Monday, 2 May 2016

Brooklyn



This film is the perfect vehicle for the extremely accomplished Saoirse Ronan to deliver an understated yet forceful performance as Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey exchanging a small town in County Wexford for life in the big city. Set in the early 1950s with a Nick Hornby adaptation of a Colm Tóibín novel this film is classy, visually stunning and filled with characters that are more than three-dimensional. It is wonderful!

The story is important so I won't give anything away. The narrative centres on the development of the main character Eilis, who is in every scene. From mousey country girl to confident city dweller the transformation is both remarkable and believable.

In making such a move there is always a cost and the question becomes is Eilis willing to pay up. She leaves her home town because it is small and filled with small-town characters. She wants more. However, when Eilis uses the things she has learned in Brooklyn to help her take another look at her home town on a return visit, she begins to see the possibilities for a different, possibly brighter future for herself back in Ireland. Will she stay or will she go?

There are of course complicating familial factors and love interests that entangle her heart strings. It is how she untangles these and comes to understand their importance within her relationships that gives the film its central thrust and helps Eilis to make meaning that enables her to set a course to follow. This process is undertaken with lots of hand-held screen-filling close ups of Ronan's face as she emotes her way through this painful process.

The soundtrack of this film is wonderful and adds weight to the poignancy of each scene. Julie Waters is wonderfully cast as Mrs Kehoe running her boarding house for young ladies. The colours reinforce the contrast of the mood of the two contexts - muted and misty brown/greens for Ireland and bright eye-popping pastels for Brooklyn and Coney Island. Both Jim Broadbent and Domhnall Gleeson contribute strong supporting performance - but the centre stage belongs to Ronan.

This is a lovely and gentle love story about hope, courage, honour, potential and dreaming of a new life. It is brilliantly acted and wonderfully shot. It is a film that you should see if you've not already done so. There is much to reflect on here about relationships, love, family and the power of 'home'. I'll give it 8/10.


Saturday, 30 April 2016

High Rise



Starring the ubiquitous Tom Hiddleston I thought that this would be a safe bet as a good movie to watch. Besides it was a cover feature in the April 2016 edition of Sight & Sound. I should have twigged that as I watched a couple of trailers for upcoming horror films before the main feature, that High Rise was going to be a challenge. Tasha Robinson reviewing the film in The Verge said "In J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, the metaphor eats the story and Tom Hiddleston eats the metaphor". I'm not sure I fully understand her comment - but then I'm pretty sure I didn't understand all of the film either! But it seems about right for me.

I understand that Ballard's novel is an important piece of literature that has social, historical and political capital. I thought I understood the premise of the novel going into the film - coming out I wasn't so sure I did at all. What could have been an in depth thought provoking exploration of class structure and aspiration in a free-market economy descended into a dark place that only delivered an expose of nihilism. If you value life - don't watch this film! Not even the acting performances - and they were good - redeem this film.

Dr Laing (Hiddleston) attempts to escape the rat race of the city and applies to move into the High Rise. His application is accepted and he moves into apartment 2505 in this 40 storey block. Designed by the architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) the block, built in the early 1970s, is a self-contained society with the lower classes on the lower floors and the architect occupying the entire top floor penthouse. The block contains a gym, swimming pool and supermarket - but residents still have to go out to work - all driving their late 60s and early 70s cars (wonderful nostalgia!). The basic activity is to throw parties that are resonant in style with the social status of the floor the host occupies. On the lower floors it is disco, booze and drugs. In the penthouse it is regency fancy dress! In any case, the thing they have in common is much booze and much bonking.

Laing is clearly a man who presents one thing on the outside and lives another on the inside (don't we all?). In this sense Hiddleston delivers a strong performance. His sister has recently committed suicide and he has also recently divorced. His grey suits, grey character and in time his grey flat all point to someone happy with their status in the mid levels who is merely seeking a degree of anonymity.

As the story progresses the infrastructure of the block begins to fail and sends the residents into a mirroring downward spiral. Anarchy and class wars break out and the film descends into a drunken, violent, abusive orgy.  A state it seems to celebrate and wallow in for far too long. I'm used to confronting dystopian apocalyptic worlds but they usually contain some element of hope. High Rise is devoid of hope and presents only self-gratification as a valid way to live. Some of the roles of the women in the film - and the children, offer occasional glimpses of hope of things being otherwise, but in the end everyone turns to violence. Why did the film have to end with an archive speech from Margaret Thatcher about Free Market Capitalism and the need for the government's not to interfere?

Several folk walked out. I almost joined them and afterwards wished I had. I'm all for exploring ideas that push boundaries but this film is a waste of time and effort - and the £22 I spent on tickets. Why it only had a 15 Certification I do not understand. Parts were brutal beyond belief. This is a film you do not need to see. I'm not even going to give it a score!

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Lars and the Real Girl



This film can be watched on different levels (can't they all?) For those with eyes to see that enable them to get past an oddball goofy comedy, this film is a gift as it offers an invitation to reflect on why we have become the person we are - and what we might work at - if we feel the need. It is impossible to discuss this film in any way without revealing what happens - but I think that won't detract much from seeing it for the first time as the mastery is in how it is done.

Set in a remote town on the Wisconsin prairie with a population the majority of whom seem to have Scandinavian ancestry, this is a tender tale that sees Ryan Gosling in the lead role as Lars Lindstrom. The first time I have seen him play a role I liked. What the film points out, and for this it made it an uncomfortable watch for me, is how much we are a product of our family and our upbringing. To engage with this film requires us to reflect on how we have become who we are.

Lars's mother died delivering him. His father could not escape the grief this caused and lived his life deeply affected by it. Consequently Lars and his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) had a difficult upbringing - I imagine Lars felt a strong sense of guilt. Gus left home at the first opportunity to escape the brooding darkness of a continuing grief, leaving Lars with dad. Following the death of their father, Gus lives in the former family home with his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) and Lars, who has become a withdrawn and an almost completely socially dysfunctional internalised man, lives in the garage.

Lars is unable to touch as to him the touch of other people feels like burning - perhaps stemming from his father's all-consuming grief? He is fearful for the fate of his sister-in-law who is pregnant and in his view may die. He is unable to act within normal social parameters and at the opening of the film cannot commit to even going across to the house of Gus and Karin to have breakfast. Lars is however a regular worshipper at the local church where many of the congregation are also co-workers from his office. (It's a pity there's no exploration or explanation of how Lars is able to hold down a job.)

Lars shares a cubicle with Kurt (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) who through the internet introduces him to an anatomically fully functional sex doll that can be designed and ordered online. Meanwhile another co-worker, Margot (Kelli Garner) clearly is attracted to Lars despite his odd behaviour, but he is unable or unwilling to see this.

Then one day a large packing case is delivered to the garage containing 'Bianca' - a former missionary, raised by nuns, very religious, who is half Brazilian, half Danish. Lars interacts with Bianca as though she were real. To begin with this is very difficult as he takes her, in her wheelchair, to have supper with Gus and Karin. Lars interacts with Bianca much as a child would bend to listen to imaginary speech which is then relayed to those gathered around. Things are okay while Bianca's existence is contained within the home but when Lars begins taking her out problems occur!

Gus and Karin arrange a family meeting with the doctor - Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) who happens to also be a trained psychologist. Knowing the family and recognising what is going on, she goes along with things subjecting Bianca to a series of tests resulting in a diagnosis requiring a weekly treatment in her surgery - which is the pretext to help Lars process what is going on. I am told by someone who knows about such things that Bianca performs the role of Transitional Object for Lars and sure enough in time he begins to socialise, take Bianca to parties, she becomes well known around town, gets a part time job and visits folk in hospital.

The community come together to help Lars emerge from his cocoon and grow in confidence and the ability to interact socially. Love is costly and that motif is repeated throughout the film - but as is the case with love, the cost is willingly borne sacrificially both by family and the wider community.

