Emerging actors Jake Ryan and John Tui headline Sam Kelly’s debut feature, set in the world of New Zealand street gangs.
New Zealand is, quite bafflingly, viewed as some kind of magical wonderland, covered in lush greenery and populated by happy hobbits. In reality, New Zealand is like any other developed nation, populated by rich and poor, advantaged and underprivileged, the mainstream and outcasts. Writer-director Sam Kelly pulls the cover off New Zealand's gang culture in his first feature film, Savage. One part examination of a criminal subculture and one part dissection of masculinity and how it's defined, the pic is going to draw immediate comparisons to the former FX series Sons of Anarchy — which would be inaccurate as well as entirely unfair.
Savage will also recall Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors for the social tapestry of a marginalized group it weaves. Shifting back and forth among three watershed moments in the protagonist's life, Kelly draws an emotional roadmap detailing one man's life and how he got from A to B. Savage is primed for a long festival run, and English-language territories should take an interest in its fresh perspective.
Savage begins in 1989 with patched-in gang member Danny Australian actor Jake Ryan, also known as “Damage,” punishing a mate for a theft. It's a brutal introduction to his brutal life, and it continues later that same evening when he reports back to the club president, Moses John Tui, Solo: A Star Wars Story. Moses is clinging to power — rival Tug the charismatic Alex Raivaru is nipping at his heels — but there's always time for some drinks and some women. It's during a clumsy encounter with a well-heeled, sexually confident woman that Danny explains that his facial tattoos, his mask, are there so that she can see who he really is. It's an ironic statement, and one that prompts Danny to recall his life to this point.
In too many circumstances, flashbacks can be clunky, intrusive asides that take viewers out of a film, but in Savage they actually have a hand in crafting a richer portrait of how a boy transforms from 9-year-old Danny, son of a devoutly Christian and abusive farmer, to juvenile convict in 1965 to Damage, sergeant in the burgeoning Savages gang in 1972.
Kelly's script was inspired by real street-gang history, and the world of Savage couldn't be farther from the trendy, postcard-ready cafe culture of Wellington where the film was shot if it tried. Kelly and director of photography James L. Brown capture the casual violence and still uneasy white-Maori coexistence with a raw, unfiltered, dark tone that lends the pic a veracity it might not enjoy with cleaner images. Not surprisingly, Danny looks most out of his element in the bright light of day.
But Kelly wisely makes Danny and Moses' friendship and their growth or not the real story, and Ryan and Tui's completely believable, naturalistic dynamic serves as the movie's emotional anchor. Savage's strongest moments involve the two just having a beer and talking about their shared pasts and possible futures, revealing a great deal more about both men than any gang fight does.
It also makes a reconnection between Danny and his brother Liam Seth Flynn all the more gutting when Danny begins to struggle with the lure of a lost family and freedom from gang life versus loyy to his oldest friend, someone who provided a haven when he needed one. It becomes obvious that Danny's tattoos are actually just a public face for a more sensitive man who might, on the third go, make a radically different choice.
Production company: Domino Films Cast: Jake Ryan, John Tui, Chelsea Crayford, Alex Raivaru, Olly Presling, James Matama, Haanz Fa'Avae Jackson, Lotina Pome'e, Poroaki McDonald, Jack Parker, Seth Flynn, Dominic Ona-Ariki Director-screenwriter: Sam Kelly Producer: Vicky Pope Executive producers: William Watson, Billy Trotter, Brian Kelly Director of photography: James L. Brown Production designer: Chris Elliott Costume designer: Bob Buck Editor: Peter Roberts Music: Arli Liberman Casting: Yvette Reid, Miranda Rivers Venue: Busan InternationalFilm Festival World sales: Film Constellation
Actor Will McFadden directs himself in the story of a white man whose white wife gives birth to a black baby.
