Sunday, 28 March 2010

Trois couleurs: Blanc / Three Colours White

The second in the trilogy deals with the subject of equality and presents us with a black comedy. Although the film starts in Paris, most of it is set in Poland.There is both a light-hearted and also darker more sinister quality about "White". In his review of the trilogy, Rober Ebert interprets this film as an anti-comedy, in parallel with Blue being an anti-tragedy and Red being an anti-romance. An interesting and plausible concept. As with Blue, the colour white is used to reinforce concepts of the story-line. The achievement of orgasm, the arrival home in Poland. It is also interesting to note that Julie from Bleu tries to enter the courtroom as the main characters case is being heard. In Blue, we see this from the other side of the door. Elderly people recycling bottles also seems to be a theme - I'll try to pick that up in my review of Red when I get there!

Karol is a Polish hairdresser - an inconspicuous and anonymous looking man who lacks self-esteem. He has however married the beautiful but cold-hearted Dominique who because she is less than satisfied with Karol's performance in bed (what is it with the French?), she divorces him. This leaves him homeless, penniless and hopeless.

He meets Mikolaj - a fellow Pole - on the underground platform as Karol is busking, playing the comb and paper. The pair strike up a conversation. Throughout the film when a light-hearted moment is shown, a dark overtone is also present. For example, when Karol tells Mikolaj of his beautiful wife, he voyeuristically points her silhouette out through an apartment window, only to discover upon phoning her, that she is in bed with another man - she puts the phone to her mouth and moans as loudly as she can to emphasise Karol's failure.

Through extremely comedic circumstances Karol returns to his former home in Poland with his brother. Karol resolves to change his circumstances and rather than cutting hair works for a local wide-boy engaged in scams and sharp deals. By tricking this guy, Karol buys up land that he wants to buy as he knows a developer wants to build there and the price will rocket. Coming close being killed, Karol makes enough money to set up in business and invites Mikolaj to become his partner. Together they operate a very successful import/export business and Karol becomes very wealthy.

Karol then plots to stage his own death by buying a corpse from a Russian trucker - you can buy anything Mikolaj tells him. Having changed his will so that his considerable wealth goes to his ex-wife, he then stages his funeral which of course Dominique attends. Karol watches on (to maintain the voyeurism motif) as Dominique cries at his grave-side.

As Dominique returns to her hotel she gets a shock to find Karol sitting up in bed waiting for her. After he has convinced that he is alive they then make love and Karol takes Dominique to places he's not taken her before. He gets up and leaves before she awakes and leaves to catch a plane to Hong Kong with a new false identity.

Dominique receives a visit from the Polish police who have received an anonymous tip-off (from Mikolaj) that Karol died in suspicious circumstances. Dominique of course protests that Karol is not dead but Mikolaj and Karol's driver both identify 'his' exhumed body and so Dominique is made to look both a liar and a fool.

Karol has made his millions and so proved he is more than an equal for Dominique. He has successfully made love to her in a more than satisfactory way. He plans to live a life of luxury on the other side of the world with a new identity and Dominique is under police suspicion. Game set and match? Not quite. The climax of the film sees Karol visiting the jail where Dominique is being held. Through her cell window, Dominique uses sign language to communicate with Karol. She tells him that she still loves him and is willing to marry him again, if she can get out of prison. Karol begins to cry, realizing that he too, despite achieving 'equality' with his ex-wife, still loves her. He has succeeded - but the victory comes at an immense price for Karol.

This is a masterfully crafted piece of story-telling and whilst not as engaging as Blue, it is well worth the watch. Can't wait to see what Red is about! 

I'll give this 7/10.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Trois couleurs: Bleu / Three Colours Blue

Bathed in hues of deep blue which reinforce Julie's desolation and depression, this story is an exploration of the emotions of grief and the rebuilding of life after bereavement. Juliette Binoche's performance as the musically gifted Julie is as powerful as it is nuanced and subtle. The way in which she physically embodies grief and then seeks to expunge all reminders of her husband and daughter following their tragic and brutal death in a car crash, draws the viewer in and engages the emotions in a compelling way.

From her attempted overdose as she recovers in hospital to the stripping and abandonment of the family country mansion, you are always wondering if she is going to teeter over the brink and into psychosis and an ever deepening downward spiral.

