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

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Skyfall

What to say that hasn’t already been said, now it has arrived in South Africa, a month on from the UK and USA release?

Not much that’s new, I should think.

So, this. A brave decision to award American Beauty director Sam Mendes pays off handsomely. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s brilliantly shot. It has a darkly satisfying undertone. It does lose the plot a little when it goes to Scotland. The end of the film set-up for future movies doesn’t quite work. For a 50th anniversary it does all it should: look back, look forward, and in doing so say a bit about the place of Bond’s country in the world – decaying, but it’s also rediscovering itself. Javier Bardem is brilliant. The death of one character doesn’t work because the character hadn’t developed enough. A measure of the film’s success is that when Bond cries, it sits right.

Nothing new to say, really. It’s just fantastic, with a few reservations.

I rated this movie 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 8/10 on imdb.com

Movies that move me 2: Fire In Babylon

For two years or so, early in my life as ordained church minister, I was co-chaplain to Leyton Orient Football Club. This wasn’t a paid post – it was in the parish I was working in, and an opportunity arose to help out there as part of my day-to-day work. Leyton Orient isn’t a big club – outside of English-based football fans, it’s a club unlikely to be known. It sits in a diverse, bustling part of East London, at the heart of the community of Leyton from which it takes its name. It has a small stadium which I rarely saw full. It was during my time there that a chaplain at another club said to me words which explain much – both about the mentality of the professional athlete and that of the committed fan. “There are two crucial lessons you need to learn as a sports chaplain”, he said. “The first lesson is that it’s only a game. The second is that it’s never only a game. Learn those lessons and you’ll be alright”.

Those words came back to me when I first saw Fire In Babylon – a 2010 documentary film about the dominant West Indies test cricket  team of the 1980s. They were only a playing a game – but, as the film compellingly demonstrates, it was never only a game. The film simply, creatively tells the story of Test match cricket as the quintessentially English pursuit. A sport exported via colonialism to a select, but diverse collection of countries: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean Islands. It’s that last geographic destination that this film concentrates on. That’s because cricket is everything to that group. Everything in that they only exist as a collective for the purposes of international cricket. The West Indies national anthem is about cricket. The team plays home games on a variety of different islands. They unite, different cultures and passports and places, around this and this only.

So the team rediscovered something – aggressive, direct fast bowling. I say fast – a small, hard missile aimed at your head or ribcage, travelling at 90-95 mph. As team after team fell – literally fell – before them Test cricket was turned from a 5-day chess match to a full on contact sport. Equipment and rules changed, and the West Indies dominated.

But what this meant beyond the game was more important. A team of black players, finding their own voice and expression, defeating and humiliating the white colonial masters on their own soil. Wrestling with the decision to play – for money – in apartheid South Africa. Moving from loveable, but flawed entertainers to a beautiful, brilliant, at times flawless professional team. Bob Marley was the soundtrack, the West Indies team the visuals.

Fire In Babylon is the 90 minute explanation, with fantastic music, of why 5 day test cricket is way more than a sport. It’s a test of mind and body, heart and soul. It’s an expression of freedom and means of oppression. It is  – like all great sport – metaphor for many, many deeper things. It reminds me that when I can’t tear myself away from updates and coverage of an England Test match or Arsenal; that the emotions that bruise, batter, enrapture and enfold me as I follow are not really about the sport. They are about the family I grew up watching these sports in, learning about them in, going to the grounds as part of. These games aren’t games; they are a way of telling the story of our lives, our families, our countries and our communities. Ask South Africa about 1995; Liverpool Football Club about the number 96; or the American people why it’s important that a team of (then) no stars called the Patriots won the Superbowl in early 2002. If you want a book to read, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is as good as you’ll get on this – in that case from the point of view of a football fan.

There must always be perspective – we all know people, or are people who need to remember that sport is, just sport. But those tempted to criticise and sneer must also know that it’s never just that. Fire In Babylon shows and tells this, to stunning effect.

At the time, some said the West Indies team that was sweeping all before it was ruining Test cricket. In a way they were.

