Communing with film

One of the things in life I wish I did more of (of which there are several!), is watch films at the cinema. Going alone, in the middle of the day, preferably to the Curzon Soho [which deserves saving from Crossrail 2], with a sneaky G&T in a can in my handbag, is quite frankly my idea of an excellent afternoon off.

Yet, it’s something I managed just once in 2014 – for the exceptionally wonderful Boyhood. [It was available on the plane on my way home from Texas and I watched all 3 hours of it all over again; wanted tell everyone around me to watch it too; and applaud those I spotted watching it while waiting for the bathroom. It’s awesome – watch it!] Instead, I remain loyal to a steady stream of DVD rentals to my door – old school, but the best way of getting new releases without having to pay through the nose for London cinema tickets.

Being an introvert, solo film watching is the epitome of a re-vitalising activity, but even I have to admit that cinema benefits from being viewed within community. I’m lucky, in that I have a number of cine-literate friends who can be relied upon for a good discussion after the event, or for the odd group trip. For a little while, we even had a monthly film club going. Being a member of the Church of Wittertainment also helps – a weekly dose of film recommendations (or warnings); regular rants; plenty of opportunities for listener contributions; and enough knowledge to make it sound as though I have watched every film released since September 2010 (the day I first entered the church).

Ultimately, cinema works best in community. Everyone reacts differently to films (just like books) and the range of subjects covered by the cinema in a year is huge – but, it can be difficult to know where to start. That’s why I was rather pleased to discover an organisation that does the hard work for you – by which I mean they get the discussion going – you still have to watch the actual film!!

Damaris Logo

I discovered the work of the Damaris Trust thanks to a friend offering me her +1 for a screening they had organised for a preview of Unbroken – a film chronicling the real-life WW2 experiences of Olympian Louis Zamperini. I love the Olympics and have a long-standing interest in Japanese POW and intern camps (I’d love to say this was a result of my modern history degree, but it’s actually thanks to Tenko), so I was definitely up for it. Also, free film? No brainer!

Damaris have two elements to their work:
(i) Film Clubs where communities can come together, watch a film, eat food that connects with its theme, then engage in discussion and activities that relate to the film too.
(ii) Providing stand-alone discussion and activity guides for many of the biggest films.

Having watched Unbroken, I had to wait a week or two before the resources came online (it wasn’t released till Boxing Day), and I have to say, I was impressed. Unbroken was a hard watch – as most WW2 films are – featuring Zamperini’s 47 days in a life raft after being shot down over the Pacific, followed by his brutal treatment in POW camps. It took me a while to process what I’d watched – its first 30 minutes is not dissimilar in its intensity to the opening of Saving Private Ryan.


It’s a story that deserves being committed to film, but as my friend and I reflected as the credits rolled, the film could almost be said to have told the wrong story. Having not been broken by the persecution he received at the hands of a Japanese camp commander [you can see where the title came from], after the war Zamperini’s life was transformed by a Billy Graham rally he attended in 1950. Having dedicated his life to God, he decided to set about forgiving all those who had persecuted him – an embodiment of “as we forgive those who trespass against us”. And that’s the story I would have liked to have seen on film!

Maybe the war could have been the first third, and the rest his transformation and subsequent journey through forgiveness? 2013’s The Railway Man is similar in theme (POW, mistreated, traumatised, goes in search of his persecutors…) but that real-life story went in different direction at the war’s end. It’s a shame that the film about a lack of forgiveness got made, and the one with it did not.

However, the story is there before the credits – albeit in subtitles – and it packs a punch. And this is where the Damaris resources come in. Forgiveness is something that it’s easy to talk about, but hard to enact. We mean well, but ultimately it’s one of the hardest things we mere mortals can do. Therefore, it makes for a great discussion starter. How would you have coped in his position? Who might we need to forgive? Although there is a Christian slant, it’s by no means the primary focus – forgiveness is a concept that’s relevant to everyone. (And if that fails, there’s also a sport section in the resource!)

To be honest, discovering Damaris is something of an answer to prayer. I’m always keen to legitimise fun activities as ‘work’ and in a church context, community film watching and discussion would be a valuable tool! In fact, come the first day back at college after Christmas, I found myself recommending Damaris to a friend, after they’d mentioned a trip to see Exodus. And, having spent a sizeable chunk of the last few months writing a mammoth resource full of activities, I appreciate it when someone else does it for me!

Universal Screening

NB: I was under no obligation to write this post – I got to see a film for free in Universal’s private screening room, with wine and popcorn, but a blogpost wasn’t required in return. As usual, I only write about stuff that I think is worthy of it! 

