Films I loved in December 2015

19 December 2015

Jafar Panahi in Taxi Tehran

Ever since Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was banned from making films, he has created highly meta docufictions  that are playfully defiant, intellectual musings on what film is and means to people, and mournful laments about political oppression in Iran. Taxi Tehran continues along similar lines and sees Panahi playing himself (or appearing as himself?) as the driver of a taxi picking up passengers around Tehran. While it’s tempting to assume the entire film is a construct you are never too sure and in the end it doesn’t really matter as the joy of this film is spending time with such a humane, charismatic, thoughtful and innovative filmmaker.

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Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour

An adaptation of David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming YourselfThe End of the Tour depicts the conversations Lipsky had with David Foster Wallace that formed the basis of Lipsky’s profile on Wallace for Rolling Stone magazine. A sort of road movie version of My Dinner with Andre, the topics covered during the film include detachment, loneliness and spiritual starvation in the modern era. It’s also a very entertaining portrayal of two contemporaries – one far more successful and talented than the other – engaging in petty rivalry, intellectual oneupmanship and ultimately a genuine attempt for mutual respect and friendship.


Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts in Suffragette

Suffragette focuses on one group of working-class women in England at the start of last century to tell the story of how the members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, who were campaigning for the right for women to vote, became increasingly militant in their activities. By depicting the injustices, unfairness and cruelties that the women in the film endure, it is a powerful reminder of how institutionalised discrimination can only be overcome when equality is demanded not politely requested.


Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano in Joy

While Joy doesn’t reach the same heights as David O. Russell’s brilliant mid-career films Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, it’s my favourite film of his from the past five years. Based on the true story of inventor and entrepreneur Joy Mangano, it is a rags-to-riches film about a woman who against all the odds turns her life around. But with an excellent cast that includes Jennifer Lawrence in the lead and Russell’s assured direction, this is a tense and emotional film with the potential to be a feel-good Christmas classic.

And finally… yes, I’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens and I loved the experience of seeing it with a bunch of fans who like me I suspect have treasured memories of how large the original trilogy loomed in their childhoods. And while I’m not sure how much it holds up as a film in its own right, it delivered some wonderful rushes of nostalgia and the promise of a rich new set of characters for future instalments. I had a ball seeing this film and I suspect I’m not alone.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Film review – Super 8 (2011)

11 June 2011
Super 8: Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney)

Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney)

While the previous two films directed by JJ Abrams were contemporary updates to already established franchises (Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek), Super 8 is more of a general homage to the type of children’s adventure films that were popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While it doesn’t feel like an obviously calculated attempt to evoke such films, which will primarily be remembered by members of Generation X, Super 8 nevertheless generates a welcoming nostalgic glow. This is predominantly because Abrams has adopted many of the stylistic and narrative characteristics of the films produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, who is also one of the producers on Super 8. This doesn’t seem to have been done to merely pay tribute to Spielberg, but in recognition that his expert command of exposition, characterisation, mood and atmosphere is worth adopting.

Set in a small town in 1979, Super 8 is about a group of young kids who are making their own film; amusingly inspired more by directors such as George A Romero and John Carpenter rather than Spielberg. At first glance the scenario is similar to Garth Jennings’s Son of Rambow, about two boys in the 1980s remaking First Blood. However, while Jennings’s film mostly remained grounded in a sort of kitchen-sink realism, Abrams quickly introduces adventure, danger and mystery when the gang’s film shoot is interrupted by a train crash. Through the resulting post-crash suspense and wonderment, as the town falls prey to strange incidents and an unwanted military presence, Super 8 gradually builds to its big reveal.

Super 8Super 8 does contain several of the ideas that populate so many of Spielberg’s family orientated films – a likeable gang of kids as the heroes, child protagonists with single parents, adults as either untrustworthy or misunderstanding, and ordinary people encountering an extraordinary situation. There are also several nods to the left leaning science-fiction films of the 1950s when the source of the incidents is revealed after being incorrectly represented by the townspeople. For the most part Super 8 is a fun adventure, complete with some very sweet young love scenes and plenty of creepy moments where the element of the unknown is used to its full potential. During the final act of the film some of the magic is lost once the mystery of what is happening is revealed and the obvious reliance on CGIs becomes too dominant. All too suddenly the film snaps out of its old-fashioned keep-the-audience-guessing mode to something not nearly as satisfying.

Nevertheless, Super 8 is mostly tremendous fun and it certainly hits all of its emotional cues. Watching a likeable bunch of kids outwit the military is always a pleasure and the transformation of an average small town into an explosive war zone is a thrill. Going back to the style and structure of films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Gremlins and The Goonies to create engaging narratives that rely on a developed build-up rather than a series of quick gratifications is an outstanding way of making engaging mainstream family entertainment. Hopefully Super 8 will trigger a new appreciation for such films and a new approach in contemporary filmmaking.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Star Trek (2009)

27 April 2009
Spock (Zachary Quinto) and James T. Kirk (Chris Pine)

Spock (Zachary Quinto) and James T. Kirk (Chris Pine)

The plainly titled Star Trek is the eleventh film that has spun from the much loved science-fiction television series franchise. This new film depicts the origins of the original crew of the starship USS Enterprise who featured in the original 1966-1969 series and starred in the first 6 films. Resurrecting these characters was a risky venture as the original Star Trek series does come with the baggage of its questionable colonist politics, very questionable gender politics and an aesthetic that seems very kitsch by today’s standards. The good news is that this new film manages to keep a slightly retro look, which is more cool than camp, while combining it with an edgier visual style. The production design and handheld cinematography seems to owe much to the look of the recent Battlestar Galactica series, although it is not nearly as visually or thematically dark. The better news is that this new film has enough nods to the original series and films to keep the casual fans happy without compromising the degree in which non-fans will be able to enjoy it. Judging from the reaction of people dressed in Star Trek uniforms during the advance screening, there also seems to be a number of in-jokes and references to really delight the hardcore fans. Finally, the best news of all is that this new film is a wonderfully entertaining blend of melodrama, comedy, action and science fiction.

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