Grandma (2015)

Written for RAF News Dec 2015

When young Sage (Julia Garner) falls pregnant she turns to her feminist poet grandmother (Lily Tomlin) for help. All she needs now is $612 for an abortion which has been scheduled for later that same day, unfortunately grandma Elle is in the process of transmografying her life into art and has turned her credit cards into wind chimes.


And so the once famous, or mildly well-known, Elle takes her granddaughter on a tour of old flames and affiliates aiming to scrape together the money. They drive around in an old black Dodge, classic in style but ageing and falling apart – the parallel with Elle will become significant on the home stretch.

Elle is sharply intelligent, an academic with rebellious bite. The first we see of her she is breaking up with her young girlfriend (Judy Greer) and as it turns out she can be pretty mean, a trait she almost takes pride in. Despite this, her attitude and cutting remarks are infected with her wry sense of humour.

Grandma is a road movie and an indie comedy, but not in the quirky Juno sense. It is funny throughout but feels somehow more sincere – although you can expect an acoustic score with shots of hands out of car windows rolling on the wind.

It’s not all light-hearted whimsy though, there is an emotional depth to Grandma which comes in a different shape than you might have expected – anti-abortionists are laughed off screen but true drama comes in the form of Elle’s ex Karl, played by a moustacheless Sam Elliot. Touching on their past and the cavernous changes in-between (she is a lesbian and he has a family that borders on an army) the incredible performances of Tomlin and Elliot hint at the complexity of their lives outside of the film.

A clever scene has the long and greying Elliot, hunched over fixing one of his many grandchildren’s play cars – a satire of masculinity, of men and their toys.

Grandma is a feminist film in that it represents strong women of all statures and not without their flaws, this is what makes Elle such a compelling character, she is fuelled by compassion but is openly imperfect.

The Lobster (2015)

Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film offers more of the same darkly surreal dead pan comedy, except this time there’s an all star ensemble cast who speak English for the most part.

This has a number of effects on the film. Firstly, a new audience has opened up to this testing black humour – curiosity irked and sensibilities challenged. This made for a very tense atmosphere in the cinema where I saw the film, confused at what was supposed to be funny, at what was allowed to be funny. There were a few walk outs halfway into the film, claiming that it was the most disgusting film they had ever seen, and that this was surely not the romantic-comedy they were promised on Graham Norton


The other major effect the English casting had on the film, for me at least, was on the tone of the dialogue. It seemed inconsistent. Some were putting more into their lines than others – more sense of comedy, irony or emotion.

Colin Farrell is impressively uncharismatic as David, damaged to the point of losing his humanness. But his performance seems to be a pastiche of those in Lanthimos’ previous films Dogtooth and Alps. The Greek cast remain defiantly more dead-pan and robotic. This difference is seized upon when David’s passivity is tested by Lanthimos staple Angeliki Papoulia as Heartless Woman – and clearly he possesses more emotion than he is letting on. He, like the audience, is being pushed at what he can stomach.

The use of familiar actors in a familiar language draws more attention to the flat delivery of stilted dialogue, and has a different effect to reading the plainly worded sentences in the subtitles. It feels similar to the black comedies of Scandinavia: obviously staged and void of emotion. Like a children’s play, badly translated from another language, written with an alien understanding of how humans interact. It has a childlike naiveté but is self-aware and hilarious with it (as in the game: Touch Feel Think Win) .

The closest English-speaking counterpart to this style of delivery that I can think of is Wes Anderson, whose characters often speak with a dry melancholic tone; depressed and detached. They are withdrawn emotionally which is usually explained in the narrative as part of a dysfunctional family or childhood. Stylised and self-aware, many of Anderson’s characters adopt this tone, captured perfectly by the blank Buster Keatonlike expression of Bill Murray. The Lobster offers us no such context, instead blanketing the world with people who speak plainly and frankly to the point of extreme discomfort – “This is Robert. He lives in the room next to mine and has a lisp” or “I swallow every time I give fellatio and don’t mind anal sex”.

Although everyone speaks bluntly, there is still dishonesty and within this world deception is grounds for punishment. Masturbating in the hotel means your fingers will be jammed in a toaster at breakfast in front of the other guests. Lying about how little you care about anything will mean your brother-turned-dog will be kicked to death. The lack of explanation forces you to confront the style and relate it to reality, making you realise the farcical nature of human interaction.

