Monday, 27 October 2014

Gone Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 26 October 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some exciting looking films around at the moment!

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

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


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


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

Mr Turner

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


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

The Drop

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

The Imitation Game

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

Mockingjay Part 1

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

Monday, 22 September 2014

Ender's Game

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

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

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

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

Monday, 15 September 2014

The Sound of my Voice takes over!

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

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

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

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

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

All time page views

The past month

The past week

The past day

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

Many thanks to all my readers.


Update 16 September

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

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Sin and evil

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 7 September 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 31 August 2014


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Holy Motors

Well - where to begin with this one?

To say it's French would be a beginning! This film defies rational explanation. The only conclusion I can reach is that the way this film is presented is in a large part also what it is about. It seemingly has no discernible plot or point. If you watch films to enjoy a beginning, a middle and an end this will not satisfy you. If you like narrative arcs this will get your brain turning summersaults to try and work one out.

Monsieur Oscar (perhaps a clue in the name?) spends his days being chauffeured around Paris by Celine in a white stretched limo. The limo is equipped with a wide variety of props, costumes, prosthetics and make up. As the day's journey continues a series of dossiers magically appear to describe the next character and act Monsieur Oscar 'perform'.

There are no visible cameras or audience but a visual clue comes from the opening scenes where someone awakes (or do they) from sleep and encounters a motionless cinema audience watching a film. The only movement comes from a large dog and a child wandering the aisles.

Monsieur Oscar plays nine different characters, all of them quite different. Who commissions these 'performances' is unclear. The fact is that this film is about the ordinary-ness of life and the things we do as part of out daily existence. It is about the masks we wear and the personas we adopt as evidenced by what Celine does at the end of the film (I won't spoil it for you). And what of the title? Is this a film that explores metaphysical themes?

So if you want to a see a banker, a wealthy man dying, a flower-munching, trash-hoarding Monsieur Merde, a rabid-looking sewer creature and a old beggar woman and Oscar killing himself among others, then this is for you.

This film is very different. The images are very graphic and take the viewer on an excursion across a variety of unfamiliar landscapes all within the familiar cityscape of Paris. I've been wanting to see this for a long time. I'm glad I have. I'm not in a hurry to see it again! For me it tries too hard to say something that doesn't really need saying. You'll either love it or hate it. I'll give it 4/10.

Sunday, 10 August 2014


Films that make social, religious, political or gender based points are seldom good films. Wadjda breaks that mould - spectacularly, scoring big hits in every category. It is also a very good film that tells a simple story very effectively with two young Saudi's in the lead roles. The film doesn't preach - it gently subverts, asks questions and undermines the status quo in one of the world's most ruthless autocracies. It offers a different way of being - not the threat of revolution but an alternative to the existing model. Whenever we view a culture that is so different from our own we must be careful as we don't necessarily understand all that is going on. The reference points will be different, the social givens will be difficult to understand and it is always too easy to jump to wrong conclusions. However, this film contains a sufficient number of universal ideas and metaphors that much can still be gleaned. At the end of the day, our common humanity is a greater force for togetherness than our different belief systems are a force for conflict and separation.

Shot entirely in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia the film is a 'coming of age story' that charts part of that journey through the eyes of the title character - a 10 year old girl. She lives with her mother with occasional visits from her father who is climbing the political ladder and desperate for the male heir his wife cannot (medically) provide. The daily routine of life in the Madrasa, the strict dress and behaviour codes of sharia law and the overbearing patriarchy that predominates set Wadjda on a collision course with school, society and family.

Her mother desperately wants to break free but is afraid. Wadjda has no fear - only a sense of wanting to be free to be herself - a normal aspiration for a 10 year old pushing the boundaries and making meaning of the world around them. She has no interest in Islam and therefore cannot see the point of the strict codes that de-individualise her. She enjoys playing with Abdullah - a boy of the same age. They have a love/hate relationship so typical of that age group that always heals itself and comes back to love (filial). For Wadjda, Abdullah expresses his male dominance through cycling everywhere - an activity forbidden to women as it would compromise both their virtue and virginity. She is competitive and wants a bike of her own so that she can race him - and win! I won't spoil the story line any further except to say that her quest for the bicycle and the means she employs in pursuit of it becomes a metaphor for the wider questions the films asks.

