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Out in the Open

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Intemperie, the Spanish name for Out in the Open, means ‘outdoors’ or ‘the elements’ in English, and these translations precisely describe the look of the film. Nearly the entire running time is spent in the hot, arid landscape of Andalucía – so rarely does the action venture indoors that it seems alien to even be ‘in’ a room. In fact, the occasional time spent away from the elements takes place mostly inside wells, caves or roofless huts. It’s as though the director, Benito Zambrano, is averse to conventional housing. Nevertheless, the depiction of the Southern Spanish savanna is one of the many highlights of Out in the Open. The cinematography by Pau Esteve Birba is amazing, the sweeping pans and intimate close-ups equally affecting.

Zambrano, with writers Pablo and Daniel Remón, won a Goya for best adapted screenplay (from the Jesús Carrasco novel) and the script is laden with themes of guilt and forgiveness, as seen through the lens of post-war, Francoist Spain. The first shot is of a boy running through the fields, shortly followed by scenes of farm hands chasing a hare during a harvest. The excitement is cut short, and the foreshadowing begins, when the foreman shoots said animal dead. Luis Callejo plays this bastion of landed power with ugly menace.

The runaway boy, or Niño, is played with incredible maturity by Jaime López, and as the film progresses, we gradually learn what it is he’s running from. Early on in his flight, he tries to steal food from a wandering shepherd, the Moor, and after initial mistrust on both sides, they begin to warm to one another. Luis Tosar is gruff and resigned as the Moor, an ex-soldier whose default setting appears to be practical nonchalance, and he has a nice line in aphorisms – “You don’t need to buy a village to burn it down. You just need fire and guts. But with fire and guts, you may get smoke in the head.”

The pace is just about perfect, there’s no baggage, and the set-pieces are extremely well handled. One confrontation at a well around the end of the first act is a properly satisfying sequence, tense and bloody, with a clever call-back to a throwaway line from the foreman about the boy’s marksmanship. Another scene at another well involving a desperate disabled war-veteran is full of edge and pathos. And the climax is suitably rewarding with an added gesture from the Moor to Niño that will most likely set him on the path to a rosier future than he might have been afforded earlier in the piece. When the Moor tells him that children ‘can’t be held responsible for the actions of men’, it’s tempting to read this last line as a kind of catch-all apology for the crimes and transgressions of the past.

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The Goya Murders

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The machinations of the serial killer have long been fertile ground for filmmakers, but the quality of the final product can vary greatly. For every Zodiac or Se7en, there’s also The Goya Murders (or El Asesino de los Caprichos), which starts with a reasonably sound premise – a killer is poisoning his (usually well off) victims and recreating scenes from Goya prints as deathly exhibits. Imagine the murder scenes in Se7en but with less gore and more artistry.

Investigating these murders are Madrid detectives, Carmen Cobos and Eva González, played by Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Aura Garrido, and though the actors are fine, they have the writing to overcome. Their characters are broadly painted, there’s not a lot of light and shade here.

Carmen immediately takes against her younger partner for no apparent reason. Eva is a fun-loving, karaoke singing, happy mother-of-two, while Carmen drinks from a hip flask and drives erratically. At one point a fellow officer tells Carmen that her ‘bad cop’ routine is too much. Thanks for the nudge.

But the plot has to take most of the blame. It’s incoherent and vapid with obvious telegraphing – the camera lingers on one character, which is enough to solve the whodunit angle, yet confusingly, later the same thing happens to another character with no resulting pay-off. There are threads that start to develop and are then dismissed summarily. Carmen is removed from the case after a personal error of judgement but is then brought back within 10 minutes of screen time. Even more curiously, in one of the most promising ideas in the script, a high level obstruction of justice is uncovered, and then completely sidelined, never to be revisited. It could even be argued that the motive of the killer, the mechanism driving the whole plot, borders on complete irrationality.

