Wednesday 26 October 2016

Film: 'Valley of Love'

Very unusual, this. Despite its dreadful English title, which is apparently also used in France (director, Guillaume Lecloux) it's set in and around Death Valley, Calif., and stars Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu - their duologue (which comprises 95% of the film's talk) being entirely in French.

They play a long-divorced couple having been out of contact with one another for years (she, now re-married but in the throes of another divorce, he still single) brought together by each getting letters from their son some months previously, in which the son tells them that he has now killed himself, without proffering them any reason why. He'd become estranged from both of them years before, they not having concerned themselves too much with his withdrawal from their lives, though they know that he had gone to live in San Francisco with his male lover. But the most curious thing about the letter is that he says he will briefly re-appear to them on a day when they are at one of the seven official Death Valley view-sites at a certain time, meaning that at that particular hour for a week they must be at one of the locations. Of course, they have no idea about what he could mean, they having travelled from their homes in France, but now their meeting up again dredges up a range of recriminations on both sides about their past, though a residual affection between the two of them keeps resurfacing in spite of their bickering moments. It's Depardieu who is the more sceptical of the two of them by a long way - which begs the question as to why did he bother to come, though the son did stipulate that they must both be there together.

As you can surmise, very big, mysterious questions are raised from early on in the film. I can tell you now that those who demand resolutions are going to feel short-changed by the time of the final credits, which is very much the way with filmic riddles these days. I didn't feel dissatisfied at all. There were very faint echoes of one of my all-time favourite films, 'Picnic at Hanging Rock', which left its audience gasping for answers, yet was brilliantly effective. I don't class this new film anywhere near the exemplary exercise in mystery that was 'Picnic', though the conclusion of things left in the air was extremely similar.

I've also got to say that Depardieu (now 67) has become huge, with a belly as big as two barrels. (Luckily, the film is in widescreen!) His spending much of the time here without a shirt - because of the oppressive heat, even though it was supposed to be November! - is a less than savoury sight. 
Huppert at 53, manages to look younger than she actually is.

I thought both lead roles were marvellously acted - their showing in alternate fashion both tetchiness and mutual affection.

For myself, I found considerable satisfaction with the film, much more than some of the unenthusiastic reviews I've seen. I'd recommend it quite strongly, but with the sole proviso that you're prepared to come away from it with questions remaining unanswered.....................7.

On making an exit from the cinema this afternoon.........

.......I espied this pavement billboard outside one of the adjacent eateries:-

I don't know how widespread this can be viewed - and in particular, whether it's shown in the U.S.A. (if it is, then with one word spelt the American way, of course), but it gave me a chuckle. I hope that if you also haven't seen it before then it may do the same for you.

Friday 21 October 2016

Film: 'Swiss Army Man'

Completely preposterous story from beginning to end - as were also my last two films reviewed, 'Miss Peregrine' and 'Inferno' - though this was better than both, and certainly not having the over-serious pretensions of the latter.

For all but the final minutes of the film there are only two characters, played by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, but the story is so absurd, yet totally original, that it held my interest right through. I've never heard of anything like it either in literature or certainly not on film. Having said that, I was yet not spectacularly impressed, though it certainly had its moments.

