Movie Review – Woman at War

Fun and quirky; new foreign language film Woman At War offers us a bizarre yet brilliant comedy about climate change.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

An eccentric choir teacher by day and an eco-warrior by night, Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is determined to stop heavy industries from ruining the natural beauty of Iceland. As she prepares for her biggest stunt yet, she receives word that her adoption request has finally been approved, and she is expected to take in her new child in a matter of weeks. Spurred on by her dreams of motherhood becoming a reality, Halla fast tracks her plans for her final stunt in the hope she can provide her child with a better future.

While it may sound rather grim and serious, Woman at War is anything but. From the moment an Icelandic brass band accompanied by a Ukranian signing troupe appears in the background and starts playing the soundtrack, it becomes clear that Benedikt Erlingsson’s film is more than a little offbeat. Sometimes the characters acknowledge the presence of the musicians and sometimes they don’t. It’s bizarre, but it works well.

What doesn’t work so well is our ability to suspend our disbelief. Woman at War is essentially a testament to the ability of one person to bring about major change, but there are moments when actions are taken way too far and in reality there would be serious repercussions.

Fortunately, Geirharðsdóttir carries the story beautifully as the self-righteous and resolute Halla, and quite frankly I could have happily watched her for the whole film without the need for the supporting actors. Her comedic timing is perfect and her turn as Halla’s twin sister is equally impressive.

The film is also beautifully shot, managing to capture the stunning landscape of Iceland without ever veering away from the core story. Erlingsson has carefully chosen magical locations that will make all long to visit Iceland, even those who have already been. Overall, it’s a simple story, but there’s enough humour and uniqueness here to make Woman at War memorable viewing.

Woman at War is available in Australian cinemas from April 4

Image courtesy of Hi Gloss Entertainment

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Movie Review – The Guilty

Gustav Möller’s feature debut is an absolutely stunning achievement.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

One of the advantages of Australia receiving foreign language movies about ten-thousand years after the rest of the world is that when one like The Guilty comes along, I don’t have to wait till my teeth fall out before I can own it on Blu Ray. This is a movie I want to see again, right now. If cinema is meant to unite humans in a shared understanding of emotions and experiences, The Guilty would do well as its ambassador. This is magnificent human drama, laced with empathy and created at the highest level by intelligent people who know exactly what they’re doing.

The film ostensibly has one star – Jakob Cedergren, who plays Asger Holm, an emergency dispatcher in Copenhagen – but the voices we hear off-screen as the film progresses are just as important. The Guilty employs an approach that isn’t original, but it works perfectly for the story it is trying to tell. Like Locke (2014), we never leave Asger’s side, which is just as well, because he constantly resembles a man on the verge of a breakdown.

We learn that he will imminently stand trial for a deadly incident that occurred on his police beat. This explains his surly disposition, interim demotion and subsequent obsession with a mysterious call he receives from a woman who has just been abducted. I shouldn’t go further. I urge you to discover the movie’s pleasures for yourself.

I will instead focus on how The Guilty uses clever filmmaking to craft a narrative that is at all times completely absorbing. Because we are only fed the voices and sound effects from Asger’s callers, we allow our imagination to construct what our eyes cannot see. The effect is remarkable and much more frightening. It’s easy to make assumptions when we don’t have the whole picture. If The Guilty had been filmed with regular cuts to elsewhere, the illusion would’ve been broken. For us to fully empathise with Asger, we have to make believe that we are him.

I struggle to go on without giving key details away, but let it be known that through its many twists and unexpected revelations, The Guilty hit me in a place very few movies have. Its story is commonly simple, yet it finds the time to touch on issues like parenting, divorce, illness, friendship, the ineptitude of government services and the concept of redemption. Asger knows he may not survive his trial, so finds an opportunity to perform one good deed as compensation for years of carelessness.

The Guilty, directed by first-timer Gustav Möller, is billed as a thriller, which it is. But I can’t remember the last time a thriller connected so deeply with me on such a human level. Its climactic payoff is surprisingly emotional. Most thrillers, even the good ones, live for the suspense. This one is infinitely more generous, more rewarding and one of the best movies of the year.

