Film Festival Review

Review: The Old Ways (Dir. Christopher Alender, 2021)

GFF 2021 – FrightFest

After taking an assignment in Veracruz, Mexico Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) finds herself hooded and imprisoned in small cell. Despite begging to see her cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés) and general protestations: “I’m an American… and a reporter” there she remains, shackled to the beautifully rendered and chalked wall, forced to ingest goat’s milk and pee in a bucket.

Keeping her ‘prisoner’ is local witch Luz (Julia Vera) and son Javi (Sal Lopez). Both are convinced that Cristina has picked up a demon that has hitched a ride on her soul following an illicit trip to the ruins of La Boca. As the days turn to night, Cristina tries to find ways to escape, however, soon she starts to feel that maybe she does ‘have it’ or something which is holding her hostage.

Exorcism films as a sub-genre are ten-a-penny and usually contain some white child/young woman losing the battle to find the devil within. Or there’s a haunting with a vengeful spirit/lost soul possessing a house or member of a family. Sometimes there are rites, rituals, a cassocked Priest, or perhaps a Rabbi, prayers, chants and holy water. It is refreshing therefore when a film tries to do something that little bit different with the well-worn tropes – Christopher Alender’s – making the leap from shorts and TV to his first feature – The Old Ways does just that (albeit with some old faithful). 

This is exorcism as repatriation. Cristina’s soul was up for grabs because she wasn’t quite fulfilled, living with trauma in a country she never quite belonged to, even if she didn’t realise it until now, drug addled and empty. She needs to commune with her forgotten heritage – one she was ripped from as a child – in order to heal and rid herself of the demon ‘Postekhi’. Her childhood trauma is never far from her mind revisiting her in flashbacks and nightly visits of a small boy.

The beauty of this film is its subtlety, it takes its time and doesn’t outstay its welcome which make the last fifteen/twenty minutes all the more forgiveable. There’s still fun to be had but it loses the nuance it worked so hard to build on and it is those moments which feel somewhat unnecessary. Joy-of-joys, however, the practical effects are great with the odd stomach churning moment, hair regurgitation is never pretty, and special mention goes to Luz’s make-up (courtesy of Josh and Sierra Russell); the cracking white face paint, the blood-red cross across the eyes and cataract lens is striking.

The cast of four play off each other brilliantly but it is Canales’ Cristina who is the standout. She doesn’t play her as a victim but survivor, fighting tooth and nail against what is or isn’t missing inside of her. This is less about restoration of a possessed soul – the snakes and milk symbols of renewal and rebirth – but more about reclamation of a heritage as a way of life and forging ahead. Forget the passive female protagonist bed-bound and helpless to prevent what’s happening, this one schools herself with a red leather bound book of demons (Jung’s manifesto of the same hue also detailed the recovery of a soul). There’s even humour with some amusing play-acting, bribery attempts, and the cell may be dotted in candles but there’s still an electric fan to help with the heat and humidity.

All-in-all The Old Ways is a smart and surprisingly subtle horror film. A really attractive looking feature which deftly goes beyond the expelling of demons, speaks to the migrant experience and embraces cultural significance (the Mariachi-instrumental of “La Bamba” is a nice touch). If you can take one thing from it it’s to never forget who you are or where you come from… and always invest in practical effects.

The Old Ways screens at GFF FrightFest from 5-8 March

Film Festival Review

Review: Jumbo (Dir. Zoé Wittock (2020)

Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) – age undetermined – lives with her maman Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot). They are the mother and daughter equivalent of chalk and cheese but both still wounded slightly since their respective husband and father left. We are never given the details but indications suggest it was acrimonious and he did a number on both of them. Margarette seeks companionship with whichever bloke she takes a fancy to from work behind a bar and Jeanne happily tinkers with her creations/ machinations behind closed doors whenever she isn’t working nights at an amusement park.

