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Screwdriver

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This is both a tense film and a rather understated one, with those apparent contradictions exemplified in its subdued and troubled protagonist. The immediate trigger for his distress is an incident in 2002 when a friend of Palestinian youth Ziad (Ziad Bakri) is fatally shot by an Israeli sniper. Shortly afterwards, a passenger in Ziad’s car responds by also shooting someone at random. Ziad takes the fall for his friends, and spends the next fifteen years in prison, where he evidently does it even tougher than we might assume. What happens after his release – and his complex but bottled-up feelings about it – are the meat of the matter in this involving story.

Adjusting to a changed outside world is one of Ziad’s challenges, but of course the sense of disorientation engendered by things like Facebook and a greater range of coffee pale into utter insignificance next to his deeper alienation. Traumatised, haunted by his past and unable to sleep at night, Ziad is unwilling – or possibly unable – to talk about it when approached by a well-intentioned female documentary maker. Nor he can he relate to his family, the friends who welcome him as a returning hero or the exigencies of holding down a job. In one of his less taciturn and more evocative moments, he describes himself as feeling “out of my skin”.

Screwdriver is an intelligently conceived and sustained mood piece, which manages to show the universal in the personal without – for the most part anyway – being an overt propaganda vehicle. (One character even says that such films “only make people feel sorry for us”.) And it’s got that rare virtue, a terrific ending.

 
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Blue Hour

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

The trappings of independent cinema transcend cultural boundaries. The emphasis on intimate character studies, minor narrative setup that feels like an excuse for the characters to be highlighted, keyboard-centric soundtrack that sounds like it was written for ads playing in the background of pharmacies – even for the uninitiated in Japanese cinema, what appears in writer/director Yuko Hakota’s debut feature should still ring familiar. As much as all of this may sound like backhanded statements, Blue Hour does make for good drama, although one wishes that it carried just a little more emotional heft.

Centred on Kaho’s Sunada, a 30-something commercial director working in Tokyo, Blue Hour serves explores antisocial tendencies in the more literal sense: people who actively avoid other people. Between Kaho and Eun-Kyung Shim’s frequent moments of people-watching, their bonding over homemade comic books, and the numerous iterations of self-centred humanity, this all carries a certain Daniel Clowes social distance quality. Only it replaces Clowes’ plain-faced misanthropy with copious amounts of self-loathing, with Sunada claiming that she is doing everyone a service for not having to deal with her.

The way that relationships form the self, ends up containing the bulk of the narrative, as we see Sunada’s connection (or lack thereof) to others. Her strained relationship to her husband, her chalk-meets-cheese dynamic opposite Eun-Kyung Shim’s Kiyoura, her hesitant connection to her parents and grandmother, even down to her experiences with animals and insects. It echoes certain greener sentiments about how healthy connections to wildlife can lead to a more empathetic relation to living things as a whole, a trait that Sunada is shown to be lacking initially given her unsettling childhood recollections.

As backed by Ryuto Kondo’s sterile yet warm cinematography, Daisuke Imai’s editing that helps bring the intentionally jarring nature of the pacing to the forefront, and the combined efforts of Nao Matsuzaki and alt-rock group Shikanoichizoku on the soundtrack, Blue Hour is the story of a woman essentially growing out of her self-imposed shell and reconnecting with those around her. Again, it shares traits with Western indie dramas, looking like something Lena Dunham could eye for a remake, and part of that comes with the low-key emotional wavelength that some may have difficulty adjusting to.

But beyond that, this still makes for a resonate depiction of social isolation and 30-something ennui. Despite its main catch-call of tackiness is life, it resolutely avoids dipping too far into cliché and the production values are as far removed from being tacky as you can get.

 
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Beanpole

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The year is 1945. World War II has concluded, and Russia is in the process of rebuilding. Set in the city of Leningrad, director Kantemir Balagov’s sophomore feature is the story of Iya (Viktoria Miroschnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), two hospital workers trying to continue their lives in the face of widespread tragedy.

