Films I loved in November 2019

1 December 2019
Scarlett Johansson as Nicole Barber and Adam Driver as Charlie Barber in Marriage Story

Marriage Story follows the awkward, messy, sometime hilarious and often heartbreaking process behind a couple getting divorced in Noah Baumbach’s most sophisticated and engaging film to date. This is a sincere and moving film about adjusting to enormous practical and emotional upheaval, and rather than oscillating sympathy between the couple, it explores how both perspectives are valid, even when conflicting. We see how rage and bitterness twist the memories of innocent details into arguments to discredit the other, but also how underlying all the pain is sorrow, tenderness and loss.

Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in The Irishman

Martin Scorsese’s epic crime film The Irishman encapsulates so much of what has defined Scorsese over the decades as one of the all time great filmmakers. Both familiar and refreshing, Scorsese uses innovative de-aging visual effects with non-lineal narrative techniques to deliver a classic rise and fall – and then fall further – story about real-life gangster Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran. The result is a captivating, energetic and deeply reflective film about masculinity, family, crime, politics and history; bursting with Scorsese’s distinctive approach to melodrama, violence and melancholia.

Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo in Pain and Glory

While I like a number of Pedro Almodóvar films, I’ve never considered myself a fan as such, so I was surprised by how much I loved his highly self-referential and autobiographical new film Pain and Glory. Reunited with once regular leading man Antonio Banderas in the lead role as an ageing filmmaker looking back at his career, childhood, friendships and love affairs, Pain and Glory is very much Almodóvar’s as similar to Federico Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece it explores the creative process and how great art comes from artists wrestling with the past and interrogating their own identity.

I Lost My Body

The French animated feature I Lost My Body is an inventive and moving parable about a disembodied hand trying to find its owner intercut with a story about a young man attempting to find his place in the world while still haunted by the loss of his parents as a child. It’s a film both literally and symbolically about dismemberment, exploring the human desire to have a sense of belonging, but also the need to let go. It is excellent storytelling and a terrific example of using animation to tell a story that live action could not deliver as effectively.

The Senegal-set film Atlantics is a striking debut feature film by actor-turned-filmmaker Mati Diop who manages the films tonal changes and blend of genres with impressive ease and finesse. Central to the story is a woman who has been arranged to marry one man, but loves another: an exploited construction worker. What begins as a serene social realist film about class and gender politics, then goes into bewitching fantasy territory as supernatural elements and magical realism are weaved into the film in a way that feels completely organic and yet strikingly bold and original.

Annette Bening as Dianne Feinstein and Adam Driver as Daniel Jones in The Report

The Report is an excellent procedural drama about USA Senate staffer Daniel J Jones’s work on the comprehensive report on the CIA’s use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (in other words, torture) during the Bush Administration. Detailing the investigative process and the political barriers put up against Jones and his team, The Report is a compelling film that firmly reinforces the known fact that popular culture from Zero Dark Thirty to 24 often forgets, and that is that torture is not only extremely unethical, but it has been widely proven to not produce reliable results.

Melvil Poupaud: Alexandre Guérin in By the Grace of God

By the Grace of God is a far more restrained and straightforward film than I have come to expect from François Ozon, who is a filmmaker I’ve often struggled to connect with in the past. But I was won over by this meticulous fact-based account of three men who as children were sexually abused by a priest, and now as adults want to hold the Catholic church to account and bring their abuser to justice. The detailed plotting creates a sense of immediacy behind their actions, while the characterisation of the three men conveys the very different ways individuals experience and live with trauma.

Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun in Official Secrets

Official Secrets is a dramaticisation of what happened to whistleblower Katharine Gun, a British intelligence agency employee who leaked a damaging secret memo in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Structured and presented as a thriller, it ensures that the potentially more mundane aspects of espionage remain gripping, which is especially important in Gun’s story considering the high states. The film explores the illegality of the war she opposed through the culpable actions of not just UK intelligence, but also the UK government, and hostile lawyers and media.

Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance in Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep is an impressive sequel to the 1977 Stephen King novel The Shining and its masterful 1980 Stanley Kubrick film adaptation. For the most part it uses the original protagonist Danny (now an adult) and the concept of shining to tell a completely different type of story with its own aesthetic; while The Shining was a confined haunted house parable about domestic violence, Doctor Sleep follows the horrific activities of a group of cruel predators across America. When the new film does lean heavily into paying homage to Kubrick’s film, it does so with the perfect blend of reverence and inventiveness.

