Tuesday 23 January 2018

Film: 'The Post'

Spielberg shows here that he can still really deliver when he keeps a tight rein on his sentimental side. I found this film better than just 'good' - yet somehow not having quite the sharp bite that the last major journalistic film had, namely 'Spotlight' of 2015. That's perhaps to do with the subject matter of the latter being right up to date (Catholic Church cover-up of child molestation by clergy - still just as topical even now!) and this present film dealing with an historical event (1971), albeit with very pertinent resonances to today relating to control of the press by the American President. 

 Meryl Streep (that well-known actress described as over-rated by you-know-who) is Kay Graham who has just become head of 'The Washington Post' and is plunged into a baptism of fire. She and her lead reporter Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, smoking more than I've ever seen him before - in fact, that I recall him doing at all since his self-celebratory cigar in 'Philadelphia') get wind of a crisis looming at neighbouring 'New York Times'.
Background is 'The Pentagon Papers', the results of a study commissioned way back in the 1940s by then President F.D.Roosevelt into the feasibility of winning the then Indo-China War which morphed into the VietNam War. The conclusion was that victory against the Communist forces was well nigh impossible. Successive administrations under Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and right up to then President Nixon had all colluded to keep the results secret from the public while futilely continuing to send out hundreds of  thousands of troops, many thousands to their deaths and many more coming back with life-maiming injuries, all under the public deception that America was winning. No President wanted to be the one who was seen to be in charge when defeat came.
The White House discovers that the N.Y.Times has received copies of that report and intends to publish the story, so Nixon weighs in with forceful threats of dire consequences of wholesale prison terms if they go ahead. Graham and Bradlee (Streep and Hanks) are watching on the sidelines until they themselves receive the very same source material - and so the question becomes one of should they then publish, irrespective of which way the 'Times' decides to go, though especially if the Times decides not to go ahead.

The tension in the film grows quite effectively, though the subject being historical, it lacks the present-day indignation which I'd felt in the 'Spotlight' film, and it therefore was not like being screwed to quite the same high level pitch.

The acting is as remarkable as one might expect from its two main stars, though seeing Streep transform in the course of the film from a slightly nervous and gauche novice company head among all-male work colleagues and board meetings, into someone with a confident mind of her own, was a object lesson for an actor's 'how-to-do-it' manual.   

It's a significant film, not without ever-growing relevance to today's politics, and everyone comes out of it well. I'll be surprised if it fails to pick up the Oscar or two it deserves, though if it happens it'll probably be in the 'lesser' categories. Nevertheless, 'The Post' gets my unequivocal approval......................7.5

Thursday 18 January 2018

Film: 'The Florida Project'

Following yesterday's let-down, this was decidedly better.
It's been around a few weeks and I caught it on its very final screening in this area. Not being seduced by some good reviews, I'd avoided it on knowing that it featured young kids, and there's little that riles me more on film than to see little brats spouting bons mots and advice on how to live life in a manner way beyond their years to adults who are amazed at the kids' precocity. There being nothing else on which I hadn't already seen and wasn't a kiddie-aimed film, I decided to give it a go - with gritted teeth. As it turned out, my apprehensions were groundless.

In the hinterland around Disney World, Willem Dafoe (in a role which fits him like a glove) is the manager/odd-job man for a group of cheap residential apartment blocks, out beyond the expensive hotels and motels or even mid-priced ones. The residents consist mainly of families in difficult circumstances, with kids running amok and engaged in anti-social behaviour, tenants sometimes in rent arrears, some with alcohol or drug-related problems . 
One of the residents is single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, excellent) with 6-year old daughter, Moonie (Brooklyn Prince, also very good), the little girl having been infected with the 'so what!' attitude of her mother as well as her cheekiness, and roams around (no school attendance) with her similar-aged friends (mainly one boy and another girl) causing annoyance in all directions with their antics.  But mother doesn't give a fig what they get up to, as long as there's no danger of their being evicted. She's continually behind on her rent but manages to pay on time - just. It's not hard to guess where her income comes from, but we aren't shown anything of her 'trade' nor any of her 'customers'.
She and her daughter run riot in stores and eateries, all of which she just about gets away with, thanks to bare-faced lies which come as easily to her as breathing, much to the exasperation of staff and managers. It's Dafoe who's most sorely tried and he keeps issuing ultimata about the behaviour of the two of them, though he also exhibits a soft spot for their plight, particularly warmly towards the little girl. Then the authorities get involved.........

It's an unassuming little story, totally credible as well as being captivating in its way. Dafoe is marvellous. Even being aware of his considerable acting experience it was easy to see him as the put-upon apartments manager.

