Saturday, 21 December 2013

The East



This is the latest offering from Brit Marling (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice) - someone whose talents I admire. This time she co-writes and stars in an intelligent eco-thriller which debuted at the 2013 Sundance Festival with backing from Ridley Scott as Producer. As the screenplay was being written, the 'Occupy Wall Street' social action was taking place which must have added a sense of realism and impetus to the task. Marling and co-writer Zal Batmanglij spent two months engaging in Freeganism by way of research to inspire their writing. The film has an authenticity about it and whilst it feels a little more mainstream than Marling's previous two offerings it still has an indie edginess to it.

Marling plays the resourceful and quick thinking Sarah - a former FBI Agent (she seems very young to be so accomplished and a 'former' FBI Agent). She works for a private intelligence company who seem to operate like the CIA. Sarah is sent under deep cover to infiltrate an eco-anarchist group called 'The East' and to discover what targets they are aiming at. The small tight-knit group are sceptical about Sarah to begin with but she earns their trust and participates in two "jams" when they target a pharmaceutical company and then a chemical company.

As Sarah spends more time with the group and learns more about the pollution and malpractice big corporations are able to get away with and as she considers the dubious activities of her employer, so her sympathies begin to turn to the eco-anarchists and the internal battle that ensues sees Sarah questioning her loyalties. The film is nearly two hours long and maintains the tension well throughout. It holds its own as an espionage/spy film and it gives some interesting character developments.

It is good that we have an intelligent film with good acting that explores an area that is becoming increasingly recognised as an important field in need of transformation through social action. Building on the Jubilee 2000 Campaign, 'Stop The Debt', 'Occupy' and other initiatives and films like Martha Marcy May Marlene, perhaps we are seeing a gradual awakening in our understanding of our collective need for responsible stewardship of what we have been given. I wonder how history will record these decades? Perhaps we are beginning to see the first-fruits of a social transformation that will result in a fairer distribution of wealth and a reduction in the driving power of greed that has characterised Western Society over he last 400 years. No doubt the emergence of new economic powers (BRICS and others) will also play their part.

This is a good film with a story worth engaging with and with a strong cast. The East are presented as being sufficiently alternative to make an impact without being so looney as to undermine their credibility. The message of this film admirably catches the zeitgeist and offers an encouragement for us all to challenge the status quo with which we collude through inaction. Do get the disc and watch it. I'll give it 8/10.


Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Butler


It is said that history is always written by the victors. Does partial victory count or does it lead to a partial rendering of history? Don't get me wrong. I am in no way trying to minimise the pain inflicted on black-Americans (or the enslaved anywhere in the world), but for me there was something about this film that wasn't quite right. It is a film about the struggle of black-Americans to gain equality in the 'Land of the Free". As the voice over towards the end tells us, we can all react to the horror of concentration camps in Germany - it's just that no-one calls them that in the south of the USA, but they've been there for more than 200 years and the effects of their presence continue to reverberate today. This is not simply an historical film, but a current one and this is a review of a movie and not a critique of the Civil Rights Movement.

There is great acting (and casting) in this film. It's scope is immense as it charts the American civil rights movement through the eyes of a unique witness - a black Butler (Forest Whitaker) who serves successive Presidents in the White House. From Eisenhower to Reagan, The Butler was privy to the machinations and most intimate conversations at the heart of government. The film goes out of its way to depict Kennedy's young liberal idealism and hints at what might have been. It clearly has little affection for Johnson who is shown to be two-faced or Nixon whom it depicts as lacking moral scruples. (I wonder if this is reading things back into history after the fact?) The film almost completely skates over the Ford and Carter years and re-engages with Reagan whom it depicts, along with his wife, as genuine, benevolent and open people.

From the outset of the film you know where the narrative arc is going. It starts in the 1920's with share-croppers in a cotton field in Georgia where the young Butler's mother is raped and father shot by their white 'owners' right through to the impossible, the election of Barak Obama to the White House. On the way the story charts the most significant events of the Civil Rights Movement including Malcolm X's Black Panthers and MLK. The sojourn through these contrasting styles of civil engagement is enacted through The Butler's eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) as he determines direct action is the preferred route rather than the wait-and-see approach advocated by father. This sets up inevitable tensions leading to estrangement and reconciliation whilst the youngest son is sacrificed to the ideals of the Vietnam War.

What starts out as an historical bio-pic turns into more of a fly-on-the-wall documentary as The Butler observes, but never intervenes, as successive Presidents wrestle with the Civil Rights problem in a way that tries not to alienate a fickle electorate. The generous use of original TV footage adds to the documentary feel rather than bringing the story the alive.

If the story-telling might not be this film's strong suit, where this film does win is in the all-star cast that assemble to deliver many strong performances and cameos. Among them feature, Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, John Cusack, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr, Liev Schreiber, Jane Fonda and of course Oprah Winfrey as Gloria, The Butler's wife who delivers a very strong performance. I wouldn't be surprised to see the two leads Oscar nominated.

For all it's short-comings, this is an important film as no other has sought to chart the Civil rights Movement in quite the same way. A Thief in the Night is cited in the film, but there are few other cultural reference points. IMDb has a list of films with a Civil Rights motif here. At 132 minutes it is half an hour too long. However, it is worth a watch. I'll give it 7.5/10.


Wednesday, 27 November 2013

some new releases worth looking out for

These release dates relate to the UK - apologies to the rest of the world.

In two days time we have the general release of Saving Mr Banks - a must-see film even if you're not a fan of disney films.



Inside Llewelyn Davis


Here is new offering the Coen brothers due out on 24 January. It follows a week in the life of an a singer/song-writer struggling to make his way in Greenwich Village ,New York in 1961. It's attracting great reviews and a high score on IMDb and other review sites.

The Book Thief


Set in Nazi Germany, a young girl is intrigued by what is so special about books that the Nazi's burn them. She bravely retrieves a book that survives the bonfire and begins to read - her imagination does the rest.  This looks like another strong film and is already attracting a strong showing on IMDb. Out on 31 January 2014.

