Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Dirty Shame

Painful, difficult, beautiful, compelling: Shame (2011, Steve McQueen) is an uncompromising glimpse into one man's sexual obsession. To say that the film is hard to watch is an understatement; it is absolutely unrelenting in its isolation. Numerous long takes force the viewer into a sense of uneasiness. Since the average shot in modern film lasts two seconds or less, the long takes of a minute or more create an intense feeling of deprivation, numbness, isolation -- all of the emotions that Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) endures. The sparse soundtrack adds to the intense aura of loneliness.


Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the film is its lack of psychology. We know very little about the Sullivan family except that they "come from a bad place" in New Jersey and that his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) has a history of cutting. The siblings express their pain in opposite ways: Brandon internally, and Sissy externally. We don't know how or why Brandon became addicted to sex, but we see that his obsession forms a callus, separating Brandon from potentially painful emotions. In a society where men are rewarded for conquest, Brandon hides his sexual activities from others because they express pain, not pleasure.

Sissy, alternatively, seeks others' approval to fill her emotional void. She moves into Brandon's apartment, hoping the close quarters will beget friendship. Her arms carry scars from years of self-inflicted injury, scars which she chooses not to hide. She also sleeps with her brother's boss in Brandon's own bed, an obvious cry for attention. They are both emotionally lost and flailing, but while Brandon is trying to feel nothing, Sissy desperately wants to feel something, anything.

The NC-17 rating truly betrays the honest, important nature of the film. Yes, we all know that Michael Fassbender is naked, and the MPAA hates full-frontal male nudity. But the amount of actual sexual depiction on the screen is fairly limited and not very graphic (save a three-way tryst). Perhaps the most threatening aspect of Brandon's addiction is that he takes absolutely no joy in his sexual exploits and, indeed, his life. Had Fassbender portrayed Brandon as being more sympathetic, more hopeful, then maybe the MPAA would have given the film a softer rating. However, this would have betrayed the nature of the film -- addictions are very real, very painful, and so very rarely discussed. Fassbender's incredible performance may not create a particularly likeable protagonist, but it creates an important and necessary one. Unfortunately, the MPAA's rating severely neuters the availability of the film, and that's a damn shame. This film will make you come out of the theater craving a cold shower and lots of alone time, but it's a necessary reminder presented in a beautifully constructed melancholy package.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Creepy Clown Edition

Double Feature Friday is a weekly post curating two films based on a given theme.

Let's get one thing straight: clowns are fucking scary. What may have once been fun and whimsical is now permanently associated with the dark nasties. As such, the horror industry now has a monopoly on all entertaining clown pictures. If you're not coulrophobic, skip the carnival and pair these two flicks.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, Stephen Chiodo) is the be-all, end-all of cheesy clown movies. The title says it all: murderous alien clowns visit earth to wrap humans in cotton candy shells and drink us. That's basically every child's nightmare, so imagine that with more neon colors and you'll have a rough idea of the movie. But in true 80's fashion, Killer Klowns opens with its very own theme song performed by popular punk band the Dickies. Sing it with me now!

Killer Klowns from Outer Space

Some make us laugh, some make us cry
These clowns, honey, gonna make you die...

But the real beauty of Killer Klowns is just how much it revels in its b-movie status. The costumes are pathetic, the acting is atrocious, and the concept is absurd. The trick is that they all know it, so they have fun with it. After all, we are all secretly scared that an ugly clown from outer space will shoot us with a popcorn ray gun, so the laughter helps alleviate our fears, right?

After the epic humor of Killer Klowns, it's time for something slightly more terrifying. Drive Thru (2007, Brendan Crowles and Shane Kuhn) combines two of America's great fears: clowns and fast food related death. The latter fear can be credited to Morgan Spurlock's popular documentary Super Size Me; appropriately, Spurlock appears in this film as a fast-food employee.

