Monday 29 February 2016

Film: 'Room'

I don't share the widely-held admiration for this. In fact, now having seen all eight of the films nominated for the 'Best Picture' Oscar, I rate this one as being the least satisfactory. 

My opinion largely stems from such an unlikely incident about half-way through, when the camera goes out of the titular room for the first time, and then suddenly things happen at such an incredible pace that for a long time into this second hour I thought "No way! This has just got to be in the mother's imagination - and soon it will all dissolve and we'll revert to seeing her once more being kept as a prisoner with her 5 year-old son." (Just as it happens in so many inferior horror films). But no. We're supposed to take this as an actual, reality stage of the denouement.
The first hour, entirely in that room, at least held the promise of extended suspense being wound up like a coiled clockwork spring, but after this 'event' it was dissipated.

Brie Larson has just taken the 'Best Actress' Oscar for her part here as the mother of young, luxuriantly long-haired, Jacob Tremblay. She's fine in the role, quite good in fact, though I didn't think anything in particular marked her out as more deserving of the award than the other nominees.
The circumstances of her imprisonment in this small but all-purpose room are not fully explained, the incarcerator bringing in regular supplies of food and other needs, including toys, and occasionally stays for the night, the boy watching him through the slats in the door of his 'sleeping-cupboard'. The only world he knows is that on TV (the room's sole window is a skylight) and he can't imagine anything other than that when his mother attempts to explain. His occasional yelling bouts (mercifully short), close to headache-inducing,  continue into the different setting of the second half of the film.

Apart from the full motivation of the perpetrator being left unexplained, other than his just being a sadist, there are other loose ends - such as what was the reason behind grandpa William H. Macy's perceived odd attitude to the boy? It was just left hanging in the air. Macy did say something to the effect of talking about it later, but he didn't - he just disappeared. Very odd. Did that part of the story end up on the cutting room floor?
Why wasn't the boy's very girlish-looking long hair mentioned by anyone until near the very end. It's true that on his first encounter outside he was mistaken for a member of the other sex, but after that no one seemed to be that bothered. I've never in my life seen an infant boy with such long hair. Any girl of similar age would have envied to have possessed such.

I'll give the film marks for being original - the author of the book on which this is based, Emma Donaghue, also wrote the screenplay here.
Director Lenny Abrahamson also directed the much better 'Frank' of 2014.

But this film, I felt, was at best, not much above run-of-the-mill stuff despite the promising premise, though I'll be surprised if anyone who's seen it agrees with me......................5.

Sunday 28 February 2016

Oscars 2016 - My Gripes

Well, my only really big peeve is Alicia Vikander (above, right) winning the 'Best Supporting Actress' award for 'The Danish Girl' - even though her nomination ought, by rights, to have been in the 'Best Actress' category if she were to be nominated at all. Not that I think that she's a particularly bad actress - she might be very good, as far as I know - but, hell's bells, I challenge anyone to watch that film and tell me all what she's saying 'cos most of what I hear is just inarticulate mumbles - and that characteristic of hers was underlined in she being my single complaint about my favourite film of 2015, 'Ex Machina', for precisely the same reason. As I say, it's not for the entire time that she falls into this 'can't-be-bothered' mode, but it certainly is for a considerable part of her on-screen appearances. It's just not good enough for one to have to try to catch a view of her moving lips in order to help decipher the meaning behind those hardly audible sounds. ('Helluva Bon-bon Carthorse' has precisely the same fault in nearly every film she's been in, except maybe for her shouty role as Red Queen in Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland'). 
However, with Vikander I'll concede that she emotes well even though her diction is just plain lazy. And before anyone says that it must be my hearing that's deteriorating because of my age, it would be fair enough comment if I was having the like problem in other areas of my life, such as in everyday conversation or watching TV, listening to radio etc, but it's just not the case. No, if she can't put in the effort to articulate properly then the film's director or the sound engineer ought to compensate for that in their microphone placings and settings. I suppose that they are already so familiar with the script that they are not so concerned - and anyway the chances are that they might have done several takes of any given scene and might be getting bored! 
Additionally, the ultimate vote for the Oscar winners is made by a significant number of members (average age of 63!) who must be around my own age in any case.
I'd most likely have given the award for 'Best Supporting Actress' to Rooney Mara for 'Carol' - or, as she's already won the BAFTA, to Winslet for an impressive role in 'Steve Jobs'. (Jennifer Jason Leigh had comparatively little to do in 'The Hateful Eight' and even less to say).

