PERFECTLY NORMAL

CALLUM MCDOUGALL

This image was created using a variant of my thread art algorithm - read more here.

This page contains my film log, where I write up thoughts on all the films I've watched. See here for my list of all-time favourite films.


My Film Log


All Of Us Strangers

April 21, 2024

Like a few of the recent films I've seen, I don't want to write too much about this here because it'd be very easy to reveal too much. It's quite light on plot, and a lot of the experience of the film rests on discovering the rules of this world, what each character believes and percieves, as well as understanding the different layers that conversations exist on once new information is revealed.

One thing I will mention is that this film conveys loneliness in a really unique way. Lots of films I've seen have depicted loneliness or made you empathise with lonely characters, but this film made me feel lonely while watching it. Watching the film is quite a disorienting experience, it feels like you're walking through a hazy dream with Andrew Scott's character, trying to understand what you're experiencing. It's only when you wake up from that dream that you realize what happened, and experience the overwhelming sadness of losing something you didn't even know you had until it was gone.

Dune - Part 2

March 30, 2024

Dune part 2 pretty much lived up to my expectations. As cliche as it sounds, the word "epic" isn't close to sufficient to describe it. I didn't know how much they'd steer into they ways Paul changes throughout the story, but they really surpassed my expectations here. There's a scene about 2/3 of the way through the film where he's essentially proselytising to a crowd, and in that moment I genuinely felt terrified of him and the power he's wielding.

As for some issues I had, I still think the massive celebrity dump gets pretty distracting at times. I couldn't imagine anyone other than Timothy Chalamet in the lead role after this film, and some new characters like Austin Butler do a great job, but for the life of me I don't know why Christopher Walken was in this film. The emperor doesn't even get enough screen time to justify having such a big named actor; they don't really play him up as an intimidating force or a frail old man because there's no opportunity to do that. The moments of comic relief also felt pretty forced a lot of the time - given how well they convey the danger of fanatical religious belief (which is basically the central theme of Dune), I've no idea why they felt the need to include a scene pretty much lifted straight from Monty Python's Life of Brian (you'll know it when you see it).

All that aside though, this film is an incredible experience. I watched it in Imax, and I don't think I've been as captivated by a film's world, visuals and scale in the cinema in the same way since back in 2017 when I saw my favourite film, Blade Runner 2049 (ironically also Denis Villeneuve). Since that's my favourite film, it's kind of hard for me not to compare those two films, and I don't think either Dune film holds a candle to Blade Runner. That said, I still hugely enjoyed this, and would definitely recommend it.

Past Lives

March 15, 2024

This film hit me harder emotionally than anything I've seen since Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It's a simple and understated story, but it's told with an incredible level of tenderness. It was apparently partially autobigraphical (inspired from real events in Celine Song's life), but even films based on real events or experiences can sometimes feel tropey, or like they're not accurately representing real lives - in contrast, this film is seeped in authenticity, holding a genuine love and sympathy for all its characters. It doesn't paint anyone as the villain or victim even though that would be easy in a situation like this. It doesn't even feel like it's trying to subvert your expectations of a traditional romance either - it's just painfully, piercingly real.

On top of this, Past Lives has so much to say about relationships and personal identity - how we define ourselves in terms of our childhoods and our life choices, how we connect with others, and what those connections say about us. This is especially clear in a conversation Nora and Arthur have around 2/3 of the way into the film, which is a perfect example of Past Lives' refusal to paint anything in black and white, and also includes my favourite line of the film -

"You dream in a language that I can't understand. There's a whole place inside of you where I can't go."

I could honestly gush about this film for hours. The first shot of the film is perfect, not being fully contextualized until the film comes full circle. There are a couple of scenes throughout the film where we flash back to earlier moments of Nora and Hae Sung's lives, including one when they first meet, and I don't think I've seen a single static shot in any film that conveys more meaning than that one. Although I prefer the second half of the film overall, I still love watching the scenes of Nora and Hae Sung reconnecting over videochat; these scenes really convey the joy of reconnection and falling in love. And the ending is just perfect - neither oversimplifying nor needlessly tragic; it's the essence of bittersweet.

