My review of Michael Franti’s stirring documentary Stay Human is over at FilmInk. The film, out today (25 Jan) is a look at how to stay positive in an ever-changing and challenging world.
Everyone loves lists at the end of the year, rrriggght ?
Here are the my top 10 films I’ve seen in 2018.
Lean on Pete
My review of WW1 drama Journey’s End is over at FilmINK and below.
The sheer horror of the first World War is captured in sobering detail in this quietly moving adaptation of a powerfully emotive play of the same name. First performed in 1928, just ten years after the end of the war, R.C. Sherriff’s drama brought the reality of the anxiety and claustrophobia of trench warfare to theatre-goers.
This film is the fourth cinematic outing for the story. Directed with intensity by Saul Dibb (The Duchess) and featuring a collection of memorable performances, Journey’s End is the story of a contingent of British soldiers in France waiting for a German attack.
The young and inexperienced officer Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) is keen to see the war for himself. He also wants to meet up with former school house-master and potential brother-in-law Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), a leader with rapidly diminishing coping skills and a perspective overwhelmed by anger and alcohol.
Raleigh is soon introduced to the other members of the group, including the wise and peacefully dejected former school teacher Osbourne (Paul Bettany) and the no-nonsense plain speaking Trotter (Stephen Graham). Some brief moments of gallows humour are also provided by the less than 3 hat culinary offerings from the trench cook Private Mason (Toby Jones).
While the jumping off point for the story is undoubtedly Raleigh’s swift education in the ways of the war, and the blood, mud and scent of death that accompany it, it is as the film moves on to the unbearable wait for the attack that it really comes into its own. The mental unravelling of Stanhope is agonising to watch. Claflin does an excellent job in creating this eminently believable character of a man as close as can be to absolute breaking point.
The injustices of how soldiers were contemptuously treated as little more than statistics by the ruling elite is also strongly focused on. While the soldiers dine on tinned fruit and tea with bits of onion in it, the generals are served formal dinners and fine wine. Food and drink becomes an obsession with the men, as the torturous wait goes on with little to alleviate it but more alcohol.
The timeless story of conflict and assessing the value of life and death is shown in all its power. Asking all sorts of questions of nationality and patriotism 100 years after the culmination of World War One, Journey’s End provides a stark retelling of the grim truth of that most senseless of conflicts.
Review of A Prayer Before Dawn is over at FilmINK and below.
Based on the real-life accounts of boxer Billy Moore, A Prayer Before Dawn delivers a powerful message on the dangers of drugs – and more importantly… getting caught with them in the wrong place.
The place in question is Thailand, where Moore – portrayed with vigour and sensitivity by Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders) – has been working as a bodyguard in between boxing matches. He also spends time partaking in the smoking of local drug yaba, a crushing addiction that leads to him being busted and thrown behind bars.
Billy’s confusion in the prison is well brought out. The Thai spoken by guards and inmates is not subtitled, meaning the audience is in much the same position as Billy, relying on context and body language to discover what is being said. Luckily for us though, we don’t experience first hand the slaps and kicks.
The young Englishman’s rage at being imprisoned needs to have an outlet, and he begs to be allowed to train with the kickboxing team. His prowess is quickly recognised and a chance at survival and even release from prison hell is offered when he is allowed to compete in the inter-prison Muay Thai boxing tournament.
Billy is then packed off to another prison, where they swap subtitled stories of the grim deeds they did to end up there. Some of these conversations are delivered by real life ex-cons, so there is a provocative and alarming documentary quality about these scenes.
The fights themselves have a demonic circus atmosphere about them, with intensely maddening pipe music played over the speaker systems to accompany the blood and sweat. The close ups of whirling heads and flying fists (and feet) launch the spectator right into the heart of battle. It’s anything but a pretty sight.
The fights in the ring are gruelling enough, but the real challenge for the viewer is when the film details the violence in the prison itself. Painful and at points almost unwatchable, the film illustrates the suffering experienced by the prey of predators within a deeply flawed system.
Calling to mind something of the torment of ‘70s prison drama Midnight Express, but with the added confusion of blistering kickboxing bouts, A Prayer Before Dawnis a resolutely tough watch. But it’s also one that rewards, with the hope of redemption and rebirth.
