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Posts Tagged ‘Awix’s picks’

All good things must come to an end, apparently, but the wave of zombie horror films which effectively began in 2002 with 28 Days Later shows no sign whatsoever of losing its momentum or popularity. It’s almost reached the point where one is tempted to stop describing it as a wave or fad at all, and just accept the popularity of zombie films as being an innate part of the contemporary cinema landscape, in the same way that, over the last fifteen or twenty years, superhero movies have come to dominate blockbuster film-making (according to this logic, a big-budget version of the Marvel Zombies miniseries would surely obliterate all known box-office records).

Certainly, the zombie movie seems to be in paradoxically good health at present, with the films themselves showing no sign of losing the capacity to surprise, delight, and appal. Just last year there was the exceptional British SF-zombie movie The Girl With All The Gifts, and also a South Korean take on the genre, Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan.

Just fleetingly, it looks like Train to Busan is going to go where virtually no movie has gone before and actually show Ground Zero of a zombipocalypse, as a bad-tempered van driver is stopped by police at a roadblock and told there’s been a leak at a nearby biological research facility. Going on his way, the driver hits and apparently kills a sweet-looking deer – but after he leaves the scene, the animal twitches, writhes, and then gets back on its feet, eyes now milky and dead. Is it a zombie? Is it Bambi? No, it’s Zombambi! (A brilliant title for a zombie film about undead woodland creatures, I think you’ll agree.)

However, at this point the movie jumps ahead and we meet Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a workaholic fund manager who has been neglecting his relationship with his adorable young daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an), even when it’s her birthday. In an attempt to make up for this, he agrees to take her to visit her mother in the coastal city of Busan. All the way to the station there are signs that something odd is going on – there are reports of rioting, and the emergency services seem to be out in force – but Seok-woo and Su-an make their train without much difficulty, and it gets away on time. But not before a young woman scrambles aboard at the last minute, in distress and suffering from a peculiar bite on her leg…

Well, you can doubtless see where this is going, as Seok-woo, Su-an, and everyone else on the train find themselves having to contend with the zombie virus going, well, viral in a rather confined space. These are hyperactive zombies of the modern kind, rabidly attacking everyone around them, and the non-infected passengers have to battle their way to safety. But what does safety mean on a train full of zombies, with the rest of the country falling into chaos even as they travel through it?

The thing about Train to Busan is that, once you take away the slight novelty factor of this being a zombie movie from South Korea, it’s not immediately obvious what makes it so distinctive as a film. Certainly it doesn’t make any great innovations in terms of how it treats its monsters – these are pretty standard high-energy modern zombies, although there’s a plot point about them not being able to see in the dark – or the way in which it uses the zombipocalypse notion as a vehicle for social commentary. There’s not a great deal new about its characterisations, either. Yet it’s every bit as arresting a film as The Girl With All The Gifts, and arguably works even better on a visceral, kinetic level.

This is largely because the script (written by Park Joo-Suk) takes one deceptively simple idea – zombies on a train! – and really puts it to work. The images of swarms of zombies surging down narrow train carriages towards the protagonists are terrifying, but film goes on to systematically work the basic concept for all it’s worth – train bathrooms, train connecting doors, train luggage-racks: all of these are put to work in the ongoing narrative, and when the story is obliged to get off the train itself (as it occasionally does) there are always train stations, train depots, and train crashes to provide the scenery for a bit more blood-soaked jeopardy.

It’s also fair to say that the film’s influences extend beyond the classic zombie movie to include, most obviously, the various tropes of disaster movies. For a while the film definitely becomes an ensemble piece, with Seok-woo and Su-an forced to co-operate with a bunch of other characters, including a pregnant woman (Jung Yu-mi) and her loudmouthed husband (Ma Dong-seok), members of a high school baseball team (luckily, they’ve brought their bats), and a pair of elderly sisters. The film does a great job of really making you care about these people, and each time one of them is slowly picked off by the zombies, it’s a genuinely moving moment.

It seems obvious from the start that, thematically, this is going to be the story of how Seok-woo learns the importance of his relationship with his daughter, but the film actually goes some way beyond this – Seok-woo is initially only concerned about saving the pair of them, but Su-an is dismayed by what she sees as his selfishness. If the film’s actually about anything, it’s about compassion and concern for other people, and how these are the secret to surviving. As is quite common in this kind of film, many of the most wrenching scenes are not actually about the zombies, but the awful things that people are capable of doing to each other in order to ensure their own survival (there’s a not tremendously subtle subplot involving a repugnant businessman and his utterly self-centred attempts to get away in one piece). You could also argue the film is about responsibility – at one point Seok-woo learns his own company funded the experiments which started the zombie outbreak, and in the next scene he is in one of the bathrooms, distraught, trying to wash blood off his hands (as I say, this isn’t always the most understated of films).

