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It’s For Your Own Good – “Es por tu bien” (Spanish Film Festival)

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Chus (Javier Cámara), Arturo (José Coronado) and Poli (Roberto Álamo) are brothers in law who begin worrying about their daughters when they begin seeing men they don’t approve of. Marta (Georgina Amorós), Chus’s daughter begins to date Dani (Miguel Bernardeu) who deals drugs. Arturo’s daughter Valentina (Silvia Alonso) was about the marry a man that Arturo approved of, but instead begins to date and wants to marry Alex (Miki Esparbé), a free-spirited anarchist who believes in everything Arturo doesn’t. Poli’s daughter Sarai (Andrea Ros) starts dating Ernesto (Luis Mottola), an older photographer who photographs women in the nude. For the good of their daughters, Chus, Arturo and Poli will stop at nothing to break apart their daughters from these men.

From the beginning of the film, you feel the chemistry between Chus, Arturo and Poli, with the seasoned actors creating a great rapport and producing decent laughs. Immediately, each of these characters is a stereotype: the tough one (Poli), the leader (Arturo) and the wimpy nice one (Chus).

Director Carlos Therón creates a glossy, typical throwaway comedy that is easy to watch but isn’t breaking any ground, ie. a perfect recipe for a Hollywood remake.

It’s For Your Own Good is a simple, regularly re-tread premise with a great main cast, but the story is so predictable that as soon as Chus, Arturo and Poli begin devising their plans, you instantly know how the film will conclude.

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Mist & the Maiden (Spanish Film Festival)

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The murdered body of a young man is found in the thick fog of La Gomera, the second-smallest of Spain’s Canary Islands. Despite an investigation, and charges laid against a local politician, no one is convicted and the crime remains unsolved. Three years later Civil Guards Bevilacqua (Quim Gutiérrez) and Chamorro (Aura Garrido) are dispatched from the mainland to re-open the case – accompanied by local Corporal Anglada (Verónica Echegui) – the last person to see the victim alive.

Adapted from the third of author Lorenzo Silva’s novels to feature investigators Bevilacqua and Chamorro, Mist & the Maiden is a competently staged and shot crime thriller, capitalising on the ‘Nordic noir’ sub-genre and infusing it with a Spanish flavour. Is it worth going out of your way to see it? Possibly not, but for fans of moody crime stories looking for their next suspenseful hit will get enough out of Andrés M. Koppel’s film to scratch that itch.

Certainly, the performances cannot be faulted. Gutiérrez and Garrido play the two lead investigators in such a way as to immediately sell them as long-term colleagues. There is a comfortable familiarity between them, one disrupted by Echegui’s bright, energetic performance as Anglada. Also, of note is Roberto Álamo as the dour Lieutenant Nava, who visibly bristles at his old failed case being re-opened by mainland officers.

The film is very nicely shot, taking strong advantage of the Canary Islands landscapes, and the thick, ominous mists that cover the forests at night. The film certainly does not lack for atmosphere. Where it does struggle is in presenting a clear and satisfying mystery. The best mystery stories are the ones where, once the murderer is revealed and the story explained, the entire film leading up to the climax suddenly flips and makes a whole new kind of sense. The Mist and the Maiden does not successfully do that: the conclusion may logically work, but it lacks that emotional satisfaction that comes from failing to see the evidence as it is presented in advance. The bulk of the film is filled with wrong leads and red herrings, and while much it is intriguing while it is being watched, it all collapses in retrospect. The film feels slightly flat in the end.

That leaves the atmosphere and the cast, both of which do go a long way to make the film at least reasonably entertaining. There is certainly a lot of potential in the two leads, and given they feature in several other novels available for adaptation it isn’t out of the question that Gutiérrez and Garrido could return and give their characters another shot. There’s huge potential here, but for this first time around Koppel simply hasn’t managed to nail it down.

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Gold (Spanish Film Festival)

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In 16th century Central America, a rapidly diminishing band of Spanish deserters trek through the jungle. They follow a hand-drawn map purporting to lead to El Dorado – the fabled city of gold. Surrounded by territorial indigenous tribes and deadly wildlife, the greatest risk to their survival will ultimately come from within.

Back in 2006 writer/director Agustín Díaz Yanes scored a sizeable Spanish hit with Alatriste, an adaptation of the popular Arturo Pérez-Reverte novel. More than a decade later Yanes has returned to the novelist to adapt another of his works with Gold (Oro in Spanish). It is a much bleaker and, I suspect, less commercial work. Fans of the period and setting, however, are likely to have a great time with it.

