Soldiers of conformity

Poetry

I swear the other day I was the age of twenty.
Endless queue for some shabby club.
Chancing my crappy luck.
At the very last stage of entry.
Cos back then I was a child.
Bouncing around in a state of frenzy.
But in the last decade, I gotta say, I’ve evolved.
So to figure out my goals.
I’ve got to understand how this change affects me.
Because back in the day… I felt shackled in chains.
But now if you look, you’ll find that cage all empty.
Cos life’s weird.
Keeps throwing up ways to test me.
Plus I’ve got an expressive side that’s kind of shy.
So to lure it out, you just gotta persuade it gently.

Because… the soldiers of conformity NEVER sleep.
But work to keep my self-expression at bay like age-old sentries.
However, they sing a dangerous song.
With each note playing out a painful medley.
So we remain in a stand-off.
Both parties packing weapons that we cradle tensely.
Yet each day I listen to the soldiers less and less.
And yeah, in the past I would tend to stress.
Fixating on issues like a man possessed.
Palms clammy as I get the sweats.
But now I’m more strategic.
It’s like I’m learning to defend at chess.

So when I get carried away being creative.
And people say I should take a rest.
The first thing I do is pause for a minute and suspect a theft.
I mean, someone is trying to rob me of my life force.
Ok, I’ll admit, I’m reciting this whilst wearing a pair of tight shorts.
And yeah, they’re bad ass.
But probably better worn at the gym, pursuing a range of nice sports.
Yet they’re my magnet for wonderful queers.
Helping me attract the right sorts.
Cos it pays to surround myself with people that’ll help me flourish.
Friends that back my weirdness.
So when I start to doubt they’re the first in line to encourage.
Waving their flags and singing my praises.
Keeping those conformists at bay as I skip past their cages and dance around naked.
Ignoring their rules with insolence as I laugh in their faces.

Cos I’ve transcended their mundane existence.
And now fight compliance with defiance and consent with dissent.
No longer do I bottle up feelings.
I’m way more skilled at learning to vent.
Reacting with righteous indignation to being controlled.
Like it’s some sort of cataclysmic and disturbing event.
Cos if I stay silent.
Then I’ll just be filled with burning regret.
So I need to be stronger and make clear my intent.
To avoid these waking nightmares.
Freaking others out when they see what I’ve dreamt.

For when I’m true to myself my words are never frivolous.
So when it comes to courting creativity I’m forever chivalrous.
Encouraging those in my orbit to blossom and rebel and break out of their shells.
Leaving us at risk of being branded heretics and collosal infidels.
But I have no fear.
My mind is clear.
Cos all I’m doing is learning to excel.
As I buck the establishment with impunity and lunacy and spiral straight to hell.
But I’m OK with that.
So those soldiers can go ahead and lay their traps.
But they’ll never snare me.
Tunnel vision is how they’ve been trained to act.
Man, I wish I could jolt them into life with a major slap.
But people have to want to break free on their own.
So all I can really do is show them the way and pave the track.

And that’s that.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – review

Film

If you like pina coladas, and getting caught in the rain… then you’ll have liked the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Which came out of leftfield at the time and was (yet another) risk for Marvel studios, banking on unknown characters that were not hugely connected to the existing Avengers universe.

And Chris Pratt, as a leading man, was also a gamble. A mostly funny, slightly tubby guy, not known as a big hunky heartthrob, suddenly turns up in an action film as… a big hunky heartthrob. Who would have thought? But, to be fair, Pratt was easy casting when you look at the other leaps of faith Marvel took. With characters that included a foul-mouthed raccoon, a tree that only says three words, a tough guy played by an ex-wrestler, and a purple bad guy that seemed to sit on a throne in space doing very little. (That’s Thanos by the way).

Anyway, the completely laboured point I’m trying to make is that, after Guardians became a huge – albeit unexpected – hit, a sequel was inevitable. It also turned out to be one of the funniest the studio had put out too, which gave the follow-up more license to play in the comedy sandpit.

Which, in a pleasing way, it really embraces. And in the same vein as Doctor Strange, this set of characters really helps expand the Marvel universe, adding more background to the Infinity Stones storyline and getting us, as an audience, thinking about space as a viable addition to the Marvel storytelling canvas. (Thor: Ragnarok, we’re looking at you.)

