Post graduate delirium – A film review of ‘Tiny Furniture’

Tiny Furniture

There are two undeniable conclusions which can be made after watching Tiny Furniture. The first will be that twenty-six year old director, screenwriter and actor Lena Dunham is fearless in her pursuit to normalize the female body on screen (specifically her body). The second is that being the child of a successful New York artist probably has its cons, especially when you’re not fazed by its exclusive, alluring world.  A uniquely crafted and darling indie film, Dunham’s second feature debuted  in late 2010 at SXSW, winning the award for Best Narrative Feature. In early 2011, it won Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards, yet my recent discovery of the film was due to its release on the renowned Criterion label earlier this month. It’s a hybrid of existential boredom a la Lost in Translation with the urban wit of a Noah Baumbach script. It’s arthouse – but accessible arthouse, that is dialogue driven and emotionally (and comedically) effective. Loosely associated with the immerging Mumblecore movement that is defined through non-actors playing out twenty-something strife, Dunham plays the lead and casts her real mother and sister in the respective roles with success. Of course it also helps when your mother is already the successful New York artist Laurie Simmons, and you were raised as a child of the lower-east side liberal avant-garde. Dunham knows this world, and presents it through the case of Aura a recent Film Studies graduate who finds herself amidst the scariest part of her twenties, the stage between student life and real life.

While most college grads pack up their dorm room belongings along with their dreams of success in the big city, Aura’s return home is the opposite. Her ‘post graduate delirium’ begins with her homecoming from stable Midwest Ohio to the slightly unconventional, minimalist Tribeca loft of mother Siri (Laurie Simmons). With no sense of self, no space to call her own and no close friends, Aura faces a second inception into adulthood. Yet, the why me,  what now, and how can I make it happen set of dilemmas may be too much for this down-to-earth character to handle as she struggles with being a child of privilege and a propensity to be useful.

As is often the case, the trailer for Tiny Furniture misrepresents the film. It presents it as a sort of romantic comedy, yet in actuality the film is the antithesis of romance. Aura is surrounded by people who use each other with no consequence to the point where she becomes seduced by their flakey ways. There is a large distinction between a film set inNew York and a New York film. Dunham’s feature is the later in the sense that the story of Aura’s plight would not have been as convincing had it been transported to any other location. This is an unadorned New York story which excludes the grandeur of its skyline.

It’s tiny, but it’s real.

March 1, 2012 / By

Chaos and destruction: A film review of ‘Meek’s Cutoff’

Poster for Meek's Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff may be set in the old American West, but it is hardly a western. With its components defying all convention of the genre, this tale of a pioneering trek across the Oregon Trail is reminiscent of Gus Van Zant’s Gerry, and has the pacing of Sophia Coppola’s Somewhere. It’s slow. But it has to be. The year is 1895, and everything takes time and has its due procedure. The film is a hard sell, but it’s a work of Kelly Reichardt, and in true form she delivers exactly what we expect of her – challenging, subtle cinema that features the beauty of the North-western landscape, and embraces the female perspective.

Sharing the similar themes of hopelessness and travel that exists in her previous films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, in Meek’s Cutoff the prospects shrink to a narrow bleak desperation. Bathed in the warm light of the setting sun, Thomas Gately (Paul Dano) carves the word ‘lost’ into a dry, dead branch. It is the first word communicated in the film, but its blatant explanation is not necessary. The opening montage of long takes, (although sensual in their exposition of the land’s rich tones) present the unforgiving details of this arduous journey. The women’s dresses are stained by mud, and their filthy fingernails and sun burned faces silently divulge the imminent tragedy of the coterie. Mr. Meek, a callous mountain man played by the unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood has been hired to lead the wagon settlers through the Cascade Mountains into the promise land of Columbia. The families are caught in a maze of disorientation as they realize Mr. Meek might be leading them astray. No one trusts him. The men keep watch over their shoulders and the women whisper among themselves, as each gender group discusses his fate and motivation. Has he purposely taken them off track or is he is too coward to admit that he doesn’t actually know the way? Is Mr. Meek ignorant or evil?

The heart of the film rests is in Michelle Williams’s performance as Emily Tetherow, a strong willed settler who maintains the social norms and politeness of society even though she is trapped in the jungle of the Wild West. She fetches water, mills grain, starts the morning fire, yet has an opinion and is not afraid to wield it – a female perspective rarely seen in this environment. For the first half of the film, the men participate in spurts of non-expository dialogue which are shot at a distance, excluding audience from information which would normally be integral to the story. But here, the story is secondary to the experience. As the women are kept at arm’s length, Reichardt subsequently chooses to keep the audience out of the loop. The woman watch and the men decide, until a fateful moment that challenges the status quo of male centered decision making, when Emily  Tetherow takes their collective fate into her own hands.

