Thursday 29 September 2016

Film: 'The Magnificent Seven'

Though I've seen just about all the 'classic' westerns since the 1960s in the cinema, I've never been an aficianado of the genre.
I caught the 1960 version (itself based on idea from Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai', of course) on its second time around, being too young to see it in its original year of release. (This was in an era when 'major' films appeared in cinemas for two or more runs, and when there was an embargo on their appearing on TV for a number of years - which I believe in the U.K. at this time was the 12 years following release).
I've never seen that film since and all I recall about it was the brooding presence of Yul B., thinking that Robert Vaughan looked attractively dapper (then not yet a household name via 'the Man from UNCLE' - and now the only surviving cast member of that film) - and Charles Bronson somewhere on the mix. Beyond those three I'd be hard pressed to name the other members of the seven. (I've just seen that Steve McQueen was also part of the gang but I can't envisage him in there among them even now that I'm reminded.) 
And I recall even less about the story, save that they were a motley band of 'goodies' putting right some great wrong.

The names that most will (or may) recognise in this new version is Denzel Washington as the Seven's leader, plus Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio. Then as arch-villain is Peter Sarsgaard, complete with 'tache and goatee, looking every inch the hard-boiled embodiment of evil, not giving away anything for his demand to mine where he wants, even if it means flattening a small God-fearing town which is inconveniently in his way. 
Set in California in the late 1870s (though shot in Arizona and Louisiana), Denzel Washington makes his first appearance as though in a cartoon (I could only laugh, though I don't think that was the intended reaction) - a shootout in a saloon (where else?) in which he exhibits his skill in having not only impeccable aim to kill or disarm several threats, but seems to have eyes in the back of his head as well as in its sides and in his crown! 
When told by an aggrieved mother who recognises his useful potential to avenge the horrible injustice done to the town, Washington is easily persuaded to assist as deliverer of justice and rides to the rescue, first going on a mission to round up his gang of various misfits who are also ace fighters. When that is achieved the gang's fierce loyalty to the group is in contrast to the fragile friendships they have to each other as individuals, friction occasionally coming to the surface. But, hang it all, they have a job to do! - viz to eliminate Mr Evil and his considerable clique of helpers. The seven have the town's entire population on their side, whom they train in marksmanship. 

The two sides in the final 'battle' are both large in number, and it occupies the film's final half-hour. There's much tumbling of horses, though I was relieved to see that after it was all over, with the ground littered with corpses belonging to both sides, all the horses seem to have miraculously escaped. That made me feel much better.

Western film releases are as rare as hens' teeth these days, something like one or two per decade it seems, whereas in my time there were often several per year. So, for most of today's audience this film could well be received as a bit of a novelty, thereby being considered more favourably than I felt towards it.  Context is everything, and many will have little with which to compare this if they haven't seen the 1960 version, so these same people might regard this as a refreshing change. Not so myself, I'm afraid. 

Director Francoise Fuqua makes a decent enough effort but it didn't set my mind alight in such a way as to be marked as a 'watch again!' in my memory banks.

Btw: The soundtrack regularly threatens to burst into the iconic Elmer Bernstein theme from the 1960 film which surely nearly everyone will recognise, obviously purposely - and it finally actually does do briefly at the start of the closing credits. No complaints about that.

Not a bad film and, quite honestly, it could have been a lot worse. But I wouldn't go out of my way to give it more than a mild recommendation...........................6.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Film: 'Little Men'

This was just what I needed to counterpoise yesterday's unsatisfactory cinema experience - and it's a mini-gem of a picture. As if seeing one boy in his early teens yesterday wasn't enough, here we have two of them! There any similarity ceases.

