Thursday, 11 February 2016

Ronin



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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, 29 January 2016

The Spitfire Grill


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




Sunday, 17 January 2016

Ex Machina


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

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

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

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

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


Monday, 11 January 2016

Steve Jobs (2015)




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Saturday, 9 January 2016

Inside Out



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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2


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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, 7 December 2015

Spectre


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

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

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

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

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


Friday, 4 December 2015

The Lady in the Van


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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Martian



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Wall (2014)



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Thursday, 27 August 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl



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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Taken 2



Last time it was Paris this time Istanbul. Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is a retired CIA operative with a particular set of skills which includes 1001 ways to kill people. What do trained assassins do when they retire? The only thing they know how to do - kill people. This sequel is predictable as it pits Mills against the Albanian Mafia seeking revenge for their family members killed by Mills in Paris in the franchise opener.

What is guaranteed is the prospect of car chases through the streets of Istanbul, chases on foot over the rooftops of the Bazaar (homage to James Bond?) and sweeping views of the Bosphorus - oh did I mention another pile of bodies? It delivers all of these - and little else.

As his daughter and wife team up with him for a family holiday in Istanbul after he completes a protection job, so the Albanians arrive in town and kidnap his wife and daughter. The narrative arc is straightforward and the only question is will vengeance be served or will the goodie prevail? Well, this is a film that espouses Western values and we all know how well Disney has prepared us for a happy ending.

In reality this film is an excuse for an action movie kill-fest. You know it will be that so don't try and watch it pretending it might be something else. The only glimmer of hope is the ageing Mills' growing sense of fatigue with the whole assassination thing and the hope of a negotiated settlement father-to-father between Mills and Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija)  the leader of the Albanians. The final killing pays homage to Midnight Express also filmed in Istanbul. There are hints throughout the film that Mills is operating to a higher level of moral integrity - but as he wades through thugs and villains this notion rings hollow.

This was fine for a Saturday TV evening on my own (oh how I hate ad breaks). There are many holes in the plot like driving over the border from Albania into Turkey - I could go on, and on and on.... Having laid waste to dozens of people in Paris and Istanbul, I doubt the LA setting of Taken 3 does anything to improve the franchise. I won't be hurrying to see it. I'll wait for another Saturday night on my own! I'll give it 5/10.


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Silent Running



Many film reviews appeal to a title from a previous generation that is used as a benchmark for comparison. In the Sci-Fi genre, Silent Running is one of those older films to which newer creations are compared. I watched it again recently having first seen it decades ago. It was good to see it again.

In many ways it is the antithesis of the modern-day Sci-Fi blockbuster. The special effects are limited - but appropriate. There are only four human characters accompanied by three small robots who inhabit the space freighter 'Valley Forge'. There are no large-scale fight scenes and hardly any blood and gore. The plot is thin and lacks depth. In these respects it's not at all like a contemporary Sci-Fi film.

The 'Valley Forge' is one of a fleet of space ships whose precious cargo is the last surviving plant matter from planet earth. Sustained in large domes on the side of the ship like massive insect-like compound eyes, the forests and glades drift through space in the hope that they can be replanted in a new colony where they will be safe once more from the threat of extinction due to human advancement.

This film does have a strong eco-message and made in 1972 the central character Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), is presented as a slightly deranged tree-hugger spiralling into psychosis as the order is given to destroy his precious cargo. His travelling companions do not share his sentiments and are content to simply have as good a time as they can within the confines of a spaceship. The Joan Baez soundtrack gives the perfect accompaniment and is also very much of its time.

The prophetic message of this film has not been diminished by the passage of time. If they could withstand the comparatively slow pace and lack of action and CGI effects, young folk of today would do well to heed this film's message. I sense however that generally speaking they already do and it is the generation for whom the film was originally made that have failed to heed its warning.

Bruce Dern delivers a wonderful performance - he gives 90%+ of the acting in the film. When the other ships in the fleet are ordered to destroy their eco domes and the contents, Lowell decides that that there are already too many people and not enough trees - so he mutinies, kills his crew mates and nurtures his garden. As time passes, the robots who are great at weeding, become increasingly poor at filling the void left by human contact which drives Lowell to spiral ever deeper.

This is an odd film in that it is not a classic yet it is a film that is often referred to and held up as a benchmark. Silent Running has been named as an influence on Wall-E, Red Dwarf and Moon as well as other forms of art. The fact that today, more than 40 years on, it still has a currency amongst the filmmaking and watching fraternity testifies to its strength, innovation and strong acting. I'm happy to have a disc of it among my canon of must have films. I'll give it 7/10.


