Stuff Of The Year 2013, 4: Movies

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2013. I’m making this up as I go along, as it’s my game and my rules. This is the last in the series, and it’s the films that have stayed with me. I’ll stick with films I saw at the cinema in 2013. I’m in South Africa, so we don’t get all the same films or release dates as the rest of you … there’s a lot I miss or catch up on at a later date on TV or DVD or planes.To read my full review of each film, click on the movie title.

Silver Linings Playbook On the face of it a straightforward romantic comedy, this had layers within layers, good performances (even, and this has been a rarity for a while) from Robert De Niro, a healthy and helpful perspective on mental health issues, and was another feather-in-the-cap of the increasingly likeable Jennifer Lawrence. Deserved the recognition it got, and is better than you expect.

Gravity  There are faults in this film, but it’s a great ride and is the film that to date has made the best use of 3D to propel a story and enhance the cinematic experience. It’s not the best film of the year but it may well be the most significant, representing a change in the way films are made. Only the future will tell us, but this film looked and sounded like that future.

Argo  It seems a long time ago, but this nerve-shreddingly tense true-story directed by Ben Affleck came out on top in an Oscars race that could justifiably have been won by any of several films. With much to say and show about courage, humility and fake movies, it’s one you shouldn’t miss.

The Great Gatsby  I’d rather watch director Baz Luhrmann fall short than other less ambitious folk get everything they want done just so; inevitably a little mad, inevitably unable to capture the full magic of the book, there’s still whole segments of this film seared onto my memory. The film industry is better off with Luhrmann free to run a very colourful riot.

Zero Dark Thirty  With so much controversy blazing ahead of the film’s release, there was a moment when I thought I’d seen a different film to everyone else. What offended people so deeply, it seems, was being presented with one take on the truth and being invited to make moral decisions for yourself as opposed to have them made for you. An adult, intelligent, exciting film about one of the era’s defining issues pulled off the same trick as Argo and Captain Phillips: making a true story with an ending we all know gripping and engaging.

Pacific Rim  Director Guillermo Del Toro looked like he was letting his not inconsiderable intelligence have some fun here; the end result was the most outright enjoyable film of the year. My wife and I spent the whole film grinning and continued to do so for hours to come; and still do whenever it comes up in conversation. Deliriously enjoyable entertainment with wit, heart and soul.

Les Miserables  Irresistable, frankly. There are faults here, but the film doesn’t lack for courage; taking a high-wire approach of recording all the singing live and a director who found a way to make the cinematic theatrical without losing its essence. Anne Hathaway stole headlines, and justifiably, but there was much else to admire too. Once seen, never forgotten.

Captain Phillips A true-story thriller with political awareness and things to say about globalisation; two brilliant central performances and tension that grips like a vice and doesn’t let go. If I had to pick a film of the year, this would probably be it; it deserves awards recognition and it will be interesting to see if a film like this proves tempting to awards voters. If it does so, it will deserve every plaudit it gets.

The rest of this series …




Stuff Of The Year 2013, 3: TV

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2013. I’m making this up as I go along, as it’s my game and my rules, so it may not all have been produced in 2013 – the point is that the media in question have all been a big part of my year. Where possible, I’ll link to the media in question, or an article I wrote about them; click on a title to follow a link if I’ve found one suitable. This post’s about the TV I’ve been stimulated by in 2013.

Remember when you were told that TV would rot your brain? Someone once told me that having a TV is like having an open sewer in your living room. Nonsense. Of course there’s rubbish stuff on TV; the immoral, the bad, the lazy, the vacuous. I’d also argue, as many others have, that we’re in a golden age of TV drama – writing, acting, direction and effects have gone up several notches in the last few years as the juggernaut of pay-tv has continued to bring more money into the industry and forced those who produce new material to up their game. Downloads and DVD box sets mean you can enjoy whole series at your leisure, and PVRs make recording and watching only what you want to see viable. Ironically the vacuous on TV these days is pseudo-reality; talent shows and inane rolling news, with all the depth of analysis and honesty of Victorian penny-dreadfuls. There’s great art out there in 45 minutes chunks. Here’s what I’ve especially enjoyed in 2013.

Top Of The Lake  Cinema’s Jane Campion directed this New Zealand set short series about the hunt for a missing girl in and around a small-town. So much more than a police story, this was about gender and power, fear of the unknown and how our past changes our present, all laced with beautiful photography and some brilliant performances. Especially outstanding was Mad Men‘s and The West Wing‘s Elisabeth Moss in the lead role; all the better for giving us a complex and conflicted female character around whom the whole drama focussed.

