Wednesday 25 April 2018

Film: 'Funny Cow'

 From the blurb, I thought this film had potential - but it turned out to be not the film I was expecting. 
"Challenging", "uncomfortable", "offensive" were just some of the adjectives gleaned from reviews. I found it barely any of those things - and not helped either by one particular unfortunate miscasting. 

Maxine Peake plays a working-class woman in early middle age who, since a child, yearned to be accepted as a stand-up comedienne (or should one refer to her simply as a 'comedian' these days? I can't keep up!)  - despite being locked into a sour, childless marriage with a violently abusive husband. It's now the 1970s in northern England (Rotherham, in fact), and she notices an ad in the local paper announcing forthcoming auditions for an act to take the stage in a neighouring working-mans' club (not too big). She secretly snips out the announcement, deciding to give it a go, Of course, this is an era when female comedians are unheard of because women "just aren't funny"(!) - but she's determined to prove that she can raise laughs every bit as much as the men. Before the auditions, her husband finds out what she means to do and warns her that if she goes he'll break her nose!  
Meanwhile, while browsing in a local bookshop, she's noticed by the owner (the marvellous, and usually reliable, Paddy Considine) their mutual attraction being immediate, a date following and a romance develops. Considine, in his considerable career to date, has played a wide range of roles, from frighteningly nasty to credibly sympathetic, sensitive and moving - but here, as a cultured intellectual (unmarried) I think his casting has, unfortunately, misfired. Her down-to-earthiness (even philistinism) plays against his own character's refined tastes, though she tolerates it to keep in with him, accompanying him to a cinema showing of that classic 1956 French short 'Le Ballon Rouge' (with which many of my generation will be familiar) - but she finally losing patience when he drags her along to see live Shakespeare.  (An actual red balloon represents a mini-motif in this film). I think this is the first time I've seen Considine in a romantic role.

Also in the cast is Alun Armstrong as an ageing, yet still aspiring, amateur comedian down on his luck (if he's ever experienced any, that is) still trying to wow the locals but getting nothing but mocks and jeers for his pains. He tries to give some homely advice to the main character, though it's doubtful that, being the lifetime failure which he represents, it can be of much value. I thought this character was possibly the most affecting in the entire film.

There are also two or three cameos from well-known British, mainly TV, personalities.

I was expecting there'd be something of a controversial edge to Maxine Peake's act. In this film, if there is any at all, it's mainly confined to her final stand-up turn where she does eventually get the sought-for audience approbation - though it's still only the local crowd. I 'd thought that there'd be a trajectory right up to recognition at a national level. It doesn't go anywhere near that - and I think the film's more modest aims are to its credit.

I was barely shocked at all by the expected 'controversial' references in her stand-up routine (including using words like 'Pakis' and 'poofs') because when I was growing up these were words in just about everybody's vocabulary - yes, even my own - and would even be heard occasionally on TV. Furthermore, most British people of a generation even younger than mine will recall entire TV 'comedy' series being based on making fun of other (non-white) races - as well as mining the rich seam of queer put-downs where a comedy programme was incomplete if it didn't include a generous helping of homophobic 'humour' (Ha ha, what a hoot!)
So I think if there's any 'shock' element at all in this film it will be experienced only by those who are too young to have lived through those pre-p.c. times when such comments were so prevalent that hardly anyone batted an eyelid or, if they did, it would be dismissed as just harmless 'banter' or 'man-talk'! What was different in this film was the liberal use of four-letter words in Peake's act, words which would never have been heard on TV, at least up to the 1970s - though of course I know for a fact that in the environment of beer-swilling working-mens' clubs, even though I didn't go to any myself, such vocabulary on stage (as well as off, naturally) was as omnipresent as oxygen.

Two further things in this film I could have done without - the main character's talking to screen (us) but saying little of consequence, certainly nothing revelatory - and her meeting herself, a couple of times, as a young girl - even giving her a red balloon! -  endowing the film with a portentousness that brought the whole thing down more than just a notch. Oh dear! 
Maxine Peake herself presents a capable performance - though I didn't think her character's managing to laugh off the physical assaults against her were all that convincing when we, the audience, looked on horrified.

I've seen very little of director Adrien Shergold's work up to now as most of his work to date has been for TV and I'm not a great telly-watcher. His main achievement in this film for me, if lacking in memorability was, nonetheless, an important one - viz. I was never bored.................5.5.

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Film: 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society'.

I'm not going to pretend - and why should I? I just could not relate to this film. Going further, I found stretches of it even tiresome.

