Category Archives: Film Reviews

The Ciambra – tough new film

My review of Jonas Carpignano’s The Ciambra is over at Flickering Myth and below.

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SYNOPSIS:

In a small Romani community in Calabria, Italy, Pio Amato is desperate to grow up fast. Amidst a backdrop of tensions between the local Italians, recent arrivals from African countries and his fellow Romani, Pio must decide what route to go down in his quest to become an adult.

There is a wonderful moment in The Ciambra, Jonas Carpignano’s haunting depiction of a boy’s struggle with adolescence, where our lead character witnesses a vivid waking dream of a horse walking around the city streets. This vision of freedom beautifully juxtaposes Pio’s ideas of his community’s past with his own more tightly constrained present on the streets of Gioia Tauro, Calabria.

The film follows Pio (Pio Amato) as he tries to figure out how best to prove himself to his family as a responsible provider. This need only intensifies after his older brother and role model Cosimo is arrested by the local Carabinieri. We see Pio smoking, drinking and fooling around in nightclubs and taking on small-time hustles with little direction. His lack of motivation in life and problems with finding any kind of meaning are powerfully displayed and point towards a future that is not yet decided, but one that is, we suspect, potentially full of further sorrow and difficulty.

The film uses non-performers as its cast and the effect is an increase in the natural documentary style of the feature. The scenes featuring Pio and the whole extended Amato family have a tumultuous rhythm and flair that appear largely unscripted, as if the audience has just been admitted to a place at the chaotically boisterous dinner table.

The  film’s writer and director Jonas Carpignano (Mediterranea, 2015) spent years based in Calabria, and his knowledge of the region has certainly paid off for this feature. There is an authenticity about the backdrop and the tense atmosphere of everyday life, as different communities of Italian, Romani and Africans live around each other with an abiding level of mistrust.

The film is specifically about Pio though. And taken purely on this level it is a successful and emotionally rich depiction of a boy growing up. The relationship between Pio and Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), a newcomer to Italy from Burkino Faso, is central to the story, which is less about plot and more about the turbulent emotions behind feelings of family loyalty and identity.

Ayiva is really the boy’s only true friend, and the film’s potent insight into how people from different cultures and backgrounds can understand each other- if only for a brief segment of time- provides some small piece of light in an otherwise bleak, yet compelling, outlook of a life on the fringes. The Ciambra is a difficult film to experience, but an important one, with much to say about desperation, hope and society.

THE CIAMBRA is released in UK cinemas on June 15th

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Island Zero review

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Island Zero is a decent low-budget paranoid suspense thriller. My review of Island Zero is over at Flickering Myth now

Precognition review – screening at Sci-Fi-London 2018

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Review of Precognition over at Flickering Myth now.

Sci-Fi-London festival details available here

The Energy Within – Short Film Review

My review of the short film The Energy Within is over at Flickering Myth. Starring Paralympian Stefanie Reid in her debut film performance, the 17min film is an inspiring take on focusing mind and body through sporting endeavour.

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Based on her own real-life experiences, The Energy Within stars Paralympian Stefanie Reid in her debut film performance.

Across its 17 minute duration, the short tracks the progress of Julie Bennett (Reid) as she attempts to get back into racing competition despite losing a leg in an accident. After finding the courage to approach respected coach George Hart (Daniel Adegboyega), Julie asks to join his team of professional runners. It’s a difficult thing for her to ask, as she has never raced since her accident.

Afraid of what he and her fellow runners (Marie-Helene Boyd and Suzy Bastone) will think of her if she reveals her disability, at first Reid tries to hide her situation by running on a weaker prosthetic limb. The startling realisation that she has to come to terms with her disability in order to become stronger is a powerful message, and it’s dealt with brilliantly in this short film. 

The story also sees Reid encountering her next door neighbour (Aasiya Shah), a teenager struggling with her violin practise. An exasperated Reid shares some choice words with the brash youth, guiding her onto  trying harder and putting her mind to the job at hand. In her own words, ” The only one who actually cares is you. So if you think you suck, then, yeah, you probably suck…” 

It seems to do the trick, as after a brief scene switch the next we hear is the girl trying the notes on the violin again. It’s a well done part of the film, and isn’t over done. It just goes to show that all of us have challenges to over come and how we address them forms part of who we are.

