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.

Marilyn

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Dancing in ankle-high mud with only a book to shield me from the rain, I am joyful and careless, surrounded by friends at some sort of music festival where I feel a sense of belonging. I stroll straight from this scene into my conveniently nearby home, the sprawling party outside could very well be in my garden.

Up the stairs and into my room an almost naked Marilyn Manson calls me over and points to some books on the shelves over my bed. He pulls out one covered with satanic symbols, turns to a page and finds what he was looking for, an intricately illustrated demonic figure. He points to the page and then to the space above his heart, and then to that self-same space on my chest.

Marilyn puts an arm around me, cradling my head with his chest and we lay back on my bed as his tattooist emerges from the corner with the loudly buzzing gun in one of his black latex gloves. He copies the image directly onto Marilyn, before me. It feels extremely sexual – I am uncomfortable and uncertain about what follows, but dismiss these feelings thinking that either way it’s pretty cool.

On the drive back from this festival a sudden commotion is diagnosed as the result of a flat tyre. We hop out and examine the damage.

… All of this I tell Noah as we drive to work. I have forced him out of bed very early to accompany me on my drive to work so that he can take the car back for me. A real beauty who would jump at the chance to play in someone else’s car.

I reward his kindness by telling him of the bizarre dreamworld I had inhabited moments earlier. This unsolicited monologue ends just as there is a loud crash and jolt, and the sound of metal grinding on concrete as we start to lop to one side. The giant pothole that I had not seen until too late has torn my tyre apart.

A few days later I wake to see a message from Noah at 2.30am, he is stranded on the way back from work. Two nails have puncture his tyre. The very next evening, at 1am, my colleague messages to say that she is stuck on the side of a road with a flat tyre.

A spooky coincidence that we all drive on the same fucking poorly maintained roads. I should start hovering.

The Lighthouse (2020)

Written for RAF News January 2020

A late-nineteenth century ghost story set in a lighthouse in New England. A weathered keeper and his freshly imported assistant divide the duties, with young Winslow (Robert Pattinson) taking the more gruelling and physically demanding jobs, whilst Wake (Willem Dafoe) looks after the light itself, guarding it with almost religious fervour. Stuck with only each other, as a storm prevents them from leaving, what begins as minor grievances will grow into cut-throat resentments as the isolation tares at their sanity.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse (2019)

There is a mythic energy expressed though stark and sometimes surreal imagery as well as ornate language straight from the writings of Melville and Milton. These two masculine figures, young and old, are left to stew in a steaming froth of bitterness and paranoia, bubbling out into Shakespearian soliloquies with biblical wrath. Dafoe delights in the extremes of his character, filled with both humour and fury. Pattinson’s anger will spill out also, squirming under the regime of the man who controls his pay.

Shot in black and white, through lenses a century old, the square aspect ratio is tall enough to capture the phallic lighthouse in all its glory, and creating mountains of Pattinson and Defoe’s faces: hairy, crusty and carved with age. With the image boxed in, the claustrophobia is transferred straight to the audience and you can almost smell the salt and damp.

This is no ordinary film, it is a fever dream of symbolism and dark poetry, of seagulls and sirens. It is both artistic and crass, exhibiting all manner of bodily fluids as the two keepers drunkenly spiral into madness. Cowritten and directed by Robbert Eggers, whose debut The Witch had a similar affection for period detail and dialogue, The Lighthouse is another plunge into the same waters, only deeper and darker with less to hold on to.

Jojo Rabbit (2020)

Written for RAF News January 2020

A coming of age story set in the waning years of rule in Nazi Germany, Jojo Rabbit follows young Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) and the relationships with his rebellious mother, the young Jewish girl hiding in the attic and his invisible friend and motivating confidant, Adolf Hitler.

