Thursday, 30 December 2010

Tron: Legacy


As you can see, Tron: Legacy has much to commend it! The only option on offer was a 3D screening and I remain unconvinced about the supposed benefits of this viewing format. It definitely helps to have seen the original as this film very tightly follows on - and has left the door wide open for the franchise to go on earning dollars for Disney.

The harmony between the two films in terms of story and conceptualisation is spot on - the continuity is excellent. The original set has been believably updated and the design of the new film is a classy progression from what went before. It is good to see the same two main older actors/characters as well as some from the next generation. The visuals are stunning - Star Wars meets The Matrix kind of stuff. The sets are vast open CG spaces echoing the hangars full of Star Wars droid armies. The fight, race and chase sequences are very well done both within 'The Grid' and in the real world. The transitions between the two worlds are quick and convenient which is just as well as this film makes no attempt to explain the 'science' behind what we see.

I am happy to report that the dialogue has also been updated and that a budding love interest for young Sam Flynn is presented in the persona of Quorra (see above). The character Zuse [sic] is an interesting introduction - reminiscent of the Merovingian from The Matrix saga. One disappointment is the way the story engages with the central plot - that Clu was tasked with creating the perfect world - a virtual utopia. Clearly Clu and Flynn interpreted this goal in different ways but I feel much more could have been made of the Paradise Lost/Paradise Won plot.

I won't spoil the story - such as it predictably is. This is however good viewing - but I remain unconvinced about the 3D. Do catch it while it's on. I'll give it 8/10.

Of Gods and Men


Most films that set themselves within the context of a living and worshipping Christian community fail to capture the nuances and struggles of what it means to be in Community. This film succeeds.

Based on real events, Xavier Beauvois Directs a film of subtlety and sensitivity that explores the impossibility of tension created when vocational vows are confronted by an opposing fundamentalist ideology. Set in Algeria in 1996 at the monastery of Tibhirine in the Atlas Mountains, the community of the Cistercian monks are faced with a deep challenge as the legacy of French colonial rule sees the country descend into civil war. As fundamentalist Mujahideen move into the area and take control in a guerilla-style insurgency, the Community struggle to maintain their integrity.

Over the decades, a village has grown up around the monastery and the two enjoy a symbiotic relationship. The Brothers cultivate their land and sell and barter their spare produce in the village market. The leaders of the local community enjoy a mutually respectful relationship with the monastery and benevolent Islam is seen to find meaningful expression alongside the Christian faith of the Cistercians. The Brothers operate a clinic for local people where Frere Luc dispenses dispenses basic remedies, good advice and second-hand shoes to those in need.

When one of the Mujahideen is wounded, the group's leader storms into the monastery seeking medical supplies. The leader, Frere Christian, asks the armed militants to leave the monastery as it is a place of peace. He also explains that what little they have by way of medicine is for the local Moslem population and not for them. In diffusing the tension, Frere Christian quotes an apt verse from the Koran thereby demonstrating the brotherhood of a shared life of faith.  The Mujahideen leave empty handed but respect has been earned.

The arrival of the armed conflict within the monastery propels the community into disarray. None of the monks seek martyrdom yet some feel a pressing need to move to a safer place elsewhere in Africa or back to France. Frere Christian having been elected leader by the Community now has his leadership tested. What will the community decide? How will Christian exercise leadership? How does the daily rhythm of prayer and work dialogue with the developing and pressing situation? How will Frere Christian deal with the local official who suggests the Monastery might be seen as collaborating with terrorists? What will the outcome be?

It is in exploring these questions and the relational tensions they create within Community that the film delivers an insightful and intimate exploration of the internal and external conflicts that ebb and flow. Beauvois may be guilty of ramping up the tug on the heart strings as the film reaches its climax, but you will never listen to Swan Lake in quite the same way ever again!

This is an excellent film - please do go and see it. I'll give it 8.5/10.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Books - I've been reading again!

Just finished a couple of movie related books.

The first one is another in the BFI Film Classics series on Blade Runner by Scott Bukatman. It is a thorough exploration of the themes of the film and touches on story, cinematography, philosophy and metaphysics to name but a few - an excellent read.


The style is quite academic - it has 103 footnotes in its 86 pages - which renders it a slow read if the contents are to be absorbed (at least this was my experience!). However, the wide range of references to other films and to books was invaluable and I have purchased some of them to help me deepen my understanding of what Ridley Scott was aiming for when he made this iconic film. I now want to watch the film again. For me, one of the deepest questions the book raised, was when it compared Asimov's notion of what is to be human with that offered by Philip K Dick who wrote the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on which the film is based. For Asimov it is the capacity to learn, develop and evolve - Artificial Intelligence, whereas for Dick an android is incapable of displaying empathy as this is the most definingly human of characteristics. What do you think?

The second book I concluded (for the second time) was Neuromancer by William Gibson which was in large part the inspiration for much of The Matrix. So much of the world Gibson constructed was translated to The Matrix.

 
I never need an excuse for watching this film - but if I felt I did, I just got one!

Reading about films can be fun too - try it.

Shrek Forever After


In what is reputed to be the final outing for Shrek and his friends we have perhaps the best of the four-movie franchise. All the favourite characters are there as Shrek confronts his own mid-life crisis - yes this is another film about existential angst!

The graphics in this DreamWorks produced film are simply stunning. The smoothness of movement, rendering and transition are simply amazing and take the game to a new level. I know that technology and software are evolving rapidly, but with the way Hollywood is going, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the real world from the dream world. There aren't any seven-foot ogres in the village I live in, but you know what I mean.

The story is more than good enough and again here we have a film that delights in ripping off/paying homage to nursery rhymes and movies throughout - only in this film it's done with a whole lot more panache and style. Rumplestiltskin is cast as the villain as he entraps Shrek who is going through his own personal mid-life crisis. Cameron Diaz, I mean Fiona, becomes ever more the wonderful wife by the way that she so lovingly demonstrates understanding and doesn't use the opportunity for trying to deploy a 'two wrongs make a right' response. In his own characteristic blundering well-intentioned way, Shrek works out a solution and in the end everyone lives happily ever after - or at least we'll have to assume that, if this is the last in the series.

As with all films exploring this kind of material, it comes with an invitation to examine our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses - the vanities that might just collude with our ego to push us into unhelpful behaviour. We are all of us prone to this from time-to-time, relationally, professionally and vocationally. The need for a regular check-up in the 'how am I doing' stakes may help prevent most outbreaks - as will the attendance of a faithful and loving companion - if we are blessed enough to have one or more.

Alternatively you can watch this film and laugh - especially as Puss in Boots does a wonderful impersonation of Garfield!

It is in the cinemas this Christmas and available on DVD/Blu-ray. Well worth adding to your collection - go and see it. I'll give it 8/10.

Last Action Hero


I know there are glaring holes in my viewing history, but I have only just caught up with this - nearly 20 years on! (I will never be classed a movie-buff - not that I am seeking that accolade.) Well, where to start with this? I guess any film that falls into the genre categories of Action/Adventure, Comedy and Sci-Fi/Fantasy is spreading itself pretty thin. As the art-work above demonstrates, this film pays homage to the burgeoning Hollywood Action Hero with none other than the Governor playing the title role. It is a pastiche of clichés and is so formulaic in terms of plot, script and setting that it requires no imagination at all to watch. Given the type of film I usually watch and blog about, that's a welcome change!

I think this film's intentional tongue-in-cheek approach sends itself up very well and with Schwarzenegger complicit with the scam, it becomes all the more effective. Is he acting extra-hammy in this or is it natural Austrian hamminess? Either way it fits the context.

Perhaps the game to play whilst watching this is to see how many film scenes you can identify that are copied/ripped off/paid homage to in the movie. I guess it's healthy that Hollywood can fund and produce this kind of introspective hero-fest movie. Perhaps today, more than ever, America - and the rest of us for that matter - need a real hero to save us all. Away in a manger, no crib....

