Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Film: 'MEA MAXIMA CULPA - Silence in the House of God'

A documentary reporting the Roman Catholic Church's record of not bringing child-abusing priests to account, both within the Church itself as well as its failure and reluctance to notify national and local police and judicial authorities.
It's a film to make any reasonable-minded person yell with anger, weep with frustration and, more than once, just laugh aloud at the sheer pig-headed stubborness at Church authorities preferring to turn a blind eye, particularly in the Vatican itself - not to mention the personal connivances of Popes John Paul II (shortly to be elevated to 'sainthood', should he work the necessary single miracle required - but I'm quite confident he'll oblige. This requirement has probably already been achieved many times over!) ) as well as the collusion of Benedict XVI who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was appointed as 'paedophile-investigator-in-chief '.


It's only a few days since I became aware of this film and immediately wanted to see it, but knowing that it would never get a nationwide release, had resigned myself to its being shown on a single screen somewhere unreachable in London, after which it would probably disappear - and perhaps show up in the middle of the night on some satellite TV channel. So you can imagine my surprise on finding that it had been booked for just two screenings in nearby Brighton. So today I went, and was reassured to see that it was well-attended too.




The principal focus of this documentary is on St John's School for Deaf Boys, Milwaukee, and the abuse of around 200 boys by just one resident priest, Father Lawrence Murphy (above), starting in the 1950s and continuing at least up to the 1970s. A few of the surviving boys (now, of course, considerably advanced in years) tell of their experiences in sign-language (voiced over by some celebrities -  Ethan Hawke, Chris Cooper and others) such as when Murphy used to regularly creep into the dormitory at night and select a boy to masturbate. During daylight hours he'd even commit the act in the confessional during confession - the partition 'window' being usefully wider than normal so that he could read their sign-language - or, later, in a closet, which he kept especially for that purpose. (Many years later, after admitting his behaviour, he justified his conduct as 'helping' the boys by getting them to manifest their natural urges! - "All boys do it!") His victims talk of their exasperation at their failure in getting nuns (working at the school at the time), other priests there, and even their own parents to believe them. On those very rare occasions where Murphy was confronted his vociferous denials were accepted as sufficiently incontrovertible proof that the boys must have been inventing malicious stories about him.

Then the film widens out into child abuse by R.C. priests generally, the dragging of feet by cardinals (if they do anything at all) when told of certain of their number - while the number of targets of complaints grows and grows - and of the Church authorities doing all they can to prevent such stories getting out, requiring victims to sign legal documents that they will never again accuse the perpetrators or defame the Church's hierarchy , on pain of excommunication - which used to be a really big deal in former days, thankfully much less so now.

It details how corruption in this respect goes all the way up to the Papal institution itself and with at least one paedophile cardinal within the then Cardinal Ratzinger's own circle. When challenged about this cardinal's employment, as Ratzinger is about to get into his limousine, his benign, avuncular mask slips, his smile rapidly fading as he tetchily tells off the reporter that he can't talk about it now - while his furious face says "How dare you mention it!"  So when then? .......

One of the things that constantly baffles me is seeing the many thousands of pilgrims and worshipers in St Peter's Square, ecstatic tears of devotion running down their cheeks at being in the presence of such a 'Holy Man of God'. I can't help wondering if their faith would be as unstinting if one of their own young relatives, perhaps their very own child, had been abused by a priest, and the offender then allowed to slip, scot-free, into obscurity or, worse, continue as before as though nothing had happened. I can only think that they are incapable of contemplating the dreadful possibility that their Church could ever do anything wrong. That would call into question their whole belief structure and mean that they themselves had been mistaken, for probably their entire lives - just too awful to think about!

One of the most nauseating facts in this film was hearing that when the above Fr Murphy, ailing and inconspicuously retired by the Church into a remote country location, with one faithful female housekeeper (from that same deaf school), he hears that finally and unbelieveably he might actually be called to give an account of his conduct by the Vatican (due to unceasing pressure and publicity) he writes Ratzinger an obsequious letter pleading to be allowed to live out the remaining time of his priesthood quietly and with dignity(!) - and, hey presto, the case against him is dropped - another miracle!. He drops dead shortly afterwards - in a gambling casino.

