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Being Seventeen

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Being a teenager is tough. It is a time of heightened insecurity and anxiety, during which many people discover who they really are. Such is the case for the two boys, Damien and Tomas, at the centre of Being Seventeen. Tomas comes from a farming family and is stagnating in his studies. Damien’s father is a soldier, fighting in an undisclosed country and his mother is a doctor.

When the film begins, the mountains surrounding their idyllic village are buried under crisp, white snow. The world is as cold as the two boys who inhabit it. But when Tomas’ mother becomes pregnant, Damien’s mother, who is her doctor, makes Tomas stay in their home to help with his schooling, further complicating the boys’ relationship.

There is no doubting Damien and Tomas’ hatred for each other at the outset of the film. In class Tomas trips Damien for no reason and pushes Damien down after school. But Damien jumps back up and lets fly several of his own blows, one leaving Tomas with a bloodied nose. Damien is no victim here. But as time goes by, the seasons transform, Tomas’ mother’s once barren womb blossoms, and the two boys’ relationship changes as well.

One of the wonders of the film is the unexpected way this relationship develops, so we won’t go into details about where it takes them.

The film deftly deals with the burgeoning issue of masculinity. For these boys, they deal with it through asserting physical dominance and prowess during their fights. At first, this desire to win comes from their contempt for the other, but as they begin training together a quiet respect develops. They promise to cover for the other if Damien’s mother should find their wounds.

Being Seventeen relies heavily upon the performances of Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), Tomas (Corentin Fila) and Damien’s mother (Sandrine Kiberlain). The latter acting as the moral centre for these two boys as she keeps them from spiralling out of control several times until, near the end of the film, they must do the same for her when she experiences her own tragedy. These performances are at times sensitive and at others outright bold with all three characters pushed to their limits time and time again.

Post-New-Wave director, André Téchiné (I Don’t Kiss, The Girl on the Train) aids these performances by allowing the camera to invade these characters’ private spaces, reminiscent of the style of Lars Von Trier. He also makes the most of the Pyrenees backdrop, transforming it at times into a whimsical dreamscape to mirror the boys’ unfolding relationship. But with a film of this kind, if you aren’t involved with its leads, it will start to drag. And at times, their actions just don’t feel realistic for their age. That is the greatest weakness, which admittedly is not a lot, of an otherwise great film.

 
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Alone in Berlin

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No one wants to criticise a holocaust film; they serve a critical purpose in remembering and learning from the atrocities of our shared history. But when they fail to even strike the middle, they become problematic. Taking a subject as terrifically painful as Nazi Germany and removing the impact is dangerous – and whether it was intentional or not, the lack of fire in Alone In Berlin downplays fascism to seem like more of an ‘upsetting happenstance’ than an extraordinarily brutal plight.

Directed by actor Vincent Pérez (whose directorial credits include little-known features 2002’s Once Upon An Angel and 2007’s The Secret), Alone In Berlin, set in 1940s Berlin at the height of the Second World War, follows working class couple Otto and Anna Quangel (Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson) who receive the news that their only son has been killed on the battlefield in France. Already disillusioned with The Führer and The Fatherland, the loss of their son proves the tipping point and Otto begins a campaign of civil disobedience, writing messages on postcards that urge fellow Germans to resist the Nazi regime.

Anna soon partners with Otto and together they covertly distribute hundreds of postcards, left in stairwells and mailboxes across the city. At the head of the police force trying to track down the dissenters is detective Escherich (Daniel Brühl), who faces enormous pressure from the SS to find, stop and bring the traitors to justice.

Based on the international bestseller by Hans Fallada, the original content for the film was strong. But somewhere down the line it all became lost and laboured. Arguably the fault is Pérez’s – whose transparently fearful direction shows his inability to dig any deeper than the surface layers of a greatly sensitive subject. Clearly, his confidence and maturity as a director is wanting, and here, he’s definitely bitten off more than he can chew.

The performances, though notably better than the direction, are a bit like trying to make laksa, giving up halfway, and eating Mi Goreng over the sink instead. Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson start out with the best intentions; they are present, passionate and even rather convincing in places. But much like the laksa, it becomes less-and-less about taste and flavour, and more about just getting something in your stomach. What the pair deliver is passable, but their efforts aren’t exactly what you’d want them to be.

