Friday 29 April 2016

Film: 'Bastille Day'.

I saw this yesterday morning and have to say that the more I reflect on it the more my original opinion, which wasn't very high anyway, slips down still further.

Set in Paris on the eve of the annual French national celebration parade, the film boils down to a fairly basic 'good man v evil gang' thriller, though, admittedly, with one or two adrenaline-pumping moments. Trouble is that the best of them comes early on in the film - a rooftop chase with much slipping on the tiles and threats of plunging a long way down onto the concrete below. As a sufferer of vertigo (though not anything like as acute as some people's), this particular chase really got to me. That aside it was fairly routine stuff. 

Idris Elba is an ex-CIA operative who, with the sanction of French intelligence, attempts to find out who and what lies behind a bomb going off in a street which kills four bystanders. A terrorist attack is the initial suspicion but it turns out not to be what it at first seems, involving a young woman (Kelly Reilly) who hadn't realised the full extent of what she'd be drawn into, as well as the coincidental and unintentional participation of a 'professional' American pickpocket (Richard Madden). The latter had been identified on CCTV as the likely terrorist perpetrator and it's Elba who takes the lead in seeking him out. (Incidentally, all three of these are British actors, the two males playing Americans).
Meanwhile behind the scenes of this superficially enemy attack, there's a plot going to foment public disquiet and anti-Muslim feelings, using whipped-up demonstrations to hide a dastardly plan to perform a heist on French national gold reserves and thereby destabilise the government for, oddly, an amount which, I would have thought, would have had not much more than a flea-bite effect. 

With no desire to reveal spoilers let it be said that the true villains turn out not be so much of a surprise at all. We live in times when corruption in high places no longer shocks us, so that when the 'big reveal' takes place my reaction was a plaintive "So what?" rather than the intended jaw-dropping "Well, well! Who would have thought it!" response which we are presumably supposed to have.

It's a fairly violent film, though nowhere near as extreme as it might have been. But what unsettled me still more, even to the point of being near risible, was Elba's own invincibility. He comes out of each of his many physical conflicts (both with fists and guns) with individuals and gangs - 'baddies' and authorised armed forces following orders - without a single scratch. His own gunfire talents have unbelievably unerring accuracy of aim while those trying to stop him are hamfistedly hopeless, as if in a comic-book superhero caper. (Groundwork for Elba's possible - though, I think, unlikely - future Bond role?) 
The action here is close to being parodic in its depiction of good against evil. 
I also felt to be being cheated by some over-deft editing - Elba often jumps from one location on set to another so quickly that his movement is not caught on camera, and is certainly beyond the perception of his foes.

James Watkins, as director, gives us fairly standard fayre, though if one lets oneself be caught up in the moment I dare say it might pass as functionally successful. (I did quite admire his 'The Woman in Black' of 2012, which I thought superior to the stage version, of which I remained unimpressed).

My doubts about this film were coming to the surface even as it was playing, though I might at that time have given it a score of 'average'. As at now, I wish to knock it down a notch from that level, so I'd better get on with rating it before it sinks yet lower...............4.5.

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Film: 'The Man Who Knew Infinity'

Heavily sentimental, unexceptional film, based on true story of young Indian mathematics prodigy, S. Ramanujan, of whom I'd not heard, though feel I ought to have - with Dev Patel ('Slumdog Millionaire', the 'Marigold Hotel' films) in the main role. It focusses on his cerebral achievements and fight for recognition at Cambridge University. before his premature death from T.B. at just 32. It's a film that is very near a hagiography, with the young man having the forbearance of a saint in tolerating the condescension, the sneering, and even the racial epithets openly hurled at him, one particularly shockingly by one of his own professors in class, as well as his being attacked in the street. All this happens against the background of the outbreak of World War I.

Ramanujan hails from Madras (now Chennai), India, his job being a lowly clerk, when his boss, grudgingly recognising his prodigious mental abilities, along with colonialist incumbent Stephen Fry (in little more than a cameo role), refers him to Cambridge University to where he's then invited by Maths prof, Hardy -  a pacifist/atheist (the latter mentioned too many times, methinks), played by Jeremy Irons, with his academic colleague Toby Jones, as well as Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell. (I've seen as many films featuring Jeremy Irons in the last few weeks as I have in the last ten years. He's suddenly all over the place, though in this film he's given his most substantial part in decades, probably having as much screen time as Patel himself.) 
Travelling to England means that Ramanujan has to leave his young wife and mother behind, his extended absence unsurprisingly giving rise to marital tensions by letter.

