Saturday, 29 April 2017

The Straight Story

This was recommended to me by some dear friends and I am grateful to them for that. I can't remember the last U classification film I reflected on - no sex, don't remember any swearing and the only violence done is to a road kill deer and a lawn mower blasted with a shot gun! This is a lovely tale - a road trip biopic which moves along at a maximum speed of 5 mph as Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) trundles 240 miles across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower towing a trailer. This is not your average film.

This is a film about family relationships. Alvin is a WWII vet whose health is failing. He lives with his daughter who has been badly served by the authorities. He has been estranged from his brother for a decade when news comes through that the brother has suffered a stroke. Alvin, who is prevented from holding a driving licence by his poor health, resolves to set out on a thirty-year-old John Deere Lawn Tractor, which has a maximum speed of 5 mph,  on the 240 mile journey from Laurens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin to visit his brother.

This is a generous film filled with grace, humour, wisdom and kindness. Its gentle pace, warm colours and likeable characters make it a winner. As Alvin chugs relentlessly Eastwards he encounters people whom he helps and some who help him. The wisdom he dispenses helps people to want to get on better with their families - and that is the purpose of his journey - reconciliation.

There's not a lot more I can say about this film - except it features a lot of big skies and a lot of weather. Sissy Spacek's performance as daughter Rose is beguiling. It was released in 1999 so it's not new but was new to me - have you seen it? You should. I'll give it 7/10. Well worth the watch.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Sense of an Ending

From the cast and trailer I was hoping that this would be a great film. The acting is certainly great, but the pace, plot and content of the film are enigmatic at best which means the film plods to an unsatisfying conclusion. It is undoubtedly clever, being based on the Man Booker winning novel of the same name by Julian Barnes. But the whole film gets swallowed up in its own angst ridden public schoolboy philosophising about how to interpret historical events and attach any meaning to the outcome. The inclusion of Charlotte Rampling as Veronica invited for me an immediate comparison with 45 Years.

This is a film about relationships, about ageing and about how feelings that have lain dormant for decades can be rekindled in a way that embodies the energy of teenage infatuation that accompanies first love, which then unexpectedly finds vibrant expression in later life. This of course rocks the status quo and the central character of Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is most put out to find that others - and particularly his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) - don't share his enthusiasm to dig up a relationship from 50+ years ago.

The turns and twists based on assumptions made in the 1960s at university, prove to be wide of the mark in 2017.  Unwanted pregnancies, suicides, pregnant lesbians, the birth of a grandchild and the mysterious and inscrutable Veronica all weave together to produce an unappetising concoction. The adjective curmudgeonly is repeatedly used to describe Tony and it is very accurate - made all the more so by Broadbent's performance. All I can say is, Leicas aside, I'm glad he isn't one of my friends.

As was the case in 45 Years, I was distressed by the way in which something seemingly so long forgotten, from so long ago, can be fanned into new and forceful life and destabilise things to such an extent. It causes me to reflect on my past and produce an inventory to ensure that I have nothing similar lurking in the life before the current arrangement!

This film is British cinema at its best with a great cast. If you prefer action movies or happy endings I suggest you avoid it as it is true to its title and provides only a sense of an ending. If you want a guide to help you to reflect on your present and past relationships and how they might interact, then this film will invite you to do that. What it can't do is predict the outcome of such interactions and the possible cost attached to them! For me the film was 20-30 minutes too long and at times tedious. The explorations of schoolboy historical epistemology clouded the plot unnecessarily and in Veronica and Tony - both young and old, this film possesses two lead characters that are not attractive - at least to me. It will appeal to viewers of a 'certain age' - Baby Boomers. I'll give it 7/10 - but mainly for the acting.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017


This is not a film for the faint-hearted! It has attracted a lot of comment which seems to be divided between seeing this as either a film which is misogynistic or one which is a triumph of feminism. Which way do you think it goes? There is hardly a scene in the film that does not present us with the central character of Michele played by Isabelle Huppert. It is a film about her. This is a film about family, violent sexual deviance and relationships. It's also a film about how past trauma can leave a legacy that lasts a lifetime. On one level this film is a thriller, on another it's a study of rape, deceit, obsession, empowerment and betrayal.

