Monday 30 September 2019

Film: 'Ad Astra'

Spent a worryingly painful couple of hours watching this as, before entering the auditorium, very rarely for me I purchased a coffee to take in - and in making way to my seat spilt the entire beaker-ful of piping hot liquid over my left hand. Debated whether to return home to treat it (but how?) thus wasting my ticket. Decided to  take a chance and sit it out, flexing my hand continuously, which was distracting at first but decreasingly so with time. Now I sit here with a conspicuous blister at the base of index finger, in some dull pain but reassured from searching the internet that it ought to go down within 3-5 days. 

The film I found jaw-dropping in two very diverse ways - the visuals throughout are breathtakingly impressive - though on the negative side anyone with even a basic knowledge of Astronomy, or even Physics generally, will find the wholesale employment of hopeless inaccuracies out and out baffling, such that during the course of the tale I was wondering if this was meant to be some kind of parable, analogy or dream. 

It begins with a spectacular and dizzying scene above the Earth higher than the stratosphere, a vertiginous scene indeed, but one in which we hear sounds unaffected by the all-but-absent atmosphere. Later too, in several sequences out in space and on the airless moon surface, again we have sound travelling through virtual vacuums. Not to worry too much as virtually all space films follow in this crass falsehood.
This is only one of dozens of stupefying distractions getting in the way of my enjoyment, though it may not bother others as much as it did me. Other glaring ones relate to the reality of the unimaginable vastness of space, the distances involved, the fuel needed to get there and the time a journey takes, even within the confines of our own Solar System.

Brad Pitt is chosen to go out to Neptune, just as if he was merely crossing the Atlantic! - though with a stop-off onto Mars en route. Presumably that planet, like Jupiter and Saturn, just happened to be in rarer than once-in-a-century convenient positions (the latter two  gas giants being used as fly-by 'sling-shots? Uranus didn't figure at all). The purpose of Neptune being the destination is to find his formerly presumed-dead father (Tommy Lee Jones) who was searching for extra-terrestrial life in Neptune's environs but has not been heard of for 30 years, a man who is now believed to be still alive, active, and responsible for electrical power surges being sent across the solar system threatening life on Earth and doing untold damage to everything in between and beyond, so Pitt is the one most likely to have success in telling him to "Stop, dammit!". (I can't help laughing at the very premise I've just typed! - one single, puny minuscule man, creating havoc over all that immeasurable cosmic distance, not to mention the scales involved!) - SPOILER ALERT! When Pitt does eventually return to Earth after his decades-long venture, you must admit that he looks all of, well, one month older! 

Seen as a simple adventure the film does have merit, with some unexpected thrills thrown in, though for believability it really does take the biscuit, a whole galaxy of them! 

Apart from the two actors already mentioned the only other name I knew was a rare appearance by Donald Sutherland in a minor role in the early part.

The film directed by James Gray, whose earlier films haven't made any significant 'waves' from what I can see, does deliver a good handful of excitements in this, as well as some (vague and unnecessary?) philosophising which interrupted the action for me.

Though the screen I saw the film on wasn't a small one, I do think one's enjoyment and appreciation would be upped in proportion to the size of screen, the bigger the better - IMAX best of all, of course. 

The amount you'll like this film depends on the extent to which you'd be distracted by what I'd describe as the 'howlers', and if you're not put off by them then I envy you. (It's for this very reason that I've never enjoyed any of the 'Star Wars' films - and I've seen them all). If you can get past them then there's plenty to like in 'Ad Astra' - and I really did like many of the visuals, despite the upcoming blisters...............6.5.

(IMDb..................7.1 -  Rott.Toms...........2.9/5 ) 

Friday 20 September 2019

Film: 'Bait'

Way off the beaten track, this one, a black & white film which may not be easy to find in cinemas, though positive notices are snowballing and screenings are widening. Word around was good so it hooked me in to give it a go.
It's specifically unusual in that it's filmed as if it had been made in the 1920s or earlier - scratchy, jumpy visuals in square-screen ratio. It was filmed firstly without sound, then the dialogue and sound effects were added later, lending it a strange sense of detachment. 