My review of The Insult is over at FilmInk and below…
The tension and resentments of opposing political and religious viewpoints are taken down to everyday street level in The Insult, an impressive overview of the political and religious arguments in Lebanon and the Middle East.
The film takes a petty argument between two men as its central starting point, an argument that becomes far greater and serves as a distillation of conflicts between Christians and Muslims, Lebanese and Palestinian, and pretty much everything in between.
The problems all start in Beirut, where Lebanese Christian garage owner Tony (Adel Karam) is watering his plants on his balcony garden. Some workmen, including the Palestinian refugee Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), happen to be nearby on the road below. When some water drips down onto Yasser, he demands that the drain is fixed straight away. When he sees that it hasn’t been, he calls in his team to fix it properly.
Tony lives in the apartment with his pregnant wife Shirine (Rita Hayek) and does not want any work to be going on while she is there. The workmen are modifying the faulty guttering system on the building and claim every right to be there. Tony disagrees and smashes up the gutter in a fit of rage. Yasser calls him a ‘fucking prick’ (or words to that effect) to which Tony demands an official apology.
Yasser’s employers eventually manage to persuade him to go to Tony’s garage to apologise for the insult. But once he gets there, he finds a riled-up Tony listening to anti-Palestinian diatribe on his radio. Yasser grits his teeth and nearly gets the sorry out, but then Tony drops the verbal bombshell: “I wish Ariel Sharon had wiped you all out.” And in that line, all of the animosity and ill-feeing of decades between opposing states and religions is boiled down to its core. The film in effect then asks the question, how did it get to be so?
Ziad Doueiri, a former camera assistant who worked in the US on movies including Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, gets the escalating threat and feel of the courtroom drama down perfectly.
Nominated for and just missing out on a Best Foreign Language film at this year’s Oscars, The Insult is a gripping drama that offers plenty of food for thought. While there are more questions than answers, the audience is at least left with the sense that, for better or worse, real individuals with their own motivations, prejudices and private histories will make the decisions that create or destroy peace and understanding.
My review of French comedy C’est La Vie is over at FilmInk and below…
The high stress, anxiety and emotion of planning a wedding reception is explored in this French comedy of manners.
Nakache and Toledano’s (The Intouchables, Samba) film follows experienced caterer Max (Jean-Pierre Bacri) as he attempts to throw a lavish wedding reception for Helena and Pierre in a grand 17th century chateau. He has delivered hundreds of wedding receptions in the past, all without a problem. What could possibly go wrong?
Pretty much everything as it turns out. Max and his team have been tasked with creating an event that is ‘sober, chic and elegant’. But we wouldn’t be left with much of a story if that was the outcome. Instead, farcical moments keep coming thick and fast, as we go from one pratfall to another. Max’s face displays a fixed grin at times, with the tension of the night threatening to explode at any moment.
He constantly instructs the staff to ‘adapt’, even when there are power outages and the only way to stave off guests’ hunger is with pastries and sparkling water.
Although the film is humorous by nature, with elements of slapstick tied in, it also has a sensitive humanitarian value at its heart. The stories of the players allow for a good measure of social realism to tincture the laughs, with Vincent Macaigne’s nervous-breakdown recovering teacher, Alban Ivanov’s clueless cook and Jean-Pierre Rouve’s lost photographer all played with heartfelt compassion.
A key feature of the film is that all the characters are largely sympathetic. Even when they are lashing out at each other, there’s always a perceivable reason why. So, when the party entertainer James (Gilles Lellouche) and Max’s assistant Adele (Eye Hadira) are sniping at each other in ever more comic and snarky tones, we always know why and appreciate the characters of both.
The element of reality keeps even the more absurd comic scenes firmly grounded, with subtly deployed scripting and cinematography offering the audience an insight into the characters’ inner lives. Dramatic internal struggles are touched upon and artfully hinted at, and we are left with a story of believable people with realistic concerns and aims.
Ultimately though, it’s a roaring good comedy which does far more for French film than it does for the wedding reception industry, which looks like bloody hard work. Still, c’est la vie…
My review of the fantastic Swedish film ‘Amateurs’ showing at the Scandinavian Film Festival across Australia is over at Filmink and below:
A standout in this year’s festival, the Swedish film Amateurs is a delightfully crafted drama embracing community spirit and small-town activism.
