Films I loved in July 2017

2 August 2017
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The Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) and Lewis MacDougall as Conor O’Malley in A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls once more confirms my suspicion that films aimed at children and young adults often deal with difficult subject matter with far more sophistication and sensitivity than films designed for adult audiences. What makes A Monster Calls so compelling and moving isn’t the mystery of what will happen to 12-year-old Conor and his seriously ill mother, but the unknown nature of the monster that has started to appear before Conor. Is it there to help, guide, cure, punish, torment or nurture? This ambiguity allows the film to explore not just grief and associated emotions such as anger and fear, but even more complex ideas about what it means to a human with all the contradictions that come with it.

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Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk

Dunkirk is a expertly orchestrated spectacle that showcases Christopher Nolan’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker, particularly his use of sound. Cutting between three stories that unfold across different periods of time, Nolan delivers an almost impressionist snapshot of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation of Allied soldiers during World War II. By only delivering snapshots of a small handful of characters caught up in events, and portraying a series of tension moments rather than a more conventional narrative, Dunkirk is an explicitly sensory film. It conveys feelings of bewilderment, disorientation, dread, fear, panic and despair, but it is ultimately a triumphant and exhilarating experience that celebrates what human beings are capable of even in the most desperate situations.

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Ansel Elgort as Baby in Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is cinematic pastiche at its best. It’s a fun and funny homage to heist and action films – specifically films from the 1970s, and even more specifically films featuring car chases – and yet it’s edited to and choreographed to an eclectic selection of songs that getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) listens to, as if the film were a musical. I cannot recall seeing another film that conveys the act of walking down the street with headphones on with the excitement of a full dance number. The combination of a pulpy crime plot with a sweet romance sub-plot along with beautifully orchestrated action and a killer soundtrack, won me over completely.

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Zucchini, voiced by Gaspard Schlatter (French version) and Erick Abbate (English version), in My Life as a Zucchini

My Life as a Zucchini is a warm and moving tale that deceptively resembles a kids’ film in production design and style, but explores difficult themes with nuance through well-developed and complex characters. I’ve now seen both the original French-language version and the English-language dub and while I probably prefer the original version, casting Nick Offerman as the voice of the kind police man who looks out of the film’s troubled 9-year-old protagonist, is inspired.

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Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming is my favourite cinematic outing for the likeable teen superhero character, possibly because it’s more of a teen-film/superhero hybrid. Combining Peter Parker’s awkward attempts to navigate high school and first love, with his over-eagerness to develop his superhero abilities as Spider-Man, allows for lots of fun teen angst and coming-of-age moments, punctuated with some of the better action sequences from the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. Tom Holland is great as Parker/Spider-Man and Michael Keaton makes a terrific villain, playing a working-class man who is sick of being screwed over.

The Beguiled

Colin Farrell as Corporal John McBurney and Kirsten Dunst as Edwina Morrow in The Beguiled

The dreamlike spell of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled owes a lot to its mist-filled, over-grown-garden, swampy Virginian setting during the American Civil War, where the sunlight is constantly fighting to penetrate the overgrowth and darkness. The strange and disturbing tale of repressed sexuality and violence is more muted, less sensationalised and less seedy than Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of the same source material, and for that reason many will prefer Siegel’s version, but I like Coppola’s more. Siegel’s film contains plenty of aspect I like and in same cases prefer, but I feel there’s more mystery and richer characterisation in Coppola’s film.

It Comes At Night

Joel Edgerton as Paul in It Comes at Night

It Come at Night is a film with all the tropes of a zombie apocalypse horror film, but plays out as a psychological thriller crossed with an indie family drama. It’s utterly gripping and suspenseful throughout, and the acting is superb, and yet it wilfully defies easy categorisation and easy explanation. Is it an exercise in using as much ambiguity as possible to deliver as much tension as possible, or it is a clever subversion of audience expectations, which allows it to provide a grim commentary on the nature of paranoia? Either way, it’s a film I keep thinking about it.

