Films I loved in March 2014

2 April 2014

A quick thank you to everybody who has been in touch. I’ve been asked if I will resume doing longer form reviews and unfortunately, for the timing being, the answer is no as this year I am mainly concentrating on some long term writing projects.

I’m doing a lot more radio this year; continuing my Thursday morning reviews on the Breakfasters (3RRR 102.7FM) and I am part of a monthly segment on Books and Arts Daily (ABC Radio National) that looks at book to film adaptations. I usually link to my radio spots on Facebook and/or Twitter.

I’m also thrilled to announce that Plato’s Cave, the podcast I have co-hosted for the past three years, is now officially on the 3RRR grid as an ongoing live weekly show, every Monday night from 7pm-8pm. More on the Triple R website, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe in Nymph()maniac

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe in Nymph()maniac

I adored Nymph()maniac and even though I have already seen the international cut where the film has been split into two parts and runs for a bit over four hours, I cannot wait to see the full five and a half hour cut. This is Lars von Trier at his most playful and self-reflexive, yet he still manages to deliver something truly profound and unsettling that explores all his favourite preoccupations. The stories that the self-described nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells about her sexual misadventures are not only sociopolitically provocative, but open up a multi-layered exploration about how lust and love are represented in culture. It’s a battle between mind, body and soul with von Trier in full trickster mode so that the audience never know exactly where they stand.

Robert Redford as Our Man in All Is Lost

Robert Redford as Our Man in All Is Lost

I’ve already written a mini-review of All Is Lost, but I really enjoyed this stripped back survival film about an unnamed man (Robert Redford) stranded at sea doing all that he can to protect his boat, body and mind from a cruel and indifferent environment. Both pragmatic and mythical, this is a film that allows every individual viewer to project their own psychological baggage onto the film so they can decide if it’s a film about the human spirit or a film about existential dread.

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda in Wadjda

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda in Wadjda

Wadjda is a charming and fun coming-of-age film about Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), an 11-year-old Saudi Arabian girl, who enters a Qur’an recital competition so that she can use the prize money to buy a bicycle. In such an aggressively patriarchal society such actions are hugely defiant and the film explores the everyday challenges that women and girls face when living with such extreme gender discrimination.


I finally caught up with The We and the I, which had some very limited screenings in Melbourne last year and was released onto DVD in Australia in late February. It is astonishing that this film has flown so far under the radar, as it is not only a Michel Gondry film, but I believe it is his best film since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Developed over three years of workshops with teenagers who went on to act in the film, it follows the dynamics on a school bus heading through the Bronx in New York City, USA, on the last day of school. Gondry’s distinctive visual style is suitably restrained, and he very skilfully draws the audience into the various mini-dramas that occur throughout the journey.

I have also written a short review about What Richard Did, which is the other notable DVD release I want to mention. It’s a strong drama about personal accountability that very convincingly builds up to a pivotal incident and then explores how that incident affects a community by looking at grief, guilt and culpability among individuals and groups. It’s an Irish film, but strikingly relevant to Australian society.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – The Tree (2010)

23 September 2010
The Tree: Dawn O’Neil (Charlotte Gainsbourg)

Dawn O’Neil (Charlotte Gainsbourg)

The tree that the film takes its title from is a giant Moreton Bay Fig tree, situated next to the family home on the edge of a small Australian country town where Dawn O’Neil (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lives with her husband Paul (Aden Young) and their four children. After Paul dies in an accident the tree starts to be regarded with increasing significance by Dawn and her children, especially when 8-year-old Simone starts claiming that it has become possessed by her dead father.

There are many similarities between The Tree and Scott Hick’s The Boys Are Back, released less than twelve months ago. Both films are novel adaptations about Europeans living in regional Australia who have suddenly become single parents, due to the death of a spouse, and must now learn to continue on with life and look after their children the best that they can. While The Boys Are Back unravelled through a reasonably safe and traditional narrative structure, The Tree adopts a slower and more character driven pace where narrative drive is secondary to character impressions. It is part family drama and part modern fairy tale.

With a tree featuring so significantly in the film literally and metaphorically it was essential for the Australian landscape to be brought alive visually and the use of natural light in the cinematography does this brilliantly. However, despite the strong Magical Realist role that nature plays in The Tree, the film maintains a convincing grounding in reality allowing the audience to share Dawn’s willingness to go along with Simone’s belief that her father speaks to her through the tree’s branches. The result is a film that instead of being melancholic and bleak is instead serene, warm and inviting.

The Tree: Simone O'Neil (Morgana Davies)

Simone O'Neil (Morgana Davies)

Charlotte Gainsbourg does a marvellous job presenting Dawn as a grieving wife and a caring mother but also a woman not ready to give up on life and love. Gainsbourg recently also played a grieving woman in Antichrist, another film where nature intrudes into the lives of the characters, but her performance in The Tree and the tone of the film itself could not be more different. Marton Csokas is also wonderful as the local plumber who becomes involved with Dawn but the real acting revelation in The Tree is newcomer Morgana Davies as Simone. All the child actors are excellent but Davies delivers a truly powerful and assured performance that is rarely seen in such young actors.

The combination of the stunning cinematography, restrained Magical Realism, strong acting and character driven narrative makes The Tree a mesmerising experience. It is a mediative and tranquil film that gently unfolds to deliver a moving examination of grief and emotional catharsis. Yet, its light and slightly whimsical tone makes it a film about celebrating life, connecting to nature and loved ones, and looking to the future.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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MIFF 2010 Diary: Part 2

26 July 2010

The first weekend of MIFF was one of extremes, delivering what will be a highlight of my film-going year but also delivering a major lowlight that resulted in one of my rare walk-outs.

