Films I loved in November 2016

30 November 2016

Amy Adams as Dr Louise Banks in Arrival

I’ve admired the French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve for some time now, even when I haven’t completely embraced all aspects of some of his films, so I approached Arrival with cautious anticipation. It has turned out to be one of my favourite films this year. Arrival belongs to the long tradition of science-fiction that provides a potent political allegory, in this case it is one of the less common alien-themed films that argues for social cohesion rather than promoting fear of outsiders. It also belongs to the hard science-fiction traditional of seriously exploring its premise, in this case the implications and practicality behind communicating with aliens. It also belongs to the more philosophical tradition where its premise is used to explore more abstract concepts such as language, communication, memory and time. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s a very emotional and personal story driven by the film’s protagonist, linguistics professor Dr Louise Banks played by Amy Adams in one or two outstanding performances from her in a film released this month.


Amy Adams as Susan Morrow in Nocturnal Animals

The other film this month featuring Amy Adams at the top of her game is Nocturnal Animals, the second feature film by the multi-talented Tom Ford. The story-within-a-story structure and ambiguous ending demands that the audience ask themselves how the fictional neo-western revenge story being read by Adam’s character, art gallery owner Susan Morrow, relates to her own stylish neo-noir story of lost love and bitterness. I was captivated by all aspects of the film and I’m still wrestling with its themes of revenge, catharsis, suffering and finding meaning through art (or perhaps more troubling, the inability of art to do anything more than symbolise and reflect).


Hayley Squires as Katie Morgan and Dave Johns as Daniel Blake in I, Daniel Blake

In I, Daniel Blake director Ken Loach along with long-term collaborator screenwriter Paul Laverty do what they do best by delivering a moving and angry film about inequality, poverty and social injustice. The Kafkaesque scenario of a man being made to look for work to maintain his benefits despite being told he is unfit for work will only seem implausible or exaggerated to those who have never fallen on hard times. This is one of Loach’s best films and the scene in the food bank is one of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced in a film this year.


Sasha Lane as Star and Shia LaBeouf as Jake in American Honey

American Honey showcases everything Andrea Arnold excels at: seamlessly combining professional and non-professional actors, creating visual intimacy and naturalism, and underscoring the energetic ‘in the moment’ feel of the film with class and social commentary. Newcomer Sasha Lane is a revelation as the 18-year-old Star who joins up with a group of young travelling salespeople who like to party and express their pursuit of the American Dream through motivation business rhetoric and hiphop lyrics.

Joe Alwyn

Joe Alwyn as Billy Lynn in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Unfortunately I didn’t get to see Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk projected at 120 frames per second or in 3D, but I still got the sense through its use of sound, editing and camera positioning of how this off-kilter film was experimenting with a new style of heightened character subjectivity. The way Lee collapses the disorientating spectacle of soldiers being used as stage decoration during a football halftime show with Lynn’s (newcomer Joe Alwyn) intruding memories of battle is captivating and disturbing, providing a powerful critique of the treatment and exploitation of young men sent off to war.


Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander and Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I more or less enjoyed the Harry Potter films, but by no means would I consider myself a fan. So I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a new prequel franchise directed by David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter films. The beautifully realised 1930s New York setting and inventive action sequences certain helped to win me over, but this is a strong character driven film with timely themes about persecution and the folly of making sweeping generalisations about groups of people (or creatures).


Ella Havelka in Ella

Douglas Watkin’s Australian documentary Ella, about dancer Ella Havelka, is a warm and and inspiring film that through its story of personal accomplishments explores issues of cultural and personal identity. Havelka is a compelling and likeable subject with a fascinating background as a young girl from the country town of Dubbo, whose passion for dance lead her to learn ballet, but also to train with the acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre, before becoming the first Indigenous dancer to join the Australian Ballet.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Film review – Life of Pi (2012)

3 January 2013
Life of Pi

Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma)

The visual pleasures delivered by Ang Lee’s Life of Pi are so immense that it is difficult to believe the source material was a 2001 blockbuster novel of the same name, by author Yann Martel. In an era of filmmaking where big event films seem to be released almost once a week Life of Pi stands out for delivering genuine spectacle and awe. Digital, 3D and CGI technologies may have once impressed audiences simply by being present in a film, but now it takes true mastery of cinematic style to dazzle keen cinema enthusiasts rather than just placating the casual cinema goers who are looking to pass the time.