The lure of the Cumberbatch*

*Yes, this is as shallow as it sounds. I am but a mere human… 

“Don’t tell me anything else good about it him! I can’t like him even more than I already do!” 

Thus spake my lovely friend Katie when, apropos of nothing, we stumbled upon the subject of Benedict Cumberbatch during a conversation last Saturday. [Actually, there was a link – we’d been discussing New Year plans and her plan for January 1st featured the new series of Sherlock.] It emerged that this affection had only recently developed, almost entirely thanks to a recent video clip of Cumberbatch reading some song lyrics aloud.

These weren’t just any lyrics, they were words from R Kelly’s latest offering to the world of music, an album entitled ‘Black Panties’. That title, and the fact that R. Kelly has a shady past as far as sexual ethics are concerned, are clear indications that he’s not someone I’d usually have a lot of time for. Let’s face it, has there been anything decent since I Believe I Can Fly?? The title of the album also gives you a pretty good idea of what the song lyrics might have involved. Here’s the video, but don’t say I didn’t warn you…

If you are in the least bit attracted to men, I defy you not have been affected in some way by that video. Most women I know who have watched it go weak at the knees at the final wink to camera. Investing in R Kelly’s career is wrong (IMHO), but watching Cumberbatch act the heck out of his lyrics is absolutely ok.

Now, I was already a fully paid up subscriber to the wonder that is Cumberbatch prior to this video appearing in the world, but my friend Katie was not. I proceeded to tell her of other wonderful ‘batch moments one could enjoy on YouTube (such as his Chewbacca impression from a recent Graham Norton show), but she stopped me, insisting that any further motivation to enjoy his work would be a bad thing.

Explaining why this would be a bad thing would take too long (and was entirely irrational). But what is necessary is explaining why the lure of the ‘batch is so strong. People have asked (honestly, they have – some consider the attraction as mysterious as women’s love of Alan Rickman), so I feel it’s my duty to share…

Most people would begin with Sherlock. I do not. [Like so many hugely popular TV shows, I ignored it until one month ago. Having purchased seasons 1 & 2 for a bargain £10, I’m now saving the second series for my mammoth pre-Christmas train/ferry journey, ready for its 2014 return. Watching episode one in the bath earned the title of ‘Cumberbath’ from a fellow fan.] It is excellent, almost entirely thanks to man who plays the title character, but there is more to Cumberbatch than just Sherlock.

Instead, I begin with Parade’s End. Shown in the summer of 2012 and overshadowed by various high profile sporting achievements, it was a drama to warm the hearts of all those who know that the best episodes of Downton are in the first two series. Based on the Ford Madox Ford novel, Cumberbatch plays the misunderstood Tietjens [pronounced ‘Teejens’, obviously] and moodily marches through WW1 and emotional angst. It’s gripping, and rescued me from the otherwise unrelenting misery of being in bed sick while staying at a French monastery.

Then, there’s the fact that he’s simply a fabulously good stage actor. Frankenstein, anyone? (Movie version, directed by Danny Boyle, soon to come to a screen near you too.)

Plus, he’s an all-round good egg. Political activism in the right direction? Check. Good humoured interviews? Check.

Political Cumberbatch

Oh, and those lips…

And thus, I have reached the conclusion that I can watch pretty much anything, and enjoy it, as long as it features Mr C – including Star Trek films, or obscure TV series from early-on in his career. If you are anything like me, or my friends Katie and Lauren, you’ll appreciate the following:

Starter for Ten – Possibly the only film ever made about University Challenge, featuring BC as the incredibly nerdy team captain.
Fortysomething – Random TV series from 2003 starring Hugh Laurie. BC is his eldest son and really rather lovely. The whole series appears to be on YouTube.
Hawking – One of the brilliant BBC4 biographical dramas they’ve recently stopped producing (boo hiss) on the early life of Stephen Hawking. Cumberbatch *is* Hawking. (Worth searching for online.)
And, my favourite, this clip of Cumberbatch impersonating Alan Rickman. Enough said.

Finally, sometimes he looks like an otter:

Cumberbatch is OttersCredit. 

Bad gore, good gore?

I don’t really do gratuitous gore. My days of staying up late with a horror-fiend friend watching ‘torture porn’ (i.e. the Hostel and Saw genres of film – not actual porn) are long gone. I do not, as a mature grown up person with a LoveFilm subscription, enjoy films containing gore for gore’s sake.