The Guilty is available in Australian cinemas from Thursday 28 February 

Image courtesy of Rialto Distribution 

Movie Review – Border

From the author of Let the Right One In comes another film filled with Swedish folklore. The result? An insane film that only the brave should see…

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill
 

In Swedish language film Border, Tina (Eva Melander) is a customs officer who has an unusual talent of being able to smell emotions, which makes her excellent at her job. Unfortunately, she’s also unusual looking, and receives constant stares and comments. Stuck in a relationship where she’s being used for her home, Tina longs for more in life. When mysterious stranger Vore (Eero Milonoff), crosses her path, not only striking a resemblance to her, but showing obvious interest, Tina allows the stranger to stay in the guest house hoping to not only explore her attraction to Vore but to learn more about herself.

Border is a curious ride. Based on the short story Gräns (border in Swedish) by Let the Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, this adaptation is hard to digest at times. There’s just too much going on. There’s the modernisation of Swedish folklore, a character study of a girl who doesn’t fit in with the ‘human’ world, and finally there’s a crime-thriller element where Tina is poached by the police to help uncover a paedophile ring. All of this is crammed into 110 minutes, and believe me when I say, you feel every one of those minutes – the film seems even longer than it is.

Despite the clutter, director Ali Abbasi does achieve a couple of things. The cinematography that captures Tina’s interaction with the natural world is beautifully composed and says volumes without any words needing to be spoken. The Swedish forests look otherworldly and Tina’s unique connection is immediately recognised as she blends seamlessly into the landscape. The prosthetics that both Melander and Milonoff wear are also incredible, making them both immediately unrecognisable, and brings a more natural, organic feel to the characters than what any sort of CGI would have been able to achieve. It’s no wonder the film is nominated for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling at this year’s Academy Awards.

Melander’s turn as Tina is excellent. She brings a silent intensity that just reverberates through every scene she’s in. Her chemistry with Milonff is intense and weirdly erotic without each of them needing to engage in much more than a short conversation in close proximity to each other. Milonoff gives Vore a creepy air that puts you on edge, but unable to put your finger on why. There’s a lot of depth to Vore, driven by a painful past and a product of being an outsider. Milonoff does brilliantly at maintaining enough layers to this character to put Tina in clear conflict over her feelings for Vore.

There are many great things about this film. But at its core, there’s a lot of Swedish context that doesn’t make a lot of sense to foreign audiences. The addition of several uncomfortable scenes, and the need to fully suspend your disbelief is at times trying. Border is a complex tale with many moving pieces that don’t quite work together, but it’s definitely a memorable film. And it will leave a lasting impression on you. Perhaps this is why it won the Un Certain Regard 2018 prize at Cannes Film Festival.

Border was featured in the 2018 Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival and is available in Australian cinemas from February 14. 

Image courtesy of Palace Cinemas

Roma – Cine Latino Film Festival

The most personal project to date from director Alfonso Cuarón, Roma chronicles a turbulent year in the lives of a middle-class family in 1970’s Mexico City.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Pascoe

After spiralling through space in Gravity and charting the collapse of society in Children of Men, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón returns with something profoundly more intimate. Roma, which is presented in black and white and with English subtitles, is a ‘year in the life’ of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid in the Mexico City household of Sofia (Marina de Tavira), Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and their four young children.

The film follows Cleo and her fellow maid Adela (Nancy García García) as they care for the family, clean the house, cook meals and spend time with their boyfriends during their time off. However, this isn’t the idyllic slice of domestic bliss that it appears at first glance. As time wears on, we learn that Sofia and Antonio’s marriage is strained and that Cleo’s own relationship with her boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) faces issues of its own.

If it wasn’t already apparent, Roma takes a fairly sedate and fluid approach to narrative. Cuarón takes his time to orient the viewer in the lives of the increasingly dysfunctional family, both in a physical sense, as he winds his way through their intricately detailed city abode, and also in an emotional sense, as he explores the fractures that exist in a familial setting.

The film doesn’t so much plot a story so much as it unfurls a journey before you, with time blurring as milestones like first dates and Christmases wash past. The overall effect is one of intense immersion with the family and its trials and tribulations. Come the end of the film, you feel as though you’ve been with them every step of the way for a year of their lives, and it’s an incredibly moving experience. The soaring highs and the crushing lows all flood back as you exit the theatre.

Visually Roma is a knockout, with so much detail and richness packed into every frame. Cuarón drops the viewer into the midst of 1970’s Mexico City, and all the smells, sights and sounds ooze from the screen and surround you. The black and white doesn’t rob the film of flavour at all; it serves to further place the viewer in the setting.

