Saturday, 28 October 2017

I, Daniel Blake

It is a strange feeling to be in close proximity to 500+ other people, seven miles up at 600 miles an hour and to be sobbing uncontrollably. Such is the power of this film to evoke a strong emotional response. It is a damning indictment of modern British society that such a film could be made - a film that is sadly more documentary than fiction. For those of us who don't move in the world of job seekers allowance and benefits, it offers a glimpse into an existence that is all too common to too many people.

This film challenges notions of collective social responsibility, highlights the individuality of the case of each claimant and the cruel reality of austerity in the face of the 2008 financial crisis. The points it makes transcend party politics. It is a call to simple humanity, respect and the offer of an invitation to love your neighbour as yourself. Why is it so hard to make things work more equitably?

The unpleasant and gritty reality of the film is amplified by being set in the North-East of England amongst the wonderful people of Newcastle. An area of the UK to have suffered more than its share of job losses and deprivation over recent decades. The characters in the film are compellingly believable and the acting performances - particularly from the two central characters, outstanding. Dave Johns as the titular Daniel and Hayley Squires as lovable Katie weave a web of interdependency that anchors the story to a place of hopeful dark reality.

The portrayal of Job Centre staff is mostly less than kind - they are in an impossible situation and although there are undoubtedly some jobsworths that delight in creating eternal spirals of bureaucracy, there are many others with a generous heart who do not delight in the plight of those they serve on a daily basis. The anonymisation of 'the system' is dehumanising and the fact that determinations are made by someone called 'The Decision Maker' who remains invisible, further alienates people seeking support and feels more like something from Orwell's 1984.

It is clear that the British social security system is broken. How can someone who is advised by their National Health Service Doctor not to work as they continue recovery from a heart attack, be compelled by another part of the National system to demonstrate that they are seeking work in order to continue receiving benefits? How can that system expect a man who has worked all of his life with his hands to be computer literate and compel him to create a neatly laid out and printed CV? Where does he pick up the necessary skills and how easily can he access a computer? How are such things to be paid for?

I'm sure there are some folk who play the system for all they can get. What this film demonstrates - and it seems to accepted as de facto - is that the system is loaded against the 'man/woman in the street' who needs some help to enable him/her to get by until such time as he/she can get back into work. Or loaded against the single mum forced to relocate hundreds of miles away from her circles of support, who ends up being driven into supporting her family through less than ideal ways?

This is a powerful yet ultimately very sad film. It contains many glimpses of the best of human nature but ultimately these offering are snuffed out by a system that seems predicated on a philosophy of saving the state money, of issuing unwarranted sanctions willy nilly and most alarmingly of failing to see fellow human beings as such. It paints a picture that is dehumanising.

Director Ken Loach continues to deliver keenly observed and conceived films that highlight the human condition. This is an important film that spotlights the pressing need to hold to account those who govern supposedly on our behalf.  To award it a score with boxes of popcorn would be an act of trivialisation. This film stands above such things.

Friday, 27 October 2017


I gave my significant other a choice of three Sci-Fi films to watch on disc and this is the one that was chosen. It turns out to be less a film about Sci-Fi and more a film about what it means to be human, to love and to be loved.

The context is definitely Sci-Fi but the narrative is all about the need to be in community, to give love and to receive love. Essentially there are only four characters in this film, one of those is an android barman called Arthur (Michael Sheen), the second only features briefly (Laurence Fishburne as Gus) which leaves most of the film about Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence).

This is a visually beautiful film. All of the narrative unfolds on the spaceship Avalon which is transporting 5000 colonists who have paid for their passage to found a new colony on a distant planet because Earth is becoming over crowded and beginning to struggle to support life. The passengers are all in a state of stasis in hibernation pods. Thirty years into a 120 year journey, Jim is inexplicably woken and finds himself the only person roaming the ship. He tries to make use of its facilities but as he is only an 'economy' class passenger, many of the facilities on offer are not available to him! He does however strike up a good relationship with Arthur who it seems has spent 30 years polishing his bar's glasses.

Jim, an engineer,  spends his time trying to work out how to put himself back into hibernation and concludes that it is not possible. As weeks turn into months, the loneliness and isolation together with the growing realisation that he will die before journey's end, combine to propel him into a downward booze-fuelled spiral that even Arthur is unable to stop. On a drunken stagger through one of the hibernation pod halls he notices Aurora in her pod and is drawn to her beauty.

Accessing the ship's files, Jim researches Aurora and views video files she recorded as part of her application process in preparation for the journey. In time he becomes infatuated with her and the idea slowly dawns, that he could wake her up and share his 'prison' with her. Although the script is in places a little clunky, overall it does a very good job of exploring the emotional turmoil the consequences of waking Aurora would have - both for her and for Jim. Jim seeks the counsel of Arthur who, although wonderfully programmed, remains an insensate android that lacks the crucial human perspective that would help Jim resist the temptation.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can't force it back in. The film portrays a gentle, tender and believable growth in Aurora and Jim's attraction to each other. They develop an authentic relationship - not simply one born out of pragmatism given their situation. I won't spoil the plot but I will say that I was deeply moved by the situation they faced, how it developed and the outcome - so much so that my dreams were even affected by the film! I don't think I was any more susceptible to being influenced in this way when I watched the film, but for it to generate such an affective response,  illustrated to me the primal nature of the story - the need for companionship, to love and be loved.

The first hour of the film seemed slow to me, the second hour was over in a flash! The aesthetics of the film are very strong - including the ultimate infinity swimming pool! Special effects are very good too - particularly the weightless gigantic bubble scene!