As a whole, the film rapidly showcases the power of sport in focusing the mind and the body. Reid does a great job at bringing her own personal experience of competing with a disability to the screen. She is a strong lead in a story that inspires and informs in equal measure.

THE ENERGY WITHIN will premiere online in March, during the 2018 Winter Paralympics in South Korea.

Movie Review – The Divine Order (2017)

Review of women’s liberation in Switzerland film The Divine Order over at Flickering Myth  and below.

The Divine Order

An informative and entertaining drama, The Divine Order tells a serious story in easily watchable fashion, focusing on strong performances from the two leads (Marie Leuenberger, Maximilian Simonischek) as the couple at the heart of the film.

Showing how Switzerland’s female population won the right to vote in 1971, the movie does not barrage the audience with political theory or facts and figures. It simply shows, in a surprisingly light but resolutely inspirational tone, how and why the country’s women did not enjoy political suffrage earlier and what needed to happen in order to gain it.

Nora (Leuenberger) has a peaceful and secure existence in her small Swiss village. Her days are spent looking after her two sons, unimaginative husband (Simonischek) and cantankerous father-in-law. As the contrasting documentary style news images that play in the opening credits remind us, the year is 1971 and major political change is happening throughout the world. And yet, here, in Switzerland the contrast is as clear as the snow peaked mountains in the distance.

The story plays around Nora’s gradual empowerment as she realises that things can’t continue as they always have done. She wants to work, and her husband flat out refuses. He is not even entirely sure why himself; it is just not the done thing in those parts. There are many moments in the film just like this, where received wisdom and old-fashioned ‘tradition’ become embroiled in plain misogyny shock with a potent force. The film is not a difficult watch, it’s true, but that shouldn’t be seen as a criticism. In fact, it manages to get across the central ideas clearly, which when you’re talking about more than half of the population’s right to vote can only be welcomed.

There is humour within the film as well. A travelling workshop taught by a Swedish hippie (TV series The Bridge’s Sofia Helin) shows the local women the philosophy of yoni power and the importance of loving their vaginas. The almost slapstick comedy of this and other scenes broadens the film’s appeal somewhat, and brings the important points it has to make about political identity and power home in clarity.

There are also moments of real violence and infuriating diatribe from the local men, as well as the female head of the anti-women’s right to vote society. These real dangers show exactly why women in remote areas found it difficult to make their voices heard on issues such as this.

Through self-education and determination Nora manages to make a difference to the village, and to the other women, because she is someone. She is herself, and not only a wife and a mother. The basic points are what needed spelling back in the 1970’s, and they retain their urgency today. Petra Volpe’s film does that in an audience pleasing way, and manages to be both insightful and motivating.

Movie Review – November (2017)

My review of the deeply strange fairy tale/folk horror is over at Flickering Myth and below…

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Rainer Sarnet’s beautifully strange rumination on love and loss set against a pagan backdrop of fairy-tale and mythological themes is a compelling journey through an unsettling dream landscape. The intense black and white cinematography calls to mind the work of filmmakers as diverse as Bergman, Lynch and Carl Theodore Dreyer, but Sarnet’s film is completely of itself, and manages to create its own fully formulated world.

Set in a surreal version of 19th Century Estonia, local peasant workers survive hunger and the cold through a mixture of begging, borrowing and stealing. Sometimes, in order to cheat death or the Devil, they are even persuaded to give up their souls to the animistic kratts; odd work constructs made from scrap metal and animal bones. These proto-robotic creations bring a sense of dark humour to the film, ambling along and calling out in disembodied voice cantankerous instructions and bleak warnings. The film brings out this working life clearly and in explicit detail. It is as if the day to day concerns of keeping the village in order just happens to involve these jumbled up combinations of souls and objects.

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Cinematographer Mart Taniel handles these oddities in entrancing tone and style, with the detail informing the greater world in complex and bewildering beauty. The film places the viewer knee deep in the muck and the mire of the ancient forest village, perfectly bringing to life a place of intoxicating wonder. There is a profound tone of phantasmagoria working alongside the grotesque that makes the villagers reactions to life in the world complete and, in some sense, real and understandable.

Amidst this deeply strange backdrop is what at first sounds like a traditional folk tale. Liina (Rea Lest) is in love with local village worker Hans, who is in turn infatuated with a visiting German baroness. Liina is willing to go to any lengths to win her love, as is Hans, and the whole plot of unrequited love gets mixed up with the greater goings on of life, death and metaphysics. Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England also managed to create this mix of the workings of daily activity with magic and belief interacting in the foreground, and November shares that film’s trippy observation of dream reality from the bottom up.

