Review: Spring Breakers

The saccharine Disney starlet Selena Gomez plays the least bad-ass of a group of four college girls who head out to Florida for spring break to get away from what they perceive to be the mind-numbing boredom of their nameless and nondescript hometown. The girls, however, don’t have enough money to fund their trip, so the other three (played by Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine — director Harmony’s wife — and Ashley Benson) rob a local store with squirt guns, a giant hammer, and a generous dose of profanity. After some fun in the Florida sun, the girls end up in jail for partying too hard and eventually get bailed out by the corn-rowed drug-dealer-slash-aspiring-rapper Alien (James Franco). The adventure turns dark, and some of the girls handle the noir much better (or worse?) than the others. Absurdity, violence, perversity, and adventure ensue.

If there was ever film about which you could use the acronym “OMFG”, this is it. Director Harmony Korine‘s screenplay for 1995′s Kids (Larry Clark) was about young people who act like horrifyingly high, violent, and promiscuous idiots, and Spring Breakers unapologetically revisits this territory. The debate about whether this film is exploitative or a scathing social commentary should be reserved for another (essay-length) article, but suffice it to say that the it’s both, and proudly so (social commentary is sometimes inevitably also exploitative). Picture this: a beach full of young people (wow, how old am I?) engaging in the raunchiest body movements you can imagine (Middle finger! Crotch grabbing! Beer-soaked breasts! Booty!), shot in slow motion and set to the filthiest song Skrillex could possibly come up with. And that’s only the film’s opening scene; it all goes downhill from there. Part violent fantasy, part critique of American entitlement, consumption, and hypersexualized youth culture, Spring Breakers pulls out all the stops. The film is sure to be divisive. I, personally, loved it, although not without numerous caveats. You may hate it. All the more reason for everyone to see it.

Is Spring Breakers Opening Weekend Worthy?

You’ll definitely want to see what all the fuss is about (and there will be fuss) and seeing it opening weekend will give you a head start on forming your opinion. And form it concretely! You will get challenged by someone, at some point, no matter what you think of the film, so prepare your argument and get set to fight.

More About Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers Trailer

Spring Breakers Production Gallery

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Who is she? Hollywood and the 1990s femme fatale

Look at her: she’s dangerous, sexy, probably lying to you, and lookin’ good doing it. Who is she? Well, she’s probably Sharon Stone or Demi Moore, and it’s most likely around 1994. I’ve never quite been able to figure out why, but there seems to have been a spate of big-budget Sexy Dangerous Lady movies in the ’90s. The answer is probably that Hollywood likes to maul a trend to death as soon as it garners one mega-profitable hit (see, for example, the spate of “disaster” flicks that sprouted up in the 1970sThe Poseidon Adventure  (1972) is a personal favourite of mine). In any case, I’ve frequently and confidently placed Paul Verhoeven’s  Basic Instinct  (1992) in my list of all-time favourite films (like, for example, here – scroll down to me at the bottom), so perhaps it’s time to explore the trope in deeper detail.

Basic Instinct 2
Sharon Stone is the consummate ’90s femme fatale in “Basic Instinct.”

When you Google an admittedly facile term like “films like  Basic Instinct ,” you get a variety of results that are not necessarily all accurate (thanks again, internet). While some fantastic films no doubt belong in the category, such as the formidably kitschy erotico-violent work of Brian de Palma — say, Body Double (1984) — as well as  Disclosure  (1994),  The Crush  (1993), and  Sliver  (1993), others are confusingly lumped in to this admittedly foggy category simply because of, say, sex. Or , more specifically, sexualized women. On many forums, blogs, and lists that aim to recommend films like Basic Instinct , two film are notable recurrences, and yet neither one is anything like the Verhoeven masterpiece:  Fatal Attraction (1987) and  Indecent Proposal (1993). Let’s, as they say in high school literature classes, compare and contrast.

Disclosure
Demi Moore plays the sexual predator in “Disclosure.”

