Sunday, 31 December 2017

Salt


This film shouldn't work - but it does. It is cliched, has plot holes the size of a planet and hurtles at a relentless pace as CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) runs to evade capture and assassination at the hands of both the CIA and FSB. Salt out does John McClane of Die Hard and even out does Jason Bourne of the Bourne Trilogy(+) fame - she is seemingly indestructible and so resourceful she can escape from any tight squeeze. After only 10 minutes I had worked out the arc of the story and who was who in this double-double cross of a spy film - yet I still enjoyed it!

Tom Cruse was originally cast to play the lead but in the end Cruse felt that the lead character was too like Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible so withdrew from the project. This is not a film of great artistic merit or intellectual engagement. Neither is it a positive advertisement for a return to the days of the Cold War in which the ideology that drives the story originates. It is nevertheless very entertaining. There are persisting rumours of a sequel or even a TV series on Sony but nothing firm yet.

I appreciate that his kind of film is more like a fantasy story than documentary but the plot does allow for too many last second escapes and the stunts that Salt pulls off would render most people paralysed by half-way through the film. The violence is relentless but lots of it is non-lethal. For a film starring one of Hollywood's most beautiful, the visuals do not exploit Jolie's physical attributes and there are  only one or two low-key kisses. The emphasis remains firmly on her role as an all action hero. Even when she does remove her underwear, there is no sexual or romantic intent at all - it's all for the action!

As I said, I liked it - glad I've seen it, but I won't be rushing to order the disc for my collection - just right as a TV movie. If it's on and you have nothing else to do and you enjoy films of this type, then do watch it. I'll give it a 7/10.



Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Arrival



This is one of those joyous films that can be received and enjoyed at face value or used as a springboard to do some deeper thinking and reflecting on bigger questions. Which way did you choose to see it? One of the top films of 2016 it was nominated for 8 Academy Awards but strange things were happening that year at the Oscars and it only won 1! Amy Adams should have won best actress with a strong yet subtle and nuanced performance as academic linguist Louise Banks.

The film is about the arrival of some extra-terrestrial beings who arrive in 8 spacecraft at different locations around the world. At face value the film depicts a race between the nations competing to be the first to decipher the alien's intent whilst keeping a finger on the trigger just in case they become hostile. Banks is recruited to help the US military decode the alien's communications.

On a deeper level the film invites an exploration of our understanding of time as the aliens offer the chance to see it in a non-linear way. At the beginning of the film, Banks talks to her daughter saying "I used to think this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn't work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time, by its order." This sows the seeds and things are set for a film that to all intents and purposes proceeds along a linear timeline, but as Banks understands more and more of the alien's language, so she is subject to flash-backs - or are they premonitions? This film messes with time and the viewer's perception of it. What if time doesn't really sequence one thing after another but is in itself non-linear and multidimensional?

In addition to exploring time as a concept, the film 'coincidentally' invites a reflection on giving and receiving love, and human identity in the vastness of the universe. The editing of the film is completely at one with the story and the way in which it is told. Jump-cuts slash back and forth across time to emphasise the non-linear nature of the alien's understanding of it. There is also a clever play on dark and light, shadows and smoke - the almost mirror-like environment within the alien's spacecraft. The subtle use of colour shifts to underscore what different characters are doing and where the film is heading also reinforces the story and through that, viewer engagement.

I've tried not to give the plot away as that would spoil things. The acting is strong in this film - not only from Adams but from the others too. It makes a refreshing change to have an alien movie that is not simply a shoot-em-up but invites another way of exploring extra-terrestrial encounter. Louise Banks appears to me to be extremely intuitive. That causes me a problem as intuition is my shadow side and therefore difficult for me to connect with. 

This is not a the run-of-the-mill sci-fi alien encounter film. The storytelling, acting and expansive ideas carried by a script that is both challenging and believable all combine to deliver a gift of a film. Do seek it out if you've not seen it. It will repay the investment of time. I'll give it 8/10.



Kingsman: The Secret Service



A very British feeling film, setting lead character Harry Hart [Galahad] (Colin Firth) very much in the mould of John Steed (Patrick Macnee) from the original The Avengers. This is a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the whole genre of spy action movies paying homage to James Bond, Jason Bourne with a hint of Monty Python all set to over-the-top Tarantino-like choreographed showpiece violence. With a star-studded ensemble cast and dialogue that fits the visual landscape of the film, it deserves its plaudits at the hands of critics and the movie-going public alike.

The Britishness is carried by the locations - a London council flat, a local old style pub with villians, a spy HQ accessed through a Saville Row tailor and the notion that the Kingsman are the modern day Knights of the Round Table presided over by Arthur (Michael Caine). Being a Gentleman is the primary calling, national security, a sense of style and getting the bad guys are all secondary considerations.

In a sense the plot is irrelevant as we've seen it a hundred times before in endless spy films. It does have a narrative arc and as always with these films, resolution is inevitable - as is the Bond-like ending! The violence is so theatrical and over-the-top it would be hard for much of it to cause offence but the constant bad language was I felt an unnecessary component - IMDb logging 99 expletives! I guess with that level of violence it was always going to attract a rating so the bad language got in for free as it were.

The gadgets, locations and ingenious escapes all thrill. The acting is good and the characters believable - especially the bad guy's side-kick Gazelle (Sofia Boutella)! With a winning formula, strong cast and good reception at the box office and with the critics, this was always destined to the first of a franchise run. Kingsman: The Golden Circle was released in the autumn of 2017 - let's see how that compares. I'll give this film 7/10.




Saturday, 23 December 2017

Hidden Figures



From the openly ambiguous title, this film operates on a number of levels but there is a feeling that the Holywood filter distorts a great film which means it ends up only being good. It is filled with contrasts - the most obvious being the world of white Americans contrasted with the world of Black Americans. It also contrasts the privileges afforded to men and denied to women. It contrasts compliance against subversion of the institution in its many forms. It presents a victory for the myth that America is great when in many parts of the USA the reality of defeat means that little has actually changed in the intervening 50 years - more than that, segregation and apartheid have moved on to operate in new areas of hate and fear. The picture is little better here in Europe. So perhaps this film's greatest triumph is to issue a rallying call for our common humanity to rise up and unite in ways that our social constructs seem intent on denying us.

The majority of the film takes place in 1961/2 against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and of course the space race. The State of Virginia is a segregated State - except when an individual's intellect is of use to the government. The film is punctuated by close-ups of a black hand embracing a stick of white chalk to mark each time another chink is opened up in the armour of a society which has institutionalised racism. As three black women work for NASA in engineering, the early days of computing and calculating spacecraft trajectories, so they blaze a trail fuelled by the merit of their abilities which forces the establishment and the individuals within it to begin re-evaluating their innate racism and sexism.

Each of us is born into a situation that we take as being normative. As we grow and develop, the natural tendency is to conserve the status quo as that is what brought us into the world and nurtured our development. That's fine - until we are uncritical of the status quo and fail to explore where its flaws are and how we might seek to change them. Furthermore, we need to explore where our role within the social machine within which we exist, makes us complicit in perpetuating something that is not wholesome and life-giving. Social responsibility is a nuanced and awesome thing. Preserve all that is good and help to change for the better, that which is not. St Irenaeus is credited with saying "The glory of God is a human being fully alive" - a recontextualising of John 10:10? How can I, you, help the people we know, to be fully alive?