It is amazing to think that the authorities sanctioned the production of this film that could have been shot in a more welcoming Arab location, only to ban it from being screened in Saudi. Those nice people at MovieMail have put together a great graphic:

As it says this is a liberating film - filled with laughter, fun and hope. It can only be a question of time before successive generations erode the conservatism sufficiently to allow those who wish, to express their personal and national identity in a different way. Hopefully there will be room for those who wish to continue practicing a more conservative form Islam to continue to do so - but alongside those who choose a different style or pathway.

This is a heart-warming film with great acting and a powerful story to tell. It is also a story that asks many questions and points a possible way to the eventual evolution of Saudi society. If you enjoy a good story, well told and filmed with compelling acting which is set in a culture which is very different to most others then do get hold of this and watch. I'll give it 8/10

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Tron Legacy - revisited

I originally reviewed this film here when it was first released. I thought I'd catch it on TV a couple of nights ago and it popped off the screen with a visual freshness that was appetising. What struck me this time was that so many of the visual motifs and plot devices seemed to mirror, or perhaps echo The Matrix trilogy. I guess 'The Grid' and 'The Matrix' are obvious parallels but the visual stylisation, connotations of a search for utopia, machines versus humans, virtual and real worlds, a project corrupted and the need for sacrifice to redeem it - perhaps these are simply parallels of good sci-fi stories or perhaps the Wachowski's borrowed the best bits from Tron - who knows? There is a lot of discussion and comparison of the two films in the blogosphere and even a youtube comparison here.

One anonymous comment on my original review fairly said that I had not included anything much on the moral/ethical issues the film offered up. Let's see if we can begin to rectify that.

The utopian dream has long been a part of human desire. The offer of reconciliation to our Creator both partially now and fully at some future point as set out in the Christian gospel is seemingly insufficient for many people who demand an instant utopia. Well the story goes that we had it, screwed it up and a sacrifice was needed to offer the hope of restoration. Why is this such a recurring and strong theme in sci-fi? But if we were to simply sit back and wait for this future realisation to manifest itself in all its fullness, we would be removing ourselves from the opportunity of helping to usher it in, in part, in the here and now. Just as Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) in Tron wants to "change the world", that is precisely the mission of The Church as we move towards the full reboot of creation.

Science, technology and human ingenuity have, since The Enlightenment, been seen as the routes through which we will move inexorably towards perfection. World wars, financial crises and our fragile ecosystem all serve to threaten the realisation of the Enlightenment Project. Is the answer simply to produce better programming algorithms, more effective machines and Artificial Intelligence or are there alternatives? Is the justice sought by Morpheus (Matrix) or Flynn (Tron) the only worthy options or do the goals of the Machines or Clu offer any hope at all?

The dubious moral behaviour of Corporate Business as manifested by ENCOM is another thread the film offers for reflection. The parallel of Flynn's partner in the real world - Alan Bradley being played by the same actor (Bruce Boxleitner) as Tron in The Grid sets up the moral polarity of Flynn/Bradley and Clu/Tron. However, right at the climax of the film Tron remembers that he was reprogrammed by Clu and elects to rebel and help the fleeing Flynns and Quorra (Olivia Wilde) - a nice twist.

Quorra is an ISO (Isomorphic Algorithm) a being made up of programming code but fully interactive and functioning with humans. I'm not sure who she is meant to be if we are intended to extrapolate a parallel within the other imagery that is going on. This brings us close to eisegesis - that is reading something into the text of the film rather than exegesis (reading out from) which is what I attempt to do on this blog.

The fact that Clu lures Sam Flynn (Garrett Headlund) into The Grid to search for his father is merely a device to open the portal and so allow Clu and his (clone?) army to invade earth and wage war on imperfect humanity. This might set up some kind of final battle or Armageddon and invokes possible parallels with parts of the Biblical Book of Revelation.

During his years of incarceration in The Grid, Flynn senior has developed into a Zen Buddhist. As the film reaches its climax he withdraws to meditate saying that he is going to "knock on heaven's door" inviting a comparison with Dylan's lyrics of the song of the same name

     Mama, take this badge off of me
     I can't use it anymore.
     It's gettin' dark, too dark to see
     I feel I'm knockin' on heaven's door.

     Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door
     Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door
     Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door
     Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door

     Mama, put my guns in the ground
     I can't shoot them anymore.
     That long black cloud is comin' down
     I feel I'm knockin' on heaven's door.

but at the same time suggesting the activity of prayer and a parallel with Jesus praying in Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed.

The film is rich in themes and motifs that invite many comparisons with other familiar reference points. How intentional all of that is, is a moot point. I enjoyed watching it again and predictably 'saw' much more in it on this viewing. If you've not seen it, put it on your 'to watch' list.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Despicable Me

I stumbled on this on TV and decided to watch it. I am glad I did. I love films and stories that work on multiple levels. This film can simply be enjoyed with a naiveté that sees it as a children's animated story - and a good one at that. In the same way the bed time stories in the film could be received at face value, they always point to a deeper reality and invite the listener to interpret things differently. Allegory is an amazingly creative tool.

When I think back to the hand-drawn cartoons of my childhood with their big blocks of solid colour and repetitive character movements there is little comparison to today's hi-tech computer generated animations. The characterisations and facial expressions are more natural than real life and of course with the chance to redraw each frame until the Director achieves 'perfection'. The fluid and natural movement of objects such as Gru's scarf are a real delight to watch. The film presents a visual feast!

The story has been around for as long story tellers have been plying their trade. It is very simplistic and the 'narrative arc' is established and set out early on. If the film were that simplistic, it would be a write-off. However, whilst the story line is straightforward the plot and character development (yes I know it's animation) are anything but. The characters evoked a wide range affective responses in me such as a strong dislike of Vector and Mr Perkins, empathy for the three girls and a strong desire to see Gru come good. I almost had a tear in my eye at the end such is the power of story.

The story could be a modern-day Pilgrim's Progress or morality tale which holds out the hope of transformation from darkness to light for even the world's most evil criminal mastermind. In playing out this story we are invited to hope that such transformation is not beyond our own experience and within a Christian reading of the story (parable?) the orthodox response is to see the Holy Spirit at work (possibly through the agency of the hope and love offered by Margot, Edith and Agnes) bringing about Gru's transformation and the happy ending. Happy endings are such a Western culture thing. I wonder how folk in 'the East' feel about the Western need to provide such a closed loop with a neat resolution at the end?

I am now looking forward to the sequel. This is a visually exquisite film with great characters and voices which add much value to an otherwise familiar and unexciting story. I'll give this 8/10.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Walking on Sunshine

Let me begin with a confession: I only went to see this as it was a freebie from those nice people at - do sign up if you haven't already. Let me continue with a second confession: I almost walked out during the second song!

This film is a musical set in Puglia in Italy and the soundtrack is comprised wholly of iconic chart-toppers from the 1980's. If this film was analysed from the dry world of the academy it would garner a low score - at present IMDb has it at 5/10.  However, if you accept that you are not going to get the A-list stars of a film like Mamma Mia to which it will inevitably be compared, and furthermore accept that the plot is very straightforward, then you can sit back and enjoy this film with all its naive gaiety and thumping dance music soundtrack. For me the music was the soundtrack of my 20's and with each song memories of people and places came flooding back.

I'm so glad I stuck it out! The singing is on the whole very good, the leads were beautifully cast, the scenery was so at one with the story and you didn't need to pay attention to the narrative arc as you knew where it was going right from the outset. To my mind the dialogue linked the songs and most of the storytelling was done through song which for me worked extremely well - better than most other musicals I have endured. (If you follow this blog you will know that I am not a fan of musicals.)

All that said the film had me in floods of tears and I nearly had emotional meltdown during the wedding scene. The key thing to remember is that when you feel something so strongly that all you want to do is to shout it from the rooftops, that doing so can actually change the world and restore everything to its place of equilibrium. I must try it sometime.