Ultimately the film is a flat-liner. There are just no peaks and troughs, which is remarkable given the tremendously heavy content of the film. It fails in pulling at the heartstrings or even, at the very least, giving any real context to what was a terrifying and dark period in time.

 
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Logan

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With Logan, director James Mangold and actor Hugh Jackman make the boldest choice possible with the saga that began with Bryan Singer’s X-Men back in 2000 – they end it.

That’s an almost heretical choice in this age of endless franchises. Indeed, there certainly will be more X-Men movies going into the future (never let good taste or appropriateness get in the way of a cash cow, right?). But make no mistake, the pair’s statement of intent going in, that they would tell the final, definitive screen Wolverine story before Jackman voluntarily hung up his claws, was not just hot air. This is The Last Ride of James Howlett.

Summarily excising the tangled mess of X-Men continuity, along with most of the characters and, indeed, all but the most necessary comic book trappings, Logan sets its scene in the southern US border states, circa 2029. There we find an alcoholic Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), aka James Howlett, aka Logan (we’ll stick with that one for simplicity’s sake) working as a chauffeur and drinking to numb the pain, both physical and emotional, that he carries with every limping step. He’s a shadow of his former self, his healing factor is barely keeping him together – he’s a lean, haunted, scarecrow of a man.

He keeps it together only because he has a dream of escape with his two remaining friends, the ancient psychic, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart),  and Caliban (Stephen Merchant), the albino mutant who helps Logan care for him. In his dotage, Xavier’s powerful brain is failing him and he is prone to “seizures” that unleash psychic havoc; Logan has resorted to keeping the old man sedated in a derelict compound across the Mexican border. It’s a pathetic, hardscrabble existence, but the three of them have a dream to shoot for: raise enough money to buy a boat, and spend their final days on the open ocean.

It’s a sad little life – the boat is basically the rabbit farm in Of Mice and Men – and it’s certainly no retirement for former heroes. Mangold sketches the sorry state of the world and our protagonists efficiently and effectively. This brown and ochre desert world we’re in isn’t quite post-apocalyptic; like Mad Max, it’s a world in the middle of collapse. There are no more mutants, we’re told, and the fate of the rest of the X-Men are darkly hinted at but never made explicit. The world has moved on, and there’s no room in it for clawed ronin and their silly ideals of honour and loyalty.

LoganThis depressing dustbowl tableau is disrupted by the arrival of three figures – a Mexican nurse (Elizabeth Rodriguez) on the run with a mysterious little girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), and Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the cyborg mercenary in pursuit of them. Laura, as it turns out, is perhaps the last mutant in the world, a clone of Logan experimented on a shadowy corporation and imbued with an adamantium skeleton and claws, just like him – in effect, his daughter. The pair want to hire Logan to take them north to the Canadian border and safety. Logan will have none of it, but events soon conspire to put him, Laura and Xavier on the road, with Pierce and his cyborg PMC army in pursuit. And we’re off.

It’s unsurprising that Mangold, director of 3.10 to Yuma, would dress Logan in the iconography and narrative tropes of the Western, but it’s impressive how well it fits the material. The obvious touchstone here is Unforgiven, with its retired gunfighter taking up arms once more and its meditations on violence and morality, and Shane is repeatedly referenced. There’s even a touch of Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia in its sweaty desperation – and in its violence. Logan certainly doesn’t waste its restrictive rating – right out of the gate, claws are popping and limbs are flying. Every action sequence is carnage, and Logan’s failing healing factor means he carries the increasingly heavy cost as the film progresses, his body barely holding together under the near-constant rain of punishment.

Yet almost none of it feels gratuitous – it’s all in service to the film’s themes. The cost of violence is heavy, and in Laura we see how violence perpetuates down through the generations. Yes, it’s hugely cathartic when she unleashes her fury on her oppressors, slicing femoral arteries and jamming claws into eye sockets, but it’s disturbing as well – as it should be. We and Logan are forced to look at this murderous miniature version of him and wonder what dreadful future this world has in store for her – and whether it can be averted.

