In the present, Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) is retired and struggling to connect with his daughter Angela (Christine Ko). Through extensive flashbacks, he’s shown to have grown up poor in Taiwan, broadly dreaming of migrating to America for a better life but lacking the means to do so. The young Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee) ultimately chooses to marry Zhenzhen (Kunjue Li) so that her father will pay for their trip despite feeling no emotional connection with her, and having recently been reunited with his childhood sweetheart.
TIGERTAIL spends much of its runtime in the period immediately before and after Pin-Jui’s emigration, showing past actions to explain his epiphanies later in life. This approach leads to an unexpected but intriguing critique of single-mindedly pursuing one’s goals, particularly through the film’s portrayal of Zhenzhen’s aimlessness in America. While her husband goes to work every day, Zhenzhen visits the laundromat with increasingly smaller loads so that she’ll another reason to leave their apartment soon. The scene in which she admits this to the only friend she’s made in America is heartbreaking; Li laughs quietly when delivering the line but is seemingly on the verge of tears.
Casting the protagonist as oblivious and selfish is a risky choice, though Yang makes clever use of the alternating timelines to prevent Pin-Jui from becoming outright loathsome. Scenes of him coldly rejecting Zhenzhen’s dreams of going to school and becoming a teacher are followed by Angela calling him out for not knowing anything about her. These moments technically take place decades apart, but showing them together feels gratifying.
Tzi Ma and Hong-Chi Lee also make Pin-Jui a consistently engaging presence even when the viewer is no longer rooting for him. Lee expertly conveys the subtle shift in his feelings for Zhenzhen from awkwardness to resentment; he barely raises his voice during arguments and literally tries not to face her. Meanwhile, Ma’s stoicism is the perfect canvas for suggesting a man no longer as sure of himself, one willing to take advice from his now ex-wife. Once again, cutting between these contrasting versions of the character is smart, allowing Yang to both reveal the flaws in this conception of the American Dream and propose a solution (which I won’t spoil).
The only confusing aspect of TIGERTAIL is how much it rushes the present-day storyline. This leads to a number of issues, from clunky and expositional dialogue, to poor blocking and editing. For instance, one emotionally charged conversation between Pin-Jui and Angela is interrupted by him turning away from her and walking a few steps, pausing to deliver a few lines, and return to his original position in a matter of seconds. Simply put, I find it hard to believe that this was the most natural-looking take available. Furthermore, I don’t know why Yang devotes so much time to an extended opening sequence of Pin-Jui’s childhood at his grandparents’ rice field. It doesn’t connect to any other part of the story and would be disposable if it weren’t for its beautiful cinematography (a consistent quality of the scenes filmed in Taiwan).
Nevertheless, TIGERTAIL offers a nuanced, distinct and memorable view of immigrant family life and demonstrates Yang’s success should by no means be limited to TV. His thoughtful script, keen grasp of themes and gorgeous choice of setting undeniably outweigh the film’s flaws, and hopefully this is just the start of wider mainstream recognition.
This remarkable collection of imagery intercut with selected concert footage and other clips of Aznavour at work and play is much more than a documentary about the life of the internationally adored singer; it’s an opportunity to understand something of how significant his Armenian heritage was and to look at a key period of his life through his own eyes. There’s a kind of poetry or lyricism to these visuals, especially as presented with the laconic narration written by Domenico and spoken by Romain Duris, and the saturated colour of that sixties film stock is simply beautiful to watch.
Aznavour may have been celebrated all over the world as a popular singer, but he was also a songwriter, an actor, a diplomat, a political activist and, of course, a globe-trotter who hung out with what the Sixties liked to refer to as the Jet-Set. There’s plenty of screen time for Aznavour to visit exotic locations from Japan to Africa, from New York to Montmartre and to hang out with his friends, Piaf, Frank Sinatra, Charles Trenet, Brigitte Bardot and more, but there’s also great moments with French New Wave film director, Francois Truffaut on the set of their 1960 collaboration Shoot The Piano Player.
