Films I loved in March 2016

Spear

Spear

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.

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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.

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Sherpa

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.

THE WITCH

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!

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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. 

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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.

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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
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