Films I loved in August 2015

1 September 2015
Ryan Corr as Timothy Conigrave and Craig Stott as John Caleo in Holding the Man

Ryan Corr as Timothy Conigrave and Craig Stott as John Caleo in Holding the Man

The film adaptation of the 1995 memoir Holding the Man broadly fulfils two objectives: it depicts two decades of historical importance to the Australia LGBTI community and it tells a beautiful love story. Covering the years from 1976 to 1995, the growth of queer identity politics and the beginning of the AIDS crisis are never far from the forefront. However, the heart of the film is exploring and celebrating the relationship between aspiring actor Timothy Conigrave and captain of the school football team John Caleo. Falling in love as school boys and then navigating the complexities of the adult world, the film is initially a warm, funny and tender love story about all the joys and awkwardness of first love. This warmth and tenderness is maintained, even later in the film when Tim and John’s lives become affected by AIDS. Free of melodrama and sentimentality, this is powerful and deeply moving cinema with the potential to become an Australian classic.

Shameik Moore as Malcolm Adekanbi in Dope

Shameik Moore as Malcolm Adekanbi in Dope

The thing that most impressed me about Dope was how deftly it oscillated between moments of fun teen-film hijinks and harsh wake-up call moments where the audience are reminded that Malcolm, the teenage protagonist, and his friends live in a neighbourhood rife with criminality and violence. Malcolm is a likeable and endearing self-described geek who loves ’90s hiphop, but there is also a growing rage inside him. Despite being ideal college material, the reality of his socioeconomic background constantly conspires against him. Although I found the treatment of gender a little disappointing, the focus on race and class is extremely potent and there is an incredible energy to this film that reminded me of Spike Lee’s best work, especially the youth focused Crooklyn. And most powerfully, instead of resolving with the obvious moral and naive lesson that some audiences may anticipate, the film concludes with a confronting statement about the reality of what young people with a background like Malcolm need to do to escape the environment they happen to be born into.

Rebecca Hall as Robyn Callen, Jason Bateman as Simon Callen and Joel Edgerton as Gordon

Rebecca Hall as Robyn Callen, Jason Bateman as Simon Callen and Joel Edgerton as Gordon “Gordo” Mosley

The Gift is a very impressive feature film directorial debut by Joel Edgerton, who also writes, acts and produces. It evokes many of the early films by Roman Polanski with its story about a seemingly normal and happy couple whose lives begin to unravel when a third person intrudes into their world. The film functions as a tightly wound thriller that becomes increasingly interesting as it starts to shift its sympathies between characters, but it also provides commentary on the way behaviour that is regarded as bullying in the schoolyard is often acceptable in many aspects of adult life.

William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal in Best of Enemies

William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal in Best of Enemies

I really enjoyed the documentary Best of Enemies, about the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jr during the US Republican and Democrat conventions in 1968. Not only does the film deliver a fascinating insight in the changing political and media landscape in the late 1960s, but how this seemingly inspired move to bring intellectual debate to mainstream television was ironically the beginning of the dumbed down personality-driven political commentary that dominates today.

And just briefly, Woody Allen’s latest film Irrational Man once more explores his preoccupation with existentialism and the question of whether murder can ever be justified, in a way that isn’t as dark or satisfying as previous films such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, but still a lot of fun. And I also caught up with Maggie, which went straight to home-entertainment in Australia in July. Being a zombie film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was met with enormous false expectations about the type of film it should be, but I was won over by this film for what it is – a melancholic story about a father grieving for his dying daughter.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015

Film review – Blue Jasmine (2013)

12 September 2013
Blue Jasmine: Jasmine (Cate Blanchett)

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett)

For almost 50 years Woody Allen has been making films that explore the existential despair that there is no greater meaning to life beyond immediate human experience and how we define ourselves. Another key theme running throughout Allen’s films is how the management of this fragile state of despair can very easily result in comedy or tragedy depending on the circumstances and outcomes. In Blue Jasmine Allen once again explores these ideas, but with a rigor, sophistication and conviction that has not been present in his career since 2005’s Match Point or even 1997’s Deconstructing Harry. Added to the mix is a post-Global Financial Crisis exploration of class conflict, and notions of privilege and entitlement.

