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Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

In May 1968, when this true story begins, the American actress Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) was about as big and acclaimed as it gets in France – to where she’d relocated – and famous enough back in the States. She was also committed to helping facilitate social change, and distinctly left-wing.

At the outset, Seberg temporarily leaves Paris – and her husband – to audition for Paint Your Wagon. En route, she meets black activist Hakim Jama (Anthony Mackie), with whom she has a fling in LA and who she assists financially and otherwise. As Jama wryly but accurately observes, “We have to wave a gun to get attention. You get your hair cut and you’re on the cover of Life Magazine.” Seberg is also seen publicly demonstrating her support for the Black Panther Party. This is not, needless to say, a stance calculated to endear her to the FBI – who set about a sustained campaign of bugging and other surveillance, intrusion, manipulation, dirty tricks and (in Seberg’s own accurate one-word summation) “persecution”. Seberg is brave and resolute, but – as you would – she becomes increasingly affected and distressed by this nightmarish ongoing experience.

Hollywood doesn’t have an especially impressive track record when it comes to dealing with this kind of subject matter. So, it’s something of a pleasant surprise to report that Seberg is intelligently scripted and keeps relatively – if not rigorously – close to the facts. It’s also quite engrossing, and Kirsten Stewart is excellent in a demanding role.

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Trailer: Ashburn Waters

New Queensland made slasher from writer/director David Pether starring Kyal Scott, Graham K. Furness, Carly Rees, Maia Rose Michaels and Jade Prechelt.
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Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The history of Britain, like most post-imperial societies, is also fundamentally a history of race relations. Themes related to this have been tackled many times in British cinema, but rarely has there been such an oddity as this one. In fact, if the film had not been based on the actual life experience of its creator Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, audiences might be forgiven for just disbelieving the whole premise. That doesn’t guarantee that it is a good film, but more of that anon.

Farming covers a long period while its protagonist Enitan (Damson Idris, no relation) is growing up, but the main period and place concentrated upon is Tilbury in the East End of London in the 1960s. This was the era of the skinheads, a wild working-class youth cultural movement much beloved by sociologists but generally feared and hated by people on the streets, especially if they came from ethnic minority backgrounds as our hero did.

As the film establishes in the set-up, many recent immigrants from Africa (in this case Nigeria) tried to settle in the UK but often could not find a secure financial footing. Enitan‘s parents (one of whom is played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) follow the then-common practice of ‘farming’ out their young son to a local white family. Waiting with open arms (and an empty purse) is Ingrid (Kate Beckinsale). She has made a cottage industry of adopting her ‘little black babies’, but despite her occasional sentimentality, she is far from treating them all with the love that they crave or deserve.

Before long, Enitan is feeling rejected in his new home and being bullied at school. He is tormented by the colour of his skin and, in one sad excoriating scene, tries to scrub himself white. He then falls in with a vicious skinhead gang and is more or less prepared to become a ‘pet’ to its psychotic leader Levi (a genuinely unnerving performance from John Dagleish). Enitan then has to become even more violent than the gang in a desperate bid to belong.

The film contains memorable scenes and definitely, er, packs a punch, but it is marred by gauche directorial touches from first time helmer Akinnuoye-Agbaje who is, perhaps understandably, too close to his material.

One of the main weaknesses is the casting of Beckinsale. Her attempt to portray a fag-in-mouth fishwife soon tips over into a slightly insulting mockney parody which never really recovers its poise. Beckinsale is hard working and to some extent versatile. She was, no doubt, trying to move beyond her action adventure films (Underworld) but this just wasn’t the ‘serious role’ she was looking for.

Still, such a powerful and unusual tale deserves to be told.

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Trailer: Cats

The shock of seeing actors with fur is gone, and we cannot wait for Tom Hooper's screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical.
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Official Secrets

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

From the likes of Frost/Nixon, Spotlight, The Post, and the recently released The Report, the intriguing nature behind uncovering institutional skeletons has filmmakers, critics and audiences titillated.

