Films I loved in July 2017

2 August 2017
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The Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) and Lewis MacDougall as Conor O’Malley in A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls once more confirms my suspicion that films aimed at children and young adults often deal with difficult subject matter with far more sophistication and sensitivity than films designed for adult audiences. What makes A Monster Calls so compelling and moving isn’t the mystery of what will happen to 12-year-old Conor and his seriously ill mother, but the unknown nature of the monster that has started to appear before Conor. Is it there to help, guide, cure, punish, torment or nurture? This ambiguity allows the film to explore not just grief and associated emotions such as anger and fear, but even more complex ideas about what it means to a human with all the contradictions that come with it.

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Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk

Dunkirk is a expertly orchestrated spectacle that showcases Christopher Nolan’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker, particularly his use of sound. Cutting between three stories that unfold across different periods of time, Nolan delivers an almost impressionist snapshot of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation of Allied soldiers during World War II. By only delivering snapshots of a small handful of characters caught up in events, and portraying a series of tension moments rather than a more conventional narrative, Dunkirk is an explicitly sensory film. It conveys feelings of bewilderment, disorientation, dread, fear, panic and despair, but it is ultimately a triumphant and exhilarating experience that celebrates what human beings are capable of even in the most desperate situations.

Ansel Elgort

Ansel Elgort as Baby in Baby Driver

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is cinematic pastiche at its best. It’s a fun and funny homage to heist and action films – specifically films from the 1970s, and even more specifically films featuring car chases – and yet it’s edited to and choreographed to an eclectic selection of songs that getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) listens to, as if the film were a musical. I cannot recall seeing another film that conveys the act of walking down the street with headphones on with the excitement of a full dance number. The combination of a pulpy crime plot with a sweet romance sub-plot along with beautifully orchestrated action and a killer soundtrack, won me over completely.

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Zucchini, voiced by Gaspard Schlatter (French version) and Erick Abbate (English version), in My Life as a Zucchini

My Life as a Zucchini is a warm and moving tale that deceptively resembles a kids’ film in production design and style, but explores difficult themes with nuance through well-developed and complex characters. I’ve now seen both the original French-language version and the English-language dub and while I probably prefer the original version, casting Nick Offerman as the voice of the kind police man who looks out of the film’s troubled 9-year-old protagonist, is inspired.

Photographer select; Tom Holland

Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming is my favourite cinematic outing for the likeable teen superhero character, possibly because it’s more of a teen-film/superhero hybrid. Combining Peter Parker’s awkward attempts to navigate high school and first love, with his over-eagerness to develop his superhero abilities as Spider-Man, allows for lots of fun teen angst and coming-of-age moments, punctuated with some of the better action sequences from the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. Tom Holland is great as Parker/Spider-Man and Michael Keaton makes a terrific villain, playing a working-class man who is sick of being screwed over.

The Beguiled

Colin Farrell as Corporal John McBurney and Kirsten Dunst as Edwina Morrow in The Beguiled

The dreamlike spell of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled owes a lot to its mist-filled, over-grown-garden, swampy Virginian setting during the American Civil War, where the sunlight is constantly fighting to penetrate the overgrowth and darkness. The strange and disturbing tale of repressed sexuality and violence is more muted, less sensationalised and less seedy than Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of the same source material, and for that reason many will prefer Siegel’s version, but I like Coppola’s more. Siegel’s film contains plenty of aspect I like and in same cases prefer, but I feel there’s more mystery and richer characterisation in Coppola’s film.

It Comes At Night

Joel Edgerton as Paul in It Comes at Night

It Come at Night is a film with all the tropes of a zombie apocalypse horror film, but plays out as a psychological thriller crossed with an indie family drama. It’s utterly gripping and suspenseful throughout, and the acting is superb, and yet it wilfully defies easy categorisation and easy explanation. Is it an exercise in using as much ambiguity as possible to deliver as much tension as possible, or it is a clever subversion of audience expectations, which allows it to provide a grim commentary on the nature of paranoia? Either way, it’s a film I keep thinking about it.

A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story is a small film with grand themes that feels both highly ambitious and very humble. And to be honest, I was not on board for a while, but once it clicked into place for me, I feel under its spell. The image of a man’s ghost being visualised as an actor wearing a bed sheet with cutout eyes, is on screen for so long that it moves past looking twee or ridiculous, to become oddly moving as the droopy eye holes increasingly suggest a profound melancholia. Moving forward and back in time, meditating on the meaning of life (including a superb scene featuring Will Oldham as an insufferable party guest on a nihilist rant), and at its core being a story about love and loss; it somehow all works, making this a thoughtful and graceful piece of cinema.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017
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Film review – Somewhere (2010)

27 December 2010
Somewhere: Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and Cleo (Elle Fanning)

Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and Cleo (Elle Fanning)

Sofia Coppola once more explores the alienating and empty life of celebrity through Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), an emotionally detached Hollywood heartthrob. The only burst of radiant sunlight in his literally overcast world comes from spending time with his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning).

