Tigers Are Not Afraid

Written & Directed by Issa López

Since the involvement of the Mexican government in 2006, the war on Drug cartels and trafficking have torn apart the cultural landscape of South America, surprisingly without much focus from many Western nations. With upwards of 160,000 recorded deaths, with many children being hidden on the fatality list, ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ (2017) blends together a mixture of spiritual folklore, horror and dramatic filmmaking to highlight the atrocity of reality, and how this Halloween ghosts and spectres are far tamer than the genuine monsters this world faces.

Flirting with the fantastical, writer and director Issa López has gone on to receive tremendous respect for her piece. A story of Estrella’s (Paola Lara) quest to find her mother, who has been snatched by drug-traffickers, leads to an encounter with a group of lost boys. Here, they steal, laugh and survive in a harsh city district, hiding from the Huascas, a drug cartel, after the boy’s leader Shine (Juan Ramón López) steals a cartel’s phone containing contacts, evidence and a few photos of the both Shine and Estrella’s mothers.

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Thankfully, López has the backbone to treat this horror with the required nerve, refusing to hide behind off-screen deaths. Anyone is fair game, a testament to the callousness of Mexico’s drug-feuds. Of course, though, the one person they would never suspect to hold the key, or rather the chalk, to foiling their plans, would be a woman, or better still, a young girl. Estrella receives three ‘wishes’ by her teacher, in a tear-inducing symbolic gesture of the weapon against the drug trade, and patriarchal fear – education.

“López has the backbone to treat this horror with the required nerve, refusing to hide behind off-screen deaths. Anyone is fair game, a testament to the callousness of Mexico’s drug-feuds.”

Arming herself with these wishes, Estrella’s performance from Paolo Lara is a part of the film’s success, with others being López’s concept and the character of Shine. A generic narrative of ‘careful what you wish for’ is in lew put the background, integral but not the focal point. Lara’s wishes result in fear-inducing events; the first, to have her mother return, brings the measure of horror forward. Lara is a natural, naïve but sturdy enough to stand against the boys, becoming a mother figure, in what is a thinly veiled reference of Peter Pan. Her back and forth with Shine, who so desperately wants to be the tiger he dresses is a relationship at the core of the film.

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Symbolically, these tigers, these people who desire to move from their storybook princes into stealthy, majestic creatures are far from the animals they idolise. Splattering the streets of Mexico with graffiti, the Huascas are illustrated with claws, teeth and the slit eyes – when in reality, they are anything but. Shine’s ‘cowardice’ keeps him from earing these stripes. Shine himself, noting that as a ‘king of a fucked-up kingdom’ he cannot kill the man who stole his mother. This lack of assertive cruelty somehow equates to masculinity, communicating volumes to the film’s intention.

“Lara is a natural, naïve but sturdy enough to stand against the boys, becoming a mother figure, in what is a thinly veiled reference of Peter Pan.”

Mexico has a diverse, intense relationship with death, horror and the spiritual. Currently undergoing a renaissance of Horror movies, these films created by Latin filmmakers like López or producer Marco Polo Constandse have no fear of the genre like their American counterparts. It’s Spanish title, ‘Vuelven’ translates to ‘Return’, a rather literal, though relating title. As such, spirits exist in the between, making for superbly tense shots from Juan Jose Saravia’s cinematography. Lingering, those who have suffered the Hollywood fake-out or jump scare will be unnerved by how silent this film can be, allowing an uncomfortable unease to do the work. As we close-in on shots, empty and grim, a small movement, or perhaps the sound effect is enough to push your eyes away.

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Just as methodically unpleasant, Vicent Pope’s score is uncomfortable, but in that rare manner, only Horror can achieve. It works, you’re not put off by the design of the score, but there’s something which hazes your senses. Together, Pope and López capture the fear these children experience, just how open and vulnerable they are. Bleeding through our reality, folklore weaves around the film, keeping itself to the realm of shadowy imagination. It’s in effect how the blending of genres should work, neither takes a principle role, complimenting one another.

The fairy-tale gruesomeness never diminishes the realism, and the gritty drug-focused horror never detracts from the myth. Treating aspects of legend in reverence, similar to master of the craft Guillermo Del Torro, López’s sense of mystic is two-fold, an escape from the harsh monstrosities of reality and punishment for our antagonist. For the most part, the blending is sublime, a metaphorical sense of horror than a cheap sense of fright, but sadly one or two jump scares, and a peculiar revival of a stuffed animal draws us straight out of the immersion.

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“Bleeding through our reality, folklore weaves around the film, keeping itself to the realm of shadowy imagination. It’s in effect how the blending of genres should work, neither takes a principle role, complimenting one another.”

