Film review – Insyriated (Philippe van Leeuw, 2017)

Philippe Van Leeuw May have taken a cheap shot with the title of this film, but the shallowness starts and ends there. It’s an imperfect but nonetheless powerful film that takes a gripping story and frames it within the resonatingly-threatening streets of the modern-day war-torn Syrian capital Damascus.

Inspired by a real anecdotal stories of people living in Damascus, the action takes place entirely within the confines of a small flat over a 24-hour period. Inside the flat lives the matriarchal Oum Yazan (Hiyam Abbass), a mother trying to keep her family together, alive and safe through the ongoing battles. Lodger Halima (Diamand Bou Abboud) is planning to escape from Damascus with her husband Samir (Moustapha Al Kar)) and newborn baby.

The story starts in earnest when housemaid Delhani (Juliette Navis) witnesses a sniper shooting Samir, who collapses in plain sight of one of the windows. Confiding in Oum Yazan, the pair decide to keep the shooting a secret to help maintain the peace inside the besieged flat.

It’s a powerful story no doubt, but its strengths are heightened by some excellent performances by the three central female characters. It is essentially a cross-analysis of how far people go to maintain their own lives and the lives of those they love.

Of the three central roles, none are better delivered than the performance given by the relatively unknown Diamand Bou Abboud. It is certainly the most substantial of the roles: they are relatively outcasts in the group, she has a newborn baby and wants to protect it, but is new to motherhood. It is one late scene when there are two intruders in the house that serves as one of the most memorable and horrific of the year, proving that what we don’t see on screen can be far more powerful that what we do see. It is a heartbreaking and sickening moment in the woman’s life and challenges the viewer to decide what they’d do in her shoes or in those of her cohabiters. Abboud really proves her acting mettle here.

There is little in the way of musical accompaniment in the film, and the cinematography is tough to view critically due to the filming style and confined location. These facts don’t detract from the overall impact, which is more about telling a powerful story than wowing the audience with an elaborate production. As Van Leeuw states in his production notes for the film, “there are no tricks, no special effects, it is just a plain look at the drama of the situation.” [1]

Historically, Arabic-language films have limited appeal at the global box office. True, there have been a number of success stories in recent years (notably Naji Abu Nowar’s 2014 drama ‘Theeb’, which took $774,556 globally [2][3]), but it doesn’t appear as though Insyriated has bucked the trend. Its inevitably sluggish performance at the UK box office (£10,706 from 19 arthouse theatres [4]) means that the film will have to perform well on home streaming platforms in order to recoup the money. Fortunately it is available now through Curzon On Demand and iTunes for the same price as a cheap cinema ticket, along with the standard DVD releases.

It’s not an outstandingly brilliant film, but it is in turns moving, horrific, heartbreaking, shocking and thought-provoking. A solid achievement by the Belgian director and the strong cast. It deserves an audience and will hopefully get that over the coming months.

Notes:

[1] https://curzonblob.blob.core.windows.net/media/6010/insyriated-production-notes.pdf

[2] http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=theeb.htm

[3] http://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Theeb/United-Kingdom#tab=summary

[4] http://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Insyriated-(Lebanon)#tab=summary

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Film review – Thelma (Joachim Trier, 2017)

Supernatural horror ‘Thelma’ begins with an unforgettable opening scene. A girl called Thelma, no more than 7 years old, is hunting with her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen). The man allows her to walk ahead of him, entranced by the sight of a deer and the prospect of its impending doom. Trond instead points the gun at his daughter’s head, with a expressive face that reads as both fear and temptation.

It’s an arresting opening shot that is hard feel anything but intrigue for. Why was a man willing to kill his own daughter? What sort of emotional termoil are they both experiencing? It’s brilliant filmmaking.

It is followed up with a long shot of a pedestrianised square. The viewer is essentially challenged to a game of ‘Guess Who The Main Character Is’. Eventually, the slow pan begins, finally focusing on Eili Harboe, who portrays the titular Thelma, some ten years after the opening scene.

Director Joachim Trier, in these opening shots, is warning us what he is about to do with his film – drawing us in slowly and leaving us guessing until he, by design, reveals what we need to know, with maximum impact.

