Films I loved in January 2016

31 January 2016
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Jacob Tremblay as Jack Newsome and Brie Larson as Joy Newsome in Room

I’ve been a fan of Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson for a while, but with Room he has made his strongest film to-date. The events are mostly depicted from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy who has never known anything else other than the small room he is locked in with his mother who gave birth to him there. The information about the nature of their situation is carefully revealed so that the film never becomes too harrowing, while at the same time it is always clear what the stakes are. Similar to Abrahamson’s 2012 film What Richard Did, a major plot development halfway through the film results in a dramatic narrative shift, but the overall focus remains on what it is like for a child to experience the world after such a traumatic introduction to it. Parts of this film had me wound up extremely tight with its masterful command of tension while other parts were almost overwhelming with its emotional power.

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Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet and Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird in Carol

Todd Haynes’s ability to make films that challenge traditional film style and narrative structure is only matched by his ability to make films that are seemingly conventional on the surface, but just as provocative, bold and intriguing. Carol is one of his seemingly conventional films with its mannered story of an affair between two women – with significant class and age differences – in New York, USA, in the 1950s. Haynes used the themes and iconography of Douglas Sirk’s melodramas to great effect in his 2002 film Far from Heaven to explore social issues from the same period with a contemporary perspective. In Carol he overtly references David Lean’s 1945 drama Brief Encounter to tell a love story, which similarly plays out in key scenes through glances, gestures and other moments of unspoken communication. Considering the style, era it is set in and themes, Carol‘s supposed conventionality is what makes it so enjoyably unconventional.

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Cemetery of Splendour

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s  Cemetery of Splendour is a suitably dreamlike film, set in and around a make-shift hospital that cares for soldiers who cannot awaken from their sleep. This strange and gentle film does have a narrative, but it’s secondary to the film’s visual and thematic exploration of contrasts such as nature and science, dreaming and being awake, the human world and the spirit world, tradition and modernity. There are moments of sly humour and mysterious intrigue, but suggesting it delivers typical cinematic pleasures would be misleading as the joy of this film is not obvious or easily explained. A sequence where the light slowly changes colour is one of the film’s highlights and no words can do justice to such a sensory moment. The first time I saw Cemetery of Splendour I was exhausted and continually drifted in and out of sleep while sitting in the cinema, which was just as enjoyable a way of watching the film as the second time when I was fully awake and alert!

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Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian and Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes in Spotlight

Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is a suburb ensemble drama about the team of investigative reporters from The Boston Globe who in 2001 uncovered the full scope of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Boston. The appalling nature of the abuse and coverup in other parts of America and the rest of the world, was explored in-depth in Alex Gibney’s 2012 documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, but Spotlight is more focused on the how the team of journalists were able to gain trust, uncover evidence and expose the crimes in a climate where their investigations were largely not welcomed. It is also a fascinating look at just how much technology, communication and journalism has changed in the fifteen years since the film was set. Most impressive is how Spotlight avoids being emotionally overwhelming, but allows characters to express feelings of anger, horror, betrayal and loss at key moments to remind us how high the stakes are.

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Christian Bale as Michael Burry in The Big Short

The energy and sense of controlled chaos that Adam McKay brings to the various  Will Ferrell comedies that he has previously directed can be felt in The Big Short, a comedic drama about the people who foresaw and then effectively bet on the financial crisis of 2007-2008. And yet as much as I have enjoyed many of McKay’s previous films, I did not imagine that he was capable of so skilfully presenting the dry and dull details of the financial market in a way that is this accessible, entertaining and alarming. The Big Short joins the ranks of the growing number of excellent narrative films and documentaries to have emerged over the past few years to draw attention to the blend of greed, predatory behaviour, stupidity and egomania that allowed the global financial crisis to not just happen, but to then let the perpetrators off the hook so they can do it again. We should all be very angry and McKay helps us to feel that.

Bone Tomahawk

Kurt Russell as Sheriff Franklin Hunt in Bone Tomahawk

The western genre is undergoing a curious revival in independent cinema and one of my favourites of the recent batch is Bone Tomahawk, which has been released directly onto home entertainment in Australia. It’s certainly my preferred current western that features Kurt Russell in a slow burn narrative that focuses on the dynamics between a group of characters before culminating in scenes of ultra-violence. Combining the traditional storyline from The Searchers, about the search for a kidnapped white woman, with the graphic horror, psychological anxiety and brutal post-colonial social critique of the cannibal film, Bone Tomahawk is a seamless fusion of genres that completely won me over.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016
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Film review – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

3 March 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesIn the February 2010 edition of the acclaimed UK film criticism journal Sight & Sound, Jonathan Romney wrote about the film festival popularity of what he calls Slow Cinema. Borrowing the name from the Slow Food movement, which in the most general terms is a movement to improve quality of life and environmental sustainability, Slow Cinema is a style of cinema that is slow, mediative and offers an obvious alternative to the dominance of contemporary Hollywood cinema. As Romney explains this poetic cinematic trend is to produce “cinema that downplays event in favour of mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of the temporality”.

