Films I loved in November 2015

2 December 2015
The Assassin

Shu Qi as Nie Yinniang in The Assassin

It becomes clear very early in The Assassin that Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is more interested in mood and impression than traditional narrative storytelling. Following the actions of an elite assassin in 9th century China during a period of political turmoil, Hou’s film is a sensory experience placing greater emphasis on moments of stillness rather than the brief snippets of superbly choreographed action. Audiences willing to embrace Hou’s austere visuals and meticulous style will be overcome by the beauty and harmony of this film.

The Look of Silence

Adi Rukun and his mother in The Look of Silence

In many ways Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence is superior to the surreal and confronting The Act of Killing, his previous documentary about the 1965-66 Indonesian killings. This personal focus on Adi Rukun, as he confronts some of the people directly responsible for the brutal death of his brother, allows many moments of quietness and stillness where what is unspoken carries just as much repressed pain, guilt and grief as what is spoken.

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Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

The excellent Hunger Games film series comes to an end with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, a film that builds on the previous instalments’ critique of violent spectacle, reality television, propaganda and celebrity culture as products of authoritarianism, to also explore how violent resistance is capable of becoming as barbaric as what it seeks to overthrow. The result is a film that is not only immensely exciting and entertaining, but contains complex observations on the nature of violent conflict, far more so than most films made for adult audiences.

Spectre

Daniel Craig as James Bond in Spectre

Speaking of which, I tend not to think much of the Bond films so to my surprise I really enjoyed Spectre. I suspect it is because it addresses many of the issues I have with the franchise by exploring the idea that Bond is little more than a robotic assassin/hedonist who has become obsolete. I enjoyed the surveillance themes, the inclusion of a love interest who is a relatively developed character rather than a conquest, and the presence of so many genuinely exciting action sequences. This is a film that is actually about something and for the first time since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969 seems to develop, or even evolve, Bond as a character.


This month I also enjoyed the cinematic impressionism of Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, a film that once again explores Malick’s preoccupation in the ongoing philosophical struggle between the way of nature and the way of Grace, as explored most successfully in his 2011 film The Tree of Life. I was also extremely impressed with the tense drama 99 Homes, where its tale of an opportunistic real estate operator taking advantage of the US housing market collapse allows it to successfully function as Wall Street for the contemporary era. And finally, I was very pleased to see the New Zealand horror comedy Deathgasm released on home entertainment as I had a ball seeing this love letter to heavy metal and schlock horror earlier this year at a late night festival screening.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Film review – Skyfall (2012)

18 November 2012
Skyfall: James Bond (Daniel Craig)

James Bond (Daniel Craig)

The James Bond films inspire passion, with every new film generating debate about what a Bond film is supposed to be and how much the new film compares to the rest. At the most prosaic end of the discussion is mulling over the degree to which the various characteristics of a Bond film (gun barrel POV shot, shaken martini, etc) are present. Slightly more interesting is the discussion about whether the films should be gritty spy thrillers or camp international romps with lots of gadgets. Most interestingly is how the films have evolved to reflect contemporary values. The narrative and style of the Bond films have to varying degrees always encapsulated both Cold War paranoias and rampant post World War II economic growth. While a distinctively English character, the values that Bond perpetuates translate very directly to an American audience, and throughout the 50 years of Bond films the celebration of English national pride has often veered from sincere to gentle parody.

So what is to be said about Skyfall, the 23rd film in the official franchise and the third staring Daniel Craig as Bond? Does it contain all the traditional motifs? Pretty much. Is it gritty or camp? Somewhere in between. How does it reflect contemporary values? Confusingly. And of course, the final question – is it entertaining? It gets there eventually.

