Films I loved in September 2016

2 October 2016

Tom Hanks as Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger in Sully

Despite regarding myself as a Clint Eastwood fan, I’d started to think his best work was long behind him. When I saw Sully I was thrilled to discover that I was wrong. The film depicts the emergency water landing of a commercial passenger flight on the Hudson River by Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks in the film) on 15 January 2009. It is also a fictionalised dramatisation of how Sully in the immediate aftermath coped with the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the incident and the media attention on him. The film is nonlinear, shows events more than once from different perspectives, and depicts Sully’s anxieties and nightmares. The purpose is to convey the bewildering enormity of what Sully did and the anxiety and self doubt that followed. Rather than focusing on the spectacle of the incident, Eastwood focuses on the emotion, making Sully a heartfelt and moving introspective film about the nature of everyday heroism.


Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song

Terence Davies’s Sunset Song is an adaptation of a classic 1932 Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. It’s about Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), a young Scottish woman growing up in a farming community in Aberdeenshire in northern Scotland during the start of the twentieth century and the start of the First World War. Not unlike Davies’s previous film, The Deep Blue SeaSunset Song is a love story and a story of the resilience of a woman facing enormous turmoil and hardship, against the backdrop of war. Chris is a wonderful character and true to form, Davies does a excellent job presenting her as somebody vulnerable, strong, open to love, and able to do what she needs to do to survive – these aren’t presented as contradictory character traits, but part of what constitutes a fully rounded character. And it almost goes without saying that the film looks stunning.


Anthony Weiner in Weiner

I suspect that Weiner will be referred for many years to come as the benchmark for documentary filmmaking about politics. Through their incredible access to the film’s subject, filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have crafted a fascinating and compelling portrait of the charismatic, outspoken and disgraced ex-congressman Anthony Weiner as he ran for mayor of New York in 2013, under the shadow of a sexting scandal. This is a compelling examination of the nature of political scandals, questions concerning personal privacy for public figures, and issues concerning moral hypocrisy and pathological behaviour. To say that during the course of the film my sympathies shifted and my stance on the various issues it raises were challenged, would be an understatement.


Eva Green as Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Tim Burton is another director I adore, but over the past decade I’ve found myself liking his new films less and less. However, my faith began to return with Frankenweenie in 2012 and it’s now fully restored thanks to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Like the source material (a 2011 YA novel by Ransom Riggs) the majority of the film concerns setting up the characters and world of peculiar children, through the eyes of troubled teenager Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield), to then lead up to the big finale. Burton’s film expands on both the world building – allowing the audience to hang out even longer with the wonderful ensemble of characters – and the finale, providing a spectacular (albeit somewhat bewildering) extended conclusion that visually evokes Burton’s beloved old fashioned Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion animation and contemporary Slenderman imagery. Burton knows when to hold back his sometimes overwhelming visual style to allow the characters to take centre-stage, and he also knows when to let himself go off the leash to deliver some glorious sequences.


Harrison Feldman as Elliott and Bethany Whitmore as Greta in Girl Asleep

Girl Asleep is a highly stylised Australian film that is adapted from a youth theatre production, both directed by Rosemary Myers. Set in the 1970s the focus is on 14-year-old Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore) who has just started at a new school after moving house with her family, and having to contend with an unwanted 15th birthday party where fantasy and reality converge. Despite its origins and the degree to which it incorporates a high degree of theatrically, Girl Asleep never feels stagey. Instead, this glorious bold, funny, imaginative and creative insight into the anxieties of the teen mind is one of the most welcome breaths of fresh air in Australian cinema for a long time.


