Films I loved in March 2018

29 March 2018

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr Ventress and Natalie Portman as Lena in Annihilation

Alex Garland is one of my favourite contemporary writers and directors of science-fiction films, and my admiration for him continues with Annihilation. Atmospheric and with just the right amount of explanation to not remove all mystery, its story of an expedition into the unknown is beautiful, terrifying and uncanny. Released in Australia on Netflix, it is disappointing it can’t be experienced on the big screen.


Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov and Paul Whitehouse as Anastas Mikoyan in The Death of Stalin

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as uncomfortable watching a comedy as I did with The Death of Stalin, where master political satirist Armando Iannucci savagely ridicules the Soviet regime while constantly reminding the audience that it was built on torture, sexual violence and murder. However, this uneasiness is part of its strength and it’s a timely reminder of the dangerousness and destructiveness of men who crave power.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

Films I loved in May 2015

8 June 2015
Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road

One of the most exhilarating action films in a very long time, Mad Max: Fury Road keeps plotting and CGI to a minimum in order to deliver one inventive action sequence after the other in what is basically a giant chase scene that evokes the finale of Mad Max 2 (my favourite of the series). It is also a thematically rich film, presenting a nightmarish vision of the patriarchy at its most grotesque, destructive and possessive, building on a lot of the perverse iconography of the previous films. Tom Hardy makes the iconic Max Rockatansky character his own, but the film belongs to Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa and both actor and character more than earn the right to be front and centre of the film. Director George Miller proves just how smart, progressive and  well-crafted action films can be. It’s going to be hard settling for anything less for a very long time.

Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb and Oscar Isaac as Nathan in Ex Machina

Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb and Oscar Isaac as Nathan in Ex Machina

One of the keys to what makes Ex Machina such an enthralling film is how deftly it changes focus thematically from being a Blade Runner-style musing on what it means to be human, to something closer to The Stepford Wives. A futuristic spin on the Bluebeard fairy tale, Ex Machina is a parable about the industrialised commodification of the female body, blending imagery that is both sensual and uncanny to constantly challenge the gaze that the audience have brought to the film. After writing so many great and varied science fiction films for a little over a decade, it’s exciting to see Alex Garland emerge as such a confident director. The cast is excellent, but Oscar Isaac really stands out as the manipulative and passive-aggressive Nathan – a hipster post-gamergate variation of the Alpha Male misogynist. This is a rich and smart film that is designed to provoke contemplation well after the end titles have finished.

Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders and Kristen Stewart as Valentine in Clouds of Sils Maria

Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders and Kristen Stewart as Valentine in Clouds of Sils Maria

Both accessible and ambiguous Clouds of Sils Maria is a multilayered film that references everything from German mountaineering films to contemporary superhero films; weather formations to philosophy. Similar to Birdman (despite being very different films) it’s about an older actor trying to accept the fickle and ruthless nature of the film industry, and includes debates about high versus low art, the pursuit of legitimacy, and the blurring of fiction and reality. Easily one of my favourite Olivier Assayas films, it features Juliette Binoche as Maria, a woman appearing as a different character in a remake of the film that once made her famous, with Chloë Grace Moretz playing the rising star who has been cast to play her original role. Both Binoche and Moretz are excellent, but the real star of the film is Kristen Stewart as Maria’s loyal and protective personal assistant, who also acts as confidant, friend, symbolic daughter and symbolic lover to Maria.

The Tribe

The Tribe

Although The Tribe only received a handful of screenings in Melbourne rather than a full theatrical release, I couldn’t not mention it. A Ukrainian film set in a specialised boarding school for young people who are deaf, the characters only communicate in sign language and there are no subtitles. The result is something I found quite liberating as the meaning of nearly all the scenes was communicated to the audience without redundant dialogue. The film style adapts to the film’s unique concept so that most shots are medium shots done in long takes in order to show the characters’ entire bodies, thus allowing the full range of body language to be expressed. Key events also occur during the film that are only possible if the characters are deaf. A tough and sometimes extremely confronting film about tribal behaviour, institutionalisation, exploitation and violence, I found this a mesmerising experience.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Film review – Never Let Me Go (2010)

21 March 2011
Never Let Me Go: Ruth (Keira Knightley), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)

Ruth (Keira Knightley), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)

Early in Never Let Me Go, the seemingly privileged English boarding school children learn what it is that makes them different. It’s not a moment that is presented as a dramatic twist but as a matter-of-fact delivery of information. The children in the film learn about who they are in the same way that the audience and the readers of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel learn; through the non-sensationalised confirmation of a suspicion that we all strongly harboured but had hoped would not be true. The approach and early reveal of the concept that makes Never Let Me Go a sort of alternative-history film is one of the indications that it is not a science-fiction film but a deeply beautiful and melancholic drama. The concept is not even really used to facilitate the exploration of ‘what if?’ type issues that characterise more philosophical science-fiction texts. Instead, Never Let Me Go is about the sad love triangle between Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), three of the children who must face life from a very different perspective to the rest of us.

Ishiguro’s novel was told entirely from Kathy’s point-of-view and the prose reflected the fact that the events she was describing came from her memories. The film maintains this reflective approach but naturally some narrative details are omitted, others are condensed and others are made more explicit. With so much consideration for the way film functions as a visual art form that is distinctively different from literature, Never Let Me Go is an extremely impressive exercise in the adaptation of a novel that if merely reduced to its plot points would have not been terribly interesting cinema. Instead, the audience is left feeling the same sensations that were created by the novel and this makes the film an extremely successful adaptation. The atmosphere, tone and overall meaning of the novel are preserved through the film’s performances and visual style.

Never Let Me Go: Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)

Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)

Director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) helms the film and with the aid of writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later…) fleshes out Kathy, Tommy and Ruth on screen. In the novel Ishiguro beautifully captured the idea that the trio never truly emotionally developed as adults and that their limited world-view forever possessed a childlike quality. The film’s strategic use of dialogue and its strategic omission of dialogue maintains this childlike quality with the actors then also bringing so much poignancy to their roles. As the less sympathetic character Ruth, Knightley gets less opportunity to shine but certainly holds her own. However, Mulligan and Garfield are astonishingly good and provide several heart shattering moments in just a glance. The combination of childlike wonder, hopeful curiosity and sad realisations that the pair bring to Never Let Me Go is incredibly moving.

However, what truly makes Never Let Me Go such a wonderful adaptation and film in its own right, is the glorious visual style that captures the mood of gentle melancholy. Adam Kimmel’s cinematography is an extraordinary accomplishment with its shots of the mist filled English landscape drenched in radiant light. In fact, the lighting and camera positioning throughout Never Let Me Go is close to perfect with its balance of warm light and foggy landscapes capturing the characters’ spark of life that bursts through the gloom of prewritten destiny. Rachel Portman’s score further emphasises the tender sorrow underpinning the film.

Never Let Me Go: Tommy (Andrew Garfield)

Tommy (Andrew Garfield)

Never Let Me Go is a remarkable film that may frustrate audiences expecting a science-fiction story or some book lovers who like their adaptations direct and literal. However, its potentially niche appeal will likely only enhance the love that its admirers have for it because of the special and almost fragile quality that it possesses. Far from being a grand morality tale, Never Let Me Go is an impressionist work that takes its grim scenario to facilitate a beautiful and satisfyingly melancholic story of mortality, destiny, love and loss.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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