Films I loved in November 2018

30 November 2018
Shoplifters

Ando Sakura as Shibata Nobuyo, Jyo Kairi as Shibita Shota and Lily Franky as Shibata Osamu in Shoplifters

Shoplifters once again demonstrates writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda’s ability to deliver a warm and leisurely character-driven drama where class and the family unit are gently critiqued without any trace of heavy handedness. The story of a family of petty thieves who take in a young neglected girl to care for as one of their own contains plenty of drama and heartbreak, but it is the sense of humanism and compassion that lingers long after viewing the film that makes it yet another triumph for Koreeda.

The Old Man And The Gun

Sissy Spacek as Jewel and Robert Redford as Forrest Tucker in The Old Man & the Gun

It’s hard to ignore that The Old Man & the Gun is reportedly Robert Redford’s final outing as an actor, as the entire film feels like a homage to his onscreen persona, legacy and the New Hollywood era that helped define him. It’s a fun, sweet and good-natured based-on-a-true story about an elderly gentleman bank robber who finds love. It delivers a loving throwback to the era of counter-culture Hollywood films that celebrated charismatic anti-heroes, where cynicism sat comfortably with star-power charm.

Lean on Pete

Charlie Plummer as Charley in Lean on Pete

Lean on Pete is on the surface a story about a teenage boy bonding with a horse as a response to parental absence, a common theme in films for and about adolescents. In the hands of the masterful British writer/director Andrew Haigh the film is free from sentiment or obvious plot development, and is a sophisticated and subtle character study about the loneliness and quiet despair of a young person in a desperate situation. It’s a slow burn yet mesmerising film that I haven’t stopped thinking about.

Fahrenheit 11:9

Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 11/9

Fahrenheit 11/9 contains a lot less of the levity and stunts that have characterised Michael Moore’s previous works, as it is a much more urgent and angry film. Moore may not present heaps of new information or analysis, but he skilfully and persuasively consolidates a lot of the almost overwhelming details about how Donald Trump’s presidency is both the symptom and cause of the erosion of democracy in the USA. There are some elements of hope, but this is mostly an engaging call-to-arms.

The Children Act

Emma Thompson as Fiona Maye in The Children Act

The main reason to see The Children Act is for Emma Thompson as a British High Court judge contending with her marriage falling apart while she is in the spotlight presiding over a case involving a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witnesses boy refusing a life-saving blood transfusion. Thompson’s incredible performance aside, this is still a compelling and moving film with a thematically rich script that offers a lot for the audience to unpack without feeling didactic.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018
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Films I loved in February 2016

28 February 2016
9

Géza Röhrig as Saul Ausländer in Son of Saul

Son of Saul succeeds on every level. It’s an emotionally devastating drama, which sometimes plays out like a thriller, with a precise focus on one character in a Nazi concentration camp in order to convey the broader trauma and grief of the Holocaust. Its stylistic technique of predominantly filming this character in close-up so that the audience experiences the horrors of the camp through sound and his peripheral vision is confronting and effective. And by making the character one of the death-camp Sonderkommandos, who becomes fixated on a personal act of humanity, the film wrestles with questions of what it takes to survive, when does a noble act in extreme circumstances become reckless or selfish, and how do you measure life and morality when surrounded by death and evil. Son of Saul is a triumph and as the debut feature film by Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, it heralds the arrival of a major new talent.

BROOKLYN

Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn

On the surface Brooklyn seems like a modest film about a young Irish woman who immigrates to New York, USA, in the 1950s to start a new life and ends up torn between two men. While the film very much works as romance film, it is also a stirring tale of personal and cultural identity. The excitement and liberation of new experiences, versus the familiarity and emotional bonds with home are both depicted as powerful motivating forces that are to be wrestled with before making major life decisions. As Eilis, the young woman torn between two countries, two sets of friends, and two potential lovers, Saoirse Ronan delivers a beautiful performance of somebody hungry to experience life with all its uncertainties and difficulties. The result is a gorgeous film about love, home and community.