12 Years a Slave


Latest offering from Director Steve McQueen is released on 10 January and explores the issue of America's history with slavery. Promises to be good.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty


I'm not a fan of Ben Stiller - I feel he only ever really plays himself - but from the trailer and reading up about this one, it seems that in this case it might just be appropriate! You can catch it from Boxing Day.

Dallas Buyers Club


This film stars Matthew McConaughey and explores the AIDS crisis in the late 1980's. Based on a true story, this film presents a sadly familiar story with a different twist. Due for release 07 Feb 2014.

Other possible films to look out for are:


  • Jeune & Jolie 29 November
  • The Railway Man 01 January 2014
  • All is Lost 26 December 2013
  • The Wolf of Wall Street 17 January 2014
One to avoid .... Anchorman 2!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Saving Mr Banks


I had seen the trailer for this film a number of times - but I still wasn't sure what to expect. I managed to catch it today at a members' free preview screening  from those very nice people at Harbour Lights in Southampton. Thank you Picturehouse. The 'heavy' in the suit demanding that all punters turned off their phones on entering the auditorium was an unwelcome encounter. If it becomes a regular feature, I will review my membership!

The premise of this film is simple. A rigid and pompous P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of Mary Poppins has been wooed by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) for 20 years as he attempts to secure the film rights to the story. Travers fears the Disneyfication of her beloved Mary Poppins - a descent into trivialisation where the characters would have the resolve of candy floss. After all, Mary Poppins is 'family'. The gulf between Disney and Travers is wider than simply the Atlantic Ocean. However, Travers' has fallen on hard times and is in desperate need of the money the project will generate. Reluctantly she agrees to visit Disney in Hollywood to work on a script - flying First Class and staying at the Beverly Hills Hilton does nothing to soften here strident tone and overbearing demeanour.

Demanding complete control over the script, fighting the notion that this would be a musical and presenting Disney with a long list of requirements such as, no facial hair, no animation, no Americanisms, no Dick van Dyke, Travers manages to alienate everyone she meets in California - but at the same time intrigues them with her so over-the-top Britishness that they all find so appealing. This is a film of contradictions that hold each other in creative tension to produce a truly wonderful piece of drama that will scale the heights and plumb the depths of human experience and emotion. I cannot remember the last time I cried so much at the cinema - and this is largely a comedy! That said, this film engages deeply with themes of loss, anger, regret, forgiveness and transformation - all ripe for theological reflection. As the film unfolds, so the reason for each of Travers' seemingly unreasonable demands becomes clear.

A Disney Pictures film about Walt Disney does appear on first inspection to be more than a little incestuous. This need not concern the viewer as this, one of the many seeming contradictions, is dealt with in a very open and even-handed way. The film was shot largely at Universal Studios in Hollywood - even the parts set in London and Australia. The art of illusion remains alive and well in Disneyland.

As well as charting the difficult relationship between Travers and Disney, the film also unearths in a series of flashbacks, Travers' own childhood in Australia and the family set up that gave rise to the creation of Mary Poppins. The editing of this film is done beautifully as different parts of the script enrapture Travers, so we are transported back to the childhood setting that gave rise to that particular part of the Mary Poppins story. In beautiful back-lit golden soft focus, the flashbacks are more schmaltzy Little House on the Prairie than anything else, but the big dollops of melancholy don't come over as being as sugary sweet as they might at first seem to want to be. It is only as Travers reaches back into her own childhood that Disney begins to glimpse the true meaning behind Mary Poppins. The screenplay and acting in this film strike a wonderful balance that mitigates against the temptation towards needless sentimentality. Hanks and Thompson deliver performances worthy of Oscar nominations - but then so do the rest of the cast - particularly Paul Giamatti as Ralph the chauffeur and Colin Farrell as Travers' father.

At just over two hours long I found this to be an engaging, entertaining, educational but also an emotionally demanding film. It was excellent. With a PG certification I'm sure it will do very well over the run up to Christmas and the holiday season. Can you remember where and when you first saw Mary Poppins? I can, it was on it's initial release at the Odeon in Bristol in 1964. It would undoubtedly help to have seen Mary Poppins before viewing this film - but not essential. I'd like to see Saving Mr Banks again - it is thoroughly enjoyable and very entertaining. Sounds just like a Disney film! I'll give it 9/10.






Friday, 22 November 2013

The Counsellor


Take five of Hollywood's most beautiful A-listers, add a dynamic and complex script, motives of greed and power which are pursued with ruthlessness and you get a fast moving, violent and engaging film about drug supply in the USA. Well, that's the glossy veneer that the eyes see - but if you look a little more deeply and listen with greater intent you find a film that explores the relentless logic of the consequences of the choices that are made.

Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men, The Road) this was always going to be a beautifully made and intellectually engaging film. In some ways it is quite similar to No Country as its pretext is a Tex-Mex drug deal involving a Mexican cartel shipping a consignment of cocaine from Colombia to Chicago in a tanker full of sewage. All pretty routine.

The central character, The Counsellor (Michael Fassbender) is a lawyer who decides to try and make a lot of money very quickly by underwriting a shipment of drugs. All of his associates tell him to be very careful as the cartels don't mess around. His naivety - especially in seeing business partners as friends - leaves him exposed, weak and vulnerable. Of course, things do not go to plan and the cartel exact revenge on those they think responsible.

The two female characters Laura (Penélope Cruz) and Malkina (Cameron Diaz) are presented as stunning beauties but in every other respect could not be more different. This is the first time I have seen Diaz play a character who is utterly frightening, ruthless and will stop at nothing to ensure she gets her way. Irrational, clever, manipulative, sadistic and gluttonous, she wants it all - now! Cruz' character on the other hand is gentle and innocent - way in over her pretty head.The other two leads are Reiner played by Javier Bardem and Westray played by Brad Pitt. Bardem is utterly compelling and Pitt seems to play himself but on a bad day.

Viewers will need to pay attention to the dialogue as little clues are dispensed in throw-away lines that later take on an importance that their original context failed to register. Early on in the film a new assassination device is described and I spent the whole film waiting to see if it would be deployed - I was not disappointed. As far as I recall, none of the characters are ever depicted 'doing drugs' - alcohol, seems to be the drug of choice - but usually in a cocktail glass unless it is a piece of blatant product placement.

