Sunday, 23 February 2014
For anyone who remembers the Iranian revolution and ensuing hostage crisis that dogged President Carter and hemorrhaged support for his presidency, this film will offer a valuable insight into the tensions and thinking that prevailed at the time. For those who are too young (or have forgotten) it will offer a useful and entertaining history lesson. It is also a very good film - for the most part.
I didn't rush to see this in the cinema when it came out as I had some preconceptions that meant that watching it didn't feature high on my 'to do' list. I was glad to catch up with it on disc. Directed by and starring Ben Affleck this film, 'based on a true story', portrays Hollywood coming to the aid of the CIA. Any Hollywood film about Hollywood runs the danger of being over-charged. Add to that a large dose of American patriotic jingoism (particularly towards the end) and you get Argo.
The premise of the film is straight-forward. When the American Embassy was stormed by the mob in Tehran in 1979, six employees working in the visa section managed to escape and lay low in the residence of the Canadian Ambassador. Affleck's character, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez dreams up the unlikely plan to use a trip scouting for a movie location to extract the six from Iran.
This was a plan that was so bizarre it bordered on genius. When President Clinton declassified the file and it became public knowledge, the world learned of how the CIA bank-rolled a Hollywood office to give credence to the film's existence and so provide the necessary background to make it look legitimate. What is refreshing about the film is that it is all about the story - no romance or personal violence to distract - and that it is filled with believable characters and good acting. Argo won three Oscars and two Golden Globes. Today it scores 96% on the Tomatometer and 7.8 on IMDb.
Anyone who has travelled in this part of the world will have felt the hairs on the back of their neck rising whenever the group encounter officials. You know that at any point your progress can be halted and you can taken away to some forgotten place never to be seen again - and that's when your papers are in order and your reasons for being there legitimate! I felt the two hours passed by quickly - the film is very evenly paced and doesn't linger. Overall it maintains the tension very well and even though we know the outcome, peril persists until the plane passes out of Iranian air-space and the alcohol breaks out to allow a timely celebration.
This is another film that shows the reach and power of the CIA and the failure of American foreign policy. The blend of archive news and documentary footage within the film is done really well as is the period setting of the 1970's - everyone wearing huge framed spectacles and butterfly collars. It was good to see Swissair taking to the skies again! I enjoyed this film and was happy to have my prejudices largely overturned - pity about the schmaltzy jingoism. I will award this film 8/10.
Wednesday, 29 January 2014
This is a disturbing drama about 'self' and identity. It is written and directed by Sean Durkin and establishes him as a major player in the vibrant American Independent Cinema genre. It won Durkin Best Drama Director at Sundance 2011 and the film was nominated at the same festival for the Grand Jury Prize. This film was made with a budget of less than $1m and shot over just 24 days. The lighting and editing, along with the soundtrack are all first class.
It is impossible to deal with this film without discussing its story - but I don't necessarily think that this would significantly diminish its impact if you've not already seen it.
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a young twenty-something when she arrives at a farmhouse in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains. The farmhouse is home to a commune called the family led by Patrick (John Hawkes). The family are seeking an alternative lifestyle and are trying to develop the farm to be self-sufficient. Patrick is given to spouting a kind of Marxist/Buddhist philosophy with a very dangerous and subtle psychological twist. He is able to manipulate and control the members of the commune to the extent that the women become his, and all the other men's sex slaves. We are shown that it is really only the women who do any work around the place and they prepare the daily meal which is first served to the men and then they get to eat anything that is left. Patrick leads by instilling terror and fear which is backed up by sexual, psychological and emotional rape. All of this causes the (female) members to lose their sense of self and any notion of individuality.
On arrival, Martha is renamed Marcy May by Patrick and thus begins the process of stripping away her identity. When any of the women in the commune answer the phone, they do so using the name Marlene - an additional way of diminishing a view of self. Clearly it appears from the outset that Martha does not have a strong sense of self-identity which is not helped by the fact that she had recently lost her mother. Her father abandoned the family early on and her only surviving relative is her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson).
Quite near the start of the film, early one morning Martha plucks up the courage to leave the commune and although she is pursued she manages to escape. In a wonderfully emotionally charged scene, laden with the psychological angst and confusion she is experiencing, Martha phones her sister with whom she has had no contact for more than two years. Lucy agrees to come and pick her up.
Lucy is recently married to a British Architect Ted (Hugh Dancy) and they have just begun their summer vacation on a rented lake house in Connecticut - a chance to get away from New York City. From the outset Martha's behaviour is at odds with the neat and angular expectations of Lucy and Ted. Such has been the effect on Martha's psyche that she is unable to distinguish between dream and memory, fiction and reality.
In a constant series of flashbacks that cut between the two contexts - the farmhouse and the lake house - seemingly triggered at random, Martha's story and her experiences in the commune are slowly unfolded. The editing is so clever that you are never quite sure which context you are seeing until it becomes clear thus mirroring the confusion in Martha's mind.
The tension in the story and in the relationship between Martha, and Lucy and Ted builds throughout the film and it becomes increasingly clear that Martha needs more support and help than Lucy and Ted are able to offer. As is sometimes the case with this kind of film, the ending is not what you would expect - or necessarily wish for. It leaves you to carrying doing analysis and thinking about the final images.
This film is not comfortable viewing or family entertainment. It is however very well conceived and executed and explores a dark and difficult area with integrity and without being over-dramatic. It offers a chance to discuss the two sets of values embodied by the commune and by Lucy and Ted. It also offers an opportunity to explore the relationship of self-identity within community and how our experiences and contexts help to shape and reshape our understanding.
Moreover, this film shows what can be achieved with talent, creativity, imagination, a small budget and in a short time frame. I'm sure we will see lots more from Sean Durkin. I'll give 8/10.
