Films I loved in March 2014

2 April 2014

A quick thank you to everybody who has been in touch. I’ve been asked if I will resume doing longer form reviews and unfortunately, for the timing being, the answer is no as this year I am mainly concentrating on some long term writing projects.

I’m doing a lot more radio this year; continuing my Thursday morning reviews on the Breakfasters (3RRR 102.7FM) and I am part of a monthly segment on Books and Arts Daily (ABC Radio National) that looks at book to film adaptations. I usually link to my radio spots on Facebook and/or Twitter.

I’m also thrilled to announce that Plato’s Cave, the podcast I have co-hosted for the past three years, is now officially on the 3RRR grid as an ongoing live weekly show, every Monday night from 7pm-8pm. More on the Triple R website, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe in Nymph()maniac

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe in Nymph()maniac

I adored Nymph()maniac and even though I have already seen the international cut where the film has been split into two parts and runs for a bit over four hours, I cannot wait to see the full five and a half hour cut. This is Lars von Trier at his most playful and self-reflexive, yet he still manages to deliver something truly profound and unsettling that explores all his favourite preoccupations. The stories that the self-described nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells about her sexual misadventures are not only sociopolitically provocative, but open up a multi-layered exploration about how lust and love are represented in culture. It’s a battle between mind, body and soul with von Trier in full trickster mode so that the audience never know exactly where they stand.

Robert Redford as Our Man in All Is Lost

Robert Redford as Our Man in All Is Lost

I’ve already written a mini-review of All Is Lost, but I really enjoyed this stripped back survival film about an unnamed man (Robert Redford) stranded at sea doing all that he can to protect his boat, body and mind from a cruel and indifferent environment. Both pragmatic and mythical, this is a film that allows every individual viewer to project their own psychological baggage onto the film so they can decide if it’s a film about the human spirit or a film about existential dread.

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda in Wadjda

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda in Wadjda

Wadjda is a charming and fun coming-of-age film about Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), an 11-year-old Saudi Arabian girl, who enters a Qur’an recital competition so that she can use the prize money to buy a bicycle. In such an aggressively patriarchal society such actions are hugely defiant and the film explores the everyday challenges that women and girls face when living with such extreme gender discrimination.

I finally caught up with The We and the I, which had some very limited screenings in Melbourne last year and was released onto DVD in Australia in late February. It is astonishing that this film has flown so far under the radar, as it is not only a Michel Gondry film, but I believe it is his best film since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Developed over three years of workshops with teenagers who went on to act in the film, it follows the dynamics on a school bus heading through the Bronx in New York City, USA, on the last day of school. Gondry’s distinctive visual style is suitably restrained, and he very skilfully draws the audience into the various mini-dramas that occur throughout the journey.

I have also written a short review about What Richard Did, which is the other notable DVD release I want to mention. It’s a strong drama about personal accountability that very convincingly builds up to a pivotal incident and then explores how that incident affects a community by looking at grief, guilt and culpability among individuals and groups. It’s an Irish film, but strikingly relevant to Australian society.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – The Green Hornet (2011)

18 January 2011
The Green Hornet: Britt Reid / The Green Hornet (Seth Rogen)

Britt Reid / The Green Hornet (Seth Rogen)

While most superhero film adaptations are based on comics, The Green Hornet is based on a 1930s radio serial, which has also had a life in other media including comics, film serials and television serials. The story is another variation on the masked vigilante scenario that contemporary cinema has recently explored from a variety of different angles in films such as The Dark Knight, Watchmen and Kick-Ass. The 2011 film of The Green Hornet actually possesses a bit in common with Kick-Ass in that the titular character does not have any superpowers or special training. However, The Green Hornet is not nearly as dark or transgressive as Kick-Ass, leaving it light on social commentary to instead be a consistently vibrant film with a glorious anarchic spirit.  Freed from a lot of the angst and seriousness of other superhero films, The Green Hornet is actually incredibly carefree and enjoyable.

A significant factor for the breezy vibe is that the costumed vigilantes are motivated by little more than the desire to have a bit of fun. The Green Hornet is the alter ego of Britt Reid, the wealthy son of a newspaper publisher, who despite having some fairly low-key Dad issues is closer in mentality to Tony Stark/Iron Man rather than Bruce Wayne/Batman. Seth Rogen (who also co-wrote the script) plays Britt Reid, which is a natural fit as Rogen wonderfully embodies the required likeable slacker persona; actually Rogen has made a career from playing such parts.

