Wednesday, July 20, 2016

DANCING IN THE DUST




Arguably the greatest writer/director working in cinema today, Asghar Farhadi started his career with this little seen gem. My first experience with a Farhadi film was back in 2009 when I saw his exceptional film “About Elly” at MIFF. However I was totally blown away by his following film, “A Separation”, which is a total masterpiece and the last film that I have given a perfect five stars to. Since then I have done everything I can to track down and see all of Farhadi's previous films and those he made after “A Separation”; all of them impressed. However his debut film had always alluded me, until just recently. Often considered Farhadi's “worst” film, I was determined to find out whether that meant that “Dancing in the Dust” was still a brilliant film but less polished than his later films, or if it was just an out and out disaster. Below are my thoughts on the film.

After finding out that his wife's mother may be a prostitute, Nazar is forced to divorce the woman he loves because his family fears the shame it will bring on them to be associated with such a woman. Although Nazar is reluctant at the beginning, because he believes just because his mother in law may be bad, it doesn't mean that Rayhaneh (his wife) should be painted with that same brush, he eventually relents due to the never ending pressure put on him to do so. Devastated and still in love with his wife, he is determined to do everything in his power to return his wife's dowry to her, which leads him on a journey that takes him out to the desert where he meets a grumpy snake catcher, who wants nothing to do with the young man. Nazar tries to convince the man to teach him how to catch snakes, in an attempt to make the money he needs, however the man is uninterested in both Nazar nor his company. Though after giving up on Rayhaneh once, he refuses to do so again and is determined to make this opportunity work.

There is going to be no mystery with this review because I am happy to report that this is yet another great film from Asghar Farhadi, proving that as of this writing, he has yet to make a bad film. However, it is true that “Dancing in the Dust” is unlike any of the films he would make after it, but the film-making on display is still of a high quality. The films that Farhadi is famous for play out almost like domestic thrillers while often classified as “just” dramas. Usually there is an element to his dramas that is able to cause suspense within the picture, and little details or spoken words which are deemed unimportant in the moment, later have massive ramifications in the greater whole. What is amazing though is the way Farhadi creates and weaves these elements in such a realistic and natural way, that they always feel organic within the story and never like you are being manipulated, to the point that it sometimes feels like you are witness to events unfolding before your very eyes, like in a documentary. This is how “Dancing in the Dust” is different because this is very obviously a movie you are watching. The artifice of the storytelling and filmmaking in general is not hidden here, in fact it is celebrated, particularly in the film's visual style.

In regards to the visual style, I must admit that I was wrong in my assertion that Farhadi has improved on this as he has become more experienced, because it is very clear with this film that he always has had a keen visual eye, particularly in terms of storytelling, right from his debut its just that his later films, he must have believed they worked better with this style pared back. For mine though, “Dancing in the Dark” is a stunningly beautiful film that is filled to the brim with very artistic shots without losing sight of what is important within the narrative. That said, the visuals definitely drive the story here as opposed to the written word.

The other difference to Farhadi's later work, is the lack of complexity to the story being told here. This is in no way a negative; it is just a much simpler tale, as it is essentially a story about love, or perhaps more accurately, it is a story about two men and what they do for the women they love and then living with the consequences of those actions. Both men find themselves where they are due to actions they performed for the women in their lives which at the time they deemed the right thing to do, only to still be paying for those decisions later down the track. The title of the film itself has to do with this very idea, as early in the film Nazar and Rayhaneh are watching a movie on television where a woman is dancing on glass to save the man she loves. Nazar explains to Rayhaneh that this is what love is, and questions her whether she would dance on glass for him (to which she amusingly replies “Sure, if I was wearing shoes”). All the pain and everything that Nazar goes through in the desert is for Rayhaneh; the desert is his broken glass, thus the very beautiful and poetic title “Dancing in the Dust”, which also alludes to the fact that while a story about love, this also deals with the pain that comes with loving someone. While I continually talk about the fact that the film is about love, it is interesting to note just how little of the films running time Nazar and Rayhaneh's love story occupies. It is only through the opening titles that we are witness to their whole love affair, where we see them meet, fall in love and marry in just a number of shots and when the film starts in earnest, it is when the couple are struggling over whether to get divorced or not. So while the film is definitely about love, “pure” traditional love is hardly represented on screen at all.