I'll give it 6/10.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Tron [The original]


Before I go to see Tron:Legacy, I thought I would remind myself of the original. After 28 years it can hold it's head high - in terms of conceptualisation and state-of-the-art CG (for 1982!). The script on the other hand is from the top drawer of Disney mushiness and is less than state-of-the-art.

The concept of someone (a user) becoming digitised and ending up within a computer programme itself was far-fetched for the time - today it is commonplace. The idea of Artificial Intelligence possessing the ability to grow, evolve and develop has long been championed by Isaac Asimov and others, but here it is given a persona that makes it feel more than real. This film really was ahead of its time.

Tron:Legacy is being well received and may well give Harry and the Potters a run for their money this holiday period at the box office. There are at least three films I want to see at Harbour Lights this coming week - how many will I make?

This is still worth the investment of time and energy to watch. The outcome is pure Disney, the romance triangle is clumsy and the dialogue is clunky and at times sentimental which does not fit with this type of film.

I'll give it 7/10.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Virgin Media and Volkswagen - seeing film differently

A regular feature of the pre movie ads and trailers these days are offerings from VW and Virgin Media.

VW pay homage to iconic films - The Great Lebowski, and currently When Harry Met Sally  and Ghostbusters with their own humorous presentations. I presume somewhere within VW's corporate tax efficiency are grants to support film-making. Well done to them if that's the case.




Virgin Media are busy championing new film-making talent and give the opportunity for short films to be shown in cinemas. There have been some excellent offerings but I must celebrate From The Cellar by Tito Saachi currently on screen which can be found here. A first class production in terms of conception, execution, acting and overall quality. Well done Tito.

Somewhere


Another day, another film about existential angst - not the usual fare in the run up to Christmas. This film explores the existential angst of celebrity nihilism. The clue to the subject matter comes right at the beginning as the fixed camera shows the central portion of a circular race track with a black Ferrari driving circuits. As the car moves in and out of frame, the only thing holding the attention is the beautiful symphony of Maranello's orchestral Ferrari 360. Throughout the film sound is noticeably important rather than the usual 'invisible' support to the pictures. It is though the microphones have been sewn into the very fabric of the actors clothing as we hear every last little sound. The Ferrari's throbbing V8 even crackles and ticks as it cools after being turned off. We spend a lot of time in the movie cruising the cool neighbourhoods of Hollywood in the 360 but it is as though it never reaches second gear just so that we can hear that beautiful engineering harmoniously grunting and groaning. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the life of the film's central character?

Stephen Dorff plays jaded actor Johnny Marco who exists in the hotel Château Mormont on Sunset Boulevard recovering from a broken arm. His life is filled with pills, parties a pole-dancing twins, but he is a passenger drifting in and out of consciousness between movies. Everybody loves Johnny and his easy and amiable personality makes him likeable. However complicit you feel Johnny Marco is for his predicament, his genuine likeability will provoke feelings of sympathy in you - particularly through the way he tenderly interacts with his daughter Cleo (played by Elle Fanning). There is more than a hint of re-run and re-contextualisation of Lost in Translation here - but that was an awesome film, so no real problem.

It soon becomes clear that Johnny's life is empty. Johnny Marco is a world famous actor dutifully attending photo shoots and news conferences at the bidding Marge whom we never see but only hear on the phone. He has everything he could seemingly want - except purpose and intimacy. Both turn up in the shape of his 11 year-old daughter Cleo whom his ex-wife dumps on him as she goes through her own episode of angst and the need to get away. Johnny appears to be an excellent father. he takes his daughter skating, although he didn't know she'd been doing it for 3 years! He takes her to Milan for the launch of his latest film in Italy where he receives an award - a kind of Italian Oscar. In the limelight of the stage he slips into role and presents a coherent and together persona. The next day he and Cleo escape the celebrity cocoon and head for the airport taking another celeb's car to escape the attention.

As the film progresses, a press conference delivers a metaphor for Marco's life. He is unable to answer a series of innocuous questions about the meaning and content of what he does and the roles of his characters. His life is empty and meaningless. After having spent a few weeks with Cleo as mum sorts herself out, Cleo goes off to camp in Nevada. The only thing more pretentious that driving from LA to Las Vegas in a black Ferrari 360 would be to fly across the city in a helicopter to rendezvous with the camp taxi - this Johnny and Cleo do for some undisclosed reason. Her departure to summer camp precipitates Johnny's slide into angst ridden insecurity. He calls his ex and begs her to visit him to talk - she declines. The next morning he resolves to move out of the hotel and he drives off into the Californian desert. In an isolated spot he pulls to the side of the road, gets out of the car and walks off with the hint of a smile on his lips. Perhaps he has had an epiphany and come to his senses. We don't know because the music changes and the credits roll.

The soundtrack is excellent with the usual choice of good mood music and songs. As I mentioned, the way the sound is recorded is with maximum detail and brightness which reinforces Johnny's sense of isolation. Furthermore, in addition to the long opening shot of the circling 360, there are two other long held shots - one is a very gentle zoom in to Johnny's head as he sits sleeping as a head cast is taken for SFX for an upcoming movie, the only sound is his heavy nasal breathing - the only holes in the plaster cast that encases his head - another cocoon metaphor? The third long held shot is of Johnny and Cleo sunbathing on loungers at the hotel pool after enjoying a playful swim together. The length of the shot emphasised for me the nothingness of their existence - I have never been one to waste time sunbathing when the sun can be enjoyed in so many more active ways!

Much of the footage of this film is recorded on hand-held cameras giving a reportage rather than dramatic feel to the film. It could be a documentary about the emptiness of this kind of lifestyle. Being part of the Coppola dynasty I'm sure it is familiar to the Director, Sofia. This film demonstrates the maturing of her style. It's muted palette is handled creatively and with sensitivity. There are no bad guys in the film only good guys - it's just that they need help to discover themselves. But then don't we all?

This story is timely as the cult of celebrity is increasingly coming under the spotlight and we are even seeing the rise of anti-celebrity in some corners of our media infested world. We have too many people enjoying celebrity for no good reason. The worlds of music and drama have very few stars these days and far too many celebrities. The likes of Youtube and other social networking sites means that everyone now has the facility to be famous - exposure and celebrity with no responsibility. Even bloggers like me! Another post-modern malaise?

A worthy film - I'll give it 7.5/10.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The American


Clooney's latest introspective angstfest is a poor film - it could have been so much more. It is cool, but beyond that it is confused. Is it an action film? Not enough action. Is it a love film? Maybe, but the ending will leave you unfulfilled. Is it a film that explores ghosts from the past and the pricking of conscience? No, the intervention of the priest is too heavy and direct for that.

What is certain is that the backdrop could be from a travelogue - the snowy expanses of Sweden, the bustle of Rome, the remote and tranquil beauty of the hillside village in Abruzzo. The visual quality of the cinematography is at times stunning. As an Assassin and gun maker on the run, Clooney's character wants out, but his handler has one last job for him. This time all he has to do is make a gun for another assassin - Mathilda. You might think that someone trying to lay low would not go as an American outsider to a small rural village where they would undoubtedly attract attention. Furthermore, you would not expect someone craving anonymity to strike up a friendship with the village priest and a romance with one of the village prostitutes - both people who circulate widely within the local population. It is of little surprise that his past catches up with him and in the cobbled streets of Castel del Monte chases ensue where assassin's bulletts are exchanged and innocent bystanders killed - none of which seems to attract the attention of the police or turn the locals against The American.

The film leaves a lot unsaid - too much in my mind. At other times it is in your face as the priest confronts The American about his sins and offers confession - but it is the priest who ends up confessing to the assassin. At best the plot and dialogue are clunky. There is no back story and everything that happens in the film that clearly has a reference to things outside the village is left to hang in mid air. The ending is similarly inconclusive.

The Clooney character is clearly going through a mid-life crisis. However, it appears not to be one of regret for what he has done. If there is any regret, it is over how hard it is to retire gracefully from the world of the global assassin club. He knows too much. He has seen too much. He knows too many contacts. He no longer serves a useful purpose for those who would hire him and has become a liability. Therefore, like those whom he used to hunt down and kill, the hunter now becomes the hunted. The plot is clichéd and unremarkable. It's like a low-budget Bourne film in that respect!