The film did have some weightier moments like Maddie's epiphany at the altar and Katy Brand's great performance as friend Lil. This is a film about love, emotions, friendships, sisters and tomatoes. Most of all the film will be remembered for its shiny happy (beautiful) people, energy and the soundtrack. It is a feel good film that will bring a smile to your face - if you can get through the first couple of songs. I'm still humming the songs and smiling as I do so. As our summer does its usual likely trick and evaporates, go and see this and reboot that warm sunny feeling - it will have you walking on sunshine. I'll give it 7/10.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night - NT Live

I know, I know but I saw this in the cinema and it was presented courtesy of Warner Bros so the film rights must already be out there! This was a National Theatre Live presentation and it was excellent. This is the first time I've seen a live theatrical presentation and it was an excellent way of getting in very close to the action. It was definitely a stage play but the direction and camera angles were quite cinematic. It must have been quite disruptive for the theatre audience with cameras constantly moving across their line of sight.

This is based on Mark Haddon's book of the same title. As well as being great in its own right, the story offers an informed insight into how someone with Aspergers/autism processes the data they sense and how they see the world. This provides a much more accessible way into understanding a little, the challenges faced by people on the Aspergers/autism spectrum.

The first 30 minutes of the evening began with a documentary presentation about the production and autism including interviews with some people on the Aspergers/autism spectrum involved in the performing arts. This set the play in a helpful context and for me enhanced the performance.

The lead role is performed by Luke Treadaway who himself is completely convincing as the 15 year old Christopher. A role for which he has deservedly won awards and critical acclaim. The whole cast is very strong. It's great to Una Stubbs still treading the boards with such energy and Niamh Cusack gives a particularly strong and engaging performance.

As a medium I guess this is cross-over as it melds theatre and cinema. I wonder if because of that it gives more or whether it actually satisfies neither medium fully. I'm not sure. I think I will need to try some more to form a better opinion. Is it fair to try and see this as either medium or is it something completely new? Either way it was a great evening and a very accessible way to engage with a stage play - but I wonder if the big screen comes up short by turning a three dimensional performance into something that is two dimensional. The characters were anything but. What was amazing was that there were only 12 people in the cinema! Well done Vue Basingstoke for putting on this autism-friendly screening.

Friday, 18 April 2014


I hadn't read Veronica Roth's novel but was told it was a very good story - the sort of thing I would enjoy. I did find it enjoyable - but at the same time the film has some flaws. The plot is a kind of Enneagram meets Hunger Games meets Inception fusion that presents us with another strong female teenage character that excites the moral imagination as they battle the pressure to conform. 

Instead of Katniss Everdeen we have Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) who is branded a 'Divergent' - someone who doesn't fit into any of the five factions. The factions were created after the war a hundred years previously to bring order to the society of dystopian Chicago. They are Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), Candor (truthful), Erudite (intelligent) and Dauntless (brave) - a resonance with the Houses in Harry Potter?

All 16 year olds are required to undergo a serum enhanced aptitude test that determines which faction is best suited for their personality type. All is well if the test gives a single answer as it does in nearly all cases. However, when a candidate's screening presents multiple options they are branded 'Divergent' and seen as a threat through their supposed inability to conform to any of the stereotypes on offer. The test outcome is only an indicator and the next day at the Choosing Ceremony (more Harry Potter?) - a coming of age observance - individuals are free to choose to become a member of any of the five factions. Once the choice is made, there is no going back - the only alternative being to become one of the factionless who live a life of deprivation, on the streets. 

The mantra is "faction over blood" so for those who choose a different faction to their family, it's tantamount to cutting all ties with them. This clearly delivers a process with inbuilt conservatism at its core. There are parallels between this vision of a future Chicago and contemporary Western liberal consumer society where everything is okay as long as everyone stays in their place. Perhaps the 'banking crisis' of 2008 demonstrates what happens when one group steps out of line?

The power of consequence and therefore of choice is a central theme of the story. Also featuring is individuation over and against the collective. The way the five predominant character traits of the factions are portrayed is clumsy and overly simplistic. Each trait wears clothing of a single colour - no doubt with great significance. Consequently each trait, as they live in enclaves, appears monochrome but when they are in mixed company there is always the implication of a hierarchy or class structure which I felt was never adequately explored. The complexity of variety that is necessary for a healthy and nurturing community to develop is hardly acknowledged (Ephesians 4 and 1Corinthians 12 come to mind.) Why is it that so often story-tellers seem to only offer a binary choice between fundamentalism or a bland and insipid banality? Have they never enjoyed a cocktail?

