Films I loved in October 2018

31 October 2018
First Man

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in First Man

The Neil Armstrong biopic First Man is a film of contrasts where the vast emptiness of the moon is juxtaposed with Armstrong’s cramped conditions on Apollo 11, the methodical precision of the space missions sits alongside the emotional upheaval felt by the astronauts’ families, and Armstrong’s stoic outward appearance masks his inner grief. The attention to detail and factual information is balanced perfectly with the film’s more soulful moments, resulting in a glorious blend of drama and sensory spectacle.

Bad Times at the El Royale

Jeff Bridge as Father Daniel Flynn and Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet in Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale contains one of my favourite scenarios where a group of strangers filled with secrets converge at a single location and things get increasingly out of control. This felt like a glorious throwback to the mid-1990s where clever, violent and funny genre films were a staple of the American indie scene. However, it doesn’t feel like a homage nor does the narrative dexterity slide into self-awareness or smugness. Instead, the terrific performances and smart filmmaking make it refreshing and fun.

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Bradley Cooper as Jack and Lady Gaga as Ally in A Star Is Born

Similar to the versions that have come before it over the previous decades, the new adaptation of A Star Is Born explores the nature of show-business, fame, addiction and self-expression through a dramatic romance story. The power of this new version comes from both how electrifyingly the musical performances are filmed and the incredible dynamic between its two lead characters, one on the decline and one on the ascent. The result is a thoughtful and empathetic film that is enormously engaging and moving.

Halloween

Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween

The latest Halloween film operates as a direct sequel to the original 1978 film (bypassing all previous sequels and remakes) both in terms of picking up the story 40 years later and by brilliantly adopting the same style as John Carpenter’s hugely influential slasher classic. The focus is on establishing characters and then using lighting, framing and camera movements to beautifully build tension to gleefully unbearable levels in order to take the audience on a rollercoaster ride of suspense-based horror.

Wajib

Mohammad Bakri as Abu and Saleh Bakri as Shadi in Wajib

Gently unfolding over one day, Wajib follows a Palestinian father and son (played by a real-life father and son) as they drive around Nazareth, Israel, handing out wedding invitations. Through their conversations while alone with each other and while visiting various family and friends, filmmaker Annemarie Jacir explores generational, class and cultural divides with humour, sensitivity and nuance making the film a very accessible insight into some of the complex political tensions in contemporary Israel.

Westwood

Vivienne Westwood in Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist is an energetic documentary about fashion designer Vivien Westwood, celebrating her as trailblazer. There is some great analysis of the punk era and her role in defining the punk look, the focus on her hands-on approach to designing and making clothes brings the process to life, and her reluctance as an interviewee becomes part of the film’s charm. More a reflection of her life and beliefs than a comprehensive biopic, this is a triumphant film about an extraordinary person.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

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Film review – The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)

9 May 2013
The Place Beyond the Pines: Luke (Ryan Gosling) and Romina (Eva Mendes)

Luke (Ryan Gosling) and Romina (Eva Mendes)

Cinema is often at its best when it presents characters and stories that teeter on the edge of civilisation and morality. More interesting is when a film itself walks a tightrope between conventional narrative cinema and something that challenges audience expectations about film form. The Place Beyond the Pines derives its title from a loose English translation of the Native American word Schenectady, the name of the New York State city where the film is set. This title also evokes the sense of an otherworldly space beyond the recognisable world, in a way not too dissimilar to the mysterious forest in the television series Twin Peaks (created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, 1990-1991). While The Place Beyond the Pines is a far less abstract work than something like Twin Peaks, it still possesses a mysterious examination of morality and fate through characters who mirror each other throughout the film’s unexpected shifts.

Director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance previously demonstrated his skill in handling interlinking narratives from different time periods in the tragic love story Blue Valentine. What he is doing in The Place Beyond the Pines is less obvious, but more ambitious even if it ultimately is not as satisfying as his previous film. Nevertheless, The Place Beyond the Pines contains a commendable attempt to experiment with film narrative in a way that emphasises the themes of the film.

