DVD review – What Richard Did (2012)

23 March 2014

Jack Reynor as Richard Karlsen

Jack Reynor as Richard Karlsen

If 18-year-old Richard Karlsen were Australian, he’d be frequently referred to as a good bloke and used as a role model for masculinity. Charismatic, attractive, intelligent and an accomplished rugby player, he looks after his mates, stands up to bullies and takes care of vulnerable women. He also comes from a privileged background in South Dublin and is used to things going his way. One night when his judgement is clouded by alcohol and jealously he does something that will shatter several lives and potentially put an end to the bright future ahead of him.

This Irish drama by director Leonard Abrahamson explores an incident that could have come directly from an Australian newspaper from the last twelve months. The scenario is convincingly set up and the aftermath is suitably gruelling. It’s a morality tale about personal responsibility and culpability, and also an examination of guilt and how far communities will go to protect their own. Up-and-coming actor Jack Reynor delivers an astonishing performance as Richard, evoking both sympathy and contempt from the audience.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 453, 2014

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – Out of the Furnace (2013)

22 March 2014
Christian Bale as Russell Baze

Christian Bale as Russell Baze

There is something mythical about the American blue-collar town where Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace is set. The hardworking and racially harmonious population are decent folk trying to get by, despite work drying up at the steel mill. Brothers Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) are good men, but afflicted by inner demons. One does time for manslaughter after a drink-driving accident, while the other is an Iraq War veteran with gambling debts that lead him into serious trouble.

What begins as an engaging drama about proud yet flawed working-class men becomes a silly revenge thriller involving drug dealing and bare-knuckle boxing. For a film so overtly set in the shadow of the Global Financial Crisis, it is disappointing that it abandons any opportunity for social critique. Instead the villains of the film are identified as cartoonish hillbillies, lead by a sociopathic Woody Harrelson. Out of the Furnace ultimately squanders its potential, resulting in a second-rate Winters Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) when it could’ve been a contemporary The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978).

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 453, 2014

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – All Is Lost (2013)

9 March 2014
Robert Redford as Our Man

Robert Redford as Our Man

Grappling with personal demons while trying to stay alive in a hostile environment can make gripping cinema as Gravity demonstrated. If you relocate the action in Gravity to a small boat stranded on the Indian Ocean, cast Robert Redford as the unnamed character facing the brutal elements and strip away all backstory, then the results may resemble All Is Lost.

There is almost no dialogue as the stoic weariness that Redford conveys and his character’s solitary predicament are enough to tell us that he is a man feeling crushed by the world. As he attempts to keep his boat and body in working order while methodically facing every new crisis, we hold our breath – not just because the film so successfully engages us in the process, but also because it hints that at any moment he might give in to defeat. The result is a thrilling and poetic survival film that ultimately allows the audience to project their own feelings of hope or despair onto the fate of Redford’s character.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 452, 2014

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – Gravity (2013)

2 October 2013

Gravity: Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)

Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)

In his 1986 article ‘The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’ Tom Gunning looks at the power of early cinema to ‘show something’. That is, to break the illusion of reality that would come to dominate narrative cinema to instead offer something visual for the audience to marvel at. Gravity fits within Gunning’s ‘cinema of attractions.’ It encompass both the traditions of the films by the Lumière brothers, where the marvels of the modern age were displayed on-screen, and that of Georges Méliès who provided the kind of magical illusions that were only possible through cinema.

Gravity delivers a display of modern technology that leaves the viewer breathless from the experience and marvelling at the craftsmanship behind it. The beauty and emotional engagement that comes from watching Gravity is not just due to being invested with the drama on screen, but by also being aware of how skilfully the filmmakers have constructed the spectacle.

The basic story that is present in Gravity functions as a subservient element that facilitates the visual magic of the film. As Gunning says in relation to Méliès’s 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon, ‘The story simply provides a frame upon which to string a demonstration of the magical possibilities of the cinema.’ And in keeping with the idea that the cinema of attractions breaks the illusion of reality, the narrative used in Gravity relies on recognisable tropes and archetypes.

Gravity is a survival-against-the-odds story where a disaster occurs and then one thing after the other threatens the survival of the characters. Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is an engineer on her first mission into space and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is an astronaut on his final mission. The rookie and the veteran are ‘shipwrecked’ in space where everything that could go wrong does go wrong. It sounds simplistic, but this rudimentary narrative and stock characters are designed to never overwhelm the focus of the film, which are its groundbreaking visuals.

Director Alfonso Cuarón has demonstrated a flair for visual style on his previous films, but in 2006’s narrative driven dystopian science fiction Children of Men he displays a remarkable command of special effect heavy long takes. As with Children of Men, the extended long takes in Gravity cannot conceivably have been filmed in a single take and are likely to have been created through composite elements. However, the end results are seamless and powerful, enthralling the viewer by holding tension and energy on-screen, and somehow also captivating them with the technical wizardry.

