Monday, 13 November 2017

Film: 'Paddington 2'

I'd thought the first 'Paddington Bear' film (2014) just okay, though nothing to get really excited about. No such indifference with this sequel - I absolutely loved it! The visuals and the storyline inventiveness are astonishing, all the way through with minimal lapses. And I haven't laughed so much at a film comedy in a long, long time. It wasn't just me, the entire audience seemed to be in uproarious mood. A sheer pick-you-up tonic to counter the blues!

We once again find Paddington (created by the recently-deceased Michael Bond - and voiced magnificently spot-on by Ben Whishaw) still living in an affluent London suburb with the same family (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters) and with the neighbours familiar from last time, plus a number of new additions. In minor or cameo roles there is a veritable roll-call of British actors of film, theatre and TV over several generations - plus Brendan Gleeson as the scary, hard-man prison chef who makes all the other inmates cower with a mere glance. 
Sometimes adding so many recognisable faces to a film betrays a sense of desperation in wanting to hold the audience's attention when the material is too weak or not funny enough to do the job. Not so here. It's a non-stop delight from beginning to end.
The plum acting bonus present in this is Hugh Grant (and what a hoot he is!) playing the dastardly villain - a pantomime villain, true, but perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the film.

The plot is simple enough, Paddington finding that an antiques shop has a pop-up book about London which he's set his heart on to buy  and send to his Auntie back in Peru, but he can't afford it yet. While it's being kept for him, Hugh Grant, playing a former big-name actor now reduced to appearing in dog-food commercials, hears about the pop-up book, knowing that it uniquely contains the clues to the location of a literal treasure chest, so he has to get hold of it himself. It's then a matter of Hugh Grant attaining ownership of the book by devious means and Paddington trying to get it back to send his Auntie.

Director Paul King, who also directed the first film of three years ago, directs this with considerable panache, not slacking his grip for one moment and coming up with surprise on surprise.

Please don't let the presence of Hugh Grant put you off. I know some actively dislike him (I've always found him quite endearing) but in this, as in his marvellous portrayal in 'Florence Foster Jenkins', he goes well outside the former same foppish, bumbling character he always seemed to play in films up until a few years ago - and which I also liked, by the way. But how many times has he played a 'nasty'? Rarely, if ever. But here he seizes the chance with relish and with both hands, he being possibly the most memorable aspect, among many others, of the entire film!

Btw: I must implore anyone who sees this not to exit the cinema before the final credits. You don't have to wait long for a killer of a surprise during those end credits which I can practically guarantee will send you home with a mile-wide grin on your face. 

I liked this so much that it had actually crossed my mind to award it an '8', but an inner voice started to nag at me, -"That would be just silly!" It may not be so silly when I say that this film could well end up in my Top 10 of 2017. So far it's probably the surprise of the year!...............7.5


Saturday, 11 November 2017

Does anyone else watch 'The Young Turks'?

For the last few years I've been getting a lot of my American political input from YouTube - a daily dose of satire and sarcasm from the likes of Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah. But for some months now, for more straight 'objective' (I know some will scoff at the use of the word) reporting I've been increasingly turning to 'The Young Turks'. I'm just curious as to why I don't think I've ever seen TYT mentioned in anyone's blogs. Is there some reason why I ought to be cautious about them? - 'cos from what I see they look pretty darned 'good' as well as entertaining. Is someone about to shatter my positive opinion?  If so, can anyone suggest an even better source available to non-American audiences for news fitting for an ageing, politico-minded progressive?   

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Film: Murder on the Orient Express'

In the Summer when I first heard about this film I was aghast. "Oh NO!", I thought. "Did this film really have to be re-made when Sidney Lumet made such a wonderful job of it in 1974?" And then finding out that it was Kenneth Branagh's brainchild to re-do Agatha Christie's classic novel, I dismissed it as being one of his 'vanity projects', though I knew I'd still have to see it.

It's clear that anybody who is not familiar with the original film version will enjoy this more by not automatically making mental comparisons which, I found, in virtually all respects, favour the earlier one. I do retain a particular affection for the Lumet, having seen that original at least three times on the cinema screen shortly after its release, and maybe half a dozen times since on video. In fact I'll declare more than that. When I last compiled a Top 50 list of my all-time favourite films (admittedly over 20 years ago), the 1974 version featured on it. I'm inclined to think that were I to update that list now it could yet maintain its place there.

