Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Look Both Ways



This indie Australian film by Director Sarah Watts is a thoughtful exploration of the ways people handle death and dying, and view their own mortality. This might not strike you as an immediate recipe for happy movie watching but the central characters are warm and engaging and their developing romance over the course the weekend in which the story is set is both endearing and believable.

The film begins with a death and ends with the hope of life. Most of the existential angst that drives the film is non-religious but there are occasional engagements with questions of faith, belief and life beyond the here and now. This would be a good film perhaps for a youth group to watch and discuss - there are even a few giggles along the way. (UK 12 Certificate) Anyone who has experienced a loved one suddenly being taken seriously ill or dying will be all too aware that a natural response is a heightened sensitivity that sees every TV programme as being medical or set in a hospital and out and about there is hearse lurking around every corner!

Illness, ageing, accident, abortion and suicide all intertwine as a series of inter-connected people go about their lives at various stages of preparing for the inevitable, grieving over the loss of a loved one after a long illness or coping with the tragedy of accidental death - or was it suicide? The role of family relationships and responsibilities to older and younger relatives gets a thoughtful and useful treatment.

What the film does well, is to delve into the paranoia that can confront some people. The two central characters Meryl Lee (Justine Clarke) and Nick (William McInnes) see death all around them all the time as the film jump edits to animations depicting the scene becoming one in which people are either run over or eaten by a shark! This does become a little tiring after a while. The film does resist the temptation to offer therapy. It also doesn't delve too deeply into the psychological disturbances that give rise to our sense of the fragility of life and how we too often take good health for granted.

There's not a lot more to say without giving the plot away - such as it is. This film is subject rather than plot driven. It depicts suburban Adelaide in less than glamorous terms but that gives the film a earthiness that enhances its sense of reality. It invites a reflection on our own mortality but in a gentle way. Unless this is not a good time for you, I'd say it is worth hunting down a copy. I bought mine for £1.99 in a Hospice Charity Shop! I'll give it 7/10.


Friday, 17 April 2015

Star Wars - The Force Awakens

I want to ride in this!



See more at

http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/32346867/star-wars-plane-being-launched-by-all-nippon-airways-later-this-year

and here's the trailer. Christmas is coming ....


It seems that we are have the force and therefore are all Jedi - perhaps the 2001 Census was right after all. How's your midi-chlorian count?

Friday, 10 April 2015

A Late Quartet



With a title like that you would expect the film to be about music. Well it is and it isn't. As much as music, or any of the creative arts, are conduits which allow an exploration of metaphors revealing deeper emotions, so Beethoven's opus 131, his String Quartet No. 14 becomes the metaphor for the relationships between the members of the Fugue Quartet. With an ensemble cast of this quality you know it has to be more than just a film about music. It is a film about fidelity, truth, creative expression and above all how one thing relates to another.

The world renowned Fugue Quartet have been wowing audiences world-wide for 25 years, so it is a little odd that all their demons should manifest themselves at the same time wreaking havoc on the group's dynamics and tearing relationships apart.

As musicians, each member of the quartet is a virtuoso performer. However, they have chosen for a quarter of a century to play together, to meld their creative and technical expertise into forging one super maker of music - the string quartet. It works because the individual puts the collective before themselves. All this begins to unravel when events force the leader to retire. There are many philosophical mumblings and metaphysical ruminations that punctuate the film such as

"Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable. Or say that the end precedes the beginning, and the end and the beginning were always there before the beginning and after the end. And all is always now."

These words are spoken by the cellist and leader of the quartet Peter Mitchell played with astounding depth and sensitivity by Christopher Walken who imbues the character with great emotional capital. Beethoven's opus 131 unusually has seven movements rather than the conventional four. Written near the end of his life and seen as one long passage of music through which he attempted to express his own view of life and the meaning of the universe, so the performing of the piece becomes a metaphor for the fragmenting quartet to try and do the same.

There are the usual creative tensions between following the score with meticulous precision and allowing a free and creative expression of the music. Tension between first and second fiddle, tension between a cold and frigid wife and a warm and passionate  flamenco dancer with whom the husband has a one night stand. Tension between the couple and their 25 year old daughter falling for her teacher - the fourth member of the quartet. The whole thing is almost incestuous and as pointed out by the daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) quite 'anal'.

The whole story only involves about eight actors and is set in a wintry New York City with wonderful scenes of a deserted and snow covered Central Park under clear blue skies. A further metaphor for the cold and frozen relationships that 25 years of following the elusive dream of delivering the perfect performance has created.

This film is a drama, a melodrama and also a tragedy - comedy is absent. The metaphor of the quartet with it's ability to harmonise and play off dissonance echoes the lives of its members. Walken gives a tour-de-force performance but then not far behind are Philip Seymour Hoffman and  Catherine Keener. There is also an appearance from Madhur Jaffrey - I had no idea she was also an actress!

This film is in many ways predictable and the plot far from exciting. It does however contain performances of such depth and conviction that it had me in tears two or three times. It has the ability, for me at least, to connect the viewer with the situations of the characters and so draw them into the stories that are unfolding. That is after all why we go to the cinema or buy the disc and why story is such an important thing that helps us all to make meaning. I'll give it 8/10.


Monday, 6 April 2015

The Deer Hunter



Caught this on TV last night and had to watch it - again. It is still an extremely powerful film with great acting.

Is this a war movie that shows the setting from which a group of friends go off to to do their duty or is this a film about community, brotherhood, sacrifice and making meaning, part of which happens to involve a war? I think it is the latter.

This is a film of stark contrasts as the story oscillates between compassion and cynicism. The monotony of life centred on working at the steel mill in small town Pennsylvania. The desaturated greyness of the drab and uninspiring townscape of Clairton jars against the kaleidoscopic technicolour grandeur of the orthodox church interior and the lushness of the tropical jungles of Vietnam (shot in Thailand).

This film started shooting only two years after the end of the Vietnam war. It's visceral rawness powerfully portrays the contradictions that resonate throughout the story. The three characters at the centre of the story Mike (Robert de Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Stevie (John Savage) are joined by friends and family to celebrate Stevie's wedding to Angela (Rutanya Alda). After the celebrations the three are joined by some more friends as they head into the mountains for a final hunting trip before enlisting.

There are tensions between some of the characters with Mike always seeming to be the wise one who is in control and to whom everyone turns when they are in any kind of difficulty. In an often quoted speech, Mike says "You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it's all about. A deer's gotta be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don't listen". This establishes the premise that one shot is significant and that with just one shot, a life can be taken - whether that be a deer or a closest friend.

Mike bags a deer with a single shot - a majestic stag whose dying is shown in graphic close-up, although it is apparently only the effects of being shot with a tranquilliser - a deep irony given the violence and killing of humans that permeates the film! The most controversial element of the film is the depiction of the North Vietnamese soldiers forcing their American captives to play Russian roulette while they bet on the outcome for their own amusement. There is apparently no evidence that this practice ever took place - but again it reinforces the concept of the importance of one shot and gives the audience further reason to hate the North Vietnamese.