Monday, 6 January 2014
I am not a devotee of Tolkien - in the sense that I didn't transition puberty with LOTR clutched under my arm. (Or is that just a male clergy thing?) I appreciate his creativity and the scope of his tales from Middle Earth. The characters, the archetypes, the landscapes, the dualistic struggle, the unlikely hero all of these create resonance in some way. I went to see this because I felt it was important in terms of cinema - maybe I'd simply swallowed all the hype!
A group of Dwarves, a Hobbit and a Wizard on a road trip chased by ugly flesh-eating Orcs can only really deliver so much innovation in terms of narrative and CGI-tatstic visuals. You know there will be fights with much beheading, weapons to bludgeon creatures to death and scenes where old enmity threatens to prevent the formation of much-needed alliances. You also know there will be unexplained bits of the plot - especially surrounding sleeping dragons and the like. But hey - this is based, to some degree on a 250 page novel and something has to give to spin it out to 9 hours of cinema!
There is plenty of blood and gore and some wonderful use of weapons - especially the Elves with their bows and arrows. I particularly liked the party escaping in barrels pursued by the gormless Orcs. The chance encounter with Bard who is able to smuggle them into the Lake-Town and who happens to have in his possession the only weapon capable of killing Smaug the dragon sets up the film for a nail-biting climax, or should I say instalment three? Their progress through Mirkwood Forest is a little unbelievable and the spiders turn the whole thing into a horror movie.
At 2:41 long, it is an endurance test - but one which I felt was less arduous than the first instalment. With Peter Jackson at the helm and a story that is so well know, you pretty much know what you will be getting. The only question is, will the oohs and the aahs be big enough for the demanding audience that wants so much from this franchise? Let's hope the final part of the trilogy is spectacular. I'll give it 7/10.
Sunday, 5 January 2014
Saw this later the same day! I'm all gamed out for the time being!!
The story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) continues and heads in a mostly predictable direction for much of the film. The same format for the Hunger Games is there, the same issues are dealt with but this time there are one or two interesting twists. The good acting continues - especially from Lawrence but there are strong supporting roles too. Once or twice the dialogue is poor and stutters as it tries to carry the story. In one scene Peeta finds a pearl in a clam and he just says to Katniss "For you" and she replies "Thanks" and takes the pearl. Perhaps I missed a deeper significance.
There is however significant character development in this film and the introduction of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee adds a machiavellian gravitas and depth as to begin with his character is ambiguous in his intentions. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is let off the leash in this outing as is Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy) and they both shine. I am told by them that knows these things that the story is very close to the book. Seldom a concern for me as I prefer to see a film before reading the book - it makes visualization so much easier!
This film is set only one year after the first instalment but Katniss' little sister Primrose (Willow Shields) seems to have grown up all at once! The 75th Hunger Games are created in a particularly cruel and pernicious way - the work of a really twisted mind. This all serves to heighten the tension and raise the stakes which is ably demonstrated in the creation of the 'Mockingjay' as the symbol of resistance. Katniss' love triangle with Gale and Peeta develops into a ambiguous and confusing menage a trois. It is not clear (to me) how this will be resolved.
So, we await the third and final instalment. Will Katniss succeed in leading an insurrection and overthrowing President Snow? If so what kind of way of being will emerge? Will it be the end of the Hunger Games? Will she hook up with Gale or Peeta - or play them both along? So many questions - I'll have to wait for the third film. Reading a book is such hard work! I'll give this one 8/10.
Saturday, 4 January 2014
I accidentally deleted my first review of this film and have been sulking for more than 2 weeks because Blogger doesn't allow undelete! What irks me more was the fact that I was very pleased with what I had written - hopefully this will at least be okay!
I know I was slow off the mark catching up with this. I was wondering what an apocalyptic story aimed at teens, set out in a trilogy, about teens killing one another would be like. I found it to be a gripping drama that excited my moral imagination and which raised a number of interesting ethical questions. However, a story predicated on teenagers having to fight to the death in a media spectacle is a questionable basis for an uplifting film. Yet, the viewer cannot help but be inspired by the emergent heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and wonder where the story will go.
The film raises a number of important issues:
- The abuse of wealth and power
- The subjugation of the oppressed - a form of apartheid
- The power of the media to shape social understanding
- Justice and the struggle for freedom
- Our collective need for a saviour figure to follow
Some of them it addresses and some are left open - possibly to be explored in the sequels.
Many teens today spend a lot of time within the virtual worlds of video games where first person shooter games are common. This film follows that format as Katniss volunteers at the annual reaping to take the place of her sister in the 74th Hunger Games. Each year two teenagers, one male one female, are chosen from each of the 12 Districts to compete within a locked environment where the winner is the survivor.
But the film is more than simple 'shoot em up'. It shows us substitutionary sacrifice, distaste for the horror of war, an innate reluctance to take another life, how wealth can causes a numbing of compassion and how power corrupts. In essence it offers viewers - and teens in particular - an arena in which to exercise their moral imagination and explore the right and wrong of a range of fundamental social ethical issues. Today's teens have grown up only in a post 9/11 world - for them there is no other lived experience to draw from. They, like many today, sense that morality is skewed and they want to find a way of making meaning that allows them to reset their moral compass to follow something more organic, more believable and something which they can own for themselves.
Katniss Everdeen is a reluctant heroine but she does give hope to the marginalised, the oppressed - the hope-less. On one level she is just a resourceful girl from District 12, on another level she is the face that can rally the common people and inspire them to rise up. When President Snow (Donald Sutherland) says, 'the only thing stronger than fear, is hope' I got the feeling that this was giving permission for the hope that Katniss inspires to ultimately topple Snow's reign of fear. Let's see where the sequels take us.
I felt that the film paid homage to other films in it's conception, design and delivery. The Truman Show is an easy parallel to spot. Films like 1984, Hannah, Harry Potter, District 9 and Gladiator also find a resonance.
Because of the central premise of the film I wanted to not like it. I was however gripped, drawn in, made to feel empathy for Katniss and her family and friends. I jumped and cringed in the appropriate places and as a piece of escapist entertainment I was hooked. Does that mean I had to suspend moral judgement as I watched? Maybe. Does it mean that the issues the film raises and the characters through which they were raised have repeatedly come back to me as I have continued to reflect on the film and its meaning - absolutely! I'll give it 8.5/10.
