2016

Despite the Falling Snow (2016)

Written for RAF News April 2016

Taking place during the height of the Cold War, Despite the Falling Snow follows the relationship between rising Soviet politician Alexander Ivanov (Sam Reid) and the new love of his life Katya (Rebecca Ferguson), an entrancingly seductive Russian spy who gets a little closer than she intends to, falling for her target and jeopardising her mission.

This story is intercut with Alexander decades later in New York, now played with authoritative command in Charles Dance, as his niece Lauren (also played by Rebecca Ferguson) plans a trip to Moscow to exhibit some of her political artwork including a portrait of the woman who shares her likeness. Here she will end up uncovering some of her uncle’s past, finding herself tangled up in the same web of lies and deception, before finding the truth of what happened to Katya back in 1959.

Adapting her best-selling novel for the screen and directing herself, Shamim Sarif brings sensitivity and tenderness to the relationship of Alexander and Katya. Particularly in the character of Alexander, played by Sam Reid as broad-shouldered and square jawed but gentle and naive. At first it seems like this doesn’t match the character at all, at least not how Charles Dance plays him later in life, but it becomes clear that this softness of touch is defining of Alexander’s sensibility and ultimately his undoing.

Perhaps down to the adaptation the dialogue is often clunky and unnatural, and though it can a sometimes feel like a television drama the story of these two lovers tied to opposing forces is compelling, with twists and turns in both timelines. The performances are befitting of their characters, especially a vodka-soaked cameo from Anthony Head which shouldn’t be missed.

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Disorder/Maryland (2016)

Written for RAF News March 2016

Back from service in Afghanistan as part of the French Special Service, Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) shows signs of post-traumatic stress and so finds some private security work before he can return – if he can return. His judgement seems to be clouded though by his apparent disorder as he struggles to tell apart real threats from paranoid delusions.

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“A lot like Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive but takes itself very seriously.”

Vincent is a brooding figure who shows little more than his vigilant drive to protect. The first half of the film is an interesting and stylised exploration of his state of mind in which we experience a job from his perspective. Hired initially as security for a wealthy Lebanese businessman who is hosting a party, we observe potential threats whilst the overpowering bass of dance music drowns out all voices and throws your focus.

The use of penetrating sound and the uncomfortably closed in shots of Vincent’s face as he stalks guests through the crowd works well to overwhelm your senses and create palpable tension. This discomforting paranoia will plague the entire film and create some extremely suspenseful scenes.

Schoenaerts is great without even having to speak. He acts with his body, showing a raw animalistic quality that has him physically restrained until he can find an outlet. He is threatening, even to the family he is hired to ‘babysit’ when the businessman leaves town. It is only when Vincent is left alone, protecting the client’s wife (Diane Kruger) and son that the threats seem to become more real, but how certain can he be?

At first it feels as though Disorder will be a thoughtful but very different take on PTSD. But this message is abandoned half way into the film as it quickly becomes more of a genre film, an action thriller. It remains stylised and tries to hold on to the drama but it becomes almost a horror film by the end. As a result the message of Disorder is lost, albeit to very tense and involving action.

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This sudden plummet into a different genre changes the way in which you view Vincent and ultimately it creates a very unclear message. In ghost films there is often a character who warns everyone else, who senses a presence and is usually laughed at until the doubters are mutilated by said presence. The film aligns with this position because the idea of there not actually being a threat is less interesting for this kind of film. In Disorder, Vincent senses ‘the presence’ but it is clearly fallout from his PTSD, until it isn’t. Until the point where his paranoia comes true. I am not sure what is to be inferred by this? Is his disorder practical? Does he even have a disorder or is he just some clairvoyant Jason Bourne? It seemed like a cheap way to cash in on the tension created up until the last act. A cop out from creating non-action drama.

Even still the film was different enough to be compelling. The style was interesting even if there weren’t many realised characters or much of a story. It felt a lot like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive – a taciturn father surrogate brutally kills bad guys with supposed moral justification, shown with European flare through the striking visuals and an important score -but Disorder seems to take itself more seriously, pretending to be something more, something deeper… for an hour at least.

