Wednesday 28 June 2017

Film: 'Hampstead'

I don't think I've seen the wonderful Diane Keaton in a non-American film before. Here she is starring as an American widow in a British venture, and living in this chic part of north London where she works in a charity shop, and getting involved with gruff Brendan Gleeson, a 'homeless' itinerant who has resided in a shack on the edge of Hampstead Heath for 17 years. It's a shame, then, that I think she wasn't the right person for the part.  

Based on a true story - which every second film now seems to be - I don't know if that was why Keaton's character had to be American, though that needn't get in the way. Her personality seems not to fit here, which isn't helped by the emotional contact between her and Gleason being, to me at least, nowhere near convincing.

She only notices his home, which is mostly concealed by surrounding foliage, when she tries out a pair of binoculars from the upper reaches of her spacious apartment (which these days in that exclusive part of London would surely cost upwards of £1 million!) She learns that there's an attempt by developers to force the shack dweller to move away so, she herself not keen on the planned development anyway, gets to meet him and support his fight to stay. 

She has her own legal affairs that need untangling and the solicitor she hires (played as rather odiously friendly towards her) expects to have his hopes fulfilled when she doesn't reject his advances outright. This also struck me as a discordant note, especially when she was already starting to get involved with the Gleeson character. 

I used to know the Hampstead area a little thirty or so years ago. at which time there was still a hint of the bohemian life around there. There's no trace of that left now and nothing of such is shown in this film. I think Hampstead has pretty well all gone lah-di-dah now.

This is an amiable enough film though it never really takes off. The story is moderately interesting but hardly gripping.
The film only properly perked up for me in the outdoor scenes when I vaguely remembered the shopping streets - as well as in nearby Highgate cemetery (containing the grave of Karl Marx). But the indoor scenes between the two main characters were fairly routine depicting their burgeoning liking for each other, in respect of which I remained unconvinced.

This is director Joel Hopkins' fifth feature and the first of his that I have seen. There may be some promise within this film but I think he's going to need stronger material than this to test him properly (A thousand-fold improvement on yesterday's misfire anyway!).....................5.5.

Tuesday 27 June 2017

Film: 'The Shack'

What the blazes was all that? Feels like I've just come out of a religious revivalist meeting. If yesterday's 'Gifted' was an ordeal to sit through this one was like having one's teeth extracted sans anesthetic!
Had no idea it would be on this 'God-is-the-answer-to-everything' level. Now I almost feel polluted.

I wouldn't care but the first three-quarters of an hour (of two and a quarter) seemed like it would be a straight-forward, though unexceptional, thriller. Sam Worthington, the survivor of a childhood blighted by his violent, on-the-bottle father, is now married with three children - and is haunted by the occasion when the family is on a camping trip, his youngest, a five-year old daughter, is abducted and disappears, presumed murdered. There's now also an emotional distance between him and his other two children, now adolescent. Then he gets a mysterious typed note which appears to be from his deceased father saying that they can meet at an old wooden hut in the woods ('The Shack') which he knew as a boy. With no idea who this could really be from he decides to go, ready armed, with some suspicion that this might be connected to his taken daughter. He arrives - and this is where the weirdness sets in for basically the remaining two thirds of the film. He's guided from the snow-bound shack to, within just a few yards, a flowery, sun-drenched landscape in which there's a large house peopled by three very strange individuals which he comes round to assuming are manifestations of...........God! A kindly, maternal figure in the form of Octavia Spencer (who was also in yesterday's 'Gifted' but here in a much more substantial role) - and her two adult 'children', a young woman - and a bearded young man named......Jesus, who can, incidentally, walk on water!
His confusion is, well, understandable ("Am I dead?" he asks) - and all three of them at every twist and turn of his many questions spout forth Godly aphorisms about him and his life - and they seem to know all there is to know, while he maintains how could a 'good' God allow to happen what did to his daughter? He's gently rebuked on his rush to judgment.
And it doesn't end there. With the house as his base, he explores its proximities, meeting with another mysterious woman who lectures him on wisdom and knowledge and judgment again (this goes on far too long) during which he sees his missing daughter in a vision as well as his one-time abusive father, now with effusive apologies for his conduct. Then an older oriental-type man appears who instructs him that he cannot advance in his life until he forgives and lets go. Are you still with me? - because I came ever so close to walking out and blowing a loud raspberry on my exit. 

I wouldn't have minded so much if there'd been something original in the many pithy platitudes. Standing back I cannot truly say that it's all bilge even though I might prefer to. It just sounded like an interminable homily praising the goodness of this 'Supreme Being' (The film seems to take it as read that we all believe in such, though here it's not identified with any particular 'brand' and would work just as well for both Christian and non-Christian theists alike). 