But that’s all strategic stuff.

In terms of Guardians alone and this film as a sequel, it picks up fairly soon after the first one, where the team have become somewhat of a unit for hire. We start with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) fighting a giant monster, whilst Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dances joyfully front and centre. It’s fun, playful, ridiculous and will put a silly smile on your face. Ok, we can rest easy. This sequel will be good.

Story wise, first time round the plot touched on Peter Quill’s heritage. But here it’s expanded as the main arc and centres around Kurt Russell’s character (yes, you read that right, Kurt Russell is in this) and his link to Quill.

However, this tale also gives more moments to the rest of the gang as well. And whilst they play much the same beats they did first time round, each becomes more well-rounded. We see Drax’s sensitive side and a sort of bonding between Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker) get some rather unexpected scenes.

And then there’s Baby Groot.

Possibly the cutest thing in cinema since Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon. And the sheer inventiveness in terms of the ways they use this tinier, child-like version of Groot will warm your cockles. From his impossibly huge eyes – looking at you with wonder – to his infectious spirit, he lights up every scene he’s in. He’ll have you at the first ‘I am Groot.’

It’s also worth noting that most sequels cannot hold a candle to the original. This, however, might just be better. There, I said it. It’s funnier. It gives more of the characters more to do. The stakes are higher. It has Kurt Russell. It also has another famous movie star (don’t ruin it by looking it up if you don’t know, just go see it). And it’s really just a blast from start to finish.

Where it sits, in terms of the Marvel filmography, is hard to say. It has to be top five, definitely. Although, with the Thor: Ragnorok trailer looking pretty special, perhaps Marvel have found even more ways to delight us with their characters and their universe. By golly, DC have some catching up to do.

The Get Down: season one, part two – review

TV

The Get Down was, by its own admission, a hugely ambitious undertaking by Baz Luhrmann and his team. With a sizeable investment from Netflix (although they’re seemingly unstoppable these days, so whatever). So it meant that a lot was riding on this tale of late ‘70s New York, painted as a city in crisis – at least in the Bronx, where most of our story takes place.

Plus it’s a sprawling epic. 

It touches on poverty, drugs, sexuality, inner city regeneration, friendship and male bonding, graffiti and self-expression, religion, and the birth of hip-hop, and how music can change your life and those around you. And that’s just for starters.

Which means that, with great ambition comes great responsibility. I mean, this show built itself up to tackle A LOT of weighty subjects and it does so quite well, for the most part. But derails a little come the second half of the season, which we’ll get to.

Moreover, maybe it bit off more than it could chew, with all these subjects vying for screen time. It made it hard to get a handle on the main thrust of the story at times. Was it part documentary, musical, love story, social commentary, musical history lesson or gangster movie? Or all of the above? The mind is liable to boggle.

Which meant, that if you wanted to pick holes in the plot, you could. You’d find loads. But the show’s sheer exuberance and enthusiasm for its material more or less carried it through. And this was helped, in part, by numerous punch-the-air musical moments, delivered by a highly watchable cast. In particular Ekeziel ‘Zeke’ Figuero (Justice Smith), the wordsmith of The Get Down Brothers (loosely modelled on the birth of the Sugar Hill Gang) and Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola) a blossoming disco star; herself trying to break away from the clutches of a religiously overzealous father and the fact she’s come from more or less nothing. 

For all its ambition though, it’s a show of two halves (to coin a football pundit phrase). In that the first half introduced the main characters – framed via a modern-day rap concert (with Nas playing a grown-up Zeke) – and set them on their path to musical glory well enough. And was stylised much like a musical, all primary colours and big hair.

But then it seemed the second half of the season thought it best to get high on its own supply. Which meant it, rather oddly, got pretty trippy. We had the introduction of numerous animated sections in each episode which, whilst fun, seemed like a device to help Baz and his overworked crew take a breather whilst they set up the next big musical set piece. 

The plot, too, seemed a bit spaced out. There were really too many story strands drifting around the place to fully invest in any of them. And by the time the finish rolled around, I was left feeling like I’d seen something quite good, but also quite confused about what it wanted to be.

