Films I loved in February 2014

3 March 2014
Blue Is the Warmest Colour_Adèle Exarchopoulos_Léa Seydoux_2

Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle and Léa Seydoux as Emma in Blue Is the Warmest Colour.

The cinematic highlight for me this month was the mesmerising, intense and emotionally charged Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Mostly shot in close-up and medium close-up, director Abdellatif Kechiche places the audience firmly into the sensory world of a young woman whose entire life becomes consumed by the rush of love and lust of first love. While I am aware not everybody has found the sex scenes in the film to be realistic, the film still succeeds in portraying an emotional reality that for me transcends any perceived errors in factual detail. Blue Is the  Warmest Colour earns its long running time and left me elated, exhausted and devastated in the best possible way.

Zhao Tao as Xiao Yu in A Touch of Sin

Zhao Tao as Xiao Yu in A Touch of Sin

I originally saw A Touch of Sin last year while extremely tired, so I was extremely pleased to see it again during its small run in Melbourne to fully appreciate what a rich and nuanced film it is. Through the telling of four stories inspired by real events that culminated in  acts of violence, director Jia Zhangke presents a damning portrait of contemporary China where  the radical degree in which corporatism flourishes with communism has created brutal social divisions. This is a film rich in allegory with its references to animals and classic wuxia films, but even without fully understanding all the culturally-specific symbolism there is no denying the angry power of this film.

Young Jirô Horikoshi and Giovanni Battista Caproni in The Wind Rises

After such an extraordinary career of mostly writing and directing animated fantasy films, The Wind Rises may seem at first glance to be an odd film for Hayao Miyazaki to announce as his final work. And yet the fictionalised tale of Japanese aeronautical engineer Jirô Horikoshi, whose groundbreaking work in the 1920s onwards would lead to the creation of the long-range fighter aircraft that the Japanese empire would use against the Allies in World War II, contains several characteristics of Miyazaki’s films. This is a film that juxtaposes creativity and imagination with destruction, it expresses the joy of flight and it contains a subtle yet effective anti-war and anti-fascist messages. And without speculating too much on Miyazaki’s personal life, a film about a man who becomes all consumed by his passion to create something of beauty regardless of the consequences, does feel like the work of a reflective soul.

Lindsay Duncan as Meg Burrows and Jim Broadbent as Nick Burrows in Le Week-End

Lindsay Duncan as Meg Burrows and Jim Broadbent as Nick Burrows in Le Week-End

Le Week-End is the fourth film director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi have collaborated on and it’s the third time the pair have used cinema to examine older characters, in particular the love lives and sex lives of older characters. While more  light-hearted than The Mother (2003) and Venus (2006), this film about an English couple on a second honeymoon in Paris is still a bittersweet affair. Within the space of one scene, the affection and warmth between the couple can turn to confronting resentment and anger, making the tone of the film predominantly one of anxiety. There are enough whimsical nods to classic French New Wave films to prevent Le Week-End from being too emotionally gruelling, but this is nevertheless a prickly film that is as much about  regret and missed opportunities as it is about enduring love.


I also enjoyed Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, about a man divorcing his wife and the challenges facing his wife’s new lover. A typically strong family drama  by Farhadi, I was initially a little unsettled by the way the film begins with a focus on one character, who by the end of the film feels like an afterthought as the focus switches to another character. Of course this is a deliberate strategy to present the two characters from the perspective of the central female character who is experiencing one man come into her life as another drifts out. I’m just not completely sure of how effective this technique is, although there is no denying the power of the film’s beautiful and ambiguous final shot.

My enthusiasm for Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée) has waned since I saw it as I increasingly find myself discussing the problems I had with it rather than its many strengths. Nevertheless, I do still think it is an excellent film and while I found some of the characters too broadly defined as specific types, I agree with the consensus that Matthew McConaughey does some of his finest work, I love how the film challenges the motivations of the Food and Drug Administration for why they decided what AIDS treatments they would and wouldn’t approve, and I felt that for the most part the film avoids obvious sentiment.

Finally, I want to mention a couple of great films that have been released on DVD in Australia without getting a full theatrical release. The first is the terrific Canadian kids film (although rated MA) I Declare War where the audience see how the kids who are playing an elaborate war game imagine themselves – not carrying sticks and water bombs, but carrying machine guns and grenades. Part parody of war film conventions, part dark satire of learned behaviour and part critique of cinematic violence, I Declare War is a lot of fun.

The other film recently released on DVD that I want to mention is the heartbreaking beautiful The Weight of Elephants about a New Zealand boy coping with abandonment issues and bullying, against the backdrop of a missing children investigation. This is an incredibly strong film and really worth making the effort to track down.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014
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MIFF 2013: Next Gen

13 May 2013
Next Gen 2013

Image from Day of the Crows

When not reviewing films I work for the Melbourne International Film Festival on the programming team. The first part of  the 2013 MIFF program was announced today and I’m very excited, as it is one of the sections that I worked on. The following is a presentation I gave last Friday to launch the Next Gen program for this year:

Next Gen is a program of entertaining and challenging cinema selected for a youth audience.

The program was established in 2007 to enrich the cinema experience for younger viewers, as well as stimulate discussion and social awareness. Encouraging students to become active viewers, who question and challenge the moving image, is essential in a media-saturated era. The films this year were selected for their diversity, innovation and high quality, as well as being relevant and accessible to audiences of all ages. Through drama, documentary and animation, issues such as family, prejudice, injustice, violence, rebellion, identity and overcoming hardship are explored with integrity and depth.

With a handful of exceptions, these are not films many people would traditionally classify as ‘kids’ or ‘family’ films. Instead, they are a diverse, innovative and high quality collection of films that will appeal to people of all ages.