If discussions of race in America often hit brick walls when the points turn personal " I'm not a racist, it's all those cops/landlords/Trump voters...", fiction can sometimes find cracks in the mortar, showing how a decent, relatable character can be part of the problem. That's the case with Will McFadden's Doubting Thomas, which starts with a dicey-sounding premise — a white couple has a black child, and the wife swears it's not the result of an affair — but handles it with more grace than one expects in microbudget cinema. Imperfect but admirable for a serious approach that doesn't stumble over into off-putting earnestness, it's a debut with more on its mind than giving its writer/director a plum job as an actor as well.
McFadden plays Tom, a successful lawyer who's expecting his first child with wife Jen Sarah Butler. So serious about his responsibility that sometimes he's the one who finds himself alone at Lamaze class, he nevertheless misses his wife's delivery — he's off chasing a hoodlum who stole her purse, and dealing with the cops afterward.
So when he arrives at the hospital, where his best friend Ron Jamie Hector has given Jen a ride, Ron knows something he doesn't: Jen's baby is unmistakably an African-American. Ron is black as well, but the two men are such close friends that the obvious hypothesis isn't the first one addressed: Well before anyone suggests Jen might've slept with Ron, husband and wife have settled uneasily on the idea of some recessive gene in their DNA. Maybe somebody way back in the family tree was black, and this is nature's way of informing them.
Neither new parent is quite satisfied with that explanation predictably, Tom finds it harder to accept than Jen, but that doesn't keep them from being indignant when friends and strangers leap to natural conclusions: that, for instance, the couple adopted a child from Africa, or used a sperm donor. In a variation of that revolting ritual in which young parents assume other people's reproductive choices are their business, curious women assail Jen at a party, amplifying her unease. But soon enough, Tom has segued from obsessive web searches about genetics and childbirth stats to terms like "signs that my wife is cheating on me." And Ron, a bachelor who has always made himself at home in his married friend's house, is the prime suspect.
Rather than push hard into the narrative questions it raises, the film's midsection focuses largely on attitudes and acceptance. Does it change a white person's self-concept to give birth to a non-white child? How far back in your genealogy would you have to go for an ancestor of another race not to impact your identity? Why does it even matter?
Wisely, McFadden avoids nailing things down too tightly here, being content to show the shaky ground his characters stand on. As it unfolds, the drama's scripting is uneven, with some motivations more convincingly drawn than others and perhaps a few too many mentions of the big "Albright case" that Tom's supposed to be focused on at work. But the film is open-ended enough to acknowledge that the remedies for unacknowledged prejudice are neither easy nor clearly identified. And if one obviously well-intentioned man has this much trouble, heaven help the country that produced him.
Production company: Long Way Home Cast: Will McFadden, Sarah Butler, Jamie Hector, Melora Walters, James Morrison Director: Will McFadden Screenwriters: Will McFadden, Joseph Campbell Producers: Casey Morris, Laura Jane Salvato, Mark Sayre Director of photography: Phil Parmet Production designer: Stephanie Spiegel Costume designer: Cate Adams Editor: Mark Sayre Composer: David Majzlin Casting directors: Liz Lewis, Angela Mickey
An elderly Indian woman decides to live for herself in director Kislay’s debut feature.
Oppressive obligations and societal expectations are at the heart of debuting director Kislay's Just Like That, an indictment of the dismissiveness with which India treats elderly women after their duties as wives and mothers have been discharged.
Premiering in Busan's New Currents competition section, Just Like That has a clear-eyed, singular focus that ties its various, seemingly unrelated threads together for a larger comment on a woman's lack of agency in a society that still undervalues them. Beautifully shot and acted, with only a few novice filmmaker missteps we don't really need the family history inserts, Just Like That will slot in nicely in festival line-ups, and could garner some arthouse attention in Asia-Pacific as well as urban markets overseas.
After 52 years of marriage, the newly widowed Mrs. Sharma Mohini Sharma has decided to start living for herself and not, as is expected, act the good widow and move in with her son, Virendra Harish Khanna and his wife Sonia Sadhna Singh. She starts going out for ice cream, getting beauty treatments, learning the craft of doll-making with help from a local tailor and, most shockingly, controlling her own money: She opens her first bank account.
