Monday, 17 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


With the prequel to the Lord of the Rings being a leaner tome it would be reasonable to expect the story to be told in one sitting but Director Peter Jackson makes it large as he delivers the first of a new trilogy which weighs in at 2:49! It may therefore be reasonable to think that the film must drag - but I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't. One or two scenes were perhaps a little long - particularly some of the chases - and twenty or thirty more Orcs were butchered than really needed to be to get the point across, but overall it was a well paced film with a steady unfolding of the plot.

The acting is excellent. Martin Freeman plays the title role and Ian McKellen returns as the grey wizard Gandalf. The Dwarves provide a range of celtic and English accents with James Nesbitt appearing to play himself! Ian Holm reprises the role of an older Bilbo Baggins and Elijah Wood makes a brief appearance. Hugo Weaving is back at his Elven best only to be eclipsed by the transcendent beauty of Cate Blanchett as Lady Galadriel. Andy Sirkis is back for another dose of Gollum who is even slimier whilst at the same time being intriguingly repulsive. Christopher Lee is as menacing as ever as Sauron who is clearly beginning to 'turn' and is linked with the Necromancer played by Benedict Cumberbatch. As you can see it is indeed a star-studded cast who deliver a strong ensemble piece.

The plot is straightforward. The Dwarves wish to reclaim their homeland Erebor from the fearsome dragon Smaug but they need the help of a number of people along the way. So 12 dwarves, a wizard and a Hobbit set out on an adventure to face Wargs, Goblins, Giant Spiders, Shapeshifters, Sorcerers  and Orcs as a growing malevolence begins to exert its influence on Middle Earth.

The New Zealand landscape both adds to and is enhanced by the CGI effects. Most of the time the effects are 'invisible' but every now and again a body movement or rendition of a facial expression lets slip the fact that manipulation is at play and it's not just simple make up the actors are wearing. This is inevitable when the boundaries of what is possible are being pushed further than they would normally wish to go. It doesn't detract from the overall experience.

As with The Lord of the Rings, this story is redolent with themes of comradeship, courage, morality, greed, violence, vengeance and love. You know that good will prevail - but at what cost? What obstacles will the travellers have to overcome? One of the things I really like about Tolkien's style of writing is how he uses ordinary things and people in extra-ordinary ways to bring about 'miraculous' escapes from seemingly impossible situations.

I'm looking forward to the second instalment and would encourage you to go and see this. It carries a 12A certificate in the UK and many of the battle scenes are quite gruesome and the violence gratuitous. I was surprised to see some fairly young children with their parents watching this. Perhaps I'm simply getting soft in my old age and it's standard fayre in the video games youngsters are playing these days. I'm going to give this 8.5/10.


Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Road


If all was stripped away what would be important to you? What legacy would you want to pass on to your children? What would drive you? This is a very literal road movie set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future. Where this film differs from the plethora of similar films is that no reference is ever made to the apocalypse itself - we simply journey with 'the man' and 'the boy' as they journey southwards to the coast across the USA.

This film poses the archetypal existential question - why are we here? When the hierarchy of Maslow's Triangle is stripped away and every day is a fight for basic survival what values would drive you? How would you cope? Would you want to? What would the vision of paradise that drives your hope be like in your mind?

In flash-back we see the boy being born into a post-apocalyptic world. Shortly afterwards his mother simply walks out, unable to cope. She isn't seen again - the man and the boy simply have each other and very little else.

There are groups of marauding bandits seeking to capture people and engage in cannibalism. There are other people who fear contact with anyone lest they end up being eaten. The dialogue between the boy and his father centres a lot on values, morals and what keeps them going. The father sums up the drive to keep going as 'carrying the fire within'. This is never expanded upon and the viewer is invited to make his/her own interpretation.

For me the main thrust of the story is about the moral values by which the characters in the film live. The boy is born into and grows up in a world that is lacking any kind of organised society. All he has to go on are his instincts, his father's advice and other peoples' behaviour to guide him. The father is more sceptical about others' motives and the son is more open, more generous and more willing to help other people than his father. How did he develop his moral framework? Civilisation has broken down - what does civility look like when that happens?

The way this film is set and shot is magnificent. It is lit with extremely low contrast and a muted palette that really helps to deliver the dystopian vibe. Large parts of the landscape are scorched, the skies are thundery a lot of the time and earthquakes strike without warning. Food is in very short supply and the only mode of transport is by foot. Everything reinforces the feel of hopelessness that pervades the film.

The film is not easy viewing and any good news you find is only hinted at in what lies beyond in the story at the end of the film. I like it that the film leaves lots unresolved. There is no narrative arc - more a linear narrative. We join the story after the beginning and it clearly continues once the film ends. If you want a gritty film with great acting and Direction and don't always need a happy ending a la Disney, then this could be for you. I'll give it 7.5/10.


Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Amour


Director Michael Haneke (Hidden [Cache] and White Ribbon) won the Palme D'Or at Cannes this year with this unusual and engaging film. The film features Georges and Anne, two retired music teachers living out their retirement in an a Parisian apartment. They are devoted to each other and their life together is filled with the good things that engage the senses - and of course outings to the Conservatoire. All is going well in their retirement - until Anne suffers a stroke.

In one respect the story goes steadily downhill from there and those who demand a happy end to a film will not find it here - or will they get something more fulfilling and satisfying that trades in a currency of greater worth than happiness? There are many films on offer that explore themes of ageing (Being Schmidt, Hope Springs, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and quite a few that explore death. Amour explores both of these but not quite in a way that I've seen done before.

One of the early scenes shows Georges and Anne attending a recital by one of Anne's proteges. The remainder of the film is restricted to their apartment. This gives a confining feel but the viewer is left to decide if they feel it is a confinement of imprisonment or a confinement that offers protection as it protects Anne from the world, neighbours and at one point even family.

The story - and by revealing it I'm not really spoiling anything as this film is not so much about the route travelled as the way in which the journey is shared - is one of a journey of loving companionship and total devotion. It is a story of service, of dedication and of selflessness when love is asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. It is a journey filled with respect and meaning that sets itself in stark contrast to the comparatively frivolous and narcissistic journeys of those lives that insect with George and Anne - including their daughter Eva.

The acting in this film is top class with Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges and Anne played by Emmanuelle Riva with both of them into their 80's in real life. Their understanding, their daily routine, their unquestioning love for one another and their music all weave together to produce a film with qualities of enchanting magic. The coming and going of the concierge and his wife, the nurses they employ to care for Anne, their daughter Eva and protege Alexandre all serve as unwelcome interruptions to the daily routine of Georges caring for Anne.

The way Haneke sets out the story shows death to be a solitary and lonely experience. There is no room for empathy as no-one really knows how Georges feels except those things he reveals through his loving actions. This is a film about existential being connecting with something beyond. It is a film that invites the viewer to ask many questions and ponder how their final years might pan out. It presents the challenges of daily hygiene and the simple tasks of getting dressed and eating that confront someone with increasing paralysis. Haneke offers a menu rich with a wide variety of emotions which play out against Georges' resigned air of loving pragmatism. For me there was a constant tension between emotional engagement and Haneke's detached and clinical style of almost documentary-like observational film-making.

