Films I loved in June 2016

30 June 2016

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.


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.


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.


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 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 – Lincoln (2012)

7 February 2013

Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis)

Collaborating for the second time after first working together on Munich (2005), director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner have made a decent film that nevertheless feels overly burdened by the responsibility of depicting historical detail. Set during the American Civil War in January 1865, Lincoln focuses on President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he attempts to abolish slavery in the USA by passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in the House of Representatives. Two major goals of the film seem to be to faithfully document a crucial moment in history through entertaining fictionalisation and to use Lincoln’s involvement as a way of shining some light on the type of person he was. Lincoln mostly feels like one of Spielberg’s straight-faced historical films with a couple of key moments reminding audiences just how good Spielberg is at coaxing an emotional response from the audience with cinematic spectacle.

For most of the film’s running time, Lincoln depicts the political machinations that went on during Lincoln’s push to bring slavery to an end. It is detailed, long and occasionally dry. The historical worthiness does relent during some scenes, especially when a group of Republican Party operatives led by William N Bilbo (James Spader) appear to deliver welcome levity to key scenes. The inner conflict experienced by the Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) when he must compromise his progressive beliefs about equality in order to get the anti-slavery amendment through, provides the film’s most interesting examination of moral and political complexity within the democratic process. While Day-Lewis is remarkably good as Lincoln, the scenes depicting his personal life with his wife First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) and son Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) simply do not resonate the way the scenes with Stevens do.

The moment where Lincoln really impresses is when Spielberg delivers the type of grand emotional pay-off sequence that is usually associated within his spectacle-driven blockbusters. The scenes where the House of Representatives vote to end slavery is filmed with suspenseful intensity that then gives way to immense relief and joy as the amendment is passed. The editing is short and clipped, and every shot seems to begin a few seconds after the action in the frame has begun to give the impression that progress is occurring so rapidly that not even the film itself can keep up. For any dull patch that may have come before, this exhilarating sequence does much to redeem the film. In terms of narrative structure, the previous Spielberg film that Lincoln ends up most resembling is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which while a more consistently entertaining film still provided a dramatic change in pace and style at the end to deliver a long feel-good sequence as a sort of reward to the audience for hanging in for that long. There is even a shot of Day-Lewis as Lincoln walking into the glowing light coming from the window – signalling the dawn of a new era – which is almost identical to one of the final shots from Close Encounters of the Third Kind of Richard Dreyfuss walking into the glow of the alien spaceship.

Ultimately Lincoln suffers in comparison to other films. Michael Apted’s 2006 historical biopic Amazing Grace, about William Wilberforce’s campaign to end the slave trade in the British Empire, far more effectively expressed the political mood of the era as well as exploring how Wilberforce’s private and public life affected each other. In Young Mr Lincoln (1939) director John Ford and actor Henry Fonda used a relatively minor episode in Lincoln’s life to demonstrate far more convincingly and compelling how his personal convictions about equality, justice and democracy influenced his actions.

As one of the most influential, popular, successful and important filmmakers of the past 40 years, Steven Spielberg has specialised in having audiences willingly submit to his masterful emotional manipulation. A swell of music with a slow zoom into a wide-eyed face, and suddenly Spielberg has you sharing the wonder, horror, delight or bewilderment of the character on screen. Moments like this exist in Lincoln and there are moments where Kushner’s witty dialogue shines through to remind us that the participants during this extraordinary period of social change where humans as well as historical figures from textbooks. However, for the most part Lincoln is not a significant inclusion into Spielberg’s filmography despite the noblest of intentions and undeniable cinematic craftsmanship.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

29 June 2012
Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford)

Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford)

During the period when the New Hollywood era was winding down while the modern blockbuster was being born, one of the greatest mainstream films of all time was made. The story of Indiana Jones, an adventurous archaeologist in 1936 searching for the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis find it, has lost none of the fun, wonder and excitement it had when first released in 1981. Director Steven Spielberg had already made his mark on cinema with films such as Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) while George Lucas, who conceived the story and was one of the film’s producers, had enjoyed success with films such as American Graffiti (1973) and the game-changing Star Wars (1977). Along with other key collaborators, Spielberg and Lucas made Raider of the Lost Ark into one of the most loved adventure films of all time, nostalgically recalling the adventure serials of the 1930s and 1940s that played before the main features in cinemas. Today Raider is a testament to the passion, respect, joy and knowledge that the filmmakers at the time had for cinema as an art form with the power to entertain on a mass scale.

While so much can be said about how entertaining Raiders is to experience once more on the big screen, what is notable about watching it again in 2012 is how progressive it is for an early 1980s boys-own adventure film. Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones is clearly masculine, but he doesn’t possess the hyper masculinity that would come to define many of the action films of the 1980s through characters played by actors such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Indiana is extremely resourceful and knows how to use his gun, whip and fists when required, but he’s not an indestructible superhuman either. He openly acknowledges his intense fear of snakes – to great comedic effect – and in the film’s opening sequence he states he is scared of the situation, compelling him to take extra precautions that then pay off. He can take a beating, but only to a point and the film is not afraid to show him knocked down. One of Ford’s greatest acting moments in the film is during his fistfight with a burley German on the airfield when Indiana gets punched and falls to the ground. He goes to get up to resume the fight, but can’t and the look of panic and bewilderment on his face betrays his realisation that his body is starting to fail. Moments such as this remind the audience that Indiana is human.

