Films I loved in April 2018

1 May 2018
Isle of Dogs

Rex (voiced by Edward Norton) and Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston) in Isle of Dogs

I tend to like and admire Wes Anderson’s films from a distance, but the ones I really like, I adore: The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel and now Isle of Dogs, his glorious tribute to canines and Japanese cinema. This stop-motion animation tonally straddles droll humour, absurdism and emotional sincerity within its inventive dystopian world and enjoyably chaotic plot.

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John Krasinski as Lee in A Quiet Place

There is something gloriously old-fashioned about A Quiet Place, which quickly and efficiently establishes its innovative premise and small group of characters, to then deliver a finely crafted horror film that is both terrifying and moving. The characters are a family that the audience are able to quickly care about, the high stakes are always present and the scenario where sound is deadly, is used to its full potential.

Avengers: Infinity War

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Stephen Strange, Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark, Benedict Wong as Wong and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner in Avengers: Infinity War

I was expecting to like Avengers: Infinity War as directors Anthony and Joe Russo delivered two of the best previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, but I was not anticipating just how strong the storytelling and spectacle would be. The action sequences are exhilarating and inventive, the dramatic stakes are high and the huge cast of characters are expertly handled. This is my favourite film in the series to-date.

Gurrumul

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu in Gurrumul

The documentary Gurrumul provides a portrait of recently deceased Indigenous Australian musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. It embraces his spirit, humour and of course, extraordinary talent. It is a moving, revealing and reverential film that serves to chart his career and highlight his cultural significance to his own community and the rest of Australia.

Loveless

Maryana Spivak as Zhenya in Loveless

Loveless is explicitly about a missing child, but it is implicitly about a generation destroying itself and the one after it through bitterness, apathy, self-absorption and a complete lack of empathy. As with his previous films, Andrey Zvyagintsev creates a compelling yet ambiguous drama through his use of visual metaphor, elegant camera movements and beautiful composition.

I Am Not a Witch

Maggie Mulubwa as Shula in I Am Not a Witch

Inspired by real events in Zambia, I Am Not a Witch is a startling film about a young girl accused of being a witch. The film’s general strangeness, deadpan humour and dreamlike tone capture the bewildering events that follow as she goes to live in a witch camp. While on the surface the film overtly highlights the shocking harm of witchcraft accusations, it’s also more broadly about the creation and exploitation of an underclass.

Last Flag Flying

Bryan Cranston as Sal Nealon, Steve Carell as Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd andLaurence Fishburne as Richard Mueller in Last Flag Flying

Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, an unofficial sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail, is similarly a buddy road movie that blends humour, pathos and subversive cynicism about the damage done to men who become soldiers. While not entirely without hope, the prevailing melancholy stems from how a group of veterans broken by one war confronts a new generation of men being broken by another.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

 

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Films I loved in June 2016

30 June 2016
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Güneş Şensoy as Lale in Mustang

I’d been looking forward to seeing Mustang for almost a year now after consistently hearing great things about it. It’s the feature film debut by Turkish/French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, about five sisters living with their uncle and grandmother in a secluded and very conservative Turkish village. Inspired by real stories including some of the filmmaker’s own experiences, Mustang is about the removal of freedoms from the sisters after they are accused of behaving indecently with male classmates. While the threat to the girls’ welfare looms large during the majority of the film, their defiance and energy is exhilarating, particularly during a sequence involving a football game that evokes Jafar Panahi’s glorious 2006 film Offside. The tension that builds during the film’s finale is close to unbearable, but Ergüven delivers a payoff that is satisfying and feels true to the spirit of what has come before. Needless to say, the expectations that I brought to this film were met and I’m happy to join the ranks of people who speak about Mustang glowingly.

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Vincent Lindon as Thierry Taugourdeau in The Measure of a Man

The Measure of a Man is only the second film I’ve seen by French filmmaker Stéphane Brizé after Mademoiselle Chambon, which I also liked. Both films star prolific French actor Vincent Lindon who has a wonderful ability to simultaneously portray strength and resilience along with vulnerability and melancholy. This is vital to what makes The Measure of a Man work as well as it does where Lindon plays Thierry, an unemployed middle-aged man trying maintain his dignity while going through the very undignified process of looking for work and making ends meet in the meantime. Brizé’s naturalistic style conveys Thierry frustrations, boredom, worry and most importantly the way he’s constantly on display to be judged and condescended to. The Measure of a Man painfully captures not just the stress of unemployment, but also the subtle ways in which people out of work are made to feel shamed and stupid. The second half of the film goes one step further when Thierry is then placed in a position to watch and judge others,  demonstrating how just the act of watching somebody and expecting the worst from them makes them appear at fault.