If Anne's trajectory has an air of inevitability about it, the way the film ends has anything but. Georges' act of ultimate selflessness manifests itself with little warning - but how long was he thinking about it, how premeditated was it? What is the significance of the pigeon - is it that it is a living being that has the choice of freedom and an independent life? Going on the way he caught it, presumably Georges didn't originally intend to release it. The viewer is then left to ponder the fate of Georges. I know what I think he did. What's your guess?

This film transcends reality and forces an engagement at a profound level with a possible future that may befall many viewers. It is not, in that sense, comfortable viewing. What is reassuring is the depth of love and devotion that Anne and Georges' common life together embodies. It is in holding out this hope that the film transcends an inevitably depressing conclusion and offers the viewer the chance to move beyond to a higher place - an almost spiritual place. This is not an easy watch but it is immensely rewarding and oddly hopeful. If you can muster the courage you will not be disappointed. I'll give it 8.5/10.


Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Guard


I imagine for most people that this is a Marmite film - you'll either love it or hate it. It's a comedy and part of its humour comes from the fact that movie is a pastiche of every kind of small-town cop goes big-time drug gang buster you can imagine. The humour is driven by Brendan Gleeson playing Irish Garda (Police) Sergeant Gerry Boyle who is first class. His character is in so many ways very stereotypical - in an Irish sense, in a police officer sense and in a small town yokel sense.

It is the warmth of Gleeson's character that is the draw. The straight guy is Don Cheadle who plays an FBI drug enforcer and thereby facilitates the playing of the racist card as yet another avenue of stereotyping to be exploited. Add to this prostitutes brought in from Dublin, Eastern Europeans marrying for the visa, a gay man marrying for respectability and police officers on the make and the stereotyping elements of the plot just keep multiplying. It even ends with the characters asking each other if the story had a happy ending!

The film is written by, and a Directorial debut from, John Michael McDonagh who delivers a beautifully shot and lit film. The lanscape is at times bleak and boggy, the coastline dramatic and poetic. The characters have depth if you are prepared to look and work with them and there are plenty of laughs - and profanity! The film offers a saviour-figure whom I found to be at the same time both totally predictable but also continually surprising.

This film offers a good series of laughs and in an almost reverse way is a good promotional film for West rural Ireland. Gleeson is great and at 92 minutes the film is well-paced and not overly long. An enjoyable film that's well worth a look. I'll give it 7.5/10.


Saturday, 27 October 2012

Skyfall


Believe the hype! This is soooo good I've seen twice in two days. Imax first time around, then 4K Digital projection - which to my eyes delivered a better picture. If sound is your thing go Imax and get your butt kicked. If it's visuals, find a good digital screen.

Promise - no plot spoilers.

Director Sam Mendes has delivered a transformation of the Bond franchise breathing so much new life into it that it's now set up for at least another 23 films. It's Bond folks - but not as we know it. This is a Bond for this generation fighting adversaries who are unknown and who inhabit the shadows. Yes we get the big cityscapes: Istanbul, Shanghai and Macao by night but most of the action takes place in Westminster and in this Olympic and Diamond Jubilee year, London looks good.

This film is essentially about inheritance and resurrection. It's about the legacy of one generation being handed onto the next. The inheritance is personal for  both Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judy Dench) - doubly so for Bond. The way in which the contemporary espionage and terrorism landscape is redrawn by this film brings it bang up to date - and mercifully not a religious extremist in sight. Gone are the gimmicks of magnetic watches and exploding pens - these are times for cyber gadgets and nimble and fast typing fingers. We are introduced to a new Q (Ben Whishaw) who challenges both Bond and the old order. We are given a tour-de-force performance by Javier Bardem who plays the baddie Silva, with a steely campness.

There is plenty of action in this film - it moves along very rapidly and its 143 minute runtime is a pleasure. Mendes has put together a story with real weight which delivers characters that are three dimensional and who have more depth than we are used to seeing in a Bond movie. Once or twice the plot twists are a little predictable - but it's not a problem. Adele's belter of a theme is unmistakably Bond and the opening sequence is very creative and more about Bond rather than simply silhouettes of naked girls (well for the most part) - which is fitting for the way Bond is portrayed in this outing. Product placement is annoyingly very evident.

In this 50th year of celebration of Bond movies, there are clever nods to previous Bond films. I'm sure I missed some but look out for parallels with scenes from Goldfinger, Moonraker, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun. There are fewer "Bond girls' and gratuitous sex and this film has less violence than the last two Daniel Craig outings. All of which is good.

I don't think I'll go for a third day running tomorrow - but save my pennies for the Blu-ray when it's released - maybe just in time for Christmas. This is a great film and I'm going to give it 9/10! Do go and see it.




Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Story of the Weeping Camel




This is another amazing film featuring the nomads of the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. For me, it evoked a similar reaction to watching The Cave of the Yellow Dog reviewed here. This is more a drama as opposed to a documentary although is does have a docu feel about it. There's more info on the film and camels in general on the National Geographic site here.

This film offers the gift of engaging with a culture that is radically different from anything familiar to most people. The extended family live in two Yurts and have a walled enclosure for their sheep and goats. Their livelihood flows from the products and by-products of these animals and also the camels. It is a hard life which is lived in a brutal climate. No-one complains and the children never seem bored although the odd encounter with a TV entrances the younger boy Ugna. 

Each spring the camels give birth to a new season of colts. Things are going well until a new mother, the last to produce, is in labour for two days wandering around the camp with half a camel hanging out. This is, understandably, an excruciating time for the camel and the family look on helplessly in the hope that nature will take its course. In the end they intervene and help the colt to emerge - a rare white colt. The mother shuns the colt denying it her love and her milk.

As the family repeatedly try to bring colt and mother together over many days we are treated to a privileged and intimate view of family life in the Gobi Desert. A life that draws on an inherited spirituality that is earth-focussed and tied into the natural world. Milk is sprinkled on the ground as a thanksgiving sacrifice. Songs are sung and stories are told to keep alive the communal identity of the people.

Odgoo manages to milk the mother and get some of the milk into the colt - but it isn't easy. Clearly a solution is needed before the colt falls too far behind in its development. Drawing on their religion, the two young boys Dude and Ugna are despatched on camel back to the local town to seek the help of the violinist whose playing will help reunite mother and colt. The idea of sending two young boys off alone across the desert on such an errand would invoke cries of child-abuse in the politically correct West. The boys go about their task as a storm begins to gather. They reach the town and find their relatives who help them speak to the music teacher - the violinist.

The boys return to the family camp alone and a mood of disappointment settles on the family. The following day a motorbike appears on the horizon bouncing across the sand and riding pillion is the violinist. After an appropriate ritual the violinist plays, Odgoo sings (most beautifully) and with the encouragement of the family mother and colt and reunited and suckling gets underway. No explanation is offered or hinted at to explain how we achieve the happy ending - but a happy ending it is.

Or is it? As the camera pulls away from the Yurts we see Dude positioning the newly acquired satellite dish to pick up the signal for the new TV powered by solar panels lying on the Yurt. I sense the intervention of the film crew and the money they brought may change this family's life, irrevocably, for ever! Ugna will not be doing quite so much work around the Yurt now he has TV to watch and the outside world will invade the family's routines and patterns of being. Possibly delivering a more devastating invasion to the Gobi desert than that of Genghis Khan 800 years earlier! This is an uplifting film that gives us a view of another world. I can't help thinking that more than footprints were left in the sand when the film crew departed. I'll give it 7/10.


