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The Dark Room

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Rouhollah Hejazi’s The Dark Room starts with a mother’s panic and rarely lets up from then on. When four-year-old Amir (Alireza Mirsalari) goes missing, his parents are obviously delighted but concerned when he’s found asleep in the desert. When Aamir innocently asks his father, Farhad (Saed Soheili), who he’s allowed to show his naked body to, the family are plunged into an uncomfortable search for answers.

The Dark Room is a deeply uncomfortable film, and not just because it skirts around the issue of child abuse. Farhad believes the search for answers is ‘men’s business’ and shuts out his wife, Haleh (Sareh Bayat), from his investigations. For her part, Haleh sees danger everywhere and wants swift justice for any trespasses against her son. Over time, their need for answers starts to become their undoing as Hejazi peels back the layers of their marriage.

Like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, The Dark Room sees two people using a tragedy involving their son as reasons to tear chunks out of each other for past misgivings that have been marinating for some time. Previously a source of shared amusement, Haleh being much older than Farhad becomes a bone of contention. So too has Haleh’s position in the home. Once a translator, she has now taken on the roles of housewife and shop assistant seemingly to appease her husband’s conservative worldview, whilst allowing her a semblance of independence. For his part, Farhad disagrees with how Haleh disciplines their child and blames her family for his obsession with superheroes. It’s not long before their concerns for Aamir become second to fighting in front of the petrified child.

Both Bayat and Soheli give excellent performances which only adds to the discomfort of watching two people seemingly in love struggling to understand what’s happening to their family. When revelations do reveal themselves, Hejazi ensures that they come at a cost. Unfortunately, he seems more concerned with the build-up than the fallout. And when everything is literally laid out on the table in the final act, it’s frustrating that the director doesn’t explore it further.

 
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The Orphanage

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Afghan director and writer Shahrbanoo Sadat’s The Orphanage sees a mixed fantasy and realism story of living in Kabul before the fade of Soviet communist rule in 1989. Sadat’s second feature in a five-part series, picks up from 2016’s Wolf & Sheep.

Young Quodratollah Qadiri is Qodrat again, now fifteen years old and living on the streets. The first shot opens of him sleeping in an abandoned car. When he rises, there’s not much to do except sell key chains and black-market movie tickets for Bollywood movies to get by.

But enjoyment is found, and though Qodrat is pensive by nature, the radiating joy of his face as he soaks up the brash sights and sounds of an Urdu musical number in 1988’s Shahenshah in a Kabul theatre transforms him. It’s an elated spectacle, watching an audience of grown men join in with him, jumping out of their seats to dance and clap, which paves the way into a neat transition of the next scene.

Caught peddling in the town square, Qodrat is chased and taken in by the cops and driven to a Russian-run orphanage with several other boys. Here, he finds structure and established hierarchies integral to institutionalised life. Russian classes, powerplay punch-ups, teenage chats of restlessness and lust, all stretch out over time in the school rooms, corridors and bunk bedrooms. Strong friendships also develop and a bonding trip in the summer to Moscow sees some light-hearted fun and casual Russian proselytization.

Anwar Hashimi, a friend of Sadat’s, whose unpublished memoirs inspired the story, features as the orphanage supervisor. His presence and performance is comforting, firm and kind.

The stand-out scenes are the kind of cheesy but cool dream sequences of Bollywood-type musical numbers channelled by Qodrat’s imagination, because escapism rules in life during wartime, especially in a country now on the brink of shifting political forces.

After a war-blurred ten years, a changing of the guard is coming and Afghanistan will see a new kind of turmoil. After USSR withdrawal and the imminence of Islamist mujahedeen control, what happens to Qodrat and his chums leaves an uneasy feeling when warlord commanders enter the city and the annals of history ultimately tells us the rest.

 
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Orange Days

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The politics of orange farming in Iran is fleshed out in Orange Days, a realistic drama that slow-burns in modest style. Scenes are stripped back, the stars dressed down and long looks of consternation add to the sheer grit of tough work in the cold terrain of a northern province.

