Reviews

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.

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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.

The Old Man and the Gun (2018)

Written for RAF News November 2018

Robert Redford is back to his outlaw ways in this romanticised true story of a 70 year old bank robber. Forrest Tucker robs banks and has a style, this is what he tells Jewel (Cissy Spacek) when they meet over coffee, behind a wry smile that shines with playfulness. She doesn’t believe him, or maybe doesn’t want to, but like us she can’t help but be drawn in.

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The Old Man and the Gun follows Tucker in the later stages of his life, having been incarcerated 18 times but still not learning his lesson. In fact he escaped from most of these prisons, shown in a comedic montage that breaks from the slower, swooning pace of the film. Set in 1981 but with the look, feel and soundtrack that seems cut from the 70s, this film is soaked in nostalgia for a different time.

Tucker bands together with two others (Danny Glover and Tom Waits) as they hit a string of small banks in different states. It is unfulfilled cop John Hunt (Casey Affleck) who catches onto the ‘Over the Hill Gang’ and makes himself chief investigator, trying to track down the smiling gentleman described by witnesses.

With a few releases in recent years showing heists conducted by an older generation, such as Going in Style and King of Thieves, they all seem to have a sense of humour about them. But where the others appear brash, Old Man has the same debonair charm as it’s lead.

Hinting that this film would be his last, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking of Redford’s back catalogue, in fact an effort is made to remind you: the font of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid being used for the title, and even using a clip from The Chase. This nostalgia-filled love letter seems to be a send off for Redford, delightfully packaged and delivered with a smile.

Assassination Nation (2018)

Written for RAF News November 2018

When an anonymous hacker starts leaking information about the people of Salem, a clash between the corrupt elite and sensitive youth quickly escalates into a violent witch hunt.

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What begins as a highly stylised teen movie about boy troubles descends into something a lot darker and more surreal. Character assassinations turn into lynchings and soon the town are wearing masks to protect themselves from mobs in search of social justice – afraid of what people might find out about them.

This doesn’t happen for some time though as first we meet 18 year old Lilly (Odessa Young) and her cohorts, learn about her recent ex-boyfriend and the new sexting affair that she is having with a mysterious older man known as ‘Daddy’. Told from the point-of-view of a group of high-school girls, teenage dramas are elevated to scandals and political misconduct is reduced to a Twitterstorm.

Self-assured with a dose of arrogance, we are aligned with the Mean Girls of the film purely because there are meaner people out there: slimy peadophiles, homophobic jocks and riot-inciting police.

Although there is some political commentary among the silliness, Assassination Nation is a tonal mess and suitably ridiculous. There is a prologue that lists hash-tagged trigger warnings to set the perspective of young impudent progressives, smart and self-aware but naive and narcissistic. Ultimately, this becomes hard to distinguish this from the film itself.

Pink light chases the girls through scenes, while the soundtrack changes and drops constantly as if controlled by an impatient DJ with a short attention span. The film definitely thinks it’s cool but it has the sensibility of a music video and the personality of a precocious teenager. It is funniest when it makes fun out of itself but this happens so scarcely that it lost to self-importance.

When AN finally decides to pick a lane it becomes a Purge-style horror but by this point you’re quietly hoping that everyone dies.

 

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

Written for RAF News November 2018

Asked to produce some content for the centennial of the end of the First World War, Peter Jackson has focussed the world building wizardry of Lord of the Rings on something much closer to home: a documentary about British soldiers on the Western Front. Granted, the way in which he does this is grand cinematic spectacle but it is truly breathtaking to behold.

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Jackson’s grandfather fought in the Great War and so in his memory, Jackson and his team have tried to position the viewer with the soldiers and bring their experience to life. They do this by using audio of interviews with veterans played over archive footage, which might sound like regular fare, but the difference here is that the video has been speed adjusted, blown up, colorised and, depending on where you see the film, even put into three dimensions.

The opening of the film begins with a familiar small square box in the middle of the screen playing jittery, black and white footage of soldiers marching, whilst all you hear is the clatter and whir of a projector. Gradually though, this little window grows and pushes out to the edges of the screen until it envelopes you. The images are sharper now, more defined, and like some great illusion you begin to hear what the soldiers are saying.