However, I’m of the opinion that some forms of gore are necessary in films and that in those cases, saying that you don’t want to watch them because of the gore is verging on the unacceptable.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had negative responses to tweets mentioning a couple of ‘gory’ films. The first was Looper [recent blockbuster starring Bruce Willis]. Friends stopped watching it because “we found it too gory”. That’s probably fair enough, given as a major plot element involves shooting your future self in the head. The second was The Killing Fields [Oscar winning true life story], which after I tweeted that I was watching it received the response: “I can’t stand gore”. That may be your standpoint on gore, but quite frankly, it’s utterly essential to the film and its message…

I found myself watching The Killing Fields after a long Saturday of theology reading. I’d had it for a while, but was inspired to finally watch it having read a Guardian article about the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Yes, I do realise that the film is set in Cambodia, but I think you can see the connection. I’d been trying to remember the name of a Rwandan film I’d watched a while ago and ended up in yet another Wikipedia vortex – this resulted in my wanting to do nothing more than watch another genocide film. I know it doesn’t sound relaxing and it wasn’t, but once a historian, always a historian.

There are several films relating to genocide which could be described as ‘gory’ and they are. But you know what? So is genocide. Most of these films are based on true events and tell stories that the rest of the world need to hear. None of them could possibly depict violence, death and destruction that’s even half as bad as what actually happened. Avoiding these films because of their gore is effectively denial. Denial that this has happened multiple times in the last century. That it keeps on happening in this self-destructive world. That it’s probably happening right this moment in Syria. That it may happen somewhere else in the very near future.

If the gore upsets you or makes you nauseous, close your eyes; walk out of the room briefly; hide behind a cushion; or fast forward – but whatever you do, don’t use the violence within these films as an excuse to not watch them. The people who died in the real versions deserve to be heard.

The_Killing_Fields_-_3Dith Pran & Sidney Schanberg as they appear in the film.

This may seem a bit wrong, but here are some of my ‘must watch’ films on this subject:

The Killing Fields – The massacre that took place under Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia in the 1970’s. Tells the story of two journalists (one American, one Cambodian) who work together to share the truth of what was happening prior to the Khmer Rouge’s invasion. The fields in the title were paddy fields covered with the bodies of thousands of Pol Pot’s victims.

Shooting Dogs; Hotel Rwanda; Sometimes in April – All cover the Rwandan genocide, from slightly different perspectives. All are well-worth watching.

Schindler’s List; The Piano; Sarah’s Key – Obviously, there are hundreds of films featuring the Holocaust, but these are three that spring to mind. Schindler’s List depicts the utterly mindless violence of the death camps. The Pianist evokes the terror of being a Jew in Warsaw, while Sarah’s Key does the same but for Paris. The latter (which is the most recent of the trio) is utterly heart-breaking.

As I wrote this, I tried to think of films that are set during the conflict in former Yugoslavia – all I could think of was Welcome to Sarajevo which I’ve never actually seen. It’s strange that given the atrocities there, few films have emerged. If I’ve overlooked any you know of, do let me know.


I’m always impressed that whenever I’m out walking the streets of the parish with the vicar, we never reach our destination without stopping to greet a few people along the way. Having had the ‘cure of souls’ for the parish for over decade, he’s a familiar face to many, but he also goes out of his way to catch up with those he recognises. It’s an admirable quality that I hope I’ll be able to emulate in my ministry.

Today, we headed out for a lunch meeting (at which the vicar would pick my brains about Twitter) at the church’s second office (the cafe on the corner of my street) and within two minutes had stopped to check on someone. As we reached the cafe, we bumped into our most well-known parishioner – a Hollywood actor in fact. The vicar greeted him just as he had the hospital worker we’d passed moments before and the actor returned the greetings with enthusiasm. After a pleasant exchange about the actor’s recent West End run, I was introduced and we shook hands.  Seconds later, we departed to get on with our meeting.

The actor concerned is Rupert Everett, a resident of the parish and a nearby neighbour of mine. On my very first visit to the area with a view to potentially taking up a placement here, his residence was pointed out on my parish tour. (I presume the idea was to illustrate the diversity of the local population – I was sold!) In my first term, he read at the community carol service, but I, ever the introvert, did not put myself forward for an introduction (despite being terribly excited). To quote the vicar’s 9 year old daughter – who had a lengthy interaction with him – I should have ‘got in on the chat!’.

Rupert EverettObviously, I was deeply disappointed that the beard’s not currently in residence.

