Friday, 30 December 2011

Videodrome


Many reviewers and much of the literature cite David Cronenberg's Videodrome. I must confess I'm not sure why. I appreciate that the film is nearly 30 years old, but it has little to offer with an incoherent story line, hammy acting and the ability to seamlessly co-locate Toronto and Pittsburgh! What it does offer is an exploration of the 'what if' variety: What if watching TV changes your perception of reality?. What if the very act of watching and the subject you are viewing are able to change your brain so that hallucinations blur reality and what is being watched becomes real? The film also makes real the sleaziness of cable TV companies and their search for salacious material to expand their audience numbers. It has nothing to say about creativity, art or morality in a constructive way.

The film is Debbie Harry's full feature debut at about the time her group Blondie were 'riding high' in the charts. I hope that much of the story was told with an ironic slant - why else would one of the main characters be called Brian O'Blivion? The special effects are laughably of their time but owe more to Saturday morning kids TV than anything more serious.

The film does provide a look into the world of BDSM (more here) and snuff movies (and here) and this  provides the initial interest for the main character Max (James Woods) and is certainly what turns his girlfriend Nicki (Harry) on. However, it only ever serves as a hook and there is a real sense in which the film fails to explore and examine this kind of perverse cinema. I wish there had been a Director's commentary on the disc.

At least I can now say I've watched the film so that when it crops up in another review somewhere I'll know what they are talking about. To be honest - I'm not sure of it's merit beyond that. I know it's a genre of film that isn't my natural habitat and in watching Videodrome this feeling has only been reinforced. To be fair, other reviewers have said that you need multiple viewings to begin unlocking it's hidden treasures. I'm afraid that with so many unwatched and more worthy films on the shelf, I may simply not get around to it. I'll give it 5/10.


Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)


Followers of this blog will know that I rated the original Swedish TV movie 9/10 when I reviewed it last year. I have also blogged with scepticism about this Hollywood remake for those who don't do sub-titles. I wasn't expecting much but I was prepared to part with my cash and watched it this afternoon. I couldn't have been more wrong in my expectations! This film is mesmerising.

Any review is bound start by making comparisons with the earlier film. The new film is 6 minutes longer - but is so much more evenly paced that the 2 hours 38 minutes simply flew by. David Fincher chooses to place the emphasis on different aspects of the story and plot devices seem less contrived and much more natural. From the opening sequences and soundtrack you are treated to a visual and aural feast with bigger vistas and a more expansive view of Sweden. The sexual violence is every bit as graphic and not for the feint-hearted. I appreciate the 2009 version was made for TV and therefore direct comparisons are unfair.

The main two characters will of course come under greatest scrutiny. Both are acted with great sensitivity and wholly believable. However, for me, Daniel Craig is the less convincing of the two in the lead role of Mikael Blomkvist - too un-Swedish if that makes any sense, too smooth and cosmopolitan. Rooney Mara's Salander is different from Noomi Rapace's portrayal but every bit as engaging and if anything even more human. We literally see a lot more of Mara than we did of Rapace and this newer version seems to have much more active libido! Mara's Salander gives visual clues to the emotional battles that rage inside her and delivers a more accesible yet at the same still alien heroine. It will be interesting to see how the characters develop in the sequels which must already be in pre-production.

The storyline is pretty much the same as the first film except this time around we see more of Salander's original guardian - Palmgren and her new guardian (Bjurman) is frighteningly more like the average guy next door. In terms of the story we also see a significant role for Blomkvist's daughter whom I don't recall much at in the first film and less of a role for Erika Berger as Blomkvist's co-editor and long-term love interest. Overall, this version has more of a feel of a moral crusade than the 2009 version. The way in which the story develops is more convincing and at the end it is easier to make sense of what Salander does to Wennerstrom to bring him down. The change to the ending is a disappointment - perhaps they ran out of budget for trip to Australia?

This is still a brutal film. It's good to remember that Larsson's original title in Swedish was Men Who Hate Women as that is the unifying central theme and the hook that allows Blomkvist to get Salander onboard with the project. If you loved the books or have only seen the 2009 movie - you'll love this one. This one gets the same 9/10. Great cinema.


Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows


If you liked the first film, the much anticipated second instalment from Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law will enthral you. It's more of the same - an insane genius for good in Holmes and for evil in Moriarty, the faithful Dr Watson and his charming new bride, big settings, fast action and implausible plot lines - then it  it wouldn't be Sherlock Holmes without them. We also see Noomi Rapace in action - her first big screen outing since Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium Trilogy - as a gypsy girl Madam Simza Heron and we see perhaps a bit too much of Stephen Fry as Holme's brother! Overall this film delivers what you would expect: non-stop action, interesting CGI effects (it's good to see 'bullet time' visuals continuing to evolve and develop), a Victorian London you can almost smell and elemental logic leading to deductions that only seem remotely possible in hind-sight.

The story begins in London and moves to Paris and then Heilbronn before ending in Switzerland at the famed Reichenbach Falls - which although spectacular don't resemble the real version very much at all! As Moriarty attempts to get rich through procuring armament producers whilst simultaneously goading the European powers into war, Holmes is always one step ahead. The central thread gives us Holmes attempting to reunite Madam Simza Heron with her brother Rene whilst simultaneously protecting the newly-weds from the vengeful and completely unscrupulous Moriarty.

The morality of the story is fairly blunt and leaves little room for manoeuvre. Holmes is right and Moriarty is wrong. However, within how the story is told, there is plenty of latitude to explore the moral tolerances that Holmes allows himself to exploit in pursuit of the greater good - a kind of Utilitarian approach to ethics. There are lots of shootings, knifings and explosions and the body count mounts as the film unwinds. It amazes me that the the central characters are able to leave a trail of bodies, destruction and mayhem in their wake without so much as attracting even a casual enquiry from the law enforcement agencies!

Despite the improbable outcome the story leaves the door open for Sherlock Holmes 3 - or does it? you'll have to go and watch it to find out for yourself. Good holiday-time viewing with fine acting, great sets and conceptualisation. If you are looking for something to do one afternoon or evening go and see this film - there were all of six of us watching in Screen 2 at my nearest multiplex last night! I'll give it 7.5/10.


Saturday, 17 December 2011

Donnie Darko


I know this film has been around for a decade and the odd bunny rabbit appears ubiquitously in the racks of  DVD stores, but I hadn't seen this until last night. I always thought I was missing something. I had been, but not what I thought I'd been missing!

My first problem with this film is - what kind of a film is it? IMDb lists it as Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi - yes it contains all of these elements but the way in which they are put together and the story is paced, make it hard to make too much sense of the whole. A lot of the images and narrative have more a film noir feel about them. I sense that this film is so mysterious that it fails to deliver the potential it promises. Some elements of the story are not explained at all whilst others spoon feed you their meaning. The whole thing has an incoherence about it. IMDb reviews give it a score of 8.2 whilst Rotten Tomatoes gives it 85%. Well, not the first time I will call as I saw it and not be rating it as highly.

