Sunday, 24 June 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

This is the second 'anthology' movie of the franchise and follows Rogue One. The story is basically about two things: how Han Solo and Chewbacca meet up and how they gain possession of the Millennium Falcon. Telling you that does not spoil the plot as this is an action-driven film directed by Ron Howard. The action is pretty non-stop - just one lull for a short lovey-dovey scene and then its back into action.

Setting the film when the central character was much younger than when we were introduced to him in 1977s Star Wars, was always going to be difficult to get right - but I felt they did a good job. Choosing which characters to feature that are contemporaneous with the original series was sensitively handled. The worlds created in the film felt sufficiently familiar and convincingly slightly  less developed than the ones encountered in Star Wars et al.

The film's plot centres on relationships - particularly on trust, love and gallantry. It could equally have been a Western or set in medieval times - the story is not what drives this film. Woody Harrelson puts in a great performance and it is unnerving to hear the voice of Linda Hunt as some kind of vampirical monster that lives in a seething cauldron of soup! Paul Bettany as the baddie Dryden Vos does a very convincing job!

The two main characters are the young Solo played by Alden Ehrenreich and his love interest Qi'ra played by Emilia Clarke. To have such an English Rose in the far-flung corner of the universe and then for her to constantly offer ambiguities about where her loyalties lie, was a little jarring - but no doubt it will all pan in the sequel(s).

There is a hint of a physical relationship between Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his droid L3-37 played by Phoebe Waller Bridge. I found that a disturbing concept to have leapt into my mind - but I guess that is the way the world is going. This was a good, solid Star Wars film. Not spectacular, but filling in backstory in a helpful and believable way. well worth going to see and adding to you collection when available. I'll give it 7/10.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

What a delight this film is! A wonderful story, some captivating performances and the spirit of post-war Guernsey sensitively portrayed. Pity so little of it, if any, was filmed in Guernsey! Hopefully it will boost tourism with more people discovering the riches this isle and its people have to offer. I have had the privilege of visiting Guernsey dozens of times - initially as a 9 year-old on holiday! The effects of the occupation are still a vivid and lived reality within the culture of the Channel Islands today - just visit on May 9th - Liberation Day, which is a public holiday in the islands if you don't believe me!

This film has a very English feel to it although some expressions of Guernsey French do find their way into the dialogue. The casting of Lily James as writer Juliet Ashton, Matthew Goode as publisher Sidney Stark and Penelope Wilton as embittered widow Amelia Maugery is inspired and their performances - especially Wilton's worthy of a major award. The film is based on a novel by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer.

This film depicts some of the horrors of war and of being on an occupied island when the occupier takes all the good stuff and leaves the locals to live on potatoes. The slaves imported to work on building coastal defences fared even worse. It also gives a tender insight of when the rigid distinction between occupier and occupied become blurred reminding us that humanity and love can survive in even the harshest of situations.

This is a film about emotions - love, hate, hope, regret, fear, unknowing, grief, courage, betrayal, loyalty, grace and generosity. The central characters are still enmeshed in a web of consequences flowing from war time events - the film is set only a year after the end of the war and those emotions are still so raw. As the islanders are still learning to enjoy their freedom, so the central character appears to be blindly heading for her own captivity as a trophy bride for a rich and ambitious American diplomat. Issues of gender equality are explored both through the writings of the Bronte sisters and through the lives of some of the characters in the film, which brings it right up to date.

This film had me snuffling at many points - I found it moving and engaging. I know that reviews have been mixed. I can only guess that the negative comments are from people who have remained objective and detached, and not allowed themselves to be drawn in by the characters and the story. Isn't cinema supposed to offer that invitation to viewers? It worked for me.

This film is a heart-warming and nostalgic tear jerker that allows a privileged insight into the sufferings of Channel islanders during WWII, which outside those islands is largely ignored. It's also a well told, well acted and nicely shot story that tugs at the heart. Do go and see it - but take your tissues! I'll give it 9/10.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Clouds of Sils Maria

This a clever and heavyweight drama that requires a high level of engagement from viewers if they are to be rewarded with anything beyond seeing the beautiful Swiss Alps and Juliette Binoche. It is a story dominated by female characters who are portrayed through very strong performances, especially Kirsten Stewart who plays Valentine, the PA of Maria whose role is inhabited by Juliette Binoche. Maria is a famous actress who is able to pick and choose her projects.

This is not a film for casual viewing. Although the narrative is strong, this film is character driven and the intensity of the performances demand engagement with the story. Without going into plot detail, as the film develops, the boundary between reality and the script of a possible future project becomes blurred. This invited me to make all kinds of assumptions about where it was going - some of my assumptions were right but not all of them. As I said, this is a clever film.

The centre piece is not necessarily the context the characters find themselves within, or even the location of Sils Maria in Switzerland's Engadine but the emotions the characters feel as fate propels them onwards. Fear, jealousy, ambition, regret, aversion to ageing, love and hate all play out in a tangled web of intrigue and while some are fully indulged, others are restrained but the reasons behind the decisions why, are unclear - at least to me. Why people take certain decisions rather than others when options are available is left unanswered in this film. Perhaps it is the volatile fragility of 'performers' who only feel as loved as their last good review that drives Maria to make the choices she does. Are 'performers' any different to non-performers?

If you want to watch a film that offers top drawer acting, beautiful settings and an exploration of human emotions, then spending 2 hours watching this will reward you. If your tastes are otherwise, my suggestion would be to avoid it. I'm glad I stuck it out as the more I have reflected on it over the past couple of days, the more depth I have discovered in it. I'll give it 7/10.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Krakatoa East of Java

Memory is a strange thing. I remember being entranced by this film when my parents took me to see it at the Odeon in Bristol, when it came out in 1968 - I was nine. It was projected in a super-wide format and I remember the screen was so wide I couldn't see it all at the same time. I watched the film again last night and wondered why I have wasted brain cell capacity to carry memories of it for 50 years! It was dire. Have you ever watched a film and been similarly disappointed?

The most famous thing about this film is the fact that the volcanic island of Krakatoa is actually West of Java. The film was shot entirely in Italy and Spain - perhaps if they'd actually visited the Dutch East Indies, their geography might have been less confused. Whether that would have translated into a script and story that contained any excitement, or moved at a pace that was quicker than pedestrian (zimmer frame assisted), is doubtful.

The ensemble cast was for its day a good one. The exotic location and the idea of hunting for sunken treasure, a mutiny and a volcano about to blow its top, all combined to hold out the prospect of an entertaining watch. With special effects straight out of Thunderbirds and drastically overdone, this film manages to disappoint in just about every way.

I prefer the film of my memories.

