Tuesday 29 November 2016

Film: 'Allied'

Conscious that in some circles this is being rated as a 'turkey', curiosity got the better of me. I was also aware of rumours rife, denied by Ms Cotillard (but she would deny it wouldn't she?) that this film played some part in the break up of the 'Brangelina' brand. 
I'd heard too that there were one or two clunky references to the Bogart film of 'Casablanca'. Added to which there's the rarity of Brad Pitt speaking French on several occasions during the film's course, and it's carrying quite a sum of qualities to make it intriguing - or might it turn out to be just plain daft?

Pitt plays a Canadian air force intelligence officer  
(a Quebecois, hence his 'proficiency' in the language) parachuted into Morocco in 1942. That country was French then but, as France had already fallen, it was now subject to Nazi occupation. As arranged, he meets up with underground resistance fighter Marion Cotillard where, for appearances sake, he's passed off as her Parisian husband. Then, before they've hardly had time to drop their underwear they've fallen in genuine love. (Sex in a car, and in a sandstorm, would you believe - with, despite the limited confines of that space, a camera circling their love-making - and all to swooning strings, just so we don't labour under a misapprehension that this isn't serious.) 
Having taken part together in an assassination at the French embassy in Casablanca in the middle of a Nazi social party (where a string quartet softly plays in the background 'Deutschland Uber Alles', for crying out loud!), the two of them flee to London, where they get married, she becoming dutiful housewife while he carries on his war contacts, now with the British, where everyone seems to talk in upper class, lah-di-dah accents. Soon a baby arrives. Immediately after the birth a nurse hands the naked newly-born to the mother with the helpfully informative remark "It's a girl!"

So that's the first hour of this two-hour film - and now it gets interesting. Pitt is summoned to be told that there's good reason to believe that his wife is.......a Nazi spy. (Yes!) His disbelief is understandable. Nevertheless, he is instructed to keep a strict eye on her. The next hour is quite successful in keeping us guessing - "Is she or not?"

I have to say that, despite some jaw-droppers, I was never bored throughout this film, not even in the long setting-up of the first half, though part of that was wondering what I could criticise next. The script was often flat.

Director Robert Zemeckis produces a work-a-day romantic thriller. I've seen worse, though many more that are better. This one just doesn't quite manage to get over the 'okay' line................4.

Monday 28 November 2016

Film: 'A United Kingdom'

There's no doubting the inspirational true story behind this, but I did find the film's treatment of it needlessly manipulative when it could just as easily, and more effectively, have been left to speak for itself.

It's London 1947 and Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana (David Oyelowo) is on the verge of returning to his home country as ruler, his uncle there having ruled as regent while the prince was growing up incognito in England. 
One evening at a dance he notices he's being eyed up by a young lady (Rosamund Pike) and he returns the favour, they dancing together. After a night of getting on famously (dancing and talking only) when he takes her back to her home he tells her that he can't see her again because of his circumstances which he explains. She refuses to accept that they can't go on despite who he is and so they carry on dating while they can, with her family's approval  (sister enthusiastically, mother tacitly) but not her father's - and also in the face of a warning from a supercilious British diplomacy, South Africa being next door to the prince's domain, and which has just implemented apartheid, it's vital to keep that country on-side for reasons of global relations. 
The young couple are soon married and she returns to Africa with him, where they have to cope with native hostility, led by his uncle, because of his bringing a white woman into the royal line meaning, of course, that any offspring will be mixed race. 

The two leading characters I found just too perfect to believe. They both seemed to lead exemplary flawless lives in terms of resolute determination in representing propriety in the face of hypocritical racist attitudes. Maybe they were so in reality, though I doubt that anyone could have had such saintly forbearance as this couple are shown to do in the face of the blatant prejudices (from both sides) that they come up against. I suppose it could have been that which bound them even closer together.

In the London scenes there is one instance shown of the couple being harangued and assaulted on the street because of their being black and white. In the 1950s when I was growing up such couples were absolutely never seen - whether because they were very rare or the pair were too afraid to be seen publicly together, I don't know. But in this film they are depicted openly in close loving contact without surrounding comment apart from this single incident. Perhaps around this time London had already progressed further than the north of England where I was.

