Mother!: Movie Review. Will have film students hard at work for years.


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Darren Aronofsky has followed up his biblical epic, Noah, with another biblical horror story starring Jennifer Lawrence (his partner in real life) and Javier Bardem.

Whilst advance publicity had suggested this might be heavily inspired by Rosemary’s Baby this is not in fact the case.  Far from it.  Rosemary’s Baby is about the birth of Satan. This is not.

I found it helpful to know in advance what the premise of this film was and there is  a brilliant deconstruction of the plot in this article in the Telegraph.  You may not want to know before you see it, but it’s a great read after the fact and confirmed most of my assumptions about the heavy allegory and metaphor used in the movie.

To make two consecutive biblical films is surprising because Aronofsky has declared his atheism but presumably the source material is such brilliant storytelling that he simply could’t resist.

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What results in mother! is a film of such epic proportions, such horror, such artistry that at times your jaw actually drops.  Aronofsky stops at nothing.  There are no sacred beliefs that he cannot explore or visualise.  What he does not do is ridicule them.  This is a representative telling of Genesis, the New Testament,  earth science theory and sustainability all wrapped in one great gothic whole.

And it’s gorgeous, sumptuous and creepy.

The performances by Bardem and Lawrence are electrifying, albeit their togetherness as man and wife seems unlikely, but as the plot unravels it’s obvious why.

The appearance of a married couple in the shape of Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer (both extraordinary performances) into their lives is startling in its aloofness and cruelty.  One feels Lawrence’s panic bubbling over as the idyll she is trying to create in an island home is about to gradually unwind.

And unwind it does; in increasingly spectacular fashion.

I’m not going to go into spoiler territory (read the Telegraph article for that (after you’ve seen the movie) so I’ll stop here.

Suffice it to say that although this won’t appeal to many; for those that it does this is a truly great movie.

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Angels in America Parts 1 and 2, National Theatre Live: Review.


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Eight hours in a theatre (or in this case my two favourite cinemas; The Cameo in Edinburgh for Part 1 and The Hippodrome in Bo’ness for Part 2) is a daunting prospect, especially when the subject matter threatens to overwhelm you emotionally.

In fact it is a breeze because the writing of Tony Kushner and the direction of Marianne Elliot (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night) pepper this doomsday epic with both humour and beauty (in staging, lighting, sound and movement – it’s a technical masterpiece throughout).

The acting is uniformly brilliant with Andrew Garfield in the lead role of AIDS sufferer Prior Walter.  But the support he gets from Nathan Lane, in particular, is astounding.  Core ensemble shout outs also have to go to the entire cast especially Denise Gough, James McArdle, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Russell Tovey.

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Whilst, at times, you might want Garfield to slightly reign in the histrionics (and the fey gayness to be honest) you sit with bated breath waiting for Nathan Lane to go off on vitriolic outburst after hateful rant.  He plays a corrupt, gay bashing (ironic) lawyer who has no limit to what he will do to save himself (he too had AIDS but says it’s cancer, having spent his entire life in the closet, much to the disgust of most of the rest of the male gay cast).  He is the highlight of the show.

Although ostensibly a ‘gay fantasia’ the background of story is built largely on a religious platform.  The AIDS ‘plague’ has clear biblical connotations and the angels of the title are fantastical creations that are there to question morality, justice, belief and whether or not there is an afterlife.

The creation of the ‘main’ Angel played by six dancers/puppeteers and Amanda Lawrence as the angel itself is breathtakingly original and continuously mesmerising.  She’s magic.

I grew up during the ‘AIDS Epidemic’ and my home city of Edinburgh had to deal with an almost unique needle sharing problem, as well as the gay spread of the disease, (It’s well captured in Trainspotting) so, that meant it was as much a heterosexual issue as a homosexual one in Edinburgh,  Consequently, HIV/AIDS was very front of mind in this city.  Another reason that the story strongly resonated with me.

Two of the central characters are Mormons and that particular creed comes in for some pretty hefty slagging although overall you sense that Kushner has deep religious beliefs or at least is hedging his bets on whether there is a God.  The fact that both Louis and Nathan Lane’s evil character are both Jews is also an important part of the storyline and leads to considerable debate about the morals of that belief, compared to Christianity.

Politics, too, feature heavily in the storyline with a clear leaning towards both Socialism and the Democrats that make Reagan (the then leader) an object of ridicule.  Indeed Part Two is subtitled Perestroika with a certain reverence for it’s chief architect Gorbachov in evidence.

