Films I loved in April 2018

1 May 2018
Isle of Dogs

Rex (voiced by Edward Norton) and Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston) in Isle of Dogs

I tend to like and admire Wes Anderson’s films from a distance, but the ones I really like, I adore: The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel and now Isle of Dogs, his glorious tribute to canines and Japanese cinema. This stop-motion animation tonally straddles droll humour, absurdism and emotional sincerity within its inventive dystopian world and enjoyably chaotic plot.

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John Krasinski as Lee in A Quiet Place

There is something gloriously old-fashioned about A Quiet Place, which quickly and efficiently establishes its innovative premise and small group of characters, to then deliver a finely crafted horror film that is both terrifying and moving. The characters are a family that the audience are able to quickly care about, the high stakes are always present and the scenario where sound is deadly, is used to its full potential.

Avengers: Infinity War

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Stephen Strange, Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark, Benedict Wong as Wong and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner in Avengers: Infinity War

I was expecting to like Avengers: Infinity War as directors Anthony and Joe Russo delivered two of the best previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, but I was not anticipating just how strong the storytelling and spectacle would be. The action sequences are exhilarating and inventive, the dramatic stakes are high and the huge cast of characters are expertly handled. This is my favourite film in the series to-date.

Gurrumul

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu in Gurrumul

The documentary Gurrumul provides a portrait of recently deceased Indigenous Australian musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. It embraces his spirit, humour and of course, extraordinary talent. It is a moving, revealing and reverential film that serves to chart his career and highlight his cultural significance to his own community and the rest of Australia.

Loveless

Maryana Spivak as Zhenya in Loveless

Loveless is explicitly about a missing child, but it is implicitly about a generation destroying itself and the one after it through bitterness, apathy, self-absorption and a complete lack of empathy. As with his previous films, Andrey Zvyagintsev creates a compelling yet ambiguous drama through his use of visual metaphor, elegant camera movements and beautiful composition.

I Am Not a Witch

Maggie Mulubwa as Shula in I Am Not a Witch

Inspired by real events in Zambia, I Am Not a Witch is a startling film about a young girl accused of being a witch. The film’s general strangeness, deadpan humour and dreamlike tone capture the bewildering events that follow as she goes to live in a witch camp. While on the surface the film overtly highlights the shocking harm of witchcraft accusations, it’s also more broadly about the creation and exploitation of an underclass.

Last Flag Flying

Bryan Cranston as Sal Nealon, Steve Carell as Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd andLaurence Fishburne as Richard Mueller in Last Flag Flying

Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, an unofficial sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail, is similarly a buddy road movie that blends humour, pathos and subversive cynicism about the damage done to men who become soldiers. While not entirely without hope, the prevailing melancholy stems from how a group of veterans broken by one war confronts a new generation of men being broken by another.

Thomas Caldwell, 2018

 

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Films I loved in April 2014

30 April 2014
Ralph Fiennes as M Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ralph Fiennes as M Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a glorious tribute to an imagined era of European civility and innocence before the onslaught of fascism. Channelling the spirit of Ernst Lubitsch, this is one of Anderson’s best films and certainly the one I’ve enjoyed the most since The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001. For the most part a beautifully designed, cleverly structured and hilarious caper, the real triumph in this film is the final five or so minutes where Anderson delivers a heartfelt conclusion that acknowledges the fundamental tragedy of what fascism destroyed.

Tilda Swinton as Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam in Only Lovers Left Alive

Tilda Swinton as Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam in Only Lovers Left Alive

I have long been a fan of Jim Jarmusch – who like Wes Anderson is also a maverick with a unique and uncompromising approach to filmmaking – and Only Lovers Left Alive did not disappoint. This time Jarmusch applies his droll, minimalist and laid back style to the vampire genre to produce a film both visually and audibly rich in texture and atmosphere. The love and symbiotic relationship between the two creatures of the night reflects the delicate balance of the natural world that is slowly falling in decay due to human greed, selfishness and destructiveness.

Will Arnett voicing Batman and Charlie Day voicing Benny in The LEGO Movie

Will Arnett voicing Batman and Charlie Day voicing Benny in The LEGO Movie

On the other end of the spectrum comes the deliriously fun and subversive mainstream family comedy The LEGO Movie, which has a seemingly anarchic animation style that reminded me of A Town Called Panic (Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, 2009). It does seem incongruous that such an overtly branded and marketed film would contain such a strident message against consumerism, materialism and conformity, but it does and it does it well. It also smartly deconstructs several pop culture tropes including the rather regressive idea of the Chosen One. And it’s hilarious.

