Tuesday 26 June 2018

Film: 'Stanley, a Man of Variety'

Apart from its undoubted curiosity value I find next to nothing to commend this oddity. Conceived by the film's sole actor, Timothy Spall himself, it's a colossal misfire of what is usually termed a 'vanity project'. 

Spall has been one of this country's most distinguished and easily recognisable character actors for more than 30 years on both TV and cinema screen, and he always delivers value. But that is precisely what he is and does best - being a character actor. In this film he attempts (foolhardily, I would say) to do impressions of British entertainers of the early to middle decades of the last century and, frankly, they aren't much good - in fact I was asking myself whether I'd missed the point of it all! To try to make sense of it I wonder if he was not so much attempting impressions, as using these figures to channel aspects of his own personality. Well. it's all I can come up with for the moment.

I could make neither head not tail of the story - starting in a mental institution where Spall seems to be the only inmate, occasionally doing janitorial duties, while spending the evenings locked in his 'cell' trying to watch old programmes on a b/w T.V. which needs to be coin-fed to keep it on but which keeps running out. We learn that he's keen to get permission to visit his daughter's grave on the first anniversary of her death (caused by what?), but he's denied leave. Then he sees a series of hallucinations of past entertainers, all played by himself, most of whom I recognised but, to be honest, were it not for the habitual garments we knew them by I'd have taken rather longer to identify them. Spall has a body, face and voice not easily given to impersonations. so what possessed him to try it I don't know. Those personalities which I had no trouble recognising included Max Wall (as in above pic), Tony Hancock, Noel Coward, George Formby, Max Miller - and, more problematically, Peter Sellers, Alistair Sim, Margaret Rutherford (just a wig and dress, no make-up, and with his voice in same register) plus a couple more - and his own mother and father. As to what messages they were trying to convey to him got me lost. They were clearly intended to be amusing, but all was wasted on this watcher.
  I didn't get the film's latter sections either, when he's out of the institution, back in his single flat and making arrangements for his possessions and furniture to be cleared.   

As well as the film's idea being Spall's he shares writing credit with its director, Stephen Cookson. But both of them, if they had a coherent vision of what this film is about it missed me by a mile.

I like Tim Spall, but it seems to me that this vehicle quickly over-reaches itself, making its slim length of little over 80 minutes seem appreciably longer than it was.

Current average IMDb rating is an astonishing 7.9 though only from 13 scores - and 6 of these have given it a bewildering 10/10 which leaves me totally flummoxed. It's especially suspicious, though, as all the remaining ratings are 5 or below, mine being the lowest of all. (On 'Rotten Tomatoes' the three submissions to date give an average of 5/10).

My own minimal score is entirely for Spall's brave but misplaced effort, and nothing else..............2.


Monday 25 June 2018

Film: 'The Happy Prince'

This quite remark-able film depicts the uncharted territory on screen (as far as I know) of the final stages of Oscar Wilde's life in France following his release from prison in 1897 up to his death in Paris three years later at the age of 46. It's a labour of love and dedication from Rupert Everett who wrote the screenplay and directed it, as well as starring as the writer, despite bearing little facial resemblance to the illustrious person himself - and he's to be congratulated on what he's achieved.

The film starts with our seeing Wilde in desperately straitened financial circumstances, living under an alias and nom de plume of Sebastian Melmoth, so impoverished that when a passing English lady recognises him he begs her for money. However, we are not shown a blameless, fallen hero who deserves our sympathies as he's lost none of the haughtiness and arrogance which served him so well in his pre-trial life. Moreover, the little money he does have when he's got any, is frittered away on drink (absinthe) in seedy bars and adolescent boys.
The film's first section has a dizzying compendium of flashbacks to his famed life as a celebrity and a stable family man, including his relating of his short story of 'The Happy Prince' to his two young sons - and in very short takes, views of his wife (Emily Watson) whose on-screen presences, regretfully aggregates to possibly just five minutes. (I'm not sure that giving the the title of the short story to the film does the latter any favours. It sits uneasily with what we see, though that was probably the entire point of calling it so). 