Like Ford’s other iconic character Han Solo from the original Star Wars trilogy, Indiana in also something of a rebel. He’s not an anti-hero, but he’s not clean cut either. He doesn’t play by any rules and has no problem abandoning notions of a ‘clean fight’ when he needs to. In most of the fight scenes Indiana uses dirty tricks to win, most famously in the scene where he shoots a swordsman challenging him to a duel. The stories about that moment being the result of on-set improvisation rather than scripting are now well known, but the important thing is how well the resulting moment captures Indiana’s worn out and no-nonsense attitude when it comes to fighting. He doesn’t care if he fights honourably or not; he just wants to get the job done without accumulating too much more mileage.

As the title of the film informs us, Indiana is a raider, or a plunderer, of rare and ancient objects. He doesn’t discriminate though – an ancient Peruvian treasure is just as worthy of his attentions as an Old Testament Christian artefact and he’s happy to remove both from their rightful resting places. His motivation is nobler than the Nazi villains, but he is still essentially grave robbing to satisfy an obsession with finding rare treasures of great archaeological significance. This leads to another important character trait that indicates why he is so likeable: he delivers the brain along with the brawn. He works as an archaeology lecture at a university to make ends meet while waiting for funding to come through for his next expedition, making him an underpaid and under-appreciated member of the education sector. He is not a tough guy sent on a mission, he’s not out for revenge, he’s not searching for his fortune and he’s not an Alpha Male thrill seeker; instead he is pursuing his intellectual curiosity, which back in 1981 could be portrayed as something that was appealing without cynicism. The fact that he was also a man of action makes Indiana Jones almost an anomaly in the action and adventure genres.

While Indiana may be seen as morally dubious in some regards, he is still the hero and that is best established by the presence of his ‘shadowy reflection’ in the form of rival archaeologist Dr René Belloq (Paul Freeman). Both Indiana and Belloq are raiders of ancient artefacts, except Belloq prefers to let Indiana do the work and then turns up afterwards to claim the prize. Both are pursuing the Ark of the Covenant on behalf of foreign powers and both would prefer to keep it for themselves, but Belloq is working for the Nazis and Indiana is working for the Allies, specifically the American government. Belloq wants the Ark to harness its power himself while Indiana wants it for its historical and cultural significance. Belloq seeks personal glory and power while Indiana wants to improve humanity’s understanding of the past. It’s individualism versus the common good.

Indiana may be yet another white, male hero – a character-type that is overrepresented in mainstream cinema to the point that it is often mistaken for the norm – but the film reflects a mostly enlightened attitude towards women and other ethnicities. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) may be the only female character in the film, but she is for the most part far from being a mere love interest or damsel in distress. Like she says to Indiana, ‘You’re gonna get more than you bargained for. I’m your goddamn partner!’ And indeed she is, at least in the first half of the film where she’s introduced literally drinking a man under the table, going on to shoot and punch the villains alongside Indiana, and even saving his life. Later in the film when she does require rescuing she remains tough, cunning and spirited. She’s assertive with Indiana to the point that their eventual love scene is preceded by her smashing him in the chin with a mirror and then getting impatient with him for complaining about how much it hurts when she dresses his wounds. The final punch line of the scene is that while she is ready to go, he falls asleep.

Similarly, despite having a character who steals cultural artefacts as the hero, Raiders is reasonably progressive towards other cultures. The Hovitos tribe at the start of the film are a threat to Indiana, but only because they have been unknowingly duped by Belloq. In the scenes set in Cairo it is established that a characteristic of the Nazis, whom Belloq is working with, is to shanghai the local population into working for them. The film therefore casts the villains as colonialist-type figures, who are the real threat to Indiana, not the local population working for them. After Indiana and Marion, the other major character in the film is Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) an Egyptian excavator. Sallah is privileged in the film for his knowledge, bravery, resourcefulness and kindness, and like Marion saves Indiana’s life. A smaller but significant role is Captain Katanga (George Harris) who also protects Indiana at a crucial moment. Raiders never goes out of its way to fly the flag of racial diversity, but in a film where the villains are a group notorious for their racial hatred it is notable that so many of the supporting cast that are portrayed as heroic are from a broad mix of ethnic backgrounds.

Curiously the follow up to Raiders was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), which was set a year earlier, but went back many more years in terms of its representation of gender and race. The female lead was, to quote Kate Capshaw who played the part, ‘Not much more than a dumb screaming blonde’ and the depiction of Hinduism and Indian culture drew a lot of understandable criticism for being wildly inaccurate and grotesque. Indiana is also a far more mercenary and macho character, making him much less likeable than the roguish yet evolved version that appears in Raiders. Although Temple of Doom is still an enjoyable guilty pleasure, it is fortunate that the third film in the franchise, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), is far more in the spirit of Raiders.It’s anybody’s guess what Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was trying to achieve.