Elliot the Dragon (vocals by John Kassir) and Oakes Fegley as Pete in Pete’s Dragon

Pete’s Dragon is the latest remake by Walt Disney Pictures of one of their own films, in this case the 1977 musical that mixed live action and traditional 2D animation. A variation on the ‘wild child’ trope, the film is about 11-year-old Pete who has been raised by a dragon since being stranded in the woods six years ago after a car crash that killed his parents. Pete’s discovery by the local small-town logging community creates divides about how to respond to the discovery of the dragon. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints writer/director David Lowery delivers a gentle, moving and warm family film that is ultimately about reconciliation across class and ideology lines – something that feels very timely for a major USA film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in August 2016

31 August 2016

Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), and Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) in Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings is the latest film by American stop-motion animation studio Laika Entertainment, whose 2012 film ParaNorman was for me on par with the very best films from Pixar. I feel the same way about Kubo, if not more so. This dark, exciting, dreamlike and moving film is not only a triumph in animation, but in sophisticated storytelling that resonates with a huge range of age groups. It’s about a young boy’s quest to protect himself from his malevolent extended family – tapping into the growing contemporary awareness that harm to children all too frequently comes from within the family and community, rather than just externally. It is also a powerful film about forgiveness and reconciliation, all within an inventive hero’s journey narrative. Rich characterisation, beautiful measured and paced with humour strategical used to diffuse more intense moments, and truly wondrous. Kubo is one of my highlights of 2016.


Logan Lerman as Marcus Messner and Sarah Gadon as Olivia Hutton in Indignation

Indignation has the veneer of the type of prestigious period dramas that usually win Academy Awards. However, as it is an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel and the feature film directorial debut of James Schamus (who among many other things has written and produced many of Ang Lee’s films), it is not overly surprising to discover it is a far bolder and disquieting film than appearances would suggest. Set in a small college in Ohio, America, in 1951, it is about the experiences of Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), whose academic pursuits and attraction for troubled fellow student Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) puts him into conflict with most people around him. So much of Indignation is crafted to make the audience second guess the full extent of Olivia’s background as well as question our own assumptions and judgements about her. And yet despite the subtle storytelling Schamus does not shy away from delivering lengthy conversation scenes such as a riveting confrontation between Marcus and the college’s dean (Tracy Letts). This is a powerful film, a lot of which is about the double standards and unfairness of what is now known as slut-shaming. The really upsetting aspect is how much the dynamics at play in the film, set in an era notorious for its conservatism, still feel all too recognisable today.


Javier Cámara as Tomás and Ricardo Darín as Julián in Truman

The Spanish-Argentine film Truman is about two old friends spending what will probably be their last four days together as one of them is terminally ill. The film derives its title from the name of the dying man’s dog. What could have been either hugely depressing or horribly saccharine, is instead an endearing, thoughtful and surprisingly entertaining drama about friendship, life and facing mortality. Both the prolific and acclaimed Ricardo Darín as the dying man and regular Pedro Almodóvar actor Javier Cámara as his old friend give warm and humane performances that are never melodramatic, but also not afraid to be sincere or emotional either. I felt pleasantly sad and content after seeing Truman, which is perhaps an unusual combination of sensations to seek out, and yet I felt the better for it.



What began as a quirky human interest story about the phenomenon of online videos depicting ‘competitive endurance tickling’, became something far more sinister for New Zealand filmmakers David Farrier and Dylan Reeve when their initial enquires were met with abusive messages and legal threats. Their resulting feature documentary  Tickled is partly an investigative piece into the people behind the videos and partly an act of defiance against bullying and harassment. Tickled does look into the nature of tickling as a fetish, but it is mostly a film about exposing exploitation and fantasies of control that manifest in the real world as something far more manipulative and harmful. Tickled is compelling viewing that relies significantly on the series of revelations it hits the audience with it, but it is also a compelling portrait of a type of psychopathic behaviour committed by people in positions of power towards the powerless.

Train to Busan

Gong Yoo as Seok-woo in Train to Busan

I struggle to stay up-to-date with Asian genre cinema as much as I would like to as what does get screened in Melbourne is mostly promoted to ex-pat and international student audiences rather than general film audiences. So I almost missed the fact that the very entertaining South-Korean zombie film Train to Busan was being shown on a number of screens around town. It’s a terrific horror/action film that makes excellent use of its train and train station locations to enhance the dread, terror and overwhelming odds of a zombie outbreak. And like the majority of great zombie films, it isn’t just the undead who threaten the progressively smaller and smaller group of survivors, but also the unscrupulous and selfish human characters who are just as dangerous in what they will do to survive at the expense of others.

