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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.

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Old Men Never Die

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This is set in a remote Iranian mountain village, and the crisply filmed scenery is beautiful, but that’s almost the only thing here likely or intended to bring a smile to the viewer. It’s a very bleak story – a parable really – about mortality and death (or the downside of not dying), and while it starts with black humour it rapidly eschews the humourous element and just sticks with the black.

The basic idea is that there is a clan of old men, headed by a certain Aslan, all of whom live together. No-one in their village has died since he (a former hangman) moved there out of fear of the families of those he hanged in his former town. The old and miserable keep attempting suicide but being thwarted by local soldiers (if not by a cosmic force), while conversely the ill from elsewhere try to move to the village in hope of a ‘stay of execution’. And the relatives of the apparently immortal say things like “My father is 111 – we’ve been cleaning his shit for twenty years now”.

Old Men Never Die is evidently a remake – or, more precisely, an expansion – of a 2010 ten-minute short of the same name. At feature length, it spreads an interesting but limited idea rather too thin, and gets repetitive. There are faint echoes of Beckett, Bunuel and – closer to home – of the late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, but none of their greatness. Still, it has its wryly inspired moments.

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Safe Spaces

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It’s safe to say, there are no secrets in Daniel Schechter’s Safe Spaces. The film is an exercise in exposure and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, but the more it delves into the convolution of its own ideas, the more it tailspins into a dissipated mess.

From the impending death of a family member and how the central estranged family manages it, to the tainted professionalism of a new professor looking to fix broken ties with his students – there’s a lot going on in the 90-minute runtime. That professor in question is Josh (Justin Long), and his life is a hotbed of unfortune, as he fails to see the issue of making inappropriate statements in front of his students (which establishes the edginess of the drama to follow). He is also in a difficult time in his own life as he tries to manage his finances, the looming death of his grandma, his short-term relationship with an Italian student, and the growing divide between him and his family.

It is clear that Schechter had a lot in mind when drafting the screenplay, and it is also clear that he struggled with the selection and omission process as he seemingly crammed his whole thought process in. The result is a tonal mess that juggles a multitude of really complex and thought-provoking ideas (including misogyny, white supremacy and sexual harassment) and asks a whole lot of a stellar cast.

Supporting Justin Long are the likes of Fran Drescher (mum), Richard Schiff (dad) and Kate Berlant (sister). Each actor brings to this troubled family a unique perspective that makes for meaningful exchanges and a series of interesting back-and-forths. There is never a dull moment when these characters share the screen, and the giddish, warm feelings one feels tie back to this idea of resonance and being able to connect with those around you.

The notion of not taking life too seriously forms the crux and is the general conception of the film. Schechter advocates for the little, shared moments in life above the perpetual angst that comes with dwelling on issues that add no value to what comes next. From Josh’s tender moment of affection with Caterina (Silvia Morigi) to Josh and his siblings lounging around for the first time in a long time – it’s the small details that count.

Even then, Safe Spaces will probably be remembered for furthering the disgruntled-family-dynamics catalogue of films that seep their way onto the screen each year, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t commendable aspects – they’re just overshadowed by the surface-level treatment of thematic issues.

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Rent a Friend

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Upon first meeting Mochizuki Nasa (Eri Tokunaga) in Japanese rom-com Rent a Friend, the audience is introduced to an eccentric twenty-nine (almost-thirty) year-old woman yelling to the ocean about how useless her breast massager is.

Channelling her inner Carrie Bradshaw, Nasa’s unadulterated honesty filters through to her job as a journalist for an online publication, her critical eye enabling her to ponder big questions on modern relationships. In particular, the age-old question of whether men and women can sustain platonic friendships.

Nasa encounters ‘friend-for-hire’ Sota Yanase (Atsushi Hashimoto); a charming gent who charges for his friendship. He is not an escort. Nor should he be mistaken for one. What begins as a seemingly innocent business arrangement, one which Nasa documents for her work, evolves when her musician-housemate Tamaki Ono (Sumire Ashina) begins to have feelings for Yanase.

What culminates with this unusual triangle is a quirkily told and tightly constructed exploration about connection; one that writer-director Mayu Akiyama relays non-judgmentally through the gaze of a young woman searching for self-fulfilment.

There is a warm glow to Rent a Friend that captures the vibrancy of Japan. It is a warmth that Akiyama complements with clean production design and beautiful shots that showcase her sublime sense of mise-en-scène.

Akiyama is a director who draws out sincere performances from her cast. The standout being Tokunaga, who digs deep to deliver a heartfelt and undeniably vulnerable performance. Music plays a vital role in the film, with many of the musical performances offering moving character insight that would have felt underscored had they been translated into speech.