One evening Lars declares that Bianca is unresponsive and sick, he calls 911 and Bianca is rushed to hospital by ambulance where the prognosis is not good. Some of the older women come to the house to knit, cook for Lars and keep him company. He asks them why they are there and gets the response "That's what they [people] do when tragedy strikes - they come and sit". After a while, Lars declares that Bianca has died. She is buried with all the townsfolk in attendance and so the death of Bianca enables the rebirth of Lars.

This film has so much going for it - and it's only 102 minutes long so it doesn't string things out for the sake of it. There is much to reflect on.

  • How families and communities can help those it is in their power to help. 
  • How important it can be to help on the terms of those who need the help rather than the help-giver.
  • The usefulness of psychological insight and transitional objects.
  • A positive portrayal of a clergy person in Revd Bock (R. D. Reid).
  • How honesty in relationships can establish a good foundation for growth and development.
  • The film avoids any mocking of Lars and also any smuttiness around Bianca's intended function.
  • Lars honourable treatment of Bianca.

Alissa Simon of Variety stated, "Craig Gillespie's sweetly off-kilter film plays like a Coen brothers riff on Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon tales, defying its lurid premise with a gentle comic drama grounded in reality." That is a very apt description. This film only just clawed back its production costs at the box office and through disc sales. I'm glad I have contributed to the process and would encourage you to do the same - perhaps we have a cult sleeper here!  I'll give it 8/10.



Monday, 25 April 2016

Eye in the Sky



This is an intelligent piece of cinema that engages with a pressing contemporary issue. The film invites you to be the decision-maker as to whether or not the trigger is pulled. I saw it with a bunch of friends and the debate over pizza afterwards was intense.

Filmed in South Africa but set mainly in Kenya the story follows a British led drone surveillance operation tracking some of Al Shabab's most wanted in the hope of capturing them alive. Among their number are both British and American nationals. The mission changes and the film tracks, in real time, the chain of decision-making that tries to integrate military, intelligence and political imperatives to deliver an outcome. The plot offers an exploration of normative ethics in a real-life situation as utilitarianism is employed to justify certain actions.

The military imperative is clear but the potential for collateral damage means that political decisions are not easy. Meanwhile, a drone pilot in a cabin in the Nevada desert sits with his finger poised on the trigger taking orders from a UK Colonel in Northwood in North London while she is receiving intelligence from Hawaii and liaising with troops on the ground in Nairobi. Her General is in a COBRA meeting in Whitehall with the politicians ensuring that any proposed action is legal. Going into the meeting the General is preoccupied with buying the right doll for a little girl. It is another little girl and her playful activities that come to be the centre of the plot.

The acting is tight. The way the edits jump between the different locations demonstrate how global, warfare now is. The film also drives home how clinical and focused warfare today has become and how sci-fi has become mainstream as a man in Las Vegas targets people in one room of a house in a Nairobi suburb. In a way it makes it even more detached from my reality than 'old-fashioned' warfare with fronts and armies and arrows on maps. If we live in a democracy we are in effect asking these people to carry out these killings on our behalf. The alternative is equally distressing. The morals of war are being muddied as new technologies make surgically precise missions more possible. That surely is a good thing - isn't it?

Helen Mirren is in the lead role as Colonel Katherine Powell and in his final performance Alan Rickman gives full force to his character Lieutenant General Frank Benson. His voice as he delivers the final speech to the simpering politician Angela Northman "Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war."(Monica Dolan) could cut through plate steel like a laser!

The screenplay offers a contrasting view of how men and women, politicians and military, Americans and Brits all approach the same difficult question. The part of Powell had originally been cast for a male actor but Mirren makes it all her own in her combat fatigues in her underground bunker barking orders at her subordinates. Had it not been for Northman's early intervention the film would have been a lot a shorter. The British politicians are depicted as being impotent and facile whilst the Americans are shown to be decisive and unwavering. For those with an interest in personality types, the main debate explores the tension between those who have a preference for being 'Feelers' and those whose preference is to be a 'Thinker'!

The film is not without its flaws but these are more than compensated for in the bravery of tackling this subject in such a direct and engaging way. I really liked it and will be adding it to my collection of discs when it becomes available. Do go and see it - and think about how happy you are that people in the Nevada Desert are protecting your safety by killing people in Kenya. Sadly a scenario becoming increasingly common around our shrunken globe. I'll give it 8/10.


Monday, 18 April 2016

American Sniper



The fact that this film was nominated in six categories for an Oscar and won only one in the sound editing category probably sums up what this film's main problem is - it somehow fails to deliver what it truly promises. In saying that I am in no way minimising the horrors of war or the sacrifice of too many (on all sides) who have fought in and been impacted by them. Bradley Cooper is in the lead role of Chris Kyle and delivers a performance worthy of his Oscar nomination. There is an even stronger performance from Sienna Miller as his long suffering wife, Taya.

The story is biographical - painfully so. There are no real winners in war. The story really begins with a young Kyle growing up with his younger brother in Texas. The film briefly and crudely shows his father instilling in him the virtue of protecting your own at all costs. It also shows the young Kyle is quite a marksman with a hunting rifle. These scenes reminded me strongly of the family dynamics in Tree of Life. Kyle grows up riding broncos on the Texas rodeo circuit - and doing well from it. He exalts that he is living the American dream. The film is Directed by Clint Eastwood who leans towards a jingoistic, patriotic view of American identity. Not something that looks altogether appealing, particularly in light of the current Presidential nomination contests!

All is well until 9/11 and Kyle's immediate response is to enlist at the age of 29 so that he can protect his own. He joins the SEALS to train as a sniper. He survives the brutal boot camp training and along the way hitches up with the intriguing, beautiful and inscrutable Taya. On his wedding day he gets the order to deploy to Iraq.

Many commentators who served in Iraq commend the film for its realistic portrayal of the horror of door-to-door close combat warfare where everyone has to be viewed as a potential enemy and where even children wield RPG launchers. The film paints a picture of a theatre of war where the individual soldier is left to make the moral judgement of when to pull the trigger. The only time there appears to be any institutional morality is when there are US casualties and an investigation is needed to discover how they happened.

The film throws up lots of moral and ethical issues and depicts a form of warfare that is messy, spontaneous and unequal. It creates a universal 'us versus them' scenario where grey doesn't exist and everything is rendered in high-contrast black and white. It also comes full circle in that Kyle's mission becomes the elimination of an Al Qaeda sniper who is becoming too successful in eliminating American servicemen. It is like a parallel rodeo or hunting confrontation. Who will win?

What the film does portray extensively and with great sensitivity is the effect that operating in such theatres of war can have on the combatants. Becoming America's deadliest sniper not only attracted a $180,000 bounty placed on his head by Al Qaeda, but through PTSD turned Kyle into a distracted, insular and absent human being. This is where Sienna Miller's performance is so good. Her patient loyalty to the husband she loves sustains her when he returns home and his behaviour is barely recognisable. Everyday sounds transport him in an instant back to the theatre of war when pneumatic wrenches are heard as weapons of torture and a lawn mower becomes the sound of an attack helicopter. War changes people.

I won't say any more about the story - I don't think I've spoiled things too much in what I've said above. What the film does show is the terrible cost in collateral damage that modern warfare seems to rack up without really trying. It also shows a self-justifying set of rules of engagement where perceiving a threat is taken to be sufficient justification for killing anyone. A sniper fights a clinically detached war 1000 yards from his victim. It also shows an 'enemy' who does not operate by traditional 'Western values' of warfare and is happy to coerce children and women into war through torture and threat. Two blind ideologies going head-to-head cannot have a good outcome.

Whilst this film has many parts that are excellent and worthy of engagement, as a piece of drama it also has many flaws. For me this makes it simply 'another war film' as Hollywood tries to justify an unjustifiable war. Great performances from the two leads but in the end not a film I need to see again. I'll give it 6/10.


