Monday, 29 August 2011

Dougal and the Blue Cat

Wow what an experience! In one instance an direct reconnection with childhood and at the very same time deep immersion in an experience that is timeless because of its quality. Eric Thompson's voiceover is pure genius and excels in its pure Englishness and in doing so is at the same time completely anti-French! Wonderful.

If you are of a certain generation - my generation - you will remember the anticipation that accompanied the five minute programme that preceeded the early evening news that signalled the transition from children's to adult TV. For me this was the highlight of daily viewing and allowed instant transcendence into another world - a world that seemed totally reasonable and wholly believable. You were instantly able to map the characters onto friends and family - they became archetypes for whole crowds of people. And then there was always the smoldering sexuality of Florence!

Dougal and the Blue Cat, or in the original Pollux et le chat bleu, is a wonderful 79 minute feature-length film that tells one story that is at one and the same time equally accessible for adults and children - pure genius. A story that plumbs the depths of the attraction of megalomania and the feeling of the need to dominate - with the added seduction of Fanella Fielding as the 'blue voice'.

There are the resonances with the Christian story and the self-sacrifice of Dougal - and also possibly Brian. There is also the reinforcement of the notion of community and the recognition that we need to be saved - sometimes from ourselves! Little has changed.

This is excellent - buy the DVD and watch it - even if it is 41 years old! I must confess that I still own the 12" vinyl version of this movie's soundtrack - I wonder what it's worth?

I'll give the film 8/10.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

I'm a Cyborg

Korean cinema takes a bit of getting into! The cultural signals and metaphors - I am presuming - were largely lost on me. The sub-titles were creatively translated into the vernacular but I wonder how much of that was interpretation rather than straight translation? Nevertheless it is good to watch something that makes you work at it - a good corrective for so much of the unthinking stuff that Hollywood seems to produce!

This film has strong performances from all the characters - particularly the two leads Su-Jeong Lim and Rain, and the visualisation of Director Park Chan-Wook's concepts is stunning. I thought I bought a movie that explored personal identity through the persona of a cyborg - a sci-fi film. What I got was a Korean romantic comedy set in a psychiatric hospital!

Su-Jeong plays Young-goon whose psychosis gradually builds from one day when she comes home from school with a tremendous headache to discover her grandmother thinking that she is a mouse. Grandmother - who appears to be Young-goon's primary carer - is promptly whisked off to the sanitarium where she lives on nothing but radishes which causes unpleasant air pollution! Young-goon blames herself for her Grandmother's predicament. As the Grandmother was being taken away in the ambulance she was mouthing to Young-goon "The purpose of life is ...." but we never hear the completed sentence and it as though Young-goon spends the rest of the film trying to find the answer. Perhaps it is an invitation for us to also consider the question?

We then fast-forward to see Young-goon on an assembly line making transistor radios. She finally flips and fantasises about the instructions coming over the factory PA. She slits her wrist and inserts the power cables from the radio and then turns it on. The resultant shock propels her backwards to the floor where the current charges her internal battery and as the charge builds so the toes in her right foot light up until the charge is complete. We then cut to her mother being interviewed by the psychiatrist as she attempts to understand how Young-goon got into this state. The interview suggests that the mother herself is schizophrenic and so the the idea of of a family of unstable women is given credence.

Young-poon refuses to eat, instead licking batteries and hugging a radio for sustenance in an attempt to recharge herself. She talks to no-one except the machines and lights, wearing her Grandmother's dentures, in the belief that she is a Cyborg. No-one can penetrate her exterior world. That is until fellow patient Park Il-sun attempts to help her. He 'fits' her with a rice megatron which he says can convert food into electricity and therefore not harm her Cyborg workings. She begins to eat.

I won't say any more about the story in case you want to wrestle with this yourself.

I'm not sure what lessons we can glean from this film. Community as place of shared lostness and healing might be one. The need to enter into someone's world to try and understand them might be another - but not recommended for uninitiated where mental illness is involved.