The shots of African scenery are superb, fulfilling widescreen expectations. However, and as so often, I could have done with a lot less of the soundtrack music always pointing one in a certain emotional direction. Completely unnecessary when it was all in the story anyway. 

It's only the third film of director Amman Assante, her 'Belle' of 2013, I found a bit more interesting than this latest, though that also not quite satisfactory.

This film has had some very positive reviews which I can't share. If I wanted to see a hagiography then I'd prefer to have been warned it was to be so. On the other hand, it was quite educational to be told of a piece of history of which I hadn't been aware...................5.5.

Saturday 19 November 2016

Film: 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them'.

This, the latest filmed project from the formidable imagination of J.K.Rowling, is the first of a projected series of five films. 

Set in 1926 New York (some 70 years before Harry Potter began his first term at Hogwarts) it has the likeable Eddie Redmayne as an itinerant globe-trotting magician carrying an old suitcase of live specimens of weird and wonderful beasts whose sizes vary all the way up to immense. When it's stolen by 'no-maj' (= 'muggle') Dan Fogler, the result is that all manner of its contents are freed with unintended consequences, creating havoc on the city and its residences, not the least being one of whom is Redmayne's nemesis in the form of Colin Farrell playing the anti-hero native magician. 
Redmayne is accompanied on his quests by the faithful but tested Katherine Waterston and is found in conflict with severely matriarchal Samantha Morton.

The film is directed by David Yates who also directed the final three Harry Potter filmed stories. Special effects abound all over the place, and are every bit as visually as impressive as one would expect. Those responsible for realising fertile Rowling's imagination on screen are to be congratulated.

I saw all the Potter films, of course (and read the first three books) and was troubled by finding every one of the former quite exhausting to watch (likewise those books to read) even though they were targeted as being, essentially, children's films. I could only assume that I was viewing them the wrong way - over-seriously, perhaps? So I did have a preconception that I would find this film likewise weighty. In the event I didn't find it quite as bad as all that, though I must say that the plot here was markedly more confusing than in the Potters. I was rapidly lost in the ins and outs of the exposition so just submitted to giving up and letting myself be taken where it wants to go. In doing that I did achieve a measure of being entertained, though I can hardly say that I'm especially keen on seeing the remainder of the series.

I think you'd have to be a Potter fan to get the maximum out of this film. I can't imagine many being disappointed by this if you'd been sad to see the Potter series finish. It's very much more of the same, though set decades earlier, and is sure to make admirers of H.P. feel satisfied that they'll continue to get their 'fix' in future planned productions of this franchise................6.

Thursday 17 November 2016

Film: 'Les Innocentes'

French-Polish film in those two languages (with some Russian), based on 1945 immediately post-war true story of aftermath of a Polish convent being pillaged by advancing Soviet soldiers, the 15 or so nuns therein having suffered rape, not just the once but also on two further 'visits' - with the consequence of half a dozen of them falling pregnant, their times of delivery being close together. 
As you can imagine, the story is unremittingly bleak - at least that is all apart from its conclusion which seemed to be tacked on to show that life after such a dark episode need not be entirely hopeless.

It begins in the convent with a girl in labour, who had been taken in by the nuns on account of her being rejected by her parents for having become pregnant. In need of help, one of the younger nuns sneaks out of the convent and seeks a French Red Cross nurse (Lou de Laage) working in a makeshift hospital which treats newly liberated French survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. After some persuasion she agrees to accompany the nun back, but without telling her Jewish boss (Vincent Macaigne), the head doctor-surgeon, with whom she's having an affair - he being the keener, she rather less passionate about the relationship. 
At the convent, and out of sight of the sternly inflexible mother-abbess (Agata Kulesza) - who herself carries consquences of the attack on the nuns, and who is determined to keep the entire episode as their own 'secret' so as to shield the convent's ordeal from the outside world - the nurse after delivering the baby, discovers the advanced state of pregnancy of one of the nuns and gets to know what had happened. She then examines all the nuns, to the horror of the mother-abbess who is afraid the nurse will leak out the story of what happened. On discovering the reality, the nurse has to perform a balancing act of concealment from her lover/boss in the hospital while assisting where she can with deliveries. The fate of the new-born babies might be regarded by those outside the church as heartless - at least one wretched case markedly so - whereas in the mind of the abbess the reputations of the convent and the Church are paramount.

