DVD review – The Lost Thing (2010), Region 4, Madman

10 December 2010

The Lost ThingAustralian author and illustrator Shaun Tan makes his directorial debut (along with co-director Andrew Ruhemann) with this animated short adapted from Tan’s acclaimed picture book. Narrated by musician/comedian Tim Minchin, The Lost Thing is about a boy who discovers a creature on the beach that nobody else seems to notice. Encased in a giant mechanical dome with tentacles sprouting from the various hatches, the creature is like a steam-punk version of a benevolent sea monster.

The Lost Thing has a beautiful melancholic charm that evokes the work of writer Neil Gaiman and filmmaker Tim Burton. Tan has previously worked as a conceptual artist on computer animated films Horton Hears a Who! and WALL·E, and his experience creating unique and immersive landscapes is evident in The Lost Thing. It is a sad and bureaucratic world, not too distant from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, where a population lost in their daily routine don’t notice the presence of an extraordinary creature that needs looking after.

The DVD includes deleted scenes, a documentary on Tan and production information making it essential viewing for animation fans.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 368, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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DVD review – Mother (2009), Region 4, Madman

15 August 2010
Mother (Kim Hye-ja)

Mother (Kim Hye-ja)

From South Korea, Mother is a stylish and extremely impressive “wrong man” murder mystery. Do-joon (Won Bin) is a sweet natured, mentally handicapped young man who is accused of murder based on circumstantial evidence. Do-joon’s doting mother becomes fixated on finding the real killer to prove her son’s innocence so she starts her own investigation, unveiling all sorts of sordid details about their small town community.

Director Bong Joon-ho’s previous film was the monster movie The Host, which very playfully toyed with its generic conventions without becoming overly self-aware. Mother is more focused than The Host, operating as a strong genre film even though Bong skilfully undermines many of the murder mystery conventions. With its clever play on audience expectations and sympathies there are some completely unexpected twists and turns.

At the heart of Mother is Kim Hye-ja’s lead performance as Do-joon’s mother. Her incredible love and devotion for Do-joon is both touching and sad. Her singular drive to protect him is what drives this film resulting in a heavily ironic and clever examination of guilt and culpability. Beautifully shot and consistently entertaining, Mother is a film that you should not let slip under your radar.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 360, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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DVD review – Absolute Beginners (1986), Region 4, Umbrella Entertainment

2 May 2010

Absolute BeginnersWhile filmmaker Julien Temple is best known today for his punk music documentaries The Filth and the Fury and Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, in 1986 he was known as the director of the expensive and critically maligned musical adaptation of Colin MacInnes’s much-loved novel Absolute Beginners. Co-starring David Bowie and Patsy Kensit with cameos by Sade and Steven Berkoff, Temple’s film maintains the novel’s late 1950s London West End setting with its themes about the emerging youth culture and racial tensions. The main story of a heartbroken freelance photographer trying to find his place in the world is paper-thin as the focus of the film is on the musical numbers.

While the plot is weak and some of the musical numbers do not work, Absolute Beginners contains a sensibility that it not that far removed from Baz Luhrmann’s films. Absolute Beginners is certainly flawed but it is bursting with an infectious energy that combines the visually excessive style of Hollywood 1940s and 50s musicals with a collection of songs consisting of a brilliantly anachronistic fusion of 1980s and 1950s pop. Absolute Beginners is a film worth revisiting for its inventiveness and audacity.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 352, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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DVD review – Bent (1997), Region 4, Love Films

24 November 2009

Max (Clive Owen) and Uncle Freddie (Ian McKellen)

Martin Sherman’s 1979 stage play Bent, which originally starred Ian McKellen in the West-End and Richard Gere in Broadway, is about a homosexual man sent to the Dachau concentration camp in 1930s Nazi Germany. The 1997 film version was adapted for the screen by Sherman and directed by actor and theatre director Sean Mathias. Finally getting a DVD release in Australia, Bent is an astonishing film not just for the incredibly powerful story it tells but for its remarkable production design. Mathias gave the film an intentionally theatrical look rather than attempting to disguise the film’s origins as a stage play. Factories and quarries are used to represent Berlin and Dachau and the whole film has a stylised feel to it that strongly evokes the cinema of Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway.