The square, we learn, is at the University of Oslo, where Thelma has just begun her studies. A deeply-religious girl who refrains from drinking, she struggles to settle in and make friends. However, when she has a seizure in the middle of the study area of a library, she is helped by a girl called Anja (Kaya Wilkins).

Becoming increasingly friendly with Anja, Thelma begins to express herself more, eventually becoming physically attracted to her. However, her journey of self exploration doesn’t stop at her growing lustful emotions for Anja and she begins to worry about the causes of her seizures and the dark secrets that lie behind them.

What Trier has achieved with this story is nothing short of remarkable.

It’s a visual wonder, full of memorable set-pieces that jump out of the screen and leave a lasting memory. A scene at the opera oozes with tension as Anja and Thelma search for each other’s hands in the safety of a dark public space. With the accompanying concerto raising the pace and increasing filling the auditorium with volumous classical music, Thelma begins to feel another seizure engulfing her mind. It’s a stressful thing to watch, and captures the threat she feels perfectly.

Harboe is the perfect casting for the title role. She has a naturally distant expression on her face that gives nothing away. It borders on cold, making her eventual emotional expressions feel genuinely surprising. When she finally kisses Anja, you can feel her blushing. She knows it goes against everything she has learned as a child and is scared and excited about her new discovery.

The flashbacks serve as a means to reveal to truth behind her story, what the seizures mean and the shocking reason her father was willing to murder her as a child. The make-up department has done a fantastic job of making these flashbacks believable, without trying too hard to make them look like the parents are caked in make-up – too often a failing of bigger-budget releases.

The culmination of the film hits like a crescendo, and Trier plays the audience perfectly with a balanced build up to the final pay-off.

This genuinely is an excellent film and one that should do well outside its home country. It has also been submitted as Norway’s nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards, 11 years after Trier’s first feature film achieved the same accolade. Here’s hoping it goes one step further and makes the shortlist – it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and this will help ensure this happens.

Film review – Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002)

There is a scene two hours into Die Another Day. It takes a while to get to but it feels like the worthwhile pay off to the most patient of viewers. As Bond takes off a virtual reality headset we discover that the whole sexual fantasy had been in fact part of a simulation. Simple, effective, genuinely funny. That the Bond at the centre of the scene isn’t character James but actress Samantha portraying Miss Moneypenny is simply a stark and damning assessment of arguably the worst film in the franchise’s history.

Die Another Day, across the board, leaves a lot to be desired. The story feels messy and the dialogue makes it drag. Pierce Brosnan was never convincing as a womaniser, not in the charming way Sean Connery was that allowed the audience to both believe him and forgive him. It is a script laden with quips, come-ons and innuendo and I was left urging the women to slap him and ground the whole thing in some semblance of reality.

The technology is ridiculous even by Bond’s standards, with the inclusion of invisible Aston Martin the real calamity that lets the whole film down. The rhythm of the film makes this very much the centrepiece, utilised in the critical scenes right at the climax of the film in a pointless car chase and subsequent rescue mission. The wheels are revealed to have traction treads in them very late in the day, which would probably have saved the entire chase and… well the whole scene is very easy to get nitpicky about to be honest. I’m sure you’ll have as much fun as I did yelling at the screen.

The name’s Bad Guy. Unconvincing Bad Guy. – Image by © MGM/Corbis

The CGI just makes them all worse, though it reaches a trough when we see the destruction weapon called Icarus. This is clearly a matter of sheer terror that could cause the absolute destruction of entire countries, being that it focuses light from the sun and turns it into a giant flaming beam of light that rips through everything in its path. Director Lee Tamahori and the team at Eon Productions had 25 years to digest how George Lucas achieved this remarkable visual spectacle on a shoestring budget in 1977 for Star Wars, but yet they still managed to fail miserably in ripping it off here. You may also question why the icebergs don’t completely melt immediately when touched by the rays, or why the flaming beams stop instead of ripping through to the centre of the earth, or why nothing seems to be on fire. But hey, this is Bond. Am I right?

