Daughter

The Iranian film industry might be small, and it might be subjected to excessive scrutiny and restrictions at a governmental level, but it certainly punches above its weight when it comes to producing quality cinema. Producing directors such as Jafar Panahi, Abbas Kiorastami, Asghar Farhadi and Reza Mirkarimi, Iran seems a fertile breeding ground for filmmakers who can overcome whatever obstacles that may exist to deliver stories that possess universal appeal. With Daughter, Mirkarimi has crafted a narrative that explores the tensions between a strict father who wants to protect a daughter who is desperate for a little independence. This basic narrative premise is nothing new as we have seen many films that have followed a similar narrative trajectory and explored similar themes, albeit with variances in tone and technique, from the trite (10 Things I Hate About You) to the tragic (The Virgin Suicides), so it really comes down to the direction from Mirkarimi and the performances of his cast if Daughter is to stand out from the crowd.  Fortunately, both are superb and Daughter soars as a moving and amusing drama that examines the struggles for young people in breaking free from the influence and expectations of their parents, particularly within a traditional culture where gender and generational expectations are entrenched in almost every aspect of day-to-day life.

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The daughter of the title is Setareh (Mahoor Alvand), a young university student who lives with her family in a town situated in southern Iran. Saterah’s father Ahmad (Farhad Aslani) is a senior manager who works long hours at the huge industrial plant that seems to be the lifeblood of the city and the sheer size of the facility is beautifully captured by cinematographer Hamid Khozouie Abyane. Ahmad is strict and authoritarian both at work and at home, but there is a softer side to him that slowly reveals itself as events unfold. When Ahmad forbids Saterah from flying to Tehran to farewell a university friend, she decides to go anyway with a plan to return home before Ahmad is even aware she is gone. When a dust storm grounds her return flight though, Ahmad learns of her deception and engages in a typically alpha male course of action; hitting the highway for an all-night drive to retrieve her.

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It is when Ahmad arrives in Tehran that we learn more about issues from his past and how these complex and complicated family dynamics have shaped his personality more so than religious doctrine.  Yes, Ahmad is a traditional, Islamic father, but this is not presented as a stereotype. He is an absorbing character and the film becomes as much about Ahmad as it does Sateram, which only serves to strengthen the narrative. Furthermore, the group of friends with whom Satera spends a boisterous lunch challenge the more typical media representations of Muslim women. These are young women with aspirations and their frank conversation covers topics such as education, relationships and their various interpretations of freedom. Whilst it would be easy to suggest that such a story is one that draws on the specific cultural tenets of Islamic culture, any suggestion that the film is testimony to the oppression of women in Iran would be absurd.  After all, a patriarchal cultural structure in which parents assert their values and beliefs on their children is not the exclusive domain of Islamic society.

Striking and captivating, it is not surprising to learn that the film, its director and stars have picked up several awards at various international film festivals. Aslani, in particular, has been celebrated for his performance, and rightly so given his ability to deliver a moment of emotion (anger, confusion, sadness, regret) without saying a word, but Alvand is equally impressive as the daughter who simply wants to spread her wings a little. Mirkarimi obviously has no interest in presenting Iran as an ‘exotic other’ and the scenes in Tehran show the Iranian capital as a modern, bustling metropolis that could just as easily be any city in Europe or elsewhere. He also resists the urge to wrap things up neatly, leaving many questions unanswered and a distinct lack of clarity with regard to the fate and future of the characters. On many levels, Daughter is an extraordinarily well-made addition to the ever-expanding canon of Iranian cinema.

 

I, Daniel Blake

The adage that declares “the simple things in life are often the best” is one that can be applied to pretty much any endeavour in life and it certainly rings true when it comes to filmmaking. Often, movies become too complicated and convoluted in their desire to be all things to all people and it is filmmakers such as the Dardenne Brothers, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh whose commitment to social realism remind us that it is often a simple story that can resonate more, both intellectually and emotionally, than any of the myriad bloated blockbusters that are churned out with monotonous regularity. With his latest offering, Loach presents an achingly acerbic look into the lives of those who, often as a result of circumstances beyond their control, find themselves at the mercy of Government agencies that are failing in their responsibility to provide support and assistance to those most in need.

