Review

Ascension (2021)

Written for RAF News April 2022

A documentary on a gigantic scale that targets the industrial machine of China, watching the flow of consumer goods and loss of individualism all through simple yet stunning observation.

Ascension opens to a sea of people in the street, jobseekers all being herded towards potential employers, the conditions announced through megaphones: 18-38, no tattoos, no hair-dye. One advertises a seated job, another offers standing, but both pay just over £1.50 an hour. Jessica Kingdon’s documentary sets out to show the industry of China by looking at the products being created, the people creating them, and the consumers who purchase them. There is no need for narration, the images speak volumes. 

Inside the factories, we witness the mass-production of everyday items such as water bottles, aerosol nozzles and ‘Make America Great Again’ baseball caps. Like TV show How It’s Made, there is a great satisfaction in watching the rhythm of the machinery producing a never-ending stream of objects: the hypnotic flow and tessellation, but the remarkable thing is how the people working in these factories become extensions of the devices they operate, with their own endlessly repeating movements. The last sign of humanness almost lost in their shared vacant expressions.

At times the documentary appears as science-fiction, watching the absurd mundanity of people assembling sex-dolls from parts, their cartoonishly proportioned bodies laid-out, mangled and decapitated, as they are put together and painted to order. It is eye-opening, shocking but also bizarrely funny.

We also witness citizens being prepared for the service industry: young men learn how to become human shields for the security business, whilst others learn complete obedience in order to be a butler of Downton Abbey merit. Full conference rooms are lectured on how to succeed in the ‘fan economy era’ and amass a following by monetising their knowledge; whilst others are taught the correct way to hug and how many teeth should show when smiling (it’s the top 8 in case you were wondering.)

The sheer size and scale of this film creates a dwarfing spectacle that is both staggering and entrancing – it certainly makes for strange and wondrous entertainment.

Master Cheng (2019)

Written for RAF News March 2022

A Chinese man (Pak Hon Chu) and his son wander into a  quiet bar in a small Finnish village looking for someone or something, no-one quite understands, and so he will patiently wait day after day until he finds someone who does. The patrons of the bar are simple folk, mostly older men accustom to their daily plate of sausage and potatoes. Little do they know that visitor Cheng is a chef and that food is a language that breaks all barriers.

The Finnish countryside lends a fairytale quaintness to this frothy tale of strangers coming together. Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko), the owner of the bar, offers a room to Cheng and his son Niu Niu (Lucas Hsuan) – for which he repays by cooking for a busload of Chinese tourists who happen by. Not only turning a profit, but awakening something in the regulars, this becomes the basis of their arrangement.

Whilst it seems to be the perfect time to release a film about international relations, of compassion between cultures, the dynamic between Master Cheng and Sirkka appears horribly misjudged. Intended to be a light, life-affirming romance, their lack of chemistry tilts into toxicity.  When Cheng announces that his son wants to go home, that his Visa has run out and he will be deported, Sirkka in a shocking show of complete self-centredness slams a door in his face, because she knows that business will slow down once again. The film appears to be unaware of just how intrusive and exploitative this supposed love-interest comes across.

Cheng himself is reduced to an antiquated stereotype – a quiet mystic who throws out simplified fortune-cookie teachings whilst knocking up dishes that can miraculously treat menstrual cramps and cancer. You’d think from the towns incredulity at the sight of chicken noodle soup that this village is so remote that it doesn’t have recipe books or the internet. If it weren’t for Niu Niu glued to his smartphone you’d think the film was from many decades past, at least then it would make more sense.

When Cheng admits to some of the bar patrons that he turned to alcohol after the death of his wife, they offer him a toast. In fact every scene following this, he is given alcohol. It seems the only thing keeping Cheng here is guilt by way of his captor and this tight-knit town. No wonder they don’t want to let him go, with his miracle cure broth.

English is the mode of communication between Cheng and the rest of town, so naturally as a second language it comes out a little broken on both sides, leaving little room for nuance. The humour that occurs from mispronunciation is the one joke that the film drives into the ground, and judging by the orientalism going on this is surely not an attempt at authenticity.

