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The Keeper (2018)
8/10
A heart-warming watch - even if economical with the truth
10 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Not being interested in watching advertisements for cars and Bacardi Breezers, it my habit to arrive at the cinema about fifteen minutes after the stated programme start time. That usually ensures I arrive just in time for the trailers and, of course, the film I want to see. However, Piccadilly's Picturehouse Central outfoxed me when I went to see 'The Keeper', having started the film bang on the dot of the programme start time! I therefore missed the first ten- or fifteen minutes of the film.

It is based on the story of Bert Trautmann, a Luftwaffe paratrooper who, as a prisoner of war in Lancashire in the mid-1940s, is spotted playing football ('soccer' for Americans, of course!) by Jack Friar, the manager of struggling local side St Helens. Friar invites Trautmann to take over as goalie and also gives him a job in his shop. As well as the opportunity to get out of the camp and play football, this arrangement also introduces Trautmann to Friar's daughter Margaret. Margaret is 'the girl' of St Helens' captain, but Trautmann's easy charm soon starts to win her over...

... and it is this charm that is, perhaps, the film's flaw. Its Trautmann is so pleasant he comes across as unreal - no-one could be that nice! It is only well into the film, after he has started his career at Manchester City and has been established, for the film's purposes, as a Thoroughly Nice Chap, that we learn his dark, wartime secret - and even that is a sin of inaction rather than outright aggression. I am by no means an expert on Trautmann, but a quick skim of his Wikipedia entry suggests the real man was more nuanced: his illegitimate (as she would have been described at the time) daughter; his and Margaret's divorce; his two further marriages; his red card for violent conduct. The film is very enjoyable, but does not stand as an historical document.

Lead actor David Kross brings a boyish charm to the part of Trautmann, but for the reasons stated above I do not think the role stretches him. As Margaret, Freya Mavor is given more to play with, portraying her character's slow acceptance of Trautmann and her numbing grief at a family tragedy. But for me, acting honours go to John Henshaw as Friar. He uses his distinctive face ('like a bulldog chewing a wasp') to great effect here, portraying anger, exasperation and grudging fatherly indulgence to good comedic effect. His performance is the cherry on the top of a great - if factually evasive - feel-good film.
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Nevrland (2019)
5/10
Style over substance
4 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
'Nevrland' (ooh, cool urban spelling!) is very much a film of two halves. In the first part we follow the life of Jakob (Simon Frühwirth), a Vienna youth who lives with his father and grandfather (his mother having left when he was a small child). Jakob's life is changing: he has just started his new job in an abattoir and seems to be developing a mental illness. Excitement is offered by the attractively-muscled form of Kristjan (Paul Forman) a man in his mid-twenties with whom Jakob communicates in on-line chat rooms. Their face-to-face meeting forms the second distinct part of the film, as other characters are jettisoned in favour of what becomes largely a two-hander between Früwirth and Forman, albeit with clubbing scenes and a tripping sequence thrown in.

Writer and director (his first time directing, according to the introduction at the British Film Institute's 2019 'Flare' festival for LGBTQ+ films) Gregor Schmidinger must have thought he was being terribly brave, innovative and challenging with some of the scenes in this: pig carcasses filmed in gory detail, a cow bleeding to death, strange goings-on in nightclubs. Personally I have a feeling he was trying a bit too hard to be the enfant terrible; the tripping sequence, in particular, seems to last forever as weird image after weird image is paraded before the viewer. Oh, and perhaps it is just me getting old, but the bright flashing lights in the club scenes hurt my eyes!

Now for a word about nudity. Some readers will roll their eyes at this, but hey - some of us like a little skin with our flicks! It is here that Schmidinger's bravery seems to desert him. A scene with men showering together has all the participants uniformly facing away from the camera, but in real life, people in group showers face in all sorts of directions. (Admittedly, in this case, the out-of-shape bodies involved are ones you would prefer remained covered up...) In Jakob's dream sequences, in which he is running through the woods or swimming in lakes, he is dressed in his underpants, as if Schmidinger wants to show his vulnerability by stripping him but bottles out when it comes to going all the way. The gay pornography websites Jakob visits are of a particularly strange sort, the likes of which I have never before encountered: they don't show any penises at all, let alone erections! And the sex scene between Jakob and Kristjan is so chaste it would not be out of place on American network television. In a film less determined to shock the viewer with other aspects of its imagery this comparatively prudish attitude to nudity would not have been so noticeable; but in this film, it definitely is.

Ultimately I do not regret watching 'Nevrland': the look at Jakob's life prior to the meeting with Kristjan makes for a good human-interest drama. But there is too little of that, and too much "let's shock the viewer" weirdness, for me to want to watch the film again.
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Last Ferry (2019)
4/10
Ultimately disappointing
1 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
'Last Ferry' is the kind of gay-themed, low-budget, self-indulgent film that usually goes straight to DVD. Which makes the decision of the British Film Institute to stage its world premiere during their 2019 LGBTQ+ 'Flare' festival a bit perplexing, to say the least.

Unhappy New York lawyer Joseph is disappointed upon arriving at Fire Island to discover the fabled gay resort is off-season. After an expedition into the woods for a spot of nookie goes wrong, Joseph is taken in by the charming Cameron and his one-note friends - Anabi (a doctor) and Shane (a stereotypical overweight screaming queen). Also present is Rafael, who spends his time tediously moping around following an apparent break-up with his boyfriend. But, having seen the film's opening act, the viewer knows there is more to Rafael's situation than is immediately apparent - as does, although he does not at first realise he possesses the knowledge, Joseph.