Skyfall is a throw back to the easier going and less serious style of Bond films that seem to occur whenever a new leading actor has settled into the role. Craig’s first film Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006) delivered a gritty reboot of the Bond character that grounded the narrative and gave the character far more of an ambiguous edge, hinting that somebody so cool, suave and often indifferent to human life was probably borderline psychotic. Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008) was a direct sequel but squandered the potential for the character established in Casino Royale with its convoluted script and poorly directed and edited action sequences. Skyfall is better directed than Quantum of Solace, but it declares its disinterest in maintaining the series’ edgier potential in the opening sequences that are over-the-top and unbelievable, although not in a way that is outrageous enough to be truly exciting. Instead, it’s proudly an old-fashioned ‘silly Bond’.

The style, characterisation and narrative (which is about Bond attempting to recover a stolen hard disc containing the identities of undercover NATO agents) are not just nostalgic references to earlier Bond films, but the values are also old-fashioned. Regressive attitudes towards women, ‘exotic’ cultures and sexuality are alive and well in Skyfall. The main villain Raoul Silva is explicitly portrayed as aggressively bi-sexual with actor Javier Bardem in the role delivering a hilariously exaggerated performance. Bardem is admittedly a lot of fun and recalls the over-the-top villains of many previous Bond films, but he is overtly associated with sexual otherness as villainous, which is disappointing. A sequence set in Macau revels in colonialist images of Oriental Mysticism, including a scene involving characters doing battle in a pit containing a giant komodo dragon that feels more like something from Return of the Jedi  (Richard Marquand, 1983).

Then there is the issue of the ‘Bond girls’. The problem is not with Bond bedding women or even his attitude towards them, it’s how the film glamourises his attitude towards them and often robs them of their agency. Not to mention Bond displaying more emotion at the destruction of a car than the unfortunate fate of one of the women. The otherwise strong and impressive character Eve (Naomie Harris) is portrayed as a fellow MI6 field agent who is able to hold her own when necessary. On the other hand, during the opening scene Bond takes the wheel of the car off her during a car chase at a pivotal moment to remind audiences that a female character working with Bond can only be a character of action up to a point. Most disappointingly is later when she presents herself to Bond as being sent to assist him, with dialogue loaded with the implication that this includes sexual favours. Whether MI6 is actually pimping Eve to Bond or she pretends they are to appeal to Bond’s sensibilities, it is still creepy considering the film’s decision to portray this as romantic instead of exploring how such a sexual power play is indicative of Bond’s psychopathy and the mercenary nature of the counterintelligence organisation that both exploits and nurtures his condition for their own ends.

Creepier still is a scene where Bond sneaks into the shower with another woman. An earlier scene establishes that she wants Bond to come by later with the suggestion of sex, but the dialogue where she says it’s totally fine for him to break into her cabin, surprise her while naked and then have his way with her somehow got left out of the final film. That the film so successfully portrays this moment as an act of sensual and forbidden passion is disturbing, but at least serves as an example of how successfully the Bond films have packaged sexual objectification as fun glamour. Fans of the series may howl that critiquing such moments is missing the point of Bond, since questionable seductions are part of the Bond tradition. If this is the case though we have to wonder why the franchise is worth preserving or celebrating if it is so incapable of moving beyond such out-dated traditions.

On a spectacle level, the film struggles to deliver for at least the first two thirds of its running time. The action is not convincing enough to be gripping and not outlandish enough to be entertaining. There is a beautifully choreographed fight sequence done mostly in silhouette against projected images, but it’s over too soon to lift the energy of the film at that point. The self-aware dialogue, references to previous films and the inner conversation the film has with itself about what style of Bond film it wants to be, gets tired. However, just when the film looks like it is about to wrap itself up with a decent shoot out involving most of the principle cast, Skyfall changes direction to suddenly become a captivating film.

The final third of Skyfall is when director Sam Mendes seems to finally make the film his own. The scenes set in Scotland are exciting and have a distinctive look, with shots of the vast Scottish moors evoking many of the scenes of the burning oil fields in Mendes’s Jarhead (2005). It is surprisingly around this point at which Skyfall fully embraces the gadget-filled Bond films of the past that it also shakes off the regressive values and formulaic narrative structure. The individualism of Bond fades as the film becomes more focused on how much Bond needs the help of others to survive. The conventional good-guy-versus-bad-guy narrative vanishes as Bond, Silva and M (Judi Dench) become a symbolic family unit, reunited with an absent father/husband figure. In the final moments of Skyfall the film explores symbolic mother/son and sibling relationships, giving the action purpose and emotional engagement.