The acting performances from the three lead actors are immensely strong and engaging. The central character is Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) ably supported by Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Between them they challenge the white male dominated world and break down barriers not only in toilet provision and access to coffee, but also in having the foresight to enable NASA to properly exploit the potential of their first mainframe IBM computer. However, it still requires a human in the shape of Katherine Johnson to correct the computer's miscalculation of a critical point of the re-entry, to ensure a safe return for John Glenn's first US manned flight in space. Kevin Costner's Al Harrison is likeable but I felt the character to be almost a construct of convenience to enable the story to continue it's narrative development.

Whilst outlining what i think are the main themes, I've tried not to give too much away about the way in which the story plays out. This is a very human film with warmth, humour and a portrayal of an oppressed community biding its time until freedom comes. It seems that our collective ability to put human beings into space and to look beyond opens up new vistas of learning. I wonder if we should concentrate on learning lessons about things that should matter closer to home? This is a good film that offers plenty of scope for reflection on a number of issues. I have a feeling it might have been a great film if it had been handled differently. I'll give it 7/10.



Thursday, 21 December 2017

Henry Poole is Here



Looking out on the end of the day as the sun sets on his life. Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) buys a house at the full asking price on the street where he grew up in an anonymous Los Angeles suburb. Having received a terminal diagnosis for an undisclosed disease, he has come home to die. All he wants, is to be left in peace as he indulges in a diet of vodka, pizza and doughnuts awaiting the inevitable.

When a 'stain' appears on the newly painted exterior of the house, his latino neighbour Esperanza (Adriana Barraza) sees the face of Christ in the stain and when a droplet of blood appears on the face, it becomes a shrine and site of pilgrimage. All of this deals a double blow to Henry, firstly to his desire to be left undisturbed and secondly to his, at best, sceptical view of faith and religion.

I won't say anything more about the plot or narrative arc of this film but I will say for a mainstream film that is openly exploring issues of faith and belief, it does so with refreshing openness and engagement. It also offers clear psychological insights into the lives of the main characters, each of whom is dealing with their own set of circumstances. The actors performances add to the believability of the characters and each one allows the viewer to explore how they might react were they stand in their shoes.

The central questions in the film relate to faith and doubt and whether something you don't believe in can exist outside of your beliefs. Other questions to explore might be, are doubt and certainty opposite ends of the same continuum? Also, does belief look the same for everybody? Henry placed his faith in medical science without any evidence whereas Esperanza placed her faith in a likeness of Jesus that was tangible. Whose faith was blind?

The pace of this film is deliberate and gives space and time for the characters to wrestle with what's before them. It is a film about kindness and giving. It is also a film about virtue - faith is foremost and Esperanza means hope, in his other neighbour Dawn (Radha Mitchell), he may find love and at the grocery store he encounters patience! Dawn certainly lives up to her name in guiding Henry through a series of epiphanies.

This is a gentle and heart-warming film about important things which delivers its story in a realistic and engaging way. I encourage you to check it out and reflect on what issues it raises in your mind. I'll give it 7/10.


Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi




Choosing which image to use was a hard choice because this film is not about one thing, but many things. There isn't a simple narrative arc that holds the film together as it proceeds on multiple fronts simultaneously as each main character battles their inner demons. There is much that is familiar here from the Star Wars universe but the character evolution during the film adds a depth and complexity that has perhaps until now been lacking. I particularly enjoyed the many moments of humour that peppered the film.

At the end of the day this is a Sci-Fi action movie that has plenty of fight sequences and battles, space ship fighter engagements and deployment of destructive mega-technology. All the things you would hope for an expect in a Star Wars film. What I didn't expect was the nuanced way the script dealt with the classic battle of dualism - good versus evil. This film explores the many shades of grey that exist between black and white (and no sex scenes in sight).

For the many who were expecting a continuation of the flow that pulsed through VII and are disappointed, this film was never going to deliver that - the clue is in the title. This film is not about the legacy of Luke Skywalker continuing as it did previously - or as we would wish it to in our own fantasies, but about a pivot in the history of the challenge of good versus evil where the battle moves on to continue in a different way. The film, as all of them do, invites us to reflect on how we engage with evil and what we do about exerting a good influence to counter it.

The acting is strong throughout the 2.5 plus hours of the film. The visuals are stunning and the CGI seamlessly integrated with the actors - a welcome development over four decades! I'm attempting not to give anything away here. The way the story develops has twists and turns and as you would expect in a Star Wars film some people die - and some don't - but who ends up in which category is perhaps where the film delivers its greatest surprises.

This film is well worth seeing - but be realistic in your expectations. It is not an episode in a TV box set series but a movie developing and advancing a story that many of us had the privilege of  experiencing forty years ago in the cinema for the first time. If it does conform to all your hopes and expectations what's the point of paying to see it on the big screen? We go to engage with the unexpected, the visually stunning and the communal experience that cinema provides. We look to see where our story intersects with the film's story and God's story. Go with an open mind and heart and you will not be disappointed. The bonus is, you will get to meet the Porgs - who wouldn't want one (Star Wars version of Star Trek's Tribbles)? I'll give it 8/10.



Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Sure Thing



This is an 80's road trip movie about university students trying to find sex and love, directed by Rob Reiner. In a way it is a perfect dress rehearsal for When Harry met Sally which he directed five years later. The characters are engaging, the story whilst predictable, is easily subsumed in a drama that explores teenage relational angst in a way that is well thought through and which delivers a worthwhile and funny film - all without a sex scene between the main characters!

The lead character is Walter (Gib) Gibson played by a 16 year-old John Cusack who at a High School graduation party confides in his best friend Lance (Anthony Edwards) that he has lost his mojo with 'women' after failing to score using a number of cheesy chat-up lines. Lance tells him that he should  go to university with him in California where the sun alway shines and the beaches are filled with hot girls (see pic above), rather going to the cold and dour north-east to study. University begins and they go their separate ways.

Although there isn't much of a narrative arc that you won't see coming, I'll refrain from describing any plot details just in case you want to dig out this tribute to 1980's youth culture. Rather than steamy shower scenes and sleazy clumsy sex, this film explores the male desire for the physical and the female desire for the emotional in a way that requires a journey of 6000 miles, fights and jealousy to reach a consensus.

For me, it was only after having shared the common experience of the journey, it's initial destination, the disappointment it offered and then the realisation that opposites do attract, that the film delivers its own satisfying climax. In an age where everything is instant - especially gratification, this film is an amusing and entertaining reminder that things worth pursuing can take time to build and that if they are built well can last a long time.

This is true of so many things in life. I remember my own impatience in my teens and twenties - I wanted it all and I wanted it all now. A life time later, the journey that I have travelled gives me a different perspective and I am so thankful for what I have - not what I wanted! It is so hard telling someone who simply wants the destination that it's actually about the getting there that is important. As much as parents may wish to live their children's' lives for them, we have to muster the courage to let them go and find their own way, hoping and praying that the values we instilled into them during their upbringing and which our family espouses, will give them enough to safely navigate by.