But sometimes you have to ruin something in order to discover it.

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

Winter’s Bone: Quiet brilliance

Take dialogue more mumbled than spoken. Add in photography that attempts to wring beauty out of desertion. Season with a sprinkling of actors & production team you haven’t heard of. Garnish with the fact that the plot doesn’t really kick in until half-way through. Consider also that I saw this in the very worst of viewing environments (on a long-haul flight). What do you get?

You get Winter’s Bone, a thing of stark elegiac beauty, a thriller/family drama that comments deeply on issues of rural poverty, the nature of broken families, gender roles and the sometimes traumatic rites of passage of growing up forced on some before their time. You get a film that’s everything and nothing, where the music hymns the deep beauty of the scenery, the hidden beauty of the people and the stark beauty of broken down buildings and burned out cars.

It’s the story of a 17-year-old girl, playing mother to her mother and her younger siblings, and forced to try to track down her disappeared, drug-dealing father for reasons best left for the film to unfold for you, in the shockingly understated way it does. I realise all that I’m saying makes this film sound so dull and worthy. It isn’t. It has the very best sort of tension – a slow-burning one. Your heart and soul will break for the daughter-mother at the center of it all. The story grips and shocks, and there are twists which you won’t see coming, lulled by beauty both visual and aural. It speaks to issues of poverty and identity and family right at the heart of a fracturing society.

In short, this is a rare film. It’s one of the best of the year, as well as one of the most important. See it, then buy it, and meditate on it in front of an open fire, with low lights and a strong drink.

Inception

It’s almost hard to know what to say about this. It feels like everything has been pretty much said already. I can’t remember the last time such volume was aid or written about a summer blockbuster. Christopher Nolan – of Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight fame – has clearly been told by his studio to do whatever he likes with a huge budget after the runaway success of The Dark Knight.

I’ve enjoyed every one of Nolan’s. He’s fond of keeping the audience guessing, and woe to you if you tune out for a moment or two at the wrong time. He also knows how to put together a proper action sequence, which means that he’s finding for himself an audience for his brand of intelligent entertainment who would otherwise be going to see The Expendables. For which we can only thank him. He’s sometimes a bit too fond of showing off his narrative dexterity, but let’s be honest – when was the last time you felt the need to criticise a major blockbuster for being a bit too smart?  Exactly – even when he gets that a little wrong, we still owe him some praise for the willingness to raise the bar.

All this is there in Inception, in spades. You know the deal by now, I’m sure. Leo DiCaprio is specialist in the bizarre art/science of inserting ideas into the sub-conscious by way of manufactured dreams. This time he’s called up to do a job of such complexity that everyone else tells him it’s impossible – on the understanding that if he does, he’ll be able to see clear his name regarding his wife’s death and see his children again.

So it begins. Action sequences inside dreams that show us the at-times impossible created with the emphasis on the physical rather than compute generated. Which means more impact, more ‘crunch’, just a more visceral experience – and all the more exciting for it. A plot that layers and folds back on itself faster than a Freudian slip. Leo at his best, Ellen Page continuing her welcome journey to her surely inevitable stardom (I really hope she continues to choose the good stuff she’s chosen thus far…), and Michael Caine, who always seems to crop up somewhere in a Christopher Nolan film.

All of Nolan’s films are , in some way, about how our past affects our present  – and our future, before we’re even aware it’s doing so. If that’s been hinted at, sometimes only subtly but there all the same, since the backward storytelling of his debut Memento then it’s at the front and centre of this, the most successful film he’s made. In the unlikely event you haven’t seen it, I can’t say much more than that. For now, this: even as you let the film’s perfect final scene play in your mind and have the compulsory debate as to whether it means one thing or the other, you also know that you’ve seen a major blockbuster explore how past traumas worm into our sub-conscious and affect us more than we know. It’s hard to believe such a big film manages this – but perhaps that’s why it’s touched such a chord with so many. We all have pasts, all have skeletons of different sizes and shapes in our cupboards. Think about it and the film leaves you asking: what will happen if I don’t seek healing here? Get it, from the God of past, present and future.

