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

Films I loved in October 2017

1 November 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Ryan Gosling as K in Blade Runner 2049

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is one of my desert island films. I will never tire of its visual aesthetic and poetic blend of dystopian science-fiction, hardboiled film noir, and philosophical musings on what it means to human. Denis Villeneuve’s sequel Blade Runner 2049 may not capture the same magic that makes the original so electrifying, but it comes closer than I ever dared hope for. Remaining true to the spirit of the original film without overly indulging in nostalgia, this is a mediative, measured and haunting film of overwhelming visual pleasures and thematic richness where humanity has been further diluted, but still prevails.

Good Time

Robert Pattinson as Constantine ‘Connie’ Nikas in Good Time

I first began to really take notice of filmmaking brothers Joshua Safdie and Ben Safdie after seeing their 2014 film Heaven Knows What, but their new film, Good Time, confirms that they are two of the most exciting contemporary independent American filmmakers. Channelling the rawness and high energy of early Martin Scorsese films and the spirit of John Cassavetes, Good Time is a visceral and anxious crime drama that had my heart racing throughout so much of its running time that I felt shattered by the end credits in the best possible way.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Adam Sandler as Danny Meyerowitz and Ben Stiller as Matthew Meyerowitz in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

With the very notable exception of France Ha, I’ve never really been able to fully embrace Noah Baumbach’s films so I was not expecting to be so impressed by The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which is now easily my favourite film of his. While it treads the very familiar ground of exploring intergenerational tensions and resentments among the members of a dysfunctional family living in New York, it is elevated by its impressive performances, pathos and sincerity. It was especially great to see Adam Sandler return to dramatic acting, and he delivers his strongest and most endearing performance since Punch Drunk Love.

Brigsby Bear

Kyle Mooney as James Pope in Brigsby Bear

The biggest surprise I had this month was how much I adored Brigsby Bear, especially considering how much I assumed I would not. After hearing it was about a man obsessed with a kid’s television series that he wants to recreate for himself, I imagined something unbearably whimsical and twee. I was surprised and delighted to discover that the tone and themes of the film were in fact far closer to something like The Truman Show, resulting in a sweet and melancholic story about family and identity. These days it is easier said than done, but this is one film where I recommend seeing it knowing as little as possible beforehand.


Bill Nighy as Inspector John Kildare in The Limehouse Golem

I wasn’t going to see The Limehouse Golem, but after hearing my Plato’s Cave co-hosts speak about it, I was persuaded to do so. I’m extremely glad I did. On the surface it is a serial killer/detective story set in Victorian London, but as the film unravels it becomes increasingly apparent that its extremely masterful hidden-in-plain-sight twists and turns are used to explore issues of class, gender and sexuality in ways that are integral to how the story develops. It is a shame and a bit of a mystery to me as to why a film this well-crafted and atmospheric has had such little attention.

FAH2017And finally, on a personal note, the second edition of my secondary school textbook Film Analysis Handbook is now available. Originally written in 2005 as a resource for school students and teachers studying and writing about film, this 2017 edition is fully updated with new film examples, new writing samples, new terminology and a new design.

Available now from Insight Publications.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017

Film review – Frances Ha (2012)

19 August 2013

Frances Ha: Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and Frances (Greta Gerwig)

Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and Frances (Greta Gerwig)

Contemporary cinema that is genuinely joyous and uplifting is surprisingly rare. Films that tug at the heartstrings or can be described as bitter/sweet are reasonably common, but there are not that many films that can be regarded as feel-good without the trappings of cynicism or overly manipulative schmaltz. Frances Ha is a rare example of a modern film that leaves you on a high without you feeling suspicious that you have yet again been fed a beautiful lie that you will eventually start to see through. Instead, this is a genuinely heartfelt, gorgeous and beautiful celebration of youth, friendship and grappling with all the contradictions and challenges that life throws at us.

The film is a collaboration between director Noah Baumbach, who is also one of the film’s producers, and actor Greta Gerwig who plays the lead character Frances Halladay. The pair wrote the script together and it feels like a culmination of both their careers. It is a return to the comedic and youthful focus of Baumbach’s début feature film Kicking and Screaming (1995) while containing the observational qualities that distinguish his ‘second coming’ as a filmmaker that began in 2005 with The Squid and the Whale. For Gerwig it is her most pronounced and definitive role to date, and it evokes her earlier mumblecore films rather than her recent mainstream success.

Gerwig brings to the film a slightly nervous yet constantly charming energy that is expressed through Frances’s lust for life that is only threatened by her concern that, ‘I’m not a real person yet.’ While Baumbach typically looks for the comedic potential in his scripts the subject matter often leaves his films feeling wry. However, with Frances Ha the subject matter of an enthusiastic young woman trying to find her way in the world results in a natural expression of humour and fun.

Crucial to the success of Frances Ha is that the focus is on how Frances relates to the world rather than how she relates to the world through the prism of being somebody’s romantic interest. Her love and sex life are not ignored – there is a reoccurring joke about her being ‘undateable’ – but the main relationship explored in the film is her friendship with roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Indeed, after setting up how close and similar Frances and Sophie are to each other, the main narrative drive (what little of it there is) concerns how the pair drifts apart as they start to make different life decisions.

This storyline concerning Frances and Sophie’s ‘breakup’ gives the film its emotional depth and facilitates the central theme of what it means to enter adulthood. Does growing up involve becoming realistic and practical, or is it about compromising your dreams? What is the difference between being a free spirit and being frivolous? Frances Ha does not preach one way or the other, but it presents Frances attempting to wrestle with these ideas in a way that is identifiable, endearing and ultimately uplifting.

In order to capture the barrage of life choices thrown at Frances during the film, Baumbach adopts a range of stylistic devices to highlight the importance of one of the few tangible aspects of her life: a sense of place. While her dancing career and personal life are full of unknowns, Frances at least can hold onto the physical places she occupies, so Frances Ha is segmented with title cards containing the addresses of the places she inhabits. Mostly these places are addresses in New York City and Baumbach films in black-and-white to not just evoke Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), but also the early work of pioneering American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes, especially the New York set Shadows (1959). The mythology of New York as a place of opportunities, creativity and potential is essential to who Frances is.

Also significant is how much Baumbach’s visual style evokes the youthful and rebellious energy of the French New Wave, particularly the films of François Truffaut, which Baumbach also uses music from to score parts of Frances Ha. It is appropriate that a segment of Frances Ha is set in Paris, although true to the tone and attitude of the film Frances does not have any great revelation or life changing event – she just lives (and oversleeps) in the moment.

If there is one scene to define Frances Ha then it is the obvious one of Frances running and dancing through the street of New York to David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’. It is a homage to a similar moment in Mauvais Sang (1986), fittingly by French New Wave inspired director Leos Carax, as well as being the type of non-narrative moment that characterised loose narrative films by Cassavetes and Truffaut. More importantly it expresses Frances’s endless enthusiasm and love of life in a film not defined by a romantic interest or an obvious goal. Her euphoric dance through the streets is an act of gleeful defiance against convention, just as the film is itself. There are no simple life lessons or morals here. Frances’s dance is saying that modern life, like modern love, ‘terrifies me’ but it also ‘makes me party’ and that is what Frances, the film and the audience embrace.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013