Wednesday 31 August 2016

Film: 'War Dogs'

Though based on a true story, as soon as this brash film settles down one can guess the arc that it'll follow, which it totally does.

Masseur Miles Teller happens to meet his old school pal, Jonah Hill, the latter now a relatively small-time, though lucrative, dealer who wins U.S.Government defence contracts for Afganistan, which he achieves by tendering through telephone and computer messaging, impersonating an arms big-wig dealer plus a lot of lying and bluster - his arms-providers being distinctly dubious figures in the Middle East. 
Teller, impressed by the money Hill is making, doesn't need much convincing to ditch his massaging job and come on board, they forming a successful partnership which despite a few narrow scrapes (visiting Iraq, then Albania) carries on successfully. One is just waiting for the time when their ambition and lust for ever more money makes them over-reach themselves. Enter crooked arms-arranger, Bradley Cooper (appearing in just a few short scenes) leading to the pair's carelessness in not being ultra-careful in keeping everyone who's part of these shady dealings on-side. It only takes one disgruntled player to collapse the whole vulnerable house of cards. Needless to say there's also been a growing mutual mistrust between the two partners.

Romantic interest is provided by Ana de Armas as Teller's wife, who isn't told about the true nature of the 'work' which is bringing in so much as to enable them to live in luxury. 

Director Todd Phillips, best known for his two 'Hangover' films, (though I haven't seen either) gets away with a fairly work-a-day product. It delivers what it's intended to, without any particular special touches that would have kept it lodged in the mind.
Often very loud, it managed to carry me along with it just sufficiently while it played. I didn't think it especially original despite it claiming to be grounded in fact. 
Ultimately, I'd rank it as being in the category of 'memory-disposable'............5.5.

Film: 'Julieta'

I thought this quite exceptional. Easily one of Almodovar's very best, maybe even his best of all - and that's an awfully big claim with the record of triumphs which he has merited to date (overlooking his rare and untypical misfire in last year's camp-festy 'I'm So Excited').

Despite a few sniffy, though minority, reviews I've seen which thought the story over-stretched credibility, I found 'Julieta' (entirely Spanish dialogue) captivatng from start to finish. There's no let-up in its sombre mood - underlined by a well-judged and serious, often troubling, background soundtrack - right from its opening until a few seconds from the finish. Nevertheless, it's a heartfelt, beautiful and unsettling film in which one never knows where it's going to go next.

The opening section shows the title character, a woman in late middle-age, (Emma Suarez) preparing to leave Spain to move to Portugal with her partner - when, for some unclear reason which she denies him, she changes her mind. It turns out that she's just bumped into a former close friend of her daughter, the latter having deliberately estranged herself from her mother, not having made contact with her for 12 years. The former friend explains that the daughter is now herself a mother of three and living in circumstances which only become a bit clearer late in the film. So the mother returns to the apartment which she'd intended to vacate, changes her mind about leaving and starts writing a letter/memoir to her daughter, explaining things that she hadn't told her when she'd disappeared out of her mother's life when still a teenager.
From there on it's a succession of re-creations of parts of the mother's earlier life, now played by Adriana Ugarta, with her newly-born and, later, then young daughter - but, very importantly, it tells her of the circumstances of her birth, how she met by chance, and fell in love with, a young man (Daniel Grao) on a train during a night of strange happenings, a night which was to change both of them for ever.

The mystery of how the younger Julieta gets to where we found her elder self at the film's start is very well choreographed, managing to hold in abeyance things that happened on the way without tipping us over into exasperation. All the time we sincerely want to know what happens next, and it's doubly satisfying when we get to find out. But that's not to say that the film's conclusion doesn't leave questions unanswered. There are certainly knots still left untied as it finishes. However, for the first time in the film, the background music strikes a note of optimism, which rounds it all off very neatly while also leaving a smidgeon of unresolved suspense.

I've no criticism at all with the director's efforts. There are no outlandish or spectacular gestures. Everything is kept to a modest scale as befits the very personal struggle the title character undergoes. Similarly, I have nothing but praise for the entire cast - specifically, both 'Julieta' actresses cohesively holding the film together despite appearing in two different time-frames. 

