Friday, 30 July 2010


'Buckle your seat belt Dorothy, 'cause Kansas is is going bye-bye.'

Wow! Inception is a stylised collision of Bourne meeting the The Matrix.

Cobb is on top of his game - the best there is. In becoming the best he has journeyed to places no-one wants to see and feelings of guilt, remorse and his need of redemption are the emotions that drive this story. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan this was never going to be a straight forward walk-in-the-park kind of film. The ensemble cast perform very well together - DiCaprio inhabits a rich vein of performing talent at the moment and his character (Cobb) drives the narrative. Ellen Page (Ariadne) and Tom Hardy (Eames) are also particularly impressive. The story conceptualisation is worthy of award nomination as is the consistent application of CGI which unifies the five dimensions or worlds the story simultaneously unravels through.

Cobb is a thief. His area of expertise is applying a form of military intelligence gathering come interrogation technology to the world of corporate espionage. The technology links people connected to a machine who are able to share a dream together. The dreamer is the architect of the dream which is populated by manifestations of the dreamers sub-concious over which of course they have no control. Encounters within this dream world are used to delve deep into co-dreamers minds to extract secrets, plant lies and whatever else the pay-master desires - inception. The trick is to render the 'target' unconscious in the real world - sometimes enhanced by sedatives for a deeper dreaming experience - and then hook them up  to the machine. 

In a dream an hour in real-world time lasts 10 hours in the dream enabling much to accomplished. Unless the target is trained or has anti-dream counter-measures in place, on waking they feel as though it was just a dream - but by then the damage has been done. Each dreamer fashions a totem that they always carry with them and can use to determine whether or not they are awake or dreaming.

Cobb once went too far with his wife (Mal) who through Cobb's accidental auto-suggestion lost the ability to distinguish between dream states and the real world locking her totem in a safe. She is stuck in Limbo - the deepest dream state with no clear prospect of escape. Cobb struggles to limit the intrusion of Mal from his sub-conscious into any dream that he is in but she always breaks through and wrecks his plans. Accused of her murder back home, Cobb is a global fugitive with many trying to track him down.

Cobb receives an invitation for one last final job of corporate espionage - the pay-off for him would be a wiping of the slate with the US authorities and the chance for him to return home to his two children - a lure too attractive to resist. I'm not going to describe how the story plays out but I will include a PLOT SPOILER about the end so only read on from here if you're happy with that.

Cobb travels the world to assemble a team for this ultimate job. Together they plot and determine that they need a dream that goes to a third level of dreaming - so deep it's just before the limbo state, a dream within a dream, within a dream. All of their planning can never anticipate the interventions that Mal brings to any dream that Cobb is in because she is such a strong part of Cobb's sub-conscious. Following the story is difficult enough without wild cards being played all the time! Suffice it to say that in the end Cobb needs to enter limbo to bring about the successful conclusion of the mission the team is on and to exorcise his own personal demons relating to Mal.


The film ends with Cobb returning to the USA and the family home. As he arrives in the kitchen he spins a brass top - Mel's totem . If it eventually stops spinning Cobb is in the real world, it doesn't, it's a dream. The children see him and run to him for an emotional reunion. As that the hugs and kisses continue, the camera pulls back to the spinning top. It hiccups and the screen goes black and the credits roll. Was it about to topple or was it simply a hiccup and it continues for ever? You decide - but I think the answer will come in the sequel that is now nicely set up.

Any story that forces us into the sub-conscious is an invitation to delve deeper than we would perhaps choose to do. What lurks in your sub-conscious? What regrets and fears do we carry with us every day? How do they manifest themselves when they invade the conscious world of our experience? How do you cope with that? If you could enter your sub-conscious and expunge your demons, would you? What price would you be willing to pay? What would be the consequences and would you be any less the person you were before or would be more integrated and so more of the true person you feel yourself to be? Films like this are invitations to screw with your inner workings. If you really want to do that, go and see a therapist.

A great film - well conceptualised, scripted, acted and shot. Go and see it - but take your totem with you!

I'll give it 9/10!

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Miller's Crossing

I need to declare up front that I am a fan of the Coen brothers and the way they make films. This did not disappoint. It is a barn-stormer of a film in almost any way you wish to look at it. It may be 20 years old, but because it is set in a composite mythical world constructed from everyone's view of what 1930's gangster run prohibition USA was like, it connects in a way that refuses to let it age. The gentle browns of the colour palette and lighting espouse an almost sepia-toned reverence for a nostalgic golden age when men were men and women were there to do their bidding - and nothing more.

