Thursday, 20 February 2020

Denial


Having marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz last week, I chose this film to watch with a group of friends form church. Like flat earthers, it's difficult to accept that there are some who deny that the Holocaust actually took place. Why? What is their motivation? What do they hope to achieve by setting themselves against nearly everyone else and an entire people?

Based on true events, this film explores a libel court case at the High Court in London when 'historian' David Irving (Timothy Spall) challenges what he claims is defamation of professional and personal character in a book written by American College Professor Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz). The quirkiness of British law means that in a libel case the burden of proof lies with the  accused who has to prove the accuser is indeed a liar and selective rewriter of history to suit his own ideology.

Whilst the film is most certainly set within the context of the horrors of the Holocaust and especially the things that went on at Auschwitz, it is fundamentally a courtroom drama which centres on the ingenuity of Lipstadt's legal team of lawyer Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) backed by a team of researchers. They plan to entrap Irving, who mounts his own prosecution, by appealing to his overdeveloped ego to try the case before a Judge without a jury as the technicalities of the case would be too intricate for laymen to grasp. Technicalities that Irving has spent his life mastering. Irving agrees. Lipstadt's team feel Irving would play to a jury and win them over.

Whilst the Jewish community in America is quick to offer financial support to enable the trial to proceed, British Jews try to persuade Lipstadt to drop the case and settle out of court as it will give publicity to Irving. Lipstadt is incensed that neither she nor any Holocaust survivors will be called to testify by her team. Her team have seen Irving tear such people apart and do not wish to give his cause oxygen. Instead, they concentrate on the forensic details of establishing that Irving changed his views and rewrote history to support what is presented as his own right ring, racist and anti-semitic ideology.

The story behind this film presents two opposing histories - one from a revisionist perspective of Hitler and one from the perspective of the Holocaust. They are incompatible and it falls to a Judge to rule which is truthful. Holocaust survivors are in court each day and pressurise Lipstadt to have their voice heard. She deflects the pressure by saying that she will ensure the voice of suffering is heard. Lipstadt makes repeated demands to be heard as a witness along with survivors - so much so that in the film her character becomes too whining and more than a little tedious.

Lipstadt undergoes an epiphany when she realises that the real denial here is the denial of the survivors to be heard and her own greater self-denial of not having a public voice while the trial is underway. She eventually places her trust in her legal team and the roller coaster proceeds much like a Heavyweight bout as two pugilists slog it out with the judges seemingly scoring each successive rounds first to Irving and then to Rampton. The outcome is unclear from the Judges 300 page written basis for his Judgment, the tension builds as the Judgment is given and he finds in favour of Lipstadt and in doing so, voice is given to the suffering that was endured and which continues.

We know the outcome as it is based on a real life story. What makes this film of interest is the characters and the methods they employ to achieve their intended aim. The acting is strong (even if Lipstadt is whiny) and the scenes filmed when the defence team visit Auschwitz on a foggy and frosty day add to the bleakness of the memorial and ramp up the pressure for Irving to be defeated. This is an interesting film, well made. To watch this alongside The Boy in Striped Pyjamas and God on Trial would make for a heavy but engaging triple bill. I'll give this film 7/10.





Saturday, 15 February 2020

Parasite



If you've not seen this film and intend to, stop reading now and get down to the cinema - one with a great sound system as the sound in this film is wonderfully 360 degrees. (Thank you Everyman Birmingham.)

You cannot have escaped the hype surrounding this fim as it won many BAFTAS and the next week cleared out the Oscars. Is the hype justified? It's certainly an engaging film with a very clever narrative which delivers a massive unexpected and unforeseen twist at a critical point. The cinematography is top class and the ways in which the visualisations of the sets and their relative positions reinforce the core of the story, are masterful.

Whilst it has clearly charmed international audiences and juries around the world, I wonder if Koreans don't get a whole lot more out of it than Westerners? I had the feeling that many clever subtleties passed me by. The whole premise of always seemingly needing to have a plan even when the plan might be not to have a plan possibly means something more in Korea. When is opportunism simply deception? When is it wrong for people who are capable of performing a job but are unable to gain employment simply because they don't hold the right certificates or qualification to actually seize an opportunity for work when it presents itself?

The film is very clever in the way that it invites many questions without really delivering any  answers. The premise of the film is straightforward enough but the way in which it is enacted delivers a real life fantasy where we are made to believe things simply because they happened in the film - but isn't that a hallmark of great storytelling? The ensemble cast have no weaknesses and deliver performances where the comedic elements are always implicit leaving you to draw them out and appreciate them.