Despite the subject's near-miraculous mathematical abilities, little attempt is made in this film to illustrate what it entailed by showing us examples. What I did gather is that it related to equations involving prime numbers, and that he claimed to have discovered what was something of a 'Holy Grail', which had evaded all mathematicians up to then. Needless to say, the University's brains, Irons included up to a point, remain stubbornly sceptical, especially in the light of Ramanujan's racial and humble origins.

I found the subject's relentless saintly qualities hard to take, though it might well have been the truth as far as I know. I can't imagine admirers of the man complaining at the uncritical treatment he's given here. But true or not, I was particularly annoyed by frequently present background music, always in sentimental mode, and at least once supported by a 'heavenly choir', for crying out loud! Far from enhancing what was happening on screen, for me it detracted from it, his decline and succumbing to the illness that eventually killed him bestowing the final seal of martyrdom upon his short life. However, apparently even today his accomplishments and fame live on in academic circles.

This seems to be Matt Brown's first feature as director, and he really indulges himself here, but too much on the mushy side for me.   

I'm not sure the Ramanujan's memory is particularly well served by this one-dimensional portrayal. Certainly, if you are not put off by this treacle-ish treatment you will probably have greater appreciation for this film than I could muster...................5.


Tuesday 26 April 2016

Film: 'Eye in the Sky'

I thought this a humdinger. I can't recall the last time I was so gripped from within the first few minutes of a film which holds itself taut with tension right up to the final climax.
It concerns a joint British-American attempt, played out in continuous time, to eliminate by armed drone three leading members of an Al-Shabab terrorist group in Kenya who, it is discovered, are about to set in train two suicide bombings intended to kill many civilians.  

Helen Mirren is the British colonel in charge of operations in London, watching events in Kenya through miniature cameras, some mobile, where a terrorist meeting is being held in an otherwise ordinary simple native house. Also watching is a group of British government officials in the Home Counties, presided over by Lieutenant-General Alan Rickman (in, sadly, his final film), as well as American army personnel in the U.S.A., including the one, Aaron Paul, who is ultimately charged with pressing the trigger.  
In Kenya on the ground the 'spy' of the allies is Barkhad Abdi (picured) whom we saw recently as the totally believable terrorist hijacking chief in 'Captain Philips', and here he gives another strong performance.

What I particularly liked about this film was its simplicity. With no technical terms calculated to bamboozle one, it's a straightforward human story of a dilemma posed when what would otherwise have been an unequivocal decision to attack is foiled by an accidental innocent player on the ground. Decisions must needs be made, weighing up consequences of, in this case, one unintended casualty as against the probability of a much larger number of fatalities if the opportunity is not taken. Opinions differ and much buck-passing goes on while the chances of carrying out the attack at all are diminishing by the minute.Terrific nail-biting stuff. I was completely enthralled right to the end.

Director Gavin Hood couldn't have raised the tensions any higher. The audience I was with was, like me, completely hooked.
This superior film has a very high likelihood of appearing in my Top Ten of the year, and I heartily recommend it...................8.

Thursday 21 April 2016

Film: 'Midnight Special'

Not a film for those who like all loose ends neatly tied up by the end - and don't waste time wondering why the title either.

Difficult to say too much about the story for fear of revealing spoilers. However, it's basically a pursuit film, involving a young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) with unusual powers being rescued from a religious cult by his father (Michael Shannon) and his hunky friend(? - Joel Edgerton), the boy being reunited with his mother (Kirsten Dunst) and all of them being chased by authorities, military and police as well as by the cult now deprived of their 'prize possession'. I never quite understood the relationship between the two adult males, as well as that between Edgerton and the boy. In at least one of the reviews I read that it was explained in the film so perhaps that was at the point where I walked over the aisle and told off a young woman with crutches for repeatedly checking her mobile for messages every ten minutes, the light from it being maddeningly distracting.
I must also state that the last ten minutes or so of the film really need to be seen on a big screen for full impact, an episode the sight of which I found mightily impressive and quite breathtaking.

I liked this film, though opinions about it are divided, some complaining that it's much too slow, though I found it exciting throughout.

Director Jeff Nichols draws very high acting standards from his entire cast, which also includes Sam Shepherd. (I've never seen Nichols' 2012 film 'Mud', which got some very positive reviews).

This one is not a film for everybody. I can see why some might dislike it, even a lot, especially if you like your films to be 'cut and dried'. But if you can just accept what you see on screen without asking too many questions about it when it's over, as I managed to do, you may well find yourself liking it as I did.................................7.