This is a worthy film - even if the decades now make it a little cheesy (great soundtrack though!). John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga deliver strong performances in the lead roles. The film beautifully characterises the contrast between New England and California with the illusion of The Sure Thing framed on the beach under warm Californian skies and chilly and snowy Ithaca actually delivering something beautiful that is of lasting and fulfilling quality. I'll give it 7/10.


Friday, 10 November 2017

Paddington 2



This film made me laugh and it made me cry! I managed to get a couple of free tickets to what turned out to be a Marks & Spencer screening - presumably for employees as the cinema was packed and the majority of the audience were under 10 and had no idea that there might any etiquette involved in attending cinema. Such was the power of this engaging tale, that for the most part I was oblivious to the screaming, running about and hysteria that went on around me for the whole of the 103 minutes run time. I was only aware of my surroundings on less than half a dozen occasions. I can't remember the last time a film engrossed me so much - or perhaps it was because of my surroundings that I chose to become so engrossed?

You know a film should be good when the ensemble cast includes Ben Wishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Conti, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, Joanna Lumley and Hugh Grant to name but a few! Such is the quality of CGI animation these days that not only do the CGI characters look believably life-like, but the way they physically interact with the rest of the cast looks completely natural. Well done Framestore (a British Company) for the animations and digital effects.

I am not a fan of slap-stick comedy but this film had me laughing - a lot. The script is very cleverly done and the visual gags are beautifully executed. As long as you remember that the world in which Paddington lives is a fantasy, there is no problem about a bear riding on the footplate of a refuse truck, sitting astride and racing on an Irish Wolfhound or him using toffee apples to stick to the ceiling allowing him to walk upside down!

As with any good children's story, there is plenty for adults to reflect on if they choose to peel back the layers. There are many weighty themes in this film such as fulfilling aspirations, generosity, family, community, looking for the good in people, guilt, transformation, injustice, forgiveness, redemption, salvation and hope. All of these inter-weave to combine in a film that offers much for reflection and which presents Paddington as a type of Christ figure if you choose to see him that way. Or you can simply sit back, enjoy the film and have a good laugh - and cry.

As you will have gathered, I liked it a lot and will award it 8/10.



Saturday, 28 October 2017

I, Daniel Blake



It is a strange feeling to be in close proximity to 500+ other people, seven miles up at 600 miles an hour and to be sobbing uncontrollably. Such is the power of this film to evoke a strong emotional response. It is a damning indictment of modern British society that such a film could be made - a film that is sadly more documentary than fiction. For those of us who don't move in the world of job seekers allowance and benefits, it offers a glimpse into an existence that is all too common to too many people.

This film challenges notions of collective social responsibility, highlights the individuality of the case of each claimant and the cruel reality of austerity in the face of the 2008 financial crisis. The points it makes transcend party politics. It is a call to simple humanity, respect and the offer of an invitation to love your neighbour as yourself. Why is it so hard to make things work more equitably?

The unpleasant and gritty reality of the film is amplified by being set in the North-East of England amongst the wonderful people of Newcastle. An area of the UK to have suffered more than its share of job losses and deprivation over recent decades. The characters in the film are compellingly believable and the acting performances - particularly from the two central characters, outstanding. Dave Johns as the titular Daniel and Hayley Squires as lovable Katie weave a web of interdependency that anchors the story to a place of hopeful dark reality.

The portrayal of Job Centre staff is mostly less than kind - they are in an impossible situation and although there are undoubtedly some jobsworths that delight in creating eternal spirals of bureaucracy, there are many others with a generous heart who do not delight in the plight of those they serve on a daily basis. The anonymisation of 'the system' is dehumanising and the fact that determinations are made by someone called 'The Decision Maker' who remains invisible, further alienates people seeking support and feels more like something from Orwell's 1984.

It is clear that the British social security system is broken. How can someone who is advised by their National Health Service Doctor not to work as they continue recovery from a heart attack, be compelled by another part of the National system to demonstrate that they are seeking work in order to continue receiving benefits? How can that system expect a man who has worked all of his life with his hands to be computer literate and compel him to create a neatly laid out and printed CV? Where does he pick up the necessary skills and how easily can he access a computer? How are such things to be paid for?

I'm sure there are some folk who play the system for all they can get. What this film demonstrates - and it seems to accepted as de facto - is that the system is loaded against the 'man/woman in the street' who needs some help to enable him/her to get by until such time as he/she can get back into work. Or loaded against the single mum forced to relocate hundreds of miles away from her circles of support, who ends up being driven into supporting her family through less than ideal ways?

This is a powerful yet ultimately very sad film. It contains many glimpses of the best of human nature but ultimately these offering are snuffed out by a system that seems predicated on a philosophy of saving the state money, of issuing unwarranted sanctions willy nilly and most alarmingly of failing to see fellow human beings as such. It paints a picture that is dehumanising.

Director Ken Loach continues to deliver keenly observed and conceived films that highlight the human condition. This is an important film that spotlights the pressing need to hold to account those who govern supposedly on our behalf.  To award it a score with boxes of popcorn would be an act of trivialisation. This film stands above such things.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Passengers



I gave my significant other a choice of three Sci-Fi films to watch on disc and this is the one that was chosen. It turns out to be less a film about Sci-Fi and more a film about what it means to be human, to love and to be loved.

The context is definitely Sci-Fi but the narrative is all about the need to be in community, to give love and to receive love. Essentially there are only four characters in this film, one of those is an android barman called Arthur (Michael Sheen), the second only features briefly (Laurence Fishburne as Gus) which leaves most of the film about Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence).

This is a visually beautiful film. All of the narrative unfolds on the spaceship Avalon which is transporting 5000 colonists who have paid for their passage to found a new colony on a distant planet because Earth is becoming over crowded and beginning to struggle to support life. The passengers are all in a state of stasis in hibernation pods. Thirty years into a 120 year journey, Jim is inexplicably woken and finds himself the only person roaming the ship. He tries to make use of its facilities but as he is only an 'economy' class passenger, many of the facilities on offer are not available to him! He does however strike up a good relationship with Arthur who it seems has spent 30 years polishing his bar's glasses.

Jim, an engineer,  spends his time trying to work out how to put himself back into hibernation and concludes that it is not possible. As weeks turn into months, the loneliness and isolation together with the growing realisation that he will die before journey's end, combine to propel him into a downward booze-fuelled spiral that even Arthur is unable to stop. On a drunken stagger through one of the hibernation pod halls he notices Aurora in her pod and is drawn to her beauty.

Accessing the ship's files, Jim researches Aurora and views video files she recorded as part of her application process in preparation for the journey. In time he becomes infatuated with her and the idea slowly dawns, that he could wake her up and share his 'prison' with her. Although the script is in places a little clunky, overall it does a very good job of exploring the emotional turmoil the consequences of waking Aurora would have - both for her and for Jim. Jim seeks the counsel of Arthur who, although wonderfully programmed, remains an insensate android that lacks the crucial human perspective that would help Jim resist the temptation.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, you can't force it back in. The film portrays a gentle, tender and believable growth in Aurora and Jim's attraction to each other. They develop an authentic relationship - not simply one born out of pragmatism given their situation. I won't spoil the plot but I will say that I was deeply moved by the situation they faced, how it developed and the outcome - so much so that my dreams were even affected by the film! I don't think I was any more susceptible to being influenced in this way when I watched the film, but for it to generate such an affective response,  illustrated to me the primal nature of the story - the need for companionship, to love and be loved.