This film is filled with a wide range of emotions that the characters portray in a convincing way - the casting is spot on. The premise of the story is simple, the way it works out is plausible and the narrative arc delivers a few unexpected twists and turns. I really enjoyed this film - even if it was much less Sci-Fi and much more a good old romance story! I'll give it 8/10.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049

As the picture above shows, 30 years on and Los Angeles is still the grimy, dark and hostile environment that we were introduced to in 1982's Blade Runner. In this film, Ridley Scott's original feel and look of the Blade Runner world are faithfully reproduced and developed under the guidance of Denis Villeneuve. The soundtrack is even Vangelis like in character. This film is not only faithful to the visual and aural components of the original, but the story continues to ask the same question - 'what is life'?

Officer K/Joe is a role Ryan Gosling was born to play. As technological advances mean that there is even greater integration between humans and androids to produce 'replicants', K works as a Blade Runner for LAPD - he is himself the latest version of replicant, the Nexus 9. Nexus of course means meeting point and embodied within the Nexus 9 is the meeting of human and machine - but is he simply a machine or is he alive? What is life?

This is a big question and Blade Runner 2049 is a big film. The focal point is so often located in a much wider view (as above) whether that be the urban sprawl of LA or the desert or a disused machine hall or mound of rubbish. At nearly 3 hours long I found myself questioning whether it moved too slowly, but I kept coming back to the idea that in trying to answer such a big question, a big canvas was appropriate and with that a long time-scale to explore the story. No, I don't think it is over long.

This is a film filled with the best and the worst of human emotions. Love, hope, happiness, sacrifice, duty, regret, fear and avarice all play out in a violent world redeemed by pockets of intimacy where notions of love and hope are kept alive. There is talk of miracles and discussion of what it means to have a soul and how that then links to whether or not that constitutes life. This film is more open in dealing with metaphysical questions but leaves the viewer to construct an answer.

Human development is inexorably heading towards a point where Artificial Intelligence (AI) will have the capacity to mimic humanity. The intention of such development in the world of Blade Runner is that replicants are 'slaves' who perform the tasks humans don't want to, or which are unsafe for humans to engage in.

The whole point of AI is its capacity to learn and evolve. What happens if and when human and AI evolution intersect and hybrids develop? How human will they have to be, to be deemed as being alive rather than simply existing as machines? History shows us that slavery never has a neat or equitable outcome - it is still a problem we are dealing with today. Simply making slaves that are 'less than human' doesn't really change the argument - does it? From a Christian perspective, how will all of this impact on notions of what it means to be made in the image of God?

The film contains many strong acting performances in a world where gender inequality appears to be a thing of the past - although sexual holograms and prostitutes are all female, so perhaps it is only the appearance of equality the film gives? Robin Wright as Lieutenant Joshi and Ana de Armas as Joi both give compelling performances. It was good to see Harrison Ford reprise his role as Deckard (or if I was unkind Harrison Ford!) but for me the stand out performance was from Sylvia Hoeks playing 'the best of Angels' Luv.

Ridley Scott's DNA runs throughout this film as he oversaw production, but it is probably the original Blade Runner's writer, Hampton Fancher's screenplay that gives greatest continuity with the 1982 offering. I hope they all stick around as this story has plenty of scope for further developments and more films in the Blade Runner franchise. As you may have gathered, I liked it - a lot. It's not often a sequel matches the original but for me in this case it does, so I will award it 9/10!

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Blade Runner - The Director's Cut

After 35 years, time has not dulled the visual or ethical impact of this film. Ridley Scott's celebrated masterpiece still holds it's head high. I rewatched it again ahead of hopefully seeing the sequel in the next few days. Based on Philip K Dick's story 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' the film is set in November 2019. I'm glad to report that Scott's dystopian Los Angeles has not quite yet come to pass!

The bleak and darkened sets, half-lit and filled with clouds of steam and constant rain, all combine to create a very 'other' kind of world. It is permanent night and the all pervasive day-glow advertising brings a sharp contrast to the greyed out streets of the cityscape. It is little wonder that the healthy and able have left the planet to colonise other worlds. Those that remain, populate an underclass which requires heavy and frequent law enforcement.

The central thrust of the story is a now common theme amongst Sci Fi writers as the fiction becomes ever closer to reality. What if Artificial Intelligence (AI) creates beings that evolve into something that challenges the primacy of their creator? Perhaps a parallel with the Biblical narrative?

Star Trek's Data portrayed a benevolent android whose shadow side was manifested in his darker brother Lore. The characters ably demonstrating the dichotomy and danger facing those who are developing AI and robotics.  More recently films such as Ex Machina and  Ghost in the Shell have explored the deception of humans by AI driven androids. This is a rich vein in Sci FI that follows in the traditions of Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov et al.

The narrative arc of Blade Runner is straightforward and is set out at the beginning of the film. A group of the latest Nexus 6 model of 'replicant' have escaped their assigned roles and gone rogue in an attempt to increase their inbuilt four year life span. Some have returned to earth and pose such a threat that ace Detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is blackmailed out of retirement for one last mission. He reprises his role as a Blade Runner - someone who 'retires' replicants. Such is the crossover between human and machine that euphemisms must be used to avoid the word 'kill'.

Most of the story progresses as expected as Deckard works his way through the replicants. The leader of the replicants - Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and an experimental replicant Rachel (Sean Young) pose different problems for Deckard as the film unfolds. Does Batty's change of heart as his own death approaches or Rachel's seeming innocence and naivety, signpost some hope for AI to remain more human and not evolve into something that will seek domination and control of humanity? Where does being human end and being machine begin? What happens when humans create machines in their own image? These are the central ideas that Blade Runner explores.

I will add my voice to those who see this as a top class film. I am looking forward to the sequel which is currently in the cinemas - Blade Runner 2049. The visualisation, story and acting of this film leave me no choice other than to award it 9/10.