Wednesday 24 April 2019

Film: The Sisters Brothers'

I'm in a quandary as to which side to come down on, a deeply unpleasant experience which has seared itself on my memory when I wish it hadn't, yet a film I can recognise as being significantly superior within the 'Westerns' genre . 

1853, starting in Oregon. The titular siblings, having the most unlikely surname of 'Sisters' (played by Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly) are a pair of bickering professional assassins in pursuit of a gold prospector (British actor, Riz Ahmed - most impressive - and eye-catching!) whose travelling companion (Jake Gyllenhal) is, unbeknownst to the former, a private investigator keeping tabs on him while trying to let their pursuers know their shifting location towards and into California. I can't say much more about the story as there are a number of unexpected turns, usually violent, wrong-footing our expectations. Sometimes I had the impression that the director/writer is 'playing' with us. 

Numerous scenes of brutal violence and revulsion, some clearly intending to be comic though I found very little to laugh at, with some alarming episodes involving horses which, even if as surely they do, come under the qualification of "no animals were harmed", I found thoroughly upsetting - and a greater distraction for me than it would be for, probably, the majority of audiences. And I'll be carrying the memory of a certain spider episode for my remaining life! If you like your films to be 'strong' with a visceral kick, this is made for you.

It's not a film I'll ever see again (thank God!), lying in the same category as something like, say, 'Apocalypse Now' which I only ever saw on its initial release 40 years ago, yet as images from it haunt me still, so will it be with this.

Director Jaques Audiard ('Rust and Bone' 2012) undoubtedly knows what he's doing, shaking us out of sitting there in complacency, but I'd hesitate to claim this film as being anywhere near a 'masterpiece'. 
'A Clockwork Orange', just as violent, and which I have seen multiple times and will continue doing so, does qualify as a masterpiece. The genius of Kubrick, evident in every one of his films in fact, presents us with scenes (including violent ones as in 'Orange' - and 'Full Metal Jacket') with an artifice where one was always aware of a towering mind at work behind the camera and thus distancing the subject matter being portrayed, making it more acceptable to witness as 'entertainment'. (Hitchcock films are similar in that respect). I'd not put Audiard in anything like the same class. But, to be fair, what he aims at he achieves, and that ultimately, is what matters.

Strong stuff, then - and definitely not one for the faint-hearted and sensitive. As I say at the top, I'm not sure which way to land on this one. In terms of my own 'enjoyment' I'd rate it on the low side as there was precious little of that emotion. But ultimately I do appreciate it as a genuinely well-made film, perfectly constructed and very fine acting in every case of the four principals. 
When it's a question of head v. heart, usually the best advice is to go with the latter. However, in this case I think I'll have to come down on the other side, even though I may shortly be regretting it. So it's a.............7.5

(IMDb..................7.0 )



Tuesday 23 April 2019

Film: 'Red Joan'

Judi Dench must surely carry the world record for the number of film appearances by any octogenarian actor - eight (so far) at my count - and they've all been in significant roles, while the tally of those she's done since attaining sixty runs into the dozens.

This film, 'inspired' by the real story of one Joan Stanley, tells of the woman's arrest and interrogation just a few years ago following her being belatedly uncovered and suspected of having been a spy around and after World War II, conveying information to the Soviet Union on the building of an atom bomb. 

Although Dench gets lead billing in the opening credits, over nine-tenths of the film consists of flashbacks to her younger years starting at Cambridge University  (where her earlier self is played by Sophie Cookson) either when she's being questioned or she's playing through her memories and daydreams, much of it from a romantic angle, including an affair with a hothead communist student (Tom Hughes) and close friendship with a professor (Stephen Campbell More).   
Her male student acquaintances are mainly socialist, sympathetic to Stalin and Russia (long before the truth about his tyranny and oppression became widely known). Although she goes to political meetings she resists joining organisations, but then the breaking point for her is when she hears about and is appalled by the dropping of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By this time she's working on scientific research and has access to secret information...............

Despite having as director none other than the renowned Trevor Nunn, this film which ought to have been suspenseful, even gripping, turns out to be oddly pedestrian. Dench herself is very moving and totally credible as a delicate, senile woman, but the major part of the film featuring her younger self I found not as involving as it ought to have been. Perhaps the fault lies in its pacing. It doesn't help in there being multiple (too many?) returns to the present before jumping back to the past, as though fulfilling a need to give Dench more screen time, when that really wasn't necessary.  