Shepherd (2021)

Written for RAF News February 2022

Struggling to cope after the death of his pregnant wife, Eric (Tom Hughes) escapes to a job as a shepherd on a remote Scottish island, becoming a prisoner to his own grief and guilt.

Taken to the uninhabited island on a small boat captained by an ominous, one-eyed woman (Kate Dickie) with a penchant for taxidermy, the ensuing horror couldn’t be more signposted until they reach his accommodation: a ramshackle cottage on the coast with no power or running water.

Eric must come to terms with what happened to his unfaithful wife (Gaia Weiss) and the impact it had on his relationship with his mother (Greta Scacchi), with only a journal and his dog Baxter for company. Eric’s repressed emotions will have him lose his grip on reality as dark hallucinations take shape – clues to the untold story that led him here. Thrown into the aftermath and having to make sense of the story through these visions, it is a simple story gradually told, but its power comes through the atmosphere and cinematography. 

The island itself is caught in breath-taking wide shots that capture the desolation, the hilly landscape becoming positively Martian in moments, whilst the interiors become creakier and crumbling. The locations perfectly reflect the themes of the film, and continue to do so as Eric spirals. Much like recent maritime nightmare The Lighthouse, it uses the isolation as a springboard into grief and past trauma, with certain horrific images punctuating the routine in a rather shocking and inventive manner. 

Chaptered like his journal, the film jumps to certain days on the island, although this stop-start rhythm does interrupt the momentum towards the end of the film. As it builds to a close, you realise that there wasn’t too much story to be revealed anyhow, and yet it manages to do a lot with such a simple idea.

The Real Charlie Chaplin (2022)

From rags to riches; a silent movie megastar to a political voice; from abuser to family man – The Real Charlie Chaplin endeavours to shine a light on the many faces of this icon.

The Real Charlie Chaplin Review: An Ambitious Attempt To Quantify a Legend

The film opens with the rush of Chaplin fever. A global sensation in which this bowler-hat wearing, toothbrush moustached Little Tramp character could be recognised anywhere, known as Charlot across some parts of Europe, or rather more tellingly as Professor Alcohol in Japan. This documentary looks at the creation of the character (plus the lawsuits surrounding) gives an overview of his films, and offers a few glimpses behind the curtain by way of reconstructed archive interviews, including a rare profile of the man himself.

Looking at Charlie’s destitute upbringing in East London, his drive for success in vaudeville and subsequent hit films, the parallels between his life on and off screen become very apparent and make the emotion of his performances all the more resonant. Whilst The Great Dictator was the first time he leant a voice to the Tramp, to combat the rising power of Adolf Hitler by preaching a message of love, it would also lead Chaplin to speaking out more publicly, landing him in the spotlight accused of being a Communist sympathiser.

The documentary deserves to be celebrated in the way that it tackles the dark and looming past of Chaplin and his relationships. Not treating the subject as simply scandal, but acknowledging the flawed man by way of his ex-wife’s testimony, it reveals accusations of serious abuse. Without dropping the thread of the film to demonise, or brush aside these accusations and continue to deify, the film admirably works this into the picture it has created thus far, accepting and separating the man from his work. 

The title of the film suggests an exposé, but comes to rest on the fact that there is no one true account, instead offering a mosaic of information. Whilst the content is not too in-depth, it is always a pleasure to watch scenes from Chaplin’s iconic films and be reminded of the finessed brilliance of his slapstick comedy.

Shadow in the Cloud (2022)

Written for RAF News Jan 2022

Despite the PSA at the start of the film insisting that ‘gremlins’ are just an excuse made for human error, Officer Maud Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) has herself a window seat on a B-17 Bomber where something doesn’t seem right.

Set in 1943, Garrett jumps aboard The Fool’s Errand on the runway, insisting to the incredulous crew that she is not only a member of the RAF, but intended for this vessel with shoebox-sized cargo that is fragile and completely confidential. With many clearly not having seen a ‘dame’ in some time, she is mocked, harassed and given the only available seat in the form of a turret below deck. 

