Just been watching…(80)

Ida (2013)

(Original Polish language, English subtitles.)

It has taken me a long time to get around to watching this, but I’m glad I did. It was directed by PaweĊ‚ Pawlikowski, so that was enough to get my interest. Added to that, it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2015 too, so you can tell it is acclaimed by the industry.

Ida is a novice Nun. A young woman raised in a convent after being left there as a baby, during WW2. She is soon to take her vows, which will leave her in the convent forever, and then she gets an unexpected visitor. Her aunt arrives, and brings with her some startling news. Ida’s family are Jewish, not Catholics, and she wants Ida to go with her to discover their fate. Her aunt Wanda is a former hard-line Communist, and one-time State Prosecutor. Now disillusioned, she drinks heavily, smokes to excess, and sleeps with any man she comes across. Ida accompanies her to the village where the family once lived, beginning a road trip through the depressing landscape of rural Poland, in 1962.

Once at the village, they find silence and suspicion, until eventually discovering the family that once sheltered Ida’s parents are now living in their house, and have taken over their land. Ida has some taste of life outside the convent as she stays at hotels, and sees her aunt partying hard, dancing and flirting. They encounter the young saxophonist of a touring band, and he reappears throughout the film.
An eventual showdown with a member of a Catholic family leads them to discover the fate of their relatives. But there is little joy in the realisation of what happened, and both women are left wondering what they are doing. With no plot spoilers, that’s about it.

The film is shot in flat black and white, and uses a square format, not widescreen. It is also quite obviously ‘photographed’, which endeared it to me no end. This not only helps set the mood, but also makes it feel as if was made in 1962, let alone set that year. Agata Trzebuchowska, as Ida, lends the film a serenity, as she glides peacefully through it in her Nun’s habit, contrasting completely with the modern life around her. Scenery, locations, costume, and sets are all very authentic too, and the sense of life in Soviet-controlled Poland is very real. But it is Agata Kulesza as aunt Wanda who dominates the film, and acts everyone off the screen.

This is a slow film, and a very ‘serious’ one too. There are no lighter moments, nothing intended to be humourous, or warm. It deals with some aspects of the Holocaust during the German occupation of Poland, and also makes uncomfortable suggestions about collaboration, and betrayal. With a running time of just 82 minutes, it is a little gem of a film, and one I would recommend unreservedly, to serious film fans.

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Just been watching…(79)

Green Room (2015)

***No spoilers***

This Indie-style film was released to many rave reviews in magazines and on blogs, and some critics loved it too. Sold as a ‘Horror’ film, it soon developed a cult following. Despite this, it lost a great deal of money, as the box-office public decided not to bother with it. I also decided to give it a miss, until it appeared on a free TV Film channel recently. The cast interested me; a couple of reasonably well-known British actors, Joe Cole, and Imogen Poots, and the American Anton Yelchin, who I had at least heard of. Then there was Patrick Stewart, the famous British thespian. Yes, that one.
I thought that if he was in it, then it must be worth watching.

A grungy-looking Punk Rock band are touring around the north-west of America. They are making little money, sleeping in their car, and getting nowhere fast. On the verge of going home, they are offered a gig for $350 that will at least buy them enough petrol for the trip. They drive up to the Portland area, and discover the afternoon venue is a neo-Nazi skinhead club, little more than a huge shed on the compound of some decidedly unpleasant-looking men. But the gig goes well, and they get paid. Just about to leave, one of the band stumbles over the body of a dead girl in the ‘green room’ of the title, and events take a nasty turn.

The five are locked in the room, and the owner of the club (Stewart) is sent for, to decide what to do with them. Meanwhile, the terrified youngsters discover a huge underground heroin factory below the club, and realise that it is all a front for a well-organised drug-dealing gang. Things go downhill very rapidly as the band members fight for survival against an ever-growing number of skinhead thugs.

So, in my opinion, it’s not a ‘Horror’ film. It is a crime/murder film, with the second half taking on a classic ‘revenge’ element. There is a lot of violence, a theme of constant threat and dread, and most of it is shot in one or two shabby rooms, or outside in near-darkness. That makes it tiring to watch, (for me) as the director decided to use ‘natural lighting’ conditions for effect. And the music, when the band play their gigs, is just bloody awful!

