Films I loved in November 2016

30 November 2016
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Amy Adams as Dr Louise Banks in Arrival

I’ve admired the French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve for some time now, even when I haven’t completely embraced all aspects of some of his films, so I approached Arrival with cautious anticipation. It has turned out to be one of my favourite films this year. Arrival belongs to the long tradition of science-fiction that provides a potent political allegory, in this case it is one of the less common alien-themed films that argues for social cohesion rather than promoting fear of outsiders. It also belongs to the hard science-fiction traditional of seriously exploring its premise, in this case the implications and practicality behind communicating with aliens. It also belongs to the more philosophical tradition where its premise is used to explore more abstract concepts such as language, communication, memory and time. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s a very emotional and personal story driven by the film’s protagonist, linguistics professor Dr Louise Banks played by Amy Adams in one or two outstanding performances from her in a film released this month.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Amy Adams as Susan Morrow in Nocturnal Animals

The other film this month featuring Amy Adams at the top of her game is Nocturnal Animals, the second feature film by the multi-talented Tom Ford. The story-within-a-story structure and ambiguous ending demands that the audience ask themselves how the fictional neo-western revenge story being read by Adam’s character, art gallery owner Susan Morrow, relates to her own stylish neo-noir story of lost love and bitterness. I was captivated by all aspects of the film and I’m still wrestling with its themes of revenge, catharsis, suffering and finding meaning through art (or perhaps more troubling, the inability of art to do anything more than symbolise and reflect).

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Hayley Squires as Katie Morgan and Dave Johns as Daniel Blake in I, Daniel Blake

In I, Daniel Blake director Ken Loach along with long-term collaborator screenwriter Paul Laverty do what they do best by delivering a moving and angry film about inequality, poverty and social injustice. The Kafkaesque scenario of a man being made to look for work to maintain his benefits despite being told he is unfit for work will only seem implausible or exaggerated to those who have never fallen on hard times. This is one of Loach’s best films and the scene in the food bank is one of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced in a film this year.

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Sasha Lane as Star and Shia LaBeouf as Jake in American Honey

American Honey showcases everything Andrea Arnold excels at: seamlessly combining professional and non-professional actors, creating visual intimacy and naturalism, and underscoring the energetic ‘in the moment’ feel of the film with class and social commentary. Newcomer Sasha Lane is a revelation as the 18-year-old Star who joins up with a group of young travelling salespeople who like to party and express their pursuit of the American Dream through motivation business rhetoric and hiphop lyrics.

Joe Alwyn

Joe Alwyn as Billy Lynn in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Unfortunately I didn’t get to see Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk projected at 120 frames per second or in 3D, but I still got the sense through its use of sound, editing and camera positioning of how this off-kilter film was experimenting with a new style of heightened character subjectivity. The way Lee collapses the disorientating spectacle of soldiers being used as stage decoration during a football halftime show with Lynn’s (newcomer Joe Alwyn) intruding memories of battle is captivating and disturbing, providing a powerful critique of the treatment and exploitation of young men sent off to war.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander and Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I more or less enjoyed the Harry Potter films, but by no means would I consider myself a fan. So I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a new prequel franchise directed by David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter films. The beautifully realised 1930s New York setting and inventive action sequences certain helped to win me over, but this is a strong character driven film with timely themes about persecution and the folly of making sweeping generalisations about groups of people (or creatures).

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Ella Havelka in Ella

Douglas Watkin’s Australian documentary Ella, about dancer Ella Havelka, is a warm and and inspiring film that through its story of personal accomplishments explores issues of cultural and personal identity. Havelka is a compelling and likeable subject with a fascinating background as a young girl from the country town of Dubbo, whose passion for dance lead her to learn ballet, but also to train with the acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre, before becoming the first Indigenous dancer to join the Australian Ballet.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Film review – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

13 July 2011
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 - Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)

Ten years after the first film was released and fourteen years after the original novel was published, the Harry Potter saga comes to a close. In one of the strongest scenes in this final film, a character tells Harry about the importance of words and how things that exist only in the mind are as real as anything else. It’s a stirring tribute to the power of literature and the power of imagination, and it deserves to be found in the final film adaptation of one of the most beloved and successful series of novels ever written. As these novels have inspired people of all ages from all over the world to take up reading, even if this final film were a complete dud (and it’s far from it), the legacy that Harry Potter leaves behind is to be applauded.

Unsurprisingly this film picks up directly from where Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 finishes. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are trying to find the remaining horcruxes while Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his supporters grow in power. There’s an atmospheric stillness and quietness during the opening scenes to convey the feeling of our heroes being in the eye of the storm. An exciting sequence at the Wizarding Bank Gringotts soon kicks off the action, with the inclusion of an extremely impressive looking CGI dragon. The really big battle scene at Hogwarts occurs midway through the film leaving the later climatic scenes to focus on the more intimate and personal conflicts between the core characters. It’s all completely appropriate; we get the big spectacle but the film ends with the type of action that feels the most faithful to the rest of the series.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 - Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)

Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)

This is the fourth Harry Potter film by David Yates and while it still doesn’t hit the heights of the third and fourth film in the franchise, it is the best one of the last four. The previous three films felt at times like extended prologues for this one, but what it delivers considerably makes up for that. The rules of the Harry Potter universe are now established so no longer are there moments where bits of magic seem to be conveniently remembered or discovered at a moment of crisis. All the missing details concerning important backstories are skilfully woven into the main narrative and many of the supporting characters get an appropriate sense of closure along with the leads. It is especially wonderful to see the much derided character Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) finally come into his own and Professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith) also gets a couple of great moments.

