Thursday, 19 September 2019

Hadewijch



What is the difference between a person of faith who is devout and a person of faith who is a fanatic? They could be two sides of the same coin - and that is exactly what this film spends 105 minutes doing, exploring paradoxes.

The way the film is made and the way the story is told are almost of equal stature. The way the script explores and develops the thoughts within a 13th century poem by the Flemish mystic Hadewijch, is masterful. The techniques used when the film was shot to enhance the narrative in a way that strengthens the impact of the story - and this story has many points of impact.

I also found the film frustrating. Sometimes what we were being told seemed so obvious as to be pedestrian. A jump-cut would then take me to another seemingly unrelated scene where I would be struggling to make any sense of what I was watching. There are long passages without dialogue which further enhances the visual storytelling. The added benefit is that the film is in French with good clear subtitles, so when there is little dialogue, it's easier to keep up!

The central character Céline, at the same time feels overwhelmed by the immanent love of God and distressed by the absence of God's presence. For much of the film I asked myself "is she behaving like that because she is naive or because she is so sure of her place before God?". The casting of Julie Sokolowski as the central character is a masterstroke. The way she presents herself and acts makes her character sexually attractive and in the very next frame androgynously asexual and not at all attractive.

The film plays out exploring the paradox of the opulent and privileged central Parisian home life of Céline with the spartan and hopeless existence of Yassine (Yassine Salime) who lives with his brother in a project on the outskirts of the city. It explores the seeming paradox of Christian devotion and Islamic devotion but sadly the film gets sucked in to portraying Christianity with much more sympathetic stereotypes than it does Islam. It explores the paradox of those with faith having no experience of parental love with a convict whose mother believes in him unquestioningly. The film explores the paradox of who is condemned and who acts as saviour. It explores a myriad of other paradoxes as well.

If you are prepared to watch a film that will get under your skin and messes with some of your more comfortable preconceptions, this might be for you. If you want to see people transfigured by an aura when they are having a deep and meaningful experience, this is definitely for you. If you like clever cinematic storytelling you'll love it. In the first scene when we see Céline praying, see what's outside her window. Also, when the convict is with his mother, see what's on the TV in the background - there are others - ikons into other worlds.

Above all, if you enjoy exploring and reflecting on paradoxes, especially in a faith context and are open to discovering new things about yourself - this is definitely for you. Reading the poem written nearly 800 years will help with some of the interpretation. Whether you read it before you watch or afterwards, I will leave to you to decide. The rest is up to you. I'll give it 8/10.

The poem can be found here.





Monday, 24 June 2019

Green Book



I have been trying to catch this for a while - it was well worth the wait. This is an engaging film that draws the viewer in an and in my experience invites them to develop a heart-felt liking for both the lead characters. It's period setting in 1962 New York and the Deep South on the cusp of the civil rights movement is both vibrant and resonant as it shows the best and worst that post-war USA had to offer. It is however a film with some issues.

The credits make it clear that the film is "inspired by a true friendship". The script was part written by the son of central character Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) based on interviews with his father and Dr Don Shirley who in the film is played by Mahershala Ali. There was no consultation with the Shirley family and they disagree with some of the ways their relative is represented. However, this is a drama based on true events and not a forensically researched documentary.

The film also lays itself open to accusations of presenting viewers with a white saviour figure but I feel this is misplaced as it could easily be argued that both of the lead characters in fact save each other to some extent. At worst, this is a white reading of a black history and that will have to suffice as at the end of the day the people writing the script and making the film were largely white. That may be the larger problem.

For me the story of the film centres on the developing relationship between Vallelonga and Shirley. It happens to play itself out within a context of racism - this is not primarily a film about racism. This goes deeper than skin colour, this is a film about humanity connecting at a deep level.

The two of them would never have ordinarily met as their worlds are so opposite. Shirley, the refined international pianist with several degrees and many languages. Vallelonga from immigrant stock living in the Bronx, trying to sustain his family amidst the boorish macho culture of testosterone fuelled Italian petty criminality. The film is more about a clash of cultures. Embedded in Vallelonga's  is innate racism (I didn't know Italians referred to black people as Aubergines!). Shirley on the other hand attempts to rise above the overt racism by maintaining his dignity but is relentlessly undermined - especially the deeper into the South they travel.

