Tuesday 25 April 2017

Film: 'Their Finest'

Having moaned in my last post about how weary I'd become of watching WW2 films, here comes another one. I'd been under the impression from what I'd read, as well as from the trailer, that this would be a lighter take on the subject of the war, and it is, in fact, a refreshingly different one. However, despite a number of gently comic moments, I wasn't expecting the central romance to be quite so dominant in the storyline, and that did tend to dull my appreciations. If I'd been in a more generously receptive mood I might have valued the film more.

It's the early 1940s following the Dunkirk evacuation and the London blitz is ongoing, when the order goes out from Churchill's war cabinet to create a propaganda film showing British stiff upper lip, doughty determination and resistance against the Nazi onslaught. as well as depicting active participation by ally USA in the struggle to make that involvement more palatable to an American audience.
Gemma Arterton plays a scriptwriter who is drafted in to assist with the film, working with others including Sam Claflin (a name I didn't recognise but discovered that he'd been in 'The Hunger Games' films). Their initial working relationship is a testy one, though you can guess the direction in which it's going to go. The mindset of the company is that the assistance of women is only needed because most of the men are away fighting. But once the war is over........

Bill Nighy plays one of the actors in the film-within-the-film, a droll presence and, for me, always a welcome one despite his ever seeming to play the same character no matter in which film he appears. This is a more substantial part than we normally see him playing, though still on the 'bitty' side. He delivers lines desiccated in their dryness as only he can.
Also in the cast, in a much smaller role, is the fine Eddie Marsan, as well as Richard E.Grant as the surly, overseeing figure ensuring that the final product comes up to government requirements. In addition, in an uncredited, one scene, cameo role is Jeremy Irons, puling out all the stops.

The film deals with the tribulations of the film crew as they try to get their film accomplished while bombs are raining on London, the effects of which are, of course, devastating to both property and to lives. Meanwhile the romance between Arterton and Claflin plays out, which I must say I found a distracting nuisance, and much less entertaining than the trials of their film-making.

The film is mainly shot in near-black and white, with scenes in sepia tint, as has become conventional now for war films. But we eventually do see full technicolour near the finish, in brief excerpts from the completed propaganda film.  

Danish director Lone Sherfig manages okay with her material. She did give us the very commendable 'An Education' in 2009, a film to which I awarded a rare '8'.

I'm certain that most others will have a better opinion of 'Their Finest ' than I can muster. Maybe my mood wasn't at the right setting from the start. As it turned out I did find it all a bit of a drag...........................5.5.

Wednesday 19 April 2017

Film: 'Another Mother's Son'.

I felt I'd had more than my fill of WWII films and was going to bypass this for that reason. Not that I find them 'boring' as such, rather being made to see the endlessly repeated depictions of Nazi brutality upsets me more and more as I age. I don't need the reminding of what went on. Perhaps younger generations do. 
However, this film has an infrequently documented angle to it: viz the fact the Channel Islands was the only British territory which was occupied by the Third Reich. 

It's based on a - would you credit it? - true story of Lou Gould (Jenny Seagrove in a towering performance), a grocer's shop owner who has just lost her husband fighting in the war - or was it her son, thereby giving greater weight and poignancy to the film's title?
She takes in and hides an escaped Russian POW (Julian Kostov) who was one of a contingent of beaten up and starving prisoners brought to the island of Jersey to perform menial and arduous physical work. She gets him cleaned and tidied up, bushy beard shaved off, and gets him dressed in inconspicuous everyday clothes.
Although he speaks no English he must be a fast learner as the story starts in 1942 and by the next year he's already conversing in that language!

 The story involves anonymous snoopers who report suspicious activities to the German occupiers, presumably in return for favours - and John Hannah, working on the postal service tries to intercept and destroy these messages. There's also Ronan Keating (one-time lead singer of 'Boyzone') in probably his first major serious role in a feature film - as well as the living legend, Susan Hampshire, whom, I must admit, I'd forgotten was in the cast and whom I failed to recognise.  

It's a very serious film (directed by Christopher Menaul), not many laughs, shot entirely in appropriately subdued colours. The story is moving - though it's Jenny Seagrove in the main role who really carries the film with her subtly nuanced, highly professional performance. 