Drive Thru

I'll be frank and state that this film is pretty weak except for two critical factors: the killer is Hella Burger's mascot named Horny the Clown, and he deep fries someone's face. Seriously. The remainder of the movie dances around vague attempts at wit while the characters smoke copious amounts of pot; I'm assuming the filmmakers hope you're high enough to watch Gossip Girl cast members run from a clown.

Watching these two flicks back-to-back will no doubt fill you with giggles and delight. When Monday rolls around again, just remind yourself that things could be worse: you could be murdered by a clown, and that's no fun at all.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Oscar Nomination Reflections

Every single year, we film school graduates snub our noses at the Oscars. We say that it doesn't matter, that the Academy is a bunch of establishment swine, yet we inevitably check the nomination list. Despite our claims to the contrary, we do want some validation in our taste, be it through critical praise or awards. When a film that we love wins an award, it's like we've won something, too. It's only when we admit it that we can accept the stupidity of the Oscars while lightheartedly enjoying our favorite films' successes.

All that being said, it's fair to say that the Academy was relatively conservative with their nominations this year. There are no big surprises, short of the nominations for the relatively weak and pedantic Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (which, I can only assume, were for America and 9/11, not for the film itself). Well-known names dominate the nomination list: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, and so on.

Woody Allen delivered one of the best films of his career with Midnight in Paris, and he was rewarded with multiple nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. I do wish that Corey Stoll was nominated for his scene-stealing performance as Ernest Hemingway, but we can't win them all. I'm also excited that Gary Oldman has received his very first nomination. It's been a long time coming, and I'm thrilled that he's nominated for a role he loved. And don't even get me started on the beauty of the "Man or Muppet" nomination.

Of course, there are some incredible snubs to keep us cinephiles in an uproar. The absurdly powerful Melancholia and its amazing actresses, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, are both noticeably absent from the list -- most likely due to the media antics of Lars von Trier. Strikingly beautiful and difficult film Shame was also skipped over. I assume the film's NC-17 rating was the kiss of death for the mostly family-friendly Academy.

So overall, the nominations are fairly mundane. With frequent host Billy Crystal returning to the main stage duties, I think this year will be a snoozer. But what's worse, a safe and boring award show, or a controversial one? The Academy has clearly come down on one side, and I think that it might be a mistake.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Cowboy Revenge Edition

Double Feature Friday is a weekly post curating two films based on a given theme.

Everyone loves a good revenge movie. That's why there are so many amazing revenge flicks. It certainly wasn't easy to select just two movies on this theme, so I decided to narrow the scope to a single genre: the American Western. Every good Western invariably concerns a heroic cowboy getting revenge on some no-good rotten scoundrels, but here are two films that go a step beyond.

My personal favorite Western is 1992's Unforgiven. Directed by the supreme cowboy himself, Clint Eastwood, the film focuses on an old, washed up cowboy (William Munny, played by Clint Eastwood) who hung up his spurs long ago. He decides to return to the game for one last big score to secure his family's finances. He is hired by a group of prostitutes to find the men who attacked one of their own -- a seemingly noble act with a hefty payday.


What truly differentiates Unforgiven is its brutal honesty. Most Westerns glorify violent revenge, but this film posits that there is no justification for taking another man's life. When other characters declare that outlaws deserve to die, Munny responds his famous phrase: "Deserve's got nothing to do with it." Indeed, the vast majority of the people who die in any Western are mere sidekicks and bystanders -- hardly the heartless criminals who "deserve" the ultimate punishment.

Eastwood certainly brings his decades of experience to the film, as both actor, director, and producer. He makes careful use of location shots, highlighting vast expanses of land as though the scenery is character filled with the burden of knowledge. His performance as Munny highlights the guilt and pain his most famous characters would have endured as they aged. Because Eastwood is an icon of American masculinity, it is especially critical that he took such a stance against so-called cowboy heroism. Truly there is no comfort in revenge -- simply the endless cycle of being unforgiven.