Working with forensic lip-readers, audio has been recorded and matched to the images so that you can listen to them banter, with such painstaking precision that even the dialects are accurate.

Working with BBC and Imperial War Museum, this is an ambitious project that could only be written off as a gimmick by those who have yet to see it. As one soldier recounts of his experience on the frontline, “It was a world of noise” and this is certainly what is captured by underlaying sounds of mortar fire and mine explosions, to the smaller more intimate noises of say a tiny fire in the trenches for brewing a desperate cuppa.

The veterans speak with a warm pride of their experience, of course this turns to tragedy when faced with the horrors of war, but for the most part they show no despair and no regret. They talk of the camaraderie and euphoria, the excitement of battle that lead many underage to sneak in and sign up – if you were 16, it was suggested that you pop outside and have yourself a few birthdays. There is a great humour that runs through their commentary, calling on casual and humorous euphemisms. Their jovial tone is somewhat romantic, and the film seems to share in this.

Returning from war, each interviewee remarks how no-one at home would talk about it, they didn’t know how, nor could they comprehend what was actually happening. Now, thanks to this documentary, the gap is closed a little more and we can glimpse what it was like for these men.

Skate Kitchen (2018)

Written for RAF News Sept 2018

Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) is a bit of a loner used to watching others from the outside, from the safe distance of Instagram, and much to the chagrin of her mother: she’s a skateboarder. It’s not long before Camille sneaks out from the protective care of her overbearing mother in Long Island to the spot Downtown where the crew that she follows are getting clips.

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Skate Kitchen is the name of the real all-female group of skateboarders at the core of this film, not only can they skate, they skate well (or: shred). Delving deep into this subculture of NYC youths, there are a few layers of nomenclature to decipher but all of which introduces you to this world in a real and realised manner.

Recognised from her own posts online, Camille is quickly taken in and introduced to the gang complete with mouthy tom-boy and mute filmer – they’re a close bunch, not lacking confidence, and with a look that is pure 90s chic. The film is focussed on Camille’s journey of self-discovery drifting from her restrictive household to the embrace of this supercool possie of stylish hipsters. There is some boy trouble thrown in along the way in the shape of Jayden Smith’s Devon, but it doesn’t have the same organic flow.

Skating the streets, getting into scraps and getting stoned at each others houses, the skate crew’s interactions are funny and awkward with a naturalism that brings ordinary conversations to life. It’s this same realism that makes the more obvious dramatic scenes feel artificial, distracting from what is so interesting about this film.

Written and directed by women, there is a distinct female voice that shines as the group talk about sexual harassment and how tampons don’t actually cause the loss of limbs. Unapologetically standing up to others, the attitude of the girls reflects the film, or as one of the group so fittingly puts it: “It’s, like, feminism”.

A slightly overlong coming of age story that has been told many times before but from a perspective that has seldom.

Matangi/ Maya/ M.I.A (2018)

Written for RAF News August 2018

More commonly know by stage name M.I.A, Mathangi Arulpragasam, or Maya, is a Sri Lankan-born London-raised hip-hop artist and provocateur. This documentary made by long term friend Stephen Loveridge tracks her uncompromising attitude by way of her music, through to some of the more notorious controversies surrounding her career.

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With Loveridge now distancing himself from the project, and Maya being openly critical about it, it’s fitting that the theme holding it together is her refusal to do as she’s told and not care if she is liked. The film is almost chaptered by moments of disagreeableness such as putting a middle-finger up during her half-time performance at the Superbowl, or talking about the genocide in Sri Lanka whilst at the podium of an awards ceremony.

Growing up in a war-torn part of Sri Lanka, Maya was politically minded from a young age with her activist father Arul Pragasm being one of the founders of the Tamil Resistance Movement. In more recent years the area of Jaffna has experienced massacres that have devastated the local population, and this is something that Maya has tried to point out in interviews and live appearances just as in her music.

Thanks to Maya’s shrewd forward-thinking, perhaps with a project like this in mind, almost every moment discussed in the documentary contains footage filmed by or featuring herself. By that same token though it becomes difficult to escape her voice as a guiding force. This can at times come across as contrived or self-aggrandising, unhelpfully lending to the accusations of being ‘Radical Chic’. Regardless of intention, Maya takes a bold stance and tries desperately to bring media attention to serious issues – using the spotlight even if she is basking in it herself.