Stuff of The Year 2016, 1: Movies

As a new (foster) dad in 2016, my movie watching and blogging in general has been curtailed; an app on my phone has a lengthy list of ‘must see’ when South African release dates or TV schedules or plane journeys or streaming services or life in general permit  Despite that, here’s a few comments (in no particular order) about each of the films I’ve seen this year that I’m recalling with good memories at the end of 2016 (note: they may not all have been released in 2016). Where possible, I’ve linked to earlier blogs about them, and/or a trailer. I’m confident that all of these films will enhance your life; but there’s no accounting for taste … 
 
 
By rights this should be a traumatic, so painful it’s barely watchable, experience. That the film manages to do justice to the pain of the situation it portrays without ever feeling invasive or voyeuristic, is a testament to the brilliance of the direction; that it goes still further, finding beauty, hope and even transcendence is almost miraculous. Brie Larson’s central performance is extraordinary, and Jacob Tremblay as the young boy through whom the awfulness is seen puts in a turn that somehow weds maturity and innocence. It’s an almost overwhelming film; one that breathes some life and hope into a painful 2016.
 
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Quentin Tarantino needs someone to say ‘no’ to him; or at least to cut 30-45 minutes from most of his films when he’s not watching. The Hateful Eight isn’t immune to those truths; but I really enjoyed it. The self-imposed restrictions of the setting force a kind of economy (granted, not an economy of length) onto the film; the film drips with the simmering threat of violence and treachery in which Tarantino specialises. There’s a swathe of fine performances, the cinematography is brilliant. It’s been a long, long time since this prodigiously talented director made a truly great film; but this one is the most out and out enjoyable one he’s given us in many years.
 
I was fully prepared to take a tone of sneering distance to this film; especially as some mentioned it in similar tone to Kick Ass, a film which had much to admire but with which I had some significant problems (though not the ones some had). I was totally won over by Deadpool, though. I laughed, and I kept laughing for the whole film; I don’t think it’s in the same league as Shaun of The Dead, but I think that was the last film in which I laughed as much as I did in this one. Ryan Reynolds has superb comic timing; the rest of the cast know their roles, and play them well. The postmodern knowingness never alienates; the film has a surprising warmth despite the tone of the humour.
 
Due to my personal connections with this film’s subject matter, I approached it with nervous caution. I was surprised, and encouraged, to find an exciting story that does justice to the complexity of my own journey around how to respond to the terrorists who murdered m y friend. I’m a little biased to any film with Aaron Paul, and on reflection perhaps Helen Mirren was miscast; but I’m deeply grateful for a film which makes an attempt to do justice to the complexities of one of the defining issues of our era. I suspect I’ll find it hard to re-watch, but that’s no criticism; it’s simply the story of my experience.
 
This is a joy filled piece with the Coen brothers displaying the lightness of touch that lies behind the best of their comic work. As is so often the case, tremendous performances are drawn from all the players, and there are so may scenes that still linger with me months later, causing me to chuckle out loud in awkward silences when my my mind wonders. Would that it were so simple for me to just recite to you the jokes; this isn’t, though, a film of jokes and one-liners. It’s rather a delicate plot that strings together a series of brilliantly funny, carefully constructed comedic moments and exchanges.
 
Of course I was looking forward to this; I’ve always enjoyed the Harry Potter stories; I felt the films were patchy (the first two especially so). I was excited to see how her world would play out on screen without a book to adhere to. I was also apprehensive; as a new foster dad, I’d taken my 13-year old foster son to the cinema a few times this year. I don’t think he’d seen many films before coming to us; he certainly found it hard to sit through a whole film this time last year. He saw The BFG with my wife which he really liked (I’ve not caught up with it); Zootopia/Zootropolis (again, I missed it) was enjoyed. As a child who has experienced a lot of loss in his life, he thought Finding Dory was too sad to really enjoy. I wondered about Fantastic Beasts; was it too British for a boy who’s never been outside the Western Cape of South Africa, and is only just learning to read? Does he even like fantasy? His comments on coming out: “It was brilliant. It was scary. I want to see it again”. Job done; the first time he’s come out of a film with me, desperate to see it again (he has). I loved it too – much to say, joy and wonder in the right measures. Small criticisms – like the scenes inside the suitcase don’t quite work – don’t detract from this is a magical piece of storytelling.
 
An 80s (Irish) school romance-musical? Too much? Not at all. This is one of those films that you can’t help but walk away from smiling. Life-affirmingly uplifting, with proper new songs that work in their own right. If you watch this and don’t come out happy, then I’d find it hard to love you.
 
A few years ago the director of Arrival made a thriller/drama (Prisoners) that was much lauded but didn’t quite work for me. Then he gave us Sicario, an excellent thriller around the Mexico-USA drug trade. Then Arrival, which is simply wonderful. Though the plot is largely a staple one, it still kept the tension brewing and boiling; I didn’t see the resolution coming, which is testament to how engrossed I was. It demands much of star Amy Adams, who puts in a performance of depth and compassion; the soundtrack is devastatingly powerful (and, to my non-musically trained ears, unconventional); the cinematography creative – there some startlingly beautiful images that you just can’t shake from your mind for weeks to come. It recalls 2001, Momento, Inception, Interstellar and much else  – doing justice to all of them whilst still being its own vision. It’s themes are never more relevant at the end of such a difficult year; and to those of us nervous as to how this director will approach the Bladerunner sequel in 2017 now have much excitement and hope to manage.
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On Holy Week, anger, and terrorists

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