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Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise

October 24, 2016

Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise (2015)
Director: Mark Cousins

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For my full review of Atomic, please go to the following link:

(October 2016)




October 14, 2016

13TH (2016)
Director: Ava DuVernay

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Synopsis: A documentary tracing the history of black oppression in the US from the symbolic ending of slavery with the 13th amendment to the American Constitution to more recent incarnations: Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration.

Review: This literate, highly cerebral, dissection of the history of black oppression in the US since the ending of slavery (but focusing more on insidious developments in black vs. state relations since the Civil Rights movement) may not offer many concessions to the casual viewer, but in its unhurried, dignified tones it mirrors the humane, vital message of the story itself.

Identifying a caveat in the 13th amendment to the American Constitution – which was supposed to grant emancipation to America’s black population, bar the notion that criminals are immune from exercising that liberty – DuVernay explores the prescience of this seemingly incidental clause to articulately explore how a legacy of black oppression morphed from outright state-sponsored suppression to a more economic, social and legislative campaign (namely the “War on Drugs” and Mass Incarceration).

Although a reasonably straightforward documentary in terms of its rhetorical artillery (a range of articulate, well-informed speakers on the subject, archive footage, and plenty of ingenious graphics), the film transcends its plainness with the sheer force of its intelligence and content. Probably most striking is not the more colourful first half of the documentary which sketches in a brief resumé of black history post-1865, but more its denser second half, where the sinister privatisation of the criminal justice system is evidenced – particularly the deeply concerning power of SPECTRE-like lobbying body, ALEC, which has played a significant role in US law-making through having numerous corporations as its sponsors (including privatised correctional facility firms).

Chiming neatly with present political issues (the upcoming presidential election and the Black Lives Matter movement), DuVernay succeeds especially in calling out the vicious, reductive rhetoric Donald Trump is currently using as an ominous warning on a potentially new phase of state-sponsored ‘attacks’ on black communities. (October 2016)

Spice World: The Movie

October 10, 2016

Spice World: The Movie (1997)
Director: Bob Spiers
Actors: Victoria Adams, Melanie Brown, Emma Bunton

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Synopsis: An imagined set of scrapes and dilemmas affecting the Spice Girls at the height of their fame…

Review: Incredibly, it’s twenty years since the Spice Girls burst onto the scene and had their brief but stratospheric reign as queens of the late-Nineties Brit Pop zeitgeist. Although an awful film in its own right (and it was certainly castigated at the time of its release), perspective has lent Spice World a morbid curiosity factor: it’s a bizarre artefact that captures the sheer oddness of the Spice Girls’ rampant hold on the British (and indeed, global) consciousness for those first couple of years after 1996.

It was glaringly obvious at the time beneath the veneer of the “Girl Power” branding, but what really registers is how stage-managed and packaged the Spice Girls bandwagon was. People often reference the girls’ inability to sing and their prototypicality as personalities – but wasn’t that entirely the point? That these girls were an arbitrary bunch of wannabes (pun intended), plucked from the street, and moulded into their commodified niches. The scenes on the girls’ bus where they have their own ‘themed’ section even reminded me of the cartoonish genius of Batman: The Movie (1966) with its pulpy, colour-coded corners of the secret hideaway that the super villains share.

Re-watching Spice World also reminds you of the strange sub-60s/Cool Britannia vibe that was rife in British popular culture at the time. The Union Jack was a recurring motif in the girls’ clothing, and there are plenty of reminders of London’s trendy renaissance (red buses, the Millenium Dome, Ministry of Sound), plus the way the film sought to mirror The Beatles’ own zany 60s pop film collages.

Even if, in the end, the film becomes practically unwatchable as its caper structure devolves into lame movie pastiche after another, there are some ‘finer’ pleasures to be had: name-checking the rogue’s gallery of celebrity cameos (Michael Barrymore’s has to be the most “What the F***?” of the lot), reminding yourself that the girls did crank out one or two classic tunes amid the dross (“Spice Up Your Life” anyone?) and that Mel C was clearly the most interesting and proficient vocalist of the group. (October 2016)

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople

October 7, 2016

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
Director: Taika Waititi
Actors: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rhys Darby

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Synopsis: Foster child, Ricky (Julian Dennison), moves in with an eccentric outdoors couple. When the wife dies, Ricky is left with the taciturn widower, Hec (Sam Neill), and soon enough, Ricky and Hec are cast out into the New Zealand wilderness to prevent Ricky being taken back into foster care.

Review: Tedious in the extreme, Taika Waititi’s The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is part of that ever-growing genre of smarmified, postmodern ‘feelgood’ films (Sundance/Indie-lite?) They’re too smart by half and calibrated to within an inch of their life with their wannabe eccentric narrative, gags and ‘cool’ soundtrack choices.

