Films I loved in March 2015

1 April 2015
Joaquin Phoenix as Larry 'Doc' Sportello in Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix as Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello in Inherent Vice

I adored the twists and turns, endless stream of larger-than-life characters, paranoia, stoner logic, and melancholic social commentary found within Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. While the dense narrative was sometimes hard work getting through while reading the Thomas Pynchon novel it was adapted from, in the film I found it was liberating to regard the story as secondary to the atmospheric and playful mood generate by Anderson. I was more than happy to enjoy the film on a scene-by-scene basis and lose myself in the weirdness, comedy and sometimes darkness of every moment.

Not that it’s a film without substance. The 1970 Californian setting in the shadow of the Manson Family Murders and during Ronald Reagan’s governorship offers plenty of indications that the hopeful dreams of the hippie movement had failed to materialise. Dark days were ahead and the film acknowledges the impact of heroin, the presence of neo-Nazism, the commercialisation of the counter-culture, and the increase of government surveillance on its own people. And not unlike Raymond Chandler’s classic Phillip Marlow detective character, Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a good man at the centre of it all, trying to do the right thing and help others, even at the expense of his own happiness.

Aleksey Serebryakov as Kolya in Leviathan

Aleksey Serebryakov as Kolya in Leviathan

The latest film by Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev, Leviathan, is a devastating allegory for contemporary Russia, presenting the government as ruthless and corrupt, the church as being manipulative and conniving, and the general population as slowly sliding into hopelessness, brutality and alcoholism. This would be unbearable if it were not for the film being so beautifully crafted and so visually rich. The images of the decaying fishing boats, whale skeleton and church ruins provide powerful symbols of a great and glorious culture that now feels like a relic of the past.

Jack O'Connell as Gary Hook in '71

Jack O’Connell as Gary Hook in ’71

Similar to Paul Greengrass’s underrated Green Zone, ’71 is a thrilling action/war drama that also provides sophisticated insights into the nature of the conflict it is set during. The violence that occurs on the streets of Belfast during the period known as The Troubles isn’t just the backdrop for this film’s exciting action scenes; it is examined and explored with impressive complexity. As the young and inexperienced British soldier Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) spends the night trying to get back to his unit, his encounters with various other characters reveals how many different factions were involved in the conflict and how many people were caught in the crossfire.

Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy in The Homesman

Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy in The Homesman

In his directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, actor Tommy Lee Jones took a very critical look at issues of race in contemporary America. In The Homesman, Jones’s second film as director, he turns his attention towards the treatment of women in American Midwest in the 1850s. The result is a bitter deconstruction of western mythology and a savage condemnation of social attitudes towards women. Far from the idealised frontier taming narratives of classic westerns, Jones delivers a confronting and compelling story of a culture built on the mistreatment of half its population.

This month I also really enjoyed losing myself for three hours in the National Gallery in London via Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery. Wiseman’s unobtrusive filming style and strategic editing reveals the inner workings of the multifaceted institution, engages with discussion about the role of art in broader society and explores how people connect with art. I was also really glad to be see, via their online release, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (rather than watch The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, which combines the original two films into a single condensed film). Him and Her deliver a moving examination of how perception and memory can be different in small but significant ways, especially when is comes to love, grief and loss.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Films I loved in February 2015

1 March 2015
Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales and Jessica Chastainas Anna Morales in A Most Violent Year

Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales and Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales in A Most Violent Year

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) works in an industry dominated by organised crime and yet refuses to live like a gangster in JC Chandor’s  A Most Violent Year, a film that refuses to behave like a gangster film despite bearing many of the characteristics of a gangster film. In some ways, A Most Violent Year is the film that The Godfather Part III wanted to be as it is about a man who aspires to run his oil-heating business legitimately, but whose connections to the underworld undermine him at every turn. Isaac even channels the energy of a young Al Pacino and the whole film, which is set in New York City in 1981, feels like a New Hollywood film, in particular the ones that starred Al Pacino and/or were directed by Sidney Lumet. However, I think Chandor is looking even further back to Elia Kazan’s films of the 1950s and 1960s, which were also character driven pieces that were considered realist at the time, and were full of social and political commentary. The shot of Issac as Abel standing on top of an oil truck echoes the shot of Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront standing on the rubble heap. In both shots the Manhattan skyline is behind them in the distance, suggesting how both characters loom large in their small pocket of the world, but are still a long way from the life they dream of.