The Little Prince

The Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) and The Aviator (voiced by Jeff Bridges) in The Little Prince

And speaking of films whose release I almost missed, after over a year of speculation and uncertainty about what was happening with the animated feature The Little Prince in English-speaking territories, it finally shows up in Australia on Netflix. Directed by Mark Osborne, who directed the original Kung Fu Panda, this French/Canadian production combines an adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic 1943 novel within a contemporary story about a young girl wanting to break free of a life dictated by expectations and restrictive routine. This narrative strategy beautifully fleshes out the themes of the original story and presents them in a way that makes them accessible to contemporary audiences. After Kubo and the Two Strings, this comes a very close second to being my favourite animated feature for the year. I hope I one day get the opportunity to see it on the big screen.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in July 2016

29 July 2016
_DSC3602 Aaron Pedersen and Alex Russell with Guns

Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan and Alex Russell as Josh in Goldstone

Goldstone is Ivan Sen’s follow-up to his 2013 outback thriller Mystery Road, with the return of troubled Indigenous detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), this time arriving in a small mining community to look for a missing Chinese girl. Mystery Road was one of my favourite films of 2013 due to how Sen blended the style, tone and archetypes of classical Hollywood film noir and westerns with distinctive Australian iconography and themes, especially concerning attitudes towards gender and race. Goldstone is on par with Mystery Road for all the same reasons, but still functions as a powerful stand-alone film.  Sen’s cinematography is stunning whether it’s the haunting arial shots, the gorgeous use of light in the scenes set at dusk and dawn, or the tension he generates during the action sequences towards the end of the film. I would love to see more Jay Swan films, but frankly I’d watch anything by Ivan Sen regardless. He’s a masterful filmmaker who ranks alongside the greatest this country has produced.

Embrace of the Serpent

Antonio Bolivar as Karamakate and Brionne Davis as Evan in Embrace of the Serpent

The Colombian film Embrace of the Serpent by writer/director Ciro Guerra is a startling film about two expeditions through the Amazon. The two journeys occur over 30 years apart and were inspired by the real-life journals of two foreign scientist explorers who travelled with a shaman  to find a rare plant – the first, a German ethnographer in 1909 and the second, an American botanist in 1940. The mix of striking black-and-white cinematography, the way the physical journey mirrors the characters’ psychological journeys, the scenes depicting psychedelic hallucinations as well as the themes and imagery concerning exploitation, colonialism and religious missions have seen Embrace of the Serpent compared to Gomes’s Tabu, Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and at least half a dozen Werner Herzog films. And yet it stills feels like a unique cinematic vision by Guerra, heralding him as a major emerging talent to watch.

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Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Conor and Mark McKenna as Eamon in Sing Street

From a distance John Carney’s Sing Street did not seem like my kind of thing, but neither did his 2007 film Once nor his 2013 film Begin Again and I loved both of those. As with Carney’s previous films Sing Street is about musicians and the music they make. This time the setting is Dublin 1985 and the protagonist is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenage boy inspired by the post-punk, New Wave and New Romantic music of the era and motivated by a girl he has a crush on to start a band. At many points this film reminded me of The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and other films by John Hughes in that it takes the dreams and obsessions of teenagers seriously to deliver a sincere teen wish-fulfilment film. The music is great, it’s often a very funny film and the depiction of the bond between Conor and his older brother is touching. At the same time, the film doesn’t shy away from serious issues such as poverty, violence, abuse, family breakdown and disempowerment. This is a feel-good film build upon a very strong foundation.