In this film version Clive Owen stars as the lead character Max and brings to the part the type of intensity and complexity that would later distinguish him in films such as Closer, Gosford Park and The Children of Men. Owen has always had a sort of icy charisma and slight sleaziness to him, which gives him an engaging and unpredictable quality that allows him to play likeable bad guys and dodgy good guys. In Bent our sympathies do lie with Max because he is the victim of one of the most horrific and systematic acts of persecution that humanity has ever endured, but he is nevertheless a highly flawed characters largely due to his opportunism. Nevertheless, over the course of the narrative Max does evolve into a more compassionate human being and it is his displays of empathy and connection with fellow homosexual prisoner Horst (Lothaire Bluteau from Jesus of Montreal) that provide wonderful moments of defiance to the dehumanising nature of the camp.

Bent is a remarkable film that is completely captivating. It is expertly crafted so that, not unlike Steve McQueen’s 2008 film Hunger, it is a film of incredible visual beauty that enhances the power of the bleak narrative rather than contrast against it. While the confronting subject matter of Bent may not be a huge motivation for people to seek it out, it is worth making the effort because it is one of the great films of the 1990s.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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DVD review – Beautiful Thing (1996), Region 4, Love Films

1 November 2009
Beautiful Thing

Jamie Gangel (Glen Berry) and Ste Pearce (Scott Neal)

On a council-flat estate in the London suburbs two teenage boys are falling in love with each other. One is awkward and picked on at school while the other is popular but regularly beaten by his father and older brother. Together the boys explore their emerging sexuality and feelings for each other in an environment that at first glance may not exactly seem very supportive.

On the surface Beautiful Thing pretty much sounds like an English kitchen-sink drama combined with gay coming-out plot – and it is both these things – but it is also a very funny, sweet and tender love story. Far from being an English Miserablist film in the style of so many Ken Loach and Mike Leigh films, Beautiful Thing contains a lot of warmth and happiness.

Based on the play of the same name Beautiful Thing was originally made for English television in 1996, it secured a cinema release in Australia in 1998 and has only now arrived on DVD in this country. Filled with music by Cass Elliot and The Mamas & the Papas, Beautiful Thing is a truly joyous Queer Cinema film with universal appeal.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 340, 2009

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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DVD review – Thicker Than Water: The Vampire Diaries Part 1 (2008), Region 0 (USA)

19 July 2009
Lara Baxter (Eilis Cahill)

Lara Baxter (Eilis Cahill)

Lara is a classic teenage Goth; conventionally morbid, Anne Rice obsessed and spiteful towards her suburban middle-American family. Lara especially hates her wholesome and popular sister Helen so vents some angst by casting a spell on her. Unfortunately the spell kills Helen and then brings her back as a vampire, leaving the rest of the family in a somewhat awkward situation as in order to look after Helen they must supply her with a steady diet of fresh human blood. Helen isn’t happy either as before becoming a vampire she was vegetarian.

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DVD review – Babette’s Feast (1987), Region 4, Shock

25 May 2009
Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran)

Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran)

In 1987 the art-house hit that one absolutely had see was the Academy Award winning Danish film Babette’s Feast, with its thematic blend of spirituality and food. Babette’s Feast begins with a long prologue establishing the pious lives of a pair of sisters living in a remote village on the Danish coast in the 19th century. About a third of the way into the film Babette shows up requesting refuge from the violence in Paris. The whole film is really just a build up to the amazing French meal Babette eventually prepares for the sisters and what is left of the village’s small congregation. As Babette’s extraordinary meal begins the congregation nervously start eating, worried that the sensory pleasures of the food will distract them from their religious duties.

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