Films I loved in November 2014

2 December 2014
Marion Cotillardas Sandra in Two Days, One Night

Marion Cotillard as Sandra in Two Days, One Night

The latest film by brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night, is similar to their previous film The Kid with a Bike, where they take a highly structured story within a very precise setting and still deliver the naturalistic feel that they are renowned for. The structure is reminiscent of High Noon, where the protagonist has a short period of time to convince the members of the community to stand by her. Marion Cotillard is incredible as Sandra, battling depression and despair, as she lobbies her co-workers to vote in her favour so that she can keep her job – the company has given its employees the cruel choice in having to decide between her remaining employed or them all getting bonuses. It’s a complex and beautifully performed film that delivers a sensitive portrayal of what it’s like living with a mental illness as well as providing a potent social critique of systems that trample the rights of workers. It also has a conclusion that is close to perfect.

James Rolleston as Mana and Cliff Curtis as Genesis in The Dark Horse

James Rolleston as Mana and Cliff Curtis as Genesis in The Dark Horse

The other film released this month that commendably portrays the difficulties of living with a mental illness in a difficult environment is the outstanding New Zealand drama The Dark Horse. Cliff Curtis is a revelation as Genesis, an ex-chess champion who has been in and out of institutions due to his struggles with a bio-polar disorder. Based on a true story the film is about his volunteer work at a local youth chess club and his attempts to get his teenage nephew out from the violent gang life that his father intends for him.  Not unlike Shane Meadows’s excellent 24 7: Twenty Four Seven this is story of hope that doesn’t flinch from the grim realities that face the characters.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler

The ultra cynical and darkly comedic Nightcrawler sees Jake Gyllenhaal in fine form as a ruthless creature of the night akin to the alien from Under the Skin and pop-culture psychopaths like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. In the case of Lou he profiteers from video taping tragedy to then sell to news stations, and he does so with no qualms about manipulating other people’s trauma to get the best footage possible. The result is a thrilling and voyeuristic ride alongside somebody completely lacking empathy, and a savage critique of the news that we consume, which is only made possible by people like Lou and our own morbid appetites.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

I’ve enjoyed all The Hunger Games films and even though the new film is only half of one of the books, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is my favourite so far in the excellent franchise. With a focus on the propaganda war between the ruling class in the Capitol and the rebels in District 13, this film goes even further in its savvy critique of how celebrity culture, the media and popular culture carry political messages to influence the target audience. Jennifer Lawrence is once again fantastic as reluctant hero Katniss Everdeen who in this film starts to question the rhetoric of the side she’s been coopted to fight on.

Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand and Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar

Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand and Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar

The final film I really enjoyed this month is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which may overreach in some of its attempts to position itself alongside philosophical science fiction masterpieces such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but still contains enough moments of awe and wonder for me to overlook any shortcomings. On a purely spectacle level it is a triumph and I admire its attempts to explore complex ideas such as how time could be represented as a physical space. I also strongly responded to its core question, which is also at the heart of Malick’s The Tree of Life, about what motivates humanity: a simple survival instinct that’s wired into our DNA or something less tangible or measurable such as – dare I say it – love. Corny to some perhaps, but I enjoyed it and also appreciated how much the film linked in such ideas with its celebration of scientific curiosity and the quest to discover something more in life than simple survival and acceptance of fate.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – Source Code (2011)

7 May 2011
Source Code: Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan)

Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan)

Free will, alternate realities, memory, identity, the struggle between the needs of the individual versus the needs of the whole and the implications of trying to change the past are some of the issues explored in this new science-fiction/thriller. It’s the second feature film by director Duncan Jones, who previously directed and wrote the excellent independent science-fiction film Moon. In Source Code Jones is working off somebody else’s script and with a bigger budget. While the end results are not as successful as Moon, it is still a decent mystery with intriguing philosophical implications and a fleshed out human drama.

Source Code opens with a series of crosscutting aerial shots of a speeding commuter train and the city it is travelling towards. There is a terrorist plot theme to the film and involved in this plot is a character played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who sudden wakes up on the train with no idea of who he is or why he is there. Jones’s focus on the small details of passenger interaction happening around Gyllenhaal’s character signposts the importance that repetition and re-enactment will play within the film.

Source Code: Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga)

Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga)

What emerges is a film that mixes elements of old fashioned mystery narratives with the concepts from Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day and Chris Marker’s La jetée, which was more directly the inspiration behind Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. While the blending of these concepts in Source Code is successful, the explanation behind them is less so. It should be enough for the audience to simply accept the principles under which a film like this functions, but the rationalisations offered by the characters within the film are distractingly unconvincing, making the implausibilities and paradoxes a little too blatant. The motivations behind the terrorist plot are also unsatisfying and under developed.

The smaller story within the film, focusing on Gyllenhaal’s character and the woman sitting opposite him on the train (played by Michelle Monaghan), works extremely well to give the film a strong emotional drive. While at times this may come across as overly sentimental it does contain a pleasing living-life-to-the-fullest message. Unfortunately, the bigger story that Source Code tells undermines this message, perhaps even inadvertently. While the film contains an excellent bitter/sweet ‘conclusion’ that would have made a terrific final scene, it continues beyond that scene to deliver what is theoretically a more conclusive finale. However, within this finale the very central premise of who Gyllenhaal’s character actually is seems to have been conveniently forgotten. It is not that the film deliberately ends on a dark and sombre note, it is just glossed over and this leaves behind a slightly bad taste.

