Films I loved in March 2017

1 April 2017
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Hugh Jackman as Logan in Logan

Despite enjoying the original 2000 X-Men film and its 2003 sequel, I’ve been mostly indifferent to the franchise and its increasingly complicated mythology. So I was pleased to discover that Logan was more-or-less a standalone film that only required a general knowledge of Logan aka Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) backstory. I was then exhilarated to discover that the bleak tone and strong violence allowed for some of the most captivating action sequences I have even seen in a superhero film, but most of all I was won over by the strong characterisation and tonal seriousness that made it the first superhero film to truly stand out from the pack since Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. And while Logan is overt with its western iconography and even directly references Shane, the film the kept on coming to my mind was Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven, which like Logan is a beautiful, bitter and brutal swansong to an onscreen persona.

Clash

Clash

Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab uses a number of cinematic devices in Clash that I often respond well to, including setting the film over a limited period of time and bringing together a diverse group of characters who are then stuck together in single location. Taking place from one afternoon until early morning during the 2013 Egyptian riots, the entire film is set in the back of a police van that is filling up with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and opposing pro-military supporters. While a lot of the film is about the tension within the van between the characters, it also captures the growing instability outside that is witnessed through the van’s barred windows. It’s a sad and angry film about what has happened to the filmmaker’s country, but there are also brief moments of calm and humanity that transcend the divides.

Salesman

Taraneh Alidoosti as Rana in The Salesman

The Salesman once again demonstrates Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s mastery of layered cinematic drama. Various ethical questions are explored as actor/teacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini) becomes increasingly fixated in discovering the truth about what happened to his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) during a traumatic event that occurs early in the film. And as the audience – and Emad – constantly second-guess what took place, we also constantly shift position on how to best respond. Farhadi is able to generate enormous sympathy for his characters, while also being extremely critical of some of their actions. Farhadi’s ability to explore issues of morality within the framework of an engaging dramatic mystery makes him not just an immensely talented filmmaker, but also a deeply humane one.

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Scarlett Johansson as Major in Ghost in the Shell

Based on my limited knowledge of the Japanese manga series Ghost in the Shell (I’ve only previously seen director Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 and 2004 animated films) this new live-action USA variation by director Rupert Sanders is far more focused on using the franchise’s cyberpunk scenario to deliver spectacle rather than explore philosophical questions. Taken then on its own terms, this 2017 film is an exhilarating, beautiful and inventive science-fiction/action film that favourably evokes classics of the genre such as Blade RunnerRoboCop and The Matrix. For once the artificiality of the CGI setting and the uncanny quality of many of the characters works strongly in the film’s favour, but mostly this film continues to showcase Scarlett Johansson as one of the greatest action actors currently working in film.

A Man Called Ove

Rolf Lassgård as Ove in A Man Called Ove

The Swedish film A Man Called Ove is unashamedly a crowd pleaser, but with enough restraint and sincerity to prevent it from ever becoming saccharine or melodramatic. The concept of a grumpy rule-obsessed elderly man who begins to rediscover his humanity is hardly breaking new ground, but the combination of dark humour, and the strong performances by the protagonist and supporting cast, lifts it several notches above similar films. This sad, funny and entertaining film about coping with grief and finding empathy for others is ultimately very sweet.

Angela Davis

Angela Davis in 13th

And finally, while Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th has been available on Netflix for a while now, I only caught up with it this month and I’m extremely glad I did. While specifically examining how mass incarcerations in the USA is a modern manifestation of slavery, it more generally is a history of racism in America. What really struck me is how convincing DuVernay presents evidence to reveal that racism against African-Americans has long been a political and economic construct, which has relied on popular culture to create and reenforce hateful and harmful stereotypes. Often confronting, but always with integrity, this is essential viewing.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017
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Films I loved in February 2014

3 March 2014
Blue Is the Warmest Colour_Adèle Exarchopoulos_Léa Seydoux_2

Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle and Léa Seydoux as Emma in Blue Is the Warmest Colour.