Burning

March 2, 2024

I'll keep this write up light on plot, because I don't want to say anything about this film for people who might be interested in watching it. I think a trailer or even summary of the premise would give away too much, and part of the joy of this film is watching what it unravels itself into.

There are some things I can say. The performances are incredible, especially Steven Yeun from the Walking Dead cast (his might actually be my favourite performance I've seen in any film since I started this log). The cinematography is stunning, especially all the long shots taken at sunset or daybreak, to the extent that you'll wonder how they pulled it off. It can be slow at times, and there are certain parts of the film where it felt like the narrative wasn't progressing nearly as fast, but having finished it I'm pretty sure that there's a lot of significance to mine from these parts of the film, even if I missed it on first watch.

So yeah, definitely a watch recommendation from me on this film. If I had to compare it to any other film I've seen, I'd say it's like a slower-burn, more psychological version of Parasite, with elements of symbolism & meta narrative dissection that kind of remind me of Christopher Nolan's The Prestige - and as great as both those films are, I think I actually like this one even more.

Fallen Angels

February 25, 2024

I don't know if I like this film more than Chunking Express, but I think in some ways it's better at achieving what it sets out to do. The way the storyline jumps between the different sets of main characters helps communicate the disconnected, messy internal lives of the characters more than the bisected structure of Chunking Express does. I love the choice to have almost the entire film set at night, which adds to the sleepy haze and isolation that the characters seem blanketed with. I also love the off-kilter cinematography, which catches you off-guard and pulls you into the world of the film, whether you want to or not. Lastly, I also love the final shot of the film - that scene will probably stick with me for quite a while.

If I had an issue, it's that the stories feel a bit too freewheeling, random and unstructured for the film to come together into something greater than the sum of its parts. It nails a feeling, but unlike Chunking Express I don't know if it nails the narrative payoff. At times it feels more like a vignette than a full, complete film. That said, you couldn't ask for a more unique and emotionally affecting vignette, and I'll definitely watch it again.

The Worst Person in the World

February 18, 2024

I really loved this film, it's one of my favourites that I've seen in while.

It centers around a character trying to find themselves, but wrapped up in their own narcissism. She's treating the world around her as a vehicle for her own journey. There's some incredible cinematography and creative ways of storytelling. One particular scene where time literally stands still has really stuck with me, and is one of my favourite scenes I've seen in any film in a long time.

In some ways this film reminded me of another which I really love - Francis Ha. In that film, the main character's flaws are naivity and nostalgia, allowing the world to buffer her around while she struggles to find her feet. By contrast, in this film the main character's flaws are her own self-absorbtion; her expectation that life should play out exactly like she expects it to, and the decisions she's willing to make to that end. It might be slightly harder to relate to, but not impossible - we've all made self-sabotaging decisions in the past, because we felt in that moment like it was something we just had to do, consequences be damned. I can definitely see myself revisiting this film later in life.

Uncut Gems

February 17, 2024

This film was super impressive, but also hard to watch at times. It's emotionally draining watching the main character pinball between highs and lows, fuelled only by his ego and his need to fly close to the sun. It feels intensely claustrophobic and nail-biting in every scene. If I had to compare it to any film I've seen, it would be Shiva Baby. But a key difference between these two films is how the main character is treated - Uncut Gems can have you hate and sympathize with Adam Sandler's character at the flip of a switch. The film feels like a psychoanalysis of the kinds of addictive behaviour that can fuel us, and the ways in which they wreak destruction on our lives and the lives of the people around us. We simultaneously want the main character to win, and want him to stop - because we know what he doesn't; that no amount of winning will ever be enough for him.

But yeah, despite all of that, this isn't a film I can see myself watching again. That's not really a knock against the film though, if anything it's a mark of how well the film did what it was setting out to do.