It seems the only thing that gets the Vatican moving to bring the perpetrators to justice (though only before the Church's own canon law) is not so much sympathy for the victims of abuse, despite their maintaining it, but the fact of the crippling expense of having to settle so many claims for damages with all its related dire publicity. It's crystal-clear that the Church authorities have far, far more compassion for the abusers than the victims. In fact their whole attitude is that though such happenings were 'regrettable', it really is time to move on now, and as quickly and quietly as possible - while keeping fingers crossed that both victims and abusers will speedily die off (though I think it be wishful thinking to suppose that it's not still going on right now).
The comment is made that those parts of the globe where the R.C. Church is currently growing strongest is in the developing regions of Africa and Latin America, societies which would find it hard to accept that such activity could ever take place, but even if it does it's more of an American and European phenomenon. If the next Pope comes from one of these third-world areas I shouldn't be at all surprised to see that same attitude reflected among his first pronouncements and instalments of Papal Bull

I can actually still see and comprehend the mindset of the Church in refusing to accept that its own institution could possibly be at fault in having given arise to these sets of circumstances. Certainly when I was being educated in the 1950s and 60s, criticism of the Church was considered to be absolutely beyond the pale. Stealing, adultery, even murder, could all be forgiven through sincere repentance of the 'sinner' - but to attack the Holy Mother Church was a wanton, violent act against the body of Jesus Christ himself! There could hardly be anything more serious, short of assassinating His one true representative on earth, the Holy Father.  

This is a film which is maddening, sickening and yet sometimes bleakly funny. Would that everyone could see it - though I fear that the vast majority of the audience will already be among the 'converted' (if I may use that word in this context). For those who find the very thought of the R.C. Church ever being in error as too horrific, well, they aren't even going to give this film the slightest chance of being heard. Great pity.

(Because of the nature of this film, which is hardly an 'entertainment', I'll refrain from giving it any score).






Thursday, 28 February 2013

Film: 'SONG FOR MARION'

Yesterday I saw a film which has a very high chance of finishing up as my favourite of this year. Today I've just seen one which would take a near-miracle to dislodge it from its potential of being my single worst cinematic experience of 2013.
When I first saw the trailer of this some weeks ago I was groaning in the expectation that this was going to be the latest in a number of recent films which could justifiably have had a subtitle of 'Old people are ever so funny!' I've had to sit through the trailer four or five times since seeing it initially, and I've cringed every time.

So what possessed me to go? (I'm still asking myself.) There was, I thought, a chance that I could see it at half-price at a morning parent-and-baby screening - and besides, it just couldn't be all that bad, could it?. When I got there, to my chagrin, discovered that it not only was full price but if I'd waited until tomorrow I could have seen it much cheaper at a Senior Citizens showing. But I'd already travelled twelve miles and I didn't want to do it all again on the morrow so I gulped, paid up and took my seat, fuming inwardly at the needless extra expense, entirely due to my own folly.

The film concerns the advanced cancer-suffering Vanessa Redgrave character, beyond medical treatment and trying to get the most out of life before she dies, by her participation in an oldies singing group - the O.A.P.'Z (complete with redundant apostrophe!). Terence Stamp plays her scowling, incommunicative husband, only happy when playing dominoes in the pub with his mates. When she eventually departs he tries to patch up a frosty relationship with his neglected and alienated middle-aged son (Christopher Eccleston in good form), single parent to an eight-year old daughter. Add in the wife's pressure on hubby to join the O.A.P.'Z  (coached by a chirpy, 20-something Gemma Arterton) - and, yes, there's a choir competition (oh goody! who would have believed it!) - and you need to know nothing else to mark out the film's trajectory with a blindfold on.

