Tuesday 30 June 2015

Film: 'Going Clear - Scientology and the Prison of Belief'.

A most welcome documentary which attempts to lift the lid on the 'Church of Scientology' movement - and, boy, they do not like it! This so-called 'Church' (I personally prefer the word 'cult' - it riles them so) has already managed to prevent the publication in the U.K. (as well as Canada and certain other countries) of the same-named book by Lawrence Wright on which this film is based. However, the cult has been unsuccessful so far in getting this film banned here, although they are even now still trying their darnedest.

Writer and director Alex Gibney recently did, among others, exposes on Enron and the covering-up of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, both of which I saw. (The Vatican used all its considerable muscle, and failed, to try to get this latter film - 'Mea Maxima Culpa' - pulled as well. Funny that, isn't it?).

'Going Clear' is two hours long but riveting throughout - as well as being, by turns, scary and disturbing. It concentrates less on the cult's beliefs as one might have expected, such as that of an universal overlord, Xenu, and alien, hostile spirit forms or 'thetans' invading our bodies, thereby causing all our problems. Some of the dogma will be familiar to many people and it surely beggars belief that so many individuals who, one assumes, would otherwise be classed as 'intelligent', can fall for such crackpot notions without even asking for evidence, just because one megalomaniac, the cult founder L.Ron Hubbard, said so.
The bulk of the film consists of interviews, not just with the author of the book, Lawrence Wright, but also with former cult members, some who reached high seniority status, who talk of the cult's tactics at holding its members in thrall to it, its money-making activities (including its successful campaign to be recognised by the I.R.S. as a 'religion', thereby enjoying tax-exempt status in the U.S.A.), its public information campaigns (as squeaky-clean as a baby's newly washed and powdered bottom) and its harrassing of members who leave (including physical violence meted out to those who are suspected of just thinking of leaving, or who disobey their leader's orders or do not perform their tasks satisfactorily), separating them forever from their families with no contact at all permitted, and its attempt to destroy the ex-members' careers, or even lives (which would be preferable and neater for them).

If their gatherings didn't remind one so much of those of the Third Reich Nazi Party rallies it might have been comical, but it's truly disturbing to see such infectious mob-mentality among the attendees. It's not a place where even one individual would be brave enough to utter one syllable of dissent. And seeing Tom Cruise, their most prized possession, salute a large hanging photo of Hubbard just about took the biscuit! His fawning, submissive and effusive praise for current leader and Hubbard successor, David Miscavige (apparently, a professional bully who's not averse to using his fists and feet to get his own way, just like a spoilt child) is just another part of the horror story.

Their are excerpts of an oldish interview with John Travolta who seems to be just mouthing excerpts from Hubbard's basic Dianetics book, with not much conviction behind it. Travolta is not now considered to be such a pull for getting new members as he previously was, now that his superstar status has faded. In fact there's a hint that he would rather 'out' completely but, because they've got such a grip on him by having his confessional material (as they have for all members - clearly quite useful when it comes to blackmail), that he dare not  make any move, or even suggest that he's thinking about it.
Tom Cruise has been for some years now, their prize catch of course - their public, friendly face and magnet. Of course, they have all their octopoidal tentacles holding him fast too, and its working for exactly the same reason as for Travolta. However, at least Cruise seems enthusiastic, though one knows that this is precisely the image they want us to see. His relationship and marriage to Nicole Kidman is discussed, she who, having a psychologist as a father, was under suspicion from the start, as he was being regarded as 'enemy'. Apparently when Cruise and Kidman were making Stanley Kubrick's final film, 'Eyes Wide Shut', Cruise's interest in Scientology was at its lowest. However, as soon as it was over the cult pulled out all the stops to claw him back in - and succeeded - not only with threats if he didn't comply but giving him absolutely anything material that he wanted. So he's still there now as its engaging face..
At the end of this film there are showings of Cruise being interviewed on the subject by various people when he occasionally breaks out into what can only be described as manic laughter, particularly when something 'false' about the cult is suggested to him. I think the motive in showing this in the film is to make one doubt his sanity. (Sometimes his toothy smile and crazed laughing is slowed down for our further delectation)
Actually I did quite like both Kidman and Cruise anyway before seeing this film. Now my liking for the former has increased while that of the latter has sunk way down deep. He sounds like the sort of person from whom one would be well-advised to keep some distance.

