Sam Cooney

Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)

Written for RAF News April 2015

Cobain: Montage of Heck is an evocative visual poem that paints the life and trials of the man at the helm of alt-punkrock band Nirvana.

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With materials spanning Cobain’s childhood drawings, diaries, comics and countless pages of lyrics, the film takes on his voice, literally at times when the captured voice of a young Kurt narrates the stories on screen. Unlike Nick Broomfield’s documentary Kurt and Courtney which was notably affected by the material withheld by Courtney Love, Montage of Heck is built on a wealth of never before seen artefacts inherited and subsequently shared by their daughter Francis Bean.

Brought to life through different styles of animation and all set to Cobain’s music as somekind of violent musical, the film becomes a true reflection of his state of mind – each piece finding a place and allowing him to tell his own story. Alternate cuts of Nirvana tracks play as anthems under the teenage bouts of rebellion and depression from which they were born. Scrawled diary notes carry the angst and inner turmoil that would develop into his later more fully formed music, but also carry a poignancy in retrospect of his eventual suicide.

Meeting the various stages of Cobain’s torment – from his young, broken-home angst to his conflicted longing for a family and success – bursts of static and feedback blend nightmarish scenes filled with super 8 footage and animated sketches. But it seems that both successes as well as failures pose threats to Cobain, each in turn feels like a punch landed that could be the fatal blow.

Along with Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days on Earth, it seems the tired fly-on-the-wall has died and a more personal, complex form of music documentary has taken effect. A truly impressive film.

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Behind Closed Doors (2008)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News Apr 2015

Set in Council Bluffs Iowa 1976, Behind Closed Doors looks at three young sisters and how together they overcome a harrowing situation and find solace in the most unlikely of places.

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The opening music, paired with a glimpse inside the house where the girls live, is enough to tell us that the story being told has a dark underpinning. Written and directed by Lori Petty and based on events in her own life, the film carries a weighty seriousness that prevents the film from ever being enjoyable, but allows for some good performances.

Jennifer Lawrence is Agnes – the eldest daughter to a drug addicted prostitute, trying to take charge of the family and keep her sisters out of the ‘poker house’ where her mother’s clients and pimp freely roam.

Agnes is based on a 14 year old Petty, toughened beyond her young age, though unbelievable at times. Lawrence is commanding in her first leading role, which seems to have lead naturally to her matured, bread winning sister role in Winter’s Bone. The best moments of this film are caught in the tension between mother and daughter. Selma Blair is impressive as the girls’ mother – a twisted stumbling mess buried beneath platinum highlights and panda eyes.

Meanwhile sisters Cammie (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Bee (Sophia Bairley) both find themselves in amongst local characters in some hardly glamorous settings of their small town. Cammie exchanges recyclable bottles for sweets with the local homeless crowd, and Bee is put up in a bar for the day with an eccentric regular.

Despite the girls’ chin-up-and-smile attitude, theirs is clearly a tragic situation and all efforts to appear otherwise appear contrived or stooped in sentiment – which is understandable considering the personal nature of this film. The undeniable accomplishment of Behind Closed Doors is in showing the dark beginning from which film-maker Petty has arisen.

Two Night Stand (2014)

Written for RAF News Feb 2015

Opening to what is sure to be the trope of contemporary rom-coms, Two Night Stand begins with Megan (Analeigh Tipton) creating an online dating profile – filled with every hesitation, deliberation and embellishment. Two-Night-Stand

Megan, the low-key manic pixie, has just broken off her engagement with her high-school sweetheart, and after graduating finds herself doing nothing – bumming around the apartment to the behest of her roommate. Following another tale of a twentysomething graduate starved of ambition and not knowing what to do with herself, just as Kiera Knightley’s Megan in the recent Say When (serious), this Megan isn’t so much looking for meaning in life as a one night stand to get back on the horse.

The eventual winner of this no-strings agreement is Alec (Miles Teller): a sardonic stoner who manages to offend his lucky catch as soon they wake in his Brooklyn apartment the morning after. But when she tries to make an exit and storm off, it appears that they have been snowed in by a freak blizzard and so must stay put and bask in the awkwardness of this forced situation.

