Sunday, 21 November 2010

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part 1


Harry Potter has come of age. The conceptualisation, the acting, the story all take the saga to another level. Well done Joanne Rowling for the story and also to David Yates for his Direction of the film. This film stands on its own two feet and does not need the juggernaut of Pottermania to sustain it. I see it took $61m on its opening day in the USA!

This film runs out at 146 minutes - not bad for part 1 of a book! The story never lags and the dramatic tension rises and falls to deliver a roller coaster ride of emotional highs and lows. I was looking for weaknesses in the acting performances and found none. I was expecting melancholy and melodrama - but his film is more like The Wizard of Oz meets Jason Bourne. It is mature and stands independently of any back story. Hogwarts is but a memory as the story unfolds out in the big and increasingly bad world. It's a good old tale of good verses evil and part 2 will, I hope, deliver a saviour figure and the defeat of the Dark Lord. I wonder if Voldemort is a Sith?

I'm not going to spoil the plot line for anyone (like me) who hasn't read the books and comes to the film fresh. I will comment on a few changes in emphasis that JK has skilfully moved the plot to focus on.

There are plenty of special effects, spells and enchantments all of which reinforce the feeling that this continues to be a story about witches and wizards. The major change is that all the action takes place outside Hogwarts which underlines the notion that this cohort of students have graduated and are ready to take their place in the real world.

It is not only the theme of impending darkness that Voldemort and the House of Slytherin seek to usher in that marks a move to more mature and deeper themes. The three main protagonists are also shown as more mature and complex characters. Not only do they have to contend with the threat of the end of the world as they know it, but hormone soup is flowing through their veins and Ron in particular has a complete inability to express himself coherently when matters of the heart well up inside him which not only frustrates him but the viewer too. As much as anything, this film is to do with relationships that matter - and not only romantic ones as Hermione's painful parting from her parents within the opening two minutes shows.

There is so much to commend this film. I could go on and on - but rather than that, go and see the film for yourself.

I'll give it 8.5/10.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

A Short Stay in Switzerland

Fergus Walsh, the BBC's medical correspondent actually appears in the film as a documentary is made.

This is another uncomfortable film. Uncomfortable, as it presents a truth that seems to be counter-intuitive and I don't know how to resolve the tension it creates.

This is a film based on a true story about assisted suicide using the services of the Dignitas Clinic in Zurich - hence the title. The lead character (played by Julie Walters) has just watched her husband slowly die an 'undignified' death as the result of a degenerative neurological condition. Both she and her husband are Doctors which of course makes the irony all the more poignant. Not long after his death, she is diagnosed with a different but similar untreatable terminal condition.

From the outset she determines not to die in the way she painfully watched her husband slip away. She resolves to take matters into her own hands to end her life. Her three grown up children struggle with what she is proposing - particularly so soon after having just lost their father. Feeling that the UK's laws are an ass, she contacts Dignitas and makes the arrangements. Shortly after a Christmas celebrated well she says the time has come and with her three children she travels to Zurich for a short stay. The end is quick and administered with the kind of ruthless efficiency the Swiss are renowned for.

Every fibre in my being wants to do all that it can to preserve human life at any cost - all life is received as a sacred gift. However, when confronted with the means to alleviate suffering in the face of an inevitable outcome, there only seems to be one possible humane outcome. I am content with my moral and ethical theory when it lives in an abstract world devoid of any real consequences, but when it smashes head-on into the context of a real person it is found wanting and I do not know how to square the circle. My hope is that I will never be caught up in such a dilemma relating to someone close to me.

This film sets the moral context brilliantly and the acting is top drawer. Another uncomfortable watch - but essential viewing if we are to be real about the broken world in which we live.

I'll give it 8/10.

In the Valley of Elah


If you like Tommy Lee Jones' performances as a law enforcement officer then this will rank up there amongst his best - almost as good as No Country for Old Men. This is a tense and well-paced thriller that explores the inhumanity of the unintended consequences of war. There is also a very good performance from Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon does the morose mother thing she is so good at.

When you take young men (and it mostly is) who are full of life, a sense of adventure and a desire to serve their country and turn them into killing machines and deploy them in an inhospitable and alien land to fight an enemy they can't see or understand, is it any wonder that they lose the ability to see where the boundaries are when they return home? This story exposes the full horror of modern warfare and the terrible things it does to those who answer the call to duty and place themselves in jeopardy. Taking the risks of bullets and bombs in Iraq is one thing. Dying because you fall out with your mates in a bar or chicken restaurant is something else - but both are unintended consequences of intervening as world police. This film should be sub-titled 'Team America: Gone Wrong'.