One of the lead characters (a gay nurse, Belize) former lover of both Prior (Garfield) and Luois (McArdle) and an ex drag queen is black and proud of it. As he nurses Lane’s character (Roy Cohn) this opens up another topic for Kushner to at times hilariously, at times terrifyingly, exploit; racism.  The man is a pig and it’s all that Belize can do to maintain his dignity and ethical professionalism to tolerate the monster that he tends.  In fact a relationship develops that is, at times, surprisingly tolerant and even tender.

Meanwhile closet gay and Mormon, Joe Pitt (Tovey), married to valium addicted Harper (the superb Denise Gough) is straying into an experimental homosexual exploration of his sexuality with Louis (former lover of both Belize and Prior) this has massive personal  consequences.  McArdle in particular plays a really strong supporting role and has the subtlety to play his part with conviction and sympathy.  He’s the ‘tart with a heart’ but can’t deal with all the consequences of these tumultuous times for the world’s gay population.

It’s complicated.  And that’s why Kushner needs eight hours to unravel the labyrinthian plot and the fundamental BIG questions it tackles, but he does so with great skill and lightness of touch.

The National Theatre are to be applauded for reviving this monumental work.  And it’s to our great fortune that we can experience it (from essentially front row seats) in small movie theatres all over the world.

A production that has wowed audiences and critics alike, I expect to see it pick up many more London Theatre awards.  If you get the chance to see it when NTLive does a reprise, kill for tickets.

When the Church is gone…


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“You’ll miss it when the church is gone” was the Yahoo headline that caught my eye this afternoon.  It referred to this article by Madeleine Davies who is the deputy news editor at the Church Times.

She references caustic and patronising remarks by Barbara Ellen in The Guardian in which she, along with many others, sneer at the anachronism that is Church life in the 21st century.

Except it isn’t anachronistic.

I know because I am a churchgoer, albeit not one of resolute faith and not one with an unblemished attendance record.

Like many, I am the product of a childhood of well-meaning indoctrination.  In my case into Roman Catholicism.

I often read, on social media channels with unhidden glee, the defamation of this particular doctrine and it saddens me.

Firstly it saddens me that the excesses and undefendable actions of a minority of our clergy has tarnished the faith as a whole.  I also, particularly on visits to Italy, squirm at the absolute lack of inhibition when building our altars of early centuries bling.

Ancient papacies (nay, possibly even recent ones) stink of hypocrisy and political pap.  But not, I think, the current one.  And not, as I gathered from my recent trip to Poland, that of John Paul II who is a giant of a man.

The conservative leanings of the Catholic hierarchy towards old rhetoric and the strict adherence to creationism in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary make me uncomfortable.

It doesn’t sit well with my education and lifetime of reading.

But, and it’s a big but, Madeliene Davis is absolutely right about the role of the church in today’s society (all churches, faiths, religions) because, even though they gradually reduce in number and become cheap boozers or flash penthouses, those that remain are at the heart and soul, yes soul, of their communities.

They tend the aged, they democratise the community and in some I know of they can be outstanding boozers, social clubs, restaurants, cafes.

They and their members (and clergy) provide irreplaceable social services and are hubs of charitable activity.

Madeliene Davis is right.

Even without the religious needs that churches satisfy they make an immense contribution to our society and I am proud to declare that although I am one of the worst drummers in musical history my community tolerate me, provide me with a regular gig and in some instances actually rather like that a drum, a mandolin, a violin and an organ can sometimes make sweet music.

Shalom brothers and sisters.

 

St Francis of Assisi.


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Our new Pope opted for Frankie’s nom de plume and today at mass our priest – the wise old Western Islander, Fr Tony, gave us an interesting insight into his inspiration.

I was particularly taken by this quote from St Francis that he referenced in his Homily.

“Preach the Gospel at all times (and use words if necessary).”

Wise words indeed, particularly in these times where religion is used as a front for the most heinous of behaviours.

Ghandi made a particularly interesting observation (again my Source is Fr Tony) when he said “The trouble with you Christians is that you have great preachings but don’t live up to them.” (I paraphrase I’m sure).  That observation would benefit not just Christians of course.

Think The Diving Bell and The Butterfly meets 40 Year old Virgin and you still won’t be close


21 hours a day.  No wonder he wants to get his rocks off.

21 hours a day. No wonder he wants to get his rocks off.

This is a remarkable hidden gem of a movie directed with grace and understatement by Ben Lewin, a 67 year old director whose career has little in the way of highlights or recognition.  Until now that is.