Mike's love for Nick and Stevie and his sacrificial attempts to save them both only add to his and the collective film's sense of guilt and hopelessness. When Mike sees the home-coming celebrations that have been planned for him he tells the cabbie to drive on by - so changed is he by his experiences that he cannot face his friends. A scene that echoes with the earlier encounter at the wedding celebration with a Green Beret home on leave. Stevie - now a triple amputee cannot face returning home either and Nick only makes it in a coffin. As Mike and the group head into the mountains for another hunting trip, Mike lines up a deer in his sights only to pull up as he squeezes the trigger - 'just one shot'.

The closing scene is set with the group of friends in the bar holding their own wake after Nick's burial. John (George Dzundza) fights back his own tears of grief by starting to sing 'God bless America' and the rest of the group join in. This is an ambiguous ending to the film which throughout always avoids sliding into being patronising. With all that they have suffered and with America's ignominious defeat is that really their sentiment - or is the fact that their rendition of the song is so restrained and low key, a recognition that America really does need God's blessing? The twin themes of compassion and cynicism perfectly entwined.

The film is also noteworthy as this is Meryl Streep's first 'big' film (although a small role) and sadly John Cazale's last film as he was terminally ill with cancer as it was made and died shortly afterwards - never seeing the finished film. It won five Oscars - including Walken as best supporting actor. The haunting theme tune resonates so effectively with the story - another component that contributes to this being a top film. I'm surprised that IMDb only ranks it a 62 in the greatest 100 films and it doesn't even make the top 100 on Rotten Tomatoes - which surprises me. If I were to be critical of the film I would say it's viewpoint is very one-sided. It is also a very long film at just over three hours - but that didn't register as I watched it for the umpteenth time. For me it's worth a 9/10.


Sunday, 22 March 2015

Still Alice



What is it that makes you, you and me, me? What is intrinsic to your identity? Human identity is a complex thing. It is made up of lots things - some more tangible than others. Our physicality is only part of our identity - but helps us to recognise one another easily. For most people our body undergoes gradual change as we age. The sudden loss of a limb or the agency of some part of our physical body will most certainly change anyone - but we would still usually recognise them without much difficulty. But what happens when the body looks unchanged but behaviour and personality change so much and so quickly it makes it hard to recognise someone? How much can fade away and leave the central character feeling that she is still Alice?

The subject matter of this film is well known so I won't be spoiling anything if I discuss the title character's unforeseen and rapid deterioration as early onset Alzheimer's takes its grip. Julianne Moore's performance in the title role won her an Oscar and deservedly so. Her depiction of the effects of this horrible disease is utterly convincing but where this film gives added value is the way in which it portrays the effects of the disease's progression on the rest of her family.

As the diagnosis is made and news of it shared with the three adult children, the discovery is made even more unwelcome when it is disclosed that this is a genetic form of the disease. That means that there is a 50/50 chance of the children having the gene and if they do they have a 100% chance of developing the disease. Amidst the shock of this unwelcome news, everyone promises to rally round and do what needs to be done - as any family would do. What this film does extremely well is to show how increasingly difficult this becomes as the disease tightens its grip on Alice. Her husband and children all respond in ways that are perhaps unexpected - but it shows what each one needs to do to cope with the unfolding situation and find some semblance of normality for themselves.

The tragedy is heightened because of the career Alice had built for herself as a Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University in New York. Communicating ideas effectively by using language well, is what helped to define her. Once that began to be taken away from her, Alice's sense of self begins to diminish - made all the more cruel as she often isn't aware of the changes herself. In a lucid moment she says

"I used to be someone who knew a lot. No one asks for my opinion or advice anymore. I miss that. I used to be curious and independent and confident. I miss being sure of things. There's no peace in being unsure of everything all the time. I miss doing everything easily. I miss being a part of what's happening. I miss feeling wanted. I miss my life and my family."

This film offers opportunities to explore the things that help make up a sense of self-identity. It also offers an exploration of family dynamics in the face of a horrible illness and an opportunity to reflect on what really matters. It offers a potent reminder of how in the end, it can be foolhardy to place all our trust in the things of this world as in the end the illusion of comfort that they bring is only ever temporary. It also invites debate about assisted suicide. This is also a film about love.

Hopefully the film will help to increase awareness of Alzheimer's and thereby the research resources being deployed to find a treatment and cure. In the meantime we are left with a painfully accurate depiction of the effects of this disease and an equally painful reminder that a good career, a 'perfect' family and all the intellect in the world mean nothing when a particularly aggressive form of Alzheimer's comes calling. This is a heart-warming film but not really an uplifting one. Alzheimer's is a scourge of our time and this film presents it in all its lurid horror. It is an important film - go and see it. I'll give it 8/10.


Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel



The fans demanded more and what they got was Richard Gere (Guy Chambers) goes to Bollywood! This sequel was created on the back of fans demanding more - and that is exactly what it delivers - more of the same. But that's okay because that's what is so endearing about the film - people struggling with relationships, commitment, acceptance, love - the important things we all struggle with. These subjects usually appear in films featuring people going through a mid-life crisis of existential angst or teenagers coming of age and trying to develop a sense of self.

What gives this film its unique twist is that the main characters are well advanced in years and cannot afford to wait to let things take their natural course. It is interesting to see that with a whole lifetime's experience behind them, they face the same struggles, questions and doubts as any teenager. The things that matter most carry a high price tag. I would love to watch this with a group of younger people and ask them to explore the parallels between the challenges faced and feelings felt by the characters in the film and their own experiences.

The narrative arc of the film is quite simple but largely peripheral to the story. What drives this film is the character's search for love, affirmation and intimacy in a form that befits their age. Dev Patel as Sonny Kapoor, owner of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is perhaps the character that shows least development over the course of the two films - except perhaps he has turned the volume up! I found his character a little too strident and fatiguing. All the other characters seemed to develop in some way.

The film is filled with marvellous one-liners again: "Lord have mercy on my ovaries", "There's no present like the time", "He is so handsome, he has me urgently questioning my own sexuality", "Why die here when I can die there?", "You win some and you learn some" and "'How was America?' 'It made death more tempting'".

This is a warm and uplifting film. It pulls few surprises. Mercifully Mrs Donnelly (Dame Maggie Smith) has lost her strident racism and is the wise keeper of everyone's secrets, Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy) is still painfully unable to say what he means and is so deferential it hurts and Evelyn Greenslade (Dame Judi Dench) needs to hurry up before death overcomes her!

I would encourage you to go and see this film - and probably the Third Best Exotic Marigold Hotel if the ageing stars manage to keep going for long enough. The warm reviews are spot on you will not be disappointed. I'm going to give this 7/10.


Monday, 23 February 2015

Jupiter Ascending



I'm a huge fan of the work of the Wachowski siblings - I love the way they think. I had been waiting to see this film for a long time. I thought it was breathtakingly spectacular - the concept, the visual impact, the plot and the re-emergence of a Matrix-like storyline. BUT that doesn't mean this film is not without its problems.

On one level the plot is quite simple but it is buried under layers of different galaxies, species, dynasties and a complex set of relationships - but helpfully everyone speaks English! There are plenty of online sites discussing the plot so I won't waste too much space here duplicating it.