Director (and co-writer) Sen Baker demonstrates a sensitivity to the difficult subject and I'd be hard-pressed to point out where it could have been improved.  

I liked it..................7.

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Film: 'Molly's Game'

I was drawn to seeing this by majority positive reviews, though the story turned out to be largely lost on me. So uninvolving it was that I felt like an outsider looking on to a subject which left me cold, and a female protagonist whose fate I couldn't really care much about. I can only assume that the Jessica Chastain character, at the centre of the 'Molly' story, was supposed to attract one's sympathies. Not me.

Filmed mainly in Toronto, a former ace-skier (reflecting the true story) Molly Bloom - a name which some might recognise from a certain 20th century literary classic, referred to in this film -  sets up her own poker joint for celebrity clientele (stars, sportsmen, and other affluents) after being slighted too many times by her former employer who had lured her into working for him in his gambling den, she taking most of his famous clients with her in an act of hubris. Unfortunately, and not exactly unsurprisingly, gambling $ooo's at a time running up into millions, these men include big-time mobsters, a state of affairs which eventually has violent consequences for her personally. Legal ramifications and possible criminal violations also ensue with her activities - and Idris Elba appears as her lawyer in basically functional appearances. There are a few illustrations of poker games, but it all goes so fast that I quickly got tired of trying to keep up with it.  

Kevin Costner as Molly's psychiatrist father pops up at the start in brief exchanges when she's a young skier (warning: this opening sequence includes what must be the grisliest image of a surgical operation I have ever seen. It lasts for little more than two seconds but will now haunt me for my remaining days. Why do they do this? To make sure we don't fall asleep just a few minutes in?Thanks, director/screenwriter Mr Sorkin!).  Costner makes another unwelcome and too long appearance towards the end where he irritatingly tries to psycho-analyse his daughter to determine where she is in her life. (Who the hell cares? Well, as her father I suppose he might, but we do not!)
Chris O'Dowd also appears as one of the more significant gamblers.

This is writer Aaron Sorkin's first feature as director, a script writer now so (incomprehensibly) revered that for some he can do no wrong. He was responsible for the script for 'The Social Network' (2010), another film where I felt left out in the cold, but which was lauded from all directions for some reason. Granted that a lot of my problem with that film was that with so much lazy mumbling of the lines I didn't have a clue as to what was going on. There isn't quite that problem with this film, though the lines do come so fast that I found it hard to keep up with it, and if I'd been with someone I'd have felt stupid if I'd asked "What the hell is going on?" - though I suspect I'm far from being alone. (I must say that I found Sorkin's script for 'Steve Jobs' better than 'Social Network' - or what I heard of it - or for this film.) 

I don't understand why there's been quite the buzz about this film that there is. Maybe poker connoisseurs will get more out of it than I did - but did it really merit its near-epic length of 2hrs20? I suggest a "NO!"...........5.


Tuesday 16 January 2018

Film: 'Darkest Hour'

Another  film about Winston Churchill? It needed a very fine director like Joe Wright to raise it to the high interest level - and he's achieved it. But it's Gary Oldman's extraordinary physical transformation which makes this depiction of the man little less than sensational. He'd have been one of the last people in the profession who I'd have thought could have pulled it off this successfully.

Confined to the days preceding and following Churchill's appointment as Prime Minister, it covers his first major challenge, the 'baptism of fire' which was Dunkirk (May 1940) when almost the entire British army, stranded on the northern French coast, was threatened with wholesale annihilation.

It's a very wordy film with minimal actual pictorial 'action'. Two-thirds of the way through I found myself feeling exhausted with the relentless ins and outs of politics and arguments over war policy and campaign tactics, dominated by whether the country ought to accept a Mussolini-offered peace intervention with the Nazi regime in order to prevent impending slaughter.

Oldman works miracles with his towering and believable performance under all that make-up, though you can still discern that characteristic twinkle in his eyes and the shadow of a smile on his lips - which may actually have been authentic as regards the man he's playing for all I know. 
Everyone else in the cast takes a back seat, even Kristin Scott Thomas as his dutiful but sternly loyal wife, Clemmie. Remarkable as she always is, she doesn't have much to do other than offer support to the P.M. in a few scenes, none of which is extended very far.
Much the same applies to Lily James as his faithful, patient secretary, obedient to a fault.
Among the rest of a strong cast it was good to see stalwart Ronald Pickup as outgoing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a more substantial role than we've seen Pickup in for many a year.
Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI is also deserving of mention.