It is not a good film for a positive portrayal of gender roles. This is a very masculine film. There is only one female character and all other women are depicted as either floozies or servile receptionists. Verna is depicted as being as strong as any of the male characters and she is certainly as sharp as anyone in keeping up with the 'who is on which side' evolution of the story.

The iconic moment of the opening sequence pictures Tom's hat blowing to the ground where it rests momentarily before being blowing along a path in the woods at Miller's Crossing - a place at which pivotal events take place. It is reminiscent of the bag spiralling in the wind in American Beauty. It is also an image that haunts Tom - the central character. This is played on to good effect to heighten tension and suspense later on in the film.

The story is set in a an anonymous town enjoying the prosperity and technological advances of the age - trams, street lighting, telephones. The town is run by Leo - a Jewish gangster - who has the Mayor and Chief of Police in his pocket. Nothing happens in the town that doesn't make Leo money and it seems that everything in the town is centred on betting, drinking and maintaining Leo's position as top dog. All is well with the fraternity of Jewish, Italian and Irish mobsters in the town. That is until one of them feels he is being 'unfairly' cheated on.

That introduces the narrative's central theme of honour. As the Italian character Johnny Caspar repeats his mantra throughout the film, 'it's about ethics', we are taken on a grand tour that explores loyalty coming into conflict with the need to control, exert power, display trust and be entranced by love. Caspar has a beef with one of Leo's underlings that he feels isn't playing by the rules. That sets him on collision course with Leo and Tom advises Leo on how best to resolve the impasse to allow business to continue as usual. Leo chooses not to follow Tom's advice and sets up a series of confrontations that spark a mob war. As this unfolds, there are further plot twists revolving around Tom who has ongoing 'business' with Lazarre and Bernbaum - Verna's brother. Further fuel is added to this incendiary mix by the fact that both Leo and Tom are in a relationship with Verna and Leo wants to marry her.

Tom takes things into his own hands in an attempt to resolve things and restore a kind of peace - but it seems that he doesn't have a detailed plan as events repeatedly cause him to improvise and play one mobster off against the other on the fly. This means that Tom is out on his own and everyone feels they have a legitimate grievance against him. Does he set himself up as a crusading saviour seeking to restore equilibrium to a community in conflict and turmoil?

A striking feature of the film is the in-your-face technicolour comic book violence that owes more to the Batman TV series of the 60's and the A-Team of the 70's than reality - a hall mark of the Coen brothers. However, Tom chooses not to engage in physical violence and takes several beatings that if inflicted in the real world would have ruptured many internal organs. (He does once use a chair to defend himself.)

Non-violence in a violent world. Tom chooses to be violent in thought, intent and through provoking others to enact violence on one another. It is as though his inner world of scheming and plotting presents a reality which detaches him from the exterior - a world within a world. Perhaps this is a mirror of the film's central plot - that in a world of illicit gambling and drinking another world exists where the rules are clear, a morality understood and followed and where loyalty is the highest prize. A portrayal of purity in the midst of impurity. What this serves to underline are the dangers of a morality that is relativistic and which fails to acknowledge an exterior source of grace and wisdom. It is totally self-serving and ultimately becomes self-defeating.

The film is dense. By that I mean that it moves at an even pace and absolutely nothing is wasted - it demands complete attention. The acting is superb, the lighting and sets powerfully evocative of something that probably never existed - a simulacrum. The dialogue is pure Coen brothers - no wasted words and much meaning communicated in and through the spaces created by the Director and characters - especially Tom. Additional interest is added through the gay relationship between Dane and Mink which is presented in an open and matter-of-fact way.

I found this film gripping, excellent, convincing, repulsive and at the same time attractive with all the strength of an inescapable addiction. It communicated. Tom is a strong character but we know nothing of him except what we see him do - the same goes for all the characters, there is no back-story, no context. There is one scene where Tom chooses to exercise mercy and compassion. Are these things that inform his normal thought processes? For me it made Tom an even more believable and likeable character. It presented a glimpse of something that could transcend the moral ambiguity and bankruptcy of the narrative - it gave hope.

