Thursday, 21 March 2019

Film: 'A Private War'

Intense, often gruelling, depiction of the final few years of Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin who's ever brushing aside advice not to go to certain scenes of conflict as being too risky. She travels to a number of world hot spots, starting in Sri Lanka 2001 (where she loses an eye) then to Iraq, Libya and finally Syria where she was killed in 2011. Some of you will recall the mention on news programmes. There are many bloody scenes, as you might imagine, yet I did find there an unexpected distance between the showing of such horrible, violent events and my reaction to them. I didn't feel drawn in and being involved as much as I felt the story merited. 

Oscar-nominated Rosamund Pike throws entire conviction into playing the ill-fated, superficially unlikeable journalist, showing her as having problems with drink, with relationships, and with her mental health, but feeling her mission is to tell the world the truth of what was happening to innocent civilians contrasting with the propaganda of Islamic terrorists as well as that of Gaddafi, and Assad.   
Jamie Dornan is her intrepid, equally committed,  Irish photographer and companion on all her missions. 
Tom Hollander is the newspaper editor and, also in a few London scenes to where she returns every so often, is her final love interest in the person of a little-used Stanley Tucci.

This is Matthew Heineman's first feature length film after some TV work. I think it's a fair enough workaday product but one of no particular distinction. I can't see myself remembering it for as long as I should, considering the horrors of the well-documented background to a story which needs telling. Nevertheless, if it raises the topic to a general people's awareness it will have done its job..........6.

(IMDb...........6.7 / Rott. Toms...........6.4 )

Monday, 4 March 2019

Film: 'The Aftermath'

If all the films I've seen about World War Two were played back-to-back I shouldn't be surprised if they lasted very nearly as long as the conflict itself, and I'm more than a little weary of that being the pretext for yet another. In that mood of reluctance I took myself to see this latest which, admittedly, sounded a bit more interesting in that films dealing with what came immediately after the war had ended are really rare.

Hamburg, December 1946. - thus a few months after the Allied victory.
A British army colonel (Jason Clarke) is assigned to supervise the start of rebuilding the city from the rubble it was reduced to by allied bombing. He takes his wife (Keira Knightly) for them to reside in an undamaged mansion, currently occupied by a widowed German (Alexander Skarsgard) and his teenage daughter, plus a couple of female servants, the latter fully expecting to be turned out of their home to live in a camp. The meeting between the colonel and the German is formally polite enough but from the outset his wife puts on a scornful frostiness of not even acknowledging his presence.
From this opening scene it doesn't take much imagination to know how the story is going to develop.
A little way into the film we learn that its title is deceptive in not relating so much to the war itself as it does to a traumatic event which happened to the colonel and his wife a few years previous.  A similar back story involves an experience of the German and his daughter, the latter in particular being hostile to these 'intruders'. 
The colonel surprises his wife when he tells her that he's decided not to turn the German out with his dependants, but to let them stay and live in the upper section of the large house. She's not happy.

The story I found fairly predictable (though not entirely, I must aver), and with an ending so hackneyed and delivered so mawkishly I was hoping it just wouldn't 'do it' - but it did. If you like sentiment laid on thickly then this is for you!

As for the three actors at the centre of the story, Keira Knightly was as good as she always is, though I wasn't sure about Skarsgard who didn't seem very comfortable at all to my mind. However, I thought Jason Clarke as the colonel was the stand-out. Not a face I was familiar with but he was very convincing in a story which requires to be played out with absolute conviction.

Director James Kent (much TV work, less cinema feature experience) delivers in fairly matter-of-fact matter, with little exceptional enough to be retained in the memory. Still, the photography of this miserable Winter for the surviving Hamburgers is first-class throughout.

I don't think this film qualifies to be a genuine 'weepie' despite it being heavy on the overt sentiment. I do applaud it for the rare angle we see of the war's outcome, as well as for most of the acting. But I've got to hold back on any notion of a full-hearted recommendation.................5.5.

(IMDb.........6.4 / Rott. Toms.........awaited )

Monday, 25 February 2019

Film: 'If Beale Street Could Talk'

My first vital query on last night's Oscars is why this most remark-able film didn't get even a nomination for 'Best Picture' when it's the first sure-fire entry for my Top Ten of 2019. It surely can't be that the 'deciders' had deemed that there were already 'too many' of the eight choices which included prominent roles for or featured a largely black cast, so they couldn't have another one. Perish the thought! Still, it did pick up one Oscar, for Regina King as Best Supporting Actress, and a well-merited one it was. It deserved much more.

Based on a novel by James Baldwin, with whose writings I was not acquainted until about 25 years ago when three of four of his novels were lent to me all at once by an admirer, and which I devoured one straight after the other. Having annoyingly misplaced my list of books read a few years ago (by then the titles had numbered over 2,000, excluding re-reads) I can't be sure that this wasn't one of them. I recall 'Go Tell It On the Mountain' and 'Giovanni's Room' but can't remember what else. Barry Jenkins, director of this film (and also of 'Moonlight') has made a superb picture from his own adaptation of the novel - involving and heart-rending, with a masterful, original method of film-making, with slow, languorous camera work (and music) to capture the mood of the moment spot-on. 

