Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Stories We Tell

This film is different. It can be classified across many genres - biography, autobiography, documentary and experimental. It is undoubtedly a film about story-telling which is Directed by and stars Sarah Polley. In the film she interviews her siblings, other relatives and family friends as her father narrates his memoire.

The central question Polley is trying to answer is "who is my biological father"? Is it the man who raised her or is it someone else - as the life-long persistent rumours have suggested. There is no question of her being phased by the outcome as it seems her relationships with the cast are sufficiently robust to weather any storm that the enquiries may summon.

If you like fast-moving action films this isn't for you. However, if you enjoy investigative film making and trying to decide who is telling the real truth, then you will love it. The film is comprehensive and the same questions are explored with different family members who manage quite often to retell different versions of the truth. Super 8 historical footage features throughout which adds a sense of realism to the story-telling.

This is undoubtedly a vital question for Sarah Polley to receive an answer to. It also has an importance for her wider family and the dynamics that inhabit their respective relationships. For me it was the methodology more than the substance that made this watchable. In depicting an almost utopian, liberal family where love outside of marriage was normative, I felt that the film lacked emotional impact and that we were watching a glorified family therapy session.

I won't spoil the outcome for you. If you are at all interested in story-telling and narrative art-forms, then watching this will serve you well. Both iMdb and Rotten Tomatoes are consistent, rating the film 76% and 79% respectively. The critics on Rotten Tomatoes score it at 94% - perhaps a formal background in media studies or film criticism enables you to appreciate it more? For me, I'll give it 7/10 and expect it to remain on the shelf for a long while.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Film & Theology at Gladstone's Library

Here I am back at Gladstone's Library for a couple of days on film and theology. A sell out course with an interesting mix of films led by Peter Francis and Tom Aitken.

The Lady in the Van

This is the second time I've written about this film - the first offering was here. I really enjoyed seeing this again and it was as though I was seeing it for the first time as I saw so many new things in it. I am writing this without referring back to my earlier reflection. It will be interesting to see if it is merely a repeat or whether there is something new!

I know that Alan Bennett is a wordsmith and one of the best there is, but his screenplay sparkled and dazzled in a way it hadn't before. I know that the Director intends to include every item in every scene and that the dialogue is what moves the narrative on, but the precision and economy of Bennett's words is simply remarkable. A masterpiece.

Similarly, for me the story was much more an exploration of whether or not Bennett was a saint. It seemed that every character had a view and at some point offered it in the film. Similarly, I saw the interplay between his mother's life, her diminishing health and the life of the Lady in the Van to be a very clever and subtle weaving together of the two women in his life that unwelcomingly gave it shape and direction.

The master stroke this time for me was the interplay between Bennett and his alter-ego the writer and how for him writing is the natural product of the intercourse between the two. How the death of both women led to him being to integrate his alter-ego and seemingly develop an ongoing relationship with someone.

This was a refreshing return to this endearing and lovely, but eccentric and very English tale. I liked it a lot and look forward to adding the disc to my library.

45 Years

This film was new to me. Starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a couple preparing to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. It is a subtle and understated film but the story for me was disturbing and painful. It is very cleverly done with exquisite acting and Charlotte Rampling has lost none of her wow factor!

I won't spoil the plot but it centres on something emerging from the past out of the blue which has far reaching implications. In a marriage that had become the epitome of routine and seemingly now devoid of the je n'est-ce pas that makes relationships spark and work, the couple make their preparations for a low-key party to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

The film graphically depicts the power of the human mind to devise plots and alternative scenarios that may or may not have taken place and therefore may or may not have an impact on the here and now and the future. Once you know a fact or see something, you cannot simply un-know it or un-see it and carry on as it nothing has happened. This is a film about unintended consequences and their potential impact on a stable and long-lived marriage. It is about trust, disclosure, the need for grace, authenticity and the magic that lies at the heart of a long-term committed relationship.

The way this film left me feeling was similar to the way I felt after watching Indecent Proposal - if you've ever seen that. That is why I described it as painful. What that delivers in Hollywood excess, 45 Years delivers in understated British cool. Even the autumnal Norfolk Broads and quaint but claustrophobic Norwich contribute to the bleakness of the film's sub-text and contrast sharply with the jagged peaks and deep ravines of the Swiss Alps.

Time, the noting of it and the passing of it also feature throughout. The plot constantly reminds the characters and viewers alike that we are all getting older and the film invites exploration of the question what difference does the passing of time make.

This was a powerful film with exquisite acting and a powerful narrative that leaves the viewer to make up their own mind about the outcome and what followed the end of the film. I know what I thought. I wonder what you will think. Well worth watching - but I'm not sure I will want to see it again.


Our conference continued with a screening of Spotlight. Again, a film I had seen and reflected on here. I don't have much if anything to add I think. It is a brilliant film about a horrible subject that it treats with sensitivity and care.

Although it paints a bleak picture of the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, sadly as history now shows, any denomination could be caught up in something similar. To remind ourselves that institutions are human inventions and distance them from the God they seemingly serve is a naive and unsatisfactory over-simplification. We are all complicit in the wrong-doing of the institutions of which we are a part. Prophetic voices are needed perhaps now more than ever.

I'm ever more certain that Mark Ruffalo should have got an Oscar for his performance.


The day concluded with a screening of Carol. Set in the early 1950's in Manhattan with eye-popping pastel colours and cool cars floating along the streets, this is a film about lesbians seeking relationships and confronting the taboos that made that kind of (overt) behaviour unacceptable in public in the 50's - or is it?

So much of the film is a pastiche of the many 50's films that Hollywood churned out for the movie houses. If it had been set today it would have been a non-story. However, 60 years ago notions of bisexuality and lesbianism being overtly played out on the streets of Manhattan were always going to attract too much attention.

The film establishes a number of contrasts. The wealthy socialites supposedly living the post-war American Dream set against the lowly shop-working immigrant unsure of how to make her way in the brave new world. Overwhelming confidence set against uncertainty and doubt.

It also pits the 'conventional' heterosexual husband stereotype against the bisexual mother who now that she has her child wants to pursue the lesbian side of her self and in so doing wrecks the stereotypical family unit.

Then there is the road trip where the younger Therese is groomed and showered with luxury and presents so that when the opportunity for seduction arises she is unable or unwilling to say no to the older and predatory Carol. Looks like she was up for it in any case. The muted grey palette of the road trip is jarringly set against the day-glow brightness of the bigs cities. 

This is a complex film telling what is essentially a simple story that is made so much more complex by the web of relationships and expectations that surround the central characters. Carol and Therese both had many opportunities to conform to social expectations and follow a 'normal' heterosexual lifestyle. They both chose otherwise. This film raised a flag in the 50's - a decade that ushered in the openness of the sexual revolution of the 60's that has become the norm. Stereotypes are now so limiting. As far as relationships are concerned, anything seems possible when self-determination trumps social cohesion.

A good film but it didn't leave me feeling good having watched it - although I'm glad I did.

Mad Max Fury Road

This was my first outing into Mad Max territory and it will be my last. What a tedious film. I'm generally not a fan of post-apocalyptic films who by their nature have to create a version of the world that is different yet has some continuity with what went before. This film was like Monster Trucks having fun on an abandoned set that had been used for Indiana Jones and Pod racing!

