Thursday 29 March 2018

Film: 'Unsane'

Shot entirely on iPhones (whatever that is!) resulting in a near-square screen format, this latest from Steven Soderbergh looked quite good from the trailer and its strong premise - and Soderbergh has yet to make a film which can be airily dismissed (until now?)
Reviews have been everything from 'bonkers' and 'a plot full of holes' to 'gripping drama'. I went with low expectations, with the hope of being pleasantly surprised.

Claire Foy is a successful, newly-promoted, single businesswoman who has just relocated from Boston to Pennsylvania, a major reason for the move having been that she was being stalked by a former boyfriend (Joshua Leonard) after she refuses to accept his texted beseechings to contact him, and she succeeds in obtaining a restraining order against him. In her new location she calls in to an institution where she understands she can obtain psychological out-patient support for her personal situation. Before she returns to her work she is asked to sign a form agreeing to a future programme of sessions to help her, which she casually does - only to find that she has signed herself to be detained in the premises for a minimum of seven days, including constant close supervision, daily compulsory medications - and sleeping in dual sex dormitories! Her nightmare begins, suddenly exacerbated even further on her discovery that one of the institute's medical staff is her very stalker from Boston.

For the film's first half I was thinking that it wasn't really bad at all - effective suspense, easy and sympathetic identification with the victim, pretty good acting and direction. And then it turned. The change came at a clear delineation point, just over halfway through, in the first major dialogue between Foy and her stalker - when the incredulity I experienced just crumbled all that had so well been built up until that point. The script suddenly became slacker and lazier - and as for the plot, it descended into silly melodrama, as though the writers themselves weren't quite sure how to bring the thing to a close, so took the easy option of vicious violence with letting of blood, including two or three murders - and as for the plot, what plot? Convincing, it was not!
It reminded me a lot of those thrillers back in the 1960s when we saw two films in one programme, a B-movie (similar to this one) propping up, and as a preamble to, a more substantial main feature, the film we had really gone to see.  

The generally strong cast also includes Amy Irving as Foy's concerned mother.

It's a pity it turned out not to have lived up to its promise. The only reason I give it a slightly above average rating is that it definitely did have the seeds of a good, solid story in its initial set-up and exposition. Such a shame that it wasn't realised...............5.5

Tuesday 27 March 2018

Film: 'Black Panther'

This won't take long. 
Having had no desire to see this, which has been hanging around our smaller screens for some weeks, and is now at the fag-end of its cinema release schedule, I was enticed to give it a go on hearing that it was 'really good'. Alas, for me it wasn't. Wasn't able to engage with it on any level. I'd gone having worked out when I could leave, if I wanted, without impinging my self-ordained rules for inclusion in the category of 'having seen it'. In the event I did endure it through to the end - including the post-credits epilogue - though it was a merciless experience. I was none the wiser as to what was going on at the close than I'd been at the start when I'd got lost within minutes and didn't have a care to get more involved. Let's face it, I'm just way outside the frame of audience capture that this is aimed at and so my visit had been futile from the outset. It needs an interest in comic-book capers and heroes to keep one enthralled - and all power to those who belong in that class. Sadly(?) for me, I don't and I think there's little point in my attending any more films of this kind..........3.

Monday 26 March 2018

Film: 'The Ice King'

And anyone who suggests that a more 'apt' title' to this film would be to replace its final word with.....(you can guess).... leave the classroom NOW!

Film about the British figure ice-skating phenomenon that was John Curry, gold medallist at the Innsbruck Winter Olympics of 1976, the first ever openly gay Olympian (confirmed by himself, when asked by a reporter on the eve of that very same final - "Not a big deal!") - who then went on to have considerable success around the world with his solo performances and with the ice skating company he founded and largely funded. Returning home to his mother exhausted and near-destitute - by now ailing with having contracted the AIDS virus, he died in 1993 at the age of 44.  

