Monday, 30 August 2010

The Wind Will Carry Us

This is my first encounter with Iranian Director Kiarostami. This is not a movie in any conventional understanding of the term. There is no plot or story as such. It's more reality TV than Hollywood blockbuster, it has no international stars and no identifiable outcome - and that is the master-stroke. Rather than presenting a narrative, this film presents life and invites you to develop your own story.

Set in a remote Kurdish village in Western Iran, this film is a mystery. Those within it are a mystery. The motive of the visitors from Tehran is a mystery. What happens to them while they are in the village is a mystery. The outcome is a mystery. What each viewer takes from this film is a mystery that needs to undergo gestation in the privacy of individual reflection. The film is an invitation to examine matters of life and death, the rhythm of life, what is important and who is important. It also invites you to slow down and readjust your perspective. The film offers a gift - an opportunity for healing, celebration and a re-evaluation of priorities.

Descending on this remote settlement the visitors are received with customary hospitality. Their mission being to film the ancient and obscure mourning ritual of this people. Connected to the wider world by only a mobile phone through which daily requests for progress reports come, 'The Engineer' and his colleagues (who we never see) wait and wait - interested only in the health of the village Matriarch who is thought to be close to death - but she is only ill. The irony is that to receive a signal for the phone, 'The Engineer' has to drive out of the village to the hill-top cemetery where a local is digging a grave - possibly for the old lady.

As the waiting goes on, so the rhythm of village life proceeds unabated. The visitors never really integrating, the hospitality of the villagers able to be welcoming whilst maintaining a distance. Gradually it dawns on 'The Engineer' that there of things of greater value here than the assignment that brought them to this village. He recites poems - one to a suggestively beautiful girl who refuses to show her face as she milks the cow for him. Iranian culture has a proud and lively heritage of poetry that remains current, drawing on work from Omar Khayyám and Forough Farrokhzad to name but two. 'The Engineer' experiences moments of enlightenment through encounters with a Tortoise, a Dung Beetle and the local Doctor!

At the end of watching this film I was left asking 'what was all that about?'. The more I have reflected on it and discussed it with my ever-insightful significant other, the more I am beginning to see this as a film about what it is to be human and connected to the environment lived in. It is a film about life, about what matters and ultimately about death. As the words of the poets reach out to us down through the centuries, we are reminded that our existence can transcend our three score years and ten.

It is interesting to note that it falls within the Arts & Faith top 100 spiritual films - at number 57.

When you want to be challengingly engaged - watch this film. I'll give it 7.5/10

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The second in the Steig Larson Millennium Trilogy arrived in cinemas this weekend. The book sales may still be extremely healthy - have you travelled on London's underground lately? - but the critics seem to have been sharpening their claws in anticipation. Despite that, this film has had a juggernaut of publicity pushing it into the public consciousness and with a 15 certificate is more likely to reach a wider audience.

Critics and to some extent the movie-going public seem to demand more of a second film in a trilogy than the first delivered - particularly so when the first film breaks important ground in some cinematographic way - like The Matrix trilogy for example. It is true that a lot of the intrigue aroused by the first film centred on the character of Lisbeth Salander played by Noomi Rapace. The question then is how do you develop the character in a meaningful way whilst having a plot that makes sense and gives continuity with the first film? The answer is to begin unpeeling some of the layers that encase the complex character that is Salander. Why was she such a striking and troubled person in the first film? What gave her cause to hate men - Women who hate men being the Swedish title of the first film?

The story is about abuse of power - expressed in sexual activity. This film manges to present five sex scenes - two of them mutually consensual, three of them involving masochistic bondage and abuse - what is it with Swedish men - or are they archetypes? This film has a different director whose style is in stark contrast to the first film - that makes it visually a very different proposition. This film is shot much more in close-up using steady-cams and whilst some plot devices are telegraphed - like seeing the name on a wheelie bin outside a house to show us who owns it, others are completely absent like how did Blomquist know where in Malmo to look for Salander?

There is certainly plenty of action in this film. Too much violence and more than enough blood. This time, these features are an over-indulgence. This does detract from the viewing experience. Too many plot devices are borrowed from James Bond movies - this too exhibits a lack of originality. However, overall the film is still excellent and I am already looking forward to The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest!

