Waru

Waru is a film which I tried to get to see at TIFF in 2017, but it was sold out. It doesn’t seem to have been released outside of festivals. It’s been on my watchlist but ‘unavailable’ on Amazon Prime for almost a year. I wondered if I would ever get to see it.

And so god bless HOME, my local independent cinema and spiritual home, for their year-long programme of Women in Global Cinema in 2019. Waru was screening once, and once only, on a bitterly cold January evening, and I was not going to miss it.

It is such a powerful film. 8 different female directors have each created a 10 minute short film featuring female characters, each of which has a connection to the funeral of a young boy. The shorts weave together to allow us to view the death and its impact through the eyes of the immediate family, the community and the media.

The women at the centre of the 8 scenes are all incredible characters. All are struggling in some way with their position in society, some maintaining a steely exterior to cover up their internal emotions, others succumbing to desperate measures to cope. But all are real characters in recognisable situations, which really ensures that the message is brought home.

In fact, it’s worth mentioning that each short is filmed in one long take, with the camera swirling around the central female, following her in and out of her car, around the corridors of her work, or through the rooms of her home so that the audience is completely immersed in her experiences and emotions. It’s incredibly well done and I would be hard pushed to pick out a weak link, unusual for a portmanteau film.

It’s an excoriating view of New Zealand’s failure to address issues of child abuse, and also highlights racism and inequality; its themes are weighty, but the film doesn’t wring its hands over the issues. Instead it is (and indeed it ends with) a call to action to actually do something to reduce the levels of abuse.

If you ever do get a chance to see this, please invest 86 minutes of your time. It’s worth it.

Roma

I find it very difficult to comment too much in-depth on films like this, films which are so essentially personal to the film maker. And although many films to a certain extent will be personal, Roma – like Martin Scorsese’s Silenceis so deliberately and deeply rooted in the experiences of the writer/director/cinematographer Alfonso Cuarón that my opinion regarding the storytelling is largely irrelevant.

And so while I would have been interested to know more about the political background at the time, we don’t get that because the children wouldn’t have paid attention to it. And there is a whole other film to be made about the relationships between the people of Mixtec heritage and the white affluent families whom they serve.

Where I do have huge appreciation though is with the technical achievements. Roma looks absolutely beautiful, with the choice to film in black & white creating some gorgeous images, and also having the effect of reinforcing the feeling of memories being revisited. And there are some glorious long scenes which show a true master at work – the scene in the hospital emergency room for example, or the extended take on the beach are genuinely breath-taking.

For those familiar with Cuarón’s previous work, Roma contains visual references to many of his earlier films – Children of Men, Gravity, Y Tu Mama También – almost as if he had been trying out things in the past, in preparation for this, a film which he has been waiting to make for most of his life.

I liked it very much and I admired it a lot on a technical level – I just wasn’t quite as overwhelmed as I was expecting to be.

Bad Times at the El Royale

This is the sophisticated film that Quentin Tarantino *thinks* he keeps making. But he gets nowhere near the subtle artistry that Drew Goddard shows in Bad Times at the El Royale.

The opening shot – a still camera watching one man at work and featuring some great editing – sets things up and everything spirals from there.

As new characters arrive and mysteries present and unravel themselves, everyone has a part to play, even if some make an earlier exit than others.

Top contributions come from Jeff Bridges – who has given up mumbling so that he can at last be understood. His scene where he explains his illness is extremely, and surprisingly, touching. But it is his companion in this conversation, Cynthia Erivo, who steals the show with every scene she is in. Not only in the scenes where she sings, where she is incredible, but also when the camera focusses on her face. She conveys a wealth of different emotions without saying a word.

I wasn’t sure about Lewis Pullman to start with, but as his character becomes clearer, he really comes into his own. And Chris Hemsworth is creepily salacious – or salaciously creepy – when he eventually arrives.

There are some things which didn’t quite work for me – a couple of the characters disappearing too soon to have any real impact, under-use of Dakota Johnson, and the two-state thing being irrelevant after the first 15 minutes.

But I enjoyed this a lot, and was glad that I knew nothing about it before going in.

A Star Is Born

The title is the beginning of the problem, I think, in that Bradley Cooper has made a film about him and not a film about her, and so the title doesn’t make sense anymore.

I mean, the film is fine and everything, but it didn’t grab me as much as the hype would have me believe.

Gaga was fine, Cooper was good (probably the best I’ve ever seen him, but the bar isn’t that high tbh), Sam Elliott was too scarce.

The thing is, I just didn’t believe their relationship. I wasn’t feeling that they were madly in love. I think she thought she was, but was so used to looking after her father and his cronies that she was just able to turn that behaviour to looking after a husband instead. He sees her as a muse, saviour and emotional crutch but I don’t think he really loves her. I don’t think he knows how to.

