Films I loved in November 2017

30 November 2017
The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Nicole Kidman as Anna Murphy and Colin Farrell as Steven Murphy in The Killing of a Sacred Deer

While watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer I found myself trying to identify the deeper meaning behind its stylised acting, clinical visual style, and themes of hubris and revenge (taken from the classical Greek myth of Iphigenia). It wasn’t until afterwards that I realised the brilliance of Yorgos Lanthimos’s film was simply that it made me consistently laugh, often without exactly knowing why. While not quite as rich as his previous film The Lobster, this is still a remarkable achievement in its ability to play it straight and still present darker than dark material in a way that is perversely comedic.

Lucky

Harry Dean Stanton as Lucky in Lucky

As the final film for beloved actor Harry Dean Stanton – and one of his very few leading roles – Lucky could not be more perfect. Playing an ageing, chain-smoking and reclusive old man who is musing on death and dying, Lucky is not exactly a stretch for Stanton and yet he still looses himself in the part with his distinctive understated charm. Lucky embodies the spirit of so many of the classic American films that Stanton appeared in over the decades in terms of setting, supporting cast and themes, resulting in something fittingly familiar. It’s a lovely farewell.

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Domhnall Gleeson as A A Milne and Will Tilston as Christopher Robin in Goodbye Christopher Robin

Goodbye Christopher Robin comes with many of the standard characteristics of a conventional biopic in telling the story of how A A Milne came to create the much-loved Winnie-the-Pooh stories. However, what sets the film apart is not just its avoidance of whimsy and sentimentality (for the most part), but its thematic complexities. Milne’s PTSD and at times difficult relationship with his family are explored, as are the issues surrounding the way he used his son’s childhood to create the much-loved stories and by doing so turned his son into a reluctant celebrity.

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James Franco as Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist

Like so many, I had an incredible time when I saw the 2003 so-bad-it’s-good cult film The Room. The Disaster Artist depicts how writer/director/producer/actor Tommy Wiseau teamed up with struggling actor Greg Sestero to make The Room and while so much of what happens is hilarious, the film still acknowledges Wiseau’s pain, passion and triumph of sorts. Wiseau is not nearly as sympathetic a character as Ed Wood, the 1950s B-grade filmmaker who is the subject of the 1994 film Ed Wood, but The Disaster Artist does share some of that film’s affection for its respective delusional misfit filmmaker.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

 

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Film review – This Is the End (2013)

18 July 2013
This Is the End: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride

James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride

On 7 May 2011 something apocalyptic happened in popular culture – Michael Bolton became really cool. The soft rock crooner teamed up with the comedy trio The Lonely Island to make a music video. The gag was that instead of Bolton providing the trio with a ‘big sexy hook’ for them to use on their hip hop track, he instead sang about how much he loved the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. The resulting song ‘Jack Sparrow’ was funny on several levels, but most of all because Bolton was parodying his clean-cut and somewhat saccharine and dorky image. ‘Jack Sparrow’ became a shining example of a phenomenon from the past two decades where public figures can earn enormous street cred by mocking themselves. Even Mike Tyson now comes across as a loveable rogue when he playfully pretends to bite Neil Patrick Harris’s ear during the opening number of the 2013 Tony Awards.

The all star cast of the massively self-reflexive and self-aware end of the world film This Is the End are not doing anything especially new with the concept of playing derogatory versions of themselves. However, their self-mockery is remarkably savage and most importantly, it is very funny.

While some of the best contemporary examples of actors playing highly unflattering versions of themselves have come from the UK – especially some the projects that Ricky Gervais or Steve Coogan have been involved in – the recent trend seems to have begun in the USA in the early 1990s. The 1992 film The Player assembled a huge cast of famous actors to play versions of themselves in director Robert Altman’s witty and vicious satire of Hollywood. From 1992 to 1998 Garry Shandling was doing something similar with the television series The Larry Sanders Show, which directed its witty and vicious satire towards late night television. This Is the End is not reaching for a similarly biting expose on the entertainment industry, but it does use the techniques used in The Player and The Larry Sanders Show to mock celebrity and fame.

The first part of This Is the End features Seth Rogen (who also wrote and directed with long term creative collaborator Evan Goldberg) dragging reluctant friend from out-of-town Jay Baruchel to a large party that James Franco has thrown. At the party is a large ensemble of mostly comedic actors who have worked with Rogen, and Goldberg on various films, most notably Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007), Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007) and Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, 2008). Like in The Player, many of these performers appear incredibly briefly, even some to the extent that you may not have realised they were there if you didn’t read their name in the credits at the end of the film. For the most part the humour comes from seeing these familiar personalities all in the same place at once and the resulting blend of egos, hormones and emotions that would occur at any large party. Their brief appearances juxtapose nicely with the perception of actors being self-important, something the film explores more as it continues.

The film changes gear when Judgement Day occurs and most of the cast are wiped out. One of the film’s greatest gags is that not a single person at the celebrity-packed party gets taken up to heaven as part of the Rapture. This Is the End then becomes more like The Larry Sanders Show as it focuses on the details of the various performers to mock the way they are perceived. And The Larry Sanders Show is a fitting reference point as it was an early television series that Judd Apatow worked on before becoming a key part of the creative team behind Freaks and Greeks (1999-2000), which Rogen and Franco got their breaks on, and then creating Undeclared (2001-2002), which starred Baruchel and again featured Rogen.

