Trance

As previously noted, the films of Danny Boyle have long been among my favourite. Long before he directed an Oscar-winning spirit-lifter; long before he masterminded the joyous celebration of the Olympics opening ceremony … even before his second film, which was to become one of my favourites, I saw in his debut feature Shallow Grave an audacity, creativity and gift for story-telling which promised great things. I haven’t been disappointed.

I always approach his film’s with nervousness, though; I fear being let down, of having seen too much in too little in the past. I’m never completely let down, though. Clearly he’s not faultless; it would be hard to defend movies like A Life Less Ordinary or The Beach as masterpieces, but there’s always something interesting to enjoy. Since the overwhelming critical and commercial success of Slumdog Millionaire we might have expected a lurch towards culturally neutral awards fodder. He’s gone the other direction, though: first there was the small-scale, largely one-man focussed 127 Hours. It may have been portrayed as a triumph of the human spirit story; but it was still a nervous, jerky, edgy piece – hard to love, easy to admire and self-consciously distancing some of the audience he may have gained from the Oscar winner. Then came the Olympics; his opening ceremony a creative and critical barnstormer. Remarkably he chose to work on his next film in parallel with the preparations for the biggest show in history. Which creates some nervousness in the fan: how can you do justice to a second project when you’re giving so much energy to something unique and with such a high–profile?

There’s a simple answer, and Trance is it. In contrast to the Olympics project, this is a small, almost intimate piece with a trio of characters around whom everything revolves. Whereas the Opening Ceremony needed to have a mass appeal (though that didn’t stunt his daring), Trance again deliberately alienates some. In tone it’s most like Shallow Grave on a bigger budget; a plot-twisting thriller , complete with trips inside the twisted head of one of the lead characters, and a solution to the central mystery designed to offend anybody still left expecting a mass-market, easy to digest crowd-pleaser. It’s always on the edge of violence with a palpable sense of threat in the air. James McAvoy is Simon, an auctioneer of fine art who gets involved in the heist of a painting from his own auction house; Simon takes the painting during the heist, gets a blow to head for his troubles from one of the gang … and when he comes round and gets home from hospital, he comes home with an empty picture frame and inconvenient bout of amnesia as to where he’s hidden the painting. The gang want it back – and he wants to get it to them. They turn to a hypno-therapist played by Rosario Dawson; from there the plot spins layer after layer of revelation and manipulation of one by the other – the critical final reveal left to the last possible moment, in the honourable lineage of films like The Usual Suspects. As such it’s a high-octane, violent, dis-orienting cross-word puzzle of a film, only finally making sense at the last frame.

With subject-matter like amnesia and hypnotism, Boyle has licence to disorient and play with the viewer’s minds; and he does so to compelling effect. Inevitably it’s the sort of plot some won’t go with; the energetic direction will similarly turn some off. It’s about memory and the way we can use our memories as a way of controlling others; primarily, though, this is the film of someone taking all the parts of himself he couldn’t express on the biggest stage of them all and finding a creative, energetic outlet for them. It’s not going to be a major part of his life’s work; like 127 Hours, it’s smaller scale and appeal. His next film needs to be a step-up; and it’s interesting to see that it seems his next film will be revisiting the world of Trainspotting, adapting the follow-up novel to the original. That’s a good move. For now Trance is enough to keep me going.

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

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On spiritual adrenaline

I have an at best ambivalent relationship with Christian conferences. These events seem to me have a culture all of their own; as a result I react in very particular ways. Within something like 36-72 hours of the start of the event I find myself experiencing a kind of claustrophobia. I start going to even less of the sessions than I was anyway; I need space; I want something that isn’t Christian – be it a pub, a coffee shop, a movie, a conversation. In short, I need air. Maybe its personality, maybe it’s spirituality, maybe it’s theology, maybe it’s a symptom of something physical. Whichever it is, or if it’s something of which I’m not yet aware, after a little time in these contexts I need air.

I say this because I’m recently back from one. There were over 5,000 people (most in some kind of church or other leadership positions) gathered to worship, listen and learn. It had many of the elements of Christian conferences which usually leave me grasping for the oxygen mask. Lights, lots of video screens, very loud worship purely in the key of joy, a load of talks delivered from the front, and the opportunity to be prayed with and for.