In Brooklyn, Greg Kinnear plays a theatre actor, and is moving in to his recently deceased father's apartment with his wife, (Jennifer Ehle who actually doesn't have all that much to do in this film) and his 13-year old son (Theo Taplitz). The flat is above a ground floor leased to a woman's boutique/dress shop managed by an English/Spanish-speaking woman (Paulina Garcia) who lives there with her own son of similar age (Michael Barbieri). 
Also in the background, appearing in just two short scenes, is Alfred Molina, speaking almost entirely in Spanish.  
Kinnear's father has bequeathed the flat to Kinnear and his married sister, living elsewhere, as well as the lease of the downstairs, that being at a specially favourable reduced rent as he'd had an amicable relationship with the woman as tenant.
Kinnear's modest income means that his family have to struggle to survive so they have no choice but to put up the rent for the woman below. She can't what they are asking and she digs her heels in regarding the only alternative, which is to close the shop and move out.
Meantime the two boys have got on well with each other from the word 'go' - freely sharing each other's possessions and rooms and going around together. They are dismayed when they hear about the friction that has arisen between the two households, which would entail one of them moving away. They decide on their own tactics to express to their respective parents their displeasure at what has happened.

The focus of the film is more or less equally shared between the two boys and the conflict between their parents. The story could easily have tipped over into predictable sentimentality but it skilfully avoids that. However, it's not a film for those who like their endings to be neatly cut and dried, a feature which is to no detriment at all to this under-90-minute production .

Director Ira Levin's last film was the impressive 'Love is Strange' (featuring Alfred Molina again, in one of the lead roles) and this well maintains that standard. Levin also co-wrote this one. I look forward to what he does next, but this one is most satisfying.......................7.5.

Monday 26 September 2016

Film: 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople'

('Wilder' to rhyme with 'builder'. No, I don't know what it means.)

I wouldn't have seen this had it not been so garlanded with praise from many quarters - and it's currently enjoying a mighty high IMDb average rating of 8.2. Wish I hadn't bothered.

A New Zealand film with a good clutch of native Kiwi actors in the minor roles, it shows off to superb advantage the quite exceptional landscape of that country, an inexplicably rare event outside the 'LOTR' and 'Hobbit' trilogies of films.

Julian Dennison, a seriously overweight, orphaned teenage delinquent, already with a long small-time criminal record, is given over by the childcare authorities to foster parents living in the mountain forests - she, a garrulous middle-aged woman who kills, skins, prepares and cooks wild animals for meals, and who doesn't survive long after the boy arrives - and Sam Neill, her grizzled, grumbling (and illiterate) husband. When the care supervisors hear about the wife's decease they tell the husband they will collect the boy until they can decide on his next home. The two of them, now with one of those mutual-enmity bonds between them with which we are so familiar, leave their ramshackle forest residence and go on the run in the wild.
As they roam around aimlessly they come across a handful of oddball characters, including three youngish, hostile trappers - and an intensely irritatingly dotty 'man of the mountains' - at whom we're supposed to be amused, I take it. 
The film throughout has several encounters with forest beasts, both tame and fierce, resulting in a (small) number of violent animal deaths - as well as that of one of the couple's two dogs. I won't pretend that I didn't find all these few incidents very uncomfortable to watch. I hope they didn't influence my final verdict but they undoubtedly did cloud any 'enjoyment' I might otherwise have experienced. 
While the two are on the run the publicity of their disappearance grows until they are pursued by full-scale police and military forces, it being believed that the Sam Neill character has kidnapped the boy for nefarious purposes.

I found the film fatally self-regarding. It's as though someone, the director Taika Waititi (also the screenplay writer from another source) said "Right everybody. Let's make an 'entertainment'!" The result being that  much of the cast of lesser characters seem to be acting their heads off in a conscious effort to be funny or profound - and they were neither! The badly behaved boy, Julian Dennison, composes haikus, would you believe? Needless to say he's also overflowing with wise-ass aphorisms, displaying a wisdom way beyond his years, something I just cannot abide in films. The female senior childcare officer was another one who mugged her lines wholesale, expecting us to laugh at her exasperations. Only Sam Neill comes out of the project with any significant dignity, but even he is served with a script that hardly ever shines.

