Author: samcooney

The Ground Beneath My Feet (2020)

Written for RAF News June 2020

An Austrian thriller that sees the downward spiral of a corporate consultant as she becomes paranoid to the point of delusion, keeping secrets that will eat away at her sanity and might just jeopardise the career and relationship into which she has invested everything.

The Ground Beneath My Feet tracks a world falling apart - Los ...

Lola Wegenstein is one of a small team of hatchet-men: though most are women in fact, including her boss with whom she is having an affair. An invasive job that can involve working 48 hours without sleep, living out of a suitcase in a hotel, she is pushed to breaking point when her sister is committed to an institution after another suicide attempt. For fear of bringing personal issues into an already fraught workplace, Lola discreetly flies between the ward and the job to spin these plates.

Valerie Pachner’s performance as the isolated Lola is riveting in its restraint, establishing a steely veneer that is quickly chipped away. Receiving calls from her sister who insists she is being abused, only to find out that she has no access to phones, Lola begins to question her own reality. With a shared history of paranoid schizophrenia, it dawns on Lola that she might be experiencing the same symptoms of her sister.

The horrification of mental illness is an antiquated idea that can be problematic but the film is able to sidestep these tropes by adding a degree of nuance and subtlety. The thriller elements of the film are grounded in a real sense of fear and urgency, and the quality of filmmaking prevents it from feeling exploitative.

The genre elements seeded in the beginning are dropped in the second half however, leaving a much more restrained and ordinary drama. Though it dodges the pitfalls of psychotic women in the workplace and mental illness as a source of horror, unfortunately the beats stay the same and it becomes blander as a result.

The Ascent (2020)

Written for RAF News June 2020

An elite squad known as ‘Hell’s Bastards’ are sent into a vaguely described civil conflict to retrieve intel, but make a decision that will come back to haunt them, over and over, until they can find a way back to change it.

U.K. Action Thriller 'The Ascent' Turns to VR for Lockdown ...

Ordered to clear a campsite, merciless leader Will Stanton (Shayne Ward) insists that they leave no survivors. Even when they discover a prisoner (Julia Szamalek), he demands that she be killed, forcing Kia Clarke (Samantha Schnitzler) to carry out the execution at gunpoint.

Upon their return to HQ the lifts aren’t working and so they begin to scale the concrete stairs, but after sometime it becomes clear that they are no closer to the top. The handy work of MC Escher these stairs form the perfect purgatorial metaphor. A never-ending climb punctuated by sirens and red light, and members of the team being picked off by an apparent evil presence following after them.

Through this shrewd and straight-forward effect, the filmmakers are able to make one location last infinitely, reminding of the simple ingenuity of high-concept cult horror Cube.

The squad will discover one exit along the stairway, but this leads them back in time to when they began the mission, a portal through which they can view their own sin perhaps, and maybe find a way out of the cycle.

An ambitious blend of science fiction, horror and action, the tone is set by the the interactions of the group. Initially there is some dark humour reminiscent of another cult classic featuring soldiers versus the supernatural in Dog Soldiers. Unfortunately this fades into self-serious monologues that drift towards the generic.

Cursed by design, set in a time-loop, the repetition becomes tiring and gets a little lost, but is brought around by the end of the film in some impressive and inventive ways. The Ascent is an ambitious project that takes chances and makes the most of its resources.

Brokeback

I rewatched Ang Lee’s heart-aching Brokeback Mountain and thought I’d spew some symbolic noticings.

Twilight And Brokeback Mountain Photographer Kimberley French ...

As a study of masculinity, I find the film fascinating. It takes the quintessential icon of Murca’ in the cowboy and flips it, face down into the pillow. The strong and silent hero of literature and cinema becomes a figure of repressed desire and pained sensitivity.

Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Ray is so constrained, suppressing emotion, that words can barely escape his tightly drawn face. Eastwood’s testosterone brimming squint is subverted by Ennis, as it seems to be holding back so much more. The model of the alpha male in the film (his name is almost phallic for fucks sake) he fights out of protection of his family, out of unobtainable love, but also defensively out of anger.

The first high altitude fuck happens like most – whilst drunk, camping, taking a break from watching over the sheep. Ennis is top. For now at least, as his inability to accept himself and his desires has his next drunk and teary tent visit wanting to be cradled. Trying out the yang. There is balance in this newly found relationship it seems, one that couldn’t possibly be matched by Ennis’ wife – these being the days before high-quality pegging paraphernalia.

