‘A Man of Integrity’

dregs_poster_goldposter_com_1.jpg@0o_0l_800w_80qAn honest yet downtrodden fish farmer (a quiet, nuanced performance by Reza Akhlaghirad in his film debut) fights corruption and injustice in rural Iran.

A Man of Integrity is a scathing critique of contemporary Iran (“you’re either oppressed or the oppressor”) as Reza looks for his family’s survival in the face of corporate expansion and control. Director Mohammad Rasoulof (Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Goodbye) teases out stoically naturalistic performances and a surprising tension from an age-old David and Goliath storyline.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 76%

‘An Isolated Incident’ by Emily Maguire

9781743538579-1As the police look to solve the brutal murder of 25 year-old Bella Michaels, so her older sister, Chris, deals with the loss of her closest friend.

But whilst An Isolated Incident is a crime thriller, it’s far from a whodunit. In choosing to focus on the victim and the people affected by Bella’s death, writer Emily Maguire traces the ripple effects in the (fictional) country town of Strathdee, a truck-stop midway between Sydney and Melbourne. And, as the media descend in droves, infatuated not only with violent crime but in unearthing every sordid (or not so sordid) story, so Chris herself becomes thrust into the limelight, along with ex-husband, Nate.

Chris herself is no angel. A big-breasted barmaid, she uses her body to get what she wants. And if that includes a truck driver or two passing through town every couple of months, so be it. That’s how she found Nate. But too much boozing led to his departure – and Nate now lives in Sydney and has a child on the way. News of Bella’s death brings him back to Strathdee to support his ex-wife.

Lonely, Chris had turned more and more to the bottle and truck drivers passing through – and if they left a few $20 notes on the bedside table, even better. Aimless, it was her younger sister who sorted Chris out. But she’s now gone…

It doesn’t take long for the media to dig up the stories and they have a field day when it’s discovered Nate has a record for violence towards women. There are even a few stories about Chris and Nate’s marriage.

Judgements abound about Chris’ lifestyle – yet the casual pickups of young reporters by one of the male townies are smiled upon. Misogyny, double-standards, intimidation is rampant, as is violence towards women. The murder of a young woman by her husband in Strathdee barely receives a mention (it’s solved too quickly to warrant much media attention).

It’s a young female reporter, May, who strikes up a supportive relationship with Chris. Initially suspicious, the barmaid comes to rely upon May, particularly after Nate returns to Sydney. She becomes the new Bella.

It’s a chilling narrative that is compelling in spite of the fact that, as a thriller, the search for the killer takes a back seat. And in Chris Rogers (Bella had a different father), Emily Maguire has created a figure, an ‘everywoman’, who may be riddled with flaws and faults but is still a raw, empathic, humane figure.

An Isolated Incident has been shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Award (the announcement of the winner takes place in September).

 

 

‘Wind River’

wind_river_ver2_xlgSet in the isolated beauty of a Wyoming winter and the Wind River Reserve, game tracker Jeremy Renner (The Avengers, The Hurt Locker) discovers the body of Natalie, a teenage Native American and best friend of his deceased daughter. An ill-prepared FBI agent, Elizabeth Olsen (The Avengers, Godzilla) arrives from Las Vegas and appeals to him for help.

The directorial debut of scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell Or High Water) is a thrilling ride in the search for her killers. Masculinity in its rawest form comes under the microscope as strutting machismo is only too evident in a world where resident in Native American Reserves offers limited choice and corporate America rules the roost.

Rating: 74%

 

‘Closeness’

Closeness_(film)A raw, uncompromising narrative set in the bleak underbelly of an impoverished neighbourhood of Nalchik, a Russian industrial city in the northern Caucasus.

Living in a predominantly Muslim area, a young Jewish couple are abducted. The ransom is too high for either parents to reach. Family and community relations reach boiling point, particularly as independent-minded Ila (a powerful debut by Darya Zhovnar) continues with her relationship with Zalim, a man ‘not from the tribe.’ But the question remains – how far is the family willing to go to save their son, David?

The directorial debut from Kantemir Balagov is seedy, confronting and simply unpleasant, populated with a series of characters that are simultaneously overbearing and deeply unlikeable.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 25%

 

‘Ellipsis’

ellipsisA Sydney-shot dramatic rom-com, with Emily Barclay (The Light Between Oceans, In My Father’s Den) finding herself without a phone after colliding with Benedict Samuel (The Walk, The Stanford Prison Experiment). A night of adventure unfolds before she must return to her fiance in London.

Like the unfolding night, Ellipsis is something of a meandering narrative as the two find themselves in various locations around Sydney. It’s pleasant enough – and debut director David Wenham pays homage to the city itself. But the real drama and human interest lies with the phone repairman (Ferdinand Hoang – Mao’s Last Dancer, The Quiet American) and his family.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 42%

‘The Road to Mandalay’

MV5BZGFiZjI5ZjAtNWZhMy00ZTQzLWIyNDUtMjM3MmU1MTM2MjE5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzY3MTQ1NTY@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_A quiet, understated reflection on Burmese immigrants illegally working in Thailand as Lianqing (Ke-Xi Wu – Poor Folk, Ice Poison) escapes her impoverished rural home life. Sending money home and obtaining a work permit in any way possible is her focus, even at the cost of her relationship with Guo (Kai Ko – You Are the Apple of My Eye, When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep).