After the extravagant visual beauty of Marie Antoinette, Coppola has gone in the opposite direction to make Somewhere an incredibly lo-fi and minimal piece that evokes the independent spirit of New Hollywood and early 1990s America indi films. However, the ‘indi film’ aesthetic to Somewhere at times feels disappointingly more calculated than sincere. The stretch of film set during a press junket in Italy retreads over a lot of the same ground as Lost in Translation did and the symbolic act at the end of the film borders on being trite.

There’s still a lot to admire about Somewhere and the bond between Johnny and Cleo is incredibly sweet and no doubt used by Coppola in part to reflect on her own childhood relationship with her famous filmmaker father. This is Coppola’s least fulfilling film but key moments nevertheless linger in the mind long after the credits.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 369, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Spectacle is not the problem; mediocrity is

21 December 2010

This paper was originally delivered as part of The age of the spectacle: developing critical thinking in a time of eye candy panel at the VATE Jubilee Conference on Tuesday 7 December 2010

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895)

In 1895, French cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière screened the first film they ever made. It was a 46 second long, continuous shot that was taken from a single fixed position. The film was called Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon). The image of the workers filing out of a factory was not so much what was of interest in the film but it was the technology itself that enthralled audiences. They were seeing something they had never seen before – moving photographs. Other early filmmakers then went further to explore the potential that cinema had in order to create optical illusions and primitive special effects that were designed simply to mesmerise the audience. Cinema began as a form of spectacle.

While cinematic storytelling techniques were developed almost immediately, the idea that the visual component of cinema would be regarded as subservient to a story did not really occur until the 1910s when the classical Hollywood era of cinema began. This era, which lasted until the 1960s, defined the cause-effect narrative structure that we are now accustomed to, which includes making sure that the means in which cinema is constructed is kept hidden from the viewer.

A Trip to the Moon

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

However, one thing that has remained true throughout the history of cinema is that it has always primarily been a visual art form and therefore what some may call eye-candy is in fact the essence of cinema.  And just like the audiences watching the people exit the factory in 1895, we are still fascinated with what technology can do and we want to be dazzled by something we haven’t seen before. Hence, the type of spectacle that cinema delivers has constantly changed to include sound, colour, panoramic screens to compete with the advent of television, special effects and today we have IMAX screens, new 3D technology, computer generated images and digital effects that continue to push the boundary of what can be achieved on screen.

So we aren’t living in an age of spectacle because spectacle has always been a part of cinema.

In terms of how we relate to popular culture now, I do not believe that spectacle is the problem. Instead, mediocrity is the problem and mediocrity intrudes upon all forms of cinema. A loud, noisy, big budget special-effects driven action extravaganza may draw more attention to itself when it succumbs to mediocrity but this doesn’t mean that all spectacle films are bad and it doesn’t mean that it is not a problem other films face. As an exercise, try to think of how many comedies, romances, dramas, thrillers or family films that you’ve seen over the past decade that were worth your time and money as opposed to how many were completely disposable. Genuinely good films are in the minority, however, that’s nothing particularly new or revelatory.

The first major crisis of mediocrity in film history (in terms of the dominant Hollywood cinema anyway) was during the 1950s and early 1960s after the old studio system was dismantled. The industry fell into the hands of business people who only saw film as a commodity and much of what was produced in that era were second rate attempts to capitalise on earlier successes. However, the New Hollywood era of the late 1960s and 1970s turned this trend around when a bunch of film literate filmmakers who were heavily influenced by European cinema were given a shot to make something different, since nothing else seemed to be working. Coinciding with the growing counter culture revolution the New Hollywood era is still arguably the finest point in American film history and it also resulted in an audience of cinemagoers who were hungry for intelligent and artistic films that they could engage with.

Top Gun

Top Gun (1986)

Unfortunately it’s been downhill from the 1980s onwards as Hollywood has become increasingly about producing films that adhere to specific formulas in order to be most effectively sold. There was a slight peak in the 1990s of independent American filmmaking and Hollywood films taking an independent sensibility but most of that ended after 9/11 terrified everybody into bunkering down to make safe, crowd-pleasing, unambitious distractions that toe the line and not dare be subversive. We’re still in the wake of that era and it hasn’t helped cinema that so many good writers have moved into television.

So where does that leave contemporary cinema? With all the good stuff that’s happening on made-for-cable television is cinema now just a refuge for brain-numbing banality? Not quite. There are still extraordinary films being made and screened but they do run the risk of drowning in the tidal wave of mass-marketed junk. Furthermore, there are plenty of formulaic crowd-pleasing films that are actually extremely good and commendable for doing something original and interesting within the confines of their generic trappings. And some of these films are films that we’d all identify as spectacle films. The trick is to become visually literate and culturally savvy enough to identify the spectacle films with merit and the ones that offer a vacuous and empty experience.