Mad Men  I’m a couple of seasons behind the rest of the world here, but this understated, complex drama around a 1950s American advertising firm continues to show us the origins of the modern age of consumption, the way work can eat a person’s soul and the danger of private and public not matching up. Lead character Don Draper is a disintegrating personality in whom we can all see ourselves.

Justified  Pretty much anyone who writes about TV agrees that there is no logical reason to explain why Justified isn’t one of the biggest shows on TV. The performances are note-perfect, the episodes set around crime in small town Kentucky are full of whip-crack smart wit, dark foreboding and shoot-outs that may not be frequent but when they do come are brilliantly staged. Using Elmore Leonard’s crime story as a jumping-off point, this series took the great writer’s trademarks and has given them flesh, blood and texture on-screen. The title refers to a law-enforcement officer’s justified use of force; scratch the surface, of course, and each character is searching for his or her own unique brand of justification. Brilliant, and bizarrely you probably haven’t heard of it.

The Newsroom The Newsroom isn’t as good as the writer’s most famous work, The West Wing; then neither is A Comedy Of Errors as good as Romeo and Juliet. A stronger, still flawed second series, about a TV news show set around the reporting of real-life events broadened scope to largely good effect and took characters to interesting new places. It’s far from Sorkin’s best work; but that’s still exalted company.

Doctor Who   To rise to the challenge of 50 years of the show, and a growing global audience, and to pull it off with two classy, different, year-end specials was an achievement of note. One of TV’s longest-running shows, and arguably one of the UK’s most significant piece of homegrown pop culture has had a very good year.

House Of Cards  Taking a set of novels and a show from Thatcher’s Britain, transporting to contemporary America and launching it on an online service only initially was bold, and destined to annoy. That it didn’t is down to the inspired casting of Kevin Spacey in the central role and faithfulness to the original’s eternal themes of power, corruption, truth and falsehood. Into the bargain, it may just have initiated a new revolution in how TV is made and consumed.

Breaking Bad  I watched the first series of this in the UK several years ago, then annoyingly lost track on moving abroad. Having watched every episode of the 5 seasons this year, I’m in no doubt in joining the many ready to hail this show about a family man with a terminal cancer diagnosis who turns to drug manufacturing to leave a legacy to his family as a genuinely great achievement. One or two narrative mis-steps early on, and female characters less on the periphery would have lifted this even further. A morality play, thriller and family portrait for the ages.

Veep  A winning British formula, translated by British writers to American politics worked against all expectations. Behind the scenes political comedy, with fine performances, addictively and acerbically funny.

Other posts in this series:

Stuff Of 2013, 1: Music

Stuff Of 2013, 2: Books

Stuff Of The Year 2013, 2: Books

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2013. I’m making this up as I go along, as it’s my game and my rules, so it may not all have been produced in 2013 – the point is that the media in question have all been a big part of my year. Where possible, I’ll link to the media in question, or an article I wrote about them; click on a title to follow a link if I’ve found one suitable. This post’s about the books I’ve read in 2013 that have most shaped me. You may notice from this that star-rating books is, for me, a fairly arbitrary process. They’re in the order I finished reading them, if you’re interested, ending with the most recent.

A Year Of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans Spending a year doing something and writing about it is in vogue at the moment. It lends itself to the discipline of blogging and the momentum gathering potential of social media. This book chronicles one woman’s journey through a year taking everything the Bible has to say about women literally. She’s a Christian with the desire to take both the Bible and society seriously, and the results in this book are funny, deceptively weighty without necessarily showing the academic working and respectful. Required reading, especially for any Christian (male or female) who’s ever quoted Proverbs 31 in reference to how a wife should be.

The Compassion Quest by Trystan Owain Hughes  There are very few authors who can make me think of  Eugene Peterson, but Trystan Owain Hughes is one of them. Concise at around 100 pages, this is a beautiful book inviting us to humble awe, to find God and each other in the everyday and to rescue us from lazy, culturally skewed discipleship which has the powerful lording it over the powerless.

The God Of Intimacy And Action by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling  One of the very few books linking a passion for social justice with spiritual practices, aiming to deepen our relationships with God as we live with responsive awareness to the needs around us. Worth reading not just because it’s one of the few like it, but because it’s a rich book born out of deep experience.

Absolution by Patrick Flanery  A crime story; a family drama; a thriller; a mediation on present-day South Africa; a book about fear; a book about hope; a book about writing books. A masterpiece.

On Warne by Gideon Haigh Cricket has a tradition of quality writing, and this is a good addition to that history; a small, beautifully formed and written book which isn’t so much a biography of the greatest bowler in history  as a reflection on him.