Saturday, 21 December 2013
This is the latest offering from Brit Marling (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice) - someone whose talents I admire. This time she co-writes and stars in an intelligent eco-thriller which debuted at the 2013 Sundance Festival with backing from Ridley Scott as Producer. As the screenplay was being written, the 'Occupy Wall Street' social action was taking place which must have added a sense of realism and impetus to the task. Marling and co-writer Zal Batmanglij spent two months engaging in Freeganism by way of research to inspire their writing. The film has an authenticity about it and whilst it feels a little more mainstream than Marling's previous two offerings it still has an indie edginess to it.
Marling plays the resourceful and quick thinking Sarah - a former FBI Agent (she seems very young to be so accomplished and a 'former' FBI Agent). She works for a private intelligence company who seem to operate like the CIA. Sarah is sent under deep cover to infiltrate an eco-anarchist group called 'The East' and to discover what targets they are aiming at. The small tight-knit group are sceptical about Sarah to begin with but she earns their trust and participates in two "jams" when they target a pharmaceutical company and then a chemical company.
As Sarah spends more time with the group and learns more about the pollution and malpractice big corporations are able to get away with and as she considers the dubious activities of her employer, so her sympathies begin to turn to the eco-anarchists and the internal battle that ensues sees Sarah questioning her loyalties. The film is nearly two hours long and maintains the tension well throughout. It holds its own as an espionage/spy film and it gives some interesting character developments.
It is good that we have an intelligent film with good acting that explores an area that is becoming increasingly recognised as an important field in need of transformation through social action. Building on the Jubilee 2000 Campaign, 'Stop The Debt', 'Occupy' and other initiatives and films like Martha Marcy May Marlene, perhaps we are seeing a gradual awakening in our understanding of our collective need for responsible stewardship of what we have been given. I wonder how history will record these decades? Perhaps we are beginning to see the first-fruits of a social transformation that will result in a fairer distribution of wealth and a reduction in the driving power of greed that has characterised Western Society over he last 400 years. No doubt the emergence of new economic powers (BRICS and others) will also play their part.
This is a good film with a story worth engaging with and with a strong cast. The East are presented as being sufficiently alternative to make an impact without being so looney as to undermine their credibility. The message of this film admirably catches the zeitgeist and offers an encouragement for us all to challenge the status quo with which we collude through inaction. Do get the disc and watch it. I'll give it 8/10.
Sunday, 1 December 2013
It is said that history is always written by the victors. Does partial victory count or does it lead to a partial rendering of history? Don't get me wrong. I am in no way trying to minimise the pain inflicted on black-Americans (or the enslaved anywhere in the world), but for me there was something about this film that wasn't quite right. It is a film about the struggle of black-Americans to gain equality in the 'Land of the Free". As the voice over towards the end tells us, we can all react to the horror of concentration camps in Germany - it's just that no-one calls them that in the south of the USA, but they've been there for more than 200 years and the effects of their presence continue to reverberate today. This is not simply an historical film, but a current one and this is a review of a movie and not a critique of the Civil Rights Movement.
There is great acting (and casting) in this film. It's scope is immense as it charts the American civil rights movement through the eyes of a unique witness - a black Butler (Forest Whitaker) who serves successive Presidents in the White House. From Eisenhower to Reagan, The Butler was privy to the machinations and most intimate conversations at the heart of government. The film goes out of its way to depict Kennedy's young liberal idealism and hints at what might have been. It clearly has little affection for Johnson who is shown to be two-faced or Nixon whom it depicts as lacking moral scruples. (I wonder if this is reading things back into history after the fact?) The film almost completely skates over the Ford and Carter years and re-engages with Reagan whom it depicts, along with his wife, as genuine, benevolent and open people.
From the outset of the film you know where the narrative arc is going. It starts in the 1920's with share-croppers in a cotton field in Georgia where the young Butler's mother is raped and father shot by their white 'owners' right through to the impossible, the election of Barak Obama to the White House. On the way the story charts the most significant events of the Civil Rights Movement including Malcolm X's Black Panthers and MLK. The sojourn through these contrasting styles of civil engagement is enacted through The Butler's eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) as he determines direct action is the preferred route rather than the wait-and-see approach advocated by father. This sets up inevitable tensions leading to estrangement and reconciliation whilst the youngest son is sacrificed to the ideals of the Vietnam War.
What starts out as an historical bio-pic turns into more of a fly-on-the-wall documentary as The Butler observes, but never intervenes, as successive Presidents wrestle with the Civil Rights problem in a way that tries not to alienate a fickle electorate. The generous use of original TV footage adds to the documentary feel rather than bringing the story the alive.
If the story-telling might not be this film's strong suit, where this film does win is in the all-star cast that assemble to deliver many strong performances and cameos. Among them feature, Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, John Cusack, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr, Liev Schreiber, Jane Fonda and of course Oprah Winfrey as Gloria, The Butler's wife who delivers a very strong performance. I wouldn't be surprised to see the two leads Oscar nominated.
For all it's short-comings, this is an important film as no other has sought to chart the Civil rights Movement in quite the same way. A Thief in the Night is cited in the film, but there are few other cultural reference points. IMDb has a list of films with a Civil Rights motif here. At 132 minutes it is half an hour too long. However, it is worth a watch. I'll give it 7.5/10.
Wednesday, 27 November 2013
These release dates relate to the UK - apologies to the rest of the world.
In two days time we have the general release of Saving Mr Banks - a must-see film even if you're not a fan of disney films.
In two days time we have the general release of Saving Mr Banks - a must-see film even if you're not a fan of disney films.
Inside Llewelyn Davis
Here is new offering the Coen brothers due out on 24 January. It follows a week in the life of an a singer/song-writer struggling to make his way in Greenwich Village ,New York in 1961. It's attracting great reviews and a high score on IMDb and other review sites.
