Sunday, 31 July 2011

Sarah's Key

Saw this today at Harbour Lights at a members free preview - well done Picture Houses!

This is as sure an Oscar winner as I've ever seen - it is brilliant and my hanky is still soggy from mopping up the tears. The only question that could spoil it is 'does the story spill too much into melodrama' to milk the tears or is it that the subject matter is so sensitive and the way it is acted so compelling that the film is rightfully due every accolade it will receive? I'm going with the latter.

This is by all accounts a fairly accurate adaptation of the novel  Elle s'appelait Sarah by Tatiana de Rosnay which centres on the infamous Vel' d'Hiv roundup of Parisian Jews in August 1942. The infamy stems from the fact that the roundup was at the hands of the French authorities who were forced into demonstrating their allegiance to the Nazis to keep control of their own police force. In the film the dilemma the Gendarmes confront is etched on the faces of most of them. They are (largely) unwilling pawns.

It is all well and good from the safety of today's freedoms and with 20/20 hindsight to pontificate about the moralities that get traded when the exigencies of war force the unwitting to place pragmatism ahead of ethics. I hope no-one is forced into having to make the same decisions that contribute to the horror story that unfolds in this film. I do however hope that many experience the potential for new life and rebuilding of identity that the story offers.

This is not an easy film to watch. I made my lip bleed biting it to stop myself from dissolving into a blubbering heap at one point! It's a story that needs to be told but one should be wary as it comes from the Weinstein stable. However, the story is seemingly told with a degree of evenness but also with unrelenting emotional big hits as the stories of two families who share an unwitting common past are intertwined and then unpicked before they collide again 70 years on.

The script is lively and believable and uses different languages in appropriate ways. One piece of dialogue brilliantly unpacks what drives investigative journalism - or is that simply what drives human curiosity - by asking what price do you put on truth. Another memorable line underlines the fact that we cannot escape our past - we are, however unwittingly, a product of it. The choice of whether or not we choose to acknowledge it is ours.

This film has plenty of style and barn-storming performances from Kristin Scott-Thomas and the young and very able Mélusine Mayance in the title role. I have purposefully avoided disclosing the plot as you will want to see this tear-jerker for yourself. It is excellent viewing, first-class and engaging cinema and a story that deserves to be told. Book your ticket now - it's on general release 5th August. Take plenty of Kleenex - you have been warned!

I'll give it 9/10 - see you at the Oscars.

The Double Life of Veronique

This film presents a tour-de-force performance form Irene Jacob in the lead double role of Weronika/Veronique. I'm a huge fan of Kieslowski but I struggled with this one - it's difficult to get your head around it. Nevertheless it presents interesting things to reflect on.

The central theme is that two identical Veroniques, born on the same day - one Polish, one French, both with an identical heart condition and the same great operatic singing voice. The first third of the film follows Weronika as she begins to make it big-time in singing. Walking across a square she spots a doppelganger amongst a group of French tourists taking photos of a political demo as their tour bus leaves the square. The middle third introduces us to the Parisian Veronique who, on health grounds gives up her musical career. The final third explores Veronique's interaction and response to a secret admirer who makes and performs with marionettes.

Perhaps it is the puppets that provide the key to unlock the story as notions of free-will, intuition and fate interplay to weave a story which Kieslowski asserts is all about emotions. I find this odd - not that the film is lacking in emotional content - far from it, but it seemed to me more a film about identity and developing a notion of self. Both Veronicas felt they were never alone - in a way sensing the existence of the other. When Weronika dies, Veronique awakes from her sleep suddenly to underline the connectedness between the two girls. Veronique's world begins to unravel when her admirer points out Weronika on a set of contact photos and she feels despairing as her admirer becomes her lover. An odd and jerky transition.

The second disc interviews throw little illumination on the plot and the web provides even less about the film - even IMDb fails to carry a plot synopsis! I still think this film is worth the watch, so don't be put off by this rather negative review - it's just that I would choose to deal with the subject matter in a different way. This film still carries the hallmark Kieslowski feel and that still demands attention. I think the key is not to analyse this film too forensically and to take most of it at face value without digging too deep.

I'll give it 6/10.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Tree of Life

This is a demanding film. Demanding is many ways. The narrative is on such a grand scale that when it periodically dips into the specific here and now and then jerks back into cosmic eternity it is not always easy to follow the thread. It also jumps to today every now and again! At 2 hours 19 minutes - it's also demanding in terms of endurance.