Bringing Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel  I know some struggle with her style, and I understand why. I don’t, and all I can say is that I’m a believer in these books. Historical fiction made vitally relevant to all our todays; we’re one book away from this being one of English literature’s greatest set of novels.

11/22/63 by Stephen King  When he’s good, he’s very good. This is a romantic, thrilling, time-travel-love-story-thriller showcasing King’s genius for storytelling, based around the assassination of JFK. It’s not a horror novel … I urge you to read this on your next holiday, especially if you’re one of those who thinks King is populist hack. Sometimes success is awarded to those with talent and an understanding of what people enjoy. This book is the perfect illustration of that.

The Pastor by Eugene Peterson I’ll blog on this in due course – the man I’ve never met, whose beautiful books have pastored me over the years writes his memoir of a life in pastoral work. It’s beautiful, and essential for anyone who is a pastor, has a pastor or is considering being a pastor.

Stuff Of 2013, 1: Music

Branching out from the Films Of The Year post last year, I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2013. I’m making this up as I go along, as it’s my game and my rules, so it may not all have been produced in 2013 – the point is that it’s been a big part of my year. Where possible, I’ll link to the media in question; click on a title to follow a link if I’ve found one suitable. First up, music. 

No Church In The Wild – Jay Z & Kanye West  Dark, addictive and hypnotic hip-hop, used to stunning effect in the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby movie. How can a song this catchy take in urban unrest, youth alienation, philosophy, hedonism, religion and some other stuff too? By ludicrous levels of talent, that’s how. A reminder that when he’s not believing his own hype, Kanye West is capable of matching Jay Z. (Note: the song contains explicit language).

 Crazy In Love – Emeli Sandé & The Bryan Ferry Orchestra (Kid Koala Version) Also on The Great Gatsby soundtrack, this takes Beyoncé’s modern classic pop song, serves it with a side of 1920s dance hall music and in so-doing proves a great pop song is always a great pop song.

Gold Teeth – dan le sac vs Scroobius Pip and Flux Pavilion 3 albums in and yet to let me down, these authentically British-sounding hip-hop types remain among my favourite artists. Relentlessly creative, witty and intelligent, subverting a flesh-obsessed culture and posing serious questions, they represent everything that can be good in their genre. This track is stick-in-the-head brilliant, and as good a piece of rapping as you’ll hear. It’s explicit, but don’t let that deceive you. This is a poem calling us to a better way.

So much for individual songs, now for a handful of albums. Links on individual track names.

AM – Arctic Monkeys A band who promised so much early on in their career lost their way for a while, but found it again … and then some. It’s a more grown up sound, and all the better for it; they show every sign of maturing into a group around for the long haul. They still write great songs, so why not sample … Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High or Do I Wanna Know?

Random Access Memories – Daft Punk  Sometimes an album does well because the publicity campaign is irresistible; sometimes because the music is good. It’s not perfect, of course, but this lived up to the hype, serving up an album of music you don’t so much listen to as inhabit. If you dismiss it as all done on computers … well, I’m sorry for you. Sample … Instant Crush or Lose Yourself To Dance or Get Lucky


Modern Vampires Of The City – Vampire Weekend It’s a long time since I fell head over heals in love with an album, and what a joy to do so again. It’s top of many end of year lists, and rightly so. Indie-pop that covers love, lust, theology, urban anonymity and much more with melodies to die for, stunning musicianship and rhythms, lyrics to linger in the memory. And some jokes too. I’ve laughed, cried, read, written sermons, been to the desert, celebrated and grieved to this. It’s just brilliant. Unquestionably my favourite album for years. Sample all of it, if you can. Or one of these … Step or Diane Young or Ya Hey or Unbelievers or Obvious Bicycle.

God’s terrible PR, Christian hypocrisy and the absurdity of Christmas

This post is an adaptation of a sermon I preached at the service of 9 lessons and carols at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town, 18th December 2013.

3 things have become briefly and abundantly clear to me as I’ve looked at the story of God this year. They’re not exactly new revelations, but here they are.

1) God is terrible at public relations

We say that the Christmas story is God’s big moment, the time when He unveils Himself to the world and shows us what He’s like. You’d expect power, shock and awe, wouldn’t you? You’d expect a solution to the problem of suffering, the meaning of life and incontrovertible proof. That’s what we’d do. Instead we get a lesson in how not to do public relations, the very worst sort of teaser campaign.