Pagan philosophy and Christian theology both have sway in this world, as does the threat of the mysterious Plague, an ever-present force, able to take on different forms – at one point  appearing as a goat, fans of The Witch will be pleased  to see – and keeping the environment on constant edge. The presence of Dieter Laser (The Human Centipede) as the father of Hans’ crush is an archly amusing cue to genre and horror fans that not everything is to be taken at face value. Laser, for his part, plays the role with a wry remove, seemingly always on the verge on a raised eyebrow, but never distracting from the greater show of the dreamscape at large.

In terms of storytelling, Sarnet clearly takes cues from Expressionism, with a disorienting visual style of greater import than dialogue or structure of scene. This combined with the evocative music by Jacaszek and a distinct use of sound, makes the film as beguiling and enticing as any darkly furnished vision of both the up-close and personal, and the beyond.

MyFrenchFilmFestival online now

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MyFrenchFilmFestival is online now and features lots of interesting stuff from the Francophone world (ie, not only France but the whole French speaking world).

Here are a couple of my reviews over at Flickering Myth…

The superb psychological thriller Into the Forest

and the funny and uplifting Crash Test Aglae

It’s a pretty interesting idea to have a whole film festival exclusively online, and it probably points towards the future. Much as I love cinemas, I guess it’s pretty good to see new and original exclusives at home sometimes too…

 

MyFrenchFilmFestival is available across the world on multiple streaming platforms. For more information
visit the official site here.

Mary and The Witch’s Flower

My review of Mary and The Witch’s Flower, the first anime from Studio Ponoc, is over at Filmink and below…

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Mary, an imaginative and inquisitive young girl, is spending the last week of the summer break with her great aunt Charlotte at the village of Redmanor. Bored at home with no working TV set or friends of her own to play with, she tries to help out around the house, but constantly drops things due to her clumsiness. This boredom, plus anxiety over her self-image and red hair, brings out a multitude of worry and stress ahead of the new school year. After not immediately seeing eye to eye with local boy Peter, she meets his two cats Tib and Gib wandering through the misty woods. Following the cats directly leads to the discovery of a bunch of eerie fly-by-night flowers growing in the wild. She takes them home and before knowing too much about it, Mary and Tib are whisked away into the sky on a broomstick.

Eventually crashing into Endor college (no relation to the Forest Moon in Return of the JediStar Wars fans), a training camp for would-be witches and magic users, Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill) is immediately enrolled as a student on the strength of her impressive powers. Unbeknowst to headmistress Madam Mumblechook (voiced by Kate Winslet) and head scientist/mage Doctor Dee (voiced by Jim Broadbent), all of Mary’s magic comes directly from the fly-by-night flowers. With some quick thinking and a little deception, she manages to keep the unexpected untruth going for an entire day, impressing the college with not only her magic skills, but also her red hair, which is a sign of tremendous power. However, when the untruths begin to mount up, Mary indirectly puts her new friend Peter in danger. She begins to discover exactly what kind of experiments Doctor Dee is undertaking, and just why he and Madam Mumblechook are so obsessed with the so-called witch’s flower.

The first movie from Studio Ponoc, this new anime is directed by Hirmoasa Yonebayashi, an acclaimed graduate of the famous Studio Ghibli. Known for When Marnie Was There and Arriety. Released in both the original Japanese with English subtitles and a dubbed version featuring well-known actors, the film creates a spellbinding atmosphere of classic wonder with a lively script that zips along at a fast pace. While not veering off so far into the fantasy (there is only one non-human with a speaking part, the fox or dog-like Flanagan, the caretaker of the College’s broomstable) of Spirited Away style-surrealism, the world is exceptionally well-drawn and creates an energetic and transporting fairy tale.

Based on Mary Stewart’s children’s novel The Little Broomstick, the film takes rural England as its setting and conjures up the country landscape vividly. Drawing comparisons with Ghibli favourite Kiki’s Delivery Service as well as the Harry Potterseries of books and films, Mary and The Witch’s Flower can hold its head above the magic lava with the best of stories about young witches. With a powerful message of trusting animals and the natural world above and beyond science and technology – sometimes referred to as ‘magic’ – this is a delightful film that kids – and adults – of all ages will enjoy and remember fondly.

