Wednesday 29 April 2015

Film: 'While We're Young'

I thought I might enjoy this but it was not to be. My hopes were based on this being a Noah Baumbach film (writer and director) whose previous feature, 'Frances Ha', I liked. Also, it has an interesting cast - unless you're one of those who has a Ben Stiller aversion - here additionally with Naomi Watts, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. In the event, after the first few scenes its slightly over hour-and-half became increasingly sombre in mood, resulting in the film seeming longer.

It did start quite promisingly with Stiller and Watts as a middle-aged childless couple, whose non-parental status is a recurring motif throughout. There's a certain staleness which has invaded their lives, but when they meet another couple twenty years or so younger than he is, with zest and enthusiasm for doing what they want, it infects their mood, waking them up as to how they ought to be living their lives to the full. The younger man (Adam Driver), stetson be-hatted, is trying to make a documentary of a certain encounter he's had and gets Stiller interested as he is also laboriously trying to compose a documentary film of an aged philosopher he knows, and getting nowhere fast. The older couple, particularly Stiller, are at first fascinated and almost smitten by the younger pair's easy-going relationship which they wish to emulate, though Naomi Watts has a more cagey attitude towards the younger pair.

There are a few moderately comic moments but they become rarer as the film progresses, until I thought, approaching the end, the whole affair became very heavy weather, with Stiller delivering a homily on truthfulness and trust, having discovered that the Driver character is not all that he was assumed to be. By this time I was stifling yawns.

Acting was okay, but for situations which could have delivered a number of bon-mots, I found the screenplay, by and large, pretty unexceptional.

A competent enough film, though not one to go out of ones way to catch. I think it deserves a...............5/10

Monday 27 April 2015

Film: 'A Little Chaos'

I felt a little more favourably disposed to this costume drama (France, late XVIIth century) than some of the tepid reviews I've seen. True, it may be no great shakes in the annals of film-making but it's quite an interesting, though totally fabricated, story of widowed female landscape gardener (Kate Winslet) and her efforts to create a water/amphitheatre feature in the wild-growing site of the proposed gardens of Versailles for 'Sun King' Louis XIV (Alan Rickman, also the film's director). There's a gradually developing romantic element involving her and the garden's architect, Matthias Schoenaerts (seen recently in 'Suite Francaise').
It's been said by some that the direction leans towards being leaden, though I felt that its leisurely pace, at least for the most part, agreeably suited the ambience of the shenanigans of the Royal Court of the period it depicted.
Among the supporting cast is Stanley Tucci. More's the pity, then, that he's given so little screen time in total, seeing as he's one of those actors who has the ability to raise the quality of any film in which he appears. Not that this is devoid of its own merits, but it would have been to its advantage to have had a lighter touch in places, which Tucci could so readily have supplied.

Winslet is as fine as we've come to expect though Rickman as the royal persona took a little swallowing, while Schoenaerts proves himself capable enough of providing the male love interest. Photography and camerawork do full justice to the subject matter. All in all, not bad, I'd say.......................6.


Tuesday 21 April 2015

Film: 'Relatos Salvajes' ('Wild Tales')

This is my kind of film - and it's an absolute cracker!

When it opened a couple of weeks ago in this region it was showing at such ridiculously inconvenient (i.e. late) times I was distraught to be missing it in the light of the practically unanimously positive reviews it had received. But the gods heard my prayer and unaccountably, it being neither a blockbuster or of 'popular' taste, brought it to my home town for a limited showing. And was it worth it? YES and double YES!

An Argentian film, a compendium of six separate, unconnected stories played out sequentially, written and directed by one Damian Szifron, clearly a talent to be watched.
The tales do, in fact, have something in common - they all involve circumstances spiralling out of control and downwards, some of them unconsciously triggered by the most insignificant happening or strange coincidence. Even the one that begins with a tragedy descends ever deeper into the mire.
One might expect that the individual six stories would be uneven in quality. Maybe they are so, but not by a huge margin - and each is vastly entertaining, never boring for an instant.

Special mention must be made of the first one, which is the shortest (and also pre- the title credits) which, unknown to the film-makers at the time (completed last year), uncannily and closely predicts a horrific event on everybody's news just a few weeks ago. It's one hell of a chilling start, and if the film had been made after that particular event it would certainly have been dropped or the story altered. Of course it's pure coincidence.

Each of the tales has an edge of black humour to it, to which some may not be in tune. Myself, I laughed aloud several times during the two hours, which seemed to fly by.

