Movie Review – Frantz

François Ozon returns to the screen with an intimate examination of national pride, exclusivity, racial tolerance and love.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

There are basically two groups of war movies: the ones that have lots of buildings and people blowing up, and the ones that are about the stories in between things blowing up. Rarely do you come across a film that’s both (Schindler’s List and Downfall are masterful exceptions). François Ozon’s languid Frantz sits comfortably in the corner of the latter group, taking place after the Great War and during a period of tumultuous regrouping for the losing side, which were, of course, the Germans. It’s basically a war movie with very little war.

Ozon narrows his focus to the Hoffmeisters – a good-spirited but fractured elderly couple whose son, Frantz (Anton von Lucke), has been killed in France – and Anna (Paula Beer), Frantz’s would-be future wife. Together they mourn their loss, blaming all of France for Germany’s dead. One day, a Frenchman called Adrien (Pierre Niney) wanders to their doorstep, claiming to be Frantz’s best pal, offering peace and good will. At first, the Hoffmeisters are doubtful, but they soon suspect that Adrien speaks the truth, and for a brief moment they wine and dine as if their son has returned.

Much of Frantz hinges on Adrien’s honesty. It’s clear he’s concealing hidden truths about his seemingly random appearance, but Niney is clever in turning Adrien’s questionable conscience into a performance of immense pathos. The first half of the film is about him. The second is about Anna. Both characters have to rise above the anger of their compatriots to see each other as they really are. Sounds heavy and impenetrable? Well, you don’t go to a French/German film for exploding robots.

Frantz is definitely a slow-burn, patiently allowing its characters the room to explore their emotions and calculate their actions. Anna is a strong, forgiving woman; Beer’s performance is one of delicate timing and restraint. Adrien, conversely, is more unhinged, freewheeling, impulsive. But this isn’t an Along Came Polly kind of match up. There are no jokes about spicy food and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Anna and Adrien are introduced to each other by a tragedy and there is an air of the macabre that settles upon them. Indeed, Pascal Marti’s breathtaking black-and-white photography sometimes feels like a visual eulogy, and there are many scenes set in cemeteries. Frantz may be about two young people moving on with their lives, but its DNA is made up of death.

Even when Frantz falters, it does so with grace, keeping the drama firmly centred on the people who matter. This isn’t a groundbreaking film about war, or even about human dynamics, but it’s thoughtful and charismatic, and many times, that’s enough.

Frantz is available in Australian cinemas from April 13

Image courtesy of Sharmill Films 

2017 Alliance Francaise French Film Festival

Bonjour Perth! The 28th annual French Film Festival is in town for the next few weeks screening at Cinema Paradiso, Luna on SX and The Windsor. We sampled a few of the films on offer.

Tomorrow

Riding on a crest of environmental documentaries comes Tomorrow: a passionate, yet humble look at the positivity global contamination can bring.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

03 March - AFF Tomorrow
You know how the Western genre has become so saturated that, to stand out, it has to come with unique selling points? Like, look – it’s cowboys and aliens! The Environmental Documentary has more or less reached a similar crisis, with each new film threatening to re-tread what the other has said. It’s no longer enough to complain about fossil fuel emissions and global warming – a new angle is required.

Tomorrow provides that angle. Helmed by Mélanie Laurent and her filmmaking comrades, this immensely informative documentary shifts our attention from a dying Earth to a world that can be rightfully repaired and re-energised through solidarity, networking, and positive thinking. It’s great that more households are converting to solar power, but is that enough? Tomorrow posits broader change, change that is already happening in towns and cities throughout the globe. Urban families are micro-farming. Counties have introduced self-contained currencies to benefit small businesses. Schools in Finland place education ahead of status, and their children are better for it.

All this is meant to be encouraging instead of disheartening, and it is. Tomorrow makes me want to convert my backyard into a vegetable garden. It makes the microcosm I live in seem unclean and harmful, and that I should do something to purify it. Leo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood told us what the billionaires are doing. Tomorrow is a bit different – it’s about you and me, and the good we can do from the ground up.


Planetarium

Rebecca Zlotowski’s supernatural period drama offers a wonderful respite for insomniacs.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Graeme-Drury

03 March - AFF Planetarium
Planetarium follows two American sisters who are believed to possess the supernatural ability to communicate with ghosts. Laura (Natalie Portman) and Kate (Lily-Rose Depp) Barlow, cross paths with André Korben (Emmanuel Salinger), an eccentric French filmmaker, while performing their travelling séance roadshow in pre-WWII Paris. Captivated by their ethereal connections, Korben invites the girls to live with him while they produce a movie centred on their show, but his interest soon transforms into something a little stranger and disconcerting.

Much like the séances it depicts, Planetarium is a vague and obscure dreamlike ritual that disentangles itself from the anchor of time, stretching two hours into what feels like a bottomless eternity. Maybe this elongated, formless structure is intentional; it could mirror Laura and Kate’s ambling and directionless lives or – at a stretch – the lingering limbo of European geopolitics on the eve of war.

