Tag Archives: Film Review

Friday Review: Peaky Blinders

Tommy, Arthur and John Sheldon – “You are now under the protection of the !*&%^#$ Peaky Blinders!”

The three Romani/Irish brothers return from WWI service – broken and shattered.  Tommy is disillusioned and beset with ongoing nightmares, John is numb and prone to casual violence, Arthur has PTSD (known as shell-shock back then) and suffers from violent outbursts and constant mood swings.

They return to Small Heath and a harsh and brutal industrial landscape needing to make a life for themselves and the family – and family is a big thing here.  What emerges is a growing Shelby empire built first on a protection racket and growing through alcohol and gun smuggling and gambling, propped up by extreme violence.  They are known as the “Peaky Blinders” because signed-up members wear caps with razor blades sewn into the peaks.  They are absolutely the Birmingham version of the well-known Mafia-families we are familiar with from our TV screens over several decades – a strange mix of family, loyalty, a “code”, massive acumulated wealth and extreme violence.

We are now in series Four – and it is always the case when you invest in a TV series and follow a family over a number of years that you find yourself somehow on their side.  But then you catch yourself and wonder why it is that you are on the side of a brutal, violent gang of protection racketeers…

The answer is complex.

Peaky Blinders is fantastic drama.  Perhaps, though, its secret is the depth and complexity that it gives to its central characters.  The Shelbies are not simply painted as poor victims of the slaughter and mayhem of WWI whose only means of survival was to drag themselves up by their bootstraps.  It would have been easy for the producers to paint a picture of poor working-class survivors doing their best to beat the system crushingly weighed against them – occasionally doing bad things but only to bad people and never hurting other poor people around them – working class heroes.  But this is NOT what happens.  They ARE truly damaged victims of the horror of WWI – and that is very clearly brought out – but they also have choices and often they make terrible choices for which they are absolutely morally responsible – and they know this and they don’t look for excuses.  They are not muddy-faced angels.

The reason is sustains itself into series four – and a fifth series is planned – is not just because the series are short – but because the characters are complex and real.  It is almost impossible to tease out precisely the motivations for the paths they choose.  Some of it seems inevitable for war-damaged young men, some of it is simple greed, some of it (perhaps most of it?) is a twisted and desperate raging thirst for respect and the idea that wealth and fear will bring that respect and a place at society’s top table.

Cillian Murphy creates an on-screen Tommy Shelby who is mesmerisingly charismatic – a man who is wrestling demons.  The demons often win – but not always – and it is his struggle that keeps us on board.

(Also – it has a CRACKING Nick Cave theme tune!) Add in the brothers slow-mo walking down streets – sometimes with a horse and always with a cigarette – and through steel industrial smoke, flames and sparks – and what’s not to like!)

The bible presents us, similarly, with complex characters – characters with real lives.  King David has Bathsheba’s husband killed off on the front line of battle.  David saw Bathsheba bathing naked and wants her for himself.  Selfish lust and murder – yet this is David, the hero of the Goliath scene and the King presented as the ideal – the shepherd boy plucked from a life of obscurity to become Israel’s greatest leader.

Not even Jesus is presented as Mr sickly-sweet and squeaky-clean.  He breaks local religious laws, he argues with the religious authorities, he gets angry and uses foul language and is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, he hangs about with prostitutes, he speaks to women on their own, unchaperoned, he runs amok in the temple, violently throwing the furniture around and attacking stallholders with a whip.  Jesus is no Peaky Blinder – but he is every bit as engagingly real and complex.

Whilst Peaky Blinders is essentially about the rise of a Birmingham Mafia-esque family, it is also allows a glimpse into the daily grinding poverty that gripped the lives of entire generations in the post WWI years.  By not focussing on it, but merely allowing us to see it, makes it all the more powerful.  The matter-of-factness of it all – that’s how life is – is devastating.  Jesus lived with exactly the same atmosphere of poverty and grinding oppression, with people damaged by warfare and conflict.  But he had an entirely different idea about how to live life in its midst.

Mastering a post WWI Birmingham accent is no easy matter – there are mixed opinions about how well Cillian Murphy does this.  But for a non-Brummie it is no easy matter as demonstrated by Korean Billy in this masterlass!

