Films I loved in June 2017

5 July 2017
Graduation

Adrian Titieni as Romeo Aldea in Graduation

Graduation is about the hypocrisy of well-meaning people doing the wrong thing. In the case of Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a Romanian doctor living in a small town, he resorts to corruption to help his daughter pursue a better quality of life. Like many critics, I was astonished by filmmaker Cristian Mungiu’s tense and confronting 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but I think Graduation is even better. Despite the film’s grim beginning, it is not an ordeal and it even offers a glimmer of hope that the younger generation may break the cycle of cynicism, opportunism and self-interest that the older generation have taught them. Not unlike the films of The Salesman filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, there are no overly bad people in Graduation, just a range of characters with different breaking points and limitations.

The Villainess

Kim Ok-bin as Sook-hee in The Villainess

‘Kinetic’ and ‘visceral’ are two words I sometimes worry I over use, but I can’t think of anything better to describe the delirious and thrilling action sequences in The Villainess. The gleefully convoluted tale of revenge, a secret assassins’ agency and double-crossings contain many familiar themes and plot points from films such as La Femme Nikita and Kill Bill, but it is the superb ultra-violent action choreography and cinematography that makes The Villainess stand out. While the film’s gritty yet slick aesthetic has seen it compared to things like The Raid and some of the more intense moments in Park Chan-wook’s films, I also thought of Gaspar Noé and the way he manages to float the camera through scenes in a dreamlike and often seemingly impossible way.

Annette Bening as Dorothea Fields and Lucas Jade Zumann as Jamie Fields in 20th Century Women

I’m not sure when exactly, but at some point while watching 20th Century Women I became aware of just how much I was loving being in the company of the five main characters. Inspired by writer/director Mike Mills’s own childhood, 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is at the centre of the narrative, but the film really belongs to his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who lives in the same boarding house, as well as William (Billy Crudup). They are a fascinating, likeable and vulnerable ensemble of characters trying to make sense of the complexities of family, love, mortality and aging against the backdrop of the sexual revolution, the emergence of punk and the impending presidency of Ronald Reagan. While tinged with melancholy, this is ultimately a warm and embracing film about how experiences and relationships shape us.

Okja

An Seo Hyun as Mija in Okja

Bong Joon-ho has always excelled in his ability to mash-up genres and perform radical tonal shifts within a single film, and Okja is no different. It starts like a kids film (but with more swearing) focusing on Mija, a young girl wanting to be reunited with her beloved super pig. Okja then shifts gear into camp and comedic action when Mija falls in with a group of animal rights activists, and then finally ends up as a confronting and moving critique of industrialised meat production. Emerging child actor An Seo Hyun gives a grounded performance as Mija, while the manic performances from the supporting cast – which includes Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano – successfully conveys the madness of the world she encounters when she gets caught up in the machinery of capitalism and media hype.

Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman fulfils the potential shown by Man of Steel in 2013 when the DC Extended Universe kicked-off with Superman’s origin story. Both films concern godlike superhero characters with childlike emotional intelligence who have to learn to make sense of the world, especially when it comes to difficult moral choices. Wonder Woman is a far less angst-ridden affair, and it charts Diana Prince’s journey from the secret island of Themyscira where she grew up, to the Western Front in Belgium during World War I, where she is convinced she will meet and defeat Ares the god of war. As well as delivering several exhilarating and beautifully choreography action sequences, what gives Wonder Woman its edge is the way is grapples with issues of morality concerning what it means to act for the greater good, and the complicated nature of war where defeating the big super villain won’t sudden bring war to an end overnight.

148081_25808_kedi_still

Kedi

I’m not sure if you have to be a cat-lover to enjoy the Turkish documentary Kedi, as I feel it does explore broader ideas about the relationship between humans and domesticated animals. On the other hand, as somebody who grew up and continues to live with cats, I’m not the slightest bit objective. I adored this charming, beautiful and surprising soulful film about the thousands of street cats living in Istanbul and the city’s human residents that some of the cats deem worthy of their affection. Kedi showcases a beautiful city from a cat’s perspective, examines the symbiotic bond between people and cats, and muses on deeper questions regarding life, god and love, and how cats fit into all that. Brilliant.

David Lynch

David Lynch in David Lynch: The Art Life

I’ve had the good fortune to attend two exhibitions of David Lynch’s artwork – The Air is on Fire in Paris, France in 2007 and more recently David Lynch: Between Two Worlds in Brisbane, Australia in 2015 – and both demonstrated how Lynch’s art runs parallel to his work as a filmmaker, exploring and expanding on many of the themes in his films. The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life is an excellent portrait of Lynch the artist, exploring how his childhood experiences and early influences helped shape his artistic obsessions. I’ve never heard the notoriously secretive director talk so candidly about himself and his work, and the film contains a lot of footage that I (a massive Lynch fan) had never seen before.