What is central to the story is the main character Jupiter Jones - who hates her life, is catapulted into a different life, and then decides her first life isn't so bad after all. The journey she undertakes to gain this insight takes us on a journey that lasts just over 2 hours - but the time passed quickly for me.

The basic premise of the story is built on production, consumption and profit. What is produced are human beings on vast farms - like planet Earth. They are harvested to produce a distillation that rejuvenates the body and ensures longevity allowing users to remain in their physical prime even when they are in fact more than 100 millennia old! Why - because time has become the most precious commodity in the universe so the longer you live, the more time you have. Of course this is big business and with great wealth comes great power.

All of this is wrapped up in DNA/genome speak and a family feud that threatens Jupiter's life and the stability of the universe. There are many moments of humour in the film. This film will be a boon for alien conspiracy theorists - and yes we even get to see how crop circles are really made!

Everything about the scale of this film is huge - and that's probably where it's achilles heel lies. The scope of the plot, the range of kinds of characters, the myriad locations that appear and disappear, twists and turns that make it impossible to know who is on which side - and amazing Wachowski visuals which are quite simply mind-blowing.

It is a huge pity that this film has done so poorly at the box office. It is obviously the first of an intended series (trilogy?) that now may never be made - or only in a small-scale way, which would be a pity for the greatest thing about this film is the huge scale of everything including the ideas.

Maybe it will become a cult sleeper? I certainly hope so, but after the relative flops of Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas and now this, I hope that Hollywood will keep backing such creative originality that the Wachowski's consistently deliver. Please go and see it while it's still in cinemas (in the UK at least). I loved it and will give it 8/10 - perhaps if they hadn't tried so hard it would have got a 9 - hopefully the next one!


Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Hundred year-old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared



In a sense the title says it all - but there is so much more to this black comedy from Sweden about ageing and the remarkable life of Allan Karlsson who is endearingly played by Robert Gustafsson. Wishing to avoid his 100th birthday party in the retirement home in which he lives, Karlsson escapes with just a pocketful of change to begin an adventure every bit as remarkable as his long life.

The film unwinds at a gentle pace and as it does so, different episodes allow Karlsson to recount past chapters in his life which resonate with the here and now in some way. In this way the film is biographical and charts Karlsson's life and the completely unlikely range of people he has met. I'm not going to say anything more about the story just in case you haven't read the book on which it based. You will enjoy it.

What is amazing about the central character is his unflinching and quiet self-confidence and his seeming lack of concern about the possible outcome of what he is about to get involved in. In a way he stumbles through his adventures yet, as he has already lived to 100, it's clear he always seems to know when it is right to seize the next opportunity. It is the completely unbelievable series of encounters that makes this story so interesting. Karlsson emerges as a bumbling, benevolent, indestructible, calamity of a man who always instinctively knows what to do next.

The plot of the story in the here and now is equally unlikely, yet it offers a symbiotic platform for the flashbacks and helps locate them in a wider frame of reference. This plot is character driven. If it weren't for the strength of Gustafsson's  performance, it would simply be a collection of very odd tales. The supporting cast do their job very well too.

This tale is delightful, very funny and will at times invite you to hold up a mirror and reflect on the significance of your own life. Therein lies it's strength. Do get hold of the disc and give it a spin. I'll give it 8/10.


Stranger than fiction


This is a film about life and death - and love and hope. It's also the first film I've seen Will Ferrell perform a role which I actually like, he's the character Harold Crick and not just Will Ferrell! This is a clever film - well conceived and exquisitely scripted. The acting is pretty good too - especially from Emma Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal - oh Dustin Hoffman turns in a compelling performance too.

Set in Chicago, Crick is an IRS (Tax) Agent tasked with checking tax returns and investigating anomalies. His life is one seemingly endless, dull and tedious routine. He counts the steps to cross the road. He arrives at the bus stop as the bus does - everyday. He can perform complex mathematical sums instantly in his head. His life is governed by numbers. His only relationship is with an equally nerdy colleague Dave.

And so life goes on for Harold, relentless day after relentless day. Then one day he realises he hears a voice (Thompson) which is actually narrating his life in real time. If he stops what ever it is he's doing, the narration stops too. He sees his doctor and then a counsellor who is convinced he is schizophrenic which Harold denies. When the narration discloses that Harold will die to serve the plot, he seeks help from literature Professor Jules Hilbert (Hoffman) to identify the author.

Parallel with this is an investigation Harold is conducting into the tax affairs of Ana Pascal (Gyllenhaal) who is a feisty Harvard Law School drop-out now running her own cookie cafe. As Harold works at avoiding a literary death so this story becomes entangled with his self-actualisation and an awkwardly growing relationship with Ana. I won't spoil the story for you or the outcome.

Firstly this film is an excellent portrayal of observed human behaviour. It is about how contemporary life can entrap us in a dull routine that depersonalises us and how we can lose touch with our humanity. It was Irenaeus who said that "The glory of God is human being fully alive" and Harold sets out on that journey, initially with faltering steps but through the goodwill of those around him he gathers pace. This demonstrates our need of interdependence and shows how we are able to do more together than we can on our own.

Another strand of the film explores how people take responsibility for their actions and how coincidence can produce unintended outcomes. It is also a film about love, about giving, generosity and not giving up when that would be the easy option. For a comedy this film explores a wide range of deeper issues and through laughter makes them more readily accessible. The script by Zach Helm is sensitive and very clever - it is extremely well written.

Towards the end, Emma Thompson's character gives us this piece of narration:

"As Harold took a bite of Bavarian sugar cookie, he finally felt as if everything was going to be ok. Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren't any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorise our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true."

It would be possible to watch this film and receive its story at face value - and there would be nothing wrong with doing that. However, it will repay many times over a little reflective digging and a consideration of our own journey through this life. I commend it to you and award it 8/10. Let us give thanks to God for Bavarian sugar cookies!



Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Bullitt



Even with a top level cast including Steve McQueen, the real star of this film is the 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback - isn't it? Famed for the sequence that sees a Dodge Charger 440 Magnum chased over the unusually empty switchback streets of a beautiful San Francisco, this film is actually all about morality and how society polices it.

For once the cop is straight and as usual the politician is bent. McQueen brings a steely and seemingly unemotional quality to his role as a Police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt tasked with giving protection to a crook who is due to testify against the mob at a Congressional hearing. The Congressman who stands to gain most from this is marvellously played by Robert Vaughn who oozes sleaze and condescension as he seeks to control and manipulate everyone around him.

The plot is for the most part straightforward but there are one or two twists along the way. San Francisco looks radiantly glorious in its late sixties hippy chic setting. The dialogue is often sparse and always direct - there is little nuance or subtlety here. There are positive models of strong leadership and trust but also a warning about a criminal justice system that is too prone to the exploitation of opportunist self-serving politicians. Bullitt is depicted as wrestling with his humanity in the face of interference from those in authority whilst following his hunch that everything is not quite what it seems.

