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Arrhythmia

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Oleg (Alexander Yatsenko) and his wife Katya (Irina Gorbacheva) work in the medical field as paramedic and junior doctor respectively. Both are fully committed to their profession, but when we meet them, this devotion doesn’t extend to their relationship. After Oleg embarrasses Katya at her father’s birthday, she requests a divorce and Arrhythmia follows their attempts to navigate towards some sort of closure.

In his latest film, director Boris Khlebnikov, along with his co-writer Natalia Meshchaninova, paint a raw and ugly portrait of marital life. Oleg is for all intents and purposes an alcoholic, even if we never see it interfere with his work. Meanwhile, Katya thinks asking for a divorce via text is the ideal gateway to open communication. Whilst the film tries to suggest Katya or Oleg are equal in their misery, it does at times seem to favour Oleg and his man-child ways. He’s rude, obnoxious and occasionally gaslights his wife, smearing her with his own insecurities. And yet, we’re asked to forgive most of this because of his compassion for the people he saves. Katya, meanwhile, is offered no such absolution and because of this, Arrhythmia’s appeal may be soured to some of its audience.

That said, it is still possible to recommend the film, regardless of where you stand on its problematic characters. Yatsenko and Gorbacheva light up the screen with heartbreaking and subtle performances. Their arguments, divorced from Hollywood sheen, simmer with the kind of comments that can only come from a couple spiralling down the drain. Elsewhere, Khlebnikov and Meshchaninova take aim at the bureaucracy that interferes with Russian healthcare and may even play a part in the attitudes of our protagonists. What this all adds up to is a film that, rightly or wrongly, reaches its conclusion and leaves its audience to debate whether what happened was for the good of everyone.

 
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Jawbone

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This British drama revisits familiar themes but it does so with an unflinching seriousness and humanity that earns our respect. It is a boxing film. However, the trick with this subject matter is to keep the balance between the sports drama elements and the deeper human themes. Only a handful of boxing films have done that. There is something about boxing; it seems so pigheaded and brutal and wasteful and yet there is some strange sort of nobility that defies all logic.

The director Thomas Napper has been an AD on nearly a dozen British films, but this is his first time at the helm. It helps that he has a great cast, for it is the quality of the acting as much as anything that makes the film so watchable.

The film tells the story of Jimmy McCabe (Johnny Harris). Jimmy was a boxing champion as a junior but when we join him he is well and truly on the skids, effectively homeless and more or less ruined by his alcohol addiction. Without much real expectation of getting help, or even knowing how to face up to asking for it, Jimmy ends up at his old gym. The owner William – Bill – Carney (Ray Winstone) is so disgusted with what Jimmy has done to his talent that he can barely do more than sneer at him. However, Bill is also a deeply compassionate man, and someone who knows people are always worth saving. He, and his co-worker/trainer Eddie (the wonderful Irish actor Michael Smiley), decide to see if they can help Jimmy despite himself. When Jimmy goes cap in hand to an old promoter, Joe Padgett (an effective cameo from Ian McShane), he is offered an unlicensed fight against a young mauler.

The film is quite slow and sombre. A lot of it takes place in dim light (great cinematography from veteran Tat Radcliffe) and the camera lingers on the characters’ lived-in faces. There isn’t much actual fighting and even the training sequences are kept short. This is a good thing because these are elements that can too easily become formulaic. The script is not flowery as befits the terse characters, but there are moments of simple truthfulness. Winstone, in particular, is in absolutely top form here. He is an actor who has had his fair share of tough guy typecasting but he is so much better than that. Here he puts his very considerable craft in the service of a totally believable rounded-out performance. This alone is worth the price of the ticket.

 
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About Love. Adults Only

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Centred around the concept of romance in the modern age, About Love. Adults Only is the sequel to the 2015 Russian comedy About Love. Like its predecessor, this is a portmanteau of misadventures on the streets of Moscow that wrestle with the idea of what it is to be happy and in love. In the midst of this sea of romance stands John Malkovich, playing a marriage counsellor who acts as an unofficial host to the onscreen antics. And what antics there are: there’s the woman who wants to escape her strict immigrant upbringing, the couple trying swinging for the first time, an actor who’s kidnapped for his sperm and, brace yourselves, a girl who urges her uncle to take her virginity!

