Rialto (2020)

Written for RAF News October 2020

Dublin’s portside town provides no escape for a middle-aged man in the thick of an existential crisis.

Review of Irish Film @ DIFF 2020: Rialto - Film Ireland Magazine

From the first moment that we see Colm (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), he looks pained, carrying the weight of an unseen burden. Against the scale of the freight cargo that surrounds him at work, and the sea beyond, he looks insignificant – and perhaps this is why he keeps his troubles to himself and suffers in silence.

Emasculated as a father and emotionally detached from his wife (Monica Dolan), we learn that he has recently lost his own father and is soon to lose his job of 30 years. Too young to retire, but too settled to start anew, 46 year old Colm’s only escape is in the brief meetings that he has with teenager Jay (Tom Glynn-Carney) whom he pays for sex.

Set in the titular port town of Dublin, Rialto is shot with a focus on realism. The exchanges between characters are minimal, with Colm so cagey and closed off from those around him that his words are often grumbled – in a dialect that is hard enough to discern when he’s sober. Closeted for so long that he sees no other way, Colm ponders aloud at one point: ‘if we told people what was really in our heads, if we admitted to ourselves even, what would happen?’

There is no joy or respite to be found in the film, moments of pleasure are fraught and serve to highlight the misery that has enveloped Colm’s compromised life. Awash in a grey setting that could well have been 10 or 20 years in the past, it is haunting in it’s existential bleakness. Repressed in almost every way, Colm takes abuse from his son and his young lover (whose meet-cute takes the form of a mugging) only to later lash out at his grieving mother. The abuse is cyclical and misery inescapable.

Adapted for the screen from Mark O’Halloran’s own play Trade, the intimacy remains, and the smaller idiosyncrasies of the phenomenal cast fill the screen with authenticity, but one could hardly call the experience of watching Rialto enjoyable.

A Perfectly Normal Family (2020)

Written for RAF News September 2020

Set in 90s Denmark, we watch the titular idyllic family through a shaky hand-held videocamera – mum, dad and two young girls – as they complete the picture and bring home a puppy. Of course this happiness can’t last and there is the sudden announcement of divorce, set in motion by the father wanting to change gender.

A PERFECTLY NORMAL FAMILY – New Europe Film Sales

From this point the films jumps forward in time to various intervals of Thomas (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) during his transition but from the point of view of the children, and in particular his tomboyish daughter Emma (Kaya Toft Loholt).

At first we view a group therapy session in which everyone appears to be in denial except Thomas, for the first time perhaps, as he asks to be called Agnete. This scene is the most telling in the way that it frames it’s characters. Obscuring Agnete from view and focussing on Emma who has a scarf wrapped around her head in protest, we hear the rise in emotion as people storm in and out of the room, all whilst watching this faceless solitary figure, clearly struggling to process any of this.

Each segment in time is chaptered by the same VHS-grain home video of the perfect family from the beginning, when the advent of recording meant capturing moments of joy and celebration. We see Emma and Thomas playing football in the garden, and then jump back to her unwrapping her first football at Christmas, giving us some sense of the bond that is at stake.

Aside from these vignettes the style is naturalistic, and though it never loses sight of the conflict driving the film, it is the direct but gentle approach to the drama that makes it effective and feel less contrived. Based on the filmmakers’ experience of her own father transitioning when she was young, it is the contained drama that grounds the film and makes it feel personal.

The Painted Bird (2020)

Written for RAF News September 2020

Life is suffering – never has this adage been truer than in Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird. A young boy is left without a guardian in war-torn Eastern Europe and so finds himself falling through the care and clutches of various people – most harbouring such a cruel sadism that it makes the occupying Nazi’s look simply more orderly in their approach to torture.

The Painted Bird' Review - Beautiful and Uncompromising | DiscussingFilm

Passed from an old crone, who believes him to be a vampire, to a jealous miller (Udo Kier), from an elderly priest (Harvey Keitel) sold to a lecherous loner (Julian Sands), from a Nazi soldier (Stellan Skarsgård) to a twisted kind of milk-maiden. The film weaves a tapestry of malevolence that is so ubiquitous that it’s crossover with the second world war appears incidental.

Shot in crisp black and white, there is a stunning beauty to the horror on screen, which makes it that much stranger to endure. It reminded me of the phantasmagoric Russian film Hard to Be A God, but rather than a sprawling Boschian hellscape, this one is more pointed and concise, and without the respite of humour.