A Most Violent Year is most effective in its explanation for why Able is struggling so hard to achieve his goals despite working hard and maintaining a sense of honour and decency: he believes the myths of capitalism and the American Dream. He thinks honesty will triumph over ruthlessness and deceitfulness, and he believes fair competitions exists as opposed to an ongoing cycle of people just trying to screw each other over. As his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) tells him, he only has the success that he has because her father was once a powerful and wealthy criminal. Anna is the voice of reason in this world of moral compromise while Abel is naive. The tragic lesson of this sophisticated drama is that in the end its more important for many to plug the flow of oil than the flow of blood.

Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

I’ve never read anything by Mark Millar, but I really enjoyed Wanted and Kiss-Ass, which like Kingsman: The Secret Service are based on comics he’s written.  Directed by Matthew Vaughn (who also directed Kick-Ass) it follows what has become a familiar Millar storyline, where somebody ordinary and a bit hopeless gets the chance to become extraordinary in a world filled with ultra violence. In Kingsman the ordinary person is Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton), an unemployed English teenager living on a council estate. Under the mentorship of secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) Eggsy is given the chance to join the elite secret intelligence agency, the Kingsman. While the results are designed to be a parody and homage to some of the sillier films in the Bond franchise, the kinetic action and ridiculously high body count feels more like what a Bond film would resemble if Takashi Miike were the director.

While the violence is excessive and inventive, the real subversion is found in the narrative. The villains of the film are the 1%  – leaders of business and government who are happy to sacrifice the other 99% of the world’s population to maintain their lifestyle. And while the gentleman spy premise seems to initially exist to deliver the exploitive spectacle of the upperclass beating the shit out of the lower-class, the film soon establishes the notion that a gentleman is defined by a person’s attitude, not their class or gender. And as for the now controversial gag at the end of the film? It’s there to mock and highlight the absurd sexism of how so many Bond films end, but I don’t think the joke is particularly good nor does it suit the tone of the rest of the film. It’s a small detail and doesn’t overall detract from all the other giddy visual pleasures. The scene in the hate-group church alone is enough for me to want to revisit Kingsman again soon.

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma

David Oyelowo as Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Selma

There are several reasons why Selma rises above many other based-on-true-story films. Writer/director Ava DuVernay focuses on the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights in Alabama in 1965, but places the events as just one chapter within the ongoing US civil rights movement. At the centre of the film is Dr Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo), but the film also acknowledges the many other leaders and supporters of the movement. The film is set in the past, but DuVernay contains several moments, in particular the scenes between King and President Lyndon B Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), to draw parallels between the historical events and contemporary issues. Both the moral and pragmatic dynamics of the movement are explored, and instead of resorting to sentiment the film allows the events to speak for themselves.

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in Citizenfour

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in Citizenfour

At first Citizenfour seems like a matter-of-factual and almost dry documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations to the media about the extent in which the  United States National Security Agency is spying on its own citizens. However, the moment when it becomes clear that filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras was one of the first people Snowden contacted and spoke to, and that Poitras taped those meetings that are now in the documentary, the significance of this film becomes apparent. The events Poitras has documented have since had profound effects on political discourse and debate surrounding the use of technology and personal liberties. Citizenfour reveals Snowden to be a rational and intelligent man who had wrestled with the decision to reveal his information and ultimately decided to sacrifice life as he knew it for the greater good, arguing that a government willing to sacrifice the freedom and privacy of its citizens ‘limits boundaries of their intellectual freedom’. By the end of the film we see scenes that suggest that the paranoid Cold War thrillers of the 1970s and the high tech surveillance thrillers on the 1990s were grounded in far more factual detail than imagined.

On a much lighter note, a couple of really fun films came out on home entertainment in Australia in February. The New Zealand film Housebound  is one of the best horror/comedies I’ve seen for a long time (I regard the equally brilliant What We Do in the Shadows as more of a comedy deriving humour from horror tropes than an actual horror/comedy).  Great characters, droll humour and an effective escalation of scares and gore; this variation on the haunted house story is terrific.