Camila Márdila as Jéssica and Regina Casé as Val in The Second Mother

The premise of the Brazilian drama  The Second Mother by writer/director Anna Muylaert is brilliant – the estranged daughter of a live-in-housemaid comes to stay with her mother and her wealthy employees. While the family’s father and son certainly don’t seem to mind having this young woman around the house, her own mother and the family’s mother find her familiarity extremely uncomfortable as her presence beings to rupture the polite divisions between master and servant. Writer/director Anna Muylaert uses this scenario to great effect to create a film that’s both an observant class critique as well as a tender drama about a mother/daughter relationship.


Paul Dano as Hank and Daniel Radcliffe as Manny in Swiss Army Man

In a recent interview I heard actor Paul Dano say that directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert wanted their film Swiss Army Man to begin with a fart that makes the audience laugh and end with a fart that makes them cry. I think they succeeded with this truly original, bizarre and hard-to-classify film about the friendship between a lost man (Dano) and the highly flatulent corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) he befriends. What begins as an  excessively abject absurdist comedy ends up as something poignant and moving. Whether the film is read as a projection of an internal examination of the troubled soul belonging to Dano’s character or an unusual exploration of male friendship that goes far beyond the restrictions of the bromance formula, this film is wonderfully puerile and profound.

Melissa McCarthy;Kristen Wiig;Kate McKinnon;Leslie Jones

Melissa McCarthy as Dr Abby Yates, Kate McKinnon as Dr Jillian Holtzmann, Kristen Wiig as Dr Erin Gilbert and Leslie Jones as Patty Tolan in Ghostbusters

Like many I am nervous about remakes, but I also believe that they have their place when either the original film is average to begin with or when the new film sets out to do something significantly different from the film they are remaking. So I embraced the idea of a new Ghostbusters film, not because I thought Ivan Reitman’s 1984 film needed improving (it’s one of the great all-time modern comedies in my books) but because director Paul Feig decided to create all new characters and as per his previous films, he cast a group of terrific contemporary comedic women actors to play those parts. Not only does the gender-flipping give a new spin to the formula, but any opportunity to showcase the talents of Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, along with stars-on-the rise Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, is worth embracing. And while the resulting film does not match the brilliant original, it is still a lot of fun. The dynamics between the four leads is terrific and visually I especially enjoyed the use of a false framing to give the impression of the 3D special effects bursting out of the cinema screen. The new Ghostbusters contains a lot of nods and tributes to the original film, but otherwise it very much feels like it is doing its own thing and I really hope we get a sequel.


Kumatetsu (voiced by Kōji Yakusho) and Ren (voiced by Aoi Miyazaki) in The Boy and the Beast

I also caught up with the Japanese animated film The Boy and the Beast, which has just come out on home entertainment in Australia. I’ve long been meaning to check out the films by Mamoru Hosoda and on the strength of this one I’m even more keen to do so. Evoking the Harry Potter series, The Boy and the Beast features Ren, an orphaned 9-year-old boy who stumbles from our regular human world into the Beast Kingdom where he becomes the disciple of the grumpy bear-like beast Kumatetsu. Both boy and beast are stubborn and short-tempered, but they are also both lonely and resilient. While the fantasy elements are fun, this is ultimately a film about parenting, specifically, the way children are shaped by care-givers, whether they be biological parents or not. This was surprising complex and moving.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in June 2016

30 June 2016

Güneş Şensoy as Lale in Mustang

I’d been looking forward to seeing Mustang for almost a year now after consistently hearing great things about it. It’s the feature film debut by Turkish/French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, about five sisters living with their uncle and grandmother in a secluded and very conservative Turkish village. Inspired by real stories including some of the filmmaker’s own experiences, Mustang is about the removal of freedoms from the sisters after they are accused of behaving indecently with male classmates. While the threat to the girls’ welfare looms large during the majority of the film, their defiance and energy is exhilarating, particularly during a sequence involving a football game that evokes Jafar Panahi’s glorious 2006 film Offside. The tension that builds during the film’s finale is close to unbearable, but Ergüven delivers a payoff that is satisfying and feels true to the spirit of what has come before. Needless to say, the expectations that I brought to this film were met and I’m happy to join the ranks of people who speak about Mustang glowingly.