The film begins with a gag about Jasmine Francis (Cate Blanchett) who had been unloading intimate details of her life story to a complete stranger who had mistaken Jasmine’s talking to herself as an invitation for a conversation. Through the awkward social encounter and following scenes it becomes apparent that Jasmine has left a privileged life in New York to move in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) who lives in San Francisco with her two children. A modern day incarnation of Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire, Jasmine is a fading former socialite who is desperately clinging onto a sense of herself that no longer exists. She is both reliant on and resentful of Ginger’s hospitality and attempts to help her.

Jasmine is so accustomed to wealth that she is indifferent to being waited on and has no concept of the value of money. Ginger, on the other hand, has lived a poor lifestyle throughout her adult life, where money is a constant concern. Neither Jasmine nor Ginger are happy with their current situation and both look for ways to become somebody else, but the results are mixed to the extent that by the time the film is coming to a conclusion, the scenario where Jasmine talks to herself in front of complete strangers becomes a moment of tragedy.

In his 2004 film Melinda and Melinda, Allen contrasts a comic telling of a story with a tragic telling of a story by showing two versions of the same story, but one to emphasise comedy and the other to emphasise tragedy. The thin line between comedy and tragedy has been an ongoing fascination for Allen and in Blue Jasmine he depicts this fragile line far more successfully and subtly than he did in Melinda and Melinda. Instead of the approach of defining specific scenes and characters as comic and others being tragic, Blue Jasmine shifts back and forth with impressive ease within scenes. Movements of genuine pathos transition into funny exchanges, without the pathos being compromised, and then back again. These smooth tonal shifts are a remarkable achievement and displays Allen’s mastery over his material. It also significantly helps that all his actors, especially Blanchett and Hawkins, are similarly able to execute the delicate balancing act that is required.

Blue Jasmine also displays Allen’s ongoing development as a filmmaker who for almost a decade has been making films in Europe, away from his beloved New York, the setting of so many of his most significant films. Blue Jasmine brings Allen back to the USA, but setting the film in San Francisco is a notable statement that distances Allen stylistically from his previous American New York-set films. Blue Jasmine even begins with a majestic shot of an airplane flying Jasmine from New York to San Francisco, visually affirming the transition. And while New York is still used as a setting in Blue Jasmine, it is a setting that only exists in the flashback scenes that depict Jasmine’s previous life married to Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin) whose wealth was generated through crooked financial deals. New York is a city of the past and the setting of a lifestyle and version of reality built on fraud.

On the other hand, San Francisco is shot with far more long takes and camera movements than that which are typically used in Allen’s films. There is also a lot of warm light and red tones, giving San Francisco the sensuality of the European cities of Allen’s recent films, including Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), which like Blue Jasmine was shot by Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. The San Francisco setting is also important since it is also the setting of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, which like Blue Jasmine is a film about a woman being rebuilt to conform to a romanticised ideal. Of course, the key difference is that in Vertigo the female reconstruction is done by the obsessive male protagonist, while in Blue Jasmine it is done by Jasmine to herself.

The sensual red and orange colour scheme used in so many of the San Francisco shots also allows for some interesting costume choices for Jasmine. In the New York flashbacks she predominantly wears white, suggesting a sense of emptiness or lack of passion. When in San Francisco she begins to wear more earthy colours to suggest at the least the potential for some kind of grounding. However, as her unrealistic ambitions start to crumble, she is drawn back into a world of white. First she reluctantly takes a job as a receptionist at a dentist office, where the colour scheme is clinical white, and then as she pretends to be an interior designer the spaces she is associated with are similarly characterised by white or dull colours.

The other key colour is the colour referenced in the title: blue. The absence of blue in the film indicates the full extent of Jasmine’s self-delusion. She frequently mentions the song ‘Blue Moon’ being her and Hal’s song. However, the audience never get any sense of the significance of this song other than Jasmine’s increasingly unreliable statements, and the song appears in the film as if it is only something Jasmine hears. The constructed mythology of the song as integral to her sense of self ties in with her overall delusion, which includes turning a blind eye to Hal’s criminal activities; like a gangster’s wife she preferred to enjoy the benefits of his behaviour without any moral burden. And finally, not only is the ‘blue’ of the title absent within the film’s production design, but the second element of the title – her name Jasmine – is also something she has constructed and not her real name.