I don't have any regrets that I decided to see this though I'd now prefer to wait a long while before I see yet another war film. Oh, wait a minute. There's Christopher Nolan's 'Dunkirk' coming over the horizon soon, so I'll have to make an exception for that. In fact I've got great hopes for it, with starry cast and all - even though reports are that it's spectacularly harrowing.

However, for 'Another Mother's Son'.................6.5.

Monday 17 April 2017

Film: 'I Am Not Your Negro'

Hard-hitting, moving document-ary using incomple-ted notes of James Baldwin (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) for a projected book on the lives and deaths of three of Baldwin's friends, Martin Luther King Jnr., Malcolm X and the lesser-known Medger Evers, all assassinated in the 1960s within a few years of each other.  

The exclusive subject treated by this film is the status of black men and women, specifically in America, aspects of which have not gone away even today, and using Baldwin's own words either through TV interviews and appearances as well as his written words eloquently recited by Jackson, and in addition, quite substantial extracts from a speech he gave at Cambridge (University, England) Students' Union. 
There's plenty of newsreel footage and stills from incidents of the time - demonstrations, police brutality and the still horrifying-to-see naked hatred directed at non-white citizens, a lot of the images being new to me, though the nature of which was well known. 
Brief extracts of feature films between the 1930s and 1960s illustrate ingrained attitudes fed to (overwhelmingly white) American audiences to make them feel better about the underlying injustices, and shifting any guilt feelings onto 'the negro problem'. Happy families and gaily dancing and singing young groups habitually exclude any non-white faces so that you'd think that true contentment only happens for - and worse, only is deserved by - whites.

Director Raoul Peck has assembled disparate sources into a coherent whole, showing that if anyone really thought that the situation had substantially improved over 50 years, that attitude might need re-examining. A good 'wake-up call', sadly still necessary - though how many times have we heard that kind of thing before? And not only in America. With Brexit having brought out the very worst of so many of us Brits, and along with our Imperial history including a prominent part in the slave trade, we can't have the luxury of smugly pointing at others. 
As far as this film goes, it merits being influential and widely seen ...................7.

Saturday 15 April 2017

Film: 'A Quiet Passion'

This is a film I liked a great deal, though I can say with confidence that it won't be to everyone's taste.

Some of us will have encountered at least one or two of Emily Dickinson's poems at some time or other. (I thought enough of them to have included one of hers among those I've committed to memory over the years). However, other than being acquainted with a very few of her writings I knew next to nothing of the life of the poetess. This film performs a very useful function in filling in that gap and, I must say, it achieves it in admirable fashion.

It couldn't have had a more sympathetic director than Terence Davies, who also wrote the screenplay, and this is but the latest in a long line of exceptional films from that source, a history of excellence in film-making that is practically unrivalled among contemporary directors.
Davies' special forte is in directing women in women-orientated stories, and once again, now with Cynthia Nixon (a name I didn't recognise though I see she's done considerable TV work) as Emily, and Jennifer Ehle as her sister, Vinnie, in an almost-as-substantial role, even though the entire focus is always on Emily. In this film with strong female emphasis, Davies almost excels even himself. 

It's the mid-19th century in Amherst, Massachusetts, when we first see a younger Emily (Emma Bell) at boarding school where she's already showing a degree of rebelliousness to her religious peers. On returning home to her family, the lack of religious bearings with which she was supposed to have returned infused, disappoints her father (Keith Carradine) while her mother (Joanna Bacon) maintains a disapproving silence. It's not that Emily goes so far as to voicing any atheistic propensity, which she emphatically does not, but it's her free-thinking spirit that concerns her father more - as well as her brother (Duncan Duff) - especially when she challenges the notion that the 'natural order' of things is that men are to be the leaders in society while women are to remain subservient and either non-controversial or silent What she sees as an injustice to her sex her father and brother see as obstinate and dangerous recklessness. Yet her father, though firm in his opinion, is not totally unsympathetic to Emily herself as his daughter. She finds a kindred 'wayward' spirit in (cousin?) Susan (Jodhi May) who has a witty rejoinder in every reply she gives. Parallel with this, Emily now has had some poems published in newspapers.