By the end I felt a bit emotionally manipulated rather than engaged. And it all felt well … shallow.

BlacKkKlansman

Films that make you laugh, then make you feel uncomfortable that you’re laughing, then stun you into silence all within a few minutes must surely be doing something right.

BlacKkKlansman is a masterclass in doing just that.

That’s not to say that it’s a master*piece*, but it’s not far off that either. What held it back from being that good was a couple of occasions where Spike Lee might be accused of ‘stating the bleedin’ obvious’ after he had spent a couple of scenes cannily drawing parallels between the America of the 1970s and the country as it is in 2018. The set up was so exquisitely done in the first instance, that the “well that’s never going to happen” conversation might just as well have been delivered directly to camera with a knowing wink. And although Laura Harrier is undeniably great as student union leader Patrice, that relationship did leave a bit of an icky feeling – not only was she not in possession of all the facts when she embarked on the romance, she was downright lied to. I understand why, but as that character is a fictional invention added in to the ‘based on a true story’ origins of the script, it didn’t sit too easily.

Beyond that though, this is Spike Lee in top form, and he is perhaps the perfect person to tell this story. The anger driving the narrative is couched in comedic touches, drawing the audience in, until just the moments when we need to be horrified to appreciate the anger. The juxtaposition of the ‘white power/black power’ scene is outstanding (and the casting of one character perfect).

There has been much discussion as to the ending. For what it’s worth, my opinion is that what Lee did is entirely justified and correct. An audience member in front of me was actively laughing with glee and clapping at the telephone scene towards the end, and was suddenly stunned into silence. A reminder to us all that as we go about our privileged lives, someone, somewhere, is fighting against injustice. Perhaps we need to be with them instead of clapping along from the sidelines.

Deadpool 2

Having gone to see the first Deadpool outing with low expectations and having been pleasantly surprised, I didn’t fall into the usual trap this time around. That is, I went in to see Deadpool 2 with equally low expectations and was not in the least surprised.

Full of its own smugness, this film only raised a laugh from me with some of its meta-moments – mostly involving Barbra Streisand and Josh Brolin, and I’m not even sure they were meant to be funny.  All of the puerile humour and over-the-top gore that was part of the ‘plot’ was not my cup of tea.

I quite enjoyed Brolin as Cable, but to have the two main characters avenging the death of the women in their lives was (as was mentioned more than once in the film) sloppy writing.

And I’m now officially bored with Ryan Reynolds trying to carve out a career as a stand-up artist through his films. If you want to be a comedian, go and do that son. I’m not going to pay money to watch your smug face and voice in anything anymore.

Cable has it right. “You’re just a clown. Dressed as a sex toy.”

Sandome no satsujin – The Third Murder

Director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s more recent films have been family focused (After the Storm, Like Father Like Son, Our Little Sister) exploring broken relationships and human frailty. With The Third Murder however, Kore-eda has returned to much larger questions of life’s purpose and what it means to be a human being, in the vein of Air Doll and After Life.

The film opens with a murder, followed by sweeping drone views of a water-side city. We almost get the feeling that we’re about to watch an American crime drama.

But no. Or at least, not quite. We already have our perp. He’s even confessed.

Here’s a thing I didn’t realise – Japan still has the death penalty. The complexity of how this sentence is applied drives the team of legal brains (led by Shigemori – played by Masaharu Fukuyama) to understand why the prisoner Misumi (Kôji Yakusho) has confessed, what exactly he has confessed to, and why he keeps changing his story. It’s deftly handled by Kore-eda so that we understand just as much as we need to, and we don’t spend the entirety of the film inside a courtroom.

As the lies are peeled away and the truth begins to emerge, we start to understand *what* is going on with Misumi, but not necessarily *why*. And as the lawyer Shigemori learns more about his client, Kore-eda and his camera crew shift the view inside the prison visiting room each time so that in the last meeting, some exquisite work sees the faces of the two men almost superimposed on one another.

The audience is left to make up its own mind as to exactly how the ending could be interpreted and while I’m fine with this, there are a couple of loose ends that make me wonder if this wasn’t originally a longer film but had to be cut. The storyline around the lead lawyer’s daughter, for example, feels like it’s going to be quite significant until about half way through but then it just disappears, to the point where she was preying on my mind a little.

But despite these small niggles, Kore-eda delivers yet again. If you’re not familiar with his work, then this would be a great starting point, and I actively encourage it!

A version of this post first appeared on http://www.themovieisle.com

 

Sweet Country

Drawing on themes and images familiar from American Westerns, director Warwick Thornton’s story of a lawman looking for a killer is nevertheless a very Australian story.