The grisliest story is a section which only features two motorists. Talk about events 'snowballing', this caps the lot! - and it's rounded off with a killer (if you'll excuse the word) of a final line which just had me in stitches despite the most macabre of scenes.

Others include - a guy's reaction to being charged with a common parking offence which escalates out of all proportion; a customer arriving at a restaurant and being recognised by the waitress holding a long-term grudge; a tragic motoring accident with an attempt to cover the truth of the driver's identity; and, in the final segment, a wedding reception such as never before.

My only very slight reservation is that one of the stories (or, arguably, two) ends on a bit of an upbeat which, I suppose, is intended to act as a counterpoise to the rest. I would have found it more satisfying if they had all ended in the depths of hell, but maybe it was felt that that would have been expecting the audience to accept more than it was capable of doing. But it's by no means a serious criticism.

Great acting throughout. I simply loved it - and, along with 'Ex Machina', it's my favourite film of the year so far..................8.5

Thursday 16 April 2015

Film: 'Force Majeure'

Belying the title given in the English-speaking world  (though it is set in the French Alps), this is actually a Swedish film, most of the dialogue being in that language. It's been garlanded with very high praise in some quarters - and if I don't entirely concur with that opinion it's still a film with more merit than many I've seen.

A Swedish family of parents and two little children are on a ski-ing holiday when a pivotal event takes place ten minutes in, the aftermath of which completely dominates the rest of this two-hour film.
All four are on the hotel restaurant balcony having a meal, with spectacular views of surrounding snow-scaped mountains, when in the distance, high up, an avalanche commences. At first the father (Johannes Kuhnke), capturing it on his phone, reassures the others that its effects will be 'controlled'. It soon turns out that that is not to be the case and as the snow wall approaches it threatens to engulf the entire building. Crucially, in the ensuing panic, the father's first instinctive reaction is to hang onto his phone and rush to escape, leaving his wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) with their children screaming by the table as the avalanche covers everything in sight. It's all over in seconds. No one is hurt and the father returns. However those few seconds was all it took for the foundation of trust from wife to husband to shift irrevocably.
At first not a word is said by anyone but it's the children's silence that is most telling. Their unvoiced sense of betrayal simmers underneath while the mother tries to keep her feelings buttoned down. She then gently breaks her concern to him. He sees what happened somewhat differently though it's clear that what he's keeping in is a sense of guilt. The pair are already acquainted with two other separate couples, and in their social chatting, the wife, perhaps assisted by the wine, gently relates to them what had occurred, though with a certain levity in her telling, which the husband superficially brushes off as being only her version, while silently resenting her mentioning the subject at all. (We know that what she says is absolutely what happened). The male of one of the couples tries to justify the his friend's action as being a spur-of-the-moment, unthinking reaction for self-survival, though his defence leads to some tension with his own female partner.

There are long pauses in dialogue, visually matched by superb close to white-out visuals as the family take their ski-ing sessions. I could have done without the regular use of an over-familiar snippet of Vivaldi on the soundtrack. Also, as the father wrestled with his own inner turmoil, I thought his mental self-flagellation became so intense as to be indulgent. It may well have been an accurate portrayal of what can happen to an individual in such a situation but I found it becoming dangerously close to exasperating.
But more than these points, I felt that it would have been an even stronger film if the final quarter hour or so had been lopped off. It still would have been a longish film. In these last minutes two more events happen. Without giving too much away, I'll only say that the first seemed to attempt to put a quasi-redemptive gloss onto the father, while the second happening, utterly different from and unconnected with anything elsewhere in the film, showed (rather clumsily for me, I'm afraid) that there had indeed been a transformation - while the mother, so prominent before, is curiously side-lined in the final shots. No, I would have preferred it with an open ending leaving one to surmise what happened next. Others may not agree. I've not usually had a problem with unresolved situations at ends of films as some others do - after all, life itself does not happen with events occurring in parcels, each closed off and tied up with a ribbon, but they meld into the next one, situations change and compete with each other for prominence. I see life as more like a number of unbroken  parallel threads, criss-crossing and getting tangled up, than one like a chain of separate happenings. At least that's my thought, so it doesn't worry me unduly to see films (or novels) ending on irresolution.

Acting throughout was very good indeed. However, I did sometimes think that the little girl, while saying her serious (few) lines, was smiling underneath, maybe self-consciously.
Director Ruben Ostland draws brilliant performances from the adults, particularly both parents.

A good film then, but a shame that, with some judicious pruning, an even better one was so near its grasp.....................6.5.