The Book Thief
Set in Nazi Germany, a young girl is intrigued by what is so special about books that the Nazi's burn them. She bravely retrieves a book that survives the bonfire and begins to read - her imagination does the rest. This looks like another strong film and is already attracting a strong showing on IMDb. Out on 31 January 2014.
12 Years a Slave
Latest offering from Director Steve McQueen is released on 10 January and explores the issue of America's history with slavery. Promises to be good.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
I'm not a fan of Ben Stiller - I feel he only ever really plays himself - but from the trailer and reading up about this one, it seems that in this case it might just be appropriate! You can catch it from Boxing Day.
Dallas Buyers Club
This film stars Matthew McConaughey and explores the AIDS crisis in the late 1980's. Based on a true story, this film presents a sadly familiar story with a different twist. Due for release 07 Feb 2014.
Other possible films to look out for are:
- Jeune & Jolie 29 November
- The Railway Man 01 January 2014
- All is Lost 26 December 2013
- The Wolf of Wall Street 17 January 2014
One to avoid .... Anchorman 2!
Sunday, 24 November 2013
I had seen the trailer for this film a number of times - but I still wasn't sure what to expect. I managed to catch it today at a members' free preview screening from those very nice people at Harbour Lights in Southampton. Thank you Picturehouse. The 'heavy' in the suit demanding that all punters turned off their phones on entering the auditorium was an unwelcome encounter. If it becomes a regular feature, I will review my membership!
The premise of this film is simple. A rigid and pompous P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of Mary Poppins has been wooed by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for 20 years as he attempts to secure the film rights to the story. Travers fears the Disneyfication of her beloved Mary Poppins - a descent into trivialisation where the characters would have the resolve of candy floss. After all, Mary Poppins is 'family'. The gulf between Disney and Travers is wider than simply the Atlantic Ocean. However, Travers' has fallen on hard times and is in desperate need of the money the project will generate. Reluctantly she agrees to visit Disney in Hollywood to work on a script - flying First Class and staying at the Beverly Hills Hilton does nothing to soften here strident tone and overbearing demeanour.
Demanding complete control over the script, fighting the notion that this would be a musical and presenting Disney with a long list of requirements such as, no facial hair, no animation, no Americanisms, no Dick van Dyke, Travers manages to alienate everyone she meets in California - but at the same time intrigues them with her so over-the-top Britishness that they all find so appealing. This is a film of contradictions that hold each other in creative tension to produce a truly wonderful piece of drama that will scale the heights and plumb the depths of human experience and emotion. I cannot remember the last time I cried so much at the cinema - and this is largely a comedy! That said, this film engages deeply with themes of loss, anger, regret, forgiveness and transformation - all ripe for theological reflection. As the film unfolds, so the reason for each of Travers' seemingly unreasonable demands becomes clear.
A Disney Pictures film about Walt Disney does appear on first inspection to be more than a little incestuous. This need not concern the viewer as this, one of the many seeming contradictions, is dealt with in a very open and even-handed way. The film was shot largely at Universal Studios in Hollywood - even the parts set in London and Australia. The art of illusion remains alive and well in Disneyland.
As well as charting the difficult relationship between Travers and Disney, the film also unearths in a series of flashbacks, Travers' own childhood in Australia and the family set up that gave rise to the creation of Mary Poppins. The editing of this film is done beautifully as different parts of the script enrapture Travers, so we are transported back to the childhood setting that gave rise to that particular part of the Mary Poppins story. In beautiful back-lit golden soft focus, the flashbacks are more schmaltzy Little House on the Prairie than anything else, but the big dollops of melancholy don't come over as being as sugary sweet as they might at first seem to want to be. It is only as Travers reaches back into her own childhood that Disney begins to glimpse the true meaning behind Mary Poppins. The screenplay and acting in this film strike a wonderful balance that mitigates against the temptation towards needless sentimentality. Hanks and Thompson deliver performances worthy of Oscar nominations - but then so do the rest of the cast - particularly Paul Giamatti as Ralph the chauffeur and Colin Farrell as Travers' father.
At just over two hours long I found this to be an engaging, entertaining, educational but also an emotionally demanding film. It was excellent. With a PG certification I'm sure it will do very well over the run up to Christmas and the holiday season. Can you remember where and when you first saw Mary Poppins? I can, it was on it's initial release at the Odeon in Bristol in 1964. It would undoubtedly help to have seen Mary Poppins before viewing this film - but not essential. I'd like to see Saving Mr Banks again - it is thoroughly enjoyable and very entertaining. Sounds just like a Disney film! I'll give it 9/10.
Friday, 22 November 2013
Take five of Hollywood's most beautiful A-listers, add a dynamic and complex script, motives of greed and power which are pursued with ruthlessness and you get a fast moving, violent and engaging film about drug supply in the USA. Well, that's the glossy veneer that the eyes see - but if you look a little more deeply and listen with greater intent you find a film that explores the relentless logic of the consequences of the choices that are made.
Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men, The Road) this was always going to be a beautifully made and intellectually engaging film. In some ways it is quite similar to No Country as its pretext is a Tex-Mex drug deal involving a Mexican cartel shipping a consignment of cocaine from Colombia to Chicago in a tanker full of sewage. All pretty routine.
The central character, The Counsellor (Michael Fassbender) is a lawyer who decides to try and make a lot of money very quickly by underwriting a shipment of drugs. All of his associates tell him to be very careful as the cartels don't mess around. His naivety - especially in seeing business partners as friends - leaves him exposed, weak and vulnerable. Of course, things do not go to plan and the cartel exact revenge on those they think responsible.
The two female characters Laura (Penélope Cruz) and Malkina (Cameron Diaz) are presented as stunning beauties but in every other respect could not be more different. This is the first time I have seen Diaz play a character who is utterly frightening, ruthless and will stop at nothing to ensure she gets her way. Irrational, clever, manipulative, sadistic and gluttonous, she wants it all - now! Cruz' character on the other hand is gentle and innocent - way in over her pretty head.The other two leads are Reiner played by Javier Bardem and Westray played by Brad Pitt. Bardem is utterly compelling and Pitt seems to play himself but on a bad day.
