Tuesday 26 May 2015

Film: 'Tomorrowland'

I  want to use this opportunity to point out to my revered blog-followers that once again my computer is stuttering and spluttering to a halting destination, I fear, with frequent freezes and 'unresponsive message' alerts, taking me about six hours (or more) to achieve what ought to be managed in less than one. Commenting on some of your own blogs has become near-impossibly arduous. Even my e-mail account, where I can send missives without trouble, has got the inbox jammed up, taking a full week for me to see any individual message as they dribble through at the rate of about one per day. If I had the money I'd get the whole apparatus rectified without delay, or, far better, get a brand new up-to-date computer, but as I haven't I'll have to struggle along as best I can. So please bear with me if you've written something I would otherwise have liked to comment on and which you might have expected. Sometimes just getting your own blog on screen can freeze up the whole works for maybe an hour (It happens with some, but not for others.)  I'll continue trying to respond where I can, but if you don't hear from me for a while I will still be here, hoping for better times shortly.  

This bored me to distraction. I do believe that about two-thirds through I did actually momentarily nod off. Not even the on-screen ruckus of explosions, fights with lethal ray guns, humanoid robots, high-speed aerial vehicles - you know, all the usual stuff - could prevent my dozing.
It may actually be a good film for all I know, but I'm clearly as far removed from the audience this is aimed at as it's possible to be, and only went because there was a chance to see it for £3 (American about $4.60 ), it not being on my 'must see' list.

Where to start? I'll give it short shrift, but this idea of averting global catastrophe has become so banal now.  We've seen it done to death that it's become like 'crying wolf'. It just doesn't engage any more - at least not for this viewer.
George Clooney, looking far from comfortable in his role, is a life-long inventor since being a little boy and, playing around with glimpsing into the future, sees an apocalypse coming, and even has a countdown apparatus to zero hour. But his vision of total annihilation is questioned by a bright young girl who joins him (plus a human-replicant younger girl-robot), she having acquired a 'key' to actually travel to the future. However, she is also armed with that highly desirable quality, 'optimism', which he lacks. Also hopping between present day and future is shady character Hugh Laurie, looking almost as uncomfortable in the wrong part as Clooney. Fights develop involving gangs of human-like robots, but it all left me cold and wanting it to end (The film, not the world - though having said that......). Do Clooney and the girl save the entire planet from its likely dire fate? I was past caring, though I'm not going to 'spoil' it for you.

Purely in terms of relating to what I consider entertains me, I give it a better-to-avoid mark of..........3 (out of 10).


Sunday 24 May 2015

Eurovision Song Contest from Vienna - Sweden triumphs (again) as U.K. gets trodden on (again).

Well, at least Russia didn't win, though for a time it came awfully close to it. That was my main consolation of the night.
The actual winning song, 'Heroes', performed by very good-looking Mans Zelmerlow, had been the bookies' favourite for weeks, though I would have ranked it in about 10th place (I'd have placed Russia around 6th or 7th).

I think what helped him one was the sometimes remarkable backscreen effects, so one was distracted from what I felt was a little more than ordinary song.
This was Sweden's sixth win in the 60 years of the event's history, one better than the U.K's achievement so far, and one short of Ireland's record-holding seven wins to date.

 Conchita Wurst, bearded drag-queen winner for Austria in 2014, made multiple (too many, for me) appearances in the roles of presenter, interviewer and performer during the nearly four hour-long show, supplementing the already three-woman-strong presenting team. He was so ridiculously over-lauded throughout, that one might have thought he was the Second Coming incarnate! 