There are crises of faith among the nuns while the mother-abbess clings rigidly to the notion that it's best all left to Providence and to an all-knowing God.

It hardly needs saying that the story is utterly horrifying, all set in a country at Winter-chill season with more than a fair dusting of snow on the rock-hardened earth. I dare suggest that the story is far from unique. Thankfully, we are spared any flashbacks of the original attacks on the nurses, which would have been horribly indulgent.

The only other film I've seen from director Anne Fontaine is 2009's 'Coco Before Chanel' to which I awarded a low '4' rating. 'The Innocents' is far better if only, by the very nature of what it relates, it's much more involving, though it has to be necessarily cold in illustration. And then there's the question of the positive ending. Whether that is also part of the true story or is simply put in to cast some much missed 'sunlight' onto all that's gone before, I have no idea.  Whatever, it's a story that needs to be told, and this film achieves it efficiently.................6.5.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Film: 'Arrival'

Mine won't be a popular view of this largely praised science fiction film, but I really did find it to be bordering on the ponderous. It took too long to say what it wanted, and when it did it was too little, albeit that the 'little' was merely the future of mankind, wrapped up in a predictable cosy glow of hope and amity. Goodness me! How original!

Amy Adams. a linguistics expert is called in by a Colonel (Forest Whitaker) of the American military,  to help interpret sounds emanating from within one of twelve enormous pod-like space capsules hovering over widely dispersed locations around the globe. She, along with another expert, Jeremy Renner, and a small group of military enter the pod and start making contact with the alien 'crew' from behind a translucent screen on which the latter draw puzzling circle-shaped symbols.
Much time is spent interpreting these symbols, interspersed with many flashes (far too many) of Adams playing or talking to her little daughter. If these 'punctuations' were supposed to speed up the slow action then they spectacularly failed as to me they seemed mere padding - and dull padding at that. And the film is all capped with a needlessly sentimental final few minutes.
The body of the film is played against a backdrop of nervous foreign governments threatening to attack and destroy these pods, the Chinese being to the fore in their influence with other countries.

The pods and the aliens themselves are depicted impressively and interestingly I thought, eschewing previous ideas of what aliens might look like. Likewise the sounds they made.

Two of director Denis Villeneuve's more recent films, 'Sicario' and 'Prisoners', were well worth viewing. I don't consider 'Arrival' to be in the same class. 

Once again I'm going to be in a minority in my view, but I did find this film to be far too laboured to be of especial positive significance...................5.5.

Monday 14 November 2016

Film: 'Nocturnal Animals'

Intelligent, stylish, double-layered thriller with some harrowing moments - and a suspended ending which drew audible gasps of exasperation from the audience, which I can well understand without my sharing their sense of (presumably) feeling cheated.

This is only Tom Ford's second film as director/writer but is every bit as masterly as his 'A Single Man' of 2009.

Heading a terrific cast, Amy Adams is an art gallery owner which, it turns out, is illustrated by the film's opening credits which I can promise you is, erm, 'unforgettable'. (Tee hee!)
She receives a surprise package at home, a book written by her husband of 20 years previously (Jake Gyllenhall). dedicated to her with the same title of the film, which refers to a name he once affectionately called her. They have been out of touch with each other in the interim, her own present marriage now also falling apart, and this gift now causes her to wonder if she did the right thing in ending her first.
She begins reading and this story of fiction is shown in tandem with her current situation. 

In the story which she reads she sees herself in the part of Gyllenhall's wife again, these two characters now having an adolescent daughter. The three of them are driving on a lonely highway at night when they try to overtake another car which, apparently, won't let them pass. Eventually overtaking them, the girl makes a gesture to the car through the back window. Bad move. The other car contains three roughneck hill-billy types. The consequence is disturbing to say the least. 
Michael Shannon impressively plays an unrepentently heavy-smoking, phlegm-coughing. lung cancer-suffering state cop investigator.
There's also Michael Sheen and Laura Linney in the cast, the latter in just one scene practically unrecognisable as Adams' insufferably reactionary and unforgiving mother.

