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 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.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Gone Girl


Anyone who has travelled by public transport in the Western world over the past two years will have encountered hordes of people glued to Gillian Flynn's novel - it has been ubiquitous. So when David Fincher directs a film based on the book with Flynn writing the screenplay it is reasonable to expect big things.

I hadn't read the book so wasn't too clear on what to expect. This is post-modern literature. It would be difficult to imagine this set in another time period where the plot and subject matter would make sense. Those who have read some of my past reviews will know that I struggle with stories predicated on relational deceit and deception. I struggled with this film - it was gone 2:00 am when I finally got to sleep! This is a deeply cynical and disturbing film with far more violence in it than this morning's bloodfest Fury. It challenges the viewer to decide which way is up and to know precisely what their moral compass is aligned to.

This film offers a view of marriage. A unique and hopefully cautionary view of marriage where prenuptial agreements do the only thing they can - undermine trust and commitment. Is Nick (Ben Affleck) really any different to most ordinary guys? I guess not. Is Amy (Rosamund Pike) really any different to any New York girl? YES - Amazing Amy was a child prodigy who was cajoled and manipulated by her smarmy parents whose immense intellect failed to note that in her development and stardom she was losing touch with the ability to relate to people in a way that evidenced vulnerability and empathy. Nick's chase of Amy at a party shows the wit and repartee of the couple as they joust to win acceptance from the other. Clearly both are very good-looking and attraction at that level is plain to see, but Nick's quest to win this physical and intellectual beauty is forced by Amy to continue on and on and into their marriage. Which is when they begin to encounter problems.

So is this a film about marriage and relationships or is it a film about a spoilt child prodigy who cannot exchange an over-endowment of grey cells for common sense and compassion? Maybe this is a very male reading of the story. Perhaps that is Flynn's genius playing out - presenting to men Nick seduced by New York chic who seems to be the victim, whilst at the same time presenting to women Amy as a wife whose potential and fulfilment becomes limited by a husband with only modest small-town Missouri ambitions.

I won't go into the story or plot so as not to spoil it for anyone who has yet to encounter it. The concept of the story is remarkably clever and the way in which the film is edited greatly heightens the dramatic effect. It is a masterful whodunnit. Affleck gives an extremely convincing performance as does Pike. I first encountered Pike as Miranda Frost in Die Another Day (2002) - another nasty piece of work. I'm sure she's lovely in real life and any dislike of her on my part is wholly down to her excellent acting abilities.

There are some faults with the story - particularly its pacing which after a slow third quarter sprints at hyper-velocity to a less than convincing conclusion. It is clear that some characters in the film don't buy the explanations of what happened but are seemingly unwilling or unable to explore where their intuition points them. However, if you want to see a film that captures the Zeitgeist of contemporary relationship conundrums and causes you to scratch your head as you try to work out exactly what has happened, then this is for you. Of its type this is one of the best - even with its shortcomings. I'll give it 8/10.




Sunday, 26 October 2014

Fury


This is a testosterone fuelled macho war film where Brad Pitt playing tank commander Wardaddy guides his four charges through the brutal final days of 'total war' in Germany in April 1945. This film is not pretty or easy to watch but the acting and narrative are both compelling which does make this a film worth engaging with. The film draws on a number of cliches as it mirrors scenes from other war films and parts of it are quite predictable.

With action sequences reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan for their visceral portrayal of war and much of the film spent in the claustrophobic confines of a Sherman tank, it offers an opportunity to explore the indiscriminating horror and consequences of war - even 'just war'. As Wardaddy says "Ideals are peaceful. History is violent". Yes - very violent. Set in a time before PTSD was recognised, it gives glimpses of the psychological pain and terror war inflicts. With so many wars rumbling on around the world today what are we doing to ourselves?

This film packs a lot into the storyline and the character developments are good. Some characters are likeable - others not so. The way the tank crew have fought their way across North Africa, Italy, France and now Germany have made them into a close-knit team. When one of the crew dies early on and the replacement is a church-going typist you get the feeling that rites of initiation are not far off. War is horrible.

Mud is everywhere. Bodies and body parts litter nearly every scene. Cruelty and brutality are ever-present. Yet there is also growth, compassion, tenderness, regret, sacrifice, heroism, hope and love. This film is filled with emotion and people trying to do good things in a bad world. The film also graphically shows how inferior allied armour was in the face of German armour.

I was born in West Germany because of this war - and only 13 years after the film was set! This compels me to explore WWII films with an imperative that some others might not have. It is part of who I am - as it is for countless thousands of others.

Some scenes seemed more than a little unrealistic. I am not an expert but I would imagine that two grenades exploding inside the sealed confines of a tank would do something to the bodies inside the tank. Instead, after the detonation they are remarkably unscathed.

This film will divide opinion. I wonder what you will make of it. At 134 minutes I felt that it didn't drag at all. It's not a must-see film - you will know if it's one for you. I'll give it 7/10.


Some exciting looking films around at the moment!

