Archive for the ‘TORONTO film festival’ Category

Driving Madeleine (2022) Toronto 2023

Dir/Wri; Christian Carion | Cast | Dany Boon, Line Renaud, Julie Delarme | French, Drama

Lacking the emotional punch of the Bruce Beresford’s 1989 hit Driving Miss Daisy this romanticised French version sees an elderly woman reflect on her checkered past to a taxi driver down on his luck as an unlikely friendship develops.

The past and the present are certainly not rosy for these two, and least for the spry but cantankerous Madeleine Keller (a game Line Renaud). The difference lies in their perception of life. Time and the wisdom of age has softened 92 year-old Madeleine’s outlook lending a philosophical spin on her inevitable taxi ride to a care home. Dany Boon’s Charles, on the other hand, is still in his prime but with debts putting a strain on his marriage to Carine (Julie Delarme).

After a rather upbeat beginning the film goes for darker territory without really creating a meaningful backstory for Madeleine’s turbulent relationship with her ex-husband, who we meet in vivid flashbacks as Carion and his writer Cyril Rely plunge us headlong into her troubled postwar love life, opting for sensationalism in graphic scenes depicting the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of Ray (Jeremie Laheurte). The problem here is that we feel nothing for either of them, or their little boy Mathieu (Hardriel Roure) for that matter despite the grim picture of a marriage that goes from bad to worse with Ray ending up in prison and ruining her life. And now sixty years later all that Madeleine has to look forward to is a nursing home. 

A rousing almost epic score accompanies thee melodramatic revelations as Carion attempts to imbue the film with the dramatic weight that should really have come from the writing rather than the musical prompts, and this leaves the audience disaffected despite Renaud and Boon’s best efforts to make us care.

Hearing Madeleine pour out her woes does have a therapeutic affect on the gruff but soft-hearted Charles who realises he hasn’t done so badly so far in his life in compared to his long-suffering fare. And thinking his passenger is having a snooze in the back of his cab he makes a furtive phone call to his wife attempting to patch up their differences. Suitably chastened by listening to Madeleine, Ray then suggests lunch which leads to taxi trip round Paris – and these scenes are the best part of this watchable but rather lightweight affair with its predictable crowd-pleasing ending. MT . 

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2022

 

Riceboy Sleeps (2022)

Dir.: Anthony Shim; Cast: Choi Seung-yoon, Ethan Hwang, Anthony Shim, Dohyun Noel Hwang, Hunter Dillon, Kang in-Sung, Han Wok Shik; Canada 2022, 117 min.

Riceboy Sleeps is an intimate and deeply affecting look at loss and the nature of identity from Canadian writer/director/editor Anthony Shim who also stars in his sophomore feature. Set in the 1990s in Canada and Korea, the melancholy film reflects Shim’s own experiences as a small boy emigrating from South Korea to Canada.

Young Korean widow So Young (an impressive Choi Seung-yoon) has left her home in Korea for a modest factory job after her husband committed suicide in a psychiatric ward. But her six-year-old son Dong-Hyun (Dohyun Noel Hwang) cannot settle down in his new home and the Canadian primary school where he is teased and bullied by the other children who steal his Korean packed lunch. And although their Canadian food is far less healthy-looking, Dong-Huyn wants it just to be like the others. So Young encourages her son to be strong and fight back when attacked, but the result is a week-long detention for Dong-Hyun even although his assailants go unpunished. Dong-Hyun opts to change his name to Michael Jordan, but has to settle for David.

Nine years later, and 16-year old Dong-Hyun (now played by Ethan Hwang) has become a stroppy teenager hanging out with his friend Harry (Dillon) and experimenting – not very successfully – with drugs. Meanwhile his mother has become romantically involved with fellow Korean Simon (Shim) who proposes to her on the same day she is diagnosed with cancer. Simon wants her to try complimentary medicine, but So Young decides to take her son back to Korea to meet her family.

Avoiding sentimentality at all times Shim opts for a poetic approach to dealing with death. The clash between the two cultures is made obvious in often ironic terms, but this is not just another story of a suffering immigrant: Far from being a victim So Young is a pragmatic and proactive woman. In a sad reflection of today’s culture, Dong-Hyun’s integration comes about via drugs and violence resulting from the use of narcotics.

Riceboy Sleeps offers some spectacular widescreen landscapes of Gangwon-do, South Korea shot by DoP Christopher Lew whose agile camerawork also captures the domestic conflict in Canada with moving close-ups of mother and son. This is an emotional rollercoaster, a passionate epic on the vagaries of life with So Young as a modern day heroine, refusing to accept defeat. AS

WINNER OF THE PLATFORM PRIZE | TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2022

Trenque Lauguen (2022)

Dir: Laura Citarella | Cast: Laura Paredes, Ezequiel Pierri, Rafael Spregelburd, Elisa Carricajo, Veronica Llinas, Juliana Muras, Argentina, Drama | 2 x 120′

Taking its name from a sparsely populated town in a region larger than Austria, to the West of Buenos Aires Laura Citarella’s compelling feature debut often feels like an Argentine version of Twin Peaks, unfolding in two parts each two hours long.

The mystery is there, the smalltime isolation in a remote landlocked province where a literary-minded woman (Laura Paredes) has vanished, apparently without trace, after discovering a series of enigmatic letters. Two men want to find her for different reasons. Ezequiel (Pierri) a colleague, and her boyfriend Raphael (Spregelburd). Neither are rivals and share that unknowing quality of being easy companions, but not close friends. And their journey turns into an existential quest for truth; an exploration of human nature in a tale that takes us off the beaten track and down many a cul de sac and diversion embodying the complexity of the female condition. MT

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL 2022

Victim | Obet (2022) Toronto Film Festival 2022

Dir. Michal Blasko; Cast: Elizaveta Maximova, Vita Smachelyuk, Gleb Kuchuk, Igor Chmela, Victor Zavadil, Inna Zhulina, Alena Mihulova, Veronica Weinhold; Slovakia/Czech Republic/Germany 2022, 92 min.

This feature debut for Slovakian director Michal Blasko is a tightly-wound political thriller asking the question: How far would you go for a better life? Written by Jakub Medvecky, it takes place in a Czech border town where Roma are used as scapegoats for Neo-Nazis.

Ukranian hairstylist Irina (Smachelyuk) dreams of a better life in the Czech Republic where she wants to open a hairdressing salon. On re-applying for citizenship – having failed on a technicality – she finds out her teenage son Igor (Kuchuk), a talented gymnast, has been ‘purportedly’ set upon by three “non-white” assailants in their building, and has been hospitalised after losing a kidney in the attack.

Inspector Novotny (Chmela) orders the arrest of the eldest son of a Roma family living in the same building as Irina and Igor. The media gets hold of the story, and agitator Michal Selsky (Zavadil) organises “A March for Igor”, and the mayor tries to score  political points with the incident. Meanwhile, Igor admits to his mother that he fell over while trying to impress girl friend Lenka, and no assault actually took place.

The focus is firmly on Irina who becomes an overnight celebrity, winning a reward of  around £2000 sterling, and taking out a lease on a Hairdressing salon. Life is sweet. And the Czech Republic is now her oyster. But the lie plays on Irina’s conscience and she sinks deeper and deeper into a moral morass when Igor insists on sticking to the racist lie.

DoP Adam Mach uses handheld cameras tracking the action as Irina desperately looks for a way out of her dilemma. But being to be a good citizen and a supportive mother has its conflicts. Selsky is a mini-monster who, even when wrong-footed by Irina, still keeps the racism pot on the boil. Although schematic at times, Victim is a thorny morality play with no easy answers. AS

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2022

Saint Omer (2022)

Dir.: Alice Diop; Cast: Kayije Kagame, Guslagie Malanda, Valerie Dreville, Aurelia Petit; France 2022, 123 min.

This gripping feature debut from award-winning documentarian Alice Diop is a courtroom drama of a special kind. Saint Omer is a quest for a seemingly unobtainable truth in contemporary France.

Isolation and loneliness are felt particularly keenly by the main character Rama (Kagame), a Paris-based university lecturer who arrives in Saint Omer to cover the case of Laurence (Malanga), a mother on trial for killing her own daughter after a suffering the shame of being ostracised by her much older white husband.

The French-Senegalese director and co-writer is already a successful documentarian  and won the Silver Lion (Grand Prix) and the “Luigi De Laurentiis Lion of the Future Award” for best first feature at Venice Film Festival.

Diop could have hardly chosen a more incendiary subject based on the case of Fabienne Kabou, who killed her 15-month old daughter by drowning her in the sea off Northern France then going back to Paris as if nothing had happened. Diop used the trial documents as a basis for her heart-wrenching tale of the re-telling of the ‘Medea’ myth.

Rama – Diop’s Alter Ego in the film – is also pregnant but does not want to tell her family, since she has a dysfunctional relationship with her own, abusive, mother Odile (Kamate) shown in flashback. She’s also keen to collect collect information for her forthcoming book on Medea. During the trial, Rama finds more and more personal parallels to the life of the accused, Laurence Coly (Malanga), who was studying for a PHD in philosophy even though – like everything else in her CV – this is not really a given. Coly had hidden the birth of her daughter from nearly everyone, including her mother whom Rama meets during the breaks in the court proceedings. The two women wander through the streets of the small city, with Odile being really proud of her daughter’s academic style of conversation.

These encounters raise more questions than answers for Rama who has doubts about her ability to be a good mother. Her partner Adrian (De Pourquery) comes down from Paris and tries to puts her mind at rest. Rama’s partner is the exact antithesis of Luc Dumontet (Maly), the father of little Elise, who is 30 years older than Laurence. He too helped to hide Elise’ existence from the world by not registering her birth.

The Judge (Dreville) tries hard to find out what drove Coly to her desperate deed, and Coly seems equally confused about her motives throughout the trial. She mentions witchcraft, but has no proof. She is adamant about not wanting to hide the truth, and has a high IQ and proud of the fact. Laurence grew up in Dakar in a wealthy Catholic family and always achieved high academic results. But her personality remains an enigma throughout the trial and she is stubbornly closed to the help offered.

Saint Omer opens with an archive extract from the liberation of France in 1944: women collaborators are punished by having their hair cut off publicly. Are they victims, are they heroes? Diop insists throughout her film that she is not interested in easy solutions, wanting to question the objective as well as the subjective. Which brings us to Marguerite Duras. Rama is also a novelist and lectures on Duras (again shown in  flashback) and this certainly raises the question of how much she wanted to gain inspiration from the case. But the Laurence case unsettles her in a way she had not bargained for.

DoP Claire Mathon frames Laurence in the style of a Velasquez portrait, putting her firmly in the limelight. The close-ups clearly borrow from Ozu, the camera travelling slowly upwards – or downwards when it comes to Rama, who is hemmed into the rows of spectators. The light is sometimes diffuse, reflecting Laurence’ state of mind.

At the end, there are mostly women left: the protagonists of the legal proceedings, the crowd on the spectator benches. The same goes for the film crew.

Austere and fragmented, Saint Omer is not looking for solution but leaves us to make up our own minds, almost like an offscreen jury. Nowadays it seems as if the truth is becoming a moveable, mutating feast. AS

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL WINNER | SILVER LION | SAINT OMER IS FRANCE’S ACADEMY AWARD ENTRY 2023

 

The Whale (2022) Venice Film Festival 2022

Dir.: Darren Aronofsky, Cast: Brendan Fraser, Hong Chan, Ty Simkins, Samantha Morton, Sadie Sink; USA 2022, 117 min.

The Whale never breaks free from its claustrophobic stage origins, adapted for the screen by Samual D Hunter and based on his 2012 play. In contrast to his usual fare Darren Aronofsky’s direction is restrained, by his own admission, in a feature that deals with the ‘elephant in the room’ of the 21st century: Obesity. Brendan Fraser beefs up for a gargantuan performance as the fated fatty Charlie, traumatised by his partner’s suicide and wallowing towards an early grave in a dour Idaho backwater where he teaches creative writing via Zoom.

Charlie has no desire to be hospitalised and his ample finances provide for nurse Liz (Chau) to look after him, his estranged wife Mary (Morton) and daughter Ellie (Sink) putting in appearances for obvious reasons. Christian cult member Elder Thomas (Simkins) brings a twist to the plot, completing the quarter of depressive truth-seekers.

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | GOLDEN LION COMPETITION 2022

Casa Susanna (2022) Venice Film Festival 2022

Dir/Wri: Sebastian Lifshitz | France, Doc 97′

In the open scenes of this well made gay interest film an American broadcaster talks to four dolled up women who turn out to be men. Shock horror probe. But that was back in the Sixties, Nowadays cross-dressing is par for the course thanks to ‘Full Personality Expression’ that allows people to wear whatever they want, wherever they go.

Back in the 1950s and ‘60s this underground network of transgender women and cross-dressing men were forced to find refuge at a modest house in the Catskills region of New York. Known as Casa Susanna, the house provided a safe place to live for a few days as they had always dreamed—dressed as women – without fear of being incarcerated or institutionalised for doing so. Told through the memories of those whose visits to the house would change their lives, the film looks back at a secret world where the persecuted and frightened found freedom, acceptance and, often, the courage to live their lives out of the shadows. 

Award-winning documentarian Sebastian Lipshitz enlivens his expose with wonderful photos of New York in the 1960s along with archive footage of Danish cross-dresser Christine Jorgensen, who became an overnight celebrity, and others who joined in. Another woman remembers her father paying visits to the Casa where he enjoyed wearing women’s clothing and only felt comfortable wearing a female nightie in bed. And although the doc slightly overstays its welcome in driving home the point repetitively, it certainly provides a unique and valuable insight for those interested or affected by the issues concerned. MT

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | 31 AUGUST – 1 SEPTEMBER 2022

 

Winter Boy – Le Lyceen (2022) Toronto Film Festival 2022

Dir/wri: Christophe Honore | Cast: Juliette Binoche, Christophe Honore, Xavier Giannoli, Vincent Lacoste, Paul Kircher | France, Drama 122′

Juliette Binoche stars alongside Christophe Honore, who writes, directs and appears briefly in this tender stream of consciousness confessional that explores their teenage son’s tentative sexual awakening in a wintery Chambery on the foothills of Mont Blanc.

Told from the perspective of Lucas (Kircher) a breezy, upbeat opening scene sees father (Honore) and son motoring along a country road only to find themselves careening into the middle of a field, narrowly involved in a collision with another vehicle. And this near accident sets the febrile tone for the tragedy that will follow as the whole family implodes into anguish in facing a very different future to the one they all had in mind.