The film flits back and forth from the written story to real-life, Adams and Gyllenhall meeting up again after all these years, he keen to know what she thinks of his novel, she having previously dismissed his potential as a writer. Could there be a possibility of their getting back together again?

I found the film absorbing on both its independent strands, all beautifully photographed, some shots looking as though they would not be out of place mounted in Adams' own gallery. Background music was, very sensibly, not at all obtrusive.

I was thoroughly impressed with all aspects of this film. If there was any slight difficulty I could mention it's that one is regularly shown Amy Adams' silent face as she puts down the book having come to the end of a key episode or she is too upset by it to read on. Has she got too emotionally involved by getting drawn into the fictional situation? Is she trying to relate it to her present position? Exactly what is she thinking? We don't know, but one could argue that it's better left open for us to put our own interpretation on what her thoughts could be. I think it's a perfectly valid approach.

In summary, a fine cinematic experience - exactly what I was hankering after...........8.

Thursday 10 November 2016

Film: 'The Accountant'

Unexceptional, incoherent, violent 'thriller', Ben Affleck, being the eponymously nicknamed brain-on-legs. first working for criminal syndicates because of his head for figures and then, when taken on by State Department Treasury (boss, J.K.Simmons) finds that a goodly sum is disappearing from the Government's coffers and identifies the culprits. Stage is set for shoot-outs galore!

Affleck's role as a child, shows him as being autistic, some aspects of which carry over into adulthood. His father inculcated in him the need to stand up to anyone who sees him as a 'freak', first by fighting his similarly young brother (who also appears in adult guise elsewhere in the film). Never mind that they get bloodied, it's all part of the training! And then he gets further hardened by his father encouraging him by, in effect, emotional blackmail to stand up to juvenile gangs. (Far too many flashbacks to his childhood. They keep on coming long after we've got the message.)
Being autistic, he also possesses rare mental gifts - who would have thought it! - namely a photographic memory and a prodigious aptitude at mental arithmetic. So far, so dull. 

It's all plotted by-the-book - or, at least, I think it is as I very quickly got lost in the tortuous exposition. Not that it mattered too much. I just gave up and let it play on like a record that's finished and you can't be bother to get up to take it off the turntable.

Director is Gavin O'Connor who is yet to make his mark on film history, and he's not going to do it with this one.

It was only the illustrious presences of J.K.Simmons and John Lithgow who gave me anything like flickering enjoyment, resulting in its being rated higher than it might otherwise have been. However, in summary my recommendation is - forget it!...............4. 

Monday 7 November 2016

Film: 'The Light Between Oceans'

A fine story and some fine acting can't tip the balance against the negatives in this. The promise is all there but, alas, it's snookered by so much that's wrong with it.

Starting in 1918, Michael Fassbender, (who has never once disappointed me in the acting stakes), after serving in the Australian military, elects to go on a period of solitary seclusion by opting to man a lighthouse on a small offshore island. (Filmed in Tasmania). On a visit to the mainland he's taken by the sight of young, single Alicia Virkander - of whom more in a sec. Before very long they're married and start to live together on the island. Her failed experience(s) at giving birth leave them both feeling incomplete and deeply disappointed when, what should be seen drifting near their island? Only a rowing boat containing - yes, a baby, plus a dead man, presumably the baby's father. Seeing it as a 'sign' she takes the baby as her own, with him at first complicit, burying the man on the island and telling no one. They decide to pass the baby girl off as being their own child.
After a few years, with the girl now an infant, on a visit to the mainland again, and in one of those contrived coincidences used as a device to propel the story forward, he discovers the little girl's true mother, played by Rachel Weisz. He keeps this from his wife as long as he can though his inner conflict is apparent - until he starts making anonymous communication with the mother to assure her that her child is safe. Good story so far.