Some eight years ago, the BBC did a half-hour programme on the cult. Unfortunately all the attention was hijacked by the BBC interviewer, John Sweeney, not getting answers and completely losing it when trying to talk to some of the cult's senior members, he starting to yell uncontrollably at them. (He was described at going 'tomato-faced', which was apt). That moment was exactly what the cult members were wishing for, detracting all the attention away from them by letting the investigator make a fool of himself while they looked on impassively, smiling behind their stern facades. I heard nothing at all said about a couple of other interviews also in that programme - Juliette Lewis cringing uncomfortably when questioned about her beliefs, denying that she knew anything about Xenu, the bodies stored in volcanoes for 35 million years, etc (not at all convincing) - but even more than her, Anne Archer being interviewed and (I think because Sweeney had used the word 'cult') getting all schoolma'am-ish and, with all the dignity of a headmistress sternly telling off a pupil who'd farted loudly at morning assembly - "How dare you! How DARE you!"  It was a moment to savour, though unfortunately eclipsed by Sweeney's hysterical episode later in that same programme.
Incidentally, one of the cult members whom Sweeney was ranting at in his out-of-control moment, shortly afterwards actually left the cult. For him it was a watershed moment, as he then began seriously to ask himself just how long he had to go on telling blatant lies about the organisation to the outside world. He was one of the 'talking heads' being interviewed here.

I didn't know that the membership of the cult is dwindling (now down to 50,000), but its riches through investments, dicey(?) or above-board, are rocketing. That alone is alarming enough to continue our great concern. We all know that money equals power, and this cult is absolutely rabidly drunk on it!

I learned a fair bit through this film, but there weren't any too outlandish shocks. It just put it all together in an agreeable way and will be useful for future reference. 
The 'Church' has, of course, completely rejected all of the critical remarks made about it, saying that the  interviewees were only pursuing their own agenda. (I wonder if any of them will 'accidentally' come to some grief.) Oh, and by the way, they declined all requests to be interviewed themselves. Now, there's a surprise!

As this isn't in the nature of a 'normal' feature film I'll not be giving it a rating.
Oh, to hell with it................................7.5.

Friday 26 June 2015

Film: 'Queen and Country'

John Boorman will be on many people's list of the most distinguished film directors Britain has ever produced.
It may sound mean, but he was never one of my own favourites, finding many of his films hollow or meandering or unconvincing or all three. So it also seems in this one which, if the very final shot is anything to go by, is to be the 82 year-old's swan song.

Boorman's C.V. as director contains a number of films which a lot will remember, not without some affection - 'Point Blank' (1967), 'Deliverance' (72), 'Zardoz' (74), Excalibur' (81) and 'The Emerald Forest' (85). Indeed, some will go so far as to call one or two of these 'masterpieces'. I did quite like 'Point Blank' and was fairly impressed with 'Deliverance', but after that I felt it was downhill all the rest of the way.

This latest (and presumabl, last) is a belated sequel to his 'Hope and Glory' of 1987. The young boy, Bill, in that earlier film, (identifiably Boorman himself as a child in wartime London) is now 18 (and played here by Callum Turner) and he's conscripted for two years compulsory army service. The date is 1952 and the Korean War has begun - though he doesn't actually get to be posted there. Conscripted with him is Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) whom he befriends and they jointly get up to the usual juvenile larks during training, near-the-edge insubordination and chasing after girls when they get the chance outside camp. Nothing really unexpected or outrageous here. In fact I was frequently wondering "Where is this going?" and "Why should we be bothered?" I was looking at my watch almost as much as I was watching the screen. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but it did try my patience.
Better known names in the cast are David Thewlis (excellent) as the two army buddies' immediate superior, Richard E.Grant as a humourless, rather world-weary Major (good to see him in a part where he's not required to smile), and Sinead Cusack as Bill's mother.

The film contained one of those elements that irk me the most - insistent background music. It just would not let go for hardly any stretch at all, as though the audience needed to be guided to feel anything, which may have been good if it hadn't been so annoying. For goodness sake! Why didn't they think of putting a sock in it?