The New-York based film starts with 19-year old Kiki Layne visiting her 22-year old boyfriend (Stephan James, looking rather older) in prison for something which we only find out about later, and there she tells him that she's expecting his baby. She hasn't even told her family yet - though when she does, despite her apprehensions, her mother (Oscar winner, Regina King), her father and her sister are all supportive of her with no recriminations. The only sour note is when her boyfriend's mother comes round and blames her for 'corrupting' her son.
The film employs liberal use of flashbacks (too many?) of the couple's intimacy, before the event which got him locked up.
It's the mother who does the running around and leads the investigation to try to prove her prospective son-in-law's innocence, and a very fine job Regina King makes of it. In fact the whole cast shines and some real affection between the young couple is evident throughout.

It might be a film too slow for some but I think it needed to take its time for one to savour the emotions it brings up. The music soundtrack is itself remarkable - mainly string, quasi-chamber music reflecting the intimacy of the relationships both of the couple and familial.

It's a film unusual in its executions and I've no complaints at all about that as it perfectly suits the atmosphere it evokes. My sole reservation remains is that there are rather a lot of flashbacks, all without warning or indication. I don't mind retrospective scenes in general though there will inevitably come a point where one wishes that its application was used just a bit more sparingly.
However, on the whole, this small-scale film works a treat, and I'm content to place it in the rarified ranks of an.............8

(IMDb...................7.8 / Rott. Toms..................8.6 }

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Oscars 2019 - some early first thoughts

I'm surprised as anyone that 'Green Book' won 'Best Picture'. Not that it was in any way bad - it was in no way that! - but that out of the seven nominated films I'd seen (the sole exception being, maddeningly, 'Roma', it not having had adequate theatrical release. [Yet?]) I would have placed 'Green Book' in 6th place, beating only 'Black Panther' which was the only one I felt overwhelmingly negatively about. Perhaps it's an age thing. I didn't respond to 'Panther' in any positive way at all.  
From those seven seen I would have given it to 'BlacKkKlansman'. 

I thought Rami Malek was possibly justifiably given 'Best Actor' out of those listed, for his extraordinary Freddie Mercury turn, though I wouldn't have complained if either Bradley Cooper or Christian Bale had clinched it.

Olivia Colman best actress? Okay, but I still feel a bit aggrieved for Glenn Close (truly formidable in 'The Wife') who has to carry on being formally 'unrecognised' by an Oscar award. I'm sure the time will come for her - though it had better be soon!

I'm not over-fussed by Mahershali Ali winning Best Supporting Actor for 'Green Book', though that reflects my feelings for the film as a whole, which required him to maintain a rather aloof, slightly supercilious, pose for the entire film - at least except for one episode where he's in danger and another where he's crumpled up in a state of humiliation. I thought his winning 'Best Actor' two years ago for 'Moonlight' was a more worthy and deserving accolade. I'd have given this year's supporting award to Adam Driver for his part in Spike Lee's first-rate drama, 'BlacKkKlansman'.

And the last 'word', for now, goes could it not?.......Billy Porter (whose name I had to look up to remind me who he is).

Not quite the last word as I've only just watched the evening's opening given by Adam Lambert & (2 members of) Queen. Great credit for the good sense of whomsoever it was who decided not to give an impression of Mercury/Malek, which would have gone down like a lead balloon even if it had been a good one, or at least ought to have done. But that was one damn fine blinder of a start! Phew!

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Film: 'Boy Erased'

Had to suspend my own rule of not being out after dark to get to this 'must-see' film -  leaving at dusk and returning at my bed-time. Turned out to be a good decision.

The second film within twelve months (following 'The Miseducation of Cameron Post') on the subject of religious 'gay conversion therapy', this has had generally fairly positive reviews but more than once I've seen unfavourable comparisons with the earlier film. I'm not so sure such 'criticism' bears out.

Set in recent past (and filmed in Atlanta, Georgia) it's directed and written by Joel Edgerton in only his second feature film as director (based on memoir of actual experiences by Garrard Conley), Edgerton himself takes the frighteningly credible major role of 'conversion centre' chief to which the teenage Lucas Hedges ('Three Billboards', 'Manchester by the Sea') is sent by his parents after their son has been 'outed' to them, he willingly agreeing. The father (Russell Crowe) is a firm but soft-spoken Baptist pastor and his wife (Nicole Kidman - in startling bouffant wig!) devotedly religious though superficially sympathetic. Both Crowe and Kidman are quite superb, convincingly skirting round the topic while hardly daring to directly confront their son - except when his father does one time ask outright "Are you homosexual?"   
At the institute there are about a dozen or more new 'entrants' with various 'problems' as perceived, of which being gay is the most prominent. Regime is strict, possessions removed, all communications supervised and monitored - with regular open confessions of 'sinfulness' to the group, with details demanded by the martinet of a facilitator which Edgerton plays. The son is not totally isolated, however, with him able to spend some nights in a hotel with his mother, though forbidden to divulge details of his 'treatment'. 

The requirements of the institute and its treatment of its 'inmates' made me progressively angrier. Often the way a film is made will exasperate me and get my ire up, but here the subject matter itself was the explosive issue which raised my temper. We must assume that the methods of attempted 'conversion' depicted here are reasonably accurate and if so, one can only wonder how they are still allowed to be practised. (Unlike in Germany, where 'conversion therapy' has recently been outlawed nationally. despite the British government pledging last year to do the same, it yet remains a promise unfulfilled. In America, one can only hope that Veep Pence, ardent supporter of such harmful and ineffective devices, will see this film, though it's unlikely that he would - and even if he did I fear it wouldn't make any difference to him.)

