Monday 31 August 2015

Film: 'Gemma Bovery'

I'm so pleased I stirred myself to see this most satisfying Anglo-French film. It's been some time since I last gave any film a good thumbs-up so this one is all the more welcome.

A French-speaking, English couple (Gemma Arterton and Jason Flemying) arrive to set up home in a small town near Rouen, moving into a large, run-down house neighbouring the home of the local baker (Fabrice Luchini), an enthusiast for the nineteenth-century novelist Gustave Flaubert. When he introduces himself, routinely rather than with any overt warmth, he is amazed to find that not only is her surname the title character of one of his favourite books, 'Madame Bovary' (the literary one being with an 'a' rather than 'e'), and that fictional personage having as first name 'Emma', against the new neighbour's 'Gemma'. Yet furthermore, both fictional and factual characters are married to a 'Charles'! It might be thought too much of a risible coincidence but it's a conceit of this film's story that I was more than happy to go along with. It gets even more entertainingly unlikely when, because of the baker's unspoken reservations about their being his neighbours, he spies on their lives and is dismayed to discover that the arc of her experiences actually parallels that of the fictional Mme Bovary. This real one embarks on an adulterous affair with a much younger man living nearby, and the baker is concerned that she will come to an unfortunate end as the fictional one does. In fact we know that this Gemma dies right at the film's start because virtually the entire film is a flashback, though we don't know how she arrived there - and it's not the ending one (i.e. me) might have expected.
If it sounds to be a bit on the grim side it's not completely heavy by any means. There are quite a number of amusing touches, mostly involving the baker and his observations.

I did read 'Madame Bovary' some years ago, but distant enough in time to have made me forget what happens in the novel, though one doesn't need to know. The film character's life's resonances with the book are mentioned several times, and even the film's Gemma herself is aware of them. (In most circles this film would have just been based on the Flaubert story without any reference to it within the film itself, perhaps only in the opening or closing credits. Here it's full-on and unapologetic and this unusual film is all the better for it).

Most of the dialogue is in French, with only the odd sentence or word in English when the main couple lapse into their own language.

I found the entire film absorbing, at turns funny and at other times dramatic or suspenseful - but never tedious.

Full marks due to the trio at the film's heart - and particularly Luchini as the suspicious town baker.

Anne Fontaine's direction too is exemplary, with the semi-rural, small town atmosphere well captured.

Most enjoyable.........................7.

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Film: 'Trainwreck'

An unusual film, though yet again I'm finding myself out of step with most critics (but not as distant from viewers) who have given it high praise. I think it's attracted positive opinions because the principal character, Amy, played by Amy Schumer, also the screenplay writer, is a thirties-something woman who enjoys a life of one-night stands and short-term, non-serious relationships - while the film displays not the slightest hint of judgment, let alone censure, over her chosen lifestyle. This is indeed refreshing. A man making the same choices would, on film, nearly always be roguishly portrayed as a bit of a 'Jack the Lad' - perhaps getting a comeuppance later, if at all, because of his non-commital acts, but rarely attracting any of the condemnations to which women would usually be subjected.  Additionally, this Amy is not a conventionally glamorous person, visibly a bit overweight and lacking the 'Stepford Wives' concept of manufactured physical beauty, facially and elsewhere. So all that is in its favour.

The film begins with the nine-year old Amy and her sister, younger by four years, being given a lesson from their soon-to-be divorced father that monogamy is not a desirable state. Then it jumps to where we see the approaching middle-aged elder sister in New York living out that very lifestyle, while her younger sibling has been drawn into conventional, though solid marriage, and with a young son. There's no suggestion of envy on the part of Amy. So far so good.
She works writing for a magazine with a hard-hitting, no-nonsense, sassy boss (Tilda Swinton - completely unrecognisable. I was amazed after the film on finding that it had been her!) In their morning meetings with staff (sexual references given free rein of expression) she's given, to her dismay, a project to do an article on a subject she has no inclination towards, sport - and sportsmen.
Her first meeting is with a physio for a team (don't ask me for which sport - netball?). Although she gets off to a prickly start in her first interview, in subsequent meetings there's a mutual melting down of defences between her and (single) Doctor Aaron - and before too long a relationship develops. And at this point I felt that any promise the film had at the start began to dissolve for (wouldn't you know it?) she finds herself falling in love and has to question whether her father-inducted presumptions about life and monogamy were accurate after all. She struggles as she doesn't quite know how to react with her new feelings of wanting, but afraid of, deeper commitment. In some ways I felt that the film betrays itself by joining the dots towards conventionality until, at the very end, the concluding scene is of such astonishing cheesiness and banality that I wondered how it could have been part of the same film. Talk about cringe!