But also it works because it’s a hugely ambitious film that isn’t afraid to go big when the situation demands it – the big set pieces are huge, and terrifically exciting, with zombies hurling themselves through windows or being dragged behind trains like an undead carpet in an attempt to reach the main characters. This isn’t just an action horror movie, by any means, but it is that too – and it’s an action horror movie that delivers thrills and gore and shocks in spades. No doubt an inferior US remake is already in the works, for this is one of those films that simply works, on every level. Watching Train to Busan feels like watching your very first zombie film all over again, for it takes the genre and makes it feel new and vital like few other movies have managed recently. A phenomenal piece of entertainment.

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‘I think the title of this film is very off-putting,’ said a stranger behind me in the cinema queue, speaking to her son.

I turned round and frowned at her. ‘What, you don’t like France?’ I asked. (I can be very socially inappropriate sometimes.)

She did an actual double-take at me. ‘I didn’t mean Dunkirk. I was talking about The Big Sick.’

Ohhhh,’ I said, feigning sudden comprehension. Needless to say, we did not speak again.

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when cinema screens are ram-jammed with coldly calculated kid’s film franchise extensions and noble British tommies shivering on a beach while trying to work out exactly what’s going on with the chronology. You’re really reliant on some high-quality counter-programming cutting through (if you want to have an even vaguely rewarding time at the cinema, anyway), and luckily just this has arrived in the form of Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick.

Or should that really be Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick? It’s hard to think of another recent film which is so obviously personal, for all that it is part of that most peculiar of genres, the romantic comedy.

No, seriously – what is the function of romantic comedies? I get the point of full-on comedies, for they are there to lift your spirits and make you laugh. Dramas are there to engage your intellect and emotions, action movies provide a basic adrenaline thrill, horror movies play with the darker end of the emotion spectrum, and proper science fiction stimulates the intellect.  And so on, and so on. But what’s going on with rom-coms? Who sits down to decide what film to watch and says ‘You know what, I wouldn’t mind feeling a bit more romantic tonight’? Either you’re feeling romantic or you’re not, and if you’re not feeling that way, nothing is less likely to kindle the flame of love than watching two beautiful young people play games for ninety minutes before inevitably ending up together. Part of me suspects this is all about reinforcing social and cultural norms, given that our society is largely glued together by the notion of romantic love, and that going to see a rom-com provides a sense of affirmation, that there is some objective truth to this notion. (Which, you know, there may be.)

Some of this kind of gets obliquely addressed in The Big Sick. Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani plays Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani (it will be interesting to see if his performance wins any acting awards), who meets therapist-in-training Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his gigs. Neither of them is looking for a serious commitment, and yet there is a spark between them, and a relationship develops almost without either of them willing it.

However, in Kumail’s case, the aversion to commitment is basically because his family are still deeply attached to the tradition of arranged marriages, with a seemingly-endless string of unattached Pakistani women happening to drop by at family meals. Kumail doesn’t want to get kicked out of the family for admitting to a relationship with a white non-Muslim girl, and this inevitably causes tension between Emily and him.

And then something happens. Does this constitute a spoiler or not? I can’t remember if it’s in the trailer or not, but it’s in all the promotional material that I’ve seen, and the film is called The Big Sick, after all. Emily is admitted to hospital after what seems to be a bout of flu causes her to faint, and ends up in a coma. Despite their relationship being in limbo, Kumail finds himself hanging around the hospital and bonding with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).

This is a rom-com, so you probably don’t need me to tell you that this crisis forces Kumail to think hard about what is really important to him – is it keeping his parents happy, even if that means living a lie, or spending his life with Emily? The charm and the achievement of the film, which is the same as that of any watchable romantic comedy, is that you are engaged and entertained even as the story proceeds towards a throroughly predictable conclusion (Nanjiani and the real-life Emily have been married for nearly a decade and co-wrote the script together).

As I get older and become more aware of my neuro-atypicality, trips to watch rom-coms increasingly feel like anthropological expeditions to observe the peculiar behaviour of remote tribespeople, and yet I found The Big Sick to be rather delightful and almost completely winning. Much of the credit for this must go to Nanjiani himself, who gives a brilliant deadpan comedy performance. It probably helped my connection to him that Nanjiani is no stranger to the less-mainstream areas of culture himself, being a noted X Files fan (which resulted in him actually appearing in the good episode of season 10). That said, at various points in the film, Kumail breaks off from watching Night of the Living Dead and The Abominable Dr Phibes to engage in intimate relations, which I can’t imagine ever doing myself, so this is obviously a relative thing. (What kind of person takes a girl home and then suggests they watch an old Vincent Price horror movie together, anyway? Ahem.)

