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

Films I loved in February 2014

3 March 2014
Blue Is the Warmest Colour_Adèle Exarchopoulos_Léa Seydoux_2

Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle and Léa Seydoux as Emma in Blue Is the Warmest Colour.

The cinematic highlight for me this month was the mesmerising, intense and emotionally charged Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Mostly shot in close-up and medium close-up, director Abdellatif Kechiche places the audience firmly into the sensory world of a young woman whose entire life becomes consumed by the rush of love and lust of first love. While I am aware not everybody has found the sex scenes in the film to be realistic, the film still succeeds in portraying an emotional reality that for me transcends any perceived errors in factual detail. Blue Is the  Warmest Colour earns its long running time and left me elated, exhausted and devastated in the best possible way.

Zhao Tao as Xiao Yu in A Touch of Sin

Zhao Tao as Xiao Yu in A Touch of Sin

I originally saw A Touch of Sin last year while extremely tired, so I was extremely pleased to see it again during its small run in Melbourne to fully appreciate what a rich and nuanced film it is. Through the telling of four stories inspired by real events that culminated in  acts of violence, director Jia Zhangke presents a damning portrait of contemporary China where  the radical degree in which corporatism flourishes with communism has created brutal social divisions. This is a film rich in allegory with its references to animals and classic wuxia films, but even without fully understanding all the culturally-specific symbolism there is no denying the angry power of this film.

Young Jirô Horikoshi and Giovanni Battista Caproni in The Wind Rises

After such an extraordinary career of mostly writing and directing animated fantasy films, The Wind Rises may seem at first glance to be an odd film for Hayao Miyazaki to announce as his final work. And yet the fictionalised tale of Japanese aeronautical engineer Jirô Horikoshi, whose groundbreaking work in the 1920s onwards would lead to the creation of the long-range fighter aircraft that the Japanese empire would use against the Allies in World War II, contains several characteristics of Miyazaki’s films. This is a film that juxtaposes creativity and imagination with destruction, it expresses the joy of flight and it contains a subtle yet effective anti-war and anti-fascist messages. And without speculating too much on Miyazaki’s personal life, a film about a man who becomes all consumed by his passion to create something of beauty regardless of the consequences, does feel like the work of a reflective soul.

Lindsay Duncan as Meg Burrows and Jim Broadbent as Nick Burrows in Le Week-End

Lindsay Duncan as Meg Burrows and Jim Broadbent as Nick Burrows in Le Week-End

Le Week-End is the fourth film director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi have collaborated on and it’s the third time the pair have used cinema to examine older characters, in particular the love lives and sex lives of older characters. While more  light-hearted than The Mother (2003) and Venus (2006), this film about an English couple on a second honeymoon in Paris is still a bittersweet affair. Within the space of one scene, the affection and warmth between the couple can turn to confronting resentment and anger, making the tone of the film predominantly one of anxiety. There are enough whimsical nods to classic French New Wave films to prevent Le Week-End from being too emotionally gruelling, but this is nevertheless a prickly film that is as much about  regret and missed opportunities as it is about enduring love.


I also enjoyed Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, about a man divorcing his wife and the challenges facing his wife’s new lover. A typically strong family drama  by Farhadi, I was initially a little unsettled by the way the film begins with a focus on one character, who by the end of the film feels like an afterthought as the focus switches to another character. Of course this is a deliberate strategy to present the two characters from the perspective of the central female character who is experiencing one man come into her life as another drifts out. I’m just not completely sure of how effective this technique is, although there is no denying the power of the film’s beautiful and ambiguous final shot.

My enthusiasm for Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée) has waned since I saw it as I increasingly find myself discussing the problems I had with it rather than its many strengths. Nevertheless, I do still think it is an excellent film and while I found some of the characters too broadly defined as specific types, I agree with the consensus that Matthew McConaughey does some of his finest work, I love how the film challenges the motivations of the Food and Drug Administration for why they decided what AIDS treatments they would and wouldn’t approve, and I felt that for the most part the film avoids obvious sentiment.

Finally, I want to mention a couple of great films that have been released on DVD in Australia without getting a full theatrical release. The first is the terrific Canadian kids film (although rated MA) I Declare War where the audience see how the kids who are playing an elaborate war game imagine themselves – not carrying sticks and water bombs, but carrying machine guns and grenades. Part parody of war film conventions, part dark satire of learned behaviour and part critique of cinematic violence, I Declare War is a lot of fun.

The other film recently released on DVD that I want to mention is the heartbreaking beautiful The Weight of Elephants about a New Zealand boy coping with abandonment issues and bullying, against the backdrop of a missing children investigation. This is an incredibly strong film and really worth making the effort to track down.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in January 2014

2 February 2014

A belated Happy New Year!

I just wanted to leave this note to announce that I will not recommence writing weekly long form film reviews for Cinema Autopsy – not for a while anyway. However, I will provide links to some of the other stuff I’m doing and when possible I will upload any pieces that have previously only existed in print, including any short capsule reviews of new release films and DVDs.

