Small Axe – ‘Lovers Rock’ – review

As part of a series of films, under the banner of Small Axe, British director Steve McQueen has brought a collection of dramas depicting the life of black people in the seventies and eighties in London. By all accounts, the first of the dramas, Mangrove, was well received.

Based on a true story, it tells of the Mangrove Nine and Altheia Jones-LeCointe, who was part of the nine and involved in the British Black Panther movement. I did not see the episode, so cannot say whether it is good or not.

Unfortunately, I did watch the second instalment, Lovers Rock. It is not good. Before I get to the many gripes, I would like to point out the good points. The costume and makeup department and set designs are excellent.

The clothing and set design invoke memories of my youth and the sound boxes, slick clothing and, to some extent, the music, definitely takes me back. That is it for the good. With a story by Steve McQueen and screenplay by McQueen and Courttia Newland, it is hard to see what story they were trying to tell.

I say story but it is difficult to explain what the story was. On IMDB it is described thus: ‘A single evening at a house party in 1980s West London sets the scene, developing intertwined relationships against a background of violence, romance and music.’ That makes it sound like an interesting watch. It is not.

The last scene in the short film sees the main character, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), getting into her bed in her clothes, having sneaked out to go to the party, explains the…story? 

The film was mostly a music video, with Janet Kay’s Silly Games getting more airplay in the film than it has probably had in the past decade.

I was not a reggae person. I went to the odd party that was reggae heavy but it was never my thing. I think Steve McQueen grew up in a house without music. He definitely was not around black music and he never went to a black party, not on the evidence of this film.

In a seventy-minute film, McQueen managed to play the entire version of both Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting — and I would have to say that is a hard ‘no’. That was never a tune in any black party, reggae or otherwise — and an extended version of the aforementioned Silly Games. 

He did not even have enough knowledge of that time to put terrible singers in for the Janet Kay high note.

Music takes up at least a quarter of the runtime. The music is good, especially for those who lived through that time and remember it but the time could have been used better writing a more coherent story or even a proper story.

At the house where the party is happening, the household is Grenadian but for some reason, only known to McQueen, everybody speaks with a Jamaican lilt. Or tries. 

I’m assuming, though I could be wrong, that these are supposed to be mostly first-generation Brits, so born in the UK, yet they all speak as if they got off the boat.

Yes, back in the day a lot of black people did put on a Jamaican accent, regardless of where their parents came from. What we did not do was speak like that all of the time. 

It is not a different language that only black people understand. Black or not, even Jamaicans, do not go into their homes and switch to patois.

There is an interrupted sexual assault, something that would have definitely had more of a repercussion than it does in this film, and the would-be rapist is wearing a cream suit. He was trying to assault the girl in the garden. No black man was about to get down on the grass in his sweet garments!

There is a group of black guys jumping up and down, pogo style, in the middle of a party. No, just no. No one was jumping up like that at a party. Nobody looks cool jumping and looking cool was always of the utmost importance. This entire film is a myth.

It is bad enough that there is very little British black output on television, with even classic British black programs such as Desmond’s or The Fosters nowhere to be seen on British screen, even in this age of multiple channels. 

That Lovers Rock should be written, produced and directed by a black person is disappointing.

It is good that British black talent is making television or film and it hurts to critique one of the few black shows to make it to the screen but McQueen’s effort is poor. 

Admittedly, I did not overly enjoy Twelve Years A Slave but I did hope that, as McQueen is British, he would be able to fashion a memorable and relatable film. He does not. Lovers Rock is a disappointing and retrograde effort.

Dead In a Week (Or Your Money Back) – review (Netflix)

Brief Synopsis

William is a depressed young writer who only thinks of death and killing himself. A chance encounter, when trying for the umpteenth time to commit suicide, with an ageing assassin, Leslie, results in him hiring the aged killer. Leslie promises to fulfil the contract within the week.

When William receives a call from a publisher saying they are interested in his book, a meeting with one of the company’s editor’s, Ellie, has him rethinking his desire to die.