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There are certainly moments of darkness in the film, the true horror of the situation can’t help but push through the playfully subversive tone, but for the most part it plays as a cross between Moonrise Kingdom and Drop Dead Fred. The comedy is constant, propelled with flare by writer director Taika Watiti himself as Jojo’s goofily imagined version of Hitler, offering encouragement when he has no-one else.

Living at home with his mother (Scarlett Johansson), Johannes wants to belong to something and so becomes a fervant fanboy of the Nazi party – Hitler and swastikas adorn his wall like band posters. A member of a Nazi youth camp, headed by a literally and figuratively resigned Captain Klenzendorf (excellently played by Sam Rockwell), here he will learn how to hunt Jews and use explosives. That is until an accident has him thrown out, reduced to a position that has him spending more time at home where he makes the ideology shattering discovery that his mother is hiding the enemy (Thomasin McKenzie).

Led by his ardent but naive enthusiasm, Jojo knows that he can’t risk endangering his mother, and so decides to interrogate the intruder and learn all that he can about the Jews, how they have tails and sleep upside down like bats.

Although there is a deep and truthful resonance with how Nazi propaganda dehumanised Jewish people, the film cleverly refocusses this mythology to be spouted by a prepubescent boy, mocking the absurdity of it all and usurping the power of these historical villains.

Waititi is continuing a precedent set by Charlie Chaplin almost a century ago when making The Great Dictator, stating that “Hitler must be laughed at”.

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.

Rotten

I was up early yesterday taking the boy to school, and getting myself over to the polling station before work. A long day that ended in bed watching the live election results until the early hours.

I woke up at 3.45am in excruciating pain, feeling as  though something were trapped between my teeth cutting into my mouth. My television remained dimly and audibly insistent at the foot of my bed, respectable journalists walking over giant colour coded maps, gesturing to an enormous digitised swingometer.

I stand in front of the mirror outside of my bedroom in this haze poking, proding and flossing in an effort to clear the invisible dagger that torments me. It sounds as though the exit polls were right and there’s a large Conservative majority. I stop and just look into my mouth and see there is nothing there, except for the fact that my back molar along the bottom of my jaw is missing a corner. This had to have been gradual but I’m only noticing now, part of my tooth has rotted away and is leaving exposed a part of my gum, a blackened crevice tucked out of sight

Nothing I can do about it now. I throw the floss away, turn the television off and try to get back to sleep.

Mans

I had a few hours to kill yesterday morning, and although I knew it wouldn’t be for me, I had heard only good things about Le Mans 66. I will spoil it, or try my best at least.

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I am not a car person. More a snowflake beta-cuck than a mans man. I picked my car up from a service last week and when the cost was 4 times what I had expected, I skimmed the list of parts and services, acted like I knew what what they were and just handed over the money. I feel threatened by people who know what they are talking about and feel there is some expectation that I should too.

Man and Machine

The relationship between men and cars is a strange one. There seems to be some disjunct between humans and technology as expressed in the film. Henry Ford II creates cars on a mass scale, factory lines of machines all making the same product. Ferrari is idolised for it’s sports car, we are told looking around the factory that each part is hand-made, which makes it that much more intimate – there is more of a craft, a relationship between man and machine.

When Ford initially try to produce a sports car in competition, they load it with data logging machines and sensors that apparently can’t detect the problems that are picked up by it’s very human driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). He makes a claim that disputes the robot, rips it out and makes his point by sticking wool to the outside of the car. He is the motor-whisperer. He uses a female pronoun when talking about the car, and it feels genuinely more sensual than possessive. He has tapped into its potential, he knows that she wants to go faster. It honestly sounds like he wants to fuck it.

Precious Egos

Story goes: Ford try to make a deal with Ferrari, but are used and then insulted. Italian grandfather-figure Enzo Ferrari sends a message to Henry Ford II that he is fat and that his wife is a whore. This is motivating factor for Ford to want to win the prestigious 24 hour race in Le Mans, almost foaming at the mouth when he says that he wants to win.

