Thursday 30 March 2017

Film: 'Elle'

Any Paul Verhoeven film is an event, and this one easily qualifies as being just that.
I'd been waiting to see this for weeks, such has been the 'buzz', but it's been showing at near-impossible screening times - that is until today, right at the end of its run, when it fortuitously  had a single morning matinee showing. So to go I was compelled.

Isabelle Huppert is at the heart of this French-language film, playing a divorcee living alone in a Paris house with her cat - and who, in the very opening scene, is subject to a violent assault and rape by a masked intruder. She has, of course, no idea who the assailant was.  Most films, after starting like this, would concentrate on her attempts to uncover the identity of her attacker - and so this film does too to some extent, but in doing that it goes off into most unexpected directions.  She has a past connected with a controversial and notorious event in her childhood which haunts her, and after this rape attack she does not report it to the police.
She is boss of a firm creating computer games, some grisly, with relations towards her staff being firm but sympathetic. She also enjoys a reasonably tolerant-friendly acquaintanceship with an over-the-road couple, including an ultra-religious young wife. However, when it comes to her own relations there's friction with all of them - her ex and his new partner, her mother and her much younger toy-boy also soon-to-be husband, her son and his shouty, expectant partner, as well as her imprisoned, advance-aged father whom she's virtually cut right out of her life.
There's an aspect of her personality that took me (and I'd guess nearly all of the audience) by complete surprise which puts a question mark over some of her conduct and attitudes. 

It's a story that defies prediction, Huppert's performance being faultless. It's more than just a thriller. I found, though, that now and again events and the conduct of Huppert's character did stretch credibility somewhat, though without actually snapping it.
I think at two hours ten minutes it was a good twenty minutes overlong (at least), but even so, Verhoeven keeps things moving ahead interestingly enough. 

By the way, I was a bit apprehensive in having seen Huppert's cat featured in the trailer, and every time the scene was in the house I was afraid that we'd see that her pet had come to an unfortunate end. If there's anyone who shares my particular mental trait I'm happy to report that no such fate takes place.

I'd been looking forward immensely to seeing this film. If, in the final analysis, it doesn't quite reach the heights I'd been hoping for it does come very close to it....................7.5.

Wednesday 29 March 2017

Film: 'Certain Women'

An enigmatic film which is sure to exasperate those who dislike loose ends. This is a compendium of three disparate stories  - or, rather, slices of stories, since they are joined without their backgrounds having been established and all are left hanging in the air. I don't have much problem with this kind of film though I was close to asking "What was the point?"

Based on stories by a Maile Meloy (no, me neither) they are a trio of tales all set in Montana shown successively, with connections so tenuous they might as well have been non-existent, each story being around half an hour long. Then at the film's end there's a further scene from each, which barely takes any of them further at all.

First, a lawyer (Laura Dern) is acting for an irascible employee (Jared Harris) who is seeking compensation and whose dissatisfaction with developments causes him to take extreme action. (It sounds more interesting than it was.) 
The second story involves Michelle Williams (with husband James Le Gros) trying to buy a pile of sandstone from an elderly man living alone in an isolated bungalow. 
Finally, and potentially the most interesting of the three, a single woman (Lily Gladstone) who owns stables for four horses accidentally drops into an adult evening class in politics where she becomes more interested in the reluctant tutor (Kristen Stewart) than in the actual subject. 

Director, Kelly Reichardt, who also wrote the screenplay, makes no real attempt to weave the stories together, which is fair enough, though it makes those very slim connections seem imposed from outside to show some kind of token cohesion. It wasn't really necessary.

Watching the film was a fair enough experience, I suppose. I think what kept me from being bored was the expectation in each of the tales that something very significant was about to happen - which didn't. Not an obligatory watch, though neither would I class it as being 'bad'...........6.

Saturday 25 March 2017

Film: 'Get Out'.

What a cracker this is! If you like being 'entertained' and tensed up by watching a drama with a deeply disturbing undercurrent you won't currently find anything to touch this one. I saw it yesterday afternoon and since then it's haunted me, including having invaded my fitful sleep. What makes it even more remarkable is that it's also the directing debut of one Jordan Peele who is, additionally, its sole writer. His is a name to follow with considerable interest.

