The fantastic Icelandic film Woman at War is over at Filmink and below. . .
A joyous and warm-hearted comedy drama taking on essential contemporary issues such as ecological activism, modern motherhood and community identities, Woman at War is a captivating examination of a bruised world in need of repair. Somehow managing to find optimism and positivity in a script focusing on climate change and societal chaos, the film has a fairy tale like quality about it; an effect only enhanced by a Nordic absurdity and surreal camera play.
Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a woman in her forties, has declared war on the aluminium industry at work near her home town. An eco-warrior hell-bent on shutting down power supplies, she employs military style tactics and a steely determination. Putting everything at risk to curtail the damage being done to her Icelandic homeland and the world at large, she wages a one woman war to put a stop to the unrestricted threat of big business and manufacturing.
Halla’s endeavours lead to her fellow townsfolk wondering just who is behind the shocking power outages. Known only by her alias of ‘The Woman of the Mountain’, she goes from stealthy saboteur moves by night, to teaching local choir classes by day. Her cover is complete, and no one suspects a thing.
Aided by remote farmer Sveinbjörn (Jóhann Sigurðarson) – who may or may not be her cousin – she takes to the remote country, watching out for drones, helicopters and all the powers of the state as they focus their attention on what they believe to be an overseas terrorist threat.
But just as she is about to launch her biggest operation yet, a surprise letter arrives informing her that her four-year-old application to adopt an impoverished child has been successful.
Effectively forcing her to choose between her fight against unfettered capitalism and a lost little girl in need, Halla must show all of her courage to conquer a crisis on all fronts. She also needs to win the trust of her twin sister Asa, a yoga instructor (also played by Geirharðsdóttir) with her sights set on a meditative retreat in India.
Featuring a superb lead performance from Geirharðsdóttir, Woman at War is a startlingly original piece, mixing up Icelandic humour and weirdness with grave dilemmas currently being faced all over the world.
Erlingsson creates an attractive picture cinematically, showcasing the striking sights of Iceland’s countryside in a fashion that certainly won’t do their tourism industry any harm. He also decides on using a whimsical take for the film’s score by bringing the brass band and trio of traditional singers onto the screen, occasionally sharing a knowing glance or nod with Halla as she goes about her own personal business of saving the world. A strange and beautiful film, this is an Icelandic delight to savour.
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.
My review of the beautifully moving Lean on Pete is over at Filmink and below.
Andrew Haigh’s poetic vision of growing-up poor and neglected is a haunting and deeply moving look at a side of American life rarely given such detailed attention.
The film is a slow-burn of intense emotional upheaval, and brings a studied approach to its subject that makes the impact of the experience even more rewarding.
Going for careful and deliberate dramatics, rather than overplayed fireworks, the story is reserved, contemplative and, ultimately, heart-rending.
Featuring a powerful central performance from Charlie Plummer as the 15 year old Charley, Lean on Pete is a coming-of-age story delivered in the most compassionate of tones.
Charley, a likeable innocent, is tasked with survival on a daily basis. His father Ray (Travis Fimmel) loves his son, but is not exactly reliable. He has a habit of going from job to job and shacking up with new partners – including the married Lynn (Amy Seimitz) – as and when it happens.
As we are introduced to father and son – and Haigh deliberately allows us a semi-documentary view of their hand-to-mouth lifestyle – we see the ramshackle rooms, missed meals and unhealthy living arrangements that make up their life. It’s not played specifically for sympathy – although that is there in abundance – it is more about showing the reality of young Charley’s existence.
This reality makes the discovery of a local horse track and the appearance of irascible trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) more of a bright note in Charley’s disjointed life than it otherwise might have been. The cantankerous old Del shows the boy how to work the stables and get the horses ready for racing.
It’s here that the eponymous horse Lean on Pete connects with Charley. The relationship between ageing animal and young human is showcased beautifully and simple scenes of the two walking back and forth with the boy intoning softly about whatever’s on his mind is quietly emotive.
Chloë Sevigny also has a role as a jockey who candidly warns Charley about getting too close to Pete. Both she and Del see the horses as little more than tools to make use of. When they become too old and too slow, they are cast aside and replaced. For them there is no other connection to make. Not so for the adolescent in need of a friend.
Plummer is on screen for nearly the entire two-hour feature, and manages to hold the episodic story together with his brilliant portrayal of youth in search of answers. It is his character and the cruel effects of impoverished despair that lend an epic struggle to the plot. This, plus the fantastically shot views of the American countryside help to put everything into clear perspective. The film offers a memorable viewpoint of a world seldom shown in such heightened and vivid colour.
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.
Since moving to Sydney, I have started working with the film collective Knowledge Variable.
We are producing art films with a focus on the experimental and strange, the avant-garde and the poetic and the mysterious and the magical.
I’m looking forward to writing, acting in and producing new films and ideas.
Check out our youtube channel here.
My review of Mary and The Witch’s Flower, the first anime from Studio Ponoc, is over at Filmink and below…
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 Jedi, Star 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.
The fantastic Brazilian film Aquarius is out on DVD/Blu-ray now…
Here’s my review over at FM and below…
Aquarius is a resolutely intelligent work detailing a whole lifetime of experience, passion and commitment to the things that matter most in life (not in any particular order): art, family, love and community.
Sonia Braga gives an intensely radiant performance as Clara, a 65-year-old retired music critic and widow born and raised into a well to do family in Recife, Brazil. While enjoying a comfortable life of leisure amongst friends and neighbours, it becomes apparent that a development group has its eyes on the home that has been an integral part of her life for so long – the original 1940’s building the Aquarius. All of her neighbours apartments have been rapidly bought up, leaving her as the only resident left. The unscrupulous modern developers – personified by the young graduate of an American business college Diego (Humberto Carrão) – are dead set on acquiring the whole building and will stoop to any means in order to do so. Clara soon realises she has a fight on her hands, and must incorporate her considerable powers of determination in order to see that a semblance of justice prevails.
As a detailed pinpointing in miniature of many of the demands facing communities across the world, regardless of class, nationality or background, on a social level Aquarius provides an assortment of talking points. Most obviously is the modern fact of neighbourhoods and areas becoming redeveloped creating tensions amongst neighbours and families, often coupled with greed, opportunism or both. The film constantly portrays this threat and the paranoia inducing tension it has on Clara in a creepy ways. This psychological thriller aspect of slamming doors, mysterious noises from upstairs and strangers or workmen encroaching on the privacy of home all leave their mark. Clara has to display a steely toughness in order to stay put and the film is great at chronicling her trials and tribulations while displaying the daily activity of her interactions with family and neighbours. This plus a healthy sexual appetite only strengthen Clara’s formidable realness and humanity.
The passionate encounters – in Clara’s case one very successful and one not-so – serve as a reminder of her aunt Lucia (who we meet in the first chapter set in 1980) who linked a dresser piece of furniture with intense and memorable love-making. Part of the success of Aquarius as a film is this ability to traverse different times through memory and feeling. It is a singularly powerful and poetic film, and has quite rightly already won itself top plaudits in the minds of anyone interested in place, memory and identity.
My review of the incredible Remainder by Omer Fast is over at Flickering Myth and below…
1. The faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information.
2. Something remembered from the past.
3. A potentially faltering and problematic thing with the capacity to occlude and confuse.
In Remainder, the feature film debut from Omer Fast, an intricately woven web of ideas and codes is constructed, both on-screen and off. The viewer is lured into a perplexing thriller that brings philosophical vision into a detailed run through of noir-ish themes and psychological horror plays. Adapted from Tom McCarthy’s cult novel, the movie shares the disturbing nature of films as diverse as Memento, Mulholland Drive, Pi and Spellbound.
Fast is an acclaimed visual artist well versed in the mind’s potential for playing tricks on an individual. Much of his work has focused on the subjective nature of reality, with video pieces asking questions of conventional storytelling and the erratic blurring of appearances. A picture never lies, we once learned. Fast has always been intrigued by showing how they frequently do, and providing insight into exactly how this can be.
In Remainder he uses a random event to explore how identity and reality is created. When an unnamed man (Tom Sturridge, Far From the Madding Crowd) is hit on the head by a falling object he awakens from a coma to find his memory erased and a compensation package for £8.5m. His lawyer instructs him that the money is his on the condition that he says nothing about the accident. This isn’t a problem; he recalls nothing. The only thing he can remember are tiny snapshots of images which he obsessively reconstructs into physical form, hoping to unlock further clues about his past life. As he delves deeper into the mystery surrounding him, he becomes embroiled in intrigue, suspense and immediate danger.
Remainder is a fascinating film, full of the real personal horror of losing one’s footing in the reality of life. Fundamentally it is concerned with trauma, an area that Sturridge brings out wonderfully well in his portrayal of the unknown protagonist. He manages to play the lead as a victim who is facing a profound internal struggle – while also imbuing him with a grim determination. There’s a strange sense of optimism in this, that the human spirit is so proud it will fight against debilitating events, looking for understanding and meaning.
The protagonist – an anti-hero really – is certainly not there to invite sympathy. At times he comes across as a rich kid spending his new found wealth on frivolous and speculative activities. There is method in his memory problems, though as he expends more and more effort – and cash – on bringing his memories back to life. In the reconstruction of various homes and property, Fast appears to be making a side comment on the gentrification of urban city areas (the film is based in London but the filming locations are as hared with the German capital Berlin).
Fast is also clearly concerned with the obsessions of film. There is more than a sense of Kubrick about Sturridge’s character; he tries to rebuild his memories with a huge team of assistants deliberating on exactly how to get the right sound, precise smells and accurate colour to the documenting of internal pictures. As well as his striking central performance, there is fine support from Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), Ed Speleers (Downton Abbey) and Arsher Ali (Four Lions).
A remarkable movie, Remainder is a spectacular and mind-mangling trip.
Remainder is in UK Cinemas and on demand from June 24th.
The beautiful Our Little Sister is reviewed over at Flickering Myth and below.
An intimate and warm story of sisterhood and familial ties, Our Little Sister explores the drama of sororal relationships in a graceful and sensitive style.
Adapted from the best selling graphic novel Umimachi Diary by Yoshida Akimi, this is a drama that plays with subtlety and intricacy, ultimately creating an uplifting and spirited mood. It does not shy away from pain and darkness, with troubled histories and parental break-ups creating a generational fall-out felt for years afterwards. Yet it remains a bright and hopeful document – an affectionate look at how family of all kinds can help each other through life.
Three young sisters, Chika (Kaho), Yoshi (Masam Nagasawa) and Sachi (Haruka Ayase) all live together in their grandmother’s beautiful old house. Chika is the youngest of the group and works in a sports shop and has a playful relationship with a boyfriend into sports and outdoor activity. Yoshi is a banker who shelters from the stresses of work with a busy social life and more than a passing affection for alcohol. Sachi is the oldest of the sisters who manages a hectic work schedule as a nurse at the hospital alongside an unhappy affair with a married doctor.
The three have been estranged from both parents for years and grudgingly decide to attend their father’s funeral on the news of his death. Just before they are all set for a quick departure, they get to know the 13 year old Suzu, who it transpires is their half-sister. On something of a whim, Sachi invites her to come and stay with them. A few days or weeks later – time is not exact in this dreamlike picture – Suzu arrives and the sisters form a close knit bond of humility, respect and care.
The quartet adapt remarkably well to the situation,with the group creating a powerful barrier against the pain of the past. Ayase’s portrayal of Sachi is key to getting this strength across; her expressions of respectful care communicate the commitment to love that she and the others have made.
Overall this is a moving film, providing a template of sincere and honest reflection that goes beyond mere words. It is telling that the source material is a manga book- the colour and vibrancy of the locations are captured by director Koreeda in stunning detail. There is a flowing of ideas and imagination that bring a sense of soulful enlightenment; from dejection and darkness, hope can rise up anew.