Category Archives: Film Reviews

Film Review – Ramen Shop

My review of Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop is over at FilmINK and below.

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The power of food and travel is brought to life in this emotive drama from Singaporean director Eric Khoo. Exploring the cultural exchange between Japan and Singapore, as well as a glimpse of the troubling war time history, Ramen Shop explores the desire to understand more about personal history and identity.

The story centres on Masato (Saito), a Japanese Ramen chef driven to discover more about his parents’ past after his father passes away. Through a love of Singaporean flavours and cooking, and the following of Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) food blog, the young man takes swift steps to discover his family’s past, travelling to Singapore to find out more about his history and the country’s cooking styles.

The film delights in showcasing the various stages of preparing tasty looking dishes, but it does so with real purpose and becomes a lot more than just a food magazine show. Food and the meaning of culinary enjoyment takes on a wider scope here as Masato, with Mei Lian’s help, uncovers more of the truth and attempts to heal rifts caused by painful memories.

The pure value of food and cooking is proven as Masato finds out more about Ramen Teh – a blending of Japanese ramen and Singaporean bak kut teh, a type of tea made with pork bone. The mixture of the two nations is similarly part of his own life, with his father having left Japan for Singapore to become a chef. It is here that he met Masato’s mother (Seiko Matsuda). The couple’s relationship was not favoured by Masato’s grandmother, a proud Singaporean lady who experienced firsthand the terror of Japanese occupation during the war. Masato’s parents then left for Japan, where Masato was born and lived ever since.

It is this combination of personal history and the importance of food as a cultural signifier that makes the film both entertaining and informative. Ramen Shop does not shy away from difficult areas; an account of brutality witnessed during the occupation is heard during a visit to the city history museum, and the gravity of trying to understand history and its effects is given due gravity.

Effective too is the power of a love never known, in Masato’s case his mother’s, who became ill when he was still a young child. Her diary and notes speak to him across the void, and tells him of the soothing strength of nature and landscape. This is translated onto film in gorgeous style, with the breeze rolling across fields and meadows as her voice gently intones her poetry and life essence to Masato. Calming and thoughtful, Ramen Shop is a film to be savoured.

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Film Review – A Prayer Before Dawn

Review of A Prayer Before Dawn is over at FilmINK and below.

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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.

 

 

Three Identical Strangers – Film Review

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My review of the haunting feature documentary film Three Identical Strangers is over at FilmInk and below.

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The remarkable story of Three Identical Strangers presents an almost unbelievable tale of coincidence, family and scientific conduct. While it’s true that the compelling documentary has the age-old ‘nature vs nurture’ debate at its core, it also takes a wide-angled view of modern society in detail; bringing a clear focus to the world of media, advertising and science.

The film opens with a close-up of Robert Shafran, a man in his 50s, recounting his  first day on campus at Community College as a 19 year old back in 1980. It was unusual, to say the least. Kids kept on coming up to him as if they knew him. Girls kissed him on the cheek. He was an all-round popular guy, not the kind of thing the slightly reserved Shafran would have expected at a new place where no one knew him.

Except they did know him, or at least someone who looked exactly like him. As it turned out Robert soon acquired some help from a fellow student named Michael Domnitz, who believed he had the answer. His best friend Eddy.

And from then on, it’s one explosive revelation after another, as the film takes in the fascinating story of Robert, Eddy, and a third identical brother, David. Told in a combination of narrative exposition to camera and recreated dramatic scenes, the film is a masterclass in how to tell a story that seems too strange to actually be true.

The film brilliantly takes the audience through what happened after the reunion of the three brothers and the media fame of the early 1980s that followed. Chat show appearances, a cameo in the Madonna starring Desperately Seeking Susan and a rock and roll New York lifestyle is all depicted energetically.

This first section of the film is jovial enough. The boys all seemed happy to be part of a triple set and loved living the high life of tabloid celebrity in the big city. They also tended to act in similar ways and have the same likes and preferences. Reality begins to set in after a while though, and things take a far darker twist.

Everything about the brothers is all captured in close-up and in sharp detail. Not only all of the similarities that they share, but also the differences. The expertly drawn film includes emotional accounts from everyone involved and has a journalistic thoroughness in going about every aspect of the background of how such an odd occurrence as this should happen. How did the boys get separated at the adoption stage, and why?

Director Wardle steers a film of emotional depth backwards and forwards on the central debate of whether an individual is shaped by upbringing and experience, or by genetic makeup. The film has a true crime detective story approach about it that maximises the tragic and alarming aspects of this deeply strange and ultimately perplexing story.

