Monday, 23 February 2015

Jupiter Ascending

I'm a huge fan of the work of the Wachowski siblings - I love the way they think. I had been waiting to see this film for a long time. I thought it was breathtakingly spectacular - the concept, the visual impact, the plot and the re-emergence of a Matrix-like storyline. BUT that doesn't mean this film is not without its problems.

On one level the plot is quite simple but it is buried under layers of different galaxies, species, dynasties and a complex set of relationships - but helpfully everyone speaks English! There are plenty of online sites discussing the plot so I won't waste too much space here duplicating it.

What is central to the story is the main character Jupiter Jones - who hates her life, is catapulted into a different life, and then decides her first life isn't so bad after all. The journey she undertakes to gain this insight takes us on a journey that lasts just over 2 hours - but the time passed quickly for me.

The basic premise of the story is built on production, consumption and profit. What is produced are human beings on vast farms - like planet Earth. They are harvested to produce a distillation that rejuvenates the body and ensures longevity allowing users to remain in their physical prime even when they are in fact more than 100 millennia old! Why - because time has become the most precious commodity in the universe so the longer you live, the more time you have. Of course this is big business and with great wealth comes great power.

All of this is wrapped up in DNA/genome speak and a family feud that threatens Jupiter's life and the stability of the universe. There are many moments of humour in the film. This film will be a boon for alien conspiracy theorists - and yes we even get to see how crop circles are really made!

Everything about the scale of this film is huge - and that's probably where it's achilles heel lies. The scope of the plot, the range of kinds of characters, the myriad locations that appear and disappear, twists and turns that make it impossible to know who is on which side - and amazing Wachowski visuals which are quite simply mind-blowing.

It is a huge pity that this film has done so poorly at the box office. It is obviously the first of an intended series (trilogy?) that now may never be made - or only in a small-scale way, which would be a pity for the greatest thing about this film is the huge scale of everything including the ideas.

Maybe it will become a cult sleeper? I certainly hope so, but after the relative flops of Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas and now this, I hope that Hollywood will keep backing such creative originality that the Wachowski's consistently deliver. Please go and see it while it's still in cinemas (in the UK at least). I loved it and will give it 8/10 - perhaps if they hadn't tried so hard it would have got a 9 - hopefully the next one!

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Hundred year-old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared

In a sense the title says it all - but there is so much more to this black comedy from Sweden about ageing and the remarkable life of Allan Karlsson who is endearingly played by Robert Gustafsson. Wishing to avoid his 100th birthday party in the retirement home in which he lives, Karlsson escapes with just a pocketful of change to begin an adventure every bit as remarkable as his long life.

The film unwinds at a gentle pace and as it does so, different episodes allow Karlsson to recount past chapters in his life which resonate with the here and now in some way. In this way the film is biographical and charts Karlsson's life and the completely unlikely range of people he has met. I'm not going to say anything more about the story just in case you haven't read the book on which it based. You will enjoy it.

What is amazing about the central character is his unflinching and quiet self-confidence and his seeming lack of concern about the possible outcome of what he is about to get involved in. In a way he stumbles through his adventures yet, as he has already lived to 100, it's clear he always seems to know when it is right to seize the next opportunity. It is the completely unbelievable series of encounters that makes this story so interesting. Karlsson emerges as a bumbling, benevolent, indestructible, calamity of a man who always instinctively knows what to do next.

The plot of the story in the here and now is equally unlikely, yet it offers a symbiotic platform for the flashbacks and helps locate them in a wider frame of reference. This plot is character driven. If it weren't for the strength of Gustafsson's  performance, it would simply be a collection of very odd tales. The supporting cast do their job very well too.

This tale is delightful, very funny and will at times invite you to hold up a mirror and reflect on the significance of your own life. Therein lies it's strength. Do get hold of the disc and give it a spin. I'll give it 8/10.

Stranger than fiction

This is a film about life and death - and love and hope. It's also the first film I've seen Will Ferrell perform a role which I actually like, he's the character Harold Crick and not just Will Ferrell! This is a clever film - well conceived and exquisitely scripted. The acting is pretty good too - especially from Emma Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal - oh Dustin Hoffman turns in a compelling performance too.