They employ previous winner and driving celebrity Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to manufacture the car, and he in turn hires the emotionally volatile Ken Miles as driver, to talk to the car, grease her up and find out her secrets.

The film opens with Matt Damon waxing spiritual in voice-over about the point at which a driver experiences transcendence, apparently around 7000 RPM (which to me feels just as arbitrary as Doc Brown’s 88mph). At this point apparently, the car ceases to be and the man is just floating in space. Or something to that affect. It sounded like a float tank.

Religious Masculinity

Ken’s wife is introduced in the film playfully roleplaying as a stranger at his garage, knowledgable about cars and turned on by the whole culture. They have a son (Noah Jupe), with whom Ken talks about cars mostly, they sit beneath the stars pondering the existence of the ‘perfect lap’. Young Peter plays with Scalextric, has model cars around his room and later his father’s trophies under his bed – the ultimate phallic prize for winning this manly competition of racing.

This 12 year old becomes my surrogate as he crudely sketches out the course of Le Mans and has his dad trace over each turn in the road explaining his method. In any other film I would feel patronised, here this is my lifeline. The connection between father and son through cars feels quasi-spiritual, this scene feeling similar to Four Lions when the father tries to explain martyrdom to his son through the analogy of The Lion King.

Any scene where I’m left alone with the grown ups makes me feel lost. They talk about parts and models, they make quips that make the men in the audience chuckle. When things get technical, I imagine those in the know, the manliest of men, are hypnotised with desire. The first 2 hours of the film felt like a segment from Strickland’s In Fabric.

The actual race in the last half-hour I did really enjoy. After Le Mans, we watch Ken get into a fatal accident and then skip ahead to Shelby visiting his family. He takes with him a symbolic gift: the wrench that Ken had thrown at him before winning a race. Before handing down this phallic baton, he explains in the most masculine of ways, that it is more consoling than words, it is a tool that can fix things.

Vroom Vroom

The sound of the engines roaring are a constant throughout the film. They hum and vibrate with varying intensity, growing with the tension of each race, effectively working just like the score.

More than this though, at one point the noise is used as a practical tool. A slimy executive is locked in a glass walled office and his shouts are drowned out by the revving of an engine.

In the final moment of the film, as Shelby returns to his car after giving the wrench to Ken’s son, he is still for a moment and tears form in his eyes. As one falls down his cheek, there is the abrupt grief-cancelling noise of the engine, as he wipes away his sadness, drops his sunglasses and drives off.

This is why you never see your father cry

Honey Boy (2019)

Written for RAF News November 2019

Loving affection overshadows the abusive relationship between a child actor and his father.

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Written by Shia LaBeouf as a ‘therapy project’, Honey Boy is set around the point in his life when he was the star of a Disney show, captured here as 12 year old Otis (Noah Jupe). Achieving success that would soon bloom into a film career the film focusses instead on the damage of these formative years, jumping back and forward through time to reveal the beginnings of what would later be diagnosed as PTSD.

Opening with a dizzingly assembled montage tracking the successes and exploits of Otis in his 20s (Lucas Hedges), the line is blurred between the person on and off screen. It appears that LaBeouf aims to explain his tabloid notoriety of being drunk and disorderly (arrested for such behaviour as late as July 2017 when shooting recent release Peanut Butter Falcon). The point of both trauma and inspiration appears to be Otis’ father James Lort, a hardened rodeo clown with a a chip from AA and a permanently blocked nose from cocaine abuse, played with phenomenal depth by LeBeouf himself. James is a performer who never made it, belittling his son’s achievements whilst being completely dependant on them, pocketing the per diem and leaving Otis to steal food from the catering on set.

Acting as his son’s vicious cheerleader, there is a fascinating dual quality at play. Young Otis represents the vulnerable and rage-filled child who desperately wants his father’s love, trying and failing to hold his hand in public. Constantly confronted by his failures, LeBeouf, that same little boy grown up, captures the shameful but dedicated part of the father, closing the gap of understanding by putting himself in the role. Our awareness of the actor and the material adds such complexity that the catharsis is palpable.

