“A Fantastic Woman” Review

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Films like A Fantastic Woman, which are so centred on a specific character and their unique experience, just can’t work without the right actor in the part. Fortunately director Sebastian Lelio had the insight to give Daniela Vega, who was originally hired as a script consultant, the lead role – and it’s the performance of a lifetime. As a trans woman struggling to deal with both the unexpected death of her partner and the judgement of his family, Vega’s character Marina accepts the abuse thrown at her with an unflinching demeanour and quiet strength. It’s through Lelio’s direction and the cinematography of Benjamin Echazarreta that we see her frustration and the toll it’s taking on her. One brief moment features Marina walking down the street against the wind, the force getting stronger and stronger until it’s nearly blowing her off her feet. Throughout it all Marina holds strong and pushes through. It’s a wonderfully symbolic and understated moment that demonstrates A Fantastic Woman’s strength for drawing upon the audience’s empathy without feeling as though it had to force a message. It simply didn’t matter how different the life experience of a Chilean transgender woman may be from my own – we connect to her so deeply on a purely human-to-human level as an audience that all I wanted was for her to succeed.

As Marina’s partner, Orlando, Francisco Reyes makes the most of his limited screen-time to ensure that his presence is felt throughout the entire film. The relationship between the two is quickly and efficiently established as one of mutual love and acceptance, and I appreciated how Lelio depicts the opening scenes through Orlando’s perspective to create an immediate connection with the character before his sudden death. His presence or lack thereof is keenly felt throughout the rest of the film as Marina attempts to mourn him despite his family’s objections, occasionally appearing as either a memory or spectre to offer guidance and support. Unfortunately few of the other people Marina encounters are as accommodating, yet Lelio and Gonzalo Maza’s screenplay finely balances both the blatant aggression with more subtle forms of discrimination. Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) weakly prefaces her insults with “no offence” as she refuses to accept Marina’s identity, and even a detective (Amparo Noguera) who claims to be an ally assumes that Orlando’s relationship with Marina must have involved abuse of some kind. It demonstrates how while general public awareness and acceptance of trans people has come a long way, there’s still a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done. Fortunately films like A Fantastic Woman are a good start, marking the first film lead by a transgender character to win “Best Foreign Film” at the recent Academy Awards as well as giving Daniela Vega the honour of being the first openly transgender woman to present.

Throughout A Fantastic Woman both Lelio and Vega are able to find moments of honesty and heart, no matter what trials Marina faces. Without giving anything away the film ends on a moment of serene beauty, with Marina in a state of almost serenity. It was a wonderful scene to leave this character on, demonstrating how this genuinely fantastic woman is strong enough to rise above all those who can’t understand her.

4 and a half stars.

“Just to Be Sure” Review

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Erwan Gourmelon is in a complicated situation. He’s just found out that his Dad isn’t his biological dad, his daughter is pregnant and doesn’t want to find the father of her baby, and the man who might be his real father is also the father of a woman he’s just started seeing. Trust the French to make a romantic comedy that not only displays such dysfunctional relationships, but also uses them to get to the core of what it means to be a parent, to connect with one another, and love selflessly.

Just to Be Sure is a charming story that brings a sense of whimsy to its deeply human and emotional themes. It’s a simple film, with director Carine Tardieu allowing the strength of the characters and wonderful performances to speak for themselves. François Damiens displays a kind heart and protective spirit as Erwan, who left his previous job as an officer to work in bomb disposal in order to look after his daughter after the death of his wife. Erwan’s job was a playful touch on behalf of the screenwriters, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen a romantic comedy with as many explosions as this one. It’s also a nice metaphor for Erwan’s situation, as he spends much of the first act wandering around somewhat shell-shocked after receiving the bombshell reveal that Bastien Gourmelon (Guy Marchand) isn’t his real father. Instead he hires a private detective to find Joseph Levkine (André Wilms), the most likely option to be Erwan’s biological father. The scenes between Erwan and his two Dads were, for me, the strongest moments of Just to Be Sure. Marchand is heartbreakingly innocent as Bastien, unaware as to why his son seems to be pulling away from him yet still deeply proud of Erwan. As Joseph, André Wilms presents an affable man aware of his declining years and surrounded by loss, so seeking companionship wherever he can find it. When Erwan begins showing an interest in him, he’s delighted to find someone to spend time with – even before he figures out why. The theme of fatherhood purveys throughout the film, as Erwan encourages his daughter Juliette (Alice de Lencquesaing) to let the father of her unborn baby into his child’s life, and by doing so has to come to terms with what being a father really means. Is it just the biological connection, as may be the case with Joseph, or is the emotional support provided by Bastien over the years?

This exploration of what it means to be a parent is so effective that I found the romantic subplot between Erwan and Doctor Anna Levkine somewhat disconnected from the main themes. Shortly after Erwan and Anna’s disastrous first meeting they run into each other again and he asks her out, only to discover almost immediately that she is the daughter of Joseph and, possibly, his half-sister. Cécile De France is screen stealing as the confident, no-nonsense Anna, but the connection between her and Erwan was never quite believable. He is understandably hesitant to pursue the relationship after realising who she is, and I couldn’t find a reason for her to become infatuated with a man who becomes so clearly disinterested with her. The uncomfortable nature of their relationship does provide some of the best jokes in the film, but that doesn’t stop it from being, well, uncomfortable in an otherwise wholesome film.