This also has the very worst Bond theme song of be lot, as well as the worst overall soundtrack that clumsily places modern tracks into scenes to miserable effect. Bond’s on his way to London? Throw in ‘London’s Calling’ by The Clash. That’ll do. It’s hard to escape Madonna’s terrible song too, running at the start and end of the film, sounding nothing like a Bond track, trying and failing to do something different with the well-trodden rules. In case you had managed to move on from it, Madonna pops up early in the film as a fencing teacher. She acts well but it’s a terrible scene that needlessly shows Bond struggling to keep up with someone to prove a point that he has a bit of rivalry with the film’s primary antagonist.

It is rarely so obvious that James Bond is punching above his weight. – Image by © MGM/Corbis

The whole Gustav Graves gene swap with Zao is very problematic for me. It is entirely pointless and seems superfluous to the script, borrowing heavily from Face/Off some five years after it had hit cinemas and proved that the follow-through doesn’t match the idea. Bond is a leading MI5 expert and the fact he didn’t have any suspicions at all is simply because the filmmakers made no attempt to leave any breadcrumbs for him nor the audience, making the Act 3 reveal a little hollow and a bit of a cheat. Could Graves perhaps have utilised some of the martial arts that had Bond struggling in an earlier fight sequence, given that he was actually Zao and an expert in martial arts. Instead he was portrayed as an expert in fencing, which is doable for sure but makes me begin to question the timeline for the switch.

Remarkably, there was a planned spin-off with Halle Berry reprising her role as Jinx, though this was canned following the lukewarm response to this film. Allegedly many of the plot points were reused for Casino Royale, which history has proven to be somewhat of a saviour of the franchise and a well-loved instalment for die-hard Bond fans and general film lovers. It’s a shame because Halle Berry clearly suited the role and was one of the few shining lights in a very poor film. It’s something that we’ll sadly never see now, with the franchise back on its own two feet and with no need of a spin-off to help maintain public interest.

Brosnan is, for me, not the worst Bond to have hit the silver screen. He was, by the end of his tenure, a Bond for the wrong era. As the Bourne series was launched, what cinema-goers wanted was exactly what Daniel Craig provided – roughness, realism and believability. He has proven himself over a four-film series and that is something that Brosnan, eventually, failed to do.

Film review – 殯の森 / The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase, 2007)

 

Naomi Kawase’s fourth full-length feature film came ten years after her debut ‘Suzaku’ won the Camera d’Or, the prize awarded to the best debut feature at the Cannes Film Festival. ‘The Mourning Forest’ was also the recipient of a prize at Cannes, winning the 2007 Grand Prix.

The contemplative film was inspired by director and writer Kawase’s childhood growing up with her grandmother, who suffered from senility. It follows the nurse Machiko (Machiko Ono), who starts a job at a home for elderly people suffering from dementia. The home is deep in a forest and allows a certain amount of freedom and tranquility away from distractions. The youthful Machiko forms a strong bond with and elderly man named Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), who has a tendency to run away as soon as he’s given the opportunity. Shigeki is a widower whose wife has been dead for 33 years, a significant milestone in the Buddha mourning period as the end of the liminal period, traditionally celebrated with a ceremony. The job is perfect for Machiko, also in mourning for the death of her child.

On Shigeki’s birthday, Machiko takes him on a car ride into the countryside. But when their car breaks down Machiko goes in search of help, only to find when she returns to the car Shigeki has disappeared into the nearby forest. She ventures in to find him and eventually the pair go on a cathartic journey of mourning and bonding as they journey deeper into the depths of the forest.

“I wanted to show as well that you could have a relationship across generations, that was very important. I didn’t want there to be any taboos between generations,” said Kawase in her statement at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. “It was important to me to show that despite their differences that you can have this relationship and you can have some sort of support in life.”

That is exactly what this film shows. It is an exploration of the relationship between two people at very different stages of their lives, sharing the same experience but at different stages of mourning, providing support for one another. Of course, Machiko is much more aware of what she is providing than Shigeki, but the results are very much the same.