There is nothing new or fresh in this film. The villains are villainous, and I found it hard to have any sympathy for the victims, to be honest. There is absolutely no point to the story, except to serve as a showcase for violence and fear, plus all of the acting is below average, and that’s being kind. Patrick Stewart plays the role of the criminal boss as if he is on stage at The National as King Lear, and I was left wondering what the hell he was doing in such a nasty film.
Honestly, do what the American public did.

Don’t bother.

Retro Review: Let’s Make Love (1960)

Even as a boy, I was always captivated by Marilyn Monroe. She did typify the blonde bombshell female so popular during a certain era, but there was something else too. She had a vulnerability, a touching innocence, and both are things that instinctively make women attractive to certain men, I believe. Some people thought she wasn’t that great an actress, and traded on her looks and figure to achieve fame. I disagree, and think she was an outstanding actress at times, and her good looks actually concealed much of the talent underneath. She had a tragically short life of course, and perhaps didn’t cope well with the fame that surrounded her. But she was undoubtedly a rare combination, someone who was incredibly good to look at, but also knew her strengths when it came to choosing parts.

This film is far from being one of her best. The casting of the non-actor and British crooner Frankie Vaughan was uninspired, to say the least. Yves Montand plays a stereotypical Frenchman, and at times is embarrassing to watch on screen. Even with some genuinely funny moments, and many great musical numbers, it is an implausible tale of a poor dancer and singer being wooed by a millionaire who gets his girl in the end. Despite all this, it remains my favourite Monroe film, because of her. With all the nonsense going on in the background, and some ham acting from many cast members, we get to focus on her. We see her at a time when she was arguably not only at her most attractive, but imbued with a confidence sometimes lacking in more serious films she made.

Co-written by Arthur Miller, directed by the estimable George Cukor, and shown in a lovely Cinemascope print, it was a delight to watch her at the cinema in my childhood. I have watched this film many times since, and never cease to be amazed by her looks, and her subtle skill too.
Watch it just for her.

Just been watching…(78)

Project Almanac (2015)

I love films about time travel. I have made it my business over the years to try to watch them all. No matter how obscure, old or new, I have sought them out. There are still a few waiting for me to catch up on, but I didn’t even know about this one, which popped up on a TV film channel a while back. I just got around to watching it, courtesy of a wet and dreary day in Beetley.

Before you read any further, I should perhaps caution you that this is not a great film. It is not in the same league as ‘Timecrimes’, and not as involving as ‘Primer’. But if you are as interested in the subject as I am, then it is definitely worth watching, especially free of charge on TV.

It starts like a typical American high school teen film. A bunch of ‘nerds’ who are too clever to be popular, and ignored by the good-looking girls at school. They are accompanied by the sister of one of them, David, a boy who is hoping to get into the prestigious M.I.T., with his project on drones. When he and his sister discover that their mother intends to sell the house to pay his tuition fees, they search the attic, trying to find something that their deceased father might have left behind that they can use for a new project.
They discover an old video camera.

Looking at old family films on that, David sees something that cannot be explained. His reflection in a mirror, at his own 7th birthday party. But it is the teenage David they can see, not the boy enjoying his cake. This sets the scene for the film. David, his sister, and two brainy friends begin to search the family basement, where they discover the plans for the Project Almanac of the title, a government plan to build a time machine. So they decide to build it. After a few mishaps, they eventually manage to send a toy car back in time for a few minutes, and then feel it is time to try the machine out on people.

What follows is quite entertaining. These teenagers do the things that you might expect. They go back in time with winning lottery numbers, alter exam results at school, and get VIP passes to a band’s concert. Very soon, they are the most popular kids in school, and rich enough to buy anything they need, as well as saving the house from being sold. But David is in love with one of the hottest girls at school, and uses the machine to go back in time, to make her fall for him.

Once he starts time-travelling alone, all sorts of knock-on effects begin to happen, and it is soon very apparent that using the machine to change the future has serious consequences.

You have to keep your concentration levels high when watching this. Much of it appears as jerky, ‘found footage’, as they continue to film their adventures on the old video camera. Some scenes repeat with very small differences, not unlike in ‘Groundhog Day’, and there is a lot of flashing, bright lights, and rewind/fast forward footage to deal with too. I didn’t know any of the cast, and will not bother to list them. But that worked to my advantage, as I had no preconceptions of their talents, good or bad. The special effects are kept to a minimum, and that makes the whole thing that much more realistic.

