Review

Matangi/ Maya/ M.I.A (2018)

Written for RAF News August 2018

More commonly know by stage name M.I.A, Mathangi Arulpragasam, or Maya, is a Sri Lankan-born London-raised hip-hop artist and provocateur. This documentary made by long term friend Stephen Loveridge tracks her uncompromising attitude by way of her music, through to some of the more notorious controversies surrounding her career.

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With Loveridge now distancing himself from the project, and Maya being openly critical about it, it’s fitting that the theme holding it together is her refusal to do as she’s told and not care if she is liked. The film is almost chaptered by moments of disagreeableness such as putting a middle-finger up during her half-time performance at the Superbowl, or talking about the genocide in Sri Lanka whilst at the podium of an awards ceremony.

Growing up in a war-torn part of Sri Lanka, Maya was politically minded from a young age with her activist father Arul Pragasm being one of the founders of the Tamil Resistance Movement. In more recent years the area of Jaffna has experienced massacres that have devastated the local population, and this is something that Maya has tried to point out in interviews and live appearances just as in her music.

Thanks to Maya’s shrewd forward-thinking, perhaps with a project like this in mind, almost every moment discussed in the documentary contains footage filmed by or featuring herself. By that same token though it becomes difficult to escape her voice as a guiding force. This can at times come across as contrived or self-aggrandising, unhelpfully lending to the accusations of being ‘Radical Chic’. Regardless of intention, Maya takes a bold stance and tries desperately to bring media attention to serious issues – using the spotlight even if she is basking in it herself.

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Wolf Warrior 2 (2017)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News February 2018

Returning from battle with his comrades ashes, Special Ops ‘Wolf Warrior’ Leng Feng discovers a real estate firm destroying his hometown. In the blink of an eye dozens of company goons wielding 2x4s have been floored and police have them surrounded. When Feng kicks the gun-toting ring leader 10ft into the air and through the windscreen of a police car, he is imprisoned in military jail for two years.

Once released, Feng finds himself in an unnamed African country where he establishes himself as man-of-the-people, offering aid to locals ravaged by a highly infectious disease and protecting them from a bloodthirsty militia. It seems they have teamed with some deadly Western mercenaries straight out of Street Fighter.

The driving force of the film is Wu Jing: the writer and director who also stars as borderline superhero Leng Feng. An embodiment of patriotism, Feng actually turns himself into a Chinese flag at one point, this despite being dishonourably discharged because: “Once a Wolf Warrior, always a Wolf Warrior.”

Now the second highest grossing film in China, this is a large scale production with sweeping shots of navy fleets and tanks being used for a demolition derby. There is a lot of sketchy if not passable CGI, but alongside practical effects and wire stunts that give some weight to action. These set pieces are built around a flurry of fast paced fight choreography devised by the same team behind John Wick and Atomic Blonde. Though intricate it never gets hung up on realism. The opening scene features an underwater fight scene that misunderstands gravity and overestimates lung capacity by some way, and yet this is what makes it enjoyable.

The attempts at humour and drama fall flat but form a necessary breather between gunfights and hand-to-hand combat, which is where all the fun is to be had.

Addendum:

Besides this, the message is one of frighteningly unambiguous nationalism. It reduces an entire continent to a land filled with savage militants and the helplessly impoverished – all ready to be protected by the Chinese military, crystallised in the form of one morally superior and high-roading motherfucker, so convinced of his invincibility that he rarely takes cover from gunfire and is able to catch an RPG with the wire frame of a mattress. This is a joke. A hugely expensive and highly profitable joke, that is only funny when it’s trying to be serious.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Written for RAF News November 2017

Steven Murphy is a successful heart surgeon, admired by his peers and loved by his family, but all that is about come apart when demons from the past come back to haunt him. Not literally, well who knows.

Murphy has been meeting a young boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan) to give occasional gifts and fatherly advice but his wife and kids are unaware of this relationship. Murphy feels indebted to Martin for some reason, things getting substantially more serious when it seems a hex has been placed on his family that will end in a lot of people dying if nothing is done about it.

It sounds absurd but stranger things have happened in Yorgos Lanthimos’ films – like turning people into animals in The Lobster. The style is unmistakable, the flat matter-of-fact dialogue and delivery that can find humour in the darkest ideas. It has a wonky realism that makes you think the hex could be real and so the stakes are as high as they can be. Murphy has to confront superstition and contemplate an unthinkable sacrifice*.

Colin Farrell, having starred in strange success The Lobster, looks at home with this mechanical direction, and Nicole Kidman dovetails in with a bit more soul as wife Anna but is enough Stepford Wife to keep things off kilter, especially in the bedroom. The young actors are excellent, making the blunt and sometimes bizarre dialogue sound natural.

Once again Lanthimos has created a beautifully strange piece of work that is uniquely his own. It is a horror revenge film that has a tone that flits between tragic and slapstick. It uses real drama but in such a false way that it’s hard to connect to anyone, but this feels beside the point. What is clear is that it knows how to challenge expectations, create suspense and get a laugh – even if it is a nervous one.

