Month: June 2017

The Shepherd (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

Anselmo Garcia (Miguel Martin) is a humble and unassuming shepherd who lives in a small farm house with his dog. A man of simple pleasures who sees no use for a television or telephone, Anselmo appreciates the simplicity of life: in food, coffee and classic literature – but now they are trying to take that from him.

 

When two men representing a construction firm propose to buy Anselmo’s land in order to build a new housing complex, it is clear that he is not even tempted. Miffed by his apparent disinterest in the money they turn aggressive. What soon transpires is that Anselmo’s land is the last piece of the puzzle, and that all of his neighbour’s have already signed away their property. In order for the deal to be closed, they are reliant on Anselmo parting with his property, and so he finds the pressure increasing from all sides to leave behind the life that he knows and loves.

One of Anselmo’s neighbour’s is the sharply dressed slaughterhouse owner Julian (Alfonso Mendiguchía). When he takes Anselmo to his sterile factory floor filled with steel machinery, it is clear that this life is the complete antithesis of the shepherd’s – harvesting animals as opposed to rearing them. But despite his appearance, Julian is in great looming debt and beginning to get desperate.

The morals guiding this storyline are cut and dry from the outset and the money-hungry suits make for pretty two dimensional villains. What is impressive is how the film imbues a romanticism into the shepherds way of life through the images on screen and with a modest budget. Capturing a flock of sheep on this rural Spanish landscape in the early lavender hours of the morning and the firey colours of dusk.

The story is a most definitely a slow burn with performances from the supporting cast that are pretty ropey for the most part, but there are moments which incapsulate the argument of simple living over the stress of modern life quite nicely.

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pendulum

Turns out children are a pretty complex species, which I’m sure I’ll learn to accept soon enough. But craving consistency I keep thinking the child has locked into a certain way of being, his personality decided – for better or worse.

There was a patch where he was pure evil. And what I mean by that is that he was curious to the point of defying instruction. Perfectly normal it turns out. So when he would see his bowl full of cereal and think about what reaction it would have, that I would have, if he were to swipe it off the table and proceed to splash around the milk whilst holding eye contact with me, I’m sure he was just seeing what would happen, and that it wasn’t a demon taking residence in the body of my child. Ahh the rosey tint of retrospect.

So it was with welcomed surprise last week that I could stop thinking about moving house as he turned to pure gold. We had our day together – Daddy Dave (the ‘v’ fell into the pronunciation and we haven’t corrected it just yet) – and he was full of love and energy, reminding me constantly of how I’m his best friend and that he loves me. Later I asked what he wanted to do and he proposed that he go to bed, stopping to brush his teeth en route. I follow to read a few him his bedtime stories and he has already tucked himself in. Perfect, if not suspicious, child. Almost more unsettling than when he went full Damian.

So there goes me, smugly reassured of this new angelic child. Until Fathers Day just passed.

We had tried potty training a little while back and it was just to difficult to keep up with the amount of washing when there were accidents. But now, in his newly perfect mode he seemed to be taking to it just fine. Well. Fathers Day. Nico asks the boy if he needs the potty: he looks down at his dry trousers, back up at her and presents his growing piss patch with a stage magician’s “tadaaa” adding a little leg kick as a flourish. At least he’s a showman about it. But all I can think to do is hold him down whilst Nico fetches the bible.

Update: Daddy Dave just passed and the pendulum has once again swung in the other direction. Fully aware and using the potty his ownself, no accidents for four days straight now. Lovely as ever, but I keep my bags packed and holy water handy on the off-chance.

Alone In Berlin (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

When a long-married couple lose their only son in battle they start a silent rebellion in the heart of Berlin. This act of dissent will quickly gain attention from the Gestapo and almost certainly mark them for death.

Otto Quangel (Brendan Gleason) is a foreman at a coffin factory and his wife Anna (Emma Thompson) works begrudgingly for the Nazi Women’s league. They are shown to be lowly working class people already disgusted by the ‘German war machine’ and losing their boy takes all purpose from their lives.

Otto is inspired by a Nazi recruitment poster to speak out and does so by writing a warning on the back of a postcard, which he leaves in public. Now with new purpose he begins to write more and more, with political messages provided by his wife, until Detective Escherich (Daniel Brühl) is assigned the case of finding and eliminating the audacious menace.

Based on a novel that in turn was based on true events, the story is rather straight forward and motivated by complex emotions, however rather than show this through the performances of its impressive cast, it constantly and needlessly reminds you of what is going on. There is so much room for subtlety and yet most of the dialogue is dedicated to expressing feelings, bizarrely even in the stoic character of Otto.

The film looks slickly designed with wondrous use of lighting, however the dialogue and even the moments intended to bring suspense are so artificial and contrived that it removes any sense of realism. That’s not even to speak of the English speaking – German accents affected by all, which is highly distracting.

Alone in Berlin is entertaining enough to keep you for its runtime but it feels like an incredible waste of talent.

 

Dying Laughing (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

It seems a simple formula for success to make a documentary about stand up when you can have it narrated by a huge line up of professional funny people.

Dying Laughing resists the urge to play any footage of stand up and instead shows a number of talking head interviews with the odd cutaway for flavour, talking about stand up. Bagging big names from both sides of the pond such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock to Eddie Izzard and Steve Coogan, the film dives into the life of a comedian, covering the neuroses and narcissism.