Set in the 1920s, when the land was settled by ‘white fellas’ who claimed it by the mere fact of being there, and effectively indentured the indigenous people of the area as their unpaid workforce, this is a story of injustice and oppression on many levels.

Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) is one such Aboriginal worker who, finding himself under attack from new arrival and shell-shocked, bigoted war veteran Harry March (Ewen Leslie), shoots the man in self-defence and has to go on the run with his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber). Sam’s boss Fred Smith (Sam Neill) joins Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), Mick Kennedy (Thomas M Wright) and tracker Archie (Gibson John) to find the pair somewhere in the outback.

The catalyst for these events is a teenage Aboriginal boy Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) – his actions unwittingly bring about the events at the start of the narrative, and he is a silent witness to what is happening. He is between the worlds of indigenous and settler; he sees a different role for himself than that of his elders who owned the land before the white immigrants came, and is coming of age during this period of change, much as Australia itself was struggling to find its identity in the early part of the 20th century.

As the posse tracks Sam and Lizzie, we see that there is more than just one Aboriginal people. Both the trackers and the chased encounter different tribes of indigenous peoples, indicating that nothing is ever as ‘black and white’ as it might at first appear, and nor is the experience of justice. We’re given a tiny seed of hope that the country is turning a corner, which is crushed with Sam Neill’s character exclaiming “What chance has this country got?” when that seed is dashed underfoot.

There is no score, with the filmmaker choosing instead to allow the wind, fire, insects and wildlife of the outback to be the music, the driver of emotions. It works extremely well, and complements the huge landscapes and red soil of the outback. There are also intercut images or ‘flashes forward’ which give the viewer a hint of what is to come, but without specific context so that we can begin to anticipate the outcome – in other words, it’s a foregone conclusion whether we want to accept it or not.

It’s no surprise to realise that woman say very little, and white women the least (there are two of them and one says nothing at all, such is her place). The Aboriginal women know when to speak and when to remain silent.

Many of the Aboriginal cast are local, first-time actors, and Warwick Thornton has extracted some deeply sensitive and emotionally contained performances from them. It also makes some of the scenes difficult to watch as the characters choose subservience rather than standing up for themselves and having to bear the inevitable consequences.

As opposed to a traditional Western, where the white lawmen on horses are the good guys and are fighting against the savagery of the indigenous people, Sweet Country presents a different scenario. Black is not always bad, and white is not always good. Warwick Thornton chooses to remind us of this by reflecting a story of his own nation’s history, asking questions along the way about theft, ownership and justice. Worth your time.

A version of this post first appeared at www.themovieisle.com

You Were Never Really Here

There’s an awful lot packed into these 85 minutes, and they’re all pretty intense.

Joaquin Phoenix is not averse to taking on an enigmatic role, and this fits the bill. Enigmatic in that he says little and with no exposition, the audience is left to work out what’s happening by simply following the action and with a few glimpses of flashback.

And although a lot of the violence isn’t directly on screen, that doesn’t mean that the idea of what we think we see isn’t there. It’s brutal. I also felt quite uncomfortable with the relationship between Phoenix’s character and the young girl he was assisting – I’m not sure I was meant to.

Phoenix’s Joe goes about his business clearly carrying his PTSD in his carrier bag with him, and Jonny Greenwood’s score is visceral in describing this.

I am glad I have seen this, but it was not easy at all.

 

Gholam

Photographer turned writer/director Mitra Tabrizian brings an enigmatic character to the screen and provides a window to a life probably unseen and unconsidered by most cinema audiences.

Acclaimed Iranian actor Shahab Hosseini (The Salesman, A Separation) plays the titular role of Gholam, an Iranian taxi driver living in London, working two jobs and living in one damp room. He belongs in neither world properly, occupying space somewhere between the two. It’s existing rather than living.

We’re told very little about Gholam – we see that he’s a quiet man, a bit of a loner, and gradually we begin to accept that he seems like a decent man who helps elderly people, always pays for his meals and doesn’t want to create any fuss.

And then one day, minding his own business, he is recognised as a possible war hero from the past by a shady character, and finds himself with a decision to make.

Gholam moves at a gentle pace, with Hosseini doing a lot of walking in the London rain as he mulls over his options and tries to decide how much of himself he is prepared to compromise. And Hosseini is so good at that. We can see his internal conflict without him having to explain himself to anyone. His face and demeanour conveys so much.

It’s also a film which shows an unpleasant corner of London, and it’s no accident that the small kindnesses we see are for the most part between immigrants, whereas the local Londoners range from highly irritating business types to bigoted violent thugs, and it’s not pleasant.

I don’t imagine this will get a very wide theatrical release, but if you come across it anywhere, it’s definitely worth 90 minutes of your time.