If you like action movies with lots of explosions and people being killed in gruesome ways, then this is for you. The story is pretty thin and whilst it's meant to be about redemption it is in fact about salvation and the saviour then drifts off - no doubt to plot the fifth film for the franchise.

As I drove home down the M6 I was tempted - once or twice!

Many thanks Peter and Tom for a largely excellent selection of films. Thanks too to those on the conference who added to the engagement and reflection.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Bridge of Spies

This is an intelligent and well acted film. Very enjoyable, largely believable and an important reminder of fairly recent history. I've had the disc sitting on the shelf for a while and decided to give it a spin.

The film opens in 1957 and is very much about the Cold War. I was born the following year in West Germany - because of the Cold War. (It is interesting when filling out official forms because I was born in a country that no longer exists!) The film captures the fear factor so effectively generated by the American propaganda machine, the long and unwelcome shadow of McCarthyism and the helplessness of the physical division and separation of the city of Berlin. On top of that Tom Hanks as James Donovan and Mark Rylance as Rudolph Abel turn in tremendous performances in this Steven Spielberg directed film which was co-written by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen.

This film is less about espionage itself and more about the international legal and political consequences of spying and how spies who get caught were dealt with - and in this case repatriated. Whilst a lot of the historical material in the film is accurate, it does sometimes stray from historical fidelity but to good effect. This is a film - not a documentary.

The story focuses on legal process and Donovan's personal fidelity to uphold justice - even for the Soviet spy he has been asked to represent. Spying is a dishonourable game but this film contains much that speaks highly for the personal honour of both lead characters. It speaks less well of their respective governments and their shady dealings.

There is much of merit in this film that is worth exploring. The obvious issues are the moral implications of spying, getting caught spying and the brinkmanship of nuclear deterrence. Prejudice of the judiciary features. The creation of the Eastern Bloc to maintain a physical buffer between Russia and the West and also to perpetuate a Stalinist ideology are other themes that could be explored. The building of the Berlin Wall and its effect on the city and its people is offered as a topic for reflection.

As you will have gathered I really liked this film and will award it 8/10. If you've not already seen it - do track it down.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

This disc has been sitting on my bought-but-not-yet-watched shelf for a number of years. Visiting friends spoke highly of the novel by Patrick Süskind and so we decided to watch the film. For those for whom it is important, the film for the most part stays true to the book. Süskind's genius is in writing a story using only words to describe the central element of the plot - perfume, something which is sensed through smell. Could the visual and aural media of film keep the meaning and not lose anything in translation? In Director Tom Twyker's hands - Yes! Read on with plot spoilers - it's simply impossible to discuss this film in any way that is meaningful without touching on the plot.

The film is both visually and aurally stunning, so perhaps it was providential that Twyer directed it as he is also a composer of note and co-wrote the screenplay. By the time he came to make the film, he had been working on the screenplay and soundtrack compositions for three years and the music certainly strongly reinforces the visual story telling of this olfactory tale. It is quite a multi-sensory film!

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) is born to a woman selling fish in the pungent squalor of a Parisian fish market. She interrupts beheading cod to self-deliver under her work bench, uses her filleting knife to sever the umbilical, kicks the newborn into the gutter of rotting rat-infested fish pieces and goes back to selling fish. 

I usually find narrators in films somewhat annoying but in this film it is the thing that makes up for fact that the viewer cannot smell what the characters smell. The narrator tells us: "In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. Naturally, the stench was foulest in Paris, for Paris was the largest city in Europe. And nowhere in Paris was that stench more profoundly repugnant than in the city's fish-market. It was here then, on the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom, that Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born on the 17th of July, 1738. It was his mother's fifth birth: she delivered them all here under her fish-stand, and all had been stillbirths or semi-stillbirths. And by evening the whole mess had been shoveled away with the fish-guts into the river. It would be much the same today, but then... Jean-Baptiste chose differently."

Grenouille was unwanted, unloved and abandoned. In the novel Süskind writes "The cry that followed his birth, the cry with which he had brought himself to people's attention and his mother to the gallows, was not an instinctive cry for sympathy and love. That cry, emitted upon careful consideration, one might almost say upon mature consideration, was the newborn's decision against love and nevertheless for life. Under the circumstances, the latter was possible only without the former, and had the child demanded both, it would doubtless have abruptly come to a grisly end."

Against all odds the baby is found and evidently has a super-strength urge to survive which stands him in good stead as he is first sold to an orphanage where the treatment of the children is no better, before being sold on at 13 to become a Tanner's apprentice. 

There are two remarkable facts about Grenouille - firstly he has a super-human sense of smell and secondly he has no scent of his own - an attribute said to signify a child of the Devil although the film chooses not to make anything of this. Grenouille did not begin to speak until he was five and even as an adult towards the end of the film never speaks fluently or easily. His world is the unspoken but sniffed internal world of his collection of aromas. There is a lot of darkness in this film - both visually and morally. Grenouille spends a lot of time in the shadows and the colour palette of the film starts out almost monochrome but as Grenouille's databank of smells increases so does the brightness of the colours. This adds a visual reinforcement to the development of the narrative.

Grenouille eventually ends up as an apprentice to the Perfumer Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) where he learns the proper names for the odours stored away in his mental databank of smells. The film is very educative about the art of perfume and we learn that a perfume is made up of three sets of four aromas - sometimes joined by an elusive and mystical thirteenth element to create a wonder perfume. Grenouille can quite casually give Baldini 100 new exquisite perfume formulae off the top of his head but his real quest is learn how capture the odour of all objects - including people. Grenouille is olfactorily entranced by the scent of a beautiful young girl selling yellow plums. He follows her, sniffing her scent and when he startles her, he covers her mouth to stop her from screaming but inadvertently suffocates her.

He then spends an extended time sniffing her corpse, ripping her clothes to reveal her lilly white virginal flesh. He is fulfilled and so intent on building his databank of smells that it is clear there is nothing sexual about his gratification - it is purely olfactory! As her scent begins to fade he becomes distressed and so resolves to find a way of recreating her scent. The distillation method used by Baldini is of limited use but Baldini tells Grenouille of the cold enfleurage method used in the city of Grasse in Provence. Baldini gives Grenouille journeyman's papers and he sets off for Grasse.

En route he discovers a cave where he withdraws for seven years to reflect on the smells in his memory before resolving to continue his journey. Arriving in Grasse he gains a position learning the technique of cold enfleurage. Grenouille propositions a whore who is confused and afraid when he starts slavering cold animal fat on her limbs to capture her smell. She begins to throw him out, but he kills her in order to complete the task and so begins a killing spree. He stalks beautiful women by their scent and ends up killing a dozen in the film (24 in the book). Grenouille is only interested in their scent and the authorities are mystified by so many dead virgins. Grenouille then searches for the perfect mystical thirteenth component - the scent of the beautiful redhead daughter of local wealthy farmer Laure Richis (Rachel Hurd-Wood). As the narrator tells us, "He lived to find beauty. He killed to possess it".

The film builds to a climax as Grenouille outfoxes Laure Richis' father Antoine (Alan Rickman) to capture the scent of Laure. He is caught and sentenced to a most gruesome death but not before he creates the most powerful, seductive and intoxicating perfume the world has ever known. As he stands before his executioner he releases the scent and everyone swoons with even the bishop proclaiming him to be an angel. The massive crowd all strip off and engage in a love-in! Initially Richis is not affected by the aroma but ends up embracing Grenouille and calling him his son thus providing the father he never had.

