The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2012)


The Impossible

Set in Thailand at the time of the Boxing Day Tsunami, this film is an attempt to convey the experience of the catastrophe through the experiences of one family, a husband, Henry (Ewan McGregor), and wife, Maria (Naomi Watts) and their three sons, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas and Simon, who were holidaying at a beach resort and were separated into two groups, each expecting the other might be dead. The title refers to both the extent of the disaster and to the apparent odds against all five remaining alive and finding one another in the midst of the devastation.

We only get ten – fifteen minutes to establish the family before the water crashes in, carrying everything with it in its terrifying wake. Maria, badly injured, is stranded in a marsh alone with the eldest son, Lucas, and we first follow them as the extent of Maria’s injuries becomes apparent and Luke is pushed to the extent of his physical and moral strength. For some time, the only other person they encounter is a young boy, Dan, seemingly orphaned, and their great fear is that Maria might die of her wounds before they ever find civilisation but when they finally encounter local people and are rescued, Maria’s trial really begins.

The action then shifts to Henry who is in a more urban (though no less devastated) setting, along with the two younger sons and a handful of other survivors. He encounters a much greater number of people and sees more of the chaos of the early rescue operation but decides to leave his sons with the rescue services, asking a fellow tourist to keep an eye on them, while he looks for Maria and Luke.

There have been complaints that the film ignores the plight of native Thais but I think this might be a little unfair. The film is trying to convey the experiences undergone by the real Maria and her family, as recounted in her autobiographical account and it seems likely to me that tourists probably did tend to group together. And, had we added coverage of locals, we could only do so by either adding material irrelevant to Maria’s experiences or significantly altering them. While the producers have opened themselves up to the criticism, to an extent, by changing the family from Spanish to Anglo-Saxon (thereby invalidating any claim that “but this is what really happened”), including Thais, beyond those encountered by Maria and Henry, would have required subtitles. Part of the effectiveness of the film is that we don’t understand what they don’t understand so (presuming you don’t speak Thai) we are immersed in their experience – the rationale, presumably, for changing the family from Spanish, to make a more directly identifiable family to an anglosaxon audience. There remains the question of whether it really is what happened, whether anything got embroidered in the process of gathering and writing the original tale (there is one moment in Lucas’ experience that seems a little saccharine but could, nonetheless be true) and in turning it into a film. So it’s probably best to view it in the light of it being an impression of the experience, rather than a factual account of it.

In any case, it worked pretty well for me, the two ostensible leads being very well acted and the special effects, both of the impact of the wave and of its aftermath, being convincing and compelling. The real star of this, though, is Tom Holland as Lucas. I’m not sure, given this was based on Maria’s account, if the film was originally intended to follow her as the main protagonist but the character of Lucas, as an innocent growing up in the most challenging circumstances imaginable, utterly dominates the film and is magnificently carried off by the young man.

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In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)


In Bruges

Everyone says how good this film is – and I’m not going to disagree. Two hit-men, seasoned pro Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and young buck Ray (Colin Farrell) arrive in the chocolate-box-pretty city of Bruges, as instructed by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes, only appearing initially as a voice full of obscenities over the phone). Neither man knows why they are there, except that they are hiding out after something went wrong in their last job.

Ken is perfectly happy to look round the historic city though Ray regards it as a “shithole”, wanting a more vibrant and metropolitan place. Ray also objects to Belgium’s excellent beers, regarding them as “gay”, and only happy when he can find a familiar lager. Ray manages, against instructions, to slip out and start a relationship with a pretty young actress, Choe (Clémence Poésy) – it seems Bruges might not be so terrible, after all.

Harry’s menacing and very sweary presence lingers over the two men as they wait for instructions which, when they arrive, throw a pall over Ray and Ken’s relationship and change the dynamic completely and a violent confrontation becomes inevitable.

With smart, funny dialogue and tremendous acting all round, this takes characters in all sorts of unexpected directions, with seemingly one-dimensional characters becoming surprisingly complex, even if much of the plot pans out broadly as can be anticipated.

