Guest Review: THE INNOCENTS (2016)

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Directed By: Anne Fontaine
Cast: Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza
Runtime: 1 hr 55 minutes

Most war films recount history as if women were never involved or their experiences not worth mentioning. That is just one of many reasons why The Innocents (2016) stands out in the war film genre: it is about, for, and made by women. The result is a soulful essay about atrocities committed against a group of nuns during the second world war, portrayed as a complex metaphorical struggle between religious faith, medical science, and evil.

The linear plotline is as austere as the film’s narrative. We meet a serene and devout convent of Benedictine nuns in Poland who go about their daily prayer with quiet conviction and meticulous adherence to ritual. The serenity is shattered by the scream of a nun about to give birth. One nun fetches a French Red Cross medical intern Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laáge) who sneaks out of the aid mission to help. She learns that Soviet soldiers had raped the nuns and several births were imminent. Mathilde is a non-believer yet is bewildered by the strength of the nun’s faith and compelled to help. The nuns believe they are complicit in sin, and some are unable to even submit to medical examination while others do so with deep shame. The tension between sin and evil erupts when the baby is born and Mother Superior takes it out for fostering but instead leaves it in the forest. With more births coming, a convent full of babies cannot survive under Soviet occupation. It is Mathilde who finds an ingenious solution that ensures their survival.

Within this narrative arc, there are several strands that explore the nature and practice of faith by a group of women with varied backgrounds and different relationships with their god. Throughout the story, the tension between belief and logic creates a haunting presence. Young Mathilde struggles in a vortex of faith, science and evil, and comes to learn that there are no absolutes. The dystopia of war shatters all, yet faith survives in love and devotion to helping others. She grows emotionally with the experience just as the nun’s learn tolerance of those who do not share their faith.

While the film has a strong cast of fine performers, it is Lou de Laage who shines brightly in a difficult role. She seamlessly traverses a wide emotional range from inspired awe to resolute determination to help, including restrained romantic explorations with a senior colleague. The portrait-like cinematography conveys the bleak landscape and convent solitude with a sympathetic lens that avoids despair. The film is a tribute not only to the violated nuns but to women of all nationalities mistreated at the hands of military forces. Rape in war continues in modern times, with many nations in denial and others struggling with unresolved shame. This is not an entertaining story, but a dark episode of history on which light has long been needed.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘The Innocents’? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review: JULIETA (2016)

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Written/Directed By: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Adriana Ugarte, Michelle Jenner, Rossy de Palma,Emma Suårez, Inma Cuesta
Runtime: 1 hr 39 minutes

You may enjoy Julieta (2016) more if you know that it is a women’s film from the melodrama genre and a story of pure emotion. While it is labelled a romance it is nothing like a romance and don’t expect light entertainment or laughs as the film is devoid of humour. What is does have is an outpouring of quintessentially maternal guilt and self-absorbed loss that is palpable throughout the film. While critics may be divided, this is a beautiful film with a long aftertaste.

We meet the attractive widow Julieta just as she is packing to leave Madrid and move with her boyfriend to Portugal. Madrid is full of painful memories, the most intense of which is not seeing her daughter Antia for twelve years. A chance encounter with her daughter’s former best friend opens an uncontrollable torrent of guilt which suddenly fills Julieta’s life. Abandoning her boyfriend, she decides to stay in Madrid in case Antia ever looks for her. Unable to deal with her grief in any other way, she writes the story of her life as if she is talking to her absent daughter.

Julieta narrates the story in chapters that become extended flashbacks to her early romance with Antia’s father, their lives together as a family and its eventual disintegration. What was once a life full of loving relationships becomes one of multiple losses even though Julieta herself bears little blame for the tragedies. Julieta is unaware how deeply her daughter was affected by what happened and is bewildered when Antia searches for spirituality at a Swiss retreat. Her sudden disappearance without explanation has left her mother with unresolved grief.

