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
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DVD review – The Hole (2009), Region 4, Pinnacle Films

5 October 2011
The Hole: Julie (Haley Bennett), Dane (Chris Massoglia) and Lucas (Nathan Gamble)

Julie (Haley Bennett), Dane (Chris Massoglia) and Lucas (Nathan Gamble)

Having once again reluctantly moved house with their mother Susan (Teri Polo), teenager Dane (Chris Massoglia) and younger brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) relieve their boredom by unlatching the numerous and very large locks on a trap door they uncover in their new basement. Along with next-door neighbour Julie (Haley Bennett), Dane and Lucas become increasingly curious about the strange and seemingly bottomless hole they uncover. Where does it go? What is in it?

Like Pandora’s Box, the hole that Dane and Lucas discover contains all the evils of the world. More specifically, the hole contains something that appears in a different form to whomever it torments based on their most primal fears. As Joe Dante films go (Gremlins, Innerspace), The Hole is a relatively straightforward genre piece without any of his distinctively overt political and social critique. Instead, Dante uses the scenario to deliver a kid-friendly ghost story that ultimately derives its scares not from the supernatural, but from the fears and anxieties associated with a particular type of broken family.

While Dante has been frequently compared to Steven Spielberg, and indeed made some of his most successful films in various collaborations with him, in The Hole Dante arguably takes Spielberg’s familiar divorced-family kid protagonists into far darker territory. The Hole gradually introduces its domestic violence theme to deliver an extra layer of potency that is not often found in a film of this nature. The result is a fun and frequently scary genre film grounded by a pleasingly empowering message about inner strength.

The Hole: Creepy Carl (Bruce Dern), Dane (Chris Massoglia), Julie (Haley Bennett) and Lucas (Nathan Gamble)

Creepy Carl (Bruce Dern), Dane (Chris Massoglia), Julie (Haley Bennett) and Lucas (Nathan Gamble)

It is a shame that in Australia The Hole has gone to DVD without a full theatrical release as it contains a similar appeal to JJ Abrams’s Super 8. Both films evoke the type of smart yet crowd-pleasing American cinema that was made in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and aimed at a young adult audience. The major difference is that while Super 8 was a calculated exercise in nostalgically recreating the mood and style of such films, in The Hole Dante is simply doing what he has always been doing. The Hole has a contemporary setting and nothing in it suggests any deliberate attempt to be retro; it simply contains the same spirit that Dante infused in his earlier films.

A lot of the ‘jump out of your seat’ moments in The Hole are false scares, where something startling suddenly happens, but is quickly revealed to have been harmless. In a lot of current horror films this is a tedious technique that is too frequently reliant on loud sound effects to literally startle the audience, and also too blatantly signposted. The false scare moments in The Hole are much better delivered as they are consistently unexpected and genuinely scary. Dante also knows that stuff lurking off screen is more terrifying than anything onscreen. He’s also very aware that the most terrifying things are those that are familiar to us, but presented in an unfamiliar way.

While the presence of a homicidal clown puppet and a creepy little girl are all familiar horror creations, Dante still makes them work. The Hole really comes into its own towards the end when we visit a macabre otherworld, which visually strongly evokes the afterlife waiting room scenes from Beetlejuice and reveals Dante’s full creative powers. Insidious concluded in a similar way, but The Hole displays far more flair and narrative tension making it a fun kids horror film that may be a minor work for Dante, but still very satisfying.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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DVD review – Mrs Carey’s Concert (2011), Region 4, Madman

27 September 2011

Mrs Carey’s ConcertTwo popular genres come together in this Australian documentary – the backstage musical and the inspirational-teacher-saves-troubled-students drama. Karen Carey is the music director at the Sydney girls school MLC, which holds a concert involving 1200 girls from the school at the Sydney Opera House every two years. The next concert is approaching and Mrs Carey’s Concert documents the challenges that lie ahead, especially in terms of involving reluctant, difficult and under confident students.

The fly-on-the-wall approach taken by directors Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond recalls the approach taken by Nicolas Philibert in his 2006 film To Be and to Have about a primary school class in rural France. Similarly, Mrs Carey’s Concert conveys an enormous amount of information about its subjects simply through observation and strategic editing. During the climax of the film, which of course is the concert, cutaway shots to the faces of key players in the film communicate everything that the audience needs to know about what the various moments mean to them. This graceful and unobtrusive editing creates a work that feels authentic and non-judgemental.

The two dominant stories that emerge are those of ‘problem’ students, Iris Shi and Emily Sun. In Iris’s case she is extraordinarily extroverted and precociously disruptive, to the point of being infuriating. Over the course of the film we see the teachers gently but firmly appeal to her better nature and their patience is remarkable, as is how well they conceal just how much in charge of the situation they are. By the time Iris is telling the camera how well she reads people in order to manipulate them, her bravado feels overcompensated to the point that she becomes a strangely sympathetic figure. There is something ultimately sad about her.

