A review of the new film “Empire Of Light”

January 17th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

I’m always going to watch something from British director Sam Mendes and recently his output has been so variable: after the Bond movies “Skyfall and “Spectre” and the war film “1917”, we have an altogether different offering.

I had originally thought that it would be a homage to cinema, something like a British version of “Cinema Paradiso” but, while the setting is a cinema (located in the Margate of the 1980s) and one character has a true love for the art form (the projectionist played by Toby Jones), this is much more a story of a complicated relationship: inter-generational, inter-racial, and involving mental illness. The unlikely couple are wonderfully played by established star Olivia Colman and promising newcomer Micheal Ward.

Mendes wrote as well as directed this and, like “1917”, it is a tribute to a family member – in this case, to Mendes’ mother who suffered from mental illness. In fact, the narrative is a bit formulaic and at times contrived, so it does not always seem likely or credible, but it is a worthy work and eminently watchable.

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A review of the classic Japanese film “Rashomon”

January 13th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

Set in Japan in the deeply troubled 8th century, this black and white film tells a story which proves to be anything other than black and white: how a samurai and his wife are set upon by a bandit, who rapes the wife and murders the husband, all while being observing by a passing woodcutter. What makes the work a classic is that this basic narrative is recounted four times: first by the outlaw, then by the wife, next – through a medium – by the dead nobleman, and finally by the lowly woodcutter who may be the only independent voice but could be as unreliable a narrator as all the others.

Based on two short stories, the legendary Akira Kurosawa co-wrote and directed this classic and classically enigmatic work which is acted in somewhat exaggerated, mannered style and shot through dramatic cinematography alternating between rain and forest. It raises profound questions about the nature and importance or otherwise of truth but manages to conclude on an optimistic note.

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A review of the new film “The Pale Blue Eye”

January 8th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

This Netflix movie – an adaptation of a novel – is set at the the US military academy at West Point in 1860 and the odd title is from a line of poetry. Written and directed by Scott Cooper, it starts as a slow criminal procedure but, as it picks up pace, it acquires elements of gothic horror. The conceit of the plotting is to place a real historical character at the centre of a fictional tale.

The scenery is majestic, but this is a dark work, both narratively and visually – indeed the use of natural lighting (this was before the age of electricity) make for some obscure interior scenes. Where the film really scores is in the acting. Christian Bale as the retired detective Augustus Landor and Harry Melling Cadet Edgar Allan Poe are excellent and the cast list also includes Toby Jones and Timothy Spall plus cameos from almost unrecognisable Gillian Anderson and Robert Duvall.

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A review of the 1963 classic film “The Leopard”

January 6th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

This is a film adaptation of a famous Italian novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The setting is Sicily in the 1860s and the story is the challenge to the power and lifestyle of the upper class presented by the ‘Risorgimento’ movement of Garibaldi and his followers. There are several versions of this classic film and I was delighted to be able to view a restored 188 minute version at the British Film Institute.

The work was directed by the great Luchino Visconti with Giuseppe Rotunno as his Director of Photography. It is a fabulous film that looks simply sumptuous with buildings, sets and costumes all looking glorious.The ball sequence – which occupies the last third of this three-hour film – was shot in 14 rooms with 250 extras. For such an epic, we need stars and there are three: American Burt Lancaster as Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina, and the animal of the title, French Alain Delon as handsome Tancredi, the Prince’s nephew, and Italian beauty Claudia Cardinale as Angelica, Tancredi’s love. Lancaster and Delon are dubbed.

The dialogue is often political, even at times philosophical, and the most famous quote is the observation that “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” (that is, to keep power the aristocracy will have to make some accommodations). As the Prince puts it: “We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us – leopards, lions, jackals and sheep – will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth.”

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Word of the day: peachy

January 6th, 2023 by Roger Darlington

Apparently, it means: very satisfactory.

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For me, a new year means a new diary

January 1st, 2023 by Roger Darlington

I have a near-lifelong practice of writing a diary and I have an entry for every day since I started. As 2022 ends and 2023 starts, I have now kept a diary for 61 years and the total number of daily entries now stands at 22,278.

I find comfort in keeping a diary: I record everything I have done and I can note whatever I am feeling. Also I think that keeping diary makes me more reflective about my life.

I’ll keep going as long as I can …

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A review of the 1927 novel “Steppenwolf” by Hermann Hesse

December 30th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

German-Swiss Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 and “Steppenwolf” – one of his most famous works – was published in 1927. In an Author’s Note of 1961, Hesse wrote that “of all my books ‘Steppenwolf’ is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other”. He had only himself to blame because this novel is decidedly opaque.

The work consists of three ‘documents’: two short ones of about 20 pages each and then a main one called a treatise of some 200 pages with no chapter breaks at all. Hesse wrote the novel when he was 50 years old and suffering a spiritual crisis and its narrator Harry Haller is approaching 50 and immensely confused by his identity, so this is clearly a semi-autobiographical exposition. There is a lot of sex, a lot of drugs, savage criticism of the bourgeois lifestyle, and much talk of self-loathing and suicide.