Andrei Rublev (Andrey Tarkovsky, 1966)


andrei rublev

It’s easy to see why this film was banned by Soviet Russia. Its portrayal of Russia’s most renowned painter of religious icons is, despite a cryptic delivery, quite definitely approving of religious faith in a way bound to upset Bolshevik censors.

Almost nothing is known about the historical Rublev, so just about everything here is complete fiction and yet, given this complete freedom to invent, Tarkovsky does not go for a direct biography, nor the tale of an important episode in the life of the artist. Rather, he gives us a series of distinct episodes, the first two of which don’t feature him at all, except by mention in the second; in the second to last, he features almost incidentally, and the last is just a series of shots lingering over his (real surviving) works. In between, we see some stunning depictions of the violence of the birth of the Tsarist Russian state and the methods of art in the 14th Century – the forging of a church bell is a real wonder, even more awesome than a siege of a walled city!

The journey Rublev takes in these vignettes is one of arrogant gifted youth, through despairing resignation from the evils of the world, to reconnection with the world and his faith through watching someone else struggle with artistic creation.

This is a beautiful film, though mystifying; I wonder if it would speak to me more clearly if I shared a love of the icons, or the faith that gave rise to them.

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)


skyfall

My last cinema visit to watch a Bond film was the execrable Die Another Day, an experience so wretched that I vowed not to ever risk it again. DVD’s of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace (a film best watched immediately after Casino…, to which it is a postscript) later, and I was ready to reassess that vow.

Daniel Craig’s Bond is a more gritty portrayal than any since the early Connery and there is a nice mix of old and new. Here, after a breathtaking opening chase sequence, there is a change of pace as Bond disappears, presumed dead, and the focus shifts to M and the repercussions of the failure of Bond’s ‘final’ mission.

When MI6 is attacked, in a manner that suggests a personal vendetta against M, Bond returns to aid his boss. The standard globetrotting investigations ensue, at one point including a close encounter with Komodo Dragons, and a closer encounter with Berenice Marlohe’s Severine, until Bond unearths this film’s villain, Javier Bardem’s Silva. Much has been made of Silva but no-one else seems to see the likeness that jumped out at me, The League of Gentlemen’s Herr Lipp. Maybe it’s just me that sees it.

The film concludes with a siege sequence in the Scottish highlands that evokes Fleming’s Bond (read more thanthirty years ago) more effectively than I’ve seen before and the film wraps up in a way that sets up the franchise for years to come.

Best Bond ever? Possibly, though my personal preference is still for Casino Royale, with honourable mentions for Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012)


Life of Pi

I try not to put spoilers in these posts but I will, despite avoiding direct description, inevitably give away key ‘surprises’ here; it is essential in describing why I detest this film so much, regardless that so many tip it for Oscar success (though Titanic won a shedload of Oscars, and that’s a truly terrible movie). So look away now if you intend watching it…

This was adapted from a very successful and ‘much loved’ book. Having not read that book means I don’t know if my problem is with the adaptation or the original but I suspect it is the material that I find offensive – the film is well acted and beautifully made.

It starts off with a Caucasian Canadian visiting Pi, an Indian immigrant, having been told in India that Pi’s story is a ‘proof of god’. This immediately rubbed me up the wrong way. I’m an atheist and, while I’m happy to live and let live, claims of ‘proofs’ of god are absurd. Religious faith is necessarily absent of proof. Otherwise there wouldn’t be multiplicities of faiths, or agnosticism and atheism.

Despite this, I sat back and attempted to go with the film. For one thing, this might only be the opinion of the character, and not the message of the film. And, for another, if the film is not preaching at me, I can exercise the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ and just enjoy the fantasy. After all, Lord of the Rings is a Christian allegory, and that never bothered me. And so Pi began to tell his story, how he grew up in his father’s zoo, how he threw himself into each and every religious faith he encountered and how the zoo acquired a Bengal tiger named, by an administrative blunder, Richard Parker.

When Pi was a teenager, his father announced that the family were emigrating to Canada, taking the animals to sell as they began their new life. En route, the ship is wrecked in a storm, killing his family, the crew and almost all the animals and leaving Pi alone, almost, on a lifeboat – alone except for a few animals, including Richard Parker. Pi takes his ‘miraculous’ survival as a sign from God, never mind that the storm killed everyone else and prays for rescue. This kind of selfish view of God’s interest in your own personal salvation regardless of others always annoys me but, again, it is Pi’s story and he continues to tell it.