Anyway, what do I know? It's a film that's been fantastically well received in many quarters, even applauded in places. I can only report on my own reaction, which corresponds to a score of...........5.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Film: 'La Chambre Bleue' / 'The Blue Room'

I never looked up the details of this beforehand, erroneously assuming that it would be based on the play of exactly the same name and adapted by David Hare, where Nicole Kidman created a stir on the London stage (and later on Broadway) by appearing eight years ago completely nude in a small, intimate theatre. (Unsurprisingly ,the entire run was a sell-out!)
Anyway, it turned out not to be that, but rather an adaptation by its main star, Mathieu Amalric (that hottie, who also directs this film) of a Georges Simenon novel. As it transpired, I had no cause to be disappointed as the film is a goodie, though in saying that I am at variance with quite a number of reviews I've only just now read.

It's a crime drama (entirely in French), but what's unusual about this is that near the start we see Amalric under police interrogation, but it's not until right towards the the end of the film that we eventually discover what the actual crime was. By a series of flashbacks from interrogation, we see Amalric in a series of amorous assignations - complete with brief, full-frontals of both parties - in an hotel room with a married lover (Stephanie Cleau). During the police questioning we get to know more and more of what has happened through further flashbacks as if peeling back a series of layers, including his own life with wife (Lea Drucker) and their 10-year old daughter. Although we can see that he's obviously under arrest, we are left in the dark for a considerable while as to knowing what the precise charge is. Has someone been killed or has disappeared? - his lover.....her husband.... his own wife? Has the alleged crime even got anything to do with his illicit affair? It actually goes considerably deeper than that.
The film is at an agreeably slender 75 minutes, a brevity to which many much longer films ought to have aspired. (Do you hear that, Bridget J?) It doesn't have a chance to get boring at any point and never even approaches it because the level of intrigue regarding unanswered questions from the audience keeps us keenly absorbed.

Acting and direction I have no complaints about. I thought the superficial warmth between Amalric and his wife was particularly well observed, they both recognising that it concealed a mutual emotional estrangement without putting it into words.

I liked this a lot, and have no regrets about seeing it even if I was in error regarding expectations. If I'd known that it had nothing to do with what I'd thought it was I might well not have bothered, and that would have been a pity...............7.5

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Film: 'Bridget Jones' Baby'

The third in the series and not the best, that place going to the first one in my opinion.
This does have quite a number of endearingly humorous moments but the film really could have done with some drastic clipping. Two hours long is too much to hold up the subject's original frothy attraction, and which is further weighted down by several more serious and reflective sections, which only seemed to pad it out without justification for doing so, whereas the film really needed to be sharp and concise to work at its best.

Renee Zellwegger reprises her role as the eponymous Londoner, Bridget, and virtually the entire film after setting up the premise, is which of two possibilities is the one-night-stand father of her expected baby - Colin Firth, with whom she willingly tumbles into bed after meeting up years later as he's going through a messy divorce, or American Patrick Dempsey, glitzy and hokey relationship adviser on TV, whom she meets at a rock music festival in circumstances which only happens in films.  The single Ms Jones herself works as news supervisor on 'Hard News' TV channel, under an unsympathetic harridan of a female boss (hopelessly over-acting).
Emma Thompson (who also worked on the screenplay, along with Bridget Jones' creator, Helen Fielding) is the hospital obstetrician monitoring progress of the foetus.

I found this a rather tiring film to watch, with rather less sparkle than I'd been hoping for. It just about held my interest but I'm not sure the casts own hearts were in it that much.
Director Sharon Maguire, who did the first of this series, ('B. J.'s Diary') but not the second, seems rather reluctant during this film to let things go and leave it to our imagination to fill in the blanks. We don't need the reassurance of seeing it all on screen.
Incidentally, there was also a number of careless continuity errors I perceived, as well as the film having had a trailer containing a number of moments that were not in, presumably edited out of, the end product. I don't think I've seen so many - it almost seemed to be advertising on false pretenses. 

