Film review – Happy End (Michael Haneke, 2017)

Michael Haneke’s latest picture is a twisted look into the wealthiest ways of living in the north of France, as seen through the eyes of a dysfunctional family hell-bent on self-destruction. A mixture of humour and satire litters the script to create a solid effort that, despite its best efforts, fails to deliver the same impact as the most dedicated of Haneke fans would hope for.

The film opens with a slow series of voyeuristic shots through the camera phone of 13-year-old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin), transmitting through a social media platform that looks similar to Snapchat. We see her murder her pet hamster and then, in the final shot, we see her unconscious mother, whilst an overlay of text chat show young Eve admitting she has poisoned her.

In the next shot we see the CCTV footage of a construction site where a huge disaster occurs, critically injuring one of the employees. It is in the aftermath of these two opening gambits that the rest of the film hangs its developing intertwining plots.

We later find out that this workplace accident was due to negligence at the hands of site supervisor and alcoholic Pierre Laurent (Franz Rogowski), whilst firm owner Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) is left to pick up the pieces and deal with an impending lawsuit. Eve is now living with this family in a large mansion in Calais, along with depressed grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

The ironically-titled Happy End is a good film, but not a great one. The cast is substantial and the dialogue is sharp, but somehow the plot doesn’t feel like it takes us on a journey with enough of the characters. It’s more of a satirical social commentary piece rather than a meaty piece of fiction, with too many of the characters used as fodder for the main characters.

Trintignant and Huppert reunite here with Haneke after the successes of 2012’s Amour, a film that won the Best Picture Academy Award and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It is clear why Haneke was so keen to work with them both again. They don’t share much screen time together, but with the former’s desire to end his life and the latter desperate to keep the dysfunctional family together and presentable, there is enough to go on to maintain the interest. With the addition of the young Harduin to the cast, this triangle of strength is enough to carry the film.

It could be argued that Toby Jones’s inclusion is on the cynical side. His role is very minor, though his prominence in the advertising campaign will undoubtedly have helped ticket sales in the UK, a place where his acting credentials need no introduction – least of all in the arthouse cinemas in which Happy End will play. If this is true, I don’t mind. It’s just smart advertising and a good way to carve out a niche in the market away from the impending Star Wars: The Last Jedi Release next week. For those of us who go to see more than the most mainstream of films, options and variety are required.

It feels unlikely that Happy End will repeat the award season successes enjoyed by many of his previous efforts, but it’s not without merit.

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Film review – レッドタートル ある島の物語 / The Red Turtle (Michael Dudok de Wit, 2017)

The Red Turtle may find it hard to be discovered by a dedicated mainstream market. This is almost inevitable for a feature-length traditionally-animated film that involves no spoken words at all, with a simple but thought-provoking story line. Its limited release reflects a genuine assessment of the expected appeal to the wider market. 

This is a shame because the film is a genuine triumph.

The film opens with a man being thrown around helplessly in an unnamed ocean. Struggling to fight the waves, he falls unconscious, later waking up on an uninhabited island. 

The nameless man never speaks, aside from the occasional “Hey!”, whilst his heritage is also somewhat ambiguous. Shipwrecked on an island and left to fend for himself, he busies himself with building a raft to escape and reunite himself with the outside world. However, a large red turtle prevents him from escaping, attacking the raft every time he attempts to leave. When it unexpectedly washes up on shore, he faces a conundrum – free it or exact revenge. 

If you have any fears about The Red Turtle maintaining your attention, you needn’t. It’s one of the most engrossing films I’ve seen this year.

The beauty of the film comes in its simplicity. With no character back stories, no names, no requirement to set the scene beyond the initial opening gambit, we’re left to ponder its surprisingly inspirational content.