Lead actor Ramon O Torres also wrote, co-produced and edited the film. Presumably this made him a very powerful person on the production, but someone really should have sat him down and explained that it is a kindness to the viewer to give your characters some motivation: in this case, why Rafael and Cameron have committed the act they have - the fact we are not told is very disappointing. There are other flaws, too: for example, when a character slips very gently into a swimming pool, you will ask yourself why he is immediately afterwards bleeding so heavily (this, presumably, is the fault of director Jaki Bradley). And how does a character recognise the tattoo on the back of a murderer's leg when he only previously saw said murderer backing away from him?

Good points? Well, as an actor, Torres does a believable job of portraying both Joseph's confusion after the woods incident and his growing ease with his new friends - but this may be because, in comparison, the other actors are not given the chance to shine in portraying the cardboard cut-out characters with which Torres the writer has lumbered them. The scenery is nice, and it is pleasing that the film's most physically-attractive cast member provides the only real nude scene. Ultimately, though, 'Last Ferry' is a disappointment. The BFI may need to take a look at their programming policy...
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8/10
An interesting documentary from the South Pacific
29 March 2019
When Joey Mataele was a small boy, the Queen of the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga thought him so pretty she removed the dress from her life-size doll and put it instead on Joey. Joey contined wearing dresses, including - to the consternation of his parliamentarian father - in public, and today is one of Tonga's leading transgender women, known locally as 'leitis'. This documentary film is called 'Leitis in Waiting' (see what they did there?)

The film opens with scenes of traditional Tongan dancing - grass skirts, graceful bowing and hand-twirling - intercut with a leiti giving a bawdy performance of a more modern song. Despite this jarring juxtaposition, the viewer learns that leitis are actually an established part of Tongan culture, for example serving the monarchy and working at social gatherings. But this acceptance is under threat from outside influences, particularly religion (surprise!) Athough we do meet at least one religious leader who speaks out in support of the leitis, most of those featured are very much in the anti camp - none more so than (the rather handsome) Pastor Barry, a televangelist whose church, the film informs us more than once, is 'USA-funded'.

I was attracted to this documentary for its look at modern South Pacific society more than I was interested in the transgender issues. But the viewer would have to possess a heart of stone not to feel sympathy for Joey and her fellow leitis as they attempt to claim their place in a modernising country (albeit with powerful support: the patron of the Tonga Leiti's - sic - Association is a princess of the royal family). With this kind of campaigning documentary there is always the question how fair is the portrayal of the opposing side (for instance, was the best thing Pastor Barry could say about homosexuals really that they should be put in prison for a month and he didn't want them killed "as in Iran"?) But Mataele makes for an articulate and engaging spokesperson (in fact, not featuring more of her trip to Geneva to address the United Nations was a wasted opoortunity) and this is an interesting film.
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8/10
Enjoyable and entertaining
19 March 2019
'The White Crow' tells of Soviet ballet star Rudolf Nureyev's defection to the West in Paris, 1961. And of his years training in Leningrad. And of his poverty-stricken childhood. Three strands running concurrently through the film make for a busy production. The childhood scenes do little more than establish that Nureyev grew up surrounded by poverty and lots of snow. The Leningrad scenes show him as willing to work for his craft, but intense, self-centred and very arrogant - a proper little diva, in fact. Six years later, in Paris, he is still arrogant - demanding, for example, that a French female companion talk to a Russian waiter on his behalf because he suspects the man of looking down on him. But the intensity has weakened, replaced by an interest in what is around him and a happy curiosity in new things. This, however, does not please his KGB minders.

The film is the third from Ralph Fiennes wearing his director's hat. He does a pretty good job: the childhood scenes are shot in bleak, washed-out colours - almost black-and-white - a clever decision which creates atmosphere; and the climactic defection scene in Le Bourget Airport is heavy with tension. There *are* directoral flaws - something as simple as, for example, giving leading man Oleg Ivenko a different haircut for each era would have prevented this viewer's occasional confusion as to whether I was watching 1960s' Paris Nureyev or the 1950s' Leningrad version! And did we need quite so many extreme close-ups of Ivenko's face? But overall, director Fiennes does a good job...

... which makes it a shame that actor Fiennes turns in one of the weakest performances of the film. His portrayal of Nureyev's teacher Pushkin may, for all I know, be true to the real man, but I found it dreadfully studied and mannered, producing a caricature rather than a character (I will, however, give Fiennes full marks for delivering most of his lines in Russian!) Ukrainian dancer Ivenko, in what according to IMDb is his first acting role, turns in a more naturalistic performance, albeit within the confines of the generously-proportioned ego he is portraying. My personal favourite, however, was Chulpan Khamatova in a nicely-judged portrayal of Pushkin's wife Xenia, whose initial motherly interest in Nureyev (prompted by her husband's concern the stroppy teenager is not eating enough) develops over the course of the film.

Seen in preview at the British Film Institute, and - containing good pacing, an interesting story and nicely-rendered period detail - well worth it.
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The Aftermath (2019)
6/10
Worth watching once, despite unengaging central characters
5 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
'The Aftermath' is based on Rhidian Brook's novel, which is itself based on Brook's childhood experiences in Germany soon after the Second World War, although I understand it is largely a work of fiction - just as well, because otherwise Brook is washing some very dirty family linen in public.

A few months after VE Day, Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives in Hamburg to join her husband Lewis (Jason Clarke), who is serving as military governor. Hamburg is a shattered city, but on its outskirts is an undamaged, luxurious house own by widower Stefan Lubert and his teenaged daughter Freda. The house is requisitioned by the British military for the Morgans' use, but Lewis takes the unusual decision that the Luberts can continue living there. Stefan is cultured, charming and, as he is played by Alexander Skarsgård, a lot closer to Knightley's league in terms of looks than the more heavy-set Clarke. The rules of fiction dictate, therefore, that Rachael's icy resolve will soon give way and she will fall willingly into Stefan's arms. Stefan becomes so engrossed in Rachael that he is unaware Freda is becoming similarly engrossed in a handsome, but disturbingly intense, young left-over Nazi...