Monday 13 April 2015

Film: 'Woman in Gold'

Another film, this one unexpectedly severe-toned, based on a true story!
Dame Helen Mirren, who never seems to be out of work, appears in this drama involving the reclaiming of an unusual painting, (incorporating gold-leaf effect), by Austrian Gustav Klimt, under the assumed title which is used for this film. This family-heirloom painting (actually of Mirren character's aunt, whose name is the work's true title), having been removed from her home by the Nazis after the Austrian 'Anschluss',  it remained post-war on public display in one of Vienna's principal art galleries. Mirren is resolved to get it back into her possession in L.A. where she now lives, enlisting the assistance of attorney Ryan Reynolds, who happens to be the grandson of influential composer Arnold Schoenberg. (Did you get all that?)

I thought the film rather stodgy in execution, over-serious and heavy-going with little to lighten the mood, most especially in numerous flashbacks of the young Maria Altmann's (the Mirren character when a child) Jewish family life during the German invasion, starting with house arrest. There are a few fairly distressing scenes of the public humiliations of Jews, though as Maria manages to get out before things reach their extreme depths, we don't see anything of their later horrific fate. Nevertheless the mood is unremittingly grim.
Even in the present-day legal scenes, first in Vienna and then in America, as Maria and her lawyer have to jump through hoops to achieve her dream, it all remains very sombre.

Helen Mirren, retaining an Austrian accent, is as good as we've come to expect.
Director Simon Curtis had exhibited for me a better, more assured, touch with his 'My Night with Marilyn'.

Incidentally, reading the film's credits just now, I see that what stood in for Vienna's airport was, in fact, our own local Shoreham airport, just five miles from where I am now sitting.

This is a film that takes its subject with a seriousness which, arguably, it merits. However I think it was less 'entertainment' than history lesson. Although I was aware of the work of art in question, I had no idea of its story, so in that sense it was an education. But I didn't exit the cinema thinking "Wow, that was worth the effort!" even though on one level it had enlightened me. The truth was that I felt rather weighed down by the  story and came out longing for some light relief...............................5.5.

Film: 'Big Eyes'

I was expecting that the curtailed frequency of my cinema-going (reasons explained in another recent blog) would result in my being offered mere 'crumbs from the table', with the films that I do manage to see being determined by what's available rather than those which I'd like to see or feel ought to be seen.  But if these 'scraps' all turn out to be as entertaining as this one then there'll be no complaints.

Actually released around Christmas time, this got a singular  one-off morning screening in my home town. It's an enjoyable and interesting caper (based on a true story, wouldn't you know?), never dull, and directed in untypically restrained fashion by that reveller in flashy shots, Tim Burton.  

Set in San Francisco and starting in 1958, Any Adams (first class) is a divorcee with a little girl who bumps into Christoph Waltz (also very good) when they both happen to be merchandising their respective artistic talents to passers-by - she painting urchin-esque children with exaggeratedly huge, round eyes (sometimes with a cuddly animal), he displaying Parisian street scenes. They hit it off straight away and go for a quick marriage. By accident one day an admirer assumes that he is actually the artist of a painting hanging on a wall which was actually hers, and he goes along with the notion without realising the full potential. He tells her about it and, dawning on them both, though she more reluctantly, plays along, both spoilt by how lucrative the little wheeze could transpire. And it turns out to be exactly that, her paintings in his name becoming a national phenomenon, quickly bringing them riches of which they'd never dreamed. You may well guess that she pretty soon tires of her own talent being palmed off as someone elses while he takes all the credit and gets the kudos - and their relationship sours.
Supporting cast, including Danny Huston and Terence Stamp, are also very fine, as both always are.

If it tips over towards ludicrousness towards the very end, it doesn't spoil the whole film. Besides, for all I know, this may be precisely how it did happen.
It got me in such a good mood throughout that I could even almost forgive the one song on the soundtrack - but only almost.
A good, unsensational film. I'm still feeling a bit of a glow as I go out now to see my second film of the day. For this one, though, an easy.........................7.5.

Thursday 9 April 2015

Eurovision Song Contest 2015 - My evaluations and choice for winner.

It doesn't take place until towards the end of next month (with the two semi-finals in the days preceding), but for the first time, taking a leaf out of Craig's blog......

..........I've listened to each of this year's 40 entries, giving all of them my complete attention. After careful consideration, I've now come up with my choices, ordinally placed as follows:-

1) Estonia (current betting odds puts it 3rd)     
2) Austria (19th)
3) Denmark (30th)
4) Russia (7th)
5) San Marino (40th, i.e. last!)