One thing that unites the two characters is that both have addictions. Vallelonga is engaged in a race to see if chain smoking or constantly stuffing himself on junk food will be the first to trigger a coronary. Shirley on the other hand gets through a bottle of whisky a night as he tries to kill off his liver. What is it that these behaviours are trying to mask?

Once completed, the narrative arc can be seen to be wholly predictable having travelled its journey with a gentle and constant pace - although at times it does seem to become endangered! At just over 2 hours long, this film did not drag at all. The acting from the two leads is extremely strong and will give you much fertile soil for reflection on relationships, life goals, family, friendship, honour, integrity and love. I commend this film to you and am happy to give it 8/10. Enjoy!


Sunday, 19 May 2019

The Escape



I found this a hard, almost disturbing film to watch. It is intelligently written and exquisitely acted. To be honest I'm still not sure what to make of all of it.

The film is about an all too common suburban malaise that afflicts too many couples. The challenge to be seen to be successful - a good job, stay at home mum, detached house in the Kentish suburbs, two cars, two kids. They have it all but life is all about work and providing for his family for husband Mark (Dominic Cooper) and for wife Tara (Gemma Arterton) life has lost its purpose and she has lost her sense of self and is depressed. The problem is that Mark is unable to see this and offer any empathy or compassion. His sex drive results at least a once-a-day uncontested rape of his wife. Her inability to articulate clearly how she feels - or more properly is unable to feel any more, simply feeds into the cycle of mismatched expectations about what life is about and how it should be lived. There is minimal dialogue, the story is driven by facial expressions, tears and body language. The film slowly and painfully trundles towards a breakdown in the marriage until Tara finally makes her escape.

With extensive use of hand held cameras, it felt that perhaps 50% of the film featured a close up of Arterton's beautiful face. She spends a lot of time looking at her emotionless reflection. Her mother is unsympathetic and unable to offer any support other than to say that it was just a 'phase' and that everyone faces it at some point or another. Tara clearly feels that she has no opportunity for creative output or self-expression and tries to find solace in an art class but Mark is dismissive. Tara struggles to find a way out of the trap of the daily, meaningless grind - she has even lost her love for her children.

In an attempt to find herself, she escapes. Her new found freedom even produces the odd smile on Arterton's otherwise emotionless face. She hooks up with a Mark look-a-like which ends up in bed. She then chastises her new partner for lying about being married and a father - the very thing she has done to him. A bewildering double standard. The ending of the film is suggestive but ultimately leaves the story open. For me this was an unsatisfying conclusion.

The film cries out for blame to be apportioned but both Mark and Tara are so unable to analyse what is actually going on, it is difficult to blame one more than the other. I wonder if, in general, men who watch this film would see a different film to women who watch it? I don't know if this film has a feminist agenda driving it to present Tara as a victim. We never get to see Mark's daily context - perhaps he is numbingly bored at work and simply goes through the motions each day to provide for his family or possibly he works so extremely hard he has little capacity to engage in a fuller home life.

Overall, I found the narrative a painful thing to experience - I didn't want to engage with it. That in itself shows what good story-telling this film offers. Arterton's acting is mesmerising and shows the versatility that she possesses. I'm really not sure what score to give this film. It is an excellent film with Arterton giving an extremely strong performance - but I didn't enjoy it all and I certainly don't want to see it again. Perhaps the film's intent is to vaccinate suburbia in the hope of preventing an epidemic. It offers plenty of scope for fruitful reflection and perhaps offers couples a jolt back to reality should their relationship be heading in the direction of Mark and Tara's. I'll give it a 7/10.



Saturday, 18 May 2019

The Visitor



Context is everything! This film was made in 2007 in New York in the wake of 9/11. It could have been set anywhere in the USA as far as the story of the central character Walter (Richard Jenkins) is concerned but it has a wider story to tell about cross-cultural communication and understanding, the ability to find shared interests, love, the brutality of an indiscriminating immigration regime and that is why it really did have to be set in New York.