Always wearing its heart on its stylish sleeve in a beautifully nuanced way Honore’s emotionally honest film is at times difficult to watch as the heartbroken Lucas suffers an extreme reaction to his loss. But this also seems to crystallise his decision to start a sexual relationship with his friend Oscar, and a night of passionate lovemaking follows before Lucas leaves for a week in Paris with his artist brother Quentin (Lacoste), who shares a swanky flat with Lilio.

Paris is a new and radical world for the provincial teenager and Lucas is caught up in the excitement of discovery, but is also very much in awe of his brother who is busy preparing for his first exhibition. Using the city as a playground to flex his muscles in newfound sexual freedom, Lucas is also surprised to discover his puppyish unbridled appeal is much in demand with older and more sophisticated men. And this naivety does not always go down well with Lilio and certainly not with Quentin who sends him packing back to his mother after he oversteps the mark, complaining Lucas’ unbridled behaviour is disrespectful at a time of family grief. Everything comes together in a graceful denouement that sees Isabelle and her family finally seeing a light at the end of their tunnel of grief. MT

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2022 | 8 -18 SEPTEMBER 2022

The Origin of Evil (2022) Venice Film Festival | Horizons Extra 2022

Dir/Wri: Sebastian Marnier | Cast: Suzanne Clement, Laure Calamy, Doria Tillier, Dominique Blanc, Jacques Weber | Drama. 125′

Sebastian Marnier’s stolen identity thriller is a bizarrre and curiously compelling film set on the isles de Hyeres, with a starry French and Canadian cast.

What starts as a mundane domestic drama that sees a modest woman called Stephane (Laure Calamy) working in a fish factory, soon develops into something much more mysterious, surreal and even violent when her ambitions find her in the company of a strange and dysfunctional family in a ravishing villa in seaside Porquerolles.

How she gets there is the crux of a narrative that hands on dramatic conceit, and to reveal her intentions too early on would destroy the entire plot. But after a telephone call one night to a man called Serge, purportedly her estranged father, and one-time mayor of Hyeres, Stephane is transported, by boat, to the sun-stroked shores of an island whose magical ambiance casts its spell over the remainder of the story.

Stephane has never met Serge’s second family: his ostentatious wife Stella (Blanc) whose profligate shopping sprees line the corridors of the expansive Belle Époque villa, her morose daughter George (Tillier), who runs his ‘business empire’ consisting of various restaurants; her plucky teenage daughter, and Agnes, a strange housekeeper channelling Mrs Danvers without her style and sang-froid. And we never really question Stephane’s background, so larger that life are the rest of the family. Their antics are so much more entertaining that Stephane’s rather mundane backstory as she makes frequent trips back to check on the fish factory (which it turns out she also owns) and visit her lesbian lover (Clement) serving time in a prison on the mainland.

The Origin of Evil sees Marnier in full control of script and direction concocting a sinuous story about jealousy and bitterness with a series of duplicitous characters all out for the main chance but not all motivated by the same goals. Due to a narcissistic wound  – her ‘father’ abandoned the family and gave her a man’s name as he really wanted a son – Stephane has never recovered from the humiliation. Stella (Dominique Blanc) and George (Doria Tillier) just want money and are determined to inherit the entire estate from Serge, by declaring him ‘senile’ in the court procedure that brings dramatic heft to the narrative.

Meanwhile meek little Stephane schemes away in the background massaging Serge’s ego and his painful legs, only to emerge the real villain of the piece. And although Marnier rather over-eggs the omelette in the overblown denouement, this is a deliciously wicked – and at times hilarious – world premiere making a memorable addition to the line-up at this year’s 79th Venice Film Festival.

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2022 | New Horizons Extra | QUEER LION COMPETITON 

 

Valeria is Getting Married (2022) Antalya Film Festival 2022

Dir: Michal Vinik | 78′

Michal Vinik’s gripping and artfully filmed sophomore feature sees two Ukrainian sisters trying to make the best of things in Israel. It reflects a reality for many women who have been conditioned to suppress their real desires in order to meet traditional societal values when their own security is threatened. But they soon discover that Israeli men are tough but fair in a situation that is far more complex than it initially appears.

Valeria (Dasha Tvoronovich) is met at the airport by her sister Christina (Lena Fraifeld) where a marriage has already been arranged, but life in Bat Yam seems super stressful even by comparison with the turmoil she has left behind.

Christina (Fraifeld) is newly married to an attractive Israeli man Michael (Yacov Zada Daniel) but already the pressure to get everything right is felt through a series of panicky telephone calls from Michael to his mother, Christina trying to smooth over her sister’s nervousness with broad smiles and reassurances.

After a treatment at the local beauty salon, Valeria (Dasha Tvoronovich) go back to the flat where she is introduced to her intended, a likeable but rather goofy vegetarian called Eitan (Avraham Shalom Levi). The guy is clearly strung out and starts blabbering about his nervousness and her need learn Hebrew at the Ulpan, presenting her with a brand new mobile phone loaded up with apps. You immediately get the impression that Valeria is less than keen about her future husband, and as the dinner proceeds the conversation is stilted and Eitan makes a series of social faux pas as a palpable tension descends on this cosy dinner for four.

It soon emerges that Christina and her husband are going to need to access state fertility treatment which can only start when she becomes a legal Israeli citizen. But clearly she is playing this down so as not to emasculate her husband. Valeria listens patiently and then asks her sister a simple question that speaks volumes: “Do you love him?”. Christina responds “it’s not like in the movies, but I have everything I need”. The couple live in a spacious modern flat in the seaside city just south of Tel Aviv.

Unfortunately Valeria behaves rather childishly refusing to come out of the bathroom to discuss her feelings like an adult with the others who are sympathetic and open to suggestions including having her own separate bedroom in Eitan’s place. After all he has paid 5,000 dollars to find a suitable bride. But it gradually descends into farce as they two sisters giggle behind the bathroom door, throwing the key out of the window. So they all go back to drawing room of this brilliantly acted and compulsive domestic drama that gradually descends into farce as the various plot strands coalesce to a satisfying conclusion. MT

SPECIAL JURY AWARD WINNER – INTERNATIONAL FEATURE COMPETITION | ANTALYA FILM FESTIVAL | VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | HORIZONS EXTRA STRAND 2022

 

 

 

Luxembourg, Luxembourg (2022) Venice Film Festival 2022 | Horizons

Dir.: Antonio Lukich; Cast: Amil Nasirov, Ramil Nasirov, Natalia Cnitii, Lyudmila Sachenko, Karina Chechevych; Ukraine 2022, 106 min.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was still a ‘future shock’ when Luxembourg, Luxembourg was chosen for this year’s Venice Film Festival Horizon sidebar.

The film’s director and writer Antonio Lukich – best known for the award-winning My Thoughts are Silent – was forced to abandon post-production work. But his team persevered, and what would have been just another Ukrainian film premiere abroad, now offers a salutary reminded: Ukraine is alive and flourishing in spite of Russian tanks.

Naturally Kolya and Vasili hate school much preferring to spend their time taking train rides in the small town of Lubny where their father, boss of a gang of small time hoodlums, is ‘King’ – he can even stop the moving vehicles when the brothers fail to jump off in time for classes.

But reality bites, and twenty years later, Vasili (A. Nasirow), now married with one child, has joined the police force, and Kolya (R. Nasirov) is a bus driver for the local council. Vasili has never forgiven their father for abandoning the family but Kolya is still living with his mother and stepfather and grown fond of his biological father, believing that he truly loves his mother: “He followed her to Lubny, I mean, not Paris or Prague”.

When hot-tempered Kolya attacks an old man after a traffic accident, he loses a lucrative bus route and has to redeem himself driving a much less profitable one. Meanwhile, Vasili is at war with his much wealthier Masha (Cherchevych). So when Kolya messes up again, injuring an old woman in the automatic doors, Vasili’s promotion is put on hold. In a hilarious scene, the brothers’ families get together for “Forgiveness Sunday”, which turns out to be anything but.

Kolya is forced to look after the old women he injured, and even buys a goat to keep her happy. Then the Ukrainian consulate (in Luxembourg) calls to let the brothers know their dad is dying. Kolya dusts down his passport, but Vasili is not keen on the idea of going all that way. Eventually, they set off together on a mission which ends in tears in a surprising turn of events that changes off-kilter comedy into something more tragic.

Kolya is very much a victim of arrested development but he is still more likeable than his opportunistic brother in this small-time backwater brought to life by Misha Lubarsky’s striking camerawork. There’s nothing to do but hang around, and idle hands are the devil’s workshop – as the old saying goes – in this town where the nouveau riche are almost worse than the poor when it comes to bad behaviour in a society gradually spinning out of control. Sadly, war has united these hapless countryman, but certainly not for reasons they’d hoped for, or expected. AS

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2022 | Horizons strand 2022

Autobiography (2022) Venice Film Festival | Horizons

Dir.: Makbul Mubarak; Cast: Kevin Ardilova, Arswendy Benning Swara, Yusuf Mahardika; Indonesia/France/Poland/Singapore/Philippines /Jemen/Qatar 2022, 116 min.

Best known in the industry for his award-winning short films, Indonesian director writer Makbul Mubarak seals his reputation as a rising talent with a mature and cleverly-crafted feature, the steamy turmoil of its tropical backwater coming to life in Wojciech Staron’s nuanced dreamlike images.

Deep in the Indonesian jungle, sixteen-year old Rakip (Ardilova) is looking after the family villa after his father has gone to prison for taking a violent stand against the building of a hydraulic dam, forcing landowners to sell up for less than the market value of their property.

But Rakib’s days are far from idle, he soon finds himself working as a cook and general factotum for an elderly local dignitary General Bernama Purna (Swara), past his prime but still in control of his faculties, and standing as a candidate in the forthcoming local elections. In truth the two go back a long way, Purna’s family considering the boy as the son they never had. Rakip is under strict instructions from the general, not to tell his wife and three daughters that he is still smoking.

Purna’s election posters start to crop up all over the place, his associations with the dam-building company are undeniable, yet his rhetoric suggests otherwise, and when Purna visits Rakip’s father in prison, he voices his support for the local farmers. The relationship between the young, naive man and the power-hungry old lion seem mutually beneficial until Purna asks Rakip to bring a certain Agus (Mahardika) into the villa. Rakip and Agus are about the same age, but the dynamic between the three soon changes, and not in a good way.

The crux of the narrative is this power play between Purna and Rakip who starts off as the grateful assistant, proud to drive the general’s huge SUV around like a status symbol. But gradually something changes, Rakip discovering Purna not to be as independent as he first makes out. In a bar, the Chef of Police, installed by Purna a long time ago, makes clear to Purna where the power really lies. Shifting slowly, the relationship between old and young, past power and resistance, needs an outlet.

DoP Staron follows Rakip in long tracking shots, always showing him behind glass, windows or doors –  a prisoner in his father’s house. Even in the SUV we see him from the outside, trapped whereever he goes. The villa itself is a claustrophobic prison with its secrets from the past: a time when Rakip and his family were on equal terms with the general. Filming on the widescreen and in intimate close-ups, Staron uses eerie overhead panorama shots, showing a wild landscape of overgrown trees and undergrowth, remnants of former glory. There is a hint of the homo-erotic in the central relationship, Rakip never showing any interest in the opposite sex, and nature helping to re-dress the balance in a shift that will be as dramatic and  overwhelming as the whole of this unique feature premiering at the Horizons sidebar at this year’s Venice Film Festival AS

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 2022 | HORIZONS | FIPRESCI winner

Holy Spider (2022) Cannes Film Festival

Dir: Ali Abassi | Cast: Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Hedi Bejastani, Arash Ashtiani | Thriller 114′

Border was a surreal gender bender fantasy set in Sweden. This time around Ali Abassi returns to his native Iran blending true crime and salient social comment with a scuzzy serial killer thriller that unfolds in the Islamic pilgrimage town of Mashhad, where millions come to worship at the shrine of Imam Reza .

This is where middle-aged Saeed Hanaei (Bajestani), a dedicated family man and construction worker, murdered sex workers at the turn of this century before being trapped by a tenacious female journalist who nearly lost her own life in the process as she wades through the mire of a chauvinistic society fighting off advances from an incredulous policeman to convince an unscrupulous judge.

Holy Spider sets off in the sordid backstreets of the city (filmed in Amman) where it follows ex Iran-Iraq war veteran Saeed as he picks off his victims on a motorcycle, riding them back to a squalid basement where he strangles the women with their own hijabs, earning him the name of ‘Spider Killer’.

Tehran-based journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), arrives in town determined to track Saeed down, and will stop at nothing, not least the misogyny of the police and local authorities, who undervalue women and particularly ‘loose’ women, to bring him to justice. And her ongoing investigation exposes the wider implications of these murders in a society that holds men and marriage in high regard. And Saeed truly believes he is doing a service to Islam in ridding his community of these ‘low life’ women who are seen as no more than vermin on the streets of the city.

Border was mesmerising in its zinging Nordic setting but Holy Spider is an exotic neon nightmare, Nadim Carlsen’s intimate close-ups gripping us by the throat in experiencing the strangulations for ourselves: the twisted purple lips, the bloodshot eyes, and bruised bodies, the sordid salaciousness of it all. A droning electronic soundscape from Lajos Wienkamp-Marques escalates the tension, feeding every fear engendered by the wickedness of this anti-female annihilation.

As Rahimi pursues the murderer she is beset on every side by negative forces aiming to discredit her in a narrative that persuades us that this task is a not just about exposing the truth but managing the lies and the wide-held belief amongst Saeed’s family and supporters that he is righteous in his crusade to wipe out junkies and prostitutes. And the suspense needles on until the final horrifying moments. MT

CANNE FILM FESTIVAL | BEST ACTRESS WINNER (Zar Amir Ebrahimi)

 

 

Plan 75 (2022) Un Certain Regard

Dir: Chie Hayakawa | Japan, drama 115′

In a world rapidly filling up with an ageing population, have the young any right to ask them to politely move on?

That’s the premise of this first feature from Japanese filmmaker Chie Hayakawa, whose old people look more in their nineties than their seventies but conceal a latent anger with the usual Japanese decorum as they share food in a clinical looking care home, forced smiles painted on their wrinkly faces.

The Plan 75 in question is a state initiative to offer a financial incentive to prompt mid-septuagenarians plus to shuffle off their mortal coil. And there’s a lot to be said about it. Why waste time financing your life while friends die around you, bodily functions start to fail and aches and pains only get worse. Particularly if family has ceased to become a concern. As the director points out: there’s always been an honour in death the Japanese way (Hari Kari anyone?).

