motor

Worn down to the nubs of its last legs, it looked like I would need a new car and pretty promptly. I am not, nor do I profess to be, a car person. I would describe my car by its colour first and if asked my engine size or the ‘year of my car’ I would say that I don’t have a ruler or the appropriate astrological calendar. Turns out it’s written on front and back, buried in the registration in some half-encrypted cipher. Funny cas I always liked Mensa code-breaking books when I was a kid, never cars.

Much like football I no longer feel obligated to know some inane trivia in order to save face if the opportunity arises. If someone asked me which team I support within the first minutes of meeting them, once upon a time I might have said that I don’t follow football anymore and watch them wince as they reconfigure how to talk to me, dealing with this sudden plummet in respect and relatability. Now I’m more comfortable expressing my disinterest, ready to jump on the offence and point to the strange mix of it’s brutish culture and theatrics; or how you could spend the length of a decent film watching a match resulting in 0 – 0. Generally I duck the question with a straight but not sheepish “I’m not into football” shortly followed by “a number two and a little off the fringe”.

I don’t hear the question all that often anymore. The situation is avoidable, whereas, thanks to this last vehicle’o’mine, I have had to make a number of visits to different garages with different specialisations (they tell me) but the same manner of speaking and the same way of making me feel like a defenceless alien child.

I had avoided the face-to-face purchase of my two previous cars, so today was a milestone as I sucked up my pride and walked into a car dealership asking to buy a car. Instantly I began recognising little word games and tests, ones that Mensa hadn’t quite prepared me for. Asked about my preferences of mileage and shown an array of very similar looking cars on his monitor, I note only the difference in price and colour.

I point to the black one that has the lowest cost and then am taken out to view it on the lot. Not sure what to look for, I check that is has tyres and a steering wheel, enough room in the back to strap a child and a radio to keep me occupied. Good. Now the simple matter of payment and documentation. I’m shown a price that doesn’t match the one hanging from the rear-view, and told about payment methods, the dealer’s expressions and awkward jokes allow me to see his own desires but I can’t trust that he’s on my side. Then, from nowhere, another more geezerish dealer manifests to breakdown why I need GAP insurance. I don’t trust this man. I don’t trust anyone anymore. I realise now that of course they’re salesman performing a routine. Classic good cop – gooder cop. I spot another additional payment which I’m told is a protective coat for my interiors, something I’m assured I’ll need from my son. I’ve watched Fargo enough times to know that this is by-the-book and I that I do not want this, even after he squirts some water from an eye-dropper on a protected business card asking me to imagine that its chocolate. I don’t know what the fuck is going on anymore and so I tap out and phone-a-friend to come hold my hand before I sign anything.

10 minutes later, my car-savvy saviour arrives and is recognised by all of the dealers. He is one of them – he speaks their language and shares their hobbies. Immediately he flags up things I had accepted as given. He alerts me to hidden fees and interest rates that hadn’t been mentioned to me. Evidently, our man gets a commission on the extra interest I spend. In other words: he is working against me. When I hear this and tell him I don’t want to pay interest, that I can’t afford to, and that I want to pay for it here and now, he squirms and sulks. He offers a discount on the interest. He forgets to mention the deposit that I would save on until prompted by my newly recruited advisor, grumbling it under his breath and blocking the display of his calculator.

At this point he leans on me with some advice of his own – what with Christmas coming up I shouldn’t commit to the car, I should buy presents for the family and see what I think next year. What if the boiler explodes, or if our house gets broken into… “Is this a threat?” I ask, receiving a burst of laughter, but honestly this is emotional blackmail. He knows how little I earn, that I have a child and that I’m saving for my own place, he knows all of this and is still trying to trick me into giving him more money than I have.

I want to pay it all now. Fine. He retreats to an office and finishes off the paperwork when my saviour leaves me alone once more, a swift job well done. I am then called into the office where the pride of three dealers are gathered, perhaps sensing my vulnerability he asks me AGAIN how much I would like to pay, as though we hadn’t gone over this. All of it. He looks me in the eyes and in a move of desperate audacity insists: “Let’s call it half”.

I pay the full amount and avoid the TruCoat, but settle for the GAP insurance. I hand over the keys to my well loved but useless blue car when he spots the house key. “Guess you’ll be needing this” he says as he takes it off, “otherwise I’ll have to come around to see your son”. I have no idea what this man means to say. His tone is playful so I assume it’s a joke, but I cannot for the life of me work it out and perhaps my face shows this. “I’ll have to bring him some sweets”. What does this mean! Should I be worried? Is he going to burgle me or sabotage my boiler?

I spend the drive home thinking about this ordeal and the strange way that it ended, neither of us really happy, both convinced we had made a bad deal. The most I can hope for is that this car lasts long enough to prevent me having another of these interactions anytime soon.

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The child has apparently started to question his role in the universe, why he is here – specifically why he lives in this house, with this family.

Alan Watts talks about cultural differences between the East and the West and looks at the role of God and society in shaping the way you see the world and your place in it.

He says of the West that there is the image of God as creator and so we see the world as matter that we shape and put our mark on. So it follows that a child would ask ‘how was I made?’

In the East however, a child is more likely to ask ‘how did I grow?’

Despite our best efforts to have him involved in growing tomatoes, in looking after a chicken and fetching it’s eggs of a morning, the way our son phrased his existential quandary: ‘Where did you buy me?’

Oh dear.

The Hungry (2017)

Written for RAF News November 2017

The Hungry is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s violent tragedy Titus Andronicus, moved to contemporary New Dheli where an extravagant wedding becomes the setting for a series of vengeful murders.

The union between the Ahuja and Huji families is shown to have some significance as far as corporate ties are concerned and this may be the reason for some bad blood along the way. The film opens to the bride’s son writing a suicide note at gunpoint, it is not clear just yet what is going on and who is to be trusted. Flashing forward two years after this supposed suicide, the wedding is back on and no expense is spared in putting on a show.

Tathagat Ahuja (Naseeruddin Shah) is the elder godfather figure of his family, lavishly showing off his wealth as he plays host and head chef at the wedding of his moronic son Sunny (Arjun Gupta). The bereaved bride is Tulsi (Tisca Chopra) who is often seen wearing a smile of dark intentions.

Although the acting is pretty ropey, the film is composed well, clearly putting aesthetics before anything else. It takes a long time to get going but once it gets past the overly complicated establishing of grudges and grievances, the final horrific scenes fall into place.

It feels as though the story has been reverse engineered, starting at the final banquet hinted at in the title, and working backwards. Other ceremonial touches are set up and skewed by the distrust seeded between Tulsi and her new family.

For example, she and the groom take part in the ‘Haldi’ ceremony in which they are both covered in a bright yellow paste as traditional music is played. This sound is distant and distorted however, which really separates you from the festivities: seeing the vibrant colours but through this lens of paranoia.

There is a nice clash between the gruesome violence and the luxurious setting but ultimately The Hungry takes far too long to get to an expected ending.

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.

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 Grahame 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 Grahame 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 Grahame. She is commanding and funny but the mere mention of the age gap will bring out her sensitivity. Benning is able to portray Grahame 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, Grahame 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.

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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.