Shame

Shame is a feeling that most of us know very well. Now imagine that feeling is so great, it dominates your every waking moment. Steve McQueen’s film Shame, which was released on DVD last week, takes a look at a man whose sexual addiction and shame associated with it have almost completely swallowed his life. This film does not pass judgment; it simply drops in to watch a man struggle with his darkness.

The protagonist, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), is held hostage by his sexual addiction, and has his life perfectly ordered in order to fulfill it. He forgoes personal connections, is emotionally distant and buries himself in his shameful secret. When his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a lounge singer, drops in unannounced, it throws his life into chaos. Just like Brandon, there appears to be something very wrong with Sissy. She is self destructive and an emotional wreak. Although their past is never addressed in the film, it’s clear that something awful has happened to both of them. There are moments where they seem to get along, but others where Brandon lashes out at Sissy with a terrible anger. The movie is tragic, and it appears as though Brandon’s situation may never improve.

I truly believe that Michael Fassbender should have been recognized by the Academy for this role. While I understand the politics regarding why he was overlooked, it would have been nice to see the Academy take a chance and nominate his riveting, and heartbreaking performance. Carey Mulligan is also good here as Sissy, though the role was a little too confined for her to really shine the way she has in previous films.

I found Steve McQueen’s sympathetic look into the dark, and often misunderstood world of a sex addict refreshing. It’s a controversial topic, indeed, the medical community seems to be split regarding whether sex addiction actually exists. When we do hear about it, sex addiction is all too often sensationalized by media, or winds up at the butt end of jokes. McQueen shows us a different side of a problem that is no laughing matter. Rather than showing Brandon reveling in sex, we are shown that it has become a necessary ritual for him. The camera often gets uncomfortably close to his face during intercourse and orgasm. He doesn’t look happy. In fact, he seems to loathe his actions so much, that he can’t bring himself to have sex with a woman he is genuinely interested in. He pursues sex relentlessly, picking up men and women (sexual preferences don’t seem to matter to him, it’s only the act he is interested in) and risking his job by filling his work desktop with porn. As the film progresses, we watch Brandon fall further into a spiral of self destructive behaviour. At one point in the film he approaches a woman at a bar, and explains in detail the lewd things he wants to do to her. Her boyfriend, who is beside her, confronts Brandon, and beats him up as he is leaving.

Strengths aside, Shame is not without its flaws. This slice of life film moves along at a very slow and methodical pace, which will not be to everyone’s tastes. Although I found the majority of it fascinating, the tail end of the film really drags. Some scenes also teeter on the edge of pretentiousness, such as Sissy’s bizarre, and super slowed rendition of “New York New York”. The scene just barely works, and showcases one of Brandon’s rare scenes of emotional honesty, yet it felt a little too surreal for the rest of the film, and doesn’t quite fit.

While not perfect, Shame is a powerful film. I commend Steve McQueen for an unwavering portrayal of such a controversial and misunderstood subject.

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Crazy 8’s and Story of Burqa

Hello everyone! I’m planning on putting up some fresh reviews this week, but in the meantime I figured I should share two other reviews I completed for Vancouver Weekly.

The first was a review of the Crazy 8’s Screening here in Vancouver at the beginning of April. It was tons of fun and there was some great talent on display.

The second was for a film I just watched last week called Story of Burqa: Case of a Confused Afghan. It’s a very informative, though flawed documentary that looks at the history of the burqa in Afghanistan. It makes it’s debut at this year’s DOXA festival!

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The Virgin Suicides

Combining an achingly beautiful mixture of adolescent awkwardness and tragedy, Sofia Coppola’s feature length directorial debut The Virgin Suicides had me mesmerized. This film has long been on my list of ‘must sees’, and I finally got around to it (thanks Netflix!).

The story takes place in picture perfect suburbia during the 1970’s and opens with the discovery of the attempted suicide of Cecilia Lisbon, the youngest of 5 beautiful, blonde sisters.  The girls are watched and obsessed over by a group of their male classmates who are determined to understand them. The girl’s parents are authoritarian and incredibly religious, keeping them under strict control. They become even more watchful after Cecilia finally manages to kill herself during a party thrown in attempts to socialize her and their other daughters. The second youngest daughter, Lux (Kirten Dunst), begins acting out and when she breaks curfew after her and her sisters are granted the rare opportunity to leave the house to attend the homecoming dance, they are all pulled from school and locked in the house. The girls’ tale comes to an end when they complete what appears to be a suicide pact.

