#haveseenmonday: Who Is My Neighbour? Attack The Block Asks Some Questions That Won’t Go Away

Over the last few years I’ve learned about ‘the other’; the person or people we keep at a distance, see as a generic group where the individuals who make up the group all share the same characteristics. These are traits that I don’t like, and they’re almost all people with whom we disagree in some ways. We can ‘other’ (it can be a verb also – like ‘medal’ can be a verb at the Olympics – which is a linguistic development about which I hold reservations) anybody. Take your pick: liberals, conservatives, Leave voters, Remain voters, non-voters, Trump supporters, the EFF, the ANC, whites, blacks, coloureds, gays, women, trans, bi. And so on; all of these and more I see being ‘othered’ in some way. Sometimes by me. It’s a way, I’m understanding, of keeping the challenge the person or group being othered presents to me at a distance; a way of not listening. A way of preserving my comfy echo-chamber (which was a human trait long before social media made it more obvious).

This was what was going through my mind when I revisited the 2011 British science-fiction/horror/comedy Attack The Block. I hold this film in great affection; a film which reminds me of London even more 9 years after moving to Cape Town. Starring a young John Boyega and Jodie Whittaker (they’ve done alright since, haven’t they?), it starts with a startling sequence of a young nurse (Whittaker) walking home from a shift on Bonfire Night. She’s on the phone, walking down a quiet, dark street. As she finishes her call, she realises she’s surrounded by a group of young men (teenagers, led by Boyega), on their bikes, armed with blades. They want her phone and jewellery; it’s a frightening scene, one which will play with familiarity to so many. All of a sudden a parked car next to them blows up as something falls from the sky on to it; there’s something inside the car. Whittaker runs away. The something turns out to be an alien, which the boys kill. As they head back to their home in the tower block (which is also home to Whittaker), the dead alien’s compatriots seek the boys out for revenge. What follows is a funny, violent, at times scare-inducing, play on all sorts of familiar film tropes, with dialogue that expertly picks up the language and intonation of many a South London teenager (or at least it did 8 years ago; in preparation, the director rode the top bus of London busses for a few weeks, listening to and recording teenagers speaking to make sure his film would sound authentic).


It’s no spoiler to say that along with a multitude of nods to influential and cult films and books (I’m not even going to start down that rabbit hole), the film takes us to a place where the nurse and the teenagers who began the film in conflict end up finding each other and working together. Where initially they ‘other’ each other (most notably in a brilliant, breathless, funny scene where they all end up in the same flat together), by the end they’re working for and sacrificing for one another. The boys confess to Whittaker’s nurse that they carry weapons because “we’re as scared as you”, a moment which causes her to pause in the middle of a comedic yet urgent situation. Are we invited to consider that the boys are ‘othering’ the aliens (who are, after all, trying to defend an attack on one of their own); as the boys say at one point “They’re f***ing monsters”, a phrase often heard on the lips of an angry person lashing out a group perceived to have inflicted wrong?

The film ends on a note I’d forgotten, that resonated with and challenged me. Faced with the chance to get justice for the mugging, Whittaker refuses to identify John Boyega’s gang leader. “They’re my neighbours; they protected me.”, she says. For the follower of Jesus, that’s a phrase eerily reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus challenges us to care for the very people we are most likely to describe as enemies, ‘the other’; a parable told in response to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’. A few hours later I watched this TED talk (click on these words) by a South African journalist who was very public on the receiving end of a social media shaming for a mistake she made, ending with her losing her job. In it she reflects on the costs and consequences of shaming, and how we might go about things differently with those with whom we disagree; I reflect that when I shame someone out loud or in my mind as sexist/racist/whatever it is, I can easily ‘other’ them, the better to shut out any challenge from them which I may need to hear. Not that I excuse whatever the prejudice may be; but the question remains: how do I, we, do this better? And where is that same prejudice prevalent in myself?

Attack The Block appears to be a frivilous, esepecially British, sort of film that is entertaining but forgotten quickly. But it’s hard to forget; not only does it work well because it respects science-fiction, horror and comedy equally; and that it’s simply endlessly quotable, stacked with some great jokes and set-pieces. It’s also hard to forget because it asks me to confront in myself my gravitational pull to ‘other’ all sorts of people who upset and discomfort me; people who are in fact my neighbour; people who I maybe should seek to defend rather than shame.

Which is after all what I believe Jesus does for me.

Pitch Perfect (2012)

Planes are bad for our judgement. It’s something about the totally artificial nature of it all – eating, drinking, watching a wide selections of movies on demand, sleep-deprivation and time-zone randomness. Somehow that all seems to combine to rob me of the capacity to think clearly. My stomach usually does funny things too.

