mandala

I am barely awake before thrust into a world far stranger than the dreams that had proceeded. I sit with the boy in his room and follow strict instruction. I must construct a dinosaur out of Duplo bricks. It must be tall and strong and yellow. Containing a door, slide and a gate apparently. Meanwhile he creates a robot of a less precise nature.

I do my best, managing to keep it symmetrical and give it some likeness: head, feet, tail made from the slide (not my first rodeo). He likes it. So much so that he immediately dismantles it, and uses its skeleton to form a zoo. How meta.

Just like the Marble Run tracks that I obsessively construct to turn into a race with an unknowable outcome, to teach him that winning and losing are both fun aspects of a game – he celebrates by immediately taking it apart, sometimes so carefully that I find it difficult to pinpoint the emotion I’m feeling.

It happens on such a regular basis that I have stopped insisting that we leave a fully constructed dinosaur on the bedside, or have a few races before packing away the circuit. I let it go. I move onto the next thing. And still I will put the same level of effort into it because what would be the point otherwise.

I’m being taught a lesson here – of the transient nature of creation, how something is never complete or perfect, it is just one in a series of things, a necessary intermediate between this and the next. There’s another dinosaur in here somewhere, or better yet a zoo that will house Batman along with the fish and polar bears, because after all he’s not merely a man.

A bit grandiose I realise but it makes sense to me the more I repeat it, and I’m getting pretty good with these bricks.

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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)

Written for RAF News November 2017

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is about writer and actor Peter Turner’s love affair with Hollywood legend Gloria Graham in the late 70s: the star of black and white classics now living in Liverpool and struggling to make it in colour apparently.

Adapted from his memoir, Turner is played by the ever-dashing and loveable Jamie Bell who stumbles upon new neighbour Graham in the middle of some wacky vocal exercises, but she will make work of him yet. Anette Benning is able to bring the twinkling Hollywood shine to Graham. She is commanding and funny but the mere mention of the age gap will bring out her sensitivity. Benning is able to portray Graham as both bold and fragile, hinting that there is something going on behind the film star veneer.

As revealed in the opening of the film, Graham returns to Liverpool after collapsing in her dressing room, wanting to recover in the company of her old flame. The film jumps about in time from their sweet beginning to tragic ending, back through the throws of passion and heated break-ups. The style is fluid in the way that it blurs past and present but for all its efforts it can be quite jarring. This technique does pay off later though when an argument is seen from a different perspective, effectively managing to change the emotion of the scene.

The getting-to-know-you parts of the relationship, the pub dates and meetings with disapproving parents, feel familiar and forgettable save for the style. Julie Walter’s reliably steals her scenes as Mrs Turner with very little dialogue, but Film Stars really gets interesting when it gets a little darker and dramatic.

Bell and Benning have great chemistry, even when their characters are at odds with each other, and are able to give this story a tenderness that it deserves.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Written for RAF News November 2017

Steven Murphy is a successful heart surgeon, admired by his peers and loved by his family, but all that is about come apart when demons from the past come back to haunt him. Not literally, well who knows.

Murphy has been meeting a young boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan) to give occasional gifts and fatherly advice but his wife and kids are unaware of this relationship. Murphy feels indebted to Martin for some reason, things getting substantially more serious when it seems a hex has been placed on his family that will end in a lot of people dying if nothing is done about it.

It sounds absurd but stranger things have happened in Yorgos Lanthimos’ films – like turning people into animals in The Lobster. The style is unmistakable, the flat matter-of-fact dialogue and delivery that can find humour in the darkest ideas. It has a wonky realism that makes you think the hex could be real and so the stakes are as high as they can be. Murphy has to confront superstition and contemplate an unthinkable sacrifice*.

Colin Farrell, having starred in strange success The Lobster, looks at home with this mechanical direction, and Nicole Kidman dovetails in with a bit more soul as wife Anna but is enough Stepford Wife to keep things off kilter, especially in the bedroom. The young actors are excellent, making the blunt and sometimes bizarre dialogue sound natural.

Once again Lanthimos has created a beautifully strange piece of work that is uniquely his own. It is a horror revenge film that has a tone that flits between tragic and slapstick. It uses real drama but in such a false way that it’s hard to connect to anyone, but this feels beside the point. What is clear is that it knows how to challenge expectations, create suspense and get a laugh – even if it is a nervous one.

(more…)

Good Time (2017)

Written for RAF News November 2017

Good Time opens with a heist. The idea has been done many times before but this is different. It’s simple and stripped back but shown with style and real intensity. Gripped from the opening it is clear that this entire film will not be easy for anyone involved. It is a pulpy crime thriller that never slows down and plays out largely as one intense chase.

The guys behind the robbery are brothers, as are the directors of the film. Nik (played by co-director Ben Safdie) is mentally handicapped, talked into the job by his brother Connie, the wily one always with a plan. When Nik is caught by police, Connie makes it his mission to break him out of prison whatever it takes.

Connie is constantly finding himself in extreme, distressing situations and having to find a way out. Though flawed he has a survival instinct and in fact his ability to use people really comes in handy. Robert Pattinson is great in this part, managing to convey desperation but never without ego or pride.