World's Greatest Dad

World's Greatest Dad

However, first I just want to mention that it is such a pity that more Australians won’t get to see World’s Greatest Dad in a cinema with an audience. It won’t be getting a general release and is instead coming out straight to DVD to be eventually lost in the comedy shelves of hire stores. It is a shame because World’s Greatest Dad is an excellent black comedy-drama that draws upon a very taboo subject to elicit both laughs and moments of poignancy. Robin Williams plays a classic sympathetic loser character and it’s probably the best thing he has done in at least a decade if not longer. World’s Greatest Dad certainly steers into some very edgy territory but it works as well as it does because Williams is so endearing and because the film never uses shock tactics despite having ample opportunity to do so. Comedy this brave is a rare thing and a lot funnier than the majority of the stuff that gets a general release.

My festival highlight so far, however, was the screening of Psycho on Saturday night with a live orchestra performing the score. Psycho is of course a great masterpiece but seeing it with the live music enhanced the experience tremendously. It was also great being in an audience of people, some of who clearly had never seen the film before, and witnessing their gasps and delighted shrieks of terror!

The low light was on Sunday morning with one of the films I was most looking forward to: Nikita Mikhalkov’s Exodus – Burnt by the Sun 2. I saw the original Burnt by the Sun in 1995 during the first MIFF I ever attended and it is a film I have revisited several times since so that it has become one of my all time favourites. I wasn’t expecting this sequel to capture the beauty, sincerity and moving mix of the personal and the political to the same extent but I was not expecting it to be so bloated, self-indulgent, trite and manipulative. While the original was a touching film about a family set against the background of the Stalinist purges, this new film is a second rate overblown World War II adventure. I’ve sat through worse films than Exodus but not ones that threaten to ruin my feelings towards a film that I cherish so much. Around about the halfway point, Exodus has a flashback scene that uses some of the footage from the original film, reminding me how much I still love it, and this resulted in a wave of depression that compelled me to leave the cinema before any more damage was done.

The Tree

The Tree

My Sunday was significantly redeemed by the French/Australian film The Tree: an enjoyable low key, slow burning film with fine performances from Charlotte Gainsbourg and the various young actors playing her children. The set-up it is not too dissimilar to The Boys Are Back in that it depicts the day-to-day life of a family living in rural Australia trying to cope with the death of one of the parents. The belief held by some family members, that the dead parent’s soul has entered the larger-than-life tree growing next to the family home, is explored gently without every slipping into full-blown Magical Realism. The Tree has a tranquil naturalism that is warm and sincere.

[EDIT 23/9/2010: Read a full review of The Tree]

Finally, while The Trotsky is not in the same league as World’s Greatest Dad it is nevertheless another enjoyable comedy that went places that mainstream comedy doesn’t. Jay Baruchel (whom I’m liking more and more in every film I see him in) plays a teenage boy convinced that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky and seeks to unionise his new school. While patchy at points it contains lots of laughs, is more than a single joke film and ends up being quite a rousing film about overcoming apathy to achieve social change.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Antichrist (2009)

8 December 2009

She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and He (Willem Dafoe)

The Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville) is a true cinematic experimentalist and agent provocateur with Antichirst being the most comprehensive encapsulation of all his ideas and stylistic approaches to date. Antichrist opens with a stunning black-and-white, slow motion prologue where the film’s leads, known simply as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), make love in the shower while their unattended child crawls out of his crib, climbs out an open window and falls to his death. Antichrist then unfolds over four chapters where He and She travel to an isolated forest cabin named Eden in order to reconcile their loss. She is consumed with grief, guilt, anxiety and self-loathing, using sex as a masochistic distraction from her pain. He is a therapist so takes it upon himself to heal her by making her confront the source of her deepest fear – the Eden cabin they have gone to where she had previously worked on a thesis about misogynist murder.

Von Trier uses a mixture of visual approaches in Antichrist to maximum effect. To portray the destructive dynamic between He and She von Trier utilises a very raw, handheld-camera filming style. To capture many of the hypnotic outdoor scenes, often filled with images of death in the natural world, von Trier radically uses sound, cinematography and editing to create some of the most beautiful yet nightmarish imagery ever created on screen. The eerie beauty of such scenes contrasts dramatically to the extremely violent brutality that occurs later in the film and very few people will be able to sit through key moments in Antichrist without physically recoiling in horror and disbelief at what they’ve just witnessed.

Von Trier has explored misogyny before and, similarly to David Lynch, he has been accused of being a misogynist as a result. While Antichrist does not contain any single fixed meaning as such, it does depict the misogyny of men who cast women as victims so that they can wield power as authoritative experts. Furthermore, it depicts female self-hatred, which is arguably the most destructive form of misogyny. The self-disgust that She develops towards her own sexuality is represented in Antichrist through its imagery of the natural world as Hell. Functioning as the inverse of the Biblical creation story, Antichrist is the most unique and divisive ‘horror’ film you are ever likely to see.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 343, 2009

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – The Science of Sleep (2006)

15 May 2007

Director Michel Gondry’s collaboration with writer Charlie Kaufman resulted in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a visual tour-de-force and a love story of deep resonance. Now working from his own script Gondry’s latest film, The Science of Sleep, still demonstrates his unique stylistic flair but lacks any real emotional depth.

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