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya and Machiko Ono and Midori Nonomiya in Like Father, Like Son

Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya and Machiko Ono as Midori Nonomiya in Like Father, Like Son

In Like Father, Like Son director Hirokazu Koreeda finds considerable charm, humour and pathos in the potentially scandalous story about two sets of parents discovering their 6-year-old sons were mixed up at birth. Instead of melodramatics, Koreeda’s graceful style of storytelling allows for gentle social observations concerning class divisions and parental expectations in modern Japan. My favourite films of Koreeda’s are After Life (1998) and Still Walking (2008), but this is still an excellent film by one of the most consistently impressive filmmakers working today.


It was great to see the low-fi French romantic comedy 2 Autumns, 3 Winters get a number of screenings around Melbourne, as I really enjoyed its quirky and hyper self-referential style. Most of the time I find the device of having characters talk directly to the camera a bit too twee, but it worked for me in this film and I enjoyed its 20-something hipster angst.

Another film that had a few local screenings, just ahead of its DVD release, is the extraordinary Cheap Thrills where two friends are encouraged to compete against each other, in increasingly disturbing ways, for money. The blend of horror and dark comedy in this post-GFC film, delivers a biting social critique of the way middle and lower classes are conned into fighting against each other, while the powerful and wealthy upper class sit back and enjoy the show. The levels of depravity, humiliation and ruthlessness are built up extremely convincingly and are wonderfully excruciating to watch.

The other DVD release of note this month is  Starlet, a very impressive low budget American drama about an unlikely friendship between a 21-year-old woman and an 85-year-old woman. The film is very strategic about when it provides keys pieces of information about the background of both women, but when it does the timing is perfect and the effect is profound. Starlet goes into surprising and unlikely places to deal with subject matter that a lesser film would have sensationalised, but writer/director Sean Baker has an impressive grasp on the material and, like 2 Autumns, 3 Winters writer/director Sébastien Betbeder and like Cheap Thrills director EL Katz, is a talent to keep an eye out for.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film reviews – Cosmopolis (2012) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

30 August 2012

The latest films by Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg and American filmmaker Wes Anderson are on the surface wildly different works, however, a comparison of the two films suggests that they are two-sides of the same cinematic coin. Both are films that seem to have taken several cues from Stanley Kubrick in the adoption of a minimalist visual style that relies on meticulous framing, symmetry and an almost self-aware set of conventions surrounding camera movement. Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom are about self-contained spaces that reflect a version of reality that is recognisable enough to connect with the real world despite containing so many abstract elements. Both are films with child or child-like protagonists who are surrounded by a strange ensemble of supporting characters. The major point of difference is that while Cosmopolis is set in the not-so-distant future to depict the metaphorical end of humanity, Moonrise Kingdom is set in a stylised version of the past to present humanity at its most hopeful.

The child-like character at the centre of Cosmopolis is the young billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) who slowly cruises across a gridlocked Manhattan in a stretch limousine to get a haircut. Packer is not a child in the sense of being vulnerable and innocent, as instead he displays a childlike view of being the centre of the universe and entitled to everything around him. His domain is the limousine and while he has the privilege to enter and leave it as it suits him, it nevertheless serves as a protective womb for him when he wants it to. Unlike the limousine in Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012), which functions as a transformative and transitional space, Packer’s limousine in his command centre, completely insulated from all intrusions – including external noise – and totally ‘safe from penetration’.

Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) and Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon)

At the centre of this self-made contained universe sits Packer’s who carries out the most mundane and the most intimate activities with the various associates he picks up on the way or briefly stops off to visit. Whether discussing politics, having his prostate checked while speaking with an employee or having sex, Packer maintains an air of detached boredom as if he can’t wait for the apocalypse to arrive. Pattinson is ideally cast as Packer since he is a man-child with power and influence way beyond the capacity of his years, existing as an idealised version of success and beauty without the emotional depth to channel any real feeling. He’s like a character from a previous Cronenberg film Crash (1996), or many of the other novels by Crash author JG Ballard, in that he craves some kind of stimulus or sensation to wake him from the lethargy of his controlled and convenient life, whether that be illicit sex, acts of violence or risking his life by seeking a confrontation with somebody who wants to kill him.

Closely adapted from the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, it is remarkable the extent that Cosmopolis feels like a post-GFC, post-Occupy and post-Facebook film. On the surface level there are the news reports of political assassinations, glimpses of anti-capitalist protests on the streets and an early scene between Packer and his young associate Shiner (Jay Baruchel) that feels like a reenactment of any number of scenes between Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield in The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010). What really stands out is how much better DeLillo’s almost absurdist dialogue sounds when spoken in the film rather than read on the page, and how much Cronenberg uses the dialogue to capture the death of meaning.