This warts-and-all film, in documentary form though without a commentary, consists of recollections by people who knew him - mother, friends, associates, surviving lovers - as well as the reading out of substantial extracts from his letters illustrating his mood swings, his carefree lifestyle (gay venues including Fire Island), and detailing his varying affections at any given time. No attempt is made to justify his heavy professional demands on himself and on others and his harsh criticisms of them. 

I found the entire film touching, even incredibly moving at times - and I learnt a lot about a figure about whom I knew only a little. I hadn't owned a TV at the time of peak of his fame and only heard of him through work colleagues who used him to have gentle digs at me as this was also the time when I myself had only just 'come out' at work. I do recall the tabloid papers at the time being obsessed beyond reason with his sexuality, though they would claim it was only in a joshing sense rather than intentionally malicious. But there was always an undercurrent of nastiness to articles about him, even if the prejudices weren't completely quite spelt out.  

Until today I'd never seen an extended play of any of his performances and I have to say that though we only see extracts here, what we do see is simply breathtaking, making me want to see much more. 

Director and writer James Erskine has done a sterling job of bringing this enigmatic and significant figure to the screen, someone who is in danger of being forgotten, or at least fading somewhat from memory. I think John Curry himself would have been well satisfied to have this as a memorial to his achievements................7.

Thursday 22 March 2018

Film: 'Mary Magdalene'

My enthus-iasm for seeing this was near rock bottom anyway, but coming up from having been laid low for a few days by a flu-like virus, and having for that reason missed (possibly forever) the chance of seeing two films that were on my list - 'A Fantastic Woman' and 'Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story' - thought I'd better make some effort to get back into the routine, even if it is with something that has attracted majority reviews of being flat and uninspiring. Two things that would have made me want to walk out are, on the soundtrack a celestial choir wafting their 'Ah-aahs' at every point of heightened religious experience  - so much a fixture of religious (= Christian) films in decades gone by (not in this film, though there is much devotionally-pointed high strings music) - and another is an exceptionally gruesome crucifixion depiction which hyper-zealot Mel Gibson has demonstrated can be done - and Pope John Paul II, after watching his film, 'The Passion of the Christ', declared that that was just how it happened - and he would have known, wouldn't he? No, my own imagination can supply gore and gristle enough, thank you, without having to endure it in graphic representation. In this film the crucifixion scene and those leading up to it, though necessarily bloody, are brief.

The interesting take on this film is its awesome and well-intentioned attempt to rehabilitate this key character of the Gospels (if indeed she was just one individual rather than being a composite) by freeing her from the erroneous caricature of 'fallen woman' bestowed upon her by Pope Gregory I (the 'Great') and which has endured now for over fourteen centuries - though with a very long overdue attempt by the Vatican in recent years to rectify this slanderous injustice. (Btw: Why are men never described as being 'fallen'? Is it something that only they are permitted to be without censure? - permitted by other men, of course.) 
The film attempts to show some happenings of Christ's late life from a feminine perspective where the experiences of the two of them coincide. And it's Mary who, quite rightly, has the greater screen time.

Joachin Phoenix is the Messiah! - looking nearer to 40 than his reputed age of early 30s, so Jesus hasn't aged too well, but we'll let that go.  Rooney Mara is Mary M., his sole female disciple and favourite (and his wife? - but no indication of that in this film!)
Chiwetel Ejiofor is a disappointingly anodyne Peter, about as bland as I actually found Mara in the title role - and indeed, Phoenix himself, who didn't seem right for this historically stand-out part. To my mind there ought to have been rather more magnetism, both animal and spiritual, to this 'saviour'. 
The only really interesting member of the cast I thought was the screen-stealing Tahar Rahim as a bubbly, very likeable Judas, impatient for the arrival of a heavenly power to overthrow the oppressive Romans rulers.