Then again, this is a film with a strong ensemble performance, from the various members of Kumail and Emily’s extended families (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff play Kumail’s parents), and also the various other up-and-coming comedians Kumail hangs around with. The film never puts a foot wrong when it comes to its frequent shifts in tone, and never feels self-consciously heavy when dealing with ostensibly serious topics like ‘the Pakistani-American experience’ or ‘coping with a loved one in a coma’ (the movie resists making the obvious Smiths reference).

In fact, although on paper the movie looks like an inventive mash-up of the Cross-Cultural Romance (with Various Attendant Issues) and Medical Crisis Romance story-forms, it doesn’t really feel like either of them – it feels heartfelt and genuine rather than forced and formulaic. None of the major characters is wholly flawless or an irredeemably bad person – they’re just recognisable people, with rather messy lives they are doing their best to cope with.

I laughed a lot all the way through The Big Sick (there was also, admittedly, a sharp intake of breath at the point where someone tells Kumail that ‘The X Files is not a good show’) – but it also snuck in some genuinely moving moments, which took me entirely by surprise. Normally I would be inclined to speculate as to extent to which real life has been rewritten to suit the demands of a standard three-act dramatic structure, but the film is so funny, so warm, and so sincerely truthful that I’m inclined to give it a pass on this. This is a charming and immensely likeable film, however you feel about rom-coms in general; highly recommended.

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It falls to very few people to single-handedly create a new subgenre, and fewer still to come up with one which goes on to dominate the media landscape for over a decade. And yet this was the main achievement of George A Romero, the writer and director who passed away last week. Romero was a film-maker who dabbled in the studio system, amongst other things working on North by Northwest as a teenager (along with the great Martin Landau, also recently departed), but he is best known for the films he made working independently. While his filmography does contain oddities like the 1981 movie Knightriders (essentially a drama about the death of the hippy dream), Romero is – of course – best known as a director of horror movies.

He did a movie about a vampire, a movie about a coven of witches, and a movie about a homicidal assistance monkey, but George A Romero’s reputation really rests upon the movies he made about zombies. Other people had made zombie movies before Romero came along and unleashed Night of the Living Dead on the world in 1968, but it was he who conceived of the notion of the zombie apocalypse as we currently know it – inspired, apparently, by both I Am Legend and the Hammer horror film The Plague of the Zombies. Romero was fond of the zombopocalypse as it was both cost-effective (a boon to the cash-strapped independent film-maker) and offered great potential for social satire, but it has proven to be an almost endlessly flexible form in the hands of other creators. Since the release of 28 Days Later in 2002 (itself a mash-up of the classic Romero formula with John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids) the zombopocalypse has basically conquered the world, with endless riffs and variations on the basic idea of an unstoppable tide of walking corpses. Romero was able to finance his final three films, Land…, Diary…, and Survival of the Dead simply because his ideas finally seemed to have wide commercial appeal.

It is, however, his earlier movies that show Romero’s talent at its most effective and inspired. Night of the Living Dead may have invented the modern zombie movie, but it was the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead that elevated it to the realms of something truly special. This is one of those virtually perfect movies that shows you don’t need big bucks to create magic – you just need a helicopter, a pile of guns, a van full of zombie make-up, several tanker-trucks full of fake blood, and free access to a massive out-of-town shopping mall.

Dawn of the Dead opens with a character waking from a nightmare, and the audience being plunged into one. The recently dead have begun rising and attacking the living (the cause of this appears to be viral in nature), and society is beginning to disintegrate as the situation spins out of control. Everyone can see which way this is heading, and the issue of personal survival is becoming paramount. Two TV news employees, Fran (Gaylen Ross) and Stephen (David Emge), team up with a couple of cops, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), and together they flee the city of Philadelphia in the TV network’s helicopter.

Seeing the country descending into anarchy and with zombies seemingly everywhere, the quartet take refuge in a huge shopping mall (in reality the Monroeville Mall, in Pennsylvania). Although this is initially intended as only a rest stop, Peter realises the mall constitutes a huge stockpile of resources that could potentially help them survive for a very long time. All they have to do is secure the huge building against the encroaching undead swarms, kill the creatures already inside, and be prepared to defend it against the human marauders who are already appearing now civilisation is beginning to collapse…

George Romero was wont to lament that several of his earlier films were victims of what he called ‘undercapitalisation’ – i.e., a shortage of money – but this is not a criticism you could sensibly direct at Dawn of the Dead. For a film made for only about a million and a half dollars, this is a movie with a real scope and epic feeling to it, with some huge action set pieces sprinkled through it. There have been many films made about the end of the world and the collapse of society, but none of them depict the actual break-up of civilisation with the same sense of immediacy and realism as this one. The opening scenes set the tone – there is chaos at the TV station, no-one seems to know what’s happening, useless information is being broadcast just to keep the viewing figures up, while outside, rogue police are running out of control and the authorities are engaged in pitched battles with their own citizens. You instantly sense that we are sliding past the point of no return.

