Sunday, 30 October 2011

We need to talk about Kevin

This is a powerful film. Very uncomfortable viewing. Brilliantly acted. The brutality of the story is underlined by the editing which delivers body blow after body blow as it chops and cuts from the here-and-now to flashback as the back story is told. It left me feeling very uncomfortable. As I said, a powerful film.

As it's difficult to talk about this film without giving the plot away, this will be a brief reflection! I can't discuss the plot or story as the way they are told are integral to the film. This film explores the effects of a mother's depression and the problems of a baby whose behaviour is difficult - to say the least. It charts Kevin's growth and development and the family dynamics that surround him.

This film delivers a study in pathological behaviour, in sacrificial parental love and it delivers a display of grace that is breath-taking. Despite all that Kevin does to his mother she never gives up on him - right up to the end of the film. The end of the film is hinted at in out of focus flash-backs throughout but you are never quite sure where it's taking you. You know it's not going to be pretty but it's actually worse than that when you get there!

The casting is excellent and Tilda Swinton and John C Reilly play Kevin's parents brilliantly. The film continually evokes feelings of sympathy alternating with horror. It is a journey of terrifying twists and turns and one which provokes the big question - why.

It is not comfortable viewing, but who said cinema-going should be comfortable? It is engaging - superbly well told. It will leave you with questions and it left me feeling like I'd gone 10 rounds with a boxer! But I want to encourage you to go and see it. I'll give it 8/10.

I hope that your story doesn't resonate with Kevin's or his parents. This story will resonate with your humanity as it explores guilt, forgiveness and grace.


I slept well after seeing this but my dreams were defintiely influenced by it and I awoke still thinking about the film - which is unusual as I don't often remember my dreams. Powerful stuff.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011


This film offers a privileged invitation into the world, values and practices of the Japanese people surrounding the preparation of a body for cremation. You should take your shoes off when you watch this film because you will feel like you are standing on sacred ground. The way the story is told and enacted conveys a real depth of meaning that honours the life of the deceased and treasures the opportunity to help them make the transition to the world that lies beyond. It's also a charming love story and at times has surprising bits of comedy (which I could have done without).

Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) has worked hard all his life to become a concert cellist. When his orchestra is disbanded because few buy tickets to hear them, he resolves to return to his family home and the house his mother left him when she died two year earlier. His wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) dutifully accompanies him and makes the house into their home. Daigo responds to a job ad in the paper thinking it to be for work at a travel agency - departures. It turns out to be a job as an assistant to Mr Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) working as a Nokanshi or coffineer. He gets the job and is hired immediately - the pay is good. He decides not to tell Mika exactly what he does.

The film explores many themes related to death and the taboos that surround dealing with the dead. As Daigo gets more and more into the role he appears to develop a sense of vocation for assisting the grieving families and honouring the deceased. He is very good at it and his face always displays an appropriately empathetic expression.

When Mika discovers what he does, she returns to Tokyo. Some of the locals including an old school friend also begin to give him the cold shoulder. A theme that runs throughout the story is Daigo's estrangement from his Father, who walked out on the family when he was 6 and how that affects him more than 25 years later.

The narrative arc feels very western and I wonder if the film loses something because it tries to appeal to western sensibilities rather than purely allowing us an insight into contemporary Shinto practice relating to preparing the dead for cremation. Daigo facilitates for each family a process that helps them in their grief and mourning. As a priest I have conducted many funerals and for me the film evokes very similar feelings to those I experience on the journey which the priest accompanies families on as they bury their dead.

This is a warm and generous film which as well as being instructional and engaging will leave you with warm fuzzies. I commend it and give it 8/10.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Midnight in Paris

I now have new favourite Woody Allen film! This is brilliant - from start to finish. The casting, setting, the way it's shot and the conceptualisation are all top drawer - well done Mr Allen.


Gil is a successful Hollywood writer visiting Paris with his fiancee Inez and her overbearingly conservative parents. Gil is struggling with his first novel - a story about a man who runs a nostalgia shop. He finds great inspiration in the streets of Paris and wants to move there to write after his wedding. Inez is not keen. Gil and Inez bump into Paul and his wife Carol, as Paul - who annoyingly knows all there is to know about everything - is on a lecture tour to the Sorbonne. Inez confesses to an earlier crush on Paul which puts even greater distance between the style and aspirations of Gil and Paul. After a night of wine-tasting, Paul and Carol invite Gil and Inez to go dancing. A tipsy Gil declines and wants to walk back to the hotel to sober up. 