A brief digression on Christ

The chaps talk religion briefly, in passing. Perhaps as a way to introduce that they’re not strictly religious, and don’t base their morality on the hetero-encouraging printed word of the lord, or maybe because there wasn’t much else to talk about.

But these lads, beautiful lambs of god as they are, take on the spiritually significant role of shepherds. That is until that fateful night with the fighting, and the whisky, and the making up. Ennis returns to his camp where he was supposed to be staying to scare off the wolf, the perfect symbolic embodiment of the shadow self, of latent and unexpressed homosexual desire. He returns to find a sheep has been killed, ripped open and eaten. The sacrificial lamb of his sin. Either way it doesn’t stop him going back for more, but this could embody the guilt and shame that he feels.

Brokeback Mountain Promotional Stills - Brokeback Mountain Photo ...

When the boys get back from Brokeback, and have families of their own, they meet back up under the guise of fishing trips. Cleverly repurposing the Christian symbol of the fish, that would serve as coded message for followers to have secret gatherings under Roman rule.

Jack and the beans-talk

Jack Twist appears to take a beta role in the relationship, coming across boyish – especially in comparison to the uber-staunch manliness of Pennis – or even effeminate in his adoption of certain engendered traits.

Jack is the more goofy of the two but also just more expressive. The love affair all begins when Jack complains of the sleeping situation out in the field with the sheep, preferring instead the camp, where he is able to cook for the both of them, mostly beans which they both tire of quickly.

Ennis is bringing back the food on his horse, when a bear suddenly attacks – another symbolic animal, representing overpowering primal urges maybe – once again costing the two cowboys. Sick of beans, Jack tries his hand at hunting for the both of them but fails. It is Ennis who eventually steps in and kills a bull elk to provide for the both of them.

Jack’s beta position is paralleled in his relationship with his wife. From a successful family, it is her father who takes the alpha role – seen initially at the birth of their child, when he sends Jack away like service staff, but coming to a head at Thanksgiving. This showdown of masculinity occurs when Grandpa’ takes the role of cutting the turkey. Jack accepts this. When he turns off the Football game on television, Grandpa’ gets up and turns it back on – saying some shit about how it’s good for boys. This ruffles Jack’s feathers, and his newly acquired moustache, as he finally stands and defends himself, threatening him to the point that he sits and is served. Jack carves the turkey, winning this battle and earning a sly little grin from his wife.

Meanwhile Penis is having Thanksgiving with his ex-wife and her new husband. Failing to be knocked off of his alph-spot, this is cleverly avoided by having the rounder, less threatening, man-of-the-house use an electric carving knife. Hardly threatening and a beautifully symbolic prop.

In the closet

Of course the most potent symbol that closes out the film is the bloodied shirts of Jack and Ennis. Dealing with notions of suppressing and hiding feelings that appear to run counter to constructed ideas of masculinity and morality – Ennis visits Jacks family home and finds in his wardrobe, a secret department, nesting the shirts from the first night of passion at Brokeback. Significantly carrying Ennis inside himself. When Ennis takes this memento to his mobile home, he reverses the order, placing Jack within himself.

He keeps the shirts in the closet but gives them time to breathe like, opening the door, to this side of his personality, and through this act of remembrance and acceptance, is softened very slightly, not having to keep up the facade of hyper-masculinity that has him being a shitty dad.

Camino Skies (2020)

Written for RAF News May 2020

Parkland Entertainment acquires doc 'Camino Skies' for UK ...

A group of six New Zealanders and Australians come together to make the famous pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago, united not only through the physical journey but the hardships that have led them here.

This documentary follows these individuals, delving into their often heartbreaking motivation, joining them as they come to know each other and find some form of reward in the trials ahead. For some this seems to be a personal challenge, for others an escape or quest for meaning.

For over a thousand years many people have made this journey across northwestern Spain to the shrine of Saint James in search of spiritual growth. The filmmakers here are gifted beautiful backdrops for conversations with these largely senior travellers, who talk very frankly about the tragedies they have suffered and continue to shoulder. Whilst it could feel exploitative, the subjects often seem to be taking great motivation or catharsis from their heartfelt interviews. Inserted throughout, we are given more insight and more reason to be impressed by their perseverance.