Vincent Lindon as Thierry Taugourdeau in The Measure of a Man

The Measure of a Man is only the second film I’ve seen by French filmmaker Stéphane Brizé after Mademoiselle Chambon, which I also liked. Both films star prolific French actor Vincent Lindon who has a wonderful ability to simultaneously portray strength and resilience along with vulnerability and melancholy. This is vital to what makes The Measure of a Man work as well as it does where Lindon plays Thierry, an unemployed middle-aged man trying maintain his dignity while going through the very undignified process of looking for work and making ends meet in the meantime. Brizé’s naturalistic style conveys Thierry frustrations, boredom, worry and most importantly the way he’s constantly on display to be judged and condescended to. The Measure of a Man painfully captures not just the stress of unemployment, but also the subtle ways in which people out of work are made to feel shamed and stupid. The second half of the film goes one step further when Thierry is then placed in a position to watch and judge others,  demonstrating how just the act of watching somebody and expecting the worst from them makes them appear at fault.

The Wailing

Jo Han-chul as a detective and Kwak Do-won as Jong-Goo in The Wailing

After being so astonished by South Korean filmmaker Na Hong-jin’s previous film The Yellow Sea I required little persuasion to see his new horror/thriller film The Wailing. Set in a Korean village where a number of strange murders have started occurring, the film follows the increasingly desperate investigations of local policeman Jong-Goo. Drawing upon South Korean Sharman traditions and haunted by the county’s violent past of internal conflict and colonisation by Japan – as well as borrowing liberally from Japanese and American genre cinema – The Wailing delivers a mix of exorcisms, possessions, zombies, body horror, children being creepy, paranoia and even several unexpected comedic moments. The scares are generated by slow builds, unpredictability and filming key scenes in medium shots so it’s not always clear what we are looking at. The film has an intense kinetic energy and often feels like it is in free fall with its tonal shifts and plot twists – but that’s all very much part of the fun.


Blake Jenner as Jake and Austin Amelio as Nesbit in Everybody Wants Some!!

Richard  Linklater has described his 1980-set college film Everybody Wants Some!! as a spiritual sequel to his 1973-set high school film Dazed and Confused, and also as a sequel of sorts to his last film Boyhood since that film ended with the protagonist going to college, and this film is about the first few days of a young man at college before classes and responsibility begins. Everybody Wants Some!! is mostly a bunch of scenes of the young men on a college baseball team hanging out, drinking, competing, partying, talking about girls and attempting – and often succeeding – in having sex. The film is at its best when it allows us to observe the way the characters, who were all stars at high school, are now compelled to continually compete against each other, and how the characters readjust their identities when encountering various subcultures. It’s at its weakest when the characters have similar observations about what they are doing, and then over explain the themes of the film through dialogue. However, I can put this quibble aside since ultimately this is a really fun and sincere hang-out film.


Ruby Barnhill as Sophie and Mark Rylance as the BFG in The BFG

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel The BFG is a little too long and needlessly padded, and sometimes suffers from cartoonish CGI (although perhaps that’s done deliberately to minimise the scariness of some scenes for younger viewers). But I’ve included it as one of my favourite films of the month because the aspects I did like, I really liked. Firstly, the performances throughout the film by Mark Rylance as the motion-captured Big Friendly Giant and new comer Ruby Barnhill as the orphan Sophie, are gorgeous and successfully convey the very sweet relationship created by Dahl in his novel. I also loved the Dream Country scene, which delivers all Spielberg’s classic tricks of the trade where light, music, whimsy and the wonder on the faces of the characters generate a glorious sequence of feel-good cinematic indulgence. And finally, the fart humour of the novel – especially during the scene involving the Queen of England – is taken to extremities that left me wanting to give the film a standing ovation. There is also some great stuff about standing up for yourself, the power of friendship and not judging people who aren’t fortunate enough to have had the education that allows them to communicate as well as others. But it’s the farting that ultimately won me over.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in May 2016

