Monday, 6 March 2017

Schindler's List

I can't believe I hadn't seen this film earlier! I knew it had won seven Oscars and was critically acclaimed but as with any film that draws such hype I am sceptical until I see it for myself. Having seen it, my question is - why only seven Oscars? There are films that because of the craft of the acting, writing or directing performances, attract a disproportionate level of hype. There are films that because of their subject matter, timing or context also garner more plaudits than might otherwise be the case. On both counts, this film is a genuine winner.

For me films like this are important. I'm not Jewish, or German, or Polish, but I was born in the 1950s in West Germany because of the aftermath of WWII. My parents moved a lot when I was young and I have nowhere that I call home apart from where I live at the present moment. For me, watching films like this forms part of my own search for a sense of self-identity. I feel a connectedness to the events portrayed as they took place just over a decade before I was born.

Perhaps this was a contributing factor to taking a short break in Krakow only two weeks ago. When in the city, the legacy of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust are ever present. Tours to the ghetto are widely advertised as is the extensive Jewish cemetery. Five years ago I visited Bergen-Belsen and whilst in Krakow I visited Aushwitz-Birkenau which is only 75 minutes away. I also visited Schindler's Factory in Krakow which has been turned into a museum - quite the best of its kind. It was probably this that prompted a viewing of the film that has long been in my library. It was compelling to see parts of the ghetto and factory building that I had walked only a few days before.

Whilst the Holocaust is the context in which this 187 minute long film plays out, it is not a film about the Holocaust but about two German men caught up in it and their differing choices about the role they take. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a flamboyant, womanising, entrepreneurial, trickster with a heart of gold. Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is the Concentration Camp Commandant who is a psychopath with a heart filled with evil.

Schindler is spared the war as he is an industrialist - not a very good one, but someone who wants to open a factory in Krakow making items that are 'indispensable' to the Third Reich - enamelware. The factory employs 'skilled' Jews as they are cheaper to employ than local Poles. As Schindler builds his relationship with the local Camp Commandant Goeth, he audaciously treads a thin line between being found out and buying off people with bribes. Later in the film he opens a munitions factory in Czechoslovakia and insists that an expanded Jewish workforce is transferred there to staff it. What is remarkable is that neither factory is very productive but they do generate a lot of wealth for Schindler who lavishes it on getting the German officers drunk and on bribes.

The central core of the film is the relationship between Schindler and Goeth and how Schindler is able to exert a positive influence on him. The many Jews who live in the ghetto, work for Schindler or get caught up in the local Concentration Camp feature on the whole as a group under sentence of death. Some of them feature more prominently and give us an insight into their background, families and skills.

The film is shot in black and white, apart from a heart-wrenching splash of red once or twice. The ruthlessness and inhumanity of the Nazi war machine and the Final Solution are laid bare for all to see. Acts of kindness, humour and generosity appear randomly as the human spirit and Jewish heritage battle to stay alive. Steven Spielberg as Director has treated the story with great respect, creativity and hopefulness as he delivers a tour-de-force worthy of its accolades and awards. Parts of the film are necessarily brutal - much of it hopefully endearing.  There is so much more to this film than I have touched on here. If you have not seen it, please do. It's not so much great entertainment as great education and offers a chance to reflect on how our own humanity plays itself out. I'll give it 9/10.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

When Mel Gibson is the Director you know the action sequences are going to be full-on and in a WWII drama featuring close quarter hand-to-hand combat, the more visceral elements that literally flow from it, are going to be displayed with full and gory anatomical vibrancy! As striking as these images are - and as horrible as war is - even though viewers cannot un-see what they have seen, the most memorable thing that remains for me is the story of the central character Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). This film is a biopic based on the heroics of Doss the Conscientious Objector and the significant contribution he made to the Battle of Okinawa.

This is the kind of film that Clint Eastwood usually Directs. Had he done so, Hacksaw Ridge would have been a radically different film - a jingoistic celebration of a war hero showing the tolerance and diversity living the American Dream can deliver. Instead, we have a thoughtful and heart-warming film which roots the central character in his home context and which links the legacy of WWI to the second generation as demons, guilt and regret enslave those who fought in France and survived.

Garfield's Doss delivers a subtle blend of strength and vulnerability which is wonderfully matched by the captivating and inspiring Dorothy Shutte played by Teresa PalmerGarfiled's performance has won him an Oscar nomination - the film has five other nominations, including best picture. Hugo Weaving also manages to blend subtleties together in his wonderful portrayal of Doss' father Tom.

I heard the good Dr Kermode reviewing this film and for once I disagree with one of his main criticisms. He was complaining that he first half of the film (in total it's 139 minutes!) is too slow as it laboured to establish the central character as a believable and morally upright guy from which the foundation for his conscientious objecting springs. I think that this was necessary and yes it is a film of two halves - but both are essential if Doss' story is to be told. We needed to see the playfulness side of him with his brother, the struggles with his father, the domestic violence and the love of his mother. We needed to see his commitment to the Seventh Day Adventist Church and his ability to think quickly and save a life even before he enlists. But most of all, the first half of the film is necessary as it gives the US Army the opportunity to learn what a Conscientious Objector really are and what to do with them!

There were many passages of this film that brought a tear to my eye because the heart-break, sacrifice and emotional connection of the characters was so real. There were some great examples of editing that made me jump out of my seat! The brutality of war and especially the totality of Japanese combat ethos were repeatedly displayed in graphic technicolor which was reinforced by a deafening soundtrack. This film is very well shot and is completely at home on the big screen.

Overall the film does not paint the US Army very favourably. Slow to catch on, lacking in resources and combat strategies and quite often playing catch-up where Desmond Doss was concerned. The company of which Doss is a part contains the predictable blend of stereotypical men - I wonder how many of them were real and how many were Hollywood inventions? Nevertheless, this is an excellent film and deserving of some recognition in the forth-coming awards ceremonies. Almost worthy of a 9 but scoring a very strong 8/10 here. Do go and see it if you can - unless you are a squeamish pacifist!

Friday, 10 February 2017

I Origins

This is the fourth Brit Marling film I have reviewed on this site and like the others (Sound of my Voice, Another Earth, The East) it is clever, has a good story, draws you into the plot and leaves unanswered questions for you to ponder at the end. I like Brit Marling's acting and the films she makes. Find out more about her work here and here.

This film explores the contrast between life which bases reason solely on scientific processes and life which is open to the spiritual dimensions of our existence. The battleground on which this is fought out is the lab of Dr Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) who is trying to chart the evolution of the eye in a bid to 'disprove' the validity of the concept of intelligent design. In the mind of Gray, science and faith are mutually exclusive.

Gray's fascination with the unique character of the iris of the eye began at an early age and he has built up a large collection of photographs of eyes. His research is in the field of biometrics and branches out into tracing the evolution of the eye through different species who increasingly required the agency of sight to function within their natural habitat. Human eyes being at the pinnacle of the scientific process of the evolution but also being seen by some as the gateway to the soul or embodying the blueprint of a Creator.

