Film review

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.

Maggie’s Plan (2016)

Written for RAF News July 2016

In wont of a child but unable to find a partner, Maggie (Greta Gerwig) settles for a surrogate in a gormless but poetic pickle farmer. This is just as she meets John (Ethan Hawke) and although he has a family already, it is obvious that there is a connection and that they are bound to be together, but who can say for how long.

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Maggie and John meet at the college where they both work, she is in the arts he is in social science but with aspirations of writing fiction. She is desperate to be a mother but he already has children with the formidable and tightly wound author Georgette (Julianne Moore). In basing this triangle of characters in academia they have sharp wit and quick retorts, they are able to draw poetic allegories of their own situations, as well as being utterly pretentious and narcissistic at the best of times

Passing mentions of Pussy Riot and Slavoj Zizek place this story in time and tells us about the type of people we’re dealing with: self-aware progressives – acknowledging the futility a family dinner when they all have business to attend to on their phones.

The film is wrapped up in the intellect and self-awareness of it’s characters, it dances around the typical beats of an indie romantic-comedy and offers an intellectual spin. It never drops its frenetic pace, jumping forward in time to Maggie and John with a 3 year old child of their own. Not as happy as she had imagined herself to be, this is where the second part of Maggie’s plan is put into action: to get John and Georgette back together, to put him back where she found him.

The film maintains a light tone with an upbeat ska and reggae soundtrack, but it is the ramped up, borderline android performance of Julianne Moore’s Danish author that tips the film into farce. This is a gamble which pays off. A perfect counterpoint to the drama underlying the story.

Maggie’s Plan twists the rom-com into an intellectual screwball comedy, unlike it’s characters never taking itself too seriously. It is offbeat, clever and funny throughout.

Jarhead 3: The Siege (2016)

Written for RAF News May 2016

Corporal Evan Albright (Charlie Weber) is a Marine with high marks and the newest to join the forces at the US Embassy in an unnamed Middle Eastern territory, but his goody-two-shoes keenness will make him enemies before he can warn them that the Ambassador is under threat.

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Shown through the compound and assured of its high level security, the films subtitle connects the dots for you if you hadn’t sussed it already – they’re not as secure as they think. Outside the gates are some local protestors and one particularly shady looking guy (Hadrian Howard) with ties to Islamic State can be seen with a camera focussed on the guard tower – this doesn’t look like a broadcast for Al Jazeera, at least Albright doesn’t think so.

The new recruit’s standalone attitude is his weakness, looking out for himself and ‘killing’ his entire squad in a training exercise so that when he finally has cause for concern no-one cares to listen. They see him as a hot-shot, John Wayne, but he’s more like John Cena, the professional wrestler turned actor – cartoonishly American in looks and attitude: pronounced chin, inflated features and patriotic to the point of ‘pissing red, white and blue’.

With an extremely simple story, loosely based on the Benghazi attack of 2012, it is coloured in by out of place dialogue that jumps from soppy inspirational lines to throwaway quips. In amongst the Yanks are a few Brits affecting accents – the standout performance being that of Scott Adkins as Gunnery Sergeant Raines, the badass of the bunch who proves himself handy with a sniper rifle.

Once the Embassy is inevitably breached, cue endless shots of scarf-clad terrorists folding like rag-dolls under gunfire. With a bodycount so high that it gets boring, Jarhead 3 couldn’t be more different from the first in the franchise, which made a point of showing very little action. A very standard film that does exactly what it sets out to do, kick terrorist ass and chuck in in the odd buzzword to make it relevant #Oorah.