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The Wizard of Ozark

I was reluctant to start another Netflix series, despite getting a couple of recommendations. Ever since I had experienced the aggressive evangelism of Breaking Bad enthusiasts, forcing me to watch the entire show and to be left unfulfilled and underwhelmed, I have become distrusting of opinions on tv shows.

The first episode of Ozark establishes a certain style, it’s sharp dialogue and darkly comic tone, it’s blue tint and metallic percussive score – building tension much like Punch Drunk Love. On top of that it’s quick. To the point where it felt like it spent all of it’s narrative chips by the end.

It felt like it had reached the peak of action and tension. That it could have built up to this a little more and had nowhere left to go. At the end of the episode we are in the Ozarks, a coastal shit-town with nothing going on. This is what kept me from watching the second episode. Where could it go from here that would be as interesting?

When I got around to watching the second episode I realised that this pace was not a symptom of trying to make the pilot interesting – it wasn’t a pilot after all – it was part of the style. It didn’t need to set up a twist or reveal, because as the plot unfolds there are new and interesting ideas being explored quickly.

Stranded in the Ozarks, the show takes the suburbia trope of a family pretending to be happy and together whilst all having their dirty secrets and turns it inside out. The husband is discovered to be a a criminal and his wife has been cheating on him – they move house to save their lives and commit to the criminal lifestyle and tell their kids that this is what they’re doing. They have confessed their sins and are embracing their lifestyle because they have nothing left to lose. They move in with a guy who has a fatal illness and is the perfect embodiment of this mentality – they don’t give a fuck.

There is something of Walter White in Marty Byrde. He is remarkably clever and thinks logically. He understands people and can find solutions. Where they differ is that Walter White is all about action, he will back himself into a corner and think of a way to blow the walls down around him. Byrde’s gift is in language. He has a highly developed ability to reason with a Sorkinesque wit and so can talk his way out of anything.

White is a creator: of drugs, bombs, he even creates himself a character complete with costume. He is a stage magician with all the grandeur and gaudy showmanship, where Byrde is actually fucking magic, needing no props or stage. He is egoless, serving a purpose and has no pride in his gains. He is ashamed if anything.

Breaking Bad had a cinematic style in it’s use of camera and editing. It has a showy nature that resonates with it’s protagonist. Ozark is precisely the opposite.

For now at least… I’ve watched three episodes. I’m in.

The Party (2017)

Written for RAF News October 2017

A few friends have been invited to Janet’s soiree in her London home: a disaster barely waiting to happen. A host of clashing personalities all celebrating her ascension to Shadow Health Minister, on course to potentially leading the party, but for now she has a very different party to run.

In case it wasn’t clear that things are going to end badly, the film opens with Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) pointing Chekov’s gun right at us, then cutting backwards in time to the exchange of crocodile smiles and inane niceties before things inevitably turn sour.

With these opinionated ideologues now in an enclosed space, there is the catalyst of announcements: of promotion, pregnancy and the prognosis of death. Each now has a purpose to shout their worldview from their respective soapboxes.

Spiritualist life coach Godfrey (Bruno Ganz) sits cross-legged on the floor offering esoteric musings to each flawed dinner guest, though it only takes a gentle prod from his sarcastic wife (Patrica Clarkson) to expose the hypocrisy. Cillian Murphy’s suited banker is shaky and sweaty upon arrival, making frequent trips to the bathroom to find a clean corner of the bathtub to help keep his nerves unstable. All the while Janet’s husband Bill (Timothy Spall), a renowned Atheist Author, sits in a drunken stupor controlling the music in the most perfectly inappropriate manner.

The soundtrack is just one element of style that is added to this theatrical farce, presented in black and white and with camera angles that get right in the faces of it’s cast. Each addition of drama ratchets up the tension and brings out the comedy. We follow different pairings of characters to learn about the baggage that each of them has brought along.

The Party is quick and comical with a political subtext that makes it more relevant than ever. So swiftly are you thrown into the chaos that you can’t help but be engaged.

Wind River (2017)

Written for RAF News September 2017

When the body of a young girl is found barefoot in the thick snow of the Wind River Indian Reservation, the F.B.I. get involved. Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) heads over to Wyoming from the Las Vegas department to investigate – as best she can in her unsuited clothes and car. Headstrong but inexperienced, she is really out of her element here.

With few police of their own in this large stretch of unforgiving terrain, Banner looks to Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner), the hunter who discovered the body, to help find her way around. He knows the place, the people and the predators that lurk within. It seems the community are battling a world that doesn’t care about them, torn apart by drugs and delinquents.

What begins as a moody procedural however will quickly become an all-out action thriller in a whiplash-inducing change of pace. Details that are initially obscured will be explained fully and any attempts at making a serious dramatic point will be lost to Taken-style shootouts. This is a bizarre film that doesn’t know how seriously to treat its subject. Most serious of all is Corey, a man with a troubled past who has apparently learned much about the culture of Native Americans, taking every opportunity to high road others and pass on his wise words.

Wind River is written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, the latter of which really comes through here just without the balance of comedy. Other than the chief of local police, who is included for comedic relief but sidelined immediately, there are fleeting glimpses of humour that are practically apologised for.

Wind River is confusing in tone but still interesting to watch. You can’t help but feel that if it weren’t so serious it’d be fun; or if it weren’t so silly it’d be brilliant.

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.