The story begins with Mary living with her 'demons' which are then cast out by Jesus in their first meeting. Thereafter there didn't seem to be that much attraction between the two even though it's played that there was indeed an emotional connection. 
Much dialogue in this film, particularly in the early scenes, is lost in incoherent mumblings and incomprehensible whisperings, when such low-voiced exchanges weren't even necessary! So that got it off on the wrong foot for me.
A few episodes we are familiar with are played out - a raising from the dead of a man (not Lazarus) - was particularly well done. 
I liked that we were shown Mary actually baptising others herself - okay, 'just' two women but even so.....something that would alone get some 'evangelists' frothing at the mouth, so that's all to the good.
The reason for the betrayal by Judas is given a different slant to the one that's been handed down to us, so that too I liked.  

In a sense this is a brave film, attempting to give us something new without lurching over completely into controversial territory, so that alone is a 'plus'. But other than this rather abstract pleasing quality I'd be hard-pushed to detail many more of its assets. 

Director Garth Davis gave us the quite impressive 'Lion' in 2016. If this film is, in my view, nowhere near that it in stature and quality,  this did exceed my original low expectations.............5.

Monday 19 March 2018

Film: 'The Square'

Bizarre, highly unsettling, Swedish film (mostly in that language, with a few scenes in English) - pushing it a bit at two-and-a-half hours, though worth it if you can endure that length.

Director/writer Ruben Ostlund's previous film was 'Force Majeure' (2014) towards which I was lukewarm at the time, though whenever it's mentioned (still quite regularly) it seems to be referred to in awe as a near-masterpiece. I'd like to give it a second shot to assuage my feelings of guilt at having been so half-hearted. 

That earlier film was disturbing enough - and with a single coherent storyline. This one is more viscerally unsettling though without a similar clear narrative. At times it seems to be a series of episodes strung together, all involving a renowned Stockholm modern art museum curator (Claes Bang) in a series of conflict/confrontational situations with various staff of his and with members of the public. 
There is also the presence of Dominic West (playing American) in just a couple of scenes, but both are unforgettable - the above still-shot being what develops into possibly the most horribly out-of-control moment in the entire film. Elisabeth Moss likewise appears in two extended scenes impinging on the main character's private life.  

It's hard to say much more about the story, such as it is, because incidents, when they happen, are so strange (I was occasionally reminded of Fellini, though without his softer edge). A crucial key word in the film is the cry of 'Help!' which recurs frequently- and a key object is the mobile phone, one in particular as well as generally - including their ringtones.

My main criticism is the film's length. I think a snappier film at little more than half this one's length might have had more impact, memorable as this one yet is. And there were just too many plays on the soundtrack of the Bach-Gounod 'Ave Maria' (in instrumental arrangement) which was becoming irritatingly distracting.

On the whole, however, it was a rewarding experience. One to ponder over at leisure (it has an insistent quality) though it might have been even better still...........6.5.

Thursday 15 March 2018

Film: ''You Were Never Really Here'

Highly violent feature from director Lynne Ramsay - who impressed many of us with her 'We Need to Talk about Kevin' (2011) - but now serves up a sequence of sensationally violent scenes with a strung-together sameness - guns, fists, even hammer - most of these being mercifully brief, some off-screen, many split-second flashbacks often with scant explanation - though it commits, for me, the cardinal error of at least one of these ultra-violent shocks being in the lead character's (Joaquin Phoenix) imagination. That's not fair - that's cheating! 
From what I've seen, the film has generally had good or very good reviews. I can't help wondering if that was based more on expectations that in view of her past, Ramsay would deliver something extra-special, rather than the finished product as it is. If this had been her first film would they have been so kind? However, and as increasingly so these days, I'm out on a limb on this, so it could well be that my own verdict is lacking in discernment.

Dialogue throughout the film is spare, the taciturn Joachin Phoenix (almost unrecognisable under that bushy beard and pumped-up body) dominating just about every scene. Very few other characters utter any words at all. 