There is no doubt that this is a clever and extremely well-made film. Did I enjoy watching it? Enjoy is not the word I would use - I'd be more likely to speak well of its intellectual engagement. Whether you choose to see it as a morality tale or an essay on existential philosophy, my guess is that some viewers will see and take from the film those things they choose to be impacted by. For others it will simply be an action film with pretty people and fast cars. I wonder if it tries to be a little too clever. It's not one I would hurry to see again or add to my disc collection when released. Having said that, some of the film's visual and aural images will stay with me for a long time! I'll give it 7/10.


Saturday, 16 November 2013

Gravity


From the trailers and hype the story line of this film is already out there - we know it's about stranded astronauts and the question is, will they get home. Well I'm not going to spoil that for you - you will have to go and see it for yourself. What is remarkable about this film is the cinematography - that and the fact that there are only two characters (and four voices). Filmed at Shepperton Studios in the UK using a room whose walls serve as massive LED screens and using gyros and gimbals to give the appearance of weightlessness, this film advances cinematic technology in a similar way to the innovations we saw in The Matrix trilogy. The visual effect is as though you are there with them floating and tumbling through space - more of a documentary feel with long single takes that travel long distances.

The two characters are Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) a medical doctor on her first space trip and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) on his last trip before retirement. They end up stranded in their space suits after a space walk goes horribly wrong. At one point they are tethered together and the tag line 'don't let go' becomes the golden rule as they seek solutions to their problem.

The film raises a  number of issues - the most immediate one being the legacy of space junk and the unintended consequences of simply abandoning it when no longer useful. It also shows the increasingly international nature of space exploration with the Americans, Russians and Chinese all featuring which leads at one point to the wonderful line delivered by Stone 'No hablo Chino!".

As much as the story is about the physical safety of 'not letting go' it is also the emotional safety of having to let go. Stone is carrying a great weight within her psyche - something she has not been able to put down. As the film progresses, the seriousness of their situation encourages the two characters to engage in some metaphysical dialogue as they explore the meaning of their existence. For me this is the real nub of the film and provides the icing on the cake. Stone delivers a wonderful monologue in which she rehearses the 'I know we all have to die at some point - but like this, not today' argument. She questions the meaning of life and the importance of leaving a legacy and draws inner strength from a renewed sense of purpose. I wonder if viewers of this film will allow themselves the indulgence of asking such questions of themselves?

Whilst the visuals of this film are stunning - and yes I did, after the unlikely encouragement of Dr Kermode, shell out to see the 3D version - the big question is, with only two characters can the film sustain sufficient movement, interest and anticipation for its 91 minute runtime? The answer is a resounding 'yes'! The pace is relentless and I left the film with my veins full of adrenalin!! One of the voices that we hear in the film is that of the NASA Mission Controller - played by Ed Harris, a nice homage to Apollo 13 and The Truman Show two films in which he stars and which are about a space disaster and the quest to discover the meaning of existence.

The visuals in this film alone make it worth going to see. The acting from Bullock is immense and Clooney almost plays himself - something he is becoming increasingly good at doing. The estimated $100m production costs has been more than doubly recouped in US box office takings alone in its first six weeks since release - this film will repay Warner Brothers investment and faith in Director Alfonso Cuarón many times over. The project was four years in the making and Warner Bros apparently didn't see a single frame in the film until a few months before release.

As you may imagine, I rather liked it - and like the good Dr would recommend the 3D experience - it would be even more immersive in IMAX I would imagine. Do go and see it - no matter how big your TV is this will never be quite the same unless you view it in the cinema. For innovation, acting, conceptualisation and the ability to consistently sustain tension, I'll give it 9/10!



Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Philomena


If ever a role was written for an actor it is this title role and Dame Judy Dench. She makes it her own and is completely compelling. This film will tug at the heart strings - and make you laugh. It is is a film about love, grace, evil and hope. It would too easy and too simplistic to develop ideas that stereotype the main players in this tale - again based on a real story. We need to deal with the reality of what the film presents rather than take pops at the main baddies in the story - religion, nuns and the Catholic Church. We also need to remember that it begins in the early 1950's - a very different world to the one we live in today. Philomena is at one and the same time both a simple and yet immensely complex character. Dench effortlessly brings great depth and subtlety to the role.

The trailer and hype surrounding this film have already disclosed the plot so there really is nothing to spoil. That in no way diminishes the emotional weight of the film neither does it obscure Dench's performance. This film is so worth seeing - we need to collectively stand in Philomena's pain and the pain of thousands like her around the world. (Not all by any means, victims of Catholic nuns!) Illegitimate children and their young mothers were taken in by convents in exchange for manual labour - a modern-day workhouse. Mothers were allowed one hour's contact with their child each day. The babies were 'sold' to those who could afford them and adopted - quite often to Americans. This is what happened to Philomena's son Anthony.

The Central Statistics Office of Ireland has revealed that in 2012 36.5% of babies were born outside marriage. Clearly things have moved on in the last 60 years. Irish society was firmly in the grip of a certain kind of Catholic dogma and the Church held that sex outside marriage was a sin. The nuns saw it as a spiritual kindness to offer the girls and their children a future they would not have otherwise had. The way in which they ran the convent workhouses and piled guilt and scorn on the heads of these young women is repugnant in the extreme. That it was done in the name of God and love, for me only adds to the abhorrence I felt watching the story. That the nuns then tried to make it impossible for mothers to track their children or even worse vice-a-versa simply heaps even more deplorable behaviour on this sorry tale.

Throughout her life Philomena remains devout. She is on one hand lacking in sophistication and simple yet on the other very shrewd when she wants to be. She is undemanding, a good mother to the family she raised after leaving the convent and able to appreciate and enjoy the novelty of luxury when she encounters it.

The other main character is the former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith played by Steve Coogan who also co-wrote the screenplay. I must confess to not being a fan of Alan Partridge (Coogan's alter ego comedy character from TV) and each time I see him (including in What Maisie Knew) I can't get past Partridge to the character he is playing. He makes Sixsmith veer between being self-obsessed and objectionable, to being compassionate and a crusader for truth. This sets up an interesting relationship between Philomena and Sixsmith as they track down Anthony.