We spend the first half of the film crammed into this tight space with Maud listening to the rowdy lads above through the comms. By honing the focus on Maud and what she sees from this vantage point, the film makes a decision that is creatively minimal. The idea of ‘something on the wing of the plane’ has been seen before in The Twilight Zone, but here it is placed in the context of a small paranoid unit, willing to right off the warning of gremlins as female hysteria. And yet much like The Twilight Zone, the film manages to pack in a load of twists and turns along the way as Maud’s secrets begin to spill out.

Once the film reaches the midpoint, what seemed like a budgetary decision in the beginning is revealed as an artistic choice as impressive effects come into play. It may lose its horror film tension, but it is happy to change shape and shift genre, becoming more of a mindless monster movie with a feminist streak. Embracing its silliness the fun is hard to deny as things go full tilt and the laws of physics go out the window.

The Lost Daughter

Written for RAF News December 2021

Olivia Colman stars as Leda Caruso, a middle-aged language professor taking her working holiday alone in Greece, finding a peacefulness that will very quickly evaporate. The fruit bowl in her apartment is mouldy, the apartment neighbours a working lighthouse, and some undesirables, from a villa just up the way, have taken over the beach.

Not shy of confrontation, Leda politely refuses when asked by the matriarch of this rowdy group of New Yorkers if she could make space for them, instigating a feud that underlies the rest of the film. Even when Leda helps to find the group’s young daughter when she goes missing, there remains an unshakeable tension.

Actor Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her debut as writer and director on The Lost Daughter, adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name. Through this complex central character, Gyllenhaal weaves together two timelines to explore reflections on motherhood, identity and regret.

Leda is self-assured, if not combative, so when she stands her ground, the young mother of the group, Nina (Dakota Johnson) takes an interest. This connection runs both ways as Leda observes Nina struggling with her young daughter, exasperated by her constant need of care and attention. These moments serve as a springboard into flashbacks, in which we see Leda 20 years earlier (played by Jessie Buckley), trying and failing to manager her independence and her two daughters. Through Leda’s exchanges with Nina, she is reckoning with her past self, offering reassurances, but edging ever closer to danger.

The film paints a picture of so-called ‘unnatural mothers’ enduring trials of parenthood that are messy and punishing, normalising these ideas and expanding the scope of female relationships on screen. An impressive piece of filmmaking with challenging characters and ideas, and solid performances across the board.

Power of the Dog (2021)

Written for RAF News November 2021

Jane Campion’s return to film after a decade is a Western set in the early 20th Century, digging into classic cowboy archetypes in a uniquely gripping drama. 

Two brothers, owners of a successful ranch, find their paths diverging as soon as a romantic interest enters the picture. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) toils in the mud with his hands and doesn’t care for using the tub in the house, favouring the stream. A brute who commands the respect of his workers and shares in the dirt alongside them. Then there is the younger, more put together George (Jess Plemons), who has the business acumen and social sensibility – who, when he sees the chance, pursues a marriage with a widow. 

Played by Kirsten Dunst, Rose runs a restaurant with her intelligent but sensitive boy, Peter. Kodi Smit-McPhee finds himself in another western since Slow West, though he remains out of place – picked on instantly by Phil and his gang of predatory cowhands for his effeminate demeanour. Cumberbatch appears to be having a lot of fun ratcheting up the villainy, tormenting anyone outside of the ranch purely to delight himself. So, when brother George weds Rose and brings her into their home, Phil becomes an insidious bully – mocking and taunting his new family.

A deeper facet of Phil is uncovered however when he talks about his late teacher ‘Bronco Henry’ – possessing such adoration that it borders on religious, or maybe even sexual. Power of the Dog offers a sly deconstruction of masculinity, becoming a comedy of manners with both humour and tension coming from the confrontational exchanges that take place in mixed company. 

The film is filled with stunning cinematography, of vast landscapes – green and gold hills, as opposed to sandy dunes – with powerful standalone images that shine with symbolic potency. A tense and deceptive film that keeps you involved but may still catch you off guard.

Bull (2021)

Written for RAF News November 2021

Bull is the name of a London thug, enforcer and son-in-law to Norm, the boss of a local crime syndicate. But when Norm’s drug-addicted daughter wants to separate from Bull, and won’t allow him to take their son, things escalate: a caravan is set ablaze and he is left for dead.