All in all, not a bad effort, and a time-travel film to tick off my list.

Just been watching…(77)

The Winslow Boy (1999)

This is not the only adaptation of the Rattigan play of the same name, but it is by far the best one. That is helped by a superb script from David Mamet, who also directed the film with consummate skill. Then there is the casting, with a breathtaking array of some of the finest British actors on display. Add the wonderful costume, convincing sets, and the compelling original (based on true events) story, and this film is a sheer wonder, from start to finish. I have seen it at least three times, and it is so good, I would happily watch it again next week.

The story itself is simple, but complex in the telling. Set not long before WW1, in 1911, we follow the life of a well-to-do middle class banker and his family, in London. His oldest child, a daughter, is involved with the Suffragettes, and is a ‘modern’ woman, with political opinions, and a feisty attitude. She is engaged to be married to an officer in the Household Cavalry. His older son is at Oxford University, but showing little aptitude for his studies. The youngest son, the Winslow Boy of the title, has just started at the prestigious Naval College, Osbourne, and is the apple of his father’s eye. Just before Christmas, the boy, Ronnie, appears in the garden of the house. He has been expelled from the Naval College, accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order, from another cadet.

When his father believes his story that he is innocent, this starts a chain of events that all but destroy the family, taking them to the brink of bankruptcy, and altering the destinies of both older children irrevocably. Unable to secure satisfaction from the Admiralty, Mr Winslow embarks on the lengthy, and costly, legal process of taking The Crown to court. He hopes to secure a proper trial for his son. Even though it is accepted that he can never return to the Naval College, he is determined to prove Ronnie’s innocence in a public court. To do so, he engages the services of one of the best barristers in Britain, the haughty Sir Robert Morton, who agrees to take on the case. Morton is also a Member of Parliament, and he sees the opportunity to embarrass the government, at the same time as securing the boy’s innocence.

The film shows no courtroom scenes. This in itself is a stroke of genius, as the viewer must chart the progress by the reaction of the family, the journalists, and the general public. This is shown in newspapers, family discussions, and scenes from The House of Commons. As their comfortable lives begin to unravel, the family starts to question the point of the proceedings, and Mrs Winslow is close to despair, following the reduced financial circumstances of her household. If you think this doesn’t sound like much of a film, then I have to tell you that you are very wrong. It is one of the best historical dramas ever committed to the screen, with a cast that is at the top of its game. I think it is the best film ever made, in this particular genre.

Nigel Hawthorne, as the determined Mr Winslow. Flawless.
Jeremy Northam, as the complex Sir Robert. Beyond flawless.
Gemma Jones, as the troubled Mrs Winslow. Flawless
Rebecca Pidgeon, as Catherine, the ‘political’ daughter. Flawless.
All the other cast members. Flawless.
Period feel. Flawless.
Costume. Flawless.
Script. Flawless.

This film definitely deserves a wider audience, and to be better appreciated. Jeremy Northam is one of the finest actors of his generation, given the right part. Gemma Jones was born to act in ‘period’, and Nigel Hawthorne delivers a nuance in his acting that is a joy to behold. Rebecca Pidgeon looks so convincing, you could almost believe that she lived through that period.

As you can tell, I like this one a lot. I can’t get the official trailer, but here’s a scene.

Retro Review: Strangers On A Train (1951)

For the last six years, I have debated the work of Alfred Hitchcock many times on this blog. I am famously not a huge fan of this man, who many believe to be the greatest film director of all time. But I do like some of his films a lot, and when they are good, they are very good indeed.
This is one of those.

The story got my interest immediately, for its unusual premise. Two men meet on a train. One (Farley Granger) is a professional tennis player, the other (Robert Walker) a strange character who appears to be a little deranged. During their conversation, Guy the tennis player tells Bruno that he wants to get away from his unfaithful wife, so he can be with the woman he truly loves. Bruno responds by saying how much he hates his father, and wants to be rid of him. As they continue to talk, Bruno suggests a plan, the perfect murder. He will kill Guy’s wife, and Guy will kill his father. He reasons that neither man will ever be suspected of the murders, as they would apparently be motiveless. Guy realises that what he thought was just a chat with a stranger has been taken seriously, and becomes concerned. He pretends to be amused by the exchange, and gets away as soon as he can, leaving his distinctive lighter behind.

