Films I loved in April 2014

30 April 2014
Ralph Fiennes as M Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ralph Fiennes as M Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a glorious tribute to an imagined era of European civility and innocence before the onslaught of fascism. Channelling the spirit of Ernst Lubitsch, this is one of Anderson’s best films and certainly the one I’ve enjoyed the most since The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001. For the most part a beautifully designed, cleverly structured and hilarious caper, the real triumph in this film is the final five or so minutes where Anderson delivers a heartfelt conclusion that acknowledges the fundamental tragedy of what fascism destroyed.

Tilda Swinton as Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam in Only Lovers Left Alive

Tilda Swinton as Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam in Only Lovers Left Alive

I have long been a fan of Jim Jarmusch – who like Wes Anderson is also a maverick with a unique and uncompromising approach to filmmaking – and Only Lovers Left Alive did not disappoint. This time Jarmusch applies his droll, minimalist and laid back style to the vampire genre to produce a film both visually and audibly rich in texture and atmosphere. The love and symbiotic relationship between the two creatures of the night reflects the delicate balance of the natural world that is slowly falling in decay due to human greed, selfishness and destructiveness.

Will Arnett voicing Batman and Charlie Day voicing Benny in The LEGO Movie

Will Arnett voicing Batman and Charlie Day voicing Benny in The LEGO Movie

On the other end of the spectrum comes the deliriously fun and subversive mainstream family comedy The LEGO Movie, which has a seemingly anarchic animation style that reminded me of A Town Called Panic (Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, 2009). It does seem incongruous that such an overtly branded and marketed film would contain such a strident message against consumerism, materialism and conformity, but it does and it does it well. It also smartly deconstructs several pop culture tropes including the rather regressive idea of the Chosen One. And it’s hilarious.

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya and Machiko Ono and Midori Nonomiya in Like Father, Like Son

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya and Machiko Ono as Midori Nonomiya in Like Father, Like Son

In Like Father, Like Son director Hirokazu Koreeda finds considerable charm, humour and pathos in the potentially scandalous story about two sets of parents discovering their 6-year-old sons were mixed up at birth. Instead of melodramatics, Koreeda’s graceful style of storytelling allows for gentle social observations concerning class divisions and parental expectations in modern Japan. My favourite films of Koreeda’s are After Life (1998) and Still Walking (2008), but this is still an excellent film by one of the most consistently impressive filmmakers working today.


It was great to see the low-fi French romantic comedy 2 Autumns, 3 Winters get a number of screenings around Melbourne, as I really enjoyed its quirky and hyper self-referential style. Most of the time I find the device of having characters talk directly to the camera a bit too twee, but it worked for me in this film and I enjoyed its 20-something hipster angst.

Another film that had a few local screenings, just ahead of its DVD release, is the extraordinary Cheap Thrills where two friends are encouraged to compete against each other, in increasingly disturbing ways, for money. The blend of horror and dark comedy in this post-GFC film, delivers a biting social critique of the way middle and lower classes are conned into fighting against each other, while the powerful and wealthy upper class sit back and enjoy the show. The levels of depravity, humiliation and ruthlessness are built up extremely convincingly and are wonderfully excruciating to watch.

The other DVD release of note this month is  Starlet, a very impressive low budget American drama about an unlikely friendship between a 21-year-old woman and an 85-year-old woman. The film is very strategic about when it provides keys pieces of information about the background of both women, but when it does the timing is perfect and the effect is profound. Starlet goes into surprising and unlikely places to deal with subject matter that a lesser film would have sensationalised, but writer/director Sean Baker has an impressive grasp on the material and, like 2 Autumns, 3 Winters writer/director Sébastien Betbeder and like Cheap Thrills director EL Katz, is a talent to keep an eye out for.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Provoc-Auteur: Lars von Trier

19 April 2014

Lars von Trier

He has won the top prizes at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and has been kicked out of the Cannes Film Festival. He once described himself as ‘a simple masturbator of the silver screen’ and he later developed an avant-garde filmmaking manifesto with a set of rules that were referred to as a Vow of Chastity. He is the Danish writer and director Lars von Trier and his latest film is the glorious and unwieldy epic Nymph()maniac.