I note that Rotten Tomatoes manages to award it 0% whilst a more generous IMDb 5.5/10! Its main problem is that it tries to deliver a fairly standard story but borrows so many cliched scenes from other adventure and disaster movies that it ends up being a bit of a dog's breakfast. As an impressionable nine-year-old I was obviously impacted by the cinematography and projection format. It probably also reinforced my hunger to travel and see the world, so perhaps it has one or two redeeming qualities. At a struggle, I'll award it 4/10. Only watch as a cure for insomnia.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Strangers in Good Company (The Company of Strangers)

A friend lent us this film and I'm glad they did - it's a gift. If you prefer action movies with explosions and CGI monsters, then this is not for you. If you want something unique and quite different that will slow you down and invite reflection on the things that are important in life to you, then watch this film.

The immediate back story is unimportant. Seven older women find themselves on a bus tour with their driver/guide in a remote rural location in Quebec when the bus breaks down. They slowly make their way through the countryside in search of help and shelter and find an abandoned cottage overlooking a lake and valley. A vision of Eden perhaps?

Although the plot's key points were already conceived, the dialogue in the film is improvised and the route the characters take to navigate their own wilderness experience is up to them as a collective - each one drawing on their own real life. Their cheerful resourcefulness quickly knits them into a fun-filled community as they share what little food they have and improvise ways to catch to fresh fish and frogs.

The women are:
  • Alice Diabo, 74, a Mohawk elder from Kahnawake, Quebec,
  • Constance Garneau, 88, born in the US and brought to Quebec by her family as a child,
  • Winifred Holden, 76, an Englishwoman who moved to Montreal after World War II,
  • Cissy Meddings, 76, who was born in England and moved to Canada in 1981,
  • Mary Meigs, 74, a noted feminist writer and painter,
  • Catherine Roche, 68, a Roman Catholic nun,
  • Michelle Sweeney, 27, a jazz singer and the bus trip's tour guide,
  • Beth Webber, 80, who was born in England and moved to Montreal in 1930.

Throughout their ordeal, the film often features just two of the women in conversation sharing recollections about their past, their family and their philosophy of life honed by decades of experience. Black and white photos are edited in over the dialogue showing the women in bygone days. Never is the dialogue forced or boring. It repeatedly reveals unexpected gems about some past incident, a way of life, an orientation. Nothing is forced and there is no feeling that you have to buy into anyone's ideas in order to authenticate the story. It is simply offered - as a gift. This film is a wonderful example of the positive power of reflective practice.

At first, the prospect of watching this didn't grip me or fill me with excitement - but it's not that kind of film. I'm glad I did watch it and I'm happy to commend it to you. Light the fire, pour a glass of wine and snuggle up on the sofa. Allow yourself to slip into the ladies world and you'll find yourself in good company, even if they are strangers. I'll give it 8/10.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Dallas Buyers Club

This film has been staring at me from the 'waiting to be watched' shelf for some time - last night it won. This is a powerful film. The acting is powerful. The story is powerful. The depth of human existence it explores is powerful as is the hope that it points to. At a time when America needs a popular mass movement to co-ordinate its resistance against a deaf and self-serving government, to re release this film as inspiration might be a timely thing to do!

Set in the 1980s world of macho cowboy Texas, this film features a community where rodeo bull riding, alcohol, sex and drugs are the normal activities, for the men, punctuated only by having to go to work for those lucky enough to have a job. At one point the lead character describes normal life as "ice-cold beer and bull riding".

That may well be the context but the film explores two important areas. Firstly it explores how poorly equipped governments are in terms of their ability to respond quickly and helpfully to emerging new diseases and how the murky waters of pharmaceutical corporations' finances may or may not buy access to markets. Secondly it explores homophobia and transphobia as it tries to explode the myth that HIV and AIDS only exist within, and therefore are only a problem for, the gay and transgender communities.

The central character is Ron Woodroof played by Matthew McConaughey - also a native Texan, who lost a lot of weight (38lbs) to play the role. He doesn't so much play the role as inhabit the character and is fully deserving of the Oscar he picked up for doing so, as is Jared Leto who also won an Oscar for playing trans AIDS patient Rayon. Jennifer Garner puts in a strong performance as Dr Eve Sacks.

McConaughey before losing weight and as Roy Woodroof in the film

The film is based on a true story and gives an authentic feel to the desperate hopelessness of those with HIV and AIDS in the mid 1980s when no reliable treatment or therapy existed. All that was available were trials of possible new treatments with horrific side-effects which seemed to offer some hope for delaying death - and then only if your hospital was chosen by the pharmaceutical companies to take part in the trial (for which they paid the hospital and lead physicians handsomely). Medical ethics and the hippocratic oath come under close scrutiny in this film and the only clinicians that emerge with any integrity are Sacks and Vass who has to practise in Mexico as the US withdrew his licence because he offered the wrong kind of help to those with HIV/AIDS.

Many of the characters travel similar arcs and the narrative is driven by their evolution. To begin with Woodroof is a self-obsessed hedonist who is angry that unprotected sex, drunkenness and drug addiction should have any consequences beyond a hangover. By the end of the film he has changed significantly and is more concerned with helping as many sufferers as possible, rather than his original goal of making as much money as possible. Despite the transformations in all the main characters, including a more accommodating view on gay and transgender people, it is essentially a film that documents how much Woodroof can do before he dies.

It is a sad film, a moving film, but also a film about hope, love, communities of suffering and human ability to rise to a challenge in a time of crisis. It is also a damning indictment of the USA's Food and Drug Administration and how so often it appears to act unilaterally and not in a way that takes account of the outcomes of foreign drug trials - except when it benefits American pharmaceutical companies. It also highlights the inability of the law to act with any compassion and the institutional bureaucracy that underpins government, growing fat in the process.

This is also an important film, not only because it is a very good piece of cinematography with great acting, but through the script it offers a valuable social commentary on a period that has all too easily been forgotten - except by those living with the aftermath of it. If you have strong resolve and can put up with expletive-ridden sentences, then do watch this is you haven't already seen it. For me, it's another film worthy of 9/10!

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Where do I start with this one? If you need cheering up, do not watch this film! This is a complex but, for me, ultimately sad film. The narrative is pretty thin, this film is driven by the characters. For me the best thing about it is the performance of the cast, I just wish the bleak and sad story that carries the film had been more uplifting. This film is a black comedy - very black in places, but the comedic elements were never enough for me to lift things from the anchoring story line and make me laugh.

Set in dysfunctional small-town Ebbing (and actually filmed in North Carolina) we discover a dysfunctional family living in a dysfunctional community whose police force are - yep you've guessed it, dysfunctional.

The central character is Mildred played by Frances McDormand - one of those performances where  grittiness and guilt-driven burning passion combine to produce a character who is completely believable and convincing. Mildred seemingly isn't one for consultation. She acts rather than discusses and usually acts in a way that provokes others to strong reaction. For me, one of the central features of this film was an exploration of how many of the characters chose when to exercise self-restraint and when they allowed themselves to cave-in to their impulses and lash out in retaliation.

Woody Harrelson's Police Chief Willoughby was possibly the only rational and well-balanced character in the film - and then something happens to challenge that analysis - or does it confirm it? Questions - that what the film has left me with, lots of questions. Other strong performances came from Sam Rockwell and Peter Dinklage.