Keen is incredible, by the way; her Laura is an odd-looking, intense, silent child, almost feral, yet desperate for familial love. Indeed, it’s the misshapen family of choice that she forms with Logan and Xavier that gives the film its considerable heart. For all the slaughter and the darkness, Logan lives in its small moments of warmth and humour, of which there are many – it’s a stern individual who refuses to crack a smile at Patrick Stewart swearing. The film also digs deep into Xavier and Logan’s relationship; there’s a quiet point in the film where the three have to pretend to be an actual family and Logan refers to Xavier as “Dad”. It’s incredibly moving, and all the more impressive in that it feels a part of the film’s texture and not forced.

We’ll drift into heavy spoiler territory if we push forward much further. Logan‘s story is simple, but its themes are dense and varied. The climax takes them all and twists them together in a scene of action and catharsis that will leave you breathless. Logan is not just a great superhero film – and easily the best of the X-Men stable by an incredibly long chalk – it’s a great film, period. The Wolverine story has moved in fits and starts over the past 16 years, with a few highs and plenty of risible lows but, by God, does it go out with a bang.

 

 
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Sniper Elite 4

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Shooting Nazis is almost as ubiquitous a trope in video games as hearts representing health pick ups or red barrels being explosive. The average 30-something gamer has probably killed over a million on screen Nazis in their life, and that’s a conservative estimate. Frankly the whole thing had started to become a bit passe in recent times but then the world went fucking nuts and suddenly Nazis are back in the zeitgeist, and positions of political power, once more.

While that’s shockingly, heart-breakingly bad news for humanity it’s a pretty sweet deal for killing Nazis in video games, which brings us to Sniper Elite 4.

Sniper Elite 4 tells the tale of Karl Fairburne, an Office of Strategic Services agent who has all the personality of unsalted tofu but boy can he shoot folks. After Karl grunts through a fairly unexciting opening cutscene you, the player, are dropped into action in a sprawling map of Italy in 1943. Immediately the game distinguishes itself from its very linear predecessors by giving you options and many of them. Naturally sniping is the main focus, but you can also lure enemies into traps, drop crates on groups or even destroy trucks or heavy ordinance while a cadre of Nazis mill around nearby, creating hilariously nasty death traps.

When you make a kill the game switches to an X-ray mode so you can see the exact impact of your bullet, or other projectile, and watch it literally tear through organs, splinter bone and smash testicles. Yes, the series’ favourite iconic testicle shot is back and it’s even more wince- and chuckle-inducing than ever before. There is an immense sense of satisfaction to be garnered from setting up and executing a perfect scrotum-smashing shot, or popping a Nazi eyeball. It’s grim and nasty but given the nature of the enemy, there’s a great deal of catharsis to be had.

On the downside Sniper Elite 4’s story is a non-event. That’s to be expected to an extent in this kind of choose-your-own-path-to-kill title, but even a touch of character or Inglourious Basterds-style gallows humour would have been appreciated and made the wholesale slaughter all the more satisfying.

That said, Sniper Elite 4 scratches an ultraviolence itch in the best kind of way. The ten generously proportioned maps offer a wealth of opportunities to kill your foes in interesting, creative ways and a surprising number of co-op and PvP modes round out the package, offering decent multiplayer options for those who want to shoot their friends and co-workers right in the ballbag.

Sniper Elite 4 knows exactly what it is, and as a way of blowing off steam, or engaging in some splattery wish-fulfillment fantasy, it’s a bloody good time.

 
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Heal the Living (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival)

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Heal the Living opens and closes upon a sunrise. It is a balancing act between life and death; darkness and dawn. The film ebbs and flows back and forth like this throughout, just like the tide that washes over 17-year-old Simon during one early morning surf before he is in a severe car accident that leaves him brain dead. Learning of Simon’s fate, his parents are left with a choice: do they donate his organs or not? This, however, is only half the story. The other half deals with a middle-aged mother whose heart is failing and is in need of a transplant.

French director and screenwriter Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living is an elegy to life and told equally as poetically. The visuals are, at times, hypnotic. One potent example is during Simon’s last surf before the accident when he is thrown under the waves and above him the crashing tides look like an endless blue maelstrom. It is a fluid and effortless work of direction that is capped off by a score from Academy-award winning composer Alexandre Desplat.