This is a good-looking film, with some cleverly-staged sequences: for instance, when Rachael and Lewis have an emotionally-charged discussion at a regimental dinner-dance, director James Kent silences the music and the chatter of other dancers, focussing the viewer's attention solely on the couple's words. But it is hard to engage with Rachael and Stefan: both have back-stories that should invoke sympathy: Rachael's young son was killed in the Blitz (allowing Knightley to turn in some good acting as she breaks down at the memory) and Stefan's wife died in the Allied bombing that destroyed Hamburg. But they are both so proper and correct (a couple of frantic couplings aside) that it is hard to find them interesting. By contrast, Lewis is a more fully-rounded character: the stereotypical stiff upper-lipped Briton with his wife, but showing real concern for the plight of the defeated Germans and almost uncontrollable anger when confronted by a taunting Nazi.

Another issue with the film is that so much attention is paid to the undeniably awful conditions in which Hamburg's citizens were forced to live following the Allied bombing - and the attitude of many of the British supporting characters is so boorish - that it is almost as if the film is trying to say it was the Allies, instead of the Axis, that were the aggressors of the Second World War.

So this could have been better, but it was worth watching once.
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5/10
Too loud, too bright - and *definitely* too long
19 February 2019
Amin quits his Paris medical school and returns to his seaside home town, intent on pursuing his twin interests of photography and writing sci-fi scrips. He quickly discovers that his womanising brother Tony (Salim Kechiouche, more famous to British audiences for such gay-friendly fare as 'Grande École' and 'Le Clan') is having an affair with his pultridudinous childhood friend Ophélie. Amin and Tony visit the beach, where they meet two tourists, Charlotte and Céline. Charlotte quickly falls for Tony's swarthy charms, and Céline initially seems interested in Amin - before showing equal interest in his humorous friend Joe and, indeed, in Ophélie.

On paper, this soapy storyline looks as if it could be dealt with relatively quickly. Director/co-writer Abdellatif Kechiche, however, spins it out to a squirm-inducing 181 minutes. He does this mainly by lengthening scenes way beyond their ability to hold the viewer's attention: for example, a nightclub sequence which adds nothing to the development of either plot or character lasts, by my reckoning, at least quarter of an hour but could have finished in half that time; and to establish that Ophélie works on a goat farm all that was needed was for her to say "I've got to get to the goat farm"; instead we're treated to five minutes of her herding the creatures into a barn.

Kechiche frequently has his actors talking over one another, which may be an accurate mirror of real-life conversation, but makes it difficult for the viewer to keep track of who is saying what, particularly when reading sub-titles. He also often places his actors in front of the sun, casting them into shadow and searing the eyeballs of his audience.

This film is sub-titled 'Canto Uno', which suggests one or more sequels. Even though the characters are largely likeable, and there is comfort in the predictability of the story, unless those sequels benefit from much tighter editing than did this, I won't be going anywhere near them.
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6/10
Mixed reactions
8 January 2019
After drunkenly confessing a love of wearing stiletto heels, comic book artist Mark Hogancamp is gay-bashed (ironically, he is not gay). The attack leaves him with what I (not a medical person) assume is brain damage, of which one effect is the loss of his drawing ability. Denied that, instead he channels his artistic leanings into constructing in his garden a World War Two Belgian village, populated with an Action Man-like doll as his own alter-ego, war hero "Cap'n Hogie" (who wears stilettos to "feel the essence of Dame"), and Sindy- or Barbie-like dolls representing various women in his life (his care assistant, a friendly woman in a hobby shop, a pornographic actress...) Using these dolls - often in scenes in which Hogie, captured by Nazis (representing Mark's assailants), is rescued by the women - Mark works through his personal demons and his photographs of the scenes give him a second artistic career. But his emotional equilibrium is threatened both by the arrival of kindly neighbour Nicol (who, somewhat unbelievably, does not find it remotely creepy when Mark immediately gives her her own doll equivalent in Marwen) and also by Deva the mysterious evil Belgian witch doll...

This is based on a true story, which may explain why we are spared the usual melodrama in which Mark's awful ordeal would usually be portrayed. Instead, he is presented as someone whose life has been severely affected by his assault, but who, as anyone would, is trying to cope and put his life back together: a couple of shouty episodes aside, he is a subdued, but not totally withdrawn, character. This, however, seems to result in a patchy performance from lead Steve Carell (in what I cynically imagine is the kind of role actors accept in the hope it will bag them an Oscar): whereas he is suitably gung-ho when voicing Hogie, as Mark I found his performance curiously detached. Of the other performances, the stand-out is Gwendoline Christie, but not in a good way: her Russian care assistant is so over-the-top it is as if she has just wandered in from a 'Carry on' film - it says a lot about her performance that she is more realistic when portraying a plastic doll.

Speaking of plastic dolls, the animated/CGI sequences are nicely done, both technically and also in injecting a little bit of humour into the film, while never swamping its central message of a man being forced to adapt to a change of circumstances that is not his fault. Ultimately, however, the quieter, real-life sequences - human interest drama I would usually appreciate - suffer in contrast to the colourful animated bits and I left the cinema undecided as to whether I had actually enjoyed the film or not.
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Diamantino (2018)
7/10
Weird but entertaining
1 November 2018
Warning: Spoilers
We first meet the eponymous hero of 'Diamantino' as he prepares to score the goal that may propel Portugal into the final of the football World Cup. As he runs toward the goal, the pitch and stadium dissolve around him and are replaced by a field of pink powder through which gambol giant fluffy puppies. This is something Diamantino sees every time he is about to attempt a goal, and it gives an indication of his personality: footballing superstar he may be, but he is also sweet, innocent, childlike and a bit dim.