There are tender moments too. When Mildred is being questioned by Chief Willoughby, a sudden development causes her to remark "Oh baby!" with all the tenderness that only a mother can muster. At one point a young deer appears and for a moment the encounter becomes a thin place and you wait for the epiphany - but it doesn't come. Yet again, the film slaps the viewer in the face and drags them off in an unexpected direction to explore yet more relational dysfunction.

The film takes the viewer on an emotional roller-coaster when signs of hope appear and you want them to blossom, but you are never quite sure which ones will come to fruition. Just when you might have an inkling where the story is going, or even that it's reached a natural conclusion and the credits are about to roll, off it lurches in a new direction to explore new avenues of dysfunctionality. The Direction and acting are both very tight and wholly focussed on exploring the characters and their variety of motivations. McDormand must surely be in line for her second Oscar?

If you want to spend a gentle couple of hours in the cinema allowing a story to wash over you - this is not for you! If you have an aversion to profanities - this is not for you. If on the other hand you wish to engage with acting and film making of the highest order, hold tight and board the roller-coaster. As a story, this film would receive a low score but the power of the characters and the acting propels it to a 8/10. Not for the faint-hearted.

Friday, 2 February 2018

The Post

I didn't realise that this was a 'Spielberg film' until the end credits! The narrative is driven not by the acquisition of classified and sensitive government papers regarding the USA's clandestine  involvement in Vietnam over many years, but in the development of Meryl Streep's Kay Graham who moves from timid victim to decisive leader during the course of the film. At nearly two hours long this film relentlessly ground its way to its inevitable conclusion. The only excitement being provided by the suspense of how it was going to get there.

The film is set in the years 1966-72 with the twenty year long Vietnam War in full swing. Where the film does score big is in flagging up the First Amendment to the American Constitution giving the Press freedom of expression as it serves the governed and not the governors. It seems that there is hardly a decade that has passed since WWII that this maxim hasn't been bent and tested to breaking point. The focus of the film invites the viewer to conclude that nothing has been learned and that the current US Administration is at it again. This makes it an urgent film for today.

That this film was rushed out in between other projects, possibly explains the lack of the usual Spielberg dynamic, but its message to today's audience is as well targeted as any of the missiles underneath Mr Trump's big button. It makes plain the current threat to erode and undermine the freedom of the Press and the persistent inability of succeeding administrations to simply tell the truth. It is political drama of the most urgent and current type.

Without the performances of Streep, Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee) and Bob Odenkirk (Ben Bagdikian), this film would have struggled to stand out. Kay Graham was a mother and a socialite who at the age of 40 inherited the family business and became Publisher of the struggling Washington Post. She had no experience of the workplace and was driven by the maternal instinct to protect the family legacy rather than to confront the wolves on her Board or the investment bankers snapping at her heels. A vulnerable woman lacking in confidence, repeatedly having to try to stand up to aggressive and assertive men in smoke-filled rooms became, for me, an overused cliche throughout the film.

The film explores with some sensitivity the difficulties of Publishers, Editors and Reporters who count politicians among their circle of friends. These are necessary and symbiotic relationships but fraught with potential difficulty. The moral and ethical boundaries can easily become blurred and once one poor judgement is made many others soon follow in its wake. Where the film scores big for me, is in the ending as it sets itself up to almost be the prequel to 1976's All the President's Men which is a very similar film about the Watergate scandal that eventually toppled President Nixon. I wonder what kind of films will be made about President Trump and his legacy in the decades that lie ahead?

This is an important film which should be seen now. Leaders of other nations would do well to heed its message and use it as reminder to check their own use and misuse of media. I wonder if this film will come instantly to mind forty years on in the same way that All The President's Men does today? I doubt it. As a film I'll give it 7/10. As a message to today's White House, I'll give it 11/10!

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Captain Fantastic

After days of reflecting, I still can't decide if this film gives us a naive fantasy or actually has something meaningful to say! It will be hard to discuss it meaningfully without giving anything of the plot away, but I will do my best to limit the damage. It was premiered at Sundance and received nominations for a Golden Globe, BAFTA and at the Oscars - so it must have something going for it, so here goes....

The Cash family have been living an alternative lifestyle in the Washington wilderness for a decade and the six children have all been home schooled. Their parents had good jobs but as anarchists became increasingly disillusioned with mainstream capitalism and withdrew. The family endure a punishing daily fitness regime and are skilled in hunting, mountaineering and a wide range of survival techniques. They live as a mini commune where the parents teach them multiple languages, history, philosophy and politics - all from a position of a strong liberal critique. For me, this film idealises a bohemian bourgeois hipster lifestyle.

The children also learn grammar and calculus as well read the classics on a predetermined schedule to make sure they keep up. Educationally they are years ahead of their peers. The kids are not indoctrinated and are taught to understand and value all sides in a debate but there is little doubt that they are chips off the old block and by osmosis have absorbed their parents' views on most things. Another view would be that through their own inability to engage and change society from within, that both parents are guilty of child abuse on a huge scale.

All is going well until something forces the entire family to travel on the family bus, named Steve, all the way to New Mexico. En route and once there, they have to engage with regular people and this exposes the one thing they are not proficient in - being socially appropriate. This behavioural segregation sets up a number of encounters which if the film is a fantasy are comedic and if it is trying to communicate something serious, extremely sad. Perhaps because for me the film's intention is never clear, I can't decide what kind of film it is.

For me, the film sets out a 'compare and contrast' scenario where the idyllic and altruistic family life of the frontiersman/woman is set against the harsh self-serving individualism of twenty-first century consumerism, where identity is expressed through consumption. For me the film offers a binary choice without offering the opportunity to select which elements of both opposing ideologies could be woven together to create something whose sum is greater than their constituent parts. For me the film puts forward both a thesis and an antithesis but produces no synthesis! Disappointing - or is this the work I am meant to do? Perhaps the way the film ends leaves the door open for a sequel that might explore that.

This film could have been so much more but loses it's defining edge because it is so introspective, which leaves me feeling very frustrated. It does however offer a fertile springboard for discussing the ills of Western society - but in the end does it offer a viable alternative? Overall I remain disappointed which means I must award it 6/10 - but this is a film which is not easily forgotten and I may have to return at some point and be a little more generous.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Darkest Hour

This film has only been out for a couple of weeks in the UK and it has already won 16 international awards and has a further 27 nominations pending including the BAFTAS and the Oscars. Gary  Oldman's performance as British Prime Minister Winston S Churchill during the dark days of May 1940 has been widely praised and on several occasions been described as 'career defining'. There are other strong acting performances too, notably from Kristin Scott Thomas (Clemmie),  Lily James (Miss Layton), Ben Mendelsohn (King George VI) and Ronald Pickup (Neville Chamberlain).