At 2:19 long, it is a long film. I wonder what a 90 minute edit would look like? The training of Kris and her fellow initiates into full membership of their chosen faction is where some useful editing could take place. But this is the (long) section where Tris develops a relationship with one of her instructors - Four (Theo James). I felt that the film could never decide if it was an action film with a romantic component or a love story with fighting in it. The inability of the narrative to reconcile this tension left me feeling unsatisfied. Whilst moral dilemmas come thick and fast, I found little if anything of a spiritual nature in this film - more an homage to humanism.

Both Woodley and James turn in strong performances and I look forward to seeing them in Insurgent, the sequel in this trilogy which is already in pre-production and due for release in March 2015. This will be followed by the final installment (Allegiant) - split into 2 parts and scheduled for 2016 and 2017 releases respectively. We have another money-milking franchise to feed! I'll give it 6/10.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Matrix Reloaded

I stumbled on this about to start on TV a couple of nights ago and watched it again - for about the 20th time. I still think it is an amazing film - both cinematically and in terms of developing the whole Matrix universe and crucially provides the pivot and development for the trilogy's story in preparation for the concluding chapter. The Matrix is still my number one film - I've seen it over 50 times. I wrote my Masters thesis on Neo as a Christ figure before Reloaded and Revolutions came out. I will try to be objective but it's not always as easy as it seems!

The visuals are every bit as stunning as in The Matrix, but because of stylistic familiarity they make less of an impact. The balletic quality of the choreography of the fight scenes is pure visual magic. The story line is not straightforward and is developed by characters whose roles and personas embody the development of the narrative. The mutated and viral Smith(s), Seraph,  the Oracle, the Merovingian, the Key-Maker and the Architect all combine to deliver riddles and conundrums that Neo must solve if he is to fulfil his prophesied destiny as 'The One' and bring salvation to the people of Zion.

All this unfolds as Morpheus' faith in Neo holds firm as he battles the sceptics in Zion's military. The Council of Zion as guardians of Zion's heritage and custodians of its future, buy into the prophecies and do what is necessary for Neo to navigate his way through the choices and controls The Matrix confronts him with. Knowing what is real, whom to trust and the outcome of any given choice are the things Neo must constantly weigh as he continues on his pilgrimage of salvation. This is archetypal post modern cinema where the polemics between truth and untruth, individuation and community, machine and humanity all play out. The original The Matrix was released in 1999 on Good Friday for a good reason and as we are in Eastertide as I write this, the parallels are plain to see (although the religious and philosophical motifs are certainly not all exclusively Christian).

Many people have been critical of this film as being too long, too slow and generally a disappointment. It may be a tad too long but if viewers were hoping for another quantum leap of the order of magnitude that The Matrix gave us, I feel this places an unrealistic burden on the film. I enjoyed watching it again and will do so in the future. I now feel spurred to watch Revolutions soon. I will keep the faith and award this 8/10.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Watched this on Blu-ray last night - would you believe for the first time! I watched the original theatrical version. Coming just two years after Spielberg's early blockbuster Jaws (1975) this helped to cement him as a major force in Hollywood. In many ways this film is as fresh and engaging as when it was first released. In other ways it's very much a product of its time when Cold War tensions ran high and UFO fever was contagious.

The story is gentle enough and moves towards its inevitable conclusion - at a snail's pace. The film could have benefitted from 30 minutes being cut from its 132 minute run time. Any film that deals with an encounter with aliens has to acknowledge the possibility of a bonkers plot and what better way to do it than to have a bonkers main character! Richard Dreyfuss (who also had a lead in Jaws) delivers a strong performance as Roy Neary - a lineman who happened to be in the right place at the right time!

Strange occurrences are investigated by the Frenchman Lacombe (François Truffaut) as missing planes and a ship reappear miles from where they went missing and crowds of people in remote areas of Northern India all share the same experience of an encounter with a five note tune coming from the sky. There is no explanation of why Lacombe has access to the world's leaders and America's military top brass but he is clearly the only one who links the odd sightings and reports from around the world.

Along with the tune and unexplained manifestation of sunburn-like symptoms on people who encounter the aliens is a drivenness on their part to draw and sculpt a mountain-like structure. They don't know what or where it is but at one point Neary even sculpts it out of mashed potato - a scene that has become famous in the annals of movie history. One of many comedic episodes in this drama.

