Category Archives: Film Reviews

The Polar Express (the train of life)

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I’m not the first to look for the deeper meaning in the animated film The Polar Express. It is a wise film interspersing thoughtful conversation with high action – it would make a thrilling fast ride at a theme park.  The music is also wonderful – it would also make a great musical.

train

Faith, and lack of it, along with the innocence and loss of childhood, are big themes, but also the general challenges of life that we experience whether child or adult. There are some key one-liners from the train conductor (Tom Hanks) – I thought one might pop up “it’s not the destination but the journey that is important” but instead, better, it’s: “it doesn’t matter where the train goes, it’s making the decision to get on it that matters.”

Hanks

It is a risk for all the children to jump on the train but they do and discover aspects of themselves that they either didn’t know they had or find they needed confirmation of the qualities they did have. On the journey they are challenged, but also helped, by Doubt – the spirit of the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man who appears on and off in various parts of the train – also played by Tom Hanks.

This pairing of these two characters (conductor and spirit man) could be seen as theological – Hope (the conductor) and Doubt (the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man) are two sides of the same coin. We experience one with the other in most cases, but with friendship, empathy, and our own individual reflection, we can get through them.  Three of the children become good mates – one boy struggles particularly with the concept of Christmas (we’re not given details but we assume he’s had a tricky home life, is lonely, and certainly doesn’t come from a wealthy background) but he is valued by his two friends.

boy

Materially the children are on the search for presents but learn a great deal more about the gifts they already have within them and also what they need to learn and do to maintain hope and faith. The conductor makes a passing but key comment ‘sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.’

Holding onto the unseen is the challenge in life – the symbol of the bell in the film personifies this. Doubt says you must see to believe.  Hope says you sometimes have to believe in order to understand, and to see.

bell

Happy Christmas.

The Arts as vehicles for Identity and Truth

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In his statement to his film Mr Turner, Mike Leigh says:

“Back at the turn of the century, when ‘Topsy-Turvy’ was released, I wrote that it was “a film about all of us who suffer and strain to make other people laugh.”

Now I have again turned the camera round on ourselves, we who try to be artists, with all the struggles our calling demands. But making people laugh, hard as it is, is one thing; moving them to experience the profound, the sublime, the spiritual, the epic beauty and the terrifying drama of what it means to be alive on our planet – well, that’s altogether something else, and few of us ever achieve it, much as we may try.

Yet Turner the man was eccentric, anarchic, vulnerable, imperfect, erratic and sometimes uncouth. He could be selfish and disingenuous, mean yet generous, and he was capable of great passion and poetry.

Mr Turner is about the tensions and contrasts between this very mortal man and his timeless work, between his fragility and his strength.”

I enjoy films which are about complex people and I read this after seeing the film. Too often it feels as though society puts people into boxes and has no time to consider those who are outside the box. The business of the arts is to explore characters and the world they lived/live in.

Timothy Spall as Turner

Timothy Spall as Turner

Turner seemed not to engage with the reality of his own responsibilities yet his paintings engage realistically with the world of nature. I look at the paintings and their wildness strikes a chord with me – the emotions I can’t always engage with are almost acknowledged by the art and artist instead – on my behalf.

The same could be said of Beethoven the composer.  The classical pianist James Rhodes says ‘his music is the very definition of “interiority” – music became about feelings, about looking within and expressing things hitherto unsayable…Study Shakespeare and he will show us who we are.  Listen to Beethoven, a man tormented and isolated, who wrote simply to justify his artistic and intellectual existence, and he will show us who we could be.’

Beethoven

Another who was labelled as odd was Alan Turing – the code breaker in World War Two.  At the time, he didn’t behave or talk like ‘the group’ he was working with, but they learnt to respect and work with him – all portrayed brilliantly in the film The Imitation Game. We should be careful of the word ‘odd’ – life is complex, and we sometimes need complex people to illuminate our own lives, whether we see our lives as black and white, or grey.  As Oscar Wilde says ‘the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.’  And let us remember we are all human – so complexity generally comes with that.