Both are in search of a better life, but their contradictory personalities inevitably lead to conflict. Director Midi Z (Poor Folk, Ice Poison), a rising star of Asian cinema, focuses on the everyday events and hardships faced by the pair – making its denouement in the final seconds even more unexpected and shocking.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 69%

‘Insyriated’

2017_Panorama_INSYRIATED_02_286Intense, claustrophobic, gripping – a middle-class Syrian family are barricaded in their second-floor Damascus apartment as the civil war rages around them.

Every sound and movement outside the apartment is enough to cause panic. With her husband unreachable somewhere in the city,  a deeply impressive Hiam Abbass (Lemon Tree, The Visitor) controls the household, consisting of her three children, father-in-law, the boyfriend of one of the daughters, the maid and a young couple with their baby, displaced from a top floor apartment in the building.

Director Philippe Van Leeuw (The Day God Walked Away) poses pertinent questions in light of extreme situations and limitations of reason and emotion as the family look to survive.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 83%

‘Powidoki’ (‘Afterimage’)

afterThe final film of one of the great European directors – Andrzej Wajda (Man of Iron, Danton) – focusing on one of the great and influential post-war European artists – Wladyslaw Strzeminski.

An individualist who rejected social realism, internationally renowned Strzeminski was undermined and ultimately destroyed by the Polish state system. Wajda quietly and economically tells his story, choosing to focus on the last few years of Strzeminski’s life in Lodz and his fall from professorship at the Art Academy to his work being destroyed by the authorities.

In its quietness there is power, in its nuanced understatement there is anger. And while Afterimage may suffer slightly from its staginess, the strong performance from lead Boguslaw Linda (Summer Love, Pan Tadeusz) helps the film tell its story cleanly and respectfully.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 64%

‘Landscape of Farewell’ by Alex Miller

landscape-of-farewellA meditative and wholly engaging novel, Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell is the story of knowledge and understanding – of oneself, of the past, of the land, of ageing and of friendship.

Recently widowed, German academic Max Otto is looking to end his own life: his valedictory public lecture to be followed by a deadly mix of pills and alcohol in his Hamburg apartment. Only he had not foreseen the presence of Professor Vita McLelland – a feisty visiting Indigenous Australian academic from Sydney. She challenges Max and his less than impressive final words.

Unexpectedly, through an unplanned post-lecture discussion, a level of understanding between them evolves, resulting in an invitation to speak at a conference in Sydney a few months later. Vita also wants Max to spend time with her uncle, Dougald, at his home in the bush.

A deep, understated friendship evolves between Max and Dougald. In simple, rustic surrounds, the two settle into a life of easy domesticity with few words and long periods of silence. But Dougald also draws Max into his own history – and in particular that of Gnapun, his grandfather, a fabled warrior. As we are told the story of Gnapun leading a group of men into massacring Christian settlers a century earlier, so Max finds himself reflecting on his father and the never-asked question of his role in the Second World War.

Memories of his childhood come to the surface – an absent father, the one-legged uncle to whom he was sent off to help on the farm with the advent of the war – providing a suspended sense of time as Miller weaves us between the present and both men’s past. And, as with Max’s uncle, desperate for his nephew to understand “It is the soil of our fathers,” his uncle would rage, shaking his fist at him. “This soil is us! … We are this soil.”, so Dougald talks of the high country where the Old People dwell in the rocks, the soil, the trees of nature. Yet Dougald celebrates that past, whereas Max has long buried it. It is in the writing of Dougald’s story that Max recognises we are all “members of this same murdering species”.

Landscape of Farewell is a haunting novel full of incident yet simultaneously meditative. The two old men move at their own pace, yet still cover a great deal. A large part of the novel may well find Max feeding the hens or goat but then the two octogenarians also clamber steep isolated escarpments in Dougald’s home country, his first visit for decades. It is this journey into country that provides both men their resolution of reconciliation and redemption. Dougald may pass on to join the Old People, but Max is now free, back in Hamburg, to venture into ‘the darkness of his family’s silence.”

Alex Miller’s eighth novel was shortlisted for the 2008 Miles Franklin Award but he lost out to Steven Carroll and The Time We Have Taken. Miller has won the Miles Franklin on two separate occasions – in 1993 for The Ancestor Game and in 2003 for Journey to the Stone Country.

 

‘Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog’

PLAKAT_150It’s a pity the best title in the Melbourne International Film Festival program is hardly in the running for best film.

The offbeat, quirky, sociopolitical feature starts off well as the welfare-supported film director (played by the film’s director, Julian Radlmaier) covers his enforced employment at an apple farm as research for his next feature. He even persuades potential lead actress (and wannabe love interest) to accompany him.

But in addressing issues of illegal immigration, anti-globalisation and the negative changes bought to eastern Europe by the collapse of communism, Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog, like the main charactersloses its way. It’s quirky charm is subsumed by its attempt to be too clever.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 40%