The unsettling starts in the very opening, pre-title credits scene - largely set to a car radio ominously and incongruously playing Flanagan and Allen's rendering of  'Run Rabbit Run' (they being two English music hall stars of long-gone yesteryear). After this chilling 'What's going on?' prologue the mood hardly lightens up at all, the tension being ratcheted up still further, notch by notch, till at points I felt near to screaming.  

Daniel Kaluuya is the boyfriend of Allison Williams and they go to visit her parents in rural Alabama for the first time, he having qualms about their not yet knowing that he is black, while her attitude is one of "Why should they mind?". During their drive a disturbing incident occurs foreshadowing what's to come, made more troubling by a curious encounter with the policeman investigating what happened.
On arriving at the palatial dwelling, things become markedly stranger still. There's something odd about the parent's demeanours  (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), in no way hostile but peculiarly over-officious in their welcoming and camaraderie. She is a psychologist who specialises in hypnosis and even claims to be able to help him give up smoking. 
Adding to the strangeness of the parents, there's two non-white servants, one maid and one odd-job man/gardener, both of whose facial expressions and gestures seem at variance with what one might expect from people of their 'lower' ranking. Then a disruptive and hyperactive adult son appears who seems to be hell-bent on causing dissension with Kaluuya, to his parents' evident discomfort. 
The very next day, and not expected by the young couple, there's a large garden party being held in the grounds, the guests all being affluent, ageing and white - all white, that is, except for one conspicuous young man who has come as the partner of a lady some decades older than he is. One of the film's many turning points comes as the main Kaluuya's character attempts to strike up a conversation with this arrival - at which the chill deepens.

The story seems to challenge its audience to work out exactly what is going on with these very strange events. I thought I might have had it sussed out but when the big 'reveal' takes place, about an hour and a quarter into the film, it turned out that my guess was completely the opposite to the reality. 

This film is being regularly defined as 'horror' and though it does certainly have elements of that genre, to my mind it's closer to being a very taut thriller, replete with suspense and taking its cue from the unexpected and the unknown rather than displaying outright gore, the usual hallmarks of true 'horror'. There is actually some blood to be seen now and again, but at times of lethal contact between characters, especially in the grand finale of confrontations, it seemed to me that the film pulled back from showing the full bloody effects of these encounters. In fact I did wonder if the film had been cut at these points - perhaps by the censors, though I doubt it. But the effect of not going full visual throttle is to put the emphasis on the suspense rather than blood-soaked spectacle, and for that it is to be commended.

Once the revelation of explanation for the circumstances had been made I was afraid that the carefully built-up tension would be dissipated, with still another half hour of film to go. But the suspense is shifted and maintained enough to make me still dearly hope for a 'happy end'. I didn't want to leave the cinema feeling bad, the story having up to then gripped me so effectively.  

I did jump in my seat at two or three points in the film, though I think they were all cases caused by a sudden loud 'thud' on the soundtrack. That was a pity as I think I would have been just as (or more?) startled at those junctures without that auditory underlining, an adopted ploy which I see as 'cheating'.

Apart from the presence of the inestimable Catherine Keener, I didn't recognise any other names from the cast, though I now see that Daniel Kaluuya was in the justifiably well-received 'Sicario' too. (His playing the lead role in this 'Get Out', has recently given rise in some quarters as to the question of why, recently, are so many parts portraying black Americans being given to British actors? Makes a change for Brits being stereotypically cast as villains, I suppose.)

This may not be a film for those with, as they say, a 'nervous disposition', but if you can steel yourself to see it as I heartily recommend you do, I'm pretty sure that you'll be happy for having chanced the ride...........8.

Tuesday 21 March 2017

Film: 'Beauty and the Beast' (in 2D)

It's been a lean time recently at the cinema in these parts so, to avoid the onset of withdrawal symptoms, I decided to give this a try, my being made curious largely by the shemozzle in parts of the world by its inclusion of (shock, horror!) a gay character. Quick, pass me the smelling salts! If it wasn't for entire governments getting into a tizzy on the subject I might well have given it a miss. 
In the event, as it turned out, I was agreeably surprised to find that the film wasn't at all bad. No, I do it an injustice - it was definitely on the 'good' side.