It's present-day New York and a scruffy veteran (Phoenix) who specialises in finding lost children is asked by a senior politician to find his missing young daughter, he wanting to avoid adverse publicity during an election campaign. It doesn't take long for the daughter to be traced, she having been abducted as just one of a number of child victims of a paedophile ring. Phoenix spares no one's limb or life in his determined, violent efforts to rescue the girl. It's basically stuff we've seen many times before, though not often as graphically as this, and I can't help asking myself if some of the favourable verdicts of this film are due to a visceral, yet perfectly understandable, human reaction to seeing purveyors of such horrific treatment of young children being meted out with the violent summary justice which many might argue that they only deserve. 
It comes as not much of a revelation when we learn the nature of the membership of this abusive circle - though I repeat that throughout the film elucidations are in scant supply, many blanks left unfilled, with nearly all the concentration being based on physical violence of blood being splattered and spilled rather than any attempt at putting some kind of rationale behind the flimsy 'plot'. I generally have no problem with films leaving loose ends dangling at the close but in this there were just too many of them for my mind to accept as being satisfactory. 

I didn't think very much of this film though I've certainly seen a lot worse - and it did have a nervous energy which kept me glued to the screen apart from maybe three of four instances when I just had to look away. But many of the shocks come without warning, and are pretty well all very brief in any case. It also does have the advantage of being about only 90 minutes long. In summary, though, this does not go down as a 'must-see'...................5.

Film: 'Wonder Wheel'

Woody Allen's 49th film as director and I've managed to see every single one of them on the cinema screen. No. 50 (a neat number to retire on if he wished) 'A Rainy Day in New York', is in the bag awaiting release, but may now not be given a cinema screening, perhaps going straight to Netflix - all fallout in the light of comments made by some of that film's participants (as well as Kate Winslet's implied criticism of Allen regarding this current film) to the effect that because of abuse allegations which have now vastly tipped the balance against the director/writer, they would not consider working with him ever again. 'Wonder Wheel' has fared poorly at the U.S. box office, almost certainly as a consequence, and looks as though it will not do much better in the U.K. (I was one of an audience of just seven!)
Up to now I'd managed to keep these lurid stories of Allen's conduct at bay by giving him the benefit of the doubt in assuming that they could be no more than spiteful creations of an ever-vengeful Mia Farrow - but who knows?. However, they've now reached such a clamour that it's practically impossible to ignore them and, even if they have been totally fabricated, it very much looks as though Allen's reputation is for a long time going to be tainted by association with these allegations. Now at the age of 82, even if he had intended to make yet more films, Allen couldn't have achieved much more than he already has. Whenever he retires, be it now while all this ugly mess surrounds him, or if he indeed soldiers on, I can only maintain that he has given me more pleasure in toto than practically any other film director I could name.  Out of his very substantial directing and writing output there are a mere handful of his films that I wouldn't care to see again, whilst many more than that number continue to reward me through multiple viewings. It's all turned so sad and regrettable.

'Wonder Wheel' is the name of the large Ferris Wheel which dominates the view from the Coney Island apartment in 1950 of married couple Kate Winslet and Jim Belushi and their 10-year old truant-playing, pyromanic son. Their marriage has gone off the boil - at least for her it has - she working as waitress at a clam-eatery while he takes care of a merry-go-round. His estranged mid-twenties daughter (Juno Temple) from a previous marriage unexpectedly turns up, having fled from having spent mad time with the 'mob' in New York, and they are now on the hunt for her.
Belushi is trying hard to stay on the wagon while migraine-complaining Winslet (she sometimes pronounces it 'my-graine', other times  'me-graine) is dissatisfied and bored with her hard-working life when she happens to meet a lifeguard (Justin Timberlake) on the beach - a few years younger than her, but a romance and affair develops. It's not very long before she finds that Belushi's daughter has, quite innocently, set a claim on the very same 'target', Winslet's jealousy at this discovery driving her to distraction. 