A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story is a small film with grand themes that feels both highly ambitious and very humble. And to be honest, I was not on board for a while, but once it clicked into place for me, I feel under its spell. The image of a man’s ghost being visualised as an actor wearing a bed sheet with cutout eyes, is on screen for so long that it moves past looking twee or ridiculous, to become oddly moving as the droopy eye holes increasingly suggest a profound melancholia. Moving forward and back in time, meditating on the meaning of life (including a superb scene featuring Will Oldham as an insufferable party guest on a nihilist rant), and at its core being a story about love and loss; it somehow all works, making this a thoughtful and graceful piece of cinema.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

Films I loved in September 2016

2 October 2016
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Tom Hanks as Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger in Sully

Despite regarding myself as a Clint Eastwood fan, I’d started to think his best work was long behind him. When I saw Sully I was thrilled to discover that I was wrong. The film depicts the emergency water landing of a commercial passenger flight on the Hudson River by Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks in the film) on 15 January 2009. It is also a fictionalised dramatisation of how Sully in the immediate aftermath coped with the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the incident and the media attention on him. The film is nonlinear, shows events more than once from different perspectives, and depicts Sully’s anxieties and nightmares. The purpose is to convey the bewildering enormity of what Sully did and the anxiety and self doubt that followed. Rather than focusing on the spectacle of the incident, Eastwood focuses on the emotion, making Sully a heartfelt and moving introspective film about the nature of everyday heroism.

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Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song

Terence Davies’s Sunset Song is an adaptation of a classic 1932 Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. It’s about Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), a young Scottish woman growing up in a farming community in Aberdeenshire in northern Scotland during the start of the twentieth century and the start of the First World War. Not unlike Davies’s previous film, The Deep Blue SeaSunset Song is a love story and a story of the resilience of a woman facing enormous turmoil and hardship, against the backdrop of war. Chris is a wonderful character and true to form, Davies does a excellent job presenting her as somebody vulnerable, strong, open to love, and able to do what she needs to do to survive – these aren’t presented as contradictory character traits, but part of what constitutes a fully rounded character. And it almost goes without saying that the film looks stunning.

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Anthony Weiner in Weiner

I suspect that Weiner will be referred for many years to come as the benchmark for documentary filmmaking about politics. Through their incredible access to the film’s subject, filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have crafted a fascinating and compelling portrait of the charismatic, outspoken and disgraced ex-congressman Anthony Weiner as he ran for mayor of New York in 2013, under the shadow of a sexting scandal. This is a compelling examination of the nature of political scandals, questions concerning personal privacy for public figures, and issues concerning moral hypocrisy and pathological behaviour. To say that during the course of the film my sympathies shifted and my stance on the various issues it raises were challenged, would be an understatement.

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Eva Green as Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Tim Burton is another director I adore, but over the past decade I’ve found myself liking his new films less and less. However, my faith began to return with Frankenweenie in 2012 and it’s now fully restored thanks to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Like the source material (a 2011 YA novel by Ransom Riggs) the majority of the film concerns setting up the characters and world of peculiar children, through the eyes of troubled teenager Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield), to then lead up to the big finale. Burton’s film expands on both the world building – allowing the audience to hang out even longer with the wonderful ensemble of characters – and the finale, providing a spectacular (albeit somewhat bewildering) extended conclusion that visually evokes Burton’s beloved old fashioned Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion animation and contemporary Slenderman imagery. Burton knows when to hold back his sometimes overwhelming visual style to allow the characters to take centre-stage, and he also knows when to let himself go off the leash to deliver some glorious sequences.

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Harrison Feldman as Elliott and Bethany Whitmore as Greta in Girl Asleep

Girl Asleep is a highly stylised Australian film that is adapted from a youth theatre production, both directed by Rosemary Myers. Set in the 1970s the focus is on 14-year-old Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore) who has just started at a new school after moving house with her family, and having to contend with an unwanted 15th birthday party where fantasy and reality converge. Despite its origins and the degree to which it incorporates a high degree of theatrically, Girl Asleep never feels stagey. Instead, this glorious bold, funny, imaginative and creative insight into the anxieties of the teen mind is one of the most welcome breaths of fresh air in Australian cinema for a long time.

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Elliot the Dragon (vocals by John Kassir) and Oakes Fegley as Pete in Pete’s Dragon

Pete’s Dragon is the latest remake by Walt Disney Pictures of one of their own films, in this case the 1977 musical that mixed live action and traditional 2D animation. A variation on the ‘wild child’ trope, the film is about 11-year-old Pete who has been raised by a dragon since being stranded in the woods six years ago after a car crash that killed his parents. Pete’s discovery by the local small-town logging community creates divides about how to respond to the discovery of the dragon. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints writer/director David Lowery delivers a gentle, moving and warm family film that is ultimately about reconciliation across class and ideology lines – something that feels very timely for a major USA film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016