Sunday, 31 August 2014


On the face of it this 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.

Sunday, 23 February 2014


For anyone who remembers the Iranian revolution and ensuing hostage crisis that dogged President Carter and hemorrhaged support for his presidency, this film will offer a valuable insight into the tensions and thinking that prevailed at the time. For those who are too young (or have forgotten) it will offer a useful and entertaining history lesson. It is also a very good film - for the most part.

I didn't rush to see this in the cinema when it came out as I had some preconceptions that meant that watching it didn't feature high on my 'to do' list. I was glad to catch up with it on disc. Directed by and starring Ben Affleck this film, 'based on a true story', portrays Hollywood coming to the aid of the CIA. Any Hollywood film about Hollywood runs the danger of being over-charged. Add to that a large dose of American patriotic jingoism (particularly towards the end) and you get Argo.

The premise of the film is straight-forward. When the American Embassy was stormed by the mob in Tehran in 1979, six employees working in the visa section managed to escape and lay low in the residence of the Canadian Ambassador. Affleck's character, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez dreams up the unlikely plan to use a trip scouting for a movie location to extract the six from Iran.

This was a plan that was so bizarre it bordered on genius. When President Clinton declassified the file and it became public knowledge, the world learned of how the CIA bank-rolled a Hollywood office to give credence to the film's existence and so provide the necessary background to make it look legitimate. What is refreshing about the film is that it is all about the story - no romance or personal violence to distract - and that it is filled with believable characters and good acting. Argo won three Oscars and two Golden Globes. Today it scores 96% on the Tomatometer and 7.8 on IMDb.

Anyone who has travelled in this part of the world will have felt the hairs on the back of their neck rising whenever the group encounter officials. You know that at any point your progress can be halted and you can taken away to some forgotten place never to be seen again - and that's when your papers are in order and your reasons for being there legitimate! I felt the two hours passed by quickly - the film is very evenly paced and doesn't linger. Overall it maintains the tension very well and even though we know the outcome, peril persists until the plane passes out of Iranian air-space and the alcohol breaks out to allow a timely celebration.

This is another film that shows the reach and power of the CIA and the failure of American foreign policy. The blend of archive news and documentary footage within the film is done really well as is the period setting of the 1970's - everyone wearing huge framed spectacles and butterfly collars. It was good to see Swissair taking to the skies again!  I enjoyed this film and was happy to have my prejudices largely overturned - pity about the schmaltzy jingoism. I will award this film 8/10.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Martha Marcy May Marlene

This is a disturbing drama about 'self' and identity. It is written and directed by Sean Durkin and establishes him as a major player in the vibrant American Independent Cinema genre. It won Durkin Best Drama Director at Sundance 2011 and the film was nominated at the same festival for the Grand Jury Prize. This film was made with a budget of less than $1m and shot over just 24 days. The lighting and editing, along with the soundtrack are all first class.

It is impossible to deal with this film without discussing its story - but I don't necessarily think that this would significantly diminish its impact if you've not already seen it.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a young twenty-something when she arrives at a farmhouse in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains. The farmhouse is home to a commune called the family led by Patrick (John Hawkes). The family are seeking an alternative lifestyle and are trying to develop the farm to be self-sufficient. Patrick is given to spouting a kind of Marxist/Buddhist philosophy with a very dangerous and subtle psychological twist. He is able to manipulate and control the members of the commune to the extent that the women become his, and all the other men's sex slaves. We are shown that it is really only the women who do any work around the place and they prepare the daily meal which is first served to the men and then they get to eat anything that is left. Patrick leads by instilling terror and fear which is backed up by sexual, psychological and emotional rape. All of this causes the (female) members to lose their sense of self and any notion of individuality.

On arrival, Martha is renamed Marcy May by Patrick and thus begins the process of stripping away her identity. When any of the women in the commune answer the phone, they do so using the name Marlene - an additional way of diminishing a view of self. Clearly it appears from the outset that Martha does not have a strong sense of self-identity which is not helped by the fact that she had recently lost her mother. Her father abandoned the family early on and her only surviving relative is her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson).

Quite near the start of the film, early one morning Martha plucks up the courage to leave the commune and although she is pursued she manages to escape. In a wonderfully emotionally charged scene, laden with the psychological angst and confusion she is experiencing, Martha phones her sister with whom she has had no contact for more than two years. Lucy agrees to come and pick her up.

