A few months after my friend was murdered by terrorists in a Kenyan shopping mall, I was watching TV. It was Homeland, the thriller series where the lines between good and bad are blurred and the plot is only marginally unbelievable. There came a moment in the episode I found myself relaxing with that one evening where a character has a lead on a likely opportunity to kill a terrorist who was in the early stages of planning an atrocity. He pulls up alongside the terrorist’s car on his motorbike, ready to bomb the vehicle the terrorist rides in. As he does so, he becomes aware of a problem, someone in the terrorist’s car who is not supposed to be there. A child. He rides alongside the car for a while, caught in a terrible moment of indecision. Eventually he rides away, the opportunity untaken, conscience only temporarily salved.
Pre-Westgate, I would have been where most viewers would have been in that sequence – feeling the anguish, aware of the wrestle with conscience, willing him not to kill the child. But this was a new reality I was now in, one where for one week the headlines had been about my friend. There was no conscious mental process. Just this strong, distasteful feeling: take the shot. Risk the child’s life for the sake of those who will be killed. Kill the bastard. I was angry – at the terrorists for what they had done and the way it had changed me, at myself for stooping to their level, at the world for being so unredeemed. I remembered how I had felt, what I said in the aftermath of my friend’s murder: just give a few minutes alone with one of the perpetrators tied to a chair. It won’t take long.
My anger’s intensity has relented in the months since, but the wrestles of conscience don’t go away. The cinema release of Eye In The Sky presented me with an opportunity to see how, or if, I’ve changed. It tells the story of the hunt for members of Al-Shabaab (the group that murdered my friend). They are tracked by drone to a single house – the order to capture them is about to be given when it becomes apparent that they are preparing suicide vests for an imminent attack. The priority moves from capture to kill; the order to release the missile that will save innocent lives is on the brink of completion when a child sets up to sell bread outside the house in question. She will likely be killed if the missile is fired. The rest of the film is the moral, military and political dilemmas being wrestled with, passed up chains of command inside darkened rooms around the globe, all the while the clock ticking down to massive civilian loss of life. Actually, that depersonalises it. Yes, the clock was ticking – to the murder of my friend, all over again.
The film articulates most of the related dilemmas with which I have wrestled since my friend’s death. It justice to most of them, if not ever really articulating as it needs to the political complexities involved. It is a failing – though not a significant one – that we never really grasp the geopolitical backdrop that brings countries to these awful choices. It’s economically directed, the lack of violence ratcheting up the tension to levels where you long for some sort of release. The performances are fine – this an ensemble piece, rather than a star vehicle. Helen Mirren does fairly well despite being miscast; I’d like to have seen more of the brilliant Aaron Paul as the soldier with his finger on the button, Barkhad Abdi is consummate, and every line Alan Rickman delivers makes us ache that at what we’ve lost with his death.
The film offers no answers, no conclusions. Every option is flawed, every character compromised, every view has a valid alternative. The film asks all the questions I have … and leaves them hanging in a Kenyan dustbowl, strewn with rubble and human remains. As a leader I empathise with the personal cost of taking decisions most have no understanding of; thanks to some nameless men and women with guns I now have skin in terrorism game, complicating to previously unimagined levels a decision I’ll never have to take. Some justice systems give – for good reason – the guilty and the judge the opportunity to hear the affect the crime has had on victims and those close to them. I understand that; but now I’ve been as close to violent crime as this, I also understand why such revelations should never be the only factor in sentencing the guilty. I, for one, would be too angry to be just.
I am not by nature an angry or a violent person; though I do have a knack for breaking up violent confrontations. I’ve only ever been properly hit once – by a fan of the same football team I support, in an ironic case of mistaken identity. So it’s strange to find myself intimately involved in the moral quagmire of violence. All I’ve come to know is that my cosy neo-pacifist principles no longer sit so easily or safely – I think I still hold them, but I hold them with alarming looseness.