This is an impressive debut, Coppola captures the melancholy pain and timeless joy of adolescence perfectly and particularly demonstrates how keen adolescent sensitivities to injustice can be. Kirstin Dunst is fantastic as Lux, playing the young girl as brooding with a budding sexuality and taste for rebellion. While the boys watch her activities and look for signs of suicidal tendencies, they seem to only see Lux smiling and flirting but we are privy to more private moments. The dull, disappointed look on her face after her various sexual encounters, her moments of silence where we see the sadness in her eyes. Dunst captures the woman trying to break free from the shell of a girl. Lux still enacts girlish rituals (sewing boy’s names to her underwear) but we know there is something more, dark and cynical, boiling beneath the surface.

I also loved the look of this film, which I found quite striking; many of the scenes possessed dream like qualities. The Lisbon girls often look ethereal and never quite real. Their behaviour is also portrayed as if they are one. While Lux acts as their symbol of rebellion, they often act as one unit. There are several scenes where the girls seem eerily conjoined, such as when they listen to music played for them over the telephone, or go to the homecoming dance in the same patterned dress.

One interesting aspect of this film is the perspective through which the story unfolds. Although films are typically presented from a male viewpoint, The Virgin Suicides utilizes the male gaze as a vessel. The film is narrated by a future version of one in a group of young boys who observe the Lisbons and bear witness, becoming obsessed with them and their mysteries. We never get to know the boys well, we simply join them in their watching. They can’t understand and try as they might as they sift through the evidence they have gathered over time, they can’t pull together a complete image of the Lisbon girls. They are constantly aware that something is missing that cannot be told in the physical objects and minutia of everyday life.

In short, if you haven’t seen this movie, snap to it!

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The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

I recently watched The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Dir. Goran Olsson) on Netflix. One fact about me: I adore documentaries. Learning new things is one of my great passions, and what better way to do it than to combine leaning with my love for film. Sadly, I’ve neglected my documentary viewing habit as of late. It just so happened that I got that craving whilst perusing my Netflix account, and I soon stumbled upon this gem. I for one know next to nothing about the Black Power Movement and The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 served as a fascinating and powerful introduction. It features interviews from some of the movement’s leaders and strongest advocates, such as Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis, and offers an intimate perspective into those tumultuous years in America between 1967-1975.

The thing that I liked best about this film is that it feels like a time capsule, and this feeling is no accident. There is a wonderful story behind this documentary. The film is a mesh of old interviews and stories from a group of Swedish journalists who came to the States and were interested in racial conflict in America. Evidently, the director, Goran Olsson, found the footage down in the depths of Swedish Television’s cellar, where it had been left there for 30 years. Olsson decided to take the old interviews, and throw in some new music and commentary from intellectuals and musicians such as Questlove and Erykah Badu to help tie the film together.

This is certainly one of the most interesting and emotional documentaries I have seen in some time. The film of course does not claim to tell the whole story of the Black Power Movement, yet the interviews it contains successfully challenged my views of militant uprisings such as The Black Panthers. It’s beautifully simple in its construction and the film keeps a good flowing narrative of the Movement, seamlessly integrating the various interviews to tell a cohesive story. We see the early stirrings of the Black Power Movement, to the rise of the Black Panthers, moving through to the exile of the Panther party leaders and the numerous assassinations of powerful figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., JFK and Robert Kennedy, that shook the political landscape. In the film, a reporter comes across of group of young black adults, outside the funeral of Robert Kennedy,  who lament the deaths of these powerful individuals pushing for social change and equal rights. Their fear is that there is no future for them. And indeed, this film demonstrates that the future did look bleak.

The answers gained from the film’s subjects are eye opening, in part, because the questions from the Swedish reporters are so innocent and earnest. Rather than asking loaded questions, the reporters genuinely want to learn what is happening. Some of their inquiries are almost embarrassing. One particularly powerful scene demonstrating this occurs when a reporter asks an imprisoned Angela Davis about the Black Panthers activities and her thoughts on if violent confrontation is necessary for them to pursue their cause. Davis is visibly angered by the question, and speaks with a controlled fury about the daily threat of violence perpetrated by whites against black people and its long history. Davis states that asking if she approves of violence makes no sense, and declares that someone who would ask a question like that, clearly has no idea of the context from which the Black Power Movement arose.

I highly recommend this film for anyone, particularly those interested in the history of civil rights and racial conflict in the United States.