An encounter with refugees crossing the Mediterranean (a popular theme with film-makers at the moment) shocks Diamantino so much he decides to adopt one. The chosen refugee, 'Rahim', is actually Aisha, an agent for the Portuguese secret service, investigating Diamantino for money-laundering. She quickly realises he does not possess the intelligence to organise such a scheme, but she *does* discover that his evil twin sisters have arranged with the Minister for Propaganda that Diamantino be cloned, in order to create a world-beating football squad that will make the Portuguese into proud nationalists just before they are due to vote in a referendum to leave the European Union (Porexit?)

Looking a bit like West Ham midfielder Jack Wilshere (only with fewer injuries), Carloto Cotta makes Diamantino an engaging (and sexy) character, and Anabela & Margarida Moreira are deliciously evil as his sisters, although if I were a twin I might sigh at the 'weird twins' plot device being trotted out yet again. The 2018 London Film Festival included this film in their 'Experimenta' strand and rightly so: it is as mad as a box of frogs. But the narrative is largely coherent and the film is definitely entertaining. I may well watch it again.
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Woman at War (2018)
7/10
An engaging heroine makes up for preachiness... and the band
31 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Although in her late forties, eco-warrior Halla is an all-action woman: she thinks nothing of yomping across the Icelandic countryside, wading through icy streams and even disguising herself with a dead ram's carcass as she wages her campaign against heavy industry. But when a long-forgotten application to become an adoptive parent suddenly proves successful, Halla has to step up her campaign just as the police start getting more hi-tech...

I will deal with the bad points first: a three-piece band (sometimes with a choir in what I think are Ukrainian traditional costumes - the film is part-financed by Ukraine) are frequently seen on-screen as they provide the background music. They are in the countryside, at the airport, in Halla's flat... while this is a device that is amusing the first time it is used - and is perhaps supposed to indicate Halla's feeling of increasingly being oppressed as the authorities get closer - the viewer ends up feeling oppressed too. Secondly, although brief mention is made of the benefits of development, the overall tenet of the film leans so heavily in the direction of environmentalism that it is very one-sided: for instance, the final shot of the band (oh, blessed relief!) sees their background of pristine Icelandic countryside transform into a dirty industrial landscape, and the last scene of the entire film has a group of bus passengers forced to abandon their vehicle and wade through flooding caused, I suppose, by climate change. I actually agree with the environmental argument, but in a work of fiction would prefer not to be preached at.

On the other hand, a film with an active middle-aged woman as the main character is unusual. Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir is engaging as Halla (and also plays Halla's New Age sister). The Icelandic scenery is as bleakly magnificent as always - indeed, the film could almost act as a tourism advertisement for Iceland, if it did not also suggest visitors to the country will spend their time being wrongly arrested for crimes committed by local eco-warriors...
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Consequences (2018)
6/10
Slovenia does US TVM
30 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
In his late teens, Andrej is a handful: smoking, drinking, doing drugs etc. After he assaults a girl with whom he can not 'get it up', he is sent to a reform school where the ineffectual bearded social workers who are supposed to run the place are cowed by the inmates, whose ringleader is Zele, a hard-partying, sexually-ambiguous bully-boy. Andrej, attracted to Zele, is eager to please him; it can only end in tears.

To anyone who has seen any prison/reform school film, there is nothing really new about this except a) it is set in Slovenia and b) there is no shower-based male rape scene. Apart from that, plotting is strictly by-the-numbers: Andrej is at first ostracised by the other boys but gradually wins their acceptance; there's the ultimate betrayal; and Andrej's pet rat goes the way of almost all animals who have the misfortune to find themselves in this kind of production.

Fans of husky East European boys will be pleased by the numerous shirtless scenes (although may be disappointed that that is pretty much all that is on display, skin-wise). The roles do not stretch the young actors, all of whom are simply required to play the tough guy, but as Andrej, Matej Zemljic's facial reaction when he opens a shoebox containing a nasty surprise is pretty effective. (Unfortunately IMDb does now allow the correct spelling of Matej's surname!)

A bit like a US network TV version of a much tougher film - there is not even much swearing! - but worth seeing once. I saw it at the 2018 London Film Festival.
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El Angel (2018)
5/10
Nicely set and acted well... but let's remember these were vicious criminals
29 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
In early 1970s' Buenos Aires, Carlos is a baby-faced teenager with a cat-burglary hobby, a taste for danger and little consideration for anyone other than himself. At reform school he meets older boy Ramón, and the pair soon start a campaign of burglary (sometimes accompanied by Ramón's father, a career criminal). These expeditions often involve Carlos shooting someone dead.

The film portrays Carlos and Ramón as loveable rascals, which is disappointing as they were, in fact, real people (the character of Ramón being inspired by a differently-named accomplice of Carlos). Indeed, according to Wikipedia, Carlos is the longest-serving prisoner in Argentina. The film does not glamorize the murders, but it seems unlikely the friends and relatives of their victims would appreciate the slayings of their loved ones being presented in such a light-hearted manner. It is also noteworthy that some of the pair's most awful crimes - the rape and murder of a sixteen year-old girl, for instance, or the attempted murder of a baby - are not included here - perhaps because they would not fit that 'loveable rascal' narrative?