That said, not all is lost. there are some fine acting performances - particularly from the Gyllenhaals who play brother and sister and especially from Jake in the lead role. There is a spirited cameo from Patrick Swayze and a strong and nuanced performance from Jena Malone who plays Donnie's girlfriend, Gretchen. Some of the special effects are bit more X-files than anything more serious. The ending of the film works well on the level of sacrificial love, but quite how the outcome is actually achieved is unclear. Who is Frank the rabbit? How is donnie able to shoot him and roll back time? Why did he choose pain and grief for his family in restoring Gretchen to vitality?

The question about how real Frank is and what exactly is Donnie's state of mind are not addressed adequately. If his visions of the rabbit with the metallic head were simply that, then Donnie's psychosis would have better treated in a hospital than through hypnotherapy. Each time the therapist got somewhere important she had to end the session as she couldn't cope. Were his visions caused or treated by his medication? For all of Donnie's 'issues' he seemed to be otherwise well-adjusted as he navigated the choppy waters of High School. His care for the bullied and marginalised, and his courage to call hypocrisy for what it was are commendable character traits in a teenager.

Overall there are too many spurious plot deviations and the inability of the way the story unfolds to hang together means this film, for me, has some serious shortcomings. I can see that it may well be extremely popular for a teen/young adult audience but I'm not at all sure it has a lot to offer the rest of us. I'm going to give it 6/10 and I'm glad I can move the jolly rabbit off the shelf of films to watch and consign him to the library!


Sunday, 11 December 2011

Some interesting books

Now I'm back from my holiday I can report I didn't watch any films but I have been doing some reading and would commend these three for your consideration.

Into the Dark - Craig Detweiler





















This is a wonderfully accessible and well written book that invites the reader to journey hopefully into the dark in the hope of finding out more about themselves, others and God. Although this is a PhD thesis and a substantial work of theology, it is nevertheless a good read! The fact that Detweiler draws on such a wealth of theological sources means that this book is earthed in a series of big ideas that underpin his developing arguments.

Detweiler discusses the notions of special (Scripture) and general (everything else) revelation as means by which God may reveal himself to his creation. Detweiler holds that films present channels that make manifest God in a multiplicity of ways - if only we have eyes to see. On the back of this, Detweiler develops the idea promoted by John Wesley of prevenient grace.

The book is worth its cover price alone for the analysis of Spirited Away which to the Western viewer is as delightful as it is baffling. Many other films come in for close scrutiny as idea after idea is unpacked. The book climaxes with a wonderful exploration of the LOTR trilogy.

Don't be put off this book by the fact that it is a doctoral thesis and a work of theology. It is firmly embedded in popular culture and easy to get on with. The title comes from a 'Death Cab for Cutie' song of the same title which picks up on the song's enquiring agnosticism and offers a leap of faith into the dark that will reward.


The Good the Bad and the Multiplex - Mark Kermode





















The marmite man of cinema. If you like the good Doctor, you'll love this book. There is very little in it that is new but he goes into greater detail about why multiplexes are bad news, why we should lament the demise of the projectionist, why 3D is useless and why Americans cannot cope with subtitles.

It is written in his usual gushing style and is an easy read. He illustrates his points with lots of anecdotes and stories which open up his ideas with great insight and humour.

It does what it says on the tin - go for it.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Philosophy 
- Eric Bronson, William Irwin.





















This is an amazing book - I've read most of it in a couple of days. The book features a series of essays from well informed academics and commentators that explore the world of Stieg Larsson and the characters and ideas that feature in his Millenium trilogy.

The book begins in ancient Greece with a good dose of Aristotle and takes us on a tour which includes a feminist reading of Lisbeth Salander, a debate on the ethics of revenge, an exploration of Larsson's research into Nazi and right-wing activity in Sweden and across Europe and the vital question - why does Kalle Blomkvist drink all that coffee?

This book really opens up the trilogy in an invigorating and stimulating way and helps to set its fictional context firmly in the real world. I've just received the expanded 4 disc blu-ray set for my birthday and now look forward to watching them with greater anticipation. I'm not so excited by the Hollywood version due out over the holiday season!

Back to watching movies as soon as I can.

Friday, 25 November 2011

The Ides of March


This film title gives an appropriate nod to intrigue and betrayal. Set in the world of the American Democratic Party primaries where candidates contest the party nomination to become the Presidential candidate, it is filled with mind games, crossing and double - even triple crossing and loyalty that goes punished and also unrecognised. It shows politics to be a messy and brutal game. I am happy to leave it to those who are not afraid to sully their hands. The film even ends with words like 'integrity' and 'honesty' filling the air as Steve (Ryan Gosling) seems paralysed as he faces the choice of collusion or whistle-blowing.

This is the second Ryan Gosling film I've seen in two days and I must say the characterisations should have been streets apart - but let me also say his acting style makes Keanu Reeves look multi-dimensional! Directed by and starring George Clooney, with Leonardo DiCaprio as one of the producers, and with Philip Seymour Hoffman (Paul) and Paul Giamatti (Tom), this film was always going one that was well acted and well shot. I particularly liked the way scenes were often lit with pools of darkness and shafts of light to pick up and amplify the themes of honesty and deceit.

The story turns on Steve's decision not to disclose a meeting he had to his boss Paul. Or does it? The fact that the meeting led to nothing seems inconsequential but not to Paul when he summarily dumps Steve from the team. Steve is bewildered. This comes immediately after Steve has lectured an intern on the rules of political life and told her than when you screw up that's it - game over! Working out exactly whose integrity is compromised is difficult. It is as though hierarchies of integrity are established which play personal integrity off against institutional integrity. An interesting game.

For a brief softer moment the film explores the pain of the choice of whether or not to go through with an abortion to protect integrity. Whose integrity? The poor girl involved - Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) is seen wrestling with the moral and emotional cost of what the system is forcing her to do. A moment of indiscretion can lead to a life-time of guilt and regret. When the right course of action can seem so black and white to some whilst the person at the centre can only see grey is a powerful visualisation of the inner battle that abortion causes for the female (and usually the violated,) party. The fact that Molly wanted to climb the political tree as quickly as possibly is relevant but does it mitigate the choices she felt she faced and the way in which she resolved the conflict? I don't think so.

No-one comes out of this story with any credit - least of all Mike Morris (Clooney) the central political figure. What it does show is how spin doctors ply their trade, work the press and play the long game. As unsavoury as the subject matter is, this is nevertheless a well crafted, acted and delivered film. Well worth the investment of a couple of hours. I'll give it 7.5/10.



After three different cinemas in three days - I'm off on holiday so it may be a while before I post again!

Drive


From the trailers and hype, I was really looking forward to this film. I was hugely disappointed. There are some cool car chase scenes, but not that many given the way the film is set up. The central character Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a movie stunt driver by day and a getaway driver by night. It is clear he has impressive driving skills but his character is one dimensional and vacuous. His life is completely empty and he seems incapable of displaying any emotion. He also suffers from a twisted morality that works one way in one context and another way in a different context.