Her attempt to withdraw from her former existence and begin anew, unknown to everyone, succeeds to begin with. However, some from her old life, as well as new acquaintances, slowly begin to demand things from her as they demonstrate their need of her and their commitment to engage with her and make themselves vulnerable. Julie battles these tensions as she seeks to establish a new sense of self-identity. The turning point comes when she tracks down a manuscript that her husband was working on - a magnum opus - for the unification of 12 states in Europe to be played simultaneously by 12 orchestras in the capital cities. It is the destruction of this manuscript that is the final act that frees her from her past.

In her new apartment in an old quarter in Paris, one of the other residents, Lucille, who works in a strip and sex club in Pigalle, is in need of Julie's support. The very fact that Julie responds is enough to give Lucille the encouragement she seeks. In the ensuing conversation Julie asks her why she does what she does. In response Lucille says "Because I like it." This seems to become a pivotal moment from which a new Julie begins to emerge - a Julie who gradually gets back in touch with emotions and her creativity and who, in a new way, begins to embrace life again.

Near the beginning of the film Julie turns to Olivier in her desolation in search of comfort. Olivier is a colleague of her husband whom she suspects has feelings for her which he freely admits to when asked directly. (It is worth noting that my wife feels Julie has been having an affair with Olivier.) It is with them both in his bed that the film ultimately ends. Another painful pin prick that awakens the emotions is the discovery by Julie that her husband has a mistress (what is it with the French?) who after the car accident discovers she is pregnant by him.

Julie never loses her humanity and consistently displays acts of kindness and compassion. She ensures her mother is taken care of in a very good nursing home and visits her periodically. Julie is frustrated that her mother believes her to be her mother's sister but accepts it as being down to her dementia.

This is the first film in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Trois Couleurs trilogy based on the French national flag and national motto Liberty, equality and fraternity. It explores the theme of liberty in Julie as she seeks an existence free from the emotional demands and ties of her past life. She seeks independence and an existence that is indebted to no-one and is devoid of the distractions of love, grief and other emotions.

It is a powerful enactment of story. I am looking forward to white and red!

I'll give it 8/10.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly

A touching and engaging story based on the true-life account of a French fashion magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Jean-Do) who suffered a massive stroke leaving his body paralysed - except for his left eye. He loved fast cars, the high life and the adulation that being a top fashion editor brought. To see a man so much at the top of his game vocationally, relationally and in terms of popular acclaim brutally cut down by the cruel arbitrariness of a stroke is a sobering encounter. He is estranged from Celine "the mother of his children", he obviously has other lovers. His children were devoted to him and in turn he was devoted to his father (Max Von Sydow popping up again - how many films has this man made?).

The senior consultant looking after Jean-Do has the bedside manner of an insensitive porcupine on a bad day. "I am in charge of your case and it is my job to tell you the bad news..." The team of nurses and therapists who care for Jean-Do show wonderful tenderness, love and commitment above and beyond the call of duty - especially his physiotherapist Marie and his speech therapist Henriette. Even though Jean-Do suffers the frustration of having 'Locked-in Syndrome' he manages to communicate by blinking when the correct letter is recited, enabling him to spell words. 

There is even room for humour on several occasions best exemplified when Josephine models how he should try to move his tongue and how he should try to blow her a kiss. In close-up this all looks too much like an invitation of another kind and poor Jean-Do can barely contain himself. 

Jean-Do refuses to give in and looks on his unresponsive body as a Diving Bell that imprisons him. The things that are not paralysed are his memories and his imagination - a Butterfly - which he manages to combine to great effect taking him on soaring journeys across  mountains and deserts. A recurring theme is the faith of those around him - particularly his daughter Celine and Marie. They along with many others, faithfully pray for Jean-Do's healing - a miracle. He remains unconvinced by the possibility of a miracle. 

When Josephine takes him to mass at the local church, she and the priest offer to take him to Lourdes which triggers memories of a past visit with a former lover for whom he bought a flashing statuette of the Blessed Virgin. Back in the hotel with Mary plugged in and brightly flashing, Jean-Do is unprepared to continue with the intimacies he was anticipating and the girl refuses to turn the flashing virgin off. Another great moment of ironic humour.

Before the stroke, Jean-Do had negotiated a publishing deal for a book - a version of the Count of Monte Cristo. He resolved to write a book dictating the text by the fluttering of his eye lid to a patient and attentive girl Claude, sent by the publisher. In his thoughts he tells us that a "text is not alive until it's read". Perhaps that helps to answer the question 'if a tree falls down in the middle of a wood and no-one is there to hear it does it still make a noise?'.

it is Celine who devotes her time and life to being with Jean-Do. She handles the incoming phone calls which Jean-Do listens to on speaker-phone and responds to by blinking through the special alphabet devised by Henriette which lists the letters in the order of the frequency of usage: ESARINTULOMDPCFBVHGJQZYXKW.