For me the story is about how a young girl who dares to take on her abusive father who enjoys immunity from Swedish law and as a result is herself abusively institutionalised, comes to terms with that as an adult. Salander is intellectually sharp. She is blessed, or cursed, with a photographic memory which perhaps too often triggers vivid flashbacks. Her computer hacking and investigative skills are again to the fore. The story in this second instalment of the trilogy is all about explaining how Lisbeth Salander got to be the person we were introduced to in the first film. It tells this story very well and sets things up well for the finale.

I am told by those who have read the books that the transition to film is very faithful - perhaps that's why this is another long film? If you can stomach blood and physical violence - go and see it. That is easier to watch than the violation of the young Lisbeth Salander and its consequences.

I give this 7.5/10.

Monday, 23 August 2010


The Disney Pixar stable is currently producing films that are engaging, well scripted and visually stunning. Wall-e is no exception.

Set in the 2700 century, earth has been ravished by junk and Wall-e is a robot tasked with clearing up the place ready for the return of the giant spaceship Axiom carrying thousands of people ready to repopulate the earth when life is once again viable. Periodically the Axiom sends out a probe and when one named Eve discovers a plant Wall-E found growing in a fridge, it not only sparks a relationship between the two robots (!), but also eventually leads to the return of the Axiom and the recolonisation of the planet. In the meantime, the passengers on board the axiom have all become grossly obese and unable to move under their own power.

So what's the film about? It's about the potential to abuse our planet. It's about 'unnatural love'. It's about obesity and excess. It's also about the dangers of AI taking over and making wrong crucial decisions on behalf of humanity. It's about the Axiom being seen as an Ark in the style of Noah.

The joy of this film is not the individual component story lines but how they are all scripted together and then presented in vibrant and dynamic animation. The film also openly plays homage to a number of sci-fi films and series - 2001 where Sigourney Weaver supplies the voice for the equivalent of HAL, Wall-e's journey to the Axiom mirrors the opening Titles of Star Trek Voyager - I could go on, but that would spoil your fun.

Yes it's also about paradise lost - paradise found. It's about the rediscovery of what it is to be human, It's about love, power, fear and hope - primal emotions that will connect with anyone. This film has universal appeal as well as a U Certificate! I found it deeply engaging, well made and entertaining - and in this department it refreshingly avoided clichés and used comic timing to offer something different that still made me laugh.

Well worth it. I'll give it 7.5/10.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Camera Buff

Filip and Irenka are expecting their first child. They've recently moved into a new flat, they are happily married, Filip has a good job and then the baby arrives. At the age of 30 Filip has it all - he's even bought a Russian made 8mm film camera to film his new daughter growing up. The film is set in a small Polish town in 1979 in the communist era. The buildings, pavements, mud, sky and cars are all shades of anonymous grey. Colour is brought by the lives of the characters.

Filip's bosses discover he has a camera and ask him to film the 25th Jubilee celebrations as a record for the factory. Filip's initial attempts are clumsy and he is always in the way. However, he has a nose for what makes good cinema and follows his instinct which brings into conflict with the factory's Director. This conflict is ongoing as Filip develops his own creative documentary style peppered with flashes of creative interludes. Such is the paucity of film making in Poland that Filip is invited to enter the film in a national film festival where he wins third prize. This inflames his addiction to film making and he forms a film making club with his colleagues.

Filip's new-found celebrity and increasing addiction begin to force a wedge between him and Irenka who is struggling after the birth of their daughter. He films their daughter as she has her nappy changed  and Irenka chastises Filip for filming the new baby in its nakedness. Filip engages in new projects, flirts with a national film celebrity who is well-connected and eventually lands a commission from national TV. All of these serve to unwillingly push him and Irenka further apart. Filip does not want this but as with any addiction is powerless to stop it. Eventually his wife leaves him to go and stay with her mother.

Filip's film making style is documentary - he wants to portray things as they are. He uses the camera to expose what he considers to be institutional corruption when he films behind the façade of the town's buildings to reveal the decay and squalor the towns folk actually live in. This film brings great acclaim and Filip embarks on filming workers from the local brick works who have not been producing bricks for some months because of a shortage of supplies - instead they have been sent around the town to tidy it up. This brings him into a direct conflict with his work's Director again - a suitably rotund and comparatively well-dressed man in a stereotypical portrayal of the communist anomaly that some are more equal than others. He explains to Filip that funds given to the town to improve its buildings were diverted into projects for a much needed hospital and nursery and that Filip is not presenting the true reality because people in his position don't understand full picture. Central authorities become unhappy with Filip's portrayal of ordinary life and cut off funding to the town. Some of Filip's colleagues are made redundant as a consequence of his activities.