In regards to the acting on display here, I thought everyone performed well but I was particularly impressed by the performance of Faramarz Gharibian who plays the grumpy snake catcher. For the majority of the film, his character is silent, this is a damaged man who only talks when necessary, so Gharibian's performance has to be of an internal nature and he does a wonderful job of portraying a broken man, who still has a lot of power within. He has a couple of great moments towards the end of the film when his character has a chance at some sort of redemption, and we get to see a softer, more emotional side to this gruff character. Importantly Gharibian also has great chemistry with his acting partner, Yousef Khodaparast, who plays Nazar. The two characters could not be more opposite with Nazar constantly talking and moving about and much more extroverted, but the two of them bounce off each other beautifully, which at times makes the film, surprisingly, really funny. While I don't think Khodaparast's performance is as quite as nuanced as his counterpart, what makes him so effective is the chemistry between himself and Gharibian in their scenes together. When Khodaparast plays in scenes without him, he never seems as strong. Baran Kosari is also adequate in the small role of Rayhaneh, although she is never really given much to do.

Overall, I was very impressed by Asghar Farhadi's debut film, “Dancing in the Dust”. While it is true that this can be considered his “worst” film, this is a man who produces films at the highest quality possible, so that definition is something of a misnomer because if it had been directed by anybody else, I'm sure it would be considered quite an achievement. This is a different kind of film from Farhadi, as he relies on the power of his visuals as opposed to the written word to tell his story and does so via a number of beautiful and poetic images (I loved the idea of the amputated finger and what it represented in the film in that moment). His use of the desert location is breathtaking and I was also very impressed by his use of music throughout the film, while also surprised by the amount of humour within. So what is left to say except this is another Asghar Farhadi film that I wholeheartedly recommend.


3.5 Stars.



Monday, April 11, 2016

DARLING



I must admit that I came to Mickey Keating's “Darling” with a lot of personal baggage. Being a massive fan of Roman Polanski's “Repulsion”, the film that Keating's is obviously modelled on, and although intrigued by its trailer, I still attacked my viewing of “Darling” with a sense of arrogance that what I was about to witness was a rip-off of Polanski's masterpiece, and would not hold a candle to it, let alone be worthy of being mentioned together in the same breath. However it didn't take me long to realise that I may be wrong and that my arrogance was unfounded as Keating clearly had an understanding of his story he wanted to tell, and although influenced by “Repulsion”, this was not going to be just some carbon copy.

Darling” is about a young twenty-something girl who accepts a job as a caretaker for a large residential building while its owner is away on holidays. The owner is up front with Darling in regards to the history of the building and the fact that some consider it to be haunted. She also explains that the previous caretaker actually committed suicide by jumping from the third storey balcony. Despite these stories, Darling agrees to the job and is soon left to her own devices, on her own in this huge house. With little to do, Darling's mind is continually wondering, but her mind is not a healthy one, as it becomes pretty clear that she is disturbed and struggling after being victim of a horrific crime. Human interaction is sparse, so Darling's only company are her thoughts, fantasies and memories which could be a lethal cocktail for the young girl as she seems to descend quickly from a mental perspective. This decline reaches fever pitch when she decides to actually go outside for a walk down the streets of New York, only to bump into someone from her past.