A slow-burning and thought-provoking contemplation that proceeds with measured dignity. The veteran actress Chieko Baisho is Michi, a woman with no next of kin who opts for the plan, but then there’s a plot twist as two interweaving narrative strands come into play involving a Plan 75 salesman (Hayato Isomura) and a Filipino worker, contrasting the various pro cons. A well thought out and chewy debut to mull over but no great surprises on the mise en scene front. MT

UN CERTAIN REGARD | CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2022

 

Corsage (2022) Winner Best Film BFI LFF

Dir: Marie Kreutzer | Drama, Austria 115′

In her fifth feature Austrian auteuse Marie Kreutzer plays fast and loose with the memory of Empress Elisabeth of Austria in an entertaining and sumptuously realised film about the curse of beauty for a woman no longer in the flush of youth who still wants to be valued for her other talents.

Corsage blends tradition with contemporary touches, very much along the lines of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, and lightly underpinned here by political references to the newly created Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Elisabeth, a fantastically theatrical creature – according to records – is played by a gracefully spunky Vicki Krieps. In modern terms she only just reached her prime, but back in the 1870s being forty was deemed ‘over the hill’. Kreutzer points at a regal middle age crisis for a woman who has been worshipped for her beauty and now feels distinctly undervalued and redundant with only her charity work, dogs and horses to keep her entertained. During a winter sojourn in Northamptonshire – an inspired choice – she flirts with a stable boy but returns minus her favourite black steed who is  killed in an accident. Elisabeth takes to her bed, unconsolable.

In the dilapidated grandeur of the palace a rigid diet of finely sliced oranges and black tea keeps her in impeccable shape, further assisted by waist-nipping corsetry. But she is hungry for love and affection and regularly visits the local mental asylum to commiserate with the deranged women chained to their beds. And when her husband the Emperor Franz Joseph (Florian Teichtmeister) offers ‘anything her heart desires’, she requests a bengal tiger or an extension to the asylum facilities. A stunningly realised drama with flashes of wit and modern music choices and another tour de force from the lovely Luxembourgeoise actor Vicki Krieps. MT

MARIE KREUTZER WINS BEST FILM AWARD BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL AUSTRIA’s OFFICIAL ENTRY IN THE ACADEMY AWARDS 2023 |  CANNES FILM FESTIVAL | UN CERTAIN REGARD 2022

 

 

 

The Blue Caftan (2022) Un Certain Regard

Dir/Wri: Maryam Touzani | Cast: Saleh Bakri, Lubna Azabal, Ayoub Messioui | Drama 118′

The ancient craft of caftan styling is at the heart of Maryam Touzani’s sophomore feature, a slow-burning sensuous Magrebi menage a trois competing in the this year’s Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes Film Festival. 

Halim (Bakri) and Mina (Azabal) run a traditional caftan atelier in one of Morocco’s oldest medinas. Fashions are constantly changing and the married couple are aware of a need to cater for a more demanding clientele. But their decision to take on a new apprentice (Messioui) will have intriguing consequences for the business and their own relationship. Saleh Bakri and Lubna Azabal have a mesmerising chemistry as the couple at the centre of the story, but Messioui is also captivating in his feature debut performance as the gifted but impetuous young apprentice very much in tune with modern sensibilities.

The Blue Caftan is a drama as indulgent and intricately woven as the silky garments themselves. Touzani’s first feature Adam focused on love in a Casablanca bakery and this is another domestic tale of local craftsman that speaks to tradition while keeping pace with the modern world. Esentially a three-handed chamber piece the film occasionally ventures out into the sunbaked streets and hazy hammams of its coastal location, Touzani delicately teasing out her layered character study that will reveal a subtle love story that works both as a gay awakening piece and a testament to enduring marital love. And apart from the meticulous lensing the clever premise is why this sumptuous drama is so enjoyable, albeit a little over-wrought – like the old-fashioned caftans themselves – in the final heart-rending scenes. MT

UN CERTAIN REGARD | CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2022

 

Return to Seoul (2022) Un Certain Regard

Wri/Dir: Davy Chou | Drama, 115′

French Cambodian director Davy Chou has made a name for himself with his unique cinematic gaze on Cambodia and its people. His graceful prize-winning feature debut Golden Slumbers reminisced on Cambodian cinema from the 1960s to the mid 1970s.

But his latest, a drama with the apt title Return to Seoul is an obtuse look at cultural identity seen through the eyes of its main character, a twenty five year old French woman who returns to her native South Korea to track down her birth mother.

From the start you are not going to like Freddie (Ji-Min Park). Flouncing into a bar in downtown Seoul she flirts outrageously with a Korean guy who then makes romantic overtures, only to be told, point blank, that she already has boyfriend ‘back home’ in Paris. Arrogant and extremely pleased with herself, on the face of it, she then tells another lover who has selflessly accompanied her back to Seoul for one of her business meetings, later in the film, that “she could erase him from her life at any minute”.

Of course all this hides a deep emotional wound at her core: inflicted by a biological mother who first abandons her as a baby in a Seoul orphanage, and then declines to meet her when she painstakingly tracks her down via the Seoul orphanage where she was given up.

Told in a series of off-kilter episodes tracking her life from that first meeting in the bar, until her early thirties, the film is full of awkward characters that are neither appealing nor relatable, the exception being a French businessman (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) who turns from lover to employer, All the People is a brave but not always successful attempt to explore the complexities of forging ahead with meaningful personal and romantic relationships when your heart has been shattered at birth. MT

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL | UN CERTAIN REGARD 2022

La Jauria | The Pack (2022) Semaine de la Critique

Dir/Wri: Andres Ramirez Pulido | Cast: Jhojan Estiven Jimenez, Maicol Andres Jimenez, Miguel Viera | Drama, Colombia France | 86′

Latin American directors continue to mine their turbulent history – past and present – in this thundering thriller that takes place deep in the Colombian tropical forest.

Premiering in Semaine de la Critique La Jauria is a confident debut from first time filmmaker Andres Ramirez Pulido who has fleshed out the ideas from his Palme d’Or nominated short film Damiana (2017) into a story crime story with a subtly redemptive twist.

Eliu (E.Jimenez) is serving time in an experimental hacienda-style young offenders institution for crimes he committed with his friend El Mono (M Jimenez), a recovering drug addict. The petty criminals are supervised by para-military forces under the control of Godoy (Rincon), an elderly ex-offender who practises obscure breathing exercises, believing the therapy will cure the men of the evil spirits possessing them.

The arrival of El Mono changes the dynamic in the camp and Eliu, who has always hated his father for physically abusing his mother, decides under the influence of drugs and alcohol, to murder him – only to learn later that he and El Mono have killed the wrong person. Worse still, they cannot find the place where they dumped the body in the caves. Meanwhile the police are growing tired of Godoy’s slow and avant-garde methods, and when another inmate Calate ((Vasquez), raises concerns about Godoy’s style of therapy, the punishment meted out to him spins out of control.

DoP Balthazar creates a haunting atmosphere of surreal horror which works particularly well in the night scenes. Working with a cast of mostly non-pros, Pulido ramps up the tension, his poetic realism worthy of the great Fernando Birri. The Pack is a great example of the signature cinematographic language of the South American continent, with the director overcoming the limits of his budget with vision and inspiration. AS

SEMAINE DE LA CRITIQUE | CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2022

 

 

Earwig (2021)

Dir:  | Wri: Lucile Hadžhalilović, Geoff Cox | Cast: Paul Hilton, Romola Garai, Alex Lawther, Romane Hemelaers | 114′

French auteuse Lucile Hadžhalilović offers another bizarre but compulsive arthouse psychodrama, this time in the surgical horror sub genre, upping her game with a star cast of Romola Garai and Alex Lawther.

Arcane and edgy Earwig is immaculately crafted with its surreal Lynchian credentials that subtly inveigle us into the horror bound story of little Mia (Romane Hemelaers) who is forced to undergo the painful daily procedure of having her teeth surgically replaced by ice-cubes due to some unexplained medical condition. Yes, this is not for everyone but fans of her quirky style will thrill to Earwig’s macabre charm.

The Lyonnaise filmmaker’s previous film Evolution (2015) saw a young boy hospitalised and subjected to strange interventions performed by a series of female cyphers dressed as nurses. Once again writing with her Evolution collaborator Geoff Cox, Hadžhalilović keeps the storyline enigmatic in a dialogue-starved scenario: no explanation is offered for the procedure as we peer at the screen desperately looking for clues, our own teeth almost twinging with the agony of expectation. Ken Yasumoto’s scraping soundscape recalls the abject terror of the dentist’s chair, brought to cinematic life in Marathon Man, but there are also echoes of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’ Goodnight Mommy (2014).

Closely based on a book by sculptor and performance artist Brian Catling, the film actually takes its title from the male central character Albert (Paul Hilton), a singularly morose carer who tends to Mia in the confines of a squalid flat in mid century Liege, Belgium, redolently captured in Jonathan Ricquebourg’s dingy visuals where the weather is as grim as the storyline.

Part of Albert’s misery is being under the cosh of a telephone taskmaster, a mysterious man who hounds him unpredictably, demanding updates on Mia’s condition. Meanwhile he continues the meticulous molar replacement mission until forced into the outside world with Mia on a hospital visit which ends in more pain, this time in a local bar where Romula Garai is another hapless victim. MT

NOW AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS FROM FRIDAY | SAN SEBASTIAN PREMIERE

 

The Middle Man (2021) Toronto Film Festival 2021

Dir: Bent Hamer | Cast: Don McKellar, Kenneth Welsh, Nina Andresen, Nicolas Bro | Drama 95′

A middle man is a concept that many will be unfamiliar with but it provides the backbone to Ben Hamer’s dead-pan drama about small-town America, inspired by Lars Saabye Christensen’s novel Sluk. The strange thing about this absurd Hal Hartley style feature, directed by a Norwegian, is the cast of lowkey European and Canadian actors that only adds to its impassive charm.

Frank Farelli (Pål Sverre Hagen) is just the sort of person you might run into in this moribund backwater where days go by uneventfully for its small-minded inhabitants. Yet there’s a dark humour about a place that used to attract visitors by the score to a hotel that’s now been closed for many years, along with the local cinema.

The place in now run by a motley crew of po-faced citizens laughably called the “Commission”: a sheriff in the shape of Paul Gross’, a man of God (Nicolas Bro) and the local doctor (Don McKellar), supported by their able secretary (Tuva Novotny). They are the self-appointed Civic guardians who keep the civic wheels running smoothly despite a dwindling council budget. Strangely the taxpayers that still live here seem beset by a string of tragic events requiring the appointment of a ‘middleman’ – in this case Frank – to be the bearer of bad news, a job that requires him to take an oath of secrecy, seemingly ludicrous in a place where everyone is either related or ‘in the know.’

Mild-mannered to the point of obsequiousness, Frank ironically lost in father some time ago in one of these tragic episode and now lives with his mother, played by the attractive, long-suffering Nina Andresen who despairs at her son’s naivity. The lowkey narrative meanders on spiked by moments of of dry humour. One scene sees Frank ‘celebrating’ his new job as the town’s middleman, with half a tee-bone steak (he couldn’t afford the other half). But once installed in his new office office, Frank’s workload grinds to a halt, the previous spike of accidents levelling out to a virtually nothing, leaving the now sharp-suited middleman twiddling his thumbs with the bored Brenda. This all changes when catastrophe suddenly rears its head, and Frank is not only in the thick of it, but implicated in the crime that shakes up the feature’s weirdly ambiguous finale. MT

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | 10-18 SEPTEMBER

Whether the Weather Is Fine (2021) Toronto Film Festival

Dir: Carlo Francisco Manatad | Cast: Charo Santos-Concio, Daniel Padilla, Rans Rifol | Thriller, 105′

For his debut feature, a post apocalyptic fantasy thriller, Filippino director Carlo Francisco Manatad explores how the aftermath of catastrophe changes life for three individuals in his native city of Tacloban.

Hayan is not the first typhoon to devastate his hometown in the coastal region of Eastern Visayas and it won’t be the last. A young man wakes up one morning to discover that two close friends have disappeared in the utter chaos – his mother Norma (Santos), and Andrea (Rifol) the woman with whom he was a planning a new life.

But worst of all, the authorities impose strict regulations on the region leaving Miguel (Padilla) in a state of emotional turmoil that swings between cynicism and obdurance in a bid to survive food shortages and lack of shelter.  In their hour of need many of the religious villagers seeks recourse to their faith, even folklore. Others desperately clamber onto ships offering to take them to the nearby capital of Manila.

Spiked with flashes of dark humour, and the occasional foray into fantasy as a way of evoking the climate of loss, fear and confusion, Manatad directs with confidence in this follow-up to his short film The Imminent Immanent (2018). Whether the Weather is Fine serves as a rousing tribute to the people of Tacloban whose stoicism and resourcefulness is another example of the human will to survive in times of adversity. MT

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

 

Terrorizers (2021) Toronto Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Wi Ding Ho; Cast: JC Lin, Moon Lee, Po Hung Lin, Jie-Fei Huang, Pipi Jao, Cheng Ko, Annie Chen; Taiwan 2021, 127 min.

Taiwanese director/co-writer Wi Ding Ho is clearly disturbed by the youth of modern day Taipei judging by his nihilistic thriller Terrorizers playing at this year’s Toronto Film Festival.

Not to be confused with Edward Yang’s Taiwanese masterpiece The Terrorizers from 1986, there are clearly parallels to be drawn in the melancholy bleakness of the settings. But Wi Ding’s version deals with the VR world, now infringing what is called reality.

After six gruelling years in the kitchens washing dishes Xiao Zhang (Lin) returns to Taipeh, now a qualified chef on an ocean cruiser, hopes to open his own luxury restaurant with an uncle. Then up pops his old flame Yu Fang (Lee), now an actress in rehearsal for The Seagull, and soon they’re talking about moving in together. Yu has some doubts, she’s had a trail of doomed relationships that started when her mother left when she was a little girl, and an affair with a porn star called Monica (Chen), leaving her in the lurch. Family-wise her political father has just married his pregnant secretary and is on the verge of moving to another city, so Yu, once again, is alone.

In downtown Taipei Yu shares her apartment with Ming Liang (Hung Lin), the son of a politician, and her father’s financial backer. Liang and Yu are not on speaking terms but the psychotic Ming is somehow convinced that they’re an item. But worse is to follow: Ming has filmed Monica making love to her, and now wants to kill Yu for “deserting” him.

In spiteful act of revenge, Ming attacks Yu with a machete, Xiao narrowly saving her life. And Ming’s nasty side surfaces again when he gives the police the video showing the two women in bed together, claiming his attack was motivated by Yu’s betrayal of him.