Yes indeed … there was plenty to annoy me. One of the speakers from a business background was not one whom I would have chosen. Not because he didn’t have good things to say (he did); but more because there are areas with which his business is involved and aspects of his organisation’s practice which are at the very least open to some serious ethical questions. The programme was packed, with little time for personal reflection and silence. The emotional register of the sung worship was joy … and it was only joy.

Here’s the thing. I loved it. I was fired up, I was energised, I was wired. I came away with my spiritual senses heightened. I was optimistic. Why? Part of it may have been the fact it was just 48 hours long. I could see the end from the beginning. It came, for me, at the end of a holiday so I was in a mentally relaxed state as I entered. I saw some people I hoped to; encountered others I was pleasantly surprised to get the chance to connect with; there were a few I was relieved not to have seen.Whatever the reason, something in me co-operated with something in the conference to allow deep to call to deep and for each to get heard.

The result? A shot of spiritual adrenaline, short and strong and invigorating like an essential espresso. I was on the mountain-top

For every high there’s a come-down; you have to come down from a mountain-top. You can’t live there. 24 hours later I was on the plane home. The plane home means lots of things for me … food and drink (variable); films and reading (good); sleep-deprivation (bad); arthritic spine and joints into lock-up (very bad). Add to that arriving home … to non-functioning internet, a doorbell constantly ringing with demands to be made by the perpetrators, a constant stream of emails to be caught up on, days more of arthritic pain because of the journey …

The result? A brutal come-down, emotional instability, self-doubt and a desperate grasping after the things I learned on top of the mountain and not lose them.

Does the mountain-top count for anything, then? Yes. Less so for information gained there (though notes taken have already been of practical help) as for hope infused. Those last two words are the essence of what I really got on the mountain-top. Yes notes were taken, ideas were formed, thinking was shaped, action was decided upon. More profound still was a sense of deep hope – that the dreams I have can be fulfilled because others see similar ones take flight. That mine is not the only plant in the garden. That joy may not always be so tangible, but is there and is real and is possible. That ideas can move beyond being ideas.

At the end of a really tough first week after the conference, there’s still light being shed from those 48 hours on the mountain; this despite walking a path that’s in the reality of a valley of beautiful plants, striking wildlife, diverse scenery and plenty of opportunities for my ankle to turn, for cuts and scrapes to catch me and for prowling lions to stalk me. The effect of the adrenaline has been as if to launch me downwards into the valley.

That sounds bad. I don’t mean it to. Down does not equate with bad. Down is where Jesus call me  – lower, deeper, kneeling and walking. Using the energy, the gravity of the mountain-top to energize a descent that enables a landing which may be bumpy but effects change in me and in those amongst whom I move.

Does that make me sound like Moses, descending from the holy place with life-shaping inscriptions on stone? I don’t mean it like that either. (This is hard to articulate.) Leaders who allow themselves to be seen, by commission or omission, as the ones descending the mountain with cast-iron vision are the ones of whom I often feel the most suspicious. Even with our best efforts in the other direction that’s how it can often seem. Let’s be honest; it’s that for which some crave  – for the leader to meet with God, for him (and it’s almost always him) to tell the people, and the people hear and (maybe) do. More than once I’ve had people say to me …. “If only our leader would just tell us what God is saying”.

I mean simply to say that I’ve been reminded of the view, have a sense that the journey really is moving towards something. Often I get so caught up in putting one foot in front of another that I forget that I and the others with whom I’ve been tasked to walk and lead are actually heading toward a definable, if not always visible or even known place.

So I need adrenaline. I can’t live on it, but I do need it. I need it for hope, for energy, for keeping going.

Finally, a question. If I need adrenaline, from where, from whom, do I find it? And do I know when I see it?

Drink the Spirit of God …  (Ephesians 5:19, The Message)

Star Trek Into Darkness

It’s somewhat inane to talk of ‘x’ as the new ‘y’. Be it sport (who’s the new Pele? the new Botham?) or music (who’s the new Smiths? the new Presley?) or anywhere else, at best it’s an attempt to place work in context. At worst – and it’s more often this, to be honest – it’s a lazy analogy which fails to consider a person’s achievements in their own rights. So I try to avoid doing so.

