Sunday, 6 April 2014

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 30 March 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Prestige

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 21 March 2014

Central Station

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Secret Life of Bees

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

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

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

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

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

“You gotta imagine what's never been.” 

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 23 February 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Martha Marcy May Marlene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Hunger Games - Catching Fire

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Hunger Games

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

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

The film raises a number of important issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The East

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Butler

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

some new releases worth looking out for

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

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

Inside Llewelyn Davis

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

The Book Thief

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

12 Years a Slave

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

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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

Dallas Buyers Club

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

Other possible films to look out for are:

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

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Saving Mr Banks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Counsellor

Take five of Hollywood's most beautiful A-listers, add a dynamic and complex script, motives of greed and power which are pursued with ruthlessness and you get a fast moving, violent and engaging film about drug supply in the USA. Well, that's the glossy veneer that the eyes see - but if you look a little more deeply and listen with greater intent you find a film that explores the relentless logic of the consequences of the choices that are made.

Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men, The Road) this was always going to be a beautifully made and intellectually engaging film. In some ways it is quite similar to No Country as its pretext is a Tex-Mex drug deal involving a Mexican cartel shipping a consignment of cocaine from Colombia to Chicago in a tanker full of sewage. All pretty routine.

The central character, The Counsellor (Michael Fassbender) is a lawyer who decides to try and make a lot of money very quickly by underwriting a shipment of drugs. All of his associates tell him to be very careful as the cartels don't mess around. His naivety - especially in seeing business partners as friends - leaves him exposed, weak and vulnerable. Of course, things do not go to plan and the cartel exact revenge on those they think responsible.

The two female characters Laura (Penélope Cruz) and Malkina (Cameron Diaz) are presented as stunning beauties but in every other respect could not be more different. This is the first time I have seen Diaz play a character who is utterly frightening, ruthless and will stop at nothing to ensure she gets her way. Irrational, clever, manipulative, sadistic and gluttonous, she wants it all - now! Cruz' character on the other hand is gentle and innocent - way in over her pretty head.The other two leads are Reiner played by Javier Bardem and Westray played by Brad Pitt. Bardem is utterly compelling and Pitt seems to play himself but on a bad day.

Viewers will need to pay attention to the dialogue as little clues are dispensed in throw-away lines that later take on an importance that their original context failed to register. Early on in the film a new assassination device is described and I spent the whole film waiting to see if it would be deployed - I was not disappointed. As far as I recall, none of the characters are ever depicted 'doing drugs' - alcohol, seems to be the drug of choice - but usually in a cocktail glass unless it is a piece of blatant product placement.

There is no doubt that this is a clever and extremely well-made film. Did I enjoy watching it? Enjoy is not the word I would use - I'd be more likely to speak well of its intellectual engagement. Whether you choose to see it as a morality tale or an essay on existential philosophy, my guess is that some viewers will see and take from the film those things they choose to be impacted by. For others it will simply be an action film with pretty people and fast cars. I wonder if it tries to be a little too clever. It's not one I would hurry to see again or add to my disc collection when released. Having said that, some of the film's visual and aural images will stay with me for a long time! I'll give it 7/10.

Saturday, 16 November 2013


From the trailers and hype the story line of this film is already out there - we know it's about stranded astronauts and the question is, will they get home. Well I'm not going to spoil that for you - you will have to go and see it for yourself. What is remarkable about this film is the cinematography - that and the fact that there are only two characters (and four voices). Filmed at Shepperton Studios in the UK using a room whose walls serve as massive LED screens and using gyros and gimbals to give the appearance of weightlessness, this film advances cinematic technology in a similar way to the innovations we saw in The Matrix trilogy. The visual effect is as though you are there with them floating and tumbling through space - more of a documentary feel with long single takes that travel long distances.

The two characters are Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) a medical doctor on her first space trip and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) on his last trip before retirement. They end up stranded in their space suits after a space walk goes horribly wrong. At one point they are tethered together and the tag line 'don't let go' becomes the golden rule as they seek solutions to their problem.

The film raises a  number of issues - the most immediate one being the legacy of space junk and the unintended consequences of simply abandoning it when no longer useful. It also shows the increasingly international nature of space exploration with the Americans, Russians and Chinese all featuring which leads at one point to the wonderful line delivered by Stone 'No hablo Chino!".