Right from the opening minute of “Darling” I was with the film. From the eerie early shots of a foggy New York, to the brief scene with Sean Young as the home owner, I was already buying into a film I was expecting to hate and roll my eyes at for being a soulless copy of one of my all time favourites. I was basically sold by the five minute mark when the actual title came up on screen. Darling has been shown through the house and the camera settles on a sitting room. It is a simple but beautiful room, furnished with class and style but not in a way that looks overdone. It is the picture of perfection, when suddenly this terrifying music plays over the top of the image and the title is emblazoned in the middle of the screen in garish pink font to chilling effect. But it is also the perfect representation of Darling herself; from the outside she looks so pure and innocent, and well put together, but inside is a rotting desperate mind. From this moment, I was pretty sure I was going to like the film.

Even though I was impressed by this opening five minutes, I also was worried by the fact that it looked like an arty student film. By that I mean there was a lot of weird and wild camera angles used in a kind of show-offy way that didn't necessarily suit the story. It had a feeling of someone who wanted to chuck as many cool shots into his film as possible, sort of to prove what he could do. However, these shots seem only to exist at the beginning, as the visual style begins to settle down and exist for the better of the story rather than to draw attention to itself. That said, “Darling” is a stunningly beautiful film to look at. The stark black and white photography is something to behold, and gives the film an other world quality that is paramount to its success (whilst also working as a nodding wink to “Repulsion”). As the visual style settles, Keating is able to amp up the eeriness of his film to the point that it truly does feel “Polanski-esque” whilst at the same time having its own identity as a terrifying paranoid thriller.

Being as this is a film with one character alone by herself in a house for the majority of its running time, it goes without saying that the film lives or dies on the performance of the titular role, and as may be obvious by now, Lauren Ashley Carter knocks this out of the park. She is Darling. You do not see the actress playing the character at all, only the character herself. Whilst watching the film, I didn't even realise that I was familiar with Carter from both “The Woman” and “Jug Face”, even though she obviously looks the same. All I saw in her was Darling. The way Carter plays her is minimalist with a cold approach. Although physically present in every scene, she always comes across as if her mind is elsewhere; that she is forever vacant, like she is looking out into the distance instead of what is right in front of her. Also because she is a damaged soul, it is hard to believe that everything Darling sees is actually the truth, rather it could be her mind's interpretation of the truth which gives the film a real unsettling atmosphere to it all. There are two scenes in the film where I think we see Darling for who she really is, when her psychosis breaks down and we actually see Darling reacting honestly to a situation even if that is in an obviously painful manner. One of these scenes is the acting highlight of the film when Darling meets a man at a bar and invites him back to her place. Before leaving she rushes to the bathroom and stares at herself in the mirror as we see this cold girl transform before our eyes, as she realises the enormity of what she is about to do, and she breaks down in tears, screaming at her reflection, and then composing herself again. Keating shoots the scene in one shot, so it is all up to Carter to make it work and because she nails it so perfectly it is the one time we are allowed in to see the “real” Darling briefly. I was just blown away by this short scene.

With Darling's mind not being entirely healthy, and as good as Carter is at making it look believable, Keating is smart to include other little audio cues to help represent what Darling is going through. Through the use of a loud and always ticking clock, to the rhythmic ringing of a telephone, to the always whispering voices Darling hears, we understand that whilst she may be always alone in the house, in her mind it is a whole other story. The poor girl is slowly losing her mind with the noise drowning out who Darling really is.

It is well known by now that I am a huge fan of cinema that deals with the fracturing of the mind, but I am equally a fan of ambiguity in cinema and Keating lays the framework here to give credence to the idea that Darling may not be in total control of her actions. From the initial stories of the house being haunted, Keating also adds some other details in the film so that you could see this story as one of possession (for lack of a better word). These things include a necklace of an inverted cross, some insidious Latin writing etched into a night dresser beside Darling's bed and a mysterious locked room, not to mention the voices again in Darling's head. All this could be used in evidence that something more of a supernatural order existed within this story, rather than just Darling suffering a complete mental breakdown. Personally though, the film is much stronger to me and resonates more emotionally if the supernatural side of things is nothing but a red herring.