The whole plot is beautifully mirrored in an exchange between Bullitt and his girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) towards the end of the film. She flounces around San Fran in her canary yellow Porsche enjoying an indulgent and bohemian lifestyle because the freedom for her to do that exists. The cost of such freedom is paid by people like Bullitt and his colleagues who have to clear up the mess and put away the criminals.

This is a very good thriller - but very much of its time, which in no way diminishes the enjoyment of engaging with this particular morality tale. It's almost worth it just for the car chase! I'll give it 8/10. I watched it on blu-ray which was a disappointment - some of it didn't transfer at all well but considering it's nearly 50 years old that's hardly surprising.


Monday, 12 January 2015

The Theory of Everything


Everyone will have their own presuppositions about this film as they come to watch it. We know its subject matter - a biopic of Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne). Diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease at 21 and given only two years to live, Hawking has defied every expectation placed on him - and continues to do so at the age of 73!

This film could have been a gush of slushy sentimentality. It could have blinded us with numbers when the   theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics collide. It could have painted a simple victory for Hawking and triggered the generation of feelings of sympathy for him as a victim. Instead, it is none of these things. What we get is a gritty love story - or three love stories. Firstly, Hawking's love of the pursuit of developing a single beautiful equation to explain everything, secondly the love shared between Stephen and Jane (Felicity Jones), and thirdly Hawking's love of life - however tenuous clinging on to it may be!

From the outset, the film very effectively captures the feel of Cambridge and life in the Academy in the swinging sixties when propriety and good manners existed alongside experimentation and pushing the boundaries. The courtship of the young couple is enchanting but as their love for one another grows so does Hawking's clumsiness and lack of coordination. As was recognised by yesterday's award of a Golden Globe, Redmayne's portrayal of Hawking in masterful. The physicality with which he embodies the degenerating frame of the Professor is incredible. Equal to this is Jones' portrayal of his first wife Jane (on whose book the film is based.). Felicity Jones allows the purity and beauty of her character to shine through in a way that is thoroughly engaging. The integrity and devotion with which she looks after her ailing husband whilst raising three children and harbouring her own academic career is above and beyond the call of any duty.

Don't get me wrong. The film doesn't present the main two main characters as whiter-than-white goody goodies. It presents them as complex, able and needy people who evidence inter-dependence through relationship in a compelling way. Even when temptation comes knocking through the allure of sexual seduction or popular acclaim, integrity and good old-fashioned honour prevail - at least in this account of the story.

An interesting point for me was the role of Jane's faith in God and how that influenced the thought and evolution of Hawking's theories. Initially she declines an invitation to play croquet with Stephen on a Sunday morning as she attends Church and has an active faith. Stephen claims physics leaves no room for God and so they gently agree to disagree. By the end of the film, whilst not a signed up church goer, Hawking does significantly modify his position. A great example of slow burn missional activity on the part of his wife! Long-term relationships do have the potential for change.

As you may gather, I rather liked this film.Both leads are utterly compelling and through their acting make a national treasure and global phenomenon more accessible in a heart-warming way. A couple of tissues are advised for the odd teary moment - but on the whole this film is thorough inspiring and uplifting. I'll give it 8/10.




Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Possibilities are Endless


This documentary is a gem. Not only in terms of its subject matter but in the way it is conceived and presented. The film follows the rehabilitation of Edwyn Collins following a major stroke. What is different is that there are no interviews with medical people or technical medical explanations of what happened. All we know is that Collins could only utter four things following his stroke: 'yes', 'no', 'Grace Maxwell' (his wife's name) and 'the possibilities are endless'.

Suffering a stroke is a major and unwelcome event in anyone's life. Collins is a well respected rock songwriter and singer who was lead vocalist with the group Orange Juice. He also owns a record label, is a noted artist and has won an Ivor Novello award for his acting - a man of great talent and creativity. A man able to express complex ideas through simple poetry.

Much of the early part of the film is taken up with dreamy sequences (similar to the picture above) and dramatic music  interwoven with shots of his own son and girlfriend and views of childhood haunts as Collins begins the painstaking task of rebuilding his sense of self. Through writing lyrics, drawing and singing he gradually begins to regain his ability to express himself. Progressing to giving concerts and recording new material in his studio, Collins rebuilds a different life but a life that allows him to say what he feels he needs to say in a no less effective way.

The film is based on a series of interviews conducted by the Directors James Hall and Edward Lovelace with Collins. Resisting the temptation to end his ponderous sentences for him, the pair coax out of Collins a long series of poetically descriptive monologues that give an insight into his struggle to rebuild his inner world. These are played over a series of images that interpret his words and offer an insight to the tedious and long process of stroke rehabilitation.

This is an uplifting film filled with much laughter and many shots of his constantly smiling wife Grace who throughout is his loving and gently chiding rock. I know that there are a wide range of recoveries experienced by stroke sufferers and not everyone is able to experience the degree of recovery Collins has worked so hard to achieve. However, as I've said, this film offers so much more than simply charting someone's rehabilitation from a stroke. At 83 minutes it is a perfect length and the extra interviews with the Directors is well worth a look. If you fancy something different and uplifting, do add this to you watch list. I'll give it 8/10.


Monday, 22 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


The long-awaited conclusion to Peter Jackson's over-extended trilogy has arrived. Considering this is a story about The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins seems to be a in a support role for most of the film. This is not so much a film about The Hobbit but about an over-indulgence in CGI technology and a story that meanders all over the place because the second film in the trilogy set it up to do so.

The CGI and conflagration of five armies means there is a lot of fighting in this film. Much blood is spilled and many body parts hacked off while heads explode. The relentless nature of the fighting is more like a Warhammer player convention or a banshee going wild in a Games Workshop Store! To be honest - I found it too much of the same. Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Goblins, a wizard, Hobbits, Wargs, the men of Dale, a shape-shifter, bats, free folk, eagles, a dragon and a nasty piece of work called Smaug all battle it out to possess the Lonely Mountain which is the gateway to Erebor - the homeland of the dwarves and which contains unfathomable amounts of gold and treasure. Of such things myths are made.

I read the book 40 years ago and I must say that seeing this trilogy would not spur me to re-read it - which would take about the same amount of time as watching all three films back-to-back. This is a pity as the LOTR trilogy stands as a cinematic high point, The Hobbit feels more like a franchise being milked by an over-eager fantasist.

There are plenty of moral and ethical themes to explore in this film as you would expect with anything stemming from Tolkien. There is a beautiful exploration of the power and pain of love as a new emotion for Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) as she is drawn to Thorin (Richard Armitage) in a clumsy love triangle. Bilbo Baggins maintains the challenge of  moral propriety in the midst of great urges to give in to a range of seductive temptations. Courage is evident in many of the main protagonists as are sacrifice and honour.

Unless I missed something in the film the ending was very odd. Even with the good guys winning it seemed that everyone simply went home after the battle - despite their respective claims on the mountain and its treasure. What was that all about? Humour is provided at the end when Bilbo returns to The Shire to find his possessions being auctioned off.

There are many fine acting performances as you would expect with such a stellar cast. Martin Freeman is electric in the tile role. I'm not sure the 3D version would have added much - except possibly a headache. If you are a Tolkien fan or a LOTR aficionado then this will be a good watch for you. If not - it might just be seen as one long battle between confusing groups of ugly and beautiful people - pretty much like the world we live in really. I'll give it 6/10.


