Author: samcooney

Styx (2019)

Written for RAF News April 2019

Styx follows German first responder Rike as she embarks on a solo sailing trip from Gibraltar to a remote island in the tropical mid-Atlantic, looking for an escape into a paradise of wild untouched nature. During the voyage however she makes a discovery that plunges her deep into a moral dilemma.

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The first half of the film is masterful, with an almost dialogue-free series of scenes that demonstrate Rike’s proficiency on her small yacht, the Asa Grey. A fleeting prologue already having shown her competence treating someone under pressure, and then faced with navigating through a storm, she is shown to be extraordinarily capable.

Sure to collect comparisons to All is Lost with Robert Redford, but where that was concerned solely about self and survival, Styx is able to tackle questions of morality that have a resonant sting. It is when Rike nears Cape Verde that she spots a large trawler ship that doesn’t appear to be moving or communicating through it’s radio. It becomes clear that there are many people on this boat, refugees, in desperate need of help.

The film is very clever in the way that it aligns you with this one extremely competent and compassionate character, crystallising the heroic human instinct. This is played in contrast to the largely faceless authorities, the coastguard to whom Rike persistently leaves distress calls and demands attention.

Suzanne Wolff plays a pivotal role as Rike and gives her a raw authenticity, from her fighting instinct to her helplessness, evidently she is not superhuman. On screen for the duration of the film, she anchors questions of morality, having to decide whether to follow seemingly immoral instruction or risk her own safety.

Styx is a lean, stripped back thriller that relies on camerawork and performance over special effects, and yet it manages to craft an involving social commentary whilst looking and feeling completely realistic.

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Mid90s (2019)

Written for RAF News March 2019

Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is a 13 year old boy in need of a role model, with no friends, an absent father and a viciously unpleasant older brother. Attracted to the antics of some older kids running the local skate shop, he sees his opportunity and swaps out the Ren & Stimpy poster on his wall for Girl stickers and two-page spreads from Big Brother magazine.

Trading Super Nintendo cartridges for an 80s fishboard, that has by now fallen well out of style, he throws himself around on it until he has enough courage to spend more time at the shop. When runt of the group Ruben passes his water fetching duties off onto Stevie, he can hardly hide his idiot grin: he has found his place.

Ruben (Gio Galicia), the boy closest his age, becomes a reluctant mentor teaching the etiquette that he has come to learn himself like not saying thankyou or sorry because people will think you’re gay. But Stevie earns respect from the others through his ability to take a slam, perhaps the byproduct of beatings from his brother Ian (a convincing change of form for Lucas Hedges). Soon he is given a nickname and taken under the wing of the cool kids Ray (Na-Kel Smith) and Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), two decent skateboarders though one is set on turning it into a career and the other as a means of escaping life.

This coming of age story feels familiar, especially with Skate Kitchen so fresh in recent memory. But where that had 90s affectations, this is period; matching square formatted 16mm grain to punchy soundtracking of Wu- Tang Clan, Pharcyde and a little Nirvana. Where Skate Kitchen felt like it was suddenly trying too hard to push a ‘storyline’, Mid90s could be accused of not trying hard enough as there isn’t much story at all. Instead it remains casually observational, and just like it’s characters, has nothing much to say. But that’s okay.

Jonah Hill, making his writing and directing debut, manages to get unbelievably real performances from a perfect cast and fits in some nice stylistic flourishes in a film that is bold in its simplicity.

Super Blood Wolf

With ‘Space’ being the boy’s theme of the month, and his night with me coinciding with the lunar eclipse, I’d set up the evening: geared up for a 5am wake up so we could see it at its peak.

Before bed we watched footage of various planets through my projector – laid out on my bed as they filled the wall. With his shadow he would point out craters, genuinely gasping and speaking with hushed awe as they grew in size.

I used a rather ropey star-gazing app, with an unmuteable cosmic soundtrack, to see the constellations above the house. Of the few directly overhead, he took a liking to Taurus. One by one he would prepare the double-sided stickers on glow-in-the-dark stars and I would place them on his ceiling in accordance to their position in the night sky above. Laid down to sleep, I told him we would be up early to see the Super Blood Wolf Moon – the name being enough to secure his excitement.