Viewers will need to pay attention to the dialogue as little clues are dispensed in throw-away lines that later take on an importance that their original context failed to register. Early on in the film a new assassination device is described and I spent the whole film waiting to see if it would be deployed - I was not disappointed. As far as I recall, none of the characters are ever depicted 'doing drugs' - alcohol, seems to be the drug of choice - but usually in a cocktail glass unless it is a piece of blatant product placement.
There is no doubt that this is a clever and extremely well-made film. Did I enjoy watching it? Enjoy is not the word I would use - I'd be more likely to speak well of its intellectual engagement. Whether you choose to see it as a morality tale or an essay on existential philosophy, my guess is that some viewers will see and take from the film those things they choose to be impacted by. For others it will simply be an action film with pretty people and fast cars. I wonder if it tries to be a little too clever. It's not one I would hurry to see again or add to my disc collection when released. Having said that, some of the film's visual and aural images will stay with me for a long time! I'll give it 7/10.
Saturday, 16 November 2013
From the trailers and hype the story line of this film is already out there - we know it's about stranded astronauts and the question is, will they get home. Well I'm not going to spoil that for you - you will have to go and see it for yourself. What is remarkable about this film is the cinematography - that and the fact that there are only two characters (and four voices). Filmed at Shepperton Studios in the UK using a room whose walls serve as massive LED screens and using gyros and gimbals to give the appearance of weightlessness, this film advances cinematic technology in a similar way to the innovations we saw in The Matrix trilogy. The visual effect is as though you are there with them floating and tumbling through space - more of a documentary feel with long single takes that travel long distances.
The two characters are Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) a medical doctor on her first space trip and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) on his last trip before retirement. They end up stranded in their space suits after a space walk goes horribly wrong. At one point they are tethered together and the tag line 'don't let go' becomes the golden rule as they seek solutions to their problem.
The film raises a number of issues - the most immediate one being the legacy of space junk and the unintended consequences of simply abandoning it when no longer useful. It also shows the increasingly international nature of space exploration with the Americans, Russians and Chinese all featuring which leads at one point to the wonderful line delivered by Stone 'No hablo Chino!".
As much as the story is about the physical safety of 'not letting go' it is also the emotional safety of having to let go. Stone is carrying a great weight within her psyche - something she has not been able to put down. As the film progresses, the seriousness of their situation encourages the two characters to engage in some metaphysical dialogue as they explore the meaning of their existence. For me this is the real nub of the film and provides the icing on the cake. Stone delivers a wonderful monologue in which she rehearses the 'I know we all have to die at some point - but like this, not today' argument. She questions the meaning of life and the importance of leaving a legacy and draws inner strength from a renewed sense of purpose. I wonder if viewers of this film will allow themselves the indulgence of asking such questions of themselves?
Whilst the visuals of this film are stunning - and yes I did, after the unlikely encouragement of Dr Kermode, shell out to see the 3D version - the big question is, with only two characters can the film sustain sufficient movement, interest and anticipation for its 91 minute runtime? The answer is a resounding 'yes'! The pace is relentless and I left the film with my veins full of adrenalin!! One of the voices that we hear in the film is that of the NASA Mission Controller - played by Ed Harris, a nice homage to Apollo 13 and The Truman Show two films in which he stars and which are about a space disaster and the quest to discover the meaning of existence.
The visuals in this film alone make it worth going to see. The acting from Bullock is immense and Clooney almost plays himself - something he is becoming increasingly good at doing. The estimated $100m production costs has been more than doubly recouped in US box office takings alone in its first six weeks since release - this film will repay Warner Brothers investment and faith in Director Alfonso Cuarón many times over. The project was four years in the making and Warner Bros apparently didn't see a single frame in the film until a few months before release.
As you may imagine, I rather liked it - and like the good Dr would recommend the 3D experience - it would be even more immersive in IMAX I would imagine. Do go and see it - no matter how big your TV is this will never be quite the same unless you view it in the cinema. For innovation, acting, conceptualisation and the ability to consistently sustain tension, I'll give it 9/10!
Tuesday, 5 November 2013
If ever a role was written for an actor it is this title role and Dame Judy Dench. She makes it her own and is completely compelling. This film will tug at the heart strings - and make you laugh. It is is a film about love, grace, evil and hope. It would too easy and too simplistic to develop ideas that stereotype the main players in this tale - again based on a real story. We need to deal with the reality of what the film presents rather than take pops at the main baddies in the story - religion, nuns and the Catholic Church. We also need to remember that it begins in the early 1950's - a very different world to the one we live in today. Philomena is at one and the same time both a simple and yet immensely complex character. Dench effortlessly brings great depth and subtlety to the role.
The trailer and hype surrounding this film have already disclosed the plot so there really is nothing to spoil. That in no way diminishes the emotional weight of the film neither does it obscure Dench's performance. This film is so worth seeing - we need to collectively stand in Philomena's pain and the pain of thousands like her around the world. (Not all by any means, victims of Catholic nuns!) Illegitimate children and their young mothers were taken in by convents in exchange for manual labour - a modern-day workhouse. Mothers were allowed one hour's contact with their child each day. The babies were 'sold' to those who could afford them and adopted - quite often to Americans. This is what happened to Philomena's son Anthony.
The Central Statistics Office of Ireland has revealed that in 2012 36.5% of babies were born outside marriage. Clearly things have moved on in the last 60 years. Irish society was firmly in the grip of a certain kind of Catholic dogma and the Church held that sex outside marriage was a sin. The nuns saw it as a spiritual kindness to offer the girls and their children a future they would not have otherwise had. The way in which they ran the convent workhouses and piled guilt and scorn on the heads of these young women is repugnant in the extreme. That it was done in the name of God and love, for me only adds to the abhorrence I felt watching the story. That the nuns then tried to make it impossible for mothers to track their children or even worse vice-a-versa simply heaps even more deplorable behaviour on this sorry tale.