Whatever director Rebecca Zlotowski was aiming for with Planetarium, I don’t feel like much of it congealed into a cohesive whole. There is a collection of interesting ideas here; the middle act transforms into a strange pseudo-sexual experience with Korben supposedly navigating beyond the veil to meet with his deceased wife while using Kate as a vessel.

But a lot of these ideas hang in isolation, disconnected from other ideas that waft gently in and out of the film. It certainly doesn’t help that both Portman and Depp are so reserved in their performances; distanced from genuine warmth or deep emotion. We could have had something special on our hands, if only the rest of the film was as captivating as the production and costume design.


In Bed with Victoria

A quirky concept tackled in a completely mundane way.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Cody Fullbrook

03 March - AFF Victoria
Struggling to raise two daughters while being embroiled in two court cases, one of which involves exposing her own personal life, Victoria Spick (Virginie Efira) is attempting to juggle her personal and professional life.

What could have been a humorous and completely original film about an attempted murder case with the only witnesses being a dog and monkey – which actually does happen – In Bed With Victoria wastes too much time on romantic storylines, tarot readings and other things I’ve now instantly forgotten.

Like all films focusing on lawyers, the most interesting and intense moments are the court scenes, and although rarer than I would have liked, they show the same clinical function and form that I’ve come to appreciate.  Even when it’s just a friend of Victoria’s defending her in court against allegations of colluding with a witness, the delivery is passionate yet sensible. An appropriately slow scene with Victoria enduring the end of her case after overdosing on drugs shows exactly what In Bed With Victoria should have simply been about. A stressed woman handling a peculiar court case.  Nothing more.

Though tolerable with a few funny lines, In Bed With Victoria’s characters and storylines are far too basic and plodding for me to think about recommending it to anyone.


Images courtesy of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 

In Perth from March 15 to April 5: https://www.affrenchfilmfestival.org 

Movie Review – Up For Love

Nothing short of just another romantic comedy.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Josip Knezevic

The man should always be taller than the woman. That’s what we’re willing to accept when it comes to heterosexual relationships. The other way around tends to only invite judgment and ridicule. It may be unjust and it may be small-minded, but that’s the reality of society’s expectations.

This is exactly what French romantic comedy Up For Love explores – the ups and downs of a woman dating a man below her stature. The Artist’s Jean Dujardin stars as Alexandre, a charming and handsome architect who is determined to use his wits to win over the heart of Diane (Virginie Efira). The only obstacle to their happily ever after? Alexandre is four feet tall.

Dujardin and Efira light up the screen with a brand of youthful energy and joy that can only be seen in two people falling in love. Both characters have had their share of past relationship experiences and have reached a point in their lives where career progression is a major priority. This allows for a much more mature romance to play out, rather than one purely focused on their height differences. By having slightly older characters than what we’re used to seeing in these types of films, Up For Love avoids the nonsense of teen angst (Paper Towns) and manages to be more than a series of superficial gimmicks (How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days).

Having said that, there is ample opportunity for short jokes, and director Laurent Tirard takes full advantage of this. While some of these moments are genuinely funny, others come across as contrived – obvious beats are set aside to allow the audience to laugh, almost like a sit-com with the canned laughter on mute. It’s the type of stuff that your grandparents will adore, but everyone else will be lucky to crack a polite smile.

While it’s certainly a unique premise, at the end of the day, Up For Love is nothing short of just another rom-com.

Up For Love is available in Australian cinemas from December 1st 

Image courtesy of Icon Film Distribution

Movie Review – The Fencer

The ‘whimsical teacher inspires disadvantaged kids’ movie is back – now with swordplay!

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan 

Less than a decade after WWII, Estonia is still re-establishing itself under a Soviet Union takeover, and punishing the Nazi soldiers responsible for its downfall. Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), a young man with a penchant for the art of fencing, returns to his hometown after being forced to flee Leningrad. He finds solace at a local school, and begins teaching the children his knowledge and passion of fencing, which becomes a form of expression and hope for them. Soon beloved as a role model, his bubble bursts when his past catches up to him.

We’ve all seen the inspirational teacher movie a million times, and much in the same way that Endel’s former life threatens to undo all his good work throughout The Fencer, director Klaus Härö can never shake the trappings of a worn-out subgenre. All your favourite clichés make an appearance here. The underprivileged kids in desperate need of a father figure. The killjoy principal antagonising the class’s obvious progression, purely because the new teacher’s unorthodox methods seem radical. The build up to a big competition at the climax. There’s even a love interest in a fellow teacher. Ho hum.