29 May 2016

Ryan Gosling as Holland March and Russell Crowe as Jackson Healy in The Nice Guys

I had been looking forward to The Nice Guys, as the promise of a funny and violent buddy-cop (or buddy-PI) film set in the 1970s, written and directed by Shane Black, was just too enticing. And fortunately Black, the writer of Lethal Weapon and the writer/director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, not did not disappoint. Nor did Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as the odd-couple private investigators who have to work together on a missing-person case that, of course, gets them in way over their heads. The dialogue is sharp and funny, the action is exciting, and while the tone is overall playful, it is underscored by genuine menace to ensure the stakes remain high. After the sheer joy of Inherent Vice I didn’t think another film would come along so soon that so successfully blends together classical Hollywood hardboiled noir with such a distinctively ’70s setting, but The Nice Guys pulls it off with not one but two pulp detective protagonists and a gleefully convoluted plot where good detective work and fucking things up often yield the desired outcome in equal measure. Black even includes a sly dig at moral outrage hypocrisy through the device of having corporate greed undermined by a porn film. The Nice Guys is so much fun.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker and Sam Neill as Hector Faulkner in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

When I first heard about Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the new film by New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi, I anticipated something that contained the droll humour and sincerity of his glorious film Boy along with his increasing proficiency with visual effects and spectacle as displayed in the very funny What We Do in the Shadows. These were unreasonably high expectations, but fortunately Hunt of the Wilderpeople met them and then exceeded them. The film is an adaptation of the 1986 novel Wild Pork And Watercress, by New Zealand author and personality Barry Crump, and the film adopts Crump’s core story about the growing bond between a troubled adolescent and a cantankerous older man who are on the run together in the New Zealand wilderness. The magic touch that Waititi delivers is maintaining the heart of Crump’s novel while adding several new characters and dialogue to facilitate his own sometimes dark but always well-meaning deadpan humour. This is another extremely fun film that is also very sweet. I’ve already seen it twice.

Chasing Asylum

Chasing Asylum

On a very different note Chasing Asylum is likely to be the most difficult, but also the most important, film I’ve seen this year, not only because of its upsetting portrayal of human rights abuses, but because they are abuses being committed by the Australian government. Filmmaker Eva Orner’s many impressive previous credits include producing Alex Gibney’s Academy Award winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side. In Chasing Asylum Orner presents a sobering examination of what is happening to asylum seekers who while attempting to come to Australia have been left in indefinite detention in offshore camps. Using extensive footage secretly taken inside the camps as well as testimonials from ex-camp workers and detainees, a picture emerges of a policy that is resulting in the physical, psychological and sexual abuses of men, women and cruelest of all, children. A lot of the information presented in the film was stuff I knew about, but only in fragmented form. Seeing everything presented in one package with the full context and background information is heartbreaking. I hope as many people as possible see it to arm themselves with information about this country’s appalling ethical compromise (that also happens to be absurdly expensive) that is going to have terrible repercussions for generations to come.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in April 2016

1 May 2016

Jaeden Lieberher as Alton and Michael Shannon as Roy in Midnight Special

At times while watching Midnight Special, the new film by Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter), I felt like it was custom-made for me. I adored the way its story of two men kidnapping a boy from a cult created tension and intrigue by withholding so much backstory and character information, especially in an era of filmmaking where often so much is over-explained or signposted sooner than necessary. It also helped that the film was heavily and overtly inspired by ’70s and ’80s science-fiction films such as Steven Spielberg‘s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one of my all-time favourite films. While Midnight Special ultimately didn’t deliver the full payoff that I was anticipating, which was disappointing as the final reveal was so literal, I still loved its performances, mood and exploration of many of Nichols’s reoccurring themes concerning family, fatherhood, masculinity and how we perceive reality.