Furthermore, Cuarón creates the outer space setting with remarkable aptitude. Whether computer generated, models, sets or a combination of several visual effect techniques, all the space hardware looks tangible and moves in a way that adheres to the physics of outer space or at least maintains a plausible suspension of disbelief.

While many filmmakers in the past have applied sound effects to scenes set in space, Cuarón works brilliantly within the limitations of space not actually having any sound. Instead, the audience only hears the sounds from within the characters’ spacesuits, which creates an eerie urgency. As chaos occurs in the soundless vacuum of space, all that can be heard is the increasingly heavy breathing and panicked voices of the characters inside their suits.

Perhaps the greatest technical accomplishment is how Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use the weightless environment to its full potential. The extent to which cinema has been able to convey visual depth has always been limited, although innovators throughout cinematic history have continually found ways to convey cinema space beyond the surface of the screen by using deep focus, zooms, tracking shots and more recently 3D. However, Gravity achieves shots that truly liberate cinema from its flat surface in a way that even goes beyond some of the more recent and successful attempts at immersive 3D.

As there is no up, down, left or right in space the camera has complete freedom to travel anywhere. Elements on screen are shot from all 360 degrees and Cuarón’s artistry (or trickery) even allows the camera to go inside the helmets of the characters. In some moments it is even as if the camera has gone inside the characters’ minds to deliver astonishing point-of-view shots. Such shots give the film an emotional and thematic depth. The characters may be based on recognisable types and the narrative is straight-forward, but the combination of Bullock’s and Clooney’s acting along with the masterful visuals means that Gravity is more than just a series of thrills. The links established between the lonely and hostile space environment and the few bits of background information provided concerning the characters means that Gravity is not just about physical survival, but it is also about psychological survival.

Gravity takes the viewer into Dr Ryan Stone’s mind to deliver to the audience the same roller-coaster of emotions that she experiences, which oscillates between despair and euphoria. The music score by Steven Price also contributes to conveying the emotional journey that Stone undergoes, as well as the inclusion of one scene where the film threatens to lurch into incredulity before cleverly snapping back into place to reassure the audience that the film is not taking any narrative shortcuts.

Perhaps most impressive are comparative shots of Stone throughout the film that in one instance have her floating like an unborn child and in another scene shoots her from a low angle to show her standing tall. As well as the balletic quality that Cuarón gives to some of the objects in space, these moments of evolutionary and developmental symbolism are what best visually recall Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, an obvious comparative film to Gravity.

While 2001: A Space Odyssey contains an ambiguous, but nevertheless cynical, message about humanity’s role in the universe and lack of free will, there is something much more triumphant about Gravity. Not only is Gravity a celebration of what cinema in the current era can achieve, but it is a celebration of what humans are capable of; not as all-conquering heroes who have come to tame the final frontier of outer space, but as resourceful and resilient individuals who are wise and humble enough to fear and respect the indifference of the most hostile environment humanity has ever experienced.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Stories We Tell (2012)

26 September 2013
Stories We Tell: Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley

Filmmaker and actor Sarah Polley is used to being filmed, but her family are not. Polley’s latest film as director is a documentary about her family and as Stories We Tell begins she includes footage of her family members and friends of the family preparing to be interviewed. As they settle down in recording studios or in front of cameras with large boom microphones hanging overhead, many of Polley’s interviewees comment on how nervous, apprehensive and uncertain they are about what is going to take place. By including this footage Polley establishes that the documentary she is presenting is a construct that relies on emotional and potentially unreliable testimonies. So begins an extraordinary work that is both an intellectual examination into the nature of how cinema represents reality as well as a deeply moving personal project.

The narrative of Stories We Tell unfolds in a manner so that the audience discover the scope of the film, in terms of subject matter and critical discourse, as the film progresses. Even in the early stages of the film it is not precisely clear what specific story from Polley’s past will be explored. During the opening sequence introducing the family members preparing to be filmed, Polley repeatedly cuts to archival footage of a woman from a past era who is also preparing to speak into camera. Before too long we learn what we suspected, which is that this woman is a notable person absent from the family members Polley is interviewing: this woman is Polley’s mother and the subject of Stories We Tell.

Polley’s film uncovers significant revelations about her family’s history in relation to her mother. Accounts from the interviewees differ not so much in factual detail, but in terms of the weight in which they give to details and how those details are interpreted. Most fascinating is Polley’s father and throughout the film she includes both an interview with him and excerpts from him reading a prepared statement where he refers to himself in the third person. At times the accounts are deeply personal with Polley’s father acknowledging that he was not an ideal husband and her siblings pondering the sex lives of their parents. There are several scenes where Polley captures her brothers and sisters, possibly for the first time, realising and articulating their awareness that their parents were human beings with sexual and emotional needs.