Monday, 22 October 2012

Simon Birch


This is the third movie I've seen in a week - all of them have a very similar theme. Again I used it in a learning context. This story will warm your heart. It will make you laugh and it will make you cry. Yes, at times is very slushily sentimental but at its core there is a message that speaks loud and clear - and one we would do well to heed.

Set in Maine and centring on a small community and its church, Simon Birch is the story of a boy who was different - who used his difference to great effect. In every sense of the word Simon is a misfit. Completely lacking in malevolence but with a mischievous tendency, Simon is a prophet. The Bible is filled with unlikely subjects to be messengers of God - and Simon Birch is right up there with the best of them.

Born abnormally small and played by an actor (Ian Michael Smith) who stands 3'1" tall, 12 year old Simon has insights and wisdom beyond his years. He is the talk of the town along with his best friend Joe (Joseph Mazzello) who is also an outcast on account of his illegitimacy. The two spend most of their free time together and Joe drives Simon around the community in a specially constructed side-car attached to his bike. Simon's parents more or less disown him.

The portrayal of the church and the conflicted and smooth Rector, Revd Russell (David Strathairn), places neither in a good light. The church does however deliver the most amusing nativity play I've ever seen and the film is worth it just for that.

Simon has a faith in God that is unshakeable. He is convinced that he is different because he is God's special instrument. Consequently he is always ready to speak out and challenge the accepted order in a prophetic sense - but most of his interventions are mis-tiimed and land him in trouble. Revd Russell does not share Simon's sense of being God's messenger. Meanwhile, his friend Joe is constantly driven to discover his father's identity which from time-to-time also lands them both in trouble.

The central thrust of the story is Simon's refusal to let his difference be an impediment to his role within the tight-knit community. When this thread of the story is woven together with his friendship with Joe, his prophetic calling and his fascination with girls, the narrative moves along with interest in a well-focussed arc.

This film challenges the viewer to think how they might make a difference within their community, how they might sustain and nurture their relationships, how they might speak out for God and challenge the collusive status quo and how we might all be a little less afraid to be ourselves - wherever that takes us. Get the tissues out, get the movie, and give it a viewing. I'll give it 7.5/10.


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Dead Poets Society


Okay it's 23 years old and now I've watched it nearly 20 times - but it's still a classic and worth re-watching. I used it last night in a teaching session to help exemplify mentoring and helping people achieve their potential. It hit the spot.

The storyline sets a stark contrast between surface learning and deep learning, between conformity and self-expression, between the status quo and an alternative future. Set in the privileged old-world charm of East Coast USA at the end of the 1950's the generation that never had, thrusts out its frustrated lost opportunity through the lives of its children. But the boys, inspired by the free-thinking new Master Mr Keating (Robin Williams), begin to think for themselves and that sets them on a course that is riven with vocation and integrity but which has dire consequences.

This is a film that invites you to accompany a group of young men as they learn what it is to breathe  to love, to feel and as Keating says, "to suck the marrow out of the bones of life". The famous tagline Carpe Diem - sieze the day - is a rallying call to an existential way of being. An invitation to make a difference in a world that demands you conform. The film echoes the call of John 10:10 and it remains inspirational.

The film won an Oscar for its screenplay and it is beautifully shot by Director Peter Weir, with the locations reinforcing and enhancing the story. The acting is strong with a very good cast and you can almost smell the layers of polish on the corridors and dormitories of Welton Academy.

I have no choice but to give this a 9/10. Get the disc out now!


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Untouchable


This is another film which is simply a gift. The storyline is a familiar one which delivers few surprises.What makes this film exceptional is the acting and the alchemy of the lead characters. This film is stylish, clever, believable and funny.

Based on the true story of Philippe Pozzo Di Borgo who became a quadriplegic following a para glider accident, this film charts the relationship between Philippe (Fran├žois Cluzet) and the man Driss (Omar Sy) whom he hires to be his 'life help' his arms and  legs.

Philippe has been depressed after the death of his wife three years after his accident. He has wealth beyond measure and a host of attendants to run his affairs and household. Driss only attends the job interview to get a signature on his benefit form to qualify for welfare. Philippe ends up hiring him. The gulf between the two men is in every way immense. Driss is from 'the projects' - the anonymous low grade high-rise hosuing of Paris' suburbs. He has been in prison and struggles to connect with his extended family.

What does connect the two men is their humanity. Driss is able to help Philippe recapture a sense of living for the moment as he races through Parisien traffic with Phillipe in his Maserati. Philippe tries to help Driss get acquainted with art and high culture by taking him to art galleries and the opera where the film delivers one of its funniest scenes. Driss helps Philippe get acquainted with dope! After watching this, your interest in the tactile sensitivity of ears may never be the same again!

The lives of the other staff in the grande maison are also touched by Driss as he works his infectious magic. His attraction to Magalie (Audrey Fleurot ) runs throughout the film with a nice touch at the end. Driss introduces his own music (Earth Wind & Fire, George Benson et al) to Philippe and the household, and this proves to be the catalyst for Philippe's best ever birthday party.

This film will inspire, delight and amuse you. It's warmth and characters will touch you. Its music will get your feet tapping and make you smile. You will come to love Driss and Philippe. If you don't mind sub-titles go and see this film now! I'll give it 8.5/10.


Monday, 8 October 2012

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia


Anatolia accounts for the Western two-thirds of Asian Turkey and so in a sense is used in a generic way. However, we know from the film's dialogue that the story unfolds in the countryside surrounding the small town of Keskin - which really exists in central Anatolia. This film is pure Art House as you might expect from Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan and needs concentration for all of its 2:37 run time. In essence it is a road trip that offers a wonderful opportunity to observe a number of characters both in the minutiae of small-talk and within a culture preoccupied by status, rank and privilege.

This is first and foremost an observational film the strength of which lies in the characters and the rolling Anatolian scenery. The film takes place over 18 or so hours beginning late one afternoon and finishing mid-morning the following day. At times, it feels like you are watching in real-time - for all of it! The majority of the film observes a convoy of three vehicles trolling around the Antolian countryside looking for a body. Kenan - a local man and his mentally challenged brother have confessed to the murder but Kenan was in such a drunken stupor he can't clearly remember where he buried the body - "by a pond near a tree", is the best he can do.

One car carries the local Police Commissioner, his lieutenant and another officer along with the local Doctor and the Kenan. The second car carries the local Prosecutor, his staff, Kenan's brother. The third vehicle is a police jeep with uniformed Gendarmerie and two diggers along to exhume the body. This rigid demarcation of status plays out in the way orders are given and respect is demanded. The contrast in the outlook of the Prosecutor and Doctor compared with the others is marked. They are educated, have travelled and have a different perspective. The others are more concerned with what meat will be for supper, urination, divorce and suicide!

