Thursday 19 March 2015

Film: 'Suite Francaise'

As someone who has become more than a little weary of war films, any war - most especially those set during WWII - I came to this hoping for something at least a little bit different, and in that respect it delivered, though without merit enough to make it outstanding.
Stories on film set during the start of the Nazi occupation of France are infrequent enough, so that alone kept my interest alive - just!

Michele Williams, who's made some rather good films already this early in her career, including 'My Night with Marilyn' - and here occasionally reminding me of (pre-transformation) Renee Zellweger - is the wife of a French P.O.W. held in Germany. She's living with her mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas), fiercely resentful of the Nazi occupation of their small town, they representing the captors of her absent son. When the lieutenant of the German unit (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts)  politely asks to be allowed to use one of their rooms as live-in accommodation for himself, her disdainful, but reined-in, displeasure is evident. Of course a refusal is impossible. The daughter-in-law gradually recognises the sensitive side of the German, and his playing and composing on their piano becomes the catalyst for their growing mutual attraction, it being a cat-and-mouse game to keep what's happening between them from the mother. The drama also involves an active local resistance fighter who has to go into hiding because of his patriotic, anti-Nazi activities.

Based on part of an unfinished work of Auschwitz-doomed Jewish writer, Irene Nemirovsky, the film seems reasonably complete in itself. All bright colours are removed. Speech is, for the most part, sensibly delivered  in unaccented, or only very slightly accented, English. Acting is good - though KST, wonderful as she always is, is here required to deliver a largely one-note performance.
Director Saul Dibb (who made the rather better 'The Duchess' of 2008) does well with his reliable resources.

Quite a reasonable achievement, then, with a story seen from a slightly unusual angle - yet nothing to get over-excited about............................6.5.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Film: 'X + Y'

This ought to have been so much better! However, I dare say that those who don't share my deep aversion to excessive background music - and this is positively swimming in it - could well feel that this is a fine film. It's one of the very worst examples of that particular trait I've seen in a long time. Why, oh why, do they do it? It's just so unnecessary. Instead of nudging our emotions in the direction the makers feel it ought to take, let the story speak for itself, for crying out loud! Are we deemed to be so stupid that we can't think for ourselves without 'pointers', or are the makers afraid that we are going to be bored?

The principal redeeming factor is the three adults in the cast, of which more anon.

Based on a true story (yawn!) its central character, played by Asa Butterfield (the titular lead in Scorsese's excellent 'Hugo' of 2011), is the teenage mathematical prodigy son of a widowed mother. Having been present as a child when his father is violently killed, he's become emotionally withdrawn to all, has inept social skills - but especially cold, unresponsive and, frankly, rude to his suffering, caring and loving mother. Sally Hawkins is astonishing as the latter. We see her trying to put on a cheerful face while trying to mask the worrying turmoil she holds underneath. Her sympathetic performance really tugged my heartstrings every time she appeared.
The story takes the son from being tutored as a child in advanced maths by the bear-like and muscular dystrophic Rafe Spall (son of Timothy S.), jumping some years to his attempting to compete for a place in an International Mathematics Olympiad at Cambridge University. He's taken with co-competitors to train in Taipei with the Chinese team (cue music with an Oriental 'tinge') where his withdrawn mien doesn't make him any more popular. His team's mentor and guide for this Far-East visit is the irrepressible Eddie Marsan, all energy and efficiency - and yet another 'bear'!

Apart from the music (there are even snatches of three songs, would you believe it!) I thought the arc of events was very much what we've seen a number of times before and, notwithstanding that it's based on true events, it's all capped by a feelgood ending which struck me as more convenient than convincing.
There were also, in my view, rather too many flashbacks to the character as a child responding to the affection of his shortly-to-die father.

We've seen Sally Hawkins recently in Woody Allen's terrific 'Blue Jasmine' as well as in Mike Leigh's superb 'Happy-Go-Lucky' (where her weird and disturbingly serious driving instructor was the same Eddie Marsan as here, though in this film the two only have one brief scene together).

Director Morgan Matthews, whose first feature as director this appears to be, has assembled a flawless cast and it's the three adult actors who hold the film together, being a total pleasure to watch. More's the pity, then, that the film itself was so marred in certain respects - though, of course, that may be just me..........................6.

Monday 16 March 2015

Film: 'Still Alice'

Profoundly affecting film for which Julianne Moore recently won both Oscar and BAFTA as 'Best Actress'.
Such being the vagaries of release date distribution, a number of those reading this will probably have already seen the film, which has only just made it to these regions.