Saturday, 12 March 2016

Spotlight



Parts of me are still numb more than 24 hours after watching the film. As a priest I have been bruised and battered by the story that this film unfolds. I wanted to stress that I am not Catholic - but that only points to my empty selfishness and does nothing to offer any salve to the wounds - on both sides - that are still open and raw. What a painful mess. If you don't know what the subject of the film is, it is a film about a team of journalists uncovering the systematic abuse of a very large number of children by Catholic priests in the archdiocese of Boston over many years. It transpires that the abuse was widespread - globally.

The film is as good as the story is bad. To have won Oscars for Best Film and Best Original Screenplay is truly fitting - but the accolades in other halls are the ones that will matter more to the cast, to the real life journalists on the Boston Globe Spotlight team and to the victims. In any other year Mark Ruffalo who played Mike Rezendes, would have won Best Actor hands down. A gripping and passionately absorbing performance. Stanley Tucci (Mitchell Garabedian) and Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeifer) along with Michael Keaton  (Walter 'Robby' Robinson) also gave stand out performances - as did Liev Schreiber playing the introvert and understated Editor Marty Baron.

I cannot remember when two hours and eight minutes last passed so quickly. The dramatic tension, pace and development of the narrative are brilliantly maintained in a consistent and believable way. It would have been so easy for the film to have become a condemning sermon, or simply a vehicle for character assassination or to have gloried in the Spotlight Team, but it is none of these. It is never without drama, but because it is based on real events, it has an almost fly-on-the-wall documentary feel to it. It is the story which drives the film forward as it offers an exemplar of investigative journalism at its best.

The film offers a number of challenges:
  • It challenges those who hold office in the church to reflect on how they discharge their responsibilities, profession and vocation.
  • It challenges those who collude with a bullying institution that finds coping strategies whilst brushing grotesque abuses under the carpet.
  • It challenges the community of a city for its implicit part in something scandalous that placed cultural heritage mixed in with God's Church above God's love and in so doing challenges us all to not follow suit.
  • It challenges Editors to be free to back the hunches of journalists they trust and to allocate resources to stories that need to be told.
  • It challenges the abused to take courage and find a way of speaking out.
  • It challenges society to find ways of helping people who are scarred for life, some of whom are unable to function normally in their relationships.
  • It challenges governments who do not allow freedom of the press.
The original response of the Catholic Church was to shuffle the pack to seemingly promote the Cardinal at the centre of policy of the toleration. It is obviously not something that would be promoted publicly whilst underway, but I hope that under Pope Francis reforms are underway to ensure this never happens again. He tweeted recently "God has caressed us with his mercy. Let us bring God’s tender caress to others, to those who are in need." There are enough people in need in the world without the Church creating more - and I know this isn't restricted to just the Catholic Church.

As painful as this film is, it is important that its story is told. As a film, it's top drawer in almost every respect. I think it will retain its status and place among the best of modern films. I will certainly be adding the disc to my collection - but will have to choose carefully the company in which I watch it! As a film, fully deserving of 9/10.


Sunday, 6 March 2016

The Woman in the Fifth



One of my general rules of thumb is that there is a group of actors who only ever choose interesting films in which to appear. Kristin Scott Thomas is one of these and this film doesn't disappoint. It will confuse, bamboozle, frustrate and cause you to scratch your head. It is a film that asks lots of questions and intentionally offers no answers. I think it is a great film.

Western left-brain culture demands stories with a narrative arc which delivers a successful resolution of the story with a happy ending. This film would be more at home at Studio Ghibli or under the Direction of people like Yimou Zhang but it is Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. It is a dark film that offers a study of depression and confusion, of creativity unable to find an outlet and passion that seemingly can only find expression in fantasy. Or was it reality? Either way, discussing the 'plot' of this film will probably not spoil your enjoyment of it if you decide to watch it - if 'enjoyment' is the right word!

Tom (Ethan Hawke), a novelist, arrives in Paris to seek out his young daughter. He is divorced from his wife and has seemingly recovered from a bout of mental ill health. His wife has a restraining order on him and alerts the police to his presence. He escapes and falls asleep on the bus where he is robbed. The end of the line is a Parisian suburb which is far from salubrious.

Tom ends up in a bar and is offered a room by the owner Sezer (Samir Guesmi) who takes his passport and in doing so seemingly takes away Tom's sense of identity. Sezer's wife is the pretty Ania (Joanna Kulig) who has an interest in literature which develops into an interest in Tom. Sezer who is engaged in criminal activity, offers Tom a job to cover the cost of his room. Like many elements of the film, we never discover what the job is related to. However, we spend much time with Tom 'at work' which becomes a space for him to work on his second novel, but his writing turns into an illustrated letter to his daughter.

Tom is invited to a pretentious literary soiree where he meets the sultry and smoldering Margit (Scott Thomas). She invites him to call her "after 4pm" and agrees to a twice weekly meeting in her apartment in the Fifth arrondissement at 5pm sharp. She is very controlling but seduces a willing Tom. The big question is 'is she real' or a psychotic construct of Tom's illness?

The lighting of the film gives everything a dull glow and many of the shots are long shots or shots through windows or from above as though we are passive voyeurs. This film is visually different. The various elements of the story are spliced together by ethereal shots of a wood, the insects in it and an owl resolutely staring into the camera. It is as though these woodland shots punctuate different psychotic episodes in Tom's spiral downward into ever deeper despair.

This is a bold and brave film which seeks to do something very different. It is not without its flaws and whether it is completely successful is debatable but that shouldn't stop you from watching it. One of its redeeming features is that it is only 85 minutes long which is plenty long enough for the questions Pawlikowski poses to be eloquently stated - but what answers viewers come up with, will be many and varied.

This is not an uplifting film but it will get your grey cells working and leave you with many questions. There are some excellent acting performances from most of the cast. I'm glad I saw it and would watch it again - in a little while. I'll give it 8/10.


Saturday, 27 February 2016

Harold and Maude



I'm not at all sure how I had managed not to have seen this film before. I bought a used copy of the disc for peanuts on an auction site because it was referred to in so many reviews and pieces of writing on film. It is a gem - an oddball and goofy film that is at one and the same time profound. It is hard to imagine the impact this film would have made on its initial release in 1971.

Conceived and filmed in the Bay area around San Francisco, this film picks up the metaphysical interrogation of the meaning of love and relationships and 'correct behaviour' in the glorious days before political correctness. It was also made in the middle of the Vietnam War and Harold is about the average age of the US soldier in 'Nam - 19! For me the film seeks to reflect on three things:

  • Fulfilling parental and societal expectations
  • Definitions of love and relationship
  • The futility of the Vietnam war
Harold appears to be an only child in a wealthy society family. His mother exudes expectation with every breath and the absence of a father figure will no doubt by some be seen to be a significant factor in Harold's psychological development. Harold has developed an obsession with death and throughout the film stages a number of elaborate and highly theatrical suicides. Each one is a brush with death but they are more Hollywood stunt than serious attempts to end his life. Harold spends the rest of his time attending funerals. His car of choice is a hearse.

His mother sets up a series of encounters with likely partners for her son but these all come to nothing as Harold is not interested. Then he meets 79 year old Maude who also attends funerals. She hot-wires cars, rides a Harley and evades the police for fun. Maude lives in what looks like an old railway carriage, poses nude for an ice sculptor and has a concentration camp tattoo on her arm. She lives for the moment and seems always content with her lot. Very much an existentialist in the style of Mr Keating in the Dead Poets Society.

After the second suicide attempt Harold is sent into therapy by his mother and the therapist presents as an archetypal Freudian psychoanalyst. Harold also repeatedly encounters the same Catholic priest taking funerals and is forced to visit his uncle who is an Army recruiter with one arm missing! This film has many darkly comedic episodes and one of them has a series of scenes where Harold is lectured first by his therapist with a portrait of Freud on the wall, then by the priest with a portrait of the Pope on the wall and finally by his uncle with a portrait of Nixon on the wall. Authority is lampooned and the meta-narrative they represent is derided. All very post modern.