I watched the film on Palm Sunday evening, the first day of Holy Week; an inexorable journey towards an act of horrific, prolonged, violent innocent suffering. That knowledge adds to the mix that mine is a Jesus who knows what it’s like to be on the end of both unrighteous anger – his murderers’ – and righteous (the anger of His Father which he took the consequences of that day). He didn’t deserve that latter anger, but He took it anyway. It says to me that, along with some alarmingly violent expressions of anger in the Psalms – there is a place for this emotion which is often the least acceptable to church subcultures. It says that innocent suffering is right at the heart of what I have given my life to; it is identified with and wept over, its cost and consequences eternally felt.
On its own, the film left me in anger – and to an extent, that’s OK. It also made me fear that maybe the terrorists win even when we capture of kill them – they’ve reduced us in some way, whether in mind or deed, to their level, even for a moment. But then Holy Week, with its complexities and denials and political blame-shifting and violence and resurrection come along. I don’t understand it any more than I used – probably less so, in fact. But the week gives me a glimpse of when this will end, and that Someone at least understands. And that, for now, is just about enough.
I rated this movie 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com
Giving meaning to tragedy and trauma is dangerous ground. Whether you’re a preacher, a writer, a journalist, a film-maker or just somebody trying to walk alongside a person experiencing trauma, the traps are the same. Say too much and you risk the trite, the trivial, the weightless; say too little and you risk a silence which is filled by worst imaginings. Try to find meaning and you flirt with missing the point, not doing justice to the pain; try to let events speak for themselves and you come close to nihilism. There’s so much that can go wrong it can feel like it’s safest to do nothing if you don’t have to, unless events don’t force themselves on you. Trauma is distant to most of us; but as I found out when my when friend was murdered by terrorists, that approach is ultimately of no use. Sometimes the worst case happens, the unthinkable becomes your daily concern, the unimaginable your lived experience.
This is the territory we are in with Room, the film adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s massively successful novel (an adaption written by the novelist). I had little knowledge of the book personally, but the film-makers want us to be in no doubt as to where this film goes – the bare facts may make this a hard sell, but the publicity wants us to believe that this will affirm life without patronising or dismissing pain. It’s the story of a young woman (faultlessly played by Brie Larson) confined in one room for seven years where she’s repeatedly raped by her captor; she inhabits the room with her five-year old son to whom she gave birth in the room as a result of the rapes. Jack’s world is one in four walls; it’s all he’s ever known, all he’s ever seen save for what he sees through the single window in the form of a skylight and the television. This is a child’s eye view film; it is through him we perceive the abuse which we never see; it’s through him we learn of his mother’s past life on the outside; it’s with him that we eventually journey to the outside world in the film’s final third.
Jack’s mum has helped him create a fantastical world within the four walls of his existence; around his fifth birthday she tries to explain the outside world to him. He’s disbelieving, but gradually grasps towards something resembling truth. When he attempts to affect their escape he’s just about aware enough to cope with the revelation that there are other people and animals and places.
We know there are real-world equivalents to this fictional story, but still this film is trying to imagine the unimaginable. By all rights it should be inadequate or trite or tasteless or just plain unbelievable. In trying to make a film that isn’t a thriller or a drama or comedy but instead a hymn to love and relationships, the film-makers should be falling flat on their faces. Instead they’ve given us a genuinely unforgettable, overwhelming and transcendent film that helps us rediscover ourselves, our loved ones and the world around us. It finds beauty in the desperately ordinary thanks to some remarkable cinematography that makes the small room both a place of captivity and a universe to discover; the relationships are perfectly drawn and life-affirming thanks to Brie Larson’s and Jacob Tremblay’s (the son, Jack) achingly beautiful performances. The depths of their relationship are unfathomable yet also utterly recognisable to anyone who has ever loved. The startlingly brilliant music haunts, prods, pushes and finally engulfs. We never see the rape or abuse take place, but we’re left in no doubt as to its reality, its inescapability. Yet we’re never without hope or beauty, and ultimately the film lets us and the characters find life and love in new, beautiful and subtle ways.
There’s much to say about Room, but at the end of the day there’s little I can properly articulate. I can think of maybe one other film (Pan’s Labyrinth – in many ways very different, in others very similar) that has come close to making me feel as moved, alive, tearful and full of wonder as this one. It’s a rare work of art that leaves you speechless yet desperate to talk, but Room is one of them.
