Films I loved in February 2017

26 February 2017
T2: TRAINSPOTTING

Ewan McGregor as Mark Renton and Jonny Lee Miller as Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson in T2 Trainspotting

T2 Trainspotting is not the best film released this month, but it’s the one that had the biggest effect on me. As somebody who vividly associates seeing the original 1996 film with my early 20s, that’s exactly what it is calculated to do. Like a lot of the soundtrack featured in the film, it functions as both a remix and an update of the original Trainspotting as we are reintroduced to the characters to discover that none of them have moved on as much as they would have liked to. Thematically it is anti-nostalgic, while stylistically being deeply nostalgic which results in a film that is equal parts refreshing and euphoric as well as sobering and melancholic.

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Sandra Hüller as Ines Conradi and Peter Simonischek as Winfried Conradi in Toni Erdmann

On paper the concept of Toni Erdmann sounds patronising and condescending – an older man follows his daughter on a business trip to disrupt her ordered corporate life with pranks and jokes to make her find joy in life again. Instead, this is an impressive drama/comedy about the relationship between parents and their children that also comments on the dehumanising effects of capitalism. It is also a film of surprises with the ability to trigger strong emotional responses with the many scenes that are unexpectedly deeply moving plus and the many, many scenes that are deliriously funny. The escalation of humour in key moments results in some of the finest cinematic comedy in recent years.

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Michelle Williams as Randi and Casey Affleck as Lee in Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is a beautifully written, directed and acted drama about living with grief, guilt and regret. The use of flashbacks to convey the memories of the lead character Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) as they come back to haunt him means that for a lot of the running time the audience don’t know the full details behind what has made him into such a shadow of a person. The climax of the backstory is heartbreaking and makes the events in the current time period all the more poignant.

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Cameraperson

Documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson assembled various outtakes from the documentaries she has filmed, as well as some personal home movies, to create her deeply personal and very moving film Cameraperson. Through the juxtaposition of footage taken all over the world during different time periods, Johnson reflects on how humans cope with tragedy and horror – whether experiencing it directly or witnessing it – and the blurred lines between objectivity and subjectivity she has experienced in her professional life.

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The Family

The Family documents the widespread power and influence of the Melbourne-based cult The Family from the 1960s to the 1990s. It’s an extremely accomplished documentary that includes extensive interviews with survivors of the cult, who were children at the time, and members of the police who were instrumental in rescuing them. Perhaps most shocking are the revelations about the degree to which cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne was able to infiltrate legal, medical and political institutions throughout the decades.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

Film review – Margaret (2011)

14 June 2012
Margaret: Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin)

Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin)

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s 1880 poem ‘Spring and Fall’ is addressed to a young child named Márgarét who is experiencing the overwhelming grief that comes with first encountering death and decay in nature. The poet acknowledges Márgarét’s intense emotions, but comments that with time her response to death will be more tempered even though she will become more aware of her own mortality. It’s a poem about the emotional state of an adolescent and a fitting title for a film where the behaviour of a 17-year-old is frequently used to comment on the actions of a young country in the aftermath of a horrific act of terrorism.

Due to lengthy problems in post-production, Margaret was filmed in 2005 and only released in 2011 and yet its post-9/11 politics are still relevant even if they have lost some of their edge ten years later. The end result is a late-but-better-than-never second feature directed by Kenneth Lonergan, arriving over a decade after You Can Count on Me in 2000. Margaret is a drama with nods towards melodrama, although its commentary on the nature of performance and its political subtext make for an unconventional end product. The dialogue is on the brink of being stylised, the tone is on the brink of being comedy and the film style is on the brink of being self-aware. The result is an unnerving film set in a recognisable version of our world but ever so slightly off-kilter.

The ‘Margaret’ of the film is Lisa Cohen, played by Anna Paquin who had a similar role as a supporting character in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002), another New York set drama filled with post-9/11commentary. After witnessing a very traumatic bus accident, which she was indirectly responsible for and resulted in the death of an innocent woman, Lisa goes through a roller coaster of emotions. First she goes through shock, then concern for Maretti the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) and then outrage that he isn’t feeling as bad about it as she is. Lisa is then determined to see Maretti punished displaying the same amount of outrage she displays during a series of political debates with classmates, where she aggressively condemns terrorism and supports the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the simplest terms.

Lisa is initially like Lady MacBeth; symbolically trying to remove her guilt by washing away the blood splattered on her. She goes on the offensive and purges herself of any thoughts that she may have been culpable by focusing so obsessively on seeing Maretti somehow suffer for his involvement. She is like the country she lives in: self-assured, complex, externally confident to a degree that intimidates, but hiding a deep uncertainty that manifests in destructive ways. She seeks to place blame for a tragic situation where direct blame is difficult to assign, and by becoming increasingly driven by anger and a desire for revenge she loses a lot of the good will and understanding other characters and the audience had given her.

Macbeth is not the only Shakespearian play that Margaret evokes as in the scene following Lisa’s declaration, ‘I would just like somebody to take responsibility for what happened’ is a scene where her English class discuss King Lear. Her teacher John Andrew Van Tassel (Matthew Broderick) is analysing the famous line ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport’ and is determined the class appreciate the traditional interpretation of this line as commenting on the cruel indifference of the universe. This interpretation certainly suits Margaret since it is about a horrible occurrence that has no meaning. However, during the scene a student challenges this reading with an argument that is concerned with the degree in which King Lear is a constructed text filled with such lines designed to draw attention to itself as making a philosophical comment. In this way Margaret is then acknowledging itself as an overtly constructed text designed to deliver social and moral commentary. This self awareness not only re-enforces the extent in which the film reflects post 9-11 issues, but it also taps into another key theme about the nature of performance and fictionalising reality.

Margaret is filled with lines of dialogue about film, theatre and opera with many of the characters, including Lisa, expressing a dislike of such narrative based art forms for being removed from reality. Lisa’s mother Joan (J Smith-Cameron) is an acclaimed stage actor and we see her perform her opening scene twice in exactly the same way despite having arrived at the theatre in very different emotional states. While these small details comment on the artificiality of stories told in cinema and on stage, they don’t undermine the film as they instead critique the way Lisa turns herself into a character in a melodrama. Through the way Lisa places herself in the centre of the drama of the dead woman, Margaret explores the appropriation of grief by individuals and how it can be so self-serving. At its best it is adolescent and self-indulgent while at its worst it is used to justify behaviour and actions that are not usually so justifiable.

Margaret seems to cynically suggest that in the end all issues simply come down to money and politics, with ethics rarely having much to do with it. Sex and love also plays a large part in life, but the way Lisa’s sexual encounters are represented in the film suggests that even sex and love are a blip during the journey that don’t have much meaning in the long run. On the other hand, the final scene during a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann presents a glimmer of hope and a strong case that narrative art – like cinema – still has the power to transcend reality and emotionally connect with people when everything else feels muted by cynicism and resignation.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012