Films I loved in March 2015

1 April 2015
Joaquin Phoenix as Larry 'Doc' Sportello in Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix as Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello in Inherent Vice

I adored the twists and turns, endless stream of larger-than-life characters, paranoia, stoner logic, and melancholic social commentary found within Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. While the dense narrative was sometimes hard work getting through while reading the Thomas Pynchon novel it was adapted from, in the film I found it was liberating to regard the story as secondary to the atmospheric and playful mood generate by Anderson. I was more than happy to enjoy the film on a scene-by-scene basis and lose myself in the weirdness, comedy and sometimes darkness of every moment.

Not that it’s a film without substance. The 1970 Californian setting in the shadow of the Manson Family Murders and during Ronald Reagan’s governorship offers plenty of indications that the hopeful dreams of the hippie movement had failed to materialise. Dark days were ahead and the film acknowledges the impact of heroin, the presence of neo-Nazism, the commercialisation of the counter-culture, and the increase of government surveillance on its own people. And not unlike Raymond Chandler’s classic Phillip Marlow detective character, Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a good man at the centre of it all, trying to do the right thing and help others, even at the expense of his own happiness.

Aleksey Serebryakov as Kolya in Leviathan

Aleksey Serebryakov as Kolya in Leviathan

The latest film by Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev, Leviathan, is a devastating allegory for contemporary Russia, presenting the government as ruthless and corrupt, the church as being manipulative and conniving, and the general population as slowly sliding into hopelessness, brutality and alcoholism. This would be unbearable if it were not for the film being so beautifully crafted and so visually rich. The images of the decaying fishing boats, whale skeleton and church ruins provide powerful symbols of a great and glorious culture that now feels like a relic of the past.

Jack O'Connell as Gary Hook in '71

Jack O’Connell as Gary Hook in ’71

Similar to Paul Greengrass’s underrated Green Zone, ’71 is a thrilling action/war drama that also provides sophisticated insights into the nature of the conflict it is set during. The violence that occurs on the streets of Belfast during the period known as The Troubles isn’t just the backdrop for this film’s exciting action scenes; it is examined and explored with impressive complexity. As the young and inexperienced British soldier Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) spends the night trying to get back to his unit, his encounters with various other characters reveals how many different factions were involved in the conflict and how many people were caught in the crossfire.

Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy in The Homesman

Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy in The Homesman

In his directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, actor Tommy Lee Jones took a very critical look at issues of race in contemporary America. In The Homesman, Jones’s second film as director, he turns his attention towards the treatment of women in American Midwest in the 1850s. The result is a bitter deconstruction of western mythology and a savage condemnation of social attitudes towards women. Far from the idealised frontier taming narratives of classic westerns, Jones delivers a confronting and compelling story of a culture built on the mistreatment of half its population.

This month I also really enjoyed losing myself for three hours in the National Gallery in London via Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery. Wiseman’s unobtrusive filming style and strategic editing reveals the inner workings of the multifaceted institution, engages with discussion about the role of art in broader society and explores how people connect with art. I was also really glad to be see, via their online release, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (rather than watch The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, which combines the original two films into a single condensed film). Him and Her deliver a moving examination of how perception and memory can be different in small but significant ways, especially when is comes to love, grief and loss.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 11

3 August 2011


There have been a lot of films at this year’s festival with a focus on children, with I Am Eleven and Tomboy being the happier highlights. The darker side of the coin are films about child neglect and abuse with Michael and now Polisse most directly exploring the horrors of crimes against children. Focusing on the Child Protection Unit, a division of the police in Paris, Polisse adopts a documentary style to depict the professional and personal lives of the officers. There is a deliberately fragmented approach where various story threads flow in and out of the film to capture the essence of the unit’s day-to-day work rather than present a single grand narrative. We see celebrations over small victories, frustrations, breakdowns and the dark humour that is required for the officers to stay sane. While never exploitive, there are upsetting moments when the reality of what has happened to some children hits home. Of all the films I have seen this year Polisse is the one that most took me by surprise. It’s an extremely well crafted ensemble piece, constantly engaging and at times deeply moving.

[EDIT 3/7/2012: Read a full review of Polisse]

Until now I knew nothing about Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who created the gekiga genre of Japanese comics, which adopted a more realistic, serious and mature style of storytelling that was distinct from the popular children-oriented manga comics. Tatsumi not only explains the cultural context of gekiga comics, but adopts Tatsumi’s simple yet expressive cartooning style to depict his life and bring to life five of his short stories. The stories are remarkably angry and tragic pieces about the cruelty of fate and the failings of masculinity and I was slightly puzzled by the whimsical music used throughout the autobiographic sections of the film, which seemed so at odds with the serious social critique in the stories. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating autobiographical film of sorts with a very inventive approach to its subject matter.

The Swell Season

The Swell Season

Like so many people who saw the glorious Once, I fell in love with the sweet story of musicians/stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová who became an off-screen couple during filming and went on to win an Academy Award. I remember seeing them in concert when they toured Melbourne and later being a bit sad when I heard that they had romantically split up. The Swell Season looks at their life on the road after their massive success and how the sudden fame, new expectations and new pressures affected their relationship. Hansard and Irglová are both extremely open people so they talk candidly about the tensions in their lives. The music is integrated to comment on the status of their relationship during the film and the result is a very sad yet sweet and insightful film.