In approaching this project, di Domenico admitted that that it’s not at all common to begin working on a film where you have the footage but don’t have the story. One of the strengths of this doco is di Domenico’s ability to get out the way of Aznavour’s cinematography and let that imagery create the story for us. In selecting and assembling the material, it seems that di Domenico has taken a light touch in where he intrudes with other footage (concerts and the like) and, most importantly, how unobtrusive the voice-over narration is.
Of course, like any ‘amateur’ film (if one dare refer to Aznavour as an ‘amateur’) there is the added authentic feel that comes with the happenstance of hand-held camera work: no planned or pre-mediated framing or tracking shots here, but that only adds to the informality of the film that allows to feel like we’re ‘inside’ rather than on the outside looking in. And there’s an added bonus too; if you take the time to look past the famous faces to the backgrounds and the crowds that fill out the film, you’ll be rewarded with the fashions and vehicles and cityscapes of eras gone by. At only 75 minutes, this is a delight that’s over too quickly, but what we get in those fleeting moments of an icon’s ‘home movies’ is a rare and enjoyable insight like no other.
THE PLATFORM’s premise is rich with details. The film is set entirely within a vertical prison with one cell per floor, and two inmates per cell. Each pair of inmates is randomly assigned a new floor at the beginning of the month. Food is distributed via the titular platform, which stops for two minutes per day on each floor. If there’s no food left when the platform reaches your floor, too bad. Thankfully, it feels much less like an exposition dump in practice.
I was thoroughly impressed with the concise worldbuilding on display throughout THE PLATFORM, even within the opening minutes. The audience is thrown into the action and introduced to protagonist Goreng (Ivan Massagué) and his cellmate Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) on floor 48. This first meeting isn’t simply used to summarise how the prison operates, but establishes an eerie tone which never lets up. While the men discover their vastly different backgrounds (one of them is actually there voluntarily), the camera subtly raises questions and heightens the sense of dread. A wide shot reveals the claustrophobic, dank space the two men will share. Peering down the void in the centre of each cell provides a terrifying sense of scale as tiny figures slowly fade to black. That is, a traditionally creepy aesthetic paired with a looming fear of the unknown, which is as good as horror films get.
Given the sets are so confined, it’s unsurprising that the script focuses on filling the space with intriguing characters and scenarios. The contrast between Goreng and Trimagasi is particularly engaging; the former has just begun his sentence while the latter is approaching release, effectively assuming the role of an unwanted mentor. Massagué and Eguileor are each perfectly calibrated, allowing their early moments of camaraderie such as reading and exercising together to feel genuine. However, when things get desperate the actors turn on a dime. Eguileor channels the smiling, delusional menace of Norman Bates to transform his character into an unambiguous villain. Simultaneously, Massagué imbues Goreng with the ferocity of a wounded animal, leaving the audience primed for their impending showdown.
The secondary characters are similarly intense and mostly well-written, though not always fully utilised. For instance, fellow inmate Imoguiri (Antonia San Juan) originally worked for the administration behind the prison but chose to commit herself to change the system. Although this is admittedly the catalyst for most of THE PLATFORM’s second half, it’s mostly through Goreng’s reaction to her beliefs rather than her character changing. Yet not only is Imoguiri’s motivation wasted, her screen time is usurped by Goreng’s new cellmate Baharat (Emilio Buale Coka), the obnoxious exception to what I said before about this film’s characters being well-written. Buale plays him as a loud, easily manipulated zealot with no backstory who vaguely wants to escape and send a vague message to the administration. At their nadir, these qualities combine to give us a grown man obsessed with preserving a panna cotta from the platform to prove the inmates aren’t total gluttons, complete with an overacted catchphrase (“the panna cotta!”).
Baharat is indicative of THE PLATFORM’s greatest weakness: it’s unclear exactly what it’s trying to say. To be clear, there are plenty of ruminations on how ‘the system’ and humanity need to change, which certainly suggest the film wants to do more than simply tell a fun horror story. I don’t believe having a profound message is necessary, especially for genre films, so this normally wouldn’t be an issue. Unfortunately though, the second act is stuffed with overly long sequences depicting Goreng’s internal moral debates that are too vague to be insightful and slow the action to a crawl. While it’s a relatively small criticism, I couldn’t help but notice this section of the film felt like a letdown. Overall, THE PLATFORM is still remarkably well-executed horror that I feel any thrill seeker needs to check out. Just make sure any squeamish viewers have left the room first!