Is it any good?

In a word, yes. A quirky British production, the film has great performances across the board and is an enjoyable ninety-minute viewing experience.

Spoiler territory

William (Aneurin Barnard) is trying to get up the courage to kill himself. He stands on a bridge, on a rainy evening, looking down to the dark waters of the Thames, fast-flowing below. A man comes and asks him if he needs any help. William tells him he is going to jump. The man tells him he is not going to stop him but if he needs any help he is there.

William declines his help. The man gives him a card, telling him he can contact him if he should change his mind. William takes the card. The man leaves him to his suicide attempt. William jumps off of the bridge. As he falls, a party ferry is passing and he lands on the boat, crashing through the ferry’s canopy, on to the dance floor. He is alive.

The next day, William is fired from his job at a leisure centre, where he worked as a lifeguard. He returns home to his dingy bedsit. He opens his mail. It is a rejection from a publishing company. Still suicidal of thought, he decides to gas himself. Turning the gas on and putting his head in the oven, he realises his gas has been cut off.

Later the same evening, he pulls the card that was given to him by the man at the bridge from his pocket. It has a name on it: Leslie O’Neil (Tom Wilkinson) and the profession below the name: assassin.

William meets with Leslie the next day. William does not think that Leslie looks much like an assassin. Leslie wonders aloud how many assassins he has met. Leslie asks how does he know William is serious about dying. He tells him that when he saw him on the bridge, that had been his seventh attempt.

Leslie asks how he would like to die. What are the options? Leslie pulls out of an illustrated brochure. William says he would like a hero’s death, saving a small child from being hit by a car and a crowd applauding his bravery. How much money does he have? Leslie enquires. Two thousand pounds. Leslie tells him he cannot afford such an elaborate death.

What can he get? Leslie tells him that he will shoot him. Quick and painless. William worries that it might be a scam. Unfortunately, references are few and far between. Leslie gives him a contract, telling him it is a standard thing in the Guild of Assassins.

William has never heard of them. They do not advertise, Leslie tells him. How long will it take? William asks. Once the money has cleared, it will take a week, he is told. William signs the contract.

Leslie goes to the Guild of Assassins to register the job. The receptionist, Wendy (Cecelia Noble), tells him he is just in time to hit his monthly quota. Leslie asks if Harvey (Christopher Eccleston), head of the Guild, is in. No, all the assassins are away at a conference. Leslie does not know about the conference.

The next day, William calls Leslie. He has a few things that he wants to do before he is killed, does he have enough time? Leslie tells him he is at work but he is not the target. William decides to begin a book inspired by Leslie’s life as an assassin of suicidal people.

William gets a call from Ellie (Freya Mavor) who is an assistant at publishers, Steedman and son. She read his book and likes it. She wants to arrange a meeting. Can he do next week? William tells her no, next week will not be possible. Ellie says there is a cancellation and that they can meet the next day. William agrees to a lunch meeting.

William sees Leslie outside, watching him. He goes and asks if he can postpone the killing until after his meeting, telling him where the lunch meeting is. Leslie tells him the contract is non-refundable and he will kill him. William says that is fine. Leslie makes a note of William’s meeting.

William meets Ellie the next day. She is very attractive and a little bit dark, humour wise. Their meeting is interrupted by Ellie’s boss, Brian Bentley (Nigel Lindsay), who is abusing some underling on his mobile phone. He ends his phone call.

Brian sits down, shooting ideas for the book publication. William does not like any of them. William expounds his nihilistic viewpoint and Brian begins to rant about the pathetic attitude of modern youth. Brian’s rant is interrupted by a bullet through the forehead, William having bent down to pick up a pen for Ellie.

William realises that Leslie is there to kill him. He stands up looking to see where the shots are coming from. As Leslie is about to shoot at him again, a waiter walks by and blocks the shot. Leslie leaves the scene of carnage. Ellie pulls William under the table.

Am I not worth living for?