Unfortunately so must we as the audience – with awkwardness that isn’t always intentional. Two Night Stand definitely reaches for comedy over creating chemistry between its characters, and so the intimate scenes feel out of place with a whiplash of tone change – especially when the cheesy clinking music cuts short and leaves you with enough silence to hear Alec breathing. There are some laughs throughout but the match of this big eyed, elfin, beauty with the dry and cooly distant Alec plays out just as you would expect… with utter convenience. There are some laughs throughout and it has a cutesy charm that keeps you entertained, but it is largely inoffensive and forgettable at that.

A couple of notes:

There was something quite jarring about this film that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. It met it’s indie-film-quota before the titles and yet it looked all shiny and clean. It seemed that this polish revealed which parts were just cheap, tacky plastic…

The roommate and her boyfriend were cringe-worthy awkward with no charm or believability. They felt like glossy, unapologetic devices for the story. The sound design clashed with the images as sound levels veered wildly and the awful demo-music samples didn’t even last as long as the scenes. At one point Megan’s nose stud jumps nostrils while in a side profile close-up.. whilst her face fills most of the screen. These little mistakes were amplified by the look and feel of the thing.

Maybe Dan Harmon’s right when he says that romance is a condiment for a story, not the meal itself.

Selma (2014)

Written for RAF News Jan 2015

In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s  historic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and after the supposed break up of segregation in the States, Selma picks up in the south where things don’t seem to have changed much at all – where four girls have been murdered by white supremacists and where black citizens are still prevented from registering to vote.

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When Dr. King (David Oyelowo) hears this news, he decides to use his platform to bring attention to this continued injustice by arranging a march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama.

Although Dr. King is introduced accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, he is not shown to be an outright hero but a passionate and charismatic preacher who knows how to use a stage and move a crowd. No film had until now focussed on Dr. King and so it comes as a pleasant surprise that director Ava DuVernay avoids the pitfall of deifying this cultural icon and instead shows him as a man – a complex figure complete with all his faults and foibles.

Oyelewo’s King presents the contrast of the man on and off stage: speaking with a measured poetic rhythm that erupts into familiar passionate cries when in front of a crowd, but thoughtful – at times doubtful and doubting even – behind closed doors.

In showing this side to Dr. King, Selma is able to shift focus to the issues at the core of the film and observe the people that marched together on that momentous day, exploring their individual stories and struggles. In a sense Selma looks at the human side of a legend, showing Dr. King to be an ordinary person, and the extraordinary side of regular people as they came together to stand up against oppression.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Spoilers ahoy.

Edge of Tomorrow is a futuristic action/science-fiction film that takes place during a war with an invading alien race who seem to have some control over time. A high-concept film that cleverly works in a conceit that excuses the film for being very Hollywood.edge-of-tomorrow

Tom Cruise begins as William Cage: an inexperienced, queasy-at-the-sight-of-blood, coward officer. This obviously must change – he is Tom Cruise. Confessing to be more involved in the campaigning side of things and attempting to blackmail his way out of participation, Cage finds himself volunteered to fight on the frontline against these alien invaders.

Very soon he will find himself dropped into combat wearing a future-tech soldier-suit, the type to have plasma guns appear from hidden crevices, unfortunately he hasn’t been trained on how to use it. Instead the action hero in the film takes the shape of Emily Blunt as Rita: ‘the full metal bitch’ as they are sure to remind us. Picking up from her previous sci-fi action film Looper, Blunt holds her own against another 50-year-old action star with the same stony faced stoicism. She dances around the battlefield whilst dear old Cage only manages to pick off one of the so-called Mimics before dying.

And then the day starts again… turns out the creature the Cage killed has locked him into his own private Groundhog Day. Now he must use this infinite repetition to his advantage and use his superseding knowledge of the day to find help and get trained up. He must escape the strict watch of his General for instance, and so whilst on exercise he tries to roll under a moving car in order to break away. Every time he mistimes the move and is chewed up by the tires of the oncoming vehicle, his day is reset. Once this is established with the audience, the film doesn’t need to explain how many times Cage has attempted an act of daring, we can safely assume he has tried it over and again until it has worked – we are merely catching his successful attempt.

