2019

The King (2019)

Written for RAF News October 2019

Shakespeare’s Henriad plays become a modernised historical epic but pared down to a few characters and fewer battles. The King appears more as a toothless morality play about the compromise that comes with power and the inevitability of war.

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Timothée Chalamet is Prince Hal, the wayward son of King Henry, a drunken Lothario albeit with perfect curls. His reluctance to fight his father’s war loses him favour and the crown. But when his father (Ben Mendelsohn) is unable to keep peace within the country it seems rebellious young Hal might just be what England needs, as a series of events lead him to become King Henry V.

A self-proclaimed pacifist, the new King resists trivial provocations from France but with council in his ear speaking of politics and ‘the mood of the people’, he finds himself drawn in. Co-written and directed by David Michôd, you might expect harsh and unflinching violence, what with his debut Animal Factory. The King bides its time however, and for the most part consists of Henry trying to avoid battle, deliberating with his advisor (Sean Harris) and the Archbishop (Andrew Havill). When violence eventually creeps into the film, and war is waged against France, it appears at various stages to mark the compromise of Henry’s stance, it’s graphic depiction marking each lost foothold with gruesome impact.

This aspect of the film appears original, but serves only to highlight the larger parts of the film which are all too familiar and dramatically played out. The Battle of Agintcour interestingly begins messy and unclear, suffocating under the weight of clattering armour down in the mud, until King Henry’s right hand man Sir John Falstaff stands and takes off his helmet so we can follow along.

Joel Edgerton, who shares a writing credit, is Falstaff: bulky and burly with a Yorkshire affectation – one that stands up against Chalamet’s impressive but sometimes waining English and Robert Pattinson’s double-barrelled French accent, as the almost moustache twirling Dauphin.

It is entertaining at times, original in moments, but for the most part The King is just flat with some interesting performances thrown on top.

By the Grace of God (2019)

Written for RAF News October 2019

Based on true accounts and a scandal that is currently going to trial, Francois Ozon’s dramatisation looks at a group of child-abuse victims who band together as adults to speak out against their abuser and the system that allowed him to act with impunity: The Catholic Church.

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The film begins with Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a devout Christian family man who is moved to action when he sees that the priest who abused him as a young boy is back in Lyon working with children. Bringing back traumatic memories, he becomes determined to prevent Father Preynat (Bernard Verley) from doing further damage and to make the church a safe and morally responsible place for children such as his own.

The first third of the film sticks closely to the shared correspondence between Alex and different figureheads from the church, formally written and delivered as voice-overs to shots of him with his family and Preynat with his congregation. This measured approach only gets so far before being met with closed doors, and so a disconsolate Alex files an official complaint which becomes the flap of the butterfly’s wing that leads to a previous case being reopened.

François had a similar experience to Alexandre but his confrontational approach is far different. Continuing a police investigation and gaining the interest of the press, he forms a support group that becomes an open forum for victims, eventually receiving an overwhelming number of similar child-abuse testimonies of kids 30 years ago. From here the group put a case together against the Priest and now renowned Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), who kept the cases from being reported to civil authorities.

There is a definite reminder of recent Oscar winner Spotlight, but By The Grace focusses on the victims as opposed to the journalists reporting the story. And rather than maintain a sorrowful and sympathetic tone, it allows the characters to be normalised: they have flaws and a sense of humour like anyone else. It doesn’t impact their deserved empathy, it makes them feel more real.

The length of time spent with each character could lessen the immediate impact, but Ozon has made a bold film that gives insight to the varied long-term affects of abuse.

Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

Written for RAF News October 2019

Zak is a 22 year old with Down Syndrome and no guardian, making him a begruding patient at a retirement home. That is until roomate (Bruce Dern) helps him escape through the barred windows late one night, leaving him greased up with no clothes or possessions, just a dream of making it to a wrestling school run by his hero The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church).