I rated this movie 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 10/10 on imdb.com
It’s been a long time since I blogged on films I’d seen. In part this was because of my sabbatical, during which I enforced a break on myself; in part because I was wondering if anybody was actually interested. Then I had a couple of conversations which made it clear people were bothered about this, so I’m going to get back into it. As regular readers will know, we’re about to become foster parents, and we’re not sure how this will impact important things like movie-watching. Time will tell. For now, here’s a brief catch-up on the main cinema visits of recent months, in no special order. Click the titles for a trailer.
A blistering, visceral thriller about the drug war on the Mexican/American border that’s lifted into the stratosphere by an outstanding performance from Emily Blunt and some astonishing cinematography. It’s about more than drugs, too; it’s about how to stay clean in a dirty world, it’s about the politics of race, it’s about fear. There are some staggering action sequences, and the tensest traffic jam in movie history. I have a slight unease about how women are presented in the movie; though it’s hard to reach a conclusion on what, if anything, the film is saying on that. Otherwise, this remains one of the films of the year.
Spectacular and impressive true story about a group climbing, stranded and suffering on Everest. When it should be moving it perhaps isn’t moving enough, but there are moments of humanity amidst the spectacle.
A gentle, but deceptively weighty, drama about an aged Sherlock Holmes forming a friendship with his house-keeper’s son wrapped around the kernel of Holmsian mystery. Ian McKellan is excellent in the title role, a performance and a film which linger long in the air after viewing, like a fine cologne.
We saw this on what is allegedly the world’s largest cinema screen (Auckland), and what a visual treat it is. This is scorched-earth action cinema, throwing everything at the screen, most of which sticks for a long time. Tom Hardy is a good, almost wordless, reinvention of an iconic action hero; but the film’s central character is played by Charlize Theron in a plot which promises a proto-feminist perspective, marginally undermined by the costume design. You won’t get a more satisfying or artful action film this year.
Ridley Scott’s latest is warm, witty and exciting; far more of all those three than you expect a man-stranded-somewhere-inhospitable movie to be. It’s totally implausible yet somehow convincing on its own terms, packed with generous performances and held together by fine direction from one of cinema’s great creators of worlds.
A true and should be significant story is less than the sum of its parts. Good performances, understated direction, a decent script … all somehow doesn’t quite add up to the moving and ethically stimulating whole this should be. In part that’s because the big plot developments feel somewhat telegraphed; or maybe it’s just because I saw this in one of those cinemas with nice beanbags and good beer and I was a little distracted. It’s not bad; it’s decent, just not great.
This series is still better than it has a right to be, primarily because director Joss Whedon knows how to entertain and the cast are completely committed to making this fun. You can’t shake the feeling, however, that Marvel’s big project is starting to fray at its ever expanding edges. It’s all very impressive and it’s an engaging watch, but maybe everyone needs to take a break now. They won’t, though.
The first movie was a grin-inducing out of nowhere hit that left you with a warm glow. The inevitable sequel has lost some of the charm and under-the-radar quality that made the original so appealing, and some of the jokes really miss the mark here, but this is still funnier than most comedies doing the rounds (not a high goal to aim for, admittedly). Even in an inferior sequel, the world is still a better place with these characters and films in it.
Steven Spielberg’s true-life cold war thriller is beautiful to look at and engagingly acted by Tom Hanks and especially Mark Rylance; but the script passed through too many hands to feel coherent and the result is a very enjoyable film that still slightly disappoints in not delivering the food for the mind its really aiming for.
Gun-play and good theology don’t have a happy history together. You can usually bet that if a theological viewpoint needs the reinforcement of heavy weaponry, it’s flawed. Just ask the Tea Party. Not so with South African film-maker Neil Blomkamp’s latest.