In Mission Impossible we have no such excuse for the luck that is granted Ethan Hunt. Action films often preface their death-defying stunts by endowing the hero with a history in the special forces, with a very specific set of skills as it were, but it cannot excuse these moments of sheer luck that are threaded throughout Hollywood films – those purely cinematic moments that defy realism. Edge can do precisely that, thereby explaining away why Cruise can roll under a moving car. A beautiful flourish.

We later find out that Blunt too had this power but lost it.. that’s why she is such a bad-ass. She decides to train Cage so that they can work as a team to find the headhoncho alien and win the war. The reset device is used to create a unique kind of montage in which comedy is derived from the execution of the protagonist: if he slips up, she shoots him. LIVE. DIE. REPEAT (get it?) With fast-paced editing and reused shots, this technique provides well-earned comedic relief. If not simply relieving from the cold, austere seriousness of Blunt. She is training him. An unlikely turn for a Cruise action film – though this is corrected when he overtakes her and reprises his role as action hero, saving her in return (call it even) then saving the day like she never could (not quite even) then she is demoted to a fleeting love interest.

Garth

Rick: He saved my life once. I saved his twice, so I was one up

Problem is that the stakes have been wiped as there is no longer the threat of death. And so comes a flimsy explanation for how this power is lost, turning the film into ordinary Hollywood fair, especially when in the final moments of the film it seems to employ its own rules and revive the hero for a happy ending.

Edge of Tomorrow utilises it’s concept to justify the Hollywoodness that it shines with, and though it can’t sustain this subversion until the very end, it’s impressive while it lasts.

Kajaki: The True Story (2014)

Written for RAF News Nov 2014

Kajaki: The True Story captures the harrowing events of September 2006 when a group of British paratroopers in Afghanistan found themselves in the middle of an unmarked minefield. Beginning in the mountainous desert of the Helmand province, we are introduced to 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, stationed on a ridge that overlooks the Kajaki Dam. From here we see the vast stretches of sand to the horizon where there has been little activity. That is until a three-man patrol sets out to investigate a Taliban roadblock and a landmine is set off, blowing off one of the patrols legs. Immediately the film is confined to mere millimetres as a rescue mission is put into action, with any movement on the ground possessing the potential to trigger another deathly explosion.

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The mines are a relic of the Soviet invasion of the 80s, left behind by Russian forces, ‘God knows what we’re gonna leave behind’ says one of the fresh-faced ensemble cast. This is perhaps the only reference to British occupation in Afghanistan, which is coming to an end this year, but Kajaki has not been made as political commentary, it is a film that shows a single situation – a true story based on the testimony of the soldiers involved – from which we can glimpse the extremes of the frontline, outside of combat even. We see the sheer bravery that is required in circumstances such as these. It shows the comradery and heroism of the British forces without firefights and action scenes, giving them a cinematic presence that has been largely absent for decades.

Though it will undoubtedly collect comparisons to The Hurt Locker, it’s Britishness is evident in the relentless banter and dark humour, especially in times of horror and devastation – you’d be hard pressed to find an American GI writing ‘Gay’ on the face of Private Ryan after having his leg blown off.  The filming style also breaks from the dominant style in Hollywood as largely still, wide angle shots evoke palpable tension without having to jiggle the camera about. Long stretches of silence and focus on the careful movements of those in the foreground invites the inevitable and you can’t help but tense up in anticipation. The blistering heat of the Afghani desert adds to the tension like a Lumet film (think: 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) growing in intensity as the group becomes more and more desperate. This uncomfortable suspense doesn’t let up, making it impossible to not be involved in the film.

Christmas Survival Guide

Written for TotalJobs Dec 2014

Tis the season to be jolly. Or to try and be jolly at least… against the odds. It is more likely the season to be stressful, as everyone takes on the mad-dash panic of last-minute gift buying and food shopping, and as they prepare to see the people they usually love but this time of year tolerate.xmas

Now let’s spare a moment for those working over Christmas, for those who will suffer the wrath of never-ending customers enduring this annual stress. They need someone to take it out on and reliably it will be those of you simply trying to help. So here is some help for you: a Christmas survival guide based on the advice of those who have experienced the frontline for themselves. (more…)