Sunday, 30 May 2010


This film's title is not only descriptive of what it's central theme is, it is also what you're left with after watching it. Subtitled 'There are no simple truths', this film attracted five Oscar nominations with heavy-weight performances from Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis.

Father Flynn preachers a sermon on doubt - which of course everyone feels is directed uniquely at them. This irritates Sister Aloysius, the school Principal and a member of the Sisters of Charity. Set in the Bronx 1964, the film is dimly lit and monochromatic which reflects the world as the puritanical Sister Aloysius sees it. The wind of change from Vatican II and the aftermath of the death of Kennedy are blowing through the Catholic Church and the USA. The priest is trying to usher in a more progressive and humanist (liberal) approach. Sister Aloysius still relies on the old way (conservative) of doing school - by instilling the fear of Sister Aloysius into pupils - and staff!

Suspicions are raised about Father Flynn's behaviour with the only black student in the school. Sister Aloysius dislikes Father Flynn immensely - not only for his preaching but also for the fact that he uses a ball-point pen, takes three sugars in his tea and likes Frosty the Snowman! Having built a hatred based on irrationality, it is impossible to determine if Sister Aloysius' feelings are a true reading of character or simply more prejudice.

In the power struggle that ensues, there are no winners - only losers. I'm keeping this short so that I don't give too much away. This is an intellectually stimulating film that deals with real issues that very topical, with fine acting and an uncertain outcome. Excellent cinema.

I wish I could preach like Father Flynn.

I'll give this 7/10.

The Edge of heaven

Well! Where to start with this one?

The English name of the film has no correlation to the German name 'On the Other Side'. Perhaps it's random. The story appears to be, but it is actually extremely cleverly put together and told in a compelling way that draws you in. This is a German/Turkish film set in those two countries. The principle locations being Bremen and Istanbul.

The opening scene is of a car pulling into a dusty petrol station in a remote corner of Turkey. The driver gets his tank filled and buys lunch for the road. The music playing in the station is by a local celebrity who died a couple of years earlier from cancer which the owner blames on Chernobyl. The owner says to the driver 'he was young - like you. The driver pauses momentarily to reflect.

Ali is a retired Turkish immigrant living in Bremen who has long been a widower. He seeks comfort in the services of a prostitute, Yeter. He makes return visits to enjoy the services she offers and eventually offers to pay her the same amount of money she currently earns if she will live with him and provide her services when asked - nothing more.

Ali's son is Nejat is a Professor of German Literature and as a second generation Turk in Germany is able to move fluently between the two cultures. Before he is able to get his head around Yeter's arrival in the family home Ali suffers a heart attack. On release from hospital, Ali suspects Nejat and Yeter of being lovers and as he argues with Yeter in his drunkenness he pushes her and she falls hitting her head on the bed-frame and dies. Ali ends up in prison.

Nejat is appalled by his fathers actions and goes to Turkey to look for Yeter's 27 year-old daughter Ayten with whom she had lost contact. However Ayten who is a political activist in Turkey flees the country when the radical cell she is a part of is raided by the police. She flees to Germany on an illegal passport and is already in Hamburg looking for her mother when she dies. At one point Ayten is riding in a car next to tram in which her mother is riding - they don't see each other. As Nejat arrives at Istanbul airport we see Yeter's coffin being offloaded form a plane. Nejat enlists the aid of his family and puts up posters all around the city with a picture of Yeter on it in the hope of finding her daughter - who is in Germany.

Ayten strikes up a friendship with university student Lottie who invites her home to stay - much to the dislike of her mother Susanne. Ayten and Lottie become lovers. Eventually the law catches up with Ayten and she is deported. On arrival in Turkey she is arrested because of her political activity. Distressed Lottie flies out to Istanbul to try and seek her release. It takes her several months simply to get a permit to visit Ayton. Lottie ends up being shot by some kids high on solvents. We then see Lotties coffin being loaded onto a plane in Istanbul.

As Ali arrives back at Istanbul airport, he is taken away by immigration officials who presumably want to check on why he has been deported. At the next immigration booth is Susanne. The story is filled with these coincidences, parallel stories and near-misses that embrace the six central characters. From a camera high up in the corner of her hotel room, we see Susanne plumbing the depths of grief for her daughter. She eventually calms down and meets with Nejat who has bought a shop selling German books. Susanne wants to see where Lottie was staying - she had rented a room from Nejat who, had no idea that Lottie was looking for the daughter of Yeter too. Susanne ends up staying in the same room. After reading her daughter's diary she decides to take up Ayten's cause and visits her in prison offering forgiveness. This in turn encourages Ayten to exercise her right of repentance and she is released from prison.