 

Leslie returns home to his wife, Penny (Marion Bailey) and tells her he had a bad day at work. A really bad day. Penny says it will be fine. Leslie is not so sure. Ellie turns up at William’s flat. She wants to start working on the book as she has been given compassionate leave after the incident at the lunch meeting. William tells her he cannot do it. She tries to convince him otherwise.

William tells her about the contract he took out on himself. Ellie tells him to cancel it. William calls Leslie. He hears the phone ringing nearby. Leslie is in his flat. William tells him he wants to call off the contract. Leslie says no. William and Ellie run, stealing a traffic warden’s moped. As Leslie pursues them, he shoots the traffic warden. Leslie gets snatched by a couple of men.

William and Ellie go to a country house that Ellie knows of. Leslie has been taken to see Harvey. Harvey is not happy about the mess at the lunch meeting. Though it turns out that Brian had a contract out on him anyway, Harvey wants Leslie to retire.

Leslie does not want to retire. Harvey tells him they even bought him a clock, putting a gold carriage clock on the desk. Leslie refuses to take the clock and leaves.

Harvey tells Ivan (Velibor Topic), the Guild’s top assassin, to kill him. William asks Ellie whose house they are in. After initially lying and saying she did not know, she tells him it was her parents. They discuss how their respective parents died. Ellie’s parents died in a car crash, William’s were crushed by a falling piano.

Ellie says they should kill themselves. She goes and gets two kitchen knives. She says that killing one another will probably not solve the mystery of life. They would probably have more chance if they are alive. They hold the knives and Ellie counts down. They drop the knives and kiss.

Penny is trying to persuade Leslie that retirement would be a good thing. Leslie is too invested in his life as an assassin to hear it. Penny tells him that if he does not want to retire, he will have to complete the contract.

Ellie and William discuss the contract William took out on himself. He tells her how he had wanted a heroic death, saving a child. Ellie deconstructs the scenario, pointing out that it would be unlikely that such a death could be properly staged, thus rendering it unheroic. William is quite enamoured by her.

Penny leaves Leslie at home alone, going off to a sewing contest. Ivan is outside watching the house. He sneaks into the house, looking for Leslie. Leslie leaves in pursuit of William. Leslie finds William and Ellie. He says he has to kill William and probably Ellie. William tries to persuade him not to kill Ellie. He is interrupted by a phone call from Penny.

Penny tells him that someone killed his budgies. Leslie, having ended the phone call, is about to shoot William and is shot by Ivan. He comes into the house and takes Leslie’s gun, giving it William. He tells William to kill himself. Both William and Ellie are confused. Ivan tells him that it has to look like a suicide.

Leslie, who is not dead, stabs Ivan in the back and bashes his head in, killing him. Leslie still wants to kill William so as to complete his contract and not be forced to retire. Ellie says they can put the contract on Ivan and in that way he will have fulfilled his contract. They write up a contract and dispose of Ivan.

Leslie returns home, much to Penny’s relief. Harvey comes to see Leslie. He is not happy, even after Leslie gives him the contract for Ivan. Leslie points a gun at him under the table. Harvey also pulls out a gun, hidden under the table.

Penny comes into the room, showing Harvey the cushion that won her first prize at the competition. Her story persuades Leslie to retire. Harvey gets up and leaves. Penny is glad she did not have to stab him with a kitchen knife.

Ellie and William are out for a walk, chatting happily, William happy to be alive, having met Ellie. He sees a boy run into the road. The boy does not see a van coming. William pushes the boy out of the road, to safety. He gets hit by the van. As he lies injured, Ellie by his side, a crowd gathers and applauds his bravery. The end.

Dead In a Week (Or Your Money Back) is quite an enjoyable film except for the Dahl-esque ending. The story of the depressive William searching for significance through repeated acts of attempted suicide is a bittersweet one.

The fact that he should meet a man at the other end of the age spectrum in Leslie, also trying, in an entirely different way, to reinforce the significance of his existence is, though extreme, something that a lot of us can relate to.