Grenouille loses all respect for those around him because of the worthless nature of Richis' apology. It becomes apparent to him that not even the man whom he has so recently wronged by taking his precious daughter, is proof against the mind-changing commands of the master perfume that Grenouille has created. Once Grenouille realises that there is practically nothing that he cannot have, because everything is obtainable through the right combination of scent, nothing in the world seems of any value to him.  Finding there are no more scent worlds to conquer, and nothing in humanity of any value, Grenouille loses all purpose for living. I'll leave you to discover the bizarre ending to this tale. 

The narrator tells us "He still had enough perfume left to enslave the whole world if he so chose. He could walk to Versailles and have the king kiss his feet. He could write the pope a perfumed letter and reveal himself as the new Messiah. He could do all this, and more, if he wanted to. He possessed a power stronger than the power of money, or terror, or death - the invincible power to command the love of man kind. There was only one thing the perfume could not do. It could not turn him into a person who could love and be loved like everyone else. So, to hell with it he thought. To hell with the world. With the perfume. With himself."

This is a film that will not appeal to everyone and those who do watch it will need to do so actively - passive engagement will not bring any reward. It offers a good opportunity to explore the ways in which Twyker makes smell accessible visually and aurally. The acting performances are good - especially from Whishaw, Hoffman and Rickman. There are quite a few shortcomings in the plot but I felt that these were more than compensated for by the other components of the film. I liked it - but once is probably enough. I'll give it 7/10.

Sunday, 22 May 2016


Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Emma Donoghue this intense and intimate drama is gripping and engaging whilst also being something that at the same time both attracts and repels. Set in Akron Ohio, the first half of the film takes place in a shed where Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are held captive by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Ma was kidnapped when she was 17 and is regularly raped by Old Nick. Jack, who turns five near the start of the film, is the fruit of this liaison.  Ma and Jack live on spartan rations in their tiny room with only a skylight connecting them to the outer world.

The acting performances of the main two characters are as good as it gets and Brie Larson is fully deserving of her Oscar. However, for me the plot raises more than a few questions. I find it hard to believe that after seven years Ma is in such good spirits and in a seemingly stable and balanced state of mind. To have raised a son with such limited resources and stimuli almost defies belief. In my naivete, thinking I knew the plot, I had assumed that the story was about their attempts to escape their captivity. The fact that they achieve success halfway through the film was like getting two films for the price of one!

I don't know about you, but with some actors I always see them in a particular role that has stuck in my mind for some reason rather than the new character being presented. So for me, it was really odd to discover Ma's parents were in fact Pamela Landy from the Bourne saga and Quiz Kid Donnie Smith from Magnolia!

As well as giving us an excellent exploration of being captive and in Jack's case not knowing anything else, the film also sensitively surveys the impact of abduction on the wider family and the painful process of helping captives reintegrate with society and family. The intrusive and odious press are depicted in all their ghoulish ugliness.

I could say a lot more about the film but I will leave that for you to discover. It is well worth watching just as it is - but it will repay a little work and reflection on themes of motherhood, nature/nurture, psychological effects of captivity, how families cope with trauma, how someone can get away with it for so long in a regular suburban context. This is well worth watching - I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 2 May 2016


This film is the perfect vehicle for the extremely accomplished Saoirse Ronan to deliver an understated yet forceful performance as Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey exchanging a small town in County Wexford for life in the big city. Set in the early 1950s with a Nick Hornby adaptation of a Colm Tóibín novel this film is classy, visually stunning and filled with characters that are more than three-dimensional. It is wonderful!

The story is important so I won't give anything away. The narrative centres on the development of the main character Eilis, who is in every scene. From mousey country girl to confident city dweller the transformation is both remarkable and believable.

In making such a move there is always a cost and the question becomes is Eilis willing to pay up. She leaves her home town because it is small and filled with small-town characters. She wants more. However, when Eilis uses the things she has learned in Brooklyn to help her take another look at her home town on a return visit, she begins to see the possibilities for a different, possibly brighter future for herself back in Ireland. Will she stay or will she go?

There are of course complicating familial factors and love interests that entangle her heart strings. It is how she untangles these and comes to understand their importance within her relationships that gives the film its central thrust and helps Eilis to make meaning that enables her to set a course to follow. This process is undertaken with lots of hand-held screen-filling close ups of Ronan's face as she emotes her way through this painful process.

The soundtrack of this film is wonderful and adds weight to the poignancy of each scene. Julie Waters is wonderfully cast as Mrs Kehoe running her boarding house for young ladies. The colours reinforce the contrast of the mood of the two contexts - muted and misty brown/greens for Ireland and bright eye-popping pastels for Brooklyn and Coney Island. Both Jim Broadbent and Domhnall Gleeson contribute strong supporting performance - but the centre stage belongs to Ronan.

This is a lovely and gentle love story about hope, courage, honour, potential and dreaming of a new life. It is brilliantly acted and wonderfully shot. It is a film that you should see if you've not already done so. There is much to reflect on here about relationships, love, family and the power of 'home'. I'll give it 8/10.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

High Rise

Starring the ubiquitous Tom Hiddleston I thought that this would be a safe bet as a good movie to watch. Besides it was a cover feature in the April 2016 edition of Sight & Sound. I should have twigged that as I watched a couple of trailers for upcoming horror films before the main feature, that High Rise was going to be a challenge. Tasha Robinson reviewing the film in The Verge said "In J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, the metaphor eats the story and Tom Hiddleston eats the metaphor". I'm not sure I fully understand her comment - but then I'm pretty sure I didn't understand all of the film either! But it seems about right for me.

I understand that Ballard's novel is an important piece of literature that has social, historical and political capital. I thought I understood the premise of the novel going into the film - coming out I wasn't so sure I did at all. What could have been an in depth thought provoking exploration of class structure and aspiration in a free-market economy descended into a dark place that only delivered an expose of nihilism. If you value life - don't watch this film! Not even the acting performances - and they were good - redeem this film.

Dr Laing (Hiddleston) attempts to escape the rat race of the city and applies to move into the High Rise. His application is accepted and he moves into apartment 2505 in this 40 storey block. Designed by the architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) the block, built in the early 1970s, is a self-contained society with the lower classes on the lower floors and the architect occupying the entire top floor penthouse. The block contains a gym, swimming pool and supermarket - but residents still have to go out to work - all driving their late 60s and early 70s cars (wonderful nostalgia!). The basic activity is to throw parties that are resonant in style with the social status of the floor the host occupies. On the lower floors it is disco, booze and drugs. In the penthouse it is regency fancy dress! In any case, the thing they have in common is much booze and much bonking.

Laing is clearly a man who presents one thing on the outside and lives another on the inside (don't we all?). In this sense Hiddleston delivers a strong performance. His sister has recently committed suicide and he has also recently divorced. His grey suits, grey character and in time his grey flat all point to someone happy with their status in the mid levels who is merely seeking a degree of anonymity.

