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Entries in International Film (4)

Saturday
Jul082017

FIVE FAVOURITES FROM MELBOURNE'S FESTIVAL OF FACTUAL FILM

MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL: Festival Director Lyndon Stone and his programming team have collated a catalogue of factual films that have wowed audiences at the planet’s most prestigious 2017 documentary showcases. SCREEN-SPACE got a peek at this year’s line-up and offers our opinion of five films that deserve attention, discussion and sold-out auditoriums. Each is a unique vision, certain to engage, infuriate, inspire and enlighten, as all good documentaries should…

MISS KIET’S CHILDREN (Dirs. Peter Lataster, Petra Lataster-Czish; The Netherlands, 115 mins; pictured, above)
A Dutch school marm exhibits a warrior’s spirit, a saint’s heart and...well, a great teacher's patience in this understated yet soaring study of what the term ‘assimilation’ means to a classroom in Holland. Refugee children, each displaying resilience and depth of character beyond their years, are captured with an extraordinary intimacy by the lens of husband/wife filmmakers Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czish. The politics of age and gender are glimpsed in the kids’ behaviour; most profoundly, the impact of the conflict they have fled is slowly expos ed by the filmmaker’s sublime technique. When awkward pre-teen Jorg reveals why he might be less studious than is expected of him, have the tissues ready.
Rating: 4/5
MDFF Screening: July 13 @ 6.30pm.

PLAY YOUR GENDER (Dir: Stephanie Clattenburg; U.S.A.; 80 mins.)
While the gender divide within the American film industry has made headlines of late, little mention has been made of the fact that only 5% of the producers working the panels in the music industry are women, or that only 20% of published songs are by women lyricists. Canadian singer-songwriter Kinnie Starr and first-time director Stephanie Clattenberg pair up to pile revelation upon revelation in this blood-boiling expose of the music sector’s traditional gender bias and ‘glass ceiling’ mindset. That such a film needs to exist in this day and age is outrage enough; that it runs rich with passionate, talented, intelligent woman who have seen their careers hindered by sexism and misogyny demands action. Features such groundbreaking artists as ‘Hole’ bassist Melissa Auf der Maur and drummer Patty Schemel; Sara Quin of ‘Tegan and Sara’; and, ‘The Stolen Minks’ frontwoman Stephanie Johns.
Rating: 4/5
MDFF Screening: July 9 @ 1.45pm.

THE ROAD MOVIE (Dir: Dmitrii Kalishnikov; Belarus; 67mins)
The dashcam phenomena has swept Russia and its territories; insurance scams, police misbehaviour and road rage incidents has led to almost every car being fitted with a windscreen lens. So director Dmitrii Kalishnikov had a lot of footage to work with when he conceptualised a vision of modern Russian life as captured by the population itself. Of course, he indulges in the extraordinary – truck crashes, speedsters on snowy roads, cows being hit (they walk away, incredibly) and the ‘comet footage’ that went viral. But The Road Movie is at its most compelling when it focuses on the voices of the unseen within the vehicle. Waves of emotion emerge in an instant; moments of terror, exhilaration, hilarity, even first love unite in a flowing cinematic essay. In the hands of a skilled filmmaker, Russia’s favourite dashboard gadget has delivered a forceful social experience.
Rating: 4.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 9 @ 9.30pm.

ELLA BRENNAN: COMMANDING THE TABLE (Dir: Leslie Iwerks; U.S.A.; 96 mins.)
She is La grande dame of the American restaurant landscape, the matriarch of a New Orleans culinary clan that has shaped the nation’s cuisine for a century. Ella Brennan makes for a mighty cinematic figure, her iron-willed charisma ideally suited for Leslie Iwerks’ boisterous celebration of spirit, showmanship and determination. Occasionally it teeters on hagiography; viewers aren’t left wondering what a wonderful time is to be had at Brennan’s legendary Big Easy establishment, Commander’s Palace. It’s a minor complaint; one can’t begrudge the party atmosphere Commanding The Table captures and the extraordinary legacy Ella and her clan have forged.
Rating: 3.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 12 @ 6.00pm.  

DOGS OF DEMOCRACY (Dir. Mary Zournazi; Australia/Greece; 58 mins.)
They have become the spiritual symbol of modern Athens, guardians of the streets who exist with dignity intact and the acceptance of the population. First-time director Mary Zournazi captures the stray dogs of the Greek capital with a deeply respectful and compassionate lens, acknowledging the hope they represent to a people who themselves are often portrayed as the ‘stray dogs of the EU’. Most affectionately, Zournazi relates the legend of Loukanikos, a magnificent beast who would fearlessly lead those protesting the government’s austerity measures against riot squad heavy-handedness.  
Rating: 3.5/5
MDFF Screening: July 16 @ 9.30am.

(SCREEN-SPACE Managing Editor Simon Foster is a judge at the 2017 MDFF and will be a guest of the festival)  

The 2017 MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL screens from July 9-16. Session, venue and ticketing information can be found at the events official website.