In the film's brief epilogue which I most reluctantly awaited, I was counting on there being some resolution to the riddle of what actually happened to the little girl and who did it. But no - it appears that the cure-all for what was wrong in his life was forgiveness, and by practising it his family was then drawn together as a close-knit 'traditional' family unit - two loving parents (M and F, but of course!) with a teenage son and slightly younger daughter - and to live happily ever after, one assumes.  

Frankly, there were moments in this film where I just wanted to puke - and, I repeat, not because I strongly disagreed with the sentiments (and, boy, is it sentimental!) which I don't -  but because it's all delivered in such hyper-sanctimonious fashion that I've no doubt that Pope Frankie himself would give the film his holy incense-infused blessing.

It must surely be that the entire cast of this curiosity, as well as all the behind-camera staff, were 'on message'. I can't imagine anyone at odds with the sentiments delivered wanted to, or were even allowed, to work on it. 

Director Stuart Hazeldine has only made one other full-length feature before, the very good 'Exam' of 2009. (He also made a short film entitled 'Christian' which, I guess, speaks for itself). I can only hope that with his next major effort he returns to territory more 'entertaining' and leave the unctuous sermonising to others so that mugs like me who fall into the trap can avoid it and not find ourselves paying for the undesired experience........................1. 

Monday 26 June 2017

Film: 'Gifted'

Featuring as it does one of those precociously intelligent brats of a child which the cinema just lurves to show us, and which I just cannot abide to see, I wouldn't have touched this film with a barge-pole had it not been for some exceptionally favourable reviews - as well as the ever-positive presence of Lindsay Duncan which finally tipped the balance. 

Chris Evans is a name I know but couldn't put a face to - and here, I must say, he looks pretty hot - and he acts quite convincingly too. He's been in quite a number of films but they're nearly all popcorn-fodder blockbusters in 'The Avengers' mode, none of which I've seen.
Here he plays the Florida-resident uncle and guardian of seven-year old Mary (the said clever-clogs little twerp - played appropriately cringingly by McKenna Grace and who has a one-eyed ginger cat as a pet). She's the child of his maths-prodigy sister who had her as a result of a brief relationship and who shortly afterwards committed suicide, he taking on the role of surrogate father because, he maintains, that's what his sister would have wanted. Their own English mother (Lindsay Duncan) disowned his sister when the pregnancy became known, wanting nothing to do with the child. The infant has inherited her mother's genius and prodigious talent for mental arithmetic, and it shows up on her first day at school when she's bored out of her mind with her classmates being asked to add two plus two when she's already been doing calculus and solving quadratic equations. (Well, wouldn't you be bored?). When word gets around about her abilities, her uncle-guardian, wanting the girl to lead a 'normal' life, refuses the chance to put her in a special academy which would make optimum use of her rare talent. His mother, on hearing of the child's position, unexpectedly turns up on her son's doorstep, now taking an interest in her grand-daughter, and thinks it would be better if she took over the role of primary carer, removing her back with her to Massachusetts. The Chris Evans character disagrees, of course, and a court case ensues over the child's guardianship.

Lindsay Duncan, apart from her English accent, (can't she do American?) is practically unrecognisable in her superficially 'Americanised' persona - bouffant, flowing wig plus manner of fashion-dressing which would give her away in her home country as being conspicuously something which very few mature English women could get away with. But still, she's magnificent.

I was dreading that the little girl would, as so any films featuring children of this age do, be dripping pearls of wisdom way beyond her years, and which would teach the adults around her all about life. Thankfully, there's very little of that aspect - but her prodigious mental superiority alone is quite enough to be getting on with.

The film's plotline follows very much the same as we've seen before so many times, though instead of two squabbling parents here we have a mother fighting with her son over custody of the grand-daughter. 

Another of my cinema aversions is all-too evident - a mushy, over-bearingly sentimental, often-present, mood-setting soundtrack, including no less than two songs, dammit! Insufferable!

Director is Marc Webb, who did both the 'Amazing Spiderman' films. His contribution here doesn't spring any surprises or give any particularly memorable touches.

I've no doubt that those who are not bothered by the several put-offs that I've delineated will think more highly of this film than I did. Most younger people will not recognise it as being over-formulaic because most of them will not have seen quite as many films as I have. For these reasons, if you're not turned away by what I say you may well enjoy it. As for me, I must be honest.............4.


Monday 19 June 2017

Film: 'Churchill'

This film's title is deceptive. It covers just the few days in June 1944 prior to the allied landings on the Normandy beaches, and featuring the British Prime Minister's resistance to the American-led plan.