Lars Trier grew up in Copenhagen making short films on a Super 8 camera. His parents were communists, nudists and did not believe in setting boundaries for their children. By the time Trier enrolled in the National Film School of Denmark he had developed a love of cinema and a desire to break its conventions and rules. While at film school he adopted the aristocratic ‘von’ into his name, just as Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg had once done.

After achieving considerable success with the films he made at film school, von Trier achieved international recognition with Europa, which was released in 1991 as the third part of his Europe trilogy after The Element of Crime (1984) and Epidemic (1987). All three films are visually striking and dreamlike works that distort generic conventions and display von Trier’s experimental approach to storytelling and film style.

After the success of Europa, von Trier co-founded his own production company Zentropa Entertainment and made two seasons of The Kingdom (1994 and 1997). Shot in atmospheric sepia hues; the hospital-set series blended soap opera with supernatural horror as if Twin Peaks were crossed with General Hospital.

In 1995 von Trier founded the Dogme 95 Manifesto with Thomas Vinterberg (A Celebration, 1998). Dogme 95 stripped down cinema to its raw components to remove the intrusion of technology and special effects. Some of the rules included only shooting on location, only using handheld cameras and only using sound recorded on location.

Von Trier adopted Dogme 95 techniques and its overall grainy and handheld look for all the films in his Golden Heart Trilogy, but only the middle film, The Idiots (1998), was completely compliant. Following a group of social agitators who challenge the status quo by acting like they are developmentally challenged, The Idiots is one of von Trier’s most difficult and controversial works.

The first film in the Golden Heart Trilogy was Breaking the Waves (1996). Starring Emily Watson as a woman whose religious faith makes her believe that being sexually used by other men will help restore her injured husband, it is the beginning of von Trier’s exploration of suffering women. In the third Golden Heart Trilogy film, the musical Dancer in the Dark (2000), Björk plays a factory worker who makes extreme personal sacrifices to ensure her son gets an operation to halt the onset of a hereditary blindness condition. Both film are emotionally devastating and essential viewing.

Von Trier next intended to make the USA – Land of Opportunities Trilogy, but to date only two films have eventuated: Dogville (2003) starring Nicole Kidman and Manderlay (2005) with Bryce Dallas Howard replacing Kidman as the reoccurring character between the films. Shot on large stages with the majority of the setting being represented by painted lines and labels, both films are inspired by the theatrical productions by Bertolt Brecht where the artifice of the drama is made explicit. Also in the spirit of Brecht, both films are highly critical of aspects of dominant culture. Dogville explores issues of class in America while Manderlay examines race. And of course, the female protagonist goes through terrible ordeals.

In 2003 von Trier also made the fascinating documentary/experimental film The Five Obstructions where he challenged filmmaker Jørgen Leth to repeatedly remake his 1967 short film The Perfect Human. Von Trier has since announced he would do something similar with Martin Scorsese. However, the film that most surprised audiences was 2006’s The Boss of It All, an office-based comedy that demonstrated that von Trier is not serious all the time.

Von Trier’s most recent films form the Depression Trilogy. Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, 2009’s Antichrist is von Trier’s most visceral film with unforgettable imagery depicting the cruelty of the natural world where the psychological violence suffered by grieving parents spills over into physical violence. The depression that overwhelms Kirsten Dunst’s character in Melancholia (2011) similarly manifests in the real world in the guise of a rouge planet on a collision course with Earth.

Finally, there is Nymph()maniac where a beaten and bloody woman played by Charlotte Gainsbourg describes a series of sexual misadventures that lead to a point where she is punished for her presumed sins. It continues the themes and overt use of symbolism from Antichrist and Melancholia, but it is also bursting with the humour of The Kingdom and The Boss of it All, the high-levels of self-awareness displayed in Dogville and Manderlay, and the pathos of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. It is bewildering, confrontational, inventive and constantly unpredictable – much like von Trier and his extraordinary career of pushing buttons and boundaries.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 455, 2014

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in March 2014

2 April 2014

A quick thank you to everybody who has been in touch. I’ve been asked if I will resume doing longer form reviews and unfortunately, for the timing being, the answer is no as this year I am mainly concentrating on some long term writing projects.