Gray's life is impacted by two women - a first year lab assistant Karen (Brit Marling), sent to him on rotation and a woman called Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) with incredible eyes (see above) who grabs his attention at a halloween party and then begins to seduce him before running away. Gray is infatuated with Sofi and whilst Karen is left to develop the research in the lab, Gray takes off on a stalking odyssey to hunt down Sofi guided by random occurrences of the number 11. Science and seemingly irrational coincidences from a world beyond what we see conspire to give the narrative its spine.

The fact verses faith debate is played out well between the main characters although once or twice it all gets a little bit formulaic. Spirituality is presented as a pastiche of faiths with reincarnation and karma being prominent motifs. This may be an intentional nod towards the generality of faith and the variety of ways in which different cultures and faiths express their beliefs, or simply a function of Sofi's nomadic and eclectic upbringing.

Whilst telling you what the film is about I have not told you how it explores these themes which is original and delivers a worthy film. It's not without it's shortcomings and I felt that the characters could have undergone fuller development. It lacks the impact of Another Earth which was also written and directed by Mike Hill but he still delivers a film that can be either watched and enjoyed at face level or used as a springboard for deeper reflection on important metaphysical themes. I liked it and will award it 8/10 even if its ambition isn't quite matched by its delivery. I'm looking forward to the next offering from Brit Marling.

Thursday, 2 February 2017


This is a wonderful and uplifting film based on a true story. It is a film of great generosity. The trailers and advertising make the plot clear - there are no surprises but this film's worth is in the journey not only of the central character but also the viewer's journey as you get sucked in - totally. I don't know when a film last made me cry so much!

Five year-old Saroo and his older brother Guddu find work as they can - mostly along the railway. One day whilst waiting for Guddu to return a tired Saroo wanders onto and empty train and wakes up the next day as it speeds ever Eastward ending up 2 days later in Calcutta more than 1500 miles away. Not knowing the language, he has to live on the streets by his wits and is eventually taken to an orphanage from where he is adopted by a couple in Tasmania and brought up as their son.

As a fully integrated Aussie, Saroo heads off to College in Melbourne but begins to be plagued by flash-backs to his early childhood. He becomes obsessed with finding his home but keeps his research secret from his adoptive parents wishing to spare their feelings. He spends hours piecing together the flashbacks and constructs a virtual world inside his head where he knows every alleyway and junction. He recreates home internally. The obsession begins to affect Saroo's relationships and he drops out of studies and work. Eventually he works out where he is from and is reunited with his mother. I will give nothing more away about the plot - there is still plenty more to see.

Some have argued that because the narrative arc is so simple, why does it require a film of 2 hours duration to tell the story. The answer is because this film does so much more than just tell a story. The cast is top-drawer - Dev Patel plays the 25 year old Saroo, Rooney Mara his girlfriend and his adoptive mother is played by Nicole Kidman whose beauty, vulnerability and compassion are simply enchanting. The film is also beautifully shot - the opening aerial sequences of India and Tasmania highlight the contrast between the two. The way the warmth or coldness of the light is used to reinforce the mood of a scene is also masterful and belies the fact that this was Director Garth Davis' first feature film.

This film is about the need to connect with home - our origins, the place and people that formed and shaped us. It also explores, loss, love, hope and familial responsibility. All good themes that contribute to the uplifting nature of this film. Even as his obsession drives him to dark places, Saroo is never beyond the forgiveness and love of those around him.

The train is more than a metaphor for the journey Saroo undertakes. As well as the physical journey from Ganesh Talai to Hobart and back again, this film takes the viewer on an emotional journey where we befriend and want only the best for Saroo. The scenery is varied as is the pace of the film. Windows and reflections in glass feature regularly as Saroo tries to reflect on who he is and where he has come from. Occasionally we are given a precious insight into the psychological state of Seroo and those around him.

There is little if anything to dislike in this film. If the pace or length of the film had been altered in any way, it would only have been to make the film poorer than it is. The contrast between eking out a subsistence living in India and enjoying the world of plenty and privilege in Australia cannot be over-stated but Saroo's cheerful happiness with either circumstance discloses that a lesser person would probably have succumbed to some nefarious activity along the way and have ended up dead or addicted to something.

Where do you come from and what has contributed to making you the person you are today? Fundamental questions that we need to explore if we are to have any chance of being at peace with ourself. When dislocation accidentally occurs, or someone's upbringing was highly transient (as was my experience) notions of home and the identity that flows from it can be missing and our sense of self eroded as a consequence. heavy stuff.

As you will have gathered, I really liked this film - in spite of the emotional work out it gave me. I will seek to add the disc to my library as soon as I can. In the meantime I will award it the rare accolade of 9/10. This film is a gift - receive it with enthusiasm.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Star Trek Beyond

Have you ever been to your favourite restaurant, ordered your favourite meal and when it's set before you, even though it's made with all the usual ingredients, in the same kitchen, but it's made by a different chef and unsurprisingly it doesn't taste as it should? The third film in the reboot is Directed by Justin Lee and not JJ Abrams as was the case with the previous two and that may well be the root of the problem with this film.

Don't get me wrong. This is a Star Trek film with all the usual characters, lots of action, new alien species to encounter and peril that places the Enterprise and Federation in jeopardy, but the way it's put together results in a film that is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Disappointing.

It's difficult to pin point the real problem. The plot is convoluted, the action sequences a bit over done, Zulu is suddenly gay and different scenes in the film resonate with other movies - a docking sequence from the Matrix, a forest from Avatar and action sequences from Indiana Jones to name but three.

The film is set in the third year of a five year mission and sees the Enterprise at the edge of known Federation space. A lot of the narrative arc is occupied by the relationships between the lead characters rather than the plot of the film - or perhaps this is intentionally the plot of the film. When you come up against the edge of the known universe I guess there might be a reluctance to invent yet more alien worlds and races. With the whole of the universe to play with, for me the film felt almost claustrophobic, being limited to essentially two locations - the Starbase Yorktown and the planet Alamid.

The plot lacks subtlety and descends into a seemingly power-crazed revengeful quest for mass destruction because old soldiers never change. This at least gives Idris Elba an outing as a Star Trek baddie as the convincing Krall. The film then moves towards a climatic conclusion which of course is followed by the happy ending and the crew ready for the next mission.

Did I enjoy it? Yes. However, it left me feeling that it could and perhaps should, have been so much more - perhaps the reboot needs a reboot. Most viewers will not be too disappointed by the film but ardent Trekkies may have more of a problem. Time to get the proper chef back in the kitchen. I'll give it 7/10.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Beautiful People (1999)

A friend lent me the disc and told me i had to watch this film. The question I am left with is "why?". Wikipedia describes the film as a satirical comedy. Well, that's one way of looking at it. Set in October 1993 the narrative inter-twines a number of stories - England are playing Holland in a qualifier, the Balkan War is in full swing, refugees are flooding to the UK and racism is out of control on the streets of London.

