Monday 26 January 2015

Film: 'Wild'

Unexceptional film of true story depicting the 1,100 mile solo hike of Cheryl Strayed along the Pacific Crest Trail - roughly Mexican to Canadian borders, the subject being played by Reese Witherspoon. (In 2013, in inebriated condition to State trooper - "Do you know my name? You're about to find out who I am!") She's been nominated for an Oscar for this part but I didn't think it was that special enough to have been singled out for praise. I can see at least two or three worthier nominees in the list.

A lot of this film consists of numerous flashbacks during her journey - to her childhood with her brother and late, doting mother (Laura Dern); her infrequently seen, violent father; her earlier teenage and adult life. These are all presented with many jump-cuts which I found difficult in that just when I thought I was getting a handle on the situation it would return to her reminiscing in her tent or wherever. (Incidentally, towards the end I had to look away from the screen at the [edited] shooting of a horse).
She meets an assortment of characters on her way, mainly men, sometimes singly, other times not, getting one to invariably wonder whether they can be trusted. (Well, yes and no). Then there's unsurprising difficulties with the provisions and camping equipment she's brought with her (adequate? right sort?), plus a couple of brushes with creatures encountered.
I found it all somewhat run-of-the-mill, which is surprising in that the screenplay is by none other than Nick Hornby. But if the raw material, Strayed's own memoir, was fairly standard stuff then what else could be done with it? Inventing incidents that didn't happen wouldn't be fair.
The scenery is sometimes as spectacular as one might expect though there are fewer grand vistas than I might have thought, a fair amount of the film taking place in various tree-surrounded  locations, which could just as well have been anywhere else.
Director is Jean-Marc Vallee, he who directed the far superior 'Dallas Buyers Club' of 2013.

I'd imagine that the book might make a more interesting read than this film - though to be fair, the film has been generally well received. But it failed to light my campfire..................5/10.

Wednesday 21 January 2015

Film: 'Whiplash'

Before writing about this film I might point out that yesterday, on the way to the cinema, I suffered yet another physical mishap. Preparing to alight from the moving bus, making my way downstairs I missed my footing and twist-wrenched my knee. Painful it was too, and is still so after one night. I'd already been limping because of a callous on my right sole, which was supposed to have been removed at the local podiatry clinic a couple of weeks ago (free under our Socialist-inspired National Health Service!), but it's still there and causing pain. Now I'm hobbling about with incapacities in both legs and can only take flights of stairs one step at a time. I mention this because once again it's going to mean missing films which I'd intended to see. Looks like the first casualty will be day after tomorrow's 'The Homesman' (Tommy Lee Jones) - and that may well not be the last. Will try an ice compress shortly but as at now things don't exactly look rosy.

Watching this in considerable discomfort could not detract from my recognition that this film has real clout. It's an unusual scenario in that I don't recall any other fictional film where the focus is on a drummer - with a tutor from the depths of hell itself. It's also remarkable for its utterly blistering two central performances.
The plain-faced Miles Teller plays a first year student jazz drummer at a music conservatory where J.K.Simmons ('Spiderman', 'Juno') is already scaring the bejeesus out of his class, he being an horrific martinet of a professor whose mood can turn on a sixpence from all sweetness and light to yelling and barking his head off, sometimes with snarls and put-downs, as well as flinging conveniently-snatched missiles at members of class who displease him, cowing them into submission. Talk about 'blood, sweat and tears' - it's precisely all three of those things!

I'd call the music 'Big Band' - here with a group of a dozen wind players plus piano, guitar, bass and drums - though I'm happy to be corrected as to the category into which it falls. It worked for me even though this kind of music fails to achieve any 'inner response in my soul' - unlike classical, popular, musicals, as well as folk and even some pop. I've never really 'got' jazz, despite lifelong efforts to remedy that and discover why so many are emotionally moved by it, wanting to share the experience. There's seems to be something of a mental block there for me. Anyway, that being the case, it was even more astonishing that this film managed to hold my attention with ease.