As the story progresses the infrastructure of the block begins to fail and sends the residents into a mirroring downward spiral. Anarchy and class wars break out and the film descends into a drunken, violent, abusive orgy.  A state it seems to celebrate and wallow in for far too long. I'm used to confronting dystopian apocalyptic worlds but they usually contain some element of hope. High Rise is devoid of hope and presents only self-gratification as a valid way to live. Some of the roles of the women in the film - and the children, offer occasional glimpses of hope of things being otherwise, but in the end everyone turns to violence. Why did the film have to end with an archive speech from Margaret Thatcher about Free Market Capitalism and the need for the government's not to interfere?

Several folk walked out. I almost joined them and afterwards wished I had. I'm all for exploring ideas that push boundaries but this film is a waste of time and effort - and the £22 I spent on tickets. Why it only had a 15 Certification I do not understand. Parts were brutal beyond belief. This is a film you do not need to see. I'm not even going to give it a score!

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Lars and the Real Girl

This film can be watched on different levels (can't they all?) For those with eyes to see that enable them to get past an oddball goofy comedy, this film is a gift as it offers an invitation to reflect on why we have become the person we are - and what we might work at - if we feel the need. It is impossible to discuss this film in any way without revealing what happens - but I think that won't detract much from seeing it for the first time as the mastery is in how it is done.

Set in a remote town on the Wisconsin prairie with a population the majority of whom seem to have Scandinavian ancestry, this is a tender tale that sees Ryan Gosling in the lead role as Lars Lindstrom. The first time I have seen him play a role I liked. What the film points out, and for this it made it an uncomfortable watch for me, is how much we are a product of our family and our upbringing. To engage with this film requires us to reflect on how we have become who we are.

Lars's mother died delivering him. His father could not escape the grief this caused and lived his life deeply affected by it. Consequently Lars and his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) had a difficult upbringing - I imagine Lars felt a strong sense of guilt. Gus left home at the first opportunity to escape the brooding darkness of a continuing grief, leaving Lars with dad. Following the death of their father, Gus lives in the former family home with his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) and Lars, who has become a withdrawn and an almost completely socially dysfunctional internalised man, lives in the garage.

Lars is unable to touch as to him the touch of other people feels like burning - perhaps stemming from his father's all-consuming grief? He is fearful for the fate of his sister-in-law who is pregnant and in his view may die. He is unable to act within normal social parameters and at the opening of the film cannot commit to even going across to the house of Gus and Karin to have breakfast. Lars is however a regular worshipper at the local church where many of the congregation are also co-workers from his office. (It's a pity there's no exploration or explanation of how Lars is able to hold down a job.)

Lars shares a cubicle with Kurt (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) who through the internet introduces him to an anatomically fully functional sex doll that can be designed and ordered online. Meanwhile another co-worker, Margot (Kelli Garner) clearly is attracted to Lars despite his odd behaviour, but he is unable or unwilling to see this.

Then one day a large packing case is delivered to the garage containing 'Bianca' - a former missionary, raised by nuns, very religious, who is half Brazilian, half Danish. Lars interacts with Bianca as though she were real. To begin with this is very difficult as he takes her, in her wheelchair, to have supper with Gus and Karin. Lars interacts with Bianca much as a child would bend to listen to imaginary speech which is then relayed to those gathered around. Things are okay while Bianca's existence is contained within the home but when Lars begins taking her out problems occur!

Gus and Karin arrange a family meeting with the doctor - Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) who happens to also be a trained psychologist. Knowing the family and recognising what is going on, she goes along with things subjecting Bianca to a series of tests resulting in a diagnosis requiring a weekly treatment in her surgery - which is the pretext to help Lars process what is going on. I am told by someone who knows about such things that Bianca performs the role of Transitional Object for Lars and sure enough in time he begins to socialise, take Bianca to parties, she becomes well known around town, gets a part time job and visits folk in hospital.

The community come together to help Lars emerge from his cocoon and grow in confidence and the ability to interact socially. Love is costly and that motif is repeated throughout the film - but as is the case with love, the cost is willingly borne sacrificially both by family and the wider community.

One evening Lars declares that Bianca is unresponsive and sick, he calls 911 and Bianca is rushed to hospital by ambulance where the prognosis is not good. Some of the older women come to the house to knit, cook for Lars and keep him company. He asks them why they are there and gets the response "That's what they [people] do when tragedy strikes - they come and sit". After a while, Lars declares that Bianca has died. She is buried with all the townsfolk in attendance and so the death of Bianca enables the rebirth of Lars.

This film has so much going for it - and it's only 102 minutes long so it doesn't string things out for the sake of it. There is much to reflect on.

  • How families and communities can help those it is in their power to help. 
  • How important it can be to help on the terms of those who need the help rather than the help-giver.
  • The usefulness of psychological insight and transitional objects.
  • A positive portrayal of a clergy person in Revd Bock (R. D. Reid).
  • How honesty in relationships can establish a good foundation for growth and development.
  • The film avoids any mocking of Lars and also any smuttiness around Bianca's intended function.
  • Lars' honourable treatment of Bianca.

Alissa Simon of Variety stated, "Craig Gillespie's sweetly off-kilter film plays like a Coen brothers riff on Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon tales, defying its lurid premise with a gentle comic drama grounded in reality." That is a very apt description. This film only just clawed back its production costs at the box office and through disc sales. I'm glad I have contributed to the process and would encourage you to do the same - perhaps we have a cult sleeper here!  I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Eye in the Sky

This is an intelligent piece of cinema that engages with a pressing contemporary issue. The film invites you to be the decision-maker as to whether or not the trigger is pulled. I saw it with a bunch of friends and the debate over pizza afterwards was intense.

Filmed in South Africa but set mainly in Kenya the story follows a British led drone surveillance operation tracking some of Al Shabab's most wanted in the hope of capturing them alive. Among their number are both British and American nationals. The mission changes and the film tracks, in real time, the chain of decision-making that tries to integrate military, intelligence and political imperatives to deliver an outcome. The plot offers an exploration of normative ethics in a real-life situation as utilitarianism is employed to justify certain actions.

The military imperative is clear but the potential for collateral damage means that political decisions are not easy. Meanwhile, a drone pilot in a cabin in the Nevada desert sits with his finger poised on the trigger taking orders from a UK Colonel in Northwood in North London while she is receiving intelligence from Hawaii and liaising with troops on the ground in Nairobi. Her General is in a COBRA meeting in Whitehall with the politicians ensuring that any proposed action is legal. Going into the meeting the General is preoccupied with buying the right doll for a little girl. It is another little girl and her playful activities that come to be the centre of the plot.

The acting is tight. The way the edits jump between the different locations demonstrate how global, warfare now is. The film also drives home how clinical and focused warfare today has become and how sci-fi has become mainstream as a man in Las Vegas targets people in one room of a house in a Nairobi suburb. In a way it makes it even more detached from my reality than 'old-fashioned' warfare with fronts and armies and arrows on maps. If we live in a democracy we are in effect asking these people to carry out these killings on our behalf. The alternative is equally distressing. The morals of war are being muddied as new technologies make surgically precise missions more possible. That surely is a good thing - isn't it?

Helen Mirren is in the lead role as Colonel Katherine Powell and in his final performance Alan Rickman gives full force to his character Lieutenant General Frank Benson. His voice as he delivers the final speech to the simpering politician Angela Northman "Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war."(Monica Dolan) could cut through plate steel like a laser!

