strip

After another night of exceptional food and Jazz, we find ourselves in the horribly overpopulated strip of tacky bars on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. The group want to head back but I declare that I want to find a dive bar: somewhere out the way, equally disgusting but intimate. A cosy kind of hideous. Unsurprisingly most prefer the alternative of sleep.

My offer is taken up by one but I soon realise that he has his own agenda and one stubby can later, in a quiet bar not nearly dingy enough, we head straight on to a different kind of establishment. This was my first visit to a strip club and I hadn’t anticipated it so after the entrance fee I’m left with a 20 in my wallet. Now this may be my first rodeo but I know I need smaller bills and so I buy us a couple of beers, leaving me with two dollars to play with. Best make em last.

I’m given a little walk-through tutorial, shadowing my friend as he takes me to a chair around one of the raised stages, a black marble island pierced by a golden pole. He throws a dollar out in front of us, I follow suit placing half of my total purse beside it. The woman on stage isn’t so much dancing as working around the spectators and fucking the air in front of them. She is topless, wearing heels and a thong. I’m not so much as turned on as uncomfortable but trying to project otherwise; casual and familiar.

As she arrives at our two dollar ‘pile’ she leans in and asks where we’re from. England. I didn’t know conversation was part of the deal and so I decide to take the lead and return the question. The Czech Republic. Master conversationist in my element, I hold her gaze and shout loud enough as to be heard above the music “…My favourite author’s Czech, have you read any Kafka?” She doesn’t reply, just drifts off into the crowd. Perhaps she’s more of a Čapek kinda girl.

One of the dancers walks up beside us, silently climbs up on the stage and then just keeps climbing. She gets to the top of the pole, about 10 feet off of the ground, and holds for a second before letting herself fall. She lands with her legs split apart, her thick plastic heels smash against the ground with a reverberating crack. If she didn’t have your attention before, she has it now. I’m not so much as turned on as appreciating her athletic ability and showmanship. Now this is I can get behind. I place the last of my cash out in front of me and when she happens upon it, she picks it up, folds a crease lengthways along the bill and drops it back down. She leaves a dramatic pause before dropping over ol George and picking him up betwixt her cheeks.

Now that I’m tapped out, my advising cohort takes the lead once more. Between stages there is a large red carpeted staircase leading up to the balcony – shielded from view and manned by security. The second level. My friend talks to a petite blond, gives her some cash and she takes me by the hand and leads me up the stairs and through security. She sits me in a walled off vestibule, sets my drink down and introduces herself. Lolita. “I love that novel, have you read any Nabakov?” I’m really getting the hang of this.

Then I get my private dance, I smile politely and awkwardly. Not so much turned on as fulfilling my part of the deal as an audience member. I want to be respectful and encouraging despite my discomfort and so I end up nodding congratulations at each of her moves like a parent asked by their kid to watch as it jumps into the pool in varying ways. My faux-enthusiasm is wearing thin but I don’t think she could give a fuck – not really striking me as the shy and sensitive type as she hits her tits against my face. When we’re done she hands my beer back to me and makes a point of thanking me, for being so polite.

As I walk down the red-carpeted stairs, back into the riff-raff of level 1, the ground dwellers, I think about what Lolita meant. Perhaps there was a sadness beneath her words, that others are abusive or inconsiderate, but her tone just makes me think: I was doing it wrong. Next time I’ll come prepared, or better yet I won’t come at all.

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Matangi/ Maya/ M.I.A (2018)

Written for RAF News August 2018

More commonly know by stage name M.I.A, Mathangi Arulpragasam, or Maya, is a Sri Lankan-born London-raised hip-hop artist and provocateur. This documentary made by long term friend Stephen Loveridge tracks her uncompromising attitude by way of her music, through to some of the more notorious controversies surrounding her career.

Image result for matangi maya mia

With Loveridge now distancing himself from the project, and Maya being openly critical about it, it’s fitting that the theme holding it together is her refusal to do as she’s told and not care if she is liked. The film is almost chaptered by moments of disagreeableness such as putting a middle-finger up during her half-time performance at the Superbowl, or talking about the genocide in Sri Lanka whilst at the podium of an awards ceremony.

Growing up in a war-torn part of Sri Lanka, Maya was politically minded from a young age with her activist father Arul Pragasm being one of the founders of the Tamil Resistance Movement. In more recent years the area of Jaffna has experienced massacres that have devastated the local population, and this is something that Maya has tried to point out in interviews and live appearances just as in her music.

