Films I loved in April 2019

1 May 2019
Mid90s

Sunny Suljic as Stevie in Mid90s

In the coming-of-age film Mid90s Johan Hill (making his feature film debut as a writer/director) beautifully captures the moment where young teenager Stevie (Sunny Suljic) embraces an identity attached to a friendship group as opposed to his family. Set at the height of the street skateboarding scene in Los Angeles in the 1990s, the film is less an exercise in nostalgia and more an empathetic portrait of a distinct subculture and its appeal for a somewhat lost soul who is seeking approval and a sense of belonging.

Burning

Yoo Ah-in as Lee Jong-su and Steven Yeun as Ben in Burning

Burning is a film rich in ambiguity both in terms of what the lovesick working class protagonist Lee Jon-su (Yoo Ah-in) believes to be happening and the film’s subtext. On the surface it is a love-triangle drama that becomes a paranoid thriller, but throughout the film there are issues of sexual jealously, fragile masculinity, class exploitation and even questioning the perception of reality. While the film unfolds over a surprisingly long running-time there is still a sense of urgency that is completely captivating.

Woman at War

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as Halla in Woman at War

Woman at War is a wonderful blend of self-reflexive absurdity, touching family drama, and droll humour, and a gleefully defiant thriller about radical environmental activism. Filmmaker Benedikt Erlingsson and lead actor Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir have created a magnificent cinematic hero in Halla, a woman who conducts the local choir and is preparing to adopt an orphaned child, while carrying out missions to sabotage the pylons on the Icelandic highlands, blocking the electricity supply to an aluminium plant.

The Sisters Brothers

John C Reilly as Eli Sisters and Joaquin Phoenix as Charlie Sisters in The Sisters Brothers

For his first English-language film, French filmmaker Jacques Audiard brings an off-kilter outsider’s perspective to the American western with The Sisters Brothers. As interested in character interaction as it is with plot, the film follows a pair of brother on a job as hired assassins. Like most post-classical Hollywood westerns, it challenges the conventions and ideals of the genre, but the most distinguishing characteristics of this continually surprising film are its moments of humour, melancholy and tenderness.

1985

Cory Michael Smith as Adrian Lester in 1985

There are many interesting comparisons between 1985 and Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World as they are both films about young men returning to the family home and struggling to reveal a secret. However, while Dolan’s film utilised the techniques of melodrama, 1985 is low key, subtle and shot on grainy black-and-white film, thematically and stylistically evoking many of the films associated with 1990s New Queer Cinema. It’s a work of great sincerity and huge emotional power.

Gloria

John Turturro as Arnold and Julianne Moore as Gloria in Gloria Bell

With Gloria Bell Sebastián Lelio’s successfully adapts his 2013 Chilean film Gloria, about a divorced woman entering into a new relationship after a chance encounter in a nightclub. Relocating the action to Los Angeles and starring Julianne Moore in the titular role, this new version loses none of the original film’s blend of tenderness, high spirits and bittersweet tone in its portrayal of a woman battling feelings of loneliness and regret, but also fiercely determined to bounce back from whatever life throws at her.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019


Film review – A Prophet (2009)

11 February 2010

Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim)

Malik El Djebena is a 19-year-old repeat offender who is thrown into a French prison to do six years for assaulting a policeman. As a non-religious Arab, Malik is shunned by both the Muslims and the Corsicans who both have a strong presence in the prison, locked in a long-running power struggle. Malik is illiterate, young, fragile and covered with bruises and scars from previous altercations. A Prophet’s shadowed and noisy opening thrusts Malik out of the darkness and into the harsh light of the prison in a way that suggests he is ‘born’ into the prison like a vulnerable child. Despite his chances of survival looking grim Malik soon takes his first steps in his transformation as a master criminal when the dominant Corsican prison gang force him to kill for them.

Directed and co-written by Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) A Prophet is essentially a gangster film with a number of distinguishing differences. For a start, Malik’s criminal ascent occurs while he is in prison but thanks to the corrupt networks within the prison, which also allow him the occasional day pass, he is able to operate successful activities in the outside world. Also, apart from his initial act of forced violence, Malik’s success is predominantly due to his studious self-education and cunning rather than displays of power and might.

Malik and Corsican prison gang leader César Luciani (Niels Arestrup)

A Prophet’s social realism style separates it from the more traditionally glamorous or sensationalist gangster films so that its portrayal of somebody marginalised by French society becoming indoctrinated into criminality functions as a genuine social critique of both the prison system and prejudices within France. However, A Prophet also contains several effective non-realistic touches that border on surrealism, which clearly identifies it as a work of fiction as opposed to the cold reality of organised crime that is represented in the equally excellent Italian film Gomorrah.

A Prophet is an extremely gripping and exciting film. The scenes leading up to moments of violence are incredibly tense and even through we know what is about to happen, the violence in this film is genuinely shocking. The almost-unknown actor Tahar Rahim portrays Malik as a likeable yet unsettling anti-hero and his transformation from a virtual child to a gangster is convincing and frightening.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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