Let’s be clear from the start: this is no masterpiece; nor is it as good as his breakout first film District 9. But it is better than the confused surface-sheen of second feature Elysium. We’re in near-future Johannesburg, where crime is controlled by intelligent police-robots exclusively provided by one weapons-company. Dev Patel is the genius behind it, and it just so happens that in the shape of a reconstituted damaged robot that’s he cracked the problem of evolving artificial intelligence (the title character, in a brilliant motion-capture performance by Blomkamp stalwart Sharlto Copley). The picture is complicated by a team of gangsters (played terribly by South African music stars Die Antwoord) stealing Chappie and some internal company rivalry from Hugh Jackman and his really big robot Moose. So the story develops … sort of. Being kind, plot isn’t this film’s strong point. There are holes in the narrative that Moose could blunder through without noticing: conveniently non-existent security at a cutting edge arms-firm? Motive-less characters? Characters with no discernible need to appear in the story at all? All these more are present and incorrect.
Where it scores, though, is in some blistering but simply shot action scenes and an eye for the big issues. All three of Blomkamp’s features this far have had bigger dimensions than simply themselves at work, and here we’re in serious territory. The film asks and asks you to consider fundamental questions: what it means to be created, what it means to be human, the nature of consciousness and the purpose of the body. It’s this latest that’s perhaps the most interesting: just when you think it’s going to default into some vaguely spiritual nonsense about the body not really mattering, it goes somewhere really clever and suggests the body is so important that after death we have to get new ones. That’s orthodox-Christian theology, in case you didn’t spot it; we don’t leave bodies behind, we get remade ones. That’s why God came in a body, not just a spirit. It’s an unusual sci-fi action film the companion reading for which should be the New Testament and a Tom Wright primer.
It’s just a shame that the holes in the plot are so obvious that the performances are not consistent enough; better casting here, more care there and we’d have something at least as good as District 9 on our hands. Neill Blomkamp’s next film seems likely to be the next in the Alien series. He’s clearly got the talent and the backing to do it; but on such hallowed ground he’ll need to take more care than this, and have patience to match his vision. If he can harness it, it’ll be something special.
I rated this film 3/5 on rottentmatoes.com and 7/10 on imdb.com
It’s disconcerting when the news of your childhood becomes the historical movies of your adulthood. Pride did nothing if not confirm for me that I have officially hit middle-age.
It’s a British comedic-drama about events during the Miners Strike in the UK of 1984 (I was 11, just about aware of what was going on in the wider-world). It focuses on two small communities: one is a small mining town in Wales of the sort that suffered most during that time. The other is a London-based group of gay and lesbian people who form LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners). They take on the small Welsh community as a project for which to fundraise. The film is that story, of unlikely friendships and culture-clashes. In tone it is closes to British comedies like The Full Monty or Brassed Off; an edge of social realism and a triumph of underdogs storyline.
There’s some fine performances – Bill Nighy is at his understated best, drawing laughs at times without uttering a word; the comedic tone sits well with some serious themes of social distress and prejudice and it’s hard not to leave the cinema without at least a small air-punch of satisfaction at the film’s feel good narrative arc.
It’s not without flaws though. Some things just seem a little too easy to be true; did they really, for instance, break into singing that easily in the minibus? At times the adventures of the London-based characters come off too much like a school outing rather than engaging with one of the biggest social issues of the day. More seriously is an overly romantic view of history. The miners’ strike was a brutal and painful period of British history for all sorts of reasons, not least because it fractured families and communities. The film presents to us a picture of communities and towns united in their stand; I can’t speak for the individual town in question, but the brutal reality of the strike is that it was opposed from within the community of miners as well as by the government. Members of families fell into bitter, lifelong dispute; strike-breakers were, and maybe still are, ‘scabs’. All this because some felt they and their families couldn’t pay the price of their families’ well-being. It’s tempting to, as the film does, to play the strike as a unified struggle; but it wasn’t and it does a grave injustice to the complexity of real people in unimaginably difficult situations to pretend otherwise.
None of this detracts from the joy of the film; it should also be noted, though, that the nature of the film means that the humour is broader than The Full Monty (it really is); and sometimes that too (especially towards the end) seems a bit too easy to be true. The film also suffers slightly from Return Of The King-itis in that seems to have about three endings. By the time the last one rolled around I was ready for the film to actually end.
It doesn’t out-stay its welcome, though. The reservations are real, but not major problems.