Mrs Carey's ConcertEmily is a different challenge for the staff. While her troubled past is mostly behind her, and only mentioned in the film rather than shown, she severely lacks the passion and confidence to reach her true potential as a gifted musician. Her journey is the most rewarding in the film as the focus is not on her musical talent – that is taken as a given – but on her ability to find the inner strength and emotional investment to be truly great. The full extent of her back-story is strategically revealed late in the film to put her tentativeness into context and watching her transformation is extremely rewarding. One scene involves her having to tell the orchestra what a particular piece of music means to her. For a brief moment she lets down her guard to describe how she feels, before catching herself out and retreating back inside herself again. Such moments are what define Mrs Carey’s Concert as being more than simply a documentary about privileged schoolgirls putting on a concert.

Like the payoff at the end of the fiction film The Concert, Mrs Carey’s Concert delivers an emotionally charged and satisfying experience. The sound mix allows the music to really surround the viewer and interestingly any voiceovers removed from what is on screen at the time come from the back speakers so that the immediate story remains in the foreground. It is also worth watching the end credits through to the very end as the final music wonderfully sums up what the film has been about and is also rather sweet.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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DVD review – A Serbian Film (2010), Region 4, Accent

20 September 2011

NOTE: This is a review of the 96-minute Australian DVD censored version of the film.

Milos (Srdan Todorovic)

Milos (Srdan Todorovic)

A Serbian Film is a vicious, bleak, nihilistic and angry work with scenes that will burn themselves in your mind. Just reading about the catalogue of sexually violent acts that take place in the film is enough to produce a feeling of horrified disbelief. In fact, if you do come to this film out of curiosity from hearing about what it contains and knowing what to expect, actually seeing it is almost anti-climatic. The question is, is this a film that simply possesses an infantile desire to shock and offend, or does it contain any real substance? On the one hand, director and co-writer Srdjan Spasojevic seems to be using the extreme and taboo obliterating content to aggressively challenge abuses of power, vaguely making it the inbred exploitation cousin of Pier Paolo Pasolini Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. More interesting is the stylistic and narrative focus on artificiality and second-hand experiences, suggesting that it is more engaged with issues of on-screen images of sex and violence.

A Serbian Film is almost a pornographic version of Christian Molina’s Rojo sangre, which was about an out-of-work horror actor who takes increasingly disturbing jobs that push him to the psychological limit. Similarly in A Serbian Film, the protagonist Milos (Srdan Todorovic) is a retired porn actor who accepts a mysterious job that eventually involves him being tricked and coerced into taking part or witnessing the film’s notorious series of extreme acts of sexual violence. Milos looses his soul when he signs on to make the film with Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic) who plays the devil to his Faust. And like all good devils, Vukmir has an agenda and that is to create a new form of ‘artistic porn’ with degrading content that is so real that even the performers won’t know what is happening. Tapping into recent trends in ‘realistic’ gonzo porn, A Serbian Film seems aware of the desire for manufactured reality.

A Serbian Film: Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic)

Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic)

A Serbian Film presents itself as what it is critiquing – a work of artifice that is appealing to audiences hungry for something more extreme than they have seen before. The first third of the film adopts various characteristics of a pornographic film with it cheesy electronic music, crude acting and overly explanatory dialogue designed to simply set-up the scenes that the audiences have come for; which are explicit sex scenes in porn and graphic violence scenes in A Serbian Film. The first of these moments, which is mild compared to what is to come, depicts a staple of pornographic cinema – the ‘money shot’, which features a male, in this case Milos, ejaculating. And it looks deliberately fake; just as such shots sometimes are in porn when necessity calls for it.

Subsequent shocking scenes are then either recordings that are watched by Milos or shown to be memories that have returned to him from a period in which he was drugged. A Serbian Film never suggests these moments didn’t happen, but they are presented as second-hand experiences rather than ‘live’. Even the room used for some of the earlier scenes, with its blacked out background and checked floor, feels like a dreamlike space and features in a one of Milos’s nightmare. The overall visual slickness, instead of a grittier aesthetic, also feels like a deliberate decision to emphasise artificiality. Everything about it feels designed to draw attention to itself as a representation of the commodification of sex through the pornography industry.

