Films I loved in July 2016

29 July 2016
_DSC3602 Aaron Pedersen and Alex Russell with Guns

Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan and Alex Russell as Josh in Goldstone

Goldstone is Ivan Sen’s follow-up to his 2013 outback thriller Mystery Road, with the return of troubled Indigenous detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), this time arriving in a small mining community to look for a missing Chinese girl. Mystery Road was one of my favourite films of 2013 due to how Sen blended the style, tone and archetypes of classical Hollywood film noir and westerns with distinctive Australian iconography and themes, especially concerning attitudes towards gender and race. Goldstone is on par with Mystery Road for all the same reasons, but still functions as a powerful stand-alone film.  Sen’s cinematography is stunning whether it’s the haunting arial shots, the gorgeous use of light in the scenes set at dusk and dawn, or the tension he generates during the action sequences towards the end of the film. I would love to see more Jay Swan films, but frankly I’d watch anything by Ivan Sen regardless. He’s a masterful filmmaker who ranks alongside the greatest this country has produced.

Embrace of the Serpent

Antonio Bolivar as Karamakate and Brionne Davis as Evan in Embrace of the Serpent

The Colombian film Embrace of the Serpent by writer/director Ciro Guerra is a startling film about two expeditions through the Amazon. The two journeys occur over 30 years apart and were inspired by the real-life journals of two foreign scientist explorers who travelled with a shaman  to find a rare plant – the first, a German ethnographer in 1909 and the second, an American botanist in 1940. The mix of striking black-and-white cinematography, the way the physical journey mirrors the characters’ psychological journeys, the scenes depicting psychedelic hallucinations as well as the themes and imagery concerning exploitation, colonialism and religious missions have seen Embrace of the Serpent compared to Gomes’s Tabu, Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and at least half a dozen Werner Herzog films. And yet it stills feels like a unique cinematic vision by Guerra, heralding him as a major emerging talent to watch.

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Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Conor and Mark McKenna as Eamon in Sing Street

From a distance John Carney’s Sing Street did not seem like my kind of thing, but neither did his 2007 film Once nor his 2013 film Begin Again and I loved both of those. As with Carney’s previous films Sing Street is about musicians and the music they make. This time the setting is Dublin 1985 and the protagonist is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenage boy inspired by the post-punk, New Wave and New Romantic music of the era and motivated by a girl he has a crush on to start a band. At many points this film reminded me of The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and other films by John Hughes in that it takes the dreams and obsessions of teenagers seriously to deliver a sincere teen wish-fulfilment film. The music is great, it’s often a very funny film and the depiction of the bond between Conor and his older brother is touching. At the same time, the film doesn’t shy away from serious issues such as poverty, violence, abuse, family breakdown and disempowerment. This is a feel-good film build upon a very strong foundation.

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Camila Márdila as Jéssica and Regina Casé as Val in The Second Mother

The premise of the Brazilian drama  The Second Mother by writer/director Anna Muylaert is brilliant – the estranged daughter of a live-in-housemaid comes to stay with her mother and her wealthy employees. While the family’s father and son certainly don’t seem to mind having this young woman around the house, her own mother and the family’s mother find her familiarity extremely uncomfortable as her presence beings to rupture the polite divisions between master and servant. Writer/director Anna Muylaert uses this scenario to great effect to create a film that’s both an observant class critique as well as a tender drama about a mother/daughter relationship.

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Paul Dano as Hank and Daniel Radcliffe as Manny in Swiss Army Man

In a recent interview I heard actor Paul Dano say that directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert wanted their film Swiss Army Man to begin with a fart that makes the audience laugh and end with a fart that makes them cry. I think they succeeded with this truly original, bizarre and hard-to-classify film about the friendship between a lost man (Dano) and the highly flatulent corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) he befriends. What begins as an  excessively abject absurdist comedy ends up as something poignant and moving. Whether the film is read as a projection of an internal examination of the troubled soul belonging to Dano’s character or an unusual exploration of male friendship that goes far beyond the restrictions of the bromance formula, this film is wonderfully puerile and profound.

Melissa McCarthy;Kristen Wiig;Kate McKinnon;Leslie Jones

Melissa McCarthy as Dr Abby Yates, Kate McKinnon as Dr Jillian Holtzmann, Kristen Wiig as Dr Erin Gilbert and Leslie Jones as Patty Tolan in Ghostbusters

Like many I am nervous about remakes, but I also believe that they have their place when either the original film is average to begin with or when the new film sets out to do something significantly different from the film they are remaking. So I embraced the idea of a new Ghostbusters film, not because I thought Ivan Reitman’s 1984 film needed improving (it’s one of the great all-time modern comedies in my books) but because director Paul Feig decided to create all new characters and as per his previous films, he cast a group of terrific contemporary comedic women actors to play those parts. Not only does the gender-flipping give a new spin to the formula, but any opportunity to showcase the talents of Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, along with stars-on-the rise Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, is worth embracing. And while the resulting film does not match the brilliant original, it is still a lot of fun. The dynamics between the four leads is terrific and visually I especially enjoyed the use of a false framing to give the impression of the 3D special effects bursting out of the cinema screen. The new Ghostbusters contains a lot of nods and tributes to the original film, but otherwise it very much feels like it is doing its own thing and I really hope we get a sequel.