So top marks for ambition, casting, musical numbers and vision. But sorry Baz, you’re getting a little marked down for execution and story. Still though, overall, it’s a decent show and worth catching. Particularly if you’re a fan of hip-hop and experiencing a little slice of the birth of a musical genre done with real flair. 

Logan: sad, beautiful and final

Film

James Mangold is a compelling director; in that a lot of his work has real emotional depth and nuance, and often benefits from repeat viewing. And he’s kind of underappreciated. I mean, Girl, Interrupted, 3:10 To Yuma and Walk The Line all had him at the helm.

And yes, granted, he’s also got The Wolverine on his filmography, but we’re all allowed a little stumble now and then, right?

And I have to say, with Logan – almost certainly Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s last portrayal of the characters – Mangold has finished with superheroes on a high (assuming he’s not coming back to direct again). Because, simply put, this film is poles apart from almost ALL superhero movies (even Deadpool), in that it’s a melancholy love letter to Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Charles Xavier, aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart), as the two that are heart and soul – and indeed spine – of the X-Men franchise.

Theirs is the father-son dynamic that’s touched on consistently throughout prior films, but is really brought front and centre here. And, structure wise, we’re in somewhat different territory. Because whilst superhero films (these days) are often Westerns half in disguise, Logan wears this badge proudly, with Mangold really playing to his strengths as a director.

In that it’s a muscular, visceral, downtrodden and wistful story. One that’s gritty, painfully real, and lacks any semblance of a Hollywood shine. (I mean, within one scene more F bombs get dropped than the rest of the franchise put together.)

Indeed, Mangold has previously stated his touchpoints were Shane, The Cowboys, Paper Moon, Little Miss Sunshine and The Wrestler. And, for me, the latter two cited really shine through. Whether it’s the road trip structure or the fact Logan shares a lot of common ground with Mickey Rourke’s wrestler, in that he’s a ‘broken down old piece of meat’, you sense these influences keenly.

And, story wise, it also takes its cues from the Old Man Logan series of graphic novels. So within the opening scenes where we meet Logan, he’s a grey-haired, shabby limo driver. He drinks, he’s bleary-eyed, bent, broken and walks with a limp. So he’s oceans away from his body being the temple of earlier films. Now it’s more a urinal. In short, he’s a right mess and borderline suicidal.

Plus the fact he’s got a half-senile Charles to look after; shacked up in a metal bunker in Mexico (described in one scene as a man with the world’s most dangerous brain and a degenerative brain disorder to match. A lethal combination). So gone are the days of the mansion and gone are the days of mutants and the X-Men. Logan and Charles are practically all that’s left. And they’re barely clinging to life as it is.

But… they’re given purpose by the arrival of a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), who has certain familiar abilities. And so Logan is tasked – with Charles in tow – to attempt to evade bad guys and get her to the safety of Canada. So we end up with a sort of mismatched family road movie – with Logan as the cantankerous yet caring father, Charles as the doddering yet insightful grandfather, and Laura as the wild, precocious daughter looking for a family and sense of belonging.

And, whilst the whole film has many sweet notes, it’s also immensely sad and surprisingly violent (every Wolverine kill is far bloodier and more gory than ever before).

This is also, without a shadow of a doubt, both Jackman and Stewart’s best performances as these characters. The studio has clearly given Mangold license to do things a bit differently, and it’s really paid off.

The world feels more real. It’s the most emotional ‘superhero’ film yet (in any franchise) and it’s focused in its use of a handful of characters tops, which is really refreshing (the swollen cast of recent X-Men outings was beginning to bore me a bit).

So ultimately, this is a strong contender for the best X-Men movie to date, or at least a firm second place. And you could argue that without all the prior films the weight of emotion wouldn’t ring true here, and that this movie needs to stand fully alone to be considered the best. And that’s valid.

But it’s also worth noting that this movie does FAR more right than it does wrong. Coupled with the fact that more than a handful of scenes are truly heartbreaking.

Now how many X-Men films could you say that about?