Just to Be Sure is a light, fun movie that uses the dysfunctional and often cartoonish characters to explore universal truths about family and parenting, demonstrating the strength of French cinema to bring together the quirky and the important moments of life.

3 and a half stars.

“The Teacher” Review

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Think back to your worst teacher. Everyone’s had at least one terrible educator, and whether you just didn’t like the subject or felt the teacher had some sort of personal vendetta, it’s amazing how powerless a particularly nasty teacher can make you feel. It’s even worse if she’s the Chairperson of the local communist party and you live in 1980s Soviet ruled Slovakia. This is the story of Jan Hřebejk’s The Teacher, with a title character so manipulative and vindictive that it’s hard to believe it’s based on a true story.

Zuzana Mauréry plays Maria Drazdechova, a teacher who quickly determines what the parents of each of her students do for a living and asks them for various personal favours. If the parent doesn’t offer their services to her or challenges her in some way then their child starts to receive failing marks in class. If Drazdechova likes a certain parent, then she starts telling them what their child should prepare before the next day’s test. Hřebejk cleverly utilises a non-linear timeline to jump between Drazdechova bullying the children in her classroom and an emergency meeting between the parents and the school’s Head Teacher to discuss what can be done. While some of the parents are appalled by how the children are being treated, others are more than happy to help out Drazdechova if it means their kids get preferential treatment. And others are too afraid to speak up at all. The arguments between the parents quickly get heated and personal, but throughout it all Hřebejk makes it clear that while the pressure is on the parents it’s the children who will have to deal with the aftermath.

The performances all around this tense, emotional film are excellent, but it’s ultimately Zuzana Mauréry’s picture to steal. Not since Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge has there been a cinematic teacher as easy to despise – they even wear similar pink sweaters. She’s human enough to understand but too despicable to ever sympathise with, playing the victim or spouting hypocritical lessons to constantly reassert her own control over any situation. There’s also a political element to The Teacher that is underlying but ever-present; with both Drazdechova and her allies making subtle threats about how much worse things could get for anyone willing to speak out against her.

Despite these threats The Teacher is ultimately about the need to stand up against injustice and a seemingly all-powerful adversary. Hřebejk’s film can be viewed as a metaphor for fighting against tyranny, or simply an incredible real-life story, but however it’s taken it clearly has a worthwhile lesson to teach.

4 stars.

“Train to Busan” Review

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Zombies are everywhere in the media. I was going to say ‘nowadays’ but I honestly can’t think of a time when zombies weren’t popular – from George A. Romero’s genre defining Night of the Living Dead in 1968 to The Walking Dead, currently airing its eighth season, there have been countless depictions of the cannibalistic undead preying on the living. With so much to choose from it’s understandable how South Korea’s Train to Busan went under the radar here in Australia – screening at festivals before being released straight to DVD and streaming sites like Netflix. The story is a simple one and it never feels like director Yeon Sang-ho is trying to reinvent the zombie movie formula, but instead he playfully explores the conventions to bring some much needed life and ingenuity into a genre that can at times feel done to death.

A workaholic recently divorced father (Gong Yoo) who only cares about himself has to accompany his young daughter (Kim Su-an) on the titular train to Busan so she can see her mother. Along the way people start turning into zombies, and some of these zombies end up on the train. That’s about the extent of the story. Like the best high concept films Park Joo-suk’s screenplay fully realises this simple premise with moments that manage to be funny, tense, heart-warming, and tragic. The characters all fit within the familiar roles of potential victims: A selfish businessman, a pregnant woman and her tough but kind-hearted husband, two elderly sisters, and a high school baseball team, but nearly every character gets at least one small personal moment to elevate them beyond a simple caricature. Even Train to Busan’s zombies manage to feel different from the typical shambling threat, with jerkier movements, flailing limbs, and a weakness to darkness.

Train to Busan eschews the hyper-realistic oversaturated visuals of a zombie film like 28 Days Later, as well as the dark and gritty tones of other recent horror films, to instead emphasise the mundane nature of travel. The train is clean, colourful, and brightly lit, and all the passengers are just regular people. There are no real fighters or weapons on board, so the action scenes are more focused on escaping or holding the zombies back. Even when things in Train to Busan are going to Hell it manages to feel grounded through offering something that feels real, be it the believably human characters or just the universally recognisable location of a train station. It’s a minor thing, but it helps make the situation all the more accessible – after all, I catch the train nearly every day.

Train to Busan is a pure, unashamed, zombie flick. It’s tremendously fun, inventive, often feels like it has something to say, and is all the stronger for never pretending to be anything more than it is. If films like this are still being made, it seems that zombie films have plenty of life left in them.

4 stars.