The pain and anguish suffered by Jones and Sarandon's characters as parents impotent in the face of a military juggernaut is powerfully portrayed. The ability of institutions, in this case the Army and the Police, to close ranks and freeze the ordinary person out is chillingly scary. The film is punctuated with movie clips shot on patrol by Jones' son in Iraq - including an instance when he is forced to run over a child. Branded a thriller - this could so easily be a horror movie - perhaps should be.

How any national leader can sleep at night after sending their country's finest into the cauldron of hatred and warfare is a good question to ask.

An agonising watch - but you should see it as in doing so we pay homage to those fighting on our behalf. This film is enough to make anyone a pacifist!

I'll give it 7.5/10.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Laurel Canyon


Another film set in Los Angeles depicting a dysfunctional family with an absent father figure! Oh happy day. The other half of today's members' free screening at Harbour Lights. This one is from 2002 and no doubt was chosen to sit alongside Cyrus.

Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale) are bright PYT's at Harvard. They jet off to LA where Sam is to undertake a residency as a Psychiatrist whilst Kate completes her Ph.D. dissertation on genomes of Fruit Flies. Gripping stuff. The plan is for them to stay at Sam's mum's place - she should be away. When they arrive, they find that she is in residence with a British rock group - she is a record producer of some repute and the house is equipped with its own studio.

The basic story is that Sam is tempted by Sarah a second year intern from Israel but worried for Alex's peace and quiet as she studies. Sam encourages Alex to find a place for them to live - near where Sarah lives. Meanwhile, Alex is gradually drawn to the drugs and sex and rock n' roll lifestyle of the house's other occupants and begins to discover a side she never knew she had.

Sam fights off the demons of his attraction to Sarah only to confront Alex in a state of undress at a party in the penthouse of a local hotel with British rock group's lead singer who is having a fling with Sam's mother. This is just at the point when Sam's mother calls a halt to a menage-a-trois but that doesn't stop Sam from jumping to conclusions and having a go at the Brit. A big punch up involving all four main characters follows which spills into the foyer of the up-market hotel. Miraculously all comes good, Sam and his mother are reconciled and the film concludes with Sam ending a call with Sarah saying he would call her right back. Inconclusive.

The only glimpse of something real and tangible is when Sam breaks professional protocol and calls in the mother of a 16 year-old patient he is treating in an attempt to offer some basic relationship support in the hope of heading off a full-scale spiral into drugs and psychotic behaviour. The rest of film deals with passions and desires that never quite as real or believable.

I felt the story was self-indulgent and never really got away from predictability and pretentiousness. Christian Bale turned in his hallmark half-whispered performance and lacked any real spark of life or conviction. A moribund performance in a moribund film. It left me feeling very frustrated. The way in which temptation was offered and faced, made sense only if Harvard and New England were devoid of temptations and a move to the state of Californication opened up endless possibilities. That Sam and Alex had progressed to the age they had and lacked the vocabulary, wit and motivation to articulate their feelings towards one another only serves to demonstrate that even PYT's don't know which side of their bread is buttered! The stereotypical portrayal of Sam's mother as the archetypal rock groupie chic and the Brit rock band as philandering pot-heads probably satisfied American box offices, but on a chilly November Sunday afternoon in Southampton UK, it left me as cold as the East wind.

I'm ever more glad that this screening was free. Don't bother going to see it - there are much better stories and performances out there.

I'll give it 5/10.

Cyrus


I saw this film this afternoon at a free members' screening at Harbour Lights in Southampton - what a great place. I'm glad it was free.

John C Reilley plays John, a divorcee of 7 years standing who still works with his ex who remains his best friend and confidant. The news of her impending marriage pushes John to new depths of despair. He is persuaded to go to a party and there he meets Molly. There is an immediate spark and the two hit it off. However, after sex each night, as soon as John falls asleep, Molly leaves. John is mystified by this behaviour and one night follows her home. The next day he returns to carry out a reconnaissance and is apprehended by Cyrus, Molly's 21 year-old son. Cyrus is the other man in Molly's life. Molly and Cyrus have a very odd, unhealthy relationship where he is completely dependent on her - another film with an absent father figure.

Cyrus cannot face the threat of John taking Molly away from him and he begins to manipulate Molly and John's relationship. The final straw comes when, at John's ex's wedding celebration, Cyrus confronts John in a toilet and they end up in a fight which spills out on to the patio with all the guests with everyone - including Molly assuming that John started it.