Given that this film was made before the advent of digital special effects the UFO scenes are wonderful in their blurred and fuzzy kind of way. By being visually less well defined, the invitation is issued to the viewer for them to decide what they want to conclude they are seeing. Perhaps that's how UFO sightings are reported anyway? When the aliens do appear they are are so strongly back-lit that their details are hard to see - another clever bit of Spielberg choosing to invite the viewer's imagination to become active.

Having watched the film now for the first time, 37 years after it was made, it's hard to appreciate how much ground it broke as my senses have become desensitised by CGI and green screen film making. It's amazing how much evolution has taken place when you consider visual/CGI landmark films such as Tron, Toy Story, The Matrix, Avatar and Gravity to name but a few. It is however still possible to catch a glimpse of why this film remains so popular and is so important in the development of film-making. I'd like to give it more but because it was too long, it gets 7/10.

Sunday, 30 March 2014


This is an immensely clever, moving and powerful drama. It opens with a quote from St Augustine about Calvary:
“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.

Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

which serves to set the scene for the eight day journey through the moral maze that Father James must make if he is to keep an appointment with his executioner. The ambiguity of life and the moral consequences of the choices people make form both the back drop and the texture of this film. Brendan Gleeson (Fr James) is present in almost every frame of this 100 minute movie and it is his presence that carries the story. At times it is very funny in the style of  In Bruges or The Guard but it also takes the viewer to dark places - very dark places.

Fr James is one of two parish priests in a small coastal village 21 miles from Sligo in the West of Ireland. The kind of tight-knit community where everybody knows everybody else and where there are no secrets as the only place to hide is in plain sight. The dialogue of the characters, parishioners and confessors, centres on sin and judgement. Fr James who came to his vocation later in life and who allows his experiences and reading of human nature to inform his pastoral ministry with a refreshing degree of realism and maturity, is widely regarded as a good man. He persistently tries to turn conversations on to discussions of virtues and the need to forgive. Everyone else in the village is either a perpetrator or willing victim colluding with their abusers and it is this distinction that sets him apart. He acknowledges the 'greyness' of life and morality whilst everyone else wants it painted in either black or white. Even his presbyteral colleague is portrayed as so many priests on TV and the big screen are - wet, ineffectual, on the make and lacking in integrity. And the bishop - well, let's not even go there.

What the film highlights is the core human need to be loved and how when that is betrayed, horribly betrayed, the consequences ripple outwards. The small community features a man looking for status through wealth and business success, a women looking for love through promiscuity, an old embittered man writing his memoirs as he prepares for death, a young widow who found death too readily, a doctor who tries too hard to be an atheist because he cannot cope with the things he sees in his work, a young man desperately short of self-confidence and in need of a life companion, a gay police Inspector, a West-African car mechanic who introduces the prospect of racial discrimination, a death-row cannibal seeking forgiveness and a butcher who can't decide if his wife is bipolar or lactose intolerant! In this small tight-knit community there is an amazing array of character archetypes.

Fr James doesn't go looking for trouble or to antagonise anyone but as the week unfolds and this cast of characters are presented to the viewer, each one is set up with sufficient motive to be the executioner. Alongside this he is working through his own personal demons and he treats himself in the same rational and benevolent way that he deals with his flock. My work is with those in training being formed as priests and a more rounded and positive role model I could not wish to encounter. Whichever seminary it was that trained Fr James - I'd like to send all my charges there too.

I found this a very funny, moving, convincing and also deeply distressing film. I have purposefully not divulged anything of the plot, how the narrative arc is established or how it concludes. I didn't want to spoil it for you. I caught it on a members' free preview screening from those nice people at Harbour Lights in Southampton and whilst I normally have to let a film ferment for a day or two before blogging I felt compelled to splurge this review and reflection out straightaway - very unusual. The soft lighting of the Irish landscape and the rolling and lush green hills provide a wonderful context in which this brutal and savage tale unfolds. Many of the faces are in huge close up with wonderful digital clarity and poetic lighting - I feel I am now intimately acquainted with Brendan Gleeson's facial pores and beard! I think this is a brave and creative piece of cinema with compelling acting and a glorious location. I'll give it 9/10! See it when it comes out next weekend.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Prestige

This is an extremely well crafted film from Director Christopher Nolan. The story, the look and lighting, the acting and visual effects are all top notch. With a strong cast and a plot that has more twists and turns than a bowl of Spaghetti, this film delivers an engrossing and immersive exploration of rivalry, obsession, envy, deception, murder and sabotage.

