Thursday, 20 July 2017

Dekalog: Seven



I really like the stories told and through them the films made by Polish Director Krzysztof Kieślowski and have all his films that are available on disc. At our monthly gathering in the parish, friends randomly chose the number 7 without knowing why they were choosing and so elected to watch an hour long film loosely based on the 7th of the Ten Commandments - " You shall not commit adultery". Interesting.

Kieślowski has the knack of rendering every day people going about their every day lives and sharing the kind of experience that you and I might experience. This movie is set in the anonymous suburbs of Warsaw, Poland and is from a set of 10 originally made for TV in 1988 - made whilst Poland was still a Communist autocracy. It's ordinariness is the thing that allows it to connect and spark a wide range of reactions amongst those who watch it.

The genius of the story-telling is that the film begins when the fruit of an adulterous act is already six years old and the mother and father have been estranged since before the child's birth. This is not so much a story about adultery but about the fact that actions have consequences and they can escalate and get out of hand very rapidly once lies, pride and deceit are used to cover something up. I say 'adulterous act' but the two involved were not married to each other - or to anyone else as far as we can glean from the story. So the first question is 'what constitutes adultery"?

And the questions just keep on coming. They draw the viewer in and invite speculation about the back story and about so much of the story that isn't told directly through the film. How three female generations of the same family can be so dysfunctional when the Matriarch is a former headteacher is good one. Is Stefan (Wladyslaw Kowalski) ineffectual through inability or because of Ewa's (Anna Polony) domineering? At the start Majka (Maja Barelkowska) appears to be about to be finishing a university degree but her actions then and subsequently suggest that her ability to make sound judgements is at times severely impaired. This is just one of many issues that could be explored regarding her character. What of Wojtek (Boguslaw Linda)? Could/should he have done more? How culpable was he for the mess? Do you think he had paid a sufficient price for his peccadillo or was he due to pay more and if so how much and for how long? And what was to become of little Ania (Katarzyna Piwowarczyk)?

I am still coming up with questions such was the story-telling and invitation to engage. I think Dekalog would make a great Lent Course if it could be fashioned into six sessions or so. Two of the films, Five and Six were expanded into full theatrical releases with the same cast and largely similar plot - A Short Film about Killing and A Short Film about Love.

In the 2002 Sight & Sound poll to determine the greatest films of all time, Dekalog and A Short Film About Killing received votes from 4 critics and 3 directors. Additionally, in the Sight & Sound poll held the same year to determine the top 10 films of the previous 25 years, Kieslowski was named #2 on the list of Top Directors, with votes for his films being split between Dekalog, Three Colors Red/Blue, and The Double Life of Veronique.

I thought this was a great film. It is currently rated at 97% red on Rotten Tomatoes and 91% on IMDb. If you don't know Kieślowski do go and check out his substantial body of work - you won't be disappointed. I'll give it an easy 9/10.


Enter the Dragon



Caught this on TV the other night and had to watch it to the end. It still offers compelling viewing if martial arts is your thing. I remember seeing this when it came out (I looked older than I was!) and the stir that it caused amongst school mates. This film is credited with literally kick-starting the whole kung fu genre and the popularity of films about martial arts. It also propelled Bruce Lee (Lee) to immediate stardom.

The plot and acting are nothing much to celebrate. They serve merely as a vehicle for the action sequences of which there are many. Crime, trafficking, revenge, under-cover intelligence, greed, pride and sexual attraction all ferment together to provide the context for Lee to fight the baddies, avenge the death of his sister and help the good guys beat the bad guys.

The film has a very utilitarian view of morality and little is nuanced. The main characters all have a back story and a reason for coming together. It is interesting that some have picked up on the film as having a decolonisation vibe alongside many other films set in Asia and Africa in post-war years. It has also been championed by some as being connected with and supporting the Black Power Movement through the character of Williams (Jim Kelly). Both of these ideas are further expounded in the Wikipedia article on the film.

I don't have much more to say about the film - except I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you don't mind a little bit of Kung Fu Fighting and haven't seen it, I would encourage you to watch it. I'll give it 7/10 and am happy to have the 30th anniversary special edition in my library of discs!



Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Open Bethlehem



This 2014 documentary is written and Directed by Leila Sansour who left her home town of Bethlehem at the age of 14 because it was too small and a backwater in the shadow if its neighbour Jerusalem. When she learns that the city is about to encircled by a wall she returns and begins a fight to keep Bethlehem open.

This film captures Sansour's energy and dynamism as she recruits family and friends to support the cause. As the wall is imposed on people going about their daily lives in their home country, the hegemony of US backed Israel is made plain for all to see. The eight meter high wall creates an apartheid that the world seems disinterested in and impotent to challenge. Some Palestinians are doing unspeakable things to Israelis - but it is the few and not the many.

We see Palestinian farmers showing their ancient olive groves that have been destroyed by the Israelis. We see houses being destroyed - longstanding family homes - simply to make way for polished new homes for Israeli settlers who will be connected by the antiseptic umbilical of new roads directly into the heart of Jerusalem whilst the locals have to queue at the checkpoint from 03:00 to stand even a chance of getting to work. Many won't make it because the number of daily permits is limited.