In regards to negatives to the film, I do not have many. I will say that I thought that some of the music choices were a little on the nose in the fact that they were used loudly to scare audiences, which I think this film was above doing, although this happened few and far between and the other thing was that I am not a fan of the flashing strobe light effect that is used a bit in this film. This is a personal thing because it actually messes with my eyes a bit but I will say that this technique is effectively used to help create the eerie atmosphere of the film. There was one major thing that I hated which was the very end of the film, the final scene which takes place mid-credits. Obviously this is going to involve spoilers so for those that do not want to be spoiled, please skip to the next paragraph. The mid-credits sting is of the Sean Young character interviewing another caretaker and telling her the same stories of the house being haunted. It may not seem like much, but to me this pushed the ambiguity of the story towards the supernatural reasoning which I did not like at all and I felt that the scene should have been removed entirely. The other reason is because this is Darling's story so who cares about this other girl. Anyway, it is only thirty seconds of this fantastic film, so I shouldn't let it overcome how I feel about it, but you never want to leave an audience member feeling angry when the movie ends.

Overall, “Darling” turned out to be a massive surprise. I expected it to drown in its own pastiche but it actually rose above it and created its own identity to be a stunningly terrifying and disturbing mental thriller, that I have no problem mentioning in the same breath as Roman Polanski's “Repulsion” or “The Tenant”.


4 Stars.

 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

THE PACK



While the great Ozploitation days of Australian cinema are now long gone, every couple of years we still seem to make a genre film that is proof to the world that we still know how to make these films well. Sadly though, nowadays these films barely seem to get distributed and only reach the smallest of audiences, meaning that the glory days of the 70's and 80's, where genre films were made at a regular interval in Australia, are never likely to return. The last great and overlooked Aussie horror film that came out was 2011's “Crawl” directed by Paul China, which was a brilliant study in suspense, and since that film came out, I have been looking for the next Australian genre film to knock my socks off. I have now found that film with Nick Robertson's “The Pack”.

The plot of “The Pack” is simplicity at its finest as a farmer and his family have to try and survive the night from a pack of wild dogs who have entered their property and seem determined to viciously kill them all. Initially attracted to the farm by the sheep on the land, the dogs then turn their attentions to the humans that reside there.

As you can see from the above synopsis, there really isn't a huge deal to the story of “The Pack” but the execution in telling this simple story is nothing but first rate. As is the norm these days in a horror film, “The Pack” begins with a pre-credits sequence that sees an elderly couple (who are also farmers) brutally attacked by the dogs, an attack that costs the pair their lives. From here on though, we spend the next twenty minutes getting to know the family who are going to be the stars of this film, the Wilson's. We learn that they are struggling financially, and as such both parents are working in an attempt to not lose their farm; a battle which appears they are losing. We are also made aware that the live-stock that are the main source of this family's income, are being cut down in numbers regularly by some sort of animal venturing from out of the nearby woods. Life is not easy for the Wilson's and yet they refuse to lie down and give in, and it is obvious that they all love one another, despite the tension this financial hardship is causing them all. By giving us this time with the family, director Nick Robertson makes us care for this family. We do not want to see them hurt and knowing how much they are already struggling, we want to see them succeed. They are good people and deserve to be happy.

Following on from this opening twenty minutes, the film is all about suspense as the dogs circle and try to get inside the house to get at their prey whilst the Wilson's do everything in their power to stay alive. As great as the set up of the family is in the opening minutes, the reason for the success of “The Pack” has to do with the way the following hour is played out and handled. Robertson clearly understands suspense and how to get the most out of it, ratcheting up the tension until it is unbearable. I have watched “The Pack” twice now and even though I knew what was going to happen in my second viewing, I could not believe how tense I was whilst watching it. My fists were clenched and I was coiled up tight like a ball on my couch. When I realised this, I really understood just how brilliantly this film had been made and directed. In fact it is Nick Robertson's direction and Gabriella Muir's sharp editing that make the film so nail bitingly tense. Between the two of them, it is clear that they just know how to put together a story. There is no excess here, we are only given what is needed for the story to work and this benefits the film greatly. The film's myopic vision of the family's plight is all that the film is about, and that is what we get. Every shot seems to be perfectly chosen to compliment the next, and there is never anything show-offy here. Even the use of sound has to be highlighted as Robertson often drowned out the film of any sound at all, increasing the tension just before an attack would begin. I also appreciated the lack of any jump scares or cheap tactics to try and frighten the audience. All of his scares are well designed and earned. I especially enjoyed the scenes when you see the dogs approaching quietly in the distance, so that you knew they were around but never sure when they would attack.