Perhaps the chaotic way in which the stories unfold through jump-cut editing is a device intended to reflect the chaos of war and its aftermath. It makes for rather disjointed viewing and narrative arcs that make tangential turns only to resolve themselves in a happy ending depicting people who at first seem far from beautiful. I can't remember seeing a film quite like it.

The film has some extremely unlikely plot turns but the fact that most of the characters provoked a strong reaction from me shows that something must have been working. Few of the characters are likable - perhaps that's necessary for them all to be transformed into beautiful people. All-in-all the whole thing is just overdone and lacking finesse.

There are some who have the seen this film and think it's very clever and done well. It is interesting that on Rotten Tomatoes that there aren't many viewer reviews and only a few critic reviews. The top critics on the site all rate it positively whereas IMDb is less enthusiastic giving it 6.7/10. All of this simply demonstrates it's a film you either get or it gets you! I'll give it 6/10.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

This film seems to divide opinion. A good friend of mine whose opinions and film witterings I really appreciate (Vic Thiessen) writes on his blog's review of this film about the main thing that bothers him: "the utter lack of originality and imagination, resulting in an overwhelming sense of boredom". Perhaps the UK release was a totally different film, but in the version I saw, for me the thing that made it fly was the way in which it took me back 40 years to look into the future. Edge of the seat stuff for most of its 133 minutes - and that from a film with (mostly) new characters. Yes there was lots of mindless action, explosions, shootings and crashes but this is a war film after all.

For me this film could have been made in the 1970s, have been locked away in George Lucas' private film vault and released as a gift for Christmas 2016. Obviously the production techniques have moved on quite a bit since the original, but the worlds created in the film have such a familiar feel about them, the dualism of the Dark Side of the Empire against the good people of the Rebellion, Tie Fighters and X-Wings all made it feel like a luxuriating nostalgic indulgence. I didn't mind being duped - that is after all what I paid the ticket price for.

I won't go into the story except to say that it has a tremendously high level of continuity with the Star Wars universe that we know and love. It takes the opportunity to provide (invent?) some back story that helps make more sense of the original trilogies. It feels real - if that's not a silly thing to say and that is why so many have liked it. On iMDb it currently scores 8.1/10 and on Rotten Tomatoes 85% so it must have something going for it!

It was good to see Felicity Jones performing strongly in a different kind of role as Jyn Erso. There were strong performances from many others - even Peter Cushing performs from beyond the grave to reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin. Any fears that the Disneyfication of the franchise would see it altered in a negative way are ill-founded now that we have two films to judge the new owners of the brand by. That is really good news as the production schedule has new films appearing at an appetising rate.

This could have been a flop, it could have betrayed the original, it could have been a poor story - but none of these happened and it rightly deserves the accolades it has garnered. I really enjoyed it and look forward to adding it to my collection in due course. I'll give it 8/10 - almost a 9, but not quite.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Films to be released in 2017

A great listing of all that is to come this year from those nice people at Show Film First. Click on the pic to follow the link.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Making meaning through movies

Something for folk in or near the West Midlands. Come and join me for a day exploring how we make meaning through watching films together. 

Saturday 14 January 2017

10 - 3

Balsall Heath Church Centre

100 Mary Street Birmingham, West Midlands B12 9JU

Bring your own lunch

For more details click here

Please register to help us know how many chairs to put out!

See you there 😀

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Jason Bourne

The fourth offering in the Bourne franchise was always going to run the risk of becoming stale and feeling like a cynical way to make more money from Robert Ludlum's character. This film's narrative is different to the opening trilogy - yes it's filled with chases, explosions, glittering cities around the world, but in the few quieter moments it develops Bourne's quest to rediscover himself in a tender, nuanced and unexpected way.

Produced by Matt Damon and Directed by Paul Greengrass this is an intelligent action/spy movie that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. The narrative arc begins and ends with a bare knuckle prize fight - although the concluding fight delivers a different prize for Bourne (Matt Damon). However, throughout the rest of the story Bourne still has to deal with the old school Director of the CIA, this time played with hauntingly cold efficiency by Tommy Lee Jones.

Against the same old, same old ethos of the CIA which is struggling to maintain its credibility with Congress, the film deftly introduces the new thinking brought to us by Millennials about open-source social media platforms, freedom of information and a suspicion of the "State". This film is so much more than Bourne simply evading assassins.

Continuity is offered through the character Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who risks everything to help Bourne discover the truth about his past. Pamela Landy is replaced by the sassy and ambitious cyber-geek Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) who also has sympathy for Bourne - but only as far as it will advance her own agenda.

The action shots move at breath-taking pace from Reykjavik to Athens to Berlin, London and on to Las Vegas for the Grand Finale. The chases, are as unbelievable as ever and Bourne's resourcefulness seemingly knows no limitation at all. His ability to penetrate the strongest of defences and disappear like a ghost presumably pays testimony to the effectiveness of the training he received under the Treadstone Project.

As you may have gathered, I liked this film - a lot. For me it avoided many of the pitfalls that beckoned whilst adding extra depth to the story. The locations were stunningly shot - many of them at night and within the world of Bourne and the CIA it was all believable. The cutting question might be, are the security agencies of our respective countries carrying out activities like this on our behalf? To be honest I am fearful of the answer. I'll give the film an 8/10.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Stories We Tell

This film is different. It can be classified across many genres - biography, autobiography, documentary and experimental. It is undoubtedly a film about story-telling which is Directed by and stars Sarah Polley. In the film she interviews her siblings, other relatives and family friends as her father narrates his memoire.

The central question Polley is trying to answer is "who is my biological father"? Is it the man who raised her or is it someone else - as the life-long persistent rumours have suggested. There is no question of her being phased by the outcome as it seems her relationships with the cast are sufficiently robust to weather any storm that the enquiries may summon.

If you like fast-moving action films this isn't for you. However, if you enjoy investigative film making and trying to decide who is telling the real truth, then you will love it. The film is comprehensive and the same questions are explored with different family members who manage quite often to retell different versions of the truth. Super 8 historical footage features throughout which adds a sense of realism to the story-telling.

This is undoubtedly a vital question for Sarah Polley to receive an answer to. It also has an importance for her wider family and the dynamics that inhabit their respective relationships. For me it was the methodology more than the substance that made this watchable. In depicting an almost utopian, liberal family where love outside of marriage was normative, I felt that the film lacked emotional impact and that we were watching a glorified family therapy session.

I won't spoil the outcome for you. If you are at all interested in story-telling and narrative art-forms, then watching this will serve you well. Both iMdb and Rotten Tomatoes are consistent, rating the film 76% and 79% respectively. The critics on Rotten Tomatoes score it at 94% - perhaps a formal background in media studies or film criticism enables you to appreciate it more? For me, I'll give it 7/10 and expect it to remain on the shelf for a long while.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Film & Theology at Gladstone's Library

Here I am back at Gladstone's Library for a couple of days on film and theology. A sell out course with an interesting mix of films led by Peter Francis and Tom Aitken.