In Young-poon's memories are the 'seven deadly sins' that her Grandmother told her about in her attempts to explain the meaning of life:

1. Sympathy
2. Being Sad
3. Restlessness
4. Hesitating about anything
5. Useless daydreaming
6. Feeling guilty
7. Thankfulness

It seems that this quest to discover the meaning of life is a universal human quest and perhaps the greatest lesson of the story is that we can act as guides for one another if we choose to recognise that we are all interdependent. Echoes of the Trinity!

An interesting film for a rainy evening when there's not much else on. Don't rush to see it. I'll give it 6/10.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Man on Wire

I saw this yesterday with Senna in a members' free double-bill - well done Harbour Lights. The second film about an a man who dices with death for the sake of his art.

This is a docudrama - more documelodrama as Philippe Petit flamboyantly narrates the story of his successful wire-walking act between the Twin Towers in New York in 1994. The film charts Petit's childhood obsession with circus style performing arts and the excesses of the circus ring are employed by Petit as he lays on the drama through his exuberant retelling of the story.

The drama builds by showing Petit's walks between the towers of the Notre Dame in Paris and then between the towers of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. It goes into great detail as Petit and his team research and plan the greatest and most audacious high wire act of all time. The tension builds as the narration is mixed with archive footage and a re-enactment of the preparation for the rigging of the wire. To get a team onto the roof of both towers along with half a ton of equipment took a lot of planning, guts and good luck.

The film explores the relationships between Petit and his friends. Petit was able to enthuse and envision people and inspire unflinching loyalty as his drivenness propels everyone on towards the goal. When he finally achieves it, he goes off for romp with a girl in the crowd and dumps his girlfriend from childhood days - Annie Allix. The successful walk transforms Petit and elevates him to a higher plain where these indiscretions are overlooked by his entourage and Allix can only marvel at his accomplishment.

This is a well made docudrama that embodies Petit's flamboyant and showman-like style. It is also an erie spectacle as we fast approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11!

I'll give it 7/10.

Sunday, 21 August 2011


A documentary about a Brazilian Formula 1 World Champion - surely just for aficionados? NO. Although there is almost no frame that fails to contain a racing track or racing car, this film offers an intimate engagement with a charismatic and obsessed genius. This is a film about a man who on one level is an ordinary guy and on another just happens to be the fastest man on the planet.

The film uses archive footage and overlays it with commentary, news reports and interviews to produce a compelling documentary of Senna's F1 career. The way this film is edited presents a masterclass in the art. It reveals someone who was uniquely gifted as a racing driver and a man who established a spiritual connection between his craft and his faith. For Senna, racing cars was the vocational fulfilment of the reason he'd been put on the planet.

The film appears to be objective in the way it portrays Senna's life. It exposes the political maneuvering of the sports governing body the FIA and in particular the seemingly collusive relationship between driver Alain Prost and FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre. This appeared to generate one interpretation of the regulations for everyone else and a tougher interpretation for Senna. Even so, Senna continues to win. When Senna changes teams from McLaren to William's, new rules are introduced that force the removal of the technology that gave the William's the edge. The changes make the car unstable and Senna struggles to make it perform. At the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in 1994 Senna crashes and dies from his injuries at the age of 34.

Senna is portrayed as a warm, shy, intelligent and generous man. Fiercely patriotic and always keen to play the Brazilian card, Senna is always aware that he enjoys privileges beyond the reach of many Brazilians. Senna set up a Foundation to help children in Brazil - a Foundation that lives on today as Senna's legacy continues to benefit many, long after his passing. He not only gave immense pride to a struggling nation but he served and continues to serve as an inspiration to many.

The film makes it clear that Senna's faith played an integral part in his success. Senna was a man of prayer who felt connected to and directly enabled by God. Again it offers this information in a neutral way and reports it as fact rather than in any other way.

I found the film deeply engaging and something that offers a privileged window allowing a view into the life of a global icon and someone who was at the pinnacle of their game. A compelling watch.