Now, that thorn-in-the-flesh that is Alicia Vikander. This is the fourth film I've seen her in the principal female starring role. In the first three I found that well over half her lines were so indecipherable as to make me wonder why she bothered to open her mouth at all. She obviously finds it too much effort to enunciate clearly - and so she is in this film. In fact, in just her first few lines of her initial appearance my heart sank in the realisation that she's learnt nothing. (In 'The Danish Girl', she might as well have been playing a mute as far as I was concerned!) It's a complete mystery to me as to why someone doesn't tell her. Are they afraid of her temper or what? Just because she became 'flavour of the month' a couple of years back does she think that she need not trouble herself with having respect for her audience? I'm sure she's pretty enough to look at, if you like that sort of thing, but I really do expect her to work for her money. I'd defy anyone to tell me what she's saying half the time or more. I can only assume that  everyone else is too embarrassed to say that they cannot catch her words for fear of other people thinking they might be going deaf. A case of 'The Emperor's New Clothes', I'd say.

Anyway, having got that off my chest, another major criticism I have of the film is that the background music is far too pervasive - it just can't shut up! Nearly all of it is sentimental slush, as though the story is incapable of speaking for itself. If you want to see how perfectly valid sentiment should be treated, I refer to the recently seen and superb 'I, Daniel Blake' directed by the veteran master, Ken Loach, someone who knows exactly how much to give it on screen - and then to just let go. Don't have it as a hovering background ghost for the entire rest of the film. 
The fairly unimaginative script too left something to be desired. 
Director (and writer) Derek Cianfrance draws excellent acting from at least Fassbender and Weisz, and virtually all the minor characters, but other than that it's a lacklustre affair, not helped by it being two and a quarter hours in length, which could easily have had 30 minutes lopped off, especially in the final scenes replete with implausibilities.

This could have been so much better, having, as it does, a really absorbing story. A finer director - and the replacement of the female lead - as well as some judicious editing, could have made it a superior experience to what it was..............5.

Thursday 3 November 2016

Film: 'Doctor Strange'

I wasn't familiar with this comic book character, but I don't think it's relevant. Word is that the main attraction is the special effects, taking this film onto quite another level. I agree, and that is after seeing it on a less-than-large screen and in 2D. It could well be visually mind-blowing in Imax and with 3D specs, in which format it is also released.  
As to the content of the storyline, well I thought it began in fairly interesting fashion and maintained its hold for the first half of its almost two hours. Thereafter it hit the formulaic buttons resulting in my soon becoming weary. 

Benedict Cumberbatch, leading a stellar quartet of actors, is an arrogant, cocksure, New York neurosurgeon, Dr Stephen Strange, tapping his foot to music whilst performing an intricate operation. While driving home he undergoes an horrific accident resulting in multiple injuries, most notably his hands, rendering him incapable of continuing his work, and which looks like pulling the curtains down on his career. He hears about a man who had similarly extensive neural injuries but was now re-functioning normally. On seeking him out he's told that he was put right by a visit to a place in Nepal. So Strange decides to go there himself (and why not?) and is there overheard making enquiries by Chiwetel Ejiofor who takes him to a building dedicated to esoteric arts presided over by Tilda Swinton as the mysterious and super-powerful 'Ancient One'. He gets a crash course from her on the development of these powers - powers of attack, defence, manipulating reality, time suspension, visiting other dimensions, and many more. He laps it all up and quickly becomes adept, avidly trying to achieve more than is normally allowed for a novice. 
Meanwhile, these forces for 'good' are being challenged by arch-villain Mads Mikkelsen and his gang. Cue many conflicts, fights between the positive and negative , both in the real world and in other dimensions where buildings are tipped and folded over onto themselves, as we saw in 'Inception', now achieved with even greater flawless proficiency. I was impressed.

However, the basic story is quite routine. We all know who is going to win so it's only a question of waiting for him to do it.

Director Scott Derrickson delivers the goods, though there's only limited scope for the cast to display any emotional interaction.

If it wasn't so spectacular and noisy I might have fallen asleep, though I do repeat that it must gain a lot by being seen in big, BIG screen - and additionally in 3D......................5.5

Film: 'I, Daniel Blake'

This is the most heart-rending film I've seen not just in this year but in several years. It's been much talked about in this country and has gained wide praise as being something quite exceptional, which is precisely what it turned about to be.

The film constitutes a howl of protest, desperation and frustration against a government-invoked system for claiming unemployment state benefits, describing itself as 'caring', in particular for those worst placed financially, even though all the evidence speaks otherwise. 

