Saturday, 31 March 2012

War Horse

I don't know if you've ever kept some honey for too long so that when you come to use it, it almost defies gravity as it gloopily drips from the jar? Such is the sentimentality with which this film drips from the screen as it sets up one potentially heart-wrenching climax after another as it spoon-feeds the viewer clue after clue about where the story is going next. I didn't enjoy it.

Added to which I felt there were real problems with the lighting and some of the shot angles. The Disneyfication of Dartmoor happens amid random acts of lighting with seemingly infinitely variable shadow effects between adjoining shots. The stereotyping of gentry and serf is done with no sensitivity and you instinctively know that both the horse and his owner will survive and be reunited at the end of the war. Of course the work of the story is to get to that point but as I said I feel it is heavily flawed and the fact that it won none of the six Oscars it was nominated for may suggest others saw through it.

Spielberg consistently portrays the best and worst traits of human nature in his movies and this one is no exception. He also consistently champions the underdog and again this film delivers in spades. I have not read the original (children's) book or seen, what is by all accounts, the exceptional stage play but I wonder if they are as sickly sweet as the film? A reviewer on IMDb described it as Lassie meets Saving Private Ryan - I think that's a good call.

Yes this film shows triumph over adversity - again and again - it shows the horrors of war and the hope that exists for humanity in the midst of no-man's land. It contains very clever filming techniques as I presume that no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture. It also shows that when you are really up against it you need German engineered wire cutters to get out of trouble and it's always good to know a Pete from Dusseldorf!

Well - there you have it. As I'm sure you are by now aware, I'm not going to commend this to you. I know it's a 'marmite' film (you either love it or hate it) but I can't really give it any more than 5/10.


Perhaps watching this on a plane flying from London to New York is not the best thing? Steven Soderbergh's direction gives the film his usual strong visual signature which is enhanced by a heavy-weight cast who all contribute well to this ensemble piece.

This film could have been over spectacular or simply have had the feel of a docu-drama. However, it delivers a compelling dramatic representation of what an out of control virus rampaging across the globe might look like. Although it's a global problem it is of course the Americans who come to the rescue.

A deadly virus which kills in days emerges onto the world stage of global communications where people spread it faster than the media and health authorities can track it. A team of specialists from around the world are convened to tackle the problem as the death toll continues to rise dramatically. At one point the USA even runs out of body bags having to borrow some from Canada.

I won't spoil the plot for you except to say that the gravitas given to the film by the ensemble cast keeps the story moving at an even pace. Laurence Fishburne turns in a particularly fine performance as Dr Cheever - and it's always nice to see Kate Winslet.

What the story does raise is how easily something like this can happen in today's global village. We have already faced it with Bird Flu and H1N1 but by comparison with the virus in the film they were less potent although those sadly affected will still feel their full force. The film raises some interesting topics such as:

  • how do 'the authorities' prioritise those to be vaccinated first;
  • how much of the endeavour ro find a vaccine and manufacture enough to vaccinate the world is driven by philanthropy or profit;
  • the place of sacrifice for a higher cause;
  • the importance of a free press unconstrained by government;
  • the importance of hope;
  • how a crisis like this brings out the best and the worst in humanity.

I felt that this was a thoughtful, measured and reflective piece of cinema and would commend it whole-heartedly. My only proviso is to suggest avoid watching it when you're on a plane! I'll give it 7.5/10.

Friday, 30 March 2012

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Finally caught up with this 7 miles above the Atlantic heading West.

I think the first thing to note is the visual impact of the film which through motion capture presents us with an 'animation' that is very close to Hergé's comic book animation style (ligne claire). It is visually very rich and cleverly done.

The plot is very TinTin - a bit like an animated Indiana Jones. However, the film feels as though it's 20 minutes or so too long and at times drifts from one set-piece to another without really advancing the story - rather it just provides another opportunity for some slap-stick capers and another chance for TinTin or Haddock to get captured.

The casting is interesting. Jamie Bell in the lead role turns in a first class performance as do Pegg and Frost as the Thomson twins. Andy Serkis as Haddock sounds more like Ken Bruce from BBC Radio 2 which gave me a really odd transference of personas - although the beard fitted well. Sakharine was played by Daniel Craig but looked like an animated Timothy Dalton which was most odd and a distraction that didn't leave me throughout the film.

The plot is straight-forward and offers little food for analysis as it simply serves as a vehicle for TinTin and his chums to place yet another brigand behind bars. One question we might consider is 'is animated violence more 'acceptable' and what does that mean when the animation originates through motion capture?'. Just a thought.

This is nevertheless a faithful re-presentation of the phenomenon and an enjoyable watch. I'll give it 7/10.