Captain America: Civil War

Chris Evans as Captain America in Captain America: Civil War

While I always more or less enjoy the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, I’ve never found any particularly memorable. Guardians of the Galaxy is the only one to ever appear in one of my monthly summaries, until now as I thought Captain America: Civil War was superb. Containing nearly every significant superhero character from the previous films and introducing new ones while further developing narrative threads from 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, this new film is impressive for just how well it manages so much story and character information. But its real triumph is the stunning action choreography and inventive fight scenes. Not since the first two X-Men films have I felt such exhilaration from the spectacle of seeing the inherent strangeness of all the various superpowers in play. Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo never allow the computer generated effects to overshadow the visual pleasures of the actors’ bodies in motion, and they are always aware of how to best capitalise on the space of the scenes where the action takes place, frequently tracking the action vertically rather than always staging scenes along the more conventional x-axis.

A  Month of Sundays

John Clarke as Phillip Lang and Anthony LaPaglia as Frank Mollard in A Month of Sundays

The Australian film A Month of Sundays, by writer/director Matthew Saville, reminded me of many independent American films from the 1990s, with its off-kilter nervous energy, understated humour and gently melancholic atmosphere.  Anthony LaPaglia, one of Australia’s consistently excellent actors, gives a sad and funny performance as a divorced middle-aged real estate agent whose life seems to have lost all meaning. The key to the film’s success is its winning droll humour, often courtesy of the always brilliant John Clarke in a supporting role, that takes the film into more serious and ultimately heartwarming  territory. A Month of Sundays is low key and anecdotally seems to have divided audiences, but if you can tap into its humour early on then the results are extremely rewarding.


National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a terrific documentary that covers the founding for the American satirical magazine National Lampoon in 1960 that went on to become a multimedia operation that included comedy albums, radio serials, theatre shows and feature films such as Animal House and Vacation. The film adopts a similar visual style to the magazine’s art direction, which greatly assists in conveying the impact of the humour, which ranged from irreverent and absurd to extremely confronting and shocking. The interviews with many of the editorial staff and performers from over the years are fascinating and funny, and the film contains plenty of classic moments from the magazine, albums and live performances that still elicit big laughs. This film is enormously fun and demonstrates how rather than belittling the already powerless with lazy stereotypes, ‘offensive’ and dark humour can also be used to aggressively draw attention to social inequalities and hypocrisy.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in March 2016

1 April 2016


Seeing the new Australian film Spear took me way outside my cinematic comfort zone and I couldn’t be more thrilled by how much that risk paid off. Spear originated as a 2000 dance theatre work by the acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre, whose Artistic Director Stephen Page is the film’s director and co-writer. By incorporating dance, some spoken word, and superb editing, music and cinematography, Spear conveys the experiences of a young Indigenous man exploring his cultural identity in modern Australia. I won’t pretend to understand the meaning of every single element of the film, but that didn’t matter as the non-narrative spectacle was completely absorbing. During the first ten minutes of the film I had already experienced more shivers down the spine than I hope to get from the entirety of most other films.

The Daughter_Andy Commis_3-22

Odessa Young as Hedvig in The Daughter

Another impressive Australian film that has been recently released is The Daughter, the feature film debut by theatre writer/director Simon Stone. Loosely based on Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, The Daughter is a ensemble drama set in a small rural community where the circumstances surrounding the wedding of the town’s wealthy business owner and patriarch brings old resentments and hidden secrets to the surface. It’s a finely acted and directed drama that demonstrates how those with power get what they want and it’s everybody else who suffers misery as a result, whether it be in a closed family unit or the broader community. Stone has maintained the spirit of Ibsen’s social critique and successfully channelled it into a powerful contemporary Australian drama.