The superb Benedict Cumberbatch as the persecuted Alan Turing

The superb Benedict Cumberbatch as the persecuted Alan Turing

Inside a Soul

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The new Coen Brother’s film Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that says what it needs to without saying everything.  As I find myself saying in response to a lot of artistic projects (whether a film, play or musical), Llewyn is a character who we can relate to.  It struck me that the majority of people he encounters blame him for the mess he’s in and although it’s hard for the viewer to say these people are wrong all of the time, we do not know why his musical partner threw himself off a bridge, or why Llewyn’s music is not appreciated, so it’s not really right to blame him for his bad luck.  The wider message is – we all have a story which has landed us where are; only the person who is in trouble knows that story.

Llewyn trying to make a go of the music with Jim (Justin Timberlake)

Llewyn trying to make a go of the music with Jim (Justin Timberlake)

We’re not meant to dwell too much on these questions – he is down on his luck and life in general and is someone for whom things just do not work out.  Not much has changed.  I’ve not been in a position as unfortunate as his (but we never know what’s around the corner) but I’m surrounded by people who say life is fantastic, based of course on their own experiences.  There are many similarities between then (1961 when the film is set) and now – in the West at least, if you’re not ‘in with the crowd’, no one understands you and you’re pretty much ‘done’.  If you’re not at a certain stage in life by a certain age, people find you hard to contemplate and it can be a downward spiral to desolate aloneness.  People have conversations about their own life which rarely relate to yours.  Ironically, the Dylan song which plays at the end of film picks up on the traveller who goes through life ‘unnoticed’.  Also ironically, much of the folk music that follows the forgotten era of music that Llewyn portrays, is a music which does have sympathy for the forgotten, the misjudged and people who have not made it.  Folk music is generally the music of the people, for the people and about the people.  But, like any other art form and indeed like in any other walk of life, some do not make it and there are no happy endings.

Looking for luck, while the successful world pass him by

Looking for luck, while the successful world pass him by

The song Llewyn opens the film with goes ‘Hang me oh hang me’ – it’s not the hanging that bothers him but the laying in the grave afterwards.  There is a deeper meaning here – he doesn’t want to merely exist in life.  He doesn’t want to be living but living in a grave, and for him, not being recognised for his music and his passion, is basically laying in a grave; being buried alive by the expectations of others.  I identify with that.

The Naturalism Debate

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Most of the comments about the film Les Miserables remark that the film is too naturalistic and ‘in your face’.  A well known musical theatre performer commented that it was all rather emotional and that she would have liked it if the voices has been ‘tweaked’ a little bit in the studio after recording to make them more presentable/easy on the ear on film. Interesting.  The film’s power in its use of non-edited singing: the actors are in the moment.  Eddie Redmayne who plays Marius says the joy of this is that actors don’t therefore have to make their acting decisions 3 months before their character is in role.

Marius 1

I would also say how stange it is to talk about tweaking emotions.  Do we ‘tweak’ emotions in every day life?  No!  If we’re about to cry we don’t say ‘now hang on a moment, let me make sure I don’t upset other people and I’ll just adjust my tears.’ What is the problem with being real?  Nothing!  If we are embarrassed or somehow disgusted by the rawness of this film then we’re disgusted by the reality of the human condition and even history itself.  The historical facts of the French revolution are gritty and violent like any other battle.  The human stories of Valjean, Fantine and all the people in the street scenes are realistic – there were such people who had lives of utter misery – some of them managed to create a better world for themselves (Valjean – though only because the Bishop gave him a second chance and Valjean acted on it), but others, due to the repression of the system and the unforgiveness of others, had no chance to move away from their wretched lives.