Written and directed by Tom Edmunds, Dead In A Week (Or Your Money Back) is an interesting take on depression, love, defining of character and decisions. Like many people, Leslie feels that his job defines him.

Without his profession, something that he has always been confident in doing, he does not know who is he and that, plus the dreaded thought of retirement scares him.

William, on the other hand, has not found his place in the world. Orphaned from a young age and alone in the world, something exacerbated by his choice of wanting to succeed in the most insular of professions, that of a writer, and failing, pushes him towards depression and his view of the world.

The performances from all of the actors are good. Edmunds’ witty script, especially for Eccleston’s Harvey, is particularly sharp. Music plays its part as well, with certain tunes magnifying scenes. Barnard is perfectly cast as the dour William, as is Wilkinson as the seasoned hitman, Leslie, working in a profession that is leaving him behind.

Mavor’s almost deadpan Ellie is a joy, pulling William out of his funk and showing him that there are reasons to embrace life. At ninety minutes long, Dead In A Week eases through the first half of the film and gathers pace once William has signed the faithful contract.

I don’t know if it is because it is a British film or just a deliberate decision to avoid a Hollywood ending, but William getting knocked down in the final scene did take away some of the joy for me. It is a minor gripe in an otherwise very good film. Dead In A Week is worth ninety minutes of your time.

Artistic Borders

    Jules Winnfield, Zeus Carver, Mace Windu are all names that are familiar to film fans around the world. The Bible-quoting hitman, the reluctant, foul-mouthed, heroic, John McClane sidekick and the black Jedi. These characters, along with dozens – over one hundred – others, were brought to life by one man; Samuel L. Jackson.

   Samuel L. Jackson is one of the finest actors working today. He is also one of the hardest working having already appeared in over one hundred films with several either due to arrive in 2017 or slated for 2018. He is a man in demand. It was not always like that. Jackson achieved fame and acclaim late, not becoming well known until his mid-forties. A veteran of the business and having overcome substance abuse problems he had in younger years, Jackson wears his fame comfortably, exuding confidence and fulfilling the role of Samuel L. Jackson, movie star.

   Popular on both sides of the Atlantic, he is a regular in celebrity pages, on talk shows and in the press. He has talked of a love of golf, how seeing himself on screen is fantastic and fronted an important campaign highlighting awareness of testicular cancer. Jackson is no wallflower.

   Recently he has been in the press opining on the seemingly popular fad of casting black British actors for African-American roles. He asks, somewhat rhetorically, if African-American roles cannot be filled by African-American actors? Hmm. No doubt there are many African-American actors who, seeing the likes of David Oyelowo, Idris Elba, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Thandie Newton, John Boyega and most recently Daniel Kaluuya, have wondered what it is they have to do to be considered for such leading roles? Brush up on their English accents perhaps?

   Truth be told, Jackson’s comments are somewhat misguided considering his own situation. I doubt he is required to audition for the ‘Samuel L. Jackson’ like parts that are offered to him! Also in a country whose track record in race relations and African-American relations, in particular, is so poor, they still manage to have several notable figures who wield enough power and influence to not only get films made but bankroll them as well.

     With an entire network – BET: black entertainment television – dedicated to black televisual output as well as powerful producers and movers and shakers in entertainment, the avenues for black actors Stateside are many and varied, thus attracting talent from this side of the pond, where the opportunities for actors of colour are few and far between.

   Whereas the ‘Oscarssowhite’ hashtag was trending for the last couple of award ceremonies in the US, as actors of colour felt their contributions were being overlooked, here in Blighty such hashtags would be somewhat redundant as there is barely enough media featuring people or persons of colour to consider for awards.

   I suspect that Samuel had probably been hanging out with some of his lesser known black acting buddies and they got to whining about how them damn ‘Brits’ keep nabbing the plum roles. Samuel, being a good guy, felt that he could voice the concerns of some of his fellow black thesps, helping them out perhaps. He was wrong.