In the coverage of Senna's funeral Prost is shown as one of the coffin bearers and in the closing credits the point is made that Prost is one of the trustees of the Senna Foundation. I don't want to be unkind, but I wonder if these things are not simply a way for one man to try and deal with his feelings of guilt?

Go and see the film or get the disc. I'll give it 8/10.

A Winter's Tale

This is the second of Eric Rohmer's quadrilogy presenting a story from each of the four seasons. I have already commented on A Summer's Tale and A Tale of Springtime. This one also explores love, commitment, indecision and fulfilment.

In a story that seems so incredible as to be implausible, Rohmer marries together plot devices from Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale with Pascal's Wager - a metaphysical equation designed to prove the benefit of hoping in the Christian afterlife. (A rational person should wager as though God exists, because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.) In case the viewer doesn't make the connection both Shakespeare and Pascal's ideas are inserted crudely into the narrative to make the point.

The central character Felice (Charlotte Very) is a loathsome idealist who uses and abuses the two men in her life, Maxence and Loic as she lives in hope of rediscovering Charles - a holiday romance from five years ago and father of her daughter Elise. Whilst she does have love for Maxence and Loic, she can't live with either as she doesn't love them sufficiently. However, she is prepared to accept their roof over her head while her mother provides care for Elise. Much commentary on society centres on the systematic abuse of women by men as items of consumption - this film is an antidote to that critique.

Paris is portrayed as cold and wet - not the usual views we get in cinema. The city of Nevers is similarly cold and grey. Only the bright and bustling Brittany seaside and the romance with Charles has any visual warmth. Maxence is shown as caring and patient, wishing to include Felice in his expanding and successful business and wishing to set up home with her. Loic is portrayed as gentle, kind, generous and willing to wait until Felice comes around. 

Maxence is committed to propriety and, as far as modern relationships allow, doing the right thing. Loic is seen as someone wrestling with making sense of their Christian faith in the face of the world around them. Felice rejects both ways of being and pursues her own brand of mystical utopianism in which premonition, not chance, plays an important part. Dragged into Nevers Cathedral by Elise as she wants to see the Crib, Felice sits on her own in the large and empty church, perhaps for the first time, and experiences an epiphany in which for the first time she sees everything clearly. A religious non-religious type experience.

This leads her to return to Paris and days later she is reunited with Charles after a chance meeting on a bus and she, Elise and Charles live happily ever after. Maxence and Loic are left scratching their head's and licking their wounds.

Relationships can be sources of great elation and life-affirming. They can also be painful and abusive. I wonder what Rohmer was really trying to say? Perhaps nothing more than that.

I'll give it 6/10.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Toy Story 3

In a week that has seen a very negative portrayal of community and interdependence on the streets of the UK it was good to watch this film which offers a very positive model of what it means to live together. This film is thoroughly watchable and probably the best of the franchise. Taking in excess of $1 billion at the box office, it's animation is so good that at times you forget your watching a cartoon. The characterisations are top notch too - being accesible to both your average pre-schooler and also to adults - if they have eyes to see and ears to hear.

In a world where positive stories about loyalty, sacrifice and common calling are hard to find, this film delivers buckets full of challenging drama. I managed to resist shedding a tear - but it was close. Even though I rationalised that I was watching a cartoon with a script that was trying to exact maximum leverage on me, I found it hard not to be sucked in by the compelling way the narrative is delivered.

This is also a film about risk taking and about doing the right thing - even when the consequences are dire. You cannot fail to watch this film and link the characters to your circle of friends, colleagues and family. Unless you have turned your brain off, you will also recognise yourself in many of the characters. That is why this film is so compelling - because it has the power to touch many of our deepest needs and set up a dialogue of empathy through which Woody, Buzz and co become vicarious avatars through which our past wrongs are righted.

The film also deals very effectively with transition, grief, loss and the challenge of growing into a new life opening up in fornt of you. The Ken and Barbie relationship is great fun which rips into many stereotypical portrayals of type. Mr and Mrs Potato Head give a strong account of what a loving and committed relationship has to go through in order to survive. Buzz's flirting with Jessie is good fun too.

