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

Film review – Shame (2011)

6 February 2012
Shame: Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) and Sissy Sullivan (Carey Mulligan)

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) and Sissy Sullivan (Carey Mulligan)

In The Lost Weekend (1945) Billy Wilder portrayed alcoholism as a serious affliction rather than a delightful and humorous eccentricity. In The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) Otto Preminger debunked the cliché of the drug-fiend to reveal that narcotic addiction afflicts even ‘respectable’ members of society. In Shame video artist and Hunger director Steve McQueen does something similar with the condition loosely described as sex addiction. The protagonist Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is not a comical sex maniac, but an outwardly stable and content man whose life is inwardly dictated by the need to continually orgasm, whether by masturbation, paying for prostitutes, looking at pornography or having sex with willing strangers.

Shame opens with a flashforward/flashback sequence where the events of several hours are edited together out of sequence to convey Brandon’s ritualistic lifestyle. Not unlike Henry Mancini’s score for the opening of Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958), Harry Escott’s music for the opening of Shame distinctively features a repetitive percussion to suggest a bomb about to go off; a continuous countdown to Brandon’s next release. As he methodically walks naked around his sparse apartment, often his head is out of shot but his penis displayed, frequently close to the centre of the frame, indicating how much it has defined his life. The production design emphasises industrial design, to suggest Brandon’s mechanical and compulsive sexuality. Shots in the film contain a strong depth-of-field and appear to be shot with a long focal length to visually flatten out the scene and render it lifeless.

Sex for Brandon is functionary. Like with substance addiction, the joy of the ‘hit’ has long gone and all that’s left is the necessity to feed the addiction. Very little emotion can be seen on his face, other than an intense look of concentration. On the subway when he makes eye contact with a woman and communicates his intentions with a steady gaze, there is something absent from his eyes. She conveys a range of emotions to indicate she is flattered, aroused, nervous, apprehensive and even a bit scared, while he just maintains his look of hopeful expectation. She’s not an object of desire for him or even some kind of sexual prey; she’s simply an opportunity to feed his addiction.

The illusion of control plays a big part in Brandon’s condition. He has created an isolated life that allows him to feed his addiction, although a moment early in the film where he nervously reacts to his work computer being taken away suggests that he is not as on top of his impulses as he likes to believe he is. He also underestimates how a sex life based on artificial representations of sex through pornography, prostitution and anonymous encounters in alleyways, has hijacked his ability to form intimate relationships. In a key scene he is unable to perform with a potential romantic partner and then has no problem re-enacting with a prostitute a sexual encounter he saw a couple of days before. Both scenes take place in an open white room, dominated by a large, black widescreen television representing how sexual imagery and sexual representations have overridden real sexual connections.

Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) intrudes into the insular world he has created for himself, first through a series of answering machine messages that play while he is trying to masturbate, and then by showing up at his apartment and moving in with him. As a contrast to his ordered and almost ritualised life, Sissy is chaotic, disruptive and breaks down boundaries between Brandon’s private and professional life. She is also the only person Brandon relates to and is burdened with her own compulsive need to be loved. They are two sides of the same coin: Brandon is emotionally detached while Sissy is overly emotional, and yet both are bonded by an unexplained shared experience that has prevented them from being able to forge real relationships. In a mesmerising sequence consisting of close-ups on both their faces, Brandon watches Sissy sing at a bar. The deep love that they have for each other and the sorrow they feel for being so disconnected is expressed on their faces, revealing they are damaged people who are more than their compulsions.

Sexual politics are never the primary focus of Shame, even though issues of sexuality and representation underpin the entire film. While Brandon’s sexual appetite has been defined by the patriarchal commodification of sex, which reduces women to titillating body parts rather than whole beings, the film is careful not to suggest that Brandon is exploiting anybody or harbours aggression towards any of the women he has sex with. He is the product of a sexualised society rather than a victim or perpetrator of it. Women for Brandon are frequently the means to an end, but that doesn’t mean he hates them. Shame even includes a homosexual scene to indicate Brandon’s quest for sex is based on the need for the release rather than fulfilling any actual desires, sexual or otherwise. The double edged-sword is that this scene seems to also exist to use homosexuality to suggest Brandon’s downward spiral, which is disappointing considering how smart and sensitive the rest of the film is.

Shame is nevertheless an impressive addition to the small group of films that attempt to explore the nature of addiction. It’s a more conventional film than Hunger, but it still showcases McQueen’s remarkably ability to generate tension through long takes and to use the production design to communicate complex and difficult issues without overstatement, judgement or sensationalism. Despite the themes of detachment Shame is somehow also a beautiful film with just enough warm light glowing around the screen’s edges to keep the audience entranced.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Hunger (2008)

18 November 2008

Hunger is the startling film debut by the Turner Prize winning English video artist Steve McQueen. Set in the Northern Irish Maze Prison in 1981, Hunger begins during the notorious Blanket and No-Wash protest, led by Irish Republican Army prisoners who wanted political prisoner status. While the focus of the film is initially on one of the prison guards and a new prisoner, the later part of the film centres on Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender from 300) who led the hunger strike that would eventually kill him.

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