Aban (Hediyeh Tehrani) gives a mesmeric performance as a former seasonal labourer who has worked her way up to subcontractor role to run an all-female crew in the all-male world of orange produce. She beats out the male competition, the very men she worked under, and gets the big job of clearing an entire orchard in as little as ten days with a crew of thirty women.

It’s tough work putting oranges into barrels up against an awful boss, a smarmy competitor, striking workers, powerplay and underhanded machinations while the men wait in the wings to watch her fall. But Aban is determined, so much so, she risks her house and marriage.

She wheels and deals with a cool, no-nonsense defiance and as much as gender often plays into expectations about character, it’s interesting to see a woman ignite hellfire in a man’s world where a feminist arc isn’t evident. She’s simply a woman who needs to keep her crew together as she solemnly juggles multiple hurdles and hold-ups. Her unravelling marriage to Majid, in a quiet, nuanced performance by Ali Mosaffa, a young woman with a baby and another with addiction problems, provide important subplots.

From a background of documentary, director Arash Lahooti’s feature length directorial debut captures a relentless world of hard labour and financial despair with a woman at the centre who risks all to prove she can do it.

 
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African Violet

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For some, the thought of living with and taking care of an ex-husband — let alone a frail one — is the last thing on their minds, while for Shokoo (Fatemeh Motamed), it’s nothing short of acceptable. That’s at least the general concept behind Mona Zandi Haghighi’s African Violet, but in its 93 minutes, the apparatus of the film never holds and crackles under ambiguous plotting and minimal coherency.

Haghighi has seemingly become so fixed on creating a tumultuous love triangle, whilst gradually hinting at troubled marital issues and the wider strain these issues have on those around us. The former makes for interesting back-and-forths, but the latter never holds firm and borders on cliché, and does not really say much about what this strange and sudden arrangement means.

That arrangement being Shokoo’s decision to bring and take care of ex-husband Fereydoun (Reza Babak), whose former friend Reza (Saeed Aghakhani) happens to be the current husband of Shokoo. Shokoo is perhaps the character with the most humanity in this small community and it is through her that most of the cause and effect chains in the film are divulged — one of which includes a vague subplot involving the absence of a young girl who leaves the country and her own mother.

Motherhood is also the most prevalent theme in the film, and the strands of nurture and care that it encompasses form the heart of Shokoo’s character. Sure, her situation is a bit more challenging and might not be as easy to identify with for Western audiences, but her shared involvement in the matters of those around her and her very gentle demeanour make Shookoo a very likeable protagonist and one worth sympathising with.

It is also worth mentioning that the film has great spatial awareness and makes the most of the setting of Shokoo and Reza’s house to further the levels of awkwardness that the film relies on to heighten the unnaturalness of the situation. There is also a heavy dependence on tight framing in the house and how it keeps the main trio so involved with each other —intimacy and the lack of freedom is paramount to savouring the interactions here.

In hindsight, if one wanted to see a subversive marital film that is complimented by riveting performances and offers an introspective look at the strenuous nature of marriage and divorce, this wouldn’t be the film to watch. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story offers the aforementioned whilst also keeping a central focus on how we love and how much we love.

That said, African Violet is an unfamiliar story and quite an unnatural story for people based in the West, but it is wholesome and shares universal values that most can connect with.

 
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Leakage

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The basic idea of this film is about as ‘high-concept’ as they come: oil starts mysteriously coming out of a woman’s body. That’s oil, as in the stuff that makes economies boom and countries go to war with each other. Potentially, it’s a great vehicle for allegory, socio-political satire, humanist tragedy or just absurdist humour but unfortunately the story doesn’t do all that much with the premise. Or at least, not much that’s easily discernible to a non-Iranian viewer – there may well be symbols and allusions that make it more nuanced and multi-faceted for the initiated.

The central character, a 58-year-old woman called Foziye (Armik Gharibian), lives an austere life, as do all the other protagonists. Foziye’s existence is rendered all the harder because her husband – who worked for an oil company – has disappeared following an accident. When the oil – initially mistaken for “dark bleeding” – begins to flow, she decides to seek political asylum overseas, and to move to the countryside in the meantime – the implication possibly being that everyone in the city would now want to exploit her.

