Films I loved in December 2018

20 December 2018
Roma

Roma

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a brilliant fusion of personal storytelling with broader observations on race, class and gender with it’s stunningly photographed story of a maid working for a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s. It’s a slow burn drama that invites the audience into the inner world of the characters, making its ability later in the film to quietly devastate, all the more profound. A film of both sensitivity and unflinching honesty, it left me trembling long after the final credits rolled.

Climax

Climax

Climax delivers what audiences have come to expect from a Gaspar Noé film with its large offerings of drug fuelled transgressions, as a party for a troupe of contemporary dancers becomes increasingly nightmarish thanks to the LSD-spiked punch. It’s also the film where Noé displays the closest he has come to restraint, so that rather than being simply grim, the film’s hallucinogenic descent into hell is an exhilarating rush of black humour, astonishing dance choreography and gleefully vicarious nastiness.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME

Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel and Richard E Grant as Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? could have been a lighthearted it’s-funny-because-it’s-true film about the literary hoax committed by author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in New York in the early 1990s, but instead it’s a sweetly melancholic tale about failure, ostracisation and disappointment. While the stakes aren’t as high as they are in Midnight Cowboy, it has much in common with that 1969 classic, as it’s similarly a beautifully acted, heartfelt drama about how a friendship against the odds helped endure hardship.

First Reformed

Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller in First Reformed

Ethan Hawke is outstanding as a priest spiralling into destructive despair in First Reformed, the enticingly intense new film by writer/director Paul Schrader who has long explored the psyches of damaged and disturbed men. The starkness and existentialism evoke the early 1960s spiritual films of Ingmar Bergman, but this is nevertheless a distinctively contemporary and American work that captures the palpable dread of losing faith in the 21st century. Released in Australia on home entertainment.

THE FAVOURITE

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite

The Favourite is a sort of All About Eve for contemporary audiences, but set in 1708 and loosely based on the love/power triangle between Anne, Queen of Great Britain (Olivia Colman), and two women who competed for her affection. While a lot more grounded than director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous films, there is still a sense of heightened absurdity brought to the style and narrative, which effectively enhances the film’s wicked sense of humour and biting social satire about political power and the patriarchy.

Cold War

Joanna Kulig as Zula and Tomasz Kot as Wiktor in Cold War

Cold War is a classic story of an impossible love affair that plays across four decades of 20th century Europe, where two lovers are continually thwarted by the dehumanising and long-lingering effects of war, but are still continually drawn together, often through the overwhelming power of music. Based on the experiences of writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski’s actual parents, this is a bittersweet personal reflection on the recent past that is romantic and bleak, nostalgic and sobering.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

Film review – Gravity (2013)

2 October 2013
Gravity: Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)

Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)

In his 1986 article ‘The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’ Tom Gunning looks at the power of early cinema to ‘show something’. That is, to break the illusion of reality that would come to dominate narrative cinema to instead offer something visual for the audience to marvel at. Gravity fits within Gunning’s ‘cinema of attractions.’ It encompass both the traditions of the films by the Lumière brothers, where the marvels of the modern age were displayed on-screen, and that of Georges Méliès who provided the kind of magical illusions that were only possible through cinema.

Gravity delivers a display of modern technology that leaves the viewer breathless from the experience and marvelling at the craftsmanship behind it. The beauty and emotional engagement that comes from watching Gravity is not just due to being invested with the drama on screen, but by also being aware of how skilfully the filmmakers have constructed the spectacle.

The basic story that is present in Gravity functions as a subservient element that facilitates the visual magic of the film. As Gunning says in relation to Méliès’s 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon, ‘The story simply provides a frame upon which to string a demonstration of the magical possibilities of the cinema.’ And in keeping with the idea that the cinema of attractions breaks the illusion of reality, the narrative used in Gravity relies on recognisable tropes and archetypes.

Gravity is a survival-against-the-odds story where a disaster occurs and then one thing after the other threatens the survival of the characters. Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is an engineer on her first mission into space and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is an astronaut on his final mission. The rookie and the veteran are ‘shipwrecked’ in space where everything that could go wrong does go wrong. It sounds simplistic, but this rudimentary narrative and stock characters are designed to never overwhelm the focus of the film, which are its groundbreaking visuals.

Director Alfonso Cuarón has demonstrated a flair for visual style on his previous films, but in 2006’s narrative driven dystopian science fiction Children of Men he displays a remarkable command of special effect heavy long takes. As with Children of Men, the extended long takes in Gravity cannot conceivably have been filmed in a single take and are likely to have been created through composite elements. However, the end results are seamless and powerful, enthralling the viewer by holding tension and energy on-screen, and somehow also captivating them with the technical wizardry.

Furthermore, Cuarón creates the outer space setting with remarkable aptitude. Whether computer generated, models, sets or a combination of several visual effect techniques, all the space hardware looks tangible and moves in a way that adheres to the physics of outer space or at least maintains a plausible suspension of disbelief.

While many filmmakers in the past have applied sound effects to scenes set in space, Cuarón works brilliantly within the limitations of space not actually having any sound. Instead, the audience only hears the sounds from within the characters’ spacesuits, which creates an eerie urgency. As chaos occurs in the soundless vacuum of space, all that can be heard is the increasingly heavy breathing and panicked voices of the characters inside their suits.

Perhaps the greatest technical accomplishment is how Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use the weightless environment to its full potential. The extent to which cinema has been able to convey visual depth has always been limited, although innovators throughout cinematic history have continually found ways to convey cinema space beyond the surface of the screen by using deep focus, zooms, tracking shots and more recently 3D. However, Gravity achieves shots that truly liberate cinema from its flat surface in a way that even goes beyond some of the more recent and successful attempts at immersive 3D.

As there is no up, down, left or right in space the camera has complete freedom to travel anywhere. Elements on screen are shot from all 360 degrees and Cuarón’s artistry (or trickery) even allows the camera to go inside the helmets of the characters. In some moments it is even as if the camera has gone inside the characters’ minds to deliver astonishing point-of-view shots. Such shots give the film an emotional and thematic depth. The characters may be based on recognisable types and the narrative is straight-forward, but the combination of Bullock’s and Clooney’s acting along with the masterful visuals means that Gravity is more than just a series of thrills. The links established between the lonely and hostile space environment and the few bits of background information provided concerning the characters means that Gravity is not just about physical survival, but it is also about psychological survival.

Gravity takes the viewer into Dr Ryan Stone’s mind to deliver to the audience the same roller-coaster of emotions that she experiences, which oscillates between despair and euphoria. The music score by Steven Price also contributes to conveying the emotional journey that Stone undergoes, as well as the inclusion of one scene where the film threatens to lurch into incredulity before cleverly snapping back into place to reassure the audience that the film is not taking any narrative shortcuts.

Perhaps most impressive are comparative shots of Stone throughout the film that in one instance have her floating like an unborn child and in another scene shoots her from a low angle to show her standing tall. As well as the balletic quality that Cuarón gives to some of the objects in space, these moments of evolutionary and developmental symbolism are what best visually recall Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, an obvious comparative film to Gravity.

While 2001: A Space Odyssey contains an ambiguous, but nevertheless cynical, message about humanity’s role in the universe and lack of free will, there is something much more triumphant about Gravity. Not only is Gravity a celebration of what cinema in the current era can achieve, but it is a celebration of what humans are capable of; not as all-conquering heroes who have come to tame the final frontier of outer space, but as resourceful and resilient individuals who are wise and humble enough to fear and respect the indifference of the most hostile environment humanity has ever experienced.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013