Films I loved in April 2017

30 April 2017
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Lily Gladstone as Jamie in Certain Women

While re-watching Certain Women (having first seen it last year when its fate in Australia outside of the festival circuit was unknown) I was struck by how much I have come to adore filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. Her understated vision of small town American life, often featuring characters living on the fringes of society, shares a lot with the Belgium Dardenne brothers in that their films appear minimalist and naturalistic, but they are finely crafted and filled with pathos and human drama. Featuring three of America’s most interesting and unpredictable women actors – Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart – plus the very promising emerging actor Lily Gladstone, Certain Women consists of three overlapping stories about characters obsessing after unobtainable and romanticised notions of justice, authenticity and love.

Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart as Maureen in Personal Shopper

One of the reasons I like Olivier Assayas’s films so much (and possibly the reason I didn’t initially) is because his films are so difficult to pin down; they defy easy categorisation or explanation. In Personal Shopper Kristen Stewart (who was also in Assayas previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria) plays Maureen, a woman who works as a personal shopper for a wealthy celebrity. The importance and significance of objects in people’s lives has played an increasingly prominent role in Assayas’s films and here the focus is on the clothes that Maureen selects and how wearing them herself is forbidden and therefore desirable. Maureen is also a spiritual medium trying to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother in the parts of the film that resemble a haunted house movie. The end result is a film about the material and immaterial worlds in relation to Maureen and her attempts to preserve her own identity in the wake of her grief.

Raw

Garance Marillier as Justine in Raw

I feel that a lot of the advance hype for Raw – making all sorts of hyperbolic claims about how extreme and shocking it is –  has been a little bit misrepresentative of what kind of film it is. Fortunately, it is a strong enough film that the pre-hype – accurate or not – doesn’t damage it in the slightest. Raw combines the body horror of cannibal films with a sexual coming-of-age story about a young woman attending veterinarian school, where a hazing ritual awakens all manner of new appetites. There is such an immediate and visceral feel to the whole film that the taboo desires depicts are often both sensual and repellant, beautiful and gruesome, life-affirming and destructive. I think what I really loved about this film is how so many ideas and themes are intertwined to define easy analysis. It’s not even always clear what is imagined and what is real, what is symbolic and what is literal. This is exciting stuff.

Anne Hathaway as Gloria in Colossal

I love it when a film with an outlandish premise focuses on the implications of that premise, rather than get bogged down with providing lengthy explanations and backstory. It’s an approach that privileges things like characterisation and themes over the duller mechanics of story development. Colossal is one such film, as rather than delving too deeply into why Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is connected to a giant monster terrorising Seoul in South Korea, it uses the scenario to explore issues of addictive behaviour and abusive relationships. Most impressive is how its use of satire – both playful and serious – toys with monster movie conventions and subverts the expectations of America indie rom-coms.

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Teresa Palmer as Clare in Berlin Syndrome

I was a huge fan of Australian director Cate Shortland’s previous film Lore so I was very keen to see Berlin Syndrome and went in knowing next to nothing about it. So I wasn’t expecting its story of a young Australian women visiting Berlin to develop into the very particular type of thriller that it did. What impressed me the most is how effectively it worked as a white-knuckled genre film while at the same time undermining expectations and subverting conventions. Not only is the salacious and sensationalist male gaze, which is often present in films of this nature, completely absent, but Shortland avoids going through the motions of delivering the obvious plot points to instead focus on the subjective experiences of the character.

Their Finest Hour and A HalfDirected by Lone Sherfig

Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole in Their Finest

I’ve long admired the way Lone Scherfig makes feel-good romance films that have a strong subtext exploring darker and more serious themes. In Their Finest Scherfig not only tells a story about the difficulties women faced working in the English film industry in the 1940s, but she is also examining how cinema is emotionally manipulative for idealogical impact. Their Finest is a reminder of the devastating effect that World War II had on the lives of everybody who lived through it, while also working as a behind-the-scenes comedy, with a lot of very satisfying laughs about how films are made and the egos involved. And while some of the plot turns feel overly melodramatic, they also work as self aware moments that remind us how easily films can evoke emotions from us.

Casting JonBenet

Casting JonBenet

Making its Australian debut on Netflix is Australian filmmaker Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet. Similar in approach to Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine (which has so far only screened locally at festivals) Green blurs the line between documentary and fiction, to make a film about the making of a film. In this case, the subject matter is the unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old child beauty pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey. Casting JonBenet consists of interviews and auditions with various hopeful actors, all of whom live in Boulder, Colorado, USA where the murder occurred. Green’s film isn’t interested in finding out who did it, it is interested in revealing all the various theories about the case, and more importantly, understanding why those theories have manifested. As the film progresses the interviewees increasingly relate aspects of the case to their own lives, which is when this film truly becomes a work of great beauty, insight and sadness.