Monday, 26 March 2012


Set in West Yorkshire amongst the Pakistani community in the early noughties, this film gives the viewer a privileged view of what it is to be on the other side. The script is handled with deftness and sensitivity as it portrays a picture of the clash of two cultures struggling to coexist.

Yasmin is the eldest daughter of widower Khalid who is a leading member of the community and a prominent member of the local mosque. To fulfil a family obligation, Yasmin has been forced to marry Faysal and to remain married for as long it takes him to gain right to reside in the UK. The marriage is never consummated and Yasmin loathes the goat herder who prefers to cook on a bonfire in the back yard rather use the stove in the kitchen.

Khalid runs a TV and Video repair shop and with his colleague laments the behaviour of the younger generation and their unwillingness to hold to traditional muslim and Koranic values. Nasser is Yasmin's 18 year old brother who sees little future for himself beyond performing the call to prayer for the mosque and then spending the day dealing drugs and engaging in casual sex for deals.

Yasmin lives two lives. Each day she drives to the city in her new red Golf convertible to work in Community Transport. En route each day she stops in a remote spot on one of the lanes and changes from her Hijab into jeans and T-Shirt. The reverse transformation takes place on the way home each day. At work John clearly has an interest in her and whilst many in the indigenous community openly demonstrate their hostility, John always takes her for who she is - until he learns she is legally married which he sees as a betrayal of his trust.

All is well until 9/11 transforms their community as the Police and Intelligence Agencies harras the local population looking for anyone with links to radical Islam. Faysal's second cousin runs a Madrassa in Pakistan and that's enough for Faysal to be arrested and placed in indefinite detention. The way in which the community are dealt with and the increasing harassment in the wake of 9/11 coalesce with the arrival of militant Islamic preachers seeking to recruit activists.

I won't explain what happens as that would spoil what is a completely believable story that has a real and authentic feel about it. The film begs questions about neighbourliness, about problems of assimilation and distinctiveness of immigrant communities, about racism, prejudice, marginalisation and a society that disempowers the marginalised and forces them into confrontation. It raises profound questions about the flip side of the coin of globalisation - it's alright to export 'us' to 'them', but don't expect 'them' to be able to import their distinctiveness to 'us'.

A gripping drama which I fear has more truth than fiction underpinning it. We need to be sensitive in the emerging mosaic that is contemporary culture. This film might just provide a way for those who watch it, to consider their contribution to the mix. What is interesting is that Yasmin is played by Archie Panjabi who is an Indian Hindu and Khalid is played by Renu Setna who is a Pakistani Zoroastrian!

Well worth the engagement - I'll give it 7.5/10.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012


In this contemporary reworking of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles Director Michael Winterbottom translates the story's context to modern day India setting the film in Rajasthan and Mumbai. This offering simplifies Hardy's original plot whilst taking the viewer on a journey that undulates between hope and despair. The title role is played by the beautiful Freida Pinto (Slumdog) and her suitor Jay by Riz Ahmed (Four Lions) who both turn in strong performances that draw you into the story.

Trishna's odyssey from the privations of large-family rural subsistance to the excesses of Bollywood film sets in Mumbai is an ultimately cruel and tragic journey. From humble beginnings with familial pressure for her to turn main provider and where she has very little, to a context in which everything seemed possible and within her grasp, Trishna's naivetĂ© allows her to follow her heart rather than her head which leads to ultimately tragic consequences. How much of a past a secret life should we share with those closest to us? As Trishna journey's through the three different contexts - rural Rajasthan, luxury hotels and Mumbai, so each one is accompanied by a markedly different score which helps to differentiate the way in which they contribute to the unfolding narrative.

Jay is depicted as being neither fully at home in either his native British culture or adopted Indian culture. What is clear is that he enjoys the trappings of wealth provided by his millionaire businessman father as he lives out a modern day parable of the prodigal with its hedonism and excesses. The way in which Hardy's original plot devices are translated into this new setting is cleverly done and delivers a believable and compelling set of circumstances.

As with the original, the main male character undergoes a radical transformation that sees his infatuation and gentle caring love for Trishna become an abusive and violent lust-filled relationship of sexual domination. The meandering and unevenly paced story throws up a host of moral questions that are simply presented leaving the viewer to process them and arrive at their own conclusion. The film beautifully pits traditional Indian values up against the creeping Westernisation of an emerging Indian sub-culture. It explores love and tracks it into lust and Karma Sutra inspired abuse. It also presents a portrayal of wealth and privilege passing from one generation to another with the younger generation seemingly unable, or simply unwilling, to embrace the older generation's values and ideals.

The vibrant cinematography presents a portrait of in-your-face India that is as alluring as it is alien. The soundtrack paints a mindscape to help disentangle the different contexts in which the story plays out - as Trishna returns home for the final time, the soundtrack delivers a haunting lament for what might have been. The actors deliver strong and compelling performances. The plot is filled with drama with many twists and turns as it holds out a vision of hope for the life Trishna and Jay have within their grasp. Sadly, as in Hardy's original, the ultimate transformation sees it all come to nothing.