This was the subject of Attenberg, a film which Lanthimos both starred in and produced, warping communication between people into something very surreal, especially when dealing with sex. Although this is still confined to strange individuals in our shared reality. In doing this we can choose to draw comparison to our own personal lives or just write it off as fringe behaviour, or an act of surrealism. The Lobster changes the rules of the world and forces us to rethink the rules we have in our own world. The protocol of normalised behaviour, the gameplay of relationships. How people tend to pair together due to a shared interest, experience or flaw. The hilariously frank dialogue is so funny because it defies our social rules – it tells us that we are not always honest. Behind someone’s back we might define a person by their limp or maybe we would suggest flirtingly how promiscuous we are, but we adhere to a code of decency that appears arbitrary and hypocritical in light of The Lobster.

The final moments of the film tease and toy with you. The room tightens up collectively and there are a few audible gasps. It’s almost identical to Dogtooth. Those new to Lanthimos already don’t trust him, and those who are familiar know not to.

The Hallow (2015)

Written for Film and TV Now Nov 2015 (Available here)

As a family drive down to their new home in the Irish countryside, a radio broadcast tells us that Ireland is one of the last countries to have publicly owned forests – they will soon find out that the locals are protective of their land, but not as much as the creatures hidden within.

Father of the family Adam (Joseph Mawle) is a conservationist, having moved from London to inspect the trees. On his first expedition with his baby boy on his back he stumbles upon a deer, mutilated in an abandoned shelter and dripping with a suspicious black substance. As warned by a local policeman played by Michael Smiley, local legend tells of mythical beings in the woods, banshees and baby-stealers, “This isn’t London. Things go bump in the night”.

As much as The Hallow is about people from that London moving where they don’t belong and interfering with nature, it becomes a platform for all different kinds of genre tropes. It feels like an amalgam of horror films of different styles. It splices them together but spreads itself thin in doing so. The seclusion of the town and it’s inhabitants feels a little like An American Werewolf in London, their twisted spiritual beliefs like an inversion of the pagan cult in The Wicker Man. The Irish folklore, as detailed in the Evil Dead-like Book of the Dead, gives way to fantastical creatures that have a touch of Pan’s Labyrinth.

For all of its high reference points it doesn’t land as hard of a punch as it should. The preference of practical effects for the monsters is admirable, but as the story progresses and they come to the fore, their scariness fast diminishes. It is the atmosphere that remains unsettling in The Hallow, the creatures, whilst impressive, are not on the Guillermo Del Toro scale of production value and so are best when glimpsed in darkness. This is after all the directorial debut of Corin Hardy, and an impressive one at that.

Whilst some of these ideas can be seen elsewhere it is this certain combination that fits so well, but in trying to fulfil the style of each type of horror (from house invasion, to creature feature, to body horror and psychological thriller) it doesn’t feel as effective as it might have done if it narrowed it’s focus. The disintegration of trust between Adam and his wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic) leads to a harrowing idea late in the film as they fight over the baby, but with all these plates spinning it’s hard to appreciate how scary this really is.

Maya the Bee (2015)

Written for RAF News Oct 2015

The lives of bees are full of rules and restrictions – not allowed to dream or sing or have fun. It’s a slippery slope as the shifty and stringent Buzzlina details: singing leads to playing and playing to laziness. However Maya is anything but lazy. An adventurous young bee who wants to explore the world outside of the hive and isn’t afraid to speak her mind – voiced by Coco Jack Gillies with a skittish energy.

After discovering that Buzzlina has stolen the royal jelly, the Queen’s elixir of life, Maya finds herself expelled from the hive, forced out into the world of other insects warned against in school. It is only once Maya and dorky friend Willy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are out in the poppy fields that they realise other species aren’t that scary at all.

There is a nice message here that explains the fears of the hive to be imagined or misunderstood, underlining the importance of unity and camaraderie. The true villain of the film is Buzzlina, the betraying advisor to the Queen and oppressive force from within the hive.

Most of the film is spent with Maya journeying to the poppy field, meeting a whole host of insects and animals along the way. Although some creatures add a fleeting moment of comedy, the constant meetings grow tired. Fortunately enough there is a song to liven things up before Maya and her group of newfound friends set out to confront Buzzlina.