The Lady in the Van

This is the second time I've written about this film - the first offering was here. I really enjoyed seeing this again and it was as though I was seeing it for the first time as I saw so many new things in it. I am writing this without referring back to my earlier reflection. It will be interesting to see if it is merely a repeat or whether there is something new!

I know that Alan Bennett is a wordsmith and one of the best there is, but his screenplay sparkled and dazzled in a way it hadn't before. I know that the Director intends to include every item in every scene and that the dialogue is what moves the narrative on, but the precision and economy of Bennett's words is simply remarkable. A masterpiece.

Similarly, for me the story was much more an exploration of whether or not Bennett was a saint. It seemed that every character had a view and at some point offered it in the film. Similarly, I saw the interplay between his mother's life, her diminishing health and the life of the Lady in the Van to be a very clever and subtle weaving together of the two women in his life that unwelcomingly gave it shape and direction.

The master stroke this time for me was the interplay between Bennett and his alter-ego the writer and how for him writing is the natural product of the intercourse between the two. How the death of both women led to him being to integrate his alter-ego and seemingly develop an ongoing relationship with someone.

This was a refreshing return to this endearing and lovely, but eccentric and very English tale. I liked it a lot and look forward to adding the disc to my library.

45 Years

This film was new to me. Starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a couple preparing to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. It is a subtle and understated film but the story for me was disturbing and painful. It is very cleverly done with exquisite acting and Charlotte Rampling has lost none of her wow factor!

I won't spoil the plot but it centres on something emerging from the past out of the blue which has far reaching implications. In a marriage that had become the epitome of routine and seemingly now devoid of the je n'est-ce pas that makes relationships spark and work, the couple make their preparations for a low-key party to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

The film graphically depicts the power of the human mind to devise plots and alternative scenarios that may or may not have taken place and therefore may or may not have an impact on the here and now and the future. Once you know a fact or see something, you cannot simply un-know it or un-see it and carry on as it nothing has happened. This is a film about unintended consequences and their potential impact on a stable and long-lived marriage. It is about trust, disclosure, the need for grace, authenticity and the magic that lies at the heart of a long-term committed relationship.

The way this film left me feeling was similar to the way I felt after watching Indecent Proposal - if you've ever seen that. That is why I described it as painful. What that delivers in Hollywood excess, 45 Years delivers in understated British cool. Even the autumnal Norfolk Broads and quaint but claustrophobic Norwich contribute to the bleakness of the film's sub-text and contrast sharply with the jagged peaks and deep ravines of the Swiss Alps.

Time, the noting of it and the passing of it also feature throughout. The plot constantly reminds the characters and viewers alike that we are all getting older and the film invites exploration of the question what difference does the passing of time make.

This was a powerful film with exquisite acting and a powerful narrative that leaves the viewer to make up their own mind about the outcome and what followed the end of the film. I know what I thought. I wonder what you will think. Well worth watching - but I'm not sure I will want to see it again.


Our conference continued with a screening of Spotlight. Again, a film I had seen and reflected on here. I don't have much if anything to add I think. It is a brilliant film about a horrible subject that it treats with sensitivity and care.

Although it paints a bleak picture of the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, sadly as history now shows, any denomination could be caught up in something similar. To remind ourselves that institutions are human inventions and distance them from the God they seemingly serve is a naive and unsatisfactory over-simplification. We are all complicit in the wrong-doing of the institutions of which we are a part. Prophetic voices are needed perhaps now more than ever.

I'm ever more certain that Mark Ruffalo should have got an Oscar for his performance.


The day concluded with a screening of Carol. Set in the early 1950's in Manhattan with eye-popping pastel colours and cool cars floating along the streets, this is a film about lesbians seeking relationships and confronting the taboos that made that kind of (overt) behaviour unacceptable in public in the 50's - or is it?

So much of the film is a pastiche of the many 50's films that Hollywood churned out for the movie houses. If it had been set today it would have been a non-story. However, 60 years ago notions of bisexuality and lesbianism being overtly played out on the streets of Manhattan were always going to attract too much attention.

The film establishes a number of contrasts. The wealthy socialites supposedly living the post-war American Dream set against the lowly shop-working immigrant unsure of how to make her way in the brave new world. Overwhelming confidence set against uncertainty and doubt.

It also pits the 'conventional' heterosexual husband stereotype against the bisexual mother who now that she has her child wants to pursue the lesbian side of her self and in so doing wrecks the stereotypical family unit.

Then there is the road trip where the younger Therese is groomed and showered with luxury and presents so that when the opportunity for seduction arises she is unable or unwilling to say no to the older and predatory Carol. Looks like she was up for it in any case. The muted grey palette of the road trip is jarringly set against the day-glow brightness of the bigs cities. 

This is a complex film telling what is essentially a simple story that is made so much more complex by the web of relationships and expectations that surround the central characters. Carol and Therese both had many opportunities to conform to social expectations and follow a 'normal' heterosexual lifestyle. They both chose otherwise. This film raised a flag in the 50's - a decade that ushered in the openness of the sexual revolution of the 60's that has become the norm. Stereotypes are now so limiting. As far as relationships are concerned, anything seems possible when self-determination trumps social cohesion.

A good film but it didn't leave me feeling good having watched it - although I'm glad I did.

Mad Max Fury Road

This was my first outing into Mad Max territory and it will be my last. What a tedious film. I'm generally not a fan of post-apocalyptic films who by their nature have to create a version of the world that is different yet has some continuity with what went before. This film was like Monster Trucks having fun on an abandoned set that had been used for Indiana Jones and Pod racing!

If you like action movies with lots of explosions and people being killed in gruesome ways, then this is for you. The story is pretty thin and whilst it's meant to be about redemption it is in fact about salvation and the saviour then drifts off - no doubt to plot the fifth film for the franchise.

As I drove home down the M6 I was tempted - once or twice!

Many thanks Peter and Tom for a largely excellent selection of films. Thanks too to those on the conference who added to the engagement and reflection.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Bridge of Spies

This is an intelligent and well acted film. Very enjoyable, largely believable and an important reminder of fairly recent history. I've had the disc sitting on the shelf for a while and decided to give it a spin.

The film opens in 1957 and is very much about the Cold War. I was born the following year in West Germany - because of the Cold War. (It is interesting when filling out official forms because I was born in a country that no longer exists!) The film captures the fear factor so effectively generated by the American propaganda machine, the long and unwelcome shadow of McCarthyism and the helplessness of the physical division and separation of the city of Berlin. On top of that Tom Hanks as James Donovan and Mark Rylance as Rudolph Abel turn in tremendous performances in this Steven Spielberg directed film which was co-written by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen.

This film is less about espionage itself and more about the international legal and political consequences of spying and how spies who get caught were dealt with - and in this case repatriated. Whilst a lot of the historical material in the film is accurate, it does sometimes stray from historical fidelity but to good effect. This is a film - not a documentary.