Lucy is recently married to a British Architect Ted (Hugh Dancy) and they have just begun their summer vacation on a rented lake house in Connecticut - a chance to get away from New York City. From the outset Martha's behaviour is at odds with the neat and angular expectations of Lucy and Ted. Such has been the effect on Martha's psyche that she is unable to distinguish between dream and memory, fiction and reality.

In a constant series of flashbacks that cut between the two contexts - the farmhouse and the lake house - seemingly triggered at random, Martha's story and her experiences in the commune are slowly unfolded. The editing is so clever that you are never quite sure which context you are seeing until it becomes clear thus mirroring the confusion in Martha's mind.

The tension in the story and in the relationship between Martha, and Lucy and Ted builds throughout the film and it becomes increasingly clear that Martha needs more support and help than Lucy and Ted are able to offer. As is sometimes the case with this kind of film, the ending is not what you would expect - or necessarily wish for. It leaves you to carrying doing analysis and thinking about the final images.

This film is not comfortable viewing or family entertainment. It is however very well conceived and executed and explores a dark and difficult area with integrity and without being over-dramatic. It offers a chance to discuss the two sets of values embodied by the commune and by Lucy and Ted. It also offers an opportunity to explore the relationship of self-identity within community and how our experiences and contexts help to shape and reshape our understanding.

Moreover, this film shows what can be achieved with talent, creativity, imagination, a small budget and in a short time frame. I'm sure we will see lots more from Sean Durkin. I'll give 8/10.

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug

I am not a devotee of Tolkien - in the sense that I didn't transition puberty with LOTR clutched under my arm. (Or is that just a male clergy thing?) I appreciate his creativity and the scope of his tales from Middle Earth. The characters, the archetypes, the landscapes, the dualistic struggle, the unlikely hero all of these create resonance in some way. I went to see this because I felt it was important in terms of cinema - maybe I'd simply swallowed all the hype!

A group of Dwarves, a Hobbit and a Wizard on a road trip chased by ugly flesh-eating Orcs can only really deliver so much innovation in terms of narrative and CGI-tatstic visuals. You know there will be fights with much beheading, weapons to bludgeon creatures to death and scenes where old enmity threatens to prevent the formation of much-needed alliances. You also know there will be unexplained bits of the plot - especially surrounding sleeping dragons and the like. But hey - this is based, to some degree on a 250 page novel and something has to give to spin it out to 9 hours of cinema!

There is plenty of blood and gore and some wonderful use of weapons - especially the Elves with their bows and arrows. I particularly liked the party escaping in barrels pursued by the gormless Orcs. The chance encounter with Bard who is able to smuggle them into the Lake-Town and who happens to have in his possession the only weapon capable of killing Smaug the dragon sets up the film for a nail-biting climax, or should I say instalment three? Their progress through Mirkwood Forest is a little unbelievable and the spiders turn the whole thing into a horror movie. 

At 2:41 long, it is an endurance test - but one which I felt was less arduous than the first instalment. With Peter Jackson at the helm and a story that is so well know, you pretty much know what you will be getting. The only question is, will the oohs and the aahs be big enough for the demanding audience that wants so much from this franchise? Let's hope the final part of the trilogy is spectacular. I'll give it 7/10.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Hunger Games - Catching Fire

Saw this later the same day! I'm all gamed out for the time being!!

The story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) continues and heads in a mostly predictable direction for much of the film. The same format for the Hunger Games is there, the same issues are dealt with but this time there are one or two interesting twists. The good acting continues - especially from Lawrence but there are strong supporting roles too. Once or twice the dialogue is poor and stutters as it tries to carry the story. In one scene Peeta finds a pearl in a clam and he just says to Katniss "For you" and she replies "Thanks" and takes the pearl. Perhaps I missed a deeper significance.

There is however significant character development in this film and the introduction of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee adds a machiavellian gravitas and depth as to begin with his character is ambiguous in his intentions. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) is let off the leash in this outing as is Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy)  and they both shineI am told by them that knows these things that the story is very close to the book. Seldom a concern for me as I prefer to see a film before reading the book - it makes visualization so much easier!

This film is set only one year after the first instalment but Katniss' little sister Primrose (Willow Shields) seems to have grown up all at once! The 75th Hunger Games are created in a particularly cruel and pernicious way - the work of a really twisted mind. This all serves to heighten the tension and raise the stakes which is ably demonstrated in the creation of the 'Mockingjay' as the symbol of resistance. Katniss' love triangle with Gale and Peeta develops into a ambiguous and confusing menage a trois. It is not clear (to me) how this will be resolved.