I’m doing a lot more radio this year; continuing my Thursday morning reviews on the Breakfasters (3RRR 102.7FM) and I am part of a monthly segment on Books and Arts Daily (ABC Radio National) that looks at book to film adaptations. I usually link to my radio spots on Facebook and/or Twitter.

I’m also thrilled to announce that Plato’s Cave, the podcast I have co-hosted for the past three years, is now officially on the 3RRR grid as an ongoing live weekly show, every Monday night from 7pm-8pm. More on the Triple R website, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe in Nymph()maniac

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe in Nymph()maniac

I adored Nymph()maniac and even though I have already seen the international cut where the film has been split into two parts and runs for a bit over four hours, I cannot wait to see the full five and a half hour cut. This is Lars von Trier at his most playful and self-reflexive, yet he still manages to deliver something truly profound and unsettling that explores all his favourite preoccupations. The stories that the self-described nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells about her sexual misadventures are not only sociopolitically provocative, but open up a multi-layered exploration about how lust and love are represented in culture. It’s a battle between mind, body and soul with von Trier in full trickster mode so that the audience never know exactly where they stand.

Robert Redford as Our Man in All Is Lost

Robert Redford as Our Man in All Is Lost

I’ve already written a mini-review of All Is Lost, but I really enjoyed this stripped back survival film about an unnamed man (Robert Redford) stranded at sea doing all that he can to protect his boat, body and mind from a cruel and indifferent environment. Both pragmatic and mythical, this is a film that allows every individual viewer to project their own psychological baggage onto the film so they can decide if it’s a film about the human spirit or a film about existential dread.

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda in Wadjda

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda in Wadjda

Wadjda is a charming and fun coming-of-age film about Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), an 11-year-old Saudi Arabian girl, who enters a Qur’an recital competition so that she can use the prize money to buy a bicycle. In such an aggressively patriarchal society such actions are hugely defiant and the film explores the everyday challenges that women and girls face when living with such extreme gender discrimination.


I finally caught up with The We and the I, which had some very limited screenings in Melbourne last year and was released onto DVD in Australia in late February. It is astonishing that this film has flown so far under the radar, as it is not only a Michel Gondry film, but I believe it is his best film since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Developed over three years of workshops with teenagers who went on to act in the film, it follows the dynamics on a school bus heading through the Bronx in New York City, USA, on the last day of school. Gondry’s distinctive visual style is suitably restrained, and he very skilfully draws the audience into the various mini-dramas that occur throughout the journey.

I have also written a short review about What Richard Did, which is the other notable DVD release I want to mention. It’s a strong drama about personal accountability that very convincingly builds up to a pivotal incident and then explores how that incident affects a community by looking at grief, guilt and culpability among individuals and groups. It’s an Irish film, but strikingly relevant to Australian society.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Anger and Banality in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead

26 March 2014
Mike Bishop as David Yale

Mike Bishop as David Yale

My article on Ghosts… of the Civil Dead for Senses of Cinema as part of their Key Moments in Australian Cinema series:

The anger that seethes throughout John Hillcoat’s debut feature film, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, can be felt in almost every scene. Anger is explicitly articulated, acts of violence resulting from anger are depicted or described, and in scenes without overt expressions of anger it can be felt underneath the despair, cruelty and hopelessness that have resulted from a corrupt prison system. Every character who appears on screen (as opposed to the voices on the intercom and the people shown in news reports and pornography) is either a prisoner, a prison officer or, in one instance, a policeman. Nearly all of them have reasons to be angry as they are all at the mercy of an unidentified external bureaucracy who want the anger in the prison to manifest as violence to justify harsher prison conditions and the funding of new facilities to deliver the required brutality.

Head over to Senses of Cinema to read the full article


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

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