When it comes to standard of acting, any appearance by Dench is a guarantee of conviction. Sophie Cookson and her male co-support actors are pretty good too, but it all doesn't seem to redeem the film itself from being on the plodding side. 
Though the story is completely new to me this film doesn't exactly make me want to find out any more about it..............6.

( IMDb..................6.3 )


Monday 22 April 2019

Film: 'Wild Rose'

I do have a marked antipathy to this genre of film, having seen so many over the years follow the same tired old 'Star-is-Born- with-tweaks' formula (budding young singer with unrecognised talent or limited appreciation of same on a quest to 'make it big') such that I spent a good portion of my viewing time sitting and fuming, wishing it was over with. This was only the latest of them which, I have to point out, has actually received almost universal plaudits, so what do I know?
Why did I go at all? Simply to boost my cinema-going number so I can reach the magical 5,000 and take my foot off the accelerator by starting to see only those films I really want to see. Besides, I had a chance for a cheapo ticket so there wasn't much to lose, apart from another two-hour hole in my life.   

Irish actress/singer Jessie Buckley got her name into celebrity status (though it meant nothing to me) by coming second in a BBC TV talent show a few years ago. In this film she plays a Glaswegian country music (emphatically without the appendage of '.....and western') singer, Rose-Lynn, who feels that she ought to have been American and dreams of visiting and performing at Nashville's, 'Grand Ole Opry', effectively her 'Mecca'.  As the film starts, she, a single mother of two infants who've been living with her own no-nonsense mother (Julie Walters), is released after one year in prison for drug possession, and returns to her children. However, knowing that she has to find a means to support herself she has again to palm off her resenting kids and she finds a housekeeping job with a relatively well-off and kindly suburban housewife (Sophie Okenado - for me the best thing in the film) living with her own husband and her own two children. Rose has a brash, rather immature personality, tough as old boots on the outside but (wouldn't you know it?) soft and vulnerable underneath. She's ever got her earphones on and is not averse to some hard drinking, and singing at Glasgow's own country music pub.

You can guess the line the story follows, but you'd only be partly  right - for example, at one late stage her criminal past proves to be  a spanner in the works of her dreams.   

One of the worst aspects for me was the very pronounced Scottish accents. I really could have used subtitles. In fact I scarcely picked up a single word in the first 15 mins. Talk about frustrating! And it goes on throughout, whole stretches of it. At least Julie Walter's Scottish accent was decipherable, while Sophie Okenado had no discernible accent at all.

This looks like director Tom Harper's fourth cinema feature film. None of his previous has set the critics alight. Looks like this is his first notable success. Good luck to his future.

During the film I removed my eyes from the screen periodically for the simple reason that I just couldn't be bothered to take interest. Looking at my watch was more fun!

You'd be right in surmising that there's a fair bit of singing in the film though only one complete song, I think. I can tolerate country music with ease, in fact I find a lot of it quite pleasant, but here it's the story wrapped round it that made me suffer.
Most, or nearly all of you, will be younger than I am, so probably not having seen so many of this 'type' of film you may well be more taken up by the story than I was, in which case do go. But laying my own hand down for all to see, I've had just about enough!................4.


Sunday 21 April 2019

'The King & I' - live relay to cinemas from London Palladium.

This Lincoln Centre produc-tion with Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watan-abe is running for a season at the very theatre where I saw Yul Brynner and Virginia McKenna take on the main roles in 1979, that being the only time I've seen this musical live on stage. Pity then that I'd found that production, basically a reprise of the film, a disappointment - unlike this one. I've seen all the 'big' Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals live in glitzy, big-star West End productions and 'The King & I' is the only one of them where I felt the filmed version was better than seeing it live. 

