Wednesday 25 October 2017

Film: 'The Death of Stalin'

Another of those films I hoped I'd like more than it turned out to be. A reputedly 'biting' comedy which did manage to draw maybe four or five laughs from me despite my not finding it anything like as funny as many of the large audience did.

Director Armando Ianucci (and co-writer, along with David Schneider) is one of this country's foremost and well-regarded satirists, though apart from his 'Alan Partridge' radio and TV shows and one feature film (all of which I found immensely amusing), I've never quite managed to get onto the same wavelength with his other creations. Even his well-received, sardonically political feature film 'In the Loop' (2009) left me largely unmoved.

Here he's come up with a comedy around the sudden death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and its immediate aftermath, with the undignified shambles of leading Russian politicians jockeying for power and influence in the continuing Communist administration.
He brings together a host of (mostly) established British actors - Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Paddy Considine, Paul Whitehouse - all speaking in a range of British accents, reflecting the fact that Russian accents too are multifarious. All these are near-eclipsed by the clownish presence of Steve Buscemi, here playing Nikita Krushchev who, despite haplessly floundering, is still very much his own man, and who would three years later, succeed to the topmost 'job'.

It's largely a farce - verbal joshing and needling and some knockabout stuff - but what makes this very different is that it's set against the horrors of Stalin-era brutality - torture, imprisonment, summary 'justice' with immediate executions. We see some grisly scenes though they are not quite overplayed, being merely sufficient to give an idea (if we hadn't already guessed) of the sort of things that did go on. 

The film is a tightrope act between humour and horror, the latter clearly intended to 'point up' the other. For some it seems to have worked. I only wish it had done so for me, the nasty taste left in the mouth lingering just too ominously for me to fully appreciate the surrounding lighter moments.

Female presence is thin - Andrea Riseborough as Stalin's daughter showing some dignity up against Rupert Friend as her drunken, megalomaniac and living embarrassment of a brother.
Then there's Olga Kurylenko as Stalin foe and concert pianist. But neither of these have anything like as much to do as the men.

Among the motley of undesirable characters it's Simon Russell Beale's 'Lavrentiy Beria' who carries the most weight and authority and is the most terrifying, someone whose mere slight nod can signal the end of a foe. 

I will give the film one thing - it's very different from anything else I've seen, so it scores well for originality. But whether it all comes together as a cohesive, satisfying entertainment I'd find more problematic to maintain. A lot of it does work. For me just as much of it didn't - which doesn't mean that you'd agree.................6.

Friday 20 October 2017

Film: 'The Party'

Loved this! Don't know why I should be attracted to films which feature a brace of squabbling individuals, particularly those superficially maintaining a strong, loving relationship but, once what is under the surface is revealed, they demonstrate themselves to be people who will readily 'scratch the eyes out' of  their partners as well as of all those around. I find it most entertaining to witness, often hilariously so. Perhaps it might have something to do with my never having been in such a position myself, and if I had experienced it I would find it more painful.  

Sally Potter, a director/writer never to be ignored ('Orlando', 'The Tango Lesson') comes up trumps again with this latest which, at a mere one hour ten minutes, must be about the shortest main feature I have ever seen. If I wish it had been just a little bit longer, even just by a quarter hour (and how often do I say that?) I have to admit that it finishes at just the right moment. 

Set in real, continuous time, and filmed in b/w, it features just seven players in the single setting of the home of married Kristen Scott Thomas with hubby Timothy Spall, the latter silently morose, drinking and playing jazz records, while she is single-handedly making preparations for the expected gathering to celebrate her elevation to the post of government minister. The invited guests start to arrive - a marvellously acid-tongued Patricia Clarkson, with husband Bruno Ganz who keeps inappropriately spouting New Age aphorisms which she wearily dismisses as claptrap - their relationship is clearly already well withering. Then a lesbian couple, Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer, the former expecting triplets (!) - and then finally, a nervy, coke-snorting Cillian Murphy, arrives, apologising for the delayed arrival of his wife. 

Formal courtesies are exchanged and social dignities are aimed at -  until Timothy Spall makes a disclosure which may explain his taciturnity - and then things rapidly begin to unravel, not just for him but impacting on every one of the group - and fur starts to fly!