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Daniel Blake is a great bloke. He has worked his entire life, cared for his wife through a long period of mental illness and enjoys a great relationship with his young neighbour, however when he suffers a heart attack and is unable to work, he finds himself at the mercy of the welfare system for the first time in his life. What should be a somewhat simple exercise – securing some income support whilst awaiting a medical clearance to return to work – becomes a nightmare of bureaucratic rigidity with roadblocks at every turn that would, if the consequences weren’t so severe, be hilarious in its absurdity. This is a guy who has spent his life making a meaningful contribution in so many ways, only to be treated with disdain the only time he finds himself in need of assistance. His plight is both infuriating and inspiring as he battles the system in a bid to save himself from physical, financial and emotional collapse, and the performance from Dave Johns in the title role is exceptional.

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Likewise, Hayley Squires is remarkably authentic as Katie, a young mother also battling against a system that is completely devoid of compassion and common sense. The friendship that develops between Daniel and Katie – borne from a shared frustration with the way in which they have been treated – is threatened when Katie takes what she sees as the only option available to her if she is to keep herself and her family afloat. As is to be expected from Loach, there is nothing flashy about the setting, the characters or the circumstances in which they find themselves and the absence of high profile performers in the leads creates a greater sense of authenticity. They seem real and their experiences are very relatable; such as when Daniel is on hold for over an hour in his attempt to make contact with the welfare office.

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Although utterly infuriating at times, I, Daniel Blake is wonderfully entertaining as the enjoyment comes from the sheer quality of the performances and a screenplay from regular Loach collaborator Paul Laverty that is, partly at least, drawn from real-life encounters and is neither contrived nor condescending. It also serves as a reminder that not everybody who finds themselves entrenched in the lower end of the socio-economic scale will find themselves mired in a world of crime and violence, but it certainly helps you understand how this might happen. The story encompasses moments of humour, anger, determination and despair, with Daniel ultimately resorting to a very public moment of rebellion that, whilst very amusing, is a sad indictment of the way he has been (mis)treated by those who revel in the power they possess to disrupt and destroy the lives of others. Neither Daniel nor Katie expect anything more than a fair go and it is not always comfortable viewing as they battle to maintain their self-respect, but I, Daniel Blake is a gritty, realistic, compelling drama that restores faith in the power of cinematic storytelling as a window to the world in which we live. This is a humble film about good people who persevere in the face of indifference and neglect and it works a treat, both as entertainment and social commentary. He might not wear a cape or have any superpowers, but Daniel Blake is an unequivocal hero, a symbol of decency in a world where such a virtue is increasingly redundant.

Arrival

If you like your science-fiction filled with warp speed action in galaxies far, far away, then Arrival might not be your cup of tea. However, if you like intelligent sci-fi set on present-day Earth, this may well be exactly what you are looking for. More akin to Close Encounters of the Third Kind than War of the Worlds, this latest effort from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) is a slow paced, philosophical, speculative piece that explores the importance of language, rather than action, as communication, even between those groups whose language systems seem, on the surface at least, to share little common ground. It also touches on issues prevalent in the political and social discourse of today; namely the way in which humans deal with things (people, ideas, ideologies) we don’t understand.  In this case, it is the arrival of 11 vessels in various parts of the world that has the relevant military forces scrambling to ascertain the intentions of the aliens. Desperate to try and communicate with the  visitors, the US Army calls upon linguistics expert Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to make contact with the two heptapods (so-called because they have seven long tentacles) that inhabit the vessel hovering above a paddock in Montana.

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Before Louise is summoned by Colonel Weber (Forrest Whittaker) to assist in the operation, we learn that she is a divorced university professor still grieving the loss of a daughter who has succumbed to cancer at a young age. En route to the site where the spaceship hovers just metres off the ground, Louise meets Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist who has also been recruited to assist those trying to engage with the visitors, who communicate via complicated circular symbols that resemble ink splotches. With Ian’s assistance, Louise is able to develop a rapport with the aliens and the tensions in the story come not between the humans and the extra-terrestrials, but between Louise and the demands of the military in trying to ascertain exactly what, if anything, these celestial beings have planned and thereby prevent China and other nations from launching attacks on the vessels that have landed in their jurisdictions. In the interests of narrative brevity, Louise is able to decipher the alien language pretty quickly and there never seems to be any expectation that the audience will understand exactly how she has been able to determine what the various shapes and symbols mean.