When pressed to explain what makes stand up so special it can’t help but come across pretentious, and the fact that the talking heads are shot in black and white really doesn’t help. As Sean Lock puts it: “the danger of talking about it is you sound like a wanker”. But it is moments of self-awareness and derision like this that bring the comedy back.

It looks at all the elements of being a stand-up comedian from note-taking and joke writing to working the crowd and dealing with hecklers. They talk about ‘the road’, travelling from show to show between run down hotels and comedy clubs with nowhere to go and no-one to be with, the loneliness, the depression; the humiliation of bombing, the elation of killing.

The film purposefully orders accounts of bombing on stage, of being booed or just ignored. One comic compares it to falling that doesn’t end when you come off stage, another describes it as being slapped by your dad at a barbecue: there is no shortage of analogies throughout the film. One comic retells a clearly haunting memory of being humiliated on stage and seems so shaken by the event still that you can’t understand why people would do this to themselves.

But then we hear accounts of what it’s like to make a room of people laugh, and it is described with a knowing sense that you wouldn’t ever understand unless you experience it for yourself, like explaining a drug, and by the sounds comedy is addictive and will have you risk everything for it.

In the end, the sheer number of comedians interviewed begins to eat its own tale as its the most soundbitable clips that lead into the next that make it in. This leads to many broad pithy comments, occasional written anecdotes, but some moments of pure gold where you see the comic brain at work in the moment, off the cuff.

Can I Be Me (2017)

From Kurt and Courtney to Biggie and Tupac, I find Nick Broomfield’s documentaries about musicians to be cold and removed from the artist. Maybe it’s his intention to focus on the death of a musician without muddling in their music or achievements, but it comes across as cynical and leery, in a tabloid journalism kind of way.

The Cobain documentary Montage of Heck and Nick Cave’s 20000 Days on Earth both took on the style of the artist they were exploring and added a dimension to their story that was both befitting and engaging. Asif Kapadia’s Amy was so invested in the talent of Amy Winehouse, it showed such reverence for her as a musician, that you believe the filmmaker experienced the tragedy. By comparison Can I Be Me is a fleshed out Daily Mail article, but with exclusive interview access and archive footage as opposed to just peering through the window of the crime scene.

Using these resources Nick Broomfield attempts to explore the complicated and conflicted life that led to Whitney Houston’s death in 2012.

Showing her humble beginnings singing in church as a child under mother Cissy Houston, we see the stunning talent and huge voice that Whitney possessed at such a young age. Arguably pushed by her mother, Whitney was then carefully moulded into an international megastar.

Coming from a rough neighbourhood in New Jersey it seemed that in order to market Whitney to a white audience her past was painted over. Her songs would be stripped of their soul – taking out any gospel or RnB that could be connected to her culture. Still she was the first black chart-topping popstar and it is perhaps because of this that she was seen as a sell-out to the black community at the time. Whitney’s moment of realisation came at the 1989 Soul Train awards, where she was nominated for an award but booed as soon as her name was announced. According to friends, Whitney was very sensitive and self-doubting and this seriously affected her, only to be made worse by her eventual husband Bobby Brown who she had in fact met at the same awards show – a bad omen overlooked perhaps.

Broomfield finds conflict in many areas of Whitney’s life that could all in some way be contributing factors to her eventual overdose. From her addiction to various substances but also those things in her life that drove her toward them: the way in which she had to compromise her talent and was rejected by the black community, her relationship with her husband and the breakdown of her relationship with close friend and rumoured partner Robyn.

In the brief window of home videos included in the film we get some idea of the real Whitney Houston off stage as fun and darkly funny. So when you see her appearances on talk shows, where she is more careful and considered in how she presents herself, she still appears earnest.Whilst the documentary tries to cover all of the conflicts present in Whitney’s life, it comes across highly speculative, and with so little time acknowledging her talent or achievements, quite cynical. It is the charm of Whitney Houston that carries some warmth in the film but ultimately underlines its tragedy.

Destination Unknown (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

Destination Unknown is documentary based around the personal accounts of Holocaust survivors, each telling their own stories of hope and hopelessness throughout the horrifying genocide.

The film opens on Edward Mosberg wearing his worn blue-striped uniform, saying that he didn’t like to talk much about his experience before, but now that he is older he wants to share.

This seems to be the sentiment carried by most, including Edward’s wife Cesia, who find it difficult to recall what they lived through because the memories remain fresh – permanent and in great detail. Some see it as an obligation to remember and to tell their story, others feel haunted everyday by things they wish they could forget but know they cannot.

We hear the extraordinary testimonies of people who were just children at the time, of how they came to be separated from their families and amazingly, in some cases, how they were reunited. We hear the moments in which they lose hope and give in, but also when they find hope again in the compassion of others.

Survivor Eli Zborowski tours us around the the secret rooms of the house in which he hid with his family. Built by a friend of his father’s in order to hide Jewish people and keep them from persecution, Eli describes him as an angel symbolising hope, not just for the moment but for humanity as a whole.

The film stitches together these unbelievable stories with archive footage and photographs of the survivors at the time. Some revisit the destroyed sites of the camps, instantly overcome with emotion – it is moments like this that show the torment that cannot even be communicated.

Just as some find it their duty to tell their story, it feels like our duty to listen and understand the tragedy that many people suffered, lived through and carry with them today.