The cinematic highlight for me this month was the mesmerising, intense and emotionally charged Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Mostly shot in close-up and medium close-up, director Abdellatif Kechiche places the audience firmly into the sensory world of a young woman whose entire life becomes consumed by the rush of love and lust of first love. While I am aware not everybody has found the sex scenes in the film to be realistic, the film still succeeds in portraying an emotional reality that for me transcends any perceived errors in factual detail. Blue Is the  Warmest Colour earns its long running time and left me elated, exhausted and devastated in the best possible way.

Zhao Tao as Xiao Yu in A Touch of Sin

Zhao Tao as Xiao Yu in A Touch of Sin

I originally saw A Touch of Sin last year while extremely tired, so I was extremely pleased to see it again during its small run in Melbourne to fully appreciate what a rich and nuanced film it is. Through the telling of four stories inspired by real events that culminated in  acts of violence, director Jia Zhangke presents a damning portrait of contemporary China where  the radical degree in which corporatism flourishes with communism has created brutal social divisions. This is a film rich in allegory with its references to animals and classic wuxia films, but even without fully understanding all the culturally-specific symbolism there is no denying the angry power of this film.

Young Jirô Horikoshi and Giovanni Battista Caproni in The Wind Rises

After such an extraordinary career of mostly writing and directing animated fantasy films, The Wind Rises may seem at first glance to be an odd film for Hayao Miyazaki to announce as his final work. And yet the fictionalised tale of Japanese aeronautical engineer Jirô Horikoshi, whose groundbreaking work in the 1920s onwards would lead to the creation of the long-range fighter aircraft that the Japanese empire would use against the Allies in World War II, contains several characteristics of Miyazaki’s films. This is a film that juxtaposes creativity and imagination with destruction, it expresses the joy of flight and it contains a subtle yet effective anti-war and anti-fascist messages. And without speculating too much on Miyazaki’s personal life, a film about a man who becomes all consumed by his passion to create something of beauty regardless of the consequences, does feel like the work of a reflective soul.

Lindsay Duncan as Meg Burrows and Jim Broadbent as Nick Burrows in Le Week-End

Lindsay Duncan as Meg Burrows and Jim Broadbent as Nick Burrows in Le Week-End

Le Week-End is the fourth film director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi have collaborated on and it’s the third time the pair have used cinema to examine older characters, in particular the love lives and sex lives of older characters. While more  light-hearted than The Mother (2003) and Venus (2006), this film about an English couple on a second honeymoon in Paris is still a bittersweet affair. Within the space of one scene, the affection and warmth between the couple can turn to confronting resentment and anger, making the tone of the film predominantly one of anxiety. There are enough whimsical nods to classic French New Wave films to prevent Le Week-End from being too emotionally gruelling, but this is nevertheless a prickly film that is as much about  regret and missed opportunities as it is about enduring love.


I also enjoyed Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, about a man divorcing his wife and the challenges facing his wife’s new lover. A typically strong family drama  by Farhadi, I was initially a little unsettled by the way the film begins with a focus on one character, who by the end of the film feels like an afterthought as the focus switches to another character. Of course this is a deliberate strategy to present the two characters from the perspective of the central female character who is experiencing one man come into her life as another drifts out. I’m just not completely sure of how effective this technique is, although there is no denying the power of the film’s beautiful and ambiguous final shot.

My enthusiasm for Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée) has waned since I saw it as I increasingly find myself discussing the problems I had with it rather than its many strengths. Nevertheless, I do still think it is an excellent film and while I found some of the characters too broadly defined as specific types, I agree with the consensus that Matthew McConaughey does some of his finest work, I love how the film challenges the motivations of the Food and Drug Administration for why they decided what AIDS treatments they would and wouldn’t approve, and I felt that for the most part the film avoids obvious sentiment.

Finally, I want to mention a couple of great films that have been released on DVD in Australia without getting a full theatrical release. The first is the terrific Canadian kids film (although rated MA) I Declare War where the audience see how the kids who are playing an elaborate war game imagine themselves – not carrying sticks and water bombs, but carrying machine guns and grenades. Part parody of war film conventions, part dark satire of learned behaviour and part critique of cinematic violence, I Declare War is a lot of fun.

