Like much of Ghanaian society, our cinema is still swayed by the colonial tide

Over 60 years on from the onset of independence, the stench of colonisation still emanates from various facets of Africa’s being. Colonialism manifested in complex social constructions that are both universal and unique. The tagging of indigenous traditions as anathemas, the detachment or forced blending of peoples, the exploitation of our land and its glorious riches, and of course, the small matter of slavery, remain some of the notable offcuts of the centuries of oppression.

Of interest to me is how colonisation left a lasting secondary infection in our vision of cinema and visual storytelling. Mastering the mind is essential to anchoring perspective and there aren’t many better ways than through the surreal magic of moving pictures.

Cinema in Ghana, as well as in most Anglophone countries, began with the various colonial film units. The Gold Coast Colonial Film unit was set up in with its first feature ‘The Boy Kumasenu’. Back then, even up to the overthrow of Nkrumah in 1966, Ghana did not have its own directors. The newsreels, documentaries, and propaganda films from that era were made by foreign directors.

‘The Boy Kumasenu’ was the culmination of motivations that film and African history scholar, Manthia Diawara, noted mirrored the “Scramble of Africa” in 1884. The Europeans felt they had a God-given mandate to civilise Africans. This sentiment was to permeate attempts at filmmaking for Africa.

‘The Boy Kumasenu’ was heralded in its time, garnering a was a best picture nomination at the 1952 BAFTAs. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t aged well, becoming a marker for the latent muzzling and condescending slant of the various colonial film units, as noted by Malian filmmaker Manthia Diawara in his book about African Cinema culture.

Like education and Christianity, the Europeans were very selective in the way they introduced the art of filmmaking. Historians say they feared the layer of consciousness they could attain when the full extent of the power of film to shape minds was grasped.

They tried to shape the narrative of the world, as we have come to know. There is a fascinating 1937 quote from one L.A. Notcutt, the founder of the Bantu Educational Film Experiment, in a piece on African Cinema in The Edinburgh House Press.

“With backward peoples unable to distinguish between truth and falsehood, it is surely in our wisdom, if not our obvious duty, to prevent as far as possible the dissemination of wrong ideas. Should we stand by and see a distorted presentation of the white race’s life accepted by millions of Africans when we have it in our power to show them the truth?”

This basically encapsulates the genesis of anglophone cinema in Africa and its condescending slant. There was a deliberate attempt to keep out nuanced foreign films that peeled off the layers of western society and the white man. There also seemed to be a consensus that the language of foreign cinema, mainly from America, was too complicated for the simple-minded Africans.

The British set up their Colonial Film Unit in 1939 with branches in different parts of Africa including Ghana (then the Gold Coast). Given the timing, it is no surprise that the unit was used for propaganda during the Second World War which many Africans shed blood in.

Image courtesy of Information Services Department, Ghana.
Image courtesy of Information Services Department, Ghana

Films made in Europe and the U.S. were re-edited and with commentaries as opposed to the dialogue of the onscreen characters in a bid to maintain absolute control. This was the approach used in the ‘The Boy Kumasenu’ which, despite its fine coming-of-age narrative, features a British narrator spoon-feeding the audience and watering down the nuance and agency.

The father of African Cinema, Ousmane Sembené sought to right these wrongs with his seminal 1966 feature film, ‘Black Girl’. This being his first feature, it doubles as his cinematic manifesto and what he probably hoped would be a politically charged blueprint for African storytellers to come.

Sembené empowers his protagonist with something as simple as a voice. His subjective story provided the first honest sentiments about Africa in film nodding towards despair, loneliness, exploitation, naiveté and, most importantly, a renewed desire to resist.

He viewed cinema as a key tool for mental liberation. Sembené was a novelist but realised almost 85 percent the people he hoped to impact were illiterate. This made his African brand of neo-realist filmmaking a logical transition for him. He was the antithesis of colonial methods, which ultimately sought to forward western agendas and keep the African worldview in binds.

So Africa had its trailblazer right? An independent African filmmaker emerging from the shadows of oppression to counter colonial cinema. The problem was Africa was so damn fragmented and the gap between Anglophone and Francophone cinema may as well have been a galaxy. News flash, independence never severed the tethers we had to our colonial masters. Like Sembené asserts in ‘Black Girl’, decolonisation is a myth. Indeed, some read ‘Black Girl’ as a critique of France’s enduring stranglehold on film production that still had filmmakers in former colonies still reliant on them.

Sembene on the set of 'Emitai'
Sembené on the set of ‘Emitai’

Francophone cinema had its hot streak; producing over a dozen films that resonate today because of the sense of shared trauma and the conviction with which their auteurs spoke truth to power.

Not to go into the minutia of the history of African cinema (you can read Manthia Diawara’s excellent accounts in his book African Cinema: History and Politics) but simplest way to put it is France, thanks to some advocacy, loosened its vice grip on the cinematic output of its colonies significantly earlier so they were running before the British allowed Ghana to crawl. Did Ghana ever start to walk even? Maybe; with a pronounced limp.

Dysfunction has always abounded when it comes to African cinema. The European’s held sway because they had access to the resources of production even after the various decrees restricting African filmmakers were lifted circa the ‘50s and ‘60s. With time, access to resources became easier. Debates over the more accessible and cheaper 16mm productions versus the standard and more exclusive 35mm are now prehistoric. Now a master like Stephen Soderbherg is making films with iPhones.

Now the one hurdle, a hurdle built like the Great Wall of China, is navigating the distribution cesspit. It’s a simple statement uttered by Tunisian filmmaker Ferid Boughedir that reminds us of how dire our situation is: “Fundamentally, African cinema does not exist because film distribution is not in Africa’s hands.”

Since the days of Sembené access to African cinema from varied countries by African cinephiles across the continent has been a major bane because of the dysfunctional distribution channels. The internet and unfortunately piracy made things a little easier. The odd classic of African cinema has been made accessible by fair or foul means.

Contemporary films with commendable ambition from other African countries are difficult to see whiles the more accessible bits teeter around the threshold exploitation fare to plain rubbish – mostly from Hollywood.

There are standouts in there; from Ghana and Nigeria, which provide most of the African film content I consume (thanks to South African streaming platform Showmaxx, films from South Africa are also a click away). Blitz Bazawule’s debut feature, ‘The Burial of Kojo’ gives me hope that over the next decade, Ghana will have a master of the cinematic art. He demonstrates the kind of visual flair and storytelling dexterity that has probably been alien to Ghanaian Cinema since Kwaw Ansah’s two best films came out decades ago.

Ghana’s political instability following independence certainly didn’t help. When Nkrumah was overthrown, the new regime confiscated all the films produced between l957 and 1966 because of how tethered they were to Nkrumah’s image. To set up new production policies, Sam Aryetey, a graduate of the 1949 Accra Film Training School and a director described as Ghana’s premier filmmaker was named as the head of the Ghana Film Corporation 1969.

