Monday 17 April 2017


Neil Armstrong may have been the first man on the Moon, but it goes without saying that he didn't get there by himself. Now in cinemas and on VOD, Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo looks at the efforts of the team that helped define the space program through the Apollo missions.

When Kennedy set the challenge of exploring space and putting a man on the Moon before the end of the 60s, the Apollo program was born. Based in Houston Texas, Mission Control consisted of 17 men with an average age of 30, charged with monitoring each flight and its diagnostics. These engineers and flight controllers were faced with achieving something that had never been done before; finding a way to safely get a man to the moon and back again, and perhaps politically most important; beating their opponents to it.

With Hidden Figures also hitting cinema screens this year, perhaps 50 years on it's a good time to reaffirm what an amazing feat the people of NASA were able to achieve. Unlike Hidden Figures, this documentary does not tell an important story of race or gender, but has more than its fair share of triumph over adversity, although in comparing the two as pieces of cinema this does come off the worst. Never mind In The Shadow of the Moon, try existing in the shadow of Hidden Figures. The tale of Katherine Johnson and the Project Mercury flights (the flights are briefly covered here) is a hard act to follow, and it's hard not to notice that the not as insidiously hidden figures here are predominantly white men in short sleeved white shirts with buzz cuts. They're all Kevin Costner's.

However, as crowd-pleasing a film Hidden Figures was, that should not diminish the inspiring story of the Apollo missions, the achievements they made and tragedies this team had to face. After a tragic fire on Apollo 1 took the lives of three astronauts, one member of the team looks back and says "I think we killed those three men. It's almost murder". For a team who are supposed to be scientists and mathematicians taking a bold step into the unknown, that's some heavy guilt to deal with.

By using modern day interviews with an encouragingly large number of the team involved, this documentary follows the risks and planning of each Apollo mission from 1 to 13 (the dramatic conclusion of Apollo 13 serving as this films best example of the team at work), using the large amount of archive footage available to tell the story. Maths and looking at monitors isn't the most cinematic of things, but this doc does a fine job of recreating the tension that came along with such events by using a wealth of footage from within mission control, as well as the exhilarating images of the launch pad. Less effective are the shots recreated with CGI, as having been thoroughly convinced of the scale of their achievements via the interviews, there is really no need to fake the moon landings.

Due to the number of contributors there's no one central figure to focus on, something that helped make the Gene Cernan (who is one of the talking heads here) documentary The Last Man on the Moon such a joy. But there are a great array of characters in Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo that speak of their passion for discovery and help make this an interesting and inspiring story.


Friday 14 April 2017


Easily one of my favourite films of last year, out now on DVD and Blu-ray is the tale of Hank and Manny embarking on a story of friendship, love and hope whilst trapped alone on an island.

Paul Dano stars as Hank, a man stranded on an island and close to suicide when farting corpse Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore, quickly realising that he may be his only hope of survival and escape from the island. From directing duo Daniels (whose background is in left of field TV comedies like Children's Hospital and NTSF:SD:SUV, and yes, they're both called Daniel), Swiss Army Man could quite easily have been little more than Weekend at Bernies meets Cast Away. Both excellent films in their own special way, but thankfully this is neither as slapstick as Bernies nor as isolated as Cast Away. The film, largely a two hander between Dano and Radcliffe's beached boys, is full of invention, and a bizarre and unique idea that pays off massively.

I'm not one who's easily amused by fart jokes, and although it's understandable why Swiss Army Man has become known as the farting corpse movie, it's much more. So much more. Despite delivering a number of fantastic performances in recent years, it hasn't been the easiest of tasks for Daniel Radcliffe to free himself from the shackles of the boy wizard. Well, nothing announces yourself as a fearless actor more than appearing in a film that features a close up of your hairy arse crack and an erection that doubles up as a compass.

Rather than just emitting bodily gas, Hank soon learns that Manny is able to provide him with everything he needs to survive; drinking water, chopping tools, and eventually conversation, as he starts to relearn the ability to talk. Showing himself to be a highly talented comic actor, as Radcliffe's Manny regains sentience and a boyish innocence to romance and the world, his ability to deliver a one-liner that would be a social faux pas in polite company is both hilarious and signifying of the burgeoning bond between himself and Hank.