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This past weekend was fantastic! I covered the Women in Film Festival for Vancouver Weekly, and scored a sweet media pass. Unlimited access to films may prove to be the death of me one day: I spent about 16 and half hours over 3 days in a darkened theatre. During that time I viewed a lot of fabulous work. My review of the festival was posted on Vancouver Weekly’s site earlier today. Check it out!

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March 14, 2012 · 8:46 pm

The Artist

The Artist cleaned up the big award categories at the Oscars. For many it was a predictable Best Picture win because of its playful spirit and daring differentiation by bringing back an all but dead film genre. Although admittedly, The Artist was not my favourite of the Best Picture nominees (I preferred Hugo and Midnight in Paris) it was certainly entertaining and its homage to silent films was just splendid to behold.
As nearly everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock is bound to know, The Artist is a black and white (mostly) silent film. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, an enormously successful silent film star who watches his empire fall to ruin with the rise of the Talkies. Complicating matters further, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a beautiful young woman who was a mere extra in one of his movies becomes a huge star in this new wave of film. We soon see George’s complete collapse, becoming little more than an alcoholic living in a bachelor suite with only his dog to keep him company. The audience watches as a culmination of terrible circumstances and George’s pride and arrogance topple him, before his eventual resurrection.
Although fictional, the story hits upon the tragic reality of careers lost to technological change. Watching this I can’t help but be reminded of silent film giants such as comic phenom Buster Keaton, whose career crumbled at the dawn of talking pictures. In the film, George is haunted by this turn of events, which leads to a disturbing Twilight Zone-esque nightmare where his perfect silent world begins to fracture, allowing sound to seep through the cracks.
Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo both shine in this film and are able to harness the art of silent performance. Both are incredibly charming and have excellent chemistry with each other. Dujardin stirs our emotions as the tragically proud George Valentin; it’s heartbreaking to see his steadfast belief in the excellence of his own work, especially when we know the way the tides of the film industry are turning. Bejo is also lovely, infusing Peppy with ambition and a compassionate heart. Her admiration for George’s work never wavers, and despite his anger and possible jealousy, she remains a fan, and acts as a guardian in his time of need.
Despite most audiences’ lack of experience with this type of film, the direction and performance is fantastic, and entertaining. This combined with the occasional intertitle and at times heavy handed names of Peppy Miller’s films (ie. at one point a ruined George stands underneath a marquee that reads “Lonely Star”), remove any road blocks that would prevent audiences from understanding what is going on.
The Artist is a beautiful and charming film. It takes a gamble by breathing new life into an old style, and risks alienating audiences who may feel the lack of sound and colour will bore them. Anyone who watches this film, however, will find these fears unfounded. Its entertaining story, great characters and homage to early cinema is sure to please just about anyone.

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New Reviews!

I recently started contributing to a local online publication called Vancouver Weekly! So far, I have reviewed two films for them: Jess + Moss (dir. Clay Jeter), a beautiful and surprisingly unpretentious art film, and You All Are Captains(dir. Oliver Laxe), a mostly failed attempt at self-reflexive cinema.

Both of these films start playing at The Pacific Cinematheque here in Vancouver. You can catch Jess + Moss March 2-3, 8 and 12, and You All Are Captains March 5, 7 and 8.

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The Help

The Help has certainly received a lot of Oscar buzz, more than I think it deserves honestly. While this film is entertaining, and does feature some strong performances, it left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Although well meaning, The Help is of course tailored to a Hollywood, predominately white audience, and as such, ignores many key factors in racial oppression, and seems to act as an exoneration of viewers’ collective “white guilt”.

The story is framed against the growing civil rights movement of the 1960’s and focuses on both Aibileen (Viola Davis), a black maid, and Skeeter (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer who returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississipi. Skeeter is aggravated by how her former friends treat their hired help and decides to write a book that would tell the maids’ perspective of the racism they experience on the job. Although she receives quite a lot of resistance to the idea initially, Aibileen agrees and allows Skeeter to interview her about her work and what it is like rising white children who inevitably grow into women who are just as bigoted as their mothers. As the film progresses we are witness to some of the indignities faced by the hired help at the hands of their employers. This film is quite lengthy, and attempts to cover an extended period of time, from Skeeter’s book’s conception to its publication. Although the story has its moments, the pacing is not always the best and skips over what I thought were important relationship developments.