But Härö’s delicacy lies in the details. The seldom explored Stalin era of oppression in Northern Europe is an interesting backdrop to a formulaic story, even if it isn’t quite explored to its full potential. The rural, still somewhat war-torn Estonian village is wonderfully shot, with a dull grey melancholia hanging in the outside air – everywhere, except of course the fencing gym, where light and colour comes to life along with the children’s hopes and dreams. The fencing itself is particularly joyous to watch; orchestrated with great precision and passion, it genuinely feels like we’re learning something along with the kids.

It’s these scenes, along with the little moments of suspense effectively peppered throughout that let The Fencer shine at times. Härö wrings a great deal of tension out of small, sudden revelations that indicate that Endel’s hideout may finally be compromised. Overall, The Fencer pokes just enough holes in the formula to make it one worth seeing.

The Fencer is available in Australian cinemas from November 24

Image courtesy of Palace Films

Italian Film Festival 2016

Ciao, bella! The Italian Film Festival is upon us once again. Here’s a brief selection of just some of the films that are on offer.

The Space Between
Director:
Ruth Borgobello
Starring: Flavio Parenti, Maeve Dermody & Marco Leonardi

Bellissimo! What a beautiful way to headline the Lavazza Italian Film Festival with the very first Italian-Australian co-production feature film.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic 

09-september-italianff-space-between
The Space Between highlights a strong debut for Australian director Ruth Borgobello and sets the scene for falling in love in luscious Italian landscapes.

Returning to his hometown in Northern Italy, Marco (Flavio Parenti) takes care of his aging father and tries to overcome the loss of his mother. In spite of being a talented chef, he now works in a dispirited job as a factory worker and is comfortable being uncomfortable. Marco soon encounters a young Australian in Olivia (Maeve Dermody), who’s youthful exuberance wistfully begins to stir life in him once more. Slowly but surely, a deeper friendship grows and both begin to realise what it takes to bridge the gap between loss and love.

Whilst being a somewhat simple story, The Space Between still managed to shock and surprise me. It’s a film best experienced without as little prior knowledge as possible. The process of learning how to deal with loss and to move on to achieving our dreams is an issue at the heart of many, films but one that is dealt a fresh setting in The Space Between. Borgobello cleverly uses the Italian location to relay a subtle cultural commentary, drawing parallels between how the Italian people are suffering similarly to Marco and this is what elevates the film above a cliché.

As a love story, it’s not as witty or captivating as Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy, for example, however it still remains charming enough to watch. Flavio and Maeve bounce off each other nicely, with particular praises going to Borgobello once more for her hand in the dialogue. It’s one of the more authentic love stories I’ve seen recently and one I wanted to know more about by the time the credits began to roll.

A simple but beautiful story that echoes in the fine cinematography of the Italian landscapes by Katie Milwright, The Space Between is a perfect start to your Italian film festival watch list.


The Confessions
Director: 
Roberto Andò
Starring: Toni 
Servillo, Daniel Auteuil, Pierfrancesco Favino

Murder, silence and paranoia are at play in Roberto Andò’s lacklustre thriller.

⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

09-september-italianff-confessions
The Confessions has a whiff of complex allegory. As I sat watching, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I was missing the point of it all; that the characters, both important and redundant, were concealing truths and ideas that the almost poetic dialogue only hinted at. I was afraid I was letting the film pass me by.

But now that I’ve had some time to digest it, I am certain it is merely a movie designed to bore and confuse. What starts as a murder mystery slowly unravels as a suspense thriller without the suspense or the thrill, and by the end, I had either forgotten half of what everyone had said or I just didn’t care. There is an entire scene involving Lambert Wilson that could’ve ended up on the cutting room floor without anyone noticing.

Toni Servillo plays Father Salus, a priest invited to an idyllic hotel that shall act as the setting for an important economic summit. Also in attendance is Claire (Connie Nielsen), a famed children’s author whose presence at the summit is dubious at best, for she does little except swim and snoop. One of the economists is found dead, and now the others are afraid his dying confession to Padre Salus will lead their devious plot to ruin. What their devious plot is I’m sure I don’t know, but every character treats it with the utmost respect.

The Confessions spends a lot of time with Salus, whose vow of silence is the code the economists can’t crack. I couldn’t crack the movie, which is populated with more characters than it knows what to do with and fails to punch through with a mystery worth our time.


Perfect Strangers
Director:
Paolo Genovese 
Starring:
Giuseppe Battiston, Anna Foglietta, Marco Giallini

Paolo Genovese’s Perfect Strangers is the film equivalent of a rich Italian lasagne with multiple layers of character-driven drama.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

09-september-italianff-perfect-strangers

This hilarious comedy sees three married couples and a bachelor, all long-time friends, get together for a sumptuous dinner party. As the night winds on, one of them suggests that they play a game to test their trust in one another. Each person is required to place their smartphone in front of them on the dinner table. For the entire night, any phone calls and text messages that arrive must be shared publicly with the group. Of course, not everyone sitting at the table is squeaky clean and it soon becomes clear that the seven friends didn’t know each other quite as well as they originally thought.