Despite this early film-making feel and appearance the setting is contemporary. 
In a Cornwall village which formerly thrived on fishing, but no longer since the lone surviving fisherman (Edward Rowe, above) has had the fishing boat permanently purloined by his brother into a tourist boat, leaving him reduced to having to cast a long, wide net on the pebble beach to catch any fish trapped when the tide comes in. With the help of a young villager he ekes out a modest living, when friction develops with regard to his right to park his car. Tension arises between him and, in particular, a better-to-do residential couple, with the constant threat of fists flying.

The film uses an odd timeline, with many strands left at the end up in the air, unexplained. I did myself feel a certain frustration at it not making sense, a sensation not at all common for me, but I did wonder what it was all about - particularly after one fatal accident which was left suspended. And why was it shot in this early-cinema style in the first place? Was the director, Mark Jenkin, cocking a snook at modern film-making methods and wished to demonstrate the advantages of keeping it simple and honest? I just don't know.  
The story itself is a modest one and I doubt if the film - no, I know - would have attracted the increasing attention it's now getting if it hadn't been for its retro look.  

A curiosity, then, which is not without some merit, though I'd hardly put it in the class of a must-see film.............6.

(IMDb....................7.8 / Rott. Toms.......not reviewed)

Tuesday 17 September 2019

Film: 'Downton Abbey'

Well, that was a pleasant surprise! Embarking on a new phase of wishing only to see those films chosen with discernment, I wasn't sure at all whether this would be a satisfactory start. It was - and more than.

I'm one of the minority(?) who's never seen an episode of this internationally popular period TV 'soap', nor even part of any. Of course I was fully aware of the setting - historically, geographically and socially - there having been countless trailers and excerpts for years, so nothing came as a shock. 
Reviews I've seen have generally been in the 'okay' to 'quite good' range, though none were wildly enthusiastic, and they all seem to be at one in determining this film as working equally well as a television instalment. Maybe so, though coming to it with no prior expectations might have been an advantage.

The plot is a simple one. 1927 - King George V, with Queen Mary, has engagements in Yorkshire and wishes to spend one day and one night at the Crawley mansion, the extravagant manorial residence of widow and matriarch Lady Crawley (Maggie Smith). In the upstairs/downstairs world it's those with status and titles (including Hugh Bonneville) who superficially at least take it more calmly, determined to do what has to be done, while the 'downstairs' servants tend to be more flustered, wondering if they can cope with what's expected of them. However, the cat is set among the pigeons with the arrival in advance of one of the King's snooty chief staff (David Haig) with the function of ensuring that the visit goes smoothly and is up to the required super-high standard. He's an obnoxious martinet of a figure (likewise the imported French chef) who settles in, looking down his nose and ordering everyone around with disdain verging on disgust  - requiring the manor's own staff to make themselves invisible during the royal visit itself, and to leave his own bevy of royal lackeys to do all that's required. Fed up with this condescending attitude and pre-determined arrangements, the in-house staff decide to get their own back.......

Other TV regulars do their turns very ably, Jim Carter and other faces I can't quite put a name to. 
Other notable cast members include Elizabeth McGovern, Matthew Goode and Tuppence Middleton. 

The main friction element is between the Maggie Smith character and that of Imelda Staunton, both hardly hiding the fact that they loathe each other, daggers drawn at their every encounter, not even having the grace to smile, albeit insincerely, while they stab their verbals into each other. 