The story focuses on legal process and Donovan's personal fidelity to uphold justice - even for the Soviet spy he has been asked to represent. Spying is a dishonourable game but this film contains much that speaks highly for the personal honour of both lead characters. It speaks less well of their respective governments and their shady dealings.

There is much of merit in this film that is worth exploring. The obvious issues are the moral implications of spying, getting caught spying and the brinkmanship of nuclear deterrence. Prejudice of the judiciary features. The creation of the Eastern Bloc to maintain a physical buffer between Russia and the West and also to perpetuate a Stalinist ideology are other themes that could be explored. The building of the Berlin Wall and its effect on the city and its people is offered as a topic for reflection.

As you will have gathered I really liked this film and will award it 8/10. If you've not already seen it - do track it down.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

This disc has been sitting on my bought-but-not-yet-watched shelf for a number of years. Visiting friends spoke highly of the novel by Patrick Süskind and so we decided to watch the film. For those for whom it is important, the film for the most part stays true to the book. Süskind's genius is in writing a story using only words to describe the central element of the plot - perfume, something which is sensed through smell. Could the visual and aural media of film keep the meaning and not lose anything in translation? In Director Tom Twyker's hands - Yes! Read on with plot spoilers - it's simply impossible to discuss this film in any way that is meaningful without touching on the plot.

The film is both visually and aurally stunning, so perhaps it was providential that Twyer directed it as he is also a composer of note and co-wrote the screenplay. By the time he came to make the film, he had been working on the screenplay and soundtrack compositions for three years and the music certainly strongly reinforces the visual story telling of this olfactory tale. It is quite a multi-sensory film!

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) is born to a woman selling fish in the pungent squalor of a Parisian fish market. She interrupts beheading cod to self-deliver under her work bench, uses her filleting knife to sever the umbilical, kicks the newborn into the gutter of rotting rat-infested fish pieces and goes back to selling fish. 

I usually find narrators in films somewhat annoying but in this film it is the thing that makes up for fact that the viewer cannot smell what the characters smell. The narrator tells us: "In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. Naturally, the stench was foulest in Paris, for Paris was the largest city in Europe. And nowhere in Paris was that stench more profoundly repugnant than in the city's fish-market. It was here then, on the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom, that Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born on the 17th of July, 1738. It was his mother's fifth birth: she delivered them all here under her fish-stand, and all had been stillbirths or semi-stillbirths. And by evening the whole mess had been shoveled away with the fish-guts into the river. It would be much the same today, but then... Jean-Baptiste chose differently."

Grenouille was unwanted, unloved and abandoned. In the novel Süskind writes "The cry that followed his birth, the cry with which he had brought himself to people's attention and his mother to the gallows, was not an instinctive cry for sympathy and love. That cry, emitted upon careful consideration, one might almost say upon mature consideration, was the newborn's decision against love and nevertheless for life. Under the circumstances, the latter was possible only without the former, and had the child demanded both, it would doubtless have abruptly come to a grisly end."

Against all odds the baby is found and evidently has a super-strength urge to survive which stands him in good stead as he is first sold to an orphanage where the treatment of the children is no better, before being sold on at 13 to become a Tanner's apprentice. 

There are two remarkable facts about Grenouille - firstly he has a super-human sense of smell and secondly he has no scent of his own - an attribute said to signify a child of the Devil although the film chooses not to make anything of this. Grenouille did not begin to speak until he was five and even as an adult towards the end of the film never speaks fluently or easily. His world is the unspoken but sniffed internal world of his collection of aromas. There is a lot of darkness in this film - both visually and morally. Grenouille spends a lot of time in the shadows and the colour palette of the film starts out almost monochrome but as Grenouille's databank of smells increases so does the brightness of the colours. This adds a visual reinforcement to the development of the narrative.

Grenouille eventually ends up as an apprentice to the Perfumer Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) where he learns the proper names for the odours stored away in his mental databank of smells. The film is very educative about the art of perfume and we learn that a perfume is made up of three sets of four aromas - sometimes joined by an elusive and mystical thirteenth element to create a wonder perfume. Grenouille can quite casually give Baldini 100 new exquisite perfume formulae off the top of his head but his real quest is learn how capture the odour of all objects - including people. Grenouille is olfactorily entranced by the scent of a beautiful young girl selling yellow plums. He follows her, sniffing her scent and when he startles her, he covers her mouth to stop her from screaming but inadvertently suffocates her.

He then spends an extended time sniffing her corpse, ripping her clothes to reveal her lilly white virginal flesh. He is fulfilled and so intent on building his databank of smells that it is clear there is nothing sexual about his gratification - it is purely olfactory! As her scent begins to fade he becomes distressed and so resolves to find a way of recreating her scent. The distillation method used by Baldini is of limited use but Baldini tells Grenouille of the cold enfleurage method used in the city of Grasse in Provence. Baldini gives Grenouille journeyman's papers and he sets off for Grasse.

En route he discovers a cave where he withdraws for seven years to reflect on the smells in his memory before resolving to continue his journey. Arriving in Grasse he gains a position learning the technique of cold enfleurage. Grenouille propositions a whore who is confused and afraid when he starts slavering cold animal fat on her limbs to capture her smell. She begins to throw him out, but he kills her in order to complete the task and so begins a killing spree. He stalks beautiful women by their scent and ends up killing a dozen in the film (24 in the book). Grenouille is only interested in their scent and the authorities are mystified by so many dead virgins. Grenouille then searches for the perfect mystical thirteenth component - the scent of the beautiful redhead daughter of local wealthy farmer Laure Richis (Rachel Hurd-Wood). As the narrator tells us, "He lived to find beauty. He killed to possess it".

The film builds to a climax as Grenouille outfoxes Laure Richis' father Antoine (Alan Rickman) to capture the scent of Laure. He is caught and sentenced to a most gruesome death but not before he creates the most powerful, seductive and intoxicating perfume the world has ever known. As he stands before his executioner he releases the scent and everyone swoons with even the bishop proclaiming him to be an angel. The massive crowd all strip off and engage in a love-in! Initially Richis is not affected by the aroma but ends up embracing Grenouille and calling him his son thus providing the father he never had.

Grenouille loses all respect for those around him because of the worthless nature of Richis' apology. It becomes apparent to him that not even the man whom he has so recently wronged by taking his precious daughter, is proof against the mind-changing commands of the master perfume that Grenouille has created. Once Grenouille realises that there is practically nothing that he cannot have, because everything is obtainable through the right combination of scent, nothing in the world seems of any value to him.  Finding there are no more scent worlds to conquer, and nothing in humanity of any value, Grenouille loses all purpose for living. I'll leave you to discover the bizarre ending to this tale. 

The narrator tells us "He still had enough perfume left to enslave the whole world if he so chose. He could walk to Versailles and have the king kiss his feet. He could write the pope a perfumed letter and reveal himself as the new Messiah. He could do all this, and more, if he wanted to. He possessed a power stronger than the power of money, or terror, or death - the invincible power to command the love of man kind. There was only one thing the perfume could not do. It could not turn him into a person who could love and be loved like everyone else. So, to hell with it he thought. To hell with the world. With the perfume. With himself."