The first hour of the film seemed slow to me, the second hour was over in a flash! The aesthetics of the film are very strong - including the ultimate infinity swimming pool! Special effects are very good too - particularly the weightless gigantic bubble scene!

This film is filled with a wide range of emotions that the characters portray in a convincing way - the casting is spot on. The premise of the story is simple, the way it works out is plausible and the narrative arc delivers a few unexpected twists and turns. I really enjoyed this film - even if it was much less Sci-Fi and much more a good old romance story! I'll give it 8/10.


Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049


As the picture above shows, 30 years on and Los Angeles is still the grimy, dark and hostile environment that we were introduced to in 1982's Blade Runner. In this film, Ridley Scott's original feel and look of the Blade Runner world are faithfully reproduced and developed under the guidance of Denis Villeneuve. The soundtrack is even Vangelis like in character. This film is not only faithful to the visual and aural components of the original, but the story continues to ask the same question - 'what is life'?

Officer K/Joe is a role Ryan Gosling was born to play. As technological advances mean that there is even greater integration between humans and androids to produce 'replicants', K works as a Blade Runner for LAPD - he is himself the latest version of replicant, the Nexus 9. Nexus of course means meeting point and embodied within the Nexus 9 is the meeting of human and machine - but is he simply a machine or is he alive? What is life?

This is a big question and Blade Runner 2049 is a big film. The focal point is so often located in a much wider view (as above) whether that be the urban sprawl of LA or the desert or a disused machine hall or mound of rubbish. At nearly 3 hours long I found myself questioning whether it moved too slowly, but I kept coming back to the idea that in trying to answer such a big question, a big canvas was appropriate and with that a long time-scale to explore the story. No, I don't think it is over long.

This is a film filled with the best and the worst of human emotions. Love, hope, happiness, sacrifice, duty, regret, fear and avarice all play out in a violent world redeemed by pockets of intimacy where notions of love and hope are kept alive. There is talk of miracles and discussion of what it means to have a soul and how that then links to whether or not that constitutes life. This film is more open in dealing with metaphysical questions but leaves the viewer to construct an answer.

Human development is inexorably heading towards a point where Artificial Intelligence (AI) will have the capacity to mimic humanity. The intention of such development in the world of Blade Runner is that replicants are 'slaves' who perform the tasks humans don't want to, or which are unsafe for humans to engage in.

The whole point of AI is its capacity to learn and evolve. What happens if and when human and AI evolution intersect and hybrids develop? How human will they have to be, to be deemed as being alive rather than simply existing as machines? History shows us that slavery never has a neat or equitable outcome - it is still a problem we are dealing with today. Simply making slaves that are 'less than human' doesn't really change the argument - does it? From a Christian perspective, how will all of this impact on notions of what it means to be made in the image of God?

The film contains many strong acting performances in a world where gender inequality appears to be a thing of the past - although sexual holograms and prostitutes are all female, so perhaps it is only the appearance of equality the film gives? Robin Wright as Lieutenant Joshi and Ana de Armas as Joi both give compelling performances. It was good to see Harrison Ford reprise his role as Deckard (or if I was unkind Harrison Ford!) but for me the stand out performance was from Sylvia Hoeks playing 'the best of Angels' Luv.

Ridley Scott's DNA runs throughout this film as he oversaw production, but it is probably the original Blade Runner's writer, Hampton Fancher's screenplay that gives greatest continuity with the 1982 offering. I hope they all stick around as this story has plenty of scope for further developments and more films in the Blade Runner franchise. As you may have gathered, I liked it - a lot. It's not often a sequel matches the original but for me in this case it does, so I will award it 9/10!


Saturday, 21 October 2017

Blade Runner - The Director's Cut



After 35 years, time has not dulled the visual or ethical impact of this film. Ridley Scott's celebrated masterpiece still holds it's head high. I rewatched it again ahead of hopefully seeing the sequel in the next few days. Based on Philip K Dick's story 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' the film is set in November 2019. I'm glad to report that Scott's dystopian Los Angeles has not quite yet come to pass!

The bleak and darkened sets, half-lit and filled with clouds of steam and constant rain, all combine to create a very 'other' kind of world. It is permanent night and the all pervasive day-glow advertising brings a sharp contrast to the greyed out streets of the cityscape. It is little wonder that the healthy and able have left the planet to colonise other worlds. Those that remain, populate an underclass which requires heavy and frequent law enforcement.

The central thrust of the story is a now common theme amongst Sci Fi writers as the fiction becomes ever closer to reality. What if Artificial Intelligence (AI) creates beings that evolve into something that challenges the primacy of their creator? Perhaps a parallel with the Biblical narrative?

Star Trek's Data portrayed a benevolent android whose shadow side was manifested in his darker brother Lore. The characters ably demonstrating the dichotomy and danger facing those who are developing AI and robotics.  More recently films such as Ex Machina and  Ghost in the Shell have explored the deception of humans by AI driven androids. This is a rich vein in Sci FI that follows in the traditions of Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov et al.

The narrative arc of Blade Runner is straightforward and is set out at the beginning of the film. A group of the latest Nexus 6 model of 'replicant' have escaped their assigned roles and gone rogue in an attempt to increase their inbuilt four year life span. Some have returned to earth and pose such a threat that ace Detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is blackmailed out of retirement for one last mission. He reprises his role as a Blade Runner - someone who 'retires' replicants. Such is the crossover between human and machine that euphemisms must be used to avoid the word 'kill'.

Most of the story progresses as expected as Deckard works his way through the replicants. The leader of the replicants - Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and an experimental replicant Rachel (Sean Young) pose different problems for Deckard as the film unfolds. Does Batty's change of heart as his own death approaches or Rachel's seeming innocence and naivety, signpost some hope for AI to remain more human and not evolve into something that will seek domination and control of humanity? Where does being human end and being machine begin? What happens when humans create machines in their own image? These are the central ideas that Blade Runner explores.

I will add my voice to those who see this as a top class film. I am looking forward to the sequel which is currently in the cinemas - Blade Runner 2049. The visualisation, story and acting of this film leave me no choice other than to award it 9/10.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Girl on the Train



Having not read the book I came to this film with an open mind. I was aware however, that many readers had been critical of the way the story was translated to film - possibly because the context of glossy New York made it a completely different story to the gritty overcrowded delayed commuter trains grinding into London. That said, the central character is an English woman in New York and as such is set apart. Emily Blunt delivers a measured tour-de-force performance as the titular character Rachel.

This film explores many dark holes and crevices - mostly within the psyches of leading characters - most of whom are women. It centres on guilt, addiction to both alcohol and sex, deception, control, emotional, psychological, sexual and physical violence and the human ability to keep on battling through to experience the power of transformation.

Although Rachel is presented as the central insecure loser, it becomes apparent that the driver for the web of deceit and twisted relationships is in fact one of the other character's insecurities. What the film does show is the power of the imagination to turn facts into fictions that can gnaw away at our sensibilities and propel us into a vortex of depression and ever greater self-doubt. When this is coupled with repeated blackouts from too much booze, it all combines to set up a web of suspicion that even those who are suspects are unable to unravel.