A Woman’s Life

My review of ‘A Woman’s Life’, an adaptation of de Maupassant’s Une Vie, is over at Flickering Myth and below…

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Life is never as good or as bad as one thinks, wrote Guy de Maupassant in his novel Une Vie, the source material for this sombre and touching film from Stéphane Brizé (The Measure of a ManMademoiselle Chambon).

Essentially this is a story of expectations. Jeanne (Judith Chema), the daughter of nobility in mid 19th-century France has led a sheltered existence for most of her early life. Days spent tending the garden and learning about the natural growth of things with her father the Baron Simon (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) fill the innocent convent school educated Jeanne with happy delight.

This life rapidly changes following a semi-arranged marriage to Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud), an unpleasant young man whose family are not as affluent as Jeanne’s. Emasculated by this fact, he takes every opportunity to stake whatever claims on authority he has – from pettily controlling the temperature of the farm house by restricting the use of fire wood, to far more sinister and abusive actions. The unsuitable young man forces himself upon the maid Rosalie (Nina Meurisse) and also conducts an affair with another member of the aristocracy Gilberte de Fouville (Clotilde Hesme). 

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A melancholy tone thus descends upon Jeanne’s life. A young woman, once so innocent and in love with nature becomes progressively depressed and dejected by the cruel twists of the events that evolve around her. Her own motherhood offers little hope, merely bringing out the divisions between men and women even more clearly. Constantly brought down by the realities of life, the audience is left hoping for Jeanne to take decisive action. When this does not appear to be likely, the hope switches towards the future and the possibility for change.

A mostly handheld-shot work of dreamlike ambience, the story is partially told through remembered scenes and fractured interpretations of past events. Occasionally scenes, such as Jeanne and lost best friend Gilberte dancing around the garden in their Sunday best are played out more than once, heightening the intensity and Jeanne’s dwelling on previous happier times.

Music is used sparingly in the film, with just one piano piece from Oliver Baumont used throughout. Jeanne’s poetic narration segments are metaphoric diary entries, adding another layer of what is a film of despairing fragility. Finding emotional depth in long scenes with little action or no dialogue, Brizé’s film brings out markings of the anxiety and complex details of the everyday of Jeanne’s life. And it is unmistakably her life – for there is no other perspective on the actual events that have so damaged her and brought her into such despair. This experimental style of approach is a courageous one, telling a tale of personal tragedy with no other witness than the central player herself. A deeply expressive and thoughtful film.

Movie Review – House of Salem

Review of Brit crime/horror film is over at Flickering Myth and below…

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Writer/director James Crow (Curse of the Witching Tree) makes stylish use of genre mixing in this feature, with a blend of British crime thriller and supernatural horror keeping suspense up to the max with plenty of surprises in store. Calling to mind the 1970’s psychological thriller output of Hammer Films (films like Demons of the Mind and Fear in the Night (both 1972) or more recent examples of Brit Horror crime thrillers such as Kill List (2011) which meld different genre elements into a horror film, House of Salem delights in never really letting the audience know where it’s going. Both weird and unnerving, it succeeds in creating a disarming level of edgy terror.

Following the abduction of young Josh (Liam Kelly) by a group of big-city clown masked villains, the group soon finds out that their safe-house is not so safe. Receiving their demands for cash becomes the least of their concerns as it becomes apparent that the child is wanted for something completely different and far darker. A grim playfulness takes part in the situation and the location’s psyching out of the gang, with blood and shadows messing with their heads and disrupting the usual work-rate of a kidnapping job. All of this unsettling weirdness and well captured strange visions moves the story away from its crime thriller beginnings into strange horror.

The performances are notably good, with Jessica Arterton (the debut of the cousin of Gemma Arterton) interacting well with both Liam Kelly’s stolen kid and Leslie Mills’ bullying tough-guy boss. The sense of the gang stepping out of a Brit crime drama into something far darker adds a whole other level to the movie, and scenes of the group struggling to figure out exactly what is going on have a dreamy, surreal quality to them that works well.

The main criticism is that the film could have been edited of a few scenes just before the climactic ending – which although chilling is working with one too many ideas and a whole load of characters, some introduced without much background information or actual need. By the time that the majority of characters have been killed off and new ones have appeared, a little of the drama has been lost. However, at its best House of Salem is a creepy example of a devilish horror thriller mixed with Brit crime and home invasion genres, with a decent amount of scares and surprises thrown in.