All this dystopian darkness reveals Taipei to be a toxic male environment that seems to be particularly down on women: Yu’s father now forcing her to leave town, afraid that her staying in Taipei will harm his career. It’s ironic that a monster like Ming can sway public opinion to be on his side, denouncing the two women as perpetrators, and getting away with it, when we are all made aware of his monstrous nature, possibly inculcated by his abusive alcoholic mother, a ‘masseuse’ who regularly  gives her son a ‘full service’ – fortunately off screen.  But Ming is not the only villain of the piece: teenagers Kiki and Billy also prey upon randomly chosen strangers to get their kicks.

DoP Jean Louis Vialand shows the VR world for what it is: a fake construct where humans create substitutes of themselves and, in the process, become dependent on the media circus generated. Ming is the ultimate voyeur and ‘director’ of his sick universe. Chopin’s mournful Nocturne in e-flat accompanies this soulless descent into Hell.AS

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2021

Anatolian Leopard (2021) Toronto Film Festival

Dir.: Emre Kayis; Cast: Ugur Polat, Ipek Türktan, Tansu Bicer, Ege Aydan, Nuri Gökasan, Osman Alkas, Seyithan Ozdemir, Hatice Aslan, Ezgi Gör; Germany/Turkey/Poland/Denmark 2021, 117 min.

The sombre city of Ankara is the setting for this melancholic portrait of a middle-aged man, still struggling with himself and his past. In his first feature Emre Kayis pulls off a wistful character study steeped in irony and crowned by a charismatic Ugur Polat, that may bring to mind Musil’s Man Without Attributes,

Of course we never see the leopard that sets the cat among the pigeons when it disappears from the zoo while the manager Fikret (Polat) is fighting a losing battle to preserve the national treasure from privatisation. The city Mayor (Alkas) is negotiating with an Arab consortium hellbent on replacing the animals’ home with an amusement park full of thrilling rides, and just a few plastic animals – already in place in the entrance – as a solemn valedictory. The only obstacle is the titular Anatolian leopard, an endangered species, and unless a new home can be found the Arabs will pull out of the deal.

Of course other zoos are keen to take the leopard, but Fikret keeps this quietly under his belt. In an amusing montage we see him trudging from the muddy carpark to a side entrance, a reserved parking space now occupied by a fleet of flash cars belonging to the minister and his staff. His assistant Gamze (Türktan) arrives on the bus, starring enviously at some flight attendants boarding a coach on their way to the airport. Gamze and Fikret will play a secret game, unknown to each other, after the leopard’s fate is revealed.

Suspect number one in the case of the missing leopard is his faithful warden Ibrahim (Ozdemir), who is vehemently against being relegated to look after the hippos. But then the police chief (Gökasan) is shot dead in the countryside where the leopard is supposedly lurking. At a fateful high-school reunion, Fikret’s old bête noire Tezer (Aslan) falls for Gamze. And while the prosecutor tells Fikret that his confession is now redundant, the zoo manager must act to change the course of his moribund life.

This is a feature of nuances: the subtle slings and arrows Fikret and Gamze endure in their loneliness slowly accumulate forcing them to make some radical decisions. It gradually emerges that Fikret’s state of misery is a kind of happiness. And it will need a big step forward to make him climb the mountain ahead of him.

DoP Nick Cooke’s strengths are the sophisticated interiors, and the panoramic widescreen shots of Turkey’s sprawling capital city. Ugur Polat is very much at home as the man observing the unfolding drama with a wry sense of ‘deja vu’ while Tansu Bicer’s prosecutor tells him absurd allegorical stories, toying with his victim Fikret. AS

TORONTO 2021 | BEST FIRST FILM AWARD ANTALYA FILM FESTIVAL 2021 |

BEST ART DIRECTOR, BİLLUR TURAN| ANTALYA FILM FESTIVAL 

 

Nobody Has to Know (2021) Toronto Film Festival 2021

Dir: Bouli Lanners | Cast: Bouli Lanners, Michelle Fairley | Drama, 99′

Memories define us connecting the present with the past. In his latest drama – a first in English – Belgian writer and director Bouli Lanners plays a man whose romantic history is rewritten when he suffers a stroke.

Atmospherically shot on the windswept Isle of Lewis in Scotland, this is a sober and reflective psychological drama made all the more dour by its subject matter and the morose-looking locals, although its hard to imagine that the thoughtful Phil (Lanners) is a Belgian farmhand – he behaves more like a sophisticated film director (!) with his raffish good looks, swept back hair and well-trimmed beard. And when his carer Millie arrives (Fairley) after a stroke leaves him with amnesia, she takes an instant liking to her vulnerable patient persuading him they were lovers before his illness. But there’s nothing wrong with Phil’s sex drive as he capitulates dutifully with romantic overtures which Millie instantly rejects causing him to be even more confused. Rapidly Millie realises she’s committed a faux pas and should really be struck off by the medical profession not only for lying, but also for abusing a mentally ill patient – particularly as Phil is now completely disarmed – and the two end up in bed. Millie continues to tease him with ‘memories’ of their past relationship and how it came about, and can now be rekindled. She’s clearly having a field day after a fallow patch in her love life on the barren island.

Despite its flawed premise Nobody Has to Know looks gorgeous, Lanners and Fairley making for convincing lovers as they wander along vast caster sugar beaches, storm clouds scudding by and merging into the distance. A religious subplot that sees the local vicar vehemently preaching the Christian gospel from a pulpit doesn’t quite work although clearly it represents the wagging finger of God. A dog called Nigel is the focus of another rather unsubstantial narrative strand in this watchable feature that explores identity, false memory and the nature of romantic desire. MT

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

 

Inexorable (2021) Toronto Film Festival 2021

Dir: Fabrice du Welz | Cast: Benoit Poelvoorde, Jackie Berroyer Alba Gaia Bellugi, Melanie Doutey | Thriller, 98′

Looking for inspiration a writer takes up residence in an echoing chateau deep in the countryside, his past triumphs retuning to haunt him with self doubt: will he ever be creatively successful again.

Inexorable is another erotic psychodrama from the Belgian cult director, and although similar in tone and location to his previous outings Calvaire and Adoration  this latest is not quite on a par with Alleluia 

A voyeuristic camera lingers on dislocated characters in the foreboding stillness of the bosky backwater setting the scene for an intriguing horror story, made all the more sinister by its brooding soundscape. Inexorable is possibly the most personal film Fabrice du Welz has made to date. It ponders the ephemeral nature of creativity, particularly when early success paves the way to future doubts and insecurities – not something du Welz has had to worry about with his filmic string of hits.

Known for his comedy roles Benoît Poelvoorde plays Bellmer with a sense of vulnerability despite his proven talent and fierce determination. The old mansion becomes home to his wife and publisher Jeanne (Mélanie Doutey), whose family no longer lives there. The hope is that this new setting will somehow stimulate Bellmer’s creative juices after months of writer’s block.

But he soon becomes fascinated with one of his daughter’s teenage friends, a troubled orphan named Gloria (Alba Gaïa Bellugi), with the welcome affect of spicing up his sex life with wife. But the febrile Gloria soon makes a pass at Benoit and although the violent, illicit sex that follows seem to re-awaken his imagination, the inevitable fallout threatens to consume the entire family.

Written by Joséphine Darcy Hopkins, Aurélien Molas, and Du Welz, Inexorable explores  nepotism, sexual chemistry, and the nature of creativity in a thriller fraught with shocking psychological insights and devastating revelations. MT

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2021

 

 

Silent Land (2021)

Dir: Aga Woszczyńska | Poland, Drama 112′

In Aga Woszczyńska’s impressive first feature, a Polish couple’s relationship exposes serious fault-lines during a stressful Italian vacation where everything goes wrong.

Polish filmmakers certainly know how to be provocative and push the boundaries where love and sex are concerned and Silent Land excels in ramping up the tension in this subversive and acutely piquant two hander.

A cleverly written script and choice visuals keep us engaged with an all too familiar holiday scenario primped with surprising twists and turns enough to derail the most loved-up up romantic break. And what initially feels like an ideal marriage soon shows cracks that run deeper than those in the dirty and disused swimming pool that awaits this couple in their dream villa.

Confronted by builders who can’t speak English – or Polish for that matter – Adam and Anna head for the idyllic beach for some rest and relaxation. On their return the pool has been repainted but still lacks the requisite water, and a serious accident poolside involving the immigrant builder then deep-sixes any chance of a late afternoon swim. Soon the owner and the paramedics arrive and as the two holidaymakers give evidence in the ensuing police investigation, a dark vein of humour creeps into the narrative ‘lost in translation style’ when the carabinieri also turn up, and clearly don’t speak much English either. But why should they?.

The compliant Poles are only too delighted to accompany the police to the station to help with inquiries, their holiday clearly heading into a disaster zone for no fault of their own. A Kafkaesque scenario develops when the detective leading the inquiry picks apart their statement and asks them to return for further questioning. The tables are gradually turned as the justifiably disgruntled clients soon become unwitting suspects in an accidental death inquiry.

There are certainly touches of Michael Haneke’s observational storytelling in the precise framing as the voyeuristic camerawork tracks the couple in silent contemplation or sharing a private joke. The Colombo style police procedural has a understandably unsettling and de-stabilising affect on the couples’ sense of integrity and tranquility as they start to question their own response to the tragedy as foreigners in a unfamiliar environment increasingly coming under the xenophobic spotlight of a tightly knit community far away from home. Tense and highly intelligent filmmaking. MT

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 23 SEPTEMBER 2022 | TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL

 

 

Zana (2019) digital release

Dir: Antoneta Kastrati | Cast: Adriana Matoshi, Astrit Kabashi, Fatmire Sahiti, Mensur Safqui | Serbia Drama 93′

The legacy of a war on a Kosovar woman’s life are insightfully portrayed in this hauntingly lyrical debut feature from Kosovo-born, LA-based writer/director Antoneta Kastrati.

Lume (Matoshi) lives with her loving husband Ilir (Kabashi) in a farming village of Kosovar Muslims, dominated by rituals and superstitions and caught between the past and the present in the lush Albanian countryside. Psychological scars run deep years after the war is over and Lume is suffering the double blow of losing a child and being unable to conceive another. Her bereavement is made all the more insufferable as she is defined by her childlessness in a community where family is the entire focus of a woman’s life.

Lume experiences the emotional fallout in all kinds of ways: nightmares and hallucinations – involving dead or wounded animals and a mysterious bloody corpse – and these are cleverly woven into the narrative providing a constant reminder of the atrocities of the 1990s – while daily village life sees grotesque interference from her mother in law, Lume emerging a detached and morose figure lost in a world of hopeless misery and indignity.

So backward is the set-up here that the family believe Lume to be possessed by an evil spirit rather than needing medical advice. But she soon resorts to village healers in the hope of a much desired pregnancy, and these intimate scenes are evocatively captured and contrast with the bucolic images of farming in the Balkan countryside that could be set in the 18th century.

Ilir is the most likeable character supporting his wife with genuine love and concern even when Lume’s father threatens to burn the couple’s house down when his daughter asks to come home after a visiting her mother. And this is where Kastrati makes us aware of the superstitious attitudes that are still very much alive, with constant talk of spells, curses and Black Magic freely banded around by a community still locked in the past, mobile phones their only acknowledgement of contemporary life.

Lume keeps her calm distance throughout until Ilir takes her to a witch doctor to rid her of ‘inner demons’. And she objects to his violent methods. But life improves dramatically when Lume finally conceives and once again we experience the full force of traditional rituals, her mother in law dominating family life and undermining her in every way. And gradually as winter sets in, the trauma of the past catches up with the present in a grim reveal which finally clarifies Lume’s rich dream life in a deeply felt tribute to Kastrati’s own family. MT

ON CURZON HOME CINEMA, BFI PLAYER AND BARBICAN CINEMA ON DEMAND from 2nd APRIL 2021

 

 

76 Days (2020) **** VOD

Dirs: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous | Wri: Hao Wu | Doc, 2020 China, 91′

Not as hard-hitting as you would imagine, and in some ways faintly amusing given the repercussions that would follow, this cinema vérité snapshot of the first COVID outbreak takes us back to Wuhan, China where it all began, the rest of the world still blissfully unaware and innocently going about its business.

In a Wuhan hospital a woman cries out in anguish as the body of her father is hurriedly sealed in orange plastic by a group of hazmat-suited medics who then hurtle back through the corridors to deliver the toxic bundle into a waiting black van.

Towering skyscrapers dwarf a twinkling ambulance racing over the massive bridge that straddles the vast Yangtze river (think Golden Gate without the glamour), as the city is plunged into a hush-hush yet draconian lockdown, marshalled citizens falling into rank as they meekly obey the eerie tanoyed announcements to ‘stay in their homes’.

Wuhan is a major industrial city in Hubei province, Eastern China, but the scale of the crisis in the four hospitals where the doc was filmed, by director Hao Wu (People’s Republic of Desire) and reporter Weixi Chen, takes on an intimate yet respectfully buttoned-down detached community atmosphere. You never see a medic’s face, such is level of PPE, yet the (mostly old) patients stay wrapped in their own colourful padded jackets as they are tucked up in bed and told to sleep – almost like kids – and referred to as ‘grandma, and grandpa; the middle-aged sufferers; aunty and uncle.

Although the grief and panic is feverishly palpable there is a ordered and kindly feel to proceedings as patients’ personal possessions – in China that means mobile phones – are wiped down with alcohol and placed in plastic bags. There is no triage system here: this is a close up and personal system where the medics themselves deal face to face with the oncoming stream of stricken public who rattle the door handles of hospital’s modest entrance, demanding to be seen first: “Any vomiting or diarrhoea?, Okay – let him go first, he’s limping” says the matron.

The documentary began shortly after the January 23rd lockdown in Wuhan, the filmmakers maintaining a strictly observational eye on the unfolding crisis. There are moments of dark humour surrounding an old fisherman – the doc’s main protagonist – who has found his way into the system and can’t seem to find his way out, although he appears to be suffering from dementia rather than Covid, judging from his candid take on events. The doctors keep forcing him back into his room, telling him to wear his mask ‘properly’: “What a way to treat a person” he laments fractiously. Later he has decided to stay: “Not bad – free food and medicine here, where I come from is so backward”.

Apparently the shoot inside public hospital facilities wasn’t government-sanctioned. Hao was researching a project for an American network, who then abandoned the story when Covid went global, but he continued his own filming using  reporter Chen (and his colleague chose to remain anonymous). They have created this raw and immediate take on an outbreak that purportedly originated in Wuhan’s wet markets in the vicinity of the hospitals, and would result in the death of millions worldwide – not to mention the economic, social and political repercussions.