While the mystery of Polley’s mother drives the film forward, her investigative process into her family’s history creates a discussion about the nature of storytelling, particularly in terms of how it applies to documentary. The film includes a quote from Margaret Atwood that says, ‘When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion.’ As the film demonstrates this confusion is a natural outcome when the story is based on real life experiences because unlike a constructed narrative, these are stories that do not have a natural beginning, middle and end. The Atwood quote concludes by saying, ‘It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.’ It is the telling of the story that places the events into context  in a way that makes sense.

Some of the participants, especially those with the strongest emotional ties to what Polley uncovers, challenge the validity of the film. These are people who are clearly very close and affectionate toward Polley, so their challenges are more philosophical than personal, but nevertheless they raise fascinating issues that Polley incorporates within the film. For example, how much weight should Polley give to the various versions of the stories she hears? Equal weight does not equal the truth because some accounts are going to be more reliable than others so how can Polley evaluate the worth of every account? And what is more reliable – accounts that are emotionally removed and therefore regarded as objective or the more personal accounts? One participant argues that the core story uncovered in the film belongs to them more than anybody else – how should Polley present that perspective? How much should Polley interrogate her own motives in making the film and should she confront the probability that she has concealed her motivations for making the film, even from herself?

Is Stories We Tell about bringing somebody back to life by capturing memories of them? This is a possibility considering Polley’s accomplished 2006 narrative film Away from Her, about how a marriage is redefined when the wife begins to lose her memory as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe Stories We Tell is in part Polley’s attempt to reconcile the dynamics of her parent’s relationships? This is also a distinct possibility considering the themes of her uneven yet in hindsight deeply personal 2011 film Take This Waltz. Is Stories We Tell just Polley’s quest for her own identity? Or is the film more an examination of the way we tell stories and the way we attempt to take ownership over particular stories?

A further element to consider is the inclusion of Super 8 archival footage, and then later reveals in the film about the nature of some of that footage. In many ways Stories We Tell recalls the cinematic tricky of Orson Welles’s 1975 documentary/film essay F for Fake about the nature of authenticity. However, while F for Fake is arguably more a skilfully constructed statement, the ‘trickery’ in Stories We Tell feels more like part of an on-going dialogue with the audience about the nature of how we experience ‘truth’ in cinema. In this way Polley’s film has more in common with Abbas Kiarostami’s brilliant 2010 narrative film Certified Copy, which successfully demonstrates that even reproductions, re-enactments and artificial representations of reality can be truthful and authentic. After all, the very nature of cinema is deceptive and manipulative, but that does not stop it from containing real emotional and intellectual power. In films like Stories We Tell that power is made all the more profound by the very fact that the film acknowledges and works with its artificiality. The cinematic magic is more pronounced when all the tricks are being exposed.

Stories We Tell is a remarkably accomplishment film by a deeply talented and courageous filmmaker. Despite – or because of – all the questioning and exposing of the mechanics of documenting the past, the results are a heartfelt tribute to family and personal identity. And yet it never feels indulgent; if anything Stories We Tell is an extremely generous film where Polley allows her personal experiences to be used in a way that allows the audience an opportunity for personal reflection and introspection into their own family and identity. The story is specific to Polley and those that know her, but the meaning and ‘truth’ of what those stories mean resonates far beyond the scope of film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Oh Boy (2012)

16 September 2013
Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling)

Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling)

Is the quest for a cup of coffee the perfect encapsulation of the growing meaninglessness or superficiality of modern life? Without reductively branding this pursuit of the trivial as something distinct to a particular generation, subculture or geographical cluster (let alone using the inane and smug ‘first world problems’ label), can anything useful be said about this phenomenon? German writer/director Jan Ole Gerster seems to think so and as a result has made Oh Boy, a film set in Berlin that blends observational humour with darker social critique about Germany’s collective memory. Inaction becomes the defining characteristic of the film, where the inability to act on important issues creates a condition where unimportant things take on disproportional importance. On the surface Oh Boy is an effective companion piece to Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012), but dig a little deeper and it is better considered as a reverberation of Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987).

As Oh Boy begins the twenty-something protagonist Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) is established as somebody of inaction. Throughout the film the audience also discover that he has quit or dropped out of everything he has ever begun. Waking up next to his girlfriend, he cannot commit to the suggestion of seeing her later in the day and on the spot their relationship ends with a whimper. Niko heads back to his own apartment and spends the next 24 hours drifting around Berlin, going with the flow, turning up late to things, avoiding commitments and only responding to immediate situations. The one constant is his desire for a cup of coffee and the film’s running gag is how circumstances constantly thwart him in this regard.

Despite its self-deprecating tone, Oh Boy does not condemn Niko. For the most part he is a highly sympathetic, identifiable and likeable character to spend the film in the company of. The film’s jazz soundtrack, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and deadpan humour create a romantic melancholic atmosphere that is highly enjoyable to indulge in, with Niko as a charismatic flâneur. Oh Boy does not necessarily criticise inaction, but it does explore the consequences of inaction in the form of generation divisions and how the past can haunt the present.