I knew it was going to be hard to watch, dealing as it does, with an ageing, widowed man, a former carpenter in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, still of working age but caught in a 'Catch 22' situation of having a heart condition for which his doctor classes him as being unfit for work, yet is deemed to be capable of working according to physical ability criteria set by the government. He is put in the position of having to look for and apply for work, and providing evidence that he's done so  - work which, if offered to him, he cannot accept. If he doesn't do this he's under threat of losing his benefits for a period, that length of time increasing on each occasion he fails to do what is required.   
In a visit to a Social Security office he witnesses an argument between a single mother of two small children who's just moved up to the north-east from London, and a claimants clerk who maintains that because she's a few minutes late for her appointment (a late bus to blame) she has to start the process again. The man intervenes on her behalf and, for his pains, gets ejected from the building with the family by cold, impersonal staff who are just "following the rules they are given". 
He strikes up a friendship with the young mother, modestly helping her out with his carpentry and other skills where he can. The film follows the rise and falls (nearly all 'falls') in the fortunes of these two, in similar circumstances though disparate as a pair. 

There are distressing moments, when they come up time and time again against the wall of officialdom which requires everybody to act 'just so', and if they fall short in any respect, if they don't tick the necessary boxes, they will suffer in consequence. Just too bad for them! How the young female is, during the film's course, reduced to particular states in two different senses, is frightening and troubling, to say the least.  

The man is played by Dave Johns (better known for his TV appearances here in a range of roles) and the young mother by Hayley Squires. who has made a number of films, though none quite as up-front as she is here.There's already talk of the two of them being certs for award nominations. They are both so outstandingly good in this film that if they don't get at least nods for the BAFTAs it would be a grave injustice - and Oscar nominations would also be well deserved.

It's a Ken Loach film. Loach, now 80 and a lifelong ardent socialist, has been, through his long line of politically-edged films, a thorn in the side of Conservative governments for over half a century - and this is surely his most polemical film of them all.

I've just two complaints about this otherwise excellent film. The first is my old bugbear of indistinct dialogue. Being set in Newcastle, many of the accents are Geordie  - a part of the country not far from where I myself hail, so I normally don't have any trouble with the dialect. But the delivery of the words here sometimes leaves something to be desired - most especially when there's a scene change and in this film, instead of the action moving in next shot straight to the new scene there's a slow fade-to-blank screen a number of times, giving the impression that what's just been said is of crucial importance. Sad, then, that on at least two occasions I couldn't make out what the final words of the most recent scene were when they were obviously material to the development.
The second reservation is that one of the children, the girl aged about 9-10(?), is so refined and speaks in such mature tones, unlike her mother and younger brother, that she is scarcely believable.

However, even with these two provisos it didn't shake me from my conclusion that this is indeed a remarkable film. I was deeply moved a number of times and, I'm not ashamed to say, actually came out of the cinema moist-eyed. I wouldn't be at all surprised to be told that quite a proportion of the always totally-attentive audience would have experienced a stage or two even beyond that condition............8.

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Film: 'Jack Reacher - Never Go Back'.

I've been trying to identify something original about this film. Anything! Still struggling. We've seen it all before numerous times.
Tom Cruise reprises his creation of Lee Child's invincible, hard-man, quick-thinking, violent character - righting wrongs and saving the world in the process. 

His earlier position as army major leads to his being a useful target for framing and put out of the way as part of a government conspiracy involving opium trading with fighters in Afghanistan. All too complex for me to want to remain engaged. It involves his freeing from detention of a female military general (Cobie Smulders - a name I'd never heard of, just like all the rest of the cast) and both go on the run as two wanted figures, along with a 15-year old girl (further complications I can't be bothered to explain - heigh ho!).  
Action starts in Washington then moves down to New Orleans, culminating in (guess what?) yes, fleeing during one of the city's grand costumed parades! 

Many fights both with fists and weapons with the couple's pursuers, all very violent, all very predictable.
Edward Zwick's film as director ought to be best appreciated by those who aren't familiar with this kind of film, and how many of those can there be?

Will there be a third Jack Reacher film? I do hope not, but if there is it had better have something more to say than this one............5.