No doubt there will soon be a ‘Covid’ genre – we have already seen a Belgian outing: I Am Not a Hero and Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control, and there are more to come. The filmmakers formally requested that none of the hospital staff be mentioned or identified “to avoid any potential government interference with the film”. The only possible clues to their identity are available in the delightful drawings that were sketched in marker pen on the medics’ PPE gowns, and they possibly included their names (if you can read Mandarin).

In early April 2020, 76 days after the crisis erupted the Wuhan lockdown is lifted, and air raid sirens mark a gloomy tribute to the dead, masked citizens stopping to pay their respects in the streets, where some are visibly moved to tears. Their government clearly didn’t have the same respect for the World’s wider community in their bid to play down the crisis. But amongst these locals a strong sense of civil cooperation and commitment to a common cause is admirable and poignant. MT

ON RELEASE in the UK | VOD 22 January 2021

 

 

 

Violation (2020) *** Toronto Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Dusty Mancinelli; Cast: Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Anna Maguire, Jesse LaVercombe, Obi Abili; Canada 2020, 107. min

A rape and revenge thriller that goes all the way, yet we never lose empathy for victim in this collaborative first feature from Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer, who also stars in the main role as Miriam.

Miriam and her husband Caleb (Abili) have come all the way from their London home to visit Miriam’s sister Greta (Maguire) and her husband Dylan (LaVercombe) in the Canadian wilderness. As their solitary car motors along the winding forest roads, we are reminded of the opening scenes of the The Shining; a wolf and his dead prey plus a mournful score by Andrea Boccadoro makes up the ominous picture.

Miriam and Caleb hardly talk to each, and are clearly heading for an existential marriage crisis. In contrast, Greta and Dylan frolic around in nature, happy killing animals and eating them for dinner. Greta considers her rabbit slaughtering skills  as a big achievement: “I have learned not to rely on others to do things for me”. Hmm. Miriam and her husband obviously have a much more sophisticated life in London, and Miriam tries in vain to talk her sister into joining her in the capital. There is obviously a long history between the two, symbolised by Miriam’s dream about her sister hanging herself in the next room. But the real secret is Dylan’s rape of his sister-in-law: when Miriam is courageous enough to tell her sister, Greta takes the side of her husband, blaming Miriam, who – left alone by everybody – plans her revenge which forms the main part of this grisly but innovative drama.

DoP Adam Crosby’s camera follows the emotional ups and down with brutal close-ups and long bird-eye shots. There are parallels to Jennifer Kent’s Nightingale, as the shaming of the victim looms large until total obliteration is the only way out. But the images avoid female exploitation, which so often is mistaken as empowerment. A non-linear narrative is sometimes bewildering, but in the end helps to enforce the sheer hell of its main protagonist. Violation is often vicious in its rough hewn depiction of abuse which so often relies on melodrama to deliver its gruesome message. AS

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2020

  

     

A Good Man (2020) *** Toronto Film Festival

Dir.: Marie-Castielle Mention-Schaar; Cast: Noémie Merlant, Soko, Vincent Dedienne, Anne Loiret; France 2020, 108 min.

This trans fertility threesome is not as good as it could have been despite an impressive second performance from Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant who here plays a cis woman in the throes of becoming a trans man .  

Marie-Castielle Mention-Schaar produces, writes and directs her follow up to Le ciel attendra (Heaven Will Wait) reuniting her with Merlant who as  Benjamin agrees to interrupt his sex reassignment surgery in order to carry and birth the child his partner Aude wants so badly but cannot carry to full term.

Aude (Soko) lives with the community nurse in the village of Groix on an island off the Brittany coast. They have moved here from Aix-en-Provence, where Aude was a successful ballet dancer. One of the many flashback scenes pictures the couple on their first date when Benjamin was still Sarah. They have now been together for six years and want to cement their relationship with a child. In other flashbacks, Benjamin’s mother Eve (Loiret) complains about not having a real daughter “I could not even talk to her”. His brother Antoine (Dedienne) is married with a child and also has a poor relationship with Benjamin.

Ben is not secure in his changing physical status, and does not allow Aude to see him in the bath. He claims his old self, Sarah, could never had a child due to body dysmorphia. And while Benjamin gradually adjusts to his status as a pregnant mother, Aude feels, rightfully, left out: she has given up a great career, and now the mother role she craved so much is also taken away from her – albeit by a caring Benjamin.

This creates a double-bind, but instead of evaluating her misery the director simply writes her out of the script only to bring her back at the very end of the feature as an afterthought. She is not the only under-explored character: many of Benjamin’s patients find his pregnancy rather odd, but in the end they all come around to it – as if by magic. Benjamin himself always occupies the centre stage but is only fragmentarily explored: we see more reaction from the outside than from his own point of view; apart from one outburst against Aude when he gets his revised birth certificate. This makes A Good Man difficult to engage with – surprising for a feature stuffed with such explosive emotions.

DoP Myriam Vinocour’s claustrophobic camerawork fails to reflect the wild beauty of the island setting that added so much allure to Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Life for the couple seems so restrictive, even though Benjamin gets around a lot visiting his patients. But the main downside to this complex drama is its fractured narrative: few features succeed in integrating so many flashbacks – and A Good Man is no exception. This is still a worthwhile experience that makes a brave effort to explore complex gender roles in today’s every-changing world.  AS

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2020                                                  

 

Beans (2020) *** Toronto Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Tracey Deer; Cast: Kiawentiio Tarbell, Violah Beauvais, Rainbow Dickerson. Joel Montgrand, Pauline Alexis, D’Pharaoh Mc Kay Woon; Canada 2020, 91 min.

This feature film debut of Canadian director/co-writer Tracey Deer is both a coming-of-age story and an autobiographical take on the Oka crisis of July 1990. Then a conflict broke out between the Mohawk and the city of Oka, Quebec in Canada, the latter wanting to enlarge a golf course, which would have infringed on holy burial sides of the native Canadians. After 78 days of blockades and strife between Mohawks and the Canadian Army, supported by local police and a ‘White Power’ mob local police, the dispute was settled with the loss of only one life. This was the first of many conflicts between indigenous groups and authorities in Canada.  

We meet the titular Beans, brilliant debutant Tarbell when she is still the “good” girl, going for an interview at the posh Queens Height High School. Mother Lilly (Dickerson) is pregnant and over-protective. When the conflict breaks out everything changes for the twelve-year old and she gravitates towards the slightly older and certainly tougher neighbouring children April (Alexis) and Hank (Woon). They have a lot of freedom at home because their father is permanently drunk. When Beans’ father (Joel Montgrand) and his friends decide the women and children should be evacuated Lily, Beans and little sister Ruby (Beauvais) are pelted by rocks, the latter ending up covered in shattered glass. Having finally reached the hotel, Beans goes to a party with April and her friends where she kisses Hank as a ‘dare’ in the closet. Later she has a fight with another girl, trying to show how tough she is to April and Hank. Lily, exhausted and close to giving birth, takes all four children back home, but they are again attacked by white residents. Whilst her mother is giving birth to a baby boy, Beans has a sordid encounter with Hank who wants a blow job – a term Beans had never heard off. This sets up a rather predictable finale.

Archive films show a white mob, not very different from the current Trump supporters. There is sheer hatred in their eyes. In the feature, the scenes at the shop are particularly disturbing because the white women, having shopped a life time with their Mohawk friends, suddenly turn nasty, and shove them violently out of the shop premises.

DoP Marie Davignon’s images are impressive, particularly the Mohawk convoy of women and children being pelted by rocks by screaming white men show a frightening intensity. Whilst the ensemble acting is admirable, director Deer is let down by a rather formulaic narrative, which leans very towards mainstream features. Nevertheless, one does now look at the “clean” image propagates by Canadians with a different eye – racism does not stop at the longest international border between states.

AS
***    

   

   

Anne at 13,000ft (2019) MUBI

Dir/scr: Kazik Radwanski. USA/Canada | 75 mins

Deragh Campbell is terrific as a troubled nursery school teacher at the centre of this often raw and intimate look at mental illness. Kazik Radwanski’s fractured narrative and dizzy handheld camerawork gives a close up and personal feel to this evocative third study of people in challenging situations. This time the focus is Anne whose work in a children’s daycare centre comes under scrutiny from her colleagues who start to object to her random behaviour. Her best friend and colleague Sarah (Dorothea Paas) is supportive but busy with preparations for her wedding.

One of the key issues is Anne’s tendency to trivialise matters to mask her inner turmoil and she often plays around when she should be taking her work around special needs kids more seriously. Life in the school interweaves with Anne’s first experience of skydiving which presents an opportunity to disengage from the sober world and set herself free. Sarah’s wedding is another difficult occasion for Anne who makes a heartfelt speech before drinking too much and ending up in the arms of Matt, a lovely, light-hearted guy (Matt Johnson) who looks after her when she gets post party food-poisoning. Radwanski keeps the lid on Anne’s mental status but it’s clear she is on the verge, or has recently emerged from some kind of crisis.

Matt is particularly good in the way he gradually becomes part of Anne’s day to day life and the scenes when they visit her family fizz and feel good in contrast to the fraught and buttoned-up interactions with her colleagues. But when she later meets her mother things spin out of control as Anne becomes increasingly neurotic over a trivial issue. This is clever filmmaking and Radwanski shows considerable aplomb in the way he shows Anne being ultra-patient with kids but is reduced to tears after relating her pet cat story to them later completing losing her cool in the car despite Sarah’s kindness and support. But the natural chemistry between Anne and Matt are what makes this so lovely as a snapshot of a woman coping with the past and the man who is loves her, against the odds. MT

NOW ON MUBI

The County (2019) ***

Dir: Grímur Hákonarson | Iceland Drama 95′

Grímur Hákonarson’s Cannes UCR award-winning debut Rams (2015) was a dour and delightful tale on sibling rivalry set in the Icelandic farming community. The director returns to this sombre milieu for his second more serious drama that sees a farmer take on the corrupt and outdated co-op in her local community.

The co-op system in Iceland arose in the early 20th century as a response to Denmark’s centuries-old monopoly on trade; however, sometimes they are as exploitative as the system that preceded them.  in many instances, these supposed mutual-aid societies grew to be as exploitative as the system that preceded them.

Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) is a single-minded independent farmer who works tirelessly with her devoted husband Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson) to make ends meet in the harsh but spectacular landscape of Iceland. Although the couple are wedded to their local co-op system, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to remain competitive with their rivals. After an unforeseen tragedy Inga is forced to reassess her life and bravely decides to take the co-op on by using the help of social media rather than her less than supportive neighbours who are an unadventurous and conservative lot, even when life is stacked up against them.

Icelandic women are well known for their business acumen and Egilsdóttir supports this with a remarkable performance as the indomitable farmer in an engrossing drama that reunites the director with Sigurður Sigurjónsson who plays the co-op’s cunningly cocky director. Although this is a less entertaining film than Rams, Hákonarson once again emerges as an assured and confident voice and one of the country’s finest filmmakers. MT

NOW ON CURZON WORLD from Friday 22 May 2020

The Twentieth Century (2019) MUBI

Dir.: Matthew Rankin; Cast: Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Catherine St. Laurent, Mikhail Ahooja, Louis Vegin; Canada 2019, 87 min.

This first feature by Canadian writer/director Matthew Rankin tries to follow in the footsteps of his compatriot Guy Maddin – without his flair and quirky idiosyncratic style. Rankin’s ‘autobiography’ of Mackenzie King, who was Canada’s Prime Minister for 22 years between 1921 and 1948, is a mad-cap race with animation showing the politician as an arrant dilettante, in love with his mother and Doc Marten boots.

King (Beirne) is one of the candidates for the position as Prime Minister. Acid tests are conducted, among them butter churning, endurance tickling and baby seal clubbing. King ends up joint second, but his nemesis, the good-looking sunny-boy Bert Harper (Ahooja), will win outright. After talking to a TB-suffering girl and her rather masculine mother (Vegin) at an orphanage, King falls for the beautiful Ruby Elliot (St. Laurent), neglecting his own mother’s nurse Lapoint (Cormier), who he is the real love of his life.

An exploding cactus and many pairs of Doc Martens later Harper wins Ruby’s heart and the trio fights a battle to the death with some whales in the frozen waters of Canada, King surviving alone. Meanwhile, Ruby and Bert scarify their lives for Canada, ending up like pieces of meat on a skewer tied to a whale.

Shot completely within the confines of a studio, this absurdist drama is full of innovative ideas but lacks the glue to hold them all together. DoP Vincent Biron and the actors enjoy themselves, but the free rein given to them by Rankin makes the outcome look more like a shambolic school play. AS

NOW on MUBI

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) ****

Dirs: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz | Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, Shia LaBeouf, Zak Gottsagen | US Comedy 93′

A buddy movie with some good laughs and a really warm heart that doesn’t seek the easy way out in depicting its Down’s Syndrome hero who makes a break for freedom confounding the odds.

Zack Gottsagen plays Zak, a young Down’s syndrome man with no family confined to living in a care home and sharing a bedroom with an old timer – a game Bruce Dern – in North Carolina. Zak may have his limits but he wants to live those to the full. A local wrestling school has captured his imagination although it appalls his carer Eleanor (Johnson), so with the help of his roommate he makes a bid for freedom, wearing only a pair of Y-fronts, hooking up with LaBeouf’s struggling fisherman Tyler – after spending the night under canvas on his boat.

Even hard-to-please cynics will enjoy this charming comedy. All the characters are convincing and appealingly fleshed out. Zak and his new friend Tyler make an oddly endearing couple – Zak is surprisingly tough under his vulnerable facade and so is the macho Tyler who is still mourning his brother – flashback scenes shows the two of them  in affectionate mellow-tinted musings.

The adventure they embark on is a picaresque-styled sortie with shades of Mark Twain. They eventually catch up with Zak’s wrestling heros (cameos from real-life fighter Mick Foley and Jake Roberts, in mufti.). And although Zak often comes a cropper in his white wellies, y-fronts and combat trousers he is a character who we laugh with, and never a figure of fun: A perfect role model for those with life-limiting conditions.

Toronto Film Festival 2019 | Award Winners

The curtain fell on TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2019 with an comedy about Hitler winning the biggest award. The People’s Choice Award went to JOJO RABBIT which is set during the Second World War and directed and performed by New Zealand born Taika Waititi who plays an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler. The film divided critics and no doubt audiences to come. It also stars Scarlett Johansson who plays the mother of the titular German boy Jojo (Roman Griffin Davies) who is an ardent follower of the Hitler Youth and so keen on his hero he actually has imaginary conversations with him. But his attitude changes when he discovers his mother is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin Mackenzie) in the family attic.

