Wednesday 30 December 2015

My 'Best Films of 2015'.

So here we are - and I must say that it wasn't easy to pick just ten out of the mere seventy-eight I've seen. (Long gone are those times, never to return, when I'd see twice as many, and upwards, within one year). But competition for excellence just within these relatively few has been fierce, and I do rather hang my head to think of some of the worthies I've omitted from the final cut. (What! No 'Force Majeure', 'Far from the Madding Crowd', ''Irrational Man', 'Grandma', 'Mia Madre', 'Suffragette', 'Bridge of Spies' - nor even 'Brooklyn'? No. Sorry about that!) 

My adopted method was initially to choose thirty from this year's tally, next to select half of them, and then to jiggle and juggle a chosen final ten into an ordered list. In this way I've come up with the selection in sequence with which I feel most comfortable, ignoring, as far as I could, any sentiment that certain films ought to be included because they might have been expected to be there. It's my very own personal selection of the film experiences which have given me the most pleasure.

Oh, and before someone notices and complains that the order of the chosen few are not in the order of ratings I gave them at the time (nearly always decided immediately on returning home after seeing them), I have to state that there's the additional factor of the time taken for a filmic experience to 'mellow' in the mind. Thus, certain entries have gained in value in my mind's opinion over time (e.g. 'Lobster', 'Whiplash') whilst others have faded, if maybe only by a little (e.g. 'Sunset Song', 'The Lady in the Van'). 

So, this is it, in ascending order:-

10) The Lady in the Van - Dame Maggie Smith with the words of Sir Alan Bennett, both at the top of their game:-

9) Carol - Cate Blanchett, in a singularly brave-for-its-time, Patricia Highsmith story, showing us once more why she is one of the very best of all actresses around:-

8) The Lobster - modest, yet remarkably effective, quirky film with a near-unrecognisable Colin Farrell in untypically restrained mode:-

7) American Sniper Taut, believable, Iraq-war, Clint Eastwood-directed thriller with pumped-up Bradley Cooper ably holding the focus:-

6) Whiplash One of those films that rattles around the brain for a long time afterwards. Scary J.K. Simmons is the big bully, tyrannical tutor of a jazz 'big band' class. Timid Miles Teller is on drums:-

5) Still Alice

Julianne Moore in her deservedly Oscar-winning, heart-wrenching role as a 50-year old woman suffering from the onset of Alzheimers. A profoundly moving: film:-

4) Sunset Song

Director Terence Davies works his magic again, this time in rural north Scotland in a small-scale, family tale of romance, dreams and squabbles. Quite extraordinary.

3) Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales)

 The Argentinians pull a rabbit out of the hat with this utterly marvellous, often outlandish, (subtitled) anthology of six short stories - unrelated apart from a very tenuous common thread. Part of its wonder for me was its total surprise, coming out of nowhere with no warning:-

2) 45 Years

There was no doubt that this had to be included, and in an exalted position too. Tom Courtnay and Charlotte Rampling (the latter never been better) attempting to celebrate their long-term wedding anniversary when a ghost from his past emerges and sows seeds of doubt in her mind. Intensely human drama which brought me as close to tears as I've been in a long time in the cinema, which itself is real rarity.:-

And the winner is:-

1) Ex Machina

I was astonished at how good this was, even against my own expectations, being science fiction - not one of my favourite film genres (with one or two glorious exceptions) - though this is, gratefully, an earth-bound tale. It was one of those films where I felt like pinching myself to confirm that I wasn't dreaming that I could find something so enjoyable.  What makes it even more extraordinary is that it's the directorial debut of novelist Alex Garland, this film also being his own story. And, not least worth mentioning is the presence of (phwoarrrrr!) bushy-bearded and muscled-up Oscar Isaac as computer scientist with delusionally ambitious aims:-

I think this will be the most controversial of my Top 10 inclusions, and furthermore, to have it nominated as my ultimate 'Film of the Year' may well be too much for some. Well, if so, I can live with it. The film did get, as far as I could make out, very good reviews all round on its release, only I would go so far as to rate it a step or two beyond being just 'very good'.

