Sunday, 30 March 2014


This is an immensely clever, moving and powerful drama. It opens with a quote from St Augustine about Calvary:
“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.

Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

which serves to set the scene for the eight day journey through the moral maze that Father James must make if he is to keep an appointment with his executioner. The ambiguity of life and the moral consequences of the choices people make form both the back drop and the texture of this film. Brendan Gleeson (Fr James) is present in almost every frame of this 100 minute movie and it is his presence that carries the story. At times it is very funny in the style of  In Bruges or The Guard but it also takes the viewer to dark places - very dark places.

Fr James is one of two parish priests in a small coastal village 21 miles from Sligo in the West of Ireland. The kind of tight-knit community where everybody knows everybody else and where there are no secrets as the only place to hide is in plain sight. The dialogue of the characters, parishioners and confessors, centres on sin and judgement. Fr James who came to his vocation later in life and who allows his experiences and reading of human nature to inform his pastoral ministry with a refreshing degree of realism and maturity, is widely regarded as a good man. He persistently tries to turn conversations on to discussions of virtues and the need to forgive. Everyone else in the village is either a perpetrator or willing victim colluding with their abusers and it is this distinction that sets him apart. He acknowledges the 'greyness' of life and morality whilst everyone else wants it painted in either black or white. Even his presbyteral colleague is portrayed as so many priests on TV and the big screen are - wet, ineffectual, on the make and lacking in integrity. And the bishop - well, let's not even go there.

What the film highlights is the core human need to be loved and how when that is betrayed, horribly betrayed, the consequences ripple outwards. The small community features a man looking for status through wealth and business success, a women looking for love through promiscuity, an old embittered man writing his memoirs as he prepares for death, a young widow who found death too readily, a doctor who tries too hard to be an atheist because he cannot cope with the things he sees in his work, a young man desperately short of self-confidence and in need of a life companion, a gay police Inspector, a West-African car mechanic who introduces the prospect of racial discrimination, a death-row cannibal seeking forgiveness and a butcher who can't decide if his wife is bipolar or lactose intolerant! In this small tight-knit community there is an amazing array of character archetypes.

Fr James doesn't go looking for trouble or to antagonise anyone but as the week unfolds and this cast of characters are presented to the viewer, each one is set up with sufficient motive to be the executioner. Alongside this he is working through his own personal demons and he treats himself in the same rational and benevolent way that he deals with his flock. My work is with those in training being formed as priests and a more rounded and positive role model I could not wish to encounter. Whichever seminary it was that trained Fr James - I'd like to send all my charges there too.

I found this a very funny, moving, convincing and also deeply distressing film. I have purposefully not divulged anything of the plot, how the narrative arc is established or how it concludes. I didn't want to spoil it for you. I caught it on a members' free preview screening from those nice people at Harbour Lights in Southampton and whilst I normally have to let a film ferment for a day or two before blogging I felt compelled to splurge this review and reflection out straightaway - very unusual. The soft lighting of the Irish landscape and the rolling and lush green hills provide a wonderful context in which this brutal and savage tale unfolds. Many of the faces are in huge close up with wonderful digital clarity and poetic lighting - I feel I am now intimately acquainted with Brendan Gleeson's facial pores and beard! I think this is a brave and creative piece of cinema with compelling acting and a glorious location. I'll give it 9/10! See it when it comes out next weekend.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Prestige

This is an extremely well crafted film from Director Christopher Nolan. The story, the look and lighting, the acting and visual effects are all top notch. With a strong cast and a plot that has more twists and turns than a bowl of Spaghetti, this film delivers an engrossing and immersive exploration of rivalry, obsession, envy, deception, murder and sabotage.

Set at the end of the nineteenth century the opening words "Are you watching carefully" give the clue that viewers need to pay attention to every frame. Reality and illusion are metaphors for truth and lies as two top magicians become embroiled in an obsessive battle of egos and revenge that can bring only death.

