Just been watching…(64)

Dark Places (2015)

***No spoilers***

When a film I have never heard of pops up as a TV showing, I usually check out some reviews or listings to see if it is something I might want to watch. But as this was described as a ‘Mystery thriller’, and starred Charlize Theron, I taped it on the PVR anyway.

Considering it had escaped my film radar completely, this film has a lot going for it. For one thing, it is set in Kansas, not California or New York. The dingy backstreets of Kansas City, and the arid-looking farmlands of the wider state make a refreshing change from the norm, and something very different for someone used to seeing familiar American (or Canadian) locations. (OK, it was filmed in Louisiana, but what do I know? I was happy to believe it was Kansas.) I should say from the start that I later found out this film went straight to video/cable, and received mostly very bad reviews. So, here we have a film with a deceptive location, no cinema pedigree, and bad reviews. Why did I watch it?

The simple answer is Charlize Theron. She tackles her role as Libby with dedication, little or no make up, and wearing a baseball cap and jeans. Nervy, aggressive, often foul-mouthed, she is not a character you might warm to, but I did. Nicolas Hoult (the boy in ‘About A Boy’) co-stars as the amiable geek who wants her to face her past demons, and unravel the secrets that have long tormented her.

The story concerns a family ‘massacre’ many years earlier. Libby survived, and her older brother was convicted of killing her mother, and both her sisters. The crime got a great deal of attention, and Libby became an eight year old celebrity, with a ghost written book about the event, and donations from well-wishers that have enabled her to live without working ever since. She is reclusive, a hoarder, has no friends, and little contact with the outside world. But the money is running out, and she is approached by a young man who wants her to examine her memory, and reveal what really happened on that fateful night.

The film is told in two distinct parts, with flashbacks to the events inserted into the modern day investigation. Each of the main characters is shown as a teenager or child, so there are two casts, including a convincing and watchable Chloe Grace Moretz as a wild teen involved with the older brother. As Libby begins to question her recall, she investigates the statements given at the time, and travels around to find those involved, all now adults. Her memories change with each encounter, and we see the differences in flashback sequences.

The film throws in some amateur satanic worship, and the usual drunken, shiftless and mostly absent father, with a nod to press sensationalism of crime. The mother is broke, with her farm not making any money, and the bank threatening to foreclose. The older brother may or may not have sexually abused young girls (but not his sisters) as well as murdering most of his family, and Libby has never visited him in prison, not once. All things we have seen before of course.

Mostly, I thought it was well done indeed. Maybe I am easily pleased, but I don’t think that’s it. I was never confused about which time period the film was in, or which cast members were playing the grown up versions of the younger characters. Theron was as good as ever, and the final reveal of what actually happened that night was totally unexpected, at least by me. On the downside, there is a distinct lack of any real tension that you might expect from the genre, and Hoult’s role seems rather pointless, other than to introduce doubt. Also his acting is stiff, and by the numbers. But I have seen a lot worse films that had much better reviews, I can assure you of that.

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Just been watching…(63)

Testament of Youth (2014)

***This is a true story, set around historical events. So spoilers apply***

Fortunately, the BBC is not letting us forget that we are still remembering The Great War of 1914-1918. One hundred years ago, men were dying all over Europe, in what later became known as WW1. This film was shown at the weekend, and is based on the book of the same name, by British writer Vera Brittain. I have read the book, and also watched the outstanding TV serialisation in 1979. This modern film stays true to both.

Very much a film of two halves, we start off with the rather idyllic lifestyle enjoyed by the English upper classes in the first decade of the 20th century. Polite company, girls looking for husbands, young men looking for suitable wives. Tea on the lawn, swimming in the lake, and walks on the beach. The men are at expensive private schools, and all have solid futures at university, and beyond. Young Vera is a rebel. She wants to go to Oxford University. Few women gained such places back then, and her father fears that it will make her unattractive to any prospective husband. But she is strong and determined, and gains her place at an all-girl college. Meanwhile, she spends the last holiday with her brother, and his two best friends. One of them is besotted with her, and they fall in love and become engaged to marry.

But just as she leaves for Oxford, war breaks out in Europe.

