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XX

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XX

XX is being sold as the first “all female horror anthology.” The fact that it’s never been done before is sadly not too surprising. Horror has never truly shaken off its image as being one big boys’ club, despite the presence of filmmakers such as Ana Lily Amipour (A Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), and Karyn Kusama (The Invitation); all of whom have offered something refreshing and new to say about the genre.

In XX, we are presented with four vignettes all firmly centred around a female protagonist trying to maintain control. The Box, directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, and Her Only Living Son, from the aforementioned Kusama, are perhaps the strongest thematically. Both directors give the anthology its true heart, exploring the complicated nature of motherhood. In each film, we see the protagonists try to stand defiant in the face of otherworldly influences, which can be interpreted to be any number of corrupting influences feared by parents.

The Birthday Party, marking the directorial debut of musician Annie Clark, (aka St Vincent), walks through similar territory, but her markedly different approach offers the anthology’s lighter side. It might not be the strongest contender visually, but it makes up for it with its macabre sense of humour. Don’t Fall, from Roxanne Benjamin, seems to dispense with any pretense of subtlety and charges headlong into gore splattered slasher. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. However, it does disrupt from the overall tone of the anthology that can even be felt in XX’s captivating stop motion framing device, which was directed by Sofia Carrillo. A distinct lack of an ending doesn’t do it any favours either.

Viewed as an overall package, XX is not as satisfying as it could be, but it does put its scares in the right places and its tales never outstay their welcome. And whilst your mileage will likely vary from film to film, it is successful in providing a soundboard for filmmakers whose voices may ordinarily be drowned out in the male-dominated arena.

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The Eyes of my Mother

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Morality can have its grey areas. However, if we’ve never been raised to understand the difference between right and wrong, how would that effect your life, your decision making? That idea haunts The Eyes of My Mother, the directorial debut of Nicolas Pesce.

The film’s protagonist is Francisca (Kika Magalhaes), a young, happy, woman who lives out her days on her deceased parent’s secluded farm. Shot in stark black and white, Pesce shows us three distinct chapters in her life, the first of which lays down the groundwork for her existence. Her mother has been murdered and her father keeps her killer locked in their barn. With no other friends to call her own, Francisca dubs the criminal, ‘her best friend.’ Taken this into account, it’s no wonder Francisca’s moral compass is fractured.

There’s a frailty and naivety to Francisca which is extenuated by Magalhaes’ performance. Francisca will go on to do terrible things, but, stuck in a permanent childhood, she does them with wide-eyed innocence. Bathing her father’s corpse and digging up her mother’s for advice, she cries the tears of a lost child. Even attempting to understand her own sexuality leads to unwanted bloodshed before an epiphany of what she really wants: not to be alone. It would be heartbreaking if it wasn’t so troubling.

More arthouse than horror, The Eyes of My Mother has a slow burn to it. Obviously, Pesce’s film has moments of violence, but we often see just the aftermath; the director cutting away only to return when there’s cleaning to be done. It gives the scenes a sense that Francisca is burying her deeds in her own memories. And whilst the structure of the film never lets us in on what’s going on behind Francisca’s own eyes, some scenes will make an indelible impression on the audience’s.

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The Salesman

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The Salesman, the latest film from Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past) gathered a certain amount of buzz following news that its Iranian director would be unable to attend this year’s Oscar ceremony due to Trump’s travel ban. It then pipped favourite Toni Erdmann (and local favourite Tanna) to win Best Foreign Language Film.

Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a young couple who appear together onstage regularly for a local theatre production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Forced to move out of their apartment due to construction faults, the two end up renting another place from a fellow thespian. Whilst they manage to settle in quickly, a moment’s force of habit leads to Rana being assaulted in their new home, whilst Emad is shopping.

Farhadi follows the couple as they continue to play their parts on stage, whilst dealing with much more complex emotions behind the curtain (often Miller’s scenes echo in the lives of our couple). Hosseini confidently rides the crest of repressed anger as Emad seeks retribution for what has happened to his wife. However, it’s never clear whether he wants it for her, or for him; chastising himself for failing to protect his other. Alidoosti is heartbreakingly believable as someone who tries to own their tragedy with as much dignity as they can muster, whilst drowning in it all the same. She refuses police involvement and, when pressed by a frustrated Emad, claims to remember little of what happened to her. As we watch the couple deep in thought whilst preparing for their roles as Willy and Linda Loman, their powdered white hair and painted-on crow lines signpost that the results of their actions will echo for a long time.

The Salesman is an uncomfortable watch, but it’s also a powerful dissection of couple dynamics that resonates broadly outside of its Iranian homeland.

We previosuly reviewed The Salesman here.

