Tricia Youlden

Far From Men ★★★★★ M

Writer-director David Oelhoffen’s screenplay for Far From Men was inspired by l’Hote, the classic short story by Albert Camus. Taking Camus’ basic themes of cultural differences and isolation both geographical and individual, Oelhoffen has not only fleshed out the two central characters but embroiled them in the complexities of the Algerian civil war. It is 1954. Daru (Viggo Mortensen), a reclusive teacher in a remote mountain school, is charged with taking a young Arab, Mohamed (Reda Kateb), to the authorities in Tinguit, where the latter will almost certainly be executed for having killed his cousin. Yet if Daru follows his initial impulse to let Mohamed go he realises that the local settlers will kill the Arab in retaliation for the slaughter of their herd by rebels.

Reluctantly, Daru sets out with him for Tinguit. Because of the dangers presented by rebels and settlers alike, the pair leave the beaten track and set out to cross the rugged Atlas Mountains. Both men disclose truths about themselves on their perilous journey. We learn that Mohamed is actually determined to sacrifice his own life in order to put an end to a blood feud between his family and another, hence his insistence upon reaching Tinguit.

Daru reveals that he is of Andalusian descent, regarded as French by the Arabs and Arab by the French settlers. Although he served in the French army during World War II he refuses to align himself with either the French or the Algerian rebels. Encounters with both rebels and the French army enroute to Tinguit reinforce his stance. Both Daru and Mohamed are men of courage and honour. By the end of the film, however, both individually have to make life-changing decisions that essentially compromises their ideals in order to survive.

Filmed almost totally outdoors by Guillaume Deffontaines, Far From Men presents us with one majestic panorama after another. The original soundtrack for the film is composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis — need I say more?

This is a superlative film.

Amy ★★★★ MA

Towards the end of Asif Kapadia’s intimate documentary about the uber-talented Amy Winehouse, Tony Bennett sagely remarks that “Life teaches you how to live it, if you live long enough”. Sadly, this singer, whom Bennett rates as being on a par with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, died at 27. Editor Chris King has skilfully pieced together a diverse array of footage to create a candid portrait of his subject from childhood. Like much of the film, the opening clip is filmed on a mobile phone; the occasion is Lauren Gilbert’s 14th birthday, which she is celebrating with her best friends, Amy Winehouse and Juliette Ashby. As they sing “Happy Birthday” Amy’s distinctive voice takes over. Two years later, 19-year-old Nick Shymansky, convinces Amy to set her poems to music — and a star is born.

Amy is a chilling expose of the cruel way the public and the media delight in creating stars only to savage them when they crack under the stress of celebrity — we make ’em and mercilessly break ’em. Kapadia’s film resonates with the heartache and guilt that Amy’s friends feel about not having been able to prevent her demise. Although her first album Frank brings her to the notice of music aficionados it is the spectacular success of her second album, Back to Black, that catapults Amy into celebrity status, garnering her five Grammy awards. While she enjoys the freedom that this buys her, Amy is still the vulnerable, bulimic North London Jewish girl who goes crazy after her parents’ separation in 1997. Her grandmother’s death in 2006 further destabilises her, as does her tempestuous relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil, who introduces her to crack cocaine and heroin. Even when she eventually goes to rehab, he smuggles in drugs. It is hard not to be cynical about the way her estranged father, Mitchell Winehouse, re-enters Amy’s life. He decrees that she doesn’t need to go to rehab, stating that “It’s Amy’s responsibility to get herself sorted”. Yet he forces her to tour and play to massive crowds when all she wants to do is sing in small jazz clubs.

Just as Amy wrote songs as a means of explaining her life, Kapadia uses her lyrics throughout as commentary upon the ongoing tragedy of being Amy: “If I could give it back just to walk down the street with no hassle, I would.”

Irrational Man ★★★★ M

Parker Posey and Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man

This latest film from Woody Allen is set in a small college community on Rhode Island where the arrival of Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) into the Philosophy Department has set tongues wagging.

Rumours about the tragedies in his life that have led to alcohol abuse and depression fan romantic expectations that his arrival will somehow spice up the campus. Like an ancient Greek chorus, gossip provides a running commentary throughout the film.

In their chintzy, on-campus cottage, the Pollards (Betsy Aidem and Ethan Phillips) sound a cautionary note about all this speculation, telling their daughter Jill (Emma Stone) that, although they are “just the music department” they feel that Abe’s work is more style than substance.

Jill reassures them that she finds Abe “very conservative in a sort of liberal way”. Nevertheless, her boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley) worries that she will fall for the dissolute, depressive romantic — which of course she does.

So too does chemistry professor, Rita Richards (Parker Posey), who dreams that self-absorbed Abe will whisk her away to Spain.

Willing though both women are to become the muse who will save him from his intellectual and sexual impotence, it is an overheard conversation that eventually provides Abe with a clear purpose for living. He will resolve a desperate stranger’s dilemma.

Unfortunately, so intent is Abe upon doing something altruistic, so sure is he that the end justifies the means, that he inadvertently jeopardises the life of an innocent man — and hubris rears its ugly head.

What commences as a relatively gentle satire about a comfortably complacent college community becomes a nail-biting drama. Allen uses the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s jazz tracks to great advantage as the characters realise how much more complicated issues of morality are in reality than in theory. Darius Khondji’s cinematography, Alisa Lepselter’s editing and Santo Loquasto’s production design are of their customary impeccably high standard. Irrational Man is scheduled to open on August 20. Put it in your diary.

Underdog ★★★★ Rating TBA

Although the 2015 Scandinavian Film Festival closed in Sydney on July 26, do keep your eyes out for both Underdog and Ingrid Bergman — In Her Own words (the opening and closing night films, respectively), both of which should be having general release.

Underdog presents a deceptively amusing look at the plight of young Swedes who go to Norway in search of employment only to find a scarcity of positions and affordable accommodation. While these young people are definitely not saints one cannot help but empathise with their plight. Desperate for work, Dino (Bianca Kronlof) offers her services as nanny to restaurateur Steffen (Henrik Rafaelsen) formerly a professional tennis player.

His wife is abroad, leaving him to care for their two daughters. We gather that Steffen is unsure whether said wife will return as she has been having an affair.

Dino quickly becomes indispensable to Steffen and his two daughters. They all fall in love with her. She is clever, amusing and caring — but she is still the Swedish au pair to a wealthy, privileged Oslo family. Both love story and social commentary, Underdog engages the audience on several levels. Director Ronnie Sandahl has achieved commendably natural, relaxed performances from all her actors. Ita Zbroniec-Zajt’s camera allows us an intimate view of the unfolding narrative, which is made all the more realistic by the welcome restraint shown by the design and make-up departments.

Tricia Youlden teaches Drama at Willoughby GHS. She is looking forward to seeing Ingrid Bergman — In Her Own Words as well as 13 Minutes.

13 Minutes winners

The 15 lucky winners of double passes courtesy of StudioCanal to see 13 Minutes, the film about a young German’s actual attempt to blow up Hitler, are:

Sharryn Azevedo, Sally Blain, Lee Chaloner, Janet Duncan, Maria Georgoulopoulos, Julie Horne, Megan Jay, Juliette Lynch, Carolyn Neumann, Suzanne Norris, Fernando Pinget, Mary Ann Robb, Matthew Somerton, Ben Tyacke and Jennifer Zantis.

Your tickets have been posted to you. Please note that 13 Minutes, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, who created the epic Downfall, will be screening at selected Sydney cinemas such as Palace Verona and Norton Street.