He is visited in France by two friends of more blithe times - Colin Firth - and Edwin Thomas as the ever-faithful Robbie Ross, whose own ashes were eventually buried with Wilde. Also calling on him is Alfred Lord Douglas or 'Bosie' (Colin Morgan), the unintended, misguided architect of Wilde's own downfall - though despite all that's happened, Wilde continues to be infatuated with the spoilt brat resulting in disastrous, yet deeper financial consequences for both of them. 
It was a good move to bring in Tom Wilkinson to play, towards the film's conclusion, the priest who administers Wilde with the last rites of the Catholic Church (Wilde was, of course, a Protestant). Wilkinson appeared in Stephen Fry's very capable portrayal as 'Wilde' (1997) playing Queensbury.

It's in the main a dark, quite troubling, film, which doesn't shy away from displaying Wilde as a 'warts and all' character. I must commend Everett on daring to portray him, despite being in his destitute state, as a rather unlikeable, even shallow, man, who thinks little of the feelings of those other than himself, remaining blinded by chasing the pleasures of the moment.  
I can find no fault in Everett's direction or, indeed, his acting either. I should think that both would deserve award consideration though I get the feeling that it'll be overlooked, particularly by the Oscars (though hopefully not by the BAFTAs), which would be a great shame.
One very slight quibble - I'm not sure that twice using on the soundtrack brief extracts from Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique' Symphony was wise. It captured the mood, true, but I for one found it distracting.

Incidentally, there's a flashback scene in the film in which we see Wilde at the nadir of his humiliation - when he has to wait, shackled, on a station platform for a train to arrive which will take him to Reading for the gaol there. He's recognised by members of the public and is taunted, laughed at and spat on. When I used to travel regularly to London from here on the south coast, most trains stopped at this station, Clapham Junction - and I'm sure they still do. It's a famous episode in Wilde's life which I've known about for a long time and I never used to pass this station without my thinking of the utterly horrible experience he had there. 

I can warmly recommend this film, even moreso if you've any interest at all in Oscar Wilde. Nearly all of what I've read of Wilde's life (a lot) covers and dismisses his post-prison life in a few sympathetic lines, but here it's a both a pleasure and an education to see what happened in those final years expanded and fleshed out so admirably. A heartfelt 'hurrah!' for it.................7.5.   

(IMDb...............6.6 / Rotten Tomatoes..........6.8)

Thursday 21 June 2018

Film: 'Hereditary'

I'd had serious doubts of whether I ought to subject myself to this, regarded by some as the new 'Exorcist' - and that latter film had scared the bejesus out of me back in 1973. In the event, concern was needless as I didn't find 'Hereditary' anything like as special as some have claimed it is. I'm not expecting to have difficulty in sleeping tonight, which I absolutely did have after the earlier release.  

This is very much a film of two halves, the first hour I found pretty good, even very. Adroitly managed restraint is always more effective than going hell-for-leather with special effects. When everything starts getting thrown in, as though the idea is that the more one is shown the more one will be frightened out of one's wits (always indicating desperation, to my mind) it rapidly undoes the positives of what had gone before. I even found myself having to stifle a smile at the daftness of it all.

Toni Collette dominates the film as a dolls-house creator and mother in a family of four, with taciturn hubby (Gabriel Byrne) and their two teenage children (Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro). There are already simmering tensions in the family but when an horrific accident happens, the effect on her life in particular allows her to act as progressively more and more unhinged, particularly after she meets an older woman (Ann Dowd) who's suffered a bereavement and has experienced contact with 'the other side'.
Incidentally, the family has a pet dog (something which always makes me extra nervous) but as the story advances the dog becomes less and less in evidence until it seems to be just written out of the story with no explanation. I'm not complaining.

That first half which I'd admired so much was skilfully manouevre'd, the suspense before anything had even happened being underlined by a most effective soundtrack score of a bass hum or a low throbbing sound. Shame that the expertly built-up tension is not sustained and as more and more is revealed the plot and its on-screen manifestation gets too haywire for words - until, (spoiler alert for what's coming up! - or jump to next para) as a crowning glory, and a hopeless error made in attempting to put some rationale under the happenings by giving it a mumbo-jumbo conclusion relating to Egyptian(?) mythic history - at least I think that was what it was supposed to be. 

