Friday, 29 January 2016

The Spitfire Grill

The Spitfire Grill is a gentle but powerful drama about a range of things including fear and guilt, forgiveness, transformation, sacrifice, beauty of creation, healing, preconceptions and love. It was released in 1996 in the USA, winning the viewer award at the Sundance Festival and was then promptly shelved by distributor Warner Brothers. I am grateful to Stephen Brown for having shown the film to me many years ago. I managed to get a Region 1 disc and have been enjoying it with groups ever since. I see that it is available via streaming service providers. This week I watched it with a group from church as we kicked off a new monthly movie watching and reflecting evening. It was well received and sparked some insightful reflection and discussion.

This is a film that is difficult to talk about without revealing the plot, so if you don't want to know, stop reading now.

The central character is Percy Talbot (Alison Elliot) who is a young woman just released from a Maine prison after a lengthy gaol term. She is not a native of Maine and claims to be from Ohio although her accent suggests she is actually from somewhere further south. This immediately adds to the suspicion of the townsfolk of Gilead amongst whom she arrives on a blustery and windswept winter's eve. The local Sheriff, Gary (Gailard Sartain) is tasked with finding the ex con somewhere to live and work and persuades Hannah (Ellyn Burstyn) owner of the Spitfire Grill to take her in and employ her as a waitress for board and lodging. Hannah is cantankerous and strong minded, a closed and initially grumpy woman who seems to live out the combined gnawing pain of her failing hip joint, being a widow and having 'lost' her son Eli (John M Jackson) to the Vietnam War'

The townsfolk divide into two camps - those who are open and willing to give Percy a chance and those who instinctively know that nothing good can come from an ex con. The leader of the 'suspicious' is Nahum Goddard (Will Patton) who is Hannah's nephew and the local Realtor (Estate Agent). His wife Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden) leads the 'open' folk and she soon spends her days cooking in the Grill to help Percy after Hannah is confined to bed after a fall.

The film explores people's growing dis/trust of Percy within a tight-knit New England community. For all of America's glittering cities, such communities are the mainstay of America and help to define a sense of a community's independence, insularity and the ever-present feeling that this is a frontier town working out what it means to live the American dream. When any outsider comes in and upsets the quiet and well-defined but unwritten social structure, the equilibrium is disturbed and things begin to rotate in different and sometimes competing orbits. Crashes are inevitable as people come to new understandings of things that had previously been a long held immovable truth. Transformation is seldom painless and for the community of Gilead Maine, that is also the case.

This is a remarkable film in many ways - although like all films it does have its flaws. The three main lead characters are all women - when was the last time you saw that in a film? Both Burstyn and Harden are Oscar winners and the rest of the cast is strong with good characterisation that easily evokes an affective response in viewers. Who doesn't hate Nahum or love and feel sorry for Joe? The narrative arc of this film is one of the most complete I can remember seeing. I won't spoil it by telling you what happens to Percy, Gilead or how the film ends but will advise that a box of tissues might come in handy.

Why was this film pulled from distribution and never screened outside the USA? The story I heard was that when the distributor researched the production company behind it, they feared that the film was a Trojan Horse for a Christian message and so shelved it. How true that is I don't know. All I do know is that it's a pity. Yes, the main themes are central to the Christian message but then so are the themes of most superhero movies. The actors are all mainstream and if anything the Church comes off rather poorly in this film. Many of the characters have Biblical names - but then so do lots of Americans. The production company was Gregory Productions which is a non-profit organisation (charity) operating out of Mississippi. Their logo is a lion lying down with a lamb and the rumour I heard was that the seed funding came from the pension fund of the Catholic Diocese of Mississippi. So what? This is a good film that stands on its own two feet and for those who wish to probe and look a deeper as they reflect, it may well provide some glimpse into Christian thought. But then doesn't all of life do that?

I happened to be in the area of New England where this film was made when on a visit in 2012. It was in fact shot in the township of Peacham Vermont and here is my photo of Peacham General Store which became the Spitfire Grill.