It’s a gruelling watch, and as you stay longer in the company of the tortured and tormented young boy, played phenomenally by Petr Kotlar, you become cynical of any offered kindness. You watch as he interacts with different animals, each carrying symbolic significance, none moreso than the titular bird, which is painted by an elderly man who demonstrates the plight of this young boy and indeed the Jewish people: we watch the now segregated bird return to it’s flock unrecognised, pecked to death in a flurried murmuration before it falls from the sky.

The Painted Bird is unrelenting, and you might wonder why the film was even made, adapted from Jerzy Kosiński’s controversial 1965 novel of the same name. I have found few answers, but the images and ideas live long in the memory, though there are many you’d much rather forget.

The Karate Kid (1984)

Late night rewatch of this 80s classic at my local cinema where the subtext became glaringly obvious and touchingly profound.

The Karate Kid, Cobra Kai, and the Odd Legacy of Mr. Miyagi | Vanity Fair

Daniel Larusso, a wise-cracking street kid with charm and a taste for karate, moves from New Jersey to California with his mother.

The handyman for his local apartment comes in the shape of Okinawan mystic, Mr Miyagi, who slyly teaches him spiritual life-lessons but then also springs in to defend him from the Arian nation of bullies from his school with some spin kicks and high chops.

Trained in the Cobra Kai Dojo run by an ex-marine who teaches mercilessness, alpha-nazi Johnny takes issue with Danielson and repeatedly beats and harasses him with his gang, until it is decided that they shall meet in a proper karate tournament.

The Karate Kid is a film about fatherhood and models of masculinity. Daniel agrees to carry out chores for Mr Miyagi in the hopes of receiving training before he realises that this was the training. By waxing cars and painting fences he has powerful wrist movements that can block incoming attacks.

It is Miyagi’s incidental parenting that teaches discipline that can be applied elsewhere in Danielson’s life. His role is not solely a yoda-like guru (offering near exact advice as “do or do not, there is no try” except with a bit of colour about grapes and highways) he is an old man who lost his chance to be a father when he lost his wife and unborn child.

Carrying a zen-like patience, he passes on his wisdom though seemingly mundane and trivial instruction – but this becomes the model of Larusso’s character. When Miyagi tells him that he learnt from his father, Larusso says ‘you musta had some kind of father’. The sequel confirms that Larusso’s father had died – making this surrogate position an open vacancy. And Miyagi calls him Danielson. But of course!

Although it carries the 80s motif of good guys beat up bad guys in the end, even though they are the underdog and didn’t want to fight, the message, to my mind, was about the the ways in which you teach your children and ready them for the world, and the lessons we don’t realise that we’re learning. I had put away a few cocktails by this point.

The Ground Beneath My Feet (2020)

Written for RAF News June 2020

An Austrian thriller that sees the downward spiral of a corporate consultant as she becomes paranoid to the point of delusion, keeping secrets that will eat away at her sanity and might just jeopardise the career and relationship into which she has invested everything.

The Ground Beneath My Feet tracks a world falling apart - Los ...

Lola Wegenstein is one of a small team of hatchet-men: though most are women in fact, including her boss with whom she is having an affair. An invasive job that can involve working 48 hours without sleep, living out of a suitcase in a hotel, she is pushed to breaking point when her sister is committed to an institution after another suicide attempt. For fear of bringing personal issues into an already fraught workplace, Lola discreetly flies between the ward and the job to spin these plates.

Valerie Pachner’s performance as the isolated Lola is riveting in its restraint, establishing a steely veneer that is quickly chipped away. Receiving calls from her sister who insists she is being abused, only to find out that she has no access to phones, Lola begins to question her own reality. With a shared history of paranoid schizophrenia, it dawns on Lola that she might be experiencing the same symptoms of her sister.

The horrification of mental illness is an antiquated idea that can be problematic but the film is able to sidestep these tropes by adding a degree of nuance and subtlety. The thriller elements of the film are grounded in a real sense of fear and urgency, and the quality of filmmaking prevents it from feeling exploitative.

The genre elements seeded in the beginning are dropped in the second half however, leaving a much more restrained and ordinary drama. Though it dodges the pitfalls of psychotic women in the workplace and mental illness as a source of horror, unfortunately the beats stay the same and it becomes blander as a result.

The Ascent (2020)

Written for RAF News June 2020

An elite squad known as ‘Hell’s Bastards’ are sent into a vaguely described civil conflict to retrieve intel, but make a decision that will come back to haunt them, over and over, until they can find a way back to change it.