These developments, and the emotional responses of those involved, are depicted in an understated and matter-of-fact way which is initially effective enough but soon becomes somewhat dull. It’s all quite irreverent. There is, for example, an ongoing ‘joke’ about a guy who mistakes an English-language handbook on military hygiene for a prayer book. And there are references to archaic rural superstitions. But it does drag a bit, and the net result is pretty underwhelming.

 
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Black Garden

Australian, Australian New Wave Filmmakers, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Utilising the Dogme 95 Manifesto as a springboard into the apocalypse, director Shaun Wilson has constructed a raw exploration into isolation and acceptance of the end we will all have to face. That sentence alone will have already turned you onto whether Black Garden is for you.

Set in the near future, around 8 days after World War 3, Australia is a cold and almost empty landscape. Its suburbs reverberate with the sound of sirens and groups of men and women being executed by masked people in boilersuits. As we’re brought up to speed, Wilson introduces us to several people around the world; each receiving a radio signal through a bog-standard household item. For one, it’s a gaudy Rudolph decoration. Another, a slipper. For Kate (Cara Culligan), our audience surrogate in this apocalyptic nightmare, it’s an unplugged radio.

The voice encourages Kate to leave her home, where she’s been counting down her last days. In doing so, she sets off on a journey to track down the man behind the broadcast, but maybe, also, some smattering of hope.

Based on the 9th circle of Hell from Dante’s Inferno, Kate’s journey is a troublesome one, which is bolstered by the haunting monochrome cinematography that keeps Black Garden from truly embracing its audience. This makes the film a tough watch as we witness Kate trying to use her last time on earth searching for something better. Kate is an observer, and her lonesome journey is briefly punctuated when she crosses paths with those who appear worse off than her. Except for perhaps Harry (Wilson himself), who is jovial and, along with his housemates that only he can see and hear, appears to have Kate’s best interests at heart.

Kate’s time with Harry is perhaps the more traditional part of Black Garden, narratively speaking. Wilson ensures we’re on the back foot with this smiling bearded man from the minute he invites her into his home. He creates something uncomfortable to watch as the two discuss the state of the world, and never reassuring us that something much worse isn’t about to happen in their microcosm.

After much ado about Harry, Black Garden begins to drift further away from the narrative norm, and it can be challenging to take it all in as Kate’s world becomes more suffocating. And perhaps, that’s the point. Kate and others unseen have reached the point of undeniability: things are not going to get much better. The film seems to always remind us that eventually, we all die alone. Not a cheery thought, but then, Wilson doesn’t appear to have set out to make a film that will garner repeats on tv during the Christmas season. The film is asking us to think about how far we’d push ourselves when all hope is lost.

As mentioned up top, you’ll likely have already made up your mind whether Black Garden is for you and that’s perhaps fair enough. This is more art exhibition than a film. And if that’s your sort of thing, it’ll give you a chance to dive in and wrangle meaning out of it once you come up for air.

Find out more here: https://www.blackgardenmovie.com/

 
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Hero

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Russian spy film Hero follows the exploits of Andrey (Alexander Petrov) and Masha (Svetlana Khodchenkova); two Russian ex-pats trained as spies (known as ‘Youth’) during their teenage years. Now, fifteen years later, the resurgence of a mysterious figure from their past throws the two into a world of espionage, deceit and passionate romance inside of a hot air balloon.

Hero is not bound by the same pressures of Western films to up the action ante. Cars don’t fall from the sky, giant creatures don’t run amok, and neither Ryan Reynolds nor Kevin Hart make a cameo. Hero is rightfully unhinged from the conventions of American storytelling. This freedom allows Hero to have a grounded approach to action with the exception of an utterly bonkers, yet unique, finale that not even the writers of the Mission: Impossible series could imagine.

A build-up of dialogue causes Hero to slow down in the later parts of the film. What begins as a sprint, overloaded with fast-moving action and a James Bond-inspired score to match, descends into a middling jog around the halfway mark. Hero becomes unnecessarily complicated as a result of this dialogue, with director Karen Oganesyan deploying far too many bizarre double-crosses for a film so unserious.