Bright and colourful, About Love. Adults Only aims to be a bold and brassy take on the kind of films Richard Curtis can knock out in his sleep. However, for all its talk of modernity, Adults Only is surprisingly old fashioned. Take, for example, the tale of the newcomers to wife swapping, which not only seems to take a disparaging gaze at those who have such proclivities, but also problematically suggests they’ll drug people to get them into bed. Elsewhere, Malkovich talks about the perfection of coupledom and throws out statistics about the shocking rates of divorce across the globe. Yes, his words come to bite back in the final story, but it doesn’t stop the whole film feeling like the kind of stuff that’s ripped out of overzealous tabloids. It all feels like one big finger wagging lecture.

Speaking of comedy, whilst attempts at humour are made, Adults Only is a bland affair where jokes never really land and there’s a sense of simply trying too hard to make the audience laugh. Throw in some superlative musical numbers that overextend the length of the film, and what should be a light and breezy good time becomes a frustrating viewing experience.

 
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Spacewalkers

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Films such as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 are considered classics in their genre; true tales of steely US determination to conquer the stars. Conversely, Russia, the US’s only real competitor in the great space race, is painted as a footnote in America’s climb to the top. Spacewalker attempts to re-address the balance with the true story of cosmonauts, Pavel Belyayev (Konstantin Khabenskiy) and Alexey Leonov (Evgeniv Mironov).

It’s the ‘60s and the US and Russia are competing to be the first to have a man walk in outer space. Getting wind of the progress their rivals are making, the Kremlin pull their deadlines forward by two years in the hope of being the first out of the gate. Directed by Dmitry Kiselyov (Black Lightning), Spacewalker starts with a tame first act that follows Belyayev and Leonov through their training. Slowly, we begin to see cracks in the veneer. Yes, a technician dies whilst helping to build the very craft that will be shot off into space. But hey, it’s nothing that isn’t to be expected and can’t be quickly dusted under the carpet all in pursuit of glory.

Once the cosmonauts are blasted off into the unknown, the aforementioned death retroactively becomes a portance of things to come. The rush to be first leads to problems and very quickly, Spacewalker breaks free from the biopic tropes that weigh it down to become a throughly engaging and tense thriller. Backed by a score that would make Hans Zimmer blush, Kiselyov racks up a surprisingly large amount of tension from a setting which is essentially two men in a metal box, whilst on Earth their fates are decided by bureaucratic yes-men more concerned about the reputation of the motherland.

Engrossing, nerve rattling and patriotic without turning into parody, Spacewalker is a fascinating glimpse into another time and place.

 

 
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Grain (BFI London Film Festival)

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It is sometime in the not-too-distant future, and after some unspecified environmental collapse, genetically modified crops designed to save humanity are failing. Geneticist Erol (Jean-Marc Barr) hears tell of Cemil (Ermin Bravo), a controversial scientist who predicted what he called “genetic chaos” which now seems to be occurring. Looking for answers to the world’s current plight, Erol leaves the protection of the city and ventures out into the poisoned wilderness in search for Cemil, and what he discovers will change him forever.

Shot in gorgeous black and white by Hell or High Water cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, Grain unfortunately only has its visuals to recommend it. The plot itself is, after a very promising start, laborious new age twaddle masquerading as insightful reflection. The characters feel all too wooden, existing just as pontification devices, and with a running time of over two hours, there becomes a fine line between quiet, soulful contemplation and utter tedium.

Director Kaplanoğlu is obviously wearing his influences on his sleeve, as the film calls to mind Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a dash of Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, but is considerably, achingly, less profound or entertaining. It is perfectly fine for filmmakers to adopt styles or framing from other filmmakers, as part of the enjoyment of the art form is how films become conversations with each other, but one also needs to measure up to those directors they are conversing with. If a film just ends up reminding the audience of a laundry list of better films, then it is in trouble.

As mentioned before, Nuttgens’s cinematography is absolutely stunning. The only thing that carries this film through its tedious quiet moments is the black and white images of the cold and barren landscape. It perfectly captures the dystopian vision of the film, while at the same time reinforcing the film’s themes of man’s relationship to nature and our hubristic obsession with “perfecting” it. These images are so well composed and bring forth the themes so strongly it is unfortunate the screenplay hammers them home so thoroughly, rather than letting those prolonged, silent moments of beautiful imagery just speak for themselves.

A strong start, amazing cinematography, and an interesting premise is not enough to save Grain from the protracted tedium of most of its running time. Props to the filmmakers for wanting to tell a worthy story about humanity’s environmental impact, and setting it in a dystopian future is a perfect way to do that. It is unfortunate that the film seems more interested in naval gazing than looking outward and making its story more universal, because then this morsel may have become a touch more palatable.

