Sunday, 31 December 2017


This film shouldn't work - but it does. It is cliched, has plot holes the size of a planet and hurtles at a relentless pace as CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) runs to evade capture and assassination at the hands of both the CIA and FSB. Salt out does John McClane of Die Hard and even out does Jason Bourne of the Bourne Trilogy(+) fame - she is seemingly indestructible and so resourceful she can escape from any tight squeeze. After only 10 minutes I had worked out the arc of the story and who was who in this double-double cross of a spy film - yet I still enjoyed it!

Tom Cruse was originally cast to play the lead but in the end Cruse felt that the lead character was too like Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible so withdrew from the project. This is not a film of great artistic merit or intellectual engagement. Neither is it a positive advertisement for a return to the days of the Cold War in which the ideology that drives the story originates. It is nevertheless very entertaining. There are persisting rumours of a sequel or even a TV series on Sony but nothing firm yet.

I appreciate that his kind of film is more like a fantasy story than documentary but the plot does allow for too many last second escapes and the stunts that Salt pulls off would render most people paralysed by half-way through the film. The violence is relentless but lots of it is non-lethal. For a film starring one of Hollywood's most beautiful, the visuals do not exploit Jolie's physical attributes and there are  only one or two low-key kisses. The emphasis remains firmly on her role as an all action hero. Even when she does remove her underwear, there is no sexual or romantic intent at all - it's all for the action!

As I said, I liked it - glad I've seen it, but I won't be rushing to order the disc for my collection - just right as a TV movie. If it's on and you have nothing else to do and you enjoy films of this type, then do watch it. I'll give it a 7/10.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017


This is one of those joyous films that can be received and enjoyed at face value or used as a springboard to do some deeper thinking and reflecting on bigger questions. Which way did you choose to see it? One of the top films of 2016 it was nominated for 8 Academy Awards but strange things were happening that year at the Oscars and it only won 1! Amy Adams should have won best actress with a strong yet subtle and nuanced performance as academic linguist Louise Banks.

The film is about the arrival of some extra-terrestrial beings who arrive in 8 spacecraft at different locations around the world. At face value the film depicts a race between the nations competing to be the first to decipher the alien's intent whilst keeping a finger on the trigger just in case they become hostile. Banks is recruited to help the US military decode the alien's communications.

On a deeper level the film invites an exploration of our understanding of time as the aliens offer the chance to see it in a non-linear way. At the beginning of the film, Banks talks to her daughter saying "I used to think this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn't work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time, by its order." This sows the seeds and things are set for a film that to all intents and purposes proceeds along a linear timeline, but as Banks understands more and more of the alien's language, so she is subject to flash-backs - or are they premonitions? This film messes with time and the viewer's perception of it. What if time doesn't really sequence one thing after another but is in itself non-linear and multidimensional?

In addition to exploring time as a concept, the film 'coincidentally' invites a reflection on giving and receiving love, and human identity in the vastness of the universe. The editing of the film is completely at one with the story and the way in which it is told. Jump-cuts slash back and forth across time to emphasise the non-linear nature of the alien's understanding of it. There is also a clever play on dark and light, shadows and smoke - the almost mirror-like environment within the alien's spacecraft. The subtle use of colour shifts to underscore what different characters are doing and where the film is heading also reinforces the story and through that, viewer engagement.

I've tried not to give the plot away as that would spoil things. The acting is strong in this film - not only from Adams but from the others too. It makes a refreshing change to have an alien movie that is not simply a shoot-em-up but invites another way of exploring extra-terrestrial encounter. Louise Banks appears to me to be extremely intuitive. That causes me a problem as intuition is my shadow side and therefore difficult for me to connect with. 

This is not a the run-of-the-mill sci-fi alien encounter film. The storytelling, acting and expansive ideas carried by a script that is both challenging and believable all combine to deliver a gift of a film. Do seek it out if you've not seen it. It will repay the investment of time. I'll give it 8/10.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

A very British feeling film, setting lead character Harry Hart [Galahad] (Colin Firth) very much in the mould of John Steed (Patrick Macnee) from the original The Avengers. This is a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the whole genre of spy action movies paying homage to James Bond, Jason Bourne with a hint of Monty Python all set to over-the-top Tarantino-like choreographed showpiece violence. With a star-studded ensemble cast and dialogue that fits the visual landscape of the film, it deserves its plaudits at the hands of critics and the movie-going public alike.