Part of the problem is that film is increasingly being taught in the context of it being an English or Literature text rather than being aligned with things like Art History and Fine Arts, like it is in many universities although that is changing too. So when you approach a visual art form as a purely narrative text you do run the risk of missing what it actually is that defines the film and that’s the elements of film style that in their most basic form can be summarised as the four areas of sound, cinematography, editing and mise-en-scène. Mise-en-scène, which is what we actually see in the film, can be further broken down into setting, costumes, lighting and acting-style. These elements of film style can exist without the film containing any substance and that’s when we get mediocre films, but these elements usually are vital in telling the story and sometimes they are the story.

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette (2006)

So, telling the difference between films that are style without substance and films where the style is the substance is crucial. For example, Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette) creates mood pieces with little narrative drive but the essence of her films comes with the way she constructs each scene and presents the world to us. The recent film The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010) was criticised by some for being an average film because once we strip away the beautifully constructed visuals you are left with a generic hit man film. But the point is you are not meant to strip away the visual elements to then reduce a film to just one aspect of its identity and in the case of The American the use of cinematic space, the setting and the references to 1960s and 1970s European cinema were designed to create a complex mood piece that functioned as a metaphor for the way America situates itself in the world.

Finally, to look at two films from 2009 that are easily identifiable as spectacle films, we can see the difference between something that appeals to audiences craving unchallenging mediocrity and something that is trying to show us something different. The example of mediocrity is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, by director Michael Bay. This is a film that aims to do little more than distract us with explosions and cleavage. Being a spectacle film without a tangible story is not a crime itself, as that is how cinema began and continues to thrive in many art house and experimental movements. The problem with Transformers is that the spectacle is rubbish – it creates the pretence of excitement by distracting the audience with a constant bombardment of sound and motion, and most significantly, through the incredibly rapid editing (a trademark of Bay’s) that prevents the audience from ever latching on to anything that is happening. Transformers is an action film where it is impossible to follow the action. However, you are made to feel that you should be excited because the music swells and the editing quickens to inform you so.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Not that rapid editing is the enemy but using it to distract from the otherwise emptiness of a film results in mediocrity. It also doesn’t help that the Transformers films continue a prevalent conservative trend in Hollywood of ridiculing intellectuals and government workers at the expense of the military who are seen as the real thinkers and noble characters of the film. Transformers is also extremely guilty of continuing the tradition of pornographically portraying its female characters as items of desire that always require rescuing.

Finally, we come to a film that is markedly different from Transformers and yet it is all too easily dismissed as junk cinema simply because it is spectacle. That film is James Cameron’s Avatar, a film that not only set the benchmark for 3D technology (in the sense that it is the only 3D film to date to feel fleshed out and not just a gimmick) but it created an all immersive world that allowed Cameron to give a modern spin to a group of archetypal characters and to recycle familiar narrative traits in order to tell a modern story based on contemporary concerns and attitudes.

One of the most extraordinary things about Avatar is its incredible technological accomplishment in using 3D and digital technology to create such a vibrant world. The textures, depth of field and seamless blend of digital imagery with human actors was truly remarkable. And yet, this was somehow viewed as a bad thing as if such a visually accomplished film was somehow an inferior product. One commenter on my blog declared it to be a terrible film but then stated, ‘Yes, the special effects were wondrous and magical’.

This taps into the automatic bias that many people still have against the visual element of cinema. Furthermore, it taps into the belief that some aspects of cinema are praise worthy while others are not. For example, many critics seem happy to praise other isolated aspects of a film – like the acting, or writing, or maybe cinematography – but creating special effects is still frequently seen as somehow a lesser art form. A film is the sum of all its parts and learning to appreciate all these aspects is crucial for effective analysis.

Avatar

Avatar (2009)

But, what of the story at the heart of Avatar, which even I’ll admit is little more than Pocahontas in Space. The story is a simple one but I don’t think it’s fair to assume that it’s therefore a stupid one. It certainly isn’t any more simplistic that the much-loved original Star Wars films. At it’s worst Avatar is a white-man-leads-the-natives-and-saves-the-day film, however, at its best it is an archetypal hero’s quest story were the villains are a militarised corporation who feel that destroying an indigenous culture and their environment is an acceptable action to take in order to pursue profits. The fact that some critics labelled it as therefore a left wing film just goes to show how deeply entrenched conservative values are in Hollywood. It’s a worry when being anti-genocide is regarded as being subversive.

So in conclusion, don’t worry about spectacle, worry about mediocrity. Cinema and popular culture are not the enemy but the influx of films and other cultural products that are designed to stupefy us are the enemy and they come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t be so quick to dismiss spectacle films as eye-candy as you may miss some of the most interesting, thoughtful, and well-crafted films that are out there.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Marie Antoinette (2006)

19 December 2006

Marie Antoinette is a period film with an indi/teen film sensibility. Having already proven herself on The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation as a director with talent to burn, Sofia Coppola has possibly set herself her biggest challenge yet. Marie Antoinette tells the story of France’s controversial last queen not as a weighty historical drama about the French Revolution, but as the story of a teenage girl with strong modern sensibilities. Audiences expecting scenes of suffering peasants, enraged revolutionaries and climatic beheadings are going to be sorely disappointed.

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