The intifada began in Bethlehem amongst students at the university - founded by Sansour's father. This together with her regret at having abandoned Bethlehem earlier in life drive her to extraordinary lengths as she builds a coalition of unlikely backers to campaign for Bethlehem to be made an open city. As part of the campaign the Mayor agrees to the creation of a Bethlehem Passport and these are distributed to celebrities and politicians to gain publicity. There are high level visits to the UK and the USA but ultimately the campaign runs out funds and money and fizzles out. The film ends in 2014 as Sansour tries to reinvigorate the campaign and take on the Israeli state.

This is a desperately sad film that depicts callousness on the part of the Israelis as they annex one of Christianity's holiest sites. Many Christian leaders are shown visiting the Church of the Nativity in the film - including Archbishop Rowan and Bishop Tutu also puts in an appearance on the film.

Please take a moment to check out the project's website and consider your own response - or buy the DVD from them and show it to a group of friends or in your place of worship. This is a solid film documenting a worthy cause. I'll give it 7/10.


Sunday, 25 June 2017

Notes on Blindness



Another film watched with a group of friends from church but this time the viewing was curated by a colleague - who had been a student of the film's central character. John Hull (Dan Skinner) was an academic theologian at Birmingham University and latterly also at The Queen's Foundation Theological College. I was expecting much more direct 'God-talk' - God doesn't get a mention until the 48th minute! This docudrama is about the man, the husband, the father and the son John Hull. What sets it apart is that as his sight failed, he took to recording a detailed diary on audio cassettes and the dialogue in the film features the actors lip-synching with the diaries as they are played back.

Hull's mind was always in need of being fed. His voracious appetite for new ideas and information propelled friends, university colleagues and students to begin recording academic texts onto audio cassette so that he could listen to continue his research and lecturing. After a series of medical and surgical interventions, complete blindness came in 1980. The last image he recalled seeing was appropriately a church spire.

In making the film, Directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney no doubt had to make editorial decisions about which extracts from the diaries to use in order to give the documentary and biographical elements of the film continuity. I wonder what their rationale was and what they chose to leave out. The result is a very down-to-earth, almost matter-of-fact film that treats blindness and its onset in an analytical way. This film does not indulge sentimentality. Hull works hard to develop new way of seeing which do not use the optic nerve but nevertheless stimulates the optical cortex of the brain. This enables Hull to describe the onset and effects of blindness with an accessible realism that is educative as well as being inspiring.

Much of the laboratory of his ongoing experimentation was his family - he had five children and was originally an Australian with his own family back in Victoria. His wife Marilyn (Simone Kirby) is portrayed very positively to be the rock that keeps the family going despite her constant fear of her husband entering another period of depression. It is not until a major epiphany, in part visualised as a dreamlike sequence, that Hull is able to come to terms with his condition and receive it as a gift - not a gift he wanted, but nevertheless a gift. The central question becomes for him not 'why' but 'what am I going to do with it?'. It is interesting to see how rainfall becomes a carrier of ideas when its analysed sound seems to heighten Hull's sensory acuity and power of reasoning. It is as though rain becomes for Hull a 'thin place' as followers of Celtic spirituality might say - where the immanence of God is felt more keenly.

Hull's approach to theology is through it's dialogue with sociology and as such he is portrayed as a very 'human' being. He is driven by questions about how different kinds of people can understand their differences young and old, rich and poor, male and female, sighted and the blind. As Hull's blindness was eventually 'seen' to be a gift to him, the film makers have in turn shared that gift with us in a generous and inspiring way. As well as introducing us to an extraordinary person, this film also invites us to consider what it actually means to 'see'.

This is another film that lends itself to group reflection and discussion. It raises a number of issues and offers a unique insight into blindness and its effects. It also shows how it can be embraced, coped with and even offer new possibilities not previous available. I would encourage you to see it - at 86 minutes it's about the right length. I'll give it 8/10.


Saturday, 24 June 2017

The Shack



The lens through which you view this film will totally determine your response to it. For those who try to live without faith it will disappoint and frustrate. For those with a living faith it will be interesting and may even provoke questions. For those Christians who have an active faith, it will engage and possibly even excite and challenge your view of God. If you read and liked the 2007 book on which it is based, you will like the film.

The story feels contrived, the plot clunky and some of the acting a little odd. However, I would still advocate going to see this - maybe with a group and have a discussion over pizza (or cuisine of your choice) afterwards. Not only is it imbued with the cultural ethos of (North American) Evangelical Christianity in its theological outlook, it also sets out an apologetic response to the good old question 'why does God let bad things happen?'. Whether the contrivance of these two things work for you is only something you can determine.

The structure of the film works differently to the book but the central premise is the same. The background is familial child abuse that then is overtaken by child abduction and hinted at murder. The themes that the film explores are guilt, grief, love, sacrifice, forgiveness, Trinity and the nature of God. Because the film deals with heavyweight theological and Biblical themes, everyone will have a view on how they should be set out. Not everyone will agree with the stance the film takes, but I feel they did a good job. Rather than being critical of the film's content and style, I would invite viewers to reflect on their own response and how the film, may or may not have challenged and changed their view of God and these big areas of Christian doctrine. How would you make a film that featured the Christian Trinity?

