2017

The Hungry (2017)

Written for RAF News November 2017

The Hungry is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s violent tragedy Titus Andronicus, moved to contemporary New Dheli where an extravagant wedding becomes the setting for a series of vengeful murders.

The union between the Ahuja and Huji families is shown to have some significance as far as corporate ties are concerned and this may be the reason for some bad blood along the way. The film opens to the bride’s son writing a suicide note at gunpoint, it is not clear just yet what is going on and who is to be trusted. Flashing forward two years after this supposed suicide, the wedding is back on and no expense is spared in putting on a show.

Tathagat Ahuja (Naseeruddin Shah) is the elder godfather figure of his family, lavishly showing off his wealth as he plays host and head chef at the wedding of his moronic son Sunny (Arjun Gupta). The bereaved bride is Tulsi (Tisca Chopra) who is often seen wearing a smile of dark intentions.

Although the acting is pretty ropey, the film is composed well, clearly putting aesthetics before anything else. It takes a long time to get going but once it gets past the overly complicated establishing of grudges and grievances, the final horrific scenes fall into place.

It feels as though the story has been reverse engineered, starting at the final banquet hinted at in the title, and working backwards. Other ceremonial touches are set up and skewed by the distrust seeded between Tulsi and her new family.

For example, she and the groom take part in the ‘Haldi’ ceremony in which they are both covered in a bright yellow paste as traditional music is played. This sound is distant and distorted however, which really separates you from the festivities: seeing the vibrant colours but through this lens of paranoia.

There is a nice clash between the gruesome violence and the luxurious setting but ultimately The Hungry takes far too long to get to an expected ending.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)

Written for RAF News November 2017

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is about writer and actor Peter Turner’s love affair with Hollywood legend Gloria Grahame in the late 70s: the star of black and white classics now living in Liverpool and struggling to make it in colour apparently.

Adapted from his memoir, Turner is played by the ever-dashing and loveable Jamie Bell who stumbles upon new neighbour Grahame in the middle of some wacky vocal exercises, but she will make work of him yet. Anette Benning is able to bring the twinkling Hollywood shine to Grahame. She is commanding and funny but the mere mention of the age gap will bring out her sensitivity. Benning is able to portray Grahame as both bold and fragile, hinting that there is something going on behind the film star veneer.

As revealed in the opening of the film, Grahame returns to Liverpool after collapsing in her dressing room, wanting to recover in the company of her old flame. The film jumps about in time from their sweet beginning to tragic ending, back through the throws of passion and heated break-ups. The style is fluid in the way that it blurs past and present but for all its efforts it can be quite jarring. This technique does pay off later though when an argument is seen from a different perspective, effectively managing to change the emotion of the scene.

The getting-to-know-you parts of the relationship, the pub dates and meetings with disapproving parents, feel familiar and forgettable save for the style. Julie Walter’s reliably steals her scenes as Mrs Turner with very little dialogue, but Film Stars really gets interesting when it gets a little darker and dramatic.

Bell and Benning have great chemistry, even when their characters are at odds with each other, and are able to give this story a tenderness that it deserves.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Written for RAF News November 2017

Steven Murphy is a successful heart surgeon, admired by his peers and loved by his family, but all that is about come apart when demons from the past come back to haunt him. Not literally, well who knows.

Murphy has been meeting a young boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan) to give occasional gifts and fatherly advice but his wife and kids are unaware of this relationship. Murphy feels indebted to Martin for some reason, things getting substantially more serious when it seems a hex has been placed on his family that will end in a lot of people dying if nothing is done about it.

It sounds absurd but stranger things have happened in Yorgos Lanthimos’ films – like turning people into animals in The Lobster. The style is unmistakable, the flat matter-of-fact dialogue and delivery that can find humour in the darkest ideas. It has a wonky realism that makes you think the hex could be real and so the stakes are as high as they can be. Murphy has to confront superstition and contemplate an unthinkable sacrifice*.

Colin Farrell, having starred in strange success The Lobster, looks at home with this mechanical direction, and Nicole Kidman dovetails in with a bit more soul as wife Anna but is enough Stepford Wife to keep things off kilter, especially in the bedroom. The young actors are excellent, making the blunt and sometimes bizarre dialogue sound natural.

Once again Lanthimos has created a beautifully strange piece of work that is uniquely his own. It is a horror revenge film that has a tone that flits between tragic and slapstick. It uses real drama but in such a false way that it’s hard to connect to anyone, but this feels beside the point. What is clear is that it knows how to challenge expectations, create suspense and get a laugh – even if it is a nervous one.

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Good Time (2017)

Written for RAF News November 2017

Good Time opens with a heist. The idea has been done many times before but this is different. It’s simple and stripped back but shown with style and real intensity. Gripped from the opening it is clear that this entire film will not be easy for anyone involved. It is a pulpy crime thriller that never slows down and plays out largely as one intense chase.