This present film, unlike the earlier 'Cameron Post', did get a strong visceral response of outrage in me, even though I found it easier to relate to the characters in the other, notwithstanding the fact that Cameron Post was a young lesbian. However, I did dock a half-point from my rating for 'Post' for the too prevalent inaudible mumblings of the main star. In this one there was a bit of that same fault from the young Hedges (not from the three main adults, however), so when it comes down to it I'm pleased to adorn 'Boy Erased' with an untrimmed..................7

(IMDb..........7.0 / Rott. Toms............6.9 )

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Film: 'Green Book'

Following the recent 'The Upside' here's another 'odd-couple' feature. 

Mahershala Ali, principal actor in the truly marvellous 'Moonlight' of a couple of years ago, in this is the renowned, sophisticated, poised, unflappable (usually), classically-trained pianist performing as part of a trio (with violin and cello) whose music I find difficult to categorise - jazz with little improvisation and with classical slant?  Nevertheless, he is nationally celebrated. 
Viggo Mortensen (with paunch) is employed as his heavy-smoking driver to take Ali on a tour of southern states. It's 1962 so racial prejudice and, indeed, discriminatory and demeaning laws are rife. The film is (this time) 'inspired' by a true story, the two main characters being real and friends until they both died just a few years ago.

Starting in New York, Mortensen is a plain-speaking, down-to-earth, family man of Italian origin with an insatiable appetite for junk food and with some racial hang-ups himself - also possibly with dubious contacts. Ali lives in a luxurious flat actually located above Carnegie Hall!  
As in 'The Upside', the rougher-mannered character is offered the post but starts by refusing it. But here again his prospective employer takes a shine to him and convinces him to take the post. Incidentally, despite in an early scene Mortensen having displayed a crude prejudice against two non-white policemen who came to his home for a drink of water, when meeting the black Ali for the first time he shows no sign of discomfort in his presence or the prospect of being alone in his company for twelve weeks. (It's almost as though a key scene had been cut!) 
The events depicted are pretty predictable and formulaic. (I was mentally ticking them off) - arguments between the two of them, Mortensen rescuing Ali more than once when the latter gets into trouble and defending him against discrimination (even from the hosts of venues where he's booked to perform, as well as the police), a 'thaw' between the two men with Ali being persuaded to try Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time and, to cap it all, a finale of an Xmas dinner with the driver's family meeting Ali for the first time and welcoming him in to join them! All smiles, then, guaranteed to have you leaving with that 'feelgood' factor.  

Mahershala Ali took away the 'Best Supporting Actor' BAFTA award for this film only last Sunday. Although not begrudging him it I do wonder if it was fully deserved considering that the emotional range he was required to display was quite circumscribed, breaking away less than a handful of times - though that was the character's personality, certainly not the actor. 
Viggo Mortensen was nominated for BAFTA Best Actor for this same film, though didn't win, of course. His was a more varied role - brusque certainly, though also with an underlying subtlety. 

Director Peter Farrelly ('There's Something About Mary', 'Dumb and Dumber', 'The Three Stooges') handles the often unusual material satisfactorily without setting anything alight. 

I've no complaints of substance. It just didn't grab me to the extent that it has a lot of others. In this case it was clear that the audience I saw it with were enjoying the film more than I was..........5.

(IMDb.............8.3 / Rott. Toms.............7.3 )

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Film: 'Vice'

Busy, smart, densely-packed film of Dick Cheney's political career, up to and including his being Vice-President to 'Dubya' Bush - and very disturbing it is too, more than I thought it would be. 

Christian Bale, spectacularly transformed (as impressively as Gary Oldman recently 'became' Winston Churchill) claimed that his inspiration in playing Cheney came from Satan and if so it's evident in every frame. There's hardly any redeeming feature shown about the man. 
Although Cheney is, rightly, the focus of the film, it deals in some depth with Republican Party politics and shenanigans. No one could seriously claim that the film is 'impartial', or that it strives to be so. Liberal - or, perhaps better expressed, anti-Republican - sentiments are to the fore all the way through, something with which I myself find quite comfortable. Others may not. I should have thought that anyone from or sympathetic to the 'other side' having to sit through this would have their blood pressures go through the roof. Too bad! 
The film starts with a brief episode from Cheney's wild, hard-drinking, student days when he's hauled in by the police. Just one of several similar incidents, we gather. He meets and marries his lifelong wife Lynne (Amy Adams - just as impressive) who, when he doesn't reform his own behaviour, gives him an ultimatum which is crucial in turning his life around. 
His tentative entrance into politics in the 1980s under the wing of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell turning in yet another outstanding performance) quickly smacks of ambition as he starts climbing the ladder, and he's not averse to using ruthlessness to get his way.
There's a gliding through the mainly Republican presidencies of Ford, ( + Carter), Reagan and Bush Senior. After jumping over any mention of Clinton, it comes to the election of the younger Bush who calls Cheney (suffering increasingly with heart trouble which had already caused concern) out of retirement to serve under him. 
Then the Twin Towers in 2001, and, as Vice-President, it's Cheney rather than Bush (Sam Rockwell, perhaps a shade less convincingly played than the other lead characters, though it's not intended to be a totally accurate impersonation) who starts calling the shots, and that's the way it stays for the rest of the the Bush Jnr double-term. 

Cheney's family life is given a high profile with his devoted, reactionary wife, always there to give her hubby a hand and even stand in for him at rallies when his heart plays up again. He's also close to his two grown-up daughters and, if there's anything to be said in his favour at all it's his reaction (though only after some silent reflection) on assuring his Lesbian daughter that he loves her no matter what after she comes out to her parents - in sharp contrast to her mother's shocked, stony, wordless glare. But does he maintain his supportive stance? When his other daughter enters politics she's questioned and initially prevaricates about her own attitude to the then vexed topic of gay marriage, eventually putting her own ambitions above support for her now gay-wedded sister.