The Ones Below

Written for Film and TV Now Nov 2015 (Available here)

From the haunting lullaby that accompanies the opening image of a sonogram, there is an immediate sense of foreboding horror in The Ones Below, of something about to go wrong.

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The expecting couple are young professionals Kate (Clémence Poésy) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore), who up until now lived comfortably in the upper half of their London flat. Downstairs a new couple have moved in, a bubbly Finnish woman (Laura Birn) and her older, much less congenial husband Jon (David Morrissey). As luck would have it they have a child on the way too.

The soon-to-be mothers are drawn together initially but their differences soon come to light. Kate has doubts about motherhood that are not even comprehended by her desperately maternal neighbour. Theresa (her name even reminds of the renowned ‘Mother’) and Jon have always wanted to have children but it hasn’t been so easy for them. This is in stark contrast to Kate who wasn’t sure that she even wanted to have children, perhaps seeded in the frigid and distant relationship she has with her own mother. The ease with which she has fallen pregnant becomes a matter of discord as a sudden and dramatic turn of events sends the couples’ relationship spiralling into paranoid contempt.

When Kate eventually gives birth, her reluctance is challenged by the relentless demands of her young baby. She soon finds herself sleep-deprived and strung out, suspicious that the couple downstairs are interfering, but how much of this is in her head? While the more villainous qualities of certain characters is shown as schlocky and over-the-top, even for this style of film, it is the more subtle performance of Posey that grounds the horror and creates something interesting.

The Ones Below cleverly uses the divisive attitudes towards pregnancy as a means of finding tension and dividing lines. This is brought out in the way each character dresses, and the ways in which they decorate their apartments even. Where the more laid back and career focussed  young couple wear mostly monochrome, smart-casual attire, the ones below are splattered with bright garish colours, a quality which is unsettling, almost laughably so in the case of Jon, whose tall and imposing demeanour is undercut by his pink socks.

The on-the-nose title of David Farr’s directorial debut sounds like A Twilight Zone episode, which is rather fitting for this film which owes a debt to the twisty revenge thrillers of decades past, and not to mention Roman Polanski. Not simply Rosemary’s Baby, which is an undoubted influence, but the others in the Polish director’s Apartment trilogy, and his more recent adaptation Carnage, which examines the volatile dynamic of two middle-class couples as they fight over their children.

Although there are glimpses of these other films, The Ones Below lacks the potency to rival them and instead offers a cheap thriller that descends into pure absurdity. The final act is actually quite fun in the end but it comes at the expense of all seriousness up until this point.

Against The Sun (2016)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News Feb 2016

Against the Sun tells the incredible true story of three US Navy airmen who were left stranded in the South Pacific near Japanese territory during WW2.

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Chief Harold Dixon (Garret Dillahunt, 12 Years a Slave), bombardier Tony Pastula (Tom Felton, The Harry Potter series) and radioman Gene Aldrich (Jake Abel) find themselves low on fuel and way off course, with no other option but to crash land their torpedo bomber into the ocean. It is only once they climb inside a life raft that they meet each other properly.

The remainder of the film takes place aboard this small but formidable life boat as the three men try to stay alive long enough to make it to shore. As it turns out the nearest islands are over 1000 miles away, which means weeks of travel if they can survive the journey. All of this they must do without food or water, without maps, flares or flashlights. If that wasn’t enough the two younger lads can’t swim and the waters are shark infested. The odds are stacked against them and yet the film maintains a tone of triumph, of sheer American optimism.

Remarkably similar to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the two films are different in scope and magnitude. Where Jolie’s dramatic story is on a much larger scale with glossy special effects, Against the Sun is stripped back to the bones. It is simple and unsensational by comparison – and more effective for it. But that’s not to say it’s too memorable either.

It feels as though there are countless missed opportunities to create tension but it holds its punches intentionally, even if the film suffers for it. This is a true story and measures are taken to capture the events accurately. On this small scale production the performances take focus and it is the dynamic between the minuscule cast that makes the film, but unfortunately the tone stays the same throughout – so while their story is unbelievable the film doesn’t do enough to leave a lasting impression.