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Adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang titled Story of Your Life, the filmmakers perhaps opting for a different title so as not to pre-empt the twist at the end that has been the focus of so much attention in media discussion. Sure, it does come as a surprise (and please treat those who haven’t read the book yet claim they ‘knew all along’ with the contempt they deserve), but it isn’t a ‘moment of genius’ as some reviewers have declared. Sure, it does add an extra dimension to what has transpired, but the movie would still hold firm as an intelligent, thought-provoking drama without it. There are obvious parallels with the Jodie Foster-starring Contact, not the least of which is a female character front and centre of the narrative. As she has done so often, Adams delivers a performance that makes you believe, and believe in, her character and it is her nuanced execution of a somewhat aloof persona that keeps the story grounded into something authentic, although obviously how you feel about the likelihood of such a situation ever happening might influence how tolerant you are of the contemplative pace and distinct absence of any elaborate action sequences.

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A few moments of levity aside, such as when Louise and Ian name the aliens Abbott and Costello (although I couldn’t help but wonder if Kodos and Krang might have been more appropriate), Arrival is an earnest, beautifully constructed and presented musing on the concept of linguistic relativity, a theory that suggests the structure of a language directly affects cognition. The cinematography from Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year) and the haunting score from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario, The Theory of Everything) combine perfectly to create an atmosphere of tension, mystery and wonder.

Nocturnal Animals

If nothing else, Nocturnal Animals tells us that money most certainly does not buy happiness. A ridiculously wealthy art gallery manager, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) lives in a stark modernist mansion that possesses all the (superficial) trappings of success, yet she is seemingly devoid of any joy in her life. She is no longer passionate about her work and is stuck in a loveless marriage with Walker (Armie Hammer), a man with about as much personality as a cardboard box. This second film from fashion designer Tom Ford after 2009’s A Single Man is a bleak musing on life, love and art, interwoven with a Texas-set crime thriller in which Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) teams up with Michael Shannon’s laconic police officer to seek retribution against those that terrorised his wife and daughter.

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The crime drama that unfolds is a visualisation of the events in a fictional novel from which the film gets its name. Written by Susan’s ex-husband Edward (also played by Gyllenhaal), a proof copy of the book has been delivered to her and, as she becomes immersed in this story of violence and revenge, we see the events play out on screen. When Tony (the central character in the book) and his family – wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter Helen (Ellie Bamber) – clash with a trio of rednecks on the highway late at night, the encounter has devastating consequences. The sun-scorched Texas desert is a stark contrast to the cold, austere confines of Susan’s house, yet Ford and his editor Joan Sobel successfully meld the two worlds together through the use of cross-fades and other tricks of the trade that seamlessly switches the action from the events of Edward’s novel to Susan’s world.

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Whilst the emotionally stilted Susan is the central figure around which everything else revolves, it is Tony’s story that resonates most as his relationship with Shannon’s morally ambiguous Bobby Andes morphs from one of mistrust and antagonism to a friendship of convenience as they set forth on a mission to see those responsible get their comeuppance. There are some harrowing moments that play out and what is most interesting is the way in which Ford has used this story-within-a-story to make Susan seem so detestable. Her ‘problems’ seem so insignificant by comparison, yet she continues to wallow in misery as Tony is faced with the struggle of coming to terms with what took place on that fateful night. A series of flashbacks provide insight into various important moments in Susan’s life, including her marriage to Edward, while a dinner conversation with her snobbish, bigoted mother Anne (played by an aged-up Laura Linney in her only scene) proves particularly prophetic.

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Whilst Susan is horrified by what she reads, it never brings her any enlightenment about the privilege of her own existence or what Edward’s true intentions may be in delivering the book to her. When, towards the end of the movie, Edward suggests they get together for dinner, it is as though she expects nothing less than for Edward to want to see her again despite having treated him so terribly all those years ago. Whilst the final frames of the film are perhaps intended to engender audience sympathy for Susan, I found myself desperately hoping that something really bad might still befall this narcissist who had become everything she declared so vehemently to her mother that she would not.

