Films I loved in February 2015

1 March 2015
Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales and Jessica Chastainas Anna Morales in A Most Violent Year

Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales and Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales in A Most Violent Year

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) works in an industry dominated by organised crime and yet refuses to live like a gangster in JC Chandor’s  A Most Violent Year, a film that refuses to behave like a gangster film despite bearing many of the characteristics of a gangster film. In some ways, A Most Violent Year is the film that The Godfather Part III wanted to be as it is about a man who aspires to run his oil-heating business legitimately, but whose connections to the underworld undermine him at every turn. Isaac even channels the energy of a young Al Pacino and the whole film, which is set in New York City in 1981, feels like a New Hollywood film, in particular the ones that starred Al Pacino and/or were directed by Sidney Lumet. However, I think Chandor is looking even further back to Elia Kazan’s films of the 1950s and 1960s, which were also character driven pieces that were considered realist at the time, and were full of social and political commentary. The shot of Issac as Abel standing on top of an oil truck echoes the shot of Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront standing on the rubble heap. In both shots the Manhattan skyline is behind them in the distance, suggesting how both characters loom large in their small pocket of the world, but are still a long way from the life they dream of.

A Most Violent Year is most effective in its explanation for why Able is struggling so hard to achieve his goals despite working hard and maintaining a sense of honour and decency: he believes the myths of capitalism and the American Dream. He thinks honesty will triumph over ruthlessness and deceitfulness, and he believes fair competitions exists as opposed to an ongoing cycle of people just trying to screw each other over. As his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) tells him, he only has the success that he has because her father was once a powerful and wealthy criminal. Anna is the voice of reason in this world of moral compromise while Abel is naive. The tragic lesson of this sophisticated drama is that in the end its more important for many to plug the flow of oil than the flow of blood.

Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

I’ve never read anything by Mark Millar, but I really enjoyed Wanted and Kiss-Ass, which like Kingsman: The Secret Service are based on comics he’s written.  Directed by Matthew Vaughn (who also directed Kick-Ass) it follows what has become a familiar Millar storyline, where somebody ordinary and a bit hopeless gets the chance to become extraordinary in a world filled with ultra violence. In Kingsman the ordinary person is Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton), an unemployed English teenager living on a council estate. Under the mentorship of secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) Eggsy is given the chance to join the elite secret intelligence agency, the Kingsman. While the results are designed to be a parody and homage to some of the sillier films in the Bond franchise, the kinetic action and ridiculously high body count feels more like what a Bond film would resemble if Takashi Miike were the director.

While the violence is excessive and inventive, the real subversion is found in the narrative. The villains of the film are the 1%  – leaders of business and government who are happy to sacrifice the other 99% of the world’s population to maintain their lifestyle. And while the gentleman spy premise seems to initially exist to deliver the exploitive spectacle of the upperclass beating the shit out of the lower-class, the film soon establishes the notion that a gentleman is defined by a person’s attitude, not their class or gender. And as for the now controversial gag at the end of the film? It’s there to mock and highlight the absurd sexism of how so many Bond films end, but I don’t think the joke is particularly good nor does it suit the tone of the rest of the film. It’s a small detail and doesn’t overall detract from all the other giddy visual pleasures. The scene in the hate-group church alone is enough for me to want to revisit Kingsman again soon.

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma

David Oyelowo as Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Selma

There are several reasons why Selma rises above many other based-on-true-story films. Writer/director Ava DuVernay focuses on the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights in Alabama in 1965, but places the events as just one chapter within the ongoing US civil rights movement. At the centre of the film is Dr Martin Luther King Jr (David Oyelowo), but the film also acknowledges the many other leaders and supporters of the movement. The film is set in the past, but DuVernay contains several moments, in particular the scenes between King and President Lyndon B Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), to draw parallels between the historical events and contemporary issues. Both the moral and pragmatic dynamics of the movement are explored, and instead of resorting to sentiment the film allows the events to speak for themselves.

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in Citizenfour

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in Citizenfour

At first Citizenfour seems like a matter-of-factual and almost dry documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations to the media about the extent in which the  United States National Security Agency is spying on its own citizens. However, the moment when it becomes clear that filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras was one of the first people Snowden contacted and spoke to, and that Poitras taped those meetings that are now in the documentary, the significance of this film becomes apparent. The events Poitras has documented have since had profound effects on political discourse and debate surrounding the use of technology and personal liberties. Citizenfour reveals Snowden to be a rational and intelligent man who had wrestled with the decision to reveal his information and ultimately decided to sacrifice life as he knew it for the greater good, arguing that a government willing to sacrifice the freedom and privacy of its citizens ‘limits boundaries of their intellectual freedom’. By the end of the film we see scenes that suggest that the paranoid Cold War thrillers of the 1970s and the high tech surveillance thrillers on the 1990s were grounded in far more factual detail than imagined.


