Partisan a Striking Debut for Ariel Kleiman

In an unnamed country, Gregori (Vincent Cassel) rules over a clan of women and children with what could probably be best described as a gloved iron fist. He’s not a cruel person, rather he is attentive and caring, but as seen in one of Partisan’s best sequences, he is also not afraid to teach dissenters a brutal lesson while in another we’re shown what is perhaps the side effects of his tyrannical behaviour seen offscreen. The charismatic leader’s family as well as what appear to be a mass of runaway single mothers and their children are ensconced in a series of connected houses, built around and into a mountain as if they’re squatters in cliff-side dugouts from a distant war. They carry on their business away from the public eye while Gregori makes money by employing his own child, 11-year-old Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel), as a hired assassin for local businessmen.

The talented first-time feature director Ariel Kleiman made a name for himself on the festival circuit with short films such as Young Love and the multi-award-winning Deeper Than Yesterday. Those films were set and spoken in Hungary and Russia respectively, but for Partisan he has given his actors English-language dialogue despite obviously being set (and vocally accented) in Eastern Europe and externals being filmed in Georgia. Maybe he made this decision to bolster its box office potential, although perhaps ironically, this film’s only noteworthy festival appearance has been Sundance. Staggering, really, consider it is a work of immense quality. I have no doubt that if it had been made in Georgian (or any other European dialect) that it would be spoken of in higher esteem with a healthier festival life. But, then again, what else is new for Australian cinema?

partisan01Many will compare Partisan to Luc Besson’s Leon – and at a stretch, the cult dramas of The East and Martha Marcy May Marlene – and while the two do share a similar narrative hook, Kleiman’s film is far from that stylishly violent French film. This is a film of great restraint, one that chooses to take its time observing through the eyes of its young protagonist as his world expends not only to beyond the confines of the compound – a sequence in a delicatessen wherein the boy encounters ordinary people is rife with tension, although a sequence with a local boy is frustratingly cut short – but also to the questions of morality around the actions of his father and himself. The cinematography of Germain McMicking, a winner at Sundance, is vital to this as the camera navigates their world of dark colours, but most importantly it’s up to Chabriel. One of the finest child actor performances to come along in some time, he perfectly matches the charming intensity of Cassel who is almost too well cast as Gregori. One can sense the bond between the two, which helps make their relationship, and thus the foundation of the entire film’s narrative set-up, all the more tangible.

I am sure many will be frustrated by the 30-year-old director’s perceived preference for mood over actual substance, but I found that feeling of deeply foreboding dread that the style of the film permits was entirely part of the substance. It’s a film of somber grey emotions, sure, but one that has keen insights into motivations of its characters. It’s a striking feature debut and one that, especially when coupled with his early short work, announces a major global talent in the making.

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Historical Innacuracies Catch Up with ‘Milat’

The two-part miniseries Catching Milat follows a prick of a character. And I don’t mean convicted serial killer Ivan Milat. Peter Andrikidis’ drama, which just concluded on Channel 7, looks at the infamous backpacker murders predominantly from the side of the investigators and the police, most significantly that of Detective Paul Gordon (Richard Cawthorne) who ticks off just about every cliché of the rogue cop trope that you could possibly imagine. The world is against him! Why won’t anybody listen to him! He’s just an underling, but he knows the truth! Who cares about procedure because he’s going to do what he wants! He’s going to passive aggressively talk to the press! He’s going to interview suspects without authorisation! Why won’t people who have much more experience just listen to him?

This antagonistic approach to the character was disappointing and detrimental to the drama at hand. Especially so given how good Catching Milat had been in its first half (aired last week) without as much focus on Gordon and instead more of a panarama of the entire backpacker murder story as it unfolded. Full of dread and toxic frustration at the discovery of murdered bodies in a national forest, utilising real television news footage as well as top notch performances to tell a movie TV-friendly version of horrific true Australian crime that wasn’t as grotesquely disturbing as Snowtown or Wolf Creek, but which got a remarkable amount of palpable tension from the fact that its gruesome story was real and was being told with thorough conviction. The second half, however, felt like a collection of police procedural stereotypes piled on top of one another that all focused on this one character that, by his own admission in part one, wasn’t doing anything other than bad-mouthing his fellow officers. There’s only so many times one can see a character say he’s going to do the exact opposite of what his superior asked him to do before it becomes too hard to believe. In one scene, the character is even seen as getting angry as his superiors for suggesting he didn’t do a thorough enough job on a task so he flies off the handle only to admit in the next scene that they were right and that he passed over vital information. Was the audience meant to be on side with this detective? It failed, if we were.

