Author: samcooney

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.

 

 

After The Storm (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

After the death of his father, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) moves back home with his elderly mother to get things in order, finding that he doesn’t have much anymore. He doesn’t have enough money to pay child welfare for the son he rarely sees, to the ex-wife that he still loves but who has moved on without him.

The storm of the title could be the typhoon that is due to hit Tokyo anytime now – but it could also refer to the reckoning of Ryota at this moment in time. A once promising writer who has settled as a private investigator with a gambling problem, he isn’t the man he wanted to be. A deeply flawed character who has charm but is sad and saddening. His vulnerability is so great that at one point he asks a colleague to stop being so nice to him for fear that he might start crying.

In this family drama there is an authenticity to the everyday tragedy, to the realisation that things don’t always work out. That being said, the film does have a sense of humour, embodied perfectly by Ryota’s mother in a phenomenal performance by Kirin Kiki which gracefully moves from funny to poignant and back again.

After the Storm is meditative but not slow, full of neatly packaged details and symbols that add a poetic kind of depth to the characters and their relationships. Offering a sweet and unsensational slice of life that doesn’t try to dress anything up or tie it with a bow, it gives us something more realistic and soulful as result.

gaming the system

Terrible twos. A horrible throwaway term that encompasses a great many emotional developments. A shorthand between parents maybe, but still it stands in for something individual and a lot more complex.

A couple of the most recent Machiavellian flourishes that little Jtown has mastered in the last couple of weeks:

Playing hide and seek and, because I’m a pro, he goes looking for me for a little while. I watch as he runs into the living room, peers around the usual places (like I said, professional) and then calls out “Daddy! You my best friend”. I die a little in silence, long enough though to see him turn around a look for movement before trying it in another room, bating me to react.

Or more recently, Nico was giving Jackson a time-out. Pretty upset by the ordeal he brilliantly found a way to distract her from the process and asked “You love me?” and then cuddled her when she said yes. Now maybe he was just looking for assurance while being told off, I wasn’t even there – but I can imagine his demonic smile over her shoulder as she comforts him.

Cleverclever.