Pockets

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So nimble fingered is the child now that he can stow things away in his pockets. Up until this point, the pockets on his trousers were akin to the belly button on Adam – purely aesthetic, to make him blend in with the rest of us, to pretend he’s just like the rest of us. And now he is: collecting things he doesn’t need.

Two Women (2016)

Written for RAF News September 2016

Set in mid-19th century Russia, Two Women is focussed on the social fallout when a young tutor moves into a countryside estate only to steal the affection of both the wife and adopted daughter in residence.

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The harsh and hardened lady of the manor, Natalia Petrovna (Anna Astrkhantseva), has grown complacent, her eye drifting from her wealthy husband to her hopelessly-besotted friend Mikhail (Ralph Fiennes) and now to new arrival (Nikita Volkov) even though he himself seems distracted by young free spirited Vera (Anna Levanova).

Adapted from Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the CountryTwo Women is presented rather as two days. The first painted white and gold, every scene sun-kissed and glowing as the children play together and the adults fawn over each other. Then, in another move of unsubtle symbolism, the second day is met with torrential downpour, taking with it those promising emotions and complicating the relationships within the house.

Over the course of the film different pairings of characters walk around the luscious surroundings of this country home confessing their feelings for each other. Despite the large open spaces that they so often meander through, most are caged by repressed desires and how they ought to behave.

Two Women is a slow-burn that deals in subtlety, but in the hands of these performers small moments become something much larger. Fiennes is masterful at this, stealing focus when simply reacting. Although given that he had learnt the lines in Russian to be overdubbed this is all we are left with. Astrkhantseva gives a solid performance as Natalya, the perfect counterpoint to Vera, the other woman titled in the film though treated as a child. She is naive and vulnerable, spending most of the time running from something or other – which is pointed out as being rather improper.

Apart from a couple of quips made by the visiting doctor, each scene is treated as a rather sober affair, drifting apparently from the comedy in the original text. As if constrained by the same formality of its characters, Two Women moves slowly but deliberately. It relies on the performances to keep your attention, and this it manages to do but it sure does take itself seriously.

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Fast approaching two years of age (24 months in parentspeak) we received a form that allows the men in white coats to track the boy’s development. Of course we treated the questionnaire competitively and were almost gloating when he would over-achieve a particular goal.

Can he name 4 parts of his body?

Four?! Hows about: shoulder, elbow, eyebrow and thigh. Do one bell curve.

Then of course we were met by some that he hadn’t quite achieved, or we hadn’t even thought to put in practice. And these were, as it turns out, quite huge – maybe even fundamental developments.

Does he refer to himself as I/Me?

Shit. We’ve raised a psychopath. Or a guru – referring to himself in third person like our own little Mike Tyson.

Mulling this over these last few weeks it seems to be a lot more complex than I first thought. How do you teach someone perspective without your own interfering. You refer to yourself as ‘I/me’, and somehow he is supposed to pick up on the fact that he should refer to you as ‘you’ and himself as ‘I/me’. It’s baffling really. I don’t know I manage, let alone teach it on.

I realise more and more the linguistic tricks I take for advantage. The synonyms, homonyms and word games of everyday. Somehow the little one has picked up on the fact that people share names, a la Nanny and Grandad. And I’m certain that he understands both two and too (meaning ‘as well’). He has a fluidity in language and isn’t hung up on a word meaning one thing and one thing only. His sole principle is to communicate something, not dressing it up and following grammatical rules, and yet he seems to have formed an understanding of the rhythm of language that he hears from others.

At this point in time he is forming 4-5 word sentences, if the words are crucial. If he only needs two words to communicate what he wants, he will often fluff up the sentence with some gibberish – knowing that when we talk there is more going on and so offering some noise as filler. I guess that is what we do on some level.

If he were to say ‘Fly gone window’ I know exactly what he is saying. But in mimicking the manner in which we speak, he protracts the sentence unnecessarily to ‘Fly baderrrra ferrba daaferr gone window’. As if we wouldn’t pick up on the nonsense sandwiched in-between. Or maybe he’s mocking our needless waste of breath, satirising us – the little fucker.

At least I can speak in first person.

Do you think you and I are saints? An Interview with Cristiana Dell’Anna: Gomorrah Season 2

Written for Film and TV Now Aug 2016 (Available here)

With Gomorrah’s second season finally upon us, and with the Savastano clan in disrepair, the criminal empire of Naples is changing hands and making way for new faces. We will come to know fringe characters in more depth and be introduced to the relatives and relations of those we are acquainted with already.

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Expanding the universe of this Neapolitan underworld, the second series has many more female characters central to the story but don’t expect it too be any softer. “Women are portrayed just like men: brutally ruthless!” explains Cristiana Dell’Anna, one of the newer cast members who I was able to ask a few questions recently, about this series and the morally complicated character she plays in the show.

