Tuesday, June 24, 2014

2014 Sydney Film Festival Review: Happy Christmas


Director: Joe Swanberg
Writer: Joe Swanberg
Stars: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, and Mark Webber  

Based on the title alone, many viewers will go into Happy Christmas expecting a festive film where characters deck the halls with boughs of holly. While it is technically correct to call this a “Christmas movie”, the latest Joe Swanberg effort does not feel stuck in one season. Shot on grainy 16mm film, the toasty autumnal hues of interior shots feel removed from any Winter Wonderland. But that proverbial mistletoe always hangs over the picture, and we’re reminded that Christmas is fundamentally a time of giving. Yes, gifts are exchanged in this film, but the most salient form of giving is between broken characters who still manage to give pieces of themselves to people who need them more.   

There is nothing groundbreaking about the premise. Jeff (director Joe Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) are happily married with a two-year-old son. Jeff works in film production, while motherhood has forced Kelly to call a hiatus on her writing career. This pleasant domestic dynamic is shaken up by the arrival of Jeff’s sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who is recovering from a tough breakup. Jenny takes up occupancy in the basement, and is expected to help out with household chores and babysitting duties. It soon becomes clear that trusting Jenny to take care of a two-year-old boy is about as wise as trusting Hamburglar to mind your plate of Quarter Pounders. She strikes up an unconventional relationship with the family’s incumbent babysitter, the pot-dealing Kevin (Mark Webber). She goes to a house party and needs to be salvaged by Jeff when she becomes beleaguered by booze. Jenny is 27, but she has the emotional intelligence and stubborn nonchalance of a moody 16-year-old. Kelly’s stagnation crosses paths with Jenny’s bizarre spontaneity when Jenny suggests for Kelly to pen erotic fiction to make a quick buck.  

Through his direction, Swanberg transforms the mundane into something incredibly enthralling. Much of the dialogue is improvised, and this unpredictability gives us a reason to hang on every word. The beauty of improvised comedy is that not every joke needs to be funny. The comedy in Happy Christmas is the comedy of real life. Sometimes, when you tell a joke to a group of friends, it will fall so flat that not even the crickets will chirp. This film contains pauses that are funnier than the jokes that precede them. There’s a unique tinge of delightful awkwardness that permeates these interpersonal relationships. It’s as though Swanberg and his actors are trying to evoke that special breed of pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others, or what the Germans called schadenfreude.   

The film’s success rests on its convincing performances, with each actor owning their role. Kendrick acts against type as the boisterous, happy-go-lucky Jenny. However, the film always has good intentions and packs a lot of heart, and Jenny’s characterisation is never nasty. Melanie Lynskey is a warm maternal presence, and it was nice to hear her native New Zealand accent—almost a meta-comment on Swanberg’s insistence to keep things real. Lena Dunham is bursting with energy as Jenny’s friend, Carson. She has a great sense of comic timing. Now, it would be remiss of me if I did not mention the performance of Jude Swanberg—the director’s two-year-old son who steals the show as Jeff and Kelly’s baby boy. I have never heard a movie audience react so enthusiastically to one character’s sudden appearance. If they had an Oscar for Best Infant Performance, this kid would wipe the floor with his diaper-clad counterparts.  

When I saw Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies earlier this year, I said it was a film that would have made John Cassavetes proud. That film invited viewers’ empathy with consummate ease through naturalistic dialogue and performances. It was shot with an intimacy that positioned me as an eavesdropper, and every word and gesture accumulated to ensure there was something at stake, emotionally, for both the characters and the audience. With Happy Christmas, Swanberg falls short of the greatness he achieved with Drinking Buddies, but that charming, endlessly watchable realism is still there. I do not hesitate when I say that Joe Swanberg is one of the most refreshing voices in American cinema today, and one of the greatest directors of naturalistic human drama we have seen in decades. He is carving out a genre that I call Mumblecore Nouveau. The bare-bones principles of mumblecore remain, but the films make use of bigger stars and the production values are more polished due to higher budgets. I look forward to his next endeavour. 