Throughout the film there are split-second shots of hideous atrocities perpetrated from both sides, mainly following the invasion of Iraq in the (as we all know) erroneous belief of Saddam Hussein's possession of WMDs. Many of the brief excerpts we have seen in newsreels, or at least heard about them - suicide bombings, mistreatment and torture of prisoners, waterboarding, Guantanamo Bay - but they are still hard to watch. Cheney is an enthusiastic advocate of any means being employed against the enemy (as perceived) despite the identification of such individuals being problematic, to say the least.
He also pushes the Nixonian notion that the President, by virtue of who he is, is immune to criminal prosecution no matter what he does - and not only that but, crucially, the Vice-President too. 

Now I have to mention a certain section of this film that made me more uncomfortable than any other film I've seen since 1979's 'All That Jazz' when the Roy Scheider character (playing a putative Bob Fosse) undergoes open-heart surgery, I think, which is shown in extended fashion in all its exquisitely grisly detail. While this film doesn't quite go to the same graphically gory distance (here it's a heart transplant) its depiction - clearly an actual operation is being shown - made me so queasy that if I hadn't averted my eyes I would without doubt have fainted clean away. But then I'm one who can't even look when given my annual flu-jab - and as for when a blood sample is taken for a periodic routine check, well I feel the need to lie down before I pass out, and to be offered tea and biscuits, being the soppy 'snowflake' that I am. So, if you're one like me I only give fair warning. If you're able to watch such things without flinching, how I envy you! (The said surgical passage occurs around 10 minutes before the film's close, or getting on for two hours after the start). 

Incidentally, just under an hour into the film there's a rather clever false ending when the film's credits come up, listing the actual actors. If it had been much later then no doubt some would have left the cinema, but being so early on we quickly cotton on to what's happening - and I'm sure you'll 'get it'.

I thought in many respects this film was an eye-opener which surprised me in revealing how much I hadn't yet known. I'm only familiar with Cheney through the newsreel shots of him giving speeches or interviews (both rare enough) or shuffling silently a few feet from the President like some hovering, malevolent spirit. Many Americans will be more familiar with his impact on political lives, as well as their own, than I am. 

Director and writer of this, Adam McKay ('The Big Short' 'Anchorman' films), clearly revels in expounding his opinion of the subject, and I think he's done a service to many of us who needed to know more. He uses both flair and imagination, and there's no chance of anyone getting bored - you'll be too many times shocked and/or outraged for that to happen. This might have ended up as a parochially-based American-leftish polemic, but it's much more intelligent than being just that, with a universal perspective towards politicians in all countries.

It was an informative film, though must confess too that I found it somewhat exhausting. I'd like to see it again because it's so full of facts and opinions that I'm curious as to finding out what I missed first time. However, I'd only watch it again if I had the means to skip over the many unsavoury images - or was prepared to keep leaving the room.
Given my personal reservations, it's a goldmine for those who are politically-minded - though, importantly, unless willing to take offence on the chin, it's especially not comfortable viewing for those of conservative leanings....................6.5.

(IMDb...........7.1 / Rott.Toms..............6.7 )

Monday, 11 February 2019

Film: 'All is True'

You know, against my expect-ations, I found this pretty good.
All you bardolaters (like yours truly) will recognise the film's title as being Shakespeare's own alternative name for his late play 'The Life of King Henry VIII',  a huge claim surely intended as ironic. In the same vein, Kenneth Branagh (as on-screen playwright in this as well as director) and writer Ben Elton have created a drama based unusually (and uniquely?) on the last three years of W.S.'s life - obviously using a lot of conjecture to fill in details. It works well.
Btw: Contrary to still widespread belief, a great deal is known about his life, in fact more than most famous personages of the 16th/17th centuries. The big mystery remains, however, is what he did between leaving school (where he didn't excel) at the age of fourteen and starting to write plays some years later when a young adult - theatre pieces yet flawed at that early stage of his career, and nowhere near the mastery he was later to attain, but with that spark of true genius bursting through occasionally. The gap in our knowledge of what he did in these missing late adolescent years has fuelled speculation which assume that with no evidence of studious learning and experience he could not have written the plays which bear his name. However, we won't go there now - so back to the film.

It's London 1613, and he's just witnessed the accidental burning down of his beloved Globe theatre. He returns to Stratford-on-Avon to the family he'd forsaken and lost contact with -  older wife Anne [nee Hathaway] (Judi Dench in what must be coming up to her 1,000th film!) and live-in daughter, Judith, now approaching thirty. He's racked with guilt at the death at the age of ten from plague, of his only son, Hamnet (Judith's twin), a couple of decades before and not seen his family since hearing of the demise.  His first meeting with his wife is a cold one because of his lengthy absence without news, but it thaws a bit over time. More problematic is his petulant grown-up daughter who accuses him of wishing that it was her who'd died rather than a son who could have carried on his legacy. His silence at the accusation speaks volumes.

Shakespeare busies himself with the construction of a garden in the vicinity of his dear son's grave, sometimes with the help of his ageing wife.
A key scene in the form of a fireside chat just a few minutes long, is his meeting through a visit after many years from the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellan), the supposed addressee - at least as per this film - of the greater number of the Sonnets. It's a beautifully constructed talk between just the two of them, in which Branagh recites from memory one of the sonnets (#29) he'd written in praise of the then young man, and a few minutes later the Earl repeats the entire poem back to him word-for-word, though this time with inflections subtly varied. 