Let's get that 'controversy' out of the way first. It's the fourth-billed character who's a self-declared gay, one Lefou (Josh Gad), playing a 'Sancho Panza' sidekick-part to arch-villain Luke Evans' role, the latter trying to get Belle (to me, a rather insipid Emma Watson) to love him when in actuality he's only in love with himself - and anyway, she's by now in love with the Beast (Dan Stevens). I shan't waste time outlining the story which surely everyone knows, though I was impressed by how they made the Beast's face so expressive of a range of emotions, presumably, thanks to computer tricks.
Back to the gay thing. It's not a big role that he has, not much screen time, which he uses it to flounce around a bit, not exactly outrageously, but just a whisker away from being a caricature. When about half an hour into the film his 'boss' asks him why he doesn't take off with one of the many available (and apparently desperately thirsting for some lusty 'action') young ladies in the town, he baldly states that he is gay - but by no means yelling it and not making a big deal of it either. If you didn't know it was coming you might well miss the exchange. Anyway, the reaction of his boss is to give a slight moue of indifference. And that's about it - though there are just one or two slightly comic, though inoffensive, brief references to his sexuality later in the film too. Goodness only knows why there's been such a brouhaha about it. Well, I think I do know, actually. It's because for the first time (I imagine) in a Walt Disney film, which is supposed to provide 'wholesome family entertainment' there has been the inclusion of such an upfront gay character. The surprise to me is not that there now is one, it's more a case of "why did it take so long?"
Anyway, so much for that.

In addition to the named actors there is Kevin Kline as Belle's father in quite a large part. Haven't seen him on the cinema screen for ages - a welcome return!
Then, if one didn't already know, there are some big names who are visually revealed in the final credits as being the voices (some singing) behind various anthropomorphic utensils, dining objects and pieces of furniture. I did know who were in the cast but I didn't always match the voice to the actor.

The songs are mainly taken from the 1991 animation film (I preferred this new film version despite the earlier cartoon winning multiple awards) by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, the latter now being supplemented by the superior (in my opinion) lyric-writing talents of none other than Tim Rice, who always has something interesting (and often amusing) to say. Pity then, that so much of the words are hard to make out, particularly when there's group singing.
The songs are all played out suitably lavishly - especially 'Be our Guest' which has just about everything thrown at the screen without getting over-messy. I liked its presentation a lot. Exhilarating.

Director is Bill Condon who manages big set scenes with complete confidence, including those with many participants,  He's made some pleasing films over the years and I'd put this up there among the better ones of them.
It also ought to be mentioned that there's a great deal of swirling camera action which may tend to make some people dizzy. The entire film is busy both in action and camerawork and I do think that seeing it in 3D would give it a further 'plus'. 

If you were thinking that this film is unlikely to be to your taste I'd suggest you give it serious thought. It left me feeling elated, and I'm very pleased that circumstances finally leant on me sufficiently to give it a go.....................7

Saturday 11 March 2017

Film: 'Toni Erdmann'

Touted as a comedy, I found this German film more oddity than humorous. It's mainly in that country's language, with some English and a little sporadic Rumanian - and it's just fifteen minutes shy of three hours in length! Even if seen as social commentary I found it quite hard going. It was nominated in this year's Oscar list as 'Best Foreign Language Film' for some reason that quite escapes me.

Peter Simonischek is the eponymous German resident who goes off on a whim to visit his executive business agency daughter (Sandra Hueller) who lives and works in Bucharest, where the film is very nearly entirely set. He turns up unannounced, much to her annoyance, getting in the way while she tries to carry on with her business negotiations. When he realises he isn't wanted he makes as if returning home to Germany, but shows up again at her business meetings and functions, this time sporting enormous black wig and protruding false teeth and dressed sloppily, introducing himself to her associates and friends as a lifestyle coach and describes her as his secretary. She's horrified at his lies but doesn't disabuse them of their swallowing his stories, never admitting that he is actually her father.
There's certainly potential for comedy in the situations though I confess that only once did I laugh and maybe two more times I smiled, albeit weakly.

Director Maren Ade is also the screenplay writer. I was never sure exactly what she was trying to achieve, and what the tone was intended to be. If it was supposed to appeal as being 'quirky' it was too seriously bizarre for that, not at all assisted by the very strange scene near the end with a party at the daughter's apartment when she spontaneously decides to make it a nude gathering, guests arriving and being surprised as she welcomes them stark naked at the door. Then the father arrives in a most peculiar 'costume' get-up and doesn't say a word. I just didn't understand it at all. Funny? Not really. 
The film's closing scene was, I assume, supposed to indicate that the daughter discovers the true worth of her father. If that was so it was clumsily executed. However, I can't be absolutely sure that that was the message we were supposed to take away. 