His main protagonists, John Hawkes who was Oscar nominated for Winter’s Bone, Helen Hunt (who won one for As Good as it Gets) and William H Macy (Fargo nomination) tell a story as touching as any you will ever see that tries to make sense of whether sex out of wedlock as a (disabled) Catholic can be tolerated by those of great faith.

The good news?  It can.

What makes this trio of understated performances so remarkable is that they are all so extreme, yet constrained.

Firstly, John Hawkes (Mark) plays a 38 year old quadriplegic (a consequence of childhood polio), with a fine sense of humour, who lives 21 hours a day in an iron lung and desires nothing more than to have full penetrative sex and yet does not turn the role into a freakshow.

Secondly, Helen Hunt  spends much of the movie completely naked (as brave as it gets at 49) teaching Mark how to suck her nipples effectively, perform passable cunnilingus and generally satisfy her and himself – she’s a sex therapist.

And thirdly, William H Macy plays a cool dude Catholic priest that assumes the role of God, granting Mark the dispensation to get his rocks off free from the guilt of mortal sin.

What’s more, the supporting cast all put in excellent and mostly touching shifts that add to the overall quality of the movie.

It’s in places hilarious (although Seth MacFarlane would hardly agree), breathtakingly taboo (without offending anyone – including the four pensioners sat behind us) and moving.

What makes it work so wonderfully is what it doesn’t do or say.  Whilst issues surrounding morality must sit full square at the centre of the (based on true) story it’s not hammered home.  It makes no judgement and that’s in no small part down to the skill of director Lewin.

Very few people have seen this movie, more’s the pity, and the screening we saw was achingly badly attended.  Nonetheless it cost only $1m to make and grossed a modest (but profitable) $5m in the US.  I think it’s a sleeper of potentially Sideways proportions that will, over time, make the funders very large returns as its absolute honesty and sincerity wins it advocates like me.

Anne Hathaway is unbettable for Best Supporting actress at this year’s big hooley and she is by a distance the best thing about Les Miserables, but it’s a cameo role.  This, on the other hand, is a career defining moment for Hunt who would win every day in my book.  And I may indeed have a small wager on her at 25/1.

Life of Pi


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I'd be tempted to give life of Pi this score out of 3 (3.14159265
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6286208998628034825342117067982148086513282306647093844609550582
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09) but it so annoys me when people talk about giving 110% that I 
just can't do it.

So, instead, I'll just have to settle for an old fashioned 9/10. 
Now, let's get this straight.  Life of Pi has just shown that there
 is life left in 3D.  It may be, on the whole, a gimmick but the 
exception can still prove the point.  Only two movies have made 
the 3D entrance fee worth the extra IMHO, Avatar and this. 

It's a tough movie for bibliophiles to even want to see because the book is so magnificent (in my all time top ten probably) and many 
I've spoken to who love it equally are just downright scared that 
Ang Lee was going to blow it.  The odds were strongly in favour of 
 that happening because it's a pretty full on philosophical workout. 
 So full credit has to go to Fox pictures for shelling out $120 million
on the ultimate movie gamble. 

How Ang manages to retain the existential angst of the book AND make 
a blockbuster movie that holds the attention from start to finish 
(yes, including the pretty turgid first 100 pages) is not only anyone's 
guess but a cinematic achievement of considerable merit. 

It's the storytelling that wins the day but it's wrapped up in 
cinematography of the very highest order.  So many times one gasps out 
loud at what's on screen that it's like a day out in a theme park. 
Surely the Oscar for this is certain to go to Claudio Miranda 
(Fight Club, Se7en, Zodiac, Benjamin Button). 

The acting is universally good but it's the tiger, Richard Parker, 
and his four legged companions that really steal the show.  CGI 
has never, ever been this good. This might sound like it's the 
technology that carries the movie but don't think that.  It's an 
honest, stunning exploration of the true meaning of life, 
religion and truth and it’s an absolute must see.  

I would not discount it winning best movie come early March and 
I certainly wouldn't grudge it.  

Ang Lee's finest hour.

Cross cultural religious stuff happened today that was really interesting.


I played drums, as I most usually do at mass in South Queensferry.  I’m not so anal about my religion that I HAVE to be there every Sunday, but I try.

Anyway, some good rhythms.

Then I headed up to St Giles Cathedral, on the Royal Mile, to see a friend of mine sing in the choir.  If you know anything about Scottish history you’ll know that that’s not a Catholic worship place but it is very Christian.

I loved it and can recommend Sunday Service there at 11.30.