Similarly, drunken cowboy Rooster Cogburn is far past his prime in True Grit. After all, Cogburn is an overweight alcoholic with only one eye, but he still has the gumption to gunsling. There are, of course, two versions of the film: Henry Hathaway's 1969 classic starring John Wayne and the Coen Brothers' 2010 update with Jeff Bridges. Both are worthy films, so feel free to select your own cowboy flavor.

True Grit

As in Unforgiven, the cowboy is the vehicle of revenge, but he is not the one seeking retribution. That distinction belongs to 14 year old Mattie Ross, an orphan searching for her father's murderer, Tom Chaney. She does not simply want Chaney brought to justice; she wants him to truly suffer. However, there is no real comfort in Chaney's death. Ross simply becomes an untimely spinster, permanently alone and aged beyond her years.

Those are just two cowboy flicks featuring excellent revenge (or lack thereof). Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Problems with the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I'll begin by saying that the American Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was quite watchable and, at times, even enjoyable. However, the story is ultimately hollow due to one giant problem: female trouble (or, rather, men having problems with powerful women). Here are my top 5 issues with the film:

1. Marketing. We all know that marketing has the ability to make or break a movie, and the edgy trailers and promo stills of this film certainly drummed up some hype. The problem here is that the marketing screamed, "Look at this sexy girl! She wants to fuck you and be your girlfriend!" Case in point: this image from a promotional spread in W Magazine features a fragile, topless Rooney Mara (Lisbeth Salander) against a frigid Swedish backdrop:

Many more promotional images depicted Salander as a sexual object in various states of undress: straddling a motorcycle without wearing pants, getting a tattoo on her ass, standing topless (with exposed nipple ring) while being embraced by a fully clothed Mikael Blomkvist, and so on. The marketing message is clear: sex. This completely undermines the updated detective story in favor of the less significant romantic/sexual aspects.

2. Salander's submissive role. From the beginning of the film, Salander is visually coded as being tough: she has tattoos (obviously), multiple piercings, defensive body posturing, oversized clothing, and a guardedly blank facial expression. These act as her armor, and her motorcycle is her horse. She is fiercely independent and goes to great lengths to protect herself -- except that this protection is completely undermined by the camera. Shots linger on the curves of her rear and her breasts, but they fly past the violent bruises and cuts of her rape. Ironically, chronically shirtless Daniel Craig remains mostly bundled against the Swedish chill.

Indeed, it is Salander's relationship with Blomkvist that softens her to the point of submission. This is evidenced by their first romantic tryst: Salander initiates the sexual act, but Blomkvist quickly flips her over and assumes the dominant position. The next morning, he awakens to her watching him, gazing with admiration and intimate submission. Further (and this is a big spoiler), when Salander saves Blomkvist from serial killer Martin Vanger, she does not simply chase Vanger or declare that she will kill him -- she asks permission from Blomkvist. Why would any hero ask permission to protect countless women from torture, sexual assault, and brutal murder? This particular point ruffled my feathers, so I decided to search the original text. Unsurprisingly, the textual Salander doesn't ask permission of anyone -- ever.

3. Feminism. Actress Mara is quoted as saying, "I never thought of [Salander] as a feminist; I don't think she would characterize herself as that either." Director David Fincher agreed that Salander was not a feminist. Whether or not Salander considers herself one, she does view women as being equal to men -- the very definition of feminism. Why else would she protect other women from being preyed upon by not one but two rapists? This misconception of feminism by two key players caused the film to miss out on the large potential for female empowerment. Instead of fighting for women, Salander simply fights (with permission).

4. Lack of female power. Aside from Salander, there are two important adult women: Blomkvist's lover, Erika Berger, and the missing girl at the center of the mystery, Harriet Vanger. Berger is the editor of an important independent magazine, but Blomkvist's scandal threatens to take down her career with it. In the novel, her relationship with Blomkvist is portrayed as solid and permanent, while in the film she is relegated to a much more minor role. Harriet, too, does not rise to her ultimate potential. In the novel, she is ultimately offered the CEO position of her family's company. On film, her return is little more than a hug and a smile.