Set at the end of the nineteenth century the opening words "Are you watching carefully" give the clue that viewers need to pay attention to every frame. Reality and illusion are metaphors for truth and lies as two top magicians become embroiled in an obsessive battle of egos and revenge that can bring only death.

In an age when the miracles of science were questioning the status quo and undermining received wisdom, entertainers sought to develop tricks and illusions that would confound audiences and gain them the highest accolades. The film depicts a Victorian age that is refreshingly different - it comes at the viewer in a different way such is the attention to detail of the set design. The story features the rivalry between Edison and Tesla and their struggle to promote Edison's direct current over Tesla's alternating current. Geographically it flits between Colorado Springs and London and allows for a convincing double act between David Bowie as Tesla and Andy Serkis as his assistant Alley.

The main characters are Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) who are ably supported by Cutter (Michael Caine). Bale delivers a tour-de-force as it becomes increasingly difficult to display any affinity with his Borden whilst Jackman's Angier sets out generating a more sympathetic response but ultimately proves himself to be as equally flawed as Borden!

There are a lot of illusions and deceptions - even sabotage and murder in the film. In the final scenes so many twists and double-twists unfold that it's hard to keep up with who did what to whom and why. Cutter and Tesla repeatedly advise the main protagonists that the pathway they are embarking on will ultimately lead to doom but such is the drive of their egos and their need for revenge that they choose to disregard such advice.

I find it very difficult to engage with stories predicated on deceit. That's not me holding the moral high ground, simply a function of my personality type. Consequently I didn't really 'enjoy' this film - although I could see that it is an excellent piece of creative theatre with great direction and acting - ably supported by Scarlett Johansson and  Rebecca Hall. I watched in Blu-ray and the colours and lighting provided a visual feast. As a brave attempt to explore difficult themes in an unlikely setting it's probably worth more, but because of my own hang-ups I'm going to award this 6/10.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Central Station

This is an affecting tale of an embittered and amoral retired school teacher and a young boy. Once the scene is set it becomes a road movie and whilst you know where the narrative arc will take you, it's always touch and go as to whether or not you'll get there. I'll leave you to find out. Isadora (Fernanda Montenegro) spends her days in retirement sitting at a desk in Rio de Janeiro's Central Station writing letters for the illiterate commuters. She clearly has a low view of her clients as she posts very few of the letters she writes. Her life seems joyless and empty - barren. She has no family.

One day she writes a letter for a woman who has nine year-old son. The boy's father has not been seen in many years and she writes asking him to meet up with his son as he needs to know who his father is. The central theme of this film is about family, what constitutes family and how those who don't have a family seek to made good their deficit. It is a film about trust, responsibility, loyalty, loss, regret, acceptance and in time love. It is a powerful film with strong acting from  Montenegro and the boy Josué (Vinícius de Oliveira) with good support from the characters they meet along the way.

This is a Brazilian film with sub-titles (sometimes it felt like they were being economical with the translation - but my Portuguese is poor) that shows a side of life in Brazil that is at variance with the glossy promotional offerings for the upcoming Soccer World Cup and Olympic Games. (It was made in 1998 so it is a little jaded.) Petty thieves are summarily shot and everyone's existence seems to hang by a vulnerable thread. Children are sold into international adoption - or worse. Crime is rampant and crowds of people throng the thoroughfares.

Once the two main characters escape Rio we get to see a different side of Brazil. Arid expanses interspersed with agriculture and the continual presence of people of Christian faith. Mainly Catholics but some people more than just a little eccentric. The film delivers a number of epiphanies - primarily for Isadora whereas Josué seems the more stable, settled and balanced character. Some of the epiphanies are within a faith context which raised interesting questions for me.