The screenplay offers a contrasting view of how men and women, politicians and military, Americans and Brits all approach the same difficult question. The part of Powell had originally been cast for a male actor but Mirren makes it all her own in her combat fatigues in her underground bunker barking orders at her subordinates. Had it not been for Northman's early intervention the film would have been a lot a shorter. The British politicians are depicted as being impotent and facile whilst the Americans are shown to be decisive and unwavering. For those with an interest in personality types, the main debate explores the tension between those who have a preference for being 'Feelers' and those whose preference is to be a 'Thinker'!

The film is not without its flaws but these are more than compensated for in the bravery of tackling this subject in such a direct and engaging way. I really liked it and will be adding it to my collection of discs when it becomes available. Do go and see it - and think about how happy you are that people in the Nevada Desert are protecting your safety by killing people in Kenya. Sadly a scenario becoming increasingly common around our shrunken globe. I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 18 April 2016

American Sniper

The fact that this film was nominated in six categories for an Oscar and won only one in the sound editing category probably sums up what this film's main problem is - it somehow fails to deliver what it truly promises. In saying that I am in no way minimising the horrors of war or the sacrifice of too many (on all sides) who have fought in and been impacted by them. Bradley Cooper is in the lead role of Chris Kyle and delivers a performance worthy of his Oscar nomination. There is an even stronger performance from Sienna Miller as his long suffering wife, Taya.

The story is biographical - painfully so. There are no real winners in war. The story really begins with a young Kyle growing up with his younger brother in Texas. The film briefly and crudely shows his father instilling in him the virtue of protecting your own at all costs. It also shows the young Kyle is quite a marksman with a hunting rifle. These scenes reminded me strongly of the family dynamics in Tree of Life. Kyle grows up riding broncos on the Texas rodeo circuit - and doing well from it. He exalts that he is living the American dream. The film is Directed by Clint Eastwood who leans towards a jingoistic, patriotic view of American identity. Not something that looks altogether appealing, particularly in light of the current Presidential nomination contests!

All is well until 9/11 and Kyle's immediate response is to enlist at the age of 29 so that he can protect his own. He joins the SEALS to train as a sniper. He survives the brutal boot camp training and along the way hitches up with the intriguing, beautiful and inscrutable Taya. On his wedding day he gets the order to deploy to Iraq.

Many commentators who served in Iraq commend the film for its realistic portrayal of the horror of door-to-door close combat warfare where everyone has to be viewed as a potential enemy and where even children wield RPG launchers. The film paints a picture of a theatre of war where the individual soldier is left to make the moral judgement of when to pull the trigger. The only time there appears to be any institutional morality is when there are US casualties and an investigation is needed to discover how they happened.

The film throws up lots of moral and ethical issues and depicts a form of warfare that is messy, spontaneous and unequal. It creates a universal 'us versus them' scenario where grey doesn't exist and everything is rendered in high-contrast black and white. It also comes full circle in that Kyle's mission becomes the elimination of an Al Qaeda sniper who is becoming too successful in eliminating American servicemen. It is like a parallel rodeo or hunting confrontation. Who will win?

What the film does portray extensively and with great sensitivity is the effect that operating in such theatres of war can have on the combatants. Becoming America's deadliest sniper not only attracted a $180,000 bounty placed on his head by Al Qaeda, but through PTSD turned Kyle into a distracted, insular and absent human being. This is where Sienna Miller's performance is so good. Her patient loyalty to the husband she loves sustains her when he returns home and his behaviour is barely recognisable. Everyday sounds transport him in an instant back to the theatre of war when pneumatic wrenches are heard as weapons of torture and a lawn mower becomes the sound of an attack helicopter. War changes people.

I won't say any more about the story - I don't think I've spoiled things too much in what I've said above. What the film does show is the terrible cost in collateral damage that modern warfare seems to rack up without really trying. It also shows a self-justifying set of rules of engagement where perceiving a threat is taken to be sufficient justification for killing anyone. A sniper fights a clinically detached war 1000 yards from his victim. It also shows an 'enemy' who does not operate by traditional 'Western values' of warfare and is happy to coerce children and women into war through torture and threat. Two blind ideologies going head-to-head cannot have a good outcome.

Whilst this film has many parts that are excellent and worthy of engagement, as a piece of drama it also has many flaws. For me this makes it simply 'another war film' as Hollywood tries to justify an unjustifiable war. Great performances from the two leads but in the end not a film I need to see again. I'll give it 6/10.

Saturday, 12 March 2016


Parts of me are still numb more than 24 hours after watching the film. As a priest I have been bruised and battered by the story that this film unfolds. I wanted to stress that I am not Catholic - but that only points to my empty selfishness and does nothing to offer any salve to the wounds - on both sides - that are still open and raw. What a painful mess. If you don't know what the subject of the film is, it is a film about a team of journalists uncovering the systematic abuse of a very large number of children by Catholic priests in the archdiocese of Boston over many years. It transpires that the abuse was widespread - globally.

The film is as good as the story is bad. To have won Oscars for Best Film and Best Original Screenplay is truly fitting - but the accolades in other halls are the ones that will matter more to the cast, to the real life journalists on the Boston Globe Spotlight team and to the victims. In any other year Mark Ruffalo who played Mike Rezendes, would have won Best Actor hands down. A gripping and passionately absorbing performance. Stanley Tucci (Mitchell Garabedian) and Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeifer) along with Michael Keaton  (Walter 'Robby' Robinson) also gave stand out performances - as did Liev Schreiber playing the introvert and understated Editor Marty Baron.

I cannot remember when two hours and eight minutes last passed so quickly. The dramatic tension, pace and development of the narrative are brilliantly maintained in a consistent and believable way. It would have been so easy for the film to have become a condemning sermon, or simply a vehicle for character assassination or to have gloried in the Spotlight Team, but it is none of these. It is never without drama, but because it is based on real events, it has an almost fly-on-the-wall documentary feel to it. It is the story which drives the film forward as it offers an exemplar of investigative journalism at its best.

The film offers a number of challenges:
  • It challenges those who hold office in the church to reflect on how they discharge their responsibilities, profession and vocation.
  • It challenges those who collude with a bullying institution that finds coping strategies whilst brushing grotesque abuses under the carpet.
  • It challenges the community of a city for its implicit part in something scandalous that placed cultural heritage mixed in with God's Church above God's love and in so doing challenges us all to not follow suit.
  • It challenges Editors to be free to back the hunches of journalists they trust and to allocate resources to stories that need to be told.
  • It challenges the abused to take courage and find a way of speaking out.
  • It challenges society to find ways of helping people who are scarred for life, some of whom are unable to function normally in their relationships.
  • It challenges governments who do not allow freedom of the press.
The original response of the Catholic Church was to shuffle the pack to seemingly promote the Cardinal at the centre of policy of the toleration. It is obviously not something that would be promoted publicly whilst underway, but I hope that under Pope Francis reforms are underway to ensure this never happens again. He tweeted recently "God has caressed us with his mercy. Let us bring God’s tender caress to others, to those who are in need." There are enough people in need in the world without the Church creating more - and I know this isn't restricted to just the Catholic Church.