I rated this film 4/5 on rottemtomatoes.com and 8/10 on imdb.com
Moving countries is a sure way to put all sorts of parts of your psyche to the test. The new culture(s), the change in weather patterns, missing your favourite cafe or radio station or park, the relationships to build .. all of these and so much more splash around the surfaces of the consciousness. You are out-of-place: you know it, others know it. It’s obvious.
When we moved to South Africa nearly 5 years ago we experienced all of this. It felt like we were constantly missing out on something. It’s not so much destabilising as it is the creation of a whole new identity. Much of what you had become accustomed to building around you as part of your sense of self is gone and you have to do it all over again. One of the things I discovered I was missing out on was a name for this experience of missing out on things. I don’t know if it’s especially popular in this country or this part of this country, but I kept hearing and noticing 4 letters as part of speech. FOMO. It sounded like the name of a music festival; it would be casually slipped into a conversation and the locals would laugh. ‘FOMO! Ahh…’ Like the new car I hadn’t seen before, it was suddenly everywhere.
It stands for Fear Of Missing Out, and apparently it’s a thing. I don’t know where it came from and I’m not especially keen on finding out, but some people were having counselling or prayer ministry to deal with their FOMO. I was missing out on missing out.
Another area I was missing out on had nothing to do with moving to South Africa, but has more to do with the fact that my wife and I don’t have children. Though we both love films, this does mean that we tend to avoid seeing films that are aimed at more of an all-age audience and tend to concentrate on more ‘adult’ fare. (no, not that sort of adult). This means that sometimes we miss out; over the last couple of years it felt like we’d Missed Out in a very big way. Because, you see, we hadn’t seen Frozen.
Frozen is one of those animated films that has become a huge cultural icon. ‘Let It Go’ is everywhere. People are always posting hilarious versions of it on social media relating to news events or life in general; comments would be made about the cold not bothering me anyway. There were debates about how feminist it is, or isn’t. None of which I watched, understood or partook in. I was Missing Out and I didn’t like the feeling. Or so I thought.
So we recorded it off the television, and did the decent thing last week. We watched it as originally intended – with an eleven year old who’s currently staying with us along with her mother. Do you think you have ever Missed Out on something? Not only had the 11-year old not seen Frozen before, she’s never seen snow or ice (we live in Cape Town).
Most of you don’t need me to tell you that Frozen is a really good film. The songs really do work; Let It Go is proper ear-worm fodder; the snowman and the reindeer are classic creations. I laughed out loud several times, as did the 11-year old. Finding ourselves thinking about fostering I thought … if I was responsible for an 11-year old girl, would I want her to see this film? Yes, probably, I thought. Not only is it great fun but it’s refreshing to see an animated princess who has agency and decision-making power and who isn’t defined by the colour pink or her choice of man. It’s got a way to go – I was a little troubled by the subtext that a woman’s emotions affects everything and everyone around her – but this is much better a role model for young girls than many an all-age film I’ve come across before.
For me it’s a good animated film; up there with Up and Wall-E but not in Toy Story trilogy territory. But here’s the thing; it was better when I hadn’t seen it. Not having seen it had actually become part of me; a small part of me, but part of me nonetheless. I had gained a bit of cultural kudos from not having seen it; I was the person who hadn’t seen Frozen!!! Now I was one of the crowd, just like everyone else. I was laughing at the jokes. I understand the lines about the cold not bothering me – but the thing is, it kind of does. It was a bit better on the outside.
That shouldn’t surprise me. People tend to experience me as a bit ‘alternative’; just this week a friend in the same group discussion as me started laughing as soon as I took the microphone because he ‘just knew you’d say something subversive‘. I guess he was right; I talked about the way a certain passage of the Bible was used in demonic and dangerous ways by evangelicals like us.
I need to watch this, though. Defining myself by something other than what Jesus says about me is very dangerous territory. I may prefer being a little on the edge but He says I’m chosen and accepted and in. If I’m not careful I could find myself frozen out just to make sure my fragile sense of self is intact. Better to get that from Him, not whether I’ve seen a given movie or what I think about a certain passage.
Frozen is a good movie; I’m glad I’ve seen it. I do miss missing out, though.
Not to worry. Big Hero 6 has just been released.
I rated this film 4/5 on rottemtomatoes.com and 8/10 on imdb.com