Films I loved in June 2015

5 July 2015
Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) and Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) in Inside Out

Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) and Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) in Inside Out

The 15th film by Pixar Animation Studios, Inside Out is not only a huge return to form after the recent disappointments, but one of the studios best films yet. It’s an extremely entertaining and sophisticated film that physicalises the inner workings of an 11-year-old girl’s mind while she is going through a period of emotional upheaval. Similar to Toy Story 3 it taps directly into the universal experience of growing up where the way we think and relate to the world changes, and because of those changes there is a degree of transformation and loss as we let go of things we cherished as children. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting, and the film celebrates the complex emotions that work within all of us as we get older and discover that it is okay and even useful to sometimes feel sad.

Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd

Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd

Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd is an excellent example of how to tease out the modern aspects of an older text (which itself was very progressive to begin with) in order to make it accessible and relevant for contemporary film audiences. Carey Mulligan is possibly even better than she has been before with her outstanding portrayal of Bathsheba Everdene, expressing a wealth of emotions and thoughts in the slightest gesture or expression. The decision to focus the film on Bathsheba’s friendship with Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) – one of three suitors who offer her marriage – is a wise one and allows a wonderful undercurrent of unresolved sexual tension to simmer throughout the film.

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy does exactly what I like a biopic to do, which is to focus on a specific period of time or incident (in this case two periods of time) to give an impression of the person rather than attempting to portray their entire life. In this case we get a snap shot of Beach Boys leader and co-founder Brian Wilson through the period in the 1960s when he was recording Pet Sounds and the period in the 1980s where he met his second wife while under the dubious care of a psychotherapist. Both Paul Dano and John Cusack are excellent portraying Wilson, and the film is extremely good at conveying Wilson’s fragile mental condition, especially through the use of sound. A surprisingly moving film with a perfect edit to cut from the final scene to the credits.

Raúl Arévalo as Pedro Suárez and Javier Gutiérrez as Juan Robles in Marshland

Raúl Arévalo as Pedro Suárez and Javier Gutiérrez as Juan Robles in Marshland

The big surprise for me this month was the Spanish murder mystery Marshland, set in the Spanish deep south during the country’s transition to democracy after the end of Franco’s fascist dictatorship. While mood and stylistic comparisons to the television series True Detective are very much justified, it is also thematically aligned to the television series Top of the Lake as well as recent films The Secret in their Eyes and Mystery Road (and the many other television and film detective narratives that have come previously). All are texts where the central murder investigation uncovers dark and disturbing issues that lie at the very heart of the community involved. This is intelligent, engaging and fast-paced storytelling that is enjoyable as both a cynical whodunnit and as a parable for a dark period of recent Spanish history.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

And finally, prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney once more impresses with Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief where he investigates the history of Scientology and by using extensive testimonials from many former members presents a compelling and convincing critique of how it operates today. Of particular interest is how the film explores the relationship between Scientology and Hollywood; most disturbing is the evidence presented concerning the way the organisation attempts to silence and discredit anybody who speaks out about them or chooses to leave.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

On a quick personal note, I was absolutely delighted to be invited back onto the excellent monthly podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates for their June 2015 episode where I got to discuss the films of David Lynch.

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MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 4

25 July 2011

Day 3 of MIFF, Sunday 24 July, was simply wonderful. I saw five films and loved them all. Let’s get into it:

Surviving Life

Surviving Life

All the years of study I spent reading and writing about psychoanalytic theory and surrealism paid off when I saw Surviving Life. This self-described ‘psychoanalytic comedy’ by the Czech filmmaker and animator Jan Švankmajer  marvellously collapses the boundaries between the dream world and the waking world. While Švankmajer has clearly been a big influence on Terry Gilliam, among others, the cutout photographic animation style in Surviving Life recalls Gilliam’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus animations and the theme of the protagonists finding the ideal woman in his dreams strongly evokes Gilliam’s Brazil. Nevertheless, this is a distinctively Švankmajer film and possibly his most accessible feature film to date. I particularly loved the scenes where portraits of Freud and Jung get into a fight. A fun and inventive film with lots of great visual gags.

I’ve always been fascinated by Harry Belafonte despite knowing very little about him. He’s naturally one of the great American entertainers, particularly because of his singing, but it’s what I heard about his activism that’s always made me want to find out more. Fortunately the documentary Sing Your Song extensively covers Belafonte’s remarkable work in the civil rights movement that continues right up until today. I am now in total awe of the man. As well as featuring his humanitarian work, Sing Your Song also chronicles Belafonte’s career and how he used his celebrity status to become a force of progressive change. He’s clearly a passionate and inspirational man and this film channels that energy.

