Reviews

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 - PÖFF - Pimedate Ööde filmifestival

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.

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.

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.

The Lighthouse (2020)

Written for RAF News January 2020

A late-nineteenth century ghost story set in a lighthouse in New England. A weathered keeper and his freshly imported assistant divide the duties, with young Winslow (Robert Pattinson) taking the more gruelling and physically demanding jobs, whilst Wake (Willem Dafoe) looks after the light itself, guarding it with almost religious fervour. Stuck with only each other, as a storm prevents them from leaving, what begins as minor grievances will grow into cut-throat resentments as the isolation tares at their sanity.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse (2019)

There is a mythic energy expressed though stark and sometimes surreal imagery as well as ornate language straight from the writings of Melville and Milton. These two masculine figures, young and old, are left to stew in a steaming froth of bitterness and paranoia, bubbling out into Shakespearian soliloquies with biblical wrath. Dafoe delights in the extremes of his character, filled with both humour and fury. Pattinson’s anger will spill out also, squirming under the regime of the man who controls his pay.

Shot in black and white, through lenses a century old, the square aspect ratio is tall enough to capture the phallic lighthouse in all its glory, and creating mountains of Pattinson and Defoe’s faces: hairy, crusty and carved with age. With the image boxed in, the claustrophobia is transferred straight to the audience and you can almost smell the salt and damp.

This is no ordinary film, it is a fever dream of symbolism and dark poetry, of seagulls and sirens. It is both artistic and crass, exhibiting all manner of bodily fluids as the two keepers drunkenly spiral into madness. Cowritten and directed by Robbert Eggers, whose debut The Witch had a similar affection for period detail and dialogue, The Lighthouse is another plunge into the same waters, only deeper and darker with less to hold on to.

Jojo Rabbit (2020)

Written for RAF News January 2020

A coming of age story set in the waning years of rule in Nazi Germany, Jojo Rabbit follows young Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) and the relationships with his rebellious mother, the young Jewish girl hiding in the attic and his invisible friend and motivating confidant, Adolf Hitler.

Image result for jojo rabbit

There are certainly moments of darkness in the film, the true horror of the situation can’t help but push through the playfully subversive tone, but for the most part it plays as a cross between Moonrise Kingdom and Drop Dead Fred. The comedy is constant, propelled with flare by writer director Taika Watiti himself as Jojo’s goofily imagined version of Hitler, offering encouragement when he has no-one else.

Living at home with his mother (Scarlett Johansson), Johannes wants to belong to something and so becomes a fervant fanboy of the Nazi party – Hitler and swastikas adorn his wall like band posters. A member of a Nazi youth camp, headed by a literally and figuratively resigned Captain Klenzendorf (excellently played by Sam Rockwell), here he will learn how to hunt Jews and use explosives. That is until an accident has him thrown out, reduced to a position that has him spending more time at home where he makes the ideology shattering discovery that his mother is hiding the enemy (Thomasin McKenzie).

Led by his ardent but naive enthusiasm, Jojo knows that he can’t risk endangering his mother, and so decides to interrogate the intruder and learn all that he can about the Jews, how they have tails and sleep upside down like bats.

Although there is a deep and truthful resonance with how Nazi propaganda dehumanised Jewish people, the film cleverly refocusses this mythology to be spouted by a prepubescent boy, mocking the absurdity of it all and usurping the power of these historical villains.

Waititi is continuing a precedent set by Charlie Chaplin almost a century ago when making The Great Dictator, stating that “Hitler must be laughed at”.