The Insult – Gripping Lebanese Drama

My review of The Insult is over at FilmInk and below…

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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.

Movie Review – The Basement

Review of low-budget horror/crime film The Basement over at Flickering Myth and below…

The Basement

Taking elements from crime and horror movies such as Silence of the LambsHostel and Saw and putting them all together in a sickly grim stew, at first look The Basement doesn’t appear to be doing anything too original.  Horror fans have seen a setup of character gets abducted by a lone nut and tortured in different ways countless times. However, with strong performances from its two leads and a collection of disturbingly entertaining scenes plus a strong resolution, the low-budget flick is worth sticking with.

Focusing on the interplay between imprisoned wealthy rock guitarist Craig (Cayleb Long) and serial killer Bill Anderson (Jackson Davis), most of the film is set in the basement of the title, where the two perform their bizarre psycho-therapy session.

The film has a good line in bleak humour, thanks to Long’s skill at bringing in different characters from his past and playing them out to Craig, who in turn is forced to perform the part of Bill. The ongoing session is alternately funny and tragic, with a few moments of close-up gross out torture.

The other sections of the film fare less well. Mischa Barton, the best known name in this film, is good as Kelly, but has less time to develop her role as the wife of the missing Craig. She does well with the scenes she is in, however, and is part of the wider story that elevates the film over a purely simplified shock and horror plot. Her scenes with best friend Bianca (Bailey Anne Borders) in the high luxury of her LA mansion are nicely put together and contrast well with the horrors that her partner is undergoing in the basement.

While the film is noticeably low-budget, it is put together professionally and features some good cinematography and edits. The pace mostly switches from extended scenes in the basement back to Kelly and Bianca trying to decide what to do next. Effective music and sound design also work in amping up the tension bit by bit.

Overall, given the pretty common start off for the movie, it turns out to be a surprisingly decent film. While baring some surface similarities with the M. Night Shyamalan movie Split, it turns out to be a very different beast, and is more in keeping with crime and suspense tales rather than anything more fantastical. What we have with The Basement is a horror designed to shock and surprise. It passes the test.

Movie Review – What Still Remains

Review of post-global virus thriller What Still Remains is over at Flickering Myth and below…

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Oh, the apocalypse. Edging ever closer it seems, and in the thriller What Still Remains it’s there in all its grim glory. Desolate mountaintops and lonely valleys are captured in fine detail, bringing home a real sense of fragile isolation in this post-global virus world. The hunt for edible food, while also avoiding the scarred zombie-like ‘berserkers’ proves to be a quest in itself for anyone attempting to live more than five minutes.

Amidst this backdrop recently bereaved  of her family Anna (Lulu Antariksa), has to decide how much she can trust Peter (Colin O’Donaghue), a tough warrior type who promises her safe passage to his community across the wilds.

Both Anna and the audience soon have their doubts, not least when Peter proves to be just  a little too trigger happy. But he seems a far better bet than the survivors marauding around at every turn. Plus, he has nicer hair.

But in all seriousness, this gets to the heart of this moralistically ambitious film. It asks the question ‘who’s the most human?’, the good looking ones who speak properly and have all the right survival equipment, or the ones who howl and whistle and wear animal masks?

The two leads play against each other well enough, and there is a palpable sense that something horrible is just around the corner. And being a post-apocalyptic landscape, that is an entirely reasonable guess.

Also without giving too much away, there is also a good link between survivalist communities and cult religions of the kind that would undoubtedly spring up in such a situation. In this community Mimi Rogers’ character provides some icy tension of life in a home constantly under threat from outsiders.

All in all, the film provides a disturbing enough look at what could be in store for a badly messed up Earth. But with too much of the weight of humanity – and the film itself – specifically being carried by the lead, it doesn’t really have enough to go truly viral.

 

Movie Review – C’est La Vie

My review of French comedy C’est La Vie is over at FilmInk and below…

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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…

 

Great Swedish Film ‘Amateurs’

My review of the fantastic Swedish film ‘Amateurs’ showing at the Scandinavian Film Festival across Australia is over at Filmink and below:

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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.

The Swan – Memorably reflective drama from Iceland

My review of  Ása Helga Hjörleifsdótirr’s poetic film The Swan is over at Filmink and below :

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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.

 

 

A Horrible Woman – Danish dark comedy

My review of ‘A Horrible Woman’, part of the Scandinavian Film Festival is over at Filmink now.

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