Thursday 14 April 2016

Film: 'Marguerite'

I had high anticipation of this one and, although I found it agreeable enough, it did fall a little short of my hopes for it.
Foreshadowing the imminent release of, and 'inspired' by the same true story of the American, Florence Foster Jenkins (the upcoming film of that title starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant), this French film, actually shot in the Czech Republic, is set in the 1920s and relates how the middle-aged Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot - magnificent in the part), self-deluded into being unaware that her execrable singing is being derisively laughed at by everyone except herself, while she believes that she's widely loved and admired by the audiences at her informal concerts and recitals. Her long-suffering and philandering husband (Andre Marcon) has for years played along with allowing her to retain her fantasy. But now, as she becomes determined to achieve fame as a renowned opera singer, and taking professional singing lessons for the first time, his uneasiness, as also the disquiet of all those who've been humouring her, becomes the source of conflict which he doesn't know how to resolve without letting her know the truth about her hopeless vocal 'skills' and hurting her deeply.

Right through Xavier Giannoli's film I was longing for a lighter touch. It's true that there's a serious undercurrent to this otherwise superficially whimsical story, but it does get over-heavy at times. Other than Marguerite's hilariously bad singing, there are one or two other laughs to be had, but no more than that. All the arias she 'performs' (as well as two or three by 'proper' singers) will be familiar to opera lovers.
Perhaps I've been unfairly spoilt by the trailers currently playing of the Stephen Frears/Meryl Streep film, and that one really does look like great fun. So through this French film I kept reminding myself to see it on its own terms. Though that did make it slightly better I yet felt something wanting, which wasn't helped by it being a colour film shot largely in what looked like matter-of-fact monochrome.

But it's an interesting take on a story - or at least its central character - of which I've been aware for something like 50 years. The remarkable thing is how it's taken so long for a film to be made about it. I hope I'll like the forthcoming 'Florence Foster Jenkins' even more when I see it in a couple of weeks time or so, but in the meantime I award this French version of the story a fairly commendable................6.5.

Monday 11 April 2016

Film: 'High Rise'

I spent a great deal of anguish in deciding whether or not to see this; principal reason being that I knew it features a dog which meets an awful fate, something that regularly happens in certain countries, especially in Asia and some in Africa. Although only a brief detail (which isn't dwelt on) in the film, I don't have to see it depicted for it to affect me deeply and distressingly.
In addition there's the presence of an actor who now carries such heavy negative baggage for me that I want to hiss every time he comes on screen - which is often in this one. Yes, it's the vociferously blood-sport supporting and gay marriage-opposing figure of Jeremy Irons, whom I'd only seen very recently as butler Alfred in the mega-dud 'Batman v Superman' (though he did virtually no 'butling' in that film).

My reason for deciding to go was that the director is Ben Wheatley, who has already made some highly interesting, curiously off-beat films in recent years viz 'A Field in England' and 'Sightseers' (the latter I particularly liked) - as well as the well-regarded 'Kill List' which I wasn't able to see.

'High Rise' is based on a 1975 J.G.Ballard dystopian story set either in the future or in some parallel contemporary world where a certain semblance of social order is maintained only within a residential high-rise block of apartments in an unspecified location, probably London, each of the occupants being mutually dependent on each other for fuel, power, food, waste disposal, social cohesion etc, everyone living so close to each other that friction between the residents only needs the slightest provocation to set off a major riot, which is exactly what happens after the film's opening section when a fragile peace was being maintained.

I've seen Tom Hiddleston in a major film role only once before, in Terence Davies' admirable adaptation of Rattigan's play 'The Deep Blue Sea' a few years ago. I know he's also done quite a bit of TV work. In this film he's the principal character, a doctor living alone, trying his best to interact to people around him without being riled by them. The main female part is given to Sienna Miller (I was never quite sure how her character fitted into the overall plan).. Then there's Jeremy Irons as an ageing authority figure, who continues to exercise a crumbling influence as the block's architect.
The tipping point of the film is the riot, with plenty of violence (though I've seen a lot worse) when all hell breaks loose between various residents with conflicting loyalties. It's all very depressing and I didn't find the film an easy watch. Yet, in spite of feeling a bit 'soiled' watching all these anarchic activities I have to say that there's also something compelling about the film.

Btw: Why is it that in so many films set in the future or in a different dimension there is still so much smoking going on - when I, at least, would have expected that it would have been confined to very few or, indeed, have died out completely? In this film practically every adult character is smoking his or her head off, including the doctor, as well as one of the woman characters in a very advanced state of pregnancy.

Not a bad film by any means, then, but not one I'd want to see again. Neither is it one which I'd heartily recommend. It's disturbing, though not in the satisfying way I've found some others of Wheatley's films..........................6.

