Films I loved in April 2017

30 April 2017
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Lily Gladstone as Jamie in Certain Women

While re-watching Certain Women (having first seen it last year when its fate in Australia outside of the festival circuit was unknown) I was struck by how much I have come to adore filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. Her understated vision of small town American life, often featuring characters living on the fringes of society, shares a lot with the Belgium Dardenne brothers in that their films appear minimalist and naturalistic, but they are finely crafted and filled with pathos and human drama. Featuring three of America’s most interesting and unpredictable women actors – Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart – plus the very promising emerging actor Lily Gladstone, Certain Women consists of three overlapping stories about characters obsessing after unobtainable and romanticised notions of justice, authenticity and love.

Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart as Maureen in Personal Shopper

One of the reasons I like Olivier Assayas’s films so much (and possibly the reason I didn’t initially) is because his films are so difficult to pin down; they defy easy categorisation or explanation. In Personal Shopper Kristen Stewart (who was also in Assayas previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria) plays Maureen, a woman who works as a personal shopper for a wealthy celebrity. The importance and significance of objects in people’s lives has played an increasingly prominent role in Assayas’s films and here the focus is on the clothes that Maureen selects and how wearing them herself is forbidden and therefore desirable. Maureen is also a spiritual medium trying to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother in the parts of the film that resemble a haunted house movie. The end result is a film about the material and immaterial worlds in relation to Maureen and her attempts to preserve her own identity in the wake of her grief.

Raw

Garance Marillier as Justine in Raw

I feel that a lot of the advance hype for Raw – making all sorts of hyperbolic claims about how extreme and shocking it is –  has been a little bit misrepresentative of what kind of film it is. Fortunately, it is a strong enough film that the pre-hype – accurate or not – doesn’t damage it in the slightest. Raw combines the body horror of cannibal films with a sexual coming-of-age story about a young woman attending veterinarian school, where a hazing ritual awakens all manner of new appetites. There is such an immediate and visceral feel to the whole film that the taboo desires depicts are often both sensual and repellant, beautiful and gruesome, life-affirming and destructive. I think what I really loved about this film is how so many ideas and themes are intertwined to define easy analysis. It’s not even always clear what is imagined and what is real, what is symbolic and what is literal. This is exciting stuff.

Anne Hathaway as Gloria in Colossal

I love it when a film with an outlandish premise focuses on the implications of that premise, rather than get bogged down with providing lengthy explanations and backstory. It’s an approach that privileges things like characterisation and themes over the duller mechanics of story development. Colossal is one such film, as rather than delving too deeply into why Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is connected to a giant monster terrorising Seoul in South Korea, it uses the scenario to explore issues of addictive behaviour and abusive relationships. Most impressive is how its use of satire – both playful and serious – toys with monster movie conventions and subverts the expectations of America indie rom-coms.

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Teresa Palmer as Clare in Berlin Syndrome

I was a huge fan of Australian director Cate Shortland’s previous film Lore so I was very keen to see Berlin Syndrome and went in knowing next to nothing about it. So I wasn’t expecting its story of a young Australian women visiting Berlin to develop into the very particular type of thriller that it did. What impressed me the most is how effectively it worked as a white-knuckled genre film while at the same time undermining expectations and subverting conventions. Not only is the salacious and sensationalist male gaze, which is often present in films of this nature, completely absent, but Shortland avoids going through the motions of delivering the obvious plot points to instead focus on the subjective experiences of the character.

Their Finest Hour and A HalfDirected by Lone Sherfig

Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole in Their Finest

I’ve long admired the way Lone Scherfig makes feel-good romance films that have a strong subtext exploring darker and more serious themes. In Their Finest Scherfig not only tells a story about the difficulties women faced working in the English film industry in the 1940s, but she is also examining how cinema is emotionally manipulative for idealogical impact. Their Finest is a reminder of the devastating effect that World War II had on the lives of everybody who lived through it, while also working as a behind-the-scenes comedy, with a lot of very satisfying laughs about how films are made and the egos involved. And while some of the plot turns feel overly melodramatic, they also work as self aware moments that remind us how easily films can evoke emotions from us.

Casting JonBenet

Casting JonBenet

Making its Australian debut on Netflix is Australian filmmaker Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet. Similar in approach to Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine (which has so far only screened locally at festivals) Green blurs the line between documentary and fiction, to make a film about the making of a film. In this case, the subject matter is the unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old child beauty pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey. Casting JonBenet consists of interviews and auditions with various hopeful actors, all of whom live in Boulder, Colorado, USA where the murder occurred. Green’s film isn’t interested in finding out who did it, it is interested in revealing all the various theories about the case, and more importantly, understanding why those theories have manifested. As the film progresses the interviewees increasingly relate aspects of the case to their own lives, which is when this film truly becomes a work of great beauty, insight and sadness.