This could only be set in Los Angeles where weird relationships appear to the norm. I won't spoil the outcome for you just in case you feel suicidal and want to go to the cinema. The characterisations are excellent with Reilley looking every part the man who went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. Cyrus is scary - I hope Jonah Hill was acting - if not, I don't ever want to meet him! Cyrus' mother is played by Marisa Tomei who has a smile that is so warm and engaging that it gives you an instant tan and draws you to her.

If you are looking for a film with a different plot about a dysfunctional family, this is for you. Those who are psychologically informed will enjoy watching this and analysing who did what to whom and why. It would also be good to know if there is any long-term hope for Cyrus.

A Romcom for a quiet Sunday afternoon. See it if it it's raining outside.

I'll give it 5.5/10.

Where the Wild Things Are


This is an adaptation of the well known children's story by  Maurice Sendak. Max is a loner. No friends, a teenage sister with friends who are too cool to be seen with younger Max and an absent father. It is clear form the outset that Max has developed strategies to cope by internalising his world and inappropriately externalising his emotions. After his sister's friends destroy Max's igloo, he vents his anger on what he considers to be his sister's most prized possessions by destroying them. He then goes to bed where his mother comes home to find him crying. As he is in bed, the camera zooms in on a globe with an inscription plate "To Max - owner of the World, Love Dad". Max immediately confesses his crime.

Later we see his mother entertaining a boyfriend and because she doesn't respond to Max's pleas to view his rebuilt fort in his bedroom he throws a tantrum which ends in a huge confrontation and he runs off into the night until he finds a boat by the sea in which he sets sail. Yes - the story does move at that pace.

The next hour of the film takes place in Max's imagination. He sails for days and eventually finds landfall where large wild creatures live. Initially they want to eat him but he persuades them that he is a king and they relent and agree for Max to rule them.

Max's special friend is Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) but he pretty much makes good relationships with all the Wild Things. For days they play and have adventures and Carol shows Max around his kingdom - a place with strikingly contrasting habitats, woods, sand deserts, rocky coastlines and mountains with caves. All the time the Wild Things are squabbling and Max keeps the peace.

It is as thought the Wild Things are personas of either Max or members of his family which invite you to map them. Carol is very similar to Max - or is he Max's father? Judith would seem to be his sister Claire. Whilst KW who is always on the verge of leaving would appear to present a picture of Max's mother, his only anchor in reality. Towards the end of the story, Max fleeing from Carol encounters KW who hides Max in her stomach! This gives Max a womb-like experience after which he musters enough courage to return home. When he arrives home, it as though he has not been away too long. His mother embraces him and all appears to be well.

Maybe this was a cathartic sojourn, or a rite of passage that enabled Max the boy to begin becoming Max the young man. If you were to create a world and populate it with creatures what they be like and what  would they do? Sounds a bit like The Sims!! I'm sure that with further viewings and scrutiny the story would yield many insights into Max's psyche and invite us to explore our own. On the other hand you could simply enjoy a children's story, or play The Sims. Is anything ever that simple?

A worthy watch.

I'll give it 6.5/10

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Clips and cuttings, film epiphanies

Part of the programme is an invitation for folk to bring clips and cuttings (max 4 minutes) that are meaningful in terms of world view, theology, first got them interested in reading films or some other kind of epiphany. Without list the precise excerpts and reasons why, here is what folk contributed:
  • Treasure Island
  • Departures (Japanese)
  • Anton's Childhood (Russian)
  • The Cave of the Yellow Dog (Mongolian)
  • My Mother Smiles (Italian)
  • Caberet
  • Freedom Writers
  • Leap of Faith
  • Good Night, and Good Luck
  • Babette's Feast (Danish)
  • Winstanley
  • War Requiem
  • Apollo 13
Have a guess at which was mine.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Devil and Daniel Webster


This film has all the subtlety of an atomic bomb! The story is quite simple - when you fall on hard times enter into a contract with the Devil and for seven years you will have good luck and more money than you need. When the seven years are up you die and the Devil gets your soul.

Set in the 1840's and made in the 1941, the plot is as simple as set out above but it plays out across a series of issues that are raw in the pre-Pearl Harbour American psyche. On the back of the Great Depression with the USA choosing isolation over participation and with a world at war, the need to define American identity in a way that underlines freedom, entrepreneurship and the pioneer spirit conspire to produce a movie of sickly sweetness. The directness of the message cannot be missed by anyone - neither the morality tale nor the 'let's reinvent out nation' tale. Along the way the film attempts to exorcise the demons of slavery and Native American abuse whilst building up patriotism and depicting the Devil in the most genial and human terms as Mr Scratch endearingly played by Walter Houston. Oh, and the ever-present sexual temptation of the French Belle featured in the picture above.