Noted as the foremost authority on African cinema, Paulin S. Vieyra viewed Ghana as having equipment capable of completing a dozen feature films a year. We also had 10 indigenous directors at the time. Aryetey himself boasted: “In Ghana, we possess the best cinematographic infrastructure in tropical Africa.” But between 1966 and Ghana produced less than 10 feature films – a betrayal of potential and resources also evident in how we have mismanaged resources like gold and cocoa.

Aryetey favoured a policy of co-production and he was rightfully targeting distribution outlets outside Africa. But his tenure was marked by the same neo-colonialist influences that have plagued the development of African countries. He signed with an Italian director, Giorgio Bontempi, and their first film was noted as a financial disaster. But it was the reverting to European filmmakers that was the true disaster. In Manthia Diawara’s words, he set back the progress of film production decades to the era of the Colonial Films Units. Aryetey was “economically wasteful and racist.”

Kofi Bucknor in Heritage Africa
Kofi Bucknor in Heritage Africa

This meant only independent filmmakers could really make their mark beyond Ghana; most notably Kwaw Ansah with ‘Love Brewed in an African Pot’ in 1981 and ‘Heritage Africa’ in 1989. As renowned as those films were, there is no indication that they signaled a marked shift in our cinema output because the powers that be were mere unknowing proxies for the former colonial powers and never truly liberated.

The neo-colonisation was crystal for those who refused to be zombies. And it prompted a reaction from the likes of Sembené, whose first film is a retort to the myth of decolonisation. It is why in 1989 Kwaw Ansah weaved his own thread of confrontational art with the way he tackled the tragic cultural erosion brought on by British rule – a tragedy embodied by the film’s flawed protagonist’s treatment of (his) mother.

Just by virtue of our fraught history and the stakes at play, I’d like to think an African film by definition should have some strands of resistance pivoting of realism infused storytelling. To put it simply in Tunisian film critic and the founder of the Carthage Film Festival Taher Cheriaa’s words, African cinema must be “militant cinema.”

“It shall be first and foremost a cultural action with social and political value, or it will be nothing. If it eventually can also become an economic action, that will only be a by-product.”

But economic action has been our most pressing concern over the years. We heard but didn’t listen when the likes of Kwaw Ansah spoke. This is why local productions grew too comfortable mimicking the exploitation films that were dumped on the continent from the US, India and China. Yes, they had their pleasures and there is certainly a place for them in popular culture but not when they drown out what should be the soul of African cinema, which manifests in seldom commercial but more intellectual and artistic output.

That’s not even taking into account the problematic politics of these films which were littered with painful racist stereotypes and insular ideologies whilst being in service of a system of film distribution that cripples local industries already struggling with capital and infrastructure. And God forbid the State take an interest in backing filmmakers with a voice. But who can blame them if such support culminates work resembling that joyously incendiary coda to ‘Xala‘ – where the state’s contribution to our collective malaise is called out with lacerating contempt.

Now, our films still mirror the simplicity our colonial masters felt was our portion. By virtue of the output we see, you get the sense most of our filmmakers don’t think us capable of deciphering visual language and complex ideas. There are minimal attempts to conceive of Ghana in more layered ways.

There are times when some of our prominent filmmakers, like Shirley Frimpong-Manso flirt with interesting ideas in their films but regress to more fluffy romance themes. A clear case was in ‘Rebecca’ where Shirley ropes us in with her empathetic view of a woman roped into an arranged marriage. She prods at interesting ideas about superstition too. But she can’t resist the urge for a cheesy exploitative bout of lovemaking in the rain.

Shirley-Frimpong-Manso-and-Joselyn-Dumas
Shirley Frimpong-Manso (L)

This year Shirley and her production house, Sparrow Productions, marked a decade since the release of ‘Perfect Picture’, a film that began a run of high profile local productions that centered women and perhaps hinted at the first real building block for the film industry since before the video boom in the 90s. Though she directed my favorite Ghanaian film in the period, the black comedy ‘Six Hours to Christmas’, I can’t say she lived up to the promise of 2009. To put on my pretentious hat, I would simply say she never made a film that felt important to the culture.

Like most things having to do with Africa’s development, there will have to be some form of compromise from cinema purists, I must admit. Industries are built on wealth not prestige, ideals and critical acclaim. Grants and aid from foreign sources will gift as a couple of great films each year but there is no real viability there. Worst of all, these films don’t really get seen by Africans. They get no real screen time in our cinemas if any at all.

So what’s the way forward then? Nollywood I guess (insert shrug emoji). The Nigerian film industry’s foothold is getting deeper and deeper and it is kind of impressive. Streaming services, Netflix in particular, are to thank for this; helping entrench their influence and standing in popular culture which begun with the video boom from two decades ago. A carousel of Nigerian films greets me anytime I scroll through Netflix because there is a growing appetite for Nollywood content on the continent and in the diaspora. We are at a point where Netflix was compelled to place its strongest bet on the industry by purchasing Genevieve Nnaji’s ‘Lionheart‘ for distribution.

But it’s mostly pulp. As much as we love to tout the unprecedented capture of our screens by Nollywood, there is a frivolous method to the madness. It needs more substance that will elevate it to the next level. Whilst a filmmaker like Kunle Afolayan has demonstrated his ability to consistently deliver more thoughtful stories about his setting I need to see more textured stories from the Nollywood behemoth.

And that next level for Nollywood should be more pan-African and possibly involve a scenario where Ghana, Liberia and other Anglophone countries are reaping the fruits of its gigantic market. We should get to point where a production has the diverse business DNA of a film like the widely acclaimed ‘Rafiki’ which had a Kenyan director, was produced by a South African and adapted from a Ugandan short story.

Like in the socio-political realms, Africa’s success in the cinema scape will depend on us coming together. The only route to success is pan-African – a structural counter to the decimation of the continent by the colonial powers. The same thinking required to overcome existing and emerging neo-colonial forces is needed to ensure a higher cinematic discourse.

I’ll conclude with what Wanuri Kahiu, Rafiki’s director, said to Quartz Africa: “I think it’s high time that we come together and do more pan-African collaborations because west Africa has a really great history of cinema.”

EL CAMINO provides the coda to Breaking Bad we didn’t know we needed

One night six years ago I went to bed after the Breaking Bad finale ‘Felina’ knowing Jess Pinkman was free. There was a level of warmth and enduring satisfaction that reminded me Jesse was always the heart of the show, taking the mantle from Bryan Cranston’s iconic Walter White, who was dragged into the abyss by the show’s coda.

Jesse’s ironically instead found redemption as the show progressed though his was a tortured arc riddle with loss and pain. But he found some reprieve at the end. Jesse (portrayed so devastatingly by Aaron Paul) drives into the night at the end of ‘Felina’ screaming like a mad man, after a season and a half of being held captive as a meth cook and tortured by neo-nazi drug dealers. I’ll spare the uninitiated the details of that finale but it felt oh so complete.