Apart from Winston Churchill what is this film about? It's about many things:

  • Political process.
  • The demands of office - whether appointed or inherited.
  • Families and marriage.
  • Courage, sacrifice and having to choose the least worst option.
  • The way in which war creates the need for different rules.
  • Britishness.

It is certain that Churchill possessed many character traits which rendered him difficult to live with - even for his family! History also records he made several decisions which were costly in terms of human life earlier in his political life, the saddest example being the Gallipoli landings of WWI.  Could anyone else have galvanised the support he inspired and led Britain to victory with her allies five long years later? In terms of pure political opportunism and the ability to read the mood of the nation, few can even draw near. Can politics ever be pure or by necessity are manoeuvring, manipulation and the strongest hold on one's principles, however unpopular they may be, all prerequisites for political success? I'm afraid Neville Chamberlain does not come out this film well, being portrayed as weak, indecisive and even at the last unable to make a stand.

No sooner had the film started than it was over! Never have I known two hours and five minutes pass so absorbingly. For a huge amount of film Oldman's prosthetically enhanced face fills the screen - usually through a veil of cigar smoke. The likeness is stunning but Oldman's strongest acting tool, his hallmark eyes, always betrayed the transformation for me. The voice, mannerisms and pout are the very best examples of a character study available. Oldman's performance is hugely compelling and worthy of the accolades showered on him by critics and public alike.

Despite Churchill's best attempts to alienate himself from everyone through his behaviour, smoking and drinking, there are a surprising number of tender moments in this film. Scott Thomas'  performance is nuanced and sympathetic, Churchill's relationship with his longsuffering typist Miss Layton shows mutual respect and understanding. Even King George VI comes around to a more sympathetic relationship. Whilst Churchill's self-declared desire to be Prime Minister began whilst he was in the nursery, the Churchill we see here is driven by the demands of office and public service, and not by selfish gain. He is prepared to hold out against the tyranny of fascism and if need be, to go down all guns blazing in a final show of defiance rather than to be subjected to Nazi rule. This film highlights the moral dilemmas facing leaders in times of war and conflict, and how no choice looks like a good option. Several times throughout the film we see Churchill wrestling with his inner emotions.

No doubt historians will debate some of the accuracy of the finer points of the script and the meetings that took place, but there is no doubting that in the nation's darkest days "Commeth the hour, commeth the man". I watched Dunkirk only two weeks ago - these two films would make a great double bill and I wonder that if they had been released early in 2016 whether or not the Brexit vote might have been more decisive! Is this film worth seeing - YES! Is Oldman's characterisation all it's reported to be - YES! I'll give it 9/10. Please go and see it.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Bicycle Thieves (Thief)

This 1948 neorealist Italian film is widely regarded as being amongst the best movies ever made. Seventy years on it would be easy to be critical of many aspects of the film's production and presentation but it still manages to hold its own. The copy I have was dubbed but also had subtitles available - which were different to the dubbing so made it too confusing! The monochrome palette sets a nice contrast to the colourful characters of the film and the grandeur of Rome.

This film has one of the cleanest and continually parabolic narrative arcs I've ever seen. It is a morality story, a fable, a modern-day parable set in in the hopeless deprivation of post-was Rome. As the broken country and people of Italy begin to rebuild themselves in the aftermath of WWII we focus on a group of men clamouring for the handout of a couple of new jobs a day. Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is chosen for a job posting cinema posters around the city - but he needs a bicycle that he no longer has as it has been pawned. The pull of a job overpowers the small matter of needing to get his bike out of the pawn shop. Money is tight and he needs to feed his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) and son Bruno (Enzo Staiola). This film runs high on machismo, testosterone and the bruised pride of a man who is unable to provide for his family in the midst of a bruised capital of a bruised nation.

In repeated close-ups, viewers are invited to feel the angst etched on the face of Ricci as his hopeless quest continues as he and his son travel all over the huge city in search of their quarry. Some see the film as a Marxist fable and an underground meeting of a communist group does at one stage feature. However, the film shies away from a simple compare and contrast of the lot of the poor with the nouveau-riches in the emerging post-war economy. This film is about people and in particular Ricci - it is both character and narrative driven.

The story features a wide range of Roman life - a spiritual fortune teller, women drawing water at a well, a church feeding the poor, a brothel, an amateur acting troupe, football, Sunday markets and neighbourhood groups pulling together to defend the guilty! It is a wonderful social study.

For me, the film invited a deeper reflection. Was it actually an anti-war film? The consequences of the aftermath were dehumanising in the extreme. Is this how we want people to live or is this simply the fruit of national collective aggression ending in defeat? Might the fascist driven outcome have been any different from a communist driven one? To my eyes, post war Rome looked a lot tidier and with many more new housing developments than comparable pictures of London, Birmingham or Southampton so soon after the end of the war. How did they manage that? Or was it simply a judicious choice of locations? Why was Ricci so hard on himself and how was he able to be so inept once given the chance he so craved? What kind of relationship did he and Maria have? What happened to Bruno - how did he grow up and develop? Why did the American release change the title to Bicycle Thief in the singular? The whole point of the film is the plural dimension of the title!

This is certainly a very good film and one to watch whatever your interest in observing human behaviour or engaging in film studies. Whether for me it would be in my top ten - I think not. Nevertheless I am glad I saw it and am happy to award it 8/10. Do watch it if you've never seen it. It will repay your investment of time.

Thursday, 25 January 2018


Written, Produced and Directed by Christopher Nolan this is a big film in every way - a film whose creation had a number of significant risks attached. To make a film about one of Britain's pivotal moments in recent history always runs the risk of not getting it right and so blighting something held as sacred in the nation's collective psyche. To shoot in IMAX means it is shot for the big screen and so to watch on any other format will potentially never deliver the optimal experience. For such a big film to have minimal dialogue and an almost docudrama feel was a creative risk. To employ thousands of extras and involve historic boats that were actually there 75 years ago were huge risks. To make a film with a budget in excess $100M was a huge financial risk. To use such a distinguished ensemble cast that features  Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy could also have been an artistic risk. Yet it all works - and works rather well!

The disappointing thing for me was that I watched it on a seat back 7 inch screen. However, I was engrossed for the entire 106 minutes and whilst everyone knows (or should know) the final outcome, how this film chose to tell the story was clever and very creative. Woven together are two strands of thread each of which has three elements. The first is to see the drama unfold on land, sea and in the air which emphasises the unique contribution made by each of the three branches of the military - and in the case of the Royal Navy, civilian too! The second is the the portrayal of three subplots each of which focused on one hour, one day and one week. These were edited in and out of the story as the final Dunkirk tapestry was woven by master weaver Nolan.

The action is persistent but there are lulls - never long enough to wish for more action as the action we see is the kind of thing most people would rather not have to watch - particularly as it depicts acts of sacrifice and heroism to secure our/my freedom. For a film about British identity, indestructible optimism and resourcefulness, and escape from a beleaguered Europe to be released in the midst of the Battle of Brexit is as ironic as it is intriguing as it is amusing.