If there were prizes for total lack of imagination this film would win hands down! I really longed, nay prayed, for something unexpected to happen - but all in vain. And as for the members of this oldies group themselves, what a hoot they were! Over-acting their little grey-topped heads off. Nothing on earth is as funny as seeing old people acting like teenagers, there really isn't! - singing 'Let's talk about sex, baby!", jiving like billy-o, doing an hilarious 'robot-dance', old men wearing studded leather biker jackets - ho ho ho! Laugh? I could have died! (And even wished I had! It would probably have been more fun and definitely more interesting.)

I haven't yet mentioned the amount of glutinous sentiment in the film. If you like treacle, you've got it by the bucket-load here. Nothing wrong with a bit of sentiment per se, but it has to be done artfully and with discretion to avoid it being cloying, not dished out by the ladle. I appreciate that I've got an inbuilt resistance to contrived sentimental situations, and am especially conscious of when a film is going all-out to manipulate one. Some people can take it. Some even like it. If that's your bag then you're welcome to it.

To summarise then, in terms of my own total absence of enjoyment I give the film nul point. However, it does earn one point for Eccleston, and a sympathetic half point each for Redgrave and Stamp who both deserve far better material than this - making a grand total of.......2/10 - Watch it if you dare!

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Film: 'CLOUD ATLAS'

After a fortnight's dearth of new films I'd been rather hoping that my first experience on return would be something special - and, very happily, it most emphatically was!

I first read David Mitchell's renowned novel two years ago. (It had been short-listed for the 2004 Man Booker prize). Consisting of half a dozen tales, each set in a different period, starting in mid-19th century and ranging up to the 24th century, with connections between them which are both character-wise and manifested in various aspects of the stories. Each segment is given its own style of language and mode of presentation - the latter including first-person narrative in journal form, epistolary format, Q & As as part of an interrogation and third-person espionage-type thriller. Must confess that in my first reading I did find the book perplexing and tough to get through. However, on hearing that it had been filmed, I re-read it recently - and this time did find it quite an astonishing achievement.
 
The book arranges its parts starting with the earliest in time, then going forward in leaps until the central, most-futuristic episode, then retreats in reverse order, ending back in the 19th century where it had begun.
The film, quite understandably, doesn't adopt this pattern but has the six tales running linearly in parallel, jumping between them, seemingly randomly, sometimes for quite a few minutes uninterrupted, at other times for just a few seconds, all with no single tale dominating the others. This may sound confusing but I didn't find that at all. It might also sound off-puttingly heavy, but in both book and film, at least one of the segments is very funny indeed.

As if to underline the connections between the stories, all the major actors (among them Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon) take on multiple roles, each appearing in several of the stories, sometimes close to unrecognisable, and even gender-crossing for some. One really ought to sit and wait for the final credits to find out which ones you will almost certainly not have spotted, some of which made my jaw drop! Great fun! (The last film I remember which employed this feature to a significant extent was Lindsay Anderson's excellent 1973 film 'O Lucky Man' - but 'Cloud Atlas' goes way beyond that in this particular respect. Incidentally, both films are also almost exactly the same length, at just under three hours - though neither of them feel like it).

It had crossed my mind as to whether I would have enjoyed this film as much as I did if I hadn't known the book. At first I thought I might have gone with a positive bias, but then recalled several very favourable reviews I've seen or heard where the person had not been familiar with the novel and were likewise impressed.

In sum, I found this the single most satisfying film I've seen in a very long time - challenging, thrilling, sad, thought-provoking, funny, intriguing, philosophic - you name it, it's all here. So, not for nothing I'm going to award 'Cloud Atlas' a rating I haven't given to any film since I started reviewing on these blogs. An extraordinary film like this deserves an extraordinary score:-

So, applause please for an ..................8.5. 




Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Film: 'HITCHCOCK'

My closest cinema multiplex has eight screens of various sizes. It's not a good sign when a newly-released film is, within a few days, demoted to the smallest screen - euphemistically called "our mini-cinema" -  though there's no reduction in admission charge. So had to catch this quickly before it disappeared entirely; unless it gets a much-needed second wind from its BAFTA-nominated turn from Helen Mirren doing Mrs H., though I doubt if it will.