As I said, this film will evoke a range of emotional responses from viewers. Whilst Sixsmith is not afraid to voice his judgement on what has happened Philomena offers a different response. For 50 years she kept her secret and once she had revealed it, it took on a life and energy of its own that gives the film its gripping story. Of course we all want to know what happened to Anthony and whether or not they will be reunited. We all know that the story will not be straightforward and that there will be twists and turns. The story, based on Sixsmith's book of the account, does not disappoint.

We are all of us complex creatures with needs we know of and satisfy, needs we know of and hide and needs that remain unknown yet exert an influence on our behaviour and longings. Actions have consequences and whether it being 'taking down your knickers' or disclosing that you have a long lost son to his half-sister, moments of revelation and discovery can generate unforeseen outcomes that have a tangle of both good and bad that seem inseparable. The point in the film where Philomena recalls the moment of passion amongst the straw at the fair is pure poetry and she seems not to regret it for one moment.

The story is driven by love - and not just Philomena's. The evil is evident in the convent and most of the nuns who populated it then - and now and who collude with obfuscating the truth. What shone through for me was that in her simple understanding of faith and who God was and is, that Philomena was able to act with grace and maintain her own integrity without diminishing her view of herself. This primarily is a story about grace. I saw it at Harbour Lights on Sunday and the folk there said that it was 'going mental' with huge turn-outs to view it. Go and join the throng - you won't be disappointed. I'll give it 8.5/10.


Monday, 4 November 2013

Captain Phillips


Can a film sustain an even pace and then build to a climax after 2 hours and 15 minutes? Yes it can. Director Paul Greengrass delivers a tale of high drama set on the seas off the Horn of Africa that trades in the currency of the disparity between this world's haves and the have-nots.

I'm not giving anything away I hope when I say the story-line is straightforward and 'based on' a true story of Somali pirates hijacking a Maersk container ship en-route from Oman to Mombasa. The title character commands the container ship and is played by Tom Hanks who delivers one of his best performances in years. The central axis of the story is the relationship between Phillips and the leader of the pirates Muse (Barkhad Abdi).

The film gives a little insight into the anarchy that rules Somalia and the demands of the Warlords on former fishing communities for their young men to turn to piracy and deliver multi-million dollar ransoms back to the Warlords. The gulf between the size and technology of the pirates boats in comparison to the container ship could hardly be wider. The anarchic pirates living in huts in the dunes with few possessions contrast garishly with the ordered opulence and automation of the container ship and its cargo of luxury consumer goods. Fuelled by khat (a stimulant drug derived from a shrub) and adrenalin, the pirates shoot and force their way aboard waving their AK-47s at anything that moves.

The screenplay explores the tensions between the thoughtful and quiet family man of Phillips and the excitable and apparently greed motivated pirates. However, the character of Muse shows an awareness of his situation and he repeatedly articulates the desire to make enough money to travel to the USA. He should be careful of what he wishes for. In typical hostage-drama style, the film documents the strain and fickle nature of the relationship between captors and captive. Phillips cleverly tries to win the sympathy and trust of some of his captors whilst setting others against one another.

I remember this story in the news when it happened and that it was brought to end by American military intervention. A further gulf between the resources of the pirates and the captive's homeland is demonstrated by the range of craft, technology and special forces that are deployed to bring the drama to its climax.

I was left feeling very uneasy about the professionalism with which the US military went about its business - for them, just another day at the office. I guess that's how it has to be but I'm not sure that I feel okay about such people protecting my best interests so anonymously, vicariously and without any form of consultation with me. Perhaps I am simply naive. Along with Zero Dark Thirty this is another film that shows the USA's self-appointed role as world policeman where no territory or target is off-limits. I am not advocating a world ruled by anarchic Warlords or holding out for some utopian neverneverland. It is clear that the world-order is going through a period of realignment in these present decades. How much longer the USA will be allowed to act at will around the world is becoming a moot point - especially in the wake of the damaging wikileaks revelations that seem to have no end. What would be worse I fear, would be for the USA to return to isolationism and have no dialogue at all with other nations. No-one ever said global politics was an easy place to inhabit whilst maintaining integrity.

Although I would have liked more backstory on why the Somalis exchanged fishing for piracy - a chance to enter into their world a little more sympathetically - I'm sure Captain Phillips has had his fill of Somalis and seen enough. As a film I felt it was well paced and maintained an excellent level of tension throughout. The acting - especially from the two leads is top class and worthy of Oscar nomination. Am I happy that people like Captain Phillips and his crew put their lives in danger simply to transport my consumer goods to me - no! Education must be the first step on a road to an alternative scenario and perhaps this film will inspire some to begin that journey - let's hope so. I'll give this film 8/10.




Friday, 18 October 2013

The Way


Some films entertain the viewer by keeping them in suspense letting the story twist and turn as it unfolds, others let you know upfront where the story is going and leave it to the art of story-telling to draw you in. This film from Director Emilio Estevez belongs to the latter. There really is no ‘plot’ to spoil – but I promise not to spoil the detail of how the story is told.

Tom (Martin Sheen) is a morose widower with his own Ophthalmic practice in California. His (also real-life) son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) is completing his PhD studies at Berkeley but as he approaches his 40’s he wants more from life than the title Doctor. He wants to travel and learn from the University of the road and so he drops out of his studies – much to the displeasure of his father.

Daniel’s travels take him to the Pyrenees where he decides to embark on the ‘Camino di Santiago’ (The Way of St James’) – an ancient pilgrims route from France, across Northern Spain to the city of Santiago di Compostela where the Apostle James’ remains are enshrined in the Cathedral. The 1000 km route attracts thousands of pilgrims each year who travel the way staying in hostels along the route. Each pilgrim has their own reason for travelling ‘The Camino’ (The Way) – often not religious reasons.

Daniel gets lost in the Pyrenees and is caught out by the weather and dies. The unwelcome news of his son’s death reaches Tom as he is enjoying a round of golf with colleagues – living the comfortable life-style his hard work has enabled him to choose. Tom travels to France straight away to identify the body and return it to the USA.