Rye Lane

February 8, 2024

I took an unfortunate hiatus from watching films weekly thanks to being busy with running the ARENA program, and this was the perfect first film to watch to kick-start my habit again! It was sweet, cosy, and easy to watch.

A highlight for me was the visual style - as the characters get to know each other and tell their own stories, we get frequent cutaways to dramaticised retellings of these stories. These scenes don't feel corny or out of place, because they show us how the characters are trying to present themselves to each other.

At its worst, the film is a bit predictable at parts. But it's so infectiously uplifting and authentic that I didn't really mind. It did exactly what it set out to do, and did it really well. It was impossible for me to watch without a smile on my face.

The Quiet Girl

December 7, 2023

Don't have a lot to say about this film. I was super tired while watching it, and in hindsight probably should have pushed it to a different evening so I could focus a bit better. This film isn't an ideal one to watch when tired, because the plot is quite slow and uneventful. It's less focused on storytelling and more on creating an atmosphere - which in fairness, it does very well. The performances are all incredible, and the cinematography does a great job putting us in the point of view of Cáit (the main character, a young child). At times it reminded me of the Florida Project, where we see heartbreaking events play out for the family through the point of view of children who are too young and naive to fully understand what's happening. The difference here is that we get a sense Cáit does understand much of what's going on around her, sometimes more so than the adults give her credit for.

Although I enjoyed parts of the film, by the end I'm not sure what I was left with. As mentioned, it focuses more on being a “vibey” movie than a traditional narrative (and as also mentioned I was pretty tired while watching it, so take this with a pinch of salt).

Mustang

November 30, 2023

The emotional core of this film is the relationship between five sisters. Many of the scenes are incredibly naturalistic, showing the sisters having fun and goofing off, like they're all a single unit. The cinmatography also does a great job pulling us into their world during these scenes, so we feel like we're one of them, rolling around on the floor laughing, or jumping and cheering during a women-only audience national game of football (which I initially assumed was something the film made up to fit with its themes, but apparently it's a real thing that happened after unruly male behaviour at a previous match, so you learn something new every day!). As complete as we feel when the girls are all together, we equally feel their absence when they start leaving the story. It simultaneously feels like the world opens up around them, but there's still so much empty space in their lives which can't be replaced.

Although there's a lot to appreciate about this film, there also aren't as many things that stood out to me as others I've watched recently. It's not necessarily visually stunning in the same way that I found the last film I watched which tackled themes of marriage, female autonomy and sexual liberation (if I had a nickel for each of those I've seen in the last 2 weeks, I'd have 2 nickles - which isn't a lot, but it's weird that it happened twice). It also feels like the story finishes in the “obvious way” - although I guess there's an argument to be made that if it continued for another 15 minutes after that then it wouldn't be able to end on the same emotional tone, even if I was interested in what would happen next.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

November 22, 2023

I absolutely loved this film. Listing off all the great things about it would take longer than I have time to spare on these logs, but I'll do my best.

For starters, the color and cinematography are stunning. The phrase “every frame a painting” isn't just applicable, but also very appropriate given the film's themes and subject matter. But more than just being aesthetically nice, the shots are often deliberate in how they play with the viewer's perception. There are tracking shots where we follow a character's point of view (including my personal favourite shot of the film, which follows one of the main characters out of the doors of the house and leads us as the viewer on a chase through the woods and fields, without revealing the character's face). There are perspective shots which aren't from any character's point of view, but which make you feel like a silent observer. There are shots that play out for close to a minute until you think you understand the context of the scene, only to have the rug ripped out from under you when you're shown a different perspective.

It's honestly incredible how tightly the film manages to weave its central themes of art and perspective into every aspect of the film. Framing the film around the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is another great touch - it reinforces the ideas of perception, glances, temptation, looking, memory, rules, love and loss. The scene in which this myth is discussed ends with the line which I think encapsulates this film more than any other - "he doesn't make the lover's choice, but the poet's."