And as per convention, I'm going to end with my choice of 'Turkey of the Year'. No, not the recent Star Wars, though it was a close-run thing. No, this year's mouldy raspberry award goes to:-

Tomorrowland - which not only George Clooney's starring role could rescue. See it if you dare! Or perhaps if you're wanting something to send you to sleep:-

Now it's nearly time to dive into 2016 - and there are some pretty interesting items already on the list, such as...........

Monday 21 December 2015

Film: 'Star Wars - The Force Awakens'

Let's dispose of this quickly. It bored the pants off me, just as every other of this series has done, right back to 1977, when I just couldn't understand why everyone else was coming out so ga-ga over that first one. I've seen every Star Wars film in the cinema shortly after release (more out of a sense of 'duty' than any keenness to see them), lost interest in each very early on - and this latest is no great improvement, if it's any at all. 
If it hadn't been for the near-constant, surround-sound din I would surely have dozed off. My first yawn (of many) came just 15 minutes in. I just didn't care about what was happening to any of the characters, that's the top and bottom of it, leaving me cold and unresponsive.
However, I have to aver, the series has been a phenomenon, even though I'm so far outside its appreciation as to my being beyond the horizon. Current average rating on IMDb is 8.8 (from 165,000 viewers), which must be just about the highest I've seen for any film to date, so it's pleasing an awful lot of people, and how can anyone argue with that?

Can't be bothered to mention anything of the 'plot'. Anyone who's interested enough would know by now anyway. Shan't bother with the cast either. Appearances from earlier in the series only make me apprehensive about future releases, which I think I may as well give up on now. I doubt if I'll get an epiphanous awakening at this late stage.

I've no doubt that the visuals are now more accomplished than they've ever been, which is only what one would hope for. But when one tries to sustain a level of interest by entertaining oneself in looking for gaffes in continuity (of which I noticed several, but am sure there were loads more, as there are in every film), well, that's not a good sign.

I'll close this on a kind(ish) note.......................3.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Film: 'Victor Frankenstein'

I found this an uneasy watch from several aspects. It takes the basic Mary Shelley story (much better conveyed by Kenneth Branagh's under-appreciated, sometimes unfairly scorned, 1994 film) and it opens out the back history of Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) who was to become Frankenstein's (James McIvoy) assistant.

Igor is a hunchback young man in a circus, graphically abused and cruelly treated as a grotesque for the audience's amusement. But he also has a large intellectual capacity which the scientist recognises when, on a visit to the circus in searching for parts from dead animals to use in his experiments, an accident occurs to a female trapeze artiste  (later the film's slender romantic interest - Jessica Brown Findlay) when Igor's knowledge saves her life. Frankenstein helps Igor escape and takes him under his wing and memorably (and laughably) manages to eliminate Igor's lifelong hump deformity within a couple of minutes.
McAvoy plays Frankenstein straight out of old film-acting portrayals - all crazed scientist, manic grins, eye-rollings and riddling pronouncements of his superior wisdom - he gives it the complete works in ultra-flamboyant style. Meanwhile Igor, grateful for his freedom, is keen to help the scientist in his quest with the use of his significant brain-power, a task which he discovers is no less than to create life itself out of dead matter - the latest attempt being in the hideous shape of a grisly amalgam of body parts taken from various animals. Meanwhile, a religious-driven Scotland Yard detective (Andrew Scott) is on the trail of both of them and determined to put on end to the 'Satanic' experiments. (There's also a welcome cameo appearance from Charles Dance). The film climaxes with the creation of the near-humanoid monster. (How come there are so many conveniently-located violent thunderstorms within these isles with which to empower the experiments? I suppose it's only playing along with the rest of the fantasy.)

I must say that all the settings are most handsomely depicted, both outside scenes and interiors. It's a busy film, hardly letting up at all in its frenzied action, but as the denouement advances it becomes increasingly mechanical and one could tell with ease where it was going - though, of course, we have the well-known story as a background anyway.
Director Paul McGuigan has given us some scenes at which I found myself recoiling, though it's all done with great energy and purpose. However, in the final analysis I found it a great deal of noise over nothing especially new............4.

Monday 14 December 2015

Film: 'Grandma'

I would dearly have loved to have given this an exceptional rating so that it might have been a contender for one of the very best films of the year. Sadly, I can't quite do that, though I'd still give it a strong recommendation.

