Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Martian

Fans of Matt Damon will love this movie as he is in 80%+ of the shots - and mostly on his own. The plot is straightforward and easy to follow. There is no romance in the film and no person-to-person violence which is refreshing these days. Set in the near future (2030's) the science is believable rather than fictitious and the design of the buildings, vehicles and spacecraft all have a ring of familiarity about them which helps to further underline the believability of this film.

PLOT SPOILER (But there's not much of a plot!)

However, for me the film was not without its problems. There is much to commend it - more of which later but as much as I enjoyed large parts of it, I came away feeling a little disappointed with a host of little things which niggle and gnaw. My first observation may be unfair, but for me the film was too long at 144 minutes. I know that the whole premise of the film is Watney's (Matt Damon's character) isolation and abandonment on Mars for possibly the rest of his life, while plans are hatched on earth to rescue him, but it was in parts too slow and laboured.

Another major grating flaw for me was the overbearingly self-congratulatory "aren't the USA great" which ran throughout the film. There is barely a screen shot that doesn't contain some representation of the stars and stripes! When space exploration these days is becoming increasingly international to help share the cost, this was an American mission with American astronauts attempting to establish the viability of colonising Mars - presumably for America. I know that as a Brit I am not speaking from a position of strength where colonisation is concerned, but the tone was for me more Reagan era than Obama. Perhaps space films are becoming the new Westerns of the 1940's and 50's that helped to lift America from the malaise of WWII's after-effects. By focusing on new worlds we can transcend the problems of this one - but isn't that what sci-fi is largely about in any case?

Where this film does score very strongly is in the visualisation of the Martian landscape and in the strength of the characters in the story. Using images from Wadi Rum in Jordan (a popular location for movies about Mars) the Martian landscape is depicted with large-scale ethereal beauty. The brutality of Martian 'weather' with it's violent storms forms a striking contrast to the tranquil beauty of the red-hued vistas that are lit and captured with care - this film is made for the big screen.

Whilst the film observes Watney's creativity and indefatigability of spirit, it also explores the characters of his crew mates and the NASA personnel back on Earth. NASA Director Teddy Sanders is played by Jeff Daniels who presents an effective leader who does the right thing rather than the thing that will help you to love him. I did like Sean Bean's Mitch Henderson - particularly when the dialogue turned to discussing a scene from Lord of the Rings film in which he features! As mission leader it was Jessica Chastain's Melissa Lewis that stole the show for me and combined strength and vulnerability in a creative way to deliver a thoroughly convincing performance.

Having complained that some sections of the film were too slow, there were other sections that surprised me by their brevity which I found refreshingly welcome. I felt that the film treated me as an adult and invited me to fill in the gaps. The soundtrack of the film was also a pleasant surprise. As Watney is stranded on Mars and the only music he has access to is Lewis's disco music - including of course Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive".

For me this was a film in two parts - the parts I really liked and the parts I didn't. For that reason I find it difficult to give it a score but will settle on a compromise 7/10. If you want to reflect on questions of the worth of a single human life and what it actually means to be alive then this will be a good film for you to watch. Furthermore it invites reflection on just how the universe will eventually be colonised - what ethical and moral guidelines will we need to follow - and who knows, perhaps there is already a cloaked Enterprise orbiting the Earth right now waiting for us to develop warp technology and with it the opportunity to make first contact! It is worth seeing - and on the big screen while it's still out there.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Wall (2014)

I remember going out on a sunny Saturday morning in late 1979 to buy my copy of Pink Floyd's new double album The Wall. I was not as heavily into their music then as I have become in more recent years, but the album's well publicised release with it's distinctive gate-fold sleeve featuring Gerald Scarfe's artwork was hard to resist. Little did I realise that this was to be Floyd's last proper studio album.

An exploration of the context surrounding its gestation is informative. The previous album Animals (1975) had brought to the surface strains in band members' relationships that were fed by artistic divergence and what was perceived as an unjust division of royalties. Animals was the first Floyd album that didn't include any material written by Rick Wright. Both he and Nick Mason were experiencing marital turbulence while David Gilmour was distracted by the birth of his first child. When they came to set about the next project, which would become The Wall, it was also against the background of unwise investments having lost much of their collective wealth. Pressure was on and Roger Waters was the only band member contributing ideas and more crucially songs. The Wall consequently was virtually all his work with some narrative collaboration from Producer Bob Ezrin. The follow up album The Final Cut (1982) comprised reworked songs that had failed to make the final version of The Wall which was a further source of tension - particularly between Gilmour and Waters - Wright had left the group after The Wall was recorded. The Final Cut was given added political weight as the anti-war rhetoric of Waters' lyrics were set against the backdrop of what he saw as Thatcher's overly jingoistic defence of the Falkland Islands in the face of Argentinian invasion.

The prominence of Waters as the chief creative force behind The Wall is significant because the album's concept and subject matter is largely autobiographical. The album tells the story of 'Pink' who is a compound character but essentially a conflation of Waters and former band member Syd Barrett who is portrayed as a drug-addicted victim of the rock music 'machine' that is so well portrayed as 'the gravy train' on Wish You Were Here.