As captured by Kseniya Sereda’s sickly and jaundiced photography, the depiction of Leningrad is one of utmost dread. Watching this film is like seeing an entire country in the depths of suicidal depression, a void of numbness so pervasive and deadening that its inhabitants are in search of something, anything, that can make them feel again. It is almost crippling in how uncomfortable it gets, to the point where child death not only sets the tone for this over-two-hour golem of misery, we’re barely 20 minutes in when that moment strikes.

Against that backdrop, the story of Iya and Masha and their respective responses to their personal trauma almost feel like a domestic reprieve from what’s happening around them. Echoing post-war sentiment regarding women – both in terms of how employment drastically alters in war time and as their base biological position as part of the effort to continue life – their mere presence in the story seems to buck against social norms regarding gender.

Through their individual circumstances regarding child-rearing (Iya is capable of having children but struggles with conception, while Masha is infertile), what should be rather tragic in how bodily autonomy takes the backseat, almost turns into plain-faced domestic drama. The stance of putting one’s society above one’s own body is Soviet in its logistics, but when put in context with the protagonists’ histories as mothers and surrogates, it winds up being the most pleasant aspect of the story. That, and the surprisingly rousing bit of crisis management at its conclusion that sees the sickly yellow give way to a vibrant, life-affirming green.

With all that said, there is a major barrier to entry, and it’s one that is rather synonymous with even the greatest entries of Russian cinema – the pacing. In-step with the dour numbness of the setting and tone, this film tends to drag in places, not helped by how it ends up relying very little on dialogue to carry the story. Those who thought that Leviathan was too slow should probably give this one a miss.

But for those with the patience to traverse it, Beanpole will provide with a dour and all-too-effective look at post-war collective depression, both in its debilitating effects on the populace and the kind of chasm-bridging hope that is needed to cure it. Bolstered by terrific performances and the kind of preternatural skill that makes Balagov a filmmaker to keep an eye on, it’s a depressing ride that might just make you thankful for the tears.

Beanpole won both the FIPRESCI Prize (critics) and Best Director in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes 2019.

 
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Moonless Dawn

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“It’s raining sparks,” says Haruka Echigo’s Saki, as the sky fills with dreamlike fireworks during Moonless Dawn – a moody 60-minute feature on existential youth.

Inspired by the music of Japanese band LOWPOPLTD, Harika Abe’s debut steers the intertwining stories of three students in Shibuya. The first is Yuka (Yuka Nakao) – a popular schoolgirl who occasionally meets with strangers in love hotels; Saki, a timid and troubled student who is at odds with her strict parents, and Kou (Yuzu Aoki), an aspiring musician whose wimpy father teaches at his school.

Sitting uneasy at the precipice of junior high school, these aimless characters are drawn together by Kou’s music and develop a platonic bond that fills the void of dull Japanese academia and home life. Their meeting point (or club treehouse of sorts) is the rooftop of a mysterious building that overlooks the sullen city. A place they can jointly escape to, away from the moral and forced-upon obligations of their daily lives.

The film also muses on interesting present-day concerns about modern technology and relationships – where people are so accustomed to communication through their phones that they’ve forgotten what true interaction and connection feels like. Take Kou, for example, who barely acknowledges the existence of his single father – a man physically bullied by his own students and incapable of retaliation.

In another awkward scene, with minimal use of dialogue and eye contact, Kou invites a classmate over with the intention of making a move on her. Yuka, meanwhile, finds some form of imprudent satisfaction from encounters with seedy older men – relentlessly vying for her attention on Shibuya’s busy promenade.

Contrasting the village-like suburbia with the city’s modern constructs, Abe’s restrained direction suits Japan’s grey palette and allows her young actors to deliver understated performances which gently unravel and build portraits.

But the one-two combo of Moonlight Dawn’s brief running time and slice-of-life narrative means it never truly gains enough traction – the screenplay drifting as free-spirited as its characters, before an odd twist (or turn?) and unsatisfying denouement. The result is a peculiar and laconic snapshot of Japanese adolescence that would better suit an intriguing TV pilot, rather than a feature film.

 
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Don’t Be Nice

Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Slam poetry’s aim to communicate the hardships experienced by the marginalised, comprising of one-part confronting lyricism and one-part performance, becomes defanged thanks to a competitive poetry circuit whose round-robin nature resembles The Masked Singer. With no Lindsay Lohan or obscure Australian pop-star hidden beneath a mask in sight, this competitive world of slam poetry is explored in the honest-yet-doughy documentary Don’t Be Nice.