Much of the film is predictable but there is also a playfulness about how a Trinitarian God is depicted and how the persons of the Trinity interact. For me, the film portrays the role of wisdom much more helpfully than the book does - but again that's down to a different structure and sequence of encounters. I had problems with a lot of Sam Worthington's mumbled diction - I simply couldn't understand what he was saying which was a pity as he played the central character Mack. However the other characters and wonderful locations in the film more than made up for it.

This will be a great film to watch for church groups and then discuss afterwards - perhaps it will appear as a 2018 Lent course? I imagine it will only be in the cinema in the UK for a limited time and as yet I haven't found a scheduled release date for the disc version. Do go and see it - and allow yourself to be surprised. As a film 6/10, as an attempt to visualise complex theology 8/10 so it scores 7/10 on here.


Thursday, 22 June 2017

Life and Debt



I watched this film with a group of friends and we were shocked at our collective appalling inability to learn lessons from history. This film is about Jamaica's transition to independence from Britain and the economic 'assistance' that was required to move to a free market consumer economy. It is a documentary that helpfully sets out the context of the founding of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the aftermath of World War Two. Keen to avoid a scenario that developed into World War Three, these institutions - dominated by the USA - set up vast funds to loan to countries to help them reach prosperity. Sadly the opposite is what has happened. Tragically the world is filled with too many Jamaicas - one is one too many.

The whole aim of colonialisation is to make money for the colonising nation and its entrepreneurs. Jamaica had sugar, bananas and a wonderful natural beauty and climate that lend themselves to tourism. The economic plan ignored its greatest resource - its people.

To become a productive consumer led economy required huge investment in infrastructure that was beyond the scope of this tiny nation to raise internally. So they tied themselves into the only banking regime in the West that was able to help and took out loans from WB/IMF. It soon became clear that to service the interest payments on the the loans, more loans were required and with each successive round of borrowing the debt spiral increased in speed and depth. Whilst the USA subsidised its farmers and industries to produce for the world market, Jamaica was hit by punitive interest payments and cowardly trade tariffs. They didn't, and never have stood a chance. The playing field is not level.

Even something as modest as a banana was used as an economic weapon. The giant US owned corporations harvesting and exporting bananas in Central America were supported by their government which then through the WB/IMF imposed tariffs on exported Jamaican bananas to the UK - its principle historical market and not one which competed with Central American produce to any great extent.

Over the decades Jamaica's economy has dwindled as the USA established free trade areas on the island to enslave workers (see picture above) with tax free and subsidised production of goods that were then returned for sale in the USA at a knock-down price because of the low production costs. As a consequence most Jamaicans are caught up in subsistence low scale agriculture dependent on the weather and the seasons to guarantee enough a food to put on the table. Unemployment is high and social problems and drug use are widespread.

All of this is in stark contrast to the smiling bright and happy Jamaica that the tens of thousands of tourists see who arrive by liner and plane every week. They stay in luxury hotels and dine of fine food until they've had their fill. Tours take then past McDonald's, KFC and Baskin Robins to sanitised ghettoes that offer the consumers an opportunity to sample the 'real Jamaica' sold to them by the tour brochure.

Who said the slave trade had been abolished?


Saturday, 29 April 2017

The Straight Story



This was recommended to me by some dear friends and I am grateful to them for that. I can't remember the last U classification film I reflected on - no sex, don't remember any swearing and the only violence done is to a road kill deer and a lawn mower blasted with a shot gun! This is a lovely tale - a road trip biopic which moves along at a maximum speed of 5 mph as Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) trundles 240 miles across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower towing a trailer. This is not your average film.

This is a film about family relationships. Alvin is a WWII vet whose health is failing. He lives with his daughter who has been badly served by the authorities. He has been estranged from his brother for a decade when news comes through that the brother has suffered a stroke. Alvin, who is prevented from holding a driving licence by his poor health, resolves to set out on a thirty-year-old John Deere Lawn Tractor, which has a maximum speed of 5 mph,  on the 240 mile journey from Laurens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin to visit his brother.

This is a generous film filled with grace, humour, wisdom and kindness. Its gentle pace, warm colours and likeable characters make it a winner. As Alvin chugs relentlessly Eastwards he encounters people whom he helps and some who help him. The wisdom he dispenses helps people to want to get on better with their families - and that is the purpose of his journey - reconciliation.

There's not a lot more I can say about this film - except it features a lot of big skies and a lot of weather. Sissy Spacek's performance as daughter Rose is beguiling. It was released in 1999 so it's not new but was new to me - have you seen it? You should. I'll give it 7/10. Well worth the watch.


Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Sense of an Ending



From the cast and trailer I was hoping that this would be a great film. The acting is certainly great, but the pace, plot and content of the film are enigmatic at best which means the film plods to an unsatisfying conclusion. It is undoubtedly clever, being based on the Man Booker winning novel of the same name by Julian Barnes. But the whole film gets swallowed up in its own angst ridden public schoolboy philosophising about how to interpret historical events and attach any meaning to the outcome. The inclusion of Charlotte Rampling as Veronica invited for me an immediate comparison with 45 Years.