The local Police Captain is a wise and kindly man who helps Tom to understand why people go on the ‘The Camino’. This further mystifies Tom who still doesn’t understand why Daniel did what he did. In a split second of clarity, Tom decides to have Daniel’s body cremated and armed only with Daniel’s guide book and back pack sets off along The Way. Tom carefully takes Daniel’s ashes and deposits some of them at shrines along The Way.

Whilst the characterisations are compelling and the cinematography depicts the varied landscapes beautifully, the script is at times clunky and less refined. That ‘The Way’ is a metaphor for the journey of life is made clear early on – yet we have to be told that is the case by the Irishman Jack (James Nesbitt) one of Tom’s travelling companions picked up along the way. The metaphor is extended to show that whilst Tom would prefer to complete the pilgrimage in isolation, real life forces us to encounter and journey with others – and we can’t always choose who our companions are. The other two who make up the journeying quartet are Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a jovial and benevolent epicurean from Amsterdam and Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), an angry Canadian women who projects her hang-ups on to others as she chain-smokes her way to Santiago.

The dynamics between the four of them and the encounters they face along the way provide the grist for the mill of the story telling as Tom, and the others, face their issues and reconcile their internal and external demons. Throughout the journey, Daniel keeps spookily appearing in Tom’s mind’s eye to turn the screw of guilt and remorse a little tighter. Some of the pilgrims expect change to come about simply because they have subjected themselves to the discipline of ‘The Way’ whilst others find it requires self-examination and possibly a change of heart to enable them to see more clearly and move on in their understanding of life.

Although presenting a formulaic road movie, the acting, setting and context make this a very worthwhile film. This is another film that holds up a mirror to the viewer and invites them to reflect on their life goals, relationships and the need to enjoy the here and now rather than some distant and unreachable ideal. It invites a move towards personal authenticity within community rather the pursuit of a dream that serves only self and ultimately alienates everyone – even those who should be closest. Daniel died whilst trying to truly live, Tom was seemingly dead in the life he thought he’d chosen.

This film would be great to watch in a group and then discuss the issues it throws up and how the five main characters responded – and if we have courage, how we respond. If you’ve not seen it, get hold of the disc or watch on-line. I’ll give it 8/10.



Sunday, 6 October 2013

Le Week-End


Saw this today at Harbour Lights Southampton on a members' free preview. Thank you Picture Houses! A gift in more than one sense.

This is another film in the growing list of titles which are about and for the silver haired brigade. Others would do well to watch and learn. The premise is simple. Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) are recent empty nesters who travel to Paris on their 30th wedding anniversary to rekindle their mojo.

What the film really does, is hold up a mirror and invite the viewer to conduct a long hard examination of where they are in life, what their priorities are and what their aspirations are - all within the context of a moribund marriage. Meaning-of-life stuff. As sixty-somethings facing a late mid-life crisis, Nick and Meg bicker and fight their way through the weekend. If this film wasn't liberally peppered with humour, it would be too heavy, disturbing and sapping of emotional energy to bear watching!

Both the main characters are contemplating a change of direction but both are haunted by their insecurities which translate into an inability to talk about the real issues and so each shadow boxes - but even the shadows are phantoms. The way in which the story unfolds exquisitely depicts the emotional frailty that can hold a relationship together - more like being held together by the gaps in the structure rather than the structure itself. This is undoubtedly aided by the first class acting of Broadbent and the lovely Duncan.

I found neither Nick nor Meg to be likeable characters. It takes a chance encounter with old friend, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum) for the dynamics of the weekend to change and begin heading in a different direction. An invitation to a supper party celebrating the success of Morgan's latest book provides the conversations that become the catalyst offering the possibility of change.

The whole film is beautifully set in Paris and the screenplay delivers a number of memorably stunning lines - mainly from Nick. I felt I could relate and identify with the struggles Nick was facing very easily, but I found that connecting with Meg was much more difficult. I wonder if that is a Martian/Venusain distinction, a gender thing? I must take my significant other along and see what she makes of it.

As I said, younger people in relationships would do well to see this and contemplate how it might help them avoid angst and regret later in life. It would make a good subject for a relationship study and group discussion. For everyone it offers a generous and benevolent opportunity to carry out an 'examine' on your own relationships. Hopefully with encouraging results! I'm going to give this gift of a film 8.5/10.


Monday, 30 September 2013

Rush


Whilst the context for this story is Grand Prix racing, this is essentially a story about two very different men. You don't have to be a Formula 1 fan to enjoy this movie. Whereas Senna was a docudrama, this is more a dramadocu if that makes sense. Director Ron Howard employs creative licence at key points. Each frame of the film is imbued with raw emotion that draws you in and engages you. The film explores the rivalry between Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Lauda (Daniel Brühl) as they make the leap from Formula 3 to Formula 1 in the mid 70's.

I was in my late teens when this was for real and I remember many of the highlights of the story - including Lauda's terrible crash and too many others around that time. Ron Howard has faithfully recreated the 1970's feel with its unregulated pit lane and the wheel-to-wheel jousting. The story captures the insecurity that lies beneath Hunt's playboy bravado and Lauda's detached, almost clinically forensic approach to not only building racing cars but also relationships.

This is a film about drivenness as both the main characters were driven - but by very different motivators. Hunt squandered the privileged start to life his father's wealth and position had secured - if you ever need a visual representation of the Prodigal Son, without the repentance, this is it! The film dramatically depicts Hunt's lust for life and sexual encounter - near the beginning he walks into a hospital ER and announces himself in 007 style as 'Hunt, James Hunt. Weren't you expecting me?' The story uses creative license to show that Hunt did have standards and a code of honour by which he lived - his treatment of a journalist who asked a cheap question at a press conference evidences that. The episode is believable. Although Hunt and Lauda continually spar like bickering teenagers, it becomes clear as the film develops that both hold the other in the highest regard. There are also moments of comedy that involve both characters.