Sunday
Jan082017

THE WAVE (BOLGEN)

Stars: Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, Edith Haagenrud-Sande, Fridtjov Såheim, Laila Goody, Artheur Berning, Herman Bernhoft, Eili Harboe and Silje Breivik.
Writers: John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg.
Director: Roar Uthaug.

Rating: 3.5/5

International cinema indulges in some old-school Hollywood B-movie thrills with the Norwegian disaster-pic, The Wave. Set against the majestic, UNESCO-protected Geirangerfjord in the Sunnmøre district, director Roar Uthaug slow burns a melodramatic set-up before delivering a spectacular water-wall that more than earns its titular status; the few minutes of screen time afforded the flawlessly realised wave prove every bit as terrifying as the current high-water marks in cinematic tidal surges, seen in J.A. Bayonas’ The Impossible and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter.

Unlike those films, Uthaug (currently preparing the Tomb Raider reboot with Alicia Vikander) and writers John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg don’t draw upon the recent past, instead speculating what may lie ahead for Norway’s south-west region. The steep inclines of Åkerneset Mountain are eroding and pose a real-life threat to the villages of Geiranger and Hellesylt; should the sheer cliff face peel away and plunge into the fjord, a tsunami would all but consume the foreshores. The ten-minute warning period in which the population must evacuate is depicted with chilling realism.

The vast scale of the impending cataclysm is provided a personal perspective in the form of geologist and family man Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) and children, teenage son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and blonde moppet Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande). Kristian is farewelling his role at the earthquake monitoring station; having cut cake with his co-workers, he is all but aboard the Stavanger Ferry and bound for a new, non-fjord life only for his scientific instinct kicks in.

Much of the film’s first half is Eco-Disaster Epic 101. The stern boss, Arvid (Fridtjov Såheim) takes a lot of convincing that the warning signs he has been trained to spot are any warning at all; the family is separated by coincidence; support players pop in and out, uttering just enough dialogue so that we recognise their faces when their inevitable fates are played out. Kristian is a new millennium, ‘every man’ hero; the script deftly defines him as a self-deprecating 40 year-old who doesn’t know what a plumbers wrench is. Past generations would have demanded the casting of square-jawed types, like Paul Newman (see: James Goldstone’s 1980 volcano-themed When Time Ran Out…) or Sylvester Stallone (see: Rob Cohen’s 1996 NYC Tunnel collapse drama, Daylight).

But Uthaug explores a deeper, stronger degree of human drama post-wave. It is to the production’s credit that the human toll of the tsunami is portrayed with as convincing realism as the wave itself; given the modern audience’s familiarity with such horrors, it would have been unwise not to. While searching for his wife and son, Kristian faces the unthinkable when he must walk a corpse-strewn bus; Idun is called upon to commit the unthinkable when a panicky survivor threatens to kill Sondre. The post-event landscape is also afforded a richer, nightmarishly cinematic quality, highlighting the surreal shift in reality such an occurrence leaves behind. The sequence in which Kristian slowly rows a fire-lit waterway littered with the dead reminds us that The Wave may be cut from B-movie cheesecloth, but a fresh, frank perspective is still capable of enlivening old cinematic tropes.

Saturday
May142016

THE STUDENT

Stars: Pyotr Skvortsov, Viktoriya Isakova, Yuliya Aug, Aleksandra Revenko, Nikolai Roshin, Svetlana Bragarnik and Aleksandr Gorchilin.
Writer: Kirill Serebrennikov; based upon the play Martyr by Marius von Mayenburg.
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov

Screening in Un Certain Regard at 69th Festival du Cannes; reviewed at the Salles Debussy.

Rating: 4/5

Fervent creationism faces off against wide-eyed Darwinism amidst the already volatile environment of high school life in Kirill Serebrennikov’s chilling psychological drama, The Student. The Russian auteur’s journey into the dark recesses of a fanatical mindset provides religious extremism with a truly terrifying façade – the unbridled and fearless arrogance of a disenfranchised teenage boy.

Serebrennikov (Yuri’s Day, 2008; Betrayal, 2012) offers up a compelling microcosm of the faith-vs-fact debate that has grown in intensity and ferocity around the world in recent decades. That he also bolsters his narrative with themes such as teenage sexuality, institutional bias and agenda, free speech and Oedipal issues proves both ambitious and intellectually engrossing. The melding of the director’s storytelling skill and playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s stageplay proves a match made in…well, it’s a good match.

The titular protagonist is Veniamin Yuzhin (the remarkable Pyotr Skvortsov), a lean, surly teenage boy living with his struggling single-mom (Yuliya Aug). In a pre-credit sequence, he seems to be remarking with typical teenage disengagement that he wants out of his school’s mandatory swimming lessons on “religious grounds.” Only after he is taunted by the bikini-clad mean girl Lidiya (Aleksandra Revenko) and ends up submerged beneath the bodies of his classmates do we learn of his spiritual will; the young man lives an existence devoted to the Bible scriptures, each memorised and instantly recalled, often with a cruel bitterness capable of levelling any counterpoint.