I have high hopes for the U.K. entry, a M/F duo with a 'Roaring-20s' pastiche. Present betting places it 10th.  I think it's a brave choice, unlike any other entry this year - or maybe it's a sign of desperation to try to get something noticed after many years of finishing in unillustrious positions, even last or near to last (except for Andrew Lloyd Webber's [pretty good] song, which finished 5th in 2009). If the U.K. doesn't make the first ten with this one there ain't no justice. If it ends up in the bottom half it'll be a travesty; but travesties have always been second nature to this infuriatingly watchable event.

A few further comments:-
Current favourite is Sweden (it usually is!) which I don't rate at all. It didn't even make my 'long list' of 12 from which I chose the above five. But it's a rare year indeed when my own favourite song wins, the last one being (also 2009) with Alex Rybak, the little happy hottie from Norway with his fiddle.

My top choice of Estonia clearly won't be to everybody's taste, but it has an attractive originality about it, both melodically and lyric-wise.

Austria's song, which I place second, is a very Lennon-esque arrangement (think 'Imagine'), though putting that aside I think it's a quality song.

Denmark's entry (a throwback to 1960's pop groups) reminded me a lot of the title song of the Tom Hanks written-and-directed film 'That Thing You Do', but it's no worse for being that. It's a cheerful little number.

Russia gives us one of those rather predictable, aspirational big ballads but I've heard a lot worse, and it's actually not that bad. The video features mainly little kids but also adult couples, most of advanced age, only one (or two?) of which could possibly be considered as a possible same-sex couple (both couples being female), though they are much more likely to be familial-related. Anything suggesting that gay couples can be okay (oh, horror!) would be contravening their 'gay propaganda' laws. ("We Believe in Dreams", indeed - but dreams for whom?)
The accompanying video mimics but is very different from Madonna's video for her abridged version of 'American Pie', which was gratifyingly upfront about showing us gay couples. (I loved her version of the song itself, by the way, which had an infectious drive to it, even though it was generally panned and Madge herself regretted having acquiesced to Rupert Everett's pestering her to release it.)

Australia's offering wasn't at all bad. It very nearly got into my Top 5 with it's jazzy inflections. However, I doubt if it'll be highly placed, unless the novelty of having that country enter for the first time gets it noticed.

You can hear (and see) all the songs here:-

So there you are. Make of my choices what you will - and we'll see if they come to pass on May 23rd.

The second part of the above is easy, at least for some of us - the first, well-nigh impossible!

Friday 3 April 2015

Sudden pussy predicament - now resolved.

(These are not my own, sadly. Picture taken from internet.)

Because I don't blog often on what's going on in my own life (pretty uneventful, if truth be told), it won't be known that a new one of my occasional furry visitors, as a result of my open-window policy, first started poking nose in about mid-Jan, tentatively at first, then gradually getting bolder until about a month ago she started sleeping on my bed every night with me and it was clear that a full move-in was on the cards. A little tortoise-shell tabby, collared (which she was soon mysteriously to lose) but disturbingly 'chubby' - which my own feelings of denial preferred not to think of what was the most likely cause. My enquiries in the vicinity as to who could be its owner came to nothing. Anyway, she was here sleeping day and night, being fed by me (impossible to refuse) when, about a week ago, she suddenly disappeared for 24 hours, and then re-appeared looking substantially thinner. My denial to face up to likelihood continued. She seemed to be carrying on as before- at least I assumed that all was normal - until, just after 5 p.m. yesterday, I followed where she was making for in my bedroom and discovered under a pile of old clothes which had been chucked in a corner.......three tiny kittens! All writhing about in lively fashion, their eyes still as yet unopened making the occasional little squeaks as they felt out their tiny paws for mummy, who was watching me anxiously in my having discovered her new offspring. I must have been sleeping in the same room for several nights and been entirely unaware of the new occupants. 
There was no way I could keep them, already owning two cats in a flat where having any pets at all is not allowed, my landlord having turned a blind eye to my present other two. It would have been a stretch too far to expect him to approve still more. So my moment of near-panic progressed to practicalities. Discovering them on the eve of Good Friday, when help and advice was unlikely to be forthcoming before next Tuesday, was all that I needed! Managed to get through to my local animal clinic just as they were closing and they suggested I try the local Cat Welfare Trust. Rang a lady there as she was on way home. But she rang me back an hour later, bless her. She arranged that someone could come and collect all four pussies this very Good Friday morn, which was done - assuring me that the mother would be spayed and found a home and the three kitties would be comfortably looked after, have done what's necessary to them including having tag implants and will also, when old enough, be given new homes. And all at no charge!
    Naturally I was sorry to see Tortie go (the name I gave her and to which she'd started responding) as she was becoming another cuddly fixture, undesirable though it was. But there was no alternative and in the now four hours since she's been taken away I've tried to stop my mind from dwelling on her and the kitties. The lesson for me is that I'll just have to be more careful as to who I allow to settle here in future and, as sexist as it is, keep all tabbies out, or at least in the unlikely event that I know that they've been neutered.
   I never took a picture of Tortie, and certainly not her kitty-kids, which is maybe just as well. It would be heart-breaking to have reminders of her until my present mental 'trauma' has subsided.
It's been an emotionally-fraught few hours since yesterday evening. Can only now try to get back to giving my entire attention to the two elderly co-resident companions which I have got.