Source Code: Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan)Source Code comes close to being a great film but it contains a few too many narrative flaws and slightly questionable issues of representation. While on the one hand it successfully strives to undermine reactionary and bigoted attitudes about terrorism, it also concedes to some very conservative attitudes towards the role of science and the military in society. Despite the life-saving work done by a science organisation within the film, dutiful individualism is celebrated while the collective good of scientific enquiry is somewhat demonised. It certainly doesn’t help that one of the main scientific characters is overacted and overwritten to the point of almost unintentional parody.

Like The Adjustment Bureau, Source Code is more successful as a romance than as a science fiction but it is ultimately frustrating.  There are too many disappointing elements that work against what is good about the film for it to be much more than an interesting curiosity by a clearly talented director on the rise.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

23 May 2010
PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal)

Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal)

Against many expectations, when Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films first teamed up to make 2003’s theme-park ride adaptation Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the result was a fun adventure film containing exciting action, inventive scenarios and entertaining characters. Disney and Bruckheimer’s latest collaboration is now a computer-game adaptation and the result is Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a film that while not as good as the original Pirates of the Caribbean is nevertheless extremely enjoyable. Far more of a hyperactive fantasy film than anything remotely historic or realistic, Prince of Persia is about the quest by the adopted prince Dastan to clear his name and stop a mystical dagger, which has the power to turn back time, from falling into the wrong hands.

While English director Mike Newell’s previous films are a diverse collection that includes Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco, he is no stranger to family-friendly action/fantasy having directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth film in the franchise and most interesting after Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In Prince of Persia Newell displays a real flair for action, especially with the scenes involving sword fighting and knife throwing. Newell also incorporates elements of the source material’s game play into the aesthetic of the action with lots of characters jumping over buildings, climbing up walls and hanging off platforms. The time travel plot device also nicely replicates the gaming experience of being able to restart a sequence from an earlier saved point.

PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME Tamina (Gemma Arterton)

Tamina (Gemma Arterton)

Many computer game adaptations suffer from having an overly complicated plot (for example, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) as some sort of overcompensation for being a computer game adaptation. Prince of Persia doesn’t buck against this trend but at least its convoluted story doesn’t get in the way of the big set pieces. It also helps that the writers (who include Fresh writer/director Boaz Yakin) have created a brisk pace and the tone of the film is pleasingly slightly over-the-top enough to be affectionately self-aware without being parody. There is also a strident critique of recent US history with Persia’s attack on Alamut, based on misinformation that the holy city was making weapons to be used against them, being a blatant condemnation of the USA using the presence of non-existent WMDs to invade Iraq.

There is not a lot of character complexity and it’s certainly pretty obvious from the start who the villain is going to be, but as conventional adventure character types the cast of Prince of Persia are convincing and fun. As Prince Dastan Jake Gyllenhaal is charismatic without being smarmy, tough without being macho and righteous without being tedious. His slow-motion-walking-in-front-of-flames hero shot comes a little too early in the film but otherwise he makes a credible hero. Gemma Arterton, as the film’s co-hero/love interest Tamina, holds her own in this predominantly boys-own adventure story and the supporting cast includes the ever-reliable Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina steals every scene that he is in.

Prince of Persia is frothy light entertainment but it’s frothy light entertainment done right. It delivers exactly the sort of cinema experience that it promises to deliver with more integrity and a little more substance than many other films of its ilk.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Brothers (2009)

21 March 2010

Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) and Tommy Cahill (Jake Gyllenhaal)

The American remake of Susanne Bier’s 2004 Danish film Brothers (Brødre) is reasonably faithful to Bier’s original film. Both films are centred on three characters: a war hero deployed in Afghanistan, his loving wife and his troubled brother who has just been released from jail. Both films explore the nature of posttraumatic stress disorder and destructive sexual paranoia.

This 2009 adaptation by Irish director Jim Sheridan (In America, In the Name of the Father, My Left Foot) is a more simplistic and direct version of Bier’s 2004 film. The character motivations and the relationships between the characters are now a lot more direct and blatantly depicted. Although this loses a lot of the nuances of Bier’s 2004 version, Sheridan’s film still mostly maintains the power that is required in key scenes throughout the film. In particular the tense family dynamics that are present during two key dinner scenes are expertly played out. However, the literalness of Sheridan’s version does not always work and the final scene in the film is compromised by the need to state the obvious.

Sheridan’s version also suffers from a rushed beginning that cuts to the main action far too quickly. The soldier character Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) does not have time to be adequately endeared to the audience so our sympathies are overly biased towards the other brother Tommy Cahill (Jake Gyllenhaal). Nevertheless both Maguire and Gyllenhaal are remarkably good in their roles and Maguire in particular delivers some of the best acting he has ever done.

Grace Cahill (Natalie Portman)

As Grace Cahill, Sam’s wife, Natalie Portman also excels and in fact the key to truly appreciating both versions of Brothers is to focus on the wife character and how she navigates the minefield of emotions. Child actors Taylor Geare and Bailee Madison as the Cahill’s daughters are also remarkable and the moments when they attempt to put on a brave face despite what is happening around them are truly heart breaking.

Remakes are not by default inferior to their original film but in the case of Brothers it is the case. Some of the liberties that this new film takes with the original source material do let the film down, which is a shame because other elements, including the performances by the three leads, are incredibly strong. While you would be better off tracking down a copy of the 2004 Danish film, this 2009 American remake still packs a punch where it counts.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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DVD review – Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut (2001), Region 4, Madman

1 March 2005

The original Donnie Darko is a wonderfully atmospheric film that explores reality and insanity within a psuedo-science-fiction/teen-film framework. Writer/director Richard Kelly’s ambiguous debut film is a clever and moving story about troubled teenager Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) who may or may not be delusional and receiving commands from a prophetic giant bunny rabbit.

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