The film depicts the day-to-day operations of the Roubaix police department through the eyes of new recruit Louis (Antoine Reinartz) and his older, stoic commissaire Daoud (Roschdy Zem). Zem is pitch- perfect in what’s already a captivating and well-written role, managing to convey that Daoud has seen it all without coming across as smug or resting on his laurels. This is particularly clear during OH MERCY!’s interrogation scenes, where Zem keeps the pressure applied even as his hunches appear more and more likely to be true. Here, Daoud simmers with rage, revealing the cracks in his calm exterior, leaving the audience in anticipation to see whether the perp will give in before he erupts. He’s truly the archetypal crime genre protagonist, complete with a sombre yet ambiguous backstory about a broken family that’s practically begging to be explored in a follow-up.
From the second half onwards, director/co-writer Arnaud Desplechin dedicates an increasing amount of focus to Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier), two roommates who become suspects in a murder case Daoud investigates. Although it’s a somewhat jarring shift (more on that below), Seydoux and Forestier are more than up to the challenge, bringing serious emotional heft as the pair’s backstories and complex, symbiotic friendship are revealed. I found them to be equally captivating for different reasons: Forestier is certainly showier; the fear in her voice alone during questioning strikes a balance between relatable and suspicious, casting her as someone who knows more than they’re letting on. By contrast, Claude is icy and calculating, wanting to avoid the investigation for fear that her relationship with her young son could become further strained. Seydoux is wonderful opposite both Forestier and Zem, using long pauses and an unflinching gaze to punctuate her early scenes and subtly disarm her co-stars.
Despite its strong leads, I found OH MERCY!’s structure confusing and misguided, preventing it from leaving a stronger impression. Simply put, there is no discernible reason why the writers divided the story between cases in such a linear fashion. There are no overarching thematic threads, nor does it feel like a cinema verite-esque attempt to realistically portray the case by case nature of police work. Given the Claude and Marie case dominates the latter half and ending, I can’t imagine why it wasn’t the entire premise of the film, or at least foreshadowed from the beginning. Similarly, the first case shown (a burn victim supposedly attacked by jihadists) is interesting, but Daoud quickly solves it and it’s just as swiftly forgotten. Once again, these ideas could’ve stood out with more breathing room, and it’s a shame for them to go to waste.
OH MERCY! is above all an acting showcase, with a trio of dynamic performances sure to command the viewer’s attention. Even though its structure feels like a failed experiment, I suspect crime buffs might relish the opportunity to unravel several cases at once. I’m not sure I’ll come back to this film any time soon, but it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for what its leads do next.
As I hinted at above, whether or not Henri Pick wrote the book will ultimately affect very little. Sure, Rouche was fired from his job as a TV show host, but that’s also largely due to him offending Pick’s widow with his on-air behaviour. Consequently, the script subtly distinguishes itself from other detective fiction, focusing less on the who and why and more on the how, given the holes in Rouche’s argument. It’s a smart change that ensures the audience still constantly asks questions like you’d expect in this genre, just different ones, all the while building up the enigma of its titular character.
I love a good mystery, so I was delighted to see the film transform into an investigation in its second and third acts as Rouche teams up with Pick’s daughter Joséphine (Camille Cottin). Although their antagonistic relationship eventually turns to friendship, the pair’s constant back-and-forth quips are a highlight of the film. Luchini as Rouche is the standout among the cast, with comedic timing and expressions perfect for the absurd scenes the writers clearly love putting him in. For instance, Luchini’s wide-eyed, incredulous fear during an interview with a macabre-obsessed book club makes a discussion of dismembering corpses quietly hilarious. However, Cottin’s Joséphine keeps the film grounded, reminding the audience just how painful it can be to have your memory of a loved one challenged. Films have taught me that detectives always work best in pairs, from Holmes and Watson, to Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig, and THE MYSTERY OF HENRI PICK provides further proof.
