Thursday 23 July 2015

Film: 'Amy'

Documentary of the short, busy, spotlit life of 'jazz-singer', Amy Winehouse, who died four years ago at the age of 27 - featuring substantial home-movie footage and private snippets taken by others, with major talkover contributions from a number of those involved in her life, most notably her father, Mitchell, in addition to her friends, her music associates and collaborators - as well as her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil.
Her father has disowned this film on its release, despite his significant hand in providing material for it, on the grounds that it doesn't give a fair and balanced view, he claims, of the relationship between him and his daughter.

The film's director or, more accurately, compiler of the sequence of footages, is Asif Kapadia who made the well-received 2010 documentary 'Senna' (which, incidentally, bored me rigid). This 'Amy' is. for me, considerably more interesting.
There are no complete songs performed though we do see her at various venues, in the recording studios, sometimes singing privately. One aspect I really did like is that her words, otherwise practically indecipherable when she's singing, are shown on screen - and reveals what a profound and lyrical imagination she owned. Great shame that without knowing what she's singing about it gets lost in her warbling and wandering vocal style and mannerisms, which is for me one of the curses of today's pop-singing generation generally. This comes out markedly when, near the end of the film, we are shown her duetting with one of her life's idols, Tony Bennett. It's only very brief but the contrast between her and Bennett's singing style is so marked. With the latter one can hear every word, every syllable, but when she takes over it just becomes a fog of sound where articulation is relegated to unimportance, almost as though it's too much of a nuisance to be bothered with. It is indeed a tragedy because otherwise her voice, from the very start, had such power and weight. (With Ella Fitzgerald, another of her idols, one always could make out, although staying within the parameters of the jazz idiom, just what that great lady was singing about).

Apart from when Ms Winehouse is singing, there's hardly a moment when we see her without a glass of something or a cigarette (or something) in her hand. Her fighting against drugs and alcohol addictions and her attempts to become 'clean' are detailed, just about all of which has been well-publicised in the media - as well as her slavish and, perhaps, fatal adulation of her eventually imprisoned (for drug possession) husband, Fielder-Civil, who doubtless played a major part in her troubles. Her most spectacular decline in the full glare of cameras, was widely mocked by comedians of the time, some of whose clips are shown - and I must admit that then I most certainly would have at least smiled at the put-downs. She could hardly avoid her situation becoming public knowledge, though she and her minders did vainly try to shelter against them. There can hardly be any doubt that her premature death was a major loss of talent - as well as a dreadful loss to the world of show-business and music, the cause of which being not directly through drugs but rather through alcohol, though the former had, of course, played a major part in the weakening of her body's defences. Although there was an element of inevitability in her death, hers is yet another case of leaving us wondering how it all could have been so much different and so much better.

I think a lot of people will, like me, have known of Amy's life in broad terms. The film fills out some of the detail but I didn't think I learned anything significantly new about her. On the whole, though, I can think of worse ways to spend a couple of hours.........................................6.

Monday 20 July 2015

Film: '13 Minutes'

Engrossing, disturbing and violent German film (English subtitles) telling of an assassination attempt on Hitler at the start of WWII, a true episode which has been unfairly and virtually completely eclipsed in history by the attempt, through similar method, of Claus Von Stauffenberg and his co-plotters nearly five years later.
The film's title refers to the short space of time at which Der Fuhrer made an unscheduled early departure from the Bier Keller in Munich where he'd been giving one of his rousing party speeches, and thus avoiding an exploding time-bomb, which actually did kill at least seven others.

The film is framed at both ends, as well as 'interrupted', by the capture and interrogation of the perpetrator, Georg Elser (played by Christian Friedel in very good form), with the refusal of his Nazi interrogators to accept the truth that he had acted entirely alone. The years of his life leading up to this incident are shown in flashback - his hitherto apolitical stance (despite accusations, he was never a member of the Communist Party, nor was he Jewish) being turned by witnessing the rise of Nazism and their anti-Judaism campaign and the rounding up of his Communist friends. So he sets out on his solo plan of assassination.
While this is going on he falls in love with a young married woman (Katharine Schuttler), wife to a brutal husband, and rapist. The feelings between the young pair are mutual and they must be ever careful in betraying any indication of their feelings, especially to the hot-tempered husband.

There are some scenes which are very hard to watch, particularly some of the interrogation methods employed - as well as the violence meted out to the young woman by the husband.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel has already given us the first-rate 'Downfall' (2004) concerning Hitler's final days in 1945 in his Berlin bunker. He does us another service here in documenting a little-known episode involving, surely, an undisputed yet little acknowledged hero, whose name was certainly unfamiliar to me and, I'd guess, to many more, not only in the West but, perhaps, also in Germany itself, though I may have to be corrected concerning the latter claim.