Sure enough, Bruno carries out his side of the bargain, by following Guy’s wife to a funfair, and strangling her. Guy is shocked to hear the news, and also finds himself a prime suspect in the murder, as his possible alibi is flawed. But Bruno intends to make Guy keep his side too, and wants him to kill his father, which he is convinced was agreed. He sends Guy a parcel containing a gun, keys to his father’s house, and a map showing the location. But Guy encounters Bruno in the house, tells him he will not carry out the murder, and says Bruno should see a psychiatrist. Enraged, Bruno decides to implicate Guy in his wife’s murder, by using the missing lighter as a clue.

The thrilling climax takes place in the same funfair, set around a madly-spinning carousel ride.

I have seen this film more than once, and despite knowing the ending, and every detail of the plot, I can enjoy it time and again. This is mainly due to the wonderful Robert Walker, who is completely believable in the role of the unstable Bruno. The rest of the cast (including the reliable Ruth Roman) all put up a good show, but Walker steals the film.

Just Been Watching…(76)

Deadpool (2016)

***Spoilers. But you’ve all seen it, haven’t you?***

Regular readers may need a sedative, when they see me reviewing a Marvel Franchise film. As anyone knows by now, I generally detest any of the films made from the comics I enjoyed as a child. I find them repetitive, over-reliant on CGI, and more or less an easy option, instead of doing something fresh and inventive.

But there’s a BUT.

Everyone told me to watch this film. They said I would love it, that it was funny, and that I would appreciate the deliberate irony. So when I saw it arrive on TV, I thought ‘Why not?’

The story, such as it is, revolves around a former special forces man now working as a mercenary and fixer. He is played by Ryan Reynolds, who in my experience is a hit and miss actor at best. He is diagnosed with cancer, and decides to leave his girlfriend, rather than let her see him fade away and die. Then he is approached by a shady organisation that offers to cure his disease, warning of possible life-changing side effects. Of course, the side effects are terrible, and the people responsible become the villains. That’s about it for plot, except he spends most of the film taking his revenge on those responsible, in a spectacular fashion.

Much of the film is told in flashback sections, narrated by Deadpool with a lot of swearing. He constantly breaks the ‘fourth wall’ by directly addressing the audience, even moving the camera in one scene. He has some very funny lines, and there are references to films, music, and even Sinead O’Connor. Violence is extreme throughout, helped by the fact that most of the characters in the film are virtually indestructible. There are some sexy scenes too, and lots more swearing. All the time. Later in the film, Deadpool enlists the help of two mutants, who I think are from the ‘X-Men’ films. But I got lost a bit there, as I haven’t watched those films all the way through. (‘Wolverine’ was enough, believe me) One is a huge man made from metal, who acts a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the other a crop-haired young woman who can turn herself into a fireball of some sort.

The set pieces are well done, as you might expect from a modern film like this. The action is pretty much non-stop, and Deadpool himself is a self-deprecating, wisecracking, anti hero. The villain is an English actor I have never seen nor heard of, but most of the cast are very good, even those with small roles.

Another BUT.

But this film is at its best when it is also at its silliest. The talking to camera is witty, not at all irritating, and often downright funny. The film laughs at itself, and that saved me laughing at it, instead of with it, which I found myself doing a lot. We are aware that it is laughably over the top and overblown, but so is the cast. And they play their parts accordingly. Eye candy is on offer in abundance. Deadpool’s girlfriend (Morena Baccaran) is gorgeous, and even the super-strong villainess (Gina Carrano) is hot stuff. Not to be outdone by the older ladies, the young mutant (Brianna Hildebrand) rocks her cropped hair, and is incredibly pretty. Female viewers are well-served by the muscle-rippling torsos of both Ryan, and the villain.

Pointless, silly, but ultimately irresistible, it seems that everyone was right. I am never one to be a bad loser, so I confess I liked it. Not only that, I enjoyed it. But would I watch it again, or bother with the sequel?

Hmm…I’ll have to get back to you on that.