I found this to be an excellent and engaging film which invites reflection on a wide range of issues and ideas. There were plans for both a prequel from Maude's perspective and a sequel from Harold's perspective but neither came to fruition. I think that's good as the film deserves to stand on its own and to continue to grow its cult status. I'll give it 7/10.


Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Hundred-Foot Journey


This film will leave you smiling and impart warm fuzzies in large quantities as it delivers its happy ending - it is after all a Dreamworks film. The narrative arc is very straightforward but doesn't disappoint. This is a film that is first and foremost about the characters and the clash of cultures between Mumbai and rural French Michelin starred cuisines.

Having been driven out of Mumbai by a gang who burn down their restaurant in an election result dispute, the family seek asylum in Britain. Finding the weather too inclement they set off in a old Transit van across Europe with Papa Kadam (Om Puri) knowing he'll find the right place to set up a new restaurant when he sees it. That happens to be in the rural village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val - 100 feet across the road from the Michelin starred "Le Saule Pleureur" (The Weeping Willow) run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). With all its gaudy ostentation, Maison Mumbai duly opens and so the feud between widow and widower sparks to life. The 100 feet also separate the cultures and cuisines of classical French and Indian food, the aspirations of Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) and Hassan (Manish Dayal) to develop their culinary skills and reputations, and a family-run enterprise over and against a kitchen that simply hires the best chefs.

There are a lot of comical moments in the film that the cast deliver with great charm and warmth. The way in which the 'cold war' develops between Papa Kadam and Madame Mallory is masterful and filled with child-like petulance. The blossoming love between Marguerite and Hassan always looks unlikely to come to fruition but is another central thread that weaves this tale of Mumbai colliding with rural idyllic France.

Unusually for me I had first encountered this through the novel of the same name. The novel spends much longer in the beginning in India and the descriptions of Mumbai life, its restaurants and markets will evoke pictures, sounds and aromas for anyone who has had the privilege of visiting India. The mob storming the Kadam's restaurant in Mumbai and a similar experience in France are unwelcome intrusions in an otherwise gentle and fun romantic story that meanders as gently as the river flows through the countryside of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val.

This film will warm your heart and make you smile. A lovely tale well told, with strong characters that will endear themselves to you. It might even make you want to phone out for a curry! If you've not seen this, do add it to your list of films to watch. I'll give it 8/10.


Thursday, 11 February 2016

Ronin



I watched this last week whilst visiting friends in the area of France where a lot of the action was filmed around La Turbie above Monaco, Villefranche-sur-Mer and on the streets of Nice. It's amazing how use of clever camera angles and good editing can morph disconnected reality into something completely believable.

This is an action film with plenty of car chases, shootings and explosions. I read somewhere that 80 cars were written off in the making of the film. The story is quite simple. A number of former special operatives are brought together to secure a briefcase that is heavily guarded. We never discover what's in the case - it simply acts as a MacGuffin to give the rest of the plot something around which to orbit.

This is a film where the viewer needs to pay attention because there are many players and the plot keeps twisting and turning. It is difficult to know whom to trust. The different groups wanting the case are simply referred to as 'The Russians' or 'The Irish' and then there are of course the independent mercenaries trying to make a fast buck.

The film is set entirely within France - mainly in Paris and Nice. There are regular car chases with seemingly impossible stunts. The way the story unfolds invites the viewer to develop a fondness for the team trying to obtain the case and in particular for the characters Sam (Robert De Niro) and Vincent (Jean Reno). The former KGB agent Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard) succeeds in making you loathe him and each time he escaped a bullet I must confess I felt disappointed.

Morally and ethically this film is intentionally a muddle - such is the world of espionage. That we need people like this to operate in a bubble beyond the law is regrettable yet the work they do bears fruit for all - an interesting point to discuss. The final outcome was rooted in reality as it directly brought about the possibility of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Does that mean that in this instance the means justified the end? As I said, it is a murky world.

John Frankenheimer's Direction is excellent with exciting camera angles, frequent car chases and an ensemble cast that melds together to produce a performance that is greater than the sum of its parts. If the film has any real weaknesses they lie in the script and patchy dialogue - De Niro's Sam gets all the good lines. This is a good action film with plenty of exciting car chases. I'll give it 7/10.


Friday, 29 January 2016

The Spitfire Grill


The Spitfire Grill is a gentle but powerful drama about a range of things including fear and guilt, forgiveness, transformation, sacrifice, beauty of creation, healing, preconceptions and love. It was released in 1996 in the USA, winning the viewer award at the Sundance Festival and was then promptly shelved by distributor Warner Brothers. I am grateful to Stephen Brown for having shown the film to me many years ago. I managed to get a Region 1 disc and have been enjoying it with groups ever since. I see that it is available via streaming service providers. This week I watched it with a group from church as we kicked off a new monthly movie watching and reflecting evening. It was well received and sparked some insightful reflection and discussion.

This is a film that is difficult to talk about without revealing the plot, so if you don't want to know, stop reading now.

The central character is Percy Talbot (Alison Elliot) who is a young woman just released from a Maine prison after a lengthy gaol term. She is not a native of Maine and claims to be from Ohio although her accent suggests she is actually from somewhere further south. This immediately adds to the suspicion of the townsfolk of Gilead amongst whom she arrives on a blustery and windswept winter's eve. The local Sheriff, Gary (Gailard Sartain) is tasked with finding the ex con somewhere to live and work and persuades Hannah (Ellyn Burstyn) owner of the Spitfire Grill to take her in and employ her as a waitress for board and lodging. Hannah is cantankerous and strong minded, a closed and initially grumpy woman who seems to live out the combined gnawing pain of her failing hip joint, being a widow and having 'lost' her son Eli (John M Jackson) to the Vietnam War'

The townsfolk divide into two camps - those who are open and willing to give Percy a chance and those who instinctively know that nothing good can come from an ex con. The leader of the 'suspicious' is Nahum Goddard (Will Patton) who is Hannah's nephew and the local Realtor (Estate Agent). His wife Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden) leads the 'open' folk and she soon spends her days cooking in the Grill to help Percy after Hannah is confined to bed after a fall.

The film explores people's growing dis/trust of Percy within a tight-knit New England community. For all of America's glittering cities, such communities are the mainstay of America and help to define a sense of a community's independence, insularity and the ever-present feeling that this is a frontier town working out what it means to live the American dream. When any outsider comes in and upsets the quiet and well-defined but unwritten social structure, the equilibrium is disturbed and things begin to rotate in different and sometimes competing orbits. Crashes are inevitable as people come to new understandings of things that had previously been a long held immovable truth. Transformation is seldom painless and for the community of Gilead Maine, that is also the case.

This is a remarkable film in many ways - although like all films it does have its flaws. The three main lead characters are all women - when was the last time you saw that in a film? Both Burstyn and Harden are Oscar winners and the rest of the cast is strong with good characterisation that easily evokes an affective response in viewers. Who doesn't hate Nahum or love and feel sorry for Joe? The narrative arc of this film is one of the most complete I can remember seeing. I won't spoil it by telling you what happens to Percy, Gilead or how the film ends but will advise that a box of tissues might come in handy.

Why was this film pulled from distribution and never screened outside the USA? The story I heard was that when the distributor researched the production company behind it, they feared that the film was a Trojan Horse for a Christian message and so shelved it. How true that is I don't know. All I do know is that it's a pity. Yes, the main themes are central to the Christian message but then so are the themes of most superhero movies. The actors are all mainstream and if anything the Church comes off rather poorly in this film. Many of the characters have Biblical names - but then so do lots of Americans. The production company was Gregory Productions which is a non-profit organisation (charity) operating out of Mississippi. Their logo is a lion lying down with a lamb and the rumour I heard was that the seed funding came from the pension fund of the Catholic Diocese of Mississippi. So what? This is a good film that stands on its own two feet and for those who wish to probe and look a deeper as they reflect, it may well provide some glimpse into Christian thought. But then doesn't all of life do that?

