Films I loved in October 2019

1 November 2019
Aaron Phagura as Roops, Nell Williams as Eliza and Viveik Kalra as Javed in Blinded by the Light

Blinded by the Light is loosely based on the true story of a Pakistani British teenager whose life was changed forever when he discovered the music of Bruce Springsteen. Set in 1987 against the backdrop of Thatcherism, mass unemployment and the rise of the National Front, this upbeat coming-of-age film deals with culture clash, friendship, first love and the transformative power of music. It’s an unashamedly feel-good film with its combination of light drama, comedy and music montages, but it’s also heartfelt and sincere, exploring issues of race and class with compassion and integrity.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/Joker in Joker

While Joker is an origin story for Batman’s iconic supervillain, its style and social commentary make it much more comparable to the God’s Lonely Men anti-hero films of New Hollywood cinema, especially Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Offering a disturbingly vicarious – and admittedly exhilarating – insight into the mind of a psychopath, Joker reflects the contemporary American psyche and political landscape, where wealth inequality, mental health neglect and bullying transform a figure who may have once attracted sympathy, into a monster of self-pity, nihilism and violence.

Jillian Bell as Brittany Forgler in Brittany Runs a Marathon

Brittany Runs a Marathon is a superb crowd-pleasing film about a woman at a dead end in her life, who turns things around when she begins training for a marathon. Inspired by the experiences of a friend of the filmmaker, it avoid inspirational cliches and unhelpful stereotypes about health and fitness. Instead, it’s a very funny and moving film that explores self esteem and friendship with empathy and intelligence. By tackling links between mental health and lifestyle with humour and sincerity, it’s an extremely rewarding and relatable underdog story.

José Acosta as Rapayet and Carmiña Martínez as Úrsula in Birds of Passage

A mesmerising variation of the organised crime epic, Birds of Passage portrays the Columbian drug trade from the 1960s to the 1980s from the perspective of the country’s indigenous Wayuu tribe. Containing many familiar gangster film tropes, the presentation of rituals and spirituality sets it apart, and contributes to its visual majesty. And while Hollywood gangster films often critique capitalism, this Latin American perspective uses the genre to examine how traditions and social structures are perverted and diluted by the pursuit of wealth and power.

Constance Wu as Destiny and Jennifer Lopez as Ramona in Hustlers

The based-on-a-true events crime drama Hustlers follows the rise and fall of a group of women who in the wake of the GFC conned thousands of dollars out of various Wall Street men. While the planning and execution of their cons is a fun and thrilling part of the film, the real enjoyment comes from the joyful camaraderie between the women who met while working as strippers and were then able to so successfully use their skills in manipulating men to flip the power dynamic between themselves and their targets.

Liron Ben-Shlush as Orna in Working Woman

Working Woman is an excellent drama about a woman having to contend with her boss’s unwanted attention. The film very effectively captures the difficultly she has in walking away from her harassment by portraying the ways in which the abuse is initially difficult to define, and the domestic pressures she has to remain in the workforce. It is a layered and complex film that looks at the ways in which so many social attitudes and workplace cultures facilitate the perpetration of sexual harassment against women by men, both overtly and through silent complicity.

Maiden

Maiden documents the experiences of the first all-female crewed boat that competed in the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989. Skipper Tracy Edwards and her crew not only faced the incredible hardship of enduring the physical and psychological demands of the race, but also the disproportionate scrutiny and chauvinistic derision of the media who did not take them seriously. Combining skilfully assembled archival footage with contemporary interviews from Edwards and her crew members, the documentary is an inspirational and thrilling story of triumph against the odds.

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy

Primarily focusing on Judy Garland’s tumultuous 1968 concert tour of London, to reflect on her life and legacy, is part of what makes Judy a more engaging biopic than most. The film sensitively covers the many facets of Garland’s life, including the self destructive behaviour and substance abuse that stemmed from her appalling treatment as a teen idol in Hollywood. Most rewardingly, the film pays tribute to her importance to her fanbase and the great power she possessed as a performer, with some truly stunning – and in one case completely heartbreaking – music numbers.

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator: Dark Fate

Terminator: Dark Fate does what so many contemporary sequels based on beloved older franchises do: it mimics an earlier instalment (in this case 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day) where the new characters are proxies of the original characters, and some of those original ones show up anyway. And in this case, it works, delivering what is easily the most entertaining and satisfying Terminator film since the original two classics. It’s a terrific example of successful formulaic filmmaking where the new elements build upon a pre-existing groundwork, to deliver thematic and visual inventiveness.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019


Films I loved in July 2016

29 July 2016

_DSC3602 Aaron Pedersen and Alex Russell with Guns

Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan and Alex Russell as Josh in Goldstone

Goldstone is Ivan Sen’s follow-up to his 2013 outback thriller Mystery Road, with the return of troubled Indigenous detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), this time arriving in a small mining community to look for a missing Chinese girl. Mystery Road was one of my favourite films of 2013 due to how Sen blended the style, tone and archetypes of classical Hollywood film noir and westerns with distinctive Australian iconography and themes, especially concerning attitudes towards gender and race. Goldstone is on par with Mystery Road for all the same reasons, but still functions as a powerful stand-alone film.  Sen’s cinematography is stunning whether it’s the haunting arial shots, the gorgeous use of light in the scenes set at dusk and dawn, or the tension he generates during the action sequences towards the end of the film. I would love to see more Jay Swan films, but frankly I’d watch anything by Ivan Sen regardless. He’s a masterful filmmaker who ranks alongside the greatest this country has produced.

