2014

Kajaki: The True Story (2014)

Written for RAF News Nov 2014

Kajaki: The True Story captures the harrowing events of September 2006 when a group of British paratroopers in Afghanistan found themselves in the middle of an unmarked minefield. Beginning in the mountainous desert of the Helmand province, we are introduced to 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, stationed on a ridge that overlooks the Kajaki Dam. From here we see the vast stretches of sand to the horizon where there has been little activity. That is until a three-man patrol sets out to investigate a Taliban roadblock and a landmine is set off, blowing off one of the patrols legs. Immediately the film is confined to mere millimetres as a rescue mission is put into action, with any movement on the ground possessing the potential to trigger another deathly explosion.

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The mines are a relic of the Soviet invasion of the 80s, left behind by Russian forces, ‘God knows what we’re gonna leave behind’ says one of the fresh-faced ensemble cast. This is perhaps the only reference to British occupation in Afghanistan, which is coming to an end this year, but Kajaki has not been made as political commentary, it is a film that shows a single situation – a true story based on the testimony of the soldiers involved – from which we can glimpse the extremes of the frontline, outside of combat even. We see the sheer bravery that is required in circumstances such as these. It shows the comradery and heroism of the British forces without firefights and action scenes, giving them a cinematic presence that has been largely absent for decades.

Though it will undoubtedly collect comparisons to The Hurt Locker, it’s Britishness is evident in the relentless banter and dark humour, especially in times of horror and devastation – you’d be hard pressed to find an American GI writing ‘Gay’ on the face of Private Ryan after having his leg blown off.  The filming style also breaks from the dominant style in Hollywood as largely still, wide angle shots evoke palpable tension without having to jiggle the camera about. Long stretches of silence and focus on the careful movements of those in the foreground invites the inevitable and you can’t help but tense up in anticipation. The blistering heat of the Afghani desert adds to the tension like a Lumet film (think: 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) growing in intensity as the group becomes more and more desperate. This uncomfortable suspense doesn’t let up, making it impossible to not be involved in the film.

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Say When (2014)

Written for RAF News November 2014

Say When follows Megan (Keira Knightley) a 28 year-old suffering from a severe lack of motivation who realises that she is floating through life with the same friends from prom, the same high-school sweetheart (Mark Webber) and an unused college degree. All growing up around her and settling down, Megan has to find what she wants from life and where she belongs – landing strangely enough in a group of 16 year-old kids.

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At her friend’s wedding, shortly following their first dance (a cringe-worthy piece of choreography set to some soft Daniel Bedingfield) Megan is proposed to herself. Feeling the pressure she makes her excuses and leaves the party, bumping into a group of teenagers who need someone to buy them alcohol, fronted by the strangely confident and level-headed Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz).

As strange as it would seem to have an adult female bonding with kids over skateboards and some illegally bought beers, the chemistry of these two actors make the interaction seem almost believable, or at least they make the believability irrelevant. Still fearing the decisions she has to make back home, Megan tells her now fiancé that she wants to take a week at a self-development centre before they elope, when in actual fact she crashes at Annika’s house. This would be simpler if it weren’t for Annika’s probing father, played by Sam Rockwell with a charm that dovetails perfectly with the strong female cast. While supporting cast Ellie Kemper and Kaitlyn Dever carry the majority of laughs through the film with their respective touches of prudishness and self-assurance.

Director Lynn Shelton has stressed the importance of believability in her films, and though Say When features some highly unlikely turns, which lead to a string of unlikely events, the central performances keep it grounded and charming.

The Calling (2014)

Written for RAF News October 2014

The humble town of Port Dundas, Ontario sees its first murder in four years, which Detective Hazel Micallef (Susan Sarandon) supposes is the work of a serial killer. This is no mystery for the audience as we are soon introduced to the murderer (Christopher Heyerdahl): an intense yet softly spoken preacher of sorts. Now it is up to Hazel and her new partner (Topher Grace) to track him down before the spree continues.

