The Connection

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Published on The Digital Fix

In The Connection, a stylish French crime thriller directed by Cedric Jiminez, we are presented with a visually beautiful film which tells an exciting, fast-paced story with an emotional angle to it. Despite this it struggles to offer much in the way of originality: look a little closer and it’s very much style over substance which makes this a fairly enjoyable but all together unremarkable film.

Cedric Jimenez’s second feature tells the story of the 1970s heroin smuggling operation that saw the narcotic transported from Turkey via France’s south coast en route to the United States. In 1969 this operation supplied a remarkable 80-90% of the US’s heroin, later becoming the focus of William Friedkin’s 1971 Oscar winning crime classic The French Connection.

Jean Dujardin, who won the best actor Oscar back in 2012 with silent film The Artist, stars as Pierre Michel, a fearless and determined Magistrate who is brought in to lead the investigation to thwart the heroin gang led by the charismatic but unforgiving Gaetan ‘Tany’ Zampa (played by Gilles Lellouche). Judge Pierre Michel was apparently something of a legend in Marseille, a folk hero willing to stand up to the very toughest in the name of justice so that the streets of the city, and beyond, would be safe.

Based on this portrayal it’s easy to see why he achieved such a reputation in his home town. He’s an old school operator, a maverick of sorts whose arrival on the scene signals a shift in approach to dealing with a gang who have for too long had it easy. Forget long drawn out processes of gathering evidence in order to justify a warrant, he simply arrests first and worries about the charges later. He’s unwavering though not unfair, always willing to break the rules but far from corrupt. While not exactly the most unique of police-force characters, Jean Dujardin nonetheless does a great job of portraying a man whose commitment to succeed is absolute and steadfast, even in the most testing of times.

The Connection oozes nostalgia throughout. The photography has an almost vintage feel to it; faded colours capture the eloquence of the French coast, the glittering sea, motorbikes and well-dressed residents. The scenes of violence are a throwback to gangster films of an era gone by, while the slick montages illustrating the intricate process of a high-level drug operation are reminiscent of Scorsese.

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But where The Connection struggles is in the quality of its content. The excellent visuals and editing are not matched by plot development or pacing. As the series of stakeouts, chases and arrests multiply, what began in captivating fashion quickly loses its way. The subplots feel unoriginal and predictable, whilst there’s little insight into criminality, policing or the legal system. Ultimately this makes for fairly uninteresting watching because there’s very little complexity in Jimenez’s interpretation of the events, conflicts or motives of the characters.

While the powerful and emotive ending is certainly welcome, by the time it arrives the anticipation and momentum has long since faded. Consequently the emotional impact of the finale underwhelms. The Connection offers plenty of aesthetic charm, but like a boxer who waits too long before throwing a flurry punches late on, its finish cannot compensate for an unremarkable performance throughout the earlier rounds.

Straight Outta Compton

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Originally published on The Digital Fix.

Amidst the profanity that characterised much of their output, it is easy to forget that at the heart of N.W.A, the hip hop group that pioneered west coast gangsta’ rap, were five young men with a passion for music and a desire to use this as a vehicle through which to share their experiences. Straight Outta Compton reminds us of this quite brilliantly. F. Gary Gray has created a hugely entertaining film that succeeds in contextualising the group’s place within the culture and history of hip-hop while acknowledging the social context from which their music arose: an environment characterised by racism, police harassment, violence and poverty.

Straight Outta Compton follows the story of N.W.A (‘Niggaz With Attitude’) a group who emerged towards the end of the 1980s, when hip-hop was in its formative years and almost exclusively an East Coast affair. They rose to stardom with their raps about life in Compton, an impoverished city south of Los Angeles in which crime and drugs robbed many of its youth a chance of a future. The title of the film is taken from the group’s debut album of the same name. Released in 1988 to a barrage of controversy, its aggressive language and violent themes caused outrage, yet gansgta’ rap soon took the mainstream by storm. Tales of life in the street and in particular the treatment of young black men by the police would capture the attention of many, both white and black, rich and poor.

Told primarily from the point of view of the group’s most famous members, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E, the volatile de-facto leader of the group, Straight Outta Compton charts their surprise explosion onto the scene along with their attempts to navigate the treacherous waters of success and fame. The tone of the film shifts between the gritty and glamorous, visually mirroring the challenge faced by those who grow up rough before making it big in the entertainment industry. The opening scene is filmed documentary style with a shaky handheld as we follow Eazy into a crack den just before the arrival of the militant LAPD, battering ram in tow. The contrast with the eventual spoils of victory – the screaming fans at sell out shows, the mansions, the pool parties and the groupies, is stark.