Often, the camera will merely linger with characters, telling us everything they are feeling without a single line of dialogue. A technique that may not have worked to such great effect had this ensemble cast not been so pitch-perfect in their respective roles which vary from teenagers, their parents and, a perspective not often seen, the doctors who work tirelessly behind the scenes. That is Heal the Living’s strength, it is a film about people. No single character is given importance over another; they are all equally diverse, afraid and as tired as each other.

Heal the Living isn’t an easy film to watch and has no stirring, fast-paced sequences. Even surgical scenes lack their usual intensity here and the catalyst for the story, the car accident, happens off-screen. The film is much more melancholy. And the questions at its core are ones that will linger with you as the smallest of characters make the hardest of choices. When the characters feel, we feel right with them. These aren’t extraordinary people, they are simply stuck in the worst of circumstances and we empathise with them all the more for it.

Heal the Living doesn’t offer any surprises and by the time you meet the mother and learn of her failing heart, you will likely have the ending figured out. But what does take you by surprise during this superbly crafted, multiple-narrative, intersecting drama is the tenderness of the journey to get there and how satisfying it ultimately is.

 
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Bitter Harvest

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Between 1932 and 1933 an estimated seven to ten million people died in the Ukraine as a result of the Holodomor (death by starvation). This man-made famine was used by Soviet authorities to suppress the Ukrainian population who were unable to flee across the country’s closed borders. The full, horrific extent of the Holodomor only emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Set during this period, Bitter Harvest tells the story of Yuri (Max Irons) and Natalka (Samantha Barks). Childhood sweethearts, their life in the Ukraine appears idyllic. Lavishly shot in rich colours, existence here has a vital, timeless feel to it. Village rituals come, seasons pass, and Yuri – the grandson of a great warrior – dreams of traveling to the city to become an artist. The arrival of Bolshevik troops heralds a change in village life, but Yuri still leaves for Kiev. Far from his family and loved ones, he finds himself questioning what he sees, thanks to a stranger who tells him that an artist has to “let the world know the truth.” Invariably Yuri finds himself in trouble with the murderous Soviet authorities. Meanwhile, Natalka, left in the rural community, witnesses the famine first hand and has to face the advances of cruel local Red Army commander Sergi (Tamer Hassan). Will Yuri ever see Natalka again?

As a dramatic love story Bitter Harvest fulfills its basic generic purpose, although (spoiler alert) there is little doubt that the lovers will be reunited. The relationship between the couple – established in the opening scenes – is presented by the narrator as an immense love. And yet beyond simple declarations there’s little sense of what underpins their relationship. The tribulations the couple face are suitably grim, but events proceed rapidly and subplots never have time to develop with the depth demanded. Thus Yuri joins forces with the anti-Bolshevik resistance for a battle but the entire sequence is far too short and leaves the viewer with more questions than answers, as does a strange food-poisoning/acid sequence.

Perhaps the most important lesson the twentieth century can teach is that evil is banal; across the globe, ordinary people have engaged in violence, cruelty, and genocide. But in Bitter Harvest evil is reduced to cinematic caricature. Like so many on-screen villains – whether Communists, Nazis, or gangsters ­– Sergi’s cruelty is apparently boundless as he delivers dialogue such as “There is no God! No evil! No sin!”, before shooting a priest who has hidden a religious relic. Later in the film, he sadistically demands, in his deep resonate voice, that Natalka wash and dry his feet with her hair. Likewise, a brief discussion on famine cuts to a scene of Stalin (Gary Oliver) enjoying an opulent feast. These, and other, sequences are heavy-handed, a clichéd villainous malevolence that ultimately creates a film that emphasises overly familiar action rather than history.

The problem Bitter Harvest faces is that the Holodomor deserves to be fully explored in narrative film but it becomes almost impossible to explain, much less show, such horrors in what is primarily a melodramatic love story. Despite moments of beautiful cinematography (Douglas Milsome) and a handful of brief spectacular scenes the film never becomes epic. Torn between exploring the horrors of Stalin’s rule and Yuri and Natalka’s relationship, the film opts for an overtly melodramatic tale of love.