The standout performance in The Help is from Viola Davis, who is powerful as Aibileen and equips the character with an emotional intensity that boils below the surface of her quiet and well mannered appearance. Octavia Spencer is also quite good as Minny, Aibileen’s bold friend and fellow maid. While both of these women have received Oscar nominations, it is unfortunate that the roles they are being honoured for are stereotypical Mammy characters. Although they bring life to these characters, the writing in The Help does little to add much depth to these roles outside of their usual cinematic portrayal. Speaking of Oscar nominations, Jessica Chastain also managed to get one for her role as Celia Foote, and while Chastain is absolutely adorable in this film, it is hardly a substantial role. It is interesting that with the volume of strong perfomances she has turned in this year (ie. The Tree of Life, Take Shelter), it is interesting that this one would be highlighted.

As I have mentioned above, although the film is entertaining and very audience friendly, it has some major flaws that I found troublesome. The film’s cast is nearly all female and I found the lack of a male presence to be curious. Racism is displayed as an expression of mean spirited attitudes and actions housewives enacted against their hired help, effectively ignoring the threat of rape and abuse male employers represented. I believe that it is telling that we see Minnie suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her black male partner, while the maids generally are shown to have little to no contact with white male homeowners. Furthermore, The Help, like oh so many Hollywood features about race relations, gives its white protagonist nearly all the power and portrays her as a saviour.  Audiences are convinced that without Skeeter’s actions, the maids situation never would have improved. The film strips away any notion that these characters had the ability and strength to emancipate themselves using their own resources.

The Help makes for some enjoyable light entertainment, but it should be viewed with a grain of salt.

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Hugo

I saw Martin Scorsese’s Hugo a few weeks ago and was struck by its touching story and beautiful visuals. Hugo is one of those rare family friendly movies that successfully avoids dumbing down its concept and the sadness and joy that exist at its core. That being said, while it is family friendly, its subject matter may not be something all children will appreciate. Hugo is an homage to the early days of cinema. It worships the work of film pioneers long forgotten and overlooked. Hugo itself references the iconic scenes of several classic films such as Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! and Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. While some of these references will pass viewers by, they are entertaining additions to an engaging story.

The film is about an orphan boy, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who runs the clocks in a Parisian train station. Hugo is a clever child with a flair for understanding machinery, and works to repair an automaton his father (Jude Law) discovered tucked away in a museum in the hopes it will give him one last message from his lost parent. While working in the station, Hugo finds a friend and ally in Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), whose Uncle Georges (Ben Kingsley), a sad toy shop owner, is more than he appears to be.

Hugo is made all the stronger by the lovely performances from its talented cast. The patrons and shopkeepers, played be the likes of Francis de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Emily Mortimer and Christopher Lee, bring life to the station, and show us that Hugo’s adventures do not occur in a bubble. There is a whole world of activity buzzing around him; each character is a cog in the machine of station life. Sasha Baron Cohen is perfect as the Station Inspector who has a penchant for nabbing vulnerable children and shipping them off to the orphanage. His presence constantly keeps Hugo on his toes and though he is seemingly cold, he is still a sympathetic character. The stand out performances however are from Butterfield and Moretz. Both are charming and play some of the most thoughtful, emotive and intelligent children I’ve seen on film in quite some time.

As a film lover, the theme of this movie is what really got me. Scorsese displays his love of cinema and masterfully shows us the past with the technology of the future. His use of 3D is astounding, and its usage here highlights the topic of technical innovations in early cinema and the ability to do ‘magic’ in the eyes of audiences. This is one of the few films to actually use 3D technology effectively in a way which amplifys the images and improves our experience of the film. Like Avatar (the only other film I have seen use 3D this well), the effect enhances the film’s visual depth, adding texture and realism to shots, and made me feel like I was actually moving through a physical world. This creates a magical atmosphere in a film that looks simulataneously dreamy and hyper real. It is truly beautiful.

I highly recommend Hugo. It is without a doubt one of the year’s best films in regards to visual splendour, enthralling performances and a meaningful and heartfelt story. Do not miss out.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I recently caught The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at The Rio Theatre (@riotheatre). I’m familiar with the story having already read the first two books and seen the Swedish series. Although I loved the Swedish version, and really don’t think that they needed to be redone, I will admit to perking up when I learned David Fincher would be directing and that it would feature another Trent Rezner/Atticus Ross collaboration for the soundtrack.

This film is very well made, and manages to squeeze in a lot of information from the lengthy source material into its two and a half hour run time. Although Fincher’s film provided a different experience from the Swedish version, I believe they each have their merits. Fincher’s version is dark and polished like the rest of his catalogue. He sets up the mystery fairly well and keeps things moving at a good clip, trusting his audience to keep up with the vast network of characters and events that occur.