This is a film about men and their view of the world. The Police Commissioner at one point says that in all his 20 years of policing every crime has at it's root a woman! I'm not sure if this was personal or institutional misogyny, but no-one seemed to demur. Women do feature occasionally, as do children, but their roles are limited - brief glimpses of a class relegated to second place in this patriarchal society.

The convoy lumbers around the rolling hills as darkness falls. The dim lights of the vehicles trace across the landscape as panoramic still shots are held for ages. The only real energy being injected by the pathetic blue light pulsing on the roof of the jeep. The lighting and scene selection are breath-taking.

It would be expected that the Police Commissioner should be the most keenly observational and the Doctor the most objective. As it turns out the Commissioner is blinded by his prejudice and the Doctor falsifies the autopsy report because of his empathetic pastoral concern for the widow and her son.

If you have spare 3 hours and wish to allow the Antolian landscape and its people to wash over you, this will be a rewarding watch. If you prefer action block-busters, stay well clear. I'll give it 7/10.


Monday, 1 October 2012

Looper


This film is billed as 'This decade's The Matrix' - dream on baby! Whilst it may not be on a par with my favourite film, Looper is clever and raises some interesting questions that require mental gymnastics to get your head around it. It will be hard to say too much about the film without giving the story - and particularly the ending away - so I'll keep to generalisations and won't spoil things for you - but only read past the spoiler alert below if you're happy to.

In the trailer, the central character Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) says "I work as a specialized assassin, in an outfit called the Loopers. When my organization from the future wants someone to die, they zap them back to me and I eliminate the target from the future. The only rule is: never let your target escape... even if your target is you." In a nutshell that's the story. Crime bosses in 2072 decide who they want to eliminate and send them back at an agreed time to a specific location for assassination and disposal of the body. That way they cannot be linked with the murder. Loopers are well paid and live the high life while everyone else stumbles around in an economic dystopia set in 2042. Fast cars, recreational drugs and sex are all freely available to the wealthy Loopers. They live the hedonists dream.

All is well (relatively) until a number of Loopers encounter the uneasy situation of discovering that they have just assassinated their future self - they have 'closed the loop'. Each victim has the Looper's bounty strapped to their back - a number of silver ingots. The closing of a loop is denoted by the Looper receiving payment in gold bars rather than the usual silver bars. They then realise they have 30 years left to live and are now on a trajectory that will inexorably lead to their assassination - at their own hand. They retire from the Loopers, take their stash and head for a distant land to continue their hedonism.

The film's intellectual capital is invested in exploring the effects of messing with the time-line and figuring out what the consequences might be. On the odd occasion two incarnations of the same Looper exist in the same time-space, any violence meted out on the younger version immediately appears as scar tissue on the older version. The world of the Loopers is policed by one of the future crime bosses (Abe) sent back in time to work with an army of armed thugs called Gat Men.

All is well until an extraordinarily large number of loops begin to be closed and the Loopers become suspicious as their number decrease. Joe the younger encounters Joe the senior (Bruce Willis) and the scene is set for major mayhem and a widespread blood-fest as they seek to eliminate each other whilst the Gat Men seek to eliminate them both.

An added dimension to the story is that through genetic experimentation, 10% of the population have developed limited Telekinetic powers - they are able to manipulate small objects simply by the power of thought. However, one of the film's central character's has inherited Telekinetic powers that are far beyond anyone else's which (for my timid soul) at times turns the film into more of a poltergeist/horror film than an action movie. Emily Blunt gives a tender and strong performance at Sarah who has her own set of demons to exorcise. 

POSSIBLE PLOT SPOILER

What would otherwise have been a typical Bruce Willis blood-fest is saved by the twist in the end. The way the story ends holds out hope of redemption for Joe. For me, it provided the pay-off. Without it, this would have simply been another poor film copying the Die Hard genre. 

Perhaps it's a product of ageing, but I am becoming increasingly uneasy with excesses of violence, blood-fests, sexual abuse and general violation of people. I am finding films that deliver these things by the bucketful harder to enjoy. In reflecting on the film with my significant other, her wisdom observed that perhaps it is only possible to reach people who are into violence and blood-fests etc with a message that redemption is possible, through films such as this. Who am I to deny someone that message? On the other hand, is it simply me becoming more sensitive, or as more and more films become more and more graphically violent, are we all becoming more desensitised?

I think the storyline is imaginative and creative but sadly the blood-fest detracted from my overall enjoyment. This film is not in the league of The Matrix or  Inception but it does make you think - and grimace  I'll give it 7.5/10.



Sunday, 16 September 2012

Hope Springs


Some films deal with deep issues in ways that don't help. Humour is often an effective device to deploy when dealing with things that are hard to be open about. This film is a gift. Not only does it treat a very common and serious subject with respect and reality, it delivers its treatment with great and subtle humour - wonderfully aided by top class acting. This film is excellent - go and see it now.

Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) and Kay (Meryl Streep) have been married for 31 years. Their relationship used to be warm and, to a degree, fulfilling. In recent years, the fizz has gone and for the past five years there has been very little physical contact of any sort - and certainly not anything intimate! Kay decides she wants to try to rescue the relationship and recover the fizz. Going to the bookstore she buys a book by a therapist who helps couples restore some of the lost magic. So, inspired by the writings of Dr Feld, she signs herself and Arnold up for a week's intensive therapy.

Dr Feld is played by Steve Carell and I have to say he is brilliant - the first time he has delivered a role that doesn't make me cringe repeatedly. I won't say any more about the 'therapy' sessions or how the story develops or concludes, but it explores the problems of talking about sexual desire, fantasy and physical intimacy in a way that is not only convincing and sensitive, but which also draws you in and encourages you to develop a tangible sympathy for Arnold and Kay. This is helped by very strong performances from the three main characters - particularly Streep. Confusingly for me, having played the 'Iron Lady' she spends a lot of the movie looking just like Margaret Thatcher - which in some scenes is most inappropriate!

The film is split between Omaha Nebraska and a small coastal town in Maine. These two contrasting locations set up a helpful metaphor for the processes that are going on in each place. The folk in Maine are used to having couples visiting Dr Feld's clinic and the local businesses cater for the specific needs of this type of clientele.

This film will not excite younger viewers. However, those of us who inhabit middle-age - particularly those who are also 'empty nesters' - will warm to the themes that can resonate with some couples as they drift towards retirement. Kay refused to let ageing bring the end of intimacy - she took action to try and recover it. The road she set out on was not without its pain and discomfort - are any couples truly that reticent and ignorant when it comes to discussing the sexual side of their relationship? Perhaps so, as Streep and Jones deliver a masterclass in believable angst.

I think that this is a bold and courageous film that tackles a difficult subject with grace and style. It delivers strong acting performances and some laughs along the way. I'm going to stick my neck out here and award it 8.5/10 - almost a 9! Go and see it - or buy some tickets for your 'old folks' as a treat.


Monday, 10 September 2012

Total Recall (2012)


I have not seen the original film, so this was fresh to me. I say fresh, but the central idea of a journey to discover who I really am is not a new one for cinema and certainly not new at all within the annals of science fiction. To me, the film was a cross between V for Vendetta and The Matrix (both Wachowski Brothers films) which borrowed visual elements from Bladerunner, Minority Report, Star Wars and hosts of other near-future dystopian sci-fi films.

