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Calm with Horses (2020)

Written for RAF News March 2020

Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) is the muscle for a criminal family and father to an autistic son (Kiljan Moroney) – physically intimidating yet a sensitive soul – so when he is instructed to kill someone both his morals and loyalty are tested.

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With a largely silent character capable of extreme violence at the centre, and cut to a dreamlike score, there is the feel of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. But the Los Angeles veneer and stylism is scratched away to reveal something rougher and grittier. Filmed on the West coast of Ireland, it holds onto the intimacy of its rural setting but brings out the desolation.

This place is populated by lowly thugs and drug-dealers run by the Devers clan. Connected through his manipulating ‘friend’ Dympna (Barry Keoghan), the mouthy nephew of the family, Arm has been adopted as their trusty pit-bull to carry out the dirty work. An ex-boxer who has perhaps taken too many hits to the head, he does as he is told.

There is a brutal darkness that sits behind the story, propelling it forward, but also a sensitivity taking shape in Arm’s moral crisis. Adapted from a short story the film expands the relationship between Arm, his ex-girlfriend and their son whose special needs have them looking at specialist schools across the country.

Cosmo Jarvis is captivating in this role, playing the simple brute with such restraint through his squinting eyes and tightly drawn mouth that he looks visibly constrained, torn apart by inner conflict.  He seldom speaks, but when he does, he does so softly with a sibilating lisp that is perhaps an indicator of his gentler nature, buried beneath his constructed masculine identity.

This debut feature from Nick Rowland is confident and accomplished. There are moments of well orchestrated action and tension building, but the most interesting scenes are those smaller exchanges that bring out the humanity of characters caught in the crossfire.

Little Joe (2020)

Written for RAF News February 2020

Renegade botanist Alice (Emily Beecham) cuts some corners when engineering a strain of ‘happy plant’, a small household Lorax tree that is said to have an anti-depressant affect on humans. This may be the intention, but it is not quite the result.

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Before it can be properly tested, under pressure to have the species ready for the science fair, it’s production is rolled out en masse in the lab, not before she nabs one for her teenage son Joe (Kit Connor), whom she will name the plant after.

Alice has a testing relationship with her son, a single-mother dedicating most of her time to work, she seems to reserve her motherly qualities for her plant life. Meanwhile Joe is at that point of puberty in which he is throwing caution to the wind in pursuit of a girl.

The subtext here on the nature of mothering, the difficulties of attachment with a child who is becoming an individual, is established loud and clear, much like the more horror-like elements of the film. It has all the makings of a Twilight Zone or Black Mirror episode but filled out with unnecessary B movie exposition. Although the film communicates a lot visually, the menace of the writhing plants, the transformative power of it’s pollen, it is all made explicit in dialogue after the fact.

Despite it’s alluring aesthetic, with a prominent colour palette and minimal design, this Little Joe of Horrors has all the baggy technical parts of a science-fiction thriller and lacks the pay off. It begins with a sense of unease, but then it doesn’t give the audience a chance to think for themselves, to guess at what might be happening, or to even be confused – it explains everything, twice.

A Hidden Life (2020)

Written for RAF News December 2019

Terence Malick returns to the subject of the Second World War, this time using his philosophically meandering style to focus on one man’s resistance in a small mountain town in Austria.

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Malick’s films have become rather divisive since his foray into the more heady and artistic beginning with Tree of Life at the start of the decade. Using a combination of grand sweeping shots of stunning landscapes, and macro observations of intimate detail, he creates a poetic lament on lofty subjects such as the nature of existence, usually through the lens of Christian morality.

A Hidden Life fits perfectly into this mould, observing Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) with his family, the simple pleasures of harvesting crops and playing with his children. This mountain life will soon be disrupted by the growing Nazi invasion as it demands support and allegiance – requiring everyone in town to contribute toward the cause and swear an oath to Adolph Hitler.

Franz’s act of defiance will set him on course for execution, and so he must consider the morality of his actions, weighing the impact on his conscience against the consequences to his family. A question is being asked of the audience, not so subtly mind, of what it means to believe in something and to stand up for it at whatever cost.

The slow pace and long shots ground the characters, so that without dialogue you feel as though you understand the complex emotions. The reflective nature of the film works to have you contemplate the ideas that are being presented, but this pretty much instructed almost instructed by the whispered narration of characters thoughts, another Malick staple, that could be distractingly heavy handed if it weren’t the only element breaking the repetition.

There are moments of observed beauty and connection, but within a much longer and perhaps intentionally simple film, with a 3 hour running time, the point is somehow both lost and overstated.

Dying Laughing (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

It seems a simple formula for success to make a documentary about stand up when you can have it narrated by a huge line up of professional funny people.

Dying Laughing resists the urge to play any footage of stand up and instead shows a number of talking head interviews with the odd cutaway for flavour, talking about stand up. Bagging big names from both sides of the pond such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock to Eddie Izzard and Steve Coogan, the film dives into the life of a comedian, covering the neuroses and narcissism.