The film quickly slides into a regular mobster movie with contracts being taken out on everybody. Pursuits and murders follow and become entwined with the Driver's developing love interest in his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan). The whole plot gets over complicated because the mobsters are unable to untangle who is a criminal and who is an innocent bystander caught up in the melee.

The story lurches from one encounter to another without any real progress and in the end turns into a circular murder-fest involving the central characters. Where the film delivers the greatest disappointment is in the graphic and gratuitous depiction of the way in which many of the people meet their end. It is simply unnecessary and now comprises a series of images I would like to delete from my internal video wall! Why were these things included in this way? Is it to give the film credibility for those who need spurting blood and exploding guts and brains to render a movie watchable? If so, this should have been consigned to some niche market and not put on general release.

The characters are very stereotypical, the acting lacks finesse and the plot lacks credibility. The only bright exception is Carey Mulligan's performance. As I said - very disappointing. One to avoid. I'll give it 4/5 - which is generous!




In Time


This film is thoroughly engaging and works well on at least two levels. The basic premise is that everyone has been genetically modified so that they stop ageing on their 25th birthday. This makes the film confusing in that everyone looks the same age - even though some people have reached a three digit age! Everyone has a clock implanted under their skin that counts down the amount they have left to live. On their 25th birthday they are given 1 year and when the clock reaches zero they simply drop down dead. They can earn, beg, borrow or steal time to increase their longevity but everyone needs to 'spend' time simply to live - a cup of coffee costs 4 minutes for example.

Time is the only currency in circulation and as with anything that denotes wealth there are the haves and the have nots. The film works on its first level because it really does prompt questions about what value we place on time. The central character Will (Justin Timberlake) is 25 plus 3, his mother Rachel (the ubiquitous Olivia Wilde) is 25 plus 25. They live and work in the ghetto where they rarely have more than one day credit on their clocks. They are forced to go to loan companies and pawn shops to get more time but the interest rates are high and many people are unable to make the  repayments - and so die.

We learn that this is how the ghetto works because it is an effective way of controlling the size of the population. To reduce the number of people - simple raise prices to make accommodation and basic commodities unaffordable. This is the second way in which the film works - as a commentary on the way wealth is distributed and the inequality of inheritance for both the haves and the have nots.

To travel out of the ghetto requires payment of huge blocks of time - a month at each transition. The film makes good use of its Los Angeles setting by contrasting the less desirable areas with the well-heeled lush downtown. As the story develops it becomes a tale of liberation of the oppressed. Street wise and well intentioned Will gets entangled with Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) - the daughter of the owner of the biggest time bank and time lending set up. They end up taking on the global system and try to bring it down whilst liberating the ghetto dwellers.

The story is nothing new (sadly) but the context in which it is set serves to act as a chilling reminder of our implicit complexity in a world system that discriminates and devalues on an all too arbitrary basis. At a time of 'occupy' demonstrations around our world, the resonance for me was disturbing.

The film is a fast-moving morality tale with lots of action. There are few twists as the story heads towards its inevitable conclusion. Suspense is always present as people's clocks run low. The script is in places lumpy and from time-to-time the plot lurched from one crude device to another. Overall it is a good watch that will challenge those who are prepared to engage with its ideas. Many of the sets are 'familiar' from the LA storm drains of Them to the ridged roof running sequence from The Matrix. Well worth a watch and one I'll be looking out for on disc. I'll give it 8/10.




Monday, 21 November 2011

The Cave of the Yellow Dog


Every now and again cinema presents a gift that encourages you to stop, reflect and wonder. This film is such a gift. Described as part documentary, part drama, this film offers a precious insight into nomadic life for a family on the Mongolian steppes. We spend some time with the Batchuluun family living in their two Yurts with only their livestock, wolves and vultures for company.

The lifestyle looks harsh by comparison with Western standards but there is no sense of regret or of missing out on anything. Running water is courtesy of the stream outside. The single light bulb works - if there is enough wind to turn the blades of the generator. Yet the family, mum, dad and three young children, live their communal life very happily. The children seem happy to do chores around the encampment and even enjoy playing with dried dung!

The oldest child - Nansal, has just returned from a term at school in the big town. She shares with her sister that there the Yurts are stacked up into the sky (apartments blocks) and people even piss inside their Yurts! The younger girl can only marvel at what the town must look like.

The story presents a very gentle style of Buddhism and the narrative arc is set within a Buddhist view of the reincarnation cycle. One day Nansal finds a dog hiding in cave which she befriends and takes back to the family home. Her father fears that the dog may have been running with wolves and will inadvertently attract them to attack their herd. He tells Nansal that the dog must go. I won't spoil the outcome for you!

This gentle film offers a privileged window into another world - a world which is under threat. The viewer cannot help but reflect on the challenges this family face, their rhythm of daily work and the effect the seasons must have on their way of life. Throughout the film the lure of the big town and a different life is never far away. This was just right for a Sunday evening watch - I'll give it 7.5/10.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Paris


Pierre (Roman Duris) is a professional dancer who develops a heart condition that ends his career. His only certainty of beating the disease is a transplant - but the doctors don't know if a donor can be found before it's too late. Upon hearing the news, his sister Élise (Juliette Binoche) immediately moves into Pierre's flat with her three children to look after him. As Pierre awaits an uncertain future, he spends his days surveying the Parisian skyline from his sixth-floor balcony whilst focussing his detailed attention on a beautiful girl living in a an apartment opposite and a girl in the local bakery. Pierre's reflections serve as a springboard for the film to reflect on the diversity, vibrancy, fulfilment and disappointment of some of the individuals that make up the Parisian populace. It is as though we are offered views of these people as being representatives of the wider population.

The story opens with a threat to the vitality of Pierre as he is faced with a stark and unwelcome reality. As he reflects on this through the life of the bustling metropolis, a picture filled with nuanced and intricate detail is painted for us as the lives of the characters interact and play out. The characters represent a sweep of Parisian society: a Professor, a promiscuous student, an architect, a social worker, a dancer, market traders and Benoît who, throughout the story, journeys from the poverty of rural Cameroon to the promised land and prosperity of Paris as an illegal.

As Pierre awaits the seemingly inevitable he begins to put his affairs in order by trying to make sense of his life. All around him the other characters live out similar processes with varying degrees of awareness. The death of the Professor's father triggers a mid-life crisis as he chases after one of his students. His brother, the architect, struggles with his own demons and new life comes as his wife gives birth to their first-born. The market traders who work hard and play hard are shown to be shallow yet at the same time honourable and respectful. Together they face the pain of separation, the longing of desire, guilt, grief and the enticement of a brief intimate encounter with a group of girls. Élise is shown to work in the female dominated world of social work where the case workers are women and the manager a man. Their collective meetings having the feel of socialist egalitarianism reminiscent of the Revolution era. Meanwhile the backdrop to all this is the Professor who is lured away from the Academy by the lucrative offer to narrate a TV documentary about the history of Paris and thereby the history of France. Meanwhile Benoît continues on his northerly pilgrimage.

