Monday 30 January 2017

Film: 'Hacksaw Ridge'

I'm aware that there are more than a few people around who'd discount going anywhere near this film because of its (infamous?) director, and I must admit to having, figuratively, to hold my nose on purchasing my ticket. But it's had such astonishingly good reviews that I was curious to see what the fuss was all about.

Mel Gibson (for 'tis he!) seems to be hell-bent on making the most violent films in history, and here he's at it again. However, apart from a brief bloody battle prologue (Okinawa 1945) all the guts and gore is confined to the second half.

Based on a true story (as every second film now seems to be), Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, Seventh-Day Adventist and conscientious objector, who enters the army and refuses to even touch a weapon, much to the ridicule of his co-conscriptees and the exasperation of his senior officers (including Vince Vaughan and Sam Worthington).
Before we get there we see Doss as a young boy in Virginia, with his brother, their strict, emotionally-distant father (the doughty Hugo Weaving) and their more protective mother (the ever-excellent Rachel Griffiths). 
Then it jumps forward ten years and we see the teenager (looking at times alarmingly like a young Anthony Perkins) taking a fancy to a hospital nurse (Teresa Palmer) in what looks like love-at-first-sight or, at least for him it is. They decide to marry but first he has to do his army service. Then the rest of the film's first hour is devoted to his training and the difficulties he faced with in following his religion. He stoically takes the barrage of ridicule aimed at him, and eventually the army gives in and posts him as medical officer, which absolves him from participating in actual combat.

The remainder of the film is this battle in Japan, a struggle to take the strategic clifftop site of Hacksaw Ridge against tremendous odds. Gibson pulls out all the stops and more to show the reality (I assume) of battle - and it must be the most extended battle scene I've seen in any film. (There is only one brief respite when night falls.) Plenty of gory killings, to be sure - mainly gunshot or grenades, also with some stabbings, but no slaughter is actually unduly lingered over, scenes being mercifully short while intensely graphic.

Garfield has been nominated for a 'Best Actor' award for this main part (as well as Gibson as director and the film itself as 'Best Picture'). I can't help feeling that what's behind it is more an effort to recognise the little-known story of the real Desmond Doss (who died just 11 years ago) rather than Garfield's performance who had to do little more than maintain a saint-like mien amidst all the belittling and rebuke he gets and then adopt the same tone in battle while struggling to assist as many injured as he can. It's been said that he well displays the character's emotional turmoil. Again, I'm not so sure. I think that his religious faith was so strong that there was little inner conflict for him. He knew how he was supposed to act according to his beliefs, so that's what he did, simple as that.
(I also can't yet forgive Garfield for the mumble-fest that was 'The Social Network'  of 2010).

I found it a very conventional film, despite the sensationalism of the depiction of battle violence and its being based on fact. One could guess where it was going to go, with Doss displaying scarcely believable extreme heroism throughout, putting just about everyone else to shame - the film's concluding captions telling how many lives he actually saved and that he was the first conscientious objector to be awarded a medal of honour for bravery.  

One thing I couldn't work out was, why were just about all the Americans white? Was this the way it was? During the army training scenes every single face was white. If there were one or two black faces in the battles I wasn't sure if they looked so because that was their actual complexion or were they white faces blackened by war-ravages, explosions etc? Certainly throughout the film, even in the early part, no non-white character had any spoken part. I don't recall seeing even a single such person in the early hospital scenes. Very odd.

I'm pleased that I saw the film, not least for having satisfied my curiosity - but as to giving it a rating I'm going to go way out on a limb with practically every other reviewer and confess that my experience was, basically, a shallow, memory-disposable one, and therefore I accord it with.................5.5.

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Film: 'Manchester by the Sea'

Although I think that this is indeed a fine film, I can't quite go along with all the 'oohs' and aahs' that have been conferred on it. For one thing, at two-and-a-quarter hours long, I feel that it is too long for its subject matter - though, having laid that claim down, I can say that I was never bored by it - only a trifle exhausted.

Casey Affleck is an itinerant plumber with a personality like a coiled spring, ready to go off at little, even imagined, provocation. (He's not alone in this respect!) His work entails doing thankless tasks for sometimes thankless clients. Close to his brother's young son (Ben O'Brien) with whom he goes on fishing trips, a few years later, his brother dies and Affleck finds to his surprise, and not without some irritation, that he's been nominated by his brother to be the guardian of the now 16-year old boy (Lucas Hughes). Their relationship has become spikey with both of them holding a simmering resentment of the situation - not helped at all by the boy having two girlfriends which he juggles simultaneously, each not being aware of the other, to Affleck's evident disapproval.
In a disappointingly (to me) rather meagre role is Michelle Williams as the Affleck character's former wife, who opens out her heart to him late in the film. There's a past between them which lurks over their continued regard for each other.  