This film certainly contains minutes of enjoyable entertainment, with a couple or more of LOL moments. It also fulfils its function in taking B.J.s story further, though not to a point where I'm especially eager to find out what happens next. A distinctly muted recommendation.................5.5

Monday 19 September 2016

Film: 'Anthropoid'

Before I saw the 1975 film 'Operation Daybreak' (which I liked), I'd had little or no idea about the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the 'Butcher of Prague'. 
The film's title is the code name for this plot, Heydrich being Hitler's rep in Czechoslovakia following its 1938 invasion and occupation, and third in command in Nazi Germany after 'Der Fuhrer' himself and Himmler. This significant, brave and sad episode, with its miserable and horrific consequences, has been rather eclipsed by other WWII events, campaigns and battles, but surely needs to be told and remembered.  

I'm not sure if this film is a major improvement on the earlier, but it's absolutely in no way inferior, as well as being considerably more brutal, particularly in the violent interrogation scenes under torture, graphically realised on screen, and the culminating shoot-out in a church where the plotters are holed up, this latter episode taking up a third of the entire film - and most effective it is too. 

Jamie Dornan ('Fifty Shades of Grey') and Cillian Murphy (of too many films to mention) are, respectively, the Czech and Slovak leaders of the assassination enterprise, meeting up with other resistance sympathisers in Prague, to bring their plot to fruition, the latter including the ever-reliable Toby Jones.
Especially noteworthy is that this film is shot (in very subdued colours) in Prague at some of the actual locations where the incidents took place.

English Director Sean Ellis does a sterling job with a good script and a uniformly high acting standard from a cast which also includes a high proportion of Czechs and Slovaks.

Even though one knows the tragic outcome I did find it exciting with virtually no longueurs. 
I didn't mind English being used throughout by the cast (apart from the German of the Nazi officers) even though there were historically no English characters in this episode. However, some of the cod-foreign accents when using the English I could have done without.

It's a good film, being nowhere near the 'boring' that I've seen suggested in some reviews. It's a story that has too infrequently been brought to the screen, large or small, and I'm content in giving this version a thumbs-up........6.5.

Thursday 15 September 2016

Film: 'Ben-Hur'

Being aware of this being a box-office flop in America (and very likely to be emulated as such here - I was in an audience of about ten), as well as the majority of reviews being negative or lukewarm at best, I didn't really want to bother with seeing this, but did go assuring myself that I could always leave at the self-decreed two-thirds point which would qualify as my having 'seen' the film. Against these considerable odds it was surprising and pleasing to find that not only did I sit it out but thought that it was not at all bad - or, better expressed, it was not all bad by any means.

I've not seen the Charlton Heston version (itself a re-make) since its original release in 1959 when I was 12 or 13 - and all I remember of that was the chariot race, though that particular memory has been polished up by having seen clips of the race section several times on TV over the years. This new film, even at over two hours long, is still more than ninety minutes shorter than that William Wyler directed version, in which I hardly had a clue as to what was going on.
Which brings me to what I regard as a strength of the new version - its admirable clarity of motivations of the characters. I wasn't lost for one moment - and not only that, I was interested enough to want to follow it.