The film is told from the perspective of professional soldier Martín Dávila (played in a nicely understated fashion by Raul Arevalo). It is through his eyes that we witness the other key characters. The rogue expedition is commanded by the aging and brutal Don Gonzalo (Jose Manuel Cervino), who has any soldier that questions his orders violently garroted and their bodies left to rot where they fall. He has, against all sense, insisted on bringing along his much younger wife Dona Ana (Barbara Lennie), and her presence has caused deep resentment among his men. That resentment finds its most potent form in Lieutenant Gorriamendi (Oscar Jaeneda), an ambitious second-in-command with traitorous designs on the top job. The obvious result of these characters’ respective behaviour gives the entire film a sense of inevitability to it. The question is never what will happen, so much as when and how?

Gold also presents an appropriately ugly depiction of Spanish colonialism. The soldiers think nothing of massacring an entire village of indigenous Americans and setting their buildings on fire. The expedition is accompanied by a fire and brimstone priest who is met with impatient disdain from the soldiers to whom he is supposed to be preaching. In a story of such violent extremes it occasionally breaks out into pitch-black humour. In one early scene a soldier makes it halfway across a river before he is snapped out of shot by a passing caiman. It is so sudden and marked with such an explosion of blood that it perversely funny – particularly once Don Gonzalo calmly orders a second terrified soldier across.

The film’s episodic nature may frustrate some viewers, but the ongoing series of misfortunes gradually push the characters to extremes. They become filled with a growing combination of futility and sheer bloody-mindedness. While violent and bleak, the film frequently looks beautiful. Paco Femenia’s cinematography draws a rich contrast out of the predominantly green palette. Javi Limón Maza and Javier Limón’s musical score is restrained to the point of ambience.

Gold is an evocative and broadly effective film, but it is almost irredeemably dark and miserable. This is not a happy story. There are few clear-cut heroes and an awful lot of villains. It is, in the end, a well-crafted journey to a horrible place. Your enjoyment essentially boils down to how horrible you like your cinema to be.

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M.F.A. (For Film’s Sake)

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When her rapist (Peter Vack) accidentally dies after she confronts him, introverted fine arts student Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) finds her art improving – and her desire for revenge on the various predatory frat-bros who infest her college growing. It isn’t long before Noelle has a sideline as a campus vigilante, luring and dispatching date rapists by night, and collecting praise from her classmates and professor (Marlon Young) by day, who are impressed with the way her work now taps into aggressive notions of violence and sexuality. Of course, a dogged cop (Clifton Collins Jr.) is connecting the dots between her various victims…

How very interesting that M.F.A. (to be released in Australia later this year as The Revenge Artist) has popped onto our radar so soon after Eli Roth’s remake of Death Wish. Whereas Roth’s film both satirises and plays to middle class white male anxieties, M.FA. goes even further, examining the very real and none-more-timely topic of campus rape through a pulpy genre lens. It’s provocative stuff, with Eastwood’s Noelle transforming herself into a modern day black widow killer, playing up to Girls Gone Wild sex kitten stereotypes in order to ensnare her victims. It doesn’t back away from confronting violence, either. Noelle’s first-act rape is brutally depicted, and a later gang rape, videoed by the rapists, is hard to watch. Noelle’s numerous murders are also brutal, if not quite equally so, but of course we are positioned (justly so? There’s a good question) to see her kills as righteous, and her targets as richly deserving.

It’s lurid stuff, and only the latest example of the rape/revenge film’s long lineage. M.F.A. benefits from having a female protagonist, and also women behind the camera in the form of Brazilian director Natalia Leite (Bare) and screenwriter and co-star Leah McKendrick; the male gaze is absent here, but both script and execution dance over the line between sexually provocative and exploitative, alluring and repelling, leaving the viewer unsettled and questioning their responses to the material scene by scene. Obviously rape is abhorrent, but Noelle’s predator-persona and her subsequent artworks ooze sexuality. Obviously murder is wrong, but Noelle’s victims, swimming in privilege, oh-so-richly deserve it…

And perhaps we’re questioning this all the more because it’s a woman protagonist; nobody bats an eyelid when Bruce Willis or Charles Bronson takes the law into their own hands and starts executing felons, and the current political furor over gun control in the US indicates there’s a significant subset of the population that thinks that’s the morally responsible thing to do. Flip the script and put a woman on the trigger, though, and suddenly it’s all the more concerning – a reaction worth interrogating.* Appropriateness of response comes into question: gunning down crack dealers is one thing, but how do we feel, culturally, about seducing, drugging, torturing, and murdering a frat boy? It twists in a way your standard revenge actioner is largely incapable of twisting.