It's set in 1940s Guernsey (the second-largest of the British Channel Islands just off the coast of northern France - present pop. around 60,000). The Channel Islands were the only part of Great Britain to come under Nazi occupation for a briefish period - and this is shown in several flashbacks to that time, complete with hostile reactions of the islands' inhabitants.

The society of the film's title is a subterfuge for a handful of literary enthusiasts (including Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton) to meet up for readings and discussion - the 'pie' part reflecting the fact that the occupying Germans removed all farm animals for their own use, leaving the natives to subsist practically solely on potatoes - though a single errant pig which survived the stealing provides a rare treat for the group. (I'll quickly gloss over that episode!)

The film's main character is played by Lily James as a writer who visits the island after just after the war, having got intrigued by this society and she decides to write a book on their war experiences, coming up against obstacles - most unpleasantly from the woman owning the room where she's staying - as well as reservations from members of the group who feel that she's opening whole cans of worms when she discovers an affair between one of the islanders and a German officer, and their resulting child. Simultaneously she herself is being caught up in a romantic entanglement with an American (Glen Powell) which is, one might say, not going ideally. And - but of course! - there's another young man (the Dutch Michiel Huisman), a pig (mainly) farmer who fancies her - and he's not alone (pace Matthew Goode). 
It's all very 'bitty' with many flashes back and forwards which was getting me lost and exhausted. But despite all these strands going here and there I found the whole thing verging on plain dull!

Director is the well-established Mike Newell, still probably best known (and rightfully so) for 'Four Weddings....etc' (1994) though I found little of that film's magic here.

Incidentally the scenery shots in this film are utterly marvellous. Pity, then, that filming was not done on the titular island itself but on the mainland - Cornwall and Devon!

I've seen and heard some good reviews of this film, though vastly enthusiastic ones I've yet to see. I think for me it might have gone down better with a glass or two of wine. However, since I'm now and have been teetotal for over a year that wasn't poss. Still, I'll be generous and won't score it below average. Do take a..........5.

Monday 23 April 2018

Film: 'Jusqu'a la Garde' / 'Custody'

A hellishly tense family drama around impending divorce and  the custody of one child in particular, an eleven year-old son. The build-up of tension throughout the film is one of the most effective I have ever seen on screen. If you're a nail-biter you can expect to nibble them right down to the quick! (Note that well, you makers of thrillers and horror films!)

It's the present day in an unspecified French location, and the film starts with legal arguments between the respective female solicitors for each of the disputing parties (Lea Drucker & Denis Menochet, above), she making claims about the violence of her husband towards both herself and their daughter (approaching 18 and hence a young adult capable in law of making her own decisions) and the threats he's also made against their son (Thomas Gloria - a remarkable and convincing performance) the principal subject of their dispute. The husband denies all the allegations, there being no witnesses to their arguments outside the family, though the son has made clear in writing his wish to remain with his mother on a permanent basis despite his father being granted shared custodial rights. Likewise, the daughter is on her mother's side too.

You can probably guess the situations which engender the tension, and director Xavier Legrand handles it all flawlessly without overplaying it, creating a true model of how suspense should be done.
The entire cast is very strong, though for a considerable time I was distracted by wondering why main actress Lea Drucker looked familiar. And then it dawned on me. It doesn't show so much in the above picture but believe me when I say that there are more than a few moments where she rather alarmingly and uncannily resembles one-time darling (and still so for many) of the American Republican far right, one Ann Coulter (maybe less so now since she's started railing against the President - he being not reactionary enough, I suppose!)  But aside from that little personal quirk of my observation, her performance is astonishing and credible - as also is that of the burly and menacing Denis Menochet who spends most of the film simmering like a volcano on the very cusp of erupting, and whom you never know just what will tip him over and when.

I was within a whisker of rating this film with a clear '8', but finally what I felt ever so slightly let down by was that the thought that it could have been an even more powerful film if the ending had been less clear-cut than it was. A partly-suspended resolution I think would have been more in character with all that had gone on before, and perhaps more satisfying, though I accept that with such high-level tension throughout a lot of the audience might have felt cheated if they weren't given a black-and-white finale. It's only a personal viewpoint which others may not agree with, and that's fair enough. However I can confidently state now that 'Custody' will feature as one of my top films of 2018..............7.5

Monday 16 April 2018

Film: 'Love, Simon'

Anyone wanting escapist fiction (and why not?) in the portrayal of a non-existent world of enlightenment should be delighted by this - especially its final half-hour where you're invited to swim along in a cloying treacle of conceit in congratulating itself on just how 'nice' people in general are when one comes out as gay (except for a couple of mockers who are brusquely told to shove it).  You see, the world is not so hostile after all! 