Embrace of the Serpent

Antonio Bolivar as Karamakate and Brionne Davis as Evan in Embrace of the Serpent

The Colombian film Embrace of the Serpent by writer/director Ciro Guerra is a startling film about two expeditions through the Amazon. The two journeys occur over 30 years apart and were inspired by the real-life journals of two foreign scientist explorers who travelled with a shaman  to find a rare plant – the first, a German ethnographer in 1909 and the second, an American botanist in 1940. The mix of striking black-and-white cinematography, the way the physical journey mirrors the characters’ psychological journeys, the scenes depicting psychedelic hallucinations as well as the themes and imagery concerning exploitation, colonialism and religious missions have seen Embrace of the Serpent compared to Gomes’s Tabu, Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and at least half a dozen Werner Herzog films. And yet it stills feels like a unique cinematic vision by Guerra, heralding him as a major emerging talent to watch.

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Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Conor and Mark McKenna as Eamon in Sing Street

From a distance John Carney’s Sing Street did not seem like my kind of thing, but neither did his 2007 film Once nor his 2013 film Begin Again and I loved both of those. As with Carney’s previous films Sing Street is about musicians and the music they make. This time the setting is Dublin 1985 and the protagonist is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenage boy inspired by the post-punk, New Wave and New Romantic music of the era and motivated by a girl he has a crush on to start a band. At many points this film reminded me of The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and other films by John Hughes in that it takes the dreams and obsessions of teenagers seriously to deliver a sincere teen wish-fulfilment film. The music is great, it’s often a very funny film and the depiction of the bond between Conor and his older brother is touching. At the same time, the film doesn’t shy away from serious issues such as poverty, violence, abuse, family breakdown and disempowerment. This is a feel-good film build upon a very strong foundation.

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Camila Márdila as Jéssica and Regina Casé as Val in The Second Mother

The premise of the Brazilian drama  The Second Mother by writer/director Anna Muylaert is brilliant – the estranged daughter of a live-in-housemaid comes to stay with her mother and her wealthy employees. While the family’s father and son certainly don’t seem to mind having this young woman around the house, her own mother and the family’s mother find her familiarity extremely uncomfortable as her presence beings to rupture the polite divisions between master and servant. Writer/director Anna Muylaert uses this scenario to great effect to create a film that’s both an observant class critique as well as a tender drama about a mother/daughter relationship.

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Paul Dano as Hank and Daniel Radcliffe as Manny in Swiss Army Man

In a recent interview I heard actor Paul Dano say that directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert wanted their film Swiss Army Man to begin with a fart that makes the audience laugh and end with a fart that makes them cry. I think they succeeded with this truly original, bizarre and hard-to-classify film about the friendship between a lost man (Dano) and the highly flatulent corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) he befriends. What begins as an  excessively abject absurdist comedy ends up as something poignant and moving. Whether the film is read as a projection of an internal examination of the troubled soul belonging to Dano’s character or an unusual exploration of male friendship that goes far beyond the restrictions of the bromance formula, this film is wonderfully puerile and profound.

Melissa McCarthy;Kristen Wiig;Kate McKinnon;Leslie Jones

Melissa McCarthy as Dr Abby Yates, Kate McKinnon as Dr Jillian Holtzmann, Kristen Wiig as Dr Erin Gilbert and Leslie Jones as Patty Tolan in Ghostbusters

Like many I am nervous about remakes, but I also believe that they have their place when either the original film is average to begin with or when the new film sets out to do something significantly different from the film they are remaking. So I embraced the idea of a new Ghostbusters film, not because I thought Ivan Reitman’s 1984 film needed improving (it’s one of the great all-time modern comedies in my books) but because director Paul Feig decided to create all new characters and as per his previous films, he cast a group of terrific contemporary comedic women actors to play those parts. Not only does the gender-flipping give a new spin to the formula, but any opportunity to showcase the talents of Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, along with stars-on-the rise Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, is worth embracing. And while the resulting film does not match the brilliant original, it is still a lot of fun. The dynamics between the four leads is terrific and visually I especially enjoyed the use of a false framing to give the impression of the 3D special effects bursting out of the cinema screen. The new Ghostbusters contains a lot of nods and tributes to the original film, but otherwise it very much feels like it is doing its own thing and I really hope we get a sequel.

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Kumatetsu (voiced by Kōji Yakusho) and Ren (voiced by Aoi Miyazaki) in The Boy and the Beast

I also caught up with the Japanese animated film The Boy and the Beast, which has just come out on home entertainment in Australia. I’ve long been meaning to check out the films by Mamoru Hosoda and on the strength of this one I’m even more keen to do so. Evoking the Harry Potter series, The Boy and the Beast features Ren, an orphaned 9-year-old boy who stumbles from our regular human world into the Beast Kingdom where he becomes the disciple of the grumpy bear-like beast Kumatetsu. Both boy and beast are stubborn and short-tempered, but they are also both lonely and resilient. While the fantasy elements are fun, this is ultimately a film about parenting, specifically, the way children are shaped by care-givers, whether they be biological parents or not. This was surprising complex and moving.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016