That is not to say that this new version doesn't have its merits. Far from it. On the whole I was quite impressed by what Branagh's done, changing details - such as having more scenes enacted outside the train. However, the downside of that is that it loses the trapped-in, claustrophobic atmosphere which pervaded the earlier film.

Now a brief mention of the stars, too many to single out apart from Kenneth B. himself (director of this film, too) presiding over all with his circus-ringmaster (and scarcely believable) distractingly extravagant moustache. I felt Albert Finney as Poirot in 1974 was astonishing and remarkable, not adjectives I'd apply to Branagh in the same role, though he doesn't do at all badly either.

This new film has a galaxy mixture of big and middle-ranking stars, maybe not quite as many names of the then first rank that the 1974 film boasted, but nevertheless, this must be the most notable ensemble of big names appearing in one film since........well, since 1974. (Afterthought: Perhaps Branagh's own 'Hamlet' of 1997 runs it close for star-heavy appearances.)

I felt the screenplay was not as lucid as in the earlier film, the interviews which Poirot has with each of the suspects in turn being patchier and of unequal weight, and a bit more confusing too.

I simply cannot omit mentioning the soundtrack. The 1974's music is one of that film's true 'stars', tracks that have rightly become classics and occasionally feature in concert programmes, particularly the title credit music and waltz. When I hear them they still give me the goose-bumps. Written by the late (and gay) classical composer, Richard Rodney Bennett, I think it's one of the most truly marvellous film soundtracks of the last 50 years or more.
Now for this new version, Branagh has turned to his regular composer-collaborator, Patrick Doyle, whose music, I'm afraid, I've never thought that much of - and here what he's written is nothing like as memorable as is Bennett's.

Despite my qualified verdict I did like this film more than I thought I would. I'm sure it'll cause raised eyebrows when I award it a higher rating than I did for yesterday's 'Call Me by Your Name'. But so what? Too bad. I enjoyed it more...........7.

Film: 'Call Me by Your Name'

What on earth is wrong with me? Why is so much lavish praise being heaped on this? One recent reviewer on IMDb has described this as the best film he has ever seen! The highest commendation I can come up with is that it could well be in my Top 1,000 films - which itself is hardly 'poor' status, indicating that I rate it higher than at least 80% of my viewings. 

Set in Northern Italy, 1983, Armie Hammer plays an American research assistant on a visit to a professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) in Greco-Roman history, who lives with his translator wife (Amira Casar) and 17-year old son, Elio (Timothee Chalamet) in a large country house surrounded by orchards and vineyards. The young one has a hot-cold relationship with his girlfriend (Esther Garel).
After Hammer arrives there's a very slow-burn awareness of mutual attraction between him and the son, something the older man is the more reluctant to acknowledge at first. In fact the very first contact between them which is more than just a casual fleeting one, doesn't arrive until halfway through the film.  
I think the general tenor of film was purporting to conjure up a feeling of langour, reflecting the geographical location in Summer season. I think of Bertolucci and Antonioni in particular, as well as Pasolini, who succeeded in capturing that lazy, sun-drenched ambience so unique to Italy. If that was what director Luca Guadagnino was aiming at I'm not sure he got quite there, though it's true that he has caught well the underlying restlessness of the younger male's burgeoning sexuality. If his aim had been to put that latter aspect centre-stage, then I have to admit that he achieved it.

I didn't find the story all that interesting. Maybe I felt a bit unsettled at seeing the attraction played out between a 17-year old, appearing every bit as young as his character, and a man looking at least twice the younger one's age (though Hammer is actually only 31!). Perhaps it's my own ultra-conventional upbringing which needs to be revised in the head.

Screenplay (based on novel by one Andre Aciman) is by none other than the revered James Ivory himself - and who, it's been mooted, wanted to direct, or at least to part-direct, the film itself. If he had done so I would have expected him to have injected it with a touch of the magic which, I sadly feel, it lacks.

I can't imagine this film enjoying a long-life in my memory bank. In fact, now the morning after, it's already beginning to fade a bit.
Yesterday I'd settled on giving it a rating of '6', but now realising what a rarely-heard story we see on film which it is, I'll nod to that aspect and push it up a semi-notch...............6.5.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Fondest of farewells to my most beloved Noodles

Taken 6th Oct 2017
Just returned from having had my lovely little Noodles put to sleep. Aged 15, he'd been having trouble with horribly distended tummy since July. Vet told me 6 weeks ago that little, if anything, could be done for him. So this dreadful day had to arise sooner rather than later.
He'd hardly eaten or drunk anything for 3 days and, as far as I could see, had done no wees or stinkies for even longer. Then today he started making a wailing noise every so often, clearly being in pain or at least quite some discomfort. Must have been blocked up at his back end. Tried washing him there with a warm, wet cloth, hoping that he'd be able to release something, but to no avail.