One curiosity of chronology - the film starts in 1952 with King George on the throne. We all know that he died in February of that year. Yet the moment when he does expire, by then the film is already halfway through. After the flag is lowered out of respect, Private Bill is off on leave to visit his parents. While there the family acquires a television specifically in order to watch the upcoming coronation of Queen Elizabeth. But there was actually an almost sixteen month interval between the death of the king and the crowning of his successor. So where, in this film, did all that time go? It's true that when Bill returns to army life he's risen in the ranks, but no other indication is made of what happened to that well over one year period, more than half of his actual service time! Very strange!
He returns to more talk about the Korean War - the other 'big' event being the mysterious disappearance of the regimental clock. Honestly, I ask you! Are we supposed to care?

The film ends with Bill having been demobbed and returning to his family - and that's it! Oh dear! What was all that effort for? Was it meant to be a vanity project for John Boorman? That's the kindest interpretation I can give it............................3.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Film: 'London Road'

Not only have reviews of this unusual film been largely very positive, but some critics have been overloading superlatives into their columns. In consequence I feel that although I did like it, I ought to have been more enthused. However, no one can deny that it's a singular achievement.

It's based on a successful stage play of a 2006 actual news story involving a serial killer in Ipswich (medium-sized town about 80 miles north-east of London) who picks five prostitutes as his victims. The play uses the real words employed by members of the public in the locality (the road of the film's title) in newsreel interviews and - arguably with some risk concerning the seriousness of the subject matter - it sets them to music.
The cast is largely of little or complete unknowns, save for Olivia Colman, Anita Dobson (a long-time fixture of one of this country's most popular soaps) and, in not much more than a cameo role, a star of no less stature than Tom Hardy, appearing for five minutes or less as a taxi driver.

The 'music' that the cast speak, lilt or sing to, in singles, doubles or in ensemble - much of it direct to camera as if in interview -  is determined by the inflections and stresses of the actual spoken words used in interviews of the time - some of the content of which is quite shocking, being 'gut-feelings' spontaneously expressed. Whereas in true musicals the shape and stress of the lyrics is determined by the music it lies alongside, here the reverse happens - the lyrics (without rhyme, of course, unless a line or word is being repeated) shape the music. None of the 'melodies' (such as they are) are particularly memorable, but it wasn't meant to be that way. It's almost entirely a sung-through affair, though often the speaking voice gradually transforms itself into a singing one, so it's nothing like 'Les Mis' or 'Sweeney Todd'. Neither is the singing anything like Rex Harrison's 'Talking on Pitch'. When the cast rise into song they really let rip.  

The story covers the time when the last of the victims was found, the surrounding area's residents already nervous and suspicious of everybody else due to multiple news items and warnings to be cautious, and on to the suspect being apprehended and, seen from the outside through TV news reports, his trial and conviction - and in a final flourish, onto the all-round relief and attempt of London Road residents to reclaim the area's reputation in appropriately flamboyant manner.

It certainly held my attention all the way, because one was hanging onto every word uttered through song, all of which was admirably clearly enunciated. So why didn't I like it more? (Director: Rufus Norris). I find it hard to pin down exactly. I would imagine that in the theatre the piece would have significantly more bite. By its nature it's very piecemeal, jumping from character to character - and it would take a heart of stone not to feel for some of the surviving prostitutes we see. One of the characters displays possession of such a heart - though I must ask myself how I'd be feeling if prostitutes operated in the area in which I lived, and left behind evidence of their 'work'.

Those who remember 'Les Parapluies de Cherbourg' of 1964 will get the  idea of the nature of this type of sung-through film. I seem to recall that only a few years ago there was another one which tried the same thing but I just cannot recall the title.
I can't help feeling that although we'll always recall 'The Cherbourg Umbrellas', after fifty years we may find it harder to remember 'London Road'..........................6.5

Monday 22 June 2015

Film: 'The Age of Adaline'

Since circumstances have, to a large extent, taken away my ability to see those films I really want to see while being aware that many of those I'd have chosen are passing me by unseen, I'm left with either viewing those I'm served up with or not bothering at all.
I could tell from the trailer that this was not going to be 'my type' of film (an otherwise routine romance, though with a strange, unique twist), and so it transpired to be. But having the chance to see it on a morning matinee cheapo ticket, well, buggers can't be choosers, so off I went.