There were few female characters introduced in the first series and though most were voiceless trophies of their criminal partners, one of the most interesting breaks from stereotype was Lady Imma, the wife of Don Pietro Savastano. As captured in a decadent family oil painting, she stood beside her husband and supported him in his reign, but once imprisoned it was Genny – their spoilt and somewhat naive son – that was going to take over the clan. This was when Lady Imma started playing the game, a pretender to the throne herself she began to give orders as though from Pietro, preventing a takeover by Ciro and toughening up her son so that he was ready to fill the role of his father.

At the end of season 1 Lady Imma was killed, her death ordered by Ciro ‘The Immortal’ – whom she had always been suspicious of. Call it women’s intuition. This left a void of powerful female characters in Gomorrah, one that would soon be filled, and many times over.

When Don Salvator Conte returns to his hometown, the remaining members of the Savastano clan, the survivors, come together to form a mutually beneficial democracy: The Alliance. One such member is Scianel, sister of Zecchinetta who was the first to be killed by the alley kids, in what would be a rise of reactionary chaos. No stranger to this game, Scianel is hardened, an intimidating presence who seems to be permanently repressing rage. We will come to know Scianel through visits to her son in prison, with a reluctant daughter-in-law that she practically holds captive in a neighbouring room, as well as her frequent visits to a clothing store.

It is here that we first meet Patrizia. A clerk and personal shopper for Scianel who knows to be respectful and stay in favour. As it turns out she has her own ties to the underground – “Patrizia happens to be born in the wrong family. She is the niece of Don Pietro’s right hand, Malammore, who recruits her to work for the Savastano clan, giving her no choice” Cristiana explains. Patrizia is perhaps the closest we have to an audience surrogate, she has a life independent of the crime syndicate and she is reluctant when her uncle finds her a job as the eyes and ears for Don Pietro. As with most, money holds some allure but Patrizia’s motivation seems a little more unclear, perhaps through her connections she knows that there is no point fighting, that her fate has been decided.

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Gomorrah has a whiplash inducing pace, jumping forward through time characters will change suddenly, their loyalties will shift along with their manner and demeanour. In the case of Patrizia, we are able to see a more gradual change as the dark side of the city will get it’s hooks in her and reveal what she is capable of. Cristiana continues, “She is brave and very intelligent, and will soon find out she has the skills to become a dangerous criminal, capable of scheming and ready to betray her own blood.”

One of the shows defining features is its relentless brutality. No-one is safe from the horrors of mindless violence and no time is spared to mourn. There is a moral dividing line that separates those involved from those on the outside, but this line is blurred in the case of Patrizia. I asked Cristiana if it is difficult to get into the mind of someone morally questionable – “Do you think you and I are saints? would you say you are unquestionably good? Or am I? All the time, unconditionally? Of course not!” Explaining that her process is intimately personal, and delicate, it is this grounding of the darkness in all of us that seems to come out in the complex inner-workings of Patrizia. The religious comparison is fitting, considering the ubiquity of Christianity in Naples and the hypocrisy that it is constantly highlighting.

The gritty unforgiving world of Gomorrah is based in reality, adapted from the expose of the same name and written for the screen by its author Robert Saviano. It was this renowned book that Cristiana returned to for her research but also the memories and stories that she would hear about crime in Naples when she was younger. But it still goes on today and Saviano has spent years since the books release under protection. It is this pervasive element of the crime syndicate in Naples that is captured so well in Gomorrah, the threat is so inescapable and unpredictable that the tension never lets up.

Cristiana acknowledges that the story is the most important part of the show and that the characters are servants to the narration. “The real protagonist in both seasons is ‘the system’. The cruelty of the system, how spread around the world it is. How unaware of this power we all are.” Asked about the future of Patrizia, Cristiana references this cruel and volatile system “I will be there. But you know, I could be shot in the first episode… who knows!”

The first and second season of Gomorrah are available on Blu-Ray and DVD now and plans for the third and fourth seasons have already been set in motion.

Gomorrah: Season 2

Written for Film and TV Now July 2016 (Available here)

Now that you’ve finally caught your breath after its intense first series, the brutal Italian crime drama Gomorrah is back where it left off, plunging deeper into the darkness of the Comorra drug wars.

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By the final episodes Ciro Di Marzio (Marco D’Amore) – the closest we have to a protagonist but one that we must keep at arms length for fear that he might betray us – had tipped of the police to have Don Pietro (Fortunato Cerlino) incarcerated, ordered the death of his wife and shot his son in the face. This climactic finale would seem to mark the end of the Savastano clan and the beginning of a new era, but with Pietro escaping prison and son Genny (Salvatore Esposito) showing signs of life, we don’t think for a second that it will end happily ever after. (more…)

the greatest pretence

Being a parent has thrown me through a number of existentialist ponderings.