Ostensibly this is a film about different socioeconomic classes, about the haves and the have nots. The key line in the dialogue is "They're rich, but they are still nice" as though wealth makes good people bad and poverty makes bad people good. From the sub-basement squalor of cockroach and urine infested urban dwelling to the breezy and airy luxury of the hilltop mansion, this film is littered with visual and plot contrasts that never resolve themselves. That is left to the viewer. I am still unsure who is the parasite in this film! There are several candidates and the film holds up a mirror to the viewer. What was the rock about? Was it significant or did it only have significance because the son says it's significant? Its place in the story certainly changes as the narrative unfolds.

This film is multi-layered and the meaning of the layers, the narrative and the symbols are never really defined by the film itself. It's the highest form of audience participation - you decide! The film could so easily have become too clever or kitsch but avoids these potential problems and stays true to what it has to say - whatever you decide that is. There are goodies and baddies, victims and perpetrators, lucky and unlucky, hard workers and consumers of luxury. You work out which is which. It keeps flipping as the different layers come to the fore in their own turn.

It's certainly a great film but is it worthy of the hype when films like The Irishman, Lighthouse, Joker  and 1917 were very strong award contenders? Did it do so well simply because it is an international (we're not allowed to say foreign language any more) film, or is its artistic merit worthy of clearing out the Oscars? Well - that's something else for you to decide! I'll give it 8/10.



Saturday, 18 January 2020

1917


This is as close to war as I ever wish to get - and this film takes you very close. For its entire 2 hours run time this film propels the viewer through the trenches and no-man's land of Northern France in the Spring of 1917. The acting is very good, the screenplay believable, but the thing that catches the attention is the cinematography. The film appears as two continuous shots punctuated only by a brief blackness as one of the lead characters becomes unconscious. The use of very long takes, seamlessly edited together give the impression of non-stop action. At one moment you are up close and personal with trench rats and the next you are flying high over the battlefield looking down on the unfolding combat, all seemingly without an edit. Visually stunning.

The film gives the viewer an impression of war similar to Saving Private Ryan and in that sense the story has parallels. However, I was glad I could not smell the film, experience the cloying clay or sense the actual dampness that characterised so much of the unimaginable reality of trench warfare. The gore and rotting flesh of no-man's land where soldiers lie alongside horse carcasses both being nibbled on by rats and ravens is other-worldly. It's a world I don't want to visit or even pretend exists. In a world where leaders execute warfare through the clinical detachment of drones and cruise missiles, perhaps they should watch this to be reminded of the human cost that is an inevitable consequence of war.

Whilst the explosions and sniper fire push home the deathly nature of conflict, the real conflict goes on in the minds and hearts of the two lead characters as time and time again they have to overcome fear and panic in order to simply survive and carry out their mission. Courage and heroism are inadequate words.

The cast includes such heavyweights as Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong who all play minor supporting roles leaving the screen to be inhabited by the two leads Dean-Charles Chapman as Lance Corporal Blake and George MacKay as Lance Corporal Schofield.  Both give excellent performances but miss out on Oscar nominations although the film does receive nine!

There are unexpected moments of extreme tenderness - friends sharing conversation and sparse rations as they rest for a moment, an encounter with a baby, a song in the woods. The story flows from war-time recollections from Director Sam Mendes' Grandfather to whom the film is dedicated. The 24 hour period covered in the film is cleverly paced as the tension builds. Gripping cinema.

This is a film for the big screen - prepare to be engaged visually and aurally through an excellent soundtrack, but most of all prepare to be engaged emotionally. This film offers an excellent study on human nature - the good and the bad that has you rooting for the lead characters. The narrative arc is straightforward and is established very early on. The course the narrative takes is anything but as predictable. If you have the stomach for this film go and see it now while it is in the cinemas. Not for the queasy. I'll give it 8/10.


Sunday, 5 January 2020

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker



After 42 years, the narrative arc finally lands with the release of episode IX. What are we to expect? New plot developments? New characters? Surprises? Or, more of the same in a way that wraps up a story that has been going on for decades in a nice kind of way, in a galaxy far, far away? In J J Abrams as Director, the franchise is in safe hands and Disney/Lucasfilm surely wouldn't do anything than deliver just enough to keep the legions of fans happy as they buy into yet another merchandise opportunity at Christmas-time? This film satisfies without exciting.

