Films I loved in October 2015

31 October 2015
The Lobster

Colin Farrell as David and Rachel Weisz as Short Sighted Woman in The Lobster

The social satire The Lobster, by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, is an absurd and droll film that is specifically about the way we define ourselves according to our relationship status, but more broadly about the ridiculousness of any form of tribalism or absolutes. It mocks both the imposition of established social norms and the imposition of rules resulting from reactionary rebellion. It is violent, depressing and cruel, and the funniest film I’ve seen this year.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Similarly melancholic, absurd and darkly funny is A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the final film in the loosely defined ‘Living Trilogy’ by Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. A series of bleak and dead-pan scenes that are immaculately composed visually, there is still something strangely humane in this film even when it contains confronting imagery. The message I took home is that life is short, painful, depressing and thinking about atrocities done in our name can be unbearable, but in between all the terrible and banal bits, there are moments of joy and there are plenty of moments of humour.

Kate Winslet as Myrtle 'Tilly' Dunnage in The Dressmaker

Kate Winslet as Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage in The Dressmaker

The film adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s novel The Dressmaker continually shifts between being a grotesque and camp comedy about small Australian towns, and being a dark insight into the hypocrisy and double standards of a small community where judgement is passed on the undeserving while perpetrators of abuse and oppression get away with their cruelty. Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse handles the dramatic tonal shifts magnificently, resulting in a film that combines stylistic flairs from gothic romances and westerns, and a brilliant homage to the iconic ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ scene from Gilda.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian

It wasn’t all dark, cynical, existential social critiques this month, as October saw the release of two excellent Hollywood crowd-pleasers by established directors doing was I felt was their best film in years. Ridley Scott’s faithful adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian maintains the Arthur C Clarke-inspired combination of hard science with a probable futuristic story and likeable human characters. The resulting science-fiction/survival film not only privileges and promotes intelligence, ingenuity and knowledge as heroic character traits, but is a celebration of human resilience and resourcefulness.

Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as James B Donovan in Bridge of Spies

Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as James B Donovan in Bridge of Spies

And the other big Hollywood film of note from October is Steven Spielberg’s inspired-by-a-true-story Cold War film Bridge of Spies, where the contribution Ethan Coen and Joel Coen made to the script is both noticeable and welcome. As well as beautifully recreating Berlin in 1957 as the Berlin Wall was constructed and being an effective spy thriller, this is a film that champions justice, diplomacy and mutual respect as the key factors for ensuring that what you are fighting for doesn’t become compromised.


In brief, I was very impressed by the Australian documentary Putuparri and the Rainmakers, where the personal story of one Indigenous man’s struggles with his own demons is used as a launching point to tell a broader story about a compelling land title claim in the Kimberley’s Great Sandy Desert. And on a completely different note, I really enjoyed the independent American film Results, a sort of anti-romantic-comedy involving personal trainers that while undermining many of the conventions of the genre, was still sweet, charming and funny. All the performances are great, but Guy Pearce deserves a special mention for making his fitness guru character so endearing and adorably sincere.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Film review – Prometheus (2012)

3 June 2012

Prometheus

The titan Prometheus was forever punished for defying the gods and advancing the human race. It’s an appropriate name for both Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel and the ship within the film that is carrying a scientific team into the depths of space on a mission to find the race of alien beings known as the Engineers. The Engineers are believed to have created the human race so are also Promethean figures, and like the human characters trying to find them, the Engineers have acted in a way that subverts the natural order and are heavily punished for their sins.

The most frustrating thing about Prometheus is how close it comes to being a brilliant film. Part of the problem is it seems to be unsure to what extent it is completely removed from the original four Alien films (the Alien vs. Predator crossover films don’t count) and to what extent it is part of the mythology that Scott began in his original 1979 science-fiction/horror masterpiece. The idea is that Prometheus depicts the events that happened on the planetoid LV-426 before the crew of the Nostromo landed there and made their deadly discovery in Alien (it has since been pointed out to me in comments such as this one that this is incorrect). The film therefore takes place within the Alien universe, but without being an actual Alien film. The resulting tension between being a completely original story and giving enough nods to the other films means that it doesn’t quite work as either a stand-alone film or an Alien prequel.

Prometheus certainly begins differently to the Alien films with a sequence on the Engineers’ home planet that evokes the climatic journey to the alien planet in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with sweeping shots of landscapes that looks similar to that of Earth, but are also otherworldly. The sequence introduces the themes of creation and destruction with a close up of a DNA strand breaking down, before cutting to a brief scene on Earth, which is something that has never been done before in the franchise. Everything suggests that this is an origins story that contains the familiar themes of artificial and monstrous creation where nature is made nightmarish. Through the horrific idea of the parasitic alien creatures being violently born from with the chest of humans, the uncanny androids and the theme of the corporate and military interest in using the creatures for biological warfare, the original films explored a range of anxieties about motherhood and birth. Prometheus continues these themes, but adds the new idea that with the discovery of the Engineers, humans also now have a creator, making them not unlike the androids they have created. Not only is motherhood and nature being challenged in Prometheus, but this time God is also undermined.