 
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The Party (BFI London Film Festival)

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Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband Bill (Timothy Spall) are having a party for close friends after Janet’s unspecified British political party wins an election, putting her in the position of Health Minister. One by one the friends arrive: staunch pessimist April (Patricia Clarkson), her life coach husband Gottfried (Bruno Ganz),  Bill’s university colleague Martha (Cherry Jones) and her pregnant wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer), and finally Tom (Cillian Murphy), the husband of Janet’s aide-de-camp who has arrived coked to the eyeballs and secretly armed with a handgun. Needless to say, the party begins civilly enough but quickly descends into a night of accusation, paranoia and violence.

Sally Potter’s brutal satire on modern society and politics starts quietly and builds to a hilarious crescendo as she manipulates her room of characters like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Working with a murderers’ row of acting talent from Britain, Europe and America, it isn’t hard for Potter to hit the right comedic beats at the right time, as they are all on very fine form here. The black and white cinematography and the single location give the film the right amount of claustrophobia, which gets tighter and tighter as the story progresses.

One is reminded, at least at first, of the Australian play Don’s Party by David Williamson, as a group of friends congregate (in this instance after the election) and as the liquor flows an unspoken tension rises to the surface and the cordial atmosphere begins to fracture. Then in the later scenes it begins to resemble Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, as the characters seem to feel trapped inside the house, unable to escape the escalating events, even though the front door is right there in front of them.

The Party feels more like a filmed play than a piece of cinema, but with the acting talent on display that hardly matters, the script is thing and these performers make it positively sing. Kristin Scott Thomas and Timothy Spall are excellent as the upper class married couple whose relationship teeters on the brink of collapse, Murphy is wonderfully unhinged as the cocaine addled, villainised investment banker, and Jones and Mortimer provide a great counterpoint to one another, with Jones as the freewheeling feminist and Mortimer the traditional family woman. But the standouts in a film of standouts have to be Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganz. Clarkson spends the entire movie spouting pessimistic and unhelpful rhetoric while Ganz is superb as the hippy guru wannabe, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room, whispering new age gibberish, much to the consternation of most in the room.

The Party is whip-smart satire at its very best. A cast of incredible actors given a sparkling script can raise any film above the stratosphere and they do just that very thing here. Potter is a master filmmaker and may not be working at full capacity but she doesn’t have to. She gives the film exactly what it needs to be a claustrophobic, tightly wound snapshot of absurd humanity at its most acerbic.

Click here for nationwide movie times for The Party

 
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I Am Not a Witch (Adelaide Film Festival)

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Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is a young girl of mysterious parentage who appears in a Zambian village. The villagers accuse her of witchcraft as an excuse for their misfortunes and she is found guilty and banished to an outcast village populated with other “witches”, elderly women tied down with ribbons to stop them from flying away. Shula is quickly taken under the wing of and exploited by government official Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), who sells her services to bless food and pick out supposed criminals from police line ups. As the only child “witch” in the community, will her innocence finally be recognised, or will the strength of these superstitions override all reason?

An entrant in the London Film Festival’s First Feature Competition, I Am Not a Witch has already garnering high praise from across the globe, and with good cause. The film is a remarkable debut that brings to the fore the suffering of victims of outdated, yet state sanctioned, superstition by highlighting its utter absurdity. Writer/director Rungano Nyoni has perfectly captured this absurdity by making all the officials and accusers appear as buffoons, bringing a lot of comedy to the unbelievable situations Shula finds herself in. There are shades of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, or even Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, in the realisation that even the most horrifying truths can be so ridiculous that the most natural reaction is to laugh.

Although emphasising this nonsense, the film keeps it all contained in beautifully captured cinematography and controlled framing. Although filmed in Africa, there is no concern by Nyoni and director of photography David Gallego to capture or linger on landscapes and vistas, preferring to focus on Shula’s young and innocent face and the ribbons trailing behind her and her fellow “witches”, which always dangle down from just out of frame as a constant reminder of their plight.

All the performances are excellent, particularly Henry B.J. Phiri whose comic timing turns Mr. Banda into one of recent cinema’s most dangerous fools. But above all is Maggie Mulubwa as Shula, who is a revelation. One is reminded of Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, only where Wallis’s performance is extroverted, Mulubwa’s is all internal. She barely speaks throughout the film, but watches on silently as each injustice is inflicted upon her, a mix of innocence and knowingness imparted by her youthful features. It is a stunning performance.

I Am Not a Witch is a remarkable film that manages to balance absurdity and outrage in a perfectly observed character piece. Nyogi deploys comedy with precision, making the characters’ superstition a figure of fun, but then quickly follows it up with a shot of Shula’s face or a demonstration of intolerance which brings the reality crashing in. Through the bizarre behaviour we are constantly reminded that these are real lives being victimised and that the only thing more ridiculous than a government official trying to sell eggs “blessed” by Shula on a local TV talk show, is that society always seems to be addicted to marginalising those that are deemed different.