Gabriela Pichler’s second feature (after her 2012 film Eat, Sleep, Die) focuses on the fictional region of Lafors, as its townsfolk have a month to produce a film to herald a low-cost German supermarket chain opening a new shop in the area.
This great premise allows Pichler to explore the small town in detail, both through the town council’s approved PR film as well as films submitted by local high school kids. These range from a Tarantino style shoot out to a wistful emotional fragment of tormented verse captured shakily on camera.
Two of these high school students, Aida (Zahraa Aldoujaili) and Dana (Yara Aliadotter) both children of immigrant families, are the shining lights of this fantastically effective film, showing us the true Lafors experience, as opposed to the diluted and sanctioned version.
The film brilliantly uses the handheld process of the girls’ filming and interposes it with the ongoing film of their parents’ reactions to them getting into trouble by being too forthright in their interviewing techniques. While Dana’s well to do family are supportive of her creativity, Aida’s mother is fearful of losing her cleaning job because of the girl’s hijinx. Class differences and the threat of racial prejudice hangs in the air, and the further we go into the realities of the place, the more this comes out.
Aida’s mother’s view of the town and Sweden is caught on her daughter’s camera as she takes a brief break from cleaning the council offices. Her daughter asks her what the most Lafors thing is to her and she answers poignantly that it is ‘the air, the wind, the sound of the water’. It is just another remarkable moment in this compelling feature that has so many affecting scenes.
The councilman entrusted with the film’s production is Musse (a fantastic Fredrik Dahl, in his first screen performance), also the child of an immigrant. His mother is suffering from a form of dementia and has forgotten the Swedish she was once fluent in. As it was the language Musse’s family spoke at home, he never learned Tamil, the only language his mother can now speak. Their scenes together beautifully pinpoint the importance of communication, and how some things cannot be expressed with words.
Even when the film gets into the murky territory of local politics and identity, it succeeds in creating a show of how there are universal problems and universal solutions to all kinds of difficulties. From the economic hardships experienced by small towns everywhere as industries die and unravel, to the challenges faced by new arrivals to distant lands, Amateurs is a skillfully wrought depiction of a modern fable. It is a heart-warming and energetic show of humanity, taking in the power of art and film, culture and language, and more than anything else, friendship. It’s a film to treasure.
My review of Ása Helga Hjörleifsdótirr’s poetic film The Swan is over at Filmink and below :
A girl alone in the wild nature of the world and a girl alone with her thoughts in a beguiling and disruptive atmosphere. Two sides of the same coin in this magical debut feature from Ása Helga Hjörleifsdótirr, which draws on Icelandic folk tales and dreamworlds to produce an enchanting film of subtle intensity.
The ethereal landscape of rural Iceland is beautifully captured in a film seen almost exclusively from the point of view of the girl in question, rebellious nine-year-old Sól (Gríma Valsdóttir). She has been packed off to her great aunt and uncle’s in the countryside after being caught shoplifting.
“You don’t have the eyes of a thief,” are her great aunt’s welcoming words on her arrival, and the tone doesn’t get much easier for Sól, often preferring to converse with the farm animals rather than the local villagers.
One person she does find a connection with is seasonal farmhand Jón (Thor Kristjansson), a troubled young man who spends his nights penning extended diary entries that Sól can only begin to guess at the meaning of. Both characters feel hard done by the world and uncomfortable with the day to day business of the farm. It is in the untamed and enchanting surroundings of the hills, valleys and waterside that they find some brief respite from the pain of normal life.
Further disturbance to Sól’s reading of the day-to-day is brought with the appearance of her cousin Ásta (Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir). Pregnant and harbouring secrets, she becomes a muse for Sól’s more poetic and dramatic thoughts. The girl empathises with the young woman’s dilemma of whether to give birth to a fatherless child, even as she struggles to comprehend the full implications of it.
All across the film, Sól is given a crash course in just how tough adult life can be. Blood spills onto the flowers and in the farmland, where life is merely surviving and things either have a usefulness and purpose or they don’t.
The film blends the internal thoughts of Sól with dramatic shots of the impressive vistas of Iceland’s rural beauty to great effect. Even when the tone of the story threatens to get too bleak, there is always the idea of the unconstrained natural world coming to the rescue. The darkest of human thoughts and activities can pale and lose their power in the face of the power of nature. A sobering thought, brought to bear by this unusual and memorably reflective drama.