Films I loved in September 2015

4 October 2015
Bel Powley as Minnie Goetze and Kristen Wiig as Charlotte Worthington in The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Bel Powley as Minnie Goetze and Kristen Wiig as Charlotte Worthington in The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an extremely impressive portrayal of teenage sexuality, especially that of a teenage girl. Emerging actor Bel Powley gives a wonderful performance as 15-year-old Minnie Goetze whose sexual coming-of-age includes having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. She is neither a victim nor a Lolita-style nymphet, she is simply a curious and sexual young person who has found a convenient way to explore her desires with an older man who probably should know better, but is more passively opportunistic rather than being an exploitive predator. This was a fun and funny film exploring all the complications and difficult terrain that such a scenario creates, without overt judgement or moral panic.

Olivia Colman as Julie in London Road

Olivia Colman as Julie in London Road

After Broken I was keen to see what theatre and director Rufus Norris would do next, and yet I was still surprised by how much I liked London Road. It’s an adaptation of a theatre show where interviews with the residents of the UK town of Ipswich, during the aftermath of the Ipswich serial murders in 2006, were set to music. This is a bold and compelling way of presenting the pain of a community in a way that resonates emotionally. It uses heightened artificiality to highlight that it is a reconstruction of actual interviews and events, and somehow this gives it a powerful authenticity.

Mya Taylor as Alexandra and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Sin-Dee in Tangerine

Mya Taylor as Alexandra and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Sin-Dee in Tangerine

Sean Baker is another filmmaker whom I’ve been keen to see what he does next so I was very much looking forward to Tangerine. While not as focused as his excellent 2012 film Starlet, it similarly depicts a side of Los Angeles that is typically marginalised and can attract instant judgement. In the case of Tangerine it is about the subculture of transgender women who are sex workers. Made in collaboration with the transgender women who also star in the film, the result is a loud, hyperactive and frequently very funny ride through a series of misadventures on Christmas eve. Completely unapologetic in attitude and shot on iPhones to create a new style of guerrilla filmmaking for the digital era, this reminded me of some of Gregg Araki’s more audacious films from the early 1990s.

Bob Hunter in How to Change the World

Bob Hunter in How to Change the World

If nothing else, How to Change the World is astonishing for the wealth of archival material it brings to light for the very first time, depicting the beginnings and early years of Greenpeace. It is mostly a conventional documentary that chronologically depicts the known facts behind Greenpeace’s origins and its visionary ideals and strategies, managing to also incorporate different sides of the various arguments over the many disputed areas. However, it also delivers an engaging discussion about the nature of leadership, the ethics of documenting versus intervening, and the struggle between pragmatism and idealism. And it also highlights how its reluctant leader Bob Hunter was a remarkable person whom we all owe a large debt to for his part in making us give a damn about the planet we live on.


I also caught up with a number of films on home entertainment that I felt worth mentioning, including Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel about a filmmaker trying to make an ethical film about a real-life murder. I completely understand how its refusal to conform to generic expectations has been infuriating for so many, but I was engrossed by how well the form of the film reflected the values it was endorsing.

I also enjoyed the South Korean drama/thriller Haemoo, very loosely based on a true story from 2001 about a group of Korean-Chinese illegal immigrants travelling by boat. While far from being a perfect film, I was impressed by the measured build, the severity of the situation when the film takes an extreme turn into something darker than expected, and the moral conflicts that play during the tense second half.

And finally, I was really pleased to see Heaven Knows What, by brothers Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie. A low fi film about a young woman addicted to heroin and her unrequited love for her boyfriend. It’s free from sensationalism and romanticism, and yet still contains moments of beauty among all its rawness. Most revelatory is the lead performance by newcomer Arielle Holmes whose own experiences inspired the film. After watching the film I was extremely pleased to discover she has continued to act and will appear in Andrea Arnold’s upcoming new film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Films I loved in May 2014

2 June 2014
Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

The more I think about Under the Skin the more I find myself falling for the visuals and soundscape that fuel its stripped-down story of an alien harvesting men from the streets of Scotland. The eerie and the avant-garde imagery in this film are difficult to shake off, being both sublime and disturbing. Combining the formally experimental moments in the film with scenes that employ such a bold cinéma vérité-style approach to filmmaking, has resulted in a truly unique work.