The consequences of inaction are depicted not just by the various disruptions and setbacks that Niko experiences, but also through the experiences of other characters. Niko’s friend Matze (Marc Hosemann) is revealed to have been a promising actor whose refusal to accepts jobs he felt were beneath him has reduced him to now asking former acting school friends for bit parts. More significant is the encounter Niko has with a drunk older man who tells him about an incident from his childhood during the Nazi era. The man relates a destructive incident that his father was involved in, yet at the time he mourned for how this incident would trivially affect him. This sting in the tail, which is saved for late in the film, demonstrates the full potential of the harm in pursuing selfish and immediate concerns at the expense of more important issues.

There are scenes in Oh Boy where characters do decide to act and the way those scenes are presented within the film offer interesting points of comparison. One scene involves Julika Hoffmann (Friederike Kempter), an old school friend of Niko’s whom he becomes reacquainted with. While being harassed by a group of teenage thugs Julika chooses to stand-up to them and when Niko assists her he is assaulted. Rather than serving as a warning about the consequences of intervening, this scene demonstrates that standing up to persecution and cruelty can come with a price, but it is still the nobler course of action. The other key scene is when Niko and Matze visit a set for a film about a Nazi officer who protects a Jewish woman. This also is an example of acting righteously at great personal expense, although the irony is that it is a fictional incident that Niko and Matze assume to be real because it is set during World War II.

The film about the Nazi officer (which echoes the Nazi themed film-within-the film from Wings of Desire) and the old man’s story reveal the ghost of Germany’s Nazi past within contemporary Germany. Like so many aspects of modern Germany’s society and culture, it displays an extremely sophisticated drive to acknowledge the country’s extremely dark past and recognise how continually remembering it is so essential. The main thrust of the commentary in Oh Boy is that complicity and inaction may be understandable under extreme circumstances, but not making a decision is in itself a decision and that will come back to haunt you. Niko’s relationship with Julika serves as a political-made-personal metaphor of this dynamic, where he is confronted with how hurt she is as an adult as a result of the way she was taunted at school by people like him who just joined in.

And yet again, Oh Boy is not necessarily waving its finger at Niko and his generation, nor at the older generation who were alive during the Nazi era. In fact, the film suggests a bond between these two generations that the generation in-between does not share. As well as empathising with the old man there is another scene where Niko shares a momentary connection with the grandmother of a drug dealer he and Matze visit. Perhaps Gerster is suggesting that Niko’s generation have an affinity with the older generation because by not growing up under the immediate cloud of Germany’s Nazi past, they are the first generation who are able to directly confront what happened.

Oh Boy seems to have less regard for the generation of Niko’s parents who are mostly presented as not necessarily unsympathetic, but as unreasonable and detached. Niko’s father is only depicted playing golf outside of Berlin and seems to be from a different world to Niko. Niko’s lonely neighbour is so self-absorbed that he mourns the fact that he no longer wants to have sex with his wife now that she has had a double mastectomy, without thinking of how she must feel. The psychologist whom Niko must meet in order to get his driver licence back is condescending, resentful and judgemental; using verbal traps and bureaucracy to foil Niko for no apparent reason.

If the older generation are still affected by the guilt of living during the Nazi era and the middle generation are somehow stagnant from the burden of having to grown up in the shadow of that horrific history, then Niko’s generation is the one with the most potential to move things forward. Despite the characterisation of Niko as aimless, his encounters with the older generation and ghosts from his personal past in the form of Julika, suggest the potential for growth based on the ability to confront the past. The constant shots of trains throughout Oh Boy serve both as eerie reminders of how so many Jewish people were transported out of Berlin during the Nazi era, but they also suggest a sense of progression. As Niko uses trains to move around Berlin he is constantly moving forward even if the direction is not yet fixed. There is a melancholic mood that underlies Oh Boy, but it is mostly fun, breezy and energetic, just like Niko and the generation he represents. His quest may simply have been for a cup of coffee, but it is a quest that results in enormous personal growth. That is hopeful and not in the slightest way trivial.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Blue Jasmine (2013)

12 September 2013
Blue Jasmine: Jasmine (Cate Blanchett)

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett)

For almost 50 years Woody Allen has been making films that explore the existential despair that there is no greater meaning to life beyond immediate human experience and how we define ourselves. Another key theme running throughout Allen’s films is how the management of this fragile state of despair can very easily result in comedy or tragedy depending on the circumstances and outcomes. In Blue Jasmine Allen once again explores these ideas, but with a rigor, sophistication and conviction that has not been present in his career since 2005’s Match Point or even 1997’s Deconstructing Harry. Added to the mix is a post-Global Financial Crisis exploration of class conflict, and notions of privilege and entitlement.