Other comments:-
It would have been nice if Eddie R. had managed to pull it off as 'Best Actor' for two years running, but everyone was saying it was going to be Leo's year, so can't do much about that - and anyway, his was a worthy enough performance, easily displaying the regulation amount of sufferings which are requisite to winning here. 

I'm sorry that Charlotte Rampling didn't get it for '45 Years', an astonishing, profound and heart-breaking star turn if ever there was one. But the outcome was not unexpected, Rampling's case not being helped by the taken-out-of-context quotes about lack of diversity for which I think she had a point - well, up to a point. (I'm going to see 'Room' later today so I'll be able to judge on Brie Larson's win for 'Best Actress')

Sam Smith winning for the 'Spectre' opening credits song, 'The Writing's on the Wall'? Well, I don't know the other nominated songs, and have only seen one of the other films. If 'Writing' is not the worst Bond song ever written it's certainly not one of the stand-out ones either, of which there have been half a dozen at the very least. I've heard it several times now and still, if I was asked to, couldn't whistle or hum the tune.

Other awards - well okay, we'll let them pass.

Thursday 25 February 2016

Film: 'A Bigger Splash'

A mighty strange film, this - one that left me perplexed and dissatisfied.

I was looking forward to it, not only because of its attractive casting, but I was seriously expecting it to have some connection with David Hockney's most famous painting (and the 1974 film about the artist) with which it shares a title. Alas, no such luck. In the event the only thing, as far as I could see, that they have in common is that they both feature an outdoor, private swimming pool. So, why that curiously misleading title for this film? Why not have called it 'A Big Splash', or simply 'A Splash'? ( I shrug my shoulders and try to forget my having been led up the garden path).

On the small Mediterranean island of Pantelleria (No, me neither. I had to look it up and found it lies halfway between Sicily and Tunisia), former rock star (unlikely, but it's Tilda Swinton), having totally burnt out her vocal chords singing in huge stadia, and so now only communicating through signs and mimes, is sojourning here with her boyfriend of several years, Mathias Schoenaerts (looking as smoking hot as he ever has), when they are joined by a former long-term affair of hers, Ralph Fiennes, and his celebrity actress-daughter (Dakota Johnson). From his first appearance at the airport the Fiennes character is, and remains throughout, totally insufferable - a high energy motormouth who constitutes the most irritating adult character I've seen on screen in many moons. It's not what he says so much as his being unable to shut up or stop interfering. How Swinton could ever have fallen for him enough for them to have lived together for some years is a mystery - and furthermore, it's clear that she still retains marked affection for him.  

We only see Swinton's rock career in brief flashbacks when she appears on-stage at an open-air rock concert in Bowie-esque glittery attire, though we never actually hear her singing. During the course of the film her speaking voice only very gradually recovers, until by the end she manages barely audible forced whispers.

The first half of this two hour film carries its own problem in that very little happens to excite our interest - aside from the stunning shots of the little island. Our focus of attention is diffused, though if it's on any one of the quartet at all it's on Fiennes who loves to hog the limelight (singing along with, mugging and 'dancing' in Jagger-like strutting fashion, to the Rolling Stones' 'Emotional Rescue' being just one of his, er, 'highlights'). I've never seen Fiennes in any film let his hair down as much as he does here, and in this film it's not only his hair that he lets down - we've got fleeting full-frontals several times. I had to keep telling myself that it's only the intensely annoying character that he's playing in order to prevent myself wanting to walk out of the cinema! 
Schoenaerts manages to keep his cool for most of the time and remains a brooding, comparatively economically-spoken figure. (Btw: Such a cinematic cliche here. If anyone in a film insists that they don't want a cigarette because they are a non-smoker, you can be sure as anything that later on in the film you will see them smoking. Much the same happens with films where there's the rarer appearance of a vegetarian who, you can be certain, will later be seen scoffing on meat.)