An extraordinary choir and an amazing location, set off by this stunning angel…

And a great organ…

Tree of Life. Terence Malick’s ultimate movie.


One of Lubezki's stunning visual captures.

Tree of Life is a sensational 90 minute movie wrapped up, to my mind, in a highly flawed 150 minute art installation.

It’s the film Malick clearly wants to become his legacy and I so wish he’d really pulled it off.  Apparently the critics at Cannes were booing and laughing at its finale and to a point I can understand why.  I’ll bet they were enraptured through the middle section.

Malick’s idea is to create a movie about a man in his 50’s looking back on the inconsequence (but to him monumental importance)  of his tiny, but in many ways typical, life set against the greatness of the universe, its creation and God’s role in all this.

So we open with an hour or so of Kubrick’s classic 2001; a space Odyssey mashed up with the Best of David Attenburgh and a tiny little bit of Jurassic Park thrown in.  It’s about the birth of the universe and the creation of man.

For some this has been the most stunning (and it is stunning visually) opening to a film ever made.  To others it’s pretentious twaddle.  I have to say I fell into the latter camp.  It’s way too long and self indulgent.  Malick describes it as a companion piece to the main movie.  If you’ve read the Life of Pi it’s structurally very reminiscent of the first 100 pages which is essentially an essay on the role of religion in life today before the boy and the Tiger set to sea in an unbelievably good yarn.

Incidentally, the Tree of Life ends with a coda recalling the opening hour.  Mercifully shorter; it doesn’t grate as much.

And so, we have a movie embedded in and drawn from, thematically at least, this “meaning of life” wrapper.

And it’s quite, quite beautiful; it very roughly follows the lives of a family in 1950’s Texas.  Middle class I suppose and pretty much the typical Western family.  Dad’s frustrated because he is not an overachiever and at times this has consequences.  But really it’s not that important because it’s not a story as such.

The man in his 50’s who we meet in the “creation sequence”, Sean Penn, is reminiscing on this time, at first dewy eyed but later more critically as he follows his childhood and adolescance that culminates in the death of one of his brothers (not a spoiler as it is revealed in the first frames).

This is Malick’s genius because in this he essentially wraps a universal childhood into 90 minutes of relatively sequential vignettes that absolutely draw the breath at times.  As a baby plays with bubbles, as a group of kids are ecstatically sprayed (innocently ) with a cloud of DDT from a passing lorry, as brothers bicker, as Mum and dad stroke their childrens’ hair and read them bedtime stories.

It’s wonderful.

And then the plot, I say plot but that’s a very loose term because this is not a plotted narrative, develops as we see that the father is actually a pretty heavy handed patriarch.  This section reveals the excellence of Brad Pitt who plays the father movingly and with sufficient restraint to avoid the part lapsing into caricature.

The mother though (a spellbinding performance by Jessica Chastain) is the real heart and soul of the movie because it is her that recites what amounts to a love poem for its first 10 minutes or so; espousing her love of her beautiful sons and her love of god.  The scene is set when she says “there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace”  she implores her boys to follow the path of grace (of God) and she maintains an air of grace throughout.

Her eldest son, Jack, later to appear as Penn is the main protagonist and also performs bewitchingly; a first movie for Hunter McCracken – it will most certainly not be his last.

What makes this film so wonderful is the way that Malick (and his cinematographer Emannuel Lubezki – phenomenal) capture the universal truths of family life without it at any time feeling like cliche.  I felt myself strongly empathising with young Jack, most powerfully as his adolescent rage boils up towards his father and the unfairness of adulthood.  “Don’t do what I do, do what I say.”  It’s visceral.

The Tree of Life is a central and recurring visual metaphor but is handled with subtlety and conviction.

So, with a far shorter art indulgence section this film would have been a 9/10.  With it, it’s a 7.

The Pope’s sad and sorry visit to Scotland


Pope Benedict. He’ll need to rely on more than touching the cross.

I was stunned when my mother told me the other day that she would not be going to Bellahouston Park to see Pope Benedict strut his stuff.  Her reasoning being that she would not support a pontif who had swept child sex abuse under the carpet.

Now let’s put my astonishment in context here.  My mother is a 74 year old, card carrying, lifelong Catholic who practices her religion with devotion several times a week.

For her to ‘disown’ her spiritual leader is, in my book, brave, principled and deeply admirable.

And I am wholly (if you’ll excuse the pun) with her.

I too am a, rather flakier, card holder and I am rather less supportive in general terms of the Catholic church.  And, for me, the whole destabilisation of the organisation under Pope Benedict’s custodianship has increasingly looked like a religion losing control.