Nejat and Susanne see crowds of people flocking to the mosque to observe Bayram - a Muslim observation of Abraham's obedience in his attempted sacrifice of Isaac. The sacrifice of children hold a place of special significance for both Susanne and Nejat. This is a central theme of the narrative.

Nejat asks Susanne to look after his shop as he heads East in search of his father near Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. It is Nejat who stopped at the petrol station at the opening of the film and that segment is now repeated in its correct place. When he arrives in the village, Ali is already out fishing, Nejat sits on the beach awaiting his father's return and the reconciliation that it will bring.

End of film.

My ramblings here have not done the story and the way it is told justice. The acting is very good and the locations have an earthy reality about them. I strongly urge you to see this film, you won't be disappointed. I'm going to give it 8/10.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Is this film really 21 years old? I still rate this as the best Woody Allen film I've seen - which isn't many as I'm not really a fan. But that aside - this is good. The film was nominated for three Oscars. I saw this again on Friday evening with a group of curates as part of a training weekend exploring the question 'what is the worth of a human'. It proved to be a good choice which set up the weekend well and provide rich material for reflection around our theme.

Set in New York the film is, as all Allen's films usually are, auto-biographical. Allen stars as Cliff, a small-time movie maker who's short on work and high on ideals. He has been shooting a documentary about the views of a Jewish Philosophy Professor, Dr Levy. Levy's outlook on life seems to be a blend of common-sense pragmatism with an acknowledgement that humanity needs a moral code and something in which to believe. Essentially he preaches a secular message of hope. Cliff is locked into a life-less marriage and his self-absorption is clearfly driving a wedge between him and his wife.

Judah is the other central character. A successful ophthalmologist who is a respected pillar of New York's Jewish elite and a generous benefactor to a range of projects. He lives with Miriam, his wife of 25 years, who enjoys the trappings of comfort and success and their luxury home well outside the city.

Cliff's brother-in-law is Lester who is a highly successful and critically acclaimed producer who is full of himself and repeatedly dictates reminders about possible projects into a pocket dictaphone - much to everyone's, and especially Cliff's, annoyance. Cliff hates Lester's success and so hates Lester and a series of penetrating one-liners are thrown his way such as "Lester - he's an American phenomenon" to which Cliff responds "so is acid rain!". Ouch.

Ben is a Rabbi who is losing his sight and a patient of Judah. The loss of Ben's physical sight and the clarity of his spiritual and moral sight provide a powerful metaphor that underpins the story. So much of the plot is about what might be seen, what has been seem and what is plain to see.

Judah has been having an affair with Dolores, an airline attendant after a chance encounter on a flight to Boston. For two years he has been living a double life spending weekends away with Dolores when ostensibly he was attending a conference. Dolores has become neurotic and her need-to-be-needed has taken control. She threatens to tell Miriam of the affair unless Judah leaves Miriam to be with her. Judah cannot allow his world to be torn down by Dolores who refuses to listen to reason and becomes increasingly unstable and erratic. Dolores also threatens to blow the whistle on Judah's financial impropriety which would further ruin his standing in society. In desperation Judah turns to his brother Jack who is clearly a man with under-world connections. Jack's advice is that Miriam is taken out - he sees no other solution that would satisfy Judah's demands.

Meanwhile. Judah confides in Ben during a consultation and Ben suggests a range of things that spring from his hopeful optimistic view of life. Ben says "sometimes when there is true love, there can be forgiveness" and "Give the people you've hurt the chance to forgive you." After the encounter Judah is thrown into deep moral dilemma and remarks that "God is a luxury I can't afford" and "I will not be destroyed by this neurotic woman!".

Meanwhile, out of pity for cliff and as a favour to his sister, Lester invites Cliff to make a documentary about him and his take on comedy. Cliff reluctantly accepts and says he will use the money to complete the documentary he is making on Dr Levy. One of Lester's entourage is a producer Halley who Cliff immediately falls for. He takes her to the cinema and also shows her some of the Dr Levy footage which she says would make a great episode in the show she is producing. The relationship grows - but unfortunately for the hapless Cliff, not romantically.

Desperate, Judah calls Jack and tells him to go ahead. Later that evening when Jack calls to report that the deed has been done and it will look like a simple burglary, Judah's moral compass begins rotating and spinning wildly. He experiences flash backs to his childhood where the family sitting around the table sharing a seder meal. Judah's father, a man of deep faith and regular synagogue worshipper, says that he will always choose God over truth and that God's eyes see everything. He tells jack 'may God have mercy on us" and reiterates that the eyes of God see everything.

Judah then visits the scene of the crime to remove incriminating articles. Seeing Dolores dead, her big dark eyes now life-less and empty plunges him into inner turmoil and waves of guilt relentlessly sweep over him. The next day he turns up at the childhood home and the owner invites him inside. In his mind he is taken back to the Seder in which he is present as both his present and his younger self. This encounter only adds to his guilt. he takes to the bottle and becomes withdrawn and depressed.

