Saturday, 18 January 2020


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!