Thus, the apprehension following the announcement of a Breaking Bad movie centered on Jesse was justified. It was ripe for an “absolutely nobody” meme if failed. We live in an IP world and the film eventually titled ‘El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie’ would do well to justify its existence. The good news is that it does, not by contriving a whole new adventure but by engaging in minimalism that comes from treating the film as an epilogue, albeit one that runs for two hours.

Directed by Vince Gilligan with the kind of measured flair that made me wish I saw this in a cinema, El Camino is more concerned with mood and it’s subject’s psyche than plot. The plot itself is fairly simple giving Jesse a simple motivation. He may be free from his torment but he is declared a wanted man and has to find a way to evade police to get safely out of Albuquerque New Mexico and start a new life.

The film’s title comes from the car Jesse escaped in, which belonged to his psychopathic captor Todd (Jess Plemons). He heads straight for the home of Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matthew Lee Jones), who are the first of the many familiar faces we meet. Jesse is grizzled, weathered and broken by his time as a slave for neo-Nazis. I was surprised by how scared up he looked given I’ve yet to find time to revisit the Breaking Bad universe.

The plot then begins to play out as a series of problem-solving exercises that run over the course of two days. First, it’s about disposing of the El Camino then it’s about finding money to pay for the services of Ed the disappearer (played with the charming cool we will remember the dearly departed Robert Forster for) who helped both Walter White and Saul Goodman during the Breaking Bad series.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

There a lot of ghosts along the way that Jesse has to confront. The script is great in the way it amplifies little details in the series (details I’m yet to verify even featured). Our survivor’s needs take him to the home of Todd and he eventually also gets in touch with his parents in a touching moment, all in pursuit of the cash he needs to pay Ed. One other encounter serves up some exhilarating moments and reminds us that Gilligan is also taking quiet inspiration from westerns.

Jesse is so young but his life is riddled with regret, which is ultimately what ‘El Camino’ is about. This leans into the near-perfect use of flashbacks, which reveal to us unknown details of Jesse’s torture by the neo-nazis explaining to us how he basically became Reek. The flashbacks, sewn with sentiment and well-earned fan service, also cut to the core of the theme of what could have been for our lead.

The flashback is also almost a character in ‘El Camino’, changing the way it interacts with Jesse as his circumstances change. They offer solutions at one point and healing the next giving him the drive to take each step forward as the stakes heighten. Most importantly, they remind him that, at the very least, his turbulent time in the criminal underworld will forever haunt. They’ll forever be as real as the scars on his face and torso.

The scars will forever be with him but at least he can start over. That’s one of the lessons the flashbacks gift us. When the goodbye comes, it’s as tender as you would expect. Gilligan gives us a lesson on how to handle a beloved character (I’m looking at you ‘Last Blood’).

‘EL Camino’, whilst slick in its brilliant thrills and western vibes, didn’t feel overly heavy. Gilligan is trying to make ‘Unforgiven’ though he owes some debt to it. One may even describe its pacing and plotting as lacking ambition and too tethered to TV. Then there’s the issue of the actors maybe being too old (and overweight) for the story. But by God did it feel like perfection. We walk away knowing Jesse hadn’t just found freedom. He had found healing too.

BOYS NO DEY CRY: Behind the film hoping to start uncomfortable conversations among Ghanaian men

The minds behind ‘Boys No Dey Cry’, a short film that made a mark with some men because of its theme of toxic masculinity, did not set out to be a 12-minute therapy session. They only sought to start “an uncomfortable conversation.”

‘Boys No Dey Cry’ tells the story of Joojo (Papa Osei Akoto), a man who’s been unemployed for three years and contending with the strain of unfulfillment and family tensions, especially with his father. The bulk of the film takes place in a therapy session, where he is compelled to open up about his struggles.

I found the film to be unique in the way it wove in various levels of Ghanaian frustration. Aside from government failings that see our protagonist unemployed, family and religion offer little reprieve. His father and mother only seem to make the matter worse.

 

There was some apprehension when first time filmmaker, Albert Donkor, first run his idea for the film by co-writer of 2018’s ‘Lucky’, Joewackle Kusi. To this point, Joewackle hadn’t had the smoothest of interactions with fellow artists.

“I have really had a lot of creatives hit me up to work on projects with me but one real challenge for creatives in Ghana is we like the idea of working together than actually working together. So personally, for me, I wasn’t entirely interested in the entire project,” he told me.

It was going to take a lot more than a surface proposal from Donkor to move him to work on the project that would eventually become ‘Boys No Dey Cry’. Thankfully Donkor had the extra layers that would draw in Joewackle. It had to do with not just the central theme and ideas that tackled mental health but also the sense of perspective.

The core idea of the film is filtered through a man cowed by the weight of a fraught relationship with his father and frustrated further by a dysfunctional society. It presented an opportunity for Joewackle, who recalled that he was going “through a lot” at the time, to use the project as a diary and an avenue to pour pieces of himself into the narrative. “I feel like, for every single frame, there is me in every single frame,” he said.

Donkor felt the same way, noting how he viewed the central character as “a representation of my friends and me.” And it wasn’t just him. The two felt like shared experience from the all-male crew contributed to the authenticity of the story.

Joewackle may not have been unemployed for three years like the film’s subject, but the sense of frustration from professional stasis, which he related to, was the tone he was going for.

“At every point in time, every young person finds themselves in such a situation. If you are not unemployed you are probably not happy with your job and you just don’t know exactly where your life is headed.”

I viewed the actor, Papa Osei Akoto as the bridge between the script and the direction. The film loses some bite without him delivering an affecting performance.

Papa Osei, a close friend to Donkor, was an easy choice to star in the film. Joewackle had also worked with him on ‘Lucky’ and was impressed with his range. He wrote the role for someone who was “super masculine” but “who was actually tuned with his emotions and willing and ready to accept the fact that he needs help.”

After being pitched the idea midway through 2018, and about four months of prep and getting into character for Papa Osei, the film was shot later that December.

Donkor had a specific wavelength he wanted his leading man to hit. “I needed him to be anti-social at the same time vulnerable. Not open up and at the same time wanting to. He nailed it perfectly.”

With the “perfect” subject in place, Donkor had had the final cog in his machine of empathy. He forces Joojo in our face and opts for handheld shots, which he favored for the more naturalistic feel it would bring.

“I like handheld shots for intimacy. [They are] more natural. You are able to centre and have a close up look on emotions. I needed people who were going through that phase to feel they were in that room, they were the ones sitting there. For them to say ‘wow this is me’,” Donkor explained.