[EDIT 18/4/2012: Read a full review of Sing Your Song]

Life in a Day

Life in a Day

Screening at MIFF on the one year anniversary of the original filming day on 24 July 2010, Life in a Day is a montage of clips shot by people all over the world who were asked to film something that represented their lives. The resulting film, assembled by Kevin Macdonald from 4,500 hours of footage, uses very effective rhythmic and graphic editing to convey the passing of a single day for people all over the world. A diverse collection of clips are used from very raw amateur footage, exhilarating first person shots and more professionally produced clips. The end result is an effective tribute to humanity, which doesn’t shy away from also reminding us of the pain, cruelty and fear that also exists in the world. Before Life in a Day was screened we were shown We Were Here, which is a similar Australian project but on a much smaller scale and unfortunately with much less diversity in the clips selected.

The second Alex Gibney documentary screening at MIFF this year is Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. It’s a film that makes an excellent companion piece to Inside Job, which also examined the conditions leading up to the GFC, the high class escort agencies connected to the financial elite and the extraordinary measures that the people who profiteer from high level white collar crime will go to in order to protect the system they have created. Gibney makes a very strong case that suggests Spitzer’s sexual misdemeanours received an unprecedented and unusually extreme level of scrutiny, most likely due to his antagonism with Wall Street and some very powerful Republicans.

13 Assassins

13 Assassins

MIFF never quite feels right unless it contains at least one film by the insanely prolific Takashi Miike. This year it has two and I went for 13 Assassins, which compared to some of Miike previous films is relatively tame simply for the reason that it sticks to the conventions of one genre. In this case it is the historical samurai genre, with heavy nods to the films of Akira Kurosawa. After establishing the true evilness of a powerful young lord, 13 Assassins quickly endears us to the samurai who are given the task of killing him. Similar to the structure of Seven Samurai, the first half of 13 Assassins focuses on the recruitment of samurais and their planning while the second half is the lengthy battle where all the tension from the build-up is paid off in full. The action and spectacle in this film is outstanding making it one of Miike’s best films to date.

MIFFhaps
The audience for 13 Assassins was a lot of fun and included a girl sitting somewhere behind me who clearly felt every thrust of the sword in the film. Her very vocal gasps came during five minute intervals during the slower first half of the film and were then every 15 seconds during the long battle sequence during the second half. The mood was momentarily threatened just after a scene when one of the lead characters meets an untimely demise and some genius of narrative theory decided to share with those of us sitting around him, ‘I saw that coming’. Bravo. Would you like some kind of special merit badge? Then there was the guy sitting in the middle of the fifth row, who stood up during the film to take off his jacket. Apparently disrobing while seated is passé and it’s better to tease the entire cinema with the promise of a strip routine instead.

I should also mention that an article titled ‘Cinephiles buff for marathon’, which appeared in The Sunday Age, includes several quotes from me about the blog-a-thon where I possibly sound a bit too critical about the motivations for seeing heaps of films at the festival. I probably should have put more emphasis on the positive side of this venture, such as mentioning that one of the attractions of seeing so many films is that it is glorious to be so fully immersed in the festival experience. It’s a good way to see films with people who for the most part know how to be respectful to other audience members in a cinema. The final motivation for seeing so many films is the angst that you may miss out on some masterpiece that you’ll never get an opportunity to see again. Melbourne is an amazing city for cinema and the majority of things worth seeing do resurface, but not always and not always in a cinema. I know three of my highlights from MIFF last year, Son of BabylonLourdes and Poetry, still haven’t shown up.

Show us your MIFF
I’ve known Kate McCurdy both professionally and personally for about 18 months now. She’s the Marketing Manager for Sharmill Films and pretty much guaranteed to be at any screening or film-related event that is worth knowing about. Kate is also the biggest Mike Leigh fan that I have ever met. She refuses to single out any of Leigh’s films so instead tells me to put All the President’s Men down as her all-time favourite film. Kate’s seeing 60 films at MIFF this year and is most looking forward to Submarine. Her advice to surviving MIFF is to not be afraid to walk out of a film that you really aren’t enjoying or engaging with. As Sharmill are distributing Le Havre, Kate feels a bit embarrassed about listing it as her favourite film at the festival so far, but she is genuine and I can vouch for her sincerity! Her all time favourite MIFF experience was simply being in the same room as Quentin Tarantino when he was a festival guest in 2009. Her worst MIFFhap was witnessing a brawl in a cinema last year during a screening of I Killed My Mother. Kate has no idea what the brawl was about, but I’m dying to find out.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 3

24 July 2011
Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

One of the most popular versions of the fairy tale that Beauty and the Beast was adapted from, was used to instruct young women in how to leave behind the authority of the father to succumb to the authority of her husband, even if it is through an arranged marriage to a much older, undesirable and frightening man. Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film does little to challenge this reading, but the gorgeous production design and magical special effects go a long way in making it palatable. In fact, this film is such a visual delight that I gave up worrying about ideological considerations and just embraced its beautiful and influential dreamlike imagery. Plus, there’s lot of coy sexually suggestive dialogue and symbolism to enjoy. And not a single teapot sings.