There are several strands of sub-plot. one involving an assassination attempt on the king. Another noteworthy one is a particularly gentle, uassuming, gay friendship which spontaneously arises when one of the manor staff and one of the visiting royal entourage find they reciprocate feelings towards each other. The latter takes his new friend to a clandestine (as it had to be) gay jazz club which, while they're there, is invaded by the police and everyone rounded up and carted off to the police station. I found this depiction quite heartbreaking. The two men's relationship, probably not consummated in the short time they have, isn't showy, We only see one quick, furtive kiss between them, but it's lovely. 

The script (by Julian Fellowes) is superior for most of the time. If it does sag a bit in the final minutes it's because there's the attempt to round things off, perhaps a bit too neatly. 

This seems to be Michael Engler's debut as feature film director, though he has done considerable TV work, including having directed several episodes of 'Downton' so he's more than familiar with the characters and the actors playing them.

One further slight criticism is that there's too much overblown background score music when the visuals already say all that needs to be said.  

Maybe if I'd been familiar with the TV programmes I'd have been less impressed with this film, though I hope that that itself can be a recommendation to anyone who, like me, is a Downton virgin - and one hopes that they, on seeing this, may derive the equivalent amount of pleasure from it as I did................7.

(IMDb....................7.8 / Rott.Toms - critics only.............6.6 )

Friday 13 September 2019

Film: 'It - Chapter 2'

So I've reached it - now 5,000 films seen in a cinema, and henceforward I'll be reducing my cinema-going regime, only taking in those films I really want to see. More about that at the end of this posting. First 'It - Chapter 2':-

Back in the 1980s I used to consider myself one of the world's biggest Stephen King fans. Then, however, his subsequent novels, with just one or two exceptions (most notably 'Misery') seemed to lack the punch and memorability of his earliest ones - and 'It' became one of his books which, despite a terrific opening, ended up in the 'He's-written-better' category.  

I found the film of the first instalment (2017) of this two-parter just 'okay', not more special than that, giving it a rating of 5/10. So there was room to be more impressed with this one. 
In the decades since reading the novel of mighty length (as are so many of King's) I've all but forgotten what happened so came to this film with almost a clean slate, only recalling the evil, shape-transforming clown Pennywise (played by returning Bill Skarsgard) - scary, but not quite to the depth one might have wanted.
After a brief prologue featuring seven of the kids who'd confronted Pennywise in the previous part, now taking a blood oath that they'd meet up again if ever the clown returned, the major part of this film jumps forward to the group as adults (well, six of them, including James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain) meeting up again in a Chinese restaurant, the venue for the first of many (too many?) set pieces of full in-your-face, special effects horror. 
There are frequent shortish retrospective scenes of the six adults as their younger selves in exploratory, fooling around mode, discovering horrors.

Needs must mention that before this adult group's restaurant rendezvous there's a hideously violent, extended incident of gay-bashing against two young men, bone crunching and bloody, probably the most intense of this particular kind of assault I've ever seen on screen, and every bit as horrific as anything later in the film. In one or two further sequences later on homophobic put-downs are flung around with abandon. 

The film 'proper', having started with the restaurant, moves episodically to Pennywise confronting each of the group separately and in turn, with his full bag of horror tricks, he appearing in various forms and identities, some of which are quite imaginative, I must admit - and then all the group together confront him in his various guises until the overblown, protracted showdown - by which time my fatigue at the constant barrage of special effects was getting me down and, frankly, bored. The film is just 15 mins short of three hours, which is a huge ask for the audience in staying with it. 
A lot of the 'shocks' are of the 'silence - CRASH!!!' type which would only make the uninitiated jump out of their seats, while those of us used to the hackneyed technique have become inured to their predictability and can see them coming from miles off.

Looking back I found the creepiest part of the entire film was not Pennywise's many clever-clogs antics but when Jessica Chastain visits her family childhood apartment to find an old woman living there alone , and who invites her in for a cup of tea. There are no special effects at all, only the woman who, when she turns her face  away, with a sinister smile speaks volumes of horror more than all tricksy effects can muster, That was the only part of the film which truly freaked me out.
I was also surprised and quite thrilled to see Stephen King himself appearing in a brief cameo role.