I also had a great time with the latest film by Japanese maverick Sion Sono, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? While Suicide Club and Love Exposure are still my favourite Sono films, this one comes a close third. A large ensemble of characters, multiple storylines and a hyperactive style, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? brings together a team of renegade filmmakers and rival yakuza gangs for a delirious and hilarious climatic bloodbath. Within all the chaos Sono is also able to express his fondness for the dying art of shooting films on 35mm, which is fair enough as even fake blood spurts look better on film than CGI blood.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

On a quick personal note, I am thrilled and honoured to have recently been awarded the Ivan Hutchinson Award for writing on Australian cinema at the AFCA 2015 Film & Writing Awards, for my article ‘Anger and Banality in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead. Thank you to the Australian Film Critics Association, all the writing award judges and Senses of Cinema.

Films I loved in January 2015

27 December 2014
Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson and Edward Norton as Mike Shiner

Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson and Edward Norton as Mike Shiner in Birdman

A week after seeing Birdman – or to use its full title, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – I went back to the cinema to see it again. And I loved it just as much that second time. I think it’s a masterpiece and it is more than likely that at the end of this year it will be the top of my favourite films of 2015 list. It’s easily the best thing that director Alejandro González Iñárritu has ever done as while it’s his most technically ambitious film to date it is also enormously entertaining, whimsical, melancholic and profound in its ability to wrestle with complex questions surrounding the nature of art, authenticity and identity in the modern world. The way it pays tribute to the power of cinema and theatre feels timeless, and yet its commentary about social media, celebrity culture, the role of the critic and the commodification of culture is extremely contemporary and relevant.

The whole cast is astonishing but Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a former superhero actor who is making one last ditch to achieve legitimacy, delivers a career best. The greatest achievement of the film is its commitment to conveying Thomson’s mentally subjective perspective through the use of what appears to be an impossible continuous long take, delivering the sensation of time and space collapsing in on itself, and visualising Thomson’s various fantasies and delusions. At some point the film completely loses all sense of reality and just becomes a projection of what Thomson is imagining – part of the fun is figuring out when that moment happens. Birdman is a triumph that delivers a blend of black comedy, self aware commentary on the nature of art and the business of creating art, and pathos for its tragic lead character.

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in Wild

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in Wild

I tend to be ambivalent at best when it comes to films about people trekking solo out into the wild in order to find themselves. However, all of my preconceived notions about the limitations of such films were completely shattered by director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, adapted from the memoir by Cheryl Strayed who is played by Reese Witherspoon. Rather than presenting the audience with a lengthy prologue explaining Cheryl’s motivations, it gets straight into her journey and very effectively uses flashbacks to show us her thought process and memories during her trip, all of which fill in the backstory exactly when required.

Not only does the film successfully convey the immediate physical hardships, setbacks and small victories of her hike, but it frames them within the context of various painful memories. By so skilfully reflecting Cheryl’s experiences in the physical world along with everything running through her mind, Wild becomes a thoughtful film about grief, recovery and self-acceptance. On top of that are some extremely sophisticated observations about what it’s like for a woman to be travelling alone, plus incredible performances by Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who plays Cheryl’s mother in flashbacks.

Night Will Fall

Night Will Fall

I regrettably did not get to see the newly completed German Concentration Camps Factual Survey when it screened in Melbourne last year. Originally intended to be released in 1945, it was produced by Sidney Bernstein with the supervised direction of Alfred Hitchcock, and contains footage taken by English, Soviet and American camera-operators attached to army divisions at recently liberated concentration camps. The documentary Night Will Fall by Andre Singer looks at the background of the original film, exploring how it was designed to document the unbelievable horrors of what humanity is capable of.

Originally given full  governmental support to demonstrate what the Allies were fighting against, German Concentration Camps was shelved once the war had ended to help build international relations with post-Nazi Germany and to avoid generating too much domestic sympathy for the survivors seeking refugee status. Night Will Fall contains a lot of footage from the original film and it is indeed harrowing and confronting. This new documentary also provides substantial interviews with many people involved in the original film, including some of the Allied soldiers and some of the survivors, many of whom appear in the original footage. Their testimonies provide essential context and humanity.

Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz and Steve Carell as John du Pont in Foxcatcher

Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz and Steve Carell as John du Pont in Foxcatcher

First there was The Master, then Behind the Candelabra and now Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is the latest American film to portray an intense and destructive male relationship where the mentor/student dynamic becomes more like an homoerotic father/son dynamic (although in the case of Behind the Candelabra there was an actual sexual relationship). The key difference in Foxcatcher is while multimillionaire John du Pont is the father figure who’s taken the childlike Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz under his wing to train him for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, du Pont is also a child figure in the film, forever trying to win the the approval of his mother.