Lauda too had a privileged upbringing and was offered the chance to take over the family business and become wealthy. He renounces his father's offer and sets off to take out a loan and buy his way into Formula 1. Each driver was totally assured of their own ability and saw the crown of World Champion as being rightly theirs. Lauda's attention to engineering detail to enable his car to perform better is contrasted with Hunt's gladiatorial approach where it's all down to the chase for the top place on the podium. One man thought, the other felt - but that is too simplistic as both are portrayed as complex characters who both felt and thought.

Lauda's 'proposal' to Marlene (Alexandra Marie Lara) is more honest and down-to-earth than Hunt's proposal to Suzy (Olivia Wilde) but whereas one underwhelms but delivers, the other flatters to deceive and it all ends in tears. The scenes of Lauda being treated for his injuries and the pain which he actually, and Marlene vicariously, experienced are both graphic and gripping. By painfully forcing his helmet over his healing wounds Lauda built up the resilience and motivation to return to racing just six weeks after his horrific accident.

The cinematography is at times highly inventive - cameras inside driver's helmets. The soundtrack is pounding out the beat in a way that sync's beautifully with the rhythm of the race track. Both lead actors deliver noteworthy performances as they enact a screenplay that is textured and multi-faceted - it tells a great story very well. At a touch over two hours it is well paced and never lags. The only thing I would be critical of are the CGI effects that at times looked too superimposed to be convincing.

This is a great film and one which should be enjoyed by all. The favourable reviews have got it right. Go and see it while it's on general release - truly a film that gives more on the big screen. I'll give it 8.5/10.


Monday, 9 September 2013

Cloud Atlas


"What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?" 

I'm not sure I've ever watched a film that is the best part of three hours long and not checked the clock to see how time is progressing. This film is breathtaking, enthralling, captivating, thought-provoking and epic in its scope. The best film made this millennium - so far. I liked it - a lot.

This film made it's debut a year ago today at the Toronto Film Festival and has been polarising critics and audiences ever since. I can imagine that if you simply sit down and watch it without any prior knowledge it could be as bewildering as it is mesmeric. Both my youngsters (at university) had seen it and confessed to not really understanding what it was about. Some reviews I read when it was released came to similar conclusions. I tried to see it in the cinema when it came out but didn't manage to and I made sure I got a copy on disc as soon as I could. However, people's comments made me wary and I didn't rush to watch it - so it sat on my shelf with too many other unwatched discs.

The film is produced by the the Wachowski siblings, Lana and Tom and also Tom Tykwer and as many of you know, they were responsible for my favourite film of the last millennium! (Or at least the Wachowski's were). It's production budget of $102m is the biggest for any independently produced film (made by Babelsberg - Germany) and it has already turned a profit - despite not being a runaway success at the box office. I have a feeling that this film will be a sleeper and will achieve cult status much like Shawshank and Blade Runner have, long after their theatrical release.

The film is based on David Mitchell's book of the same name. Not only did I read the book first, but I also listened to it on audiobook - an unusual thing for me to do as I prefer to see the film first - it makes visualising the written story much easier for me! I'm glad I did as I was able to make some sense of the film.

The premise of the film is that 'everything is connected' and that an action in some part of our history can trigger an outcome much further down the line. In discussing the film, I'm not really giving anything away in respect of the narrative. It is not so much the story that is noteworthy but the way in which it is told. This is an old-fashioned morality tale.

Mitchell's book employs a literary device that introduces us to six seemingly unrelated stories, each set in a different era. Each story uses a different writing style and presents itself as a different genre of writing. A character from one story impacts the story that follows and act of kindness repaid in Victorian times aboard a sailing ship on the Pacific Ocean sparks hope for a new future in a post apocalyptic dystopian community living on 'The Big Island' in the 24th century. Whereas Mitchell's book employs a straightforward 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1 sequence in terms of ordering the stories, the film jumps from one to another as it parallels the fall and rise of the characters within in each as they mirror the same story of greed, deceit and murder. The edits are at times brutal and just as Mitchell's book will leave a story in mid sentence so the the film's edits juxtapose a VW Beetle with a maglev transport and then a three-masted sailing ship. The device that really adds layers of complication to unpicking the film is that the same actors play different characters in each of the six stories!!!!

The six stories are:

  • 1850 The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
  • 1931 Letters from Zedelghem
  • 1975 Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
  • Present The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
  • 2144 An Orison of Sonmi~451
  • 2321 Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After

On the BBC Radio 4 programme Bookclub David Mitchell said of his book 

"Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark...that's just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself "Cloud Atlas," the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book's theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context."

Visually the film captures each of its eras with stunning and creative attention to detail. The soundtrack has been nominated for and has won awards. I imagine that watching on the big screen is a very different experience to seeing it on a TV - it will be more immersive, especially on IMAX. The acting is first class from the whole cast - with some actors crossing gender to play their character! There are some passages of the film that follow the book exactly and at other times, locations, events and dialogue have been changed to deliver a film that is highly creative but remains faithful to the book.

This is undoubtedly a film that will repay a little homework before watching, a lot of concentration whilst watching and a life-time of reflection after watching. I would happily see it again tonight! Get the drinks and popcorn in and settle down for a wonderful experience. This is the first film on this blog to score 10/10!



P.S.

I came across a very interesting analysis of this film from a Humanist/Buddhist perspective in the Journal of Religion and Film published by the University of Nebraska by Ting Guo. Click here for the link.

Friday, 16 August 2013

A Simple Life


This is an intimate and gentle film about honour, respect and service. It is set in Hong Kong and is in Cantonese with subtitles. Ah Tao (Deannie Yip) has been the servant for the Leung family for 60 years and has faithfully served 4 generations. Most of the family now live in the USA but Roger (Andy Lau) remains based in Hong Kong although his work as a film producer takes him away to the mainland quite often. One night he returns from a business trip to find Ah Tao collapsed in the flat - she has had a stroke. Determined not to be a burden to Roger or the family she decides that on discharge from hospital she should move into a nursing home to be looked after.

After 60 years of faithful service Roger does all he can to ensure that Ah Tao is well looked after. He makes regular visits to her in the nursing home and is encouraged by the progress she makes through physiotherapy. However, Ah Tao is always mindful that strokes seldom come alone and that she will be prone to another one. Having lived with one family for so long, we see the painful transition Ah Tao has to make to become part of the community that shares the nursing home with her. Determined to do so on her own terms she wins over the staff and residents and soon becomes a gentle though prominent member of the community.

