Reviews

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 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.

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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.

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.

Astronaut (2020)

Written for RAF News May 2020

Elderly widower Angus Stewart (Richard Dreyfuss) dreams of being an astronaut, and now he may actually be afforded the opportunity when a lottery is opened to the public for the first ever commercial spaceflight.

Astronaut' Review: Richard Dreyfuss Makes an Endearing Space ...

About to be carted off to a care home though he clearly still has his wits about him, Angus is resigned to his position. Grief-stricken he spends his nights outside drinking with his telescope, looking to find where he belongs. That is until his grandson urges him to enter a competition that could see him join a team on a two week trip through space. They would need to lie about his age and heart condition, but other than that highly dangerous risk, he has the sense of wonder they’re looking for.

Marcus Brown (Colm Feore) is the entrepreneur behind it all, a Richard Branson come Willy Wonka, who has a passion for space travel that resonates with Stewart. But what at first seems to be an unlikely beating-of-the-odds for our stargazing Grandpa Joe, becomes a different story altogether as he spots an issue with the runway as he is cast out of the competition.

An ex-civil engineer, this is his area of expertise and so it becomes his mission to bring it to everyones attention, without appearing bitter from rejection. This becomes another one of those highly improbable situations like Armageddon in which a regular salt-of-the-earth guy notices a problem that teams of well trained experts overlook. Evidently, they’re going to need a bigger road. A tougher road. You get the idea.

Dreyfuss adds confidence to proceedings, with a believable sense of passion that could just bag him another close encounter in Astronaut. Unfortunately the wistful pace and lack of substance leave this performance floating out on its own.

Storm Boy (2019)

Storm Boy': Review | Reviews | Screen

Written for RAF News April 2020

Geoffrey Rush plays Michael Kingley, an ageing businessman who is about to vote on whether a mining company can exploit the land that he grew up on, the beautiful South Australian beaches of Coorong. This casts him back into memories of his childhood and in particular his relationship with Mr. Percival, a pelican.

Mostly told through flashbacks, Mike is played by Finn Little as a young boy, living out in a shack with his stoic but sweet father (Jai Courtney), reading Lord of the Flies together, apparently serving as a corporate manifesto in this context.

However it is when he meets a local Indigenous man by the name of Fingerbone Bill (Trevor Jamieson) that he starts to connect more with nature. The birds native to the island are being hunted for sport and whilst his own father is indifferent, he feels an urge to protect them. Discovering an orphaned nest of chicks with Bill, he takes them home to raise them himself.

Whilst his father is initially resistant, he sees the passion that has awoken his boy and so supports in designing contraptions to feed them until they can do it for themselves. Not quite the emotional turmoil of Casper and his Kes, young Michael still finds an escape in the rearing of the birds, opting to keep one as the family pet.

As they grow larger we some footage of these remarkably playful pelicans, creating a real connection between Michael and the birds. It is the unsubtle dialogue that treads on the tenderness of the story. The framing device with Rush doesn’t really add anything to the story, other than a heavy-handed morality.

Apparently a well known Australian novel that had been adapted into a beloved-to-some movie, this recent adaptation doesn’t do anything very interesting but the innocence of children and animals is a surefire way to get a dose of empathy.

The Rest of Us (2020)

The Rest of Us (2020) - Rotten Tomatoes

Written for RAF News April 2020

Cami (Heather Graham) and her teenage daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse) live in a beautiful hill-top home isolated from the world, that is until some guests arrive in the shape of her ex-husband’s new wife and young daughter following his sudden accidental death.

When Cami finds out that Rachel (Jodi Balfour), the so-called ‘homewrecker’, has not only been widowed, but unravelling financial struggles have lead to her being evicted, she offers her slice of paradise as a place to stay. What was perhaps a sympathetic gesture, is initially refused but soon becomes the only option, much to the annoyance of everyone involved.

The Rest of Us looks at the relationships between these women, how they deal with grief over this absent male presence, and the ripples of his decisions that continue to affect them. Both mothers fail to connect with their own daughters, Cami professing to have a way with kids, where Rachel is closer in age with a rebellious mindset to get approval of the teenager. Together forming a yin-yang of roles, this of course does not account for jealousy, rivalry and social tensions – with some secrets threatening to divide the family up once more.

There is a maturity to the storytelling which is able to avoid over-explaining. A quick cutting style punctuates some funny moments and dramatic turns at the end of a scene, but it’s continued use makes it feel choppy. It has all the makings of an indie film but the editing style of an action movie. The fast pace moves the story along but also stops it from finding a rhythm or slowing down enough to connect with characters emotionally. Strange considering the film is centred around the grieving process.

What it does achieve though is showing a range of female voices, both in front of and behind the camera. Playing off stereotyped hostility, these characters exhibit solidarity without it being too clean and patronising, it is messy and complex but ultimately humanitarian.