We’re not sure of the details just yet, information is steadily doled out in flashbacks between visits from Bull to each member of the gang. If you’ve seen Neil Maskell on film before, you’ll know that it’s a mistake to cross him. Starring in Ben Wheatley’s films with a fury that sometimes explodes on screen in horrific barbarism, Bull keeps Maskell’s reputation firmly intact.

It’s easy to see why he was a valued asset to his father-in-law; where Norm (an intimidating and insidious David Hayman)

does the talking, Bull gets straight to action – unflinching and apparently unbound by morals. There is a bold matter-of-factness to the violence which sometimes tips into full-on gore. Whilst there is tension, there is no standing on ceremony, no conversation that needs to be had, just revenge to be enacted – which is probably why the film flies by with a lean 87-minute runtime. Written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams (London to Brighton, Cherry Tree Lane) there are some clever stylistic touches that take us into Bull’s rage-fuelled mania – with one particularly haunting moment on a Waltzer that just keeps growing in intensity.

It’s in the final moments that things go a little awry, building to a reveal that doesn’t quite pay off. As a quick and brutal revenge thriller though it works fine simply as an excuse to follow this deranged antihero on a warpath.

Viva La Vida (2021)

Written for RAF News October 2021

Predicated apparently on the discovery of a large number of unopened trunks that contained Kahlo’s possessions, now on display in an exhibit at her home, the filmmaker explores some of these belongings and their significance in understanding the person who became the legend. 

Frida’s life is split into chapters, introduced with a fun and frenzied montage of graphics and stock archive footage. Herein her life is explored through interviews, primarily those running the exhibitions, though we also hear passages of Kahlo’s own words whilst watching actors interpret the artist, roaming about the mountains or looking longingly out of windows. This varied and unconventional approach is stitched together with narration from Asia Argento who appears between segments, talking intensely to camera in vague rhetoric as though introducing an episode of The Twilight Zone.

This confusion of ideas is messy: information is given at inopportune times, missing the chance to inform the viewer of the importance of themes when they would be useful. There are some elements of Mexican culture that caught with joyous observational footage, but it lacks consistency with the subject and tone. However frustrating, it is always a treat to revel in the powerful and challenging work of Kahlo, and appreciate the pain and hardship that she endured throughout her life.

Unfortunately Frida. Viva la Vida feels like a recorded walking tour through an exhibition, an invasive one at that, though this actually exists in more rigorous detail account looking at Kahlo’s life through her work as recorded by Exhibition on Screen just last year. An admirably artistic take on a documentary that gets a bit lost in its ideas.

In Full Bloom (2021)

Written for RAF News September 2021

In the wake of WWII, an American prize fighter with a string of losses competes in Japan against an undefeated boxer.

The politics in the background remains just that, as In Full Bloom avoids the path of Rocky IV and instead focusses on the meaning of the fight itself. It becomes less of a show for an audience or the media, and instead dives into the philosophy of boxing through the headspace of these two fighters.

It does this by taking an expressive, poetic form – earning obvious comparisons to Terence Malik through its use of whispered narration over the top of natural landscapes and stirring string compositions. This style is sustained for the entirety of the film, as we follow American Clint Sullivan (Tyler Woods) and the struggle he has in the locker room before the fight when his honour is questioned, or as we jump back in time to see the preparation undertaken by Japanese fighter Masahiro (Yusuke Ogasawara).

At a press conference, Masahiro is asked about his connection to a legendary figure – a former champion living out in the woods in isolation. Avoiding a collapsed montage with upbeat music, we instead see the ways in which this recluse becomes Masahiro’s very own Mr. Miyagi, stealthily honing fighting technique through various tasks and challenges, such as catching fish in a stream barehanded, or hunting whilst blindfolded.

The tone of the film seems to work more naturally with the Japanese characters, whereas dialogue feels a bit simple in the mouths of the Americans, perhaps losing something in translation. By the time of the fight however, none of this matters. 

The dialogue falls away, the crowd are blacked out and the camera circles the ring as we watch the first round play out in real time. In a dizzying whir of visuals and sound, this final fight is an explosion of style that pays off all of the films earlier meditations.