Thursday 30 November 2017

Film: Battle of the Sexes'

I truly loved this, and it's an emotion for which you don't have to be an ardent tennis fan (which I'm not, anymore) to share. Furthermore, being so hardly even helps, the essential drama being played out, not so much in the climactic tennis game, than in the battle of wills between superstar Billie-Jean King (ladies' championship credentials newly eclipsed by Aussie, Margaret Court) and her challenger, Bobby Riggs in 1973. 

I was a keen tennis watcher (and hopeless player) back in the 1960s when this spoilt teenage kid, a brattish upstart named Billie-Jean Moffat, came on the scene, the enfant terrible of the time, yelling her way to victory ("Oh NOOOOO!") through temper tantrums and unsportsman(/woman)like, immature behaviour, drawing boos from the spectators for her loutish, non-existent 'gamesmanship' - and paving the way for the yet more outrageously behaved John McEnroe. But it was she who had by then killed off any interest I had in watching the sport, something from which I have never recovered. (Incidentally, in this film nothing at all is shown of her displaying the childish playing antics which were then as much her trademark as her excellence at tennis).
Of course, everyone knows what a lovely LGBTQ icon King has now become - as well as being a personal friend of Elton, no less! (I take it that the brief inclusion of his 'Rocket Man' on the soundtrack is an acknowledgment of that fact.) 

I must confess to not having become aware of the subject at the heart of this film until some 20 years after it had happened. Apparently the ultimate game was televised live around the world at the time though I don't recall it. I dare say it must have featured in news programmes, though low-down on the list of matters of significant import.

The film starts with B-J.K. (Emma Stone) expressing disapproval that in an American tournament, the men victors will earn a prize eight times that of the women, on the grounds that male players are a 'better watch' and generate more public interest - despite the fact that ticket sales for both games are in about equal demand. King pulls herself, along with other female player-supporters, out of the tournament until this injustice is rectified. Now national news, it comes to the attention of former champion, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), who immediately gets a bee in his bonnet about men being the better players and therefore deserve a higher scale of prizes. He is so incensed that he issues a challenge that he will play and beat any woman, putting up $100,000 of his own money as stake.  Newly-crowned women's champion, Margaret Court, takes up the challenge. (I wasn't aware of this at all until this film).

But while this is going on, the married, 28-year old King, finds, much to her own surprise, that she is quite suddenly attracted to her new hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) - their initial encounter while she is getting her hair done being quite beautifully realised. The  slow dawning on Emma Stone's face of her being attracted to another woman is something to behold.
The realisation of King's husband (Austin Stowell) that something is going on which he didn't foresee is excellently and sensitively portrayed, capturing the confusion and emotional turmoil as he doesn't know how to express his feelings, yet not wishing to give up on loyalty to his wife. I found this aspect particularly moving.

I must also register that Emma Stone's bespectacled likeness to whom she plays is quite remarkable, her smile having a particularly uncanny resemblance.

Then there's Steve Carrell, whom I only first noticed when he was playing second fiddle to Jim Carrey in 'Bruce Almighty' (2003). I'd never been a great fan of his, at least not until his extraordinary appearance in 'Foxcatcher' (2014) where he totally subsumed his scarily domineering role - and since then I recognise that he is indeed an actor of astonishing versatility. 
This role as Bobby Riggs is a tricky one to pull off successfully without it descending into cartoon-like silliness, looking back on it from over 40 years down the line, voicing male attitudes towards women which were very prevalent at the time - and which I can verify, some of it much to my own shame! Riggs wears the soubriquet of 'Male Chauvinist Pig' proudly on his sleeve, a 'badge of honour', opining that women belong in the kitchen and should give their energies to raising families. His own wife (Elizabeth Shue) can only take so much from him, more for his own pig-headedness than his general m.c.p. attitudes. 
His contention, frequently aired on radio, includes the belief that men being (generally) the stronger sex in muscle terms, it stands to reason that they will outclass women on the tennis court - and besides, women can't handle the mental pressure of it all! Of course, all this to King is like showing a red rag to a bull - and so she decides to take up the challenge.

Always hovering in the background is the watchful (baleful?) presence of the 'wholesome', baby-carrying Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), who is quick to pick up on King's infatuation (and more) with Marilyn, and she doesn't waste any time in not-so-subtly making her displeasure at their relationship known.
If this is an accurate depiction of Court's attitudes back in the 1970s, she certainly hasn't advanced at all since those days, as evidenced in her prominent opposition to equal marriage in Australia's recent referendum 'debate'.  