The director continues to orchestrate the movie with the same confidence as the story proper gets going – an ominous journey across zombie America, the introduction of the mall as the central location, the various escapades of the characters as they explore it. And then a deft change of mood – no sooner have they begun to take control of the place than the mood changes to a more sombre and brooding one, before picking up pace ahead of a typically ambiguous conclusion (the scripted ending had all the surviving characters commit suicide in various ways, but the one in the movie is surely better – still far from upbeat, but not without a tiny glimmering of hope for the future). Romero barely puts a foot wrong in his handling of character, pacing, and action – the only significant issue with the movie is some of the stock music cues which it employs. The electronic soundtrack itself (provided by Italian horror director Dario Argento and the group Goblin) is terrific, though.

What really makes the film exceptional is the way in which it effortlessly marries remarkable wit, intelligence, and black humour with a palpable delight in astoundingly graphic and gory violence. Romero serves notice early on with the notorious moment where a nameless character has his head literally blown off by a shotgun, and continues with a series of legendary gags involving helicopter rotor blades, screwdrivers, machetes, and lots and lots of entrails. At the same time the film is razor sharp in its commentary on what is really causing all the problems – the zombies are really a secondary menace, compared to the selfishness, distrust, and acquisitiveness displayed by virtually all the human characters – Peter and the others are very open about their willingness to lie and steal in order to get what they want, and the film is bookended by battles not between the living and the dead, but between human groups with differing agendas.

Most of the obituaries of George Romero identified him as one of the great satirists of modern cinema, and I think that would have gratified him. Certainly this is his most celebrated and effective comment on modern life, perhaps even more relevent now than it was in 1978. The zombies shuffling mindlessly round the mall are there because it ‘was an important place in their lives’. Some dim memory persists. The main characters are likewise unable to accept that in their new world, material possessions will be rather less valuable – ‘Let’s just get the stuff we need! I’ll get a television and a radio!’ cries Peter, drawing a reply of ‘Ooooh, lighter fluid! And chocolate!’ from Roger. It is the characters’ own acquisitiveness and greed that menaces them, as much as the walking dead outside. We are the zombies – that was Romero’s message in this film. In a very real sense, we are our own worst enemy. To call this the greatest zombie movie of all time is accurate, but still considerably understates the scale of George Romero’s achievement in it.

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My family have always been church-goers rather than movie-goers; I of course am the opposite, usually turning up to see new movies at the cinema sixty or seventy times a year. Nevertheless, when my father likes a movie, he really likes it, and several times in my youth I recall being sat down and commanded to watch something on the grounds that it was A Really Good Film. I must confess that on some occasions I simply bailed out long before the end (Olivier’s Henry V was just a bit too much of a stretch for a fairly young teenager, while the thing about Robert Newton in Treasure Island was… well, you see, it was on at the same time that the first Christopher Reeve Superman was on the other side), but many of these movies did indeed turn out to be Really Good.

One of these was Norman Jewison’s 1967 Oscar-winner In the Heat of the Night, which I was introduced to thirty years ago and which turned up in a revival just the other day. One review of this film, written in 2005, suggested that when first made it was timely, but now it is simply timeless. Well, I’m not completely sure this film is just a comfortable period piece, but I’m probably getting ahead of myself.

heat

A hot night in the small Mississippi town of Sparta, and a patrolling cop finds the body of a murder victim. The dead man was planning on building a new factory in the area, providing desperately-needed jobs, but his proposal to employ white and black workers on an equal basis made him many enemies in the area. Nevertheless, local police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) adopts what appears to be his standard operating procedure – namely, arresting the likeliest subject in the area and extracting a confession by any means necessary. The recipient of this treatment on this occasion is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a black man discovered at the rail station.

Very much to the embarrassment of all concerned, Tibbs turns out to be an elite homicide detective from Pennsylvania, literally just passing through. To defuse the resulting awkwardness, and basically because the plot demands it (this is permissible when it facilitates a set-up as perfect as In the Heat of the Night‘s), Virgil Tibbs’ off-screen superior basically lends him to the Sparta Police Department to help them solve the case of the murdered businessman, Neither Gillespie or Tibbs are exactly delighted about this turn of events, but Gillespie needs to find the killer if he wants to keep his job, and Tibbs finds he can’t resist the challenge of showing how much smarter he is than the chief and his squad of redneck good ol’ boys – even if his mere presence in Sparta puts his life in danger…

You can enjoy In the Heat of the Night on a number of levels – and this a hugely entertaining, richly enjoyable film – but, to be honest, the police-procedural murder-mystery element of the story is the least compelling element of it, and arguably the least well-developed, too – there’s something ever so slightly perfunctory about the way in which Tibbs, seemingly acting on not much more than a series of hunches, eventually figures out what the killing is really all about. (No spoilers, but let’s just say it has less to do with racial tension than another hot-button issue in the American culture wars.)