The principal attraction is the presence of Lily Tomlin in every scene, and she's and in great form, alternately combative, reflective, sassy and sympathetic. (Why has she made so few feature films? I leave the question dangling). 
Another major positive is the superior screenplay by Paul Weitz, here writer as well as director - astute, perceptive and never sounding forced.
Then there's the strong supporting cast including Marcia Gay Harden (as the Tomlin character's dominating and argumentative daughter) -  and Sam Elliott who, as the only male of significance, and in only one (but long) scene, manages to leave an indelible impression, something he quite regularly achieves on film.
And last, but not least important, it all comes in at a commendably short one hour and a quarter (plus closing credits).

Elle (Tomlin), just having separated from her most recent, short-lived female relationship, is grandmother to Sage (Julia Garner, my sole reservation in the cast, she being the only one with the 'modern' tendency to mumble - though I have heard even worse - whereas I could hear every word of the remainder of the cast). Unmarried Sage is pregnant and, like her, the father (their affair is now over too) also doesn't want the baby. So impecunious Sage, having booked an appointment for an abortion later that very day, now comes to her grandmother to ask her for the money - though the latter is also broke, so the two of them have to quickly do a mini-round of those who might be able to help.

What is truly remarkable about this film is its non-judgmental stance on the issue of abortion, an attitude which would be bound to raise the hackles of so-called 'Pro-Lifers'. The subject is in no sense treated casually, rather it's seen throughout as a matter of the woman's choice. However, while on their rounds, the feathers of one or two are ruffled - and, as if to show just a token sense of balance, a sudden, very short event happens in the film's final scenes which would give such 'Pro-Lifers' at least something to cheer at. 
Another remarkable quality of the film is its matter-of-fact attitude towards same-sex relationships. It's just taken as a 'given', and not treated as anything out-of-the-ordinary or an added-on piece of exotica. That was refreshing, and not before time.

I'd expected this film to have been more of a comedy than it actually was - though there are some good and rather wicked one-liners, especially in the first half. However, I did think it became disappointingly flaccid about a quarter of an hour before the end as it wandered into sentimentality. Pity about that. It needed a bit of an unexpected jolt, or something as strong, to bring it to a more satisfactory conclusion, but that didn't come. It just fizzled away.

A good film but, regrettably, falling short of my high expectations, though not by a great deal. However, Lily Tomlin's presence alone ought to be sufficient to draw anyone.................................7.

Thursday 10 December 2015

Film: 'Sunset Song'

If this were to be the final film I see this year - though I hope it won't be - I'd be closing on one of my undoubted highlights. (I have to stress the 'my' because I see that on IMDb, the latest average viewer rating is a relatively paltry 6.4. That's too bad. I loved it).

Terence ("I utterly loathe being gay!") Davies has made just half a dozen feature films (plus one documentary on Liverpool), each one of them having been impressive to a greater or lesser extent. I'd put this one in the upper reaches of that range. He is now 70 years old - with another film in the pipeline. If 'Sunset Song' had turned out to have been his swansong it would have been a worthy one.

Based on a 1935 novel by one Lewis Grassic Gibbon (both title and writer of which I'd never heard), the idea of making this film has been gestating in Davies' mind for a decade and a half. 
Set in northern Scotland in the early years of the last century it follows the story of Chris Guthrie (Agness Deyn, quite remarkable, who carries the entire film on her shoulders) starting as teenage schoolgirl, through her early life with a violent, abusive father (hot, straight, grandaddy, Peter Mullan, who's in danger of getting typecast into unattractively brutish roles) and her young-adult brother, the principal victim of his father's short-fused ire -  with both belt and fists being employed. There are also two younger boys while the passive mother gives birth to a further pair of twins. 
The family runs a farm in the desolate, windswept highlands, all the family mucking in. As she becomes a young woman, Chris becomes mutually attracted to Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), and they eventually marry.

Davies shows his expected skill at filming sweeping vistas, without distractions, aural or otherwise.  In a sense it's a leisurely approach but it's ever ravishing to look at. He homes in on a mood and captures it exquisitely and accurately with no sense of falsehood.
It's a long film at 135 minutes. I had determined in advance to leave early (in order to get back in time to let Blackso in who'd be waiting outside for me, his fur now alarmingly and distressingly coming out, giving him a scruffy look, which makes him an even more likely target for the mischievous kids when a nearby school comes out) - but I'd been well hooked on the film and I just had to stay till the very end. (As it turned out I was in time getting back to 'rescue' Blackso from a possibly unfortunate fate).