There is little 'action' as such in the film. (Nearly all of it actually filmed in Emily Dickinson's real house!) The most 'energetic' moments come when Emily confronts other family members for their behaviour, and her own refusal to conform with social conventions of the time. But the developments take on a serious edge when Emily becomes dramatically aware of her own mortality when she's confronted with severe back pain and starts suffering convulsive fits. Soon after this starts her own mother's health deteriorates, resulting in weepy episodes for her and her sister as well as for herself in her own physical decline.  
All the while she's becoming ever more reclusive, still writing poetry whilst perfectly comfortable in her spinsterhoood as she advances in years.

Some viewers may think that this speechy film may be too poised and calculating, both visually - some ravishingly so - as well as aurally. A lot of the scenes do indeed look like the players are posing for an artist to capture them or they are waiting for the photographer's flash. The camera will pan very slowly around an occupied room revealing only by degrees who's present there. Also, the conversations are very deliberate, each player waiting their turns for the other to deliver his or her line before making a pithy reply to it. Indeed, I was reminded more than once of Oscar Wilde - some of the ripostes are even right up there, almost to his standard. (Deliberately, I wondered? Was this entirely Terence Davies' own work or is there some evidence to show as to how such conversations were carried on?) But generally, I felt it worked a treat. 
I can also commend the use - or non-use - of music. Such as it was it was sensibly limited piano music or songs of the era, none of it being gratingly obtrusive. And instead of music we have the off-screen recitation of several of her verses.

I have to say that it's a terrific performance from Cynthia Nixon, and Jennifer Ehle's is just about as fine in a slightly subsidiary role. These two really carry the film, both deserving to be honoured for their efforts - as well as, of course, the incomparable Terence Davies himself, here at his best.............8.

Thursday 13 April 2017

Film: 'Free Fire'

Such a crying shame that, due to bus being stalled in clogged traffic, I only made it into the cinema a full 20 minutes after it had started - and the film is only an hour and a half long anyway. Probably the first time this has ever happened. Normally I'd have waited for another screening but this was the very final showing in an unaccountably short run of just one week - and for an eagerly anticipated film too. 
I had to see it by hook or by crook as it's the latest work of one of my very favourite of contemporary directors, Ben Wheatley, who's already given us such unusual and memorable films as 'High Rise', 'A Field in England' and, most notably, the highly original and unpredictable 'Sightseers' (one of my 2012 films of the year). Wheatley always has something fresh to say and with a novel approach - and this latest breaks new ground as well. 

I gather from the blurb that the action here takes place in Boston, 1978. The film is set just about entirely in a gloomy warehouse (the photo above doesn't reflect the all-pervading murkiness on screen) -- plenty of shadows to take cover in, which is just what is needed when about ten gangsters, including one young woman (Brie Larson) are arguing heatedly - the point where I came in  - before bullets start flying. Not seeing the start I didn't know who was who, what were the sides, what was the hierarchy within the rivalries and what they were feuding about, though the latter revealed itself to be a briefcase which must have contained a large sum of dosh. But as to the whys and wherefores I didn't have the foggiest. 
Apart from Larson the only other names in the cast which  I recognised were Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer and Patrick Bergin. Not that it helped much knowing their names as there's much facial hair on more than a few of them and, once the fighting commences in earnest, everyone makes for the cover of darkness. The next hour, apart from one lull, is almost all shooting, which must make it the most extended shoot-out I've seen in any film. I was wondering how many bullets could have been expended in the time - 200? Maybe more.
Even though I wasn't clear on which side was which, the action results in multiple gunshot wounds to just about everybody. (I don't think any of them were killed outright on first shot.) They spend the time dragging themselves along the floor seeking a more propitious place to aim at their adversaries while still offering cover. While bullets are whizzing every second or two there's much yelling, arguing, threats, insults and taunts. One might have expected it to get tiring to watch but I didn't find it so at all, even though, not having been witness to the establishing of the characters, I didn't know where my sympathies ought to lie. Actually it didn't matter all that much. I still liked it. There's very little visual dwelling on the many bleeding wounds on the several bodies, both expired and yet surviving, though hurting bad.

I really must see this film again from the very start. I can't see it preventing me from giving it my approval. As it is my rating must be a reserved, qualified one, and could well have been higher. Even so, it's a still very satisfactory score of...............6.5.

Wednesday 12 April 2017

Film: 'Going in Style'

Second film seen in two days relying on getting much of its laughs from the fact that the main characters are of advanced age. Of course they can be, though surely not for that feature alone as that approach quickly loses steam. (I didn't laugh, chortle or, I think, smile even just the once). 