Words that DeLillo may have intended as dark abstractions about the decline of western civilisation become the basis for comedic performance pieces throughout Cosmopolis where the characters have extended intense and purposeful conversations about economics, politic and philosophy without actually saying anything. Like the symbols on panels and screens littered throughout the interior of Packer’s futuristic limousine, the building blocks for communication are there but they aren’t arranged in a way that makes sense anymore. All that is left are signifiers broken down to their basic components by a character who despite his wealth and assumed sophistication is still a mere mortal who pisses, shits, fucks, eats and bleeds. Spiralling into self-destruction because language has lost all meaning and there’s nothing else to do, Packer is a classic Cronenberg hero who has engineered his own annihilation.

If Cosmopolis deconstructs language and ideas into meaninglessness to present a darkly funny satire about destruction (it’s Cronenberg’s most humorous film since eXistenZ in 1999) then Moonrise Kingdom does the opposite. Dialogue in Wes Anderson films is typically reduced to essential words and phrases, to be spoken deadpan by actors without emotion. However, instead of the absurdist illusion of meaning that is presented in Cosmopolis, Anderson strips down language and other cinematic conventions to reveal something far more pure and sincere. In the case of Moonrise Kingdom it is adolescent love and hope for the future.

Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton)

The child protagonists in Moonrise Kingdom are 12-year-old Sam Shakusky (newcomer Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (another newcomer, Kara Hayward). The pair live on an island off New England and run away together; Sam abandons a Scout camp he is attending and Suzy leaves home. While two unknown young actors are in the lead, the supporting cast is filled out with very experienced and recognisable actors who represent different levels of authority over the children; from Edward Norton as Scout Master Ward, to Bruce Willis as police Captain Sharp to Tilda Swinton as a social services worker, to Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s parents. The inverse of having big name actors in supporting roles to unknown child actors reflects Anderson’s playful inverting of ideas throughout Moonrise Kingdom where the most serious relationship is the one between the children and where characters representing the police and the military-like scout troop become more sympathetic to the plight of the children than characters representing social welfare and the family.

While the production design and wide angle cinematography of Cosmopolis evoke Kubrick films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), the gliding dolly shots, precise movements that almost appear choreographed and theatrical framing of Moonrise Kingdom seem to be inspired by Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980).  Anderson also repeatedly uses military-style percussion through Moonrise Kingdom for both rhythmic editing and a comedic soundtrack in a way that even suggests Kubrick’s war films. Anderson’s approach perfectly suits the focus on ritual present throughout Moonrise Kingdom.

Sequences of social interaction, most notably the inspections at the scout camp, are orchestrated as a complex dance where every element of the interaction is broken down into an isolated action for a singe character to perform in order to contribute to an overall cohesion. If language is deconstructed in Cosmopolis to reveal a loss of meaning, the dynamics of community and relationships are deconstructed in Moonrise Kingdom to reveal the importance of human interaction, both on a public and on a personal level. Every element needs to play a part for the whole to function and rather than remove a disruptive element (for example, Sam) the community adapts to accommodate new dynamics.

The breaking down of social interaction into segments to form a whole is reflected in both Suzy’s preference for looking at the world up close through binoculars and the use of Benjamin Britten’s music throughout the film. Most notable is Britten’s 1946 work ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ where all the separate elements of an orchestra are isolated and described by a narrator to demonstrate the importance of every instrument. The irony of the piece of music is that the formal descriptions don’t do justice to the overall sensation when all the elements come together, and Anderson seems coyly aware of this with his film. Moonrise Kingdom is a very formal work in terms of style and narrative, but the overall effect of the film is very different to what would be typically expected from such a deliberate approach to cinema. Instead of feeling detached and cold, Moonrise Kingdom is an extremely sweet and heartfelt portrayal of young love and how such love inspires the lives of others who encounter it.

Both Cosmopolis and Moonrise Kingdom are glorious contradictions. Cosmopolis deconstructs language, symbols and theories to present a sprawling and dense post-GFC Heart of Darkness. Cronenberg reveals himself to be a prankster as it becomes apparent that Cosmopolis is ultimately about arriving at a cultural and philosophical end point where nothing has any real meaning anymore. On the other hand, Moonrise Kingdom is an overtly stylised work set in the past where human behaviour is drolly reduced to ritual and routine. However, through this shines new love and the potential for many of the characters to find happiness. Anderson is a prankster too, appearing detached and indifferent and yet producing one of the year’s most warm and humane films. Cosmopolis and Moonrise Kingdom are beautifully crafted works that breakdown the way people relate to themselves and each other. One film offers a vision of our death, the other promises a new world.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

2 April 2002

The Royal Tenenbaums is independent director Wes Anderson’s (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore) finest work yet, with its finely tuned humour and complex characterisations that the audience can feel real empathy for. The all-star cast are uniformly excellent, in particular Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and surprisingly Gwyneth Paltrow, who play the Tenenbaum siblings. Once all over-achievers they are now all in their 30s with many demons to face. Gene Hackman is a standout as the absent father whose attempts of reconciliation with his family are constantly ruined by his intrinsic selfishness.

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