All acting is every bit as fine as one would have hoped for in this near-epic. Soundtrack is perfection itself. I really wasn't expecting to like it as much as I did, but I can't escape the fact that this is one of my films of the year. A quite singular achievement................8.5.

Tuesday 8 December 2015

Film: 'The Dressmaker'

This is a queer one - as it's intended to be, and as I was expecting. It certainly has its moments but I do think it over-reaches itself in being too long (two hours) to sustain the whimsy, lacking consistency in holding onto its initially promising, curious mood.

Based on an apparently well-regarded book by Rosalie Ham, this Jocelyn Moorhouse directed film is set in 1951, Victoria, Australia, where Kate Winslet returns to her aged and frequently ga-ga, amnesiac mother (Judy Davis) living in a small outback town where everyone knows everyone else. She was sent into exile as a 10-year old having, reputedly, killed a boy. But now she's in total control, bursting with self-belief, and taunting the drooling, local males with her femininity, while simultaneously determined to get to the bottom of what really happened regarding the dead child, her own almost non-existent memories of what happened not supporting the 'official' version of events. But - and this is a major part of the film - she is now an accomplished dressmaker, acutely aware of fashions and how to dress the ladies, a talent which gets much noticed and causes her talents to be in great demand, despite her unfortunate reputation as an alleged killer, something of which everyone is aware.  
Among the residents of the place is the one-man police force of Hugo Weaving (always very watchable), who is greatly partial to women's clothing, going all gooey at the sight and feel of the fabrics, and wearing dresses in his own time. Hunky romantic interest is provided by Liam Hemsworth from 'The Hunger Games'.

It ought to have been zany throughout, at least that would have made it a more successful film (though I guess it's only following the novel), but it does rather go to pieces about three-quarters of the way through when a sudden accident occurs and the Winslet character loses her mask of self-confidence - though she does resume it again before the close.   
Now and again I was thinking of the Coen brothers and how they would have handled the prevailing, off-key mood. They are (or were, in their heyday) total masters in sustaining the bizarre feel of strange, often comedic, circumstances throughout their films. 'The Dressmaker', in my view, has too many contrasts, and latterly with a serious edge, to be put in the same class as theirs. But it's by no means devoid of some enjoyable, even a couple of delicious, moments.......................6.

Thursday 3 December 2015

Film: 'Carol'

I had exalted hopes for this for a number of reasons. If it doesn't quite attain my aspiring wishes it doesn't come short by much.

What it has going for it is:-
Cate Blanchett
Director Todd Haynes
Book by Patricia Highsmith
Music by Carter Burwell

All come together to make a far above-average product.

I've read the Patricia Highsmith book twice, a writer who has been one of my favourite authors for just about all my life since I started serious adult reading. Her novel was originally called 'The Price of Salt' and published in 1952 under a pseudonym (only reluctantly agreed to by the author) because it was felt that the lesbian love story at its heart, truly remarkable for its time, would damage the sales of her other novels, she being an already established writer (most famously then, as now, for 'Strangers on a Train', the murder-swap thriller filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, who, being Hitch, altered it so that the camp, unmarried, mother-loving, father-hating one of the pair of potential murderers [played by thrice-married Robert Walker] was the 'evil' one; the other, portrayed as a 'safe' heterosexual, being a duped innocent [actually played by the gay Farley Granger]. The original Highsmith novel is much more ambiguous about both men).
Anyway, 'Carol' is not in the same vein. It's basically a romance, gently paced and subtly developed.  

Carol is Cate Blanchett, an affluent divorcee, who comes into the toy department of a large store, looking for a doll for her daughter. She is served by assistant Therese, (Rooney Mara, whom we last saw in a major role as the title figure in the American re-make of the Swedish 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' in 2011. The difference between her role then and this one is astonishing. Here she is the quieter one of the couple). From their initial meeting, unspoken, lingering glances are exchanged. Carol is fighting her ex-husband for shared custody of their young daughter. He wants to have sole care because of Carol's alleged past liaison with another woman (not Therese, at least not yet). Carol and Therese (who is living with her boyfriend) meet up again and their friendship grows into an affair. (There is one brief bedroom scene, not too specific).