Roger is single and seems happy with that status. He devotes a lot of time to Ah Tau when he is in Hong Kong and displays nothing but generosity and gentleness towards her. When one of his films is premiered he takes her to the grand opening and party afterwards passing her off as his Godmother as the stigma attached to being a servant would undermine the participation of both of them.

This is a quiet film, sometimes with sparse dialogue. At times it takes on an almost fly-on-the-wall documentary feel with its jerky hand-held camera work and people often talking over each other while the subtitles struggle to keep up. The film relies on great acting from the two leads whose gestures and glances often communicate far more economically than the fullest of spoken dialogues. Through observing the other members of the nursing home community we are drawn into their stories and families and the festivals and celebrations that are important to the Chinese community - including celebrating mid autumn!

At nearly two hours long and being slow paced, it does require a certain degree of dedication to stick with it. However, you will be rewarded by a warm human drama that is a source of hope and inspiration for how we might all better conduct our relationships. I thought it was well worth the investment. I'll give it 7.5/10.


Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Luther


History is always written by the victors. This 2003 biopic of the angst-ridden Augustinian monk fighting against his conscience and the Roman Catholic Church is selective in the history it portrays - and omits - and delivers a popular hero that changed the course of world history.

Joseph Fiennes delivers a performance with conviction and compassion that portrays Luther as the conflicted, almost possessed, guilt-ridden sinner destined to burn for eternity in the fires of hell who then becomes the self-doubting unintended leader of a popular movement. This is a Luther who is more concerned with the plight of the poor and down-trodden than with the finery of the nobility. A Luther who is offered many opportunities to save himself but who holds firm in the face of immense pressure and intimidation to seek a greater salvation. A Luther who rejects the adulation and acclaim of the masses and urges everyone - peasants, nobility and Church hierarchy - to follow Christ and share his love by the way they live.

Where this film excels is the way in which it shows the political manoeuvrings of the various heads of state and their desire for self-determination. This fight mirrors Luther's own battle for his 'sola scriptura' based self determination free of the tax-gathering strictures of the Roman Catholic Church that fed the profligate and hedonistic lifestyle of Pope Leo X. The scenes in Rome of brothels for priests and indulgences for all who will pay, the opulence of the Papacy and the punitive acts of penance meted out by well-fed priests are well portrayed as Luther's ire rises. Not given to doing things by halves, he resolves to rediscover a purer Biblical way of living the Christian faith freed from the accretions of a Church with an insatiable appetite for collecting taxes. On his return from Rome he is intercepted by friends who secret him away before harm can come to him and as he begins translating the New Testament into German so the peasants begin to rise up against the Church and their rulers.

It is clear that Luther had a very sharp mind and was a persuasive orator. He used the developing political climate to encourage the regional nobility to defy the Holy Roman Church with the incentive of becoming Saxons (Germans) rather than Roman puppets. Luther also quelled the rioting and insurrection in Wittenberg drawing people back to a more peaceful and Gospel-centred way of living. With 100,000 dead, the threat of Turkish invasion, fires burning and civil war also a real threat, things came together to bring a new direction for the followers of Luther who lined up behind the Augsburg Confession in 1530. Released from the vows of his Order, he married a runaway nun - Katharina von Bora and they raised a family together in Wittenberg.

Last year I had the privilege of attending a week long preaching conference hosted by the University in Wittenberg where Luther was Professor. Many cultural and historical events were organised and so we immersed ourselves in the life and legacy of Lutherstadt for a week. To have walked the corridors of the 'Luther haus' and seen where his friend and colleague Philipp Melancthon lived, to have seen an original indulgence chest with it's slot for the peasant's coins, to have visited Luther's pulpit at the town church and to have walked through the door of the Castle Church on which he nailed his 95 theses (or not) - these were all poignant reminders of how our understanding of living a life of faith and how to be Church has always been a moot point. Luther was a prophet who called God's people back to their Creator. Who are the prophets today, what are they saying and how does being a disciple of Jesus Christ manifest itself here and now? Is it any different to the call Luther made?

For me the film was a bit too long - too much hand wringing and confessional pouting. Set alongside the other cinematic offerings of Luther's life, this is a useful addition. (I wish someone would make a similar biopic of Thomas Cranmer!) It would do us well to remember that the film was in part funded by the Lutheran Church, and as I said, history is always written by the victors. The town of Wittenberg-Lutherstadt was already making preparations for the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 theses - no doubt pilgrims will visit and make their votive offerings at the many tat shops. I wonder what the man himself would make of that?

This remains an interesting historical drama giving a helpful insight into the founding of one of the the world's major Christian denominations and an episode which helped to empower the Reformation more widely across Europe. I'll give it 7/10.


Monday, 12 August 2013

The Ipcress File


Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) presents the antithesis of James Bond in this 1965 Brit-Spy drama - the first of a trilogy. Set at the height of the cold war and based on Len Deighton's 1962 novel, this film offers a brilliant snapshot of British class structure where rank and regiment and club are everything. Palmer is cockney working class but has a taste for good food and beautiful women. He grinds his own coffee freshly every morning and brews it in a cafetiere. He shops for imported ingredients in a supermarket - a recent innovation in sixties Britain. His chirpy ironic and insolent insubordination sets him against his officer-class masters who, whilst viewing him as possessing valuable talents, ultimately see him as expendable.

The story revolves around the 'brain drain' and brain washing which were live concepts in the unstable world of the sixties - an ever-present part of the nightly news and spy films during my childhood! Apparently the type of brain washing depicted in this film was modelled on a project the CIA were running in Canada, so it was based in reality. I've seen this film many times - but this was probably the first time in a cinema. I know it is a spy film and spies live in the shadows and dark alley ways, but for me the print had lost any hint of brightness and the colours were too subdued and muted - apart from the wonderful Routemaster buses and telephone boxes which appeared a lurid scarlet. With the Americans depicted more as interfering adversaries and the KGB nowhere in sight, it has a different slant to most sixties spy fare.

