Tag Archives: Female Director

The Rider – Review

So many films claim to offer an immersive experience.  The Rider achieves this without so much as a 3D gimmick. Director Chloé Zhao’s film tells the story of a Dakota based horse trainer and rodeo rider, Brady Blackburn (real life horse trainer Brady Jandreau) who is recovering from a severe head injury. He desperately wants to get on a horse again, but everyone around him says ‘no’.

We know how the Hollywood version of this story would go, but Zhao tears up the script. Her film is a true blend of documentary – real people playing versions of themselves – and drama.

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From the very first scene, in which Brady changes his head dressing, we are drawn in, not least because the stitches he is showing us are real. Brady’s use of cling film to redress the wound tells us a lot about him and his world. There isn’t a whole lot of money for medical bills; we discover Brady discharged himself against medical advice. He doesn’t have money for expensive dressings, hence the cling film.

Although no one says it, Brady experienced a lucky escape. Not so his best friend and role model, Lane Scott, who is permanently hospitalised and cannot speak; he expresses himself with a few gestures that Brady (when he visits him) has learned to read.

Zhao captures that aching need to do the thing that you love even though it isn’t in your best interest. The push-pull factor is great, not least because Brady’s father (Tim Jandreau, playing a fictionalised father figure) gambles the little money they have on slot machines – rent is way overdue – and Brady’s younger sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau) has autism and acts, though adult, like a little girl.

Brady takes a job in a supermarket and we see that it feels like degradation. Zhao shows him interacting with customers – including a young boy who wants a selfie – as well as sharpening knives and hosing down surfaces.

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When he gets the opportunity to break a horse, the film rears into real time tension. We have no idea of what will happen in the pen, Zhao removing the safety net of staging: Brady is doing this for real.

There are poignant scenes such as Brady taking his saddle to a pawn shop and teaching a younger man how to ride a bucking bronco. As in a sports movie, the drama points in one direction, though how it gets there is painful and unexpected.

The South Dakota setting offers a casually beautiful backdrop. This is a film that you experience from moment to moment in real time, as if it were a documentary. Being a drama, it has one clunky scene, with Brady’s friends watching videos of Lane and talking about him, but this is a minor fault. For the entire film, you are with Brady, experiencing his journey. It is one that I cannot praise highly enough.

The Rider is out 14th September 

Unpopped Kernels: Beach Rats (2017)

British actor Harris Dickinson is a star in the making. He has nabbed the lead role in director Danny Boyle’s new ten-part television series, Trust, in which he plays John Paul Getty III in the other screen version (after Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World) of the infamous 1973 kidnapping. You’ll see him in September opposite Amandla Stenberg in director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s film version of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel, The Darkest Minds, about young kids with superpowers placed in internment camps – fortunately beating the similarly themed, The New Mutants, to the screen. Before then and emphatically not suitable for viewers under the age of seventeen, you can catch him in the small screen release, Beach Rats, for which the London Critics Circle named him ‘Young British/Irish Performer of the Year’. OK, I would have given the award to Josh O’Connor (God’s Own Country) but we’ll let that pass.

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The follow-up by Brooklyn-born writer-director Eliza Hittman to her 2013 feature debut, It Felt Like Love, this tells the story of a deeply troubled young man. Frankie (Dickinson) has moved down to the basement of his home to visit a gay chat room website in private. He’s attracted to men, but in his words, ‘doesn’t know what he likes’. He is addicted to his father’s medication, which he grinds into powder and snorts. His father meanwhile is in a catatonic state, dying from cancer. Frankie hangs out with three other men on Brooklyn Beach near the fairground, picking people’s pockets and sharing weed. Frankie does not discuss his sexuality with them; in fact, there is very little conversation between them, full stop. They are a criminal gang on the watch, looking for victims and talking small. Frankie catches the eye of a young woman, Simone (Madeline Weinstein in her film debut) who beelines for him at the dodgems. She provides the perfect cover in front of the guys but, of course, he’s not attracted to her. Naturally, their relationship does not go smoothly. In the mean time, he meets up with men for casual sex, knowing at some point he’ll have to be open about his sexuality, once he is confident about it himself.

The result is knife-edge viewing. You watch Frankie as if he is in a state of constant danger. Yes, he’s young and works out – we see him photograph his own torso with an i-phone, one interestingly he doesn’t sell when he needs money. But he is vulnerable, emotionally and physically, certainly capable of causing emotional harm to others – notably Simone – and physical harm to himself.

