Review: ‘Proxima,’ starring Eva Green and Matt Dillon

November 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Eva Green and Zélie Boulant in “Proxima” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Proxima”

Directed by Alice Winocour

French, Russian, German and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Russia and Germany, the sci-fi drama “Proxima” has an all-white cast of characters representing members of the middle-class scientific community.

Culture Clash: A French female astronaut, who will be the only woman in an international team of astronauts going to Mars, has difficult coping with how her year-long absence from home will affect her underage daughter.

Culture Audience: “Proxima” will appeal primarily to people who like movies about astronauts and their missions in outer space but with the added gravitas of how these missions affect the family members who are left behind on Earth.

Eva Green and Matt Dillon in “Proxima” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Whenever there’s a movie about astronauts and a journey they take in outer space, people usually expect the movie to have some thrilling scenes of the astronauts in space or landing on another planet. “Proxima” is not that movie. Although the film is about an astronaut mission to land on Mars, “Proxima” takes a close look at a far more emotionally perilous journey: how an astronaut prepares to leave behind loved ones for several months. There’s always a possibility that something could go wrong with the mission and people might not make it back alive. And in the movie, it’s mentioned that the astronauts on this mission will experience a major physical toll on their bodies: Their body cells are expected to age 40 years in six months.

Directed with graceful aplomb by Alice Winocour (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Stéphane Bron), the heart and soul of “Proxima” are centered on the relationship between French astronaut Sarah Loreau (played by Eva Green) and Sarah’s daughter Stella Akerman Loreau (played by Zélie Boulant), who’s about 8 or 9 years old. Sarah, who has a background in engineering, is ambitious, determined and someone who has dreamed of being an astronaut ever since she was a child.

At the beginning of “Proxima,” Sarah is seen testing out hi-tech artificial limbs at work and being a dutiful mother at home in Germany with Stella, her only child. Sarah is separated from Sarah’s father Thomas Akerman (played by Lars Eidinger), who also works in the scientific field, but it’s not specified in what type of science. Sarah has primary custody of Stella, who is a bright, inquisitive and emotionally empathetic child. Thomas, who lives several miles away, has weekend visitations.

But at the beginning of the movie, Sarah has already been selected for an important outer-space endeavor called the Proxima Mission, which will be the first time that humans are expected to land on Mars. The entire mission will take approximately one year for the chosen astronauts to live on Mars. And so, Sarah has to make arrangements with Thomas for Stella to live with Thomas while Sarah is away.

There’s some mild tension between Thomas and Sarah, because he seems a bit resentful that he suddenly has to make major adjustments to his life as a single parent with temporary full custody of his child. But overall, Sarah and Thomas have a cordial relationship and seem to be handling co-parenting responsibilities in the best way that they can.

Luckily, Stella is a kind and obedient child who doesn’t give her parents any trouble. She’s very proud of her mother’s accomplishments as an astronaut. However, Stella doesn’t yet seem fully aware of any long-term impact that Sarah’s absence might have on her and the rest of the family. Stella is more curious than angry about Sarah having to be away from home for a long period of time. Boulant does a good job in her role as Stella.

Sarah has to enroll Stella in a new school that’s close to where Thomas lives. During a meeting with that Sarah and Stella has with an administrator at this new school, Stella mentions that she’s dyslexic, dyscalculic and dysorthographic. Sarah worries that Stella might not be able to adjust to the standards of this new school. Meanwhile, Stella is worried about their female tabby cat named Laika because Stella’s father Thomas is allergic to cats. Sarah keeps reassuring Stella that everything will be fine and that Thomas will get used to having the cat in his home.

Spending a year away from Stella is a decision that weighs heavily on Sarah. Because although no one really comes right out and says it in this story, women who have to spend a lot of time away from their loved ones because of work responsibilities are judged more harshly than men who make the same decisions. Sarah might be feeling guilt or trepidation about how her absence will affect her relationship with Stella, but Sarah is not going to pass up this rare opportunity to not only go to Mars but also to be the first woman on Mars.