Shot in Atlanta, Ga., the film started unpromisingly (and predictably) in high school where all conversation consists of quickfire repartee, and where everyone must have brain functions like quicksilver, so ready is everyone with the speedy, witty rejoinder. 
17-year-old Simon (Nick Robinson) is tormented by the realisation he's carried around for some years, that he's gay and is terrified of anyone finding out because of their possible hostile reactions - both schoolmates and his family of father, mother and younger sister.
While stringing along girlfriends who are likewise ignorant of his 'secret' he strikes up an online rapport with the mysterious 'Blue' who, like him, has concealed his sexuality and doesn't know how to proceed. They share considerable correspondence and emotions on their respective predicaments. But his online correspondence is discovered by one of his annoyingly brash classmates who uses this discovery to blackmail Simon into guiding him to the girl of his choice. 

You'll have gathered from my start that when he is forced 'out' by the action of others and so does come out to his family, the reactions, though initially mainly one of dumbfoundedness - especially his father who belatedly comes round - are almost universally positive. (Would that it were like this for everybody - there'd be no reason for anyone to remain closeted at all!)

Maybe my criticism of the unreality of it all is ungenerous as it 's essentially a 'feelgood' film and has no pretensions to be otherwise. But I felt it was so detached from any world I was aware of that it made me squirm. 

Director Greg Berlanti does what he can with the material and I have no doubt from his earnestness that his heart was in it from the start as comes across on screen. 

I was going to rate it lower than I have done but it would have been unfair to have let it pass with the very same score as I gave for my previous review, 'Ghost Stories'. 
This film has pleased very many people, the majority of them, actually. However, not me...........4.

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Film: 'Ghost Stories'

I only went because this British film sounded like it had the potential to be something good, as well as being swayed by some better-than- average reviews. Alas, in my books it was a resounding DUD!

These anthologies of several horror tales within one film were quite a vogue in the late 1960s and early 70s (invariably a 'House of Hammer' production) and there haven't been that many at all since then. They usually consisted of four or more stories told in flashback from the point of view of each member of a group who hadn't met before, but are brought together by some mysterious agent with a sinister motive, often with fatal consequences as a grand climax. Usually two or more of the tales would at some point give me the shivers.

This film has a trilogy of stories prefaced by a character (played by Andy Nyman who's also the director and co-writer) who's occupation it is to reveal charlatans masquerading as psychics who claim to have communication with the dead and thereby duping gullible audiences. He's also bothered by a man who had a the same job some decades previously until he just vanished without trace, assumed dead - and who now out of the blue gets in touch with him suggesting that they meet. When that happens he's given case notes of three situations which the original cheat-chaser can't explain and the newcomer agrees to investigate each of them in turn. This is the pretext for our being shown the three tales in sequence, each of them lasting about 20 minutes - but capped by such a silly attempt to join the strands (lasting about the same duration as each of the preceding stories) that if you weren't mystified enough before then you're sure to be by now! It looks as though the writers were just improvising, not knowing in which direction they were going, so they made it up on the hoof, throwing this and that on the screen in a wholly unsuccessful attempt to bring things together.

The first story features Paul Whitehouse as a night watchman, an actor quite well known to British TV audiences mainly, I think, for comedic roles but here playing serious, and he's pretty convincing. In this segment there's much wandering down darkened corridors and into rooms carrying a torch.
The second tranche features teenager Alex Lawther, with strange parents and who, one night driving through woods runs over 'something' - he attempts to drive on only to have his car conk out!
The final story stars Martin Freeman as........I'm not sure what, apart from some sort of smug country squire who probably goes grouse shooting.

Apparently the film was originally a theatre play, of which I hadn't heard.

The most unforgivable aspect of the film for me was the extravagant overuse of the technique of:- 'silence.......silence...........more silence.............then BANG!!!' 
To my mind that's just cheating. There's no film-making skill in it. If the story itself isn't enough to scare one, it's just damn lazy to resort to this kind of ploy - especially when the cause for that sudden bang, thud or other sound which is calculated to startle one out of ones seat has a totally innocent explanation. Using this seems an admittance that the story itself is weak.

Despite the film's title, none of the 'ghosts' as such are of the 'classical' kind in appearance. Here they are all more in the nature of grisly apparitions, often appearing for just the split second necessary to register yet leaving you wondering "What the hell was that?"