Thoroughly enjoyable; if you're already a fan of Pedro Almodovar (and who isn't?) I'll be very surprised if you're not most impressed by this film. If it doesn't feature in my Top 5 of the year, and towards the upper end of it at that, I'll......I'll........ooh, I don't know!..................8

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Film: 'David Brent - Life on the Road'

I appreciate that Ricky Gervais is not to everyone's taste, but he is to mine. If you liked 'The Office' and 'Extras' you'll want to see this. If you remained unmoved you'll simply not bother. In the event I did find this film largely very funny, with some genuinely LOL moments (not an easy thing to accomplish in my continuing condition!)

Rather than taking the character from 'The Office' and putting him into a blown-up, TV spin-off version of that show, he's taken forward in time, now as a travelling salesman for sanitary products (the full range!) working for a firm - 'Lavichem'. Brent takes time off from his job to indulge his personal desire of touring venues as an (ageing) rock star fronting a band ('Foregone Conclusion'), a foursome who are less than enamoured by having Brent's presence, both on- and back-stage, they doing it reluctantly for financial reasons. 

The film starts and ends with episodes in the Lavichem offices where we see Brent in the same character which endeared him to some of us in 'The Office', with all the same blustering traits and toe-curling pronouncements which we got to know so well from TV. And he's on every bit as good form with it here, though as this film doesn't have any of the support actors from 'The Office' off whom he could bounce with his unintentionally offensive or embarrassing lines, that's something of a loss. Having said that, there are a number of new characters who do fill the equivalent roles more than adequately - most especially his desk-neighbour with whom he forms, to the great irritation of other workers, something of a crazy, non-stop repartee, double act. I laughed a lot at their madcap exchanges.

The body of the film is Brent on the road with his band, the initially intended national tour having been massively reduced in scale, because of lack of interest, to virtually a single county just outside London. They perform in small clubs and bars with few people attending, while those in the sparse audience who are there quickly get bored or pay scant attention to what's happening on stage as Brent attempts to show that he's 'with it' (with hilarious moves). He's also roped in a rapper (Doc Brown) to perform with him, an act who, to Brent's chagrin, is more readily appreciated than he is himself.

Gervais has written his own songs. One about not discriminating against the 'disabled' and delivered with utterly intended sincerity is full of OMG! moments in the lyrics ("Take him by the hand - if he's got one.") Another song concerns the injustices suffered by Native Americans. All brilliant material!

Outside the stage act, in hotels or restaurants, the other members of the group and crew make it abundantly clear that they'd rather not be in Brent's company only, of course, he doesn't read the unspoken messages, leading to a spate of verbal tangling and foot-in-mouth moments.  

There seems to be a consensus that this film loses its 'oomph' in being too long for its material, which might have better suited a couple of half-hour TV shows. It's true that I did find that it does sag a bit around two-thirds through, but not fatally, in my view,

Also Gervais himself directs the film as well as having written all the lines himself. A further view has been expressed that it really needed a collaboration with someone like his 'Office' and 'Extras' co-writer, Stephen Merchant, to sharpen things up and edit things down. But again I find myself in disagreement. Yes, there might have been room for some improvements but I do think that Gervais even alone acquits himself with honours.

In a previous review I voiced my approval of the recent film version of 'AbFab', which some didn't share. I'm prepared to receive similar notes of disagreement for my positive take on this film. I've got to be honest - I laughed more times during this than in any other film this year and, from the sound of it, many in the audience did too..................7.5.

Tuesday 23 August 2016

Film: 'Wiener-dog'

I have a considerable liking for quirky films - and this one has a lot of 'quirk' in it.
(It's not to be confused, of course, with the recent film 'Weiner' - one about a creature who is capable of living only by base animal instincts, and this one about a dog.)

I never knew (or had forgotten) the American term of the film's title. Everyone in England calls this breed 'dachshund' - maybe also 'sausage dog' by some. In fact I wasn't quite sure how to pronounce 'Wiener' and was ready to ask for a ticket in the way of 'Veener-dog' (which I presume is derived from the German for 'Viennese') when I happened to see a notice at the cinema entrance explaining phonetically how to say it. (I suppose the staff were fed up with hearing it mispronounced.) 