After this non-eventful first hour the film does pick up a bit when relationships among members of this central foursome start getting, shall we say, tangled - but it took an awful long time getting to this point. Then an event happens involving two of them which spectacularly changes circumstances for all.

Director Luca Guadagnino has already established a fair career in film, including a few involvements with Tilda Swinton, their 'I Am Love' (2009) notably being, in my opinion, far, far superior to this curiosity.

If this film was aiming to be attractive by qualifying as an 'arty' film I'm afraid it missed me by a mile, though I've no doubt that there will be quite a number who are indeed captivated by it. You might be tempted to see it, as I was, because of the cast, and if you are, then that's fair enough - though if you thought there'd be any echoes of Hockney, I'll consider to have done you a favour by dispelling any such notion beforehand. If you do see it I'd be most interested to learn your own thoughts. Meanwhile, I can't rate 'A Bigger Splash' any more than.....................4.5.

Wednesday 24 February 2016

Film: 'Trumbo'

A film of 'quality'!

The story of Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood screenplay and script writer (mainly in the 1950s), and his struggle with the film industry, through the McCarthy 'witch-hunt trials', trying to blacklist and ostracize him for his membership of the Communist party.

Bryan Cranston, a name I didn't know (I see he's done a lot of TV work), plays the title character - and Diana Lane plays his wife, another name I was unfamiliar with though I see that she has appeared in a number of films I've seen in less up-front roles. Helen Mirren is the obnoxious and viperish (under a velvet glove), reactionary and flamboyantly fashion-conscious gossip writer, Hedda Hopper, all-powerful with her ability to influence public opinion through her bitchy magazine columns, which can determine the fate of anyone to whom she takes exception, especially political opponents. (She'd have been a shoo-in for 'Fox News' these days!)

It's a rivetting sweep of a story even though I knew where it was going. Although I was too young myself at the time to be aware of the trials, a number of well-known names are depicted here which show with clear effect which side they were on (if anyone didn't already know) - John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Otto Preminger - and, most significantly, here in the earlier portion of the film Edward G.Robinson, and, in the latter part, Kirk Douglas.
If the film does momentarily run low on steam in the final third it does pick up speed again effectively. I could have done without the long concluding speech where we might have made our own identical conclusions through all that's gone before, but I suppose it wraps it up neatly (maybe too neatly?)
I must also mention with some regret that there were some howlers of continuity lapses. Why do they let these get through? Do they really think we wouldn't notice? Unfortunate - as well as being distracting! 

Director is Jay Roach, that same director of the Austin Powers films, who demonstrates that he can manage high drama every bit as successfully as he can do comedy.

The filmed story told, with liberties taken to simplify, has a lot going for it and I left the cinema feeling well-satisfied, though also aware that it's a story still being played out in Hollywood - not now with a campaign against card-carrying 'reds' of course, who'd be every bit as much of pariah status as before (their number must now be down to minuscule, almost non-existence levels anyway) - but the saga continues. As we are all currently reading, where money talks, the spotlight right now has settled on 'minorities' (including women) represented on screen. So in that sense, the general air of self-congratulation in eliminating the Communist hunt that this film ends with is now transferred to other areas not mentioned, though naturally without such penalties and the threats/realities of unemployment that were utilised in the case of McCarthyism.  