Monday, 27 April 2015

Inside Llewyn Davis




A week in the life of an aspiring folk singer in New York City in 1961. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) has little more than the clothes he is wearing and his guitar - that is apart form a talent to write and perform folk songs. But does he have enough talent to make it on his own? Formerly part of a duo who had a recording deal, Llewyn presents a sad and lonely character as he crashes on friends' couches in and around Greenwich Village, Manhattan.

Llewyn is his own worst enemy. He has very little Emotional Intelligence and hasn't worked out that when you are reliant on the charity of others it is best not to upset them - or get them pregnant. Those who were there at the time say that the film doesn't accurately portray the folk scene of the early 1960s. In one respect that is not important as this film doesn't set out to offer an authoritative documentary retelling of how it was. This is an act of fiction and Joel and Ethan Coen  who wrote and directed it have pulled off an engaging and thoughtful exploration of the persistent promise of artistic recognition and a record deal tomorrow.

The film is quirky and apart form his music Llewyn has little to commend him. He is unable to think beyond the here and now and unable to appreciate that his actions might have an impact on the lives of others. He has a strained relationship with his sister and is distant from his father. He seems to only worry about the possibility of pregnancy after it happens. He is seemingly unable to maintain any healthy relationships, relying instead on people taking pity on him. His orbit lies within the liberal intellectual and artistic elite of the academy and 'The Village'.

There are moments of dark and ironic humour in this film as you would expect from the Coen Brothers. However, it is not an uplifting or enlivening story - and certainly not something budding performers would gain encouragement from. Be that as it may, the film sets up a deep and enduring resonance between the subject matter of the carefully crafted folk songs Llewyn sings and the life he finds himself uncontrollably living.

The acting performances are all very natural and credible - with a great show from Carey Mulligan whom I didn't recognise at first. Justin Timberlake is convincing as her husband and John Goodman delivers a tour-de-force as the dark and sinister heroin addicted jazz musician Roland Turner.

This is a film that majors on the existential angst of the title character as it delivers a week in his life that reveals something of the inside of Llewyn Davis. We get very little back story and are left guessing why he has developed into such a hard, unlikeable and embittered character. Perhaps a forensic analysis of his songs would deliver more evidence. This is one for a rainy evening with a bottle of wine. I enjoyed it and will happily award it 8/10.


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Look Both Ways



This indie Australian film by Director Sarah Watts is a thoughtful exploration of the ways people handle death and dying, and view their own mortality. This might not strike you as an immediate recipe for a happy movie watching but the central characters are warm and engaging and their developing romance over the course the weekend in which the story is set is both endearing and believable.

The film begins with a death and ends with the hope of life. Most of the existential angst that drives the film is non-religious but there are occasional engagements with questions of faith, belief and life beyond the here and now. This would be a good film perhaps for a youth group to watch and discuss - there are even a few giggles along the way. (UK 12 Certificate) Anyone who has experienced a loved one suddenly being taken seriously ill or dying will be all too aware that a natural response is a heightened sensitivity that sees every TV programme as being medical or set in a hospital and out and about there is hearse lurking around every corner!

Illness, ageing, accident, abortion and suicide all intertwine as a series of inter-connected people go about their lives at various stages of preparing for the inevitable, grieving over the loss of a loved one after a long illness or coping with the tragedy of accidental death - or was it suicide? The role of family relationships and responsibilities to older and younger relatives gets a thoughtful and useful treatment.

What the film does well, is to delve into the paranoia that can confront some people. The two central characters Meryl Lee (Justine Clarke) and Nick (William McInnes) see death all around them all the time as the film jump edits to animations depicting the scene becoming one in which people are either run over or eaten by a shark! This does become a little tiring after a while. The film does resist the temptation to offer therapy. It also doesn't delve too deeply into the psychological disturbances that give rise to our sense of the fragility of life and how we too often take good health for granted.

There's not a lot more to say without giving the plot away - such as it is. This film is subject rather than plot driven. It depicts suburban Adelaide in less than glamorous terms but that gives the film a earthiness that enhances its sense of reality. It invites a reflection on our own mortality but in a gentle way. Unless this is not a good time for you, I'd say it is worth hunting down a copy. I bought mine for £1.99 in a Hospice Charity Shop! I'll give it 7/10.


Friday, 17 April 2015

Star Wars - The Force Awakens

I want to ride in this!



See more at

http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/32346867/star-wars-plane-being-launched-by-all-nippon-airways-later-this-year

and here's the trailer. Christmas is coming ....


It seems that we are have the force and therefore are all Jedi - perhaps the 2001 Census was right after all. How's your midi-chlorian count?