A large part of the group appear to be mourning the death of a loved one, in some cases their own children. Perhaps this journey to the other side of the world will afford them some sense of closure before they head back home. Sue Morris is an 80 year old who has recently separated from her husband and is determined to walk the 800km distance, despite having severe arthritis and suffering incredible pain.

In the same manner in which these strangers come to form bonds simply by treading the same path and sharing their stories, walking alongside them you can’t help but take inspiration.

Kindness of Strangers (2020)

Written for RAF News May 2020

Against the frantic backdrop of New York City comes a story of implausible connection, as one woman tries eagerly to escape the clutches of an abusive relationship with her two boys in tow, seeking help wherever she can find it.

The Kindness of Strangers Review: Your Holiday Turkey - That Shelf

Zoe Kazan plays Clara, the mother quickly fleeing Upstate New York to Manhattan with such fearful haste that it gives you some idea of the threat that she has left behind. With no money or place to stay, the runaway family sleep in their car – until of course it is towed. Shuffling from place to place, desperate and paranoid, she must steal clothes to wear and canapés to keep her kids fed.

The film begins by introducing several characters and gradually overlapping their stories, but make no mistake, there is no Curtis cheeriness, but an improbably hopeful story about compassion and community. There is the angel-made-flesh Alice (Andrea Riseborough), who works as a nurse to pay the bills but also volunteers at a soup kitchen for the homeless and running a group for people seeking forgiveness. There is ex-convict Marc (Tahar Rahim) who runs a Russian restaurant with the faux-Russian Tim (the accent is good for business apparently), played by Bill Nighy with superb scene-stealing nonchalance.

What could have easily been more melodramatic, is given more weight by the committed performance by Kazan at the centre. There are a few details that have certain characters seeming to belong in their environment and dramatic moments that aren’t exploitative.

With a title that serves as a mission statement, Kindness of Strangers is so unrealistic that it is almost fantastical in its optimism. But like many of its characters, it’s heart is in the right place.

Astronaut (2020)

Written for RAF News May 2020

Elderly widower Angus Stewart (Richard Dreyfuss) dreams of being an astronaut, and now he may actually be afforded the opportunity when a lottery is opened to the public for the first ever commercial spaceflight.

Astronaut' Review: Richard Dreyfuss Makes an Endearing Space ...

About to be carted off to a care home though he clearly still has his wits about him, Angus is resigned to his position. Grief-stricken he spends his nights outside drinking with his telescope, looking to find where he belongs. That is until his grandson urges him to enter a competition that could see him join a team on a two week trip through space. They would need to lie about his age and heart condition, but other than that highly dangerous risk, he has the sense of wonder they’re looking for.

Marcus Brown (Colm Feore) is the entrepreneur behind it all, a Richard Branson come Willy Wonka, who has a passion for space travel that resonates with Stewart. But what at first seems to be an unlikely beating-of-the-odds for our stargazing Grandpa Joe, becomes a different story altogether as he spots an issue with the runway as he is cast out of the competition.

An ex-civil engineer, this is his area of expertise and so it becomes his mission to bring it to everyones attention, without appearing bitter from rejection. This becomes another one of those highly improbable situations like Armageddon in which a regular salt-of-the-earth guy notices a problem that teams of well trained experts overlook. Evidently, they’re going to need a bigger road. A tougher road. You get the idea.

Dreyfuss adds confidence to proceedings, with a believable sense of passion that could just bag him another close encounter in Astronaut. Unfortunately the wistful pace and lack of substance leave this performance floating out on its own.

Storm Boy (2019)

Storm Boy': Review | Reviews | Screen

Written for RAF News April 2020

Geoffrey Rush plays Michael Kingley, an ageing businessman who is about to vote on whether a mining company can exploit the land that he grew up on, the beautiful South Australian beaches of Coorong. This casts him back into memories of his childhood and in particular his relationship with Mr. Percival, a pelican.

Mostly told through flashbacks, Mike is played by Finn Little as a young boy, living out in a shack with his stoic but sweet father (Jai Courtney), reading Lord of the Flies together, apparently serving as a corporate manifesto in this context.