Generalizing a complex social-political issue, López seems unsure of where to draw her focus. Aware to place the children at the heart of the narrative, with the supernatural enveloping the surrounding darknesses, it leaves little room for physical antagonists in the form of The Huascas or Chino, though Ianis Guerrero provides a marvellous climax alongside Lara and Ramon López as the spiritual horror kicks in a gear or two, with a repulsive, somehow sickeningly satisfying punishment for the human-trafficker. ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ continues Mexico’s history of tremendous pieces of horror, an example of Hispanic – Latina cinema’s continuing trend to take the chances Hollywood fears to gamble on.

Review originally published for In Their Own League

The Breadwinner

Directed by Nora Twomey

Written by Anita Doron, Deborah Ellis

Gloriously direct, “The Breadwinner” (2017) turns the patriarchal trope of a sole provider into an unflinching tale of a young Afghan girl’s determination, fear and resilience under Taliban rule in 2001. Based on Deborah Ellis’ bestselling novel, who returns to write the screenplay, “The Breadwinner” is a gut-wrenching reminder of the violence that women experience under the shadow of modern histories vilest patriarchal systems.

As the boys play solider, it is women who endure, women who spend their days attempting to find semblance amidst the chaos. Both the original novel and the screenplay have been written by Deborah Ellis, with the screenplay in part co-written with Anita Doron. With such a wealth of female filmmakers behind the film’s production, it’s little wonder how “The Breadwinner” manages to encapsulate female oppression from the most tyrannical of archaic patriarchies for verdantly. More importantly, how it refuses to victimise these mothers and daughters, instead, matching the strength they display with the losses they suffer.

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Opening-up with concerns over modern-day political coups, Western interference in the East and the severe imposition of female ‘modesty’, Twomey rejects an outright statement on the religious practises of a culture with which she is not a member. It’s a respectful opener, rife with imagery which speaks more than the words do, like America and Britain’s recent history in the region does not need to be stated when the bombastic annihilations of colour illustrate the point enough.

Reversing the term ‘breadwinner’, in which our first thoughts are of a man, usually suited, for some reason in fifties stylings, as the primary caregiver for the family. In Kabul, a woman isn’t in this role, unless her husband, brother’s, cousins or any other man in the family have died, left or are in prison. After her father Nurullah is taken to prison for hiding books in the floorboards, teaching his daughters, Parvana finds herself the breadwinner for her sick mother, her older sister and baby brother. That is of course after she sheds her headscarf, her hair and disguises herself as a boy. With her newfound ‘freedom’, Parvana discovers that “when you’re a boy you can go anywhere you like”, as suddenly she can hold her head high, walk and purchase goods, all with less fear of scrutiny. Here, Saara Chaudry‘s voice acting moves from the sombre tones to a jovial child who is unearthing the brief joys in life, in an otherwise difficult lifestyle.

And this power of the written word, a resentment from educated women, has references which you can locate in Nora Twomey’s direction and animation. The tool which Parvana’s parents use to educate their daughters, much to the disarray of the Taliban, a storybook, a simple, harmless storybook which offers key weapons in the fight of oppression: imagination and freedom, which offer liberation. Mentioned as a writer, Laara Sadiq’s role as such an educated mother, Fattema is soft-spoken, which as the stakes grow higher, morphs into a matriarchal powerhouse of desperation – a woman for who no man will tie-down, even when threatened at knifepoint, beaten or any other atrocities she suffers in the film.

Liberating a profound level of freedom with the text, Executive producer Angelina Jolie works alongside Ellis and Twomey to reinforce the film’s stringency to the truth. The beating we see Fattema endure, the threats of ‘marriage at her age’, sexual violence, arranged marriages and abuse of both daughters, “The Breadwinner”, regardless of its comedic moments, playful characters or visuals does not shy from authenticity.

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So please take heed, especially from an advocate of children’s cinema, that “The Breadwinner” is not a children’s film. It’s the antithesis of animation’s place as a respectful genre in the cinematic field. Though, I would implore anyone, that if they sufficiently trust their children are mature enough to watch this film, please encourage them to do so. Stripping back the otherness of cinema, “The Breadwinner” places us into the eyes of children in a culture, in a world which we in Western society only ever see through media’s altered vision. Canadian activist Ellis crafts “The Breadwinner” as starkly human, but nevertheless, it is a warming film of family, it will connect with you regardless of nationality, or at the very least we would hope it does. At its most beautiful, this film is a masterpiece in animation which deserves praise for its manipulation of light, layers and dramatic-symbolic storytelling.

Any readers familiar with Twomey and Cartoon Saloon’s previous titles, “The Secret of the Kells” (2009) and “The Song of the Sea” (2014) will have expectations of ‘The Breadwinner’s’ animation style. A wholly unique form than what s presently on offer from the large studios, and even the independents. What Twomey’s style loses in-depth, remaining in the two-dimensional construct the likes Dreamworks and Disney have since abandoned, she makes up for with a palette of immense colour, transforming Kabut into a rich canvas. Injecting the culture with a zest we are unfamiliar with, the landscape a breath of colour propels it into significance, even the darker moments capture the futility of the task ahead for the family with their foreboding monochromatic shadows.