This is the extent of the moral insight offered by the film. It fails as an action movie. It is unsatisfactory as spy movie. Its conclusion spoils it as love story. It appears that this film is useful as a vehicle for the muscular Clooney and beautiful Abruzzo.

If it's a rainy afternoon and you've nothing better to do, go and see it - if only for the beauty of Castel del Monte. I'll give it 6/10.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.?

I was reading this month's Empire and was intrigued to find a piece from 13 year-old Chloe Moretz who played Hit-Girl/Mindy Macready in Kick-Ass. When I reviewed the film, I was critical of the level of violence her character perpetrated - it made me feel uneasy and I still don't want to see the film a second time because of it.



In the piece in Empire (January 2011 page 125) Ms Moretz says what an awesome year it has been for her and how she loves making movies - and that 'it's always going to be that way'. It's good that youngsters have aspirations and are able to fulfil dreams, but to me it reveals the same naivety with which a 13 year-old is cast as a vengeful and violent super hero (or should that be heroine?). For me this is further underlined by her remark in the piece "It's a film - it's fun. You're not supposed to go in wondering what its moral standards are." If film-makers and actors have no moral responsibility for their creative product, who does? Precisely where does Ms Moretz draw the line?

It is understandable that one so young can so easily get caught up in the whole Hollywood thing. She claims that her family help her keep her feet on the ground and that she is a 'normal 13 year-old girl'. She also quotes a congratulatory tweet from Kylie Minogue and says "After Kick-Ass, adult actors really respect me for being an actor, not just a kid actor".

I am in no way casting doubts about her acting abilities - although her role in Kick-Ass was not a stern test of these. What I do want to question is her lack of seeing where moral responsibility lies.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Two to look out for

Amongst the trailers and advertisements at the cinema yesterday, two upcoming titles caught my eye and I hope to get to see them.



The first is Sophia Coppola's Somewhere starring Elle Fanning and Stephen Dorff. I like the way Coppola treats her themes and although this looks like another epiphany and  transformation movie, it promises to be worth seeing. Catch the Time Out  review here.


This film from Artificial Eye seems to be exceptional. The reviews already have it riding high - find a BBC review here. Based on a true story - frightening stuff.

My Afternoons with Margueritte


How can someone who has been loved so little, love so much? This film is a gift - a kind of French Forrest Gump.

Germain was an unwanted child - the product of a fling at a dance between his mother and and an American GI. In a relentless series of flashbacks, Germain is told of his uselessness, his clumsiness, his stupidity and reminded that his arrival in this world was both unintended and unwelcome. His mother treats him harshly and undermines any self-confidence he may have had. His teacher at school does the same in a series of ritual humiliations. His drinking 'buddies' at Francine's Cafe also endlessly rib him. Germain is lacking in sophistication, social graces and an ability to understand the full impact of what he says. A bumbling simpleton.

His mother is now portrayed as a deranged and drunken chain-smoking sot. Germain has a series of odd jobs which gives him an income, he also tends a productive vegetable garden at his mother's home where he lives outside in a caravan. Germain's only warmth comes from his loving relationship with Annette, the local bus driver. All of which contribute to an unlikely pretext for a movie - that is until Germain encounters Margueritte one afternoon in the local park. Margueritte has recently moved into a local retirement home. She is 95, has travelled the world and is very well read. Rather than frustration, she finds Germain's simple and uncultured demeanour something that engenders affection and she sees in him something of a kindred spirit. A friendship begins.

The in's and out's of the film explore the territory you would expect from such a plot - there is nothing new here. What is noteworthy is the powerful simplicity with which the exploration is undertaken and the strength of the performances from the whole cast. The final words of the film are a voice over by Germain where he says something like, 'it is unusual for a love story to be written and not contain the word love'.

This is a film about hope. This is a film with a powerful message about the human condition. The story of this film shows that our ability to love is innate and will find ways of expressing itself given the right circumstances. Annette and Margueritte allow Germain to express his love and so to give voice through his actions to his sense of self. The vegetable garden and Germain's understanding of what makes a good growing medium are a clever metaphor.

Germain could so easily have become an embittered victim. Instead his good-natured capacity to look for the best and help people where possible demonstrate that love has the power to transform. If we are to understand that we are made in the image of God and that the most intimate expression of God is the Trinity - a relational communion, then acting on love would seem to be very much a part of what it means to be human - to be made in the image of God and to spend our afternoons with Margueritte.

As I said, this film is a gift. Go and see it now! I'll give it 8.5/10.

Monday, 6 December 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest


The third instalment from Steig Larson's Milennium Trilogy. I found this to be a very good film and a fitting climax to the trilogy. Tension and action are well balanced and paced throughout. Having set the context in the first film and given the back-story in the second, this one nicely brings it together. You know what the hoped for outcome is, but will they be able to achieve it?

The plot is complex with at least three arms of Government and private security involved. There is also Lisbeth's half-brother Niedermann running around trying to kill her, not to mention a gang of bikers and a bent and abusive Psychiatrist caught up in the whole saga. Characters who have previously only been peripheral come much more to the fore and the Milennium quartet find their relationship pushed to the limit. The pivot around which all this revolves is Blomkvist - who's pursuit of truth in the face of a cover-up started the whole saga off. It is fitting then, that the trilogy concludes with the Swedish authorities on trial as well as Lisbeth Salander and it isn't right until the end that you find out which way the scales of justice will tip.

This trilogy has launched Noomi Rapace onto the world stage - and deservedly so. She delivers a consistently intense characterisation of the abused and damaged Salander who struggles to express her humanity and who seeks a sense of self that has integrity within a system that has abused and violated her for most of her life. Rapace manages to span the spectrum by delivering a performance that is filled with brutal power one moment and child-like vulnerability the next. Her method-acting style will have seared Lisbeth Salander into the movie-going public's corporate mind. She cuts a striking image as the defiant Gothic-punk striding through the prison corridor on the way to court:


It is good to see from imdb.com that she has indeed been busy since this trilogy



Interesting to see that she has been confirmed as having a role in the Alien prequel - she'll give Ripley a run for her money - never mind the slobbering beast itself!

I also hope that these films give Michael Nyqvist (Blomkvist) greater exposure - although his range (from what I've seen) is limited, the roles he has delivered are all strong performances.

This third film of the trilogy looks even more like being part of the six-part TV series it is. It will be interesting to see what the Hollywood treatment brings to the party when it is released. Nevertheless this remains a solid trilogy, that dips in the middle but finishes strongly. For those who found the inclusion of the graphic scene of sexual violence in the first film to be questionable, its inclusion in the plot is justified by the way in which it is referred to in this film. I am not condoning what was portrayed, but it is a central a defining plot device.

With the seed of the plot centred on the defection of a Cold War Russian spy and covert Government organisations colluding in cover-up to commit Salander to a Psychiatric Hospital for her entire life, it does feel like a work of fiction. Sadly, events of the last decade have shown all too graphically that when Governments feel a pressing need to protect their citizens, they are able to blur the boundaries between what is lawful and just and what is considered to be expedient and reasonable to deliver 'security' in a way that becomes indefensible. Sweden is usually upheld as a model of how nations should behave with its strong tradition of liberal socialism. For me this made the story harder to buy into.

With the DVD and Bluray already available on the continent, UK viewers will have to wait until 04 April 2011 before they can get their hands on an English language sub-titled edition! But don't wait until then - get yourself off to the cinema and see it now while you can.

I'll give it 7.5/10.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Films of Faith and Doubt

I have just had the privilege of leading a three day course with a group of lay and ordained folk from the Diocese where we explored together what God might be saying in and through five films which probed various aspects of faith and doubt. In a sense the format and content presented nothing new. What was new and unique was the intentionality of bringing together that group of (self-selecting) people in that place at that time to watch, reflect on and interact on these films. Again and again reactions centred on the power of narrative to engage and transport us - something to be aware of as we communicate the Gospel message today in a world hungry for a good story.