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Tom Courtenay as Geoff Mercer and Charlotte Rampling as Kate Mercer in 45 Years

Brooklyn left me feeling hopeful about love and companionship with its romantic glow, but 45 Years took all of that away with its portrait of a woman starting to realise that her husband of 45 years has never been as emotionally invested in their marriage as she has. In his debut feature film Weekend writer/director Andrew Haigh proved himself to be a master at using subtle film style, especially camera position, to differentiate between the private and public dynamics of a relationship. In 45 Years Haigh again displays his ability of depicting private and public spaces, and a major incident in the film is framed around the circumstances in which somebody reveals their emotions and how that in turn affects the other person. It allows for a devastating final scene where the cut to the credits is so perfectly timed that all the restrained emotion of the film until that point finally bursts free.

ANOMALISA

David Thewlis (voice) as Michael Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh (voice) as Lisa in Anomalisa

Continuing the theme of doomed relationships, Anomalisa goes one step further to present the world experienced by an unlikeable yet not completely unsympathetic man who has become incapable of forming any type of relationship with anybody at all. While the film’s darkly humorous existentialism is a trademark for writer/director Charlie Kaufman (who shares directorial duties with Duke Johnson) the use of stop-motion puppet animation is both unusual and weirdly inventive in its blandness. However, as the main concept of the film becomes clear so does the rationale for using the animated puppetry, making Anomalisa yet another singular vision by Kaufman that is bitterly funny, uncomfortable and melancholic.

Steve Jobs

Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak and Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs in Steve Jobs

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Steve Jobs is that despite how overtly fictionalised it is, it still delivers a convincing and engaging version of ‘reality’. Structured like a three act play, with each act set right before Jobs is about to launch a major new product, the self contained backstage spaces become a microcosmos for the dramas in Jobs’s life to play out. Across the three different time periods he interacts with the same group of people, moving from being a ruthless, arrogant visionary with a messiah complex to a slightly less ruthless, arrogant visionary with a messiah complex. The combination of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue-heavy script, Danny Boyle’s flamboyant directorial style, the first rate ensemble cast and the setting, give this unconventional biopic the energy of a backstage musical.

Hail, Casar!

Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix in Hail, Caesar!

My favourite film by Joel and Ethan Coen is still their 1991 masterpiece Barton Fink, a Faustian story set in the classical Hollywood studio system where an aspiring young writer trades his integrity, soul and sanity for a shot at the big time. Hail, Caesar! is a sort-of companion piece by the Coens, although set a decade later in the 1950s and much lighter in tone. At the centre of a sprawling narrative that involves a group of Communist writers kidnapping the star of a new Biblical epic, is a fictionalised version of producer and studio ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin. With no shortage of deliberately overt symbolism and references, Mannix is a flawed Christ figure who spends the film taking the sins of the studio on his shoulders, while resisting the temptation of abandoning his flock at the factory of dreams. The Coens manage to have their cake and eat it to with their loving tributes to the films of the classical Hollywood era while also presenting a scathing critique of the studio system as encapsulating the worst aspects of capitalism.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Film review – Weekend (2011)

23 January 2012
Weekend: Glen (Chris New) and Russell (Tom Cullen)

Glen (Chris New) and Russell (Tom Cullen)

A first glance an English film about a relationship between two young gay men, one of whom lives in a council estate apartment, invites comparisons to films such as My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985) and Beautiful Thing (Hettie Macdonald, 1996). The sexuality of the two men in Weekend and their developing relationship is the foremost focus of the film, while the lower socio-economic setting is recognisably that of an English kitchen-sink drama. And yet while not to diminish the significance of earlier films exploring gay identity, Weekend is something of a revelation in its sophisticated yet heartfelt depiction of the brief affair shared by swimming pool attendant Russell (Tom Cullen) and artist Glen (Chris New). For a start, Weekend is neither a coming out story nor a coming-of-age film. The characters – and presumably a lot of the target audience – are beyond such narratives. Instead the film looks at the shifting needs, desires and attitudes experienced by Russell and Glen during their affair.