The film follows the journey of the Bowery Slam Poetry Team – a team comprised entirely of people of colour – in the lead up to the 2016 National Poetry Slam. The National Poetry Slam offers entrants more than just a soapbox to discuss inequality. For the competitors, it provides the opportunity to perform in front of large crowds and an entry point into the entertainment business.

Vulnerability is part of the game, with each competitor digging deep into their traumatic past to convey a confronting look at the current climate. It is not enough for these participants to say how they feel; they must bleed for it.

From ideation to fruition, director Max Powers invites the viewer to witness the creative process for these artists. For these vanguard poets, it is a journey that is equal parts rewarding as it is frustrating, with the fruit of their labour put under constant scrutiny by their coach.

Their handling of critique, whether destructive or constructive, allows Don’t Be Nice to introduce a discussion on criticism culture. To the detriment of the film, this theme is not explored further with the documentary unable to draw a satisfying point-of-view on the matter.

Don’t Be Nice is unafraid to question the legitimacy of its practice, with members of The Bowery Slam Poetry Team questioning those who ‘write good poetry’ with those who ‘write to win competitions.’ This question of artistic integrity versus crowd-pleasing is explored with thorough concern and demonstrates deep thinking on behalf of the filmmakers who remain committed to upholding the sanctity of slam poetry.

This degree of complex thinking is most evident in the slam poets’ performances, with each participant using every opportunity on-screen to leave an impression. They are performers who use words and expressions to provoke strong emotions; their everyday fears coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement being some of the prevalent themes in their work.

Slam poetry is an art-form that draws its intense power through a frenzy of provocative right-hooks that speak to the human experience. It is when the filmmakers decide to incorporate visual elements, the output having the same quality as a YouTube video, where Don’t be Nice breaks its neck trying to enhance the medium. It becomes an indie effort wanting to turn mainstream that ultimately clashes with the underground nature of slam poetry.

All sizzle and little pop, Don’t Be Nice offers a fascinating yet unfocused glimpse into the world of competitive slam poetry.

 
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JK Rock

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The latest from director Shunji Muguruma (Shadow Kids, Oh! My! God! Kamisama kara no okuimono) is a tune made up of familiar notes. A trio of high school girls form a band and, when discovering that their favourite hot spot, Tero’s Rock Café is at risk of closing down, they enter a band competition to raise the money needed to keep it open. The trio are mentored by Jyo, a former musician who felt he missed his chance at stardom while his former bandmate raked in the glory, learning to rock again through the youthful energy of his proteges.

Of course, like the best music in the genre, cliché is part of what makes it work. The music itself, courtesy of Koji Endo strikes a heartful chord through its simplicity, allowing the infectiousness of both the tunes and the performance thereof to flow in and out of the frequently melodramatic narrative. It’s almost unfair how catchy the music is, making ‘humming the baseline’ into less of a suggestion and more of a foregone conclusion.

While Kaori Tanimoto’s scripting toys around with the tropes of the genre, which makes for an uneasy but ultimately successful blend of the expected and the unexpected, the real shining moments come from the framing. Between the teenaged band Drop Doll, Jyo and his experiences as part of JoKers, and café owner Tero’s own past history as a musician, the story essentially contains three generations of musos. The vigorousness of the teenagers just starting out, the brooding on what could have been from Jyo, and the nostalgic satisfaction of Tero that he ever got to play at all. Between these three is the blueprint through which all rock and roll resonates.

Rock and roll is a driving force in pop culture for a reason, and whether you’re from the land of the rising sun or the house of the rising sun, the shared experience remains.

JK Rock may be held back somewhat by its familiarity, but the delivery and frenzied glee makes for a very fun feature. Watching these musicians put their heart and soul into their playing, it’s hard not to get lost in the euphoria of it all, and if film is meant to make an audience feel more than anything else, you’re most certainly going to get that here.