So many parts of the film feel like they're communicating with each other (even while watching a clip of the aforementioned scene, I noticed something else which foreshadows a later moment in the film). More than anything else I've seen, I expect there will be a lot more to pick up on my second watch - which I'm very much looking forward to.

Amélie

November 7, 2023

Aaaah this movie is so wholesome, it's like a warm blanket on a hot summer's day (and I don't even like hot weather but I still mean that as a compliment)

The way Amélie keeps trying to bring joy and color to the lives of people around her is just so uplifting. One of my favourite scenes is when she walks a blind man across the street - not seeing fit to just help him navigate, she overflows with zest and enthusiasm as she walks with him, excitedly pointing out all the features of the world around him, from the wrinkles in someone's eyes to the cheeses and hams hanging in the window of a shop. But the story isn't just about her quest to bring happiness to others, it's also about her learning to seek out happiness for herself.

For a film about people who find pleasure in all the little things, it's fitting that the film itself pays so much attention to things like sound design, set design and the color palette of rich greens and reds, and sun-bathed yellows. The world it constructs feels so tactile, like you can reach out and touch it, or breathe it in.

If I could come up with one criticism, I'd say there are a few scenes which seem a bit visually odd (e.g. some uncanny use of CGI) - rather than being an extension of the film's personality, it feels a bit unfitting, and not like something that's aged well. But this is a really minor point overall.

Some of my favourite films of all time (Blade Runner, Children of Men) are about huge miracles, bringing light back into a broken world. But this film is about all the small miracles of life, and I love it for that. I think I'll be returning to this film a lot in my life. It's a reminder that in this world, when you're looking out for people, sometimes there are also people looking out for you.

Embers

November 1, 2023

Everything about this film is so unrelentingly depressing. If you watch it, please watch Amélie afterwards (see the more recent review).

It's set in a world where most of the population has been wiped out by a disease, which has stopped people from forming short-term memories. The story follows a handful of individuals as they struggle to exist in this world.

Think “Memento”, but where the whole world is affected; and whereas Memento dealt with ideas of purpose and reality, this film deals in identity and experience — how can you move forward as a person, with this kind of existence. If your memories and experiences make up everything you are, then we essentially see the characters in this film die again every day.

There are lots of purposeful choices in this film which add to the tone and themes its going for. The color palette is super washed out (primarily whites and greys), and the score is sparse — almost like the inhabitants of this world have forgotten color and music.

Although this film is definitely emotionally hard-hitting, it's hard to know how much of that to credit to the film's concept, and how much to the actual filmmaking. The storylines aren't exactly unexpected, and even though there are multiple different characters to follow and the film is short (under 90 minutes), it still feels a bit stretched out at times. Ultimately though, I don't think the film really needed to be anything other than what it was, and it made me feel some serious emotions - even if they're emotions that I never want to revisit.

I seriously need an emotional pick-me-up after this, so I've put Amélie next on my watchlist 🙂

Kajillionaire

October 31, 2023

This is a really weird film. It has individual moments and scenes that really stuck with me, and pretty emotional themes of learning to love and accept yourself, free of the influence that other people might have on you. Tied into this is the idea of outlook, and perspective - when people should be forgiven, when it's right to see the best in them, and whether finding joy in the little things can really make life better.

But ultimately, the strangee choices made in this film (dialogue, performances, story decisions) were just a bit too much for me to be fully invested. It feels very purposeful, but that didn't stop it getting kinda grating after a while. There are also some scenes where it feels more like it's reaching for purposefulness and wedging it into the film, than actually earning it. I can see people loving this film if they get a lot out of this style, though.

Hero

October 24, 2023

Half the shots in this film are more beautiful than the entirety of most other films I've seen. The story is told from the persepctives of several different people, with each sub-story given a different defining color, and the production design alone is pretty much unmatched by any film I've seen.

I found parts of the story super compelling. In particular, I enjoyed how it plays with perspective and narrative. There are times when it feels like the film isn't just telling a legend, it's deconstructing the idea of legend (as pretentious as that sounds).