The most egregious misstep is the ending. There’s a gruesome incident in the stereotypical final confrontation and then a short coda that serves no clear purpose. In fact, only the fade to black indicates that the movie is over. Very odd. The writer, Ángela Armero has mostly written for Spanish TV, so perhaps this story could have been better served over a run of episodes.

The Madrid streets scenes are well shot and the director, Gerardo Herrero, has a lot of experience as both a producer and director, but he really should have made some sense of this. The Goya Murders is a film that hangs its constituent parts together with no visible cohesion, leaving the viewer to try to imagine the reasoning behind everything or, more likely, to dismiss it as a waste of ninety minutes.

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Making a DIFFerence

Determined not to allow audience to miss out due to a global pandemic, the Darwin International Film Festival presents Take Two this May.
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While at War (Mientras Dure la Guerra)

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Returning to his native Spanish language, director Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, Agora) has crafted a film that explores the beginnings of the Spanish Civil War through the lens of a famous academic and writer, Miguel de Unamuno (Karra Elejalde) whilst charting the rise to power of the dictator Franco (Santi Pedro).

It is 1936 and a coup d’état is ousting the democratically elected Second Spanish Republic. Nationalist soldiers are appearing on the streets and declaring a new regime. Unamuno, who is a well-respected author and Dean of the University of Salamanca, watches with a curious passivity as the changes occur. For him, such political unrest is a part of the Spanish experience. He had been in vocal opposition of the Monarchy and when the Republic was established, he found himself disillusioned that the promises to unite the Spanish people have failed. The country is split between the left leaning Republicans and the fascist adjacent Nationalists.

Unamuno is foremost an intellectual. Although political ideals have been a part of his writing, he seems more concerned with the quality of how something is expressed rather than what is expressed within the work. He lives a routine life with his daughters and grandson, and spends his free time with his friends, a Protestant priest and a young Marxist professor of Literature, discussing ideas. Whilst his friends sense the coming storm (and indeed are both fatally caught up in it), Unamuno vacillates.

A secondary narrative strand concentrates on Franco’s gradual rise to power, in which he is assisted by the odious war hero Millán Astray (Eduard Fernández). Next to Astray, Franco seems almost an anodyne presence, yet as history will attest, he becomes one of the bloodiest dictators to hold power in Europe. The machinations of Franco’s rise to leader of the Nationalists are given significant screen time, yet they are essentially superfluous scenes.

While at War is a sumptuously mounted period piece, yet it suffers from a lack of palpable tension. Unamuno’s inaction for most of the film seems cowardly, and by the time he fully comprehends his duty to speak out against the increasing violence, the audience may feel frustrated that it has taken so much obvious suffering from those around him to sway him.

The script by Amenábar and co-scribe Alejandro Hernández does require the audience to have some understanding of the political situation within Spain. References to the Basque and Catalans will be mostly lost on an audience who isn’t familiar with the fractured nature of the country at the time. Furthermore, although the stakes are life and death, the film often meanders. What tension there is, exists through suggestion more often than showing the immediate horrors of the war. The audience is given snatches of what is happening, but the drama occurs too often in wood panelled rooms and not often enough on the streets.

For a depiction of such a volatile time in Spain’s history, the film is too restrained and staid. Whilst the cast is routinely excellent, especially the full-bodied performance by Eduard Fernández, they cannot breathe life into the work to make it feel immediate and visceral.

Amenábar has created a character driven drama and on that level the film is a success. However, for those seeking to get a sense of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and its long aftermath, there is little to hold on to.

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The art of Incarceration

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

Aboriginal and Torres Strait people account for 3% of Australia’s general population and yet, make up 27% of the prison population. This is one of many sobering statistics brought to the foreground in The Art of Incarceration, a new documentary by filmmaker Alex Siddons.

As shocking as the facts on display are, the film is not simply something that can be dismissed as an act of virtue signalling by certain people on the political spectrum. Siddon is looking for solutions to address the over-representation of Indigenous Australians in prison.

