Thursday, 21 November 2019

My House in Umbria

With a strong ensemble cast this gentle tale set in the rolling Umbrian hills is a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half. What saves it from mediocrity are the performances of Maggie Smith as Emily Delahunty and Timothy Spall as hew 'manager' Quinty. Ronnie Barker plays a retired General whom I expected to break out into a stammer for comic effect at any moment.

I think you can watch this film on two levels. The easier, surface viewing, is to see a troubled older lady with an upbringing and early life filled with abuse finally attain her 'family' in the idyll of rural  Umbria. Perhaps another way of viewing the film is to see the plot and dialogue as that of a unremarkable writer of romantic fiction which ultimately leaves a number of plot threads unresolved, thus inviting the viewer to construct their own conclusions and interpretation of how the narrative arc is resolved.

Either way, the plot is too fanciful, the premise of how Mrs Delahunty came to be in Umbria too bizarre to be believable and the utopian existence she enjoys too perfect for someone with such deep-seated psychological needs. The fact that all of these dissonant points find reconciliation on the pages of her trashy novels does not, for this viewer, redeem them. The realism comes from her heavy consumption of gin!

Having said all of this there are many things within this film to commend it. It is a film about guilt, loss, regret, hope and love. These emotions are played out and explored with empathy and the performances contain tangible pathos. I would imagine few people who watch this film who would be unable to develop a strong attachment to, or repulsion from, all of the main characters. Perhaps one of Delahunty's more memorable lines is "I was the only one who had not lost a loved one, having none to lose."

This feels like the made-for-TV movie it is. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile and entertaining watch that will leave you considering the possibilities and trying to disentangle reality from fiction. I'll give it 6/10.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

The Irishman

Although Robert De Niro is in the lead role, this film belongs to Al Pacino. His energy thrusts his character Jimmy Hoffa, into the centre of the screen for more than half this film's three and a half hour runtime! Joe Pesci's Russell is also a strong performance and Harvey Keitel reprises his Winston Wolf role from UK TV! This is an intense film that does not drag at all. Director, Martin Scorsese knows how to wring all of the creative juice out of an ensemble cast of veteran actors that are unlikely to appear together again on screen.

The characters are compellingly believable. Okay, so many of the actors are reprising roles they've played multiple times before but this film has an earnest freshness about it which makes the characters endearing. You can't say that about too many mob and gangster movies!

The way the story is told uses multiple narrative devices which blend seamlessly together to tell a story spanning several decades. It is very clever story-telling and a masterful piece of cinematic art - at the pinnacle of the art form. It will do very well in the awards ceremonies over forthcoming months.

The two main  ways in which the story is told are in flashback and also through a road trip. These intertwine like the double helix to give the film its DNA. It begins in the here and now and the purpose of the flashbacks is to show how Frank Sheeran (De Niro) - the titular Irishman came to be in a nursing home in his final years. As the flash backs and Sheeran's narration build to the climax, so the road trip emerges from its routine pattern to deliver a twist at the end.

The story centres around mafia mobsters running their rackets and the powerful International Brotherhood of Teamsters - the truckers Trades Union in the USA and their charismatic leader Hoffa. In essence it is a morality tale told within an amoral world.

The leading characters, being 'good Catholics', are often seen in church, usually for baptisms in their ever expanding families. That contrasts sharply with a lifestyle centred on extortion, theft, assassination, bribery and fraud. Within the 'family' of each gang, there is a strict morality code of honour which if betrayed means death. So many of the conversations in the film were nuanced and by necessity obscured their real meaning by using euphemisms to avoid incrimination as orders were given for arson attacks, bombings and assassinations. Had I been a part of this world, I'm sure I would have missed half the cues and euphemisms and ended up with several holes in my head as a consequence!

Towards the end of the film some characters are seen with their priest as they seek to put their house in order but without feeling remorse or the need to confess their misdoings. They long for mercy from God in the life to come after living a life in the here and now in which no mercy was shown to those on the receiving end of their 'work'.

If asked "do you paint houses?" you are really being  asked "can you kill someone for me?" and the positive response is "yes and I do my own carpentry". The 'paint' is the blood that splatters the walls and covers the floors! Do You Paint Houses? is the title of a 2004 work of narrative nonfiction written by former homicide prosecutor, investigator and defence attorney Charles Brandt on which the screenplay is based. There are many wonderful one-liners such as, "A secret between three people is only safe if two of them are dead"!

This is a very masculine and patriarchal film. Women feature often but are portrayed as being quiet and subservient passive accomplices to the crimes of their men folk. As you would expect in an Italian-American subculture, families are extremely important. Saying thank you and showing proper respect are sacrosanct. There is a strict morality and high expectations surrounding how children are expected to behave and relate within the extended mob family - but killing people is okay.

Of course there is a lot of violence in this film - there has to be given the subject matter. The violence is always swift and clinical. Scorsese's Direction never lets the violent acts themselves become the focus of the story, they are simply nodes in a matrix of interwoven relationships that are unravelling.