The thriller plotline is basically a hook on which to hang an examination of attitudes to race in the Deep South at the time the movie was made, and to a modern viewer some of the things in the movie are still quite shocking – ‘what are you doing in white man’s clothes?’ asks one minor character, upon seeing Tibbs in a suit and tie – and Tibbs is pursued by lynch-mobs at more than one point in the film. (Most of In the Heat of the Night was filmed in the rather more northerly climes of Illinois, mainly because Sidney Poitier had had a run in with the Klan during an earlier visit to a southern state and refused to spend an extended period there again. Apparently, during the production’s brief visit to the south, he slept with a loaded gun under his pillow, all of which just goes to show how urgent some of film’s concerns must have seemed at the time.) Tibbs is routinely called ‘boy’ or by his first name by the good people of Sparta – this of course produces the famous moment when Gillespie mockingly asks what they call him in Philadelphia and he responds ‘They call me MISTER Tibbs!’ – can’t get a motel room, can’t get served in some restaurants, and so on.

The film is always on Tibbs’ side, quite properly, but the magic of the film lies in the fact that, in his own way, Gillespie is almost as sympathetic as Tibbs. He may not be quite as talented an investigator as Tibbs, but Gillespie is still a pretty good cop who has dedicated his life to his job, for not very much reward. He’s intelligent enough to recognise his own prejudices and put them aside when necessary, and – crucially – Steiger delivers a performance with a nicely comic vein running through it. (It was Steiger who won the Oscar for Best Actor, not Poitier, who wasn’t even nominated that year despite making this film and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner – perhaps a telling fact in itself.) The relationship between the laid-back Southern cop and the up-tight Northern detective – initially combative and adversarial, eventually approaching something like mutual respect, if not actual friendship – is at the heart of the film, driven by two terrific performances. (I feel quite foolish not to have noticed this earlier, but it’s surely the inspiration for the very similar pairing of Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle in The Guard.)

And, while the film is to some extent the story of Virgil Tibbs as a stranger in a strange land, crucial to the narrative is the fact that this is not just a film about African-Americans as the victims of racism in the South, but one about prejudice and how no-one is truly immune to its pernicious influence. Tibbs heads off down a long blind alley on his investigation, simply because he becomes fixated on collaring a wealthy, openly racist local grandee for the murder – ‘Man, you’re just like the rest of us, ain’t you?’ says Gillespie, gently, realising Tibbs is not immune to this particular human failing, and Poitier’s face is a mask of uncomprehending shock as he realises the chief is right. In the end, however, both men have gone beyond their prejudices, and justice has been served, though at some cost – the climax is an implicitly hopeful one.

Fast forward to today and hope is in short supply for many people, of course: the freedoms and progress that were won around the time this film was made seem as fragile and vulnerable as at any time in the intervening years, if not actually under attack by the rising powers in the United States. Sometimes it seems like you can’t turn on the TV without seeing evidence of the racial and ideological faultlines running through society, not just in the US but in many other countries too. In the Heat of the Night still has enormous power and relevance, as well as reminding us of a whole series of powerful, political films that came out of a desire to engage with and improve the world, rather than simply entertain or distract their viewers. Hopefully the capacity to make new films in the same vein is still there – but even if it isn’t, we still have classics like this. One for the ages.

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One can’t help but feel a certain sympathy for Liam Neeson’s personal circumstances and desire to keep working, even as one regrets some of the mankier films this has resulted in him turning up in over the last six or seven years – Battleship probably marks the gloomiest nadir, though there’s a lot to choose from. Thankfully, however, there are signs that Neeson is making a comeback as an actor of substance, for this week alone saw the release of A Monster Calls, in which he voices the title character, and Martin Scorsese’s Silence, in which he gives probably one of the greatest performances of his career, albeit in a supporting role. This seems quite apposite, for Silence is a remarkable film of the kind which does not come along very often.

silence

Silence is many things, but primarily a very personal story, and so the details of its setting are not systematically laid out but allowed to emerge organically in the course of the story. The majority of it takes place in Japan in the 1640s. At this time the country was under the control of the Shogunate and was attempting to isolate itself from the rest of the world in order to preserve its autonomy (this would continue until the USA effectively forced the country open in the 1850s). One consequence of this was a programme of savage persecution directed against the thousands of Japanese converts to Christianity, whose allegiance to the Pope was perceived as being a threat to the authority of the Japanese ruling castes.

Neeson plays Ferreira, a Jesuit priest, resident in Japan for many years, caught up in the worst of the persecution. The Jesuits are obviously concerned for him, and also by dark and unsettling rumours as to his eventual fate – but simply entering Japan is incredibly hazardous for any priest. Nevertheless, keen to find their mentor is the crack spod squad of Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, young priests determined to do God’s work and minister to the needs of the Japanese Catholics, and also firm believers that the worst stories about Ferreira cannot be true.

