Thursday 28 March 2019

Film: 'Fisherman's Friends'

In a quandary whether or not to see this, doubting if I'd give it a fair reception (just not the kind of film I go for!) my mind was made up by the incoming news that it looked like Prime Minister Theresa May could be trying tomorrow for a third time to get her Brexit deal through the House of Commons, with the terrifying prospect that, though still unlikely, she'll pull it off - especially now with the admittedly tastily enticing promise that if it passes she'll stand down and let someone else carry on with trying to keep the ensuing havoc in check. The prospect of a new leader supported by a coterie of Europhobes, some Trump admirers, at least one climate change denier (Liam Fox) and a clutch of anti-gay-equality ministers (though Heaven forbid you should think they could be homophobic, you understand!) depresses me considerably. So I needed some distraction from the dark cloud enveloping me even though there's a fair chance she'll be defeated yet again. Thus going to see this film filled the bill for at least two hours of the waiting time until zero hour tomorrow while I wait with fingers, and everything else that can be crossed, crossed. 

Based as most films seem to be these days, on a 'true story', I knew next to nothing about this Cornish ten-fisherman singing group (largely a capella) of the film's title, having around 15 years ago given up on my prior lifetime's assiduous following of the pop charts, in which these fellows made some unlikely, though modest, impression on the (mainly album) charts with their sea-shanties, before which time I was already turning my back on this particular world. So nearly all of this was news to me.

Daniel Mays and three others are on expedition to Cornwall (the most westerly of the British mainland counties, jutting out into the edge of the Atlantic) where he's heard of this group in the little fishing village of Port Isaac (current pop, just over 700) and, having heard them in one song, thinks he can sign them uup for a lucrative recording deal. On arriving in the village their car mistakenly finds itself going the wrong way up a one-way street, inevitably meeting a vehicle coming the 'right' way and driven by a woman (Tuppence Middleton - mainly TV work up to now) with a small girl, who confronts Mays irately. Of course I was just one of many who'd know that here was what would become the film's romantic interest. (Funny how many screen romances are ignited by a squabble! Didn't they realise that very soon they'd be falling for each other?) Anyway that was cringe the first, just one of at least a dozen more ahead.
   Before the singing men are 'discovered' we see some of them on their fishing boat doing what they do - and singing! - with the unseen support of instrumental backing creeping in under their voices. Oh dear! But singing extremely ably, I must say - soundtrack provided by the authentic 'Fisherman's Friends' group, of course.

The male actors comprising the group include James Purefoy, looking hunkier and hairier than I've seen him before, who turns out to be (who would have thought it?) the father of the aforementioned Tuppence Middleton character. 
When Mays tells the men of his idea of getting a record deal for them their reaction is one of hilarious disbelief, making him show that he's serious. There's much joshing at his expense, stringing him along with tall tales which he falls for while the men laugh up their sleeves at his gullibility.

You can guess the contours the story will follow and you'd be right. We've all seen too many of these tales where an individual or group of performers dismisses the thought that they could have any recognisable talent only for them to be 'discovered' and for them to go onto fame. Usually, though, the person(s) starts as being truly awful and has to work incredibly hard to reach the standard required, which they do to win whatever trophy and even to become a world-beater. In this case it's evident that the group already have a prodigious singing expertise so there's none of that tedious training regime to which we're usually subject.

I'll confess that at several points watching this film felt like an endurance test, so twee was the story. I nearly came close to doing the very unusual of walking out after my self-imposed minimum limit of having seen two-thirds of a film before leaving, to make it count as having been 'seen'. But it must be a few years since I last did that for anything so I sat the complete film out through gritted teeth.

So did I like anything ar all about it? Yes, the singing absolutely - as well as the Cornish landscape/seascape though that was located within the confined area of small Port Isaac. 
Acting was fair to good. Script predictable and sometimes weak and unimaginative.