It's a tiring film to watch in much the same way that I found each of the Harry Potter films extremely wearing on both mind and derriere, though the Potters have denser material to work with under a veneer of plausibility if you accept the world of wizardry, but 'It' is pure hokum from first to last. 

Director Andy Muschietti, whose only the second feature film this appears to be, pulls out all the stops with this and rarely uses subtlety - though that old woman episode was a laudable  exception. 
There are at least three conspicuous direct references to earlier horror films - 'Psycho', 'The Thing' and 'The Shining' are the ones I noticed (You could hardly miss them!) There were probably more. 

I can't imagine anyone having liked the first part will feel short-changed by this. As for me, well it was a relief to have got the darned thing over with!..............4.5.

(IMDb......................7.1 / Rott.Toms.......4.1 / 5 )

Now, having attained the cinema-going 'score' I was aiming at and having awaited for years, I'll now only be seeing films I genuinely wish to, not including those I feel ought to be seen. 
My first 'big' cinema year was 1966 when I was 19, so an easy calculation will demonstrate that since then my average has been to see about two films per week. My highest attendance rate was in 1978 when I went 205 times, the lowest being, in fact, this present year, probably finishing between 70 and 80. I think in future I may be reducing it to around just one a week, but we'll see how it goes.
So apologies to anyone who'll be disappointed to my going 'only' 50 times in a year, but there you are - one gets older!  Now 'scuse me while I go and make my booking for the next couple of weeks - a mere four visits. ;-) 

Sunday 8 September 2019

Film: 'Hail Satan?'

Fairly entertaining documentary on 'The Satanic Temple' organisation/religion focussing on its campaign in the U.S.A. to extend the doctrine of 'Freedom of Religion' to include all religions, including Satanism, and in particular to end the heavy bias in favour of Christianity. It's main target is to counter the spreading practice of erecting stone monuments of the Ten Commandments outside certain regional government offices, and rather than have these removed. to have put up here (in Little Rock, Ark.) their own statue of Baphomet, representing Satan, in close proximity but even larger - and featuring two small children gazing lovingly into the seated god's eyes.  
There are a number of talking heads, especially that of the Temple's founder, Lucien Greaves, as well as other members and their legal representatives. I think I'm right in saying that none of the 'other side' talked directly to camera, with their words, all on film - some being archive footage, including Billy Graham - or in TV interviews conducted mainly with Fox News, more or less condemning themselves out of their own mouths. (No prizes for guessing whose side Fox News is on!).
The film takes a none-too-serious stance, not being markedly anti either side though it's clear that it's the Satanists who are both the more articulate and knowledgeable when it comes to the American constitution and politics whereas with the Xtian side one could write their words and arguments before they are even vocalised. Their position has been fixed for years, perhaps their entire lives, and nothing will make them change their minds. (Rather like a certain section of the current American electorate?) But they still protest and gatecrash Satanist meetings, talking as only they had that right - while demonstrators line the roads saying their prayers and their rosaries. 
Incidentally, the term 'Satanist' is used as a term of convenience rather than the featureless word 'atheist' ("boring" one speaker calls it) and it doesn't mean that they practice human or animal sacrifices, drinking blood or any of the rituals that have come to be associated with such people. Their rules for life conduct (respect for all life, non-injury etc), covered in their Seven Tenets. all seem eminently sensible. In fact the more I heard about it the more attractive it sounds. 

Director Penny Lane ("the barber shaves another cuss-tomer") keeps such a sensible distance from getting involved with the subject matter that it's easy to both laugh at and get maddened at certain contributions shown, the latter being entirely on one side, incidentally.

My sole reservation is that the film's focus is rather narrow, all on this particular section of Satanism. I would have preferred it to have cast a wider net, though of course that hadn't been the director's intention. 

Good food for thought without being over-demanding. Recommended...............6.