That having been said, if you felt so inclined as to try locate the new Stephen Spielberg (not that the ‘old’ one is done yet, mind you) then you could do much worse than to look in the direction of J J Abrams. Much of Spielberg’s career (at least the first part) was populist. He, along with the Star Wars films, is credited with inventing the modern blockbuster. Expensive, usually special-effects laden films around which the major studios plan their year’s releases and their financial well-being. If Spielberg is the blockbuster’s originator, then J J Abrams may well be one of those who ensures we have some good ones to look forward to. That’s clearest in Super 8; Abrams directed, Spielberg produced and the finished product was a hymn to the early days of the blockbuster. It’s not only films, though: he recognises the new artistic landscape and sees television as fruitful artistic as well as commercial ground. An overview of his work in both context shows us just how successful he’s been: LostAlias, Mission Impossible 3, Super 8. Not everything he touches turns to gold, but he’s a good man to trust with the future of mass-market films. So he’s the ideal choice to breathe life into the creatively moribund Star Wars franchise. 

He’s done the same with the Star Trek films. It’s dangerous to wade into such passionately held material, even if some of the later films and a good amount of the television output in the Trek universe was really poor. People love Star Trek; and even if you don’t, it’s unavoidably part of the landscape of popular culture. That J J Abrams gave us a new Star Trek film in 2009 which did justice to the best of the original, invited newcomers in and was also a really good film was a good achievement. He’s done it again with Star Trek Into Darkness.

It continues the rebirth of the franchise with a story that follows on from the previous film without making seeing it essential. It’s a simple story: the Enterprise against a space-bound terrorist. Simple doesn’t mean simplistic, though: even that one word sentence summary lays bare the resonances with the world we inhabit. The plot speeds along in such a way that you don’t notice the holes in the plot; it’s a great ride through a series of action set pieces which don’t just amaze but actually serve to propel the story. It looks beautiful and bright – slightly too bright, actually, with lens-flare overused to the extent that it’s in just about every frame. It’s sharp and shiny enough to forgive that, the more so in IMAX format (though as we’re more or less accustomed to with this type of film, 3D adds nothing). This film also puts on the big stage an actor who the British have known for a while was special: Benedict Cumberbatch as the centrepiece villain is energetic, intense and compelling – but in such a way that he doesn’t steal scenes so much as complete them.

It’s not perfect – the plot holes you miss on your high-speed joyride you can’t help but notice if you pause just for a moment afterwards; but mostly it does what a good major blockbuster should: entertain and amaze, leaving smiles and breathless excitement in its wake. The future is in safe hands.

I saw this film in 3D IMAX format. I rated it 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

The Great Gatsby

Whatever the digital equivalent of a stuck record is, that is how I feel when it comes to film adaptations of much-loved/’un-filmable’/challenging books, plays and the like. Analysis of such films often regresses into ‘this bit wasn’t in the film’ and ‘that bit wasn’t in the book’. Often that’s both irrelevant and unhelpful. Why? It’s instructive to think of the story as something independent of the film or book or play. It’s a different category of object, one which a book or a film or a play all look at from slightly different angles. Necessarily so; they are radically different media with different demands and different constraints. So a film of one story should give us different perspectives on a story which a book can’t. The skill is in doing this well, respecting the original novel but not so much that your film starts feeling like it’s on an entirely pre-determined course, a visual check-list of things to ensure are all present and correct.

It’s rarely that simple, though. People fall in love with works of art; they become part of us. We feel like we own them; so we can feel somehow violated when we sense that something we love hasn’t been served well by an interpreter. Our memories are trashed, our emotions trampled on. And we get angry. Adapting is hard and taxing work.

So to The Great Gatsby. The original novel is one of American culture’s touchstones. Written in 1925 by F Scott Fitzgerald, it’s a dizzying tale of the jazz era. The hedonism and endless partying of and around the smart and monied set is evoked in a series of surreal, almost hallucinatory images and metaphors; the majestic prose is wrapped around the story of the titular Gatsby, a man of wealth, purveyor of parties and possessed of a quirky and ultimately sinister passion towards the entrancing Daisy. The book itself is narrated by Nick, a man who rents a house next door to Gatsby and finds himself both part of and close to some increasingly out-of-control events.