Told with the brazen confidence of a ‘90s action flick, Hero offers a good-time to all willing to overlook its low-budget production values.

 
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Taxi Blues

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This year’s Russian Resurrection Film Festival is hosting a mini Pavel Lungin retrospective, with the filmmaker’s latest, Leaving Afghanistan also screening, and the producer of that film Evgeniy Panfilov in attendance.

In terms of the retrospective, the festival is screening The Wedding (2000) and Roots (2005), but the real gem here (apart from Leaving Afghanistan which is bravura, singular filmmaking in its own right) is 1990’s Taxi Blues, one of the best films from anywhere in the world during the ‘90s.

To put things in context, Communism was in the process of breaking down in the USSR during this period, and the film can be viewed as an allegory.

Shlykov (played by the recently departed Pyotr Zaychenko) is a taxi driver in Moscow. We meet him as he’s driving a bunch of rowdy, drunk larrikins, who eventually do a runner on him. Seeking justice, he tracks down one of the passengers, musician Lyosha (played by Russian punk music icon Pyotr Mamonov).

Shlykov is a ‘man’s man’, a brutish type, representative of the old USSR, whilst Lyosha is a free spirit. Shlykov is all brawn, Lyosha is all words and creative spirit. During the course of Taxi Blues, these two polar opposites go through various misadventures, ultimately learning from each other, and reflecting what might be in store for the people of the new Russia.

Pavel Lungin’s debut is stripped down, hard-edged but with plenty to say and full of energy. The relationship at its core and the film’s immediacy are reminiscent of the French New Wave, ‘70s Hollywood and American (Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law) and world (Aki Kaurismaki) independent cinema of the ‘80s, but with a distinctly Russian twist. Of course, all of these film movements are interconnected, and it’s a joy to watch pure cinema influence a filmmaker at the centre of such cultural upheaval.

Taxi Blues is messy, loud, quiet, shocking, invigorating, just like a great punk song.

 
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Dolce Fine Giornata

Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week 1 Comment

With its philanthropic undertones and convincing performance from Polish cinema royalty Krystyna Janda, Jacek Borcuch’s arthouse film finds purpose in the form of disobedience and a reliance on Orientalist thought – no matter how inflated it may be.

For what it’s worth, Borcuch (a filmmaker who is no stranger to movies about subtle rebellion and social turmoil) paints a perplexing picture of libertarianism-gone-rogue. Maria (Krystyna Janda) is a Polish-born poet who seemingly has it all: a villa in Tuscany, people who admire her, a well-nourished family, and a Nobel prize for her work in literature. Her life is ideal, yet Borcuch uses her and her prestigious, well-off status to tear down the fabricated and idealistic frameworks by which we live.

The news of a suicide bomber detonating in a crowd of tourists in Rome is what helps drive the film into more sensitive terrain as Maria – upon accepting an award from the town mayor – seemingly labels the terrorist act as a form of art. Her almost ambiguous speech is met with disconcerted reactions and an immediate tainting of her reputation.

It’s hard not to view the speech as radically didactic jargon, but then again, that’s exactly what it is – a form of expression that doesn’t make sense to others and leads Maria to be chastised.

Maria sits in a world of her own, no matter how well integrated she is, and that is the focal point of the film – to highlight the often frail paradigm by which we judge character. Sure, her moral standpoint is controversial and questionable, but the absurdity of it is what allows Borcuch to evaluate Western attitudes towards outsiders.

Following this moment, Borcuch subtly, but eloquently turns his film into a neo-Orientalist text that strives to bridge the gap between the ‘Other’ and the ‘Occident’. Maria, though in a prime position of wealth and status, still sits as an outsider in the vast and open land of Tuscany. She is married to an Italian, Antonio (Antonio Catania), but finds solace in the handsome and intelligent Egyptian emigrant Nazeer (Lorenzo de Moor). She sacrifices safety and security for recklessness and ‘otherness’. She feels that Nazeer sees her like no one else does, which ties in issues of identity and the false pretences by which we live our lives; there is an appeal in being something other than what you are or what others believe you to be.