Albert Donkor (L) and Andy Madjitey, his cinematographer on location during the filming of ‘Boys No Dey Cry’

Donkor says people did connect with the story and the central performance. I saw some commentary on social media that pointed to the fact that guys were aware of the social norms that keep them in a repressed state.

Ghana is behind on multiple fronts in the healthcare sector and mental health is not exempt. According to the World Health Organisation (admittedly very old data), 650,000 are suffering from a severe mental disorder and a further 2,166, 000 are suffering from a moderate to mild mental disorder. Worryingly, the treatment gap is 98 percent of the total population expected to have a mental disorder.

It is some of these socio-political realities that informed a bleak reading of ‘Boys No Dey Cry’ on my part. To me, Joojo’s only option was to internalise his troubles. The film ends with him revealing he’s been talking to himself the whole time and a sense of despair weighed heavy for me at the end of the film.

But like most writers, Joewackle seeks the best for his character and had a more hopeful direction as he penned a coda to ‘Boys no Dey Cry’. Joojo’s inner dialogue is only the first step in the healing process.

“If you need healing, you need to have that communication with yourself. You need to have that inner conviction. Before Joojo decides to go for professional help, he had to sit with himself. He had to sit with the man in the mirror and they had to talk and communicate,” the writer explained.

Going forward, these are the kinds of stories these two filmmakers hope to tell. They are currently in the development stages of a feature film, Donkor’s first, which will start filming in Kumasi in 2020.

For those taking note, Donkor wants ‘Boys No Dey Cry’ to be the blueprint that sets him apart from the mainstream exploitation fare in Ghanaian cinema.

With their ambition and support from fellow filmmakers who sent in their critiques and admiration of the work, the film was a good stepping stone.

And as for fulfillment, that came from just connecting with an audience. “I had a lot of my own friends and strangers saying ‘this is my story’. This, I feel is my reward,” Donkor said.

The descent into mad violence may be JOKER’s most compelling quality

“We are all clowns.” It’s one of the defining statements of Todd Phillip’s grim take on an iconic fictional villain. It’s a message that transcends the screen and, one level reminds us that the world got crazier as we droned on in oversized shoes. On the other hand, it’s almost an incendiary call to action for the disenfranchised; a call to embrace the craziness with torched intensity.

The odd thing is ‘Joker’ cares nothing for the struggle of the common man. It eats its cake and is gifted two extra. People are going to (or already) feel charged by this nihilistic dissection of society whilst others will dismiss it as right-wing propaganda. Even before most of the world had seen ‘Joker’, it had successfully courted outpourings of praise and derision alike.

Appreciating the clunky but inherent duality is central to understanding ‘Joker’ and its central character, the mentally ill Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). I invoked body horror master David Cronenberg and the distressing line from ‘The Fly’ as I tried to process the film:

“I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over and the insect is awake. I’m saying: ‘I’ll hurt you if you stay.’”

Fleck is an insect only he’s done a horrible job of posing as a man in his dream. Like a cockroach, he invites nothing but violence. There is a sense of melancholy that never gives us respite from the opening scene, where Fleck fidgets with his face, forcing smiles and frowns all whiles his eyes remain a bottomless pit of sadness. He is prepping for his day job as a sign-twirling clown.

As if we needed a reminder that life has been terribly unkind to Fleck he is picked on and eventually beaten on by a group of overly vicious juveniles who stomp on him like it was the Lord’s work. Fleck later gets a gun for protection, which he clumsily drops when entertaining kids in the hospital. This then costs him his job and thrusts Fleck towards the end of his dream – which has more often than not has been a nightmare.

A lot had been made of Phoenix’s mesmerisingly ornate performance as Fleck and boy are there moments where he is just allowed to cook, like in the electrifying final 30 minutes. There is serpentine quality to him enforced by his pale gaunt frame that invites equal amounts of concern and revulsion. But Phoenix is also comfortable being but a tool in Philips’ hand, who defies a filmography littered with crass comedies, to direct a film with teeters between deft and unsubtle with purpose.

Philips views Fleck as a pitiful sub-human loner who gives his sorry mom (Frances Conroy) baths and is thirty years too late in his attempts to sync with regular society. There is a cringe quality to his ghastly laugh, which runs through all his attempts to interact with regular humour.

There’s this sweetly composed sequence in a comedy lounge with a beautiful array of vivid red lamps where Fleck forces out ill-timed laughs because he sees others responding to jokes, not because he gets them. And by design, to entrench his alienation, Fleck has a condition which sees him burst into hysterical laughter for no reason, mostly in inappropriate situations.

On top of all this, he aspires to be a stand-up comedian and longs to appear on a late-night show hosted by a comic named Murray Franklin. And yes, Franklin is played by Robert De Niro in one of the key nods to Martin Scorsese.

‘Joker’ flies its Scorsese influences proudly, retreading particular iconography from ‘Taxi Driver’ to pretentious and sometimes annoying effect. Joker is set in Gotham City of course but it was too easy to forget that fact. The mood screams hellish New York; the dour concrete cesspit Scorsese envisions in ‘Taxi Driver.’ It’s violent, filthy (there is a garbage strike and there are “super rats” on the rampage) and it’s bursting at the seams with stark inequality.

The socio-politics and an eruption of violence give this film its first proper foothold into DC canon as we are introduced to Thomas Wayne, who is running for mayor. The heavy subjectivity means he comes across as quite unlikeable – a member of the detached one percent more likely to opt for “bootstraps” rhetoric than empathy. He wants to cleanse Gotham of the “clowns” and save the city from combusting in anarchy as a violent anti-rich uprising beckons.

When the ‘Joker’ was announced, ‘The King of Comedy’ seemed like the obvious parallel and it’s the only meta-layer Philips really needed to weave in because the story feels sturdier when it leans towards comic book elements. In ‘The King of Comedy’, De Niro played an unsympathetic unhinged fan stalking a star comedian. Now he’s on the other side of the screen being ogled by a terrible comedian who has lost touch with reality.

Philips makes some smart moves here all but declaring ‘Joker’ a spiritual sequel to ‘The King of Comedy’. The best sections of the film and most of the final act engage with ideas of toxic fandom and a repulsive allure of a broken media, which also evokes 1976’s ‘Network’.

‘The King of Comedy’ and ‘Network’ were prescient media satires and ‘Joker’ is as much an update to them as it is an outburst of anger at their neglect. We heard but didn’t listen, Philips seems to say, as he makes his provocative statement to once again try to grab our attention with shocks and make a more damning coda than Scorsese did in 1982.

Anarchy is what prevails as the film winds down and at this point, we think of Joaquin more in Joker terms than the mentally ill Fleck. He’s fully awake and brings the hurt in ultraviolent spurts of rage as he is crystalised as the avatar of a chaotic class uprising.

There are ideological threads to the mayhem we see from the antagonists in ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, the former of which features Heath Ledger’s monumental turn as the eponymous villain. But those films have one thing ‘Joker’ does not; those films have a Batman.

