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.