Films I loved in September 2014

1 October 2014
Tony Leung as Ip Man in The Grandmaster

Tony Leung as Ip Man in The Grandmaster

September was a great month in terms of the number of films that got me excited, but none more so than The Grandmaster, the most recent film by Wong Kar-wai, which has finally made its way to Australia. I’ve long adored Wong’s films and I’ve long been a fan of martial arts films, so I was already primed to embrace his take of the story of Wing Chun expert Ip Man. Set in 1930s China and 1950s Hong Kong, The Grandmaster is an exquisitely sensory film filled with beautiful people in beautiful clothes against beautiful settings, engaging in elaborate and breathtaking fight choreography that resembles dance. I was swept away by the exhilarating and sumptuous look and sound of this film, and moved by its romantic melancholy.

Xavier Dolan as Tom in Tom at the Farm

Xavier Dolan as Tom in Tom at the Farm

Although I’ve had mixed feelings about Xavier Dolan’s previous films, Tom at the Farm has converted me into a card-carrying admirer of the young French-Canadian filmmaker. Dolan not only directs (and writes, produces and edits) but also plays the lead character, a young man named Tom who travels to the country to attend the funeral of his dead boyfriend. Tom becomes drawn into an intriguing power play with his boyfriend’s crude and violent brother Francis, where both men are attracted and repulsed by each other. The end result is a compelling psychological thriller that evokes many of Roman Polanski‘s early films.

Ellar Coltrane asMason and Ethan Hawke as his father in Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane as Mason and Ethan Hawke as his father in Boyhood

Not only is Boyhood a remarkable conceptual and technical achievement – having been shot over twelve years so that the cast could age in real time – but it is also a beautiful portrait of childhood and growing up. Writer/director Richard Linklater has long had a fascination with how the lives of everyday people are a tangle of the extraordinary and the mundane, and here more so than ever he creates a convincing portrait of ordinary lives as they traverse through the years, being subjected to both gentle change and dramatic upheavals. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke in particular are outstanding as the divorced parents of Mason, the boy we see age from 6 to 18-years-old.

Josh McConville as Dean and Hannah Marshall as Lana in The Infinite Man

Josh McConville as Dean and Hannah Marshall as Lana in The Infinite Man

This has been a fantastic year for bold feature film debuts by Australian filmmakers with Hugh Sullivan’s The Infinite Man being one of the films I had the most fun with. The complex time travel narrative is gleefully tricky and very effectively used to facilitate the theme of destructive obsession, where the control freak protagonist desperately tries to repair a ruined relationship. The two leads – Josh McConville and Hannah Marshall – are wonderful, and Alex Dimitriades as the rival love interest delivers one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in Australian cinema in years.

Taika Waititias Viago in What We Do in the Shadows

Taika Waititi as Viago in What We Do in the Shadows

And speaking of comedic performances, not a single person involved in the the droll New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows puts a foot out of place. Directors/writers/actors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have created a superb comedy that very effectively works within the conventions of its faux-documentary format and vampire mythology. This is an endlessly inventive and funny film with a glorious low-fi aesthetic that no doubt must have involved meticulous craftsmanship to achieve.


Otherwise, two extremely strong coming-of-age films about teenage girls were released in Australia recently. The Georgian film In Bloom presents a very sad portrait of a culture where patriarchal values are so heavily entrenched that customs that horribly infringe on the rights of women are treated as everyday occurrences. Meanwhile the teenage girls in the Swedish film We Are the Best! also have to confront the condescensions and restrictions of regressive attitudes to gender. Their weapon of choice is punk music resulting in a film bursting with fun and rebellious energy, by filmmaker Lukas Moodysson whose 1998 feature debut Show Me Love is one of the greatest films ever made about teenagers.

While I am highly sceptical that Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vision for the film version of Dune would have worked as well as he and his fans imagined it would, I really enjoyed Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which examines the history of the so-called greatest science-fiction film never made. Finally, I loved Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins with Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader (and Luke Wilson for that matter) delivering great performances in this familiar but extremely endearing spin on the dysfunctional family narrative.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – Men in Black 3 (2012)

21 May 2012
Men in Black 3: Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Josh Brolin)

Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Josh Brolin)

Filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld returns to the Men in Black films ten years after the second part and fifteen years after the original. As there hasn’t been any real sense of demand for this franchise to be continued, it does feel like an odd move. Then again, Sonnenfeld has had an odd career beginning notably as a cinematographer for Joel and Ethan Coen (not to be confused with Men in Black 3 co-writer Etan Coen) and then frequently emulating other directors. His Addams Family films (1991 and 1993) feel a little like Tim Burton works, Get Shorty (1995) seems in Quentin Tarantino mode and the Men in Black films are a bit like something Joe Dante might do. Ironically the film where a ‘Sonnenfeldesque’ visual style most shines through is Wild Wild West (1999), an attempt at Western era steampunk that is a complete mess.

Men in Black 3 returns to the fictional world from Lowell Cunningham’s comic book series, where secret agents monitor and cover-up alien activity on Earth. This instalment introduces a time travel plot, where Agent J (Will Smith) travels back to 1969 to stop an alien from assassinating his partner Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones in 2012 and Josh Brolin in 1969). The very casual changing-the-future-by-changing-the-past narrative evokes Back to the Future (1985); this time suggesting Robert Zemeckis is the director whom Sonnenfeld is taking his cues from. And sadly, like many of Sonnenfeld’s films, it doesn’t hold up to its influences. While flawed logic can be found in Back to the Future and other time travel film narratives, they still possess a suspension of disbelief and internal logic that suits the context of the film. The very confused idea of what aspects of time travel affects what recalls the convoluted Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (Jay Roach, 1999), but without the knowing winks to the audience. There is even one moment in Men in Black 3 when the time travel device is used to reset a moment, which completely breaks the logic of the film.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot to like and aspects of the time travel narrative do work well. A character who exists in the 5th dimension and therefore can simultaneously see multiple realities and timelines is used both comically and in moments of poignancy. The previously unresolved explanation of why K recruited J in the first place is also finally explained, providing the film with an unexpected note of sentimentality that works surprisingly well even if it is overly foreshadowed. That moment plus the chance to have Josh Brolin play a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones provide the best justification for why this sequel was made. On the other hand, the promise of using the idea to send an elite African American agent back to 1969 to comment on the history of America’s civil rights movement is not fulfilled apart from one middling early scene where Agent J encounters a pair of racist cops. Missed opportunities to provide any real substance in this film are frustrating.

Otherwise, Men in Black 3 is a series of okay gags and okay action sequences, with enough elements to make it moderately enjoyable. Completely against type, Jemaine Clement is a lot of fun as the villainous Boris the Animal and Michael Stuhlbarg is great as Griffin, the creature who lives in the 5th dimension. Emma Thompson as Agent O is mostly underused, although she does get one fun moment where she maintains a completely straight face while speaking in an absurd alien language. All the elements are there for this to be a great science-fiction/comedy, but it never truly engages. Annoyingly it continues the gag that all slightly unusual or creative people are actually aliens, which hints at an underlying conservatism. Perhaps if the film celebrated difference and strangeness more, rather than always presenting it as something to laugh at or arrest, then Men in Black 3 could live up to the potential that Sonnenfeld has always showed, but never quite delivered.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

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