Films I loved in December 2018

20 December 2018
Roma

Roma

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a brilliant fusion of personal storytelling with broader observations on race, class and gender with it’s stunningly photographed story of a maid working for a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s. It’s a slow burn drama that invites the audience into the inner world of the characters, making its ability later in the film to quietly devastate, all the more profound. A film of both sensitivity and unflinching honesty, it left me trembling long after the final credits rolled.

Climax

Climax

Climax delivers what audiences have come to expect from a Gaspar Noé film with its large offerings of drug fuelled transgressions, as a party for a troupe of contemporary dancers becomes increasingly nightmarish thanks to the LSD-spiked punch. It’s also the film where Noé displays the closest he has come to restraint, so that rather than being simply grim, the film’s hallucinogenic descent into hell is an exhilarating rush of black humour, astonishing dance choreography and gleefully vicarious nastiness.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME

Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel and Richard E Grant as Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? could have been a lighthearted it’s-funny-because-it’s-true film about the literary hoax committed by author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in New York in the early 1990s, but instead it’s a sweetly melancholic tale about failure, ostracisation and disappointment. While the stakes aren’t as high as they are in Midnight Cowboy, it has much in common with that 1969 classic, as it’s similarly a beautifully acted, heartfelt drama about how a friendship against the odds helped endure hardship.

First Reformed

Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller in First Reformed

Ethan Hawke is outstanding as a priest spiralling into destructive despair in First Reformed, the enticingly intense new film by writer/director Paul Schrader who has long explored the psyches of damaged and disturbed men. The starkness and existentialism evoke the early 1960s spiritual films of Ingmar Bergman, but this is nevertheless a distinctively contemporary and American work that captures the palpable dread of losing faith in the 21st century. Released in Australia on home entertainment.

THE FAVOURITE

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite

The Favourite is a sort of All About Eve for contemporary audiences, but set in 1708 and loosely based on the love/power triangle between Anne, Queen of Great Britain (Olivia Colman), and two women who competed for her affection. While a lot more grounded than director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous films, there is still a sense of heightened absurdity brought to the style and narrative, which effectively enhances the film’s wicked sense of humour and biting social satire about political power and the patriarchy.

Cold War

Joanna Kulig as Zula and Tomasz Kot as Wiktor in Cold War

Cold War is a classic story of an impossible love affair that plays across four decades of 20th century Europe, where two lovers are continually thwarted by the dehumanising and long-lingering effects of war, but are still continually drawn together, often through the overwhelming power of music. Based on the experiences of writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski’s actual parents, this is a bittersweet personal reflection on the recent past that is romantic and bleak, nostalgic and sobering.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018
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Film review – Enter the Void (2009)

29 November 2010
Enter the Void: Linda (Paz de la Huerta) and Oscar (Nathaniel Brown)

Linda (Paz de la Huerta) and Oscar (Nathaniel Brown)

There are some films that feel so uniquely off-kilter that they seem like they were made in an alternative reality. From Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976) to E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten (1990), such films create a bewildering cinematic experience so that even if they are despised, as they often are, they are not easily forgotten. Enter the Void, the latest film from Gaspar Noé, the Argentinean-born French director of the highly controversial Irréversible, is one such film. Combining a radical range of digital effects and cinematic techniques, Noé has delivered a mind-altering first-person experience set in a gaudy version of contemporary Tokyo, drowning in neon-lit images of sex, death and drugs. The result is an almost impossible fusion of exploitation cinema and video art.

The thin narrative concerns Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young American drug dealer living in Tokyo with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), who works as a stripper. The entire film is shot from Oscar’s point-of-view evoking Hollywood classics such as Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947) and the first third of Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage (1947) as well as first person computer games, the opening of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) and Jonas Åkerlund’s music video for The Prodigy’s single “Smack My Bitch Up” (1997). Noé is so committed to the idea of presenting the entire film from Oscar’s perspective that the audience even hear his thoughts and experience the screen constantly flickering to black as Oscar blinks. However, with a head full of hallucinogenic drugs and passages from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Oscar is very much an unreliable narrator.

Enter the Void: Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and Linda (Paz de la Huerta)

Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and Linda (Paz de la Huerta)

Later in the film Oscar relives pivotal moments in his life as a detached observer following himself from behind so that, like in first-person computer games such as Grand Theft Auto, the back of his head fills the bottom-middle part of the screen as he navigates himself through his own life. The final part of the film where Oscar has an out-of-body experience and floats over Tokyo (or imagines he does), is shot from a bird’s eye view. This mesmerising and dreamlike part of the film is not unlike the haunting continuous Stedicam long take used by Aleksandr Sokurov in Russian Arc (2002), except Noé’s use of digital effects allows him to ‘cheat’ so that his camera has even more freedom than Sokurov’s did, including being able to enter light sources so that Oscar can zap himself to another part of Tokyo.