Throughout her life Philomena remains devout. She is on one hand lacking in sophistication and simple yet on the other very shrewd when she wants to be. She is undemanding, a good mother to the family she raised after leaving the convent and able to appreciate and enjoy the novelty of luxury when she encounters it.
The other main character is the former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith played by Steve Coogan who also co-wrote the screenplay. I must confess to not being a fan of Alan Partridge (Coogan's alter ego comedy character from TV) and each time I see him (including in What Maisie Knew) I can't get past Partridge to the character he is playing. He makes Sixsmith veer between being self-obsessed and objectionable, to being compassionate and a crusader for truth. This sets up an interesting relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith as they track down Anthony.
As I said, this film will evoke a range of emotional responses from viewers. Whilst Sixsmith is not afraid to voice his judgement on what has happened Philomena offers a different response. For 50 years she kept her secret and once she had revealed it, it took on a life and energy of its own that gives the film its gripping story. Of course we all want to know what happened to Anthony and whether or not they will be reunited. We all know that the story will not be straightforward and that there will be twists and turns. The story, based on Sixsmith's book of the account, does not disappoint.
We are all of us complex creatures with needs we know of and satisfy, needs we know of and hide and needs that remain unknown yet exert an influence on our behaviour and longings. Actions have consequences and whether it being 'taking down your knickers' or disclosing that you have a long lost son to his half-sister, moments of revelation and discovery can generate unforeseen outcomes that have a tangle of both good and bad that seem inseparable. The point in the film where Philomena recalls the moment of passion amongst the straw at the fair is pure poetry and she seems not to regret it for one moment.
The story is driven by love - and not just Philomena's. The evil is evident in the convent and most of the nuns who populated it then - and now and who collude with obfuscating the truth. What shone through for me was that in her simple understanding of faith and who God was and is, that Philomena was able to act with grace and maintain her own integrity without diminishing her view of herself. This primarily is a story about grace. I saw it at Harbour Lights on Sunday and the folk there said that it was 'going mental' with huge turn-outs to view it. Go and join the throng - you won't be disappointed. I'll give it 8.5/10.
Monday, 4 November 2013
Can a film sustain an even pace and then build to a climax after 2 hours and 15 minutes? Yes it can. Director Paul Greengrass delivers a tale of high drama set on the seas off the Horn of Africa that trades in the currency of the disparity between this world's haves and the have-nots.
I'm not giving anything away I hope when I say the story-line is straightforward and 'based on' a true story of Somali pirates hijacking a Maersk container ship en-route from Oman to Mombasa. The title character commands the container ship and is played by Tom Hanks who delivers one of his best performances in years. The central axis of the story is the relationship between Phillips and the leader of the pirates Muse (Barkhad Abdi).
The film gives a little insight into the anarchy that rules Somalia and the demands of the Warlords on former fishing communities for their young men to turn to piracy and deliver multi-million dollar ransoms back to the Warlords. The gulf between the size and technology of the pirates boats in comparison to the container ship could hardly be wider. The anarchic pirates living in huts in the dunes with few possessions contrast garishly with the ordered opulence and automation of the container ship and its cargo of luxury consumer goods. Fuelled by khat (a stimulant drug derived from a shrub) and adrenalin, the pirates shoot and force their way aboard waving their AK-47s at anything that moves.
The screenplay explores the tensions between the thoughtful and quiet family man of Phillips and the excitable and apparently greed motivated pirates. However, the character of Muse shows an awareness of his situation and he repeatedly articulates the desire to make enough money to travel to the USA. He should be careful of what he wishes for. In typical hostage-drama style, the film documents the strain and fickle nature of the relationship between captors and captive. Phillips cleverly tries to win the sympathy and trust of some of his captors whilst setting others against one another.
I remember this story in the news when it happened and that it was brought to end by American military intervention. A further gulf between the resources of the pirates and the captive's homeland is demonstrated by the range of craft, technology and special forces that are deployed to bring the drama to its climax.
I was left feeling very uneasy about the professionalism with which the US military went about its business - for them, just another day at the office. I guess that's how it has to be but I'm not sure that I feel okay about such people protecting my best interests so anonymously, vicariously and without any form of consultation with me. Perhaps I am simply naive. Along with Zero Dark Thirty this is another film that shows the USA's self-appointed role as world policeman where no territory or target is off-limits. I am not advocating a world ruled by anarchic Warlords or holding out for some utopian neverneverland. It is clear that the world-order is going through a period of realignment in these present decades. How much longer the USA will be allowed to act at will around the world is becoming a moot point - especially in the wake of the damaging wikileaks revelations that seem to have no end. What would be worse I fear, would be for the USA to return to isolationism and have no dialogue at all with other nations. No-one ever said global politics was an easy place to inhabit whilst maintaining integrity.
Although I would have liked more backstory on why the Somalis exchanged fishing for piracy - a chance to enter into their world a little more sympathetically - I'm sure Captain Phillips has had his fill of Somalis and seen enough. As a film I felt it was well paced and maintained an excellent level of tension throughout. The acting - especially from the two leads is top class and worthy of Oscar nomination. Am I happy that people like Captain Phillips and his crew put their lives in danger simply to transport my consumer goods to me - no! Education must be the first step on a road to an alternative scenario and perhaps this film will inspire some to begin that journey - let's hope so. I'll give this film 8/10.
Friday, 18 October 2013
Some films entertain the viewer by keeping them in suspense letting the story twist and turn as it unfolds, others let you know upfront where the story is going and leave it to the art of story-telling to draw you in. This film from Director Emilio Estevez belongs to the latter. There really is no ‘plot’ to spoil – but I promise not to spoil the detail of how the story is told.