The film begins with a gag about Jasmine Francis (Cate Blanchett) who had been unloading intimate details of her life story to a complete stranger who had mistaken Jasmine’s talking to herself as an invitation for a conversation. Through the awkward social encounter and following scenes it becomes apparent that Jasmine has left a privileged life in New York to move in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) who lives in San Francisco with her two children. A modern day incarnation of Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire, Jasmine is a fading former socialite who is desperately clinging onto a sense of herself that no longer exists. She is both reliant on and resentful of Ginger’s hospitality and attempts to help her.

Jasmine is so accustomed to wealth that she is indifferent to being waited on and has no concept of the value of money. Ginger, on the other hand, has lived a poor lifestyle throughout her adult life, where money is a constant concern. Neither Jasmine nor Ginger are happy with their current situation and both look for ways to become somebody else, but the results are mixed to the extent that by the time the film is coming to a conclusion, the scenario where Jasmine talks to herself in front of complete strangers becomes a moment of tragedy.

In his 2004 film Melinda and Melinda, Allen contrasts a comic telling of a story with a tragic telling of a story by showing two versions of the same story, but one to emphasise comedy and the other to emphasise tragedy. The thin line between comedy and tragedy has been an ongoing fascination for Allen and in Blue Jasmine he depicts this fragile line far more successfully and subtly than he did in Melinda and Melinda. Instead of the approach of defining specific scenes and characters as comic and others being tragic, Blue Jasmine shifts back and forth with impressive ease within scenes. Movements of genuine pathos transition into funny exchanges, without the pathos being compromised, and then back again. These smooth tonal shifts are a remarkable achievement and displays Allen’s mastery over his material. It also significantly helps that all his actors, especially Blanchett and Hawkins, are similarly able to execute the delicate balancing act that is required.

Blue Jasmine also displays Allen’s ongoing development as a filmmaker who for almost a decade has been making films in Europe, away from his beloved New York, the setting of so many of his most significant films. Blue Jasmine brings Allen back to the USA, but setting the film in San Francisco is a notable statement that distances Allen stylistically from his previous American New York-set films. Blue Jasmine even begins with a majestic shot of an airplane flying Jasmine from New York to San Francisco, visually affirming the transition. And while New York is still used as a setting in Blue Jasmine, it is a setting that only exists in the flashback scenes that depict Jasmine’s previous life married to Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin) whose wealth was generated through crooked financial deals. New York is a city of the past and the setting of a lifestyle and version of reality built on fraud.

On the other hand, San Francisco is shot with far more long takes and camera movements than that which are typically used in Allen’s films. There is also a lot of warm light and red tones, giving San Francisco the sensuality of the European cities of Allen’s recent films, including Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), which like Blue Jasmine was shot by Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. The San Francisco setting is also important since it is also the setting of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, which like Blue Jasmine is a film about a woman being rebuilt to conform to a romanticised ideal. Of course, the key difference is that in Vertigo the female reconstruction is done by the obsessive male protagonist, while in Blue Jasmine it is done by Jasmine to herself.

The sensual red and orange colour scheme used in so many of the San Francisco shots also allows for some interesting costume choices for Jasmine. In the New York flashbacks she predominantly wears white, suggesting a sense of emptiness or lack of passion. When in San Francisco she begins to wear more earthy colours to suggest at the least the potential for some kind of grounding. However, as her unrealistic ambitions start to crumble, she is drawn back into a world of white. First she reluctantly takes a job as a receptionist at a dentist office, where the colour scheme is clinical white, and then as she pretends to be an interior designer the spaces she is associated with are similarly characterised by white or dull colours.

The other key colour is the colour referenced in the title: blue. The absence of blue in the film indicates the full extent of Jasmine’s self-delusion. She frequently mentions the song ‘Blue Moon’ being her and Hal’s song. However, the audience never get any sense of the significance of this song other than Jasmine’s increasingly unreliable statements, and the song appears in the film as if it is only something Jasmine hears. The constructed mythology of the song as integral to her sense of self ties in with her overall delusion, which includes turning a blind eye to Hal’s criminal activities; like a gangster’s wife she preferred to enjoy the benefits of his behaviour without any moral burden. And finally, not only is the ‘blue’ of the title absent within the film’s production design, but the second element of the title – her name Jasmine – is also something she has constructed and not her real name.

The idea that the world of the film, as presented to the audience as Jasmine’s idealised world, is built on absent foundations, then fuels the film’s depiction of class differences. Like the couples in Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011), Jasmine and Ginger’s arguments reflect class based resentments and conflict. However, the aspects that define the class differences are exposed as falsities. One of the falsities the film presents for why Jasmine enjoyed a life of privilege while Ginger remained poor includes Jasmine being genetically superior as they are both adopted so not birth sisters. Another suggestion, cruelly made by Jasmine, is that Ginger never worked hard enough, reflecting a popular piece of rhetoric used to justify social inequality.