Maya The Bee has come along way since its initial publication over a century ago – from children’s book to live action silent film with real insects(…), and now computer generated with a new tv series in tow, which is surprising considering how lifeless and bland the film can be at the best of times.

Although a little dull, the saving grace is the casting of Gillies as Maya whose energy carries the film.

Just think of what it could have been – one bee stranded in a world of other possible threats, not unlike The Warriors, returning home whilst being chased for the big confrontation, just like Mad Max: Fury Road… so much potential, such a shame.

He Named Me Malala (2015)

Written for RAF News Oct 2015

Malala Yousafzai has lead an extraordinary life and she is only 18 years old. As this documentary makes adamantly clear – her story is the stuff of legend.

Already an activist and covert contributor to the BBC at 12, Malala was targeted by the Taliban on her school bus years later and shot in the head. Surviving this ordeal she had the world’s attention, which she used to advocate human rights around the world and become the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner.

There is definitely a mythical quality to Malala’s life. An idea seized upon by director Davis Guggenheim – animating anecdotes of her childhood in the same pastel-coloured haze as the Afghani folktale that opens the film, drawing a parallel between Malala and Malalai of Maiwind after whom she was named.

A large part of the film is devoted to this origin story of a hero, turning her into an icon, a legend. The other side attempts to show the young girl behind it all, blushing over pictures of Roger Federa and Brad Pitt, and fighting with her brothers. This human side to the documentary is far more revealing in the way that it grounds Malala.

The whole family have a great sense of humour and an openness that invites you into their lives and Malala’s father Ziauddin epitomises this. His fierce belief in education and predilection to deliver passionate political speeches have clearly carried through to his daughter, neither of them deterred by physical impairment – Ziauddin suffering from a stutter and Malala having partial face paralysis resulting from the shooting.

The sceptics see Malala as a character of her father’s creation that the media, and no doubt this documentary, have latched onto, but she is adamant that her father simply gave her the name. Forever cheerful, it is hard to think of the dark reality from which she has emerged, or the continued death threats that she receives, but this is skimmed over throughout the film – perhaps in an effort to keep it light.

Regardless, Malala is a remarkable figure with an amazing story that is told here with passionate conviction but never without humour.

Brooklyn (2015)

Written for RAF News Sept 2015

Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel, this period drama set in 1952 follows Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) a young Irish wallflower in search of a life with better prospects across the pond, finding not only a job but first love. 


Leaving behind her sister and mother in their rural hometown that couldn’t promise her a future, Eilis heads for Brooklyn, the Irish home away from home, but not even a job and night classes can quell her homesickness.

A traditional Irish score carries Eilis’ thoughts of home, and so too does an event for which she volunteers, offering food to the older generation of Irish immigrants in Brooklyn, the forgotten souls who built the tunnels and bridges. In one particularly striking moment, a man stands and sings in Gallic, a powerful and piercing performance that resonates with all, nonemoreso than Eilis.

Although there is romantic nostalgia anchored in Ireland, it is painted in earthy tones, in brown and beige, where New York’s excitement is met with a smattering of vibrant colours. It is only when Eilis finds the attention of humble Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen), that she is pulled in by the allure of the city – finding comfort in her new home and confidence that her life is coming together. 

That is until she is called back home following tragic news, discovering that her situation has changed and that there might be a future back in Ireland after all: a job and a charming young suitor played by Domnhall Gleeson.

The camera seems to be in love with Saoirse’s portrait, her detached gaze caught in constant close-up throughout the film, offering a poignant insight into the struggle of finding herself and where she belongs. Eilis is straight-faced for the most part, shining with innocence even after being dolled up by the ‘awful gossip mongers’ of her boardhouse.

The supporting cast provide colour and comedy, none moreso than Julie Walters who steals the show as the maam of Eilis’ boarding house, with a few gloriously written lines, delivered effortlessly.

Brooklyn is a charming love story that doesn’t sensationalise. A simple and effective story that feels honest and is all the more powerful for it.

Barely Lethal (2015)

Written for RAF News Sept 2015

High school is hard going – even for a special agent.