Jack Huston (nephew of Anjelica and Danny) and Toby Kebbell play Prince Judah Ben-Hur and his step-brother Marcellus respectively, bosom friends who become deadly enemies after the now Roman commander Marcellus' request to B-H to keep a rein on Jewish discontent against Roman rule, culminating in a guard of ginger-bearded Governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Ansbaek) being killed by an arrow shot from B-H's home during Pilate's procession through Jerusalem. B-H, his mother and his sister are arrested, separated, and the hostility between B-H and his former close buddy is complete when B-H, despite his wealthy former princely status, is consigned to being a scum-of-the-earth galley slave. (These scenes at sea are quite remarkable - violently harrowing but also exciting). 
When B-H miraculously survives this ordeal he is taken in, still as a slave, by a powerful African potentate, in the frame of Morgan Freeman (yes, playing a mortal! - and the only well-known member of the cast). B-H's way with horses endears him to his new owner who suggests he enters an upcoming major chariot race to compete with Marcellus, and thereby securing his freedom as well as winning a bet for the African. (No prizes for guessing who crosses the finishing line first).
The race itself, with half-a-dozen four-horse charioteers competing simultaneously, is extremely well shot, and almost nail-biting, even though one knows the outcome.
Oh, and I ought to mention that there are a few scenes featuring Jesus Christ himself (Rodrigo Santoro, in a speaking role), first seen lovingly doing a bit of carpentry work while voicing a few succinct bon-mots - and last seen being crucified in a scene to which Christian fundies could not make any objection at all, so uncontroversial it is, sticking rigidly to the conventionally accepted and blessingly approved version (unless, of course, one considers the entire event as 'controversial').
Btw: Why do we still have to have 'celestial choirs' singing their "Aaaaah aaaaaahs" on the soundtrack to evoke religious mood and reverential solemnity? I would have hoped that this notion would have been vanquished to the films of yesteryear.

Much has been made of the anachronisms in this film and they really are glaring ones.  The first I picked up on was seeing the young men wearing breeches (this is, of course, supposed to be early in the first century C.E.). Other reviewers have said they are wearing what are definitely jeans. Whatever it is, the men would also have looked out of place, though maybe not quite as gratingly, if the actors had been part of Robin Hood's gang of merrie men. 
There are other dubious features I could mention but I don't want to further spoil the fun of anyone who wants to see this.

It reads like I'm fairly down on this film but it's not really the case. It was far better than I expected and I really did feel for the characters. It's also been said that the cast acted as though they couldn't care much about the situations they were portraying. I didn't find that. I thought they all managed to put in a good effort with a somewhat creaky and hackneyed, frequently sanctimonious storyline. I could easily have done with considerably less 'treacle' in the closing minutes, though.

Director is Russian/Kazakh, Timur Bekmambetov, whose best known directed film up to now has been 'Abraham Lincoln - Vampire Slayer', not seen by me.

I'd suggest that if you're in any way interested in seeing this, do give it a go and I think you may well find your hopes and expectations being met - or even exceeded - as mine were....................6.

Monday 12 September 2016

Film: 'Hell or High Water'

With not only Chris Pine and Ben Foster in the same film, but the added attraction of the ever significant and welcome presence of Jeff Bridges (in possibly his last screen appearance, though I do hope not), this film must surely be good, musn't it? Yes, it most emphatically is! If Bridges is to bow out with this production he could hardly have chosen better.

Directed by the English David Mackenzie, who has more than a dozen films to his credit though I've not seen any of them due to very limited release, this one deserves to put his name firmly on the map.

Set in the present day, Pine and Foster are two brothers who, right from the film's start, are on a bank robbing spree in small-towns-Texas - not necessarily to vastly enrich themselves, but primarily to pay the debt on a ranch and secure its ownership, though their 'takings' does enable them to engage in other activities as well. 
Bridges is a local, long-in-the-tooth lawman/ranger on the very cusp of retirement who, along with his deputy, tries to identify and then give chase to the robbers.

There is an agreeable level of dry humour throughout, mostly coming from Bridges' character, which counterbalances the violence of occasional incidents - though the latter is not excessive for films of this genre.

Acting from all concerned is top-notch. Script is sharp, photography of the great, flat outdoors is all for which one could hope - and with a soundtrack of Nick Cave songs, well, it's as near perfect as dammit.

It's one of those films which I find hard to fault. It does end on not quite the resolution which films of this type usually do, though not that that is a criticism of it.