If you don’t know the story, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo follows a a recently publicly humiliated journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and an emotionally disturbed and abused goth hacker extraodinaire, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), as they work together to solve a mystery. Their task: solving the murder of Cecilia Vanger, the niece of Henrik Vangar (Christopher Plummer), a once powerful Swedish businessman. We soon get up close and personal with his unsavory family, who is chalk full of Nazi’s and bullies. Mikael is charged with trying to find Cecilia’s murderer under the guise of writing a book about Henrik’s life. Lisbeth is eventually brought in to help with the investigation. The rest of the film is dedicated to Lisbeth’s dark past, and her current interactions with creeps and rapists who plan to take advantage of her status as a marginalized person. We get a grim sense of satisfaction when Salander eventually takes her revenge upon those who have wronged her.

As I mentioned before, I really liked this film. The opening credits alone are mesmerizing, and serve as a symbolic entrance into the themes of the film (check it out for visual awesomeness!). The source material is of course strong, and the screenplay translates the story well and weaves together a compelling mystery, while still maintaining many of the labyrinthian character relationships. On top of all of this, the electronic soundtrack is stunning. Reznor and Ross create a score full of cold, metallic sounds that suit the freezing Swedish landscape and Lisbeth’s hacker world. The performances are also worth noting with Craig being incredibly likeable as Blomkvist. Mara in particular turns in a hypnotic and fierce performance as Salander. That being said, while her performance was quite good, the one major qualm I had with this film was the portrayal of Salander.

While it may be argued that Lisbeth is more ‘humanized’ in this film by giving her a wider emotional range, I would argue that she is also more feminized according to Hollywood standards. There are very slight differences that achieve this within the film, and major ones in the marketing of it. In Fincher’s film, Lisbeth seems more like a moody and pissed off young woman, rather than the cold and emotionally disconnected Lisbeth of the books and Swedish films. From my reading of Steig Larson’s books, Lisbeth is meant to be damaged yet simultaneously super human. I don’t believe that she is supposed to be entirely realistic. The character is a bundle of impossibilities. The book alludes to Lisbeth having a mental condition such as Aspergers. Men in the book often view her as someone easy to victimize, but we know the truth. Lisbeth is strangely alluring, a world class hacker in possession of a photographic memory and flawless tools of deduction with a fierce sense of justice and the strength to fight back and decimate her opponents. In my mind, Lisbeth is supposed to be a woman’s avenging angel and the projection of our revenge fantasies: an abused and damaged woman who fights back and refuses to break, surviving despite the slimmest odds. Noomi Rapace in the original film series embodies this ideal of the dark super heroine well. She is cold, distant and emotionally calculating. Mara’s Lisbeth is still fiery, however she seems more like a rebellious teen in attitude rather than the deeply damaged Lisbeth we know. Her interactions with Blomkvist also reveal a more Hollywood aesthetic, as they are quite friendly with each other, and though Lisbeth is still dominating, there is something in the familiarity she allows in the relationship that is not quite right for the character.

The biggest difference in the depiction of Lisbeth however, is in the advertising for the movie. The ads and posters for any film provide an interpretation for the characters audiences have yet to meet. In the ads for The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, we are taught to view Lisbeth not as strong, intelligent or capable, but as a sex object, which is particularly disturbing considering the content of the film. The books and films have become infamous for their disturbing and graphic depictions of brutal rape and violence against women. Stieg Larsson was appalled by the sexism he saw present in Swedish society, and fittingly called the first book of his series ‘Men Who Hate Women’ (this was changed to the less abrasive ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ when brought to North America). Having said this, the sexualization of Lisbeth and Rooney Mara in the press is downright ironic and disturbing. One only needs to compare this version of the poster for the American release (image is NSFW) to the original Swedish one to see the difference in interpretation to the character. The American poster features a nude Rooney Mara, clinging to the arm of Daniel Craig which is wrapped protectively around her upper body. She appears wary and afraid but is presented as something sexual and an object of desire. Compare that with this Swedish poster and you get a very different image of Lisbeth. A marginalized woman alone, strong and staring intensely at the camera.

These slight differences in Lisbeth’s character are food for thought for anyone who wants to compare the Swedish and American films. Once again, despite this issue, I really do think that this is a great film and a competent adaptation. I really shouldn’t be surprised about these changes, it’s just too bad they couldn’t leave Lisbeth alone.

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