Films I loved in November 2016

30 November 2016
the-arrival

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).

i-daniel-blake-still-4

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.

american-honey

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).

ella

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
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Film review – Incendies (2010)

28 April 2011
Incendies: Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal)

Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal)

A slow fade up on a serene shot of the desert gradually pulls back to reveal a room full of armed men shaving the heads of young boys who are literally being groomed to become soldiers. As the evocative song ‘You and Whose Army?’ by Radiohead swells on the soundtrack one of the boys glares directly into the camera to create an extraordinarily arresting opening image. This boy is not a character who features much throughout the film but the significance of who he is and what he does will impact upon the lives of all the characters whose lives are about to unfold.

This French Canadian film by writer/director Denis Villeneuve, adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, is about identity and the links between the past and the present. One half of the film’s dual narrative structure is the present day story about Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) attempting to learn the truth about her recently deceased mother’s background. The second narrative strand in Incendies is about Jeanne’s mother, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), and her experiences as a young woman living in an unnamed Middle Eastern country during a time of violent conflict.

Incendies: Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin)

Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin)

Incendies very successfully explores the residual effect of past trauma on contemporary lives. As one character comments, ‘Death is never the end of the story. It leaves traces.’ There are several moments in the film when Jeanne is warned about finding out too much and she even experiences prejudices that are still being kept alive as a result of her mother’s legacy. Ultimately the case is made for the need to reconcile with the past even if the process is painful and Incendies effectively argues that this is necessary so that contemporary generations can break the cycle of violence that has plagued their predecessors.

The decision to not name the specific Middle Eastern country that Nawal comes from allows issues associated with religious conflict to be explored without causing offence or trivialising much broader issues. Instead, it is enough to know that the violence being done in the name of religion results in atrocities against human rights such as honour killings, genocide, torture and sexual violence. Incendies is a film about how people are affected by violence rather than being a film attempting to explore the cause and nature of that violence.

Incendies: Nawal (Lubna Azabal) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin)

Nawal (Lubna Azabal) and Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin)

It is to the extraordinary credit of Villeneuve how well the various acts of violence are presented on screen without feeling exploitative or compromised. Villeneuve is extremely careful and sensitive about what gets shown on screen, what gets shown from a distance and what occurs off-screen. Some incidents happen suddenly and with a horrifying casualness while some are built up to with considerable dread without the camera revelling in explicit details of suffering or degradation. Sound, editing and camera placement are skilfully harnessed to ensure that the impact of various moments are felt without turning the scenes into morbid spectacle.

Incendies is a tough film but a sensitive one that never feels like an ordeal to watch. It ingeniously dispenses information to the audience and the characters at different times in a way that facilitates its most significant revelations in the most powerful ways possible. A degree of coincidence does come into play with this film, but it is there to serve the grand narrative that evolves throughout. In this way the story and its characters are archetypes representing generational differences between a generation who lived during a time of peace and a generation who lived through war.  Most importantly, it establishes the power that contemporary generations have to facilitate the healing process for events that occurred before their time.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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