Films I loved in April 2016

1 May 2016

Jaeden Lieberher as Alton and Michael Shannon as Roy in Midnight Special

At times while watching Midnight Special, the new film by Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter), I felt like it was custom-made for me. I adored the way its story of two men kidnapping a boy from a cult created tension and intrigue by withholding so much backstory and character information, especially in an era of filmmaking where often so much is over-explained or signposted sooner than necessary. It also helped that the film was heavily and overtly inspired by ’70s and ’80s science-fiction films such as Steven Spielberg‘s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one of my all-time favourite films. While Midnight Special ultimately didn’t deliver the full payoff that I was anticipating, which was disappointing as the final reveal was so literal, I still loved its performances, mood and exploration of many of Nichols’s reoccurring themes concerning family, fatherhood, masculinity and how we perceive reality.

Captain America: Civil War

Chris Evans as Captain America in Captain America: Civil War

While I always more or less enjoy the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, I’ve never found any particularly memorable. Guardians of the Galaxy is the only one to ever appear in one of my monthly summaries, until now as I thought Captain America: Civil War was superb. Containing nearly every significant superhero character from the previous films and introducing new ones while further developing narrative threads from 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, this new film is impressive for just how well it manages so much story and character information. But its real triumph is the stunning action choreography and inventive fight scenes. Not since the first two X-Men films have I felt such exhilaration from the spectacle of seeing the inherent strangeness of all the various superpowers in play. Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo never allow the computer generated effects to overshadow the visual pleasures of the actors’ bodies in motion, and they are always aware of how to best capitalise on the space of the scenes where the action takes place, frequently tracking the action vertically rather than always staging scenes along the more conventional x-axis.

A  Month of Sundays

John Clarke as Phillip Lang and Anthony LaPaglia as Frank Mollard in A Month of Sundays

The Australian film A Month of Sundays, by writer/director Matthew Saville, reminded me of many independent American films from the 1990s, with its off-kilter nervous energy, understated humour and gently melancholic atmosphere.  Anthony LaPaglia, one of Australia’s consistently excellent actors, gives a sad and funny performance as a divorced middle-aged real estate agent whose life seems to have lost all meaning. The key to the film’s success is its winning droll humour, often courtesy of the always brilliant John Clarke in a supporting role, that takes the film into more serious and ultimately heartwarming  territory. A Month of Sundays is low key and anecdotally seems to have divided audiences, but if you can tap into its humour early on then the results are extremely rewarding.


National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a terrific documentary that covers the founding for the American satirical magazine National Lampoon in 1960 that went on to become a multimedia operation that included comedy albums, radio serials, theatre shows and feature films such as Animal House and Vacation. The film adopts a similar visual style to the magazine’s art direction, which greatly assists in conveying the impact of the humour, which ranged from irreverent and absurd to extremely confronting and shocking. The interviews with many of the editorial staff and performers from over the years are fascinating and funny, and the film contains plenty of classic moments from the magazine, albums and live performances that still elicit big laughs. This film is enormously fun and demonstrates how rather than belittling the already powerless with lazy stereotypes, ‘offensive’ and dark humour can also be used to aggressively draw attention to social inequalities and hypocrisy.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Film review – Mud (2012)

13 June 2013
Mud: Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Mud (Matthew McConaughey)

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Mud (Matthew McConaughey)

What is the worst thing to tell a young teenage boy? To not trust women and be suspicious of love, or that women are to be worshiped and love conquers all? In Jeff Nichols’s third feature film Mud, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is told both extremes. Bitter about the breakdown of his marriage, Ellis’s father (Ray McKinnon) is one of the many older male characters living in the small community near the Mississippi River in Arkansas who tell Ellis not to fall in love because women are just no good. Then there is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), the fugitive that Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover hiding out on a small island in the river. Unlike all the other adult characters in the film, Mud is full of enthusiasm and hope, believing in the transcendent power of love and believing that all he needs to live happily ever after is to be reunited with his on-and-off girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

The Mississippi River setting and distinctively southern American coming-of-age narrative reveal how influential Mark Twain’s 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) is for Nichols. Even though Mud goes into thriller and even gangster genre territory, it fundamentally remains a film about childhood and the experiences of friendship, first love and entering the adult world by accepting responsibility. Ellis is an impressionable yet good-natured boy, attempting to make sense of the conflicting messages he gets from the adult characters. As he is increasingly drawn towards the charismatic and seemingly righteous Mud, he finds the events of own life being reflected in that of Mud’s to the extent that Mud becomes both a future projection of the man Ellis may become as well as a Christ-like figure.