The story explores two central questions:
  • How do I know what is real?
  • "Man's [sic] destiny is to discover who he truly is."
These areas are prime territory for metaphysical rumination as they explore key philosophical and epistemological themes. Most people wonder at one time or another 'why am I here?', some even wonder 'how do I know what is real?'. How the questions are explored indulges CGI and action cinema's appetite to wow and make adrenalin course through your veins! This film delivers pretty much non-stop kick-ass action for all of its 2 hours. Lots of fighting, guns, bombs and explosions. Very little injury.

Following a global war with biological weapons the only two areas of the world that are inhabitable are the UK and Australia. Workers live in Australia and commute through a giant tube train through the earth to the antipodes. The work is boring and unfulfilling and population densities are very high. The concept that gives rise to the title comes from an agency who offer to implant your mind with constructed memories that will seem real. These escapist memories of a perfect/alternative life offer people the opportunity to break out from the drudgery of daily life. There's also the threat of clone wars too!

So, a story about the oppressed and the oppressors offers a platform for the exploration of philosophical questions and for Kate Beckinsale (Lori) and Jessica Biel (Melina) to pursue the lead character Douglas Quaid/Hauser played by Colin Farrell. Oh - did I mention the girl with three breasts?

As a non-stop action film this delivers a lot. Not a lot of variety but a lot of ass-kicking. As a vehicle for philosophical exploration it falls short of what it might have been - disappointing. Not as good as it should have been - I'll give it 6.5/10.


Sunday, 9 September 2012

Vertigo (re 2012)


On the back of being voted the greatest film of all time in the 2012 Sight and Sound poll, Vertigo has been doing the rounds again and I saw it today at Harbour Lights. I'm not sure it's the greatest film of all time. You can only make that call on objective data that can be quantified and measured to allow a comparison. Whilst technical stuff is vital and appreciated, it must surely be our affective response that might cause us to designate a film as being the greatest. I don't know about you, but my mood and my experiences mean that the way I respond to a film can be quite different on different viewings making it impossible to be definitive. All of that aside, I did enjoy the film and found it to be compelling viewing.

Hitchcock is an acknowledged master of suspense and the film noir genre. This is an excellent film that makes full use of the wonderful city of San Francisco as an expansive backdrop and it also delivers fine acting performances. James Stewart is captivating in the lead roll and Barbara Bel Geddes is simply wonderful.

The plot, to begin with, is straightforward but at the midway point it is almost as though the film experiences a second beginning where the hallmark Hitchcockian twist begins to unfold. Hitchcock's portrayal of someone descending into psychosis is masterful given what the 1950's technology made possible.

I can't say anything about the plot as any hint may blow it for those who haven't seen it. I imagine a couple of generations may not have experienced this film - go get it on disc or check out your local cinema - it's doing the rounds.

This is most certainly first class cinema. Whether or not it's the best film ever - I'll leave you to decide on that. I'm giving it 9/10.


Saturday, 8 September 2012

Anna Karenina


Tolstoy's Anna Karenina gets a fresh twist in this new release starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law. Tolstoy found theatre loathsome so it is a brave act by Director Joe Wright to use Tom Stoppard's screenplay to set the story in a disused theatre! I think you either have to treat an epic costume drama in the conventional way, or do something new. I think the new in this case works. But be warned: a novel that runs to nearly 900 pages is never going to produce a short movie!

The story follows the book quite closely but Joe Wright employs plenty of theatre-style scene changes to move the story on whilst it remains on the stage and within the disused theatre. Flats drop and ascend, lighting brings characters into view and then hides them, perspectives change to add to the drama and the full-on lighting delivers eye-popping colour. This is then seamlessly edited together with footage shot outdoors - always on an epic scale with distant horizons to emphasise the vastness of both Russia and this story. The constant use of trains and carriages underlines and emphasises the journeys the characters were on. At times I found the music so intrusive it constantly felt like they were going to break into song!

The story is about relationships, love, fidelity, guilt and the pressure of social expectation. It also highlights very clearly that men can get away things that women in the world of Tolstoy cannot get away with. The story sets Anna at the centre but as well as her own marriage to Alexei, the relationships within the Oblonsky family are also put under scrutiny. The tales of the Karenin's is a mirror opposite of the Oblonsky's. The way in which the two primary suitors go about their tasks - Count Vronsky and Levin are also mirror opposites. It is within the intriguing web of these tangled relationships that the tragedy of Anna Karenina is played out.

The performances are all strong. I particularly liked the restrained and controlled Jude Law as Alexei Karenin and the warm and authentic Kelly MacDonald as Dolly Oblonsky. I found Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Count Vronsky to be immensely annoying - must have been good acting - and the painfully honest and painfully honourable Levin played by Domhnall Gleeson to be frustrating in the extreme - again, good acting. I'm sorry to report that I found Keira Knightly's performance less convincing. Both in terms of time and in terms of character development, her Anna Karenina became more like the character Sabina Spielrein that she played in A Dangerous Method (reviewed here) - hysteria and all! Come on Keira - you need to find some different roles to exercise your undoubted talent!

At 2 hours 10 minutes long, I found this to be just a little too long for comfort. However, the story is on such an epic scale that to make it any shorter might have rendered it meaningless. I appreciate the boldness of the conceptualisation and much of the acting. Whilst worthy, I shall not be rushing to add it to my collection of discs. There are many compelling films on release at the moment - see them before you see this. I'll give it 6.5/10.


Friday, 31 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises


The difficulty with this film is that as soon as you try to rationalise its plot and its characters, it all falls apart. That is because this film is a fantasy. Too many reviews and discussions about this film fall because they fail to understand that Batman is fantasy. Having said that, it then requires us to make a leap from our reality to Batman's unreality if we are to make any sense of the film at all!

For the trilogy to complete its narrative arc it was necessary for Batman (Christian Bale) to be rehabilitated. How that is achieved is as complex as it is brutal. At nearly three hours long it is a credit to Nolan's direction that the film only drags two or three times. It is epic in many ways. The set design - the opening 'extraction', Manhattan below and above ground, 'The Pit' prison and the sfx are all visually stunning and fill the entirety of the screen. I had hoped to see it in IMAX but they finished screening it the day before! That would have been even more stunning visually.

The plot itself is straightforward but there are a number of sub-plots which are running which complicate the whole storyline and require a bit of mental jiggling to hold them separately as they weave in and out of the main story. This is archetypal goody versus baddy - straight out of the ethos of DC Comics. One thing that really struck me was Batman's repeated insistence on 'no guns and no killing' and how in the numerous fight scenes, some of which were overly brutal for my taste, you never saw any blood - just like the 1960's TV shows that were decorated with 'zap!' and 'pow!' etc.

The story begins eight years after the end of the previous film - The Dark Knight. Batman had taken the blame for the death of Harvey Dent at a time when the people of Gotham City needed a hero in which to believe and someone around whom they could rally in their quest to eradicate organised crime from the city. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) had used the momentum to pass the tough Dent Act and now the most dangerous 1000 prisoners were locked up in the city's toughest prison. Commissioner Gordon is wracked with guilt about letting Batman wrongly carry the can for Dent's death but is, as yet, unable to reconcile himself to coming clean. Batman - aka Bruce Wayne - has become even more of a recluse as he mourns what was and the loss of his love Rachel. It will obviously take something on a huge scale to turn this misery around.