The town was dead and everything was closed. It looked like the General Store hadn't been open since the film was made and there is no steeply wooded hillside leading up from the back porch. My visit was a good experience - once I had braved miles of unmade roads and travelled for hours without seeing another living thing! I am glad I have been to Peacham Vermont. If I am ever in the area I will visit again. This is a film well worth watching. I'll give it 8/10.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Ex Machina

I knew from watching the trailer that I wanted to see this film. Caught up with it on disc last night. It was even better than I had thought it might have been. This is not just a sci-fi thriller about Artificial Intelligence (AI) but an exploration of what makes us human - good and bad. I imagine that female viewers could see a different movie to male viewers. Is this film misogynistic or does it offer a rallying cry for feminists?

As a low budget (£15m) British made film it can hold its head high as it takes its place alongside other AI movies (AI, Terminator, Blade Runner, The Matrix and I, Robot et al). With only four characters for most of the film it is a gripping tale that explores how convincing the AI being Ava (Alicia Vikander) is when pitted against programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). The experiment unfolds in a remote 'research facility' owned by Caleb's reclusive genius billionaire boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The experiment is to see whether or not Ava passes the Turing Test - that is to exhibit behaviour that is indistinguishable from human behaviour. The fourth character is Nathan's 'servant' Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno).

The twist is that the test is clouded by Ava's sexuality, her ability to flirt and use her feminine charm to trick her male captors. In one exchange this dialogue unfolds:
Nathan: Answer me this. How do you feel about her?
Caleb: Her AI is beyond doubt.
Nathan: No, nothing analytical, just, how do you feel?
Caleb: I feel that she's amazing.
Nathan: Dude! Now the question is, how does she feel about you? Does Ava actually like you or is she pretending to like you? Self awareness, manipulation, sexuality, now if that isn't true, now what is?
How you might read the film depends on whether you see Caleb or Ava as the main character. Ava is the latest in a series of AI women created by Nathan - all of which are 'fully' functioning. On one level they are sophisticated sex dolls and it is clear Nathan prefers interacting sexually with 'robots' rather than the real thing. But there is the difficulty - Ava is so real and so clever she outwits both Nathan and Caleb.

There is a long tradition of eroticised female robots/cyborgs and animations - particularly in video games and Japanese anime and manga. Perhaps this is simply continuing in and drawing from this heritage? Or does it take things to a new level? It is easy to forget that Ava is Alicia Vikander with all her Swedish beauty on show. The CGI elements of the film are truly amazing and for most of the film she appears half human, half machine. However, by the end of it she appears much more one than the other and how the film ends will leave you satisfied or frustrated depending on whether you see Ava or Caleb as the central character.

I really enjoyed this film and was surprised by it's twists on more than one occasion. Just when I thought I'd worked something out, I got it wrong. As a guy, I think you have to allow yourself to be fully immersed in the story and suspend judgement for the magic and seduction to work. It would be interesting to get an objective female perspective on what the film's central story is. This is well worth seeing to explore themes of human being and identity, sexuality, AI and the feared threat that AI passing the Turing Test potentially poses. I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Steve Jobs (2015)

The words Apple and Mac go together like strawberries and cream or Torvill and Dean. There are not many people within consumer cultures who don't recognise the Apple logo, have not heard of an Apple Mac or would at least know they have seen the face of Steve Jobs in a magazine, newspaper or on TV. Having read a couple of biographies, I approached this biopic in my naivety hoping to glean greater understanding about one of the most creative and influential people of the current age. What I got was a three act drama covering three product launches between 1984 and 1998 and a view of Jobs I didn't like.

The result is an intense drama that presents such an unlikeable version of Jobs with little attempt to explore or understand how he became the monster the film portrays him to be. People imbued with a high degree of creativity often walk a fine line between giving expression to that creativity or madness or some other disabling trait. If Steve Jobs had been able to work with people in the same way he was able to work with concepts and understand what people wanted, how much more might he have been able to achieve?

It is always easy to expect a biopic to present an accurate rendering of history. In the screenplay here, Alan Sorkin has presented a drama which certainly messes with the timeline so it is fairly safe to assume that other elements of the story have also been messed with. Sorkin picked up a Golden Globe for the screenplay. At just over two hours long, the intensity of the film left me feeling rather exhausted by the end of it. I needed a significant amount of space to unwind and declutter my mind!