Mud is something of an update of the 1961 British film Whistle Down the Wind (directed by Bryan Forbes from a 1959 novel by Mary Hayley Bell) where three children mistake a hidden fugitive for Jesus Christ. While Ellis does not literally believe Mud to be the Messiah, he does increasingly regard him as a mythical figure. A transient and outlaw figure who lives in a boat that was dumped in a tree after a flood, Mud is an enticing mystery to the impressionable Ellis, and to a lesser degree the far more cynical Neckbone. After being on the run and hiding in the wild, Mud looks suitably dirty and dishevelled, yet speaks with a disconcerting eloquence. He is a capable survivalist and yet places immense value in objects and symbols, facilitating one scene where as Mud McConaughey gets to remove his shirt for reasons that are essential to the narrative. McConaughey going topless in a film is nothing new, but no previous film that he has starred in so successful justifies the display of his physique by making it an essential part of his character’s psychological development.

The crucial aspect of Mud’s mythology is that it is self-generated and a product of both self-delusion and bravado. He is larger than life figure and looms large in Ellis’s world. Most importantly is that Ellis has fallen in love with a local girl and while the other men he knows are dismissive or even hostile to women, Mud’s declarations of love for Juniper are a revelation for Ellis. Ellis becomes Mud’s disciple, assisting him with his planned escape and mimicking his behaviour. Ellis learns of Mud’s violence toward men who have reportedly hurt Juniper and in turn Ellis begins to act violently toward men he believes are a threat to the girl he has fallen for. Unrealistic idealism soon becomes destructive.

Mud emerges as a false yet benign prophet that inadvertently sets Ellis up for a crisis of faith. After establishing a clear point of difference between Ellis’s dysfunctional home life and the idealised world expressed by Mud, the film becomes increasingly complicated as Ellis learns that not everything is as cut and dried as Mud had lead him to believe. A series of emotional and physical conflicts lead Ellis to learn that while women are not the enemy, nor are they idealised beings who only exist to redeem troubled men. It is an invaluable lesson that makes Mud an extremely sophisticated and progressive examination on how adolescent masculinity is defined by often-contradictory cultural attitudes towards femininity.

Mud may not quite achieve the psychological intensity of Nichols’s Take Shelter, but it is still a strong and complex portrayal of a man grappling with how he perceives the world and how that perception affects the people around him. In Take Shelter Curtis (played by Michael Shannon who also appears in Mud as Neckbone’s uncle Galen) has visions of apocalyptic storms while Mud is obsessed with symbolism. It is fitting that in a film where women are often described as bringing about the downfall of men, the snake is a reoccurring motif, evoking the Biblical story of Eve in the Garden of Eden. A mud pit filled with snakes near Mud’s hideout is frequently depicted, Mud has a snake tattoo and Mud claims that the purpose of snakes is to create fear. It is a rich and layered set of Biblical and psychoanalytic symbolism, designed to represent male anxiety at its most hysterical and alarmist.