5. David Fincher. The director has a reputation for being meticulous, difficult, and moody. He worked his actors particularly hard for this film, and it definitely showed. His relationship with Mara, a relative newcomer, is definitely troubling. In Vogue's interview with the pair, Jonathan van Meter writes, "[Fincher] says with quiet seriousness, 'You can eat.' I look up to see her reaction. [... Mara] orders a piece of fish and barely touches it." It is this possessiveness over her appearance, her body that makes me uncomfortable. In a way, she has sunken into the same submissive role as her Salander, looking to her Blomkvist for guidance and approval.

Admittedly, I'm approaching this from a very pro-feminist perspective. I'd like to reiterate that I didn't dislike the film; it's just that I didn't particularly like it either. This entire trilogy had huge potential to promote the female hero, and so far Salander is just playing second fiddle. Time will tell if she comes into her own.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Zombie Edition

Double Feature Friday is a weekly post curating two films based on a given theme.

It's Friday the 13th, so let's celebrate with some horror! Zombies are all the rage these days, but it's hard to get your fix with The Walking Dead on hiatus and the box office preoccupied with Alvin and the Chipmunks. Thankfully, there's no shortage of ghoulish flicks readily available through various streaming services. Films like Night of the Living Dead, The Evil Dead, and Zombi II really helped establish the genre, so if you're a zombie virgin, I'd suggest starting there. That being said, I've selected two offbeat zombie pictures for the perfect Friday night. Pair with finger food and a Bloody Mary for lots of fun and bad puns.

Let's start with 2009's Dead Snow directed by Tommy Wirkola. The premise combines all great cliches in horror: Norwegian medical students vacation at a winter cabin and accidentally awaken a zombie curse. Did I mention that they're Nazi zombies?

Nazi zombies in Dead Snow

Instead of drowning in the I-can-kill-a-stranger-but-I-can't-kill-my-wife tropes of traditional zombie pictures, Wirkola has elevated his baddies to the ultimate in evil. Therefore, the medical students (and the audience) can unabashedly delight in the violence.

The film also rewards the viewer with humorously grotesque scenes. The Norwegian cabin does not contain a bathroom, so the students must trudge to the outhouse. It's only fitting that the young Chris is pulled down into the waste by a zombie. Later, one of the students actually uses zombie entrails as a rope while dangling off of a cliff. These moments of disgusting humor lighten the tension of the violence.

But what really stands out is the solid filmmaking behind Dead Snow. Each shot is beautifully composed, utilizing the stark Norwegian winter as a stunning contrast to the black-red blood of both the human and the undead. The action is emphasized by a thundering heavy metal soundtrack.

One thing to keep in mind is that Dead Snow is in Norwegian, so be prepared to read subtitles. The film is available to stream directly on Netflix.

If Nazi zombies aren't enough for you, then check out Dead Alive (1992, also known as Braindead outside of North America). Directed by Peter Jackson (yes, of Lord of the Rings fame), this comedic take on the zombie genre is highly reminiscent of Evil Dead 2: a lanky regular Joe is the only thing stopping New Zealand from being taken over by zombies. Instead of arming himself with a chainsaw, Lionel uses an entire lawnmower.

Dead Alive

This scene is decidedly the most critical; rumor has it that a considerable portion of the film's budget went to the blood, which shot out at 300 liters per minute. That's a lot of gore!

Beyond the blood, the zombies mix some other bodily fluids. If you've ever wondered if zombies can mate, Dead Alive answers a resounding yes. Not only is a zombie baby conceived, it is birthed and goes on its own humorous killing rampage.

So, if you enjoy sickly Sumatran rat-monkeys, massive amounts of gore, hearty laughter, and Sigmund Freud, get your hands on Dead Alive.

That wraps up this week's Double Feature Friday. Enjoy your creepy Friday the 13th!