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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.

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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.

The Absent One (2016)

Written for RAF News April 2016

A young woman who has been missing for years may be the only key to solving a case that has long been buried. The Absent One is the second in a series of crime novel adaptations, and another in a long line of brutally uncompromising thrillers, to be exported from Denmark featuring rape, revenge and corruption at the core.

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The double homicide of twin siblings in 1994 resurfaces due to the victims’ father killing himself 20 years later. This is not long after he had warned the new police inspector of Department Q that all is not as it seems. With this death weighing down on his conscience the ever-serious Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) reopens the investigation despite already being swamped in unsolved murders, and despite the fact that someone had already confessed and served time for the murder in question.

The cold cases team consists of Syria born Assad, red-haired Rose – who is more of a silent guiding force than a secretary – and headed by the permanently furrowed brow of Carl Mørck, whose strong features and stoic attitude strangely enough reminds of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is late into the film before we are offered any insight into the character of Mørck, but it is done with great finesse and performed perfectly by Kaas, as we discover his drive to help those who need him.

The teams only lead is a call made by a young and petrified Kimmie Larson (Sarah-Sofie Boussnina) back in 1994, informing them of the murder in darkly cryptic poetry – they must find her and learn all that they can about this dark history, and about the company that she kept at her elite boarding school.

The Absent One is a detective story but told from all perspectives, jumping between the past and the present, which leaves the film intentionally disjointed.With its scarcely lit noir style the story feels familiar and yet these Nordic thrillers still find ways of pushing the envelope and creating uncomfortably dark scenes. These flourishes and the honed, sleek style don’t so much reinvent the genre but they keep it interesting.

The Ones Below

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

From the haunting lullaby that accompanies the opening image of a sonogram, there is an immediate sense of foreboding horror in The Ones Below, of something about to go wrong.

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The expecting couple are young professionals Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore), who up until now lived comfortably in the upper half of their London flat. Downstairs a new couple have moved in, a bubbly Finnish woman (Laura Birn) and her older, much less congenial husband Jon (David Morrissey). As luck would have it they have a child on the way too.

The soon-to-be mothers are drawn together initially but their differences soon come to light. Kate has doubts about motherhood that are not even comprehended by her desperately maternal neighbour. Theresa (her name even reminds of the renowned ‘Mother’) and Jon have always wanted to have children but it hasn’t been so easy for them. This is in stark contrast to Kate who wasn’t sure that she even wanted to have children, perhaps seeded in the frigid and distant relationship she has with her own mother. The ease with which she has fallen pregnant becomes a matter of discord as a sudden and dramatic turn of events sends the couples’ relationship spiralling into paranoid contempt.

When Kate eventually gives birth, her reluctance is challenged by the relentless demands of her young baby. She soon finds herself sleep-deprived and strung out, suspicious that the couple downstairs are interfering, but how much of this is in her head? While the more villainous qualities of certain characters is shown as schlocky and over-the-top, even for this style of film, it is the more subtle performance of Posey that grounds the horror and creates something interesting.

The Ones Below cleverly uses the divisive attitudes towards pregnancy as a means of finding tension and dividing lines. This is brought out in the way each character dresses, and the ways in which they decorate their apartments even. Where the more laid back and career focussed  young couple wear mostly monochrome, smart-casual attire, the ones below are splattered with bright garish colours, a quality which is unsettling, almost laughably so in the case of Jon, whose tall and imposing demeanour is undercut by his pink socks.

The on-the-nose title of David Farr’s directorial debut sounds like A Twilight Zone episode, which is rather fitting for this film which owes a debt to the twisty revenge thrillers of decades past, and not to mention Roman Polanski. Not simply Rosemary’s Baby, which is an undoubted influence, but the others in the Polish director’s Apartment trilogy, and his more recent adaptation Carnage, which examines the volatile dynamic of two middle-class couples as they fight over their children.

Although there are glimpses of these other films, The Ones Below lacks the potency to rival them and instead offers a cheap thriller that descends into pure absurdity. The final act is actually quite fun in the end but it comes at the expense of all seriousness up until this point.

Developments

So the little one has come a long way. I’m just trying to catch up now.

He finally has some teeth that he can use in conjunction with each other. He makes sounds that closely resemble ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ though they often veer off and are aimed at things that are certainly not us. He can wave, on occasion, mimic certain noises, crawl at high speeds, ‘cruises’ along furniture and feels the need to constantly be standing up, almost unaided.

He has full agency, which means that each day I return home the lounge has transformed a little: wires are tucked away, doors are baby-proofed, everything is higher up. He mounts, climbs, and hangs off of everything he can and so now we have to be that bit more vigilant. But you can’t be there all the time.. evidently.

Today, Jackson was sitting in his high-chair outside, on the uneven ground of the garden, when he leaned a tad too far and the whole thing tipped over. He fell, hitting his head on the ground and burst into open mouth sobs. I received a call at work from a Nicole fighting tears as she drove him to the hospital’s minor injury ward as recommended by the health visitor. His quiet sobs in the background actually reassured me that he was okay.

At my first baby party last weekend I met my first lot of parents and their children. I was able to observe, Attenborough-like, each little faction and how they operated. With some you could see the physical traits shared with their offspring. But gradually you could recognise the more complex relationships, how each parent reacted to their child and vice versa. I was a little nervous at first as I’m not au fait with baby protocol. I know that if your dog runs up and starts licking another dog-owner you trust that they will tell the dog to stop, or simply embrace and enjoy it. Does this apply to babies? Do you just let them roam about, climbing and chewing people in the hopes that they will laugh and peel them off? These are the dynamics that I need to familiarise myself with and so I became quietly observant and took a lot of mental notes.

One thing I noticed was how quick some parents were to swoop in and comfort their darlings at the first sign of discomfort. It was almost as though they pre-empted their unease, or perhaps on some level, I thought, created it – justified it. My laissez faire approach to Jackson falling over at my feet must have seemed like casual neglect as a nearby grandmother rushed to pick him up, and was stopped by me declaring him fine as he struggled to pick himself back up to carry on diving about the place.

Today I couldn’t quite get him to shake it off and get over it. I didn’t want to overreact but after some thought and persuasion I thought I should be there. When I saw him, with his bruised head and swollen eye, he started laughing, unfazed. Us humans are pretty resilient it turns out.

When I was a wee nipper myself, I had me an electric quadbike. My garden led to a back wall, and against this wall before we had a chance to plant sunflowers, the soil was left in such a way that it acted as a slope up to the vertical wall. I put my thumb down and revved up the garden, over the tile border, along the slope of soil and up the wall until the whole quad rolled backward and I split my head open on the tiles. Apparently my mother, hysterical, ran with me in her arms up and down the garden. But look at me now. Just fine, if maybe a little neglectful of my own child – but then maybe it was inherited.