Waititi follows the template of Wes Anderson’s infinitely superior Moonrise Kingdom in charting the strange pastoral rebellion of a preternaturally mature kid, and how in many ways that ironic maturity refracts back onto the stunted growth of the numerous adult figures who fumble their way across the narrative. For sure, in the film’s incessant rhetorical artillery, there are one or two decent things going on – from an ingenious skit by a priest at the foster mum’s funeral, to a general honouring of the sheer beauty of the New Zealand landscape. More grating is the film’s gurning desire to ingratiate itself with Ricky’s persistent gangsta rap mantras (it was funny once, but not dozens of times), the heavy handed visual satire, and the completely unearned use of a wintry landscape and a Leonard Cohen tune to fasttrack some depth to this deceptively sentimental and prototypical drama. (October 2016)

Notes on Blindness

September 30, 2016

Notes on Blindness (2016)
Director: Peter Middleton, James Spinney

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Synopsis: An account of the life of academic, John Hull, after he becomes blind.

Review: Though unquestionably proficient and articulate in its intent to dramatise the practical and ethical traumas of blindness, Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s docu-drama is almost a little too mainstream in its sensibility, and could have done with being bolder and going even more abstract to truly honour its subject matter.

The pathos of blindness is milked a little too much (beneath the veneer of an evidently articulate subject and ingenious narrative constructions). The grammar of the film in approximating the lost/heightened sensations that come with blindness is a little too hackneyed – such as the willowy-lit sunshine as a boy runs his palms through idyllic wild grass, and the overly demonstrative sequence of John Hull revelling in the aural canvas that heavy rain provides.

Away from overloading sentiment, the film undoubtedly has a fascinating story. Some of the practicalities of managing the condition of blindness are fascinating. In particular, how Hull as an academic has to contrive a completely new system of reading books (acquiring legions of helpers who read chapters of the anthropological tomes he needs to research into his tape recorders). Also, there are some reflections on the emotional refuse of blindness: namely, how memories can fade under the condition, as the ability to remember is only nourished by continual sight – hence Hull reflects “the brain longs for optic stimulation”.

In the end, the film lingers a touch too long in its wafting, emotional detours. The conceit of actors miming the story and recordings isn’t as radical as it sounds (in fact, it’s almost opposite to the ethos of the subject matter as it’s an attempt to sanitise/visualise blindness), and in wanting to have its narrative cake and eat it in a prettified way, the film Notes on Blindness reminded me of most is Julian Schnabel’s emotional but very literal-minded story of a locked-in syndrome patient, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. (September 2016)

The Clan

September 17, 2016

The Clan (2016)
Director: Pablo Trapero
Actors: Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani, Lili Popovich

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To see full review, please follow this link:  (September 2016)




September 10, 2016

Dheepan (2015)
Director: Jacques Audiard
Actors: Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinavasan, Claudine Vinasithamby

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Synopsis: An ex-Tamil soldier (Anthonythasan Jesuthasan) takes on the fake identity of “Dheepan” in the dying embers of the Sri Lankan civil war. Together with a fake, surrogate family, he migrates to France, where he winds up working as a caretaker in a dangerous Parisian banlieue; the sights and sounds there finding echoes in his traumatic Sri Lankan past.

Review: Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or winning Dheepan packs a real punch and, if nothing else, showcases Audiard’s skills as one of the most stylish cinematic storytellers on the planet, but for my taste at least, its increasing lurch into thriller mode in its final act – and jettisoning of its previously rich social commentary – felt a misstep and anti-climactic.

The opening half of the film is nigh on perfect though; an exhibition of superior storytelling as Audiard in a brisk but lucid way takes us right into the story and emotional particulars of how his three Sri Lankan protagonists were forced to fake their flight to France by posing as a family unit. There’s a wonderful elliptical cut to signify the bittersweet pathos of migration as we move from the traumatic and fraught opening stretches in Sri Lanka to a seemingly upbeat neon vista in Paris, only for the camera to focus in on a more banal truth – that Dheepan is flogging some naff, cheap luminous toys on some insalubrious corner of Paris.

It’s Dheepan and his surrogate family’s plight in Paris which is at the core of what is so right – but then ultimately unsatisfying – about Dheepan‘s narrative destination. It’s a very evocative initial journey, communicating the confusion and helplessness as Dheepan’s family somehow earn their way to a dilapidated banlieue on the outskirts of Paris through nervous meetings with the authorities and a mish-mash of exchanges in their native Sri Lankan tongue, French and the relatively neutral English. A particularly impressive scene is when the ‘daughter’, Illayaal, goes to school and is thrust into an overwhelming Special Ed class on her first day.

The balance between social commentary and genre (there are some unbelievably gripping and suspenseful sequences) is well managed by Audiard at first. By the last thirty minutes however, nearly everything has become subservient – including Illayaal’s childhood travails – to a more thriller/gangster denouement as Dheepan increasingly engages with his dangerous banlieue as if he were back in combat ‘Tamil Tiger’ mode. Though an interesting idea in hinting at the legacy of wartime trauma and perhaps critiquing the shallowness of inner-city criminal gangs, it feels too scripted and arbitrary, from the moment Dheepan starts inexplicably challenging the hoodlums in the area who threaten his ‘family’ onward. It’s still a watchable, classy film, but in Audiard’s rush to entertain, he sells out the more fertile, plaintive territory of his subject matter. (September 2016)