Anthony Hopkins looks totally unrecognisable under all that bulk. More's the pity then, that despite all the effort, he doesn't look much like Hitch either - a face that was so familiar to those of my generation watching his weekly TV appearance in the late 1950s, when he introduced 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents', half-hourly playlets, usually with slightly bizarre scenarios or twists.  There was actually nothing too outrageously shocking - they were, after all, screened on Tuesday evenings at 7 o'clock at a moment in history when there was a choice of just two channels, BBC and ITV. 

But, accepting that Hopkins is portraying an approximation rather than an imitation, back to the success or otherwise of the actual film.
It deals with his trials and struggles, both with the film companies and censors, to make the famed 'Psycho', a film I was too young to see on its initial release in 1960, though I do clearly recall all the associated hullabaloo, such as how that no one would be admitted into the cinema after the film had started (which turned out to be an added, though unnecessary, gimmick to draw in even greater numbers). I caught it on its re-release in 1966 (in a double-bill with the 1953 'War of the Worlds') and by then it had acquired the enticing allure of 'forbidden fruit'. Since that viewing I have never heard such screams for another film from a cinema audience, or anything even approaching it. Of course 'Psycho' is pretty old hat now, and I know complete stretches of the script off by heart. All subsequent viewings have long since become exercises in filmic analysis rather than the impossible task of recapturing any of the initial thrills and shocks. (I think it was only first shown on our TVs here in the late 1990s).

In this film Helen Mirren was at her usual high standard but I didn't feel it was so outstanding as to have merited her BAFTA nomination, but I'm not complaining about that.
Could have done without the occasional 'ghost' appearances of the character who carried out the murders on which the Robert Bloch book was based. It just muddied the waters and felt as though it was put in to give the film added meaning when none was actually needed.
Scarlett Johannson as Janet Leigh and James D'arcy as Anthony Perkins were both very good.

During the course of the film I was wondering if it would appeal to those who know little or nothing of 'Psycho' or have even heard of Hitchcock - and might therefore miss a lot of the allusions. I dare say that perhaps the majority of today's audience might plead ignorance on both accounts, but I may be mistaken.
The film ends pleasingly enough, allowing one to exit with a little bounce in one's step.

A bit more entertaining than I was expecting, I award it a...................6.5/10



I hope the next Pope is another die-hard bigot.....

.......because it'll continue the R.C. Church's alienation of increasing numbers of its members and give further cause to outsiders to shrug their shoulders and just give up on its absurdities, not to mention the damage done by its pronouncements.
I do find it strange how there seem to be so many still-practising members who only seem to use the Church to go to weekly or occasional mass, and even receiving communion, and then return home and do their own thing, ignoring the Church's strictures on the most personal aspects of their lives. But that's only a feeling I get. Maybe I'm wrong, and they all do, in fact, practice what is preached to them.

    I see that among the contenders to fill the papal red slippers, the most 'liberal' is considered to be Ghanaian Peter Turkson - at 64 a mere chit of a child. However, I think it's safe to conclude that 'liberal' is a relative term in an organisation where anyone with even slightly progressive thoughts about the status of women and gays would never have been allowed to advance to the position of cardinal in the first place. And half of those voting for the next Pontiff were appointed by His Holiness the present ailing one himself - and he would never have allowed any back-stabbers to sidle in unsuspectingly. I shouldn't imagine that there is a single one of those 'qualified' to vote who will support the election of anyone (if such a one exists) who is going to rock the boat and tell them, at their advanced ages, that all their lives they have been wrong!  No, whoever gets this 'crown of gold - sorry, thorns' I'm sure we can look forward to more stern finger-wagging and 'naughty boy' tellings-off at our 'sinfulness', and how we are such a force for corruption and a dire threat to humanity's very existence. And that our only possible salvation lies in our return to grace through repentance - whether we believe in a God (let alone one of the Papal-approved variety) or in an after-life at all.
As a former R.C. myself (why is it such a palaver to 'resign' one's 'membership'?) I eagerly look forward to further instalments of Papal Bull - and whoever sits on the still-warm throne, I'm pretty sure he won't be disappointing us. I think my desire for a suitably qualified bigot to succeed will indeed be fulfilled. The odds are very encouraging.
Deo Gratias.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Film: 'I GIVE IT A YEAR'

I went to this fearing that it might be a waste of time. But it's actually not at all bad.
Nineteen years after the release of 'Four Weddings', that film still casts a long shadow, and comparisons are inevitable.
When this new British comedy starts with a wedding ceremony with an officiating priest being the cause of a single over-extended joke, followed by a deliberately cringe-worthy best man's speech (albeit a funny one), well my resistance was already solidifying. But, must admit, that as the film progressed I did find myself warming to the characters - and there are certainly quite a few funny moments, several of them LOL ones.