3.5/5 stars.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

2014 Sydney Film Festival Review: Tom at the Farm


Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer: Xavier Dolan, based on a play by Michel Marc Bouchard
Stars: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy 

“Psychological thriller” has almost become a blanket term for any vaguely unsettling film where characters harbour insidious motives. Every once in a while, though, a thriller will make its presence felt and remind you that the word psychological has its roots in the Greek word psykhe, meaning “breath, spirit, soul.” These films hold you captive for their duration and seldom allow any reprieve. Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm is one such film—a far cry from anything Old MacDonald saw in his tenure.

Dolan stars as Tom, an advertising copywriter who travels to rural Quebec for the funeral of his boyfriend, Guillaume. He enters his lover’s childhood home as a stranger, found slumped on the kitchen table by Guillaume’s widowed mother, Agathe (Lise Roy). Agathe is oblivious to Tom’s homosexuality, let alone that he was the partner of her deceased son. And things are set to stay that way when Guillaume’s older brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), enters the picture. Francis ensures that no sudden revelations will sully the family name. If Tom steps out of line, Francis wastes no time dishing out violent punishment.

It is disturbing to watch Tom lose his agency as a human being. What begins as a stern threat quickly develops into aggressive grappling in the cornfield. Fear overlaps with obedience as Stockholm syndrome takes hold, and the two men enter into an intoxicating folie à deux, with Tom warming to the task of farmhand. While most people’s natural instinct would be to flee the farm as soon as possible, Tom seems to become “institutionalised”, just like those prison walls gracefully envelop Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption. An extra element of intrigue arrives in the form of Sara (Evelyne Brochu), a young woman called over to the farm to act as Guillaume’s girlfriend, adding further entanglements to the web of emotional manipulation. In one scene, Agathe, Francis, and Tom are seated at the dinner table. Agathe asks Tom if Sara has said anything about Guillaume, and Tom does not hesitate to speak in sexually explicit terms. Francis glares piercingly at Tom, realising these are fabricated lines, and that Tom is indulging in passion by proxy.

Because the film was adapted from a play (of the same name, by Michel Marc Bouchard), the acting was required to be strong. Thankfully, the cast does not disappoint. Dolan portrays Tom as an enigmatic young man who channels the energy of his fear into a quiet inner strength. As Agathe, Lise Roy simultaneously calls to mind the stoic mystique of Barbara Fitts in American Beauty and the haphazard neuroticism of Myrtle Gordon in Opening Night. It is heartbreaking to see her caught in the middle of Francis’ wicked scheme, but we are frequently reminded that this woman can stand up for herself. As the homophobic Francis, Pierre-Yves Cardinal looms around every corner like an imposing deadline. His absence from the frame only creates a presence in our minds. Where has he gone? What is he planning? Playing an outright monster is one thing, but it is far more challenging for an actor to pull off the Machiavellian disposition of Francis, whereby tension is always bubbling below the surface, only occasionally coming to the fore. Consistent close-ups of these characters’ faces reveal nuanced gestures that spell anguish, trepidation, and desire. Through his lens, Dolan perpetuates Ingmar Bergman’s famous statement that the human face is the most important subject of the cinema.

The disconnect between urban and rural spaces is another of Dolan’s fixations. As an advertising copywriter, Tom’s experience with blood may be limited to a few “bleeding” pens in his shirt pocket. Life on the farm means Tom’s hands are given a fresh coat of crimson after he assists with the birth of a calf. Tom describes the “realness” of the country to Sara: “A cow gives birth, there’s blood. When a dog barks, I really hear it.” A birth and a bark are both actions of release. Tom may crave an emotional release after being forced to suppress his true identity for so long under the conditions of Francis’ game. And therein lies the paradox: everything is “realer” in the country, except for the human spirit. Having fewer things to do means that free will is inhibited. But Tom has lost all understanding of free will by dealing with Francis. Fast forward to a scene at a bar where Corey Hart’s Sunglasses at Night announces Tom’s arrival. Away from the cornfields, everything seems false. The very notion of wearing sunglasses at night, like the speaker of the song, hints at concealment. However, a conversation Tom has at the bar compels him to make a very important decision—perhaps the most real thing he has ever done.

Xavier Dolan is 25 years old and has already built an impressive résumé of five feature films. He made his directorial debut at the age of 19 with I Killed My Mother, which won three awards at the Director's Fortnight program at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways, and Mommy have all received widespread critical acclaim. Tom at the Farm is actually the first Dolan film I have seen, but I am now extremely keen to check out all the others. This Québécois prodigy is definitely one to watch. 