The explanation for social inequality that Blue Jasmine ultimately presents is that it all comes down to luck, with a bit of ruthless opportunism to push things along. Jasmine’s comfortable lifestyle in New York was the result of marrying Hal, with the opportunistic element being her blind eye to his fraudulent business dealings. An early irony from early in the film is the revelation that Ginger and her previous husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) also came into some money through the luck of winning the lottery. However, rather than using the money for Augie to start his own business, he and Ginger were convinced by Jasmine and Hal to let Hal invest it and therefore Augie and Ginger lose all the money when Hal is arrested and charged.

The arrogant belief in privileged entitlement and the naïve concept of the ‘noble poor’ are both exposed as forms of self-delusion that rely on tenuous concepts of class and wealth to define who we are. However, Blue Jasmine also suggests these forms of self-delusion are appealing because, in true Allen fashion, life is presented as essentially meaningless. Without the delusion of happiness for what we have got, we will fall into catatonic despair. This is both hilarious and deeply upsetting, and over the duration of Blue Jasmine the audience feels both sets of emotion, even within the same scenes. And while Jasmine is in so many ways an unlikeable character, Allen’s writing and direction along with Blanchett performance make her continually sympathetic. Blue Jasmine is one of Allen’s cleverest and most compassionate films, making it also one of his greatest.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Stoker (2013)

2 September 2013
Stoker: India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode)

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode)

The gothic fiction genre, where horror and romance come together to define and sometimes undermine the moral sensibilities of the era, originated in England and was most popular throughout Europe. Originally a literary genre, its global popularity and influence across all art forms, especially film, has been such that one of the greatest gothic fiction films of recent times is Stoker, an American written and produced film, directed by a South Korean filmmaker and starring an international cast that includes several generations of Australian talent. And like so many of the best genre films, it undermines and takes the conventions into new territory.

The title Stoker alludes to Irish author Bram Stoker whose 1897 novel Dracula is one of the definitive gothic fiction texts. Dracula is the story of a predator, using vampiric violence as a metaphor for sex, and depending on interpretation it explores a variety of sexual anxieties of the era concerned with men, women and mysterious foreigners. Stoker is not a vampire film, but it shares some of the eroticism and bodily horror that director Park Chan-wook explored in his previous film Thirst (2009), which provided its own spin on the sex/violence symbolism of vampire mythology. In Stoker, violence as a trigger for sexual awakening is a major theme and like Thirst Park relies on the sound design to convey desire making every breath of air or sip of wine the soundtrack for lust and bloodlust.

The predator character in Stoker is Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode), who on the day of his brother’s funeral turns up to stay with his dead brother’s wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and her daughter India (Mia Wasikowska). There is no doubt about Charlie’s sinister intent as when India glimpses him standing in the distance he looks like Norman Bates from Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) standing in silhouette next to the hotel. As Charlie ingrains himself into the lives of his brother’s widow and his niece, and starts digging up the garden, the film sets the stage for the oncoming nastiness.

The figure at the centre of the film is India who like many female heroes of gothic fiction is a young woman on the cusp of sexual awakening. The film and Charlie are obsessed with her age, reminding the audience that she turned eighteen on the day her father died. She always receives an identical pair of black-and-white schoolgirl Oxford shoes for her birthday, which increasingly become fetish objects that define her youth. She appears tiny against the large furniture in the house she lives in. As Charlie opens a bottle of wine he comments that it is young and ‘not ready to be opened’ at a stage in the film where it is clear he has plans for India now that she is of age.

India’s sexuality and how Charlie influences it is a central theme in Stoker. Initially India is portrayed as conservative and puritanical while Evelyn is sexual and open to Charlie’s seductive presence. However, like Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), Charlie is using the mother to get to the daughter and manipulates every moment to sway India from repulsion, to jealously to forbidden desire. Much is made of India’s sexuality from the mystery of what happened to the shoes she was supposed to receive on her eighteenth birthday to the close-up of the water dripping between her feet after having come in from the rain. She unlocks a box full of family secrets, which possesses all the symbolism of Pandora’s Box in terms of it containing both the evils of the world and female sexuality. And then there are the repeated shots of a spider crawling up her leg and in-between her thighs at precise moments in the film. Meanwhile, Charlie is frequently associated with the buzzing sound of a fly.

Not everything is what it seems in Stoker and its strength lies in how much it undermines expectations by taking a revisionist approach to gothic fiction conventions. The film never pulls the rug from beneath the audience, but it gently slides it out so that the audience can go along for the ride and accept the film seems to be one thing, but turns out to be something else. A key line of dialogue occurs early when Charlie comments that India has the advantage by physically standing on the stairs below him. Throughout the film India does physically appear lower than other people, just like her status as a young virginal girl makes her of traditionally lower status in gothic fiction. However, her uncle is right, she has the advantage and throughout Stoker it becomes apparent that a lot of generic conventions are being turned upside down so that the young virginal girl is not the victim she is often cast to be.