Despite pressure from Virendra to “shift” downstairs so that the financially strapped family can rent out the upper floor, she stubbornly resists falling in line. To make matters worse, she strikes up a friendship with a young woman who works in the salon she starts frequenting, Sugandhi Trimala Adhikari, and the Muslim man, Ali Mohammed Iqbal, who's teaching her to sew. Before long, Mrs. Sharma is the gossip of small Allahabad and she still winds up forced to sacrifice her independence.
Director Kislay has a light touch, and illustrates Mrs. Sharma's position with a clever combination of alienating images vividly and colorfully shot by Saumyananda Sahi that put her outside the crowd and a layered soundscape by Gautam Nair that insinuates the world into her new life. Crowded compositions often see Mrs. Sharma physically pushed to the edge of the frame, as if she's an insignificant afterthought, and ambient city noises become louder and clearer as she goes about her business of re-experiencing the world. It's a subtle effect — it gets duller and quieter when she's forced to give up her new life — but one that drives home Kislay's point.
Ahead of a disheartening, but not entirely pessimistic, ending, Kislay laces Just Like That with grace notes that highlight how unbending the rules can be — Mrs. Sharma's grandson Vicky Shiram Sharma starts exerting entitled male control over his sister Vinny Saumya Jhakmola when he finds out she might have a boyfriend — and how rocking the boat can have dire consequences; Ali's livelihood and life are all threatened at one point for simply befriending a curious, friendly Hindu widow.
This is an intimate film that relies on understanding how Mrs. Sharma goes from feeling utterly liberated to feeling trapped all over again. In the lead, Sharma shoulders the burden of making those feelings real with grace, nimbly jumping between satisfied curiosity and resignation.
A few questions might race through your mind during the hectic opening moments of Abe Forsythe's “Little Monsters,” in which an Australian couple shouts their way through an extended public breakup while bubbly piano music plinks by in the background. Questions like: “is that a Hemsworth?,” “can a zombie comedy perfectly split the difference between Edgar Wright and Taika Waititi?,” and “how are Lupita Nyong'o, Josh Gad, and an invasion of the walking dead going to factor into this?”
Like everything else in this funny, spirited, and frequently clever 93-minute romp, the answers come fast and furious “no,” “almost,” and “with the reckless abandon of a movie that doesn't have any time for nonsense like 'reasons' and 'logic' because it's too busy with a Neil Diamond singalong”. Alexander England — who honestly might still be a Hemsworth, despite what the internet and his birth certificate might tell you — stars as David, a scruffy blond musician with a bad case of stunted manhood. Forsythe's script doesn't get into specifics until the third act, but it's clear from the start that David might be a bit too invested in his “stadium rock/death metal” band God's Sledgehammer to really invest in a human relationship, or make room for the kids that sometimes come as a result.
Perhaps that explains why things don't work out with David's ex, and why he doesn't have the first clue how to deal with his ultra-adorable five-year-old nephew Felix a note-perfect Diesel La Torraca. Like seemingly every other director from his corner of the globe, Forsythe knows how to help a child actor thread the needle between cute and cloying; from the way Felix treats his pet tractor yes to his deep kinship with Darth Vader, La Torraca's performance is bright-eyed and open to the wonder of our world in a way that's sweet, hilarious, and ineffably real. England meanwhile becomes a most endearing foil, as he informs his character with such genuine indifference towards the guileless little boy that the scenes between them never feel like old schtick.
Forced to take Felix to school one day, David spends the whole time hitting on his nephew's teacher, Miss Caroline Nyong'o, who all the kids love and listen to without reservation. And when chaperones are needed for a field trip to a petting zoo called Pleasant Valley Farm, David only volunteers because he has hopes of touching something else along the way. He is, needless to say, not particularly well-equipped to handle the students nor their eminently capable substitute mom. The only person who might be more dangerous to have around those people might be beloved kids TV star Teddy McGiggle Gad, a noxious wannabe Mr. Rogers who's actually a sex addict who hates children. It doesn't really matter how he finds himself in a small wooden hut with David, Miss Caroline, Felix, and 20 other little tykes when a horde of zombies breaks out of a nearby military base, but he does.