Other winners at the Canadian Festival were Noah Baumbach’s A MARRIAGE STORY and Cannes Palme d’Or winner PARASITE

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2019

 

Antigone (2019) *** TIFF 2019

Wri/Dir: Sophie Deraspe | Drama Canada 109′
Sophie Deraspe’s provocative social realist re-imagining of the Sophocles’ Greek tragedy of the same name explores universal themes of sacrifice and responsibility through the story an immigrant woman and her desperate bid for justice in contemporary Montreal.

Nahema Ricci plays Antigone, the highly intelligent woman in question, with a powerful sense of her own identity but also a vulnerability that is touching and deeply affecting in this compassionate family drama that offers another snapshot of the refugee crisis, this time in Canada. Following the murder of their parents, Antigone, her sister Ismène (Nour Belkiria), and her brothers Étéocle and Polynice, find themselves taking refuge in a cramped apartment in the working class area,  joined by their grandmother Ménécée.

But another tragedy soon follows when Étéocle gets involved in the arrest of a petty criminal and drug dealer and takes a police bullet and ends up in prison. This sense of family responsibility is also one that lies at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s New York thrillers. Made on a considerably tighter budget this less ambitious film is also set on a smaller scale, although the ideas are just as relevant: the responsible family member feeling duty bound to rescue a relative in order to secure the future for everyone else. As a woman, Antigone is also forced to deal with a male-dominated judicial and penal system which she must appose with her own set of values.

Acting as her own cinematographer and ably assisted by a female led crew, Deraspe conjures up a palpable sense of Montreal and its immigrant community in this moving piece of indie cinema. MT

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL | 5-15 SEPTEMBER 2019 

Wasp Network (2019) *** TIFF 2019

Dir: Olivier Assayas | France, Thriller

Olivier Assayas always surprises us in style, theme and genre. This Cuban-set thriller has the same energetic ambition as his other Caribbean set outing Carlos the Jackal (2010) but from then on Wasp Network buzzes in another direction altogether.

A professional pilot René González says goodbye to his wife and child as he jets off in a yellow biplane. We later discovered he has defected to the US fleeing the communist regime’s lack of opportunity and grinding poverty to live in a modern Art Deco apartments in Miami and hopes his family will join him in due course.

Not without a fight. This politically aware film sheds light on the exiles who targeted communist Cuba in the 1990s. These men are in actual fact funded spies engaged in infiltrating US-based groups opposed to Fidel Castro and sending their intelligence back home.

Saturday Fiction | Lan Xin Da Ju Yuan (2019) *** TIFF 2019

Dir: Lou Ye | Cast: Gong Li, Mark Chao, Joe Odagiri, Pascal Greggory, Tom Wlaschiha, Huang Xiangli, Ayumu Nakajima, Wang Chuanjun, Zhang Songwen | Drama, China 126′

Saturday Fiction is not as cool as it thinks in portraying the enigmatic life of a famous actress in 1941 Shanghai. Filmed in crisp black and white over the course of a week in December it sashays all over town in telling a shady tale of love and espionage in the Japanese-occupied Paris of the East where the legendary Jean You – played by Chinese actress Gong Li – has returned to star in her ex-lover’s titular play at the Lyceum Theatre in the French Consession. Rumours have it that Yu is back to free her ex-husband from the clutches of Japanese authorities but she soon becomes caught up with paternalistic French man whose intentions are ambiguous, as is everything else in this smokes and mirrors affair.

Lou Ye establishes the plush milieu from the rain-soaked opening scenes where the graceful and elegantly coutured Yu is speedily ushered into a palatial suite in the Cathay Hotel run by Saul Speyer (Tom Wlaschiha). Her ex-lover (Zhang Songwen) is excited to see her again and has cast her as a foxy Western vamp in a play about Japanese expats in 1920s China, inspired by Yokomitsu Riichi’s 1928 Shanghai,

Sumptuously dressed characters flit in and out of the picture, and it seems they all have various guises and motives up their silken sleeves: Bai Yunshang (Huang Xiangli), for example, is straight out of All About Eve but nobody seems to know her true identity. The play’s producer Mo Zhiyin (Wang Chuanjun) is dressed up to the nines in his round glasses and fedora – all he needs is a big cigar to channel Cecil B de Mille.

Yingli Ma’s script itself is based on female author Hong Ying’s 2005 bestseller Death in Shanghai. In the 1940s this is a place where only the lucky and plucky will survive and tell their tales of intrigue but there’s a flitting, episodic feel to the way Saturday Fiction plays out. Clearly intending to beguile us with intrigue and revelation Saturday Fiction eventually starts to drift away in a puff of style over substance, always retaining a demure coyness that lacks the torrid chaleur and dramatic heft of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, which was set in Shanghai just a few months after this story. Gong is nevertheless magnificent is a bewitching performance of charm and subtlety, he facial expressions conveying all we need to know. MT

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | 5 -15 September 2019

 

Nobadi (2019) *** Toronto Film Festival 2019

Dir: Kark Markovics | Drama, Austria 83’

This darkly amusing social satire premiering at this year’s TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL is the third outing for actor turned director Karl Markovics who is also turning out to quite a talent behind the camera winning awards at Cannes, Sarajevo and Zurich for his features Breathing (2011) and Superwelt (2015).

Stunningly captured on the wide screen and in crisply shot close-up his latest NOBADI has quite a few surprises up its sleeve in a story that seems at first like a less ambitious version of The Interpreter – two characters come up against each other from across the divide – but this moral fable soon takes a much darker direction plumbing the depths of the immigrant crisis for one young man from Afghanistan.

A pithy and sardonic script and a steely central performance from veteran Austrian actor Heinz Trixner make this a winner. He plays a curmudgeonly old buffer Robert Senft who grudgingly employs a desperate manual labourer down on his luck to help him dig a hole in his back yard to bury his dead dog. After beating him down on his hourly rate, he agrees to pay a measley three euros to the well-mannered Adib (gamely played by newcomer Borhanulddin Hassan Zadeh). But as works starts the old man’s character is revealed in all its complexity. Meanwhile Adib comes across as decent and biddable. But what happens next is both unexpected and tragic allowing Markovics to make some subtle but light-hearted digs at the sad state of affairs in his native Austria. MT

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL | 5-15 September 2019 WORLD PREMIERING ON SEPTEMBER 8th

 

 

Mariam (2019) ***

Wri/ Dir: Sharipa Urazbayeva | Drama 82′

Sharipa Urazbayeva’s directorial debut is a re-imagined drama based on reality and takes place in the windswept snowscapes of her homeland.

Stunningly filmed and convincingly performed by a cast of non-pros, Meruert Sabbusinova plays the lead character of Mariam fighting for survival in the remote Kazakh Steppe after her husband disappears and is presumed dead. Zhanash is resolutely a man’s world. Cut off from civilisation and 400 kilometres away from Almaty, her eldest son – who is about 12 – starts to assume his role as the head of the family now his father is gone. Because there is no body, he cannot be officially declared dead.

Mariam has to look after her young children in a home without light or water, running the small-holding and tending the cattle renting from the local farmer. Mariam cannot receive any benefits until her husband’s body is found and so she has to relinquish control over the animals and faces starvation. But providence comes to the rescue and a chance meeting soon improves her life considerably, until the past comes back to reveal how empty her existence was prior to her husband’s disappearance.

Mariam is a disarmingly simple but enjoyable film and Urazbayeva tells the story with minimal dialogue. The director met Sabbusinova via a news story she was working on for a local TV network. After looking for an actress to play the lead, she eventually decided that Sabbusinova was best suited for the part having experienced the lifestyle. Filming took place over a week allowing the crew to convey the harshness of life in this remote location dominated by men.  It’s quite shocking to experience the hardships and privations the locals face everyday in a society where women have literally no standing or power to determine their own lives. Talented cinematographer Samat Sharipova captures the wide open spaces of the Steppes allowing us to enter a world that seems so beautiful but also so hostile to those who have to make it their home. MT

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL | 7-17 AUGUST 2019

The Candidate | El Reino (2018) **

Dir.: Rodrigo Sorogoyen; Cast: Antonio de la Torre, Barbara Lennie; Spain/France 2018, 121 min.

Even Antonio de la Torre can’t save this far-fetched, fast-talking made for TV crime thriller that eventually runs out of steam due to its outlandish lack of credibility. As the reprobate politician Manuel Lopez-Vidal, he tries to cover up for the embezzlement of a party college, but the fraud soon turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg – Lopez-Vidal himself has siphoned off much more public funding than anyone else in the party, and he’s soon unceremoniously dropped by his cronies. Sending his wife and daughter off to Canada, he invests their money to pay for information which will incriminate his party’s upper echelons. With his family out of the way, he then takes up with  an old flame, TV reporter Monica Lopez (Lennie), and takes it upon himself to do the dirty work, including murder. When he finally has all the proof of his party’s criminal involvement, he is interviewed by Lopez live on television, still trying to come across as the gentleman he never was. Sadly, The Realm is a story which has been told many times before and better, and the resonance with Scorsese’s Goodfellas is clear from the start. De La Torre is at his reptilian best as the arch villain, but we can’t quite see his fat-cat politician suddenly turning into an action man, and all the other characters are one-dimensional. Overall, The Realm is nothing more than an unremarkable B-picture, dressed up with slick production values.  AS

In cinemas and on HD from 2 August 2019

The Hummingbird Project (2018) Mubi

Dir: Kim Nguyen | Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgard, Salma Hayek, Michael Mando, Sarah Goldberg | Tech thriller | US 111′

In Kim Nguyen’s ambitious financial thriller Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgard are New York tech wizards working for Salma Hayek’s Stock Exchange trading magnate.

Meanwhile the two cousins have a secret money-making plan of their own. It involves the construction of a high speed fiber-optic cable that allows information to travel in a nanosecond (the beat of a hummingbird’s wing) so stockbrokers can beat their competitors hands down.

Although it sounds rather highfaluting, this is a slick and intelligent film that explores the humanity in a high octane premise, even finding humour in those dark nights of the soul. Salma Hayek is Eva Torres, a wacky but believable City whizz babe with roots as dark as Kunta Kinti. Her ironic approach to her uptight character is one of the highlights here along with. Jesse Eisenberg whose suave sales patter barely hides an existential angst of his own and in his element as a man under pressure, fronting up a dicey operation with considerable aplomb while everything around him  is in doubt. Meanwhile Anton (Alexander Skarsgard) is the hypochondriac nerd helping him to pull off the scheme with conviction — and even though we know the project is outlandish – it very much buys into the zeitgeist. There’s a angsty atmospheric score by Yves Gourmeur that primps the tension and then mollifies it in all the right places.

Half way into the story, Vincent decides they should both resign from Torres’ employ and focus on their own project, finding investors for their new-fangled cable, and trousering the profits. But this is easier said than done, and Vincent’s tip-top negotiating skills are soon compromised by his deteriorating health.

The seemingly unfeasible project involves drilling a line horizontally under private land, a logistical nightmare that involves endless red tape and deep pockets on the financial front. Vincent schmoozes the home-owners, contractors and drillers, while Anton disappears into the world of computer coding, hilariously oblivious of his wife’s increasingly histrionic  demands. Clearly on the spectrum, Anton is mesmerised by his work,  Skarsgard fashions a fascinating portrait of emotional detachment that almost borders on autism.

Clearly Hummingbird has issues quite apart from its outlandish premise and tonal flaws, but this is an engrossing study of ambition, perseverance and the human desire to make one’s mark, however challenging, or unfeasible. Nguyen manages to humanise the much maligned world of finance and technology by deconstructing those struggling with their demons both physical and mental. He does so with a quirky vein of humour making The Hummingbird Project an enjoyable and original watch. MT

 

Float like a Butterfly (2018) ***

Dir: Carmel Winters | Drama | Ireland | 104′

Carmel Winters second feature is a poetic and gorgeously redolent coming of age drama set in the Emerald Isle of the 1960s where a young Irish Traveller has to contend with the death of her mother and an abusive father as she follows her dream of becoming a boxer like her idol Muhammad Ali.

Hazel Doupe gives a stunning performance as tomboy Hazel whose daily life in a wooden caravan with her younger brother and wayfarer father Michael (Dara Devaney) is fraught with altercations not only with the local Garda but also members of this feisty family and their old-fashioned attitudes towards gender roles that hamper her own natural pugilist talents.

With its universal themes Float Like A Butterfly has the rare quality of being utterly relevant today and yet quaintly traditional, its placid pacing capturing the slow-burning essence of a bygone era. Auteuse Carmel Winters’ writing and directing has a distinct lightness of touch which brings both gentleness and integrity to her storytelling. This is a drama that glows with the lush beauty of its verdant Irish setting untrammelled by time and enlivened by stirring folk music, suddenly catching fire in its final denouement. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE from 10 May 2019 | FIPRESCI PRIZE Winner | TIFF 2019

The Good Girls | Las Ninas Bien (2018)** Toronto Film Festival 2018

Dir.: Alejandra Marquez Abella; Cast: Ilse Salas, Flavio Medina, Paulina Gaitan; Mexico 2018, 93 min.

Alejandra Marquez Abella structurally flawed sophomore feature is an anthropologist’s dream: based on characters by Guadelupe Loaeza, a group of bitchy, upper-middle class Mexican wives who fight over the best caterer at the crowning of their entire existence: having Julio Iglesias for dinner. Led on by lead Sofia, the rest are mere cyphers and the episodic structure doesn’t help in keeping viewers engaged for the ninety minutes.

Sofia (Salas), loathes her South-American heritage: and sending her three children off to summer camp, she warns them “don’t hang out with Mexicans”. A European background is really all she and her competitors crave for. Sofia’s parties are real productions, and she seems to have married her husband Fernando (Medina) largely  because of his family’s Spanish heritage. Everything is a competition for Sofia, the smallest detail could lead to a loss of face amid her rivals. But we are in the early Eighties and the Mexican Peso suddenly bottoms out. As Sofia and her circle rely on imported goods, this is a major catastrophe. So when credit cards get refused politely and the servants don’t get paid, doom is imminent. To make matters worse, Sofia’s only real competitor, noveau-riche Ana Paula (Gaitan), is still quids in. Her default-position is resigned acceptance, but with the Peso tumbling further, even this seems to be too much.

Salas is always brilliant, cool and contained, she carries the film as much as she is able to. DoP Daniela Ludlow succeeds in conjuring up this lush environment of petty mini-me’s in meltdown, always keeps everything close and personal, despite the widescreen format. As a chickflick study of vanity and self-deceit this would be brilliant – as a feature it lacks emotional depth and an absorbing dramatic arc. AS

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL | 6 – 16 SEPTEMBER 2018
 

Angel (2018) *** Toronto Film Festival 2018

Dir: Koen Mortier | Cast: Vincent Roitiers, Fatou N’Diaye | Belgium | Thriller | 103′

A fateful encounter between a Senegalese sex worker and a world-famous Belgian racing cyclist subverts our expectations in director Koen Mortier’s (Ex Drummer) slim but atmospheric thriller.