The latest documentary by the master of observational filmmaking Frederick Wiseman is Boxing Gym. Similarly to the Paris Opera Ballet as seen in La danse, the gym in suburban Austin is filled with bodies in motion. Wiseman edits the sound and the visuals to represent the gym as something of a living organism, with its constant activity. A huge range of people attend the gym and the focus on people training, snippets of conversation and the logistics of running the gym makes for fascinating viewing.

How to Die in Oregon

How to Die in Oregon

The most emotional experience I have had at MIFF this year was seeing How to Die in Oregon, a remarkable documentary about people who have chosen to end their lives. The film does explore the issues and debates that physician-assisted suicide raises, but with only one real exception the people featured in the film are strong advocates of the need to be able to die with dignity. The main point of interest for me was getting an insight into what happens once people decide they want to end their lives. Gradually the film focuses on Cody Curtis, a terminally ill 52-year old woman, and she especially articulates the enormous amount of comfort, empowerment and peace that having such a choice brings to her and her family. Her story, in particular towards the end of the film, is documented with a respectful distance by the filmmakers that nevertheless contains a profound intimacy. It is extremely beautiful but also devastating. I think the entire audience were in tears by the end of the film and there were many of us who needed to sit still for several minutes after the credits finished rolling. I am so glad I saw this.

The entire festival is something of a MIFFhap right now as we’ve all entered its darkest phase. The rush, excitement and good will of the festival starting has faded and the celebratory camaraderie of it coming to an end has yet to occur.  If MIFF were a dance party, we’d be in the hours between 3am and 5am. At the beginning it’s all euphoric as the experience begins. We’re not fussed if people jump two places ahead of the queue to stand with friends and we’ll happily shift seats to allow a couple arriving late to be able to sit together. We apologise if we think we’ve shuffled around too much during a film and be told not to worry about it. When things go wrong with a screening we laugh about how it’s all part of the festival experience. We merrily disagree with each other about what we’ve seen but respect where everybody is coming from.

It’s different now. The sun hasn’t come up yet, but the house lights are on and we can’t stand the sight of each other. Everything irritates us. Instead of saying, ‘Would you mind not talking, it’s a little bit distracting’, we’re screaming, ‘Shut up you thoughtless piece of trash and piss off back to the multiplexes’. We’re whipping out our phones and not giving a single damn about the people around us who are blinded by the glowing screens. When something goes wrong in a screening it feels like a personal attack designed to destroy our entire festival experience. Carrot sticks are replaced by Lord of the Fries – yeah, make it a box and extra gravy please. Our response to dissenting views is now: ‘You would think that because you’re a fascist who knows nothing about cinema!’ We’re recording podcasts where we repeatedly refer to The Kid with a Bike as The Kid on a Bike and bugger up details about the Dardenne brothers’ filmography.

However, we need to hold fast as the dawn is approaching. Soon this night will come to an end and we’ll be filled with a sense of relief, sadness that it’s all over and joy at having had such an amazing experience. In many ways, that is the best bit and it’s yet to come. So hang in their folks, find that second wind, rediscover the love and in the meantime just be very still and very quiet. We’re almost there.

Show us your MIFF
Having previously exchanged the occasional tweet with Rita Walsh (aka @rcwalsh) it was great to bump into her in person last week after a screening at the Forum. In fact, a general highlight of the festival for Rita, from over the ten years that she’s been attending, is seeing films in a packed house at the Forum. Natural Selection is so far her favourite film seen at this year’s festival, while Melancholia, A Separation, Life in a Day and Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure have all delivered too. Rita’s all-time favourite MIFF experience was the shared experience of seeing Old Boy in 2004 with a sold out audience when nobody knew quite where to look after the film’s shocking twist was revealed. Her MIFF survival tips are to bring coats and gloves for the queues and to pick a balance of films that you want to see combined with a few you know nothing about. Asking people with different tastes to you to recommend a few is also a good strategy. Rita doesn’t think it’s fair to commit to selecting her all-time favourite films so instead tells me which ones she could watch on repeat: Rear Window, The Fugitive, Thank You For Smoking, Notting Hill and Erin Brokovich. Rita works in film, TV and theatre as a producer and production freelancer.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – La danse – Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris (2009)

6 November 2010

La danse - Le ballet de l'Opéra de ParisBehind-the-scenes access to the world-renowned Paris Opera Ballet was an unprecedented privilege enjoyed by legendary documentary maker Frederick Wiseman. The resulting film shows us the various ballets in rehearsal, both classical and contemporary, plus all the other aspects of the ballet school from the maintenance workers right up through to the artistic director negotiating with a guest choreographer.

Typical of Wiseman’s ultra-distanced approach to documentary, there is no sense of a traditional dramatic structure nor are there voiceovers or explanatory titles. Instead, La danse delivers the pleasure of seeing some of the most disciplined and talented dancers in the world rehearse. Wiseman shoots mainly in continuous medium-long shots, which is the best possible way of presenting the full bodies of the dancers and capturing their intricate movements.

La danse is essential viewing for anybody with even the slightest interest in dance and for everybody else this is as good a way as any to discover the extraordinary combination of control, strength, precision, beauty and art that goes into creating ballet. The two and a half hour running time does get arduous but it’s also necessary considering the scope of the film.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 361, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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