Perfect Strangers’ strongest element is undoubtedly its award-winning screenplay; perfectly paced and overflowing with razor-sharp dialogue, we’re gently introduced to each character before being teased with secrets that they may or may not be harbouring.

After this slow-burn first half, the surprises land hard and fast, like a chain of dominoes that speed around the dinner table. It’s an impressive build towards a series of twists that subvert expectations without feeling implausible. Most impressive is Genovese’s ability to traverse both earnest sentiment and crushing pathos in this tricky second half; he certainly doesn’t skimp on the gut-wrenching emotion, but underneath it all is a unifying message of friendship, acceptance and understanding in a thought-provoking final scene that ties everything together.


One Kiss
Director: 
Ivan Cotroneo
Starring: Rimau Ritzberger Grillo, Valentina Romani, Leonardo Pazzagli

A realistic depiction of teenage life doesn’t stop One Kiss from being an unfocused amalgamation of similar movies.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Cody Fullbrook

09-september-italianff-kiss

Lorenzo (Rimau Ritzberger Grillo), a foster child, moves to a new town and forms a friendly trio of outcasts, consisting of himself, Blu (Valentina Romani) and Antonio (Leonardo Pazzagli), but as they get closer, tensions rise that begin tearing them apart.

Lorenzo and Blu become the first members of the group and the first 30 minutes of One Kiss is solely dedicated to them mucking around together.  Their rebellious antics almost become the film’s entire plot until Antonio is dragged in just because Lorenzo thinks he’s cute.  The connection between the two boys quickly overshadows Blu as a character, and after an unwarranted sexual action, a conflict finally forms with Lorenzo and Antonio.  This occurs well over an hour in, leaving Blu to mope in the sidelines with her own unrelated issues.

It’s clear that One Kiss should have been about a stern sportsman attempting to resist the advances of another boy in school.  The ensuing awkwardness between them feels sincere and could have easily carried the film, and since the title is based on a later encounter with them, that appears to have been the movie’s intention.  It’s a shame the viewer has to wade through so much of Blu and Lorenzo’s shenanigans to get to the meat of the story, and even after enduring that, its melodramatic climax is completely uncalled for.

One Kiss displays great chemistry between the three friends, especially with their concerned parents, but its fuzzy story and egocentric main characters remind me too much of high school.


The Italian Film Festival screens at Cinema Paradiso in Perth from September 22 to October 12

Images courtesy of Palace Films

Movie Review – Truman

A mature Spanish drama that isn’t afraid to explore the larger questions about life and death.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Josip Knezevic

Finally, a movie that features a dog and doesn’t kill it off. With a firm focus on the role of death and the nature of relationships, Cesc Gay‘s Truman is not exactly an all-out tear-jerker, but is still a beautiful, albeit solemn tale.

Truman follows the journey of Julián (Ricardo Darín) a 40-something dying man who’s visited by one of his closest friends from school, Tomás (Javier Cámara). The two spend four days together before Tomás needs to return to Canada and in those four days Julián’s situation begins to unravel. It’s deeply melancholic, but at the same time it inspires bravery amidst our ultimate fears.

What I particularly enjoyed was the different scenarios used to explore the prominent themes. Yes, it is quite convenient that within the four days of Tomás’ visit, Julián encounters a large number of key people that have influenced his life, but nevertheless it serves as a nice treat. We not only grow to understand his relationship with Tomás, but also with his son, ex-wife, supposed friends and those he hurt.

A few faults let the film down; while Ricardo Darín displays moments of greatness with his subtle performance, Javier Cámara, on the other hand, is stony faced throughout to the point of being boring. His character is meant to appear brave and hide his emotions, but he doesn’t really offer anything else.

Overall, I still had a good time watching this film, which has made quite a buzz over in Madrid, winning 5 awards at the 30th Goya Awards – think the Academy Awards, Española. It made me wonder how I would act if I was in Julián’s position and if I could be as brave as him. While it’s kind of a depressing topic and the film certainly has a few issues, I’d still recommend seeing it when you can – it’s far better than anything else out at the moment.

Truman is available in Australian cinemas from August 11

Image courtesy of Palace Films

Scandinavian Film Festival 2016

It’s that time of year again! The Scandinavian Film Festival has returned to Perth to quench any cultural cravings you may be experiencing during the gap between seasons of  Travis Fimmel‘s Vikings. Here’s a sample of what’s on offer!

The Wave

Roland Emmerich eat your heart out; Roar Uthaug’s The Wave takes the cake for heart-pounding disaster spectacle.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

07 July - Scandi FF The Wave
The Wave is a Norwegian disaster movie that sees an idyllic tourist village devastated by a vicious tidal wave. It follows geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) and their two children as they battle through the fallout of the catastrophe.