Filip experiences an epiphany and races to the station to recover the brick works film before it goes off to the TV company. Dramatically he opens the canister and throws the spool down the street unwinding the undeveloped negative and exposing it to the light thereby ruining it. This mirrors his own conscience and understanding having been exposed but his friend cannot understand his actions - that Filip has learned the responsibility that accompanies using a lens to provide an interpretation of what the camera sees. He has learnt the power of story - it's power to inspire, to represent and misrepresent, to engage in a moral crusade the unintended consequences of which bring greater harm on others and his community.

This film is semi auto-biographical of its director Krzysztof Kieslowski. It is a powerful film that sets out the responsibilities film makers - and creators of art - have. His addiction to tell the truth in a creative way cost him his marriage, his colleagues their jobs, his town its redevelopment. It is little wonder that Kieslowski was always wary of institutional authority and that this is a recurring theme in his films. This film was his first feature length drama and it established him on the main stage of film making. As with all Kieslowski films it explores the moral and emotional dynamics of the characters. It is possible to say that in following his new-found vocation as a film maker, Filip lost his vocation as a husband, father and resposnsible colleague.

The power to be creative is gripping and can become all-consuming. We are after-all made in the image of God who is the Great Creator. The film invites us to reflect on commitment, morality, vocation and self-sacrifice. Is it right that 'art' can drive all of these things from us and turn us into something new? What happens when we find fulfilment in these things but lose everything else? The film ends in a way as it began. Filip turns the camera on himself and we see his face reflected in the lens - he is alone, naked, now he is the subject of scrutiny by the camera - just like his little daughter was.

A first class film. I'll give 8.5/10.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The Savages

This is a brave film that deals with the subject of dementia head-on. The sleeve notes describe this film as 'hysterically funny and irreverent', I found it to be neither. It is realistic, gritty and it recognises that there are no perfect solutions when dealing with a messy subject like this. The story explores obligation, guilt and a host of other emotions as it seeks an understanding of what is meaningful and what is not.

Lennie Savage lives with his 'girlfriend' of 20 years in Sun City, Arizona. His behaviour is getting more extreme and the carer who comes in to look after his partner provokes an incident that sets in train a series of events. The first one being that Lennie's partner dies whilst having a manicure in a Beauty Parlour. Her children cite a legal agreement made by the seniors that neither would have any call on each others possessions at any stage in the future and they 'evict' Lenny so that they can sell the house. Even at this point in the film it is worth reflecting on the image of retirement that sun City presents - manicured and synthetic.

Lenny's children - both around the 40 year-old mark are then brought into the picture. Jon is a College Professor living in Buffalo, up-state New York. He is in a relationship with a Polish girl but her visa has expired and she has to return to Poland. He cannot commit to marriage and muddles on through this messy and dysfunctional relationship. Wendy is also single. She lives in a grubby apartment in New York City and works as a temp to sustain her real passion as a playwright. Wendy is in what appears to be a long-term affair with a married man who is facing his own mid-life crisis. She craves attention and intimacy, he craves sex. Another dysfunctional relationship.

Jon, the elder of the two, always takes the lead and is presented as the rational, logical sibling. Wendy is always portrayed as the one rooted in the fantasy dream-world of possibilities, unable to deal with hard realities confronting her. The two siblings, clearly struggling to develop their own fulfilling relationship with one another, battle the emotional and mental wounds inflicted in their childhood at the hands of Lenny and the absent Mom to fulfil their sense of obligation towards their now confused and ageing father.

There are a number of small moments when the curtain is pulled back and light floods in. When Wendy is mechanically having sex with her lover and instead of concentrating on the moment - or her lover - she reaches out to his ailing Labrador for a sign of affection. Jon, delivering a class on Bertolt Brecht encounters the distinctions he is outlining in his lecture played out in his life as he receives a phone call. Or when Wendy is taken seriously by Jimmy, a carer in Lenny's Nursing Home, her only means of responding is to grab him and kiss him passionately. There are many more.

The film invites you to make parallels with your own situation - your childhood, family dys/functionality and outlook for your parents. I am an only child so I missed out on squabbling sibling rivalry - something I've always regretted. Both my parents are long dead and so I was never faced with the spectre of dementia - although through my work I have encountered it many times. What I could readily tap into were the feelings of obligation and guilt that being a member of a family automatically engender. The story also invites you to side with either Jon or Wendy - the realist or dreamer. Perhaps my characterisation of them betrays whose side I am on!

