‘Ava’

Ava_(2017_Iranian_film)An Iranian teenage girl rebels against the expectations placed upon her by religion, society and culture.

A quiet, nuanced debut feature film from writer/director Sadaf Faroughi, a loosely autobiographical narrative, as a young and resolute Ava (Mahour Jabbari) navigates the pain and frustration of her restricted adolescence with a controlling mother (Bahar Noonian) and oppressive school environment.

A dark, unpredictable coming-of-age story and family drama that is universal in its themes but specific to its time and place. An Iranian/Canadian co-production, Ava was awarded the best debut feature at the 2017 Canadian Screen Awards and the FIPRESCI Discovery Award at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

Rating: 76%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

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‘Wajib’

wajibThe Palestinian custom of hand-delivering wedding invitations leads to estranged father and son reconnecting as Shadi (Saleh Bakri – Water, The Band’s Visit) returns from life in Italy to support his father in the arrangements for his sister’s wedding.

Modest and understated, real life father (Mohammad Bakri – American Assassin, Water) and son drive the streets of Nazareth in northern Israel, sitting side by side. Extended family, friends – even the occasional Israeli – make brief appearances to drive the narrative (and gentle humour) forward but Wajib is essentially the interactions of two leads, their clashes of values, politics – even Shadi’s wardrobe.

A slice of everyday, of life of Christian Arabs living in Israel, of Palestinian customs,  Majib (directed by Annemarie Jacir – When I Saw You, Salt of This Sea) is as much a film about relationships and generational expectations as it is a political commentary on Israeli/Palestinian co-existence.

Rating: 71%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘Beirut’

Beirut_(film)A tight and erudite script (Tony Gilroy – Michael Clayton, The Bourne Identity) ensures this 1990s set Middle East political thriller is a step ahead of predictable.

Former diplomat Jon Hamm (Baby Driver, The Town) returns to the city where 20 years earlier he lost his wife to a terrorist attack. Another threat to American national security needs Hamm’s inside knowledge of the city and the players involved.

No fireworks from director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, The Call) who looks to a solid cast along with Gilroy’s dialogue and skilled storytelling to tell a straightforward narrative.

Rating: 60%

‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton

cloudstreetAn iconic modern Australian classic, Cloudstreet is a sweeping saga of twenty years in the lives of two neighbouring families living in Perth, Western Australia from post World War II until the late 1960s. It’s a broadchurch narrative of the large, boisterous Lamb family and their landlord neighbours, the uptight Pickles.

Down on his luck, losing four fingers in a foolish accident and a love of spending as much of his money as he can at the racetrack, Sam Pickles and family (Dolly, an unfaithful wife, and three kids) unexpectedly inherit a house plus a lump sum of cash. The house is enormous for their needs – the emptiness highlighted by the prompt loss of the cash at the local bookies. Unable to sell the house for 20 years (a wise provision in the will of a now deceased cousin), the Pickles build a makeshift division inside and out – and rent one half to the almost destitute Lamb family. Two dysfunctional families come together under one roof.

So begins this rollicking sprawl of a novel as the two families collide, bickering, judging, ignoring, laughing, mourning, crying, fighting a way through their everyday lives.

It’s the Lambs who look to make the most of their opportunities – a distinct work ethic overseen by Ma (Sergeant-Major) Lamb that sees the front room converted into a (successful) shop serving the neighbourhood, children (mostly) married off and the eldest son, Quick, finally coming good after a mid-novel waywardness. It’s a boisterous, energetic household with much laughter, hard work and some sadness (their son, Fish, a handsome, once-popular larrikin, is brain-damaged due to a fishing accident witnessed early in the narrative).

All is very different next door. A wayward Sam; an unimpressed Dolly who steadfastly ignores her neighbours; a bookish Rose who takes on the household duties as her mother spends more and more time at the local boozer (the two boys rarely feature). Unlike the religious, hardworking Lambs, the Pickles look to luck (lady luck provided the house, after all) and a minimum of graft to get by.

Full of heart, Tim Winton’s ambitious novel may pall towards the end, but in the interim we witness two families coming together during a period of comfortable, conservative Australian history. Global events (Bay of Pigs, Korean war, assassination of John F Kennedy) have little impact on the daily lives: Australian economic and social policies mentioned only in passing. Only the Nedlands Monster – a Perth serial killer who terrorised the city over a four-year period in the early 60s – is given any significant scope of the outside world. Instead, Cloudstreet is a celebration of community and is the story of the everyday – domesticity, the struggle for survival, births, marriages, deaths – and the dogged endurance of both families. It’s an honest portrayal, full of humour and fulsome characters but devoid of overt sentimentality or melodrama.