Soon, the school body is energised and enraged by Veniamin’s outbursts, none more so than biology teacher Elena (Viktoriya Isakova) who finds both her devotion to scientific study and faith-free middle-class life the target of the teenage evangelist’s wrath. In one ferocious sequence, Veniamin’s reacts to a carrot-and-condom sex education lesson by stripping bare and leaping from table to table, citing verse after verse of the scripture’s stance on love, sex and marriage. The passages cited begin to take on deeply anti-social views, be they homophobic, anti-semitic or just plain hypocritical; the foreboding sense that Veniamin’s crusade is about to turn irreparably destructive mounts with tangible tension.

With the school administration towing both the Kremlin’s line on religious education (in 2013, President Putin made the teaching of faith-based culture compulsory in secondary schools) and allowing for their own beliefs to affect their handling of Veniamin’s and Elena’s conflict, the scourge of religious extremism leads to an inevitably chaotic and tragic conclusion. The filmmaker leaves no doubt as to the role that unwavering and literal devotion to the written word of God plays in his narrative; Serebrennikov is not the type of director to create this vivid, scorched landscape of complex morality and biblical scale and then not take a stand.

As rich in allegorical intent as the very best of Russian cinema, The Student will ignite post-screening debate as it traverses the global festival circuit. Religious devotion at the expense of the very humanity it purports to enrich is endemic to every faith-based society; the existence of Kirill Serebrennikov’s frantic, frightening film will help to generate crucial discussion on the true nature of dogmatic fundamentalism the world over.

Wednesday
Jul222015

LILET NEVER HAPPENED

Stars: Sandy Talag, Johanna ter Steege, John Arcilla, Angeli Bayani, Dorothea Marabut-Yrastorza and Jermaine Patrick Ulgasan.
Writers: Jacco Groen, Roy Iglesias.
Director: Jacco Groen.

Screening as the Closing Night Film at the Reel Sydney Festival of World Cinema.

Watch the trailer here.

Rating: 3.5/5

Finding bittersweet humour and heartbreaking humanity amongst the horror of the child prostitution industry of Manila is key to the impact that Dutch filmmaker Jacco Groen achieves with his debut feature, Lilet Never Happened. As one of Europe’s most respected documentarians, he has developed a distinctly empathic eye which, along with a measured degree of craftsmanship, keeps the narrative buzzing with real-world intensity, with the occasional indulgence in wish fulfilment movie moments.

Crucial to the film’s emotional heights is Sandy Talag as Lilet, the hardened 12 year-old who has fled an abusive, exploitative domestic life to live amongst the runaways and orphans in the shadowy alleyways and abandoned lots of the Filipino capital. Talag is a soaring onscreen presence; a naturally gifted performer who can play tough and tender in the same frame, she is called upon to navigate scenes that would test actresses twice her age and experience.

Having dodged the lascivious advances of a corrupt official (Hilario Nayra) while incarcerated, a sceptical Lilet is befriended by social worker Claire (Johanna ter Steege). Despite the offer of education and shelter in Claire’s school for disadvantaged kids, Lilet seeks out her elder sister Tessie (Dorothea Marabut), a ‘club dancer’ who services high-paying customers under the watchful eye of ruthless house mama Madame Curing (Grace Constantino, delivering the film’s other deeply resonant performance). Despite her protestations, Lilet becomes embroiled in the skin trade, her youth and beauty fetching top dollar amongst the establishment’s high-paying predators.

Lilet occasionally glimpses a life that more appropriately suits her tender years. She shares a sweet bond with fellow street-kid Nonoy (Tim Mabalot) and exhibits an affectionate bond with her younger brother Dino (Jermaine Patrick Ulgasan), whose unflinching hope that his sister will provide the new life that both desperately need gives the film a vital warmth. But the indelible sequences are those in which Talag portrays Lilet’s spiralling acceptance of life as a sex worker; in one memorable sequence, the actress achingly conveys an existential crossroad, striding through the red-lit hallways of the club’s ‘back rooms’ contemplating the consequences of a life under Madame Curing’s soulless exploitation.

Adopting an innocent’s point-of-view of a harsh, often inhumane society puts Groen’s film in the company of such lauded films as Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988); it most strongly recalls Jeffery Brown’s Sold (2014), which examines the trafficking of a Nepalese girl to sex trade in India, and Keren Yedaya’s haunting 2004 Israeli drama, Or (My Treasure).

Lilet Never Happened falls just short of the classics of the genre; some rote characterisations and treacly sentiment occasionally derail the compelling, hard-edged realism at which Groen excels. Yet it remains a bracing, bold insight into the child sex criminal underworld, conveying a human spirit crushed into submission yet surging with the strength it takes to survive such abuse and injustice.

Lilet Never Happened will have its Australian Premiere at the Reel Sydney Festival of World Cinema. Ticket and venue information available at the event’s official website here.