As each chapter unfolds we see the larger portrait of the mother and daughter relationship in all its dense complexity and destructive power. The narrative teasingly denies us knowledge of why Antia refuses all contact with her mother, and year after year Julieta mourns each passing birthday as if it was a funeral. The storytelling intensity is sustained by finely nuanced acting from the two stars who play the younger and older Julieta, and those who play Antia at different ages. The camerawork has a melancholic sensitivity that resonates with the Spanish landscapes and urban settings, and while the story unwinds slowly, to tell it more quickly would lose depth and meaning. While Julieta is a darkly sensitive essay about the universal emotion of maternal guilt, its melancholy lifts like a rising fog with a masterfully ambivalent ending that soars.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘Julieta’? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review: TONI ERDMANN (2016)

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Written/Directed By: Maren Ade
Cast: Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn
Runtime: 2 hr 42 minutes

Parent-child conflict is a universal theme that can be spun into an infinite variety of narrative fabrics and colours. For mothers, it is often treated as an angst-ridden melodrama while for fathers it is usually a comedy. Each relationship mix has its own tropes and conventions but the German-Austrian film Toni Erdman (2016) is far from being a genre film. It is a stream of consciousness comedic study of the father-daughter bond that is quirky, insightful and strangely moving.

It is hard to imagine a more mismatched duo: Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is the epitome of the irritating reconstructed divorced hippie father. He lives alone, seemingly half a century behind everyone else, and loves his own ‘dad jokes’ and clownish antics. When his beloved dog dies, he wants to re-connect with his corporate consultant daughter Ines (Sandra Huller), but his surprise arrival in her city is inauspicious. She barely acknowledges his presence while continuing to do the things that high-potential upwardly mobile young women do to impress and advance their prospects.

From here forward, Winfried wants to save his daughter from a shallow heartless career where firing people, ruining lives, and being fluent in corporate-babble gains respect and reward. Like fathers around the world, he slips into and out of comedic personas to embarrass offspring into self-recognition. His chief alter-ego is Toni Erdmann, alternatively a life coach, Ambassador, or businessman, depending on who Ines introduces him to. In each role, he is able to prick her conscience into seeing herself as the sterile human she has become. In one scene, he tells her boss of a venture where you can hire a daughter to replace one who has no time for you, and in another, he disarms her by asking “are you even human?”. The longer he stays, the more cracks appear in her constructed persona and a softening light peeps through.

Within this linear plotline, there are several sub-stories that work as standalone comedic vignettes. Most contribute to the narrative, but some will leave viewers wondering what on earth just happened? The emotionless sexual encounter between Ines and a colleague is fertile ground for feminist analysis; the off-key singing of “The Greatest Love of All” by Ines is both poignant and ridiculous; and the naked lunch with a hairy guest monster can only be understood through a Beckett-like absurdist lens. At two hours and forty-two minutes, this film requires faith and patience. The pace is slow and another session in the editing suite would have helped without losing what is good and interesting. Fortunately, the acting performances are excellent, with an almost cameo-like deadpan-realism that is delivered convincingly by its relatively unknown stars.

One of the striking things about this film is how not-like-Hollywood it feels. There is nothing formulaic in the narrative nor are viewers pushed into an emotional corner. It is funny, sincere, definitely original, and too long. By using humour intelligently rather than to exploit the quick gag for a loud laugh, it offers warm insight into the universal father-daughter bond that is as unorthodox as it is endearing.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘Toni Erdmann’? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review: JACKIE (2016)

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Directed By: Pablo Larraín
Written By: Noah Oppenheim
Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Great Gerwig, John Hurt
Runtime: 1 hr 40 minutes

History and drama often make awkward bedfellows as you might find in the bio-pic Jackie (2016). The assassination of JFK is one of the defining moments of the 20th century and any dramatization of the immediate aftermath is a risky venture. History buffs may fault it and others may struggle with its melodramatic interpretation of Jaqueline Kennedy’s life-defining event. But look beyond the cinematic limitations and you find a complex portrait of a remarkable person who endured an unimaginable horror with rare strength and dignity.

The film’s starts with the motorcade in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated and ends with his funeral. The narrative is framed around a journalist’s interview conducted a week after the event and a confessional talk with a priest at the funeral. It uses their questions and comments to trigger flashbacks to the short JFK presidency, with dramatisations that craft together archival footage and historical photographs. The title of the film makes it clear that this is a portrait of Jackie (played by Natalie Portman) so her words, her emotions, and her actions are the primary focus. The film’s narrative tension comes entirely from the depiction of her inner world of private trauma and her struggles with the political and public reaction to the event.