There was one cheesy episode, an invented scene where Churchill, exasperated with the slow progress of his taxi in traffic-clogged London streets, gets out, and alone and unprotected, decides to use the underground system to get to Parliament. In the train carriage everyone immediately recognises him. (Would they, considering that then hardly anyone had a TV? Would the odd newspaper photo have been enough? Then there'd also be cinema newsreels, I suppose, so maybe.) During this time, in what must be the longest one-stop underground journey in central London ever, they all show him solid support, giving him the confidence to banish any doubts he had about his actions. At this point I half expected someone to start humming the 'God Save the King' (or better still - 'There'll Always be an England'), only for others to gradually take it up, standing erect, and ending in a free-for-all sing-along - the sort of thing that would happen only too readily in a film of the 1940s or 50s.

Having just won the Golden Globe for Best Actor, Gary Oldman must surely win the equivalent upcoming BAFTA prize. It would hardly do for him, who has not yet won any film acting award, to be overlooked when a non-British organisation has awarded him this prestige. But it would be well deserved - he's never been better, and very few other actors have been this good!

This film confirms Joe Wright as one of my favourite younger directors, following his remarkable 'Atonement' (2007) and 'Anna Karenina' (2012). He has a lively imagination and a keen eye, always seeking to avoid the hackneyed. His mastery of the film medium, despite this being a highly verbalised film, is practically flawless - and he's still so young!

For the first hour or so of this two-hour film I might have been inclined to award it a rating of '8', equal to yesterday's viewing. But then an aural exhaustion started setting in and by the end my opinion had sagged slightly. Even so, I must score it almost as high if only for Gary Oldman's extraordinary appearance and incredible performance.............7.5.

Monday 15 January 2018

Film: 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

If this doesn't end up high on my list of 'Best Films of 2018' I'll eat my hat - with my socks as dessert! Fully deserving of all the praise it's already garnered, it left me in a state of wondered reassurance that cinema can still be so thought-provoking and solidly entertaining. 
A very smart script from director Martin McDonagh ('In Bruges' plus the rather less memorable 'Seven Psychopaths'), and a storyline replete with witty dialogue and unexpected turns (at least one of which is quite a shock), and performances which shine from all three main actors - Frances McDormand (especially), Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell - what more can one ask?  

McDormand is a world-weary mother, single-handedly bringing up her upstart teenage son after her husband has got himself shacked up with a teenage girl. What dominates her life now is that her stroppy,  late-teenage daughter had been raped and murdered a few months before, and she's become disillusioned and impatient that the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) has not only got nowhere in tracing the criminal(s) but, to her, doesn't seem too bothered about the case, his behaviour and apparent nonchalant attitude mirrored by his obnoxious, lazy deputy (Sam Rockwell). 
She decides to stir things up in a forward direction by renting three large, roadside billboards on the approach to the small town, to feature large-lettered messages to the police chief asking why nothing's been done.

There are a number of very violent, though mostly shortish, scenes, some of it graphic. 
The film is, by turns, tragic, horrific and bleakly comic, the latter not feeling out of place, especially when McDormand has to deliver some of her well-timed, acidic lines. In fact it is she who carries the whole enterprise on her shoulders and if she achieves the Oscar for this performance I, for one, will not be complaining. 
It's yet another of those films which do not tie the ends up neatly at the end, so if you're one of those who prefer cut-and-dried endings, be prepared - though it should in no way prevent you from enjoying all that's gone before as it's all so very good.
Btw: I did notice one or two careless lapses in continuity, though I doubt if most people will spot them. Doesn't matter too much.

A darned good film, then, with a high standard on just about every conceivable front. I take enormous pleasure in recommending it strongly................8.

Tuesday 9 January 2018

Film: 'All the Money in the World'

Let's see if I can be the first(?) to write on this subject without mentioning, or simply alluding to, the 'Expunged K.S.' dimension. 

The belated import of Christopher Plummer and the grafting on of his many appearances here (oh, dammit!) has given the film a curiosity, a kind of inverted 'notoriety' quality. I guess that a not inconsiderable number of people will go to see it for this reason alone, people who might otherwise have given it a miss. In that respect I think we have to conclude that Ridley Scott has played his cards perfectly.

Plummer has a more central role than I'd been expecting, a lot more substantial than mere 'bit' appearances. He plays billionaire John Paul Getty, one of whose late-teen grandsons (the unrelated Charlie Plummer) is kidnapped by a gang of Italian roughs in Rome in 1971, leaving mother/Getty's daughter-in-law (Michelle Williams) distraught when a multi-million dollar ransom is demanded in return for sparing Getty's grandson. (The latter's father, and Getty's son, has gone to the dogs on drugs and booze - and is now divorced). Getty Snr, who has little regard for his daughter-in-law, refuses to help despite his having deep affection for the captured boy, on the grounds that if he pays up all of his other several grandchildren will be lifelong sitting ducks to undergoing the same fate. Getty Snr appoints a business acquaintance (Marky Mark) to try to solve the disappearance and get the boy safely back again. 
I was expecting that there'd be, after initial hostility between the single mother and the appointed investigator, a thawing between them and they'd soon be melting in each others' arms - as seems to be the regular cinema 'plot'.