So it is worth asking if this film has a lower ceiling because it lacks a foil to balance the scales. That is unless you decide to view the seedy society as the villain. Then things get confusing because, whilst the society brought nothing but pain Fleck’s way, it deifies the Joker.

My head is starting to hurt and the clown make up on my face is starting to itch as I rack my head around what the ultimate joke could be. “You won’t get it,” the film seems to tell us in one of its numerous endings. I’ll still try. The ultimate joke, the killing joke, if you may, probably is that that Joker really isn’t about anything. It says a lot but never commits. The only thing it owns up to is the violence, which finally gets us a happy face.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD is a soulless goodbye to a beloved icon

John Rambo was a totem of my childhood and an institution that cast a large shadow over action cinema for decades. Over the course of four films, the character crystalised by Sylvester Stallone morphed from a tragic and affecting portrait of a casualty of the Vietnam War to a slice of ‘80s pulp pro-American propaganda (save the fourth entry where Rambo takes on the Burmesse junta).

The Rambo totem began to crumble the older I got. Of course, four-year-old me loved the machine gunnery and the mind-blowing explosive archery. But, to my dad’s chagrin, I had little affinity for ‘First Blood’ – a film I only began to appreciate as God sprinkled some wisdom on me the older I got.

Like ‘First Blood’, lean and nuanced was my expectation when ‘Rambo: Last Blood’ was announced – the farewell John Rambo deserved. Running at about 100 minutes the lean part was sorted. All that was left was a soulful narrative doused in utmost empathy for its hero. But that was apparently too much to ask of Stallone and his director Adrian Grunberg.

The story sees Rambo relatively adjusted to civilization 11 years after ripping Burmese soldiers to shreds. He has settled down on a ranch in Arizona where he lives with his niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) and her grandmother. When he is not volunteering with search parties in raging storms, he is breaking in wild horses or tending to the network of tunnels under his property. The tunnels aren’t the only reminders of his Vietnam War PTSD. He is also guzzling down some pills to keep him in check. He’s trying to keep a lid on things, we are reminded in ham-fisted fashion later on.

Character-wise, ‘Last Blood’ is all flat and relies on the plot show the characters the way. A phone call out of nowhere prompts Gabrielle to run off to Mexico in search of her estranged father against “Uncle John” and her aunt’s wishes and xenophobic fears.

She then falls into the clutches of the drug cartel’s sex ring, dragging Rambo across the border for a desperate rescue mission that is capped off with probably an unintentional nod to the hammer fueled rampage at a brothel in ‘You Were Never Really here’.

Narrative contrivances follow in service of funneling nameless cartel henchmen to his lair in the final 15 minutes to satisfy our blood lust and add to Rambo’s already historic body count. There is admittedly some joy in watching Rambo hunt with bloodthirsty efficiency; like the fabled Minotaur in a maze of his own making and rigged to an inch of its life with booby traps designed to showcase maximum gore.

The problem was, my lack of interest as the credits rolled was only matched by my disappointment. The filmmakers seemingly rub in the lack of depth of thier work with the end credits montage of shots from the old Rambo movies, starting with the hallowed and more sympathetic ‘First Blood’.

Maybe we care more about Rambo than Stallone does. It’s clear the actor once christened the next Brando has still has range; on the evidence of his work as the equally adored Rocky Balboa the two Creed movies. Consider the final time we see Rocky in ‘Creed 2’, brimming with grace and humanity, and I imagine a 14-year-old rushing gleefully to 1976 to start his journey with the ultimate underdog.

There are no such draws here. The biggest indictment of ‘Last Blood’ will be that the nihilistic and unredemptive portrayal of Rambo here is likely to fill new viewers with contempt more than anything. That’s the true shame.

The Rambo totem began to crumble the older I got. Of course, four-year-old me loved the machine gunnery and the mind-blowing explosive archery. But, to my dad’s chagrin, I had little affinity for ‘First Blood’ – a film I only began to appreciate as God sprinkled some wisdom on me the older I got.

Like ‘First Blood’, lean and nuanced was my expectation when ‘Last Blood’ was announced – the farewell John Rambo deserved. Running at about 100 minutes the lean part was sorted. All that was left was a soulful narrative doused in utmost empathy for its hero. But that was apparently too much to ask of Stallone and his director Adrian Grunberg.

The story sees Rambo relatively adjusted to civilization. He has settled down on a ranch in Arizona where he lives with his niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) and her grandmother. When he is not volunteering with search parties in raging storms, he is breaking in wild horses or tending to the network of tunnels under his property. The tunnels aren’t the only reminders of his Vietnam War PTSD. He is also guzzling down some pills to keep him in check. He’s trying to keep a lid on things, we are reminded in ham-fisted fashion later on.

Character-wise, ‘Last Blood’ is all flat and relies on the plot show the characters the way. A phone call out of nowhere prompts Gabrielle to run off to Mexico in search of her estranged father against “Uncle John” and her aunt’s wishes and xenophobic fears.

She then falls into the clutches of the drug cartel’s sex ring, dragging Rambo across the border for a desperate rescue mission that is capped off with probably an unintentional nod to the hammer fueled rampage at a brothel in ‘You Were Never Really here’.

Narrative contrivances follow in service of funneling nameless cartel henchmen to his lair in the final 15 minutes to satisfy our blood lust and add to Rambo’s already historic body count. There is admittedly some joy in watching Rambo hunt with bloodthirsty efficiency; like the fabled Minotaur in a maze of his own making and rigged to an inch of its life with booby traps designed to showcase maximum gore.

The problem was, my lack of interest as the credits rolled was only matched by my disappointment. The filmmakers seemingly rub in the lack of depth of thier work with the end credits montage of shots from the old Rambo movies, starting with the hallowed and more sympathetic ‘First Blood’.

Maybe we care more about Rambo than Stallone does. It’s clear the actor once christened the next Brando has still has range; on the evidence of his work as the equally adored Rocky Balboa the two Creed movies. Consider the final time we see Rocky in ‘Creed 2’, brimming with grace and humanity. And the thought of a 14-year-old time travelling gleefully to 1976 to start his journey with the ultimate underdog fills me with warmth.

There are no such draws here. The biggest indictment of ‘Last Blood’ will be that the nihilistic and unredemptive portrayal of Rambo here is likely to fill new viewers with contempt more than anything. That’s the true shame.

AD ASTRA’s gloss wears off with time but Brad Pitt’s class is unmatched

I’ve calmed down a bit since I rushed out of my ‘Ad Astra’ screening to Twitter to all but declare it my film of the year. As the excitement simmered away and I organised my thoughts for this piece, sanity prevailed and ‘Ash is the Purest White’ resumed its place atop that list pending ‘Joker’ and ‘The Irishman’ and whatever surprises come my way.