It's a busy film on the whole, thanks to some snappy editing - though the few scenes of genuine intimacy between King and her lover do threaten to develop into longueurs, which they thankfully don''t. The film gallops along pleasurably, feeling nothing like the two hours of its actual length.
I must also add that there aren't any overlong tennis-playing sequences. Even the climactic match is shrewdly put together with only a few of the salient shots shown - and excellently edited too.
The film also demonstrates that, despite their polarised views, King and Riggs had a surprisingly respectful and playful regard for each other.

Screenplay is by Simon Beaufoy, best known for the original 'The Full Monty', and it's a good, sharp script with scarcely a word too many. 

If I have one major qualification it's the character of Marilyn, King's lover. In many reviews I've seen Andrea Riseborough is given credit for her part in this role. I found the character insipid, such that I was confused as to why King would have been attracted to such a colourless personality. Though Emma Stone's high quality acting did bring me to the belief that she was, against the odds as I saw it, really attracted to this Marilyn, I found little emotional chemistry between the two of them. But obviously I'm out on a limb in thinking this. That was the only major defect for me in this film. 

The regular two-person team of directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (both also directing the rather fine 'Little Miss Sunshine' of 2006) take the helm here and I have no quarrel at all with their finished work. It's hard to see how it could have been improved, apart from my one personal reservation above.

All in all, then, a thoroughly enjoyable experience which I've no doubt will be shared by many................8.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Film: 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool'

When I first read about this story (which I hadn't known until a few weeks ago) I thought that it could make for a terrific film. I'm afraid that except for the final intensely moving minutes, it largely left me uninvolved, even rather cold.

The true story is of one-time, big screen star, Gloria Grahame (played by the wonderful Annette Bening - not looking much like the original, though that shouldn't get in the way) in her late 50s and towards the end of her life, falling for an amateur English stage actor of half her age, well played by Jamie Bell. Their romance begins in California 1979 and two years later she, while on an acting engagement in England, rather than stay in a hotel, decides to move in with Bell's family in Liverpool - a family including the conspicuously bewigged Julie Walters, who is required to give not much more than a one-note performance as the mother. (We recall Bell and Walters appeared together in the original 'Billy Elliott', the film on which the musical was later based). The action here keeps shifting (a little annoyingly for me) between 1981 and 1979 and back again numerous times.

You might guess that tender moments of love-making between the two main characters are interspersed with tumultuous rows, she taking repeated umbrage at any slight hint of his, however innocently expressed, that she might be a bit on the old side. She is clearly mentally fragile - and, as it turns out, not just mentally.

The whole viewing experience felt a bit constrained for me, despite the range of emotions demonstrated, particularly by Bening. It just didn't grip me to the extent I'd hoped. It's also one of those annoying films where much is spoken so sotto voce that I didn't have a clue what they were talking about - and when that goes for the two main actors it doubly surprised and disappointed me.

I've not seen any of director Kevin McGuigan's previous films, and after this one his is not a name which will by itself entice me to see further productions of his. 

I only first became aware of Gloria Grahame herself on seeing 'Oklahoma' (1955) in which she hopelessly 'over-cookied' her character. Later I caught up on some of her previous more famous b/w films from an era when she was rightfully feted. But after the 1950s her significant film parts were few, and her rather more numerous bit-parts in numerous TV roles were not solid enough to make a lasting impression.

As I say, I wasn't aware of this particular story being played out at the beginning of the 1980s, though I suppose that by then Grahame's name had so faded from public consciousness that it wouldn't have been a major news item to generate more than a modicum of interest.

I feel I ought to point my rating of the film upwards for the single reason that Annette Bening really does give it her all............6.5.

Monday 13 November 2017

Film: 'Paddington 2'

I'd thought the first 'Paddington Bear' film (2014) just okay, though nothing to get really excited about. No such indifference with this sequel - I absolutely loved it! The visuals and the storyline inventiveness are astonishing, all the way through with minimal lapses. And I haven't laughed so much at a film comedy in a long, long time. It wasn't just me, the entire audience seemed to be in uproarious mood. A sheer pick-you-up tonic to counter the blues!

We once again find Paddington (created by the recently-deceased Michael Bond - and voiced magnificently spot-on by Ben Whishaw) still living in an affluent London suburb with the same family (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters) and with the neighbours familiar from last time, plus a number of new additions. In minor or cameo roles there is a veritable roll-call of British actors of film, theatre and TV over several generations - plus Brendan Gleeson as the scary, hard-man prison chef who makes all the other inmates cower with a mere glance. 
Sometimes adding so many recognisable faces to a film betrays a sense of desperation in wanting to hold the audience's attention when the material is too weak or not funny enough to do the job. Not so here. It's a non-stop delight from beginning to end.
The plum acting bonus present in this is Hugh Grant (and what a hoot he is!) playing the dastardly villain - a pantomime villain, true, but perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the film.