Around halfway through the film, the man’s decision to flip the turtle on its back is doubtlessly divisive. Left without much else to focus on, my mind inevitably ended up wondering what I would do in the same situation. The turtle dies, which the man immediately regrets and feels great sorrow for. I felt equally guilty for feeling like he wasn’t completely in the wrong. A senseless murder of an innocent animal, but one that felt partly justified as revenge.

It’s a simple act that drives the more fantastical second half of the film. The lifeless body of the turtle disappears and is replaced with a young, beautiful woman, whom the man subsequently falls in love with.

Clearly, this is a film that is steeped in the metaphorical, encouraging the viewer to think about the deeper meaning of what they are seeing – and giving them the space to do so.
The turtle is a visual representation of man’s relationship to nature. Even as the stranded man fights against the tides and tries to leave the island, the turtle forces him back onto the island, on which he has everything he could possibly need to simply continue to survive. The turtle evenrtually provides him with companionship and, later, a child, this providing him with a fulfilling life too. 

It is a tale in part about man’s short-sightedness towards a nature that gives him everything, highlighting the knee jerk reaction to things he doesn’t understand. It is about the cycle of human life, about the destructive nature of humanity and about the forgiving nature of the surrounding environment – a nature that is forced to adapt to humanity’s shortcomings and still provide a platform for all life – human or otherwise – to continue.

For anyone with a passing interest in the future of the planet, beautiful animation or engrossing stories, this is a must-see.

Film review – My Life as a Courgette (Claude Barras, 2017)

My Life as a Courgette is a stop-motion animated film directed by first-time feature director Claude Barras. Short in length but big in heart, it has a way of drawing the viewer in and delivering a weighty emotional drama, despite its saccharine veneer.

It tells the story of the titular Courgette, a boy who is forced into an orphanage at the age of nine. He has come from a lonely and unhappy background but quickly learns to adapt and find his path with the six other children he lives with, notably the over-confident Simon and new girl Camille, whom he takes an immediate liking to.

This shot is one of the most memorable lingering shots of the film

The narrative is carried out from the perspective of the children, which gives rise to some elements of humour whilst giving the situation a melancholic edge. These are children all going through the same issue, as one child puts it they’ve “ran out of people to love them”.

The animation is truly beautiful and endearing, with a unique character design coupled with an a seamless stop-motion animation style. It is simply a joy to watch.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more emotionally-involving story in cinemas right now. This is one that needs to be seen.

My Life as a Courgette is out in cinemas now. You can watch a free ten minute preview below.

Film review – Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)

If you’re a casual fan of the history of cinema, you may be forgiven for thinking that Stanley Kubrick has only released eight films. 

The reason for this misunderstanding? I blame the brilliant but consistently re-released boxset of films that features every feature he directed from Lolita onwards, along with a documentary on his career titled “A Life In Pictures”. It’s so prominent and features so many classic films that his early output is often forgotten.

The biggest casualty of this is Spartacus, the 1960 epic that starred Kirk Douglas. It seems obvious, but there’s a whole generation of film fans that are well aware of the film and the director but are surprised that Kubrick was at the helm.

It’s a shame that his early output is so criminally overlooked, but it’s also a problem that Masters of Cinema and Arrow have put a lot of effort into correcting. First came 1953’s Fear and Desire, a film steeped in rumours that Kubrick himself wanted to destroy all known copies of. It is far from his best work, but has an audience. It was bundled with three Kubrick-directed short films: Day of the Fight (1951), Flying Padre (1951) and The Seafarers (1953). These aren’t essential viewing for anyone other than the most ardent Kubrickian, but plot a path to his genius-level filmmaking that was revealed shortly after.

Arrow’s release of 1956’s The Killing is similarly detailed. The Sterling Hayden-starrer was a critical success on its release but commercially didn’t really make it out of the starting blocks, serving second fiddle to a now-hard-to-find film called Bandido! and eventually losing $130,000.

So where does Paths of Glory fit into this? It was Kubrick’s final film before his epic box office smash Spartacus in 1960, which was also critically praised and thus provided him much more leeway when it came to choosing his next project, which was Lolita.

