Films I loved in August 2019

28 August 2019
Aretha Franklin in Amazing Grace

Decades after Sydney Pollack shot footage of Aretha Franklin recording her 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace over two nights in a Los Angeles Baptist Church, that footage has been assembled into what I feel might be the greatest live music film. Not only is Amazing Grace technically masterful in terms of audio and visual quality, but the footage has been beautifully edited to convey the sensation of what it must have been like to be in the church audience on those nights, in the presence of perfection. Due to the way I felt while watching this film, I suspect that sensation was euphoria.

Baykali Ganambarr as Billy and Aisling Franciosi as Clare in The Nightingale

The Nightingale, about an Irish convict and an Aboriginal tracker hunting down a British officer in 19th century Australia, delivers an expertly crafted and devastating thriller about the trauma at the heart of this country’s settlement history. Australia has confronted its violent colonial past before in films from The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith to The Tracker, but the unflinching and unrelenting brutality and rage the permeates The Nightingale results in a breathtaking film that is bursting with urgency and fury, which is going to be very hard to forget.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to a Hollywood that never was. By merging a fictitious story of a fading actor and his stuntman best friend with real life Hollywood personalities from 1969 – all against the backdrop of the growing presence of the Manson Family – Tarantino takes the classic ‘print the legend’ adage to a new extreme, delivering a film that is breezy and fun, but also sinister and ultimately extremely melancholic when reality sets in. Managing to be both sincere and ironic, it’s the auteur’s most ambiguous work to date.

Adam Goodes in The Australian Dream

The Australian Dream is an extremely accomplished documentary that unpacks a specific moment in Australia’s culture to tell a much bigger story about the nation’s psyche. The subject of the film is footballer Adam Goodes whose actions in calling out racism in sport led to a shocking backlash that revealed the country’s shocking attitude towards Aboriginal Australians. The film evokes a lot of pain and anger – as it should – but the film wisely allows critics of Goodes to dig their own graves while the voices of support ultimately deliver a message of defiance, awareness and reconciliation.

Midsommar

Midsommar draws from a variety of horror tropes to deliver an experience that is unsettling, humorous, traumatic and gleeful. A riff on folk horror and the tradition of arrogant American tourists abroad being preyed upon by the locals, Midsommar follows the fate of a grieving college student who travels to a Swedish commune with her less-than-supportive boyfriend as his academic bro friends. The creeping weirdness of the scenario deftly transitions into something more disturbing before then delving into borderline absurdity that’s both grotesque and exhilarating.

Thomas Caldwell, 2019
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Film review – Django Unchained (2012)

22 January 2013

Django Unchained: Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx)

Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx)

The hero of Django Unchained is the freed slave Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx), who working as a bounty hunter gets to exact revenge on white slave owners. However, it is Django’s partner Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who stands out as the alter ego for the film’s writer and director Quentin Tarantino. As an outsider who has come to America to make his fortune in the ‘flesh for cash business’, Schultz is how Tarantino imagines himself in relation to Hollywood. He is playing the game, but stands above it with considerably more intelligence, inventiveness and style. In a recent interview Tarantino states his intent in making Django Unchained is ‘to give black American males a western hero’, which is essentially Schultz’s role in the film. Schultz discovers Django, frees and arms him, and encourages him to become a bounty hunter to avenge the crimes against humanity that have been committed by slave traders and owners.

At a glance there is something potentially condescending about this relationship between creator Tarantino/Schultz and Django. However, there are two significant factors that suggest otherwise. Firstly, there is the way the relationship and characters develop. Schultz very quickly realises that Django is an extraordinary person who only initially requires his assistance. The initial mentor relationship quickly transforms into a partnership, with the men developing a strong bond based on mutual admiration. Their friendship is one of the most sincere and touching aspects of the film. Most interestingly is how well Django takes on the training Schultz gives him, fiercely adopting the role of a despised black slave trader in order to create a convincing ruse. It is Schultz who struggles with the part, allowing his emotions and morality to get in the way. The creations (the film and Django) commit to the vision/mission while the creators (Tarantino and Schultz) turn out to be big softies at heart despite the posturing and bravado.