In an age when the miracles of science were questioning the status quo and undermining received wisdom, entertainers sought to develop tricks and illusions that would confound audiences and gain them the highest accolades. The film depicts a Victorian age that is refreshingly different - it comes at the viewer in a different way such is the attention to detail of the set design. The story features the rivalry between Edison and Tesla and their struggle to promote Edison's direct current over Tesla's alternating current. Geographically it flits between Colorado Springs and London and allows for a convincing double act between David Bowie as Tesla and Andy Serkis as his assistant Alley.

The main characters are Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) who are ably supported by Cutter (Michael Caine). Bale delivers a tour-de-force as it becomes increasingly difficult to display any affinity with his Borden whilst Jackman's Angier sets out generating a more sympathetic response but ultimately proves himself to be as equally flawed as Borden!

There are a lot of illusions and deceptions - even sabotage and murder in the film. In the final scenes so many twists and double-twists unfold that it's hard to keep up with who did what to whom and why. Cutter and Tesla repeatedly advise the main protagonists that the pathway they are embarking on will ultimately lead to doom but such is the drive of their egos and their need for revenge that they choose to disregard such advice.

I find it very difficult to engage with stories predicated on deceit. That's not me holding the moral high ground, simply a function of my personality type. Consequently I didn't really 'enjoy' this film - although I could see that it is an excellent piece of creative theatre with great direction and acting - ably supported by Scarlett Johansson and  Rebecca Hall. I watched in Blu-ray and the colours and lighting provided a visual feast. As a brave attempt to explore difficult themes in an unlikely setting it's probably worth more, but because of my own hang-ups I'm going to award this 6/10.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Central Station

This is an affecting tale of an embittered and amoral retired school teacher and a young boy. Once the scene is set it becomes a road movie and whilst you know where the narrative arc will take you, it's always touch and go as to whether or not you'll get there. I'll leave you to find out. Isadora (Fernanda Montenegro) spends her days in retirement sitting at a desk in Rio de Janeiro's Central Station writing letters for the illiterate commuters. She clearly has a low view of her clients as she posts very few of the letters she writes. Her life seems joyless and empty - barren. She has no family.

One day she writes a letter for a woman who has nine year-old son. The boy's father has not been seen in many years and she writes asking him to meet up with his son as he needs to know who his father is. The central theme of this film is about family, what constitutes family and how those who don't have a family seek to made good their deficit. It is a film about trust, responsibility, loyalty, loss, regret, acceptance and in time love. It is a powerful film with strong acting from  Montenegro and the boy Josué (Vinícius de Oliveira) with good support from the characters they meet along the way.

This is a Brazilian film with sub-titles (sometimes it felt like they were being economical with the translation - but my Portuguese is poor) that shows a side of life in Brazil that is at variance with the glossy promotional offerings for the upcoming Soccer World Cup and Olympic Games. (It was made in 1998 so it is a little jaded.) Petty thieves are summarily shot and everyone's existence seems to hang by a vulnerable thread. Children are sold into international adoption - or worse. Crime is rampant and crowds of people throng the thoroughfares.

Once the two main characters escape Rio we get to see a different side of Brazil. Arid expanses interspersed with agriculture and the continual presence of people of Christian faith. Mainly Catholics but some people more than just a little eccentric. The film delivers a number of epiphanies - primarily for Isadora whereas Josué seems the more stable, settled and balanced character. Some of the epiphanies are within a faith context which raised interesting questions for me.

At times I found the pace to be a little too slow but Director Walter Salles delivers a drama with a fly-on-the-wall documentary feel long before such films were fashionable. If you want to see something different that delivers a number of surprises, is well acted and rewards the viewer, you could do a lot worse than this. I'll give it 7/10. I am grateful to friends who loaned me the disc to watch.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Secret Life of Bees

My significant other encouraged me to watch this as she had read the book and been moved by it. The film is equally moving - and apparently is a close portrayal of the story on the printed page.
The Secret Life of Bees is an invitation - an invitation to wallow in the prejudice of racist South Carolina in the early 1960's against the backdrop of the signing of the Civil Rights Act (1964) by LBJ. It is also an invitation to consider which things are really important in life such as relationships, trust and love. The collective and interdependent world of bees provide the continuing metaphor for humanity which needs to works in harmony if the harvest is to be sweet and bountiful.