It took about 15 minutes for my first smile to arrive, and a few minutes later came the first of my many laughs - and they then came thick and fast. (I have to say that a good number of the large audience were well ahead of me in this respect). I was thoroughly entertained by watching these characters haplessly trying to maintain composure, though with futility. I thought the script was strong, the acting as near-perfection as one could wish - I'd single out both Kristen S.T. and Patricia Clarkson in particular - but, oh, I do wish it had gone on just a little bit longer. 
It's one of those very rare films that left me longing for more, (which itself must be a first!). Having said that, I did make a well-satisfied, smiling exit......................8.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Film: 'Loving Vincent'

I so much regret struggling to keep awake during this - though I must stress that it had nothing at all to do with the film itself, rather due to my body-clock which has gone totally haywire on my sleep patterns recently. If I'd maintained the desired alertness there's little doubt that I'd be rating it higher than I have.

A joint Polish/British film (in English), this is a visually unique experience - yes, it really is exactly that. Set one year after the death, a suspected suicide, of Vincent Van Gogh in 1891, a young man (Douglas Booth) has been given a sealed letter written by the late artist (Robert Gulaczyk) addressed to his younger brother, Theo, the carrier wishing to deliver it to its addressee in person, not realising that Theo Van Gogh had himself died a few months earlier. When discovering this he uses the letter as a pretext to investigate the circumstances of Vincent's demise, and in particular, the reason for the suicide, mysterious in it having taken place when witnesses say that he'd been in high spirits just before the event. He talks to a number of people who knew him or had a fleeting acquaintance.

A number of familiar names appear in the cast, among them Jerome Flynn, Chris O'Dowd, Saoirse Ronan, John Sessions - all featuring in supporting roles without major significant screen time. 

Now for the unique aspect. Most of the film consists of animated sequences, close to the painting style of Van Gogh, achieved through the hand-painting in oils of some 65,000 frames by a veritable army of film artists. The results are most impressive. These sequences are interspersed with black and white nearer-reality sections which are still given an artificial hand-drawn quality. In both types of creation the identity of the actor portraying the particular character depicted wasn't always straight-forward, but that was no great loss.

The story itself is simple enough, the investigation into what caused Van Gogh to take his own life - if indeed he did. 

It's a good film, I did recognise that, at least. It also doesn't require great knowledge of the artist and his life, or indeed of his works - though the latter would help in appreciating the animations.

I think that if I'd managed to hold my attention without it flagging I may have given this film a rating of perhaps '7', but I've got to judge it through my own flawed receptivity. I'm pretty sure that in any case I wouldn't have awarded it less than..................6.5.

Saturday 14 October 2017

Another year - and I'm still standing! (Yeah, yeah, yeah!)

Yes, one more lap of life's circuit achieved, and no sign of any bell indicating last lap - or did I miss it?

Sharing this date (Sun, 15th) with the excellent, younger blogger, RTG, ( I wish him lots and lots of happy returns for today, with a fervent wish for some alleviation of his health trials - and ditto for the latter directed towards his very own great and good wifey, Anne-Marie ('Warrior Queen') too. (

I have my own health issues, of course - who doesn't? - but must be thankful that mine are not as incapacitating as those of many are, particularly for others around my age. So, praise be to the 'gods' for that, at least so far.

Advancing into Shakespeare's sixth of life's seven ages ("the lean and slipper'd pantaloon"), I'm managing to keep body in reasonable shape and, even though saying it myself, think I look a little younger than my actual age. However, there are still the visible effects of the tripping accident, now all of 15 months ago, when I went down and bit the concrete, 're-arranging' front teeth. 
My dentist has done all she can within the National Health Service range i.e. all that is required for health reasons, but what remains yet undone is still conspicuous each time I open my mouth. Apparently, because further correction would be required purely for 'cosmetic' reasons of appearance it can only be done privately - and the cost of repairing just the one main front tooth is prohibitive, for the moment at least. 
I only mention it to excuse my failure to show my 'gnashers' in the latest pics - something I have to remember daily not to reveal whenever I'm talking to others - or just smiling. Not a pretty sight! - and so distracting for the person I'm addressing.

The pussies below are, of course, Noodles and Patchie - Noodles , the upper one in the middle pic, is causing me particular concern in that his tummy has ballooned since he took to drinking a lot of water and milk quite suddenly a couple of months ago, almost certainly due to kidney trouble. (His condition doesn't really show up in the photo.) The vet says that at his age of 15, little can be done for him. However, he doesn't appear to be suffering unduly even though when he wants to move he now has to waddle like a duck, carrying all that hog-like weight - and he's unable to jump up to anywhere, even just a foot or so, sleeping most of the day on the carpet.

These were taken just a few days ago, with apologies that they seem to be a bit fuzzy:-


So, see you again on my 72nd - though in the interim there ought also to be quite a few more film and misc blog postings. 

