Films I loved in June 2014

30 June 2014
Ernest & Celestine

Ernest & Celestine

I feel a bit odd including Ernest & Celestine at the top of my list of favourite films for this month, as I originally saw it two years ago and I saw the original French-language version as opposed to the English-dubbed version that is currently screening in Australia. Nevertheless, this is a gorgeous animated film about friendship that also works very effectively as a parable about not fearing others simply because they are different to us and we don’t know much about them. I’m looking forward to revisiting it once the DVD comes out (hopefully in the original language with English subtitles!)

Michael Fassbender as Frank in Frank

Michael Fassbender as Frank in Frank

I haven’t seen Lenny Abrahamson’s first feature film, but I remember being really impressed by Garage in 2007 and I loved What Richard Did, which I mentioned a few months ago when it got released on DVD in Australia. And going by his latest film Frank, Abrahamson is clearly a director who is getting stronger and stronger. Inspired by the film’s co-writer Jon Ronson’s experiences playing in a band with Frank Sidebottom (an alter-ego of English comedian and musician Chris Sievey), Frank is both a funny and melancholic tribute to marginal figures. While several real-life experimental musicians were inspirations for the character of Frank as presented in the film, I often thought of Scott Walker whose creative process was captured so well in the documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. While Frank is for the most part quite a fun film, its real strength lies in its final half hour where it sidesteps several cliches common to films about bands and musicians to instead de-romanticise the link between artistic genius and mental illness.

Emily Blunt as Rita and Tom Cruise as Cage in Edge of Tomorrow

Emily Blunt as Rita and Tom Cruise as Cage in Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow is an extremely satisfying and mostly smart high concept blockbuster that uses the cultural baggage of its star Tom Cruise to cleverly develop the main protagonist from somebody the audience has contempt for to a plausible action hero. It’s also refreshing to see a film that champions the idea of having to learn and master skills rather than simply rely on some kind of Chosen One or naturally gifted hero narrative. And in terms of spectacle cinema, director Doug Liman really delivers in creating a sense of chaos without sacrificing coherence. The second half of the film may not maintain the same level of interest as the first, but otherwise I loved this mash-up of Groundhog Day, Starship Troopers, Aliens and Saving Private Ryan.

Macon Blair as Dwight in Blue Ruin

Macon Blair as Dwight in Blue Ruin

My favourite film this month is one that didn’t get a theatrical release in Australia, but has instead gone to DVD, and that’s the masterful American thriller Blue Ruin. The film very skilfully conceals narrative information from the audience regarding character backstory and motivation without ever becoming obtuse, so that the viewer only ever needs to know just enough about what is happening to make every scene achieve the most tension as possible. The revenge story that emerges is as engaging as it is due to the film’s ability to maintain plausibility with the core idea that the protagonist is an ordinary person, albeit an ordinary person who’s suffered severe emotional trauma, and is therefore likely to make all the mistakes that a typical person would make.

I also finally caught up with the documentary Cutie and the Boxer, which was released on DVD in May. A really beautiful insight into the lives of artist Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko Shinohara, the film touches on their art and the difficulties of making a living as artists, but it is mostly a study of a relationship where the demands and dominating personality of one person has overshadowed the aspirations of another. This is a sensitive, revealing and very moving film that ultimately possesses a very empowering message.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

MIFF 2013 recommendations part 1

8 July 2013

Melbourne International Film Festival 2013

The full 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival program was announced last week so I thought I’d start sharing my recommendations from what I’ve seen so far. This list is by no means exhaustive, there’s no order or system to what I’m listing, I may repeat some of the films listed in my post about the Next Gen program, and there will be more to come as the festival gets closer. So for now, here are eight films and two short film packages that I recommend you get along to:

The Rocket

The Rocket

This is a wonderful Australian production, set in rural Laos about a ten-year-old boy who believes he is cursed and whose family is being forcibly relocated from their home. The critique of the way entire cultures are of secondary importance to the business interests of multinationals never overwhelms the film’s moving and dramatic story about childhood.

Mystery Road

Another sensational Australian film is the latest by Ivan Sen, which mixes many of the themes Sen has previously explored, regarding the marginalisation of Indigenous Australians, with a slick and slow burn murder-mystery thriller narrative. Immediately after seeing this film I wanted to see it again.

The Act of Killing

This documentary about the Indonesian perpetrators of war crimes during the 1965-1966 anti-communist purges has to be seen to be believed. The participants happily speak about and reenact the horrors they inflicted on others in what is a fascinating and disturbing look at a recent example of the banality of evil.


It is not that Park Chan-wook has toned down his approach to cinema in his first English-language film, but he has made the guilty-pleasure nastiness more psychological rather than visceral. And it works brilliantly, maintaining the filmmaker’s meticulous and bold approach to film style.

Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin

We don’t fully understand why the protagonist is homeless, possibly mentally unstable and driven to kill a man just released from prison, but the economic storytelling in this low-key yet utterly gripping revenge thriller means that we are captivated the entire time.

Cheap Thrills 

This is what happens when a violent exploitation film with a dark-as-dark-can-be sense of humour is injected with a searing critique of class and capitalism. The build up to the extreme moments is plausible, the message of the film is never compromised, and watching it is disturbing and fun.

What Richard Did 

A  strong Irish drama that if transposed into an Australian context would contain the same amount of relevance and power in its examination of masculinity and personal responsibility. The first half of the film endears the audience to its Alpha-Male ‘good bloke’ protagonist and then the second half looks at the aftermath of an incident committed in the heat of the moment that changes everything.

The Day of the Crows 

A beautifully animated fantasy film that delves into some painful and dark themes concerning parental abuse, persecution and death. A great example of how animated films from non-English speaking backgrounds are capable of appealing to a wide range of age groups with sophistication.

Desire Shorts

Undress Me

For this collection of short films  about sex, sexuality and gender, the concept of desire seemed to be a suitably broad umbrella term to encompass them all. Protective parents have to accept that their children are sexual beings in For Dorian and The Gift, fidelity and sexuality are explored in Summer Vacation, Clay is a sensual film starring Édith Scob and Undress Me is a particularly arresting film featuring raw and honest performances from its actors.

Documentary Shorts

There are numerous great documentary shorts scattered throughout the MIFF program as pre-feature films, but the collection of films put together in this program showcase  how diverse documentary films can be. Not Anymore: A Story of a Revolution captures the immediacy of the Syrian civil war with confronting war footage and interviews from its two highly articulate subjects. Deco Dawson’s Keep a Modest Head is a glorious blend of animation, experimental film and documentary that pays tribute to Jean Benoît, the final living member of the French Surrealist group. Ebb and Flow is a beautiful observational documentary on a Brazilian man who is poor, hearing impaired and a single father, yet continually finds joy in life.

More recommendations to come…

Thomas Caldwell
Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator
Melbourne International Film Festival