This is a film about relationships, about ageing and about how feelings that have lain dormant for decades can be rekindled in a way that embodies the energy of teenage infatuation that accompanies first love, which then unexpectedly finds vibrant expression in later life. This of course rocks the status quo and the central character of Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is most put out to find that others - and particularly his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) - don't share his enthusiasm to dig up a relationship from 50+ years ago.

The turns and twists based on assumptions made in the 1960s at university, prove to be wide of the mark in 2017.  Unwanted pregnancies, suicides, pregnant lesbians, the birth of a grandchild and the mysterious and inscrutable Veronica all weave together to produce an unappetising concoction. The adjective curmudgeonly is repeatedly used to describe Tony and it is very accurate - made all the more so by Broadbent's performance. All I can say is, Leicas aside, I'm glad he isn't one of my friends.

As was the case in 45 Years, I was distressed by the way in which something seemingly so long forgotten, from so long ago, can be fanned into new and forceful life and destabilise things to such an extent. It causes me to reflect on my past and produce an inventory to ensure that I have nothing similar lurking in the life before the current arrangement!

This film is British cinema at its best with a great cast. If you prefer action movies or happy endings I suggest you avoid it as it is true to its title and provides only a sense of an ending. If you want a guide to help you to reflect on your present and past relationships and how they might interact, then this film will invite you to do that. What it can't do is predict the outcome of such interactions and the possible cost attached to them! For me the film was 20-30 minutes too long and at times tedious. The explorations of schoolboy historical epistemology clouded the plot unnecessarily and in Veronica and Tony - both young and old, this film possesses two lead characters that are not attractive - at least to me. It will appeal to viewers of a 'certain age' - Baby Boomers. I'll give it 7/10 - but mainly for the acting.


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Elle


This is not a film for the faint-hearted! It has attracted a lot of comment which seems to be divided between seeing this as either a film which is misogynistic or one which is a triumph of feminism. Which way do you think it goes? There is hardly a scene in the film that does not present us with the central character of Michele played by Isabelle Huppert. It is a film about her. This is a film about family, violent sexual deviance and relationships. It's also a film about how past trauma can leave a legacy that lasts a lifetime. On one level this film is a thriller, on another it's a study of rape, deceit, obsession, empowerment and betrayal.

One day Michele is brutally raped in her home by a man in ski mask. After he leaves, she simply sweeps up the debris from the struggle and carries on as though she refuses to be the victim. She arms herself with pepper spray and an axe in case the attacker returns and begins her own investigation to discover the identity of the assailant. Michele contrives a number of social encounters to flush out the rapist as she seems to feel that it is someone within her social circle. Meanwhile she maintains an affair with Robert, husband of her best friend and business partner and pursues a flirtation with Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) her neighbour. Patrick's wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira) is a devout Catholic which introduces a strand of religiosity to be woven into the story. As she identifies the rapist she invites a further encounter in the knowledge that it will a bruising and painful experience for her. Michele discovers the rapist's inability to engage in consensual sex hence the violence, and uses this as a lever to provoke even greater violence. This is not a straightforward film.

This story has a lot of things going on in it - some straightforward and in plain sight, others only alluded to and which the viewer has to join the dots and draw their own conclusions. It features a mass murderer, a successful business woman, a failed writer, three deaths, one birth, adultery and rape. In the film, it is the women who call the shots - eventually even with the rapist. The April 2017 edition of Sight & Sound carries an interview with Director Paul Verhoeven which offers some insights. More instructive are two short essays by different women, one of whom sees it as a film about misogyny and rape ultimately being banal, and the other who sees the point of the film to "punish a woman with power, portraying her as castrating".

To be honest, I'm still processing the ins and outs of this story. I know I'm glad that Michele is not one of my friends or family! That it was based on a novel inspired by the mass shootings in Norway by Anders Brevik gives it a dark and unpleasant backdrop. That it demonstrates how someone can build a life out of the rubble of personal calamity is inspiring but I have to admit I don't like the architect or the builder. If I have to take sides, I see this as a film about misogyny rather than being misogynistic in itself. Whilst the violence is integral to the plot, it will deter many from engaging with the heavy and demanding themes of the story. Huppert's acting is first class - but I loathe her character. If you have a strong stomach and aren't offended by the themes, do go and watch it, otherwise track down a copy of Sight & Sound. I'll give it 8/10 for the way in which it attempts to deal with significant issues - but I don't want or need to see it again.




Thursday, 13 April 2017

Ghost in the Shell



This is an interesting film that makes you think.  I liked it. A lot. Sci-Fi on a grand scale set in a futuristic Japan (that looks a lot like Hong Kong) with a manga-type wash - it's based on a manga of the same name. On one level the script is standard 'what can AI give us and what are the risks?'. It explores the cyborg with human brain scenario - but in an original and thought provoking way. It also pays homage to many films/books including - The Matrix, Lucy, Bladerunner, Kill Bill, Ex Machina, Howey's Wool trilogy with its Silos - or where some of these influenced by the 1995 original manga film? This film is visually stunning with great CGI and a pounding soundtrack that fits right in.