Cianfrance has teamed up again with actor Ryan Gosling who as the character Luke Glanton is introduced breathing in darkness before a continuous long shot shows us his tattooed body as he plays with a knife and then walks through a carnival where he will take part in a motorbike stunt display. He is a transgressive character from the fringe of society who later leaves the transient space of the carnival in an attempt to create a ‘normal’ life upon learning that he has had a son with Romina (Eva Mendes), an ex lover who lives locally. At the climax of the impressive introductory long shot, Luke rides his motorbike into a large circular metal cage with two unseen co-riders as the performance begins. The structure of The Place Beyond the Pines is reflected symbolically by the cage as an enclosed narrative containing interlinking riders whose destiny is in the hands of each other.

As the film develops it becomes a study of the sliding scale of morality. It is established that prospects for Luke are limited so he makes decisions that challenge the audience’s perception of him as an underdog who is trying to better himself. Cianfrance and Gosling display considerable talent in making Luke a character who is in one moment likeable and in another compromising good will and common sense. Later in the film he is paralleled with Bradley Cooper’s policeman character Avery Cross, who exists on the opposite side of the law, but is also challenged with difficult moral decisions and as a result makes compromises and struggles to emerge unscathed.

As well as narrative and relationship similarities, both characters are presented through similar stylistic techniques, filmed by tracking shots from behind accompanied by the same ‘heavenly’ choral music to emphasise their fall from grace. With his blond hair and torn white t-shirt Luke in particular resembles something of a fallen angel. Considering the themes of fate and fatherhood that loom large over the film, the symbolism of a sinning angel who is cast out of heaven by its creator is fitting.

The thematic duality between Luke and Avery evokes the police procedural melodramas by directors such as John Woo and Michael Mann where class and social order puts two men who could have been best friends on opposite sides of the law. Also, like a less literal version of the split personalities of many of the characters in Twin Peaks and some of David Lynch’s later films, Luke and Avery could arguably be considered as light and dark versions of the same characters, although with each containing several shades of grey. Their duality in narrative terms is even more interesting and in the film’s most exhilarating scene, one character is seen from the point-of-view of the other, as if this character is seeing a projection – or an echo from the past – of his symbolic other self. It is like Special Agent Dale Cooper encountering his dark doppelgänger in Twin Peaks or perhaps David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) encountering aged versions of himself before becoming what he sees. The use of narrative structure in The Place Beyond the Pines lends itself to considering the characters in a way that goes beyond what literally happens to them onscreen.

Perhaps the reason the film concludes in a way that does not fulfil earlier expectations is because it breaks free from its contained and interwoven structure, encapsulated by the circular metal cage containing the three stunt riders performing for the audience. The symbolic dual-sided identity evolves into something else that does not feel as sophisticated as what has come before it. The morality themes remain, but the film ultimately focuses more on the role of the father and the question of fate. It is a good ending, but it does not live up to the expectation set up by the film’s earlier ambition.

Despite the film’s focus on male identity, at the centre of The Place Beyond the Pines is Eva Mendes’s Romina character who goes through continual hardship while the male characters wrestle with their conscience, desires and drives. A reoccurring image throughout the film is a photo of her, Luke and their son. Luke has his hand over her eyes as an act that can be read as both him protecting her from the fact that the illusion of their happy family life is temporary, or as an act that suggests how much he is hiding from her. Like the nightclub singer who is blinded by the shootout in John Woo’s The Killer (1989), Romina suffers as a result of the men around her and this suffering includes being kept figuratively in the dark.

