Author: samcooney

That Good Night (2018)

Written for RAF News May 2018

In That Good Night, aged screenwriter Ralph Maitland (John Hurt) is living out his days in a picturesque Portuguese villa, trying to pen a project before ‘the ultimate deadline’.

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Diagnosed with a terminal illness, Ralph remains as combative as ever whilst he works out what to do and who to tell. He invites his son Michael (Max Brown) to come and see him but is soured when he brings along his partner Cassie (Erin Richards). It becomes apparent that the people closest to Ralph have been pushed away – he is mocking and derisive, delivering insults with a smile.

The supporting cast of the film, including Maitland’s much younger wife (Sofia Helin), remain awkwardly stilted and two-dimensional for the most part, but it is clear that the story is not for them. It is only when Charles Dance arrives playing a mysterious white-suited visitor, talking over plans of assisted suicide, that the performance of Hurt is matched and the material is elevated.

But for a film focussed on questions of mortality, of accepting death and leaving loved ones behind, it seems afraid of real emotion. The queasy and insistent score signals reflective sadness, changing only to introduce clunky moments of comedy that might have just passed if the score weren’t so prominent. It appears that certain scenes would have been better served by silence, but perhaps that would have invited unwanted pathos.

John Hurt stands out with his twisted and embittered old man – the depth hinted at in this performance and the knowledge of the actors recent passing adds a poignancy that might have otherwise been absent from the film.

Reading Dylan Thomas’ poem (from which the title is taken) over the final black screen is a perfect close and a fitting send off for the beloved actor.

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Wolf Warrior 2 (2017)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News February 2018

Returning from battle with his comrades ashes, Special Ops ‘Wolf Warrior’ Leng Feng discovers a real estate firm destroying his hometown. In the blink of an eye dozens of company goons wielding 2x4s have been floored and police have them surrounded. When Feng kicks the gun-toting ring leader 10ft into the air and through the windscreen of a police car, he is imprisoned in military jail for two years.

Once released, Feng finds himself in an unnamed African country where he establishes himself as man-of-the-people, offering aid to locals ravaged by a highly infectious disease and protecting them from a bloodthirsty militia. It seems they have teamed with some deadly Western mercenaries straight out of Street Fighter.

The driving force of the film is Wu Jing: the writer and director who also stars as borderline superhero Leng Feng. An embodiment of patriotism, Feng actually turns himself into a Chinese flag at one point, this despite being dishonourably discharged because: “Once a Wolf Warrior, always a Wolf Warrior.”

Now the second highest grossing film in China, this is a large scale production with sweeping shots of navy fleets and tanks being used for a demolition derby. There is a lot of sketchy if not passable CGI, but alongside practical effects and wire stunts that give some weight to action. These set pieces are built around a flurry of fast paced fight choreography devised by the same team behind John Wick and Atomic Blonde. Though intricate it never gets hung up on realism. The opening scene features an underwater fight scene that misunderstands gravity and overestimates lung capacity by some way, and yet this is what makes it enjoyable.

The attempts at humour and drama fall flat but form a necessary breather between gunfights and hand-to-hand combat, which is where all the fun is to be had.

Addendum:

Besides this, the message is one of frighteningly unambiguous nationalism. It reduces an entire continent to a land filled with savage militants and the helplessly impoverished – all ready to be protected by the Chinese military, crystallised in the form of one morally superior and high-roading motherfucker, so convinced of his invincibility that he rarely takes cover from gunfire and is able to catch an RPG with the wire frame of a mattress. This is a joke. A hugely expensive and highly profitable joke, that is only funny when it’s trying to be serious.

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Mortality is a pretty tough nut to crack with a three year old.

It was last year that he picked up on the cat’s sudden absence and since it was our first brush with death we decided not to sugar-coat and instead explain with obvious care and sensitivity. At that point in time however the scope of his curiosity was too large and attention span too small.

In the intervening months he has watched films that deal with the subject in a poetic form that has caught his attention and captured his imagination. Mine too for that matter. The Red Turtle is a notable example that gave him plenty of questions that I would try my best to answer.

Now, add to this the fact that he is open to the darker and more macabre stories. The Nightmare Before Christmas was a fast favourite, a film not watched much anymore, the soundtrack listened to on occasion but the book still read often. Other works of Tim Burton float around but the one dark obsession that has proved itself rather divisive amongst company is The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey.