Tuesday review: Murder on the Orient Express


WARNING: this is a review and it contains SPOILERS – it reveals who did it in no uncertain terms.  If you read beyond this point then you accept that you will be reading PLOT SPOILERS!  Do I make myself clear?  🙂

There is a lot of talk about this film.  I reckon you should prepare yourself for a lot more as this is clearly an attempt to manufacture a new franchise of Agatha Christie films based around Kenneth Branagh and his infeasibly HUGE moustache.  Next on the list will be Murder on the Nile – presumably in time for Christmas 2018 when folk seem disproportionately susceptible to nostalgia films with all-star casts set in some kind of olde-timey world.

I admire the work of art-critics (literature, film, painting, sculpture…) because they have a skill that I don’t possess.  All of us can watch a film and then say whether we liked it or not.  In our family we always give it a score out of 10.  That’s easy.  I know what I like!  A friend once bought me a postcard of a classical nude with the caption “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like!”  Clearly I have a reputation!

Critics have the gift/skill of being able to put into words what it is they like or don’t like – why they feel as they do about a piece of art.  Critics have developed language and concepts to put “gut-feeling” into words.  It’s not a very interesting conversation, after watching a film, to simply say “that was a stinker” and not be able to express why you think that.

My three kids are all massively more capable in this area than I am – they can all articulate what it was about the plot, the consistency, the “story-arc”, the inbuilt prejudice – you name it – they have a whole language and skill-set that I have been too lazy to develop that they can deploy after watching a film that make the post-film de-brief MUCH more interesting.  My kids are ace! 🙂

So – having said that – here I am writing a review!

I don’t wish to compete with any of the professional reviewers of films out there.  Suffice to say, this film is an absolute stinker and you should give it a miss!

If you do insist on watching it yourself you’ll find yourself agreeing with me that the characters are so poorly developed that (if you stay awake long enough) you simply don’t care which of them did it or didn’t do it, and you wouldn’t really care that much of the whole lot of them was wiped out by a random werewolf attack, not because they are unlikeable – rather that they are not given any space in the film at all to develop a character in which you might invest any emotional energy at all.

I say this, because some professional film critics have simply got this wrong and say they like it.  They are mistaken! 🙂

Beyond that though, I wanted to deal briefly with an issue that DOES properly disturb me about the film, namely – the ENDING. The bloke who was murdered on the train (it turns out) was stabbed by everyone – they were ALL involved – shock twist!  In the book, Poirot solves the case and then quietly leaves the train – job done.

That ending has been changed.  Branagh decided this would not do for a modern audience – so he devises a more complex ending with lots of faux hand-wringing soul-searching.  Branagh has decided that a modern audience would not be able to accept or deal with Agatha Christie’s simple “I solved whodunnit” ending.  In Branagh’s new ending, Poirot decides to tell the police that the murder was commited by a mystery stranger who secretly boarded the train and then fled undetected.  The murderers walk free. (true: this theory was in the book, but it is not Poirot who tells the police this – it is the police who decide to present this theory.  Poirot tells the police the true story.)

In Branagh’s new ending, Poirot – the hero of the story – judges that it is justified that all of these passengers should have stabbed this bloke because each of them has been hurt in some way by his past crime, so he absolves them.  Furthermore, and perhaps even worse, Branagh’s new ending is interspersed with glimpses of the damaged characters somehow finding peace and new life BECAUSE of this act of violent stabbing revenge.  (They literally crowd together in a train compartment and take turns to stab a drugged man.)

It is this that I find so bizarre – that it is judged necessary that the ending is changed to suit modern sensibilities – and that it is thought that those modern sensibilities will have to include the idea that violent murderous revenge is such an obvious way to find peace and healing for past hurts.

Every fibre of my being – and every facet of my faith – wants to shout out that I don’t think this is true.  I simply do not believe that people traumatised by loss so obviously find peace and healing by engaging in further traumatic violent murder themselves.

Incidentally, the same is true of the story of my own faith tradition.