The guys behind the robbery are brothers, as are the directors of the film. Nik (played by co-director Ben Safdie) is mentally handicapped, talked into the job by his brother Connie, the wily one always with a plan. When Nik is caught by police, Connie makes it his mission to break him out of prison whatever it takes.

Connie is constantly finding himself in extreme, distressing situations and having to find a way out. Though flawed he has a survival instinct and in fact his ability to use people really comes in handy. Robert Pattinson is great in this part, managing to convey desperation but never without ego or pride.

Early on, when trying to post bail money for his brother’s release, a series of phone calls take place, overlapping with each other and adding to the cacophony of stress. This is as low as the stakes get and yet the tension is unescapable. Add in the classic genre ingredients of guns, drugs and guard dogs and you might get an idea of where it is headed.

Combining uncomfortably close camera with an intense synth score and hurled through never ending trials, the affect of this film is physical. What begins as nausea develops into pure adrenal exhilaration. It has a video game kind of logic where sudden problems need a solution, where people are reduced to tools, but it has the benefit of being utterly cinematic.

The ironic title might be misleading but if you’re a sadist, an adrenaline junkie or just looking for exciting cinema – this is a great time.

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (2017)

Written for RAF News October 2017

In Bloodlight and Bami, director Sophie Fiennes explores the formidable Grace Jones, cutting together live shows and intimate footage recorded over 5 years: following her across the world to perform, record and visit friends and family.

Still performing at 69 with stunningly designed costumes, sometimes whilst hula-hooping for the duration, Jones is undeniably a force to be reckoned with. She is towering in stature and intimidating by reputation. Known to have a fiery personality both on and off stage, what comes through in this documentary is her humour and in fact her vulnerability. Back home in Jamaica Jones talks with her family about father Mas P, a cruel and looming figure. This is intercut with her performance of William’s Blood, the lyrics explaining the punishing ordeal she went through as a child, and the resilience that she expresses now.

Whilst trying to pin down bassist Robbie on the phone for a recording on 2008 album Hurricane, her producer pleads with her to not piss him off, but expectantly she can’t be contained. After an angry tirade though, it seems she has just left a voicemail – a comic moment that is actually quite sad.

This happens too with a television performance in Paris that is staged in such a way that she feels like the Madame of a brothel. She is not the butt of the joke but it’s her status that is undercut in these moments. Trying to uphold an image that is fearful but seeming in these moments to be alone.

Throughout the documentary Jones will often take on the dialect of those she is talking to, fluidly dropping into Jamaican patois with her mother, Valley girl with her niece, or French with her ex. What is clear from this documentary is that Jones has many sides to her.

Bloodlight and Bami is well paced and put together, giving insight to a cultural icon who has a great depth behind her public persona.

It (2017)

An 80s style coming of age story set in Derry, Maine, a town where the kids go missing at a rate over 6 times higher than anywhere else. Stranger things have happened, and Stranger Things continues to happen as a bunch of dweeby kids become hero investigators, including one of the boys from STRANGER THINGS.

If Stand By Me (also adapted from a story by Stephen King) were Alien, this is Jim Cameron’s sequel, as a group of boys find a fuckload of dead bodies in the sewers.

For a film about a demon clown, the scariest moments are the most grounded – the malicious parents and school bullies. Perhaps this is because their actions and reactions are grounded in reality, whereas Pennywise’s strengths, weaknesses and triggers seem arbitrary. It gears up as though it’s related to fear but it matters not in the end, they say that it does but show that it doesn’t.

A shape-shifter that represents fear and preys on children much like Freddy Krueger, there are some huge references to A Nightmare on Elm Street, as in the bathroom scene, but it relies more on computer generated effects.

IT is a fun nostalgia film intercut with neutered horror scenes that somehow make it less scary.

The Party (2017)

Written for RAF News October 2017

A few friends have been invited to Janet’s soiree in her London home: a disaster barely waiting to happen. A host of clashing personalities all celebrating her ascension to Shadow Health Minister, on course to potentially leading the party, but for now she has a very different party to run.

In case it wasn’t clear that things are going to end badly, the film opens with Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) pointing Chekov’s gun right at us, then cutting backwards in time to the exchange of crocodile smiles and inane niceties before things inevitably turn sour.

With these opinionated ideologues now in an enclosed space, there is the catalyst of announcements: of promotion, pregnancy and the prognosis of death. Each now has a purpose to shout their worldview from their respective soapboxes.

Spiritualist life coach Godfrey (Bruno Ganz) sits cross-legged on the floor offering esoteric musings to each flawed dinner guest, though it only takes a gentle prod from his sarcastic wife (Patrica Clarkson) to expose the hypocrisy. Cillian Murphy’s suited banker is shaky and sweaty upon arrival, making frequent trips to the bathroom to find a clean corner of the bathtub to help keep his nerves unstable. All the while Janet’s husband Bill (Timothy Spall), a renowned Atheist Author, sits in a drunken stupor controlling the music in the most perfectly inappropriate manner.