An A-Z compendium, or abecedarian, that describes the bizarre deaths of a bunch of kids accompanied by Gorey’s sometimes graphic illustrations. My boy likes the rhyming couplets (the page above following the demise of April who fell down the stairs), and as it’s a quick read he often pulls it down of a night and has me read the name for him to respond with how they perished. (There is one page that I’m careful to avoid, the illustration at least, which is very graphic: K is for Kate who was struck with an axe.) It might seem like I’m training a sociopath but I don’t believe it to have had any negative affect on him at all.

The sentences are worded carefully and humorously, and none are disturbing save for Kate. He is familiar with all of the words (save for ‘ennui’ maybe, the reason behind ol’ Neville’s passing). We are protective of him in a sense but believe we have a good grip on his understanding and compassion, of what could unsettle or disturb, and it is from certain television shows and films that seem otherwise innocuous that he has picked up certain words and ideas that can appear… worrying?

Fond of creating stories, or: artfully lying, the boy was telling me a few days ago how a torch had gone missing earlier in the day, most definitely covering for the fact that he had taken it and been caught.

“A strange man came in and took the torch from upstairs”

Did you see him?

“No. I was in my bedroom”

How do you know it was him?

“Because he came in and took the torch”

Oh right. Do we have the torch now?

“Yeah I got it from him”

How do you think we should stop it from going missing?

“We hit him with a hammer and kill him”

I am stunned silent.

It seems we had missed the opportunity to talk about Kevin and will have to let the medical professionals take it from here.

That’s when a small semantic flourish restored all hope.

“We hit him in his head. All made of slime”

Oh thank the lord.

Still a bit worrying, but less worrying for sure.

Last Flag Flying (2018)

Written for Raf News January 2018

Set in late 2003, this loose sequel to The Last Detail follows three embittered veterans as they reunite and reminisce against the back drop of the Iraq war. More a road movie than a war film, Last Flag Flying looks at the long term effects of military service and how it can shape a persons life.

When recently widowed Doc (Steve Carell) receives news that his son has been killed whilst serving in Iraq, he sets out to reunite with two Vietnam buddies to attend the funeral. Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) has changed a lot – now a Reverend who has apparently found peace – whereas Sal (Bryan Cranston) has not, an alcoholic who provides insistent comic relief with an obnoxious charm. Doc is the humble, quiet man at the centre with the angel and devil on his shoulders: one with spiritual guidance and the other with unprompted honesty. What binds these men, and will become a large part of their journey, is compassion.

Their history is pulled out gradually from conversations on the road, which allows us to learn about their past and the people they once were. Part of this remains unsaid, which adds a fitting naturalism for these ex-military men.

Often they will repeat chants and phrases, though now with some detachment but still with a sense of nostalgia. They have become disillusioned to war but have a bond between them that runs deep despite their differences. Coming across military officials and young marines, they will critique and challenge now that they have the chance: a last ditch effort for some much needed catharsis.

Last Flag Flying is a little sickly and over the top, coming across contrived when pushing too hard or too often for laughter or tears. The principal cast are all playing parts that we have seen them in before, and it may be nothing new or surprising but their familiarity and chemistry make the film both funny and moving at times.

Broken Vows (2017)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News December 2017

Tara (Jamie Alexander) is on her bachelorette party when she catches the keen stare of a barman who insists they have a connection. Deciding to go back to his at the end of the night, she wakes to realise that this was a mistake: maybe the thought of her loving fiance back home, or more likely because the deranged one night stand has hand-washed her clothes and tattooed her name on his arm during the night.

Patrick, the easily infatuated barman, finds Tara’s phone in his house after she leaves. He uncovers the truth about her engagement and the wedding that is due to take place days from now. This does not appear to deter him though, as he uses information from her phone to find out where she lives and who she knows in order to find leverage to get them back together – nothing like a bit of classic romance.

Wes Bently so often plays dark and deranged characters that it suits him, but here his intensity comes out of nowhere. Patrick becomes obsessed with Tara in a matter of minutes, and even during this time he’s not treated particularly well. We learn a little about his past thanks to an unlikely PI but this raises many more questions. It’s hard to understand the motivation of anyone in the film. With strained dialogue and unnatural delivery, they never feel like real people.

Broken Vows harks back to 90s erotic thrillers but switches the gender of the adulterer and the stalker. It’s a classic ‘bunny boiler’ except it’s been put on a low heat so you’ll have to watch it gently simmer for the best part of an hour before anything thrillery happens. There are opportunities along the way, but they are lost to the momentum of an absurd story that could have been a lot more fun.

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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.