The film's director is that doyen of 'blokey' films, Judd Apatow who, one would think, would have been the polar opposite of what seemingly-feminist writer Amy Schumer wanted to achieve with her material. But the way it ends leads me to think that he may well have been the appropriate one to direct her after all.

There are also several cameo appearances of quite big names, which it might be spoiling things to mention individually, but I wasn't expecting them.

A film of failed promise, then. There are some very good moments but there are also those sloshing around in mushy emotions. Also, at two hours long, it overstayed its welcome by a good half-hour.

A fair enough view - and, I repeat, the initial idea was a very worthy one. Pity it didn't quite live up to it.....................4.5.

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Film: 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'

This is a story based on a rebooting of characters from the generally well-regarded American TV series of more than one hundred hour-long episodes which started transmissions in 1964, Henry Cavill here taking the suave, urbane, unflappable Napoleon Solo role (originally played by Robert Vaughn), and Armie Hammer as his Russian sidekick, Ilya Kuryakin, a character of fierce loyalty created by David McCallum, here much more shaded with a level of mistrust between the two of them which keeps on re-surfacing.
We also have Hugh Grant as Commander Waverley of British Intelligence (Leo G.Carroll in the TV series) who has a rather more hands-on role than his earlier TV counterpart, where he'd been reduced to little more than uttering wise words and bon mots from his H.Q. ivory tower.

However - and I do need to say this before going further - I found this an unexpectedly dull film! Unexpected, particularly because it's directed by none other than Guy Ritchie, whose trademark is non-stop action punctuated by scenes of graphic violence, sometimes sustained to inordinate length. There is violence here too, certainly, but it's much more toned down from his usual style.  

The story starts in Berlin at a time when it was divided into sectors, the Russian quarter divided from the other three by heavily guarded fences and a 'no-man's land', before the Wall had gone up. American agent Solo and Russian Kuryakin, pursuing each other as enemies, are thrown together and find they have to work together because of an agreement between the Russians and the West to foil a megalomaniacal Nazi plot intent on taking over the world. This is, in fact, the back story as to how the two main characters are found to be in an unlikely partnership, nearly all of which was dispensed with for the duration of the TV series, though it has a high strategic importance here.
After Berlin the action moves to Italy where it remains for the rest of the film, in Rome and off the Italian coast. There's the expected involvement with Italian hoodlums as well as teasing from female, power-hungry personages - and a climax drawing in warheads, both conventional and nuclear. It's all very 1960s, cold war, sub-James Bond-style. In fact the TV series, which I generally found more compelling than this film, was one of several of the spy genre in various guises to emerge out of the the popularity peak of Ian Fleming's Bond novels - and the concept, looking dated now, doesn't wear very well when trying to recreate it for 21st century viewers. (I do wonder whether much of the audience will know sufficient about this period of history anyway - or have even heard of the 'Cold War'!).

Although I'd watched the series back in the 60s (in black and white, of course, though later episodes had been made in colour) I was never a really avid fan. It did used to pass away an agreeably entertaining hour on Friday evenings at a time when there were only two channels to choose from. It was also decidedly 'family' viewing, which this film is for only part of the time.
I heard Hammer saying that both he and Cavill had never seen any episodes of the original series. (In fact, I think he said that they'd never even heard of it - which is not so surprising in that it has, rather unfairly I'd suggest, dropped out of collective memory).

It could be that the fault of the film lies in that to me none of the actors on screen (and several off-screen crew too, I'd surmise, including Ritchie himself) seem to have their hearts in it.  There's little flair to the acting, directing or script. Even the few attempts at some dry, sardonic humour largely fall flat.

Btw: For those who didn't know (and I had to look it up to remind myself), the acronym U.N.C.L.E. = United Network Command for Law Enforcement - which in today's political contexts sounds almost quasi-reactionary.

This is another of those films where my opinion is out of step with that of the majority which, as at now on IMDb, give it an average rating of 7.6. I can't go anywhere near that score. I'd hoped that this film would have delivered more - and I don't think my verdict was solely affected by my remembering the TV series on which it was based, though maybe my opinion just might have been a wee bit higher had I not been aware of its origins.
I've seen nearly all of Guy Ritchie's films, and out of those I think that this one is his least satisfactory to date. I can only award it a disappointing..................3.5.