There's a little violence in the kidnap sequences, though I have to single out for special mention a particularly grisly amputation scene.

It's quite a brisk film, which belies its 2h20m length. Ridley Scott  successfully managing to keep the tension going throughout. Although I do vaguely remember the story in the news at the time, I'd forgotten how it would end, and Scott gives nothing away before the required moments arrive. 
Much of the action is set, of course, in Italy - with scenes also at Getty's palatial estate in England. 
There's a bit of a revelation (to me) at the end as to why Getty Snr had been so reluctant to help.

Plummer does well in his role, though Michelle Williams is even better - remarkable, in fact. The real Getty Senior died at 84, Plummer is now 88 - and his early scenes (his first appearance is just five minutes in) flashing back some 20 years can't recapture a more (relatively) youthful character that the late octogenarian Plummer is required to play, not altogether successfully, though these scenes are only brief. And no, I didn't see any 'joins', and soon managed to stop myself looking for them.

It was a better film than I thought it might be. Ridley Scott, himself also now well into his 80s, continues to bring out films with a good quota of pumping excitements, and this is well up to the standard which we've come to expect from him. Not bad at all........................7

Monday 8 January 2018

Film: 'Walk with Me'

I was attracted to this limited release film because of its subject matter involving Buddhism, the only religion I have any serious time for - though I'll readily concede that has not been helped at all by recent events in Burma/Myanmar with its Buddhist-dominated government, just as happenings in Sri Lanka with its similarly-inclined rulers dismayed a lot of us two or three decades ago. However, that aside (if one really can push it to one side!) I was hoping that this film might have a similar profound effect on me as I'd derived from Peter Brooks' extraordinary 1979 film, 'Meetings with Remarkable Men' (on the teachings of Gurdjieff and how his present-day disciples put them into practice), which I only caught by chance in Amsterdam in the early 1980s, and which I just had to see twice. This latter film had one of the most telling effects any film has had on me. And thankfully, 'Walk with Me' doesn't come off too badly in comparison, if maybe not quite on the same exalted level.

I'd guess that in order to best appreciate this film it helps to have some prior knowledge of the direction of Buddhist belief, and in particular, what's known as 'mindfulness'. I had the advantage, if it is one, of having attended quite a number of Buddhist meditation classes through the 1980s and 90s - specifically on techniques to raise awarenesses, beginning with the act of breathing - to supplement a then regular twice daily practice of Transcendental Meditation, which I've lapsed on over the last 20 years, a situation I feel guilty about almost every day, yet being perfectly aware that it's within my grasp to return to it anytime I want to.   
But maybe not having knowledge of this technique makes no difference to ones liking of the film, or otherwise. I just don't know.

The factual film (directors M.Francis & M.Pugh) without commentary, follows a present-day Buddhist community of nuns and monks led by teacher Thich Nhat Hanh first in France at a secluded 'Awareness Centre' which they run, receiving occasional parties of interested members of the public - and then in America, starting in New York. The film is punctuated by occasional readings by Benedict Cumberbatch of teachings by this teacher, not too many of them, just a couple of sentences now and again, of his aphorisms. I thought this was very effective. 
I felt the first more-than-half of the film, set in France, was rather more successful (an infectious serenity throughout) than the American section where some of the monks and nuns met up with their relatives, their first re-acquaintance for some years being very moving - tears etc. It goes slightly off track when a group of the nuns and monks sit and meditate together on a busy New York thoroughfare, only to have a Bible-brandishing lay speaker telling the passing public that only Jesus can save - not exactly haranguing the Buddhists directly but definitely shouting out that Christianity was the only 'true' religion. The episode felt rather like grit in the eye. Needless to say, very sensibly, none of the Buddhists responded to his provocation.

I got the feeling that through most of this film the large audience I was with was every bit as transfixed as I was. It's had varied reviews, the negative ones almost getting me to not bother going - which led me to suggest that having some prior knowledge of the nature of Buddhist belief might help. But if you are curious enough whether or not you 'qualify' in this way, and if you want to see a gentle, thought-provoking piece of cinema (which may need a bit of patience too) I don't think you'll find it a waste of time at all. I certainly didn't.........................7.5.