Although other features have dealt with the subject of Alzheimer's before (most notably and movingly in 'Away From Her' of 2006, with Julie Christie), this is the first one I know which has at the centre a character suffering from the early onset of the disease, Moore playing the sufferer, a 50 year-old professor-lecturer in linguistics. It might be argued that having the latter profession is just a bit too contrived,  being someone whose profession is primarily concerned with words, yet the ability to remember those very tools of verbal communication begin to elude her. However, once that situation is taken as read it's portrayed most convincingly and, indeed at times, quite upsettingly.
I must confess that I've never been aware of personally knowing anyone of any age who has suffered from the disease. (My own mother, who lasted till she was 89, was mentally sharp to the end). I can only assume that the portrayal as shown here is accurate. I'm not aware of anyone who's said it's not so.

Julianne Moore is at least as good as she's ever been, if not even better, and fully deserves her plaudits and awards. Her slow deterioration is heart-breaking to witness, gradually and seemingly inconsequential at first, then increasing in seriousness. Alec Baldwin plays the role as her sympathetic and caring husband with conviction. I had a slight problem with one of their adult children, their younger daughter and most prominent of the siblings, Kristen Stewart, who had a tendency to mumble. No such problems with the rest of the excellent cast.
I was half-expecting that there might be scenes of hysteria and shouting but it is, on the whole, played quite low-key. Of course there are also moments of tense drama but they're not out of place with the overall mood.
Screenplay is first-rate. I've just noticed with some surprise and sorrow that the writer (based on a Lisa Genova novel) and the film's co-director, Richard Glatzer, died only a week ago at the age of 63. It's particularly poignant and sad that he's finished on such a fine work as this.

I'd strongly recommend this. If it's only, for me, just the slightest hair's breadth less successful than the aforementioned 'Away From Her', that was an awfully high hurdle to leap anyway................................8.

Friday 13 March 2015

Film: 'Chappie'

Under all the bluster, bangs and bullets this robot fantasy, set in the near future, is essentially pretty formulaic stuff. My main reason for going at all was to see the HUGE Jackman, in this as eye-poppingly delectable as he's ever been (despite alarming hairstyle), in super-macho, baddie mode, cavorting up and down sometimes in crotch- and bum-clinging shorts - and in that I wasn't in the least disappointed.

Set in and around Johannesburg (Director Neill Blomkamp's home city) Dev Patel is the young office nerd who succeeds in making one of a damaged army of shut-down police robots intelligence-independent and emotionally-sensitive, with abilities to mimic and repeat human actions as instructed. He and his pet robot are kidnapped by an anarchic and violent street gang who have to supply a rival group with an enormous monetary sum within a week. Patel is then forced to enlist his robot (the 'Chappie' of the title) into assisting with criminal heists in order to obtain the ransom. Jackman, working at the same organisation as Patel, has his own ideas on what to do with the decommissioned force of police robots, and is not best pleased when he susses out that Patel has achieved an advance in making this particular robot near-human - only to then discover that he has also been coerced into assisting with criminal activities.
Also in the cast, and playing her standard, cold, ruthless authority figure, is Sigourney Weaver, whose on-screen time must total no more than five minutes max.  

Much of the action centres around Chappie's learning how 'he' should act by copying the mannerisms, talk and gun-toting activities of the gang whom he sees as his mentors, despite Patel's efforts in trying to protect him from their undesirable influence. Some of the audience found his antics while training amusing but it left me uncomfortable in the same way I'd feel seeing a dog being trained to perform illegal or morally unacceptable acts. And when Chappie, in order to be trained, is thrown in the deep-end by being left stranded with another gang who taunt, fling missiles at, and try to destroy it, I felt very uneasy. It had clear resonances with real life in seeing the robot as being the victim of a baying, hostile mob, intent on destroying  simply for its being 'different'. Perhaps I'm carrying the analogy too far but I'm certain that the notion must have been in the director's (also the co-writer's) mind.

Acting throughout was reasonable enough. Special effects, through CGI of course, as flawless as one has come to expect. However, the 'signpost' music soundtrack was rather too invasive and insistent to the extent that it became a bit irritating.