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Finding shelter in a small docked boat, Zak wakes to find himself on the move, being chased by some frenzied fisherman. Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), the driver of the boat, has evidently ruffled some feathers and is looking to make an escape himself. This is the meet-cute for our soppy looking buddy movie: two unlikely outlaws on the lamb in the indie film Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Tyler is gruff and grumbling, aggressive out of the gate and unsympathetic towards the near-nude joy-rider he finds under tarp on deck. That is until he discovers that he is also a runaway on a mission, with care worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) hot on his tail. And so it seems that this trouble starting crab fisherman has found himself an accomplice and an alibi as they head together to find this wrestling school in the middle of nowhere.

The moral lesson and shape of the story might be clear from the outset but the charm of the actors and their chemistry is utterly disarming, even when it crashes into  narrative convenience or cliche. There is a rhythm to the dialogue that feels less filmy thanks to non-actor Zack Gottsagen, lending itself perfectly to the reality of the relationship, bringing out the humour as well as the pathos.

Tyler is aloof initially but as he becomes buds with Zak he makes a point of being intentionally unpatronising and non-coddling, which makes the moments of kindness and flashes of vulnerability resonate.

Funny and earning its sentimentality, Peanut Butter Falcon is a charming film that is hard not to like.

Photograph (2019)

Written for RAF News July 2019

Photograph sees an unlikely relationship develop between Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who takes photos of tourists by the Mumbai Gateway, and a fleeting subject (Sanya Malhotra) who he talks into posing for a quick snap before she floats away in a crowd, before even taking her polaroid.

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Hearing that his grandmother has stopped taking her medication, despairing over the fact that he has not found a partner, Rafi sends the polaroid – which so delights her that she comes to visit, so that she may meet this fictional girlfriend.

Rafi finds solace in the fabricated relationship with the girl in the photograph – giving her a name and fantasising about her perfection. But this isn’t enough, he must find the girl and convince her to join in the charade and convince his hypercritical grandmother (Farrukh Jaffar). Her real name is Miloni, an accounting student with such promise that she is front and centre on billboards advertising the school that she attends. Their fate is marked on their first meeting, and the film will gently and gradually pull them together.

Miloni agrees to play pretend as recompense for having left him at the gates – this is a classic comedy set-up but it is used to bring out empathy and understanding. Through grandma’s insults and anecdotes, Rafi appears meek and sensitive, qualities that Miloni seems to admire or at least to which she can relate. Both introverted and with domineering parents, they share a tenderness.

Conflict comes in the shape of class difference, shown by their living situation, education and careers. At one point Miloni joins in eating some street food, which makes her ill. Grandma doesn’t understand, insisting that they are fine and that she’ll get used to it. Small observed details help to paint the picture, in their preferences of Cola and Kulfi for example, details which are not surprising coming from Ritesh Batra, the writer/director of The Lunchbox – a Mumbai love story communicated primary through food.

Photograph is almost a throwback to a classic love story, sentimental but grounded in small expressions and details.

Lucid (2019)

Written for RAF News June 2019

A young nebbish introvert struggles socially until a neighbour introduces him to lucid dreaming, allowing him the possibility of realising his fantasies.

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Zel (Laurie Calvert) is a car-park attendant for a burlesque-style club with an apparent reputation and a clientele of wealthy hedonists, judging by the drivers who come by his window. Constantly reminded of his status, and mocked by his thuggish boss Theo (Cristian Solimeno), Zel’s desire to ask out one of the clubs dancers and to stand up to Theo is just a dream. This is until a washed-up psychologist (Billy Zane) teaches him that he could take control of his dreams and use them to build real-world confidence.

Lucid dreaming is a real phenomenon that is used for such purposes (the ‘lucid nightmare’ being the subject of Vanilla Sky and Nightmare on Elm Street) which makes the concept a solid basis for a film. Shot on a modest budget, Lucid works within its means and manages to turn it into a strength. Astonishingly, it is worth noting that first time writer and director Adam Morse has achieved this despite being registered blind for the past decade.