Monday, 8 December 2014

Django Unchained


This is a Tarantino film so suspension of belief in a rational world is required from the outset. Once achieved, you can sit back and enjoy this movie knowing that there will be blood and exploding body parts and a script where the least likely twist is the one that will be used to advance the narrative and where impossible odds will always become not just possible but odds-on do-able. I enjoyed this film - a lot.

For me Quentin Tarantino is the best story-teller making films these days and at 2:45 it's a long story - but it doesn't drag. It's 12 Years a Slave meets spaghetti western with a killer soundtrack and great acting. The lighting palette is ever changing and always adding to the visual creativity. Some scenes were lit with directional lighting from either above or below which gives a strong visual key to the intended relative moral merit of the characters in the scene.

Tarantino's Oscar winning screenplay is pure genius which at times slides into (Monty) Pythonesque farce. Bodies with limbs hacked off refuse to lie down and die. Blood spurts cover the walls and there is shooting with such accuracy that individual and specific body parts are targeted with apparent ease and deadliness. The fantasy nature of the physical violence is echoed in the violence of slavery as it is portrayed in the film. It is presented in a way that invites the viewer to reflect, perhaps in a new way, on what it means to violate another human being. The dialogue is always clever, witty and pays homage to so many different films and characterisations. It is a joy.

The story itself is as unbelievable as any other part of the film but it is carried  by the actors with such sensitivity and strength that it completely draws you in and it becomes totally convincing. Fully deserving of the Oscar, Christoph Waltz is mesmerising as Dr King Schultz as he goes into partnership with Jamie Foxx's Django. Leonardo DiCaprio as plantation owner Calvin Candie and Samuel L Jackson's Stephen are also extremely strong performances.

The story is set in 1858 just before the American Civil War and slavery remains central to the narrative throughout the film. The genius of the screenplay is that it is the comparatively liberal and inclusive outlook of the European (German) Schultz that provides the impetus that drives the story. As a Bounty Hunter Schultz embodies an unlikely mix of characteristics including generosity, fidelity and humour but it is the way Waltz is able to blend these with the more expected cunning and ruthlessness that make the character so endearing.

As you may have gathered, I really enjoyed this and would commend it to you - as long as you are able to wade through pools of blood and dismembered body parts. It is as stimulating as it is enjoyable and the story manages the difficult balancing act of never quite revealing if natural justice will win or whether the status quo will prevail. I'll give it 9/10.



Sunday, 30 November 2014

Interstellar



Director Christopher Nolan terms this an "experimental Movie" which employs "impressionistic sound" I saw this in an IMAX theatre and visually it is stunning - but it is the sound people will be talking about more, which is a pity. There is plenty of mumbling and dialogue obscured by music or other sound effects. Nolan spent six months editing the sound to get the desired effect - he says of particularly notable mumble that “Information is communicated in various different ways over the next few scenes. That’s the way I like to work; I don’t like to hang everything on one particular line.” Last week one cinema in Rochester, New York, posted a notice confirming that its equipment was in full working order in apparent response to complaints regarding Interstellar’s sound mix. “Christopher Nolan mixed the soundtrack with an emphasis on the music,” read posters at the Cinemark Tinseltown USA and Imax. “This is how it is intended to sound.”

Whether everyone will be happy paying £18+ for a three hour pressure sore inducing mumblethon, is a moot point - particularly when you get to the other main talking point - working out what the film is actually about! Its scope and ambition exceed its accessibility. Unlike Tree of Life which asked questions and left viewers the space to work out their own responses, Interstellar not only asks the questions but tries to give all the answers too. Does it work? Not entirely - no, the plot and dialogue are overly dependent on quantum physics. There are plenty of ethical and moral questions to explore in this film. Is survival of the species an end that justifies any means?

The overall exploration of metaphysical concepts in the film is worthy in the over-familiar dystopian future but for me the film is overly sentimental - especially around the relationship between the central character Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter Murph played as she ages by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn! The theory of relativity comes into play - you need to be up on your Black Holes (quantum singularities), gravitational time dilation, Newton's laws of motion and tesseracts! A central theme is that love and gravity are dimensions that extend throughout the universe and can be conduits of communication from one time to another.

The visuals are impressive and there is plenty of great acting - especially Foy, Chastain and  McConaughey. There are performances from Michael Caine, Matt Damon and Anne Hathaway but by the time you get to towards the 2 hour mark you forget why you are on this journey and the final 45 minutes are not the easiest to understand as so many unlikely things happen one after the other.

This is a film worth seeing - but take a cushion. I don't think it's worthy of all the hype but it does have many redeeming features. IMAX is spectacular but don't sit too close to the screen as you will get a crick in the neck and miss some of the action as it happens on a different part of the screen to the bit you are looking at! I'll give it 7/10


Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Hunger Games - Mockingjay Part 1


Slow, slow dreary slow. This film really suffers from splitting a trilogy into four parts in a cynical attempt to make more money. This film tips the balance and Color Force and Lionsgate should be ashamed of milking a franchise to the point where there is not much story and very little entertainment. What took 2 hours could have been delivered in 30 minutes as a meaty finale to the beginning of a three-part trilogy. Poor.

With the Hunger Games dead, the action is limited to skirmishes between the Capital and Rebel Districts as momentum builds among the rebel factions. The narrative arc of this trilogy has been clearly established early on - the only question being how Snow is overthrown and to what personal cost to Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence).

District 13 is led by the strong and icy President Coin (Julianne Moore) who is having a bad hair day. She is a good foil for those who surround her in leadership and Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers another great performance as Plutarch Heavensbee with an ever present smile on his lips and constant optimism. Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy also gives a strong and likeable performance. It seems that all of those who surround Katniss understand her better than she understands herself. They also have a clear picture of what she needs to do and most of the film is spent in quiet corners where Katniss wrestles with her inner demons as existential angst threatens to bring paralysis.

For me, the strong point of the film is Jennifer Lawrence's performance. She really is growing into an actress who is destined to outshine even the likes of Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman - if she has not already done so. Lawrence manages to embody such contradictions of emotion as she at one and the same time combines in the same expression strength and vulnerability, childlikeness and maturity, irrational fear and heroic self-sacrifice. All requisite characteristics for a Saviour figure!

I am looking forward to part four of this trilogy and will go to see it - but unless you are the most committed of die-hard fans, wait for the disc on this one rather than going to the cinema. I'll give it 6/10.





Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Imitation Game


This is an excellent film. The acting is compelling - Cumberbatch dominates the screen and delivers a sensitive and nuanced performance to present the tortured genius who was Alan Turing. The supporting cast all provide solid support. The film is not without its difficulties, but these can be overlooked as it delivers so much so well.

I understand Turing's relatives gave the film their seal of approval. There will always be debates about details but in the end this picture gives us an insight into a special person who achieved extraordinary things at a critical time in world history. The visual and aural feel and sets of this film give a very authentic feel which is backed up by the dialogue and the very different way people behaved in the middle of the last century.

