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 )