Paul Dano, is about to hang himself, apparently having been living as a castaway on a deserted island, and grown tired of living alone. Dishevelled and bushy-bearded, he's just about to step off for the noose to tighten when he espies a body (Radcliffe, of course) washed up on the beach. Investigating that it really is a corpse, he's about to give up and return to the task of suicide when he's intrigued by the sound of built-up gases escaping from the deceased. (An oft-repeated but key 'joke' this, so if one finds farting funny, there'll be laughs galore throughout the film.)
Pulling the body onto dry land he tries to resuscitate life into it but gives up, though allowing it to keep him company in his lonely existence. To his utter amazement he finds that, despite its state of decomposing, the body starts to talk, initially in slurred, disjointed fashion, then sightly more coherently so that he can even have conversations with it.  
He also gradually discovers that the corpse has a number of features which he can use to his advantage, hence the film's title. Although it cannot move without his assistance, he gets it to use an astonishing inordinate physical strength in various activities, some of which involve using gas expulsion. In its talking, it seems the body has forgotten what life was like and Dano has to teach it/him the basics. In an old magazine, when Radcliffe sees a certain photograph of a beautiful girl he becomes aroused and prominently tumescent under his trousers, this seeming to be the only activity he can do himself, even though it's involuntary. (Very unrealistic depiction, this - at least in my experience I've never seen such an actively 'mobile' one! But so what? The entire story requires a complete suspension of disbelief!) 
Dano now has been given a direction to his life, his mission now to instruct Radcliffe on the art of courtship, and with makeshift skirt and wig he shows the corpse how to achieve success with the female sex. 
One of the numerous curious qualities which the Radcliffe corpse had was that he could belch up drinkable water for Dano. As Radcliffe had been drowned, why wasn't he bringing up sea-water? But this was just one of the countless holes in the story, which doesn't play well if one dwells too much on it. You just have to dismiss such nit-picking and let the story run on regardless.
Can't say too much more without spoiling it, and definitely not what the end comprises. 
I've been rather bemused by reading some of the 'interpretations' read into this film by some viewers, including those going to extraordinary lengths to rationalise the story, theorise on its meanings and to suggested 'symbolism'. I'll have no truck with that. It's just an entertainment, for heaven's sake, and I don't think it was intended to be any more than that. 

Both Dano and Radcliffe give spirited performances, one might say, - though in the case of the latter I think 'lifeless' would be a better description, here in the most appreciatively appropriate sense.

It's jointly written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, both of whom played parts, most notably, in the 'My Best Friend's Wedding' project with Julia Roberts.

I give the film very high marks for originality and cheeky daring, though the final result left me feeling just a bit short of what it could have been. Its being very slightly over 90 minutes in length is another point in its favour. If you're particularly fond of fart jokes you might think it of greater worth than my own.................6.5.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Film: 'Inferno'

Oh dear, I do find these Dan Brown screen adaptations every bit as exhausting as reading his books, and this one is no exception, though here not being quite the marathon that 'Da Vinci' was, both on screen and in print.
I've read five of Brown's novels out of the six he's written to date, 'Inferno', another in The Robert Langdon series of extravaganzas, being my only unread one. Can't say I'll be rushing to complete the set.

A familiar set-up, early history clues left around (helpfully in English) as Tom Hanks, playing Langdon again, wakes up in a Florence hospital with various non-life-threatening injuries, having lapsed memory (doesn't know how he got there nor what he's doing in Florence) and subject to bad hallucinatory visions of plagues, people with heads turned backwards, Hell itself and God knows what else, but that's enough to be getting on with. Attended in his hospital bed by an English doctor (Felicity Jones, whom we saw two years ago as Mrs Stephen Hawking in 'The Theory of Everything) he's suddenly under attack from unknown human forces, including police, with unclear motivation, and the two of them flee to lose themselves in the city. The first half of the film, set entirely in photogenic Florence is basically a chase, with Hanks filling in the blanks in his memory and trying to make sense of a projection device mysteriously found in his pocket which refers him to Dante's Inferno and a mighty plague. Being the walking encyclopedia that he is, he makes connections and works out that there's an apocalyptic event in the offing in the form of the aforementioned worldwide plague to be deliberately unleashed in order to reduce the human population by several billions down to a manageable level.
The World Health Organisation is on his track and determined to stop him by whatever means from frustrating their plans. I got a bit lost here - as I did in several other places - with so much pseudo-scientific and cryptic gobbledygook. In fact, despite virtually non-stop action this is also a very 'talkie' film. In addition to all this rigmarole there's a quest for Dante's death mask, apparently forming an intrinsic part of the puzzle. All very confusing.
After Florence the scene shifts to Venice and then to Istanbul.
Predictably, the plot involves those considered as allies turning out to be his enemies and vice versa. I hardly think that with Dan Brown that can be considered a spoiler as it's a device he likes to use over and over again.