The conservatory class is up for a competition (who would have thought it!) and no one,  but no one,  is going to get in the way of the tutor getting his class to win. His regular tirades are littered with profanities - all the expected ones, of course - although quite a number of them do also have a measure of wit attached. He does make a brief, sexist put-down to the only female member of the group, who is only rarely in shot. But afterwards I was wondering why, out of all the ones he selected for his ritual humiliation, he didn't once choose to abuse any of the several African-Americans there.
Of course it wouldn't have been the film it was if the story hadn't focussed on the relationship between tutor and the new drummer member - and from the very off it's no-holds-barred. The mild-mannered Teller's feeble attempts to stand up for himself very quickly fizzle out into accepting his degradation.
It won't be any surprise to learn that among the insults used against him is homophobic language ('faggot' and 'cocksucker', of course), those expressions being, predictably and regrettably, of first resort to anyone wishing to humiliate. (There's no suggestion at all that the Teller character might be gay. Anyway, he's got a girlfriend for at least part of the story, so there!.) However it's a measure of the writer's restraint (Damian Chazelle, also the film's Director) that these particular words are used so sparingly among all the other invectives. I counted only three instances. But that got me also wondering whether, if he had chosen to rail against one of the African-Americans, would his language also have been in-your-face, thick with racist epithets? Or would that be beyond-the-pale unacceptable - both to the character's position as being on the conservatory staff, as well as to the film-makers in selling their product? Food for thought.

Just when we thought the film was starting to glide to its conclusion with a level of smoothness having been attained between the two main characters, who seemed to have come to some mutual understanding, something nasty occurs between them. The film ends with the expected virtuoso display - a performance which succeeded in taking my breath away, despite my not appreciating to the fullest that genre of music.
(The title of 'Whiplash', by the way, is the name of one of the pieces the band is rehearsing).

A highly recommended film. Although the general line of the story might be familiar, the means it employs, a young drummer, is certainly unusual - and the two lead actors carry it off forcefully,  penetratingly and convincingly.....................7.5

Friday 16 January 2015

Film: 'Birdman'

This film has received fulsome praise from multiple directions. However, I'm not going to pretend to join the applause. I feel I ought to have liked it more, and could well do so on second viewing, but for an initial reaction more positive feelings are wanting.

First of all, must admit that I wasn't in a very receptive mood yesterday. 'Birdman' has been around on screens here since before Xmas, and now at the tail-end of its cinema run I was determined to catch it on the big screen, particularly as such marvellous things have been said about it. Unfortunately this meant taking a chance that it would be okay to leave my ageing black cat, disappear for five hours and return in the dark, expecting to find him sitting outside, lone and vulnerable, awaiting my re-appearance. Anyway, I'm afraid that his plight kept returning to my mind whilst travelling to and from the cinema, and on and off while the film was playing, wondering if I'd done the right thing and would regret it. As it turned out, I returned to find him sleeping on my bed in the very same spot in which I'd left him!

In 'Birdman' Michael Keaton plays an actor approaching advanced years, most renowned for having appeared as the film's eponymously-titled hero in a three-film franchise. He's now trying to transform and lift his career from the doldrums into a live theatre actor through a Raymond Carver relationship drama, while having to put up with know-it-all Edward Norton who comes in to replace his injured co-principal lead in the play.  Most of the action is concerned with the sparks these two strike off one another outside the play through their respective highly abrasive and confrontational  personalities. Keaton also has, incidentally, telekinetic powers (don't ask!), as well as he being regularly sniped at by the snarky, critical voice of the 'Birdman' character he'd created. There are a number of highly surreal moments in the film, the most extended one being in the film's final quarter when the owner of this ghost voice makes a fully-feathered appearance.

For me the most distracting aspect of the film (and this is one which is being remarked on as a brilliant tour-de-force) is the camerawork. It's all done very smoothly as if it to suggest that the entire film has been made in just one single camera take, with its continuous perspective gliding here and there, inside the theatre and its rooms and out on the street, veering round corners, up and down stairs, glancing this way and that - I found myself wondering where it would go next and who would be the next player to come into shot, more than the film's actual content. (Alfred Hitchcock tried much the same thing in his film 'Rope', though that was all set in a single room and the technical limitations of the time mean that one can tell where the 'joins' are - around every 10 minutes.)  I wouldn't deny that the camerawork in 'Birdman' is an accomplishment, but to what end?, I ask myself.
The non-cliche script was, on the whole, impressively constructed.
Acting from all parties is excellent. I'd single out Naomi Watts - and there's the unexpected two-scene appearance of the marvellous Lindsay Duncan as a blood-freezing theatre critic determined to destroy the play and Keaton's career along with it. As for Keaton himself, his performance has 'award' written all over it, and he'd not be an unreasonable choice as winner. I doubt if he's ever been so stretched on film up to now. (The Oscar nominations were actually announced yesterday while I was in the cinema. I'm still rooting for Eddie Redmayne to win, with Keaton as an also-ran.)

