Can I Be Me (2017)

From Kurt and Courtney to Biggie and Tupac, I find Nick Broomfield’s documentaries about musicians to be cold and removed from the artist. Maybe it’s his intention to focus on the death of a musician without muddling in their music or achievements, but it comes across as cynical and leery, in a tabloid journalism kind of way.

The Cobain documentary Montage of Heck and Nick Cave’s 20000 Days on Earth both took on the style of the artist they were exploring and added a dimension to their story that was both befitting and engaging. Asif Kapadia’s Amy was so invested in the talent of Amy Winehouse, it showed such reverence for her as a musician, that you believe the filmmaker experienced the tragedy. By comparison Can I Be Me is a fleshed out Daily Mail article, but with exclusive interview access and archive footage as opposed to just peering through the window of the crime scene.

Using these resources Nick Broomfield attempts to explore the complicated and conflicted life that led to Whitney Houston’s death in 2012.

Showing her humble beginnings singing in church as a child under mother Cissy Houston, we see the stunning talent and huge voice that Whitney possessed at such a young age. Arguably pushed by her mother, Whitney was then carefully moulded into an international megastar.

Coming from a rough neighbourhood in New Jersey it seemed that in order to market Whitney to a white audience her past was painted over. Her songs would be stripped of their soul – taking out any gospel or RnB that could be connected to her culture. Still she was the first black chart-topping popstar and it is perhaps because of this that she was seen as a sell-out to the black community at the time. Whitney’s moment of realisation came at the 1989 Soul Train awards, where she was nominated for an award but booed as soon as her name was announced. According to friends, Whitney was very sensitive and self-doubting and this seriously affected her, only to be made worse by her eventual husband Bobby Brown who she had in fact met at the same awards show – a bad omen overlooked perhaps.

Broomfield finds conflict in many areas of Whitney’s life that could all in some way be contributing factors to her eventual overdose. From her addiction to various substances but also those things in her life that drove her toward them: the way in which she had to compromise her talent and was rejected by the black community, her relationship with her husband and the breakdown of her relationship with close friend and rumoured partner Robyn.

In the brief window of home videos included in the film we get some idea of the real Whitney Houston off stage as fun and darkly funny. So when you see her appearances on talk shows, where she is more careful and considered in how she presents herself, she still appears earnest.Whilst the documentary tries to cover all of the conflicts present in Whitney’s life, it comes across highly speculative, and with so little time acknowledging her talent or achievements, quite cynical. It is the charm of Whitney Houston that carries some warmth in the film but ultimately underlines its tragedy.

Destination Unknown (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

Destination Unknown is documentary based around the personal accounts of Holocaust survivors, each telling their own stories of hope and hopelessness throughout the horrifying genocide.

The film opens on Edward Mosberg wearing his worn blue-striped uniform, saying that he didn’t like to talk much about his experience before, but now that he is older he wants to share.

This seems to be the sentiment carried by most, including Edward’s wife Cesia, who find it difficult to recall what they lived through because the memories remain fresh – permanent and in great detail. Some see it as an obligation to remember and to tell their story, others feel haunted everyday by things they wish they could forget but know they cannot.

We hear the extraordinary testimonies of people who were just children at the time, of how they came to be separated from their families and amazingly, in some cases, how they were reunited. We hear the moments in which they lose hope and give in, but also when they find hope again in the compassion of others.

Survivor Eli Zborowski tours us around the the secret rooms of the house in which he hid with his family. Built by a friend of his father’s in order to hide Jewish people and keep them from persecution, Eli describes him as an angel symbolising hope, not just for the moment but for humanity as a whole.

The film stitches together these unbelievable stories with archive footage and photographs of the survivors at the time. Some revisit the destroyed sites of the camps, instantly overcome with emotion – it is moments like this that show the torment that cannot even be communicated.

Just as some find it their duty to tell their story, it feels like our duty to listen and understand the tragedy that many people suffered, lived through and carry with them today.

 

 

After The Storm (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

After the death of his father, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) moves back home with his elderly mother to get things in order, finding that he doesn’t have much anymore. He doesn’t have enough money to pay child welfare for the son he rarely sees, to the ex-wife that he still loves but who has moved on without him.

The storm of the title could be the typhoon that is due to hit Tokyo anytime now – but it could also refer to the reckoning of Ryota at this moment in time. A once promising writer who has settled as a private investigator with a gambling problem, he isn’t the man he wanted to be. A deeply flawed character who has charm but is sad and saddening. His vulnerability is so great that at one point he asks a colleague to stop being so nice to him for fear that he might start crying.