Director of this serving of, frankly, heavy stuff is none other than Ron Howard. I doubt if this film will be considered one of his prouder achievements. Even most of the cast seem, at times, to be half-hearted about the whole fantastic caper Was Felicity Jones purposely under-acting? She never seemed to be terribly emotionally involved even when on the run with Hanks with her very own life at stake. In contrast, though, I have to say that Tom Hanks gives it his all - showing confusion and desperation on his face (just like I had with the story) without having to say a word, and in this film he is as good as he just about always is.

'Inferno' does have its moments of tension and excitement but it also requires a fair bit of concentration to follow which, ultimately, works against it providing a satisfactory level of entertainment in terms of relaxation. So if you want a film just to wash over you without you having to do much work this would not be an ideal choice. Great for Dan Brown fans, certainly, as well as for conspiracy-theorists. Not one I'd care to sit through again, though......................5.5.


Friday 14 October 2016

Cor, stone the crows! I'm a septuagenarian!


Yes, three score and ten today (15th) - the first age which my father never reached (as also didn't an elder brother), so I ought to feel privileged. What have I done to deserve this honour? It's a dubious achievement, especially when there's been so little to show for it. However, I'd much rather be here than not, so I'll get on with life unmoaning.

Here's some recent pictures of my triumvirate of 'masters' who expect me, their long-suffering slave, to be at their beck and call 24/7.

Blackso must be getting on for 18 now. Getting rather wobbly on his legs, sleeping about 23 hours a day, only waking to eat and my putting him out twice a day to do his business, after which he's waiting to come straight in again. As sweet as ever, purring and rubbing my face whenever I pick him up and always wanting to get on my lap. May he still have a long, healthy life yet to come.

Noodles, probably around 13 now, is the 'nuisance' of the household, never ceasing to cry for food - just pecking at what he's given, then leaving most of it. Of the three he's the least demonstrative with his affection (what affection?), only purring when I'm giving him his breakfast, which he'll mostly waste anyway. Won't let me pick him up, never jumps in lap, he lives in his own world, using me solely as a means to help him survive. Can only think that he must have gone through some tribulations as a kitten which he's never forgotten. 

Patchie, the latest arrival since around 3 years ago, will now be about eight yeaars old, according to his one-time owners. Like the other two, he left his own home to come and live with me. Notwithstanding his relative youth, he tends to bully the other two and he's become self-appointed 'sentry' at the kitchen window, vetting those who want to come in, and refusing entry in particular to one tortie with long bushy tail who likes to come in and pick at the leftover food  of which there's always plenty. (She came in this very morning, a fish-morning, something which she won't eat, so had to open some meaty for her). She only comes in when Patchie's elsewhere, he currently liking to sleep on my bed, daytime, as well as at night with me - and gets really annoyed when, in order to get into bed myself, I have to disturb him. But he will insist on sleeping in dead-centre of bed, leaving me with just the choice of margins, struggling to cover myself with duvet and trying not to fall out. 

And here's me at the youthful age of 69 - yesterday.  'Scuse me for not giving a toothy smile ('toothy' being the operative word!) as you'd be getting more than you'd bargain for.

So come on the 70s! Do your worst! - or maybe, on second thoughts, be gentle, please.

Film: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children'

Really oughtn't to have exerted myself to see this Tim Burton latest, based on contemporary writing by one Ransom Riggs. 

Aware that it was well outside of my usual kind of film, I thought that it might make for a pleasant change. Well, if any change there was, it wasn't in providing entertainment which someone of my age and tastes can appreciate.   