Forsythe's sense of humor may be less referential and his filmmaking less refined than Edgar Wright's, but “Little Monsters” and “Shaun of the Dead” provoke a similar giddiness from trying to negotiate human relationships in decidedly inhuman times. The action that clutters the last hour of this movie is never compelling enough to feel like anything more than a bloody distraction, but the characters vibe together so well on their own terms that the walking dead only need to provide an existential threat.
For a ramshackle movie that can sometimes feel rushed and tossed off, Forsythe does an excellent job of balancing the various energies of his cast. Gad is most potent in small doses, even if there are only so many times he can drop nuclear-grade F-bombs on a room full of small children before it gets old. Nyong'o initially seems like she'll be stuck playing the proverbial straight man, but this brilliant actress is smart not to bait the laughs; there's something ambiently hilarious and movingly fragile about how dedicated she is towards keeping the students calm, even if that means leading them on a conga line through a field of zombies. By the time she's covered in blood and busting out a ukulele to serenade the kids with Taylor Swift covers, it's impossible not to be impressed with her range and not for the first time this year.
But the nucleus of “Little Monsters” exists in the space between David and Felix, and the movie is at its best when it hones in on the idea that having children — or at least having children around — can be a source of incredible strength. They don't judge adults with the same mercilessness that adults judge themselves, and it can be a total blast however sloppy to watch Felix innocently reveal the root cause of his uncle's fear. With a bit more craft and visual imagination, “Little Monsters” could have been something much bigger, but it has a very good time getting its point across. As one character puts it during a respite from defending themselves against hundreds of flesh-eating zombies: “There are plenty of things to be scared of in this world, but having kids isn't one of them.”
“Little Monsters” will play in theaters on Tuesday, October 8. It will be available to stream on Hulu starting Friday, October 11.
Belgian neorealist master filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne make films that might focus primarily on individuals, but they always echo back to some larger trend occurring in society. Similarly, there’s usually a divide in their movies between what happens in the plot and what their stories are truly about. Until their latest film, Young Ahmed, the Dardennes always made film that did not feel like the themes were the starting point – they were an organic outgrowth of their deeply human tales.
In Young Ahmed, theme and narrative feel like one in the same. On its face, this is not some kind of disqualifying feature. But there are many moments in the film where it feels as if the film is a political statement in search of a narrative. While the Dardennes stop short of outright polemicizing, they might have been better served to just embrace more explicit messaging if they intended to elevate political undertones to such an undeniable extent.
It’s hard to ignore, for example, that Two Days, One Night is a film about exploitative capitalism or The Unknown Girl is a film about the European migration influx. But the Dardennes always put their characters first, and it was through identifying with their struggles and travails that the audience could enter these complicated issues from a deeply humane angle. Young Ahmed, on the other hand, is about the conflict created by the titular teenager a sensational Idir Ben Addi in an unflinching debut performance as his instruction at an extremist mosque leads him to lash out. The early clashes stem from his espousing radical interpretations of the Quran, such as refusing to shake his female teacher’s hand or claiming that the Belgian muslim population cannot live in peace with other religions. “Jews and Christians hate us,” Ahmed declares.
His teacher Ines Myriem Akheddiou attempts to counter his fundamentalist instruction with a more modern interpretation of their Muslim faith, one that emphasizes values that comport well with their liberal society. Yet Ahmed’s jihadist zeal quickly makes it clear to her and many others that the regressive influence of his imam requires a more forceful intervention. His community cannot simply talk him down; he needs deprogramming altogether. The film reframes jihadism not as something that only occurs in the far corners of the world. It’s something that can grab a foothold even in developed democracies.
The most affecting moments in Young Ahmed come from Ahmed’s violent outbursts, quick bursts of fury that the Dardennes capture with their typical verité style. These scenes prove so jarring because they make clear the stakes of what happens if society cannot counter his religious instruction. They disrupt the quietness and mundanity of everyday life with such electricity, yet it’s to the Dardenne Brothers’ credit that they can elicit such a response without sensationalizing Islam. By putting such a human face on radicalized youth and rooting his fanaticism in such observable reality, they make extremist religion scarier than any kind of insidious “Homeland”-style music ever could – and without demonizing an entire religion.