This is a cold and bleak film, not just in its themes of regret, bitterness and resentment, but visually with its stark lighting, empty frames and distancing cinematography. While Steve Carell’s performance as du Pont has deservedly attracted a lot of acclaim for his still and mannered menace, I was most impressed by Channing Tatum as the hulking and imposing Mark. Within the context of the film Mark is unreadable, but Tatum and Miller find subtle ways to convey his frustrations, vulnerability and anger. An early scene where Mark trains with his brother David (Mark Ruffalo) is a masterclass in using the body and movement (not unlike dance) to convey to the audience everything they need to know about the characters and their relationship to each other.

The King’s Speech from 2010 remains the modern standard for me when it comes to high quality ‘prestige biopics’ that while not especially remarkable films, are nevertheless well-made, competent and very enjoyable films about remarkable people. Both Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game and James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything very neatly fall into this category and I really liked both. Like any films that are based on true stories, these two films deliver an impression of the people and their importance to the world rather than adhering strictly to precise historical details. So I’m not going to enter into some of the current debate about the ‘truth’ of these films because I consider the films to be self-contained works that come across as authentic to the spirit of the subject matter.

I feel that The Imitation Game conveyed the enormous significance of Alan Turing’s work and legacy, as well as the injustice of how he was treated after World War II. And while I had a bit more awareness about the groundbreaking work achieved by Stephen Hawking, I was impressed by how much The Theory of Everything delivered not only an insight into the kind of person he is, but also acknowledged the significance that his first wife Jane Wilde had on his life and career. And besides, I’m a sucker for any films that celebrate people who have changed the world for the better by being studious and intelligent, as opposed to many other far more dubious characteristics that are often framed as being heroic.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Favourite Films of 2014

26 December 2014

This year I have attempted to acknowledge the films that I feel are examples of cinema at its best on both technical and artistic levels, with the films that had more a personal impact in the sense that they long stayed with me or compelled me to see them again. Most films ended up falling into both categories. Regardless of the reasons, these are the films I loved the most over the past twelve months that got a full theatrical release in Melbourne, Australia:

Top ten favourite films of 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis
1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2013)
released January

Two Days, One Night
2. Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2014)
released November

3. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013)
released July

The Grand Budapest Hotel
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)
released April

The Grandmaster
5. The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, Wong Kar-wai, 2013)
released September

The Wolf of Wall Street
6. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
released January

Blue Is the Warmest Colour
7. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle, Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
released February

12 Years a Slave
8. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
released January

A Touch of Sin
9. A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding, Jia Zhangke, 2013)
released February

10. Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier, 2013)
released March

Honourable mentions

I thought this was a particularly strong year in cinema so these are fifteen more films, listed alphabetically, that have stayed with me for one reason or another:

52 Tuesdays
52 Tuesdays (Sophie Hyde, 2013)
released May

Big Hero 6
Big Hero 6 (Don Hall and Chris Williams, 2014)
released December

Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)
released July

Charlie's Country
Charlie’s Country (Rolf de Heer, 2013)
released July

The Dark Horse
The Dark Horse (James Napier Robertson, 2014)
released November

Force Majeure
Force Majeure (Turist, Ruben Östlund, 2014)
released October

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)
released December

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014)
released May

Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
released January

The Infinite Man
The Infinite Man (Hugh Sullivan, 2014)
released September

Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)
released July

nightcrawler review
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)
released November

Only Lovers Left Alive
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
released April

Under the Skin
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
released May

WWhat We Do in the Shadows
What We Do In The Shadows (Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, 2014)
released September

Favourite ten films not given a full theatrical release

Many of the best films I saw this year were not given a full theatrical release, but were still screened to Melbourne audiences at festivals or other special events.

1. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)

Hard to Be a God
2. Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt bogom, Aleksey German, 2013)

3. Virunga (Orlando von Einsiedel, 2014)

Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets
4. Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets (Florian Habicht, 2014)

The Possibilities Are Endless
5. The Possibilities Are Endless (James Hall and Edward Lovelace, 2014)

Happy Christmas
6. Happy Christmas (Joe Swanberg, 2014)

Why Don't You Play in Hell?
7. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Jigoku de naze warui, Shion Sono, 2013)

The Overnighters
8. The Overnighters (Jesse Moss, 2014)

Ping Pong Summer
9. Ping Pong Summer (Michael Tully, 2014)

10. Housebound (Gerard Johnstone, 2014)

This list was compiled for the Senses of Cinema 2014 World Poll

If you want to hear me discuss many of the films listed above, plus some that I wasn’t able to find places for in my lists, then check out the final episode of Plato’s Cave for 2014, which you can listen to via Radio On Demand or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

See you all in 2015 and thanks for reading my monthly summaries. I don’t have any plans to return to long form reviewing just yet, but I’ll still continue to do my radio spots as well as work on a couple of long term projects that may even come to fruition. Following me on Facebook and/or Twitter is the best way to see what I’m up to.

Thomas Caldwell 2014

Films I loved in December 2014

23 December 2014
Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) and Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) in Big Hero 6

Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) and Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) in Big Hero 6

Walt Disney Animation Studios have been doing some extremely impressive work over the past few years with Big Hero 6 being my favourite film of theirs in recent times. The animation looks great, it contains a refreshingly diverse cast of characters and it contains just the right mix of pathos, humour and excitement. It doesn’t contain any naturally gifted or Chosen One characters, as instead the young heroes are all intelligent and studious who use science to solve problems. It also warns against the destructiveness of pursuing vengeance rather than justice with its story of a 14-year-old boy who enlists the help of a healthcare robot to uncover the truth behind a personal tragedy. While attempting to teach the robot humanity, the boy himself learns what it means to be human, and along with the villain effectively being a shape-changing robot, this makes Big Hero 6 a family-friendly variation of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Sally Hawkins as Mrs Brown and Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) in Paddington

Sally Hawkins as Mrs Brown and Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) in Paddington

The other terrific family film for this month is Paddington, which is filled with charm, and child-friendly sight gags and word play. It’s a gorgeously designed film that blends together director Paul King’s comedic avant-garde style with some pleasing nods to Wes Anderson and Jacques Tati. Best of all, the tale of a marmalade-loving bear who has lost his home in darkest Peru and seeks somewhere new to live in London, very successfully conveys timely messages about the harm of racism, the inhumanity of turning away those who seek help and the true meaning of family – all just in time for Christmas!

Sheila Vand as The Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Sheila Vand as The Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Combining the hip spirit of 1960s Iranian New Wave cinema as well as the equally hip spirit of 1990s American independent cinema (in particular channelling the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley), Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an ultra cool vampire film, which for good measure is also inspired by spaghetti westerns. If nothing else it is remarkable that a film that is bursting with so many references to so many other films should come across as having such a distinctive voice of its own, but it does and that voice is subversive, smart and stylish, announcing Amirpour as an exciting new talent to have emerged this year.

Robin Wright as Robin Wright in The Congress.

Robin Wright as Robin Wright in The Congress.

It’s been over a year since I’ve seen Ari Folman’s The Congress and while I’m not sure what I may make of it watching it now, I thought it still worth mentioning since it’s a film that has stayed with me. Blending live action and animation, it stars Robin Wright playing a version of herself who sells her digital-self to a Hollywood studio and then later enters an animated dream-world. It’s a perplexing and disorientating film that touches on ideas concerning memory, identity, reality and authenticity. The early-20th century-style animation used throughout the middle section of the film is realised on a grand and spectacular scale, and the overall strange and melancholic tone of the film is haunting. The Congress is admittedly a mess of a film, but it’s a glorious mess.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in November 2014

2 December 2014
Marion Cotillardas Sandra in Two Days, One Night

Marion Cotillard as Sandra in Two Days, One Night

The latest film by brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night, is similar to their previous film The Kid with a Bike, where they take a highly structured story within a very precise setting and still deliver the naturalistic feel that they are renowned for. The structure is reminiscent of High Noon, where the protagonist has a short period of time to convince the members of the community to stand by her. Marion Cotillard is incredible as Sandra, battling depression and despair, as she lobbies her co-workers to vote in her favour so that she can keep her job – the company has given its employees the cruel choice in having to decide between her remaining employed or them all getting bonuses. It’s a complex and beautifully performed film that delivers a sensitive portrayal of what it’s like living with a mental illness as well as providing a potent social critique of systems that trample the rights of workers. It also has a conclusion that is close to perfect.