As painful as this film is, it is important that its story is told. As a film, it's top drawer in almost every respect. I think it will retain its status and place among the best of modern films. I will certainly be adding the disc to my collection - but will have to choose carefully the company in which I watch it! As a film, fully deserving of 9/10.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

The Woman in the Fifth

One of my general rules of thumb is that there is a group of actors who only ever choose interesting films in which to appear. Kristin Scott Thomas is one of these and this film doesn't disappoint. It will confuse, bamboozle, frustrate and cause you to scratch your head. It is a film that asks lots of questions and intentionally offers no answers. I think it is a great film.

Western left-brain culture demands stories with a narrative arc which delivers a successful resolution of the story with a happy ending. This film would be more at home at Studio Ghibli or under the Direction of people like Yimou Zhang but it is Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. It is a dark film that offers a study of depression and confusion, of creativity unable to find an outlet and passion that seemingly can only find expression in fantasy. Or was it reality? Either way, discussing the 'plot' of this film will probably not spoil your enjoyment of it if you decide to watch it - if 'enjoyment' is the right word!

Tom (Ethan Hawke), a novelist, arrives in Paris to seek out his young daughter. He is divorced from his wife and has seemingly recovered from a bout of mental ill health. His wife has a restraining order on him and alerts the police to his presence. He escapes and falls asleep on the bus where he is robbed. The end of the line is a Parisian suburb which is far from salubrious.

Tom ends up in a bar and is offered a room by the owner Sezer (Samir Guesmi) who takes his passport and in doing so seemingly takes away Tom's sense of identity. Sezer's wife is the pretty Ania (Joanna Kulig) who has an interest in literature which develops into an interest in Tom. Sezer who is engaged in criminal activity, offers Tom a job to cover the cost of his room. Like many elements of the film, we never discover what the job is related to. However, we spend much time with Tom 'at work' which becomes a space for him to work on his second novel, but his writing turns into an illustrated letter to his daughter.

Tom is invited to a pretentious literary soiree where he meets the sultry and smoldering Margit (Scott Thomas). She invites him to call her "after 4pm" and agrees to a twice weekly meeting in her apartment in the Fifth arrondissement at 5pm sharp. She is very controlling but seduces a willing Tom. The big question is 'is she real' or a psychotic construct of Tom's illness?

The lighting of the film gives everything a dull glow and many of the shots are long shots or shots through windows or from above as though we are passive voyeurs. This film is visually different. The various elements of the story are spliced together by ethereal shots of a wood, the insects in it and an owl resolutely staring into the camera. It is as though these woodland shots punctuate different psychotic episodes in Tom's spiral downward into ever deeper despair.

This is a bold and brave film which seeks to do something very different. It is not without its flaws and whether it is completely successful is debatable but that shouldn't stop you from watching it. One of its redeeming features is that it is only 85 minutes long which is plenty long enough for the questions Pawlikowski poses to be eloquently stated - but what answers viewers come up with, will be many and varied.

This is not an uplifting film but it will get your grey cells working and leave you with many questions. There are some excellent acting performances from most of the cast. I'm glad I saw it and would watch it again - in a little while. I'll give it 8/10.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Harold and Maude

I'm not at all sure how I had managed not to have seen this film before. I bought a used copy of the disc for peanuts on an auction site because it was referred to in so many reviews and pieces of writing on film. It is a gem - an oddball and goofy film that is at one and the same time profound. It is hard to imagine the impact this film would have made on its initial release in 1971.

Conceived and filmed in the Bay area around San Francisco, this film picks up the metaphysical interrogation of the meaning of love and relationships and 'correct behaviour' in the glorious days before political correctness. It was also made in the middle of the Vietnam War and Harold is about the average age of the US soldier in 'Nam - 19! For me the film seeks to reflect on three things:

  • Fulfilling parental and societal expectations
  • Definitions of love and relationship
  • The futility of the Vietnam war
Harold appears to be an only child in a wealthy society family. His mother exudes expectation with every breath and the absence of a father figure will no doubt by some be seen to be a significant factor in Harold's psychological development. Harold has developed an obsession with death and throughout the film stages a number of elaborate and highly theatrical suicides. Each one is a brush with death but they are more Hollywood stunt than serious attempts to end his life. Harold spends the rest of his time attending funerals. His car of choice is a hearse.

His mother sets up a series of encounters with likely partners for her son but these all come to nothing as Harold is not interested. Then he meets 79 year old Maude who also attends funerals. She hot-wires cars, rides a Harley and evades the police for fun. Maude lives in what looks like an old railway carriage, poses nude for an ice sculptor and has a concentration camp tattoo on her arm. She lives for the moment and seems always content with her lot. Very much an existentialist in the style of Mr Keating in the Dead Poets Society.

After the second suicide attempt Harold is sent into therapy by his mother and the therapist presents as an archetypal Freudian psychoanalyst. Harold also repeatedly encounters the same Catholic priest taking funerals and is forced to visit his uncle who is an Army recruiter with one arm missing! This film has many darkly comedic episodes and one of them has a series of scenes where Harold is lectured first by his therapist with a portrait of Freud on the wall, then by the priest with a portrait of the Pope on the wall and finally by his uncle with a portrait of Nixon on the wall. Authority is lampooned and the meta-narrative they represent is derided. All very post modern.

I found this to be an excellent and engaging film which invites reflection on a wide range of issues and ideas. There were plans for both a prequel from Maude's perspective and a sequel from Harold's perspective but neither came to fruition. I think that's good as the film deserves to stand on its own and to continue to grow its cult status. I'll give it 7/10.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Hundred-Foot Journey

This film will leave you smiling and impart warm fuzzies in large quantities as it delivers its happy ending - it is after all a Dreamworks film. The narrative arc is very straightforward but doesn't disappoint. This is a film that is first and foremost about the characters and the clash of cultures between Mumbai and rural French Michelin starred cuisines.

Having been driven out of Mumbai by a gang who burn down their restaurant in an election result dispute, the family seek asylum in Britain. Finding the weather too inclement they set off in a old Transit van across Europe with Papa Kadam (Om Puri) knowing he'll find the right place to set up a new restaurant when he sees it. That happens to be in the rural village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val - 100 feet across the road from the Michelin starred "Le Saule Pleureur" (The Weeping Willow) run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). With all its gaudy ostentation, Maison Mumbai duly opens and so the feud between widow and widower sparks to life. The 100 feet also separate the cultures and cuisines of classical French and Indian food, the aspirations of Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) and Hassan (Manish Dayal) to develop their culinary skills and reputations, and a family-run enterprise over and against a kitchen that simply hires the best chefs.

There are a lot of comical moments in the film that the cast deliver with great charm and warmth. The way in which the 'cold war' develops between Papa Kadam and Madame Mallory is masterful and filled with child-like petulance. The blossoming love between Marguerite and Hassan always looks unlikely to come to fruition but is another central thread that weaves this tale of Mumbai colliding with rural idyllic France.

Unusually for me I had first encountered this through the novel of the same name. The novel spends much longer in the beginning in India and the descriptions of Mumbai life, its restaurants and markets will evoke pictures, sounds and aromas for anyone who has had the privilege of visiting India. The mob storming the Kadam's restaurant in Mumbai and a similar experience in France are unwelcome intrusions in an otherwise gentle and fun romantic story that meanders as gently as the river flows through the countryside of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val.