It's a sumptuously shot film, both for the busy scenes within the small town and in the countryside area around which the writer resides.
There's the sporadic breaking out of religion-driven (Puritan) intolerance coming to the fore, as there had been in one form or another for the three-quarters of a century up to then. 

Branagh sports a prominent, almost-hooked, nose for the part, not something we've come to expect from the assumed portrait we're familiar with, though I dare say it can be excused. 
It's a leisurely paced film, not over-laboured, but replete with pregnant pauses and silences.  

I was semi-prepared to give this film a critical roasting for its anticipated inaccuracies. However, although I might know a bit more about the playwright than your average cinema-goer I almost certainly don't know more than Branagh himself and, probably, Ben Elton too.  In that light although I could point to at least a couple of dubious 'liberties' taken it would be churlish to go to town on them when the film relies heavily on director's licence to embellish and bend the facts. I can't argue with that. 
A 'must' for Shakespeare nerds, one I really liked...........7.  

(IMDb...............5.5 / Rott. Toms............7.1 )

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Film: 'The Upside'

Some will berate me for paying to see a film having in one of the two principal roles, Kevin Hart - he of recent standing down as Oscars ceremony host due to coming to light of homophobic tweets of (not so distant) past. Well, I've seen it now and I can't exactly unsee it - though perhaps wishing it were  possible. 
A further controversy, but attached to this film itself, is the casting of the able-bodied Bryan Cranston as a paraplegic, able only to move his head. 

Based on a true story (how many films aren't?) it's the story of widowed Philadelphia billionaire (Cranston) in his severely dependent physical condition (brought about by paragliding accident) looking for a carer who's to be on demand at all times. Supervising the appointment out of a large number of applicants is Nicole Kidman, when in barges Hart, out from prison on parole, all mouth and bluster, not especially looking for this particular job for which he's eminently unqualified and inexperienced, but anything to help him re-connect with his former partner and their now teenage son. He pushes into the room where interviews are taking place and Cranston takes two seconds to decide that he's the one he wants despite the vigorous objections of Kidman.  It's one of those 'chalk and cheese' relationships, only this time instead of the two squabbling from the off as per the template of such films, only to have them develop true affection for one another, this time the Cranston figure is immediately star-struck and amused and entertained by the other's gaucheness and clowning around, while Hart takes time to come round to valuing their friendship, which we all knew was going to happen anyway. The latter's especially squeamish about the intimate level of care required, especially the changing of catheter. Not very imaginative. 

I only wonder at the otherwise justifiably morose Cranston's extraordinary level of tolerance for Hart's ludicrous capers, always smiling benignly and allowing him a leeway of independence, not to say remuneration, which beggars belief.
Cranson is sophisticated with a profound love of opera - all the handful of excerpts we hear would be very high on a 'greatest operatic hits' chart, not a single one being even slightly unfamiliar. Needless to say, Hart's taste is completely down-to-earth, he worshipping the Great Aretha above all (and why not?) - but, would you believe it, it's not very long before he himself acquires a love of opera!   

There's an absurdly theatrical scene when the two of them are having a row and Hart offers to break valuable ornaments etc on behalf of Cranston to help the latter get his anger out. Dear me!

Kidman's role is quite a substantial one, appearing in more than a few scenes, and for me she was, as so often, the film's saving grace.

At over two hours, the film is far too bloated to be the successful comedy it purports to be. If it hadn't been based on true (to what degree?) I would have believed very little of it.

Director Neil Burger ('Divergent', 'Limitless') must have had great fun making this, and that is probably at the root of why I didn't care for it, finding it sentimental and manipulative. But some who are able to suspend their critical faculties better than I can may well enjoy going along with it for the ride. Pity that I couldn't............4.

(IMDb.................6.3 / Rott. Tomes...............5.2 )

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Film: 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

I was slightly nervous about seeing this, aware that it features an ailing cat, which would be sufficient to skew my attention and shift the focus to a feature intended to be only incidental (albeit sad) to the main body of the film. Anyway, apart from that I have to say that although finding myself fighting against liking it I was, to a degree, won over by a certain infectious charm, notwithstanding that criminal forgery is central the story.   

Based on true, starting in 1991 New York, it's the story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a one-time successful author of biographies of celebrities, whose writing has fallen out of fashion and she is now struggling financially with inability to pay the rent, living alone with the 12-year old cat she dotes on. She befriends an eccentric English barfly, Jack (Richard E.Grant - playing gay, though to my mind not very convincingly) and they 'gell'. In order to generate income she decides to sell some memorabilia letters written by subjects of her earlier books and acquired in her researches, notably those of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker among others. Then she has the wheeze of adding a self-penned. entertaining postscript to these letters, imitating the literary style of the personage, thus considerably increasing their value. (The title of the film is an oft employed signing-off phrase in letters written by by Miss Parker). Several of the bookshops she approaches are duped into falling for her ruse and pay her the inflated price she demands. Her new friend Jack is roped into the scheme and he enthusiastically assists her in flogging the forgeries.

There are both comic and serious moments in this film, all of which are well handled by director Marielle Heller (though I did pick up on a couple of avoidable continuity lapses) in only her second feature film directing, though her acting career has been fairly substantial.

It's Melissa McCarthy's most substantial role to date and it's delivered with a credible range of emotions. She and Grant have received both Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor respectively, and I wouldn't argue too much if she won - though she won't, of course.

I liked the film more than I was expecting to. It's a captivating story and, cat aside, I'm content to deliver it some approving noises..............7.

