‘The Rider’

The_Rider-1A tender, poetic story and what is essentially a scripted, heightened documentary as real-life rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau comes to terms with a life-threatening head injury. In a culture that lives and breathes horses, Brady and his family struggle with his displacement and loss of status.

The vast, wide-open South Dakota Badlands adds to Brady’s sense of isolation as writer/director Chloe Zhao (Songs My Brother Taught Me) patiently explores the meaning of masculinity in the physical world of rodeo and its backwater setting.

Rating: 79%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

Advertisements

‘Beast’

beastSmall in scope (a product of writer/director Michael Pearce’s television experience in his feature film debut), Beast flits between a (dysfunctional) middle-class family drama and psychosexual horror story.

Unquestionably flawed, a remarkable performance from Jessie Buckley (TV’s Taboo, The Last Post) as Moll is the highlight. Desperate to escape her cruel, oppressive family, she becomes involved with Johnny Flynn (Clouds of Sils Maria, Love is Thicker Than Water), a convicted poacher living on the margins and suspected of being a serial killer of teenage girls.

A cold, windswept Jersey – far from its halcyon summer tourism – is the setting for Pearce’s intriguing drama packed with (mostly) unpleasant characters.

Rating: 58%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘Woman at War’

womanatwarEntertaining enviro-political narrative as an eminently watchable Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Metalhead, The Seagull’s Laughter) takes on the aluminium industry polluting the beauty of the natural Icelandic countryside.

With the inadvertent help of a twin sister and a lonely farmer, Halla quietly gets things done, in spite of the establishment reacting in the belief it’s the actions of organised international terrorism.

Writer/director Benedikt Erlingsson (Of Horses and Men, Polite People) avoids overtly agitprop political speak, allowing wry humour and understated opinion speak for itself – along with the juxtaposing of the ruins of a Ukraine destroyed by over-industrialisation (a gentle subplot to the story).

Rating: 64%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘When the Trees Fall’

when treesAn odd, fractured, surreal rebellion of a feature, an angry, multifaceted narration of aimless, unstructured poverty in contemporary Ukraine.

Director Marysia Nikitiuk, in her feature film debut, mixes urban and rural poverty, violence and passion, eroticism and misery, realism and fantasy. Several interlinked stories evolve at the same time – a four year-old girl living with her nanna in a rural setting that descends into violence; a teenage Larysa (a powerful and convincing Anastasia Putovit) rebelling against her home life with her young lover on the run from the mob.

Sadly, Nikitiuk’s grim realism is too unfocussed in its storytelling, creating a confusion of intent – which is a pity, as the stunning, febrile opening scene and its lyrical eroticism created a high expectation.

Rating: 38%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘The Kindergarten Teacher’

the-kindergarten-teacherLacking the political pertinence of the original 2014 Israeli film from Nadav Lapid, the English-language remake is nevertheless an enthralling psychological thriller.

A superb central performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart, The Dark Knight), the kindergarten teacher recognises the precocious talents of cute five year-old Parker Sevak (a revelation) and sees it as a ticket out of mundane, privilged suburbia. But she goes more than a little too far.

Adapted and directed by Sara Colangelo (Little Accidents), The Kindergarten Teacher is an unhurried, slender drama that, whilst lacking that edginess of the original, remains a tense character-study of desperation and obsession.

Rating: 64%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘The Harvesters’

the harvestersA stark, red-neck Christian Bible-belt story, Afrikaans-style.

In his directorial debut, Etienne Kallos’ powerful feature, set in the vast isolated open spaces of the Free State, looks to the threatened demise of an Afrikaan way of life. A quiet, brooding 15-year old Janno (Brent Vermeulen) and his position in his deeply religious farming family is threatened by the adoption of a troubled (Afrikaan) street boy (Alex van Dyk).

In spite of the threat, there is an understated intimacy between the two as separately and together they fight to find/retain their place in an environment where the mother follows God’s will and is fervent in her belief in salvation for the unsaveable.

Austere, shot with the muted colours of early winter, a minimal score and nuanced performances create a restrained yet simmering drama of quiet intensity.

Rating: 76%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘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: 74%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘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

‘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