Wednesday 6 April 2016

Film: 'Eddie the Eagle'

Even at the height of his national (and, briefly, international) fame in the late 1980s I never bought into the adulation of English amateur ski jumper, Eddie Edwards, who attained quasi-mythical status. Right from the start I'd found him an intensely irritating man, while others at the time cheered on his hopelessly flopped attempts to make a mark in a sport for which he'd had no formal training or even experience, culminating in his participation in the 1988 Winter Olympics at Calgary, Canada. I just wished he'd go away - rather like crabs.
However, it must be said that he did endear himself to many, with his clenched teeth and thrusting-chin determination to succeed. These fans took him to their hearts with what was perceived as a plucky, try-and-try-again spirit - whereas I didn't view him as quite the national embarrassment that some did, rather as just a tiresome individual.

This film, overloaded with sentiment, though very ably accomplished by director Dexter Fletcher (the admirable 'Sunshine on Leith' of 2013), ticks all the right boxes of the threadbare formula in this old-fashioned, 'inspiring' tale of fighting against the odds, despite it being 'based' on Edwards' own story - though how much of the background story is invention I've no idea, and don't really much care.

In the adult title role, Taron Egerton cuts a convincingly gauche figure with single-minded ambition. Having made up his mind to be a ski jumper while still at school, he travels against his parents' wishes (Keith Allen and Jo Hartley) to an Alpine ski training centre in Germany where he meets up with washed-up, alcoholic, chain-smoking, former star skier, Hugh Jackman - though you'd never have guessed, retaining as he does his athletic body and ruggedly handsome looks. The relationship between them follows the predictable path of Jackman's initial animosity, then indifference - and then, recognising Edwards' serious aims, helping him to train, and finally accompanying him on his participation in major events.
Even if you don't know the story you can guess where all this is going - and, no, it's not giving anything away to say that he doesn't win an Olympic medal, but for all the worshipful attention he gets from the media and the public (complete with triumphal music, of course) you'd think he'd come away with a gold.

Towards the end of the film there are a couple of shortish appearances from Christopher Walken, as well as Jim Broadbent as the ski-ing commentator at Calgary.

The audience I watched this with lapped it all up with glee, laughing their heads off every time he clumsily bumped into something or fell over (though not on the actual ski jumps). I felt all this aspect was overplayed for effect.

It just wasn't my type of film. If you liked the character (assuming you even remember him) then you may well be entertained by this. I found it all a bit of a bore........................5. 

Film: 'Victoria'

This film (in English and subtitled German) has at least one remarkable feature which you may have heard about, namely that it's filmed in one long, continuous take (with hand-held camera), uninterrupted for its entire two hours and a quarter's length. (This has been tried - or at least attempted to give the impression of being so - famously in Alfred Hitchcock's 'Rope' - where one can actually make out the 'joins' for oneself, he in 1948 being restricted by cameras that had to be replenished with new film every few minutes. Also, very recently it was attempted with only partial success in 'Birdman'.) 

'Victoria' is set in present-day Berlin (refreshingly, we see none of those 'touristy' sights) where a bubbly, twenty-something Spanish woman (Laia Costa) who speaks no German, is dancing the night away in a disco and attracts the attention of an English-speaking German of similar age (Frederick Lau). Once outside she's introduced to his three pals, an unsavoury trio of rowdy yobs busy breaking into a parked car - and, unbelievably, she decides to stick with them. After her clubbing she's certainly light-headed, though hardly too drunk to explain her unaccountable action. (She even gets into a lift/elevator with two of them, already acting familiar to her - and she'd only met them a few minutes before!) This is just one of a whole series of stretches of credibility which pervades the whole film.
It's too late for her to return home as she's got to open up the nearby coffee shop where she works in a few hours time, so she takes the first guy back there, after a little shoplifting, (Ho ho! What larks!) with his three hell-raisers in tow. Things take a strange turn when it turns out that all four males are required to do something for someone else, only one of them finding himself indisposed, she offers to fill his place - and soon gets into deep water, their meeting with the man demanding the 'job' being done, with his armed 'heavies' manhandling them and turning out threats if they don't comply. It all gets very serious!

During the film's course there were moments where the suspense screws were effectively applied and I was drawn in, but time and again this agreeable mood was demolished by the unlikeliness of the development, usually to do with the decisions of Victoria herself.

Director Sebastian Schipper has no doubt achieved a pioneering product in terms of continuity. How on earth they managed to keep the whole sequence going for so long with no breaks, and without needing to re-shoot is beyond me - and how everyone knew what to do and say the whole time was really something. That aspect alone was singularly quite breathtaking. However, pondering afterwards on what I'd just seen I began on hindsight to recognise flaws in the timing aspect. Twice during the film the actual time of night/dawn is stated - and as it was set in 'real time', which it indeed was, then only just over two hours had elapsed between dead of night and full morning daylight. It seemed, on reflection, something like five hours had gone by. 

But it was the strains on my credulity which took the biggest toll. I think if more care had been taken to make the story-line more plausible then it might so easily have been an even better film than it was....................6.