(IMDb......................7.2 / Rott. Tome..............4.1 / 5 ) 

Friday 6 September 2019

Film: 'Dolor y Gloria / Pain and Glory'

Pedro Almodovar just carries on getting better and better, and this latest, even by his own high standards, is quite exceptional. 
As a retrospect on a section of his own life, he's played here by Antonio Banderas (right) as disarmingly vulnerable, both physically (constant pain from bad spine alignment as well as problems swallowing with risk of fatally choking) and mental - living an aimless life as a one-time highly successful film director, now in a limbo unable to recover his former powers and dependent on cocaine as well as his prescribed pain killers.  
A surprise local screening of his most successful film made 32 years previously with his former lover (Asier Etxandia - left in above still) in the lead, is the spur to his re-establishing contact, their having not spoken since that film after a big fall-out. He wants his former partner to accompany him to the screening, their meeting causing him to be introduced to the drug which is going to play an essential part in his future life which he increasingly needs to function as well as dulling the constant pain to which he's subject.
A minor quibble I have is that if his former lover acted in his film 32 years prior, that would mean that he must be now at the very least 50 years old, more likely nearer 60, and Etxandia looks nothing like that age while Banderas himself does have convincing resemblance to a man of those years. But this is not serious enough to derail my overall high opinion of the film.
There are also frequent substantial flashbacks to his life as a boy living with his mother (Penelope Cruz).

It's mostly quite a gentle film with few (and there are a few) moments of confrontation, though the general tenor is of an easy-going amble, health problems notwithstanding.

Being Almodovar, colours are vivid,. sometimes blazing.

I think the film would be most appreciated by those who are already fans of the director, otherwise I think there's a possibility that anyone who's not familiar with his works might be wondering what all the fuss is about. If you qualify as one of his 'disciples' I have no hesitation in saying that you must see this, in which both Almodovar himself and Banderas have simply never been better.

Definitely one of my 'Films of the Year' with ease. Perhaps it'll turn out to be my favourite of all 2019...............8.

(IMDb........................7.8 / Rott.Toms(critics only).................94% )

Thursday 5 September 2019

Film: 'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark'

I comprised the entire audience in a 300-seat cinema for this. Shame that it was so unremarkable.

Back in the 1970s there was a brief vogue for films like this, containing a compendium of a handful of horror tales, each story lasting around 20-25 mins, all related in some way - often including some quite big-name actors in what were, in effect, extended cameo appearances. In this film all the names of participants were unknown to me, unsurprising being that the main characters are all teenagers.
The link between the stories are that they are all found in an ancient book which very strangely write themselves by an invisible hand whenever the book is opened, all involving in some way the four young protagonists. 
As ever in such films the half-dozen tales have varying success, ranging from flat and silly to reasonably effective. However too much reliance is placed on the overused technique of silence......silence..........silence...........BANG! - designed to make one jump, even though we can see it coming. I always think this is cheating, trying to make up for the director's lack of skill and imagination.
Shan't waste any more time in talking about this (director Andre Ovredal). If you're not a fan of the horror genre there's really no reason to see it..............4.

(IMDb...................6.2 / Rott. Toms.................3.8 /5 )

Tuesday 3 September 2019

Film: 'Mrs Lowry & Son'

It's about time I saw a film and wish to praise it, and here it is. A number of reviews I've seen are of the opinion that it's inert and doesn't live up to its promise. I beg to differ.