This is a film to watch to appreciate the journey rather than marvel at the destination. The acting performances are strong and we are sure to see more of Pinto and Ahmed. The locations are seductive in and of themselves. The multiplicity of moral and ethical questions the film throws up make it ripe for ongoing reflection and discussion. All-in-all a very good film that will repay the investment of your time to watch it. I'll give 7.5/10.

Saturday, 17 March 2012


In just 10 days time I shall be amongst the gothic skyscrapers that form such a natural backdrop for this ghost-fest that pits science-fantasy against Ancient Near East heavyweight supernatural demigods. Nearly 30 years-old this classic comedy still holds its own. The conceptualisation, the script and a tour-de-force performance from Bill Murray all ensure that this film not only deservedly gained cult status but is able to hold its own in the top league of cinema - even today.

The special effects are of their time - but then the whole film is so they don't look out of place! There are one or two scenes that are still scary - especially the fridge from hell! The sets and props all fit together so well - the archetypal library, the anonymous university with it's anonymous academics, the boiler suits and cheesy nuclear backpacks, a green blobby ghoul, the refurbished fire station and of course the recycled ambulance - an inspired cocktail of ingredients.

The story manages to draw on the cultic worship of ancient Sumerian deities which is set against quotations from the Book of Revelation that give an appropriately apocalyptic feel as the film builds towards its climax. The bringer of doom is a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (obviously meaningfully significant in the USA) who in wreaking havoc stamps on a church. It is this act rather than any of the other random acts of destruction that seems to motivate our heroes to finally see off their adversaries and "cross the streams" to destroy Gozer once and for all.

Why is this film so enduring? There are still fancy dress and sing-a-long screenings taking place around the country. It was the biggest grossing comedy of the 1980's and that was against tough opposition. On IMDb it achieves a rating of 7.8/10 from more than 120,000 users. The theme tune remains evergreen and has even been resurrected for use in a UK TV commercial. The dialogue has given us enduring quotes - "We came, we saw, we kicked its ass" and "I've been slimed". The fire station has even been resurrected by Volkswagen's See Film Differently campaign.

This is still a plain good fun film. It has stood the test of time and delivers plenty of laughs. If you've not seen it, please do. If you've not seen it recently, it's time to see it again. I'll give it 8/10 - a great film!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Eyes Wide Open

Caught up with this on DVD. Is it really just a film about gay orthodox Jews or is there more to it? There's more to it - a lot more.

Aaron Fleischman (Zohar Strauss) has just buried his father and takes over the family Kosher Butchers shop n the Mea Shearim district. He advertises for an assistant and Ezri (Ran Danker) turns up and bags the job. Why Ezri has turned up in Jerusalem is unclear but it seems he is hiding something. Ezri has been expelled from a Yeshiva where he was studying the teachings of the Jewish faith. He has returned to Jerusalem in search of his former male lover.

The film's pace is often very slow - but this adds to the sense of drama and the development of the emotional aspect of the storyline which is handled very creatively by the cast and Director (Haim Tabakman). The film also handles the dynamics of the Haredi Community and Synagogue life which depicts Aaron as a prominent student in the local Yeshiva . 

As the Rabbi teaches a form of restrained liberalism - if it feels good do it - so Aaron's bisexuality is awakened by Ezri and they begin a physical relationship. Aaron yields to temptation, but not without having doubt. “How did I get there?” he whispers to himself. The community begin to suspect and initially gentle questions are raised which in time become direct public action as Aaron is unwilling and unable to end the relationship. The relationship with Ezri brings grace and fullness in a way in which he has never experienced before which makes him more alive than he has ever been. Meanwhile he conducts a normal relationship with his wife Rivka (Tinkerbell) and presides as head of the household over his four children. Rivka becomes increasingly suspicious.

This is not so much a film about orthodox Judaism and homosexuality as it is a film about individual fulfilment, hospitality, love and community. When the teachings of the community directly coincide with your life experience are you wrong for following them in that particular way - especially when both are committed to the ways of the community in every way? The film also explores questions of how communities should act to preserve their identity and challenge individuals who upset the equilibrium or seemingly choose to misinterpret the teaching they receive. It's also a film that invites exploration of forgiveness and reconciliation - although these are only hinted at by the way the film ends.

This is not a  swash-buckling thriller but if you want a thoughtful privileged peek into the lives of a community that is largely closed to outsiders this is for you. It's major gift is in sensitively exploring the behaviour of an individual when their actions are at odds with their community and although love is never spoken of between Aaron and Ezri, the exploration of the intimacy they share is compelling.

Well worth watching - if you can cope with sub-titles. I'll give it 7.5/10.