We know that this is a film retelling the story of how Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) cracked the cryptography of the German Enigma code machine in WWII. It could have been a simple linear storyline - like Mr Turner, but it isn't. Turing is a complex character. A mathematical genius who is on the Aspergers-Autism spectrum and who happens to be a homosexual. As I said a complex character - in many ways enigmatic himself! So, the film is edited in a very creative way that interweaves the past of Turing's childhood days at Sherborne School, with the 'now' (WWII) and then the future, early 1950's, as a Detective follows a hunch. This gives the story a lively feel and keeps things moving in a way that shows how Turing behaves in the 'now' based on his past character development and the consequences this leads to in the future.

Keira Knightley who plays Joan Clarke does so with great sensitivity. She offers Turing a way of seeing the world which might help him to make sense of others' social interaction and it's worth conjecturing what might have been had things gone differently. At school, Turing's friend Christopher - the only boy who has any time for him - tells him "Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.". This he later says to Clarke who towards the end of the film returns the compliment. This is the recurring theme of the film.

Such is the weight of Cumberbatch's performance that I would not be surprised to see him Oscar nominated for this - and it would be a worthy nomination. I commend this film to you and would encourage you to see it while you can. I'll give it 8/10.


Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Mr Turner


This is a beautiful film - less a narrative, feels almost like a documentary. This biopic follows the last 25 years of the life of the celebrated and eccentric English painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). It is beautifully shot - the lighting is always significant and as Turner was masterful in depicting the fickle and ever-changing nature of light in his paintings, so Mike Leigh as Director allows the watery and pastel shades of the lighting palette to shape the mood and feel of each scene.

This film has a great cast but the starring performance is Timothy Spall in the lead role closely followed by Dorothy Atkinson playing his devoted and abused housekeeper Hannah Danby. Turner's eccentricities lead him to follow a peripatetic lifestyle - always popping off to the coast to sketch, study the light, visit a brothel, present a paper at the Royal Academy of Arts or indulge his alter-ego. Turner's dedication to research is to be commended - his constant desire to explore and understand changing light is what drives him.

This is a film about relationships, regrets, denial, genius and the formal art establishment doing its thing in a very English way. It isn't clear from the film whether Turner has divorced from his wife or is simply separated. Many of the relationships here are ambiguous. What is clear is that it a dead relationship but Turner seemingly has little or no feeling for his grown-up daughters - even when one of them dies. As well as keeping house, the Syphilitic, scabby and stooping Hannah Danby is also available for a passing grope of quick bonk (on reflection rape?) when it pleases Turner - no affection is demonstrated.

For me, this film is primarily about the inspiration Turner draws from his father and how his work changes following the death of his father and how he loses favour within the Academy and with his Royal patrons as a consequence. The film is also set against the evolution of sea-going vessels moving from sail to steam and the, unwelcome in Turner's eyes, unstoppable growth of the railways. A further transition that impacts Turner's sensibilities is the advent of photography which Turner fears will mean the end of painting as an art form.

Turner is a complex and at times unpredictable character. Spall speaks more in grunts than words - perhaps the product of a Mike Leigh Directed film, but he always manages to inflect great meaning into his grunting. His characterisation was for me utterly compelling and convincing. I'm not sure I would have wanted him as a friend or even a casual acquaintance, but I'm grateful for this film to help me better appreciate Turner's paintings. At 2:30 this is not a short film - but it is gripping and engaging. I'll give it 8/10.


Thursday, 6 November 2014

12 Years a Slave



Steve McQueen has built a reputation for directing films that are bodily physical and that confront you with the issue at stake in a way that is unavoidable. This film is no exception. It's visceral depiction of slavery in Southern USA is at times painful to watch. This is a film of deep lows and soaring highs which for me is ultimately a film of hope. Hope for the memory of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) on whose true story the film is based and hope also that we can end the practises that see 21 million people in slavery around the world today.

The premise of the film is simple and in disclosing it I don't think I will take anything away from the viewing experience. Northup is a free man and a talented musician living in Saratoga, upstate New York with his wife and two children. They have a comfortable life and black people are an accepted part of the community. His family go away on a trip and Northup is offered the chance to make some quick money playing the violin in Washington DC. He accepts but the men who made the offer get him drunk and he wakes up in shackles. He is transported to Georgia and sold in the market as a plantation slave. He soon learns that protesting his innocence only brings trouble and to even mention that he can read and write will end up with him being lashed.

This film could have been so many other things but McQueen chooses to show that as well as gratuitous cruelty and abuse, there were momentary glimmers of kindness and consideration also. He portrays a wide range of characters from the profit driven Freeman (Paul Giamatti) to the conscience pricked plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) to the slave who has become mistress of the house, to maniacal plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) to demonstrate that this story cannot be painted with a simple palette of black and white but with an infinite number of shades of grey. A film about slavery made by a black Director is possibly the only the context in which the frequent use of the term 'Nigger' could be permissible. I lost count of the number of times the word is said. It helped to reinforce the view that those with the money, guns and whips really did see their slaves as no more than a possession to be owned - a sub-human animal no better than a baboon.

Christianity and the Bible feature prominently in this film. For the slave owners, they find justification for owning and mistreating slaves in the Bible's teaching. For the slaves themselves they find hope - hope of a different reality where there will be no slavery. Faith in God produces two very different outcomes.

It is worth noting that most of the plantation owners would have been from British decent and that the prosperity of Liverpool, Bristol and London as ports was dependent on the Golden Triangle of slavery. Having watched this, To Kill a Mockingbird and  Brokeback Mountain within the last few days paints a picture for me that maybe shows that the 'Land of the Free' is only free for the few.

This is an outstanding film. The score is always supportive but never intrusive. The Direction, lighting and camera work are all top class. There is frequent and powerful use of silence and many visual interludes of National Geographic type views of trees, skies or swamps to provide respite from the constant beatings, rapes and killings. It is not pleasant viewing but it is compelling and Northup's story needs to be told - and we need to take note. Thank you Steve McQueen. I'll give it 9/10.


To Kill A Mockingbird


To tell a story through the eyes of child will always give a different perspective. This classic black and white film made in 1962 and based on Harper Lee's novel of the same name still delivers its punches with full force. Made at a time when the civil rights movements was gaining momentum in the USA it exposes the small town bigotry and racial prejudice of Alabama that characterises many of the Southern States.

Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is a widowed lawyer raising his two children Jem (Philip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham) with the help of their housekeeper Calpurnia (Estelle Evans). Times are hard in the grips of the Depression and some of his clients pay for his services in kind. He is well respected and maintains good and proper relationships with everyone. His children call him by his first name and the family exude a liberality that pushes the children to ask questions about all manner of things and to present a maturity and knowledge above their years. It is not a straightforward family dynamic but there is something strangely attractive about it. It is however a home filled with love.

The film does have some flaws but these are largely inconsequential. On Rotten Tomatoes it holds a score of 94% among critics and 93% among viewers - I've not seen such high ratings - especially for a film that's been around for 50 years. IMDb gives it a gentler 84% - still a high figure. I am told by a reliable source the the book has never been out of print. It has sold over 150 million copies world wide and on Ebay a first edition is currently on offer for $4,600. It clearly has something to say.