In this family drama there is an authenticity to the everyday tragedy, to the realisation that things don’t always work out. That being said, the film does have a sense of humour, embodied perfectly by Ryota’s mother in a phenomenal performance by Kirin Kiki which gracefully moves from funny to poignant and back again.

After the Storm is meditative but not slow, full of neatly packaged details and symbols that add a poetic kind of depth to the characters and their relationships. Offering a sweet and unsensational slice of life that doesn’t try to dress anything up or tie it with a bow, it gives us something more realistic and soulful as result.

gaming the system

Terrible twos. A horrible throwaway term that encompasses a great many emotional developments. A shorthand between parents maybe, but still it stands in for something individual and a lot more complex.

A couple of the most recent Machiavellian flourishes that little Jtown has mastered in the last couple of weeks:

Playing hide and seek and, because I’m a pro, he goes looking for me for a little while. I watch as he runs into the living room, peers around the usual places (like I said, professional) and then calls out “Daddy! You my best friend”. I die a little in silence, long enough though to see him turn around a look for movement before trying it in another room, bating me to react.

Or more recently, Nico was giving Jackson a time-out. Pretty upset by the ordeal he brilliantly found a way to distract her from the process and asked “You love me?” and then cuddled her when she said yes. Now maybe he was just looking for assurance while being told off, I wasn’t even there – but I can imagine his demonic smile over her shoulder as she comforts him.

Cleverclever.

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo (2017)

Written for RAF News April 2017

Hot on the heels of Hidden Figures, the oscar-nominated film about the overlooked African-American women working at NASA in the 60s, comes this documentary, shedding more light on the inner workings of Mission Control and the crew behind the Apollo space missions.

Granted it pulls the spotlight back to the roomful of white men, but the film is quick to explain that this was simply the case back then, that progression has been made since. Courtenay McMillan and Ginger Kerrick are Flight Directors at NASA who are aware of the classic image that comes with the profession: “you know, the guy with the vest and the buzzcut”.

Mission Control is about those guys with buzzcuts, narrated by a number of the crew who were working in Mission Control over the course of many of the Apollo missions. It combines talking head interviews with special effects used to visualise the events described. There is also a great supply of archive material with some of those featured, throwing you back in time into the smokey room filled with people wearing headsets and horn-rimmed glasses, puffing on cigars and staring intensely into their monitors.

We are given a tour of the room as it was through footage filmed for television at the time, something in line with Jackie Kennedy’s tour of the White House, as we are shown the computing systems of the ‘trenches’ and the roles of each person. This is before we see the room alive with the tension of maintaining various Apollo missions and keeping astronauts alive in the face of new problems.

From the catastrophic Apollo 1 to the magnitude of Apollo 11, we experience the extreme highs and lows of the engineers responsible, whilst reliving the moment with them. They provide insight as to how things went wrong and the burden they would have to carry, as well as the stress and stench that permeated that room.

Another interesting insight behind the scenes of the space missions that carries just as much drama as the glossy blockbusters made in their name.

Neruda (2017)

Written for RAF News May 2017

Pablo Neruda was a poet and a politician, a Communist senator who was forced to go on the run when the Chilean president banned the party, despite having helped to elect him to power after the Second World War. With 300 police deployed for his capture, headed by the laughable Prefect Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), Neruda (Luis Gnecco) becomes fixated on this pursuit and longs for it to be a great ‘wild hunt’.

Pablo Larraín’s Neruda can be paired with his recent American debut Jackie: both focusing on a singular historical event and the fallout there surrounding. Where they differ is that Jackie appears painstakingly researched and replicated on screen, where Neruda employs artistic licence to blur the line between fact and fiction, doing so with tongue in cheek. Where Jackie is austere and solemn, Neruda is knowing and playful.

Following the poet’s fondness for pulp detective novels, the film takes on the look and feel of a noir cat-and-mouse chase. In this way it seems Neruda is taking charge of his own story. Adopting the lyricism of its subject, the film gifts itself an ability to constantly reframe scenes with a taste for the theatrical. Conversations between characters will suddenly be transported to a different location with a different angle and dramatic lighting cues, with silhouettes and voice-over reinforcing the style.

Neruda‘s artificiality doesn’t detract from it’s beauty, it frames it with intention. In it’s simple little flourishes it is humorous, peculiar and utterly cinematic.