This is a movie filled with brutal characters, but Nocturnal Animals is an enthralling story meticulously presented. The performances from Adams, Gyllenhall and Shannon are first rate and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is also excellent as Ray Marcus, the ringleader of the trio who set upon Tony and his family. Ford’s background in the design industry is apparent in the sheer beauty of so many scenes, particularly those in the LA-set art world that Susan inhabits. Gaudy and gratuitous at times, Nocturnal Animals is decidedly downbeat in tone and, whilst it might not achieve the level of psychological complexity that Ford perhaps intended, it is a challenging, engaging and wholly satisfying revenge thriller.

BAPFF Begins This Month

The Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival is on again later this month with a vast array of features, documentaries and short films on the program, which runs from November 23 to December 4.

The screening schedule includes more than 80 films from Australia, the Asia-Pacific and beyond, including retrospectives and special programs. One such program strand is  Transcending the Inevitable: Japanese Screen Legends and Their Works with Masters, a celebration of Japanese actresses who inspired and collaborated with a reputable master director.

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A Critical Eye is a collection films that address some of the most important issues of today, such as gender, sexuality, social justice, refugees and cultural identity. Included in this program strand are the latest films from Iranian directors Asghar Farhadi (The Salesman) and Riza Mirkarimi (Daughter), as well as new work from Turkish film maker Zeki Demirkubuz (Ember) and films from India, Israel, Afghanistan and Korea.

Australian films on show include Hounds of Love, starring Susie Porter, Stephen Curry and Ashleigh Cummings, and a collection of documentary features such as Snow Monkey, Ella and Imaginary Border.

Extending beyond the Asia-Pacific region, the  No Boundaries: International Perspectives program strand features some of the top films from other parts of the world, with a selection of  highly acclaimed new works from  Europe and America, including Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, the Kristin Stewart-starring Personal Shopper from Olivier Assayas, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson and the latest social realist drama from the Dardenne brothers, The Unknown Girl.

For more information about the festival, including screening schedules, ticketing and special events, head to the BAPFF website of follow them on Facebook.

 

 

 

Hell or High Water

Usually seen in slick blockbuster fare, it takes a while to get used to Chris Pine as Toby Howard, a desperate Texas cowboy on a mission to save the family property following the death of his mother. The fact that Toby has opted for an unconventional approach to raising the necessary funds to save the family home from repossession puts him firmly in the sights of veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his persistently put-upon partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham).  With Hell of High Water, British director David MacKenzie paints a far from flattering portrait of small town America; presenting rural Texas as a desolate, desperate place that has withered away to a point where little hope remains for those who eke out an existence in the myriad communities that dot the landscape. Teaming with his unpredictable brother Tanner (Ben Foster), Toby undertakes a series of robberies to secure the cash needed to fend off the threat of repossession.

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The film opens with Toby and Tanner arriving at a remote branch of the Texas Midland bank at opening time, making off with loose bills in smaller denominations to avoid dye packs and the attention of any law enforcement beyond the local police. We learn soon enough the Texas Midland is the bank that has engaged in some dodgy dealings to bring about foreclosure on the family ranch and that Toby’s motivation is two-fold; save the farm and stick it to those determined to steal the property away from him. Despite the fact that Toby has the whole operation meticulously planned, Tanner is a loose cannon (the type of character that Foster seems destined to play forever) and his impulsive self-destructive behaviour puts both men at risk as Hamilton closes in. The ease with which they are able to funnel their ill-gotten gains through casinos – exchanging the stolen cash for chips and then cashing out the chips for a fresh batch of notes or a cheque – only serves to support the arguments of those who see such establishments as inherently problematic and seemingly immune to the type of scrutiny that other industries are forced to endure. I mean, at a local level, the relationship between NSW Premier Mike Baird and Star Casino and the exemptions afforded them with regard to lock-out legislation, is a case in point, not to mention the Queensland Government’s willingness to surrender prime riverfront land for the construction of a mega-casino.

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Elements of the story are derivative, such as the soon-to-be-retired Hamilton determined to make good in what will be his last ever case, but Bridges is entertaining as always even if his constant niggling at Birmingham becomes tiring after a while and not half as funny as screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (who also penned the superior Sicario) perhaps intended. That is not to say there aren’t some fun moments though, with a visit to the T-Bone Café particularly amusing. Likewise, there is mirth amid the mayhem when, in their attempt to rob a branch in a larger town, the boys are outgunned by the pistol-packing customers. Whilst this scene seems to be making a statement about the open carry laws that exist in Texas (and other states), it isn’t very clear what that statement is exactly. The theory is that the presence of so many weapons should make everybody feel safer, but the fact is that more people are killed or injured in this robbery than any other.