The notion that a human has a soul is a given in the film. To whom does it belong is the question the film poses - with a complete lack of eloquence and sophistication. The notion that it can be sold for short term gain is as old as folk tale culture itself. For what it might be exchanged is of course the interesting question. Is it ours to give, is a worthy question to consider too. If we can choose to give our heart to Christ, can we as easily choose to give our heart to someone different?

When we are down on our luck, out of resources and in hock up to our necks, what will desperation force us to do? The film concludes with the Devil going through his book of contacts - people with whom he has a contract. In the end, the Devil stares into the camera and points at the audience in an unsubtle suggestion that you could be next. Scary stuff.

I guess this was brave cinema for 1941. I wonder what it would have looked like if Hitchcock had directed it, or Quentin Tarantino? Even scarier stuff! As this is an American film it has a happy ending - so it's safe to watch as the good guys prevail - thanks to Daniel Webster.

Worth the watch but it only scores 6/10.

PS It only struck me having slept on it, that there is absolutely no spiritual/theological content to this film and certainly none in Daniel Webster's defence of the accused. I imagine therefore that this is an indictment of America's shift towards liberal humanism evidenced by literature/cinema in the 1930/40's. Again, an interesting point to ponder given the world stage that was unfolding.

Keep Walking (Cammina Cammina)


Each year at this conference, the leader inserts a film that is a physical challenge to stay with! This is nearly three hours long and in Italian!!

It is an allegorical retelling of the journey made by the Magi - perhaps a great way to spend a cold Epiphany evening? It is worthy, but it is slow and several folk nodded off and on waking up discovered they hadn't really missed much. This is another 'road trip' movie which means that the substance has to be found in the encounters along the way. The highlight is the character Rupo, a boy, who assists the priest and appears to be destined to succeed him despite a strong dislike for ritual and a sharply enquiring mind. (These seem excellent qualities for a priest to my mind.)

The difficulty of the terrain along the pilgrims' journey can be taken as the picture of the difficulty of the way of a pilgrim in everyday life. The destination and 'stable scene' of the nativity is wonderfully plain and ordinary - no halos or heavenly choirs. The attempt to avoid the Herodian plot is cleverly done, but the film doesn't really move with any watchable speed until the last 30 minutes.

I guess that feeding on the other riches on offer in the programme at this conference means that we have do penance and suffer the odd film that makes us work - hard!

Not widely available - don't hurry to add it to your collection.

I'll give it 5/10.

Sophie Scholl - the last days


Set in Munich 1943 a group of students known as The White Rose publish leaflets and daub graffiti on walls calling for an end to the war and the overthrow of Hitler. Their means are always peaceful, but the campus is full of informers and the Gestapo are everywhere. Sophie Scholl is a leading member of the group. The film tells her story over the course of six days after she is seen by a janitor at the university distributing seditious leaflets. The story is told from her perspective and we know only what she knows and see only what she sees. Julia Jentsch plays the title role in a strong performance and this film is further evidence of the healthy and dynamic state that German film-making is in these days. It's very very good - it was nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar in 2005.

As Sophie is interrogated the camera goes in close on her hand wringing as she duels with the investigator who is seeking her confession and the names of her accomplices. We see that her interrogator notices her body language, but we are never given an indication of how he reads it. She is at times economical with the truth and invents alibis - but the stakes are high. She argues that the National Socialists (Nazis) who came to power on the back of laws allowing them free expression cannot then deny German people free expression if they disagree with the state line.

Sophie and her brother are charged with high treason and after her brother finally confesses so does she. In the ongoing interrogation she pits her will against Nazi ideology and her interrogator has to perform impossible intellectual gymnastics that defy logic simply to create an answer the force of which lies solely in the fact that he can shout more loudly than her. Sophie's quest is for freedom of thought and expression, for an end to the killing of women and children, an end to the death camps, an end to blind and unthinking fascism. Her interrogator can only see a return to Germany being the down-at-heel puppy dog to the rest of the world as he refers to the "stinking" Versailles Treaty which gave rise to the Weimar Republic.

In the end she signs her own confession and the consequences are inevitable. The court and judge are shown to the epitome of the caricature you would expect. Sophie, her brother and a third accomplice are beheaded that same day. Brutal. But then war is. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed is Sophie Scholl.

An important story - one to set alongside Valkyrie.

As a story 11/10. As a film 7/10.