Dano is one of the most talented actors working in independent cinema today with a near impeccable taste in projects; however, it appears that he is well aware of his typecasting as the lonely, hopeless romantic type, and Swiss Army Man both plays to and subverts that image. Hank is in love with a woman he rides the bus with every day, and it is the exploration of his relationship with her that provides an introspective commentary between himself and Manny that helps solidify their bond.

A story of the power of friendship and what it means to be alive, together Hank and Manny create a makeshift world from trash, recreating scenes from Hank's life that allow him the chance to do things differently this time. In this respect the film taps into a Gondry-esque charm, recalling the creativity of Be Kind Rewind along with the emotional introspection of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This approach also applies to the soundtrack which largely consists of a vocal chorus, provided by Andy Hull from Manchester Orchestra. It's dreamlike and ethereal and unexpectedly touching.

Based on its synopsis alone, it is understandable why audiences may be sceptical, but they needn't be. Paul Dano is dependable as ever and Daniel Radcliffe provides what is undoubtedly one of the bravest performances I've ever seen. Surprisingly deep and introspective, Swiss Army Man is a philosophical, funny and flatulent delight that deserves to be talked about as one of the greatest films of the year.


Saturday 1 April 2017


Following a group of young women as they make the important decisions that will impact the rest of their lives, the vibrant and moving documentary All This Panic is out now.

Beginning with a scene of teenagers riding around on bikes, you could be forgiven for thinking you've seen this story before; and although there is a Spike Jonze/Mike Mills-esque "kids found in a skate park" vibe to the film, there so much more to it. Not an expose designed to shock parents, these New Yorkers manage to steer clear of Larry Clark's Kids territory and are much more on a par with the subjects of American Teen, although this film covers little of their collegiate life and is more focused on their familial relationships and friendships. They are both caught in a race to see who can be the most grown up first and feeling like they need more time to grow up. Fighting against the current and with the fear of being left behind, they embark on impossibly sweet first romances, figure out their identities (both sexual and societal) and have existential crises. It feels like a real life Lena Dunham story, as if the characters in Girls had a documentary prequel.

Filmed over three years as their lives undergo drastic changes and make huge choices, the girls we meet at the start of the film are hugely different to the young women we know at the end. There is a lack of outsiders in the film, instead choosing to focus on a group of friends with similar backgrounds. All of these young women have had a largely upper middle class upbringing, surrounded by their friends with top schooling and the freedom to explore many avenues, but it's the disparity between them that provides the most interest.

Although it is an ensemble featuring many interesting paths, Lena and Ginger dominate the story, largely due to them being the first subjects director Jenny Gage followed and best friends who go in diametrically opposed directions. Lena starts the film as an impossibly awkward teenager who throws a party for her friends with beer and cute little cupcakes, musing on her all so short life with statements full of naivety and confidence, like "for a long time I thought I'd be a philosophy professor, and for a long time before that I thought I'd be an actor". However, they've seen enough teen dramas to know that life doesn't always follow the best laid plans, and it's a joy to follow her progress as she blossoms into an incredibly strong and independent young woman.

Ginger is slightly more of a hellraiser; an outspoken and resolute firebrand who accuses her younger sister Dusty of "pretending you're Margot Tenenbaum", completely oblivious to the fact that with her own secret romances, artistic leanings and droll outlook on life that she's such a Margot Tenenbaum. Her path is very different to her friends', seeing the supposed four year journey through college as more time for self growth and to figure out who she wants to be. Her younger sister Dusty is one of the less explored characters in the film, but has a really interesting arc. Seemingly more emotionally together and grown up than her older sister, she is observing and learning from her mistakes in a way that only those with an older sibling can.

It's a beautiful, bohemian New York where the sun beams down constantly despite taking place over many seasons, and with such growth over a short period of time it feels as if it has an almost unreal and dreamlike narrative that could have been constructed. But, shot handheld and free as if director Jenny Gage and DP Tom Betterton were class friends on the same journey, there's a real intimacy and honesty on show that you can't fake.

The title suggests advice a parent would state to their teenage daughter after a dramatic conflict. "All this panic, and what's to show for it?" In this case, it's a thoroughly engaging coming of age story.

All This Panic is in cinemas and on VOD now.