Despite Russia's entry, 'A Million Voices', being one of the better songs, its message of unity, hope, love and tolerance was so at variance from the political workings of the current ruling class in that country with their odious domestic policies and their supine support of the repressive Russian Orthodox Church, that it seemed a joke to their ever having approved the song, affectingly performed by a sweet young thing, Polina Gagarina (containing in her name echoes of both Lady G. and the first man in space) who sang her heart out - and who cried when the voting was half way through when it looked like she was the most likely to win. (Of course the message of the song is the image the Russian rulers want to project, as though we were all totally stupid). Comforted by the ubiquitous Conchita, she was careful this time not to be seen getting too pally as, according to commentator Graham Norton, she was reprimanded by her Russian overseers at the semi-finals for exchanging pecks on the cheek with him. ("Euro-pervs!") 

Another very satisfying moment was seeing the first-ever Australian entry, 'Tonight Again', with their happy, baby-faced smiler, Guy Sebastian, finishing in an unexpected and extremely creditable fifth place - and looking every bit that he was thoroughly enjoying himself. It was an mood-uplifting performance. Give that Guy a hug!

Apart from that it was a long night of groans and incomprehension - in other words, much as it's been in previous years. With more countries (27) participating than ever before, the extended running time itself over-ran by half an hour, finishing close on midnight.

My championing from the start of the upbeat, chirpy and risk-taking British entry, the 1920s pastiche 'Still in Love with You',  from duo 'Electro Velvet' (Bianca Nicholas and Alex Clarke, he of the disarming smile), turned to dust as we limped into 24th place with an aggregate of just 5 points (as against Sweden's 365 and Russia's 303 ), and those points from only two of the other 39 voting countries. (Craig, in comments below, says he thinks three countries gave us some minimal support). I still like the song.

My own top choice, Estonia, (Elina Born & Stig Rasta with 'Goodbye to Yesterday') finished in 7th place:-

However, my runner-up choice, Austria, (the 'Makemakes' with 'I Am Yours') was spoilt by the gimmick of a piano on fire - part of the 'act') and finished joint last with Germany, both countries picking up zero points!

Cyprus I liked too, with an unpretentious, simple song performed with modest resources - and I gave nods to Hungary and Romania as well.

Actual third place was the well-received Italian entry, 'Grande Amore', performed last, with a young version of 'The Three Tenors' doing a reasonably attractive, though not very memorable, song.
Belgium came in fourth place, their highest finishing position for as long as I can recall.

However, for very nearly all the voting time it was clear that the real competition was going to be between Sweden and Russia until, even before all the votes had been declared, it was announced that Sweden was going to be the winner as by then it was clear that it couldn't be caught.

And how can we omit mentioning Lithuania's full-on gay kisses? - the 'shock' of the night if one wasn't expecting it. Several national governments will have been outraged, including China that was broadcasting the contest live for the first time. Good :-

A reasonable event for 2015, then, though I think not the most entertaining of recent years.

So, the question for us, as it seems it's been forever is - Will the U.K next year finally break the jinx? (Even a top five placing would be refreshing and reassuring) - or are we so disliked in so many countries that the question contains its own answer?.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Film: 'Mad Max - Fury Road' (in 2D)

Being led to believe that this would be a virtually non-stop din plus a fair helping of spectacle and little else, I went along armed with cotton wool balls to plug my auricular orifices should it have been necessary. In the event I didn't use them. The film wasn't quite as totally vacuous as my expectation of it, though in terms of entertaining me it did leave much to be desired.