Vet examined him and she gave the verdict that the kindest thing I could do would be to let him go. Although in my heart I knew that is what would be said, when I heard it I started weeping freely. 
I was allowed to hold him as he was injected in a foreleg. He was quiet, no struggle. He went cold very quickly, and after listening for a heartbeat she whispered "He's gone". I stroked him, kissed the top of his little head, and thanked him.  

I'm numb.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Worry time with Noodles

Just three and a half months since losing my very dear, still daily missed Blackso:-

I've great concern now for Noodles, 15 years old (above pic taken six years ago). His tummy suddenly ballooned in July after untypically drinking a lot of water, and it's not going down. He can only carry himself with great difficulty, having to lug around all that weight. Vet says that at his age there's little that can be done for him. They did give me a week's supply of tablets but it made no difference. He's unable to jump more than a few inches and yesterday got stranded on the sloping roof outside, not being able to jump back up onto the kitchen windowsill to make his habitual window entrance. With the aid of a set of steps outside I managed to get hold of him and bring him back in through the downstairs door. His crying when he found he'd been stuck out on the roof had been pitiful. 
I dare not leave the kitchen window open now, day or night, even though it's also used by Patchie, my other remaining cat, for going in and out as he wants. This situation is also starting to disrupt my cinema-going plans, so I'm not able to view all I want to in good time to post a review before it gets stale. 
I'm having to play it one day at a time until the situation resolves itself. Noodles gives an alarming and sudden cry every so often indicating that he could well be in pain. Looks like this can only end one way. Troubling times.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Film: 'The Death of Stalin'

Another of those films I hoped I'd like more than it turned out to be. A reputedly 'biting' comedy which did manage to draw maybe four or five laughs from me despite my not finding it anything like as funny as many of the large audience did.

Director Armando Ianucci (and co-writer, along with David Schneider) is one of this country's foremost and well-regarded satirists, though apart from his 'Alan Partridge' radio and TV shows and one feature film (all of which I found immensely amusing), I've never quite managed to get onto the same wavelength with his other creations. Even his well-received, sardonically political feature film 'In the Loop' (2009) left me largely unmoved.

Here he's come up with a comedy around the sudden death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and its immediate aftermath, with the undignified shambles of leading Russian politicians jockeying for power and influence in the continuing Communist administration.
He brings together a host of (mostly) established British actors - Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Paddy Considine, Paul Whitehouse - all speaking in a range of British accents, reflecting the fact that Russian accents too are multifarious. All these are near-eclipsed by the clownish presence of Steve Buscemi, here playing Nikita Krushchev who, despite haplessly floundering, is still very much his own man, and who would three years later, succeed to the topmost 'job'.

It's largely a farce - verbal joshing and needling and some knockabout stuff - but what makes this very different is that it's set against the horrors of Stalin-era brutality - torture, imprisonment, summary 'justice' with immediate executions. We see some grisly scenes though they are not quite overplayed, being merely sufficient to give an idea (if we hadn't already guessed) of the sort of things that did go on. 

The film is a tightrope act between humour and horror, the latter clearly intended to 'point up' the other. For some it seems to have worked. I only wish it had done so for me, the nasty taste left in the mouth lingering just too ominously for me to fully appreciate the surrounding lighter moments.

Female presence is thin - Andrea Riseborough as Stalin's daughter showing some dignity up against Rupert Friend as her drunken, megalomaniac and living embarrassment of a brother.
Then there's Olga Kurylenko as Stalin foe and concert pianist. But neither of these have anything like as much to do as the men.

Among the motley of undesirable characters it's Simon Russell Beale's 'Lavrentiy Beria' who carries the most weight and authority and is the most terrifying, someone whose mere slight nod can signal the end of a foe. 

I will give the film one thing - it's very different from anything else I've seen, so it scores well for originality. But whether it all comes together as a cohesive, satisfying entertainment I'd find more problematic to maintain. A lot of it does work. For me just as much of it didn't - which doesn't mean that you'd agree.................6.