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Sidney Warbrick as Thomas and Dan Skinner as John M Hull in Notes on Blindness

Finally, Notes on Blindness was released on home entertainment this month. It’s technically a documentary that consists of reenactments, but describing it as such doesn’t really do justice to its scope and ambition. It’s a portrait of the Australian-born theologian John M Hull who in 1983 began keep an audio diary to describe his experiences going blind. The film maintains the original audio recordings with actors playing Hull and various other people in his life, occasionally lip-synching to the pre-existing audio. Filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney use sound and visuals to create an impressionist work that conveys Hull’s inner-world in this gentle, poetic and immersive film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017
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Film review – One Day (2011)

1 September 2011
One Day: Dexter (Jim Sturgess) and Emma (Anne Hathaway)

Dexter (Jim Sturgess) and Emma (Anne Hathaway)

Is Danish director Lone Scherfig creating a new genre of revisionist romantic films? Her three English-language films on the surface all appear to be mainstream romantic dramas with their soft-lighting, seductive soundtracks, appealing characters and warm ambiance. However, underneath the boy-meets-girl narratives are challenging and uncomfortable themes that seem designed to deliberately undermine romantic conventions. Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002) is about suicide, An Education (2009) is about a relationship between a teenage girl and an older man with dubious motives, and now One Day is about missed opportunities and failing to embrace the moment. Even Scherfig’s break-through film Italian for Beginners (2000), made under the stylistic restrictions of the Dogme 95 movement, features a lot of grief and death amid the various romantic storylines. While One Day is Scherfig’s least accomplished film, it still contains what is becoming her trademark blend of enticing film style and dark thematic undercurrents, resulting in a film that is both romantic and unsettling.

Adapted by And When Did You Last See Your Father? scriptwriter David Nicholls from his own 2009 novel, One Day is intriguingly structured. It tells the story of its two protagonists across twenty years by only depicting events that occur each year on 15 July. Inevitably some of the events that occur on that day are conveniently of monumental importance, but mostly the days are used to provide an impression of how the characters have progressed, or failed to progress, twelve months on from when we last saw them. This extreme elliptical device does result in two decades flying by very quickly. While the novel presumably dwelt on the significance of each day with more depth, in the film it does feel more like a series of snapshots designed to simply flag where we are at in the narrative.

One Day: Emma (Anne Hathaway)

Emma (Anne Hathaway)

The two protagonists are Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess), who have an awkward encounter early in the morning on 15 July 2010 after their graduation and then spend the next twenty years navigating their resulting friendship. They are obviously attracted to each other sexually and romantically, but as One Day is a drama and not a screwball comedy, the audience are left uncertain if they will ever move out of the friend’s zone. A major problem with One Day is it struggles to maintain interest in whether or not this will happen, due to the unevenness of character development and presentation.

An immense amount of sympathy is established early on for shy and low self-esteemed Emma. On the other hand, Dexter comes across as obnoxious and self-absorbed and it’s difficult to see what Emma likes in him even as a friend. Scherfig knows how to make an audience empathise with theoretically dislikeable characters, as she demonstrated with the Lars Kaalund character in Italian for Beginners, but Dexter doesn’t have enough depth to make the audience care about what happens to him. Dexter’s flaws should make him the more interesting character but he’s not. Meanwhile Emma is largely reduced to his object of desire.

One Day: Dexter (Jim Sturgess)

Dexter (Jim Sturgess)

And yet, despite the patchiness (including an out-of-place Meet the Parents sequence involving a family game gone wrong) and the heavily signposted and melodramatic plot points, One Day concludes magnificently. The final scenes in the film significantly redeem a lot of what had come previously and distinguish it as a Lone Scherfig film rather than a slightly above average romance with a quirky approach to narrative. By colliding the past and the present through editing, Scherfig fills in a lot of the gaps about why Emma and Dexter continued to be in each other’s lives and how that will resonate in the future. By doing so, Scherfig does what she does best – slyly subverts the romance genre.

The sting in the tail is that One Day is not a film about the whims of fate, but a film about the disappointments and regrets that result from not acting on opportunities when they are presented and being blind to what is around you. It’s about squandering good fortune, wasting life pursuing trivialities, settling for second best and the cruelty of self-realisation coming later in life when it is needed much earlier. There are some beautiful moments in the final fifteen minutes or so of One Day, giving it a brilliantly melancholic resolution to an otherwise mild film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – An Education (2009)

23 October 2009
Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

Based on the autobiography of British journalist Lynn Barber and adapted by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy), An Education is a coming-of-age film about Jenny, a 16-year-old girl who starts a relationship with a much older man. An Education is the second English-language film directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig with the first being the very impressive romantic comedy/drama Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself – a film about a suicidal man. Scherfig is clearly drawn to highly unconventional feel-good material because despite the weird and uncomfortable dynamics at play in An Education it is a strangely seductive and sweet film.

Stylistically everything about An Education suggests that it is romance film. The soft lighting, gushing music and gorgeous 1960s London setting are all designed to conflict with the fact that the film is about a highly questionable relationship between a confident yet naive school-girl and an older man who is clearly not all that he seems. Jenny is played by Carey Mulligan, an emerging actor whose more prominent recent roles include a part in Public Enemies and playing Kitty Bennet in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice.  Mulligan is astonishing and commands the screen with the assured graceful vulnerability of a young Audrey Hepburn. As Jenny she is both sympathetic in her desire to break away from her routine existence to embrace life and infuriating in her recklessness. Jenny is a likeable, strong, intelligent and assured character who is still capable of making huge errors in judgement. She’s not too far removed from the titular character in Juno except Jenny speaks, behaves and rationalises far more convincingly.

David (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

David (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

The supporting cast in An Education is terrific and Peter Sarsgaard (Orphan, Elegy) gives what is possibly his best performance as the mysterious David. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) is wonderful as Jenny’s taskmaster father and Dominic Cooper (The Duchess) is suitably foppish as David’s playboy best friend. Emma Thompson has a couple of over-the-top yet very amusing scenes as the bigoted principal at Jenny’s school.

Scherfig is an intriguing director who is deceptively skilled at taking material that could be considered dark or unsettling and turning it into something very accessible.  There’s a lot going on under the surface of An Education but at face value it is simply a very warm, funny and enjoyable film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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