The central character is the cyborg with a human brain - Major (Scarlett Johansson) who through a search for her memories struggles to establish a sense of self-identity. Within the struggle is the over-arching existential question "what makes us human?" The film uses terms like soul, ghost and spirit with freedom. When the film is set in, and most of the characters are, Eastern Oriental, the fact that the lead character is a voluptuous New Yorker has caused plenty of comment. Johansson  however is not there simply to provide eye-candy, she handles the angst of her quest well and allows her character to make some unexpected decisions when easier options are available.

Set in the near future when most people have some kind of sensory or muscular augmentation, Major is a shell with a human brain - a sentient weapon which is deployed to counter terrorism. Things become messy between the unit that she works for and the company that created her. The scientist leading the programme - Dr Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) - discovers she has divided loyalty when Major learns more of her origins and presses for information.

On one level this film shows a high tech future where product placement is still a blight on the visual experience. It also shows that humanity can be as depraved as ever and that greed and the search for power remain as attractive as they always have been. There is a strong moral thread - or several - running through this film and it is good to see the questions being dealt with in an adult way. The central question being answered in the final dialogue.

Perhaps the greatest violence is what is done to the body and brain of Major? The violence aside (if it is ever possible to put violence aside), this film is worth the watch because of the way in which it explores questions of human identity and being. The visuals and cyborg concepts are also worth seeing. As I said, I like this film, I'm sure a different Director would have handled it with a different emphasis or character development and pushed the questions deeper, but I'm still going to award it 8/10.


Monday, 6 March 2017

Schindler's List



I can't believe I hadn't seen this film earlier! I knew it had won seven Oscars and was critically acclaimed but as with any film that draws such hype I am sceptical until I see it for myself. Having seen it, my question is - why only seven Oscars? There are films that because of the craft of the acting, writing or directing performances, attract a disproportionate level of hype. There are films that because of their subject matter, timing or context also garner more plaudits than might otherwise be the case. On both counts, this film is a genuine winner.

For me films like this are important. I'm not Jewish, or German, or Polish, but I was born in the 1950s in West Germany because of the aftermath of WWII. My parents moved a lot when I was young and I have nowhere that I call home apart from where I live at the present moment. For me, watching films like this forms part of my own search for a sense of self-identity. I feel a connectedness to the events portrayed as they took place just over a decade before I was born.

Perhaps this was a contributing factor to taking a short break in Krakow only two weeks ago. When in the city, the legacy of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust are ever present. Tours to the ghetto are widely advertised as is the extensive Jewish cemetery. Five years ago I visited Bergen-Belsen and whilst in Krakow I visited Aushwitz-Birkenau which is only 75 minutes away. I also visited Schindler's Factory in Krakow which has been turned into a museum - quite the best of its kind. It was probably this that prompted a viewing of the film that has long been in my library. It was compelling to see parts of the ghetto and factory building that I had walked only a few days before.

Whilst the Holocaust is the context in which this 187 minute long film plays out, it is not a film about the Holocaust but about two German men caught up in it and their differing choices about the role they take. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a flamboyant, womanising, entrepreneurial, trickster with a heart of gold. Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is the Concentration Camp Commandant who is a psychopath with a heart filled with evil.

Schindler is spared the war as he is an industrialist - not a very good one, but someone who wants to open a factory in Krakow making items that are 'indispensable' to the Third Reich - enamelware. The factory employs 'skilled' Jews as they are cheaper to employ than local Poles. As Schindler builds his relationship with the local Camp Commandant Goeth, he audaciously treads a thin line between being found out and buying off people with bribes. Later in the film he opens a munitions factory in Czechoslovakia and insists that an expanded Jewish workforce is transferred there to staff it. What is remarkable is that neither factory is very productive but they do generate a lot of wealth for Schindler who lavishes it on getting the German officers drunk and on bribes.

The central core of the film is the relationship between Schindler and Goeth and how Schindler is able to exert a positive influence on him. The many Jews who live in the ghetto, work for Schindler or get caught up in the local Concentration Camp feature on the whole as a group under sentence of death. Some of them feature more prominently and give us an insight into their background, families and skills.

The film is shot in black and white, apart from a heart-wrenching splash of red once or twice. The ruthlessness and inhumanity of the Nazi war machine and the Final Solution are laid bare for all to see. Acts of kindness, humour and generosity appear randomly as the human spirit and Jewish heritage battle to stay alive. Steven Spielberg as Director has treated the story with great respect, creativity and hopefulness as he delivers a tour-de-force worthy of its accolades and awards. Parts of the film are necessarily brutal - much of it hopefully endearing.  There is so much more to this film than I have touched on here. If you have not seen it, please do. It's not so much great entertainment as great education and offers a chance to reflect on how our own humanity plays itself out. I'll give it 9/10.


Sunday, 12 February 2017

Hacksaw Ridge



When Mel Gibson is the Director you know the action sequences are going to be full-on and in a WWII drama featuring close quarter hand-to-hand combat, the more visceral elements that literally flow from it, are going to be displayed with full and gory anatomical vibrancy! As striking as these images are - and as horrible as war is - even though viewers cannot un-see what they have seen, the most memorable thing that remains for me is the story of the central character Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). This film is a biopic based on the heroics of Doss the Conscientious Objector and the significant contribution he made to the Battle of Okinawa.