There were many occasions where people's emotions were engaged - rage, anger, pity, pain, sorrow, loss, love, regret, hope, grace, blessing, gift and bewilderment all played their part. The course was well received and all participants contributed significantly to our shared learning together. Thanks to those who were there.

We kicked off with Bergman's Winter Light made in 1962. Bergman's then wife agreed that it was a masterpiece - but a dreary masterpiece. Exploring existential angst in the midst of the bleakness of a flatly lit Swedish November, a Lutheran Pastor, widowed, grieving and feeling inadequate, wrestles with the realities of life and death - and doesn't always get it right. Not a cheery film to watch but a good one to open with.

This was followed by Angel-A from Luc Besson. If all Angel's look like Rie Rasmussen bring heaven on! A powerful exploration of self-image where the central character, Andre, is helped to gain sufficient self-confidence to adopt a persona that is more integrated with his charcter and as it happens one which makes him more attractive as an individual. It is a film about hope and transformation. It is shot in black and white and dramatically exploits the backdrop of Paris in all its splendour and seediness.

After a night's sleep, we steeled ourselves for Jesus of Montreal - surely one of the best re-tellings of the Passion there is. Too many Passion Plays are set in ancient times or in contexts that are so unfamiliar that the focus is on the story. But this film is set in contemporary Montreal - a modern, throbbing, thriving metropolis - a context that a large proportion of us find familiar. This recontextualisation forces the viewer to appropriate the Passion story in a way that makes it very much of the here and now and not simply a distant misty image engaged with in Passion Week each year.

Being a kind soul, we had some free time in the afternoon before watching As it is in Heaven in the evening. This Swedish film is hard to get hold of. It has not been distributed in the UK or USA and as far as I'm aware there is no English language version available - which is good as the Swedish language is so expressive. I managed to get hold of an Australian (Region 4) disc through ebay which had English sub-titles (most European versions have only German sub-titles). This is a powerful film about the transformation of a community. If the final scenes give us a glimpse of what Heaven may be like, sign me up now. Powerful.

I then offered a late-night optional seasonal viewing of The Flint Street Nativity which was well received and a welcome antidote to all the existential angst that was in the other films. Strong performances from a great cast.

We rounded the whole thing off on the final morning by watching Keeping the Faith which I have now seen a number of times. With each viewing the issues it deals with grow in complexity and depth and I really do commend this as a challenging film - especially for anyone in ministry. A great performance from the leading trio ably supported by Eli Wallach and Anne Bancroft. This is not a 'piff and bubble' film. It was directed by and stars Ed Norton who dedicated it his late mother - Robin Norton. It has a powerful message that Norton obviously felt he had to communicate. I for one, am grateful that he did.

Interspersed between the viewings were sessions reflecting on what we'd seen, some general stuff on how we might approach theological reflection in the context of films, an exploration of some of the resources out there to help us with that and a series of papers that I had prepared on a range of issues related to films of faith and doubt.

My thanks to all who contributed.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part 1


Harry Potter has come of age. The conceptualisation, the acting, the story all take the saga to another level. Well done Joanne Rowling for the story and also to David Yates for his Direction of the film. This film stands on its own two feet and does not need the juggernaut of Pottermania to sustain it. I see it took $61m on its opening day in the USA!

This film runs out at 146 minutes - not bad for part 1 of a book! The story never lags and the dramatic tension rises and falls to deliver a roller coaster ride of emotional highs and lows. I was looking for weaknesses in the acting performances and found none. I was expecting melancholy and melodrama - but his film is more like The Wizard of Oz meets Jason Bourne. It is mature and stands independently of any back story. Hogwarts is but a memory as the story unfolds out in the big and increasingly bad world. It's a good old tale of good verses evil and part 2 will, I hope, deliver a saviour figure and the defeat of the Dark Lord. I wonder if Voldemort is a Sith?

I'm not going to spoil the plot line for anyone (like me) who hasn't read the books and comes to the film fresh. I will comment on a few changes in emphasis that JK has skilfully moved the plot to focus on.

There are plenty of special effects, spells and enchantments all of which reinforce the feeling that this continues to be a story about witches and wizards. The major change is that all the action takes place outside Hogwarts which underlines the notion that this cohort of students have graduated and are ready to take their place in the real world.

It is not only the theme of impending darkness that Voldemort and the House of Slytherin seek to usher in that marks a move to more mature and deeper themes. The three main protagonists are also shown as more mature and complex characters. Not only do they have to contend with the threat of the end of the world as they know it, but hormone soup is flowing through their veins and Ron in particular has a complete inability to express himself coherently when matters of the heart well up inside him which not only frustrates him but the viewer too. As much as anything, this film is to do with relationships that matter - and not only romantic ones as Hermione's painful parting from her parents within the opening two minutes shows.

There is so much to commend this film. I could go on and on - but rather than that, go and see the film for yourself.

I'll give it 8.5/10.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

A Short Stay in Switzerland

Fergus Walsh, the BBC's medical correspondent actually appears in the film as a documentary is made.

This is another uncomfortable film. Uncomfortable, as it presents a truth that seems to be counter-intuitive and I don't know how to resolve the tension it creates.

This is a film based on a true story about assisted suicide using the services of the Dignitas Clinic in Zurich - hence the title. The lead character (played by Julie Walters) has just watched her husband slowly die an 'undignified' death as the result of a degenerative neurological condition. Both she and her husband are Doctors which of course makes the irony all the more poignant. Not long after his death, she is diagnosed with a different but similar untreatable terminal condition.

From the outset she determines not to die in the way she painfully watched her husband slip away. She resolves to take matters into her own hands to end her life. Her three grown up children struggle with what she is proposing - particularly so soon after having just lost their father. Feeling that the UK's laws are an ass, she contacts Dignitas and makes the arrangements. Shortly after a Christmas celebrated well she says the time has come and with her three children she travels to Zurich for a short stay. The end is quick and administered with the kind of ruthless efficiency the Swiss are renowned for.

Every fibre in my being wants to do all that it can to preserve human life at any cost - all life is received as a sacred gift. However, when confronted with the means to alleviate suffering in the face of an inevitable outcome, there only seems to be one possible humane outcome. I am content with my moral and ethical theory when it lives in an abstract world devoid of any real consequences, but when it smashes head-on into the context of a real person it is found wanting and I do not know how to square the circle. My hope is that I will never be caught up in such a dilemma relating to someone close to me.

This film sets the moral context brilliantly and the acting is top drawer. Another uncomfortable watch - but essential viewing if we are to be real about the broken world in which we live.

I'll give it 8/10.

In the Valley of Elah


If you like Tommy Lee Jones' performances as a law enforcement officer then this will rank up there amongst his best - almost as good as No Country for Old Men. This is a tense and well-paced thriller that explores the inhumanity of the unintended consequences of war. There is also a very good performance from Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon does the morose mother thing she is so good at.

When you take young men (and it mostly is) who are full of life, a sense of adventure and a desire to serve their country and turn them into killing machines and deploy them in an inhospitable and alien land to fight an enemy they can't see or understand, is it any wonder that they lose the ability to see where the boundaries are when they return home? This story exposes the full horror of modern warfare and the terrible things it does to those who answer the call to duty and place themselves in jeopardy. Taking the risks of bullets and bombs in Iraq is one thing. Dying because you fall out with your mates in a bar or chicken restaurant is something else - but both are unintended consequences of intervening as world police. This film should be sub-titled 'Team America: Gone Wrong'.

The pain and anguish suffered by Jones and Sarandon's characters as parents impotent in the face of a military juggernaut is powerfully portrayed. The ability of institutions, in this case the Army and the Police, to close ranks and freeze the ordinary person out is chillingly scary. The film is punctuated with movie clips shot on patrol by Jones' son in Iraq - including an instance when he is forced to run over a child. Branded a thriller - this could so easily be a horror movie - perhaps should be.

How any national leader can sleep at night after sending their country's finest into the cauldron of hatred and warfare is a good question to ask.

An agonising watch - but you should see it as in doing so we pay homage to those fighting on our behalf. This film is enough to make anyone a pacifist!