Creation


I had been avoiding this film because I was fearful it would indiscriminately side with the evolutionists or creationists. What a mistake I made. It is a film that captures the anguish of a dawning realisation that all the facts point to something which will challenge the status quo in such a way as there will be no return. This is not a film that depicts Darwin as the wilful destroyer of Christendom, but as a loving father, husband and scientist driven by the need to find answers. Darwin was no saint - but neither was he any more a sinner than you or I.

My own preconceptions had blinded me. I was delighted to be transported to the world of real scientific discovery and exploration. To a place where someone could think completely original thoughts and over time see them evolve into a coherent system that allowed a new understanding of the world around us to coalesce and blossom as The Origin of Species.

One thing that film makes patently clear is the cost to Darwin and his family of the pathway his vocation forced him to follow. He was right to be angry with the local vicar for cruelly punishing his daughter by making her kneel on rock salt until she repented. His loss of faith and his desire to seek a common understanding with his wife who maintained hers is an exquisitely choreographed ballet wrought with emotional tension, guilt and ultimately forgiveness and acceptance.

This film moved me to cry at two points. Once because of a generous reconciliation between his second daughter and Darwin and once because in Jennifer Connelly's portrayal of Emma, his wife, I saw displayed such gracious and generous characteristics as I have only previously seen exhibited by my wife! For me this underlines the fact that this is film not so much about philosophical idealism but about relationships. Of course it touches on the intellectual battles that were being fought and this is evidenced by the ongoing correspondence and meetings with Huxley and Hooker. Whilst that may be the vehicle that provides the story's means of mobility, the landscape through which it travels is a landscape of relationships.

I would happily have watched it again immediately. I cannot remember when I last felt like that about a film. If you've not seen it, put it on your list.

I'll give it 7.5/10.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

He who must die


This picture says it all.

This is a film made in 1957 by Jules Dassin set in Crete in 1921. Greece is under Turkish occupation in the aftermath of The Great War and ethnic cleansing is under way for those unable to get on with occupying forces.

Each year the small village enacts a Passion Play. The leader of the Village Council and Priest are in cahoots with the Agha and all kinds of accommodations are made to maintain the peace and ensure those who lead have a comfortable lifestyle.

When an entire village of pilgrim people turn up having been driven out of their own homes for resisting the Turk's rule, the Priest sees a threat to peaceful stability and declares that the people have cholera and that they must be on their way. They move a short distance away and fed up with their wandering begin to build a new village. With no resources and with children dying from starvation, folk from the established village begin to take pity on them - especially those chosen to play the lead characters in the Passion Play.

A lot of how the story is played out is a product of the context the story is set within (as is always the case). However, this remains a powerful retelling of the Passion story - unequalled perhaps except for Jesus of Montreal. This film demands that viewers challenge their own preconceptions. It raises important questions about refugees, ethnic cleansing, hospitality, pacifism in the face of an unjust invader, who is my sister/brother, the role of religious leaders and a faith, Christianity, whose history is marred by conflict and in-fighting.

I was particularly challenged by the prophetic leadership role the priest played and how seductively attractive the autocratic leadership they exercised appeared. The film very cleverly demonstrated how Pharisaical one priest became and how the other became an armed suffering servant - after blessing the menfolk who had taken up arms, he put down the Bible and took up a rifle alongside them.

There are many powerful performances in this film. It is not widely available but can seemingly be downloaded and viewed. The quality of the print has deteriorated over time and the sub-titles move alarming quickly to begin with and are hard to see clearly - but they do get easier to understand.

This film will reward the dedicated viewer - it contains much to stimulate reflection.

I'll give it 7.5/10.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Watching movies among the books


Today I am off to North Wales and the village of Hawarden where the great British Statesman William Gladstone lived. He built this little place to accommodate his library which is now in excess of 250,000 volumes. As well as offering a great opportunity for academic research and good B&B, the centre also runs courses across a number of disciplines. The Warden, Peter Francis, is heavily into reading films as theological texts so it's no surprsie that twice a year courses on film feature in the programme.

So, I am shortly to depart with a good friend and colleague who shares my passion for films and God, so it should be a good time. The programme lists the films set out below. Sometimes an introductory talk is offered to help set the context without giving too much away. Afterwards, we always reflect on and discuss each film. Peter runs the course with long-time friend Tom Aitken who among other things was one-time film critic for The Tablet.

Films of Faith & Doubt
  • He Who Must Die
  • Creation
  • Sophie Scholl
  • Keep Walking
  • The Devil and Daniel Webster
  • Keeping the Faith
I have stolen the format (but not the content) for a course I will be running at the Diocese of Winchester's Retreat and Conference Centre - Old Alresford Place from 29 Nov - 1 Dec. Places are still available. Contact me for further details.

I hope to be offering my reflections on these films.