Finch is asked to defend a local black labourer accused of raping a local white girl. Rape itself is a serious enough offence but for a white girl to be raped by a black man puts the crime within the scope of capital punishment. Finch does a good job as the court tries to maintain some semblance of order and justice. He demolishes the prosecution's arguments and discredits their witnesses. He goes on to show that the defendant could not have meted out the wounds alleged to have been inflicted. There is no medical evidence as a Doctor was never summoned. Finch implicates the girl's father who was given to outbursts of drunken rage. It is clear that there is no case for the accused to answer and it comes down to the words of a black man against those of white people. After two hours of deliberation the jury return a guilty verdict. Finch's children, unbeknown to him, are in the courtroom witnessing the whole trial - part of their education about the more unpleasant side of human nature.

I won't go into the ending of the story just in case you haven't seen it - there is more that happens. I hadn't seen this film for many years yet it came to me as fresh as ever. Narrated in the first person by an adult Scout recalling the episodes of the time, it has a charm that films today simply don't have. At one point Scout, who had a propensity for fighting at school says "Atticus had promised me he would wear me out if he ever heard of me fightin' any more. I was far too old and too big for such childish things, and the sooner I learned to hold in, the better off everybody would be. I soon forgot... Cecil Jacobs 'made' me forget." The film features a young Robert Duvall whose character is both haunted and haunting - a sign of things to come!

This remains a great film in its own right but also for the story it tells and particularly when the time at which if was first told is taken into consideration. It offers many things to reflect on - the loving yet unsentimental family dynamics of the Finch family, neighbourliness, prejudice and a justice system that delivers injustice. I'm going to give it 9/10.


Amadeus - Director's Cut



All I can say is that the output of studios in 1984 was at a low ebb for this film to have won 8 Oscars, 4 Golden Globes and 4 BAFTAS. That doesn't mean that this is a bad film - far from it, but to have single-handedly cornered the gong market suggests something wasn't quite right in Hollywood.

This biopic of the genius Mozart (Tom Hulse) is told from the viewpoint of his closest rival in Vienna, the Court Composer Antonio Salieri (F Murray Abraham) who in 'confession' to a priest tells Mozart's story and his own place in Mozart's death. The film is a series of Salieri's retelling of the story, but most of it is in flashback.

If you like gaudy over-the-top baroque and rococo settings, opera - oh and lots of big hair, then this film is for you. At nearly 3 hours long it takes a long time to tell the story - too long. If you are not into opera then there are perhaps too many bits of extended opera in the film - it could easily have lost 30 minutes without losing anything of the story.

It is clear that Mozart was a gifted genius who in today's world would have beed diagnosed as being somewhere on the Aspergers spectrum. That Salieri should feel threatened by a once-in-a-millenium genius is a mystery that the film wraps up in pious vanity. The scheming and lengths to which he and others at Court went, are astounding.

The film is exquisitely filmed using all of the medieval charm of many locations in the Czech Republic in which it was shot. The music from the Academy of St Martin's in the Fields is top notch. The acting performances are excellent - especially Tom Hulse in the title role who does nothing to endear Wolfie to anyone except his long-suffering wife Constanz (Elizabeth Berridge).

Mozart fans will love this film. Sadly I am not one - but nonetheless I can see that it is an excellent film which is perhaps worthy of its numerous awards. There are many moral and ethical issues the film invites exploration of. One for a rainy day by the fire. I'll give it 7/10.


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Babette's Feast



Set in a remote, bleak and austere village on the windswept coast of Jutland (Denmark) in the 1870-80s, this is a film about the cult of the personality, dogma, community, outsiders, gift, generosity, redemption and transformation. The village community is governed by the domineering and dogmatic Pastor who has fashioned a hyper-Lutheran cult which would leave Luther himself spinning in his grave. In the name of God and piety any expression of self must be immediately stamped out as a mortal sin that must be confessed. This is a community that lives under the burden of guilt - their fallenness and their separation from God through sin. They sing dirge-like hymns that retell gospel stories and which paint a picture of the New Jerusalem - a place where they will be freed from their burden and restored in relationship with God.

They are so caught up in 'doing the right thing' such as acts of charity, protecting themselves from outsiders who cannot be trusted and who might lead them astray and also in being unrealistically nice to one another all the time, that they fail to see that the basis of their community is flawed and a deceit. The dogmatic Pastor instills such certainty in his flock that there is no room left for faith. Faith is the opposite of certainty.

The Pastor's two daughters are described as his right and left hands and so are pressured into being an extension of the Pastor himself - they are subsumed within him and his godly calling. Both have an opportunity to leave and marry - one with a junior officer from the Hussars and the other with a world renowned French opera singer but their father subverts the opportunities and so they remain dutifully at his side.

When the Pastor eventually dies the community carries on as before with the two sisters leading the devotions and rehearsing their father's teachings. The flock still nod in veneration to his portrait on entering the house as they live their lives focussed on the past and begin to grow older together.

Then one night in a middle of a storm a French refugee, Babette (Stéphane Audran) escaping the civil war turns up and asks the sisters if she can keep house for them. They refuse saying they have no money to pay her and when Babette produces a letter of commendation from the aforementioned opera singer and Babette offers to work for no wages as cook, they relent and take her in. However, she is an outsider and so they remain suspicious of her and her motivation.

After 14 years of faithful service where the best food ever has been served to the local poor and destitute and with the coffers of the sisters inexplicably growing, the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Pastor approaches and the sisters resolve to mark the occasion with the flock. In Paris, the opera singer has been buying Babette an annual lottery ticket and it transpires that she has won the prize of FFr 10,000. Babette asks the sisters if she can cook for them a proper French dinner to celebrate the Pastor's anniversary and reluctantly they agree. (I would have thought that they would have looked on a lottery ticket as a form of gambling and therefore any proceeds from it tainted.)

The local Lady of the Manor is a faithful follower of The Pastor also and it so happens that her Grandson - the same Hussar but now a General is visiting and so he is invited as guest of honour. Babette procures the necessary ingredients for the multi-course banquet. The villagers are at first reluctant to indulge their carnal passion and resolve to eat and drink without tasting - no mention will be made of the food.

The house is transformed by the ornate and aesthetically pleasing table setting with fine crystal glasses and porcelain. The guests arrive and duly tuck into their exotic dishes course by course. The General who has travelled widely is repeatedly reminded of previous meals in a top Parisien restaurant - the Cafe Anglais. As the meal progresses and glasses of wine consumed, so the table conversation becomes more affable and the folk begin to forgive one another for their transgressions - some committed decades before. They even begin asking God's blessing on one another. The Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. It turns out that Babette was the Head Chef at the Cafe Anglais and she has reproduced a banquet that foreshadows the heavenly banquet of which they often sing and which begins to transform the community. Babette spends all of winnings on the one meal - she who gives what she cannot to keep to gain what she cannot lose is no fool.