I happened to be in the area of New England where this film was made when on a visit in 2012. It was in fact shot in the township of Peacham Vermont and here is my photo of Peacham General Store which became the Spitfire Grill.


The town was dead and everything was closed. It looked like the General Store hadn't been open since the film was made and there is no steeply wooded hillside leading up from the back porch. My visit was a good experience - once I had braved miles of unmade roads and travelled for hours without seeing another living thing! I am glad I have been to Peacham Vermont. If I am ever in the area I will visit again. This is a film well worth watching. I'll give it 8/10.




Sunday, 17 January 2016

Ex Machina


I knew from watching the trailer that I wanted to see this film. Caught up with it on disc last night. It was even better than I had thought it might have been. This is not just a sci-fi thriller about Artificial Intelligence (AI) but an exploration of what makes us human - good and bad. I imagine that female viewers could see a different movie to male viewers. Is this film misogynistic or does it offer a rallying cry for feminists?

As a low budget (£15m) British made film it can hold its head high as it takes its place alongside other AI movies (AI, Terminator, Blade Runner, The Matrix and I, Robot et al). With only four characters for most of the film it is a gripping tale that explores how convincing the AI being Ava (Alicia Vikander) is when pitted against programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). The experiment unfolds in a remote 'research facility' owned by Caleb's reclusive genius billionaire boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The experiment is to see whether or not Ava passes the Turing Test - that is to exhibit behaviour that is indistinguishable from human behaviour. The fourth character is Nathan's 'servant' Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno).

The twist is that the test is clouded by Ava's sexuality, her ability to flirt and use her feminine charm to trick her male captors. In one exchange this dialogue unfolds:
Nathan: Answer me this. How do you feel about her?
Caleb: Her AI is beyond doubt.
Nathan: No, nothing analytical, just, how do you feel?
Caleb: I feel that she's amazing.
Nathan: Dude! Now the question is, how does she feel about you? Does Ava actually like you or is she pretending to like you? Self awareness, manipulation, sexuality, now if that isn't true, now what is?
How you might read the film depends on whether you see Caleb or Ava as the main character. Ava is the latest in a series of AI women created by Nathan - all of which are 'fully' functioning. On one level they are sophisticated sex dolls and it is clear Nathan prefers interacting sexually with 'robots' rather than the real thing. But there is the difficulty - Ava is so real and so clever she outwits both Nathan and Caleb.

There is a long tradition of eroticised female robots/cyborgs and animations - particularly in video games and Japanese anime and manga. Perhaps this is simply continuing in and drawing from this heritage? Or does it take things to a new level? It is easy to forget that Ava is Alicia Vikander with all her Swedish beauty on show. The CGI elements of the film are truly amazing and for most of the film she appears half human, half machine. However, by the end of it she appears much more one than the other and how the film ends will leave you satisfied or frustrated depending on whether you see Ava or Caleb as the central character.

I really enjoyed this film and was surprised by it's twists on more than one occasion. Just when I thought I'd worked something out, I got it wrong. As a guy, I think you have to allow yourself to be fully immersed in the story and suspend judgement for the magic and seduction to work. It would be interesting to get an objective female perspective on what the film's central story is. This is well worth seeing to explore themes of human being and identity, sexuality, AI and the feared threat that AI passing the Turing Test potentially poses. I'll give it 8/10.


Monday, 11 January 2016

Steve Jobs (2015)




The words Apple and Mac go together like strawberries and cream or Torvill and Dean. There are not many people within consumer cultures who don't recognise the Apple logo, have not heard of an Apple Mac or would at least know they have seen the face of Steve Jobs in a magazine, newspaper or on TV. Having read a couple of biographies, I approached this biopic in my naivety hoping to glean greater understanding about one of the most creative and influential people of the current age. What I got was a three act drama covering three product launches between 1984 and 1998 and a view of Jobs I didn't like.

The result is an intense drama that presents such an unlikeable version of Jobs with little attempt to explore or understand how he became the monster the film portrays him to be. People imbued with a high degree of creativity often walk a fine line between giving expression to that creativity or madness or some other disabling trait. If Steve Jobs had been able to work with people in the same way he was able to work with concepts and understand what people wanted, how much more might he have been able to achieve?

It is always easy to expect a biopic to present an accurate rendering of history. In the screenplay here, Alan Sorkin has presented a drama which certainly messes with the timeline so it is fairly safe to assume that other elements of the story have also been messed with. Sorkin picked up a Golden Globe for the screenplay. At just over two hours long, the intensity of the film left me feeling rather exhausted by the end of it. I needed a significant amount of space to unwind and declutter my mind!

Such is the portrayal of the brutality of Job's uncaring character, that as I sit here typing this on a Mac, I am left wondering if I shouldn't dispose of the six Apple products I own! This is due largely to the performance of Michael Fassbender in the title role which is gripping - for much of the film, for me, it felt more like a docu-drama with the actual characters.

This sad tale is littered with casualties and broken and dysfunctional relationships. The long suffering Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) is the picture of devotion as she supports the man she cares for deeply, through the ups and downs of his career. A career that was extreme in its highs as its lows and was always at one or the other - never nicely in between. Winslet is marvellous and is fully deserving of the Golden Globe she picked up for the performance.

The way the story is told, encouraged me to feel dislike for Jobs and a great deal of sympathy for those he used and abused in his blind quest to change the course of history through consumer electronics. Job's daughter, her mother, Hoffman, his best friend Wozniak, Hertzfeld and Sculley - his family and the people who created Apple products, were all treated as consumer items in their own right. The adopted Job's, who himself spun a warped fantasy of why that was the case, used this to inject dysfunctionality into all his relationships - especially those with his former girlfriend and their daughter. Two encounters with Sculley - his father figure in the film - began to explore why Jobs was the way he was but didn't get very far. Hoffman's constant but gentle chiding also failed to make much of an impact. Jobs finally has an epiphany at the end of this film and is forced to admit to his, by now, 19 year old daughter, that he is not "made very well". The choice of words showing that Jobs prefers the cold and mechanical world rather than the risky chaos of the organic.

Jobs is constantly challenged by those around him about his lack of technical knowledge or expertise. He persistently requires his colleagues to deliver the undeliverable and threatens to publicly humiliate them if they fail. He is able to anaesthetise himself from emotional pain - perhaps his way of dealing with the hurt and rejection he feels at having been adopted. Jobs responds by saying he is like a great conductor, not a soloist - he doesn't play an instrument, he plays the orchestra.

If you want to see this film because you are a geek or an Apple fetishist, it may leave you disappointed. If you want an emotionally draining encounter with a megalomaniac who constantly hurts those closest to him and who is blinded by his own unerring belief that he alone is right, then this is a film for you. I particularly liked the lighting - often soft and from below - as in the picture above. It gave a different feel to the visualisation of this important but flawed story of a flawed man. On the strength of the acting performances I will give it 8/10.



Saturday, 9 January 2016

Inside Out



I missed this in the cinema when it came around but was glad to buy it on disc. This film is a gift. I wish I had seen it as I entered my teens - but even then I probably wouldn't have got it! The concept and the way in which it is realised are both highly creative. The idea that there are personified emotions competing within our heads for control of our feelings and how we express ourselves is a stroke of genius. I think that this film could only work well as an animation - the medium enhances the message so well.

The main emotions are (as above) fear (Bill Hader), disgust (Mindy Kaling), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), joy (Amy Poehler) and anger (Lewis Black). The personification of these emotions is very well done and I'm sure viewers will have no difficulty in recognising them from their own experience. The roles they respectively have and what happens to their host and central character Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), is illuminating and portrayed in a very humorous and entertaining way. It is good that joy is meant to be the predominant emotion.