Arguably, the reason he was offered Spartacus was in part due to his success with Paths of Glory. Indeed, the original director (Anthony Mann) was sacked after just one week of filming and it was this that led to Kubrick being hired, not least for the fact that Kirk Douglas was the star of both and his production company – Bryna Productions – was behind Spartacus and vicariously the hiring of a replacement director.

The short reason for Douglas’s affinity to Kubrick is quite simple – the film is absolutely brilliant. Douglas is allowed to explore a complicated character with no compromise to the artistic integrity, despite the fact that the film was banned in several countries for content deemed controversial at the time of release. It is a really powerful display of his acting ability.

Set entirely in French army bases during World War II, the basic premise of the film is that Colonel Dax (Douglas) is ordered by his superior General Mireau (George Macreary) to attack the “Anthill”, a well-defended German stronghold. Mireau’s reasoning behind his decision is entirely selfish as he has been offered a promotion for a successful attack on the Germans. Douglas attempts the manoeuvre despite knowing it is essentially a suicide mission for his men, but they all quickly realise it is doomed to failure and they retreat. They are subsequently accused of cowardice and three men are selected for trial and face the death penalty, with only their own accounts and Dax’s legal background to save them.

The film was banned by several countries on its original release, deemed as anti-military. Subsequently, cinema-goers in France, Germany, Switzerland and Spain were unable to see it until decades after its release. It is understandable, given the portrayal of the hierarchy and corrupt decision making. The integrity of the film is also maintained with a wholly miserable ending to the film, an early sign that Kubrick wasn’t one to conform to normalities.

Watching it now, it feels way ahead of its time. There is no happy ending. The characters are fully formed and Kubrick is confident enough to let the brilliant Kirk Douglas engulf the entire frame with close-ups and lingering shots.

The action sequences as the troops push over the top into no man’s land are engrossing and brutal, giving a reality to their predicament. Without getting this right, the whole picture would have fallen flat.

This is absolutely a film that needs to be watched and shouldn’t be seen as just a point of interest for die-hard Kubrick aficionados. If you can find a copy and want to see beyond The Chosen Eight, you really need to invest.

Film review – I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016)

Of the many great films released in 2016, few left their mark on my conscience quite as much as Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake”. I held off from reviewing it at the time, but decided to revisit it recently for a second time to make an honest attempt at reviewing it.

The film follows Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old joiner on the living in Newcastle. He finds himself out of work after an suffering a heart attack has forced him to take a break, with his doctor telling him he cannot return for fear of another attack. He is navigating Britain’s complex benefits system in search of Employment and Support Allowance, for which he needs a Work Capability Assessment (undertaken by government workers and is completely separate from his own doctor’s assessment). Whilst at the job centre, he notices single-mother-of-two Daisy (Hayley Squires) having an argument in the job centre. They soon strike up an unlikely friendship as they continue to come up against brick walls that force them to make increasingly tough decisions.

I, Daniel Blake is social commentary at its absolute best

Typical of Loach’s output, many of the actors involved in the film are amateurs. This might give the film a rough-around-the-edges quality but equally provides a realism as the story develops. Knowing this prior to watching the film allowed me to give it some leeway on the performances.

The plot developments as the two characters get embroiled in complication after complication are akin to a horror film. Our lead character is behind on his bills and struggles to use computers, meaning he can’t navigate the government websites to retrieve the correct forms to fill in to access the benefits he’s entitled to. It’s overwhelmingly frustrating and will be familiar to anyone who has ever found themselves in a similar situation.

Squires’s performance is absolutely striking. The most harrowing memory of the film for most viewers will inevitably be a highly memorable scene at the local food bank. Rightly so – it’s a performance something taken to an entirely different level by her delivery. It’s unsettling, which is obviously its intention. She’s a great find in her debut role and will undoubtedly go on to even greater roles.

