Calm with Horses (2020)

Written for RAF News March 2020

Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) is the muscle for a criminal family and father to an autistic son (Kiljan Moroney) – physically intimidating yet a sensitive soul – so when he is instructed to kill someone both his morals and loyalty are tested.

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With a largely silent character capable of extreme violence at the centre, and cut to a dreamlike score, there is the feel of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. But the Los Angeles veneer and stylism is scratched away to reveal something rougher and grittier. Filmed on the West coast of Ireland, it holds onto the intimacy of its rural setting but brings out the desolation.

This place is populated by lowly thugs and drug-dealers run by the Devers clan. Connected through his manipulating ‘friend’ Dympna (Barry Keoghan), the mouthy nephew of the family, Arm has been adopted as their trusty pit-bull to carry out the dirty work. An ex-boxer who has perhaps taken too many hits to the head, he does as he is told.

There is a brutal darkness that sits behind the story, propelling it forward, but also a sensitivity taking shape in Arm’s moral crisis. Adapted from a short story the film expands the relationship between Arm, his ex-girlfriend and their son whose special needs have them looking at specialist schools across the country.

Cosmo Jarvis is captivating in this role, playing the simple brute with such restraint through his squinting eyes and tightly drawn mouth that he looks visibly constrained, torn apart by inner conflict.  He seldom speaks, but when he does, he does so softly with a sibilating lisp that is perhaps an indicator of his gentler nature, buried beneath his constructed masculine identity.

This debut feature from Nick Rowland is confident and accomplished. There are moments of well orchestrated action and tension building, but the most interesting scenes are those smaller exchanges that bring out the humanity of characters caught in the crossfire.

Little Joe (2020)

Written for RAF News February 2020

Renegade botanist Alice (Emily Beecham) cuts some corners when engineering a strain of ‘happy plant’, a small household Lorax tree that is said to have an anti-depressant affect on humans. This may be the intention, but it is not quite the result.

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Before it can be properly tested, under pressure to have the species ready for the science fair, it’s production is rolled out en masse in the lab, not before she nabs one for her teenage son Joe (Kit Connor), whom she will name the plant after.

Alice has a testing relationship with her son, a single-mother dedicating most of her time to work, she seems to reserve her motherly qualities for her plant life. Meanwhile Joe is at that point of puberty in which he is throwing caution to the wind in pursuit of a girl.

The subtext here on the nature of mothering, the difficulties of attachment with a child who is becoming an individual, is established loud and clear, much like the more horror-like elements of the film. It has all the makings of a Twilight Zone or Black Mirror episode but filled out with unnecessary B movie exposition. Although the film communicates a lot visually, the menace of the writhing plants, the transformative power of it’s pollen, it is all made explicit in dialogue after the fact.

Despite it’s alluring aesthetic, with a prominent colour palette and minimal design, this Little Joe of Horrors has all the baggy technical parts of a science-fiction thriller and lacks the pay off. It begins with a sense of unease, but then it doesn’t give the audience a chance to think for themselves, to guess at what might be happening, or to even be confused – it explains everything, twice.

Marilyn

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Dancing in ankle-high mud with only a book to shield me from the rain, I am joyful and careless, surrounded by friends at some sort of music festival where I feel a sense of belonging. I stroll straight from this scene into my conveniently nearby home, the sprawling party outside could very well be in my garden.

Up the stairs and into my room an almost naked Marilyn Manson calls me over and points to some books on the shelves over my bed. He pulls out one covered with satanic symbols, turns to a page and finds what he was looking for, an intricately illustrated demonic figure. He points to the page and then to the space above his heart, and then to that self-same space on my chest.

Marilyn puts an arm around me, cradling my head with his chest and we lay back on my bed as his tattooist emerges from the corner with the loudly buzzing gun in one of his black latex gloves. He copies the image directly onto Marilyn, before me. It feels extremely sexual – I am uncomfortable and uncertain about what follows, but dismiss these feelings thinking that either way it’s pretty cool.

On the drive back from this festival a sudden commotion is diagnosed as the result of a flat tyre. We hop out and examine the damage.

… All of this I tell Noah as we drive to work. I have forced him out of bed very early to accompany me on my drive to work so that he can take the car back for me. A real beauty who would jump at the chance to play in someone else’s car.

I reward his kindness by telling him of the bizarre dreamworld I had inhabited moments earlier. This unsolicited monologue ends just as there is a loud crash and jolt, and the sound of metal grinding on concrete as we start to lop to one side. The giant pothole that I had not seen until too late has torn my tyre apart.

A few days later I wake to see a message from Noah at 2.30am, he is stranded on the way back from work. Two nails have puncture his tyre. The very next evening, at 1am, my colleague messages to say that she is stuck on the side of a road with a flat tyre.

A spooky coincidence that we all drive on the same fucking poorly maintained roads. I should start hovering.

The Lighthouse (2020)

Written for RAF News January 2020

A late-nineteenth century ghost story set in a lighthouse in New England. A weathered keeper and his freshly imported assistant divide the duties, with young Winslow (Robert Pattinson) taking the more gruelling and physically demanding jobs, whilst Wake (Willem Dafoe) looks after the light itself, guarding it with almost religious fervour. Stuck with only each other, as a storm prevents them from leaving, what begins as minor grievances will grow into cut-throat resentments as the isolation tares at their sanity.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse (2019)

There is a mythic energy expressed though stark and sometimes surreal imagery as well as ornate language straight from the writings of Melville and Milton. These two masculine figures, young and old, are left to stew in a steaming froth of bitterness and paranoia, bubbling out into Shakespearian soliloquies with biblical wrath. Dafoe delights in the extremes of his character, filled with both humour and fury. Pattinson’s anger will spill out also, squirming under the regime of the man who controls his pay.

