gaming the system

Terrible twos. A horrible throwaway term that encompasses a great many emotional developments. A shorthand between parents maybe, but still it stands in for something individual and a lot more complex.

A couple of the most recent Machiavellian flourishes that little Jtown has mastered in the last couple of weeks:

Playing hide and seek and, because I’m a pro, he goes looking for me for a little while. I watch as he runs into the living room, peers around the usual places (like I said, professional) and then calls out ‘Daddy! You my best friend”. I die a little in silence, long enough to see him turn around a look for movement before trying it in another room, bating me to react.

Or more recently, Nico was giving Jackson a time-out. Pretty upset by the ordeal he brilliantly found a way to distract her from the process and asked “You love me?” and then cuddled her when she said yes. Now maybe he was just looking for assurance while being told off, I wasn’t even there – but I can imagine his demonic smile over her shoulder as she comforts him.

Cleverclever.

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo (2017)

Written for RAF News April 2017

Hot on the heels of Hidden Figures, the oscar-nominated film about the overlooked African-American women working at NASA in the 60s, comes this documentary, shedding more light on the inner workings of Mission Control and the crew behind the Apollo space missions.

Granted it pulls the spotlight back to the roomful of white men, but the film is quick to explain that this was simply the case back then, that progression has been made since. Courtenay McMillan and Ginger Kerrick are Flight Directors at NASA who are aware of the classic image that comes with the profession: “you know, the guy with the vest and the buzzcut”.

Mission Control is about those guys with buzzcuts, narrated by a number of the crew who were working in Mission Control over the course of many of the Apollo missions. It combines talking head interviews with special effects used to visualise the events described. There is also a great supply of archive material with some of those featured, throwing you back in time into the smokey room filled with people wearing headsets and horn-rimmed glasses, puffing on cigars and staring intensely into their monitors.

We are given a tour of the room as it was through footage filmed for television at the time, something in line with Jackie Kennedy’s tour of the White House, as we are shown the computing systems of the ‘trenches’ and the roles of each person. This is before we see the room alive with the tension of maintaining various Apollo missions and keeping astronauts alive in the face of new problems.

From the catastrophic Apollo 1 to the magnitude of Apollo 11, we experience the extreme highs and lows of the engineers responsible, whilst reliving the moment with them. They provide insight as to how things went wrong and the burden they would have to carry, as well as the stress and stench that permeated that room.

Another interesting insight behind the scenes of the space missions that carries just as much drama as the glossy blockbusters made in their name.

Neruda (2017)

Written for RAF News May 2017

Pablo Neruda was a poet and a politician, a Communist senator who was forced to go on the run when the Chilean president banned the party, despite having helped to elect him to power after the Second World War. With 300 police deployed for his capture, headed by the laughable Prefect Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), Neruda (Luis Gnecco) becomes fixated on this pursuit and longs for it to be a great ‘wild hunt’.

Pablo Larraín’s Neruda can be paired with his recent American debut Jackie: both focusing on a singular historical event and the fallout there surrounding. Where they differ is that Jackie appears painstakingly researched and replicated on screen, where Neruda employs artistic licence to blur the line between fact and fiction, doing so with tongue in cheek. Where Jackie is austere and solemn, Neruda is knowing and playful.

Following the poet’s fondness for pulp detective novels, the film takes on the look and feel of a noir cat-and-mouse chase. In this way it seems Neruda is taking charge of his own story. Adopting the lyricism of its subject, the film gifts itself an ability to constantly reframe scenes with a taste for the theatrical. Conversations between characters will suddenly be transported to a different location with a different angle and dramatic lighting cues, with silhouettes and voice-over reinforcing the style.

Neruda‘s artificiality doesn’t detract from it’s beauty, it frames it with intention. In it’s simple little flourishes it is humorous, peculiar and utterly cinematic.

Raw (2017)

Written for FilmAndTVNow April 2017 (Available here without the analysis)

Raw is a brilliantly twisted coming of age story. A deeply unsettling horror loaded with a sly, knowing humour. The less you know going in, the more you will benefit from the story as it is fed to you, morsel by morsel, in its beautifully measured and withholding style.