Veerle Baetens as Elise and Johan Heldenbergh as Didier in The Broken Circle Breakdown

Veerle Baetens as Elise and Johan Heldenbergh as Didier in The Broken Circle Breakdown

I experienced intense  joy and sorrow while watching the highs and lows of the relationship depicted in The Broken Circle Breakdown. Similar to the masterful Blue Valentine, this Belgium/Dutch film is cleverly non-lineal in order to contrast the happiness at the start of a relationship to the trauma that comes later. Included in the mix is a great subtext about religious faith and loosing faith in what America stood for during the Bush Administration, and some amazing bluegrass music.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Italy

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Italy

While I enjoyed The Trip I loved The Trip to Italy, which not only features funnier interactions between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing versions of themselves travelling around Italy for a food article, but is overall a tighter, better structured and better developed film. It not only gave me some of the biggest laughs I have had watching a film for a very long time, but the melancholic observations on mortality and morality were surprisingly effective.

Godzilla

Godzilla

The new Godzilla film somehow manages to stay true to the spirit and basic mythology of the original Japanese films, while also feeling like a fresh and sincere reincarnation of the legendary franchise. And while in hindsight the film suffers from some weak characterisation, the spectacle and action sequences more than compensate. The restraint used in key sequences made those moments genuinely frightening and exhilarating.

Del Herbert-Jane as James and Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Billie in 52 Tuesdays

Del Herbert-Jane as James and Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Billie in 52 Tuesdays

The Australian film 52 Tuesdays is a highly inventive and sophisticated coming-of-age film. The various limitations that the filmmakers set for themselves has resulted in a fascinating film that continually challenges the audience to reassess their perceptions. Shot over 52 Tuesday afternoons, the story of a teenage girl coming to terms with her mother’s transition to a man touches on issues of adolescent sexuality, gender identity and ideas of privacy with sensitivity and complexity.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – The Killer Inside Me (2010)

24 August 2010
The Killer Inside Me: Lou Ford (Casey Affleck)

Lou Ford (Casey Affleck)

Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) is a Texas deputy sheriff in a small country town in the 1950s. On the surface Lou seems like a pillar of virtue. He describes himself as ‘a man and a gentleman’, he doesn’t like carrying a gun and he loves his schoolteacher girlfriend Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson). However, Lou is also having an intense sadomasochistic sexual relationship with prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) and has Oedipal issues that are more extreme than usual, even for a film noir protagonist. He is also a delusional psychopath who kills people for reasons that he largely has to invent for himself after the event.

Adapted from the novel by Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me is the latest film by the highly talented and prolific English director Michael Winterbottom (Genova, A Mighty Heart). It is best described as a ‘country noir,’ resembling films like Lone Star and especially No Country For Old Men for its brutal existentialism. It is also a deeply psychological film that takes the audience further and further into Lou’s mind so that the film ends in a way where we are not too sure what is real anymore and what is part of Lou’s deranged perception of reality. In this way The Killer Inside Me also evokes Orson Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai and a very powerful visual motif from the film’s conclusion is also highly suggestive of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly and David Lynch’s Lost Highway.

The Killer Inside Me: Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba)

Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba)

The scenes depicting extreme violence against women have been, and will most likely continue to be, the main focal point for many people. This is a pity as there is a lot more to The Killer Inside Me. However the scenes do contain an undeniable power that is impossible not to address, shot as they are in a sickening, graphic, realistic and intimate way. The combination of make-up, cinematography and gut churning sound effects is designed to make the audience feel complete horror and disgust. Casey Affleck’s performance adds to the impact as he is so chillingly calm, restrained and even slightly playful.

These scenes are not voyeuristic exercises in cruelty as they function instead as confronting representations of the true impact of violence, especially when fuelled by the type of extreme paranoid misogyny that possesses Affleck’s character. Post Silence of the Lambs, cinematic serial killers and mass murderers have tended to become transgressive anti-heroes. By making the violence in The Killer Inside Me so revolting and unpalatable, Winterbottom confronts us with our own tendency to become complicit with onscreen violence, in a way that is not too dissimilar to Gaspar Noé Irréversible and both versions of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games.

The Killer Inside Me: Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) and Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson)

Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) and Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson)

The Killer Inside Me is going to attract plenty of detractors not only for its graphic content but also for its pace and bizarre ending. However, it is a slow, atmospheric and simmering film where the tension is maintained effectively through a dread for what may happen next. This is compelling and challenging cinema, punctuated with genuinely shocking moments, by a director and a cast of actors who are right at the top of their game. The content and the unconventional form that this film eventually takes does not make it easy viewing but Winterbottom is a director worth placing your trust in and viewers who are ready to go with him will be immensely rewarded.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Genova (2008)

3 November 2009
genova - stills 338297

Joe (Colin Firth)