Tom (Martin Sheen) is a morose widower with his own Ophthalmic practice in California. His (also real-life) son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) is completing his PhD studies at Berkeley but as he approaches his 40’s he wants more from life than the title Doctor. He wants to travel and learn from the University of the road and so he drops out of his studies – much to the displeasure of his father.
Daniel’s travels take him to the Pyrenees where he decides to embark on the ‘Camino di Santiago’ (The Way of St James’) – an ancient pilgrims route from France, across Northern Spain to the city of Santiago di Compostela where the Apostle James’ remains are enshrined in the Cathedral. The 1000 km route attracts thousands of pilgrims each year who travel the way staying in hostels along the route. Each pilgrim has their own reason for travelling ‘The Camino’ (The Way) – often not religious reasons.
Daniel gets lost in the Pyrenees and is caught out by the weather and dies. The unwelcome news of his son’s death reaches Tom as he is enjoying a round of golf with colleagues – living the comfortable life-style his hard work has enabled him to choose. Tom travels to France straight away to identify the body and return it to the USA.
The local Police Captain is a wise and kindly man who helps Tom to understand why people go on the ‘The Camino’. This further mystifies Tom who still doesn’t understand why Daniel did what he did. In a split second of clarity, Tom decides to have Daniel’s body cremated and armed only with Daniel’s guide book and back pack sets off along The Way. Tom carefully takes Daniel’s ashes and deposits some of them at shrines along The Way.
Whilst the characterisations are compelling and the cinematography depicts the varied landscapes beautifully, the script is at times clunky and less refined. That ‘The Way’ is a metaphor for the journey of life is made clear early on – yet we have to be told that is the case by the Irishman Jack (James Nesbitt) one of Tom’s travelling companions picked up along the way. The metaphor is extended to show that whilst Tom would prefer to complete the pilgrimage in isolation, real life forces us to encounter and journey with others – and we can’t always choose who our companions are. The other two who make up the journeying quartet are Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a jovial and benevolent epicurean from Amsterdam and Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), an angry Canadian women who projects her hang-ups on to others as she chain-smokes her way to Santiago.
The dynamics between the four of them and the encounters they face along the way provide the grist for the mill of the story telling as Tom, and the others, face their issues and reconcile their internal and external demons. Throughout the journey, Daniel keeps spookily appearing in Tom’s mind’s eye to turn the screw of guilt and remorse a little tighter. Some of the pilgrims expect change to come about simply because they have subjected themselves to the discipline of ‘The Way’ whilst others find it requires self-examination and possibly a change of heart to enable them to see more clearly and move on in their understanding of life.
Although presenting a formulaic road movie, the acting, setting and context make this a very worthwhile film. This is another film that holds up a mirror to the viewer and invites them to reflect on their life goals, relationships and the need to enjoy the here and now rather than some distant and unreachable ideal. It invites a move towards personal authenticity within community rather the pursuit of a dream that serves only self and ultimately alienates everyone – even those who should be closest. Daniel died whilst trying to truly live, Tom was seemingly dead in the life he thought he’d chosen.
Sunday, 6 October 2013
Saw this today at Harbour Lights Southampton on a members' free preview. Thank you Picture Houses! A gift in more than one sense.
This is another film in the growing list of titles which are about and for the silver haired brigade. Others would do well to watch and learn. The premise is simple. Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) are recent empty nesters who travel to Paris on their 30th wedding anniversary to rekindle their mojo.
What the film really does, is hold up a mirror and invite the viewer to conduct a long hard examination of where they are in life, what their priorities are and what their aspirations are - all within the context of a moribund marriage. Meaning-of-life stuff. As sixty-somethings facing a late mid-life crisis, Nick and Meg bicker and fight their way through the weekend. If this film wasn't liberally peppered with humour, it would be too heavy, disturbing and sapping of emotional energy to bear watching!
Both the main characters are contemplating a change of direction but both are haunted by their insecurities which translate into an inability to talk about the real issues and so each shadow boxes - but even the shadows are phantoms. The way in which the story unfolds exquisitely depicts the emotional frailty that can hold a relationship together - more like being held together by the gaps in the structure rather than the structure itself. This is undoubtedly aided by the first class acting of Broadbent and the lovely Duncan.
I found neither Nick nor Meg to be likeable characters. It takes a chance encounter with old friend, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum) for the dynamics of the weekend to change and begin heading in a different direction. An invitation to a supper party celebrating the success of Morgan's latest book provides the conversations that become the catalyst offering the possibility of change.
The whole film is beautifully set in Paris and the screenplay delivers a number of memorably stunning lines - mainly from Nick. I felt I could relate and identify with the struggles Nick was facing very easily, but I found that connecting with Meg was much more difficult. I wonder if that is a Martian/Venusain distinction, a gender thing? I must take my significant other along and see what she makes of it.
As I said, younger people in relationships would do well to see this and contemplate how it might help them avoid angst and regret later in life. It would make a good subject for a relationship study and group discussion. For everyone it offers a generous and benevolent opportunity to carry out an 'examine' on your own relationships. Hopefully with encouraging results! I'm going to give this gift of a film 8.5/10.
Monday, 30 September 2013
Whilst the context for this story is Grand Prix racing, this is essentially a story about two very different men. You don't have to be a Formula 1 fan to enjoy this movie. Whereas Senna was a docudrama, this is more a dramadocu if that makes sense. Director Ron Howard employs creative licence at key points. Each frame of the film is imbued with raw emotion that draws you in and engages you. The film explores the rivalry between Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Lauda (Daniel Brühl) as they make the leap from Formula 3 to Formula 1 in the mid 70's.
I was in my late teens when this was for real and I remember many of the highlights of the story - including Lauda's terrible crash and too many others around that time. Ron Howard has faithfully recreated the 1970's feel with its unregulated pit lane and the wheel-to-wheel jousting. The story captures the insecurity that lies beneath Hunt's playboy bravado and Lauda's detached, almost clinically forensic approach to not only building racing cars but also relationships.
