Saturday 21 December 2019

My Favourite Films of 2019

Now that I've reduced the frequency of my cinema-going, this year's tally ending at a paltry 68 (unless I go to the latest and final 'Star Wars' - unlikely) and my lowest count since 1974, instead of listing a Top 10 as I've done previously, I'll now confine it to just my favourite five.  So, in ascending order of 'likeability':-

5. Rocketman -
Caught me by surprise, this did. Though I also liked  'Bohemian Rhapsody', when it came to hitting the target dead centre this one was it.
4. Greta
Unfairly overlooked at the time, or, if not, mystifyingly unappreciated. Boy, I sure did find this tale of woman/woman stalking spooky and unnerving.

3. Knives Out
A contemporary take on 'Cluedo' to keep one guessing with a cast to die for. Just plain good fun.

2. If Beale Street Could Talk
Another one given scant attention when it came out in Feb. Glorious rendition of James Baldwin novel, I finding it haunting and unforgettable.

..........and the top 'prize' goes to -

1. Dolor y Gloria / Pain and Glory   
No question but that Pedro Almodovar takes the crown this year with this piece of autobiography. The man just keeps getting better and better. I assume he can't help it.✌

........and not forgetting my personal Godawful worst of the year, it gives me huge pleasure to dole the award out to ........

A tawdry tale of two teenage girls deciding to spend a few hours really living! - as though anyone could care! Probably the film where I most wanted to get a refund on my ticket.


So, until 12 months hence -
Wishing each and every one of you - plus the others - a better 2020 than 2019 was - which, in my case, it doesn't have to strive very hard to be.

                That's all for now, folks!

Friday 20 December 2019

Film: 'Cats'

After the most unappealing of trailers, followed by a glut of negative, even atrocious reviews, I was bracing myself to hate this. (I know you'll have already glanced forward to my rating score, haven't you?)

I must put my cards on the table. The theatrical experience(s) of seeing this Andrew Lloyd Webber-composed musical (based on poems from T.S.Eliot's 'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats) is one of the highlights of my theatre-going life. I saw it three times, first in a London pre-run, pre-press performance in 1981 with original cast of Paul Nicholas, Elaine Paige, Wayne Sleep and, as Old Deuteronomy, Brian Blessed. Elaine Paige had just been shipped in at very short notice to replace Judi Dench as Grizabella who, in rehearsals, had snapped her Achilles. Also in the cast was a then largely unknown name, one Sarah Brightman, whom Webber met for the first time in rehearsal, resulting in divorce to his then wife and marriage to her - and raising his 'new' wife, for a while, to such a stratospheric level of fame that I myself did not think her 'talents' justified, Brightman in addition being the inspiration for his 'Phantom'. which I also saw (with Michael Crawford) early in its lengthy run.  
As for 'Cats' on stage, I was so overwhelmed the first time that I went to see it again - and then once more towards the end of that decade in a quite spectacular production in Amsterdam (also in English).
I know it's 'fashionable' to sneer at and belittle Andrew Lloyd Webber's music, but I've never been one of those who do. I still think that his very best were the three early musicals he wrote with Tim Rice ('Joseph', 'Superstar' and 'Evita') but his subsequent efforts have virtually all been worthily notable (I'd especially cite 'Sunset Boulevard') and 'Cats' is very nearly also in the top flight.

So it was going to be a tall order for the film to please me. However, against the odds it managed it. Several times the thrill of the music got my adrenalin pumping, and even got my eyes more than a little wet. Of course it helps in being familiar with the music, both those sung and the uniformly exhilarating and splendid dance numbers. If you're not familiar or simply dislike A.L.W. full stop, then this film isn't going to convert you.  
I thought the cast almost uniformly good, Idris Elba (as Macavity) most of all. He and Judi Dench (as a sex-shifted Deuteronomy), together with Taylor Swift as Bombalurina share longest screen time. (Subsequent correction: It is, in fact, Royal Ballet member Francesca Hayward as 'Victoria' whom I should have named here as having extended screen presence and not Taylor Swift's Bombalurina, who's actually on-screen for only a few minutes quite well into the film when introducing Macavity). Other well-known names have little more than cameo appearances with one song each (James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellan) - and, of course, Jennifer Hudson with that song, one which was done to death through the 1980s, but I still think is a really wonderful number. Pity that Ray Winstone's gangster-cat appearance is so short when he's about the funniest thing in the film.

Prominent comments have been made about the fur-covered bodies of the cast - the stage version eschewed the obvious feline characteristics of fur and whiskers but went instead for smooth sleekness, and that worked. Some say that this film's cast just don't look like anything like real cats and, frankly, I agree that they don't very much, but then in the theatre the fur-less 'cats' looked even less so and no one complained about it. I got around this by taking on the conceit one adopts in the theatre - one of accepting make-believe. Film demands a more literal look than what is considered acceptable on the stage. I gather that in this film much of the fur is CGI-d. It could have been distracting but although it was a little, by doing what I did it wasn't such a enormous put-off. I've also seen mention that the mostly erect tails in the film (surely also CGI) seem to protrude from the cats' anuses. I looked carefully and it's simply not true. Were they looking for things to criticise?