Constantly seen as the most important Australian novel ever written (by critics and readers’ polls alike), Cloudstreet was the recipient of the 1992 Miles Franklin Award.

‘Hard Paint’

hardpaintThe turbulent double-life of a young Brazilian gay man (Shico Menegat) immerses the audience in a beautifully nuanced narrative that is simultaneously haunting, thrilling and erotic.

By day a lost, lonely soul whose sister, in moving to Salvador from Porto Alegre, leaves Pedro alone in their shared apartment. But at night, as NeonBoy, he has developed a unique adult entertainment for paying gay internet trawlers involving luminous paint. A copycat performer leads Pedro to unexpected love.

Deft telling of the story by directors Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon (Seashore) with several unexpected developments, muted tonality and a claustrophobic sense of place create an intimate character study of a vulnerable gay male and a commentary on wider issues of loneliness, homophobia and love.

Rating: 69%

Screened as part of Melbourne International Film Festival

‘Dark River’

dark riverA bleak drama as two siblings battle for tenancy of the family farm following the death of their father.

After 15 years away, a compelling Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks) as Alice returns to Yorkshire to the decrepit homestead surly and angry brother Mark Stanley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Our Kind of Traitor) has left to rot.  Memories of paternal sexual abuse come flooding back as Alice battles to make the farm a going concern. But her brother has different ideas.

As the title suggests, it’s a brooding narrative from director Clio Bernard (The Arbor, The Selfish Giant) very loosely based on Rose Tremain’s novel Trespass (the setting for a start is transposed to Yorkshire from France). Both brother and sister share a dour affinity to the land, but each demands a different return. It’s raw and uncompromising, only marred by a less than convincing final minutes.

Rating: 54%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘Dear Son’

Dear_SonA Tunisian domestic drama that evolves into a desperate search by elderly parents as their only child disappears from school days before his final exam.

A quiet, unassuming film that focuses on the everyday – the pressures at school, a father approaching retirement – until Sami disappears without warning to join ISIS in Syria.

Director Mohamed Ben Attia (Hedi) avoids action and melodrama in following Sami, instead electing to stay with the secular parents Mohamed Dhrif and Mouna Mejri as they come to terms with the impact of their son’s actions. It’s a (little too) slow, intimate yet dignified film, as much an exploration of family relationships as it is a pertinent narrative of jihadism and newspaper headline importance.

Rating: 53%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’

missionSheer unadulterated hokum – and hugely entertaining as a result.

The team is back – Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames along with MI6 rep Rebecca Ferguson – to stop the sale of three plutonium cores and the resulting massive atomic bombs that will lead to destruction on a massive global scale.

Naturally, things go awry – and there’s lots of twists as one would expect. Paris, London and Kashmir set the scene for car chases, rooftop dashes and the craziest OTT helicopter duel high in the Himalayas. It’s action all the way – but injected with a massive dose of tongue-in-cheek fun!

Rating: 76%

‘Ash Is Purest White’

Ash_Is_Purest_WhiteIn spite of a powerful central female protagonist in Tao Zhao (Mountains May Depart, Shun Li and the Poet), director Zhangke Jia (PickpocketMountains May Depart) and his latest film is a fascinating but odd misfire.

A woman used: Tao Zhao spends time in prison for her man, small-time gang leader, Fan Liao (Black Coal Thin Ice, The Master). Only there’s no sign of him on her release. She sets out to to find him.

A romantic tragedy, Ash Is Purest White is a mix of gritty social realism (when it is at its best) and surreal strangeness (mass shadow dancing in the town square to Village People’s YMCA). Zhangke Jia explores how everyday people were affected by major political and cultural changes in China 20 years ago at the the turn of the century in his films – and Ash Is Purest White continues that exploration.

Rating: 40%

Screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘Leave No Trace’

Leave_No_TraceAs with her previous film, Winter Bone, director Deborah Granik builds slowly, a subtle, quiet grace in the relationship between father (Ben Foster – The Program, Hell Or High Water) and daughter (Thomasin McKenzie – The Changeover, The Hobbit).

Living an alternative lifestyle in a Portland national park, the two eke out a living from the land. But as the authorities step in, so the two discover their needs and wants diverge.

It’s a seemingly aimless film, meandering through a storyline essentially devoid of any conflict (even the authorities are polite and helpful). But it still manages to get under the skin, its acute sense of place and time drawing you in to the extraordinary chemistry between the two leads.

Rating: 68%

Screened in Melbourne International Film Festival