Being the early 1950s, there is a lot of smoking. Interior decors are in tasteful cafe-au-lait and dark choc. Music is unobtrusive. Being mainly set during Christmas season there are one or two Xmas records of the time on the soundtrack. Fair enough.
There are only two or three scenes where voices are raised, all involving Carol, but containing none of the hyperactivity and hysteria that characterised her deservedly Oscar-winning turn in Woody Allen's 'Blue Jasmine'.

Director Todd Haynes has one really major film to his credit so far. I regard his 'Far from Heaven' (2002) as one of the ten or so best films of the last twenty years. If you haven't seen it you really must. Having Julianne Moore in the lead part should be enough to persuade any doubters.

What slightly let me down about 'Carol' was that I didn't think it came properly alive until about halfway through - though when it did it was superb. I don't know why I felt it to have been so inert at first, though my own fatigue could well have been the culprit. I had a very poor night's sleep last night so I wasn't at my most receptive. It would really need me to watch this film again to confirm the way I felt - and I certainly wouldn't in the least mind sitting through it once more.

There's talk of another Oscar nomination for Cate Blanchett. I'd have no real argument with that, though in this role she isn't required to display quite the range of emotions as she did in 'Jasmine'. If she does get it again I won't be a complainer.

An extremely good film, then, without being quite as exceptional as I'd hoped. When I do watch it again it could be that I'd wish to revise my present rating upwards. Nevertheless, even now I'd warmly recommended it - and anyway, it's not often we see a drama with two, maybe three, of the principal stars being women....................................7.5.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Film: 'Bridge of Spies'.

This is a rattling good film. 

I tend to be wary of Spielberg as, for me, despite his mastery of the genre, his single greatest weakness is to lay sentiment on with a trowel such that it overwhelms all else. Not so here. Although he lets emotion have its head in the closing few minutes with a cosily reassuring domestic epilogue, as to the previous two hours and a quarter I was totally engrossed throughout. And all is achieved with no showy action sequences or special effects, and with a superior script whose writers include both the Coen brothers.

It starts in 1957 with the East-West Cold War now in full combative mode. In New York, a Russian man believed to be a Soviet spy is arrested (Mark Rylance - a major name in British theatre, with a fair bit of TV work also; less so in film up to now.). A private insurance lawyer (Tom Hanks) is roped in, reluctantly, by the CIA to defend the suspected spy, the American government wanting to keep their involvement in the Russian's defence at arm's length because of the politically sensitive nature of the case. 
After the trial an American pilot, Gary Powers, operating a spy plane over the Soviet Union is shot down and arrested, giving the Russians a publicity coup which they milk for all its worth. A situation of brinkmanship between the two major powers develops and Hanks is slated to arrange a spy exchange, though with a most unwelcome complication of an American student being arrested in Berlin by East German authorities just as the dividing wall is being constructed. 

The cast also includes, in a small role, Alan Alda as a CIA chief, now looking, sadly, very old (though he is now nearly 80!). The very few female roles are merely peripheral, the main one being the Hanks' character's wife, who has very little to say.

I am old enough to recall the news of pilot Gary Powers being used as a bargaining tool by the Soviets, as well as the building of the Berlin wall, with heartbreaking scenes of desperate Germans living on the east side being shot in their vain attempts to escape over to the west, horrifically and tragically publicly bleeding to death on the razed 'no man's land' area near the wall. However, at the time I knew hardly anything of the the Russian guy, the Rylance role, being held by the Americans. 

The first half of the film is set in America; the second (in which Rylance only appears at the end) is in snowy Berlin, with the climactic spy exchange scene on a bridge. (Apparently Hanks' conspicuous sniffling cold throughout this second part was genuine.)
The film maintains its suspense throughout even though we can guess that it'll probably work out okay - and those of us who recall the actual news at the time know that it does. But it's still gripping stuff.

One of Spielberg's best in my view - and that's from someone who's only really liked a handful of his films - his very early ones and just a very few of his from the 90s and 00s. But this is certainly one to see....................8.