Before talking about this new production, a few 'asides':-
Just one more comment about Yul Brynner in that earlier show. It only came out later that for the entire 15-month London run Brynner's presence was a running sore to both other members of the cast and also to the entire production team, as he steadfastly remained in his onstage role of despotic ruler offstage too, making imperious, unreasonable demands on all and sundry and insisting that he always be addressed only as 'Mister Brynner' - the running in-joke was why he didn't also demand to be addressed as 'Your Majesty'. Remaining in the persona of the character an actor is currently playing on film is actually a ploy which a number of actors adopt, Meryl Streep for example, though I doubt if anyone would have the need to maintain it continuously for as long as 15 months as Brynner felt he had to. It must have been unbearably wearing for those having to communicate with him.
On the day I saw it I must have caught Virginia McKenna on one of her 'off' days, at least I hope it was. She never lifted her speaking part or her songs, all delivered in a one-dimensional tone. When she was required to smile it appeared conspicuously more as a grimace. I can only assume that she'd had some negative news before coming on stage - or maybe she'd had a confrontation of some sort with Mr Brynner!
When the casting for that production was announced I'd felt that a brilliant choice for playing the role of Anna would have been Sally Anne Howes, though I've no knowledge of her being considered or if she would have accepted it anyway.

One final 'btw' which I only discovered a few years ago by way of a passing remark on a radio chat show, so if you didn't know it already it might be worth sharing it with you. When R & H were writing 'South Pacific' they had a song, a duet sung by Lt Cable and his love-at-first-sight inamorata, Liat, called 'Suddenly Lucky' (sometimes 'Suddenly Lovely') which was later dropped as being not fully appropriate to their situation and replaced by the weightier and beautiful solo for Cable,  'Younger than Springtime'. The story goes that when Mary Martin  ('South Pacific's original Nellie Forbush) saw the premiere of 'The King & I'  she felt that Anna needed another song and, remembering the dropped South Pacific number, she suggested to the composer and lyricist that the tune might be imported into their new show. And so it was - 'Getting to Know You'.   

So much for the past of 'The King and I' and back to this new production. 
It's now been thoroughly re-thought and, I must say, most successfully too. No more being strait-jacketed by the film version, Anna is now much more feisty, the King more clownish and out of his depth as royal ruler. The relative positions of these two as 'master and servant' were dubious even at the musical's initial production and in today's climate of greater awareness of gender inequality it becomes more important than ever to bring out its absurdity. Now Anna's attitude to being pushed around and told what to do has been gingered up a bit with good effect. 
Choreography and orchestration are quite different - and now there's a marvellous bonus of at least four songs excised from both film and the production I saw, including a major solo for the King alone, which Brynner could hardly have managed. 
The roles of the Siamese children are somewhat downplayed now so that their march of introduction doesn't outstay its effect as can happen. However the initial appearance of the two younger lovers still seems a bit problematic so that when they suddenly start singing 'We Kiss in the Shadow' one may still be left wondering "Who on earth are these two?"
The 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' ballet sequence is slightly changed without losing its national interpretation attraction at all.
I was not in the least familiar with Kelli O'Hara's name, and Ken Watanabe ('The Last Samurai', 'Inception') I knew only slightly. I thought they were both exceptionally good - as was the entire supporting cast, all with strong and accurate singing voices (even if the 'King' was clearly under some strain in his big, demanding solo).

I found the entire event both exhilarating and a discovery. I'm glad that it has to a large extent put to bed the film version (which, of course, has considerable merits) but that is the general trouble with filmed versions of stage musicals - they do tend to set in stone one's expectations. This production rises to the challenge of making it come out looking and sounding fresh while demonstrating just what a thoroughly fine piece of theatre it is. I congratulate all involved. for providing us here with a piece which truly is 'Something Wonderful'.

Thursday 18 April 2019

Film: 'At Eternity's Gate'

Bit of a curiosity, this. Unfortunately not quite as fulfilling for me personally as I'd hoped.
First of all one has to fight past the superficial oddity of a 63-year old Willem Dafoe playing Vincent van Gogh who died at 37 (from gunshot wound to the stomach, whether self-inflicted or not was never established). But Dafoe really does rise to the challenge admirably, displaying all the passion and impetuosity one might expect of a much younger man. Facially they've managed to give him a semblance of fading youth too. So that aspect doesn't hold one back from enjoying what there was to enjoy, which turned out to be rather less than I'd wished, malheuresement.

