Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

If it’s not hard enough to remake/reboot one of the more loved cult movie series in cinema history without alienating fans of the original, film-makers make it harder on themselves when the films in question are about talking apes. Tim Burton had already tried  - and largely failed – to recreate Planet Of The Apes in 2001, with a film high on visuals but low on most other things. So when it was all tried again – this time from the beginning – in 2011′s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, expectations were not high. How wrong we all were. It was an intelligent, chilling, engaging triumph – most of all in Andy Serkis’ brilliant motion-capture performance of lead-ape Ceasar; but there was more. The human interest story worked; the performances worked throughout the story had a brilliant momentum. It was, at times, genuinely disturbing; and it never forgot to entertain or amuse.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes picks up right where the previous film left-off; a credits sequence portrayal of the spread of the simian flu virus setting us up for an advanced colony of apes outside of San Francisco and a decimated, bruised and battered humanity struggling in vain to make some kind of life for itself. From there human and apes come into contact, and conflict builds: between ape and human, ape and ape, human and human. Andy Serkis is back again, with a wider supporting cast of motion-capture performances. His colleagues are good – he remains utterly outstanding, and long overdue major award recognition. It’s a performance provoking awe, fear and joy in equal measure and is a masterclass of its type.

In a blockbuster season which again sees Michael Bay return to milk the Transformers cash machine with all attendant hype, cynicism and disregard for the viewer, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes represents everything the big blockbuster could and should be. Thrilling, intelligent, artful, entertaining – and not overlong. It’s a worthy sequel; not a perfect one. Like the predecessor, the script has weaknesses. Occasionally the inter-human interplay is somewhat forced. Other than that, it’s as it should be, and all the better for it. Entertainment with heart, guts and a soul.

I rated this film 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 8/10 on imdb.com

A story

I often write here about stories. They could be films, they could be books, they could be parts of  my own story. It’s because I like stories. Stories are a fundamental part of human existence. We are the only beings on the planet with the capability of telling stories to one another. Stories worm under our defences, help us walk in another’s shoes, see something from a way we haven’t seen before.

Large parts of the Bible are in the form of stories – histories, parables, gospels. They burrow away with truths that detonate in our heart and mind repeatedly days, weeks, months, years after encountering them.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that the debates we enter into as Christians would be changed for the considerably better if we stopped and listened to some stories for a while. Stories take debates out of the abstract and into the everyday. They give a theory a name, an idea, a face, an argument flesh and bones. It’s much harder to use rude names when you’re confronted with someone with their own name.

I was born and raised and remain one of those Christians who broadly fit under the label evangelical. I’m also, in many ways, what you might call an evangelical of a charismatic flavour. I’m not going to explain what those labels mean for me, now: that’s my story and that’s a story for another time. Part of that story is, though, that I grew up with a conservative view of homosexuality. That view of homosexuality remained static over many years; more recently I’ve tried to take a walk round the issue and examine it from different perspectives. It occurred to me that I’d never really examined other points of view on the subject; I’d simply gulped one in with the air I breathed. That can’t be good. As I walked I’ve learned that there are many other stories out there. I’ve learned that there are people in churches of the flavour that I like, who are gay; and they’ve received the message that they’re vile, hated by God and detested. That they can’t love Jesus.

I haven’t finished my wandering around this subject. I can’t say where that wandering will finish, if it ever does. I’m don’t want to call all conservatives homophobes; neither do I want to accept any lifestyle or choice or practice unquestioningly. But I do need to listen. Wherever I finish my wandering, I want to commit to always listening to stories, and always listening well.

So listen with me, will you? And before you and I opine, call people vile or abominations or detested or not-Christians, let’s remember we’re not talking about ideas. We’re talking about a person Jesus died for. A name, a face, a history, a person for whom their sexual orientation is just one part. An important part, to be sure, but only one part nonetheless.

Let’s start by taking 10 minutes to listen to this engaging, humbling, disturbing story.

What, then, shall we say?

We need more stories like this, don’t we? Stories of Jesus and grace and cross and iron nails and visions on beaches. Jesus often seems to do important things on beaches, doesn’t He? Who am I to call this man vile? Who are you?

You’re not, you say. You say you’re just repeating what God says.

Well, Jesus had many hard words to say to those who claimed to speak for God, didn’t He?

What, then, shall we say?

Let’s find a better story.

 

Movies that move me 5: Amadeus

I don’t speak the language of classical music. Not because I don’t like it, not because I can’t recognise it as beautiful or brilliant, not out of some sort of inverted snobbery. It’s simply that it takes much work for me, like a very alien language. I don’t have the time or energy for another language in my life, so I leave well alone.

As proof that this is the case, not dislike or ignorance or whatever else people have opined to me as the reason, I offer consistently one of my favourite films. Amadeus was released in 1984, the year of my eleventh birthday. I can’t recall when I first saw the film – I suspect about 3 years later on its television premiere – but it made a huge impact on me. In the year of forty-first birthday that impact hasn’t diminished.

It’s directed by Milos Forman (most famous for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and adapted by the great Peter Shaffer from his own stage play. It tells the story of Mozart’s professional life through the lens of court composer Antonio Salieri, a man tormented by his own relative mediocrity. It opens with an elderly Salieri in some kind institution for the mentally ill, claiming he killed Mozart and unburdening himself to a priest. Through that relationship, with the priest claiming to offer God’s forgiveness, Salieri confesses his awe, jealousy and manipulation of the young genius, ultimately playing a key role in driving him to an early, overworked death.

It’s majestic, moving and utterly beautiful. It’s a study of guilt – who doesn’t reach Salieri’s age without secrets they need absolution from? It’s a study in the corrosive powers of success – the film’s Mozart is perhaps most akin to a modern-day elite sportsman, feted with praise and money he doesn’t have the maturity to handle. It’s a study in marriage under pressure – Constanze, Mozart’s wife, is brilliantly played by Elizabeth Berridge; devoted to her husband, but one partner always just out of reach of the other.

Most of all, it’s a study in creativity and what we who benefit from the creativity want the creators to be like. Mozart should be as sublimely beautiful, dignified and upright as his creations. Instead, as this film and Tom Hulce’s performance renders him, he’s an obnoxious brat with an annoying laugh, no discipline and no self-control. It’s that laugh that divides viewers; it’s that laugh that Salieri hears even before he first lays eyes on the man he discovers to be Mozart. How can this man create such beauty? Thereby hangs the crux of the film, and Salirei’s existential torment. It drives deals he strikes with himself and with God; it defies belief and offends the ears as much the music entrances them. It reaches its height in a spellbinding, unforgettable scene where Salieiri helps a bed-ridden Mozart work on his Requiem (a piece commissioned by a shadowy figure Mozart doesn’t realise to be Salieri himself). Mozart hears the music in his head and dictates it to Salieri, who even then can barely keep up. Even with his nemesis at death’s door, he can’t hope to match him.

Based in truth as it is (though how true it actually is, I don’t know), the film achieves a kind of truth much more true than mere facts, uncovering the deeper realities of limited humanity’s quest for transcendence. That’s why, for instance, the American accents the actors keep throughout the film don’t bother me one jot. The film is so true that the accents are frankly irrelevant; I’m not distracted by them, which I most certainly would have been by bad European accent imitations.

It’s a film which teaches me about beauty, hope, work, creativity and the freedom to take all my prayers – not just the safe, nice ones – to God and leave theme there. In my life as I live it, it’s unmatched, unique and irreplaceable. I can’t imagine my life without it; and I don’t own a single note of Mozart’s music.

I rated this film 5/5 on rottemtomatoes.com and 10/10 on imdb.com

Also in this series: 

Introduction

Trainspotting

Fire In Babylon

Pan’s Labryinth

Shaun Of The Dead & Hot Fuzz

What’s in a name?

bev-meldrum-1

 San Francisco Holocaust Monument, Bev Meldrum Photography

 

Names are often significant in the Bible. Think David (beloved of God) or Isaac (he laughs). One has struck me recently: Lazarus. There are two men named Lazarus in the Gospels. The name means ‘God has helped’. This seems odd to me. You could look at the oddness of this name from the point of view of both the two men named Lazarus whom we meet in the Gospels.

The first of these is the one raised from the dead by Jesus. We know how this story ends (spoiler alert: I told you in the previous sentence), so it seems to us readers fairly obvious as to why his name is so suitable. Much is obvious if you know the end of the story. We don’t know much about Lazarus before his (first) death; but it’s fair to assume that after his recall from his own funeral procession he gained a whole new perspective on the appropriateness of his name. It may have previously come to his mind when he was looking for a place to park his donkey in rush hour, but soon that would grow faint by comparison.

This isn’t the Lazarus who concerns me, though. It’s the other one – the one who doesn’t exist. Well, he does exist, of course; but in a symbolic sense as opposed to a literal one. He appears in a strange parable at the end of Luke Chapter 16; a poor man who is carried daily to the outside of a rich man’s home to beg for whatever he can get. He’s in such a state that dogs would come and lick his sores. This is the one God has helped? Really?

We know how this story ends too. He goes to heaven; the rich man to hell. So we know that from an eternal perspective that God has indeed helped him. He just won’t see it until his death. We mustn’t rush to that, however. If we do we’re in danger of the terrible error of saying ‘well the poor will be alright in eternity, so let’s not worry about them now’. That would be to miss the point of the parable, and we don’t want that, do we now?

Parables are not one-for-one correlation stories. We can’t say x in the story equals the wider truth of y in every instance. With that in mind, we should also beware that we don’t miss what the parable might be trying to say to us. It’s here that Lazarus’ name becomes important. In this parable, Lazarus is important because he has a name. Abraham and Moses are both referred to by name. In a Jewish story you’d expect that. The rich man is named … well, we don’t know. He doesn’t get a name. He’s just ‘the rich man’. Lazarus – he of the dog-licking and begging – is named as one whom God helps. The rich man  - outside whose house Lazarus daily begs, just the other side of the wall and security spikes, just in view of the CCTV – has no name. He is anonymous.

Names matter. When we get to know someone we start with a name; couples who have a stillborn baby are strongly advised to give their child a name for very good reasons; a soft-drinks company has made a marketing splash by putting names on their cans for people to buy until they find one bearing their own title. Yes, names matter. Why this, then? Why no name for the rich man?

It’s part of God’s great reversal of all things. The world honours the rich and successful; we know their names well. The one sleeping under a blanket in the doorway. He’s ‘homeless’. Not ‘the one God has helped’ or ‘beloved of God’; just ‘homeless’, ‘poor’, ‘dirty’, ‘smelly’, ‘beggar’. God’s kingdom reverses this; the unnoticed, non-achieving dependants are named; the succesful and feted rich are irrelevant.

We know how this story ends, so it’s OK. We know this isn’t really about rich and poor, it’s about knowing Jesus and being known by Him? Right?

Maybe. Maybe not. It’s definitely about being known by Jesus. He knows who is living truly in the kingdom of God and who isn’t.

This is a parable that too often I keep at arm’s length, keeping away the uncomfortable truth that too often I am the unnamed one rather than the named one I prefer to see myself as.

Am I sure about that?

Try these name-cancelling labels. Which do you use?

Liberal, conservative, gay, straight, black, white, man, woman, young, old, middle-aged, happy, sad, able, disabled, sick, well, happy, sad, depressed, normal, bigot, Jew, Moslem, Christian, atheist, adult, child, teenager, abuser, abused, bully, victim.

Recently someone I’ve known for years told me of his plans to marry the man he loves. It took him years to decide I was safe enough to tell. That’s down to how people who wear labels like ‘evangelical’, ‘Christian’ or ‘church’ are seen and how we act and speak. Years to feel safe. He has a name, but I can’t use it here for he must remain safe.

 

I’m sick

I’m sick.

I’m sick of taking tablets and injecting myself.

I’m sick of doctor’s appointments.

I’m sick of pain.

I’m sick of being dependent.

I’m sick of being limited.

I’m sick of having ‘to be brave’ when in reality I’m not.

I’m sick of wondering if it will get better or not.

I’m sick of the ideas people have about my sickness when they know nothing about it.

I’m sick of looking at people with no major health problems and feeling jealous.

I’m sick and I am strong.

I’m sick and I accept that.

I’m sick of being lonely in crowds.

I’m sick and I laugh about it.

I’m sick of the well-meaning people who get it badly wrong.

I’m sick of explaining that there’s much I can do, actually.

I’m sick, and with that come many gifts and insights otherwise unavailable to me.

I’m sick and I need you.

I’m sick and I know what it does to me.

I’m sick and I get scared.

I’m sick and that changes what I care about.

I’m sick and I have perspective.

I’m sick and that leads me to great thankfulness.

I’m sick which means I am accustomed to waiting.

I’m sick and there are days I feel helpless.

I’m sick and that costs money.

I’m sick and that brings the judgements of others with it.

I’m sick which means I have lost much.

I’m sick and sometimes I don’t want to talk about it.

I’m sick and the reactions of others causes me concern.

I’m sick and sometimes I act as if I’m not.

I’m sick which means I grieve.

Inspired by 35 things you may not know about my invisible illness

On being a pharisee for justice

Bev a few minutes after breaking her wrist

It’s been a rubbish 6 weeks. We live in a country that’s not the one of our birth, nor indeed the one in which we’ve lived the marjoity of the majority of our lives. So doing what I do (leading a church), in a foreign context rife with material and social need is a draining experience. Unsurprisingly we often find ourselves looking forward to our holidays. A recent trip back to the UK was going pretty well from that point of view until my wife was walking down the street and got distracted by a fire engine. She stumbled on the pavement, and fell forwards. She instinctively put her arms out to break her fall. Instinct can save us, or it can break us. It broke Bev. Her full, gravitationally assisted body-weight plus the mass of a full backpack was channeled through her wrists, leaving her in agony. The result was a broken and dislocated right wrist.

This led to our stay in the UK being extended by a week so she could have an operation. There were good sides to this – extended time with people we love – but it was stressful, painful and inconvenienced us a great deal . In my case it meant that I had to do a great deal many many more things – if one arm is completely out of use, the other half of the partnership has to help out. At least is was her right-hand; imagine if it had been her dominant left hand…

We’d been back a week or so when our two dogs got into a squabble with each other over some food. Bev attempted to reach for their collars to pull them apart, but she was off-balance due to her arm in plaster. The result was that her left hand missed the collar and found a way between the jaws of one of the dogs, which managed to bite all the way through one of the bones on her middle finger. Another stay in hospital, another operation, another hand out of action. More pain, more inconvenience.

Bev, a couple of hours after having her finger bitten

Life went from hard to very ******* hard. We are both tired and stressed, seemingly all the time. There’s always something to be done, something to be helped with. At some point in all this – I can’t quite remember when – I found myself, somewhat incongruously, thinking ‘I’m really looking forward to the World Cup’.  Now I always look forward to the World Cup; I always really enjoy it. Something about the way I was anticipating it seemed a little odd, though; until the insight dawned that it was because the tournament represented something purely fun, for which I didn’t have to take any responsibility. I could anticipate it with no sense of ‘I’ll have to do this’; yes, I could watch games with others if I wanted to; or by myself. That was the extent of the decisions facing me. The World Cup just represented simple fun.

The World Cup is taking place in Brazil. Ordinarily, in a situation like this, I’d be all over the social justice issues around this  - the public money spent on stadia and other preparations in a country of such poverty; the abusive, controlling approach of overseers FIFA and so on. It’s all entertainingly and intelligently summed up here:

This time, though, whilst I have done some reading and thinking on these things, I haven’t bought the same passion or activism to it. This time, I’m just too tired, too stressed, too in need of some fun. Anyway, I think to myself, enjoying the sport and protesting the pain are not mutually exclusive. Which meant I’ve had to bite my social media tongue at the well-meant but wearying injunctions to ignore the sport and feel the pain. I can’t. Others can, but this time I just can’t. In doing so, I’ve recognised something.

