Films I loved in November 2014

2 December 2014
Marion Cotillardas Sandra in Two Days, One Night

Marion Cotillard as Sandra in Two Days, One Night

The latest film by brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night, is similar to their previous film The Kid with a Bike, where they take a highly structured story within a very precise setting and still deliver the naturalistic feel that they are renowned for. The structure is reminiscent of High Noon, where the protagonist has a short period of time to convince the members of the community to stand by her. Marion Cotillard is incredible as Sandra, battling depression and despair, as she lobbies her co-workers to vote in her favour so that she can keep her job – the company has given its employees the cruel choice in having to decide between her remaining employed or them all getting bonuses. It’s a complex and beautifully performed film that delivers a sensitive portrayal of what it’s like living with a mental illness as well as providing a potent social critique of systems that trample the rights of workers. It also has a conclusion that is close to perfect.

James Rolleston as Mana and Cliff Curtis as Genesis in The Dark Horse

James Rolleston as Mana and Cliff Curtis as Genesis in The Dark Horse

The other film released this month that commendably portrays the difficulties of living with a mental illness in a difficult environment is the outstanding New Zealand drama The Dark Horse. Cliff Curtis is a revelation as Genesis, an ex-chess champion who has been in and out of institutions due to his struggles with a bio-polar disorder. Based on a true story the film is about his volunteer work at a local youth chess club and his attempts to get his teenage nephew out from the violent gang life that his father intends for him.  Not unlike Shane Meadows’s excellent 24 7: Twenty Four Seven this is story of hope that doesn’t flinch from the grim realities that face the characters.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler

The ultra cynical and darkly comedic Nightcrawler sees Jake Gyllenhaal in fine form as a ruthless creature of the night akin to the alien from Under the Skin and pop-culture psychopaths like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. In the case of Lou he profiteers from video taping tragedy to then sell to news stations, and he does so with no qualms about manipulating other people’s trauma to get the best footage possible. The result is a thrilling and voyeuristic ride alongside somebody completely lacking empathy, and a savage critique of the news that we consume, which is only made possible by people like Lou and our own morbid appetites.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

I’ve enjoyed all The Hunger Games films and even though the new film is only half of one of the books, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is my favourite so far in the excellent franchise. With a focus on the propaganda war between the ruling class in the Capitol and the rebels in District 13, this film goes even further in its savvy critique of how celebrity culture, the media and popular culture carry political messages to influence the target audience. Jennifer Lawrence is once again fantastic as reluctant hero Katniss Everdeen who in this film starts to question the rhetoric of the side she’s been coopted to fight on.

Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand and Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar

Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand and Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar

The final film I really enjoyed this month is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which may overreach in some of its attempts to position itself alongside philosophical science fiction masterpieces such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but still contains enough moments of awe and wonder for me to overlook any shortcomings. On a purely spectacle level it is a triumph and I admire its attempts to explore complex ideas such as how time could be represented as a physical space. I also strongly responded to its core question, which is also at the heart of Malick’s The Tree of Life, about what motivates humanity: a simple survival instinct that’s wired into our DNA or something less tangible or measurable such as – dare I say it – love. Corny to some perhaps, but I enjoyed it and also appreciated how much the film linked in such ideas with its celebration of scientific curiosity and the quest to discover something more in life than simple survival and acceptance of fate.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – The Kid with a Bike (2011)

12 March 2012
The Kid with a Bike: Cyril (Thomas Doret) and Samanth (Cécile De France)

Cyril (Thomas Doret) and Samanth (Cécile De France)

Made over 50 years after François Truffaut’s French New Wave classic The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959), The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) is another French language film about an angry young boy who is not a child, but not yet a teenager either. Like 12-year-old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in The 400 Blows, 11-year-old Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret) has little reason to care for the world of adults and is what from a distance would appear to be a ‘problem child’ or an ‘at risk youth’. Cyril is a bolt of energy, always dressed distinctively in a red t-shirt or jacket, who escapes from his foster home to find his father and his bike. While avoiding being caught Cyril grabs Samantha (Cécile De France), a local hairdresser, and the pair form a bond.