The modern-day rebel lives on in the whistle-blower, with the latest film to depict such a case, Official Secrets, offering a brooding and scathing assessment on government.

Based on the true story of British translator Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), Official Secrets follows her leaking of top-secret government intel to British news outlet The Observer. The material in question reveals a request from the United States to have British Intelligence gather intel on members of the United Nations Security Council due to vote on the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

A true story involving international cover-ups, spies, the government, and an insider job; what could have been a well-balanced exploration on the importance of journalism in keeping governments in check instead transpires to be an ominous and irate political thriller.

Director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Eye in the Sky) seizes every opportunity to make lacerating comments about government duplicity. He makes it his mission to voice political disdain as a series of unsophisticated anti-political jabs (made by journalists at The Observer portrayed adequately by Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and Rhys Ifans) and bafflingly intense stares by Knightley towards the TV when a politician is in view.

Gun’s experiences throughout Official Secrets, particularly her impending trial where she is defended by Human Rights lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), is emblematic of a society fed-up with the government’s power to act in secrecy and without accountability. Hood does not permit Knightley to become more than her character’s indignation. Resultingly, Hood’s ill-tempered direction creates an unappealing and spiteful tone that detracts from the film’s exploration of corruption.

The struggles of the film bleed into the suspense department, with Hood being unable to elicit intrigue. (A scene involving the printing of confidential documents being as mundane as it sounds).

Confusing vitriol with passion, Official Secrets’ ambitions to champion journalistic inquiry – an industry facing mounting trust and economic woes – become diluted by unapologetically brash filmmaking.

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Death Stranding

Game, Gaming, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

As the credits finally rolled on my playthrough of Death Stranding, I was reminded of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks season three from 2017. Not so much because of the shared themes and symbolism inherent to both, although a case could be made, but more the realisation that what I was experiencing was the unfiltered work of an artist who was creating something without compromise. Adore it, loathe or just plain don’t understand it, Twin Peaks season 3 was exactly what Lynch wanted to make. Even with its maddening ending and chronic overuse of Kyle MacLachlan’s “Dougie” alter-ego, which was cute at first but got very old. So too it is with Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, an overlong, indulgent work with some amazing moments but far too much of the video game equivalent of Dougie.

Death Stranding puts the player in the rapidly deteriorating boots of Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus), who is a gruff squinty man with a complicated past who delivers packages to people in a post-apocalyptic America. But this isn’t your usual apocalypse, there are no zombies roaming around here, just empty vistas of space, delivery-obsessed psychos called MULEs and invisible ghosts called BTs (Beached Things) who drag you into an inky underworld. As he travels vast distances, mostly on foot, Sam will meet characters, form alliances and slowly unravel the mystery of why the world is in such a sorry state (and who, in fact, he really is).

There’s been a lot of talk from creator Hideo Kojima that Death Stranding is a brand new genre of game, unlike anything we’ve seen before. This statement is, honestly, nonsense. While Hideo’s usual surreal, lengthy cutscenes and striking imagery are present and feel unique to the mad auteur, the vast majority of the gameplay in Death Stranding is from the ‘fetch quest’ oeuvre. You’ll lob up to a location, speak to a hologram, take a package, deliver it bloody ages away, connect the person to the Chiral Network, get another package and lob off to deliver that. You’ll do this over and over again during the course of the game, traveling from flatlands to rocky hills, to snowy mountains to dead-looking beaches. The scenery will change but the gameplay will mostly remain the same. Package, deliver, connect, new package. Rinse and repeat.

There’s a middle section of Death Stranding where you find your groove and begin to enjoy the delivery process; usually when you’ve unlocked motorbikes or mech suits that move faster and enough weapons to stave off any attacks. Plus, the game’s online element, where other players can leave helpful materials, vehicles and even structures, is a wonderful addition and the game’s saving grace. However, much like the world in which it exists, Death Stranding suffers from dripping entropy. Hours of back and forth, followed by cut scenes, and then more back and forth is intriguing for a while, but by the time you reach the third act you’ll be begging the damn thing to end.