4/5 stars.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

2014 Sydney Film Festival Review: Life Itself


Director: Steve James

“‘Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do.”

                                                                                                         ~ Roger Ebert

I distinctly remember the moment I “discovered” Roger Ebert. I was about 15 years old, browsing Rotten Tomatoes late one night to see what big-name critics thought of Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack—a childhood favourite of mine. I came across Roger’s review and decided to read it in full. I had heard of this critic before, and was curious to see why everyone talked about him. Roger hated the film. This didn’t surprise me; I knew I was in the minority by liking it. What surprised me the most is that I accepted Roger’s criticisms without hesitation. Jack is a film where Robin Williams plays a boy with an ageing disorder that makes him look 40 years old when he is only 10. It is so preposterous and Roger could have easily dismissed it with sweeping statements. But he didn’t simply state that certain scenes didn’t work; he explained why they didn’t work. I kept thinking, “Wow...I’ve never thought about it that way before.” I became fascinated with the idea that any piece of cinema could be reviewed, whether highbrow or lowbrow. That same night, I read about a dozen more Ebert reviews of films I cherished. I learned a lot, and for the next two years, I would follow a routine of watching a film then reading Roger’s review of it immediately afterwards. I have never formally studied film at university. If I sound articulate when I talk or write about film, it is because Roger planted the seeds. I write about movies because of Roger Ebert. He is the reason your eyes are scanning these words.

Life Itself is directed by Steve James, whose Hoop Dreams was lauded by Ebert as the best film of the 1990s. The documentary draws on excerpts from Ebert’s memoir of the same name. James traces the topography of Ebert’s life in intimate detail. We learn of his roots as college newspaper editor and reporter for the News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois. Ebert was thrust into the role of Chicago Sun-Times film critic in 1967 following the departure of Eleanor Keane. He did not ask for the role, but he made it his own, and his older colleagues were intimidated by his precocious writing ability and a work ethic usually reserved for senior editors. I do like that the movie represents Ebert as a writer, first and foremost. Yes, film was his forte, but you could give the man any topic and he could string together an intellectually-engaging think piece. He could do it with astonishing speed, too.

A large focus of the film is Ebert’s complex relationship with rival Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel. Their early years co-hosting PBS’ Sneak Previews were rife with tension. When the men disagreed, there was no compromising. Any dispute must have meant at least one person was fundamentally wrong. They found it challenging to like each other. As they transitioned into At the Movies, rapport strengthened and they became more accommodating with one another. This duo was like a pair of siblings whose petty arguments were no match for their mutual love and respect.

The film acquaints us with Ebert’s widow, Chaz Hammelsmith, who is nothing short of amazing. Roger married Chaz when he was 50. He had feared his twilight years would be spent alone, until he found this incredible beacon of light and hope. In a blog post from 2012, Roger described Chaz as “the great fact of my life”, and “a wind forcing me back from the grave.” Roger must have seen thousands of great love stories played out on celluloid in his career but, to him, the one he was living was the greatest of all.

The film is a little hard to watch when we see Ebert in his hospital bed. We know this man for his vociferous defence and/or condemnation of films, but cancer has rendered him without a voice. However, there’s something deeply inspiring about these scenes. We see the twinkle in his eyes and he seems to have boundless enthusiasm to participate in the documentary despite everything life has thrown at him. In one of the film’s most shocking revelations, we see an email from Ebert telling Steve James he would only agree to participate in the film if it would show his physical deterioration. Ebert concludes the email with the line, “This isn’t only your film.”

I admire the film for eulogising Ebert without working on a mythic level. It must have been so tempting to lapse into hero worship, but we’re given extensive insight into Roger’s health problems, his struggle with alcoholism, and his strained relationships with fellow critics. James makes no secret that Roger’s ego may have stretched longer than the running time of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó. At its core, however, the film paints a loving portrait of a man whose legacy will echo for myriad decades to come. On a personal level, I was surprised that the film didn’t make me bawl my eyes out. I expected it to render me a mess, but no tears streamed down my cheeks. They merely pooled in my eyes, waiting for the ultimate trigger that would compel them to flow. It never came, but Roger would’ve hated a film about his life that tried so desperately to be a tearjerker. I am reminded of Neil Finn’s comment during Crowded House’s Farewell to the World concert: “It feels more like a celebration than a funeral.” When we hear recollections from directors such as Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog and we see the joy on their faces, we realise they are here to celebrate, too. (Okay, so Marty may have been choking back tears at one point.)