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The most striking aspect of Portman’s portrayal is her ability to present several sides of the one persona as if she and Jackie shared multiple personalities. Once you recover from the distraction that Portman barely resembles Jaqueline Kennedy, she takes you on an emotional roller-coaster, from terror, anger, hate, confusion, mental vacillation and disorientation to calm resolve about her role in history. Throughout it all she remains committed to turning a tragedy into national mythology based on political heroism, the Kennedy legend, and the Camelot fairy tale. While there is a commendable support cast, this is a one-woman performance and Portman’s portrayal is a tour de force.

Some will find this film an unflattering interpretation of Jaqueline Kennedy while others will find that it helps them to sympathetically understand the person behind the mask. The film steers a fine line in avoiding judgement and it is Portman’s dramatic ability to step into Jackie’s soul and to capture her mental trauma that ultimately shines. No bio-pic is perfect and you need to overlook scenes where the film struggles with period authenticity. Set this aside and you will be rewarded with a memorable performance about an unforgettable event.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘JACKIE’? Well, what did you think? 

Guest Review: ELLE (2016)

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Directed By: Paul Verhoeven
Written By: David Birke
Runtime: 2 hrs 10 minutes

The women’s film genre covers the spectrum of feminine empowerment to absolute degradation and several can be read both ways. Elle (2016) is an ambivalent film that can be read as a tale of self-assertion or, equally valid, about victimhood, transgressive sexuality and gender disrespect. The story is framed against the violent porn video game industry where women are routinely sacrificed to male gratification and dominance. Porn video games normalise sexual assault and other forms of humiliation and this cyber reality merges with the Elle narrative on fantasy and victimhood.

Michelle (Isabelle Huppert) is a successful Parisian video game entrepreneur who leads a company of testosterone-fueled hipsters whose job it is to hyper-stimulate young males into doing things to women in video cyber-worlds. The film’s opening scenes are both disturbing and banal: Michelle appears to be violently raped by a masked intruder and then proceeds to tidy up the mess with barely more than an air of inconvenience. No, it is not a video game, and yes, it happens again as do several other normalised sexual transgressions. For example, when she discovers the staffer who pasted her face onto a video game assault victim she asks the person to expose his genitals in her office. Rather than an opportunity for reverse humiliation or worse, she only says “pretty” and walks off leaving us wondering if she is seriously cool or seriously damaged.

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Divergent plotlines fill out the character of Michelle to explain the reasons for her impassivity. Her father is in prison for crimes against children and her mother pays for sex with younger men. She sleeps with her business partner’s husband and lusts for her neighbour, and compulsively tells lies in her twilight world between video game brutality and real-world morality. While appearing indestructible in her business life her emotional world is a fragile void that cannot be filled with normal relationships. The several scenes that dwell suggestively on her face oozing repressed sexual desire hint darkly of a deeply troubled soul.

This is a compelling film that examines the parallel universe of a woman who is both a perpetrator and a victim of sexual transgression and who lives under the guise of wealth and respectability. As such, it is also a portrait of hypocrisy and moral extremities with audience voyeurism forming the picture frame. Isabelle Huppert pushes this role to its limits while showing little emotion beyond what she can say with her expressive eyes. It is hard to judge a survivor like her, and we can only guess what keeps her head together. This film is one of many that push back the cultural envelope that has kept women’s sexuality on a pedestal.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia

 


Have you seen ‘ELLE’? Well, what did you think? 

Five for the Fifth: May 2013 Edition

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Hello folks, welcome to the 5th Five for the Fifth of the year!

As is customary for this monthly feature, I get to post five random news item/observation/poster, etc. and then turn it over to you to share your take on that given topic. You can see the previous five-for-the-fifth posts here.

1. Happy Cinco de Mayo! I’ve made it a tradition of sort to feature a Mexican filmmaker/actor on the May edition of Five for the Fifth. Last year I featured director Alfonso Cuarón, but this year, I turn the spotlight on Guillermo del Toro since Pacific Rim is coming out later in July.

GuillermodelToroA short bio on the 48-year-old director: Guillermo del Toro was born October 9, 1964 in Guadalajara Jalisco, Mexico. Raised by his Catholic grandmother, del Toro developed an interest in filmmaking in his early teens. Later, he learned about makeup and effects from the legendary Dick Smith (The Exorcist (1973)) and worked on making his own short films.