Jean-Do's book is published but he sadly dies 6 days later from pneumonia and complications.

This is a compelling story, well told and well acted. The ability to depict the Pas de Calais coastline as both warm an inviting and also cold and repelling to suit the mood of the story is masterfully done. To present the Marine Hospital of Berck-sur-Mer as an institution or warmth and humanity conveys a connection with Jean-Do's humanity that leaves viewers feeling they have been touched by the life that refuses to give in - a life that still has a contribution to make.

I recommend this film - get a copy if you can. I'll give it 7.5/10.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - again

I liked this film so much - I'm going to see it again this afternoon!

Harbour Lights Southampton 14:10.


I have to say that seeing it for a second time in five days made an even stronger impact - even though I knew what was coming. I think this film is a first-class piece of cinema. It was a full 1 hour 45 minutes when I looked at my watch for the first time! Very good - go see it.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Shutter Island

Where to start with this one? I think viewers will either love this or hate it. I didn't love it. I think my son summed it up well when he said great beginning, the middle was an hour too long and it has a crap ending. Perhaps I didn't like being out manoeuvred by the plot. Perhaps I feel I should have seen it coming and because I didn't, I'm not prepared to admit that Scorsese is cleverer than me.

The acting is very good and Scorsese's direction is excellent. Set in the 1950's the costumes and sets give a sense of reality to the setting. The weather effects and the location positively contribute a lot to the story. It is gritty, maintains suspense levels well but ultimately fails because the conclusion is implausible or, in my view, something that doesn't satisfy.(Having paid £8 I was looking for satisfaction!)

It is reminiscent of Papillon in some ways, but tells a story that pays homage to One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and A Beautiful Mind. Apart from flashbacks, all the action takes place on shutter Island - a mental institution for the criminally insane. One of the 'patients' has gone missing and the US Marshall's are called in to investigate - Daniels played by DiCaprio and Aule played by Mark Ruffalo. The investigation repeatedly meets a brick wall in the form of Sir Ben Kingsley who plays the role of  chief Psychiatrist Dr Cawley. He is ably assisted by Max Von Sydow playing Dr. Naehring who is his menacing self.

The institution has three wards: A for men, B for women and C for the most dangerous patients. Access to ward C is forbidden. Daniels is convinced that the Doctors are conducting experiments on the patients and tries to uncover what they are doing. Central to his investigation is the lighthouse which is just off-shore and can only be reached at low tide.  Daniels is certain that it is here the surgery is being done. Will he make to the lighthouse?

I won't say any more for fear of spoiling the plot. It is engaging, it is too long and for me the ending is unsatisfactory. Others disagree as is currently scoring it at 8.1/10 with nearly 40,000 votes and Rotten Tomatoes gives it 67% from 215 reviews. Go and see it and make up your own mind!

I'll give it 6/10

Saturday, 20 March 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


Finally made it to the cinema last night to see this with my wife. My wife has read all three of Stieg Larsson's novels in the trilogy. I haven't read any of them. She said this film follows the book more closely than any other book-based film she has seen. She was impressed. The film is sometimes advertised under its Swedish title 'Män som hatar kvinnor' (Men Who Hate Women).

This film is as horrific as it is brilliant. I will endeavour to explain and try not to spoil the plot. Central to the plot within two of the stories that unfold is sexual abuse - this includes abuse of children. Although the detail of what takes place is never seen, you are left in no doubt about what has just happened. The film certainly doesn't glamorise it and whilst it is an important piece of the crime-solving jigsaw, the central story is about finding out what happened to someone who disappeared 40 years ago.

The central character Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a left-wing journalist who is hired to investigate the disappearance. The man doing the hiring uses a Security Agency to snoop on Bomkvist to ensure he is clean and up for the job. Not only is he clean but he's shown to be idealistic and naive. This sets up a relationship of stark contrast when he teams up with the secretive and uber-streetwise Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She was the operative used by the Security Agency to profile Bomkvist. Lisbeth has many qualities - not least a razor-sharp mind and an eye for detail together with extensive computer-hacking abilities. She adds the edge to the investigative partnership.