The chemistry between Jupe and LaBeouf is incredible, at once reviled and idolised, theirs is a complicated relationship that requires much empathy. Filled with comedy and darkness, more often than not holding one within the other. It reminds of last years Ladybird, and perhaps it’s director Alma Har’el that lends a tenderness that creeps in and takes over.

Lying and Stealing (2019)

Written for RAF News November 2019

Beautiful people Ivan and Elyse combine their charm and guile in a con job that aims to get them both out of trouble.

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Symmetrically handsome art thief Ivan (Theo James, Divergent Series) owes mob boss Dimitri (Fred Melamed) for the debt of his deceased father. Apparently only two jobs away from his freedom, things seem too good to be true until a local murder and the appearance of the FBI parked outside his apartment.

Added to this, Ivan’s bi-polar brother (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) with the same genetic sticky fingers moves in from rehab, and there’s the addition of wily bombshell Elyse (Emily Ratajkowski), an actress disgraced from Hollywood for rejecting the approach of a lecherous producer, trading favours and taking an interest in our mumbly monotonous hero.

Lying and Stealing does not wait around, it’s a quick 100 minutes that establishes its stakes early on, telegraphs the good guys and the bad, and lets you enjoy the heisty action in short snappy scenes. It doesn’t set up the method of the job, or lean on tension whilst its playing out, you’re simply dropped into the moment to enjoy the satisfaction of someone stealthily applying their craft and using gadgets without detection.

Some way into the film the directorial style comes out of nowhere and it feels like its suddenly appealing to an older audience in both its language and violence. Largely though, it plays as a crime caper with the twists straightened and the style ironed out. It doesn’t get bogged down in the usual double-crosses and plays pretty straight for the most part.

The story is simple and the template shows itself in the details (the big bad known as ‘The Greek’), but there is something to be said for not trying to be too clever and having your grasp exceed your reach.

It could have been more complex or humorous, but it wasn’t, and that’s fine.

The King (2019)

Written for RAF News October 2019

Shakespeare’s Henriad plays become a modernised historical epic but pared down to a few characters and fewer battles. The King appears more as a toothless morality play about the compromise that comes with power and the inevitability of war.

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Timothée Chalamet is Prince Hal, the wayward son of King Henry, a drunken Lothario albeit with perfect curls. His reluctance to fight his father’s war loses him favour and the crown. But when his father (Ben Mendelsohn) is unable to keep peace within the country it seems rebellious young Hal might just be what England needs, as a series of events lead him to become King Henry V.

A self-proclaimed pacifist, the new King resists trivial provocations from France but with council in his ear speaking of politics and ‘the mood of the people’, he finds himself drawn in. Co-written and directed by David Michôd, you might expect harsh and unflinching violence, what with his debut Animal Factory. The King bides its time however, and for the most part consists of Henry trying to avoid battle, deliberating with his advisor (Sean Harris) and the Archbishop (Andrew Havill). When violence eventually creeps into the film, and war is waged against France, it appears at various stages to mark the compromise of Henry’s stance, it’s graphic depiction marking each lost foothold with gruesome impact.

This aspect of the film appears original, but serves only to highlight the larger parts of the film which are all too familiar and dramatically played out. The Battle of Agintcour interestingly begins messy and unclear, suffocating under the weight of clattering armour down in the mud, until King Henry’s right hand man Sir John Falstaff stands and takes off his helmet so we can follow along.

Joel Edgerton, who shares a writing credit, is Falstaff: bulky and burly with a Yorkshire affectation – one that stands up against Chalamet’s impressive but sometimes waining English and Robert Pattinson’s double-barrelled French accent, as the almost moustache twirling Dauphin.

It is entertaining at times, original in moments, but for the most part The King is just flat with some interesting performances thrown on top.