That’s the original telling of the story in a vastly inadequate summary, and the novel is one that is often touted as America’s most-loved; it’s beautiful, mysterious and romantic, critiquing the American dream even as it portrays it. It’s a tough one to adapt for the screen – both because of the extraordinary prose and it’s status in American culture. Mess with it and you’re messing with America’s self-understanding.

All of which makes Australian director Baz Luhrmann an ideal but also dangerous choice. Ideal because his previous films indicate a fearless creativity around iconic texts: his Romeo and Juliet or Moulin Rouge show a breathless creativity and evangelistic passion to present something old as something vibrantly new. He’s not one to shirk a challenge. He’s a dangerous choice for the same reasons: with such singular and complete vision, the likelihood of offended book-lovers was high. Add to that rumours of a troubled production, the news it was to be presented in 3D and accompanied by an out-of-control budget; then there was every expectation of both severe disappointment and art imitating the life which the art was portraying. Decadence, opulence, carelessness with money and emotion … it’s all there, we were told.

So what is this new film, then? It’s an inevitable, joyous, emotion-wracking, dazzling, addictive, life-enhancing failure. A failure because with so much invested in the novel, with the stakes so high, it could only be a failure. But like Gatsby himself, what a failure. Like all Luhrmann films, it looks and sounds extraordinary. The colours are vivid; the cinematography fluid and energetic; even the 3D (and this is rare) somehow serves the story by somehow managing to look at times (deliberately, I’m sure) artificial so that you’re even further immersed into the ever more artificial world of the novel’s characters. It sounds extraordinary, again, as all Luhrmann films do. Here, as with Shakespeare and Moulin Rouge, he uses the music of today to soundtrack the world of yesterday. It works magnificently – either to reinforce the story or evoke the atmosphere on a whole other level.

The performances are uneven. Leonardo DiCaprio is very good as Gatsby; Carey Mulligan as Daisy is simply outstanding. Toby Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway is intended to be a little bland, a little melt-into-the background both to provide the viewer with an anchor and to portray how the world we’re seeing here gradually sucks your very sense of self; the trouble is he’s bland to the point of boring. Other smaller (but significant) parts just get lost in the haze; the performances either aren’t strong enough to be noticed or get drowned out by the surrounding noise: especially, and crucially Jordan, the woman who acts as Nick’s route into Gatsby’s world. The little known (to me at least) Elizabeth Debicki gives what felt like a humble and skilful performance; but it’s so under-written she disappears like fading fog.

As you’d expect from Lurhmann, some of his flourishes let him down; not least the sequences where the (written) narrator’s words appear as if typed on to the screen, then drift off towards the viewer. It’s clever and brave – looking the brilliance of the prose in the face but refusing to back down.It’s  too much so: adapting such a well-loved novel it’s probably best not to remind people quite so directly why they so loved it in the first place.

So Lurhmann’s Gatsby is an apt and brilliant failure; and we should be grateful that Lurhmann has given us such a personal vision and in doing so launched the story into a generation’s visual consciousness. I’d rather watch a director of his passion, vision, courage and creativity fall short, than dozens of others get it spot on (if such a mark is possible). Films are made for the cinema, and should be seen there if at all possible; rarely for me, I find myself telling you to seek it out in 3D if you can. Whilst I hope that format doesn’t dominate cinema’s future, it’s good to see a director find a purpose in the format that isn’t pure financial profit. For that, and much else, we should be grateful for Lurhmann’s Gatsby.

For a good analysis of the film as a vision of the novel, from someone with  deeper and more recent engagement of the novel than mine, see this excellent piece by my friend Sandra

I rated this film 7/10 in imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

In praise of … last minute perfection

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Think of a task, a discipline, a project which you love and to which you dedicate yourself. It could be a relationship; it could be something artistic; it could be a sporting achievement; it could be a qualification for which you long. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s something to which you regularly give much energy and commitment and in which it is hard to become proficient.