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We Need Another Hero, and it’s George Miller

It turns out we do need another hero, and it comes in the guise of George Miller. The 70-year-old Australian director’s absence from the action genre since the proliferation of computer graphics is entirely what helps make his comeback, Mad Max: Fury Road, so deliciously entertaining. There hasn’t been a film in this franchise for 30 years, and that entry, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, was a compromised production on which Miller only co-directed, but if the man’s list of credits since then reads more like the family catalog of sublime inflight entertainment, let it be said that he never really gave up the ghost of darkness that swallows the characters in his latest film. Both Babe: Pig in the City and the two Happy Feet films were full of cruelty and sadness and issues that one doesn’t often associate with modern day ‘kids flicks’.

Nevertheless, Miller has come roaring back with the fourth entry in the franchise that he birthed in 1979 and Fury Road is the biggest one yet. Rather surprisingly handed a ginormous budget (these films were never particularly huge box office hits in America), Miller does what so few blockbuster filmmakers seem incapable of doing and actually letting audiences see the money. Despite being set in a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland (Namibia standing in for Australia after heavy rainfalls made the outback look too green!), every frame feels rich and decadent, full of imagination-stretching images that feel tangible. Miller’s insistence on practical stunt-work, effects, and sets where possible is plain to see as each rough-and-ready action scene full of hurtling, exploding, revved-up automobiles smash and crash into one another at breakneck speed and they were really tumbling around axis-over-hood in the desert sand. He allows the camera to follow the action in a way that only James Cameron can truly rival. The editing is similarly strong, with the action sequences, each more outlandishly devilish as the last, finding a riveting rhythm amidst the mayhem that makes the destruction easy to comprehend and follow.

Read the rest at Weekly Gravy.

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War of the Words

I find it interesting when people claim to have a hard time watching silent movies since more and more these days, movies find themselves in chaotic third act action sequence that feature barely a single spoken word in between the candy-coloured CGI and hyperactive editing. I guess then that it’s not so much dialogue that people are interested in, or even necessarily sound effects. Rather, it’s just noise. The comforting sound of noise that leads us to put the television on in the background while we cook dinner only to never even glance at the screen. The need for aural stimulation keeps us alert while we’re driving and working out at the gym, keeps us company while riding an elevator, and even soothes us if we use a public bathroom.

It’s fascinating then to plunge into the world of Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s debut feature, The Tribe. It is a film in which character are not only deaf and do not speak, but one which doesn’t ease audiences into the murkiness of their world with subtitles. Rather all of the ‘dialogue’ is ‘spoken’ using sign language and it’s up to the audience to try and follow the story without the aid of cinematic elements we’ve come to expect. In a way it’s an extreme version of a silent picture as our understanding of what these characters are saying to one another frequently only comes in dribs and drabs (much like we might watch two characters in a silent film from the 1920s and only see inter-title cards that explain the very basic gist of their interaction), but there’s also no non-diegetic music. Much like The Artist, the 2012 Oscar winner that really was trying to copy the look and feel (and sound) of silent pictures, vocal dialogue does come into play in one minor, brief moment, but unlike that black and white Hollywood fable, the familiar sound of a human’s voice isn’t a moment of joy, but one of terror.

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The Tribe
is ultimately a compelling drama about a new boy at a school for the deaf who finds himself at first ostracized by the thuggish cool kids and then one of them. A boy who at first attempts to help a fellow student from being pimped out by another student, but who then becomes the pimp and purchasing sex from her with the proceeds. It’s a tough film, especially the two scenes in which characters cry out, and one that makes its audience feel as lost in its characters’ world as its characters might well be in ours. But it works on another level. One in which is asks the viewer to think about our relationship to cinema and more specifically our connection to it through words. We call movies that aren’t in English “foreign” even though English is only the third most spoken first language. I found The Tribe rather easy to follow once its world was created and the actions of its characters followed the well-beaten path of the corrupted teens. I suspect many viewers will be the same. Continue reading

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The Limits of Control in Hungry Hearts

“This is very embarrassing”, says Adam Driver’s Jude to Alba Rohrwacher’s Mina in a confined toilet cubicle of a Chinese restaurant in the opening scene of Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts. It’s a sequence that sits at odds with the rest of the film and one that initially had me worried about the rest of the film. It’s, shall we say, pungent use of toilet humour initially coming off as an unpleasant palate setter. In retrospect, the scene is rather ingenious in the way it completely offsets the audience’s expectations. Knowing zero about the film going in as I did, and ten minutes in there is no possible way to know where it will end up, which only seeks to heighten the horrors when they eventually come flooding into the narrative after a speaker-busting use of Irena Cara’s “Flashdance… What a Feeling” and shotgun wedding filled with gaiety and love.