Vera’s fiance promises not to go, but soon joins up. Her brother follows shortly after. The third friend is initially turned down for medical reasons, but as casualties mount, he too joins as an officer. Studying at Oxford, Vera feels useless, and wants to do something for the war effort. She abandons her degree, and becomes a volunteer nurse. After working in England for some time, and seeing the effect of war on the patients she is treating, she asks for transfer to France, to help with the wounded close to the front line, and to be nearer her brother, who is leading his men in the trenches now.

This is a film about tragedy, and how we cope with it. Newspapers in the film are little more than page after page listing the names of men killed in action. Vera’s mother is unable to cope with wartime rationing, and the fact that her household staff have left. Her comfortable life has been shattered, and it affects her mentally. Vera’s sombre father has seen his son off to the war, and is constantly worried about him. As the war goes on, the reality hits home. Vera’s fiance is reported killed, on the very day he should be home on leave to marry her. She gets the news while wearing her wedding dress.
Working in a field hospital in France, Vera is shocked to see her own brother brought in, badly wounded, and left for dead. She nurses him back to health, only to have to watch him leave to go back to the war once again. When they get the news that he has been killed in action later, it almost breaks his distraught father.

This is a noble film. It is not a war film, though there are some short action scenes, mostly in flashback. Much of the action takes place in either comfortable upper-class homes, or amid the horrors of battlefield hospitals, short on resources, and understaffed. I think it is a fine adaptation of the book, with the period feel handled flawlessly, and the viewer completely invested in the emotions and strengths of the characters. Above all, it is the casting that exudes quality. Not a single bad choice, with every actor and actress just right for the role. And what talent is on display too.

Swedish actress Alicia Vikander may seem a strange choice to play the rebellious Vera. But she is just perfect, and her accent is exactly right too. This young woman really knows how to act, and I have never seen her give a poor performance. Vera’s parents are played by Dominic West, and the wonderful Emily Watson, and her female tutor at Oxford gives Miranda Richardson the chance to shine once again, this time in a smaller role. The three men in Vera’s life are all just right too. Her brother is played solidly by Taron Egerton, and her fiance by Kit Harington. Their friend Victor, who has always secretly loved Vera, is a fine turn from Colin Morgan, showing real acting quality.

The British film industry has a long history of delivering compelling historical and period dramas. They tend to do these very well indeed, and this is no exception.

Just been watching…(62)

A Quiet Place (2018)

***No spoilers***

I have just seen a 2018 film, in the same year it was released! (Is that a first for me?) I actually went to the cinema in Dereham tonight. The local ‘flea-pit’ family cinema was actually showing a film I wanted to see. Hooray! But they relegated it to ‘Cinema Three’ (Tiny, small screen) and one showing per day, at 7:00 pm. (So yes, I am not long back, and it is fresh in my mind.)

I bought my (old person’s discount) ticket, and went into the cinema around fifteen minutes before the film started. I was the only one there, so sat in the middle of the front row. (The screen is not so big) Once the film had almost started, three other men came in, and sat in the back row. In a market town of almost 15,000 inhabitants, the film could only attract four people, on a Tuesday night. That says a lot about Norfolk, and also how the cinema manages to make ends meet. Still, I digress. On to the actual film.

This is a film about sound, in every way imaginable. The basic plot is that aliens have taken over the Earth, and most of the people are dead. But those dinosaur-like aliens are blind, (they have no eyes) so depend on sound, to hunt and kill us earthlings. We are straight into the action,. with no set-up. (I like that, it presumes some intelligence of the audience) We get clues; newspapers, a family hiding from alien terror, and some stuff written on a white board. And we get an early shock too. One that makes us sit up, and think, ‘WOW!’

Move on just over year, and we are following a family surviving where others have not. They have a head start. Their daughter is deaf, so they can all do sign language. This means that they don’t have to speak out loud, and the monsters won’t hear them. They have moved into a farm, and live most of their lives in the cellar, soundproofed from alien ears. (And they are super-dooper alien ears, I kid you not) They manage as best as they can, and for some reason, they still have electricity. (Though they use candles and oil lamps for light, which is not explained) They have to go out to catch fish, and live their entire lives in fear of making any noise.