As a man I could understand and inhabit the world the film presented. It was like a favourite and warmly familiar overcoat that kept you warm. If this is the world as women encounter it, we are in deep doo doo and I am sorry for my complicity in it. Was Verna the only character with a consistent and life-giving morality? I wish to reassure you that I have no intentions of opening an illegal gambling and drinking den or of obtaining a Tommy gun and bumping off people who disagree with me, or playing by a relativist morality that is controlling and exploitative. There is much in this film to repulse the viewer - but this viewer would happily watch it again today - and possibly tomorrow too!

Well worth the investment of time - it will engage you. I'll give it 8.5/10.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Film Club

I have just finished reading the book Film Club by David Gilmour. A couple of years ago a colleague gave me a cutting from a Sunday Newspaper which was the story of a teenage boy who didn't do school. His Father made a bargain with him - he could live at home, rent free as long as long as he didn't do drugs and he agreed to watch 3 movies a week with his Father. This book charts those five years - it is autobiographical for David and his son Jesse.

The book operates in two spheres. Set in Toronto, the author works in TV and has a passion for film having once been Film Critic for CBS. He decides to use his knowledge of film, calling on reviews, books, interviews (sometimes his own) to enrol his son in a kind of Université de Cinéma and give him the education he wasn't getting in school.

The choices of films and his introductory sketches and retrospective analyses are all very apt. The story covers a huge range of genres citing 121 different titles. The insights the films give into Jesse's roller coaster of a life are at times helpful and at other times I felt lacking in sensitivity and positively unhelpful. I'm sure I would have done a worse job! Gilmour covers a breath-taking breadth by putting the spotlight on Directors, then on Actors, the way a film is shot, lighting. He highlights individual lines of dialogue and scenes that he feels resonate with Jesse's predicament. From James Dean's defiant swish of the rope in Giant to Patricia Arquette's motivational 'You're so cool' in True Romance, Gilmour tries to impute the self-confidence, la joie de vivre and lack of ambition his son's unfocused life lacks. I think he tries too hard.

The second sphere is the advice Gilmour gives his son about how to cope with broken romance - a pain that is an integral part of the human condition. The wrong assumption Gilmour makes is that together with the films, his previous romantic and sexual encounters provide all the data necessary to enable him to dispense the words he feels his son needs to hear. Naivete. Stuck in a seemingly endless loop of mismatch of communication ability, Gilmour's verbosity is inversely mirrored by Jesse's inability to articulate or express himself in any meaningful way. Eventually, Jesse does find an avenue to give expression to his hurts and feelings - and maybe even his fears. This confirms to the Father that the son has the greater talent. Jesse discovers the ability to be creative in way that communicates. I strongly feel that this one of the most basic human drives - stemming from the Trinity.

This is an interesting and well written book that tells an important story. My own passion for films and narrative as means of reflecting on daily life is, I hope, well documented on this blog. The book's ability to compel people to develop their own catalogue of films to educate people through is perhaps its lasting and most endearing legacy. What films would you choose - which have instructed you? How would use them? What would your hoped for outcome be? the question go on in the Université de Cinéma.

This is a good read - get yourself a copy.

Reel Issues

I have just completed work for The Bible Society on a study of Invictus. It will be published soon on the their Reel Issues site in the 'Epic' series - check it out.

Friday, 16 July 2010


What's this all about then? Not as the title suggests 'water' - but that is an ever present theme uniting the different strands of the narrative. On one level it could be viewed as a docu-drama. Set in India in 1938 it could be seen as a record of how Hindu society treats widows - even when they are only 8 years old and their marriage hasn't been consummated. It could be seen as an Indian Romeo and Juliet - complete with balcony scene. It's also an interesting piece of social history as Gandhi's mantra is gaining popularity in the last days of the Raj. The film has very few sets, but those it uses it exploits to the full - particularly the waterfront shots in Varanasi. The film is beautifully lit and the camera work is stunning but at times it's very hard to decipher what is being said.

Chuyia is widowed at the age of 8 and in following custom she has her head shaven and is dressed in white. Her family arrange to take her to an Ashram on the banks of the Ganges where she will live out the rest of her life - widows will be cursed if they remarry. Her arrival has a big impact on the community and her feisty behaviour soon sets her against the leading widow Madhumati. To supplement the Ashram's income Madhumati lets the younger more beautiful widows out to sleep with local Brahmans whose attentions are considered a blessing. One of these widows is Kalyani.

Water is always present and the source is nearly always the Ganges (the well in the Ashram presumably shares the same water table). Whether it be for drinking, cooking, ritual cleansing, clothes washing or taking the dead away, bodily or in ashen form, water is the link.