The film is pretty uniqe in that the 11 or so years of the recognisable here and now of 1950's Waco, Texas (why Waco?) are intersperesed with Hubble-esque shots of the birth of the cosmos and evolution of galaxies. added to these are sequences which would give The Living Planet a run for its money and which feature sperm searching for an egg, Hammer-Head Sharks, Dinosaurs, barren derserts, beautriful rock formations, flowing rivers and breaking surf. This film is a celebration of the created order and humanity's attempt to make meaning of it all.

The film opens with words from Job 38:4

"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me if you have understanding."

and then departs on a metaphysical exploration of how we make meaning from being family. Perhaps we can see this as an exploration of community stemming from the Trinity who are at the heart of the creation in the Christian worldview?

Right at the beginning viewers are told there is a binary choice: they can choose to live by nature or by grace. The couple at the heart of the story are named as Mr & Mrs O'Brien. Mr (Brad Pitt) exemplifies the 'nature' approach to life - self-made, supremely self-confident, devoutly religious and running a family with such authoritarian rigour that he becomes abusive. Mrs O'Brien (played by the soft and dreamy Jessica Chastain) represents 'grace' - generosity, self-giving, there for the other. The recipients of the nature and grace are their three sons Jack, Steve and RL. The story is told from the contemporary viewpoint of the now middle-aged and confused Jack who, in looking back on his childhood, is himself trying to make meaning from a past that cannot be changed as he approaches a future that is there for the taking - or giving. This for me was the central axis on which the story pivots.

Initially Jack sees the world and all it contains through the eyes of his gracious mother. Everything is wonderful and a gift. Life is there for the living and the world is a playground to be enjoyed with true gratefulness to its Creator. Life however opens Jack, his brothers and his family to the harshness of nature and thus sets up the struggle. As Jack is exposed to illness, drunkeness, criminality, devout piety, his father's idealised view of the American Dream, DDT, pubescent curiosity, brothers that need his nurture rather than bullying and a local gang who look to him for daring leadership, Jack realises he is confronted by a series of questions.Will the abused Jack follow the ways of his father, who does not even permit himself to be called 'Dad', or will he follow the grace and self-giving of his mother whose arms are always open for a loving embrace of reassurance?

The film's master-stroke is in its editing and cinematography - both exceptional. I did feel the film didn't know when to end and could have done with losing 20 minutes or so. The end does eventually come when the adult Jack goes through a door frame in the middle of a desert (doorways are a recurring motif for points of transition in the film) and then finds himself on a beach filled with people from his life as he reaches a place where his understanding can accommodate the forgiveness of his father and allow him to receive afresh the love of his mother. The visualisation of this does need some interpretation - and I could well have got it wrong here.

If you have some time to invest and are prepared to do a lot of work after watching this film, then do go and see it. If 90 minute Hollywood action movies are your thing - don't see this! If you like striking visuals and a soaring soundtrack - go and see it.

I'll give it 8/10.

Saturday, 23 July 2011


This is a film that invites a high degree of self-reflection. It is poignantly moving, wonderfully edited and at times quirkily amusing. The film sees Ewan McGregor cast as the Hugh Grant-like Oliver. The film is a road movie - without the road! Oliver journeys back over his life, confronts his demons and in the end resolves to head in a given direction. I won't spoil the outcome for you.

A child of the 60's, Oliver works as an illustrator in a Design/PR company. When the film begins it is a couple of months after the death of his father. His mother had died five years previously. As far as we know, Oliver is an only child. Following the death of his mother and after 43 years of marriage, Oliver's father Hal (Christopher Plummer) 'comes out' and announces that he has known he was gay since the age of 13. This revelation destabilises Oliver who over time comes to accommodate this revelation.

In marriage, Hal was faithful to his wife for whom he performed 'satisfactorily'. Following her death, he sought partners and was not concerned about exclusive relationships. All of this sends Oliver's mind reeling as he tries to decipher the clues from his childhood and the contrast between his father as a husband and as a gay lover and activist. In the video flashbacks we never see his father - except from behind and then only fleetingly. We see lots of Oliver with his mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller) where the relationship seems to endlessly feature her pretending to shoot Oliver and the boy having to play dead.

As Oliver stuggles to make sense of who is as a product of this marriage the flashbacks repeatedly set events within their context inviting him and the viewer to reflect that was then, this is now. Eventually oliver emerges from the fug of confusion and sets course with new resolve. The vehicle for the this paradigm shift is Anna (Melanie Laurent) who stumbles onto his consulting couch at a fancy dress party where Oliver is hiding 
behind the disguise of Sigmund Freud. In the end it her perceptive empathy and offer of open love 
that provides the therapy that begins to unlock Oliver's heart and his ability to trust. Fearful of 
re-enacting the sham that was his parent's marriage, he cannot commit as he fears the pain of
it coming undone. The film is his wrestle with his journey and the trajectory that he feels destined
to follow. The journey for Oliver is a painful one. Arthur the Jack Russell Terrier and Andy (Goran 
Visnjic), Hal's younger boyfriend provide interesting additional twists and depth to the script.