There is much to lament and to be sad about as the film, like its ageing stars, it stumbles on its zimmer frame towards its conclusion. We know that Sheeran survives as the film opens with him in a wheelchair, white hair flowing, sitting in a corner of a nursing home telling his story. How many of the other characters survive with him at the end? The use of CGI technology to make the main characters appear more youthful to play themselves in the 1950's and subsequent decades and then to appear older at the end is subtle and unobtrusive. The sets are wonderful period pieces and the lighting, especially of characters faces, is sublime.

Despite the grim context of this film's story and the many splatters of paint, as you may have gathered, I really liked it. It is worth the investment of 3.5 hours of your life. You will enjoy great acting and an epic and engaging story. Do go and see it. I'll give it a 9/10.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Toy story 4

The power of story can be both amazing and enigmatic. How can a computer generated animation drive you to tears? We know the characters and even the actors voicing them. We know it's a children's story yet the Toy Story films (and much of Pixar Disney's production) communicate so much at both a deep and yet easily accessible level at the same time. Masterful filmmaking and storytelling.

We know by now that the premise of the narrative will be about abandonment, adoption, sacrifice, redemption and salvation - recurring themes from this stable but also appearing in a Bible near you. These themes resonate with the human psyche because we all want to be loved, valued and have hope of an eternal future that is positive. That is why these films connect at such a deep level.

The loyalty of the toys to their child is admirable. The lengths to which they go - especially Woody of course - are extreme. There is no guarantee of success or even that they will be wanted at the end of the escapade - but duty and hope spur them on. The subplot of this film is of course whether Woody and Bo will finally get it together - if you've not seen it, I'll leave you to find out for yourself.

There is the inevitable road trip that serves as a metaphor for the larger story. Acts of daring against impossible odds are common. New characters - some of them dark and disturbingly menacing (I have always had a fear of ventriloquists dummies!). There's also a new superhero in the form of Duke Kaboom appropriately played by Keanu Reeves.

This is a very enjoyable film but it's more of a Woody spin-off than a film giving fair exposure to the ensemble cast of toys. The plot of the main narrative is thin and any depth comes in the exchanges between some of the characters when they are one-to-one with each other.

It is however, still a very enjoyable film with familiar characters, a plot you know you will understand and because it's Disney, a happy ending. It is the poorest of the four offerings, but nevertheless worth seeing. I'll give it 7/10.

Red Joan

I was grateful for the opportunity to catch this as I had missed it's theatrical release. This is a different kind of spy film but is based on a true story. In a world where people prefer things to be in black or white, this film drags the viewer into a world of murky greys. Morality seems more provisional and actions based on securing the 'greater good' can been seen as undermining one's home and nation.

Told in flashback, this film explores the development work done by British scientists at Cambridge as the race to develop the Atomic Bomb during World War II gathers pace. The central character - Joan Stanley is  played in the here and now by Judi Dench. The major question is why? Yes, she presents a bewildered older lady with consummate ease, but the role does not allow her to develop the character in any way or to shine in an otherwise dull and predictable film with a plodding script.

Directed by Trevor Nunn, a distinguish theatre director, the film almost feels like it is a stage play with the stage in two halves, then and now, with the lighting moving between each side as the story plods on. What the story does do, is highlight the impossible struggle between personal and professional ethics in a situation where millions could die - or be kept alive, because of the project you are working on - but only if all protagonists in the conflict have the same weapon! Where does corporate and national loyalty end and personal responsibility begin?

What I found most interesting was that in the end Joan Stanley admitted passing secrets to the Russians but vehemently denied betraying her country. Stanley was not a Communist sympathiser but someone who wanted to level the playing field in an attempt to minimise deaths and casualties. In these days of grooming by extremists and sexual perverts, the means to which people will go to recruit newcomers is disturbing. I know it's nothing new, but for the naive and gullible like me it is worrying.

There is a subplot that evolves around fidelity in relationships, marriage, affairs and divorce. Seduction is of course the oldest weapon in the spies arsenal, but this film treats the relationships of the people and the morality of Joan Stanley in a sensitive way.

It is important that this story is told. I just wish it had been told in a more engaging way with a less predictable flash back routine. I'll give it 6/10.

Men in Black International

There are times when a franchise is milked dry and we have sadly reached that stage with this film. I am an MiB fan - the first two anyway, number four pushes things too far. Even the gravitas of Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson cannot save this film from mediocrity.

Having said that, cruising at 36,000' it harmlessly passed a couple of hours and it felt nostalgic to re-engage with the universe of MiB. There are big set piece blaster battles, new aliens to marvel at, great CGI and a limp script that hamstrings the main actors into delivering well below what they are capable of. At times Chris Hemsworth's Agent H was wooden.

The moral of the story is don't cheat. The locations look good - New York, Marrakech, London and a CGI Paris. Two new alien characters - assassins - looked and behaved very much like The Twins from Matrix Reloaded - I kept expecting Neo to appear!

In reality, I found little to commend this film and will not be adding the disc to my collection. If you are stuck on a plane it will pass a couple of hours otherwise invest the time in something more life-giviing! I'll give it 4/10.