Prometheus very quickly then moves into the mode of Alien and while it is not a borderline remake, as with the case of The Thing prequel, it still adopts a very similar narrative structure.  By doing so, its deviations from that structure stand out. Part of what makes the first four films so compelling is that they are about a close knit group of people, whether it be the crews of ships in Alien and Alien Resurrection, the marines in Aliens or the prisoners in Alien 3. In Prometheus the characters are travelling together and on the same mission, but they are all detached from each other to only ever substantially interact in groups of twos or threes. When one of the leading characters, archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), goes through an extremely traumatic experience – in a wonderfully grotesque and disturbing play on the destructive motherhood theme – she does it alone and it barely gets a mention. There are great individual characters such as Weyland Corporation employee Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the ships enigmatic android David (Michael Fassbender) and the ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba), but there is too little interaction between them. Without the close-knit dynamic between the characters, what happens to them is of little consequence as far as audience sympathies are concerned.

Impressively Prometheus does incorporate the design of Alien and Aliens, although some of the technology seems more advanced than the films it is supposedly set before. Minor quibbles aside, it is great to see the same military hardware, vehicles and video transmitter displays from Aliens and the spacecraft and space suit designs from Alien. Most impressive is the use of HR Giger’s original designs for the Engineers and their technology, which visually link Prometheus to Alien in a way that is difficult for admirers of the original films not to be excited by. And while the score for Prometheus is overall unremarkable, the moments where it repeats some of the signature cues from Jerry Goldsmith’s original score do send a shiver down the spine.

Prometheus is a visual triumph and if nothing else it deserves credit for the moments when it does evoke the early scenes in Alien with the same degree of sinister wonder. However, there’s never the same sense of dread or excitement as the previous films and it does strange things like use a ridiculously made-up Guy Pearce to play an elderly man rather than simply cast an elderly man. Most perplexing is how close it comes to tying into Alien to then completely disregard a key detail at the very end. In fact, Prometheus would have benefited from removing one of its final scenes so that the audience could fill in the gaps themselves to make the films correlate rather than be presented with a scene that flatly denies correlation. For what it is Prometheus is a lot better than it could have been, but it also displays so much missed potential.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Robin Hood (2010)

12 May 2010
Robin Hood: Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe)

Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe)

Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is something of an origins film designed to give a credible back-story to the mythical hero who lived sometime in 13th century England, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. In this new film Robin Longstride (as he is known in this film) is introduced as a solider from King Richard The Lionheart’s army. Robin’s disgust at what happened during the Crusades has compelled him to abandon the subsequent war against France and return home. On his way back he is compelled to fulfil the wish of a dying knight and becomes tangled up in both the affairs of the over-taxed city of Nottingham and the bigger threats to England from within and without.

Scott makes two bold moves by actually ending his film at the point that most Robin Hood films focus on  – Robin and his followers creating a secret community in the woods – and deliberately avoiding anything this seems too outlandishly mythical, in order to give the story some sense of (invented) historical integrity. Remember how tedious it was to discover that Troy contained none of the supernatural elements that made the original Greek myths so captivating? That is close to how it feels watching a version of Robin Hood that has decided to remove all the aspects of the story that made it so entertaining in the first place.

Robin Hood: Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett)

Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett)

With both the director of Gladiator and its star Russell Crowe on board (working together for the fifth time) you may expect Robin Hood to be a film that at least, like Gladiator, consists of a series of impressive action sequences interspersed with overly earnest and clunky dialogue. Instead, despite a strong opening, Robin Hood is mainly just overly earnest and clunky dialogue with far too much unnecessarily convoluted plot detail.

Crowe never endears his version of Robin to the audience. It certainly doesn’t help that instead of making Robin a loveable rogue he is reduced to a pompous Braveheart-type warrior-of-the-people character. The final nail of the coffin is the unintentional parody of the ‘hero shot’ where Crowe emerges from the ocean screaming in slow motion. Cate Blanchett seems on autopilot as the supposedly tough and independent Marion Loxley and even the presence of Max von Sydow, William Hurt and Danny Huston does little to redeem the film.

Robin Hood: Prince John (Oscar Isaac)

Prince John (Oscar Isaac)

The film has three villains and none of them are particularly interesting. Prince John is played by Oscar Isaac, who was sensational in Balibo but in this film just seems to repeat Joaquin Phoenix’s over-the-top villainous acting from Gladiator. Mark Strong does a little better as the treacherous Godfrey, the film’s main villain, but Matthew Macfadyen gets almost nothing to do as the Sheriff of Nottingham who in this film is relegated to an almost insignificant role.

Robin Hood is a bland film and by trying to appear so respectable it has lost most of the charm of the original folklore. The handful of ye olde mead drinking scenes, complete with lusty wenches and rowdy ballads, are embarrassing and even the cinematography and climatic battle sequence (when it finally arrives) feel flat and lifeless. Ridley Scott can’t always be expected to make films of the calibre of Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise but Robin Hood is one of his biggest disappointments yet.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – American Gangster (2007)

29 January 2008

Despite its grandiose title and being based on a true story, American Gangster is not the definitive American gangster film. Only half the film concerns the gangster element, although it is the classic rise to power story through boldness, cunning and strategic brutality. The other half of the film is the archetypal story of an increasingly shunned cop who overcomes the odds to dispense justice.  This aspect of American Gangster, plus its 70s New York and New Jersey urban settings, make it evoke The French Connection and Serpico more than The Godfather or Goodfellas.

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