Tom Hardy is now in the role previously occupied by the career self-destroying Mel Gibson in the 1979 original version of this basic plot (such as there is) followed by its less satisfactory sequels. I like Hardy a lot but didn't find it so easy to accept him as the title character, a man with no compunction about killing left, right and centre. Admittedly. he was fleeing for his life from his foes, barbarian grotesques who'd themselves think nothing of wholesale slaughter to achieve their purpose. Yet under this tough-man exterior, evolved through a lifetime of being forced to survive by any means, Max can melt to reveal that he has a cream-puff interior. I suppose the unbelievablity of the character itself has more to do with it than the actor playing the part. I dare say that in the original (seen when it was first released and never again since) I must have felt the same way about the then unknown Gibson.
On the other hand we have Charlize Theron as the softly-spoken, one-handed Furiosa with whom Max hitches an escaping lift - but by golly, underneath she's as tough as old boots! She has in tow a bevy of (initially) five beauties, forced wives of the dastardly chief villain from whom they have been rescued. They are wearing little more than semi-diaphanous white shifts. But additional protection is unnecessary as their faces and exposed body parts manage to escape the slightest graze or mark despite a max-voltage chase through the wilds of the Australian deserts with bullets, shrapnel, missiles, fire and God-knows what else zinging past them by millimeters - though, it must be said that as a concession, some of their hairstyles do get rather mussed. (Must have been such a nuisance!)
The Furiosa character is very much one-dimensional - though there are hints that (surprise, surprise!) she too has a heart of gold. If it wasn't for the frequent cacophonous noise level around her voice might have the property of sending one into slumber.
Apart for the two main characters the film is peopled with deformed and/or painted minor characters, some hideously so, their bodies either deliberately shaped or adorned with ornamental metals, tattoos, survival paraphernalia and this and that, all calculated to heighten ones feeling of revulsion.

One accepts, these days, that much of the long-shot fight scenes and views of crowds is achieved by CGI, a technique which, if it impresses at all, still manages to detract from taking ones breath away. I understand that Hardy did all his stunts himself and there's certainly no shortage of on-screen acrobatics and contortions here, yet hardly anything that we haven't seen before even though it is sustained for unusually long sequences in this film.
I also hear that it was shot in 2D and only later 'enhanced' in the workshops for 3D 'depth'. I doubt if the extra dimension was more than an improvement than a distraction.

Director George Miller manages to keep the action sections moving along at a cracking pace, with exceptionally fine editing. There were hardly any times I noticed where the 'joins' showed.

However, I must own that the whole enterprise soon began trying my patience. The first time I looked at my watch it was just twenty minutes in, and it's a two-hour film. I did think that I might well leave before the finish though I managed to stay the course, largely due by my getting more drawn in by the second half than I'd been feeling in the first hour.

Overall, I found it an 'okay' sort of film. It did what it was required to do, and that rather well, it must be said. But it was all very superficial - delivering thrills galore if that's what you're after though with nothing underneath. However, it's not exactly the kind of film where one would search for profundities, and nor does it purport to be.
Anyway, after due consideration I'll opt for giving it a rating of....................5.5

Monday 18 May 2015

Film: 'A Royal Night Out'

Preposterous story (one assumes, and for which this film might be forgiven) but unexpectedly ponderous too, with patchily few entertaining episodes.
It is documented that on the evening of 'Victory in Europe' Day, 1945, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret did indeed venture, chaperoned, out of Buckingham Palace (with friends) to join in the celebratory revelries with the 'common people' in the vicinity and beyond. That much is known. What then happened in the ensuing hours is not.
This story imagines what might have occurred that night, the two young ladies' only true night of 'freedom', and I have no complaint in the least about that, though the unlikeliness of events turning out as depicted here hovers over the action throughout.

The 19-year old Queen-to-be, Elizabeth, is played here by Sarah Gadon, definitely good in portraying a young woman, very conscious of her unique position, and attempting to maintain an air of decorum while everybody else is letting down their hair (and.....?) in various stages of inebriation. Bel Polay is Margaret, her sister's junior by five years, already showing her flighty, carefree side, that arising at this early stage of her life more from her adolescent years than her later developed love of the 'high life' with drinks ever on hand.
Rupert Everett, in his depiction of King George reminded me much more of Prince Philip. On the other hand, the undoubted star of the film is Emily Watson doing a superb version of the then Queen Elizabeth, easily making up for the film's deficiencies. She's quite uncannily accurate. I could have done with seeing much more of her.