Skyfall is inconsistent, displaying Bond at its blandest and Bond at its best. For the most part it is a disappointing throwback to the type of run-of-the-mill Bond films that Casino Royale did so well to distance itself from. However, Skyfall is significantly redeemed when it plunges deep into Bond’s backstory and symbolically obliterates his past. If the mediocre bulk of the film was one last hurrah for fans of a previous era, then the exciting sense of rebirth that is promised by the end of the film makes Skyfall a welcomed addition to a franchise that may still have potential and relevance after all.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Away We Go (2009)

11 December 2009

Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) and Burt Farlander (John Krasinski)

The degree to which you will be able to enjoy Away We Go will greatly depend on how much you can identify with, or at least sympathetically recognise, the type of people that the two lead characters are. Burt Farlander and Verona De Tessant are a de facto couple in their early-30s who are three months away from the birth of their first child. They are part of the demographic of thirtysomethings who are very much aware that they’ve arrived at a point in life where they are yet to have achieved anything of material worth and their future is far from certain. Living a lifestyle that is situated somewhere between bohemia and lower middle-class, the onset of parenthood is of some concern. When Burt’s parents decide to move to Belgium, which is ironically viewed by Burt and Verona as selfish, the pair realise that their support base has gone and they need to figure out what part of North America they should live in to best suit their impending arrival.

Away We Go is structurally similar (but tonally very different) to recent Jim Jarmusch films such as Broken Flowers and The Limits of Control since it is an episodic road movie made up of vignettes.  The various friends and family that Burt and Verona meet up with represent a broad range of social groups and attitudes towards family. Some of the encounters edge into grotesque caricature territory while others are more genuine and sincere. However, all modes work as the sincere moments are touching and the caricature moments are appropriately designed to target people who are frankly worthy of ridicule. In particular, Maggie Gyllenhaal is wonderfully despicable as Burt’s wealthy childhood friend LN who lives the sort of privileged self-righteous faux-hippy lifestyle that only the rich can afford to live.

John Krasinski (Leatherheads, the USA version of The Office) and Saturday Night Live regular Maya Rudolph are perfectly cast as Burt and Verona. They have the chemistry of long term lovers whose relationship is past the early days of wild romance and is now built upon respect, mutual admiration and a deep trust in the way they feel for each other. Written by an actual husband and wife team (Dave Eggers, who also co-wrote Where the Wild Things Are, and novelist Vendela Vida), Away We Go successfully explores the dynamics of a normal and stable relationship. Burt and Verona are portrayed as very much in love and their acknowledged and shared uncertainty plays a significant part in what keeps them together. Despite his reputation as a visually stylish director, Sam Mendes has taken a very low-key approach to Away We Go and by doing so has made his best film since American Beauty.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – Revolutionary Road (2008)

22 January 2009
Revolutionary Road

Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet)

The key line of dialogue in Revolutionary Road, the new film by director Sam Mendes, is spoken by John Givings, a mentally ill mathematician who features in two keys scenes from the film. When John first meets Frank and April Wheeler and identifies their desire to escape from suburbanite conformity he remarks, “Plenty of people are onto the emptiness but it takes real guts to notice the hopelessness”. This line comes during the first part of this film about 1950s middle class American life. The Wheelers are a young couple who have decided to ditch their dull and bland lives to move to Paris in order to escape from their self imposed comfort zone. The idea is that April Wheeler will work instead of playing the part of reluctant homemaker and Frank Wheeler will attempt to discover what it is he really wants to do in life, rather than waste away in a meaningless office job. However, as their plan to escape to a new life is set in motion fears, anxieties and the trappings of their secure routine lifestyle begin to threaten that plan.

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