The Britishness is carried by the locations - a London council flat, a local old style pub with villians, a spy HQ accessed through a Saville Row tailor and the notion that the Kingsman are the modern day Knights of the Round Table presided over by Arthur (Michael Caine). Being a Gentleman is the primary calling, national security, a sense of style and getting the bad guys are all secondary considerations.

In a sense the plot is irrelevant as we've seen it a hundred times before in endless spy films. It does have a narrative arc and as always with these films, resolution is inevitable - as is the Bond-like ending! The violence is so theatrical and over-the-top it would be hard for much of it to cause offence but the constant bad language was I felt an unnecessary component - IMDb logging 99 expletives! I guess with that level of violence it was always going to attract a rating so the bad language got in for free as it were.

The gadgets, locations and ingenious escapes all thrill. The acting is good and the characters believable - especially the bad guy's side-kick Gazelle (Sofia Boutella)! With a winning formula, strong cast and good reception at the box office and with the critics, this was always destined to the first of a franchise run. Kingsman: The Golden Circle was released in the autumn of 2017 - let's see how that compares. I'll give this film 7/10.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Hidden Figures

From the openly ambiguous title, this film operates on a number of levels but there is a feeling that the Holywood filter distorts a great film which means it ends up only being good. It is filled with contrasts - the most obvious being the world of white Americans contrasted with the world of Black Americans. It also contrasts the privileges afforded to men and denied to women. It contrasts compliance against subversion of the institution in its many forms. It presents a victory for the myth that America is great when in many parts of the USA the reality of defeat means that little has actually changed in the intervening 50 years - more than that, segregation and apartheid have moved on to operate in new areas of hate and fear. The picture is little better here in Europe. So perhaps this film's greatest triumph is to issue a rallying call for our common humanity to rise up and unite in ways that our social constructs seem intent on denying us.

The majority of the film takes place in 1961/2 against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and of course the space race. The State of Virginia is a segregated State - except when an individual's intellect is of use to the government. The film is punctuated by close-ups of a black hand embracing a stick of white chalk to mark each time another chink is opened up in the armour of a society which has institutionalised racism. As three black women work for NASA in engineering, the early days of computing and calculating spacecraft trajectories, so they blaze a trail fuelled by the merit of their abilities which forces the establishment and the individuals within it to begin re-evaluating their innate racism and sexism.

Each of us is born into a situation that we take as being normative. As we grow and develop, the natural tendency is to conserve the status quo as that is what brought us into the world and nurtured our development. That's fine - until we are uncritical of the status quo and fail to explore where its flaws are and how we might seek to change them. Furthermore, we need to explore where our role within the social machine within which we exist, makes us complicit in perpetuating something that is not wholesome and life-giving. Social responsibility is a nuanced and awesome thing. Preserve all that is good and help to change for the better, that which is not. St Irenaeus is credited with saying "The glory of God is a human being fully alive" - a recontextualising of John 10:10? How can I, you, help the people we know, to be fully alive?

The acting performances from the three lead actors are immensely strong and engaging. The central character is Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) ably supported by Mary Jackson (Janelle MonĂ¡e) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Between them they challenge the white male dominated world and break down barriers not only in toilet provision and access to coffee, but also in having the foresight to enable NASA to properly exploit the potential of their first mainframe IBM computer. However, it still requires a human in the shape of Katherine Johnson to correct the computer's miscalculation of a critical point of the re-entry, to ensure a safe return for John Glenn's first US manned flight in space. Kevin Costner's Al Harrison is likeable but I felt the character to be almost a construct of convenience to enable the story to continue it's narrative development.