Friday, 10 April 2015

A Late Quartet



With a title like that you would expect the film to be about music. Well it is and it isn't. As much as music, or any of the creative arts, are conduits which allow an exploration of metaphors revealing deeper emotions, so Beethoven's opus 131, his String Quartet No. 14 becomes the metaphor for the relationships between the members of the Fugue Quartet. With an ensemble cast of this quality you know it has to be more than just a film about music. It is a film about fidelity, truth, creative expression and above all how one thing relates to another.

The world renowned Fugue Quartet have been wowing audiences world-wide for 25 years, so it is a little odd that all their demons should manifest themselves at the same time wreaking havoc on the group's dynamics and tearing relationships apart.

As musicians, each member of the quartet is a virtuoso performer. However, they have chosen for a quarter of a century to play together, to meld their creative and technical expertise into forging one super maker of music - the string quartet. It works because the individual puts the collective before themselves. All this begins to unravel when events force the leader to retire. There are many philosophical mumblings and metaphysical ruminations that punctuate the film such as

"Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable. Or say that the end precedes the beginning, and the end and the beginning were always there before the beginning and after the end. And all is always now."

These words are spoken by the cellist and leader of the quartet Peter Mitchell played with astounding depth and sensitivity by Christopher Walken who imbues the character with great emotional capital. Beethoven's opus 131 unusually has seven movements rather than the conventional four. Written near the end of his life and seen as one long passage of music through which he attempted to express his own view of life and the meaning of the universe, so the performing of the piece becomes a metaphor for the fragmenting quartet to try and do the same.

There are the usual creative tensions between following the score with meticulous precision and allowing a free and creative expression of the music. Tension between first and second fiddle, tension between a cold and frigid wife and a warm and passionate  flamenco dancer with whom the husband has a one night stand. Tension between the couple and their 25 year old daughter falling for her teacher - the fourth member of the quartet. The whole thing is almost incestuous and as pointed out by the daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots) quite 'anal'.

The whole story only involves about eight actors and is set in a wintry New York City with wonderful scenes of a deserted and snow covered Central Park under clear blue skies. A further metaphor for the cold and frozen relationships that 25 years of following the elusive dream of delivering the perfect performance has created.

This film is a drama, a melodrama and also a tragedy - comedy is absent. The metaphor of the quartet with it's ability to harmonise and play off dissonance echoes the lives of its members. Walken gives a tour-de-force performance but then not far behind are Philip Seymour Hoffman and  Catherine Keener. There is also an appearance from Madhur Jaffrey - I had no idea she was also an actress!

This film is in many ways predictable and the plot far from exciting. It does however contain performances of such depth and conviction that it had me in tears two or three times. It has the ability, for me at least, to connect the viewer with the situations of the characters and so draw them into the stories that are unfolding. That is after all why we go to the cinema or buy the disc and why story is such an important thing that helps us all to make meaning. I'll give it 8/10.


Monday, 6 April 2015

The Deer Hunter



Caught this on TV last night and had to watch it - again. It is still an extremely powerful film with great acting.

Is this a war movie that shows the setting from which a group of friends go off to to do their duty or is this a film about community, brotherhood, sacrifice and making meaning, part of which happens to involve a war? I think it is the latter.

This is a film of stark contrasts as the story oscillates between compassion and cynicism. The monotony of life centred on working at the steel mill in small town Pennsylvania. The desaturated greyness of the drab and uninspiring townscape of Clairton jars against the kaleidoscopic technicolour grandeur of the orthodox church interior and the lushness of the tropical jungles of Vietnam (shot in Thailand).

This film started shooting only two years after the end of the Vietnam war. It's visceral rawness powerfully portrays the contradictions that resonate throughout the story. The three characters at the centre of the story Mike (Robert de Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Stevie (John Savage) are joined by friends and family to celebrate Stevie's wedding to Angela (Rutanya Alda). After the celebrations the three are joined by some more friends as they head into the mountains for a final hunting trip before enlisting.

There are tensions between some of the characters with Mike always seeming to be the wise one who is in control and to whom everyone turns when they are in any kind of difficulty. In an often quoted speech, Mike says "You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it's all about. A deer's gotta be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don't listen". This establishes the premise that one shot is significant and that with just one shot, a life can be taken - whether that be a deer or a closest friend.

Mike bags a deer with a single shot - a majestic stag whose dying is shown in graphic close-up, although it is apparently only the effects of being shot with a tranquilliser - a deep irony given the violence and killing of humans that permeates the film! The most controversial element of the film is the depiction of the North Vietnamese soldiers forcing their American captives to play Russian roulette while they bet on the outcome for their own amusement. There is apparently no evidence that this practice ever took place - but again it reinforces the concept of the importance of one shot and gives the audience further reason to hate the North Vietnamese.