The fact that the film remains so popular - 7.3 on IMDb and 7.7 on Rotten Tomatoes is a testimony to its simple conception, strong story and great acting - no CGI or massive special effects here. In 1999 it was voted number 59 of the top UK films of the 20th century in a BFI poll.

Apart from its lack of colour, this is still a vibrant and extremely watchable film. The performances and story are engaging, the locations chosen to promote the Britishness of this Pinewood Studios film. Fifty years on, watching this again gave me a warm nostalgic glow for the London of my childhood. It was an all round good experience. I'll give it 8.5/10. When was the last time you saw it?


Sunday, 11 August 2013

What Maisie Knew


I caught this today at Harbour Lights on a members' free preview screening. Well done 'Picture house'.

This film is equally as sad as it is heartwarming. It is a contemporary retelling of the Henry James novel from 1897 of the same name. It tells the story of Maisie (Onata Aprile) who is a seven year old girl growing up in a privileged way in Manhattan New York. Her mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) is an ageing hippy rock-chic, still recording and touring but never having been able to move beyond petulant selfish teenager herself. Her father Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer who is so distracted by his business that he is unable to maintain a meaningful relationship with either his wife or his daughter.

It comes as no surprise that the strained marriage flounders to breaking point and ends up in court. Beale gains the upper hand in terms of custody and access. Susanne is embittered that the Judge didn't look too kindly on her and repeatedly bemoans the fact throughout the film.

The story is told from Maisie's perspective and it is clear that that she is the most balanced and even-keeled character in the film. Both her parents are preoccupied by their respective careers. Susanne hosting extravagantly noisy rock parties in the apartment with hints of drug-taking. Beale talks about endless maybes and promises Maisie and au-pair Margot (Johanna Vanderham) boat trips in the Aegean after a business trip to Italy - which never materialises.

The film sets up a painful pattern of repetition. As soon as Maisie is delivered into the company of either parent they fawn over her - until some external intervention becomes more attractive. Their commitment to Maisie is shallow - painfully and woefully inadequate.

It is clear from the way the story is told that Maisie knows full well what is going on and that she knows who feels what for whom. Both her parents quickly remarry. Susanne marries the handsome younger bar-tender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) who is decent, morally alert and, unlike Susanne, not driven by the kudos of wealth, acclaim or celebrity. She marries him to demonstrate to the courts her stability and ability to be a model parent. Beale marries the au-pair Margot - not seemingly for love, but because she is young, beautiful and a ready-made baby-sitter for Maisie.

The narrative arc is obvious from early on. The interesting thing is how will it come to be. The acting is first rate from all, delivered with tenderness and sensitivity. This film delivers a brilliant expose of the pains of divorce and its effect on the children. The film tries to portray Susanne and Blaise as the victims but of course the real victim is Maisie. In the end, the choice of which family unit she chooses to be a part of is left to her. Very postmodern, but in the film, Maisie is the only one with enough common sense to make the right decision.

This is a heart-warming and affective story with great acting that brings a Victorian novel bang up-to-date. When it hits screens please do go and see it - this would make a great film to discuss in a group over pizza afterwards. I'll give it 8/10.


Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Station Agent


A colleague of mine was surprised that I hadn't seen this and implored me to get hold of it. I'm glad she did - thank you Catherine. I think there are two ways to look at this film - you could either see it as a film about nothing, or a film about everything. I think it is a film about everything.

The central character is Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage). He is passionate about everything to do with railways and at the start of the film we see him working in the backroom of a model railway shop in Hobeken New Jersey, where he fixes locomotives and carriages as part of the shop's repair service. The shop's owner dies suddenly and leaves Fin a small railway depot and some rolling stock in rural New Jersey. With no other option, Fin moves into the Station House and despite his best efforts acquires two acquaintances - Joe (Bobby Cannavale) who is running his father's hot dog van next to the Station and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) a local resident. The three of them form an unlikely circle of acquaintances - it would be difficult to call it friendship. As far as it goes this is the plot. But this is not a film so much about the narrative arc as about the journey the characters undertake.

Each of the three have their 'issues' to deal with. Fin is a Little Person, Joe is a second generation Cuban emigre and Olivia is working through the tragic death of her son and subsequent separation from her husband. That each of the main characters has a readily identifiable 'issue' with which they are coming to terms is perhaps a little convenient, but I wonder what about most people who spend all their time and energy concealing theirs? Joe is painfully aware that his physicality immediately draws unwelcome and often hostile attention. Afraid of silence and aloneness, Joe cannot let a second pass by without filling it with some usually inane prattle, whilst the whole area knows about Olivia, her volatility and attempts at self-expression through her disjointed impressionistic art.

Each of the three are in some way marginalised and find it difficult to accept thier position. Fin simply wants to be left alone to read his books on railways and spot trains. He walks everywhere, usually along a railway line, as it a solitary and less confrontational mode of transport. Joe is covering for his sick father and sells less than enough to make a living but never seems to worry. Why would someone living in Manhattan drive out to rural New Jersey to sell Hot Dogs in the middle of nowhere? Olivia pops pills and tries to keep herself to herself as she wallows in the grief she cannot escape from.

Each one of them is on their own - yet their alone-ness gradually allows them to build into a community of acceptance. Not acceptance of one another's 'issues' but acceptance of one another - something which transcends their issues. The film portrays a powerful picture of community and the human need for it - even (or perhaps especially) in adversity. This is where the power of the film lies. Sometimes the music and the camera angles are little contrived simply to make the point, but for the most part this is a gentle and heart-warming film - a gift.

Perhaps because of his size, Fin is seen by people (especially women) to be non-threatening and so they disclose their deepest secrets to him quite voluntarily. The openness of a friendship offered by a local school girl empowers Fin to place himself in a position of vulnerability in front of her peers. Joe seems to crave company and relationship but is locked in to caring for his father. Olivia's charms are obvious for all to see but she cannot decide to whom she is committed - or even if she can bear the pain of loving with the attendant risk of the pain of loss.

As I said, I think this is a film about everything - relationships, community, humanity, acceptance and love. Things that are really important and are inbuilt components of our existence. Please do get hold of this film and watch it - you will be rewarded. I'll give it 8/10.