So, we await the third and final instalment. Will Katniss succeed in leading an insurrection and overthrowing President Snow? If so what kind of way of being will emerge? Will it be the end of the Hunger Games? Will she hook up with Gale or Peeta - or play them both along? So many questions - I'll have to wait for the third film. Reading a book is such hard work! I'll give this one 8/10.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Hunger Games

I accidentally deleted my first review of this film and have been sulking for more than 2 weeks because Blogger doesn't allow undelete! What irks me more was the fact that I was very pleased with what I had written - hopefully this will at least be okay!

I know I was slow off the mark catching up with this. I was wondering what an apocalyptic story aimed at teens, set out in a trilogy, about teens killing one another would be like. I found it to be a gripping drama that excited my moral imagination and which raised a number of interesting ethical questions. However, a story predicated on teenagers having to fight to the death in a media spectacle is a questionable basis for an uplifting film. Yet, the viewer cannot help but be inspired by the emergent heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and wonder where the story will go.

The film raises a number of important issues:

  • The abuse of wealth and power
  • The subjugation of the oppressed - a form of apartheid
  • The power of the media to shape social understanding
  • Justice and the struggle for freedom
  • Our collective need for a saviour figure to follow
Some of them it addresses and some are left open - possibly to be explored in the sequels. 

Many teens today spend a lot of time within the virtual worlds of video games where first person shooter games are common. This film follows that format as Katniss volunteers at the annual reaping to take the place of her sister in the 74th Hunger Games. Each year two teenagers, one male one female, are chosen from each of the 12 Districts to compete within a locked environment where the winner is the survivor. 

But the film is more than simple 'shoot em up'. It shows us substitutionary sacrifice, distaste for the horror of war, an innate reluctance to take another life, how wealth can causes a numbing of compassion and how power corrupts. In essence it offers viewers - and teens in particular - an arena in which to exercise their moral imagination and explore the right and wrong of a range of fundamental social ethical issues. Today's teens have grown up only in a post 9/11 world - for them there is no other lived experience to draw from. They, like many today, sense that morality is skewed and they want to find a way of making meaning that allows them to reset their moral compass to follow something more organic, more believable and something which they can own for themselves. 

Katniss Everdeen is a reluctant heroine but she does give hope to the marginalised, the oppressed - the hope-less. On one level she is just a resourceful girl from District 12, on another level she is the face that can rally the common people and inspire them to rise up. When President Snow (Donald Sutherland) says, 'the only thing stronger than fear, is hope' I got the feeling that this was giving permission for the hope that Katniss inspires to ultimately topple Snow's reign of fear. Let's see where the sequels take us.

I felt that the film paid homage to other films in it's conception, design and delivery. The Truman Show is an easy parallel to spot. Films like 1984, Hannah, Harry Potter, District 9 and Gladiator also find a resonance. 

Because of the central premise of the film I wanted to not like it. I was however gripped, drawn in, made to feel empathy for Katniss and her family and friends. I jumped and cringed in the appropriate places and as a piece of escapist entertainment I was hooked. Does that mean I had to suspend moral judgement as I watched? Maybe. Does it mean that the issues the film raises and the characters through which they were raised have repeatedly come back to me as I have continued to reflect on the film and its meaning - absolutely! I'll give it 8.5/10.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The East

This is the latest offering from Brit Marling (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice) - someone whose talents I admire. This time she co-writes and stars in an intelligent eco-thriller which debuted at the 2013 Sundance Festival with backing from Ridley Scott as Producer. As the screenplay was being written, the 'Occupy Wall Street' social action was taking place which must have added a sense of realism and impetus to the task. Marling and co-writer Zal Batmanglij spent two months engaging in Freeganism by way of research to inspire their writing. The film has an authenticity about it and whilst it feels a little more mainstream than Marling's previous two offerings it still has an indie edginess to it.

Marling plays the resourceful and quick thinking Sarah - a former FBI Agent (she seems very young to be so accomplished and a 'former' FBI Agent). She works for a private intelligence company who seem to operate like the CIA. Sarah is sent under deep cover to infiltrate an eco-anarchist group called 'The East' and to discover what targets they are aiming at. The small tight-knit group are sceptical about Sarah to begin with but she earns their trust and participates in two "jams" when they target a pharmaceutical company and then a chemical company.

As Sarah spends more time with the group and learns more about the pollution and malpractice big corporations are able to get away with and as she considers the dubious activities of her employer, so her sympathies begin to turn to the eco-anarchists and the internal battle that ensues sees Sarah questioning her loyalties. The film is nearly two hours long and maintains the tension well throughout. It holds its own as an espionage/spy film and it gives some interesting character developments.