Valentine Road

Valentine Road

The documentary Valentine Road is something that will resonate with very wide audiences. It is about the 2008 murder of 15-year-old Lawrence ‘Larry’ King by one of his classmates. It becomes apparent that the murder was a hate crime, committed in response to King’s sexuality and gender identification. Director Marta Cunningham, who will be a festival guest, allows the teachers, friends and legal experts involved in the subsequent trial to speak for themselves without overt judgment. By doing so Cunningham delivers an insight into how young people are affected by the environments they grow up in, especially ones that cultivate and even excuse violent crime, as a response to somebody deemed different.

Another film to confront the impact of violence is the Irish film What Richard Did, by director Lenny Abrahamson. This extremely sophisticated drama is about the kind of guy Australians would consider ‘a good bloke.’ Richard is charismatic, friendly, attractive and a high achiever. He’s a good friend, a respectful son and looks after others. He then does something in the heat of the moment that has an unexpectedly devastating effect. This film about culpability, masculinity and the dangers of alcohol is particularly relevant to Australian audiences, many of who will no doubt recognise how closely the events in this film reflect various stories in the news from the past twelve months.

An interesting contrast to Valentine Road and What Richard Did is the Canadian film Blackbird, about a teenage boy falsely accused of planning a school massacre. Evoking recent films such as The Hunt and West of Memphis, this is a film about persecution as a result of mob hysteria. Many will identify with the young protagonist who identifies as a goth resulting in an outsider status that sees him bullied at school and then falsely accused after he vents his frustration by writing a revenge fantasy short story that he then unwisely shares online. Director Jason Buxton shared the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival SKYY Vodka Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film with Brandon Cronenberg for Antiviral.

I Declare War

I Declare War

On a lighter note, the Canadian film I Declare War is a sort of updated Lord of the Flies with a touch of Where the Wild Things Are. The film is set in a forest on one summer’s day, where two groups of kids play an elaborate war game. The kids carry sticks and water bombs, but the film depicts their ‘weapons’ the way the kids see them – as machine guns and grenades. Constantly alternating between fantasy and reality, I Declare War is a parody of war film clichés, a kid-centric adventure film and at times a disturbing look at learned behaviour. However, it’s mostly a lot of fun.

Also fun is the South Korean supernatural romantic comedy/drama A Werewolf Boy, which is thankfully far closer in spirit to Edward Scissorhands than it is to the Twilight films. MIFF regulars may recognise the name of filmmaker Jo Sung-hee as the director of End of Animal from MIFF 2011. However, it is unlikely that audiences will detect any similarities between the two films, which are completely different from each other in terms of style, tone and pace.

Another regional film in Next Gen is Touch of the Light, a Taiwan/Hong Kong co-production featuring the young vision-impair pianist Huang Yu-siang playing himself in a fictionalised story of his experiences entering music school. This crowd-pleasure was a huge hit in Taiwan and has been supported by the acclaimed Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai.

Capturing Dad

Capturing Dad

Also close to home is the odd yet endearing Japanese comedy/drama Capturing Dad, about two sisters awkwardly attending the funeral of a father they never knew. It’s refreshing to see a film with such a strong and sophisticated focus on the relationship between sisters (and between mothers and daughters), and Capturing Dad manages to be extremely charming without ever resorting to sentimentality. In fact, a lot of the humour is surprising dark.

Other films that edge more into crowd-pleasuring/family film territory are the Kurdish-language film Bekas and the German film Patty’s Catchup. Based on the experiences of the films writer/director Karzan Kader, Bekas is a spirited adventure film about two orphaned brothers trying to flee Iraq during Sadaam Hussein’s rule. Tina von Traben’s Patty’s Catchup is a fun family drama about three sisters attempting to run a sausage stand, despite one of the sisters preferring to follow her dreams of being a renowned chef.

The film most suitable for very young audiences is the lovely animated film Moon Man by Stephan Schesch, based on Tomi Ungerer’s classic picture book of the same name. However, there are enough Monty Pythonesque and surreal visual gags to keep audiences of all ages entertained.  It is also nice to see a film that aligns scientific curiosity with childlike wonder while satirising governments that are obsessed with jingoism and aggression.

Another animation in the program is the stunning beautiful and moving Day of the Crows by Jean-Christophe Dessaint. Although it is a French-language film, it contains more than a hint of influence from Studio Ghibli, not just visually, but with its blend of fantasy, humour and whimsy, with some very grounded themes concerning persecution and parental neglect. It also features voice acting by Jean Reno and the late Claude Chabrol.

Approved for Adoption

Approved for Adoption

The other impressive French-language animation in the program is Approved for Adoption, the Audience Award winner at last year’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival. A sort of animated memoir in the vein of Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis, it is about the childhood experiences of Jung, the film’s writer and co-director (with Laurent Boileau). After the Korean War Jung was abandoned as a baby and adopted by a Belgium family resulting in a childhood where he struggled with his cultural identity and sense of belonging.

The final film in the Next Gen program is English language, but by French director Laurent Cantet, who won the Palme d’Or in 2008 for his film The Class. The film is Foxfire, based on a 1993 novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Featuring nearly all young female cast, the film is set in 1950s upstate New York and follows the misadventures of a group of teenage girls who begin to fight back against the patriarchy. The mixture of protofeminism, socialism and teen rebellion results in an exhilarating film that explores how criminality and organised resistance are regarded.

More information: miff.com.au/nextgen

School bookings and study guides: metromagazine.com.au/nextgen

Thomas Caldwell
Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator
Melbourne International Film Festival