To its credit, M.F.A. has no truck with this kind of hand-wringing; while it might want to provoke that response, its got no time for it in and of itself. The school’s in-house apparatus for dealing with assault is shown as woefully ineffective and victim-blaming, while Noelle walks away in anger and disgust from a meeting with an anti-rape culture committee, noting that all their tactics put the onus on the victims, not the perpetrators. Is it any wonder she takes to serial killing?

Eastwood’s committed, nuanced turn as Noelle carries the day, ensuring that no matter where and how far the narrative takes us, we’re anchored by her palpable, ferocious rage at her assault and the world that not only allows it to happen, but lets it go unpunished. M.F.A. falters somewhat as it heads towards its foregone conclusion, but as an angry as hell piece of pulpy and politicised pop cinema, it’s the business.





*I previously mused on the notion of doing Death Wish with a woman or POC lead here.


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The Light of the Moon (For Film’s Sake)

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Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz) is a successful New York architect who lives with her boyfriend Matt (Michael Stahl-David) in an upscale Bushwick apartment. One night she is sexually assaulted just three blocks from her home. Over the following four weeks she tries to come to terms with what has happened and to make some start on an emotional recovery.
The Light of the Moon is dark, miserable stuff. How could it be anything else? It is always a challenging and risky task for a filmmaker to tackle something as upsetting and awful as sexual assault. It is challenging because there is going to be an uphill battle attempting to get audiences into the cinema. It is risky because there is an enormous responsibility on the filmmaker to represent such matters responsibly and sensitively. In the latter regard writer/director Jessica M. Thompson has nothing to worry about. Her film is measured and intelligent. Most importantly it knows what matters in the story and what does not. It is, critically and thankfully, a film utterly devoid of a male gaze. Thompson’s success in expressing the story is also the solution to that challenging part: while a film about sexual assault does not sound entertaining, the quality of the script and direction makes it a powerful and deeply effective work. It is an independent film with a relatively limited budget, but technically it works well. It is very nicely photographed by Autumn Eakin.
The film tells a mostly familiar story, and that brings the potential to slip into stereotypes. By focusing on a well-developed and three-dimensional protagonist, Thompson uses realism and raw emotion to make such elements seem fresh and interesting. It is a wonderful surprise to see Stephanie Beatriz, primarily known for playing a deadpan and moody police officer in the TV comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, in such a different role. She is superb, mixing resolve, rage, guilt, fear and frailty. She is always convincing. She never wavers from her character. She is absolutely the film’s greatest asset, and I really hope that she gets more chances to demonstrate her talent and range in the future.
Michael Stahl-David is also excellent as boyfriend Matt. He is clearly distraught by Bonnie’s assault. He visibly wants to protect and heal her, but he is also terrible at it. Scenes of him attempting comfort, or trying to help, or – worst of all – working around Bonnie to secretly get her friends to watch out of her, are often painful to watch. You want him to stop and take a step back, but at the same time his behaviour is entirely believable. Thompson wisely involves his trauma in the story without ever allowing it to overshadow Bonnie’s.
Scenes involving the police investigation into finding Bonnie’s rapist are depressing but effective. The film mostly avoids giving easy answers. It does not tie everything up neatly in the end. Some things in the story do not feel fair; it is absolutely the right choice with this story that they do not. Thompson has chosen a difficult subject matter here, but she has respected it and deliberately chosen to accurately represent it. That makes The Light of the Moon a rewarding and powerful film.
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Loveless (Gold Coast Film Festival)

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Andrey Zvyagintsev, the Russian director, has only made a handful of films but each one has been so extraordinarily assured that film festivals constantly award him gongs and knowing cinephiles eagerly await his next work. His previous film, Leviathan (partly financed with state money) showed his ambivalent relationship to the current state of Mother Russia. The film offended the authorities so much that they suggested he apologise to the Russian people. That is actually a weird compliment to the power of his critique. Loveless is his apology then. Not.

It centres upon a young couple, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin who was in Leviathan). They live busy lives in a modern European-styled apartment on the outskirts of the city. They have all the mod cons and seem to orientate their life to consumerism just like, seemingly, many other young Russians. They also have a twelve-year-old boy Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) but they are so busy arguing about their inevitable break up that they hardly seem to notice him. They both have new lovers to move on to and it seems that the only thing holding them back is the awkwardness of splitting. That, and their unloved son. When Alyosha goes missing, and the well-meaning but bureaucratic police tell them they do not expect to find him easily, the couple are stunned into re-assessment.

