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

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

MIFF 2013 recommendations part 1

8 July 2013

Melbourne International Film Festival 2013

The full 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival program was announced last week so I thought I’d start sharing my recommendations from what I’ve seen so far. This list is by no means exhaustive, there’s no order or system to what I’m listing, I may repeat some of the films listed in my post about the Next Gen program, and there will be more to come as the festival gets closer. So for now, here are eight films and two short film packages that I recommend you get along to:

The Rocket

The Rocket

This is a wonderful Australian production, set in rural Laos about a ten-year-old boy who believes he is cursed and whose family is being forcibly relocated from their home. The critique of the way entire cultures are of secondary importance to the business interests of multinationals never overwhelms the film’s moving and dramatic story about childhood.

Mystery Road

Another sensational Australian film is the latest by Ivan Sen, which mixes many of the themes Sen has previously explored, regarding the marginalisation of Indigenous Australians, with a slick and slow burn murder-mystery thriller narrative. Immediately after seeing this film I wanted to see it again.

The Act of Killing

This documentary about the Indonesian perpetrators of war crimes during the 1965-1966 anti-communist purges has to be seen to be believed. The participants happily speak about and reenact the horrors they inflicted on others in what is a fascinating and disturbing look at a recent example of the banality of evil.

Stoker

It is not that Park Chan-wook has toned down his approach to cinema in his first English-language film, but he has made the guilty-pleasure nastiness more psychological rather than visceral. And it works brilliantly, maintaining the filmmaker’s meticulous and bold approach to film style.

Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin

We don’t fully understand why the protagonist is homeless, possibly mentally unstable and driven to kill a man just released from prison, but the economic storytelling in this low-key yet utterly gripping revenge thriller means that we are captivated the entire time.

Cheap Thrills 

This is what happens when a violent exploitation film with a dark-as-dark-can-be sense of humour is injected with a searing critique of class and capitalism. The build up to the extreme moments is plausible, the message of the film is never compromised, and watching it is disturbing and fun.

What Richard Did 

A  strong Irish drama that if transposed into an Australian context would contain the same amount of relevance and power in its examination of masculinity and personal responsibility. The first half of the film endears the audience to its Alpha-Male ‘good bloke’ protagonist and then the second half looks at the aftermath of an incident committed in the heat of the moment that changes everything.

The Day of the Crows 

A beautifully animated fantasy film that delves into some painful and dark themes concerning parental abuse, persecution and death. A great example of how animated films from non-English speaking backgrounds are capable of appealing to a wide range of age groups with sophistication.

Desire Shorts

Undress Me

For this collection of short films  about sex, sexuality and gender, the concept of desire seemed to be a suitably broad umbrella term to encompass them all. Protective parents have to accept that their children are sexual beings in For Dorian and The Gift, fidelity and sexuality are explored in Summer Vacation, Clay is a sensual film starring Édith Scob and Undress Me is a particularly arresting film featuring raw and honest performances from its actors.

Documentary Shorts

There are numerous great documentary shorts scattered throughout the MIFF program as pre-feature films, but the collection of films put together in this program showcase  how diverse documentary films can be. Not Anymore: A Story of a Revolution captures the immediacy of the Syrian civil war with confronting war footage and interviews from its two highly articulate subjects. Deco Dawson’s Keep a Modest Head is a glorious blend of animation, experimental film and documentary that pays tribute to Jean Benoît, the final living member of the French Surrealist group. Ebb and Flow is a beautiful observational documentary on a Brazilian man who is poor, hearing impaired and a single father, yet continually finds joy in life.

More recommendations to come…

Thomas Caldwell
Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator
Melbourne International Film Festival

MIFF 2013: Next Gen

13 May 2013
Next Gen 2013

Image from Day of the Crows

When not reviewing films I work for the Melbourne International Film Festival on the programming team. The first part of  the 2013 MIFF program was announced today and I’m very excited, as it is one of the sections that I worked on. The following is a presentation I gave last Friday to launch the Next Gen program for this year:

Next Gen is a program of entertaining and challenging cinema selected for a youth audience.

The program was established in 2007 to enrich the cinema experience for younger viewers, as well as stimulate discussion and social awareness. Encouraging students to become active viewers, who question and challenge the moving image, is essential in a media-saturated era. The films this year were selected for their diversity, innovation and high quality, as well as being relevant and accessible to audiences of all ages. Through drama, documentary and animation, issues such as family, prejudice, injustice, violence, rebellion, identity and overcoming hardship are explored with integrity and depth.

With a handful of exceptions, these are not films many people would traditionally classify as ‘kids’ or ‘family’ films. Instead, they are a diverse, innovative and high quality collection of films that will appeal to people of all ages.

Valentine Road

Valentine Road

The documentary Valentine Road is something that will resonate with very wide audiences. It is about the 2008 murder of 15-year-old Lawrence ‘Larry’ King by one of his classmates. It becomes apparent that the murder was a hate crime, committed in response to King’s sexuality and gender identification. Director Marta Cunningham, who will be a festival guest, allows the teachers, friends and legal experts involved in the subsequent trial to speak for themselves without overt judgment. By doing so Cunningham delivers an insight into how young people are affected by the environments they grow up in, especially ones that cultivate and even excuse violent crime, as a response to somebody deemed different.