'Birdman' is a curious, unusual film, presented with total visiual confidence through the unfettered imagination of Mexican director Alejandro Innarritu, who fully utilises cinematic technique the way it's possible be used. Though after it was all over I did look back and find it all somewhat a bit overburdened with camera tricksiness which skewed it away from a strong central focus. Incidentally, I gave similar very qualified approval for the widely well-received 'Grand Budapest Hotel' (also nominated for Oscars) which was remarkable visually, often glorious to look at, but otherwise over-dressed for the slightness of its story. I offer rather different reasons for giving 'Birdman' a like-reserved 'yes'.
Oh, and one more thing. I've seen/read critics calling this a 'funny', even 'very funny' film. Apart from a few amusing one-liners I didn't really see much to laugh at in it at all.

As I say at the start, if I were to see 'Birdman' again I'm pretty sure that my opinion would be higher than it is now - and hope that next time I wouldn't have to be battling thoughts again about my cat! But for an initial appraisal, after just one viewing, and fully aware that my judgment may make some shake their heads at my failure to recognise a 'masterpiece', I must be honest - which means awarding it a..................6..

Tuesday 13 January 2015

Film: 'Foxcatcher'

Moderately interesting, fact-based story of two professional wrestler brothers training under the tutelage of a scion of 'the richest family in America' who wants them to capture gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Based on a book of the experiences of Mark Schulz, the younger brother, I had no inkling of this celebrated story - and if I'd known just the title of his book beforehand it would have pretty well given away the unexpected shock I received which comes very near the end of this film.

I hardly ever care for films where sport, any sport, takes centre stage. They invariably spend the time building up to a major competition at the end - and, as it is here, there's nothing more 'major' than the Olympics! The films always follow a tortuous path leading up to a big event, taking in the central players' highs and the lows on the way. So it is with this film, though I'm pleased to report that the showing of actual wrestling matches does not dominate, and none at all of these several scenes is extended. The true main concern here is the dynamics and drama between the three leads - Channing Tatum (emotionally withdrawn and envious of his brother's success), Steve Carrell (as the multi-billionaire mentor, creepy, dangerous and always simmering right on the edge of boiling over - and looking almost unrecognisable) - and Mark Ruffalo as David Schulz, the elder brother (liberal with his bearish hugs, particularly to his kid bro), full bearded, and looking woofier than he's ever looked, which alone is really saying something.

There are only two females in the film, both in the slightest of roles. Vanessa Redgrave plays the horse-loving, wrestling-disapproving matriarch, mother to Carrell's character, and who appears briefly and silently in a couple of scenes, and saying a few words in just a single one. With even less to say, and totally wasted, is Sienna Miller as Ruffalo's wife. (Did she end up mostly on the cutting room floor?)

The real Mark Schulz, on whose book this is based, has actually disowned the film in a spluttering rage, because of the way director Bennett Miller ( who also directed Philip Seymour Hoffman's 'Capote') has portrayed him through the Channing Tatum role. His indignation seems to stem from a subtext of implied attraction between the younger brother's character and his wealthy benefactor, who, I take it, he resents as being portrayed as  something of a sugar daddy towards him. If I hadn't known this beforehand I would have picked up on an implied erotic attraction from the apparently celibate Carrell character towards Tatum's, despite the fact that nothing on these lines is even slightly hinted at verbally - except for maybe a time when Carrell states that he's never had a true 'friend' until meeting Tatum. On the other side, I didn't detect anything at all to imply that, if indeed there had been any attraction between the two, that it was mutual. In any case, if the real Mark Schulz denies it so vehemently then it couldn't possibly be true. Matter closed!
Btw: The film's title is the name of Carrell's wrestling club, referring to his hippophilic mother's fondness for the hunt. (Oh dear!)

If I hadn't been knocked back by seeing a picture of Ruffalo in full beard (you'll have to look him up) I may well have given this film a miss. As it turned out, it certainly wasn't as bad as it could have been for me. In fact I wasn't at all bored despite its inordinate two and a quarter hours' length. In summary, quite good to watch but I wouldn't recommend going out of ones way to catch it.......................6.

Monday 12 January 2015

Film: 'Into the Woods'

I approached seeing this with huge trepidation, mainly because I know the stage piece so well and like it a lot - but also my not being a big fan of filmed theatre musicals generally (though there has been a modest number attaining my approval). This is one which I found very agreeable on the whole.
I'd been additionally put on guard by reading only yesterday a distinctly unenthusiastic review, as well as a present IMDb average rating of a lukewarm 6.5.

Drawing together the four disparate well-known fairy tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Cinderella it adds another story, one of a baker (James Corden, 'surprisingly' good) and his wife (Emily Blunt) condemned to be childless by the wicked witch next door (Meryl Streep) who will only lift her curse if they obtain for her four key articles, one from each of the other tales.
There's also Johnny Depp playing the Big Bad Wolf in what is little more than a cameo.