19 year-old Asa Butterfield (he of 'Hugo', 'The Boy in Striped Pajamas', 'Son of Rambow' - and here playing five or six years younger than he actually is), lives in Florida with parents and grandfather (father, Chris O'Dowd and grandpa Terence Stamp), where the latter intrigues him with stories about a large house in Wales where mysterious forces are at work.  So, father being an ornithologist, both go off to visit the place, his dad ostensibly going on a bird-watching expedition.
By himself, the boy looks for the house, only to find it a crumbling, overgrown ruin. On entering the derelict he finds himself being spied upon by a number of mysterious children and, eventually getting to talk to one of them, finds out that the entire building is now preserved in original condition within a time-loop of repeating one single day in 1943 (German bombers overhead) in 'Groundhog Day' style, managed by the pipe-smoking lady owner of this 'home', (Eva Green) who winds back the portable master clock daily at a specific time so the day can run again and again, though in this case they're not tied to having to repeat the same actions ad infinitum
There are ten resident children, each with unique powers or characteristics, such as one boy being invisible (only seen by his moving, apparently empty, clothes), another a young girl with super-human strength, another being an older girl who's so light that she'd float away were it not for the heavy shoes she has to wear to anchor her to earth. Then there's a boy whose body is inhabited by a swarm of bees which he can let out orally at will to cause havoc, and so on.  
The idyllic existence of the children is threatened by  a group of metamorphosing, tentacled monsters led by Samuel L. Jackson. In fact it's the guest appearances in this film that helped to engender the minimal interest I had in it . In addition to the aforementioned Terence Stamp there's Rupert Everett and, in a brief contribution that she probably knocked off in an hour or less, Judi Dench.

The final special effects-laden confrontation in which Samuel L. Jackson dominates as arch-enemy, takes place in a funfair at the end of a Blackpool pier. One can guess beforehand that all of the children will, in turn, get to use the particular power which each possesses.

This is clearly intended as a kids' film, though maybe not for those under, say, ten, as some of the scenes are graphic and gory., while the older ones will just lap it up. I found it pretty standard fayre for this kind of film. Tim Burton's trademark visions are here though perhaps slightly more muted than one usually expects from him. 
Oh, there is one bonus. Unlike Mr Burton's recent projects, this one does not feature wifey, Helluva Bon-bon Carthorse!

For its target audience I should have thought that going over two hours was pushing it a bit. It tired me out somewhat. But I think that if it's the kind of film you're inclined to feel favourably towards, then you're probably going to be rather more impressed than I was...............5.

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Film: 'War on Everyone'

The big mystery is how director and writer, Michael McDonagh, responsible for such a fine, must-see production as 'Calvary' (one of my top films of 2014), could have come up with this unimpressive, predictable mush of violent tedium, where the 'humour' (if that's what it's intended to be) is almost entirely based on using ripe, swear-laden, un-p.c. language masquerading as 'wit'. (Ho ho!) I was left virtually unmoved by the whole sorry feature, as was also the rest of the audience, as far as I could determine from their impassive non-reactions.  

Two New Mexico bent cops (Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Pena) form a 'double act' (yawn!) in intimidating just about everybody to whom they take a dislike, criminal or not, and squeezing out a tidy profit for themselves - a little of the old blackmail is jolly good fun, after all! Then they find they've bitten off more than they can chew in the form of a young, influential Englishman (Theo James) who doesn't take kindly to having the pair interfere in his own corrupt domain, which includes horse racing, night clubs, porn - while he himself is surrounded by a phalanx of loyal, toughie bodyguards.

Can't be bothered to say much else about it. I've been searching my mind for something positive to mention. Well, I suppose the film does have energy, but even that's only apparent sporadically. There are no moments of suspense sustained over a number of minutes, not helped by the fact that personal interest in or sympathy with any of the characters is remarkably low. But I did like their visit to Iceland, though far too short, in which I could wonder at the fabulous, snowbound scenery. There was also a short pursuit down an Icelandic street (can only be in Reykjavik, can't it?). I think it must be the first time I've seen a view of any street in that country on screen. Additional to these rare delights, there's also a pleasing soundtrack including two or three of Glen Campbell's well-known hits.
As to the storyline, just about everything is what we've already seen before, and done better - though one particular method of a certain person's demise has only been rarely depicted (usually confined to 'oriental' films) though it's only a minor detail. 

I'll be generous with my rating, but only because if I scored it any lower it might come into the category of looking so bad that it might be thought to be just worth seeing. It's not!................4

Thursday 6 October 2016

Film: 'The Girl on the Train'

Based on "the book that shocked the world" (by Paula Hawkins) trumpets the trailer. Is that so? I'd never heard of it.
I'd seen this trailer so many times over the last few weeks that it had just about killed off any curiosity I had about seeing the film. But rather half-heartedly, I went.