Such is the portrayal of the brutality of Job's uncaring character, that as I sit here typing this on a Mac, I am left wondering if I shouldn't dispose of the six Apple products I own! This is due largely to the performance of Michael Fassbender in the title role which is gripping - for much of the film, for me, it felt more like a docu-drama with the actual characters.

This sad tale is littered with casualties and broken and dysfunctional relationships. The long suffering Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) is the picture of devotion as she supports the man she cares for deeply, through the ups and downs of his career. A career that was extreme in its highs as its lows and was always at one or the other - never nicely in between. Winslet is marvellous and is fully deserving of the Golden Globe she picked up for the performance.

The way the story is told, encouraged me to feel dislike for Jobs and a great deal of sympathy for those he used and abused in his blind quest to change the course of history through consumer electronics. Job's daughter, her mother, Hoffman, his best friend Wozniak, Hertzfeld and Sculley - his family and the people who created Apple products, were all treated as consumer items in their own right. The adopted Job's, who himself spun a warped fantasy of why that was the case, used this to inject dysfunctionality into all his relationships - especially those with his former girlfriend and their daughter. Two encounters with Sculley - his father figure in the film - began to explore why Jobs was the way he was but didn't get very far. Hoffman's constant but gentle chiding also failed to make much of an impact. Jobs finally has an epiphany at the end of this film and is forced to admit to his, by now, 19 year old daughter, that he is not "made very well". The choice of words showing that Jobs prefers the cold and mechanical world rather than the risky chaos of the organic.

Jobs is constantly challenged by those around him about his lack of technical knowledge or expertise. He persistently requires his colleagues to deliver the undeliverable and threatens to publicly humiliate them if they fail. He is able to anaesthetise himself from emotional pain - perhaps his way of dealing with the hurt and rejection he feels at having been adopted. Jobs responds by saying he is like a great conductor, not a soloist - he doesn't play an instrument, he plays the orchestra.

If you want to see this film because you are a geek or an Apple fetishist, it may leave you disappointed. If you want an emotionally draining encounter with a megalomaniac who constantly hurts those closest to him and who is blinded by his own unerring belief that he alone is right, then this is a film for you. I particularly liked the lighting - often soft and from below - as in the picture above. It gave a different feel to the visualisation of this important but flawed story of a flawed man. On the strength of the acting performances I will give it 8/10.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Inside Out

I missed this in the cinema when it came around but was glad to buy it on disc. This film is a gift. I wish I had seen it as I entered my teens - but even then I probably wouldn't have got it! The concept and the way in which it is realised are both highly creative. The idea that there are personified emotions competing within our heads for control of our feelings and how we express ourselves is a stroke of genius. I think that this film could only work well as an animation - the medium enhances the message so well.

The main emotions are (as above) fear (Bill Hader), disgust (Mindy Kaling), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), joy (Amy Poehler) and anger (Lewis Black). The personification of these emotions is very well done and I'm sure viewers will have no difficulty in recognising them from their own experience. The roles they respectively have and what happens to their host and central character Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), is illuminating and portrayed in a very humorous and entertaining way. It is good that joy is meant to be the predominant emotion.

There are many well thought through psychological and neuropsychological concepts in the film. Without giving anything of the story away, Riley's memories are stored in colored orbs, which are sent into long-term memory each night. Riley's most important memories are known as 'core memories' and are housed in a hub in Headquarters. These power five "islands", each of which reflects a different aspect of Riley's personality. The way in which these islands interact with one another and give expression to Riley's relationships is very instructional. I found it interesting that there was no spiritual dimension to any of the islands or experiences that Riley encountered.

This film is a gift for school and youth group settings but will need careful preparation and handling if the harvest on offer is to be gleaned well. The invitation for youngsters (and the not so young) to expand their self-understanding is a generous one. The better we understand ourselves the better we can understand and thereby accept others.

The animation is simply wonderful - so fluid and dynamic, capturing body movements and facial expressions in such faithful detail. I particularly liked the scenes where joy was ice skating. At 91 minutes long it is just about right - but I felt that joy and sadness's journey could have been trimmed by five minutes. If you have not already seen this - please get hold of it and watch it. Reflect on what it shows you and how you see your own behaviour and emotions in the light of it. This is excellent and I have no trouble in awarding it 9/10!