We begin with the alpha example, the quintessential perfect prototype of what every other film in this category attempts (and always somewhat fails) to be:  Basic Instinct . As you may already be able to tell, I cannot speak highly enough of this film. For those who haven’t seen it, you probably immediately think of the infamous leg-uncrossing scene; and yes, that’s powerful stuff, especially in a media landscape in which women’s bodies are carelessly exposed, but in very particular ways (ahem, anything but the vagina!) But what you may not know is what the film is really about. Four words: homicidal lesbian cult mystery. The film is stuffed with meta-text (Sharon Stone plays a crime novelist with a pseudonym whose protagonist kills her sexual prey with ice picks; she also happens to own an ice pick, and may or may not use it against the detective she seduces while he investigates her, one creepily played by Michael Douglas). The film is incredibly sophisticated, admirably open-ended (for a Hollywood product), suspenseful, sexy, and confusingly feminist (or is it?). Now for the copycats:  Disclosure is also about a woman who’s “out to get” (ie. ruin) a man (again, Michael Douglas — Mr. Douglas re-appears in  Fatal Attraction ; guess he was in high demand for mid-’90s erotic thrillers). But  Disclosure   is, at best, a clumsy attempt at what  Basic Instinct accomplished. Demi Moore plays Douglas’ boss, who blackmails and forces him into a sexual relationship with her, but the motivations are always thin (she’s just a bad person?) and the execution is too in-your-face (just look at the film’s original poster — we get it, we get it.  Basic Instinct ‘s poster is relatively more nuanced.)

Body Double
“Body Double” shows an ’80s incarnation of the femme fatale.

A perhaps more accurate comparison to  Basic Instinct is Body Double , in which an innocent and vulnerable struggling actor is duped by a hypersexualized woman with a mysterious double (or triple?) identity. Both Basic Instinct and Body Doubl e remain open-ended, and countless academic and popular articles have attempted to guess what the “true” ending or meaning of the films is intended to be. But this is to miss the point: both films foreground the mystery, suspense, and power of the woman over the mystery, suspense, and power of the ideally cohesive narrative. Who is she and what does she want from me? Why is she doing this to me? Of course, the femme fatale stereotype is hardly fresh feminist ground (and it’s no doubt problematic on many levels), but the idea of a multi-layered, tough, unknowable, and fiercely intelligent woman in a Hollywood film is admittedly still a revolutionary one. In Sliver , Stone returns as the unknown object of mystery and desire, except this time we are led to believe she is “innocent” (as opposed to her character in Basic Instinct who looks from the start like the proverbial canary-eating cat.) In all three films ( Sliver, Body Double, and Basic Instinct), the female protagonist is, at the outset, the subject of investigation (she is spied on, criminally charged, hauled in for questioning, video-recorded without her knowledge, etc.) and yet she emerges, by the films’ ends, as the ultimate unknowable mystery, the crux of the dangling narrative conclusion (a dangling conclusion which, unfortunately, produces such unpalatable sequels as Basic Instinct 2 — blech. Don’t bother.)

Fatal Attraction
Glenn Close plays another woman out to get Michael Douglas in “Fatal Attraction.”

Now for the erroneously classified brethren: somehow or other, Fatal Attraction is most often lumped into the category which I’m exploring here, and I can’t think of a more unfortunate and wrong-headed cultural stereotype. Glenn Close’s character has a one-night sex romp with the married Michael Douglas character and proceeds to attempt to destroy his life and his family out of a proclaimed “love” (ie. delusional obsession) with him. But, look: she’s not a higher-level manipulator; she’s not a multi-layered, mysterious criminal mastermind like the incredible Catherine Trammel (Stone in Basic Instinct ). She’s a clearly mentally unhealthy, desperate, and self-loathing woman in crisis, and it’s sad and inaccurate that we lump this type of woman in with the sharp, icy, and unforgettably clever protagonistes I’ve attempted to explore here.

The lessons to be learned here: 1) don’t take internet commenters’ movie lists without skepticism (but you already knew that), 2) watch Basic Instinct immediately (and watch it again if you’ve already seen it), and 3) always — ALWAYS — sleep with an ice pick under your bed if you’re sexually active. You never know when it might come in handy.

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Cinema Revisited: Gilles Groulx’ Le Chat dans le sac

Ah the sixties: a time of existential angst, political turmoil, and cultural revolution. OK, so I was born in 1983…but it doesn’t mean I can’t dream. Of course, the ’60s were a seminal moment globally and cross-culturally: the sexual revolution took hold in the West while films and music began to experiment with form, and the strength of the student and labour movements engendered the protests of May ’68. But what was going on at home was   much more specific and thought-provoking: the Quiet Revolution swept the province of Quebec (so called because it was not a revolution of violence, but rather one of social discourse). The formerly Catholic-based education and social systems in Québec  began to break down in favour of a more secular and open atmosphere ready for change after years of post-war industrialization and prosperity.

