Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Film: 'Victoria & Abdul'

Okay, so I enjoyed this more than some viewers did. 
There haven't been that many films featuring this monarch when so advanced in years (in fact I can't think of any!) as compared to the numerous portrayals of the young Victoria's courtship with, and marriage to, Albert, so I found it refreshing from that viewpoint. Furthermore, director Stephen Frears is a name never to be lightly dismissed and he shows his expert hand throughout this depiction of a 'mostly' factual period in late 19th century British royal history.

The now aged Queen (Judi Dench, of course) is weary with life and tired of the daily royal protocols she must adopt as head of state, when she is unexpectedly visited by Abdul (Ali Fazal), chosen for his height, who comes all the way from India, bearing a newly- pressed medal signifying the Queen's recently bestowed honour of being recognised as Empress of India. She is immediately smitten by the young Indian's looks, despite his being half a century younger than herself, and by his unfussily forthright manner of talking to her. Soon she gets him to start teaching her the Urdu language, a study to which she applies herself with assiduity and enthusiasm. The entire royal household, both dignitaries and staff, and including Bertie, the future Edward VII (Eddie Izzard), are all to a man and woman horrified at the pair's closeness and the way events have turned, and they make no secret to her of their disapproval. But she's having none of it and is determined to carry on the relationship with Abdul as before.

The depiction of the period is very well shown though the Queen's ignorance of some aspects of India's troubled history seemed a little stretched to me. (Perhaps the truth was deliberately being withheld from her?) Although I knew the way the story turns out with its shameful ending, Stephen Frears kept me interested enough to want to see how it would be shown.
There is one episode of heavy sentiment but the film can be forgiven considering what gave rise to it.

Judi Dench is every bit as good as expected, and I did like Ali Fazal's Abdul too despite there being a bit of carping that it was a rather shallow depiction, though which I didn't find. (Incidentally, looking up his name I see that he and I share the same birthday, he being exactly 40 years my junior. Just saying.) 
The cast also includes the late, lamented, Tim Piggott-Smith in his final role.

It's hardly a film to set the cinema world alight, but it wasn't trying to be. It serves its purpose well in being a nice, entertaining piece of work which deserves to engender high enough satisfaction for all those involved in its production...............6.5.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Film: 'It'

Through all the 1980s I was a huge fan of Stephen King, avidly gobbling up everything of his that I could get my hands on - the paperbacks just couldn't come out fast enough! It was only in the ensuing years that I realised that there was a correlation between his most effective and memorable stories and the length of his novels, viz that the shorter the work the better it was - more effectively chilling and much more mind-retentive. 
'It' is one of his really looooooooong books. Furthermore, in this story the malignant force is a shape-changing entity, and whenever anything of this kind is used I always think it blurs the focus too much. However, the novel does have an absolute cracker of an opening, one of his very best - and I clearly recall when reading it being disappointed that nothing else in this voluminous work comes anywhere near the shock of that start.  

I've seen probably all the cinema adaptations of King's works, though none of those made for TV (thus never having seen 'Salem's Lot', which is regarded by many as having been the best adaptation of them all). I did like the feature film of 'Carrie' though not so keen on 'The Shining', revered by some and which did have some outstanding moments but for me was badly let down by its dullish final pursuit of the boy and its tacked-on concluding shot, even though Stanley Kubrick was and remains one of my two or three all-time favourite directors.

Set in Maine, though largely shot in Canada, this film version of 'It' splits off that part of the story dealing with half a dozen schoolkids, holding out the expectation that there'll be an 'It - Part 2' featuring these same characters some 30 years on. Probably a wise move, methinks.