Haller sees people with his personality as enduring a war between two souls: “There is God and the devil in them; the mother’s blood and the father’s; the capacity for happiness and the capacity for suffering; and in just such a state of enmity and entanglement were the wolf and the man in Harry”. But he comes to realise that “Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands, between innumerable poles.”

I’ve long felt that, while each of us has a basic personality, there is no essential persona waiting to be discovered. Instead I believe that our personality is shaped by the time and place in which we find ourself and powerfully by the person with whom we are interacting at the time.

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A review of the movie “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”

December 28th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

“Knives Out” was a critical and commercial success and, while I enjoyed it, I found it overrated. Three years later, thanks to Netflix, we have a new murder mystery again written and directed by Rian Johnson. Of course, Benoit Blanc is back as the world’s greatest detective, but Daniel Craig is no better at effecting a Southern US accent.

The venue switches from an American home to a Greek island and, except for Blanc, all the characters are new, notably a billionaire disrupter played by Edward Norton and a key member of the murder mystery party portrayed by Janelle Monáe. Other party guests are represented by medium profile actors such as Kate Hudson and Dave Bautista and there are no less than nine tiny cameos from the likes of Serena Williams and Hugh Grant.

So the thespian ensemble and the exotic sets provide plenty of visual entertainment. However, it is all very light and frothy, with much parodying of celebrity culture, as a result of which the whole thing is more about comedy than criminality. The ending especially is just plain silly. But the film seems to be doing well, so I fear that we’re in more of this old-fashioned hokum.

Note: The title “Glass Onion” refers to The Beatles’ song from The White Album. The song is enigmatic and therefore it was thought to be appropriate for a murder mystery movie. Director Rian Johnson has expressed his frustration over having to add “A Knives Out Mystery” to the film’s title for marketing purposes.

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Sadly Ukraine is not the only war …

December 28th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

“A war is raging that has cost more than an estimated 600,000 lives. Its victims have borne witness to shocking human rights abuses and, tragically, civilians have been deliberately targeted. Tens of thousands of women have been raped. It has lasted two years and is happening today, yet the chances are you don’t even know where it is. Though it is far deadlier than the war in Ukraine, the western media have mostly ignored it.

On 4 November 2020, when Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace prize winner, announced a military offensive in the disputed territory of Tigray, it was difficult to imagine how catastrophic it would become. A population of more than 6 million people, under a government blockade, has been pushed towards mass starvation – with young children dying of acute malnutrition. Tigray has become a centre of weaponised rape and an internet blackout that has added to the psychological torture faced by victims, and by families such as mine desperate to hear from our loved ones.”

This is the opening of an important article in today’s “Guardian” newspaper which reminds us of a war that is receiving much less attention than the conflict in Ukraine but has cost more (black) lives.

Eight years ago, I travelled throughout Ethiopia including Tigray. Indeed at one point we came across a celebration of an anniversary important to the people Tigray as I recorded:

“A bit further, on the outskirts of a town called Adigrat, Dawit was surprised when our minibus was halted by streams of men, women and children in separate columns heading for a huge field. We were thrilled that he stopped and let us out to wander among the crowds. It turned out that it was a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Tygrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the main force that overthrew the Derg dictatorship and the principal member of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which has since governed the country.

It was a fabulous occasion. Line after line of people descending to the low field, some of them shuffling in a kind of dance as they chanted in unison, women ululating, clapping and dancing to the beat of large drums, young children shouting out slogans in unison while raising little fists, older men – some in tattered uniforms – shouldering AK-47 rifles and trying to march.”

If you would like to know more about Ethiopia before it was ravished by the current civil war, you can read my account of the trip.

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A review of “Avatar: The Way Of Water”

December 23rd, 2022 by Roger Darlington

When in 2009 I enjoyed the original “Avatar” in 3D and IMAX on the largest screen in Britain (the BFI’s flagship screen), I never imagined that it would take 13 years before I would be able to see the (first) sequel, but I made a point of seeing it in the same format on the same screen.

The lovers in the first movie, ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Na’vi girl Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), now have three biological children plus an adoptive daughter (voiced by Sigourney Weaver whose character died last time) and an adopted son who is actually a human. These five kids have so much screen time that, in a sense, this is a children’s movie as well as one for adults who are prepared to share the magic.

Director and co-writer James Cameron is very special in what he has brought to the screen world and his planet Pandora looks as luscious as ever as brilliant special effects present us with its glorious terrains and magnificent creatures.

So many of the Cameron tropes are here that one could even summarise “Avatar 2” as “Aliens” (with its endless endings) meets “Titanic” (with its trapped underwater scenes). It is all visually stunning and the introduction of the reef people the Metkayina allows for some fabulous water sequences.

Unsurprisingly, the bad guys – human marines in the form of giant avatars – are back, so there is plenty of action with Neytiri now displaying much skill with a bow and arrow. As last time, the plot is too thin and too new age, but the main problem is the length: at some three and a quarter hours, this film is half an hour longer than the last one and, when one factors in advertisements and trailers, this makes for a bladder-straining visit to the theatre.

In the end though, this is cinema at its best: big, bold, beautiful, and immensely entertaining. As my 12 year old granddaughter – who saw it even before me – declared, it is simply “wonderful”.

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