This is the kind of film that Clint Eastwood usually Directs. Had he done so, Hacksaw Ridge would have been a radically different film - a jingoistic celebration of a war hero showing the tolerance and diversity living the American Dream can deliver. Instead, we have a thoughtful and heart-warming film which roots the central character in his home context and which links the legacy of WWI to the second generation as demons, guilt and regret enslave those who fought in France and survived.

Garfield's Doss delivers a subtle blend of strength and vulnerability which is wonderfully matched by the captivating and inspiring Dorothy Shutte played by Teresa PalmerGarfiled's performance has won him an Oscar nomination - the film has five other nominations, including best picture. Hugo Weaving also manages to blend subtleties together in his wonderful portrayal of Doss' father Tom.

I heard the good Dr Kermode reviewing this film and for once I disagree with one of his main criticisms. He was complaining that he first half of the film (in total it's 139 minutes!) is too slow as it laboured to establish the central character as a believable and morally upright guy from which the foundation for his conscientious objecting springs. I think that this was necessary and yes it is a film of two halves - but both are essential if Doss' story is to be told. We needed to see the playfulness side of him with his brother, the struggles with his father, the domestic violence and the love of his mother. We needed to see his commitment to the Seventh Day Adventist Church and his ability to think quickly and save a life even before he enlists. But most of all, the first half of the film is necessary as it gives the US Army the opportunity to learn what a Conscientious Objector really are and what to do with them!

There were many passages of this film that brought a tear to my eye because the heart-break, sacrifice and emotional connection of the characters was so real. There were some great examples of editing that made me jump out of my seat! The brutality of war and especially the totality of Japanese combat ethos were repeatedly displayed in graphic technicolor which was reinforced by a deafening soundtrack. This film is very well shot and is completely at home on the big screen.

Overall the film does not paint the US Army very favourably. Slow to catch on, lacking in resources and combat strategies and quite often playing catch-up where Desmond Doss was concerned. The company of which Doss is a part contains the predictable blend of stereotypical men - I wonder how many of them were real and how many were Hollywood inventions? Nevertheless, this is an excellent film and deserving of some recognition in the forth-coming awards ceremonies. Almost worthy of a 9 but scoring a very strong 8/10 here. Do go and see it if you can - unless you are a squeamish pacifist!


Friday, 10 February 2017

I Origins



This is the fourth Brit Marling film I have reviewed on this site and like the others (Sound of my Voice, Another Earth, The East) it is clever, has a good story, draws you into the plot and leaves unanswered questions for you to ponder at the end. I like Brit Marling's acting and the films she makes. Find out more about her work here and here.

This film explores the contrast between life which bases reason solely on scientific processes and life which is open to the spiritual dimensions of our existence. The battleground on which this is fought out is the lab of Dr Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) who is trying to chart the evolution of the eye in a bid to 'disprove' the validity of the concept of intelligent design. In the mind of Gray, science and faith are mutually exclusive.

Gray's fascination with the unique character of the iris of the eye began at an early age and he has built up a large collection of photographs of eyes. His research is in the field of biometrics and branches out into tracing the evolution of the eye through different species who increasingly required the agency of sight to function within their natural habitat. Human eyes being at the pinnacle of the scientific process of the evolution but also being seen by some as the gateway to the soul or embodying the blueprint of a Creator.

Gray's life is impacted by two women - a first year lab assistant Karen (Brit Marling), sent to him on rotation and a woman called Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) with incredible eyes (see above) who grabs his attention at a halloween party and then begins to seduce him before running away. Gray is infatuated with Sofi and whilst Karen is left to develop the research in the lab, Gray takes off on a stalking odyssey to hunt down Sofi guided by random occurrences of the number 11. Science and seemingly irrational coincidences from a world beyond what we see conspire to give the narrative its spine.

The fact verses faith debate is played out well between the main characters although once or twice it all gets a little bit formulaic. Spirituality is presented as a pastiche of faiths with reincarnation and karma being prominent motifs. This may be an intentional nod towards the generality of faith and the variety of ways in which different cultures and faiths express their beliefs, or simply a function of Sofi's nomadic and eclectic upbringing.

Whilst telling you what the film is about I have not told you how it explores these themes which is original and delivers a worthy film. It's not without it's shortcomings and I felt that the characters could have undergone fuller development. It lacks the impact of Another Earth which was also written and directed by Mike Hill but he still delivers a film that can be either watched and enjoyed at face level or used as a springboard for deeper reflection on important metaphysical themes. I liked it and will award it 8/10 even if its ambition isn't quite matched by its delivery. I'm looking forward to the next offering from Brit Marling.



Thursday, 2 February 2017

Lion



This is a wonderful and uplifting film based on a true story. It is a film of great generosity. The trailers and advertising make the plot clear - there are no surprises but this film's worth is in the journey not only of the central character but also the viewer's journey as you get sucked in - totally. I don't know when a film last made me cry so much!

Five year-old Saroo and his older brother Guddu find work as they can - mostly along the railway. One day whilst waiting for Guddu to return a tired Saroo wanders onto and empty train and wakes up the next day as it speeds ever Eastward ending up 2 days later in Calcutta more than 1500 miles away. Not knowing the language, he has to live on the streets by his wits and is eventually taken to an orphanage from where he is adopted by a couple in Tasmania and brought up as their son.