Roar Uthaug’s film follows a fairly conventional narrative that you’ve likely witnessed before, but unlike the overblown disaster porn that we see from the likes of Roland Emmerich, The Wave narrows its focus to a single town nestled at the end of a single picturesque fjord. It’s not the San Andreas fault that threatens to sink the entire California coast, but rather a towering mountain that looms menacingly above the livelihoods of just a few thousand people – and the film feels suitably personal and gripping as a result.

What immediately grabs you about The Wave is the sheer ambition of the production and the enormity of what the filmmakers have achieved. The visual effects are staggeringly polished considering the comparatively small budget; we’re talking blockbuster VFX on just a fraction of the cost.

After that, nothing quite excites to the same degree; we follow the family through the aftermath, but the film doesn’t come close to matching the brilliance of that heart-pounding fifteen-minute sequence that sees the roaring flood draw nearer to the tranquil Nordic inlet – it’s practically worth the price of admission in itself.

The Wave screens at Cinema Paradiso July 26


The Yard

Måns Månsson drags us down to the depths of despair and threatens to leave us there.

⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

07 July - Scandi FF The Yard
Måns Månsson’s The Yard is a mirthless (and merciless) deconstruction of what it means to be poor. It pounds away so persistently at hope and happiness that I wonder if the cast and crew stopped during filming to console one another. Yes, times can be tough. We all know this. But what Månsson tries to do here is capture a lifetime of depravity in the span of eighty minutes. Someone, somewhere, is bound to crack.

11811 (Anders Mossling) is a mediocre poet. After criticising his own book, he is fired by his publisher and sent to work at the local shipyard as what I can only surmise is a car inspection agent (he is known as 11811, his identification number). This shipyard is a jolly place. Racism thrives. Discrimination is as rampant as fraternity hazing. The bosses are implausibly self-serving. No one listens to each other and everyone is suspect.

At home, the situation is no better. 11811’s son mopes about the house like a ghastly wraith, gobbling up resources and demanding money for parties. Would helping with the rent be too much to ask? Yes, apparently. 11811 is so meek he absorbs his son’s accusations like a wet sponge.

The Yard piles obnoxious character upon obnoxious character, and just about every stroke of misfortune awaits 11811. After a while it all gets to be a bit too much, like having to devour chocolate mousse after a mud cake. What’s left by the end is a palate too numb to taste and a dinner that has been all but ruined.

The Yard screens at Cinema Paradiso July 28


Land Of Mine

Land of Mine proves to be a refreshingly new perspective on WWII, even if it falls flat compared to other classics of the genre.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Josip Knezevic

07 July - Scandi FF Land of Mine
Land of Mine appropriately tackles a subject that not only hits close to home for its country of origin, but one that is also rarely discussed in cinema. It’s an eye-opening affair that offers a point of view as unique as the Scandinavians themselves.

Set in the days following the surrender of Germany in May 1945, young German Prisoners of War are sent over to the western coastline of Denmark in order to remove more than two million mines placed along the beaches from during their occupation. We begin to see life as it was immediately after the conclusion of the great war from the perspective of those held responsible for the atrocities.

Despite bringing something new to the table, Land of Mine doesn’t reach the heights of other World War II dramas such as Schindler’s List or the more recent Son of Saul, as it never strays from its predictable storyline. Production wise, however, Land of Mine is sure to be a festival highlight, with beautiful cinematography and excellent sound design.

Land Of Mine screens at Cinema Paradiso July 24, 25 & 30


Absolution 

Guilt and revenge seep through the cracks of tragedy as one family is torn apart and another begins in Petri Kotwica’s superbly crafted thriller.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan 

07 July - Scandi FF Absolution
Kiia (Laura Birn), a heavily pregnant woman, enters labour prematurely whilst driving home from a party with her drunken husband (Eero Aho), causing her to swerve and hit something. Her husband investigates and insists to his wife that it must have been a deer. Following the birth, Kiia meets and befriends Hanna (Mari Rantasila), a woman in the emergency room whose husband has slipped into a coma after being run over and left to die on the side of the road. Realising the connection, Kiia develops increasing distrust of her husband…

Heavy themes of culpability, revenge and the desperation of amnesty swirl like a thick black cloud throughout Petri Kotwica’s (Black Ice) thriller Absolution; a slick tale of tragedy that manages to subvert expectations at every turn and remain an original and engaging think-piece. Though straightforward on the surface, it’s anything but beneath.

Kotwica keeps the pace even and expertly extracts tension out of the smallest situations, however, there are some pitfalls. The score is overly repetitive and a number of the plot points can’t help but feel all too conveniently placed. But thankfully most of this is clouded by the air of sheer intrigue all the way through.

Absolution screens at Cinema Paradiso July 22, 26 & 30


Images courtesy of Scandinavian Film Festival 2016 & Palace Films
http://www.scandinavianfilmfestival.com/

Spanish Film Festival 2016

The Spanish Film Festival returns to Perth on April 21! Here’s just a few of the films on offer. Find out what to see and what to avoid!