OK, flippant stuff over. They show this very well. The kids play Monopoly by shaking the dice onto a soft cloth. They use cloth counters, so as not to make a noise. They speak in sign language all the time, which means subtitles, for those of you who don’t like them. They spread soft sand on paths to walk on, and paint spots on floors and stairs, so they can walk without creaking the boards. The ‘small stuff’ is done very well, and makes the film very interesting. But as I said, this is all about sound. Much of the film is muted, or silent, but when the sound comes, it makes you jump out of your seat. The blind aliens make some great unnatural noises, as well as moving fast. Very fast indeed.

The tension is racked up so high, even an old cynic like me felt it. There are genuine ‘wow’ moments, and I could even forgive the rather clunky (and vaguely familiar) alien close-ups. Much has been made in reviews of the fact that the adult stars are a real-life couple.(Emily Blunt, and John Kasinski) This was not an issue for me, either way. Their acting is solid, that’s for sure. But their two older children take the laurels, managing to appear both genuinely terrified, and resolute at the same time.

This is a dystopian/alien invasion film like no other, based on its use of the sense of sound, and lack of sight for the aliens. It’s a great idea, and it works very well indeed. And the ending is a refreshing change too. But I won’t spoil that.

Shusssssh!

Great Albums: Solid Air

By 1973, I had managed to mostly avoid Folk Music. With the exception of Bob Dylan, and a few emerging British progressive bands, I rarely listened to either Folk or Traditional music, of any kind. So, I had never heard of John Martyn, a British Folk singer from Scotland. Until one night when I visited the home of a close friend, a man who played guitar in a band himself, and boasted an eclectic taste in music.

He was excited to get me to listen to a new album he had just acquired, and gave me the cover to read, as he lined it up on the turntable. I skimmed over the sleeve notes with little interest, as I had never heard of the man who had made this record. But I respected my friend’s judgement, and sat back to hear what all the fuss was about.

The first track had the same title as the album, and I immediately realised that this was indeed something wonderful, and very different to so much around at the time.

By track five, I was completely hooked, and I knew that I would be in the record shop the following day, to buy my own copy. There was a merger of multiple genres going on. Songs that felt like Jazz and Blues rolled into one, with the Folk background evident, but not intrusive.

It didn’t flag at all, not a single duff track. Some songs were faster than others, but the spirit of Martyn could be felt in every line. By track seven, I was swept away by this new sound, and that track delivered a touching and poignant love song. I was smiling at my friend and his girlfriend, and they was smiling back.
We all knew that was a very special moment.

The album brought a new audience to John Martyn, and great critical acclaim too. He received a lifetime achievement award in 2008, and continued to tour and perform until his death in 2009, aged just 60.

Great Albums: Corinne Bailey Rae

In 2006, this young lady released her eponymous first album. If you read this blog a lot, you might recall that I have featured one of her songs before, in my ‘Significant Songs’ series. From the moment I heard some tracks on the radio, I was undeniably hooked. This was a new British talent, a singer/songwriter of amazing emotional perception, and one who could translate that emotion into wonderful lyrics and songs.

As I listened to the album, I went from happy to sad, then back again. I was literally staggered. This was undeniable talent, of the highest order. I confess to have being very pleased to live in a country that had produced such musical magic. The album went straight in at number one, a spot justly deserved.

Listening to the album, the quality just got better and better. I remember thinking to myself that this was something special. Perfect vocals, wonderful arrangements, and great lyrics. I imagined that Corinne would top the charts, and be the great new talent of the early 21st century.

Have you ever been in love? if you have, then you cannot fail to connect with perhaps the album’s most prefect track. One of the best modern love songs ever written, in my humble opinion.
‘Just Like A star’. Flawless, and overwhelming.

But fate had sadness in store for this talented young woman. Her husband, Jason, was found dead, following an overdose of methadone combined with alcohol. After a long break grieving her loss, she released a follow up album, ‘The Sea’, in 2010. Despite critical acclaim, it seemed that it was too late for her. She had lost that early momentum. By the time of the third album in 2016, Corinne seemed to have been forgotten by both the industry, and the public.

But she left this sublime legacy, in her first ever recording.