This is a film about drivenness as both the main characters were driven - but by very different motivators. Hunt squandered the privileged start to life his father's wealth and position had secured - if you ever need a visual representation of the Prodigal Son, without the repentance, this is it! The film dramatically depicts Hunt's lust for life and sexual encounter - near the beginning he walks into a hospital ER and announces himself in 007 style as 'Hunt, James Hunt. Weren't you expecting me?' The story uses creative license to show that Hunt did have standards and a code of honour by which he lived - his treatment of a journalist who asked a cheap question at a press conference evidences that. The episode is believable. Although Hunt and Lauda continually spar like bickering teenagers, it becomes clear as the film develops that both hold the other in the highest regard. There are also moments of comedy that involve both characters.
Lauda too had a privileged upbringing and was offered the chance to take over the family business and become wealthy. He renounces his father's offer and sets off to take out a loan and buy his way into Formula 1. Each driver was totally assured of their own ability and saw the crown of World Champion as being rightly theirs. Lauda's attention to engineering detail to enable his car to perform better is contrasted with Hunt's gladiatorial approach where it's all down to the chase for the top place on the podium. One man thought, the other felt - but that is too simplistic as both are portrayed as complex characters who both felt and thought.
Lauda's 'proposal' to Marlene (Alexandra Marie Lara) is more honest and down-to-earth than Hunt's proposal to Suzy (Olivia Wilde) but whereas one underwhelms but delivers, the other flatters to deceive and it all ends in tears. The scenes of Lauda being treated for his injuries and the pain which he actually, and Marlene vicariously, experienced are both graphic and gripping. By painfully forcing his helmet over his healing wounds Lauda built up the resilience and motivation to return to racing just six weeks after his horrific accident.
The cinematography is at times highly inventive - cameras inside driver's helmets. The soundtrack is pounding out the beat in a way that sync's beautifully with the rhythm of the race track. Both lead actors deliver noteworthy performances as they enact a screenplay that is textured and multi-faceted - it tells a great story very well. At a touch over two hours it is well paced and never lags. The only thing I would be critical of are the CGI effects that at times looked too superimposed to be convincing.
This is a great film and one which should be enjoyed by all. The favourable reviews have got it right. Go and see it while it's on general release - truly a film that gives more on the big screen. I'll give it 8.5/10.
Monday, 9 September 2013
"What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?"
This film made it's debut a year ago today at the Toronto Film Festival and has been polarising critics and audiences ever since. I can imagine that if you simply sit down and watch it without any prior knowledge it could be as bewildering as it is mesmeric. Both my youngsters (at university) had seen it and confessed to not really understanding what it was about. Some reviews I read when it was released came to similar conclusions. I tried to see it in the cinema when it came out but didn't manage to and I made sure I got a copy on disc as soon as I could. However, people's comments made me wary and I didn't rush to watch it - so it sat on my shelf with too many other unwatched discs.
The film is produced by the the Wachowski siblings, Lana and Tom and also Tom Tykwer and as many of you know, they were responsible for my favourite film of the last millennium! (Or at least the Wachowski's were). It's production budget of $102m is the biggest for any independently produced film (made by Babelsberg - Germany) and it has already turned a profit - despite not being a runaway success at the box office. I have a feeling that this film will be a sleeper and will achieve cult status much like Shawshank and Blade Runner have, long after their theatrical release.
The film is based on David Mitchell's book of the same name. Not only did I read the book first, but I also listened to it on audiobook - an unusual thing for me to do as I prefer to see the film first - it makes visualising the written story much easier for me! I'm glad I did as I was able to make some sense of the film.
The premise of the film is that 'everything is connected' and that an action in some part of our history can trigger an outcome much further down the line. In discussing the film, I'm not really giving anything away in respect of the narrative. It is not so much the story that is noteworthy but the way in which it is told. This is an old-fashioned morality tale.
Mitchell's book employs a literary device that introduces us to six seemingly unrelated stories, each set in a different era. Each story uses a different writing style and presents itself as a different genre of writing. A character from one story impacts the story that follows and act of kindness repaid in Victorian times aboard a sailing ship on the Pacific Ocean sparks hope for a new future in a post apocalyptic dystopian community living on 'The Big Island' in the 24th century. Whereas Mitchell's book employs a straightforward 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1 sequence in terms of ordering the stories, the film jumps from one to another as it parallels the fall and rise of the characters within in each as they mirror the same story of greed, deceit and murder. The edits are at times brutal and just as Mitchell's book will leave a story in mid sentence so the the film's edits juxtapose a VW Beetle with a maglev transport and then a three-masted sailing ship. The device that really adds layers of complication to unpicking the film is that the same actors play different characters in each of the six stories!!!!
The six stories are:
- 1850 The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
- 1931 Letters from Zedelghem
- 1975 Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
- Present The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
- 2144 An Orison of Sonmi~451
- 2321 Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After
On the BBC Radio 4 programme Bookclub David Mitchell said of his book
"Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark...that's just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself "Cloud Atlas," the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book's theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context."
Visually the film captures each of its eras with stunning and creative attention to detail. The soundtrack has been nominated for and has won awards. I imagine that watching on the big screen is a very different experience to seeing it on a TV - it will be more immersive, especially on IMAX. The acting is first class from the whole cast - with some actors crossing gender to play their character! There are some passages of the film that follow the book exactly and at other times, locations, events and dialogue have been changed to deliver a film that is highly creative but remains faithful to the book.
This is undoubtedly a film that will repay a little homework before watching, a lot of concentration whilst watching and a life-time of reflection after watching. I would happily see it again tonight! Get the drinks and popcorn in and settle down for a wonderful experience. This is the first film on this blog to score 10/10!
I came across a very interesting analysis of this film from a Humanist/Buddhist perspective in the Journal of Religion and Film published by the University of Nebraska by Ting Guo. Click here for the link.
I came across a very interesting analysis of this film from a Humanist/Buddhist perspective in the Journal of Religion and Film published by the University of Nebraska by Ting Guo. Click here for the link.