Sidetracked
Las Ovejas No Pierden El Tren

04 Apr - Spanish FF Sidetracked

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Graeme-Drury

Sidetracked follows a trio of middle-aged couples as they navigate relationship struggles and strife. Luisa (Inma Cuesta) and Alberto (Raúl Arévalo) have moved to the country to have their second child in an idyllic spot, but their rambunctious sex life is paying the price. Alberto’s brother Juan (Alberto San Juan) is struggling to keep pace with his new girlfriend Natalia (Irene Escolar), a woman 20 years his junior; meanwhile, Luisa’s sister Sara (Candela Peña) is clinging to the hope that her new beau Paco (Jorge Bosch) walks her down the aisle, even though he’s not so sold on the idea.

Álvaro Fernández Armero’s latest film doesn’t exactly break new ground for its genre, but the talented and charismatic ensemble go some way to expanding the otherwise thin plot. Arevalo’s struggling writer Alberto enjoys the most compelling character arc as his directionless career and dwindling love life cause him to seek new challenges amongst the film’s gorgeous rural backdrop. The oddball chemistry he shares with Luisa affords the film some of its more compelling dramatic scenes.

On the other hand, Sara and Paco’s one-note subplot is missing some key emotional beats; the former simply comes across as a slightly unhinged bridezilla who doesn’t know when to quit. ArImero (who also serves as screenwriter) stages the comedy around familiar social situations and awkward conflicts, but an undercurrent of humour surrounding Spain’s recent economic slump as well as modern dating traps keeps the film feeling fresh and relevant.

Much like love itself, Sidetracked is sometimes awkward, ugly and uncomfortable, but you get out what you put in, and if you arrive wanting something open, honest and often entertaining, this film is for you.


Innocent Killers
Asesinos Inocentes

04 Apr - Spanish FF Innocent Killers

⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Gonzalo Bendala’s Innocent Killers is in the tradition of crime films with tunnel vision. It is so focused on getting its story right that it doesn’t do much of anything else, which, if we’re talking about film as an art form, should include the bare necessities like character development, engaging dialogue and general coherence. This is a well-crafted movie for someone with ADHD needing a quick fix.

Maxi Iglesias plays Francisco Garralda, a college student who’s in too deep. His apartment (that he shares with his seemingly senile father) is about to be foreclosed on, and he owes a lot of money to Julián (Vicente Romero), an auto-mechanic gangster who’s more auto-mechanic than gangster.

Francisco has flunked his final psychology exam again. He can’t have that. He tries to bribe his worrisome professor Espinosa (Miguel Ángel Solá) to doctor his grade. Espinosa agrees on one condition – oh, but I wouldn’t dream of telling you what he has planned. If you’ve seen Billy Wilder’s splendid Double Indemnity (1944), you might be in on Espinosa’s secret, after shifting the focus from murder to redemption, though you might not care enough to do so.

I know I didn’t care at all. Who would’ve thought that something as simple as Innocent Killers’ plot could take as long as 95 minutes to unfold? And it unfolds all right, in a manner most unpleasant. It convolutes in such a way as to incite puzzlement, to the point where I had no idea what was happening to poor old Espinosa, and why Julian was in the picture at all. This is a strange film indeed, and the cloying, almost insulting ending doesn’t do it any favours.


Nothing In Return
A Cambio De Nada

04 Apr - Spanish FF Nothing In Return

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

Director Daniel Guzmán’s Nothing In Return is a snapshot of the life of Dario (Miguel Herrán), an almost 16-year-old boy whose life is unravelling at the hands of his parents’ very messy divorce. Heavily neglected and facing trouble with the law and expulsion from school, Dario runs away to be taken in and put to work by shady mechanic Caralimpia (Felipe García Vélez). Now fending for himself, Dario and his best friend Luismi (Antonio Bachiller) refuse to let their difficult situation ruin their summer; though their increasing temptation to solve all their problems by stealing could lead to some serious consequences and life lessons…

Films like The Squid and the Whale and A Separation show us a hard-hitting deconstruction of a divorce in process; Nothing In Return uses it only as the kick-off, instead seguing into the impact of the divorce on the sole child of the marriage and turning it into a twisted coming-of-age tale. It manages to be very entertaining in the process, effectively blending comedic banter and brash endeavours with high-stakes drama and. Herrán and Bachiller share an impressive chemistry as the pair tackle regular teenage matters – sex, girls and drinking; and the irregular – carrying out heists and high speed police chases. There are themes of uniting different generations through loneliness, though it comes up a little short; if only Dario’s parents were fleshed out a little more, this would be a rich and completely fulfilling experience.


