the mere sight of the red stuff. That's one prezzie I could have done without. Bad enough when it's someone else's blood but when it's your own.......! I'll try hard not to swoon away, though should I do so it will be in most demure and maiden-like fashion. True that the procedure only involves a little pin-prick but, as some of you are well aware from experience, even the tiniest of pricks can be very uncomfortable too. Let's hope I can avoid having a spell of the screaming(-queen) habdabs.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Film: 'Suffragette'

Another film where my verdict is at odds with most peoples. No big surprise there then. What may be less expected is that I thought it merited considerably more praise than IMDb's current low average rating of 5.9 would suggest (from over 900 viewers). 
It concerns events of the female emancipation struggle and campaign in Great Britain, specifically in London, in the pre-WWI years. (Complete voting equality with men was not achieved until 1928. This film deals with a time when women were not allowed to vote at all.)

I feared that the film might drown in its own proud sense of righteousness, but it doesn't come anywhere near doing that. I found it intensely moving throughout, and I can't imagine anyone with a social conscience not being stirred to anger at how long we tolerated this hopelessly unjust situation, some of it actually defended by some women themselves, such had been the effectiveness of 'brainwashing' over our history.
Incidentally, it got me wondering why I cannot think of another film (aside, of course, from 'Mary Poppins') which mentions the subject of women's voting rights, let alone treat it as a serious subject. It strikes me as fertile, unutilised ground for a film subject.
The story told here does demand sentimentality in parts, but it's not a cloying sentiment merely added in for dramatic purposes. Director Sarah Gavron keeps the emotions in sensible proportion.

Carey Mulligan is a laundry (entirely manual) worker, having to work more hours than men employed there but for less money than the men earn. Doing a delivery one day she witnesses a group of women protesting for the right to vote by turning, for the first time, to violence against property, in this case, breaking store display windows. Although initially cautious with her sympathies, this event turns out to be the catalyst in her involvement with the campaigning movement, but spurred further on by the demeaning attitude of her male boss towards her and her female co-workers. Meanwhile, her suspicious, unsympathetic husband (Ben Whishaw), assured of a husband's superiority, becomes more hostile towards her activities, particularly when her agitations lead to her spending time in prison. To punish her he eventually descends to using prohibition of her seeing their young son. 
She also befriends doctor and activist Helena Bonham Carter in a refreshingly unhistrionic role, and with whom she becomes bosom friends. Then there's Brendan Gleeson as a gruff, disapproving police detective determined to defeat this movement, using the police force and whatever means is necessary to stop the women - though there's a sense that he's reluctantly letting his heart be ruled by his head.
And we get a fleeting appearance from Meryl Streep as the movement's leading light, Emmeline Pankhurst. Her total on-screen time must be no more than two minutes, but she does make an indelible impression.

It's all shot in sober colours, as befits its constant serious mood, much of it shot at night-time. Director Sarah Gavron does a magnificent job holding it all together tightly, and with Abi Morgan's script too (she who also wrote 'Shame' and 'The Iron Lady'). The entire cast, female and male, is first rate.
If I do have any complaints at all it's the old bugbear of inaudible dialogue. In fact there were a number of short scenes where I could hardly catch a single word said, making me seriously wonder if it's my hearing that's getting defective. I did so badly want to hear everything as it's so important to the story.
But apart from that I was mightily impressed with this whole project.

A very good film in my books, without any doubt...........................8.

Monday 12 October 2015

Film: 'The Martian' (in 2D)


It's getting alarming the frequency with which I feel at odds with majority opinion, but there's no avoiding that this is another one for that list.
Although he's made a handful of well-regarded films ('Alien' and Thelma and Louise' being among them), director Ridley Scott has never been one of my particular favourites, though must say that I do generally prefer his films to those of his late brother, Tony S.

With all 'space' or 'another planet' films I always come up against a very individual problem in that I find so many errors in depiction and execution that suspending my disbelief is distractingly tiring for an entire film's length. (For that same reason I find watching any of the 'Star Wars' films exhausting enough to detract from any enjoyment.) I do envy those members of an audience, the majority surely, who can go along accepting everything uncritically, and just enjoy the 'ride'. I dare say that if I knew a lot more than I do about, say, biology or computers, then I'd find any films with those subjects at their heart equally problematic. Just from the trailer of 'The Martian' I could see that this film would cause me difficulties.

Okay, so having got that confession off my chest, here Matt Damon is stranded alone on the 'Red Planet' after the rest of the crew have departed to return to Earth, they having assumed that Damon had been blown away, lost and died as a result of a ferocious storm (in Mars' very tenuous atmosphere? - and that's only one error! Lots more to come but I shan't enumerate them all). At first it looks as though he can't be rescued for around another four earth-years, while his provisions and oxygen supply won't last more than a few months at most. However, with some necessary ingenuity he comes up with a few wheezes to lengthen that period.
Meanwhile, on Earth first at NASA (boss Jeff Daniels), then shortly the entire world (cue; international co-operation - with one country in particular), discover that the Damon character is still alive so all the stops are pulled out to expedite an ultra-speedy rescue..
There's a good cast - including Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean (the latter in untypical low-key mode) - and the drama flows on seamlessly though also, it must be said, in pretty mundane and formulaic fashion. There were hardly any true 'surprises'.
Some of the space shots are most impressive and must be even moreso in 3D. But one expects no less these days, so I've got no complaints at all on that score.