The Wailing

Jo Han-chul as a detective and Kwak Do-won as Jong-Goo in The Wailing

After being so astonished by South Korean filmmaker Na Hong-jin’s previous film The Yellow Sea I required little persuasion to see his new horror/thriller film The Wailing. Set in a Korean village where a number of strange murders have started occurring, the film follows the increasingly desperate investigations of local policeman Jong-Goo. Drawing upon South Korean Sharman traditions and haunted by the county’s violent past of internal conflict and colonisation by Japan – as well as borrowing liberally from Japanese and American genre cinema – The Wailing delivers a mix of exorcisms, possessions, zombies, body horror, children being creepy, paranoia and even several unexpected comedic moments. The scares are generated by slow builds, unpredictability and filming key scenes in medium shots so it’s not always clear what we are looking at. The film has an intense kinetic energy and often feels like it is in free fall with its tonal shifts and plot twists – but that’s all very much part of the fun.

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Blake Jenner as Jake and Austin Amelio as Nesbit in Everybody Wants Some!!

Richard  Linklater has described his 1980-set college film Everybody Wants Some!! as a spiritual sequel to his 1973-set high school film Dazed and Confused, and also as a sequel of sorts to his last film Boyhood since that film ended with the protagonist going to college, and this film is about the first few days of a young man at college before classes and responsibility begins. Everybody Wants Some!! is mostly a bunch of scenes of the young men on a college baseball team hanging out, drinking, competing, partying, talking about girls and attempting – and often succeeding – in having sex. The film is at its best when it allows us to observe the way the characters, who were all stars at high school, are now compelled to continually compete against each other, and how the characters readjust their identities when encountering various subcultures. It’s at its weakest when the characters have similar observations about what they are doing, and then over explain the themes of the film through dialogue. However, I can put this quibble aside since ultimately this is a really fun and sincere hang-out film.

THE BFG

Ruby Barnhill as Sophie and Mark Rylance as the BFG in The BFG

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel The BFG is a little too long and needlessly padded, and sometimes suffers from cartoonish CGI (although perhaps that’s done deliberately to minimise the scariness of some scenes for younger viewers). But I’ve included it as one of my favourite films of the month because the aspects I did like, I really liked. Firstly, the performances throughout the film by Mark Rylance as the motion-captured Big Friendly Giant and new comer Ruby Barnhill as the orphan Sophie, are gorgeous and successfully convey the very sweet relationship created by Dahl in his novel. I also loved the Dream Country scene, which delivers all Spielberg’s classic tricks of the trade where light, music, whimsy and the wonder on the faces of the characters generate a glorious sequence of feel-good cinematic indulgence. And finally, the fart humour of the novel – especially during the scene involving the Queen of England – is taken to extremities that left me wanting to give the film a standing ovation. There is also some great stuff about standing up for yourself, the power of friendship and not judging people who aren’t fortunate enough to have had the education that allows them to communicate as well as others. But it’s the farting that ultimately won me over.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016

Films I loved in September 2014

1 October 2014
Tony Leung as Ip Man in The Grandmaster

Tony Leung as Ip Man in The Grandmaster

September was a great month in terms of the number of films that got me excited, but none more so than The Grandmaster, the most recent film by Wong Kar-wai, which has finally made its way to Australia. I’ve long adored Wong’s films and I’ve long been a fan of martial arts films, so I was already primed to embrace his take of the story of Wing Chun expert Ip Man. Set in 1930s China and 1950s Hong Kong, The Grandmaster is an exquisitely sensory film filled with beautiful people in beautiful clothes against beautiful settings, engaging in elaborate and breathtaking fight choreography that resembles dance. I was swept away by the exhilarating and sumptuous look and sound of this film, and moved by its romantic melancholy.