This film will demolish anyone’s preconceived notions that Roger Ebert was a walking ball of snark, an image he may have accumulated through his many years of bickering with Siskel on television. It strips back that facade of cockiness and shows us the warm, gooey centre of a man with a beautiful mind and a large, giving heart. There is one especially touching scene involving a jigsaw puzzle gifted from Alfred Hitchcock to Marilyn Monroe—it confirms that Roger Ebert was a wonderful human being. Believe it or not, there are still some people who hold an eternal grudge against Ebert for his stance on video games as art, and for a harmless quip he made following the death of Jackass member Ryan Dunn. Hopefully, this film will erase their pathetic prejudices, but it’s likely they won’t make an effort to see it.

In his memoir, Ebert devotes an entire chapter to his own mortality. He quotes Walt Whitman:

“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

I’ll keep looking for Roger under my boot-soles. I miss him terribly, and when I walked out of my screening of Life Itself, I was more sure than ever about his description of the movies as “a machine that generates empathy.” Roger also said, “It’s not what a movie is about, but how it’s about it.” I like what this film is about, and everyone involved went about it very well.


4/5 stars (two thumbs up).

Monday, June 9, 2014

2014 Sydney Film Festival Review: Locke

Locke Movie Poster

Director: Steven Knight
Writer: Steven Knight
Stars (or should that be 'Star'?): Tom Hardy 

I have always been mesmerised by films shot in real time. Hitchcock’s Rope is one of the most suspenseful films I have ever seen, and it’s that real time unravelling that helps it achieve that status. The frenetic Run Lola Run moves at a pace that forbids boredom from settling in. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy proves you can create magic with little resources except two characters and a script brimming with truth. My obsession with films shot in real time overlaps with my fascination for films featuring a handful of characters, or films that take place in one location. Steven Knight’s Locke, which screened as part of the Official Competition at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival, is a film I should like. It is shot in real time, almost entirely in a car. We only see the face of one character. Unfortunately, these elements do not mask the film’s hesitation to—pardon the pun—put its foot on the accelerator.

Tom Hardy stars as Ivan Locke, a successful construction manager who is happily married with children. On the night before one of the biggest professional challenges of his life, Locke receives a phone call that compels him to drive from Birmingham to London. I will not reveal who the caller is, but this conversation triggers a chain reaction of events that would induce road rage in the most cautious of drivers. Locke’s only companions are the voices that come through his speakerphone. These are the only plot details I will divulge. But, let’s face it, it’s not as though I am omitting a great deal.

Locke is not a bad film. I would say it is good, but it certainly will not be lingering in my mind when the Festival finishes up. I feel as though it suffers from a case of identity crisis, and, no...I don’t just say that because of Tom Hardy’s forced Welsh accent. Is the film a drama? In one sense: yes. There are dramatic revelations. But I didn’t really feel the drama. It didn’t hit me on a gut level. Others have described it as a thriller. I was actually expecting a thriller going into the film, along the lines of Buried (2010) or Duel (1971). I soon realised this film was not intent on sending a chill down my spine. So, if Locke is not explicitly a drama or a thriller, then what is it? I think of it as an experiment, first and foremost. This is an example of cinema as personal challenge. Knight wrote the script in ten days, and shooting took place over a mere eight days. His execution illustrates that he wanted to make a truly unique film. However, I feel that he got carried away with pushing the creative boundaries and forgot to polish the narrative. Other than some vague comment on the consequences of neglectful parenting, I cannot work out what he is trying to say with this film. Form seems divorced from meaning. I am struggling to deduce any significance from the stylistic choice to shoot the entire film (save for a brief opening scene) inside a car. The confined, vehicular setting feels like a gimmick because it does not complement the story. If it turns out the car is a metaphor for Locke taking control of his life, then I am really disappointed.