Painted ghosts 

Poetry

They drift in and out of my life each day.
Their faces adorned with stark, lurid colours.
Warpaint, as they go about their business.
Are they even real?
These automatons. These androids from outer space.
And whilst their expressions are seemingly blank and impassive, they are also revealing.
There’s a crack or two beneath their cool facade.
But what does it mean?
Are they just lost in thought or, almost imperceptibly, communicating with me?
Do they even see me?
Or am I just grey background? White noise?
Perhaps I’m the ghost and they’re the most tangible thing in this world.
Wearing their warpaint proudly, like armour.
For each day, to them, must surely be a battle against the grey ghosts of patriarchy.
The menfolk who leer and lust, all licentious and salacious with their gaze and their thoughts.
For I am one. I should know.
Maybe as men we should paint our faces, too.
For our own insecurities are buried, perhaps even more so.
Hidden behind layers of bravado and testosterone.
The knowing nod to a fellow male.
The slightest of hugs.
The tough guy handshake.
Beer. Curry.
For we are men.
And we’re out of our caves now.
Our spears have been replaced with smartphones and laptops.
We’re just a few clicks from killing that woolley mammoth. That saber-tooth tiger.
Or ordering some more crap on eBay.
(assuming we can stop watching porn for more than five minutes)
So maybe colour is what we need?
Brush strokes of empathy across our face. The eyeliner of compassion.
The mascara of understanding and acceptance.
God, this is starting to sound like the weirdest fantasy game ever.
But there’s hope in these ramblings.
There must be.
For these painted ghosts and forgotten men.
All trapped in the ether between realities.
Drifting through life with abandonment.

I get headaches 

Poetry

I’m not sure when they started to get worse.
But nowadays, the sly pain of a migraine burns through me quicker than bright flames.
Leaving me looking at life.
And wondering how I might change.
Cos it’s only over the last year that it’s become a problem, you see?
Now I often find my head pounding.
Like I’m smothered, drowning and longing to breathe.
My features vexed and grotesque.
Like the poster boy for a monster retreat.
With the veins in my temples straight up stressful.
As they thump out a rhythm and foster a beat.
I wish this was more of a game, you know?
One with an end-of-level boss to defeat.
Cos battling headaches are a mystery, like smoke and mirrors.
And fighting tends to leave me broke and bitter.
Am I being punished?
I mean, granted, I’m no token sinner.
But to me, this game feels rigged.
So if we changed the rules, I wonder how these votes might differ?
Cos the white noise in my head is just a deluge of distraction.
Honestly, as a headline its caption would be ‘mostly filler’.
So I gotta fight back, Tiger style.
You know, like Wu-Tang and Ghostface Killah.
But first I must breathe.
Lest this pain suffocate me, and then I’m liable to choke way bigger.
But it’s dawn now, and the sun is piercing warm clouds like broken grey glitter.
So if I can be more mindful and avoid my moments that trigger.
Then I’ll stand a chance at this dance.
As I navigate fast down this potent, dark river.

Insomnia, please release me

Poetry

Lately, something’s been bugging me.
Why won’t the Lord of Dreams just come and take me lovingly?
Has he forsaken me suddenly?
Cos I just want a sleep that’s trouble-free.
I mean, he should just let me slip into his warm embrace.
So we can intertwine and fornicate.
Until I all but collapse like a fallen state.
Cos our union needs to happen.
And we need to accept our foolish traits.
So if he wants, he can be shy and coy.
And tease me slow with that lying voice.
But an open mind is all it takes.
And sleep WILL claim me.
But I’m not gonna force this race.
Because a slow seduction is what works best.
I mean, everyone knows it’s what good form dictates.
But right now, insomnia beckons.
As I grudgingly turn my back on the Heavens and stare each night at Hell’s rapidly falling gates.
Cos I know if I beat this, I’ll probably be dubbed one of the lauded greats.
But tonight, I’d love my mind to get just a few seconds swimming in a sea of calm darkness.
Drifting serene in a simple dream.
Through space and time like the Doctor’s Tardis.
Instead, my boat of thought is getting battered by this storm.
So I’m kept awake by whatever wave rocks it largest.
And lying here, in the early hours, I’m amazed at how the mind drifts.
Thoughts pinging like an arcade machine.
Bouncing around in fractured time shifts. 
Striking at will, like an assassin set to kill.
Destroying me softly with hundreds of fine hits. 
But this rough patch won’t break me. 
Mentally, I’m cold fire lately. 
Cooking dishes better than those Rick Stein gives. 
Cos this is war.
So watch me attack in a power stance with a primed fist.
Until I obliterate unwanted thoughts with positivity. 
Hell, I’m going to kill my mind with kindness.