Visually writer/director Andrew Haigh creates a strong tension between the different ways Russell and Glen present themselves in public compared to how they express themselves privately. Weekend alternates between mostly static long and medium shots of the characters in public spaces, such as nightclubs, bars and motorways, with intimate handheld close-ups of just their faces, to capture moments of private conversation and intimate body language. This is further enhanced by the sound design where the noises that the audience hears in the long and medium shots are those heard by Russell. This technique indicates how Russell experiences a private life (suggested by the sound design) that is different to his public life (suggested by the long and medium shots). Glen, on the other hand, is more open about expressing his sexuality so doesn’t separate his private and public life in the way he interacts with the world. Such themes are further developed as the pair debate what it means to live as a gay man, to what extent do some people still have difficultly understanding gay sexuality and to what extent is that their problem. One of the many joys of Weekend is seeing such complex issues being discussed so frankly and honestly by characters who are most qualified to discuss them.

An extension of the perception theme is in the film’s commentary on the way straight audiences respond to homosexuality. Many previous films depicting gay sexuality, especially the ones that aren’t exclusively pitched at gay audiences, have historically shielded away from actually showing gay sex. Films such as Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993), Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) and Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008) are commendable for their part in introducing gay narratives to wider audiences, but they were still extremely coy about showing the physical side of male same-sex relations in a way that films about straight couples are not. In Weekend this issue is scrutinised when Russell questions Glen about his art project, which involves making recordings of previous lovers describing how they met and then eventually had sex. Russell – who keeps a private typed diary as a contrast to Glen’s public recordings – argues that gay men don’t like talking about sex publicly and straight people don’t want to hear it; hence, the absence of expressions of gay sexuality in popular culture.

The debate about Russell’s art project can clearly be applied to Weekend itself, and the film does possess a fascinating self-reflexivity in the way it questions how it will be received. This self-awareness also reveals just how considered Haigh has been in the way he directs the film’s sex scenes. At one point Glen half jokingly mentions that the only audience for art expressing gay sexuality are gay men who want to see cocks. Haigh therefore avoids showing cocks and overtly pans the camera just above the waistline to draw attention to his deliberate decision to defy expectations. By visually removing such an obvious symbol of male sexuality, but by still suggesting it so as not to deny its significance, the sex scenes contain a rawness, frankness and explicitness without ever being graphic or indulgent. The result is several scenes where sexual acts express the physical desire and emotional connection of the characters in a way that is rarely seen in cinema of any kind.

It would be a shame if focusing on the stylistic techniques and themes of Weekend suggested that it is a didactic message film, because it is ultimately a very moving love story. The intensity that comes from the film is a result of its willingness to intelligently engage in issues of sexuality, identity and representation, not despite it. The film’s biggest triumph is one of its final shots that begins as a public wide shot and then slowly zooms into a tightly framed private close-up. It signals an important final moment of character development and delivers a powerful emotional surge for the audience. During the zoom, off-screen characters yell taunts at the pair and Russell’s glare at them is almost directed straight at the audience to confront us with our own potentially unevolved or childish uncomfortableness with gay sexuality. Nevertheless, the pair have their private moment in the public space, although in a brilliant masterstroke Haigh drowns out a piece of key dialogue with on-screen noise. It’s a similar technique to the one used by Sofia Coppola in Lost in Translation (2003), but in Weekend it has more resonance due to the play on private/public space throughout the film that results in a moment so private that not even the audience get to fully share it.

Weekend is one of the most impressive films ever made about love. Haigh’s confidence and intelligence as a filmmaker, has resulted in a sincere and emotionally engaging film. At first glance Weekend seems to have much in common with My Beautiful Laundrette and Beautiful Thing, but the film it really does evoke is a far older English romance/drama about social conventions. That film is David Lean’s 1945 masterpiece Brief Encounter and Weekend is arguably its modern day reincarnation.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012