Which is why I rarely blog about a film I see for the first time on a plane. It’s not a good context to form a considered opinion in. Hence last year I found myself on a flight to or from South Africa watching Pitch Perfect, a musical-comedy about college a capella groups, in which stomachs also occasionally do funny things. Bizarrely, it was a film about which I’d heard nothing but good things. Every reviewer or friend seemed to have gone into it expecting little and emerged with a huge grin on their faces. Not being convinced, I only found the reserves of strength to watch it mid-air. I really enjoyed it. Really enjoyed it. Must have been the altitude, or free drink, or tiredness. Discard opinion instantly.

So I re-watched it this week. Much to my chagrin, it was still good. Still laugh-out loud funny. In many ways it’s an entirely conventional college movie; the plot is resolutely un-startling. Central character Becca (Anna Kendrick) goes through a regulation transformation from alternative-outsider to part of a group in which she can be herself. The underdogs do what underdogs do. Several things, however, elevate it above the run of the mill.

First the music just works. A capella has a kind of intrinsic joy which lends the comedy an energy it wouldn’t otherwise have. The scenes of live performance have an irresistible verve. Then there’s Anna Kendrick, who does little of the actual comic work instead providing a still centre for the real comedy to happen around, a real straight-woman to the rest of the clowns and comics. There’s also the fact that the script is sharp, economical and knowing, referencing classic 80s films without them feeling like smart-crowd in-jokes. And packed, of course, with loads of good jokes and quotable lines.

Along with all that, what I really liked about, what was really refreshing was that this was a comedy with women at the centre and men at the edge; where romance was a sub-plot and looks largely irrelevant. It’s proper comedy without pressure to conform or any of the drab attempts to ‘shock’ of the Hangover-type brands.The film’s surprising levels of success – enough for a sequel to be in pre-production as I write. It’s not a film to change lives, but it is a film worthy of your attention and, if Hollywood can take its lead, could shape the industry for a while to come; away from young-male centred identikit cash generators to a wider sense of what we all want to see. More power to it.

This time around, I watched this movie on TV.

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

Blue Jasmine: Shining A Light

Let’s get a few things out of the way first. This is not one of those ‘return to form’ films that artists who have been working longer than they haven’t seem to generate almost at will if you believe some media. Such a phrase is a marketing tool and a critic’s lazy line for designed to appeal to those who last engaged properly with an artist’s work in the early, unequivocally loved, era and must be tempted back with some promise of glories past. It takes no account of the fact that the really great artists  make mistakes over the course of along career but also add depth and texture to their work.

So, Blue Jasmine is not a return to form for Woody Allen. Simply put it’s a really good film from one of the era’s premier artists at work in any genre. It’s hard to love, admittedly – Cate Blanchett is Jasmine, whose story is told along parallel time paths; she’d married a rich businessman (Alec Baldwin) who kept in her an impossibly lavish lifestyle. Eventually the law catches up with him; he ends up in prison, she seeking shelter and solace from her sister (Sally Hawkins), a woman for whom Jasmine’s social-climbing is a foreign land. Jasmine takes up much of the film’s running time and she’s not a pleasant person. It’s a gamble to make such a figure the focus of a story which seeks to compel and amuse together.

There’s much going on here, whether it’s in the parallels of Jasmine’s past and present; the two sisters and their relationships; Jasmine’s compulsive lying to herself as much to anyone from whom she may be able to get something; her dependence on pills, alcohol and possessions …. all of these and more give us a richly textured tragic comedy. Some may find the tone uncertain or the apparently deliberately theatrical structure of the story hard to embrace. It’s true that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s the point, of course. You do both at the same time – the fall of people so obviously living beyond their means and unable to see themselves for what they are is funny, but also achingly sad. What might I be hiding from myself?,  the reflective viewer will ask.

Like all good Woody Allen films, the script and direction serve to allow the actors to do their work well. There’s not a weak performance in here, from Alec Baldwin’s money-worshipping deceptions to Ginger’s (Jasmine’s sister) love interests, to the children. Sally Hawkins is exceptional;, and under-stated, as Ginger herself, needy but deceptively secure and strong. Around all these fine and self-effacing performances, Cate Blanchett’s pivots and holds the film together. It’s an exceptional performance, making a hard-woman to live desperately familiar and believable. We all know people who lie to themselves, as Jasmine does; we all know people whose addictions are simply more socially acceptable than those holding others int heir grip, as Jasmine’s are; we all people who use relationships and possessions and money and appearance to distract others and themselves from what’s really within, as Jasmine does. What should scare us is how close to home this hits.

It’s a brilliant film which may be a touch abrasive, a touch too mixed in tone, a touch too subtle to gain the real success of Allen’s most loved films. We should treasure that he’s still working, however, and enjoy films like this for what they are: honest, rich, subtle and deep comedic dramas which will, if we let them, shine a light on ourselves as much on others.