All it takes is to recognise a small gesture or expression in the little one to make me realise that parts of my personality are merely biological quirks. I see the science-fiction philosophies of clones and time-travel bubble up in this version of me. Blended with another variable (she prefers Nicole) and placed into different circumstances, I realise that as much as I like to think that I am the thoughts behind my eyes, I am the product of my genetic make-up, and by extension so are these thoughts. From this crumbling perspective I watch as this 2ft replicant finds his own voice – both literally and figuratively.

I got to a point a couple of years ago when I started taking life seriously, acting more serious, pulling the appropriate serious faces and everything else it tells you in the pamphlet. I’m handed a child by fate (she prefers Nicole) and am expected to impart what little I think I know into this human child.

Hurled into the deep end and held under for a few seconds just so I know whose boss, I kick into gear and generate enough power to keep afloat. And then remembering I’m a legal guardian I kick a little harder for the extra weight and pretend I know what I’m doing – which from a distance can look like lot like flailing. Aerobic drowning maybe.

But that’s one lesson you pick up pretty early – everyone is pretending. As I heard one mother put it recently ‘life is the greatest pretence’. You pretend until you get a steadyfooting, before you`re hopscotching your way to the next thing, off balance but straightfaced and faking confidence until it becomes real confidence. The two actually aren’t that far apart.

Up until this point I had liked to think myself lucky for the temperament and general charm of the little one. Although quietly and in the privacy of my own mind I’m sure I put it down to a natural flair for parenting. Well that’s being tested now and I’m fast blaming the generic biological functions that all babies go through rather than my own shortcomings. Still, I’m not going to use the responsibility-relieving mantra ‘terrible twos’ – but it does seem awful convenientlike that on the brink of turning two he has started to test his boundaries and punch his keyworkers.

Now is the point where we impose boundaries and the proper way to be. Whilst I’m still naively challenging the status quo and questioning the system, I’m having to teach that self same system and impose it’s rules and regulations. It’s quite baffling really. I celebrate the little clone’s lack of inhibition and yet impinge on it with indoor voices and sensible attire. And who am I to say that his keyworker wasn’t asking for it.

The Neon Demon (2016)

Are you sex or food? She’s dessert…. Because she’s so sweet.

In the claws-out fashion world of LA, green eyes and plastic smiles twist compliments into daggers. It seems there are no friends among rivals.

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Jesse (Elle Fanning) is the new girl in town. At 16 years old  – 19 if anyone asks – her innocence will prove to be that thing that everyone hungers for, but her quick progression will seed a poisonous vanity and make enemies of other models. Sarah and Gigi are veterans of the catwalk, and resentfully so. They show a relentless competitive streak and willingness to cut and stitch themselves into perfection. They are introduced to Jesse by make-up artist and mortician Ruby who seems just as obsessed with Jesse’s appearance as the camera.

In Refn favourite La Dolce Vita a swarm of paparazzo scurry and scramble over each other to get photographs of female stars. Like mosquitoes they are a persistent nuisance but no real threat – the women have power and an industry has been built around their sexuality. This is also true of The Neon Demon but on the surface it looks just the opposite, with girls clawing and clamoring to get in front of the camera and be noticed.

The male presence in the film is concentrated down to a few peripheral misogynists who seem to possess power no matter where they fall on the scale – from photographer and collection designer to motel manager. They speak very seldom but when they do they give orders. Enamored by Jesse’s natural beauty, you realise that her uncorrupt innocence is interchangeable with naivete and youthfulness, or perhaps even virginity. This infantilisation offers a stark satire of the fashion industry but it is not so far from the truth. Glammed up and glossed over it is the commodification of something lurid that exits in the underbelly of society too – ‘real Lolita shit’ says the motel manager of a 13 year old you can pay to fuck in a room neighbouring Jesse’s.

Whilst the film appears to be about girls, divorced from Refn’s sexualised male fantasy in Drive and Freudian complex in Only God Forgives, his few male characters signify authority and force the girls to compete in creating something like the ‘anti-female friendship’ film. They fight each other to have the opportunity to be exploited and objectified – which seems to be self-reflexive of the film. Refn’s male gaze is often felt behind the camera, at one point actually taking the point-of-view of an attacker, and when the film nose dives into exploitation in the third act it takes on the same predatory voyeurism, which is all part of its charm.

The final moments of the film could be seen as a comical misreading of the expression that escapes all involved in this industry – beauty is in the eye of the beholder.