Mike's love for Nick and Stevie and his sacrificial attempts to save them both only add to his and the collective film's sense of guilt and hopelessness. When Mike sees the home-coming celebrations that have been planned for him he tells the cabbie to drive on by - so changed is he by his experiences that he cannot face his friends. A scene that echoes with the earlier encounter at the wedding celebration with a Green Beret home on leave. Stevie - now a triple amputee cannot face returning home either and Nick only makes it in a coffin. As Mike and the group head into the mountains for another hunting trip, Mike lines up a deer in his sights only to pull up as he squeezes the trigger - 'just one shot'.

The closing scene is set with the group of friends in the bar holding their own wake after Nick's burial. John (George Dzundza) fights back his own tears of grief by starting to sing 'God bless America' and the rest of the group join in. This is an ambiguous ending to the film which throughout always avoids sliding into being patronising. With all that they have suffered and with America's ignominious defeat is that really their sentiment - or is the fact that their rendition of the song is so restrained and low key, a recognition that America really does need God's blessing? The twin themes of compassion and cynicism perfectly entwined.

The film is also noteworthy as this is Meryl Streep's first 'big' film (although a small role) and sadly John Cazale's last film as he was terminally ill with cancer as it was made and died shortly afterwards - never seeing the finished film. It won five Oscars - including Walken as best supporting actor. The haunting theme tune resonates so effectively with the story - another component that contributes to this being a top film. I'm surprised that IMDb only ranks it a 62 in the greatest 100 films and it doesn't even make the top 100 on Rotten Tomatoes - which surprises me. If I were to be critical of the film I would say it's viewpoint is very one-sided. It is also a very long film at just over three hours - but that didn't register as I watched it for the umpteenth time. For me it's worth a 9/10.


Sunday, 22 March 2015

Still Alice



What is it that makes you, you and me, me? What is intrinsic to your identity? Human identity is a complex thing. It is made up of lots things - some more tangible than others. Our physicality is only part of our identity - but helps us to recognise one another easily. For most people our body undergoes gradual change as we age. The sudden loss of a limb or the agency of some part of our physical body will most certainly change anyone - but we would still usually recognise them without much difficulty. But what happens when the body looks unchanged but behaviour and personality change so much and so quickly it makes it hard to recognise someone? How much can fade away and leave the central character feeling that she is still Alice?

The subject matter of this film is well known so I won't be spoiling anything if I discuss the title character's unforeseen and rapid deterioration as early onset Alzheimer's takes its grip. Julianne Moore's performance in the title role won her an Oscar and deservedly so. Her depiction of the effects of this horrible disease is utterly convincing but where this film gives added value is the way in which it portrays the effects of the disease's progression on the rest of her family.

As the diagnosis is made and news of it shared with the three adult children, the discovery is made even more unwelcome when it is disclosed that this is a genetic form of the disease. That means that there is a 50/50 chance of the children having the gene and if they do they have a 100% chance of developing the disease. Amidst the shock of this unwelcome news, everyone promises to rally round and do what needs to be done - as any family would do. What this film does extremely well is to show how increasingly difficult this becomes as the disease tightens its grip on Alice. Her husband and children all respond in ways that are perhaps unexpected - but it shows what each one needs to do to cope with the unfolding situation and find some semblance of normality for themselves.

The tragedy is heightened because of the career Alice had built for herself as a Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University in New York. Communicating ideas effectively by using language well, is what helped to define her. Once that began to be taken away from her, Alice's sense of self begins to diminish - made all the more cruel as she often isn't aware of the changes herself. In a lucid moment she says

"I used to be someone who knew a lot. No one asks for my opinion or advice anymore. I miss that. I used to be curious and independent and confident. I miss being sure of things. There's no peace in being unsure of everything all the time. I miss doing everything easily. I miss being a part of what's happening. I miss feeling wanted. I miss my life and my family."

This film offers opportunities to explore the things that help make up a sense of self-identity. It also offers an exploration of family dynamics in the face of a horrible illness and an opportunity to reflect on what really matters. It offers a potent reminder of how in the end, it can be foolhardy to place all our trust in the things of this world as in the end the illusion of comfort that they bring is only ever temporary. It also invites debate about assisted suicide. This is also a film about love.