The soundtrack is just one element of style that is added to this theatrical farce, presented in black and white and with camera angles that get right in the faces of it’s cast. Each addition of drama ratchets up the tension and brings out the comedy. We follow different pairings of characters to learn about the baggage that each of them has brought along.

The Party is quick and comical with a political subtext that makes it more relevant than ever. So swiftly are you thrown into the chaos that you can’t help but be engaged.

Wind River (2017)

Written for RAF News September 2017

When the body of a young girl is found barefoot in the thick snow of the Wind River Indian Reservation, the F.B.I. get involved. Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) heads over to Wyoming from the Las Vegas department to investigate – as best she can in her unsuited clothes and car. Headstrong but inexperienced, she is really out of her element here.

With few police of their own in this large stretch of unforgiving terrain, Banner looks to Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner), the hunter who discovered the body, to help find her way around. He knows the place, the people and the predators that lurk within. It seems the community are battling a world that doesn’t care about them, torn apart by drugs and delinquents.

What begins as a moody procedural however will quickly become an all-out action thriller in a whiplash-inducing change of pace. Details that are initially obscured will be explained fully and any attempts at making a serious dramatic point will be lost to Taken-style shootouts. This is a bizarre film that doesn’t know how seriously to treat its subject. Most serious of all is Corey, a man with a troubled past who has apparently learned much about the culture of Native Americans, taking every opportunity to high road others and pass on his wise words.

Wind River is written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, the latter of which really comes through here just without the balance of comedy. Other than the chief of local police, who is included for comedic relief but sidelined immediately, there are fleeting glimpses of humour that are practically apologised for.

Wind River is confusing in tone but still interesting to watch. You can’t help but feel that if it weren’t so serious it’d be fun; or if it weren’t so silly it’d be brilliant.

Final Portrait (2017)

Written for RAF News August 2017

At the point that we meet Alberto Giacometti in Final Portrait he is at his most self-critical. This is 1964 mind, so he has already achieved great acclaim as an artist and wads of cash can be found thrown about his studio between works-in-progress, but apparently success is the breeding ground for doubt.

At least this is what he tells James Lord, an influential critic and admirer who has agreed to model for one of his paintings. Assured that it would take no more than a few hours, Giacometti soon confesses that a portrait is never finished, that they are meaningless and impossible. Despite this Lord decides to stay it out, observing the artist observing him.

Battling doubt and distractions – his penchant for cigarettes and red wine or his obsession with wildfire prostitute Clementine (Clémence Poésy) – it becomes apparent that he is afraid of finality, so closely twinned with fatality. Clearly neurotic he romanticises suicide but begrudges that “you only get to do it once!”

Geoffrey Rush, who does share a likeness with the Swiss sculptor and painter, is superb casting, cantankerous with the flair and affectation of genius. His wry humour works perfectly with Armie Hammer’s clean-cut straight man in Lord. When he first begins painting he makes cutting observations of Lord, goading him with such a dry tone that you can’t be sure he’s joking. Sitting with the subject for the duration of these sessions, and with a great deal of silence, you share Lord’s frustration when no progress is made, or worse when it all starts again.

Taking place in this one location for the most part, it may seem more suited for stage but Stanley Tucci knows when to introduce music and change the pace, or where to put the camera, including one of the most stunning scene transitions involving a swimming pool and Chagall’s ceiling.

Final Portrait hinges though on the dynamic of the two central characters, the back and forth between artist and subject, and in this respect it is always funny and actually offers a profound insight on the creative process.

The Odyssey (2017)

Written for RAF News August 2017

Two hours isn’t a great deal of time for anyone’s life to be condensed down to, especially not that of Jacques Cousteau, and yet The Odyssey gives a good go anyway.

A deep-sea diver who became a pioneer of underwater exploration and documentary filmmaking, Cousteau was first a showman. In the opening of the film Cousteau, played by Lambert Wilson, attends a screening of one of his early expeditions and takes to the stage to answer the audiences’ questions – he seems to find as much comfort under the spotlight as he does underwater, speaking with great ease and incredible charm.

If you hadn’t seen any of Cousteau’s own groundbreaking films, they may be familiar from Wes Anderson’s A Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which took on the stilted style of Cousteau’s semi-staged documentaries. It also included a lot of biographical information about Cousteau that bobs up here in The Odyssey with much more dramatic heft.

The key component and through-line to this story is Jacques’ relationship to his son Philippe (Pierre Niney). Whilst his loyal wife Simone (Audrey Tautou) and crew remain supportive of his over-ambitious attempt to produce films for studios, it is his prodigal son who provides a realisation and rebirth for the legend as he is known today.

Although it only focusses on a few decades in Cousteau’s life it still feels packed with information. With so much to include, it impinges on the atmosphere and characters, with events following each other in such rapid succession that it can be difficult to take them in or take them seriously.

Needless to say Cousteau was an extraordinary man, though not without flaws, and there is a lot to discover about him and the forging of his legacy in The Odyssey.