Director Tom Hooper (who also did the even more successfully realised screen version of 'Les Mis') was stung by hostile reaction to the trailer and has made some adjustments to the visuals of the released version. One in particular was the alarmingly changing differences in the scale of the cats' sizes when seen against their domestic surroundings. This hasn't been entirely removed but being prepared for it helped me to dismiss it without dwelling on it. But other than that I think Hooper's done well for a difficult job despite not quite succeeding in imposing a cohesion to the film's story when the original stage show's weakish continuity presents us with little more than a succession of musical presentations. 

If you wanted to see this but have been put off as I had been by the damning reviews (or if you're taking notice of one of the current average ratings I quote below) I would suggest that you still go with an open mind and, hopefully, you might, despite what's been said, enjoy it as much as I did, or perhaps nearly so.............7.5.

(IMDb.................3.2 - Rott.Toms..........3.8/5 )

Friday 13 December 2019

The five-year (at least) nightmare begins........

😢 Yes, the biggest pantaloon in British politics (and Trump favourite), BoJo, is now ensconced as our esteemed (though not by me) Prime Minister till at least 2024, comfortably cushioned by the biggest majority since Mrs Thatcher, allowing him to do what the hell he likes - with, at the top of his 'to do' list, 'delivering' Brexit even though it'll take possibly another decade to see it through completely, and without any of the economic advantages we had in being part of the world's largest trading bloc. At my age it could well mean that I'll not see another non-Conservative government for the rest of my life. On this matter at least, I'm depressed beyond words. I weep for my country. Boo-hoo! - and signal two fingers to BoJo! (For non-Brits that translates as one finger) .

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Film: 'The Report'

Concerned with the unmasking of the attempted cover up of 'enhanced interrogation techniques' on imprisoned suspects by the C.I.A. and others following the 9/11 attacks, this highly earnest (and necessarily partisan) dramatisation of the saga played to me like a TV re-enactment intended to present to an American domestic audience what actually happened.  I've no quarrel with that, but as to being a gripping 'thriller' (which has been more than one verdict I've seen) that's not what I experienced. 

I found it a hard watch in two regards. One obvious aspect was seeing scenes of torture meted out on suspects (not just waterboarding) 'justified' as an attempt to extract information which may save lives in the future, possibly imminently. It's very graphic though all extracts being short in duration, virtually all seen in about the first third of the film. I couldn't bear to look at the screen for some of it.
But more problematic for me was that the film is so awash with details of the political machinations, the Democratic determination, fronted by a steely Diane Feinstein (played by Annette Bening as you've never seen her before) and executed by her appointed lead investigator played by 'flavour-of-the-season' Adam Sandler - oops, I mean Adam Driver (Thanks, B.) - up against primarily Republican motivation of wanting to keep a lid on letting the 'secret' get out of what's actually happening and the thwarting at every turn to discover its true nature, including, for a time, the withholding of such knowledge from the President (George W.Bush) himself.  
Of course I was aware of the broad thrust of the story through what I'd gleaned from the British news channels at the time, though I'm sure that a lot of American viewers would have had more interest in, and a greater grasp of the details, including the blizzard of names involved, all of which, apart from Feinstein herself (whom I knew of from as far back as the Harvey Milk assaassination) none of which meant anything at all to me.

As befits the subject matter the entire film is understandably devoid of all humour so I've not complaints regarding that. But as to finding it as enthralling as I get the impression that I think it feels it is, I'm less sure. It seemed more of an exercise in 'education', putting on record the 'facts' of the case (Can there be another side?) so that after the first hour I was getting to feel a bit brain-hammered. I've no doubt that if it was a similar tale of British shenanigans involving names which had meant something to me, thus providing 'context', I would have found it more absorbing. In fact I came out feeling slightly guilty that I hadn't found it all that involving, given the gravity of the subject matter. Maybe the matter of geography will determine one's reaction to some extent. 

This looks like director Scott Z. Burns' first venture into directing a feature film after being involved in quite a lot of T.V. work, though I fail to see why it was necessary to film this in widescreen when so much of it is merely indoor conversational. A made-for-television product, though undoubtedly of high quality, is precisely what it showed up as being.............5.5.

(IMDb..............7.2 - Rott.Toms............3.8/5 )

Monday 9 December 2019

Film: 'The Two Popes'

My recently adopted policy of only attending films which I actively want to see is paying dividends, this being the third consecutive film which I'd rate very highly. 

The subject matter, the current Pope, Francis, and his still-surviving predecessor. Benedict XVI (played by Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins respectively), may well put off as many viewers as those it attracts. I wasn't deterred at all, thus seeing what I regard as a superior film which, surprisingly, I found deeply touching in parts. There's already talk of Pryce gaining an Oscar nomination for his role and if so it would be a deserving one, though Hopkins himself shouldn't be too far behind were it not that his performance is slightly the more mannered of this largely two-actors, never dull, film.