I rated this film 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 9/10 on imdb.com

About Time: Warmth and wit calling us to courageous honesty

Richard Curtis writes about people who don’t exist. Or, more precisely, he writes about the sort of people you can vaguely recognise but whom you know in reality are far less interesting than how they are made to appear on-screen. His films since 4 Weddings And A Funeral have created a kind of mass-market Britishness which feels comfy and cosy in the way of a hot chocolate on a rainy autumn night; people with impossibly high incomes who seem to do no work, people who fall in love with Americans, people who are politically conservative but morally liberal and able to take two months off in the summer to lie in the garden in Cornwall and drink tea. Rather than devolving into cliché, which is how its tempting to understand his work, what this kind of comfort-blanket film-making has allowed him to do (at his best) is to allow us to examine emotions with which we are all familiar, all in the context of a kind of only just out of reach fantasy setting.

About Time is for me his best film to date. This doesn’t mean it isn’t flawed. It is. The characters are predictable in that the men can’t speak about feelings and the women are all gorgeous; it would be nice if someone in the film was a bit … well, not rich. Despite most of the film being set in London there’s none of the rich diversity that makes London a place I love to live in. All these flaws are present, and more. Despite that, the film works; deeply so.

Tim (Domhnall Glesson) reaches 21 years-old and discovers from his father (Bill Nighy, of course) that the men in his family can travel in time. They do so in a typically reserved way; they go into a dark room, close their eyes and clench fists, thinking hard about the time they want to be in. They can only go back to a point in their own lives, and when they do so there’s only one of them. So a typical Richard Curtis romantic comedy develops, complete with glamorous American woman in the form of Rachel McAdams and the usual eccentric uncles. The time travel has, as it needs to, its own rules and sticks to them, so the whole thing is narratively coherent in a way that such films often fail to be. With the time travel element this will be labelled as science fiction, which is misleading; it’s so lightly played that we never really feel snapped out of a world we think we recognise. It allows a new wrinkle on Curtis upper-class humour, a kind of ‘un-bumbling’ which allows the men to become more who they wish they were and the who their women want them to be.

The film takes wings in two places. One, in the form of Tom Hollander in a vital supporting role; his part as a self-important playwright is beautifully written and as anyone who watches British TV comedy knows, Hollander has almost supernatural levels of comic timing. He can reduce me to tears of laughter with a pause for breath.

The second, and more affecting, area in which the film succeeds abundantly is in Tim’s relationship with his father. Significant at the film’s start, almost disconcertingly absent in the middle section, it’s how the film is tied up and unified in the conclusion. It feels like an unfair caricature of Britishness  – and it is an unfair caricature – but what the cliché of pathologically emotionally inarticulate males allows us is a way into is a gracious but firm reminder to say what we need and want to say before it’s too late. This is the film’s emotional heart; it’s sentimental button-pushing which works perfectly; you’re left in no doubt what the film’s trying to do and it earns forgiveness for cliché and sentiment by the good-hearted wit of the whole piece. It’s also beautifully filmed; individual shots composed with a painterly eye, occasionally and powerfully switching to hand-held shaking cameras. Your eyes and your heart are fully engaged by a wealth of well-meaning intentions, so you’re in the mood to forgive flaws which would otherwise annoy.

Maybe I’m just at a place in my life where I was ready for this. The still recent and fresh loss of a good friend in violent, tragic and public circumstances has rammed to the unwilling front of my consciousness the need for the sort of courageous honesty which allows us to keep short accounts with people; to not let the sun go down on our anger, as the Bible beautifully puts it. There’s more to open accounts in relationships than anger, of course; there’s the expression of deep love and appreciation and admiration; there’s forgiveness; there’s praise; there’s so much more. The anger can be the urgent one because it can so easily get in the way of the others; unexpressed and unworked through (those two must go together) it can asphyxiate a relationship with alarming speed. It’s hard to say what we really think and feel to people – positive or negative – because we’re so habitually afraid of rejection, of looking foolish or of getting the words wrong. Appropriately enough, then, the circumstances of our lives may mean that About Time is a (yes) timely reminder that these are things worth risking.

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

The Angels’ Share

Survey the list of award front-runners and, ultimately, winners and you’ll find they’re dominated by serious films with weighty subject matters. It takes a lot for a comedy to break through and be taken seriously. There’s a kind of snobbery to that – and also it implies a misunderstanding that there’s less ‘art’ to making something that’s genuinely funny. There isn’t. It’s just as hard to make people cry happy tears as it is sad tears.