It really was a grave mistake to try to explain what it was all about. Would have been immeasurably better to have left it open. We're not so stupid as to be taken in by a fiction of cod-reasoning which, instead of clarifying, succeeds only in obfuscating matters. Dear me!   

Apparently this is Ari Aster's first full-length feature as director. The first hour or so indicates that he does demonstrate some promise. If only he becomes aware of when to rein himself in he may well have better things ahead.
Toni Collette gives the film her all, and there's an awful lot of 'all' in it. I can't deny there was an element of fun in seeing her completely lose her marbles. As for the remainder of the second half, no thanks............5.

(IMDb.........7.8 / Rotten Tomatoes............8.2)

Tuesday 19 June 2018

Film: 'Ocean's 8'

The selling point of this is clearly the 'celebrity' female cast in all the major roles - and there's nothing at all wrong with that. In fact it's more than welcome, being so overdue. The names, big names, which I recognised without having to investigate further were Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena you-know-who and Rihanna. In addition James Corden makes an appearance in the film's final segment, an appearance which some have found grating but, surprising even myself, I thought was one of the film's more laudable features. However, after considering the star-bestrewn cast the qualifications start.

The plot concerns a super-valuable diamond heist during a gala dinner at New York's Metropolitan Museum, planned by the Sandra Bullock character while spending years in prison (don't ask!) she playing sister to her late brother, Danny Ocean - who'd been acted by George Clooney in the franchise trilogy of films. This Ocean family idea is obviously a ruse on which to hang the plot and draw more money for this film at the box office, and it probably will do exactly that. Other than that connection it could have worked just as well, perhaps still better, if they'd ditched the idea of a connection at all and just run with an all-female gang.

The film tries to borrow the slickness and zaniness of the earlier Ocean films and to some extent it succeeds but by now it's already started to look a bit tired and dated. The script itself, where every other rejoinder is intended to be witty, is no great shakes. The film throughout has an arch knowingness as though thinking itself ever so clever that it often nudged towards tedium. More than once I was reminded of bank robbery thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s with their now outdated explanations of the plot so we can follow it, though in this case we are expected to keep up with the rapid twists and turns which are finally laid bare in the post-heist exposures - where not everyone is what they seemed to be, you know the kind of thing - which, I surmise, was supposed to take our breaths away but for me got just a bit too close to unbelievable silliness.

The meatiest of the roles goes to Sandra Bullock who carries it off well - getting a chance to show off her first language, German - as does Blanchett. These two as well as Hathaway and Helena you-know-who have considerably more than mere bit parts.
Direction by Gary Ross (the first 'Hunger Games' film) who also wrote this story and was co-screenplay writer, is okay with nothing especially memorable enough to make the film stand out in ones mind.
As for 'fun' in the execution of the heist, there was a bit of that, though not as much as, say, in the re-make of 'The Thomas Crown Affair' (1999) with Pierce Brosnan. Here I missed any significant build up of tension, the mechanics of the actual crime seeming more clockwork-y, which strained credulity with so little going wrong.

Incidentally, at the matinee screening I attended, out of an audience of perhaps fifty or so, I noticed only about half a dozen men. I wonder if this is indicative of there being a turn-off for those male audience members who demand to see a bit more testosterone on screen, If so, more fool them. On that level there was no lessening at all in the acting and depiction of the action scenes - though in this film there are, unusually, no chases at all.  

It's a passable film. As it allies itself to the Ocean's franchise, which may or may not have been a wise move, it's not really worse than any of those earlier three films. On the other hand, apart from the novelty of it having such a high quotient of female presences, it's definitely not better than any of them either....................5.5.

(IMDb............6.3 / Rotten Tomatoes...........6.2)

Thursday 14 June 2018

Film: 'McQueen'

Not knowing much about, nor even caring about, the world of women's, or any other, fashion, the name of (Lee) Alexander McQueen had been a feeble bleep on my radar of awareness - at least until his suicide in 2010 at the tragically young age of 40 (and on the eve of his own mother's funeral whom he'd adored). So this documentary was destined to be an education for me as much as anything else. 

