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

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.