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With a strong headed female detective on the trail of a murderer in this snow-covered humdrum town, the film begins as Fargo, drained of its humour and left frighteningly austere. As the police start to work a religious angle that ties in local murders it becomes something more akin to Seven – just without the tension.

Hazel is painted a cold, pill-popping alcoholic toughened to the point of being allergic to flowers. Sarandon doesn’t seem the right fit, neither do the other big names of the cast, rather it is Gil Bellows whose performance stands out as Hazel’s combative partner. All other characters seem to fall flat or go to waste, including Donald Sutherland’s answer-providing priest who appears to explain the motive of the killer – the why – and considering we know the who from early on the slow pace seems unnecessary.

In the opening of the film when Sarandon stumbles upon the first victim, a family friend who is found with her throat cut to the point of near decapitation, it seems that that what is going to follow is a dark cat and mouse thriller – but we soon learn that this is an anomalous bit of action in a larger melodramatic film.

Shaken from their stupor it is hard to imagine how boring the town must have been before this advent, as even the pursuit of a murderer is somehow made dull and uninteresting.

20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

Written for RAF News September 2014

A conceptual music documentary that follows Nick Cave on the supposed 20,000th day of his life as he reflects on the past and ponders the meaning that he finds in performance.

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Through a number of constructed set-pieces, the film frees itself from the duty of capturing authenticity and presents instead something more fitting of the Melbourne-born, now Brighton-based performer. And though Cave has many strings to his bow by way of his music, poetry and writing, he says that he can’t act. Perhaps it is this quality that gives the film a sense of realism without the need of shaky hand-held cameras.

Interviewed by a psychoanalyst on a set, under lights too bright, Cave remembers his father and reveals his biggest fears, namely: losing his memory. This set-up – a staged performance – is fitting of Cave, managing however to capture an honesty, which also explains the purpose of this documentary. The film seems to be an attempt for Cave to capture the past, to reflect on his purpose in performance, or in life perhaps, all captured in this dreamlike construct that appears at once self-aggrandising and self-aware – a humorous angle on the inevitable pretension that usually follows an artist talking about their art.

The fictitious day in which Cave journeys into the past and has happenstance meetings with old friends (Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue among them) whilst driving his black Jaguar XJ, is fitting of the performativity that Cave talks about so passionately. At one point he reads from an old diary that contains rants about the weather of bleary old Brighton. He says of these writings that they are based on truth but ultimately a lie; a dramatisation. Following this, it seems that the film too is fantasy. One which is personal enough to reveal his thoughts on the transformative power of performance, but without ridding of its potency or tarnishing the image that he has come to embody.

A little more arty and knowingly contrived, the film playfully subverts the typical fly-on-the-wall music documentary, managing to create something more self-aware and yet somehow more sincere.

Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 & 2 (2014)

Some thoughts on the structure of Nymphomaniac – sidestepping comments on some truly bizarre performances including Shia LaBeouf, whose accent genuinely provoked laughs from the audience I sat amongst.

With his tongue still firmly in cheek, Lars von Trier continues to try and shock audiences as he explores female sexuality in the early stages of a young nymphomaniac’s life – humorous for the first volume at least until it starts to run dry. Drifting from the more serious, though it certainly retains a level of dramatic darkness, von Trier plays with the audience as he his known to do and tries for shock so blatantly at points that it begins to feel like a parody of his own style.

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The crowd I sit with in this odd Friday matinee, while the sun shines bright outside, is made up of mostly guys on their own. A few couples and the odd scattering of fems but predominantly men on their own. I am one of them. Still this is strange – I feel strange. Whether through discomfort from the subject matter, or from the lack of give in the material of our collective crotches, there is a lot of shuffling between laughs. Alan Moore, author of graphic novel The Lost Girls which would perhaps fall under the self-same categorisation, has commented on the idea of ‘intellectual pornography’: that it is a difficult feat that has to fight for the blood to rush to either of the brains; that you will ultimately be stimulated on one level only. Men anyway. Us lone men fidgeting in the dark. So maybe von Trier has an alibi for the film not satisfying audiences intellectually…

What I found intriguing about Nymphomaniac was its place in the context of von Trier’s films as subverting the form of storytelling and preventing escapism.