As another revered blogger whom I avidly follow says - heigh-ho!

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Film: 'Cinderella'

Firstly, a regretful situation has arisen in which, because of a change of screening times at my two most oft-frequented cinemas (both in Brighton and both 'art-house', belonging to the same chain)  the morning matinees, which I normally attend, have been shifted forward by 30 mins, which means that for at least one of these cinemas I'm unable to make it in time using my Senior Citizens' free bus pass. I would be able to manage it by taking the train but that would mean paying more than the actual price of admission in addition, which is something I'd have been willing to do had I money to spare, but as it is, it's not going to be possible. Even getting to the other cinema in time is going to be touch-and-go, leading to occasional wretchedly wasted journeys, I fear. 
The change was made some weeks ago and already there have been a good six or seven films which I would ordinarily have seen, thus accounting for my failing to post anything here for a longer than usual interval.
I had actually, in any case, been considering winding down my attendances, and hence postings of reviews, either when I reached a specifically round 5,000 films viewed (some 340 still to go) or when I attained the age of seven-zero in 18 months time. Taken out of my hands, it looks like that situation may arise before either of these numerical 'landmarks' arrives.
Still, I shall dauntingly press on, though it looks as though the future films which I cover will be of a more limited range. Truly sorry about that, as you may appreciate.

 So to Kenneth Branagh's well-received 'Cinderella' - and yet again I find myself swimming against the tide. I found this a turgid affair. Eschewing the 'waistful' mention of liquid diets, it was, without doubt, gloriously visually accomplished. However, apart from Cate Blanchett as C's blisteringly spiteful stepmother, I found little to stave off the boredom. The two step-sisters were just too annoyingly daft for words. (Am I alone in thinking that there are few things as UNfunny as someone deliberately singing out of tune, while we are supposed to believe that they are trying their best?).
I found both Lily James in the title role and Richard Madden as the Prince insipid and forgettable whilst Helena Bonham Carter's Fairy Godmother was just plain irritating. (Two principal-minor roles are taken by Derek Jacobi and Stellan Skarsgard.)

The film faithfully sticks to the basics of the story with which we are all familiar, save for a moderately significant embellishment towards the end, though it all seems to be expanded, to its detriment, to the point of attenuation. It would have been much more effective at half the length; even a single hour would have more than sufficed.

Branagh's direction and swirling camerawork is done with the panache we've come to expect of him, while scenery, costumes and locations are as lavish and opulent as one could wish. The transformation of Cinderella, pumpkin and accoutrements was impressively achieved - the de-transformation at midnight even moreso.

I have to confess never to have been a fan of Patrick Doyle's music in any film where he's written the soundtrack score, and here it's distractingly upfront - though I dare say that those who were not put out by the negatives I've noted up to now may not notice it especially.
Praise has been accorded to Chris Weitz's screenplay though I didn't find it witty as some have said, and far less than the story deserves in order to keep it fresh.

I did go to a morning matinee at my closest cinema, and shouldn't have been too surprised, on entering, to be hit by a thick fug of sweet-smelling confections emanating from the purchases of scores upon scores of shouty kids, mostly adult-accompanied, including quite a number of toddlers and even a few babies. The din before the curtains went up was near-deafening, though I have to say that once the film started they were, for the most part, reasonably attentive (except for two instances of wailing babies, hastily carried out). It didn't really affect my 'enjoyment' of the experience, such as it was.

It's clear that I am way outside the target group for this film. Even so, I had expected there to have been more in it to have kept me entertained...............................3/10.