I'll give it 7.5/10.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Laurel Canyon


Another film set in Los Angeles depicting a dysfunctional family with an absent father figure! Oh happy day. The other half of today's members' free screening at Harbour Lights. This one is from 2002 and no doubt was chosen to sit alongside Cyrus.

Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale) are bright PYT's at Harvard. They jet off to LA where Sam is to undertake a residency as a Psychiatrist whilst Kate completes her Ph.D. dissertation on genomes of Fruit Flies. Gripping stuff. The plan is for them to stay at Sam's mum's place - she should be away. When they arrive, they find that she is in residence with a British rock group - she is a record producer of some repute and the house is equipped with its own studio.

The basic story is that Sam is tempted by Sarah a second year intern from Israel but worried for Alex's peace and quiet as she studies. Sam encourages Alex to find a place for them to live - near where Sarah lives. Meanwhile, Alex is gradually drawn to the drugs and sex and rock n' roll lifestyle of the house's other occupants and begins to discover a side she never knew she had.

Sam fights off the demons of his attraction to Sarah only to confront Alex in a state of undress at a party in the penthouse of a local hotel with British rock group's lead singer who is having a fling with Sam's mother. This is just at the point when Sam's mother calls a halt to a menage-a-trois but that doesn't stop Sam from jumping to conclusions and having a go at the Brit. A big punch up involving all four main characters follows which spills into the foyer of the up-market hotel. Miraculously all comes good, Sam and his mother are reconciled and the film concludes with Sam ending a call with Sarah saying he would call her right back. Inconclusive.

The only glimpse of something real and tangible is when Sam breaks professional protocol and calls in the mother of a 16 year-old patient he is treating in an attempt to offer some basic relationship support in the hope of heading off a full-scale spiral into drugs and psychotic behaviour. The rest of film deals with passions and desires that never quite as real or believable.

I felt the story was self-indulgent and never really got away from predictability and pretentiousness. Christian Bale turned in his hallmark half-whispered performance and lacked any real spark of life or conviction. A moribund performance in a moribund film. It left me feeling very frustrated. The way in which temptation was offered and faced, made sense only if Harvard and New England were devoid of temptations and a move to the state of Californication opened up endless possibilities. That Sam and Alex had progressed to the age they had and lacked the vocabulary, wit and motivation to articulate their feelings towards one another only serves to demonstrate that even PYT's don't know which side of their bread is buttered! The stereotypical portrayal of Sam's mother as the archetypal rock groupie chic and the Brit rock band as philandering pot-heads probably satisfied American box offices, but on a chilly November Sunday afternoon in Southampton UK, it left me as cold as the East wind.

I'm ever more glad that this screening was free. Don't bother going to see it - there are much better stories and performances out there.

I'll give it 5/10.

Cyrus


I saw this film this afternoon at a free members' screening at Harbour Lights in Southampton - what a great place. I'm glad it was free.

John C Reilley plays John, a divorcee of 7 years standing who still works with his ex who remains his best friend and confidant. The news of her impending marriage pushes John to new depths of despair. He is persuaded to go to a party and there he meets Molly. There is an immediate spark and the two hit it off. However, after sex each night, as soon as John falls asleep, Molly leaves. John is mystified by this behaviour and one night follows her home. The next day he returns to carry out a reconnaissance and is apprehended by Cyrus, Molly's 21 year-old son. Cyrus is the other man in Molly's life. Molly and Cyrus have a very odd, unhealthy relationship where he is completely dependent on her - another film with an absent father figure.

Cyrus cannot face the threat of John taking Molly away from him and he begins to manipulate Molly and John's relationship. The final straw comes when, at John's ex's wedding celebration, Cyrus confronts John in a toilet and they end up in a fight which spills out on to the patio with all the guests with everyone - including Molly assuming that John started it.

This could only be set in Los Angeles where weird relationships appear to the norm. I won't spoil the outcome for you just in case you feel suicidal and want to go to the cinema. The characterisations are excellent with Reilley looking every part the man who went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. Cyrus is scary - I hope Jonah Hill was acting - if not, I don't ever want to meet him! Cyrus' mother is played by Marisa Tomei who has a smile that is so warm and engaging that it gives you an instant tan and draws you to her.

If you are looking for a film with a different plot about a dysfunctional family, this is for you. Those who are psychologically informed will enjoy watching this and analysing who did what to whom and why. It would also be good to know if there is any long-term hope for Cyrus.

A Romcom for a quiet Sunday afternoon. See it if it it's raining outside.

I'll give it 5.5/10.

Where the Wild Things Are


This is an adaptation of the well known children's story by  Maurice Sendak. Max is a loner. No friends, a teenage sister with friends who are too cool to be seen with younger Max and an absent father. It is clear form the outset that Max has developed strategies to cope by internalising his world and inappropriately externalising his emotions. After his sister's friends destroy Max's igloo, he vents his anger on what he considers to be his sister's most prized possessions by destroying them. He then goes to bed where his mother comes home to find him crying. As he is in bed, the camera zooms in on a globe with an inscription plate "To Max - owner of the World, Love Dad". Max immediately confesses his crime.

Later we see his mother entertaining a boyfriend and because she doesn't respond to Max's pleas to view his rebuilt fort in his bedroom he throws a tantrum which ends in a huge confrontation and he runs off into the night until he finds a boat by the sea in which he sets sail. Yes - the story does move at that pace.

The next hour of the film takes place in Max's imagination. He sails for days and eventually finds landfall where large wild creatures live. Initially they want to eat him but he persuades them that he is a king and they relent and agree for Max to rule them.

Max's special friend is Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) but he pretty much makes good relationships with all the Wild Things. For days they play and have adventures and Carol shows Max around his kingdom - a place with strikingly contrasting habitats, woods, sand deserts, rocky coastlines and mountains with caves. All the time the Wild Things are squabbling and Max keeps the peace.

It is as thought the Wild Things are personas of either Max or members of his family which invite you to map them. Carol is very similar to Max - or is he Max's father? Judith would seem to be his sister Claire. Whilst KW who is always on the verge of leaving would appear to present a picture of Max's mother, his only anchor in reality. Towards the end of the story, Max fleeing from Carol encounters KW who hides Max in her stomach! This gives Max a womb-like experience after which he musters enough courage to return home. When he arrives home, it as though he has not been away too long. His mother embraces him and all appears to be well.

Maybe this was a cathartic sojourn, or a rite of passage that enabled Max the boy to begin becoming Max the young man. If you were to create a world and populate it with creatures what they be like and what  would they do? Sounds a bit like The Sims!! I'm sure that with further viewings and scrutiny the story would yield many insights into Max's psyche and invite us to explore our own. On the other hand you could simply enjoy a children's story, or play The Sims. Is anything ever that simple?

A worthy watch.

I'll give it 6.5/10

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Clips and cuttings, film epiphanies

Part of the programme is an invitation for folk to bring clips and cuttings (max 4 minutes) that are meaningful in terms of world view, theology, first got them interested in reading films or some other kind of epiphany. Without list the precise excerpts and reasons why, here is what folk contributed:
  • Treasure Island
  • Departures (Japanese)
  • Anton's Childhood (Russian)
  • The Cave of the Yellow Dog (Mongolian)
  • My Mother Smiles (Italian)
  • Caberet
  • Freedom Writers
  • Leap of Faith
  • Good Night, and Good Luck
  • Babette's Feast (Danish)
  • Winstanley
  • War Requiem
  • Apollo 13
Have a guess at which was mine.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Devil and Daniel Webster


This film has all the subtlety of an atomic bomb! The story is quite simple - when you fall on hard times enter into a contract with the Devil and for seven years you will have good luck and more money than you need. When the seven years are up you die and the Devil gets your soul.