However it is when he meets a local Indigenous man by the name of Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson) that he starts to connect more with nature. The birds native to the island are being hunted for sport and whilst his own father is indifferent, he feels an urge to protect them. Discovering an orphaned nest of chicks with Bill, he takes them home to raise them himself.

Whilst his father is initially resistant, he sees the passion that has awoken his boy and so supports in designing contraptions to feed them until they can do it for themselves. Not quite the emotional turmoil of Casper and his Kes, young Michael still finds an escape in the rearing of the birds, opting to keep one as the family pet.

As they grow larger we some footage of these remarkably playful pelicans, creating a real connection between Michael and the birds. It is the unsubtle dialogue that treads on the tenderness of the story. The framing device with Rush doesn’t really add anything to the story, other than a heavy-handed morality.

Apparently a well known Australian novel that had been adapted into a beloved-to-some movie, this recent adaptation doesn’t do anything very interesting but the innocence of children and animals is a surefire way to get a dose of empathy.

The Rest of Us (2020)

The Rest of Us (2020) - Rotten Tomatoes

Written for RAF News April 2020

Cami (Heather Graham) and her teenage daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse) live in a beautiful hill-top home isolated from the world, that is until some guests arrive in the shape of her ex-husband’s new wife and young daughter following his sudden accidental death.

When Cami finds out that Rachel (Jodi Balfour), the so-called ‘homewrecker’, has not only been widowed, but unravelling financial struggles have lead to her being evicted, she offers her slice of paradise as a place to stay. What was perhaps a sympathetic gesture, is initially refused but soon becomes the only option, much to the annoyance of everyone involved.

The Rest of Us looks at the relationships between these women, how they deal with grief over this absent male presence, and the ripples of his decisions that continue to affect them. Both mothers fail to connect with their own daughters, Cami professing to have a way with kids, where Rachel is closer in age with a rebellious mindset to get approval of the teenager. Together forming a yin-yang of roles, this of course does not account for jealousy, rivalry and social tensions – with some secrets threatening to divide the family up once more.

There is a maturity to the storytelling which is able to avoid over-explaining. A quick cutting style punctuates some funny moments and dramatic turns at the end of a scene, but it’s continued use makes it feel choppy. It has all the makings of an indie film but the editing style of an action movie. The fast pace moves the story along but also stops it from finding a rhythm or slowing down enough to connect with characters emotionally. Strange considering the film is centred around the grieving process.

What it does achieve though is showing a range of female voices, both in front of and behind the camera. Playing off stereotyped hostility, these characters exhibit solidarity without it being too clean and patronising, it is messy and complex but ultimately humanitarian.

Calm with Horses (2020)

Written for RAF News March 2020

Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) is the muscle for a criminal family and father to an autistic son (Kiljan Moroney) – physically intimidating yet a sensitive soul – so when he is instructed to kill someone both his morals and loyalty are tested.

Image result for calm with horses

With a largely silent character capable of extreme violence at the centre, and cut to a dreamlike score, there is the feel of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. But the Los Angeles veneer and stylism is scratched away to reveal something rougher and grittier. Filmed on the West coast of Ireland, it holds onto the intimacy of its rural setting but brings out the desolation.

This place is populated by lowly thugs and drug-dealers run by the Devers clan. Connected through his manipulating ‘friend’ Dympna (Barry Keoghan), the mouthy nephew of the family, Arm has been adopted as their trusty pit-bull to carry out the dirty work. An ex-boxer who has perhaps taken too many hits to the head, he does as he is told.

There is a brutal darkness that sits behind the story, propelling it forward, but also a sensitivity taking shape in Arm’s moral crisis. Adapted from a short story the film expands the relationship between Arm, his ex-girlfriend and their son whose special needs have them looking at specialist schools across the country.

Cosmo Jarvis is captivating in this role, playing the simple brute with such restraint through his squinting eyes and tightly drawn mouth that he looks visibly constrained, torn apart by inner conflict.  He seldom speaks, but when he does, he does so softly with a sibilating lisp that is perhaps an indicator of his gentler nature, buried beneath his constructed masculine identity.

This debut feature from Nick Rowland is confident and accomplished. There are moments of well orchestrated action and tension building, but the most interesting scenes are those smaller exchanges that bring out the humanity of characters caught in the crossfire.