The anti-social nature of her job – rubbish collecting in solitude – long after all paying customers have vacated the premises suits her down to the ground. She is painfully shy, a little anxious with her cute Amélie-style-bob and the pervading silence that accompanies her. She prefers to keep her head down, mouth shut and cloak herself in her own social awkwardness and quiet. Jeanne has absolutely no idea of her own attraction to men, swamping herself in baggy clothes, bright blue headphones blocking out the outside world. Ops Manager Marc (Bastien Bouillon) falls for her anyway. Her mother, on the other hand is overly loud, a little brash and brimming with confidence – a “bundle of joy”. Their relationship is fractious, with the absent partner/parent the push and pull, he’s the insult slung between them when they want to hurt the other or lash out. Then Jeanne meets Jumbo.

Image copyright: WILLIAMK

With its red and white stripe design, the fairground ride aptly resembles a piece of rock and Jeanne finds safety in its six huge mechanical arms, choosing to sit astride its dormant structure and spit-clean ‘his’ multitude of raised red bulbs with her hanky. To the more closed mind, the electrics could be shorting but to Jeanne, it/he appears to communicate with her – and she does most of her chatting while with him. For all intents and purposes, he understands her and she gives herself willingly, even falls in love, their sex scene reminiscent of the feeding scene in Under the Skin, only with the sea of blackness giving way to bright white purity as she is dripped in black viscous lubricant. It’s not too much of a stretch to conflate the exhilarating screams of pleasure and excitement experienced during a body-flinging Waltzer, or the dizzying heights of a ride on a Big One.

What follows is an astonishing performance from Merlant who completely sells the emotional, for want of a better word, rollercoaster that is all-consuming love; the joy, jubilation, soul-destroying confusing and rejection (culminating in some excellent ugly-crying over baked goods). The inevitable clash between mother and daughter over the new partner ensues, the kink-shaming starts because people can be cruel about that which transgresses the norm, and immediately condemn what they don’t understand. That the love is never in doubt in Jeanne’s eyes is what makes this such a convincing little film.

Wittock depicts the very real Objectum-sexuality (OS) empathetically. There have been women who have vowed to love, honour and cherish the Berlin Wall, Eiffel Tower, a San Diego train station, and Le Pont du Diable respectively. Tracey Emin even married a stone in 2015. Yet it is Floridian Linda Ducharme who married Bruce in 2013 after a thirty-year courtship (Bruce is a Ferris Wheel) which is the suggested inspiration here and the ‘true story’ checked in the opening credits.

Image copyright: WILLIAMK

While Jumbo may start out more than a little sci-fi thanks mainly to Thomas Buelen’s cinematography and the use of neon lights, and synthy-buzzes on Thomas Roussel’s soundtrack, it is successful in making the switch from the surreal to a charming offbeat love story (as much about Margarette and Jeanne as Jeanne and Jumbo). The ending which initially feels rather abrupt is lovely and joyous – how else could you end a film about love, intimacy and connection? Perhaps it lands differently mid-pandemic having been locked away from people we would normally be able to touch and adore freely but whatever your mind set, love is love no matter the form it takes.

Jumbo is in UK and Irish cinemas from 9th July


Review: Body of Water (Dir. Lucy Brydon, 2020)

Nothing quite brings a family together – or tears it apart – like a wedding. At least that’s the theory. For war photographer Stephanie (Sian Brooke), she must contend with organising a Hen party, writing a speech, attend dress fittings (complete with unhelpful comments like, “it’d probably look better on some curves”) and repair relationships with her teenage daughter Pearl (Fabienne Piolini-Castle) and mother/bride-to-be Susan (Amanda Burton). All of this while navigating getting well following several months of supervised showers, weigh-ins, eating plans and therapy in an inpatient treatment facility for an eating disorder.

Initially, interactions are overly polite and awkward – strained, fractious and as diminishing as Stephanie’s frame swamped in layers of clothing and over-sized hoodies. The tension palpable. Even more so at mealtimes when Stephanie is sat alone at the dinner table, a glass of water to hand to wash down the food or to fill her up so she doesn’t have to eat more. Long takes are utilised in these moments which only add to her struggle and isolation as she attempts bite after bite, hoping that an apple won’t defeat her. It is excruciating to watch.