Just been watching…(61)

Brooklyn (2015)

***No spoilers***

I generally avoid romantic films. When I see the words rom-com in a synopsis, it usually means my brain switches off. But in the past, I have enjoyed some romantic dramas, like ‘Circle Of Friends’ and ‘As Good As It Gets’. And I confess that I laughed more than once when watching ‘There’s Something About Mary’. I have read some of Nick Hornby’s novels, and seen a couple of films based on them too. So when I saw his name attached to the film ‘Brooklyn’, I thought ‘why not?’

And I was very glad I did.

This film is set in Ireland and America, during the year I was born. A young woman seeks to escape a dull and seemingly pointless existence in rural Ireland, by leaving to live in America, where a job has been found for her by a priest known to the family. Leaving her older sister behind to care for her widowed mother, Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) departs for a new life in Brooklyn. Once there, she stays at a boarding house run by the feisty Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters) and starts work in a prestigious department store in the huge and daunting city.

Ellis is terribly homesick, and cries over letters from her sister. On the verge of returning to Ireland, she talks to Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), and he convinces her to stay and to overcome her fears. At a church social dance, she meets the handsome young Italian-American Tony, (Emory Cohen) who immediately falls for her, and lifts her spirits. Once in that relationship, she discovers a new joy in her surroundings, and starts to do well at work, as well as feeling more settled in her life in New York. But something happens that means she has to return to Ireland, throwing her world into confusion.

Back in her small home town, Ellis is no longer the mousey and quiet girl they knew. She appears to be wordly, smart and sophisticated, and soon attracts the attention of a very eligible man. Her best friend is soon to be married, so Ellis stays on for the wedding, leaving Tony worrying back in Brooklyn. Over the next few weeks, Ellis is forced to reappraise her situation, and she has to decide whether to make the most of a different life in Ireland, or return to her love in Brooklyn.

So, you get the idea. We have all seen something like it before, haven’t we?

But this is very well done indeed. A great script from Hornby, and convincing acting from the talented cast. The sets and wardrobe evoke the early 1950s so well, you might imagine that it had actually been filmed back then. Switching the action from Ireland to America and back to Ireland again is what makes the film so special. As the viewer, we feel that wrench, and end up hoping for one outcome, or the other. We take sides. The fact that I found myself rooting for one ending made me realise just how great this film is.

It does so much, with what seems to be so little. Highly recommended.

Great Albums: Lungs

2009 is quite recent to state something is a ‘great album’. But where Florence Welch is concerned, I will make an exception. Recording as Florence and The Machine, that might give the impression of a large group. But it was only her, and one other woman, her collaborator Isabella Summers. Mind you, lots of producers and other musicians were involved in the production of this startlingly original album.

Florence treads a rare path, one inhabited by the likes of Kate Bush, Bjork, and few others. A female vocalist, singer/songwriter who was completely original, and as refreshing as a shower in a remote waterfall. Appearing apparently from nowhere, she went from obscurity, to overnight acclaim and fame. Before the album was released in 2009, some singles were released the previous year, serving as teasers for the public and critical reception that was to come.

With her mane of red hair, Florence was good to look at, as well as being obviously talented as a singer. She was young, feisty, and very English. ‘Lungs’ was an immediate success, spending months in the charts, and peaking at number two. In 2010, it won the Brit Award for best album, and Florence was undoubtedly on her way. I already owned the album by then, and I was lapping up the originality, and the superb vocals on offer.

Like many before her, Florence embraced the chance to create great videos to promote her songs. Making the most of her looks, and slightly ‘hippy’ style, she went from strength to strength, based on just this one album. One track was even used on a film soundtrack, widening an already excited audience.

Like other artists before her, Florence realised the beneficial effects of changing her image, promoting her femininity and sexuality, and hitting the record-buying public with imagery, dance, and sheer talent. ‘Lungs’ also tipped its hat to the old days of disco, with a cover version of Candi Staton’s ‘You’ve Got The Love’. This modern version crowned the album with class, and did something very rare. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, she surpassed all previous recordings of that classic dance track. In my life, I have rarely heard such a flawless vocal performance.

Florence carried on after ‘Lungs’ with the follow-up album ‘Ceremonials’, in 2011, and the third album ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’, in 2015. That album topped the US charts, but was less well-received in the UK. Florence continues to record and perform, but it is fair to say that she never repeated the overwhelming success she enjoyed with that first album.