I've heard unfavourable comparison being made of this with another film concerning the same issue of blacklisting at the same period, namely Martin Ritt's 'The Front' of 1976 (with Woody Allen in a non-comedic role). I liked that earlier film a lot too but this new one takes a different slant, concentrating on Trumbo's personal struggle with others of his ilk and amongst members of his own family. If the earlier one did carry a bit more punch, it's only by a slight margin.

In the final analysis, though, this one did leave me feeling it was a well-spent couple of hours of entertainment..............7.5.

Monday 22 February 2016

Film: 'Triple 9'

Brutal, frequently grisly, but also a trifle tedious, Atlanta-set tale of double-faced police corruption and its involvement with the Russian 'Mafia', a film peopled with unlikeable characters in a sequence of set shoot-out pieces, which includes 'good cop' Woody Harrelson. Then there's Casey Affleck and Chiwetel Ejiofor (the latter good to see in any role) filling the main male leads while Kate Winslet is a Russian matriarchal and chief-villainess figure.

It's okay, on the whole, but little more than that. I've seen this sort of drama done better and more excitingly, and there's not much here that is genuinely new. I wasn't really rooting for anyone - and when the guilty parties did meet their just terminations in one form or the other I couldn't have much cared, with some of the developments being pretty predictable. It's all forgettable fodder though will probably fulfil the needs of anyone demanding diversion for a couple of hours, then for them to to file it away in the 'seen' folder. 

Director John Coathill achieved a much more satisfying film with his 'The Road' of 2009. Here he proves he's one of the 'lads' with a 'thriller' of all guns and bluster but little underneath.

Nothing too special, then - it just about fits the bill, but only just...........................5.

(Following day - I'm wondering if my rating is just a wee bit on the generous side.)

Friday 19 February 2016

Film: 'Deadpool'

Lively, violent in extremis - and quite amusing, this comic book caper of a completely costumed protagonist with super-human powers presents a moving version of a comic magazine strip, with all the bone-crunching confrontations one would expect to be depicted in that format, only here blown up into forensic, microscopic detail, complete with slo-mos and freeze-frames to enable us to savour to the fullest the gory physical details of the numerous combats. If it has one saving grace (though it's not the sole one), it's in having a sharp, witty, self-knowing script, containing frequent references to other films and various aspects of modern 'culture', mostly delivered direct to camera by Mr Dead Pool - the name adopted by the principal, Wade Wilson, and confidently played by Ryan Reynolds -  in very dry humour style. Some of these 'asides' I got; at other times the audience laughed though I wasn't sure for why. Reynolds' character's  manner regularly reminded me of Jim Carrey when being one of his manic characters (i.e. most of them) - physically hyperactive and ever-zany in talk. 
I must admit to gritting my teeth a little at the wise-guy opening credits, which looked as though it was straining for forced comic effect. However, it wasn't too far into the film itself that I was chuckling, and indeed laughing, along with the audience with no assistance.

The story is a slender one. Set in a nameless American(?) city (actually shot in Vancouver, that increasingly frequent stand-in for an anonymous North American metropolis - and even London recently), a government law enforcer (I think) is abducted and subject to gut-churning surgical procedures by a crazed English surgeon-scientist, 'Warlord', (Canadian Michael Benyaer) to transform him into being his slave with super-human capacities and self-repairing invulnerability, through operations which turn his skin hideously pock-marked, hence the head-to-toe costume, he covering his face in Spiderman fashion. Before this happens the 'Pool' figure had started a relationship with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and is, understandably,  now rather peeved that his physical transformation has made him unattractive to her, so he keeps himself back from revealing himself to her. The entire film concerns Mr Pool seeking revenge on the one who enacted his metamorphosis, a mission in which he gets assistance from a metal giant(!) and a miniature flame-weapon of a young female, to fight against Warlord and his seemingly inexhaustible human resources. .

Tim Miller's film (this being his first feature as director),  has a number of lapses of logic and continuity that I picked up on but, of course, one overlooks these in a comic-style production, and I certainly don't hold such lapses against it.  
If it wasn't for the incisive script - many of the best bits being addressed  to the audience, and much of it sexual, I wouldn't have rated the film that high. But it's that factor more than any other that distinguishes it.