There are many well thought through psychological and neuropsychological concepts in the film. Without giving anything of the story away, Riley's memories are stored in colored orbs, which are sent into long-term memory each night. Riley's most important memories are known as 'core memories' and are housed in a hub in Headquarters. These power five "islands", each of which reflects a different aspect of Riley's personality. The way in which these islands interact with one another and give expression to Riley's relationships is very instructional. I found it interesting that there was no spiritual dimension to any of the islands or experiences that Riley encountered.

This film is a gift for school and youth group settings but will need careful preparation and handling if the harvest on offer is to be gleaned well. The invitation for youngsters (and the not so young) to expand their self-understanding is a generous one. The better we understand ourselves the better we can understand and thereby accept others.

The animation is simply wonderful - so fluid and dynamic, capturing body movements and facial expressions in such faithful detail. I particularly liked the scenes where joy was ice skating. At 91 minutes long it is just about right - but I felt that joy and sadness's journey could have been trimmed by five minutes. If you have not already seen this - please get hold of it and watch it. Reflect on what it shows you and how you see your own behaviour and emotions in the light of it. This is excellent and I have no trouble in awarding it 9/10!


Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


After the so-so Spectre and the dismal Mockingjay: Part 2, I am happy to reflect on a film that exceeds expectations! Of course everyone was wondering how faithful to the heritage of what has gone before this film would be - whilst still developing the Star Wars universe, the story and the characters. J J Abrams accomplishes the task with ease and panache. At 135 minutes long I didn't feel any point was slow or that it dragged. Yes, aspects of the plot and the devices were predictable and repeats of scenes from the first six movies - but that is precisely what gives it continuity and a sense of connectedness to the original George Lucas (Episodes IV, V and VI) films from 40 years ago. If we didn't have TIE Fighters and X-Wings, Light Sabres, Jedi, good people and bad people, it simply wouldn't be Star Wars!

Without giving anything away of the story, what worked particularly well for me was how the original characters were interwoven with the situation 30 years on and how new, younger characters were introduced to set up a run of films that can see them grow and develop as they attempt to once-and-for-all defeat the Dark Side. Carrie Fisher as General Organa, Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker all reprise roles they last played in 1983 - and it seemed to me that their length of time on screen was directly related to their acting ability. It was good to see them again - changed, yet the same.

There are subtle visual updates, new planets to enjoy, great new animatronics and the predictable CGI which every now and again stands out as not being organic to the scene. It is great that this film was made in the UK and wonderful to see extensive use of the Forest of Dean and the former US cruise missile airbase at Greenham Common near where we used to live. Derwentwater in the Lake District and Skellig Rocks in Ireland also made a welcome appearance. Add in the deserts of Abu Dhabi and New Mexico and the frozen wastes of Iceland and you get a wide range of vivid, contrasting and engaging landscapes.

The central core of the story is good versus evil - no surprises there. Who will be the saviour figure this time who will redeem not only the good but challenge the bad to come over to the light side? What is wonderfully surprising is the creation of a new kind of droid - BB8 - that is so human in its bleeps, expressions and movements it makes you feel like you want to take it home as a pet.

Episode VII of the saga was never going to break any astonishing new ground in terms of how we understand the basic premise of the Star Wars plot or universe. It could so easily have become bogged down in trying to be everything to all people whereas instead it simply moves the story along a notch in an engaging, action-packed and believable way. New characters and worlds are introduced in a sympathetic way. Whilst the Dark Side seemingly no longer possess the menace of Darth Vader, it does possess sufficient menace to keep the good guys busy. Believe the hype - Star Wars is back. Go and see it! I'll give it 9/10.


Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2


I had been waiting with a degree of excited anticipation in hope that the fourth film in the trilogy [sic] would make good the shortcomings of the previous offering. I was so disappointed. This film grinds relentlessly towards a dull and laborious conclusion with little excitement and no inventiveness in terms of plot, character or narrative development. Poor. I can't remember the last time I wished for the film to stop so that I could read the book to get to the end more quickly! At 2:17 this film is way too long - particularly when you consider it is half a book!

The earlier films set up the narrative arc of the trilogy nicely and we all knew what Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) had to do - it was simply a case of how would she do it. In the end the climax is so predictable and at the same time unfulfilling. Yes, there is lots of action and the bloodiness of close combat urban civil war is portrayed with gruesome and graphic brutality. The action sequences, CGI and creativity of weaponry and adversaries of war were all very good.

For me there are two areas that fail to fulfil their dramatic potential. Firstly, the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is devoid of energy, warmth and, essentially, passion. What had previously been a central part of the story seemed to be a shadowy side line in this concluding film. Secondly, the manipulation of Katniss by Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Coin (Julianne Moore) to achieve their own self-centred ends seems nothing but a mirror of Color Force and Lionsgate's manipulation of Lawrence to extract maximum dollars from movie goers as the franchise is milked beyond dry.

The one redeeming bright light in the film remains the thing that sets Katniss apart in the whole story - her moral compass. When those around her seem unable to exhibit objectivity and compassion, Katniss steps up to the plate and scores a series of home-runs. Most notably among these is the way she assassinates the President. Her attitude to Peeta - willing him to recover - is also commendable.

The acting in this film is strong - but the script and lumbering plot mean the characters are always held back from reaching their potential. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee is a strong performance - sadly his last. Sutherland's menace is convincing as President Snow and I loved Woody Harrelson's Haymitch Abernathy.

I was disappointed with this film - as you may have gathered. For die-hard devotees of the Hunger Games it will be essential viewing. For anyone else, it exposes the folly of stretching a trilogy into four parts simply to make money - artistic and creative product suffer in order to deliver a bottom line. If you can, wait for the boxed set to be released on disc. At least at home you can switch if off or skip chapters when it gets too boring! I'll give it 6/10.


Monday, 7 December 2015

Spectre


This will be a short reflection as there really isn't a lot to say! If you enjoy the genre then you will enjoy this film. If you are looking for a clever plot or a good development of the narrative then this is not for you. The locations are stunning - Mexico City, Rome, London (but too reminiscent of the latest MI offering) and the deserts of Morocco. The lead characters all give solid performances but their characters are little more than passengers on a express train of action and violence that careers out of control to a predictable and at the same time unlikely conclusion.

I was surprised that the bbfc rate this as containing 'moderate violence and threat' and have awarded it a 12A certification. Having eyes gouged out in graphic close up and other acts of wanton violence splattered across the screen is further evidence of the growing desensitisation to violence that our society is undergoing. How long before we see a U classification for a film like this?

The Bond ladies are in evidence but with more substance than has previously been the case. This is a welcome development that is continuing the trend of recent offerings. Monica Bellucci is simply sizzling as the widowed Lucia Sciarra but surely seduction on the eve of her husband's funeral is a step too far - even for Bond? Bond's new girl is Dr Madeleine Swann played by Léa Seydoux who is very comfortable in the role and adds an edge of intellect otherwise lacking. Christoph Waltz lacks his usual impact but is competent enough as the villain.

The plot, such as it is, offers a timely reminder of the potential perils of the growing culture of global surveillance. With the increase of terrorist activity around our world, governments acting in the 'best interests of their people' are increasing their security reach. This is a development that is not without cost.

The settings, action and stunts make this a solid Bond film and devotees will not be disappointed. However, if you are looking for anything much beyond that, disappointment will come knocking. Is this Daniel Craig's last outing as Bond? He did appear a tad tired and disinterested. I'll give it 6/10.


Friday, 4 December 2015

The Lady in the Van


From the trailer and the cast list I knew this was going to be good. I was wrong. It was excellent! The plot is quite simple and sharing something of it won't spoil things for you as this film is not plot driven but propelled with great force by the characters.

Originally a West End play (1999) the film is based on the true story of playwright Alan Bennett's encounter with an eccentric woman Miss Shepherd (Dame Maggie Smith) who lives in a camper van. After months of simply parking the van at the side of the pretentiously swanky suburban road in bohemian Camden in London - much to the annoyance of some of the local residents -  the conflicted and indecisive Bennett invites her to park on his drive. She ends up being there for 15 years. Miss Shepherd is secretive and has an amazing past as a concert pianist and would-be nun. At one point she was committed to an asylum by her brother. The main reason for her lifestyle is that she fears arrest for murder in a hit-and-run accident that happened years ago.