Having a cripplingly timid main character, that is not always sympathetic, is challenging but Calvert plays it realistically. The main hurdle in believability is the relationship between Zel and frizzy cravat wearer Elliot, but Zane’s calm confidence fills this void or distracts at the very least, able to provide some comedy alongside the catalyst for change.

As perfectly deconstructed in Nolan’s logic-twisting action-epic Inception, dream logic dovetails naturally with cinema: scenes can jump to different locations, or begin in the middle, and it will seem completely ordinary. In Lucid everything is neatly laid out, with set-ups and pay-offs, and without getting complex, which is a huge achievement considering the subject.

There’s a strange elegance in it’s simplicity – when it feels as though its about to nosedive into fantasy, it pulls back and lands something much more relatable.

Fonotune: An Electric Fairytale (2019)

Written for RAF News June 2016

A rag-tag bunch of headphone wearing wanderers make their way across barren desert-lands to see the final gig of a retiring rockstar in the middle of nowhere.

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We first join mute drifter Mono, played by the film’s director FINT, and despite offering absolutely nothing – he will be our constant and surrogate. Along the way he bumps into a series of individuals all with the same purpose so they amble together in the same direction; and so must we. Rather than exchanging words, they each listen to their preferred radio station, the names of which decorate the screen with stylish typeface.

But despite the promise of music, the most prominent sound is of footsteps as our gang march through a largely empty frame, collecting members such as Stereo the Hustler (Yûho Yamashita), and Analog the Drifter (Kazushi Watanabe).

To call them characters would be a stretch – they are set apart by their clothes and choice of music, exhibiting one behaviour throughout, second always though to walking. The combination of slow, repetitive shots with an occasionally arresting composition combine well with the ambiguity if you have the patience, but this could very well be tested. These names too appear as well crafted title-cards, emblazoned across the screen like a Batman onomatopoeia circa Adam West.

Some details dropped along the way suggest FINT knows very well what he is doing and – there is a moment in which the gang stop to watch an impromptu performance by a band without instruments or amps, their thrashed enthusiasm heard only through comically muted twangs.

The few moments in which we are transported to the station FNTN where a futurist DJ is mixing live, the scenes come to life and the minimal aesthetic is elevated. It is frustrating that this isn’t used more, perhaps the fear is that it would feel too much like a music video. Instead we drift alongside the group in near silence, hoping for a pay off that will never quite take shape.

Shed of the Dead (2019)

Written for RAF News May 2019

Trevor (Spencer Brown) spends his days in a shed on his allotment, painting miniature figurines for a fantasy role playing game, ignoring the reality of his unemployment by imagining himself a hero.

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Using this overgrown patch of land as a hideout from his nagging wife, distilling vodka from potatoes pilfered from his neighbours, Trevor isn’t popular. He is smug and condescending without a modicum of self awareness, refusing to get his allotment in order because gardening isn’t for him.

Cowardly and yet aggressively combative, his only friend Graham (Ewen MacIntosh) is an agoraphobe who shares his misplaced arrogance. But together they might be the only hope for humanity on the brink of a zombie apocalypse. It doesn’t get bogged down in explaining how or why, but the assumption is that we’ve all seen enough zombie films to get the gist; and we have.

The film has the most fun when it’s playing with special effects and make-up, but it does itself a disservice by creating a central character so loathsome that you end up routing for the undead. Although it is farcical, when Jeff accidentally kills a neighbouring gardener (Kane Hodder) in the opening of the film, and decides to chop him up to avoid suspicion, nothing supernatural has occurred. He is simply an unsympathetic and painfully unfunny sociopath.

As the title pretty much spells out, this English Zombie comedy is derivative, making references to films that are making references to other films, like a photocopy of a photocopy, losing trace of anything original or funny.

The bulk of the cast, including small parts for horror legends Michael Berryman and Bill Moseley, have seen there fair share of low budget horrors and zombie flicks – a sub-genre that has become so saturated that it is mentioned in the film itself, but that doesn’t mean it won’t keep coming back.