The film is many things; part police procedural thriller, part domestic drama, part social commentary. It is long, slow and deliberate but Zvyagintsev never puts a foot wrong and the themes of the film interleave and finally coalesce into a devastating whole. In some ways steering people to read the film politically does it a disservice. It is not a ‘political film’ in one sense at all. The politics are subtle and oblique. This is a sad and unsettling film, but it is also a beautifully realised piece of cinema. It is filled with a feeling of lament about the malaise that has hollowed out Putin’s authoritarian state, but it works on the heart not the mind.

Like Chekhov, Zvyagintsev shows us characters wasting their lives and becoming morally adrift, but he doesn’t merely blame them or make them caricatures to be manipulated from the outside. He is careful to show us how they got to where they are and there is a quietly insistent human sympathy for their plight and for the fate they don’t entirely deserve.

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Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (For Film’s Sake Festival)

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With her husband dead and prepared for burial in her front room, Marlina (Marsha Timothy) finds her home invaded by a group of strange men. As she has not yet paid for the last funeral she required, they have come to steal her livestock and to rape her.

It is a stark and troubling opening, but it leads to a surprisingly powerful and heartfelt drama. Its title, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, does rather give away what happens to that group of men, but it does not effectively describe the wonderful qualities that Indonesian director Mouly Surya brings to her third feature film. It is sometimes tense, and sometimes tragic. It has moments of thoughtful drama, and moments of wonderful comedy. It’s a tremendous film: stark, beautiful and impeccably put together.

Marsha Timothy is excellent as the titular Marlina. She has suffered tragedy – the full extent of which is slowly teased out over the course of the film – yet continues to wake up each morning and going through her day. Her hard resolve lacks bitterness; she simply does what she must to emotionally survive. Timothy gives her a remarkable patient and careful quality. So much of her performance is in the eyes.

The film is set on the Indonesian island of Sumba which, with its relentless sunlight and harsh, isolated scrublands, honestly looks nothing like any kind of Indonesian landscape I have ever seen. It gives the film the aesthetic of a spaghetti western, and Surya wisely recognises this. It looks like a western. Several major elements of the narrative feel like a western. Yudhi Arfani and Zeke Khaseli’s score blends Morricone-esque melodies and instrumentation with traditional Indonesian music to marvellous effect. At some points it gets purposefully on the nose: Marlina attempts to take a bus into town to confess to murdering her attackers, but circumstances separate her from the bus in the middle of nowhere. She hides a horse into town instead.

There is a wonderful meditative quality to the film, which is shot through a series of long, oftentimes static takes. It has several lengthy scenes of dialogue – significantly between women, with the film’s entire male cast portrayed as varying kinds of monster. The gang leader Markus (a brilliantly sinister Egi Fedly) is the worst, invading Marlina’s home, warning her he is going to rape her, but demanding she cook him dinner first. Even at the least reprehensible end Marlina still has to face bus drivers who don’t want to let her board, and police officers who blandly apologise that they won’t have the budget for a rape kit for another month. Surya paints a bleak picture of rural Indonesia, but she then populates it with incredibly strong and resolute women. Dea Panendra plays Marlina’s pregnant friend Novi very effectively, managing to show off both sharp differences to Marlina but similar strengths as well.

There is an arthouse edge to this picture, which is deliberately small in scale and leisurely in execution, but it has an immediate appeal. Thanks to Marsha Timothy’s central performance and Surya’s simple, elegantly arranged direction, it’s impossible to take your eyes off it.

Originally published at FictionMachine.

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Scream for Me Sarajevo

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Minor quibbles aside, there’s something insanely ‘metal’ at the heart of this tale…

In 1994, Bruce Dickinson, knee deep in a solo career after his years as the front man for hard rock/metal icons Iron Maiden, recorded an album entitled Balls to Picasso. Touring that album took Dickinson all over the world and most bizarrely, resulted in an invitation to perform in Sarajevo. A British United Nations officer and a UN Fire Department employee thought it’d be awesome to invite the ex-lead singer of Iron Maiden to a war zone to play a gig for the locals.

At the time, Sarajevo was a city under siege. Mortar shells and sniper bullets rained down on the embattled citizenry as they moved hurriedly through bombed out streets, attempting to maintain at least a semblance of the life they once knew. There was a strong metal scene in Sarajevo, young bands still performed and rehearsed, at least whenever there was electricity to power their instruments. Their guitars were the first thing they’d grab as they’d run for cover when the shelling started. English hard rock and metal was inspirational to these young fans and for many of them, it was a way for them to channel their frustrations and fears into something positive.