Firstly, I'm not sure how much the artist L.S.Lowry (1887-1976) is known outside these shores. My guess is that he's one of those localised talents whose reputation hasn't travelled far. Indeed, even in this country he was hardly a presence at all in general consciousness until, two years after his own death, it was boosted by a hit pop record on the subject of his life ("Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs" by 'Brian and Michael'). It was a spectacular hit, one of the biggest of 1978 when it spent three weeks at Number One, and from that time till now his fame was assured and he's never faded from public appreciation. Nearly every British adult will recognise the artist behind a lot of his paintings, they being so distinctive, his speciality being  scenes of a northern industrial town (he lived in Lancashire) often outside smoke-belching factories, with crowds of spindly-painted, working class people - and occasionally featuring the odd dog (mostly). I find his works more interesting rather than actively likeable. Here's a typical one showing his unique trademark style:- 

Now back to this film. It's set in 1934 as Lowry (Timothy Spall) is struggling to be recognised, living in a terraced house in a small industrial Lancashire town, alone with his aged and ailing, practically bed-confined, mother (Vanessa Redgrave). 
Spall was only five years ago portraying another painter, J.M.W.Turner, in the superb 'Mr Turner' and in this he pulls off the feat once more though here playing a completely different personality. But it's Redgrave, now 83, who gets star billing in this, her most substantial role in decades, perhaps all the way back to that Ken Russell horror-fest 'The Devils' in 1971.

Much of the film takes place in the mother's bedroom where her late-middle-aged son has to bring her meals, brush her hair, do whatever's necessary for her which she can't manage herself. But in return for his sacrifice which he carries out with a patience which would put to shame many in the same position, his mother is constantly argumentative, peevish and, at times, downright nasty.  In particular she is cruelly demeaning about his paintings and implores him to give it up and find something else to do. Despite his evident hurt he carries on with his 'hobby' (as she puts it) - until there's a mighty row.
The film is at least as much about the relationship between these two as it is about his painting - it is, after all, set in just that key year of 1934.
I didn't know much about Lowry's life and if this film is anything to go by he had no romantic interest, at least in this particular year.
The only other significant role is that of the couple's upper-class neighbour, barely surviving in an unhappy marriage. But Mrs Lowry feels it's an honour to have such a 'well-bred' lady actually living next door, unlikely as that is.

There are substantial conversations between the artist and his mother (the latter dying five years after the time this film is set) and it's that which propels the film forward, albeit in first gear. It's true that little of great moment actually happens until the pair's 'frank exchange' but I didn't mind that.

This is only director Adrian Noble's third feature film but I'm sure he's brought to the screen all he wanted to - and it's a joy. If you go without high expectations that would be the best frame of mind to appreciating it. But you couldn't get much further from an 'action-movie' than this little gem - and only an hour and a half long too!......................7.5.

(IMDb..................7.3 / Rott. Toms [critics only] ................5.3 )

Monday 2 September 2019

Film: 'The Souvenir'

Every so often comes a film which seems intended to test one's patience, in this case for a purposeless two full hours. I honestly start to wonder if the makers are in reality laughing up their sleeves at what superficially some might take to be an 'artistic' masterwork, though they are fully  conscious of having come out with a product of pure junk to demonstrate just how gullible some are. There is always, of course, another possibility, namely that I am simply too dim to appreciate this film's 'grace' and 'subtleties'. In which case I'm the loser. I'll leave this potential explanation hanging in the air.   

I'm almost too bored to give a precis of this, but the bare bones of it are that a mid-20s film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) is in a live-in chalk-and-cheese relationship with a slightly older man (Tom Burke) in London, the latter always cadging money off her - and worse, as a development shows.  He falls prey to a drug habit while she tries to keep them together (Why? - one is bound to ask) as well as juggling with her film work. Also in the cast is Tilda Swinton, playing the young woman's mother, something she actually is in real life. 

There seems to be no clearly aimed direction of the film. It could have ended at any point and it wouldn't have made much difference. Indeed, if it had shut down after a regular 90 mins then that could have been an advantage.  

Director and screenplay writer Joanna Hogg seems to be about as bored with the whole affair as I was. A big mystery is how someone of the eminence of Martin Scorsese came to be roped in as executive producer, though I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. The film is already forgotten..................3.

(IMDb..............6.6 / Rott. Toms..................2.1 )