What they encounter in Japan tests their faith to the utmost, in all kinds of ways. Many questions are raised by what they see and hear, questions which they can’t help thinking over and praying about – even when the answer to all of their prayers merely seems to be silence.

Many great directors seem to wear a number of different hats in the course of their careers, and it’s no different with Martin Scorsese. There are the films he’s made as a director for hire, some of which are very fine in their own right, and then there are the ones he’s perhaps most famous for – hard-edged crime dramas and psychological thrillers, often very violent, frequently with Robert De Niro or Leonardo DiCaprio. But then there are a handful of films which reveal a deep concern with spirituality and religion – the most controversial of these is almost certainly The Last Temptation of Christ, but Kundun (about the Dalai Lama) also caused a bit of a stir. This is the same category into which Silence goes, although it doesn’t appear to have provoked much of reaction.

I’m a little surprised by this, not least because its presentation of the Japanese authorities is very far from sympathetic – perhaps this is the reason why the film was made in Taiwan rather than Japan itself. Then again, perhaps people simply aren’t that interested in a film about the Catholic Church any more. I suppose there remains the possibility that Silence will be adopted by those who believe that Christianity is somehow being persecuted in western society and that the film constitutes a metaphor for this – but that would be a considerable stretch.

As I said, the film is ultimately more personal than that, although it has an undeniably epic scope and deals with big concerns across its very lengthy running time. At this point you may be thinking ‘Hmmm, this sounds a bit heavy’ – and I can’t honestly argue with that. This is not the kind of film you go to simply to have a good time or be entertained – while watching it, you can of course appreciate the craftsmanship that has gone into the sets and costumes, the artistry of the editing, the skill of the camerawork, and the commitment of the performances, but in the end this is at heart a serious film about profound issues of belief and faith.

It is on one level a kind of adventure, with the two priests trying to survive in a hostile landscape, witnessing the awful persecution of their flock, searching for their mentor, and so on, but it is never far away from a thorny dilemma or serious moral or theological question – are the priests right to allow the villagers to sacrifice themselves to protect them? Is the faith that the Japanese Christians imperfectly observe really the same one that the priests themselves belong to? Can one ever be really certain what another person truly believes?

As a former student of philosophy with a strong interest in Japanese history and culture, I found Silence to be mesmerising from start to finish, but I suppose there are a few people dotted about who may not find long discussions on the subject of apostasy to be quite what they’re looking for in a film, which begs the question of whether there’s anything else here for them. Well, I would certainly say so, for while the trappings of the film are steeped in Catholicism and the work of the Jesuits, I think it is ultimately about the nature of faith itself – why does someone believe something? What sustains that belief through difficult periods? What drives a person to try and share his creed? It is about people at least as much as any religion.

And it works as well as it does because of some very notable performances. It’s good to see Liam Neeson back on top form, but we always knew he was a heavyweight given the right role; what’s perhaps more revelatory is Andrew Garfield’s performance. There were perhaps warning lights flashing over his career following his sacking as Spider-Man, but this film shows he is an actor of real power and range. Also making an impression as a sardonic and cruel interpreter is Tadanobu Asano, best known in Anglophone cinema for (inevitably) his work in Marvel Comics movies.

Lots of people get rather excited about Goodfellas and Raging Bull and Casino, but I must confess that these movies have never quite done it for me – all the machismo and/or Mafia chic kind of gets in the way of their undeniable quality. For good or ill, Silence is much more my type of film. I am certain it won’t be to all tastes, for the theme, tone, and graphic violence and cruelty will probably combine to put many people off. And that’s regrettable, for I think Silence is a truly magisterial and significant piece of work which people will be watching again and again for many years to come. It asks the most serious questions in an undeniably powerful and moving way, and perhaps even changes the way you think about the world – and if that’s not the definition of great art, I don’t know what is.

 

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Whatever else you want to say about 2016, and let’s face it you’re not exactly short of raw material, it has been a bumper year for the Death of Celebrities: the glitter-spangled reaper got going very early on with David Bowie and Alan Rickman, then never stopped to draw breath (appropriately enough): Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Robert Vaughn… if you sat down and tried to do justice to everyone who shuffled off this year, you’d be overwhelmed. So perhaps best to just pick a couple and at least do that much properly.