Unfortunately, I found the first act slightly unfocused, even introducing Rouche then forgetting him for an extended period; as a result, his sudden transition into the protagonist role was initially jarring. It’s also not overly difficult to solve the film’s central mystery, though the writers do include some engaging red herrings which almost dissuaded me from my first (correct) theory. I suppose it depends on personal preference, but in my opinion, this genre is at its best when the audience is able to fit some or most of the pieces together, then have the characters or plot do the rest. Look no further than the gloriously dense conclusion of Knives Out for a great example of this. The answers given here are satisfying, but unsurprising.
At first glance, THE MYSTERY OF HENRI PICK reminds me of The Words, a seldom-discussed Bradley Cooper drama with a similar premise. Yet the former sets itself apart not only through its healthy doses of humour, and gorgeous shots of the peaceful French countryside, but by crafting a convincing mystery that keeps the audience curious and involved. It’s a film that reminds me of why I love classic whodunnits while managing to forge its own identity.
Writer/Director Miranda Nation’s first feature is a complex, psychological sometimes erotic thriller that worms its way into you without the aid of violence or bloodshed or obvious good guys and bad guys. Essentially, this is a four-hander where the focus on the relationships keeps shifting from Claire and Dan to Dan and Angie, to Angie and Brett, to Dan and Brett, to Claire and Brett but most importantly, to Clair and Angie. It’s a film where we are never quite certain that what we see is what we see. Sometimes that’s literal (when Claire sees small creatures crawling about that we’re pretty sure are not really there) and sometimes it’s obfuscation (when Claire sees Dan with Angie does she really see what we’re all thinking she sees?) Part of the power of this film is the uncertainty about what lies beneath the surface of the characters and the unexpectedness of how they interact with each other. When Clair orchestrates a meeting with Angie and discovers that the teenager is pregnant, she is less concerned with the possibility that Dan might be the father than she is with caring for this child that Angie seems not to want – with the unfairness of her own loss of a much wanted baby against an unborn child that seems unwanted by its young mother. It’s a tangled story where each character is vulnerable to the secrets they hold and where lines of trust and honesty are crossed in ways that might just be irreparable. But, above all, it’s a story that treats its audience with intelligence and asks us to consider how much responsibility we each take for our actions (or inactions) regardless of how much we might feel that there are explanations for the seemingly bad things we sometimes do.
The four key cast members are all terrific. Gordon, at the heart of the story, carries much of the movie with ease in a compelling and finely judged performance that, necessarily, relies more on what she communicates of the internal world of her character than it does on the externalised dialogue. But she’s not alone in the strength of the performances on the screen. DeJonge, in particular, finds the wild and dangerous edge of Angie laced with enough vulnerability to win us over to her cause. I do wonder whether the final image of Angie is a false note in an otherwise well-made film... but then again, it’s a moment that has a nice ring of truth about it, even if it does seem a little neat.
For those with local knowledge, you’ll be quick to recognise that the film is shot in and around the Victorian coastal city of Geelong and makes excellent use of both the beauty and the ugliness of its locations. In particular, the cinematography by Bonnie Elliott brings a strong, moody and at times foreboding visual sense to the film that perfectly captures the idea that Claire sees much of the world through the lens of her own camera. There’s also a great soundtrack to underscore the visuals featuring the work of the incomparable Lisa Gerard along with James Orr and Raul Sanchez.
Nation’s screenplay is a lean and elegant work that seems to provide the space within which the work of the cast and of the cinematographer do more than just bring the script to life. They are spaces that allow the actors and the crew to complete the way in which the story is told. Yes, it is sometimes slow and brooding in its telling and that might not be to everyone’s taste but, for me, the pace showed a confidence in the director knowing that this is a slow-burn of a story and deserves the right amount of time to ferment.
It's a shame that our film industry is still at a stage where it seems remiss not to point out that this is a film written and directed by a woman with many talented women in key crew roles and a powerful female-focused story. It would be nice to think that we might get to a point in the not-too-distant future where we can just focus on how good the film is, rather than the rarity of the means by which it got made.