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Kumatetsu (voiced by Kōji Yakusho) and Ren (voiced by Aoi Miyazaki) in The Boy and the Beast

I also caught up with the Japanese animated film The Boy and the Beast, which has just come out on home entertainment in Australia. I’ve long been meaning to check out the films by Mamoru Hosoda and on the strength of this one I’m even more keen to do so. Evoking the Harry Potter series, The Boy and the Beast features Ren, an orphaned 9-year-old boy who stumbles from our regular human world into the Beast Kingdom where he becomes the disciple of the grumpy bear-like beast Kumatetsu. Both boy and beast are stubborn and short-tempered, but they are also both lonely and resilient. While the fantasy elements are fun, this is ultimately a film about parenting, specifically, the way children are shaped by care-givers, whether they be biological parents or not. This was surprising complex and moving.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016
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MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 9

31 July 2011
Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard was the film I was most looking forward to this year and the screening I went to was its world premiere, where director Richard Lowenstein revealed that it had only been completed at 5pm the previous day! I am aware that there is a danger with heaping praise on a documentary simply because you like its subject matter, but in the past I have enjoyed docos about subjects I’m not interested in and I have been critical of docos that have poorly presented things I am passionate about. So with as much objectivity as possible, I really do think that Lowenstein and his team have done a wonderful job conveying the life and times of Rowland S Howard. The interviews, music clips and archival footage are woven together beautifully to capture the type of person Howard was during key parts of his life and to also convey the power of his music. Both his song writing and guitar playing are celebrated to express the intensity of The Birthday Party in concert, the legacy of the song ‘Shivers’ and the power that Howard’s later work had on whole new generation of music fans. Autoluminescent is a highlight of the festival and a rare doco that I’d happily watch again, and hopefully soon.

[EDIT 7/11/2011: Read a full review of Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard]

Before the Howard doco I caught another Australian film: Ivan Sen’s Toomelah about a troubled 10-year-old boy who befriends the local drug dealers. Toomelah has a lot in common with Mad Bastards since it not only features actor Dean Daley-Jones in a supporting role, but it’s about absent fathers and disconnection from culture in an Indigenous Australian community. Sen captures the dynamics of the community by filming on location and predominantly using non-professional actors living in the former Mission in rural New South Wales. While overall not as compelling as Mad Bastards, Toomelah features a very strong performance by Daniel Conners as the boy searching for adult guidance in a situation where there doesn’t seem to be a lot on offer.

The Kid with a Bike

The Kid with a Bike

Similarly to Daniel in Toomelah, 11-year-old Cyril in The Kid with a Bike is full of rage and looking for a father figure after being abandoned by his own dad. Despite finding a woman who seems willing to care for him, Cyril is drawn to a local drug dealer. A few days ago when discussing Win Win, I mentioned the trend in films where a troubled youth is taken in by a kindly family. The Kid with a Bike is a pleasing antidote to the simplicity of some of these films as it presents Cyril as a really difficult boy, to the extent that you question why a virtual stranger puts up with him. The reason is because she’s a good person who can see past the horrible behaviour. A main theme in the film is the consequences of choosing whether or not to forgive and give a second chance to somebody who has done wrong. Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid with a Bike typically contains their brilliant faux cinéma vérité look, where the cinematography is expertly crafted and controlled despite the film looking like it was shot on the run. There is also an incredible sensation of movement throughout the film with Cyril constantly running and cycling towards a promise of something that he’s always too late for.

[EDIT 12/3/2012: Read a full review of The Kid with a Bike]

MIFFhaps
MIFF fatigue conquered me yesterday as I slept through my alarm and missed the International Shorts – O Canada! program, which I was really looking forward to. I had previously seen the excellent Sophie Lavoie and the Spike Jonze/Arcade Fire film Scenes from the Suburbs won’t exactly be difficult to track down, but I had wanted to get the big screen experience. On the other hand, I got my first proper nights sleep since the festival began and ate a meal that was hot and home-cooked. Just when I thought my MIFF fatigue had lifted my wife asked me why I was sitting at my computer miaowing like a cat. Trying to communicate with cats is a thing I do sometimes, except I’m usually aware that I’m doing it.