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Beach Rats is not a gay ‘coming out’ film. Rather, it is about how inward you can turn yourself when you are with others. Frankie isn’t a talker, but a doer. He lives through physical action, whether playing hand tennis, inhaling in a vape bar or having sex. The story is entirely told from his point of view. We see how his young sister reacts to their father’s illness by exploring her own sexuality, asking for a belly button ring and wearing a bikini top to the beach and how, in his unspoken way, Frankie doesn’t want her to share his own sexual turmoil. We watch his mother (Kate Hodge) trying to get through to him, to get him to share, and his stubborn resistance to reveal himself through words.

Hittman’s film has been promoted for gay audiences, with images of the four men with their shirts off on the poster. It is a film that speaks to anybody who has had an identity crisis in the face of losing a parent. Utterly gripping and poignant, it is also uncompromising. It is not the kind of film to watch on your home computer – you feel almost like Frankie browsing through men who display themselves for future gratification, but it is certainly an emotionally honest drama that captures the turmoil of late adolescence.

Beach Rats is available on Netflix! 

East End Film Festival: Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts – Review

It is probably best not to tell you too much about Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts, the third feature from Indonesian director Mouly Surya. It tells the story of a widow farmer, Marlina (Marsha Timothy) who is visited one day by an old man on a motorcycle, Markus (Egi Fedly), who tells her that he and his six buddies are going to steal all her livestock – ten goats, ten pigs, some cows and chickens. Then his gang will take turns to rape her. ‘Oh, I’m your guest – can you cook me something?’ Marlina has already endured a double tragedy. Her son, Topan, died still born eight months into her pregnancy. Her late husband, whom she initially told Markus will be back at any moment, sits wrapped in a shawl in the corner of the room – she cannot afford to bury him. Marlina stands in the kitchen of her remote farm house, far from help – the opening establishes just how cut off she is (it was filmed in Sumba) – and ponders. She takes the only action available to her for survival, which I won’t spoil, and then attempts to do the right thing.

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The film does not have the story beats of a traditional rape revenge drama. The setting makes it extraordinary. Indonesia’s recent past is marked by repression and genocide, in particular the systematic killing of one million Communists that began in 1965. The country only took steps towards democracy after the end of the 31 year rule (from 1967 to 1998) of President Suharto. Although there was limited freedom of expression under Suharto’s presidency, Indonesian cinema persisted, notably the 1973 film, Bulan di Atas Kuburan or Moon Over The Graveyard. Most of us will only be aware of Indonesia on film from Peter Weir’s 1983 film, The Year of Living Dangerously, starring Mel Gibson and an Oscar-winning Linda Hunt, Gareth Huw Evans’ 2011 police thriller, The Raid and its sequel and Joshua Oppenheimer’s powerful 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing.

In his book, ‘Indonesian Cinema’, first published in 1991, Karl Heider pointed out the difference between Indonesian and Hollywood cinema. In Indonesian films, ‘good guys do not win, bad guys are not punished, and individuals do not reach a new self awareness’. In other words, these films reflected reality. 25 years on, we see the remnants of this sensibility in Surya’s film.

Marlina is not a conventional heroine, but she is a matter-of-fact one. There is some ambiguity as to how her husband died – Marlina keeps poisoned berries in her drawer. Violence in the movie is swift and graphic but also filmed from a distance – most of the film is in medium or long shots. It is also accompanied by a sense of melancholy, a headless corpse playing a lute that Marlina burned that only she – and the audience – see.

In many ways, Marlina has a traditional narrative structure around death and (re) birth, symbolised, very literally, by Marlina’s friend, Novi (Dea Panendra), who is ten months pregnant and in search of her negligent and superstitious husband, Umbu, who believes that his wife will have a breech birth and is therefore a woman of loose morals. Novi does explain to Marlina how she really went for her husband in her second month. However, she has never been unfaithful.

The third woman of the picture is an aunt who is on her way to her nephew’s wedding with two horses to complete a dowry – without them the marriage will be called off. She boards a truck in spite of seeing Marlina holding a sword to the driver’s neck – she has more important things to worry about.

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The fourth woman is a young girl, Topan, who was given a boy’s name so she can be as strong as one. She serves Marlina her father’s ‘famous’ Chicken Satay. She reminds Marlina of the child she lost, of the motherhood that superficially at least will never be hers.