The ambiguous ending may be a hit with some viewers, but I feel it detracts from everything that went before. The loose ends are too glaring for our imaginations to engulf. It would be effective if we could put faces to the voices Locke was conversing with, but that doesn’t happen, so it feels as though our everyman protagonist is returning to the London hotel room where the film’s voice actors congregated to perform their lines over the phone. It does not feel like he is driving towards another character.

So far, I have detailed the film’s weaknesses, but the film is not without merit. Yes, there are a few flat spots in the narrative that are especially concerning in an 85-minute film where every moment should be essential. But, for the most part, the screenplay is tight. Knight made me care for the characters—even the faceless ones—without embroiling them in grand set pieces. He has enough faith in his dialogue to avoid convoluted and unnecessary inciting incidents. However, I won’t lie that part of me was hoping for things to play out like Scorsese’s After Hours. Producer Guy Heeley confirmed that all the phone calls in the film were genuine conversations. Nothing was pre-recorded. It’s a small detail like this that separates the good filmmakers from the bad ones. Also deserving of praise is the cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos. The reflection and refraction of vibrant lights helps to break the monotony of one man driving his car for almost an hour-and-a-half. Through his camerawork, Zambarloukos hoped to simulate the aesthetics of a spaceship. Maybe that explains why the film’s intention is still so alien to me.

3/5 stars.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

2014 Sydney Film Festival Review: Boyhood

Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater
Stars: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke

Right before my screening of Boyhood at the Sydney Film Festival, Ellar Coltrane and Cathleen Sutherland walked out on stage to briefly introduce the film to the packed State Theatre audience. Sutherland is one of the film’s four producers. The 19-year-old Coltrane is the heart and soul of Boyhood. Coltrane spoke into the microphone and he sounded 19. I didn’t have the greatest seat, but he looked about 19, too. Coltrane and Sutherland disappeared behind the curtain and the film started rolling. Within the film’s first minute, we see a seven-year-old boy sprawled out on his front lawn, gazing at the sky (essentially what you see on the film’s poster). When my mind registered that the boy was Ellar Coltrane—the same 19-year-old I saw in the flesh just moments before—a lump formed in my throat and I realised I was in for something special. The process of human ageing had already been laid bare before my eyes and we were just getting started.

Boyhood is a film that will be talked about for decades. Beginning in 2002, director Richard Linklater filmed the same cast of actors (and, by extension, characters) over a period of 12 years. Logistically and emotionally, that’s a gargantuan undertaking. We meet Mason (Coltrane) as a seven-year-old living with his single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Mason maintains an amicable though stilted relationship with his father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). We follow Mason from childhood through to adolescence, concluding with his initiation into young adulthood. The film succeeds with its organic narrative. We see a young Mason practising his golf swing with his stepfather—not because golf is an integral component of the film (it isn’t), but because kids often practise things. On that particular day, it happened to be golf. There are no distracting announcements that one year has ended and another one has begun. No gimmicky title cards to be found here, folks. Boyhood was shot entirely on 35mm film to prevent noticeable discrepancies in the quality of digital footage, and to maintain tonal integrity with cinematography. But the film needs to mark time somehow, right? Looking at Mason’s hairstyle is a good place to start. Inevitably, you do notice the physical maturation of all cast members, but the camera does not linger on their faces with close scrutiny to reveal the ravages of age. Just as we do not look in the mirror each day and notice the formation of frown lines, the ageing process in the film manages to be seamless.

Time is also marked with popular music. With a diverse soundtrack ranging from Coldplay’s Yellow, to Soulja Boy’s Crank That, to Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know, Linklater understands the emotional power of song—the way a single chord change can conjure up memories that would otherwise remain repressed. We also see objects that exist today as anachronisms, such as an iMac G3 and a 20Q. I was initially disappointed when the camera zoomed in on these items, as I wasn’t expecting such a degree of self-awareness. However, as more of these technological artefacts came into view, my disappointment turned into sweet nostalgia.

With a title of Boyhood, I can understand why some viewers may expect the film to explore its themes through a narrow scope. As the film progresses, however, you realise it is not about growing up as a male. It is about having to grow up, period. Linklater revisits his obsession with time and impermanence that underpinned the incredibly moving Before trilogy. There is a quote from Before Midnight: “Like sunlight...sunset, we appear...we disappear. We are so important to some, but we are just passing through.” While Boyhood does not place as much emphasis on our inevitable demise, it does remind us that time is indifferent to our struggles—that we belong to something bigger than us.