Two of the significant characters battle with mental illness whilst those around them try to make sense of a world that isn't functioning as it should. There are lots of characters who are hard done by in this film but there are also many who inspire hope for a better future. The way in which the narrative develops finds a resonance in the humanism of Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) but with a strong recurring central visual image of a Black Madonna, it is ultimately based on Christian truths and hopes.

The film maintains a difficult balancing act between tense drama and schmaltzy sentimentalism but it resists the temptation to deliver saccharine-like, or should I say honey-like nostalgia. The central character is Lily who is played with great natural ability by Dakota Fanning who was only 14 when the film was made. (Elder sister of Elle.) There is great support from Jennifer Hudson and also Queen Latifah who anchors the plot and provides the narrative device that ties Lily to to her mother Deborah - a little too conveniently for my liking.

Bearing in mind that this is primarily a story about strong emotions - fear, hate and love, there are some wonderful quotations in the film lifted from Sue Monk Kidd's original novel.

“After you get stung, you can't get unstung
no matter how much you whine about it.”

“You gotta imagine what's never been.” 

“I can't think of anything I'd rather have more than somebody lovin' me.”

“It's your time to live, don't mess it up.” 

“You think you want to know something, and then once you do,
all you can think about is erasing it from your mind.”

“The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.”

The film is full of wisdom and sensitive to the frailties of human nature and our innate ability to do great harm to one another. It is also filled with hope of a better tomorrow. August dispenses wisdom and love that challenge the status quo in a manner reminiscent of The Oracle in The Matrix. This is a good film which explores what it means to act on feeling and face up to the consequences. I enjoyed it, wasn't what I was expecting which for me is always a bonus. Get the disc or stream it and prepare to be moved and engaged. I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Eye popping colours and a story that moves at relentless pace, filled with great comic timing and sharp editing, all combine to present Wes Anderson's latest filmic offering The Grand Budapest Hotel (TGBH). The whole film nestles things within things - ideas within ideas, stories within stories, cakes within boxes. In fact, there was so much stuff crammed into its 99 minutes that I felt exhausted at the end of it! I felt I needed a rest.

The narrative is driven by Ralph Fiennes who stars as Monsieur Gustave, the Concierge of TGBH which is located in an anonymous Eastern European country. Fiennes' comic timing, facial expressions and the physicality he brings to his character offer a link directly back to the classy style of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton et al. There is hardly a scene in the film where he is not present. His character is beguiling and at the same time frustrating as he seems to be able to engender in everyone the feelings of greatest warmth and respect towards him.

The whole film is as I have said a nestled story but it nestles four times! It goes back from today to 1932 and recounts how the ownership of TGBH passed from Madame D (Tilda Swinton) to Monsieur Gustave and ultimately to Zero Mustafa (Tony Revolori). There is murder and war, families falling out, imprisonment, secretive monks in cable cars, trains - oh, and did I mention cakes? There is also a constant sexuality embodied by the curious and bi Monsieur Gustave who boasts he's had older than the 83 year-old Madame D!

Yes this film is very funny and it tells its story very cleverly. The conception and visualisation are very creative and the Direction spot on. The acting from a massive top-notch ensemble cast is brilliant and the comedy keeps delivering. But I'm still getting my breath back. Is that a bad thing? For all it's strong points - and it has many - I couldn't help feeling it left me feeling just a little disappointed. Perhaps Wes Anderson isn't my kind of film maker. Perhaps I'm not his kind of viewer. If you want to see something odd-ball and very funny but relentless in its pace - give it a go. I'll give it a 7/10.