Friday, 23 February 2018

Strangers in Good Company (The Company of Strangers)

A friend lent us this film and I'm glad they did - it's a gift. If you prefer action movies with explosions and CGI monsters, then this is not for you. If you want something unique and quite different that will slow you down and invite reflection on the things that are important in life to you, then watch this film.

The immediate back story is unimportant. Seven older women find themselves on a bus tour with their driver/guide in a remote rural location in Quebec when the bus breaks down. They slowly make their way through the countryside in search of help and shelter and find an abandoned cottage overlooking a lake and valley. A vision of Eden perhaps?

Although the plot's key points were already conceived, the dialogue in the film is improvised and the route the characters take to navigate their own wilderness experience is up to them as a collective - each one drawing on their own real life. Their cheerful resourcefulness quickly knits them into a fun-filled community as they share what little food they have and improvise ways to catch to fresh fish and frogs.

The women are:
  • Alice Diabo, 74, a Mohawk elder from Kahnawake, Quebec,
  • Constance Garneau, 88, born in the US and brought to Quebec by her family as a child,
  • Winifred Holden, 76, an Englishwoman who moved to Montreal after World War II,
  • Cissy Meddings, 76, who was born in England and moved to Canada in 1981,
  • Mary Meigs, 74, a noted feminist writer and painter,
  • Catherine Roche, 68, a Roman Catholic nun,
  • Michelle Sweeney, 27, a jazz singer and the bus trip's tour guide,
  • Beth Webber, 80, who was born in England and moved to Montreal in 1930.

Throughout their ordeal, the film often features just two of the women in conversation sharing recollections about their past, their family and their philosophy of life honed by decades of experience. Black and white photos are edited in over the dialogue showing the women in bygone days. Never is the dialogue forced or boring. It repeatedly reveals unexpected gems about some past incident, a way of life, an orientation. Nothing is forced and there is no feeling that you have to buy into anyone's ideas in order to authenticate the story. It is simply offered - as a gift. This film is a wonderful example of the positive power of reflective practice.

At first, the prospect of watching this didn't grip me or fill me with excitement - but it's not that kind of film. I'm glad I did watch it and I'm happy to commend it to you. Light the fire, pour a glass of wine and snuggle up on the sofa. Allow yourself to slip into the ladies world and you'll find yourself in good company, even if they are strangers. I'll give it 8/10.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Dallas Buyers Club

This film has been staring at me from the 'waiting to be watched' shelf for some time - last night it won. This is a powerful film. The acting is powerful. The story is powerful. The depth of human existence it explores is powerful as is the hope that it points to. At a time when America needs a popular mass movement to co-ordinate its resistance against a deaf and self-serving government, to re release this film as inspiration might be a timely thing to do!

Set in the 1980s world of macho cowboy Texas, this film features a community where rodeo bull riding, alcohol, sex and drugs are the normal activities, for the men, punctuated only by having to go to work for those lucky enough to have a job. At one point the lead character describes normal life as "ice-cold beer and bull riding".

That may well be the context but the film explores two important areas. Firstly it explores how poorly equipped governments are in terms of their ability to respond quickly and helpfully to emerging new diseases and how the murky waters of pharmaceutical corporations' finances may or may not buy access to markets. Secondly it explores homophobia and transphobia as it tries to explode the myth that HIV and AIDS only exist within, and therefore are only a problem for, the gay and transgender communities.

The central character is Ron Woodroof played by Matthew McConaughey - also a native Texan, who lost a lot of weight (38lbs) to play the role. He doesn't so much play the role as inhabit the character and is fully deserving of the Oscar he picked up for doing so, as is Jared Leto who also won an Oscar for playing trans AIDS patient Rayon. Jennifer Garner puts in a strong performance as Dr Eve Sacks.

McConaughey before losing weight and as Roy Woodroof in the film

The film is based on a true story and gives an authentic feel to the desperate hopelessness of those with HIV and AIDS in the mid 1980s when no reliable treatment or therapy existed. All that was available were trials of possible new treatments with horrific side-effects which seemed to offer some hope for delaying death - and then only if your hospital was chosen by the pharmaceutical companies to take part in the trial (for which they paid the hospital and lead physicians handsomely). Medical ethics and the hippocratic oath come under close scrutiny in this film and the only clinicians that emerge with any integrity are Sacks and Vass who has to practise in Mexico as the US withdrew his licence because he offered the wrong kind of help to those with HIV/AIDS.