The film raises wider questions of how dysfunctional families who are geographically dispersed and who are unable to create and sustain new and meaningful relationships for themselves should function when circumstances throw them back into a tight-knit situation. It would have been easy for Jon and Wendy to say we've not seen Dad in 20 years and Mom in longer - let welfare take care of him. But they didn't. They did what they could and Jon's pragmatism recognised that Lenny needed specialist care - care beyond their ability to deliver. The compromise wasn't perfect - but it gave them more than they had before. Is this a realistic and best hoped-for-outcome?

Much of the story is brought into focus as Jon views a rehearsal of one of Wendy's plays. It's subversive auto-biographical angle sheds light on how the Savages got to be where they are.

Life is messy.

Excellent acting from Philip Seymour-Hoffman and Laura Linney. A film to get under your skin - whatever your age. If it prompts you to make preparations now while all stake-holders can own the outcome we can receive it as gift. If this is too much to ask for, we can enjoy it as a gentle comedy that peels the veneer off living with dementia.

Go watch it - you'll be rewarded. I'm giving it 8/10.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Book of Eli

A story of pilgrimage, hope and faith in the midst of a post-apocalyptic USA. Thirty years after the end of the war the USA is a wasteland with gangs of armed marauders ready to bush-whack anyone they encounter to steal their shoes, water or even just for the fun of it. Eli has been heading West for 30 years. He heard a voice that led him to a book and which then told him to take it to the West - to a receptive community. He only seeks a peaceful passage as he continues on his pilgrimage but if anyone stands in his way he is prepared to kill - not to save his own life, but to preserve the book and ensure it reaches it's final destination.

Okay, so the film is largely a pretext for Denzel Washington to engage in lots of armed combat against impossible odds. There are a number of cool fight scenes - with some wonderful Matrix-type camera work on one or two of them.

The narrative offers the opportunity to explore what the rules are in a rule-less world. The invitation is declined and the bloodfest continues. Given the nature of the book Eli is transporting, this has to be a wasted opportunity.

The narrative is also unable to resist pairing the hero up with a female - although nothing romantically comes of it. However, Solara does manage to mysteriously escape from a cave she is locked in and she does show initiative and guile in helping speed Eli on his journey making it end all too quickly - seeing that it took him 30 years to get that far!

I won't spoil it by saying where they end up, but the fact that it is a 'secure and isolated' community begs lots of questions about the freedom the book is supposedly meant to offer. The movie might prompt questions about the nature of calling, (blind) faith and pilgrimage if the viewer is sensitive to them but for me these were played too softly. Solara's mother is blind and where/how/why did Eli learn the language of the book?

Whilst the combat scenes are visually gratifying, I found little else to commend this film - it played everything that could be engaging way too soft. Too much of Eli's back story is missing so there is no meaningful context to the journey he is on.

I'll give it 5/10.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Strangers on a Train

It starts with a shriek of a train whistle...and ends with shrieking excitement. The marketing tag-line from 60 years ago. They don't make them like this any more!

It's good to interweave some classics in between the newer block-busters. Last night we watched this Hitchcock thriller. It kept us on the edge of our seats right until the very end. The skill of the film is not only in the its story-telling but also in its characterisation and how those characters draw you in. The film begs you to make judgements and ally yourself with the one or more of the characters. The opening sequence shows two men arriving at a Railway Station by taxi. All we see is their luggage and their feet as they walk to the train. We follow their feet down the carriage. One man clad in black and white brogues reminiscent of the Gatsby era, the other in smart plain, but quality shoes. This passage of the film forces you to construct your profile of who the shoes, legs and luggage belong to. Before you even see them in the film, you've fabricated a sketch of the two men in your mind. The whole film is a mind-job which explores hate, love, the need to escape the bonds of relationship, guilt, psychosis and the most laid back and patient Police force in the USA! It prompts the question - 'what would you have done?".

It is not until the two pairs of feet sit opposite one another and one accidentally kicks the other as he crosses his legs and so has cause to speak, that we are allowed to see the two men in full. Both are dressed smartly in suit and tie. Both appear to be in their 20's or early 30's at most. One quiet, a man who prefers to keep himself to himself and read. The other talkative, over-familiar, invasive, controlling and domineering.

The ostentatious gabler (Anthony) - the one with the two-tone brogues - recognises the quiet man (Haines) as a leading tennis player. As he himself is a socialite, he is aware of Haines marital situation. Haines' wife Miriam has been playing loose while her husband has been on the tennis circuit. Subsequently he has hooked up with Anne, the daughter of a Senator, whom he plans to marry once the divorce from Miriam comes through.