The idea that the world of the film, as presented to the audience as Jasmine’s idealised world, is built on absent foundations, then fuels the film’s depiction of class differences. Like the couples in Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011), Jasmine and Ginger’s arguments reflect class based resentments and conflict. However, the aspects that define the class differences are exposed as falsities. One of the falsities the film presents for why Jasmine enjoyed a life of privilege while Ginger remained poor includes Jasmine being genetically superior as they are both adopted so not birth sisters. Another suggestion, cruelly made by Jasmine, is that Ginger never worked hard enough, reflecting a popular piece of rhetoric used to justify social inequality.

The explanation for social inequality that Blue Jasmine ultimately presents is that it all comes down to luck, with a bit of ruthless opportunism to push things along. Jasmine’s comfortable lifestyle in New York was the result of marrying Hal, with the opportunistic element being her blind eye to his fraudulent business dealings. An early irony from early in the film is the revelation that Ginger and her previous husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) also came into some money through the luck of winning the lottery. However, rather than using the money for Augie to start his own business, he and Ginger were convinced by Jasmine and Hal to let Hal invest it and therefore Augie and Ginger lose all the money when Hal is arrested and charged.

The arrogant belief in privileged entitlement and the naïve concept of the ‘noble poor’ are both exposed as forms of self-delusion that rely on tenuous concepts of class and wealth to define who we are. However, Blue Jasmine also suggests these forms of self-delusion are appealing because, in true Allen fashion, life is presented as essentially meaningless. Without the delusion of happiness for what we have got, we will fall into catatonic despair. This is both hilarious and deeply upsetting, and over the duration of Blue Jasmine the audience feels both sets of emotion, even within the same scenes. And while Jasmine is in so many ways an unlikeable character, Allen’s writing and direction along with Blanchett performance make her continually sympathetic. Blue Jasmine is one of Allen’s cleverest and most compassionate films, making it also one of his greatest.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Midnight in Paris (2011)

19 October 2011
Midnight In Paris: Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams)

Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams)

It is a pity the title An American in Paris had already been taken because it would have suited Midnight in Paris, a film about American writer Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) who is seduced by the French capital while visiting with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams). The opening of the film is similar to one of Allen’s all time greats, Manhattan (1979), with its loving montage of Paris in all its glory. Throughout the film Allen shows us not only the city’s tourist locations, but also takes us to must-visit out-of-the-city destinations such as Versailles and Monet’s gardens in Giverny. Then there are all the warmly lit shots of the cafes, restaurants, gardens and shops. However, the film really gets going once its extraordinary cast of characters, including the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard), begin to be introduced.

For most of his career Allen made films about New York, but recently he has used London, Barcelona and now Paris as his cities of inspiration. Midnight in Paris is a continuation of his new interest in Europe and also something of a return to older material. Not only does the central idea originate from an early stand-up routine that Allen used to perform in the 1960s, but there is also a pseudo-intellectual character Paul (Michael Sheen), who is something of an extension of the pontificating Marshall McLuhan expert who memorably gets his comeuppance in Annie Hall (1977). While darker films like Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Match Point (2005) have been the highlights from the later part of Allen’s career, Midnight in Paris is his most charming, romantic and funny film in a long time.

Midnight In Paris: Gil (Owen Wilson) and Adriana (Marion Cotillard)

Gil (Owen Wilson) and Adriana (Marion Cotillard)

As Gil is obsessed with Paris in the 1920s being the creative centre of the universe, the main theme of the film is it’s naive to believe that the past is better than the present. Nostalgia is simply a form of denial. Everybody is disillusioned about their current lives, but yearning for a romanticised previous era is simply a way of not living your life to the fullest. Yet, it is difficult not to wonder if Allen’s critique about romanticising the past should also be extended to romanticising cities that you have only visited as opposed to have actually lived in. Midnight in Paris does reveal some of the annoyances that come with being in Paris, but they are all through the eyes of Inez’s conservative and close-minded parents, suggesting no real engagement with the idea that Gil’s idealised view of the city is perhaps naive. On the other hand, maybe Allen simply wants the audience to figure it out for themselves and would rather focus on enjoying the city and its large cast of characters rather than getting too introspective. After all, the film’s critique of nostalgia is hardly a major revelation and Allen even has Gil acknowledge in the film that it is a minor point.