Some tell the story of Christian faith quite crudely as follows:  “Humans have sinned – God is angry – God needs to punish someone – God decides not to punish us but to kill his Son instead – so Jesus is crucified and we are forgiven.”  (You see the similarity?  Anger at wrongdoing is assuaged by violent bloodshed.)

If God is angry about human sin, I don’t believe that God finds any peace or reconciliation or fulfilment in any act of murderous revenge.  I think this narrative has been hugely damaging to western thought and might even be very remotely responsible for Branagh’s conviction that the ending had to be changed.

I think the oft-peddled “ending” of the christian faith-story needs to be retold…  there are good ways of doing this – not new ways, but ancient understandings that have simply been eclipsed by this crude and fairly modern (in church terms) “substitutionary atonement” interpretation.  I may write more about this in the next few weeks – but this paragraph gives an idea what that ending looks like – why did Jesus die?  Answer:  as a consequence of his passion for life lived justly and compassionately and in tune with the Kingdom of God.

Jesus and his disciples, proclaiming the Kingdom of God was at hand and living lives of compassion and justice were a threat to the domination order created and maintained by Caesar and his Jewish client king and priests. To eliminate the threat, Jesus was crucified, executed by the Romans. His death was the consequence and fulfillment of the passion of his life, living the compassion and justice of God. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is reported as saying “Then he called the people to him, as well as his disciples, and said to them, “Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must leave self behind; he must take up his cross, and come with me.” (8:34) To be a follower of Jesus is to “leave self behind” and take up compassion and justice as the passion of your life.  (ProgressiveChristianity.org)

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Monday Review: Thor Ragnarok

A genuinely funny film.  Smart, sassy dialogue and a few laugh-out-loud moments.

However – I just wanted to focus on a couple of very strongly “Biblical” themes in the film.  I will try not to give away spoilers that are not given away in the trailer – but, caveat emptor! – the responsibility is yours if you choose to read further!  🙂

First theme:  “I will be with you”

Thor is in an epic tussle with a deadly foe, Hela – the godess of death.  As his battle seems lost and hopeless, he receives strength and wisdom from a vision of his father (Odin).

Then the LORD said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”  (Genesis 31:3)

“He will call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honour him.” (Psalm 91.15)

Second theme:  “Once you were nobody…”

This is perhaps the most overt.  There is plenty of action on the planet of Sakaar where all the waste and junk of the universe ends up – including people.  A way out is offered with the accompanying phrase “Once you were nobody, now you are somebody.”  This is pretty much a direct Bible quote:

Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy.  (1 Peter 2:10)

It might seem that the world has thrown you away; it may seem that the world considers you worthless; but we don’t inherit our worth from the values of the world – we are worth something because God makes us his children.  Once we had no name – now we have a name – the children of God.

Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by your name;
you are mine.

Third theme:  “Whence cometh your strength?”

The very thing Thor is famous for – his invincible hammer (Mjolnir) – he loses.  He believes that without it, he has nothing.  It is easy for us to imagine that our strengths (wealth, career, relationships, skills, health – all manner of things) are the things that sustain us and are the things we can rely upon, our insurance against disaster.  But they are not.  Odin asks Thor – “are you the god of hammers?”  NO! Thor is the god of thunder!

I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.  (Psalm  121:1-3)

 Fourth theme:  “a people, not a place”  (ALERT: possibly the closest to being an actual spoiler)

The premise of the film is that there is a lurking threat – the prophecy of Ragnarok from which the film gets its name – of the complete destruction of Asgard (home to Odin and Thor and family).  You assume as you watch that this will come perilously close but will be averted just in the nick of time ready for the next Thor film.  But that is not what happens.  Thor realises that the only way to save Asgard is to allow the prophecy to unfold – and the PLACE Asgard is totally destroyed by the fire-monster Surtur while the PEOPLE (Asgard) are taken to safety. 

Odin reminds him – Asgard is not a place, but a people.

Likewise, the Kingdom of God is not about a geographical or even metaphysical PLACE – it is a people living Christlike lives.

So – there you have it – a great film packed with familiar biblical themes – what’s not to like?

Here’s the official trailer – ENJOY!  🙂