To an extent, her growing desire for freedom – in expression, in mobility – echoes past protagonists in French experimental films with the likes of Mona from Agnès Varda’s Vagabond coming to mind. Though it would be unfair to compare this protagonist to that of one from an influential feminist text, Maria is far from the perfect protagonist – much like Mona – which makes her all the more ideal.

It would also be unfair to disregard the picturesque visual quality of the film, as it is instrumental in understanding just how alienated Maria feels in the vastness of the world. Michal Dymek allows the camera to act like this invisible observer in motion as he captures the openness of the green landscape, but also employs a much tighter frame around Maria. Much like Maria’s belief that her old body is like a dress she wears, Dymek’s cinematography adds another layer of restriction to her – ultimately foreshadowing the less than emphatic closing sequence.

For people of the Pan-European diaspora, Dolce Fine Giornata may accentuate the angst that comes with navigating a foreign setting, while for others, it may serve as a lacklustre attempt at quasi-political commentary. Regardless, Maria’s outspokenness leaves her with the knowledge that there is no point in pretending to be something you’re not, which isn’t to say there is no harm in trying.

 
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Untogether

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Enticed by impulses for transgressive storytelling, Emma Forrest’s debut feature Untogether is the epitome of pretentious, cookie-cutter filmmaking that fails to further the very clichés that it latches onto.

From the outset, the film is more concerned with the makeshift than it is with soul searching and exploring what truly fuels our most deep-rooted desires. The emphasis Forrest places on the notion of an expiry date – on both relationships and success – only allows her to scratch the surface with her characters’ wants and needs. For instance, a shirtless and successful doctor turned one-time-author Nick (Jamie Doran) and one-hit-wonder author Andrea (Jemima Kirke), find themselves consenting to a no-strings attached ‘fling-air’ (fling affair). Just when the conditions of this relationship begin to be tested, Forrest pulls her audience back from the thick of things and shifts to the next best thing.

That next best thing arrives in the form of Tara (Lola Kirke) and Martin’s (Ben Mendelsohn) ever estranged relationship. Fortunately, with this subplot, Forrest devises a provisional paradigm for fulfilment and contentment in the form of a willingness to set oneself free from oneself – even if that means betraying those closest to you. Martin loves Tara, but the feelings are not mutual as Tara finds herself growing increasingly fond of a Civil Rights rabbi, David (Billy Crystal).

What is perhaps most intriguing about this strand is the absence of and longing for, a paternal presence. Both Andrea and Tara have inherited their deceased father’s home (who was a musician) and it is Tara (more or less) who has found herself edging closer to much older men. Martin provides affection while David is the voice of reason, and she is trapped in this concoction of settling for what she knows best or taking a risk. The consequences of the latter are that, throughout the film, Tara and the likes of Andrea, Nick and Martin constantly find themselves retreating to a place of comfort. Nick becomes embroiled in rehab, but finds himself circling back to his unsustainable connection with Andrea, and Tara grows increasingly receptive to the simplicity of being with Martin. Most of the film relies on these fortuitous encounters to support the premise, but their immediacy and failure to breach the sub-par threshold leave a hole of emptiness in their wake.

Much to Forrest’s credit, she has a way of bringing her actors to their most vulnerable states – particularly Mendelsohn (whom she was actually married to and ironically, estranged from as well). It’s clear that for Mendelsohn, the character of Martin is almost a reflection of his own lived experience with Forrest, and he channels that experience to bring about a heartfelt performance that is a welcomed step away from the villains he usually plays. Crystal is also fitting for his role and it feels like a character he should have played years ago.

Quite frankly, it’s hard to believe the film’s lack of a distinguished personality as it revels in the overplayed and romanticised idea that no matter how crippling and troublesome our lives may be, they can just as easily be rectified. Though there isn’t enough reason to care for what happens to these characters, they do find a way of being emotionally available just when you need them to – no matter how ubiquitous the circumstances they come from may be.