Usually I write my reviews immediately on my return home from the cinema, so that you get a spontaneous reaction which may change with time, and regularly does. In this case I made a rare evening-venture out so have had nearly a full day to reflect on what I've seen. 

'Deadpool' fulfilled its mission to divert and gave me some genuine laughs, though in the final analysis it wasn't intended to be any more profound than the forgettable 'popcorn' entertainment which it comprises. So all in all, I think a fair rating would be a reasonably wholesome...................6.


Wednesday 10 February 2016

Film: 'Dad's Army'.

When I first heard about this film being made my reaction was simply "Why?"

Taking the characters from one of Britain's most successful and popular TV situation comedies (9 series starting in 1968 - nearly all the original actors now being deceased; the two surviving ones having short cameo roles here), a clutch of currently moderately well-known names, some of whose faces will be familiar even if their names are not, with general physical approximations to the original actors are allotted their parts. Less an exercise in attempting authentic imitation they do their best to give a vague idea of the original players - some quite successfully, it must be said - with the original characters' individual catch-phrases inserted, though with variable effect.

This film and the TV series was set in 1944, telling of the Home Guard, the body of British men (and some women) who were not conscripted into the fighting forces due to age, disability or other reasons, and who were on ever-ready guard to defend the country in the event of a Nazi invasion. (I recall in the 60s when the idea of the series was first being mooted there was significant concern that it would be an irreverent and mocking take on the brave souls who had actually given up their time ready to defend the country - to the death, if need be. But it was accepted by viewers more in affection than ridicule).

I was uncertain of the wisdom of making this film though, of course, the motivation is to make money. At the time of the original series there was another feature film made which was moderately well-received but I found it rather flat - and, as in the case of nearly all full-length films made from a TV series, it hopelessly outstretched itself beyond any of the TV programmes' original attraction - the latter being, in effect, a series of extended vignettes, each half-hour independent of the other.. The experience always seems to be that bigger budgets emphatically do not mean funnier. In fact it's almost always the case that 'more equals less'. And so I found it with this film - a so-so product to which the large audience with which I attended reacted with polite chuckles of moderate amusement now and again (and in which I joined) but there was nothing approaching the hilarity which sometimes showed itself in the original TV programmes. (Incidentally, I don't think the BBC has ever stopped repeating the originals - and always on one of their two main channels too, and in peak-viewing time. It seems to be on some kind of permanent 'loop'.)

Now the names. The most internationally well known will be Tom Courtenay, with Bill Nighy also probably being well-recognised. Then, as the south coast's platoon's (actually filmed in Yorkshire) bumbling, self-important captain is Toby Jones. Other reasonably well-known names are Michael Gambon and Bill Patterson.

There is one major difference to the original series on which it's based. At that time, women, if they were present at all, were effectively sidelined as very minor players, many of the shows having no female appearances whatsoever. Not so here. To its credit it has one woman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, at centre-stage, as an undercover German spy, her true nature being revealed very early on in the film.
Then, also important is the Captain's wife, here (played by Felicity Montagu) a true Amazon of a figure whereas in the TV series Mrs Mainwaring, as she was, was regularly mentioned but never seen. There's also the redoubtable Alison Steadman and some other female names I recognised, all to the film's advantage, opening out the situations to beneficial effect. 
But even that can't disguise the fact that it's not a very good film - though certainly not exactly 'bad' either - which doesn't serve the original series that well. The script, lacking the inventiveness of its original writers (one of them yet survives) is clunky, especially when well-known phrases are crowbarred in - "They don't like it up 'em", "We're doomed!", "Stupid boy!" etc - and only underlines how far this film comes short of the original TV series.

Btw: This is a current British film without Ben Whishaw. Wasn't he available? A rarity indeed!

