Films I loved in January 2018

30 January 2018
Sweet Country

Natassia Gorey Furber as Lizzie and Hamilton Morris as Sam in Sweet Country

Sweet Country confirms yet again that Warwick Thornton is one of Australia’s most important filmmakers. Steeped in Australia’s brutal colonialist past and evoking other contemporary classics such as The Proposition and The Tracker, Sweet Country continually defies and undermines genre expectations with its masterful command of film style and its confronting tale of racism and injustice.

I, Tonya

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya

I, Tonya touches on many themes – including living in the media spotlight, competitive sport and class in American – but at its core it is film about abuse, resilience and obsession. The filmmakers skilfully manage the shifting tones and the often outrageous details in Tonya Harding’s story; oscillating between dark uncomfortable humour and moments where the tragic human face behind the sensationalism is revealed.

The Shape of Water

Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito in The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro’s best film in a decade, The Shape of Water is wonderful fantasy-horror-romance film that provides a new variation on one of my favourite tropes: the misunderstood monster. Reminding me of both Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton at their best, this is still distinctively a del Toro film where the horror, grief and beauty of humanity is expressed through a dark fantastic tale of love and desire.

Faces Places

JR and Agnès Varda in Faces Places

Faces Places is one of the end results of a glorious collaboration between iconic French filmmaker Agnès Varda and photographer/muralist JR. Following the pair as they create giant portraits of people they meet by chance in regional France, this sweet, moving, funny and playful film is an exploration of friendship, the artist process, personal identity and embracing the new.

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas in Brawl in Cell Block 99

I’m still not sure if Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a nightmarish right wing nationalist fantasy or a brutal condemnation of the nihilism and toxic masculinity sweeping the USA under Trump. Either way, this ultra-violent descent into hell where a brooding self-righteous man fights his way through the prison system to protect his wife and unborn child, is a breath-taking visceral spectacle of shattered bones that I couldn’t take my eyes off.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

Film review – Pacific Rim (2013)

12 July 2013

Pacific Rim

How much subtext should be expected from a film about giant monsters fighting giant mecha robots? In the case of Pacific Rim, apparently not much as director Guillermo del Toro seems determined to make sure the film does not to come across seriously, which is disappointing considering del Toro’s background making both dark fantasy films with political allegories and creative comic book adaptations. In Pacific Rim there is the general idea that cooperation and tolerance will save humanity, since those are the key attributes required to pilot the giant mecha robots (Jaegers) to fight the giant invading creatures (Kaiju). But otherwise, the focus is on the spectacle of machine doing battle against monster. Unfortunately, that spectacle is distancing and even though it may have been unintentional, there is subtext in Pacific Rim and it is not fun.

The visual design of Pacific Rim is impressive on the surface without being entirely successful in building a world that feels believable. The graceful camera movements as the Jaegers stride majestically through the sea, the silky sheets of water that slide off their surface and the film’s overall saturated colour palette all look great, but never feel anything more than a collection of pixels, albeit a very artful collection of pixels. The design of the Jaegers is inventive and the way they move feels grounded and believable, in a way that was absent from Michael Bay’s Transformers films (2007-2011) where the shape and form of the alien robots never adhered to any tangible logic about how such colossal beings could convincingly function. And yet in Pacific Rim the illusion is continually shattered every time the film cuts back to the human characters, where the jarring contrast between the real and the CGI reminds us that the Jaegers are simply elaborate animations.

The rendering of the Kaiju is even less successful. The neon blue-blooded creatures never truly feel organic and attempting to make them appear so lifelike draws attention to how artificial they are. Before CGI, attempts to convey monstrous or mythical creatures through the use of stop-motion animation or even rubber body suits possessed more power to suspend disbelief by presenting their own abstract ‘realism’ aesthetic rather than trying to mimic photogenic realism. CGI technology is increasingly getting better at replicating the texture and tangibility of old fashioned special effects techniques, such as miniatures and prosthetics, but this is not evident in Pacific Rim.

While traditional animation or pre digital-era special effects may have helped in terms of establishing an emotional connection from the Jaegers and the Kaiju to the audience, the fight scenes are well choreographed. In contrast to the Transformer films with their illusion of excitement generated by the rapid editing and general disorientation of an overly cluttered frame, the action in Pacific Rim does follow an internal logic and is creative. However, similar to Terminator Salvation (McG, 2009), which also featured impressively designed CGI robots, there is still an overall disconnect between the objectively impressive design craftsmanship on screen and genuine emotional resonance. This is in part due to the film’s tentative tonal approach.