The performances are all excellent, collectively working well together while creating three fully realised characters and a convincing family unit. Burton’s Susan is throwing herself into wedding preparation while trying to keep Stephanie, her illness and Pearl somewhat at arm’s length. She’s the authoritarian guardian of both her daughter and granddaughter having had to raise Pearl for much of her mother’s treatment – seven months at a time and on four separate occasions. Her impending nuptials are desperately important, not just for the significant commitment it celebrates but she’s hoping (or deluding herself) that it will be free from anorexia’s grasp.

Piolini-Castle perfectly encapsulates the teenage angst of Pearl – bouncing from apathy to anger, and aggression, flirting with rebellion as she sneaks out of the house using inappropriate sexual entanglements as a means of distraction. At its core, however, this is Brooke’s film. Her performance is powerful, subtle and complex. There’s a delicacy, a fragility which is at odds with the character’s tenacity and strength. She’s trying to be a good mother (and daughter) but illness has a grip on her, it won’t let her go and she’s tired of fighting it.

There are few men onscreen. There’s no mention of either Stephanie or Pearl’s father(s) – leaving us to draw our own conclusions and Stephanie’s Caseworker Shaun (Nick Blood) doesn’t paint a particularly positive picture of his sex or the social care system.

The term ‘eating disorder’ never quite communicates the severity of the mental illness that affects both men and women (3/4 tend to be the latter) and has the highest fatality rate, yet is the hardest to treat. It is not a subject matter new on film but writer-director Lucy Brydon’s BBC-backed drama seeks to reframe the narrative that is most prevalent (though still bearing a white protagonist). There is no pre-pubescent gymnast or ballet dancer whose goal-orientated weight loss is taken too far (and overcome through puberty) but an adult woman who is battling it and there is no trigger. We don’t know how, why or when it started for Stephanie, if it is psychological, sociological or genetic (or all of the above). It just is. Which makes the film all the more powerful for it.

Brydon makes the most of the 95 minute runtime, utilising space (or in Stephanie’s case limiting it) intuitively and Darran Bragg’s cinematography is captured through an almost continuously moving camera – sometimes slow and languid, other times a not-so-steady-cam, continuing the water theme – the colour palette adding to the muted tone with a mise-en-scène awash with blues, greens and greys. It’s a perfect metaphor for a lot of things but it encapsulates Stephanie’s struggle so perfectly, and in those moments when old habits creep in and threaten her recovery the sound design distorts so the audience is briefly under water with her, coupled with Rory Attwell’s atonal score.

Body of Water is an impressive debut, however, it is by no means an easy watch. Yet, it manages to convey some of the difficulties and psychological problems anorexia can present and how it can engulf sufferers and their families alike, all without judgement, stigma or fetishising the female body. This is a sensitively made and beautifully performed British drama that does well to depict the horrors of an illness, and questions whether true recovery actually exists for those who continue to shrink themselves to fit the world.

Film Festival Review

Review: Farewell Amor (Dir. Ekwa Msangi, 2020)

LFF 2020

The Civil War in Angola waged from 1975-2002. Despite several attempts at peace agreements and ceasefires, all collapsed amid decades of genocide and ethnic cleansing. With an estimated 800,000 dead and 13,000,000 internally displaced, some 435,000 were able to flee the country altogether and become refugees abroad.

Ekwa Msangi’s affecting Farewell Amor opens with an airport pick-up. Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is standing in arrivals meeting his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and teenage daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson). The US reunification process has finally brought this family back together after seventeen long years apart. Esther and Sylvia were exiled to Tanzania while Walter has lived in New York driving a cab to make ends meet. Together, they must rebuild their family and attempt to settle, get to know each other again – or in the case of father and daughter for the first time – all in a one bedroom apartment and, for Esther and Sylvia, in a strange city.

Msangi chooses to use a Rashōmon-style of storytelling splitting her film into three sections, depicting each point-of-view. Each chapter is named for each character, giving them narrative agency over their own story, with the first meeting at the airport as the jumping-off point. We are party to their individual journeys as they come to terms with living in a strange land and as a Black person walking the streets in the US – the conversation Walter has with Sylvia about how people react to their skin colour is disheartening but also all too realistic – and provides insight into the types of secrets all families have for their individual and collective survival.