Despite the slightly jarring intrusion towards the end of the film of a subplot and set of characters that feel like they belong in a different film, Mud is an impressive male coming-of-age story. McConaughey impresses once more in what is possibly his most complex role to date, Witherspoon displays a depth of character that audiences have not seen from her since her early performances in 1990s American independent films and Sheridan brings to the screen a youthful intensity that suggest a star on the rise. At the heart of it all is an old fashioned yet welcome message that love is a wonderful thing, even though it does not always work out. And real men do not hold women accountable for their woes.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Take Shelter (2011)

13 October 2011
Take Shelter: Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon)

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon)

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) has a good life and is told so by his best friend and co-worker Dewart (Shea Whigham), who admires Curtis’s family and the home in Ohio that he has built around him. Curtis is a good husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and a good father to their hearing-impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). His construction job not only brings in a decent salary but it also provides an excellent insurance plan that will help cover the costs of upcoming surgery for Hannah. And yet despite all of this, Curtis is having vivid nightmares and waking visions of an approaching apocalyptic storm and mysterious figures who threaten his family. While terrified by what he is seeing, Curtis is also grimly aware that there is a history of schizophrenia in his family. As his paranoia and visions intensify, Curtis becomes obsessed with building an elaborate tornado shelter while trying to understand what is happening to him psychologically.

Films about mental illness often present a character loosing their grasp on reality as a melodramatic tragedy or even occasionally as something that is quaintly liberating, as if that character now has a privileged view of the world. Attempts to depict how a mentally ill character views the world tend to be hysterical and romantically tormented rather than insightful. Conditions such as schizophrenia are frequently confused with various personality disorders, resulting in a common misbelief that people with schizophrenia are likely to be criminally violent. Therefore it is incredibly refreshing to see such an intelligent and sensitive portrayal of a man experiencing the early signs of schizophrenia in Take Shelter.

Take Shelter: Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and Hannah LaForche (Tova Stewart)

Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and Hannah LaForche (Tova Stewart)

Writer/director Jeff Nichols establishes early that Curtis is aware that something is not right, rather than making him a passive character who succumbs to his condition. Curtis seeks help and tries to understand what is happening to him. What makes the film so dramatically interesting is that while he is able to realise he is seeing and hearing things that are not there, he doesn’t have the same self-recognition in regards to his growing paranoia. So while seemingly aware that his premonitions about the coming storm are imagined, he still compulsively pours time, money and resources into building the shelter despite the effect it has on his work and his family. The shelter becomes symbolic of his subconscious; something for him to retreat into while the storm hopefully passes above him. Curtis also begins to increasingly distrust those around him, most tragically those he has the most intense feelings for, beginning with the family dog who gets cast out of the house after he dreams it attacked him.

Michael Shannon has portrayed mentally unstable characters several times in the past, in films such as Bug, Revolutionary Road and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. His unconventional brooding looks give him a commanding and mysterious presence on screen that makes him so suitable for such roles. In Take Shelter he eclipses everything he has done previously with what will more than likely be a career-defining performance. As Curtis’s wife Samantha, Jessica Chastain plays a role similar to the supportive and strong mother and wife role she had in The Tree of Life. However, she gets a lot more to do in Take Shelter and like Shannon, delivers a beautiful performance. Despite the fears, confusion and anger she feels for what Curtis is going through, and putting her through, she remains by his side. The most powerful moments in the film involve either Samantha’s devastating responses to Curtis’s suffering or her determined confrontations with him. Take Shelter paints an extraordinary picture of what it means to unconditionally love somebody, making the representation of Curtis and Samantha’s marriage something profoundly moving.

Take Shelter: Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon)The final scene in Take Shelter is a little perplexing and if the rest of the film hadn’t been so well crafted and clearly considered, it would be tempting to dismiss the final moments as literal and therefore undermining a lot of what the film had previously done to present the nature of Curtis’s visions. However, upon reflection it feels far more like a deliberate attempt to create ambiguity and confusion in order to present the world that Curtis, and by extension his family, now must live in. It’s one of many aspects about the film that will leave audiences lost deep in their thoughts throughout the rest of the day after seeing it.

There is so much empathy and understanding in the way Take Shelter creates an engaging story out of a widely misunderstood condition. It is one of the most captivating and overwhelming portrayals of mental illness in a domestic setting since John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence in 1974. It certainly makes films like The Beaver feel incredible superficial by comparison. The cinematic effects used to evoke Curtis’s visions create a vivid impression of his condition without ever feeling exploitive. The slow burning nature of the drama means that a number of incredibly tense moments creep up without warning to make so much of Take Shelter heartbreakingly suspenseful.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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