Summer Wrap Up!

It’s September already and summer has just blown past. As I wave a tearful goodbye I am also taking stock of the dust this blog has begun to gather. I’m planning to remedy this, but before I start with some new content I figured I may as well share some of what I’ve been up to this summer. I’ve written a few reviews for Vancouver Weekly, the first being for Sarah Polley’s latest feature Take this Waltz. Although I really loved Polley’s first film, Away From Her, I really couldn’t get into this one.

I also watched a fantastic documentary about American musician, Sixto Rodriguez, called Searching For Sugar Man. This documentary is crazy powerful, and I heartily recommend it to anyone, particularly musicians and music lovers.

Finally, I watched another enlightening documentary about Chinese artist and social critic Ai Weiwei. The film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, is an intimate look at Ai Weiwei’s history, art, and his current struggles for expression against a government that fights to silence those like him.

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The Avengers

The AvengersAll members of Marvel fandom had their wildest dreams fulfilled with the release of The Avengers, the ultimate payoff after 5 lead up films and four years of movie going. Bolstered by the strength of Joss Whedon’s directorial vision and witty dialogue, The Avengers makes a decent superhero film. The movie is very entertaining, and although the film gets a lot of things right, it didn’t grip me the way previous Marvel ventures, such as Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk had. I found most of the action scenes lacked creativity and failed to get my adrenaline pumping, and the part that hit me the hardest, was the films lack of a gripping villain.

The film’s storyline has a lot to do with previous films, so if you missed Thor or Captain America, you may be a little out of the loop. In a nutshell, Thor’s power hungry brother, Loki, is beamed to earth where he infiltrates a S.H.I.E.L.D.  base, enslaves some agents, including Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and promptly steals the Tesseract, a powerful blue cube of unimaginable power. This event, and the fears of the horrors Loki may unleash prompts S.H.I.E.L.D. leader, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to enact the ‘Avenger Initiative’, and bring together his team of misfit superheroes to stop Loki and his undoubtedly sinister plans.

The story focuses mainly on the Avengers learning to overcome their differences and work as a team. This is where the film really shines. Previous Marvel films have given us a taste of what each of these heroes can do on their own, and we have seen, with the exception of Captain America (Chris Evans), that each prefers to wage battle on their own terms. Although the individual ego clashes and ensuing battles eventually became tiresome, Whedon hits his stride in the quieter scenes involving characters building relationships and working out conflicts. He actually gave Steve Rogers aka Captain America, a realistic persona, something I thought was missing in the disappointing Captain America: The First Avenger. He ditched the over patriotic tones and turned down his hyper selfless nature to focus on Captain America’s ability as a leader and tactician. Although I would have loved to see Edward Norton back as The Hulk, I thought Mark Ruffalo was excellent in the role, and his chemistry with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark when they are geeking out over each other’s tech know-how is a treat to watch. Strangely enough, I found Tony Stark to be the most irritating character in the film. Although this was most likely planned as a way to remind audiences of the size of his ego, with two films about him he had the benefit of being the most fleshed out character upon entering the film, so this extra push wasn’t really necessary. Whedon seems to have gone overboard and the constant snarky quips and one liners he saddled Downey Jr. with moved from funny to annoying very quickly.

Moving back to the positives, I knew I could count on Whedon to offer some engaging female representation that would prevent the film from being a complete sausage fest. Cobie Smulders did a decent job of portraying Maria Hill, Nick Fury’s second in command. I also loved Whedon’s development of Black Widow (Scarlet Johanson), who is portrayed as more than just a pretty face and gets a hefty amount of screen time. Black Widow shows great loyalty to her teammate Hawkeye, is a formidable fighter and has a sharp mind, which is shown off in a lovely scene between her and Loki.

The movie is shot on a grand scale, and the threat to humanity is supposed to be dire, yet it never felt desperate. I failed to connect to the stakes because I just didn’t find them to be believable in the context of the film. The root of this problem was Loki, and the inability of the character to come across as a force to be reckoned with. Although Loki was the first enemy the Avengers face off against in the comic, he’s just not that impressive in this film. Sure, Loki is clever, quick, and has a badass staff, but he can hardly hold the position of the film’s main villain, especially when it is so painfully obvious that he is a pawn. I actually love Tom Hiddleston’s performance of Loki and his portrayal worked in Thor when the focus was on his status as an outsider and his treachery and feelings of betrayal upon learning his true birthright. However, he is just not very interesting in The Avengers, and for a character that is known for his wit, outside of 2-3 memorable scenes, he really doesn’t say very much. Overall, the film just doesn’t make him a believable enemy; I never got the impression that our heroes fear Loki and even after he blindsides them, and then later unleashes his giant army of alien-mechs, I still wasn’t fully engaged. Part of this may stem from the fact that there is really no urgency in any of the battle scenes. When we finally get past the Avengers fighting each other, we get to see them take on an alien army. The aliens look fantastic, and there are some interesting moments, my favourite being when Hulk has a memorable meet and greet with Loki. However, this felt like countless other combat scenes, except with a greater focus on our heroes striking picturesque poses.

Joss Whedon gives us a strong film, and despite the its weaker elements I will be interested to see what happens with this story in the sequel, particularly when one considers the big reveal during the credits. I’m sure Loki’s actions in the first film will carry over into the second, leading to a bigger payoff overall. 

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The Forgiveness of Blood

Hey Everyone!

I hope you all had a lovely weekend! I had a pleasant day wandering East Van in the sun and drinking some beers back home (a Whistler Brewing Grapefruit Ale and a Phillips Baltic Porter!). I recently wrote a review of Joshua Marston’s latest film The Forgiveness of Blood for Vancouver Weekly. It’s a great understated film that takes place in Albania, and looks at a modern day blood feud.

Cheers!

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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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