The pretext is Benedict's controversial election to the pontificate in 2005 with his acknowledged reputation as being religiously ultra-conservative (and with possible far-right political sympathies?) and his unexplained (at the time) sudden resignation in 2012, which even now remains not fully understood - he being succeeded by a keenly reform-minded Pope, both characters completely at odds as to the direction in which the Church ought to go, or if it needs to be changed at all. 

There may be some eyebrows raised at the fact that the 'elephant in the room',viz. child-abusing clergy and the consequent lack of follow-up (more of a cover-up) as well as a disregard of the many, many victims is, apparently, not a central feature of this story - another "based on fact" one! - though the subject is mentioned quite prominently towards the beginning of the film, and comes out again approaching the conclusion. One review I've seen said the issue is treated as being almost tangential rather than being of central importance. However, I can see and appreciate why it's being treated in this way, one reason being that so little is known of the facts, the Vatican itself being so secretive about the matter, placing its own reputation above that of care for the victims. a policy which, as we still see, has badly and spectacularly misfired. It would have been easy to invent details of abuse to fill in the gap but that would have lowered the whole film to the realm of conjecture, if not fiction itself. If this disturbs one to the extent of dismissing the entire production then so be it, though the final mention of the matter did work satisfactorily for me. 

Most of the 'action' takes place, of course, in Rome, with the two central characters discussing their widely diverging views on the current state of the Church, also sometimes on theology, with some fractious exchanges. In the second half of the film there is an extended sequence (in subtitled Spanish) relating to Francis's past when he tells Benedict of his time both as a youth in Argentina and later as an ordained priest in the 1980s. What I hadn't realised - or, more likely, forgotten - was that he too has a distinctly murky past, in his case having a dubious relationship with the military government of the time when very many thousands of their civilian opponents were 'disappeared', i.e. murdered.    

The portrait of Benedict here, despite his dogmatic rigidity, comes over as warmer and more approachable than the cold fish we've often see him portrayed as, and I'm willing to believe that this may well be near the truth, whereas Francis is quite as forward in his pragmatism, if only to staunch the leaking away of huge numbers of Church members.

The film, contains, of course, several large scale shots showing the full panoply of Papal ceremony, including the two elections, as well as a number of tourist presences.

Brazilian directir Fernando Meireilles (the first-class 'City of God' in 2002 + the good 'The Constant Gardener', 2005) does a really great job here, making superior 'entertainment' out of a subject that could have got bogged down in dryness, but it doesn't. In fact there are more than a few amusing moments. If you're in any way curious about seeing this film I can't recommend it warmly enough. I doubt if you'll be coming out feeling having been let down............7.5.

(IMDb......................7.8 - Rott.Toms...........[critics only] 89%) 

Monday 2 December 2019

Film: 'Knives Out'

This was sheer pleasure. Despite looking promising from the trailer, I was a bit nervous that my opinion would turn out to be at variance with the many praiseworthy reviews which abound. It didn't. 

A contemporary take on the whodunits of (principally) Agatha Christie as depicted on screen through the star-studded Hercule Poirot films, this involves wealthy family patriarch, played by Christopher Plummer, apparently committing suicide on the night following having celebrated his 85th birthday with generations of his family  - a cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Michel Shannon and Chris Evans. But notwithstanding a seeming straight-forwardness of the situation (a pre-determined decision by the deceased to close his own successful life at this juncture and let his family move on without him?) the police have suspicions of foul play and two officers arrive for a post-funeral investigation - with a private investigator in tow, played by Daniel Craig, as unlike 007 as you could wish, and with a (to me) rather startling American regional accent. After hanging back as silent observer, it's not long before Craig takes centre stage, twinkling his way with probing questions, verbal prods and thrusts to each individual, including house staff, who was in the huge manorial residence at the time. 
Much of the first part of the film involves the audience getting to know something about a certain one of their characters of which the others, including Craig, don't (yet) know - and then we watch Craig assembling the jig-saw of clues into a meaningful shape until, in the final minutes, it all comes together. And no, I hadn't guessed the outcome (not that I'd tried too hard!)

It's filmed around Boston. Mass. with a script that is sharp, perceptive, and often funny, and with contemporary references. All the cast are on top form, each getting his or her turn in the spotlight, yet without getting the story too fragmented, Daniel Craig providing adhesion to the whole. One quite amusing feature is that one of the cast has a condition in which, if she lies, she has a compulsion to vomit. Needless to say, this feature is utilised at crucial points in the story. 
There are a lot of details in the film which are, perhaps, delivered  too fast for one (not just me?) to grasp everything. Nonetheless it's not a hard film to follow though I would like to watch it again to discover what I missed first time around. It's one of those tales where you feel that each sentence carries a weight which may nor be evident at the time, and I'm sure I missed a lot of what was significant, though in no way did that detract from my pleasure .

Director and writer Rian Johnson ('Looper' 2012) supplies perfection itself in both these fields and I can't imagine how the film could be improved. 

If you're hankering after something twisty, supremely entertaining and different from all the dross that's around, here's your solution...........8.

(IMDb............8.1 - Rott.Toms......... 4.5 / 5 )