Films I loved in June 2014

30 June 2014
Ernest & Celestine

Ernest & Celestine

I feel a bit odd including Ernest & Celestine at the top of my list of favourite films for this month, as I originally saw it two years ago and I saw the original French-language version as opposed to the English-dubbed version that is currently screening in Australia. Nevertheless, this is a gorgeous animated film about friendship that also works very effectively as a parable about not fearing others simply because they are different to us and we don’t know much about them. I’m looking forward to revisiting it once the DVD comes out (hopefully in the original language with English subtitles!)

Michael Fassbender as Frank in Frank

Michael Fassbender as Frank in Frank

I haven’t seen Lenny Abrahamson’s first feature film, but I remember being really impressed by Garage in 2007 and I loved What Richard Did, which I mentioned a few months ago when it got released on DVD in Australia. And going by his latest film Frank, Abrahamson is clearly a director who is getting stronger and stronger. Inspired by the film’s co-writer Jon Ronson’s experiences playing in a band with Frank Sidebottom (an alter-ego of English comedian and musician Chris Sievey), Frank is both a funny and melancholic tribute to marginal figures. While several real-life experimental musicians were inspirations for the character of Frank as presented in the film, I often thought of Scott Walker whose creative process was captured so well in the documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. While Frank is for the most part quite a fun film, its real strength lies in its final half hour where it sidesteps several cliches common to films about bands and musicians to instead de-romanticise the link between artistic genius and mental illness.

Emily Blunt as Rita and Tom Cruise as Cage in Edge of Tomorrow

Emily Blunt as Rita and Tom Cruise as Cage in Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow is an extremely satisfying and mostly smart high concept blockbuster that uses the cultural baggage of its star Tom Cruise to cleverly develop the main protagonist from somebody the audience has contempt for to a plausible action hero. It’s also refreshing to see a film that champions the idea of having to learn and master skills rather than simply rely on some kind of Chosen One or naturally gifted hero narrative. And in terms of spectacle cinema, director Doug Liman really delivers in creating a sense of chaos without sacrificing coherence. The second half of the film may not maintain the same level of interest as the first, but otherwise I loved this mash-up of Groundhog Day, Starship Troopers, Aliens and Saving Private Ryan.

Macon Blair as Dwight in Blue Ruin

Macon Blair as Dwight in Blue Ruin

My favourite film this month is one that didn’t get a theatrical release in Australia, but has instead gone to DVD, and that’s the masterful American thriller Blue Ruin. The film very skilfully conceals narrative information from the audience regarding character backstory and motivation without ever becoming obtuse, so that the viewer only ever needs to know just enough about what is happening to make every scene achieve the most tension as possible. The revenge story that emerges is as engaging as it is due to the film’s ability to maintain plausibility with the core idea that the protagonist is an ordinary person, albeit an ordinary person who’s suffered severe emotional trauma, and is therefore likely to make all the mistakes that a typical person would make.

I also finally caught up with the documentary Cutie and the Boxer, which was released on DVD in May. A really beautiful insight into the lives of artist Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko Shinohara, the film touches on their art and the difficulties of making a living as artists, but it is mostly a study of a relationship where the demands and dominating personality of one person has overshadowed the aspirations of another. This is a sensitive, revealing and very moving film that ultimately possesses a very empowering message.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

13 December 2011
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise)

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise)

Like the original film in the Mission: Impossible franchise, part four focuses more on the group dynamic of the Impossible Missions Force agents rather than solely on the Ethan Hunt character, played once more by Tom Cruise. Hunt is joined by fellow agents Jane Carte (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who previously appeared in the third film, and analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Forced to operate without any official support, the team have to stop the codes for a nuclear device falling into the wrong hands while on the run after being falsely accused of committing an act of terrorism.

This time the director is Brad Bird, continuing the franchise’s tradition of bringing in new directors to give each film a unique look and feel. Bird is making his live action directorial début after an extremely impressive background in animation, having worked on The Simpsons and then directing films such as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Bird knows how to handle cinematic space, making full use of the film’s impressive IMAX sequences during scenes set in Budapest, Moscow and Mumbai. The middle section of the film takes place in Dubai, where the film truly excels, culminating in an exhilarating foot and then car chase through a sand storm. As perhaps a nod to Bird’s animation background, there is an early scenario that utilises a high tech version of the fake wall gag that Wile E Coyote often used to try to trick Road Runner.

The use of elaborate technology in the series somewhat functions in the way that superpowers or magic functions in fantasy films. Characters can achieve the unbelievable with the use of a super computer or some other extraordinary device, which in the real world seems absurd, but in the world of the film is part of the internal logic. Bird successfully inhabits the film with such technology with the right amount of tech speak to make the audience accept what is being seen without getting bogged down in the details. It also helps that most of the devices do have some grounding in the real world.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol: Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise)

Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise)

Most interesting about this latest Mission: Impossible film is the frequency in which technology fails at the critical moment. Far from being a lazy plot device, there is a strong theme of fallibility and unreliability of technology throughout the film allowing the action sequences to be inventive and surprising. This extends to the human characters who all have moments of hesitation and nervousness, and occasionally allow emotions to get in the way of their work. Even Hunt is less than enthusiastic when he realises he is going to have to scale the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. This results in a high level of improvisation by the characters throughout the film, making a much more engaging narrative than in the previous films.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is the best film in the franchise so far. The characters are likeable and developed, the scenarios are complex without feeling ridiculous and the action is engaging. This film will benefit from being seen in an IMAX cinema where some of the bigger set pieces will most effectively provoke gasps, especially during the Burj Khalifa scenes from anybody with even a mild degree of vertigo. The whole cast are excellent, especially Renner and also Pegg, who plays a character who has only recently begun fieldwork. Pegg effectively articulate the audiences’ wonder, excitement and delight over the film’s elaborate scenarios and gadgets. Cruise is still the star of the film, but much more part of an overall ensemble than previously, which may make him more palatable to non-fans. Regardless, he looks great running in a suit.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Valkyrie (2008)

19 January 2009
Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise)

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise)

Audiences rarely see American films about the German perspective of World War II and Nazism. There is Lewis Milestone’s 1930 antiwar classic All Quiet on the Western Front but it is set during World War I. Sam Peckinpah’s brutal Cross of Iron (1977) shovels scorn upon the treatment of German soldiers by their careerist seniors and psychotic Nazi commanders, but it is a criminally underappreciated film that few people have seen. Valkyrie is hence an intriguing film for Hollywood to make because it is told from a German perspective and, like Cross of Iron, it sharply distinguishes the differences between members of the Nazi regime and the regular German army.

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