I was intrigued by the audience’s reaction to individual scenes during my screening. On several occasions, people were laughing during scenes which I considered moving. This is a sign of the film’s rich emotional depth. It is important to remember that neither reaction is correct, as the film allows engagement on a deeply personal level. To tell someone they can’t laugh is to invalidate their individual history.

Boyhood is imbued with the rare quality of simultaneously being like every film you’ve ever seen, and being like no film you’ve seen before. The familiarity arises from the simple scenes of domesticity among Mason’s family. We are also confronted with standard coming-of-age fare, such as experimentation with drugs and alcohol and forays into sexual intimacy. Boyhood separates itself from the pack of generic American suburban dramas by not asking for our empathy, but demanding it. I often lament how the blockbusters and epics of Hollywood have been monopolised by the sci-fi, fantasy, and action genres. Regular readers of this blog would know I adore the drama genre, but I know a large proportion of the film-going public does not. If more dramas had the emotional gravitas of Boyhood, I think the genre would be back in vogue. Of course, the film partly achieves its “epic” quality through its 165-minute runtime. While others have complained that this is too long, I was never bored and wouldn’t have cared if it went on longer.   

When the film was over and I walked out of the cinema, I felt like hugging everyone I know. I wanted to call up a friend I hadn’t seen in months and ask to catch up over coffee. I wanted to approach a random pretty girl on the street and ask her out on a date because we will both be dead someday and that one act of courage could be the start of something special. I just felt so alive, goddamnit!

In the final scene of Boyhood, a character has an epiphany that people do not seize moments. It’s the other way around. The moments seize us. It reminded me of how difficult it is to define the present. If I say, “This is the present,” the sentence is immediately relegated to the past once I stop talking. The last time a film or television show made me so acutely conscious of my mortality is when I watched the finale of Six Feet Under and Nate Fisher uttered a sentence that has haunted me every day since: “You can’t take a picture of this. It’s already gone."

I just want everyone to see this film. It’s the type of film that can change a life. As someone who saw it at the age of 21, I’m fairly certain it will change mine. Hopefully, you will not remark—like a despondent Olivia realising her life consists of a series of milestones—“I just thought there would be more.”  

5/5 stars.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

May 2014 Film Wrap-Up

Carrie (Kimberly Peirce, 2013) = 1/5

Terrible. The antithesis of subtlety. In the 1976 adaptation, there was an undercurrent of sadness throughout the entire film. We ached for Carrie White and thought all of her bullies were complete dicks. In this film, mood and atmosphere are totally discarded. When bad things happen to Carrie, we think "How unfortunate!", not "How sad!". I wasn't cheering on the good characters and I wasn't despising the bad characters. And when you can't emotionally invest in a film, you sure as hell won't enjoy it.

De Palma's adaptation was a film driven by emotion. Peirce's remake feels superficial and dumbed-down. It is made with the premise that a film featuring many teenage characters must be pitched to teenagers, and fails to appreciate that the emotions of those teenagers are present in people younger and older, too.

Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) = 4/5

This was my second viewing of Do the Right Thing—an important, emotionally-charged film that would not be made today. It's fiercely original with memorable characters, and I love how Lee never divulges what the "right thing" is.

Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996) = 2.5/5

A film of daring originality that is unfortunately too cold to penetrate (no pun intended). For the uninitiated, the film is about a deviant subculture of people who channel the energy of car accidents to reinvigorate their sex lives. It just didn't offer a shred of empathy. And perhaps that was the intention as some statement on sexual objectification, but I am allowed to be opposed to that intention.

P.S. I will never look at an automobile in the same way again.

MAY 10
Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2010) = 3.5/5

For a film that covers an entire year, I expected it to encompass a broader emotional spectrum. Now, I am only 21, so I obviously lack a lot of life experience that informs Leigh's screenplay and, by extension, his characters' lives. That said, I followed these characters from spring through to winter and learned nothing about myself. I feel too much emphasis was given to the Lesley Manville character. It was just really difficult to empathise with her.

This is an actors' and writers' film. It is good, but it lacks the emotional gravitas I was expecting based on the poster's sprawling branches. If the leaves of the tree are symbolic of human experience, then the roots do not run too deep.