Playing Carlos, Lorenzo Ferro is a taunting psychopath who seems fascinated as he toys with others as a cat does with a mouse. As Ramón, Chino Darín effortlessly smoulders and provides a nice cheesy turn when the fame-hungry Ramón appears on a television talent show. In the supporting roles, Daniel Fanego as Ramón's old lag of a father is icy without going over the top, and Mercedes Morán gives a fine example in slovenly wantoness as Ramón's MIL who Carlos refuses to F - possibly because he is more interested in her son.

Seen at the 2018 London Film Festival.
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Soni (2018)
7/10
Police soap opera with a '#MeToo' message
28 October 2018
Police Sub-Inspector Soni makes her first appearance in this film as bait in an 'Eve-teasing' sting operation: as she cycles, in plain clothes, along a dark city street, an oik cycles up beside her and starts making suggestive remarks. He follows Soni into an alleyway where her police comrades are waiting, but before they can arrest the man Soni starts to beat him with perhaps more force than is necessary. This leads to her being reassigned to the police's call centre (in echoes of another film shown at the 2018 London Film Festival, Gustav Möller's 'The Guilty'). Meanwhile, Soni's immediate superior, Kalpana, tries to convince *her* superior - whose romantic partner she is, handily - to reinstate Soni back to her squad.

As the film progresses we get a view of the everyday casual harassment the film-makers present as the lot of women in India: for example, as Soni is being shown the call centre ropes, a male caller ends his call by asking the female operator for her personal telephone number. Soni and Kalpana also have personal troubles: Kalpana's relationship with her partner/superior is put under strain due to her efforts on Soni's behalf; and Soni herself has to deal with her boyfriend trying to get back into her good books after betraying her at a terrible time.

Soni and Kalpana are interesting central characters, and Geetika Vidya Ohlyan is particularly good as the former. I would perhaps have appreciated a stronger central plotline - the film strikes me as being a loosely-woven collection of plot threads - but it was certainly well worth watching.
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3/10
A frustratingly wasted opportunity
27 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
The Syrian Civil War, which some think may be drawing to a close as I write this in late 2018, started in early 2011. In 2012 a Damascus mother, Sana, raises her perky young son while coping with daily power cuts and water shortages, as explosions provide frequent background noise. One day, after being turned away from a stall selling gas when the military commandeer the entire lot, Sana joins brother and sister duo Jamal and Reem on their quest to source some outside the city limits.

Jamal casts no shadow and it is here the film hits what is for me one of two major stumbling blocks: no explanation is given for this phenomenon. Is it some Syrian folklore? An urban legend? Is Jamal a ghost? Does it mean his soul is dead? Is he *about* to die? The possibilities are endless, so it would have been nice had writer-director Soudade Kaadan provided some explanation.

The second big problem I have with the film is Kaadan's direction. Too often she uses extreme close-ups which make it difficult for the viewer to place or understand the action: for instance, a sequence in which Sana's son makes candlelight shadow animals on the wall is wasted because Kaadan will not pull back the camera so the viewer can properly see what the boy is doing. Also, she frequently moves the camera slo-o-o-o-o-wly from one inconsequential object to another - for example, from the branch of one tree to the branch of its neighbour - which is a nice technique the first couple of times she uses it, but ends up becoming tiresome through over-use.

So in summary I am afraid I found this film a pretty frustrating experience, which considering the important message it could have been getting across - how civilians are affected by warfare - is a shame. Sadly, this is the most disappointing of the many films I saw at the 2018 London Film Festival.
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4/10
Ultimately disappointing
25 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
In 'Amra and the Second Marriage' Amra, a middle-aged Saudi housewife, has an existence which Westerners may imagine is the norm for Saudi women: she keeps house and cooks for her husband, looks after her sick mother, attends sermons that describe women as 'the firewood in Hell' and endures the constant barracking of her mother-in-law. Even her three daughters treat her like a drudge. But she is secure in her life, until her mother-in-law - always critical of Amra's failure to provide a son - announces she has arranged for Amra's husband to take a second - younger and more attractive - wife. When Amra does not attend the bridal shower, she is ostracised by her (female) friends, but does not let that stop her in her efforts to prevent the marriage.

My understanding of Saudi Arabia is that it is a very authoritarian country - particularly where women are concerned. Yet Amra seems to get away with an awful lot - even an incident involving her mother-in-law and a blowtorch seems not to result in legal sanction, as one might expect. Adding to the viewer's sense of dissatisfaction, some things in the film are unexplained - for instance, when Amra meets four bio-hazard suited men on the beach, are they a dream - or really there? And if the latter, what are they doing there anyway?

Aishaima'a Tayeb provides a likeable heroine, and there is a nice comic supporting turn from the actress (regrettably I do not know her name) who plays Amra's friend Sara, producing spells to stop the marriage. I will not reveal the ending, but it suggests that what Amra faces in the final scene is punishment for her actions in trying to maintain - even improve - her own situation. And that is disappointing.
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6/10
Spoiled by the one-note villain
24 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
"An Impossible Love" may or may not be based on a true story - according to Wikipedia it is not clear whether or not Christine Angot's source novel "L'Inceste" is fiction.

Typist Rachel meets translator Philippe in small-town 1950s France. Even on their first date there are signs he considers himself a cut above her: he suggests she should read Nietzsche. But he is charming, handsome, and Rachel finds him fascinating. A passionate affair ensues, but when Rachel finds herself pregnant Philippe declares he will not marry her and disappears out of Rachel's life for years at a time, not even making any financial contribution to baby Chantal's upkeep until she is a teenager. But despite his caddish treatment of her (which includes marrying another woman when he also knocks her up because she, unlike Rachel, comes from a rich family), he is always able to convince Rachel to welcome him back to her bed - until his ultimate betrayal. Years later, Chantal has grown into an unpleasantly self-centered individual and Rachel has new conflict with which to deal.