Whichever toy feels down, the others are always on hand to lift their spirits. No-one is unloved or unlovable and even the evil Lotso is given a second chance by Woody - it's up to him what he does with it and there is a touch of ironic justice in the fate that eventually befalls him. The power of lies to control and coerce are explored and when exposed offer the hope and opportunity of repentance and reconciliation. These are all strong themes that draw on our Judeo-Christian heritage and deliver the happy ending demanded by Western audiences. Not a sentimental and mushy ending like Super 8 but a happy ending that involves loss, real cost and the need to adjust to a new and previously unforeseen outcome.

This really is top draw drama and a great advertisement for state-of-the-art animation. If you've not seen it - go and see it. If you've already seen it - watch it again. Make sure the disc or bytes are sitting (legally) in your collection.

I'll give this 8.5/10.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex

Kermode on tour with another new book!

I've got my tickets for 1st October. See you there?

Friday, 12 August 2011

Super 8

Saw this yesterday at the BFI IMAX in London. Watching in IMAX is a totally immersive experience with very impressive surround-sound - but alas tons of hairs, gunk and fluff - and at one point an insect - on the projector lens! When you pay £16 for a ticket, you expect better!

This film has some very strong points and also some serious short comings. Nevertheless I did enjoy it and would encourage you to see it. Set in Lillian, Ohio (generic small-town USA) in 1979, the plot is at the same time unlikely and yet strangely familiar as it pays homage to the many genres this fim is a derivative of. The ending is particularly weak as it gushes Spielberg sentimentality in the extreme.

If you look at the posters of the film they are all about the Director, Producer - even the Wardrobe Designer, but none of the actors are mentioned. The lead five roles are all children and whilst they may not be household names, with the possible exception of Elle Fanning, they surely deserve some recognition. The performances are strong and the characterisations reinforce the cliched types needed to make an ensemble piece work.

I'm currently reading a great book on Film and Theology which I will blog about when I've finished it: Into the Dark by Craig Detweiler. He has a section on nostalgia (p192) and its place in movies. He makes the observation "Nostalgia arises from loss. Having tasted triumph, we long to reclaim the glory of an earlier time." In many ways that description defines Spielberg's whole catalogue and this film is no exception.

The rose-tinted innocence of the summer vacation spent hanging out with friends is the back drop for the story. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is the film making obsessive that lends the film its Spielberg-like biopic theme. The group of friends are out shooting by the railroad in the middle of the night when a US-Air Force train is derailed. They happen to catch the event on film and it becomes for them a feature of the film they make - it "adds production value" is Charles' mantra. Why the train was there, or why it's cargo was in transit are never explained.

The acting - particularly from the youngsters - is strong. The fact that the 'monster' is rarely seen in the first three-quarters of the film cleverly heightens the tension as your imagination is invited to fill in the blanks to great effect. The fact that this film carries a 12A certification in the UK surprised me. The cinema was full of youngsters off school and they repeatedly were shrieking in response to the regular building of tension. The special effects, courtesy of ILM, are good - but why a train takes five minutes to crash is a little puzzling. The story line is borrowed from a thousand comic books and 'B movies' but is worthy of the work it's asked to perform.

For me, the ending lets the whole film down. The narrative hinges on a one-liner from the central character Joe who says "Bad things happen, but you can still live". Thereby earthing his own bitter personal experience with the whole of the cosmos. The speaking of this line triggers so many reconciliations  in the last five minutes of the film that I lost count. Particularly cheesy was the way in which Joe signals his coming to terms with his own mother's recent death. Barf factor 10!

This is primarily a story about relationships, about family, about our inadequacies and the need for interdependence and community. On these points it scores well and as I said is worth the investment of time and energy in going to watch. A word of advice - if you do go and see it, watch the credits at the end as they deliver possibly the best bit of the film!

I'll give it 6.5/10 - I've deducted a point for the ending!