Where contemporary films like Her and The Lobster offered confronting views on connection – particularly about technology and ostracism – Rent a Friend can’t help but charm with its peculiar and buoyant sensibilities.

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The Bull

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Set against the backdrop of ‘90s Russia, The Bull is a bleak tale of redemption. At its centre is Anton AKA The Bull (Yuri Borisov), the leader of a shifty pack of skinhead thugs. When we first meet him, Anton and his mob are getting ready to throw their feet and fists into a rival gang. Interrupted by Anton’s much younger sister, the fearless leader fires off a gun to scare everyone away.

The unloading of an illegal firearm brings Anton to the attention of not only the police but a local kingpin who sees a good prospect in the one they call The Bull. The kingpin pulls a few strings and Anton is soon back on the streets. The only catch – because there’s always a catch – is that Anton has to do a couple of jobs for him. Before you can say amphetamines, the young lads are riding high on a wave of antisocial behaviour. That this euphoria can’t last forever is plain. It’s not a question of if, but when.

As the gruff Bull, Borisov portrays a sympathetic man who balances his ‘work’ and social life by keeping them as separate as possible. Anton might be able to floor someone by merely looking at them, but he is also fiercely loyal to his mother and siblings. He knows that his way of living is not for everyone and admits freely that he wants his family to be better than him.

Anton is not the only hopeless character on show. There’s also Tania (Stasya Miloslavskaya), a beautician who has captured the heart of Anton’s brother, Mischa (Egor Kenzhametov). Tania is intelligent, attractive and has latched herself onto a yuppie American, despite being able to speak very little English, in the hopes that she’ll be taken away from the rot that’s set in around her. Considering her foreign suitor and Mischa’s affections, The Bull almost has you rooting for her to get with Anton.

Some will find this hopeful film about hopelessness challenging to watch. It offers up no easy resolutions and at times feels incredibly stifling. Yet, Director Boris Akopov manages to craft something almost picturesque out of the misery, and there’s no denying The Bull is cracking to look at. His cast is strong and there’s not a bad performance on display. The issues come after popping the hood on the narrative and realising there’s not much here that hasn’t been done before.

The hoodlum who does good; the misshapen antagonist; montages set against up-tempo pop. It’s all part and parcel of the genre and we’ve seen it all before. Even Akopov’s characters – supposedly based on real people – don’t feel like they live off-screen; they’re caricatures of the misspent youth that very likely populated the streets of Moscow at that time. That may sound like a dismissal of the film, but it’s more of an acknowledgement that strips The Bull of its baubles.

With all that said though, The Bull’s rawness makes for an engaging film and because it’s the feature-length debut of Akopov, it acts a taster of what we can expect from the promising filmmaker in the future.

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Siblings of the Cape

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Not every film is meant to make an audience feel good. Some of the greatest moments in cinema history are the result of putting a stone into the viewer’s stomach, making them connect with a fictional story so viscerally that they feel melancholy or even anger. The distinction between a ‘good’ depressing film and a bad one is all down to intent and presentation: is there a reason why it wants to get that kind of reaction from the viewer? Is it a worthy invitation for empathy or is it simply inflicting misery for its own sake? Siblings Of The Cape, in no uncertain terms, fits into the latter category.

It’s the story of life below Japan’s poverty line through the eyes of a pair of siblings, the physically-disabled Yoshio (Yûya Matsuura) and the intellectually-disabled Mariko (Misa Wada). It aims for a Larry Clark/Harmony Korine style griminess to show how dire their living situation is, eg. the two of them resorting to eating tissues out of the garbage just to fill their stomachs. However, much like Clark and Korine, rather than saying anything of note about their class situation and/or what it makes people resort to, this is far more content to just wallow in its own misery.

As a last resort, in order to pay the bills, Yoshio literally pimps out his own sister for money. His developmentally-challenged, dependent-on-others, questionable-whether-she-can-even-consent-in-the-first-place sister. This is what makes up the bulk of the film’s narrative. Disabled sex workers are indeed a thing, and the over-simplistic argument of ‘disability = unable to consent’ is a complicated issue. But one deserving of more thought and actual understanding than anything found here.

There’s a scene where Yoshio gets accosted by other pimps, put into a wooden box and forced to watch his sister have sex with a john. That is this movie.

Aside from stimming around the house and engaging in sex work, Mariko has no agency. No real character of her own other than the label of ‘mentally disabled’. The film starts with her being both locked inside her own house and chained to the wall so she doesn’t leave, and it only gets worse from there. The only mercy given to her by the filmmakers is that, when we get to the scene with faeces-throwing (another disability stereotype given lip service here), it’s Yoshio doing it.