As with previous films by Belgian filmmaker brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid with a Bike is naturalistic, shot with handheld cameras and using available light. There is an unrehearsed rawness to the performances and much of the action appears to have been captured accidentally as if a camera just happened to be filming on the streets of the estate where the events take place. Part of the Dardenne brothers’ genius is how seamless their shots are, even though the frequent long takes and intricate visual elements within each frame could only be the product of careful planning and precise cinematography. The handheld camera in The Kid with a Bike is especially effective in its ability to follow Cyril, who is forever running or cycling throughout the film. There is a constant sense of movement and energy from within Cyril, both physically and emotionally, and the cinematography puts the audience in the place of the various other characters who are continuously trying to keep up with him. Because of Cyril’s unpredictability the sensation is sometimes nerve-wracking, but contrasting moments of stillness, especially in scenes when Samantha is able to connect with him, are tranquil and rewarding.

As well as a general focus on Belgian lower class characters, the Dardenne brothers have frequently explored the themes of redemption and the consequences of impulsive actions, which are again examined in The Kid with a Bike. An ongoing challenge for Cyril throughout the film is learning to take responsibility for what he does and to make better decisions. The film is never judgemental towards Cyril for his sometimes reckless and often bad tempered behaviour as he is after all an 11-year-old boy who has been abandoned by his father and has never had many reasons to trust adults.

The absent parent is another common element in films by the Dardennes and in The Kid with a Bike they cast Jérémie Renier as Cyril’s neglectful father Guy. It is a similar character to Bruno, the role Renier played in the 2005 Dardenne brothers film The Child (L’Enfant). He clearly has no interest in being a parent, is oblivious to the severity of turning his back on his own child and something of a coward in his avoidance of confronting Cyril directly to tell him that he no longer wants to see him. The scene where Cyril plays it cool around Guy while also trying to impress him is heartbreaking.

Much of Cyril’s behaviour is a result of his abandonment. The bike is the most tangible thing in his life that connects him to his father, resulting in his obsession with it. Through missing his father he is all too easily recruited by a local teenage gang leader who exploits Cyril’s desire to impress an older father figure. Most important is the mistrust Cyril has developed towards adults, resulting in a refusal to believe anything he is told unless he can see for himself or hear first hand. Samantha is able to earn Cyril’s trust as she seems to be the only character who understands this about him and as a result is completely honest and demands the same honesty from others.

Despite the film’s naturalistic aesthetics, the Dardenne brothers have included strong visual allusions to the lost child stories of folklore and fairy tales. While far subtler than the hyperactive imagery in Joe Wright’s Hanna (2011) a lot of the mise-en-scene in The Kid with the Bike evokes Little Red Riding Hood, which is frequently interpreted to be a tale about puberty and maturity. With his distinctive red top and being the appropriate age, Cyril is clearing the Red Riding Hood character while Samantha, who is frequently dressed in dark red and purple tones, acts as both his moral guide and protector. Like Red Riding Hood in charge of delivering food to grandma, Cyril is given shopping chores as part of developing a sense of responsibility. It is while on those chores that Cyril is lead off the path into the forest where he is tempted first by the wolf of the false-father gang member, and then later has to endure a far more high stakes encounter.

The slightly ambiguous ending does suggest that like Red Riding Hood emerging from the wolf’s belly, Cyril goes through a sort of rebirth in relation to a new found sense of maturity that can be directly linked to the nurturing shown by Samantha. If the haunting look Antoine gives the camera in the final shot of The 400 Blows is to question the audience about how adults should treat children like him and Cyril, then the compassion, patience and empathy Samantha displays in The Kid with a Bike may be that answer over 50 years later.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 9

31 July 2011
Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard was the film I was most looking forward to this year and the screening I went to was its world premiere, where director Richard Lowenstein revealed that it had only been completed at 5pm the previous day! I am aware that there is a danger with heaping praise on a documentary simply because you like its subject matter, but in the past I have enjoyed docos about subjects I’m not interested in and I have been critical of docos that have poorly presented things I am passionate about. So with as much objectivity as possible, I really do think that Lowenstein and his team have done a wonderful job conveying the life and times of Rowland S Howard. The interviews, music clips and archival footage are woven together beautifully to capture the type of person Howard was during key parts of his life and to also convey the power of his music. Both his song writing and guitar playing are celebrated to express the intensity of The Birthday Party in concert, the legacy of the song ‘Shivers’ and the power that Howard’s later work had on whole new generation of music fans. Autoluminescent is a highlight of the festival and a rare doco that I’d happily watch again, and hopefully soon.