These brattish kids, early teens at most, all boys but soon joined by an older girl with an incest-inclined father, are quite unable to compose a sentence without describing something as "shit" or "f*ckin' this"/"f*ckin' that". (In addition, being boys of that age in a gang there must, of course, be the 'regulation' scene of shoplifting!) As you'd expect, these boys, including the usual overweight one, are taunted and threatened, sometimes assaulted, by an older gang of even more repugnant youths.
One of the younger clan had a little brother who had disappeared the previous year, now presumed dead, and it was his disappearance to which I referred as being the stunning opening of the novel. One by one the boys (plus the girl) get visitations from a malignant force, personified by a circus clown named 'Pennywise' (Bill Skarsgard - the film's only name I recognised, at least through his surname being one, another one, of Stellan's sons). The clown sometimes changes into other figures either as an individual or in multiplicity, but always reverting back to its original guise in the clown figure - fairly creepy, but I have seen scarier clowns, like in a real circus when I was a kid. 
The appearances with changes of manifestation is the excuse for a range of special effects, which I thought were okay, sometimes actually rather good, though where this film has been criticised it's often been on the inferior standard of these effects. As I say, I found they passed muster.

Some of the film's many 'shocks' are down to no more than a loud report or thud on the soundtrack, which I regard as cheating - though most of them accompanied sudden unexpected visuals or frenzied action. Even if I did jump at times it was all pretty formulaic.  

I thought at two and a quarter hours the film is far too long for its own good. I caught myself yawning after the first hour. I dare say that I will be going along to see any sequel that comes out, though with no great sense of anticipation.

Argentinian director Andy Muschietti does a reasonable job with his material, though there isn't really much scope to do anything far removed from the story as written. That would have outraged too many King fans who must number in the scores of millions. 

The film was to a large measure what I'd been expecting. For lovers of horror it ought to fill the bill, but for me it was no great shakes...............5.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Film: 'Maudie'

It's been ever such a long time, and now the wait is over at last for a film which I can thoroughly recommend - and moreover, this time no problems with hearing the dialogue!

Set in Nova Scotia, starting in the 1930s (and based on true historical characters), the ever-watchable Sally Hawkins is the eponymous Maud, a middle-aged woman who displays an unseemly awkward walk because of her living continuously with arthritic pain. She lives with her unsympathetic aunt whose attitude is largely framed by disapproval towards her niece who'd become pregnant many years previously. The way Maud has to carry herself makes it appear that as well as her physical disadvantages she might also be mentally retarded, though she's not. Through circumstances she decides to leave her home and applies for a newly-advertised post as live-in cleaner and housekeeper to an emotionally constipated fish-deliverer (Ethan Hawke) who lives alone in a small isolated cottage with his two dogs. She's the only applicant and he reluctantly takes her on but makes it abundantly clear from the outset that he's the boss who expects to be obeyed. 
She starts to explore her talent at painting - on the cottage's inside walls and windows. Of course her action engenders conflict with her hirer. As the film progresses, her painting talents (mainly small pictures on cards) become known rather wider than the immediate locality, largely thanks to a kindly customer (Kari Matchett) of the Hawke character, and it's not long before he finds himself playing second fiddle to Maudie when she becomes something of a celebrity.
After their early mutual hostilities, it doesn't come as much of a surprise when witnessing how the relationship between the two main characters develops, but it's nicely portrayed, only once tipping over into outright sentimentality, so I can forgive the film that.

This is director Aisling Walsh's first major foray into the world of feature films, though she has already done considerable TV work. This project makes me hungry to see more of her cinema work. 

Photography (actually mainly shot in Newfoundland) is superb. Music is kept to a sensibly unobtrusive level and the whole of the small cast could not be better, though it's the truly wonderful and believable Sally Hawkins who carries the film. I hope she gets at least the Oscar nomination she deserves for her deeply affecting performance in this unassuming, yet quite remarkable, little film.....................7.5.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Film: 'Wind River'

Here we go again! Films where I would dearly have wished for subtitles are becoming ever more frequent; and this time it's not just for an actor or two but here almost the entire cast is given to unintelligible mutterings, at least for my ears. Granted that for the septuagenarian that I am it would only be expected that there'd be at least some degree of hearing loss, though if that's the case so I don't know why it doesn't also manifest in my everyday life. Either that or the cinemas which I patronise must all have very inferior sound systems. Whatever the root cause is I seriously think it's further reason to cast doubt on whether it's worth continuing my reviews, bound as they are to be, skewed in an unfavourable direction.