This is one of those films that requires a strong stomach to watch, but if you can take it I'm sure you'll find it has been money and effort well spent..................................7.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Film: 'Love and Mercy'

Reasonably satisfying film re-creating two strategic periods in life of Beach Boys' key member, Brian Wilson.
The first strand takes place in the mid-late 60s as the group reach the height of their popularity with their hit singles and the 'Pet Sounds' album, and involves power struggles and squabbles both within the group (essentially with the other four becoming increasingly disillusioned at Wilson B calling all the shots), as well as friction with Wilson's controlling father. For most of us around at the time we had no idea that this was happening behind the scenes as we'd bought into the image of a carefree, happy-go-lucky, closely-bonded group.
The other strand, about 20 years later, has the middle-aged Wilson trying to recover from over-indulgences on drugs, battling his mental dark forces with the 'help' of tyrannical and short-fused psychiatrist Dr Latty, while simultaneously meeting and getting to know a new lady friend, both he and her having experienced unsatisfactory marriages and affairs, their acquaintanceship having the intense disapproval of Wilson's mentor-doctor.

The earlier Wilson, already showing evidence of mental instability, is played by Paul Dano, quite spookily close in facial resemblance to the Brian Wilson we were familiar with at the time. The later figure is John Cusack, who looks very little like the same Wilson we see Dano playing in parallel. That needn't necessarily have been a problem, but I do think that it was Dano who gives the stronger performance. The two periods are frequently cross-cut with no warning. Even though the later life is more dramatic in terms of personal interaction, especially with the startlingly be-wigged Paul Giametti, who, playing Wilson's ever-hovering Dr Latty, has diagnosed him as 'paranoid schizophrenic' - and Elizabeth Banks as his new love interest. She is quite perfect in the part and very impressive indeed in conveying her conflicting emotions as she learns of Wilson's mental state and the doctor's harsh influence.

Director Bill Pohlad, whose first significant feature this appears to be in that role, does quite well with this disparate material, hanging it together quite effectively. He gives us no full-out renditions of Beach Boy songs, preferring to show us how a small handful of them germinated and grew into the productions we are all familiar with and which many of us have never ceased to love.

Btw: The rather unhelpful film title comes from the name of a track from B.Wilson's reconstruction of the group's widely admired and much-postponed 'Smile' album. We actually see the present-day Wilson singing the song over the film's closing credits.

All in all, a fairly worthy experience without quite hitting the heights for which this particular fan had hoped.....................6.5.

Thursday 9 July 2015

Film: 'Mr Holmes'

A lot of British cineastes who were keen to see this film may well have done so by now. I just managed to catch it at the tail end of its theatrical release in this country before it travels on to DVD-land. So, for what it's worth, here's my verdict.

Not uninteresting, though a tad over-long, it's set in 1947 with Sir Ian McKellan as the original Sherlock Holmes character, and now nonagenarian in retirement on the Sussex coast (also where I am right now) - and he plays it most convincingly, I must say. He lives alone with his housekeeper (Laura Linney, exhibiting an alarming range of accents) and her young son (a rather impressive Milo Parker), whom Holmes introduces into his hobby of apiculture. (The difference between bees and wasps is a salient feature of this aspect of the story). While Holmes' memory is becoming disturbingly unreliable and patchy, a condition of which he's sadly aware, he dwells on an unresolved case of thirty years previously, involving the death of a young wife with mental 'issues' and her likewise young, but overbearing, husband. There are a number of flashbacks, which reveal how McKellan gets the difference between portraying his two screen ages exactly right.

McKellan, for a long time I've felt, is rather over-rated as an actor, but here he's perfectly suited to his role. Linney, it might be argued, is miscast, but she does convey very well indeed the buttoned-up emotions of a housekeeper to an increasingly dependent old man who's visibly slowing down and becoming increasingly absent-minded. She seems wanting to burst out, be rude, and stamp with her impatience but she holds it in effectively and believably, really only giving the full extent of her emotions when alone with her son. She also displays a growing misgiving about the friendship developing between the old man and the young boy.

There are a couple of situations giving rise to moments of high drama but otherwise it's a leisurely-paced film. Photography is first-class throughout. I was also pleased to see that the soundtrack was composed by Carter Burwell, one of my favourites of contemporary film composers, and as usual he pitches it just right - on the edge of ones awareness without it being obtrusive.
Screenplay was nothing special to talk about but director Bill Condon does succeed in drawing the very best from his high-quality, small cast, Linney's roaming accent notwithstanding.

This is a pleasant enough, reasonably diverting, though ultimately not particularly remarkable film.......................6.