If there was a tangible point to this celluloid misery, it may have resulted in a visceral reaction. Instead, rather than feeling anything towards the characters, it only engenders resentment against the filmmakers who thought any of this was a good idea. It is manipulative bile without a point, and it makes one pine for the safe, reliable days of Freddy Got Fingered as far as depictions of sexually-active disabled people go.

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Mirrors of Diaspora

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In the mid-Seventies, a group of young Iraqi artists – Arabs and Kurds – left their country to continue studies in the art academies of Rome and Florence. Things changed dramatically for the worse in the Eighties, and it became too dangerous for them to return.  It still is, and this documentary looks at their art, what they’ve done since, how they look at the world, and what it’s like to be in ‘voluntary’ exile from your homeland.

All the artists here have been successful to a greater or lesser extent, and have felt welcomed in their various adopted countries – Italy, Holland and Sweden – so this is not exclusively the litany of woe we might expect. But there are, inevitably, some sad elements, stories and observations. One of them admits, in fact, that he rarely paints these days precisely because of all the destruction in the Middle East, while another has created an installation in memory of his brother who was executed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

And then there is Kadhum Al Dakhail, resident in Sweden, who observes that blood-spattered reality is in a sense already a form of graphic ‘artwork’ which it would be superfluous to depict, so he tends to concentrate on less visceral subject matter.  Dutch-based artist Afifa Aleiby specialises in (beautiful) monumental art and representational paintings… Sculptor Fuad Azziz, in Florence, makes striking flat ‘two-dimensional’ figures, as well as illustrating children’s books … The eloquent Resmi Al Kafaji combines Iraqi and Italian memories by showing how the Tuscan hills resemble a woman in robes…  And there are snippets from a couple of theatrical performance pieces.

Mirrors Of Diaspora has a few moments of tedium, and could safely have been pruned a little. But it’s worth seeing – preferably on the big screen – and for the most part it’s illuminating.


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The Outbreak

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While not doing anything new with the concept of an all-consuming virus sweeping the populace, it engages because of the character groundwork laid out in the first act.

A man runs through the snowy wilderness, protected from the cold by the furs on his back. Looking like the very definition of worst for wear, he stumbles into a river before vomiting blood. As far as openings go, it’s certainly one to make you sit up and take notice. It’s also a bit misleading to what The Outbreak is about. Titled Vongozero in its native Russia and based on the book of the same name by Yana Vagner, The Outbreak is less apocalyptic tale and more family-based drama. Think Stephen King’s The Stand but with fewer allegories about God and The Devil.

Set in modern-day Moscow, everyday man Sergei (Kirill Käro) is coming out of a bitter break up with his ex, Ira (Maryana Spivak) – who dangles their son over him like a prize – whilst maintaining a new relationship with his former therapist, Anna (Viktoriya Isakova) and her autistic son, Misha (Eldar Kalimulin). Meanwhile, businessman Lyonya (Aleksandr Robak) is struggling to keep control of his alcoholic and bitter daughter, Polina (Viktoriya Agalakova).

On its own, there’s enough quality melodrama for the audience to dine out on here for months. When Sergei and Lyonya bring their families together for a ‘friendly’ meal, the scene is brilliantly staged as a pantomime of polite small talk masking the disdain certain diners have for each other. It seems obvious that to avoid all future tension, everyone should stay away from each other, but then there’s the superflu that’s running through the country. A virus that sees the government denying all knowledge while simultaneously shutting down schools with children and staff still inside.

While not doing anything new with the concept of an all-consuming virus sweeping the populace, The Outbreak engages because of the groundwork laid out in the first act. Having successfully set up the dynamics of this array of backbiters and genuinely good people, the narrative sees Sergei and his two families, along with Lyonya and his, having to work together as Moscow turns into a plague pit and mysterious armed men attack their homes.

Escaping to the countryside by car, director Pavel Kostomarov manages through the tight confines of their transport to crank up the tension and paranoia that comes with this new diseased territory. Before all this though, Kostomarov teases the oncoming plague in a way that makes it all the more surprising when it finally arrives at Sergei’s doorstep. Things happen in the background; news reports are cut off, and ‘drunk’ people stumble out into traffic. Hidden in their own disputes, the end of the world almost sneaks by our characters.

Perhaps the biggest issue with The Outbreak is the advert that’s tagged onto the end of the film’s cliffhanger finale. Like The First Purge, the film concludes with a promotion of the television series adaptation which presumably continues the adventures of our band of not so merry brothers. It’s certainly not as egregious as The Devil Inside, which ended with a plea to visit a now defunct website, but you may feel a little cheated that you’re not going to be getting any resolution any time soon. That said, what is on show has certainly done its part and shows great promise for future instalments.

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

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

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

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Blue Hour

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

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

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

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

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