Happened to be at the cinema this morning and we were treated to trailers for some interesting films - it looks like a busy run in to Christmas. I watched Fury which I am still processing and will see The Gone Girl this evening so they don't appear on this list - but I do fancy seeing all of these:


In the cinemas now a gritty drama about the Troubles in Belfast:

71




Just out this weekend the sizzling pairing of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook):

Serena



Timothy Spall seems to have nailed a character performance of some note as he brings us this biopic out on 31 October

Mr Turner



The following week sees Christopher Nolan's latest offering of space travel and wormholes:

Interstellar



On the 14 November we have a gritty and violent thriller featuring James Gandolfini:

The Drop



The same week sees the release of Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightly starring in the WWII biopic of the genius Alan Turing cracking the Enigma Code:

The Imitation Game



Then on November 20th we have the long awaited third instalment of the four part trilogy!

Mockingjay Part 1


That little lot should keep me busy for a few weeks! Enjoy.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Ender's Game


This film is based on the 1985 novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card. I haven't read the book, but the film seems to me to be an almost endless pastiche of images, ideas and dialogue from a long stream of near future, we're under alien attack threat movies that have been around since the 1950s. As Kermode would say it's highly derivative. It is a cowboy film set in in space - part of that trope of films that fall within the American post-WWII need of a redemptive and sacrificial saviour figure. Now, that reminds me of another story I've read somewhere.

The opening words of the film from the character Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) set out the entire plot and narrative arc so not very much of what you see is surprising:
"Fifty years ago an alien force known as the Formics attacked Earth. Tens of millions died. It was only through the sacrifice of our greatest commander that we avoided total annihilation. We've been preparing for them to come back ever since. The International Fleet decided that the world's smartest children are the planet's best hope. Raised on war games, their decisions are intuitive, decisive, fearless. I am one of those recruits."
The characters in this film show little development and the pace little variation. The dialogue is at times clunky as it explains points of the story to the audience - just in case they are not keeping up. To have two such heavyweights as Harrison Ford and Sir Ben Kingsley seemed  a disproportionate use of Hollywood A-listers given the feel of the film with most of the cast being teenagers. However, where this film does excel in in its use of CGI which are top notch and seamlessly integrate into the real world. I watched this on Blu-ray and the picture quality was stunning.

What makes watching this film worthwhile are the number of moral and ethical issues it explores some of which are:

  • The main soldiers in this war are children who are controlled by adults who are portrayed as being simply pragmatic. When too many real world news reports from the middle-East and Africa show children toting AK47s it is a stark reminder that we have crossed a line somewhere along the way.
  • The basis for selecting recruits is their ability to excel at computer games. The film nicely sets up questions around the blurring of the real with the virtual and implicitly asks do these separate worlds require different rules of engagement. Does the context dictate the moral code?
  • The film also questions the assumption that all aliens are hostile. I kept expecting to see Capt Jean-Luc Picard come charging in to broker a solution!
  • It is impossible to avoid issues surrounding genocide in this film and to ask how culpable are those who carry it out for the 'greater good' of their own kind - intergalactic utilitarianism. Can genocide ever be justified?
  • Ender is presented as an innocent boy suffering abuse at the hands of his brother and in need of support and affirmation from his sister yet is thrust into the role of Commander of the Army setting up a nice tension between intention and outcome and the ethical implications attached to both.
I thought the ending of the film was clever and held out the prospect of a sequel if it was thought the franchise would be up for it - but the film has to date only recovered slightly more than half its $110m production cost so that seems unlikely. If this film comes around on TV you might want to give it a watch but not one for rushing out to buy the disc. I'll give it 6/10.







Monday, 15 September 2014

The Sound of my Voice takes over!

I started this blog because I am fascinated by the interaction of my story with the story on the screen and also God's story. I find it fruitful ground for reflection and a good way to get into a wide range of important issues. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time and trouble to look at things on here. I hope they have been helpful. 

We are approaching 200K page hits (not sure how this is recorded or how accurate it is) and today sees a new leader in terms of the review with the most viewings. My review of Spirited Away was posted more than four years ago and raced to the number one spot quickly and has been there ever since. However, with just over two years on the blog, my review of Sound of my Voice has overtaken it today boasting 14196 page views.

I often look at the statistics and see that they fall into a broadly consistent pattern. There are of course variations - when a new film is reviewed, or a release on disc happens these cause a blip in the figures. What often causes me consternation is when I view the 'now' statistics, or even sometimes the 'day' stats with up to 10 reviews being looked at see some really odd titles appearing. Every now and again there will be perhaps 15 hits in a single day for an obscure title. I wonder if these might come up in Film Studies classes? Some titles are persistent but low scorers such as

  • In the Electric Mist
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
  • Miller's Crossing
and how can such an awful film like Apollo 18 feature in the top 10? Why is The Girl who Played with Fire not in the top 10 when the other 2 Millennium films are? Why are the three most viewed so far ahead of the rest?

For those who are interested in the stats, here they are from today.

All time page views


The past month


The past week


The past day


I guess it is to be expected that, in general, the most viewed reviews also attract the largest number of comments. Many of the comments are very helpful and bring new insights and understanding. Please keep them coming - and please keep checking back here for new reviews.