Big Little Lies: the first two episodes

TV

So Sky Atlantic have a new flagship show out, Big Little Lies, written by David E. Kelly and based on a novel of the same name, penned by the wonderfully named Liane Moriarty.

And, as you’d expect, it’s got a formidable cast. One which includes Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgard and Shailene Woodley. Along with Academy Award nominated director Jean-Marc Vallee at the helm. Perhaps most notable for directing the acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club. But also for directing Witherspoon and Dern in Wild – a rather beautiful and underrated film. So, he’s got game. And as we all know, TV is big game these days. 

Now in terms of the story, I’m only two episodes in, but it’s layered – nay, dripping – with intrigue. You’ll be hooked fast. Indeed, Wikipedia describe it as a dark comedy drama and, whilst this is true, a simpler reference might be to say it’s Broadchurch meets Desperate Housewives, which is reductive, but gives you a rough idea. It’s far more cinematically shot and beautiful to look at than either of those, though. (Just saying.)

So in terms of story, what we have, is a number – for the most part – of highly privileged families that live near the beautiful Californian coastal town of Monterey. And the first scene opens with a crime; one where the details are murky and unknown to us. We’re then introduced – through Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) who’s new to the town – to the rest of its key players. In particular Madeline MacKenzie (Reese Witherspoon, in excellent form); a mother who specialises in poking her nose into everybody’s business and manipulating most scenarios to her own ends, often leveraging her children in the process. But there’s more to her than you first expect – naturally.

And whilst she drives much of the plot in these first episodes, the rest of the cast, in particular Jane (Woodley), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Renata (Laura Dern), have more to them than first seems the case as well. So within a couple of scenes you’ll think you have them nailed as characters, then they subvert expectations – like good actors should. (And Kelly, as writer, no doubt had a hand in this as well.)

As these moments are ultimately where life resides right? In the wrinkles, the gaps between floorboards, the conversations between the sheets, the furtive glances and simmering silences of words left unsaid, or words said but loaded with subtext.

This will get you asking questions upon questions. What’s the crime that took place? What’s Jane’s backstory? Is there more to Celeste’s relationship than on show? Why do Renata and Madeline almost loathe each other? Why does Madeline feel the need to control things so much? Is everyone a suspect? They all seem to want to kill each other. 

And the list goes on…

Furthermore, other than Billions, with Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti (another on Sky Atlantic), a show hasn’t gripped me so quickly in quite the same way in some time. It’s a marvel in that respect, what clever screenwriting.

So in essence, it’s painfully human. It’s got more nuanced, flawed and complex characters than you can shake a stick at – and actors that have us believing in them from the get-go. It’s beautifully shot (hats off to Vallee), and it’s achieved all this in a mere couple of episodes. Plus it’s got an 86% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so I’m not alone in my assessment. 

This also means that if you didn’t catch it there’s still time. So do it. You know you want to.

Moonlight: tough, tender and touching

Film

‘You say it best, when you say nothing at all.’ Now why am I quoting Ronan Keating? Well, it seemed apt for this review. Given that the (now Oscar-winning) film Moonlight, is a tale where words are used sparingly, so they stand out and have weight. And a lack of words have perhaps even more weight. Particularly these days, when so many films are crammed with endless dialogue, an in-your-face score and flashy editing.

So this film feels distinctly different. And it’s a worthy awards winner, not just because it’s a breath of fresh air in terms of showing not telling a story, but it’s beautifully shot and the score doesn’t hammer you over the head dictating what you’re supposed to feel every five seconds, too.