The plot is basically a 'whodunit?' - or, more precisely, what happened to her and was anyone else involved? But there is an unusual added dimension to this story viz. the narrator is a self-aware, struggling alcoholic, and Emily Blunt captures the character utterly magnificently. Rarely have I seen on screen so realistically displayed all the nuances of someone with a drink problem - every shade from slightly tipsy, to merry (with an underlying menace), through to being sozzled and violent with it. We also see her fully sober yet dying to have that drink, resisting even when she's offered one, as well as her first visit to an A.A. session. It was a remarkable performance which I really do think is worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Divorcee (and childless) Blunt travels daily from Washington to New York on a train which takes her past her former house where her ex-husband (Justin Theroux) still lives with his new wife (Rebecca Ferguson) and their baby daughter. Quite close to this house is another which she gets fascinated by because she can see a couple there through the windows or on their balcony (Luke Evans and Haley Bennett) who seem to be very much in love. It seems they represent the ideal relationship which the Blunt character wishes she could have had. All the while on the train she is sipping from what looks like a transparent water bottle, but which she has had filled with vodka. During her journeys her mind wanders to the past and therein, I think, is the weakness of the film. There are far too many flashbacks, not necessarily in chronological order, leaving me confused several times as to what was happening - and in addition, was this real or is it part of her alcohol-befuddled fantasies? The problem is further exacerbated by having the two women already mentioned having very similar long, blonde, wavy hair. Because I didn't know the two actresses involved I did now and again get confused as to which was which. But as I already do have a particular problem in recognising and remembering faces in real life, others may not have the same difficulty.
There is a third man involved, a counselling psychiatrist (Edgar Ramirez).
The Blunt character, having built up a picture of an ideal relationship for this couple which she notices daily, one day witnesses something that jars on her vision of presumed marital bliss. And, no doubt fuelled by alcohol, she can't keep her mouth shut, even though it's nothing to do with her. Then someone goes missing. The police are called in and, due to the drink, she has difficulty in recalling her own movements on the day of the woman's disappearance.

We do finally get to see what happened, and since the number of suspects is very limited - only the three men plus two women, one of whom is Blunt herself. (Was she herself involved during one of her regular blanked-out periods?) When the solution of the mystery is revealed it's hardly a shocker, though it is gruesome.

I don't know if the book contained as many flashbacks as are in the film, but I think the latter was weakened by having so many as to approach being exasperating, particularly as I found some of them quite confusing. 
Director Tate Taylor ('The Help', 'Winter's Bone') builds up tension well at a number of points. It's one of those films with cumulative suspense and it is achieved pretty well.
The major part of the honours for the film really must go to Emily Blunt though, in a role which marks her out as a really remarkable actress with great potential. I think she lifted this film, without which it would have been a  significantly less successful product...............6.5.   

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Film: 'Deepwater Horizon"

Based on a true event of the catastrophic destruction of a floating B.P. oil rig off the Louisiana coast in 2010 (which, I must confess was only very vague in my own memory) resulting in the loss of 11 men as well as extensive pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, this film centres around the part paid by the hero of the hour, Mike Williams, who actually was an on-location adviser as the film was being made. And who better to play such an everyman-hero than Marky Wahlberg? Could anyone else possibly have been more appropriate? As a special visual treat he generously bares his torso more than once during the course of the film for us to ogle at. So considerate!

First of all it has to be established that Williams is a regular family man, with lovey-dovey wife (played by Kate Hudson) and a wise-ass 10-year old daughter, so sweet I could have just scooped her up and barfed all over her, her parents making knowing smiles at each other as she spouts forth her precocious pearls of wisdom. So we're on the man's side right from the start, are we not? 
Williams is an electronic technician working on the rig, also with Kurt Russell, installation engineer among the hundred or so men. Also present, for me there is the film's saving grace, John Malkovich, sneeringly supercilious, larger-than-life and as watchable as he always is. Unfortunately, only appearing in the film's first half,  he doesn't have anything like as much to do as I would have wanted.