 
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Daniel Isn’t Real

Festival, Film Festival, Horror, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Imaginary friends and horror movies go together like beer and pizza, wine and cheese or pingers and threesomes, they’re just a great match. You can trace an arc through genre history, from The Exorcist (1973) to The Shining (1980) to more modern gear like The Conjuring (2013) and The Babadook (2014), and more examples that we simply don’t have the time and space to get into. Something about the notion of a child having a relationship with someone or something only they can see is inherently fascinating, and more than a little creepy. Daniel Isn’t Real, from the wonderfully named director Adam Egypt Mortimer, brings a fresh take to the idea, and delivers an effective, thrilling horror movie to boot.

Daniel Isn’t Real focuses on Luke (Miles Robbins), a pleasant but troubled young man, who is finding the stress of college and helping care for his mentally ill mum, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterton) is all a bit too much. Just when he reaches what appears to be his breaking point, his childhood imaginary friend, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) steps back into the picture, all grown up and ready to help Luke be all that he can be. But after a honeymoon period where Daniel helps Luke with relationships and standing up for himself, his suggestions become demands, and he begins to get possessive and violent.

The film succeeds on two levels. Firstly, the script is a cracker, digging into a rich vein exploring mental illness, masculine identity and the idea of artistic inspiration as a kind of madness. Secondly, the performances from everyone, but particularly Robbins and Schwarzenegger (and yes, that’s Arnie’s kid), are very good indeed. Luke’s dorky twitchiness pairs beautifully with Daniel’s almost sensual arrogance, making their relationship the black beating heart of the flick. Mary Stuart Masterton also brings the goods as Luke’s mum, portraying a character who is fascinatingly bowed but unbroken by the demons of her mind. Ironically, the dissection of real world themes is so deftly handled, it’s almost a pity when the horror arrives in earnest, although that too is skillfully executed, if occasionally a tad familiar.

Daniel Isn’t Real is a low budget horror flick with a lot on its mind. Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, always utterly compelling, it’s a reminder that genre films don’t need to be empty-headed regurgitations and that supernatural themes can resonate with more grounded concepts. If that sounds like your jam, check it out and bring some friends, both real and imaginary.

 
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Rabid

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The Soska Sisters, comprising Canadian identical twins Jen and Sylvia, have been notably absent from genre filmmaking for a little while. Certainly, they directed the slasher sequel See No Evil 2 in 2014, but their last original work was body modification-infused, Katherine Isabelle starrer, American Mary in 2012. It’s fitting that their return is a remake of a work by another bonkers Canadian, David Cronenberg and his 1977 body horror Rabid.

To be blunt, Rabid is far from Cronenberg’s best work, making it perfect for the remake treatment and the Soskas rise to the challenge, bringing their comic book-esque sensibility to the proceedings to mostly positive results.

Rabid tells the tale of Rose (Laura Vandervoort), a timid woman who has issues about her appearance and seems unable to break into the world of fashion design. After Rose gets into a terrible accident, she is hideously disfigured, and pretty much thinks her life is over until Dr. William Burroughs (Ted Atherton) offers to give her a radical treatment, on the house.

Post operation Rose looks and feels fantastic, imbued with a fresh face, new found confidence… and a new hunger that seems impossible to sate. From there Rabid kicks off in splattery style, featuring a bunch of engaging gore and body horror moments that will likely have all but the most hardy audience members squirming.

It should be noted the Soska Sisters are not trying to ape Cronenberg’s style at all. Whereas Dave’s vision was icy and slowburn and full of slow building menace, the Soskas’ take is more like an adult comic book. All the characters are broad and just this side of camp, with muscular hunks, heavily accented fashion designers, bitchy models and scientists that feel one stiff drink away from cackling at the heavens, roaring, “it’s aliiiiiiive!” Cronenberg’s stubby armpit stinger has been replaced with a lengthy, whipping pit-tentacle and the overall story is generally bigger and goofier, although in a mostly entertaining way.

Ultimately, Rabid is a solid, engaging horror remake with an unapologetically over-the-top tone that slips frequently from the visceral to the farcical and back again. If you can forgive the occasional ropey moments where the Soskas bite off just a little more than they can chew, and you like your movies with a bit of body horror, you’ll likely find yourself foaming at the mouth over Rabid.