A belated Happy New Year!
I just wanted to leave this note to announce that I will not recommence writing weekly long form film reviews for Cinema Autopsy – not for a while anyway. However, I will provide links to some of the other stuff I’m doing and when possible I will upload any pieces that have previously only existed in print, including any short capsule reviews of new release films and DVDs.
Instead, for this year at least, I will mainly use Cinema Autopsy to do monthly summaries of what I’ve been watching and can recommend. Rather than writing formal reviews, I’ll provide some more casual commentary on what I’ve been excited about most recently.
January 2014 has been an astonishingly good month for Australian cinemagoers as we caught up on many of the incredible films that were released in the northern hemisphere at the end of last year.
Leading the pack for me is the latest by Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis, about a down-and-out folk singer trying to get by in New York in the early 1960s. I love the film’s melancholic settings and cinematography, the gorgeous soundtrack, the clever narrative structure with its strange mirroring scenes and surprise flashforward, and all the excellent performances; most of all Oscar Isaac who communicates so much about what he is thinking and feeling while singing or in silence. I love that so many moments are simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious.
Mostly, I love how sincere the film is and that it is about somebody with an amazing talent who does not succeed. Too often Hollywood cinema tells us that having a dream, being true to ourselves and working really hard will lead to success and happiness, but that isn’t true and Inside Llewyn Davis provides a welcome respite to that myth and suggests that luck also plays a part. After Barton Fink from 1991 – also about a frustrated and doomed creative person – this is my favourite film by the Coens.
Her was a huge surprise for me, as while I’ve enjoyed all of Spike Jonze’s films on varying levels, the premise of a man falling in love with his computer operating system left me feeling a bit sceptical. So I was somewhat taken aback by how thoughtful and moving Her was and the extent in which it deviated away from how I imagined it to be. It’s a film of fascinating contradictions – the depiction of the very plausible not-too-distant future is both beautiful and warm, but also sterile and vacuous. This of course reflects the themes of the film where social media and technology has brought people closer together than ever before, but we are now more detached than ever from those immediately around us.
Her asks more questions than it answers and is the better film for it. For example, so what if we derive happiness from something artificial? Who are any of us to judge how somebody else finds joy and companionship? And the next thing you know the film is pondering the age-old philosophical question of what it means to be real and what reality exists beyond the material world.
The feature films of video artist Steve McQueen are characterised for their formal structure and style, their focus on suffering and their striking juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness. McQueen’s adaption of the 1853 memoir 12 Years a Slave is no different, although it is the most traditionally narrative driven of McQueen’s films. It is a bold film about Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. McQueen ensures the audience feel the injustice and brutality of slavery without turning the horrors into a grotesque spectacle. This is a film of integrity and restraint where McQueen is extremely careful about when to show something in close-up and how long for.
Watching 12 Years a Slave is not an ordeal or something that I felt obliged to do, and yet as the credits rolled and I left the cinema I felt the enormity of what I had experience crash down upon me. It’s difficult to describe this as a film I enjoyed, but I did ‘enjoy’ having that surge of emotion that compelled me to stop and appreciate what the film had presented. And I certainly took pleasure from the craftsmanship displayed by McQueen and all the other filmmakers involved. The lingering close-up of lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor where he momentarily looks at the audience is something I haven’t been able to shake off.
The final film that I really loved in January is Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which does make a spectacle out of the horrors the real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) indulges in. Like the violence of previous Scorsese films, the grotesque hedonism, misogyny, shameless exploitation and psychotic bullying of the stockbroker world are delivered as vicarious thrills for the increasingly bewildered audience.
The Wolf of Wall Street is frequently hilarious, and DiCaprio’s comedic skills in key scenes are a revelation, but I found myself laughing at The Wolf of Wall Street in the way many of us laugh at the violence and gore in horror films – it’s a shocked response to the over-the-top nature of what is onscreen. The Wolf of Wall Street is at its core another Scorsese gangster film depicting the rise, triumph and then whimpering fade of a thug – it’s just this time the thug wears a white collar, is part of a supposedly legitimate system and ruined far more lives.
Otherwise, I also really liked James Erskine’s documentary The Battle of the Sexes about the significance of the 1973 novelty tennis match between the current female champion Billie Jean King and the retired men’s champion Bobby Riggs, a self described ‘male chauvinist pig’. Erskine very successfully puts the match into the context of the feminist moment to demonstrate that while it was a silly media stunt for Riggs, it had big ramifications for the status of women’s sport.
I enjoyed Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) on a purely sensory level. However, I’m a bit uncertain to what extent the film shares the views of its aging socialite lead character who spends most of the film reflecting on his life while strolling around Rome. Fortunately the film seems to deliberately undermine his dismissal of modern art forms and modes of artistic expression, but it does then seem to endorse his rather regressive view of women. Nevertheless, I was able to lose myself in the gorgeous visuals and sound design, even though I suspect it’s all a bit empty.
Finally, Laurent Cantet’s Foxfire got released on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia early in the year, bypassing a full theatrical release. It’s a 1950s period film about a gang of teenage girls who fight back against the various humiliations, condescension and violence they have experienced from the men who live in the small town they are from in upstate New York. A terrific cast of mostly unknown young actors explore how the line between revolution and criminality can be blurred in this coming-of-age/gangster film.