Quite Funny People … and hopefully normal service hereby resumed

More apologies. We think technical problems have now been solved, so more normal blogging service looks like being resumed. That’s the plan. While I’m on the subject, the move to South Africa and change of life this results in means less trips to the cinema than in the UK, and sometimes vastly different release dates. So from now on, I’ll be blogging about whatever I see, DVD or cinema – and maybe even the occasional book or other thing. No rules….we’ll just see where it goes to…

I’m no great Adam Sandler fan, not that I can claim to have seen a vast number of his films. Or so I thought. In fact, on checking imdb.com I discovered that I’d only seen one of his films – The Wedding Singer – and I hadn’t completely hated that; in fact, I think I quite enjoyed it. I must have heard reviewers talk about many of his others and just assumed I wouldn’t like them – probably correctly.

So I come to Funny People. One of those compromise DVD rentals that tend not to end so well. I certainly didn’t have hugely high hopes. If I tell you that it’s one of those films with lots of the star’s comedy friends in it, then you’ll be expecting apoplexy from me. Discover that it’s directed by Judd Apatow, then you may be concerned for my long-term health outlook.

There’s so much in this that counts against me liking this. It’s a comedy film about a stand-up comic, with famous people playing themselves. It’s ‘serious’. It has a comedy fight in it. Some of the comedy is of the deliberately bad type. Yet it somehow just works. Adam Sandler plays a comic with a reputation for big-budget, less than good, films (I know, suspend your belief for a moment); he discovers a life-threatening illness. His stand-up takes a dark turn, and he gets a struggling young comic to write for him and pander to him. The catch? What does Sandler do when he discovers he’s cured and the love and affection being showered on him may not be as sincere as he thought? Throw in some not unpredictable romantic entanglements, and there you have it.

Funny People tries to be a grown-up comedy which is About Things, and please the more regular Sandler audience taste for broader bro-mance. Yet get past the celebrity love-in back-slapping, and the needlessly coarse stand-up footage (good stand-up isn’t always about sex, Sandler), and there really is something going on. I just wonder if what’s going is quite so intentional – and I mean that in a good way. The performances may be smug, but at least they’re good. Even if everyone is playing themselves to greater or lesser extents  – and I’d say that’s open to debate – at least they do so well. Which is much less easy than you might think. The flat-mate relationships go deeper than the usual comedy movie cliche – I’ve seen many a group of single friends just like this. The sense of fearful competition is painfully real, and funny.

Most significantly, though,  the change of comedy gears from slapstick to broad to Serious And About Stuff, may occasionally grate it does seem strangely believable. Maybe we’re seeing more than the film-makers intended: that the whole ‘sad clown’ cliche is not empty but contains a grain of truth. What the finished product of Funny People presents us with may be the idea that a true professional comic is a shifting sand dune of varied personalities, none of them at ease with one another.  One scene shows us Sandler’s character, watching an old film of his with the children of an ex he wants back. He can hardly bear to watch what’s bought him his life and most of his significant relationships – he doesn’t want to watch it, but can’t bear to be parted from it. Does Sandler really feel that about himself? There’s no doubt he’s trying to show the comedy industry as it is; is so, is he really saying that put a life of comedy and performance together, and you seem to end up with a such a diminished sense of self that you’re not even aware of when you’re truly revealing it. That you’re conflicted with narcissism and self-hatred. If the life of the comic shown here really is this isolating, competitive and needing such a complete performance even in private, then no-one inside the industry would, surely, be at peace. Sandler’s character doesn’t know the truth of what he thinks of himself. Is that what he’s saying about himself?

If that probably ignorant speculation is in fact true, then that’s a big step further than Sandler, Apatow et al intended to go. It certainly means I ended up quite liking the film. It does, though mean by watching it you’re watching the unintended comedy of embarrassment; like The Office, only for real. If that doesn’t keep you thinking long after the credits roll, then nothing will.