Not quite the masterpiece it appeared to be in real-time, James Gray’s science-fiction adventure cuts a humbling cinematic experience – whisking me into a void and forcing me to bow to the disorienting emptiness of outer space that offers equal amounts of allure and terror. Suck in too much of the masterful Hoyte van Hoytema’s photography and the elegance morphs into the abyss we were warned about in the trailer.

‘Ad Astra’ is as much an interstellar thriller as it is a familial drama. It sees some philosophical discourse streamed through a heart-wrenching character study anchored by an understated gravitas gushing forth from Brad Pitt. One could argue ‘Ad Astra’ is also the most primal of ghost stories, only this spectre comes for most of the interplanetary system with a temporal fury.

It’s some years into the future and space travel has advanced far enough that the Americans have a colony on Mars. Hell, even the virus of capitalism has sunk its claws into the moon with a number of recognisable brands plastered about.

But all this is threatened by some mysterious power surges. Pitt’s astronaut character, Major Roy McBride, is at work on a giant space antenna when the first of these surges hits, launching a sequence that involves Roy leaping from the terrifyingly tall tower towards earth in the first of the film’s minimally conceived but somehow still spectacular action set pieces that also evoked ‘Gravity’.

When the chaos dies down Roy learns his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who was presumed dead along with the rest of his expedition decades ago, might be the cause of the surges that have caused the deaths of almost 50,000 people. Clifford had pushed the boundaries more than any other man on multiple levels. Not only had he reached as far as Neptune in search of alien life, but he also had the resolve to choose “purpose” over family; saying bye to a 16-year-old Roy in the process.

Roy seems to have followed in his father’s footsteps; excelling in his service to the U.S. Space Command with his fabled calmness under duress (his pulse never breaks 80bpm) but failing his wife and embracing solitude. The line between paternal inspiration and familial scars is blurred but Roy is gifted the hope of closure when he is given the task of travelling to Mars to try and establish contact with his father and possibly stop the surges which were sparked by an antimatter reaction.

Like most films these days, I went into ‘Ad Astra’ cold and after the screening, I watched the trailer and was surprised by how much plot it contained. I’ll hold off on much of the story even though the likening of space to the abyss and the numerous “cross between ‘2001’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’” tags may give one an indication of how the plot will unravel.

It’s a bit of a disservice to Gray to raise the bar to those Kubrick-Coppola levels. Aside a few feints here and there (and bearing in mind I still, criminally, haven’t seen ‘2001’), Gray is charting his own path, very much concerned with the fraught bond between a father and son, and the questions that arise forth – like if we are doomed to repeat our forbearers’ mistakes or pay for them. Roy’s journey is almost an ethereal reckoning that demands the kind of arduous spiritual untethering the initiated would have heard prophesied at a prayer meeting.

Roy is in need of some deliverance though. His disquiet and ice cool mastery of nerves can deflect for only so long. With each step towards his objective, his repressed angst bubbles to the fore; early on through his brooding narrations and also flashbacks tinged with regret to his now-estranged wife played by Liv Tyler. The sentiment then gushes forth in two excellent scenes later on that ambush us with overpowering emotion and vulnerability from Pitt, who overturns the vibe of the film without so much as lifting a finger.

The voice-over narration, I found, was a bit frustrating especially given Pitt was operating at a level of ungodly nuance. It also undercuts the sense of suffocating solitude and quiet that comes with being alone in the vast solar system. There is a clear line between a film like Claire Denis’s more eccentric and narratively superior and physiologically stimulating ‘High Life’.

‘Ad Astra’s’ humanist core is, however, easier to grasp at and I imagine many a man will be moved to tears by the Freudian spices that ginger this story. Also, Gray offers more cinematic entertainment value than I expected with the introduction of space pirates, lunar shootouts, foreshadowing feral baboons at a point and zero gravity fight sequences.

Then there’s van Hoytema’s stellar visual sensibility that elevates the uneven Mars sequences to mesmerizingly rewatchable heights with its use of tactile reddish hues that drape over the breathtaking production design. And van Hoytema’s mesmerising wizardry on the canvas the orange-tinted visors of the astronaut’s helmets presents is to die for.

I still expect ‘Ad Astra’ to feature in my top films of 2019. Gray has bared part of his soul to us and it invites tremendous amounts of empathy and may crucially offer some healing. As overwhelming as the spectacle is, Gray still trusts Pitt and his deft charisma to guide his vision and exploration on interiority home. It’s a testament not only Pitt’s prowess but the power of a thespian’s craft to strip everything away and invite the undivided gaze of the audience.

BOYS NO DEY CRY – Tragedy and dysfunction colour this affecting portrait of modern Ghana

It only took 12 minutes for Albert Donkor to construct the most vivid portrait of Ghanaian society in a good while. Very textured and brimming with empathy, this story by JoeWackle Kusi and Ricky Ansong, is a tacit critique of a dysfunctional society that has failed on the political, religious and familial front.

‘Boys No Dey Cry’s’ angst is filtered through our lead, the unemployed Joojo (Papa Osei Akoto). Donkor forces Joojo in our faces and piles on societal misfires as the film rolls to its quietly painful denouement. When we first meet him, there is a palpable unease permeating through the screen that seemingly defies the upbeat hip hop soundtrack until the anthem comes yelling: “I am frustrated!”

Joojo’s frustrations leave him in a dark place. His therapy sessions are meant to guide him to the light but Joojo’s isn’t the easiest subject. There is this sense of a performance within the performance by Akoto, which becomes clearer when Joojo opens up to the therapist, switching from English to pidgin.

There is a magnetic quality to Akoto, who at times looks like every breath brings him physical pain. Why is he running? Why is he frustrated? What’s his story? There may be maby answers to these but his fraught relationship with his father, which features prominently in the short film’s marketing, is presented as one of the core causes of his distress.

Nuance is a key ingredient of all good storytelling, an ingredient this screenplay does not want for. It falls firmly in the social realism boat that some of the finest entries into African Cinema have ridden. For some ‘Boys No Dey Cry’ will be a harsh peek into a different world; one some of us actively avoid as we check out. For others, this short will have a mirror effect or even amplify frustrations.

In a show of restraint, Donkor shies away from confrontation. What he seeks are introspection and release. The story gets on the nose with its surface ideas but he earns the moment when a tear finally streaks down Joojo’s cheek.

There is an immense affecting quality to the story that, in a way, makes it easy to overlook Donkor’s fine direction. But some of the bumps in the filmmaking are also made easier to swallow; like some sloppy edits or somewhat tedious attempts to sustain the unseen therapist conceit.

There is an ambiguity that punctuates the film’s subjective coda. It points to something bleaker; something more authentic than a mere therapy session; something akin to a subtle repression we all engage in. That, for me, is this story’s ultimate truth and ‘Boys No Dey Cry’ is richer for it.