That said, I did find some parts of the story a bit strange and contrived, in ways which don't feel entirely excused by the fact that it's meat to be a dissection of story. I also wish I could take the wire-fu more seriously, but it does sometimes take me out of the scene I'm watching.

Green Room

October 21, 2023

Not a whole lot to say about this one, it's just a really fun and suspenseful horror/thriller. I love that it really feels like no character is safe, and how every drop of drama is squeezed out of the situations characters are in. The film manages to subvert classic horror tropes in surprising and enjoyable ways, without pretending that it's above them.

Short Term 12

October 18, 2023

I've never gone through the hardships depicted in this film, but it still managed to make me feel like a kid again.

One of the things that really stuck with me is the idea that no character in this film is beyond needing help, and being vulnerable. The film is about trust, needing help, and letting people in. In some ways, it's the anti-Trainspotting. While Trainspotting depicts the hopelessness of cycles, and how they're impossible to escape when the people around you are dragging you down, Short Term 12 demonstrates that cycles of pain can be broken. It breaths intimacy and empathy in every scene. It also joins the pretty small group of films which have made me tear up.

Climax

October 15, 2023

This film is absolutely batshit crazy. I've never seen anything like it.

The setup is pretty uncomplicated - a bunch of dancers are trapped together in a building overnight, and start tripping when someone spikes their sangria. But this film absolutely refuses to play by any rules.

It has a semi-improvised plot. There's a credits sequence half way through the film. The longest single shot is a 42 minute unbroken handheld tracking shot through the halls and dancefloors. The soundtrack is diagetic, with intense techno and EDM from the likes of Daft Punk and Aphex Twin, and ratchets up in insanity as the characters descend into madness.

Unlike most films on this list, I don't think I can wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone. It's designed to disturb, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it.

Trainspotting

October 11, 2023

I wish I connected with this film more than I actually did.

I enjoyed the dialogue, especially when it unexpectedly veered into a poetic elegance that belies the film's setting. There were some great running gags and character traits which ended up paying off at the end. And some of the highlights for me were the creative nonliteral visualisations of drug dependence and withdrawal.

Emotionally, the thing that stuck with me most was the feeling of hopeless cycles, of being completely disconnected from the world and just drifting through your life. But I don't think this film will stick with he as much as some of the other films on this list.

The Vast of Night

October 7, 2023

I wasn't expecting to like this film as much as I did. For a film which operated on an insanely small budget (less than $1 million) there are so many technically stunning shots, including two stand-out single take scenes. In one, we have a minutes-long unbroken POV shot running through an entire town and a gymnasium containing students playing a live game of basketball. In another, we spend nearly ten minutes focusing on the film's lead as she communnicates with people on a switchboard, trying to unravel the mysteries that are transpiring, while the tension keeps mounting.

The theme that I came away from this film with was storytelling. The lead characters are a radio DJ and switchboard operator, who listen to peoples' stories. The opening scene shows one of our lead characters going around town, interviewing people with her new tape recorder. During the film, we meet characters who have been waiting years to tell their stories, and characters who have been stripped of a voice with which to tell it. Even the film is framed as a story, presented like something out of a Twilight Zone episode.

Parts of it are pretty slow and uneventful, but it builds atmosphere wonderfully, and by the end it ended up being surprisingly touching and profound. I'll definitely be rewatching it in the future.

Drive

September 23, 2023

Was pretty underwhelmed by this film. I saw it a long time after seeing Baby Driver, and although I now understand why people say that Baby Driver borrowed liberally from this film's plot, I'm still pleased that I saw Baby Driver first because I think it's much better in almost every way. The way people talked about the style of Drive, and how it manifested itself in everything from the soundtrack to the visuals and costumes, I think I was expecting something that went a lot harder. There were also some other things that bothered me a bit, like some weird plot points (seriously how did Ryan Gosling think the final showdown was going to go down?), and a pretty underwritten female lead. Lots of reviews paint Drive as a meta-deconstruction of the action hero archetype - i.e. the Driver is someone who's see too many action movies and is just projecting his own fantasies and expectations onto his life - but honestly it feels like that description could equally apply to the director.