Angel is a lushly cinematic love story pays homage to Claire Denis but lacks the sociopolitical underpinnings of her superior work. It speaks the universal language of love across the social divide where for one dreamlike night two souls meet but do not find nirvana the following morning.

Where once tribal forces held sway Senegal is now dominated by Islam and sex workers are considered low in the social pecking order, prostitute Fae (Fatou N’Diaye) meets Thierry (Vincent Rottiers) a world-renowned Belgian racing cyclist whose career has attracted scandal because of his substance abuse. Taking a break with his brother in Dakar, Thierry meets Fae in a night club, and tries to reconcile his feelings of lust with those of love at first sight. He has never paid for sex nor is he attracted by the prospect. Fae’s beauty and elegant allure captures his imagination and the two share en extraordinary encounter. But it soon becomes clear that Thierry is a damaged despite his outwardly superior professional credentials.

With its woozy surreal sensuality and hypnotic fractured narrative Angel envelopes us into an intoxicating world where nothing is a it seems as reality and fantasy collides. Its emotional arc is familiar yet exotic, touching yet troubling provocative exploration of how words can be as powerful as the realm of this senses when we fall in love. MT

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 10 SEPTEMBER 2018

 

Blindspot (2018) **** Toronto Film Festival 2018

Dir.: Tuva Novotny; Cast: Pia Tjelta, Oddgeir Thune, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Nora Mathea Æien, Ellen Heyersdahl, Per Frisch; Norway 2018, 102 min.

Tuva Novotny’s impressive and unflinching debut documents every parent’s worst nightmare. Shot in two long takes, we witness the suicide attempt of the teenage schoolgirl Thea, and the reactions of her family, as they try to cope with something they cannot understand. The most used phrase returning again and again, is “that Tea was happy”.But when an unexpected catastrophe happens, everything about their life is called into question.

Maria (Pia Tjelta), Anders (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), and their two children — Tea (Nora Mathea Øien) and son Bjorn enjoy a settling and happy life in Oslo. We during an average day playing handball at school, and walking home with her friend Anna (Heyersdale) and greeting her (step)mother Maria (Tjelta) and her little brother Bjorn in their third floor apartment, where she makes herself a sandwich, before writing a short note in her diary. She then jumps out of window. 

The second part features Maria – the camera focuses on her grief after finding her unconscious daughter in front of the apartment block. Her father Hasse (Frisch) comes to help her, calling an ambulance which takes her to hospital and the trauma team. The arrival of her biological father Anders (Christiansen) makes everything even more fraught as he is aggressive, insisting on seeing his daughter. We learn from him that Thea’s birth mother Line killed herself and was found by her daughter and father. Martin brings bad news, 

The experience of bereavement by parental suicide of children and young teenagers is not well understood, as evidenced by the lack of empirically supported interventions for this underserved sector of the population. All we know is that “there are extra layers of bereavement” for this group. The process of healing is not much helped by the fact that children have an “omnipotent” perspective and feel responsible for the death of the parent. Children under eighteen who suffer parental bereavement are three times more likely to commit suicide as children with living parents. And, for reasons not understood, girls are three times more likely to have traumatic reactions to parental suicide than boys.

DoP Jonas Alarik treats the narrative like a documentary, there is nothing superfluous in his images, particularly the close-ups are impressive, as well as Maria’s ride in the ambulance, when she is trying to understand how his could have happen to her “happy” daughter. Anders might have given a little clue, reporting at the hospital that Thea told him when she was younger “Daddy, when I die. I turn into a lovely flower you can pick and put on to the window sill”. A heart braking study of grief, flawlessly executed by Nowotny.

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 7 SEPTEMBER 2018

 

 

SAF (2018) **** Toronto Film Festival 2018

Dir.: Ali Vatansever; Cast: Saadet Isil Aksoy, Erol Afsin; Turkey/ Romania/Germany 2018, 101 min.

Ali Vatansever’s SAF is a paean to a lesser known part of Istanbul, where the denizens of the Fikirtepe district are hounded out of their homes to make way for luxury apartment blocks. Kamil’s story is symbolic of the uprooting and exploitation of ordinary working people who then resort to racism when they are unable to fight or even identify their real enemies. SAF also reminds us that racism is rife in every corner of the world where the old guard must now accommodate the newcomers.

We first meet Kamil (Afsin) at the gates of a building site. He’s a decent bloke trying to defend a Syrian émigré against his Turkish colleagues who call him a “filthy Arab who wants to take our jobs away”. The truth is Syrian workers are paid less than the native Turks, who call them scabs. Kamil finally gets a job on another building project, replacing the Syrian bulldozer driver Ammar, laid off due to a shoulder injury. At home, Kamil’s wife Remziye (Aksoy) is saving her paltry wages so she can afford to have a baby. Remziye works for a wealthy Turkish family in one of the newbuild luxury blocks. But Remziye also starts bending the rules upsetting her husband when he discovers her taking more than their fair share from the communal vegetable garden. “It does not matter that the others do it”, he tells her.

But his troubles at work are only just beginning: Kamil doesn’t have a licence to operate the bulldozer (unlike Ammar) and the licence fee – more or less a bribe to the bureaucratic authorities – is pretty steep. Fatih won’t lend him the money but the two strike a deal to try and get rid of Ammar. But after the plan goes wrong, Kamil disappears. The final scenes are played out through Remziye’s perspective.

Vatansever’s detached style never resorts to melodrama or sentimentality in showing how innocent people are often helplessly caught up in rapid social change, Their racism is ugly but is just a deflection of their own fears. Kamil tries his best to stay neutral, but in the end he is so overwhelmed by a family demanding he bends the rules for their own advantage.  SAF is carried forward by the sheer brilliance of Saadet Isil Aksoy whose Remziye acts in an enlightened and humanitarian way when the chips are down. DoP Vladimir Panduru shows the ugliness of poverty but also the lyrical poetry that lies between the tracks. With echoes of Barnet and Pudovkin’s early films. SAF is as impressive as it’s low key, Aksoy’s presence giving it a magical touch. Ali Vatansever demonstrates how less can be so much more. AS          

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2018                    

 

     

Retrospekt (2018) **** Toronto Film Festival 2018

Dir.: Esther Rots; Cast: Circe Lethem, Martijn van der Veen, Lien Wildermersch, Teun Luijkx; Netherlands/Belgium 2018, 101 min.

Esther Rots’ follow-up to Can Go Through Skin is a portrait of psychological self-destruction told through three time-lines keeping the audience enthralled but also questioning the role of its plausible characters.

Mette (Lethem) is a busy working mother who runs a domestic violence support centre while coping with the latest addition to her  family, a daughter Michelle. Her marriage is under strain with her husband Simon (van der Veen) often away on business. Aware that Lee (Wildermersch) is also having trouble with her violent boyfriend Frank, she invites the young woman to help in the centre and stay with her during one of Simon’s long absences. Needless to say, Frank finds out where Lee is hiding and when Simon returns on the same night, confrontation in unavoidable and tragic consequences ensue leaving Mette wheel-chair bound but paradoxically bringing her closer to her estranged father – who is also in a wheelchair and suffering from dementia. The pair chatting to each other in their wheelchairs, is one of the highly symbolic scenes of this affecting indie features from the Dutch writer and director.

DoP Lennart Hillege deftly manages two different styles: from hyper-realism to women-in-peril scenes where the traumatise Mette, tries to get her mind around what really happened. The continuously changing time-frames help to crate an atmosphere, where the truth –  Rashamon-style –  becomes more and buried in an ecliptic avalanche questioning our initial perceptions of the protagonists during the course of the narrative. With its score of Brecht-like songs by composer Dan Gesin, Retrospekt is a haunting and enigmatic character study. AS

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2018

Phoenix (2018) ** Toronto Film Festival

Dir.: Camilla Strom Henriksen; Cast: Yiva Bjorkaas Thedin, Caspar Falck-Lovas, Maria Bonnevie, Sverrir Gudnason, Ellen Sandal, Renate Reinsve; Norway 2018, 86 min.

First feature of writer/director Camilla Strom Henriksen’s debut feature is a variation on The Cement Garden, in this case siblings Jill and Bo are forced to grow up too quickly by parents who fail them at every turn. Despite some terrific performances, the script loses intensity in the final third.

Teenager Jill (Thedin) is used to looking after her divorced mother Astrid (Bonnevie) and much younger brother Bo (Falck-Lovas). Astrid is desperate to succeed as a painted and insists that the whole flat is permanently cast in semi-darkness, the many-layered curtains letting in little light. She spends most of her time in bed, dependent on alcohol and prescription drugs. Her friend Ellen (Sandal) talks the local museum’s director into giving Astrid a chance: she is the only applicant for a job. Jill tries to make her mother’s first public appearance in a long time a success, buying her a white blouse. But Astrid is scathing about her daughter’s efforts: “You make me look like a director’s wife, why don’t don’t you wear it yourself, you are so proper”.

Then father Nils (Gudnason), a musician, promises to visit on Jill’s birthday. Jill is ecstatic, ready to be pampered for once. But she soon finds out, that her mother skipped the interview and later finds her dead in the basement. Not wishing to ruin her birthday Jill locks the cellar door and pretends that her mother is missing. Unfortunately for both Jill and the audience, the night out with her father and his new girl friend Kristin (Reinsve), turns out to be a disaster culminating in the admission that he is not going to tour Brazil for six months, but starting a prison sentence for drunk driving. After this bombshell, Phoenix starts to lose its narrative thrust.

Thedin is brilliant in her role as parenting teenager who morphs into a much older act to ‘seduce’ her father in taking her with him to Brazil. DoP Ragna Jorming creates some surreal images in the darkened flat where Jill sees – literally – monsters creeping around. The scenes in the ultra modern hotel where Nils takes his children are overcooked but chime with the plot’s loss of direction. As long as the action stays indoors, Strom Henriksen can not do wrong – afterwards, alas it all crumbles. AS

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2018

https://youtu.be/jk0bA3sf8-Q

The Senator | Chappaquiddick (2017) *** | Digital HD DVD

Dir John Curran | Cast: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Taylor Nichols, Olivia Thirlby, Bruce Dern | US | Political Drama | 97′

The Senator looks swanky enough with its Ivy League Sixties aesthetic but as a gripping account of when Ted Kennedy (Clarke) had a car accident in Chappaquiddick, Martha’s Vineyard that led to the death of campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne (Mara), it’s a pretty flaccid affair.

And that’s no fault of these two versatile actors – Jason Clarke is a dead ringer for Ted, and Mara makes a cool but brief appearance as Mary Jo – or a decent cast that includes veteran Bruce Dern who do their utmost to serve this legendary incident in American 20th century history, that, on the face of it, offers luridly exciting dramatic potential with its themes of adultery, sexual shenanigans, cover-ups and dirty politics in an era fraught with glamour and intrigue. Not least is the fact that Ted Kennedy kept the whole thing under wraps from the authorities – or even his advisors, for a 10 whole hours, even enjoying a night’s sleep before spilling the beans about the mishap and his colleague’s disappearance.

Yet Curran plays all these explosive elements down to offer a sober, morose, almost worthy, drama that adopts a near religious respect to the scandal that rocked the final knockings of the Sixties, and debatably put paid to Ted’s Kennedy’s political career. In the event, the whole episode was buried under the breaking news of the first moon landing two days later.

Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan’s debut script plays out like a tame crime procedural maintaining that because the tragedy took place on Kennedy home soil in Massachusetts, it was possible to stage manage the incident and keep the incendiary potential underwater, drowning most of the scandal along with its sorry victim, who was only 28 at the time. What is not played down however is the strongly patriarchal influence of a frail Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) who continued to pull rank on his son: despite being semi-gaga and confined to a wheelchair he manages to deflate his progeny with a potent allure.

Curran and his writers make no attempt to elaborate or delve deeper into the well-known facts – that Ted was offering Mary Jo a lift home from an ordinary campaign evening when his car left a bridge and somersaulted into the shallow river below. Kennedy escaped but did not rescue Mary Jo, claiming amnesia brought on by shock. After getting a metaphorical clip round the ear from pater during a telephone call where he asks for advice, Ted then disappears into the bosom of his family as advisors close ranks around him.

What transpires, unsurprisingly, is that this powerful US scion appears to be above the law: Curran shows Ted to be a rather spineless individual whose ill-conceived decision to don a neck brace for Mary Jo’s funeral also proves him to be rather narcissistic and lacking in integrity. In the event, Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a crash causing personal injury and got away lightly with a two-year suspended sentence.

With its sonorous score by Garth Stevenson, The Senator offers decent but rather lacklustre viewing, and while it will certainly enlighten those not familiar with the story, it hardly sets the night on fire with what could have been an incendiary political thriller. MT

NOW ON DIGITAL HD AND DVD from 20 AUGUST 2018

 

 

What Will People Say (2017) | Dubai Film Festival 2017

Dir|Writer: Iram Haq | Cast: Adil Hussain, Maria Mozhdah, Ekavali Khanna, Rohit Saraf  | Norwegian/Urdu | 106′ | Drama

 Actor/director Iram Haq’s impressive sophomore title WHAT WILL PEOPLE SAY plays out as a grippingly atmospheric thriller in which a beautiful young Pakistani girl plays the enigmatic and wilful heroine. Screening as a world premiere at this year’s Toronto, it offers refreshing and intriguing take on what could otherwise have been just another story about cross cultural conflict and tragedy or even wander down a fashionable politically correct route.

 Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) is leading a double life — at home she is obedient to her traditional Pakistani father – played masterfully here by Adil Hussain (Lunchbox) – but to her friends she is a typical Norwegian teenager, hanging out in bars, dating and spending her time on her phone. But her father catches her flirting with a boyfriend upstairs in the family home one day and brings her world crashing down in a fit of anger, brutally disassociating himself from her behaviour, and taking her off to his family in Pakistan (the locations are actually India).

 Haq makes great use of an atmospheric soundtrack to telegraph doom and despair in this often sinister story which makes great use of its snowbound and exotic locations. India looks stunning in Nadim Carlsen’s beautifully composed shots captured both on the widescreen and in intimate jewel-like settings. Apart from the strong central cast, Haq uses periphery characters to warn of danger, tempt and tease a girl who rapidly has to adapt from her Western lifestyle to the world of a closeted and protected unmarried woman in a highly restrictive Muslim-dominated society.