Prescott is an institution that takes in young girls and turns them into badasses. Agent 83 (Hailee Steinfeld) is a natural but longs to have a normal life, and so whilst pursuing target Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba) she fakes her own death and enrols in an exchange program at a new school with a new family. But how much of 83’s training help her in the social minefield of high-school?

In preparation 83 gathers intel in the form of Mean Girls, Clueless, Bring it On etc. so when a group of cheerleaders offer her a seat on her first day, she declines defensively weary of it being a trap – ‘I thought we were nice?’ the girl exclaims to her gang with complete incredulity.

From 83’s research it would seem that she will avoid the pitfalls of the teen-movie but instead she falls for each one in sequence, chasing the vapid heartthrob over the endearing geek, and duped into becoming the school mascot for his attention. The selective intelligence of 83 shows that the film wants to have its cake and eat it, no sooner referencing a tired cliche than employing one without irony.

The best comedic performances come from the single parents, played by Rachael Harris and Rob Huebel, but they are just background colour to the romance between their kids, which is far less interesting. Samuel L Jackson plays head of the spy school Hardman in a role that he could act in his sleep, and Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner stars as rival agent 84.

There is something of Grosse Point Blank in the premise, especially the last act, but it is softened for a younger audience and closer to the sensibilities of Spy Kids. Unfortunately for those who have watched the same films as 83, Barely Lethal is predictable and though it tries to be edgy and offers the occasional action scene, it is safe and forgettable for the most part.

Iris (2015)

Iris Apfel is a visionary. A 93 year old with a sense of style that transcends fashion and makes her an artist of sorts, a curator and a stylist, a hoarder maybe, but with undeniable personal taste.

What makes Iris so admirable is how she remains grounded and unpretentious, even whilst possessing such high status as an icon in the industry. This is clear when we see Iris at high-end retailer Bergdorfs as she potters into a room full of mannequins and dresses and them as she would herself. Accessorising with several layers of bracelets and bangles, adorned with necklaces upon necklaces like some psychedelic Mr. T. Effortlessly she imparts distinctive style. Standing by, watching intently, the Bergdorf’s bodies lend their own verbage to capture Iris’ work. They might as well be looking at them with a tilted head and hand on chin as they describe her process as sculptural, admiring the rhythm.

Ant-Man (2015)

Marvel films are lost on me.

During fight scenes or action sequences I tend to glaze over and lose interest. I couldn’t watch the first Avengers film because after 10 minutes I didn’t care about anyone or anything on screen.

Other than Tony Stark’s Robert Downey Jr. delivery I don’t get the humour. Thor I found cringeworthy, and the rest that I saw took themselves way too seriously. I can’t buy into it. I can’t get into that style of acting – that hammy, cheesy croque monsieur of self importance that can inject gravitas into a glance.

That was until Guardians of the Galaxy. Taking an obscure Marvel comic with an absurd premise, attaching a director who had shown his comedic sensibilities and awareness of the superhero tropes in The Specials, and creating something much more subversive. A Marvel film that was self-aware, self-deprecating and funny.

This is what lead me to see Ant-Man. I knew nothing other than Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish had been involved and that it was about an ant-sized superhero. It sounded absurd, surreal and like it would be impossible for it to take itself too seriously. Alas, nothing is impossible in superhero movies.

Whilst the film tried for comedy it felt like it was the ideas, the concepts themselves, that were funny – and so I never really laughed out loud (a couple of exceptions in Michael Pina). The first time Rudd shrinks down to size he is thrown through a series of obvious trials like something out of the Magic Schoolbus or Micro Machines – a bath-tub! a hoover!

I didn’t believe Paul Rudd for a minute. Not as a hacker nor a nimble-ninja cat-burglar. Not a superhero or even a father. Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong place for believability but I was never involved in the film. What I found really jarring was the whiplash from utter silliness to sober melodrama which I think is symptomatic of this type of film.

Where Guardians parodied the Marvel format, abiding the rules but taking the piss at the same time, Ant-Man just slots right back into it with endless reams of exposition, the obligatory montage sequence, and a heavy dose of melodrama. It felt painted by numbers and I didn’t care about what picture was being created. It’s funny that the stakes of the film are so much lower than the Avengers films (not funny ha-ha) but to me it just captured the problem that I have with Marvel films – I don’t care about anyone in this world. It feels silly. The fight scene between two micro-sized men on a Thomas the Tank Engine track was funny because it acknowledged the format, how Marvel are reliant on scale as a spectacle, on illusory effects.