Set in the 1840's and made in the 1941, the plot is as simple as set out above but it plays out across a series of issues that are raw in the pre-Pearl Harbour American psyche. On the back of the Great Depression with the USA choosing isolation over participation and with a world at war, the need to define American identity in a way that underlines freedom, entrepreneurship and the pioneer spirit conspire to produce a movie of sickly sweetness. The directness of the message cannot be missed by anyone - neither the morality tale nor the 'let's reinvent out nation' tale. Along the way the film attempts to exorcise the demons of slavery and Native American abuse whilst building up patriotism and depicting the Devil in the most genial and human terms as Mr Scratch endearingly played by Walter Houston. Oh, and the ever-present sexual temptation of the French Belle featured in the picture above.

The notion that a human has a soul is a given in the film. To whom does it belong is the question the film poses - with a complete lack of eloquence and sophistication. The notion that it can be sold for short term gain is as old as folk tale culture itself. For what it might be exchanged is of course the interesting question. Is it ours to give, is a worthy question to consider too. If we can choose to give our heart to Christ, can we as easily choose to give our heart to someone different?

When we are down on our luck, out of resources and in hock up to our necks, what will desperation force us to do? The film concludes with the Devil going through his book of contacts - people with whom he has a contract. In the end, the Devil stares into the camera and points at the audience in an unsubtle suggestion that you could be next. Scary stuff.

I guess this was brave cinema for 1941. I wonder what it would have looked like if Hitchcock had directed it, or Quentin Tarantino? Even scarier stuff! As this is an American film it has a happy ending - so it's safe to watch as the good guys prevail - thanks to Daniel Webster.

Worth the watch but it only scores 6/10.

PS It only struck me having slept on it, that there is absolutely no spiritual/theological content to this film and certainly none in Daniel Webster's defence of the accused. I imagine therefore that this is an indictment of America's shift towards liberal humanism evidenced by literature/cinema in the 1930/40's. Again, an interesting point to ponder given the world stage that was unfolding.

Keep Walking (Cammina Cammina)


Each year at this conference, the leader inserts a film that is a physical challenge to stay with! This is nearly three hours long and in Italian!!

It is an allegorical retelling of the journey made by the Magi - perhaps a great way to spend a cold Epiphany evening? It is worthy, but it is slow and several folk nodded off and on waking up discovered they hadn't really missed much. This is another 'road trip' movie which means that the substance has to be found in the encounters along the way. The highlight is the character Rupo, a boy, who assists the priest and appears to be destined to succeed him despite a strong dislike for ritual and a sharply enquiring mind. (These seem excellent qualities for a priest to my mind.)

The difficulty of the terrain along the pilgrims' journey can be taken as the picture of the difficulty of the way of a pilgrim in everyday life. The destination and 'stable scene' of the nativity is wonderfully plain and ordinary - no halos or heavenly choirs. The attempt to avoid the Herodian plot is cleverly done, but the film doesn't really move with any watchable speed until the last 30 minutes.

I guess that feeding on the other riches on offer in the programme at this conference means that we have do penance and suffer the odd film that makes us work - hard!

Not widely available - don't hurry to add it to your collection.

I'll give it 5/10.

Sophie Scholl - the last days


Set in Munich 1943 a group of students known as The White Rose publish leaflets and daub graffiti on walls calling for an end to the war and the overthrow of Hitler. Their means are always peaceful, but the campus is full of informers and the Gestapo are everywhere. Sophie Scholl is a leading member of the group. The film tells her story over the course of six days after she is seen by a janitor at the university distributing seditious leaflets. The story is told from her perspective and we know only what she knows and see only what she sees. Julia Jentsch plays the title role in a strong performance and this film is further evidence of the healthy and dynamic state that German film-making is in these days. It's very very good - it was nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar in 2005.

As Sophie is interrogated the camera goes in close on her hand wringing as she duels with the investigator who is seeking her confession and the names of her accomplices. We see that her interrogator notices her body language, but we are never given an indication of how he reads it. She is at times economical with the truth and invents alibis - but the stakes are high. She argues that the National Socialists (Nazis) who came to power on the back of laws allowing them free expression cannot then deny German people free expression if they disagree with the state line.

Sophie and her brother are charged with high treason and after her brother finally confesses so does she. In the ongoing interrogation she pits her will against Nazi ideology and her interrogator has to perform impossible intellectual gymnastics that defy logic simply to create an answer the force of which lies solely in the fact that he can shout more loudly than her. Sophie's quest is for freedom of thought and expression, for an end to the killing of women and children, an end to the death camps, an end to blind and unthinking fascism. Her interrogator can only see a return to Germany being the down-at-heel puppy dog to the rest of the world as he refers to the "stinking" Versailles Treaty which gave rise to the Weimar Republic.

In the end she signs her own confession and the consequences are inevitable. The court and judge are shown to the epitome of the caricature you would expect. Sophie, her brother and a third accomplice are beheaded that same day. Brutal. But then war is. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed is Sophie Scholl.

An important story - one to set alongside Valkyrie.

As a story 11/10. As a film 7/10.

Creation


I had been avoiding this film because I was fearful it would indiscriminately side with the evolutionists or creationists. What a mistake I made. It is a film that captures the anguish of a dawning realisation that all the facts point to something which will challenge the status quo in such a way as there will be no return. This is not a film that depicts Darwin as the wilful destroyer of Christendom, but as a loving father, husband and scientist driven by the need to find answers. Darwin was no saint - but neither was he any more a sinner than you or I.

My own preconceptions had blinded me. I was delighted to be transported to the world of real scientific discovery and exploration. To a place where someone could think completely original thoughts and over time see them evolve into a coherent system that allowed a new understanding of the world around us to coalesce and blossom as The Origin of Species.

One thing that film makes patently clear is the cost to Darwin and his family of the pathway his vocation forced him to follow. He was right to be angry with the local vicar for cruelly punishing his daughter by making her kneel on rock salt until she repented. His loss of faith and his desire to seek a common understanding with his wife who maintained hers is an exquisitely choreographed ballet wrought with emotional tension, guilt and ultimately forgiveness and acceptance.

This film moved me to cry at two points. Once because of a generous reconciliation between his second daughter and Darwin and once because in Jennifer Connelly's portrayal of Emma, his wife, I saw displayed such gracious and generous characteristics as I have only previously seen exhibited by my wife! For me this underlines the fact that this is film not so much about philosophical idealism but about relationships. Of course it touches on the intellectual battles that were being fought and this is evidenced by the ongoing correspondence and meetings with Huxley and Hooker. Whilst that may be the vehicle that provides the story's means of mobility, the landscape through which it travels is a landscape of relationships.

I would happily have watched it again immediately. I cannot remember when I last felt like that about a film. If you've not seen it, put it on your list.

I'll give it 7.5/10.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

He who must die


This picture says it all.

This is a film made in 1957 by Jules Dassin set in Crete in 1921. Greece is under Turkish occupation in the aftermath of The Great War and ethnic cleansing is under way for those unable to get on with occupying forces.

Each year the small village enacts a Passion Play. The leader of the Village Council and Priest are in cahoots with the Agha and all kinds of accommodations are made to maintain the peace and ensure those who lead have a comfortable lifestyle.

When an entire village of pilgrim people turn up having been driven out of their own homes for resisting the Turk's rule, the Priest sees a threat to peaceful stability and declares that the people have cholera and that they must be on their way. They move a short distance away and fed up with their wandering begin to build a new village. With no resources and with children dying from starvation, folk from the established village begin to take pity on them - especially those chosen to play the lead characters in the Passion Play.

A lot of how the story is played out is a product of the context the story is set within (as is always the case). However, this remains a powerful retelling of the Passion story - unequalled perhaps except for Jesus of Montreal. This film demands that viewers challenge their own preconceptions. It raises important questions about refugees, ethnic cleansing, hospitality, pacifism in the face of an unjust invader, who is my sister/brother, the role of religious leaders and a faith, Christianity, whose history is marred by conflict and in-fighting.

I was particularly challenged by the prophetic leadership role the priest played and how seductively attractive the autocratic leadership they exercised appeared. The film very cleverly demonstrated how Pharisaical one priest became and how the other became an armed suffering servant - after blessing the menfolk who had taken up arms, he put down the Bible and took up a rifle alongside them.

There are many powerful performances in this film. It is not widely available but can seemingly be downloaded and viewed. The quality of the print has deteriorated over time and the sub-titles move alarming quickly to begin with and are hard to see clearly - but they do get easier to understand.