The only voice that is not raw and not broken is Russell Crowe’s – which suits his character, Javert.  Javert becomes obsessed with hunting down Valjean purely because he is the law and there is no bending – ‘the law is not mocked’.  He cannot see that Valjean does not fit into his category of right and wrong.  His uncompromising nature is reflected in his smooth vocals.  Any doubt Javert has (and he does doubt) is seen in his face rather than heard in his vocals.

I would therefore conclude that the naturalism of this Les Mis film works and is justified – it takes courage to face the truth because once you face it you have to engage with the world and your place in it.  Once you do that – as Valjean and Fantine do, they find that their engagement with the world costs.  Facing the truth is a rough ride and the events that happen to them are life changing…what would be the purpose of ‘tweaking’ their emotional response?  Nothing, other than making it look like their characters are pretending and let’s face it, life is not a rehearsal and we can’t pretend our way through it.  The characters in Les Mis don’t.

The universality of Les Miserables

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I’d been excited about the transfer of Les Miserables from book to stage, and now to film for a while.  I’ve now seen the film and it is the best film I’ve ever seen.  I was so pleased that the reality of the characters and life at the time rang true – it was much more raw and disturbing than I’d expected, and, surprisingly untheatrical.  The characters bring a truth through song that has not been witnessed before – they are not ‘performing’ – they are living with the reality of the story.

I always thought that the reason why Les Miserables has done so well in the world theatres during its 28 year run is because the story addresses emotions and questions that ‘everyman’ asks at some point.  It is set against a severe background of poverty; scenes of which have not gone away in many countries, but even if the poverty aspect was removed, the characters are still like us in their search for forgiveness, purpose, love, recognition and peace.

I could not fault the casting in the film – none of them were sensational – all of them had the vitality and earnestness that was needed for us to relate to the characters.  The character of Javert (the police inspector on the trail of Valjean all his life) is the ambiguous character in the story – Javert believes he knows right from wrong but Valjean is a man who rocks Javert’s boat of once steadfast morals.  Russell Crowe plays Javert with heartbreaking sensitivity who in the end cannot face the fact that his version of goodness has been turned on its head by one who he thought was ‘bad’.  Crowe does brilliantly at showing how Javert grows in doubt:

Javert

and the way he sings throughout also matches his outward aim of rightness and smartness but inwardly those defiinitions are challenged.  His voice has a pure, clear tone to it and he struggles not with reaching the high notes in ‘Stars’ – as his character does not struggle in condemning Valjean – until Valjean challenges Javert’s moral position.  There is a beautiful moment in the film between Gavroche and Javert when the line between rich/poor, old/young and experience/inexperience is crossed.  Crowe’s face says it all at that point.

Gavroche

Gavroche, above, captures the innocence and courage of childhood, matched by the leadership and fight for equality by Enjolras, the amazing student leader (Aaron Tweit):

Enjolras

The characters bounce off each other as much on set as off.  The issues that connect the characters are the same issues that connect the actors and audience.  The character who you could say comes off worst is Eponine, played with great understanding by Samantha Barks.

Eponine

Her loyalty to Marius is known only to her and she is a catalyst to Valjean becoming aware of Cosette’s love for Marius.  I’ve mentioned Valjean but not the actor who plays him – Hugh Jackman is astounding and allows the audience to see his soul.

Valjean

The gift of singing in the film also allows us to see and hear everything and more about the characters.  It is as much about ‘how’ they say something (in song) as ‘what’ they say.  What they say is so profound that the genre of song allows the audience to absorb and think about what they say much better than if it was simply said.  Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine (above in the pink dress in the picture) would not be as real if it was said.  Her song allows her to go the extra mile.  Tom Hooper has done a magnificent job in directing this film.

One of the most moving moments for fans of Les Miserables like me who’ve known the musical since the beginning, is seeing Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop of Digne.  Wilkinson was the original Valjean when the stage musical opened at the Barbican, London, and seeing him return as the Bishop – the character who gives Valjean his life back, is layered with meaning.  From one Valjean to another.  From one generation to another has Victor Hugo’s story lived.  And, if viewers think Wilkinson as the Bishop is meaningful, wait until you get to the end of the film and the weight of the story’s meaning, and the actors who’ve made it live for us, is a revelation.

Valjean (Jackman) sits with the Bishop (Wilkinson) and the famous candlesticks

Valjean (Jackman) sits with the Bishop (Wilkinson) and the famous candlesticks

Message of Thanks

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I wanted to say a big thank you to all the bloggers who’ve looked at my blog during its first year.  I’m grateful for you stopping by and hope you’ve got something out of it.  Thank you for your messages of support and interest.  Like all of you, there is something liberating about speaking into the midst of humanity even if like Amy Adams in the film ‘Julia and Julia’, I don’t always know who I am speaking to.

So, here are 3 paintings on the theme of hope for 2013.  The first is a favourite of mine – ‘Hope’ by G F Watts:

Hope by G F Watts

The second is totally appropriate for our time – ‘Hands of Hope’ by Anthony Hodge:

Hands of Hope by Anthony Hodge

The third shows hope through the eyes of nature – ‘Petals of Hope’ by Thomas Kinkade:

Petals of Hope by Thomas Kinkade

All three I think are beautiful.  I also have a quote which I found in the newsletter of a small charity doing wonderful work – Hands Around the World – www.hatw.org.uk

If you think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve obviously never been in bed with a mosquito.

Lots of small acts make a big difference.  One person can’t change the world but one person can change the world for one person, or one animal.

Film Review: The Gospel of Us

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In April 2011, over three days beginning on Good Friday, the town of Port Talbot in South Wales came together to stage The Passion through the streets with Michael Sheen as their Jesus-like figure.  A year later, those three days of drama have been turned into a two hour film.  The locals became the cast, crew and heroes of it and for this reason the film never feels ‘acted’ but instead harrowingly and stunningly real.  It is hard for me to describe the film as I would not do its uniqueness justice – I have never seen anything quite like it.  The editing style itself will stay with me before I can even think about Sheen’s magnetic presence as ‘The Teacher’ who, much like the Jesus of the gospels, attracts and repels the crowd in equal measure.

The setting of The Passion revolves around the fictional story of a battle that Port Talbot is fighting.  Authoritarian forces have taken over and a ruthless, sinister corporation is in control, called ICU.  They are after the town’s resources and a company man clashes with a suicide bomber on the beach.  What could have been a bloody massacre is saved by a softly spoken loner who tells us later that he is here ‘to listen’ (The Teacher).  He is a local man, who disappeared 40 days earlier, who has lost his memory.  ICU seek to get rid of him since he is a trouble maker.  The biblical parallels are at this point clear – certain figures are representative of the names we associate with the Easter story.

The authority

At the screening I went to, Director Dave McKean and writer (of the book it was based on) Owen Sheers were present for a Q&A session post show, which offered great insight into the making of the film and how the project began via National Theatre Wales.  Sheen, whose home town is Port Talbot, had wanted to do a secular response to The Passion – secular maybe, but the journey one is taken on through the film takes one into a sphere that is not of the everyday and yet the film is for everyman.  The secular symbolism in the film is so profound, such as the sharing of Sheen’s sandwiches with some people who have started to follow him, and the conversation with his earthly dad, a roofer, about the value of a broken slate, is so striking, it made me feel that once I walked outside the cinema I would quite easily find the divine in just about anything.  The film is an achievement in film making, acting and meaning, but Christian viewers may find it even more faith affirming (though it does not set out to do this) because of what it does implicitly – I will take time to explain this.

At one level, the film is an example of the omnipresence of technology in our lives and how this has had both a disturbing and creatively good impact on our lives.  McKean didn’t anticipate the intrusion of phones of the ‘crowd’ in his face whilst he was trying to film and the filming of people filming with their phones adds a huge dynamic to the film because it then becomes a mirror in which society can look at itself.  It is not a film about ‘how Port Talbot staged The Passion’ – it is a record of the three days of a man on a journey, unrehearsed.  It overwhelms Sheen at one point – again, this is all recorded and shown in the film, who asks a man in the crowd why he is filming him on his phone (the man is being filmed filming – if that makes sense) and the man replies because he wants to be here.  Sheen replies, as Sheen, ‘then be here’; ‘be here with me’.  What may have been seen as intrusive (a mobile phone) actually becomes a catalyst for the theme of the film and of Easter – be here, be present.   The phone is a vehicle for asking us, are we present in this world to witness what is happening – do we relate to each other in a society of virtual reality where you can have a relationship involving no relating (the internet and phone)?  How brilliant the film is in using technology to record the last three days of this man’s life but at the same time using the very vehicle that has made the film what it is, to turn the phenomenon of technology on its head: beware of who and what your master is when looking for meaning in life.

I hope I am enticing you to see this film.  It is truly modern and yet timeless (like the gospels whether you are believer or not) because it is a story and a story told with all the truth of human emotion.  It is also timeless because of its take on who The Teacher is.  This you begin to see at the end of the film through a sequence of shots of Michael Sheen which he shot himself, whilst in isolation.  They indicate isolation, brokenness and loneliness – I can’t say more for fear of spoiling the film, but all human life is here.  And it is these themes that are continual through the film linked through the one main theme of memory.  Sheen collects a core group of followers in the lead up to the Crucifixion who he ‘rescues’ – the first one in a very obvious way in the shape of a suicide bomber.  All, like him, are struggling with some element of their past, often because they can’t remember or work out what went wrong – the film at these points – via each one’s story, is fractured and disturbing with dream-like sequences.  The power of the film’s editing at these moments reflects the state of the characters’ minds so you’re not only seeing the power of the locals’ acting but the structure of the film illustrates this (McKean has a background in graphic design, illustration, sculpture and music and this is all evident by the way he’s made the film).  Again, the deeper meaning is always there, Sheen says at one social gathering, to his lost yet found friends, ‘we find ourselves in each other’.  It is through pain (both physical pain in mind and body in the here and now, and painful memories) that peace, understanding and often resolution can be found.

The importance of the play on words ‘ICU’ become clear – all those who follow Him, see him.  He says to the suicide bomber ‘I see you’ – you are found because you have been seen and through being seen, you see this Jesus-like figure and ultimately see yourself.  The underlying spiritual truths are heartbreakingly moving.

For me, it is not a ‘made’ film – it is one that evolves as the viewer’s response grows through it.  Port Talbot was clearly sucked into the world of the play and if the crew just set out to give a secular response they have achieved a lot more.  This is most evident in the Crucifixion when the crowd become ‘the mob’ just by virtue of wanting to see Sheen and at those moments in the film, Owen Sheers spoke of the strange moral vacuum – Sheen is violently beaten, away from the crowds but the crowd watch on big screens – people are still filming the whole event on their phones which can be seen as disgusting and when this is continued at the actual Crucifixion you feel it is then simply wrong, and yet the artistic effect of the Dali-like Christ hanging above Port Talbot with the thousands of camera phones flashing looks like stardust, and the blood and screaming of the event has transpired into a mystical spectacle.

The longer the film stays in my mind, the more metaphors and truths about life walk into my mind.  Port Talbot is in a battle for its life as the film opens, a battle for its identity – it is a town scarred by the M4 motorway – this is its story, its ‘mark’, or a blot on the landscape (it appears in one of the dream sequences as ‘the monster with stone legs’), and the town is desperate to ‘reremember’ itself.  To say The Teacher takes on the scars of the motorway in his bearing of another kind of monster (the cross) is not taking the symbolism too far, because human kind essentially looks for identity and if this is being taken away, people feel desperate and perform actions which don’t make sense.  It is not for nothing that the words ‘I Am’ are uttered in the film, the full meaning of them and the context in which they were said continues to resonate days after viewing the film.