David Crosby in David Crosby: Remember My Name

Despite knowing next to nothing about American singer-songwriter David Crosby, I was completely captivated by the biographical documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name. Crosby is a generous, candid, humble and self deprecating interviewee and the film is beautifully edited to combine archival footage, music performances and recent recorded conversations with Crosby. Sincere while avoiding grandiosity, it is a great insight into the counterculture scene in Laurel Canyon during the 1960s and 1970s as well as a fascinating portrait of a complex and flawed creative spirit.

Suzi Quatro in Suzi Q

Another excellent biopic doc about a singer-songwriter (whom I also knew little about) is the Australian film Suzi Q, which covers Suzi Quatro’s rise to fame, her influences and legacy, and her strained relationship with her family. The film convincingly makes the case that she deserves more recognition as a trailblazer for women rock musicians, which is certainly articulated by interviewees that include Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Debbie Harry and Alice Cooper. Quatro is a fantastic subject who speaks candidly throughout the film, including discussing her varied activities outside of the music industry.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019

MIFF 2009 reviews – 35 Shots of Rum (2008), The White Ribbon (2009), Shadow Play (2009)

6 August 2009

Reviews of film screening during the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival.

35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums, Claire Denis, 2008) ✭✭✭✭
The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, Michael Haneke, 2009) ✭✭✭✩
Shadow Play: The Making of Anton Corbijn (Josh Whiteman, 2009) ✭✭✩

35 Shots of Rum

Joséphine (Mati Diop) and Lionel (Alex Descas)

Joséphine (Mati Diop) and Lionel (Alex Descas)

Claire Denis’s (Beau travail) portrait of the affectionate relationship between a father and daughter living in an apartment in the Paris suburbs is one of the highlights of the Melbourne International Film Festival this year. 35 Shots of Rum is a simple film that is part observational filmmaking, part gentle domestic drama and part cinéma vérité. While watching it you almost resist anything that feels like plot development because you are content to simply be in the company of these two characters and their friends, colleagues, neighbours and love interests. It is also refreshing to see a film that almost entirely contains actors of African descent as the representation of Paris’s large African community is rarely depicted in French cinema.

The White Ribbon

The latest film by the provocative Austrian director Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Caché, The Piano Teacher) is The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d’Or for best film at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Set in a small German village just before World War I, The White Ribbon is about a series of suspicious accidents and how the villagers respond to them. Among the villagers are various class, gender and generational conflicts that escalate when the Baron, the village’s main landowner and employer, discovers that his son has been kidnapped and tortured. Haneke’s films are notably very formal and intellectual works – dismissed by his detractors as overly didactic – and The White Ribbon is certainly another exercise in exploring the violence and brutality at the heart of society without ever allowing the audience any moments of catharsis or voyeuristic spectacle. However, it also contains a lot more humanity than some of Haneke’s previous films and there is even a romantic subplot. Nevertheless, this slow building film, in true Haneke form, becomes increasingly disturbing, especially as the true natures of many of the adult characters are revealed.

The White Ribbon at times feels like a diluted Haneke film and its sins-of-the-father theme feels a little tired. The authoritarian priest, who embodies classic Old Testament morality, is the type of obvious character you expect to see in the first film of a well meaning but inexperienced filmmaker, not in the film of somebody who has previous tackled far more complex representations of repression, guilt and social culpability. Having said that, there are some remarkable scenes and Haneke hasn’t lost his power to confront the audience with his skilful handling of dialogue and strategically knowing what to show and what not to show for maximum effect. Visually The White Ribbon is startlingly brilliant with some of the crispest black-and-white cinematography you are likely to ever see. Much of the film is shot in deep focus with no grain present on the screen whatsoever. The focus, exposure and contrast in the cinematography are the work of pure genius. The White Ribbon may be Haneke-light thematically but it is a great technical achievement.

Shadow Play: The Making of Anton Corbijn

This rather patchy documentary about rock-and-roll photographer and Control director Anton Corbijn, has plenty of interesting content but never gets beneath the surface of its subject. Perhaps Corbijn is simply just not that interesting as a person and his work should simply be allowed to speak for itself. Issues such as the nature of celebrity and how the relationship between photographers and the music industry has changed are touched upon but never satisfactorily explored, and too many promising anecdotes go nowhere. The filmmakers have also unwisely attempted to mimic Corbijn’s dark and gloomy photographic style by frequently filming Corbijn almost completely covered in shadows, and it doesn’t work. Nevertheless, Shadow Play does stand as a testament to how essential Corbijn was in defining the look of Joy Division and later U2 and Depeche Mode. Unfortunately the material in Shadow Play about the making-of Corbijn’s brilliant Ian Curtis biopic Control feels more like the type of video-diary footage that you are used to watching as a DVD extra.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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