Soon after the two young ladies embark on their night of adventure they lose/shake off their guards, get caught up in conga lines and are separated in the general free-for-all melee. Elizabeth, not knowing directions, accidentally gets drawn towards a young man who (would you credit it?) has precious little Royalist sympathies and who, with good reason, wishes to avoid military authorities which are in evidence everywhere. He is no more than mildly interested in her, preferring to get together with more 'available' females, while her only interest in doggedly clinging onto his company is as someone who can help her get around and look for her sister who, meanwhile, is visiting certain establishments where one would hardly expect someone of her position and stature to be seen. Needless to say, at no time are they recognised for the people they really are.
As the night goes on both Elizabeth and the young man develop a degree of mutual emotional attraction, approaching a soggy sentimentality at the end, though there is nothing that breaches the requisites of propriety. (They wouldn't have dared to suggest such!)

The direction of Julian Jarrold ('Becoming Jane', 'Kinky Boots', 'Brideshead Revisited') is fair enough, though I doubt if many or even any of the scenes will prevail in the memory very long.

This could have been more interesting, but I felt it over-protracted and coming dangerously close to giving me that feeling of ennui, despite it being only just over an hour and a half long. If you like Emily Watson as I do, go see - otherwise, well, only if the subject grabs you...................5.


Sunday 17 May 2015

Film: 'Unfriended'

I'd half-expected that an entire film showing nothing but a computer screen was going to be a tall order to sit through, even if only 83 mins long as this one is. As it turned out, this modest horror feature was quite chillingly effective.

Half a dozen brattish kids of late-teenage years hook up to chat via their computer screens (all very free in employing frequent sexual expletives in their dialogue, of course)  in the wake of one of their female friends having committed suicide as a result of being goaded on to do so by someone initially unidentified, each of the six claiming innocence of any involvement. A mysterious interloper logs into their conversation using the Facebook identity of the deceased, only typing his/her(?) contributions, while the others use both voice and keyboard. They can not only not identify this person using all the means available to computer whizz-kids that some of them are, but they can't shut out or get rid of him/her either (the 'Unfriended' of the film's title). The mysterious presence gradually gets more menacing and threatening, warning that revenge for what was done to the deceased will come to each of them unless they honestly answer all questions put to them, which reveals that maybe they're not quite as guiltless of the girl's death that they maintained they were. It's a familiar story of the elimination of each of the group one by one (despatched by varied grisly means), a formula that has been the staple of horror films for generations but here put in a refreshingly up-to-date setting - though we all know that this won't be the last of them!

It's an unknown cast (at least to me), as is director, Levan Gabriadze, but they're all strong and believeable.
I wasn't at all bored even though we've all seen this formula used numerous times in the past. One is constantly guessing who is going to be next? - and will anyone survive?

I suppose my main criticism is that the shock moments too often fall back on the old threadbare cliche of having a loud thud or thump on the soundtrack to ensure that one jumps in ones seat. I think it's a weakness in that one shouldn't need any such 'assistance' to be shocked. If the happening itself is effectively and unexpectedly depicted that should be enough to give one a jolt - and in most of the shock events here this does have all that, so there was no need to fall back on what has become an overused, cheapish trick. It's a shame because it could have stood on its own two feet without having to go to such resorts. But that aside, it was a pleasant surprise of a film (if this sort of horror is to your taste, that is).........................6.5.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Film: 'The Falling'

Quite an oddity, this one. It ought to have been more satisfactory than it was.
Set in an English all-girl school at the end of the 1960s, it concerns a contagion of fainting among the mid-teen pupils (plus one of the teachers) after a girl dies, with the friend who seemed to have a bit of a schoolgirl crush on her, seemingly being the centre of this rash of spontaneous passing out - some lying still, some with twitchy fits.

Like 'Madding Crowd', which I wrote about yesterday, this film too has an illustrious predecessor, at least as regards to both being in the general same milieu of a girls school where the pupils are the passive victims of some unexplained goings-on - though 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' was, of course, an Australian film and set several decades earlier. Comparisons quickly run out as the earlier film, now exactly 40 years old and directed by the young Peter Weir, has haunted me ever since the first time I saw it back in 1975, and since then has remained in my list of all-time favourite films. 'The Falling' is not in that class by a long chalk.