This is director Chris Foggins' second feature film, his first being the ignored 'Kids in Love' of 2016. I didn't notice any special touches which would make this film stand out and be retained in the memory, apart from its built-in unusual subject matter and location.
During the course of watching it I was pretty sure I'd give it a really low-rating based on my very personal individual negative reaction, though I freely admit that there'll be many more who are ready to go along with it and lap it up with enjoyment - and good for them. I can only speak for myself. However, despite my reservations, I've come down on the generous side..............4.


Tuesday 26 March 2019

Film: 'Ben is Back'

I place this basically two-person drama consider-ably higher than a lot of reviews have, and that was unexpected. If it hadn't been for catching a rare silver screen appearance of Julia Roberts (here using the 'f' word more times than I could have imagined, shocking me to the core!) I'd probably not have bothered. 

She plays mother to a former (or continued?) opioid addict (Lucas Hedges, son of this film's director/writer, Peter H.) who comes home to her on a Christmas Eve without warning, having 'dried out' for 77 days. She's now living with her second husband (Courtney B. Vance) and their two younger children. Although she's overwhelmed to see him again she's extremely suspicious on his claim of having kicked the habit, and insists on his never going out of her sight anywhere - literally anywhere. However as they go around in town together (filmed in upstate New York) it becomes clear that his addict-contacts from the past are all around, both haunting him and wanting revenge for his former misdeeds, or expecting him to 'deliver' the drug as he did before. Roberts' husband, (not her son's father) is very suspicious of his visit and resents his presence, fearing the effect he might have on their solid family life, though she is torn towards her very real allegiance to her son.

It's high drama all the way, edging at times into melodrama, yet ever compelling. Events start to spiral downwards when the family dog is kidnapped and mother and son go on a search, turning into some very bleak locations.

I thought it was a well-judged film, Julia Roberts acting her heart out, not in any way like in one of the 'frothy' but satisfying numbers in which she made her name. And Lucas Hedges (who played the gay 'conversion therapy' victim in the recent 'Boy Erased') convinces highly.  

Very serious throughout with no laughs at all, and dealing with a subject which has become one of the scourges of contemporary America (and, no less alarmingly, beyond), it's a fine early addition to that canon...............7.


Film: 'Us'

Jordan Peele's first film, 'Get Out' was an easy inclusion in my Top Ten Films of 2017. Here we have his second which, if not with quite the same ease of entry, might nevertheless just get into the lower reaches of my 'Most Liked'. If it doesn't I can't deny that I still found it, on the whole, darned good.
There's got to be an unavoidable comparison with 'Get Out', a film having an assured structure, with tension building up gradually from a seemingly innocent start to its spectacularly unexpected conclusion. On the other hand, with 'Us' we know from within the first few minutes that something  is off-kilter and we don't have to wait long before full-blown horror is unleashed. Then for the remaining three quarters of the film the challenge is to maintain tension, which it does only with varying degrees of success. Once the box of tricks has been opened efforts to maintain interest can be self-defeating. Sure, there are surprises (as well as gore) aplenty but I personally found little to make me jump in my seat. And as for the final moments and what must have been intended as a shock revelation, well although I didn't see it coming, it didn't seem all that surprising - and one doesn't have to think deeply to realise that it throws up more questions than resolution. In fact much of the film seemed to indicate a sense that the director (who is also the story's creator) wasn't certain where to go with it next, and what the end was going to be, though I'm sure that wasn't the case.

There's a shortish, unsettling 'prologue' set in the mid-1980s which has a bearing on the film's conclusion. The main body of the film is present day with a family, father (Winston Duke) and mother (Lupita Nyong'o) and their teenage daughter and younger son who go on holiday to the beach resort of Santa Cruz, Ca. Settled into their holiday home, one night they have visitors standing silently in their dark garden, four people who ignore the warnings from the father to clear off. Soon and with mounting tension a direct, violent confrontation takes place with the four strangers breaking into the house, and their prey finding that these four red-overalled intruders are actually human replicants of themselves, at least physically, with some variation, but otherwise mentally the complete opposite. (The four actors playing the 'original' family duplicate their parts). I don't want to say anything further for fear of diluting the mystery. However, among all the many questions left hanging, two in particular trouble me - Why are the murder weapons of choice unfeasibly large and unwieldy pairs of scissors, more like garden shears, when a long knife would have been so much easier to handle and would do the required job at least as effectively? - And what's with all the rabbits? In a pre-opening-credits tableau we see stacks of them caged up individually, noses a-twitching - and then in a scene towards the film's conclusion we see dozens of them all running around freely indoors. What was that supposed to mean? Just because director Jordan Peele has gone on record saying that he finds rabbits to be creepy things does he think that we all do? Or should do? 