The second factor to suggest how seriously Tarantino, like Schultz, respects Django as a righteous hero is the two different styles of violence on offer in the film. On the one hand there is Tarantino’s much-loved pulpy violence where blood spurts out of gunshot wounds like a fountain. Similar to Tarantino’s previous film Inglourious Basterds (2009) and his Kill Bill films (2003 and 2004) this is violence as cathartic spectacle. While revenge narratives are often highly problematic in the way they represent certain aspects of society as deserving a violent death, Tarantino creates revenge narratives against characters that nobody in their right mind would sympathise with – Nazis in Inglourious Basterds and now sadistic slave owners in Django Unchained. Even a scene where a group of Ku Klux Klan are presented as almost endearingly goofy, in a wonderful spoof of the outrageously racist pro-Klan silent classic The Birth of a Nation (DW Griffith, 1915), the violent fate of such characters is not at all problematic due to what they represent. Watching Django and Schultz kill racist slave owners is fun and the more over-the-top Tarantino is with the violence, the better. This dramatically contrasts to the use of violence to depict the atrocities done against black slaves.

In just a handful of scenes Django Unchained reminds us that it is a film set in one of the darkest and most shameful periods of American history. When depicting the type of daily brutality that black slaves experienced, some scenes based on historical record, some based more on hearsay, Tarantino does not deliver violence as spectacle. Instead he presents violence as vicious, cruel, sadistic, cowardly and devastating. Tarantino conveys the gut-wrenching horror of some of the acts without revelling in the acts, in the way that a contemporary torture-porn horror film might, to create a profound contrast between the styles of violence in the film. One style is gleeful and based on the fantasy of a slave rising up against his tormentors, the other is gruelling and demands the audience recognise and respect the history that the film is engaging with. Tarantino has his cake and devours it.

Another important characteristic of the film is the frequent use of the word ‘nigger’. Tarantino has been previously accused of using this loaded and destructive word too carelessly, especially in Pulp Fiction (1994), allegedly without fully appreciating the historical context of the word to undermine and oppress an entire racial group. Regardless of whether anybody believes that about Tarantino’s previous films or not, it is difficult to accuse him of misusing the word in Django Unchained where it is directly tied to the calculated way that black people were viewed as sub-human, even to the extent that some of them believed it themselves. And then the film even goes one step further when the character Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) is introduced. Fiercely loyal to his white master Calvin J Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Stephen embodies many of the stereotypical traits that have been used throughout cinematic history to ridicule black characters. He is a despised character within the film designed to show the audience how loathsome many representations of black identity have been, from The Birth of a Nation onwards. Jackson also gives an extremely funny performance, calculated to make the audience laugh and then feel uneasy about how willingly they respond to his over-the-top delivery.

Django Unchained may not be one of the great Tarantino films and it loses some of its narrative drive towards the end, partially due to Tarantino’s most unnecessary cameo to date. The complete passivity of its only significant female characters is also disappointing, especially considering how well Tarantino has previously written for women. Nevertheless, the blend of classic film homages, violent spectacle and sparkling dialogue ensures that Tarantino remains one of the most interesting and innovative filmmakers of his generation. The dialogue alone is enough to make even the most jaded audience member feel their heart beat start to speed up. Has any filmmaker since Howard Hawks possessed the ability to set up long verbal exchanges that the audience want to hear go on for even longer? And whether he is atoning for previous sins or demonstrating that he knew what he was doing all along, Tarantino makes a potent and powerful statement about racial stereotype and racist language. He even includes a post-credit gag to suggest the potential for such language to then be successfully appropriated. The end result is what is possibly Tarantino’s most thoughtful and even political film to date.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – My Bloody Valentine (2009)

11 February 2009

_MG_3104_04347RTo use the current Hollywood vernacular, My Bloody Valentine is a “re-imagining” of the 1981Canadian slasher film of the same name. This new film is the sort of re-make, sequel and revamp where the basic concept and characters have been retained but it is essentially a whole new film. As in the original version, a small mining town is being menaced by a crazed miner who wears an identity concealing gas mask and dispatches his victims, predominantly, with a mean looking pickaxe. After massacring a bunch of teenagers he is then supposedly killed. However ten years later the murders start again and it seems that the survivors of the previous massacre are the primary targets. But is it the same miner who is again doing the killing or has somebody else inherited the gas mask, boiler suit and pickaxe? The big mystery that the film wants the audience to ponder is who the killer may be. However, the real mystery to My Bloody Valentine is whether it is supposed to be hilarious self-parody or if it is a classic example of a film that is so bad it’s good.

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