The film is serious throughout, though I've seen at least one review which describes the awkwardness between Affleck and his nephew as 'funny'! If so, I missed that aspect.
If it's a violent film, very little physical violence is actually seen - rather more like an undertow of potential emotional violence which may or may not erupt into the physical.
The photography of the small town Manchester, particularly in the deeply snowbound season, is impressive.
On the soundtrack there are one or two pieces I could have done without - including two long excerpts from Handel's 'Messiah' - as well as the over-used Albinoni/Giazotto 'Adagio for organ and strings'.

Director Kenneth Lonergan really is given his head in this film and he takes it to the utmost. Although Affleck is remarkable in the main role, I did now and again feel that the director was breathing down the necks of his cast. I think it might have been improved if he'd stood back a little more.

I don't doubt that it's an interesting film, perhaps on the severe side, but not one that will appear on my list as a 'must-see again' (unlike 'La La' which I'm ready to see once more at anytime). After maybe ten years, if I last that long, I might feel differently about 'Manchester'. As at now I rate it with a still considerable..............7.5.

Monday 16 January 2017

Film: 'Live by Night'

(First word to rhyme with 'give') 

After directing and appearing in the extraordinarily impressive 'Argo' of 2012 Ben Afffeck must have thought he could walk on water. Well, this one (in which he's main star, screenplay writer and director again) proves his mortality. Although far from being a turkey it does beckon in that direction. Ennui started setting in within minutes of the opening despite our being presented with a miscellany of gangster shootings, inevitably including one victim in a barber's chair. 'The Godfather' this is not.

I can't give a cohesive summary of the story because I'm not entirely sure what it was. It's set in 1920s Prohibition-era, Tampa, Florida where Affleck arrives to do some pushing around (including assassinations of 'inconvenient' characters) with shady clientele, among whom are police, law officials and property developers, all of which are drowning in corruption. While popping off sundry persons who get in the way, he's got to deal with the K.K.K. who are not too keen on his relationship with the dark-skinned Zoe Saldana with whom he has a son. Add to the mix a generous dose of Evangelicism with strongly anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiments, as well as heroin use, this all ought to have contributed to a heady concoction with, potentially, gripping results. However, notwithstanding that and even with the multiple shootings it's all a fairly dull affair.

Among the cast is the ever-reliable Chris Cooper, and he is one of the film's best features. I was looking forward even more to the formidable screen presence of Brendan Gleason as Affleck's father, though he's gone for good after just thirty minutes.

 The film with colours muted down, is shot in sepia or near monochrome, which gives it some of the atmosphere of the time. The exterior scenes in the city are large-scale and remarkably good to look at, but all comes to little in the film's larger context. 

As I say at the outset, the film is not so much a turkey, it's closer to being a curate's egg. One felt it really should have been so much better, more exciting - but I actually yawned more than once! In summary, I'll be kind...................5.5.

Thursday 12 January 2017

Film: 'La La Land'

Exceeding my expectations by some margin, I thought this a lovely film.
Musicals are such a rarity now so it's doubly satisfying to sit through this 'throw-back' to cinema's glory days with almost unalloyed pleasure. 
It's an additional achievement in that all the songs (music: Justin Hurwitz. lyrics: Benj Posek & Justin Paul) are originals. Not show-stoppers, granted, but they more than do their job of being interesting enough in their own right while pushing the action forward. (There are also two or three 'golden oldies' at one point, played as background music).

Taking virtually exclusive acting honours are Ryan Gosling (doing all his own piano-playing, a lot of it near-virtuosic) and Emma Stone, who together sing and hoof some numbers very capably, with tightly synchronised, agreeble choreography demonstrating some nifty footwork . The sole large-scale song in terms of number of performers is the opening, pre-title, smiley, sing-along number.
Other than Gosling and Stone, the only other member of the cast I recognised was J.K.Simmons (also from director Damien Chazelle's very fine, though opinion-divisive, 'Whiplash') in what is little more than a cameo role. And I suppose I really ought to have recognised John Legend, though I'm now getting increasingly out of touch when it comes to contemporary culture. 

Emma Stone is a counter-waitress in a Hollywood Cafe, also attending endless auditions, aspiring to become a theatre and screen actress. Gosling is a jazz pianist in a swanky bar where he soon gets fired by Simmons for not following orders on what to play. He moves onto more humble locations where he's spotted by Legend who invites him to join his jazz group.