So to the film itself, which I might have avoided, being concerned as it is with an animal which may have been portrayed as being mistreated, until I read that the dog was merely a 'device' to link four separate stories together, with greater emphasis placed on the pet's successive owners than the animal itself. 
Also, director Todd Solondz (just noticed that we share birthdays, he being younger by 13 years) is one whose name I sit up for. Although I've only managed to see a couple of works of his, both from the 1990s - 'Welcome to the Dollhouse' and 'Happiness' (ironic title!), two films I liked a lot - they are both again full of quirkiness. 

The dog owners here include some very recognisable names - Julie Delpy, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Burstyn and, perhaps in the most substantial segment, Danny de Vito as a frustrated, struggling screenwriter. Each part is about 20 minutes long, or just above, without any significant links between them other than the domestic pet itself, which gets called different names in each one. (In the final part, the invalided Burstyn has named it 'Cancer'!)

(Spoiler alert!)  There is just the one truly upsetting scene for we animal lovers, and it comes right at the end. However, there are a few seconds notice when we can guess what's going to happen and have an opportunity to look away. In addition, there are also one or two scenes earlier on involving the dog which skirt close to the edge of upset though they do not actually tip over into it. 

I liked 'Wiener-dog' a lot. I'm favourably disposed towards this kind of 'compendium' film and this one held onto my interest in all four episodes (plus a very brief 'intermission'). If you're able to cope with uncertainties regarding the dog's fate I can reassure you that apart from the one scene to which I've referred you have little else to be apprehensive about and should derive sufficient entertainment to have made for an enjoyable hour-and-a-half............7.5

Monday 22 August 2016

Film: 'Tickled'

This is a documentary which, I think, few will have heard of (though well received at Sundance) about an American organisation which must be about the weirdest that one can imagine. 
It seeks to recruit young men (and its search is exclusively male-directed) to volunteer to be tied down and tickled - just that! There's no suggestion of eroticism or fetishism, and certainly no sexual activity. 

New Zealand investigative reporter David Farrier, who specialises in unusual or 'wacky' subjects, comes across a recruiting advert for the company by chance and, thinking that it would make a good story as well as providing welcome free publicity to the firm, approaches them by e-mail. The response - from the organisation's boss, one 'Jane' of 'Jane O'Brien Media'  - is utterly astonishing. She insists that the firm has absolutely nothing to do with catering for homosexual tastes (even though Farrier hadn't suggested that it might), repeats the line forcefully maintaining that homosexuals are 'disordered', and even calls Farrier a "faggot". Furthermore, in this rant she threatens him with legal action if he proceeds any further with his idea of making a documentary about the organisation. 
Needless to say, this totally disproportionate and manic response gets the very opposite reaction from Farrier from the one desired, compelling him to dig deeper with the enlistment of computer whizz-kid buddy, Dylan Reeve. Shortly afterwards, a party of three fly from America into Auckland to engage in a legal confrontation, one of them particularly obnoxious and threatening. Of course all this intrigues Farrier and Reeve even more and before long they themselves start making visits to the U.S.A. to discover more about this company. What is its motivation? What purpose if not in the sexual market? Where does its income come from? And why had there been such a furiously intemperate response to his initial approach, which had obviously touched a raw nerve? (They also discover that would-be tickle-'victims' are lured into this 'web' by being presented with lavish gifts - tickets to rock concerts, having first class air tickets supplied and being put up in plush hotels, even being sent entire computers to keep! But - and this is additionally very strange - having completed their tickling session, there's no suggestion of their being blackmailed for money or, indeed, for anything else.)