It is unclear when the film is set but it exists between two eras. Novi has a mobile phone but the police still use typewriters. A scene in a police station in which Marlina is made to wait, watching instead three officers playing ping pong, illustrates a lackadaisical attitude to law and order – the police do not have the equipment or the officers to investigate the crime against Marlina immediately.

The ending suggests an alternative to the misogyny of Indonesian society. Yet moments of ambiguity exists. When four men waiting in Marlina’s front room for something to eat (and then to abuse her) first sees her, one of them stands up and holds her hand for the longest time. The gesture falls somewhere between the courtly and the obscene.

Surya doesn’t glamorise violence – indeed at one point she makes a deliberate continuity error to illustrate how Marlina has to avert her gaze from the action that she is forced into. It is also significant that the only crying that we hear comes from men.

In short, Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts is an extraordinary film, an example of a cinema somewhere between Indian parallel cinema and a ghost story, that has a percolating effect in the memory. See it – and give it time to sink in afterwards.

Marlina The Murder in Four Acts plays East End Film Festival 12th April! 

On Body and Soul – Review

When the publicity tells you that a film is set in an abattoir, you might expect a horror film or at least a grittily realistic drama. On Body and Soul, written and directed by Hungarian Ildikó Enyedi, is anything but. Enyedi first came to prominence back in 1989 with her Cannes award-winning debut feature, My Twentieth Century about a pair of identical twins born at the start of the Twentieth Century who meet by chance on the Orient Express – think Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 but with women. Her variable output includes the English language Magic Hunter starring Martin Kemp and Sadie Frost as well as the 1999 film Simon Magus. Her defining characteristic as a director is anti-naturalism, although her favourite film from a female director is Agnes Varda’s Vagabond. These opposing impulses are on display here. Her drama, which snagged the top award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, is an odd romance between the financial director of the abattoir, Endre (Géza Morcsányi) and the quiet quality control official, Mária (Alexandra Borbély) with whom he shares his dreams.

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The premise may remind you of David Byrne’s 1989 song, ‘The Dream Police’:  ‘everybody has the same dream/at different days of the week.’ (I have to confess, I’m a fan.) This pair has the same dream at the same time. In an attempt to act upon this phenomenon, they share a meal, awkwardly and then, finally, try to sleep together. Not have sex, but sleep. In the final third, the drama takes a darker turn, mirroring the bloodletting in the slaughterhouse.

After a naturalistic opening, the quirky comedy-drama that follows is something of an anti-climax. However, Enyedi is onto something. Society takes the concept of soul mates way too seriously; Enyedi treats it as something fantastical. Of course, the couple is charming but their link cannot possibly be real. However, as has often been pointed out by many a filmmaker, we like to believe in fantasy.

On Body and Soul is akin to a Charlie Kaufman film in sensibility, but without the misanthropy. There is a subplot involving an investigation into a break-in – Mária is barely troubled by this – but ostensibly the film is a two character movie, one has a deformed hand, the other is no fan of people, though has an attachment to a Laura Marling song. Check your expectations at the door. Expect some gruesome slaughter and enjoy the most unlikely dating movie to grace cinemas since The Big Sick.

On Body and Soul is out 22nd September! 

Arifa – East End Film Festival Review

Usually in a movie, there is one scene that tells you why the filmmaker devoted blood, sweat, tears and coffee stains to bring their vision to the screen. In the London-based film, Arifa, it occurs late. Arifa (Shermin Hassan) is at a gym class when the tutor tells her that she can’t leave her bag on the floor. Arifa is incensed. She storms out, stuffs her bag on a chair, where anyone can steal it, frankly, then marches back in and takes her position. The gym tutor tells the class what to do and Arifa calls out ‘bitch’. The tutor directs the class to change the exercise and Arifa cries ‘bitch’. The tutor asks the class to walk round the room and Arifa yells ‘bitch’.

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At this moment, I had flashbacks of children’s TV stars Dick and Dom shouting out ‘bogie’ at various volumes, the loudest cry of ‘bogie’ scoring the most points. I shouldn’t be thinking of Dick and Dom. I should be trying to appreciate the storytelling prowess of British Pakistani writer-director Sadia Saeed, who crowd-funded her movie.

Arifa is a 28 year old virgin who works for an insurance company. She is dating a colleague, who calls her ‘high maintenance’ for wanting to be driven home and have her bag taken out of the back of the car. She lives with her mother and a family friend. They both have laptops on when Arifa comes back from her damp squib date. We don’t think Arifa wants sex, but she wants something. She has a therapist. She attempts creative writing but she doesn’t read books or watch TV because those require copyright clearances and this is a low-budget, Kickstarter-funded British film of independent genre.