There are a lot of action sequences in the 142 minute run-time. One or two new locations and several familiar ones. The battle between darkness and light remains the spine of the film and for the first time there is acknowledgement that it is not a binary choice but that each of us is inhabited by darkness and light and how we manage our internal balance is the thing that ultimately defines us. So this is basically Harry Potter in Space!

Major themes of love, family ties, betrayal, sacrifice and redemption continue to feature strongly as the story relentlessly ploughs on to its conclusion. The way in which the film visually and idealistically portrays the embodiment of evil is effective and made me feel uncomfortable. There were some pre-schoolers in the row behind - what they made of the visual images I cannot begin to guess. I imagine the moral and philosophical parts of the screenplay passed them by. What will be their abiding memory of having been exposed to such graphic violence, destruction and malevolence? I am certain that these parts of the film had greater impact than the scenes and actions that embodied more virtuous things. Perhaps that is why the dark side is so seductive?

There is a sense in which the screenplay tries, perhaps too hard, to resolve all the outstanding plot questions remaining from the previous eight films. They are all neatly brought together and tied off in a pretty bow. Perhaps the door is left ajar for episode X? There is however plenty of room for more spin-offs and parallels. May the force be be with you. I'll give it 7/10.


Saturday, 4 January 2020

Two Popes



This is a generous and gentle film. It is nevertheless intriguing and stands on the performances of the two lead actors - Anthony Hopkins (Pope Benedict) and Jonathan Pryce (Pope Francis). This is 100% a character driven film as the plot is fairly thin and is really only of interest to ecclesiastical geeks! When a film says in its opening credits 'Based on true events' it's a pretty meaningless thing as it could mean that this is anything between an accurate biopic and complete fantasy. There are doubtless plot devices inserted along the way to make the film more digestible, but these are not overshadowed by the personalities of Benedict and Francis who steal the show. Oscar nominations highly likely.

Although the film is wholly about the Papacy, it is not a churchy film as such. It is more a film about how two men, seemingly with diametrically opposed views on many issues, come to an understanding that allows them to coexist peaceably.

As the conclave of Cardinals meets to elect a new Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires shuns any suggestion that he should become the next Bishop of Rome. Cardinal Ratzinger, Archbishop of Munich and Freising and Dean of the College of Cardinals openly campaigns for support amongst the Cardinals and is duly elected. Despite his protestations, Bergoglio is a clear second place choice.

As Benedict XVI, Ratzinger uses his experience as an academic theologian to steer the Catholic Church back to a more conservative position where the traditional teaching of the church on a range of issues is reinforced. As someone with a strong preference for introversion and having a passion for high art, culture and the finer things in life, Ratzinger certainly enjoys the luxuries that life in the relative seclusion of the Vatican can offer.

Over time, Benedict's health begins to fail and he considers stepping down before he becomes incapacitated. At the same time, Bergoglio becomes tired of the trappings that go with being a Cardinal Archbishop and seeks the Pope's permission to resign and return to parish ministry as a priest. Benedict refuses to agree and a series of conversations between the two produces a number of exchanges where respect is shown but agreement eludes. Like water dripping into a hot frying pan, the two spar using heir immense intellect and drastically varying church experience to debate points of doctrine. Historic sexual abuse by priests repeatedly bubbles to the surface in their exchanges  and each, unsurprisingly, has a different way of viewing the matter.

Generally, Bergoglio is more extraverted and has a passion for living a life more connected with the everyday person on the streets of Buenos Aires. He loves to Tango and is passionate about football. He knows what it is to love another and the cost of walking away from all that to follow the call of God. Bergoglio also carries a sense of guilt and shame from past episodes in his life. He struggles to cope with the lifestyle of Benedict as Pope - the summer palace, commuting by helicopter, Papal red slippers - seeing all of these things as imposing a distance between himself and 'the people'.

Through the conversations, the two men's respect and friendship grows - although they still struggle to find agreement on most issues. Eventually Benedict confides in Bergoglio that he will resign - the first Pope to do so in nearly 700 years. Benedict wants Bergoglio to succeed him. The Conclave of Cardinals duly meets and rather than retiring to parish ministry, the Jesuit Bergoglio is duly elected as Pope Francis.

Layering guilt and forgiveness throughout the conversations, this film delivers two stunning performances that embody grace and respect whilst maintaining opposing positions. The time simply flew by as I found myself totally drawn into and engrossed in this film. Few know about how life in the Vatican proceeds and whilst there is no widespread exposé, the film gives clues about how the character of successive Popes shapes the way in which the Papal household runs. This film is a generous gift - please do watch it. I'll start the year with a 9/10!