The one thing you should know up front is that you will be tested, made to wince and squirm in your seat, depending on your constitution or sense of schadenfreude. So please do see this film, preferably at a packed cinema, where you can’t escape the screen or the reactions of others. Once you’ve done that, come and read the rest of this review which will tread carefully through the plot before ripping through spoilers into some speculative analysis. Agreed? Okay, see you soon.

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Uncertain (2017)

Written for RAF News March 2017

Uncertain, Texas: a marshy borderland town with a dwindling population of 94, forced out by the lack of prospects. There isn’t much going on here despite the beautiful Caddo lake, but even that is being destroyed by an aggressive weed.

This wondrously shot documentary follows a few residents of Uncertain, two ex-convicts, a young hopeless boy and a biologist intent on finding a solution to the vegetation problem that so threatens the livelihood of the community.

Henry spends most of his time on the water fishing, or as a tour guide, ruminating on the relationship he had with his late wife and the choices that led him here. We see glimpses of his family and the man he once was.

Wayne is a man on a mission to hunt down a large bore that he sees as his own masterful adversary, Mr Ed: the hog with the horses head. A recovering addict, Wayne seems to have developed more of a bond with this ‘super-aggressive monster’ than his own son.

These men are not running from their past, rather they are forced to ponder them here. Hunting and fishing, they spend long stretches of time out in the woods and in the swamps, meditating on their former lives and what they could have done differently.

It is only the young Texan Zach who finds himself lost in this ghost-town, needing to escape. Since his mother left he lives with his cats, Xbox 360 and his waffle-maker, passing the time by playing Minecraft or drinking to excess at one of the empty bars in town.

The lack of activity in this dead-zone sets the pace of the film, as we listen to intimate and revealing stories against the sounds of an ever-encroaching wildlife. But as we sail down the river and through the fog, we see more glimpses into the the dark past of both Henry and Wayne. It begins to feel less like a romantic Terence Malick film and more like Apocalypse Now.

The town is described at one point as Mother Nature’s favourite place: ‘Heaven, home and little bit of Hell too.’ Or maybe it’s Purgatory, a place for these men to see out the rest of their lives whilst shouldering grief and deep regret. Uncertain is a truly hypnotic documentary with a dark artistic edge.

 

Another Mother’s Son (2017)

Written for RAF News March 2017

Another Mother’s Son is based on the true story of Louisa Gould, a Jersey resident who took in a Russian prisoner of war during Nazi occupation.

The Channel Islands were the only British territory to fall under Nazi rule in 1942 and it is here that we are introduced to Louisa, played by Jenny Seagrove, a bold as brass shopkeeper in charge of distributing rations among the close-knit community.

Louisa and her friends are somewhat outspoken despite their home island being turned into a prison for mostly Russian POWs. When she receives news that one of her sons has been killed in battle, her maternal drive and sense of moral injustice lead her to house an escaped prisoner. Though they share very little language – she christens him ‘Bill’ after failing to pronounce his given name – they develop a bond that transcends their surroundings, and soon he finds himself part of the family.

John Hannah (Four Weddings and a Funeral) features as a postal worker left with the conflicted decision of defying Nazi-rule and passing along letters that incriminate Louisa. Ronan Keating makes an unexpected appearance as Louisa’s brother Harold Gould – given a moment to shine and sing on screen – nothing from the Boyzone catalogue mind.

Slow and sentimental at times the film has has a dreary quality about it and the moments intended to build tension simply don’t work. Though Lou is resilient she is never vengeful or violent. By comparison both Bill and the patrolling guards have a boyish naiveté that makes them appear constantly frightened. Another Mother’s Son looks to this hero in the shape of a normal working class woman who stood by her morals and tried to help those in need.

Whilst the film itself is rather unremarkable, this account by Louisa Gould is one worthy of admiration – showing how ordinary people need not be overlooked when in search of a hero story.