At the instigation of the Malkovich figure, testing the drilling is carried out  (Were we seriously expected to follow all those technicalities? I hadn't a clue what was going on!) 
Things turn awry, first quietly, then in spectacular fashion - and I have to say the effects really are impressive, with nearly everyone coated, first in oily mud (rendering some of the cast hard to recognise) - and then an all-consuming fire breaks out. At the key moment St Mark is on visi-phone to wifey making coochy-coo small-talk. He hears a strange noise but dismisses it. Then as things get serious the screen blanks out - and of course Mrs Williams gets rather concerned. After a phone call or two when she hears what's happened she becomes distraught, just as a faithful, dutiful wife ought to do.   
Emergency services are alerted and come to the rescue, or at least to rescue whoever they can, St Mark playing a key role in raising the number of survivors.

The film reminded me very much of the spate of disaster films made in the 1970s, though rather less interesting than some of them, notwithstanding that this one is based on fact rather than fantasy. Also, it hardly needs saying that the effects here are quite staggeringly realistic - or so one imagines they are.

Director Peter Berg has 20 films as director to his credit, though none of them in the 'outstanding' bracket as far as I can see, and I doubt if this film will change that. He does what is required here. If this story hadn't been true I might have described the film as formulaic. It certainly follows all the 'rules' one might expect so I can't see anyone coming out feeling cheated. 
In the final analysis I suppose the film's chief value is to demonstrate a lesson in how an organisation's (B.P.) neglect in order to cut costs can get away scot-free after contributing to such a large-scale human and environmental disaster, and that truly is a message of despair.................6.

Monday 3 October 2016

Film: 'The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years'

I'd guess that only true fans of the 'Fab Four' will want to watch this Ron Howard-directed film. My having lived through their times, seen innumerable TV programmes and read extensively on the subject, there was little here, if anything at all, which I hadn't already known. Nevertheless, the majority of the footage used is newly aired, and coupled with recent interviews with Paul and Ringo, into which is spliced archive footage of George and John (the latter virtually only in sound) - as well as with long-term fans such as Whoopi Goldberg, Sigourney Weaver, Elvis Costello and Eddie Izzard - it all makes for an interesting compendium of the 1963-66 history of the most famous group the world has ever known.  

Excerpts from their first live performances in the U.K. are shown, as also in the U.S.A., including their TV appearances, and other concerts from around the globe. But rarely is a complete song shown being performed before it's faded out to give way to a voice-over.
This was a period when the group was as close-knit as they ever would be, with their manager, Brian Epstein who was the 'glue' who held it all together. The four of them got on very well with each other, so that these three years is, in a sense, also the most uninteresting time that they ever went through. It was only when the cracks of disagreements began to appear in the wake of Epstein's untimely death (not mentioned here) that the group's own story started being enthralling - and later accelerated by Yoko's intrusive presence (also outside the film's scope, going only so far as 'Sergeant Pepper').  
Due credit is given to the recently-deceased George Martin, the brain who enabled Paul and John, and later George, to really take off, fly and soar with their own compositions far higher than they otherwise might have managed alone.

Because there weren't any revelatory moments in the film for me, I did start to get a bit fatigued. Predictably, the group's live performances, even with enhanced sound quality, audibly fell below the standard of the studio recordings of releases we have grown up with, so that was no surprise.

After the end of the 90-minute 'main feature' there's a further half-hour taken from their live concert in Shea Stadium, the fan-girls' continuous screaming becoming near-overbearing.
I was less interested in their renditions of old rock 'n roll standards like 'Long Tall Sally', 'Roll Over Beethoven' etc than I was in wanting to hear them performing songs they had penned themselves - incidentally here with a strong bias in favour of Lennon-composed numbers. But that's because my admiration for them has, right from the start, being essentially based on the incredibly high standard of their songwriting capabilities than that of their performances as a group.

I think that those who are less familiar with the Beatles story will get a lot more out of this film than I did. Rather than watch it again, I'd rather sit myself down. close my eyes and wrap myself in the sheer sublimity of half a dozen or more of the Beatles' albums, a standard which I think, though may have been approached by other artistes, both contemporary with them and in all the decades since, has never been surpassed.................6.