The premise of the story is that, due to a combination of events and natural phenomena in 1930s San Francisco, a woman (Blake Lively) in her late 20s stops physically ageing and goes through ensuing decades right up to the present day with this blessing/curse of eternal youth. Okay, I can go along with that. But when, halfway through the film, she meets the father of her current date (Michael Huisman), it was a case of "Aw, come on! Can the world really be that small!" Harrison Ford, playing the father, is actually given a part with considerable depth, and he's really good in it. In fact, he is one of the few saving graces of the film, another being the presence of Ellen Burstyn as the daughter of the titular Adaline, though seemingly to be about three times as old as her mother.
Btw: Why is that it is only very rarely that find it hard to make out what more 'mature' actors are saying - these latter two mentioned players being prime examples of how to do it properly - whereas so many of the current younger set speak in such a lazy manner, near to the point of disgrace. In this film I was several times left wondering why those to whom Lively was speaking didn't reply "Pardon? What did you say?". One would think that the director (Lee T. Krieger) would have asked her to do a retake, but of course he knows what the words are, so that's all that matters, isn't it?.

The film is shot virtually entirely in San Francisco, that most photogenic of cities that it's always a pleasure to see on the screen, and the views we get of it here do it justice.

Another plus for me was the non-intrusive nature of any background score. Was there, in fact, any at all? I didn't notice.

I've gone thus far without saying a single word about the appearance of the male lead in the person of Dutch-born Michael Huisman. So here's a single word - Phwarrrrrrrrrrrr!

If I 'enjoyed' this film a tiny bit more than I expected it was only because the good qualities ever so slightly outweighed those less then. So an honest rating in my records would be..........................5.5.

Sunday 21 June 2015

June 21st - a doubly poignant anniversary

Today is not only the anniversary (10th) of my mother's funeral, but also the 36th anniversary of my father's death.

Seeing my sister last month for my annual visit (she, now 77, having been widowed just last February), she'd dug out a photo which I'd completely forgotten, taken when we were on holiday, when I'd have been about 10. This was on the Yorkshire Moors, actually only about 25 miles from our home, but in those days that distance was a big deal! Can you guess which of the the three young boys I am? (If you do a left-click on the photo it should come up much larger and clearer).

My mother is, you can just see, holding onto Candy at the bottom of the picture, the only dog we ever owned, and which I loved to bits - and the old  lady on the right is my grandmother, my mum's mum.

I am actually the right one of the three. Next to me is my late elder brother who died 7 years ago at the age of 64 and who became an internationally-renowned memory man, once holding the world record for remembering the mathematical ratio pi to over 15,000 decimal places (long since been overtaken, though) as well as other memory tricks, such as with playing cards. My younger brother, David, is the perky-looking one on the left, and was the most intelligent member of the family, winning school prizes and things. (I have one other surviving brother, now 75.)

So there it is - rare from me, but a blast from my past, on a day when thoughts veer towards my departed parents. Poignant and sad memories, true, but also most agreeable ones.

Monday 15 June 2015

Film: 'Danny Collins'

From the trailer this looked like it might be fun. Well, for some of it it was but, alas, it was stymied by a heavily sentimental strand at its heart, requiring the ever-interesting Al Pacino to perform a role that he's only very rarely touched on (if ever!) in previous performances and which, here, he looked less than convincing in, namely that of caring father to the family of his estranged and never-before-seen, now middle-aged, antagonistic son with an advanced-pregnant wife, not to mention their insufferably forward six-year old daughter whose annoying presence would have been immeasurably improved by the judicious application of a damn good slap.

I am, however, glad to report that the weighty proceedings are significantly lifted whenever the admirable Annette Bening appears on screen (which is often), as an hotel manager with whom Pacino flirts unashamedly. There's a significant amount of pleasing banter between them. Even when the conversations between these two get to more serious subjects it's still interesting, which is more than can be said for some of the other interchanges.
Pacino himself is a three-times married rock star of yesteryear, where drinks and drugs figured, and continues to cast shadows. He's still performing occasional public concerts singing his 'hits' of old, and he's still managed, forty years on, by Christopher Plummer. I wasn't quite sure how much of Plummer's doddery act was put on as being in the character of the man he was portraying, or was it part of Plummer the man as he's become? Of course I want to think it was the former.