It is good that we have an intelligent film with good acting that explores an area that is becoming increasingly recognised as an important field in need of transformation through social action. Building on the Jubilee 2000 Campaign, 'Stop The Debt', 'Occupy' and other initiatives and films like Martha Marcy May Marlene, perhaps we are seeing a gradual awakening in our understanding of our collective need for responsible stewardship of what we have been given. I wonder how history will record these decades? Perhaps we are beginning to see the first-fruits of a social transformation that will result in a fairer distribution of wealth and a reduction in the driving power of greed that has characterised Western Society over he last 400 years. No doubt the emergence of new economic powers (BRICS and others) will also play their part.

This is a good film with a story worth engaging with and with a strong cast. The East are presented as being sufficiently alternative to make an impact without being so looney as to undermine their credibility. The message of this film admirably catches the zeitgeist and offers an encouragement for us all to challenge the status quo with which we collude through inaction. Do get the disc and watch it. I'll give it 8/10.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Butler

It is said that history is always written by the victors. Does partial victory count or does it lead to a partial rendering of history? Don't get me wrong. I am in no way trying to minimise the pain inflicted on black-Americans (or the enslaved anywhere in the world), but for me there was something about this film that wasn't quite right. It is a film about the struggle of black-Americans to gain equality in the 'Land of the Free". As the voice over towards the end tells us, we can all react to the horror of concentration camps in Germany - it's just that no-one calls them that in the south of the USA, but they've been there for more than 200 years and the effects of their presence continue to reverberate today. This is not simply an historical film, but a current one and this is a review of a movie and not a critique of the Civil Rights Movement.

There is great acting (and casting) in this film. It's scope is immense as it charts the American civil rights movement through the eyes of a unique witness - a black Butler (Forest Whitaker) who serves successive Presidents in the White House. From Eisenhower to Reagan, The Butler was privy to the machinations and most intimate conversations at the heart of government. The film goes out of its way to depict Kennedy's young liberal idealism and hints at what might have been. It clearly has little affection for Johnson who is shown to be two-faced or Nixon whom it depicts as lacking moral scruples. (I wonder if this is reading things back into history after the fact?) The film almost completely skates over the Ford and Carter years and re-engages with Reagan whom it depicts, along with his wife, as genuine, benevolent and open people.

From the outset of the film you know where the narrative arc is going. It starts in the 1920's with share-croppers in a cotton field in Georgia where the young Butler's mother is raped and father shot by their white 'owners' right through to the impossible, the election of Barak Obama to the White House. On the way the story charts the most significant events of the Civil Rights Movement including Malcolm X's Black Panthers and MLK. The sojourn through these contrasting styles of civil engagement is enacted through The Butler's eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) as he determines direct action is the preferred route rather than the wait-and-see approach advocated by father. This sets up inevitable tensions leading to estrangement and reconciliation whilst the youngest son is sacrificed to the ideals of the Vietnam War.

What starts out as an historical bio-pic turns into more of a fly-on-the-wall documentary as The Butler observes, but never intervenes, as successive Presidents wrestle with the Civil Rights problem in a way that tries not to alienate a fickle electorate. The generous use of original TV footage adds to the documentary feel rather than bringing the story the alive.

If the story-telling might not be this film's strong suit, where this film does win is in the all-star cast that assemble to deliver many strong performances and cameos. Among them feature, Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, John Cusack, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr, Liev Schreiber, Jane Fonda and of course Oprah Winfrey as Gloria, The Butler's wife who delivers a very strong performance. I wouldn't be surprised to see the two leads Oscar nominated.

For all it's short-comings, this is an important film as no other has sought to chart the Civil rights Movement in quite the same way. A Thief in the Night is cited in the film, but there are few other cultural reference points. IMDb has a list of films with a Civil Rights motif here. At 132 minutes it is half an hour too long. However, it is worth a watch. I'll give it 7.5/10.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

some new releases worth looking out for

These release dates relate to the UK - apologies to the rest of the world.

In two days time we have the general release of Saving Mr Banks - a must-see film even if you're not a fan of disney films.

Inside Llewelyn Davis

Here is new offering the Coen brothers due out on 24 January. It follows a week in the life of an a singer/song-writer struggling to make his way in Greenwich Village ,New York in 1961. It's attracting great reviews and a high score on IMDb and other review sites.