In steps Bane (Tom Hardy) - a long term DC Comics bad guy - who is a man of a mountain and who places Gotham City and its inhabitants in jeopardy. The threat of Bane lures Batman back into the skies (after a remarkable physical rehabilitation) and he attempts to save Gotham City from extinction. The love interest is provided by Catwoman/Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and Marion (Marion Cotillard) but for me it was the performance of Alfred the Butler (Michael Caine) which steals the show for its warmth, depth of engagement and sheer humanity. I am not going to elaborate further on the plot, but if you want a fuller exposition check out IMDb. The way the film ends offers a lesson in how to deliver a perfect ending. It was good to see cameos from Liam Neeson and Tom Conti too and with Morgan Freeman reprising his role, it really is a very strong cast - but then a nearly 3 hour film needs that!

This film is intense in many ways - the drama and suspense are maintained in a way that invites tension to build, the characters are not as straightforward as they first appear, the weaving together of the sub-plots requires concentration. For me, it was where the the film picked up the unresolved themes of The Dark Knight where it truly excelled. Christopher Nolan's direction (and joint screenplay writing with his brother Jonathan) explore in depth the angst and moral machinations of the main characters. Themes of regret, loss, guilt and revenge are worked with and developed as the story unfolds. The script delights to balance on the knife-edge of grey areas in relation to a number of moral dilemmas facing the characters. Those on the side of 'right' hesitate and reflect before acting - even when two wrongs might appear to make a right. Those on the side of 'wrong' are driven by a lustful quest for power, control and revenge. For me this was Bale's best performance as Wayne/Batman.

This is a first class film which is fully deserving of its accolades (it wasn't over-hyped to begin with!). The story, acting and visuals are all very strong. It rounds off the trilogy in a satisfactory way being fully faithful to the characters and ethos of Batman but updating it to the 21st century. Nolan's stock will continue to rise and I look forward to his next offering. If this film had been 30 minutes shorter it would have scored a 9, so I'm going to give it 8.5/10. If you've not seen it - catch while you still can.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress


Where this film scores big is in the 'less is more' approach it adopts and in its use of stunning natural scenery which 'performs' so strongly that it should be listed as a member of the cast. It offers an insight into life under the Red Brigades of Mao's Cultural Revolution in China in the 1970's. However, this film is neither original in its plot or filled with memorable acting performances.

The story is essentially about three things: the power of ideas, the desire for humans to transcend through creativity and it's about love. The story begins in 1971 as we follow two young lads from families who have been labelled as liberal intellectuals making them counter-revolutionary. The lads have been sent from their city homes to Phoenix Mountain to be 're-educated'. The film is filled with clunky Maoist rhetoric, such as the village chief proclaiming "revolutionary peasants will never be corrupted by filthy bourgeois chicken"!

We are never told what the precise crimes the bourgeois families have committed and the two lads, Luo and Ma seem more than a little naive as they are confronted with the stark poverty of life in a remote village cut off from the rest of the world. Time and time again, the lads lie and befuddle the locals to save themselves from being hauled up in front of the local thought police.

As I said, this is a film first and foremost about the power of ideas. Under the Cultural Revolution all foreign literature was banned. One of the lads is a gifted violinist and plays a piece of Mozart which the village leader immediately interprets as being reactionary and bourgeois. The lad avoids confiscation of his violin by explaining that it is 'Mozart thinking of Mao' and so is allowed to keep his instrument.

The two boys are unable to cope with the harsh physical regime that life on Phoenix Mountain demands. Recognising this, the village leader sends them off to the local town to watch a North Korean film and to return to the village and retell the story. This they do with great embellishment and demonstrate the power of story to lift and transform from the here and now to somewhere different. This provides the metaphorical mechanism by which Maoist China can be escaped. 

Meanwhile the lads develop an interest in the granddaughter of the local tailor whose trade gives him an elevated status in the eyes of the peasants. The girl is the tailor's seamstress. As the lads develop a closeness to her, she responds to their quest for an experience to transcend the mundanity of peasant life. She listens endlessly to the lads retelling of Western classics that they have read and she is enthralled. The seamstress confesses to gazing up to the sky each time she hears a plane and wondering where the people are going and what kind of lives they lead.

Another reactionary bourgeois lad is rumoured to be hoarding a stash of foreign literature and with the seamstress' help they steal it. As the lads read the novels and poems to the illiterate seamstress, she becomes more and more drawn into their world of ideas and stories that offer the hope of escape.

The pacing of the plot is at times jerky and the film lurches towards its conclusion rather unsatisfactorily. However, whilst the outcome is in part predictable - given the semi-autobiographical nature of the story, I won't spoil it for you.

This film's delight lies in the way the story is told and the setting in which it is told. Both outweigh any other short-comings the film may have. It is gentle but has a strong message. It is well worth the investment of your time - it was a Golden Globe nominee and also an official Cannes selection. I'll give it 7.5/10.




Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man


This film takes us back to the beginning and tells us (again) how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man. There is little that is new in this film. That will appeal to arachnid die-hards - especially as the two lead characters offer a more 'punchy' performance than Maguire and Dunst. The graphics and design are state-of-the-art which sets this film visually above the Maguire trilogy - the lighting in this one is particularly well done.

At the end of the day, the film is a simple super-hero movie. The story is straightforward and serves as a vehicle for the fledgeling Spider-Man to flex this legs and also as a warning against cross-species genetic engineering. Whilst the plot is straightforward it is delivered with an uneven pace and at times limps along whilst at others it almost moves too quickly. The script is similarly lumpy. As a hoodlum shouts after Parker - ''I've seen your face, I know who you are', Parker happens to glance up and see a poster promoting a wrestler in a mask which inspires him to go home, copy the design and hand sew himself his own mask. At the end of the film the last lines of dialogue are equally cumbersome and uncomfortably hold out the batten to taken up in the sequel!

As I said Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone play their characters well, ably supported by Rhys Ifans who plays the baddy and Martin Sheen (now with Sean Connery-style whistling teeth) and lovely Sally Field as his uncle and auntie who take him in when his parents mysteriously disappear. The scenes where the love interest develops between Parker and Gwen Stacy (Stone) are well handled and in less sympathetic hands might have led to her stringing him along for far longer than the poor boy could endure. It is handled with a believable and heart-warming sensitivity.

For me, where this film scores is the subject matter and attempted method of the baddy's efforts to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting New York. When the zeitgeist forces us to live in the shadow of fear of dirty bombs and bio-bombs being detonated in our metropolitan areas, this film makes real that threat as New Yorkers face being mutated into lizards! But we are saved by our heroine Gwen Stacy and her repentant father - and of course Spider-Man. There are a couple of nice touches such as when the construction industry comes to the injured Spier-Man's aid.

This was a nice film to watch with my son and daughter - a long time since that happened! I won't be rushing to add the disc to my library when it's released - but I am looking forward to seeing the new Batman film! I'll give this one 6/10.