The film also portrays a number of positive characters all of whom are trying to help - the AA group, Martha (Lisa Kudrow), Abdic (Edgar Ramirez), Cathy (Laura Prepon), the man in the suit (Darren Goldstein) as well as police detectives who use wisdom and patience to disentangle the knot of the mystery. The way the film plays out also offers some psychological insights about dependency, guilt, idealisation and attachment.

The Girl on the Train is not easy viewing but it is presenting a believable story that doesn't always go where I expected it to. Some have said that the pace of the film is too slow, but I think that is harsh as it needs to unfold at the pace at which Rachel can piece her dawning epiphany together. It could be said that this is a film where everyone is, on the surface, living the American dream whilst underneath there is fragmentation, emptiness and despair. In that respect, for me, it echoes American Beauty. Pour a strong drink (only one!) and fire up the DVD player. I'll give it 7/10.



Thursday, 20 July 2017

Dekalog: Seven



I really like the stories told and through them the films made by Polish Director Krzysztof Kieślowski and have all his films that are available on disc. At our monthly gathering in the parish, friends randomly chose the number 7 without knowing why they were choosing and so elected to watch an hour long film loosely based on the 7th of the Ten Commandments - " You shall not commit adultery". Interesting.

Kieślowski has the knack of rendering every day people going about their every day lives and sharing the kind of experience that you and I might experience. This movie is set in the anonymous suburbs of Warsaw, Poland and is from a set of 10 originally made for TV in 1988 - made whilst Poland was still a Communist autocracy. It's ordinariness is the thing that allows it to connect and spark a wide range of reactions amongst those who watch it.

The genius of the story-telling is that the film begins when the fruit of an adulterous act is already six years old and the mother and father have been estranged since before the child's birth. This is not so much a story about adultery but about the fact that actions have consequences and they can escalate and get out of hand very rapidly once lies, pride and deceit are used to cover something up. I say 'adulterous act' but the two involved were not married to each other - or to anyone else as far as we can glean from the story. So the first question is 'what constitutes adultery"?

And the questions just keep on coming. They draw the viewer in and invite speculation about the back story and about so much of the story that isn't told directly through the film. How three female generations of the same family can be so dysfunctional when the Matriarch is a former headteacher is good one. Is Stefan (Wladyslaw Kowalski) ineffectual through inability or because of Ewa's (Anna Polony) domineering? At the start Majka (Maja Barelkowska) appears to be about to be finishing a university degree but her actions then and subsequently suggest that her ability to make sound judgements is at times severely impaired. This is just one of many issues that could be explored regarding her character. What of Wojtek (Boguslaw Linda)? Could/should he have done more? How culpable was he for the mess? Do you think he had paid a sufficient price for his peccadillo or was he due to pay more and if so how much and for how long? And what was to become of little Ania (Katarzyna Piwowarczyk)?

I am still coming up with questions such was the story-telling and invitation to engage. I think Dekalog would make a great Lent Course if it could be fashioned into six sessions or so. Two of the films, Five and Six were expanded into full theatrical releases with the same cast and largely similar plot - A Short Film about Killing and A Short Film about Love.

In the 2002 Sight & Sound poll to determine the greatest films of all time, Dekalog and A Short Film About Killing received votes from 4 critics and 3 directors. Additionally, in the Sight & Sound poll held the same year to determine the top 10 films of the previous 25 years, Kieslowski was named #2 on the list of Top Directors, with votes for his films being split between Dekalog, Three Colors Red/Blue, and The Double Life of Veronique.

I thought this was a great film. It is currently rated at 97% red on Rotten Tomatoes and 91% on IMDb. If you don't know Kieślowski do go and check out his substantial body of work - you won't be disappointed. I'll give it an easy 9/10.


Enter the Dragon



Caught this on TV the other night and had to watch it to the end. It still offers compelling viewing if martial arts is your thing. I remember seeing this when it came out (I looked older than I was!) and the stir that it caused amongst school mates. This film is credited with literally kick-starting the whole kung fu genre and the popularity of films about martial arts. It also propelled Bruce Lee (Lee) to immediate stardom.

The plot and acting are nothing much to celebrate. They serve merely as a vehicle for the action sequences of which there are many. Crime, trafficking, revenge, under-cover intelligence, greed, pride and sexual attraction all ferment together to provide the context for Lee to fight the baddies, avenge the death of his sister and help the good guys beat the bad guys.

The film has a very utilitarian view of morality and little is nuanced. The main characters all have a back story and a reason for coming together. It is interesting that some have picked up on the film as having a decolonisation vibe alongside many other films set in Asia and Africa in post-war years. It has also been championed by some as being connected with and supporting the Black Power Movement through the character of Williams (Jim Kelly). Both of these ideas are further expounded in the Wikipedia article on the film.

I don't have much more to say about the film - except I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you don't mind a little bit of Kung Fu Fighting and haven't seen it, I would encourage you to watch it. I'll give it 7/10 and am happy to have the 30th anniversary special edition in my library of discs!



Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Open Bethlehem



This 2014 documentary is written and Directed by Leila Sansour who left her home town of Bethlehem at the age of 14 because it was too small and a backwater in the shadow if its neighbour Jerusalem. When she learns that the city is about to encircled by a wall she returns and begins a fight to keep Bethlehem open.

This film captures Sansour's energy and dynamism as she recruits family and friends to support the cause. As the wall is imposed on people going about their daily lives in their home country, the hegemony of US backed Israel is made plain for all to see. The eight meter high wall creates an apartheid that the world seems disinterested in and impotent to challenge. Some Palestinians are doing unspeakable things to Israelis - but it is the few and not the many.

We see Palestinian farmers showing their ancient olive groves that have been destroyed by the Israelis. We see houses being destroyed - longstanding family homes - simply to make way for polished new homes for Israeli settlers who will be connected by the antiseptic umbilical of new roads directly into the heart of Jerusalem whilst the locals have to queue at the checkpoint from 03:00 to stand even a chance of getting to work. Many won't make it because the number of daily permits is limited.

The intifada began in Bethlehem amongst students at the university - founded by Sansour's father. This together with her regret at having abandoned Bethlehem earlier in life drive her to extraordinary lengths as she builds a coalition of unlikely backers to campaign for Bethlehem to be made an open city. As part of the campaign the Mayor agrees to the creation of a Bethlehem Passport and these are distributed to celebrities and politicians to gain publicity. There are high level visits to the UK and the USA but ultimately the campaign runs out funds and money and fizzles out. The film ends in 2014 as Sansour tries to reinvigorate the campaign and take on the Israeli state.

This is a desperately sad film that depicts callousness on the part of the Israelis as they annex one of Christianity's holiest sites. Many Christian leaders are shown visiting the Church of the Nativity in the film - including Archbishop Rowan and Bishop Tutu also puts in an appearance on the film.

Please take a moment to check out the project's website and consider your own response - or buy the DVD from them and show it to a group of friends or in your place of worship. This is a solid film documenting a worthy cause. I'll give it 7/10.