Xavier Dolan as Tom in Tom at the Farm

Xavier Dolan as Tom in Tom at the Farm

Although I’ve had mixed feelings about Xavier Dolan’s previous films, Tom at the Farm has converted me into a card-carrying admirer of the young French-Canadian filmmaker. Dolan not only directs (and writes, produces and edits) but also plays the lead character, a young man named Tom who travels to the country to attend the funeral of his dead boyfriend. Tom becomes drawn into an intriguing power play with his boyfriend’s crude and violent brother Francis, where both men are attracted and repulsed by each other. The end result is a compelling psychological thriller that evokes many of Roman Polanski‘s early films.

Ellar Coltrane asMason and Ethan Hawke as his father in Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane as Mason and Ethan Hawke as his father in Boyhood

Not only is Boyhood a remarkable conceptual and technical achievement – having been shot over twelve years so that the cast could age in real time – but it is also a beautiful portrait of childhood and growing up. Writer/director Richard Linklater has long had a fascination with how the lives of everyday people are a tangle of the extraordinary and the mundane, and here more so than ever he creates a convincing portrait of ordinary lives as they traverse through the years, being subjected to both gentle change and dramatic upheavals. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke in particular are outstanding as the divorced parents of Mason, the boy we see age from 6 to 18-years-old.

Josh McConville as Dean and Hannah Marshall as Lana in The Infinite Man

Josh McConville as Dean and Hannah Marshall as Lana in The Infinite Man

This has been a fantastic year for bold feature film debuts by Australian filmmakers with Hugh Sullivan’s The Infinite Man being one of the films I had the most fun with. The complex time travel narrative is gleefully tricky and very effectively used to facilitate the theme of destructive obsession, where the control freak protagonist desperately tries to repair a ruined relationship. The two leads – Josh McConville and Hannah Marshall – are wonderful, and Alex Dimitriades as the rival love interest delivers one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in Australian cinema in years.

Taika Waititias Viago in What We Do in the Shadows

Taika Waititi as Viago in What We Do in the Shadows

And speaking of comedic performances, not a single person involved in the the droll New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows puts a foot out of place. Directors/writers/actors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have created a superb comedy that very effectively works within the conventions of its faux-documentary format and vampire mythology. This is an endlessly inventive and funny film with a glorious low-fi aesthetic that no doubt must have involved meticulous craftsmanship to achieve.


Otherwise, two extremely strong coming-of-age films about teenage girls were released in Australia recently. The Georgian film In Bloom presents a very sad portrait of a culture where patriarchal values are so heavily entrenched that customs that horribly infringe on the rights of women are treated as everyday occurrences. Meanwhile the teenage girls in the Swedish film We Are the Best! also have to confront the condescensions and restrictions of regressive attitudes to gender. Their weapon of choice is punk music resulting in a film bursting with fun and rebellious energy, by filmmaker Lukas Moodysson whose 1998 feature debut Show Me Love is one of the greatest films ever made about teenagers.

While I am highly sceptical that Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vision for the film version of Dune would have worked as well as he and his fans imagined it would, I really enjoyed Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which examines the history of the so-called greatest science-fiction film never made. Finally, I loved Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins with Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader (and Luke Wilson for that matter) delivering great performances in this familiar but extremely endearing spin on the dysfunctional family narrative.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – Bernie (2011)

16 August 2012
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black)

Bernie Tiede (Jack Black)

At times feeling less like a based-on-a-true story narrative film and more like an extended re-enactment documentary, Bernie quietly undermines traditional approaches to crime dramas and black comedy. The film is co-written by Skip Hollandsworth, the journalist who wrote the article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” that the film is based on, and it casts actual townspeople who were around at the time the real story took place as talking head interviewees. The commentary provided by the townspeople feels partly like a Greek Chorus and partly like footage from a mockumentary. Once combined with the scripted drama the result is an unconventional exercise in factual fiction by director and co-writer Richard Linklater.

The titular character is Bernie Tiede, an effeminate assistant funeral director who in the mid 1990s had seemingly charmed the entire Texan town of Carthage with his generosity, kindness, refinement and empathy. Linklater has previously worked with actor Jack Black on The School of Rock (2003) where Black’s slacker party-animal persona was used to its full potential. As the lead in Bernie Black delivers a restrained performance in a role that could have been played broadly, but is instead carefully measured. There’s little of the mania that Black can be capable of and instead what emerges is a mysterious character of ambiguous motivation. In the conservative town the film is set in, Bernie certainly stands out as an oddity and yet Black convinces the audience the Bernie was able to seduce the locals despite being so relatively unusual. His charity makes him almost too good to be true and as the film builds to the moment when Bernie commits the crime that inspired the original article, it is unknown if his over-the-top care for widowed old ladies is due to true affection or something more mercenary.