 
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Kalinka (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival)

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Kalinka, directed by Vincent Garenq, is based on the true story of André Bamberski, a man who spent three decades seeking justice for his daughter. Visiting her mother and stepfather in Germany, teenager Kalinka Bamberski was found dead in her bedroom supposedly due to natural causes, a ruling which Bamberski, played here by Daniel Auteuil, refused to believe. Receiving a copy of the autopsy report, he becomes convinced that Kalinka’s stepfather, Dieter Krombach (Sebastian Koch), played a part in her death.

Kalinka very rarely leaves Bamberski’s side as, over the course of 30 years, he resorts to various things in order to bring Krombach before a judge. Although based on a widely publicised case in France, Garenq subverts the story to initially suggest that Bamberski is blinded by Krombach originally running off with his wife, Dany (Marie-Josee Croze). It’s only as evidence mounts up that the film changes tack.

Auteuil throws himself into the role of a man consumed by his desire to do what’s right and fuelled by a righteous anger aimed at his daughter’s killer and the French/German court system. Equally impressive is Koch, who never allows Krombach to slip into pantomime. If anything, the doctor could appear to be the victim of a vicious stalking if you were to come to the film too late.

And whilst Kalinka is a heartbreaking film at times – particularly when witnessing the judicial hoops Bamberski jumps through – it can be painfully noticeable that it’s based on Bamberski’s autobiography and, as such, some people come off better than others. Ex-wife Dany isn’t offered the depth of character our lead is and more than a few scenes suggest her implication in the crime by simply wanting to defend her lover. Unfortunately, the audience never fully understands her motives. It’s not a huge misdemeanour, but it does cheapen the overall emotional impact of a powerful film.

 
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Riverdale Chapter 4: The Last Picture Show

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More Jughead = better Riverdale. It’s a simple formula largely based on this episode, which partly focuses on Cole Sprouse’s moody, beanie-clad outsider campaigning to save the Twilight Drive-In from impending destruction.

Of course, Juggie is an obsessive cinephile. It’s a perfect grace note for the character, denoted by a fairly basic Tarantino reference, but really driven home by our humble narrator referring to Betty Cooper as a “Hitchcock blonde”. As it transpires, Jughead has better reasons than cinematic taste to try and preserve the old drive-in cinema not only does he work there as a projectionist, he’s camping out there. Juggie’s home life is less than ideal; his mother and little sister are nowhere to be found, while his old man, F.P. Jones (Skeet Ulrich), is the leader of the South Side Serpents, a 1%er outfit of leather-clad ne’er-do-wells. Jug and his old man really only get one scene together, but it’s milked for pathos – especially since F.P. is partly responsible for the Drive-In being sold off to a developer, acting as a bagman in a bit of skullduggery involving Mayor McCoy (Robin Givens) and… the Lodges!

Remember the big bag of money Hermione Lodge was gifted with back in episode one? As it turns out, Hermione is acting as a catspaw for the imprisoned and as-yet-unseen Hiram Lodge, paying off McCoy and the Serpents in order for Lodge Industries purchase of the old drive-in to go smoothly. It’s a cool development, one that is hard to see coming but makes perfect sense in retrospect. Canonically, Mr. Lodge has always been the major financial player in town, and this lets him still fulfill that role while remaining offscreen.

The battle over the drive-in is also a strong thematic touchstone; it represents “Old Riverdale”, the innocent land of neon and classic cars, hot dogs and teen canoodling – how apt that it’s being destroyed by the “New Riverdale” of soap opera plot twists, corruption, and dirty dealing. Jughead, our POV man, wants to protect Old Riverdale; sadly, he can only bear witness to its passing, even as he himself is hurt by the machinations that grind it up.

We also get a better idea of the social dynamics underpinning Riverdale’s older generation. Hermione and Fred head to the drive-in together for its final screening (top marks for using Rebel Without A Cause) and it becomes clear that they used to have a thing going on back in the day before she ditched him for the wealthier Hiram. At another point, after Veronica sees her having an argument with F.P., Hermione explains that the two of them went to high school together Meanwhile, we learn that Fred once fired F.P. for theft. If anything, the middle-aged Riverdalers have more going on than their front-and-centre kids.