At 2am he calls out for me on the monitor. I dash upstairs to find him with his lamp on, sitting upright in bed wide-eyed: ‘Blood Moon!’ I explain that it’s a little early and take him down to my bed until it’s time.

At 5am I check outside and find the pale red moon over the tall silhouetted trees, and find the right vantage point. I wake the boy, excited but tired, and wrap him in one of my hoodies before carrying him outside. The full E.T look complete when he points to the moon.

‘Yeeeeeah look it’s red! Can I go to bed now?’

Yes. Yes you can.

 

school

Recently, the boy’s mother and I finalised the top three school picks for September.

The number one slot went to a Scandi-utopian dreamschool that has child lead lessons and classes so small that he would get more focussed attention than he could possibly crave.

The gap between this and the second school is quite significant, considering that last year it failed it’s Ofsted Report when on the day of inspection an unqualified principal was standing-in whilst bullying was apparently omnipresent, one child even pushed down the stairs that day. So this is the fun choice, one to keep the boy on his toes like, which might give you some idea of our third pick…

That’s a little unfair. Since the incidents of above, the school was taken over by an academy and so there is a lot of funding being pumped in along with new personnel and close attention being paid to problems of the past.

Still, nothing on the nirvana of numer one.

Considering the criteria: that priority goes to children with relatives at the school, or if they have a challenging home setting, or proximity within the catchment area – it looks improbable that our boy genius will get to swan about reading poetry with his cohorts in option one.

This realisation was a little hard to take, and when Jman’s mother started to worry, I offered consolation by saying that it’s down to what we do with him anyway, the amount of information, attention and stimulation we can give him.

Within the week she had devised a plan, to make a theme for each month in which he would learn about a certain subject at home – theming activities, trips and even food to involve and educate. Learning about the north and South pole over Christmas, he will proudly list different species of penguins and their behaviours. Smarts that, paired with some training in basic gracie jujitsu, will at least make him Lord of the Flies in option two if it comes to it.

The Upside (2019)

Written for RAF News Jan 2019

This remake of French hit Intouchables, stars Bryan Cranston as Phillip, a wealthy paraplegic looking for a live-in life auxiliary apparently in the shape of Kevin Hart’s Dell, a straight-talking ex-con with problems of his own.

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The unlikely pairing stems from Dell thinking he is applying for a janitor position, and Phillip growing tired of the coddling over-sensitivity of the other candidates. He offers the job on the spot despite Dell’s apparent disinterest and lack of professionalism, or likely he makes the offer for these exact reasons.

Whilst disability, race and class are all inextricably linked to the central relationship, which is based on a true story, it feels unbelievably superficial. They exchange taste: classical music for soul, theatre for smoking weed and visual art for sex workers, and all of this amounts to a throwaway laugh. It ends up stuck in a strange place of not being able to be as funny as it could be, and not having anything meaningful to say. The clinky-clanky score intended to keep things light and frothy becomes a patronising distraction and serves to make the film feel utterly televisual.

Cranston is perfectly fine, and Nicole Kidman has a bizarrely underused background role as Phillip’s assistant. Hart is given some emotional depth at the cost of his usual heightened comedy, which makes you appreciate the charm of Omar Sy from the French original made back in 2011, and the on-screen rapport that he had with François Cluzet’s Phillip.

One impressive change from the original is that it allows Phillip a blind date, in which things grow uncomfortably real as she becomes overwhelmed by his disability. Although this grounds the more serious themes of the film, it’s late appearance leaves no time for resolution and makes the ending fall flat.

This remake accentuates the weaker parts of the film, in it’s artificial set-up and saccharine sentimentality, and lacks the charm of its original cast, ending up inoffensively mediocre.

The Favourite (2019)

Written for RAF News Jan 2019

From absurdist Yorgos Lanthimos comes another blackly comic farce but this time in the shape of a period drama. Following a grieving and gout-ridden Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) and the two women vying for her attention, this story is sort of based on actual relationships, but it is certainly not to be mistaken for a biopic.