Thursday 12 October 2017

Film: 'Blade Runner - 2049'

My verdict - overblown and, plotwise, quite dull frankly.
Laying cards on table, I do recall rather liking the 1982 original, and seeing it again some years later on TV. I liked the original Philip K. Dick novel still more. 
I'd go out of my way to see the recently released 'director's cut'  of that original version, which everyone seems to be saying is even superior to what was originally released to cinemas. 
However, this sequel I wouldn't bother with sitting through a second time, not least because at over 2.5 hours. I found myself close to nodding off more than once, and would have done were it not for the racket on the soundtrack. The final 30 mins upped still further the tedium factor for me. (Co-star Harrison Ford, reprising his character of the original, only appears 3/4 hour from the finish, otherwise it's Ryan Gosling all the way with virtually no distractions). 

I can't be bothered to summarise the plot, save that in a future L.A. Ryan Gosling is searching for a certain female who mysteriously disappeared some decades previously, and who carries with her the key to the survival of humanity. As in the first film, there's also play with the notion of which characters are truly human and which of them are mere replicants.

Many reviews comment on the visual effects, and there's no denying that they are quite spectacular, as efficiently realised as we've all come to expect nowadays. I remember the visuals of the 1982 film leaving me open-mouthed in admiration. In this new film there was no similar reaction on my part, surely a symptom of what has now become somewhat work-a-day. In fact now we more readily pick up on poor effects rather than feeling astonishment at especially good ones. 

French-Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve, has made some high standard films in recent years - most notably for me 'Sicario' and 'Prisoners'. Perhaps it's something of a generation thing, but despite some superlative opinions on this latest offering, I can't put it in anything like the same class.

I'd been toying with the idea of going to see this in IMAX-3D, such was its hype, but eventually opted for the regular-sized 2D screening at a local cinema - and at less than one sixth of the combined cost of travelling to the closest Imax plus admission price. I've no regrets at having done so.................4.

Tuesday 3 October 2017

Film: 'Goodbye, Christopher Robin'

First, the positive. Just about every frame is visually sumptuous. So much for that!

I never read 'Winnie the Pooh' when young and have never felt any yearning to catch up on it since. 

The biggest downside of this film for me was the little twerp of a kid (Will Tilston) playing the 8-year old title character. If a boy whose every appearance (many of them) was calculated to annoy, then a better choice could not have been made. Although it might be thought unfair to judge the acting of a kid of that age against the experienced adult actors he's working with, I'll do it anyway. I didn't think he was all that good - at least judging between the display of emotions and the words he's got to utter. I kept being conscious of a disparity between the two - with a lot of too-rapid changes from sullen moodiness to beaming smile. Oh, for pity's sake! As for the obnoxious child he was playing, well he undoubtedly fitted that to a tee. I could only marvel as to why his parents didn't take him back as being emotionally 'defective' and demand a replacement - or, far better, ask for a refund!

Current flavour-of-the-month Dohmnall Gleeson (we've just seen him briefly in 'Mother!', as well as in 'American Made') plays the young First World War- shocked A(lan).A.Milne, who's subject to debilitating flashbacks whenever there's a sudden loud report. His harsh-judging wife (Margot Robbie) is impatient for him to get on with writing, and creating something at least as remunerative as the plays he's used to writing. The arrival of their (only) child, Christopher Robin, gives his imagination a slow-burn impetus when the boy becomes old enough to start playing with his toys, a teddy bear above all, which he takes everywhere - particularly when they take walks in the woods (actually filmed in the very area of Sussex where the stories were devised, not very far from where I'm writing this) and the writer starts creating situations bringing in actual animals espied as well as made-up ones. The game of 'pooh-sticks' is invented on a wooden bridge spanning a stream. 
The boy forms a particular bond with his nanny (Kelly Macdonald) who supplies much of the warmth towards him which his mother failed to do. On a visit to London Zoo, the sight of a male bear named 'Winnie' makes a particular attraction for the boy, the personality of which the father takes up and weaves into a the world-famous story.
In the film's final 20 minutes we see the boy ten years older (Alex Lawther, a much better actor than his younger character, which is hardly surprising) and his attempt to get signed up to fight in WWII, much to his father's great consternation. 

Director Simon Curtis (who did 'My Week with Marilyn' in 2011) manages fine with material with which he obviously feel an affinity, though which is more than some of us can say.

I suppose I might have been more favourably disposed towards the film had I felt a kinship with A.A.Milne's works, but they are a foreign country to me, and are most likely to remain so. This film doesn't kindle any desire to fill the gap of my experience. 
So there you are - seen it and job done! Now then, what's next?.................5.