Sunday, 25 June 2017

Notes on Blindness



Another film watched with a group of friends from church but this time the viewing was curated by a colleague - who had been a student of the film's central character. John Hull (Dan Skinner) was an academic theologian at Birmingham University and latterly also at The Queen's Foundation Theological College. I was expecting much more direct 'God-talk' - God doesn't get a mention until the 48th minute! This docudrama is about the man, the husband, the father and the son John Hull. What sets it apart is that as his sight failed, he took to recording a detailed diary on audio cassettes and the dialogue in the film features the actors lip-synching with the diaries as they are played back.

Hull's mind was always in need of being fed. His voracious appetite for new ideas and information propelled friends, university colleagues and students to begin recording academic texts onto audio cassette so that he could listen to continue his research and lecturing. After a series of medical and surgical interventions, complete blindness came in 1980. The last image he recalled seeing was appropriately a church spire.

In making the film, Directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney no doubt had to make editorial decisions about which extracts from the diaries to use in order to give the documentary and biographical elements of the film continuity. I wonder what their rationale was and what they chose to leave out. The result is a very down-to-earth, almost matter-of-fact film that treats blindness and its onset in an analytical way. This film does not indulge sentimentality. Hull works hard to develop new way of seeing which do not use the optic nerve but nevertheless stimulates the optical cortex of the brain. This enables Hull to describe the onset and effects of blindness with an accessible realism that is educative as well as being inspiring.

Much of the laboratory of his ongoing experimentation was his family - he had five children and was originally an Australian with his own family back in Victoria. His wife Marilyn (Simone Kirby) is portrayed very positively to be the rock that keeps the family going despite her constant fear of her husband entering another period of depression. It is not until a major epiphany, in part visualised as a dreamlike sequence, that Hull is able to come to terms with his condition and receive it as a gift - not a gift he wanted, but nevertheless a gift. The central question becomes for him not 'why' but 'what am I going to do with it?'. It is interesting to see how rainfall becomes a carrier of ideas when its analysed sound seems to heighten Hull's sensory acuity and power of reasoning. It is as though rain becomes for Hull a 'thin place' as followers of Celtic spirituality might say - where the immanence of God is felt more keenly.

Hull's approach to theology is through it's dialogue with sociology and as such he is portrayed as a very 'human' being. He is driven by questions about how different kinds of people can understand their differences young and old, rich and poor, male and female, sighted and the blind. As Hull's blindness was eventually 'seen' to be a gift to him, the film makers have in turn shared that gift with us in a generous and inspiring way. As well as introducing us to an extraordinary person, this film also invites us to consider what it actually means to 'see'.

This is another film that lends itself to group reflection and discussion. It raises a number of issues and offers a unique insight into blindness and its effects. It also shows how it can be embraced, coped with and even offer new possibilities not previous available. I would encourage you to see it - at 86 minutes it's about the right length. I'll give it 8/10.


Saturday, 24 June 2017

The Shack



The lens through which you view this film will totally determine your response to it. For those who try to live without faith it will disappoint and frustrate. For those with a living faith it will be interesting and may even provoke questions. For those Christians who have an active faith, it will engage and possibly even excite and challenge your view of God. If you read and liked the 2007 book on which it is based, you will like the film.

The story feels contrived, the plot clunky and some of the acting a little odd. However, I would still advocate going to see this - maybe with a group and have a discussion over pizza (or cuisine of your choice) afterwards. Not only is it imbued with the cultural ethos of (North American) Evangelical Christianity in its theological outlook, it also sets out an apologetic response to the good old question 'why does God let bad things happen?'. Whether the contrivance of these two things work for you is only something you can determine.

The structure of the film works differently to the book but the central premise is the same. The background is familial child abuse that then is overtaken by child abduction and hinted at murder. The themes that the film explores are guilt, grief, love, sacrifice, forgiveness, Trinity and the nature of God. Because the film deals with heavyweight theological and Biblical themes, everyone will have a view on how they should be set out. Not everyone will agree with the stance the film takes, but I feel they did a good job. Rather than being critical of the film's content and style, I would invite viewers to reflect on their own response and how the film, may or may not have challenged and changed their view of God and these big areas of Christian doctrine. How would you make a film that featured the Christian Trinity?

Much of the film is predictable but there is also a playfulness about how a Trinitarian God is depicted and how the persons of the Trinity interact. For me, the film portrays the role of wisdom much more helpfully than the book does - but again that's down to a different structure and sequence of encounters. I had problems with a lot of Sam Worthington's mumbled diction - I simply couldn't understand what he was saying which was a pity as he played the central character Mack. However the other characters and wonderful locations in the film more than made up for it.

This will be a great film to watch for church groups and then discuss afterwards - perhaps it will appear as a 2018 Lent course? I imagine it will only be in the cinema in the UK for a limited time and as yet I haven't found a scheduled release date for the disc version. Do go and see it - and allow yourself to be surprised. As a film 6/10, as an attempt to visualise complex theology 8/10 so it scores 7/10 on here.


Thursday, 22 June 2017

Life and Debt



I watched this film with a group of friends and we were shocked at our collective appalling inability to learn lessons from history. This film is about Jamaica's transition to independence from Britain and the economic 'assistance' that was required to move to a free market consumer economy. It is a documentary that helpfully sets out the context of the founding of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the aftermath of World War Two. Keen to avoid a scenario that developed into World War Three, these institutions - dominated by the USA - set up vast funds to loan to countries to help them reach prosperity. Sadly the opposite is what has happened. Tragically the world is filled with too many Jamaicas - one is one too many.

The whole aim of colonialisation is to make money for the colonising nation and its entrepreneurs. Jamaica had sugar, bananas and a wonderful natural beauty and climate that lend themselves to tourism. The economic plan ignored its greatest resource - its people.

To become a productive consumer led economy required huge investment in infrastructure that was beyond the scope of this tiny nation to raise internally. So they tied themselves into the only banking regime in the West that was able to help and took out loans from WB/IMF. It soon became clear that to service the interest payments on the the loans, more loans were required and with each successive round of borrowing the debt spiral increased in speed and depth. Whilst the USA subsidised its farmers and industries to produce for the world market, Jamaica was hit by punitive interest payments and cowardly trade tariffs. They didn't, and never have stood a chance. The playing field is not level.

Even something as modest as a banana was used as an economic weapon. The giant US owned corporations harvesting and exporting bananas in Central America were supported by their government which then through the WB/IMF imposed tariffs on exported Jamaican bananas to the UK - its principle historical market and not one which competed with Central American produce to any great extent.

Over the decades Jamaica's economy has dwindled as the USA established free trade areas on the island to enslave workers (see picture above) with tax free and subsidised production of goods that were then returned for sale in the USA at a knock-down price because of the low production costs. As a consequence most Jamaicans are caught up in subsistence low scale agriculture dependent on the weather and the seasons to guarantee enough a food to put on the table. Unemployment is high and social problems and drug use are widespread.

All of this is in stark contrast to the smiling bright and happy Jamaica that the tens of thousands of tourists see who arrive by liner and plane every week. They stay in luxury hotels and dine of fine food until they've had their fill. Tours take then past McDonald's, KFC and Baskin Robins to sanitised ghettoes that offer the consumers an opportunity to sample the 'real Jamaica' sold to them by the tour brochure.

Who said the slave trade had been abolished?