As he leaves, The General tells the sister that he thinks of her daily and that she will always occupy a special place in his heart. Babette and her helpers in the kitchen are left with mountains of washing up and some rather tasty left-overs. The community, transformed by this act of sacrificial generosity venture outside and instead of shuffling off to their dour homes hold hands and dance around the well enjoying the stars and sings songs. The sisters are frightened that Babette will leave to return to Paris but with her family killed in the uprising there is no reason for her to do so. Babette resolves to stay which pleases the sisters.

So, the Hussar, the opera singer and the chef - all outsiders attempted to make an impact on the community. The opera singer and Hussar only managing to do so decades after their failed initial attempts. Babette the chef can be seen as a type of Christ figure bringing healing, transformation and the ability to enjoy life in God's service.

Sacrificial love has an immense power to transform - it is God's grace in action and as such would have stood at the centre of a Lutheran view of the world. It's a pity the Pastor didn't see the world through Babette's eyes. Which of them was the more authentic Lutheran?

I have seen this film many times and most often in church where it has been abused to underpin some piece of dogma that is seemingly in need of being buttressed. For me the the film is almost always used eisegetically - that is reading meaning into it rather than exegetically reading meaning out of it. Perhaps you feel I am guilty of the same. Fair enough, but I acknowledge I am offering a way to read the film and not the way. I'll give it 8/10.



Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Brokeback Mountain


For a change there are PLOT SPOILERS in this reflection.

With its sweeping vistas and brooding skies at one point I thought this was a film about the weather. I was wrong, this is a film about love and relationships. It is a film that avoids cliches as it portrays the messiness of life and that people, their emotions and their love don't always fit into net little boxes.

Set in the grandeur of Wyoming and beginning in 1963, this film is about a great many things. When homosexuality was illegal and the punishments punitive, two cowboys hired for the summer to take a flock of sheep up into the high pasture discover and attraction for one another. What they did on Brokeback Mountain is one thing. What they did in town was another.

The pace is (at times painfully) slow as the relationship between Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) builds and develops. The season is cut short by a snow storm moving in and the two part company. While Jack remains philosophical as he drives off into the next chapter, Ennis is really cut up at their parting and emotes strongly.

Jack returns the following spring in the hope of being rehired and hooking up again with Ennis - but Ennis doesn't show - he's moved on. Marriage and children ensue for both of them and life looks okay with Jack marrying into money in Texas and Ennis and his working wife just about holding things together in small town Wyoming. Okay that is, until Jack sends Ennis a post card suggesting they spend a few days at Brokeback Mountain 'fishing'.

Over the next 20 years these liaison's continue and.... suspicions grow. Jack makes a visit to Mexico for casual sex and confesses this to Ennis some time later - news he doesn't take well. Relationships become strained and messier. Jack was always running the greater risk in the more conservative Texas.

I guess each one of us has a Brokeback Mountain, a place where we become truly alive and feel totally ourselves. Whilst the narrative arc is about relationships, regret and fulfilment the way in which Director Ang Lee treats the subject matter and allows the actors to act is masterful. It is not only the two leads who turn in start performances but just about the whole cast. Heath Ledger is a huge talent who is already so sorely missed.

This is based on a short story by Annie Proulx - a short story that manages to deliver a long film at 134 minutes. It's a film that invites the viewer to reflect on the relationships which shape each one of us. A lot of the film falls within the 'mumblecore' domain - it would have been better to have watched it with subtitles. But I'll give it 8/10.


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Tomboy


This French film from young Director Céline Sciamma explores sex/gender identity at the crucial 'coming-of-age' time of life for Laure played with great depth and deftness by Zoé Héran. This film is not so much about the plot but the way in which the storyline develops and is explored so I hope you won't mind if I share a little of it.

Laure and her sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) move with their parents to a new apartment in the suburbs. Mum (Sophie Cattani) is heavily pregnant and needs to spend most her time resting. Dad (Mathieu Demy) works hard to provide for the family. The parents appear to invest a lot of time in their children and they seem to be very stable, loving and happy together. Jeanne (6) has flowing curls and exudes femininity. She enjoys cuddling her soft toys, pretending to be a ballerina, drawing and being with her sister. Laure visually presents a more asexual character. She is lanky and very thin with breasts showing on the first flush of the awakening of puberty, her hair comparatively short and she lives in a T shirt and shorts. She cuts a very boy-like figure.

When she finally plucks up courage to meet the local kids, ten year-old Laure decides to introduce herself as Mickäel and pass herself off a a boy. S/he is accepted by the group and as relationships develop so the complexities of the deceit have to deepen in order to maintain credibility. All this is okay except when Lisa (Jeanne Disson) who is 13 takes a liking to Mickäel and kisses him. As Lisa looks for ways to develop the relationship there are many awkward pauses. Lisa appears to enjoy the kissing much more than Mickäel. With the summer holidays nearing their end and the new school year approaching fast, how will Mickäel maintain the deception that s/he has managed to keep from her parents.

To be honest I am struggling to relate to this film as the story is so far from my own experience - but I readily acknowledge it is a story that will resonate with many. It provides a neutral and steady platform for questions of sex/gender identity to be explored as puberty kicks in. For that Sciamma must be commended. The stereotypical scenario would have been that Laure lives within a dysfunctional family with poor relational modelling from her parents but this could not be further from the truth. She has security, love and the encouragement to be herself.

It would seem therefore that the driver for her experimentation comes from within herself. There is very little in this film that could be construed as exploring themes of sexuality - it has U Certification after all. For me there was not enough of a suggestion to push the character into trans-gender or lesbian areas - but then that might have been because of the immaturity of her years. However, most of Laure's experiment centres on boy-like behaviour which places it in the realm of gender identity. With puberty beginning to kick in, who knows what kind of hormone soup was flowing through her veins driving her to think, feel and act the way she did. What she was seeking was an authentic expression of her 'self'.

This a good film through which to explore these issues and open them up for a discussion. The acting, when children are the main characters is simply wonderful - particularly Jeanne. I watched this as the opening film in a week long course with about 20 other people. I though I would write my reflection before the group deconstructs and reflects. I'll let you know what insights they provide. I'll give it 7/10.


                                                                                 

On this occasion not much additional wisdom from the collective. Consensus agreed with my reading of the film in that it was more about exploration of self than a boy being locked in a girl's body - although someone reported that online trans-gender communities see it differently!

We were told this is a big big film in France - particularly with families who use it to open up discussion on these themes with children. It is also used by many French Primary Schools for the same reason. Interesting.

Next up, Brokeback Mountain and this evening Babette's Feast.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Films of Faith and Doubt



Next week (Mon-Thu) I am away at this place near Chester to enjoy engaging with a course looking at films of faith and doubt. Apart from being a very great place to stay with good food, the course is run by the Warden, Peter Francis who is an avid film buff and has published widely on film and theology.


What we will be watching include Twelve Years A Slave, Brokeback Mountain, To Kill A Mockingbird, Babette’s Feast, Amadeus and Tomboy, reflecting on them and then discussing them. Great!

So if you are looking for something to do next week, come and join me. Follow the link:

http://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/calendar/films-faith-and-doubt.html

I will blog my reactions to the films - keep an eye out on here.