Friday, 16 August 2013

A Simple Life

This is an intimate and gentle film about honour, respect and service. It is set in Hong Kong and is in Cantonese with subtitles. Ah Tao (Deannie Yip) has been the servant for the Leung family for 60 years and has faithfully served 4 generations. Most of the family now live in the USA but Roger (Andy Lau) remains based in Hong Kong although his work as a film producer takes him away to the mainland quite often. One night he returns from a business trip to find Ah Tao collapsed in the flat - she has had a stroke. Determined not to be a burden to Roger or the family she decides that on discharge from hospital she should move into a nursing home to be looked after.

After 60 years of faithful service Roger does all he can to ensure that Ah Tao is well looked after. He makes regular visits to her in the nursing home and is encouraged by the progress she makes through physiotherapy. However, Ah Tao is always mindful that strokes seldom come alone and that she will be prone to another one. Having lived with one family for so long, we see the painful transition Ah Tao has to make to become part of the community that shares the nursing home with her. Determined to do so on her own terms she wins over the staff and residents and soon becomes a gentle though prominent member of the community.

Roger is single and seems happy with that status. He devotes a lot of time to Ah Tau when he is in Hong Kong and displays nothing but generosity and gentleness towards her. When one of his films is premiered he takes her to the grand opening and party afterwards passing her off as his Godmother as the stigma attached to being a servant would undermine the participation of both of them.

This is a quiet film, sometimes with sparse dialogue. At times it takes on an almost fly-on-the-wall documentary feel with its jerky hand-held camera work and people often talking over each other while the subtitles struggle to keep up. The film relies on great acting from the two leads whose gestures and glances often communicate far more economically than the fullest of spoken dialogues. Through observing the other members of the nursing home community we are drawn into their stories and families and the festivals and celebrations that are important to the Chinese community - including celebrating mid autumn!

At nearly two hours long and being slow paced, it does require a certain degree of dedication to stick with it. However, you will be rewarded by a warm human drama that is a source of hope and inspiration for how we might all better conduct our relationships. I thought it was well worth the investment. I'll give it 7.5/10.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013


History is always written by the victors. This 2003 biopic of the angst-ridden Augustinian monk fighting against his conscience and the Roman Catholic Church is selective in the history it portrays - and omits - and delivers a popular hero that changed the course of world history.

Joseph Fiennes delivers a performance with conviction and compassion that portrays Luther as the conflicted, almost possessed, guilt-ridden sinner destined to burn for eternity in the fires of hell who then becomes the self-doubting unintended leader of a popular movement. This is a Luther who is more concerned with the plight of the poor and down-trodden than with the finery of the nobility. A Luther who is offered many opportunities to save himself but who holds firm in the face of immense pressure and intimidation to seek a greater salvation. A Luther who rejects the adulation and acclaim of the masses and urges everyone - peasants, nobility and Church hierarchy - to follow Christ and share his love by the way they live.

Where this film excels is the way in which it shows the political manoeuvrings of the various heads of state and their desire for self-determination. This fight mirrors Luther's own battle for his 'sola scriptura' based self determination free of the tax-gathering strictures of the Roman Catholic Church that fed the profligate and hedonistic lifestyle of Pope Leo X. The scenes in Rome of brothels for priests and indulgences for all who will pay, the opulence of the Papacy and the punitive acts of penance meted out by well-fed priests are well portrayed as Luther's ire rises. Not given to doing things by halves, he resolves to rediscover a purer Biblical way of living the Christian faith freed from the accretions of a Church with an insatiable appetite for collecting taxes. On his return from Rome he is intercepted by friends who secret him away before harm can come to him and as he begins translating the New Testament into German so the peasants begin to rise up against the Church and their rulers.

It is clear that Luther had a very sharp mind and was a persuasive orator. He used the developing political climate to encourage the regional nobility to defy the Holy Roman Church with the incentive of becoming Saxons (Germans) rather than Roman puppets. Luther also quelled the rioting and insurrection in Wittenberg drawing people back to a more peaceful and Gospel-centred way of living. With 100,000 dead, the threat of Turkish invasion, fires burning and civil war also a real threat, things came together to bring a new direction for the followers of Luther who lined up behind the Augsburg Confession in 1530. Released from the vows of his Order, he married a runaway nun - Katharina von Bora and they raised a family together in Wittenberg.