The film covers his end-of-life-period at Arles in the far south of France, including his friendship with Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac) in the film's first half, and his later time as an asylum resident in Auvers-sur-Oise.
There's some tricksy camerawork to reflect the visual impact of his (generally) unappreciated paintings, not entirely successfully to my mind. But what alarmed me was the extent to which this is a very wordy film - going on and on about his feelings and need to paint, musing on what it arises from with references to philosophy and God and this and that. There was a number of times when Van G. conversed at length in 'profound' terms (including with his ever faithful brother, Theo, played by Rupert Friend - and with priest Mads Mikkelsen, whom I failed to recognise) with various characters without either the story moving forward or resolving anything, and it became just plain dull, wanting me to shout out "Oh, get on with it!" I suppose the intention was to explain what made him 'tick', but when even he himself admits that he didn't know then it was a rather fruitless exercise.
There's also the significant presence of his doctor (Matthieu Amalric) of whom both he and Mikkelsen seemed to be appearing as 'guest stars' in a production they'd requested to be part of.
Btw: The actual cutting off of part of his ear is not shown but there's a fair bit of talk about it afterwards, notably with priest Mikkelsen.

It hit me later of what the film had reminded me - a long monologue as a theatre-piece being opened up for screen transfer, rather in the manner in which 'Shirley Valentine' had undergone that same process, while it had been far more powerful as the one-person theatre show I'd originally seen it as. I think this film would similarly have had more punch as a one-actor delivery.

I get the feeling that director Julian Schnabel ('The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' 2007) has rather over-reached himself with this film, though I've no doubt that there'll be plenty of others who would dispute that. I must also add one further qualification to my own views. I simply do not have a strong appreciation of the visual, which I do most profoundly possess in the cases of literature and music, both being capable of touching my inmost being. So it could well be that those who love this artist's works to a greater extent than I can muster will see depths in this film which totally missed me. I'm perfectly comfortable with that being the case. I can only report on my own experience of sitting through it.................5.5.

(IMDb.............6.9  / Rott. Toms. Users.........62% )

Tuesday 9 April 2019

Film: 'The White Crow'

I found this, by and large, pretty good, let down just now and then by some indifferent acting. Considering that it's only the third feature film directed by none other than Ralph Fiennes - who made his directing debut back in 2011 with a highly impressive 'Coriolanus' and who, in this latest film, also takes on a significant acting role - it's another achievement with which he ought to feel well satisfied.

Those of my generation will remember the hullabaloo caused by the defection to the west by Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev (already by then a world celebrity) while on dance tour with his company visiting Paris and London in 1961. It's at the end of the first leg that he makes the historic break for freedom from his artistically strait-jacketed, Communist-watched, Soviet life . What I recall about it was the news programmes being pulled in two directions, first trying to play down the significance so as not to upset the Soviet Union too much, this being bang in the middle of the Cold War, but at the same time trying to give voice to the sensational nature of the escape which the 'popular' press had picked up on, and which really only came to full light some time later after Nureyev had been made safe and secure in London. No one doubted that his country's leaders wanted him back, but failing that, to have him killed, such was the high anti-Soviet propaganda value he carried.

The film tells of the period before and up to Nureyev's escape (Oleg Ivenko, himself a professional dancer) with flashbacks to his childhood and early dance training in Leningrad, under the tutelage of his enigmatic and softly-spoken dancing instructor (Fiennes).  
The mainly subtitled film is mostly in Russian, with some French, though also significant parts in English. 
Screenplay is by the gifted David Hare who shows his skill in the spare dialogue he's provided for the quite large cast.

Nureyev's fluid sexuality is more than hinted at, having close 'friends' of both sexes, but still plays on the safe side with nothing graphically explicit. It still came as a bit of a shock (to me, at least) to see the dance instructor's wife make much more than a direct pass at him. 

The actual defection scene at the Paris airport is near the film's end and plays out just as if from a Hitchcock thriller with high tension suspense, and is none the worse for being so. Just as the company is about to embark on a plane to London he's pulled aside by the Russian 'heavies' who've been keeping their eyes on him constantly for the whole visit, and told that Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev has ordered him back to Moscow to 'dance in a gala'. He suspects their motive and decides that it's now or never.  

It's a film which hardly ever flags, despite its two-hours-plus running time and my knowing how it was going to end. Ralph Fiennes has made a brave move in assembling a largely Russian cast which might be forgiven its occasional wooden moments. Nevertheless, the whole enterprise came out better than I was expecting..............7.

( IMDb....................6.5 )