The Book Thief

Set in Nazi Germany, a young girl is intrigued by what is so special about books that the Nazi's burn them. She bravely retrieves a book that survives the bonfire and begins to read - her imagination does the rest.  This looks like another strong film and is already attracting a strong showing on IMDb. Out on 31 January 2014.

12 Years a Slave

Latest offering from Director Steve McQueen is released on 10 January and explores the issue of America's history with slavery. Promises to be good.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

I'm not a fan of Ben Stiller - I feel he only ever really plays himself - but from the trailer and reading up about this one, it seems that in this case it might just be appropriate! You can catch it from Boxing Day.

Dallas Buyers Club

This film stars Matthew McConaughey and explores the AIDS crisis in the late 1980's. Based on a true story, this film presents a sadly familiar story with a different twist. Due for release 07 Feb 2014.

Other possible films to look out for are:

  • Jeune & Jolie 29 November
  • The Railway Man 01 January 2014
  • All is Lost 26 December 2013
  • The Wolf of Wall Street 17 January 2014
One to avoid .... Anchorman 2!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Saving Mr Banks

I had seen the trailer for this film a number of times - but I still wasn't sure what to expect. I managed to catch it today at a members' free preview screening  from those very nice people at Harbour Lights in Southampton. Thank you Picturehouse. The 'heavy' in the suit demanding that all punters turned off their phones on entering the auditorium was an unwelcome encounter. If it becomes a regular feature, I will review my membership!

The premise of this film is simple. A rigid and pompous P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of Mary Poppins has been wooed by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for 20 years as he attempts to secure the film rights to the story. Travers fears the Disneyfication of her beloved Mary Poppins - a descent into trivialisation where the characters would have the resolve of candy floss. After all, Mary Poppins is 'family'. The gulf between Disney and Travers is wider than simply the Atlantic Ocean. However, Travers' has fallen on hard times and is in desperate need of the money the project will generate. Reluctantly she agrees to visit Disney in Hollywood to work on a script - flying First Class and staying at the Beverly Hills Hilton does nothing to soften here strident tone and overbearing demeanour.

Demanding complete control over the script, fighting the notion that this would be a musical and presenting Disney with a long list of requirements such as, no facial hair, no animation, no Americanisms, no Dick van Dyke, Travers manages to alienate everyone she meets in California - but at the same time intrigues them with her so over-the-top Britishness that they all find so appealing. This is a film of contradictions that hold each other in creative tension to produce a truly wonderful piece of drama that will scale the heights and plumb the depths of human experience and emotion. I cannot remember the last time I cried so much at the cinema - and this is largely a comedy! That said, this film engages deeply with themes of loss, anger, regret, forgiveness and transformation - all ripe for theological reflection. As the film unfolds, so the reason for each of Travers' seemingly unreasonable demands becomes clear.

A Disney Pictures film about Walt Disney does appear on first inspection to be more than a little incestuous. This need not concern the viewer as this, one of the many seeming contradictions, is dealt with in a very open and even-handed way. The film was shot largely at Universal Studios in Hollywood - even the parts set in London and Australia. The art of illusion remains alive and well in Disneyland.

As well as charting the difficult relationship between Travers and Disney, the film also unearths in a series of flashbacks, Travers' own childhood in Australia and the family set up that gave rise to the creation of Mary Poppins. The editing of this film is done beautifully as different parts of the script enrapture Travers, so we are transported back to the childhood setting that gave rise to that particular part of the Mary Poppins story. In beautiful back-lit golden soft focus, the flashbacks are more schmaltzy Little House on the Prairie than anything else, but the big dollops of melancholy don't come over as being as sugary sweet as they might at first seem to want to be. It is only as Travers reaches back into her own childhood that Disney begins to glimpse the true meaning behind Mary Poppins. The screenplay and acting in this film strike a wonderful balance that mitigates against the temptation towards needless sentimentality. Hanks and Thompson deliver performances worthy of Oscar nominations - but then so do the rest of the cast - particularly Paul Giamatti as Ralph the chauffeur and Colin Farrell as Travers' father.

At just over two hours long I found this to be an engaging, entertaining, educational but also an emotionally demanding film. It was excellent. With a PG certification I'm sure it will do very well over the run up to Christmas and the holiday season. Can you remember where and when you first saw Mary Poppins? I can, it was on it's initial release at the Odeon in Bristol in 1964. It would undoubtedly help to have seen Mary Poppins before viewing this film - but not essential. I'd like to see Saving Mr Banks again - it is thoroughly enjoyable and very entertaining. Sounds just like a Disney film! I'll give it 9/10.