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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Nioh

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In 2007, back in the days when print magazines still wandered the earth proudly with little fear for their own extinction, I was tasked with writing the play guide (aka walkthrough) for a PS3 game called Ninja Gaiden: Sigma by talented developers Team Ninja. In essence, this meant I had to play through the entire game over a weekend, and write tricks, hints, and tips to defeat the various enemies and challenging bosses.

The task almost killed me. You see, Ninja Gaiden: Sigma is a malevolent beast that spurns your puny human skills and laughs at your attempts to beat it. I ended up enlisting the help of my flatmate at the time, and over a frankly unwise surplus of coffee and dearth of sleep the task was completed, but at great cost to sanity and the couch cushions, which were the recipient of many a rage-punch.

Cut to: ten years later. The memories of Ninja Gaiden: Sigma are dim, and the ‘triumph over great adversity’ narrative that accompanied the experience has been supplanted by FromSoftware’s “Soulsborne” games aka the Dark Souls trilogy and Bloodborne. Then it was announced that Team Ninja, those responsible for that lost weekend a decade ago, were releasing their own Dark Souls-style action RPG, Nioh.

Just when I thought I was out… they drag me back in!

Nioh is an action RPG, played in a third person POV. It features large, sprawling environments that are filled with hidden shortcuts and treasures and is populated by enemies, any of whom can kill you if you’re not paying attention. As you kill foes you collect Amrita, which you can then use to upgrade various traits (strength, heart, magic etc.) but only if you make it back to one of the shrines dotted around the map. If you die before you reach a shrine your Amrita is left with your corpse. If you don’t collect it before your next death, you’ll lose it all. This is where the Soulsborne comparisons come from, and there’s no question Team Ninja has taken a leaf (hell, a whole branch) out of FromSoftware’s book.

That said, Nioh is far more than a Dark Souls/Bloodborne clone. For a start, the setting is Japan in the 1600s, with the main character based on real-life English samurai, William Adams. Naturally, the game plays extremely fast and loose with the time period, including demons, guardian spirits and magic use as plot devices, which is probably not all that historically accurate.

William will complete main missions, sub-missions and twilight missions on his way through a daft-but-fun story that takes him from England to Japan to the underworld itself. Along the way you can master skills with various weapons, ninjitsu, and magic, improving the frankly dizzying number of combat options and adjusting your stance, armour load outs and consumables on the fly.

Nioh is a game that demands your attention. It’s hard, yes, but it speaks a logical language. It rarely sacrifices established rules for an unfair kill and gives you plenty of options to upgrade and enhance your modes of attack. Find yourself getting too close to your enemies? Why not switch to spear. Blobby things from the deep giving you grief, try imbuing your weapon with fire, or chuck some fire bombs at the sloppy bastards. Bad arse, super-fast demon samurai boss wrecking you hard? Level up your magic and use the Sloth spell to temporarily slow him down. Nioh wants you to succeed, it doesn’t delight in your demise and for those who found the Soulsborne titles crushing, provides a more gradual learning curve.

The one downside to Nioh is the curious lack of variety, particularly in the game’s final third. Once you’ve mastered all the systems and mechanics, you’re essentially repeating the same ‘enter the new area, kill the baddies, maul the boss’ gameplay loop over and over. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a damn fine loop, but in your 60-80 hour playthrough, you’ll rarely be surprised by the appearance of a scary new enemy type that changes the game completely, which is something Bloodborne achieved spectacularly well.

That aside Nioh is an absolutely phenomenal title. Engaging story, gorgeous graphics, slick animation (with options to knock it up to 60fps, which is a literal lifesaver in some of the tougher battles) and a genuine sense of accomplishment when you best a tough foe or insidious dungeon. It’s a bit of a one trick pony, but damn if that trick isn’t pretty excellent. If you own a PS4 and are up for a challenge, you need to own Nioh.

Just be ready to punch the couch cushions and drink plenty of coffee.