But the film isn’t about the actors, or about delivery of certain lines. It is solely a commentary on the broken support systems provided for the many 1000s of people in Britain who they should be helping. There are a small few people who endeavour to exploit a system, but in doing so they provide an excuse for those in charge to make the processes overly complicated for everyone.

Far more disturbing than this, the small few that do successfully exploit the system are handing media outlets the ammunition to criticise the rest, tarring them all with the same brush. Shamefully, most of Britain believe what is written in the media and assume the worst of people who are in dire need of assistance.

For all its shortcomings, this film shines a light on some of the most pressing issues facing a country that is supposed to be in a fantastic state. Whether you like it or not, the message is one that simply can’t be ignored.

Film review – Le Fille Inconnue / The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2016)

It may have an interesting premise, but a dislikeable lead and a plot that lacks the sort of understated excitement that has won the Dardenne Brothers two Palme d’Or awards make The Unknown Girl a difficult watch.

Adèle Haenel stars as Dr Jenny Davin, a promising young doctor excelling at her job as a GP. However, one night she chooses to ignore a call at her practice’s door, assuming it is a late caller with some minor ailment. However, when she later finds out that it was a young girl in desperate need of help who shortly after was seemingly murdered, she becomes obsessed with finding out the truth behind the incident to atone for her mistake.

Adèle Haenel


I desperately wanted to like this film. I like the director duo and have been impressed by their previous output, but there was so little to work with on this one. 

Haenel fails to deliver any depth to a role that is a doozy for someone wanting to prove themselves to the world. Perhaps the fact she has already done this with an extraordinary body of work is one of the reasons she seems to lack passion in her delivery.

As a follow-up to the Oscar-nominated ‘Two Days, One Night‘, this can only be seen as a disappointment for the Dardenne Brothers.

Film review – Frantz (François Ozon, 2016)

Set primarily in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, François Ozon’s latest film is an emotional story portrayed almost entirely in black and white. It revolves around Anna (Paula Beer), a woman who is living with the parents of her lost lover and supporting each other in their collective grief. That man is the titular Frantz (Anton von Lucke), who we learn has lost his life in battle during the war. When a Frenchman by the name of Adrien (Pierre Niney) shows up at Frantz’s grave to give his respects, he tells them of his close friendship to their mutually lost friend.

Adrien (Niney) and Anna (Beer)

Ozon is something of a prolific filmmaker on almost the same level as Woody Allen. Since his celebrated debut feature length film Sitcom in 1998, he has written and directed sixteen films, amongst them the critically acclaimed Swimming Pool and the highly successful Potiche. Yet Frantz is, by all accounts, a departure in style for him and sees him in relatively unfamiliar territory with a historical war drama.

It is based on the play ‘L’homme que j’ai tué’ by Maurice Rostand. Before writing his script, Ozon was unaware that the play had already been adapted by legendary filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch as the film Broken Lullaby in 1931, though when he watched the film he realised that it was a completely different treatment to the direction he wanted to go with Frantz. He wanted to give the focus of the film to Anna, who was on the losing side of the war, providing more empathy to her as the central character.

There is an interesting chemistry between Beer and Niney, both of whom are playing extremely complex characters. They share this individual that has had a huge affect on their respective lives and begin to grow closer. Providing convincing characterisations of such  conflicting emotions is a challenge both rise to and it is this that elevates the film above being a wartime drama.

It was amazing to learn that this was Beer’s first performance acting as a French-language character. Many successful actresses couldn’t achieve what she has here in their first language let alone their second one. She revealed in a post-screening discussion that she had to learn and develop the script twice. Initially she developed the emotional responses to the words in her native German, before relearning the entire segments in French to ensure her delivery wasn’t lacklustre.

This is a truly moving film that gives an interesting point of view to the fallout from war that hasn’t often been explored before. Superb delivery from the two complex central characters means this comes highly recommended.