One assumes that here, the mysterious 'force'; that is causing the fainting is connected to the girls' burgeoning physical maturity, though that is what one can only assume. There are no clues as to what's at the bottom of it.
The biggest name in the cast, Greta Scacchi, is almost unrecognisable as the chain-smoking headmistress who doesn't let the presence of pupils deter her from lighting up. The only other name I knew was Maxine Peake, likewise a chain-smoker in this, as the withdrawn mother of the girl, Lydia (Maisie Williams), who's believed to be the cause of the commotion. The only other significant male in the cast is Joe Cole as Lydia's brother.

One of the things that marred the film for me was (yet again), over-insistent and loud music in the form of pop-folkish songs on the soundtrack, some being Dylan-esque in a nondescript kind of way. There were far too many of them and in no way did they enhance the mood but, rather, took it down.

I think I know what writer-director Carol Morley was aiming at with this feature, but if I'm right then she didn't achieve it.

I get the sense that there was a better film under the surface but there were too many disparate and distracting layers for it to come across as a memorable item. I'll grudgingly concede that they could have been onto something worthwhile  in my rating of...............5/10.

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Film: 'Far from the Madding Crowd'

This is a lovely film.
I'm surprised and delighted to be able to say so because for me it had two high hurdles to jump, yet achieved it in masterful fashion.
First, it's based on the much admired (deservedly so, I think) and loved Thomas Hardy novel - which, to coincide with this film, I'm currently reading for at least the fourth time - maybe it's the fifth. It's one of my favourite books of all, by one of my very favourite writers. ('Twas not always so. I eventually fell for him when I was around 40, and now few other authors give me such delight).
Second, casting a long shadow, is the 1967 John Schlesinger film, surely one of the seminal movies of that decade, unforgettable after just one viewing. This latter had a formidable cast, Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Peter Finch all already having become established stars by then, with Terence Stamp not yet quite having reached the fame of the others. That casting was well-nigh perfect, as was the film, with Richard Rodney Bennett's evocative background score hauntingly binding it all together.

So to this new release, actually shorter than its predecessor by about three-quarters of an hour. Events gallop along with hardly time for us to draw breath, though it's by no means muddled.
The director is Dane, Thomas Vinterberg, who gave us the very superior 'The Hunt' three years ago.
The central role in this is played by Carey Mulligan, whom I'd never heard of until 'An Education' (2009), since when she's had some terrific 'plum' roles, including 'The Great Gatsby', 'Never Let Me Go', 'Shame' and 'Drive'. I did have misapprehensions about her taking the part of Bathsheba Everdene, fiercely independent and self-confident farm owner, partly because of Julie Christie's indelibly memorable act in the Schlesinger and I wasn't sure that Mulligan could pull off the trick of displaying such a wide spectrum of emotions. But she really does shine.
I was no less impressed with Matthias Schoenhaerts as the most prominent of Bathsheba's three suitors. (We've only very recently seen him in 'Suite Francaise' and 'A Little Chaos', and he's shortly to appear in 'A Bigger Splash'). As a Belgian, his Dorsetshire accent was, to my ears, as perfect as could be wished.
Then there's the redoubtable Michael Sheen, in the role previously played by Peter Finch - the emotionally buttoned-up, middle-aged bachelor, living in desperate hope that he'll attain Bathsheba's hand. Totally convincing and almost heart-breaking.
As the third suitor, the bumptious, forward, rather obnoxious Sergeant Troy, is Tom Sturridge. It's a thankless, difficult part for which I thought Terence Stamp gave his all in the 1967 version, which Sturridge perhaps doesn't quite equal, though he does give it a fair crack. (Incidentally, in a recent radio interview, Stamp tells how gay director John Schlesinger took an impassioned dislike towards him during film, to which Stamp responded by providing an acting turn such as he'd never done before then.) I thought Stamp had a magnetism in the part of his dislikeable character which Sturridge didn't match. Unlike as with Stamp, it was difficult to think why Bathsheba should ever have fallen for him.