As much as the story is about the physical safety of 'not letting go' it is also the emotional safety of having to let go. Stone is carrying a great weight within her psyche - something she has not been able to put down. As the film progresses, the seriousness of their situation encourages the two characters to engage in some metaphysical dialogue as they explore the meaning of their existence. For me this is the real nub of the film and provides the icing on the cake. Stone delivers a wonderful monologue in which she rehearses the 'I know we all have to die at some point - but like this, not today' argument. She questions the meaning of life and the importance of leaving a legacy and draws inner strength from a renewed sense of purpose. I wonder if viewers of this film will allow themselves the indulgence of asking such questions of themselves?

Whilst the visuals of this film are stunning - and yes I did, after the unlikely encouragement of Dr Kermode, shell out to see the 3D version - the big question is, with only two characters can the film sustain sufficient movement, interest and anticipation for its 91 minute runtime? The answer is a resounding 'yes'! The pace is relentless and I left the film with my veins full of adrenalin!! One of the voices that we hear in the film is that of the NASA Mission Controller - played by Ed Harris, a nice homage to Apollo 13 and The Truman Show two films in which he stars and which are about a space disaster and the quest to discover the meaning of existence.

The visuals in this film alone make it worth going to see. The acting from Bullock is immense and Clooney almost plays himself - something he is becoming increasingly good at doing. The estimated $100m production costs has been more than doubly recouped in US box office takings alone in its first six weeks since release - this film will repay Warner Brothers investment and faith in Director Alfonso Cuarón many times over. The project was four years in the making and Warner Bros apparently didn't see a single frame in the film until a few months before release.

As you may imagine, I rather liked it - and like the good Dr would recommend the 3D experience - it would be even more immersive in IMAX I would imagine. Do go and see it - no matter how big your TV is this will never be quite the same unless you view it in the cinema. For innovation, acting, conceptualisation and the ability to consistently sustain tension, I'll give it 9/10!

Tuesday, 5 November 2013


If ever a role was written for an actor it is this title role and Dame Judy Dench. She makes it her own and is completely compelling. This film will tug at the heart strings - and make you laugh. It is is a film about love, grace, evil and hope. It would too easy and too simplistic to develop ideas that stereotype the main players in this tale - again based on a real story. We need to deal with the reality of what the film presents rather than take pops at the main baddies in the story - religion, nuns and the Catholic Church. We also need to remember that it begins in the early 1950's - a very different world to the one we live in today. Philomena is at one and the same time both a simple and yet immensely complex character. Dench effortlessly brings great depth and subtlety to the role.

The trailer and hype surrounding this film have already disclosed the plot so there really is nothing to spoil. That in no way diminishes the emotional weight of the film neither does it obscure Dench's performance. This film is so worth seeing - we need to collectively stand in Philomena's pain and the pain of thousands like her around the world. (Not all by any means, victims of Catholic nuns!) Illegitimate children and their young mothers were taken in by convents in exchange for manual labour - a modern-day workhouse. Mothers were allowed one hour's contact with their child each day. The babies were 'sold' to those who could afford them and adopted - quite often to Americans. This is what happened to Philomena's son Anthony.

The Central Statistics Office of Ireland has revealed that in 2012 36.5% of babies were born outside marriage. Clearly things have moved on in the last 60 years. Irish society was firmly in the grip of a certain kind of Catholic dogma and the Church held that sex outside marriage was a sin. The nuns saw it as a spiritual kindness to offer the girls and their children a future they would not have otherwise had. The way in which they ran the convent workhouses and piled guilt and scorn on the heads of these young women is repugnant in the extreme. That it was done in the name of God and love, for me only adds to the abhorrence I felt watching the story. That the nuns then tried to make it impossible for mothers to track their children or even worse vice-a-versa simply heaps even more deplorable behaviour on this sorry tale.

Throughout her life Philomena remains devout. She is on one hand lacking in sophistication and simple yet on the other very shrewd when she wants to be. She is undemanding, a good mother to the family she raised after leaving the convent and able to appreciate and enjoy the novelty of luxury when she encounters it.