Shot in black and white, through lenses a century old, the square aspect ratio is tall enough to capture the phallic lighthouse in all its glory, and creating mountains of Pattinson and Defoe’s faces: hairy, crusty and carved with age. With the image boxed in, the claustrophobia is transferred straight to the audience and you can almost smell the salt and damp.

This is no ordinary film, it is a fever dream of symbolism and dark poetry, of seagulls and sirens. It is both artistic and crass, exhibiting all manner of bodily fluids as the two keepers drunkenly spiral into madness. Cowritten and directed by Robbert Eggers, whose debut The Witch had a similar affection for period detail and dialogue, The Lighthouse is another plunge into the same waters, only deeper and darker with less to hold on to.

Jojo Rabbit (2020)

Written for RAF News January 2020

A coming of age story set in the waning years of rule in Nazi Germany, Jojo Rabbit follows young Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) and the relationships with his rebellious mother, the young Jewish girl hiding in the attic and his invisible friend and motivating confidant, Adolf Hitler.

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There are certainly moments of darkness in the film, the true horror of the situation can’t help but push through the playfully subversive tone, but for the most part it plays as a cross between Moonrise Kingdom and Drop Dead Fred. The comedy is constant, propelled with flare by writer director Taika Watiti himself as Jojo’s goofily imagined version of Hitler, offering encouragement when he has no-one else.

Living at home with his mother (Scarlett Johansson), Johannes wants to belong to something and so becomes a fervant fanboy of the Nazi party – Hitler and swastikas adorn his wall like band posters. A member of a Nazi youth camp, headed by a literally and figuratively resigned Captain Klenzendorf (excellently played by Sam Rockwell), here he will learn how to hunt Jews and use explosives. That is until an accident has him thrown out, reduced to a position that has him spending more time at home where he makes the ideology shattering discovery that his mother is hiding the enemy (Thomasin McKenzie).

Led by his ardent but naive enthusiasm, Jojo knows that he can’t risk endangering his mother, and so decides to interrogate the intruder and learn all that he can about the Jews, how they have tails and sleep upside down like bats.

Although there is a deep and truthful resonance with how Nazi propaganda dehumanised Jewish people, the film cleverly refocusses this mythology to be spouted by a prepubescent boy, mocking the absurdity of it all and usurping the power of these historical villains.

Waititi is continuing a precedent set by Charlie Chaplin almost a century ago when making The Great Dictator, stating that “Hitler must be laughed at”.

A Hidden Life (2020)

Written for RAF News December 2019

Terence Malick returns to the subject of the Second World War, this time using his philosophically meandering style to focus on one man’s resistance in a small mountain town in Austria.

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Malick’s films have become rather divisive since his foray into the more heady and artistic beginning with Tree of Life at the start of the decade. Using a combination of grand sweeping shots of stunning landscapes, and macro observations of intimate detail, he creates a poetic lament on lofty subjects such as the nature of existence, usually through the lens of Christian morality.

A Hidden Life fits perfectly into this mould, observing Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) with his family, the simple pleasures of harvesting crops and playing with his children. This mountain life will soon be disrupted by the growing Nazi invasion as it demands support and allegiance – requiring everyone in town to contribute toward the cause and swear an oath to Adolph Hitler.

Franz’s act of defiance will set him on course for execution, and so he must consider the morality of his actions, weighing the impact on his conscience against the consequences to his family. A question is being asked of the audience, not so subtly mind, of what it means to believe in something and to stand up for it at whatever cost.

The slow pace and long shots ground the characters, so that without dialogue you feel as though you understand the complex emotions. The reflective nature of the film works to have you contemplate the ideas that are being presented, but this pretty much instructed almost instructed by the whispered narration of characters thoughts, another Malick staple, that could be distractingly heavy handed if it weren’t the only element breaking the repetition.

There are moments of observed beauty and connection, but within a much longer and perhaps intentionally simple film, with a 3 hour running time, the point is somehow both lost and overstated.

Rotten

I was up early yesterday taking the boy to school, and getting myself over to the polling station before work. A long day that ended in bed watching the live election results until the early hours.

I woke up at 3.45am in excruciating pain, feeling as  though something were trapped between my teeth cutting into my mouth. My television remained dimly and audibly insistent at the foot of my bed, respectable journalists walking over giant colour coded maps, gesturing to an enormous digitised swingometer.

I stand in front of the mirror outside of my bedroom in this haze poking, proding and flossing in an effort to clear the invisible dagger that torments me. It sounds as though the exit polls were right and there’s a large Conservative majority. I stop and just look into my mouth and see there is nothing there, except for the fact that my back molar along the bottom of my jaw is missing a corner. This had to have been gradual but I’m only noticing now, part of my tooth has rotted away and is leaving exposed a part of my gum, a blackened crevice tucked out of sight

Nothing I can do about it now. I throw the floss away, turn the television off and try to get back to sleep.