As a fully integrated Aussie, Saroo heads off to College in Melbourne but begins to be plagued by flash-backs to his early childhood. He becomes obsessed with finding his home but keeps his research secret from his adoptive parents wishing to spare their feelings. He spends hours piecing together the flashbacks and constructs a virtual world inside his head where he knows every alleyway and junction. He recreates home internally. The obsession begins to affect Saroo's relationships and he drops out of studies and work. Eventually he works out where he is from and is reunited with his mother. I will give nothing more away about the plot - there is still plenty more to see.

Some have argued that because the narrative arc is so simple, why does it require a film of 2 hours duration to tell the story. The answer is because this film does so much more than just tell a story. The cast is top-drawer - Dev Patel plays the 25 year old Saroo, Rooney Mara his girlfriend and his adoptive mother is played by Nicole Kidman whose beauty, vulnerability and compassion are simply enchanting. The film is also beautifully shot - the opening aerial sequences of India and Tasmania highlight the contrast between the two. The way the warmth or coldness of the light is used to reinforce the mood of a scene is also masterful and belies the fact that this was Director Garth Davis' first feature film.

This film is about the need to connect with home - our origins, the place and people that formed and shaped us. It also explores, loss, love, hope and familial responsibility. All good themes that contribute to the uplifting nature of this film. Even as his obsession drives him to dark places, Saroo is never beyond the forgiveness and love of those around him.

The train is more than a metaphor for the journey Saroo undertakes. As well as the physical journey from Ganesh Talai to Hobart and back again, this film takes the viewer on an emotional journey where we befriend and want only the best for Saroo. The scenery is varied as is the pace of the film. Windows and reflections in glass feature regularly as Saroo tries to reflect on who he is and where he has come from. Occasionally we are given a precious insight into the psychological state of Seroo and those around him.

There is little if anything to dislike in this film. If the pace or length of the film had been altered in any way, it would only have been to make the film poorer than it is. The contrast between eking out a subsistence living in India and enjoying the world of plenty and privilege in Australia cannot be over-stated but Saroo's cheerful happiness with either circumstance discloses that a lesser person would probably have succumbed to some nefarious activity along the way and have ended up dead or addicted to something.

Where do you come from and what has contributed to making you the person you are today? Fundamental questions that we need to explore if we are to have any chance of being at peace with ourself. When dislocation accidentally occurs, or someone's upbringing was highly transient (as was my experience) notions of home and the identity that flows from it can be missing and our sense of self eroded as a consequence. heavy stuff.

As you will have gathered, I really liked this film - in spite of the emotional work out it gave me. I will seek to add the disc to my library as soon as I can. In the meantime I will award it the rare accolade of 9/10. This film is a gift - receive it with enthusiasm.


Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Star Trek Beyond



Have you ever been to your favourite restaurant, ordered your favourite meal and when it's set before you, even though it's made with all the usual ingredients, in the same kitchen, but it's made by a different chef and unsurprisingly it doesn't taste as it should? The third film in the reboot is Directed by Justin Lee and not JJ Abrams as was the case with the previous two and that may well be the root of the problem with this film.

Don't get me wrong. This is a Star Trek film with all the usual characters, lots of action, new alien species to encounter and peril that places the Enterprise and Federation in jeopardy, but the way it's put together results in a film that is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Disappointing.

It's difficult to pin point the real problem. The plot is convoluted, the action sequences a bit over done, Zulu is suddenly gay and different scenes in the film resonate with other movies - a docking sequence from the Matrix, a forest from Avatar and action sequences from Indiana Jones to name but three.

The film is set in the third year of a five year mission and sees the Enterprise at the edge of known Federation space. A lot of the narrative arc is occupied by the relationships between the lead characters rather than the plot of the film - or perhaps this is intentionally the plot of the film. When you come up against the edge of the known universe I guess there might be a reluctance to invent yet more alien worlds and races. With the whole of the universe to play with, for me the film felt almost claustrophobic, being limited to essentially two locations - the Starbase Yorktown and the planet Alamid.

The plot lacks subtlety and descends into a seemingly power-crazed revengeful quest for mass destruction because old soldiers never change. This at least gives Idris Elba an outing as a Star Trek baddie as the convincing Krall. The film then moves towards a climatic conclusion which of course is followed by the happy ending and the crew ready for the next mission.

Did I enjoy it? Yes. However, it left me feeling that it could and perhaps should, have been so much more - perhaps the reboot needs a reboot. Most viewers will not be too disappointed by the film but ardent Trekkies may have more of a problem. Time to get the proper chef back in the kitchen. I'll give it 7/10.


Sunday, 15 January 2017

Beautiful People (1999)



A friend lent me the disc and told me i had to watch this film. The question I am left with is "why?". Wikipedia describes the film as a satirical comedy. Well, that's one way of looking at it. Set in October 1993 the narrative inter-twines a number of stories - England are playing Holland in a qualifier, the Balkan War is in full swing, refugees are flooding to the UK and racism is out of control on the streets of London.

Perhaps the chaotic way in which the stories unfold through jump-cut editing is a device intended to reflect the chaos of war and its aftermath. It makes for rather disjointed viewing and narrative arcs that make tangential turns only to resolve themselves in a happy ending depicting people who at first seem far from beautiful. I can't remember seeing a film quite like it.