They eventually track down just one of the tickling volunteers (others were apparently too reluctant to speak) who relates of how he found an unauthorised video on YouTube of his being tickled (always only in the conventional tickling spots - armpits, soles of feet, chest, stomach - though not the sex organs). When he got Yahoo to take the video down on the grounds of his not having given permission for it to be displayed, his world fell in. There was an immediate and extremely irate letter from 'Jane' warning him that as he had crossed the line (he wasn't aware there had been one), his life was now not going to be worth living - and then this very same video was published on every single video site available - and, not only that, his full name and address given, that of his employer, the clubs he belonged to - and with claims that not only was he unreliable and unbalanced but that he was also a child-molester! Letters detailing his supposed activities even started being sent through the mail to his mother saying that her son is a pervert! The devastating consequences to the young man's life have little need to detailed. 
(Incidentally, Farrier, on one of his visits, does meet up with a genuine tickle-fetishist who provides such service to his 'clients', all above board, no threats or menaces, full discretion guaranteed - nothing at all wrong with that).
Meanwhile, another organisation like Jane's has also started business in America, this time run by a 'Terri' from a different company but working on the same lines, only whereas Jane's ticklers (the ones doing the tickling) were all young men, Terri's ticklers are young women, though the 'victims' are again exclusively male.

It would spoil things to say here what Farrier and Reeve's investigations eventually uncovered - and that only through their dogged determination to get to the bottom of it all. This film does keep one guessing because throughout we are very bit as curious as these two about what on earth is it all about - and why?
We get some answers about three quarters through but it's not until the very final minute or two and the end captions that there is a semblance of rationale presented. It's not entirely satisfactory but it does fill in most of the gaps, while still leaving one with a lack of total resolution.

I found it quite a gripping expose of a truly odd organisation, even though I left the cinema with an unpleasant aftertaste in knowing that complete justice hadn't been fully meted out to where it was due, something which recognised the damage which had been done to innocent lives...............7

Friday 19 August 2016

Film: 'The Shallows'

This is a must-see! The most nail-biting, suspense film I've seen this year by far - with several moments when I couldn't bear to look at the screen for fear of what might happen, and did!

In this film (Spaniard Jaume Collett-Serra is director) Blake Lively is a 20-something nurse who takes a 'pilgrimage' to the part of the Mexican Pacific coast where her mother had mysteriously disappeared a few years previously, to try to find out what happened as well as to enjoy herself surfing and swimming. (It was actually filmed in Queensland, but we can let that pass).
The suspense begins early on in the film when we are briefly shown that there's something in the sea (okay, it's an enormous shark and, boy, is it mad!) but she isn't yet aware of it. I don't want to give much more away as the tension is very successfully built up until and beyond the point that the creature reveals itself to her. For most of the film the young woman is stranded on a piece of rock just a couple of hundred yards from the shore, a rock which at high tide protrudes to little more than a couple of times more than her own body size. She's quite understandably reluctant to leave the safety of her 'refuge' and make for dry land, her only companion being an injured gull which is unable to fly. There are also some grizzly moments when she has to perform blood-saturated self-surgery on herself. (Yuk!) 

Comparisons are obviously being made with outstanding shark classic, 'Jaws', of course  - and this stands up very well against it. But whereas 'Jaws' hardly puts a foot wrong for its entire length
(despite while filming, the cast and Spielberg himself having serious doubts if the film would work), 'The Shallows' is equally sure-footed - except up to the very final scenes when my credulity was stretched to the point of slightly devaluing all that had gone before. It's a shame, that. I suppose it can be blamed on the writer, but even so it's nowhere near so crucial as to destroy the film.  It just gives a needlessly cosy finish to what could have more successfully achieved with a little more acerbity, daring and uncertainty in its conclusion.

There is a brave filmic moment when one of the minor characters meets a predictably horrible end in the shark's jaws  - and he isn't only the one. All we are shown is Blake Lively's face of horror witnessing it while we only hear the sounds of the ghastly scene. I was particularly impressed by the bold use of that technique.

Despite my reservation (yes, just the one!) I thoroughly recommend this. If I was rating 'Jaws' now I'd probably give that film an 8.5. I was initially considering rating this one with a 7.5, but I ultimately think that it deserves more than that. So it's an...............8.  

Thursday 11 August 2016

Film: 'The Commune' ('Kollektivet')

If you're in a bleak mood, you'll find precious little cheer to uplift you in this (subtitled) Danish film.
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg who managed the highly commendable 2015 version of 'Far from the Madding Crowd', this is a film which is darker and heavier than I'd hoped for.