The majority of “Proxima” is about Sarah’s preparing herself and Stella for this long separation. Sarah often keeps her feelings bottled up inside, but Green gives an impressive performance where she is able to convey a lot of Sarah’s emotions through her eyes and facial expressions. “Proxima” is not a big adventure story with a bunch of astronauts flying through the universe in a spacecraft. This is a much more specific psychological portrait of someone who’s rarely seen on screen as the main character of a movie: a female astronaut who also happens to be a mother.

Before Sarah goes to Russia, where she and the other Proxima Mission astronauts complete the final phase of their intense training, a conference meeting is held at the space facility to introduce her as the newest member of the team. Members of the press have been invited. And making the introduction is Mike Shannon (played by Matt Dillon), an American astronaut who considers himself to the “alpha male” of the Proxima Mission group.

Mike makes it clear from the get-go that he has a sexist attitude toward women who are astronauts. When he introduces Sarah at this event, Mike makes sure to mention that Sarah is a “last-minute crew member,” implying that she wasn’t a first-choice candidate. And he comments that he’s glad that Sarah is French, “because French women are apparently really good at cooking.”

There are a few groans from the audience when Mike makes these micro-aggressive comments. Mike’s snide remarks, which he tries to cloak in a joking manner, are obviously meant to belittle Sarah, her accomplishments and her earned place on the astronaut team. Sarah is gracious about the backhanded insult and doesn’t confront about Mike about it, because she knows that she’s going to be stuck in outer space with this guy for a year. And given Mike’s attitude that men are superior to women when it comes to being astronauts, Sarah wisely figures it probably would not be a good idea to start off on Mike’s bad side.

Later at an outdoor party for the space-facility employees, Mike introduces Sarah to his wife Naomi Shannon (played by Nancy Tate), and they mention that they have two sons who are close to Stella’s age. When Naomi and Sarah are briefly talking alone together at the party, Sarah mentions her separated marital status and that her estranged husband will be taking care of Stella while Sarah is away. Naomi comments that it must be an special challenge to be a single parent and an astronaut.

Aside from her marital status and whether or not she has any children, Sarah reveals very little of her personal life to her colleagues. In a scene that happens later in the movie, Sarah and Mike are alone in a locker room together, and he tries to get her to reveal her sexual orientation and what’s going on in her love life. Mike asks Sarah if she has a boyfriend or a girlfriend. She plays it cool and doesn’t really answer his questions, while he tells her that he’s just trying to get a handle on who she is.

Astute viewers can see that the only reason why Mike is asking these questions is to see if Sarah has an vulnerabilities that he might be able to exploit. That’s because although Mike acts as if Sarah is inferior to him as an astronaut, he still sees her as a threat because she’s mostly been excelling in the training sessions. During one of the final training sessions in Russia, Mike gloats when it looks like Sarah might fall short of expectations. And Mike openly smirks in the rare occasion that Sarah is late for a training session (because she was on the phone with Stella), and the instructor curtly punishes Sarah for her tardiness by sending her away and not letting her participate in the session.

The other Proxima Mission astronauts whom Sarah meets when she arrives in Russia are Anton Ocheivsky (played by Aleksey Fateev), who’s a compassionate Russian, and Jurgen (played by Trond-Erik Vassal), a German whose personality is hard to read since he doesn’t have much dialogue in the movie. Anton and Jurgen are minor supporting characters whose main purpose in this story is to show that not all of the men on this astronaut team are sexist jerks.

Sarah has a quiet determination to prove herself to everyone on the team. Mike acts more like a rival than a team member. And although he doesn’t blatantly do anything to sabotage Sarah, he does make little digs here and there to try and irritate her on a psychological level. Almost everything that Mike does to get on Sarah’s nerves to to try to make her feel inferior, just because she’s a woman.

For example, when Stella comes to visit Sarah during the final training sessions, Mike expresses irritation (and perhaps some jealousy) that Stella can be seen around the training facility. In a condescending tone, Mike tells Sarah that she needs to “cut the umbilical cord” and get Stella used to the idea that she won’t be able to see her mother for a long time once they’re in outer space. Aside from the fact that Mike doesn’t really have a right to tell Sarah how much time she should spend with her daughter before this momentous trip, the “cut the umbilical cord” comment is completely misogynistic. Obviously, Mike wouldn’t use those words with a man in the same position as Sarah.