One day Michele is brutally raped in her home by a man in ski mask. After he leaves, she simply sweeps up the debris from the struggle and carries on as though she refuses to be the victim. She arms herself with pepper spray and an axe in case the attacker returns and begins her own investigation to discover the identity of the assailant. Michele contrives a number of social encounters to flush out the rapist as she seems to feel that it is someone within her social circle. Meanwhile she maintains an affair with Robert, husband of her best friend and business partner and pursues a flirtation with Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) her neighbour. Patrick's wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira) is a devout Catholic which introduces a strand of religiosity to be woven into the story. As she identifies the rapist she invites a further encounter in the knowledge that it will a bruising and painful experience for her. Michele discovers the rapist's inability to engage in consensual sex hence the violence, and uses this as a lever to provoke even greater violence. This is not a straightforward film.

This story has a lot of things going on in it - some straightforward and in plain sight, others only alluded to and which the viewer has to join the dots and draw their own conclusions. It features a mass murderer, a successful business woman, a failed writer, three deaths, one birth, adultery and rape. In the film, it is the women who call the shots - eventually even with the rapist. The April 2017 edition of Sight & Sound carries an interview with Director Paul Verhoeven which offers some insights. More instructive are two short essays by different women, one of whom sees it as a film about misogyny and rape ultimately being banal, and the other who sees the point of the film to "punish a woman with power, portraying her as castrating".

To be honest, I'm still processing the ins and outs of this story. I know I'm glad that Michele is not one of my friends or family! That it was based on a novel inspired by the mass shootings in Norway by Anders Brevik gives it a dark and unpleasant backdrop. That it demonstrates how someone can build a life out of the rubble of personal calamity is inspiring but I have to admit I don't like the architect or the builder. If I have to take sides, I see this as a film about misogyny rather than being misogynistic in itself. Whilst the violence is integral to the plot, it will deter many from engaging with the heavy and demanding themes of the story. Huppert's acting is first class - but I loathe her character. If you have a strong stomach and aren't offended by the themes, do go and watch it, otherwise track down a copy of Sight & Sound. I'll give it 8/10 for the way in which it attempts to deal with significant issues - but I don't want or need to see it again.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Ghost in the Shell

This is an interesting film that makes you think.  I liked it. A lot. Sci-Fi on a grand scale set in a futuristic Japan (that looks a lot like Hong Kong) with a manga-type wash - it's based on a manga of the same name. On one level the script is standard 'what can AI give us and what are the risks?'. It explores the cyborg with human brain scenario - but in an original and thought provoking way. It also pays homage to many films/books including - The Matrix, Lucy, Bladerunner, Kill Bill, Ex Machina, Howey's Wool trilogy with its Silos - or where some of these influenced by the 1995 original manga film? This film is visually stunning with great CGI and a pounding soundtrack that fits right in.

The central character is the cyborg with a human brain - Major (Scarlett Johansson) who through a search for her memories struggles to establish a sense of self-identity. Within the struggle is the over-arching existential question "what makes us human?" The film uses terms like soul, ghost and spirit with freedom. When the film is set in, and most of the characters are, Eastern Oriental, the fact that the lead character is a voluptuous New Yorker has caused plenty of comment. Johansson  however is not there simply to provide eye-candy, she handles the angst of her quest well and allows her character to make some unexpected decisions when easier options are available.

Set in the near future when most people have some kind of sensory or muscular augmentation, Major is a shell with a human brain - a sentient weapon which is deployed to counter terrorism. Things become messy between the unit that she works for and the company that created her. The scientist leading the programme - Dr Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) - discovers she has divided loyalty when Major learns more of her origins and presses for information.

On one level this film shows a high tech future where product placement is still a blight on the visual experience. It also shows that humanity can be as depraved as ever and that greed and the search for power remain as attractive as they always have been. There is a strong moral thread - or several - running through this film and it is good to see the questions being dealt with in an adult way. The central question being answered in the final dialogue.

Perhaps the greatest violence is what is done to the body and brain of Major? The violence aside (if it is ever possible to put violence aside), this film is worth the watch because of the way in which it explores questions of human identity and being. The visuals and cyborg concepts are also worth seeing. As I said, I like this film, I'm sure a different Director would have handled it with a different emphasis or character development and pushed the questions deeper, but I'm still going to award it 8/10.