Last year I had the privilege of attending a week long preaching conference hosted by the University in Wittenberg where Luther was Professor. Many cultural and historical events were organised and so we immersed ourselves in the life and legacy of Lutherstadt for a week. To have walked the corridors of the 'Luther haus' and seen where his friend and colleague Philipp Melancthon lived, to have seen an original indulgence chest with it's slot for the peasant's coins, to have visited Luther's pulpit at the town church and to have walked through the door of the Castle Church on which he nailed his 95 theses (or not) - these were all poignant reminders of how our understanding of living a life of faith and how to be Church has always been a moot point. Luther was a prophet who called God's people back to their Creator. Who are the prophets today, what are they saying and how does being a disciple of Jesus Christ manifest itself here and now? Is it any different to the call Luther made?

For me the film was a bit too long - too much hand wringing and confessional pouting. Set alongside the other cinematic offerings of Luther's life, this is a useful addition. (I wish someone would make a similar biopic of Thomas Cranmer!) It would do us well to remember that the film was in part funded by the Lutheran Church, and as I said, history is always written by the victors. The town of Wittenberg-Lutherstadt was already making preparations for the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 theses - no doubt pilgrims will visit and make their votive offerings at the many tat shops. I wonder what the man himself would make of that?

This remains an interesting historical drama giving a helpful insight into the founding of one of the the world's major Christian denominations and an episode which helped to empower the Reformation more widely across Europe. I'll give it 7/10.

Monday, 12 August 2013

The Ipcress File

Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) presents the antithesis of James Bond in this 1965 Brit-Spy drama - the first of a trilogy. Set at the height of the cold war and based on Len Deighton's 1962 novel, this film offers a brilliant snapshot of British class structure where rank and regiment and club are everything. Palmer is cockney working class but has a taste for good food and beautiful women. He grinds his own coffee freshly every morning and brews it in a cafetiere. He shops for imported ingredients in a supermarket - a recent innovation in sixties Britain. His chirpy ironic and insolent insubordination sets him against his officer-class masters who, whilst viewing him as possessing valuable talents, ultimately see him as expendable.

The story revolves around the 'brain drain' and brain washing which were live concepts in the unstable world of the sixties - an ever-present part of the nightly news and spy films during my childhood! Apparently the type of brain washing depicted in this film was modelled on a project the CIA were running in Canada, so it was based in reality. I've seen this film many times - but this was probably the first time in a cinema. I know it is a spy film and spies live in the shadows and dark alley ways, but for me the print had lost any hint of brightness and the colours were too subdued and muted - apart from the wonderful Routemaster buses and telephone boxes which appeared a lurid scarlet. With the Americans depicted more as interfering adversaries and the KGB nowhere in sight, it has a different slant to most sixties spy fare.

The fact that the film remains so popular - 7.3 on IMDb and 7.7 on Rotten Tomatoes is a testimony to its simple conception, strong story and great acting - no CGI or massive special effects here. In 1999 it was voted number 59 of the top UK films of the 20th century in a BFI poll.

Apart from its lack of colour, this is still a vibrant and extremely watchable film. The performances and story are engaging, the locations chosen to promote the Britishness of this Pinewood Studios film. Fifty years on, watching this again gave me a warm nostalgic glow for the London of my childhood. It was an all round good experience. I'll give it 8.5/10. When was the last time you saw it?

Sunday, 11 August 2013

What Maisie Knew

I caught this today at Harbour Lights on a members' free preview screening. Well done 'Picture house'.

This film is equally as sad as it is heartwarming. It is a contemporary retelling of the Henry James novel from 1897 of the same name. It tells the story of Maisie (Onata Aprile) who is a seven year old girl growing up in a privileged way in Manhattan New York. Her mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) is an ageing hippy rock-chic, still recording and touring but never having been able to move beyond petulant selfish teenager herself. Her father Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer who is so distracted by his business that he is unable to maintain a meaningful relationship with either his wife or his daughter.

It comes as no surprise that the strained marriage flounders to breaking point and ends up in court. Beale gains the upper hand in terms of custody and access. Susanne is embittered that the Judge didn't look too kindly on her and repeatedly bemoans the fact throughout the film.

The story is told from Maisie's perspective and it is clear that that she is the most balanced and even-keeled character in the film. Both her parents are preoccupied by their respective careers. Susanne hosting extravagantly noisy rock parties in the apartment with hints of drug-taking. Beale talks about endless maybes and promises Maisie and au-pair Margot (Johanna Vanderham) boat trips in the Aegean after a business trip to Italy - which never materialises.