Lots of other things are ongoing within the web of relationships that the film weaves. Cliff enjoys a very close and familiar relationship with his niece Jenny. Given the timing of the film, it is worth asking the question if tyhis portrayal is a mirror of what was going on with his real-life adopted daughter  Soon-Yi Previn whom he later married!

The outcomes leave Cliff living a downward spiral of self-fulfilling doom and gloom whilst Lester's stock continues to rise. In the end he captures Halley just to drive home Cliff's feelings of inadequacy. Ben loses his sight but appears to be reconciled to it and there is a lovely intimate dance with his daughter on her wedding day. Judah decides he can live with the knowledge of the murder he commissioned safe in knowing that his reputation and marriage are once again safe.

The film has so much in it about the worth of a human. Go watch and see what you see in it.

I'll give it 7.5/10.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Black Hawk Down

I was visiting a Theological College on Monday and walked into the Common Room to find a group of guys settling down to watch this. I joined them.

I thought that The Hurt Locker was enough blood-spattered modern warfare for the time being. In watching Black hawk Down I was in for a drenching in blood and assorted body parts! The story is set in Somalia in 1993 when the Americans enacted a mission to capture two lieutenants of the Somali war lord Mohamed Farah Aidid. The raid was successful but in withdrawing a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down and when another went in to rescue the occupants, it too was shot down by RPG. A task force of 100 US Rangers and special forces troops were despatched to recover all personnel and destroy what remained of the helicopters.

They encountered much stiffer opposition than they anticipated and the operation turned into a 15 hour fire-fight with much close quarter combat. The General commanding the operation was forced into committing an ever increasing number of resources to mount a recovery operation. Ridley Scott captures the visual reality of modern warfare where high-powered bullets shatter limbs and RPGs cut bodies in half or pierce torsos without detonating. It is bloody, gruesome and in-your-face. Not for the faint-hearted.

It ends with the Americans withdrawing all their men except a captured pilot - Durant. The movie ends with "1000 Somalis died and 19 Americans lost their lives in the conflict (the 19 soldiers and officers who died are then listed by name and rank). Mike Durant was released after 11 days of captivity. On August 2, 1996, warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid was killed in Mogadishu. General Garrison retired the following day."

What the film fails to do is portray the real reasons the Americans were there (a unilateral UN?) and to show the Somali's as little more than mindless violent and bloodthirsty thugs. Why do Americans elicit that response where ever they intervene abroad? Some of those involved in the production were critical of the final version as it played down any understanding of the complex relationships between the Somali militia and played up the heroic exploits of the US military. As cited in Wikipedia: In a radio interview, Brendan Sexton, an actor in the movie, said that the version of the film which made it onto theater screens was significantly different from the one recounted in the original script. According to him, many scenes asking hard questions of the U.S. troops with regard to the violent realities of war, the true purpose of their mission in Somalia, etc., were cut out. Sexton wrote an article in 2002 where he maintained that Black Hawk Down failed to explain the reasons behind the Somali population's opposition to the U.S. military presence in their country: 'The Somalis are portrayed as if they don't know what's going on, as if they're trying to kill the Americans because they — like all other "evildoers" — will do anything to bite the hand that feeds them. But the Somalis aren't a stupid people. In fact, many were upset because the U.S. military presence propped up people tied to the old, corrupt Barre regime.'

Gripping, dirty, as realistic as I want to see and probably way short of the actual horror of war. I'll give it 7/10 as a movie and 3/10 for a selective retelling of history from the perspective of the winner.

Spirited Away

This formed a members free screening double-bill (with Ponyo) at Harbour Lights on Sunday - great value. If you live anywhere near Southampton do check it out and join!

I had seen this a couple of times before, but watching on the big screen presented the narrative and images in a very different way - more engaging, and again I was drawn in. Spirited Away is Japan's biggest grossing film at the cinema of all time. This is important as it underlines the resonance of the themes dealt with in the film. I am largely ignorant of Japanese culture and the prevailing Shinto religion, but it was clear to me that the motifs portrayed in the film represent a blending of present and past, of spirit and reality, of traditional values and contemporary revisions to them. I urge caution in being too interpretive when I know so little of the culture the narrative speaks from and to. At just over 2 hours long, it is perhaps a little too long - but obviously not for a Japanese audience. This is clearly a 'coming-of-age' story as Chihiro battles with the uncertainty of moving from the familiar to the unknown.

Chihiro is a spoilt 10 year-old girl travelling by car with her parents to their new home. Her father takes a wrong turn and tries a short-cut through a forest. They end up at what looks like an abandoned Theme Park. On exploring the park - which gives Chihiro the creeps - they discover a stall of freshly cooked food. The parents tuck in enthusiastically while Chihiro refuses to eat and goes off to explore. She meets a boy named Haku who seems disturbingly familiar. He advises her to leave with her parents immediately - before darkness comes and the spirits who inhabit this world come to life. Chihiro returns to her parents who have eaten the entire stall's-worth of food and have transmogrified into pigs! Chihiro tries to escape but the way back to the car has been transformed into a huge river that now blocks her path. Haku offers to help her.

Haku leads her to the bathhouse for the gods and tells her to go to the boiler room and ask for work from the six-armed boiler man Kamaji. Her persistence pays off and she is helped by Lin an older girl working in the bathhouse who helps her meet Yubaba who runs the bathhouse. Yubaba eventually gives her a job but takes her name and renames her Sen to ensure eternal slavery.

Haku, who was originally a spirit dragon is similarly enslaved by Yubaba. He is sent on a mission to steal a magic seal from Yubaba's twin sister Zeniba. The seal causes Haku to become ill and as Sen forces him to cough it up, Haku also coughs up a little black slug thing which she squishes under-foot. It turns out that this was the embodiment of a spell Yubaba had put on Haku to ensure she retained control of him.

Sen, accompanied by No-Face, a spirit she has befriended form the bathhouse, Boh, Yubaba's gigantic baby son now turned into a rat and Yubab's pet raven, now a fly, journey's to Zeniba in a bid to gain freedom and end the dominance of Yubaba. Zeniba is a lot friendlier than might have been anticipated and tells Sen that her love for Haku has broken the spell that kept Haku captive. Zeniba and Sen's friends make Sen a special hair band to show her that her friends are with her, as well as for protection. Haku arrives to take Sen back to the bathhouse. No-Face is offered the chance of staying with Zeniba which he accepts. Haku explains that Yubaba will set Sen and her parents free in exchange for Boh.

As Sen, the rat and the fly ride on Haku the dragon, Sen realizes that Haku is the same river spirit that saved her as a small child when she fell into the Kohaku River, and the realization helps to break Yubaba's control on Haku completely. Sen is set a further test by Yubaba to get her parents back which she passes. Haku accompanies her back to the entrance to the spirit world and tells her that her parents are waiting on the other side. She is told not to look back or else the deal is off. Sen, now restored as Chihiro rejoins her parents who walk back to the car covered in dust and foliage to indicate the passing of time. Chihiro still has her hair band in place which indicates that it wasn't a dream as her Alice-in-Wonderland type experience remains real in the real world.

I won't pretend I know enough to try an unpick what the film alludes to in Japanese tradition and understanding of the spirit world. There is an interesting piece in Wikipedia that's worth a look.


Watching Ponyo took me back to my childhood and TV series such as Marine Boy and Astroboy. The animation and conceptualisation draw directly from the genre these represent. It says something when a 101 minute film which essentially tells a children's story captivated and drew in this adult!

Ponyo is a goldfish. She lives in an an undersea aquarium, the daughter of a former human turned undersea sorcerer Fujimoto and Granmamare a sea goddess identified in the story as the goddess of mercy. Ponyo yearns to explore and break free from the constraints of home and ends up in a rock pool where she is discovered by Sosuke - a five year-old boy. As he rescues her, he cuts his finger and Ponyo licks the wound, tastes human blood and Sosuke is healed. Sosuke declares that he will love and protect Ponyo forever - whatever it takes.  Fujimoto sends his sea spirits to recover Ponyo whom he thinks has been taken prisoner by humans. Having tasted human blood, Ponyo now possess the capability to transform herself into a human.

Once back in Fujimoto's clutches, Ponyo uses his sorcery to escape and also to transform herself into a human.  Ponyo's dabbling with marine magic upsets the balance of the sea and the natural world, even drawing the moon closer to the earth and so upsetting the tides. In the ensuing storm Ponyo escapes and is reunited with Sosuke. Separated from his mother by the storm, Sosuke and Ponyo go in search of her only to find her and the retirement community with whom she works, under the sea in a protective bubble with Fujimoto. Fujimoto summons Granmamare who comes to him and Ponyo. The only ways for the equilibrium of creation to be restored is either for Ponyo to revert to being a fish or for Sosuke to declare his undying love for her. I'll leave you to guess how it works out!

The animation and story-telling are first class from Studio Ghibli. The American dubbing of the voices boasts an all-star cast. This really is an excellent film well presented, well paced and interesting as well as enjoyable. It is complete fantasy and myth that collides with and impacts our reality. Out on DVD on 7 June - you can pre-order now.

I'll give it 8/10.