Supporting actors are also strong. As Marjorie Nugent, Shirley MacLaine is pitiful and contemptible as the wealthy widow who makes life miserable for the rest of the town through her greed and meanness. Like so many other aspects in this film her relationship with Bernie is ambiguously defined, although it is clear that a mutually dependent, yet toxic, companionship occurred. Regular Linklater actor Matthew McConaughey is also terrific as district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, the kind of character who is typically the hero in such films; however, in Bernie he plays the role of an incredulous ‘outsider’. Despite being somebody from within the community, Danny is a lone figure trying to pursue justice in the face of overbearing community sentiment on Bernie’s side.

Regardless of how premeditated his actions may have been Bernie is presented as a man who yearned to be loved and accepted, which manifested into his extreme generosity with time and money. Linklater’s film reveals very little about the background and motivates of its protagonist to instead demonstrate how a community could rally around him despite the crime he committed and confessed to. If anything it is a film about the selective application of moral judgement based on personal prejudices. Even as the film ends it difficult to say if it’s a story about an entire community that was deceived or if it is a story about a remarkable individual who paid dearly for his kindness through one deadly, momentary lapse in reason.

 Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Me and Orson Welles (2008)

29 July 2010
Me and Orson Welles: Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) and Sonja Jones (Claire Danes)

Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) and Sonja Jones (Claire Danes)

It is New York in 1937 and a naive yet cocksure 17-year-old aspiring actor named Richard Samuels has just talked himself into a small role in a Broadway play. However, it is not just any play but a gritty modern version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar directed by the great enfant terrible Orson Welles. A year later Welles would do his notorious radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds and four years later Welles would make Citizen Kane, a film still considered to be one of the greatest films ever made.

Me and Orson Welles is essentially a coming-of-age story with Samuels learning about life, love and friendship while enduring the trial-by-fire of working on a Broadway play. High School musical star Zac Efron plays Samuels perfectly, suggesting that Efron may indeed have a solid acting career ahead of him beyond his current tween idol status. He gives Samuels a very likeable blend of confidence, charm and vulnerability. The excellent supporting cast includes Claire Danes as Sonja Jones, the theatre company’s production assistant who is driven primarily by personal ambition despite developing feelings for Samuels. James Tupper is also a lot of fun as Joseph Cotten, an unashamed ladies man and favourite actor of Welles (Cotten would later appear opposite Welles in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Carol Reed’s The Third Man).

Me and Orson Welles: Orson Welles (Christian McKay)

Orson Welles (Christian McKay)

However, the performance of most note belongs to the relatively unknown actor Christian McKay who portrays Welles. Vincent D’Onofrio did a more than decent job portraying Welles in Ed Wood but McKay is astonishingly good.  His performance is more than simply mimicry as he completely inhabits Welles, expressing both Welles’s seductive charm and his cruel vindictiveness. McKay presents Welles as a charlatan, a conman and a genius. Welles was such a force to be reckoned with and in the film he is so charming that people often forget the ruthless way he could strategically dismiss, undermine, belittle or ignore people close to him. Welles’s almost duel personality is something that he himself is aware of, explaining that the reason he acts is because it is a “miraculous reprieve from being myself”.

Director Richard Linklater (A Scanner Darkly, The School of Rock, Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused) has arguably achieved a career best with Me and Orson Welles. It certainly contains none of the slightly contrived philosophising that sometimes creeps into his other films and is instead a celebration of the optimism of youth with a slightly bitter aftertaste. It also functions as a glorious tribute to the power of theatre, capturing the chaos, fear, adrenalin and passion that goes into putting on a show. There is a great sense of that classic “the show must go on” mentality that makes theatre so magical but it is also an indictment of how ruthless and compromised the entertainment industry can be. With its wonderful period details, strong performances and fascinating characters, Me and Orson Welles is an incredibly enjoyable film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – A Scanner Darkly (2006)

5 December 2006

Most adaptations of novels or short stories by cult science fiction writer Philip K Dick (Paycheck, Minority Report, Total Recall) use his imaginative scenarios for action sequences but sideline his extraordinary philosophical musings. With A Scanner Darkly director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, The School of Rock) has directly adapted Dick’s novel from page to screen.

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