Instead, for this year at least, I will mainly use Cinema Autopsy to do monthly summaries of what I’ve been watching and can recommend. Rather than writing formal reviews, I’ll provide some more casual commentary on what I’ve been excited about most recently.

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis

January 2014 has been an astonishingly good month for Australian cinemagoers as we caught up on many of the incredible films that were released in the northern hemisphere at the end of last year.

Leading the pack for me is the latest by Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis, about a down-and-out folk singer trying to get by in New York in the early 1960s. I love the film’s melancholic settings and cinematography, the gorgeous soundtrack, the clever narrative structure with its strange mirroring scenes and surprise flashforward, and all the excellent performances; most of all Oscar Isaac who communicates so much about what he is thinking and feeling while singing or in silence. I love that so many moments are simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious.

Mostly, I love how sincere the film is and that it is about somebody with an amazing talent who does not succeed. Too often Hollywood cinema tells us that having a dream, being true to ourselves and working really hard will lead to success and happiness, but that isn’t true and Inside Llewyn Davis provides a welcome respite to that myth and suggests that luck also plays a part. After Barton Fink from 1991 – also about a frustrated and doomed creative person – this is my favourite film by the Coens.

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly in Her

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly in Her

Her was a huge surprise for me, as while I’ve enjoyed all of Spike Jonze’s films on varying levels, the premise of a man falling in love with his computer operating system left me feeling a bit sceptical. So I was somewhat taken aback by how thoughtful and moving Her was and the extent in which it deviated away from how I imagined it to be. It’s a film of fascinating contradictions – the depiction of the very plausible not-too-distant future is both beautiful and warm, but also sterile and vacuous. This of course reflects the themes of the film where social media and technology has brought people closer together than ever before, but we are now more detached than ever from those immediately around us.

Her asks more questions than it answers and is the better film for it. For example, so what if we derive happiness from something artificial? Who are any of us to judge how somebody else finds joy and companionship? And the next thing you know the film is pondering the age-old philosophical question of what it means to be real and what reality exists beyond the material world.

Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave

Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave

The feature films of video artist Steve McQueen are characterised for their formal structure and style, their focus on suffering and their striking juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness. McQueen’s adaption of the 1853 memoir 12 Years a Slave is no different, although it is the most traditionally narrative driven of McQueen’s films. It is a bold film about Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. McQueen ensures the audience feel the injustice and brutality of slavery without turning the horrors into a grotesque spectacle. This is a film of integrity and restraint where McQueen is extremely careful about when to show something in close-up and how long for.

Watching 12 Years a Slave is not an ordeal or something that I felt obliged to do, and yet as the credits rolled and I left the cinema I felt the enormity of what I had experience crash down upon me. It’s difficult to describe this as a film I enjoyed, but I did ‘enjoy’ having that surge of emotion that compelled me to stop and appreciate what the film had presented. And I certainly took pleasure from the craftsmanship displayed by McQueen and all the other filmmakers involved. The lingering close-up of lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor where he momentarily looks at the audience is something I haven’t been able to shake off.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street

The final film that I really loved in January is Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which does make a spectacle out of the horrors the real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) indulges in. Like the violence of previous Scorsese films, the grotesque hedonism, misogyny, shameless exploitation and psychotic bullying of the stockbroker world are delivered as vicarious thrills for the increasingly bewildered audience.

The Wolf of Wall Street is frequently hilarious, and DiCaprio’s comedic skills in key scenes are a revelation, but I found myself laughing at The Wolf of Wall Street in the way many of us laugh at the violence and gore in horror films – it’s a shocked response to the over-the-top nature of what is onscreen. The Wolf of Wall Street is at its core another Scorsese gangster film depicting the rise, triumph and then whimpering fade of a thug – it’s just this time the thug wears a white collar, is part of a supposedly legitimate system and ruined far more lives.


Otherwise, I also really liked James Erskine’s documentary The Battle of the Sexes about the significance of the 1973 novelty tennis match between the current female champion Billie Jean King and the retired men’s champion Bobby Riggs, a self described ‘male chauvinist pig’. Erskine very successfully puts the match into the context of the feminist moment to demonstrate that while it was a silly media stunt for Riggs, it had big ramifications for the status of women’s sport.

I enjoyed Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) on a purely sensory level. However, I’m a bit uncertain to what extent the film shares the views of its aging socialite lead character who spends most of the film reflecting on his life while strolling around Rome. Fortunately the film seems to deliberately undermine his dismissal of modern art forms and modes of artistic expression, but it does then seem to endorse his rather regressive view of women. Nevertheless, I was able to lose myself in the gorgeous visuals and sound design, even though I suspect it’s all a bit empty.

Finally, Laurent Cantet’s Foxfire got released on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia early in the year, bypassing a full theatrical release. It’s a 1950s period film about a gang of teenage girls who fight back against the various humiliations, condescension and violence they have experienced from the men who live in the small town they are from in upstate New York. A terrific cast of mostly unknown young actors explore how the line between revolution and criminality can be blurred in this coming-of-age/gangster film.