 Sadly, Nisha is rather underwritten as a character – whether by intent in respect of cultural traditions or by omission – it’s never quite sure, but strangely this works to the film’s advantage and Haq makes her character come alive a way that feels both authentic and beguiling. Yer we feel for Hussain’s father figure who internally struggles with his duty as a traditional father requiring him to impose draconian measures on his daughter while he still clearly loves her – it’s a tough role but Hussain pulls it off with dignity, strangely evoking our respect and sympathy in this shocking and convincing arthouse parable that lifts the lid on a society that still adheres blindly to its traditions. MT

DUBAI FILM FESTIVAL | 6-13 DECEMBER 2017
https://youtu.be/b8_dBOzufWQ

Disappearance (2017) Verdwijnen | Toronto International Film Festival 2017

Dir.: Boudewijn Koole; Cast: Rifka Lodeizen, Elsie De Brauw, Marcus Hanssen, Jacob Oftebro; Netherlands/Norway 2017, 92 min.

Set in the frozen Norwegian countryside, this chilling portrait of a dysfunctional family is a death dance, performed without mercy, leaving the audience devasted by the waste of human lives. But director Boudewijn Koole (Kauwboy) never allows any sentimentality to develop: he observes his characters with clinical detachment, withholding  judgement at all times.

Roos (Lodeizen) is an internationally renowned photographer who regularly visits her mother Louise (De Brauw) and half brother Bengt (Hanssen) in the Norwegian remote wilderness. We soon learn from Bengt that the last visit ended in a fight between mother and daughter, with Roos leaving, without saying good-bye to Bengt. The mother-daughter relationship seems beyond repair: When she was a little girl Roos chose to live with her father, after he left Louise for another woman. But Louise, a former ‘Wunderkind’ and now a piano teacher, is more concerned that Roos has given up the piano and chosen another profession. For Louise, this is a double betrayal – but one she can’t admit to. Struggling to gain her mothers acceptance, and feeling unloved, won’t confess to a serious illness. After a brief dalliance with her ex (Oftebro) in the back of his car, she nearly reveals her unspecified illness (we suspect cancer, because she is examines her breasts at length), but she finally opens up to her mother after another fight which ends badly. Strangely enough, Roos’ refusal to have further treatment, brings mother and daughter together, leading to an overwhelmingly moving finale.

There are some lyrical moments between Roos and Johnny on the ice, where they dance to the pop music of their youth, trying to recreate a past they have both left behind. Nature and animals seem, overall, to promise much more peaceful relationships than humans. Bengt uses Roos’ present of a very sophisticated microphone to bring the ice to “sing”. And Roos is very fond of her mother’s dogs – much more than of their owner. Neither Roos nor her mother are able to give each other unconditional love: they can only love their “mini-self’ in a non-adult way. But they deny their love to the grown-up versions of others. Mother and daughter are both familiar with the idea of loving, but are not able to accept that they are both very different people – and thus, each denies the other’s right to live a different way of life.

Koole has already collaborated with the writer Jolein Laarman on Kauwboy, and uses his script successfully to show, without spare dialogue, the inability of two adults to find a modus vivendi. DoP Melle van Essen’s landscapes are much more powerful than the struggling people who inhabit them, Disappearance is a study of denial, played out against the majestic backdrop of nature. AS

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 7-17 SEPTEMBER 2017

 

Soldiers: A Story of Ferentari | Toronto Film Festival 2017

SOLDIERS, A STORY OF FERENTARI (SOLDATI, POVESTE DIN FERENTARI)

Dir.: Ivana Mladenovic; Cast: Adrian Schiop, Vasile Pavel, Nicolae Marin, Cezar Grumarescu; Romania/Serbia/Belgium 2017, 120 min.

Ivana Mladenovic daring screen debut has an emotional directness which stuns and captivates throughout its two hour running time. Based on Adrian Schiop’s novel about a gay amour fou in one of the roughest suburbs of Bucharest, it combines gay and gypsy issues in a country not known for its tolerance towards minorities.

Schiop also stars as Adi, a shy introvert in his early forties, who is writing a PHD thesis on manele, the popular gypsy music. Adi has no idea that the Ferentari musicians are often exploited by the local mafia, who treat them like slaves. When Adi meets Borcan (Marin), one of the small time Mafiosi, he is introduced to his ‘servant’ Alberto ‘Berti’ (Pavel), a gypsy, who is about Adi’s age, and has spent more than half of his life in jail. Berti soon moves in with Adi, who shares a flat with his translator friend Vasi (Grumarescu) and his girl friend. Being rather naïve, Adi doesn’t appreciate that the couple find the rather rough ex-con difficult to deal and they soon move out, leaving Adi “to his hobos homos”.

Adi has to pay all the rent, and his financial pressure is compounded by Berti’s rampant slot machine habit. Whilst Adi tries to work for non-profit organisations to make up for Berti’s losses, his lover becomes increasingly need y and demanding, wanting permanent attention, and developing psychosomatic issues for Adi to deal with. But Adi enjoys the constant emotional neediness – it makes him feel important and after being dumped by his previous relationship. Before long though the two come to blows. Adi throwing Berti out of the flat, but then welcoming him back. Clearly he has become obsessed by him and needs to decide whether to end the relationship or continue with the toxic terror.

DoP Luchian Ciobanu has filmed the Soldiers on intimate close-up with a handheld camera creating a claustrophobia that feels convincing and real, capturing the confines of the small apartment. But even when the pair go out and about the camera follows them slavishly, showing how co-dependent their partnership really is. The poverty is grim, the streets lined with hovels which are sometimes ruthlessly removed by bulldozers. There is no political message here, Mladenovic’s fly on the wall treatment of this lost souls affair is shown relentlessly and passionately with no holds barred. Soldiers is an emotional rollercoaster, authentically performed and confidently directed. Mladenovic shows great promise for the future. AS

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL | 7-17 SEPTEMBER 2017

Valley of Shadows | Skyggenes Dal (2017) | Toronto Film Festival 2017

Dir:  Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen | Cast: Adam Ekeli, Kathrine Fagerland | Fantasy Horror | Norway 91′

A young boy ventures into the forest in search of mysterious creatures that eat sheep, in this eerie Scandinavian Gothic fable that uses an unsettling score and an atmospheric sense of place to explore how most of our deepest fears and insecurities often stem from quite banal and explicable childhood experiences.

Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen fantasy drama unfurls poetically in the remote forests of Norway. Aslak, struggling to connect with his mother, with no father or siblings around, spends most of his time alone alone as his mother has suffered some recent tragedy. Unable to understand or connect with the present, Aslak escapes into a world of fantasy in order to make some sense of his unstable family life and strange events going on in his neighbourhood. Livestock is being slaughtered, and while the local farmers suspect a wolf, Aslak’s fertile imagination goes into overdrive imagining werewolves and other folkloric happenings in the remote woodland surrounding his home in Norway.

Beautifully captured on the widescreen and in intimate close-up by the director’s brother Marius, Valley of Shadows links into Norwegian and European literary and artistic sources to show how kids often endow the explicable and even banal world of adults with a sense of fantasy or even horror, when seen from their own febrile, almost feral perspective. This exotic and rich emotional breeding ground of childhood imagination has given rise to a fabulous creative force resulting in fairytales based on folklore and nature and to deal and explain everyday feelings of loss, fear and bewilderment. And Gulbrandsen has used this fascinating childhood world as the idea for a fantasy drama.

Adam Ekeli is brilliant as the hyper intelligent and wildly suggestible young Aslak whose bewilderment and fertile imagination transform a simple wander through a misty Norwegian wood into a waking nightmare of  Gothic horror proportions. The film is exquisitely captured from his gently sensationalist point of view. Working as his own DoP Gulbrandsen collaborates with editor and scripter Clement Tuffreau to create a work of ethereal beauty with an extremely modest budget, and a very simple narrative enlivened by a score from Polish film composer Zbigniew Preisner, best known for his work with film director Krzysztof Kieślowski.

Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen was born in Bjørkelangen, Norway, and he studied directing at the Polish National Film School in Lodz. He is the director of the shorts Darek (09) and Everything Will Be OK (11). Valley of the Shadows (17) is his debut feature film.

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL 2017 | 7-17 SEPTEMBER 2017

In the Blood (2016) | I Blodet | 5th Nordic Baltic Film Festival

Writer/Director: Rasmus Heisterberg | 104min | Denmark | Drama

Award-winning of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and A Royal Affair Rasmas Heisterberg gets behind the camera for his directorial debut IN THE BLOOD with some success, although his scathing critique of Copenhagen’s student medical elite fails to reach a satisfying conclusion, feeling more like a freewheeling mood piece capturing the zeitgeist of Summer in Nørrebro, in an alcoholic haze.

His film follows medic in the making Simon (Kristoffer Bech), a brilliant but compulsive student who breezes through exams and spends the evenings partying before heading to the Amazon for a study year with his best friend Knud (Elliott Crosset Hove), an introspective softie whose longtime girlfriend, Mia (Lea Gregersen) leaves him in the opening scenes.

Heisterberg captures the dreamy days of summer and really gets inside the characters concerned. Intimate and even claustrophobic, in a good way – it’s a superb portrait of young middle class privilege where self-centredness and blasé ennui takes centre stage. Knud is the most likeable character and Heisterberg conveys his emotional vulnerability in a role earnestly captured by Elliott Crosset Hove. Simon is less appealing: When caught stealing medical equipment he thinks only of his trip rather than showing any remorse, then becomes obsessed with bar worker Emilie but rather messes her around. This is a soulful and resonating drama that explores its characters effectively without becoming melodramatic or intense. MT

THE NORDIC BALTIC FILM FESTIVAL 1-11 DECEMBER 2016

 

Clair Obscur | Tereddut (2016)

Dir.: Yesim Ustaglu; Cast: Funda Eryigit, Ecem Uzum, Mehmet Kurtulus, Okan Yalabik, Serkan Kesucin, Sema Poyraz

100min | Turkey/Poland/France 2016 | Drama

Writer/director Ysim Ustaglu is known for her soulful portraits of characters in challenging circumstances in Turkey. Her latest Clair Obscur is about two women who, at first sight, seem to have very little in common. But as the harrowing narrative unfolds we learn a lot about the fate of many women in Muslim society – regardless of their social status.

Shenaz (Eryigit) works as a psychiatrist in a hospital in small seaside town. One of her patients, a teenager called Elmas (Uzun), has been found one morning on the balcony of the flat she shared with her husband, Koca (Kesucin) and her mother-in-law Kaynana (Poyraz). The older woman, a diabetic, is found dead in her bed, while Koca died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Elmas seems to have no memory of the night in question, but Shenaz works patiently with her to unblock her memory.

It soon emerges that Elmas had to marry her husband, who was in his forties, when she was only thirteen. Her father had her passport changed, and she was literally carted off straight from school. From the first days of their marriage, Koca literally rapes Elmas every night, causing her physical and emotional distress. Shenaz doesn’t fare much better, despite her more privileged background. Her jealous boyfriend is a great cook but a lousy lover who tries to control her. But when Shenaz finally finds someone else, her boyfriend threatens to kill Shenaz and himself.

Clair Obscur is a sensitively told drama but some may find it too opaque and ambiguous; the relationship between Shenaz and the two men in her life only becomes clear at the very end. And her therapy sessions with Elmas show positive results in days – this would take months or even years in a real setting. Still, Eryigit and Uzun are convincing as the two distraught women, and DoP Michael Hammon makes the claustrophobia of their marginalised lives seem real despite its modern day setting, using muted colours in the maritime locations. Clair Oscur is similar in tone to the work of Ustaglu’s fellow countryman Nuri Bilge Ceylan, presenting a unique female voice from Turkey. AS

CLAIR OSCUR won the Golden Tulip Award |  Best Feature | Antalya Film Festival 2016

Toronto Film Festival 2016 | Autumn World premieres

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL runs from 8 September until 18 September and follows in the wake of VENICE (31 August – 10 September) with a new crop of world premieres and a chance to catch up on the latest films from Cannes and Venice earlier in the Summer.

snowden copyAll the gala titles are world premieres, except for Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL, a sci-fi drama starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, and Jeff Nichols’ interracial drama LOVING, which has Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, and prems at Venice.

The festival opens with Antoine Fugua’s version of the bounty hunting epic adventure THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN starring Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, and the closing film is Kelly Fremon’s directorial debut THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, a comedy drama exploring teenage awkwardness and angst.

World premiers include Oliver Stone’s long-awaited biopic SNOWDEN (left) with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the NSA whistleblower and Rob Reiner’s LBJ, a drama that shines light on the life  former president Lyndon Johnson played by Woody Harrelsen. It also stars Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bill Pullman and Richard Jenkins.

Music lovers will be delighted by the inclusion of OLÉ OLÉ OLÉ, Paul Dugdale’s biopic that follows The Rolling Stones’ Latin American and Jonathan Demme’s latest: a concert film about Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience World Tour, Las Vegas concert, entitled JT + THE TENNESSEE KIDS.

Katherine Dieckmann’s STRANGE WEATHER, a drama set in the Deep South stars Holly Hunter and Rooney Mara is cast in the leading role as a mental patient in Jim Sheridan’s THE SECRET SCRIPTURE. She also stars alongside Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel in Garth Davis’ LION which is based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiographical novel A Long Way Home that follows a 5-year-old Indian boy through the streets of Kolkata, eventually ending up in Australia.

Two British film will premiere this year at TIFF. THEIR FINEST directed by Lone Scherfig, has Sam Clafin and Gemma Arterton and A UNITED KINGDOM, Amma Asante’s drama starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. The French will be represented by Grand Central helmer Rebecca Zlotowski whose PLANETARIUM again stars Lea Seydoux in a story about two sisters (Lily Rose Depp) with supernatural ability.

There will finally be a chance to see Werner Herzog’s latest, hot from Shanghai, SALT AND FIRE is a disaster film that stars Michael Shannon and Gael Garcia Bernal, and Mick Jackson’s Holocaust-themed drama DENIAL which stars Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall.

BIRTH OF THE DRAGON | George Nolfi

CITY OF TINY LIGHTS | Peter Travis | Billie Piper

KING OF THE DANCEHALL | Nick Cannon |

SING | Garth Jennings | Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson

THE JOURNEY | Nick Hamm | Colm Meaney, Timothy Spall

TRESPASS AGAINST US | Adam Smith | Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson

THE WASTED TIMES | Zhang Ziyi, Ge You

I AM NOT MADAME BOVARY | Feng Xiaogang

ORPHAN | Arnaud des Pallieres |  Gemma Arterton and Adele Haenel

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM | Juan Carlos Medina | Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke.

The Toronto International Film Festival | 8-18 SEPTEMBER 2016

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