Mina and Jude are expecting a child and so she puts her career on hold and the two move in to her glorious top-floor apartment near 72nd Street in Manhattan. She visits a clairvoyant of sorts and collapses on a rooftop at a friend’s art exhibit. She underweight and so too is the child when he is eventually born. Mina’s concern over radiation and air pollution mean she and the baby never leave the confines of their apartment except to tend to the makeshift greenhouse that they have erected on the roof and cell-phones must be left at the bottom of the creaking staircase. Jude’s initial discomfort becomes terrified panic and it becomes clear that Mina’s paranoia is effectively killing their child. He begins taking the child out for walks, entering a church just to feed him ham and other meats in order to make him grow, but when Mina’s delusions become too much, the extreme nature of their situation becomes too much to bear.

Read the rest at FIPRESCI.

 

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Avengers: Age of Ultron is (For Better or Worse) More of the Same

At this stage of the game, it seems impossible to be truly surprised by a Marvel film. That’s not necessarily a knock against the billion-dollar team that effectively changed the way people make and watch superhero movies when they introduced the now-fabled “Marvel Universe,” it’s just that, well, when you sit down for a Marvel movie you pretty much know exactly what you’re going to get in terms of drama, story, action, and character. That doesn’t change with Avengers: Age of Ultron, which brings about an end to the second phase in Marvel’s plan for world cinematic domination with the usual solid skills that we’ve come to expect.

I’ve enjoyed all the Marvel films that I have watched to more-or-less the same degree, but that doesn’t mean Marvel is infallible. Despite the overall enjoyment factor of the film, with this, its eleventh film, writer-director Joss Whedon seems intent on pushing some of Marvel Films’ more tiresome elements to the extreme. For instance, Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t just full of whippy quips from its handsome, athletic cast — it’s positively drowning in them. Every single scene features at least two (usually several more) of the sarcastic, wise-cracking retorts, and by the film’s third hour (it is 141-minutes long) they have ceased to amuse and instead take the attention away from the whiz-bang effects and highlight the lazier-than-usual writing. Top points to that “Catholic rabbits” gag, though.

Read the rest at Weekly Gravy.

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The Water Diviner a Fine Reminder of Crowe

The most surprising thing about The Water Diviner isn’t that Russell Crowe directed it, but that in taking upon the extra role of director, and a debut director at that, Crowe somehow got one of the best performances out of himself in quite some time. Perhaps he’s not been giving a damn about the movies he has been appearing in lately and the chance to work on anything that was distinctly personal to him finally brought it out of him. And while the performance as a farmer who sets out to Turkey to find the bodies of his three children following the bloodshed on the beach of Gallipoli isn’t quite his best work, it’s certainly his most refreshing in a long time and a nice reminder that he can be subtle and can play a regular, normal human being again.

Crowe’s direction of The Water Diviner is certainly more impressive than another recent actor-turned-director: Angelina Jolie on Unbroken. Being an actor and working on sets day-in-day-out does not instantly afford somebody the knowledge of how to do certain things that are required of a director like how to extract performances like Yilmaz Erdogan’s, especially when actors are dealing with potentially silly dialogue (lord knows actors like Crowe have made enough bad movies to suggest they don’t always know what good dialogue looks like as an actor or as a director.)

waterdiviner01And to be sure, The Water Diviner certainly has its problems. Take for instance the is-she-or-isn’t-she love interest character played by Olga Kurylenko that comes off as lazy scriptwriting, certainly not helped by the casting of the impossibly beautiful Kurylenko in a fashion that strikes as simple directorial wanking. Or the somewhat less interesting third act wherein Crowe tries his had at a prolonged action set-piece that ultimately doesn’t quite come off as the exciting climax he may have anticipated. And I will always want more Jacqueline McKenzie who just last year in Fell proved her abilities in brief, grief-stricken roles, yet even I was struck by how little she was actually in the film to justify the awards and nominations she has received for what amounts to a cameo. Crowe is most on point as a director when dealing with, well, himself. That could be a worrying sign for any future directing prospects ala Mel Gibson, but for now I’m just going to appreciate that he gives the strongest performance of the film. If his film is a direct attempt at going more back to basics with his acting and reminding people what he’s capable of in the face of Les Miserables and its kind then it’s mostly a job well done.

It’s a handsome movie, too, with cinematographer Andrew Lesnie on board to lens the film in a sea of rich oranges, golds and browns. He was wise to use the visuals to suggest that there’s actually not that all much different around Australia and Turkey, with both countries engulfed by sand and heat. The music by David Hirschfelder also impresses, but ultimately the really does rest on Crowe’s shoulders. If his performance wasn’t as strong as it is then The Water Diviner simply wouldn’t work at all and it would be harder to forgive some of his less impressive directorial judgements.

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