Thomas Caldwell 2014

Favourite Films of 2013

22 December 2013

From the 300+ feature films I saw this year, these are the films that most excited, inspired, moved and challenged me – restricted to films that got a theatrical release in Melbourne, Australia, where I am based.

Top ten favourite films of 2013

Amour: Anne (Emmanuelle Riva)
1. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
By stripping back any aspects of film style or narrative that feel false or constructed, Haneke ensures that everything that happens between Anne and Georges is an act of intense kindness and personal sacrifice shared by people who love each other unconditionally. Full review

Gravity

2. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
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. Full review

Frances Ha
3. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012)
A genuinely heartfelt, gorgeous and beautiful celebration of youth, friendship and grappling with all the contradictions and challenges that life throws at us. Full review

Mystery Road
4. Mystery Road (Ivan Sen, 2013)
An effective neo noir film that uses key characteristics of the genre to  critique the abuse of power and how it affects vulnerable and innocent people, especially in a culture of gender, racial and class inequality.

The Rocket: Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe)
5. The Rocket (Kim Mordaunt, 2013)
An extremely rewarding and entertaining film made all the stronger for the integrity and cultural details that underpin it. Full review

Broken: Skunk (Eloise Laurence) and Archie (Tim Roth)
6. Broken (Rufus Norris, 2012)
By framing such universal issues such as the power of forgiveness, redemption and love through a coming-of-age narrative of a generous and kind 11-year-old girl, Broken delivers a moving and thoughtful cinema experience. Full review

No
7. No (Pablo Larraín, 2012)
An extremely perceptive and intriguing examination of the effect that media hype and spin have on the political process. Full review

Blue Jasmine
8. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013)
One of Allen’s cleverest and most compassionate films, making it also one of his greatest. Full review

Stoker
9. Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013)
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. Full review

kinopoisk.ru
10. The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, 2012)
The film has both an old fashioned yet otherworldly feel, in keeping with its subversion of film noir style and themes. Full review

Honourable mentions

Every one of the following ten films (and a few others) were close contenders for my favourite ten list. I’ve simply listed these ones alphabetically as it was hard enough to order the previous ten by preference.

The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)

Behind the Candelabra
Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013) Review

Django Unchained
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012) Review

The Hunt
The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012) Review

Life of Pi
Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012) Review

Oh Boy
Oh Boy (Jan Ole Gerster, 2012) Review

ParaNorman
ParaNorman (Chris Butler and Sam Fell, 2012) Review

Spring Breakers
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)

Stories We Tell
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012) Review

Stranger by the Lake
Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac, Alain Guiraudie, 2013)

Favourite ten films not given a full theatrical release

The following films were screened publically in Melbourne, Australia, in 2013, but not given a full theatrical release. And to the best of my knowledge at the time of publishing this list, these films are not yet confirmed to get a theatrical release in 2014. Listed alphabetically.

Bastards
Bastards (Les salauds, Claire Denis, 2013)

Blue Ruin
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, 2013)

Cheap Thrills
Cheap Thrills (EL Katz, 2013)

The Day of the Crows
The Day of the Crows (Le jour des corneilles, Jean Christophe Dessaint, 2012)

The Interval
The Interval (L’intervallo, Leonardo di Costanzo, 2012)


Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, 2012)

Nothing Bad Can Happen
Nothing Bad Can Happen (Tore tanzt, Katrin Gebbe, 2013)

Starlet
Starlet (Sean Baker, 2012)

The Weight of Elephants
The Weight of Elephants (Daniel Borgman, 2013)

What Richard Did
What Richard Did
 (Lenny Abrahamson, 2012)

Special mention

The following is a television miniseries, but it is one of my favourite things that I saw this year:

Top of the Lake
Top of the Lake (Jane Campion and Gerard Lee, 2013)

And that’s what I loved most about cinema in 2013! I feel this was a really strong year for films and there were several titles that I fell bad about leaving off these lists, not to mention the titles that don’t get released in Australia until early 2014, which I have to hold off on listing until this time next year.

As always, I’m happy to hear your thoughts via the comments, just please focus on the positives as the spirit of this list is celebratory!

Thomas Caldwell 2013

This list was originally compiled for the Senses of Cinema 2013 World Poll


A quick update…

20 October 2013

Hi folks

I just wanted to quickly mention that I won’t be writing any more film reviews this year. I am a little disappointed about this, but right now I need to concentrate on some other projects.

In the meantime, I am still reviewing films for Triple R on the Breakfasters every Thursday morning and on the weekly Plato’s Cave film criticism podcast. I’ll still be around in some capacity on Facebook and Twitter too.

Thank you to everybody who has read Cinema Autopsy this year, especially those who provided thoughtful comments. I apologise that I didn’t respond as much as I would have liked to. It’s been great getting so many new followers and I’ve received some wonderful feedback over the year. I’ll do an overview of 2013 sometime in late December and hopefully Cinema Autopsy will start up again in some form at some point in 2014.

All the best for now
Thomas

To Be Continued...


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

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