In this story, Seth (Josh McConville) has returned from a secret mission in Myanmar where the rest of his squad – Welshy (Firass Dirani), Stretch (Juwan Sykes) and Josh (Hugh Sheridan) – were all killed and whilst Seth made it home, the bodies of his mates were left behind. The guilt and trauma he carries with him has destroyed his marriage to Sarah (Natalie Rees) and threatens his relationship with his daughter Lizzie (Jessi Robertson). When Josh’s sister, journalist Rebecca (Bonnie Sveen) starts nosing around to try find out what happened to her brother, Seth’s Commanding Officer Michelle Pennyshaw (Rena Owen) tries to scare her off, but Rebecca won’t take no for an answer and tracks Seth down. So begins a strained, uneasy relationship that slowly draws out the truth that Seth is trying to hide from himself as much as he’s trying to keep it from Rebecca.
This is such a sensitive and important issue and Ashwood’s chosen to play the manifestation of Seth’s declining mental health at the extreme edges with vivid hallucinations and debilitating flashbacks and more than one attempt at suicide. For the most part this works as a powerful rendering of the pain and suffering soldiers like Seth experience, even if it sometimes threatens to go over the top into melodrama. It’s a hard call as to where to draw the line.
As the story of what happened in Myanmar is slowly told by Seth we’re transported into a series of memories of the squad in the jungle and the incidents that led to the deaths. As well staged and executed as these scenes are, it’s sometimes hard not to find parallels with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) as they trudge through the jungle in search of Carl Boddi (Steve Le Marquand) a fellow soldier who’s gone rogue and fallen in with the local rebels as (in his own words) a kind of god. Their mission to locate and kill him sounds more than vaguely familiar and is an unnecessary distraction from what is otherwise a good story.
What works best in this film, though, are the strong performances. McConville (who was so good in 2018’s 1% ) pulls off the difficult task of playing such a shattered character. Sveen is believable as the grieving sister determined to learn the truth and bring her brother home and the two of them work well in the push-me-pull- you balance of a relationship that is on the knife edge between a strong attraction and a terrible truth. Sheridan (in flashbacks) is equally good as Josh who looks up to Seth like an older brother. When the truth is finally revealed, the relationship between both the actors and their characters is what keeps things from becoming overplayed. Jessi Robertson also delivers a great performance as the daughter who is older and wiser and more forgiving than her years but Owen as Pennyshaw and Rees as Seth’s wife are both wasted talents in roles that are underwritten and two dimensional.
The film is well shot by Wade Muller finding the right tonal differentiation between the scenes in Myanmar and the scenes at home and the special effects by Clint Ingram bring a good dose of realism to the scenes of conflict.
Escape and Evasion makes a good fist of telling a story that is timely and important and whilst the writing sometimes lets it down, the performances carry the story across the weaknesses to deliver a film that’s certainly worth a look.
Jack Cunningham (Affleck) is an aimless man, stuck in a dead-end construction job and isolated from his family. The film wastes no time establishing his dependence on alcohol: there’s an esky in the backseat of his truck after work every day, followed by trips to the local dive bar at night. Having been a basketball prodigy in his youth, Jack is approached by his old high school to coach their struggling team. He accepts, seemingly because he has nothing to lose. You might assume this leads to a cliched story about the coach and team each helping the other get back on their feet, but THE WAY BACK subtly subverted my expectations.
Bad Ingelsby’s script essentially blends two depictions of alcoholism I’ve seen on screen before: the showy powderkeg, and the sneak. While Jack’s friends and family do see him drink until an angry outburst (or becoming paralytic), he’s also the kind of guy who hides drinks in keep cups and empty sodas just to get up in the morning. It’s a confronting choice that feels influenced by the actor portraying him, as Affleck’s hulking frame and macho posturing made me genuinely afraid for the other characters in his moments of rage. Simultaneously, he’s been vocal about his real-life struggles with alcoholism and brings a sense of resignation to the film’s quieter moments, like Jack drinking in the shower. There’s something heartbreaking about seeing such a well-known face glazy-eyed and permanently puffy from a hangover, fixed in an utterly indifferent expression. Although most of Affleck’s career plaudits have come from writing, directing and producing, THE WAY BACK is a reminder of his acting talent.