It was fine, definitely a better than average action film, but I don't think I'll remember much about it in a month (minus the soundtrack I guess).

Frances Ha

September 21, 2023

Given how much I enjoy Lady Bird, I wasn't expecting this to be my favourite Greta Gerwig project, but here we are.

I love that this film feels like the main character: mired in nostalgia, unable to move on from the past, freewheeling chaotically between times and places, trying to find a place to fit. The editing stood out, giving it a lot more personality - I love the montage-style way we often jump between scenes, conveying a lot with just a few shots.

The film also feels so authentic and true-to-life. One of my favourite things about the performaces are the subtle expressions and emotions we see on characters' faces when they think other characters can't see them. It feels so natural, and helps construct the film's point of view - we see the world through Frances' eyes, but we also see things which she can't, and which are obvious to everyone around her except for her. We see the patterns of behaviour which she can't escape from, and is trapped by.

But ultimately, the film presents a hopeful picture of growing up and moving on with your life - showing that change doesn't always have to be a bad thing.

Shiva Baby

September 12, 2023

This is easily the most anxiety-inducing film I've seen in a while. The setup is almost like a farce, except instead of the comedy building and releasing, it just builds more and more tension.

Rachel Sennott is amazing in this - I first saw her in Bodies Bodies Bodies (where she steals every scene) and it was great to see her in a leading role. She walks a perfect tightrope of emotions - sometimes consumed with so much anxiety that she can't talk to her family, and sometimes brazenly dangling the unspoken truth of her situation in front of them.

Chunking Express

September 9, 2023

It's hard not to compare Lost in Translation to this film in some ways. They both paint a highly detailed atmosphere, they're both light on plot, and they're both romances centered around lonely people finding connection.

I'm a sucker for good diagetic uses of music in film, and the repeated uses of California Dreamin' throughout the second half of the film do an amazing job taking us through all the ups and downs of their relationship. I will say that I enjoyed the second half of the film a lot more than the first (possibly also because it includes 2 of the film's 3 main characters!).

All this said, I didn't connect with this film as quite as much as I'd hoped to. Maybe the reason is because this film focuses on people who have already lost love, learning to heal their scars. I imagine there are parts of it which would ring painfully true to people who have had experiences like this. Maybe I'll relate to this film a lot more 10 years later in my life (although I kinda hope not!).

Lost in Translation

August 19, 2023

This film captures a certain kind of alienated loneliness in a painfully authentic way.

The first third mainly involves the two leads separate from each other. Many scenes reinforce the theme of being unable to connect and communicate - from translation difficulties during a photoshoot, to emotions unable to be conveyed across phone lines, to misunderstandings over the colors of a carpet. The film perfectly depicts how both characters feel lost and alone, even when they're surrounded by others. When I watch these parts, I feel like the characters do - outside, looking in. I feel their heartache alongside them. And when they find each other, it feels like they're the only two people in the world. This film made me fall in love with falling in love.

This film is intimate. It's special. It's a fantasy, whispered in a crowded street, swallowed up by the city.

(Also, Anna Faris is hilarious.)


My Kinda Arbitrary (And Definitely Subject To Change) Personal Ranking Of All These Films

  1. Lost in Translation
  2. Climax
  3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  4. Frances Ha
  5. Past Lives
  6. Amélie
  7. Burning
  8. Chunking Express
  9. The Worst Person in the World
  10. Fallen Angels
  11. Short Term 12
  12. The Vast of Night
  13. Shiva Baby
  14. Dune Part 2
  15. Uncut Gems
  16. Mustang
  17. Green Room
  18. Rye Lane
  19. All Of Us Strangers
  20. Hero
  21. Trainspotting
  22. The Quiet Girl
  23. Drive
  24. Embers
  25. Kajillionaire