However, it's an honest effort. Director is Oliver Parker who, in recent years, has directed three of Oscar Wilde's works on film. As might be guessed, this one is too long by a good way, despite my liking for the conspicuous female presences, particularly that of Ms Z-J. But overall I must give a score that reflects it being a so-so accomplishment......................5.

Monday 8 February 2016

Film: 'Spotlight'

Like the contemporary 'The Big Short' this is another film where all the 'action' is verbal, with a cast every bit as stellar, though with the bonus that this time I could understand all of it. I liked this one even more than the other.

The subject is the true one of the investigation in 2001 by the Boston Globe newspaper of the Roman Catholic Church's cover-up of cases of historical child abuse, specifically in the diocese of Boston, and its protection of paedophile priests, of which the then Archbishop Law of Boston was fully aware and who was actually a chief player in the actions of concealment.

If there is a dominating role among the ensemble cast it's taken by Mark Ruffalo as a headstrong, earnest reporter, looking younger than ever - but also strangely less attractive this time, at least to me. But there are also several other cast members with substantial, meaty roles - Michael Keaton as senior reporter,  Liev Schreiber as the paper's boss and Rachel McAdams (whose name I had to look up, appearing in several recent films, the best known to me being Woody Allen's 'Midnight in Paris' of 2011). She, as another investigative reporter, has the only significant female role in the film, one in which she meets some of the victims of abuse, now all adults. In addition there's Stanley Tucci, an irascible figure who knows the situation from his own experience but found his own earlier investigations being foiled at every twist and turn by the obstructive Church which, understandably, doesn't want the story to get into the public domain. The Globe staff are determined to gather the evidence to blow the whole story open to the world, despite the Church's continued efforts to do all it can to keep a lid on it. The story becomes even more sensational when it's discovered that paedophile priests are not just a 'few bad apples' but that their presence in Boston is, in fact, rife - and, as the closing notices make clear, is so throughout the entire world. It's a situation which has now, sadly, become so familiar - namely that when it comes to finding justice for the victims of abuse and for punishing the criminal perpetrators, it all comes second to the Church's own self-ordained top priority of protecting the 'reputation' of that same 'Holy Mother Church'. If that means doing shady and hopelessly inadequate deals with victims to keep them quiet, and moving these same priests to other parishes where they can continue their abuse, then so be it.

I found the film quite rivetting, even though we know where it's going. It's fast moving and always interesting, and the cast is of uniformly very high standard.

Director (and sometimes actor) Tom McCarthy keeps it all driven along at a cracking pace in a film for which I have no appreciable complaints at all. I've seen slightly unfavourable comparisons being made for this as against another investigative reporting film, 'All the President's Men' (1976), about the Watergate break-in and cover-up. There's no doubt that this latter is a very fine film, though I haven't myself seen it since its appearance those 40 years ago. However, I do think that 'Spotlight' can hold its own in comparison, and for that reason I award it a well recommended..................7.5.


Monday 1 February 2016

Film: 'The Revenant'

Well, I'm glad that's out of the way!

I should imagine that most of those who had any interest in seeing this film will have done so by now, which gets me rather neatly off the hook, not wishing to go on at length about this deeply uncomfortable experience. I only felt I ought to go at all because so much has already been said about it and it's going to figure large in the forthcoming awards ceremonies. If Leo DiC does get the 'Best Actor' Oscar and BAFTA, for which he's currently favourite to win, I shan't be forward in complaining. Tom Hardy was good too but I did find his speech often incomprehensible - not inaudible, but I just couldn't understand what he was saying much of the time.
Many scenic panoramas, mostly snow-covered, which are quite breath-takingly spectacular.
As for director Alejandro Inarritu, I almost got the feeling that he was relishing the showing of so much gore and violence, some of it even meted out on humans! Felt my nose was being rubbed in it so that I didn't fall asleep, which I don't think I'd have done anyway, despite the film's almost three hours' length.

In terms of my own 'enjoyment', I award it a fairly reasonable....................6.