The film gently reveals a number of epiphanies - mostly experienced by Walter. In late middle age, the university professor is still in the funk caused by the death of his wife five years previously. He looks like a man on auto-pilot with no real purpose in life. Walter is coasting and deceives himself and others through half truths. He is unnecessarily harsh on one of his students, his lectures are lifeless and lack-lustre, there is no spark, no creativity, no fun in the man or his life.

Walter is jolted out of his numbing complacency by being forced to visit New York - a city where he just happens to keep an apartment. A series of events present him with people he begins to care about, activities that he can get passionate about and the faint hope that he can find love again is rekindled. This is a film about transformation, xenophobia, the workings of a faceless and authoritative institution, the global village, love and families.

The film is littered with rich metaphors that help to signpost what is going on. Not in a 'show and tell' kind of way but with gentle subtlety. The subway, the community in Central Park, the windowless detention centre, the uncaring and over-officious staff and the non-sexual intimacy which can bring consolation are all offered to help the film tell its tale.

The acting in this film, especially from the four main characters, is impeccable. The way in which Walter's world, at least for part of the film, is darkened and shadowy reinforces his dour and morose lethargy. His search for a creative outlet to enable him to somehow reconnect with his wife leads initially to sadness and frustration that seemingly further distances Walter from his wife and his memories of her. The fact that Walter is now almost always accompanied by a glass of red wine shows us the new partner in whom he finds solace.

Great script, Directing and acting - little wonder that Jenkins was Oscar nominated in this role. The playful way in which Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) describes himself as a bad muslim because he drinks wine and his partner Zainab (Danai Gurira) as a good muslim because she doesn't debunks and normalises any basis for fear of muslims - they are, per se, simply ordinary people like you and me. This is a gently bold film and its message is even more relevant today than it was in 2007 in the aftermath of 9/11. Do try and get hold of the disc or stream it. You won't be disappointed. I'll give it 8/10.



Saturday, 27 April 2019

Jesus of Montreal



This is a Passion Play that attempts to bring the passion up to date. Set in the grounds of a catholic shrine in the city of Montreal, the shrine's guardian enlists a group of actors to modernise the jaded 40 year-old script that is used in the annual production of their Passion Play. The film is in French with subtitles. We watched this in Holy Week as part of our Lenten programme this year and it worked well.

This film was made in 1989 and it attempts to engage the latest developments in Biblical archaeology to give new spins on parts of the story. Lothaire Bluteau is invited to direct and star in the new production and delivers a compelling performance. The result is the portrayal of a very human Jesus Christ whose quiet but charismatic style draws people into the plot and project.

The way in which Jesus recruits the rest of the cast is strongly modelled on Jesus recruiting his disciples in Galilee and of course they come from a range of questionable backgrounds and filled with scepticism and reluctance. As the story of the production and staging of the play develops, the characters begin to embody narrative elements of their characters in their own lives in modern-day Montreal.

The narcissistic and empty existence of the 'crowd' is made clear. Jesus even suffers the 'temptations in the desert'. Parallels with leading gospel characters become clearer as the the film progresses. The Temple Council, Mary Magdalene, John and Peter are all are present. The film challenges us to think of what constitutes love as Constance (Johanne-Marie Tremblay), in the role of Mary, mother of Jesus, offers the comfort of sex as mistress to the priest who is the guardian of the shrine.

The film certainly challenges and provokes reflection on what the Passion might look like on the streets of our town today. Who would be the main players and what would be the result. For me the narrative falls down because it denies the divine aspects of Christ from the character altogether - but that doesn't mean it's not a good film or that people shouldn't watch it.

The acting is very good and under Denys Arcand's writing and Direction delivers an important and challenging alternative to more recent offerings of the Passion Play. I would encourage you to get hold of a copy and see for yourself and make those parallel leaps from the gospels to your own neighbourhood and town. I'll give it 7/10.