(IMDb................7.3 / Rott. Toms................8.2 )


Monday, 4 February 2019

Film: 'Beautiful Boy'

This screen version of the father and son  memoirs of David and Nic Sheff, covering the son's fighting against his drug addiction, was hardly going to be a barrel of laughs. 'Bleakly heavy' would be a fair summary, so don't go if you're looking for a mood-lifter. 

It's more than competently done but my sole criticism of substance is the maddeningly constant flitting between present and past, and not just to where the 18 year-old son (Timothee Chalamet) is younger at just one stage, but to where he was five years old at one point and twelve at another - as well as several points where he had attained eighteen. We know that by this age he'd already started on drugs but was he as yet keeping it from his father?.....was he in a 'lucid' period?.......had he relapsed?...... I quickly became confused as to exactly where the 'present' was, having to keep looking for the amount of grey in his father's (Steve Carrell) beard to anchor me in the stage we were at - something which became increasingly tiresome. His father himself had been not unknown to drug-taking and had assumed that if his son was on anything it was 'only' marijuana. However, when it becomes clear that he's on crystal meths, the senior one, recognising the perils, cannot hold back and tries to persuade his son to get professional help. Hardly surprising that the younger one resists (predictably fiery and sweary exchanges between them) - and when he does agree he keeps absenting himself from the institutions into which he's been booked, going missing and leaving the father to try to find him time and time again.
The son here is the child of Sheff Senior's unsuccessful first marriage, and he's not slow in accusing his first wife of not taking a greater share in her son's upbringing. Meanwhile, he now has two further small children in his second marriage to watch over.  

It's more than a merely 'capable' film but it really is unremittingly on one grave note. It's significant that the longest musical item on the soundtrack is towards the end, a significant excerpt from Gorecki's Third Symphony - subtitled 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs'! 
Incidentally, when I first heard of this film I thought of the John Lennon song of identical title (written for his and Yoko Ono's only child together, Sean) - and the film does indeed acknowledge that source, one assumes it being the inspiration for the film's name. 

Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen elicits faultless performances from the entire cast, though I suppose that it was he more than anyone else who made the decision to have all this confusing flitting back and forth all the time which certainly wouldn't have been in the written memoirs. I'd have so much preferred a more straight-lined narrative continuum.

It's a bit of a surprise that neither of the two leading actors have been nominated for Oscars in this film, though Chalamet gets a BAFTA nod for 'Best Supporting Actor'. I thought Carrell was no less deserving, and with this role he confirms (again) that he is a serious dramatic actor of the first rank.

It's a story that doesn't lend itself to light-hearted moments and those you certainly do not get at all. Despite that the film's not over-burdensome. It's buoyed up by hope for the young Sheff's future which you know is not in vain because we're aware that he still survives...............6.5.

(IMDb...........7.3 / Rott. Toms...........6.5 )

Monday, 28 January 2019

Film: 'The Mule'

So here we have Clint Eastwood at 88 (playing 90) both acting and directing, with no sign that he's about to pack it all in. It must make Robert Redford who, at a relatively youthful 82, and last year announcing that he's over with acting, wondering if he unwisely jumped the gun. (Why, even Prince Philip is still driving, and he's 97!) 

Despite its subject of drug trafficking, this is an unassuming film , one might even say almost 'gentle', and far from what one used to expect of Eastwood in most of his career of 'hard-man' portrayals.
Whilst not particularly exceptional, it's certainly not at all bad. (Btw: I appreciate that there are those who steadfastly refuse to see any film involving Eastwood because of his well-known political stances. I manage to put that out of my mind when watching). 

At the start he plays the owner of a horticultural business (he specialises in lilies) which hits hard times and has to fold. Without work and income, for which he's desperate, he's told that he can make money by simply doing some driving of a delivery within Illinois. Jumping at the chance he agrees to take a small mystery cargo as required and he gets handsomely paid, assuming that it had been a one-off consignment. But he's asked to do it again - and again - his recompense increasing each time. It takes some time for him to cotton on to what his deliveries are, despite his working for youngish, male Mexicans - all Spanish-speakers, of course. Either that or he mentally blocks it out - and soon he's up to his ears in the world of contraband. 
Without knowing that Eastwood is involved, the police boss (Laurence Fishburn) has suspicions of something untoward going on and assigns a Senior Drug Enforcement Officer (Bradley Cooper playing quite restrained - for him - and looking hot in the way only he can!) to find out what it is and to close it down.
Meanwhile the wife (Dianne Wiest) of the Eastwood character who's become distanced to her husband complains about his long absences from the family, and they have a few heart-to-heart scenes together.

There's a little bit of violence, but no full-on sustained scenes, and what there is is depicted fairly low-key.
Some may justifiably blanch at a brief scene when Eastwood meets the grateful instigator of the drug-traffic (Andy Garcia) and as a 'treat' spends the night with two shapely female forms, each under a quarter of his own age! Thankfully, we don't actually see any bedroom 'action'; it's all by implication.  

Eastwood looks and moves about as the age he is playing, so there's no complaints about that. The film's suspense derives from not knowing to what extent the Mexican drug cartel can trust him and will they decide that he is dispensable? And, of course, will the cops catch up with him and what will the result of that be?
Exemplary acting throughout, just as it ought to be with such a strong cast.

I wouldn't class this as a 'must-see' film but it is entertaining enough with no glaring faults or, as far as I can make out, nothing to turn one off from making the effort to try it. More than just 'satisfactory'................6.5.

(IMDb................7.2 / Rott. Toms............6.1 )

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Films I've paid to see twice at cinema on initial release.