Esther has sought comfort, almost fanatically so, in her religion. Even for a good and loyal man like Walter, seventeen years is an eternity and he had found his in a nurse named Linda who has had to move out, move on and make way for Esther. Sylvia is the one with a future ahead of her and the one this has been the biggest upheaval for. She wants to dance despite her mother’s expectations of medical school, and enters a competition to win $1000 prize. It is Sylvia’s chapter that is the strongest and most impactful, making the absolute best of Osei Essad’s wonderfully evocative score and soundtrack.

Farewell Amor is a stunning first film. It runs with heavy themes amid the soul-searching (and often destroying) difficulties that comes with immigration, emigration and life as a refugee, but with no bombast or self-aggrandising statements. This is a story about honouring the past but placing importance on creating a future. It is redolent in its musicality and vibrancy of colour which is often integral to the culture it depicts yet it takes little to see ourselves in any one of those three gorgeous central performances. Ekwa Masangi has created an urgent and gentle drama – that still packs a punch – about struggle, fight, resilience and love; a sense of belonging and, above all else, family, made all the more poignant by the type of year many have experienced.

Farewell Amor is currently available to stream on MUBI

Film Festival Review

Review: Another Round (Dir. Thomas Vinterberg, 2020)

LFF 2020

Thomas Vinterberg is no stranger to a filmic knees-up – the eat, drink and be merry attitude seen, however fleetingly, in the likes of Festen (1998), The Hunt (2012) and The Commune (2016). His latest film, Another Round [Druk]* takes it to a whole new level but ends up being something far more poignant than just a boozy binge with the lads.

Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe) and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) are all teachers in History, P.E., Music and Psychology respectively. One evening, they gather to celebrate Tommy’s birthday and offload their feelings about family life, (or lack thereof), work and finding contentment and happiness amid the rat race. As they fill their bellies and imbibe, Nikolaj recalls the somewhat contentious theory by Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, that by increasing the BAC (blood alcohol content) by 0.05% – to make up for the human deficit – than we would all be more relaxed, poised, musical, open and courageous.

After a particularly rough day, melancholy Martin decides to try it out and steals a sneaky shot of vodka before his first lesson, and continues to top up throughout the day. It has the desired effect, lowers his inhibitions (as it is wan to do) and allows him, for the first time in a long time, to enjoy his job. He soon confesses all to his friends and ropes them in too. They agree but only on the condition that they treat it like a proper research project, don’t go overboard and each carry a breathalyser to ensure they stay within the boundaries set and record their findings. To justify their thesis, they site numerous Prime Ministers and Presidents, musicians and artists who all a) managed to function inebriated and b) created some of their best work while on the hooch.

Inevitably, too much of a good thing must ultimately come to an end but not before Nikolaj’s night of ‘Total Oblivion’, culminating in a cocktail concoction that would blow even the most ardent of consumer’s head off, a dance routine that brings to mind the one in Bande á part (1964) and a fishing expedition. All concluding in some of the most laugh-out-loud hilarious scenes and the greatest drunk acting committed to film in some time.

Those moments of laughter aside, Vinterberg and his co-writer Tobias Lindholm (The Hunt, The Commune) have an innate ability of being able to incite mirth only to snap an audience out of it with a cold stinging slap of reality. It’s what makes Vinterberg’s films so enjoyable; joy is tempered with poignancy – and a few dramatic gut punches for good measure. This film in spite of the inhalation of alcohol (literally at one point), it doesn’t glorify it – there are those who can stop drinking and those who can’t; the experimental drunks hiding in plain sight, and Lord knows the Danes like a snifter (and their football) and though it never delves too deeply into it, addiction and relapse are alluded to along the way.

Vinterberg also has a way of inviting the viewer in and making you care about, identify and empathise with his characters even if they make questionable decisions – Lars and his over-anxious student will certainly give you pause – so much grey in a world where black and white viewpoints are pushed. Framing is often intimate, the colour palette is gorgeous and most, if not all, scenes are beautifully lit (see also his version of Far From the Madding Crowd for more of this aesthetic), and locations quintessentially Danish. We often get seasons and sometimes up to a whole year with Vinterberg’s characters – condensed into 100+ minutes – which adds depth to the narrative and character. He has stated that whenever he writes it is always with a specific actor in mind (three of whom he reunites here from The Hunt) which is why they tend to be so believable, fleshed-out and could be why Mads was willing to go back to his roots in those glorious (madsnificent, even) final scenes.