Fortunately, “Proxima” doesn’t turn the tension between Mike and Sarah into a ridiculous melodrama. After all, these are professionals who are largely focused on common goals for this mission. “Proxima” also realistically shows that Sarah doesn’t act too shocked by Mike’s sexist attitude, because in her very male-dominated profession, she’s probably used to dealing with men who have the same misogynistic mindset that Mike does. There are also indications that Sarah has a strong sense of self and won’t compromise who she is, such when she rejects a male colleague’s suggestions that she cut her hair or take hormones that would suppress her menstrual cycle while she’s in outer space.

What has more of an emotional impact on Sarah is the fear of not knowing if her year-long absence might permanently damage Stella and her close relationship with Stella. No relationship is perfect, but the love between this mother and daughter is genuinely the most important thing in both of their lives. Amid all the intense training that Sarah has to go through for this mission, “Proxima” shows this mother/daughter love in a way that is touching without being overly sentimental. (Viewers who watch the movie should stay for the end credits, which features a photo montage of real-life female astronauts with their children.)

As a drama set in the world of astronauts, “Proxima” can be considered very low-key if compared to the way astronauts and their work are portrayed in other fictional movies. However much “Proxima” might lack in action scenes, it more than makes up for in its realistic depiction of humanity and relatable emotions. It presents the point of view of a woman astronaut in a male-dominated profession, without taking the cliché route of making gender discrimination the primary focus of the story. “Proxima” is inspiring and effective without being a heavy-handed and preachy movie.

Vertical Entertainment released “Proxima” on digital and VOD on November 6, 2020.

Review: ‘Capone,’ starring Tom Hardy, Linda Cardellini, Noel Fisher, Jack Lowden, Matt Dillon and Kyle MacLachlan

May 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tom Hardy in “Capone” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Capone”

Directed by Josh Trank

Culture Representation: Taking place in Miami Beach in 1947, the drama “Capone” has a predominantly white cast (with some Latino representation) and tells the story of the last year in the life of notorious mobster Al Capone.

Culture Clash: Suffering from neurosyphilis, a demented Capone has flashbacks to his gangster life and has conflicts with family members over his failing health.

Culture Audience: “Capone” will appeal mainly to people who are fascinated with famous American mobsters, but this incoherent movie gives little insight into Capone’s last days.

Tom Hardy in “Capone” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Just like the way that the title character acts in the movie, the dramatic film “Capone” is a lumbering, stumbling mess that has trouble focusing and has difficulty finding a purpose. Tom Hardy, who seems to be attracted to playing a lot of menacing characters who mumble a lot, is notorious Chicago gangster Alphonse “Al” Capone in the film. The once-powerful mob boss is a shadow of his former self in the last year of his life in 1947, when Capone was a 48-year-old recluse with neurosyphilis at his mansion in Miami Beach.

“Capone” (written, directed and edited by Josh Trank) is basically a 103-minute slog through various scenes of Capone (who insists that people call him Fonz, not Al) either hallucinating, having angry outbursts, or losing control of his bodily functions. Hardy—in grotesque makeup that makes him look like something out of a horror movie—gives it his best shot at delivering an earnest performance of Capone on a downward spiral, physically and mentally. But, unfortunately, the film is so poorly written and directed that “Capone” will be considered one of the low points of Hardy’s career.

There is no real plot to the movie, which takes place almost entirely at the mansion where Capone (released early from prison for tax evasion) is holed up with his loyal wife Mae (played by Linda Cardellini) and employees, including his main goon Gino (played by Gino Cafarelli).  Instead of having a coherent story, the movie is supposed to be more like a fever dream that culminates in a machine-gun massacre that didn’t happen in real life.