There are 'holes' in this no-laughs film, which is a pity because I think the main strand, the Winslet-Timberlake affair and its subsequent direction, is very strong indeed. Trouble is that Kate Winslet knows how to act - she's an object lesson, in fact - and, seen beside her intensity and commitment, Timberlake looks like his acting is only one inch deep. Whereas she shows credible passion without going completely bonkers, as well as impressive subtlety, his performance looks as though he couldn't really care all that much. Moreover, I think it was a serious error to have given him the job of being the film's narrator, both as off-screen voice-over, but also (and unaccountably), sometimes on-screen and direct-to-camera. His character is essentially subservient to, and less interesting than, Winslet's, and he doesn't have the screen presence to carry off the narrator's storyteller function. 
I'm also not sure about the kid making fires here and there in combustible areas, with (only potentially) catastrophic results. This seemed a needless distraction from the main storyline which didn't serve any useful purpose and didn't go anywhere.

The script was okay - if not really quite up there with Allen's very best, it's still far better than many are. Direction was also not bad at all. However, the colour photography is a marvel - one of Allen's best achievements in that field to date, and one of the big 'pluses' of this film.
It's a small cast with good acting - apart from the one exception - and with one stand-out part.

Will this be the last Woody Allen film we'll get to see on screen? I'm not giving up on #50 just yet - but if 'Wonder Wheel' really were to be his last to be seen by in this medium, he could have done worse - and, speaking for myself alone, I did come out from this one feeling quite satisfied................7

Friday 9 March 2018

Film: 'Game Night'

This sounded like it might be fun. Wrong! 
It's been described in places as a 'comedy-horror' story (though with no true 'horror' at all, more 'spoof- thriller' - and only very limited comedy) I thought it would be a refreshing change after all the awards seasons bluster - and the fact that I like 'puzzle' films (as against 'mystery) where the audience is confronted with a brain-teaser situation to be resolved through our own deduction, I was intrigued enough to grant it a try. In the event it fell quite a bit short in delivery, though not without a few modestly entertaining moments. More than one review has called it "hilarious throughout". That it was not!

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are one of three couples who meet weekly for a 'game evening' - charades, scrabble, trivial pursuit questions etc., observed with some resentment by a creepy  neighbour who always wears police uniform, he having been shut out of their invitations. Also part of the group is Bateman's single, elder brother (Kyle Chandler) there being some lifelong rivalry between the two siblings. One evening the brother has single-handedly decided to spice things up by telling the others that he has arranged with a firm, specialising in the purpose(!), to stage a 'kidnapping' of one of the group, and that they are to find, by means of planted clues, a certain object within a prescribed time, to effect the release of the 'hostage'. Okay, nice idea. I can accept that within the conceit of a light-hearted film, that by sheer coincidence something then happens at that very moment which the three couples assume is part of the game but, to the instigator's maddening frustration, is not. So the others observe what takes place with considerable levity. Twists and turns abound, games within games - at least that's what we're supposed to see - but for me the idea was fatally undercut by one of the several grim moments, where everybody could see it was for real rather than staged by this 'company, though the characters were still reacting as though it was all a bit of a lark. The film needed a bit of true darkness to throw the comic bits into relief, and this it lacked. The unexpected moments started to turn into 'So what?' happenings and my interest level steadily dropped.

The film has two directors (J.F. Daley and Jonathan Goldstein) and that might be why it's showing its problem of inconsistency. It seemed to be aware of what it perceived as its own 'cleverness', as though winking to the audience, or a stand-up comedian laughing at his own jokes, but that knowing awareness upstaged any honesty in execution when it needed a distance inserted between screen and audience. It might have been a good film - and, clearly, for quite a number it was exactly that - but ultimately I saw more chances missed than on-target hits. Nevertheless, despite all I say, I must confess that it could have been even a lot worse than it was.......5. 

Tuesday 6 March 2018

Film: 'Lady Bird'

During the first half hour I'd been thinking "Wow, this is so good!" An hour later the initial shimmer had dimmed to a degree, my attention had begun to wander, and it was on the verge of getting to be heavy-going. Quite a contrast to yesterday's film which held me throughout despite that one being some 26 mins longer. True, this doesn't have anything like the heightened drama of 'I, Tonya' but that shouldn't have held it back. The script is sharp enough - very sparky in places - and much has been made of Greta Gerwig's Oscar-nominated direction, as well as her being the film's writer, but it did just fail to sustain any involved interest up to its close for this viewer.