Many of the characters travel similar arcs and the narrative is driven by their evolution. To begin with Woodroof is a self-obsessed hedonist who is angry that unprotected sex, drunkenness and drug addiction should have any consequences beyond a hangover. By the end of the film he has changed significantly and is more concerned with helping as many sufferers as possible, rather than his original goal of making as much money as possible. Despite the transformations in all the main characters, including a more accommodating view on gay and transgender people, it is essentially a film that documents how much Woodroof can do before he dies.

It is a sad film, a moving film, but also a film about hope, love, communities of suffering and human ability to rise to a challenge in a time of crisis. It is also a damning indictment of the USA's Food and Drug Administration and how so often it appears to act unilaterally and not in a way that takes account of the outcomes of foreign drug trials - except when it benefits American pharmaceutical companies. It also highlights the inability of the law to act with any compassion and the institutional bureaucracy that underpins government, growing fat in the process.

This is also an important film, not only because it is a very good piece of cinematography with great acting, but through the script it offers a valuable social commentary on a period that has all too easily been forgotten - except by those living with the aftermath of it. If you have strong resolve and can put up with expletive-ridden sentences, then do watch this is you haven't already seen it. For me, it's another film worthy of 9/10!

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Where do I start with this one? If you need cheering up, do not watch this film! This is a complex but, for me, ultimately sad film. The narrative is pretty thin, this film is driven by the characters. For me the best thing about it is the performance of the cast, I just wish the bleak and sad story that carries the film had been more uplifting. This film is a black comedy - very black in places, but the comedic elements were never enough for me to lift things from the anchoring story line and make me laugh.

Set in dysfunctional small-town Ebbing (and actually filmed in North Carolina) we discover a dysfunctional family living in a dysfunctional community whose police force are - yep you've guessed it, dysfunctional.

The central character is Mildred played by Frances McDormand - one of those performances where  grittiness and guilt-driven burning passion combine to produce a character who is completely believable and convincing. Mildred seemingly isn't one for consultation. She acts rather than discusses and usually acts in a way that provokes others to strong reaction. For me, one of the central features of this film was an exploration of how many of the characters chose when to exercise self-restraint and when they allowed themselves to cave-in to their impulses and lash out in retaliation.

Woody Harrelson's Police Chief Willoughby was possibly the only rational and well-balanced character in the film - and then something happens to challenge that analysis - or does it confirm it? Questions - that what the film has left me with, lots of questions. Other strong performances came from Sam Rockwell and Peter Dinklage.

There are tender moments too. When Mildred is being questioned by Chief Willoughby, a sudden development causes her to remark "Oh baby!" with all the tenderness that only a mother can muster. At one point a young deer appears and for a moment the encounter becomes a thin place and you wait for the epiphany - but it doesn't come. Yet again, the film slaps the viewer in the face and drags them off in an unexpected direction to explore yet more relational dysfunction.

The film takes the viewer on an emotional roller-coaster when signs of hope appear and you want them to blossom, but you are never quite sure which ones will come to fruition. Just when you might have an inkling where the story is going, or even that it's reached a natural conclusion and the credits are about to roll, off it lurches in a new direction to explore new avenues of dysfunctionality. The Direction and acting are both very tight and wholly focussed on exploring the characters and their variety of motivations. McDormand must surely be in line for her second Oscar?

If you want to spend a gentle couple of hours in the cinema allowing a story to wash over you - this is not for you! If you have an aversion to profanities - this is not for you. If on the other hand you wish to engage with acting and film making of the highest order, hold tight and board the roller-coaster. As a story, this film would receive a low score but the power of the characters and the acting propels it to a 8/10. Not for the faint-hearted.

Friday, 2 February 2018

The Post

I didn't realise that this was a 'Spielberg film' until the end credits! The narrative is driven not by the acquisition of classified and sensitive government papers regarding the USA's clandestine  involvement in Vietnam over many years, but in the development of Meryl Streep's Kay Graham who moves from timid victim to decisive leader during the course of the film. At nearly two hours long this film relentlessly ground its way to its inevitable conclusion. The only excitement being provided by the suspense of how it was going to get there.

The film is set in the years 1966-72 with the twenty year long Vietnam War in full swing. Where the film does score big is in flagging up the First Amendment to the American Constitution giving the Press freedom of expression as it serves the governed and not the governors. It seems that there is hardly a decade that has passed since WWII that this maxim hasn't been bent and tested to breaking point. The focus of the film invites the viewer to conclude that nothing has been learned and that the current US Administration is at it again. This makes it an urgent film for today.