In the realm of professional sport one of the hardest disciplines (if not the hardest) is hitting a baseball. Specifically: hitting a baseball for a home run at major league level. If you take the technical definition of a successful hit then the reality of how hard this is will come home to you. You do not merely need to lay 2.75 inch diameter and 42 inch long bat on 5 ounce, 9 inch circumference  ball at speeds of 90+mph. You need to put the ball you have hit in play, in the wide ‘v’ in front of the hitter. You also need to do so in such a way that you do not get out – caught or beaten by a fielder’s throw to the base to which you are running. A good major league hitter will, over a career, achieve this about a third of the times he takes to the plate. This means that the best fail at what they are paid to do two-thirds of the time. Imagine failing at something you love two out of every three times. You’d have to be strong to cope with that, wouldn’t you? A home run is still harder. You need to connect with the aforementioned ball in such a way that if flies the 300 plus feet to the field’s edge and clears the wall there within the legal zone. A really good major league hitter, over the course of a 162 game season, will hit around 40 or more home runs.

Baseball is America’s game of myths and legends. It’s not the commercially dominant one – that status belongs to (American) football. But it is the one in which a nation continues to find at least a good part of its meaning. It gives rise to notions and phrases which have spread the globe: three strikes and you’re out, curve ball (not curved ball as some of my friends keep saying), touch base, step up to the plate; all of these are phrases which have entered parts of the global cultural lexicon with ubiquity. A home run or hitting it out of the park are concepts we can grasp – it’s something monumentally successful which is very hard to achieve. To do so in the context of major league baseball takes athletic power, almost supernatural levels of hand-eye co-ordination, a cool head under pressure in order to know when to go for it and when to refrain, and an elusive dash of luck.

I’ve always liked American sports. I have little time for the lazy ignorance which assumes that the stop-start and heavy padding of football means it’s not physically intense. As the ex-England rugby captain who trained with a football team will tell you, it’s the most physically intense sport there is. Including rugby. With an extra serving of the strategy and tactics of chess reinvented as a blood sport. As for those who dismiss baseball as rounders … well, by now you should have got the point.

So as we do when we visit my sister near San Francisco, we recently managed to see our baseball team – the Giants – live. Last Friday was my fourth live baseball game, each time seeing the Giants. I’d never seen a home run, and was of course longing for one. What we got was a special night. My wife and I, my sister and her husband, two of their three kids and my sister’s friend were off to see the San Francisco Giants. This is a successful team, winning two of the last three World Series; success can breed passionate fans and sell out crowds. We had tickets for a game with the Giants’ bitter rivals, the Los Angles Dodgers. Over the long season they play each other 15-20 times, and each one is broiling mass of emotion and passion. A sell-out 41,000 crowd on an early season, early summer San Francisco evening saw a low-scoring game defined for the most part by the Giants hanging on in on a game from which they should have been dismissed.

Hang in there they did. Low scoring in baseball usually implies two good teams and a bucket-full of tension; it was that, though in truth the first portion of the game was characterised by Giants errors from which the Dodgers should have made more capital. Good teams hang in there, though; so we entered the 9th and final inning with the scores level at 1-1. If a winner didn’t emerge, which seemed unlikely, we’d head for the potentially endless torment of sudden-death extra innings. The Dodgers, batting first, failed to score, stymied by Sergio Romo, the Giants’ electrifying close-out pitcher (meaning he specialises in finishing games – the pitcher who starts a game will never finish one; it’s just too long). Up came the Giants’ hitting line-up, to this point this evening stutteringly ineffective. With extra inning beckoning, Buster Posey came to the plate for the Giants. One pitch, one perfect connection. 41,000 stand watching the white ball describe a high but fading arc against the night sky. Go on. Go on. Go on. The arc dying over deep left field, it seems to gain a new lease of life. On it goes, over the fielder, somehow over the wall.

Home run. Game over, home team victory over bitter rivals in the bag. 41,000 (minus a few Dodgers fans) erupt in a spasm of joy. Posey jogs round, dives into his team mates at home plate.

I have now seen a home run. One game out of a 162 game season, more if the Giants make the play-offs as expected. Pause for a moment and think, though: what is going on in that moment of last-minute perfection?