While Sight & Sound editor Nick James has warned that Slow Cinema runs the risk of being an all-too-easy to embrace movement of cinematic worthiness that is potentially developing its own set of clichés, there are still key films that deserve the recognition they have received. One such film is the 2010 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winning film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a leading figure in contemporary Slow Cinema.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesThe springboard for the thematic and sensory exploration throughout Uncle Boonmee is the idea that the central titular character is extremely ill and is reflecting back on his life (or lives?) through encounters with a variety of visitors. Thai politics, regional history, Buddhism, social commentary, myth, memory, fantasy, dreams and a deep love for the natural world are entwined to create a rich visual and atmospheric tapestry. Weerasethakul shoots many scenes in low light at dusk to create the sensation of being not fully in the waking world and not fully in the dream world. The half sleep and half waking sensation allows the film to gently meander from Boonmee’s interactions with his family, in whatever shape or form they visit, to the telling of a fable involving popular elements from Thai mythology.

Uncle Boonmee is part of a larger multi-platform art project by Weerasethakul that is titled Primate and focuses on its north-eastern Thai setting, near the border of Laos. While Uncle Boonmee is undoubtedly a personal artistic expression by Weerasethakul, it does contain a degree of political commentary by effectively touching on the violence that occurred in the region in 1965 when the Thai military cracked down on communist sympathisers. However, to a viewer without this background information, the primary purpose for the setting would be to display the beautiful Thai jungles that Boonmee owns a farm in. A characteristic of Slow Cinema is the long lingering shots that really compel the viewer to look, study and notice every detail in frame. Weerasethakul even frequently starts shots before the scenes have actually started – sometimes before the characters have walked into frame – just to treat the audience to the natural beauty appearing on screen. Weerasethakul’s themes of uniting the spirit, animal and human worlds are seamlessly conveyed in his almost neo-romantic depiction of nature.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesHowever, as much as Uncle Boonmee is about life and harmony with nature, it is also about death and the forces that deliver death. The actual physical death of a person is not what is softly mourned in this film, since physical death is simply part of the circle of life, but spiritual death is represented. This spiritual death is hinted at in a number of ways that are widely open to interpretation but one would be Boonmee’s dark dream about the future, represented by still photographs of soldiers. Perhaps the use of frozen stills is also a commentary that even film itself is dying, with Uncle Boonmee being one of the last films on this scale to be actually shot directly onto film. Uncle Boonmee even ends with a vision of two possible futures but both seem empty, especially when compared to the imagery that the film had previously provided to its audience.

Uncle Boonmee is certainly Slow Cinema in the sense that it does evolve slowly and has been designed so that each moment lingers on the screen for the audience to really soak in. However, this is a mesmerising film that is endlessly unexpected, engaging and fascinating even without the cultural context that Weerasethakul is unapologetically drawing from. Weerasethakul is a deeply humanist artist and in this film he is sharing his vision of the world (worlds?) with the audience and it’s a privilege to experience.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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MIFF 2010 Diary: Pre Festival – Part 1

20 July 2010

2010 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF)The 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival is now only a couple of day away so it’s time to start my online diary to cover the event. In the past couple of years I’ve written short capsule reviews of selected films but this year I’ve decided to write up each day in short diary entries to give a better impression of the festival as a whole. There won’t be many (if any) full reviews of general release films coming from me during this time so I apologise to all my non-Melbourne readers in advance.

Booking/planning advice

Most of you have probably already booked your sessions by now but my main advice for attending film festivals it to remember that it is a festival and not a competition. It doesn’t matter how many films you see and trying to cram in too many can destroy the overall experience. Pace yourself and allow time to catch up with fellow cinephiles. Many years ago I did go nuts trying to see four or five films everyday and all I remember was getting very sick, not eating properly and always needing to go to the toilet! All the films blurred into one and it was all a bit miserable.

This year I am doing my best to follow these rules:

  • Three films per day maximum
  • No more than two films back-to-back
  • See only what I want to see – not what I feel I should see
  • If in doubt, scratch whatever is playing at the Greater Union cinemas (because those cinemas contain neither prestige nor comfort and I like cinemas to have at least one of those two elements).

I’ll no doubt break these rules occasionally but at least my intentions are good!

Finally, to help you select your films I’d suggest you check out the list of MIFF films with Australia distributors (and in some cases release dates) on A Little Lie Down; the new blog by film critic and film festival reporter (among many other things) Cerise Howard. I’ve also recently stumbled across a great online MIFF planner by Daniel Sheppard. Not only can you better organise your own MIFF schedule but you can check out what other users, including me, are seeing.

My current dilemma

Scott Pilgrim vs Uncle Boonmee

Scott Pilgrim vs Uncle Boonmee

My only major scheduling conflict at the moment is to do with the recent news that the 2010 Cannes Palme d’Or winning film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is now playing on the final day at the same time as Edgar Wright’s new film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Now Uncle Boonmee is clearly an important film and exactly the sort of film that is best suited to see at a film festival while Scott Pilgrim is getting released in cinemas everywhere less than a week later. It seems like an obvious choice.

However, I’ve seen Uncle Boonmee director’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul previous feature film Syndromes and a Century and although I could appreciate it, it was a very meditative film that was difficult to stay awake during! I’ve been told that Uncle Boonmee is similarly paced and I just don’t know if I can endure that as the final film of a very long festival. Scott Pilgrim on the other hand promises to be tremendous fun and exactly the kind of thing that is a blast to finish on. So, I’m edging towards Scott Pilgrim

For my next post I’ll share some of my top picks for the festival and some thoughts on the films that are playing that I’ve already seen are also on the way.

Thomas

Vote choc top!

Vote choc top!

PS Don’t forget to vote in the very fun popcorn verse choc top poll! I’m a bit alarmed to see that at the time of writing this, popcorn is in the lead. No food should weigh less then the actually money you use to pay for it. Vote choc top: dress in black (it is Melbourne after all) and just accept that you will end up wearing half of it.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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