Another film to confront the impact of violence is the Irish film What Richard Did, by director Lenny Abrahamson. This extremely sophisticated drama is about the kind of guy Australians would consider ‘a good bloke.’ Richard is charismatic, friendly, attractive and a high achiever. He’s a good friend, a respectful son and looks after others. He then does something in the heat of the moment that has an unexpectedly devastating effect. This film about culpability, masculinity and the dangers of alcohol is particularly relevant to Australian audiences, many of who will no doubt recognise how closely the events in this film reflect various stories in the news from the past twelve months.

An interesting contrast to Valentine Road and What Richard Did is the Canadian film Blackbird, about a teenage boy falsely accused of planning a school massacre. Evoking recent films such as The Hunt and West of Memphis, this is a film about persecution as a result of mob hysteria. Many will identify with the young protagonist who identifies as a goth resulting in an outsider status that sees him bullied at school and then falsely accused after he vents his frustration by writing a revenge fantasy short story that he then unwisely shares online. Director Jason Buxton shared the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival SKYY Vodka Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film with Brandon Cronenberg for Antiviral.

I Declare War

I Declare War

On a lighter note, the Canadian film I Declare War is a sort of updated Lord of the Flies with a touch of Where the Wild Things Are. The film is set in a forest on one summer’s day, where two groups of kids play an elaborate war game. The kids carry sticks and water bombs, but the film depicts their ‘weapons’ the way the kids see them – as machine guns and grenades. Constantly alternating between fantasy and reality, I Declare War is a parody of war film clichés, a kid-centric adventure film and at times a disturbing look at learned behaviour. However, it’s mostly a lot of fun.

Also fun is the South Korean supernatural romantic comedy/drama A Werewolf Boy, which is thankfully far closer in spirit to Edward Scissorhands than it is to the Twilight films. MIFF regulars may recognise the name of filmmaker Jo Sung-hee as the director of End of Animal from MIFF 2011. However, it is unlikely that audiences will detect any similarities between the two films, which are completely different from each other in terms of style, tone and pace.

Another regional film in Next Gen is Touch of the Light, a Taiwan/Hong Kong co-production featuring the young vision-impair pianist Huang Yu-siang playing himself in a fictionalised story of his experiences entering music school. This crowd-pleasure was a huge hit in Taiwan and has been supported by the acclaimed Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai.

Capturing Dad

Capturing Dad

Also close to home is the odd yet endearing Japanese comedy/drama Capturing Dad, about two sisters awkwardly attending the funeral of a father they never knew. It’s refreshing to see a film with such a strong and sophisticated focus on the relationship between sisters (and between mothers and daughters), and Capturing Dad manages to be extremely charming without ever resorting to sentimentality. In fact, a lot of the humour is surprising dark.

Other films that edge more into crowd-pleasuring/family film territory are the Kurdish-language film Bekas and the German film Patty’s Catchup. Based on the experiences of the films writer/director Karzan Kader, Bekas is a spirited adventure film about two orphaned brothers trying to flee Iraq during Sadaam Hussein’s rule. Tina von Traben’s Patty’s Catchup is a fun family drama about three sisters attempting to run a sausage stand, despite one of the sisters preferring to follow her dreams of being a renowned chef.

The film most suitable for very young audiences is the lovely animated film Moon Man by Stephan Schesch, based on Tomi Ungerer’s classic picture book of the same name. However, there are enough Monty Pythonesque and surreal visual gags to keep audiences of all ages entertained.  It is also nice to see a film that aligns scientific curiosity with childlike wonder while satirising governments that are obsessed with jingoism and aggression.

Another animation in the program is the stunning beautiful and moving Day of the Crows by Jean-Christophe Dessaint. Although it is a French-language film, it contains more than a hint of influence from Studio Ghibli, not just visually, but with its blend of fantasy, humour and whimsy, with some very grounded themes concerning persecution and parental neglect. It also features voice acting by Jean Reno and the late Claude Chabrol.

Approved for Adoption

Approved for Adoption

The other impressive French-language animation in the program is Approved for Adoption, the Audience Award winner at last year’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival. A sort of animated memoir in the vein of Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis, it is about the childhood experiences of Jung, the film’s writer and co-director (with Laurent Boileau). After the Korean War Jung was abandoned as a baby and adopted by a Belgium family resulting in a childhood where he struggled with his cultural identity and sense of belonging.

The final film in the Next Gen program is English language, but by French director Laurent Cantet, who won the Palme d’Or in 2008 for his film The Class. The film is Foxfire, based on a 1993 novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Featuring nearly all young female cast, the film is set in 1950s upstate New York and follows the misadventures of a group of teenage girls who begin to fight back against the patriarchy. The mixture of protofeminism, socialism and teen rebellion results in an exhilarating film that explores how criminality and organised resistance are regarded.

More information: miff.com.au/nextgen

School bookings and study guides: metromagazine.com.au/nextgen

Thomas Caldwell
Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator
Melbourne International Film Festival

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 363 other followers