So, then: a film co-starring the always-memorable Peter Vaughan, whose notices tended to focus on his roles in Porridge and Musical Chairs, when of course he was in so much more. Including something which is quite possibly my favourite specifically Christmassy film of all time (stop complaining, of course it’s not too early to do a Christmassy bit, they’ve been showing Christmas films non-stop on Channel 5 for the last fortnight) – Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

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Brazil is about bureaucracy, tyranny, paranoia, despair, and madness, amongst other things, which may be why it does not typically feature higher when lists of the great Yuletide films are drawn up – but then it’s a film which seems to drift in and out of public awareness with the passing of time. It was released in 1985, but I don’t think I was even aware it existed until trailers started showing for it ahead of its TV debut at Easter 1988 – which, to be fair, was accompanied by some fanfare from the BBC. I remember that the trailers themselves were like nothing else on TV, even in the late 80s: monolithic skyscrapers erupting out of an idyllic country landscape towards a winged figure, a trick perspective shot where an enormous tramp’s face looms into view over a set of cooling towers, striking retro-40s design…

I made an extremely specific point of watching it, of course, for something so very different hardly ever came along, and I was very impressed by the atmosphere and imagery of the film even if the story didn’t seem quite to hang together. Impressed enough to watch it again the next time it was on a couple of years later (by this point everyone seemed to have decided it was a cult classic, whatever that means, as it was showing as part of Moviedrome), this time I managed to keep myself from getting too distracted by the art direction, realised what it was all about and promptly awarded it a spot on my all-time favourites list, which it has retained ever since.

So what exactly is it all about? Well, Brazil is, I suppose, essentially a grotesque, non-naturalistic fantasy about the horrors of life in the 20th century: but a strange, amalgamated 20th century, where computers and drones and automation exist, but the microchip hasn’t been invented (everything seems to function using valves), where baseball caps and overalls are worn alongside fedoras and suits. A faceless government, basically embodied by a labyrinthine bureaucracy, is doing battle with terrorists (apparently), and is quite prepared to brutalise its own citizens to do so.

Trying his best to ignore all this is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a lowly clerk in the records department, who to the despair of friends and family is doing his best to disappear – not trying for promotion, not trying to distinguish himself, just live a quiet life where can find escape in his dreams and the beautiful woman he fantasises about there. However, events conspire to force him across the path of the exact lookalike of the object of his affections (Kim Greist), and his increasingly desperate efforts to first find and then protect her lead to the destruction of his quiet little life…

A peculiar kind of nostalgia is part of the rich mixture of elements that makes up Brazil, but even so, watching it now one is reminded that thirty years ago, not only was the British film industry willing to mount a challenging, big budget fantasy film for grown-ups, but that Terry Gilliam could actually get a gig directing it. Neither of these things could happen today: I for one found it bitterly ironic that one of the Harry Potter films included a homage to Brazil, when the studio had rejected JK Rowling’s choice of Gilliam as the director of the first film in the series, due to his perceived unreliability.

Still, the 80s were a different time, I suppose: Python had been a going concern very recently, and you can perhaps detect attempts to position this film to appeal to an audience expecting the same kind of thing – most obviously, the presence of Michael Palin, cast firmly against type and giving quite probably the performance of his career as an utterly immoral government torturer. There’s also a tendency towards the surreal, not to mention a lot of extreme black comedy. The actual jokes included in the script tend to be less successful, however, and sometimes come across as a little bit affected.

The gags do feel like a bit of a sop to audience expectations, anyway, as for all that this film has a remarkable cast of character actors noted for their comic ability – apart from Palin, there’s Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, and of course Peter Vaughan himself – it’s clearly dealing with quite serious and indeed very nearly heavy topics. Like many British films of its time, it’s almost impossible to look at Brazil now and not conclude that it is on some level about Britain under Margaret Thatcher – not that the film has a particular political message to promote, unless it is that every system crushes somebody.

In the end what sticks with you is the extraordinarily vivid and coherent visual world that Gilliam creates for the film – like others before him, he appears to have realised that nothing dates quicker than attempts to predict the future, and quite sensibly has hasn’t even tried. It’s somewhat confounding that such an obviously stylised, abstracted world can seem so real while you’re watching it, but it does, simply because of how thought-through it all seems. No wonder the story can sometimes feel like it gets a bit lost amongst all the production designs.

Brazil is explicitly set ‘somewhere in the 20th century’ and does seem to be both a homage and a reaction to the great 20th century dystopian satires (one working title was apparently 1984 and a Half). And yet, particularly after the 2016 we’ve just lived through, it still feels like a very timely film for the 21st century too: the urge to retreat into fantasy and abandon the real world entirely is as strong as it ever was for many people, or so I would imagine. The film itself suggests that this may be the only real means of escape, although whether it actually encourages it is another question. Brazil may look surreal and peculiar, but it is at heart a serious film about a serious world, and one which looks every bit as impressive and relevant now as it did three decades ago.

 

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There are doubtless many good reasons for choosing to be suspicious of major media and entertainment companies, especially ones which spend much of their time talking about social values and positivity and hardly ever mention how machine-tooled their operations are when it comes to separating money from small people and their hapless parents. (One friend of mine eschews the avuncular diminutive in favour of muttering balefully about ‘Walter Disney’ whenever the topic of his corporation comes up.)