U.K. Action Thriller 'The Ascent' Turns to VR for Lockdown ...

Ordered to clear a campsite, merciless leader Will Stanton (Shayne Ward) insists that they leave no survivors. Even when they discover a prisoner (Julia Szamalek), he demands that she be killed, forcing Kia Clarke (Samantha Schnitzler) to carry out the execution at gunpoint.

Upon their return to HQ the lifts aren’t working and so they begin to scale the concrete stairs, but after sometime it becomes clear that they are no closer to the top. The handy work of MC Escher these stairs form the perfect purgatorial metaphor. A never-ending climb punctuated by sirens and red light, and members of the team being picked off by an apparent evil presence following after them.

Through this shrewd and straight-forward effect, the filmmakers are able to make one location last infinitely, reminding of the simple ingenuity of high-concept cult horror Cube.

The squad will discover one exit along the stairway, but this leads them back in time to when they began the mission, a portal through which they can view their own sin perhaps, and maybe find a way out of the cycle.

An ambitious blend of science fiction, horror and action, the tone is set by the the interactions of the group. Initially there is some dark humour reminiscent of another cult classic featuring soldiers versus the supernatural in Dog Soldiers. Unfortunately this fades into self-serious monologues that drift towards the generic.

Cursed by design, set in a time-loop, the repetition becomes tiring and gets a little lost, but is brought around by the end of the film in some impressive and inventive ways. The Ascent is an ambitious project that takes chances and makes the most of its resources.

Brokeback

I rewatched Ang Lee’s heart-aching Brokeback Mountain and thought I’d spew some symbolic noticings.

Twilight And Brokeback Mountain Photographer Kimberley French ...

As a study of masculinity, I find the film fascinating. It takes the quintessential icon of Murca’ in the cowboy and flips it, face down into the pillow. The strong and silent hero of literature and cinema becomes a figure of repressed desire and pained sensitivity.

Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Ray is so constrained, suppressing emotion, that words can barely escape his tightly drawn face. Eastwood’s testosterone brimming squint is subverted by Ennis, as it seems to be holding back so much more. The model of the alpha male in the film (his name is almost phallic for fucks sake) he fights out of protection of his family, out of unobtainable love, but also defensively out of anger.

The first high altitude fuck happens like most – whilst drunk, camping, taking a break from watching over the sheep. Ennis is top. For now at least, as his inability to accept himself and his desires has his next drunk and teary tent visit wanting to be cradled. Trying out the yang. There is balance in this newly found relationship it seems, one that couldn’t possibly be matched by Ennis’ wife – these being the days before high-quality pegging paraphernalia.

A brief digression on Christ

The chaps talk religion briefly, in passing. Perhaps as a way to introduce that they’re not strictly religious, and don’t base their morality on the hetero-encouraging printed word of the lord, or maybe because there wasn’t much else to talk about.

But these lads, beautiful lambs of god as they are, take on the spiritually significant role of shepherds. That is until that fateful night with the fighting, and the whisky, and the making up. Ennis returns to his camp where he was supposed to be staying to scare off the wolf, the perfect symbolic embodiment of the shadow self, of latent and unexpressed homosexual desire. He returns to find a sheep has been killed, ripped open and eaten. The sacrificial lamb of his sin. Either way it doesn’t stop him going back for more, but this could embody the guilt and shame that he feels.

Brokeback Mountain Promotional Stills - Brokeback Mountain Photo ...

When the boys get back from Brokeback, and have families of their own, they meet back up under the guise of fishing trips. Cleverly repurposing the Christian symbol of the fish, that would serve as coded message for followers to have secret gatherings under Roman rule.

Jack and the beans-talk

Jack Twist appears to take a beta role in the relationship, coming across boyish – especially in comparison to the uber-staunch manliness of Pennis – or even effeminate in his adoption of certain engendered traits.

Jack is the more goofy of the two but also just more expressive. The love affair all begins when Jack complains of the sleeping situation out in the field with the sheep, preferring instead the camp, where he is able to cook for the both of them, mostly beans which they both tire of quickly.

Ennis is bringing back the food on his horse, when a bear suddenly attacks – another symbolic animal, representing overpowering primal urges maybe – once again costing the two cowboys. Sick of beans, Jack tries his hand at hunting for the both of them but fails. It is Ennis who eventually steps in and kills a bull elk to provide for the both of them.