The film runs for just over 2.5 hours but is so well paced, the time simply flew by. There is plenty of action and the locations depict Sweden in ways that we don't often see. Gritty city underpasses where drunken yobs intimidate unsuspecting pedestrians and the opulence of Swedish corporate success and secretive dysfunctional family dynasties living in large mansions in remote country locations. There are clues along the way about where the story may be heading - but there are an equal number of red herrings to throw you off the scent. You are invited to pick your suspect in classic 'whodunnit' style - but of course you'll be wrong.

Yes the sexual violence is strong in one or two places. But this is not so much a story about that, as about hope, longing, betrayal, violation, love, intimacy, greed, justice, revenge and redemption. It is a story about the human condition.

The story is grippingly told, it is full on, it is engaging. The cinematography is first-class in every way. The acting is superb. The locations sensitively under-gird each scene. We saw a Swedish version with sub-titles which after a couple of hours did detract from viewing the main image. I understand there is a dubbed version on release - it might be better, but then you would not hear the intonation and inflection in the actors voices. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Neither multiplex in our local town was showing this. We ended up going to a local Independent Cinema which whilst homely was not ideal in terms of noise pollution from outside and seats raked too shallowly. This is a Swedish release by Momentum Pictures and as such doesn't receive the same distribution as the big boys are able to achieve. Pity.

I understand that a Hollywood version is in pre-production starring George Clooney. This is also a pity as there is no way it will be able to come near to this version. A 90 minute version would have to miss out too many key elements of plot development that it would render it facile by comparison. The Swedes have the others in the trilogy already 'in the can' The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - I hope they gain wider critical acclaim and greater publicity than this film has received.

If you can stomach the hard scenes - go and see it! You will be rewarded.

I'll stick my neck out and give this 9/10.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

No movies for a week!

I need to slow down!

I have more movies new and unwatched on DVD than my shelf can accommodate! There are films at the cinema I want to see!

So many movies. So little time.

I need to sort myself out!

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Oscar results

I guess 2 out of 5 isn't so good. I have nothing against Sandra Bullock, but I really do think Meryl Streep was worthy of a win for her role as Julia Childs. I'm glad Christoph Waltz won - another very strong performance.

I haven't see The Hurt Locker yet - I don't doubt it's a good film but you have to question whether or not there was sympathy vote or a 'PC' element to it's strong showing. James Cameron must be gutted!

A strong year for the movie industry - why is it still centred in Hollywood when only 5-6 big films a year are made there?

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Oscar predicitons


What do I know?
Just for fun here's my predicitions:

Best film: Avatar
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges
Best supporting: Christoph Waltz
Best Actress: Meryl Streep
Best supporting: Vera Farmiga

What do you think? I'll catch it in the morning!

Reel Issues - Free access


I have an interest in how films can be read as a text through a theological lens. In saying this, I am not stating that every film has a theological or even spiritual intent behind it. However, if reflecting on the world around us discloses something of the Creator and the creative power that is at large in the world. It also helps to reflect on humanity and the human condition and if we are made in the image of God, that too can show something of Him. End of sermon.

As part of this, from time-to-time I write studies of films for the Bible Society. The studies were available on a subscription only basis - but now there is free access. The Reel Issues website contains a number of studies spanning a wide range of films. Check them out.

The ones I've written are:
  • 16 Blocks
  • Henry Poole is here
  • Julie & Julia
  • No Country for Old Men
  • The Simpsons Movie
  • V for Vendetta
Do take a look.

O Brother, where art thou? - The Coen's redeemed

I thought it only fair to give the Coen Brothers an opportunity to redeem themselves - and they did! This is a creative and stylish retelling of Homer's Odyssey set in Depression-hit Mississippi of the 1930's. George Clooney is tethered to two other convicts in a chain gang when he makes his escape. The three of them go in search of a pot of gold. Of course they never find gold - not in a literal sense anyway. But as with any 'road movie' - it's the journey that counts.

There are good characterisations from Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson. The many temptations and snares that befall Homer are re-presented in creative interpretations. The Sirens of the rocks are particularly convincing - especially when they turn Pete into a Horny Toad!

This movie has all the quirky hall marks of the Coen brothers in how they twist and retell stories that are familiar. Narrative and attention to detail are important to them. The use of the expansive and empty wastelands of Mississippi provide great impact. The reminder that the fugitives are never far from the law is driven home as they repeatedly encounter chain gangs. The encounter with the KKK is theatrical and well choreographed, even if their escape from them  is a little far-fetched.

The soundtrack is wonderful with a great range of country, blues, bluegrass, gospel and a dozen other forms of music all fused into an accompaniment that adds weight to an already weighty film.

I'd not seen this before - but I'd gladly see it again. I'll give it 7.5/10