Still, one should generally try to keep an open mind: I was about to suggest that I rarely go and see a Disney movie, but now that they own Marvel and are making their own franchise of stellar conflict related films, that’s obviously not true. Perhaps it’s better to say that I rarely see movies made by Disney under their own marque, but I made an exception to go and see Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, a co-production between the Mouse House and the sports network ESPN (which I am given to understand is yet another Disney subsidiary).

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As the involvement of ESPN might suggest, this is a sports movie, which would normally be another reason for me not to go anywhere near it, but it’s a fairly unusual one, as the sport in question is chess. Now, I admire chess and its players very much, but this is more of one of those from-afar kinds of admiration, apart from a brief period when I played for my university’s team, with rather variable results (probably due to my devil-may-care decision to employ the Grob Attack and Orangutan Opening on a regular basis). My current record against my laptop is rather good, but this is mainly due to steady use of the ‘undo’ key after making an unwise move.

Queen of Katwe (NB: apparently the last word is not pronounced ‘cat wee’) concerns a player who probably doesn’t need to use the ‘undo’ key at all, Phiona Mutesi. Chess prodigies are, of course, incredibly rare, female ones even rarer, and for a chess prodigy to emerge from the ghettos of Kampala… well, perhaps you can see why someone decided there was a movie in Phiona Mutesi’s story.

The story begins in 2007, with Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and siblings living in what I can only describe as conditions of extreme poverty in Katwe, a slum outside Kampala, Uganda. (Phiona’s father was a victim of the HIV epidemic, though the film doesn’t really go into this in detail.) As the film opens she is illiterate, can’t afford to go to school, and spends her days selling vegetables in the street simply in order for the family to survive.

Then she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an unemployed engineer who is running a number of sports outreach programmes for slum children. Some children are not allowed to play football, as their parents wouldn’t be able to pay the medical bills if they got injured, and so Katende is also overseeing a chess group, the Pioneers. And it is here that Phiona first encounters the magic of the sixty-four squares.

The film charts her rise to success and recognition over the next five years, and the effects of this on her, her family, and Katende. I would be lying if I said there was a great deal of originality in most of the narrative beats – Phiona’s mother initially disapproves, Katende’s team of slum players are initially disparaged and scorned by their wealthier opponents and the Ugandan chess establishment, success and failure both take their toll on Phiona, and so on – but the story is so well-told and the performances so engaging that this really isn’t an issue.

I suppose one might also suggest that a set formula has been established for how films set in sub-Saharan Africa are generally presented: anything about human rights or the Rwandan genocide has a dignified gravitas and most likely Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the soundtrack, while more mainstream, crowdpleasing fare has slightly livelier tunes, an exceedingly bright colour palette, and its credits in a font where the letters are multicoloured and jump around on the screen. And, sure enough, Queen of Katwe adheres to the latter set of tenets fairly closely – but, once again, it’s not actually a problem with the film, as it suits the tone and style of it rather well.

Much of the success of this film is down to its command of simple storytelling virtues – the script is strong, the direction extremely capable, and there are winning performances from the child actors and powerful ones from the adults. It’s not surprising that David Oyelowo is starting to draw regular attention from awards committees, for he is a gifted actor of considerable range, and his work here is no exception. Lupita Nyong’o is also good, although her part has somewhat less depth and room to manoeuver.

The film does have the issue that it is, ultimately, about chess, a game which is not necessarily always the most cinematic of pastimes. Probably sensibly, it doesn’t even attempt to teach the rules of the game to the uninitiated, beyond those which are absolutely essential to the plot, but I think it perhaps does grant a sense of how beautifully complex and at the same time brutally unforgiving the game can be. It is perhaps a bit too Hollywood in the way that it depicts supposedly good players looking visibly staggered when taken by surprise by an unexpected move from their opponent near the end of a game, but I suppose this is the nature of the beast; at least it doesn’t show every match being concluded with a surprise mate.

You could be forgiven for assuming that a based-on-a-true-story Disney film is not going to be especially hard-hitting, but I think it would be really stretching a point to suggest that Queen of Katye presents a rose-coloured or sentimental picture of life in the slums of Kampala: the film doesn’t openly grind an axe, but it doesn’t shy away from showing just how gruellingly horrible an existence this is. Some quite strong material is alluded to, and while the underlying question – how can we permit this to continue and call ourselves humane and civilised? – remains implicit, it is unmistakable.

In the end I found Queen of Katwe to be an unexpected treat – engaging, thought-provoking, surprisingly life-affirming, and in places very moving indeed. If you only go to see one film about women’s chess in Uganda this year, you should make it this one.

 

 

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