It was inevitable that this film was going to be quite moving considering the fate of various characters that we’ve all been with for a decade now. Nevertheless, Yates handles such moments well without losing momentum. The sight of the damaged Hogwarts buildings strongly evokes the look of the bombed out buildings throughout parts of England after World War II, touching on some of the Nazism imagery that found its way into Part 1. The epilogue may generate more unintentional laughs than intended, but it still possesses a very affectionate farewell to these now iconic characters. Casual fans of the film series will find this final outing extremely satisfying while the more serious fans are going to absolutely love it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)

17 November 2010
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)

Theoretically sequels and novel adaptations should hold up on their own merits but what is slightly tricky about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is that it’s not just an adaptation but also the seventh part of a franchise and the first part of a final story. If you’ve never read the novels and only ever saw the previous Harry Potter films once when initially released then you are going to be confounded by a lot of the details and you will have trouble remembering the significance of the many supporting characters. However, maybe once a film franchise has gone this far (an impressive feat in itself) it can be let off the hook for no longer filling in big chunks of back-story for newcomers and casual viewers.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 actually works reasonably well as its own film and considering it is adapted from only the first half of a novel, it feels remarkably complete. For a start, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) all go through a substantial character arc that is satisfyingly resolved. While Hermione and Ron were disappointingly pushed to the side for a lot of the previous film (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), they get a lot more to do in this one with both actors getting a chance to express a range of emotions, which works out a lot better for Emma Watson than it does for Rupert Grint. The dynamic between the trio also firmly establishes Hermione’s importance, which is a welcome far cry from the very problematic dynamic in the early films where Hermione’s studiousness (as opposed to Harry’s natural talents) was a source of derision.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I: Hermione Granger (Emma Watson)

Hermione Granger (Emma Watson)

This film completely abandons the Hogwarts setting, which loses the terrific structure of having each film set around a specific school year. Just like the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (where each season was set around a school and then college year) such a structure allowed for the characters to face particular dangers and challenges that reflected their emotional journey throughout the school year. Part seven of the franchise seems no longer concerned with such matters and instead opts for all out fantasy, with several features that while not completely derivative of other classic fantasy texts, are blatantly familiar.

The focus on finding and destroying the magical objects known as Horcruxes, which give power to evil-doers and corrupts good-doers, seems lifted straight from The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 also contains a magical sword at the bottom of a lake as per the King Arthur legend but it’s most interesting allusions are to the Holocaust and Nazism, which were also heavily evoked in the original Star Wars trilogy – another wildly popular film franchise. In Harry Potter the world of magic is now officiated over with the iron fist of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his followers, who in their contempt for Muggles (humans) are rounding up the perceived-to-be-inferior half-blood wizards and witches. Victims of this non-witch hunt are lead away by black uniformed officials who look like Gestapo officers and taken into the depths of the Ministry of Magic. One character even gets “mud blood” carved into their arm like a concentration camp tattoo. Hopefully in Part 2 this symbolism is explored further because while it adds a curious extra layer of depth to Part 1 it isn’t yet fully developed.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1: Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes)

Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes)

This is the third film in the series directed by David Yates who continues to make the series darker (this one features more blood than previously) and who continues to overuse a green wash to make everything feel a bit gloomy. The film lags badly in the middle, the acting is very uneven and some moments are completely naff. However, it also includes a terrific opening chase sequence, an exciting wand shoot-out, an impressive animation sequence and a moving farewell to a fairly minor character that somehow evokes far more pathos than Dumbledore’s death at the end of the previous film. While Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 certainly doesn’t fulfil the expectations created by parts three and four in the series, it’s still a slight improvement on the stodgy parts five and six. If nothing else, this penultimate film does leave you anticipating how it will all turn out in the final film, which is a lot more than can be said about other comparative film franchises.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

16 July 2009
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson)

The sixth in the eight-part Harry Potter film franchise (there are only seven books but the final book is being split into two films) sees Hogwarts in its darkest days yet. Not only does the wizard world seem to be facing its own economic downturn but also Lord Voldemort, like all great monsters of the screen, doesn’t seem to want to stay dead. Voldemort doesn’t actually make his grand comeback in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince but his followers, the Death Eaters, are causing plenty of trouble in anticipation. Within the confines of Hogwarts all the gang are back, in fact pretty much every character from the preceding three films makes an appearance at some point, but this time Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) are also burdened with the emotional havoc of young love.

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