On a much lighter note, a couple of really fun films came out on home entertainment in Australia in February. The New Zealand film Housebound  is one of the best horror/comedies I’ve seen for a long time (I regard the equally brilliant What We Do in the Shadows as more of a comedy deriving humour from horror tropes than an actual horror/comedy).  Great characters, droll humour and an effective escalation of scares and gore; this variation on the haunted house story is terrific.

I also had a great time with the latest film by Japanese maverick Sion Sono, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? While Suicide Club and Love Exposure are still my favourite Sono films, this one comes a close third. A large ensemble of characters, multiple storylines and a hyperactive style, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? brings together a team of renegade filmmakers and rival yakuza gangs for a delirious and hilarious climatic bloodbath. Within all the chaos Sono is also able to express his fondness for the dying art of shooting films on 35mm, which is fair enough as even fake blood spurts look better on film than CGI blood.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

On a quick personal note, I am thrilled and honoured to have recently been awarded the Ivan Hutchinson Award for writing on Australian cinema at the AFCA 2015 Film & Writing Awards, for my article ‘Anger and Banality in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead. Thank you to the Australian Film Critics Association, all the writing award judges and Senses of Cinema.


Films I loved in March 2014

2 April 2014

A quick thank you to everybody who has been in touch. I’ve been asked if I will resume doing longer form reviews and unfortunately, for the timing being, the answer is no as this year I am mainly concentrating on some long term writing projects.

I’m doing a lot more radio this year; continuing my Thursday morning reviews on the Breakfasters (3RRR 102.7FM) and I am part of a monthly segment on Books and Arts Daily (ABC Radio National) that looks at book to film adaptations. I usually link to my radio spots on Facebook and/or Twitter.

I’m also thrilled to announce that Plato’s Cave, the podcast I have co-hosted for the past three years, is now officially on the 3RRR grid as an ongoing live weekly show, every Monday night from 7pm-8pm. More on the Triple R website, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe in Nymph()maniac

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe in Nymph()maniac

I adored Nymph()maniac and even though I have already seen the international cut where the film has been split into two parts and runs for a bit over four hours, I cannot wait to see the full five and a half hour cut. This is Lars von Trier at his most playful and self-reflexive, yet he still manages to deliver something truly profound and unsettling that explores all his favourite preoccupations. The stories that the self-described nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells about her sexual misadventures are not only sociopolitically provocative, but open up a multi-layered exploration about how lust and love are represented in culture. It’s a battle between mind, body and soul with von Trier in full trickster mode so that the audience never know exactly where they stand.

Robert Redford as Our Man in All Is Lost

Robert Redford as Our Man in All Is Lost

I’ve already written a mini-review of All Is Lost, but I really enjoyed this stripped back survival film about an unnamed man (Robert Redford) stranded at sea doing all that he can to protect his boat, body and mind from a cruel and indifferent environment. Both pragmatic and mythical, this is a film that allows every individual viewer to project their own psychological baggage onto the film so they can decide if it’s a film about the human spirit or a film about existential dread.

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda in Wadjda

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda in Wadjda

Wadjda is a charming and fun coming-of-age film about Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), an 11-year-old Saudi Arabian girl, who enters a Qur’an recital competition so that she can use the prize money to buy a bicycle. In such an aggressively patriarchal society such actions are hugely defiant and the film explores the everyday challenges that women and girls face when living with such extreme gender discrimination.


I finally caught up with The We and the I, which had some very limited screenings in Melbourne last year and was released onto DVD in Australia in late February. It is astonishing that this film has flown so far under the radar, as it is not only a Michel Gondry film, but I believe it is his best film since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Developed over three years of workshops with teenagers who went on to act in the film, it follows the dynamics on a school bus heading through the Bronx in New York City, USA, on the last day of school. Gondry’s distinctive visual style is suitably restrained, and he very skilfully draws the audience into the various mini-dramas that occur throughout the journey.

I have also written a short review about What Richard Did, which is the other notable DVD release I want to mention. It’s a strong drama about personal accountability that very convincingly builds up to a pivotal incident and then explores how that incident affects a community by looking at grief, guilt and culpability among individuals and groups. It’s an Irish film, but strikingly relevant to Australian society.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – All Is Lost (2013)

9 March 2014
Robert Redford as Our Man

Robert Redford as Our Man

Grappling with personal demons while trying to stay alive in a hostile environment can make gripping cinema as Gravity demonstrated. If you relocate the action in Gravity to a small boat stranded on the Indian Ocean, cast Robert Redford as the unnamed character facing the brutal elements and strip away all backstory, then the results may resemble All Is Lost.

There is almost no dialogue as the stoic weariness that Redford conveys and his character’s solitary predicament are enough to tell us that he is a man feeling crushed by the world. As he attempts to keep his boat and body in working order while methodically facing every new crisis, we hold our breath – not just because the film so successfully engages us in the process, but also because it hints that at any moment he might give in to defeat. The result is a thrilling and poetic survival film that ultimately allows the audience to project their own feelings of hope or despair onto the fate of Redford’s character.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 452, 2014

Thomas Caldwell, 2014