A poetic and personal project that explores life’s big moments as well as the little ones that link them together, Roma is unquestionably one of the best films of 2018. With so much to take in, Roma is like peering through a window into the past and someone else’s life – no detail or moment too small or insignificant.

Roma is screening in Perth for a limited time in the Cine Latino Film Festival (Dec 6-16)

Image courtesy of Netflix Australia

Italian Film Festival – Put Nonna in the Freezer

There’s desperation… and then there’s hiding a body in the freezer.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahil

Claudia’s art restoring business is on the verge of bankruptcy until her Nonna generously lets her cash her pension checks to help her keep afloat. When Nonna passes away, Claudia makes the risky decision to hide her body in the freezer in order to keep the much-needed checks coming in. With a recent crack-down on people illegally collecting the pension, Claudia must keep the tax police in the dark before she’s left with nothing.

Put Nonna in the Freezer is as crazy as it sounds, but also a complete delight to watch. Miriam Leone gives Claudia an eccentric edge mixed with a strong sense of justice and a false sense of confidence. It’s these qualities that allow her to delve deeper and deeper into her rabbit hole of lies.

While trying to keep up the charade that Nonna is still alive, she falls for the hard-working, law-abiding Tax police officer Simone (Fabio De Luigi). De Luigi plays the part to perfection, maintaining a steely exterior as he’s continually surprised by Claudia’s spirit. A believable chemistry develops between them, and you’ll find yourself rooting for them, even when the whole frozen Nonna thing comes to a head…

In saying all this, it is a film that requires you to really suspend your disbelief as the events that unfold just become more and more preposterous. While it’s all coated in easy to swallow comedy, there are plenty of moments where you’re left thinking ‘oh come on!’ Luckily, the characters more than make up for the over-the-top story line, and the bright Mediterranean colour palette makes it feel like a film that’s arrived just in time to welcome in the summer. If you’re feeling like a lighter film filled with summer vibes, then you can’t go past Put Nonna in the Freezer… despite its chilly title.

Put Nonna In The Freezer screens in Perth in the Lavazza Italian Film Festival from 27 Sept – 17 Oct. 

Image courtesy of Lavazza Italian Film Festival & Palace Films

Movie Review – The Insult

Ziad Doueiri embeds his new film with the deep wounds of the Middle East, creating a story rich in emotion.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

It takes a certain amount of circumstantial knowledge about the history of the Eastern Mediterranean to fully grasp all the complexities of Ziad Doueiri’s new film, The Insult. It’s a region that hasn’t enjoyed a period of comfortable peace since, heck, since the days of the Bible. There is mutual dislike between the Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians, Syrians and Lebanese. This film takes place in Beirut and shows how national arrogance can bring a city to its knees.

It’s a wonderful film, filled with intricate performances and little acts that service a wider narrative. It all starts when a Palestinian construction foreman, conducting renovations in a neighbourhood, approaches a Lebanese mechanic to fix his illegal drainpipe. The mechanic refuses. The foreman fixes it anyway. The mechanic smashes the new pipe with a hammer. The foreman insults him, so the mechanic insults back. But the mechanic’s words are insidious and hurtful. The foreman punches him, and suddenly a silly little drainpipe has turned two men into ugly monsters.

The mechanic is Tony (Adel Karam), whose workshop sits at the foot of his apartment block. Every day he watches anti-Palestinian propaganda on TV. The foreman is Yasser (Kamel El Basha), an older man with a pleasant face, content to do his job quietly and do it well. The movie’s early scenes are the best, where Tony and Yasser engage in a kind of cold war. El Basha emerges as the better performer of the two, not because he is a better actor, but because Yasser is awarded much more variety to his personality. Tony is more or less a one-trick pony: disgruntled and hateful.

Both men have wives, and a dangerous incident involving Tony’s unborn child leads to a high-profile court case that ignites the citizens of Beirut to civil violence. Here, The Insult adopts a more formulaic courtroom approach in which professional lawyers argue and debate and give little attention to the emotional state of their clients. A lot of the dialogue is gripping, especially in relation to the socio-political events that guide the Mid-East, but I wondered if maybe The Insult would’ve been stronger if the drama had remained between Tony and Yasser, who get sidelined in favour of the boisterous prosecutor Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh).