I strongly agree with this brave writer to The Guardian only last week

If the supreme pontiff wanted to restore the moral credibility of his church, he could do even better than that. He could, as Jesus did, take the sins of his brethren on himself. He could quit, whether personally responsible for the global cover-up that has put Roman Catholicism into an unprecedented crisis or not. That there is no precedent for a papal resignation would make it totally remarkable, even saintly. In secular terms, the holy father would, however, be doing no more than any CEO of an international corporation in a comparably disgraceful situation. He would be forced by his chairman to go. God has abdicated that kind of authority and left even a pope with free will.

There is, as it happens, a recent Protestant precedent. When the Lutheran bishop of Hamburg learned of a serious case of child abuse within her jurisdiction, though not directly responsible, she promptly resigned. Anything less, she said, would not suffice. Perhaps a woman’s moral sensibility is stronger. Were that, per impossibile, to happen at the Vatican, a successor would be set free to embark on the new reformation that would need to centre on vital issues of gender and sexuality.

Canon Paul Oestreicher

Brighton, East Sussex
Again, in the Guardian, on Monday, Madeleine Bunting made some interesting observations.

In her article she cited that his clumsiness (to put it mildly) in handling not just child sex abuse, but also female ordination and the church’s relationship with Islam has reignited anti Catholic feeling in the UK.  Quite rightly she points to the impact of the child sex abuse scandals in that it strikes at the core of our religion and totally undermines the authority of the clergy over the laity.  Deference to the clergy is in freefall.  How could it be any other way.  “What ye sew, so shall ye reap.”

And yet, and yet, despite collapsing confidence and church attendance all over Europe business is booming.

Africans and Asians are flocking to the church in their droves.

So what?  Business is bad in Europe?  We can just invest our marketing effort in new markets can’t we?

So what if the old guard lose faith; there plenty more we can get through missionary work.

I don’t want to sound totally cynical, but it’s hard not to.  The entire edifice of the Catholic Church is built on faith, blind faith critics argue, and faith is built on trust.

When a 74 year old blind faith follower votes with her feet the whole pack of cards looks in very great danger of falling down.

And it’s so easy to fix.

Zero tolerance needs to be adopted and the church should be utterly cleansed of these men once and for all.

Then, maybe then, Catholicism will find an Indian summer in Europe.

As for Bellahouston Park.  I hope it’s half empty.

No one will ever forgive us, by The National Theatre of Scotland at The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh


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Well.

Here’s a one.

I have to declare two interests from the outset.

I am a Catholic.

My cousin (Susan Vidler) is in this play.

So I’m biased.

Paul Higgins, may be the most remarkable new stage-writing talent since Gregory Burke.  It really is written brilliantly, flowing along at 100 miles an hour packed with hilarious one liners, and I believe it’s autobiographical. (Actually it’s very unfair of me to heap this comparative praise on Paul Higgins given my lack of comparative insight; but if he isn’t the best then Scottish Theatre is absolutely booming.)

I urge you to see this play before it is too late. (It was pretty much sold out on a dreich Tuesday in late November.)

It’s a fantastic smorgasbord of Scottishness. As the nation of doom we like to dwell on the dark side and this does it magnificently. I honestly have never encountered a script, in film or on stage, that leaps like Bambi on steroids, between bleak nihilism and outrageous humour, line by line, quite as well as this.

It is remarkable.

The main theme centres on belief 9or lack of it). I suppose the key character in the five person cast is the youngest son who has opted out of the seminary (or is that safe haven?) that he has studied at for seven years because he has become atheistic. Is there a God? Is there a Catholic God (OMG)? Is there a point? Why should I coexist with you? Have I a future?

But, at the gleaming, glowing, pulsating, dangerous centre of it all is the horrific patriarch, Gary Lewis. What a performance. The drunk, child-beating, wife-hating (but actually not particularly misogynistic) husband engulfs the stage with his presence.

It is massive.

The audience howled with tears and laughter and, for me, it was another triumphant National Theatre of Scotland performance. I’ve seen three this year in three different theatres.

They all demonstrated our brilliance.

God speed? 1 mph


I love this story.

A medieval church in Heursford, Germany was to be demolished because a new coalmine was to be opened on its site. It’s obviously a lovely church and the locals must have felt very close to it.

 

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So, they though; we’re not letting a coal mine get in the way of our religion.

We’ll move it.

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So they did. They hoiked it up on the back of a lorry…

 

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And moved it down the road to the next town.

 

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God 1 – 0 Coal industry.

Bless!