This film will reward the dedicated viewer - it contains much to stimulate reflection.

I'll give it 7.5/10.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Watching movies among the books


Today I am off to North Wales and the village of Hawarden where the great British Statesman William Gladstone lived. He built this little place to accommodate his library which is now in excess of 250,000 volumes. As well as offering a great opportunity for academic research and good B&B, the centre also runs courses across a number of disciplines. The Warden, Peter Francis, is heavily into reading films as theological texts so it's no surprsie that twice a year courses on film feature in the programme.

So, I am shortly to depart with a good friend and colleague who shares my passion for films and God, so it should be a good time. The programme lists the films set out below. Sometimes an introductory talk is offered to help set the context without giving too much away. Afterwards, we always reflect on and discuss each film. Peter runs the course with long-time friend Tom Aitken who among other things was one-time film critic for The Tablet.

Films of Faith & Doubt
  • He Who Must Die
  • Creation
  • Sophie Scholl
  • Keep Walking
  • The Devil and Daniel Webster
  • Keeping the Faith
I have stolen the format (but not the content) for a course I will be running at the Diocese of Winchester's Retreat and Conference Centre - Old Alresford Place from 29 Nov - 1 Dec. Places are still available. Contact me for further details.

I hope to be offering my reflections on these films.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Africa United


All right, this film does have some serious shortcomings in terms of story and script - but it will leave you with a warm smile on the inside. Some have dubbed it an African Slumdog Millionaire - and this is a fair thing to say - but this one is easier on the eye.

This is a 'road trip' movie - that is, the story is told in part by the journey the characters undertake. It is also a story within a story within a story. It is simply told and the main five characters are all children - from three different countries. This is not a film about football - it begins with Dudu showing us how to make a football out of a condom and yes it ends at ... well I won't spoil it for you.

The condom is present because HIV/AIDS is one of the threads that weaves the story. Another is child sex workers, a third is refugees, a fourth is child soldiers and war, an another gives a wonderful picture of Zimbabwe's economy going down the drain as some of its banknotes head towards Victoria Falls.

The plot is as unlikely as the characters are likeable. That doesn't matter. What does matter is the warmth and ingenuity displayed by the members of 'Team Africa'. This draws the viewer in and is quite simply irresistible.

Some of the threads of the story remain undeveloped whilst others are present throughout. This for me was disappointing. It was almost as though the film-makers lost their nerve. Maybe it was a limitation imposed by working with so many children. However, the ending is bitter-sweet as one of the threads works inexorably towards its horrible conclusion.

Do go and see this - it's immense and will in time become a sleeper hit I'm sure. In five year's time most homes will have this on DVD!

I'll give it 7/10.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Alamar


If you had the chance of being brought up as a kid in the Eternal City of Rome, that would seem like a good option - to most people. This documentary explores the contrast between life in Rome and a radical alternative - in reality it only explores the alternative! Jorge of Mayan decent and Italian Roberta were together for three and a half years and while it lasted it was unbelievable. The relationship even spawned Natan - a likeable and innocent boy who has spent most of his life with his mother in Rome. Thankfully the couple parted amicably and arrangements are made for Natan to spend some time with his father - who lives on the jungle coast of Mexico where he, like his father, is a fisherman.

At first the transition from Roman apartment to shack on stilts in the sea and the all-pervasiveness of water overwhelm Natan. But as he accompanies his father and grandfather on fishing trips, his confidence begins to grow and he develops physically into a boy who knows how to play, wrestle and generally be a boy. Jorge is both a good father and a good teacher. Life in the shack is pretty spartan and the diet is okay - as long as you like fish. Interest is provided by the wildlife - Frigate Birds, crocodiles, seagulls, a cattle ibis named Blanquita and of course many many fish.

As the film progresses we are invited to slow down and synchronise our being with the rhythm and pace of life as a fisherman on Mexico's huge Caribbean reef off the Yucatan Peninsula. The relentless pounding over the waves in the boat. The tranquil and vibrant beauty of the reef and it's fish which is shattered when end up on the spear-tips of Jorge and his father. The birds and crocodile feeding on the waste when the fish are gutted on the shack verandah. The Cattle Ibis who helpfully allows herself to be adopted so that she can clean up the cockroaches. A wonderful observation of a complex and sustainable ecosystem.

In some ways this film echoes The Wind Will Carry Us and if you like action chases, the only kind in this film are as the fish try to evade capture. At the end of the day, Natan gains an education no school in Italy could provide. He also learns the importance of the tradition his father maintains. But as with all good things, Natan must return to the Eternal City. Perhaps eternity isn't always everything it's cracked up to be?

The best way to describe this experience is to quote part of review by someone on the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) - a review by someone who has not quite mastered the technique of reflection: "I saw this movie with a friend who is a native Mexican. We both were bored stiff! We both kept waiting from something to happen, but nothing did.". If only she had eyes to see!

I caught this as a one-off showing in my local Art-House cinema in Southampton today. Try and check it out if you can - you will be rewarded.

I'll give it 7/10.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Social Network

(Screenshot 'borrowed' from the official site)

I went to see Social Network this morning as a free preview screening at my local art house cinema in Winchester courtesy of Showfilmfirst. Thanks guys.

I must say that I am a reflector - I find spontaneous reaction to things hard and prefer to understand things and mull them over before I respond. This film has got me so buzzing, I'm writing this the same day!

This is the story of the creation of facebook and the disputes that followed as it blossomed into a multi-billion dollar business. Set in Harvard University in Boston in the early noughties, it tells the story of genius Mark Zuckerberg. As is common with many folk who also happen to be a genius, Zuckerberg seems to score on the autism scale in terms of his difficulty in behaving appropriately in his relationships. Whilst the story is about facebook - the social networking site, it is also cleverly about the social networks and their varying degrees of functionality that spawned this behemoth. The Harvard Colleges and exclusive clubs, the have's and the have not's, those in relationship and those longing for one. The way the narrative unfurls demonstrates the very medium that the story is about - Zeitgeist personified!

I was expecting a geeky mutual love-fest with nerds and hard-nosed business types. What I watched was an utterly gripping and compelling portrayal of the messiness of creativity at work. The characterisations are immensely strong - easy to believe and totally convincing. The juxtaposition of Harvard - old-school, back East and the seat of sound ideas - over and against Palo Alto California where anything is possible and to where ideas must migrate if they are to be given life and succeed - is a reflection of the paradigm shift that echoes the demise of quill and ink in the face of the hegemony of WiFi and e-commerce.

Much of the film is set in the context of the two law suits Mark Zuckerberg defended. These are spliced seamlessly with the unravelling story as facebook grows and develops into the ubiquitous force it has become around the world today. Throughout is a painfully engaging portrayal of Zuckerberg as he struggles to hold together the relationships necessary to make the enterprise work. It is as though his abilities in programming and social network conceptualisation in the virtual world are inversely proportionate to his ability to sustain social networks in the real world. This, together with the fact that he is at heart a 'good person' endears him to movie-goers. A genius who is genuinely disinterested in wealth, notoriety and prestige, but who struggles with people. Zuckerberg only had one true friend in the story and even they end up in a legal confrontation.

As a piece of social history, recent history, this is a must-see film. The facebook generation are the ones beginning to run our planet - any insights into what drives them are valuable. As a piece of compelling drama of the highest quality, this is a must-see movie. As a portrayal of genius and the inability to relate appropriately, it is a must-see movie. I think you should go and see it!

I'll give it 9/10 and I'd happily see it again tomorrow! Can't wait for the bluray.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Infidel


The plot is very simple and the potential for it to descend into farce is ever present. The story, written by David Baddiel, is however cleverly carried by Omid Djalili and the supporting cast. To explore the tension between an individual's identity as a Jew or a Muslim and to generate laughter is evidence of striking a good balance in the face of fundamentalist hate that is the more usual polemic for explorations of this taboo topic.