A Serbian FilmVukmir speaks blatantly about finding new ways to present victimisation. Indeed much of A Serbian Film is about creating shocking images of degradation to undermine the type of sexualised images that are routinely seen on screen, not just in porn but in advertising and mainstream media. There’s a broad parallel to Sleeping Beauty, which de-eroticised its images through detachment. A Serbian Film is less subtle as it removes sexual desire from what it shows by creating revulsion. A curious aside is when Vukmir mentions that the film he is making is designed for the international markets, commenting not just on the availability and demand for Eastern European pornography within Western countries, but also the way mainstream films such as Taken carelessly appropriate issues such as sexual trafficking for entertainment.

While Sleeping Beauty is concerned with broader and more complex issues to do with objectification, A Serbian Film is bluntly anti-porn. The argument that it bludgeons the audience over the head with is that an appetite for porn will lead to consumers wanting more and more extreme images to get aroused. The opening scenes of A Serbian Film depict a society where porn is commonplace and a casual part of daily life, hence the supposed inevitable outcome that characters like Vukmir will cash in by taking porn to the next level. It’s a reductive representation of a complex issue and yet there is no denying its power. Theoretically many film audiences who watch A Serbian Film mimic porn consumers in their desire to see something more extreme than they have seen before. In this way, A Serbian Film aims to punish its audience by being so gruelling. It’s not as clever as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which undermined genre expectations with its banality and frustrations, but it is admirable for its audacity. For all its hysteria and nasty shock tactics, A Serbian Film does have something to say about representations of sexuality, cinematic violence and audience culpability.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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DVD review – Carlos the Jackal (2010), Region 4, Madman

15 August 2011
Carlos the Jackal: Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Édgar Ramírez Arellano)

Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Édgar Ramírez Arellano)

It’s difficult to imagine a more comprehensive and detailed depiction of the life and times of international terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (aka Carlos the Jackal) than Olivier Assayas’s made for television French/German co-production Carlos. Beginning with Carlos’s early activities in Paris in the early 1970s working for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Carlos covers three decades of the career of the ‘celebrity terrorist’ up until his arrest in 1994.

Portrayed with chilling charisma, arrogance, narcissism and ruthlessness by Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez Arellano, Carlos is as fascinating and appealing as a terrorist could be without the film ever coming across as endorsing his violent actions. Against the backdrop of the end of the Cold War and the rise of radical Islam, Carlos is relentlessly tense and exciting in the sequences depicting the planning and then execution of various plots, with the 1975 raid on the OPEC headquarters as the centrepiece.

Carlos is available in both the 3-part TV miniseries version and the condensed 158-minute theatrical edition.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 385, 2011

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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DVD review – Reign of Assassins (2010), Region 4, Madman

10 July 2011
Reign of Assassins: Drizzle (Michelle Yeoh)

Drizzle (Michelle Yeoh)

Set during the Ming Dynasty in China, Reign of Assassins is a period martial arts film, with more of a focus on swordplay than hand-to-hand combat. The story revolves around the search for the magical remains of a mummified Indian monk, which will supposedly bestow upon the owner the ultimate kung fu skills. Like the various Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, the film is populated with various outlaw types fighting each other and forming tentative partnerships when necessary to get to the treasure. However, the films that it overtly references are more recent action films including John Woo’s Face/Off, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and Luc Besson’s Nikita.

The central character is Drizzle, played by Kelly Lin, a former member of the Dark Stone assassin gang, who is being hunted by her former companions after she decides to abandon her old way of life (Kill Bill). She has her face surgically altered to change her identity (Face/Off) to then be played for the majority of the film by Michelle Yeoh. Meanwhile, the Dark Stone gang has recruited a deadly replacement in the form of Turquoise Leaf, played by Barbie Hsu, a homicidal young girl they rescued from being put to death (Nikita). Revealing the other film that Reign of Assassins overtly borrows plot points from would spoil a major twist.

Reign of Assassins: Turquoise Leaf (Barbie Hsu)

Turquoise Leaf (Barbie Hsu)

Despite being heavily promoted in some parts of the world as a John Woo film, not to mention the Face/Off references, Reign of Assassins is actually written and directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Su Chao-Pin. Woo, clearly the more bankable name, still gets credited first as the film’s co-director, but there is little in this film that reflects his distinctive style. Woo was apparently on set to guide Su in a lot of the film’s direction, but the final product translates more into Reign of Assassins feeling like a tribute film that doesn’t quite get it right. Su utilises a lot of slow motion and kinetic movement in the fight scenes, but he pulls back on such stylistic moments before they really have a chance to fully grab the viewer. Heightened emotions and notions of honour are present, but the dialogue and music are often too contrived to allow the film to really revel in its melodramatic potential. It’s not as if Reign of Assassins is a poor persons John Woo film (Woo made those himself towards the end of his stint in Hollywood before returning to Hong Kong to make Red Cliff), it just never fully comes alive despite containing several tantalising scenes.