Lots of footage of talk by members of his immediate and extended family, his former relationships, professionals he'd worked with and fashion celebrities who'd known him - all intercut with film of many of his catwalk fashion shows.
I knew about his reputation for the outrageous, and his creations shown here don't disappoint in that aspect - though I have to say that I just don't 'get' him, thus my being nonplussed by all the fuss over them.  
The catwalk exhibitions are less advertisements of what one might want to wear than a series of tableaux, usually modelled in singles, sometimes in groups. 
It may be obvious, but I have to assume that none of his costumes are seriously designed to be worn. Even if someone wishes to create a sensation in, say, a nightclub, it's a very transitory thing - once seen one doesn't especially long to see it again, and the person sporting such uncomfortable costume must be hoping that they don't again bump into someone who's already viewed it. I'd have thought that once worn it may as well be binned - often the material used is very basic anyway. 

McQueen's determination to succeed at what he liked to do manifested at an early age in London (to his father's displeasure) and he could be rude in his convictions and single-mindedness - as well as giving rise to worries over his dabbling in drugs, specifically cocaine. 
His suicide (by hanging) was hinted at before the event, though not when and how - and when it did come it was a shock that reverberated through the fashion world. 

You may accurately guess that I just don't appreciate this wunderkind of the fashion world. A genius? I must give way to more knowledgeable opinions than mine while I put my own view in suspension. Reviews I've seen, and ratings I quote below, tell me that I'm out on a limb on this one, though that's hardly anything new. 
But it's by no means a dull film. McQueen's boyish charm and exuberance comes over time and time again, though as for anyone who crossed swords with him, it's easy to see who would come out on top. And whatever one thinks of McQueen, one has to conclude that his premature demise was a very sad and needless waste......6.
( Imdb.........9 / Rotten Tomatoes.........8 )

Monday 11 June 2018

Film: 'Edie'

Were it not for my having depressed expectations for this, I may well have found it less satisfying than I actually did.

Sheila Hancock, a regular on British TV in years past plus a few films, and still appearing in theatre and on radio (and, incidentally, widow of the late John Thaw, best known, perhaps, for being 'Inspector Morse'), plays an 83-year old who, when clearing out old stuff following the death of her husband, comes across an old postcard sent from Scotland featuring a picture of the imposing Mount Suilvan on the far north of the Scottish mainland. She determines to travel up all the way from London and to climb it - alone.

Most of the film is set in the unspoilt, breathtaking, rocky and heathen grandeur of this area - and for me this aspect carries the film. There aren't that many films made in this location and it's here used in glorious fashion. The unusually shaped 'mountain' is, in fact, less than 2,500 feet high though its steep sides make it a genuine climbing challenge - more arduous, especially for someone of Hancock's age, than perilous.

Edie (Hancock), on her arrival by train at Inverness, immediately meets by accident a young man (Kevin Guthrie), about one third of her age, and it's agreed that he will offer his paid services as driver, climbing expert and companion (up to a point). You can easily guess that their relationship will go through the usual stages - cordial, argumentative, some lighter moments, some cool, some accidents - you know, the oft-employed formula. 

Director Simon Hunter keep things moving with no great surprises, though it always remains watchable.
It hardly needs saying that the film is essentially a vehicle for Sheila Hancock (whom I've seen live on stage a couple of times), who here does all her own film work - no body-double employed for the climbing scenes, and she fills the role with all the satisfaction one would expect from such a veteran as herself.

As I say above, it really is the Scottish scenery which carries the film. More than once it simply took my breath away, and the images get better and better as the film progresses. It's one of those films that demands to be seen given big screen treatment. 
Without these spectacular visuals I don't think I may have been so pleased with it. But as it turned out....................6.
(IMDb.............6.4 / Rotten Tomatoes.............5.8)

Tuesday 5 June 2018

Film: 'Book Club'

Well, at least I gave it a chance!
My interest in this had been hovering between near-moderate and minimal anyway, but in the course of its hour and three-quarters it was seriously flagging several times. 
The novelty that carries it is, of course, the chance of seeing four, now veteran, actresses, on screen together in ensemble - Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda and Mary Steenburgen. The pretext is their having organised a book club just amongst themselves, and the chosen reading for the purposes of this film is E.L.James' 2011 novel 'Fifty Shades of Grey' - a book apparently so erotic (pah!) that it'll spice up the lives of these four ladies and get them panting for sex in next to no time. No matter if there's no man in their lives at present, they'll want to search one out and bed him. Anyone who reads extensively and has read this 'oeuvre' of Ms James will be as aghast as I was that it could in any way be considered as the catalyst that gets anyone rooting for sexual fulfilment more than any other book available. Anyway, one has to accept it as a conceit on which this film depends - that book getting little more than a very few mentions anyway.