British director Ken Loach is best known for his serious dramas – politically charged films, laced with gritty social realism. That’s to do him a disservice, though. As with his latest offering, he’s equally adept at light comedy as he is dark drama. The Angels’ Share tells the story of a group of young Scottish adults serving community payback for crimes they’re found guilty of. One of them finds he has a hitherto unexpected gift for detecting and describing the subtle flavours of a fine single malt whisky. So their journey takes them into the world of whisky – and ultimately to a money-making plot of stealing, deception and intrigue.

It’s a lovely film. The comedy is light, pitch-perfect. The characters beautifully drawn. The tone is just as much that of social-realism as it is in Loach’s more ‘serious’ films – but here the direction is different. That’s not to say there isn’t a serious side – the meeting between criminal and crime-victim to talk about the consequences of the crime committed is moving and memorable; there’s an undercurrent of lurking vengeful violence which repeatedly threatens to explode into the foreground. Gentle comedy still has a dark side, and the real world of the urban poverty the characters are trying to escape is still there.

The film ends with escape to a promised better life for one character and the offer of escape for others. The viewer’s left with a smile, and the memory of many laughs. And also a tantalising question – escape has been offered but will it be taken? The implication is maybe not. The edge of uncertainty is the film’s final gift; how many of us can really say we make good choices every time, even when the clear opportunity is presented? The Angels’ Share is a comedy, but nonetheless real for it.

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

The Infidel: Only in Britain…

The Infidel is a little British comedy with big ideas. In some ways it’s a bit of high-concept film – that horrible Hollywood marketing term for a film which can be summed up in one sentence. Here’s the one sentence: a Muslim British man discovers that he was born Jewish.

Stand well back ignite. It could have wrong in one of 2 ways: it could have been staggeringly crass and insensitive; or it could have been insufferably earnest and self-righteous. It certainly isn’t the first, and it only verges on the second for about five minutes towards the end. It’s real and funny and true, earthed in the realities of multi-cultural London highlighting the simultaneous diversity and intolerance of the city of a hundred villages that will be wonderfully familiar to any who have lived there.

There are two strands to the film’s plot: one the man’s search for his father and his own roots, the other his daughter’s desired engagement and marriage. So it touches on keystones for diversity and maintaining distinctiveness, but no-one’s pretending it’s a major contribution to issues of holding ethnic and religious diversity together. In citing the ‘we all worship the same God’ argument however briefly at the end, it displays a theological ignorance that won’t seem to go away from the debate, especially from many of the apparently more intelligent observers.

Even so. It’s a bright, smart, funny and beautifully played film. It could only, really, have been made in the UK. And so much the better for it.

Men Who Stare At Goats: The Book

In Hamlet, when talk of the ghost scares but fails to full convince an ordinary man, he’s told that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. It’s a poetic way of saying that as long as you live with an enquiring and open mind, you’ll find yourself surprised.

Reading Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare At Goats, the same sort of thoughts go through the mind. It’s generally best not to compare a film adaptation with the book it is based on – arguments of fidelity are pointless when you are dealing with two radically different art forms. Even reading a book requires interpretation and a kind of mental editing, so of course that happens to the power of twenty in film adaptations. The film of this book, though, was not without merit – but was ultimately disappointing. Good actors were left in search of a tone; the story just didn’t work and the final scene blew any good work that had gone before almost completely out of the water. In that context, though, the book the film was based on is a far more satisfying experience. Episodes portrayed in the film are noticeable here, but they’re in the context of a piece of investigative journalism related as a journey down an increasingly bizarre rabbit hole. Ronson’s tone is just right – he doesn’t mock, he doesn’t patronize – he allows the surreal events to speak for themselves. Members of the military researching how to stop a goat’s heart just by looking at it? Hamsters? Honestly, what else do you need to say? It’s one of those books you want to read in the same room as other people so that you can annoy them by reading sentences out and share the laughter. The laughter, though, is somehow never cruel and given the subject matter, that’s some commendation.

It’s the economy of style that works so well.  It serves comedy and it serves serious reflection equally well. Whether that later is in the influence of harmless madness on the darker aspects of the War on Terror, or a son’s quest to discover the truth of his father’s death – in each case the material breathes as Ronson step as graciously out of the way as Ewan McGregor’s character unhelpfully intruded.

So how and to whom to recommend this? Some may be put off by the film; either because they enjoyed it or they didn’t. Either way, it’s better; funnier and more insightful. Some may be put off because it seems a little too serious; who wants to read about Abu Ghraib again? I’ll leave it with this, then – I read almost all of this on a through the night flight, time flying by, laughs and pauses for thought staying just long enough to season the tepid airline food and recycled air. There was neither too much nor too little of each. Forget the film. Whatever your tastes, just read this.