Anthony lives under the shadow of his father who is constantly disappointed by his son. As Anthony sees it, both he and Haines have motive to murder to escape from their respective relational prisons. The only problem is that both would be found out. But as they have had a chance encounter on a train why not commit each other's murder and so both be set free without fear of implication! Anthony makes the proposition in terms of prefixing each sentence with 'just suppose ...' whilst Haines thinks he is simply accommodating a nutty and imaginative nuisance. They part.

Few of the characters in the film are neutral - you are forced to make judgements and to like them or not. Miriam is a nasty piece of work. A good-time gal, pregnant with someone else's baby, she threatens to withdraw from the divorce, and live with Haines in Washington bringing the baby up as his child. It could be argued that with Haines enjoying the tennis circuit, he should have made better provision for his wife. Instead of going to see her attorney to finalise the divorce, they argue and Miriam threatens Haines with no divorce.

Anthony, who is shown to be psychotic, considers that an agreement was reached and so he plots to kill Miriam. This he does by strangulation on an island in the tunnel of love boat ride in an amusement park. That evening he confronts Haines, hands over Miriam's broken glasses as proof and demands his quid-pro-quo. Despite Haines' best efforts to fob Anthony off, Anthony's persistence proves troublesome - particularly as the Police are trailing Haines 24/7 as they suspect him of complicity in his wife's murder. The situation isn't helped when it transpires that Anthony moves in similar social circles to Haines' intended Anne and so they keep encountering one another. Anne becomes suspicious and the story takes on an even more sinister twist when Anthony sees Miriam in the face of Anne's sister Barbara (played by Hitchcock's daughter Pat) at a party just when he is demonstrating the ease of strangling someone on an older party-goer whom he nearly kills as he goes into a trance.

The film is brilliantly paced. It is 96 minutes long. Miriam is murdered after 30 minutes. Haines seeks to bring about a conclusion on 60 minutes and the final death occurs on 90 minutes. I won't spoil it by saying how it ends - but the end is pure Hitckcock. You will never see a merry-go-round in quite the same way ever again!

This is a really excellent film. It maintains suspense and momentum throughout through great Direction and very good acting. The way in which the viewer is forced to adopt sides, make character judgements and think 'what would I do?" all serve to demonstrate how effectively the film draws you in and engages. Sixty years on, this black and white masterpiece can hold it's head high against the biggest 3D CGI blockbuster.

I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 2 August 2010


A story that needed to be told - and needs to be retold, often.

Based on a true story, this film rightly has an all-star cast led by Tom Cruise (Von Staufenberg)in a performance that is every bit a good as A Few Good Men. Tom Hollander who is currently starring in BBC TV's Rev gives a good performance as does Eddie Izzard who plays a Nazi General! Bill Nighy, also playing a General, inhabits a role he has made his own in countless TV dramas and movies - indecisive, lacking in confidence, a wimp of a man whose greyness is only outdone by his lack of conviction. Carice van Houten also turns in a worthy performance as Cruise's wife.

The story opens with the sound of hundreds of soldiers taking the oath of absolute allegiance to Hitler. It then switches to North Africa with Von Stuafenberg making an entry in a personal diary where he decries the scale of the loss of life and the blindness of those leading his country. Shortly afterwards his unit comes under British fighter attack and he is wounded resulting in the loss of an eye, a hand and two fingers. He is reassigned to Berlin and a desk job.

His views about the Nazi leadership being known, he quickly falls in with a group plotting to overthrow Hitler and negotiate an immediate cease-fire with the advancing allies. Together they plot to blow up Hitler in his bunker and trigger Operation Valkyrie. Valkyrie is a standing order to mobilise the German reserve army to defend the homeland. There are turns and twists along the way, so I won't spoil the story or the outcome. The narrative is largely believable and suspense is well maintained throughout.

The story and context raise all kinds of questions about 'just war' and how those opposed to their national leaders should act. It is hard to ask whether those involved in this plot could or should have done more. For me their odds of surviving such an attempt were always low so would a more direct suicide mission have improved the chance of a successful outcome? It's so easy to ask that of someone else. What would I have done - what would you have done?

Hindsight always gives us 20-20 vision. At the time with the real and present pressures, not really knowing who could be trusted and who might betray you, not many would have had the courage to follow their convictions. The film fittingly ends with the inscription from the resistance memorial in Berlin.

A good story of heroism and courage that is well told. I'll give it 7/10.