Stoker is about an awakening within India; an awakening triggered by Charlie, but not in the way he anticipates. The film begins with a flashforward where India narrates that she is wearing her father’s belt, mother’s blouse and uncle’s shoes and by the end of the film it is clear what these objects mean and how the different members of her family are part of who she is. Stoker almost feels like an origin story or a prequel to another popular genre, while remaining a more subversive than usual spin on gothic fiction conventions.

The blend of sexuality and violence of gothic fiction is right at the forefront of Stoker even if it mostly exists off-screen or through implication. Similar to the way that David Cronenberg’s films have moved from the visceral to the psychological, Stoker heralds a similar transition for Park. His meticulous framing and visual composition are more than evident in Stoker, but the transgressive thrills mostly occur under the surface in the psychological realm. This interior focus is effectively alluded to in the art class scene where instead of painting flowers in a vase, India paints the intricate pattern on the inside of the vase. And throughout Stoker the audience is in her intricate, violent and sexual interior world. It is a disturbing place to be in the most wicked and wonderful way possible.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – The Rocket (2013)

30 August 2013
The Rocket: Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe)

Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe)

The Laotian environment as portrayed in writer/director Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket is both one of immense natural beauty and one of environmental degradation, danger and death. It is a country where a large portion of its population live traditionally in hut villages, but also a country suffering from substantial environmental problems due to commercial exploitation of the forests and water catchments. Laos has also had the most bombs dropped on it per capita than any other country in the world. The Rocket portrays Laos as a country of complex contradictions, all of which form a rich backdrop to the central story of a boy and his family trying to find a new home.

The Rocket continually captures the contradictions of Laos, but juxtaposing images of death with images of life. The tone is overall celebratory and hopeful as despite what gets thrown at the characters, and they do go through significant hardship, life prevails. The first major juxtaposing occurs at the beginning of the film depicting the birth of lead character Ahlo. The birth scene is dark, ominous and full of conflict between Ahlo’s mother Mali (Alice Keohavong) and his paternal grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi) who believes Ahlo is a cursed baby. Death is present in this scene as Ahlo’s twin brother is stillborn and Taitok tries to convince Mali to kill Ahlo. The film then cuts to the present day to reveal Ahlo as a boy (Sitthiphon Disamoe) bursting with life and energy, laughing in delight as he plays on a swing.

Ahlo is a character who defies hardship through the way he finds beauty and potential in the world, and the film frequently shows us his perspective to demonstrate this. When Ahlo and his father Toma (Sumrit Warin) attend a briefing about a new dam that will flood their village, Ahlo leaves his father to hear the bad news to instead swim in an existing dam. The dam is shot to physically dominate the frame, reinforcing the almost violent way it was imposed onto the land. The audible hum of the machinery is also imposing. However, when Ahlo climbs the dam to dive in and swim, the moment is one of tranquillity as he glides through the water and looks down on the sunken statues that would have belonged to previously displaced people. The swimming sequence is intercut with shots of Toma watching the cynical corporate video explaining that he has to relocate. The crosscutting suggests that Ahlo’s spirit still prevails against the all-powerful multinationals who are casually threatening to destroy his way of life.

Many of the juxtapositions are also darkly ironic. Most pronounced are the shots of the unexploded bombs lying dormant in the vegetation. Bomb violence is never explicitly depicted, but its threat to human life is suggested through the one-armed man who drives the bomb collection cart and a shot of a drying jacket with holes blasted through it after being in range of an exploding cluster bomb that Ahlo and his friend Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) accidentally play with. And yet Laos is a country where a day of celebration is based on building and firing rockets in the sky to defiantly shake up the sky gods.

Building the rocket is an example of combining technology and traditions to create a symbol of hope. It is a fitting metaphor for the future of Laos as led by Ahlo’s generation. By comparison the character that represents the old era is the mysterious character known only as Purple (Thep Phongam). He is cynical about traditions and customs, yet also bitter and angry at past foreign interference and contemporary inequality. He refuses to elaborate on his connection to the American army during the 1960s and 1970s when Laos was involved in the Vietnam War, and yet he adores James Brown, a distinctive part of American culture. Cunning, resourceful, friendly and funny, he is also an alcoholic, untrustworthy and hiding a dark past. Like so many aspects of The Rocket, Purple is a mix of ironic contradictions.

The film’s irony is also expressed in the way it both challenges and potentially reinforces the superstitious belief that Ahlo causes bad luck. On a rational level it is cruel and foolish to hold a young boy accountable for so much misfortune, but the way The Rocket creates links between Ahlo’s actions and specific outcomes suggests that such a belief has some tangible grounding. In one scene, after naively taking food from a shrine, Ahlo attempts to return it and triggers a new chain of events that causes problems for his family. The further irony is that the problems are not caused by taking the food, but by trying to return it, reminiscent of No Country for Old Men (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2007) where the protagonist is not punished for stealing drug money, but for when he attempts to act morally by bringing water to a dying man.