The problem with this film is Philippe is such a pantomime villain - superior, selfish, irresponsible and cruel, he has no redeeming features at all. If he is indeed based on a real person who did what Philippe does in the film, it would have been difficult for director/co-screenwriter Catherine Corsini to make him sympathetic, but it detracts from what is otherwise a very grounded story when one of the major characters is such a cardboard cut-out. Niels Schneider does what he can with the role, but inevitably is constrained by the limited dimensions of the character he must portray. Belgian actress Virginie Efira, as the mumsy Rachel, has more with which to play and delivers a likeable performance. There's also a very nice turn from Estelle Lescure as the teenaged Chantal.

Seen at the 2018 London Film Festival.
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7/10
More than just a gangster's moll
23 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
The programme for the 2018 London Film Festival made 'Ash is Purest White' seem a bit like a chopsocky special - gangster's moll discovers a talent for crime and - my incorrect reading between the lines suggested - takes over the mob herself. But the film is actually a deeper drama than that.

When we first meet Qiao (Zhao Tao, who has a hint of Tilda Swinton about her) she is indeed a gangster's moll, providing loving arms to mobster Bin but not afraid to pull his underlings into line. Things go badly wrong for her, however, when, following her defence of Bin when he is attacked by a group of youths, she is sentenced to prison for possession of an illegal gun. Five years later she is released, a less exuberant character and disappointed to find Bin has not waited for her. The second part of the film deals with her search for him and what happens when she finds him.

This is a film of two halves - the first part, prior to Qiao's prison sentence, does view very much like a traditional gangster flick, with its criminals pretending they have 'honour', corrupt cops and a very bloody fight scene. The second half is quieter in tone, mirroring Qiao's more subdued (if determined) personality. But I did not find the change in tone jarring because by that time I was caught up in Qiao's story. Forgiving of criminals she may be, but it is hard not to be sympathetic as, having 'done time' for Bin, she has to travel across country to discover his betrayal and begin putting her life back together. Zhao Tao gives an engaging performance and Fan Liao, as Bin, is as charming as his character allows. I enjoyed this and will probably watch it again.
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The Load (2018)
7/10
Bleak yet involving
22 October 2018
The Kosovo War of the late 1990s was one of the final acts of the break-up of what was once Yugoslavia. In 'The Load' a truck driver is assigned to transport a mysterious cargo to Belgrade, across a country under NATO bombardment. But anyone hoping for shots of blood 'n' guts will have to look elsewhere, as this film is less concerned with the mechanics of the conflict - even if it is the work's raison d'être - than it is with showing how the citizens of a country at war adjust and carry on, absorbing the conflict into their everyday lives.

Lead actor Leon Lucev (IMDb will not allow the correct spelling of his surname!) is a tough-looking bloke but as Vlada the trucker he delivers a performance that is a far cry from what the viewer may have expected to be the usual tough-guy role. Vlada is a taciturn man but not unfriendly: he attempts conversation with a teenage hitchiker and has to make all the running when talking to his son. Perhaps his quietness arises from disappointment with his life: he has to take the trucking job after being made redundant from his previous employment. His wife is ill and those NATO bombs are getting closer...

As Vlada's journey continues we get some nice shots of wintry, bleakly attractive countryside. Towards the end we see what Vlada has been transporting and a hint at actions he may take as a result. Also at the end of the film the significance of a stolen lighter is explained in an affecting story.

This is not a fast-moving film and will certainly not be everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoyed it.

Seen at the 2018 London Film Festival.
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6/10
Flawed, arty, but watchable
21 October 2018
'Quién te Cantará'/'Who will Sing to you' is essentially a film about four women: the two main characters and the two major supporting ones. But it does not strike me as being particularly a "women's picture", nor, thankfully, one that is railing against "the Patriarchy" or similar.

Lila is a former pop singer who stopped performing ten years ago, following the death of her mother. Now (sporting a desperately unflattering hairstyle) she lives in a beautiful beach house that is financed by album royalties. But those royalties are drying up so a comeback tour is planned. Disaster strikes when, just a few months before the tour, Lila "faints in the water" on the beach and develops amnesia.

Violeta is a huge fan of Lila. A talented songwriter, she gave up hope of a showbiz career when her daughter was born. Now working as a bartender in a karaoke bar, she finds some small pleasure in impersonating Lila's performances in YouTube videos. The real, amnesiac, Lila sees one of these videos and dispatches her manager Blanca to secure Violeta's services to teach her "how to be Lila".

After Lila, Violeta and Blanca, the fourth woman is Violeta's daughter Marta, and it is with her the film has its biggest flaw. Marta, a young adult, is such a one-note villain she would not be out of place in a pantomime. She is lazy, has no sense of responsibility, boasts to friends of sexual encounters with their boyfriends and repeatedly uses threats of self-harm to get Violeta to do her bidding. With the exception of the businesslike Blanca, none of the characters are particularly realistic in their behaviour - but Marta takes it to Olympic levels. Although she is allowed a couple of redeeming scenes - we see her apologise to her mother for a tantrum that included smashing a treasured signed Lila album - she is an unbelieveable soap opera villainess.

Director/screenwriter Carlos Vermut has made this a fairly arty film - there are several lengthy shots of people doing nothing and a pair of thick-soled stiletto heels are often placed prominently in shot as some sort of recurring theme. But the story is interesting and holds the viewer's attention - even if he does find himself sighing in exasperation whenever the hysterical Marta appears onscreen.