Set in the 1970s in a town north of Copenhagen, a married couple at the high end of middle age (Trine Dyrholm and Ulrich Thomsen - she a TV newsreader, he a University lecturer), wish to move with their 14-year old daughter into the very same house in which he'd grown up as a child. But it's now a house that's far too big for just the three of them, with the rent and upkeep costs being unaffordable. So a friend is invited to join them as a live-in to help enable them to pay their way. Then another friend is similarly invited, then another couple (with a 7-year old son suffering from, a heart condition and who's convinced that he's not going to survive beyond nine years old)....and so on. In the end there are ten individuals living together. 
Tensions simmering under the surface are largely (but not always) kept under control. However, the dynamics of the group are changed radically when the lecturer embarks on an affair with one of his much younger, though more mature, female students (24 years old). When he tells his wife (his daughter having accidentally found them together) she puts a brave face on it and, superficially at least, allows him to carry on with his new partner with her blessing - eventually the new woman joining the commune too.
But of course it can't continue long like that, the wife getting removed from her TV role after 'losing it' on-screen, then getting a bit drunk and turning up home at the communal meal where truths start getting told.  

The ensemble casting in this film is of a high order, even if some of the characters didn't have full credibility to me. I could have done with some lighter episodes to relieve the pervading heavy atmosphere but they weren't much in evidence. In fact the entire film struck me as being over-serious, at times quite hard-going. Despite that, and the fact that the film is needlessly prolonged at just short of two hours length, I wasn't terribly bored, even if I didn't want to stay in the company of this group longer than I had to. Not really a bad film, though neither is it one which I'd care to sit through again.......................5.

Wednesday 10 August 2016

Film: 'Weiner'

After too long an interval, I've at last managed to return to seeing a film outside the mainstream releases. 

The story of Anthony Weiner's 2013 campaign to become Democrat mayor of New York had been retained only on the edge of my awareness, and that because of what he became notorious for - texting selfies of his intimate parts with 'lewd' texts to women he'd never met. I didn't even recall his name, though with such a name as the one he possessed I ought to have remembered.

This film is a fly-on-the-wall account of his campaign, without commentary - only comments from himself as his attempts to retain respectability descend into near farce as his lies and evasions became public - and by instalments, thanks to the 'judicious' timing of the women involved - plus, of course, gleeful remarks from political commentators from across the political spectrum. 

At the end of the film, Weiner is asked why he'd allowed the cameras to follow him around and his reply is that he thought it would give a more rounded picture of the man he was rather than the media's obsession with just the one aspect of his personal life. Unfortunately for him, the film has been edited to show, almost exclusively, reactions to the very subject he didn't want covered. All the while his wife Huma (an assistant to Hillary Clinton) is very present, sometimes attending press conferences with him, trying to put a brave face on it and smiling through gritted teeth. I must say her 'stand by your man' stance is exemplary for those who think that that is exactly what she ought to have done.

There's hardly any discussion at all of his policies. 
Within a very short while his ratings dropped from being strong favourite to win the mayoral election to, on the day, actually coming in last place of the half-dozen candidates, with less than 5% of the vote. An ignominious result, indeed.

The film didn't strike me as being particularly judgmental. though one could argue that its construction was hardly designed to be sympathetic, portraying a political figure who had no one but himself to blame for his fate.
Knowing next to nothing about the man I also am unable to make a judgment other than to say that because I feel instinctively more favourably inclined towards politicians of a liberal/socialist disposition, he did strike me as a tragic figure who shouldn't have been solely judged on his particular (and unfortunate) peccadilloes. However, if this had happened to a hard-right politician in any country at all, especially so in Great Britain, I admit that I would have been crowing with delight.

I'd be interested to know what others, particularly the Americans among you, now think of this man now that the dust has settled - was he a self-destructing fool, a man unfairly condemned, or someone in between?

The film was something of an education for me, and in that respect I found it both entertaining and informative. I do, however, wonder what I would have thought of this film had I already had an opinion of the man.....................6.5.