As mentioned before, there is minimal dialogue. The action, sound of war, huge vistas and over prominent Hans Zimmer score all fill the auditory and visual senses to overload. The film offers a sensorily stimulating engagement. War is messy and at times undiscriminating. It often leaves no real winners. The absence of women in the film is more a reflection of the reality of how it was on the battlefield I suspect, rather than an attempt to make a different statement.

This is an excellent film in nearly every way. At the time of writing this reflection is has grossed globally more than five times it's budget - so another risk averted. With the awards season in full swing it is worthy of its eight nominations in the Golden Globes, three in the BAFTAS and eight in the Oscars and with it riding high in review ratings on IMDb (8.1) and Rotten Tomatoes (92%) I will agree and award it 9/10! Do watch it if you can. Good film making, accurate portrayal of the horrors of war and good acting.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Atomic Blonde

If you like seeing stiletto heels puncturing a jugular and lots of violence within the twisted plot of a double-crossing cold war spy movie - then this is for you! The impact of Charlize Theron's raw and violent beauty in the titular role as MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton is what carries the film. Fast paced, with plenty of action and fight scenes to rival MI, Bourne or Bond, this film reinvents good old fashioned cold war spying operations in Berlin as the wall is coming down in 1989.

You need to concentrate to follow the convoluted script as it weaves a trail of lies and deceit which leaves the viewer unsure about who to trust and who is actually the bad guy. Russians, Brits and Americans all interplay to try and secure a list of spies which, if it fell into the 'wrong' hands, would compromise many agents. The trouble is working whose hands are right and whose are wrong!

The high impact visual appearance of Theron is the sensory focus of this film - with a wardrobe to match. To portray such a sexualised character who uses her beauty to seduce the spy world at a time when Hollywood is debating the use of sexual power in Tinsel Town seemed an ironic confluence to me.

Broughton's ability to contrive an escape from the tightest of situations against seemingly impossible odds prevails time-and-time again. The story is based on a graphical novel and the action sequences and unlikely narrative manage to convey that feel very well. Whether or not this level of out-and-out violence adds or detracts from the film will be debated by many viewers I suspect.

There are very good performances from a strong cast including Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan and  James McAvoy with some stunning locations in Berlin of old, London and Paris. I watched this because the plane I was on had an oddly limited choice of films, I don't think I would have gone to the cinema to watch it or bought the disc. It passed a couple of hours but on reflection I felt it had appealed more to my base instincts and so perhaps I too am guilty of collusion. I'll give it 6/10.

Sunday, 31 December 2017


This film shouldn't work - but it does. It is cliched, has plot holes the size of a planet and hurtles at a relentless pace as CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) runs to evade capture and assassination at the hands of both the CIA and FSB. Salt out does John McClane of Die Hard and even out does Jason Bourne of the Bourne Trilogy(+) fame - she is seemingly indestructible and so resourceful she can escape from any tight squeeze. After only 10 minutes I had worked out the arc of the story and who was who in this double-double cross of a spy film - yet I still enjoyed it!

Tom Cruse was originally cast to play the lead but in the end Cruse felt that the lead character was too like Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible so withdrew from the project. This is not a film of great artistic merit or intellectual engagement. Neither is it a positive advertisement for a return to the days of the Cold War in which the ideology that drives the story originates. It is nevertheless very entertaining. There are persisting rumours of a sequel or even a TV series on Sony but nothing firm yet.

I appreciate that his kind of film is more like a fantasy story than documentary but the plot does allow for too many last second escapes and the stunts that Salt pulls off would render most people paralysed by half-way through the film. The violence is relentless but lots of it is non-lethal. For a film starring one of Hollywood's most beautiful, the visuals do not exploit Jolie's physical attributes and there are  only one or two low-key kisses. The emphasis remains firmly on her role as an all action hero. Even when she does remove her underwear, there is no sexual or romantic intent at all - it's all for the action!

As I said, I liked it - glad I've seen it, but I won't be rushing to order the disc for my collection - just right as a TV movie. If it's on and you have nothing else to do and you enjoy films of this type, then do watch it. I'll give it a 7/10.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017


This is one of those joyous films that can be received and enjoyed at face value or used as a springboard to do some deeper thinking and reflecting on bigger questions. Which way did you choose to see it? One of the top films of 2016 it was nominated for 8 Academy Awards but strange things were happening that year at the Oscars and it only won 1! Amy Adams should have won best actress with a strong yet subtle and nuanced performance as academic linguist Louise Banks.

The film is about the arrival of some extra-terrestrial beings who arrive in 8 spacecraft at different locations around the world. At face value the film depicts a race between the nations competing to be the first to decipher the alien's intent whilst keeping a finger on the trigger just in case they become hostile. Banks is recruited to help the US military decode the alien's communications.

On a deeper level the film invites an exploration of our understanding of time as the aliens offer the chance to see it in a non-linear way. At the beginning of the film, Banks talks to her daughter saying "I used to think this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn't work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time, by its order." This sows the seeds and things are set for a film that to all intents and purposes proceeds along a linear timeline, but as Banks understands more and more of the alien's language, so she is subject to flash-backs - or are they premonitions? This film messes with time and the viewer's perception of it. What if time doesn't really sequence one thing after another but is in itself non-linear and multidimensional?

In addition to exploring time as a concept, the film 'coincidentally' invites a reflection on giving and receiving love, and human identity in the vastness of the universe. The editing of the film is completely at one with the story and the way in which it is told. Jump-cuts slash back and forth across time to emphasise the non-linear nature of the alien's understanding of it. There is also a clever play on dark and light, shadows and smoke - the almost mirror-like environment within the alien's spacecraft. The subtle use of colour shifts to underscore what different characters are doing and where the film is heading also reinforces the story and through that, viewer engagement.

I've tried not to give the plot away as that would spoil things. The acting is strong in this film - not only from Adams but from the others too. It makes a refreshing change to have an alien movie that is not simply a shoot-em-up but invites another way of exploring extra-terrestrial encounter. Louise Banks appears to me to be extremely intuitive. That causes me a problem as intuition is my shadow side and therefore difficult for me to connect with. 

This is not a the run-of-the-mill sci-fi alien encounter film. The storytelling, acting and expansive ideas carried by a script that is both challenging and believable all combine to deliver a gift of a film. Do seek it out if you've not seen it. It will repay the investment of time. I'll give it 8/10.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

A very British feeling film, setting lead character Harry Hart [Galahad] (Colin Firth) very much in the mould of John Steed (Patrick Macnee) from the original The Avengers. This is a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the whole genre of spy action movies paying homage to James Bond, Jason Bourne with a hint of Monty Python all set to over-the-top Tarantino-like choreographed showpiece violence. With a star-studded ensemble cast and dialogue that fits the visual landscape of the film, it deserves its plaudits at the hands of critics and the movie-going public alike.