More than exploring what it means to be a Muslim or Jewish, the film is a vehicle for Djalili's character to explore his own sense of identity - a road trip around the mosques and synagogues of East London. Inherent within the story is the tension between a liberal approach to faith and a more fundamentalist position. For those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, the film raises many questions and through them issues an invitation for us to examine our own sense of belonging and self-identity.

One of my early posts on this blog was about the film Notes of a Scandal in which I confessed to having great difficulty in watching films that convey deceit. I find it difficult to stick with them as they make me feel very uncomfortable. I'm not sure why. I simply know that deception and lying are perhaps the things I find hardest to accommodate and to see them as vehicles for a film's story puts me off the film. There is a good deal of deceit in this film - for very understandable reasons, but the tension it created for me meant I had to stop it half way through for a break! Yes I know, I need therapy to get over it. No doubt I suffered badly as a child and this has been imprinted deeply into my psyche. Trouble is, it's buried so deep I can't remember it!

An added bonus of the film is the dimension created by exploring 'Jewishness' and 'Muslimness' in a third culture of East end London. The interplay between the cultures, their motifs and values give a welcome development of what might otherwise be a stodgy and predictable story. It also allows an exploration of how much of a religion's manifestation in any particular place is an expression of the religion itself and how much of it is a function of the culture the religion originated in and also subsequently finds itself in.

I would recommend you give this a try - particularly if a comedic approach to religion is not your usual cup of tea. I'll give it 6.5/10.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

On holiday

Sorry nothing's happening - I'm on holiday in the frozen and wets expanses of the Highlands of Scotland - not seen a cinema in 10 days!

Monday, 30 August 2010

The Wind Will Carry Us


This is my first encounter with Iranian Director Kiarostami. This is not a movie in any conventional understanding of the term. There is no plot or story as such. It's more reality TV than Hollywood blockbuster, it has no international stars and no identifiable outcome - and that is the master-stroke. Rather than presenting a narrative, this film presents life and invites you to develop your own story.

Set in a remote Kurdish village in Western Iran, this film is a mystery. Those within it are a mystery. The motive of the visitors from Tehran is a mystery. What happens to them while they are in the village is a mystery. The outcome is a mystery. What each viewer takes from this film is a mystery that needs to undergo gestation in the privacy of individual reflection. The film is an invitation to examine matters of life and death, the rhythm of life, what is important and who is important. It also invites you to slow down and readjust your perspective. The film offers a gift - an opportunity for healing, celebration and a re-evaluation of priorities.

Descending on this remote settlement the visitors are received with customary hospitality. Their mission being to film the ancient and obscure mourning ritual of this people. Connected to the wider world by only a mobile phone through which daily requests for progress reports come, 'The Engineer' and his colleagues (who we never see) wait and wait - interested only in the health of the village Matriarch who is thought to be close to death - but she is only ill. The irony is that to receive a signal for the phone, 'The Engineer' has to drive out of the village to the hill-top cemetery where a local is digging a grave - possibly for the old lady.

As the waiting goes on, so the rhythm of village life proceeds unabated. The visitors never really integrating, the hospitality of the villagers able to be welcoming whilst maintaining a distance. Gradually it dawns on 'The Engineer' that there of things of greater value here than the assignment that brought them to this village. He recites poems - one to a suggestively beautiful girl who refuses to show her face as she milks the cow for him. Iranian culture has a proud and lively heritage of poetry that remains current, drawing on work from Omar Khayyám and Forough Farrokhzad to name but two. 'The Engineer' experiences moments of enlightenment through encounters with a Tortoise, a Dung Beetle and the local Doctor!

At the end of watching this film I was left asking 'what was all that about?'. The more I have reflected on it and discussed it with my ever-insightful significant other, the more I am beginning to see this as a film about what it is to be human and connected to the environment lived in. It is a film about life, about what matters and ultimately about death. As the words of the poets reach out to us down through the centuries, we are reminded that our existence can transcend our three score years and ten.

It is interesting to note that it falls within the Arts & Faith top 100 spiritual films - at number 57.

When you want to be challengingly engaged - watch this film. I'll give it 7.5/10

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire


The second in the Steig Larson Millennium Trilogy arrived in cinemas this weekend. The book sales may still be extremely healthy - have you travelled on London's underground lately? - but the critics seem to have been sharpening their claws in anticipation. Despite that, this film has had a juggernaut of publicity pushing it into the public consciousness and with a 15 certificate is more likely to reach a wider audience.

Critics and to some extent the movie-going public seem to demand more of a second film in a trilogy than the first delivered - particularly so when the first film breaks important ground in some cinematographic way - like The Matrix trilogy for example. It is true that a lot of the intrigue aroused by the first film centred on the character of Lisbeth Salander played by Noomi Rapace. The question then is how do you develop the character in a meaningful way whilst having a plot that makes sense and gives continuity with the first film? The answer is to begin unpeeling some of the layers that encase the complex character that is Salander. Why was she such a striking and troubled person in the first film? What gave her cause to hate men - Women who hate men being the Swedish title of the first film?

The story is about abuse of power - expressed in sexual activity. This film manges to present five sex scenes - two of them mutually consensual, three of them involving masochistic bondage and abuse - what is it with Swedish men - or are they archetypes? This film has a different director whose style is in stark contrast to the first film - that makes it visually a very different proposition. This film is shot much more in close-up using steady-cams and whilst some plot devices are telegraphed - like seeing the name on a wheelie bin outside a house to show us who owns it, others are completely absent like how did Blomquist know where in Malmo to look for Salander?

There is certainly plenty of action in this film. Too much violence and more than enough blood. This time, these features are an over-indulgence. This does detract from the viewing experience. Too many plot devices are borrowed from James Bond movies - this too exhibits a lack of originality. However, overall the film is still excellent and I am already looking forward to The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest!

For me the story is about how a young girl who dares to take on her abusive father who enjoys immunity from Swedish law and as a result is herself abusively institutionalised, comes to terms with that as an adult. Salander is intellectually sharp. She is blessed, or cursed, with a photographic memory which perhaps too often triggers vivid flashbacks. Her computer hacking and investigative skills are again to the fore. The story in this second instalment of the trilogy is all about explaining how Lisbeth Salander got to be the person we were introduced to in the first film. It tells this story very well and sets things up well for the finale.

I am told by those who have read the books that the transition to film is very faithful - perhaps that's why this is another long film? If you can stomach blood and physical violence - go and see it. That is easier to watch than the violation of the young Lisbeth Salander and its consequences.

I give this 7.5/10.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Wall-e



The Disney Pixar stable is currently producing films that are engaging, well scripted and visually stunning. Wall-e is no exception.

Set in the 2700 century, earth has been ravished by junk and Wall-e is a robot tasked with clearing up the place ready for the return of the giant spaceship Axiom carrying thousands of people ready to repopulate the earth when life is once again viable. Periodically the Axiom sends out a probe and when one named Eve discovers a plant Wall-E found growing in a fridge, it not only sparks a relationship between the two robots (!), but also eventually leads to the return of the Axiom and the recolonisation of the planet. In the meantime, the passengers on board the axiom have all become grossly obese and unable to move under their own power.

So what's the film about? It's about the potential to abuse our planet. It's about 'unnatural love'. It's about obesity and excess. It's also about the dangers of AI taking over and making wrong crucial decisions on behalf of humanity. It's about the Axiom being seen as an Ark in the style of Noah.

The joy of this film is not the individual component story lines but how they are all scripted together and then presented in vibrant and dynamic animation. The film also openly plays homage to a number of sci-fi films and series - 2001 where Sigourney Weaver supplies the voice for the equivalent of HAL, Wall-e's journey to the Axiom mirrors the opening Titles of Star Trek Voyager - I could go on, but that would spoil your fun.

Yes it's also about paradise lost - paradise found. It's about the rediscovery of what it is to be human, It's about love, power, fear and hope - primal emotions that will connect with anyone. This film has universal appeal as well as a U Certificate! I found it deeply engaging, well made and entertaining - and in this department it refreshingly avoided clichés and used comic timing to offer something different that still made me laugh.

Well worth it. I'll give it 7.5/10.