Unsurprisingly it is the scenes that focus on musical creation or performance which captivate the most. The group’s performance of ‘Fuck tha Police’, certainly their most controversial and inflammatory song (and there’s plenty of competition) during a concert in Detroit is a fine example. Having been threatened before the show by the police chief to not perform this particular song, N.W.A, of course, play it anyway, ensuring the fans are privy to the police’s futile attempt at censorship in the process. It’s an electrifying performance while it lasts, and if one were to conjure up an ideal scenario to personify N.W.A, this would surely be it.

Through moments like this the film skilfully conveys the birth and evolution of west-coast hip-hop with great energy, and in doing so creates a relentless feeling of nostalgia that lasts throughout. There is also subtlety in these moments, but their power is no less. Be it Dr. Dre composing one of his now legendary beats, a brief glimpse of 2pac performing in the studio or the hilarious reaction to Ice Cube’s infamous disstrack ‘No Vaseline’, the audience are transported back through time to an iconic period, a golden era in rap music’s brief history.

The cast all do a very solid job with a script that is paced perfectly and is able to cover a lot of ground in just enough depth. A lot of the narrative’s development happens through the creation of music, performance, and moments of conflict between the characters. That the actors succeed most at carrying themselves like N.W.A, with all their swagger, attitude and boundless energy, is enough alone to warrant a pat on the back. O’Shea Jackson Jr (the son of Ice Cube, playing Ice Cube) might look a lot like his Dad, but it his ability to recreate his father’s intense fearlessness and maverick-like qualities that makes his performance utterly convincing. When required the acting also carries the emotional punch necessary to keep things believable as Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre) demonstrates when family tragedy hits early on.

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As a film, Straight Outta Compton achieves a great deal. It is able to tell a fascinating rags-to-riches story while also exploring a number of themes; fame, greed, disillusionment of youth, police brutality, in enough depth to genuinely satisfy. It is also sonically emotive and visually impressive. And perhaps above all it succeeds in placing power in the hands of those reprimanded and marginalised both before and certainly after their musical success and mainstream influence. To those who have, and continue to, decry rap music as a pointlessly violent exercise – nothing but a bad influence – Straight Outta Compton puts a middle finger up at them, smiling with the hydraulics and the G-Funk turned up as it does so.


Entourage Movie

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Originally published on The Digital Fix

“Fan fiction in film form” is how Brian Tallerico, writing for RogerEbert.com, describes this feature length continuation of the hugely popular HBO television show. Though strongly criticising the film’s predictability, a significant point is made nonetheless; this one is for the fans. If you have never seen Entourage before then this definitely isn’t for you. If you’ve dabbled in a couple of episodes (god knows how you could do so without getting hooked), it probably isn’t for you either. This reviewer then openly offers the perspective of someone who unashamedly loved the original television show.

Running from 2004-2011 Entourage followed the adventures of Vincent Chase, an emerging movie star from New York, who along with his best friends Turtle and E (also his manager) as well as elder half-brother and failed B-movie star Johnny ‘Drama’ attempt to make it big in Hollywood with the help of agent Ari Gold. Loosely based on Mark Wahlberg’s own experiences, the show gave less of a realistic insight into pursuing the dream of acting and more an entertaining journey into how it might feel to be rich and popular in a place where being rich and popular is everything. Entourage never attempted to critique or provide much of a comment on such a lifestyle, and so the movie is very much in the same vain.

Following on from the admittedly poor final season, Vince’s former agent Ari is now head of the major studio that is financing the star’s next film. This time however he’s not content with just acting – he will also be directing. So it follows that the gang attempt to deal with the numerous difficulties that arise due to the film being behind schedule, way over budget and a potential flop. The plot is pretty thin in places, there’s barely a hint of genuine character development and it throws up very few surprises in terms of narrative; everything works out in the end and the boys have as good a time as ever doing that which they love to do – partying excessively, meeting other celebrities (of which there are plenty thanks to the completely unnecessary number of cameos – even Thierry Henry makes an appearance) and dropping one liner’s at each other’s expense.

Much of the criticism levelled at the film focuses on the points I very briefly touch on above and are admittedly difficult to argue with. However, what many seem to overlook is that to view this film as an independent piece, rather than one part of a larger whole, is to miss much that it has to offer. What always made Entourage so appealing was everything that this group of friends shared together – the many ridiculous situations they found themselves in, the rejection they faced, the success they achieved and the embarrassing past experiences they’d never let each other forget. In this respect the film merely continues where the series left off, which will be to the delight of its fans but will be difficult to grasp and appreciate for those going in blind.

