Films I loved in February 2016

28 February 2016
9

Géza Röhrig as Saul Ausländer in Son of Saul

Son of Saul succeeds on every level. It’s an emotionally devastating drama, which sometimes plays out like a thriller, with a precise focus on one character in a Nazi concentration camp in order to convey the broader trauma and grief of the Holocaust. Its stylistic technique of predominantly filming this character in close-up so that the audience experiences the horrors of the camp through sound and his peripheral vision is confronting and effective. And by making the character one of the death-camp Sonderkommandos, who becomes fixated on a personal act of humanity, the film wrestles with questions of what it takes to survive, when does a noble act in extreme circumstances become reckless or selfish, and how do you measure life and morality when surrounded by death and evil. Son of Saul is a triumph and as the debut feature film by Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, it heralds the arrival of a major new talent.

BROOKLYN

Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn

On the surface Brooklyn seems like a modest film about a young Irish woman who immigrates to New York, USA, in the 1950s to start a new life and ends up torn between two men. While the film very much works as romance film, it is also a stirring tale of personal and cultural identity. The excitement and liberation of new experiences, versus the familiarity and emotional bonds with home are both depicted as powerful motivating forces that are to be wrestled with before making major life decisions. As Eilis, the young woman torn between two countries, two sets of friends, and two potential lovers, Saoirse Ronan delivers a beautiful performance of somebody hungry to experience life with all its uncertainties and difficulties. The result is a gorgeous film about love, home and community.

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Tom Courtenay as Geoff Mercer and Charlotte Rampling as Kate Mercer in 45 Years

Brooklyn left me feeling hopeful about love and companionship with its romantic glow, but 45 Years took all of that away with its portrait of a woman starting to realise that her husband of 45 years has never been as emotionally invested in their marriage as she has. In his debut feature film Weekend writer/director Andrew Haigh proved himself to be a master at using subtle film style, especially camera position, to differentiate between the private and public dynamics of a relationship. In 45 Years Haigh again displays his ability of depicting private and public spaces, and a major incident in the film is framed around the circumstances in which somebody reveals their emotions and how that in turn affects the other person. It allows for a devastating final scene where the cut to the credits is so perfectly timed that all the restrained emotion of the film until that point finally bursts free.

ANOMALISA

David Thewlis (voice) as Michael Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh (voice) as Lisa in Anomalisa

Continuing the theme of doomed relationships, Anomalisa goes one step further to present the world experienced by an unlikeable yet not completely unsympathetic man who has become incapable of forming any type of relationship with anybody at all. While the film’s darkly humorous existentialism is a trademark for writer/director Charlie Kaufman (who shares directorial duties with Duke Johnson) the use of stop-motion puppet animation is both unusual and weirdly inventive in its blandness. However, as the main concept of the film becomes clear so does the rationale for using the animated puppetry, making Anomalisa yet another singular vision by Kaufman that is bitterly funny, uncomfortable and melancholic.

Steve Jobs

Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak and Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs in Steve Jobs

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Steve Jobs is that despite how overtly fictionalised it is, it still delivers a convincing and engaging version of ‘reality’. Structured like a three act play, with each act set right before Jobs is about to launch a major new product, the self contained backstage spaces become a microcosmos for the dramas in Jobs’s life to play out. Across the three different time periods he interacts with the same group of people, moving from being a ruthless, arrogant visionary with a messiah complex to a slightly less ruthless, arrogant visionary with a messiah complex. The combination of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue-heavy script, Danny Boyle’s flamboyant directorial style, the first rate ensemble cast and the setting, give this unconventional biopic the energy of a backstage musical.

Hail, Casar!

Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix in Hail, Caesar!

My favourite film by Joel and Ethan Coen is still their 1991 masterpiece Barton Fink, a Faustian story set in the classical Hollywood studio system where an aspiring young writer trades his integrity, soul and sanity for a shot at the big time. Hail, Caesar! is a sort-of companion piece by the Coens, although set a decade later in the 1950s and much lighter in tone. At the centre of a sprawling narrative that involves a group of Communist writers kidnapping the star of a new Biblical epic, is a fictionalised version of producer and studio ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin. With no shortage of deliberately overt symbolism and references, Mannix is a flawed Christ figure who spends the film taking the sins of the studio on his shoulders, while resisting the temptation of abandoning his flock at the factory of dreams. The Coens manage to have their cake and eat it to with their loving tributes to the films of the classical Hollywood era while also presenting a scathing critique of the studio system as encapsulating the worst aspects of capitalism.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Film review – True Grit (2010)

24 January 2011
True Grit: Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld)

Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld)

In the version of the Wild West that is depicted in this 2010 adaptation of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, human life is cheap and more often than not it is used as a commodity. When the smart, assertive and independent 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) teams up on a manhunt with Deputy US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), neither speak about justice in the legal sense. Hunting down the man who murdered her father is a personal act of revenge for Mattie while for Rooster it’s a commercial transaction. The pompous Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is tracking the same murderer, does seem motivated by a desire to see justice properly handed down but he’s out of his jurisdiction. True Grit is a classic chase story with a trio of characters who under normal situations would not choose each other for travel companions. In a moment of frustration Rooster sums up their attitudes towards each other best when he declares them to be “a foolish old man … a harpy in trousers and a nincompoop”.