The Britishness is carried by the locations - a London council flat, a local old style pub with villians, a spy HQ accessed through a Saville Row tailor and the notion that the Kingsman are the modern day Knights of the Round Table presided over by Arthur (Michael Caine). Being a Gentleman is the primary calling, national security, a sense of style and getting the bad guys are all secondary considerations.

In a sense the plot is irrelevant as we've seen it a hundred times before in endless spy films. It does have a narrative arc and as always with these films, resolution is inevitable - as is the Bond-like ending! The violence is so theatrical and over-the-top it would be hard for much of it to cause offence but the constant bad language was I felt an unnecessary component - IMDb logging 99 expletives! I guess with that level of violence it was always going to attract a rating so the bad language got in for free as it were.

The gadgets, locations and ingenious escapes all thrill. The acting is good and the characters believable - especially the bad guy's side-kick Gazelle (Sofia Boutella)! With a winning formula, strong cast and good reception at the box office and with the critics, this was always destined to the first of a franchise run. Kingsman: The Golden Circle was released in the autumn of 2017 - let's see how that compares. I'll give this film 7/10.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Hidden Figures

From the openly ambiguous title, this film operates on a number of levels but there is a feeling that the Holywood filter distorts a great film which means it ends up only being good. It is filled with contrasts - the most obvious being the world of white Americans contrasted with the world of Black Americans. It also contrasts the privileges afforded to men and denied to women. It contrasts compliance against subversion of the institution in its many forms. It presents a victory for the myth that America is great when in many parts of the USA the reality of defeat means that little has actually changed in the intervening 50 years - more than that, segregation and apartheid have moved on to operate in new areas of hate and fear. The picture is little better here in Europe. So perhaps this film's greatest triumph is to issue a rallying call for our common humanity to rise up and unite in ways that our social constructs seem intent on denying us.

The majority of the film takes place in 1961/2 against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and of course the space race. The State of Virginia is a segregated State - except when an individual's intellect is of use to the government. The film is punctuated by close-ups of a black hand embracing a stick of white chalk to mark each time another chink is opened up in the armour of a society which has institutionalised racism. As three black women work for NASA in engineering, the early days of computing and calculating spacecraft trajectories, so they blaze a trail fuelled by the merit of their abilities which forces the establishment and the individuals within it to begin re-evaluating their innate racism and sexism.

Each of us is born into a situation that we take as being normative. As we grow and develop, the natural tendency is to conserve the status quo as that is what brought us into the world and nurtured our development. That's fine - until we are uncritical of the status quo and fail to explore where its flaws are and how we might seek to change them. Furthermore, we need to explore where our role within the social machine within which we exist, makes us complicit in perpetuating something that is not wholesome and life-giving. Social responsibility is a nuanced and awesome thing. Preserve all that is good and help to change for the better, that which is not. St Irenaeus is credited with saying "The glory of God is a human being fully alive" - a recontextualising of John 10:10? How can I, you, help the people we know, to be fully alive?

The acting performances from the three lead actors are immensely strong and engaging. The central character is Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) ably supported by Mary Jackson (Janelle MonĂ¡e) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Between them they challenge the white male dominated world and break down barriers not only in toilet provision and access to coffee, but also in having the foresight to enable NASA to properly exploit the potential of their first mainframe IBM computer. However, it still requires a human in the shape of Katherine Johnson to correct the computer's miscalculation of a critical point of the re-entry, to ensure a safe return for John Glenn's first US manned flight in space. Kevin Costner's Al Harrison is likeable but I felt the character to be almost a construct of convenience to enable the story to continue it's narrative development.

Whilst outlining what i think are the main themes, I've tried not to give too much away about the way in which the story plays out. This is a very human film with warmth, humour and a portrayal of an oppressed community biding its time until freedom comes. It seems that our collective ability to put human beings into space and to look beyond opens up new vistas of learning. I wonder if we should concentrate on learning lessons about things that should matter closer to home? This is a good film that offers plenty of scope for reflection on a number of issues. I have a feeling it might have been a great film if it had been handled differently. I'll give it 7/10.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Henry Poole is Here

Looking out on the end of the day as the sun sets on his life. Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) buys a house at the full asking price on the street where he grew up in an anonymous Los Angeles suburb. Having received a terminal diagnosis for an undisclosed disease, he has come home to die. All he wants, is to be left in peace as he indulges in a diet of vodka, pizza and doughnuts awaiting the inevitable.

When a 'stain' appears on the newly painted exterior of the house, his latino neighbour Esperanza (Adriana Barraza) sees the face of Christ in the stain and when a droplet of blood appears on the face, it becomes a shrine and site of pilgrimage. All of this deals a double blow to Henry, firstly to his desire to be left undisturbed and secondly to his, at best, sceptical view of faith and religion.

I won't say anything more about the plot or narrative arc of this film but I will say for a mainstream film that is openly exploring issues of faith and belief, it does so with refreshing openness and engagement. It also offers clear psychological insights into the lives of the main characters, each of whom is dealing with their own set of circumstances. The actors performances add to the believability of the characters and each one allows the viewer to explore how they might react were they stand in their shoes.

The central questions in the film relate to faith and doubt and whether something you don't believe in can exist outside of your beliefs. Other questions to explore might be, are doubt and certainty opposite ends of the same continuum? Also, does belief look the same for everybody? Henry placed his faith in medical science without any evidence whereas Esperanza placed her faith in a likeness of Jesus that was tangible. Whose faith was blind?

The pace of this film is deliberate and gives space and time for the characters to wrestle with what's before them. It is a film about kindness and giving. It is also a film about virtue - faith is foremost and Esperanza means hope, in his other neighbour Dawn (Radha Mitchell), he may find love and at the grocery store he encounters patience! Dawn certainly lives up to her name in guiding Henry through a series of epiphanies.

This is a gentle and heart-warming film about important things which delivers its story in a realistic and engaging way. I encourage you to check it out and reflect on what issues it raises in your mind. I'll give it 7/10.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Choosing which image to use was a hard choice because this film is not about one thing, but many things. There isn't a simple narrative arc that holds the film together as it proceeds on multiple fronts simultaneously as each main character battles their inner demons. There is much that is familiar here from the Star Wars universe but the character evolution during the film adds a depth and complexity that has perhaps until now been lacking. I particularly enjoyed the many moments of humour that peppered the film.

At the end of the day this is a Sci-Fi action movie that has plenty of fight sequences and battles, space ship fighter engagements and deployment of destructive mega-technology. All the things you would hope for an expect in a Star Wars film. What I didn't expect was the nuanced way the script dealt with the classic battle of dualism - good versus evil. This film explores the many shades of grey that exist between black and white (and no sex scenes in sight).

For the many who were expecting a continuation of the flow that pulsed through VII and are disappointed, this film was never going to deliver that - the clue is in the title. This film is not about the legacy of Luke Skywalker continuing as it did previously - or as we would wish it to in our own fantasies, but about a pivot in the history of the challenge of good versus evil where the battle moves on to continue in a different way. The film, as all of them do, invites us to reflect on how we engage with evil and what we do about exerting a good influence to counter it.