Thanks to Maya’s shrewd forward-thinking, perhaps with a project like this in mind, almost every moment discussed in the documentary contains footage filmed by or featuring herself. By that same token though it becomes difficult to escape her voice as a guiding force. This can at times come across as contrived or self-aggrandising, unhelpfully lending to the accusations of being ‘Radical Chic’. Regardless of intention, Maya takes a bold stance and tries desperately to bring media attention to serious issues – using the spotlight even if she is basking in it herself.

swerve

Just now I was on the motorway, the boy in the back drifting from the drab lullaby that was Disney’s Christopher Robin. That was when the transit van just ahead in the right lane started to swerve.

I notice the back tyre start to wobble and shake and then immediately flatten, the alloy scraping on the floor. The tyre blows out, black smoke pumps out over my windscreen and rubber flies across at my car when the noxious smell makes its way through the vents. I turn on my hazards and hit the brakes as he moves into my lane ahead of me, then across into the left lane, having to coast on three wheels and a haggard rim until the hard shoulder reappears.

I am panicked, pulsing with adrenaline, and as I pass him on my left, I look through the window to see this stubbly bespectacled dude looking as if he was just making his exit. Casual as fuck, this guy either didn’t know what was going on, had experienced it too many times before, or just knew how to react instinctively. His was an infectious calmness that had me immediately adjust and normalise – I check the rear-view and the boy is asleep.

That Good Night (2018)

Written for RAF News May 2018

In That Good Night, aged screenwriter Ralph Maitland (John Hurt) is living out his days in a picturesque Portuguese villa, trying to pen a project before ‘the ultimate deadline’.

Image result for that good night

Diagnosed with a terminal illness, Ralph remains as combative as ever whilst he works out what to do and who to tell. He invites his son Michael (Max Brown) to come and see him but is soured when he brings along his partner Cassie (Erin Richards). It becomes apparent that the people closest to Ralph have been pushed away – he is mocking and derisive, delivering insults with a smile.

The supporting cast of the film, including Maitland’s much younger wife (Sofia Helin), remain awkwardly stilted and two-dimensional for the most part, but it is clear that the story is not for them. It is only when Charles Dance arrives playing a mysterious white-suited visitor, talking over plans of assisted suicide, that the performance of Hurt is matched and the material is elevated.

But for a film focussed on questions of mortality, of accepting death and leaving loved ones behind, it seems afraid of real emotion. The queasy and insistent score signals reflective sadness, changing only to introduce clunky moments of comedy that might have just passed if the score weren’t so prominent. It appears that certain scenes would have been better served by silence, but perhaps that would have invited unwanted pathos.

John Hurt stands out with his twisted and embittered old man – the depth hinted at in this performance and the knowledge of the actors recent passing adds a poignancy that might have otherwise been absent from the film.

Reading Dylan Thomas’ poem (from which the title is taken) over the final black screen is a perfect close and a fitting send off for the beloved actor.

Wolf Warrior 2 (2017)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News February 2018

Returning from battle with his comrades ashes, Special Ops ‘Wolf Warrior’ Leng Feng discovers a real estate firm destroying his hometown. In the blink of an eye dozens of company goons wielding 2x4s have been floored and police have them surrounded. When Feng kicks the gun-toting ring leader 10ft into the air and through the windscreen of a police car, he is imprisoned in military jail for two years.

Once released, Feng finds himself in an unnamed African country where he establishes himself as man-of-the-people, offering aid to locals ravaged by a highly infectious disease and protecting them from a bloodthirsty militia. It seems they have teamed with some deadly Western mercenaries straight out of Street Fighter.

The driving force of the film is Wu Jing: the writer and director who also stars as borderline superhero Leng Feng. An embodiment of patriotism, Feng actually turns himself into a Chinese flag at one point, this despite being dishonourably discharged because: “Once a Wolf Warrior, always a Wolf Warrior.”

Now the second highest grossing film in China, this is a large scale production with sweeping shots of navy fleets and tanks being used for a demolition derby. There is a lot of sketchy if not passable CGI, but alongside practical effects and wire stunts that give some weight to action. These set pieces are built around a flurry of fast paced fight choreography devised by the same team behind John Wick and Atomic Blonde. Though intricate it never gets hung up on realism. The opening scene features an underwater fight scene that misunderstands gravity and overestimates lung capacity by some way, and yet this is what makes it enjoyable.

The attempts at humour and drama fall flat but form a necessary breather between gunfights and hand-to-hand combat, which is where all the fun is to be had.

