Films I loved in January 2014

2 February 2014

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.

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis

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.

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly in Her

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly in Her

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.

Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave

Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave

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.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street

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.

Thomas Caldwell 2014
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MIFF 2013: Next Gen

13 May 2013
Next Gen 2013

Image from Day of the Crows

When not reviewing films I work for the Melbourne International Film Festival on the programming team. The first part of  the 2013 MIFF program was announced today and I’m very excited, as it is one of the sections that I worked on. The following is a presentation I gave last Friday to launch the Next Gen program for this year:

Next Gen is a program of entertaining and challenging cinema selected for a youth audience.

The program was established in 2007 to enrich the cinema experience for younger viewers, as well as stimulate discussion and social awareness. Encouraging students to become active viewers, who question and challenge the moving image, is essential in a media-saturated era. The films this year were selected for their diversity, innovation and high quality, as well as being relevant and accessible to audiences of all ages. Through drama, documentary and animation, issues such as family, prejudice, injustice, violence, rebellion, identity and overcoming hardship are explored with integrity and depth.

With a handful of exceptions, these are not films many people would traditionally classify as ‘kids’ or ‘family’ films. Instead, they are a diverse, innovative and high quality collection of films that will appeal to people of all ages.

Valentine Road

Valentine Road

The documentary Valentine Road is something that will resonate with very wide audiences. It is about the 2008 murder of 15-year-old Lawrence ‘Larry’ King by one of his classmates. It becomes apparent that the murder was a hate crime, committed in response to King’s sexuality and gender identification. Director Marta Cunningham, who will be a festival guest, allows the teachers, friends and legal experts involved in the subsequent trial to speak for themselves without overt judgment. By doing so Cunningham delivers an insight into how young people are affected by the environments they grow up in, especially ones that cultivate and even excuse violent crime, as a response to somebody deemed different.

Another film to confront the impact of violence is the Irish film What Richard Did, by director Lenny Abrahamson. This extremely sophisticated drama is about the kind of guy Australians would consider ‘a good bloke.’ Richard is charismatic, friendly, attractive and a high achiever. He’s a good friend, a respectful son and looks after others. He then does something in the heat of the moment that has an unexpectedly devastating effect. This film about culpability, masculinity and the dangers of alcohol is particularly relevant to Australian audiences, many of who will no doubt recognise how closely the events in this film reflect various stories in the news from the past twelve months.

An interesting contrast to Valentine Road and What Richard Did is the Canadian film Blackbird, about a teenage boy falsely accused of planning a school massacre. Evoking recent films such as The Hunt and West of Memphis, this is a film about persecution as a result of mob hysteria. Many will identify with the young protagonist who identifies as a goth resulting in an outsider status that sees him bullied at school and then falsely accused after he vents his frustration by writing a revenge fantasy short story that he then unwisely shares online. Director Jason Buxton shared the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival SKYY Vodka Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film with Brandon Cronenberg for Antiviral.

I Declare War

I Declare War

On a lighter note, the Canadian film I Declare War is a sort of updated Lord of the Flies with a touch of Where the Wild Things Are. The film is set in a forest on one summer’s day, where two groups of kids play an elaborate war game. The kids carry sticks and water bombs, but the film depicts their ‘weapons’ the way the kids see them – as machine guns and grenades. Constantly alternating between fantasy and reality, I Declare War is a parody of war film clichés, a kid-centric adventure film and at times a disturbing look at learned behaviour. However, it’s mostly a lot of fun.

Also fun is the South Korean supernatural romantic comedy/drama A Werewolf Boy, which is thankfully far closer in spirit to Edward Scissorhands than it is to the Twilight films. MIFF regulars may recognise the name of filmmaker Jo Sung-hee as the director of End of Animal from MIFF 2011. However, it is unlikely that audiences will detect any similarities between the two films, which are completely different from each other in terms of style, tone and pace.

Another regional film in Next Gen is Touch of the Light, a Taiwan/Hong Kong co-production featuring the young vision-impair pianist Huang Yu-siang playing himself in a fictionalised story of his experiences entering music school. This crowd-pleasure was a huge hit in Taiwan and has been supported by the acclaimed Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai.

Capturing Dad

Capturing Dad

Also close to home is the odd yet endearing Japanese comedy/drama Capturing Dad, about two sisters awkwardly attending the funeral of a father they never knew. It’s refreshing to see a film with such a strong and sophisticated focus on the relationship between sisters (and between mothers and daughters), and Capturing Dad manages to be extremely charming without ever resorting to sentimentality. In fact, a lot of the humour is surprising dark.

Other films that edge more into crowd-pleasuring/family film territory are the Kurdish-language film Bekas and the German film Patty’s Catchup. Based on the experiences of the films writer/director Karzan Kader, Bekas is a spirited adventure film about two orphaned brothers trying to flee Iraq during Sadaam Hussein’s rule. Tina von Traben’s Patty’s Catchup is a fun family drama about three sisters attempting to run a sausage stand, despite one of the sisters preferring to follow her dreams of being a renowned chef.

The film most suitable for very young audiences is the lovely animated film Moon Man by Stephan Schesch, based on Tomi Ungerer’s classic picture book of the same name. However, there are enough Monty Pythonesque and surreal visual gags to keep audiences of all ages entertained.  It is also nice to see a film that aligns scientific curiosity with childlike wonder while satirising governments that are obsessed with jingoism and aggression.

Another animation in the program is the stunning beautiful and moving Day of the Crows by Jean-Christophe Dessaint. Although it is a French-language film, it contains more than a hint of influence from Studio Ghibli, not just visually, but with its blend of fantasy, humour and whimsy, with some very grounded themes concerning persecution and parental neglect. It also features voice acting by Jean Reno and the late Claude Chabrol.

Approved for Adoption

Approved for Adoption

The other impressive French-language animation in the program is Approved for Adoption, the Audience Award winner at last year’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival. A sort of animated memoir in the vein of Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis, it is about the childhood experiences of Jung, the film’s writer and co-director (with Laurent Boileau). After the Korean War Jung was abandoned as a baby and adopted by a Belgium family resulting in a childhood where he struggled with his cultural identity and sense of belonging.

The final film in the Next Gen program is English language, but by French director Laurent Cantet, who won the Palme d’Or in 2008 for his film The Class. The film is Foxfire, based on a 1993 novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Featuring nearly all young female cast, the film is set in 1950s upstate New York and follows the misadventures of a group of teenage girls who begin to fight back against the patriarchy. The mixture of protofeminism, socialism and teen rebellion results in an exhilarating film that explores how criminality and organised resistance are regarded.

More information: miff.com.au/nextgen

School bookings and study guides: metromagazine.com.au/nextgen

Thomas Caldwell
Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator
Melbourne International Film Festival