Prior to playing the role of a grieving husband in Genova, Colin Firth gave what had been his strongest performance to date in Anand Tucker’s And When Did You Last See Your Father? playing the role of a grieving son. Perhaps the challenge of expressing such complex and painful emotions brings out the best in an actor as in Firth’s case it has certainly now demonstrated again just how fine a performer he is. In Genova he plays Joe, a man whose wife Marianne (Hope Davis) tragically dies in a car accident. Joe is left to look after his two daughters, 16-year-old Kelly (Willa Holland) and his younger daughter Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) who is feeling an oppressive degree of guilt about the accident that caused her mother’s death. Joe relocates his family from the USA to the northern Italian seaport city Genova, after receiving an invitation from an old university friend, Barbara (Catherine Keener) to teach at the local university. While learning to adjust to an entirely new way of life Kelly’s emerging rebelliousness and sexuality places her in increasingly vulnerable situations while Mary begins to have visions of her mother wandering through the labyrinthine streets.

Genova is a beautifully measured film about family, loss and moving on with life. With a skilled director like Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, Wonderland, The Claim, 24 Hour Party People, A Cock and Bull Story, A Mighty Heart) at the helm you can be assured that it will never delve into cheap sentiment. Winterbottom is a director of such integrity that he restrains all potential indulgences that would have been tempting to give into, considering the subject matter, to instead focus on small moments of great resonance: the awkwardness of hugging somebody at a wake while holding a plate of food, the momentary sigh of frustration a parent gives when woken by a crying child before they leap out of bed to provide comfort. Winterbottom is not a cold or detached director but he is an incredibly thoughtful one who makes sure that moments that do provoke an intense emotional response are deserved and genuine.

genova - stills 098329

Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine) and Kelly (Willa Holland)

Surrounding the beautiful character dynamics at play in Genova is the titular city. Winterbottom’s now trademark use of handheld digital cinematography, along with the ambient sound, perfectly captures the light and atmosphere. The dense city streets, buildings covered in scaffolding, grief theme and gradual introduction of Marianne as a ‘ghost’ in the story somewhat evokes Nicolas Roeg’s Venice set thriller Don’t Look Now. However, the comparison is only superficial and audiences expecting a supernatural horror from Genova are going to be disappointed. In fact, the true nature of what exactly it is the Mary sees is left deliberately ambiguous and while Genova may not conclude with a traditional narrative climax, it emotionally delivers all the way to the end. Genova is an incredible film that you won’t want to let go of. Winterbottom is one of the greatest living directors and Genova demonstrates this. Again.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Robert Connolly interview (Balibo)

20 August 2009
Writer/director Robert Connolly

Writer/director Robert Connolly

I meet writer/director Robert Connolly on the day that his latest film, Balibo, received a general theatrical release all over Australia. Connolly’s extraordinary film depicts what happened to the Australian journalist Roger East in 1975 when he went looking for five younger journalists after they went missing while reporting on the impending Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Connolly has just come off a gruelling three-week promotional tour all over Australia and although very keen to chat with me, he is irked by the criticism about the film’s occasional use of handheld cameras.

“The handheld in Balibo is so not overt,” Connolly tells me, “but it’s what we did because that was how those guys filmed.”

Connolly is referring to the fact that a lot of technology from the 1970s was used to film the Balibo Five scenes.

“I used ingenue lenses from the ‘70s, standard 16 lenses not super-16 lenses, I graded it – using Brett Manson, an amazing grader who also did Tsotsi – to make it look like reversal, we used a faster stock that had more grain in it and a whole range of things. We emulated the style of that time with the camera movements – handheld!”

Gyton Grantley as Gary Cunningham and Thomas Wright as Brian Peters

Gyton Grantley as Gary Cunningham and Thomas Wright as Brian Peters

I have to admit that I was surprised to hear that other people had made such comments because the use of handheld in Balibo is minor and when it is used it feels stylistically correct. Perhaps the issue has less to do with the film itself and more to do with the people making the criticisms?

“Filmmakers took the camera off the tripod four years ago – continuing to complain about that is getting embarrassing.”

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Film review – A Mighty Heart (2007)

30 October 2007

In 2002 Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and executed in Karachi, Pakistan by an extremist Islamic group with alleged ties to al-Qaeda. Bringing Pearl’s story to the screen could have resulted in a film of appalling sensationalism but instead the prolific and eclectic director Michael Winterbottom has done the job with non-judgemental restraint. A Mighty Heart examines the media storm and investigation surrounding Pearl’s kidnapping; focusing on the effect it had on his pregnant wife Mariane Pearl (Angelina Jolie) and how she responded.

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