Though Dickinson had departed Iron Maiden in preference of a solo career, his voice was synonymous with the UK metal giants and meant everything to young metal fans in Sarajevo, particularly in a time of war and under bombardment. The metal ethos of self-empowerment and throwing a middle finger to the world was therapeutic for them. As word began to spread that Dickinson had agreed to play in Sarajevo, the idea of a metal gig amidst the horror became a touchstone that represented the predominant never say die attitude, articulated well by a favourite band in the charts at that moment, Rage Against the Machine: “Fuck You, I won’t do what you tell me!”.

So, as Dickinson and the musicians who originally accompanied him return to Sarajevo with the documentary crew, they revisit the places and the memories of Sarajevo during that time. There’s some real moments of horror witnessed by some of the band and the peripheral people on the tour, it was clearly an undeniably bizarre situation for a rock band to be in.

The film makes use of footage shot at the time, of the band’s initial journey into the city under siege and of the gig itself. While the story is a great one and it’s certainly moving at times, it sometimes feels po-faced at points, in a way that makes the viewer feel guilty for thinking that, given the subjects are survivors of extreme circumstances. Minor quibbles aside, there’s something insanely ‘metal’ at the heart of this tale and kudos to Dickinson and his band for having the stones to do what they do best and help a group of fans remember what it felt like to be human, free and alive.

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In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America

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John Hume not only won the Nobel Peace prize in 1998 (along with David Trimble), he is widely recognised as the man who had the vision to see a different way to frame the centuries old problem of a divided Ireland. Born into a Catholic family, he became an influential leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party in Northern Ireland. From the 1960s onwards he tried to set an agenda for the troubled land. This involved three principles; firstly violence had to be rejected, secondly it was about uniting people not land masses, and, thirdly, there could only be a solution by securing the mutual consent of all parties. He also intuitively realised that America had to be brought into the negotiations.

If all of the above sounds like a great big history lesson, then you have to remember that Northern Ireland is all about history. As philosopher George Santayana famously quipped, those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. Hume set out to make sure this didn’t happen. So far it hasn’t. No one wants ‘the gunmen’ back.

As a documentary this is inevitably very talky. Filmmaker Maurice Fitzpatrick is much more interested in ideas, and political personalities than he is in the actual events of the troubles (which, to be fair, have been covered extensively in other docos). There are a few stills and some grainy footage but 90 per cent of this Liam Neeson-narrated piece is talking heads. Mind you he has got most of the big names who are still alive and who were involved over the years (Hume himself was too sick to take part). This includes Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, John Major, Gerry Adams and a host of less well-known identities. Given the vision and persistence of the man and the skill with which he brought parties together, it is hard to be too critical. This is a bit of a hagiography by proxy but for those interested in how this bitter conflict could be brought to a more or less peaceful conclusion, this is an interesting 90 minutes.

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Zelos (Gold Coast Film Festival)

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What would you do if you found out your significant other was cheating? How you think you’d react, and how you’d actually react, may be two different realities. This is the plot of new Australian romantic dramedy Zelos: when Bernard’s (Ben Mortley) girlfriend Sarah (Shannon Ashlyn) comes back from a four month holiday and confesses to an affair, she offers him a simple solution – sleep with another woman and they’re even. But as much as Bernard tries to move on, with or without Sarah, he can’t get over the fact that she cheated in the first place.

Zelos’ interesting ideas about the aftermath of cheating is what creates its unpredictability; Sarah and Bernard are equally selfish and sympathetic, blurring the line between protagonist and antagonist. This keeps their characters compelling and fresh as they work through their dramatic dirty laundry, creating tense, emotional scenes between the two. This is all made more complex by Bernard’s growing feelings for their mutual, married friend Rebecca (Ainslie McGlynn), who is going through her own relationship crisis, causing our main character to question the death of romance in an age where dating is casual, straightforward, and online.

The film balances its lighter moments and more dramatic scenes well, but in a movie that’s very sentimental, the script is clumsily maudlin at times. Despite this, though, you feel for Bernard, and Sarah, as the film’s depiction of a relationship breakdown is raw and unflinching, striking a very real chord.

Despite the gloom, Zelos still manages to be romantic, with a sincere script and a cast of creatively inclined, likeable characters who somehow make game’s nights, “working on their novels” and discussions about classic films not sound overly pretentious. Yet it is in this very comparison to classic cinema that Zelos finds its downfall: whilst bemoaning the end of Casablanca (“she should’ve stayed!”) and questioning When Harry Met Sally’s ending, the film is unable to commit to a romantic conclusion itself. In attempting to have the best of both worlds by having Bernard swing between extremes, with no nuance to explain why he does so, we grow distant from our main character. Bernard hops between passive-aggressive retribution and romantic love for Sarah, yet is still in love with Rebecca, and never comes to any conclusion about anything, turning what is supposedly meant to be a purposefully unresolved ending into dissatisfying indecision.