 As the story follows life in the Ashram with all its ups and downs, which include Madhumati's drug taking and the death of an old widow, so we see a chance encounter between Kalyani and newly qualified idealistic lawyer Narayan, who has bought into Gandhi's philosophy. There is an immediate spark between Kalyani and Narayan and situations are engineered to ensure further encounters between the two sometimes using Chuyia as a go-between.

The story paints a stark contrast throughout by setting the traditions of the Ashram and Hindu society over and against the liberalising call of Gandhi and his followers who want to see India develop and move forward. This tension is personified in the developing love between Kalyani and Narayan. Eventually a decision is made and the film heads towards a climax - but there is a twist.

As I indicated earlier, you can watch this film on a number levels. It is a love story. It is social commentary and also an exploration of tradition being overturned by a liberalising trend. What stood out for me?

It is always very difficult to engage with a narrative that is set within and follows the values of a different culture. I have had the privilege of travelling to India many times and I love the country and her people. Time after time I would return home to asked 'what was it like?'. That is the hardest question to answer because the response begs for comparisons to be made. Making comparisons is all well and good when there is what anthropologists call a 'dynamic equivalent' - that is something that acts as a vehicle to allow understanding in one culture to be transferred, with meaning intact, to another culture. India is such a different kind of place that there are few dynamic equivalents - you simply cannot always describe things in India that make any kind of sense in the West. The cultures are too alien.

Therefore it would be all too easy to get hung up on the Hindu tradition of widows being segregated in Ashrams which in liberal Western eyes would be seen as a denial of the widow's human rights. In India religious tradition is deemed to be of higher value than an individual's rights in this case. From our Western perspective the whole notion of arranged child-bride marriages is hard to understand and few would condone it. Yet it is not so long ago in Europe that Children married and were given in marriage.

I would say for me one of the redeeming features of the story was the evident sense of community and interdependence the Ashram demonstrated. These are very Christian values (perhaps human too,) and life in the Ashram would in many ways mirror life in a Monastery or Convent - but we don't admit 8 year olds to religious communities! The denial of potential is for me the saddest thing about this film.

As with all institutions - and especially with religious ones - the story also highlights ever present hypocrisy. As the film opens we are shown words from the Hindu scriptures which teach that a widow who lies with a man will be re-born in the womb of a Jackal. Yet, Madhumati pimps out the girls to enjoy a blessing with local Brahmans. I guess the blessing out-weighs the 'sin'- a theology of convenience.

I was also struck by the treatment of the pain of a challenge to long-established traditions. Each successive generation seems to be more liberal than their predecessors and wants to push back the boundaries and redefine things held dear for centuries. The process of change of tradition can be a slow and painful process. How different societies manage this process and the success of the outcome varies with what is trying to be changed and the culture in which it is valued. If I look back over 30 years of my adult life, it seems that tradition is always under threat of erosion - but I'm sure that new ones are also being established - it's just that we haven't got the benefit of time to give us a long perspective yet.

Finally, I was also struck by the classic love story that lies at the centre of this film. It appeared very Western - as I said, almost Romeo and Juliet like. Perhaps love is the universal experience that has a dynamic equivalent in every culture and the whole film was simply very Indian.

Well worth a watch - 8/10.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Reading books, sadly not watching movies!

I have been away for a while recently and being on the road affords little opportunity to catch a movie. I have however been reading and would commend these titles:

Kieslowski on Kieslowski

As you know I have been working my way through his creative output. This book is very helpful as it gives a lot of biographical data and explains why Kieslowski chooses to place the emphasis where he does when he is telling a story. It's an easy read and well worth the investment of time. I want to revisit all his films now - but especially Red from Three Colours as he explains what the story is about and I didn't pick it up first time.

I know I'm the new kid on the block, but I've just discovered the BFI Modern Classics series. I have read the one on Three Colours and it is both extremely well written and very helpful in exploring plot development and the context of the stories.

I also read in the same series:

which remains my favourite film (or trilogy) of all-time. I found this book to be so full of attempts to engage in academic points scoring that I barely got to the end. This book is definitely a case of style triumphing over substance. I did however read this:

which was first-class, so much better than the BFI offering. It is a very engaging and critical exploration of the main themes of the first film in the trilogy. I highly recommend it.

I have bought, but not yet read the BFI Modern Classic on Blade Runner  which I hope will restore my faith in the series of books - I'll let you know how I get on.