It would be interesting to watch this alongside A Single Man and also Milk to which the film 
refers - both in terms of subject matter but also context and the time in which they are set.
I commend this film as a gentle, thoughtful, engaging and well-acted piece. Do go and see it.

I'll give it 7.5/10

Monday, 18 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Worth waiting a decade for! A fitting and tremendous climax to the Potter chronicles. Thank you JK, Daniel Radcliffe et al.

I was frustrated with the final instalment being released in two parts - but this was, as I said, worth waiting for. I haven't read any of the books but Stephen Fry's characterisations have been filling our home for many many years. My daughter has grown up in the world of Harry Potter - it will be for her a defining hallmark of her teenage years.

This film brings everything together. I won't spoil any of the plot just in case there is another sad person waiting for the surprise of the story in film. What I will say is that the story and its depiction is the clearest recasting of the Christian Gospel story you could ever wish to see. It is full of hope, forgiveness, redemption, salvation and above all love. The ending isn't altogether happy - but a lot better than it might have been given where the story gets to at certain points.

The producers have left it open for a whole series of spin-off franchises and sequels. How long will it take for MGM to roll out the Albus Potter?

Following on from In Bruges it is interesting to note that in addition to Ralph Fiennes's obvious appearance in both films, that Fleur Delacour is played by Clémence Poésy!

This really is a first class film that will keep you on the edge of your seat all the way through. Join
the hoards and swell MGM's coffers. Say thank you JK and connect with the light side. I wonder what
Pelagius and Augustine would make of it all?

I'll give this 8.5/10.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

In Bruges

The first film in nearly two months! It's been a desperate time.

Well, where to start with this one? Let's get some of the general positives out of the way first. The cast is excellent with the three main men giving stunning performances - particularly Colin Farrell whose performance of angst-ridden guilt draws you in and demands sympathy. Thekla Reuten and Clémence Poésy also give strong performances as the two main women in the story. The cinematography is first class too - the night scenes and early morning empty street travelogue shots do a great job of promoting this medieval jewel in Belgium's crown.

For such a post-modern piece of cinema, the narrative arc is way too obvious and in-your-face. The script and plot deploy a range of clever devices yet at time take you into side loops that do nothing to heighten the suspense or develop the character or stories. Perhaps some extra time in the editing room might have improved things? The story is a morality tale - the question is which moral code provides the framework?

If I were being generous, I'd say that this could be seen as an exploration of situational ethics, but in the end I have to say, and this where the post-modern bit comes in, it is simple a portrayal of a different and self-referencing moral code. A code where it is perfectly alright to shoot dead a priest, but also a code in which the ultimate sin is to shoot dead a child - this is the narrative arc that embraces the story.

Within the arc we see Ray (played by Farrell) wrestle with the consequences of his unintentional murder of a young boy waiting for the confessional to become vacant. He has neatly written out his sins so that he won't forget them but instead this device is clumsy and serves only to ramp up the despair and alienation Ray (and the audience?) feels. Ray takes the now blood-stained note from the boys hand:

and as you can see he was murdered for peccadilloes - perhaps the system that generates such guilt in children requires our examination?

Morality, guilt and grief are indeed the central themes - but only in so far as they relate personally to Ray and corporately within the world of the hired assassin. The former is a universal human consequence of acting against conscience, the latter is a convenient massaging of conscience for the sake of doing a job. Ken (Brendan Gleeson) even justifies his actions by explaining that the majority of people he kills are not nice people! Ray's guilt is continually pricked by Ken's insistence on doing the tourist thing while they are there and visiting lots of churches and art galleries which seem to filled exclusively with paintings depicting the final judgement!

This film is offered - and by most received - as a black comedy. I only found a couple of scenes amusing. One is the first picture above and the second near the end where Ray and  Harry (Ralph Fiennes) are arguing about who will count to three! The rest of the comedy was lost in a sea of blood and dismemberment that dissolved under a torrent of profanities. All of which left me feeling uncomfortable and concluding that watching this particular film had not been the life-enhancing experience I'd hoped for.

The hope of redemption and forgiveness is held out by Ken to Ray, but Harry's lust for sticking to his principles gives this film a blood-splattering conclusion where nobody wins. A true post-modern piece of cinema.

I'll give it 6/10.