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Doug Ellin’s feature length is very much part of the Entourage universe he has built; a universe which from day one has invited us into a hedonistic fantasy in which a complete acceptance of having fun in the present moment rules and where care for the outcome of actions is barely even an afterthought. By fantasy I mean the sort that, given serious thought, you wouldn’t actually want to live out because it would surely leave you empty and hollow, but the idea of it is tempting, exciting and intriguing enough to warrant some mischievous consideration – which is why it’s brought to life for our enjoyment on the screen.

It’s been described as little more than a feature length episode of the show, but if you had offered this to Entourage fans beforehand many would have surely taken it. We get everything we need here, complete with a couple of surprising and hilarious supporting roles from Billy Bob Thornton and Haley Joel Osment. The jokes may have been lost on some, but for fans of the show this is exactly what the doctor ordered.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

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Originally published on The Digital Fix

Henry David Thoreau, a thinker whose essay on civil disobedience would inspire many modern approaches to nonviolent activism, provides a fitting intellectual context for this exploration of moral and social justice in the digital age. The Internet’s Own Boy opens with a Thoreau special – a thought provoking, lucid and powerful quote pondering the importance of resisting unjust laws and setting the tone for a documentary that inspires and angers in equal measure.

Director Brian Knappenberger’s passionate and stirring effort examines the life of Aaron Swartz, an intellectually gifted computer whiz whose commitment to social activism leads to a number of outstanding achievements, perhaps the most significant of which involved playing a key role in defeating the now infamous Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

Prior to SOPA however, Swartz used his immense computer skills to liberate data that he felt ought to be freely available in the public domain. He raided JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals and research, to devastating affect. The idealist whose talents also contributed to the creation of the RSS feed and Reddit could not accept that years of human intellectual endeavour and discovery were unavailable to the majority of the world, while a small few profited from their exclusivity. The US government, licking their wounds after the Wikileaks scandal and determined to send a message to a growing legion of hackers and cyber terrorists, brought the full force of the law down on Swartz. The 26 year old committed suicide while awaiting trial. He was facing up to 35 years in jail for his actions.

Creatively The Internet’s Own Boy does not break any boundaries; in fact it’s pretty standard in terms of format and presentation. Taking a simple, chronological approach it explores Swartz life using talking heads, interviews and footage of Swartz at a number of events, conferences and rallies. While it excellently contextualises Scwartz’s place within a socio-political landscape responding to the transformational changes brought about by the internet, it does not explore the man himself in as much depth as it perhaps could of. Beyond his ridiculous intelligence and commitment to social justice, we don’t learn much about Aron Swartz the person and what was going through his mind at the time. How did he feel about the way he was being treated? What was he proud of, what were his regrets?

Despite this, as with Thoreua, The Internet’s Own Boy greatest success can be found in the deep, humbling questions it makes one ponder. Beyond the obvious debates around national security and privacy rights it forces us to ask the sort of questions that we must return to again and again when trying to understand social progress and our place in history. Will the consequences of being an agent of change always be so tragic? Is civil disobedience justifiable? What are the concealed social and political motives behind our laws?

Upon finishing The Internet’s Own Boy my girlfriend and I, who beforehand knew little of Swartz’s story specifically, were left passionately debating these questions. Again and again we asked not only ‘how could this happen?’, but ‘where does this leave us today?’ The only conclusion we could reach was that the sort of individual our society ought to be most proud of–relentlessly curious, socially conscious and politically active – was the victim of this story.

As the saying goes, History, it would seem, is doomed to repeat itself.

Nightcrawler

Originally published on The Digital Fix

Dan Gilroy’s impressive directorial debut is an engrossing crime-thriller that follows a sociopath on his search to prove himself. This tense and unsettling film turns out to be surprisingly satirical as it explores the media’s thirst for violent news and one man’s determination to stand out from the crowd.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, an ambitious, driven loner who quickly becomes the go to guy in LA’s underworld of freelance crime journalism. Armed with a camcorder, a police scanner and an unwavering determination to learn the trade, he films horrific crime scenes before selling his footage the local news. While in some senses he’s your typically alienated individual, (he lives alone, appearing to have no friends, family, or relationships to speak of) it quickly becomes clear that he has enough confidence, intelligence and Machiavellian instinct to become powerful and, just maybe, dangerous.