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Kalinka (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival)

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Kalinka, directed by Vincent Garenq, is based on the true story of André Bamberski, a man who spent three decades seeking justice for his daughter. Visiting her mother and stepfather in Germany, teenager Kalinka Bamberski was found dead in her bedroom supposedly due to natural causes, a ruling which Bamberski, played here by Daniel Auteuil, refused to believe. Receiving a copy of the autopsy report, he becomes convinced that Kalinka’s stepfather, Dieter Krombach (Sebastian Koch), played a part in her death.

Kalinka very rarely leaves Bamberski’s side as, over the course of 30 years, he resorts to various things in order to bring Krombach before a judge. Although based on a widely publicised case in France, Garenq subverts the story to initially suggest that Bamberski is blinded by Krombach originally running off with his wife, Dany (Marie-Josee Croze). It’s only as evidence mounts up that the film changes tack.

Auteuil throws himself into the role of a man consumed by his desire to do what’s right and fuelled by a righteous anger aimed at his daughter’s killer and the French/German court system. Equally impressive is Koch, who never allows Krombach to slip into pantomime. If anything, the doctor could appear to be the victim of a vicious stalking if you were to come to the film too late.

And whilst Kalinka is a heartbreaking film at times – particularly when witnessing the judicial hoops Bamberski jumps through – it can be painfully noticeable that it’s based on Bamberski’s autobiography and, as such, some people come off better than others. Ex-wife Dany isn’t offered the depth of character our lead is and more than a few scenes suggest her implication in the crime by simply wanting to defend her lover. Unfortunately, the audience never fully understands her motives. It’s not a huge misdemeanour, but it does cheapen the overall emotional impact of a powerful film.

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The Unknown Girl (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival)

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There are moments in our lives we mull over; moments where we chastise ourselves for making a particular decision. Sometimes this is coupled with a feeling of guilt, a feeling of wanting to try again. In The Unknown Girl, the latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Two Days, One Night, The Kid With a Bike) a moment of defiance leads to a murder mystery that is less ‘whodunit?’ and more ‘Who was the victim?’

Adèle Haenel plays Jenny Davin, a doctor who, frazzled by a long shift and a disgruntled intern, refuses to answer the door to someone ringing the practice’s buzzer. She later finds out that was a woman looking for refuge and who has now been found dead; a revelation that impacts on the good doctor greatly. Radu Muntean’s One Floor Below tackles similar themes of someone’s inaction leading to tragedy. However, whereas Muntean’s protagonist still continued to do nothing, the Dardennes offer in Jenny someone more proactive. With no ID found on the body and no one reporting her missing, the guilt-stricken doctor takes it upon herself to find out who she was.

What’s most striking about The Unknown Girl is how ordinarily the narrative plays out. There is nothing ostentatious about Davin’s life. When she’s not sharing the nameless woman’s photo around town, we follow her performing her everyday duties taking care of her patients. Coupled with Haenel’s deliberately emotionless performance – she barely raises an eyebrow, even when being roughed up by thugs – The Unknown Girl can be somewhat frustrating for those looking for tension. Stripped of a heightened sense of reality, the film could be viewed as an antidote to the glossy procedurals from Hollywood, but it doesn’t excuse a lack of engagement. This is by no means an unwatchable film, but its attempt at realism underplays the film’s narrative to its own detriment, leaving its audience unsure how to react to its final revelation.

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Trash Fire

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Adrian Grenier (Entourage) is Owen, a bulimic manic depressive sharing a fairly miserable existence with his girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur). Both of them are caught in a perpetual cycle of fights and poorly thought out apologies. Owen’s problems seem to stem from the death of his parents in a house fire that also resulted in his sister surviving but being badly burnt. When Isabel reveals she’s pregnant, she insists they meet his sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord) and terribly religious grandma Violet, played with gusto by Fionnula Flanagan.

This is the third film from Richard Bates Jnr. (Excision) and it’s far removed from the Scooby-Doo frivolity of his last film, Suburban Gothic. Yes, it’s a black comedy. It’s also true that it’s a horror. In some ways, though, it’s a romantic comedy about depression. And yet, never the three shall overlap. Bates Jnr. is seemingly intent on keeping you off-balance for as long as he can. When our (un)happy couple arrive at Violet’s home, the film trades its indie comic sensibilities for a heavy dose of Southern Gothic, where the calendars were never flicked past the 1800s. In addition, the film’s focus moves from Owen to Isabel as she uncovers more about what made her partner so emotionally damaged. Bates Jnr. does a great job of racking up the tension during these moments leading to a bathroom centered scene that will ensure you never want to go to the toilet again without checking.