A star in the sky? We think it would be blindingly obvious, but if you’ve ever been to the desert you’ll know that when you look into the night sky you see a lot of stars. When I say a lot of stars, I mean a lot of stars. So you’d have to know the sky well. It’s not so much a sign as a needle in a haystack. Choirs of angels to shepherds on the hill? Brilliant – but totally unverifiable, and performing to people at the bottom of the economic food chain, in the middle of a night shift. They might as well have been hallucinating. A puking, bawling (despite the carol, he did cry) baby, born to a teenager before marriage. What’s more, she’s a virgin. Totally unverifiable. God’s revelation is, it seems, unverifiable and almost wilfully hard to come to grips with. Thanks. Don’t go into advertising, will you? Even God’s own book tells us that he wasn’t recognised. 

2) Christians are hypocrites

How many times have you heard, said or thought that? Those of us who are paid to hang around churches hear it a lot, especially at parties when people discover what we do for a living. Often we Christians try to say we’re not hypocrites; the truth is we are. At services of 9 lessons and carols there are readings from the Bible that tell the story of God’s dealing with people. It’s a story of people who can’t help but claim they’re special, have unique access to God and then go and do things their own way anyhow. The traditional first reading at a carol service is that brilliant picture from the Bible’s very beginning which shows us how people always leave God’s best in favour of what looks better in the short-term. To think that Christians and churches have such a habit of telling the rest of the world how to live, when so often we get it wrong ourselves. The message of the Christmas story – and rightly understood the Christmas story is all of human history – is that we are hypocrites and we’d do better to acknowledge that. So, sorry. Sorry we lecture and harangue and moralise when we can’t even sort ourselves out. I’m a hypocrite, Christians are hypocrites, all of us are hypocrites with aspirations and standards we know we can’t reach.

3) The message of Christmas is absurd

So where does this leave us? With an absurd solution, that’s where. No solution to the meaning of life, no answer as to why bad things happen to good people, no cure for cancer or HIV, no solution as to why my friend was murdered in September. None of the things I actually think I want. No wonder the darkness doesn’t even understand the light that’s been lit. I don’t understand it, either. Which is the point. I don’t get an answer; I get a baby named ‘God with us’ (Emmanuel). The message of Christmas is utterly absurd; it defeats my pride asking me to be content with not having an answer and to submit to a baby who cries and who’ll become a man dying a criminal’s death, and claiming an unverifiable resurrection. It asks me to be content not to know, but gives me permission to ask. Christmas tells me I’ve not so much got an answer as I have a companion.

In the long run, that may mean more. But it’s harder. Much harder. How foolishly wise God is.

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Middle chapter of trilogies are notoriously hard to make as fully satisfying experiences. You need to leave the narrative hanging enough to keep the audience coming back for more, but you need to provide enough narrative closure to not send audiences away frustrated and feeling let don. In the case of this 2nd instalment in The Hobbit trilogy, the job is made all the harder by stretching a 400 page book out to what will work out as somewhere around 7-9 hours of film over the three. Another problem faced by this film is that the first alienated some; it was felt by many to be too long with too little actually happening.

I was aware of those faults in the first one, but that didn’t mean I enjoyed it any less. I experienced the film’s real faults as a strange kind of grace – it felt deep and rich and poured over with love. It felt as if this was made by someone who actually cared. If the first film for me was an experience of grace, then this second was one of joy.

The same faults were there – it’s too long, too baggy, though there’s plenty of action in this episode the story is still stretched thin to breaking point. Then there’s Orlando Bloom, revisiting his role from the Lord Of The Rings, which makes some kind of narrative sense but does mean we have screen time with one of the dullest actors I’ve ever come across.

This episode is just so much fun, though. There’s shocks, scares and excitement. There’s some staggeringly thrilling and varied action set-pieces; even one which is clearly inspired by a fair-ground ride, but gets away with it through some wonderful cinematographic flourishes and some proper combat thrown into the mix. Where the first episode hit a real high with the Bilbo/Gollum scene, here there’s an equivalent in a wonderful Bilbo/Smaug (the dragon) interaction, brilliantly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. There is real entertainment and fun to be had here, a sense that this is a film that has been made with a grin on its face and a laugh in the belly.

If there’s a disappointment it’s in the amount of CGI – the computers worked overtime on some of this, and whilst it’s mostly good quality it’s just a little too much. On one key scene, the quality dips, a lake of molten gold clearly unreal and fabricated to the point that it’s momentarily distracting, pulling us out of the excitement of the moment at an important juncture.

Still, though, joy is joy despite faults and problems. This film has joy in abundance. It could have easily lost 30 minutes running-time; the romance sub-plot is pointless; Orlando Bloom is a dull actor; there’s too much computer work. It’s deliriously entertaining, though, made with a rich kind of deep care that speaks of people who love what they’re doing and want to make something more than money. It’s easy to say that in making 3 films of such a slim source this is an exercise in making money; instead think of it as adding depth and texture to a world that Peter Jackson as director and his team have made as much their own creative universe as Tolkien did.