 
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Girls: S6E2 – Hostage Situation

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“Downright intolerable.” “Frankenstein’s monster of our own creation.” Just a couple of crystalised terms coined about writer, hellraiser and Girls creator, Lena Dunham. “Why does she insist on being naked, completely out of context?”, one scribe begs – maybe he should read Pin-Up Grrls by Maria Elena Buszek. But if there is a context, he failed to mention what it was. Perhaps, to assume, conventionally attractive? Fat-free? Man-pleasing, to an extent? Clicking insanely on the “Like” button programmed in our collective heads may go against the angry Facebook emoji for some upon seeing a vain, nude and plump Lena Dunham when in character. But she’s been too busy spinning a career out of brash confidence and comic self-loathing to care about context.

The second episode in the sixth and final season of the femmy world of Girls sees Marnie (Allison Williams) in deep frustration, ransacking her memory of doomed relationships and cursing her life in general: “How did I get here? … How the fuck did I end up here?” As in TV, as in life, it’s one of many universal questions. Marnie and Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) are stoking the somewhat dying embers of married life. With a country weekend in Poughkeepsie they drag Hannah along to appease some guilt because they’ve reconciled behind Ray’s back and in Hannah’s eyes, she’s supporting both Marnie’s “sick little tryst” with Desi, and her cycle of lies to Ray (Alex Karpovsky). She briefly escapes the charade to walk into a junk shop and finds a woman who could be mistaken for a highly-stylised, statuesque, Mesopotamian goddess who’s risen, ghostlike, from the ancient city of Nineveh. It’s not as romantic but instead, she has fled the New York diva fashion world to run a humble Poughkeepsie bric-a-brac shop to live “her truth.” She then gifts Hannah with a fine china tea set that becomes a delicate visual motif of the episode – particularly when we’re palpably thrilled watching Desi in a huge meltdown at the country cabin.

In the interim, Shosh (Zosia Mamet) is still on a quest for a dream life that could only be attained by having the dream job. In a trendy space of young professional women and wannabes, Elijah (Andrew Rannells) and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) accompany her to a networking event run by two young, nasally-sounding CEOs who have founded a hip, new and successful company, ‘Jamba Jeans’. As former friends of Shoshanna’s, the CEOs have cracked the life that Shosh craves. But she bails on a holiday with them at the last minute to go with Jessa in the hope of spotting Vincent Gallo!

The closing scene is touching. We see Hannah pick a bloodied Desi up from the ground after his emotional breakdown and he leans on her the way an injured soldier might as they make their way to the car for the drive back to Brooklyn. He’s carrying the weight of his broken spirit on his shoulders and they become the walking wounded. Two imperfect human beings in a perfect frame of darkness; Marnie in the drivers’ seat switches the headlights on to illuminate them, and their crosses to bare. She smiles a gentle smile, with a look that flits knowingly across her face. It’s one of unconditional love and acceptance of human foibles. As in TV, as in life.

 
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Moka

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Like some atmos with your Alps? Go weak for sleek French thrillers? Fondly recall the assured, unhurried pacing of Claude Chabrol’s best work from the ‘70s….?

Then you’re sure to embrace Swiss writer/director, Frédéric Mermoud’s subtle and impressive second feature, Moka.

Half psych-thriller, half revenge drama, Moka is cleverly crafted and complex. But Mermoud’s spare, stylish approach ensures that the narrative balls are expertly – and intriguingly – kept in the air at all times.

A grieving mother, Diane (Emmanuelle Devos) has lost her young violin-playing son, Luc, to an anonymous hit-and-run driver in their hometown of Lausanne in Switzerland.

Her dead son appears to his mother in dreams and visions, causing her a great deal of psychic disturbance. As a result, we pick up the story a few months later when – after a taut, wordless opening sequence in which Diane escapes from a mental health facility – she decides that she will find the killer and avenge her son’s death.

And she’ll do it alone because the death of their son has caused her to become estranged from her bemused and useless husband, Simon (Samuel Labarthe).

Sourcing information from a private detective – and based on the testimony of a bus driver who witnessed the accident – Diane learns that the killer car was a “big coffee-coloured (hence the film’s title moka) BMW or Mercedes” – driven by “a blonde woman” with a man in the passenger seat.