Another Round is a spirited look at existence; youth in all its glowing glory and optimism, and veering towards the other end of the spectrum are Martin, Tommy, Lars and Nikolaj. The feelings are still there only somewhat jaded and in a creakier body. It’s a film about the wins, the losses and finding your feet at any age. During filming Vinterberg suffered a tragic loss and this film was the finished result (it is even dedicated to Ida’s memory); a really beautifully observed celebration of life and all the stuff – good and bad – it throws at you. Skål.

*Winner of Best Film at the LFF Audience Awards.

Another Round is out in UK cinemas from 2nd July.

Film Festival Review

Review: One Night in Miami (Dir. Regina King, 2020)

LFF 2020

Regina King is better known for being in front of the camera, receiving a multitude of nominations, not to mention the award wins for her consistently brilliant work. She is, however, no stranger when it comes to directing. With 14, now 15, credits to her name, it is far from surprising that the film being touted as her feature debut is as accomplished as it is. For it, she chose to transpose Kemp Powers’ (here adapting his own stage play for the screen) One Night in Miami

The premise is simple: On February 25 1964, 22-year-old Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) beat Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander) to become the Heavyweight Champion of the World. In the crowd sits Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and, providing ringside commentary, Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). What it presupposes is that these four men meet after the fight and hole up in a room at the Hampton House Motel to discuss life, love and politics in an already changing world, during the year that would also see Clay’s transition to Islam, the Civil Rights Act signed into law, the Harlem race riots and, tragically, the murder of Sam Cooke.

Despite the title, action begins in 1963 and Clay’s fight against Henry Cooper, and from there each character is afforded their own scene to give the audience some indication where they were prior to the night in Miami. Pedants (guilty) may note that Cooke’s Johnny Carson appearance was eighteen days prior to the 25 February but is presented as happening after… However, any liberties taken with the timeline makes little difference as King adds the creative flourishes necessary to make a 90-minute one act play into a film, and ultimately it is the conversations held within that room which are the integral part. Yes, the majority takes place in the one location but it never feels confined as space is created with the camera constantly moving, through the editing, and those performances…

Not to put too fine a point on it, they are all impeccable. Hodges – close to being ubiquitous following a steady run of work released this year – slows his speech, clenches the jaw, and embodies Brown with a deadpan, quiet intelligence while Odom Jr. sings Cooke almost pitch perfect (second only to the man himself). He’s the only cast member wearing a make-up prosthetic but one hopes it was for vocal/breathing purposes as it does prove a little distracting at times. Goree has Clay’s inflection and physical prowess down pat, not to mention a bounding, almost childlike energy.

Which leaves the standout, British actor Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. His performance is exceptional. Calming, erudite, with flashes of the righteous anger that punctuated the man’s public speeches and press conferences yet, this is a more emotionally vulnerable version seen here. Paranoid about his position as he contemplates a future without the Nation of Islam, and about being followed. He’s worried that his days are numbered as he rushes to finish his autobiography and leave behind his story in his own words. He is often behind his expensive camera taking photos of his friends, his brothers. Positioned on the outside of the group but as Clay states at one point, “You’re our director.”

In the room, they listen to music, eat ice-cream – vanilla, an allusion made by Brother Malcolm to Brown and Cooke’s love of white women – and share; discussing how the world should change, what each of them should be doing for the cause and how to ‘weaponise’ their respective attributes and push through the struggle; speaking truth to power.

This celebration of four gifted Black men does not pander to mythology or idolatrise, but instead presents reflections of the men at the height of their notoriety (note the mirrors dotted around the place) and not mere impersonation. The dialogue is punchy and resonant as they debate, argue, laugh and cry – the personification of the competing voices within the civil rights movement (and pre-cursors of the Black Power movement). It is urgent discourse – and devastatingly all too relevant today – yet filled with depth and humour.