Kojima has always been a weird cat, but in the Metal Gear series he tempered his eccentricities with fascinating, ever-evolving gameplay. In Death Stranding you’re basically a postie who has to look after a baby strapped to his chest. Schlepping parcels for people is a curious choice for a gameplay loop, and there is joy to be found when you’ve crested the top of a mountain and one of the many songs from the game’s gorgeous soundtrack kicks in, but by the tenth time that happens it loses its sense of rueful pathos and begins to feel like a bit of a piss take.

Look, here’s the thing. Stuff like Death Stranding or Twin Peaks lean heavily into the art side of the entertainment equation and your enjoyment will be very subjective. Some people will probably really grok with Death Stranding’s meditative pace and repetitive structure, just as some people thought Dougie doing exactly the same thing for so many episodes was delightful. But for your humble reviewer, the game can’t quite sustain. Yes, the graphics are gorgeous, the world fascinating and the voice acting superb even when choking on some of the goofiest dialogue put on screen. However, overfilling bags and wombling all over creation feels a bit too much like carrying a hefty load of groceries back from the shops, and due to the protracted nature of the storytelling the game only succeeds in fits and starts. Leave it to Hideo Kojima to craft an experience that somehow manages to be simultaneously fascinating and dull – and any game that lets you have a shower with Guillermo del Toro is at the very least memorable – but ultimately Death Stranding is too often a slog rather than a victory lap.

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Dying to Survive

Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

A low-level businessman on the make becomes something of a Big-Pharma Robin Hood in this Chinese box office hit (earning $450 million domestically).

Dying to Survive dramatises true life events, telling the tale of Cheng Yong (Xu Zheng), a Shanghai store owner who struggles to sell his dodgy Indian-imported erection pills to a dissipating clientele. Cheng Yong is engaged in a bitter divorce with his ex-wife Cao Lin (Gong Beibei) who’s looking to move overseas and take their young son, Xiaoshu (Zhu Gengyou) with her. To make matters worse, a routine meeting with divorce attorneys devolves into an aggressive tussle, culminating in Cheng’s Police Detective brother-in-law Cao Bin (Zhou Yiwei) threatening to lay a severe beating on him.

Broke and faced with estrangement from his young son, Cheng Yong discovers a potentially booming underground market for cheap medication to treat Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. He meets the eccentric Lv Shuoyi (Wang Chuanjun), a CML sufferer who inspires him to try and reinvigorate his sagging finances by (illegally) importing a generic brand of CML medication from an Indian Pharmaceutical manufacturer that sells it for a fraction of the cost of its absurdly overpriced counterpart (called Gleevec in the real world, it’s produced by Swiss Pharma company Novartis).

Hitting a wall when he initially attempts to shift the merchandise, Cheng Yong meets exotic dancer Liu Sihui (Tan Zhuo), whose own daughter is sick with CML and is in desperate need of the medication. Soon, with Liu Sihui’s help, Cheng Yong develops a motley network of distributors, who help him distribute the generic medication to the patients who need it.

Many reviewers have reductively termed this ‘a Chinese Dallas Buyers Club’, which although fairly accurate, gives short shrift to a lot of the genuinely enjoyable elements on offer here. Xu Zheng’s hapless and down-on-his-luck Cheng Yong is an appealingly shambolic character who makes taking the journey with him rewarding and at times, even moving.

It’s a testament to the talents of Director Wen Muye and his co-writer’s Han Jianu & Zhong Wei, that Dying to Survive has such a sense of vitality and humanity, coupled with a universally engaging premise in depicting the almost totalitarian stranglehold that big pharmaceutical companies have in most countries and the ethical vacuum in which they conduct their business: by denying the poor and the financially destitute any ability to afford even the most basic forms of life-extending medication.