Narrated by Jack Charles, a man who also had his brushes with the law, Art of Incarceration takes us on a potted history of atrocities that have occurred since white settlement began on this land. There is generational trauma that runs through modern-day Australia that’s impossible to ignore. The impact has seen a cultural dislocation for many Indigenous people. In Victoria, Siddon takes us to Fulham Correctional Centre, where Indigenous inmates have been given an opportunity to reaffirm their cultural identity and potentially find a way to start a path to a new life.

Led by Not-for-Profit organisation, The Torch, inmates have been partaking in an art program where they create works of art that provide spiritual healing and can be shared with members of the public. Siddon follows three people in particular: Troy, a former freelance photographer for ABC, now inside for violence; Christopher, who has been in and out of prison since the age of 12; and Robby, a former heavyweight champion who has been trying to turn his life around after four years in prison. For each of these men, art means something to them and offers a chance at redemption.

Siddon doesn’t focus on their crimes or why they did what they did. To do so would dehumanise them. They are shown to be people who have had opportunities or no opportunities. However, they are united by their culture, their heritage, their trauma and their addictions.

Outside of the trio, Siddon captures moments that wouldn’t be seen by a lot of Australians. When we talk of cultural disconnection and how it happens, there’s perhaps no better example in the film than when a young prisoner wanting to learn the didgeridoo, and the correctional centre not having the budget to provide, resolves to make one out of lolly sticks.

Siddon has put together a powerful film that highlights the atrocities found within the systems. However, he does so by showing that there are opportunities to help people that doesn’t involve turning a blind eye and throwing away the key.

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

Strangeville re-appropriates the science-fiction genre to outback Australia, as strange supernatural forces infiltrate a quiet suburban town called ‘Stephenville’.

The impetus of the plot occurs on a misty night when a shiny UFO descends through the sky to a lonesome farmhouse, kidnapping 11-year-old Maisey, while her parents are zapped to their demise.

After three years, Maisey (Zarlia Chisholm) returns, having lost all of her memory. She joins a rag-tag group comprising of Bruce (David Cook), a hostile taxi driver hardened by the world around him, Miles (Vito Leo), a conspiracy theorist and alien abduction victim himself, and eventually Wendy (Brittany Bell), a waitress who fantasises of escaping her humdrum life, all of which become entangled in the mystery. They vow to unravel who or what is behind the mysterious happenings plaguing ‘Stephenville’.

The film is so self-aware of what it is trying to do, it would almost be labelled a parody if it were not so poorly made itself. Many basic filmmaking elements are shoddily unaddressed, making for a difficult and distracting viewing experience. For example, the quality of sound varies in volume from person to person, while the lighting is invariably over-exposed for exterior scenes, while interior scenes change in visibility despite being in the same location.

Not only this, there are moments of blatant continuity errors such as when Bruce engages in a fist-fight, but blood has already filled in his mouth before he is even punched. Not only this, the ensemble of characters feel lifted out of a comic book, with very limited and simplistic traits that serve to contrast with each other, but they rarely feel like real people. In particular, as Bruce is driving both Wendy and Miles, he says “Stephenville, more like…”, and just before he says the title of the movie, Bruce and Wendy give him intense stares warning him not to.

A potentially redeeming aspect to this film would be if it capitalised on Australian iconography, vernacular, or landscapes. However, many settings and characters appear westernised (an ice cream shop decorated with poppy primary colours, police officers with guns, and the politically corrupt ‘Mayor’), which really diminishes its niche appeal.

Strangeville is a misguided attempt at science-fiction parody, with a comedic approach that falls flat with its cheaply made production.

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Get the Hell Out

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

A wrong movie makes you suffer for 90 minutes. So says the opening scroll of Wang I-Fan’s Get the Hell Out. It’s a bold choice of words for a director to make at the start of his feature length debut, even if it is followed up by the numbing comparison that the wrong government can make you suffer for 4 years.