Hopefully the film will help to increase awareness of Alzheimer's and thereby the research resources being deployed to find a treatment and cure. In the meantime we are left with a painfully accurate depiction of the effects of this disease and an equally painful reminder that a good career, a 'perfect' family and all the intellect in the world mean nothing when a particularly aggressive form of Alzheimer's comes calling. This is a heart-warming film but not really an uplifting one. Alzheimer's is a scourge of our time and this film presents it in all its lurid horror. It is an important film - go and see it. I'll give it 8/10.


Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel



The fans demanded more and what they got was Richard Gere (Guy Chambers) goes to Bollywood! This sequel was created on the back of fans demanding more - and that is exactly what it delivers - more of the same. But that's okay because that's what is so endearing about the film - people struggling with relationships, commitment, acceptance, love - the important things we all struggle with. These subjects usually appear in films featuring people going through a mid-life crisis of existential angst or teenagers coming of age and trying to develop a sense of self.

What gives this film its unique twist is that the main characters are well advanced in years and cannot afford to wait to let things take their natural course. It is interesting to see that with a whole lifetime's experience behind them, they face the same struggles, questions and doubts as any teenager. The things that matter most carry a high price tag. I would love to watch this with a group of younger people and ask them to explore the parallels between the challenges faced and feelings felt by the characters in the film and their own experiences.

The narrative arc of the film is quite simple but largely peripheral to the story. What drives this film is the character's search for love, affirmation and intimacy in a form that befits their age. Dev Patel as Sonny Kapoor, owner of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is perhaps the character that shows least development over the course of the two films - except perhaps he has turned the volume up! I found his character a little too strident and fatiguing. All the other characters seemed to develop in some way.

The film is filled with marvellous one-liners again: "Lord have mercy on my ovaries", "There's no present like the time", "He is so handsome, he has me urgently questioning my own sexuality", "Why die here when I can die there?", "You win some and you learn some" and "'How was America?' 'It made death more tempting'".

This is a warm and uplifting film. It pulls few surprises. Mercifully Mrs Donnelly (Dame Maggie Smith) has lost her strident racism and is the wise keeper of everyone's secrets, Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy) is still painfully unable to say what he means and is so deferential it hurts and Evelyn Greenslade (Dame Judi Dench) needs to hurry up before death overcomes her!

I would encourage you to go and see this film - and probably the Third Best Exotic Marigold Hotel if the ageing stars manage to keep going for long enough. The warm reviews are spot on you will not be disappointed. I'm going to give this 7/10.


Monday, 23 February 2015

Jupiter Ascending



I'm a huge fan of the work of the Wachowski siblings - I love the way they think. I had been waiting to see this film for a long time. I thought it was breathtakingly spectacular - the concept, the visual impact, the plot and the re-emergence of a Matrix-like storyline. BUT that doesn't mean this film is not without its problems.

On one level the plot is quite simple but it is buried under layers of different galaxies, species, dynasties and a complex set of relationships - but helpfully everyone speaks English! There are plenty of online sites discussing the plot so I won't waste too much space here duplicating it.

What is central to the story is the main character Jupiter Jones - who hates her life, is catapulted into a different life, and then decides her first life isn't so bad after all. The journey she undertakes to gain this insight takes us on a journey that lasts just over 2 hours - but the time passed quickly for me.

The basic premise of the story is built on production, consumption and profit. What is produced are human beings on vast farms - like planet Earth. They are harvested to produce a distillation that rejuvenates the body and ensures longevity allowing users to remain in their physical prime even when they are in fact more than 100 millennia old! Why - because time has become the most precious commodity in the universe so the longer you live, the more time you have. Of course this is big business and with great wealth comes great power.

All of this is wrapped up in DNA/genome speak and a family feud that threatens Jupiter's life and the stability of the universe. There are many moments of humour in the film. This film will be a boon for alien conspiracy theorists - and yes we even get to see how crop circles are really made!

Everything about the scale of this film is huge - and that's probably where it's achilles heel lies. The scope of the plot, the range of kinds of characters, the myriad locations that appear and disappear, twists and turns that make it impossible to know who is on which side - and amazing Wachowski visuals which are quite simply mind-blowing.

It is a huge pity that this film has done so poorly at the box office. It is obviously the first of an intended series (trilogy?) that now may never be made - or only in a small-scale way, which would be a pity for the greatest thing about this film is the huge scale of everything including the ideas.

Maybe it will become a cult sleeper? I certainly hope so, but after the relative flops of Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas and now this, I hope that Hollywood will keep backing such creative originality that the Wachowski's consistently deliver. Please go and see it while it's still in cinemas (in the UK at least). I loved it and will give it 8/10 - perhaps if they hadn't tried so hard it would have got a 9 - hopefully the next one!