His capacity to exploit and manipulate others is revealed through his relationship with a number of characters. Firstly there is Nina (played by Renne Russo, who incidentally, is Gilroy’s wife) a news director who champions the slogan ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. By now an experienced veteran of the ruthless industry, we are introduced to her in the cutting room, editing some footage with enough passion and precision to suggest she’s working on an Oscar-worthy masterpiece rather than the six am news slot. Then there’s Rick (Riz Ahmed) a young man desperate for work who becomes Bloom’s assistant, navigating and providing backup camera work as they scour the city.

As Bloom’s fearless approach to the work earns him a reputation, his willingness to manipulate and jeopardise others for the sake of a shot becomes increasingly obvious. He could be an extreme creation of Ayn Rand – selfish and sinister, a man whose rational mind is the only thing that guides him and for whom the ends will always justify the means. As such, he and the local news organisations are a match made in heaven – ethical considerations are irrelevant, the basic economics of supply and demand rules. The local media here are portrayed as being shamelessly obsessed with selling violent crime as entertainment, and the reasons for why this works so well are clear – it keeps viewers both addicted and afraid. And so the film is able to raise all sorts of questions about our relentless appetite for violence, in particular to what degree is it part of our human nature or a product of social and cultural influence?

Gilroy has been researching the topic for years, approaching the project with the sort of obsession and attention to detail with which Bloom carries out his own work. Howard Raishbrook, a real life nightcrawler and veteran of the industry, was a technical advisor on the film. The director scored a great coup in bringing Robert Elswit on board as cinematographer, a prolific figure who won an Oscar in 2007 for ‘There Will Be Blood’, one of his numerous collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson. Nightcrawler is a beautifully shot film: opening takes of the city at night, dark and mysterious, hint at a seedy underworld hidden beneath the glitz and glamour of the Los Angeles skyline. The gorgeous coastal sunrise, hazy mountains and shimmering Pacific Ocean we see in later shots may appear stark in contrast, but we know that these two worlds are not distinct, separate entities, but two sides of the same coin.

If one were forced to pick out a standout contributor, it would have to be Gyllenhaal, whose subtle and chilling performance may be the best of his career. More is often made than necessary about actor’s losing weight for roles, but as Louis Bloom stares sickingly into the camera, face gaunt and devoid of emotion, it’s clear that this is no mere award season gimmick. You’d have to say it looks an unlikely long shot for Oscar glory, but who knows

Fossil

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Originally published on The Digital Fix. 

I’m going to be writing some DVD reviews for The Digital Fix, a really cool site with loads of great film and TV stuff on it, and below is my first piece for them. I take a look at Fossil (2014), an absorbing and rather unsettling indie drama.

After a career making music documentaries (We Dreamed America, 2008), Alex Walker delves into the world of feature films, and his first is a gripping, and at times unsettling, psychological indie flick. Paul (John Sackville) and Camilla’s (Edith Bukovics) marriage is on the rocks, and so the English couple take a trip to the beautiful south of France where in an idyllic Mediterranean villa their relationship, and along with it their lives, will unravel.

After a particularly heated disagreement which ends in some harsh words, the troubled couple encounter American Richard (Grant Masters) and his French girlfriend Julie (Carla Juri) frolicking in their pool. Much to her husband’s dismay, Camilla decides to invite them to stay and get to know each other. Their youthful grace, exuberance and obvious comfort in each other’s presence belongs a million miles from that of their English hosts. Tensions rise to the surface as Paul and Camilla’s insecurities, resentments and frustrations with each other and their failing relationship are exposed and drawn out by Richard and Julie’s starkly contrasting union.

The feature length debut of Brickwall Film, Fossil was shot in just three weeks and the cast and crew do a great job of creating a professional film that looks and sounds above and beyond it’s meagre budget, a portion of which was crowdfunded on indiegogo.

The setting is magnificently elegant and peaceful; the perfectly still French villa and nearby village juxtapose against an ever deteriorating relationship, exposing deep lying troubles as they bubble to the surface. There are some exquisite shots of the beautiful French landscapes, offering moments of respite from the bitterness and tension that characterises much of the dialogue. Regular close-ups convey the claustrophobia of a couple clearly in need of some space.

The acting is great, as is the script. Occasionally, one or two interactions between Paul and Richard feel uncharacteristically forced, but when this does happen it still effectively adds to the ever-growing distance between the two leads, thus serving its purpose. The fantastic score of Patrick Burniston, which is subtle and original while ominous and foreboding in just the right places, adds to the tension throughout.