[EDIT 7/11/2011: Read a full review of Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard]

Before the Howard doco I caught another Australian film: Ivan Sen’s Toomelah about a troubled 10-year-old boy who befriends the local drug dealers. Toomelah has a lot in common with Mad Bastards since it not only features actor Dean Daley-Jones in a supporting role, but it’s about absent fathers and disconnection from culture in an Indigenous Australian community. Sen captures the dynamics of the community by filming on location and predominantly using non-professional actors living in the former Mission in rural New South Wales. While overall not as compelling as Mad Bastards, Toomelah features a very strong performance by Daniel Conners as the boy searching for adult guidance in a situation where there doesn’t seem to be a lot on offer.

The Kid with a Bike

The Kid with a Bike

Similarly to Daniel in Toomelah, 11-year-old Cyril in The Kid with a Bike is full of rage and looking for a father figure after being abandoned by his own dad. Despite finding a woman who seems willing to care for him, Cyril is drawn to a local drug dealer. A few days ago when discussing Win Win, I mentioned the trend in films where a troubled youth is taken in by a kindly family. The Kid with a Bike is a pleasing antidote to the simplicity of some of these films as it presents Cyril as a really difficult boy, to the extent that you question why a virtual stranger puts up with him. The reason is because she’s a good person who can see past the horrible behaviour. A main theme in the film is the consequences of choosing whether or not to forgive and give a second chance to somebody who has done wrong. Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid with a Bike typically contains their brilliant faux cinéma vérité look, where the cinematography is expertly crafted and controlled despite the film looking like it was shot on the run. There is also an incredible sensation of movement throughout the film with Cyril constantly running and cycling towards a promise of something that he’s always too late for.

[EDIT 12/3/2012: Read a full review of The Kid with a Bike]

MIFF fatigue conquered me yesterday as I slept through my alarm and missed the International Shorts – O Canada! program, which I was really looking forward to. I had previously seen the excellent Sophie Lavoie and the Spike Jonze/Arcade Fire film Scenes from the Suburbs won’t exactly be difficult to track down, but I had wanted to get the big screen experience. On the other hand, I got my first proper nights sleep since the festival began and ate a meal that was hot and home-cooked. Just when I thought my MIFF fatigue had lifted my wife asked me why I was sitting at my computer miaowing like a cat. Trying to communicate with cats is a thing I do sometimes, except I’m usually aware that I’m doing it.

One fun thing to note in screenings now is who still loudly laughs at the advertisements that play before every film. It’s a good way of spotting who in the cinema is seeing their first film at the festival, as the regular attendees are pretty familiar with the gags in the ads by now. Having said that, the MIFF ads this year are so good that I’m still enjoying them and I’m enjoying hearing other people respond to them for the first time. I still find the VicRoads ad quite cute too, but I’m hearing voices of dissent about that from elsewhere. Somebody even described it as this year’s Yalumba Wine ad, which I thought was harsh.

Show us your MIFF
Those of you on Twitter probably already know Paul Anthony Nelson, who has a remarkable ability to ever so concisely sum up his responses to films in 140 characters or less on his account @mrpaulnelson. An ill-timed work assignment prohibits him from seeing the 60-odd films he’d hoped to see this year, but he’s still aiming for the low 50s. He’s been coming to MIFF since 1998, where he saw four films from a Blaxploitation retrospective and fell in love. This year his highlights have been MelancholiaMartha Marcy May Marlene and Super. Attending the Australian premiere of Inglourious Basterds in 2009 and sitting within ten feet of director Quentin Tarantino, one of his heroes, has been his biggest MIFF highlight to date. Paul jokes that  Tarantino has since taken a restraining order out against him. I’m not sure if that really is a joke. To get through the festival Paul recommends plenty of Vitamin C wherever possible, always having muesli bars on hand and taking a break between films every so often, if only to check out the wonderous Festival Lounge at the Forum. Paul’s all-time favourite film is The Godfather, which he describes as ‘cinematic perfection if that is possible’. Outside of MIFF you can hear Paul talking about films on the Hell is for Hyphenates podcast, encouraging others to write about films at Why I Adore and making his own films through his production company Cinema Viscera.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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