I've just returned from seeing 'Mary Poppins Returns' again, a month and a day after my first viewing. Having enjoyed it so much first time I wanted to catch it again on the big screen before it disappeared, this being its final week in these parts. (I comprised one-third of the audience!) Did I think it held up to my original verdict? Yes - and more than! I was familiar with the songs this time, having played them and watched some excerpts available on YouTube, and they really are good with some especially fine lyrics. Also, I saw the film this time at a different cinema with superior sound quality so it was easier to hear and appreciate the verbally dexterous wit. 
Shame that the Oscars having just been announced today, the film only gets recognition for a couple of minor awards, just as with the BAFTAs, though that's not entirely unsurprising. I'd give it a special award for 'The Most Uplifting Film of the Past Decade' - well, perhaps jointly with 'Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again' (the first 'Mamma Mia' falling just outside the last decade).

So I was wondering if there are others of you who occasionally, if only rarely like me, pay to see a film for a second time (or more) at a cinema, or does everyone re-watch them on DVD or wait until it comes round on TV? 

These are the films in recent years where I've liked something so much on its first release (obviously excluding re-releases) that I've paid to see it again on the big screen:-

2013 - 'Les Miserables'
2012 - 'Hugo'
2010 - 'Inception'
2008 - 'Mamma Mia'
2003 - 'Chicago'
2002 - 'Amelie'
2001 - 'Moulin Rouge'

So, as you see, it's quite an infrequent occurrence. I'd be interested to know if there are any which you've seen that so got under your skin in a positive way that you just had to see again in the medium for which they were intended to be viewed.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Film: 'Mary, Queen of Scots'

I found a lot of this tiresome in the extreme, culminating in an encounter between Mary and Queen Elizabeth (which, as every schoolboy and schoolgirl knows never actually happened) monumentally silly, and not helped at all by a weak script. Abounding in historical inaccuracies too numerous to list the film failed to engage me, its saving grace being the high quality casting and I spent much of the time trying to work out who it was under all that men's facial hair. Mary herself is played by Saiorse Ronan (with pronounced Scottish accent [but of course!] though Mary's first language was, in fact, French, and her English never rose above rudimentary) and Margot Robbie as her cousin and nemesis, Elizabeth.  Among the men were the estimable Adrian Lester and Ian Hart as well as an unrecognisable David ('Doctor Who') Tennant as firebrand preacher, John Knox. I have to confess to not working out which was Guy Pearce, no less, as well as missing Simon Russell Beale's appearances.  

My interest in this saga of the conflict between the two queens was only sporadically awakened but it never lasted. The focus is on the early claiming by Mary of being the true heiress to the English crown, with her relationships and marriages thrown in as a kind of sideshow whose function was to stop one falling asleep. Mary's eventual execution (on the reluctant agreement of Elizabeth) is little more than glided over, and until the final captions nothing at all is made of her deciphered coded messages to outside supporters when imprisoned on her plan to take over the English throne, which was the pivotal factor in her being condemned, or so it is reliably argued.  As for the execution itself it couldn't have been more stately and dignified - almost saintly - than as shown here, with no wig falling off the (decapitated) head to reveal an oldish woman (she was actually just 44) rather than the reputed fabled beauty, and no mention of a little dog secreted under her execution dress - while by this time Elizabeth was surviving growing old before her time, disguising the conspicuous ravages of the pox by thickly painting her face white (though we don't get to glimpse her wooden teeth by this stage).   

The settings are sumptuous as they ought to be, though there are a lot of darkly-lit candle scenes which didn't assist in the recognitions. The Scottish landscape was suitably rugged and spectacular. But it all should have amounted to so much more. 

This is Josie Rourke's first venture into film directing and she probably has further to go and better to achieve.  

Incidentally, immediately after booking my seat for this, on coming home I picked up the TV listings for today and found that at the exact same time as this screening, showing on TV was the identically-titled 1971 film with the high-powered  double-act casting of Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, a film which I've not seen again since that initial release and for which I've been looking out. No sign of it being repeated (drat!), at least not in the next few days.

As for this current release, if I remember it at all it's going to be devoid of much, or indeed any, affection.............5.

(IMDb...........6.5 / Rott. Toms................6.3 )

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Film: 'Stan and Ollie'

I'm not sure if you have to be a fan of Laurel and Hardy to appreciate this film fully but I'm certain that it helps. I must have been into my 40s when the penny finally dropped and since then I've found their films just about the funniest ever caught on celluloid, repaying repeated viewings.

This is a labour of love and respect towards the incomparable duo, covering a late stage of their career which has been little documented, on what turned out to be their final live tour of all, through Great Britain and Ireland in 1953, 16 years after the height of their popularity (making 'Way Out West' in Hollywood) and now, in an attempt to revive their fading careers, initially playing to sparse audiences in small English and Scottish venues, though this somewhat improves later. The impetus for their tour is to help finance a projected film of theirs on Robin Hood. (Writer Jeff Pope plays fast and loose with the facts here, but it does give the film a purposeful framework). 

The transformations of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly into the pair is beyond remarkable, and through them credibly carries the whole film.

There are flawless re-creations of some of the double act's most famous encounters on film, now replayed on stage, yet beneath the laughs there's a very evident layer of melancholy, even sombreness, which actually pervades the entire film.  
The friendship between L & H has become frayed at the edges, perhaps with over-familiarity, resulting in regular bickering, though one never loses sight of the recognition that they will always need each another, and they know it.
Their wives (Nina Arianda as Mrs L; Shirley Henderson, Mrs H) come over from America to support them and, though they are loving enough to their respective spouses in expected fashion neither seem particularly enthusiastic towards their husbands' efforts.  