Speaking of the actual dog attacks in the film, they are handled magnificently throughout. The ferocity and power of these dogs is never in question. What is amazing though is just how few shots actually have the actors and dogs in the same space at the same time. Often times the dogs and actors have their own shots, but the way it has all been put together, edited and matched, you always believe that the danger they face is directly in front of them and thus your fear for these characters is very real. I have nothing to back this up, but from watching the movie I believe that they used a combination of real dogs, animatronic or puppet heads (for the close ups of the dogs biting at the actors) and on the very rare occasion, some CGI. Also when the human characters fight back against the dogs and beat, bash, stab or shoot them, they are very rarely in the same shot. It is action shot, and then reaction shot but again, it all works amazingly well and is incredibly believable.

Another thing that is believable is the family dynamics of the Wilson family. There is no doubting that these people are an actual family. This is achieved by the very naturalistic performances of the cast, particularly Anna Lise Phillips as Carla, the matriarch of the family, and Jack Campbell as Adam, the father. Phillips is particularly impressive as although she comes across as someone who is frightened during this ordeal, she is still always a very strong character throughout. She never is the shrieking damsel in distress needing a man to save her, rather she is out there doing whatever she can in the moment to protect her family. In fact when it all boils down to it, she has a lot more success at it than her husband who always seems to get injured. I also very much liked Campbell's performance as Adam. He is definitely an alpha-male, a rugged farmer who isn't afraid of hard work and he comes across as a tough man. It is obvious he loves his family and kids, but isn't someone who goes easy on them. He expects them to pull their own weight too. He is a man of action, and not someone who would sit by expecting everyone else to do something instead. In saying all that, my favourite scene with Adam is a brief scene where he lets his rough exterior down for a second and shares a candle-lit dance with his wife. It is a beautiful scene that shows the love and tenderness between the two of them and is also the final moment of happiness before the terror of their night begins.

As great as this film is, it isn't perfect (but what film is) but the negatives are rather minor. In terms of performances, I felt that Katie Moore, who plays Sophie, the teenage daughter of the Wilson's, came across a little wooden. I would never call her performance bad per se, as she plays a permanently pissed off teenager well, but I always felt her “acting” in her role where as everyone else comes across much more natural. Another (small) issue I had with the film is that for a film called “The Pack”, there was very little pack action when the dogs attack the family. I understand that when the minor characters of the film are attacked, the dogs all pounce as one, however when the Wilson's are involved the dog action is more one-on-one, which is a small conceit to give the family are better chance of survival. The other minor problem I had was that the conclusion of the film isn't entirely satisfactory in the fact that it just sort of ends. Granted I had more of a problem with this on my first viewing than I did on my latest watch of the film.

Overall though, I found “The Pack” to be a stunning Australian horror film that is yet another master class in suspense. The film has been stunningly directed and performed and I also loved that the film had a strong sense of place. It just felt like Australia throughout. It is a short film, running only 85 minutes, but is endlessly entertaining and the re-watch factor is very high. “The Pack” knocked my socks off and I thoroughly look forward to whatever director Nick Robertson does next. Here is hoping it is another horror film, because as “The Pack” demonstrates in spades, he clearly understands how to get the best out of the genre on very little.


4 Stars.