At different parts of the film, Capone has visions of himself as a child. And there are scenes of him having elaborate dinners with relatives that include his son Junior (played by Noel Fisher), who spends most of the film looking mournful over his father’s pathetic decline. And throughout the movie, a character named Tony (played by Mason Guccione), who’s supposed to be Capone’s long-lost son, keeps calling from Cleveland. Sometimes, Tony talks on the phone when he calls, and other times he calls and says nothing. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

There’s a character named Dr. Karlock (played by Kyle MacLachlan), who occasionally comes to visit and fret about Capone’s declining health. When the doctor tells Capone’s relatives that cigar-loving Capone has to give up smoking, the relatives act as if the news is as bad as getting a limb amputated. The doctor suggests that Capone chew on a carrot as a substitute for a cigar, and Karlock demonstrates how it can be done. In response, Gino mocks the doctor for looking like Bugs Bunny. However, for the rest of the movie, viewers will see the bizarre spectacle of Hardy trying to look tough with a carrot in his mouth.

There’s also a laughable scene where Capone is watching “The Wizard of Oz” in a private screening room, when he gets up and sings along to the Cowardly Lion song “If I Were King of the Forest.” In the scene, Cardellini has a hard time keeping a straight face. And most people watching will either laugh or be horrified that Hardy (who’s capable of doing Oscar-caliber work) sunk this low to do this poor-quality film that’s so bad, it’s almost campy.

Capone also has a friend that comes to visit named Johnny (played by Matt Dillon), whose history with Capone isn’t really explained, except that it’s implied that they’ve known each other since before he was in prison. And they know each other well enough for Capone to confide in Johnny while they’re on a fishing trip that Capone has $10 million hidden, but he can’t remember where he hid the money.

But is this real or all in Capone’s head? That question can be asked about many things in the movie. While Johnny drives the car that they take to the fishing trip, Capone is disguised as a woman because he’s paranoid about the government agents who are on his property and watching his every move. If the world needed to see a movie with Capone in drag, you now have writer/director Trank to thank for that.

Trank, by the way, cast himself in “Capone” in a cameo as a FBI agent named Clifford Harris, who accompanies another FBI agent named Stone Crawford (played by Jack Lowden) when they visit the ailing Capone at his home. The FBI agents are on a fruitless quest to get Capone to reveal the secret places where he might have hidden a fortune worth millions. Capone’s attorney Harold Mattingly (played by Neal Brennan) sits in on this pointless interview, and answers most of the questions on behalf of Capone, who can barely grunt answers to the questions.

And then there’s Capone’s nasty temper. He yells at the Latino employees who do yard work on his property, and shouts at one of them that if he touches a certain statue, he’ll blow his head off. While on the fishing trip with Johnny, Capone shoots an alligator for “stealing his fish.” And something as simple as seeing Gino eating at the dinner table is enough to set off Capone, who flings the tablecloth and food, and stomps around and howls like a gorilla that’s been stung by a bee.

Capone is also verbally abusive to his wife Mae. When he spits on her, she hits him so hard that he falls down and hits his head on a hard-surface floor. There’s no purpose to this scene, except to put some of the blame on Mae for the head injury that further causes Capone’s mental deterioration. Like many things in the movie, do not assume that any of it happened in real life.

And that’s not all the violence in the film. Capone has flashbacks or hallucinations about fatal shootings and brutal stabbings. There’s also a scene where he hallucinates that Johnny has pried his own eyes out and served the bloody eyeballs to Capone on a bedsheet. What’s the point of all this gore? Nothing, really, except to remind people that this is supposed to be a movie about a gangster.

Even the most die-hard fans of Hardy will have their patience tested by watching this mindless film, which has moments that are downright embarrassing to everyone involved in the movie. One can only assume that Hardy was attracted to this “Capone” role for a chance to play dress-up as one of the most famous American mobsters of all time. But he’s reduced to being a grunting, marble-mouthed caricature that can barely put a thought together. The movie has no impactful flashbacks that show Capone in his prime, except for a silly scene that has Capone imagining himself at a party where he gets up on stage with the band leader to sing Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.”

The blame for this sewage dump of a movie lies mostly with writer/director/editor Trank, whose previous film was the 2015 remake of “Fantastic Four,” another stagnant and messy flop. An epilogue in “Capone” says that most of Capone’s relatives changed their names after he died. After making the disastrous “Capone,” Trank might want to think about changing his name too.

Vertical Entertainment released “Capone” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on digital and VOD on May 12, 2020.