Click here for nationwide movie times for I Am Not a Witch 

 
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Blockbuster

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Charging over the horizon like a cartoon Thelma and Louise, Blockbuster is the latest film from director Roman Volobuev (The Cold Front). In it we see Liza (Svetlana Ustinova), a TV presenter on the wrong the side of her mid-thirties, reluctantly partnering up with Natasha (Anna Chipovskaya) a wannabe model on the run from the police, her money hungry boyfriend and a violent debt collector. You know, the usual.

Underneath the screwball comedy and stylised violence, Blockbuster has something it wants to say; feminist themes run throughout, but don’t necessarily run deep. Punches are thrown at the media’s obsession with youth and beauty without many of them making contact. Perhaps the sharpest dig comes when a female producer applauds an impassioned speech about women’s rights during the recording of a show, before immediately requesting it be aired with the overtly feminist parts cut out.

Whilst its intent is good, further issues arise when we throw our two leads under the microscope. In a film that promotes the ever-changing facets of being a woman, strip away Volobuev’s kinetic visuals and our two heroes come across as one-dimensional with no believable life offscreen. We know Liza feels like a nobody despite her fame because she literally tells us, whilst Natasha’s mental health is boiled to ‘crazy’ with a self-confession of needing pills.

The lack of characterisation is, however made up for by the film’s two leads, who bounce off each other well enough. Chipovskaya, in particular, is actually a lot of fun to watch as the whirlwind in skinny jeans that sweeps through Liza’s life.

Not as incendiary as it believes it is being – or sadly as funny – Blockbuster is an enjoyable enough experience that could really do with putting the breaks on once in a while and changing gears from manic to reflective in order to get its point across.

 
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Ingrid Goes West (BFI London Film Festival)

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Social media fanatic Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) finds it difficult to connect to the human race through any means other than her mobile phone screen. When she comes across “Instagram star” Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) in a magazine article she becomes obsessed with her and her Californian lifestyle. Using some recently inherited cash from her mother’s passing, Ingrid sets off to find and emulate Taylor, and ingratiate herself into her orbit. Needless to say, Ingrid soon learns that, in this social media age, Taylor’s life is all surface sheen, and it doesn’t take much scratching to find the ugliness behind the beauty.

Social media saturation leads to curated identities in Matt Spicer’s debut black comedy Ingrid Goes West, where the search for global validation through the internet creates a vortex of deceit. As the internet becomes more ubiquitous, so does our desire to like and be liked in turn, but where in the past it would be for the content of our character that we endear ourselves to one another, in this new generation of social interaction it is the content of our Twitter feeds which becomes the portrait for our inauthentic selves.

Ingrid Goes West is a darkly funny cautionary tale about the dangers of social media, but thankfully Spicer and co-screenwriter David Branson Smith don’t get overly preachy. It is on the whole a very well observed critique of the way the internet has enriched our lives but also how it can pervert our relationships. The strongest manifestation of this is in the exploration of how assumed identities can help us deal with the world, but if unchecked can cause more harm than good. Ingrid’s landlord and love interest Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is obsessed with Batman, but recounts how his identification with the Dark Knight helped him through hardships as a child.

Yet, Ingrid’s assuming of a curated identity allows her to silence her self-doubt to the point of a complete fracture with reality, and her own obsession with Taylor blinds her to her girl-crush’s own struggle with the way the world perceives her. The only time the film threatens to move too far into morality territory is toward the end, when an action taken by Ingrid in desperation almost gilds the lily in regards to the thematic lessons Spicer and company wish to impart, but thankfully they bring it back from the brink in the film’s final moments.

The performances all around are terrific, with Plaza capturing the internal pain and devil-may-care attitude of Ingrid, adding her to the actor’s long list of wryly comic but damaged individuals. Elizabeth Olsen is spot on as the overly manicured and stage-managed Taylor, imbuing the character with many hidden depths, even if they go unsaid, while O’Shea Jackson Jnr is a comedic revelation as Dan.

Ingrid Goes West is a film that is wryly observational about society’s fixation with social media but is never judgmental. None of the characters are drawn as purely heroic or villainous; they are all damaged or struggling in their own unique ways. That makes the whole experience very much a human one, which is essential. It is the kind of film that should be shown to high school kids on a rainy day, as both a cautionary tale and maybe as a panacea to those who feel they are alone in the world and cannot connect to others in real life.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Ingrid Goes West