But it only goes to show, in such a tumultuous region of the world, how a trivial misunderstanding, based on prejudice, can lead to defamation and bloodshed. It can reopen old wounds, cause conflict, shake up an uneasy peace. Both Tony and Yasser are to blame for their actions, because they have held on to past grudges, so it becomes impossible for The Insult to pick a side. Some would say it doesn’t need to pick a side, only to look on in hope for a better tomorrow.

The Insult is available in Australian cinemas from August 30 

Image courtesy of Palace Films

Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival 2018

The Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival closes in Perth tonight! Go get yourself some excellent foreign cinema while you still can. Here’s a couple of films that we checked out from the festival.

The Swan (Svanurinn) – Iceland
Elle Cahill

An elegant story of a young girl’s sexual awakening set against a beautiful Icelandic backdrop.

August2018_ScandinavianFilmFest_TheSwan
The Swan is a delicate story about Sól, a nine-year-old girl who is sent to the countryside to work as part of an Icelandic tradition to encourage independence and maturity in pre-teen children. While at the farm, Sól not only learns about the harsh realities of life but begins her first foray into lust as she crushes on the much older farm hand Jón.

The Swan is a sensitive and unexpected portrayal of a young girl as she begins to mature and navigate the challenges of life. The Swan doesn’t shy away from discussing tough subjects like the brutal side of farm life, abortion and unrequited love. We only see these subjects from Sól’s point of view, but that doesn’t make it any less confronting. The truthful and honest portrayal of a young girl’s sexual awakening was also impressive, especially as young actress Gríma Valsdóttir handled the heaviness of the subject matter with a maturity well beyond her years.

Despite all the brutality, Martin Neumeyer’s cinematography brings a softness and beauty to the film, that gives it a whimsical, romantic feel of a Jane Austen novel. Neumeyer captures the beauty and harshness of the Icelandic backdrop, keeping close to Sól and exploring her point of view from a visual side.

A truly exquisite and captivating film from first time feature film director Ása Helga Hjörleifsdótirr.


A Horrible Woman (En Frygtelig Kvinde) – Denmark
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Christian Tafdrup’s A Horrible Woman is what it is – a portrait of a fairly horrible woman.

August2018_ScandinavianFilmFest_HorribleWoman

I believe there are people like this. People who enter into a relationship and turn the very air sour. People who are so toxic they’re not even good for themselves. There is such a person in A Horrible Woman, the new film by Christian Tafdrup, and she is a bitter force indeed.

It opens with a bunch of drunk guys in an apartment. One of their wives comes home with a couple of friends, and one of them, the tall, attractive Marie (Amanda Collin), takes a strong liking to the apartment’s owner, Rasmus (Anders Juul). They flirt, they sleep together, they go steady, she moves in. Next minute, she’s moving him out, piece by piece. First, it’s his CD collection, then it’s the poster of Jeff Bridges from The Big Lebowski. He feels like he’s drowning, and his friend Troels (Rasmus Hammerich) isn’t much help. We have all, in some form, encountered a person like Marie. Or have we?

Collin delivers a tight, menacing, ultimately brilliant performance, with her narrow face and Natalie Portman smile, and the movie is thoroughly gripping in most places. But A Horrible Woman plays more like an instruction on what not to do in a relationship than an examination of an actual couple. And is it too much to suspect that something supernatural might be going on? Why does Marie keep breaking the fourth wall? Why are all of her friends cackling women? What’s the deal with Troels’ wife? Some food for thought, perhaps.

Images courtesy of Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival and Palace Cinemas. 

Movie Review – Two is a Family

Charming in spots, but otherwise totally confused, Hugo Gélin’s Two is a Family misses the mark.

 ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

There is not a single convincing moment in Two is a Family, aside from the performances by Omar Sy and little Gloria Colston, who team up to form one of the more charming parent-child relationships in recent memory.

Sy plays Samuel, a yacht chauffeur in a fancy French beach town who enjoys playing around with lots of attractive women until one day an infant is dumped into his arms by a woman he may or may not have bedded. He tracks the woman to London, where the movie kicks into gear and very quickly develops a crisis of identity.

The baby, of course, grows up to become Gloria (Colston), the frizzy-haired little darling who at once captures our affection. But the plot, which is a remake of the 2013 Mexican film Instructions Not Included, is built upon a network of contrivances and impossible scenarios that conflicts with everything the movie is trying to accomplish.

