Film review

Dunkirk (2017)

Written for RAF News July 2017

Dunkirk is not what you might expect if you somehow you hadn’t heard about it already. Don’t expect a typical story, this is white-knuckle experience of the desperate fight for survival.

It shows the infamous Dunkirk evacuation from three different perspectives: Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) one of the many troops stranded on the beach, Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) captaining his own personal boat out to bring them home, then there’s Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) two spitfire pilots protecting those on the ground. Surrounded on all sides with Messerschmitt’s raining fire from above, the squaddies are forced to wait up to a week with their backs to the sea, those on the water are left exposed for a day, and the airforce have only an hour of fuel.

These different experiences are wrapped together with the same frantic and frenetic intensity, cutting through time and leaving you without a moment to unclench. You can see why its Christopher Nolan’s shortest film since his debut – there’s no way you could keep this pace up. It’s exhilarating to the point of exhaustion.

Using a young and largely unknown cast for the soldiers on the beach, except of course the debuting Harry Styles who isn’t half bad, you are forced to consider how young and inexperienced these soldiers were. Their fear and desperation is magnified when shown huge stretches of shoreline, hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers with nowhere to go. Shot completely in large format, and mostly on IMAX cameras, the beautifully vast coast of Dunkirk becomes a symbol of vulnerability and hopelessness.

Amidst the chaos though we have the calming presence of Mark Rylance, a compassionate civilian intent on getting over the Channel with two young boys to do his bit. When warbirds roar overhead he reassures the boys, and the audience, that this sound should be reassuring – the Rolls Royce Merlin engine of the greatest plane ever engineered. But no sooner are we told to relax than we are thrust into the cockpit to experience a dogfight first hand.

Nolan’s fondness for practical effects mean that a lot of stunts are happening for real, dozens of real ships in the water, shot with cameras mounted on real spitfires – and you feel the weight of it. The dislocation of chasing a target through the clouds and the deafening rattles of gunfire. Masked and muffled (and with a similar coat) you can make out just a little more of Hardy than his turn as Bane, but this isn’t about coherence, in fact it’s just the opposite.

Dunkirk is a joyful assault on the senses that fills you with a welcome dose of suspense and adrenaline. A cleverly made epic that is deceptively complex.


Personal Opinion Sidebar: I was lucky enough to see a preview of Dunkirk at the IMAX in Waterloo – the largest screen in Europe. I understand the song and dance being made about seeing it in this format because it is shot precisely for this format, for the experience. I saw Interstellar here for this reason.

The difference is I could watch Interstellar on a phone* and still take something from the story, whereas I feel Dunkirk, being an experiential film is made for this set-up. It clearly did what it set out to do, to an extreme, but I’m not sure what else is to be found here. Maybe I’m wrong but I have no intention of watching the film again. Fun though ay.

*Just to be clear, I would never. I swear to Lynch.

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The Shepherd (2017)

Written for RAF News June 2017

Anselmo Garcia (Miguel Martin) is a humble and unassuming shepherd who lives in a small farm house with his dog. A man of simple pleasures who sees no use for a television or telephone, Anselmo appreciates the simplicity of life: in food, coffee and classic literature – but now they are trying to take that from him.

 

When two men representing a construction firm propose to buy Anselmo’s land in order to build a new housing complex, it is clear that he is not even tempted. Miffed by his apparent disinterest in the money they turn aggressive. What soon transpires is that Anselmo’s land is the last piece of the puzzle, and that all of his neighbour’s have already signed away their property. In order for the deal to be closed, they are reliant on Anselmo parting with his property, and so he finds the pressure increasing from all sides to leave behind the life that he knows and loves.

One of Anselmo’s neighbour’s is the sharply dressed slaughterhouse owner Julian (Alfonso Mendiguchía). When he takes Anselmo to his sterile factory floor filled with steel machinery, it is clear that this life is the complete antithesis of the shepherd’s – harvesting animals as opposed to rearing them. But despite his appearance, Julian is in great looming debt and beginning to get desperate.

The morals guiding this storyline are cut and dry from the outset and the money-hungry suits make for pretty two dimensional villains. What is impressive is how the film imbues a romanticism into the shepherds way of life through the images on screen and with a modest budget. Capturing a flock of sheep on this rural Spanish landscape in the early lavender hours of the morning and the firey colours of dusk.

The story is a most definitely a slow burn with performances from the supporting cast that are pretty ropey for the most part, but there are moments which incapsulate the argument of simple living over the stress of modern life quite nicely.

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.

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.

Two Women (2016)

Written for RAF News September 2016

Set in mid-19th century Russia, Two Women is focussed on the social fallout when a young tutor moves into a countryside estate only to steal the affection of both the wife and adopted daughter in residence.

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The harsh and hardened lady of the manor, Natalia Petrovna (Anna Astrkhantseva), has grown complacent, her eye drifting from her wealthy husband to her hopelessly-besotted friend Mikhail (Ralph Fiennes) and now to new arrival (Nikita Volkov) even though he himself seems distracted by young free spirited Vera (Anna Levanova).

Adapted from Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the CountryTwo Women is presented rather as two days. The first painted white and gold, every scene sun-kissed and glowing as the children play together and the adults fawn over each other. Then, in another move of unsubtle symbolism, the second day is met with torrential downpour, taking with it those promising emotions and complicating the relationships within the house.

Over the course of the film different pairings of characters walk around the luscious surroundings of this country home confessing their feelings for each other. Despite the large open spaces that they so often meander through, most are caged by repressed desires and how they ought to behave.

Two Women is a slow-burn that deals in subtlety, but in the hands of these performers small moments become something much larger. Fiennes is masterful at this, stealing focus when simply reacting. Although given that he had learnt the lines in Russian to be overdubbed this is all we are left with. Astrkhantseva gives a solid performance as Natalya, the perfect counterpoint to Vera, the other woman titled in the film though treated as a child. She is naive and vulnerable, spending most of the time running from something or other – which is pointed out as being rather improper.

Apart from a couple of quips made by the visiting doctor, each scene is treated as a rather sober affair, drifting apparently from the comedy in the original text. As if constrained by the same formality of its characters, Two Women moves slowly but deliberately. It relies on the performances to keep your attention, and this it manages to do but it sure does take itself seriously.

The Neon Demon (2016)

Are you sex or food? She’s dessert…. Because she’s so sweet.

In the claws-out fashion world of LA, green eyes and plastic smiles twist compliments into daggers. It seems there are no friends among rivals.

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Jesse (Elle Fanning) is the new girl in town. At 16 years old  – 19 if anyone asks – her innocence will prove to be that thing that everyone hungers for, but her quick progression will seed a poisonous vanity and make enemies of other models. Sarah and Gigi are veterans of the catwalk, and resentfully so. They show a relentless competitive streak and willingness to cut and stitch themselves into perfection. They are introduced to Jesse by make-up artist and mortician Ruby who seems just as obsessed with Jesse’s appearance as the camera.

In Refn favourite La Dolce Vita a swarm of paparazzo scurry and scramble over each other to get photographs of female stars. Like mosquitoes they are a persistent nuisance but no real threat – the women have power and an industry has been built around their sexuality. This is also true of The Neon Demon but on the surface it looks just the opposite, with girls clawing and clamoring to get in front of the camera and be noticed.

The male presence in the film is concentrated down to a few peripheral misogynists who seem to possess power no matter where they fall on the scale – from photographer and collection designer to motel manager. They speak very seldom but when they do they give orders. Enamored by Jesse’s natural beauty, you realise that her uncorrupt innocence is interchangeable with naivete and youthfulness, or perhaps even virginity. This infantilisation offers a stark satire of the fashion industry but it is not so far from the truth. Glammed up and glossed over it is the commodification of something lurid that exits in the underbelly of society too – ‘real Lolita shit’ says the motel manager of a 13 year old you can pay to fuck in a room neighbouring Jesse’s.

Whilst the film appears to be about girls, divorced from Refn’s sexualised male fantasy in Drive and Freudian complex in Only God Forgives, his few male characters signify authority and force the girls to compete in creating something like the ‘anti-female friendship’ film. They fight each other to have the opportunity to be exploited and objectified – which seems to be self-reflexive of the film. Refn’s male gaze is often felt behind the camera, at one point actually taking the point-of-view of an attacker, and when the film nose dives into exploitation in the third act it takes on the same predatory voyeurism, which is all part of its charm.

The final moments of the film could be seen as a comical misreading of the expression that escapes all involved in this industry – beauty is in the eye of the beholder.