Seen at the 2018 London Film Festival.
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Sauvage (I) (2018)
6/10
Aimless
18 October 2018
'Sauvage' follows Léo, a young male prostitute, as he 'services' clients, commits petty crime, takes various recreational drugs, passes out on the street, has his affections rebuffed by a fellow rent boy and ignores his medical problems. It is a pretty aimless film, and as such mirrors the life of its protagonist. He drifts through his days and nights, carelessly following the whims of those around him (even following the instructions of a friend to inject sedative drugs into the tip of his penis so a blowjob-giving client will be knocked out and can then be robbed!) Ordinarily this is not the kind of character for whom I could find much sympathy, but actor Félix Maritaud gives Léo a rather innocent, dopey appeal (even if the role does demand he look like he would benefit from a good dunking in the sheep dip). Perhaps because it does not contain a coherent narrative structure the film seems longer than its claimed 99 minutes, but on the plus side there are a few good nude scenes (although I could have done without Maritaud's pierced nipple - ew!)

Seen at the 2018 London Film Festival.
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The Guilty (2018)
6/10
Plot-holed but enjoyable
16 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Grumpy police officer Asger, awaiting a court hearing on what for most of 'The Guilty' remains an unspecified disciplinary matter, has been sidelined to the Danish equivalent of '999' ('911' in the United States): he spends his shifts taking calls from people who have been mugged by prostitutes, or are having bad drug-induced trips, or are getting into punch-ups with nightclub bouncers. But things get more dramatic when a woman, Iben, calls alleging she is in the process of being abducted.

All of the action takes place in the call centre, and the camera is rarely off the angular features of lead actor Jakob Cedergren. It is thus his responsibility to carry the film, and he copes with aplomb: he makes Asger remote, unforgiving and not particularly likeable - in short, realistic.

What are *not* realistic are the plot holes in the film. For instance, although it is easy to believe none of his colleagues like Asger, when he shuts himself in a separate room - even closing the connecting blinds so none of them can see him - it is hard to believe that not even the shift supervisor in what is, presumably, a disciplined organisation thinks to ask him what on Earth he's playing at. Similarly, why does the man who has abducted Iben - and who plainly does not like her talking on the telephone - not, y'know, *take her 'phone away from her?!* Another flaw is that I guessed the plot twist - not due to any cleverness on my part, but simply because the viewer is given far too much information pointing towards a particular solution very early in the film - it *had* to be a red herring. (Interestingly, the true solution is similar to the plot in one of Cedergren's earlier films, 2013's 'Sorrow and Joy'.)

With most characters being merely voices on the end of Asger's telephone line, the actors have to convey their parts in what is for their characters a terrifying, emotional situation (Iben and her abductor) or routine (other police officers) using only their voices. Some are more successful than others. Big credit must go to Katinka Evers-Jahnsen as Iben's young ("six years and nine months" daughter). At first I assumed an adult actress was simply putting on a child's voice, but I think Evers-Jahnsen is indeed a child actor, if not as young as the character she's playing here. Playing a confused and terrified young girl who has seen her mother violently abducted, she is bloody fantastic - not something that can often be said about child actors.

Seen at the 2018 London Film Festival.
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6/10
Worth seeing once, but not more than that
15 October 2018
The second cycle of German auteur Edgar Reitz's 'Heimat' deals with a group of students in various artistic disciplines who spend their time Thinking Big Thoughts and Remaining True To Their Artistic Visions before real life forces them to grow up and face the necessity of compromise. It is also, for no good reason, filmed in black and white. However, while I loved 'Heimat', I am not so enthusiastic about the markedly similar 'A Paris Education' from writer-director Jean-Paul Civeyrac.

Student of philosophy (which in itself should be enough to set alarm bells ringing) Etienne leaves his native Lyon for Paris, where he is to study film. There he meets a number of other students, including Jean-Nöel, whose talents are more organisational than artistic; Valentina, who views life with a wry amusement; and Mathias, whose Olympic-level pretension annoys some of his fellows but fascinates all of them. There is also Annabelle, not a student but a full-time activist who works as little as possible because 'all work is exploitation'. In-between high-minded discussions about 'honesty in film' and suchlike, this merry band also ruminate on life in the big city (the original French title of this film is 'Mes provinciales').

I think the reason why I did not warm to this as much as I had hoped is that central character Etienne is quite dull: this may be due to actor Andranic Manet's portryal - neither his facial expression nor his tone of voice are particularly fluid - but it is as if the character has been created merely as a cipher around which the other, more interesting, characters can orbit. Fortunately these are played by some engaging actors: Corentin Fila (previously seen in the UK in teenage angst piece 'Being Seventeen') as Mathias and Jenna Thiam as the cheerful Valentina are particular stand-outs.

Seen at the 2018 London Film Festival.
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7/10
A slightly confusing timescale but interesting nonetheless
20 September 2018
Warning: Spoilers
As a young boy, Marvin Bijoux lives in grinding rural poverty with an almost comically lower-lower-lower working class family: troglodyte work-shy father who staggers around the dingy house in his underpants; hefty chain-smoking mother who boasts about her ability to 'drop children like a hen'; thuggish older brother; thieving younger brother - and an older sister who appears suddenly, without explanation, in the middle of the film. School provides no respite, as there Marvin is subjected to homophobic bullying - and worse - by the bigger boys. Things look up only when the school's headmistress encourages Marvin to take part in drama class, and that increases the boy's confidence so much that he wins a place at a Paris drama school. However, in the city the now-adult Marvin's emotional stability appears to have gone backward, as he is prone to bursting into tears at the drop of a hat as he remembers his miserable childhood. A meeting with acting legend Isabelle Huppert, however, provides a way forward.