She is not allowed to forget the accident and feelings of guilt overwhelm her. Despite not making it as a nun, she regularly seeks the confessional and feels unable to receive God's forgiveness. Living life under perceived ongoing condemnation from God gnaws at her psyche and adds to her eccentricity - but even as a young woman, flashbacks show us that she was not easy to get along with.

There are many moments of comedy in this film - but there are also many deep insights into human nature and the fears that drive us to irrational solutions to simple problems. The film evoked in me a constant stream of emotional responses which at times became a raging torrent. Maggie Smith is able to convey such depths of emotion simply by the way she holds her eyelids and gazes into the middle-distance. Alan Bennett, as all great writers, is a keen observer of life and the human condition, and writes with great humour and humanity to record the obvious which somehow would otherwise go unobserved. The acting by a strong ensemble cast is as good as it gets. The subject matter, the performances and the locations combine to produce a film that has a very English feel about it. It is simply exquisite cinema.

As dominating as Maggie Smith's performance is, it needed to be set against an equally brilliant portrayal of Alan Bennett by Alex Jennings. Jennings plays two sides of Bennett's conflicted and divided personality - the person living in the real world and the detached and remote observer who is the playwright. Their extended dialogues are simply wonderful and the drole nasal Yorkshire intonation of Bennett provides an aural wallpaper that permeates every scene.

This is without doubt a special film. The acting is top class and the whole dramatic presentation draws the audience in and evokes a strong response. Do go and see it - and then go and buy the disc once it is released. This kind of film-making deserves to be supported. I'll give it 9/10.


Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Martian



Fans of Matt Damon will love this movie as he is in 80%+ of the shots - and mostly on his own. The plot is straightforward and easy to follow. There is no romance in the film and no person-to-person violence which is refreshing these days. Set in the near future (2030's) the science is believable rather than fictitious and the design of the buildings, vehicles and spacecraft all have a ring of familiarity about them which helps to further underline the believability of this film.

PLOT SPOILER (But there's not much of a plot!)

However, for me the film was not without its problems. There is much to commend it - more of which later but as much as I enjoyed large parts of it, I came away feeling a little disappointed with a host of little things which niggle and gnaw. My first observation may be unfair, but for me the film was too long at 144 minutes. I know that the whole premise of the film is Watney's (Matt Damon's character) isolation and abandonment on Mars for possibly the rest of his life, while plans are hatched on earth to rescue him, but it was in parts too slow and laboured.

Another major grating flaw for me was the overbearingly self-congratulatory "aren't the USA great" which ran throughout the film. There is barely a screen shot that doesn't contain some representation of the stars and stripes! When space exploration these days is becoming increasingly international to help share the cost, this was an American mission with American astronauts attempting to establish the viability of colonising Mars - presumably for America. I know that as a Brit I am not speaking from a position of strength where colonisation is concerned, but the tone was for me more Reagan era than Obama. Perhaps space films are becoming the new Westerns of the 1940's and 50's that helped to lift America from the malaise of WWII's after-effects. By focusing on new worlds we can transcend the problems of this one - but isn't that what sci-fi is largely about in any case?

Where this film does score very strongly is in the visualisation of the Martian landscape and in the strength of the characters in the story. Using images from Wadi Rum in Jordan (a popular location for movies about Mars) the Martian landscape is depicted with large-scale ethereal beauty. The brutality of Martian 'weather' with it's violent storms forms a striking contrast to the tranquil beauty of the red-hued vistas that are lit and captured with care - this film is made for the big screen.

Whilst the film observes Watney's creativity and indefatigability of spirit, it also explores the characters of his crew mates and the NASA personnel back on Earth. NASA Director Teddy Sanders is played by Jeff Daniels who presents an effective leader who does the right thing rather than the thing that will help you to love him. I did like Sean Bean's Mitch Henderson - particularly when the dialogue turned to discussing a scene from Lord of the Rings film in which he features! As mission leader it was Jessica Chastain's Melissa Lewis that stole the show for me and combined strength and vulnerability in a creative way to deliver a thoroughly convincing performance.

Having complained that some sections of the film were too slow, there were other sections that surprised me by their brevity which I found refreshingly welcome. I felt that the film treated me as an adult and invited me to fill in the gaps. The soundtrack of the film was also a pleasant surprise. As Watney is stranded on Mars and the only music he has access to is Lewis's disco music - including of course Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive".

For me this was a film in two parts - the parts I really liked and the parts I didn't. For that reason I find it difficult to give it a score but will settle on a compromise 7/10. If you want to reflect on questions of the worth of a single human life and what it actually means to be alive then this will be a good film for you to watch. Furthermore it invites reflection on just how the universe will eventually be colonised - what ethical and moral guidelines will we need to follow - and who knows, perhaps there is already a cloaked Enterprise orbiting the Earth right now waiting for us to develop warp technology and with it the opportunity to make first contact! It is worth seeing - and on the big screen while it's still out there.


Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Wall (2014)



I remember going out on a sunny Saturday morning in late 1979 to buy my copy of Pink Floyd's new double album The Wall. I was not as heavily into their music then as I have become in more recent years, but the album's well publicised release with it's distinctive gate-fold sleeve featuring Gerald Scarfe's artwork was hard to resist. Little did I realise that this was to be Floyd's last proper studio album.

An exploration of the context surrounding its gestation is informative. The previous album Animals (1975) had brought to the surface strains in band members' relationships that were fed by artistic divergence and what was perceived as an unjust division of royalties. Animals was the first Floyd album that didn't include any material written by Rick Wright. Both he and Nick Mason were experiencing marital turbulence while David Gilmour was distracted by the birth of his first child. When they came to set about the next project, which would become The Wall, it was also against the background of unwise investments having lost much of their collective wealth. Pressure was on and Roger Waters was the only band member contributing ideas and more crucially songs. The Wall consequently was virtually all his work with some narrative collaboration from Producer Bob Ezrin. The follow up album The Final Cut (1982) comprised reworked songs that had failed to make the final version of The Wall which was a further source of tension - particularly between Gilmour and Waters - Wright had left the group after The Wall was recorded. The Final Cut was given added political weight as the anti-war rhetoric of Waters' lyrics were set against the backdrop of what he saw as Thatcher's overly jingoistic defence of the Falkland Islands in the face of Argentinian invasion.

The prominence of Waters as the chief creative force behind The Wall is significant because the album's concept and subject matter is largely autobiographical. The album tells the story of 'Pink' who is a compound character but essentially a conflation of Waters and former band member Syd Barrett who is portrayed as a drug-addicted victim of the rock music 'machine' that is so well portrayed as 'the gravy train' on Wish You Were Here.

Snippets of Waters' sense of loss have been widely available in interviews (e.g. on BBC's Hardtalk ) and through Pink Floyd lyrics as he has made no attempt to hide the loss he feels through the death of his father in WWII. The original album told the story which was later embellished through the visual imagery of the 1982 film release of The Wall Directed by Alan Parker. The Final Cut released the same year featured many songs which extended the motif with one of Waters' most haunting vocal performances on Fletcher Memorial Home for Incurables - his father being Eric Fletcher Waters.

Further insights were revealed in later live performances and albums as a solo artist (having lost the right to perform as Pink Floyd which only added further acrimony to already strained relationships). From 2010-13 Waters toured the world with a huge band and crew performing The Wall 219 times at large arenas and stadiums. These performances added further political commentary and anti-war sentiments with some of the original songs being reinterpreted in contemporary ways with new visuals and texts. The 2015 cinematic release of The Wall containing concert footage from this tour interspersed with documentary and dramatic material ensures that viewers get the full picture about the film's subject matter.