The first part of the film goes swimmingly and I have no major complaints at all. It's good to be able to hear all the words of Sondheim at his acerbically finest and cleverest. But, as in the original stage version, there is a violent switch of mood about two-thirds through when it takes the tales beyond their 'happy-ever-after' conclusions and gets the characters darkly moralising on the consequences of getting ones wish. I wasn't sure if such a wide contrast between the frequent comic moments in the first part and the subsequent serious reflections worked successfully in the theatre and, to my mind, it works even less so in this film, the latter providing an over-extended longueur which was starting to try my patience even though I knew how and when it would end.

Rob Marshall's direction was pretty faultless and quite imaginative - and he used cinematic effects to the maximum which, of course, enabled it to be more literal than a stage production could ever be.
As to the cast, although Streep was as good as one comes to expect, I personally preferred Julia McKenzie in the part where she hammed it up gloriously with pantomime-like relish perfectly in tune with the part, and evincing hisses from the live theatre audience. I wasn't even slightly tempted to hiss Streep.
In the West End production I saw, the wolf was played by an actor wearing the full head of that animal rather than the minimally suggested one of Depp. I would have preferred it to have been so in the film too, and I think it would have made it more interesting than seeing Depp's familiar, hardly made-up, face yet again. But he plays the small part quite well - better than, I think, he did for 'Sweeney Todd' where he didn't look visually right for me.  
Others in the cast include Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski and.........Chris Pine. 

I think most cinema audiences won't know the stage musical - or even that this is a musical at all. If they don't know it I'd be surprised if they don't like the first main section, but may well come to be perplexed when the big switch happens, as I was the first time I saw it on stage.  But this is a faithful rendition of the original and I can't really suggest a major way in which it could have been improved.
Btw: Sitting a few rows behind me was a group of four 'mature' adults. One of the men had one of those infectious laughs, the kind that makes one laugh all the more - and, very importantly, he was laughing in all the right places. His welcome presence enhanced my experience.

I may well go to see this film again..............................7.5.

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Film: 'The Theory of Everything'.

So, after a hiatus of over three weeks, back to the old routine, whilst noting films that I'd wanted to see but didn't (owing to unpropitious circumstances) disappear over the horizon, very likely to end up on my sad 'Never Seen' list.

This particular feature follows the widely-known true story of Stephen Hawking, from nerdy, rather arrogant and annoying student at Cambridge Uni, surviving through the onset of muscular dystrophy and its expected short life-survival, to world recognition in his quadriplegic and electronic-voiced  state, as one of the most prominent astro-physicists, certainly the most famous, in the world today - or, possibly any age, maybe on a par with Einstein himself.

I have absolutely no quibble with the portrayal of the two central characters, played by Eddie Redmayne as astonishingly believable as one can wish, and Felicity Jones as his (first) wife, Jane, giving him selfless support throughout his alarmingly rapid physical deterioration. The couple are at the centre of screen attention for the whole two hours.
It's not the film's fault that Hawking's story is so celebrated that it would have been distracting and troubling to have deviated from it. I have little doubt that it is as faithful a representation as we are ever going to see. But fore-knowledge also confines it. Of course there were details of certain events in his life which I hadn't appreciated, but none of them were so big as to surprise one. A lot of people, me included, knew that his first marriage hadn't lasted and that he married his nurse. So the story really had nowhere else to go.

Director James Marsh gets the very best out of all his cast, minor characters too. As we approach the time of the Oscar short-list announcements it would be a gigantic error not to include Redmayne, and if he were to actually receive the award I shan't be complaining. In the BAFTA awards, which precedes the Oscars by a few days, it looks as though 'Best Actor' is going to be a two-horse race between Redmayne and that Cumberbatch chappie (for 'The Imitation Game'). Between the two I'd have to give it to Eddie R. for this, surely one of the most jaw-dropping and believable performances put on screen  - ever!
I was also particularly struck by how different Felicity Jones looked near the film's start, all youthful and fresh-faced - but by the end her features were so careworn, the understandable result of years of uncomplaining ministrations to her husband. Remarkable.

It's a fine, fact-like (presumably) representation of a significant chunk in the life of an extraordinary man. I believe the film has had the thumbs-up from both Hawking himself and Jane (this film is actually based on her book of her years with Hawking). It would have been deeply disappointing if it hadn't. But by attempting to be so faithful to the facts the film came out to me as being a bit lacking in 'edge' - maybe even a trifle sterile? Still a recommendation, though........................6.5.