The other main character is the former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith played by Steve Coogan who also co-wrote the screenplay. I must confess to not being a fan of Alan Partridge (Coogan's alter ego comedy character from TV) and each time I see him (including in What Maisie Knew) I can't get past Partridge to the character he is playing. He makes Sixsmith veer between being self-obsessed and objectionable, to being compassionate and a crusader for truth. This sets up an interesting relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith as they track down Anthony.

As I said, this film will evoke a range of emotional responses from viewers. Whilst Sixsmith is not afraid to voice his judgement on what has happened Philomena offers a different response. For 50 years she kept her secret and once she had revealed it, it took on a life and energy of its own that gives the film its gripping story. Of course we all want to know what happened to Anthony and whether or not they will be reunited. We all know that the story will not be straightforward and that there will be twists and turns. The story, based on Sixsmith's book of the account, does not disappoint.

We are all of us complex creatures with needs we know of and satisfy, needs we know of and hide and needs that remain unknown yet exert an influence on our behaviour and longings. Actions have consequences and whether it being 'taking down your knickers' or disclosing that you have a long lost son to his half-sister, moments of revelation and discovery can generate unforeseen outcomes that have a tangle of both good and bad that seem inseparable. The point in the film where Philomena recalls the moment of passion amongst the straw at the fair is pure poetry and she seems not to regret it for one moment.

The story is driven by love - and not just Philomena's. The evil is evident in the convent and most of the nuns who populated it then - and now and who collude with obfuscating the truth. What shone through for me was that in her simple understanding of faith and who God was and is, that Philomena was able to act with grace and maintain her own integrity without diminishing her view of herself. This primarily is a story about grace. I saw it at Harbour Lights on Sunday and the folk there said that it was 'going mental' with huge turn-outs to view it. Go and join the throng - you won't be disappointed. I'll give it 8.5/10.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Captain Phillips

Can a film sustain an even pace and then build to a climax after 2 hours and 15 minutes? Yes it can. Director Paul Greengrass delivers a tale of high drama set on the seas off the Horn of Africa that trades in the currency of the disparity between this world's haves and the have-nots.

I'm not giving anything away I hope when I say the story-line is straightforward and 'based on' a true story of Somali pirates hijacking a Maersk container ship en-route from Oman to Mombasa. The title character commands the container ship and is played by Tom Hanks who delivers one of his best performances in years. The central axis of the story is the relationship between Phillips and the leader of the pirates Muse (Barkhad Abdi).

The film gives a little insight into the anarchy that rules Somalia and the demands of the Warlords on former fishing communities for their young men to turn to piracy and deliver multi-million dollar ransoms back to the Warlords. The gulf between the size and technology of the pirates boats in comparison to the container ship could hardly be wider. The anarchic pirates living in huts in the dunes with few possessions contrast garishly with the ordered opulence and automation of the container ship and its cargo of luxury consumer goods. Fuelled by khat (a stimulant drug derived from a shrub) and adrenalin, the pirates shoot and force their way aboard waving their AK-47s at anything that moves.

The screenplay explores the tensions between the thoughtful and quiet family man of Phillips and the excitable and apparently greed motivated pirates. However, the character of Muse shows an awareness of his situation and he repeatedly articulates the desire to make enough money to travel to the USA. He should be careful of what he wishes for. In typical hostage-drama style, the film documents the strain and fickle nature of the relationship between captors and captive. Phillips cleverly tries to win the sympathy and trust of some of his captors whilst setting others against one another.

I remember this story in the news when it happened and that it was brought to end by American military intervention. A further gulf between the resources of the pirates and the captive's homeland is demonstrated by the range of craft, technology and special forces that are deployed to bring the drama to its climax.

I was left feeling very uneasy about the professionalism with which the US military went about its business - for them, just another day at the office. I guess that's how it has to be but I'm not sure that I feel okay about such people protecting my best interests so anonymously, vicariously and without any form of consultation with me. Perhaps I am simply naive. Along with Zero Dark Thirty this is another film that shows the USA's self-appointed role as world policeman where no territory or target is off-limits. I am not advocating a world ruled by anarchic Warlords or holding out for some utopian neverneverland. It is clear that the world-order is going through a period of realignment in these present decades. How much longer the USA will be allowed to act at will around the world is becoming a moot point - especially in the wake of the damaging wikileaks revelations that seem to have no end. What would be worse I fear, would be for the USA to return to isolationism and have no dialogue at all with other nations. No-one ever said global politics was an easy place to inhabit whilst maintaining integrity.