Alex Gibney has become one of my favourite documentary filmmakers, especially with Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008). In Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place I really liked his approach of simply editing together footage from Kesey’s famous ‘Merry Pranksters’ bus trip across America, overlaid by commentary-style narration from the people of the journey. It reveals more about Beat legend Neal Cassady than it does about Kesey, although a highlight is the sequence where we hear the original recordings of Kesey that were made by the CIA during their notorious LSD trials. It’s a fun film but I wasn’t as fully engaged with its meandering style and don’t feel like I really gained any insight into Kesey and company. However, that may have had a lot to do with my own circumstances during the screening (see MIFFhaps below!)

I Am Eleven

I Am Eleven

Within five minutes into I Am Eleven I was choking back tears and this feeling returned again and again during Genevieve Bailey’s film, which consists of interviews with 11-year-old children from all over the world. I think it was the purity of the film that moved me so deeply. Kids at that age are so articulate, but they still have this  amazing sincerity when talking about their hopes, curiosity, concerns and wonder. Topics the participants discuss include bullying, racism, family, love, religion and the environment. Some of their insights are simply brilliant. I didn’t want this film to end (and I believe many of the stories will continue over at iameleven.com). Bailey has created something on par with the Up series.

I suspect this is not going to be a common reaction and I’ve already encountered one friend who is annoyed at me for feeling this way, but I found Submarine a tedious and derivative indi coming-of-age film that felt like every second quirky film about teenagers that has come out since Rushmore in 1998. I liked all the cast, especially the supporting cast, and recognised the presence of the jokes, but I hardly laughed at all. Maybe if you haven’t seen so many films like this already then you’ll get something out of it.

The Yellow Sea

The Yellow Sea

I finished my day on a high with the enthralling South Korean action/thriller The Yellow Sea. A cab driver (aren’t they always?) who desperately needs money agrees to do a hit for a local gangster that involves being illegally smuggled into South Korea. After a lengthy and tense build up, the film explodes into a series of chase and action sequences as our cab driver gets on the wrong side of the police and two rival gangs. I get so depressed about how easily impressed many audiences are today when it comes to the bland action and spectacle so frequently offered up by Hollywood (looking at you strange, angry Transformers fans). In The Yellow Sea you have excellent plotting and characterisation to give meaning to the carnage. The visceral cinematography, editing and sound design engage with what is happening. Many of the sequences involving our leading character have him vastly outnumbered, but the film’s gritty style makes all the action completely convincing. Hardly any guns feature either, so the weapons of choice are knives and axes. That means there’s a lot of stabbing, cutting and slicing, and the blood does flow. Yeah!

[EDIT 8/12/2011: Read a full review of The Yellow Sea]

MIFFhaps
While watching Magic Trip I was concocting a piece about how I couldn’t focus on the first 30 minutes because the guy next to me seemed more preoccupied eating from two bottomless packets of foodstuff (which he continually alternated between for that continuous rustling sound) and then what seemed like the world’s largest and crispest apple. I did eventually ask him to stop eating and then felt like crap for the next 30 minutes for being such a grump and making him feel bad about something he thought was harmless.

Anyway, something even worse happened. During the final stages of the film when they start to inevitably talk about the downside of LSD and their social experiment, I was overcome with an intense feeling of nausea, cold sweats and dizziness. I was worried I was about to pass out so I somehow got my stuff together and staggered out, missing the end of the film and the Q&A with Alex Gibney. In all likelihood, this was probably the result of eating a very questionable sausage roll the night before and the cinema being unbearably stuffy. However, a part of me wondered if Kesey’s misadventures had triggered something of a flashback inside of me. There was that one night of heavy celebrating after I handed in my thesis…

Show us your MIFF
Considering our long friendship and tendancy to see a lot of films together, it was inevitable that I’d be spending a lot of time at MIFF with film critic, lecturer and filmmaker Josh Nelson. Josh has been coming to MIFF since 1998, is going for around 50 films this year and is most looking forward to Melancholia. Although the festival is in its early days yet, Josh lists The King of Comedy as his highlight so far. Considering Josh’s passion and expertise for the films of Martin Scorsese, this is no huge surprise nor is the fact that Taxi Driver is his all time favourite film, which we both discussed at length on the latest episode of the Triple R film critisticim podcast Plato’s Cave. Josh recommends mixing up the films you are seeing so there are some lighter ones scheduled inbetween the dark and serious ones. His biggest MIFFhap was two years ago seeing the 1971 Japanese documentary Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of War when the sound loss and infrequent subtitles hilariously resulted in frequent walkouts. His best MIFF experience was in 2001 experiencing the visual and aural assault of Ishii Sogo’s speaker-busting Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts. Check out Josh’s recent writing at Philmology.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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DVD review – Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), Region 4, Madman

4 November 2008

The title of this Academy Award winning documentary refers to the fate of an Afghan taxi driver who in 2002 died in the Bagman US detention centre as a result of the torture he endured. The death certificate stated that his death was homicide; the initial army report claimed he died of natural causes.

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