Images courtesy of Spanish Film Festival 2016 and Palace Films 

Movie Review – Labyrinth of Lies

Ich bin erschrocken! One brave German navigates the labyrinth of Nazi cover-ups, searching for truth, justice, and a better script…

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

The Second World War may have been long over by 1958, but its shadow still loomed over Germany, a nation doing its best to bury its crimes against humanity. Former Nazis have quietly stepped back and integrated themselves as regular members of everyday society, covering their tracks and dodging comeuppance for their heinous acts committed under Hitler’s reign. That is, until journalist Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) takes interest in a case no one else is brave enough to touch – an investigation into a West Berlin school teacher identified as a former Auschwitz death camp leader. In the process, Radmann unwittingly exposes a government-controlled system put in place for former Nazis to protect each other, and vows to stop at nothing until justice is served for all criminals of war.

With Labyrinth of Lies, director Giulio Ricciarelli amazingly manages to pry another fresh, untold tale out of the World War II history books; an event apparently not yet completely squeezed dry of storytelling capabilities. More astounding is that it’s an enormously intriguing one, set in the too little-seen aftermath of the years of battle.

It makes it all the more shocking then, that we learn – through Radmann’s horrified eyes – that this has been achieved by merely sweeping the horrors under the rug. Its genuinely upsetting to witness some of the interviews he conducts, hearing troubling anecdotes of child torture and stomach-churning medical experiments. Shades of Spotlight’s journalistic intrigue shine throughout, but sadly, this German language film never reaches the same heights.

It’s truly a shame that such an interesting and refreshing account of a pivotal moment in history is brought down by depressingly lazy storytelling. Ricciarelli handles the dramatics as a director well enough, but his screenplay, co-written with Elisabeth Bartel, is cliché-ridden, clunky and terribly uninspired. Fehling’s Radmann is so blindly determined in his quest that he goes through the blasé motions most made-for-TV movies wouldn’t stoop to these days – losing everything and hitting rock bottom in his quest for justice. His motives for such gruelling self-sacrifice are never one hundred per cent clear, but you’ll certainly be able to smell the predictable resolution from a mile off.

Worst of all is the love story between Radmann and Marlene (Friederike Becht), a seamstress who, after getting off on the wrong foot with Radmann as the subject of a court case, becomes his romantic interest. Becht is gorgeous, but little more than an “emotional core” plot device. There is literally a scene wherein Radmann, traumatised by his recent findings and in need of reassurance, is looked in the eye by Marlene, mid-coitus, and told that “life is beautiful.” Gag.

Much of this soapy nonsense undermines the film’s prudent points, but if you can look past the crudely conventional content, there is plenty to chew on here. It makes for a fine – if less compelling and impactful – companion piece to Son of Saul.

Labyrinth of Lies is available in Australian cinemas from March 31st 

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment 

27th Alliance Francaise French Film Festival

Oui, oui mes amis! It’s that time of year again. From light-hearted comedies, to dark-minded thrillers, a wide array of French films will be descending upon Cinema Paradiso, Luna on SX and Windsor Cinemas from March 16th. Here’s a quick look at just some of the films you’ll be able to check out over the coming weeks.

Blind Date
Un peu, beaucoup, aveuglément!
Director: Clovic Cornillac
Starring: Mélanie Bernier, Clovis Cornillac, Lilou Fogli

03 March - AFF Blind Date

Opposites attract in Clovis Cornillac’s sweet and sugary Parisian rom-com, Blind Date.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

Two unnamed neighbours, played by Clovis Cornillac and Mélanie Bernier, find themselves in the unlikeliest of romantic relationships after the latter moves into her tiny new Parisian apartment. He is a talented inventor who craves silence, whilst she is an aspiring pianist – and together their conflicting interests spark the strangest of romantic entanglements. Separated by a thin expanse of dry wall, the two find themselves getting to know one another intimately, despite never actually meeting.

Cornillac’s film sets itself apart by ensuring that the would-be lovers not only never meet or see one another, but that they also never learn each other’s names. It’s a refreshing and unique approach that gives renewed focus to astute dialogue and character growth. As the duo flirt and fight through the blank dry wall, their warmth and affection for each other exudes both through the partition and out of the screen. From bickering about singing in the shower, to teaching each other how to cook, the effervescent chemistry that the lead duo shares is an incredible feat of smart writing and sharp characterisation.

Cornillac, who shares writing duties as well as directing and starring as the male lead, is brilliant, but the star of the show has to be Bernier, who gives a radiant performance behind her thick-rimmed glasses and tight hair bun. The plot may lean on some fairly recognisable tropes (such as awkward cases of mistaken identity), but the rousing finale and hefty emotional payoff makes Blind Date a charming and bubbly time at the movies.


Courted
L’Hermine
Director: Christian Vincent
Starring: Fabrice Luchini, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Victor Pontecorvo

03 March - AFF Courted

Dry wit, sappy romance and justice for child-killers – French drama Courted has it all. If only it could balance all three and add some depth, we might have had a modern classic on our hands.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

Supreme Judge Michel Racine (Fabrice Luchini), president of the criminal justice-dealing Assize Court, is having a hard time. He’s recently divorced and the butt of gossip and rumours amongst his fellow law workers, he’s contracted a bad flu the night before presiding over an infant-murder trial, and to top things off, ex-flame Ditte (Sidse Babett Knudsen) has been randomly selected as a juror on the case, forcing them to work in close proximity for the entire span of the trial. As romance re-blossoms and the case heats up, Racine discovers a late-in-life optimism that he thought had escaped him forever.