That something is this: that it’s easy to be right in the wrong way. Among other things I’m experiencing a kind of compassion fatigue. I recognised much of myself in an article you can read by clicking here. I am worn out, by everything from the every day need around me to the unique needs I’ve found myself up against over recent months: my wife reduced to half an operational hand out of two, a friend murdered by terrorists, living with my own chronic illnesses. It’s hard to give out more. My capacity is reduced. This has opened my eyes to how easy it can be to use the right thing in the wrong way, to use guilt as a shortcut to motivation. A motivation which will inevitably die out. Do you have enough friends of different ethnicities? Do you shop ethically? Think what happens to the planet because of the car you drive! Do you really know people in poverty? What about the daily atrocities in places of which you’ve never heard?

On it could go. We all do it. Guilt for change. Pharisees for justice.

We need the angry. Sometimes we need to be shocked out of complacency; often we need to be uncomfortable. Never at the expense of grace, though. God knows we can’t get it all right all the time. He doesn’t expect us to. He does expect us to have soft hearts, hands calloused from service, minds busied with seeking the third way. He knows better than you and me , however, that we’re irredeemably tainted by sin and injustice; so those of us born with such need grace, not condemnation. The former will leave us freer to act; the latter will end up dragging us down into inaction and exhaustion.

I, you, we need grace. We need some slack.  Let’s beware of becoming social justice pharisees, those who trade guilt for activism. Sometimes it’s OK to just enjoy, the better to gain the energy we need to actually do something.

Kettle boiling, TV on, happy days.

TV ready…

Preview magazines ready…

Wall-chart ready…

X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Let’s get this straight: there are too many superhero movies around. It seems that big title film-makers are losing their capacity to tell big, high concept, blockbuster stories in something resembling the real world. That doesn’t mean that individual films aren’t fun or entertaining or stimulating, but people cannot live on superheroes alone. That said, this new X-Men movie is the most heralded since Avengers. 

There’s a few reasons for this. One is this film’s much-trumpeted story-telling ambitions, of which more shortly. Another, to be frank, is that the series really hasn’t been up to much since the second film in 2003. So when it emerged that the director of the first 2 films, Bryan Singer, was returning to the helm for this one, expectations rose. He’s clever, exciting film-maker. Anyone who announced his talent with a film as clever, inventive, rewarding and memorable as The Usual Suspects is going to bring something worth seeing to his films.

This latest film doesn’t make many concessions to a viewer who hasn’t seen previous installments in the series; which doesn’t seem to be hitting the film’s profits too much, but perhaps should be a warning to the casual watcher. We start at a point in the future where intelligent robot-types (Sentinels) have been developed to hunt and fight mutants; Professor Xavier and his followers are fighting a losing battle which is tearing the planet apart. So a solution is hit upon; send Wolverine back in time to solve the problem (think Terminator) before it occurs. So we’re now in the 1970s; it’s time, you’d think for all sorts of people-out-of-time gags, but this is a film with a serious tone. It’s not entirely straight-faced, but it’s not played for laughs. The inherent contradictions of time-travel are greeted with all but a wink at the camera in moments of exposition, but other than that the film embraces inherent absurdity with enthusiasm.

Largely it works well; where it doesn’t it’s because there are just too many characters for us to engage properly with the ones we really need to. I’m also still a bit unconvinced by Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. I know I’m in the minority here, but all he seems to do is get angry and glower and punch. What’s good about the film is a wit and inventiveness that’s largely been missing for the past few films; there’s a light touch to a couple of action scenes, including one taking an unashamed cue from The Matrix that’s so good you laugh with it and want to applaud at the end. It’s also, for the first time in several films, really about something bigger than itself. It’s embracing the definitive X-Men themes of how people deal with difference; add to that a key thread of the story that touches on how, if at all, we can seek healing for hurt and trauma, and we’re in territory some of the previous films didn’t dare to touch. That the film carries this off, whilst not stinting on spectacle and entertainment reminds us just what a skilful director Singer can be and how much the series has missed him having his hands on the steering wheel.

Days Of Future Past is not the giant leap forward some anticipated, but it is a big step in the right direction for a series that had been meandering and taking an audience for granted for far too long. Lesson: keep giving big films to proper directors.

I saw this film in 3d.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com