This is a film that will not appeal to everyone and those who do watch it will need to do so actively - passive engagement will not bring any reward. It offers a good opportunity to explore the ways in which Twyker makes smell accessible visually and aurally. The acting performances are good - especially from Whishaw, Hoffman and Rickman. There are quite a few shortcomings in the plot but I felt that these were more than compensated for by the other components of the film. I liked it - but once is probably enough. I'll give it 7/10.

Sunday, 22 May 2016


Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Emma Donoghue this intense and intimate drama is gripping and engaging whilst also being something that at the same time both attracts and repels. Set in Akron Ohio, the first half of the film takes place in a shed where Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are held captive by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Ma was kidnapped when she was 17 and is regularly raped by Old Nick. Jack, who turns five near the start of the film, is the fruit of this liaison.  Ma and Jack live on spartan rations in their tiny room with only a skylight connecting them to the outer world.

The acting performances of the main two characters are as good as it gets and Brie Larson is fully deserving of her Oscar. However, for me the plot raises more than a few questions. I find it hard to believe that after seven years Ma is in such good spirits and in a seemingly stable and balanced state of mind. To have raised a son with such limited resources and stimuli almost defies belief. In my naivete, thinking I knew the plot, I had assumed that the story was about their attempts to escape their captivity. The fact that they achieve success halfway through the film was like getting two films for the price of one!

I don't know about you, but with some actors I always see them in a particular role that has stuck in my mind for some reason rather than the new character being presented. So for me, it was really odd to discover Ma's parents were in fact Pamela Landy from the Bourne saga and Quiz Kid Donnie Smith from Magnolia!

As well as giving us an excellent exploration of being captive and in Jack's case not knowing anything else, the film also sensitively surveys the impact of abduction on the wider family and the painful process of helping captives reintegrate with society and family. The intrusive and odious press are depicted in all their ghoulish ugliness.

I could say a lot more about the film but I will leave that for you to discover. It is well worth watching just as it is - but it will repay a little work and reflection on themes of motherhood, nature/nurture, psychological effects of captivity, how families cope with trauma, how someone can get away with it for so long in a regular suburban context. This is well worth watching - I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 2 May 2016


This film is the perfect vehicle for the extremely accomplished Saoirse Ronan to deliver an understated yet forceful performance as Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey exchanging a small town in County Wexford for life in the big city. Set in the early 1950s with a Nick Hornby adaptation of a Colm Tóibín novel this film is classy, visually stunning and filled with characters that are more than three-dimensional. It is wonderful!

The story is important so I won't give anything away. The narrative centres on the development of the main character Eilis, who is in every scene. From mousey country girl to confident city dweller the transformation is both remarkable and believable.

In making such a move there is always a cost and the question becomes is Eilis willing to pay up. She leaves her home town because it is small and filled with small-town characters. She wants more. However, when Eilis uses the things she has learned in Brooklyn to help her take another look at her home town on a return visit, she begins to see the possibilities for a different, possibly brighter future for herself back in Ireland. Will she stay or will she go?

There are of course complicating familial factors and love interests that entangle her heart strings. It is how she untangles these and comes to understand their importance within her relationships that gives the film its central thrust and helps Eilis to make meaning that enables her to set a course to follow. This process is undertaken with lots of hand-held screen-filling close ups of Ronan's face as she emotes her way through this painful process.

The soundtrack of this film is wonderful and adds weight to the poignancy of each scene. Julie Waters is wonderfully cast as Mrs Kehoe running her boarding house for young ladies. The colours reinforce the contrast of the mood of the two contexts - muted and misty brown/greens for Ireland and bright eye-popping pastels for Brooklyn and Coney Island. Both Jim Broadbent and Domhnall Gleeson contribute strong supporting performance - but the centre stage belongs to Ronan.

This is a lovely and gentle love story about hope, courage, honour, potential and dreaming of a new life. It is brilliantly acted and wonderfully shot. It is a film that you should see if you've not already done so. There is much to reflect on here about relationships, love, family and the power of 'home'. I'll give it 8/10.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

High Rise

Starring the ubiquitous Tom Hiddleston I thought that this would be a safe bet as a good movie to watch. Besides it was a cover feature in the April 2016 edition of Sight & Sound. I should have twigged that as I watched a couple of trailers for upcoming horror films before the main feature, that High Rise was going to be a challenge. Tasha Robinson reviewing the film in The Verge said "In J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, the metaphor eats the story and Tom Hiddleston eats the metaphor". I'm not sure I fully understand her comment - but then I'm pretty sure I didn't understand all of the film either! But it seems about right for me.

I understand that Ballard's novel is an important piece of literature that has social, historical and political capital. I thought I understood the premise of the novel going into the film - coming out I wasn't so sure I did at all. What could have been an in depth thought provoking exploration of class structure and aspiration in a free-market economy descended into a dark place that only delivered an expose of nihilism. If you value life - don't watch this film! Not even the acting performances - and they were good - redeem this film.

Dr Laing (Hiddleston) attempts to escape the rat race of the city and applies to move into the High Rise. His application is accepted and he moves into apartment 2505 in this 40 storey block. Designed by the architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) the block, built in the early 1970s, is a self-contained society with the lower classes on the lower floors and the architect occupying the entire top floor penthouse. The block contains a gym, swimming pool and supermarket - but residents still have to go out to work - all driving their late 60s and early 70s cars (wonderful nostalgia!). The basic activity is to throw parties that are resonant in style with the social status of the floor the host occupies. On the lower floors it is disco, booze and drugs. In the penthouse it is regency fancy dress! In any case, the thing they have in common is much booze and much bonking.

Laing is clearly a man who presents one thing on the outside and lives another on the inside (don't we all?). In this sense Hiddleston delivers a strong performance. His sister has recently committed suicide and he has also recently divorced. His grey suits, grey character and in time his grey flat all point to someone happy with their status in the mid levels who is merely seeking a degree of anonymity.

As the story progresses the infrastructure of the block begins to fail and sends the residents into a mirroring downward spiral. Anarchy and class wars break out and the film descends into a drunken, violent, abusive orgy.  A state it seems to celebrate and wallow in for far too long. I'm used to confronting dystopian apocalyptic worlds but they usually contain some element of hope. High Rise is devoid of hope and presents only self-gratification as a valid way to live. Some of the roles of the women in the film - and the children, offer occasional glimpses of hope of things being otherwise, but in the end everyone turns to violence. Why did the film have to end with an archive speech from Margaret Thatcher about Free Market Capitalism and the need for the government's not to interfere?

Several folk walked out. I almost joined them and afterwards wished I had. I'm all for exploring ideas that push boundaries but this film is a waste of time and effort - and the £22 I spent on tickets. Why it only had a 15 Certification I do not understand. Parts were brutal beyond belief. This is a film you do not need to see. I'm not even going to give it a score!