Friday, 5 April 2019

Leave no Trace



This is a gentle film. No swearing, no sex and no violence of the conventional type. It is a film filled with fear, hope and love. It is worth the investment of two hours of your life. It's impossible to discuss the film without revealing some of the details - but that won't diminish your engagement with the film when you watch it.

Will is a widower, ex military suffering from PTSD and dealing with it in his own way. He lives with his daughter Tom, off the grid in the woods near Portland Oregon. Will home school's Tom who appears to be mature beyond her 13 years and emotionally stable. Will is unable to engage with any sense of normal living - a house, a job, a school for his daughter, so they live off grid fending for themselves and buying the odd few groceries from time to time.

Will's trauma means he cannot settle and he dislikes being indoors. Whenever he hears a helicopter he all but has a panic attack. He is placid and considered, the epitome of a loving father who is raising his daughter as best he can. Then they get discovered by the authorities and taken into 'care'.

Predictably, Will cannot cope with the confinement of a house and a job - particularly as it means working with a helicopter. Social Services concede that Tom is ahead of her target attainment level for her age across the board academically but are worried that she is missing social formation. They take off again.

I'm not going to spoil anything further. The narrative arc leaves a range of possibilities open until the conclusion. As much as Will's search for solitude with his daughter is the driving force on his constant need to migrate, so a settled community comes to play an important role in determining the film's outcome. Love is evidently present between father and daughter and also abounds in the authenticity of community that becomes important more towards the end.

I really liked this film - it is genuine and honest, telling its story in a refreshing way with good hand-held camera work and convincing acting from the lead characters. It's a great advertisement for the forests of Oregon and Washington State. I would encourage you get hold of the film and enjoy if you haven't already. A surprise in many ways - worthy of 8/10.




Thursday, 21 March 2019

Wonder



I watched this film with a group of friends at church as part of our Lent series which this year is focusing on "This is Our Story: exploring the stories of our faith and our own stories". The film certainly fulfilled that brief as different sections of the story are seen through the eyes of the main characters, each in turn. There weren't any explicit encounters with 'faith' per se, but the film did have plenty to say about inclusion, difference and acceptance.

The central character Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) was born with Treacher Collins Syndrome which left him with facial disfigurement - even after 23 surgeries. He has doting parents and a sister whose long-suffering qualifies her for immediate beatification. And therein lies the films weakness. Visually imperfect Auggie inhabits an otherwise perfect world where everyone else is beautiful, homes are comfortably luxurious and when he eventually does go to school, having previously been home-schooled, he attends a top private school in a well-to-do New York suburb. The narrative arc is therefore set. How can Auggie's presence, including all the emotional pain he suffers, become a catalyst for transformation so that all the perfect people in the film can become even more perfect!

Whilst the film offers an excellent exposé of the cruelties school children can inflict on one another, it remains locked in a world that cannot transcend its culture. This film has a very American feel to it. Understandably, Auggie's world is very self-centred, but through his love of science and in particular space travel and science fiction, he is able to initially win over one or two and eventually by the end of his first year in school, everyone else. Given what the Pullman family have been through, despite their love for one another, it's hard to see how none of them are in therapy. I was also left questioning the marriage relationship of Auggie's parents which seems only to have been strengthened through the family's shared ordeal. Another expression of perfection in this film?

By its subject matter and the encounters it presents, the film invites viewers to consider how they handle and accept difference and whether or not they would capitulate and follow the herd or take the harder road. All of this is made possible by the wise and loving actions of the School Principal and Auggie's class teacher.

All of that said, this film provoked an affective response in me that left me with tears welling up on more than one occasion. It's predictability and certain outcome do not make the journey Auggie travels any less painful, effective or inspiring. I guess the value is in the travelling and it is our travels which give us the raw material for our stories that enable to share at a deeper level with one another. I'll give this film 7/10.



Saturday, 19 January 2019

The Favourite



I'm not sure what I was expecting but I wasn't expecting this eccentric, oddball and strangely comedic exploration of part of the life of Queen Anne and her court in the early Nineteenth century. England is at war with France and the English armies are led by Lord Salisbury (Mark Gatiss). Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) abuses her position as the Queen's confidant and lover, to control the Queen through reinforcing her lack of self-worth and playing on her ailing health.