Shigeki Uda was 60-years-old when the film was made, but he played a man of 70 years. To prepare for the role as someone who has dementia, he went to extreme measures to ensure he had an accurate portrayal. “I spent three months in a home for the elderly, a home that was used as a model for the film,” he said at the Cannes Film Festival press conference. “I spent three months with people who were senile. I ate with them, I bathed with them, I lived with them, and I felt with them.” The achievement is astounding, giving a real sense of the condition. There are moments where he has a blank look on his face, when asked a direct question, that will feel familiar to anyone who knows someone with dementia. He can still feel that he must provide an answer but he is unsure exactly what is being asked of him, so he pretends he understands and offers a response anyway. That can’t just be guessed at and Uda is showing a real understanding of his character when he does this.

The film is a contemplative, spacious film. The scant use of dialogue allows the viewer to take in the beautiful scenery captured by cinematographer Hideyo Nakano. This is heightened by a subtle score from Masamichi Shigeno, which never feels overbearing, mixing well with the organic sounds of the forest. The mix creatures something that feels extremely naturalistic.

Kawase created a sincerely wonderful film with ‘The Mourning Forest‘, which shines a light on dementia. It underlines the importance for those interacting with anyone with the condition to know that they are still human, with emotions, feelings and a personality. It exhibits the sort of understanding that can only be achieved by someone who has lived with someone with the condition. With two first-class performances from the lead actors, the results are magnificent.

 

Halloween Quiz – Just for fun (2017 edition) – ANSWERS

Here are the answers to the Halloween horror quiz I published yesterday. Hope you enjoyed it!

1. Dustin, Will, Mike, Lucas and Eleven are the lead characters in which supernatural horror TV series?
– Stranger Things

2. Richard Bachman was a pseudonym of which famous horror fiction writer?
– Stephen King

3. Which two actors portrayed Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in the TV series The X-Files? (1/2 point each)
– David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson

4. Bill Skarsgard and Tim Curry are both actors associated with which horror film character?
– Pennywise the Clown

5. Army of Darkness is the third instalment in which horror film franchise?
– Evil Dead

6. What is the nickname given to the killer in Scream, prior to finding out his or her true identity?
– Ghostface

7. The 2017 remake of ‘It’ is now officially the highest-grossing supernatural horror film of all time. Which 1999 film did it displace from the top of the list?
– The Sixth Sense

8. Which Hungarian actor is credited with originating the role of Count Dracula in the 1931 film Dracula?
– Bela Lugosi

9. Which dark British comedy series will return this Christmas for three episodes, allowing fans to glimpse Royston Vasey for the first time in fifteen years?
– The League of Gentlemen

10. Which TV event was watched by the must viewers in the US – the first episode of Lost Season 1, or the last episode of Lost Season 6?
– The first episode of Season 1 received 18.65m viewers, whereas the Season 6 finale received just 13.57m viewers.

INITIALS

1. Alfred Hitchcock
2. John Landis
3. Wes Craven
4. Sam Raimi
5. Clive Barker
6. Ivan Reitman
7. George A Romero
8. Ridley Scott
9. Guillermo Del Torro
10. Steven Spielberg

POSTERS

1. It
2. What Lies Beneath
3. Psycho
4. The Omen
5. Poltergeist
6. The Fog
7. Get Out
8. Frankenstein
9. The Amityville Horror
10. Dial M for Murder

Halloween Quiz – Just for fun (2017 edition)

QUIZ QUESTIONS

1. Dustin, Will, Mike, Lucas and Eleven are the lead characters in which supernatural horror TV series?

2. Richard Bachman was a pseudonym of which famous horror fiction writer?

3. Which two actors portrayed Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in the TV series The X-Files? (1/2 point each)

4. Bill Skarsgard and Tim Curry are both actors associated with which horror film character?

5. Army of Darkness is the third instalment in which horror film franchise?

6. What is the nickname given to the killer in Scream, prior to finding out his or her true identity?

7. The 2017 remake of ‘It’ is now officially the highest-grossing supernatural horror film of all time. Which 1999 film did it displace from the top of the list?

8. Which Hungarian actor is credited with originating the role of Count Dracula in the 1931 film Dracula?

9. Which dark British comedy series will return this Christmas for three episodes, allowing fans to glimpse Royston Vasey for the first time in fifteen years?

10. Which TV event was watched by the must viewers in the US – the first episode of Lost Season 1, or the last episode of Lost Season 6?

I’ll publish the answers on 31st!

UPDATE – ANSWERS HERE

If you need more, check out last year’s quiz!