It's a long film at a fair bit over two hours. I dare say that it was suspenseful enough to have kept some of the audience quite wrapt, though me only sporadically so. However, I've got to give it its due and, turning aside from my factual criticisms, it was pretty solid entertainment. If you're less bothered with inaccuracies than I was then it's a good recommendation, notwithstanding my own very personal rating of.......................5.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Film: 'Macbeth'

If you're one who considers the audibility of the play's text to be relatively unimportant, and is subservient to the looks and atmosphere of this film, then you'll have a higher regard for it than I did. I was in a state of virtually constant frustration at being unable to decipher what most of the cast were saying (apart from title lead Michael Fassbender) that I would have welcomed subtitles. The worst offender by far was Marion Cotillard as Lady M, who was 90% indecipherable, totally unable to deliver lines in prescribed iambic rhythm when verse-speaking - and in single words of more than one syllable she'd frequently fade her voice out to a practically soundless whisper,  gasp or sigh, surely leaving most of the audience not one iota wiser as to what she'd just said. Sad to say, Paddy Considine as Banquo and David Thewlis as Duncan also had their faults for inaudibility some of the time. I can only imagine that the entire cast was instructed not to be too worried about articulation because, other than Fassbender, they weren't. Oh, and I ought to say that I'm more familiar with the text of this play than any other in the playwright's canon.

With exterior shots filmed mainly on the Isle of Skye, it's all lowering, threatening clouds and heavy mists, beginning and ending with bloody battles - with plenty of gore in between too, including, of course, at least two key murders.
Visually raw in tooth and claw, it shifts texts around - or at least what's left of it after a severe pruning of what is already Shakespeare's second-shortest play - and liberties are taken with the action and motivations, which is fair enough, though I personally found at least one change quite jaw-dropping. But if one doesn't know the play then it will hardly matter.

Australian director Justin Kurzel has created an 'entertainment' which uses the original text as little more than a pretext to film an 'interesting', action-packed story. As a vehicle with which to get to know the original play there are major shortcomings, not least of which is the lack of clear enunciation. I felt let down, If it wasn't for Michael Fassbender's central performance I'd be rating it significantly lower than....................4.

Monday 5 October 2015

Film: 'Mia Madre'

Nanni Moretti's films have never been dull. Here, as director, writer and actor, he's made a beautifully judged film, possibly his finest to date.
Based on the loss of his own mother during the making of his previous film 'Habemus Papem', this one, with Margarita Buy in the central role (Moretti himself playing her brother) chronicles the decline of their mother, alternately in hospital or at home, suffering from a terminal respiratory condition.

Buy is a film director currently working on a project showing an industrial dispute, she trying to hold herself and the project together amid frequent visits to her mother who's also given to mental wanderings, and in one case, an impetuous 'escape'. Buy is not helped in her film project by importing a famous American actor (John Turturro - speaking both Italian and English) who's so full of himself and exaggerated fame, yet when it comes to work he can't seem to remember his lines. His scenes provide welcome light relief to the sombre mood prevailing on the visits to the mother by son (Moretti, in a very downplayed, but sensitive role), herself as daughter, and the latter's own teenage, Latin-learning, daughter. To complicate matters even further she has just moved out from living with her partner, much to his disappointment. So she has a lot on her plate, trying to juggle conflicting emotions demanding her attention while she fights on trying to get the film progressed. Meanwhile Turturro's character, as the new factory boss, is distrusted by his workforce suspecting imminent lay-offs, while he himself, amid fluffed or forgotten lines at which he frequently loses his cool, tries vainly to reassure the employees.

It's a perfectly balanced film - moving, yet not over-sentimental, when it could so easily have fallen into that trap. There's no doubt that the film's focus is Margarita Buy's marvellous performance, a lot of her emotions written on her features rather than verbally expressed - she trying to supervise her film project yet being the victim of family and personal circumstances, inconvenient to say the least. Moretti's story and screenplay is perceptive, realistic and totally believable.
I liked this film so much that I can forgive it for including one of my pet detestations, a couple of songs (in English) on the soundtrack. Nevertheless, a most satisfying experience..................7.5.

Wednesday 30 September 2015

Film: 'A Walk in the Woods'.

This was entertaining enough though I didn't join much of the large audience with their guffaws and whoops of laughter as I felt much of the humour was forced.

One doesn't readily associate Robert Redford with non-serious films, and here he's given as his foil a bumbling, grizzled, overweight, out-of-condition character in the old friend shape of Nick Nolte, as they together hike the over 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail. They strike sparks off each other, alternately grumbling and bickering, only having come together because the Redford character's (travel writer, Bill Bryson) wife, played by Emma Thompson - seen only in the opening scenes (with brief glimpse also at very end) - didn't want Bryson to go off alone on this madcap idea. Homely Bryson leaves his wife and three children to go on this personal expedition.

I've always liked Nick Nolte though haven't seen him on screen for some years. Although I knew that he'd be the main supporting star here, he's so bulked up (just for this film or in real life?) that had I not known I might not have recognised him.

It's an episodic film, the pair having to deal with events thrown up by the oddball, sometimes dotty, characters they meet on the way - including, briefly, Mary Steenburgen as a flighty hostel owner. Many of the episodes seem to fizzle out without any resolution with a strange cumulative effect, which is much the same as life, I suppose.

Director Ken Kwapin deals with the thin material capably enough, giving us the ravishing, breathtaking scenic shots we expected.

I've read a few Bill Bryson books, though it did take me a little time to get onto his wavelength. I am a fan, most recently getting through his eminently readable 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' - an astonishingly comprehensive expose of sciences for lay people like me - and next is his 1994 'Made in America' in my pile of books yet to read.

The film wiled away a couple of hours pleasantly enough. Nothing to go overboard for, but certainly agreeable......................6.