The life of court is characterised by duck racing, pineapple eating, a naked MP being pelted with pomegranates, formal dinners and constant squabbling between the government and opposition. Life at Hampton Court Palace carries on seemingly unaffected by the country's impending bankruptcy, the threat of defeat to the French and the indulgence of egos as courtiers jockey for places of influence. Two hundred years on and it all sounds depressingly familiar!

Here we have a film where the three lead characters are female - and none of them come out of it having ingratiated themselves with the audience! However, the strength of their performances are worthy of the accolades and awards already received and I'm sure that they will collect more as the awards season rolls on.

The arrival of Sarah's cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone) is the catalyst for a battle to see which of them will triumph as the Queen's favourite. The depths to which they are prepared to descend to achieve their goal are staggering. The lies, deceit, opportunism and lust for power which characterises this menage-a-trois is consistent with the gluttony and depravity that appears to have entrapped all of the characters in this film. I'm so glad I'm living in these times - not from any sense of evolved superiority or sophistication, but simply because I don't think I could have coped!

The film portrays an ongoing preoccupation with sex but virtually no real intimacy. The scenes with  Lady Sarah in a brothel are menacingly disturbing. The irrational and petulant behaviour of the Queen for me became cumulatively tedious. The never ending resolve of Lady Abigail to be seen as the caring and selfless servant whilst deceitfully scheming and plotting her adversaries downfall was unpleasant.

Did I enjoy this film? No. Am I glad I saw it? Yes. Do I want to see it again? No. It is in many ways a strange film that provoked, and still provokes, strange reactions. It's structure and the way it was shot is different - perhaps intended to be an attempt to guess how they would have made feature films 200 years ago. If you stay to watch the credits, they will drive you wild too! I really am at a loss to give this film a rating. For the acting a 9/10. For how it's left me feeling, perhaps a 3/10 is being generous!



or

Hampstead




This is a film about denial, anger, loss, collusion, regret, hope, love, compromise and principles! It is a heart-warming story and although the narrative arc is predictable, the warmth of the characters draws you in and I for one, was happy to collude.

The developing love story is the unifying thread that runs throughout this film, but there is a lot more here if we peel back some of the layers. To begin with, although this film is based on a real life tussle over squatter's rights by Harry Hallowes on Hampstead Heath, it is not a documentary or biopic - it's a drama.

Would the story have worked as well anywhere else in London, say Bethnal Green, Hounslow or Croydon? No. The caché of Hampstead is an important part of the story and the pretentious lives of the characters in this film present a certain willing collusion with a desire to be part of the Hampstead set. That is what makes Fiona (Lesley Manville) and her gang appear to be only interested in seeing to be doing the right things and protecting everybody's 'best interests'.

As Emily (Diane Keaton) begins to rediscover her own identity a year after her husband's death, she is conflicted about which parts of the Hampstead lifestyle to buy into and which parts are not really her. Meanwhile the external pressures of her looming insolvency, the constant nagging of her son Philip (James Norton), the unwanted advances of her accountant James (Jason Watkins), the neighbourly intrusions of Fiona and the growing attraction of the recalcitrant, volatile and wounded rogue Donald (Brendan Gleeson) pull her in competing directions.

The way the story is told maintains the different tensions creatively and there are some wonderfully comedic moments. Diane Keaton seems an odd casting choice - perhaps to give appeal to the North American market. Brendan Gleeson however inhabits the role with such comfort, you wonder if he wouldn't mind becoming Harry Hallowes - but moving to the Galway coast!

This is a gentle film that offers many avenues for reflection and exploration. the characters are believable and deliver their comedic inter-play with accomplishment. I think this is the first time I've seen Lesley Manville playing an unlikable character and I didn't like it! This is a perfect film for an evening in with the flames flickering in the hearth and a warm glow spreading throughout the audience. I'll give it 7/10.