The storyline is as corny as they come. Stone and Gosling's first encounter shortly after the film proper starts is one of animosity, and the hostilities continue when they meet up by chance a little later, though not for long. We all know the only route their acquaintance can take is that they'll soon be melting towards each other, falling in love - and singing and dancing, literally, in the air. But it's what I'd been hoping for, and it's delivered flawlessly and very nicely indeed.

The film, set nearly entirely in L.A., is broken up into parts titled with seasons of the year, and my only significant gripe is that it does sag a bit in the centre - and in the final parts, where song and dance become sparser, the drama between the two principals threatens to weigh down the story, increasing the contrast between the first and second halves, which I thought got a bit too heavy for the piece of fluff which this film is. A bit more judicious editing might have avoided this. However, it does seem to be a characteristic of virtually all musicals that about two-thirds through their drama becomes more intense, and risks subsuming all the rest. It's important, then, that it doesn't teeter over into melodrama - though in this case there's little chance of that happening. A bit over-serious, nonetheless.

Director Damien Chazelle, as well as writing this film, also has writing credits for the aforementioned 'Whiplash' as well as '10 Cloverfield Lane', the latter also attracting an elevated opinion from self.

Photography in this film is sumptuous throughout, as well as the effects. Direction, and the considerable imagination and originality that went into it could hardly have been bettered.

In an average year I normally award about half a dozen films a stratospheric (in my terms) rating of 8/10. Yet here we are, with only four films seen so far, and a second one with that elusive...........8.

Monday 9 January 2017

Film: 'Silence'

My God, but sitting through this was a trial and a half! And not only because it's a whopping two hours and forty minutes long. If it hadn't had director Martin Scorsese's name attached I wouldn't have bothered, particularly as I was aware of it being gruelling viewing with more than a few scenes of torture and execution.

As I advance even further into old age, despite probably having seen more violence on film than most, the experience hasn't inured me against such scenes. In fact quite the reverse in that I find depictions of suffering increasingly upsetting. Watching the news on TV nowadays, for instance, I've always got to have the remote in my hand ready to switch channels when acts of violence or their aftermath are shown. It's only in about the last twenty years that I started doing this and such switching is getting increasingly frequent.
But with no such remote available in the cinema, I was reduced to having to look away at difficult moments, usually at my watch to find out how much longer there was to have to bear it.

The idea of filming this novel has been gestating in Scorsese's mind for close on two decades, and the story reflects his devout(?) Roman Catholicism, dealing as it does with persecution and martyrdom (in 17th century Japan) for the Christian faith. For most of the time I'd have guessed that the film would have received enthusiastic Papal approbation and even a blessing. Then something happens which made me think "Well, perhaps not." But right at the very final shot something is shown which, irritatingly for me, undercuts the story as it's just been played out. So, perhaps Papa Frankie may be smiling after all!

Two Portuguese priests (Andrew Garfield and Andrew Driver) hear via a letter from another priest - their one-time teacher now in Japan (Liam Neeson, who appears only in the first few minutes then not again until the film's final segment) - of horrors taking place in that country where Christianity is being tried to be stamped out - Christians being driven out to live in the wild and in caves, and being put to death if they are caught and refuse to renounce their religion, which they symbolically demonstrate by putting a foot on an etched image of Christ, which if they do they can then go free. Of course, many can't do it and are therefore condemned to execution - a variety of means employed, sometimes quick, sometimes lingering. Priests are particular targets, they even requesting to be tortured to show the steadfastness of their faith.
The two Portuguese clerics are not even sure if the Neeson character has survived, but with the intention of not only seeking him out but also to be missionaries, they sneak themselves into the country.

I couldn't work out how communication worked between the Portuguese priests and the otherwise entirely Japanese characters in the cast. Of course in this film English is used by everyone (by the Japanese sometimes haltingly), which is perfectly acceptable within the conceit of the film. But how do the priests manage to hear the confessions of the hiding or imprisoned peasants? Surely the priests wouldn't be fluent in the Japanese language - and no one believes for one second the absurdity of the Japanese speaking Portuguese.
But we've just got to accept that somehow communication between the races was achieved,

And so to the violence. Well, everyone knows that Scorsese is a master of the violent film, possibly the current exemplar, along with Tarantino. But in the former's gangster films the violence is sporadic, usually sudden and, though it can be bloody, it's generally over in seconds. Not so here. It's not only drawn out but it appears throughout the film in various guises and not just confined to climaxes, if there are any of those at all. So that makes this film in this respect harder to watch than some others of this nature. 
Incidentally, I didn't have to try too hard to remind myself that historically around this time (and later) Christians have been at least as barbaric to other faiths and to each other. In fact, it hardly needs saying that most religions have a poor track record of tolerance towards those who don't share their own view of what they regard as the inviolable 'truth'.