The men involved are Andy Garcia, Craig T. Nelson and Ed Begley Jr, with cameo appearances from Richard Dreyfuss and a disappointingly short one from Wallace Shawn, whose rare on-screen appearances are all exceedingly welcome for me.

We see the women together discussing their respective situations, Candice Bergen being the one most actively searching for a date, whilst the others have either just met a man or is already 'involved' (in a sense, in one case).

It's a gentle 'comedy' (I use the word advisedly), intending to be personable and fluffy - and it just about qualifies as both of these - yet I know I'm going to find it supremely forgettable.
There are moments which are supposed to be ones of high hilarity, and some of the audience I was with thought they were, but I was, for the most part, left unmoved. Even the Viagra episode, which some members of the audience thought was the funniest thing ever put on screen, raised no more than the merest ghost of a smile with me.

It seems to be director (and co-writer) Bill Holderman's first feature-length film. So he's cut his teeth on this one. Let's see what else he can do.

I'd say that this is a film to watch only if you've got nothing better on, though I'm aware that there are some who'd rate it considerably higher than that. It's surely pleasant enough, though only just, but I'd find it hard to think that it would set most people's interest alight, which is also what most of the reviews I've seen opine........4.

(IMDb........6.3 / Rotten Tomatoes.........5.2)

Sunday 3 June 2018

Film: '2001 - A Space Odyssey'

I don't usually write about 'old' films, but there's nothing 'usual' about my single all-time favourite, now re-released to selected cinemas marking 50 years since its initial appearance, now in a pristine new print, cleaned up both visually (with colour restored) and sonically, to provide those of us who retain a unique awe for it offering a repeat of a truly glorious, cinematic experience. 
Don't waste your time writing about how it's one long yawn or series of yawns, enigmatic to the point of being unfathomable - or even 'daft'! I've heard it all before and people are entitled to their opinion, as am I. Nor will I attempt to explain it (including the mysterious, travelling plinth and the 'Star Child'). If the director himself and the writer of the original story didn't know then how can I? 

I dare say that just about everybody has seen it in one form or another so I'll say very little about the content. I must have viewed it at least fifteen times in various cinemas (still not the film with my most cinema viewings!), the last time being some 30 years ago in Munich on what turned out to be a smallish screen in a multiplex and, even worse, dubbed into German - even the computer HAL's singing of 'Daisy, Daisy' was substituted with a German nursery song! So, despite my having videos of it - though of course all videos are very much inferior to seeing a film in the medium for which it was created - I needed something to reassure me that my former thoughts and evaluation of the film remain unchanged. And I can now repeat with assurance that it remains my absolute favourite film of all.

My first encounter was in February 1969 when I saw it on a cinerama screen - the long arc-wide screen, about a third of a circle or just a little less - a format which was to become defunct in the 1970s. This was when film was shot on a single, extra-wide lensed camera rather than the earlier method of using three cameras simultaneously with the films then melded together (when one could sometimes 'see the joins'!). This was one of the final films shot in cinerama format, the only remaining major ones being 'Ice Station Zebra' (also 1968)  and 'Krakatoa: East of Java' (1969).
I was living in Middlesbrough at the time, the nearest cinerama screen (one of less than a dozen in the country) being 42 miles away in Newcastle upon Tyne. But I didn't wish to miss the chance so took the train up even though I knew the film would come to my local cinema in 70mm format. It was well worth the effort and expense - and remains my sole experience of cinerama. 