I have included this background as I feel it is important to understand how and why this film was conceptualised. What struck me when watching pictures of the audience at the gigs in the film, was how young they looked - most being born long after the album was released, and while I know they are capable of doing their own research, I have journeyed with the story since 1979 and was lucky enough to catch the recent world tour three times. To watch it on 29 September with countless thousands around the world, and in Britain's oldest continuing cinema (The Electric in Birmingham) was a treat.


The basic premise of the story is straightforward. The back story is that Pink's way of anaesthetising himself from the pain of life is to build a wall to protect his feelings from sustaining any further emotional damage. Waters' father was killed at the Anzio beachhead in 1944 before Waters was one year old. His over-protective mother smothered him, his school teachers bullied him and eventually his marriages serially floundered. All of this coupled with a growing dislike of live audiences and with the relentless efforts of the rock and roll machine to make more and more money through tours means that Pink has sunk into a stupor and can only perform if drugged. On the edge of full-blown psychosis he places himself on trial where he is convicted by his inner judge of having feelings - "The evidence before the court is incontrovertible". His punishment is to have his wall torn down thus exposing him to the potential of more emotional damage and leaving him emotionally naked before his peers.

This is all strong stuff and enough to propel most people to try and understand themselves more fully. In all Waters has been married four times, he has been in therapy and has earned and spent millions in the course of telling his story. It is a pity that the pain was so deep that it caused collateral damage in his relationships - particularly with David Gilmour, Floyd's lead guitarist.

The 2015 release is not simply a reshowing of one of the concerts but the best footage woven together from a number of gigs interspersed with a narrative which gives background and context to Waters' life and story. The fact that the flow is continually interrupted for more reflective pontificating by Waters will frustrate some - but overall I feel it enhances the package. In essence it is a large-scale production of Who Do you Think you Are meets The Old Grey Whistle Test.

The production offers a lavish visual and aural feast with great footage from the gigs which show off the immensity of the stage set to great effect. For me the film was instructive. I didn't know that Waters' grandfather had been killed in WWI depriving his father of that influence on his upbringing. For it to have been repeated a generation later is tragic and Waters' anti-war rhetoric is all the more understandable because of it. Waters' grandfather was a Durham miner and his father a pacifist, communist and devout Christian. With that kind of familial heritage it is little wonder that performances of The Wall have over the years become increasingly politicised.

The film opens with actor Liam Neeson talking to camera about the impact the story had on him the first time he encountered it at Earl's Court in London on the original tour. For me this piece was too long and over-played the fact that The Wall contain serious stuff that will encourage you to engage in your own self-reflection. I was anxious for the music! Throughout the film Waters travels in a vintage Bentley through the war graves of Flanders on to Anzio. It is obviously a cathartic experience for him as he plays his trumpet in honour of the fallen. Finding both his grandfather and father's graves is a moving experience and at times for me it felt a little like being invited to view someone's therapy session. Is the final edit a little too self-indulgent on the part of Waters? It is after all his emotional autobiography. There is absolutely no chance of seeing this film and not understanding what the central story is all about.

I guess the sad thing for me is, like the album, the film begins where it ends, signalling Waters' resignation to the cyclical nature of life - in other words, The Wall offers only a means of self-understanding rather than anything transformative or hopeful. Waters' constant sniping at the comparatively privileged upbringing he did enjoy and 'the establishment', the use of almost stately homes to visually unpack some of the story and the fact that he drives a vintage Bentley, for me all smacked a little bit too much of wanting to have your cake and eat it. I'm not trying to minimise the pain of growing up fatherless, it's more a comment on how he portrays his reaction to it.

Musically it is still a tour-de-force. Visually the film is exciting and if you can cope with the narrative pieces edited in between the songs then you will enjoy this. It needs a big screen and plenty of volume - tell the neighbours to have an evening out! Did I like it? You bet I did and I will be buying the disc when issued - just to add to Waters' already considerable wealth. Talent, courage and creativity on this scale should not go unnoticed. I'll give it 9/10. Tear down the wall!



Thursday, 27 August 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl



I saw this at a free preview screening courtesy of those nice people at Show Film First. Do go and see it - it will make you laugh ..... and cry.

Set in a Pittsburgh senior high school the central character is Greg who tells the story. He is gangly, lacking self respect and tries to fit in without being noticed. Hormones are coursing through his veins, relationships are a struggle and the route to individuation seems blocked by his parents at every turn. So, this is a coming of age movie and from the title it makes it clear that it also explores what makes relationships and life worthwhile in the face of impending death.

This film has a familiar plot and the narrative arc is easy to guess. A story like this with three teenagers in the lead could easily fall into usual pitfalls. This is a clever and thoughtful film which uses humour well. Many of the gags are visual and they come thick and fast - check out the dog's kahunas!

The film has many tender and poignant moments and always centres on the characters who grow and develop throughout the film. For many years Greg (Thomas Mann) has been making movies with his 'co-worker' Earl (RJ Cyler) which parody classic movies. This theme runs throughout the film and different titles come into play at different points of the story. This is cleverly done and contributes to making this a great movie.

The characters are interesting and engaging and the acting is very good - RJ Cyler could become the next Will Smith! Olivia Cooke plays Rachel who is the titular dying girl and delivers an amazingly nuanced and energised performance.

This is a generous film that will reward anyone who watches it. It won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and the Audience Award for U.S. Drama at the Sundance festival - a worthy winner which was snapped up for distribution by Fox Searchlight and I'm sure they'll make money on this one in both the cinema and through after sales. When it hits the cinemas please do go and see it - you won't be sorry. I'll give it 8/10.


Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation


By the time a franchise gets to the fifth in the series, the challenge is always how to deliver something fresh and innovate within the constraints of a tightly defined style. The fact that the sixth film in the franchise is already in development indicates that M:I-RN was successful - at least to the satisfaction of the box office.

The difference with this one is that it starts with possibly its biggest stunt and what follows never quite takes you any higher. At 131 minutes it is a long film which probably has one too many locations in it as it struggles towards its conclusion. It is packed full of product placement too - I expected to see a disclaimer in the end credits "No BMW was harmed in the production of this motion picture"! Well - that's got all the negatives out of the way. What did it actually deliver?

M:I-RN certainly likes to globe-trot and presents Vienna, Casablanca and London, among others, with great artistic flair. Director Christopher McQuarrie frames each shot from angles that enhance the unravelling of the story. The action scenes - and there are lots of them - are delivered with amazing clarity and very creative camera work. Visually the film is stunning. The soundtrack is good too.

I won't spoil the plot for you. There is one - and it has a strong storyline that requires a high degree of brain power to keep up with. The goodies have to second and third guess the second and third guessing of the baddies and sometimes I found it hard to keep up! The conundrum always is, do you do something because that is what is being anticipated or do you not do it because the asking of the question is what has been anticipated!! The baddie is always several steps ahead and remains elusively out of reach as Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) work together and against each other to try and win the game of double and triple guessing.

There is much humour - usually provided by the character of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Alec Baldwin delivers a strong performance as the Director of the CIA. It is good to see Tom Hollander playing the Prime Minister with Simon McBurney playing his Head of MI6 Atlee. (Rev and the Archdeacon ride again! If you're unfamiliar with Rev click here.)

Rebecca Ferguson gives a very strong performance that will without doubt lead to greater things - but her accent kept slipping into some kind of generic eurospeak which is perhaps a product of living in Sweden for half her life. However, she was magnificent in the action scenes and managed to smoulder throughout the film without generating so much as a puff of smoke.

There is, predictably a lot of violence in this film - some of it a bit too graphic for my liking. I must be getting soft in my old age as it carries a 12A Certification in the UK for "moderate violence". The car and bike chases are exciting and the gadgetry that always seems to be readily available innovative and clever. This film is a worthy contributor to the franchise and the intellectual stretching offered by the plot very welcome. Because of its length, I'll only give it 7/10.