Saoirse Ronan plays a 17-year old senior student at a Catholic school (though she's actually nearly 24) in Sacramento who is bored with California and her school and aspires to move by herself to the east coast, without the approval of her practical, down-to-earth and argumentative mother (Laurie Metcalf, who is terrific here) and gentler, more understanding, big bear of a father (Tracy Letts) - so this is the second film in two days where there's a fraught mother-daughter relationship at its centre, though in this one there's only a bit of measured hysteria and no violence at all. 
As well as the focus on the girl with her family members there's her rebellious attitude in school - towards teachers and fellow pupils - as well as her friendship with boys, first with Lucas Hedges, and then, and more importantly, with this season's flavour, Timothee Chalamet.
The film finishes with her facing new challenges. 

If I hadn't seen 'I, Tonya' so recently I might have enjoyed this more. It was good, but ultimately didn't quite cut the mustard for me. As things stand I'd rather watch that former film again than this one. Nevertheless, I accord 'Lady Bird' a much more-than-respectable.........6.5.

Monday 5 March 2018

Film: 'I, Tonya'

Agreeably exceeding my expectations, I was impressed with this despite knowing nothing at all of the actual events it's based on - depicted method-wise with considerable licence and verve. Although the culmination of the saga, referred to as the 'incident', was as recently as 1994 I don't recall it being a news item, though from its nature it surely must have been.

In Portland, Oregon, Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie) is a top ranking ice figure skater having reached the peak by dint of relentless pressure and bullying from her mother-from-hell (Allison Janney, now clutching Oscar for Best Supporting Actress - against which I have no argument). This sweary-mouthed, humourless matriarch, with never a word of encouragement from her lips, only constant carping and criticism (plus impetuous domestic violence), wears her meanness like armour, not letting the merest suggestion of praise through. She maintains she's sacrificed her entire life to her daughter's training - and complains she's not appreciated for what she's done - and she single-handedly removes her child out of all education in order to devote her daughter's time to training, and practice, practice, practice.  We see Tonya being bullied even as a little girl, but as she grows into adolescence there's no let-up of the harsh regime. And when she starts dating a young man (Sebastian Stan) the mother expresses her disapproval right up to and after their marriage. It very soon becomes evident that Tonya has found a husband who resorts to violence at least as quickly as her mother, perhaps even moreso, with his flying off the handle for the slightest reason, or practically none at all. At least the mother's justifiable  (as she maintains) motive is that she's only doing it for her daughter's advancement and good, even if ineffectually, but the husband has no such pretext to fall back on. His unpredictable behaviour appears near-psychotic. All the time, Tonya has turned out to be no shrinking violet herself but will stand up for herself, not only swearing just as liberally as anyone, but also retaliating with violence in kind. One can understand Tonya's behaviour much more readily than that of the other two, considering that she knew no other way to live.
Meanwhile her competitiveness against her ice skating 'colleagues' (more like enemies in combat) takes nasty twists and reaches such a pitch on her wanting to be included in the American team coming up to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway, that her main rival is subjected to an horrific attack. If, like me, you didn't know the story, I'd better say no more.

I was really impressed with Australian director's Craig Gillespie work here. There are some very violent moments between Tonya and her mother and between Tonya and her husband, but they are all so snappily edited that despite occasional flinches I found I hardly ever had to look away. (In fact the only time I couldn't look was near the film's beginning when a rabbit is shot at).  
I thought the script was superior throughout, and handled credibly by a uniformly strong cast.
My only major reservation is that all through the film a character may suddenly break off from a scene and directly address the camera - sometimes with a "This never happened!" or "This did happen!" . I wasn't quite sure of the point of this other than to add a light-heartedness to the drama which, to be honest, isn't as uniformly bleak as might have been thought, given the subject matter. There are already occasional comedic touches in the script itself. 
The entire film is also punctuated by older versions of the main characters (presumably today) commenting wryly on the story as it progresses.  

I found the film very absorbing, and it was on the whole, quite a genuine treat to watch...................7.5.