The other film recently released on DVD that I want to mention is the heartbreaking beautiful The Weight of Elephants about a New Zealand boy coping with abandonment issues and bullying, against the backdrop of a missing children investigation. This is an incredibly strong film and really worth making the effort to track down.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – A Separation (2011)

28 February 2012
A Separation: Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi)

Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi)

Simin (Leila Hatami) wants her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) to leave Iran with her. Nader wants to remain to look after his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who has Alzheimer’s disease. The pair cannot find a compromise so Simin has requested a divorce that Nader is refusing to give. A Separation opens with a continuous shot of Simin and Nader in a family court in Tehran. The camera is fixed in position to look at the pair so that the audience take the role of the unseen judge hearing their case. In contrast to the fixed and formal opening shot, the rest of the film has a constantly moving camera to suggest a sense of turmoil in the lives of the characters. The camera frequently films through doorways or around corners to also give the viewer a sense of voyeuristic access into their private lives. However, throughout A Separation writer/director/producer Asghar Farhadi continues to place the audience in the judge’s chair; challenging them to make judgements about the characters and to acknowledge how nothing is clear cut or easy to evaluate.

Initially A Separation appears to be about the breakdown of the marriage between Simin and Nader, but the film explores other types of separations when it introduces Razieh (Sareh Bayat) and her husband Houjat (Shahab Hosseini). Razieh is hired by Nader to care for his father while he is at work and a resulting incident becomes a pivotal point that leads to another court case where the actions, motivations and morality of the various characters are challenged and questioned. Even the audience have to double think what they witnessed during the key scene and which characters’ interpretation of events best matches their own. The resulting conflicts explore the bigger separations in the film between the middleclass and presumably non-devote Simin and Nader, and the ‘regular class’ and religious Rzieh and Houjat.

A Separation introduces the themes of social divisions during the opening credit sequence where shots of passports being photocopied suggest the bureaucratisation of identity where people are reduced to a series of statistics. This opening obviously also deceptively suggests Simin’s imminent travel, which is then denied in the first scene and not pursued again for the rest of the film. Instead this sequence suggests how notions of age, gender, occupation and religion separate people. Like Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011) A Separation explores how presumed social norms are extremely tenuous and how threats to these almost illusory ideas can threaten our sense of personal security.

Perhaps this is why A Separation has resonated so strongly throughout the world. It has received extraordinary acclaim since it’s first February 2011 screenings (its Australian theatrical release has arrived extremely late) and seems to have attracted a much broader audience than most other Iranian films. The actors are professional, the film is tightly scripted, the setting is urban, the characters are recognisable white and blue collar workers, and the film incorporates elements of domestic drama, courtroom drama and even suspense/mystery film. A Separation stylistically, thematically and narratively appeals to western sensibilities, and yet none of these elements detract from the film nor dilute its identity as an Iranian film; in fact they do the opposite.

Through its tense and intriguing narrative, not only are class and religious divisions explored but it also provides a critique of the inequality between men and women in Iranian society. Partly to avoid political censorship and partly to make an accessible yet complex film, Farhadi doesn’t provide a direct condemnation of the way women are restricted, but the entire film expresses the limited options faced by Iranian women. Simin never gives a clear reason for why she wants to leave Iran with her daughter, but it become clear that as an intelligent and aspirational woman, her opportunities at home seem small. The male characters in the film are not bad people – they are highly flawed like all the characters in the film, but they are not bad. Houjat is hot tempered, but his physical aggression towards Nadar is understandable (if not excusable) and his real outbursts are saved for himself. During a scene at a petrol station Nadar appears to even be pushing his daughter Termeh into acting more assertively, even if that defies social conventions. And yet, these men still have control over the women in their lives. They may not consciously wield such power but social values and the law gives it to them.

Tellingly there are points in the film where the separations between all the characters appear to be removed. Razieh and Houjat’s daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) and Termeh exchange glances across a room to communicate their shared distress and confusion at what is happening between their parents. This suggests how children are often the ones who suffer the most in family conflict, which becomes the final message the film leaves the audience with. Graphic matches of both Simin and Razieh putting on their hijab headscarfs link the women during a moment when they are attempting to find a solution, only for it to be undone by the men soon after. In this way, issues of honour, religious obedience and family are continually defined by the male characters in the film to the detriment of their loved ones. As a result, social norms that are supposed to bring people together are slyly critiqued as part of a deeply ingrained patriarchal culture that divides and separates not just women and children, but men too.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012