And subject wise, it’s vitally important. As it’s about a young black man growing up in a poor part of Miami and struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. So it’s something you might expect to win at the Oscars, or at least be in the conversation. But, following last year’s #oscarssowhite debacle, if this film hadn’t won, it would’ve lost to one that glorifies Hollywood’s heyday, La La Land. A film in which a white guy educates/mansplains to a white girl about the merits of jazz (historically black music). So Moonlight winning was big news. It really was. It’s the first ever film with an all-black cast, the first LGBT film and the second lowest-grossing one to win Best Picture at the Oscars. And the film’s editor became the first black woman to be nominated, too. So yeah, big news. 

Moreover, if we’re on the subject of talking about subjects on which we’re not an authority, then I’m a prime example. There’s nothing in this film to which I can directly relate. I’m not black or gay and I had a decent upbringing etc. That said, we don’t have to immediately identify with all stories that we see at the cinema, but they have to speak to us in some way and engage us emotionally. And if you’ve ever struggled with identity and loneliness, then this has something for you.

So in terms of the story of this film, plot wise, relative newcomer director Barry Jenkins serves it up in the form of a triptych, visiting the main character, Chiron, at three key points in his life; as a child (Alex Hibbert), teenager (Ashton Sanders), and a man (Trevante Rhodes).

And all are heart-breaking in their own way, filmed in a sort of dream-like, hazy quality, like a nostalgic memory. (I’ve heard someone describe this film as Terence Malick directs an episode of The Wire.) And there’s a grittiness and realism about the whole thing as well, and this extends to the score too, and my Ronan Keating point. Because it’s rare to hear music weaved through a film quite so beautifully and respectfully. In a way that’s not overbearing or intrusive, and in some cases there’s no music at all, which may make you feel uncomfortable, but that’s the point. Some scenes and character moments need that level of discomfort, and Jenkins doesn’t shy away when you might expect him to, letting the camera linger for longer than usual. Which is brave and effective.

He also draws impressive performances from the cast, in particular the three actors that play Chiron are outstanding. Black (Trevante Rhodes) who plays him as a man, really shone, capturing the mannerisms of the two preceding actors astonishingly well. Saying so much with so little. And Naomi Harris as Chiron’s mother also puts in a convincing performance across all three story chapters, squeezing more out of a drug addict role than most actors would manage.

And Mahershala Ali as a father figure to childhood Chiron, adds layers to your standard hardened drug dealer too, breaking down our expectations of masculinity and picking up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his troubles. (He’s also the first Muslim to win an Oscar.) He sets up the first third of the movie in terms of the feel and tone and his section, and the last, were, to me, the strongest. 

So you’ve really got no excuse. If you haven’t seen this yet. Go see it. It’s important, topical and a vital piece of cinema. It’s also a beautiful story. 

Coming out (as an introvert)

Poetry

For years I’ve harboured a dark secret.
That I’m an extroverted introvert.
This is my confession.
I know it’s a daft weakness.
But I need a good way to convey this to people.
Maybe with a smart leaflet?
Nah, scratch that, I need more passion.
Someone get me a charmed priestess.
One for casting spells and raising hell.
And setting out my manifesto like she’s writing her stark thesis.

I mean, I need something radical.
Because when people say I’m confident I panic.
And find my mind racing but hidden behind calm features.
Maybe it’s because I’m like an IT nerd, focusing on the detail.
Coding my life in a vast sequence.
But for the most part I avoid my flaws.
In general for a host of large reasons.
But none are valid.
Which means this approach I just can’t give credence.

But in reality, the main problem I have is that I wrestle a dichotomy.
My mind torn between outgoing and withdrawn has my head a ripe vessel for lobotomy.
Am I normal, or the next Jekyll and Hyde?
Walling off emotions because my gut heckles inside.
Bending under duress as I’m put to the test.
Like a blacksmith beating at metal that’s fried.
Which is debilitating, and kind of makes it tempting to hide.
Cos even though my mental state is under threat, I’m not done yet inventing these lies.
Using the introvert as an excuse to keep saying I’m shy.
But when I do get out there.
The extrovert gets swollen with pride.
So maybe I should take a step back.
And be at peace with both sides.
Because my mind is a blessing.
One I should really grow and invest in.
I mean we only get one. 
And mine’s a treat in disguise.