Set in Chicago, Crick is an IRS (Tax) Agent tasked with checking tax returns and investigating anomalies. His life is one seemingly endless, dull and tedious routine. He counts the steps to cross the road. He arrives at the bus stop as the bus does - everyday. He can perform complex mathematical sums instantly in his head. His life is governed by numbers. His only relationship is with an equally nerdy colleague Dave.

And so life goes on for Harold, relentless day after relentless day. Then one day he realises he hears a voice (Thompson) which is actually narrating his life in real time. If he stops what ever it is he's doing, the narration stops too. He sees his doctor and then a counsellor who is convinced he is schizophrenic which Harold denies. When the narration discloses that Harold will die to serve the plot, he seeks help from literature Professor Jules Hilbert (Hoffman) to identify the author.

Parallel with this is an investigation Harold is conducting into the tax affairs of Ana Pascal (Gyllenhaal) who is a feisty Harvard Law School drop-out now running her own cookie cafe. As Harold works at avoiding a literary death so this story becomes entangled with his self-actualisation and an awkwardly growing relationship with Ana. I won't spoil the story for you or the outcome.

Firstly this film is an excellent portrayal of observed human behaviour. It is about how contemporary life can entrap us in a dull routine that depersonalises us and how we can lose touch with our humanity. It was Irenaeus who said that "The glory of God is human being fully alive" and Harold sets out on that journey, initially with faltering steps but through the goodwill of those around him he gathers pace. This demonstrates our need of interdependence and shows how we are able to do more together than we can on our own.

Another strand of the film explores how people take responsibility for their actions and how coincidence can produce unintended outcomes. It is also a film about love, about giving, generosity and not giving up when that would be the easy option. For a comedy this film explores a wide range of deeper issues and through laughter makes them more readily accessible. The script by Zach Helm is sensitive and very clever - it is extremely well written.

Towards the end, Emma Thompson's character gives us this piece of narration:

"As Harold took a bite of Bavarian sugar cookie, he finally felt as if everything was going to be ok. Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren't any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorise our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true."

It would be possible to watch this film and receive its story at face value - and there would be nothing wrong with doing that. However, it will repay many times over a little reflective digging and a consideration of our own journey through this life. I commend it to you and award it 8/10. Let us give thanks to God for Bavarian sugar cookies!

Wednesday, 4 February 2015


Even with a top level cast including Steve McQueen, the real star of this film is the 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback - isn't it? Famed for the sequence that sees a Dodge Charger 440 Magnum chased over the unusually empty switchback streets of a beautiful San Francisco, this film is actually all about morality and how society polices it.

For once the cop is straight and as usual the politician is bent. McQueen brings a steely and seemingly unemotional quality to his role as a Police Lieutenant Frank Bullitt tasked with giving protection to a crook who is due to testify against the mob at a Congressional hearing. The Congressman who stands to gain most from this is marvellously played by Robert Vaughn who oozes sleaze and condescension as he seeks to control and manipulate everyone around him.

The plot is for the most part straightforward but there are one or two twists along the way. San Francisco looks radiantly glorious in its late sixties hippy chic setting. The dialogue is often sparse and always direct - there is little nuance or subtlety here. There are positive models of strong leadership and trust but also a warning about a criminal justice system that is too prone to the exploitation of opportunist self-serving politicians. Bullitt is depicted as wrestling with his humanity in the face of interference from those in authority whilst following his hunch that everything is not quite what it seems.

The whole plot is beautifully mirrored in an exchange between Bullitt and his girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) towards the end of the film. She flounces around San Fran in her canary yellow Porsche enjoying an indulgent and bohemian lifestyle because the freedom for her to do that exists. The cost of such freedom is paid by people like Bullitt and his colleagues who have to clear up the mess and put away the criminals.

This is a very good thriller - but very much of its time, which in no way diminishes the enjoyment of engaging with this particular morality tale. It's almost worth it just for the car chase! I'll give it 8/10. I watched it on blu-ray which was a disappointment - some of it didn't transfer at all well but considering it's nearly 50 years old that's hardly surprising.