Saturday 6 August 2016

Just in case I seem to have disappeared.......

Couldn't get this computer to start yesterday afty and evening. Had visions during a sleep-deprived night of my taking it to repair shop this morning. Been playing around with it since 3 a.m., and then suddenly I got in - but, as is often the case, don't know what I did to achieve it. And now I daren't turn the darned thing off!
So just to let y'all know, especially in the light of recent 'events', that if I'm 'gone' or not available for a while I'm really still here, and that nothing untoward has happened. (At least I hope that'll be true).

No need to write any comments - after all, you've all been here, haven't you?

Wednesday 3 August 2016

Film: 'Jason Bourne'

Following a recent 'event' in my life, it wasn't the happiest of choices to re-start my film-watching routine with one that features a considerable number of bone-crunching facial impacts - both bare-fisted and with any object near at hand. However, there being  the usual Summertime paucity of adult films around, there was hardly a varied selection from which to choose.

Matt Damon returns to the title role, once again outsmarting and outclassing everyone else in intelligence, physical prowess, determination and sheer guile.  
It's an insubstantial story this; suffice it to say that it involves a hacking into CIA records which occasions Bourne's returning to public life after having gone 'invisible' since his last appearance, and his quest to find out the truth behind the death of his father some years previously.
Tommy Lee Jones is the CIA boss holding the cards, determined that Bourne, on his re-surfacing, be prevented at all costs from finding out what would be detrimental to state security. One of the CIA assistants is Alicia Vikander (is she sympathetic to Bourne?.....or not?) and yet again with her tendency to mumble her lines, though here not quite as bad as she was in 'Ex Machina' and 'The Danish Girl'.
And the principal enemy (for Bourne) 'action man' is mean and tough Vincent Cassell, who just will not lie down.

Apart from CIA HQ in Virginia, action flits from Athens to Reykjavik, to Berlin, to London and to Las Vegas. Lots of chases with chug-a-chug soundtrack, very rowdy at times. It's an 'action' film in its true meaning, there being little plot movement or character development (none at all, in fact). Yet for me it did deliver an adequate measure of entertainment value.

Director Paul Greengrass, a veteran of the Jason Bourne series, knows full well what he's doing and where it's all going, and he succeeds in pulling off a reasonably gripping, tightly-paced piece, the final motor vehicles pursuit being quite the most prolonged and interesting I've seen in some while. 

This film is not by any means the best of the Bourne series; nor is it even the second-best - but I still rather liked it.............6.5. 

Monday 1 August 2016

Touched over and over again - dental progress report.

I've been truly and movingly overwhelmed by the extent of the sympathy accorded to me following my recent tumbling mishap -and I keep saying that I have no friends! Though of course I'm then referring to people present or available in the flesh. But even then I've got my three pussycats - though they give me precious little sympathy, their top priority, their sole priority, being my giving them their eats, no matter what condition I'm in.

Anyway, had my first professional examination today from my dentist - a rather sweet, youngish, Rumanian lady, Florentina who, I doubt, is even over 40. 
Although the facial swellings and bruisings have gone down, they are still visible in the lips and gums. She had an exploratory look at the teeth damage but was reluctant to poke around or even do X-rays, as it's still painful for me to 'open wide'. So, another appointment next Mon, by which time she hopes that with medications she's prescribed (antibiotics, more powerful pain-relief tablets and a mouthwash to compensate for inability to brush) I'll be in a better position for her to pry and have a mooch inside.
I've already started the week-long course of medication and am feeling a bit perkier knowing that I'm at last getting seen to by a professional. 

So, really not much happened in the way of actual 'repair works', but I'm feeling substantially happier now knowing that the process has started. It also gives me a bit of time to get preparations in place for the certain heavy financial consequences.

So that's how things are as at now, my friends. Ever so grateful for all your concerns, but it looks like you don't need to worry quite so much now. I'll let you all know if I have a 'relapse'  - or (heaven forbid!) take another tumble. 
Hoping to resume cinema visits later this week.

Thanks again, from the heart, to all!