READY OR NOT, here the blood-sucking rich people come

The year is 2019 and the uprising against capitalist scum is being led by a bloodied bride in a ripped wedding dress in a pair of worn Chuck Taylors. Running at a cool 95 minutes, ‘Read or Not’, also known as ‘Fucking Rich People’ is a class satire that never shies away from caustic punch lines and perverse thrills. It’s all pulp and minimal depth but with enough relentlessness to keep us on edge for most of the film.

‘Read or Not’ is quite literally fun and games punctuated with ultra-violent beats. Our heroine, Grace (Samara Weaving) marries into a family, the Le Domases, that got rich over generations from manufacturing various board games and owning sports teams. Don’t worry, they don’t like owning people (not that we know of). They prefer to hunt. One of their ancestors supposedly made a pact with the devil that requires anyone marrying into the family to play a random game on the wedding night.

Grace weds the family’s youngest son Daniel (Adam Brody) and the ceremony itself is hostile enough; with leering aunts and snickering cousins wary of her being a potential gold digger. Things only get worse when Grace picks the worst possible game during game time – hide and seek. As a record player counts down to 100 in creepy fashion, a tipsy Grace, oblivious to her temporary opening of a door to hell, stumbles towards a hiding place as the family loads up with a harpoon, battle axe, a variety of guns and a crossbow. The hunt is on.

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(L to R) Kristian Bruun, Melanie Scrofano, Andie MacDowell, Henry Czerny, Nicky Guadagni, Adam Brody, and Elyse Levesque in the film READY OR NOT. Photo by Eric Zachanowich. (Twentieth Century Fox )

They don’t want to kill her though – at least not during the hunt. The superstitious layer becomes more prominent than it needs to be as we learn the family actually wants to sacrifice Grace to fulfill its end of the pact. They are terrified of what could happen if Grace isn’t presented as an offering to whatever force is inspiring such demented devotion. However, no Le Domas generation has failed prior to this so there really isn’t any proof that hell’s fury will meet any potential failure.

Co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett aren’t shy with the handheld and certainly aren’t shy to make light of some of the violence on screen. The film, in parts, reminded me of how Paul Verhoveen manifests his corporate cynicism in ‘Robocop’ with the robot presentations that go horribly wrong for poor suits. In ‘Ready or Not’ one of the more funny and poignant gags has to do with various fates of the maids in the household. No, it does not end well for them but hey, “it’s just the help.”

I really don’t want to overthink this one. Our directors don’t want us to either. There is no aspiration to the chilling nuance of a film like ‘Us’ as far as class is concerned. Jet black humour dominates the tone though there moments that inspire real dread and test the nerves. There is a brutal episode of Chekhov’s nail, among other misfortunes that really put Grace through the grinder.

The film counts on us to find Weaving’s character as sympathetic but also a pallet for true grit. The aggressively warm hue of the cinematography gives a hellish quality to the mansion which has become Grace’s hell physically and emotionally. Lest we forget, her husband all but pushed her into this death game and there is some intrigue to see how the relationship will be resolved.

I go back to the running time of 95 minutes which makes ‘Ready or Not’ a film with easy rewatchable value. The cast is all in and I have to give a special mention to Nicky Guadagni, the family’s deranged bloodthirsty matriarch who brandishes the battle axe which feels half her size.

So the message is simple; we are going to have to fight to get out from under the corrupted privileged. I just hope the resistance is less gory but just us fun.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is a beautiful lament teetering on masterpiece status

It’s fitting that the first Quentin Tarantino film I saw on the big screen, the first of his films I have seen with a crowd, was one about Tinseltown. The novelties in Tarantino’s ninth film extend to the makeup of the film, which, for the most part, swaps the swagger and gratifying pulp his fans savour with much more depth and introspection than expected.

‘Jackie Brown’, in all its restrained blaxploitation crime splendor, is singled out as Tarantino’s most mature film and for good reason. I would call ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ his most spiritual; a film that dithers between the ethereal and fantasy. ‘Hollywood’ is perfectly encapsulated as a Mecca for cinema, almost to an alienating effect with all its totems and iconography that remain a world and generation away.

Though mature, there is a temptation to think ‘Hollywood’ is also disciplined. It’s not. And it confirmed my guilty suspicion that Tarantino is a somewhat overrated screenwriter. A-class sizzling dialogue, he can deliver. Masterfully conceived vignettes and sequences are well within his wheelhouse. But threading them together with some rigor has been a shortcoming. It’s why ahead of the coda a lot of people have fretted about, we get this insanely drab voiceover that fills a time gap.

The first hour or so of ‘Hollywood’ was clunky and, even more worryingly, begun to give me ‘Hail Caesar’ vibes in that, it looked like there was never going to be a foothold to some investment in this lament about old Hollywood. The chance I would not connect with a Tarantino film was borderline terrifying. But on reflection, the alienating effect felt oddly apt for a film with humbling empathy for people on the fringes of the bright lights.

The story itself takes place mostly in February of 1969. Tarantino bagged himself an A-list tag team for the ages with his two lead characters, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stuntman/chauffeur/best bud Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick used to be the star of a hit Western TV show called “Bounty Law”. But after a failed incursion onto the big screen, Rick is now hustling for guest spots as villains on TV shows.

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A producer played by Al Pacino tries to kick Rick out of his hand-to-mouth existence by suggesting he cross the pond to Italy to revitalize his career with spaghetti westerns. The end is creeping up on Rick and he knows it. We get this moment of pontification from Pacino (who basically becomes a familiar avatar for Tarantino) where he explains to Rick the nuances behind being beaten up every week on TV by an up and coming star.

Cliff, on the other hand, lives life at his own pace – content with being Rick’s driver cum handyman as the stunt man market has become a barren wasteland for him. He lives in a modest trailer on the outskirts of town, has a loyal dog which he loves and there’s the small matter of how his marriage ended, which is a nebulous cloud that trails him for most of the film.

The bulk of Tarantino’s film revolves around these two fictional characters and their escapades in a changing industry landscape. But there are familiar real-life characters like Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), who Cliff fights in an amusing but totally needless sequence. Damian Lewis shows up as Steve McQueen who plays his part in the central theme of teetering on the edges. The big fish, however, live right next door to Rick; the director-actor couple: Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

One of the downsides of seeing a film late is having to navigate the criticisms without context and entering a film with a mixed sense of wariness and judgment. I feel compelled to note that there’s nothing wrong with Moh’s portrayal of the Dragon himself though I understand the sentiments of his loved ones. The big one fracas centred on the portrayal of Tate, and how one witnesses Robbie’s stunningly disarming performance and comes out whining about line totals is beyond me.

