Films I loved in April 2014

30 April 2014
Ralph Fiennes as M Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ralph Fiennes as M Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a glorious tribute to an imagined era of European civility and innocence before the onslaught of fascism. Channelling the spirit of Ernst Lubitsch, this is one of Anderson’s best films and certainly the one I’ve enjoyed the most since The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001. For the most part a beautifully designed, cleverly structured and hilarious caper, the real triumph in this film is the final five or so minutes where Anderson delivers a heartfelt conclusion that acknowledges the fundamental tragedy of what fascism destroyed.

Tilda Swinton as Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam in Only Lovers Left Alive

Tilda Swinton as Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam in Only Lovers Left Alive

I have long been a fan of Jim Jarmusch – who like Wes Anderson is also a maverick with a unique and uncompromising approach to filmmaking – and Only Lovers Left Alive did not disappoint. This time Jarmusch applies his droll, minimalist and laid back style to the vampire genre to produce a film both visually and audibly rich in texture and atmosphere. The love and symbiotic relationship between the two creatures of the night reflects the delicate balance of the natural world that is slowly falling in decay due to human greed, selfishness and destructiveness.

Will Arnett voicing Batman and Charlie Day voicing Benny in The LEGO Movie

Will Arnett voicing Batman and Charlie Day voicing Benny in The LEGO Movie

On the other end of the spectrum comes the deliriously fun and subversive mainstream family comedy The LEGO Movie, which has a seemingly anarchic animation style that reminded me of A Town Called Panic (Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, 2009). It does seem incongruous that such an overtly branded and marketed film would contain such a strident message against consumerism, materialism and conformity, but it does and it does it well. It also smartly deconstructs several pop culture tropes including the rather regressive idea of the Chosen One. And it’s hilarious.

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya and Machiko Ono and Midori Nonomiya in Like Father, Like Son

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya and Machiko Ono as Midori Nonomiya in Like Father, Like Son

In Like Father, Like Son director Hirokazu Koreeda finds considerable charm, humour and pathos in the potentially scandalous story about two sets of parents discovering their 6-year-old sons were mixed up at birth. Instead of melodramatics, Koreeda’s graceful style of storytelling allows for gentle social observations concerning class divisions and parental expectations in modern Japan. My favourite films of Koreeda’s are After Life (1998) and Still Walking (2008), but this is still an excellent film by one of the most consistently impressive filmmakers working today.

It was great to see the low-fi French romantic comedy 2 Autumns, 3 Winters get a number of screenings around Melbourne, as I really enjoyed its quirky and hyper self-referential style. Most of the time I find the device of having characters talk directly to the camera a bit too twee, but it worked for me in this film and I enjoyed its 20-something hipster angst.

Another film that had a few local screenings, just ahead of its DVD release, is the extraordinary Cheap Thrills where two friends are encouraged to compete against each other, in increasingly disturbing ways, for money. The blend of horror and dark comedy in this post-GFC film, delivers a biting social critique of the way middle and lower classes are conned into fighting against each other, while the powerful and wealthy upper class sit back and enjoy the show. The levels of depravity, humiliation and ruthlessness are built up extremely convincingly and are wonderfully excruciating to watch.

The other DVD release of note this month is  Starlet, a very impressive low budget American drama about an unlikely friendship between a 21-year-old woman and an 85-year-old woman. The film is very strategic about when it provides keys pieces of information about the background of both women, but when it does the timing is perfect and the effect is profound. Starlet goes into surprising and unlikely places to deal with subject matter that a lesser film would have sensationalised, but writer/director Sean Baker has an impressive grasp on the material and, like 2 Autumns, 3 Winters writer/director Sébastien Betbeder and like Cheap Thrills director EL Katz, is a talent to keep an eye out for.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

27 November 2009

Sam Sparks (voiced by Anna Faris) and Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader)

Based on the 1978 children’s book by husband and wife team Judi and Ron Barrett, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is about an aspiring young inventor named Flint Lockwood. Flint lives on the island sardine fishing town Swallow Falls, which is facing a deep economic depression ever since sardines were declared to be “super gross”. When Flint invents a machine that turns water into food and then accidentally launches that machine into the stratosphere, he inadvertently saves the town when it starts to rain food. However, just when things are looking up for Flint, the food starts to mutate, resulting in bigger and bigger portions falling from the heavens to threaten not only Swallow Falls but the entire world.

Bill Hader energetically provides the voice for Flint and after doing so many scene-stealing comedic supporting roles in films such as Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Adventureland and Tropic Thunder it is nice to see Hader (well, his voice anyway) getting a lead role. Anna Faris (The House Bunny and The Scary Movie films) is also terrific voicing Sam Sparks, weather presenter and Flint’s love interest. After Princess Fiona’s transformation in Shrek, the moment in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs when Sam drops her faux ditz act to reveal her inner nerd provides one of the more impressive statements in a family film about what qualities make somebody attractive. Other impressive voice-roles include James Caan as Flint’s distant yet endearing father, Bruce Campbell as Swallow Falls’s corrupt and inept mayor and Mr. T as an over zealous police officer.

The computer-generated animation nicely facilitates the rapid-fire humour and increasingly bizarre spectacle of giant items of food falling from the sky. A lot of attention has been paid to the characters’ facial expressions so that characterisation is not secondary to the action. The humour in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is often anarchic, wicked, random and very funny. This is a fun film with a lot of spirit. It is filled with wonderfully dreadful food puns and even effectively parodies disaster films. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs has a lot going for it and it is honestly very difficult to say anything bad about a film that includes a complete throw-away gag where a man rips his own beard off for no good reason.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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