Reviews

After The Storm (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

After the death of his father, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) moves back home with his elderly mother to get things in order, finding that he doesn’t have much anymore. He doesn’t have enough money to pay child welfare for the son he rarely sees, to the ex-wife that he still loves but who has moved on without him.

The storm of the title could be the typhoon that is due to hit Tokyo anytime now – but it could also refer to the reckoning of Ryota at this moment in time. A once promising writer who has settled as a private investigator with a gambling problem, he isn’t the man he wanted to be. A deeply flawed character who has charm but is sad and saddening. His vulnerability is so great that at one point he asks a colleague to stop being so nice to him for fear that he might start crying.

In this family drama there is an authenticity to the everyday tragedy, to the realisation that things don’t always work out. That being said, the film does have a sense of humour, embodied perfectly by Ryota’s mother in a phenomenal performance by Kirin Kiki which gracefully moves from funny to poignant and back again.

After the Storm is meditative but not slow, full of neatly packaged details and symbols that add a poetic kind of depth to the characters and their relationships. Offering a sweet and unsensational slice of life that doesn’t try to dress anything up or tie it with a bow, it gives us something more realistic and soulful as result.

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.

Swiss Army Man (2016)

Written for RAF News September 2016

Stranded on a beach Hank (Paul Dano) has had enough and is ready to end it all when a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore giving him new hope – as well as a way to chop wood and start fires. It’s kind of like Cast Away but with Harry Potter playing Wilson.

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All we know about Hank is that he is an outsider, a bit of a weirdo but sweet at heart. All we know about Manny is that he is dead, at least we’re sure he’s dead until he starts talking – prompting Hank to teach him all there is to life, mostly: love, farts and masturbation. In return Manny offers his body as a tool, appearing to have fantastical powers. If you hadn’t guessed from the title Swiss Army Man is ridiculous. It is pure comic absurdity channeled into the template of an indie film.

Hank’s life lessons are usually accompanied by elaborate props and scenes fabricated from twigs and refuse, giving the film an impossibly complicated homemade aesthetic that is so common of independent films – think: Be Kind Rewind, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist or more recently Me, Earl and the Dying Girl and Adult Life Skills. It feels like an elaborate parody at times, with classic moments like hands rolling out of windows and underwater kisses – just with one of the character’s dead and propped up with sticks or his own flatulence. It’s this level of humour that prevents it from getting too serious, or at least when it seems to get serious it is undermined completely by its silliness.

Not so much concerned with whether he is a hallucination or not, Swiss Army Man ventures into the bizarre by trying to tell a serious story through the profanely juvenile. It embraces its absurdity and wears it with pride. The score is put together brilliantly, a cappella chorus that is sparked by Dano and Radcliffe imitating stirring and triumphant film music. Dano’s recent turn as Brian Wilson comes to mind, not only in his vocal harmonies but in his disturbed state of mind.

The repetition of certain jokes does get tired but much like Manny’s corpse they seem to have a second life after a time. Swiss Army Man is a bold film that sticks to its style and delivers something altogether different and a bit weird.