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Lars and the Real Girl

This film can be watched on different levels (can't they all?) For those with eyes to see that enable them to get past an oddball goofy comedy, this film is a gift as it offers an invitation to reflect on why we have become the person we are - and what we might work at - if we feel the need. It is impossible to discuss this film in any way without revealing what happens - but I think that won't detract much from seeing it for the first time as the mastery is in how it is done.

Set in a remote town on the Wisconsin prairie with a population the majority of whom seem to have Scandinavian ancestry, this is a tender tale that sees Ryan Gosling in the lead role as Lars Lindstrom. The first time I have seen him play a role I liked. What the film points out, and for this it made it an uncomfortable watch for me, is how much we are a product of our family and our upbringing. To engage with this film requires us to reflect on how we have become who we are.

Lars's mother died delivering him. His father could not escape the grief this caused and lived his life deeply affected by it. Consequently Lars and his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) had a difficult upbringing - I imagine Lars felt a strong sense of guilt. Gus left home at the first opportunity to escape the brooding darkness of a continuing grief, leaving Lars with dad. Following the death of their father, Gus lives in the former family home with his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) and Lars, who has become a withdrawn and an almost completely socially dysfunctional internalised man, lives in the garage.

Lars is unable to touch as to him the touch of other people feels like burning - perhaps stemming from his father's all-consuming grief? He is fearful for the fate of his sister-in-law who is pregnant and in his view may die. He is unable to act within normal social parameters and at the opening of the film cannot commit to even going across to the house of Gus and Karin to have breakfast. Lars is however a regular worshipper at the local church where many of the congregation are also co-workers from his office. (It's a pity there's no exploration or explanation of how Lars is able to hold down a job.)

Lars shares a cubicle with Kurt (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) who through the internet introduces him to an anatomically fully functional sex doll that can be designed and ordered online. Meanwhile another co-worker, Margot (Kelli Garner) clearly is attracted to Lars despite his odd behaviour, but he is unable or unwilling to see this.

Then one day a large packing case is delivered to the garage containing 'Bianca' - a former missionary, raised by nuns, very religious, who is half Brazilian, half Danish. Lars interacts with Bianca as though she were real. To begin with this is very difficult as he takes her, in her wheelchair, to have supper with Gus and Karin. Lars interacts with Bianca much as a child would bend to listen to imaginary speech which is then relayed to those gathered around. Things are okay while Bianca's existence is contained within the home but when Lars begins taking her out problems occur!

Gus and Karin arrange a family meeting with the doctor - Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) who happens to also be a trained psychologist. Knowing the family and recognising what is going on, she goes along with things subjecting Bianca to a series of tests resulting in a diagnosis requiring a weekly treatment in her surgery - which is the pretext to help Lars process what is going on. I am told by someone who knows about such things that Bianca performs the role of Transitional Object for Lars and sure enough in time he begins to socialise, take Bianca to parties, she becomes well known around town, gets a part time job and visits folk in hospital.

The community come together to help Lars emerge from his cocoon and grow in confidence and the ability to interact socially. Love is costly and that motif is repeated throughout the film - but as is the case with love, the cost is willingly borne sacrificially both by family and the wider community.

One evening Lars declares that Bianca is unresponsive and sick, he calls 911 and Bianca is rushed to hospital by ambulance where the prognosis is not good. Some of the older women come to the house to knit, cook for Lars and keep him company. He asks them why they are there and gets the response "That's what they [people] do when tragedy strikes - they come and sit". After a while, Lars declares that Bianca has died. She is buried with all the townsfolk in attendance and so the death of Bianca enables the rebirth of Lars.

This film has so much going for it - and it's only 102 minutes long so it doesn't string things out for the sake of it. There is much to reflect on.

  • How families and communities can help those it is in their power to help. 
  • How important it can be to help on the terms of those who need the help rather than the help-giver.
  • The usefulness of psychological insight and transitional objects.
  • A positive portrayal of a clergy person in Revd Bock (R. D. Reid).
  • How honesty in relationships can establish a good foundation for growth and development.
  • The film avoids any mocking of Lars and also any smuttiness around Bianca's intended function.
  • Lars' honourable treatment of Bianca.

Alissa Simon of Variety stated, "Craig Gillespie's sweetly off-kilter film plays like a Coen brothers riff on Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon tales, defying its lurid premise with a gentle comic drama grounded in reality." That is a very apt description. This film only just clawed back its production costs at the box office and through disc sales. I'm glad I have contributed to the process and would encourage you to do the same - perhaps we have a cult sleeper here!  I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Eye in the Sky

This is an intelligent piece of cinema that engages with a pressing contemporary issue. The film invites you to be the decision-maker as to whether or not the trigger is pulled. I saw it with a bunch of friends and the debate over pizza afterwards was intense.

Filmed in South Africa but set mainly in Kenya the story follows a British led drone surveillance operation tracking some of Al Shabab's most wanted in the hope of capturing them alive. Among their number are both British and American nationals. The mission changes and the film tracks, in real time, the chain of decision-making that tries to integrate military, intelligence and political imperatives to deliver an outcome. The plot offers an exploration of normative ethics in a real-life situation as utilitarianism is employed to justify certain actions.

The military imperative is clear but the potential for collateral damage means that political decisions are not easy. Meanwhile, a drone pilot in a cabin in the Nevada desert sits with his finger poised on the trigger taking orders from a UK Colonel in Northwood in North London while she is receiving intelligence from Hawaii and liaising with troops on the ground in Nairobi. Her General is in a COBRA meeting in Whitehall with the politicians ensuring that any proposed action is legal. Going into the meeting the General is preoccupied with buying the right doll for a little girl. It is another little girl and her playful activities that come to be the centre of the plot.

The acting is tight. The way the edits jump between the different locations demonstrate how global, warfare now is. The film also drives home how clinical and focused warfare today has become and how sci-fi has become mainstream as a man in Las Vegas targets people in one room of a house in a Nairobi suburb. In a way it makes it even more detached from my reality than 'old-fashioned' warfare with fronts and armies and arrows on maps. If we live in a democracy we are in effect asking these people to carry out these killings on our behalf. The alternative is equally distressing. The morals of war are being muddied as new technologies make surgically precise missions more possible. That surely is a good thing - isn't it?

Helen Mirren is in the lead role as Colonel Katherine Powell and in his final performance Alan Rickman gives full force to his character Lieutenant General Frank Benson. His voice as he delivers the final speech to the simpering politician Angela Northman "Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war."(Monica Dolan) could cut through plate steel like a laser!

The screenplay offers a contrasting view of how men and women, politicians and military, Americans and Brits all approach the same difficult question. The part of Powell had originally been cast for a male actor but Mirren makes it all her own in her combat fatigues in her underground bunker barking orders at her subordinates. Had it not been for Northman's early intervention the film would have been a lot a shorter. The British politicians are depicted as being impotent and facile whilst the Americans are shown to be decisive and unwavering. For those with an interest in personality types, the main debate explores the tension between those who have a preference for being 'Feelers' and those whose preference is to be a 'Thinker'!