Early on, when trying to post bail money for his brother’s release, a series of phone calls take place, overlapping with each other and adding to the cacophony of stress. This is as low as the stakes get and yet the tension is unescapable. Add in the classic genre ingredients of guns, drugs and guard dogs and you might get an idea of where it is headed.

Combining uncomfortably close camera with an intense synth score and hurled through never ending trials, the affect of this film is physical. What begins as nausea develops into pure adrenal exhilaration. It has a video game kind of logic where sudden problems need a solution, where people are reduced to tools, but it has the benefit of being utterly cinematic.

The ironic title might be misleading but if you’re a sadist, an adrenaline junkie or just looking for exciting cinema – this is a great time.

Sirens

It was past midnight. I had just dropped a friend home after work when he had text me to say one of my tail lights was out. Another fault to add to the list. Bombing it home a white car comes up behind me, and after flying over a roundabout it keeps my speed so I assume it’s going to overtake and speed ahead. Thats when the blue silent disco starts in my rearview.

One officer checks the back, the other the front. He says he smells unburnt fuel and notices the engine light on. Apparently I have a headlight out, as well as a tail light. Aw I know that one! I pull out my phone with the perfect alibi providing text. He shines a torch on my face. Don’t I know you? Have I pulled you over before? No, never been pulled over before – I say, perhaps too proud of myself considering the situation. Was I going a bit fast? (I offer forward like a brazen fucking idiot. It must have looked like I was speeding away from a crash). My instinct was to speed up as you pulled up behind me. Yeah you shouldn’t do that.

The Wizard of Ozark

I was reluctant to start another Netflix series, despite getting a couple of recommendations. Ever since I had experienced the aggressive evangelism of Breaking Bad enthusiasts, forcing me to watch the entire show and to be left unfulfilled and underwhelmed, I have become distrusting of opinions on tv shows.

The first episode of Ozark establishes a certain style, it’s sharp dialogue and darkly comic tone, it’s blue tint and metallic percussive score – building tension much like Punch Drunk Love. On top of that it’s quick. To the point where it felt like it spent all of it’s narrative chips by the end.

It felt like it had reached the peak of action and tension. That it could have built up to this a little more and had nowhere left to go. At the end of the episode we are in the Ozarks, a coastal shit-town with nothing going on. This is what kept me from watching the second episode. Where could it go from here that would be as interesting?

When I got around to watching the second episode I realised that this pace was not a symptom of trying to make the pilot interesting – it wasn’t a pilot after all – it was part of the style. It didn’t need to set up a twist or reveal, because as the plot unfolds there are new and interesting ideas being explored quickly.

Stranded in the Ozarks, the show takes the suburbia trope of a family pretending to be happy and together whilst all having their dirty secrets and turns it inside out. The husband is discovered to be a a criminal and his wife has been cheating on him – they move house to save their lives and commit to the criminal lifestyle and tell their kids that this is what they’re doing. They have confessed their sins and are embracing their lifestyle because they have nothing left to lose. They move in with a guy who has a fatal illness and is the perfect embodiment of this mentality – they don’t give a fuck.

There is something of Walter White in Marty Byrde. He is remarkably clever and thinks logically. He understands people and can find solutions. Where they differ is that Walter White is all about action, he will back himself into a corner and think of a way to blow the walls down around him. Byrde’s gift is in language. He has a highly developed ability to reason with a Sorkinesque wit and so can talk his way out of anything.

White is a creator: of drugs, bombs, he even creates himself a character complete with costume. He is a stage magician with all the grandeur and gaudy showmanship, where Byrde is actually fucking magic, needing no props or stage. He is egoless, serving a purpose and has no pride in his gains. He is ashamed if anything.

Breaking Bad had a cinematic style in it’s use of camera and editing. It has a showy nature that resonates with it’s protagonist. Ozark is precisely the opposite.

For now at least… I’ve watched three episodes. I’m in.

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (2017)

Written for RAF News October 2017

In Bloodlight and Bami, director Sophie Fiennes explores the formidable Grace Jones, cutting together live shows and intimate footage recorded over 5 years: following her across the world to perform, record and visit friends and family.

Still performing at 69 with stunningly designed costumes, sometimes whilst hula-hooping for the duration, Jones is undeniably a force to be reckoned with. She is towering in stature and intimidating by reputation. Known to have a fiery personality both on and off stage, what comes through in this documentary is her humour and in fact her vulnerability. Back home in Jamaica Jones talks with her family about father Mas P, a cruel and looming figure. This is intercut with her performance of William’s Blood, the lyrics explaining the punishing ordeal she went through as a child, and the resilience that she expresses now.

Whilst trying to pin down bassist Robbie on the phone for a recording on 2008 album Hurricane, her producer pleads with her to not piss him off, but expectantly she can’t be contained. After an angry tirade though, it seems she has just left a voicemail – a comic moment that is actually quite sad.

This happens too with a television performance in Paris that is staged in such a way that she feels like the Madame of a brothel. She is not the butt of the joke but it’s her status that is undercut in these moments. Trying to uphold an image that is fearful but seeming in these moments to be alone.

Throughout the documentary Jones will often take on the dialect of those she is talking to, fluidly dropping into Jamaican patois with her mother, Valley girl with her niece, or French with her ex. What is clear from this documentary is that Jones has many sides to her.

Bloodlight and Bami is well paced and put together, giving insight to a cultural icon who has a great depth behind her public persona.