MAY 11
The Passion of Anna (Ingmar Bergman, 1969) = 3.5/5

Far from my favourite Bergman, but still great. The pace was unbearably slow at times, but with his searingly honest dialogue, Bergman never allows enough time for boredom to set in. A bleak exploration of deceit and cruelty, with excellent performances all round.

MAY 16
Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013) = 4/5

I'm ashamed to say that I had to wait until I was completely alone to watch this. If anyone else in my household had walked past the TV during a homoerotic scene, they would make ignorant comments. Thankfully, I have the maturity to watch cinema that caters to sexual orientations other than my own. I feel sorry for people who don't, because they miss out on gems like this.

Carnal desire meets carnal demise in this intensely gripping film. It is deftly directed and I particularly admire Guiraudie's aesthetic choices. Despite taking place in one location, visual monotony never threatens to permeate the film. On a less important note, the poster is fucking beautiful!

MAY 17
This is the End (Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen, 2013) = 3.5/5 

I'm not entirely sure what I just watched, but I liked it. A delightfully bizarre and outrageously funny film that thrives on spontaneity. It must have been tempting to make this film as a collection of in-jokes with nothing at stake for the viewer, but the film does not venture down that path, and that really impressed me. Oh, and a word of advice: you may want to dust off those Backstreet Boys CDs to get you in the mood for this. 

MAY 18
Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984) = 3/5

A revelation of its era that is unfortunately not as impressive today. I wish the characters were as engaging as the cinematography. Maybe I just expected too much from it.

MAY 19
You're Next (Adam Wingard, 2011) = 3.5/5

It may not be as clever as it thinks it is, but the film is slickly directed and imbued with a wry sense of humour. It was also refreshing to see some jump scares that were genuinely jolting. So much better than two similar films: The Strangers and The Purge.

MAY 20
The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992) = 3.5/5

Jaye Davidson and Stephen Rea give brilliant performances in this bittersweet tale of love and redemption. People can't seem to talk about this film without mentioning its twist. Jordan knows better than to use the twist as a cheap payoff, instead couching it in the middle of the film to magnify everything that has gone before, and make the remainder of the film more interesting.

I guess the thing that stopped me from truly loving this film was the lack of an emotional centre. I couldn't squarely identify with anyone as the film teetered awkwardly between political thriller and love story. After such an engaging first act, Jordan attempts to tackle too many plot lines and the film suffers as a result.

MAY 22
Kicking and Screaming (Noah Baumbach, 1995) = 4.5/5

This sorely underrated film is so delightfully quotable. I think the key to its success is that it explores the hipster mentality but was made at a time when the word 'hipster' had not permeated mainstream culture. Thus, it doesn't fall into the trap of being self-aware.

Its depiction of life after college is deadly accurate, and these characters' hopes and fears become our own as the film progresses. For a film about pseudo-intellectuals, the film is not lacking in heart. Baumbach understands the disconnect that arises from being well-versed in Keats yet clueless about the trajectory of your own professional life...of referencing theorists but not extending your own theories. All of these characters display a charming, relatable naivety, and it proves a challenge to not fall in love with them.

Oh, and just for the record, the closing lines of this film are some of the most beautiful words you will ever hear.

MAY 30
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) = 4.5/5

On the way to see this, I joked with my friends that 90% of the audience for this film would be horny teenage boys who can't afford Mr Skin subscriptions. First of all, that wasn't the case. Secondly, if any horny teenage boys do see the film to get a glimpse of Scarlett Johansson's lady parts, I'm sure they will walk out of the theatre with a lust for something else: cinema. 

This was one of the most profound, engaging viewing experiences I've had in my entire life. A haunting reverie where atmosphere is key, and where minimalistic plotting allows feeling to come to the fore. The lighting in this film is absolutely incredible...some of the best I've ever seen. Some of the landscapes conjured up my own memories of brisk dawns, rainy afternoons, and seemingly endless nights.  

When I watch a film as powerful as this, I am reminded of the Nietzsche aphorism, "And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." The term 'art film' has long been criticised as a vague, pretentious term, but films like Under the Skin justify its existence. I can't stop thinking about this film, and I don't think it will ever leave me. It has formed a communion with my soul.

In Summary - The Must-See Films (4.5 or 5 Stars)
* Kicking and Screaming
* Under the Skin