Take Samuel’s fraught arrival in London, for example. He runs around like a headless chicken, lost in translation, till he bumps into Bernie (Antoine Bertrand), a movie producer who happens to speak French and instantly hires Samuel as a stuntman after Samuel dodges tube traffic like an acrobat to rescue Gloria. Job, new friend, and a place to stay, all within minutes of arriving in a foreign land? Check!

Then there is the movie set Samuel works on, which is commanded by an English director (Raphael von Blumenthal) so out-of-place he seems to belong in a different kind of movie. Every time he speaks you can almost see the screenplay crumbling to pieces out of his mouth.

The apartment Samuel and Gloria build for themselves is equally unbelievable. It looks like an expensive loft that’s been retrofitted by Josh Baskin from Big (1988), with a gigantic stuffed elephant in the corner and a slide that connects the second-floor bedroom to a ball pit on the first. All it’s missing is a trampoline, and maybe Tom Hanks to jump about on it.

But it’s meant to be a comedy! – I hear you scream. Yes, that’s right. I should take everything with a lightness of heart. That would have worked if Two is a Family hadn’t also tried to be a very serious, heart-wrenching drama about broken families and past mistakes.

The core of the plot involves Gloria’s mother Kristin, played by Clémence Poésy, who suddenly reappears after abandoning Gloria to Samuel all those years ago. This could’ve been truly touching if the writers had made Kristin a woman sympathetic to Samuel’s situation, but no, she is instead morphed into a villain who for no real reason seems bent on tearing Samuel and Gloria apart.

In the right hands Two is a Family could have been gentle and tender, but also hysterically funny. Instead it is like a bowl of mayonnaise that never emulsifies. The only reason I give it a passing grade is because Omar Sy and Gloria Colston are brilliant together. I could honestly watch them for days.

Two is a Family is available in Australian cinemas from June 28

Image courtesy of Palace Films

Movie Review – In The Fade

Given its contemporary relevance, outstanding lead performance and gripping story, it’s damn near criminal that In the Fade was snubbed for a nomination for Best Foreign Feature at this year’s Oscars.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

Katja Sekerci’s (Diane Kruger) happy and comfortable family life is torn to shreds when her husband Nuri (Numan Acar) and five-year-old son are killed in a bomb attack on his workplace. Police investigate the possibility of the attack being linked to Nuri’s past drug dealing, but Katja is convinced this is the work of neo-Nazis.

With a title drawn from a song by heavy rock band Queens of the Stone Age (and a score composed by the band’s lead singer, Josh Homme), you can probably already guess the anarchist tone In the Fade sets into. It’s brutal stuff, happening to the kind of people who live on the fringes of society and find comfort in family that exists parallel to drugs, violence and murder. Or at least the family we focus on was once like that, as we see from a prologue in which Katja and Nuri have a joyous wedding ceremony inside a prison while he is incarcerated. There’s no doubting Katja’s unconditional love for her drug-pushing husband.

Picking up six years down the track, they’ve mostly left this life behind for a normal, straight-laced and wholesome family life to give their rosy-cheeked son the best life imaginable. But this hardened criminal exterior and interior still lingers, and comes back in full force in Katja when her son and husband are blown to smithereens. Diane Kruger’s performance after this catastrophic event becomes the bleeding heart and soul of the story; it’s a powerful tour-de-force that shows the realistic evolution of world-shattering grief slowly building to uncontrollable rage and eventually burning vengeance and retaliation.

The second, and most gripping act, is the court case in which Katja fights determinedly with her lawyer Danilo (Denis Moschitto, also excellent) to bring the neo-Nazi couple accused of orchestrating the killing to justice. Courtroom drama aficionados will be euphoric here – it’s an amazingly captivating case with edge-of-your-seat uncertainty of its outcome. Without spoiling too much, the third act is Katja’s own form of justice, and it’s startlingly intense.

In an age where Nazism has seeped back into the cultural eye and violent attacks are still terrifyingly commonplace, In the Fade can’t help but bleed relevance. Intriguingly, it’s Germany holding a mirror to its own product for once, and while the sum of its parts doesn’t quite match Diane Kruger’s sheer commitment, this is a wildly provocative ride.

 In The Fade is available in Australian cinemas from March 8

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment