Posts by Christina Stimpson

A film review of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

A Film Review - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson’s novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (originally titled Men Who Hate Women), has been a great success. Met with wild acclaim when the English translation hit shelves in 2008, the cult phenomenon that gathered behind the novel was ferocious. With a well received Swedish film version by director Niels Arden Oplev already in existence since 2009, the question to David Fincher would be why pour creative resources into an American remake a mere few years later? Then I viewed the original, and not only did I understand why an American remake would suffice, but I’m pleased that it was a Fincher production. His latest endeavour accurately captures and fully realizes the crime thriller meat of the novel through his neo-noir auteur aesthetic.

A master architect of thrillers such as Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999) and Zodiac (2007), Fincher knows the eerie underworld of crime and perversion which is evident in his sleekly composed vision of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Bringing the novel to its high-profile best by mirroring the cold climate of the Swedish setting and the disposition of the film’s main character Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), he presents a fast-paced, sharply edited, impersonal film. Set in the fictional Swedish town of Hedestad, the investigative expertise of Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is acquired by Hennrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) an aging CEO akin to Swedish royalty. Blomkvist is hired to crack a 40 year-old cold case file concerning the inexplicable disappearance of Hennrik’s niece Harriett Vanger. The invitation to remain on the isolated Vanger island commences a type of “locked room mystery” where the events related to Harriet’s disappearance all occur on the Vanger estate. As Blomkvist becomes determined to uncover the “who” and “how” of the disappearance, the whole Vanger family falls under suspicion. The parallel story line of Lisbeth Salander’s cruel persecuted life is weaved together through delicate match cutting and sweeping crane shots fusing the main characters through a common agenda: to catch a killer of women.

Although, the central motivation behind the film is to catch Harriett’s killer, the scenes which tell Lisbeth’s story are the most captivating and unique. Traditional film noir incorporates the sexual persuasion of a femme fatale to weave her way as she thickens the plot. The specific exclusion of the femme fatale in Fincher’s neo-noir rendition points to the equal power relation between the two main characters, as both play a type of vigilante detective.  There are a plethora of American films about dark haired female leads who claim to have a vendetta that they are fighting against. The truth is that female vigilante characters stemming from mainstream Hollywood tend to become sexually objectified before they can execute their plan for revenge.  In Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo the character of Lisbeth Salander is not sexy, nor beautiful or stylish. She is an androgynous, socially anxious ward of the Swedish state and a rape victim living on the fringe of society. Yet complete with flaw and inelegance, women idealize and stand by her, and Fincher remains organic in his depiction of this strong female character. Delivered through a construction of the unappealing, here, Salander is an angered female devoid of conventional sexuality with an acute investigative mind motivated by rancor for all men who take. A rare breed represented in American popular cinema. It’s all about her. Fincher’s Lisbeth Salander is not only the justification of why his remake is more effective and engrossing, it is refreshing to see an “ugly” female luring audiences with her mind and strength.

Do You Wanna Play? – A film review of Shame

Poster for the fim Shame

Artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen makes gorgeous films about dirty subjects. His 2011 feature Shame pumps an erotic and visceral heartbeat into the cold exterior of New York City’s accessible culture. The voice that exists within Shame – the unsaid – is as powerful as McQueen’s sleek composition and stylish framing. The film resolves to blur the line between actual ecstasy and inner agony, through main character Brandon (Michael Fassbender) as he struggles with his need for carnal lust within the absence of intimacy.

Brandon is a detached character. The undercurrent to his sterile lifestyle is obscene urge and sexual compulsion. Within minutes of the film, the obsessively structured habits of the austere businessman are set up to include the daily cycle of work, masturbation, pornography, and sex. In Brandon, McQueen has crafted a character whose existence, although dominated by the most passionate of subjects, is flat and lacking the moral compass to find his way through “right” and “wrong” behaviors. There are no consequences to Brandon’s hyper-sexualized actions. He watches porn at work, he has sex in alleys, and recesses from his desk to the public washroom for a daily session of masturbation. Although at first he is able to function publicly, his secret fetishes are at the forefront of his existence. Single and living alone, there is no one in Brandon’s insular world able to judge his private perversions.

The introduction of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligian) who unexpectedly becomes his unwanted houseguest with a TBD departure date interrupts his sterile world of work, masturbation, pornography, and sex. Brandon’s dirty private life becomes exposed to the last person on earth who should witness your vulgar side – your family. Basic psychology dictates that the feeling of shame surfaces through the guilt of knowing that you’ve acted in violation of your own internal law. The mere presence of Sissy within Brandon’s daily life unearths his suppressed inner law and becomes the catalyst for him to experience shame. As Sissy squeezes Brandon’s private compulsions into public light his inner battle becomes a weight too heavy to bare, leading to a reckless rampage that transitions him to a predator of sort.

Although present throughout the film by way of dialogue between Brandon and the female characters, the delineation between his propensity for the impersonal over the intimate comes through McQueen’s choice in shot composition of two explicit sex scenes. The filmmaker pulls the camera away from the romantic love scene, representing the disconnection Brandon feels when encountered with intimate feelings. Here, the setting is a cold modern hotel room, bathed in blue hued natural light, and framed from a distance in a long take. The more ravishing sex scene, an inter-racial threesome, representing the impersonal connection of prostitution, is warm, fragmented and shot in close range. Visions of the salacious and obscene are assembled in an alluring montage. McQueen’s choice of framing for the “dirty” scene tells us that it is here, within shame, where Brandon feels most protected. Set to a soundtrack that mirrors his climactic moments, the sequence culminates in a soft focus close up of Michael Fassbender’s face. He is looking directly at the camera, yet it is difficult to tell if he is experiencing pain or pleasure, as he is an enemy to both.

Shame is a progressive film, which seeks to loosen the boundaries of material usually presented in standard wide release films, yet the NC-17 rating seems exaggerated. We live in a world where pornography is no longer taboo. The fact that Brandon engages in this behavior is not shocking, yet what is interesting is the choice to leave Brandon simmering and unchanged. That, is realistic, disturbing and most provocative.

It Chooses You – A Film Review of ‘The Future’

Poster for The Future

I’ve recently developed this habit of examining the hands of the elderly. The protruding veins, the dark skin spots, and every other mark that signifies the passage of time through age, and it has me perturbed. What’s most disconcerting about my new hobby is the constant reminder that I am only here (insert thirty-something existential hipster angst) and they are there (insert the future), and I have no idea what’s going to happen in between. According to Miranda July, I am only at the beginning.

July’s latest film, The Future (2011), brings this angst to the screen through a thoughtful depiction of the “life has to be more than this” plague of my generation. Bordering on the surreal in execution but rooted in emotional realism, with a clever script, to boot, July’s film seeks to uncover the answers we all yearn for: what’s my purpose in life, why am I here, and how can I make my mark?

In The Future, L.A couple Jason (Hamish Linklater) and Sophie (Miranda July) are on the verge of a life-altering endeavor. The couple – who share the same haircut, the same lulling intonation, and the same fear of commitment – decide to take the plunge on Paw Paw, a terminally ill cat who requires nursing for the last six months of his life. The rude awakening for Jason and Sophie comes when they are informed that the projected six months that Paw Paw has left is the minimum life span. The faceless cat, sequestered to a “cageatorium” while he waits for his new home, might actually live for the next five years depending on how much they love it. The possibility of the later death date becomes the catalyst for Jason and Sophie’s sudden meltdown, and introduces the element of time as a central focal point for the film. The calculations begin as the couple piles up the remaining golden years of their youth against their accomplishments thus far in the mediocre lives they have built. Together they decide to take the following 30 days to find meaning and seek fulfillment without any external influences. They decide to let it (life) choose them and remain alert to all signs pointing them in any direction.

While Jason assumes the rational approach to finding the meaning of life through a “fulfilling” job, Sophie’s path is more chaotic. Her efforts to create something new and fantastic are met with a familiar, demoralizing procrastination. In what is surely a statement on the post-modern obsession with the self and individualism, Sophie becomes transfixed by her colleague’s YouTube dance video, disabling her from creating anything original of her own.  The choice to curtail Sophie’s effort for self-discovery within her current environment is in keeping with the auteur’s offbeat oeuvre. Fragile, insecure, and inadequate Sophie is transplanted into a life where nothing is expected of her except desirability, pointing to the artifice of the picture-perfect life on the other side of that grass.

There is a polarizing point in the film where fans who applaud July’s lean toward the quirky left will be elated with her surreal representation of the couple’s struggle. Those who have difficulty with enduring the bizarre will surely walk away. What is certain is that somewhere in the middle everyone can relate to a film that weaves together imagination with finding your place in this world. Most importantly, as her followers can attest, when Miranda July stops time, we need to listen.

Dance of Death – A Film Review of Melancholia

Dance of Death – A Film Review of Melancholia

There are no guns in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. There are no tanks, or nuclear bombs – just humans, and their immaterial battle for life. It seems befitting that a film exploring isolation, internal darkness and the weighted feeling of not belonging in the world would be bracketed within a story about the end of it. A disaster film that takes mental illness head on? Or a film about mental illness set under the pretence of imminent disaster? I’ll stand by either contention, especially when the film in question is Melancholia, crafted by the controversial director Lars von Trier. Preceded by his 2009 film Antichrist, Melancholia is his second unofficial entry into what could likely become his trilogy of “Grief, Pain, and Despair”. Stemming from the director’s own battle with a deep depression Antichrist and Melancholia share a lifeline that seeks to excavate the profound, the difficult, and the complexities of human suffering as related to psychosis.

As similarly executed in Antichrist, the prelude to Melancholia is bathed in cinematic eloquence, forming the summation of the events about to transpire as well as the link to the subconscious of the film. Comprising the first 8 minutes, each sequence presents slow motion images of agony, beauty, and symmetry, all contained within a suffocating stillness. Lush and luxurious greens are juxtaposed against what resembles a world without oxygen. Extended over the soundtrack to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde III, this is Lars von Trier at his best.

Countering the baroque introduction is the banality of the first scene where we meet the main character Justine (Kirsten Dunst) who is stuck in a limo on the way to her wedding reception. It is supposed to be the happiest day of her life, at least, that is what everyone around her wants it to be. Set against the macro destruction of the world at the hand of blue planet Melancholia, the micro struggle of Justine occupies the first half of the film building the case for von Trier as a sensitive filmmaker intent on justifying emotional disorder. As Justine trudges through her wedding night, much to the chagrin of her whole family, her polarity between delicious highs and devastating lows sheds a realistic light on a woman coming undone. Shot predominantly in a handheld style, von Trier embodies in Justine the emotional, physical and social facets of self-destruction. Justine’s sorrow is inferred through everyone else’s insensitivity towards it. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsburg) is her only support.

Melancholia’s duality comes into effect in part two: Claire’s half of the film. The disintegration of Justine’s mind is halted and the power struggle shifts as catastrophe draws near. She grows stronger and Claire tumbles into a frantic state. Where the former has faced death, the latter is only just meeting it. Gainsbourg, who was the tour de force in Antichrist, brings an innocence to Claire as the helpless and naïve caregiver who seeks a “nice” ending to the planet’s explosion. Awarded the Best Actress prize at Cannes, Dunst’s performance here as the transformative weak and dependant patient to authoritative and almighty savant is a testament to the film’s power. The path of destruction for all of human kind is Justine’s saving grace, as von Trier uses the approaching Melancholia to repair her fractured state.

Von Trier who was  accused of misogynist filmmaking with Antichrist, has done the contrary here. In Melancholia it is the female characters that demonstrate courage and emotional strength in the face of adversity. And when that adversity is the end of the world, I can only trust that he believes we can handle it.

Christina Stimpson

You Point, I’ll Drive – A film review of ‘Beginners’

Beginners film poster

After my grandmother died, I went through a phase where I needed to devour all vintage photographs of my family. From weddings in 1938 to gaudy Christmases in 1965, each found in an old trunk or stuffed into a shoebox was treated as treasure and as evidence. I needed them as proof of an existence that predated my life. “This is what my family looked like” was often what would come to mind when I would peruse through my growing collection. I heard similar words and witnessed familiar images in Mike Mills latest film Beginners (2010), which echoes the need to understand how linage in relation to its place in history can shape your personality and life course.

Exploring sexuality, mortality, and decision, Beginners tells the story of the Fields family through the consciousness of Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor. We first see Oliver as he completes the daunting task of rifling through papers, flushing meds, and packing boxes, searching for a decent way to preserve or destroy each of his father’s possessions after his death. Except for a scruffy Jack Russell named Arthur, Oliver is now the sole survivor of his small family.  He is essentially alone. Whether ignited by loneliness or through the onset of a delicate relationship with French actress Anna (Mélaine Laurent), Oliver’s introspection begins.

Non-linear in composition and adorably quirky, the film lapses back and forth between memory and reality using illustration and photographic montage to underline the narrative in its most genuine skin. Visual documentation, such as family photographs and kitschy 1950s adverts provide emphasis for the historical reference needed to understand how Oliver relates to the world. Mills implements narration as the guiding tool through the critical points of Oliver’s upbringing–and the events preceding his father’s death. As Oliver’s self examination begins, so does the retrospective of his father Hal, played with great charm by Christopher Plummer. Inspired by the story of Mills’ own father, Hal uses the death of his wife of 44 years to wipe the slate clean. Dressed in pajamas or a purple v-neck (Oliver can’t recall), Hal announces to his son that he is gay and is anxious to discover “what’s out there.” Oliver becomes witness to his transformation, as Hal discovers house music, becomes an activist in the community, and consumes every bit of his new lifestyle with a joyous fervor. Tangentially, father and son experience a closeness neither of them has known as Hal contributes perspective on Oliver’s failed attempts at love. My only criticism would be in describing the latter half of Anna and Oliver’s relationship. I felt Mills’ succumb to a ‘boy meets girl’ romantic formula too easily. With a script so earnest in exposing sacrifice, how decisions affect our life, and how bonds can be formed or broken, I would have appreciated the same authenticity with Anna and Oliver for the full duration of the film, yet felt it was solely maintained in the father and son interactions.

In a feeble, yet romantic attempt at a first date, Oliver and Anna, get into his car with no destination. “You point, I’ll drive,” he says to her. As the film progresses we learn that these words and much of Oliver’s nature stems from time spent with his mother. It is subtle, but a prime example of how Mills’ convincing script is powerful in its ability to capture the essence of what we unconsciously absorb from our loved ones.

– Christina Stimpson

But the Girl is Safe – A film review of ‘Drive’

But the Girl is Safe - A film review of 'Drive'

There is a defining moment in Drive, when Ryan Gosling stops smiling. The subtle change from soft-hearted mechanic to vigilante protector and maker-of-all-things-right creeps in and marks the point of decent into violence for this leading character, whose only motivation is to protect the woman and child he loves, but hardly knows.

Based on the novel by James Sallis and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, the opening teaser of Drive could play as a short film in itself. Here, Gosling’s character “Driver” is introduced as a lone wolf, contracted to drive get-away cars for L.A underworld heists. “Driver” is dangerously serious, smooth, and in total control for the 5 minutes that he is employed in the racket. Any time either side of that, he declares independence and lives a simple withdrawn life as a stunt car driver for Hollywood films. That is until he meets “Irene”, his point of obsession played exceptionally by the great Carey Mulligan. The genuine interplay between “Driver” and “Irene” would otherwise be misplaced in an action film. They hardly converse, preferring to hold each other’s gaze and smile bashfully until they come to the reality of the awkward moment. The distinction here is Refn’s choice to opt out of the conventional shot sequence between these two characters, and employ a type of long take, letting the camera linger on their interactions to the breaking point. These soft moments, create the backbone of the film and are pivotal in grounding Gosling’s character as a human before he transcends into monster-vigilante hero.

At the very minimum Drive is about car chases. Refn, whose previous films include Valhalla Rising (2009) and Bronson (2009), favors the exchange of visual language over dialogue, in what is Drive’s 86 page script. At its fruition, the film relies heavily on the core performance of its small cast, and succeeds in producing a cohesive work of art from a pastiche of genres. Borrowing style and pacing from film noir, and using the framework of a classic one last heist story, what emerges is a genuine love story between two unlikely neighbors that tugs at your heartstrings when it all goes wrong.

Outside the parenthesis of the “Driver” and “Irene” love story, tragedy ensues. Cloaked in a euro trashy white silk bomber jacket with an emblematic gold scorpion covering his back, Driver sets out on his path of revenge to make things right, return the loot to its rightful owner and get ‘out of it’ for good.

His vengeful actions are presented in extreme violence, without limit for gruesome details, the type where you might actually need to look away. Yet, at no time, is Gosling’s “Driver” out of control. Each violent act is lean, and premeditated to have a beginning, middle and an end and is contained through his will to be protector. Before and after each violent act, is a tormented soul that weighs the guilt of letting a situation spiral out of control.

The heartbeat of the film, provided by Cliff Martinez curated soundtrack, runs an unequalled parallel to the depth of the character’s, the intensity put forth, and the ethereal vision that Refn has accomplished.