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

And speaking of Lynch, the new series of Twin Peaks continues to soar above and beyond my expectations.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

Films I loved in July 2014

6 August 2014

As I’m currently caught up in the thick of the Melbourne International Film Festival and didn’t get this summary done beforehand, my notes on my favourite films from July are briefer than ever. I also didn’t even get to see all the films I wanted to see, particularly A Most Wanted Man, so maybe that will appear on my August list. But for now here’s what I did see in July, better later than never…

Tilda Swinton as Mason in  Snowpiercer

Tilda Swinton as Mason in Snowpiercer

I first saw Snowpiercer while travelling abroad late last year and I was thrilled to see it again recently as I think it’s become my favourite film to-date by Bong Joon-ho. I love the visceral and exhilarating action, I love the production design, I love the dark humour and I love the social satire. Not only is the film a savage condemnation of class politics, but it examines the conditions under which class-based oppression thrives with all aspects of the film designed to facilitate that critique.

Brendan Gleeson as Father James and Chris O'Dowd as Jack Brennan in Calvary

Brendan Gleeson as Father James and Chris O’Dowd as Jack Brennan in Calvary

I have to keep reminding myself that Calvary is a blacker-than-black comedy, because it left me devastated. This is extremely sophisticated storytelling that transcended all expectations I had for writer/director John Michael McDonagh. The insights into personal and collective guilt, and the mix of ideas concerning redemption, forgiveness, sin and martyrdom, make this an essential film for trying to understand just how much damage the centuries of sex abuse and cover-ups committed by the Catholic Church have done to individuals and communities.

David Gulpilil as Charlie in Charlie's Country

David Gulpilil as Charlie in Charlie’s Country

I have been a fan of Rolf de Heer’s films for over 20 years now and Charlie’s Country yet again validates my belief that he is one of the most important Australian filmmakers of all time. After making so many progressive films, often about marginalised people, including two previous films with an Indigenous focus but set in the past, this is the film I’ve been waiting for de Heer to make for some time. And it doesn’t disappoint. Closely collaborating with co-writer/lead actor David Gulpilil, de Heer delivers an insight into the extent to which white Australia has continually intruded upon the lives of the First Australians on all levels. While this is overall a sobering film, it also contains a lot of humour thanks to Gulpilil’s performance and just the right amount of hope to prevent the audience from throwing their hands up into the air and declaring the issues to be all too hard to deal with.

Scarlett Johansson as Lucy in Lucy

Scarlett Johansson as Lucy in Lucy

I feel vaguely guilty for including Lucy here, but I had such a great time with this B-grade mash-up of junk science, stoner-philosophy and Hong Kong action-inspired spectacle. The film’s conceptual audacity and the way it fully embraces its internal ridiculousness is completely exhilarating, and it’s by far the most fun I’ve had watching a Luc Besson film since Léon: The Professional 20 years ago.


Otherwise, I really enjoyed Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, which is a sort of Hindi In the Mood for Love/Brief Encounter with interesting insights into some of the social issues within contemporary India. I found the Australian documentary All This Mayhem very compelling, having next to no knowledge of the rise and then very disturbing fall of skateboarding champions Tas and Ben Pappas. It’s been a year since I saw The Selfish Giant, which is now on general release in Australia, but at the time I was extremely impressed by the way it transformed a parable by Oscar Wilde into a very moving social-realist film set in a poverty stricken part of northern England. And I was finally able to catch up on Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, which has recently been released on DVD, with Paradise: Love from 2012 being the standout film from that trilogy. Set at a Kenyan beach resort where older Austrian women go to have sex with the young locals, the cocktail of gender, race, class and body politics on offer in this film results in a wonderfully uncomfortable, provocative, confronting and darkly funny film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

DVD review – Mother (2009), Region 4, Madman

15 August 2010
Mother (Kim Hye-ja)

Mother (Kim Hye-ja)

From South Korea, Mother is a stylish and extremely impressive “wrong man” murder mystery. Do-joon (Won Bin) is a sweet natured, mentally handicapped young man who is accused of murder based on circumstantial evidence. Do-joon’s doting mother becomes fixated on finding the real killer to prove her son’s innocence so she starts her own investigation, unveiling all sorts of sordid details about their small town community.

Director Bong Joon-ho’s previous film was the monster movie The Host, which very playfully toyed with its generic conventions without becoming overly self-aware. Mother is more focused than The Host, operating as a strong genre film even though Bong skilfully undermines many of the murder mystery conventions. With its clever play on audience expectations and sympathies there are some completely unexpected twists and turns.

At the heart of Mother is Kim Hye-ja’s lead performance as Do-joon’s mother. Her incredible love and devotion for Do-joon is both touching and sad. Her singular drive to protect him is what drives this film resulting in a heavily ironic and clever examination of guilt and culpability. Beautifully shot and consistently entertaining, Mother is a film that you should not let slip under your radar.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 360, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

Bookmark and Share

Read more reviews at MRQE


MIFF 2009 wrap up

12 August 2009
Antichrist

Antichrist

The 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival finished last Sunday and I was pleased to end the festival on a high note by seeing Mother (Madeo, Bong Joon-ho, 2009), a wonderfully ironic and clever examination of guilt and  culpability in the guise of a whodunit. Before that I caught Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009) a good social-realist film with a terrific central performance from its young lead, newcomer Katie Jarvis.

The day before was a mixed blessing that began with the very enjoyable $9.99 (Tatia Rosenthal, 2008), a sort of animated metaphysical Short Cuts that will inevitably be compared to the superior Mary and Max. Unfortunately the much anticiapted closing night film at MIFF was the very cringe-worthy Bran Nue Dae (Rachel Perkins, 2009). While containing many strong performances, Ernie Dingo especially, and certainly having its heart in the right place, it is just far too twee. What may have once worked on stage — and Bran Nue Dae does feel like community theatre — hasn’t translated onto screen and it was my biggest disappointment of the festival. Fortunately I skipped the Closing Night party to see Antichrist (2009), the startling new film by Lars von Trier. With its dreamlike combination of hauntingly beautiful and uncanny imagery, and power to actually make me physically recoil for most of the final part of the film, Antichrist was one of my festival highlights along with Love Exposure and the opening night film Balibo.

Otherwise, during the festival I also caught the appropriate titled documentary Outrage (Kirby Dick, 2009), which draws much needed attention to the gross hypocrisy of closeted gay and lesbian politicians who actively legislate and campaign against the homosexual community. I also saw Henry Selick’s wonderful 3D stop motion Coraline (2009) , the quirky but forgettable comedy Pardon My French (Un chat un chat, Sophie Fillières, 2009) and An Education (2009), a highly enjoyable and unconventional coming-of-age film by Danish director Lone Scherfig. Overall, I was very pleased with the films I picked this year.

I didn’t go to any of the retrospective screenings but MIFF did screen both Dogs in Space (Richard Lowenstein, 1986), one of my all time favourite Australian films, and Alphaville (1965), one of my favourite films by Jean-Luc Godard.

Of the many films that I didn’t get around to seeing, I am still kicking myself the hardest for missing Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008). But, I guess you can’t get to see everything!

My 2009 MIFF summary

✭✭✭✭✭
Balibo
(Robert Connolly, 2009)

✭✭✭✭✩
Love Exposure
(Ai no mukidashi, Sion Sono, 2008)
Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)

✭✭✭✭
35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums, Claire Denis, 2008)
Paper Soldiers (Bumazhnyy soldat, Aleksei German Ml., 2008)
Thirst (Bakjwi, Park Chan-wook, 2009)
Mother (Madeo, Bong Joon-ho, 2009)
Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009)
Che: Part One (Steven Soderbergh, 2008)
Red Riding: 1980 (James Marsh, 2009)
Red Riding: 1974 (Julian Jarrold, 2009)
The 10 Conditions of Love (Jeff Daniels, 2009)
An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009)
Red Riding: 1983 (Anand Tucker, 2009)

✭✭✭✩
The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, Michael Haneke, 2009)
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)
Che: Part Two (Steven Soderbergh, 2008)
Outrage (Kirby Dick, 2009)
Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)
Krabat (Marco Kreuzpaintner, 2008)
$9.99 (Tatia Rosenthal, 2008)
The Burrowers (J.T. Petty, 2008)
Like You Know It All (Jal aljido mothamyeonseo, Hong Sang-soo, 2009)

✭✭✭
The Sky Crawlers (Sukai kurora, Mamoru Oshii, 2008)
The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh, 2009)
Pardon My French (Un chat un chat, Sophie Fillières, 2009)

✭✭✩
Shadow Play: The Making of Anton Corbijn (Josh Whiteman, 2009)
Tears for Sale (Carlston za Ognjenku, Uros Stojanovic, 2008)
Chocolate (Prachya Pinkaew, 2008)

✭✭
Bran Nue Dae (Rachel Perkins, 2009)

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

Bookmark and Share