It's a strong script (by the aforementioned Jeff Pope - book by A.J.Marriott) and direction by the Scottish John S.Baird is exemplary with no flagging or excess fat, coming in at a satisfyingly concise 97 mins.
Among the many locations is a five-minute scene in my current home town, Worthing (a beauty contest in the Lido), actually shot here on the seafront, this town's name being mentioned twice!

Watching the film was a bitter-sweet experience, perhaps with fewer laughs than I'd been expecting, but that's because it was so effective in depicting the pain beneath surface.

I liked this as much as I'd hoped I would, despite not having expected it to have been as dark as it was. The film's title gives no clue as to this angle being taken but it is a worthy contribution towards the duo's history on a little regarded stage of their careers - and it does them credit..................7.5.  

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Film: 'Colette'

I really liked this. Although I knew the name of Colette (like a lot of people?), I had to look her up to find out/remind myself why the name was familiar.

Set in Paris during the closing years of the 19th century and the start of the ensuing one, it relates to the woman writer, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightly) who creates stories which her husband, nicknamed Willy (Dominic West, whom I would never have recognised under that facial hair) passes off as his own and gets published, the reason being that French society (or indeed many others) at that time would never have accepted a female author being so talented as she evidently was. Her novels involving her creation, 'Claudine', are hugely successful and widely read, her husband taking all the praise and credit, which she goes along with (at first) in order to keep the creditors at bay - her husband and herself living lavish lifestyles in high society way beyond their means. 
The film deals exclusively with the period of Colette's marriage to Willy, her first, even though there's plenty of subject matter for further events in the remainder of her life (she only died as recently as 1954) which are not touched on here. 
It's a 'loose' marriage at least from his p.o.v., he having dalliances and one-night stands which he tries to keep from her, though not very successfully, and she putting up with it - until she starts exploring her own sexuality. (Cue for lesbian affairs!)  

It's all very atmospheric, capturing Parisian fin de siecle society life very well. All dialogue is in English, of course, though whenever we see her writing it's in French.
Both central characters have roles of real substance and both actors are superb in fleshing them out. 

With Budapest standing in for Paris locations (apart from scenes by the Seine) director Wash Westmoreland (who was responsible for the first-rate 'Still Alice' with Julianne Moore in 2014) has done a much-better-than-capable job of evoking the milieu of the time and place, and draws fine performances from the entire cast. I look forward with great interest to his next cinematic venture. 

A fine achievement which stimulates my interest in finding more about the woman at the centre of the story.................7.

(IMDb................6.8 / Rott, Toms.................7.3)

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Film: 'The Favourite'

The last, lingering vestiges of flu weren't conducive to having an appropriately receptive frame of mind to watch this historical royal bedchamber drama, though one thing that stood out is that no one can justifiably complain that it isn't handsomely mounted. Awards in several fields, acting included, are on the cards. It's also a most welcome three-woman tale, the few male characters being little more than background figures.

It's late in the short reign of Queen Anne (ruled 1702-14), played by Olivia Coleman, a figure who has the dubious historical reputation of being the most boring of all this country's sovereigns. Plagued and increasingly incapacitated by advancing gout, Coleman makes the figure a little more colourful than one might expect, displaying a short-fused temper with a vulnerability exacerbated by her exhaustion of life. Before she became queen she'd been through no less than 17 pregnancies, more than any other English/British queen, with all except five being stillbirths or miscarriages, only one of the survivors living beyond four, a son who'd died at eleven. (Anne's husband, Prince George of Denmark and Norway had died in 1706).

In Anne's increasingly fragile condition, she'd played into the confidences of her friend and intimate, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), to whom she'd already delegated some royal duties, a character who's not afraid to stand up for herself and even directly answer the monarch back, something no one else would get away with. Into the scene comes one Abigail (Emma Stone), the product of a brief dalliance by an aristocrat, who presents herself as a willing and able servant to the royal household, which Lady Sarah is attracted by and takes her on, though making sure she doesn't overstep the mark in propriety, and the Queen herself is similarly impressed. It's not long before competition for the ailing Queen's attentions and favours between these two becomes manifest, becoming quite bitter in time. All this is set against battle campaigns against the French.

It's quite an accomplished film, very atmospheric throughout, not holding back on illustrating prevailing crudities of the day, both in language and behaviour, none of which should surprise anyone. Script is lively enough too.
Being me, I was several times distracted by the presences of both indoor ducks and rabbits (the latter freely jumping around in the Queen's boudoir), dreading if anything untoward were to happen to any of them, though there was little to be concerned about.......just a little!

At two hours, the film's a bit on the long side, though I must conceded that it never flags. It has meaty roles for the three actresses, all about of equal weight.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos' previous two films ended up in my 'Ten Best' of that particular year. I liked 'The Lobster' a lot when I first saw it at the cinema, though quite recently I tried to watch it again when it was premiered on TV - and found it so unwatchable I had to turn it off. I similarly loved his 'The Killing of the Sacred Deer', but haven't seen it again since its cinema screening. I don't know if I'll get the same reaction on attempting a re-watch. 

At the moment I very much doubt if 'The Favourite' will find a place in my ultimate list of 2019 - though note the current exalted ratings on other sites, below. To be fair to it, maybe I ought to see it again, next time without the inconveniences of weakened health condition around................6.

(IMDb..................8.2 / Rott Toms................8.5 )