Roughly based on a true story, it tells how, in 1971, John Lennon, whom Danny Collins (Pacino) worshipped, read an interview Collins had given and was impressed enough to write to him c/o the magazine in which it appeared, suggesting that they talk further, only Lennon's letter to have been withheld from the imterviewee's awareness, he now being told of it forty years later, to his dismay. This provides the excuse for nearly all the background music to the film being of Lennon (post-Beatles) songs. Unfortunately they are all only snippets, some very brief, which was a shame.

The cloyingly sentimental aspect I refer to at the start of this post is that there is a serious health issue affecting one of the members of Collins' son's family, and which the Pacino character takes an active part to try to alleviate. This tilted the film's whole centre of gravity to an ill-fitting seriousness, at least one that is at odds to what I was expecting.

This is writer Dan Fogelman's first film as director, which he achieves with fair enough results. Perhaps I should have been more open-minded to there being light and shade in the story. I was hoping for something enjoyably frothy throughout rather than it being so just in patches..........................5.5

Wednesday 10 June 2015

Film: 'Man Up'

I like Simon Pegg a lot. If he hadn't been the main player in this rom-com I would have let it pass by.
He's at his best when in rat-a-tat-tat delivery, and here he's allowed his head with a pretty good script (by Tess Morris) which sounds extemporised.

The premise of the film requires a considerable leap of faith. He mistakes a 30-something lady for his blind date of ten years younger (and this is only the beginning!) when she, unable to get a word in edgeways, decides to play along and makes out that, yes, she is indeed the very date he was supposed to meet - and that despite her having a speech prepared for a celebratory party she was due to attend that same evening, she goes off with this total stranger. Just imagine going with a man totally unknown to you who's making a strong come-on. Unthinkable isn't it? (Good job you can't see my blushes.) So here they are, visiting bars, a restaurant, bowling alley.........However, it's not too long before the unfortunate appearance of a former male school colleague of hers, and now with a disturbing fixation on her, makes her admit the truth of who she is to her 'date'. Arguments develop - but can you guess where it's going to end up? Yes, that's right - they find that they're mutually smitten. (Btw: This is not a plot-spoiler - as if it could be! - it's contained within the first sentence of the publicity blurb.) So - after the set-up idea the film follows a predictable path but it's kept interesting because of some lively acting and that script which fizzes along.

Simon Pegg's female foil is one Lake Bell, a name I didn't know though I see that she's appeared in a number of films (none of which I've seen) as well as quite a lot of TV work. Here she gives as good as she gets, at least when she's allowed to speak, which she certainly is after the opening scene. It's said that during filming the crew assumed that she was English and that only after shooting, when she reverted to her normal accent, did they discover that she was American. She is particularly good in this.

 Rory Kinnear is the obnoxious ex-chum who just doesn't get the message that the lady feels no attraction towards him. He just will not give up, even when knowing the circumstance she is in.

The entire action takes place during the one evening. We are, thankfully, spared any bedroom or sex scenes, which would have felt out of place here anyway. Unfortunately the film does end on a ghastly note of intense sentimentality, even with large numbers witnessing and applauding the couple's declared affection for each other - the classic 'feel-good' ending. But that was really my only major reservation, and director Ben Palmer keeps it all moving forward nicely.

When Simon Pegg plays these talkative characters I never tire of listening to him, though I can't pin down why. (Hugh Grant I also find a compelling watch for much the same reason.) Pegg's appearances in the 'Cornetto' comedy trilogy were similarly attractive to me - maybe less so when he plays in the 'Star Trek' and 'Mission Impossible' films.

If you share my liking for Simon Pegg my rating for this film will, I hope, make you interested enough to see it. If you are indifferent, or have an antipathy towards him, you will have to reduce my score accordingly......................6.

Monday 8 June 2015

Film: 'Spy'

Quite a number of the audience were guffawing in states of high hilarity during this. Not so me - as you might have guessed. It wasn't totally mirthless, though. There were indeed three of four moments of mild drollery, but for me they really were as low-key and infrequent as that.