Rose Byrne and Rafe Spall (centre, above) play newly-weds seeking counselling help for a marriage which has very quickly foundered. (Spall is the real life son of the now-veteran actor, Timothy Spall. Spall Snr tended to make his name playing bulbous-bodied grotesques and even now he retains his portly figure - so it's a bit surprising that I'm starting to find this sprog of his rather hot.) His character provides behaviour which his 'wife' deems tiresome or obnoxious but which we, seeing it from a distance, is quite amusing.
Among the cast is also the welcome presence of Minnie Driver, whom I don't think I've seen since the film of 'Phantom' nine years ago.
There's also Stephen Merchant (Ricky Gervais' ineffectual, lanky agent in the excellent 'Extras' TV series) whose one-note contribution to this film's humour is to come out with outrageously 'rude' remarks without realising how 'offensive' they are to others present - rather in the manner of Steve Coogan's 'Alan Partridge' character (of which I was a huge fan), though now all with a full-on sexual element. But he delivers his lines well and, I have to say, many of them are very funny.

The film does dip into sentiment towards the end in order to wrap things up neatly, but by then I was interested enough to know how it would turn out.
Still not a patch on 'Four Wedding' though, which was always going to be a tough act to follow, it's not as cohesive as that film was, and there isn't the range of characters here. Nevertheless, I had a pleasant afternoon - and I think when it comes on the telly and I sit down to watch it again, I'll possibly laugh even more....................................6.5/10


(Post-script added following day)
I went to this film yesterday having been aware of Mark Kermode's very thumbs-down review in which he said that he couldn't engage with the characters and hence didn't care what happened to them. As you can see from above, I didn't agree. Now this morning I read Philip French's review in the 'Observer' in which he blows an even bigger raspberry at the whole enterprise. (I wouldn't be surprised to read that he'd been humming the 'Dies Irae' at the time of writing!) So what am I supposed to do? Apologise for having laughed?

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Film: 'HYDE PARK ON HUDSON'

Based on the diaries of Daisy, the real life (several-times- removed) cousin of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, I found this film a disappointingly mundane affair.

Taking place in 1939, Daisy becomes, to her consternation, the object of infatuation - and wandering hands - of the married FDR. (Ooh, the randy devil!) The entire dramatic momentum of the film is provided by the conflicted emotions of Daisy, played by the excellent Laura Linney, almost all the time in sullen mood, reflecting her confusion at being given such unexpected and unwanted attentions. Bill Murray as the Pres is okay.

The film starts in pleasant enough and gentle style but I felt it translating into sluggishness quite soon.   I didn't think the script was especially memorable or noteworthy.
Comic relief is presented in the forms of Samuel West and Olivia Colman as the stammering King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the later-to-become 'Queen Mother', of course). Both resemble nothing like the real royal couple they impersonate, the former especially looking even less like 'Bertie' did than Colin Firth, appearing in 'The King's Speech'. The regularly interspersed  'humorous' scenes featuring this couple relate to their gaucheness, discomfort and ignorance in the unfamiliar milieu of American society (on the first ever visit by a reigning British monarch) - as exemplified in the oft-mentioned 'hot dogs'. (Actually, I don't think I myself knew what this 'snack' was until the 1960s.)

Btw: A film cliche is unimaginatively included. When a character says that s/he doesn't smoke, you can guarantee that before long you will see them puffing away with gay abandon. Oh dear!

A film of passing interest perhaps, but nothing more substantial than that.........................5/10
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