Brian Cox plays the eponymous titular figure although facially he looks quite unlike the original, and doesn't sound much like him either - but what an actor! This putting aside of resemblances, apart from some very feeble attempts, also occurs with other members of the cast, most notably with both John Slattery as Eisenhower and James Purefoy as King George VI , the two of them looking very little like the figures they are portraying. Miranda Richardson as Churchill's steely wife, Clem, who wishes she could have her own life back, does bear a passing resemblance to the woman some of us can recall. One has to make a mental effort to stop these distractions getting in the way of enjoying the film - though, of course, younger audience members won't be as troubled as I was.

The film shows a side of Churchill that is rarely, if ever seen. Naturally I can't vouch for any veracity on that part, but it's quite different from the politician as he's usually played - here more of a fast-talking, petulant, short-tempered, yelling combative rather than the reflective and measured, brooding growler we've grown used to. 
I wasn't aware of the extent to which he'd been cut out of decision-making regarding the D-day landings after he'd vociferously expressed his disapproval of the plan, and was subsequently reduced to watching and grunting from the sidelines while Eisenhower issued the vital instructions. Even Field-Marshal Montgomery had more influence than Churchill.   
Churchill's attitude and animosity arises from his being haunted by the appalling loss of life in the Dardanelles landings thirty years before in the First World War, for which he feels he bore some responsibility, and is afraid that history might be repeating itself, with his name being vilified.  (We are spared of any warfare scenes).

Director Jonathan Teplitzky's probably best know for his 2013 film 'The Railway Man' with Colin Firth, which was fair enough without being a exceptional recommendation.

This one is a patchy film, interesting in sections but never quite taking off enough to keep one gripped despite our knowing how events turned out. I kept looking for things I hadn't known before, and I suppose that there's enough of them to keep the mind occupied. But as for making a satisfying whole (sensibly coming in at just a little over 90 minutes) I think it left something to be desired...............6.

Monday 12 June 2017

Film: 'My Cousin Rachel'

Pleased to resume my cinema-going after a lengthy hiatus occasioned by 'circumstances' - which may well restrict the number of future similar outings for a while. Only to say for now that 'he' remains fragile, though superficially healthy apart from continuing very wobbly walk and alarming further loss of fur. When there's any more to report I'll do so.

Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite writers. I've read more than a few of her works but not this one, an omission which now needs rectifying.

Set in rural England in what I take to be the late-18th century, the prologue shows a young boy being cared for by his guardian right until he returns from having attended school now grown up (Sam Claflin), his guardian whom he worships having been sent to Florence for recuperation from a brain tumour, and from whom he gets mail, first telling him of the lovely young woman he's become acquainted with there (the 'cousin Rachel' of the title) and then, continuing to sing her praises, the two of them marry - his correspondence suddenly becoming more disturbing until, fearing for his life at her hands, he begs his charge to come and help him. Is this for real or just a fancy of his fevered condition? Claflin rushes off to Italy to find that he has only recently just died while she is nowhere to be found. Returning to England, he is determined to seek her out and confront her - though finds out that she has already arrived at his home, which he will inherit on attaining the age of 25, she now the grieving widow seeking the solace of her cousin. He's resolved to have the matter out with her, being convinced that she was responsible for his guardian's demise. When they meet she (Rachel Weisz) turns out to be nothing like what he envisaged and his adversarial stance dissolves as he quickly becomes infatuated with her. He's also attracted to her independent spirit which can be quite forthright at times. So won over is he, in fact, that he refuses to entertain stories of her profligacy and rumours of her unfaithfulness when she was married with his guardian. He even bequeaths to her his greatest treasure, a pearl necklace which belonged to his mother. His blinkered. rose-tinted view of her continues and, against all advice, he formulates his own will, charging his entire state to her possession should he pre-decease her. He inevitably proposes marriage but is perplexed to find that her warm attitude to him changes. Too late and too bad for him! What we, the audience, can see he cannot. Therein lies the film's suspense, and most effective it is too for virtually the entire film, which held my attention without pause.

Two 'downers' for me was that the film's several intimate moments between the romantic couple were conveyed in hardly audible whispers, though I don't think that this was as important as the second - namely that I didn't quite understand a revelation given near the end, which was, presumably, intended to take one's breath away. I can understand what it was - the very final frames showed that up clearly - but it left me with a whole load of questions in my mind on the lines of "But if that was the case, why didn't....". It also left, though only in retrospect, some of the film of the interaction between the couple looking strangely ham-fisted and old-fashioned. Others may well have been carried along with it as a convincing development but for me it proved to be rather less than satisfactory.

All the acting, and the script as well, is of a very high order and the film looks terrific, not burdened by a background score which could easily have been melodramatic but was sensibly kept in check.

Director Roger Michell (also the screenplay writer) has some biggish films on his record, including 'Notting Hill', 'Venus' and 'Le Week-End' - and despite my minor reservations, this one also deserves to stand to his credit...................7.5