This film will warm your heart and make you smile. A lovely tale well told, with strong characters that will endear themselves to you. It might even make you want to phone out for a curry! If you've not seen this, do add it to your list of films to watch. I'll give it 8/10.

Thursday, 11 February 2016


I watched this last week whilst visiting friends in the area of France where a lot of the action was filmed around La Turbie above Monaco, Villefranche-sur-Mer and on the streets of Nice. It's amazing how use of clever camera angles and good editing can morph disconnected reality into something completely believable.

This is an action film with plenty of car chases, shootings and explosions. I read somewhere that 80 cars were written off in the making of the film. The story is quite simple. A number of former special operatives are brought together to secure a briefcase that is heavily guarded. We never discover what's in the case - it simply acts as a MacGuffin to give the rest of the plot something around which to orbit.

This is a film where the viewer needs to pay attention because there are many players and the plot keeps twisting and turning. It is difficult to know whom to trust. The different groups wanting the case are simply referred to as 'The Russians' or 'The Irish' and then there are of course the independent mercenaries trying to make a fast buck.

The film is set entirely within France - mainly in Paris and Nice. There are regular car chases with seemingly impossible stunts. The way the story unfolds invites the viewer to develop a fondness for the team trying to obtain the case and in particular for the characters Sam (Robert De Niro) and Vincent (Jean Reno). The former KGB agent Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard) succeeds in making you loathe him and each time he escaped a bullet I must confess I felt disappointed.

Morally and ethically this film is intentionally a muddle - such is the world of espionage. That we need people like this to operate in a bubble beyond the law is regrettable yet the work they do bears fruit for all - an interesting point to discuss. The final outcome was rooted in reality as it directly brought about the possibility of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Does that mean that in this instance the means justified the end? As I said, it is a murky world.

John Frankenheimer's Direction is excellent with exciting camera angles, frequent car chases and an ensemble cast that melds together to produce a performance that is greater than the sum of its parts. If the film has any real weaknesses they lie in the script and patchy dialogue - De Niro's Sam gets all the good lines. This is a good action film with plenty of exciting car chases. I'll give it 7/10.

Friday, 29 January 2016

The Spitfire Grill

The Spitfire Grill is a gentle but powerful drama about a range of things including fear and guilt, forgiveness, transformation, sacrifice, beauty of creation, healing, preconceptions and love. It was released in 1996 in the USA, winning the viewer award at the Sundance Festival and was then promptly shelved by distributor Warner Brothers. I am grateful to Stephen Brown for having shown the film to me many years ago. I managed to get a Region 1 disc and have been enjoying it with groups ever since. I see that it is available via streaming service providers. This week I watched it with a group from church as we kicked off a new monthly movie watching and reflecting evening. It was well received and sparked some insightful reflection and discussion.

This is a film that is difficult to talk about without revealing the plot, so if you don't want to know, stop reading now.

The central character is Percy Talbot (Alison Elliot) who is a young woman just released from a Maine prison after a lengthy gaol term. She is not a native of Maine and claims to be from Ohio although her accent suggests she is actually from somewhere further south. This immediately adds to the suspicion of the townsfolk of Gilead amongst whom she arrives on a blustery and windswept winter's eve. The local Sheriff, Gary (Gailard Sartain) is tasked with finding the ex con somewhere to live and work and persuades Hannah (Ellyn Burstyn) owner of the Spitfire Grill to take her in and employ her as a waitress for board and lodging. Hannah is cantankerous and strong minded, a closed and initially grumpy woman who seems to live out the combined gnawing pain of her failing hip joint, being a widow and having 'lost' her son Eli (John M Jackson) to the Vietnam War'

The townsfolk divide into two camps - those who are open and willing to give Percy a chance and those who instinctively know that nothing good can come from an ex con. The leader of the 'suspicious' is Nahum Goddard (Will Patton) who is Hannah's nephew and the local Realtor (Estate Agent). His wife Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden) leads the 'open' folk and she soon spends her days cooking in the Grill to help Percy after Hannah is confined to bed after a fall.

The film explores people's growing dis/trust of Percy within a tight-knit New England community. For all of America's glittering cities, such communities are the mainstay of America and help to define a sense of a community's independence, insularity and the ever-present feeling that this is a frontier town working out what it means to live the American dream. When any outsider comes in and upsets the quiet and well-defined but unwritten social structure, the equilibrium is disturbed and things begin to rotate in different and sometimes competing orbits. Crashes are inevitable as people come to new understandings of things that had previously been a long held immovable truth. Transformation is seldom painless and for the community of Gilead Maine, that is also the case.

This is a remarkable film in many ways - although like all films it does have its flaws. The three main lead characters are all women - when was the last time you saw that in a film? Both Burstyn and Harden are Oscar winners and the rest of the cast is strong with good characterisation that easily evokes an affective response in viewers. Who doesn't hate Nahum or love and feel sorry for Joe? The narrative arc of this film is one of the most complete I can remember seeing. I won't spoil it by telling you what happens to Percy, Gilead or how the film ends but will advise that a box of tissues might come in handy.

Why was this film pulled from distribution and never screened outside the USA? The story I heard was that when the distributor researched the production company behind it, they feared that the film was a Trojan Horse for a Christian message and so shelved it. How true that is I don't know. All I do know is that it's a pity. Yes, the main themes are central to the Christian message but then so are the themes of most superhero movies. The actors are all mainstream and if anything the Church comes off rather poorly in this film. Many of the characters have Biblical names - but then so do lots of Americans. The production company was Gregory Productions which is a non-profit organisation (charity) operating out of Mississippi. Their logo is a lion lying down with a lamb and the rumour I heard was that the seed funding came from the pension fund of the Catholic Diocese of Mississippi. So what? This is a good film that stands on its own two feet and for those who wish to probe and look a deeper as they reflect, it may well provide some glimpse into Christian thought. But then doesn't all of life do that?

I happened to be in the area of New England where this film was made when on a visit in 2012. It was in fact shot in the township of Peacham Vermont and here is my photo of Peacham General Store which became the Spitfire Grill.

The town was dead and everything was closed. It looked like the General Store hadn't been open since the film was made and there is no steeply wooded hillside leading up from the back porch. My visit was a good experience - once I had braved miles of unmade roads and travelled for hours without seeing another living thing! I am glad I have been to Peacham Vermont. If I am ever in the area I will visit again. This is a film well worth watching. I'll give it 8/10.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Ex Machina

I knew from watching the trailer that I wanted to see this film. Caught up with it on disc last night. It was even better than I had thought it might have been. This is not just a sci-fi thriller about Artificial Intelligence (AI) but an exploration of what makes us human - good and bad. I imagine that female viewers could see a different movie to male viewers. Is this film misogynistic or does it offer a rallying cry for feminists?

As a low budget (£15m) British made film it can hold its head high as it takes its place alongside other AI movies (AI, Terminator, Blade Runner, The Matrix and I, Robot et al). With only four characters for most of the film it is a gripping tale that explores how convincing the AI being Ava (Alicia Vikander) is when pitted against programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). The experiment unfolds in a remote 'research facility' owned by Caleb's reclusive genius billionaire boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The experiment is to see whether or not Ava passes the Turing Test - that is to exhibit behaviour that is indistinguishable from human behaviour. The fourth character is Nathan's 'servant' Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno).