Part 1, grace; Part 2, joy. Part 3 … ?

I rated this film 8/10 on and 4/5 on

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom … a flawed film, but is that the point?

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is a good, but flawed film built around two excellent central performances. That, however, is not the point. It’s a film that for me threatens to lodge itself in my conciousness alongside two others which take a place in my personal story that outweighs their quality.

The first of these is Cry Freedom. I’m not one of those who rated Richard Attenborough so highly as a director; Cry Freedom is flawed and at times manipulative and unconvincing. I saw it at just the right time, 14 years old, with some dawning awareness of what was happening in apartheid South Africa. With its devastating final scenes and end-credits crawl of victims of the apartheid state, it became my first experience of conscious political anger. I boiled with rage, I cried, I didn’t understand – but also I did understand, I could see that this wasn’t right. So despite the film’s many flaws it is forever for me associated with an awakening to what was going on in the world. Years later I watched the film on television, with a young South African adult. He hadn’t seen it before, banned as it was under the apartheid regime. There it was again, playing a role in my life beyond its qualities as a work of art.

Next was Schindler’s ListA brilliantly acted film, a step too far with that red coat. No matter. I grew up, aware of the life of my Jewish grandmother and her narrow escape from the death camps. As a child I had nightmares of how a modern-day holocaust would play out. In those dreams I hid by strapping myself to the underside of a mattress. Schindler’s List put my childhood fears on-screen; in the staggering clearing of the ghetto sequence a boy dies, bullets piercing the mattress under which he had strapped himself. A flawed film, and I understand why some don’t like it. For me though, not the point.

So to Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. I’ve lived in South Africa for nearly four years, with a sense that for the time being at least, God has called us here. There is an unavoidable way in which this country sits on my heart. It is not mine, but I yearn for it not to waste its own miracle. We find ourselves here in important days. The death of Madiba weighs heavy, but with celebration too; celebration at what has been achieved and how far the country has come. Next year’s election will be the first in which the ‘born-frees’ (those born into a democratic South Africa) can vote. There is much speculation as what this will mean. In truth, no one knows. Next year the country will have been a democracy for 20 years. This is a country emerging from turbulent teenage years into an uncertain adulthood with a myriad of opportunities ahead. What a time to lose your father.

The film is based on Madiba’s own autobiography, and does not try to portray him as perfect. It does not shirk from his difficult domestic life; it explains his support of a violent struggle and allows the viewers the good grace to arrive at an opinion of their own. Long as it is, at 2 hours and 20 minutes, it doesn’t feel long and could do with a bit more space in the opening sections to allow the young Madiba more time to breathe. Idris Elba is brilliant in the title role, his accent good enough; his screen presence and transformation through the years astonishing. He is a magnetic actor, capable of expressing the deep complexity and centrifugal power of a leader people want to follow. Naomie Harris gives considerable weight to the difficult role of Winnie; such a controversial figure, here not excused but understood. If this film wins awards, she should probably be the most honoured. It’s a brave, clear-sighted take on a role from which many would shy away. There are flaws. The soundtrack doesn’t fit; the lapses into news footage of the day work on some occasions and not others. There is so much that could be covered in this film that isn’t, one wonders if in reality we need a ten episode mini-series rather than a film on which too much compression is forced. The direction and cinematography are at times too static and unimaginative; more artful framing, more intelligent transitions from scene to scene might have packed more of a punch.

So much for the work of art. Its flaws are obvious. As I watched, stories echoed. Of friends denied a vote for half their lives. Who couldn’t visit a beach. Who couldn’t try on clothes in shops. All until Mandela emerged from prison and spoke forgiveness. I can’t separate the film’s story from those stories. It also leaves me with a challenge. Would I, living under a similar regime, choose the right side? Would I be one of those helping bend the arc of history towards justice? I don’t know. I hope so, but honestly I can’t say. None of us can say what we would have done.

This I know. For years I had nightmares of false imprisonment. A film such as this would have provoked those tortured dreams in me. As I lay in bed waiting for sleep to come just an hour after the film, I listened to a song that has long been a favourite. It speaks of fear gone, of new understanding gained. I remembered that it’s been many years since I was scared of such false imprisonment. The film is flawed indeed, but it has reminded me that I do not fear. What matters now is what I choose.

Would I choose well? I don’t know. This film tells the story of a man who chose well, and who bent the arc of the universe towards justice. I am without excuse.

I rated this film 7/10 on and 4/5 on