Melissa McCarthy (from the much better 'Bridesmaids') plays the unlikely F.B.I. agent hopping around Europe after volunteering for a job following the demise of an agent who was chasing illicit arms trading, where it's thought that her less obvious Junoesque figure may be an advantage.  Locations are Paris, Rome and Budapest, where the captions helpfully tell us in which countries these 'little-known' cities can be found. (Why is it that we see no films which say 'New York, U.S.A.', as also with Washington D.C., Los Angeles etc?)
Also on hand are suave and Bond-style Jude Law with (and much more interesting), Jason Statham, all overflowing anger, super-confident of his own abilities and contemptuous of others. It was he who was the saving grace of this film for me, with an impressive ability to deliver dry, silly lines while keeping totally straight-faced. Shame, then, that his screen time wasn't as extensive as I'd expected.
Miranda Hart is also there, and she just doesn't seem to fit comfortably in the plot both as a person and in the scheme of things. Another pity

It's a very physical film (a lot of it very violent) with McCarthy drawing on reserves of energy one would not have expected from someone with her physique. She also packs one hell of a punch and she has no mean accuracy when it comes to using her gun - but these are all part of the absurdities which are meant to define this as a comedy..
The 'jokes' are either slapstick-like or, verbally, based on the assumption that the cruder one is then the funnier it must be, which, as we all know, is simply not true. I think it betrays a lameness in the script, something which a lot of our present-day younger stand-up comedians also fail to recognise.

The world this film inhabits reminded me a lot of the 'Johnny English' films. Of course the Melissa McCarthy figure is miles apart from that played by Rowan Atkinson, but they share a gaucheness in both action and words of not realising the implication and consequences of what they are doing or saying, at least until it's too late and the action has accordingly moved on..

The two-hour film was too long by at least thirty minutes. It ought to have been sharper but the fights are over-prolonged and could have been cut back with improved effect.

Director (and writer of this) Paul Feig also directed 'Bridesmaids', which I found a much more satisfactory film, though also patchy in its comedic moments. I think Feig over-indulges himself here, which shows especially in the bone-crunching combat scenes.

'Spy' has had generally quite good reviews. I don't subscribe to them, but I've certainly seen worse, a lot worse. Besides, there's always the chance that you will be one of those roaring in mirth. From me it gets a humble........................4.

Monday 1 June 2015

Film: 'Spooks - The Greater Good'

I'm not familiar with the popular TV series whose world this cinematic spin-off inhabits and, despite some reviews which have made unfavourable comparisons of this to the small-screen product, I thought the film fitted the bill nicely for quality, often gripping, entertainment.

Set mostly in London (regular aerial panoramic  shots including the usual landmarks, helpfully reminding us just in case we've forgotten where we are) as well as shorter episodes in Berlin and Moscow, it's the world of espionage and 'guess-the-traitor' when a terrorist suspect (clearly Islamist, but not stated) flees captivity in transit, whose 'rescuers' have been fed knowledge from an unknown person in the Secret Service.
Peter Firth, now with a C.V. as long as your arm, is the MI5 boss who disappears after the incident and it's up to earnest, but still wet-behind-the ears, agent Kit Harington to trace him and wheedle out information as to what's going on, and what's his connection with the escape - not to also mention forestalling further expected imminent attacks.
I understand that young Mr Harington, in his role in 'Game of Thrones', has set many a heart a-flutter. This is the first time I've seen him in any substantial part and he's not bad at all.
Also, as one of the Service's senior officers is Jennifer Ehle, whose English accent very occasionally falters, though not so as to be too distracting - as well as the estimable David Hammond.

There's lots of action, several nail-biting moments and, very commendably, a plot that is not so over-complex as to bewilder one. Sometimes these scenarios that owe a lot to John Le Carre are so labyrinthine that I give up trying to follow them and just try to enjoy the ride. Not so here, remaining simple enough even for me to follow.

In a sense it's an old-fashioned kind of film, but India-born director Bharat Nallun brings a certain flair to proceedings, such that I wasn't bored at all - and it's a sensible hour-and-three-quarters in length, another 'plus'.

Enjoyable enough to search out, it may not linger in the memory for very long, but while it's playing it's pretty good value for your money................................6.5.

Btw: Such is the pitifully deteriorated state of my computer now, it's taken me a full four hours to type and post the above, due to very frequent screen-freezes. Been reading Sherlock Holmes story 'Valley of Fear' in the stretches waiting for it to unfreeze itself, so not quite a total waste of time. Still infuriating as hell, though!