I quite enjoyed the first Hell Boy movie, though I haven’t seen the sequel, but his film that really made an impression on me was the captivating but often violent fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth. I’m still not sold on his sci-fi alien adventure Pacific Rim yet, I mean I love Idris Elba and I’m thrilled he got the lead role, but the movie looks like a combo of Independence Day and Transformers to me. As Tim outlined in his trailer review, it does look promising, but I guess it remains to be seen how captivating the movie will be.….

So what’s your thoughts on Mr. del Toro and/or Pacific Rim?

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2. Now, many of you likely have seen Iron Man 3 by now which I happen to enjoy quite a bit. You’ve perhaps also heard about the Chinese version of the movie, which according to this Beijing-based Kotaku site said featured four-minute added content and the Chinese character Dr. Wu had a more prominent part in the film. In the film version, Dr. Wu (played by Chinese movie star Wang Xueqi) only had a few seconds screen time, basically a blink-and-you-missed it type of cameo. I since learned that apparently those footage was NOT filmed by director Shane Black.

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Truthfully, when I first heard about the existence of this Chinese version, I shook my head in dismay. I mean, as if we didn’t need more proof that Hollywood honchos only care about the bottom line, this is yet another reason creative integrity is just thrown away by the wayside. I mean, I realize some films have multiple cuts that are released in the DVD/Blu-ray versions that feature alternate scenes and/or ending than the theatrical release. But I feel that this is an entirely different ball game that is purely motivated by profit.

Apparently the Kotaku writer Eric Jou shares my dread, “It literally offends me as an American in China and as an ethnically Chinese person that Hollywood would attempt to sell this to the Chinese audience… It undermines Chinese people’s intelligence and movie savvy.”

I’m curious to hear what you think on this matter folks, so please chime in below.

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3. Well, looks like the negotiation with Tom Hiddleston to play The Crow fell through 😦 I was so thrilled to see him possibly getting cast in that role, especially since the hot Brit seemed keen on playing the role. I really think he’d have rocked the role, though Brandon Lee would perhaps remain as my favorite Eric Draven.

Now it looks like the deal is set with Welsh actor Luke Evans (one of my picks to play 007) has nabbed the role. According to Deadline, Evans was actually director F. Javier Gutierrez’s first choice for the role but scheduling conflict made them consider other actors. But apparently “… they have decided to push the start date to early next year to accommodate his schedule in order to secure Evans.” 

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Well, I still would rather see Hiddleston but Evans is a thousand times better choice than Alexander Skarsgard, for me anyways. I think he’s got the look as the dark and lean rock star, let’s hope he can bring something fresh and perhaps even iconic in this reboot.

How do you feel about Luke Evans’ casting as The Crow?


4. Hugh Jackman is really a jack of all trades, the ultimate quadruple threat as he’s not only a ruggedly gorgeous hunk of a man, but he can sing, dance, act, and with a good business sense as he’s also the producer of the film. He’s the kind of actor who could pretty much do any kind of genre believably, you name it, drama, rom-com, comedy, action, mystery, etc. he’s done it all. But his most famous role happens to be the same one that gave him his breakthrough in Hollywood, and that is X-Men’s Wolverine.

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Check out the latest International trailer:

This is surely one of my most-anticipated movies of the Summer. The Wolverine reboot will mark his fifth time Jackman will reprise the comic-book character (not counting the cameo in X-Men: First Class). I think that’s the highest number of superhero character portrayal by a single actor to date. It’s notable just on that front alone, but also the fact that somehow Jackman has not overstay its welcome as that character. Far from it in fact, as this James Mangold-directed origin story (yes, again) set in Japan seems to present the character in a whole new light.

Thoughts on Mr. Jackman and/or his upcoming movie The Wolverine?


5. Now, last but not least, I’d like to make the fifth question be a forum for movie recommendations. I’ll limit the genres to foreign thrillers and/or dramas as I had just been impressed with the Danish thriller The Hunt. As you probably know if you read my blog regularly, it’s my pick for Movie of the Month in April (full review coming later this week), and that’s the second Danish thriller I was VERY impressed with after Headhunters. Interesting that both have the word ‘hunt’ in it though they’re two very different films. As for foreign dramas, I was delighted by Intouchables recently, which I also highly recommend.

Please share your recommendations of foreign thrillers/drama that you think everyone must see!


For those with a Reddit account, would you be so kind as to submit this post?
I’d sincerely appreciate it folks! 😀


That’s it for the May 2013 edition of Five for the Fifth, folks. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these subjects.