Films I loved in March 2017

1 April 2017
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Hugh Jackman as Logan in Logan

Despite enjoying the original 2000 X-Men film and its 2003 sequel, I’ve been mostly indifferent to the franchise and its increasingly complicated mythology. So I was pleased to discover that Logan was more-or-less a standalone film that only required a general knowledge of Logan aka Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) backstory. I was then exhilarated to discover that the bleak tone and strong violence allowed for some of the most captivating action sequences I have even seen in a superhero film, but most of all I was won over by the strong characterisation and tonal seriousness that made it the first superhero film to truly stand out from the pack since Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. And while Logan is overt with its western iconography and even directly references Shane, the film the kept on coming to my mind was Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven, which like Logan is a beautiful, bitter and brutal swansong to an onscreen persona.

Clash

Clash

Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab uses a number of cinematic devices in Clash that I often respond well to, including setting the film over a limited period of time and bringing together a diverse group of characters who are then stuck together in single location. Taking place from one afternoon until early morning during the 2013 Egyptian riots, the entire film is set in the back of a police van that is filling up with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and opposing pro-military supporters. While a lot of the film is about the tension within the van between the characters, it also captures the growing instability outside that is witnessed through the van’s barred windows. It’s a sad and angry film about what has happened to the filmmaker’s country, but there are also brief moments of calm and humanity that transcend the divides.

Salesman

Taraneh Alidoosti as Rana in The Salesman

The Salesman once again demonstrates Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s mastery of layered cinematic drama. Various ethical questions are explored as actor/teacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini) becomes increasingly fixated in discovering the truth about what happened to his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) during a traumatic event that occurs early in the film. And as the audience – and Emad – constantly second-guess what took place, we also constantly shift position on how to best respond. Farhadi is able to generate enormous sympathy for his characters, while also being extremely critical of some of their actions. Farhadi’s ability to explore issues of morality within the framework of an engaging dramatic mystery makes him not just an immensely talented filmmaker, but also a deeply humane one.

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Scarlett Johansson as Major in Ghost in the Shell

Based on my limited knowledge of the Japanese manga series Ghost in the Shell (I’ve only previously seen director Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 and 2004 animated films) this new live-action USA variation by director Rupert Sanders is far more focused on using the franchise’s cyberpunk scenario to deliver spectacle rather than explore philosophical questions. Taken then on its own terms, this 2017 film is an exhilarating, beautiful and inventive science-fiction/action film that favourably evokes classics of the genre such as Blade RunnerRoboCop and The Matrix. For once the artificiality of the CGI setting and the uncanny quality of many of the characters works strongly in the film’s favour, but mostly this film continues to showcase Scarlett Johansson as one of the greatest action actors currently working in film.

A Man Called Ove

Rolf Lassgård as Ove in A Man Called Ove

The Swedish film A Man Called Ove is unashamedly a crowd pleaser, but with enough restraint and sincerity to prevent it from ever becoming saccharine or melodramatic. The concept of a grumpy rule-obsessed elderly man who begins to rediscover his humanity is hardly breaking new ground, but the combination of dark humour, and the strong performances by the protagonist and supporting cast, lifts it several notches above similar films. This sad, funny and entertaining film about coping with grief and finding empathy for others is ultimately very sweet.

Angela Davis

Angela Davis in 13th

And finally, while Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th has been available on Netflix for a while now, I only caught up with it this month and I’m extremely glad I did. While specifically examining how mass incarcerations in the USA is a modern manifestation of slavery, it more generally is a history of racism in America. What really struck me is how convincing DuVernay presents evidence to reveal that racism against African-Americans has long been a political and economic construct, which has relied on popular culture to create and reenforce hateful and harmful stereotypes. Often confronting, but always with integrity, this is essential viewing.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017