On the surface a crime narrative with social realism characteristics, The Place Beyond the Pines delivers an unexpected narrative structure where the viewer is invited to link together various characters, motifs and narrative threads beyond the obvious connections. While it is still a rewarding film on face value, The Place Beyond the Pines offers additional pleasures for viewers keen to delve further. The final segment of the film does disappoint when it moves away from morality and identity to instead focus on the role of the father and fate, but it is nevertheless an overall bold and intriguing film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – The A-Team (2010)

7 June 2010
The A-Team: Face (Bradley Cooper), Murdock (Sharlto Copley), Hannibal (Liam Neeson) and BA Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson)

Face (Bradley Cooper), Murdock (Sharlto Copley), Hannibal (Liam Neeson) and BA Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson)

The A-Team are an elite military quartet with a reputation for concocting daring and elaborate plans that get the job done. After being set up by another group who are even more covert than they are, the team go on the run to prove their innocence. In this new film the A-Team characters from the original 1980s television series have been updated from Vietnam veterans to Iraq war veterans but they are still essentially the same group of guys.

Liam Neeson is the group’s leader Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith while Bradley Cooper is the smooth talking charmer Lieutenant Templeton “Face” Peck. Sharlto Copley from District 9 provides the most laughs as the crazy helicopter pilot Captain HM Murdock but unfortunately mixed martial arts fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson is a let down as BA Baracus mainly because of his poor enunciation. When Baracus is engaging in “witty banter” with the rest of the team it would be far more entertaining if we could understand more of what he is saying other than the occasional “I pity the fool!”

The A-TeamLike the original television series the action is still completely over-the-top with plenty of outlandish scenes that defy the laws of physics and gravity. Towards the end of the film Hannibal claims “overkill is underrated” and this sentiment pretty much defines the film’s approach. And in case you aren’t clear about what to expect from The A-Team film it is also worth noting that Hannibal also quotes Gandhi in order to justify the use of violence.

At first this delirious approach to the action works well and the film delivers plenty of inventive and exciting action sequences even though none of them are remotely believable. A sequence when the guys ‘fly’ a plummeting tank by strategically firing its cannon almost deserves a standing ovation for sheer audacity. However, the action does become increasingly laboured and while the technique of intercutting between the characters making the plans and the characters executing the plans is initially fun, it eventually becomes overly repetitive.

The dumb fun on offer in the disposable action of The A-Team does hold the promise of it being an enjoyable boys-own adventure film, but it is badly let down by so many other aspects. There are a number of points where the film attempts sincerity, including a completely misguided romantic subplot, and all those moments are awkward and ill judged. The relentless chauvinism of having almost every female character, including Jessica Biel as Captain Carissa Sosa, referred to as hot is also tedious. The A-Team overstays its welcome and misses the mark on too many occasions for it to fulfil its initial promise of consistent entertainment. Within its bloated running time is probably about one hours worth of great material, which would have worked wonderfully on television.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Hangover (2009)

12 June 2009
Phil Wenneck (Bradley Cooper), Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis) and Stu Price (Ed Helms)

Phil Wenneck (Bradley Cooper), Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis) and Stu Price (Ed Helms)

The set-up of The Hangover is simple enough. A guy is getting married so he takes his two best friends and his soon-to-be brother-in-law to Las Vegas for one last night of partying. The four guys are variations of the types of characters we’ve seen in these types of “guys being guys” films before, from American Graffitti to Animal House to American Pie. There is Phil (Bradley Cooper, He’s Just Not That Into You) the wise-cracking likeable bad boy, Stu (Ed Helms, the US version of The Office) the repressed nerdy one, Alan (Zach Galifianakis, What Happens in Vegas) the offbeat weird one, and there is the groom Doug (Justin Bartha, the National Treasure films), the straight and kind of boring one who fortunately does not feature too much overall. The guys start their night of celebrations with a rooftop toast and the next thing they know 12 hours have passed and they’ve lost their memories. Their apartment is trashed, there is a tiger in the bathroom, there is a baby in their room, one of them has lost a tooth, one has a hospital wristband, they have acquired a police car and worse yet, the groom has vanished. Then things start to become really weird.

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