It’s been 10 months since I moved into my flat and today was the first time I’d ever spotted Rupert on the street. Seven hours later, I returned home and passed him outside my building. You wait ages for one bus and then two come along at once…

Obviously, there’s a ministerial formation lesson to be learnt here:
In ministry, every member of the congregation and parish is equal – there are no celebrities. In a culture that idolises celebrity, it’s incredibly important to give everyone space, respect and love, regardless of how the rest of society treats them. So, I need to get over my starstruck-ness and get on with loving the parishioners… 

Incidentally, if you believe that Rupert hasn’t done much of note since My Best Friend’s Wedding (basically, I just want his character from that film in my life), you clearly haven’t watched Hysteria (it’s a little bit dodgy but essentially about women’s liberation in the Edwardian era) or Parade’s End – my favourite TV drama of 2012. Reacquaint yourselves with his genius. You won’t regret it!

Remember the Alamo!

No, this isn’t a reference to THE Alamo in San Antonio. Actually, we didn’t make it there on this trip – I have a cunning travelling plan that involves deliberately missing out on interesting places so that I always have something to go back for (and a second Texan experience is already being planned in my head). People may think it’s a foolish idea, but it’s the reason why I still, despite two trips down under, haven’t been to New Zealand’s South Island.

The illuminating exterior 
& the joys of unlimited Hibiscus Mint Iced Tea and a box of Sour Patch Kids
The Alamo I did make it to and will forever remember was the Ritz Alamo Drafthouse, which provided me with a cinematic experience that will take some beating. And to think, I nearly let jet lag and an adverse reaction to mosquito bites overcome me!

Regular readers will know that I am a film fan but a cinema hater, the latter owing much to two significant factors:
1. The price of cinema going in London
2. The behaviour of people in the cinema

The Alamo overcame both these issues with aplomb. Firstly, the tickets to the late night, B-movie screening we attended were $2 – that’s like a 10th of what a central London ticket would cost. Secondly, they have very strict rules about behaviour…

The film we watched was the so-bad-it’s-good The Sword and the Sorcerer, which was introduced by a real-life person before it began. As he ended his intro, he recited the penalties for talking during the movie – which included physical violence – and the procedure patrons should follow should someone near them break the no talking rule. I had a sudden epiphany – I had heard of this place! It had certainly featured on Wittertainment during formulation of their code of conduct and hadn’t there been some brilliant story of a woman who’d fallen foul of the rule?

Later investigation revealed the details…
The discovery of the video below [NSFW by the way] brought it all back – I’d definitely watched this somewhere last summer. I love the attitude of a cinema chain who takes a situation like this and simply says “You know what? We don’t actually need customers like you, because most people want to watch films without talking, or light pollution from phones!”

Honestly, in no uncertain terms is this rule taken seriously. In the trailers that followed the film’s introduction (which were hilarious and featured everything that was bad with 1980’s mythology based film) our Austin hosts murmured something and were immediately called out – and it was on the trailers! I then resorted to note passing – using the paper provided for waitress service – in order to get the odd bit of info across to my neighbours. The guy in charge was sat behind us and sporadically moved into the aisle, watching our group like a hawk. Did he not realise that we were excellent film goers?!

It has to be said, it’s amazing just how difficult it is not to talk, especially in a film as ridiculous as the Sword and the Sorcerer. Here’s a sample of the dialogue: 
“My sword stands poised, Miss.” 

“My sheath is not a place I want you putting your sword in, Sir.” 
“But my sword is very very long… and I want to put it in your sheath for I am worried about it injuring someone if I leave it out.” 
“How long did you say your sword was?”
See, utterly ridiculous! (If you’re intrigued, I’ve checked and the entire movie’s available on YouTube.)

The other thing that makes the Alamo is the waitress service. Yes, waitress service, during a movie –
which requires no talking. The seats have a bar-like table running in front of you, on which are sat menus, paper and pens. Your waitress greets you at the start and explains the system – which boils down to choosing what you want (unlimited hibiscus iced tea, a bucket of beer, frozen margaritas or sour patch kids…), writing it down on a slip of paper, sticking it in a slot on the table, and waiting for the waitress to collect it. Genius. Even the payment at the end isn’t obtrusive.

Having endured many a miserable film experience, and knowing that the closest London gets to this kind of quality (the ‘Sceen on the…’ and Curzon chains) are still way, way behind, I’d like to begin a campaign to get something akin to the Alamo over here. Who’s with me?! At the moment I’ve got a select band of London friends and one in Oxford, but surely more would love to join?