Politics runs deep in most horror films, particularly the zombie genre. White Zombie stoked white America’s fear of the unknown. Night of the Living Dead simmers with race relations. Hell, even the dreadful 2008 remake of Day of the Dead tackled war and vegetarianism (or something). So, setting the undead loose in parliament seems like a zombie’s worst nightmare: a no-brainer.

Hsiung (Megan Lai) is a young, dynamic politician trying to shut down a plant that’s pouring toxic waste into the water supply of her hometown. This cocktail of waste has led to a cluster of people contracting ‘idiot rabies’. However, seemingly only effecting the great unwashed, the Government’s policy appears to be “out of sight, out of mind”. That is until the Prime Minister contracts the aforementioned rabies and is soon chomping down on his party members during the middle of parliament. The Taiwan parliament has a reputation for breaking out into fights in the real world, so what’s a little bloodletting between friends, eh?

With the building on lockdown, Hsiung must fight her way out alongside dopey security guard turned junior MP, Wang (Bruce Ho), whose only strengths appear to be having a massive, gooey-eyed crush on our hero.

Get the Hell Out feels like Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World crashed horrifically into the computer game, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. The film is 90 minutes of unrelentless onscreen graphics and screaming. It doesn’t seem like a bad thing to begin with. When a film opens up with Hsiung going full on Zangief from Street Fighter 2 on a misogynistic journalist, you’re right to think that this going to be a juicy, well-cooked slab of pop culture. However, the sugar-coated adrenaline will have you rolling your eyes into the back of your head as you’re pummeled with re-enactments to memes you thought had died years ago.

It could be argued that this is a satirical stab at the way modern audiences consume their politics; in handy bite sized chunks filtered through a tiktok video, and that could be the director’s intent. However, scratch that neon veneer away and there is nothing else to get your teeth into. Sure, Get the Hell Out is only 100 minutes, but there’s always an option to let your film take some downtime and give your audience a chance to breathe. As it is, like a child dizzy on lemonade, the film goes so fast, it continually feels just out of reach of comprehension.

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Night Shift

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Director/co-writer Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Gemma Bovery) shines a light on the role of the police in modern France with her new film, Night Shift. It starts promisingly, showing the same situations in the one day from the perspective of the three central characters (similar to the money exchange sequence from Tarantino’s Jackie Brown). This format teases out the personalities of each officer, revealing a tad more about them as the timeline repeats; one character appears out of focus in the background but is front and centre on the next pass, another is completely off screen except for his voice and is later shown at an adjoining table. Sadly, this style is only maintained for the first act, with the rest of the film reverting to a traditional narrative for the titular night shift duty.

The three leads, Virginie (Virginie Efira), Aristide (Omar Sy) and Erik (Grégory Gadebois) volunteer to escort an illegal immigrant from a Parisian detention centre to Charles de Gaulle airport to be flown back to Tajikistan. On the way to the airport, it’s discovered that the detainee, Tohirov (Payman Maadi) will most likely be tortured or killed on his return. The way the officers treat this information varies depending on their mindset, their attitude to the job and their personal baggage. Virginie is sympathetic, and her attempts to coax Tohirov to flee provide the most tense moments of the whole film. Aristide plays it cool, pretending not to care, driven by self-interest, only for his feelings for Virginie to sway him. Erik is assiduously by-the-book, ragingly dissatisfied with life and taken to sniffing alcohol as the next best option to falling off the wagon.

The theme of authority dealing with a moral wrong is pivotal in Night Shift. Whether characters from different frames of reference arrive at a commonly shared sense of humanity is the whole nub of the film. This positing reflects the way we are introduced to each officer – there’s an alternate viewpoint each time, before and during the ‘prisoner transfer’. In acting as the focal point for the police officers’ uncertainty, Maadi is fantastic. He says very little, almost nothing in French or English, as his face shifts from desperation, to mistrust, to utter panic. He’s the standout here.

For all the worthwhile exploration of guilt and morality, via people operating under pressure, this film doesn’t quite fulfil its remit. It lacks a bit of grunt and isn’t gripping enough for the circumstances. It’s not a bad film by any means but it could have been much more.