The Dardennes focus on the youth and immaturity of their protagonist, not necessarily to solicit pity or to excuse his behavior, but rather to illuminate just how much religion can warp an impressionable young mind. Their contemplation of differences in Islamic practice essentially ends there, and it’s a bit of a stretch to make it last an already brief 80-minute runtime. The brothers tend not to dally much with their narratives, but even adjusting for their typical brevity, Young Ahmed feels like a cursory examination of the social issues they raise. It lacks the incisiveness of their other glances directly into the heart of Belgian society.
Still, there are flashes of their brilliance and reminders of why they are such revered practitioners of verité filmmaking. The Dardennes understand how audiences react to such triggers as violence puncturing veneers of civilization or a child in peril, and they use that to devastating extent in driving home their point. But the relative infrequency of such moments also serves as a reminder of how much the majority of Young Ahmed lacks their usual spark.
Sarah Gavron, the director of British period drama 'Suffragette,' turns her camera on contemporary London in this gritty tale of teen girls battling to survive.
Films about neglected children had special visibility at this year's San Sebastian Film Festival, and they were especially gripping. One of the best is a British movie, Rocks, directed by Sarah Gavron, who also made Brick Lane and Suffragette.
The film, which world premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last month, will have some challenges in reaching an American audience, in part because of the disturbing subject matter and also because the East London accents of the polyglot cast members are sometimes hard to decipher. But this potent work about stolen childhood deserves attention because of the freshness of the cast and because it confirms that Gavron is a director to watch.
“Rocks” is the nickname of the main character, played by a magnetic newcomer, Bukky Bakray, who emigrated from Nigeria with her mother and younger brother. The school she attends is populated by other kids from immigrant backgrounds, but they seem to mix well with some of the white students in the school as well. One of the freshest and most heartening things about the film is the color-blind friendships that sprout at this school.
In a press conference after the screening, Gavron explained the unusual background to this movie. She gave special credit to casting director Lucy Pardee, who worked with the director for a full year to find the girls who would populate the film. It was only then that screenwriters Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson fashioned the script, drawing on what they learned from meeting the girls, many of whom had not acted before.
The story kicks in when Rocks' mother suddenly abandons their home, leaving a note and asking Rocks to take care of her younger brother, Emmanuel superbly played by a most engaging child actor, D'angelou Osei Kissiedu. Obviously this creates major challenges for an adolescent girl, but one of the most moving things in the film is how Rocks makes a superhuman effort to shoulder the responsibility forced on her. Although teachers and social workers try to intervene, Rocks does her best to fend them off. She even engages in robbery to secure the money she needs for basic survival, but her lapses in judgment stem from the crisis facing her.
Despite these pressures, Rocks does not lose her joy in living. One of the most surprising and heartening elements in the movie can be found in the joyful rapport among the girls at school, especially when they respond to music and dance. Survival challenges but does not necessarily destroy the joie de vivre of the characters.
Yet the film is far from an idealized portrayal of teenage friendships. When Rocks takes refuge at the home of her best friend, Sumaya Kosar Ali, a girl from Somalia, she cannot refrain from venting about the jealousy she feels regarding the stable family life that her friend seems to enjoy. And when she moves in with another friend, Agnes Ruby Stokes, Agnes tries to help by alerting the authorities about Rocks' desperate situation; we can understand Agnes' motivation, but we also apprehend the betrayal that Rocks experiences.
There is no clear or satisfying solution to the horrific family dilemma. Both Rocks and Emmanuel are ultimately placed in foster homes, and although their separation is heartrending, the open-ended conclusion suggests that the homes where they land may not be disastrous for either of them. The script and Gavron's direction honor the complexity of the situation.
Gavron enlisted a mainly female crew — including cinematographer Helene Louvart, editor Maya Maffioli and composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch — and their empathy for the vulnerable characters enlivens the film. All the film needs to reach an American audience are subtitles.