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
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Film review – Midnight in Paris (2011)

19 October 2011
Midnight In Paris: Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams)

Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams)

It is a pity the title An American in Paris had already been taken because it would have suited Midnight in Paris, a film about American writer Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) who is seduced by the French capital while visiting with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams). The opening of the film is similar to one of Allen’s all time greats, Manhattan (1979), with its loving montage of Paris in all its glory. Throughout the film Allen shows us not only the city’s tourist locations, but also takes us to must-visit out-of-the-city destinations such as Versailles and Monet’s gardens in Giverny. Then there are all the warmly lit shots of the cafes, restaurants, gardens and shops. However, the film really gets going once its extraordinary cast of characters, including the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard), begin to be introduced.

For most of his career Allen made films about New York, but recently he has used London, Barcelona and now Paris as his cities of inspiration. Midnight in Paris is a continuation of his new interest in Europe and also something of a return to older material. Not only does the central idea originate from an early stand-up routine that Allen used to perform in the 1960s, but there is also a pseudo-intellectual character Paul (Michael Sheen), who is something of an extension of the pontificating Marshall McLuhan expert who memorably gets his comeuppance in Annie Hall (1977). While darker films like Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Match Point (2005) have been the highlights from the later part of Allen’s career, Midnight in Paris is his most charming, romantic and funny film in a long time.

Midnight In Paris: Gil (Owen Wilson) and Adriana (Marion Cotillard)

Gil (Owen Wilson) and Adriana (Marion Cotillard)

As Gil is obsessed with Paris in the 1920s being the creative centre of the universe, the main theme of the film is it’s naive to believe that the past is better than the present. Nostalgia is simply a form of denial. Everybody is disillusioned about their current lives, but yearning for a romanticised previous era is simply a way of not living your life to the fullest. Yet, it is difficult not to wonder if Allen’s critique about romanticising the past should also be extended to romanticising cities that you have only visited as opposed to have actually lived in. Midnight in Paris does reveal some of the annoyances that come with being in Paris, but they are all through the eyes of Inez’s conservative and close-minded parents, suggesting no real engagement with the idea that Gil’s idealised view of the city is perhaps naive. On the other hand, maybe Allen simply wants the audience to figure it out for themselves and would rather focus on enjoying the city and its large cast of characters rather than getting too introspective. After all, the film’s critique of nostalgia is hardly a major revelation and Allen even has Gil acknowledge in the film that it is a minor point.

The pleasures of Midnight in Paris are going along with Gil for the ride, sharing his enthusiasm for Paris and following the film’s literally and artistic references. Audiences who are well read and have an interest in the arts will get the most enjoyment from this film, not that any of the references are particularly obscure. In an era when mainstream cinema is increasingly being dumbed down, seeing a feel-good film that rewards its audience for being intelligent and cultured is something to be treasured.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

Double pass giveaway closed – congratulations to Natalie (Redfern NSW), Thomas (Footscray VIC), Jennifer (Carlton North VIC), Nicholas (Teneriffe QLD) and Karl (Collingwood VIC). Sorry to those who missed out on this occasion.

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Film review – Inception (2010)

19 July 2010

Inception

Knowing the details of how Inception unravels will not ruin the film for you but going into it as a blank slate is still the most rewarding way to initially experience it. So it is enough to simply say that Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, an expert in extraction, which is the art of stealing secret information hidden in people’s subconscious. He and his team face their biggest challenge yet when they are tasked with inception – the seemingly impossible act of implanting thoughts into somebody else’s subconscious.

Inception: Mal (Marion Cotillard) and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Mal (Marion Cotillard) and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Films depicting different levels of reality that projections of the mind can occupy are now reasonably familiar. The Matrix first introduced the concept to mainstream cinema audiences and this concept has since appeared in films as diverse as eXistenZ and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Inception owes something of a debt to all these films, plus Dark City, but it is still a boldly original work that takes the idea in a new direction. Director Christopher Nolan has worked with complex narrative structures before in Memento. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight demonstrated his stylishly cold spin on the film noir aesthetic in his portrayal of the hostile city. All these elements come together perfectly in Inception to make it Nolan’s masterpiece to date.

Part of what makes Inception so remarkable is that it has been made to appeal to the broadest audience possible. The film’s internal logic in the way it depicts how the subconscious operates is carefully thought-out and explained in terms of how different levels of the subconscious can have temporal and spatial effects on the others. These ideas end up facilitating the extraordinary lengthy action sequence that takes up the final act of the film. It is conceptually complex but written so well that you are never confused about what is happening. There is nothing wrong with cinema that leaves you puzzled, perplexed or confused but it is also extremely impressive to experience a film that is mind-bending in such a digestible way. At the same time, at no point does Inception feel dumbed-down or overly explanatory, which was the significant flaw in Nolan’s The Prestige. In 2010 both Toy Story 3 and now Inception have demonstrated that big studio films don’t have to be disposable products only aimed at short attention spans.