The film is not without its flaws but these are more than compensated for in the bravery of tackling this subject in such a direct and engaging way. I really liked it and will be adding it to my collection of discs when it becomes available. Do go and see it - and think about how happy you are that people in the Nevada Desert are protecting your safety by killing people in Kenya. Sadly a scenario becoming increasingly common around our shrunken globe. I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 18 April 2016

American Sniper

The fact that this film was nominated in six categories for an Oscar and won only one in the sound editing category probably sums up what this film's main problem is - it somehow fails to deliver what it truly promises. In saying that I am in no way minimising the horrors of war or the sacrifice of too many (on all sides) who have fought in and been impacted by them. Bradley Cooper is in the lead role of Chris Kyle and delivers a performance worthy of his Oscar nomination. There is an even stronger performance from Sienna Miller as his long suffering wife, Taya.

The story is biographical - painfully so. There are no real winners in war. The story really begins with a young Kyle growing up with his younger brother in Texas. The film briefly and crudely shows his father instilling in him the virtue of protecting your own at all costs. It also shows the young Kyle is quite a marksman with a hunting rifle. These scenes reminded me strongly of the family dynamics in Tree of Life. Kyle grows up riding broncos on the Texas rodeo circuit - and doing well from it. He exalts that he is living the American dream. The film is Directed by Clint Eastwood who leans towards a jingoistic, patriotic view of American identity. Not something that looks altogether appealing, particularly in light of the current Presidential nomination contests!

All is well until 9/11 and Kyle's immediate response is to enlist at the age of 29 so that he can protect his own. He joins the SEALS to train as a sniper. He survives the brutal boot camp training and along the way hitches up with the intriguing, beautiful and inscrutable Taya. On his wedding day he gets the order to deploy to Iraq.

Many commentators who served in Iraq commend the film for its realistic portrayal of the horror of door-to-door close combat warfare where everyone has to be viewed as a potential enemy and where even children wield RPG launchers. The film paints a picture of a theatre of war where the individual soldier is left to make the moral judgement of when to pull the trigger. The only time there appears to be any institutional morality is when there are US casualties and an investigation is needed to discover how they happened.

The film throws up lots of moral and ethical issues and depicts a form of warfare that is messy, spontaneous and unequal. It creates a universal 'us versus them' scenario where grey doesn't exist and everything is rendered in high-contrast black and white. It also comes full circle in that Kyle's mission becomes the elimination of an Al Qaeda sniper who is becoming too successful in eliminating American servicemen. It is like a parallel rodeo or hunting confrontation. Who will win?

What the film does portray extensively and with great sensitivity is the effect that operating in such theatres of war can have on the combatants. Becoming America's deadliest sniper not only attracted a $180,000 bounty placed on his head by Al Qaeda, but through PTSD turned Kyle into a distracted, insular and absent human being. This is where Sienna Miller's performance is so good. Her patient loyalty to the husband she loves sustains her when he returns home and his behaviour is barely recognisable. Everyday sounds transport him in an instant back to the theatre of war when pneumatic wrenches are heard as weapons of torture and a lawn mower becomes the sound of an attack helicopter. War changes people.

I won't say any more about the story - I don't think I've spoiled things too much in what I've said above. What the film does show is the terrible cost in collateral damage that modern warfare seems to rack up without really trying. It also shows a self-justifying set of rules of engagement where perceiving a threat is taken to be sufficient justification for killing anyone. A sniper fights a clinically detached war 1000 yards from his victim. It also shows an 'enemy' who does not operate by traditional 'Western values' of warfare and is happy to coerce children and women into war through torture and threat. Two blind ideologies going head-to-head cannot have a good outcome.

Whilst this film has many parts that are excellent and worthy of engagement, as a piece of drama it also has many flaws. For me this makes it simply 'another war film' as Hollywood tries to justify an unjustifiable war. Great performances from the two leads but in the end not a film I need to see again. I'll give it 6/10.

Saturday, 12 March 2016


Parts of me are still numb more than 24 hours after watching the film. As a priest I have been bruised and battered by the story that this film unfolds. I wanted to stress that I am not Catholic - but that only points to my empty selfishness and does nothing to offer any salve to the wounds - on both sides - that are still open and raw. What a painful mess. If you don't know what the subject of the film is, it is a film about a team of journalists uncovering the systematic abuse of a very large number of children by Catholic priests in the archdiocese of Boston over many years. It transpires that the abuse was widespread - globally.

The film is as good as the story is bad. To have won Oscars for Best Film and Best Original Screenplay is truly fitting - but the accolades in other halls are the ones that will matter more to the cast, to the real life journalists on the Boston Globe Spotlight team and to the victims. In any other year Mark Ruffalo who played Mike Rezendes, would have won Best Actor hands down. A gripping and passionately absorbing performance. Stanley Tucci (Mitchell Garabedian) and Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeifer) along with Michael Keaton  (Walter 'Robby' Robinson) also gave stand out performances - as did Liev Schreiber playing the introvert and understated Editor Marty Baron.

I cannot remember when two hours and eight minutes last passed so quickly. The dramatic tension, pace and development of the narrative are brilliantly maintained in a consistent and believable way. It would have been so easy for the film to have become a condemning sermon, or simply a vehicle for character assassination or to have gloried in the Spotlight Team, but it is none of these. It is never without drama, but because it is based on real events, it has an almost fly-on-the-wall documentary feel to it. It is the story which drives the film forward as it offers an exemplar of investigative journalism at its best.

The film offers a number of challenges:
  • It challenges those who hold office in the church to reflect on how they discharge their responsibilities, profession and vocation.
  • It challenges those who collude with a bullying institution that finds coping strategies whilst brushing grotesque abuses under the carpet.
  • It challenges the community of a city for its implicit part in something scandalous that placed cultural heritage mixed in with God's Church above God's love and in so doing challenges us all to not follow suit.
  • It challenges Editors to be free to back the hunches of journalists they trust and to allocate resources to stories that need to be told.
  • It challenges the abused to take courage and find a way of speaking out.
  • It challenges society to find ways of helping people who are scarred for life, some of whom are unable to function normally in their relationships.
  • It challenges governments who do not allow freedom of the press.
The original response of the Catholic Church was to shuffle the pack to seemingly promote the Cardinal at the centre of policy of the toleration. It is obviously not something that would be promoted publicly whilst underway, but I hope that under Pope Francis reforms are underway to ensure this never happens again. He tweeted recently "God has caressed us with his mercy. Let us bring God’s tender caress to others, to those who are in need." There are enough people in need in the world without the Church creating more - and I know this isn't restricted to just the Catholic Church.

As painful as this film is, it is important that its story is told. As a film, it's top drawer in almost every respect. I think it will retain its status and place among the best of modern films. I will certainly be adding the disc to my collection - but will have to choose carefully the company in which I watch it! As a film, fully deserving of 9/10.