The combination of visual beauty and garishness with the film’s sleazy voyeuristic eye and contrived spirituality all express Oscar’s point-of-view about what is happening to him. As a young, naive, drug-using man with an unnatural closeness to his sister, the results are suitably wondrous, sordid and absurd. Noé wants the audience to both be drawn into the experience of Enter the Void while also being aware of the shallowness of Oscar’s experiences. One example is an early scene when Oscar smokes the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The audience shares his trip and experiences the screen transforming into a series of brightly lit organic shapes that is both a beautifully sensory experience and also slightly banal in the way that the imagery resembles an elaborate screen-saver, representing the drug experience as both thrilling and tedious. It is also one of the most visually audacious and narrative-halting moments in cinema since Stanley Kubrick’s light corridor sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Enter the VoidGaspar Noé is akin to a Pop Art equivalent of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke in that his films are experimental works that manipulate formal cinematic conventions to annoy, frustrate and provoke. Both Noé and Haneke are cinematic geniuses, although sometimes cruel, condescending and arrogant geniuses in their desire to alienate audiences. Enter the Void is an extremely long film that will lose many once it gets into the final part of the film where Oscar drifts over the streets of Tokyo. Other audiences will find some of Noé’s shock tactics too contrived (a close-up on an aborted foetus feels overly calculated to offend) while some moments may elicit unintentional giggles (for example, the radical perspective used for the film’s climatic shot – in two senses of the word ‘climactic’). Enter the Void doesn’t quite have the structural and thematic cohesion or discipline of Irréversible, making it fall just short of masterpiece status. But it comes incredibly close and may well be one of the most intense, hyperactive and mesmerising cinematic explorations of shallowness and sleaze.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Read more reviews at MRQE


MIFF 2010 Diary: Part 9

6 August 2010

There are not too many days left for the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival and my festival fatigue is now really starting to set it. I skipped a film on Wednesday night due to tiredness and slept through most of another film last night. However,  two of the four films I have seen over the past couple days, and stayed awake during, have been spectacular.

I enjoyed Four Lions, a comedy about incompetent Islamic terrorists trying to find something to blow up. However, I really thought it would have a bit more depth and insight considering its provocative subject matter and it being a film by Christopher Morris, a razor sharp satirist whose television work has an audacious and perceptive approach to comedy. Four Lions is certainly quite funny and there are a couple of excellent scenes that explore the absurdity of some of the extremist Islamic beliefs, but I really wanted a lot more than what this film actually delivers.

World on a Wire

World on a Wire

A big part of what I love about MIFF are the retrospective screenings and this year seeing Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1973 made-for-television science-fiction saga World on a Wire was an incredible pleasure. Stylistically, World on a Wire owes much to Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville in its use of at-the-time modern architecture, interior designs and fashion to represent the future. Eddie Constantine even makes a cameo to really establish Fassbinder’s tip of the hat to Godard’s film. Thematically World on a Wire is a distinct precursor to The Matrix but wondrously it also explores many of the ideas that are found in Inception. Definitely a festival highligh.

Caterpillar is a an anti-nationalistic and anti-militaristic film about a World War II Japanese soldier who returns home deaf, unable to talk, horribly scarred and missing all his limbs. He is declared a War God and the repeated ironic shots of his medals and articles in the newspaper, plus all the rhetoric spouted about the Japanese war effort heard on the radio, reinforcs how grotesque the glorification of war is. Furthermore, he does little but make his wife completely subservient to him by constantly demanding sex and eating more than his share of the food. Maybe I’ve been too caught up in watching short films this year but I am increasingly seeing featuress where I can’t help but think they would have been more effective as 20 minutes shorts. Caterpillar is one such films as it is a single note film that overly labours its point.

Enter the Void

Enter the Void

On the other hand, despite the large number of walk-outs and deep sighs of frustration during its final hour, I absolutely loved Gaspar Noé’s new film Enter the Void, an astonishing and hallucinogenic cinematic experience that mesmerised me for its entire running time. It’s shot in a variety of ways to convey a first person perspective to explore the sensations of drugs, death, sex and the neon lit metropolis of Tokyo, making it the type of film that William S. Burroughs may have made. However, it is only fair to warn that most people I’ve spoken to found Enter the Void to ultimately be an endurance test. I would almost declare it a masterpiece if it wasn’t for my recognition that it does become increasing repetitive, challenging and obscure during its long final act. However, I wanted it to keep going and I could honestly watch it all over again right now. It’s certainly looking like my pick of the festival.

[EDIT 29/11/2010: Read a full review of Enter the Void]

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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