Films I loved in November 2015

2 December 2015
The Assassin

Shu Qi as Nie Yinniang in The Assassin

It becomes clear very early in The Assassin that Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is more interested in mood and impression than traditional narrative storytelling. Following the actions of an elite assassin in 9th century China during a period of political turmoil, Hou’s film is a sensory experience placing greater emphasis on moments of stillness rather than the brief snippets of superbly choreographed action. Audiences willing to embrace Hou’s austere visuals and meticulous style will be overcome by the beauty and harmony of this film.

The Look of Silence

Adi Rukun and his mother in The Look of Silence

In many ways Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is superior to the surreal and confronting The Act of Killing, his previous documentary about the 1965-66 Indonesian killings. This personal focus on Adi Rukun, as he confronts some of the people directly responsible for the brutal death of his brother, allows many moments of quietness and stillness where what is unspoken carries just as much repressed pain, guilt and grief as what is spoken.


Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

The excellent Hunger Games film series comes to an end with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, a film that builds on the previous instalments’ critique of violent spectacle, reality television, propaganda and celebrity culture as products of authoritarianism, to also explore how violent resistance is capable of becoming as barbaric as what it seeks to overthrow. The result is a film that is not only immensely exciting and entertaining, but contains complex observations on the nature of violent conflict, far more so than most films made for adult audiences.


Daniel Craig as James Bond in Spectre

Speaking of which, I tend not to think much of the Bond films so to my surprise I really enjoyed Spectre. I suspect it is because it addresses many of the issues I have with the franchise by exploring the idea that Bond is little more than a robotic assassin/hedonist who has become obsolete. I enjoyed the surveillance themes, the inclusion of a love interest who is a relatively developed character rather than a conquest, and the presence of so many genuinely exciting action sequences. This is a film that is actually about something and for the first time since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969 seems to develop, or even evolve, Bond as a character.

This month I also enjoyed the cinematic impressionism of Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, a film that once again explores Malick’s preoccupation in the ongoing philosophical struggle between the way of nature and the way of Grace, as explored most successfully in his 2011 film The Tree of Life. I was also extremely impressed with the tense drama 99 Homes, where its tale of an opportunistic real estate operator taking advantage of the US housing market collapse allows it to successfully function as Wall Street for the contemporary era. And finally, I was very pleased to see the New Zealand horror comedy Deathgasm released on home entertainment as I had a ball seeing this love letter to heavy metal and schlock horror earlier this year at a late night festival screening.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Films I loved in November 2014

2 December 2014
Marion Cotillardas Sandra in Two Days, One Night

Marion Cotillard as Sandra in Two Days, One Night

The latest film by brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night, is similar to their previous film The Kid with a Bike, where they take a highly structured story within a very precise setting and still deliver the naturalistic feel that they are renowned for. The structure is reminiscent of High Noon, where the protagonist has a short period of time to convince the members of the community to stand by her. Marion Cotillard is incredible as Sandra, battling depression and despair, as she lobbies her co-workers to vote in her favour so that she can keep her job – the company has given its employees the cruel choice in having to decide between her remaining employed or them all getting bonuses. It’s a complex and beautifully performed film that delivers a sensitive portrayal of what it’s like living with a mental illness as well as providing a potent social critique of systems that trample the rights of workers. It also has a conclusion that is close to perfect.

James Rolleston as Mana and Cliff Curtis as Genesis in The Dark Horse

James Rolleston as Mana and Cliff Curtis as Genesis in The Dark Horse

The other film released this month that commendably portrays the difficulties of living with a mental illness in a difficult environment is the outstanding New Zealand drama The Dark Horse. Cliff Curtis is a revelation as Genesis, an ex-chess champion who has been in and out of institutions due to his struggles with a bio-polar disorder. Based on a true story the film is about his volunteer work at a local youth chess club and his attempts to get his teenage nephew out from the violent gang life that his father intends for him.  Not unlike Shane Meadows’s excellent 24 7: Twenty Four Seven this is story of hope that doesn’t flinch from the grim realities that face the characters.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler

The ultra cynical and darkly comedic Nightcrawler sees Jake Gyllenhaal in fine form as a ruthless creature of the night akin to the alien from Under the Skin and pop-culture psychopaths like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. In the case of Lou he profiteers from video taping tragedy to then sell to news stations, and he does so with no qualms about manipulating other people’s trauma to get the best footage possible. The result is a thrilling and voyeuristic ride alongside somebody completely lacking empathy, and a savage critique of the news that we consume, which is only made possible by people like Lou and our own morbid appetites.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

I’ve enjoyed all The Hunger Games films and even though the new film is only half of one of the books, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is my favourite so far in the excellent franchise. With a focus on the propaganda war between the ruling class in the Capitol and the rebels in District 13, this film goes even further in its savvy critique of how celebrity culture, the media and popular culture carry political messages to influence the target audience. Jennifer Lawrence is once again fantastic as reluctant hero Katniss Everdeen who in this film starts to question the rhetoric of the side she’s been coopted to fight on.

Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand and Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar

Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand and Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar

The final film I really enjoyed this month is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which may overreach in some of its attempts to position itself alongside philosophical science fiction masterpieces such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but still contains enough moments of awe and wonder for me to overlook any shortcomings. On a purely spectacle level it is a triumph and I admire its attempts to explore complex ideas such as how time could be represented as a physical space. I also strongly responded to its core question, which is also at the heart of Malick’s The Tree of Life, about what motivates humanity: a simple survival instinct that’s wired into our DNA or something less tangible or measurable such as – dare I say it – love. Corny to some perhaps, but I enjoyed it and also appreciated how much the film linked in such ideas with its celebration of scientific curiosity and the quest to discover something more in life than simple survival and acceptance of fate.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – Water for Elephants (2011)

12 May 2011
Water for Elephants: Jacob (Robert Pattinson)

Jacob (Robert Pattinson)

It’s America in 1931 and the realities of the Great Depression followed by the death of his parents leads Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) to seek refuge with other outcasts in the circus where he can put his uncompleted veterinarian studies to use. He primarily cares for the circus’s new elephant, who is the real star of the film, and inconveniently falls in love with the wife of the circus’s tyrannical owner. Despite the potential offered by the film being almost entirely set in the transgressive space of the Big Top, where cultural norms were traditionally turned on their heads, and the transient space of the train that takes the performers from town to town, this adaptation of Sara Gruen’s popular novel is simply a pleasant exercise in idealised nostalgia and romance. It’s certainly a far cry from the dark gothic sensibilities of the HBO Depression era circus series Carnivàle.

As the handsome, young romantic lead, Pattinson certainly fits the part and the Twilight Saga franchise star has an undeniable onscreen presence with his brooding James Dean-type looks. Whether Pattinson is set to become the next James Franco or the next Luke Perry remains to be seen, but while there’s nothing remarkable about his performance in Water for Elephants he doesn’t do himself any harm either. Reese Witherspoon is as reliable as ever as the film’s object of desire, and her assertive onscreen persona helps to make us forget that her character does little but react to the men. To complete the film’s Oedipal love triangle is the real standout performance by Christoph Waltz as the villainous circus owner August. Waltz manages to convey the alarming psychotic nature of this potentially stock-standard character who so easily flies between charismatic joviality and violent fury.

Water for Elephant: Marlena (Reese Witherspoon)

Marlena (Reese Witherspoon)

Director Francis Lawrence (who previously made the very different films I Am Legend and Constantine) has generated a mostly whimsical tone for Water for Elephants that only pays lip service to the issues it raises. Exploited workers, crowd grifting and poor treatment of the animals in captivity are all given a romanticised sheen to ensure the film never becomes anything more than an unchallenging love story. August is clearly identified as the villain because he is callous and sometimes wilfully cruel to the animals, but beyond that the film glosses over the more institutionalised neglect and abuse suffered by many circus animals.

Water for Elephants does at times attempt to provide some broader social commentary. An alcoholic character bemoans the social and health effects of Prohibition as a comment about the harm caused by the criminalisation of addictive substances, but the issue is never fully explored. Along with the power of illusion, following your dreams and doing what is morally right instead of acting according to economic necessity are the major themes that run throughout the film. However, this also seems to get lost in the mix when the film increasingly falls back on simply using violence to restore order.

Water for Elephants: Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon)

Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon)

Water for Elephants is nevertheless a satisfactory midday movie. There is something almost reassuring about its desire to tell a sweet and simple romance story against its fascinating, albeit heavily romanticised, circus setting. It lacks the humour and charm to elevate itself above its modest generic ambitions, but it’s a perfectly enjoyable piece of pulp cinema that successfully repackages archetypal characters and scenarios.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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