Monday 17 August 2015

Film: 'The Diary of a Teenage Girl'

San Francisco, 1976.
15-year old Minnie has her first sexual experience(s), she being played by the actually 23 year old, English actress, Bel Powley - and, I must say, making a most convincing depiction of that age, as well as her acting American. (She was also very recently seen as a Princess Margaret of similar age in 'A Royal Night Out').

Needless to say, things get complicated from the outset when her mutually-attracted partner is her mother's (Kristen Wiig) live-in boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard), he being a fair bit more than twice her age.

Minnie's sexual awakening is the cue for several such 'experiences' (fairly explicit in a 'soft porn' kind of way) - and not solely with the man who is, in all but name, her 'step-dad'. All the while, her coke-snorting, heavy drinking, chain-smoking mother is oblivious as to what's going on. Minnie, meanwhile, is recording her thoughts onto tape - from which you might be able to guess how the film's climax comes about.
Minnie is an aspiring and talented cartoon-illustrator, a good excuse for the screen at certain moments briefly to feature animated figures and patterns in quite impressive and entertaining ways.

I was afraid that the story might feature sequences of cloying sentiment but it does largely avoid these. However, although the film's central focus on Bel Powley's character is reassuringly very strong, I was wondering at several points whether this Minnie was portrayed as a bit too emotionally self-controlled for these watershed moments in her life's learning and development.

First time director, Marielle Heller, is also the film's co-writer, based on a novel by the other screenplay writer, Phoebe Gloeckner. Heller does a pretty good job and all the acting is of high quality. Such soundtrack as there is is basically (too loud for me) rock tracks of the era, played as part of the story's incidentals.

It's a star vehicle for Bel Powley who deserves praise for her portrayal of someone so much younger than the actress actually is. However, in the end I was left with a general feeling towards the whole film of "So what?"

I've given quite a number of films that I've seen recently a rating which leans towards the 'better than average' side without being in the 'must-see' category. This is another.....................6.

Wednesday 5 August 2015

Film: 'Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation'.

There's been a dearth of films worth stirring oneself for lately but this major release always held the promise of superficial thrills in the manner of previous in the series. And this it delivers - brash, noisy, almost unintelligible plot (but does it matter? Not really) - and, dammit, it's pretty exciting. One of those 'leave-your-brains-at-the-door' films, and no worse for that.

Cultist Tom Cruise does his Superman act as FBI agent Ethan Hunt again, aided by miniaturised computer gadgetry and aps galore (not to mention his own physical prowess and skills), assisted by the welcome, uplifting presence of Simon Pegg as his MI6 partner. Then there's Rebecca Ferguson (whose first major screen role this appears to be) - as an enigmatic side-shifting agent (or is she?) with all of Hunt's skills and sharing his ludicously unerring firearm accuracy in which, unlike their opponents, they score a bullseye with every shot. Hunt and Pegg are trying to find out who is at the root of a nefarious international organisation called 'The Syndicate', bent on hijacking the world's finances for their own dastardly ends. In addition there's Alec Baldwin and Jeremy Renner as FBI big-wigs, never quite sure of how far to trust Hunt, and both practically soiling their pants in the process, especially the former. Another 'biggish' name is Ving Rhames who, if he gets any broader, will soon be a human walking rectangle!

Most of the film takes place in London (that's England, we're informed), with a very short early sequence in Havana (Cuba!) and more substantial episodes in Casablanca (Morocco - including an extended car chase through the narrow streets and alleys in broad daylight, with not a soul about!) and Vienna (yes, that's right, the Vienna in Austria). The latter is a very entertaining section at the opera (where I've actually been) during a performance of Puccini's 'Turandot', the music cut and pasted about, but crucially including, what else, but 'Nessun Dorma'. Aficianados of Alfred Hitchcock films will note the resemblance of this scene to the climactic Royal Albert Hall scene in 'The Man Who Knew Too Much'.
As required, the London scenes had to include a number of the usual touristy backdrops. I thought the inclusion of the Tower of London was an interesting and unusual move but, sadly, the location wasn't exploited at all.

The film's director (and writer) was Christopher McQuarrie, probably best known for his screenplay for 'The Usual Suspects'. He does what one would expect here, without blazing any trails.

The film passed a Summer's afternoon pleasantly enough, and if you like this sort of mindless, forgettable stuff it'll be right up your street. Importantly, I don't regret the expense and time I invested....................6.