James Rolleston as Mana and Cliff Curtis as Genesis in The Dark Horse

James Rolleston as Mana and Cliff Curtis as Genesis in The Dark Horse

The other film released this month that commendably portrays the difficulties of living with a mental illness in a difficult environment is the outstanding New Zealand drama The Dark Horse. Cliff Curtis is a revelation as Genesis, an ex-chess champion who has been in and out of institutions due to his struggles with a bio-polar disorder. Based on a true story the film is about his volunteer work at a local youth chess club and his attempts to get his teenage nephew out from the violent gang life that his father intends for him.  Not unlike Shane Meadows’s excellent 24 7: Twenty Four Seven this is story of hope that doesn’t flinch from the grim realities that face the characters.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler

The ultra cynical and darkly comedic Nightcrawler sees Jake Gyllenhaal in fine form as a ruthless creature of the night akin to the alien from Under the Skin and pop-culture psychopaths like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. In the case of Lou he profiteers from video taping tragedy to then sell to news stations, and he does so with no qualms about manipulating other people’s trauma to get the best footage possible. The result is a thrilling and voyeuristic ride alongside somebody completely lacking empathy, and a savage critique of the news that we consume, which is only made possible by people like Lou and our own morbid appetites.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

I’ve enjoyed all The Hunger Games films and even though the new film is only half of one of the books, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is my favourite so far in the excellent franchise. With a focus on the propaganda war between the ruling class in the Capitol and the rebels in District 13, this film goes even further in its savvy critique of how celebrity culture, the media and popular culture carry political messages to influence the target audience. Jennifer Lawrence is once again fantastic as reluctant hero Katniss Everdeen who in this film starts to question the rhetoric of the side she’s been coopted to fight on.

Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand and Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar

Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand and Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar

The final film I really enjoyed this month is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which may overreach in some of its attempts to position itself alongside philosophical science fiction masterpieces such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but still contains enough moments of awe and wonder for me to overlook any shortcomings. On a purely spectacle level it is a triumph and I admire its attempts to explore complex ideas such as how time could be represented as a physical space. I also strongly responded to its core question, which is also at the heart of Malick’s The Tree of Life, about what motivates humanity: a simple survival instinct that’s wired into our DNA or something less tangible or measurable such as – dare I say it – love. Corny to some perhaps, but I enjoyed it and also appreciated how much the film linked in such ideas with its celebration of scientific curiosity and the quest to discover something more in life than simple survival and acceptance of fate.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in October 2014

5 November 2014
Ben Affleck as Nick and Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl

Ben Affleck as Nick and Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl

Gone Girl is director David Fincher’s most scathing and most dangerous social satire since Fight Club. Taking a scenario that seems to have sprung from a Men’s Rights Activist’s wet-dream, and gleefully highlighting how inherently ridiculous such a scenario is, both the film and the novel it is adapted from uses the template of a whodunnit thriller to deliver a darkly comedic and borderline absurdist critique of gender roles, mainstream attitudes towards marriage, media sensationalism and materialism in a post-GFC America. Gone Girl is part of a long tradition of horror and thriller films where social anxieties of the era, in this case anxieties primarily concerned with gender, are manifest into the film’s monster or villainous character.

Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba and Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas in Force Majeure

Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba and Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas in Force Majeure

Speaking of social satires that critique what is expected of men and women, the Swedish film Force Majeure by writer/director Ruben Östlund is a hugely entertaining drama, which also has a number of wonderfully borderline absurdist and comedic elements. Not unlike the far more minimalist The Loneliest Planet, the way somebody instinctively acts in a single moment of crisis completely ruptures the dynamic between a couple making them confront the ways in which they are expected and expect each other to behave.  The passive-agressive dialogue that flows throughout this film – and the very unusual way the film sometimes disrupts the tension – is compelling and confronting, not to mention extremely funny at key moments.

Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman and JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman and JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

The final film that caught my attention this month – and judging from the critical response, the attention of pretty much everybody – is Whiplash, by writer/director Damien Chazelle. It’s another film that challenges social conventions, in this case ideas about the nature of genius and notions concerning the use of pressure as a motivational tool. While it is a film about playing music, and some beautifully edited and shot sequences really bring the music to life visually, it overall resembles a boxing film and a Full Metal Jacket style war film. Whiplash shows us how something like music can be made miserable when the focus is on perfectionism and competitiveness, it shows that while some talent may be natural it also requires passion and a lot of practise, and most importantly it shows us that the antiquated and militaristic push-until-they-break approach is nothing but destructive.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014


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