Jack similarly anchors the other half of the film: the rookie coach turned reluctant role model. It helps that the basketball sequences are energetic and well-shot anyway, but Affleck’s red-faced yelling perfectly conveys his love of the game through a full gamut of emotions, from joy to frustration and makes it easy for the audience to invest. Honestly, from this point I expected THE WAY BACK to find its groove as a heart-warming moral about recovery; in fact, Jack isn’t even shown drinking for most of the second act. This makes it all the more surprising and effective when the story provides context for his depression. It’s a devastating backstory which I won’t spoil, and makes sense given what we know about the character instead of feeling like cheap emotional manipulation.
Unfortunately, the script spends so much time developing its lead that the rest of the film is somewhat vague. The supporting cast aren’t given arcs or many lines apart from Javina Gavankar as Jack’s estranged wife Angela; some of the players in his team are basically glorified extras. No one is outright bad per se and perhaps exploring everyone’s motivations would’ve felt too similar to a straightforward sports drama, though I still felt this was a missed opportunity to establish the audience’s connection with them. There are still elements beyond Affleck that I enjoyed, particularly Rob Simonsen’s beautiful piano-driven score which produces a new, equally memorable motif for each of Jack’s moods and struggles. Overall though, I can’t help but wonder if THE WAY BACK would’ve had more to say about addiction if it didn’t rely on its star being so compelling.
I see THE WAY BACK as simple filmmaking done well. It’s thoughtfully directed, has an emotional story and features a career-highlight performance from a Hollywood darling, all of which will surely make it easy to rewatch. Despite it failing to escape some of the sports drama clichés you’d expect, its twists set it apart as an engaging character study.
The upshot is that Jewell is right and when the bomb goes off, all but one life is saved (two, if you count the heart attack victim post the event) and despite the many injuries, Jewell’s actions foil the terrorist act. Overnight, Jewell becomes a hero complete with media attention, admiration from the cops and an appearance on the Today Show. But his celebrity is short-lived as agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) of the FBI, responding to a tip off from a former employee. It makes sense to the FBI. Jewell fits the profile. He’s a white middle-aged male who lives with his mother, has ambitions to be a police officer and a strong sense of his own importance in preventing crime. All this makes Jewell Shaw’s chief suspect. When Shaw leaks that information to Atlanta-Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) the full weight of law enforcement and the media comes down on Jewell and he becomes a pariah in the public eye.
When Clint’s movies are good they are often great (like his 2018 movie The Mule which was a cracker)... but when he misses the mark he often misses by a mile and, sadly, that’s the case here. It’s not so much a matter of the movie being bad; it’s more that it’s dull, plodding and feels lazy in its screencraft. The strong cast which, in addition to Hauser, Hamm and Wilde includes Kathy Bates as Bobi Jewell (Richard’s mother who bears the brunt of the public pillorying of her son) and Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant (Jewell’s former work colleague, now a washed up lawyer who takes on the case) are mostly underused and pedestrian in their performances. That’s not to say that they’re unwatchable; these are all actors who bring great presence to the screen even when they’re in movies that don’t allow them to shine (Bates received an Oscar nomination for her role, but it’s not surprising that she didn’t take home the statue).
One part of the problem here is the lacklustre direction of the film that offers up a by-the-numbers chronology of events and largely thumbnail sketches of the characters. The other part is an uninspiring screenplay by Billy Ray whose credits include last year’s Terminator: Dark Fate and Gemini Man but, more importantly, the 2003 film Shattered Glass (which he also directed) about Stephen Glass, the journalist who fabricated more than half of his published stories. Like that movie, the Richard Jewell screenplay is based on a magazine article (as well as a book) and, like Shattered Glass, the heart of Richard Jewell’s storytelling feels eclipsed by the details of its unfolding events.
On the plus side, Hauser is good as Jewell who is his own worst enemy in terms of making himself look guilty. It’s a laconic, likeable performance that melds nicely with an equally good performance by Bates as the protective mother. But the standout (for me, at least) is Nina Ariadna as Bryant’s long suffering but smart-as-a-whip assistant Nadya Light. It’s a minor role, but the story comes to life every time she enters a scene.