The plot is simple enough, Paddington finding that an antiques shop has a pop-up book about London which he's set his heart on to buy  and send to his Auntie back in Peru, but he can't afford it yet. While it's being kept for him, Hugh Grant, playing a former big-name actor now reduced to appearing in dog-food commercials, hears about the pop-up book, knowing that it uniquely contains the clues to the location of a literal treasure chest, so he has to get hold of it himself. It's then a matter of Hugh Grant attaining ownership of the book by devious means and Paddington trying to get it back to send his Auntie.

Director Paul King, who also directed the first film of three years ago, directs this with considerable panache, not slacking his grip for one moment and coming up with surprise on surprise.

Please don't let the presence of Hugh Grant put you off. I know some actively dislike him (I've always found him quite endearing) but in this, as in his marvellous portrayal in 'Florence Foster Jenkins', he goes well outside the former same foppish, bumbling character he always seemed to play in films up until a few years ago - and which I also liked, by the way. But how many times has he played a 'nasty'? Rarely, if ever. But here he seizes the chance with relish and with both hands, he being possibly the most memorable aspect, among many others, of the entire film!

Btw: I must implore anyone who sees this not to exit the cinema before the final credits. You don't have to wait long for a killer of a surprise during those end credits which I can practically guarantee will send you home with a mile-wide grin on your face. 

I liked this so much that it had actually crossed my mind to award it an '8', but an inner voice started to nag at me, -"That would be just silly!" It may not be so silly when I say that this film could well end up in my Top 10 of 2017. So far it's probably the surprise of the year!...............7.5


Saturday 11 November 2017

Does anyone else watch 'The Young Turks'?

For the last few years I've been getting a lot of my American political input from YouTube - a daily dose of satire and sarcasm from the likes of Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah. But for some months now, for more straight 'objective' (I know some will scoff at the use of the word) reporting I've been increasingly turning to 'The Young Turks'. I'm just curious as to why I don't think I've ever seen TYT mentioned in anyone's blogs. Is there some reason why I ought to be cautious about them? - 'cos from what I see they look pretty darned 'good' as well as entertaining. Is someone about to shatter my positive opinion?  If so, can anyone suggest an even better source available to non-American audiences for news fitting for an ageing, politico-minded progressive?   

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Film: Murder on the Orient Express'

In the Summer when I first heard about this film I was aghast. "Oh NO!", I thought. "Did this film really have to be re-made when Sidney Lumet made such a wonderful job of it in 1974?" And then finding out that it was Kenneth Branagh's brainchild to re-do Agatha Christie's classic novel, I dismissed it as being one of his 'vanity projects', though I knew I'd still have to see it.

It's clear that anybody who is not familiar with the original film version will enjoy this more by not automatically making mental comparisons which, I found, in virtually all respects, favour the earlier one. I do retain a particular affection for the Lumet, having seen that original at least three times on the cinema screen shortly after its release, and maybe half a dozen times since on video. In fact I'll declare more than that. When I last compiled a Top 50 list of my all-time favourite films (admittedly over 20 years ago), the 1974 version featured on it. I'm inclined to think that were I to update that list now it could yet maintain its place there.

That is not to say that this new version doesn't have its merits. Far from it. On the whole I was quite impressed by what Branagh's done, changing details - such as having more scenes enacted outside the train. However, the downside of that is that it loses the trapped-in, claustrophobic atmosphere which pervaded the earlier film.

Now a brief mention of the stars, too many to single out apart from Kenneth B. himself (director of this film, too) presiding over all with his circus-ringmaster (and scarcely believable) distractingly extravagant moustache. I felt Albert Finney as Poirot in 1974 was astonishing and remarkable, not adjectives I'd apply to Branagh in the same role, though he doesn't do at all badly either.

This new film has a galaxy mixture of big and middle-ranking stars, maybe not quite as many names of the then first rank that the 1974 film boasted, but nevertheless, this must be the most notable ensemble of big names appearing in one film since........well, since 1974. (Afterthought: Perhaps Branagh's own 'Hamlet' of 1997 runs it close for star-heavy appearances.)

I felt the screenplay was not as lucid as in the earlier film, the interviews which Poirot has with each of the suspects in turn being patchier and of unequal weight, and a bit more confusing too.

I simply cannot omit mentioning the soundtrack. The 1974's music is one of that film's true 'stars', tracks that have rightly become classics and occasionally feature in concert programmes, particularly the title credit music and waltz. When I hear them they still give me the goose-bumps. Written by the late (and gay) classical composer, Richard Rodney Bennett, I think it's one of the most truly marvellous film soundtracks of the last 50 years or more.
Now for this new version, Branagh has turned to his regular composer-collaborator, Patrick Doyle, whose music, I'm afraid, I've never thought that much of - and here what he's written is nothing like as memorable as is Bennett's.