That this film was rushed out in between other projects, possibly explains the lack of the usual Spielberg dynamic, but its message to today's audience is as well targeted as any of the missiles underneath Mr Trump's big button. It makes plain the current threat to erode and undermine the freedom of the Press and the persistent inability of succeeding administrations to simply tell the truth. It is political drama of the most urgent and current type.

Without the performances of Streep, Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee) and Bob Odenkirk (Ben Bagdikian), this film would have struggled to stand out. Kay Graham was a mother and a socialite who at the age of 40 inherited the family business and became Publisher of the struggling Washington Post. She had no experience of the workplace and was driven by the maternal instinct to protect the family legacy rather than to confront the wolves on her Board or the investment bankers snapping at her heels. A vulnerable woman lacking in confidence, repeatedly having to try to stand up to aggressive and assertive men in smoke-filled rooms became, for me, an overused cliche throughout the film.

The film explores with some sensitivity the difficulties of Publishers, Editors and Reporters who count politicians among their circle of friends. These are necessary and symbiotic relationships but fraught with potential difficulty. The moral and ethical boundaries can easily become blurred and once one poor judgement is made many others soon follow in its wake. Where the film scores big for me, is in the ending as it sets itself up to almost be the prequel to 1976's All the President's Men which is a very similar film about the Watergate scandal that eventually toppled President Nixon. I wonder what kind of films will be made about President Trump and his legacy in the decades that lie ahead?

This is an important film which should be seen now. Leaders of other nations would do well to heed its message and use it as reminder to check their own use and misuse of media. I wonder if this film will come instantly to mind forty years on in the same way that All The President's Men does today? I doubt it. As a film I'll give it 7/10. As a message to today's White House, I'll give it 11/10!

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Captain Fantastic

After days of reflecting, I still can't decide if this film gives us a naive fantasy or actually has something meaningful to say! It will be hard to discuss it meaningfully without giving anything of the plot away, but I will do my best to limit the damage. It was premiered at Sundance and received nominations for a Golden Globe, BAFTA and at the Oscars - so it must have something going for it, so here goes....

The Cash family have been living an alternative lifestyle in the Washington wilderness for a decade and the six children have all been home schooled. Their parents had good jobs but as anarchists became increasingly disillusioned with mainstream capitalism and withdrew. The family endure a punishing daily fitness regime and are skilled in hunting, mountaineering and a wide range of survival techniques. They live as a mini commune where the parents teach them multiple languages, history, philosophy and politics - all from a position of a strong liberal critique. For me, this film idealises a bohemian bourgeois hipster lifestyle.

The children also learn grammar and calculus as well read the classics on a predetermined schedule to make sure they keep up. Educationally they are years ahead of their peers. The kids are not indoctrinated and are taught to understand and value all sides in a debate but there is little doubt that they are chips off the old block and by osmosis have absorbed their parents' views on most things. Another view would be that through their own inability to engage and change society from within, that both parents are guilty of child abuse on a huge scale.

All is going well until something forces the entire family to travel on the family bus, named Steve, all the way to New Mexico. En route and once there, they have to engage with regular people and this exposes the one thing they are not proficient in - being socially appropriate. This behavioural segregation sets up a number of encounters which if the film is a fantasy are comedic and if it is trying to communicate something serious, extremely sad. Perhaps because for me the film's intention is never clear, I can't decide what kind of film it is.

For me, the film sets out a 'compare and contrast' scenario where the idyllic and altruistic family life of the frontiersman/woman is set against the harsh self-serving individualism of twenty-first century consumerism, where identity is expressed through consumption. For me the film offers a binary choice without offering the opportunity to select which elements of both opposing ideologies could be woven together to create something whose sum is greater than their constituent parts. For me the film puts forward both a thesis and an antithesis but produces no synthesis! Disappointing - or is this the work I am meant to do? Perhaps the way the film ends leaves the door open for a sequel that might explore that.

This film could have been so much more but loses it's defining edge because it is so introspective, which leaves me feeling very frustrated. It does however offer a fertile springboard for discussing the ills of Western society - but in the end does it offer a viable alternative? Overall I remain disappointed which means I must award it 6/10 - but this is a film which is not easily forgotten and I may have to return at some point and be a little more generous.