Films I loved in August 2015

1 September 2015
Ryan Corr as Timothy Conigrave and Craig Stott as John Caleo in Holding the Man

Ryan Corr as Timothy Conigrave and Craig Stott as John Caleo in Holding the Man

The film adaptation of the 1995 memoir Holding the Man broadly fulfils two objectives: it depicts two decades of historical importance to the Australia LGBTI community and it tells a beautiful love story. Covering the years from 1976 to 1995, the growth of queer identity politics and the beginning of the AIDS crisis are never far from the forefront. However, the heart of the film is exploring and celebrating the relationship between aspiring actor Timothy Conigrave and captain of the school football team John Caleo. Falling in love as school boys and then navigating the complexities of the adult world, the film is initially a warm, funny and tender love story about all the joys and awkwardness of first love. This warmth and tenderness is maintained, even later in the film when Tim and John’s lives become affected by AIDS. Free of melodrama and sentimentality, this is powerful and deeply moving cinema with the potential to become an Australian classic.

Shameik Moore as Malcolm Adekanbi in Dope

Shameik Moore as Malcolm Adekanbi in Dope

The thing that most impressed me about Dope was how deftly it oscillated between moments of fun teen-film hijinks and harsh wake-up call moments where the audience are reminded that Malcolm, the teenage protagonist, and his friends live in a neighbourhood rife with criminality and violence. Malcolm is a likeable and endearing self-described geek who loves ’90s hiphop, but there is also a growing rage inside him. Despite being ideal college material, the reality of his socioeconomic background constantly conspires against him. Although I found the treatment of gender a little disappointing, the focus on race and class is extremely potent and there is an incredible energy to this film that reminded me of Spike Lee’s best work, especially the youth focused Crooklyn. And most powerfully, instead of resolving with the obvious moral and naive lesson that some audiences may anticipate, the film concludes with a confronting statement about the reality of what young people with a background like Malcolm need to do to escape the environment they happen to be born into.

Rebecca Hall as Robyn Callen, Jason Bateman as Simon Callen and Joel Edgerton as Gordon

Rebecca Hall as Robyn Callen, Jason Bateman as Simon Callen and Joel Edgerton as Gordon “Gordo” Mosley

The Gift is a very impressive feature film directorial debut by Joel Edgerton, who also writes, acts and produces. It evokes many of the early films by Roman Polanski with its story about a seemingly normal and happy couple whose lives begin to unravel when a third person intrudes into their world. The film functions as a tightly wound thriller that becomes increasingly interesting as it starts to shift its sympathies between characters, but it also provides commentary on the way behaviour that is regarded as bullying in the schoolyard is often acceptable in many aspects of adult life.

William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal in Best of Enemies

William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal in Best of Enemies

I really enjoyed the documentary Best of Enemies, about the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jr during the US Republican and Democrat conventions in 1968. Not only does the film deliver a fascinating insight in the changing political and media landscape in the late 1960s, but how this seemingly inspired move to bring intellectual debate to mainstream television was ironically the beginning of the dumbed down personality-driven political commentary that dominates today.

And just briefly, Woody Allen’s latest film Irrational Man once more explores his preoccupation with existentialism and the question of whether murder can ever be justified, in a way that isn’t as dark or satisfying as previous films such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, but still a lot of fun. And I also caught up with Maggie, which went straight to home-entertainment in Australia in July. Being a zombie film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was met with enormous false expectations about the type of film it should be, but I was won over by this film for what it is – a melancholic story about a father grieving for his dying daughter.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Film review – The Thing (2011)

11 October 2011
The Thing: Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)

Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)

The new 2011 film The Thing is a direct prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film of the same name. It is faithful to story information provided in Carpenter’s film to depict what happened to the Antarctic Norwegian expedition, who first encountered the shape-shifting alien before it got to the American research base. In this new film the Norwegians discover the crashed ship and its frozen occupant, and bring in a group of American scientists to help them with their discovery. One of these scientists is palaeontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who like RJ MacReady (Kurt Russell) did in the 1982 film, takes on the reluctant leader role once the deadly creature escapes and all hell breaks loose.

While the basic narrative structure, mood and atmosphere closely resemble the 1982 film, its production design and claustrophobic action sequences suggest Aliens was also a significant influence. The first act is very close to the first act of The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks, 1951), the first film to be adapted from the novella Who Goes There? by John W Campbell, Jr. All three of these horror/science-fictions have reflected the period they were made in and while strong arguments can be made for why both the 1951 and the 1982 films could be considered the best of the bunch, the 2011 one is not a contender. However, there is still much to admire about it.

The Thing: Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton)

Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton)

The 2011 The Thing sets up its scenario very efficiently so that it can get into the thrills early. The initial scares are convincing, the creature effects are suitably macabre and icky, and the paranoia about who is alien and who is human is developed effectively. The second act of the film is extremely strong, especially when focused on the breakdown between the human characters. The film is at its best when focused on the antagonism and growing factionalism between the various characters as they start suspecting each other. The strategy for determining who is really an alien is not as interesting or nail biting as in the 1982 film, but it still produces some suitably tense sequences.

There are lots of inventive, creative and suitably disturbing perversions of the body during the scenes when the creature breaks out of its human form. The marvellous sexual anxiety imagery from the 1982 film appears once again with the creature being all phallic tentacles and vaginas dentata. However, the over-reliance on computer-generated imagery to create many of the creature effects means that it lacks the brilliant visceral texture of the stop-motion animated and puppetry-based special effects used in the Carpenter film. The CGI is also overused to the extent that we see too much of the grotesque human/monster hybrid creations, rather than only getting the more effective brief nightmarish glimpses like we did in the 1982 and 1951 films.

The ThingSo while The Thing from Another World reflected Cold War paranoia and a science fiction meets 1950s monster movie aesthetic, and Carpenter’s The Thing had the mix of brilliant special effects with its bleak outlook on the future of humanity post-Vietnam and pre-AIDS, what does this new film say about 2011? There’s a vaguely anti-exploitation theme and some nods to psychoanalysis (the film has a curious oral fixation), but ultimately this is a film going through the motions, albeit with some of those motions being very entertaining. Sadly it seems to suggest that overall our current era is defined by very little as we all too easily settle for artifice, distraction and minimal sub-text rather than something of real substance. A large part of the audience for this film probably won’t care about the dominance of CGI effects, as that is what they have grown up experiencing and don’t consider it to be empty spectacle, but that doesn’t make it any better. Like the alien creature that should have been left buried in the snow, this 2011 film is initially a convincing replication of the real thing, but it eventually all comes undone.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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