I would like to tell you that it is a romance, but when Arifa is approached by Ricardo De Luca (Luca Pusceddu), who is into computer games and talks about Asian eyebrows, we are not in a romantic world. Ricardo is shady, flaky. He keeps making trips abroad.

I would like to tell you that it is a character study. However, I didn’t get a sense of why Arifa ended up where she was. The job isn’t the issue, but she has a therapist and a creative writing tutor who describes her prose not as a story but as a magazine article. She has a white friend who takes her handbag shopping, even though Arifa doesn’t need a new handbag. I know – it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

I would like to tell you it is the story of a career criminal who returns to Arifa’s home. Arifa’s father is separated from his mother but comes back to live with the family and sells tobacco out of sandwich bags. He has a soft voice and complains that his mobile phone was stolen and returned to him. He seems … troubled.

I would love to describe it as a road movie, with Arifa travelling to the seaside to track down Ricardo – or something.

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It is basically about a woman at odds with the world. We don’t know where her standards come from – and that may be part of the problem. She describes herself as thin-skinned, which Ricardo strokes at the mention of it, as if in the spirit of scientific enquiry.

At one point, Arifa moves into her therapist’s spare room and there is the threat of drama – a crazy old woman accosts her in the house – she owns the leasehold. Assumptions are made about Arifa’s Asian character. When asked where she is from, she replies, ‘Crawley’. In a real sense, the film is about living in a permanent state of being judged, yet at the same time seeing what a waste of space Abbu is.

Against conventional measures of cinematic pleasure, Arifa falls short. It is slow, mostly consists of two characters talking to each other and has very little action. Except for the gym scene – thank heavens for that.

At another point, there is a heated row about small plastic bags. This is not my world – in any case, I bring my own when shopping. This leads to a note of optimism at the end, a deserved walking away from the camera credits sequence that might make you smile.

Afria is screened at the Rich Mix Cinema on Thursday 15 June 2017 at 21:00
Find out more about East End Film Festival! 

Heal The Living – Review

Heal The Living is a visceral experience. It is also an anti-drama that describes the way in which life is out of its characters’ hands. Protagonist, antagonist – these divisions don’t exist. We watch people – before, during and after.

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Based on the popular French novel, Réparer les vivants by Maylis de Kerangal, it begins in a bedroom at daybreak with a young man, Simon (Gabin Verdet) sneaking out of bed leaving behind a sleeping young woman. He takes her photograph with his phone before slipping out through the window. The director Katell Quillévéré keeps the view through the window in frame as Simon makes his way to ground level, retrieves his bike and pedals away. Before long he is caught up by a male friend on a skateboard. They exchange glances. They travel at the same speed, not competing with one another, which I may say is not very male. Daniel Plainview may once have said ‘I have a competition in me’ (see There Will Be Blood); these guys disagree.

They join some friends and head for the sea, where they surf. This is their raison d’être – their reason for being. On the way back, there is an accident that leaves Simon brain dead.

When organ donation is mentioned, Simon’s father (Kool Shen) reacts angrily. Then he accepts it. The momentum that drove Simon in life seems to continue to the inevitable transplant.

The possible recipient is Claire (Anne Dorval), a mother who attends the concert of an old (female) friend. Claire requires help to get to her seat. She asks an usher to literally carry her up the stairs. There is the suggestion that she has made her peace with life. She is not expecting second chances – yet she gets one.

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In the finale that will have you squirming in your seat – I needed air afterwards – we see the operation.

Summarised in this way, there doesn’t appear to be much to Quillévéré’s film. There are a few scenes with doctors (Tahir Rahim and Bouli Lanners play two of them) but this isn’t a drama about moral quandaries – why a young male heart should be transplanted into a late middle aged (lesbian) woman. Rather it is about aesthetics – the beauty of it. We have read poems about the splendor of creation; this is a film about the triumph of repair.

The film extols a philosophy: of course we should help in death as in life. We should not allow sentimentality to get in the way of the good.

Heal the Living is an uplifting film that isn’t interested in your tear ducts, rather your brain. It is a film about the arrogance of ego, in which the ensemble cast give unselfish performances that don’t make a claim for your empathy. They don’t need to.

Heal The Living is out 28th April!