Tonally vicious and nihilistic throughout, there’s admittedly a jarring effect to the film’s gymnastics in the second act which is likely to lose some of its audience as much as it will keep the rest engaged. However, if you made it past the first act’s humour being mined from the most uncomfortable of situations, you’ll probably find yourself right at home when Grandma Violet drifts through her corridors in period clothing with an axe to grind.

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Sherlock S4E3: “The Final Problem”

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Warning: The following review contains spoilers.

Sherlock is over so quickly isn’t it? One week you’re celebrating its return and less than a month later, you’re waving it bon voyage. And after the last two weeks of plotting, it’s no surprise the fervour people had for this – the final episode of Season 4 and, potentially, the last episode of Sherlock for a very long time.

It’s little wonder that creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, writing together as they did for The Abominable Bride, wanted to give their supporters something to wave their flags to. Think of The Final Problem as the Greatest Hits of Sherlock, with choice cuts of your favourite moments repackaged into a handy 90-minute feast. Sadly, as pleasant as it is to see the two writers clearly having fun in their sandbox, the real problem for the viewer was trying to work out how the two previous episodes could justify such a lukewarm finale.

Having revealed a third Holmes sibling and putting the life of John Watson (Martin Freeman) in danger last week, we were given a rather rushed resolution as to the Doctor’s fate.

Apparently, Eurus (Sian Brooke), Sherlock’s evil sister, had merely stunned Watson and run away. An impossibility according to brother Mycroft (Gatiss) who insisted that she was trapped within a super-prison by the name of Sherrinford which was stuck on an island out to sea. All of which was a massive surprise to Sherlock, who had completely forgotten he’d ever had a sister. If that part sounds like a tough pill to swallow, The Final Problem produced a number of other headscratchers that unfortunately lowered the plausibility of its narrative.

Things started off strong with a small girl waking up on a plane in which all its passengers and crew had passed out. Answering a ringing phone in the hopes of calling for help, she’s greeted by the voice of the late consulting criminal, Moriarty (Andrew Scott). Elsewhere, having escaped the detonation of 221b Baker Street – another one of Eurus’ games – the Brothers Holmes and Watson break into Sherrinford to understand how the meddling sister is able to break out.

Before continuing, it should be noted that Sherlock has dipped its toe in the surreal before. Season 2’s The Hounds of Baskerville, for instance, attributed its hell hound to psychotropic gas. Indeed, the very idea of Sherlock himself is a flight of fancy in the real world. However, The Final Problem was something else.

Sherlock_s4_Ep3_006-strictly-embargoed-for-publication-until-0001-hrs-GMT-10.01.2017

As well as being superior to her brothers intellectually, Eurus was shown to be able to ‘reprogramme’ those around her and, as such, had unbelievably managed to take over her own asylum, giving her free passage to leave her island prison as and when she felt like it. Spurred on by a meeting with Moriarty several years prior – in a hilarious cameo by Scott –  she had decided to take her vengeance out on Sherlock for reasons that never feel satisfactory. Over the last few seasons, a lot has been made of the name Redbeard and its influence on Sherlock’s persona. Previously thought of to be a beloved pet, the final twist turned out to be something much sinister and had led to Eurus’ incarceration. Gatiss and Moffat try to turn what would be a childhood trauma for Sherlock into a reason for his thirst for solving mysteries. But as an attempt to give Sherlock back his humanity, it just didn’t convince.

Neither did the system of Saw-like problems Eurus put her siblings through, with a different room in Sherrinford leading to a new and deadly conundrum. As Eurus pulled her brothers’ strings, the continuing train of thought was ‘How can she afford to do all this? Literally, who is funding this person?’ and ‘Does anybody remember John had a baby daughter?’ When the girl on the plane was revealed to be Eurus in a mind palace of her own waiting for Sherlock’s approval, The Final Problem revealed itself to be trying too hard.

Thank heavens then for the positives that didn’t make this a complete washout. Take for example Molly, played by Louise Brealey. Criminally underused this season, Brealey brought much needed emotion in a scene that saw her bare her soul to Sherlock, whilst being an unwitting pawn in Eurus’s schemes. As we cheer on Sherlock’s sociopathic qualities, we often forget how they can deeply cut others. It was a wonderful moment, only somewhat surpassed by Mrs Hudson thrashing around to Iron Maiden in her slippers.

As the dust settled, Sherlock ended, as perhaps it was always going to, with a massive press of the reset button that allowed Gatiss and Moffat to bring a close to their 6-year story in a deserved self-congratulatory tone, whilst tentatively leaving the tiniest of margins for a possible return. And whilst this wasn’t the ending some of us will have been expecting, the journey to get this far has at least consisted of more highs than lows, with a heavy vein of experimentation throughout. For that reason alone, Sherlock is still, as a whole, a quality British drama.

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