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Many people who have been in a relationship that’s lost its spark will no doubt be able to relate to Paul and Camilla’s situation. Perhaps Fossil’s greatest achievement lies in its ability to make us desperately reflect, shake our heads, and pray that we never end up like this, or indeed that we never acted quite so unreasonably. It depicts the sort of passive aggressive and regrettable behaviour that we are all guilty of from time to time, only amped up to a level of such extremity that it can be almost difficult to watch. It’s a warning, of sorts, about the lengths we will go for love and the twisted irony present when our actions arise from a place of fear, insecurity and selfishness.

While the ending is somewhat predictable in nature – developing throughout is an uncomfortable feeling the film’s conclusion will be a violent one – its actual realisation is anything but. As such it’s a shocking finale leaves that leaves the viewer disturbed as well as satisfied. This is a quality piece of independent cinema and is yet more evidence, if you needed it, that crafting genuinely absorbing and emotive cinematic experiences has little to do with big budgets or big names.

Meditation In Schools: An Educational Transformation of the Inner Kind

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A couple of days ago, The Guardian asked for input from readers about what they think needs to change in Education, given that it’s likely to be a key battleground for the 2015 election. The first response from Camila Batmanghelidjh, a psychotherapist and founder of Kids Company, struck me. She noted that some children are so disadvantaged that it affects their brain functioning to such a degree that they struggle to sit still and stay calm in school, never mind pass exams.

This really got me thinking. There are many aspects of education that are clearly in need of serious reform, and as such the discourse surrounding schools tends to focus on these issues; the nature of assessment, teaching methods, the curriculum, and so on. But as a result, we often neglect a more fundamental issue and one that is surely of equal importance. That’s the emotional wellbeing of the children who the system is there to serve.

This jogged my memory back to an article I read earlier in the year about rough schools in San Francisco implementing a project called ‘Quiet Time’, in which the kids would meditate twice a day. The impact that this had had was quite astounding.Now before you make an assumption about those Frisco hipsters and what might appear to be some sort of nostalgic throwback to the halcyon days of flower power and the counterculture, just hear me out.

Visitacion Valley Middle School was one of the first to adopt the practice back in 2007. It is located in a poor neighbourhood suffering from a host of socio-economic problems. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “gunfire is as common as birdsong” in the area. Unsurprisingly the school suffered greatly from disciplinary problems; fighting, shouting, vandalism, low attendance and so on, all of which contributed to its poor academic performance while creating an environment counterproductive to learning.

The school tried a number of remedies without success, until meditation came along. In Quiet Time’s first year, suspension rates dropped by 45%, and within four years it was one of the lowest in the city. Perhaps most significantly, in the annual California Healthy Kids Survey, these middle school youngsters were the happiest in all of San Francisco. It wasn’t just this particular school that showed encouraging results either. On the California Achievement Test, twice as many pupils in Quiet Time schools became proficient in English, compared with similar schools without the program, and the gap in maths abilities was even greater. A few years back David Lynch made an excellent documentary about his project to introduce transcendental meditation into an elementary school in Iowa, the results of which were also pretty transformative.

The benefits that regular meditation practice can bring are well documented. Thankfully, as knowledge of this is spreading, we’re gradually coming around to the idea that meditation can be a worthwhile exercise that doesn’t have to have anything to do with hippies, drugs, or even the broader ideas of religion and spirituality.

No, it can be and often is a completely secular practice, and one that can improve confidence and self-esteem, as well as reduce anxiety and stress. Moreover, it can lead to increased focus and concentration, doing wonders for kids’ ability to learn as well as the teacher’s ability to teach. A theme throughout Guardian responses was the need to attract and keep hold of the best teachers and head teachers. De-stressing the school environment would make it a lot easier for teachers to do their jobs, and develop professionally. Studies in the states have also demonstrated that training teachers in mindfulness meditation can reduce their levels of stress and increase organisation and compassion.

It’s not just in California that these ideas are beginning to gain some momentum; 13 states across the country are implementing similar projects. Moreover, The Guardian featured ‘Mindfulness and the Art of Chocolate Eating’, a popular technique introduced to schools by an organization called ‘Mind Space’, on their top teaching resources list for 2013. Mind Space’s ‘Meditation in Schools Program’ has been introducing meditation for teachers and students across the UK.

Obviously this is no panacea. There are wider systemic problems that need to be addressed irrespective of how many kids or teachers are meditating. This is not a call to side step these very important issues however, rather it’s a reminder that by getting caught up in arguments that are so often tied up with ideology and political one-upmanship, we can forget the more fundamental stuff. Kids and teachers are human beings – their ability to learn, share and engage  is dependent on their emotional wellbeing, and so it’s something that should form a more serious part of the debate.

Check out this cool infographic, made by the people at Edutopia, illustrating the benefits meditation has brought to US schools.

Originally published on Institute of Opinion.