Snippets of Waters' sense of loss have been widely available in interviews (e.g. on BBC's Hardtalk ) and through Pink Floyd lyrics as he has made no attempt to hide the loss he feels through the death of his father in WWII. The original album told the story which was later embellished through the visual imagery of the 1982 film release of The Wall Directed by Alan Parker. The Final Cut released the same year featured many songs which extended the motif with one of Waters' most haunting vocal performances on Fletcher Memorial Home for Incurables - his father being Eric Fletcher Waters.

Further insights were revealed in later live performances and albums as a solo artist (having lost the right to perform as Pink Floyd which only added further acrimony to already strained relationships). From 2010-13 Waters toured the world with a huge band and crew performing The Wall 219 times at large arenas and stadiums. These performances added further political commentary and anti-war sentiments with some of the original songs being reinterpreted in contemporary ways with new visuals and texts. The 2015 cinematic release of The Wall containing concert footage from this tour interspersed with documentary and dramatic material ensures that viewers get the full picture about the film's subject matter.

I have included this background as I feel it is important to understand how and why this film was conceptualised. What struck me when watching pictures of the audience at the gigs in the film, was how young they looked - most being born long after the album was released, and while I know they are capable of doing their own research, I have journeyed with the story since 1979 and was lucky enough to catch the recent world tour three times. To watch it on 29 September with countless thousands around the world, and in Britain's oldest continuing cinema (The Electric in Birmingham) was a treat.

The basic premise of the story is straightforward. The back story is that Pink's way of anaesthetising himself from the pain of life is to build a wall to protect his feelings from sustaining any further emotional damage. Waters' father was killed at the Anzio beachhead in 1944 before Waters was one year old. His over-protective mother smothered him, his school teachers bullied him and eventually his marriages serially floundered. All of this coupled with a growing dislike of live audiences and with the relentless efforts of the rock and roll machine to make more and more money through tours means that Pink has sunk into a stupor and can only perform if drugged. On the edge of full-blown psychosis he places himself on trial where he is convicted by his inner judge of having feelings - "The evidence before the court is incontrovertible". His punishment is to have his wall torn down thus exposing him to the potential of more emotional damage and leaving him emotionally naked before his peers.

This is all strong stuff and enough to propel most people to try and understand themselves more fully. In all Waters has been married four times, he has been in therapy and has earned and spent millions in the course of telling his story. It is a pity that the pain was so deep that it caused collateral damage in his relationships - particularly with David Gilmour, Floyd's lead guitarist.

The 2015 release is not simply a reshowing of one of the concerts but the best footage woven together from a number of gigs interspersed with a narrative which gives background and context to Waters' life and story. The fact that the flow is continually interrupted for more reflective pontificating by Waters will frustrate some - but overall I feel it enhances the package. In essence it is a large-scale production of Who Do you Think you Are meets The Old Grey Whistle Test.

The production offers a lavish visual and aural feast with great footage from the gigs which show off the immensity of the stage set to great effect. For me the film was instructive. I didn't know that Waters' grandfather had been killed in WWI depriving his father of that influence on his upbringing. For it to have been repeated a generation later is tragic and Waters' anti-war rhetoric is all the more understandable because of it. Waters' grandfather was a Durham miner and his father a pacifist, communist and devout Christian. With that kind of familial heritage it is little wonder that performances of The Wall have over the years become increasingly politicised.

The film opens with actor Liam Neeson talking to camera about the impact the story had on him the first time he encountered it at Earl's Court in London on the original tour. For me this piece was too long and over-played the fact that The Wall contain serious stuff that will encourage you to engage in your own self-reflection. I was anxious for the music! Throughout the film Waters travels in a vintage Bentley through the war graves of Flanders on to Anzio. It is obviously a cathartic experience for him as he plays his trumpet in honour of the fallen. Finding both his grandfather and father's graves is a moving experience and at times for me it felt a little like being invited to view someone's therapy session. Is the final edit a little too self-indulgent on the part of Waters? It is after all his emotional autobiography. There is absolutely no chance of seeing this film and not understanding what the central story is all about.

I guess the sad thing for me is, like the album, the film begins where it ends, signalling Waters' resignation to the cyclical nature of life - in other words, The Wall offers only a means of self-understanding rather than anything transformative or hopeful. Waters' constant sniping at the comparatively privileged upbringing he did enjoy and 'the establishment', the use of almost stately homes to visually unpack some of the story and the fact that he drives a vintage Bentley, for me all smacked a little bit too much of wanting to have your cake and eat it. I'm not trying to minimise the pain of growing up fatherless, it's more a comment on how he portrays his reaction to it.

Musically it is still a tour-de-force. Visually the film is exciting and if you can cope with the narrative pieces edited in between the songs then you will enjoy this. It needs a big screen and plenty of volume - tell the neighbours to have an evening out! Did I like it? You bet I did and I will be buying the disc when issued - just to add to Waters' already considerable wealth. Talent, courage and creativity on this scale should not go unnoticed. I'll give it 9/10. Tear down the wall!