Addendum:

Besides this, the message is one of frighteningly unambiguous nationalism. It reduces an entire continent to a land filled with savage militants and the helplessly impoverished – all ready to be protected by the Chinese military, crystallised in the form of one morally superior and high-roading motherfucker, so convinced of his invincibility that he rarely takes cover from gunfire and is able to catch an RPG with the wire frame of a mattress. This is a joke. A hugely expensive and highly profitable joke, that is only funny when it’s trying to be serious.

slime

Mortality is a pretty tough nut to crack with a three year old.

It was last year that he picked up on the cat’s sudden absence and since it was our first brush with death we decided not to sugar-coat and instead explain with obvious care and sensitivity. At that point in time however the scope of his curiosity was too large and attention span too small.

In the intervening months he has watched films that deal with the subject in a poetic form that has caught his attention and captured his imagination. Mine too for that matter. The Red Turtle is a notable example that gave him plenty of questions that I would try my best to answer.

Now, add to this the fact that he is open to the darker and more macabre stories. The Nightmare Before Christmas was a fast favourite, a film not watched much anymore, the soundtrack listened to on occasion but the book still read often. Other works of Tim Burton float around but the one dark obsession that has proved itself rather divisive amongst company is The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey.

An A-Z compendium, or abecedarian, that describes the bizarre deaths of a bunch of kids accompanied by Gorey’s sometimes graphic illustrations. My boy likes the rhyming couplets (the page above following the demise of April who fell down the stairs), and as it’s a quick read he often pulls it down of a night and has me read the name for him to respond with how they perished. (There is one page that I’m careful to avoid, the illustration at least, which is very graphic: K is for Kate who was struck with an axe.) It might seem like I’m training a sociopath but I don’t believe it to have had any negative affect on him at all.

The sentences are worded carefully and humorously, and none are disturbing save for Kate. He is familiar with all of the words (save for ‘ennui’ maybe, the reason behind ol’ Neville’s passing). We are protective of him in a sense but believe we have a good grip on his understanding and compassion, of what could unsettle or disturb, and it is from certain television shows and films that seem otherwise innocuous that he has picked up certain words and ideas that can appear… worrying?

Fond of creating stories, or: artfully lying, the boy was telling me a few days ago how a torch had gone missing earlier in the day, most definitely covering for the fact that he had taken it and been caught.

“A strange man came in and took the torch from upstairs”

Did you see him?

“No. I was in my bedroom”

How do you know it was him?

“Because he came in and took the torch”

Oh right. Do we have the torch now?

“Yeah I got it from him”

How do you think we should stop it from going missing?

“We hit him with a hammer and kill him”

I am stunned silent.

It seems we had missed the opportunity to talk about Kevin and will have to let the medical professionals take it from here.

That’s when a small semantic flourish restored all hope.

“We hit him in his head. All made of slime”

Oh thank the lord.

Still a bit worrying, but less worrying for sure.

Last Flag Flying (2018)

Written for Raf News January 2018

Set in late 2003, this loose sequel to The Last Detail follows three embittered veterans as they reunite and reminisce against the back drop of the Iraq war. More a road movie than a war film, Last Flag Flying looks at the long term effects of military service and how it can shape a persons life.

When recently widowed Doc (Steve Carell) receives news that his son has been killed whilst serving in Iraq, he sets out to reunite with two Vietnam buddies to attend the funeral. Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) has changed a lot – now a Reverend who has apparently found peace – whereas Sal (Bryan Cranston) has not, an alcoholic who provides insistent comic relief with an obnoxious charm. Doc is the humble, quiet man at the centre with the angel and devil on his shoulders: one with spiritual guidance and the other with unprompted honesty. What binds these men, and will become a large part of their journey, is compassion.

Their history is pulled out gradually from conversations on the road, which allows us to learn about their past and the people they once were. Part of this remains unsaid, which adds a fitting naturalism for these ex-military men.

Often they will repeat chants and phrases, though now with some detachment but still with a sense of nostalgia. They have become disillusioned to war but have a bond between them that runs deep despite their differences. Coming across military officials and young marines, they will critique and challenge now that they have the chance: a last ditch effort for some much needed catharsis.

Last Flag Flying is a little sickly and over the top, coming across contrived when pushing too hard or too often for laughter or tears. The principal cast are all playing parts that we have seen them in before, and it may be nothing new or surprising but their familiarity and chemistry make the film both funny and moving at times.