Saturday, 29 April 2017

The Straight Story



This was recommended to me by some dear friends and I am grateful to them for that. I can't remember the last U classification film I reflected on - no sex, don't remember any swearing and the only violence done is to a road kill deer and a lawn mower blasted with a shot gun! This is a lovely tale - a road trip biopic which moves along at a maximum speed of 5 mph as Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) trundles 240 miles across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower towing a trailer. This is not your average film.

This is a film about family relationships. Alvin is a WWII vet whose health is failing. He lives with his daughter who has been badly served by the authorities. He has been estranged from his brother for a decade when news comes through that the brother has suffered a stroke. Alvin, who is prevented from holding a driving licence by his poor health, resolves to set out on a thirty-year-old John Deere Lawn Tractor, which has a maximum speed of 5 mph,  on the 240 mile journey from Laurens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin to visit his brother.

This is a generous film filled with grace, humour, wisdom and kindness. Its gentle pace, warm colours and likeable characters make it a winner. As Alvin chugs relentlessly Eastwards he encounters people whom he helps and some who help him. The wisdom he dispenses helps people to want to get on better with their families - and that is the purpose of his journey - reconciliation.

There's not a lot more I can say about this film - except it features a lot of big skies and a lot of weather. Sissy Spacek's performance as daughter Rose is beguiling. It was released in 1999 so it's not new but was new to me - have you seen it? You should. I'll give it 7/10. Well worth the watch.


Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Sense of an Ending



From the cast and trailer I was hoping that this would be a great film. The acting is certainly great, but the pace, plot and content of the film are enigmatic at best which means the film plods to an unsatisfying conclusion. It is undoubtedly clever, being based on the Man Booker winning novel of the same name by Julian Barnes. But the whole film gets swallowed up in its own angst ridden public schoolboy philosophising about how to interpret historical events and attach any meaning to the outcome. The inclusion of Charlotte Rampling as Veronica invited for me an immediate comparison with 45 Years.

This is a film about relationships, about ageing and about how feelings that have lain dormant for decades can be rekindled in a way that embodies the energy of teenage infatuation that accompanies first love, which then unexpectedly finds vibrant expression in later life. This of course rocks the status quo and the central character of Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is most put out to find that others - and particularly his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) - don't share his enthusiasm to dig up a relationship from 50+ years ago.

The turns and twists based on assumptions made in the 1960s at university, prove to be wide of the mark in 2017.  Unwanted pregnancies, suicides, pregnant lesbians, the birth of a grandchild and the mysterious and inscrutable Veronica all weave together to produce an unappetising concoction. The adjective curmudgeonly is repeatedly used to describe Tony and it is very accurate - made all the more so by Broadbent's performance. All I can say is, Leicas aside, I'm glad he isn't one of my friends.

As was the case in 45 Years, I was distressed by the way in which something seemingly so long forgotten, from so long ago, can be fanned into new and forceful life and destabilise things to such an extent. It causes me to reflect on my past and produce an inventory to ensure that I have nothing similar lurking in the life before the current arrangement!

This film is British cinema at its best with a great cast. If you prefer action movies or happy endings I suggest you avoid it as it is true to its title and provides only a sense of an ending. If you want a guide to help you to reflect on your present and past relationships and how they might interact, then this film will invite you to do that. What it can't do is predict the outcome of such interactions and the possible cost attached to them! For me the film was 20-30 minutes too long and at times tedious. The explorations of schoolboy historical epistemology clouded the plot unnecessarily and in Veronica and Tony - both young and old, this film possesses two lead characters that are not attractive - at least to me. It will appeal to viewers of a 'certain age' - Baby Boomers. I'll give it 7/10 - but mainly for the acting.


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Elle


This is not a film for the faint-hearted! It has attracted a lot of comment which seems to be divided between seeing this as either a film which is misogynistic or one which is a triumph of feminism. Which way do you think it goes? There is hardly a scene in the film that does not present us with the central character of Michele played by Isabelle Huppert. It is a film about her. This is a film about family, violent sexual deviance and relationships. It's also a film about how past trauma can leave a legacy that lasts a lifetime. On one level this film is a thriller, on another it's a study of rape, deceit, obsession, empowerment and betrayal.

One day Michele is brutally raped in her home by a man in ski mask. After he leaves, she simply sweeps up the debris from the struggle and carries on as though she refuses to be the victim. She arms herself with pepper spray and an axe in case the attacker returns and begins her own investigation to discover the identity of the assailant. Michele contrives a number of social encounters to flush out the rapist as she seems to feel that it is someone within her social circle. Meanwhile she maintains an affair with Robert, husband of her best friend and business partner and pursues a flirtation with Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) her neighbour. Patrick's wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira) is a devout Catholic which introduces a strand of religiosity to be woven into the story. As she identifies the rapist she invites a further encounter in the knowledge that it will a bruising and painful experience for her. Michele discovers the rapist's inability to engage in consensual sex hence the violence, and uses this as a lever to provoke even greater violence. This is not a straightforward film.

This story has a lot of things going on in it - some straightforward and in plain sight, others only alluded to and which the viewer has to join the dots and draw their own conclusions. It features a mass murderer, a successful business woman, a failed writer, three deaths, one birth, adultery and rape. In the film, it is the women who call the shots - eventually even with the rapist. The April 2017 edition of Sight & Sound carries an interview with Director Paul Verhoeven which offers some insights. More instructive are two short essays by different women, one of whom sees it as a film about misogyny and rape ultimately being banal, and the other who sees the point of the film to "punish a woman with power, portraying her as castrating".

To be honest, I'm still processing the ins and outs of this story. I know I'm glad that Michele is not one of my friends or family! That it was based on a novel inspired by the mass shootings in Norway by Anders Brevik gives it a dark and unpleasant backdrop. That it demonstrates how someone can build a life out of the rubble of personal calamity is inspiring but I have to admit I don't like the architect or the builder. If I have to take sides, I see this as a film about misogyny rather than being misogynistic in itself. Whilst the violence is integral to the plot, it will deter many from engaging with the heavy and demanding themes of the story. Huppert's acting is first class - but I loathe her character. If you have a strong stomach and aren't offended by the themes, do go and watch it, otherwise track down a copy of Sight & Sound. I'll give it 8/10 for the way in which it attempts to deal with significant issues - but I don't want or need to see it again.




Thursday, 13 April 2017

Ghost in the Shell



This is an interesting film that makes you think.  I liked it. A lot. Sci-Fi on a grand scale set in a futuristic Japan (that looks a lot like Hong Kong) with a manga-type wash - it's based on a manga of the same name. On one level the script is standard 'what can AI give us and what are the risks?'. It explores the cyborg with human brain scenario - but in an original and thought provoking way. It also pays homage to many films/books including - The Matrix, Lucy, Bladerunner, Kill Bill, Ex Machina, Howey's Wool trilogy with its Silos - or where some of these influenced by the 1995 original manga film? This film is visually stunning with great CGI and a pounding soundtrack that fits right in.

The central character is the cyborg with a human brain - Major (Scarlett Johansson) who through a search for her memories struggles to establish a sense of self-identity. Within the struggle is the over-arching existential question "what makes us human?" The film uses terms like soul, ghost and spirit with freedom. When the film is set in, and most of the characters are, Eastern Oriental, the fact that the lead character is a voluptuous New Yorker has caused plenty of comment. Johansson  however is not there simply to provide eye-candy, she handles the angst of her quest well and allows her character to make some unexpected decisions when easier options are available.