Everything Tate in Tarantino’s screenplay oozes heart and perfection. And he is not infatuated with her like say a Jackie Brown. He canonises Tate; builds an altar to her and what she represented – the earnest promise of youth and an unrefined joy. Tarantino itches for the least excuse to centre her (and her feet sometimes). Consider the brash build-up to the scene where she’s dancing at Playboy mansion party and how it gives this Copa Cobana from Goodfellas vibe. There is also this surreal glee-filled car ride when Tate shows kindness to a hippie on the roadside.

The sledgehammer of emotions, where I melted like wax before Tarantino’s vision, comes when Tate talks her way into a cinema to watch herself in onscreen. It isn’t the biggest part but she bubbles with glee every time she appears for a gag or two to laughs from the audience. There is tenderness here that only a “failed” actor like Tarantino would understand, a longing for the days when it was all hopes and dreams.

In contrast, Rick seems to be withering away into in crisp of angst and woe. The closer to the edge he gets the more the world around him starts to remind him of his expiry; like the way he sees himself in the hero nearing his end in a book he reads on a set. That scene starts one of the best stretches of DiCaprio’s career. He’s uglied up (resembling a frazzled Jack Nicholson) as the villain on a TV show western, has a fantastic trailer meltdown because he fumbles his lines but still manages to ice the performance. This culminates in that meta moment from the ‘Hollywood’s’ trailer where Rick tears up after a child actor lauds his acting as the best she’s ever seen.

Tarantino greatly elevates the standard of the TV show westerns in his film to an engrossing piece of storytelling the Coen Brothers could possibly conceive. In real life, I imagine they were quite trashy but that doesn’t dim our director’s loving awe for them. It’s like the way some of us look back fondly on the experience of ‘Journey to the West’ a Chinese martial arts fantasy show centred on the fabled Monkey King. Two decades on some of us still swear by the show although revisiting it may be borderline torture.

It’s all a dream. It’s Tarantino’s dream and we are blessed to partake in and appreciate it, even if the unfamiliarity gets a little tedious. The master auteur is eager to take us around this meshing of reverie and memory which is why we just chill with a scene of Cliff driving Rick around the annoyingly vivid recreation of Los Angeles which is given such life by cinematographer Robert Richardson. The music prods at you, the murals are waving frantically and general production design screams “give me that Oscar!”

Pitt’s character ushers us towards the darkest parts of this dream. I was mulling over the best way to describe Cliff and for some reason, J.J. Rawlings, the effortlessly charismatic but flawed and quietly vicious dictator who ruled Ghana for 20 years, popped up. The charm and the terror go hand for him. There is another GOAT stretch, almost simultaneous with Leo’s, which starts with Cliff giving a lift to a hippie heading to Charles Manson’s infamous Spahn Ranch. The tension ramps up to 11 real quick as an intense palpable dread, which rivals the opening of ‘Inglorious Basterds’, takes hold.

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A more familiar version of Tarantino surfaces; the one that pats himself on the back and winks at his past work (that close-up of Maya Hawke). Like Schultz at the end of ‘Django Unchained’, he can’t resist – and I loved every bit of it. There is an eruption of ultra-violence that, owing to the radical shift in tone, comes off as the most shocking in a Tarantino movie. It’s like the film falls into drug trip, to put it slyly.

Everything comes to earth in haunting fashion as the film winds down. It’s the realisation from Tarantino that he’s about to wake up and my heart ached for him. The final shot sees us ascending away as the characters go about their lives below, evoking this dollhouse quality that runs through the film. It had me thinking that ‘Hollywood’ is as much a product of Tarantino’s childlike wonder as much as his mature sensibilities.

THE KITCHEN – This listless crime drama refuses to get its hands dirty

Allow me second to wipe this clown makeup off. Your boy thought ‘The Kitchen’ was going to be 2019’s Widows. Why the high expectations? Maybe its because it was adapted from a DC Vertigo comic. Or maybe it was just the cast which included three exciting actresses; Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss and Melissa McCarthy, who I expected to bring varying degrees of excellence to the table. ‘The Kitchen’ is also a 1970s New York crime flick so what could go wrong? Everything, apparently.

The basic plot of ‘The Kitchen’ sees the wives of street-level gangsters take over from their jailed better halves to support themselves. The incarcerations birth different sentiments from the wives. For Moss’ Claire, a victim of harrowing domestic abuse, she gets a taste of freedom for the first time in a decade. Haddish’s Ruby eyes the prospect of some upward mobility given her standing as a black woman in a racist Irish-American commune. For McCarthy’s Kathy, whose desperation spark the plot into motion, it’s primarily about survival after the mob gives her peanuts to live on.

As different as their motivations are initially, they all converge on the street called power. The metatext is interesting in that these leads have been given the keys to a gangster film in a male-dominated genre and industry. And our girls are game for the challenges the writer/director Andrea Berloff throws their way, never cheating the audiences desire for energy, charisma and pathos. The only problem is ‘The Kitchen’s’ feel for storytelling and sense of character are as intricate as ludo dice; grossly underserving the acting talent.

The women’s route to power lacks some of that process and minutia I love in crime cinema. They worm their way around the sexist gatekeepers of this world to offer better protection deals to neighborhood businesses as a start. This graduates to influence in major contractor projects and before we know it, the women, growing in their power, are confidently negotiating turf with the mafia in Brooklyn. Alongside the surface gangster politicking, which is sprinkled with some tension, a lot of bodies are dropped with the help of Domhnall Gleeson’s Gabriel, a psychotic Vietnam War vet who happens to be Claire’s prince charming.

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The women stared into the abyss and the abyss stared back. The central question becomes how much they start to resemble the men whose shadows blinded their existence. There are some interesting ideas at play here with how the wives almost become mutated (of sorts) versions of their husbands. Ruby toes the line of her man’s duplicitous nature, the violently abused Claire develops a taste for blood and Kathy, who was a dutiful wife, is hailed for her devotion to the community and her family no matter the cost.

Berloff has a read on what’s interesting about these women. She even exhibits some curiosity about their transformational ascent in the criminal world. She, however, pays little heed to the moral dilemma and toll of violence these women should perhaps be wrestling with. We are supposed to root for them and jump on the empowerment bandwagon as irony manifests in them taking over Hell’s Kitchen.

Though the film compensates for a lack of nuance with truly dumb twists in a film that favours shocking plot points over character dissection, I will admit there was one moment I found compelling, where Ruby, at her most vulnerable, seeks refuge at her mother’s place. Ruby’s ma reminds her daughter about how she beat out the softness and innocence from her as she receives some fruits from the crime world. This textured moment made showed ‘The Kitchen’ was capable of some much more than the unbearable stasis and perfunctory salutes to genre conventions on display.

It doesn’t help that the film lacks any visual flair or distinct style, save for the numerous scenes on sidewalks. The dialogue is exposition-heavy and two-dimensional motivations morph actors’ earnestness into an unfunny and forgettable comedy routine. But hey, there is perhaps the best use of a rat in here since ‘The Departed‘ so I guess that’s something.

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