It was news to me to read that this is a re-make of a 1979 George Burns film, of which I'd never heard. This present version makes me curious to see the original.

The plot is simplicity itself. In New York, three retired gents find that their pensions, totally relied upon, have been frozen because of manufacturing relocations to outside America, resulting in very real threats to repossess their homes. They agree on a plan to recover their financial security by robbing that same bank.
Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin are two sides of the crime-intended triumvirate, and Sir Michael Caine, mouthy supporter of Brexit, takes the helm. ("I'd rather be a poor master than a rich servant" the multi-millionaire actor very recently opined, as he stashes his wealth in overseas havens to avoid the taxman.)
Also in the cast is Ann-Margret (whom I haven't seen for ages! - though she doesn't have that much to do here). Then there's Matt Dillon, as well as Christopher Lloyd (whose entire acting career seems to be based on mugging for the camera, and which always annoys me like hell) - and additionally, and very surprisingly for me, English actor-comedian Peter Serafinowicz.

There's very little that's original about this film. It verged on tedium a lot of the time, with that being exacerbated by background pizzicato strings telling you that, despite appearances, this is meant to be a comedy, so laugh, damn you!
Director Zach Breff thinks that a situation of three old geezers being bank robbers will carry him through to make it a droll entertainment without putting in much effort and with an unexceptional script. He's wrong. It's quite dull.

However, I must report that there were occasional shrieks of delight from some of the audience I saw it with, including a lady directly in front of me. God only knows why. Were they laughing out of hope or out of desperation? 

You might find it funny. I only wish I had..........4.5.

Tuesday 11 April 2017

Film: 'The Time of Their Lives'

Not quite as displeasing as I'd been dreading, this is a bit of a strange one. It's another of those films which have become more frequent in recent years, one that seems to be directed at an audience of more 'senior' age.
It's being marketed as a bit of a rompish comedy but it's a tad more subtle than that. In fact the 'funny' moments are, at most, only slightly amusing. But I did detect a not unattractive poignancy in it too.

Joan Collins (whom I've not seen in a substantial role on screen since Steven Berkoff's excellent 'Decadence' of 1992) is a faded and recently widowed Hollywood star. Now with her fame and wealth behind her, she's resident in an old people's home somewhere in the south of England. 
On a coach trip to the seaside she meets up with Pauline Collins (no relation), a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage (to that decades-old stalwart of stage and screen, Ronald Pickup), where she is haunted by the death of a son who drowned in infancy. The two Collins abscond from the coach and Collins J. wiles her way to get a free pass for both of them on a ferry to northern France where her recently deceased ex-lover is due to be buried, she being determined to attend the funeral. While Collins J. trades on her former glamour (though hardly anyone remembers even her name) the unglamorous Collins P. goes reluctantly along with her - amid much bickering. 
Then they bump into Franco Nero, that 'phwarr' star of scores of films and for whom I at one time had the hots. (Still looking good, facially, now in his mid-70s, though his body, which we see totally unclad a couple of times, has now gone to flab, pot-bellied and lard-arsed). The Nero character, who lights up Joan C's eyes when she finds out  that he's wealthy, is more interested in Collins P. much to the chagrin of her acting namesake who was hoping he'd appreciate a scintillating, one-time film star more than her near-dowdy, down-at-heels companion.
Btw: Joan Collins is not afraid to be seen without her make-up, (believed now to be approaching 84), most especially in the film's conclusion which gets unfortunately, though predictably, heavily laden with sentiment

There were interesting cross-connections in this film I noticed which others may not. The film also features Joely Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and late (gay) director, Tony Richardson. Franco Nero starred in 'Camelot' (1966) on the set of which he met Vanessa R. and they had an affair, marrying some years later. However, in this film, Nero and Joely Richardson don't share any scenes together.
Then there's a scene in a cabaret-restaurant where Joan Collins takes the microphone to warble out the song 'Who Can I Turn To?' written by her one-time husband, Anthony Newley, from his and Leslie Bricusse's musical, 'The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd'. The choice of song must, surely, have been hers.
There may have been further links which I missed, but it made the whole enterprise more interesting to me than it otherwise might have been.