All this is background stuff, though, with the A-plot reserved for – and seemingly resolving – the increasingly icky relationship between Archie and Ms Grundy, as Girl Detective Betty Cooper learns that the music teacher is, in fact, using an assumed name (cue photo cameo from the real Grundy, the spitting image of her comic book counterpart). Grundy’s explanation for this is that she is fleeing an abusive relationship, but the show has put up too many red flags for that to fly, chief among them that she previously did an “independent study project” with the now deceased Jason Blossom.

Once all this is out in the open there’s nothing to do but put Grundy on a (literal) bus, but what’s really jarring is the fairly blase attitude everyone – including Fred, Archie’s dad – takes to the revelation that the music teacher has been in a sexual relationship with one of her students. There’s no way to read that as anything other than predatory, but only Betty’s mother, Alice, really getting bent out of shape over the situation and calling a spade a spade – and we’ve already been encouraged to view her as nuts, anyway (indeed, there’s a scene this ep where she suddenly appears outside a car window at the drive-in, flashlight in hand, that seemingly exists just to reinforce this). There’s actually a weird disconnect between the way characters react to the situation and the way the show represents it – consider the scene where Grundy – real name Jennifer Gibson if you’re keeping track – favouring a group of teen hunks with a lingering gaze; there’s a disturbing pattern being hinted at here, and we the viewers are far more squicked out than almost anyone on the show.

Still, “The Last Picture Show” is a pretty great episode, deepening our understanding of the town’s dynamics and laying foundations for further plots beyond the whole “who killed Jason Blossom?” hook. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of fallout results from the Archie/Grundy storyline – it’d be good to see ol’ Arch realise how badly he’s been used at least – but if not getting that is the price of moving forward narratively, fair enough. There’s plenty going on in the Town With Pep that’s more worthy of our attention.

 
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The Unknown Girl (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival)

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There are moments in our lives we mull over; moments where we chastise ourselves for making a particular decision. Sometimes this is coupled with a feeling of guilt, a feeling of wanting to try again. In The Unknown Girl, the latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Two Days, One Night, The Kid With a Bike) a moment of defiance leads to a murder mystery that is less ‘whodunit?’ and more ‘Who was the victim?’

Adèle Haenel plays Jenny Davin, a doctor who, frazzled by a long shift and a disgruntled intern, refuses to answer the door to someone ringing the practice’s buzzer. She later finds out that was a woman looking for refuge and who has now been found dead; a revelation that impacts on the good doctor greatly. Radu Muntean’s One Floor Below tackles similar themes of someone’s inaction leading to tragedy. However, whereas Muntean’s protagonist still continued to do nothing, the Dardennes offer in Jenny someone more proactive. With no ID found on the body and no one reporting her missing, the guilt-stricken doctor takes it upon herself to find out who she was.

What’s most striking about The Unknown Girl is how ordinarily the narrative plays out. There is nothing ostentatious about Davin’s life. When she’s not sharing the nameless woman’s photo around town, we follow her performing her everyday duties taking care of her patients. Coupled with Haenel’s deliberately emotionless performance – she barely raises an eyebrow, even when being roughed up by thugs – The Unknown Girl can be somewhat frustrating for those looking for tension. Stripped of a heightened sense of reality, the film could be viewed as an antidote to the glossy procedurals from Hollywood, but it doesn’t excuse a lack of engagement. This is by no means an unwatchable film, but its attempt at realism underplays the film’s narrative to its own detriment, leaving its audience unsure how to react to its final revelation.

 
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The Walking Dead S7E10: New Best Friends

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works]

Traditionally the second episode back after either the premiere or mid-season premiere tends to be a lesser entity. The logic at play seems to be: the showrunners have hooked us with the first one and now they can slack off a little, with more filler and less killer. While that’s true to an extent in terms of visual panache, New Best Friends is a solid, occasionally funny and moving entry for the back half of Season Seven. There’s nothing quite as gloriously gory as the zombie massacre-via-wire sequence from Rock in the Road, but what it lacks in splatter is made up for in Carol and Daryl’s oft-delayed reunion. More on that in a bit.