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Known to fabricate a wonky realism within his films filled with strange rules and stilted dialogue, this period set film could be seen to provide both and perhaps this is why Lanthimos’ stylings come out in different ways. There is in fact a more contemporary physicality and language, though it is the brazenly graphic nature that is likely to cause a stir among unsuspecting audiences. This is the first of Lanthimos’ films that he did not write himself, but what it retains is his dark absurdist slant and sly humour.

The comedy is bigger and more obvious, tilting into farcical but shaded with tragedy. The customs and practices of the period become a playground in which Lanthimos is able to poke fun: a formal dance embellished with nonsense or aristocrats jeering violently over a duck race.

The film sees Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrive at the palace a servant, apparently having fallen far since she was a lady. Sharp tongued and quick witted she is cunning, with an understanding of politics and favouritism that could mean the difference. Abigail is our very own Barry Lyndon, intent on climbing the ranks into the Queens favour and perhaps even her bedchambers, much to the dismay of Lady Sarah Churchill the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), confidant and secret lover of the Queen.

A battle of wits commences between these women, manipulating the childishly capricious Queen to benefit themselves, and perhaps even to the detriment of the country which is fighting a war in France and running low on funds.

Marlborough has a history with the Queen, which allows her brutal honesty and befits her hardened demeanour. But Coleman and Stone, both with their big glassy eyes, are masters of reaction, a close-up of either is able to change the mood of a scene, to show a level of deception or reveal cause for empathy.

With politics reduced to squabbling, and with sharply written swearing it feels more like the recent The Death of Stalin than anything from the genre. This is by far Lanthimos’ most accessible film and bound to invite a larger audience, for some to be won over and for others to be offended. Undeniable though, are the powerful and hilarious central performances of these three women.

neighbourly

Having recently moved into the leafy suburbs with a couple of young lads, and hearing that the previous tenants were a bit of a nuisance, I was conscious of making a good impression on the neighbours.

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This was dashed somewhat when on a couple of occasions we had left our bins out at the end of the drive after the bin men had been and gone – and on one occasion they were left out for so long that someone returned them. A massive faux pas that makes us seem like teenagers left in a house while the parents are away. It could have been a gesture of good will, but I took it to be a passive aggressive move, a way of saying get your shit together without actually interfacing.

I’ve had bad experiences in the past. When I was 9 years old, my mother and I moved from East London to Surrey. Posh-seeming on the outside but just as subjected to Brazilification as anywhere else, as we landed on the edge of a rough council estate. To celebrate the move, and perhaps distract me from the anxiety of changing schools and friends and having only each other, my mum bought a couple of little fireworks: 10cm rockets on 30cm sticks. As it got dark, we went into our humble garden and set them off – but this was called off when our neighbours protested by throwing rocks over the fence. A charming induction, indicative of the drama that would follow.

I grew up in this house, a semi- detached terrace adjoined to speed freaks who would lift weights until the early hours of the morning. The sinewy witch who was the head of the household would be at the forefront of every confrontation if not pushing her henpecked husband to fight on her behalf. It only came to blows once, consisting of him holding my mothers shoulders, and her slapping my mother in the face. Evidently my council estate lacked the communal spirit that I seem so desperate to find.

Now I’m making every effort to be neighbourly. This morning, despite the miserable weather, I set out on my walk to work and seeing one of my neighbours pull out of her drive, I smiled and waved. I was down the road when she pulled over and asked if I would like a lift into town. This is it! This is what I have been craving. I politely decline, but continue on in the rain reassured by her kindness.

Just now I returned from work walking the same route home. Pitch black now, I see my housemate in his car outside the house – a Mini with a dinner-plate sized speedometer in the centre of the dashboard. Unmistakable. I bend at the waist and look in through the passenger window at the driver, I can barely see him in the darkness, in fact he looks uncannily like an elderly woman. Then the realisation sets in. I don’t quite know what to do and so try this morning’s trick – I smile and wave and keep on walking, past my front door because I’m embarrassed and don’t know what to do, which probably made me seem a lot creepier. I met two neighbours today, kind of, and made one good impression at least.