During the course of the film when the horror is being laid on thick, while the basic family of four try to outwit and survive their would-be assassins, there are a number of short, humorous notes, both in the script and in action which, I thought, helped diffuse the high-level suspense quite effectively.

I don't intend to be ungenerous in having criticised the film for certain aspects but with Peele's first film having set such a high expectation, this second one of his ultimately doesn't reach the heights which 'Get Out' so magnificently scaled. If there hadn't been that first film then I've little doubt that I would have rated this higher. Having said that, it's still due for a fairly formidable........7.5

(IMDb.................7.5 / 'Rotten Tomatoes' have changed their indication of audience rating in a way that makes comparison no longer easy).


Friday 22 March 2019

Film: 'Free Solo'

I wanted to see this ever since the trailer came out a couple of months ago. As bad luck would have it when the film itself arrived I was confined indoors for some days suffering under a Winter malaise, so I'd assumed the chance had been missed. Now, as good luck had it, it returned for an isolated single screening, probably in the wake of its Oscar nomination for best documentary. From the trailer it was clear that it demanded to be seen on the big screen, and it's hard to exaggerate the loss of effect there'd be when watched in a domestic setting. 

The film follows Alex Honnold's (32 at time of filming) attempt to climb the practically vertical (with several overhangs) 3,000 ft rock cliff, 'El Capitan' in Yosemite, Ca. in 2017 - without ropes! 

I'm one of those with a degree of acrophobia or vertigo, though nowhere near as acute as some suffer. However, when at or near the top of a very tall structure or building where there's an open air balcony viewing area (say the Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building)  I experience this tickling feeling in the soles of my feet (and elsewhere!) which translates into an urge to hurl myself off. I thought for a long time that I was, if not unique, then extremely unusual, but some time ago I found that one of my nieces (now approaching fifty years) experiences precisely the same emotion in the same situation, so maybe it's not so unusual at all. 

Anyway, I was expecting to feel much like that for a major part of this film and I'd be gripping both armrests. However, for the most part, this documentary shows Honnold practicing in stages on this very precipice but with ropes (unsurprisingly), planning his precise climbing moves on each section looking for grips and deciding where to put his each hand and foot. So in this film's first part I wasn't quite as unnerved as I counted on being. Also there's talking to camera by his mother, she being his sole surviving parent - as well as his girl friend, his camera team and climbing experts. Talk too of the many friends he'd known who'd tragically died in falls attempting similar ropeless climbs in various locations. 

It's not until the final 20 minutes of this 100 minute film when he starts his genuine attempt that the real thrills kick in - and goodness me, it really is tingling stuff! What is also extraordinary is how the camera team (roped, of course), climbing with him taking very close up shots of Hannold's hands and feet manage to keep out of view, no doubt with some judicious editing, but even so, they deserve congratulations for their achievement. In the rehearsals for the climb proper we do see them climbing with him. 
The photography throughout is every bit as accomplished as one might hope - incredible, in fact.

Of course we know in advance that he succeeds in getting to the top. But he's planned it so well that there are no major scares, no major slips. However looking down on him from above with what would greet him if he fell is terrifyingly dizzying. In 3D it would have been practically unwatchable, at least for me. 

When it really gets going, which is, unfortunately only after 80 mins, the film's great, but it's one hell of a long wait.
I'd been hoping to award this with a '7' at least but with all that preparatory 'padding' and in contrary to most other reviews, I can't really give this more than a qualified.........6.5.

(IMDb.....................8.3 / Rott. Toms..........4.5/5 )  

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 )