One fun thing to note in screenings now is who still loudly laughs at the advertisements that play before every film. It’s a good way of spotting who in the cinema is seeing their first film at the festival, as the regular attendees are pretty familiar with the gags in the ads by now. Having said that, the MIFF ads this year are so good that I’m still enjoying them and I’m enjoying hearing other people respond to them for the first time. I still find the VicRoads ad quite cute too, but I’m hearing voices of dissent about that from elsewhere. Somebody even described it as this year’s Yalumba Wine ad, which I thought was harsh.

Show us your MIFF
Those of you on Twitter probably already know Paul Anthony Nelson, who has a remarkable ability to ever so concisely sum up his responses to films in 140 characters or less on his account @mrpaulnelson. An ill-timed work assignment prohibits him from seeing the 60-odd films he’d hoped to see this year, but he’s still aiming for the low 50s. He’s been coming to MIFF since 1998, where he saw four films from a Blaxploitation retrospective and fell in love. This year his highlights have been MelancholiaMartha Marcy May Marlene and Super. Attending the Australian premiere of Inglourious Basterds in 2009 and sitting within ten feet of director Quentin Tarantino, one of his heroes, has been his biggest MIFF highlight to date. Paul jokes that  Tarantino has since taken a restraining order out against him. I’m not sure if that really is a joke. To get through the festival Paul recommends plenty of Vitamin C wherever possible, always having muesli bars on hand and taking a break between films every so often, if only to check out the wonderous Festival Lounge at the Forum. Paul’s all-time favourite film is The Godfather, which he describes as ‘cinematic perfection if that is possible’. Outside of MIFF you can hear Paul talking about films on the Hell is for Hyphenates podcast, encouraging others to write about films at Why I Adore and making his own films through his production company Cinema Viscera.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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MIFF 2010 Diary: Part 5

29 July 2010

I went against my own advice yesterday by seeing four films at MIFF and three of them back-to-back (although the excellent scheduling this year means that you still get decent breaks between most sessions).  I saw two very mediative films (one in a good way and one not so much) but also two of the best films I have seen this year making yesterday my best day at MIFF so far.

Lourdes

Lourdes

Lourdes depicts the various rivalries, resentments and jealousies that are bubbling under the surface of an organised pilgrimage group who have gone to Lourdes in the French Pyrenees  Mountains. At the centre of the film is Christine, a woman whose Multiple Sclerosis makes her one of the most disadvantaged members of the group. She is played by Sylvie Testud who gives a lovely, understated performance. Lourdes is a slow burning film that rewards patience as it builds up to its very powerful conclusion. I was certainly completely taken aback by how emotional I was feeling during the film’s final five minutes making Lourdes one of my favourites within the festival so far.

The first of yesterday’s two meditative films was Dreamland, the latest by Australian filmmaker Ivan Sen. The screening was introduced by producer David Jowsey who made it clear that the film was not a conventional narrative but more a “no budget”, experimental soundscape to be experienced on a sensory level. This was a very good description as little happens in this film about a man searching, presumably for alien life, in the Nevada desert surrounding the infamous Area 51. Dreamland would have benefited from a shorter running time but within the film are some wonderful sequences using timelapse photography and eerie stock footage. The sound design is magnificent and the one dialogue scene is surprisingly moving. Think the final section of 2001: A Space Odyssey with a touch of Paris, Texas.

While by no means essential viewing at least Dreamland maintained my interest, which is more than I can say for Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, a documentary about the fascination that the Japanese apparently have with insects. The broader cultural, social and historical contexts of this fascination are presented but as Beetle Queen becomes increasingly philosophical it becomes far too laboured and repetitive. There is only so long you can endure listening to haiku and watching Japanese people mucking around with bugs.

Son of Babylon

Son of Babylon

The other film I saw yesterday was one I almost skipped so that I could go to a media screening of The Loved Ones (which screened at MIFF last year and is reportedly fantastic). I’m so glad I stayed in the city to instead see Son of Babylon as it is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Set in Iraq in 2003 just after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, a boy and his grandmother search for the boy’s father. The war torn countryside and burning cities they travel through have the same look and feel to them as you’d expect from a post-Apocalypse film. While Son of Babylon contains some very confronting content it doesn’t have the same social-realist, miserablism feel that often characterise so many of the films made in the Middle East. The more devastating aspects of the story are slowly revealed so that their impact is one of deep sadness rather than horror or depression. The characters are also wonderful people and the kindness and shared sorrow that the boy and his grandmother experience from the various people they meet is beautiful. Son of Babylon resonates with a deep and powerful sense of humanity and is a must-see film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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