Watching Raiders of the Lost Ark again in 2012 is a strange yet rewarding experience. So much of the film is recognisable having been continually imitated and parodied over the past 30 years, and yet it still feels fresh and exciting. It is such an overt exercise in nostalgia, doubly so now that it is playing to audiences who remember it from when it was first released, and yet its inventiveness allows it to hold its own with anything released since. Indiana seems like such a conventional character, but his mix of intellect, action, charm and deviousness distinguish him from so many other iconic action heroes. Raiders is a classic and repeated viewings, especially when presented properly on the big screen, only reinforce this further.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Super 8 (2011)

11 June 2011
Super 8: Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney)

Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) and Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney)

While the previous two films directed by JJ Abrams were contemporary updates to already established franchises (Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek), Super 8 is more of a general homage to the type of children’s adventure films that were popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While it doesn’t feel like an obviously calculated attempt to evoke such films, which will primarily be remembered by members of Generation X, Super 8 nevertheless generates a welcoming nostalgic glow. This is predominantly because Abrams has adopted many of the stylistic and narrative characteristics of the films produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, who is also one of the producers on Super 8. This doesn’t seem to have been done to merely pay tribute to Spielberg, but in recognition that his expert command of exposition, characterisation, mood and atmosphere is worth adopting.

Set in a small town in 1979, Super 8 is about a group of young kids who are making their own film; amusingly inspired more by directors such as George A Romero and John Carpenter rather than Spielberg. At first glance the scenario is similar to Garth Jennings’s Son of Rambow, about two boys in the 1980s remaking First Blood. However, while Jennings’s film mostly remained grounded in a sort of kitchen-sink realism, Abrams quickly introduces adventure, danger and mystery when the gang’s film shoot is interrupted by a train crash. Through the resulting post-crash suspense and wonderment, as the town falls prey to strange incidents and an unwanted military presence, Super 8 gradually builds to its big reveal.

Super 8Super 8 does contain several of the ideas that populate so many of Spielberg’s family orientated films – a likeable gang of kids as the heroes, child protagonists with single parents, adults as either untrustworthy or misunderstanding, and ordinary people encountering an extraordinary situation. There are also several nods to the left leaning science-fiction films of the 1950s when the source of the incidents is revealed after being incorrectly represented by the townspeople. For the most part Super 8 is a fun adventure, complete with some very sweet young love scenes and plenty of creepy moments where the element of the unknown is used to its full potential. During the final act of the film some of the magic is lost once the mystery of what is happening is revealed and the obvious reliance on CGIs becomes too dominant. All too suddenly the film snaps out of its old-fashioned keep-the-audience-guessing mode to something not nearly as satisfying.

Nevertheless, Super 8 is mostly tremendous fun and it certainly hits all of its emotional cues. Watching a likeable bunch of kids outwit the military is always a pleasure and the transformation of an average small town into an explosive war zone is a thrill. Going back to the style and structure of films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Gremlins and The Goonies to create engaging narratives that rely on a developed build-up rather than a series of quick gratifications is an outstanding way of making engaging mainstream family entertainment. Hopefully Super 8 will trigger a new appreciation for such films and a new approach in contemporary filmmaking.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

27 December 2008

The original 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the all time great classical Hollywood films. It was the first significant Hollywood science fiction film and one of the first films to ideologically engage with the political climate at the time by tackling anti-Communist/Cold War paranoia. Despite its big budget it was a narrative driven film with more emphasis placed on dramatic action rather than spectacle and effects. The eclectic and reliable director Robert Wise, who began his career in film as the editor for Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), directed the film and the legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann wrote the music. Herrmann’s use of the theremin for the music in The Day the Earth Stood Still was hugely influential, making the theremin the standard sound for all science fiction soundtracks throughout the 1950s. The idea of remaking such a definitive and important film seems at first glance to be incredibly foolhardy, however this new 2008 film should not be automatically dismissed. It is by no means as good as the original but by taking the central premise of the original and maintaining its core ideology in order to address contemporary issues, this remake becomes a film that is worth considering.

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Film review – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

26 December 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the story of a man who is born as an old man and ages in reverse to eventually die as a newborn baby. Although based on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this 2008 film bears the stamp of its writer Eric Roth more than anybody else. Roth has penned several screenplays of varied quality throughout his career with Munich (Steven Spielberg), Ali and The Insider (both directed by Michael Mann) being amongst his better efforts. However it is the Academy Award winning Forrest Gump that bears the most similarities to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both films involve a male protagonist whose unusual circumstances give him a unique view of the world and 20th century history. Both men encounter various unconventional mentors who guide them on their way through life and both men fall hopelessly in love with a woman who is almost always out of their reach.

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