Lee is not showing off the new cinematic technology, but using it to deliver emotionally engaging spectacle. The 3D boasts some of the most impressive depth-of-field to date, but otherwise key sequences have an almost stripped back feel to them. Major scenes unfold with neither heavy signposting nor shock tactics. The editing is restrained so that the onscreen action never becomes incoherent while at the same time not drawing attention to itself through excessive long takes. Music cues are strategically held back to complement the emotional response elicited from the audience rather than coax it.  Life of Pi is not a film asking to be marvelled at, it is a film that sutures you into its beauty and excitement without you even realising it.

The narrative and style of Life of Pi is heavily indebted to magic realism, where elements traditionally associated as being outside known reality are incorporated seamlessly into the text. In cinema such a technique is often used to heighten the way character subjectivity is expressed as well as suggesting the distorted nature of memory. Life of Pi uses magic realism to do both these things, but not to suggest some kind of interior reality or to comment on the nature of perception, but to overtly create an alternate reality in contrast to what is commonly accepted as known reality. This dynamic is then extended to comment on the nature of religion and how people relate to it.

After a lengthy prologue to establish Pi as a character, who is played by Suraj Sharma for the majority of the film, the main action takes place on a lifeboat adrift at sea. As the sole survivor of a shipping disaster, Pi is stranded with a small collection of animals from his father’s zoo; most notably a full-grown tiger named Richard Parker. Told in flashback by a much older Pi (Irrfan Khan) there are two versions of what happens to Pi during his time at sea. One version is magical, takes up the majority of the film and is told predominantly with the film’s stunning visuals. The other version is far bleaker and only spoken during a scene that takes less than five minutes. It’s not difficult to see which version the film privileges.

Similar to Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002) – in a scene that playful paraphrases John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – where the audience is directly told ‘When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend’, Life of Pi favours the legend. Furthermore, it depicts the power of storytelling as an explanation for the attraction toward religious belief, in what could easily be mistaken as the film taking a pro-religious stance. By presenting the comforting way that stories can makes sense of the world around us, Life of Pi demonstrates the allure of religion. The film doesn’t necessarily endorse the type of religious belief/storytelling that it gloriously depicts, but it reveals how attractive it is and how under some circumstances it is completely necessary. In this regard the film offers a very sophisticated and compassionate understanding of the importance of faith to some people.

As somebody enamoured with three different faith systems, Pi as a child is often in conflict with his pragmatic father who represented science, medicine and modernity. A key conflict is when the pair argue about the nature of Richard Parker – is the tiger an animal who only acts on instinct or does it have a soul? Cold pragmatism tells us one thing while a strong spiritual belief tells us something else. This tension is explored throughout most of the film, most interestingly through the visuals depicting the natural world. Nature is continually represented as something both beautiful and dangerous. So many moments of visual wonder are then contrasted with reminders that the natural world can be indifferent and cruel, even during an extended dream/hallucination sequence where the film visually provides an all-things-are-connected type message. The repeated motif of figures floating in crystal clear water that reflect the sky so vividly that the figures seem to be drifting in space suggests that humanity is part of a bigger whole, but also that every one of us is ultimately alone.

Nature as beautiful or nature as indifferent, bleak facts or magical stories, science or faith, connected or alone, instinct or animals with souls – these are the dynamics explored by every aspect of Life of Pi. Even though the film ultimately favours a magical version of events, certainly in relation to what happens to Pi, it still comes with two important lines of dialogue towards the start of the film designed to keep things in perspective: ‘Decide for yourself what you’ll believe’ and ‘Don’t let the spectacle and pretty lights fool you.’

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Revolutionary Road (2008)

22 January 2009
Revolutionary Road

Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet)

The key line of dialogue in Revolutionary Road, the new film by director Sam Mendes, is spoken by John Givings, a mentally ill mathematician who features in two keys scenes from the film. When John first meets Frank and April Wheeler and identifies their desire to escape from suburbanite conformity he remarks, “Plenty of people are onto the emptiness but it takes real guts to notice the hopelessness”. This line comes during the first part of this film about 1950s middle class American life. The Wheelers are a young couple who have decided to ditch their dull and bland lives to move to Paris in order to escape from their self imposed comfort zone. The idea is that April Wheeler will work instead of playing the part of reluctant homemaker and Frank Wheeler will attempt to discover what it is he really wants to do in life, rather than waste away in a meaningless office job. However, as their plan to escape to a new life is set in motion fears, anxieties and the trappings of their secure routine lifestyle begin to threaten that plan.

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