The film has some extremely unlikely plot turns but the fact that most of the characters provoked a strong reaction from me shows that something must have been working. Few of the characters are likable - perhaps that's necessary for them all to be transformed into beautiful people. All-in-all the whole thing is just overdone and lacking finesse.

There are some who have the seen this film and think it's very clever and done well. It is interesting that on Rotten Tomatoes that there aren't many viewer reviews and only a few critic reviews. The top critics on the site all rate it positively whereas IMDb is less enthusiastic giving it 6.7/10. All of this simply demonstrates it's a film you either get or it gets you! I'll give it 6/10.








Sunday, 8 January 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story



This film seems to divide opinion. A good friend of mine whose opinions and film witterings I really appreciate (Vic Thiessen) writes on his blog's review of this film about the main thing that bothers him: "the utter lack of originality and imagination, resulting in an overwhelming sense of boredom". Perhaps the UK release was a totally different film, but in the version I saw, for me the thing that made it fly was the way in which it took me back 40 years to look into the future. Edge of the seat stuff for most of its 133 minutes - and that from a film with (mostly) new characters. Yes there was lots of mindless action, explosions, shootings and crashes but this is a war film after all.

For me this film could have been made in the 1970s, have been locked away in George Lucas' private film vault and released as a gift for Christmas 2016. Obviously the production techniques have moved on quite a bit since the original, but the worlds created in the film have such a familiar feel about them, the dualism of the Dark Side of the Empire against the good people of the Rebellion, Tie Fighters and X-Wings all made it feel like a luxuriating nostalgic indulgence. I didn't mind being duped - that is after all what I paid the ticket price for.

I won't go into the story except to say that it has a tremendously high level of continuity with the Star Wars universe that we know and love. It takes the opportunity to provide (invent?) some back story that helps make more sense of the original trilogies. It feels real - if that's not a silly thing to say and that is why so many have liked it. On iMDb it currently scores 8.1/10 and on Rotten Tomatoes 85% so it must have something going for it!

It was good to see Felicity Jones performing strongly in a different kind of role as Jyn Erso. There were strong performances from many others - even Peter Cushing performs from beyond the grave to reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin. Any fears that the Disneyfication of the franchise would see it altered in a negative way are ill-founded now that we have two films to judge the new owners of the brand by. That is really good news as the production schedule has new films appearing at an appetising rate.

This could have been a flop, it could have betrayed the original, it could have been a poor story - but none of these happened and it rightly deserves the accolades it has garnered. I really enjoyed it and look forward to adding it to my collection in due course. I'll give it 8/10 - almost a 9, but not quite.




Saturday, 7 January 2017

Films to be released in 2017



A great listing of all that is to come this year from those nice people at Show Film First. Click on the pic to follow the link.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Making meaning through movies



Something for folk in or near the West Midlands. Come and join me for a day exploring how we make meaning through watching films together. 

Saturday 14 January 2017

10 - 3

Balsall Heath Church Centre

100 Mary Street Birmingham, West Midlands B12 9JU

Bring your own lunch

For more details click here

Please register to help us know how many chairs to put out!

See you there 😀

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Jason Bourne



The fourth offering in the Bourne franchise was always going to run the risk of becoming stale and feeling like a cynical way to make more money from Robert Ludlum's character. This film's narrative is different to the opening trilogy - yes it's filled with chases, explosions, glittering cities around the world, but in the few quieter moments it develops Bourne's quest to rediscover himself in a tender, nuanced and unexpected way.

Produced by Matt Damon and Directed by Paul Greengrass this is an intelligent action/spy movie that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. The narrative arc begins and ends with a bare knuckle prize fight - although the concluding fight delivers a different prize for Bourne (Matt Damon). However, throughout the rest of the story Bourne still has to deal with the old school Director of the CIA, this time played with hauntingly cold efficiency by Tommy Lee Jones.

Against the same old, same old ethos of the CIA which is struggling to maintain its credibility with Congress, the film deftly introduces the new thinking brought to us by Millennials about open-source social media platforms, freedom of information and a suspicion of the "State". This film is so much more than Bourne simply evading assassins.

Continuity is offered through the character Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who risks everything to help Bourne discover the truth about his past. Pamela Landy is replaced by the sassy and ambitious cyber-geek Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) who also has sympathy for Bourne - but only as far as it will advance her own agenda.

The action shots move at breath-taking pace from Reykjavik to Athens to Berlin, London and on to Las Vegas for the Grand Finale. The chases, are as unbelievable as ever and Bourne's resourcefulness seemingly knows no limitation at all. His ability to penetrate the strongest of defences and disappear like a ghost presumably pays testimony to the effectiveness of the training he received under the Treadstone Project.

As you may have gathered, I liked this film - a lot. For me it avoided many of the pitfalls that beckoned whilst adding extra depth to the story. The locations were stunningly shot - many of them at night and within the world of Bourne and the CIA it was all believable. The cutting question might be, are the security agencies of our respective countries carrying out activities like this on our behalf? To be honest I am fearful of the answer. I'll give the film an 8/10.