Jack’s beta position is paralleled in his relationship with his wife. From a successful family, it is her father who takes the alpha role – seen initially at the birth of their child, when he sends Jack away like service staff, but coming to a head at Thanksgiving. This showdown of masculinity occurs when Grandpa’ takes the role of cutting the turkey. Jack accepts this. When he turns off the Football game on television, Grandpa’ gets up and turns it back on – saying some shit about how it’s good for boys. This ruffles Jack’s feathers, and his newly acquired moustache, as he finally stands and defends himself, threatening him to the point that he sits and is served. Jack carves the turkey, winning this battle and earning a sly little grin from his wife.

Meanwhile Penis is having Thanksgiving with his ex-wife and her new husband. Failing to be knocked off of his alph-spot, this is cleverly avoided by having the rounder, less threatening, man-of-the-house use an electric carving knife. Hardly threatening and a beautifully symbolic prop.

In the closet

Of course the most potent symbol that closes out the film is the bloodied shirts of Jack and Ennis. Dealing with notions of suppressing and hiding feelings that appear to run counter to constructed ideas of masculinity and morality – Ennis visits Jacks family home and finds in his wardrobe, a secret department, nesting the shirts from the first night of passion at Brokeback. Significantly carrying Ennis inside himself. When Ennis takes this memento to his mobile home, he reverses the order, placing Jack within himself.

He keeps the shirts in the closet but gives them time to breathe like, opening the door, to this side of his personality, and through this act of remembrance and acceptance, is softened very slightly, not having to keep up the facade of hyper-masculinity that has him being a shitty dad.

Camino Skies (2020)

Written for RAF News May 2020

Parkland Entertainment acquires doc 'Camino Skies' for UK ...

A group of six New Zealanders and Australians come together to make the famous pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago, united not only through the physical journey but the hardships that have led them here.

This documentary follows these individuals, delving into their often heartbreaking motivation, joining them as they come to know each other and find some form of reward in the trials ahead. For some this seems to be a personal challenge, for others an escape or quest for meaning.

For over a thousand years many people have made this journey across northwestern Spain to the shrine of Saint James in search of spiritual growth. The filmmakers here are gifted beautiful backdrops for conversations with these largely senior travellers, who talk very frankly about the tragedies they have suffered and continue to shoulder. Whilst it could feel exploitative, the subjects often seem to be taking great motivation or catharsis from their heartfelt interviews. Inserted throughout, we are given more insight and more reason to be impressed by their perseverance.

A large part of the group appear to be mourning the death of a loved one, in some cases their own children. Perhaps this journey to the other side of the world will afford them some sense of closure before they head back home. Sue Morris is an 80 year old who has recently separated from her husband and is determined to walk the 800km distance, despite having severe arthritis and suffering incredible pain.

In the same manner in which these strangers come to form bonds simply by treading the same path and sharing their stories, walking alongside them you can’t help but take inspiration.

Kindness of Strangers (2020)

Written for RAF News May 2020

Against the frantic backdrop of New York City comes a story of implausible connection, as one woman tries eagerly to escape the clutches of an abusive relationship with her two boys in tow, seeking help wherever she can find it.

The Kindness of Strangers Review: Your Holiday Turkey - That Shelf

Zoe Kazan plays Clara, the mother quickly fleeing Upstate New York to Manhattan with such fearful haste that it gives you some idea of the threat that she has left behind. With no money or place to stay, the runaway family sleep in their car – until of course it is towed. Shuffling from place to place, desperate and paranoid, she must steal clothes to wear and canapés to keep her kids fed.

The film begins by introducing several characters and gradually overlapping their stories, but make no mistake, there is no Curtis cheeriness, but an improbably hopeful story about compassion and community. There is the angel-made-flesh Alice (Andrea Riseborough), who works as a nurse to pay the bills but also volunteers at a soup kitchen for the homeless and running a group for people seeking forgiveness. There is ex-convict Marc (Tahar Rahim) who runs a Russian restaurant with the faux-Russian Tim (the accent is good for business apparently), played by Bill Nighy with superb scene-stealing nonchalance.

What could have easily been more melodramatic, is given more weight by the committed performance by Kazan at the centre. There are a few details that have certain characters seeming to belong in their environment and dramatic moments that aren’t exploitative.

With a title that serves as a mission statement, Kindness of Strangers is so unrealistic that it is almost fantastical in its optimism. But like many of its characters, it’s heart is in the right place.