Courted is a peculiar film, in that director Christian Vincent (La Discréte, Haute Cuisine) doesn’t seem entirely sure what he wants it to be. There’s an odd blend of harrowing courtroom drama mystery, light romance, and bursts of dry, quirky Murphy’s Law humour, which – while each having its moments – doesn’t quite gel together the way it should. Luchini and Knudsen do solid work, injecting each of their roles with enough charisma to invest in their separate characters, but unfortunately their romantic moments fall mostly flat; their backstory connection is shallow, and their chemistry sadly lacking thanks to the absence of any passionate or sentimental moments.

Much more intriguing is the court case itself, surrounding a young man (Victor Pontecorvo). Unfortunately, the trial is reduced to a backdrop to serve our key players’ fairly stagnant storylines, when really it should be front and centre. We’re left with an entertaining, if ultimately empty string of law-revolving vignettes that could have been something great; if only Vincent had remained more focused.


The White Knights
Les Chavelier Blancs
Director: Joachim Lafosse
Starring: Vincent Lindon, Louise Bourgoin, Valerie Donzelli

03 March - AFF White Knights

White people problems in the Third World: The White Knights, despite an interesting narrative, is hindered by those front and centre.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Tom Munday

Belgian-French drama The White Knights is inspired by one of the past decade’s most arresting, world-spanning stories – the Zoe Ark controversy of 2007. The plot here revolves around the Move for Kids campaign, a NGO headed-up by Jacques Arnault (Vincent Lindon) and his girlfriend Laura Turine (Louise Bourgoin).

The group’s mission involves rescuing 300 children from a civil war in African nation Chad. Sounds honourable right? Here is the catch: the team members – hiding their true identities as adoption-agency workers – plan to take the children to France,  away from their families, instead of setting up a compound in Africa like they have promised the locals.

The story itself provides a fascinating insight into white privilege taking advantage of those less fortunate. The lead characters’ actions – lying and buying their way through various situations – appear to be ripped straight from the headlines. However, The White Knights never quite delves into the moral, political, and cultural quandaries – favouring to depict the nitty-gritty details (bureaucratic red-tape, funding negotiations etc.) over significant discussion or contemplation.

Director Joachim Lafosse favours personal drama between our blustering, selfish lead characters. The drama relies entirely on Jacques and Laura’s spiteful relationship quarrels. Jacques, prone to intimidation over care or consideration, spends the majority of the film’s bloated 112-minute run-time, snapping at his rag-tag group of helpers. The socio-political overtones are heavily underdeveloped, shining the spotlight on our Caucasian leads, rather than the Third World around them.

The White Knights has it share of positives, aided by an arresting visual style and fine performances. However, the divide between story and storyteller fails to capture truly interesting titbits on offer.


Heatwave
Coup De Chaud
Director: Raphaël Jacoulot
Starring: Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Grégory Gadebois, Karim Leklou

03 March - AFF Heatwave

Heatwave makes life difficult for all its inhabitants, but its muddled writing leaves it oddly cold.

⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Raphaël Jacoulot’s Heatwave is a movie that is at odds with itself. It is about village life and small town politics. It is a murder mystery. It is communal and picturesque. It also happens to take place during a terrible heat wave. None of this is related, and the movie seems to be okay with that.

Jean-Pierre Darroussin plays Daniel, the mayor (and vet) of a countryside hamlet in France. His townsfolk are restless; playing pranks on the cow farmer (Carole Franck), and causing all kinds of trouble in the village square is Josef (Karim Leklou), a kleptomaniac who’s also, as the movie suggests, a raving lunatic.

Leklou is perhaps the movie’s best player. He’s eerily convincing as the deranged Josef, whose wild and inexplicable behaviour takes him from stealing local groceries to almost raping a little old lady. His mother defends him (“He had little oxygen in his brain when he was young!”), but surely she must accept defeat and realise her son is frightfully uncontrollable.

Josef, however, isn’t fully fleshed out as a sympathetic troublemaker. He’s not pushed to the extreme of his potential. Where does he fit into the grander schemes of the villagers and their plans? Why is there a heat wave? It appears as a backdrop but has no direct impact or consequence on any of the characters or the plot. I would’ve liked a story just about Josef. He could be a very interesting young boy. Or a story just about the heatwave, and how the village struggles to survive under its weight. It doesn’t work when you put the two together.


Images courtesy of the Alliance Francaise Film Festival, Paramount Pictures, Vendetta Films, Umbrella Entertainment, Madman Entertainment & Potential Films