This film delivers an engaging exposé of life at different levels of French society. It also underlines the need for inter-dependence as the characters lives become increasingly, but unknowingly intertwined. The characterisations are warm and compelling. The sub-titling is helpful and non-intrusive. Paris always presents a magnificent canvas on which to paint - even under fittingly watery autumnal skies. This is a film about life, about contemplating death, about loss, guilt, grief, love, intimacy, story, fulfilment, rebirth, families and about our innate need of community.

Well worth the investment of a couple of hours - particularly with Juliette Binoche and Mélanie Laurent in the cast! I'll give it 7.5/10.


Monday, 7 November 2011

The Help


This is a wonderful film - a gracious gift. Go and see it - now!

Set in Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960's this film explores slavery 60's style and the question it provokes is what would you have done if you'd been born into Mississippi's white elite? Would you have colluded with Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) or confronted with Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone)? Would you see Aibiline (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) as commodities to be owned or as human beings to be celebrated?

The unashamed racism that the film portrays feels like something from another era and not my childhood! Skeeter returns from university - perhaps a northern liberal university - to discover the family 'Help' has gone to live with her family in Chicago. She also finds the attitudes of her old friends who are now ladies of leisure to be stifling and unacceptable. As an aspiring writer, Skeeter pens an anonymous book based on the anecdotes and reflections of the maids employed by the wealthy white women of Jackson. The book reveals the pain and abuse suffered by the 'Help' as they are paid below the minimum wage and are excluded from the benefits of welfare and health care.

This film could major on the evil of one set of people owning another. In a way it does. (How is this different from buying non Fair-trade goods from the majority world?) But this film doesn't wallow in the violence and abuse suffered by Jackson's black community, it rises above that to demonstrate that grace is a universal currency that can be cashed in for the betterment of everyone.

This film reduced me to tears at three points. It is a moving story - a courageous story, where people who are trying to do the best for their family's, what you and I would wish to do, face an uphill battle but never lose sight of what it is to be human. The acting is brilliant and forces you to reflect on what would you have done in either situation? I also reflected on what it must have felt like for the actors in this film - both black and white. It can't have been comfortable on either side.

As I said this is above a movie about grace. Go and see it. I'll give it 8.5/10.


Sunday, 30 October 2011

We need to talk about Kevin


This is a powerful film. Very uncomfortable viewing. Brilliantly acted. The brutality of the story is underlined by the editing which delivers body blow after body blow as it chops and cuts from the here-and-now to flashback as the back story is told. It left me feeling very uncomfortable. As I said, a powerful film.

As it's difficult to talk about this film without giving the plot away, this will be a brief reflection! I can't discuss the plot or story as the way they are told are integral to the film. This film explores the effects of a mother's depression and the problems of a baby whose behaviour is difficult - to say the least. It charts Kevin's growth and development and the family dynamics that surround him.

This film delivers a study in pathological behaviour, in sacrificial parental love and it delivers a display of grace that is breath-taking. Despite all that Kevin does to his mother she never gives up on him - right up to the end of the film. The end of the film is hinted at in out of focus flash-backs throughout but you are never quite sure where it's taking you. You know it's not going to be pretty but it's actually worse than that when you get there!

The casting is excellent and Tilda Swinton and John C Reilly play Kevin's parents brilliantly. The film continually evokes feelings of sympathy alternating with horror. It is a journey of terrifying twists and turns and one which provokes the big question - why.

It is not comfortable viewing, but who said cinema-going should be comfortable? It is engaging - superbly well told. It will leave you with questions and it left me feeling like I'd gone 10 rounds with a boxer! But I want to encourage you to go and see it. I'll give it 8/10.

I hope that your story doesn't resonate with Kevin's or his parents. This story will resonate with your humanity as it explores guilt, forgiveness and grace.



UPDATE - THE MORNING AFTER WATCHING IT

I slept well after seeing this but my dreams were defintiely influenced by it and I awoke still thinking about the film - which is unusual as I don't often remember my dreams. Powerful stuff.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Departures


This film offers a privileged invitation into the world, values and practices of the Japanese people surrounding the preparation of a body for cremation. You should take your shoes off when you watch this film because you will feel like you are standing on sacred ground. The way the story is told and enacted conveys a real depth of meaning that honours the life of the deceased and treasures the opportunity to help them make the transition to the world that lies beyond. It's also a charming love story and at times has surprising bits of comedy (which I could have done without).

Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) has worked hard all his life to become a concert cellist. When his orchestra is disbanded because few buy tickets to hear them, he resolves to return to his family home and the house his mother left him when she died two year earlier. His wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) dutifully accompanies him and makes the house into their home. Daigo responds to a job ad in the paper thinking it to be for work at a travel agency - departures. It turns out to be a job as an assistant to Mr Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) working as a Nokanshi or coffineer. He gets the job and is hired immediately - the pay is good. He decides not to tell Mika exactly what he does.

The film explores many themes related to death and the taboos that surround dealing with the dead. As Daigo gets more and more into the role he appears to develop a sense of vocation for assisting the grieving families and honouring the deceased. He is very good at it and his face always displays an appropriately empathetic expression.

When Mika discovers what he does, she returns to Tokyo. Some of the locals including an old school friend also begin to give him the cold shoulder. A theme that runs throughout the story is Daigo's estrangement from his Father, who walked out on the family when he was 6 and how that affects him more than 25 years later.

The narrative arc feels very western and I wonder if the film loses something because it tries to appeal to western sensibilities rather than purely allowing us an insight into contemporary Shinto practice relating to preparing the dead for cremation. Daigo facilitates for each family a process that helps them in their grief and mourning. As a priest I have conducted many funerals and for me the film evokes very similar feelings to those I experience on the journey which the priest accompanies families on as they bury their dead.

This is a warm and generous film which as well as being instructional and engaging will leave you with warm fuzzies. I commend it and give it 8/10.


Saturday, 15 October 2011

Midnight in Paris



I now have new favourite Woody Allen film! This is brilliant - from start to finish. The casting, setting, the way it's shot and the conceptualisation are all top drawer - well done Mr Allen.


WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS


Gil is a successful Hollywood writer visiting Paris with his fiancee Inez and her overbearingly conservative parents. Gil is struggling with his first novel - a story about a man who runs a nostalgia shop. He finds great inspiration in the streets of Paris and wants to move there to write after his wedding. Inez is not keen. Gil and Inez bump into Paul and his wife Carol, as Paul - who annoyingly knows all there is to know about everything - is on a lecture tour to the Sorbonne. Inez confesses to an earlier crush on Paul which puts even greater distance between the style and aspirations of Gil and Paul. After a night of wine-tasting, Paul and Carol invite Gil and Inez to go dancing. A tipsy Gil declines and wants to walk back to the hotel to sober up. 


As Gil sits disconsolately on some steps, the bells strike midnight and a veteran limousine stops and its party-going occupants all dressed in 1920's garb and quaffing Champagne invite Gil to join them. As they arrive at a club Gil is introduced first to F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda and then to an array of literary and artistic heroes from Gil's golden era of the 1920's - including Gertrude Stein who offers to critique Gil's manuscript. As Gil leaves the club it returns to its contemporary guise as a launderette. Did he imagine it? Was it a fantasy? what is going on?


In the morning he tries to explain it to Inez who joking accuses him of some drunken fling. That night Gil goes back to the same steps and a midnight the car appears and whisks him off to another night of partying with the bohemian revellers. He delivers the manuscript to Stein and also he meets Picasso's lover Adriana with whom he gradually falls in love.  Returning for a third night he is grateful for Stein's incisive critique and her encouragement to continue. Woody Allen is never short on irony and the Stien character delivers the wonderful line "what is a nostalgia shop?".


Night by night Gil returns to the 1920's and meets more literary heroes and gets deeper into his relationship with Adriana. Meanwhile Inez and her parents continue to the American in Paris thing and whilst Gil has nightly liaisons with Adriana, Inez spends each night with Paul and Carol. Gil buys a book in an antique market which turns out to Adriana's published diary which makes direct reference to Gil - the first indication that Gil's experience is real and not an illusion. Gil confides in Dali, Bunuel and Man Ray and confesses his confusion and guilt. As surrealists they see no contradiction in his position and readily accept that he is from the future - more great Allenesque irony!


One night as Gil and Adriana are walking they kiss and immediately a horse and carriage pulls up and whisks them away to Maxim's where they meet Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin - they are back in the Belle Epoque of the 1890's - Adriana's golden age.


Tempted to stay with Adriana, Gil eventually concludes in a surge of existential realism that the here and now is the best place to be. The way the story ends could have been schmaltzy but Allen takes the arc of the story in a pleasing trajectory and, to my mind and heart, resolves the narrative satisfactorily - I won't spoil the ending for you.


So what is this film saying to us? Lots of things I think:

  • Creativity has to draw on what has gone before.
  • However rose-tinted our view of a golden age might be, we are called to be here and now.
  • History paints generously.
  • Stories are intertwined and we need to be able to move from one to another if we are to be true to ourselves.
  • True love has a cost.
  • Nostalgia may be a modern invention.
  • The pursuit of reality can be achieved via fantasy.


Perhaps most of all the film presents an ironic essay on nostalgia and our longing for things to be different. In his book Into The Dark Craig Detweiler has a fascinating chapter on nostalgia where he takes the central theme of the film Finding Neverland as the jumping off point for an exploration of nostalgia in film. Detweiler writes “What pain are we avoiding via memory? Is the West in exile? Are we pining for a former era, fixated on the good ‘ol days? Or is nostalgia a genuine, God-given consolation in a troubled world?” But for some, nostalgia is anything but appealing. People who are oppressed tend to look forward to a better day – apocalyptic and sci-fi serve this function well.


What are we trying to achieve when we indulge in nostalgia? Is it a distraction, a dissatisfaction with the present, a critique of today? Why are our high streets populated with shops offering a over-priced and tacky collection of memorabilia - and then from eras and events where we were the victors. Nostalgia never seeks out the Crimea or the Suez crisis for example and emerging films set in Iraq or Afghanistan are too close for nostalgia as they attempt to ameliorate the pain felt all too acutely by too many. How far  in the past does something have to be for it to engender a sense of nostalgia?

I found this film thoroughly engaging and a delight. Do go and see it. I'll give it 8.5/10.



Sunday, 2 October 2011

Kermode: The Good, the bad and the multiplex


Dr K was on good form last night at Harbour Lights promoting his new book (The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex) and entertaining a full house with two hours of banter, rants and inspiring insights into the world of film and cinema. I will get hold of the book soon and review it once I've read it - by the time I got out of the auditorium last night the queue for signing was just too long.

For those familiar with his weekly film review session on BBC Five Live, there were the predictable rants against:

  • 3D
  • Sex in the City 2
  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • The threat of extinction for projectionists
and of course much waving of the famous flappy hands.

There was also a lot of positive encouragement for his favourite actors and directors - and course the usual accolades for The Exorcist. The great thing that Mark Kermode does is to enthuse you about watching films and you want go and see one straight away.

Good value for money - do go and see him on this tour if he comes in your direction. I'll give the evening 9/10!


Monday, 26 September 2011

Hanna



Here we have another in the line of child assassins - the angelic looking Hanna played by Saoirse Ronan. The teenager has been brought up in the frozen wastes of Finland just below the Arctic Circle by her father Erik (Eric Bana) who is an ex CIA agent. Erik home schools Hanna by reading about Blue Whales and Music from a children's encyclopedia. In addition to this knowledge, Hanna is schooled in the arts of the hunter - and the assassin under the guiding philosophy of 'adapt or die'.

In essence this is an action road movie. Once Hanna activates a homing signal, she knows the CIA will come and 'extract' her. Her goal - the one thing she has been trained for all her life is to kill CIA operative Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). It's not until the end of the film that we are given the back-story to explain why this might be justified. The journey is from Finland to Berlin and takes in some interesting places en-route.

The film moves with an uneven pace - but the soundtrack gave my new sub-woofer a significant workout! There is plenty of action and - yes, more blood. Hanna's efficiency is matched only by her lack of social skills and her degree of confusion over what to do on a date!  The film is extremely well shot with plenty of variation using tight-cropped close-ups and sweeping wide-angles to deliver stunning vistas - especially in the opening 30 minutes. Cate Blanchett is a compelling villain obsessed with oral hygiene and it is good to see the wonderful Tom Hollander playing a camp ex CIA operative (Isaacs) who manages an anything-goes strip joint in Tangier.

I guess the central driving issue plainly shows that two wrongs don't make a right - however well-intentioned Erik and Hanna feel they are. The film operates within a world of moral relativity where individuals and agencies are free to override social norms and protocols in order to complete their self-appointed tasks to defend national security. The back-story that is introduced also adds an ethical dimension to the plot but it fails to justify the ironic deployment of Hanna to kill Wiegler. It is also interesting to note in these days of creeping political correctness that both the main adversaries are female.

There is the usual quota of holes in the plot:
  •  Why does Hanna kill only the first wave of special forces who come to 'extract' her and not any more?
  • Why do Isaacs and his henchmen trail Hanna all across Spain and France before making their move?
  • How does Wiegler get in front of Hanna to emerge from the tunnel at the end?

Perhaps I wasn't paying proper attention, but these and other things irk me when I'm engaging with a story. Overall this is a film that does not invite - or merit any deep engagement. It is an action film that delivers tons of action, much of which is unbelievable either in terms of 'how did he/she do that', or 'why did he/she need to do that'. This is an eye candy film that trades on the novelty of a blond teenage killing machine. It tells us nothing more about the CIA which we know will do whatever it wants whenever it wants (just like MI6) with minimal accountability (hopefully unlike MI6). Perhaps I've seen too many of this type of film recently and I'm suffering from blood fatigue? I'll give it 6.5/10.


Sunday, 18 September 2011

Made in Dagenham


When ordinary people do extra-ordinary things the possibilities for transformation multiply. This film left me feeling exhilarated. It is warm, engaging, believable, well told and very well acted. The setting of the film occupies a corner of my childhood memories. A group of machinists at Ford's leading UK car plant hold the company to ransom by going on strike.

What began as a strike over a regrading dispute leaving the ladies as lower paid unskilled workers, became a fight for equality of pay for women, This is fundamentally a story about justice - social justice. It is also an exposé of the class structure that still pervades British life and the arrogance of the multi-national whose only duty is supposedly to return a dividend to their share holders.

This is so much more than a docudrama. This film invites us into the life of ordinary people struggling against the odds to make ends meet and to make meaning in their life. The central couple are Rita and Eddie O'Grady (Sally Hawkins and Daniel Mays) who do their best to bring up their two children and have a family life. In a memorable speech, Eddie confesses he's not anything special, but at least he tries to provide for his family and he doesn't abuse Rita. Rita responds by pointing out to him that this should be the norm and is not a the behaviour of a saint and this in turn provides the pivot for Eddie's personal epiphany.

We are also reminded that in the 1960's many were still living with the effects of World War II. The leading male character Albert (Bob Hoskins) refers back to his days of fighting Rommel but it is in the difficult relationship between Connie (Geraldine James) and George (Roger Lloyd-Pack again!) that the horrors of the legacy of a war that ended 23 years previously are most keenly and cruelly felt.

An unlikely ally for Rita emerges in the wife of the Dagenham Factory Boss Lisa (Rosamund Pike). They first join forces to take on a bullying school master and later Lisa, frustrated by the way her husband belittles her, lends her full support to Rita - and a designer dress for her meeting with Government Minister Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson).

The film provides a timely reminder of the cosy and collusive relationship that the Unions enjoyed with the major corporate employers in that era. Power and control were the dominant features - a stark reminder of how a social movement can lose its way. This is reinforced when the Union bosses try to put pressure on the striking women but is challenged at the National Conference when others want to hear directly from the strikers leader Rita herself. She always proves to be up to the task and her speeches are both epic and inspirational as they place matters of social justice at the centre of the debate. This is not a dry political commentary but a film filled with warm and enriching relationships. It demonstrates what can be achieved when people display solidarity to achieve justice. It is possible the outcome might have been different had not the Government Minister responsible been a woman, or had the Prime Minister not been unavailable for consultation at the critical moment. On such things the course of history turns.

The ladies won their day - and rightly so. Why did it take so long? The film asserts in the end-credits that the Ford Motor Company is now held up an an exemplary employer world-wide. When will we see FairTrade cars appearing?

This is as entertaining as it is compelling. The characters and performances are both accessible and endearing. If you've not seen this yet, do get hold of the disc and give yourself a treat. Great stuff. I'm giving it 8/10.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy


The hype and media interest surrounding the release of this movie is .... fully justified. It is an understated tour-de-force in a drab and monochrome world. A world populated by people who are largely anonymous and who do the dirty work on behalf of their masters - people who kill, lie, steal and cheat to keep us safe. It's an odd world out there.

The central character, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a study in the perfection of the reflective observer. Never phased, never flustered, flurried or out-thought. The steadiest hand at the tiller you could wish for. He is ably supported by John Hurt, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and, showing his versatility once again, Roger Lloyd-Pack.

For those unfamiliar with John LeCarre's style of writing, this is a stylish spy-thriller full of double-crosses and unsavoury characters. Just when you think you have nailed down the baddies, something happens to cause you to question your judgement. The whole story is illustrated in flash-backs to a Christmas office party and the different relationships, straight, gay and extra-martial that go on. It seems that Smiley is beset by infidelity in both the office and at home.

There are no car chases, no helicopter shoot-outs, no high-tech gadgetry. Just solid character studies of the kind of people who do our dirty work for us and then brush it all neatly away under the carpet. I don't want to say any more for fear of spoiling things for you.

Do please go and see it - a 2 hour 7 minute masterpiece of understatement. I'll give it 8/10.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Apollo 18


In space, no-one can hear you yawn! Which is just as well as this is really the only response this film deserves. This claustrophobic moon-shot yarn is one for the conspiracy theorists - and not really for anyone else. Avoid it is my advice.

The whole thing is predicated on supposed orignal footage that has been uploaded to the lunartruth.com website in a wiki-like leak. Apollo 18 was a supposedly secret moon-shot to follow up reports (possibly from the Russians) of life on the Moon. The entire film, we are told, comprises edited highlights of the 80 hours of mission video that was uploaded to this website. The trouble is that people actually buy into this! I googled it and the web if full of people asking why they can't access the website and concluding that it's because of national security or government censorship issues. They seem unable to imagine that it could just be a marketing ploy. Here's what someone actually asked Yahoo! Answers.

"Why can't I access Lunar Truth.com?

I just saw Apollo 18. I am wondering if the government took it down, NASA took it down, the website is just down, or if the whole thing was just a scam to make it look like it was taken off. Thanks!"


All in all, the film has a very authentic retro moonshot feel as we are treated to the annoying blips and beeps of Mission Control in Houston and scratchy juddering video. Conveniently the video image is affected by interference and so breaks up just when you might see something meaningful. We are however treated to a decomposing Russian Cosmonaut, rocks that turn into scuttling spider/crab mutation combos and the idea that the good old US of A would not only sanction such a mission but abandon it's bravest when things get a little difficult.

The final five minutes are undoubtedly the best - but having to watch the rest of it simply to get there is one giant leap too far. Save yourself - don't go and see it. Its Alien-like homage is crude, Sc-Fi dimensions shabby, acting a tad wooden and horror delivery woeful. For the soundtrack alone which featured 'Yes', I'm going to give it 2/10!

Great looking new releases scheduled for the UK this autumn

I've just received the autumn edition of "Picture House Recommends" which outlines forthcoming releases. It seems we are being offered a rich and varied menu this autumn beginning with this Friday's release of
I'm also looking forward to:
and especially Mark Kermode on tour in full 3-D (Southampton 1 Oct)!

Wow! I'm going to be busy this autumn - plenty of trips to Harbour Lights in Southampton. If you haven't connected with your nearest Picture House cinema check out their website 


where. you can choose to subscribe to a weekly email to see what's coming up and also their 'Recommends' magazine - a 48 page full colour glossy detailing forthcoming releases and other events - including live streamed opera and productions from the National Theatre. Membership gives free tickets, 10% off on food and drink, cheaper tickets, no booking fees and occasional members' special events and free screenings. It also gives a range of discounts in local eating houses and shops - a bargain that pays for itself in weeks.

Public Enemies


Caught up with this on DVD - and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don't know how much blood or how many bullets I've seen on screen this week - but the total is mounting!

Jonny Depp stars in the title role of Public Enemy Number One - John Dillinger. Another performance to underline his competent versatility which is in stark contrast to Batman who turns up as a Federal Bureau Special Agent - the not so versatile Christian Bale (although to be fair there was a hint of a regional US accent).

Set in the early 1930's four years into the Great Depression and in the wake of prohibition, John Dillinger feels robbing banks gives a better return than queueing for work. Dillinger is presented as a gentleman bank thief with a high moral code and leader of an effective and loyal gang. Set against him is Special Agent Purvis (Bale) in the fledgling days of the formation of the FBI. Dillinger acquired folk-hero status and as he is taken into custody crowds of cheering supporters throng the streets.

Time and time again, Dillinger brazenly robs banks, kills a few cops and treats his getaway hostages with courtesy and respect. Meanwhile, Purvis uses emerging technologies and scientific methods to try and track down Dillinger and his accomplices. The film maintains a well-paced balance of suspense, threat and escape as Dillinger wreaks havoc across the USA.

Early in the film, a key conversation telegraphs the narrative arc that will book-end this story. In discussion with a fellow gang member, Dillinger is reminded not to get to get involved in women as they will be his downfall. Sure enough, it is through this channel that he is ultimately apprehended.

This film shows not only the extraordinary lengths Dillinger and his accomplices went to, to set up and carry out their raids, it also shows a darker side to FBI interrogation techniques - and this on a woman!

This film does nothing to critique the social and economic context in which it is set - although on both sides of the conflict it seems that the immigrant melting-pot nature of emerging America's population is given specific emphasis.

A thoroughly watchable film with some very good performances. I'll give it 7.5/10.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


Those of us of a certain age were brought up on the nasal twitches of Roddy McDowall and the original TV and movie franchise of the 1960s/70s. The current generation are used to CG enhanced characters and the ubiquitous Andy Serkis squeezing into the latest latex body form to perform his particular brand of magic. I was fearing that this would be a lame and dismal prequel - I was wrong - very wrong.

It seems that the super able Apes (not monkeys - please) are brought into being through some well-intentioned but morally compromised medical research seeking the holy grail of a cure for Alzheimers Disease. The central character Will (James Franco), isn't motivated by altruism but by his sick father who has advanced Alzheimer's.

The plot of how the research impacts the Apes and then humans is believable but ably demonstrates how easy it is to cross boundaries and do good things for the wrong reasons. In essence this could be an old-fashioned morality tale. What we get is a stark warning about the potential for things going wrong when we meddle with the genome and are driven by profit rather than cautious laboratory protocols.

The story includes a love interest in the guise of Caroline played by Freida Pinto who played the older Latika in Slumdog Millionaire. Despite Will's dodgy ethical practice, she sticks with him and will no doubt feature in the prequel sequel which must already be in pre-production.

I won't spoil the story except to say that it is as believable as any scenario that sees Apes become endowed with human-like abilities. I anticipated that the film would end further along the evolutionary road but am happy that the Apes are now emancipated and free to do Ape-like things in an increasingly human way in the Red Wood on the North shore of Frisco Bay. They will need more than a couple of hundred if they are to eventually conquer the Earth!

A major point of reflection for me was that the driver in the narrative is Will's inability to accept the onset of Alzheimer's and the living loss of his once vital and creative father. I am not for one minute suggesting I might have behaved any differently faced with the same set of circumstances, but there does seem to be in society as a whole, a determination to resist Alzheimer's, which is a horrible disease, rather than try to come to terms with it. A form of living denial on the part of the non-diseased. Another painful symptom of a world which is screwed!

I'd recommend going to see this - you don't need to have any previous experience of the franchise - this can be enjoyed as a stand-alone. There will be more - possibly several more if the intervening centuries are to be covered in a similarly detailed way. I would like to give a vote of sympathy to Will's sorry and abused neighbour!

I'm going to give this 7.5/10.

Colombiana


I saw this last night at my local Reel Cinema in Andover on their small (10 foot) Screen 5 - for the amazing price of £3.80. Friendly staff, a small audience and the low ceiling all combined for an intimate viewing experience - excellent value for money.

Beginning in Colombia in 1992 we witness the assassination of the drug-cartel parents of nine year-old Cataleya - named after a rare Colombian orchid. The murder of her parents fills her with an all-consuming desire to seek revenge on the drug lord (Don Luis) that ordered the killing. The narrative arc begins with the motive being given and ends ..... predictably with the motive being satisfied.

This film is visually gripping and fast moving with a story written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen it has a notable heritage underpinning it. It is however not without serious flaws. The film is presented as a collage of homage scenes drawing on Lara Croft, Kill Bill, The Matrix and Mission Impossible - to name but four! It is also one of a growing number of films that casts a child in the adult role of assassin - Kick Ass and Hanna come to mind. Although we never see Cataleya kill anyone as a child, her vocation is set and her childhood and teen years are, we are left to imagine, training her to become the assassin she is driven to be under the tutelage of her uncle in Chicago. I am extremely uncomfortable about this growing trend of child assassins - a genre that is popular in much Japanese and Oriental narrative and film-making. For me it does not translate easily or convincingly to Western culture and comes across as a clumsy and crude plot device.

The film is full of chase sequences with miraculous escapes. Cataleya has clearly mastered the art of devising the perfect 'hit' as she carries out contract after contract for her uncle. She draws her trademark orchid on the corpse of each victim in a bid to draw out the killer of her parents but this information is only put into the public arena after her 23rd victim! Slowly but surely her adversaries foot soldiers are despatched to eliminate her and the film builds to climax in a villa in New Orleans.

Cataleya has a relationship of sorts with Danny - an artist. He knows nothing about her - she even uses the name Jennifer when she is with him. She is usually waiting for him when he returns from being out and within five seconds she has initiated and act of energetic intimacy. She then usually slips away before he wakes. This is an extremely abusive relationship on her part as Danny is clearly in love and appears to be a decent guy who wants a relationship with her. Although it is clear Cataleya cares deeply for him, she subordinates her feelings for him as her life is totally focussed on fulfilling the prime directive - killing Don Luis.

There are several continuity and plot difficulties. The dialogue is clunky as it unpacks back story after back story and explains what's going on in a really unsophisticated way. Such as when she travels on her own (aged 9 and in the USA for the first time) from Miami to Chicago she reads a Xena Warrior Princess comic book. The adult Cataleya's avoidance of being caught on surveillance cameras in public places is telegraphed with such repetitive regularity that you know it will in some way contribute to her downfall. How the film ends leaves this unresolved as her visage is now on the CIA and FBI databases - untidy, or leaving the door open for a sequel?

The action sequences are breath-taking and the ingenuity of the assassin's art is something to be marvelled at in this fantasy blood-fest. On one level the film was hugely enjoyable - but then I catch myself reflecting on the underlying morality and feeling really uneasy about enjoying such stuff. The meteoric transition of a wide-eyed squeaky clean school girl in her pinafore uniform into a vocational assassin with attitude, style, grace and beauty is a transition that can only occur in a world that is screwed. To make such things attractive and portray Cataleya as the helpless victim is to present a character who fails to take responsibility for things she should seek to change instead of taking responsibility for killing scores of people herself. But that would mean no success at the box office. In her dialogue with an FBI Agent she says that she wanted to be on the side of good but was forced to be on the other side - does vengeance absolve people from responsibility? Perhaps that's easy for me to say as my father wasn't (as far as I know) a drug lord, and certainly wasn't gunned down in front of me.

Where the film oozes a sophisticated engagement with its narrative is the soundtrack to the end credits! As the names roll we are treated to Jonny Cash singing his version of Nine Inch Nails Hurt with these words which I imagine are intended to be applied to Cataleya:

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that's real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything

Perhaps this says more about the sins of fathers being visited on their children than the rest of the entire film? As worrying as the plot glitches and morality of this story are, perhaps the most worrying thing is that I enjoyed the movie! I'll give it 7/10 for the visual presentation, soundtrack and acting.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Dougal and the Blue Cat


Wow what an experience! In one instance an direct reconnection with childhood and at the very same time deep immersion in an experience that is timeless because of its quality. Eric Thompson's voiceover is pure genius and excels in its pure Englishness and in doing so is at the same time completely anti-French! Wonderful.

If you are of a certain generation - my generation - you will remember the anticipation that accompanied the five minute programme that preceeded the early evening news that signalled the transition from children's to adult TV. For me this was the highlight of daily viewing and allowed instant transcendence into another world - a world that seemed totally reasonable and wholly believable. You were instantly able to map the characters onto friends and family - they became archetypes for whole crowds of people. And then there was always the smoldering sexuality of Florence!

Dougal and the Blue Cat, or in the original Pollux et le chat bleu, is a wonderful 79 minute feature-length film that tells one story that is at one and the same time equally accessible for adults and children - pure genius. A story that plumbs the depths of the attraction of megalomania and the feeling of the need to dominate - with the added seduction of Fanella Fielding as the 'blue voice'.

There are the resonances with the Christian story and the self-sacrifice of Dougal - and also possibly Brian. There is also the reinforcement of the notion of community and the recognition that we need to be saved - sometimes from ourselves! Little has changed.

This is excellent - buy the DVD and watch it - even if it is 41 years old! I must confess that I still own the 12" vinyl version of this movie's soundtrack - I wonder what it's worth?

I'll give the film 8/10.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

I'm a Cyborg


Korean cinema takes a bit of getting into! The cultural signals and metaphors - I am presuming - were largely lost on me. The sub-titles were creatively translated into the vernacular but I wonder how much of that was interpretation rather than straight translation? Nevertheless it is good to watch something that makes you work at it - a good corrective for so much of the unthinking stuff that Hollywood seems to produce!

This film has strong performances from all the characters - particularly the two leads Su-Jeong Lim and Rain, and the visualisation of Director Park Chan-Wook's concepts is stunning. I thought I bought a movie that explored personal identity through the persona of a cyborg - a sci-fi film. What I got was a Korean romantic comedy set in a psychiatric hospital!

Su-Jeong plays Young-goon whose psychosis gradually builds from one day when she comes home from school with a tremendous headache to discover her grandmother thinking that she is a mouse. Grandmother - who appears to be Young-goon's primary carer - is promptly whisked off to the sanitarium where she lives on nothing but radishes which causes unpleasant air pollution! Young-goon blames herself for her Grandmother's predicament. As the Grandmother was being taken away in the ambulance she was mouthing to Young-goon "The purpose of life is ...." but we never hear the completed sentence and it as though Young-goon spends the rest of the film trying to find the answer. Perhaps it is an invitation for us to also consider the question?

We then fast-forward to see Young-goon on an assembly line making transistor radios. She finally flips and fantasises about the instructions coming over the factory PA. She slits her wrist and inserts the power cables from the radio and then turns it on. The resultant shock propels her backwards to the floor where the current charges her internal battery and as the charge builds so the toes in her right foot light up until the charge is complete. We then cut to her mother being interviewed by the psychiatrist as she attempts to understand how Young-goon got into this state. The interview suggests that the mother herself is schizophrenic and so the the idea of of a family of unstable women is given credence.

Young-poon refuses to eat, instead licking batteries and hugging a radio for sustenance in an attempt to recharge herself. She talks to no-one except the machines and lights, wearing her Grandmother's dentures, in the belief that she is a Cyborg. No-one can penetrate her exterior world. That is until fellow patient Park Il-sun attempts to help her. He 'fits' her with a rice megatron which he says can convert food into electricity and therefore not harm her Cyborg workings. She begins to eat.

I won't say any more about the story in case you want to wrestle with this yourself.

I'm not sure what lessons we can glean from this film. Community as place of shared lostness and healing might be one. The need to enter into someone's world to try and understand them might be another - but not recommended for uninitiated where mental illness is involved.

In Young-poon's memories are the 'seven deadly sins' that her Grandmother told her about in her attempts to explain the meaning of life:

1. Sympathy
2. Being Sad
3. Restlessness
4. Hesitating about anything
5. Useless daydreaming
6. Feeling guilty
7. Thankfulness

It seems that this quest to discover the meaning of life is a universal human quest and perhaps the greatest lesson of the story is that we can act as guides for one another if we choose to recognise that we are all interdependent. Echoes of the Trinity!

An interesting film for a rainy evening when there's not much else on. Don't rush to see it. I'll give it 6/10.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Man on Wire


I saw this yesterday with Senna in a members' free double-bill - well done Harbour Lights. The second film about an a man who dices with death for the sake of his art.

This is a docudrama - more documelodrama as Philippe Petit flamboyantly narrates the story of his successful wire-walking act between the Twin Towers in New York in 1994. The film charts Petit's childhood obsession with circus style performing arts and the excesses of the circus ring are employed by Petit as he lays on the drama through his exuberant retelling of the story.

The drama builds by showing Petit's walks between the towers of the Notre Dame in Paris and then between the towers of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. It goes into great detail as Petit and his team research and plan the greatest and most audacious high wire act of all time. The tension builds as the narration is mixed with archive footage and a re-enactment of the preparation for the rigging of the wire. To get a team onto the roof of both towers along with half a ton of equipment took a lot of planning, guts and good luck.

The film explores the relationships between Petit and his friends. Petit was able to enthuse and envision people and inspire unflinching loyalty as his drivenness propels everyone on towards the goal. When he finally achieves it, he goes off for romp with a girl in the crowd and dumps his girlfriend from childhood days - Annie Allix. The successful walk transforms Petit and elevates him to a higher plain where these indiscretions are overlooked by his entourage and Allix can only marvel at his accomplishment.

This is a well made docudrama that embodies Petit's flamboyant and showman-like style. It is also an erie spectacle as we fast approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11!

I'll give it 7/10.