Many thanks to all my readers.

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Update 16 September

There wasn't much showing for viewing 'now' category when I originally wrote this post - but this morning is another story and demonstrates the eclectic web browsing habits of the blogosphere. Have a look at this:



Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Sin and evil

I have noticed a couple of interesting tag lines on a movie poster and a trailer for a new series.

The SyFy Channel is trailing the launch of the second series of Defiance in which the character Stahma says “The most we can hope for, is what we want, is worth the evil we do.” Discuss.



I also noticed a line on a poster advertising Sin City 2 A Dame to Kill For. 


"There is no justice without sin." Discuss. An interesting proposition. Had it said 'forgiveness' that would be have been a fairly easy point to argue but 'justice' is an interesting variation.

Film has often traded using spiritual language but I sense that the level of engagement is deepening and quickening. People are increasingly hungry for engagement with spiritual things. We live in times where people have a great spiritual hunger. It's good that we have a story that speaks to their hunger which counters evil and strives for justice - where sin is forgiven.

Discuss.




Sunday, 7 September 2014

Pride


This is an important film. Please go and see it.

This film could so easily have been something else. It could have been schmaltzy and sentimental, it could have descended into a patronising lecture on collective socialism, it could have glorified/vilified Margaret Thatcher or Arthur Scargill, it could have portrayed the lesbian and gay scene very differently. Instead we get a film about 'humanity' in many of its wonderful manifestations.

For those who didn't live through the era in which the film is set (1984/5) it will be hard to understand the darkness and seeming pointlessness of a year long battle between two sides with diametrically opposed political philosophies. We live today with the consequences of the outcome of that battle.

The way in which this story is told and the warmth and quality of the acting and direction combine to deliver a film that has you laughing at one moment and crying the next. Whatever your predisposition may be, you will feel differently about striking miners and gays and lesbians by the time you reach the end of this film. What this film does so effectively is expose prejudice which is always blind. It also charts how people who are open to exploring truth can undergo the most amazing journey of personal growth and transformation. This is a film about maintaining personal integrity in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.

This is also a film about friendship, a sense of a shared struggle and solidarity to overcome injustice. The soundtrack is an amazing blend of protest (Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg), celebration (Shirley and Company, Dead or Alive) and iconic gay and lesbian (Queen, Bronski Beat and Frankie Goes to Hollywood) songs.

The film portrays the painful struggle of 'coming out' with great sensitivity. It also treats the fear engendered by HIV/AIDS in a way that we have collectively lost touch with in our more accommodating age with our antiretroviral therapies and anxiety over Avian Flu and Ebola.

It would be almost unfair to single out any acting performances - but I'm going to say Bill Nighy, Paddy Considine, Imelda Staunton, George MacKay and Ben Schnetzer all shine in a brightly lit universe. Please do go and see this film - prepare your tissues and prepare to be challenged. You will be glad you did as this is ultimately an uplifting film. I thought it was brilliant and I'm giving it 9/10!


Sunday, 31 August 2014

Lucy


On the face of it, this is a simple action thriller that begins in Taiwan and ends in Paris - it is after all written and Directed by Luc Besson, so Paris much feature somewhere. If you choose to dig a little deeper this is a film that explores metaphysical themes in an easily accessible way - a bit like The Matrix meets The Tree of Life meets Limitless. However, for me the ease of access is too dominant and rather than some meaty philosophical exploration, all we get is a series of cliches and some nice images that look as though they are lifted from Tree of Life with a small homage paid to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In a voice over at the beginning of the film we hear "Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?" At the film's conclusion another voice over tells us "Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what you can do with it." So the film basically thinks that it explores and delivers the answer to the question 'what is the meaning of life?'.

For this to be explored by Scarlett Johansson as Lucy and Morgan Freeman as Professor Norman is an odd mix. Both play their roles very well and it is good to see Johansson's versatility. However, given the subject matter of the film and the way it is explored, I kept expecting to see Freeman in a white suit in the God role!

I won't spoil the plot but the basic premise (as the trailers and ads amply demonstrate) is that Freeman's life-long research into releasing more than the 10% of cerebral capacity that humans use, collides with Johansson's character who achieves the Nirvana of using 100% of her brain. With super-enhanced sensory acuity, Lucy nicely distills the essence of her new-found knowledge by sharing with Norman "We've codified our existence to bring it down to human size, to make it comprehensible, we've created a scale so we can forget its unfathomable scale." In doing this she defines the one true unit by which everything should be measured.

There is plenty of brutal kick-ass action in this film with Chinese gangsters seemingly able to arm themselves at will with a bewildering array of weapons. Every now and again the flow of the dialogue is interrupted to enable the meaning of what is happening on screen to described by words just in case we can't understand for ourselves - doh! The ending however, was anything but staid and predictable and for me it opened up a whole new set of questions - perhaps there'll be a sequel. As an action film this is okay, as a philosophical exploration of the meaning of life, it does make you think - just a little, but it is very lightweight - I'll give it 6/10.