I saw this movie with my son, Gully (we were the only two punters in the cinema) and about two-thirds of the way through, he leant over to me and said “...isn’t the FBI just doing its job?” In a way, he was bang on the money. If you’re expecting to see a tight thriller that exposes a miscarriage of justice then, like me, you’re likely to be disappointed. Yes, the FBI treated Jewell badly in the way they went after him with little or no real evidence. But, isn’t that the nature of investigation, to interrogate the suspect in order to discover the guilt or innocence? And even if (as portrayed here) the agents are lazy and expedient and misleading in their investigation, it’s more a case of shoddy police work than of corruption. (in the real world, the lead FBI investigator was only suspended for five days because of the way he handled the case).
In fact, it’s the media that’s the real bad guy in this film, jumping to conclusions which are published well before there is any substantiation. It’s a shame, then, that Wilde’s journalist character Kathy Scruggs is so flimsily and superficially written. In fact, the suggestion that she traded sex for the leaked FBI information has been the most controversial aspect of this film. In fact, she died well before the film was made and her source was never revealed. Here, though, she’s played as an amoral go-getter who’ll do anything to get a headline and yet (mild spoiler alert) she is very easily turned around on the simplest of revelations and when that happens, her whole character seems to soften and change in a way that seems far from plausible.
Don’t get me wrong... it’s not that there isn’t a story here to tell. What happened to Richard Jewell and his mother was reprehensible and his treatment by both the FBI and the media was grossly unfair. His story should be a parable for us about the dangers of jumping to conclusions, relying on profiles and of being all too ready to buy the news outlet with the most sensationalist headline. In this case, though, neither Billy Ray nor Clint Eastwood have found the way to tell that story on the big screen.
HONEYLAND is largely set in the remote North Macedonian village of Bekirlija, where the film’s subjects live in near-total isolation without electricity or running water. Here, Hatidze Muratova is one of the last wild beekeepers in all of Europe. Hatidze’s methods may sound somewhat quaint, for instance, she uses the cool stone walls of the village’s abandoned buildings to store her bees, as opposed to modern hives. Yet there is an undeniable method and skill to her work honed through years of experience. In two standout sequences, the filmmakers follow Hatidze’s four-hour journey to sell her honey at markets in Skopje. Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov cleverly follow up her confident sales spiel with impressed testimonials from customers, almost justifying the eye- watering price of ten euros per jar.
The most fascinating element of Hatidze’s work is her focus on conserving and respecting the environment. Indeed, the simple mantra ‘take half, leave half’ is repeated every time she collects a honeycomb, emphasising her perception of the bees as partners. It’s a sentiment that may seem obvious, but one which HONEYLAND embraces to deliver a powerful cautionary tale. Towards the end of the first act, a family of Turkish farmers move to the village and strike up a friendship with Hatidze. After initially focusing on breeding cattle, patriarch Hussein Sam is eventually inspired to begin his own honey business, albeit with tools like hives and bee smokers. As Hussein’s customers become greedier and demand larger quantities, the film delivers some terrific slow-burning tension. I won’t spoil exactly how things fall apart, but the subtlety and lack of intervention from the filmmakers renders the breakdown of the neighbours’ friendship even more devastating.
However, HONEYLAND has even more to offer than an engaging story, simultaneously being a gorgeously shot testament to the natural world. The flashier exterior cinematography is typically used to reaffirm the film’s call for conservation, most notably during the Sam family’s departure from the village. Kotevska and Stefanov opt for a super wide shot here, with the surrounding woods utterly dwarfing the humans who sought too much control. A similar sense of scale can be felt as Hatidze walks through the ruined structures of Bekirlija past enormous open plains. Once again, the notion that life extends beyond our species is perhaps something you’ve heard or seen before, but it’s a particularly humbling and effective reminder.
Yet despite the scope of its message, HONEYLAND is above all an intimate account of one woman’s remarkable existence. Hatidze is an unassuming subject who openly wonders what opportunities she might have missed out on, but continues working for the sake of her family. If you’re anything like me and go into HONEYLAND with no expectations of wild beekeeping, you’ll be hooked on the small details. Likewise, focusing on a real individual only heightens the impact of its emotional final minutes. Whether you’re an avid documentary fan or struggle to connect with the genre, this simple but absorbing film will go down as smooth as honey.