In arriving at a rating which this film would justify I'm torn between pulling it down because of my considerable discomfort at the torture and execution scenes, while recognising that the film is an accomplishment. Photography is superb throughout. Editing perhaps less so, betraying the occasional religioso-preachy longueur which came very close to being boring. But after watching this I now crave for something lighter. (Btw: For some reason, Mel Gibson's 'Hacksaw Ridge', which was due to start screening by now has been put back two weeks, while 'La La Land' has been brought forward by a few days.) 
It's a 'La La Land' that's exactly what I need to counter the heavy and depressing effect of 'Silence', so I'm now looking forward to that as an antidote even more than I was. 
But as for the film 'Silence' itself, although I'm stretching my score upwards a bit, in terms of a mix of 'enjoyment' (very little) and 'achievement' (quite high) I'll settle on awarding it a...........4.

Thursday 5 January 2017

Film: 'Rogue One - A Star Wars Story'

Will this series never end? We've had sequels, prequels and here comes one supposedly off-route from the mainstream saga but every bit as muddled, over-complicated and, frankly, boring as any of the others. I only see them in order to maintain my 100% viewing record (similarly with the 'Star Trek' films, which I find marginally more entertaining than the S.W.s) but it's doing me no favours at all, yet costing money and time. So I think this one may well be the end of the line for me.   

I shan't outline the story because I can't. It's very loud and it's hard on the eyes with multiple explosions, flashes and misc effects. (Peter Cushing making a C.G.I. 'resurrection' 22 years after the actor died made me feel distractingly uncomfortable, in a smallish but significant role. Also, a young Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in a 3-second appearance right at the film's end).

Main role goes to Felicity Jones with some quite interesting younger male support, but it's all very formulaic stuff.
And as always, there are the inevitable heroic acts of self-sacrifice, from both humans and robots, to make one feel really 'involved'.

Surprised to find that the director was one Gareth Edwards whose credits include the well-praised (also by me) 'Monsters' of 2011.

This film has got a current very high rating of 8.1 on IMDB. My submission isn't quite that high.....................3.

Wednesday 4 January 2017

Film: 'Passengers'

Could hardly have wished for a more promising start to another year of cinema-going. When I first read what this was going to be about the story grabbed me - and on screen it's realised to near-perfection - though it hasn't been particularly well received by some critics. (Still, how would they know?) It's a terrific idea and one that is, so far as I'm aware, quite original.

It's set entirely in space on an enormous rotating ship transporting 5,000 passengers plus over 200 crew on a 120 year journey to colonise another planet, all of them sleeping through that time in individual hibernation pods. Okay, as expected in space-themed films, our first view is of the ship rumbling through airless (and therefore soundless!) space, followed by a series of combustive explosions (ho-hum!). But putting all that aside (filmic convention sometimes seems to dictate that an audience is not particularly intelligent), these disturbances provide the catalyst for the story, when a single one of the passengers (Chris Pratt) is awoken because of a computer malfunction, though there's yet another ninety years to transpire before arriving at the destination - and he's without the means to resume his hibernation. 
His only 'awake' companion is an android, a speaking and emoting bartender (Michael Sheen - with shades of the bartender scenes in Kubrick's 'The Shining') with human-looking top half only, otherwise gliding about hither and thither on wheels behind the bar, and eternally polishing up drinking glasses.
After a year of living without genuine human companionship Pratt is eventually joined by another passenger (Jennifer Lawrence), whose awakening and how she finds out about it I shan't elaborate on, as I also won't explain the appearance of a third wakened human being. Needless to say, romance between Pratt and Lawrence develops, at least up to point - resulting in a few treacly moments, mainly towards the film's end, but such episodes are sensibly kept in proportion.

Mention of the ship's location, its speed and the time elapsed since departure are figures which just don't compute to anything like what they ought to be (as I've now verified through Internet searches) though in the context of the story it's not material. And passing a star en route (in just a few seconds!) why isn't the view of it through an observation window rotating as the entire ship is turning? 
However, the special effects both inside the ship and in space are really stunning and I only wish I'd seen the film on a giant screen - and in 3D (though I don't think that format is available). But even as it is it still carries one hell of a visual punch.

Norwegian director Morgen Tyldum has pulled another rabbit out of the hat with this film. He already has 'The Imitation Game' (2014) and the marvellous 'Headhunters' of 2011 to his credit, and here comes yet another one deserving of meritorious consideration. He also gets superb performances from all four members of this cast. 

I don't exaggerate by claiming this to be, despite some decidedly sniffy reviews, the most impressive space-located film I've seen in, well, decades..............8