Despite some reasonably fine acting, I did find it an inordinately lengthy disappointment, and I remain bewildered as to why it's been getting some very enthusiastic reviews - perhaps more for originality of idea than for actual presentation...........4.5.

Tuesday 7 March 2017

Film: 'Logan'

I did see the first 'Wolverine' film but not the more recent one. It hardly matters as the plot, such as any exists, is a standard one of grisly violence, bloody fights and chases. I kept thinking of Mad Max - and the scenario is very similar - futuristic (slightly) and barren wildernesses, this time in America. 

I only went to this because of the starring of our hunky Hugie Jackman, here appearing at the end of his steel-clawed career as a sorry, washed-up, untidily-begrizzled, alcohol-dependent character, trying to keep father-figure and wheelchair-confined Professor X (Patrick Stewart) from the clutches of various nefarious characters, including Richard E.Grant as a demented scientist trying to create, by genetic engineering, an army of children with super-human powers and nature-twisting talents. One of these, a girl of around ten or eleven, he takes with him - a total irritant of a child who, it's revealed, is his daughter in a sense, as she's been given Logan /Wolverine's own DNA. Her ability to perform formidable feats of the physical is, rather strangely, far superior to her capacity to speak, as when she talks it's only in Spanish. She has the on-screen presence of an annoying little twerp and I wish they'd left her behind to her fate. The other children, about a dozen of them (Saints preserve us!) with their 'Superman' powers are held in reserve until the film's final quarter hour for the predictable grand confrontation.

Of some interest is the presence of Stephen Merchant whom I've only seen in comedies - as Ricky' Gervais' ineffectual agent and sidekick in TV's 'Extras' and popping up in the occasional British film comedy in brief cameo appearances. Here his role is quite substantial and 'serious' - a hapless albino with knowledge about Wolverine and his whereabouts with the girl which the adversaries are desperate to get hold of.

I found the film very disposable entertainment and hardly one I'd go out of my way to recommend. Direction is by James Mangold who is also responsible for the unimaginative story which is little more than a pretext on which to hang reasons for depicting bone-crunching, limb-lopping, blood-spurting fights. No doubt some are excited by seeing such whereas to my mind it's all very 'so what?'  
It wouldn't be right to say that I was bored, though it's all so standard without anything to lift it out of the rut. I do think the story would have been improved if that brat of a little girl hadn't figured so large in the telling. The two and quarter hours could also have been cut back by at least thirty minutes with no damage done. 
If this kind of film is your bag, then do go. On the other hand, if you only want to see it because of the main starring role of Hugh J., you may well feel disappointed to the same degree that I was.........5.    

Monday 6 March 2017

Film: 'Viceroy's House'

This was more 'okay' than I was expecting, it aspiring to be on an epic scale (which the subject justifies) but constrained by its time dimension of well under two hours, and the (to me) clumsy inclusion of a love story which jarred and put on the brakes for the more interesting bigger picture every time it turned up. Others may be more favourably disposed to this section than I was. But it was plainly obvious what director Gurinder Chadha was doing, depicting a small-scale personal relationship between two young people, one Hindu and one Muslim, as a metaphor for the huge subject of the partition of India in 1947 into Pakistan (East and West) and India itself based primarily on separating the, respectively, Muslim and Hindu majority religions of those areas.

Hugh Bonneville plays Lord Mountbatten, given the task by the recently elected Labour government in London to be India's last viceroy and to see through the partition. The splendid Gillian Anderson is his Lady wife, one of the film's delights every time she appears (which is regularly), each word of hers spoken like an elocution coach. I was also pleased to see Michael Gambon given a fairly substantial role when I'd feared he might have been in semi- or complete retirement by now. He appeared to be still spry enough to carry on for a while yet.
The cast also includes the final screen appearance of recently deceased, established actor Om Puri.

The developing political situation, fraught with tensions, is played out well, both between the British 'overlords' and their anticipated Indian/Pakistani successors, a potentially friction-packed subject reflected in the divided allegiances of the staff of the residence of the film's title.
I did feel now and again that the script spelt out in simplistic terms the issues involved, as though the film's audience weren't aware of them - which, for all I know, could well be true for a younger audience of today. 
Sensibly largely unobtrusive music score is by no less than the renowned A.R.Rahman.