The amateur sleuth eliminates three other such vehicles and after staking them out, believes she’s tracked down the car – and the couple who own it – across Lake Geneva at the famous water town of Évian-les-Bains.

(Possible spoiler alert but it doesn’t matter too much because…) At this point, the film becomes less of a ‘whodunit’ than a ‘what’s she gonna do about it?’ Because it’s pretty clear from recently repaired damage to their moka Merc that these two are almost certainly the hit-and-runners she’s been hunting. But it’s also where the film begins to get really interesting: because Diane – posing as a writer – quickly manages to ingratiate herself into the lives of her two suspects: Marlène (Nathalie Baye), a perfumier and beautician, and her partner, Michel (David Clavel), a louche water aerobics instructor.

Baye (who’s a dead ringer for Helen Mirren here) does a terrific job as the inscrutable, slightly sinister Marlène and the cat and mouse game that plays out between her and Diane is the heart – and indeed head – of the film. While Emmanuelle Devos – who’s in virtually every scene as Diane – carries a mother’s grief, fear and anger with an understated and finely nuanced conviction.

Lenswoman, Irina Lubtchansky, supplants gloss not with gloom but with that wonderful “very European” camera depth and texture that helps anchor the action to the forlorn, beauty of the Swiss surrounds.

But Moka doesn’t just look good: evocative classical refrains are deployed with restraint and resonance while the minimalist sound design also helps convey Diane’s ongoing despair and fragility.

Moka. Sip it slowly and enjoy.

 
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Big Little Lies

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Big Little Lies is a 7-episode short form comedy-drama series based on The New York Times bestselling Australian author Liane Moriarty’s novel about the intertwined secrets of families in a seemingly perfect, picturesque town. Originally set in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, the shared façade of happy marriages and idealistic lifestyles has been transplanted to Monterey, California by prolific show runner David E. Kelley (Boston Legal, Ally McBeal, Picket Fences) and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild). Featuring one of the great casts assembled for an HBO limited series, the pedigree surrounding Big Little Lies is second to none.

Nothing is ever what it seems. In this seaside town, the parents live vicariously through their children. When new resident and single mum Jane (Shailene Woodley) defends her son Ziggy after he is accused of bullying a classmate, she finds herself on the wrong side of the tight-knit community. Nosy stay-at-home mum Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) interferes and insists that the real culprit is Renata (Laura Dern), a bulldog businesswoman who attempts to ostracise Ziggy as punishment for allegedly hurting her daughter. All of these events set a chain in motion for the upcoming school trivia night, where someone will get what is coming to them.

Cutting between the present day police investigation and the past indiscretions of these women, we hear the snide remarks of envious parents who knew this was an incident waiting to happen. Madeline’s marriage to Ed (Adam Scott) lacks the spark and so she volunteers at the community theatre for a sense of purpose. Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is a beautiful, doting mother to two gorgeous twins and has a handsome, younger husband (Alexander Skarsgard) who adores her, but does she really have it all? Jane is an outsider, and her son’s father is mysteriously out of the picture. Voyeuristically examining these women, we find out that the lies they tell to protect their reputations at all costs only enslave them further to treacherous webs of deceit.

We are graced by humour in the series, despite all the dark undertones. These are no Desperate Housewives, because the humour is situational and subtle. Pointing the finger at the hypocrisies of neighbours who try to extend an olive branch while backstabbing people at the same time often results in showdowns that replicate the schoolyard. Cue endless death stares from rear vision mirrors during school drop-offs. The husbands try to act as the voice of reason – especially nice guy Ed – but they too are not immune to the petty grievances that plague complicated female friendships. Marvellous bayside sunsets and lavish houses that look like they were ripped from Better Homes catalogues give the series its rich cinematography (courtesy of Yves Belanger) and surreal style.

Before dismissing this as simply a melodrama about poor rich women, pay attention to the strength of the cast and the non-linear storytelling. Pacing can be stunted on the odd occasion, but when the lies unravel in the climax, it’s not unlike the smug satisfaction of driving a new Jaguar.