This showing today was one of just four screenings in the area - at the same large screen Brighton cinema I mentioned recently when I was one of a tiny handful of spectators in a 274-seat auditorium. I was afraid that this time I might have a similar experience. Thankfully not. The cinema must have been 90% full, and at a midday matinee too, though it being a weekend helped, no doubt. The audience was attentive and despite, I guess, nearly all of them having seen the film before in some way or other, perhaps this was the first time most of them were seeing it in a cinema. In the soundless space sequences you could have heard a pin drop, with no whisperings or extraneous noises, the entire audience being every bit as rapt as I was. And at the conclusion there was general applause - so I reckon that many of them were as huge fans of the film as I am.  

I've mentioned in previous blogs that I've had a lifetime passion for Astronomy and one of the positives of this film is that 50 years after it first appeared it's by far still the most accurate portrayal of space travel than any film since, amazing - and frustrating - as that is. It's primarily due to the influence and direct involvement of that science genius, Arthur C.Clarke who, incidentally, later said that he would never agree to working with Stanley Kubrick again, even if he was offered all the money in the world!.

I've read more about this film than any other - as, for instance, it being released in the same year as the original (and splendid) 'Planet of the Apes', but it was the latter which picked up the Oscar for 'Best Make-Up' because, the rumour goes, it was thought that the apes in '2001' must have been real! 
Arthur C. Clarke who wrote the original short story 'The Sentinel' which was expanded and morphed into '2001' is quoted as saying that he made two major errors in the film. First, he didn't foresee the extreme miniaturisation of computers (in this film, HAL is huge!) and secondly, when astronaut Dave Bowman is trying to get into the mothership without a helmet, HAL having denied him entrance, before diving through the open door into the airless docking bay he takes a deep breath, which actually would have made his lungs explode when in a vacuum, even for a couple of seconds!  This time around I also especially thought the astronauts walking on the surface of the moon had a gait that looked too heavy for the much weaker lunar gravity. But in the context of sound scientific principles as a whole - and where it really matters - these quibbles verge on nit-picking.  

It's by no means a perfect film. The section of 'Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite' is too long and indulgent to sustain fascinated interest, and one is left with the time to muse on how they achieved such and such effect - but it's not a critical fault. Also, we now know that even as the film was in progress, neither Kubrick and Clarke had any idea how to bring it all to a conclusion. I must say that what they eventually came up with, for me could hardly have been bettered, even if it had turned out to be only by a fluke.

One final point. The soundtrack music had, in fact, been composed, as Kubrick requested, by one Alex North (his score is available on CD). Apparently, just before release, and without telling the composer, the director decided to substitute North's score with the classical pieces we're now familiar with. In fact the first the composer knew about it was when he attended the premier in blissful ignorance, only to find himself bewildered when, instead of his 'Sunrise' music at the start, he heard Richard Strauss' imposing opening bars from  'Also Sprach Zarathustra' - and waited in vain throughout the rest of the film for his own music to be heard. Obviously someone forgot to rescind his invitation or, more likely, it was just overlooked - or, perhaps, Kubrick or someone else was just too embarrassed to tell him what had happened. Must have given him quite a nasty start to have found it out the way he did. 
I'm not sure that using the 'Blue Danube' waltz was such a good idea. It's just a bit too familiar, and I've never been able to hear that music in all the years since without it conjuring up that particular sequence in the film - not necessarily a bad thing, but I do wish it hadn't been so firmly embedded in my mind. Before he decided on 'Danube', Kubrick had toyed with the idea of using (same composer) Johann Strauss' 'Music of the Spheres' at this juncture, which would have had more obvious titular resonance, but decided that the swing of the 'Blue Danube' was more in keeping with his vision. Again, it's not a make-or-break matter.

And then there's the title, '2001'. The film was made just a year before the first moon landing and no one could at that time foresee that lunar expeditions would completely dry up within two or three years because of the costs. So it's necessary, on hindsight, to see the title year as a kind of shorthand for an unidentifiable future time. It doesn't invalidate the concept of future space travel potential at all, unfortunate as it superficially might seem - nor of contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence. which I believe will happen, even if hardly likely in my own lifetime.

I've said a lot about a film I wasn't even going to post about at all. At least it's off my chest now. 
Observe the following rating very carefully. You won't see its like again for a very long time indeed, if ever..............9.
(IMDb........8.3 / Rotten Tomatoes........9.2)