Btw: I thought that Dev Patel (recently seen in 'The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel'), here in a 'straight' role, points up just how much his part in 'Hotel' was a caricature, and I now feel a bit guilty of a certain condescension as having seen much of his role in that film as arising from him as a person rather than being the quaint-Indian-type he was acting. 

'Chappie' is not a great film, certainly nowhere near as good as the same director's first foray into robotics, 'District 9' of 2009, but it's okay enough. And if you, like me, are also a great fan of Mr Jackman (and I do appreciate that not everybody is), then his presence alone makes the whole thing more than worthwhile. If you're not a fan, however, you'd better deduct a point from my.............6.

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Film: 'Inherent Vice'

This is weird, though not in the quirky, positive way that I found his, Thomas Paul Anderson's, 'Magnolia' of 1999.

Director Anderson has an impressive record of having made some pleasingly off-beat films in recent years, among which I'd cite 'The Master' and 'There Will be Blood' as being particularly fine. (There was also his 'Boogie Nights' which others have liked more than I did). And now comes 'Inherent Vice', certainly odd, though in a far less satisfying way than some of his others.

I assume that this film, with all its dope-smoking, is meant to reflect the unreal, semi-dream quality of Thomas Pynchon's novel (unread by me). I was quickly lost in its incoherence - the essential story being of Wolverine-sideburned, sprawling-haired Joaquin Phoenix, playing an LA private detective in the 70s, trying to find out what happened to a missing former girlfriend, and meeting all sorts of strange characters on the way, including a coterie of leathered-biker Nazis (or so it's assumed).
To maintain interest in a close on two-and-a-half hour film is a tall order and requires a firmer anchor than is provided here. Not that there aren't the occasional moments of amusement, though hardly sufficient to make the whole a watchable event.

Phoenix is good, as he generally is, as is also Josh Brolin, playing a humourless, abrasive, anti-hippie officer of LAPD, creating sparks whenever he and Phoenix encounter each other. There's a bit of violence here and there but nowhere near as much as one might expect. We also see, in a minor role, Reese ("Do you know who I AM?")  Witherspoon - whom we saw together with J.P. recently in the Johnny Cash film "Walk the Line" - as well as Owen Wilson and an oleaginous Benicio Del Toro. But the film belongs to Joaquin Phoenix who plays spaced-out perplexity quite convincingly.

I saw the film 24 hours ago but it's already fading in my memory, which is curious in that its oddity might have been expected to be longer-lasting mentally, but its confusion does it no favours. It's a long haul. Maybe it might have been improved by doing what so many of the characters do, watching it while drawing on a spliff....................5/10.

Thursday 5 March 2015

Film: 'The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel'.

So, cinema-visiting now resumed, in this year which has got off to a disappointing start in that, through circumstances, I've already had to miss a number of notable films. (Much appreciation again to those who left good wishes on my previous post).

I had no enthusiasm at all to see this sequel to a film which, to my amazement, was seen as long ago as four years. I could have sworn it was only as recent as 2013, maybe even just last year. Also surprising to see that I gave this original a rating of 6, when my memory of it is having enjoyed it markedly less than that.
This latest film seems to have been pushed through as an afterthought on the back of the first having unexpectedly done as well as it did - so let's have another shot at it and make even more money.

Most of the original cast are here reprising their former roles - Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup - and again with the chirpily watchable Dev Patel, here trying to keep his self-willed mum in check -  plus, this time, the seemingly incongruous figure of Richard Gere as an unexpected hotel guest of whose true identity Dev Patel has suspicions.
There's none of the cast whom I dislike and they are all given a reasonable share to do, though nothing that carries great weight. Being a collection of disparities, there is a far weaker dramatic thrust than in the earlier film, the principal focus this time being on Patel's upcoming wedding as well as his proprietorship of the hotel that was the central feature of the original film, now with the addition of an adjacent dilapidated hotel being renovated. There's much romantic twisting and turning too among the older members of the cast, Gere included, leading to employment of excessive sentiment which I found embarrassing, as well as being unlikely.
The script is up to the mark most of the time, Patel's stilted and entertaining use of English being one of the joys. Scenes of Indian city life as well as some panoramic views from the train are very impressive.

John Madden ('Shakespeare in Love', 'Mrs Brown', 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin') gets through it all with the efficiency one would expect.

An okay film (just), made on the flimsiest of pretexts. The cast obviously enjoyed themselves making it, which can be a fatal flaw, though here it squeezingly passes muster. Only please, let's now call it a day and don't go and make yet another one..................4.5/10.