This appears to be director Roger Goldby's only second feature film, most of his work to date having been for TV. He does okay with this. I thought there might have been a few jarringly embarrassing episodes as much of the humour, such as there is any, has the physical foibles of aged people as its easy target. But I hardly ever cringed, even if I did get close to it a couple of times.

A pleasant enough film, but really only one to give a very modest lift to a couple of hours.................5.   

Film; 'Ghost in the Shell'.

I'm more than a little weary of these futuristic comic-book capers - not that they are poorly made, because they aren't, and they are nearly always visually arresting, but because they have nothing at all new to say. We've seen it all before, and multiple times - and we're really supposed to say "Wow! That was a surprise!"? Come off it!

Set in a future Tokyo-esque metropolis looking very like a 'Blade Runner' city, though now with giant hologram advertising, Scarlett Johannson's brain, following extensive injuries to her body, is transplanted into a cyber-body. Juliette Binoche is the one doing the surgical procedures. (Btw: Why is it that in so many futuristic films one still sees smoking routinely carried on in the age-old way - and the Binoche character isn't alone in this. I should have thought that with all the scientific advances made there would have been some alternative way found by then of providing for those who are dependent on a nicotine fix for functioning. Perhaps by having it delivered directly into the blood stream, or injected straight into the brain, some method which doesn't pollute surroundings?)  
Johannson's historical expertise is needed to track down and destroy - would you believe it? - villainous characters intent on world domination. But there's a glitch in the works. The memories of past life that she owns, are they genuine or have they been implanted to expedite the ends of her superiors? How does this affect her behaviour? Will it make her more efficient? Do you give you a fuck? There's noisy weapon-combats galore for those who get a thrill out of such, guaranteed to stop you dozing off. Trying to follow, or even identify, the thread of a story is a waste of mental energy. I doubt if you're intended to. It hardly matters anyway. It's a film for those who need some brainless fodder to chew on, and there are enough of that audience in the world to ensure this film doesn't make a loss.
There's been some interesting sidelong talk about Johannson's main role being given to her as an American, whereas the original 'heroine' figure was Japanese. I doubt if it's worth working up a sweat over, though seeing a Japanese female fighter might have given it a bit more badly-needed interest.

All much-treaded ground, this Rupert Sanders-directed film only just managed to hold my attention, due entirely to its visuals which are rarely short of interesting, and it means you don't have to concentrate on the sound that's blasting out your ear-drums. For that reason I mark it rather higher than I think it deserves, as well as the fact that it clearly meets its requirement to provide the entertainment it promises to those who like this sort of thing, even if it did ultimately fail to 'entertain' this particular viewer............4.

Tuesday 4 April 2017

Film: 'The Lost City of Z'

Yet another true story! - but don't about half of today's films make that claim anyway? 

Although it's not my 'type' of film - I was partly expecting it to be somewhere between a serious Indiana Jones and a Rider Haggard yarn - I thought it might have been more thrilling than it turned out. It's more a tale of historical interest than anything else, of a story about which I was unfamiliar

Starting in the early years of last century and going up to 1924. it relates to a Colonel Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) of the British army who hears of the existence of a city with an advanced civilisation in the Amazonian forest, and feels a compulsion to 'discover' it and make it known to the world. He makes three expeditions with all the usual features one might expect - untrustworthy fellow-travellers, confrontations with natives, battles against the elements, we've seen it all before.
The intervals between his voyages are significant and spread over several years - the second intermission covering his re-entry into army life for active service in World War I in which he experiences the Battle of the Somme. Meanwhile his wife (Sienna Miller) bears, in the end, three children, his eldest son accompanying him on his final quest, having by then attained adulthood. His faithful companion on his travels is played by Robert Pattinson.

Photography (especially the jungle scenes) and acting are generally as good as one might expect, though I found it sometimes hard to decipher quite what Sienna Miller was saying in her under-the-breath deliveries.
Additionally, I was a bit dismayed to find that on the soundtrack, Ravel's 'Lever du Jour' from his 'Daphnis et Chloe' was used not once, which might have been acceptable, but no less than four times, which really is pushing it - and not even one of those occasions was a sunrise! That feature struck me as being just lazy.

James Gray directs (and is screenplay writer for) a longish film at 2 hours 20 mins, which I suppose can be justified as there's a lot to pack in, but I was never gripped to the extent of being eager to know what was to happen next. I don't think it'll be lodging in my memory banks for very long.................5.