The acting is strong throughout the 2.5 plus hours of the film. The visuals are stunning and the CGI seamlessly integrated with the actors - a welcome development over four decades! I'm attempting not to give anything away here. The way the story develops has twists and turns and as you would expect in a Star Wars film some people die - and some don't - but who ends up in which category is perhaps where the film delivers its greatest surprises.

This film is well worth seeing - but be realistic in your expectations. It is not an episode in a TV box set series but a movie developing and advancing a story that many of us had the privilege of  experiencing forty years ago in the cinema for the first time. If it does conform to all your hopes and expectations what's the point of paying to see it on the big screen? We go to engage with the unexpected, the visually stunning and the communal experience that cinema provides. We look to see where our story intersects with the film's story and God's story. Go with an open mind and heart and you will not be disappointed. The bonus is, you will get to meet the Porgs - who wouldn't want one (Star Wars version of Star Trek's Tribbles)? I'll give it 8/10.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Sure Thing

This is an 80's road trip movie about university students trying to find sex and love, directed by Rob Reiner. In a way it is a perfect dress rehearsal for When Harry met Sally which he directed five years later. The characters are engaging, the story whilst predictable, is easily subsumed in a drama that explores teenage relational angst in a way that is well thought through and which delivers a worthwhile and funny film - all without a sex scene between the main characters!

The lead character is Walter (Gib) Gibson played by a 16 year-old John Cusack who at a High School graduation party confides in his best friend Lance (Anthony Edwards) that he has lost his mojo with 'women' after failing to score using a number of cheesy chat-up lines. Lance tells him that he should  go to university with him in California where the sun alway shines and the beaches are filled with hot girls (see pic above), rather going to the cold and dour north-east to study. University begins and they go their separate ways.

Although there isn't much of a narrative arc that you won't see coming, I'll refrain from describing any plot details just in case you want to dig out this tribute to 1980's youth culture. Rather than steamy shower scenes and sleazy clumsy sex, this film explores the male desire for the physical and the female desire for the emotional in a way that requires a journey of 6000 miles, fights and jealousy to reach a consensus.

For me, it was only after having shared the common experience of the journey, it's initial destination, the disappointment it offered and then the realisation that opposites do attract, that the film delivers its own satisfying climax. In an age where everything is instant - especially gratification, this film is an amusing and entertaining reminder that things worth pursuing can take time to build and that if they are built well can last a long time.

This is true of so many things in life. I remember my own impatience in my teens and twenties - I wanted it all and I wanted it all now. A life time later, the journey that I have travelled gives me a different perspective and I am so thankful for what I have - not what I wanted! It is so hard telling someone who simply wants the destination that it's actually about the getting there that is important. As much as parents may wish to live their children's' lives for them, we have to muster the courage to let them go and find their own way, hoping and praying that the values we instilled into them during their upbringing and which our family espouses, will give them enough to safely navigate by.

This is a worthy film - even if the decades now make it a little cheesy (great soundtrack though!). John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga deliver strong performances in the lead roles. The film beautifully characterises the contrast between New England and California with the illusion of The Sure Thing framed on the beach under warm Californian skies and chilly and snowy Ithaca actually delivering something beautiful that is of lasting and fulfilling quality. I'll give it 7/10.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Paddington 2

This film made me laugh and it made me cry! I managed to get a couple of free tickets to what turned out to be a Marks & Spencer screening - presumably for employees as the cinema was packed and the majority of the audience were under 10 and had no idea that there might any etiquette involved in attending cinema. Such was the power of this engaging tale, that for the most part I was oblivious to the screaming, running about and hysteria that went on around me for the whole of the 103 minutes run time. I was only aware of my surroundings on less than half a dozen occasions. I can't remember the last time a film engrossed me so much - or perhaps it was because of my surroundings that I chose to become so engrossed?

You know a film should be good when the ensemble cast includes Ben Wishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Conti, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, Joanna Lumley and Hugh Grant to name but a few! Such is the quality of CGI animation these days that not only do the CGI characters look believably life-like, but the way they physically interact with the rest of the cast looks completely natural. Well done Framestore (a British Company) for the animations and digital effects.

I am not a fan of slap-stick comedy but this film had me laughing - a lot. The script is very cleverly done and the visual gags are beautifully executed. As long as you remember that the world in which Paddington lives is a fantasy, there is no problem about a bear riding on the footplate of a refuse truck, sitting astride and racing on an Irish Wolfhound or him using toffee apples to stick to the ceiling allowing him to walk upside down!

As with any good children's story, there is plenty for adults to reflect on if they choose to peel back the layers. There are many weighty themes in this film such as fulfilling aspirations, generosity, family, community, looking for the good in people, guilt, transformation, injustice, forgiveness, redemption, salvation and hope. All of these inter-weave to combine in a film that offers much for reflection and which presents Paddington as a type of Christ figure if you choose to see him that way. Or you can simply sit back, enjoy the film and have a good laugh - and cry.

As you will have gathered, I liked it a lot and will award it 8/10.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

I, Daniel Blake

It is a strange feeling to be in close proximity to 500+ other people, seven miles up at 600 miles an hour and to be sobbing uncontrollably. Such is the power of this film to evoke a strong emotional response. It is a damning indictment of modern British society that such a film could be made - a film that is sadly more documentary than fiction. For those of us who don't move in the world of job seekers allowance and benefits, it offers a glimpse into an existence that is all too common to too many people.

This film challenges notions of collective social responsibility, highlights the individuality of the case of each claimant and the cruel reality of austerity in the face of the 2008 financial crisis. The points it makes transcend party politics. It is a call to simple humanity, respect and the offer of an invitation to love your neighbour as yourself. Why is it so hard to make things work more equitably?

The unpleasant and gritty reality of the film is amplified by being set in the North-East of England amongst the wonderful people of Newcastle. An area of the UK to have suffered more than its share of job losses and deprivation over recent decades. The characters in the film are compellingly believable and the acting performances - particularly from the two central characters, outstanding. Dave Johns as the titular Daniel and Hayley Squires as lovable Katie weave a web of interdependency that anchors the story to a place of hopeful dark reality.

The portrayal of Job Centre staff is mostly less than kind - they are in an impossible situation and although there are undoubtedly some jobsworths that delight in creating eternal spirals of bureaucracy, there are many others with a generous heart who do not delight in the plight of those they serve on a daily basis. The anonymisation of 'the system' is dehumanising and the fact that determinations are made by someone called 'The Decision Maker' who remains invisible, further alienates people seeking support and feels more like something from Orwell's 1984.

It is clear that the British social security system is broken. How can someone who is advised by their National Health Service Doctor not to work as they continue recovery from a heart attack, be compelled by another part of the National system to demonstrate that they are seeking work in order to continue receiving benefits? How can that system expect a man who has worked all of his life with his hands to be computer literate and compel him to create a neatly laid out and printed CV? Where does he pick up the necessary skills and how easily can he access a computer? How are such things to be paid for?