Criticism has been made that this new film shies away from showing the reality of the muckiness of farm life. That may be so but it wasn't distracting. And, very importantly, neither was the music, for which gracious thanks!

I had two little personal apprehensions, knowing the novel as I do. How were they going to depict the two tragedies involving, on two separate occasions, two different flocks of sheep? - and how were we going to see what happens to a dog not far into the film. In the event I survived both with very little to haunt my mind for days afterwards as sometimes happens.

Another slight worry was a few occasions of imbalance in sound, which may have been partly due to the speakers in the cinema where I was. One such time was in church where a congregation is singing while, simultaneouly,  Bathsheba and her female servant are engaged in whispered conversation. It so happened that I did remember what they were talking about but as regards the film, I couldn't make out a single word they were saying to each other. That's only one instance. There were a couple more, though not enough to spoil the overall enjoyment.
If the film does marginally run short on steam and impetus in the final quarter, despite their being no lessening of 'action', I think that's also true of the book where a little more concision might have increased its effectiveness. But that's only my view. 

I think this is a triumph, confounding all my expectations and fears. It doesn't replace the 1967 version for me - it sits happily beside it, sharing the honours...............................8.5.

Monday 4 May 2015

Film: 'The Water Diviner'

If you're into 'weepies', this is for you. I found it so heavy with sentiment (complete with gushy orchestral strings to ensure that you're emoting sufficently) that my 'cringe-muscles' soon tired out.

Starring Russell Crowe, also in his first full-length feature as director, he's the water-diviner of the film's title, as played in the opening scene and not repeated.
 The story, set in 1919, has him in softly-spoken, gentle-giant mode as Aussie father to three teenage boys who had set off to fight as ANZACs in what turned out to be the disastrous Gallipoli campaign four years previously, and never returned. Spurred on by guilt and triggered by a harrowing domestic incident, he travels to Turkey to try to discover what had happened to them.

I take the opening credit "Inspired by actual events" with a pinch of salt as the coincidences take some believing, with his persistence in his searching for information, winning, against all odds, over the reluctance to assist from both the occupying British army and Turkish authorities. But being Crowe, his efforts cannot fail. And don't go thinking that he's a pussy cat who'll roll over as for a tummy-tickle! Oh no! If he's provoked or put in a tight corner, goodness me, he can lash out like a thing possessed!
For those demanding a bit of female interest, that's catered for too in the Angelina-esque (face and body to match - phwarrrr!) hotel assistant (Olga Kurylenko) working in her uncle's establishment. When Crowe turns up at the hotel, after she finds out that he's from Australia she turns cold and argumentative towards him. I won't say how their relationship progresses from there because you ought to have the 'fun' of finding out for yourself.
It's a world where allegiances can turn in a split-second so that you're not sure who's going to be helpful to his quest.
The flashbacks to Gallipoli were, I must admit, very well done. Believably vicious and horrific, there's actually only very little blood seen. One thing that I don't think I've seen on film before is the depiction, in the quietness of night, of the pitiful cries and groans of the wounded necessarily left on the battlefield untended. Common sense tells one that this must have been what is was like.

Most of the action takes place in Turkey, of course, and it's all very well captured on film, with handsome grandeur of scenery, both rural and inside Istanbul.

As in my previous film blog there may well be those who refuse to see this film because of an antipathy to its star. All I can say is that his presence, per se, didn't put me off and has nothing to do with my final verdict.

It's true that the story lends itself to sentiment so I can't fault it for delivering just that, but it really does positively wallow in it. If you don't mind that aspect then you'll like this film. For myself it was just too much to take, hence my........................5/10.