Usually when directors/writers Joel and Ethan Coen make a film that belongs to a distinct genre the results are very reflexive and stylised. In particular, Coen Brothers films that adhere to popular Classical Hollywood genres; such as film noir (Blood Simple, Fargo), gangster (Miller’s Crossing) and screwball comedy (The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty); are both affectionate homages and subversively self-aware. What makes True Grit such a unique Coen Brothers film is how conventional it is in the way it conforms so closely to a traditional western. True Grit falls at the less noble end of the western tradition, since it is vengeance rather than justice that is the motivation for order being restored through violence. The characters and situations are represented as they are with no overt political commentary. Casual brutal treatment of Native Americans is the norm and the difference between an outlaw and a lawman is often little more than a badge.

True Grit: Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon)

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon)

However, there is nothing wrong at all about the Coen Brothers going old school especially when the results are this strong. True Grit is a compelling and engaging story that is told effectively and confidently.  The use of browns, oranges and dirty whites in the costumes and sets give the film the appearance of an old black-and-white film that has been tinted with a brown wash. The use of early morning light at the start of the film and then the emphasis on dusk and night shots towards the end create a wonderful sense of passing time, for both the film’s narrative and Rooster, who represents a dying breed.

Portis’s novel has been adapted before in the 1969 film directed by Henry Hathaway, which is probably most notably known for being the film that won John Wayne his Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Rooster. Despite that award, it was not a great performance by Wayne who was a far better actor when under the direction of John Ford in classics such as Stagecoach, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In this 2010 version Jeff Bridges is much more adapt at portraying the mixture of comedic absurdity, menace and ruthlessness that makes Rooster such an intriguing character. He’s a drunk and a windbag but also quick to act and unafraid to use violence as soon as he sees it is necessary.

True Grit: Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges)

Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges)

Matt Damon is infinitely better than Glen Campbell when he played LaBoeuf, with Damon’s version of the character being far more of a well meaning but frequently irritating buffoon. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross is especially strong in the 2010 film and a lot less masculinised in appearance than Kim Darby was in the 1969 version. While Darby did give a great performance, having her looking so overtly boyish did undermine the idea that Mattie could be tough, independent and intelligent while also being a young girl. In fact, the only things really missing from the Coen’s version of True Grit are a young Dennis Hopper and a young Robert Duvall in key supporting roles. Otherwise, this 2010 adaptation is the superior film.

With the exception of the strange arrival of a doctor who appears resembling a bear mounted on horseback, True Grit is one of the Coen Brothers’s least Coenesque films. Nevertheless, it maintains their command of film style and storytelling. After the intricacies of A Serious Man, Burn After Reading and No Country for Old Men there is something very pleasing with this straightforward and generically respectful film of revenge and strange allegiances in the American Old West.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – A Serious Man (2009)

21 November 2009

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg)

For 25 years now Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading) have been making stylish and meticulously constructed films that reveal their deep love and knowledge of cinema. Frequently working in the screwball comedy and film noir genres, the Coen brothers have made films that toyed with generic conventions and delightfully undermined audience expectations. Occasionally they make radically non-genre films such as their 1991 masterpiece Barton Fink, which still stands as their most personal and expressive film. Not only does Barton Fink contain the Coen brothers’ dark and absurd sense of humour and existential view of the universe but it also touches on their Jewish identity. Now comes A Serious Man, which is very much one of the Coen brothers’ more left-of-field personal projects and it contains the most thorough examination of their Jewish background to date.

Set in a suburb in the American Mid West in 1967, A Serious Man depicts a world that on the surface appears to be one of complete ordinariness.  In the centre of this world is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) a college professor whose son is preparing for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. Despite not having actually done anything to cause any ripples in the universe, Larry’s entire life soon begins to tumble around him. His wife asks for a divorce, his professional integrity is challenged and his troubled brother appears even more troubled than originally suspected. Larry turns to a series of rabbis for moral and spiritual advice on how to get over these calamities and live his life as a good and serious man.

Larry and Judith Gopnik (Sari Lennick)

As you would expect from a Coen brother’s film every single aspect contained within A Serious Man is deliberate and carefully compiled. The shots are composed perfectly and not since Punch-Drunk Love has music been used so effectively to give such incredible tension to what appears on screen to be mundane interactions. A Serious Man is a film that will get under your skin unexpectedly and stay in your mind long after its astonishing final shot abruptly cuts to the end credits. Somewhere in this puzzle of a film is a parable about perception, meaninglessness, moral accountability, faith, coping with what life throws at you and Jefferson Airplane lyrics. It is a film to be intuitively understood on an almost gut level and discussing it at length later to unravel its nuances is part of the pleasure of seeing such a film. A Serious Man is a rich, darkly humorous and spellbinding addition to the incredible contribution that Joel and Ethan Coen have made to contemporary cinema.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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