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Blue Ruin (2014)

Written for RAF News April 2014

Dwight (Macon Blair) is a simple man of few words, who sets out to even the score when he discovers that the man charged with the murder of his parents is soon to be released from prison. Returning to his rural Virginia hometown in his run-down car, Dwight hunts down the freed murderer to exact his revenge. There is little time to process the events however as he immediately becomes the subject of another retaliatory hunt, and thus the inevitable cycle of revenge prevents escape for anyone involved.Blue Ruin

Unlike Drive (2011), which had a sleek and purposefully silent Ryan Gosling as its anti-hero, Dwight just doesn’t really have anything to say. Where Gosling was a professional stunt-driver, Dwight is in fact homeless and lives in his car – the titular blue ruin which is seen rusted and riddled with bullet holes. He has nothing else and as such has nothing to lose. As a result, Dwight’s vacuous nature is given a volatile edge that keeps you in prolonged suspense.

Sudden moments of violence take you by surprise in their spontaneity as well as their graphic detail. They create a sense of unpredictability that keeps you in the moment and immersed in the tension, whilst dwelling on the results of violence that are usually glossed over in cinema. This is a film that revels in the complications and failures that stem from revenge.

Dedicated purely to his pursuit, Dwight can make you feel locked out and lacking any real connection with him. However, perhaps for this very reason, it feels genuine – believable almost. Almost. Comedic relief comes eventually in the form of Ben (Devin Ratray) an old school friend who decides to help Dwight without asking too many questions – not that he would get much from him anyhow.

Blue Ruin’s masterful element is in its moments of comedy that punctuate the bleakness. A sigh of relief before you return to the dark reality of the film. Though it is tough to connect with Dwight, the naturalism of the story and its cleverly reserved delivery keep you captivated.

The Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014)

Written for RAF News April 2014

The Amazing Spiderman 2 sees the alliance of vengeful enemies, this on top of the continued unravelling of Parker’s family secrets and a complicated relationship with forbidden love Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) but first.. graduation. From the off we are shown that juggling the social life of awkward and anxious Peter Parker against the wise-cracking Spiderman has its complications and are becoming near impossible to keep separate.

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Garfield’s Peter Parker is a little more comfortable in himself since the first instalment though he certainly still shows signs of a neurotic, angsty young-adult. He can sometimes come across as conceited and slightly unlikeable, which is understandable really for a superhero.

Whilst Spidey is not without his faults, his soon-to-be enemies are acquaintances who seem to have their own psychological problems – their grudges spawning from their own fears and insecurities. Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) an electrical engineer for Oscorp feels overlooked and unimportant: the faint whisper of the voice in his head accompanies pangs of social anxiety. This is until an accident leaves him with the ability to control and contort electricity, leading him to discover that creating chaos is rewarded with attention.

Initially idolising Spiderman for saving his life and actually acknowledging him when he was the humble Max Dillon, the now literal electrical engineer Electro has a sudden change of heart. Although Electro brings with him a cinematic presence his motive appears misplaced and sudden, feeling more like a connector to the far darker villain Green Goblin.

Dane Deehan’s descent from Harry Osborn the old school friend of Parker to the monstrous Green Goblin is commanding. A twisted performance that stems from Osborn’s fear of death upon discovering that he has a genetic disorder. As his illness takes over the threat becomes more horrific than spectacular, unlike Electro. The lighter, more comedic tone that the film invites can be misleading at times during these sudden plunges into darkness.

With so much going on Peter Parker seems to struggle with where his focus should be and where his priorities lie – just like the film which seems to spread itself thin and spend too much time away from the compelling characters and storylines.