Despite my qualified verdict I did like this film more than I thought I would. I'm sure it'll cause raised eyebrows when I award it a higher rating than I did for yesterday's 'Call Me by Your Name'. But so what? Too bad. I enjoyed it more...........7.

Film: 'Call Me by Your Name'

What on earth is wrong with me? Why is so much lavish praise being heaped on this? One recent reviewer on IMDb has described this as the best film he has ever seen! The highest commendation I can come up with is that it could well be in my Top 1,000 films - which itself is hardly 'poor' status, indicating that I rate it higher than at least 80% of my viewings. 

Set in Northern Italy, 1983, Armie Hammer plays an American research assistant on a visit to a professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) in Greco-Roman history, who lives with his translator wife (Amira Casar) and 17-year old son, Elio (Timothee Chalamet) in a large country house surrounded by orchards and vineyards. The young one has a hot-cold relationship with his girlfriend (Esther Garel).
After Hammer arrives there's a very slow-burn awareness of mutual attraction between him and the son, something the older man is the more reluctant to acknowledge at first. In fact the very first contact between them which is more than just a casual fleeting one, doesn't arrive until halfway through the film.  
I think the general tenor of film was purporting to conjure up a feeling of langour, reflecting the geographical location in Summer season. I think of Bertolucci and Antonioni in particular, as well as Pasolini, who succeeded in capturing that lazy, sun-drenched ambience so unique to Italy. If that was what director Luca Guadagnino was aiming at I'm not sure he got quite there, though it's true that he has caught well the underlying restlessness of the younger male's burgeoning sexuality. If his aim had been to put that latter aspect centre-stage, then I have to admit that he achieved it.

I didn't find the story all that interesting. Maybe I felt a bit unsettled at seeing the attraction played out between a 17-year old, appearing every bit as young as his character, and a man looking at least twice the younger one's age (though Hammer is actually only 31!). Perhaps it's my own ultra-conventional upbringing which needs to be revised in the head.

Screenplay (based on novel by one Andre Aciman) is by none other than the revered James Ivory himself - and who, it's been mooted, wanted to direct, or at least to part-direct, the film itself. If he had done so I would have expected him to have injected it with a touch of the magic which, I sadly feel, it lacks.

I can't imagine this film enjoying a long-life in my memory bank. In fact, now the morning after, it's already beginning to fade a bit.
Yesterday I'd settled on giving it a rating of '6', but now realising what a rarely-heard story we see on film which it is, I'll nod to that aspect and push it up a semi-notch...............6.5.

Thursday 2 November 2017

Fondest of farewells to my most beloved Noodles

Taken 6th Oct 2017
Just returned from having had my lovely little Noodles put to sleep. Aged 15, he'd been having trouble with horribly distended tummy since July. Vet told me 6 weeks ago that little, if anything, could be done for him. So this dreadful day had to arise sooner rather than later.
He'd hardly eaten or drunk anything for 3 days and, as far as I could see, had done no wees or stinkies for even longer. Then today he started making a wailing noise every so often, clearly being in pain or at least quite some discomfort. Must have been blocked up at his back end. Tried washing him there with a warm, wet cloth, hoping that he'd be able to release something, but to no avail.

Vet examined him and she gave the verdict that the kindest thing I could do would be to let him go. Although in my heart I knew that is what would be said, when I heard it I started weeping freely. 
I was allowed to hold him as he was injected in a foreleg. He was quiet, no struggle. He went cold very quickly, and after listening for a heartbeat she whispered "He's gone". I stroked him, kissed the top of his little head, and thanked him.  

I'm numb.

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Worry time with Noodles

Just three and a half months since losing my very dear, still daily missed Blackso:-

I've great concern now for Noodles, 15 years old (above pic taken six years ago). His tummy suddenly ballooned in July after untypically drinking a lot of water, and it's not going down. He can only carry himself with great difficulty, having to lug around all that weight. Vet says that at his age there's little that can be done for him. They did give me a week's supply of tablets but it made no difference. He's unable to jump more than a few inches and yesterday got stranded on the sloping roof outside, not being able to jump back up onto the kitchen windowsill to make his habitual window entrance. With the aid of a set of steps outside I managed to get hold of him and bring him back in through the downstairs door. His crying when he found he'd been stuck out on the roof had been pitiful. 
I dare not leave the kitchen window open now, day or night, even though it's also used by Patchie, my other remaining cat, for going in and out as he wants. This situation is also starting to disrupt my cinema-going plans, so I'm not able to view all I want to in good time to post a review before it gets stale. 
I'm having to play it one day at a time until the situation resolves itself. Noodles gives an alarming and sudden cry every so often indicating that he could well be in pain. Looks like this can only end one way. Troubling times.