Films I loved in September 2017

4 October 2017
I am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro not only give voice to James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript about his memories of US civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, but it draws attention to the urgency of what Baldwin wrote and spoke about during his lifetime. Peck presents Baldwin as a writer, social critic and activist of extraordinary depth and complexity, and demonstrates how essential Baldwin’s analysis of racial divisions in American is to understanding – and acting on – what is happening in America today.

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Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes

Having really enjoyed the 2013 documentary The Battle of the Sexes, about the 1973 exhibition tennis match between retired men’s champion Bobby Riggs and the current women’s champion Billie Jean King, I was tentatively looking forward to Battle of the Sexes, a fictionalised account of the same story. To my delight it exceeded expectations to deliver a nuanced account of the entrenched chauvinism surrounding the event and a thoughtful examination of the motivations behind the actions of the various characters.

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Laure Valentinelli as Sarah in Nocturama

Recently added to Netflix, Nocturama begins feeling like a modern spin on The Battle of Algiers as the film follows a group of young people methodically planning a series of terrorists attacks in Paris. But then the second half of the film depicts what happens to the characters as they hide out overnight in a department store. As they indulge in the very luxuries they were seemingly fighting against, they unravel as boredom, paranoia and recklessness take over. Free from their idealogical drive, they revert back to being restless adolescents.

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Marion Cotillard as Catherine in It’s Only the End of the World

Having finally seen It’s Only the End of the World now it’s on Stan, I think it is one of Xavier Dolan’s best films. Dolan fully embraces the fact that the film is based on a play and allows the actors to run with theatrically heightened emotional states in order for them to convey the resentment, anger, jealously and bitterness that their characters have for one another. It’s a devastating portrayal of a family consumed with pain and betrayal, and Dolan’s decision to shoot so much of the film in tight close-ups so that the characters appear isolated from each other, is a masterful command of film style.

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Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks

I can’t imagine ever writing about television again in these monthly summaries, but I also can’t imagine seeing anything on television that comes close to having the impact on me that Twin Peaks has had. The third series, or The Return, continued to go in unexpected directions throughout all eighteen bewildering and captivating episodes, but the final two episodes delivered the emotional pinnacles and thematic gravitas that I had been really holding out for. It will be some time until I truly make sense of it all, but I did attempt to express a few of my ideas on Part 17 and Part 18 of Twin Peaks The Return: A Season Three Podcast.

Thomas Caldwell, 2017
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Film review – Ruby Sparks (2012)

17 September 2012
Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) and Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan)

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) and Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan)

It is frustrating how close Ruby Sparks comes to being a good film. It feels like a project that was designed to make a statement, but by the time the final product reached the screen the statement was so diluted that it became exactly the sort of film that it seems like it initially tried to critique. Similar to the terrific 2006 comedy/drama Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forster), Ruby Sparks explores the idea of freewill through the intriguing concept that a real human could be the creation of a novelist. In Ruby Sparks the writer is Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), whose ideal woman becomes a reality in the form of Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan who also wrote the film). Both films are thankfully not concerned with dull plotting about why such an event has taken place, but instead focus on the resulting drama, provide gags and explore ethical questions about what would happen if one person completely held the fate of another in their hands.

What makes Ruby Sparks so promising is that it is directly challenging the Manic Pixie Dream Girl construct that critic Nathan Rabin identified in his 2007 article on the Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown:

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.

There’s nothing particularly new about the idea of a quirky and exciting female character who only exists to facilitate the aspirations of men, but Rabin identified a particular trend in American cinema over the last decade that framed itself as independent and an alternative to Hollywood. Many other cultural critics have since picked up on the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, including Anita Sarkeesian who explored the issue in her Tropes vs. Women: #1 The Manic Pixie Dream Girl video where she concludes the such characters have little of their own purpose or autonomy:

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is really a muse who exists to be the inspiration for the troubled, tortured man.

In other words, they are stereotyped and two-dimensional female characters so that sensitive indi boys and hipsters don’t miss out on objectifying women.

As the tormented writer Calvin, Dano perfectly embodies the kind of young man who the Manic Pixie Dream Girl appeals to. He achieved success early in life and is now struggling to write again and live up to his public persona as a genius, which he hates being called. He is also broken hearted and one of the strengths of the film is the slow reveal that his obsessiveness and controlling nature had more to do with his breakup rather than the imagined sins he projects onto his ex-girlfriend. Enter Ruby, who is quirky, has cute and endearing problems with life, is very sexual, loves Calvin completely and most importantly inspires him to live life again. Although in a curious twist she doesn’t inspire him to write, but is instead the result of his inspiration.

Ruby is literally a construct of Calvin’s tortured sensitive imagination, which allows the film to flirt with the potential of critiquing male wish fulfilment in the form of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which Ruby conforms to wholeheartedly. The problem is that every time the film comes close to portraying the sinister side of such a scenario and the possibility that Calvin could become manipulative and even abusive, it pulls its punches at the last moment. The film becomes too enamoured with Calvin, the central romance story and the film’s overall whimsy and cuteness. Calvin is let off the hook far too many times and any pathos is put in the background to broader humour, such as when Calvin and Ruby visit Calvin’s mother in a sequence that feels more like something out of Meet the Fockers (Jay Roach, 2004).

Ruby Sparks wants to wag its finger at the Manic Pixie Dream Girl ideal while still having lots of fun with the Ruby character and pouring out a lot of sympathy towards poor old troubled Calvin. This is a film with so much potential, but instead of fully committing to the moments where it seems to be challenging the representation of women in many indi films, it opts for a montage of Calvin and Ruby seeing zombie movies, going to a fun fair and then going to a dance party where she tells him she’s taken her underwear off. Rather than being Stranger Than Fiction with insightful gender politics, Ruby Sparks is more a hipster Weird Science (John Hughes, 1985).

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

28 September 2006

At first glance the storyline of Little Miss Sunshine appears to be a completely clichéd American independent comedy/drama – a dysfunctional family is thrown together under strained circumstances to go on a road trip. All of the family members have their particular peculiarities, most of them don’t want to be doing the trip and all hell is threatening to brake loose at any moment. And to be honest, this pretty much sums Little Miss Sunshine up. What sets it apart from so many other ‘quirky’ independent films are its appealing characters and the skill in which their relationships with one another are developed.

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