The twist is that the test is clouded by Ava's sexuality, her ability to flirt and use her feminine charm to trick her male captors. In one exchange this dialogue unfolds:
Nathan: Answer me this. How do you feel about her?
Caleb: Her AI is beyond doubt.
Nathan: No, nothing analytical, just, how do you feel?
Caleb: I feel that she's amazing.
Nathan: Dude! Now the question is, how does she feel about you? Does Ava actually like you or is she pretending to like you? Self awareness, manipulation, sexuality, now if that isn't true, now what is?
How you might read the film depends on whether you see Caleb or Ava as the main character. Ava is the latest in a series of AI women created by Nathan - all of which are 'fully' functioning. On one level they are sophisticated sex dolls and it is clear Nathan prefers interacting sexually with 'robots' rather than the real thing. But there is the difficulty - Ava is so real and so clever she outwits both Nathan and Caleb.

There is a long tradition of eroticised female robots/cyborgs and animations - particularly in video games and Japanese anime and manga. Perhaps this is simply continuing in and drawing from this heritage? Or does it take things to a new level? It is easy to forget that Ava is Alicia Vikander with all her Swedish beauty on show. The CGI elements of the film are truly amazing and for most of the film she appears half human, half machine. However, by the end of it she appears much more one than the other and how the film ends will leave you satisfied or frustrated depending on whether you see Ava or Caleb as the central character.

I really enjoyed this film and was surprised by it's twists on more than one occasion. Just when I thought I'd worked something out, I got it wrong. As a guy, I think you have to allow yourself to be fully immersed in the story and suspend judgement for the magic and seduction to work. It would be interesting to get an objective female perspective on what the film's central story is. This is well worth seeing to explore themes of human being and identity, sexuality, AI and the feared threat that AI passing the Turing Test potentially poses. I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Steve Jobs (2015)

The words Apple and Mac go together like strawberries and cream or Torvill and Dean. There are not many people within consumer cultures who don't recognise the Apple logo, have not heard of an Apple Mac or would at least know they have seen the face of Steve Jobs in a magazine, newspaper or on TV. Having read a couple of biographies, I approached this biopic in my naivety hoping to glean greater understanding about one of the most creative and influential people of the current age. What I got was a three act drama covering three product launches between 1984 and 1998 and a view of Jobs I didn't like.

The result is an intense drama that presents such an unlikeable version of Jobs with little attempt to explore or understand how he became the monster the film portrays him to be. People imbued with a high degree of creativity often walk a fine line between giving expression to that creativity or madness or some other disabling trait. If Steve Jobs had been able to work with people in the same way he was able to work with concepts and understand what people wanted, how much more might he have been able to achieve?

It is always easy to expect a biopic to present an accurate rendering of history. In the screenplay here, Alan Sorkin has presented a drama which certainly messes with the timeline so it is fairly safe to assume that other elements of the story have also been messed with. Sorkin picked up a Golden Globe for the screenplay. At just over two hours long, the intensity of the film left me feeling rather exhausted by the end of it. I needed a significant amount of space to unwind and declutter my mind!

Such is the portrayal of the brutality of Job's uncaring character, that as I sit here typing this on a Mac, I am left wondering if I shouldn't dispose of the six Apple products I own! This is due largely to the performance of Michael Fassbender in the title role which is gripping - for much of the film, for me, it felt more like a docu-drama with the actual characters.

This sad tale is littered with casualties and broken and dysfunctional relationships. The long suffering Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) is the picture of devotion as she supports the man she cares for deeply, through the ups and downs of his career. A career that was extreme in its highs as its lows and was always at one or the other - never nicely in between. Winslet is marvellous and is fully deserving of the Golden Globe she picked up for the performance.

The way the story is told, encouraged me to feel dislike for Jobs and a great deal of sympathy for those he used and abused in his blind quest to change the course of history through consumer electronics. Job's daughter, her mother, Hoffman, his best friend Wozniak, Hertzfeld and Sculley - his family and the people who created Apple products, were all treated as consumer items in their own right. The adopted Job's, who himself spun a warped fantasy of why that was the case, used this to inject dysfunctionality into all his relationships - especially those with his former girlfriend and their daughter. Two encounters with Sculley - his father figure in the film - began to explore why Jobs was the way he was but didn't get very far. Hoffman's constant but gentle chiding also failed to make much of an impact. Jobs finally has an epiphany at the end of this film and is forced to admit to his, by now, 19 year old daughter, that he is not "made very well". The choice of words showing that Jobs prefers the cold and mechanical world rather than the risky chaos of the organic.

Jobs is constantly challenged by those around him about his lack of technical knowledge or expertise. He persistently requires his colleagues to deliver the undeliverable and threatens to publicly humiliate them if they fail. He is able to anaesthetise himself from emotional pain - perhaps his way of dealing with the hurt and rejection he feels at having been adopted. Jobs responds by saying he is like a great conductor, not a soloist - he doesn't play an instrument, he plays the orchestra.

If you want to see this film because you are a geek or an Apple fetishist, it may leave you disappointed. If you want an emotionally draining encounter with a megalomaniac who constantly hurts those closest to him and who is blinded by his own unerring belief that he alone is right, then this is a film for you. I particularly liked the lighting - often soft and from below - as in the picture above. It gave a different feel to the visualisation of this important but flawed story of a flawed man. On the strength of the acting performances I will give it 8/10.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Inside Out

I missed this in the cinema when it came around but was glad to buy it on disc. This film is a gift. I wish I had seen it as I entered my teens - but even then I probably wouldn't have got it! The concept and the way in which it is realised are both highly creative. The idea that there are personified emotions competing within our heads for control of our feelings and how we express ourselves is a stroke of genius. I think that this film could only work well as an animation - the medium enhances the message so well.

The main emotions are (as above) fear (Bill Hader), disgust (Mindy Kaling), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), joy (Amy Poehler) and anger (Lewis Black). The personification of these emotions is very well done and I'm sure viewers will have no difficulty in recognising them from their own experience. The roles they respectively have and what happens to their host and central character Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), is illuminating and portrayed in a very humorous and entertaining way. It is good that joy is meant to be the predominant emotion.

There are many well thought through psychological and neuropsychological concepts in the film. Without giving anything of the story away, Riley's memories are stored in colored orbs, which are sent into long-term memory each night. Riley's most important memories are known as 'core memories' and are housed in a hub in Headquarters. These power five "islands", each of which reflects a different aspect of Riley's personality. The way in which these islands interact with one another and give expression to Riley's relationships is very instructional. I found it interesting that there was no spiritual dimension to any of the islands or experiences that Riley encountered.

This film is a gift for school and youth group settings but will need careful preparation and handling if the harvest on offer is to be gleaned well. The invitation for youngsters (and the not so young) to expand their self-understanding is a generous one. The better we understand ourselves the better we can understand and thereby accept others.

The animation is simply wonderful - so fluid and dynamic, capturing body movements and facial expressions in such faithful detail. I particularly liked the scenes where joy was ice skating. At 91 minutes long it is just about right - but I felt that joy and sadness's journey could have been trimmed by five minutes. If you have not already seen this - please get hold of it and watch it. Reflect on what it shows you and how you see your own behaviour and emotions in the light of it. This is excellent and I have no trouble in awarding it 9/10!