That aside, this film is set entirely in snowbound Wyoming (though actually filmed in Utah!) mainly on Indian reservation territory.
At the film's start we see a young woman running away from something, we don't know what, barefooted through the snowy landscape. Then a local tracker (Jeremy Renner) is seen shooting at jackals/wolves(?) in order to defend a vulnerable flock of sheep. He then discovers the frozen body of the fleeing young woman, the entire film from then on concerned with finding out what happened and what or who was pursuing her.
Characters are introduced, most significantly an FBI officer (Elisabeth Olsen) who arrives to do her investigation unsuitably clad for the environment. Others appear and I quickly got lost working out who was who and, as so much of the dialogue was lost on me, I was reduced to having to read their badges or uniform insignia for identification, though that was nowhere near satisfactory with which to follow exactly what was going on.

Towards the end of the film, more than three-quarters through, there is an extremely brutal scene when it's revealed what the dead woman was running away from. (Warning - it does go on a bit!)

If I knew what was happening I might have liked the film more. I'd be very interested to hear from anyone who has seen it and didn't have the problem that I had. There's no doubt that the photography of the snowy uplands is most impressive, and that must be mentioned.

It's Taylor Sheridan's second feature film as director, and in addition he wrote this one too. I think it was actually a more superior film than I'm able to credit it with being, but failing to grasp what the hell was happening, it's with regret that I can only score it with a................6.  

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Film: 'Detroit'

I really didn't want to see this, having heard that it made for gruelling viewing, which is precisely what it turned out to be in the central section at least. As for the lengthy opening section, I was getting close to being bored, and the concluding part was way too long as well. 

Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director Oscar for her 'Hurt Locker' in 2010, which also carried away that year's prize for 'Best Film'. This one made nowhere near the same favourable impression with me.

It tells of an incident which took place in a Detroit motel in 1967 during a period of racial unrest and riots when a sniper is believed to have shot at police from this building. The police force entry and several black men and two white women taken from rooms, abused and roughed up, three of them ending up dead. In charge is racist cop Will Poulter (very good indeed) who will stop at nothing to find out which of them was the alleged sniper, while the quieter side of reason is played by John Boyega as a security guard. His role doesn't call for much range of emotion other than displaying silent, passive disapproval at the cops' methods. 
The tension in this middle section is very effectively engineered and almost palpable, a sizable amount of blood being spilt.

I found the scene-setting of the first part far too extended, running to three-quarters of an hour, and involving a Motown male singing quartet, 'The Dramatics', which, though little more than incidental to the film's main focus, yet it ran on and on - and in the long epilogue the narrative pointlessly returns to the quartet, assuming that we'd be interested. Well I, for one, wasn't.

I'd been expecting Boyega and Poulter to be the dominating screen presences for most of the film but it was only in the middle section's police raid of the motel that they had much to do at all. It might also be argued that Poulter's retention of boyish looks in his face does not sit too convincingly with his role here of carrying respectful authority.

There's no doubt that the key central section of the film is powerful. A lot of what came before and after it was disposable, and made the film a needless close-on two and a half hours long. 
I could watch 'Hurt Locker' again, but not this.............5.5.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Film: 'The Limehouse Golem'

('Limehouse' = a locality in east London, 'Golem' = a certain magically-created, mythical creature)

A film based on a novel by the justifiably renowned Peter Ackroyd, it was to have had the late Alan Rickman in the lead as Scotland Yard detective (and whose premature departure still impoverishes the cinema world) but whose shoes are now more than ably filled by the marvellous Bill Nighy in a rare, non-comedic role.