Whilst outlining what i think are the main themes, I've tried not to give too much away about the way in which the story plays out. This is a very human film with warmth, humour and a portrayal of an oppressed community biding its time until freedom comes. It seems that our collective ability to put human beings into space and to look beyond opens up new vistas of learning. I wonder if we should concentrate on learning lessons about things that should matter closer to home? This is a good film that offers plenty of scope for reflection on a number of issues. I have a feeling it might have been a great film if it had been handled differently. I'll give it 7/10.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Henry Poole is Here

Looking out on the end of the day as the sun sets on his life. Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) buys a house at the full asking price on the street where he grew up in an anonymous Los Angeles suburb. Having received a terminal diagnosis for an undisclosed disease, he has come home to die. All he wants, is to be left in peace as he indulges in a diet of vodka, pizza and doughnuts awaiting the inevitable.

When a 'stain' appears on the newly painted exterior of the house, his latino neighbour Esperanza (Adriana Barraza) sees the face of Christ in the stain and when a droplet of blood appears on the face, it becomes a shrine and site of pilgrimage. All of this deals a double blow to Henry, firstly to his desire to be left undisturbed and secondly to his, at best, sceptical view of faith and religion.

I won't say anything more about the plot or narrative arc of this film but I will say for a mainstream film that is openly exploring issues of faith and belief, it does so with refreshing openness and engagement. It also offers clear psychological insights into the lives of the main characters, each of whom is dealing with their own set of circumstances. The actors performances add to the believability of the characters and each one allows the viewer to explore how they might react were they stand in their shoes.

The central questions in the film relate to faith and doubt and whether something you don't believe in can exist outside of your beliefs. Other questions to explore might be, are doubt and certainty opposite ends of the same continuum? Also, does belief look the same for everybody? Henry placed his faith in medical science without any evidence whereas Esperanza placed her faith in a likeness of Jesus that was tangible. Whose faith was blind?

The pace of this film is deliberate and gives space and time for the characters to wrestle with what's before them. It is a film about kindness and giving. It is also a film about virtue - faith is foremost and Esperanza means hope, in his other neighbour Dawn (Radha Mitchell), he may find love and at the grocery store he encounters patience! Dawn certainly lives up to her name in guiding Henry through a series of epiphanies.

This is a gentle and heart-warming film about important things which delivers its story in a realistic and engaging way. I encourage you to check it out and reflect on what issues it raises in your mind. I'll give it 7/10.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Choosing which image to use was a hard choice because this film is not about one thing, but many things. There isn't a simple narrative arc that holds the film together as it proceeds on multiple fronts simultaneously as each main character battles their inner demons. There is much that is familiar here from the Star Wars universe but the character evolution during the film adds a depth and complexity that has perhaps until now been lacking. I particularly enjoyed the many moments of humour that peppered the film.

At the end of the day this is a Sci-Fi action movie that has plenty of fight sequences and battles, space ship fighter engagements and deployment of destructive mega-technology. All the things you would hope for an expect in a Star Wars film. What I didn't expect was the nuanced way the script dealt with the classic battle of dualism - good versus evil. This film explores the many shades of grey that exist between black and white (and no sex scenes in sight).

For the many who were expecting a continuation of the flow that pulsed through VII and are disappointed, this film was never going to deliver that - the clue is in the title. This film is not about the legacy of Luke Skywalker continuing as it did previously - or as we would wish it to in our own fantasies, but about a pivot in the history of the challenge of good versus evil where the battle moves on to continue in a different way. The film, as all of them do, invites us to reflect on how we engage with evil and what we do about exerting a good influence to counter it.

The acting is strong throughout the 2.5 plus hours of the film. The visuals are stunning and the CGI seamlessly integrated with the actors - a welcome development over four decades! I'm attempting not to give anything away here. The way the story develops has twists and turns and as you would expect in a Star Wars film some people die - and some don't - but who ends up in which category is perhaps where the film delivers its greatest surprises.

This film is well worth seeing - but be realistic in your expectations. It is not an episode in a TV box set series but a movie developing and advancing a story that many of us had the privilege of  experiencing forty years ago in the cinema for the first time. If it does conform to all your hopes and expectations what's the point of paying to see it on the big screen? We go to engage with the unexpected, the visually stunning and the communal experience that cinema provides. We look to see where our story intersects with the film's story and God's story. Go with an open mind and heart and you will not be disappointed. The bonus is, you will get to meet the Porgs - who wouldn't want one (Star Wars version of Star Trek's Tribbles)? I'll give it 8/10.