One of the grounding character arcs in the film concerns the tension between Rogen and Baruchel now that Rogen has become a bigger and more recognisable star and has famous friends like Franco. Added in the mix is a bromance love triangle between Rogen and old friend Baruchel, and new friend Jonah Hill who is wonderfully insincere. The rivalry between Baruchel and Hill for Rogen’s affections, even while the world is coming to an end, plays out beautifully. Added to the mix is Danny McBride being selfish and immoral, and the physically imposing Craig Robinson who reminds everybody that they are just actors and therefore completely lacking all skills, resourcefulness and toughness to cope with what has happened.

As well as acknowledging resentments and rivalries that may well reflect elements of truth, none of the performers in This Is the End try to present likeable versions of themselves. Not only does the film joke about none of them being worthy for heaven, but it includes conversations about how overpaid and overvalued they are in society. They appear needy, deceitful, manipulative, cruel and pathetic. Conflict does not just result from fights over the dwindling food and water, but about masturbation etiquette. The obsession with dick jokes that many of these performers are known – and sometimes derided – for is milked to its full extent, not just to generate laughs but to infantilise them and reveal their anxieties about their gender and sexual identity. None of it is particularly sophisticated or complex, but it is funny.

And still, as the characters increasingly humiliate and degrade themselves and each other, they are completely endearing and a joy to spend time with. Like many contemporary comedies This Is the End could have reduced its running time for a snappier end product, but there are not too many bits that drag. The special effects to create the various calamities as described in the Book of Revelations are impressive. By representing the idea of the Biblical Apocalypse seriously, the horror aspects of the film enhance the comedic aspects very effectively. Like Kevin Smith’s 1999 film Dogma, the depiction of Christian mythology is reasonably faithful to the source material, which helps with the film’s edginess and comedy. The end result is a highly entertaining film that rather than being a self indulgent romp for the performers, becomes a funny self-aware critique of their indulgences – along with several violent deaths, demonic monsters and dick jokes. There are lots of dick jokes.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – 127 Hours (2010)

10 February 2011
127 Hours: Aron Ralston (James Franco)

Aron Ralston (James Franco)

In 2003 Aron Ralston went mountain biking and then hiking by himself in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. A freak accident resulted in a boulder falling onto his right arm, pinning him to a canyon wall. The story of Ralston’s ordeal and the extraordinary measures he took to escape have been adapted into film with stunning results. The single location and single character scenario presents an enormous challenge to filmmaker Danny Boyle who uses what seems like every cinematic technique imaginable to make the film dynamic. Time-lapse photography, strobe effects, hand held camera, forced perspective, flashbacks, montages, slow motion, point-of-view shots, split screen and sound are just some of the stylistic devices used to make the audience share Ralston’s experiences in a truly visceral way. We experience Ralston’s fantasies, hallucinations and memories. Shots from inside his water bottle constantly reinforce the drama of his dwindling water supply, shards of sound express pain and bursts of light convey the brief moments of serenity each day when the sun touches him.

Not only does Boyle’s command of film style make 127 Hours an engaging experience, but it is also impressively used throughout the film to build and develop Ralston as a character. The lengthy opening sequence leading up to the accident is shot like the sort of extreme sports film that somebody like Warren Miller could have made. As Ralston packs, drives to the park, mountain bikes and then sets out hiking, the film is an adrenaline pumping combination of rapid edits, energetic music and dramatic camera angels. We get a great sense of Ralston’s spirit and bravado. We also get a sense that he is a little self-absorbed and enjoys playing the adventurous lone hero, and this is certainly reflected in the reactions of a pair of lost female hikers that he helps out early in the film prior to the incident. The female hikers respond to his charisma and admire his enthusiasm, but they are also a little amused by his posturing.

127 Hours

The degree in which Ralston is selfish and self-absorbed creates most of the emotional drama for the film as he questions how he ended up in the situation that he finds himself in. Boyle begins 127 Hours with a variety of split screens showing crowds and groups of people from all over the world to emphasise the loneliness of Ralston’s future predicament. However, it also emphasises Ralston’s background of pushing other people away, including his family, friends and ex-girlfriend, and how such emotional isolationism led to the circumstances where he would go off for a weekend of adventuring without telling anybody where he was going. So while 127 Hours celebrates the achievement of an individual under extreme duress, it is also a critique of individualistic behaviour that manifests as a brutal lesson.

127 Hours reveals the natural environment to be beautiful and awe-inspiring but it can very quickly turn into a cruel and indifferent oppressor when not treated with respect. Boyle needed to cast an actor to play Ralston who had the physique of somebody who could believably survive such an ordeal as well as articulate both his charisma and his hubris. Boyle has done exactly that with the casting of James Franco who delivers an extraordinary performance. Franco captures the range of emotions that Ralston experiences from despair and depression through to triumph and euphoria. Franco keeps us cheering for Ralston and making us want to stay with him. It’s the final ingredient to want makes 127 Hours such compelling, vicarious and satisfying cinema.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Milk (2008)

27 January 2009
Harvey Milk (Sean Penn)

Harvey Milk (Sean Penn)

Milk is a civil rights film about Harvey Milk, a prominent American gay rights activist in the 1970s who became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. Harvey’s story of overcoming bigotry and prejudice to inspire others and effect change evokes the better-known stories of African American civil rights activists who fought different types of persecution. As a member of the gay and lesbian community Harvey faced particular challenges. Police brutality, fear of violence, death threats, suicide and anti-homosexual hysteria fuelled by the religious right were all aspects of Harvey’s life. Milk is also a fascinating examination of the political process and it is a lot of fun witnessing Harvey’s transformation from hedonistic hippy into a slick, media savvy orator.

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