Thursday, 2 August 2012

Me and You and Everyone We Know


This film is as quirky as the picture above and as a consequence I imagine viewers will either love it or be left wondering why did I waste 90 minutes watching that! For those who like their Indie cinema to be two blocks ahead of everything else, then this debut feature written by and starring Miranda July will excite. For those who simply want to sit and allow a story to wash over them, this will disappoint.

The universal scope of the title is not really matched by the breadth of the film. In essence it is an honest and different attempt to explore the age-old chestnut of relationships, intimacy and sexual expression. This film manages to explore all three with a six year-old boy, some pubescent teens, thirty-somethings and also an older couple. The stories of the four generations are interwoven in both overt and hidden ways but the film is an ensemble piece that at times feels a bit claustrophobic as a result.

Richard is at the point of separating from his wife ahead of divorce. He has primary care of their two sons aged 6 and 14. He at one and the same time is both mesmerised and yet terrorised by the possibilities that life offers. At one stage he sets fire to his own hand - bizarre. He works as a salesperson in a shoe shop in an anonymous mall where he meets Christine. Neither are natural chat-up artists but both long for intimacy - not necessarily sexual. Christine's chasing after Richard forms the spine of the story.

Around that spine a number of characters of varying ages explore relationship, intimacy and sexual expression. Most alarmingly the 6 year-old gets into an on line chat room and cuts and pastes his way to some highly inappropriate conversation. He then ends up meeting his co-fantasist in a park on a bench! Two young teenage girls curious about sex and eager to outperform one another offer a 'Johnny ha ha' to the 14 year old. He subsequently befriends a 10 year-old girl next door who is busy buying appliances and linen for Hope Chest to form her dowry. Yes - it's all more than a bit weird. The fact that Christine is an avant-garde artist who makes movies out of other peoples holiday snaps and films her feet as she warbles monotonously into a microphone goes some way to setting the context.

I'm surprised that this film scores so highly on both IMDb (73%) and Rotten Tomatoes (83%) - but I guess it gets referred by word-of-mouth and so plugs into its niche effectively. I would honestly struggle to recommend this whole-heartedly. I hope I have given sufficient flavour so that folk can make up their own mind. This film has much that would prompt group discussion around relationships, attitudes to sex and the longing for intimacy that we all crave. It would allow plenty of discussion on ethical and moral issues that flow from these areas. I'm going to give it 6/10.


Sunday, 29 July 2012

Nowhere Boy



I bought this as ex-rental stock from my local Blockbuster just to make up a multi deal. I'm so glad I did - this film is smart, moving and engaging on a number of levels. Based on the book Imagine This: Growing Up with My Older Brother John Lennon, it will of course be of interest to anyone smitten by the Fab Four. If you want a portrait of England emerging from post-war austerity with the dawn of the swinging sixties glowing over the horizon, it's excellent. As a depiction of mental illness giving rise to family tensions, its power to engender sympathy for all the main characters by the end of the film is unrivalled. This story combines all three strands and weaves a tapestry whose worth exceeds the value of its components.

John (Aaron Johnson) is a troubled teenager who clearly doesn't fit in with his guardian aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) or with the masters at the local Quarry Bank High School. Feeling constrained and hemmed in, John tries to forge a sense of self-identity through a number of avenues. Throughout the film he uncovers more and more of the truth about why he is living with his aunt and uncle instead of his mother. That journey scales many peaks of emotional tension and it sustains an affective engagement with his story. The acting throughout is top drawer but Kristin Scott Thomas as the aunt and Anne-Marie Duff as his mother Julia, excel.

If we are to believe that the story has an authenticity about its biographical detail - and there's no reason to suppose otherwise - I for one found my views of John Lennon being challenged. Far from being the drop-out rude boy, the narrative depicts him with warmth and repeatedly shows him acting with compassion - even when his actions will have painful consequences. The family situation in which he grew up goes some way to explaining the nihilism and anarchy that pepper his lyrics.

As a 15 year-old, John experienced life with recently widowed aunt Mimi as drab and authoritarian - a portrayal of Victorian values and British stiff upper lip. She lives in a dark house with brown wallpaper and furnishings. Julia's home is bright, lively and full of music and noise. When given the chance to meet his biological mother, he seizes it and is immediately entranced by the offer of the vibrant and colourful life she embodies - unboundaried, indsciplined, loving and completely spontaneous. The polar opposite of her sister Mimi who is cold, controlling and loathes displays of emotion. John is caught up in a titanic struggle between the lifestyles the two women embody. As the struggle unfolds, so he discovers more and more of his family's dark secrets and the unravelling has far-reaching consequences for everyone.

Through all the trauma that accompanies the revelations John experiences, he discovers a natural musical ability which he marries to his ability to write poetry. Forming a skiffle group (The Quarrymen) with school mates they begin performing and develop a growing and enthusiastic following. John is introduced to Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and they develop a friendship as McCartney's more advanced musical ability becomes something he readily shares with the rapidly developing Lennon. In time they are introduced to George Harrison and the nucleus of The Beatles comes into being.

The film stops before the Beatles break into the big time - which for me makes it primarily a film about a family dealing with the difficulties of Julia's mental illness. It just happens that her son becomes world famous and so many want to hear the story. How many families battling similar things, do so with their story remaining untold? The characterisations and script are first class as is the direction by Sam Taylor-Wood.

If you are looking for lots of Quarrymen footage and early Beatles trivia this is not for you - although there are many nods to what is coming. If you want the privilege of sharing with a family struggling with several taboo realities and journeying through the emotional ups and downs that accompany the struggles, then this is for you. Get the tissues and a stiff drink - and enjoy. I'll give it 8/10.


Sunday, 22 July 2012

I Know You Know


This is a thoroughly gripping film. It is not all uplifting, but it is gripping. Set in a bleak and dreary industrial South Wales landscape in the late 1980's, Robert Carlyle and Arron Fuller give compelling character performances as father and son Charlie and Jaimie. It is a film that is full of warmth.

This is the kind of film that if I were to make any meaningful comment, I would immediately give the plot away and that would be a pity as the plot is also something that is compelling and highly original. So this will be short review. I will say that the film is directed by Justin Kerrigan and is autobiographical - it embodies a lived reality and grittiness.

I said the film is not uplifting - there is no happy ending. However, I would imagine that after the opening 10 minutes or so, few would be able to guess where this story ends up. The acting is tight and the script is very well written and creatively delivered by Carlyle and Fuller.

I'm not surprised that this film only rates 5.8 on IMDB and 64% on rotten tomatoes. So much of the film is rooted in the culture of South Wales and 1980's Thatcherite Britain with the contrasting iconic cars of a gleaming Jenson Interceptor and beat up Ford Capri. I imagine that its cultural reference points may not translate too readily across the pond - it would have been a very different film had it been set in The Bronx or Chicago.

If you enjoy working with a movie you are watching and not always seeking a happy ending, then this could be one for you. Put it on your Love Film list and be prepared for a surprise.

I'll give it 7/10.


Thursday, 19 July 2012

Bibliography and Resource List

I've just added a Bibliography and resource list in the pages tab below on the right.


It's not meant to be exhaustive - simply a list of books I have, most of which I've read, and places I visit on the web and in the real world.