The episode opens with the Saviors collecting from Ezekiel and a select group of his subjects. Naturally, Negan’s crew are a bunch of dickbags and soon get into a messy tussle, which ends up with Richard (Karl Makinen) shouty, Morgan (Lennie James) injured and his prize stick (which inexplicably isn’t named) being flogged by a salty Savior. It’s a scene that speaks to the underlying tension between these two groups, but once again Ezekiel is contrite and de-escalates the situation. Back at the Kingdom Morgan continues to not tell Daryl (Norman Reedus) about Carol’s whereabouts (thus cementing his place on my angrily-scrawled shit list) and Richard gives Daryl a bowgun. This is apparently extremely important because straight afterward the opening titles begin.

Richard takes Daryl to his weapon-filled clubhouse, the pair get armed up and head out to… where? Well, Richard’s plan is to start the war. Ezekiel will not fire the first shot so Richard reckons he and Daryl kill some Saviors, plant evidence on some crazed loner who is loosely affiliated with The Kingdom and when the Saviors murder said loner, Ezekiel will be honour-bound to join the fight. It’s a strange and convoluted plan that might have actually worked until Daryl starts to grill Richard about the identity of the loner. After much glaring through his sweaty fringe and growling “say her damn name!” Daryl gets Richard to admit the loner is Carol. The pair fight and Daryl buggers off. Go to Carol, Daryl. Go to her!

Meanwhile at the endless junkyard of scary sculptures, Rick and crew are being menaced by what looks like a Type O Negative tribute group. The sour-faced, dark-clad band are either rogue puppeteers or the next evolution of emo, but apparently all they want is this world is to flog stuff and live in a junkyard. Their leader, Jadis (played by the wonderful Pollyanna McIntosh of The Woman and Hap and Leonard fame) is a strange mix of quirky and intimidating, but despite all this Rick continues to smile. Rick asserts his position: he wants his priest back (yes, the junkyard kids have Gabriel – although why Rick wants him back remains a mystery) and he wants Jadis to join his fight. Jadis seems to ponder the issue and then pushes Rick into a pit.

Rick sits up, Michonne desperately calling his name, and is confronted by a spiked, armoured zombie hungrily making its way towards him. The concept of armouring a zombie is a great idea, and conceptually this is a fantastic sequence, however director Jeffrey F. January lacks Greg Nicotero’s knack for framing zombie action. After an awkwardly-staged fight, Rick manages to kill the barbed mongrel and Jadis is suitably impressed. The pair have an oddly flirty bartering session and agree on terms. Jadis will join the fight but wants a crapload of stuff in return. Rick will also need several tetanus shots.

Back at Carol’s shack, after a cruel fake-out involving Ezekiel delivering cobbler, Daryl and Carol are finally (finally!) reunited. The authenticity of Carol’s tears is a testament to Melissa McBride’s acting skills and her genuine platonic love for Daryl is moving as hell. The pair bond over dinner, Carol explains her reasons for leaving (which are still dubious, but we’ll let it go) and asks Daryl if the Saviors killed anyone. Daryl straight up lies to her face and tells her everything is fine. Thankfully Carol doesn’t have twitter in the zombie apocalypse so she won’t have the lie spoiled… for now. But what hell will she unleash when she does learn of Negan’s actions? Honestly, I can’t wait to see it.

Daryl heads back to the Kingdom and hangs out with Shiva (Ezekiel’s tiger). Morgan pops in and mutters some tiresome, zen nonsense that just reminds us how much more of an interesting character he was in seasons 1 and 3. We gave peace a chance, Morgan, the shit didn’t take. “Wake the hell up!” Daryl growls, and tells Morgan he’s heading to the Hilltop in the morning. Morgan and Ezekiel may be comfortable in their bubble of non-violence but Daryl has made it clear he won’t be a part of it.

New Best Friends won’t be on anyone’s all-time favourite list, but it’s engaging nonetheless. The junkyard kids (aka Bin Chickens) are a strange but fascinating group and the moments between Carol and Daryl are pure gold. The show seems to be moving in a proactive, occasionally humourous direction, which is a nice change. Certainly it’ll all end in tears and blood, but for now the good guys are winning more than they lose.