I'm sure there are some folk who play the system for all they can get. What this film demonstrates - and it seems to accepted as de facto - is that the system is loaded against the 'man/woman in the street' who needs some help to enable him/her to get by until such time as he/she can get back into work. Or loaded against the single mum forced to relocate hundreds of miles away from her circles of support, who ends up being driven into supporting her family through less than ideal ways?

This is a powerful yet ultimately very sad film. It contains many glimpses of the best of human nature but ultimately these offering are snuffed out by a system that seems predicated on a philosophy of saving the state money, of issuing unwarranted sanctions willy nilly and most alarmingly of failing to see fellow human beings as such. It paints a picture that is dehumanising.

Director Ken Loach continues to deliver keenly observed and conceived films that highlight the human condition. This is an important film that spotlights the pressing need to hold to account those who govern supposedly on our behalf.  To award it a score with boxes of popcorn would be an act of trivialisation. This film stands above such things.

Friday, 27 October 2017


I gave my significant other a choice of three Sci-Fi films to watch on disc and this is the one that was chosen. It turns out to be less a film about Sci-Fi and more a film about what it means to be human, to love and to be loved.

The context is definitely Sci-Fi but the narrative is all about the need to be in community, to give love and to receive love. Essentially there are only four characters in this film, one of those is an android barman called Arthur (Michael Sheen), the second only features briefly (Laurence Fishburne as Gus) which leaves most of the film about Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence).

This is a visually beautiful film. All of the narrative unfolds on the spaceship Avalon which is transporting 5000 colonists who have paid for their passage to found a new colony on a distant planet because Earth is becoming over crowded and beginning to struggle to support life. The passengers are all in a state of stasis in hibernation pods. Thirty years into a 120 year journey, Jim is inexplicably woken and finds himself the only person roaming the ship. He tries to make use of its facilities but as he is only an 'economy' class passenger, many of the facilities on offer are not available to him! He does however strike up a good relationship with Arthur who it seems has spent 30 years polishing his bar's glasses.

Jim, an engineer,  spends his time trying to work out how to put himself back into hibernation and concludes that it is not possible. As weeks turn into months, the loneliness and isolation together with the growing realisation that he will die before journey's end, combine to propel him into a downward booze-fuelled spiral that even Arthur is unable to stop. On a drunken stagger through one of the hibernation pod halls he notices Aurora in her pod and is drawn to her beauty.

Accessing the ship's files, Jim researches Aurora and views video files she recorded as part of her application process in preparation for the journey. In time he becomes infatuated with her and the idea slowly dawns, that he could wake her up and share his 'prison' with her. Although the script is in places a little clunky, overall it does a very good job of exploring the emotional turmoil the consequences of waking Aurora would have - both for her and for Jim. Jim seeks the counsel of Arthur who, although wonderfully programmed, remains an insensate android that lacks the crucial human perspective that would help Jim resist the temptation.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can't force it back in. The film portrays a gentle, tender and believable growth in Aurora and Jim's attraction to each other. They develop an authentic relationship - not simply one born out of pragmatism given their situation. I won't spoil the plot but I will say that I was deeply moved by the situation they faced, how it developed and the outcome - so much so that my dreams were even affected by the film! I don't think I was any more susceptible to being influenced in this way when I watched the film, but for it to generate such an affective response,  illustrated to me the primal nature of the story - the need for companionship, to love and be loved.

The first hour of the film seemed slow to me, the second hour was over in a flash! The aesthetics of the film are very strong - including the ultimate infinity swimming pool! Special effects are very good too - particularly the weightless gigantic bubble scene!

This film is filled with a wide range of emotions that the characters portray in a convincing way - the casting is spot on. The premise of the story is simple, the way it works out is plausible and the narrative arc delivers a few unexpected twists and turns. I really enjoyed this film - even if it was much less Sci-Fi and much more a good old romance story! I'll give it 8/10.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049

As the picture above shows, 30 years on and Los Angeles is still the grimy, dark and hostile environment that we were introduced to in 1982's Blade Runner. In this film, Ridley Scott's original feel and look of the Blade Runner world are faithfully reproduced and developed under the guidance of Denis Villeneuve. The soundtrack is even Vangelis like in character. This film is not only faithful to the visual and aural components of the original, but the story continues to ask the same question - 'what is life'?

Officer K/Joe is a role Ryan Gosling was born to play. As technological advances mean that there is even greater integration between humans and androids to produce 'replicants', K works as a Blade Runner for LAPD - he is himself the latest version of replicant, the Nexus 9. Nexus of course means meeting point and embodied within the Nexus 9 is the meeting of human and machine - but is he simply a machine or is he alive? What is life?

This is a big question and Blade Runner 2049 is a big film. The focal point is so often located in a much wider view (as above) whether that be the urban sprawl of LA or the desert or a disused machine hall or mound of rubbish. At nearly 3 hours long I found myself questioning whether it moved too slowly, but I kept coming back to the idea that in trying to answer such a big question, a big canvas was appropriate and with that a long time-scale to explore the story. No, I don't think it is over long.

This is a film filled with the best and the worst of human emotions. Love, hope, happiness, sacrifice, duty, regret, fear and avarice all play out in a violent world redeemed by pockets of intimacy where notions of love and hope are kept alive. There is talk of miracles and discussion of what it means to have a soul and how that then links to whether or not that constitutes life. This film is more open in dealing with metaphysical questions but leaves the viewer to construct an answer.

Human development is inexorably heading towards a point where Artificial Intelligence (AI) will have the capacity to mimic humanity. The intention of such development in the world of Blade Runner is that replicants are 'slaves' who perform the tasks humans don't want to, or which are unsafe for humans to engage in.

The whole point of AI is its capacity to learn and evolve. What happens if and when human and AI evolution intersect and hybrids develop? How human will they have to be, to be deemed as being alive rather than simply existing as machines? History shows us that slavery never has a neat or equitable outcome - it is still a problem we are dealing with today. Simply making slaves that are 'less than human' doesn't really change the argument - does it? From a Christian perspective, how will all of this impact on notions of what it means to be made in the image of God?

The film contains many strong acting performances in a world where gender inequality appears to be a thing of the past - although sexual holograms and prostitutes are all female, so perhaps it is only the appearance of equality the film gives? Robin Wright as Lieutenant Joshi and Ana de Armas as Joi both give compelling performances. It was good to see Harrison Ford reprise his role as Deckard (or if I was unkind Harrison Ford!) but for me the stand out performance was from Sylvia Hoeks playing 'the best of Angels' Luv.

Ridley Scott's DNA runs throughout this film as he oversaw production, but it is probably the original Blade Runner's writer, Hampton Fancher's screenplay that gives greatest continuity with the 1982 offering. I hope they all stick around as this story has plenty of scope for further developments and more films in the Blade Runner franchise. As you may have gathered, I liked it - a lot. It's not often a sequel matches the original but for me in this case it does, so I will award it 9/10!