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There is a distinct sense that we are expected to feel as though Toby’s actions are justified – even heroic – given his motivations, as if to say that securing a future for his ex-wife and children is reason enough to put so many other people at risk, and this is probably the film’s biggest failing. Competently made and performed, Hell or High Water is welcome relief from the surfeit of superheroes, remakes and other material devoid of any originality that constantly clogs cinema screening schedules.  Yes, there is a No Country for Old Men vibe running through it, but Hell or High Water is an entertaining exploration of a world in which justice means different things to different people and where desperation often dictates the actions of those who live in it.

The Light Between Oceans

When it comes to motion pictures, sometimes beautiful is not enough. Bringing two of the world’s most attractive (and talented) actors together in a gorgeous Australian setting seems like a recipe for something really special. Throw in a story adapted from a popular novel and you have all the ingredients for a remarkable cinematic experience; right?  Not necessarily it seems. That is not to say that The Light Between Oceans is particularly bad, it perhaps just suffers from the weight of expectation given the casting of Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander as the couple whose life on an otherwise uninhabited island is irrevocably changed when a boat washes ashore. Set in Western Australia in the early years of the 20th century, this latest offering from Derek Cianfrance represents a distinct change of pace for a director whose previous films (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) have been embedded very much in the contemporary world.

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Having survived World War I physically, if not psychologically, intact, Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on the remote (fictional) island of Janus Rock, situated somewhere off the coast of Western Australia. Although revelling in the solitude, Tom finds himself drawn to Isabel Graysmark (Vikander), a young woman he meets on the mainland prior to taking up his appointment. The two communicate via correspondence and, sure enough, it isn’t long before they marry, Isabel joins Tom on the island and a montage of their blissful life together ensues; frolicking on the beach, fucking and moustache trimming just some of the fun they share. However, when their efforts to have children end in disaster, Isabel seems on the verge of a breakdown until, low and behold, their prayers are answered when a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a squawking baby on board. They keep the baby (which they name Lucy) and everything is perfect again, for a while at least. Enter Hannah Roennfeldt (Weisz) – a woman mourning the loss of her husband and child at sea – and things become much more complicated.

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It is the 2012 book of the same name by ML Stedman on which the film is based that is actually the biggest problem with the film because the story is, quite frankly, pretty preposterous. The actions of the characters are difficult to accept and, despite the best efforts of Cianfrance and a quality cast, which includes Rachel Weisz and the likes of local legends in Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown and Garry McDonald, it is difficult to swallow what transpires. Described, fairly accurately in fact, by more than one person as a cross between Nicholas Sparks and Shakespeare, the disappointment lies in the fact that it is much more the former. It is hard to reconcile the fact that an Irishman and a Swede were cast as these two Australian characters, but no doubt the decision is about box office rather than any lack of faith in local talent. As it is, Thompson probably has the best role in the film as the jocular boatie who transports people and supplies between Janus Rock and the mainland. Sure, the character is really just Thompson playing Thompson, but at least he brings some levity to proceedings in a world where everybody else seems so angry.

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It would be disingenuous to suggest that The Light Between Oceans is terrible, but it is most certainly a sentimental, overwrought, emotionally extravagant melodrama that many will find insufferable. Shot in Tasmania and New Zealand – perhaps Western Australia just didn’t look enough like Western Australia – the landscape is beautiful and whilst the cinematography from Adam Arkapaw romanticises the isolation of the island, the incessant lens flairs became a running joke and, subsequently, a distraction. The appearance of the adult Lucy in the final moments of the film serves as a reminder of what the film might have been had Cianfrance (who also wrote the screenplay) opted for a different approach to the story. Whilst Fassbender and Vikander are fine in the leads, the usually reliable Weisz delivers a one-note performance as Hannah that prevents you from having much sympathy at all for the tragedy she has endured. Romantics will no doubt love it, but The Light Between Oceans is unlikely to appeal to anybody who demands logic and common sense in their period dramas.