The scenes of how Pi and the tiger manage to co-exist on lifeboat and improvised raft are excellently constructed and, very nearly, convincing for large periods. It does take a turn into the fantastical a few times but, ok, I get that this is Pi’s story and am willing to roll with it.

It is when the ‘reveal’ comes (and this is the spoilery bit) that I really hated this film. It turns out that Pi’s fantasy was constructed to avoid thinking about a terrible reality. If that were as far as it went, I’d be perfectly happy as anyone can surely agree that people sometimes find terrible truths impossible to face; but the film seems to go much, much further. This is Pi’s ‘proof of god’. It seems (and the film seems to approve of Pi’s claim) that whatever you want to believe has an equal claim to factual accuracy. For anyone who cares about honesty, this is surely ethical anathema. There are consequences to false beliefs, sometimes very serious ones, and it is simply not ok to approach important questions with an approach from the outset that dismisses the claims of reality.

So, wonderfully acted and shot but ethically repellent to me. A beautifully made bag of shite.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012)


The Hobbit
Ok, when I saw the trailer for this recently I was less than impressed. Of course the visuals looked sumptous but the dialogue! Oh dear, it looked a clunker. Then of course there was the fact of Jackson’s making it into three (!) films, adding in loads of material from the appendices of Lord of the Rings and, judging by the trailer, loads of garbage from his own imagination, seemingly all to justify padding out a slight children’s book into three bloated blockbusters.

Then the reviews came out. Yes the film was overlong, particularly at the start, and no it wasn’t wholly successful but, overall, the reviews were positive and suggested that the film was worth watching. If I was going to see it, it had to be at a cinema worth going to see so I picked the Bradford IMAX, to get the maximum value from the 3D New Zealand/Middle Earth scenery. Overall, I’m glad I did. The film is worth seeing, and it’s worth seeing on a big screen, but it’s certainly not an unalloyed pleasure.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo is terrific and Ian McKellen is just as good as Gandalf as he ever was in Lord of the Rings. Richard Armitage and Ken Stott add value as Thorin and Balin, chief amongst the Dwarfs and there are welcome returns for Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving, and a nice cameo from Elijah Wood – as well as, of course, Andy Serkis as Gollum. Sylvester McCoy is also pretty good as Radagast, a barely mentioned figure in the original book, one of several much-expanded characters here.

For anyone who doesn’t know the book, it hardly seems worth going in to too many details. It’s set before Lord of the Rings and tells how Bilbo the Hobbit joins a group of Dwarfs who are setting off to their ancient home in the East in the hope that they can reclaim it from Smaug the dragon. They are not capable of defeating a dragon in battle but are persuaded by Gandalf the wizard to recruit Bilbo as a burglar, as they have a map of a secret entrance to the halls under the Lonely Mountain and, anyway, the dragon has not been seen for sixty years – perhaps he’s dead? (of course he’s not) It also tells, although it’s largely incidental to this story, of the discovery of the ‘One Ring’ on which the whole of the rest of Tolkein’s later tale rests.

There is much to like about this film – like Lord of the Rings (particularly the first part, still for me the only wholly successful one), it has imagined many parts of the book in a way that will forever be them for me now – and that is meant in a good way – but where it fails are where the second and third Lord of the Rings episodes also failed for me, where Jackson either strays too far from the original or where he stays too faithful. The hobbit is a children‘s book and, while the story is expanded on in the LotR appendices, these are essentially two very different versions of the same story. In trying to ramrod the two together, and using some director’s license in pulling other material into The Hobbit, Jackson creates some very jarring scenes where the juvenile origin of his material just looks silly in the context of the larger narrative he’s telling.

What’s most concerning, when all’s said and done, is how the hell can he string out the second half of the book into two whole films? I have a horrible feeling that I know the answer. Very, very long battle scenes. I’m not sure I’ll be there to watch them but he may yet surprise me. He did, after all, pleasantly surprise me here.