The third Australian film that commanded my attention is Sherpa, a documentary by filmmaker Jennifer Peedom. Initially a more observational film about the Sherpas who assist westerner to climb Mount Everest, it became a more immediate portrait of the worst tragedy in the history of Everest on 18 April 2014. The film examines the way the growing tourist industry on Everest has pushed so many of the Sherpa people into a position of economic dependance that results in them routinely risking their lives to assist with expeditions taking tourists up the mountain. The section covering the tragedy is powerful and heartbreaking, but it is not exploitative. The strongest parts of the film is what follows afterwards when as each day after the tragedy goes by, the discussion about whether or not to send the Sherpas back up to assist with the scheduled climbs gets further and further away from considering the morality of putting lives at risk for income.


Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin in The Witch

I almost didn’t include The Witch here because despite admiring it when I saw it, it didn’t resonate with me as I expected it would. But since having seen it, I cannot get it out of my head and the more I talk to other people about it, the more I find myself falling under its spell. It’s a serious and sombre film set in New England in America in the 17th Century about a Puritan family encountering something sinister in the woods. Inspired by folk tales and accounts at the time of supposed incidents of witchcraft, The Witch brings to life not just the stories of witchcraft, but all the social anxieties behind such tales. Similar to The Babadook and It Follows, this is giving form to troubling attitudes towards sex and gender to promote introspection rather than provide a didactic sermon, and the results get way under your skin – in my case, several days later!


Darwin (voiced by Philippe Katerine) and April (voiced by Marion Cotillard) in April and the Extraordinary World

It’s sometimes easy to forget that countries other than the USA and Japan make animated films because so few animations from the rest of the world get released locally, which is one reason it was such a joy seeing the French-language April and the Extraordinary World. Other reasons included the gorgeous 2D hand drawn animation, the Parisian steampunk 1941 setting (it’s set in an alternate version of history where science has come to a standstill but industrialisation has run rampant) and the heroes are scientists who defy the militaristic government by refusing to contribute to the war effort. It’s a film about the pursuit of knowledge in order to achieve progress and it’s a warning about how fascism manifests on a political and personal level. The action is fun and inventive, and the humour succeeds in drawing upon the absurdity of many of the situations without compromising the film’s internal logic. It also features a cat named Darwin who can talk and at one point describes himself as ‘kittenvincible’. Sold. 


John Goodman as Howard and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle in 10 Cloverfield Lane

I cannot help but feel cynical about the way 10 Cloverfield Lane began as a small self-contained genre film known as The Cellar before having a High Concept blockbuster concept grafted onto it along with the accompanying marketing campaign designed to provoke speculation about how, if at all, it is linked into the 2008 found-footage monster film Cloverfield. On it’s own 10 Cloverfield Lane would have still been an excellent thriller showcasing John Goodman at his ambiguous and creepy best as the conspiracy theorist who may or may not be on the level about the need to stay in an underground bunker due to some unknown apocalyptic tragedy on the surface. And while I realise that the film’s bombastic and left-field conclusion somewhat betrays a lot of what has come before it, it was part of what made me enjoy this film so much as it transformed from a tense character-based thriller into a wild roller-coaster ride.


Mark Strong as Sebastian and Sacha Baron Cohen as Nobby in Grimsby

I was late to the party when it came to embracing Sacha Baron Cohen and I seem at odds with most others when it comes to how much I’ve enjoyed his recent scripted comedies: The Dictator and now Grimsby.The plot involving Cohen playing a caricature of a lower class English football fan who goes on the run with his long-lost brother, an elite MI6 assassin, results in some extraordinarily grotesque comedic sequences that are crass to the point of absurdity. And as much as some of the jokes are often cruel, crude, pointless and often not even always successful, there are enough moments of audacious hilarity that I cannot deny how much this film left me convulsing with laughter. In fact, a lot of the promotion for the film has involved showing footage of audiences laughing in shocked disbelief by what they are seeing on screen (and apparently they’ll feature any old idiot in the various promotional videos). While the level of social satire regarding attitudes towards the poor are not exactly fine-tuned, I do admire Cohen’s commitment to the bouffon style of comedy (as he discussed in a recent interview on the WTF with Marc Maron Podcast) of extreme and ruthless mockery designed to completely undermine and disrupt all social conventions.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016