I know that I am in the minority for not accepting this film as a bit of fun, but it just wasn’t fun for me. It was boring and lifeless. The concept of going sub-atomic was great and so too were the effects used to capture the microscopic landscapes, but it just wasn’t strange enough. It was just another Marvel film. And Marvel films are lost on me. I’m sorry.

Amy (2015)

In the lobby after a sold out preview of  Amy  I was met by a wave of young girls with smeared mascara, not in homage to the feline-Egyptian style of Winehouse, but thick black tear tracks. Luckily I don’t tend to wear make-up in public as this was an emotional and affecting film.

Filmmaker Asif Kapadia remains invisible for the most part, stitching together archive footage from the shaky home videos and mobile phones of Amy’s humble beginning, to paparazzi footage and televised interviews in her later resented stardom – ironically the picture gains stability as Amy loses it.

Over laying these images are audio interviews with those close to the north London jewish-jazz singer in place of the usual talking heads. This gives the film a more natural feel and keeps Kapadia from becoming a subject himself, appearing instead as a collection of artifacts – a scrapbook complete with the thoughts of friends and family. The result is something more human.

The first half of the film tracks Winehouse’s musical inspiration, taking a jazz influence from her father along with a dose of heartbreak when he left the family after a lengthy affair. The following years track her incredible song writing as she captures moments of her life with poetic lyricism that, like her, are both unpretentious and funny, often revolving around the men in her life – forever seeking a father surrogate. Amy is real, saying that she couldn’t write what she didn’t know and so her music became a way of expressing emotion and dealing with darker realities in her life.

I have long been a fan of debut album Frank but it was only in this context that familiar songs would play with new meaning. Each song is presented from a live recording, either on stage or in studio, lending a more raw expressive quality. The lyrics are shown on screen too, emphasising their place within Amy’s story.

What is so sad about the film is that her successes are ultimately framed by her death of alcohol abuse in 2011. With Winehouse garnering most attention from the media in these later stages, exacerbating the existing problems, there is only so much of her life documented beforehand, or on her terms. The Amy that invites the camera is effortlessly charming and funny – greeting her friend at the door in character as the houseboy, or appearing humble and endearing in an interview with Jonathan Ross.

This is the second documentary of recent to focus on one of the 27 club – that group of prodigal talents who died at this early age due to excess of somekind – the other being the Kurt Cobain doc Montage of Heck. Besides their struggles with addiction and inability to deal with fame, there are many striking similarities between their lives and the films themselves.

Both productions began with the permission of family and access to masses of archive footage, until a story began to form that showed them in a negative light, as the potential cause – and so both Courtney Love and Mitch Winehouse respectively withdrew their support and rallied against the films.

Where Kurt Cobain found himself unable to cope with the pressures of fame and so committed fully to a destructive relationship with Love and heroin, Winehouse had her on-again-off-again Blake Lively – the man to introduce her to crack cocaine and heroin. All the while her father booked her on tours, arranged a camera crew to invade her private holiday and as famously captured in the hook of her hit song advised against rehab.

There are parallel scenes using archive material from near the end of their lives that polarised the audiences I was in. When a doped-up, scaggy Cobain sits with an equally messy Love and their baby daughter Francis Bean – he makes passing jokes about rival Axel Rose. Cobain’s sudden turn to matters more trivial within the context is comical but as the audience you feel the grimy reality of the situation and how it will inevitably play out.

Similarly when an up-until-now abstaining Winehouse phones her personal security and leaves a slurring message about her sudden creative surge in writing Wu-tang style battle-raps, her humorous charm comes through, even when under the influence, but we all know where this is heading.

This is what makes both films so tragic – we are fully aware of their eventual demise and so each moment of excess, each lyric pointing to the fact, becomes an ignored warning sign, a foreboding tale of their fate which makes the jokes turn sour.

Amy Winehouse was an amazing talent lost to a frenzy of fame that infected those closest to her and stopped her from ever getting help when she needed it. The documentary is important in relaying this message – holding a mirror up to the predatory nature of the media even if it is guilty of the self-same exploitation.