A film which I'm pretty sure will provide widespread pleasure worldwide...............7.5.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

Film: 'Cafe Society'

A Woody Allen film is an annual 'event' towards which I always look with agreeable expectation. Unfortunately, this one I'd rate so far below the heights which he is capable of attaining that I find it hard to commend it on any level. In my view it deserves to be placed in the lower reaches of his lifetime of films. 

Two things in particular didn't enhance my 'enjoyment' of the film. In this the lead is played by Jesse Eisenberg who is my current number one irritant on film. It started with 'The Social Network' and was consolidated by the dire 'Batman v Superman'. His appearance here doesn't in any way expunge my unfavourable attitude to him.
In addition, I watched this on a stiflingly hot day in a stuffy cinema, my only mood being to want to drop off to sleep.

Set in the 1930s, the first half of the film takes place in Hollywood where Eisenberg from New York comes to visit his uncle (Steve Carrell), an influential film agent who rubs shoulders with all the big screen stars of the time. He hopes to get a job in the industry but his uncle isn't keen on the idea. Meantime he falls for Carrell's secretary (Kristen Stewart), and courts her, wanting her to come back to New York where they'll marry. However, his uncle has similar designs on the same person. Added to this complication, and providing much of the little humour in this film - and very 'black' it is - is Eisenberg's older brother back in NY, a gangster leader who'll eliminate anyone who gets in his way, as well as doing 'favours' in that direction. Eisenberg, returning to NY becomes a successful night club manager and takes up with another young lady (Blake Lively). 

I thought the whole film was on the laborious side, plotwise as well as script. There are a few of the 'sparkles' in dialogue which we come to expect from Allen, but they are much sparser than usual. Even Allen's trademark jazz background score seemed to be lazy choices - jazz improvisations of course, but only of old standards that we already know so well - and not only that, the same numbers are repeated several times! It's almost as though he couldn't be bothered to spice it up by giving us something unusual.

I felt relieved when this was over. It's not a film I'll want to recall. I may watch it again when it comes round on TV, but only if by then I've forgotten how inferior it was. 
A serious disappointment, then, but being Allen who even at his worst is better than some, I'll award it ........5.5


Tuesday 6 September 2016

Film: 'Things to Come'/ 'L'avenir'.

Following on shortly after the marvellous 'Julieta' here we have another superior non-English language film, and one which also features as its central character a woman of late-middle age, a mother with mature offspring.

Isabelle Huppert is a philosophy teacher in Paris in a recent time of student agitation, for which she has little sympathy. She takes annual breaks away with her husband (Andre Marcon) during which she fails to pick up on the latter's growing emotional estrangement from her. When they return to the capital, he's provoked by his daughter's facing him down about his attentions drifting elsewhere, so he decides to make a clean breast of it, telling his wife that he's decided to move in with his new affair. Though she had no inkling, she takes the news as equably as one could under the circumstances, and prepares for single life, having also to keep an eye on her aged, ailing and suicide-threatening mother, living alone with her cat.
Meanwhile she renews her acquaintance with a former, much younger, student of hers (Roman Kolinka) and accepts his invitation to visit him at a farm in the country where he's living with a handful of German friends.
You might have expected that this story would now develop into a romantic affair between the now unattached teacher and the younger man. I was very agreeably surprised that it didn't go down this predictable route.

Like 'Julieta' again, this is a modest film with no great pretensions - a human story without overblown melodrama or histrionics. It keeps everything on an even keel and yet manages to be totally absorbing. Acting and direction (from Mia Hansen-Love) are pretty well faultless.
I felt somewhat wary for the black cat which features a number of times, being moved in its carry-basket hither and thither, but can report that despite my apprehensions that it might meet a miserable fate, no harm came to it. 

'L'avenir' is another film which gave me a great deal of satisfaction, We seem to be going through a patch of good films which provide mostly gentle contentment in addition to entertaining us with quality......................7.5