Go and see it if you will. A number of people have enjoyed it. But can I personally recommend it? No way!............3.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Film: '120 bpm'

A nearly 2.5 hours long film in French (subtitled, naturally) with a setting of AIDS activism in the early 1990s, is not likely to be high on many people's choices for relaxing 'entertainment'.  
I wish I could say that I enjoyed it as much as a lot of critics did. It won glowing plaudits at Cannes last year, just losing out to 'The Square' for the Palme d'Or. However, to be honest, I did find it a struggle. Being such a weighty subject which is given to polemics, after the first hour I felt myself getting emotionally tired, and after the second I was seriously wilting. Then in the last half hour there are some harrowing minutes as one of the two main characters - almost inevitably for those times - finally succumbs to the disease.  

It starts in Paris 1989 when the French version of 'Act-Up' (with membership of both sexes) was founded with a view to emulate that organisation's New York origins in tactics and reputation. Its purpose is to make people aware of the failure of President Mitterand's government to talk openly about the threat of AIDS to particular groups, especially gay men and intravenous drug users, where a silence to openly acknowledge those who were most at risk was seen as near-collusion with the worst aspects of the disease itself. Seen as equally blameworthy is the main research laboratories which is accused of dragging its heels in making known results of tests.   
Several street demonstrations are shown, not only marching with banners, but also lying down in the road. However, and most spectacularly, a group of activists enter the premises of 'culpable' organisations, including those research facilities, and throw fake blood all over the place.

Amidst these scenes, some of which are particularly rowdy and argumentative, there is a burgeoning romance between a 28-year old man (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) and another in his 30s (Arnaud Valois), one of whom is already HIV-positive. In the latter part of the film, this character declines in health until the inevitable occurs, an event which comes very close to home for those of us who've experienced this with those who were our close ones. I found this part a difficult watch, but the death itself and its aftermath on screen doesn't last very long. The deceased's ashes are then disposed of in a highly unusual, controversial and conspicuously publicity-attracting way in accordance with his wishes. (Applause, please!)

Moroccan-born director (and writer) Robin Campillo has undoubtedly here created an earnest and brutally honest work. There are, unsurprisingly, virtually no laughs in this long film, the only light and shade being between the militant campaigning and the quiet romance between the two main players. There is at least one sex scene in very subdued light, but nothing to see which would otherwise have raised the level of film certificate.

I'm not sure I'd care to sit through this again. I don't doubt its sincerity for one moment, though if I had to watch it once more I'd much rather see it in two separate episodes. I trust that my near-average rating will not imply that I wish in any way to belittle the gravity of the subject matter, but I really did find it harder going than I might have wished..............5.5.

Monday 9 April 2018

Film: 'A Quiet Place'

In a genre that is very prone to being derivative it is good to see an horror film which plays an original slant for its over-riding characteristic of the enemy 'aliens' viz. although being blind, they possess hyper-sensitive hearing so that the slightest sound will attract their malevolent and fatal attention. 

There is no explanation as to where we are (though that hardly matters - it was shot in New York state) or exactly what the enemy is or where the creatures have come from. The film plonks us right in the middle of seeing a small family of two adults and two children trying to survive by remaining silent - both in moving around and by communicating, where they use sign language. It so happens that their daughter is profoundly deaf so they are all already proficient in that method of 'talking'. (Yes, I know. You've just got to accept it, put it out of your mind, and go along with it). Living in a rural house without nearby neighbours, we have to assume that the rest of the country or, most likely, the entire world has succumbed to these unsavoury beings, or are maybe surviving in dwindling pockets. We don't see an alien creature in complete shot for at least the first half of the film.

The husband and wife are played by real-life marrieds, John Krasinski and Emily Blunt, the former also directing this as well as being the story's creator and one of the screenplay writers. Both are very good indeed - more especially Blunt who has to go through agonies, both mental and physical, while maintaining silence, - and she's heavily pregnant to boot! - though I must admit that I did notice that at no time, despite the almost unbearable tension throughout the film, did she appear to break out into a sweat, even with all her exertions and even when one of these monsters is almost within touching distance of her. In addition, there is one incident in which she is injured (it made me wince, and I'm sure I wasn't alone) though she didn't seem to be as incapacitated as I'd have expected considering what happened. 
Mention must also be made of Millicent Simmonds, herself a profoundly deaf young actress, playing the daughter with that same condition.

The film covers only a very few days in the family's tribulations, so, apart from the couple of things which happen to the mother, there is little change in their overall situation. The threat is unchanged. The film is little more than an extended snapshot of the family's predicament during this short time.

Tension all through is maintained at a high pitch, almost wanting to make one scream - and using this technique it's a riveting story, the film coming in at little more than a satisfying hour and a half, and at no point overplaying its hand or outstaying its welcome. 
I thought it was well made and successful in achieving what it wanted to do. I liked it..........7.