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Quite the opposite, where shadow is the plaything of reality, ‘The Breadwinner’ delves into the cultural stories of Kabul and the Middle East. Snippets of pure escapist storytelling, these blissfully animated segments are awe-inspiring, with a unique blending of multiple formats. They are animated, maintaining Twomay’s two-dimensional style, but they have layers. Almost puppet-like, certainly origami-inspired, as the symbolic jaguars and wolves descend against the young boy, a reminder of so many claimed by war. Ellis so heart-achingly illustrates the maternal vein of the narrative, that it is put upon young Parvana, her mother and sister to keep the family going, their personas reflecting the stories she tells her young brother.

Purposely ambiguous, the film’s ending is bitter-sweet, though refrains from outright misery. “The Breadwinner” earns a spot as a monumentally important piece within the last decade, not only for having a team primarily made up of women, but also for Twomey’s championing a genre which suffers from a hugely lacking diversity. As animation slowly gains a foothold with dramatic representation’s, Hollywood would do well to remember the roots of the genre with the ink-artists of Walt Disney, all women, whose storytelling capabilities continue to manifest limitless story-potentials in ways other film-forms cannot.

Review originally published for In Their Own League: https://intheirownleague.com/2019/11/19/itol-top-50-films-of-the-decade-entry-no-32-the-breadwinner/

The King – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Written by David Michôd and Joel Edgerton

Directed by David Michôd

David Michôd‘s Henriad drama, The King, comprises three works of the bard, taking Shakespeare’s Henry IV (parts 1 and 2and Henry V and forming them into a composite piece of historical drama. The drunkard, layabout son of King Henry IV, Hal finds himself under the pressure of ascending the throne, progressing from being his father’s last resort to the only available choice. Young, unproven and on the downward path towards a bloody venture, Hal surrounds himself with advisors who, in typical Shakespearean fashion, are of Machiavellian intention.

Political drama is at the forefront of Joel Edgerton‘s and Michôd’s interpretation of the trio of texts, in keeping with Shakespeare’s writings, but they seek to reinforce an authenticity in their characters. Complimentary to the audience, perhaps to a fault, the script is subtle. With the gift of a ball to the juvenile king and other matters which go unspoken, it’s refreshing to see exposition or symbolism left for audiences to unearth; at the same time, this does fail to encourage a heightened response in key moments.

It would seem the people’s newest champion of cinema, Timothée Chalamet, continues his rise in a breakthrough career in his interpretation of Hal. A round-shouldered, inverting individual who grows to stand tall, he becomes a beacon for the people of England following countless wars and battles. More so than other performers, Chalamet treats The King as a reflection of the three plays, showcasing a richer characterisation and physical evolution than his co-stars.

A buffoonish pursuer of vice, Falstaff is perhaps Shakespeare’s most significant creation outside of a titular role, a character who transcends a variety of mediums. Edgerton’s judgement of the performance rivals Chalamet’s dedication to the film, which is understandable given his primary writing role. An enabler, the character dips into the mystical advisor of cinematic tropes, but it allows Edgerton to captivate, holding our attention with ease. That’s especially true since his balance of humour never exceeds mild sarcasm nor jolly defiance to Hal, or in scenes where a playful rivalry blooms with Robert Pattinson’s Dauphin.

Taking a Shakespearean interpretation, the Dauphin would be well at home in the Globe Theatre. Pattinson’s exaggerated mannerisms are menacing, but in doing so he stretches into an over-reaching antagonist. A peculiar choice in direction, Michôd here creates a divide in the film’s tone, pushing more nuanced performances against that of excess. It makes for an entertaining opponent, but one suspects there are always a few seconds cut before a cackle or curling of the fingers would infect Pattinson’s performance.

While the comfort of the living room appeals to streaming releases, a cinematic scale of the action demonstrates Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography. Going beyond the battles or open-air scenes, there’s a profound intimacy in the dimensions of The King. Arkapaw captures the claustrophobic pressure of the courts, the bedrooms and inner sanctums. It’s not only a visual but an aural sensation which captivates the atmosphere of the film. Nicholas Britell’s score accentuates the sublime imagery, never pervading a scene or interrupting tension, seeking solely to act alongside the visual design of a scene, whether this grows in grandeur or slithers back into silence to allow impact.

The King is an engrossing update which lifts Shakespeare’s characters into a piece of classical cinematic filmmaking. It does sometimes falter, though, in failing to fit together the sum of its parts into a tight, comprehensive package. The pieces lie there, each a component of something which would generate buzz, but there are gaps where parts fail to align. Its blade has little sharpness, and although it’s a well-crafted piece of film, there’s no edge to Michôd’s The King outside of its visuals and solid performances. Those are selling features in their own right, but not enough to quite carry it to the lofty expectations it seeks.

Review originally published for WeeReview: https://theweereview.com/review/the-king/

The King is available for streaming and in cinema’s from November