Set in the near future when most people have some kind of sensory or muscular augmentation, Major is a shell with a human brain - a sentient weapon which is deployed to counter terrorism. Things become messy between the unit that she works for and the company that created her. The scientist leading the programme - Dr Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) - discovers she has divided loyalty when Major learns more of her origins and presses for information.

On one level this film shows a high tech future where product placement is still a blight on the visual experience. It also shows that humanity can be as depraved as ever and that greed and the search for power remain as attractive as they always have been. There is a strong moral thread - or several - running through this film and it is good to see the questions being dealt with in an adult way. The central question being answered in the final dialogue.

Perhaps the greatest violence is what is done to the body and brain of Major? The violence aside (if it is ever possible to put violence aside), this film is worth the watch because of the way in which it explores questions of human identity and being. The visuals and cyborg concepts are also worth seeing. As I said, I like this film, I'm sure a different Director would have handled it with a different emphasis or character development and pushed the questions deeper, but I'm still going to award it 8/10.


Monday, 6 March 2017

Schindler's List



I can't believe I hadn't seen this film earlier! I knew it had won seven Oscars and was critically acclaimed but as with any film that draws such hype I am sceptical until I see it for myself. Having seen it, my question is - why only seven Oscars? There are films that because of the craft of the acting, writing or directing performances, attract a disproportionate level of hype. There are films that because of their subject matter, timing or context also garner more plaudits than might otherwise be the case. On both counts, this film is a genuine winner.

For me films like this are important. I'm not Jewish, or German, or Polish, but I was born in the 1950s in West Germany because of the aftermath of WWII. My parents moved a lot when I was young and I have nowhere that I call home apart from where I live at the present moment. For me, watching films like this forms part of my own search for a sense of self-identity. I feel a connectedness to the events portrayed as they took place just over a decade before I was born.

Perhaps this was a contributing factor to taking a short break in Krakow only two weeks ago. When in the city, the legacy of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust are ever present. Tours to the ghetto are widely advertised as is the extensive Jewish cemetery. Five years ago I visited Bergen-Belsen and whilst in Krakow I visited Aushwitz-Birkenau which is only 75 minutes away. I also visited Schindler's Factory in Krakow which has been turned into a museum - quite the best of its kind. It was probably this that prompted a viewing of the film that has long been in my library. It was compelling to see parts of the ghetto and factory building that I had walked only a few days before.

Whilst the Holocaust is the context in which this 187 minute long film plays out, it is not a film about the Holocaust but about two German men caught up in it and their differing choices about the role they take. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a flamboyant, womanising, entrepreneurial, trickster with a heart of gold. Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is the Concentration Camp Commandant who is a psychopath with a heart filled with evil.

Schindler is spared the war as he is an industrialist - not a very good one, but someone who wants to open a factory in Krakow making items that are 'indispensable' to the Third Reich - enamelware. The factory employs 'skilled' Jews as they are cheaper to employ than local Poles. As Schindler builds his relationship with the local Camp Commandant Goeth, he audaciously treads a thin line between being found out and buying off people with bribes. Later in the film he opens a munitions factory in Czechoslovakia and insists that an expanded Jewish workforce is transferred there to staff it. What is remarkable is that neither factory is very productive but they do generate a lot of wealth for Schindler who lavishes it on getting the German officers drunk and on bribes.

The central core of the film is the relationship between Schindler and Goeth and how Schindler is able to exert a positive influence on him. The many Jews who live in the ghetto, work for Schindler or get caught up in the local Concentration Camp feature on the whole as a group under sentence of death. Some of them feature more prominently and give us an insight into their background, families and skills.

The film is shot in black and white, apart from a heart-wrenching splash of red once or twice. The ruthlessness and inhumanity of the Nazi war machine and the Final Solution are laid bare for all to see. Acts of kindness, humour and generosity appear randomly as the human spirit and Jewish heritage battle to stay alive. Steven Spielberg as Director has treated the story with great respect, creativity and hopefulness as he delivers a tour-de-force worthy of its accolades and awards. Parts of the film are necessarily brutal - much of it hopefully endearing.  There is so much more to this film than I have touched on here. If you have not seen it, please do. It's not so much great entertainment as great education and offers a chance to reflect on how our own humanity plays itself out. I'll give it 9/10.


Sunday, 12 February 2017

Hacksaw Ridge



When Mel Gibson is the Director you know the action sequences are going to be full-on and in a WWII drama featuring close quarter hand-to-hand combat, the more visceral elements that literally flow from it, are going to be displayed with full and gory anatomical vibrancy! As striking as these images are - and as horrible as war is - even though viewers cannot un-see what they have seen, the most memorable thing that remains for me is the story of the central character Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). This film is a biopic based on the heroics of Doss the Conscientious Objector and the significant contribution he made to the Battle of Okinawa.

This is the kind of film that Clint Eastwood usually Directs. Had he done so, Hacksaw Ridge would have been a radically different film - a jingoistic celebration of a war hero showing the tolerance and diversity living the American Dream can deliver. Instead, we have a thoughtful and heart-warming film which roots the central character in his home context and which links the legacy of WWI to the second generation as demons, guilt and regret enslave those who fought in France and survived.

Garfield's Doss delivers a subtle blend of strength and vulnerability which is wonderfully matched by the captivating and inspiring Dorothy Shutte played by Teresa PalmerGarfiled's performance has won him an Oscar nomination - the film has five other nominations, including best picture. Hugo Weaving also manages to blend subtleties together in his wonderful portrayal of Doss' father Tom.

I heard the good Dr Kermode reviewing this film and for once I disagree with one of his main criticisms. He was complaining that he first half of the film (in total it's 139 minutes!) is too slow as it laboured to establish the central character as a believable and morally upright guy from which the foundation for his conscientious objecting springs. I think that this was necessary and yes it is a film of two halves - but both are essential if Doss' story is to be told. We needed to see the playfulness side of him with his brother, the struggles with his father, the domestic violence and the love of his mother. We needed to see his commitment to the Seventh Day Adventist Church and his ability to think quickly and save a life even before he enlists. But most of all, the first half of the film is necessary as it gives the US Army the opportunity to learn what a Conscientious Objector really are and what to do with them!

There were many passages of this film that brought a tear to my eye because the heart-break, sacrifice and emotional connection of the characters was so real. There were some great examples of editing that made me jump out of my seat! The brutality of war and especially the totality of Japanese combat ethos were repeatedly displayed in graphic technicolor which was reinforced by a deafening soundtrack. This film is very well shot and is completely at home on the big screen.

Overall the film does not paint the US Army very favourably. Slow to catch on, lacking in resources and combat strategies and quite often playing catch-up where Desmond Doss was concerned. The company of which Doss is a part contains the predictable blend of stereotypical men - I wonder how many of them were real and how many were Hollywood inventions? Nevertheless, this is an excellent film and deserving of some recognition in the forth-coming awards ceremonies. Almost worthy of a 9 but scoring a very strong 8/10 here. Do go and see it if you can - unless you are a squeamish pacifist!