Reviews

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.

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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.

That Good Night (2018)

Written for RAF News May 2018

In That Good Night, aged screenwriter Ralph Maitland (John Hurt) is living out his days in a picturesque Portuguese villa, trying to pen a project before ‘the ultimate deadline’.

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Diagnosed with a terminal illness, Ralph remains as combative as ever whilst he works out what to do and who to tell. He invites his son Michael (Max Brown) to come and see him but is soured when he brings along his partner Cassie (Erin Richards). It becomes apparent that the people closest to Ralph have been pushed away – he is mocking and derisive, delivering insults with a smile.

The supporting cast of the film, including Maitland’s much younger wife (Sofia Helin), remain awkwardly stilted and two-dimensional for the most part, but it is clear that the story is not for them. It is only when Charles Dance arrives playing a mysterious white-suited visitor, talking over plans of assisted suicide, that the performance of Hurt is matched and the material is elevated.

But for a film focussed on questions of mortality, of accepting death and leaving loved ones behind, it seems afraid of real emotion. The queasy and insistent score signals reflective sadness, changing only to introduce clunky moments of comedy that might have just passed if the score weren’t so prominent. It appears that certain scenes would have been better served by silence, but perhaps that would have invited unwanted pathos.

John Hurt stands out with his twisted and embittered old man – the depth hinted at in this performance and the knowledge of the actors recent passing adds a poignancy that might have otherwise been absent from the film.

Reading Dylan Thomas’ poem (from which the title is taken) over the final black screen is a perfect close and a fitting send off for the beloved actor.

Wolf Warrior 2 (2017)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News February 2018

Returning from battle with his comrades ashes, Special Ops ‘Wolf Warrior’ Leng Feng discovers a real estate firm destroying his hometown. In the blink of an eye dozens of company goons wielding 2x4s have been floored and police have them surrounded. When Feng kicks the gun-toting ring leader 10ft into the air and through the windscreen of a police car, he is imprisoned in military jail for two years.

Once released, Feng finds himself in an unnamed African country where he establishes himself as man-of-the-people, offering aid to locals ravaged by a highly infectious disease and protecting them from a bloodthirsty militia. It seems they have teamed with some deadly Western mercenaries straight out of Street Fighter.

The driving force of the film is Wu Jing: the writer and director who also stars as borderline superhero Leng Feng. An embodiment of patriotism, Feng actually turns himself into a Chinese flag at one point, this despite being dishonourably discharged because: “Once a Wolf Warrior, always a Wolf Warrior.”

Now the second highest grossing film in China, this is a large scale production with sweeping shots of navy fleets and tanks being used for a demolition derby. There is a lot of sketchy if not passable CGI, but alongside practical effects and wire stunts that give some weight to action. These set pieces are built around a flurry of fast paced fight choreography devised by the same team behind John Wick and Atomic Blonde. Though intricate it never gets hung up on realism. The opening scene features an underwater fight scene that misunderstands gravity and overestimates lung capacity by some way, and yet this is what makes it enjoyable.

The attempts at humour and drama fall flat but form a necessary breather between gunfights and hand-to-hand combat, which is where all the fun is to be had.

Addendum:

Besides this, the message is one of frighteningly unambiguous nationalism. It reduces an entire continent to a land filled with savage militants and the helplessly impoverished – all ready to be protected by the Chinese military, crystallised in the form of one morally superior and high-roading motherfucker, so convinced of his invincibility that he rarely takes cover from gunfire and is able to catch an RPG with the wire frame of a mattress. This is a joke. A hugely expensive and highly profitable joke, that is only funny when it’s trying to be serious.

Last Flag Flying (2018)

Written for Raf News January 2018

Set in late 2003, this loose sequel to The Last Detail follows three embittered veterans as they reunite and reminisce against the back drop of the Iraq war. More a road movie than a war film, Last Flag Flying looks at the long term effects of military service and how it can shape a persons life.

When recently widowed Doc (Steve Carell) receives news that his son has been killed whilst serving in Iraq, he sets out to reunite with two Vietnam buddies to attend the funeral. Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) has changed a lot – now a Reverend who has apparently found peace – whereas Sal (Bryan Cranston) has not, an alcoholic who provides insistent comic relief with an obnoxious charm. Doc is the humble, quiet man at the centre with the angel and devil on his shoulders: one with spiritual guidance and the other with unprompted honesty. What binds these men, and will become a large part of their journey, is compassion.

Their history is pulled out gradually from conversations on the road, which allows us to learn about their past and the people they once were. Part of this remains unsaid, which adds a fitting naturalism for these ex-military men.

Often they will repeat chants and phrases, though now with some detachment but still with a sense of nostalgia. They have become disillusioned to war but have a bond between them that runs deep despite their differences. Coming across military officials and young marines, they will critique and challenge now that they have the chance: a last ditch effort for some much needed catharsis.

Last Flag Flying is a little sickly and over the top, coming across contrived when pushing too hard or too often for laughter or tears. The principal cast are all playing parts that we have seen them in before, and it may be nothing new or surprising but their familiarity and chemistry make the film both funny and moving at times.

Broken Vows (2017)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News December 2017

Tara (Jamie Alexander) is on her bachelorette party when she catches the keen stare of a barman who insists they have a connection. Deciding to go back to his at the end of the night, she wakes to realise that this was a mistake: maybe the thought of her loving fiance back home, or more likely because the deranged one night stand has hand-washed her clothes and tattooed her name on his arm during the night.

Patrick, the easily infatuated barman, finds Tara’s phone in his house after she leaves. He uncovers the truth about her engagement and the wedding that is due to take place days from now. This does not appear to deter him though, as he uses information from her phone to find out where she lives and who she knows in order to find leverage to get them back together – nothing like a bit of classic romance.

Wes Bently so often plays dark and deranged characters that it suits him, but here his intensity comes out of nowhere. Patrick becomes obsessed with Tara in a matter of minutes, and even during this time he’s not treated particularly well. We learn a little about his past thanks to an unlikely PI but this raises many more questions. It’s hard to understand the motivation of anyone in the film. With strained dialogue and unnatural delivery, they never feel like real people.

Broken Vows harks back to 90s erotic thrillers but switches the gender of the adulterer and the stalker. It’s a classic ‘bunny boiler’ except it’s been put on a low heat so you’ll have to watch it gently simmer for the best part of an hour before anything thrillery happens. There are opportunities along the way, but they are lost to the momentum of an absurd story that could have been a lot more fun.