And yet, there are enough moments to make Reign of Assassins a film worth seeing. The opening twenty minutes is far too busy and chaotic (even for a film of this type) but once it settles down to focus on the main story of Drizzle’s past catching up with her, it starts to become interesting. Many of fight sequences are complex and inventive, especially when multiple interests are at stake. The other members of the Dark Stone gang have their own back-stories, distinct characteristics and special abilities, which make them a welcome inclusion in every scene they appear in. As with so many films of the genre, the fighting frequently resembles dance. While the conflicts are partly about defeating the enemy they are also about skilled warriors relishing the opportunity to push themselves and transcend the limitations of their own bodies. Reign of Assassins does offer plenty of exciting sequences, but it frustratingly never fully delivers what it promises to.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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DVD review – Restrepo (2010), Region 4, Madman

21 February 2011

RestrepoJournalist Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Tim Hetherington have created an incredibly focused documentary that functions as a microcosm for America’s military involvement in Afghanistan. Junger and Hetherington were imbedded with a platoon of US soldiers deployed in Afghanistan for 15 months in 2007 and 2008. The platoon was sent to Korengal Valley, a remote and extremely dangerous part of the country, where they constructed an outpost named OP Restrepo after Private First Class Juan Sebastián Restrepo, a medic who was killed early in their deployment.

Junger and Hetherington clearly must have been at risk themselves as some of the footage in Restrepo is startlingly immediate. We see bullets hitting the ground near the soldiers being filmed and we see the way the soldiers react under the extreme duress of fending off yet another attack. The incredible first-hand experience of such scenes then contrasts with the talking-head interviews that were later done with the soldiers after leaving the valley. Shot against a black backdrop in tight close-ups, the interviews provide a sometimes disconcerting calm contrast where the soldiers now attempt to make sense out of what happened, what they did and how the experience changed them. While many of these interviews are assured and confident, they are also moving and honest, with nearly all of them containing at least one moment where a fleeting expression betrays an incredible degree of repressed pain.

RestrepoCapturing the range of emotions displayed by the soldiers is one of the film’s greatest strengths and many scenes that Junger and Hetherington have chosen to include demonstrate both the humanity within the soldiers but also the degree in which their training has conditioned them to function under extreme conditions. Feelings of fear and fatigue are pushed aside when there is the need to spring into action and while feelings of grief are acknowledged the soldiers are expected to ‘get over it’ and continue with their jobs. The most powerful moment in the film is witnessing one soldier momentarily break down during an ambush on discovering that his friend has died in the attack. The confusion, distress and horrified disbelief that he goes through, while in an extremely dangerous situation, is confronting viewing.

However, while Restrepo to an extent humanises the soldiers it also reveals the sinister way in which they have dehumanised their enemy. The desire for revenge and glee which the men express when gunning down an enemy soldier from afar is understandable in the context of what has happened and such detachment is probably also a necessity, but that doesn’t alter how chillingly different the soldiers regard the lives of their own from the lives of the largely unseen others. Scenes where the soldiers attempt to work with the local Afghan elders reveal a lot of mutual resentment and frustration; however, the seriousness of the situation is dramatically rammed home when an attack on a Taliban hideout results in civilian injuries and deaths. The response from a soldier is to rationalise the incident by presuming that the injured and dead civilians were likely to have been connected in some way to the Taliban. He speaks with the same slightly irritated tone that was previously used to negotiate with a local farmer on how the US army would compensate for the loss of a cow.

RestrepoThe overall impact of Restrepo is to neither demonise nor glorify the American soldiers, but to convey their experiences and give them a voice to tell their own stories. Every viewer will bring their own baggage to how they respond to the footage that Junger and Hetherington have chosen to include but ultimately it is difficult not to feel in some way for the soldiers, even if you do have some very specific reservations. Restrepo also wonderfully captures the moments of downtime between incidents where the men have to rebuild, entertain themselves, prepare for what is coming or reflect on what has passed. The steady rise of frustration, exhaustion and fear is juxtaposed by moments of humanity, whether it be the soldiers discussing their loved ones at home or joking around.

Restrepo succeeds as both a remarkable piece of cinéma vérité documentary filmmaking and a tribute to the soldiers who are put through hell. While on the surface it doesn’t appear to be offering any explanations, judgements or commentary, it does convey a deep sense of tragedy that a war of this nature is being fought, it is destroying the lives of the local population and the US soldiers being sent to fight are either getting killed or being left with serious unresolved emotional issues. In one scene a soldier describes how being shot at is the ultimate rush and he’s not sure how he’ll be able to return to civilian life. The soldiers frequently talk about the need to move on but the various adherences to rituals and preservation of symbols that acknowledge the dead suggest that there is an enormous amount of repressed pain that is yet to be fully recognised.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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