Pacific Rim really wants to present itself as a bit of fun and not be taken too seriously. Especially at the start of the film, the cartoonish dialogue and music effectively capture the feel of many of the Japanese mecha anime and monster films it is inspired by. The problem is that it is never confident enough to be completely camp, crazy or satirical, unlike say Godzilla 2000 (Takao Okawara, 1999) and the other films in the Godzilla Millennium era series. Instead, the reactionary airiness and lightness in Pacific Rim leaves the film feeling accidentally B-grade, exposing its routine characters, clunky dialogue and, worst of all, undermining some genuinely sophisticated ideas. The concept of the Jaegers having to be co-piloted by two people who are mentally and psychologically bound together in a symbiotic relationship is wonderful, but the concept becomes a casualty of the film’s overall determination not to give weight to any of its themes.

Most worrying is the film’s illusion of progressive cooperative values, when it is really functioning as a social cohesion conformity narrative. It shares the gentle conservative values (but not the fun) of films like Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996) and the original 1960s Star Trek television series. All these texts present an ideal of racial harmony as a result of the human race banding together to stand strong against the rest of the universe. However, in all cases the basic ideology is a simplistic us-and-them dichotomy where external cultures are to be feared and destroyed, in the case of Pacific Rim and Independence Day, or in the case of Star Trek those cultures are there to be assimilated, civilised and tamed.

More significant is the way the different human races and cultures, who supposedly now work together without prejudice, ultimately conform or submit to the dominant American culture. While non-American characters often play important roles in these texts, the rule of law, moral framing, ultimate triumph and political iconography resides with the white and male American hero as other characters lose narrative status over the course of the film or episode. A good example of how this can be done differently is the complex mix of issues, characters and ideologies in the 2000s Battlestar Galactica television series. Pacific Rim unfortunately follows the pattern of systematically marginalising its diverse array of characters, although it deserves some praise for at least containing the diversity in the first place.

What really spoils the fun in Pacific Rim, and makes it hard to respect as a homage to its monster film source material, is the way it treats the Kaiju. An important aspect of the many Godzilla films, not to mention Western monster films such as the variations on King Kong, is there was often a degree of sympathy for the monster, especially when the monster was creating havoc due to being unaware of its actions and placed in a position of being harmful due to human intervention. Recent animated films Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012) and ParaNorman (Chris Butler and Sam Fell, 2012) tapped into the sympathy for the monster dynamic beautifully, reflecting the way classic horror and monster films often asked the audience to momentarily spare a thought for the hated creature before it dies. There’s nothing like that in Pacific Rim.

And it is not as if a monster film has to create empathy for its killer beast. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008) avoided having to do so by giving no narrative information about the creature, as instead it functioned as a terrifying and unknown threat to post 9/11 New York in a similar way that the original Japanese Godzilla films used the monster to embody fears of atomic bombs post World War II. Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997) used the technique of heavy satire where the invading Arachnids are viewed through the perspective of the hyperbolic fascist futuristic human society. While the gloats and war cries in Pacific Rim feel obnoxious, in Starship Troopers celebrating the destruction of the enemy and relishing their fear is done in scenes that frame the militaristic bravo as comparable to Nazism.

Pacific Rim goes into considerable detail to explain the origin of the Kaiju as creatures created specifically to wreak havoc on the human race. They are like animals that are cruelly bred to be aggressive – primal, instinctive and sent to do the bidding of their masters. Due to how dangerous such creatures are they do need to be destroyed, but surely with some sympathy rather than macho bravado? In one scene of Pacific Rim the body of a dead Kaiju is shot to pieces and the audience is encouraged to find the moment amusing. In another scene a Kaiju gives birth and its offspring then dies. Again, the moment is supposed to be amusing.

The Kaiju are relentless, destructive and deadly, but Pacific Rim makes a big mistake in giving the audience a reason to feel empathy for them to only then be encouraged to relish in their demise. It is one more factor that makes Pacific Rim such a hollow experience. Far from the creativity shown in del Toro’s previous work, Pacific Rim is a B-grade film that is neither serious enough nor camp enough, and needing less cultural assimilation subtext and more sympathy for the devil.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – The Orphanage (2007)

17 June 2008

The Orphanage is a stylish Spanish horror/drama produced by Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro and directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, first time feature film director and something of a del Toro protégé.

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