Gurinder Chadha has made some quite pleasing films in her career ('Bhaji on the Beach', 'Bend it like Beckham', Bride and Prejudice' etc - all films on a small, localised scale). Maybe 'Viceroy's House' confirms that that is the milieu to which she is more suited and where she excels. 

This film isn't 'bad' at all. It has positive attributes, though that jarring unsatisfactory romantic subplot above all takes it down a couple of notches for me......................6.

Thursday 2 March 2017

Film: 'Fences'

Film adaptation of acclaimed August Wilson play, of which I was aware but knew next to nothing about it. Wilson himself wrote this film's screenplay and Denzel Washington not only has the main role, which is indeed a meaty one, but he also directs.

From the very opening the film betrays its theatrical roots - wordy, with some long set pieces, the majority of the speeches going to Washington's character. Many of the exchanges are nearer to soliloquies with minimal interruption from the other characters, rather than dialogues or group conversations. (My ears were tiring after just 20 minutes!)

Denzel Washington, a city rubbish collector in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, lives with his wife (Viola Davis - extraordinarily good - she deservedly recently won the Best Actress Oscar) and the younger of his two sons (Jovan Adepo - also particularly fine). Other characters are his elder son (Russell Hornsby) who drops by a couple of times, his mentally 'challenged' brother (Mykleti Williamson - not handicapped in the very severest sense, but clearly evident) - and his working colleague and best buddy (Stephen Henderson). 

I have to confess that during the first hour of these two hours twenty minutes I was starting to think that it was all beginning to be a bit of a bore, and that the piece would work better in the theatre for which it was intended. Things then take dramatic turns, first between Washington's character and his wife, then between him and his live-in son, between the two of which there'd always been a simmering tension of mutual resentment. So from those points on the drama gets much more serious.

For me the film worked to a degree - heavy stuff it is but I think I'd rather see it on stage. And yes, I'd still pay good money to see it in such a venue, though I'm not sure that many others would. If this film brings the work to wider public attention then that's all to the good, but speaking personally, despite the playwright's own major contribution in bringing it to the screen, I'm not entirely sure that the final product does the play many favours.................6.5.

Wednesday 1 March 2017

Film: 'Christine'

The big mystery is why Rebecca Hall wasn't nominated for an Oscar or a BAFTA for this tour de force of acting in an intense drama leading up to the on-air suicide of news reporter Christine Chubbuck in 1974, which I can recollect only very dimly though it must have been worldwide news when it happened.

She works on a local TV channel in Saratoga, Florida, on a news magazine programme where her ambitions regarding what she wants to broadcast are continually thwarted by her unsympathetic boss whose horizons are much more confined and conservative than her frustrated self can satisfactorily work with. 
She's also single and living with her dope-smoking mother (J,Smith-Cameron) who has just taken in a new lover, of whom Christine disapproves. 
When agrees to a date with a work colleague (Michael C. Hall) it also turns out not quite as she'd hoped. 
But to even top these troubles, while she struggles with her unfulfilling work and home lives she discovers something physically about herself, with potentially very worrying consequences (to say the least). 
To complicate matters still further there's an opportunity for someone from the firm to be transferred to Baltimore, and she would dearly love to be that chosen person.

Director Antonio Campos keeps the action moving well. I didn't feel there were any longueurs at all despite all the concentration being solely on the one central character.

Hall appears in every scene and the film's focus never strays from her point of view. She's always at the centre of whatever happens. There aren't many laughs or, in fact, any at all. Her emotions are nearly always kept under the surface and there's only the one shouty scene, which is quite brief anyway. Otherwise she's a time bomb just awaiting the opportunity to explode which, as we all now know, in the end it does.

Rebecca Hall has for some time been one of my favourite 'younger' actresses (now aged 34). She always brings something positive to every film she appears in and has now achieved an elevated status when, from the very start of her career, she had the task of 'proving' herself in her own terms, being the daughter of Peter Hall, one of England's greatest ever theatre directors (and certainly the most illustrious) and actress Maria Ewing. 
Not endowed with what may be regarded as  'conventional' glamorous looks, she nevertheless is a magnetic on-screen presence in whatever she appears - and here she excels as never before, this film revealing her at an exceptional very best...............7.5.