The Green Hornet: Kato (Jay Chou)

Kato (Jay Chou)

The Green Hornet greatly benefits from the inclusion of the character Kato (Jay Chou) who along with Reid’s secretary Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz) supplies Reid with the brains as well as the technology and martial arts skills. Chou is predominantly known throughout Asia for his music career but his charismatic performance as Kato should earn him a big new audience. Part of what makes The Green Hornet so off-kilter is that The Green Hornet is not even the main point of interest as so much of what drives the narrative and makes the action sequences so inventive and fun is Kato. Much of the film’s charm is derived from the growing friendship between Kato and Reid with lots of riffing about whether Kato is The Green Hornet’s partner or sidekick. It is also a nice touch portraying Kato as a Bruce Lee fan since Lee played Kato in the short-lived 1960 television serial.

This is not exactly a subversive film but allowing the supposedly secondary character to take centre stage gleefully undermines superhero narrative conventions and audience expectations. Kato also gets to take part in all the best fight scenes, many of which evoke early Jackie Chan films where the fights were not won according to what weapons were carried in but by what objects in the immediate surroundings could be re-purposed as a weapon. The incredible degree of carnage and destruction also give the action a thrilling inventiveness and playfulness.

The Green HornetDirector Michel Gondry is best known for the slightly whimsical and offbeat visual style that he brings to his films, often relying on basic in-camera techniques for special effects and a handcrafted aesthetic to create the quirky mood in his films. With the very notable exception of his 2004 masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his other films have only been moderately interesting despite the clear display of Gondry’s talent behind them. However, in The Green Hornet Gondry has successfully harnessed digital effects, stunt work and his own energetic style extremely effectively. Fans of Gondry’s may recognise techniques such as the kaleidoscope effect that he used in The Chemical Brother’s music video “Let Forever Be”. He also creates an extremely creative sequence with split screens and various impressive scenes with slow motion, where Kato visualises how he will execute an attack before then actually doing it. A similar technique was used in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes but The Green Hornet does it better.

The Green Hornet is a reckless and irresponsible film in the best possible way. As well as feeling a bit like a light-hearted variation of Kick-Ass is also possesses a similar hyperactive intensity to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. And yet, it’s also nothing like those films. It’s very much a Michel Gondry film but it’s also a Seth Rogen film and perhaps most of all a Jay Chou film with a few ingredients borrowed from 1980s Hong Kong action cinema and Dadaism. It’s not a superhero film; it’s an exuberant anti-superhero film that exists with no agenda except to delight.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Synecdoche, New York (2008)

10 May 2009
Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Claire Keen (Michelle Williams) and Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan)

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Claire Keen (Michelle Williams) and Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan)

There aren’t many writers working in film who have achieved the auteur status that is usually reserved for directors, but Charlie Kaufman is one of them. Audiences know to expect a Kaufman film to explore issues of identity and reality, to contain offbeat humour, to challenge the conventions of film narrative and to be filled with strange yet empathetic characters. With Synecdoche, New York Kaufman not only writes but also, for the first time, directs and the result is a film that is more Kaufmanesque than ever. Synecdoche, New York doesn’t reach the heights of the Spike Jonze directed films Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, and it doesn’t even come close to the masterpiece that is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (directed by Michel Gondry), but it is an intriguing puzzle of a film about regret, memories, aging and façades.

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Film review – Be Kind Rewind (2008)

8 April 2008

After being magnified in a failed attempt to sabotage a power station Jerry (Jack Black) accidentally erases all the videotapes at a small video rental where his friend Mike (Mos Def) works. To save the business, which is under threat by developers, the pair use the local residents and whatever resources they can find to re-shoot the films, in a process they call sweding. The premise is ideal for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry’s love of childlike imagery and use of found objects. Be Kind Rewind is Gondry’s second attempt at writing and directing and it is a big improvement on the lacklustre Science of Sleep.

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Film review – The Science of Sleep (2006)

15 May 2007

Director Michel Gondry’s collaboration with writer Charlie Kaufman resulted in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a visual tour-de-force and a love story of deep resonance. Now working from his own script Gondry’s latest film, The Science of Sleep, still demonstrates his unique stylistic flair but lacks any real emotional depth.

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