When pressed to explain what makes stand up so special it can’t help but come across pretentious, and the fact that the talking heads are shot in black and white really doesn’t help. As Sean Lock puts it: “the danger of talking about it is you sound like a wanker”. But it is moments of self-awareness and derision like this that bring the comedy back.

It looks at all the elements of being a stand-up comedian from note-taking and joke writing to working the crowd and dealing with hecklers. They talk about ‘the road’, travelling from show to show between run down hotels and comedy clubs with nowhere to go and no-one to be with, the loneliness, the depression; the humiliation of bombing, the elation of killing.

The film purposefully orders accounts of bombing on stage, of being booed or just ignored. One comic compares it to falling that doesn’t end when you come off stage, another describes it as being slapped by your dad at a barbecue: there is no shortage of analogies throughout the film. One comic retells a clearly haunting memory of being humiliated on stage and seems so shaken by the event still that you can’t understand why people would do this to themselves.

But then we hear accounts of what it’s like to make a room of people laugh, and it is described with a knowing sense that you wouldn’t ever understand unless you experience it for yourself, like explaining a drug, and by the sounds comedy is addictive and will have you risk everything for it.

In the end, the sheer number of comedians interviewed begins to eat its own tale as its the most soundbitable clips that lead into the next that make it in. This leads to many broad pithy comments, occasional written anecdotes, but some moments of pure gold where you see the comic brain at work in the moment, off the cuff.

Gleason (2017)

Written for RAF News March 2017

When NFL linebacker Steve Gleason was diagnosed with ALS, the motor-neurone disease that has a life expectancy of 2-5 years, his wife Michel had just fallen pregnant. This was when Steve began keeping video diaries with the intention of sharing them with his son, should he not be around at the time of his birth.

This is how we are first introduced to Steve, talking to camera and delivering a message to his unborn child. This is a tragic premise for a documentary and one that seems unfairly saddening, but there is a lot more to it. Rather than provide a glossy overview in these diaries he attempts to delve into the reality of life, including talks of anxiety, divorce and therapy.

Clearly someone who thrives from being active and conquering his fears, Steve is determined to stay fighting while he is able, and even once he becomes near paralysed, he keeps fighting still. In fact Steve sets up the charity Team Gleason whose tag-line is ‘No White Flags’, providing aid to those who share his diagnosis, and helping to pursue their dreams and adventures in spite of their condition.

What might seem at first to be a documentary with the spirit of Americana, courage and positivity winning the battle, is quickly dispelled by the reality that is captured on camera. We see how Steve gets caught up in his charity work and neglects Michel, how he is attempting to have an honest relationship with his own son because he feels distant from his own father, a ‘wacky fundamental’ Christian who quotes scripture and always has a Bible on hand. There is one hard-to-watch scene that takes place in a faith-healing church that ignites the fear in everyone.

These conflicts are all set against the back drop of Steve losing his ability to function physically and the looming threat of death. Often the footage cuts through time, noticeable through the physical transformation of Steve. Needless to add that this documentary is deeply personal and emotional, and yet it is balanced in part by the humour of Steve and Michel. Gleason is an inspirational documentary, but not in the way you would expect.

Adult Life Skills (2016)

Written for RAF News April 2016

Stitched together from parts of writer director Rachel Tunnard’s life, save for the serious parts, Adult Life Skills is a piece of handcrafted whimsy that has heart and a whole lot of gags – that most of them don’t land doesn’t detract from its Northern charm.

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This low budget English film follows Anna (Jodie Whittaker) on the brink of turning thirty but still living at home with her mum (Lorraine Ashbourne), well almost – living in a shed at the bottom of the garden. This is her hideaway, adorned with pun-based signage (Right Shed Fred, Shed Zeppelin) and pictures of Patrick Swayze, where she makes internet videos of her thumbs for no-one but herself.

From her bobble-hat, bmx and back-pack it is clear that Anna is stuck in adolescence. She longs for the company of her deceased twin brother, and refuses to take life seriously without him. Anna remains a lonesome teenager and it is only when an old school friend (Rachael Deering) comes to visit, and as she spends more time with an outcast neighbourhood kid with an equalled sense of alienation (newcomer Ozzy Myers), that the full extent of her grief comes into focus.

Beneath her quirks Anna is shown to be stubborn, defensive and full of rage, which is well captured by Whittaker. The film comes off as a bit too cute and reaches too far for it’s dramatic moments- it is only in the fleeting moments with over-looked love interest, the soft-voiced but definitely not gay Brendan (Brett Goldstein), that the awkward comedy works. The funniest back and forth though, occurs between the crudely penned faces on Anna’s thumbs.

Adult Life Skills has charm but it feels empty and unrealistic, like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl but hollow and without the pathos. It employs the same staples of the indie-twee and ends up as nothing special, but it’s hard to dislike – a low budget effort from some female voices that deserves to be supported.

One thumb up, and the other eternally depressed.