At times I found the pace to be a little too slow but Director Walter Salles delivers a drama with a fly-on-the-wall documentary feel long before such films were fashionable. If you want to see something different that delivers a number of surprises, is well acted and rewards the viewer, you could do a lot worse than this. I'll give it 7/10. I am grateful to friends who loaned me the disc to watch.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Secret Life of Bees

My significant other encouraged me to watch this as she had read the book and been moved by it. The film is equally moving - and apparently is a close portrayal of the story on the printed page.
The Secret Life of Bees is an invitation - an invitation to wallow in the prejudice of racist South Carolina in the early 1960's against the backdrop of the signing of the Civil Rights Act (1964) by LBJ. It is also an invitation to consider which things are really important in life such as relationships, trust and love. The collective and interdependent world of bees provide the continuing metaphor for humanity which needs to works in harmony if the harvest is to be sweet and bountiful.

Two of the significant characters battle with mental illness whilst those around them try to make sense of a world that isn't functioning as it should. There are lots of characters who are hard done by in this film but there are also many who inspire hope for a better future. The way in which the narrative develops finds a resonance in the humanism of Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) but with a strong recurring central visual image of a Black Madonna, it is ultimately based on Christian truths and hopes.

The film maintains a difficult balancing act between tense drama and schmaltzy sentimentalism but it resists the temptation to deliver saccharine-like, or should I say honey-like nostalgia. The central character is Lily who is played with great natural ability by Dakota Fanning who was only 14 when the film was made. (Elder sister of Elle.) There is great support from Jennifer Hudson and also Queen Latifah who anchors the plot and provides the narrative device that ties Lily to to her mother Deborah - a little too conveniently for my liking.

Bearing in mind that this is primarily a story about strong emotions - fear, hate and love, there are some wonderful quotations in the film lifted from Sue Monk Kidd's original novel.

“After you get stung, you can't get unstung
no matter how much you whine about it.”

“You gotta imagine what's never been.” 

“I can't think of anything I'd rather have more than somebody lovin' me.”

“It's your time to live, don't mess it up.” 

“You think you want to know something, and then once you do,
all you can think about is erasing it from your mind.”

“The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.”

The film is full of wisdom and sensitive to the frailties of human nature and our innate ability to do great harm to one another. It is also filled with hope of a better tomorrow. August dispenses wisdom and love that challenge the status quo in a manner reminiscent of The Oracle in The Matrix. This is a good film which explores what it means to act on feeling and face up to the consequences. I enjoyed it, wasn't what I was expecting which for me is always a bonus. Get the disc or stream it and prepare to be moved and engaged. I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Eye popping colours and a story that moves at relentless pace, filled with great comic timing and sharp editing, all combine to present Wes Anderson's latest filmic offering The Grand Budapest Hotel (TGBH). The whole film nestles things within things - ideas within ideas, stories within stories, cakes within boxes. In fact, there was so much stuff crammed into its 99 minutes that I felt exhausted at the end of it! I felt I needed a rest.

The narrative is driven by Ralph Fiennes who stars as Monsieur Gustave, the Concierge of TGBH which is located in an anonymous Eastern European country. Fiennes' comic timing, facial expressions and the physicality he brings to his character offer a link directly back to the classy style of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton et al. There is hardly a scene in the film where he is not present. His character is beguiling and at the same time frustrating as he seems to be able to engender in everyone the feelings of greatest warmth and respect towards him.

The whole film is as I have said a nestled story but it nestles four times! It goes back from today to 1932 and recounts how the ownership of TGBH passed from Madame D (Tilda Swinton) to Monsieur Gustave and ultimately to Zero Mustafa (Tony Revolori). There is murder and war, families falling out, imprisonment, secretive monks in cable cars, trains - oh, and did I mention cakes? There is also a constant sexuality embodied by the curious and bi Monsieur Gustave who boasts he's had older than the 83 year-old Madame D!

Yes this film is very funny and it tells its story very cleverly. The conception and visualisation are very creative and the Direction spot on. The acting from a massive top-notch ensemble cast is brilliant and the comedy keeps delivering. But I'm still getting my breath back. Is that a bad thing? For all it's strong points - and it has many - I couldn't help feeling it left me feeling just a little disappointed. Perhaps Wes Anderson isn't my kind of film maker. Perhaps I'm not his kind of viewer. If you want to see something odd-ball and very funny but relentless in its pace - give it a go. I'll give it a 7/10.