As a piece of film, One Night in Miami doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of structure or language but there are a number of beautiful shots courtesy of Tami Reiker’s cinematography which linger in the mind after the credits have rolled. The musical segments give Odom Jr. more time to shine with the arrangements and atmospheric score courtesy of the immense talent of maestro Terence Blanchard. By the time Cooke’s final number – A Change is Gonna Come – comes around, one cannot help but be moved to tears.

Clearly, some room should be left on Ms. King’s mantle for a few more gold and silver trophies following this assured and stylish snapshot of a momentous meeting in time. It delivers on multiple levels, encompassing Black/American history, culture and music – pay attention you may learn something – and contains four utterly captivating performances. As somebody who missed the play’s 2016 run at The Donmar this incredible film more than makes up for it.

One Night in Miami Premieres on Amazon Prime January 15th 2021

Film Festival Review

Review: 180° Rule (Dir. Farnoosh Samadi, 2020)

LFF 2020

It is not often that you hear women in Iranian cinema discuss abortion and rarely in the first twenty minutes of a film’s opening. It is the first indication that 180° Rule is a little different and that there’s a woman at the helm. Farnoosh Samadi, over the course of 83 minutes, subtly depicts a woman’s experience in a society fighting between tradition and modernity which renders women and girls without agency, and often leads to suffering and silence.

Sara (Sahar Dolatshahi) is a school teacher, well liked and preparing for a few days leave to celebrate a family wedding when one of her students, Yasi (Sadaf Asgari) admits to being pregnant (after swallowing pills to induce miscarriage). Sara offers guidance and advice where she can before heading home to pack. However popular she is at work, home life is a somewhat different matter – visually symbolised by the boiling, overflowing milk-pan on the stove in the opening frame – her husband Hamed (Pejam Jamshidi) is aloof, unfeeling, stoic and somewhat miserable. Criticisms come thick and fast and those that don’t are loaded in accusation.

She’s a nag, she smokes too much, she has allowed the cat on the bed again, she’s a bad driver, she’s responsible for his daughter being ill (it’s a cough and a temperature…) and then he’s claiming his workload will prevent him from accompanying her and daughter Raha to the upcoming nuptials. Which means that they have to stay behind lest travel unaccompanied or in the car with a ‘strange man’ (a taxi driver). This is made all the more disappointing by just how much his child has been looking forward to being the flower girl. Weighing up her options – and the expectations of her mother, extended family and daughter – Sara makes a choice and it is a decision that will change her life irreparably and we see the ripples for the remainder of the film.

During which time Samadi intentionally disrupts and disorientates the audience. The inclusion of Yasi’s subplot later on is purposeful and in keeping with the pace of the film and its reflection of reality. Change happens so quickly and impulsive, even inexplicable, decisions don’t always have time to reverberate or be made understandable – the plain and simple fact is that people, women can suddenly start acting strangely.

In a patriarchal society – like the one depicted so astutely onscreen – moral responsibility is placed on women, they’re conditioned to follow the rules, to do as they are told and avoid transgression at all cost. If they fail they’re expected to suppress their feelings and the pressures of secrets, lies, shame and guilt can often be their undoing, sadder still is that Samadi’s screenplay is loosely based on a true story. 

180°Rule is an evocative film that won’t necessarily be embraced by all but the juxtaposition of light and dark, black and white whether figuratively or in a lighting choice, a costume, or animal in frame is striking. Its mournful score, thanks to Amir Nobakht’s sound design only adds to the haunting melodrama and subtle social commentary.

It’s a technically impressive and visually arresting drama led by an extremely convincing lead in Dolatshahi. Were it not for her and the empathy she elicits, from what becomes a largely subdued and silent performance, it is doubtful the film would work quite so well. It will be likened to the work of Asghar Farhadi, somewhat understandably during one particular scene yet however flattering it is to be compared to a master filmmaker, and for a first feature no less (following short films: The Silence (2016), Grace (2017) and The Role (2018)), this piece of work is made all the more compelling, not in spite of but because of its female lens.