The pleasures of Midnight in Paris are going along with Gil for the ride, sharing his enthusiasm for Paris and following the film’s literally and artistic references. Audiences who are well read and have an interest in the arts will get the most enjoyment from this film, not that any of the references are particularly obscure. In an era when mainstream cinema is increasingly being dumbed down, seeing a feel-good film that rewards its audience for being intelligent and cultured is something to be treasured.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

Double pass giveaway closed – congratulations to Natalie (Redfern NSW), Thomas (Footscray VIC), Jennifer (Carlton North VIC), Nicholas (Teneriffe QLD) and Karl (Collingwood VIC). Sorry to those who missed out on this occasion.

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Film review – Whatever Works (2009)

17 October 2009
Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) and Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood)

Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) and Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood)

Seinfeld co-creator and Curb Your Enthusiasm creator and actor Larry David plays Boris Yelnikoff, a self-proclaimed genius who was almost nominated for a Nobel Prize. After a divorce and a suicide attempt Boris now lives alone in a dingy New York apartment. Boris is cynical, nihilistic, neurotic and an intellectual and cultural snob. His constant sarcastic tirades and insults would be truly unpleasant if they weren’t so funny. Boris is basically a more misanthropic version of the persona that typically inhabits most of Woody Allen’s films, often played by Allen himself. However, as recognisable as this character is to fans of Allen, Larry David has made Boris very much his own.

Early in Whatever Works a naive, sweet, uneducated and attractive young woman named Melody (Evan Rachel Wood from The Wrestler) arrives in New York having run away from her Deep South family. Hungry and with nowhere to go Melody by chance bumps into Boris and against his better judgement he allows her to stay with him. They become the classic odd couple and form a close bond despite clashing over everything.

WhateverWorksPic#03Depending on how you feel about Woody Allen you will describe Whatever Works as either a retread of well-worn ground or a welcome return to the type of relationship comedy/dramas that he was making in the late 1970s. The fact that Allen originally wrote the script in the 1970s is actually not all that surprising considering how similar it is in tone to some of his earlier films. The cinematography is a lot warmer, softer and more fluid than it has been in many of his recent films and Allen makes beautiful use of strategic close-ups on the faces of the characters during key moments of human connection.

Most significantly is that after a considerable break Allen has returned to making films in New York; a city that he clearly loves and it does bring out the best in him. In Whatever Works New York functions as a sort of place of liberation where people who come to it are transformed, cast aside their prejudices and discover happiness. There are a lot of jokes at the expense of conservatives, the religious right and Southerners in general and Allen clearly relishes being able to really stick it to them. At the start of Whatever Works Boris addresses the audience directly and warns us that this is not the feel good movie of the year. Don’t let the miserable old bastard fool you as Whatever Works comes extremely close to feel good territory and certainly finishes on an oddly touching message about embracing any opportunities for happiness even if they are only fleeting.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – Shall We Kiss? (2007)

9 June 2009
Judith (Virginie Ledoyen) and Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret)

Judith (Virginie Ledoyen) and Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret)

A chance encounter in Nantes leads to a romantic dinner between Émilie (Julie Gayet) and Gabriel (Michaël Cohen). Both are in relationships but are drawn to each other and aware that they will most likely never see each other again. So what do they have to lose from indulging in just one kiss before parting? A lot apparently, as Émilie explains by way of telling Gabriel a long story about a pair of platonic best friends. The pair are Judith, played by Virginie Ledoyen (A Pain in the Ass, 8 Women) and Nicolas, played by Emmanuel Mouret who also wrote and directed Shall We Kiss? (Un baiser s’il vous plaît). Due to a prolonged bout of celibacy Nicolas asks Judith to sleep with him, as a no-strings-attached act of friendship, but the results have monumental effects on their lives and the lives of the people around them.

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Film review – Scoop (2006)

3 April 2007

After the triumph of last year’s brilliantly nihilistic Match Point Woody Allen returns to very familiar ground with Scoop. Again set in London, Scoop is classic Allen – light comedy with a murder mystery plot, supernatural themes and enough jokes about sex, death, psychoanalysis and philosophy to keep fans happy.

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