Hope it's helpful.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Men In Black 3


After two months of chasing this film on two continents - I finally made it! Okay, I'll admit upfront that I'm a fan of the franchise and really like the pairing of Will Smith as 'Agent J' and Tommy Lee Jones as 'Agent K' - a kind of alternative Shrek and Donkey if you like!

By the third film of a franchise things normally get pretty stale and I went to see this out of a sense of duty rather than with any high expectations of it being a piece of great cinema. It isn't a piece of great cinema - but it certainly isn't stale either. I was delightfully surprised that not only did the story deliver a series of excellent CGI Alien encounters, but it went deeper and explored the tensions behind the J and K relationship.

The central thrust relies on time travel. It is not handled in a very sophisticated way - but then that fits with the story. What is sophisticated is the introduction of Emma Thompson as the new Boss 'Agent O' in the wake of Agent Z's demise and the appearance of Josh Brolin as the young 'Agent K'.

The story is quick to exploit the racial tensions that existed in the 1960s as 'Agent K' encounters prejudice from law enforcement officers and the general public. I'm not quite sure if it is genuinely trying to say we've come a long way in 50 years or nothing's really changed. Where the story plumbs new depths is in exploring the dynamics of the J and K relationship and why K is as he is and how J got to be recruited by K in the first place. The way in which this is done engenders sympathy for both the characters J and K. The homage to Groundhog Day is subtle and works very well.

The CGI is top drawer and the Aliens embody the right degree of being repulsive whilst also encouraging a degree of curiosity so you want to learn more. The way the story weaves in icons of 1960s America, bowling, cars, baseball Andy Warhol etc is cleverly done. Again the film shows the Manhattan skyline off to good effect with lots of action centring on the iconic Chrysler Building.

I will definitely be adding the disc to my collection when it comes out. If you're after good old-fashioned entertainment go and see it while you still can. I'll give it 7.5/10.


Sunday, 17 June 2012

Your Sister's Sister


Caught this at a members' free preview screening at Harbour Lights - well done Picture House!

I didn't quite know what to expect. What I encountered was an intelligent and engaging emotional drama that explores themes of loss, grief, love, betrayal and the fear of losing what you don't already have! Essentially it's a film about relationships. The story is told with irony and occasional humour. At the heart of the story are two sisters, Iris (Emily Blunt) and Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Iris' best friend Jack (Mark Duplass) who is the brother of Iris' ex - Tom. The film opens with a group of Tom's friends - including Iris and Jack meeting to commemorate the first anniversary of Tom's death.

This is a beautifully shot film that presents Seattle and one of Puget Sound's island communities in mist-laden muted technicolour. The film moves between indoor and outdoor scenes as the characters journey through their own inner hidden and then revealed vulnerabilities. It is good to see a low-tech, no special effects character film that is driven by the narrative and the performances of the actors. There are very few scenes with more than the three of them and the way the triangular relationships develop keeps the plot moving - although I felt it did get a little bogged down for five minutes in the middle. The ending is simply superb - I will say no more.

The characters are believable and the situation they confront displays human weakness and vulnerability in cringing detail. It is also a film about hope, forgiveness and reconciliation. The physical isolation of the location reinforces their shared sense of being alone. The ties of family and of siblings in particular forms a strong thread that runs through the story. Dealing with such deep and profound themes it would have been easy for the film to drown in slushy sentimentality or melodrama. Full credit goes to the Director Lynn Shelton and cast for avoiding the traps of cliche that the subject matter could have so easily delivered.

This film sets out a landscape of relationships that feels very contemporary - perhaps the kind of story Douglas Coupland might have written (in a Generation X sense). At times you can almost hear the pain and anguish being processed internally by the characters' emotional machinery as they try to come to terms with developments and attempt to find a way of moving on. This film engenders empathy from viewers as you accompany three people facing their own and each other's demons. It moved me to tears on a couple of occasions!

It is gentle and engaging, a treat. Do go and see it. I'll give it 8/10


Saturday, 16 June 2012

Prometheus


I've been reflecting on this for several days as I'm still not sure how to write it up. I know that ambiguity is a vital component if viewers are to be invited to use their imagination in making meaning of a narrative they engage with. However, for me, this film has too much ambiguity, leaves too much unexplained and contains too many lucky coincidences. Half the time I was thinking 'this is a really intelligent and realistic "prequel" to Alien' and the other half of the time I felt 'I was being suckered in to something that simply wants to keep the franchise running'.

From all the pre-release hype through to the way the title of the film appears on the screen in direct homage to Alien this is a a film that stands within the Alien family of movies. The extensive (and excellent) use of Giger's artwork for the Space Jockey's spacecraft and world tie the film visually into Alien. The fact that the film does not end with John Hurt walking into a field of Alien eggs means that its conclusion takes the narrative into another direction. If by prequel you expect a storyline that tells you how we got to the start of Alien, then this will probably leave you a little disappointed. If you are open to an exploration of the world of the Alien and its possible creator, then you will find this a hit!

WARNING: THE FROM HERE ON THERE ARE A FEW SPOILERS - WHICH MIGHT HELP YOU UNDERSTAND THE FILM AS YOU WATCH IT.

In its own right, as much as any story contains flaws and ambiguity, Prometheus is a worthwhile film. The cast is strong and the performances are good - although Michael Fassbender's David is more like a synthesis of every android you've ever seen, wrapped up with the intonation and all the charm of HAL from 2001! Yes, there is a chest-bursting Alien emergence. Yes, it does have molecular acid for blood. However, the film also introduces us to Calamari on steroids and a life-cycle for the Alien that defies rational explanation.

Where the film does score big is in the way it sets out a series of metaphysical questions and then leaves them gently unresolved. I understand that Scott was toying with the idea of calling this film Paradise but that the name has been held-over for the sequel to Prometheus (if there is one). The film explores the origins of humanity and the journey the USS Prometheus makes is understood to be in response to an invitation to a distant planet. When they arrive, they happen to enter the atmosphere right on top of a massive domed structure which they enter and inside which they discover holographic ghost-like images, Space Jockeys in stasis and, unbeknown to them, thousands of Alien eggs which they somehow manage to activate into the next stage of their black gunk-oozing life-cycle.

The biology is certainly beyond my understanding - but that is where Sci-Fi comes into its own - it wouldn't be fiction otherwise! But quite how Dr Shaw (Noomi Rapace) manages to self-perform a Caesarian and then run off down the corridor, only doubling up in agony every 100 yards, eludes me - even with large self-administered doses of anaesthetic. A scene towards the end where she and Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) are trying to out-run catastrophe is more Keystone Cops slapstick that 21st Century Sci-Fi at its best! Yet, Dr Shaw's character has more than an echo of a certain Ellen Ripley about her.

The questions still remain:

  • How did David learn the Space Jockey language? 
  • How did he know they were planning to destroy earth? 
  • Why was the Space Jockey so violent and aggressive - wasn't he meant to be a higher life-form (even though his DNA matches human DNA 100%), or is aggression and violence where evolution is taking us?
  • What's with the Calamari on steroids?
  • Why did Vicker's allow Janek to push her buttons so thoroughly?
It's good to come away with questions - and I'm sure the ones I've raised simply demonstrate my own slow mind. However, this is a film worth seeing - I'll give it 7.5/10.