It’s easy to criticise sport, especially if you seek to follow Jesus. Sport can obsess; it can and does become an idol, elevating money and celebrity at the expense of the ordinary and every day. To see only that misses the point. In a moment of near-perfection achieved, of a game irrefutably won, we in the stadium and watching or listening elsewhere are purely and simply caught up in the moment. Now to live purely for the present is another trap we Jesus-followers must avoid; we are called to see behind and beyond, to think and act with our eyes on eternity. But to do so, crucially, in a way which leads us to be present to the moment we are in. Giving it our full attention and focus; weeping or laughing or thinking or stopping or whatever is required to be done as fully as possible, then moving on. Not living in it, but fuelled by it, seeking to point ourselves and others to the eternally bigger reality of which this present moment pulls back the curtain. It is, to use the words Jesus spoke, ‘not worrying about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself...’.

Playing and following sport, if done well, allows us to consider the lily of the moment in front of us, to maximise it, to drink fully from it, to relish it and move on. For the Dodgers fans, it allows the same – in sport as in the rest of life, for those on the mountain top are relatively few. Most of us are down in the valley somewhere. For me, and for others that Friday night, we had a mountain-top moment of perfection, joy, euphoria, hope fulfilled. Most of my life I am not there. That much is true for most of us most of the time. Sport, when seen with the eyes of eternity, can help light and elevate the soul with moments of prowess and beauty and achievement; aware that most of the time we are reaching and grasping for it, falling short in the two-thirds majority moments of failing even at that to which we are most devoted.

So, consider the lilies: the cricket, the soccer, the rugby, the ball-game, the coffee, the painting, the child, the lesson-plan. For even in the two-thirds moments of apparent imperfection you will, if you stay present enough, see eternity’s curtain pulled back just a touch; enough to give you fuel for the journey onwards, upwards, downwards, on the level. Whatever the elevation, it’s still forward.

Scroll down for some of my wife’s brilliant photos of the night, and down further still for a link to her full collection of photos of the game.

If you’re not yet convinced by the romance and beauty of baseball, or just fancy a good watch, then I strongly recommend two wonderful films (which will I promise make sense to the newcomer). First and most importantly, the beautiful and beguiling Field Of Dreams. Then the more recent, more factual but no more real, Moneyball.

To see the decisive home run from this game go here (this link may not work outside the USA)

Also in this series: In praise of … counter-cultural sport

To see more of Bev’s photos of the evening click here.

Iron Man 3

Super-heroes are by definition people who are a little different. Not just in the powers or abilities which set them apart from the rest of us, but in what has led to them this point. Often they have found life difficult, sometimes darkness has shaped them from their childhood. For Iron Man, he’d been captured in war, suffered a life-threatening injury and found a way to turn it all for good.

All the same, he was still irritating. The movies bearing his name have presented Tony Stark (Iron Man’s every day identity) as a super sucessful business-man who can have whoever and whatever he wants. He also happens to be able to put on a cool iron suit and save the world every now and then. The first film was a riotous joyride; the second fun with a over-blown ending. This third one still puts the accent very much on fun. Robert Downey Junior’s lead character is still fast-talking, wise-cracking, insufferable and irritating (in a good way for the audience, in a bad way for anyone who wants a relationship with him). Now there’s feet of clay, though. He’s beset by occasional panic attacks about which he lives in denial and covers over with arrogance, bravado and the trappings of success. His iron suit, we’re allowed to suspect, is as much a protection against himself as against whatever foes the world has to offer. This time that takes the form of an elusive and strange terrorist master-mind with very public designs on the life of the President. It’s a fun build-up; Gwyenth Paltrow is irritatingly under-used in an important role when we see an unnecessary amount of bit-part male supporting players. Such is the way of a mega-dollar, institutionally sexist industry.

The climax is slightly too long also, stretched just past the point of too many robots doing slightly too much hitting of each other. The 3D is pointless, as always. But it’s a good, fun entry in the expanding super-hero movie universe; a universe of flawed heroes finding identity in their scars. Not bad role models, it turns out.

I rated this movie 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 7/10 on imdb.com. I saw this movie in 3D IMAX format.