Films I loved in February 2018

26 February 2018
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Saoirse Ronan as Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson and Laurie Metcalf as Marion McPherson in Lady Bird

With its sensitive blend of humour and pathos, the coming-of-age film Lady Bird is an understated triumph of empathetic cinema. As the mother and daughter at the centre of the story, actors Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan deliver deeply nuanced performances as two people who know how to press each others buttons, but struggle to express just how deeply they love each other.


Vicky Krieps as Alma Elson and Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread

Few filmmakers could do anything original or vibrant by making yet another film about a creative yet difficult man (who’s also in a relationship with a younger woman), but that’s what Paul Thomas Anderson does in Phantom Thread. With its blend of gothic romance, melodrama and Oedipal desires, it’s a mysterious, lush and ultimately playful film when it reveals how much it has been one step ahead of the audience.

A Fantastic Woman

Francisco Reyes as Orlando and Daniela Vega as Marina in A Fantastic Woman

For a film containing so much grief and prejudice, A Fantastic Woman is astonishingly sensitive and heartfelt. A lot of this is due to the superb performance by Daniela Vega as Marina, a trans-woman who after the death of her partner must contend with his family trying to exclude her. Marina’s humanity and resilience are beautifully amplified by the film’s delicate cinematography and score.

The Wound 8

Nakhane Touré as Xolani in The Wound

The Wound depicts an eight-day rite-of-passage ritual that Xhosa teenage boys in rural South Africa are expected to endure. While the film doesn’t necessarily critique the ritual itself, it does condemn the destructiveness and violence of the traditional attitudes regarding masculinity that surround it. Confronting and tough viewing at times, The Wound is not without much-needed moments of tenderness and compassion.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

Films I loved in March 2015

1 April 2015
Joaquin Phoenix as Larry 'Doc' Sportello in Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix as Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello in Inherent Vice

I adored the twists and turns, endless stream of larger-than-life characters, paranoia, stoner logic, and melancholic social commentary found within Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. While the dense narrative was sometimes hard work getting through while reading the Thomas Pynchon novel it was adapted from, in the film I found it was liberating to regard the story as secondary to the atmospheric and playful mood generate by Anderson. I was more than happy to enjoy the film on a scene-by-scene basis and lose myself in the weirdness, comedy and sometimes darkness of every moment.

Not that it’s a film without substance. The 1970 Californian setting in the shadow of the Manson Family Murders and during Ronald Reagan’s governorship offers plenty of indications that the hopeful dreams of the hippie movement had failed to materialise. Dark days were ahead and the film acknowledges the impact of heroin, the presence of neo-Nazism, the commercialisation of the counter-culture, and the increase of government surveillance on its own people. And not unlike Raymond Chandler’s classic Phillip Marlow detective character, Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a good man at the centre of it all, trying to do the right thing and help others, even at the expense of his own happiness.

Aleksey Serebryakov as Kolya in Leviathan

Aleksey Serebryakov as Kolya in Leviathan

The latest film by Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev, Leviathan, is a devastating allegory for contemporary Russia, presenting the government as ruthless and corrupt, the church as being manipulative and conniving, and the general population as slowly sliding into hopelessness, brutality and alcoholism. This would be unbearable if it were not for the film being so beautifully crafted and so visually rich. The images of the decaying fishing boats, whale skeleton and church ruins provide powerful symbols of a great and glorious culture that now feels like a relic of the past.

Jack O'Connell as Gary Hook in '71

Jack O’Connell as Gary Hook in ’71

Similar to Paul Greengrass’s underrated Green Zone, ’71 is a thrilling action/war drama that also provides sophisticated insights into the nature of the conflict it is set during. The violence that occurs on the streets of Belfast during the period known as The Troubles isn’t just the backdrop for this film’s exciting action scenes; it is examined and explored with impressive complexity. As the young and inexperienced British soldier Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) spends the night trying to get back to his unit, his encounters with various other characters reveals how many different factions were involved in the conflict and how many people were caught in the crossfire.

Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy in The Homesman

Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy in The Homesman

In his directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, actor Tommy Lee Jones took a very critical look at issues of race in contemporary America. In The Homesman, Jones’s second film as director, he turns his attention towards the treatment of women in American Midwest in the 1850s. The result is a bitter deconstruction of western mythology and a savage condemnation of social attitudes towards women. Far from the idealised frontier taming narratives of classic westerns, Jones delivers a confronting and compelling story of a culture built on the mistreatment of half its population.

This month I also really enjoyed losing myself for three hours in the National Gallery in London via Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery. Wiseman’s unobtrusive filming style and strategic editing reveals the inner workings of the multifaceted institution, engages with discussion about the role of art in broader society and explores how people connect with art. I was also really glad to be see, via their online release, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (rather than watch The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, which combines the original two films into a single condensed film). Him and Her deliver a moving examination of how perception and memory can be different in small but significant ways, especially when is comes to love, grief and loss.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Film review – The Master (2012)

7 November 2012
The Master: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix)

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix)

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) re-enters America after having served in World War II and now suffering from post-traumatic stress. Like Vietnam War veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) trying to make sense of America in the late 1970s in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) Freddie is similarly childlike, emerging into a world that is recognisable to him, but doesn’t fully make sense. Conformity, capitalism and consumerism are some of the characteristics of an era of both extraordinary economic growth, but also paranoia where the threat of communist infiltration created a markedly conservative political and social climate. Trying to find a place in an era of pronounced social cohesion, Freddie requires a master. That master is the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a quasi-religious philosophical movement known as The Cause.