Although I would have liked more backstory on why the Somalis exchanged fishing for piracy - a chance to enter into their world a little more sympathetically - I'm sure Captain Phillips has had his fill of Somalis and seen enough. As a film I felt it was well paced and maintained an excellent level of tension throughout. The acting - especially from the two leads is top class and worthy of Oscar nomination. Am I happy that people like Captain Phillips and his crew put their lives in danger simply to transport my consumer goods to me - no! Education must be the first step on a road to an alternative scenario and perhaps this film will inspire some to begin that journey - let's hope so. I'll give this film 8/10.

Friday, 18 October 2013

The Way

Some films entertain the viewer by keeping them in suspense letting the story twist and turn as it unfolds, others let you know upfront where the story is going and leave it to the art of story-telling to draw you in. This film from Director Emilio Estevez belongs to the latter. There really is no ‘plot’ to spoil – but I promise not to spoil the detail of how the story is told.

Tom (Martin Sheen) is a morose widower with his own Ophthalmic practice in California. His (also real-life) son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) is completing his PhD studies at Berkeley but as he approaches his 40’s he wants more from life than the title Doctor. He wants to travel and learn from the University of the road and so he drops out of his studies – much to the displeasure of his father.

Daniel’s travels take him to the Pyrenees where he decides to embark on the ‘Camino di Santiago’ (The Way of St James’) – an ancient pilgrims route from France, across Northern Spain to the city of Santiago di Compostela where the Apostle James’ remains are enshrined in the Cathedral. The 1000 km route attracts thousands of pilgrims each year who travel the way staying in hostels along the route. Each pilgrim has their own reason for travelling ‘The Camino’ (The Way) – often not religious reasons.

Daniel gets lost in the Pyrenees and is caught out by the weather and dies. The unwelcome news of his son’s death reaches Tom as he is enjoying a round of golf with colleagues – living the comfortable life-style his hard work has enabled him to choose. Tom travels to France straight away to identify the body and return it to the USA.

The local Police Captain is a wise and kindly man who helps Tom to understand why people go on the ‘The Camino’. This further mystifies Tom who still doesn’t understand why Daniel did what he did. In a split second of clarity, Tom decides to have Daniel’s body cremated and armed only with Daniel’s guide book and back pack sets off along The Way. Tom carefully takes Daniel’s ashes and deposits some of them at shrines along The Way.

Whilst the characterisations are compelling and the cinematography depicts the varied landscapes beautifully, the script is at times clunky and less refined. That ‘The Way’ is a metaphor for the journey of life is made clear early on – yet we have to be told that is the case by the Irishman Jack (James Nesbitt) one of Tom’s travelling companions picked up along the way. The metaphor is extended to show that whilst Tom would prefer to complete the pilgrimage in isolation, real life forces us to encounter and journey with others – and we can’t always choose who our companions are. The other two who make up the journeying quartet are Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a jovial and benevolent epicurean from Amsterdam and Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), an angry Canadian women who projects her hang-ups on to others as she chain-smokes her way to Santiago.

The dynamics between the four of them and the encounters they face along the way provide the grist for the mill of the story telling as Tom, and the others, face their issues and reconcile their internal and external demons. Throughout the journey, Daniel keeps spookily appearing in Tom’s mind’s eye to turn the screw of guilt and remorse a little tighter. Some of the pilgrims expect change to come about simply because they have subjected themselves to the discipline of ‘The Way’ whilst others find it requires self-examination and possibly a change of heart to enable them to see more clearly and move on in their understanding of life.

Although presenting a formulaic road movie, the acting, setting and context make this a very worthwhile film. This is another film that holds up a mirror to the viewer and invites them to reflect on their life goals, relationships and the need to enjoy the here and now rather than some distant and unreachable ideal. It invites a move towards personal authenticity within community rather the pursuit of a dream that serves only self and ultimately alienates everyone – even those who should be closest. Daniel died whilst trying to truly live, Tom was seemingly dead in the life he thought he’d chosen.

This film would be great to watch in a group and then discuss the issues it throws up and how the five main characters responded – and if we have courage, how we respond. If you’ve not seen it, get hold of the disc or watch on-line. I’ll give it 8/10.