Films I loved in February 2017

26 February 2017
T2: TRAINSPOTTING

Ewan McGregor as Mark Renton and Jonny Lee Miller as Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson in T2 Trainspotting

T2 Trainspotting is not the best film released this month, but it’s the one that had the biggest effect on me. As somebody who vividly associates seeing the original 1996 film with my early 20s, that’s exactly what it is calculated to do. Like a lot of the soundtrack featured in the film, it functions as both a remix and an update of the original Trainspotting as we are reintroduced to the characters to discover that none of them have moved on as much as they would have liked to. Thematically it is anti-nostalgic, while stylistically being deeply nostalgic which results in a film that is equal parts refreshing and euphoric as well as sobering and melancholic.

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Sandra Hüller as Ines Conradi and Peter Simonischek as Winfried Conradi in Toni Erdmann

On paper the concept of Toni Erdmann sounds patronising and condescending – an older man follows his daughter on a business trip to disrupt her ordered corporate life with pranks and jokes to make her find joy in life again. Instead, this is an impressive drama/comedy about the relationship between parents and their children that also comments on the dehumanising effects of capitalism. It is also a film of surprises with the ability to trigger strong emotional responses with the many scenes that are unexpectedly deeply moving plus and the many, many scenes that are deliriously funny. The escalation of humour in key moments results in some of the finest cinematic comedy in recent years.

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Michelle Williams as Randi and Casey Affleck as Lee in Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is a beautifully written, directed and acted drama about living with grief, guilt and regret. The use of flashbacks to convey the memories of the lead character Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) as they come back to haunt him means that for a lot of the running time the audience don’t know the full details behind what has made him into such a shadow of a person. The climax of the backstory is heartbreaking and makes the events in the current time period all the more poignant.

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Cameraperson

Documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson assembled various outtakes from the documentaries she has filmed, as well as some personal home movies, to create her deeply personal and very moving film Cameraperson. Through the juxtaposition of footage taken all over the world during different time periods, Johnson reflects on how humans cope with tragedy and horror – whether experiencing it directly or witnessing it – and the blurred lines between objectivity and subjectivity she has experienced in her professional life.

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The Family

The Family documents the widespread power and influence of the Melbourne-based cult The Family from the 1960s to the 1990s. It’s an extremely accomplished documentary that includes extensive interviews with survivors of the cult, who were children at the time, and members of the police who were instrumental in rescuing them. Perhaps most shocking are the revelations about the degree to which cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne was able to infiltrate legal, medical and political institutions throughout the decades.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

Films I loved in February 2016

28 February 2016
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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 – 127 Hours (2010)

10 February 2011
127 Hours: Aron Ralston (James Franco)

Aron Ralston (James Franco)

In 2003 Aron Ralston went mountain biking and then hiking by himself in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. A freak accident resulted in a boulder falling onto his right arm, pinning him to a canyon wall. The story of Ralston’s ordeal and the extraordinary measures he took to escape have been adapted into film with stunning results. The single location and single character scenario presents an enormous challenge to filmmaker Danny Boyle who uses what seems like every cinematic technique imaginable to make the film dynamic. Time-lapse photography, strobe effects, hand held camera, forced perspective, flashbacks, montages, slow motion, point-of-view shots, split screen and sound are just some of the stylistic devices used to make the audience share Ralston’s experiences in a truly visceral way. We experience Ralston’s fantasies, hallucinations and memories. Shots from inside his water bottle constantly reinforce the drama of his dwindling water supply, shards of sound express pain and bursts of light convey the brief moments of serenity each day when the sun touches him.

Not only does Boyle’s command of film style make 127 Hours an engaging experience, but it is also impressively used throughout the film to build and develop Ralston as a character. The lengthy opening sequence leading up to the accident is shot like the sort of extreme sports film that somebody like Warren Miller could have made. As Ralston packs, drives to the park, mountain bikes and then sets out hiking, the film is an adrenaline pumping combination of rapid edits, energetic music and dramatic camera angels. We get a great sense of Ralston’s spirit and bravado. We also get a sense that he is a little self-absorbed and enjoys playing the adventurous lone hero, and this is certainly reflected in the reactions of a pair of lost female hikers that he helps out early in the film prior to the incident. The female hikers respond to his charisma and admire his enthusiasm, but they are also a little amused by his posturing.

127 Hours

The degree in which Ralston is selfish and self-absorbed creates most of the emotional drama for the film as he questions how he ended up in the situation that he finds himself in. Boyle begins 127 Hours with a variety of split screens showing crowds and groups of people from all over the world to emphasise the loneliness of Ralston’s future predicament. However, it also emphasises Ralston’s background of pushing other people away, including his family, friends and ex-girlfriend, and how such emotional isolationism led to the circumstances where he would go off for a weekend of adventuring without telling anybody where he was going. So while 127 Hours celebrates the achievement of an individual under extreme duress, it is also a critique of individualistic behaviour that manifests as a brutal lesson.

127 Hours reveals the natural environment to be beautiful and awe-inspiring but it can very quickly turn into a cruel and indifferent oppressor when not treated with respect. Boyle needed to cast an actor to play Ralston who had the physique of somebody who could believably survive such an ordeal as well as articulate both his charisma and his hubris. Boyle has done exactly that with the casting of James Franco who delivers an extraordinary performance. Franco captures the range of emotions that Ralston experiences from despair and depression through to triumph and euphoria. Franco keeps us cheering for Ralston and making us want to stay with him. It’s the final ingredient to want makes 127 Hours such compelling, vicarious and satisfying cinema.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Cinema Autopsy’s predictions for the 81st Academy Awards

19 February 2009
Jamal (Dev Patel) and Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) from <em>Slumdog Millionaire</em>

Dev Patel as Jamal and Anil Kapoor as Prem Kumar from Slumdog Millionaire

As promised in my piece about the Academy Award nominees, here are my predictions for who I think will win the major awards and who I think should win the awards this Sunday night. If this year is like any other year then I will be way off the mark, but that’s not going to stop me from still having a go.

 

Best Motion Picture of the Year

The Reader and Milk are really the two most deserving films nominated but given the popularity of Slumdog Millionaire and it’s current winning streak at other awards then I think it is going to be the film that takes home the prize.

Predicted to win: Slumdog Millionaire
Should win: The Reader or Milk
Would annoy me if it won: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and frankly, despite initially liking it, the fuss over Slumdog Millionaire is starting to really turn me against it.
Also nominated: Frost/Nixon

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