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.

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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.

Order Effects: Lanthimos and Nichols

Having just caught a preview of The Killing of a Sacred Dear, one brilliant detail that keeps you in suspense is not knowing the reality of the film.

Lanthimos’ previous films Dogtooth and Alps were both extreme and farcical in their own way but set in the real world. Then The Lobster made this absurd surrealism the reality in the film. In Sacred Deer, when a family are the subject of a superstitious hex, you have no idea what the film is capable of and so it throws off all expectation by making anything possible. So so very clever.

I experienced this same effect recently when watching Take Shelter by Jeff Nichols. Having watched his debut, the gritty realistic Shotgun Stories and then his more recent science-fiction Midnight Special before going back to the acclaimed Take Shelter – I had no idea of the reality of the film and it kept me guessing, and I think I enjoyed it all the more for it.

 

It (2017)

An 80s style coming of age story set in Derry, Maine, a town where the kids go missing at a rate over 6 times higher than anywhere else. Stranger things have happened, and Stranger Things continues to happen as a bunch of dweeby kids become hero investigators, including one of the boys from STRANGER THINGS.

If Stand By Me (also adapted from a story by Stephen King) were Alien, this is Jim Cameron’s sequel, as a group of boys find a fuckload of dead bodies in the sewers.

For a film about a demon clown, the scariest moments are the most grounded – the malicious parents and school bullies. Perhaps this is because their actions and reactions are grounded in reality, whereas Pennywise’s strengths, weaknesses and triggers seem arbitrary. It gears up as though it’s related to fear but it matters not in the end, they say that it does but show that it doesn’t.

A shape-shifter that represents fear and preys on children much like Freddy Krueger, there are some huge references to A Nightmare on Elm Street, as in the bathroom scene, but it relies more on computer generated effects.

IT is a fun nostalgia film intercut with neutered horror scenes that somehow make it less scary.

The Party (2017)

Written for RAF News October 2017

A few friends have been invited to Janet’s soiree in her London home: a disaster barely waiting to happen. A host of clashing personalities all celebrating her ascension to Shadow Health Minister, on course to potentially leading the party, but for now she has a very different party to run.

In case it wasn’t clear that things are going to end badly, the film opens with Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) pointing Chekov’s gun right at us, then cutting backwards in time to the exchange of crocodile smiles and inane niceties before things inevitably turn sour.

With these opinionated ideologues now in an enclosed space, there is the catalyst of announcements: of promotion, pregnancy and the prognosis of death. Each now has a purpose to shout their worldview from their respective soapboxes.

Spiritualist life coach Godfrey (Bruno Ganz) sits cross-legged on the floor offering esoteric musings to each flawed dinner guest, though it only takes a gentle prod from his sarcastic wife (Patrica Clarkson) to expose the hypocrisy. Cillian Murphy’s suited banker is shaky and sweaty upon arrival, making frequent trips to the bathroom to find a clean corner of the bathtub to help keep his nerves unstable. All the while Janet’s husband Bill (Timothy Spall), a renowned Atheist Author, sits in a drunken stupor controlling the music in the most perfectly inappropriate manner.

The soundtrack is just one element of style that is added to this theatrical farce, presented in black and white and with camera angles that get right in the faces of it’s cast. Each addition of drama ratchets up the tension and brings out the comedy. We follow different pairings of characters to learn about the baggage that each of them has brought along.

The Party is quick and comical with a political subtext that makes it more relevant than ever. So swiftly are you thrown into the chaos that you can’t help but be engaged.

cinema

Snacking on too salty popcorn made all too available in this place, made perpetually and inconsolably hungry, I am interrupted by a delivery of posters. One tube is full of quads for the upcoming Jigsaw – the eighth in the series of glossy gore torture porn. As I try roll an elastic-band down the tube I papercut myself deeper than I thought possible, making a bloody muppet-mouth of my middle finger, a slice right across the crease of my top phalange. Back to work and my feverish snacking I see the popcorn box where I left it on the desk.

“DO YOU WANT TO PLAY A GAME?”

Wind River (2017)

Written for RAF News September 2017

When the body of a young girl is found barefoot in the thick snow of the Wind River Indian Reservation, the F.B.I. get involved. Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) heads over to Wyoming from the Las Vegas department to investigate – as best she can in her unsuited clothes and car. Headstrong but inexperienced, she is really out of her element here.

With few police of their own in this large stretch of unforgiving terrain, Banner looks to Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner), the hunter who discovered the body, to help find her way around. He knows the place, the people and the predators that lurk within. It seems the community are battling a world that doesn’t care about them, torn apart by drugs and delinquents.

What begins as a moody procedural however will quickly become an all-out action thriller in a whiplash-inducing change of pace. Details that are initially obscured will be explained fully and any attempts at making a serious dramatic point will be lost to Taken-style shootouts. This is a bizarre film that doesn’t know how seriously to treat its subject. Most serious of all is Corey, a man with a troubled past who has apparently learned much about the culture of Native Americans, taking every opportunity to high road others and pass on his wise words.

Wind River is written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, the latter of which really comes through here just without the balance of comedy. Other than the chief of local police, who is included for comedic relief but sidelined immediately, there are fleeting glimpses of humour that are practically apologised for.

Wind River is confusing in tone but still interesting to watch. You can’t help but feel that if it weren’t so serious it’d be fun; or if it weren’t so silly it’d be brilliant.