It's a gory, late-Victorian tale of mysterious serial killings, all swirling London fog and gaslights, set against the music hall of the 1880s.  There seems to be no connection between the several victims - varying ages, occupations and sex. Four suspects come to the fore, two of whom are music hall star and female impersonator, Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), as well as none other than Karl Marx   (Henry Goodman) himself. As they are identified in turn, we see in imagined flashback each of them committing the murders.

Nighy has as his investigating sidekick an on-duty police constable in the capable form of Daniel Mays. 
The main female role is taken by Olivia Cooke, the wife of one of the chief suspects, but whom I was very disappointed to find was one of those mumble-mumble actresses who might as well have been speaking in an unfamiliar foreign tongue as far as I was concerned,  I could scarcely catch a word she uttered, especially in her dialogues with Nighy, whose own diction was crystal clear, even when spoken in an undertone.

It's all very atmospheric, though almost entirely dimly lit. The plot was somewhat too convoluted for simple minds like mine to grasp readily, though I did find the second hour was starting to make sense.
When the 'guilty' party was named I thought that it appeared almost too clear cut to turn out to be so, which turned out to be true, though I didn't guess the outcome which, on its disclosure, drew gasps of astonishment from the audience. It was a satisfying moment.

This is only American director Juan Carlos Medina's second full-length cinema feature, and on the strength of this he does hold out some promise. It's a shame that the female lead, here in a really major part with a great deal of on-screen time, and who I've little doubt may well have potential as a fine actress, lets the side down by her lazy articulation. Otherwise I'd have rated the film higher than............6.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Film: 'Final Portrait'

A rare event it is to see a film directed by Stanley Tucci, an actor I've long liked (he does 'camp' so well!). Sad that the result turned out to be this rather one-dimensional, over-prolonged tale which, despite its crisp 90 minutes' length, managed to outstay its welcome. 

It tells a story of Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush - almost unrecognisable with his rumpled, curly hair) in his final days attempting to complete a sitting portrait of James Lord (Armie Hammer), an American writer and art dilettante.
The screen caption tells us it's Paris 1964. As though that isn't sufficient to explain where we are we're serenaded by - guess what! - an accordian. (Good grief! Aren't we passed that cliche yet? Why not also have a moustachio-ed guy cycling along in a beret and horizontally-striped tee-shirt with a string of onions round his neck? - and with La Tour Eiffel in the background!)

Many of us will be familiar with pictures of Giacometti's sculptures of grotesquely(?) elongated figurines, perhaps less so with his paintings and portraits. 
He offers to paint a seated portrait of Lord, to which the latter is most pleased to sit for him, especially as he's told it won't take long at all, and he's due to return to New York imminently. One sitting expands to two, to three, several days.......more than two weeks. Lord is getting increasingly exasperated especially as he repeatedly has to keep re-booking his flight home - and he can hardly contain himself when, after well over a week of sittings, the artist in one of his fits of pique, paints over his work done so far and announces that he must start again. 

The dishevelled studio where the painting is done has an in-and-out traffic of a number of curious characters, some interesting, some irritating, but they just seemed to perform the function of padding out what would otherwise have been a slender story. If they were designed to hold the audience's attention, it only worked feebly.

The film is shot in very muted colours, which rather suits the artist's work - many of which were left in an uncompleted state as he was never satisfied with his 'accomplishments'.

Tucci himself, to his credit, never appears in front of the camera. The film was actually mostly shot in London for reasons of cost, though it did, for the most part, look convincingly like its Parisienne setting. (Was that supposed to be Pere LaChaise? I used to know that Paris cemetery pretty well because of my searching out the many notables buried there. The scenes in this film looked more like Highgate cemetery to me.) 

I believe that Stanley Tucci has wanted to make this film for some years, declaring his own passion for the artist's work.  It's disappointing that even though it's another brilliant performance from Rush, with a lacklustre script to fight against, any passion that Tucci does have doesn't readily show on screen................5.