For me, the big flaw of this film is there is little clue to the passage of time: in the childhood scenes prior to his departure for drama school Marvin appears to be about twelve years old; in the adult scenes he looks at least ten years older, which leads the viewer to wonder why on Earth he is still taking lessons - is he that bad a pupil? I also found the scenes where Marvin delivers quotes direct to camera a bit arty. But a strength is the characters are well-rounded: we see the distress caused to Marvin's family when he stages a play based on his childhood (as this film is apparently based on a true story, Heaven knows what they're feeling now). His father is also shown to have come to terms with his homosexual son, giving him a wedding ring in case he ever marries a boyfriend.

As a child, Marvin is played by Jules Porier and as an adult by Finnegan Oldfield. Porier is more convincing than most child actors; Oldfield - whose 'lived-in' face looks as if it was drawn by late US comic book artist George Tuska - is natural for most of the time but is too obviously 'acting' when portraying Marvin's own acting efforts - but acting-within-acting must be difficult. Talking of difficult, portraying oneself can not be easy but Huppert (billed as 'with the participation of...') is engaging. Top acting honours in my opinion, however, go to Grégory Gadebois (seen on British television screens in French chiller 'The Returned') as Marvin's father - in playing a character written as such an awful individual it would be easy to descend into caricature, but Gadebois successfully navigates that line. Also worth mentioning is Catherine Mouchet as the kindly but determined headmistress whose belief in Marvin's abilities propels him on the road to exorcising his inner demons night after night before packed threatres in his self-penned play: every child should have such a teacher.

Finally, a word about French/British actor Oldfield: it seems he has pulled off the difficult trick of being born in two locations at once. IMDb says he first saw the light of day in East Sussex, while Wikipedia insists it was Paris. Impressive...
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7/10
Enjoyable - but not enough of the main plot to fill the film?
15 August 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Thrown out of the marital home when his wife catches him watching a sex tape featuring him with a woman who is not her, the foolishly-tatooed Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) slinks back to the home of his parents, Inga and Baldvin (Edda Björgvinsdóttir and Sigurður Sigurjónsson). But they are distracted not only with mourning for Atli's brother, who disappeared many years ago, but also by a feud with their next-door neighbours (one of whom, I was delighted to realise, is played by Selma Björnsdóttir, runner-up of the 1999 Eurovision Song Contest!) The feud concerns a tree in Inga and Baldvin's garden which casts a shadow over the neighbours' lawn. As Atli goes about trying to win access to his daughter, the neighbourly feud spirals out of control.

It seems that most films from Iceland are given the 'black comedy' tag, but this one is darker, and has less comedy, than most: although the feud's ultimate resolution would be unlikely to happen in real life, it is all too easy to imagine real life getting at least close to the film. As for Atli's storyline, after the initial 'ho ho ho, his wife caught him looking at a sex tape' moment, there are no laughs there. In fact, Atli's storyline is one of the main flaws of the film: it is interesting in a soap opera sort of way, but it is not obvious why so much time is spent on it when the focus of the film is supposed to be, presumably, the feud over the tree. It is almost as if the writers, Huldar Breiðfjörð and Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson (the latter also directed) could not spin out the feud to fill the entire film so thought they would use Atli's situation as padding. Another flaw of the film is poor lighting: interior scenes, especially, often look bleak and washed-out. While that may be intended to set the tone of the film, the viewer can not help wondering why these people in their nice houses do not switch on a few lights...

Acting honours go to Björgvinsdóttir, who does a very nice turn as a parent whose grief over her other son's disappearance finds relief only in her antipathy to her neighbours. Sigurjónsson's portrayal of her husband, unsure how to cope with her, is also good, although he loses his admirable subtleness in the final few minutes and descends into acting-by-numbers, which is a shame. Steinþórsson is competent in his soap opera role. As the neighbours, I particularly enjoyed Þorsteinn Bachmann and the afore-mentioned Björnsdóttir's realistic portrayal of joyful relief when their missing dog turns up on the doorstep - all the more poignant for the viewer, who knows the dog is not as healthy as he at first seems...
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7/10
A lot more enjoyable than I expected
16 May 2018
At the beginning of 1968 Jean-Luc Godard is one of the most highly-respected directors working in French-language cinema. He is influential and admired. He has also just married Anne Wiazemsky, a teenage actress seventeen years his junior. He has the more arty end of the film world at his feet, yet he is feeling restless. Then erupt the Paris student protests which sweep Godard up in their revolutionary fervour. He becomes a supporter of the movement, and his opinions are in turn sought out by the young leaders (although, in the best tradition of ideologues everywhere, they also spend a large amount of their time arguing). As his marriage to Wiazemsky suffers, Godard heads further down what some might describe as a Maoist path, culminating - for this film's purposes - in the establishment of a sort of film-making collective without heirarchy - Godard may be the director, but his artistic vision is subordinate to the will of the workers. Hah! From the plot description this might seem like a terribly gloomy film; far from it. It is actually very playful: as Godard, Louis Garrel has to deliver directly to camera the line "I bet if you told an actor to say actors are dumb, he would do it"; and a scene where Godard and Wiazemsky (played by the frequently-undraped Stacy Martin) discuss film directors' enthusiasm for nude scenes is played with both actors naked. How accurate Garrel's portrayal is I am unable to say, but for an actor who has rarely before displayed any comedy chops he provides a fine, subtly comic turn here; I particularly like the hangdog look his Godard at times displays.

I am not massively familiar with either Godard or his work; I have little patience with pretention. But this film makes the famed auteur a more accessible - sometimes rather likeable - individual, without glossing over his faults (rudeness; arrogance; a controlling element in his relationship with Wiazemsky). Whether it is a fair representation of him I do not know, but it makes for a very interesting film.
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