Throughout The Rocket Ahlo carries the burden of having people believe he is the cause of all misfortune that befalls his family. The accusations laid against Ahlo are unbearably harsh and while the physical journey to find a new home is the film’s narrative thrust, it is Ahlo’s emotional journey to cast off any doubt that he is the cause of bad luck that gives the film its heart. This emotional journey also defines the warm, good humoured and compassionate tone of the film. While the film contains its insightful ironic contrasts and confronting subject matter, it never succumbs to being an arduous or distancing viewing experience. Instead, it is an extremely rewarding and entertaining film made all the stronger for the integrity and cultural details that underpin it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Frances Ha (2012)

19 August 2013
Frances Ha: Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and Frances (Greta Gerwig)

Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and Frances (Greta Gerwig)

Contemporary cinema that is genuinely joyous and uplifting is surprisingly rare. Films that tug at the heartstrings or can be described as bitter/sweet are reasonably common, but there are not that many films that can be regarded as feel-good without the trappings of cynicism or overly manipulative schmaltz. Frances Ha is a rare example of a modern film that leaves you on a high without you feeling suspicious that you have yet again been fed a beautiful lie that you will eventually start to see through. Instead, this is a genuinely heartfelt, gorgeous and beautiful celebration of youth, friendship and grappling with all the contradictions and challenges that life throws at us.

The film is a collaboration between director Noah Baumbach, who is also one of the film’s producers, and actor Greta Gerwig who plays the lead character Frances Halladay. The pair wrote the script together and it feels like a culmination of both their careers. It is a return to the comedic and youthful focus of Baumbach’s début feature film Kicking and Screaming (1995) while containing the observational qualities that distinguish his ‘second coming’ as a filmmaker that began in 2005 with The Squid and the Whale. For Gerwig it is her most pronounced and definitive role to date, and it evokes her earlier mumblecore films rather than her recent mainstream success.

Gerwig brings to the film a slightly nervous yet constantly charming energy that is expressed through Frances’s lust for life that is only threatened by her concern that, ‘I’m not a real person yet.’ While Baumbach typically looks for the comedic potential in his scripts the subject matter often leaves his films feeling wry. However, with Frances Ha the subject matter of an enthusiastic young woman trying to find her way in the world results in a natural expression of humour and fun.

Crucial to the success of Frances Ha is that the focus is on how Frances relates to the world rather than how she relates to the world through the prism of being somebody’s romantic interest. Her love and sex life are not ignored – there is a reoccurring joke about her being ‘undateable’ – but the main relationship explored in the film is her friendship with roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Indeed, after setting up how close and similar Frances and Sophie are to each other, the main narrative drive (what little of it there is) concerns how the pair drifts apart as they start to make different life decisions.

This storyline concerning Frances and Sophie’s ‘breakup’ gives the film its emotional depth and facilitates the central theme of what it means to enter adulthood. Does growing up involve becoming realistic and practical, or is it about compromising your dreams? What is the difference between being a free spirit and being frivolous? Frances Ha does not preach one way or the other, but it presents Frances attempting to wrestle with these ideas in a way that is identifiable, endearing and ultimately uplifting.

In order to capture the barrage of life choices thrown at Frances during the film, Baumbach adopts a range of stylistic devices to highlight the importance of one of the few tangible aspects of her life: a sense of place. While her dancing career and personal life are full of unknowns, Frances at least can hold onto the physical places she occupies, so Frances Ha is segmented with title cards containing the addresses of the places she inhabits. Mostly these places are addresses in New York City and Baumbach films in black-and-white to not just evoke Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), but also the early work of pioneering American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes, especially the New York set Shadows (1959). The mythology of New York as a place of opportunities, creativity and potential is essential to who Frances is.

Also significant is how much Baumbach’s visual style evokes the youthful and rebellious energy of the French New Wave, particularly the films of François Truffaut, which Baumbach also uses music from to score parts of Frances Ha. It is appropriate that a segment of Frances Ha is set in Paris, although true to the tone and attitude of the film Frances does not have any great revelation or life changing event – she just lives (and oversleeps) in the moment.

If there is one scene to define Frances Ha then it is the obvious one of Frances running and dancing through the street of New York to David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’. It is a homage to a similar moment in Mauvais Sang (1986), fittingly by French New Wave inspired director Leos Carax, as well as being the type of non-narrative moment that characterised loose narrative films by Cassavetes and Truffaut. More importantly it expresses Frances’s endless enthusiasm and love of life in a film not defined by a romantic interest or an obvious goal. Her euphoric dance through the streets is an act of gleeful defiance against convention, just as the film is itself. There are no simple life lessons or morals here. Frances’s dance is saying that modern life, like modern love, ‘terrifies me’ but it also ‘makes me party’ and that is what Frances, the film and the audience embrace.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013


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