The film sets up a painful pattern of repetition. As soon as Maisie is delivered into the company of either parent they fawn over her - until some external intervention becomes more attractive. Their commitment to Maisie is shallow - painfully and woefully inadequate.

It is clear from the way the story is told that Maisie knows full well what is going on and that she knows who feels what for whom. Both her parents quickly remarry. Susanne marries the handsome younger bar-tender Lincoln (Alexander SkarsgÄrd) who is decent, morally alert and, unlike Susanne, not driven by the kudos of wealth, acclaim or celebrity. She marries him to demonstrate to the courts her stability and ability to be a model parent. Beale marries the au-pair Margot - not seemingly for love, but because she is young, beautiful and a ready-made baby-sitter for Maisie.

The narrative arc is obvious from early on. The interesting thing is how will it come to be. The acting is first rate from all, delivered with tenderness and sensitivity. This film delivers a brilliant expose of the pains of divorce and its effect on the children. The film tries to portray Susanne and Blaise as the victims but of course the real victim is Maisie. In the end, the choice of which family unit she chooses to be a part of is left to her. Very postmodern, but in the film, Maisie is the only one with enough common sense to make the right decision.

This is a heart-warming and affective story with great acting that brings a Victorian novel bang up-to-date. When it hits screens please do go and see it - this would make a great film to discuss in a group over pizza afterwards. I'll give it 8/10.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Station Agent

A colleague of mine was surprised that I hadn't seen this and implored me to get hold of it. I'm glad she did - thank you Catherine. I think there are two ways to look at this film - you could either see it as a film about nothing, or a film about everything. I think it is a film about everything.

The central character is Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage). He is passionate about everything to do with railways and at the start of the film we see him working in the backroom of a model railway shop in Hobeken New Jersey, where he fixes locomotives and carriages as part of the shop's repair service. The shop's owner dies suddenly and leaves Fin a small railway depot and some rolling stock in rural New Jersey. With no other option, Fin moves into the Station House and despite his best efforts acquires two acquaintances - Joe (Bobby Cannavale) who is running his father's hot dog van next to the Station and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) a local resident. The three of them form an unlikely circle of acquaintances - it would be difficult to call it friendship. As far as it goes this is the plot. But this is not a film so much about the narrative arc as about the journey the characters undertake.

Each of the three have their 'issues' to deal with. Fin is a Little Person, Joe is a second generation Cuban emigre and Olivia is working through the tragic death of her son and subsequent separation from her husband. That each of the main characters has a readily identifiable 'issue' with which they are coming to terms is perhaps a little convenient, but I wonder what about most people who spend all their time and energy concealing theirs? Joe is painfully aware that his physicality immediately draws unwelcome and often hostile attention. Afraid of silence and aloneness, Joe cannot let a second pass by without filling it with some usually inane prattle, whilst the whole area knows about Olivia, her volatility and attempts at self-expression through her disjointed impressionistic art.

Each of the three are in some way marginalised and find it difficult to accept thier position. Fin simply wants to be left alone to read his books on railways and spot trains. He walks everywhere, usually along a railway line, as it a solitary and less confrontational mode of transport. Joe is covering for his sick father and sells less than enough to make a living but never seems to worry. Why would someone living in Manhattan drive out to rural New Jersey to sell Hot Dogs in the middle of nowhere? Olivia pops pills and tries to keep herself to herself as she wallows in the grief she cannot escape from.

Each one of them is on their own - yet their alone-ness gradually allows them to build into a community of acceptance. Not acceptance of one another's 'issues' but acceptance of one another - something which transcends their issues. The film portrays a powerful picture of community and the human need for it - even (or perhaps especially) in adversity. This is where the power of the film lies. Sometimes the music and the camera angles are little contrived simply to make the point, but for the most part this is a gentle and heart-warming film - a gift.

Perhaps because of his size, Fin is seen by people (especially women) to be non-threatening and so they disclose their deepest secrets to him quite voluntarily. The openness of a friendship offered by a local school girl empowers Fin to place himself in a position of vulnerability in front of her peers. Joe seems to crave company and relationship but is locked in to caring for his father. Olivia's charms are obvious for all to see but she cannot decide to whom she is committed - or even if she can bear the pain of loving with the attendant risk of the pain of loss.

As I said, I think this is a film about everything - relationships, community, humanity, acceptance and love. Things that are really important and are inbuilt components of our existence. Please do get hold of this film and watch it - you will be rewarded. I'll give it 8/10.