As Gil sits disconsolately on some steps, the bells strike midnight and a veteran limousine stops and its party-going occupants all dressed in 1920's garb and quaffing Champagne invite Gil to join them. As they arrive at a club Gil is introduced first to F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda and then to an array of literary and artistic heroes from Gil's golden era of the 1920's - including Gertrude Stein who offers to critique Gil's manuscript. As Gil leaves the club it returns to its contemporary guise as a launderette. Did he imagine it? Was it a fantasy? what is going on?

In the morning he tries to explain it to Inez who joking accuses him of some drunken fling. That night Gil goes back to the same steps and a midnight the car appears and whisks him off to another night of partying with the bohemian revellers. He delivers the manuscript to Stein and also he meets Picasso's lover Adriana with whom he gradually falls in love.  Returning for a third night he is grateful for Stein's incisive critique and her encouragement to continue. Woody Allen is never short on irony and the Stien character delivers the wonderful line "what is a nostalgia shop?".

Night by night Gil returns to the 1920's and meets more literary heroes and gets deeper into his relationship with Adriana. Meanwhile Inez and her parents continue to the American in Paris thing and whilst Gil has nightly liaisons with Adriana, Inez spends each night with Paul and Carol. Gil buys a book in an antique market which turns out to Adriana's published diary which makes direct reference to Gil - the first indication that Gil's experience is real and not an illusion. Gil confides in Dali, Bunuel and Man Ray and confesses his confusion and guilt. As surrealists they see no contradiction in his position and readily accept that he is from the future - more great Allenesque irony!

One night as Gil and Adriana are walking they kiss and immediately a horse and carriage pulls up and whisks them away to Maxim's where they meet Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin - they are back in the Belle Epoque of the 1890's - Adriana's golden age.

Tempted to stay with Adriana, Gil eventually concludes in a surge of existential realism that the here and now is the best place to be. The way the story ends could have been schmaltzy but Allen takes the arc of the story in a pleasing trajectory and, to my mind and heart, resolves the narrative satisfactorily - I won't spoil the ending for you.

So what is this film saying to us? Lots of things I think:

  • Creativity has to draw on what has gone before.
  • However rose-tinted our view of a golden age might be, we are called to be here and now.
  • History paints generously.
  • Stories are intertwined and we need to be able to move from one to another if we are to be true to ourselves.
  • True love has a cost.
  • Nostalgia may be a modern invention.
  • The pursuit of reality can be achieved via fantasy.

Perhaps most of all the film presents an ironic essay on nostalgia and our longing for things to be different. In his book Into The Dark Craig Detweiler has a fascinating chapter on nostalgia where he takes the central theme of the film Finding Neverland as the jumping off point for an exploration of nostalgia in film. Detweiler writes “What pain are we avoiding via memory? Is the West in exile? Are we pining for a former era, fixated on the good ‘ol days? Or is nostalgia a genuine, God-given consolation in a troubled world?” But for some, nostalgia is anything but appealing. People who are oppressed tend to look forward to a better day – apocalyptic and sci-fi serve this function well.

What are we trying to achieve when we indulge in nostalgia? Is it a distraction, a dissatisfaction with the present, a critique of today? Why are our high streets populated with shops offering a over-priced and tacky collection of memorabilia - and then from eras and events where we were the victors. Nostalgia never seeks out the Crimea or the Suez crisis for example and emerging films set in Iraq or Afghanistan are too close for nostalgia as they attempt to ameliorate the pain felt all too acutely by too many. How far  in the past does something have to be for it to engender a sense of nostalgia?

I found this film thoroughly engaging and a delight. Do go and see it. I'll give it 8.5/10.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Kermode: The Good, the bad and the multiplex

Dr K was on good form last night at Harbour Lights promoting his new book (The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex) and entertaining a full house with two hours of banter, rants and inspiring insights into the world of film and cinema. I will get hold of the book soon and review it once I've read it - by the time I got out of the auditorium last night the queue for signing was just too long.

For those familiar with his weekly film review session on BBC Five Live, there were the predictable rants against:

  • 3D
  • Sex in the City 2
  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • The threat of extinction for projectionists
and of course much waving of the famous flappy hands.

There was also a lot of positive encouragement for his favourite actors and directors - and course the usual accolades for The Exorcist. The great thing that Mark Kermode does is to enthuse you about watching films and you want go and see one straight away.

Good value for money - do go and see him on this tour if he comes in your direction. I'll give the evening 9/10!