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Sidney Warbrick as Thomas and Dan Skinner as John M Hull in Notes on Blindness

Finally, Notes on Blindness was released on home entertainment this month. It’s technically a documentary that consists of reenactments, but describing it as such doesn’t really do justice to its scope and ambition. It’s a portrait of the Australian-born theologian John M Hull who in 1983 began keep an audio diary to describe his experiences going blind. The film maintains the original audio recordings with actors playing Hull and various other people in his life, occasionally lip-synching to the pre-existing audio. Filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney use sound and visuals to create an impressionist work that conveys Hull’s inner-world in this gentle, poetic and immersive film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017
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Films I loved in May 2015

8 June 2015
Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road

One of the most exhilarating action films in a very long time, Mad Max: Fury Road keeps plotting and CGI to a minimum in order to deliver one inventive action sequence after the other in what is basically a giant chase scene that evokes the finale of Mad Max 2 (my favourite of the series). It is also a thematically rich film, presenting a nightmarish vision of the patriarchy at its most grotesque, destructive and possessive, building on a lot of the perverse iconography of the previous films. Tom Hardy makes the iconic Max Rockatansky character his own, but the film belongs to Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa and both actor and character more than earn the right to be front and centre of the film. Director George Miller proves just how smart, progressive and  well-crafted action films can be. It’s going to be hard settling for anything less for a very long time.

Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb and Oscar Isaac as Nathan in Ex Machina

Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb and Oscar Isaac as Nathan in Ex Machina

One of the keys to what makes Ex Machina such an enthralling film is how deftly it changes focus thematically from being a Blade Runner-style musing on what it means to be human, to something closer to The Stepford Wives. A futuristic spin on the Bluebeard fairy tale, Ex Machina is a parable about the industrialised commodification of the female body, blending imagery that is both sensual and uncanny to constantly challenge the gaze that the audience have brought to the film. After writing so many great and varied science fiction films for a little over a decade, it’s exciting to see Alex Garland emerge as such a confident director. The cast is excellent, but Oscar Isaac really stands out as the manipulative and passive-aggressive Nathan – a hipster post-gamergate variation of the Alpha Male misogynist. This is a rich and smart film that is designed to provoke contemplation well after the end titles have finished.

Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders and Kristen Stewart as Valentine in Clouds of Sils Maria

Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders and Kristen Stewart as Valentine in Clouds of Sils Maria

Both accessible and ambiguous Clouds of Sils Maria is a multilayered film that references everything from German mountaineering films to contemporary superhero films; weather formations to philosophy. Similar to Birdman (despite being very different films) it’s about an older actor trying to accept the fickle and ruthless nature of the film industry, and includes debates about high versus low art, the pursuit of legitimacy, and the blurring of fiction and reality. Easily one of my favourite Olivier Assayas films, it features Juliette Binoche as Maria, a woman appearing as a different character in a remake of the film that once made her famous, with Chloë Grace Moretz playing the rising star who has been cast to play her original role. Both Binoche and Moretz are excellent, but the real star of the film is Kristen Stewart as Maria’s loyal and protective personal assistant, who also acts as confidant, friend, symbolic daughter and symbolic lover to Maria.

The Tribe

The Tribe

Although The Tribe only received a handful of screenings in Melbourne rather than a full theatrical release, I couldn’t not mention it. A Ukrainian film set in a specialised boarding school for young people who are deaf, the characters only communicate in sign language and there are no subtitles. The result is something I found quite liberating as the meaning of nearly all the scenes was communicated to the audience without redundant dialogue. The film style adapts to the film’s unique concept so that most shots are medium shots done in long takes in order to show the characters’ entire bodies, thus allowing the full range of body language to be expressed. Key events also occur during the film that are only possible if the characters are deaf. A tough and sometimes extremely confronting film about tribal behaviour, institutionalisation, exploitation and violence, I found this a mesmerising experience.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

DVD review – Carlos the Jackal (2010), Region 4, Madman

15 August 2011
Carlos the Jackal: Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Édgar Ramírez Arellano)

Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Édgar Ramírez Arellano)

It’s difficult to imagine a more comprehensive and detailed depiction of the life and times of international terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (aka Carlos the Jackal) than Olivier Assayas’s made for television French/German co-production Carlos. Beginning with Carlos’s early activities in Paris in the early 1970s working for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Carlos covers three decades of the career of the ‘celebrity terrorist’ up until his arrest in 1994.

Portrayed with chilling charisma, arrogance, narcissism and ruthlessness by Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez Arellano, Carlos is as fascinating and appealing as a terrorist could be without the film ever coming across as endorsing his violent actions. Against the backdrop of the end of the Cold War and the rise of radical Islam, Carlos is relentlessly tense and exciting in the sequences depicting the planning and then execution of various plots, with the 1975 raid on the OPEC headquarters as the centrepiece.

Carlos is available in both the 3-part TV miniseries version and the condensed 158-minute theatrical edition.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 385, 2011

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Summer Hours (2008)

3 April 2009
Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Frédéric (Charles Berling)

Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Frédéric (Charles Berling)

Summer Hours (L’Heure d’été) originally began as an initiative by Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. It was to be a short film that would have been part of a project examining the relationship between art and cinema. The full project never happened but French director Olivier Assayas (Clean, Irma Vep) went ahead with the original idea and made Summer Hours as a feature. The resulting film is gentle family drama that uses the dynamic between three siblings to explore the relationship between people and art. Summer Hours begins with the 75th birthday celebrations for Hélène (played by prolific French actor Edith Scob), the niece of a famous painter. Hélène’s country house is filled with her uncle’s extraordinary 19th century art collection, which she wants her three 40-something children to sell once she dies. Later when Hélène does die the siblings need to decide what to do. Frédéric (Charles Berling who also appear in Assayas’s demonlover and Les destinées sentimentales) wants to preserve his mother’s home and art collection but his brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier from In Bruges and L’Enfant) and sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) now live abroad and can’t see any reason not to sell everything.

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