Inception: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Inception is cinema at its most rewarding. Hans Zimmer’s score complements the visuals and the emotional rushes throughout the film. It contains a lot more characters of importance than in most films of this nature and yet they are all fully fleshed out and identifiable. Inception is the sort of film that future films will be compared to for its structure, writing, concepts and action. Cinema is rarely this engaging on so many levels and if you have any doubts then they will be gone by the final shot that cuts to the credits at the most perfect moment possible.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

Inception

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Film review – Nine (2009)

20 January 2010

Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Luisa Contini (Marion Cotillard)

The 1960s Italian filmmaker Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is in a creative slump and hasn’t written a word of the script for his new film. To placate the media, the film’s producer ostentatiously announces that Guido’s film will be about Italy “as a myth, as a woman, as a dream.”  This description encapsulates Nine, a musical dripping in Italian chic, which borders on the fetishistic, about the mythology surrounding a great filmmaker, the women in his life and the dreams he slips into to make sense of it all. Nine is a cinematic adaptation of a 1982 Broadway musical, which was itself an adaptation of Federico Fellini’s playful, self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical 1963 film . Nine was an excellent opportunity to make a cinematic spectacle but unfortunately director Rob Marshall has instead churned out a largely by-the-numbers musical.

Marshall’s biggest mistake is his very conservative approach towards the fantasy sequences. While Fellini intertwined the subjective and objective moments of , blurring the boundary between reality and fantasy, Marshall frames all the musical numbers as fantasy scenes that are detached from the real world. It’s a stodgy and boring approach made worse by the fact that all the songs take place in a clearly delineated ‘dream-space’ that is an empty theatre stage with bits of half built scaffolding. Instead of breaking free of the restraints of Nines’s theatrical origins, Marshall has embraced them and the musical numbers suffer as a result. Marshall had a similar approach to the songs in his excellent 2002 film adaptation of Chicago but it suited the format of that show while it does not in the case of Nine.

Marshall’s unambitious approach means that despite the bevy of sultry backup dancers in corsets, fishnets and suspenders (aren’t we over this look in ‘sassy’ musicals yet?) the music numbers mostly lack excitement. This is a shame because the mainly all female cast do an excellent job. Day-Lewis is as reliably immersed in the part of Guido as always, but Nine belongs to Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren and Stacy Ferguson (Fergie) who are all in top form playing the women in Guido’s life. Cotillard (Public Enemies, La Vie en Rose) as his long suffering wife is perhaps the one who shines the most. She gets the best numbers, she is the best written character (the rest of the women are maternal figures or objects of desire) and the camera adores her.

There are moments in Nine where the combination of music, spectacle and subjective filmmaking is just right and the final sequence in particular hints at how great the rest of the film may have been. Otherwise Nine is a disappointment and it really needed a more inventive and unrestrained director, such as Alan Parker, Tim Burton or even Baz Luhrmann, to do it justice. While Fellini’s was a glorious melange of myths, women and dreams, Marshall’s Nine is the product of a neat freak whose determination to tidy everything up ruins all the fun.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Public Enemies (2009)

6 July 2009
 John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard)

John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard)

Set in America in the 1930s, against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Public Enemies portrays the bold activities of celebrity bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the attempts by FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, Terminator Salvation) to bring him to justice. FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, Watchmen) may have labelled Dillinger a public enemy but Dillinger’s charisma and popularity meant the FBI had to also fight him on the PR front. The battle between the public enemies Dillinger and straight-laced Purvis, whose profile inspired the look for Dick Tracy, is therefore classic material for director Michael Mann. Mann’s Heat (1995) is a modern crime film masterpiece about a professional criminal and a brilliant detective who are pitted against each other. Heat combined everything you could want from such a film with its strong characters, intriguing psychology, compelling story and breathtaking action scenes. It therefore makes absolute sense that Mann was drawn towards the great real life crook-versus-cop story that he depicts in Public Enemies.

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Film review – Coco avant Chanel (2009)

21 June 2009
Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel (Audrey Tautou)

Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel (Audrey Tautou)

Director Anne Fontaine has said of the iconic French fashion designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, “It was not so much the fashion as the characteristics of this exceptional woman that interested me.” Hence Coco avant Chanel, like its title suggests, is about Coco Chanel’s personal life during her formative years before her clothing designs transformed her into a globally recognised household name. Played by Audrey Tautou, Chanel (or Coco as she is referred to throughout this film) is a cynical, independent and headstrong woman who doesn’t suffer fools. She climbs her way out of poverty and into society through an unconventional affair with Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), an older aristocrat, only to fall in love with Arther ‘Boy’ Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a young English businessman.

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Film review – La Vie en Rose (2007)

24 July 2007

Key to the impact of writer-director Olivier Dahan’s biopic La Vie en Rose is the mesmerising central performance by Marion Cotillard  (Toi et moi, A Very Long Engagement) as Édith Piaf. Although Cotillard mimes Piaf’s songs from original recordings (a wise decision given Piaf’s unique voice) Cotillard nevertheless embodies the legendary and iconic French singer’s remoteness and vulnerability without shying away from her egomania and destructive tendencies.

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