The painstaking form of Meek’s Cutoff is sure to alienate the average movie go-er and the film itself can be used as a prime example of the polarizing power of cinema. I was drawn to it for this exact reason. It has been a consistent inclusion in many critics’ 2011 top ten lists, yet the gleaned audience response to the film has been an epic fail. Knowing the background of where this film comes from helps to have an open perspective. Kelly Reichardt has a day job. Her films are not money makers, but she is passionate about cinema and devoted to giving us unique works of art that simmer in the back of your mind, and have a lasting impression. It’s a great film, if you give it the time and space it needs to unfold naturally.

February 16, 2012 / By

Film Review: ‘Ip Man’

Film Review: 'Ip Man'

Either through imitation or sheer innovation, Hong Kong cinema matures by the minute. At the start of the 20th century it was little more than an extension of the budding Chinese opera scene. By the time the Sino-Japanese War hit, the industry had changed into a medium for unification and nationalism. At the time, regionalism and local dialects kept division on the Chinese mainland. Yet early talkies brought Mandarin and Cantonese as the dominant languages and helped unify regional rivalries during the Japanese invasion. The language division existed through the CPC’s victory in 1949 and early martial arts films (such as the Wong Fei Hung series) began to take hold. By the 1980s, the cult status of the film in the West was gone – popularized by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan – and the industry commanded respect worldwide.

IP Man,then, can feel like a tribute to the evolution of the industry. Taking place before and during the Sino-Japanese War, the film chronicles the story of Yip Man, the grandmaster of Wing Chun. Starting in provincial Foshan, (Y)Ip Man (played by Donnie Yen) lives with his family and casually teaches his form of martial arts to gracious students and his not-so-humble competitors. When the Japanese invade in 1937, Foshan changes from a beautiful provincial province to an industrial hub for their foreign leaders. Ip Man’s casual lifestyle has to change as well. He can’t rely on the kindness of the town and his status in society anymore. As his family starves and his friends fall victim to the Japanese brutality, he becomes a coolie, shovelling coal. He ends his martial arts practice. A Japanese general comes to Foshan and institutes a new tournament, pitting Chinese martial artists against the Karate of the Japanese Army. Never wanting to use his skill for personal gain, the disappearance of villagers and the general welfare of his family leads him to enter the tournament. This film presents the story of a small town man becoming a national hero.

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February 6, 2012 / By

Time and Emptiness – A Film Review of Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life

In Texas, they execute their “bad” people. The years spent waiting on Death Row are compressed into a grim yet succinct ceremony which is carried out with callous precision and cold order. The journey from holding cell, to gurney, and “into the abyss”- post lethal injection – is completed within minutes. The case file is closed and all those affected try to move on with their lives. In his film Into the Abyss, documentary leader Werner Herzog introduces two inmates, whose crime is used to explore the societal environment of Conroe, Texas, prison life, and capital punishment in America.

Murder is always senseless. But it becomes even more disturbing when murder is committed on a whim, ‘just because’ and over a material possession. The crime in question begins with the coveting of a hot red Camero owned by Sandra Stotler, a middle aged mother living in a gated Texas community.  Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, both aged 19, both raised in a town where camper trailers and dilapidated trucks were the substitutes for warm beds and stable homes, wanted to take the car for a joy ride, so they killed her, her son and his best friend. It’s as simple as that. Using police footage from the crime scenes, and a participatory approach to questioning, Herzog leads Perry and Burkett through informal conversations that reconstruct the events of that night and the days subsequent to the murders. We learn that Perry sits on Death Row, and Burkett, who resides in the same prison as his father, was sentenced to life. Allowing the most poignant moments to occur organically, what emerges from the film’s discourse is the contrast between the thoughtless crime against the focused urgency of Perry’s fight for his right to life. Eight days away from being executed, Perry, disillusioned and appearing unremorseful, thinks he might still have a chance. Herzog objectively presents the case; can robbing a victim’s life actually be compensated through the arranged death of the perpetrator.

The circumstances of the events presented in Into the Abyss, are sad and gut wrenching, yet my emotional response was not peaked during Perry and Burkett’s exposés but rather, when the environment of living in Conroe, Texas was probed. Burkett’s father plays a significant part in describing their impoverished society, his regrets as a father and his profound feeling of failure. Also affecting are the scenes with Stotler’s daughter, who recounts the tragedies that have infected her life, pre and post murder.

Although Into the Abyss makes for a compelling documentary in terms of subject, there is an emerging trend in Herzog’s last two documentary features that has me worried. In his previous works, up until Encounters at the End of the World, equilibrium between form and content was assured. Respectful of his documentary’s focus, the subject matter explored was always coupled with the Herzog magic of awe-inspiring landscapes and photojournalistic sensitivity. What we expect from the Herzog brand is visual and oral poetry within the very real and often dark subject. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams I felt the Herzog charm slipping, and in Into the Abyss it is below the surface. His distinctive narration, which is the quintessential element that forms the rhythm and creates a profound connection to his films, is unfortunately absent.  The emotional content of a Herzogian documentary is still present, yet the empire of inspiring images has been replaced with convention. Perhaps it is his preference for digital format over film format that causes that special something to escape. It may also be that I no longer have the capacity to be amazed by a Herzog documentary. I really hope it’s not the latter. With twenty-five documentary features, nineteen fiction films, and countless shorts under his belt, Herzog is a prolific and masterful filmmaker. His connectedness to the human condition is unparalleled in cinema, and it would be a shame to see such empathy disappear.

February 2, 2012 / By

A film review of ‘Newlyweds’

The poster for Newlyweds

It happens to the best of us. The slight comment from your partner that leads to a greater argument, or when the forgotten special occasion becomes symbolic of an underlying issue. It would be enough if these catapulting moments stood alone within a couple’s relationship, but when the noses of family members sniff their way in, the thin ice can become even thinner. Ed Burns’ film Newlyweds (2011) is a romantic comedy about family, loyalties, and the moments of debacle that creep into a relationship and affect change. Shot in the traditional Burns style, on the streets of New York, a la cinema vérité, the film’s script, written by Burns himself, is a genuine vignette on the subtleties of marriage that cause it to function or fail when we must navigate the stormy waters between in-laws and lovers. As a companion piece to Sidewalks of New York (2001), Newlyweds uses a similar pseudo-documentary structure, provoking the most honest answers from his seven-character cast.  In tandem with the loosely improvised script, each character benefits from an interview expose, which is weaved into the narrative. This vérité montage not only provides a depth to the characters, it helps to unravel the hypocrisy behind the opposing views they are only comfortable to reveal behind closed doors.

Katie (Catlin Fitzgerald) and Buzzy (Ed Burns) are newlyweds, whose nascent “I Do’s” hold the naïve perspective that a relationship should be a breeze if you, (A) abide by an opposite schedule, and (B) tell each other everything. The logistics of the first part don’t prove to be that hard, as Buzzy works days and Katie works nights. It’s the second option, the honesty policy, which begins to complicate their life when Buzzy’s sister challenges the couple’s territory in her impromptu visit from L.A. Kerry Bishé, plays Linda, a sexy, free-spirited blunderer who quickly becomes the unwanted house guest in their modern Tribeca apartment. Within the first 12 hours of her stay, Linda’s disastrous  presence pushes all the wrong buttons. The tornado trail she leaves behind is enabled by Buzzy’s guilt at being an absentee brother, causing a ripple effect that is felt through all seven characters. Simultaneously, when Katie’s sister Marsha (Marsha Dietlein) voices concern about her 18 year marriage to Max (Max Baker), chaos, misunderstanding and spite move in.

Unquestionably, Newlyweds, is Ed Burns’ best work to date. Although Sidewalks of New York still encompasses the charm of a young director trying to make his mark in the canon of American independent filmmaking, in Newlyweds he has arrived. His camera, usually loyal to the handheld aesthetic, has more constraint this time around, maintaining close-ups in soft focus and exploring the use of natural light to fill the frame. Although elevated from past works in terms of composition, the production of Newlyweds was a throwback to Burns first film The Brothers McMullen. It is romanticized filmmaking. With a starting budget of $9,000,  locations borrowed from friends, a shooting schedule spread over 12 non-consecutive days dependent on the availability of the small cast and crew (who worked during their free time), it is evident that Newlyweds is a labour of love by all who contributed to seeing this poignant film through. Ed Burns enthusiasts will follow him wherever he may go, even if it means cutting out the traditional major theatre distribution method. The only venues where Newlyweds can be accessed are digital, through Video-on-Demand, through iTunes or at

This film is important, both due to the respect that it pays to its subject matter, and because the efforts of independent filmmakers who seek to show us truth through representation need to be supported. When I finished Newlyweds, I immediately followed it up with the classic Woody Allen’s Manhattan, which I hadn’t seen in years. And I think that was a wise choice.

January 19, 2012 / By

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.

January 5, 2012 / By

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.

December 22, 2011 / By

A film review of ‘Network’

Poster for the film Network

One of the greatest ironies of today remains the modern addiction to news media while simultaneously cursing its existence. I think everyone is guilty of it. You either can’t stand the right, the left, the middle, and every talking head who says something you don’t like. Even if you can stop watching they won’t stop talking and you’re stuck, either with your head in the sand or mesmerized as to how things got that way. Ours is a world of media inundation, where popularity and high ratings lead to financial and social freedom. But not always.

Network is the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.

Who is Howard Beale? The legendary, mythical television news anchor whose ratings are in the pits. As this classic from 1976 begins, Beale, played by Peter Finch, states he is going to kill himself live on television. In a week’s time, he ends up starting an evangelical movement of angry Americans and his ratings go up. The rallying cry is now infamous: “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore!” Initially repulsed by his promise of bloodshed, the parent company changes tune when the ratings skyrocket far beyond any news show, hell any television show. The network executives throw the bloodthirsty executive Diane Christensen (Faye Dunaway) at his producer (William Holden) to sustain the show as the highest rated on television. Beale leaks his sanity day by day, claiming America is “sick” and is corroded by television and money. Lamenting the moral ineptitude of the nation and its economy, Beale sighs, “All I know is, you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being, goddamn it. My life has value.'”

Much of the verve in Network is in its forceful, prodding dialog. Paddy Chayefsky’s script might be his finest achievement in his impressive career. Echoing the self-inflicted death of Christine Chubbuck, Chayefsky took that point and proverbially “rolled with it.” Network could have been about a disgruntled worker or a eulogy for the dying art of news reporting. Instead, Chayefsky turned a simple concept into a scathing critique of then-modern television and economics. He gently prophisized evangelical television. Diverted the fear of the Cold War into distrust of Big Oil Conglomerates. Revealed the false comfort of populism as a residual effect of commonality of capitalism. In short, it’s a masterful work to read, yet with so many heavy hitters in this film (Finch, Dunaway, Holden, and Robert Duvall) and a great director, the script feels effortless.

But the heavy-handed politicking of the film doesn’t. Network’s highest points seem to be the ones that strike the viewer’s moral well being. Ned Beatty, playing the owner of a megaconglomerate, delivers a monologue that sticks to the ribs. Hitting a larger issue of the global economy, his attempt to scare Howard Beale straight seems just as much an attempt by Chayefsky to speak directly to the viewer. The speech, which lasts about five minutes, marks the hopelessness of nationalism and populism in the face of commerce and the power of capitalism. Theory, books, studies all mean nothing in the great “corporate cosmology” that governs the world we live in. When Beale starts blubbering about being “totally unnecessary as human beings, and as replaceable as piston rods,” he couldn’t hit closer to home.

“You are television incarnate, Diana,” Holden tells Dunaway, “indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.” Under this prism, the rest of the film plays out as a bitter satire of not just the entertainment industry but those who consume it as well. There is no “right or wrong” coverage, just news that gets viewers and those that don’t. In this “dollars and sense” era, informing the populace to the truth is the last thing on the agenda. Misinformation and disinformation are the new soma, untouchable and essential all at once.

The film’s prophetic qualities are almost unmatched. I remember when Jurassic Park came out, every major media source jokingly talked about bringing back the dinosaurs. That wasn’t prophetic. That was rubbish. Network could have just been a commentary on television. Instead, with 35 years of age, it’s almost like looking at the painting of Dorian Gray. Holden ditches his relationship with his wife for a fling with a woman who can’t love him back. Finch parlays his anger into a career, gaining followers as mindless as those he indicts on a nightly basis. Faye Dunaway’s addiction to career opportunities overpowers her sexuality. Humanity is losing itself to profit margins and cheap thrills with nothing to show for it.

Inevitably, telling people what they already know and reminding them of the difficulties of their lives is the last thing they want to hear. And with that, I tip my hat to this film for doing it for me.

December 15, 2011 / By