review

Under the Skin

Under the Skin

Released 2014. Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Screenplay by Walter Campbell, based on “Under the Skin” by Michel Faber. Starring Scarlett Johansson.

Under the Skin is film of a type that is predictably disappointing. It’s beautiful, methodical and curious, and absolutely impenetrable. It’s of a type that is legitimised by people who express distaste for tentpole releases, saying that films shouldn’t tell simply tell the audience everything they have to offer; that as a viewer, I need to be putting in the work to extract meaning. Indeed, I agree with this. It’s the intensity with which that opinion is held that I find problematic, because it ends up allowing wilfully opaque films to evade criticism – it’s as though they’re so difficult to understand, they must be saying something meaningful, even though you haven’t a clue what it is. This is the case with Under the Skin, a film that is utterly unyielding to interpretation. The overall experience is frustrating, though enticing.

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The Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate Assange and Daniel

Released 2013. Directed by Bill Condon. Screenplay by Josh Singer, based on “Inside Wikileaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website” by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and “Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” by David Leigh and Like Harding. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl.

Sadly I couldn’t help myself from leaking a plot spoiler or two.

I love impersonations. A good one is witty and charming; a great one can be transformative. Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of Julian Assange, the controversial founder of whistleblowing epicentre Wikileaks, is utterly remarkable, and undoubtedly the biggest virtue of The Fifth Estate. Thanks to his white hair, he bears a certain physical resemblance to the Australian troublemaker (although he remains unmistakeably Cumberbatch), he crucially nails the lilt peculiar to Assange’s voice, and has a decent go of translating a trait particular to those who are elusive, shadowy and unknowable: elusive, shadowy unknowability. His Assange is always slightly unpredictable, his actions not characterised by deceit but never far away from it. It’s probably the only sensible way to access the character, and therefore might be an obvious choice, but Cumberbatch’s portrayal is of such quality that one is forced to look elsewhere for the reason his performance has (perhaps aptly) slipped under the radar of cultural impact and awards consideration. That reason is director Bill Condon, who is doing an impersonation of his own.

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This Is Not a Film

Released 2012. Directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi.

When René Magritte painted a picture of a pipe and gave it the caption, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe,’ he was making a smart and humorous artistic statement: this is a representation of a pipe using paint, not an actual pipe. When, however, following a banal sequence of shots depicting Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s morning routine, the words “This Is Not a Film” appear on the cinema screen, the effect is very different. Despite the allusion to Magritte’s painting, these words connote something more aggressive. Panahi is making a political assertion, not a joke. His twenty-year ban on directing films, and six-year prison sentence, make this title defiant and powerful. On the one hand, it introduces the tricky question of what the boundaries of the medium of film are; on the other, it aggressively challenges the authorities that threaten his career and life.

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The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street

Released 2014. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by Terence Winter, based on the book of the same name by Jordan Belfort. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie.

As ever, the ending of this film is discussed here, as are other things you might not want revealed. So really you should just go and see it, because it’s absolutely brilliant, then come back and read this.

There’s a moment in The Wolf of Wall Street that made my heart briefly stop. In the three hours of fabulously kinetic pandemonium, it might be easy to ignore, but it struck me deeply. Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, is under investigation by the SEC and FBI, who are interviewing its senior management. It’s predictable that these executives will be uncooperative, but the first time one of them uttered the phrase, “I do not recall”, I sat bolt upright. “I do not recall.” Those four words define the untouchable safety in which the world’s most powerful people live, and the impotence of the legal and judicial systems in attempting to investigate their wrongdoing. The US is most familiar with them with regards to the 2008 financial crisis and collapse of several financial institutions; those in the UK will have vivid memories of its repeated use by the newspaper industry in deflecting questions about its ethical and legal misconduct. Those four words are the catchphrase of the rich and powerful when caught, a magic incantation that disappears severe repercussions. Their use in The Wolf of Wall Street made me realise, for the first time, that these people are real.

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Her

Released 2014. Written and directed by Spike Jonze. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams.

Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze, is a curious film. It’s intriguing, smart, heartfelt and, for the most part, engrossing. It’s off-kilter and quirky in just the right way. But as a satire, it didn’t have much to say. As a drama, it failed to move me. And it really loses its way towards the end.

But before we get to that, I want to talk about what there is to like about Her. And there’s a lot to like.

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12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

Released 2014. Directed by Steve McQueen. Screenplay by John Ridley, based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch.

I’ve been trying to write about 12 Years a Slave in an impersonal, methodical way, but I can’t. So strong was my response to this film that I need to bring my background and experience to the surface of my review, so here it is: as a 25-year-old white male who’s never had much to be bullied about, let alone abused, as much as I try to empathise with slaves depicted in media, it’s not a life I know anything about, even tangentially. It’s all too easy for me to observe portrayals of slavery and nod along, intellectually appreciating the cruelty and brutality shown without getting anywhere near an understanding of the hopelessness, the suffering, the human cost. Whenever I see slavery in media, I know what the appropriate response is, and I don’t have any trouble understanding what I’m being told, and it’s not as though I disagree that slavery is evil, but I’ve never truly felt it. The slaves I see live in another world, and are born into their situations. I don’t have any trouble sympathising, but I do have trouble empathising. The slaves I see are not like me.

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