Like the nervous and volatile Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) in Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love 2002, Freddie is a lost soul who desires to be part of something bigger than just himself. Constantly talking out of the side of his mouth, hunched over and never quite managing to dress in clothes that properly fit him, Freddie is never comfortable in the world he occupies. At the other extreme is Lancaster the father-figure who, similar to Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), is a larger-than-life entrepreneur who captures the American spirit in all its grandiosity, boldness and insanity. If The Master doesn’t have the same immediate emotional effect as Anderson’s previous work it is because it is dealing with far more subdued and interior subject matter than romantic love or building an oil empire.

While Scientology is the inspiration for The Cause and L Ron Hubbard the inspiration for Lancaster, The Master is more interested in systems of control in general and the psychological desire to obey. Following Lancaster’s teaching is something Freddie very quickly and willingly succumbs to, aggressively defending Lancaster even when arguments questioning The Cause are presented reasonably and rationally. Freddie’s faith in Lancaster is so strong that he believes him to even be above the law and any evidence contrary to this does shake the foundations of his belief, but not for long. The Master never presents any definitive explanation for why Freddie would be drawn to The Cause. Lancaster certainly never convincingly presents his belief system; an early scene where he discusses his philosophy on life is almost gibberish, he gets extremely defensive when challenged and even his own son claims he is making everything up on the spot. Nevertheless, Freddie watches dutifully, grinning in delight whenever Lancaster speaks.

Freddie begins the film as not only childlike, but almost primal. He is driven by instinct. He likes to drink so creates terrifying homebrew from anything he can find, including a variety of industrial liquids and chemicals. He is constantly horny, masturbating a few metres away from his fellow soldiers after fondling a sand sculpture of a naked woman. In a much later scene he imagines all the women in the room naked, although it is difficult to tell if he is more entranced by them or Lancaster. When Freddie is with a woman sexually he playfully pokes her breasts and giggles. The next day Freddie is confused and angry by his inability to have a sexual relationship and takes out his rage on a customer at the mall where he is working. Freddie talks about a young woman he loved named Doris, although his neglectful actions – until it is too late – suggest that he is really in love with the ideal of her.

The sexual imagery Freddie continually returns to is that of the naked woman sand sculpture, shaped to pose like a nude model in a pornographic magazine. Similar to Brandon (Michael Fassbender) in Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame, Freddie is obsessed with the manufactured representation of sex rather than the real thing. Like the strange chemical cocktails he drinks, the sex he craves is synthetic and instead of living his own life he looks for a synthetic version of life, and that’s the belief system and social hierarchy that Lancaster offers.

The Master is therefore a film about obedience and forming an identity through subservience. Freddie begins with sex and alcohol as his master, but Lancaster and The Cause soon takes the place in the way that people recovering from addictions often turn to religion as a new form of obsessive behaviour. The exercises that Lancaster submits Freddie to seem designed to strip away his sense of self rather than provide any enlightenment.

Freddie isn’t the only subservient character in the film as Lancaster is also revealed as a figurehead for The Cause with his wife Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) as the person who is really in charge. The most overt scene exploring their relationship is when Peggy sternly instructs Lancaster on matters of his fidelity while violently masturbating him. Their relationship is seen to be something highly perverse with Peggy maintaining her power over Lancaster while reducing him to his most basic impulses and desires – taking him down to Freddie’s level.

In the same way that the characters in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011) can be very easily read as representing aspects of the American psyche post-9/11, the characters of The Master similarly represent aspects of the American psyche post-World War II. Social cohesion is desired as the best way for an individual to achieve harmony and any attempt to question that cohesion is met with strong resistance. Sexuality is something to be repressed or at least released in a ‘harmless’ way, resulting in a perverse obsession with the idea of sex rather than sex itself. The Master is in many ways a straightforward story about a man unsure of the new world he is now in, and wants to belong to something so that he too can move beyond childish and primal urges and become civilised. Anderson doesn’t provide any easy answers about whether or not Freddie is successful in his ascent, although the final cryptic scene suggests that while he has moved up by a notch in social status he is still mentally in the same place that he was when the film began.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

26 December 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the story of a man who is born as an old man and ages in reverse to eventually die as a newborn baby. Although based on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this 2008 film bears the stamp of its writer Eric Roth more than anybody else. Roth has penned several screenplays of varied quality throughout his career with Munich (Steven Spielberg), Ali and The Insider (both directed by Michael Mann) being amongst his better efforts. However it is the Academy Award winning Forrest Gump that bears the most similarities to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both films involve a male protagonist whose unusual circumstances give him a unique view of the world and 20th century history. Both men encounter various unconventional mentors who guide them on their way through life and both men fall hopelessly in love with a woman who is almost always out of their reach.

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