Gilles Groulx’ Le Chat dans le sac could not have come at a more relevant time, but the primary significance of this charming, intelligent, and formally courageous little film is that it remains as provocative, mysterious, and beautiful today as it ever was. The film follows a young couple: Claude (a 23-year-old Francophone aspiring journalist and intellectual) and Barbara (a 20-year-old Jewish drama student trying to get rid of the accent with which she speaks French) as their relationship slowly deteriorates due to any kind of little differences you could imagine: aesthetic, political, temperamental, whatever. In the vein of the groundbreaking formal style of Jean-Luc Godard (see: Vivre sa vie , Ã bout de souffle ), Le Chat dans le sac plays with time and flow, slicing scenes into jarring yet invigorating jump cuts, and using melancholic, echoing voice-overs to convey an extra-temporal narration of the characters’ musings of all sorts. At the heart of the film, however, is a remarkably contemporary question that twenty-to-thirtysomethings today will no doubt recognize: what am I going to do with my life?

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Claude Godbout and Barbara Ulrich in “Le Chat dans le sac”

Claude’s provocations are incessant and blunt: is “newspapering” (as he puts it) the right way to spread rebellion and, hopefully revolution? What should be done about the representation of Muslims in the Québec government? Do rights belong to races or individuals? It’s clear that Claude is aching for some radical social changes, but he can never quite articulate exactly what he wants or how he aims to achieve it. In the meantime, he belittles Barbara and they become visibly annoyed with one another while she attempts to get him interested in a Brecht play her drama school intends to perform. The hypocrisy here is unmissable: while Claude wrings his hands over the composition of some amorphous radical intellectual manifesto, his very own girlfriend is the victim of a subtle yet unmistakeably internalized patriarchal dismissiveness (I mean, for god’s sake, she’s reading and performing Brecht — hello! — and he’s all like, “Why don’t you care about politics?” Geez, Claude!) Eventually, Claude takes off to the countryside leaving Barbara alone in Montreal so he can be one with his thoughts; the physical distance is ultimately the catalyst of the breakdown of their troubled relationship, and the two part ways.

It’s difficult to overstate how charming this film is: in classic black and white, the characters eat croissants and smoke cigarettes in a Québec in political flux while a stunning jazz soundtrack accompanies their wanderings through the narrow, European alleyways of mid-century Montreal. But perhaps the film’s original point is skewed by a contemporary perspective: while Claude is certainly intended to be the “protagonist” of our story (despite the fact that the film’s opening title card claims it is a story about a couple), his overwhelmingly self-involved existential crisis reads reads a bit like the infantile entitlement of what we now recognize to be the Baby Boomers (the fictional Claude would be 73 today, a bit past that generation, but not much). To be fair, though, I can’t say to what extent a 1964 viewer would have been skeptical of Claude as a sympathetic protagonist, but there’s no doubt that character assessment is at least partially a historical problem. Let’s just say that not only was I not exactly fond of him, but I found myself wanting to slap him at least once or twice.

Chat 1
Barbara Ulrich in “Le Chat dans le sac”

Aesthetically, you’ll not only recognize the cinematically formal signature as one that is deeply indebted to Godard, but you’ll also take note of that perpetual argument about the cyclical nature of style. Barbara and Claude would be right at home with les hipsters somewhere on Dundas and Ossington (she dons a black-and-white striped sailor shirt and a bangs-and-bob black haircut, while he’s incessantly protecting his eyes from his own cigarette smoke with a fabulous pair of Ray-Bans). As eye candy, the film is a pure joy to look at: the crowds, the streets, the smoke, and the jazz all amount to a highly luxe viewing experience. Perhaps, then, this is the real genius of the film: it deals with the very real stark impoverishment of experience during social and cultural revolutions (neither Claude nor Barbara are sure of themselves, sure of where and who they are, sure of what they want, etc.) and yet the mise-en-scéne is enough to fill their empty little hearts twice over. I hope my perspective doesn’t sound materialistic; I don’t mean to say that a pair of Ray-Bans can comfort you in a time of existential trial. What I mean is that when one looks around at the minutae of endlessly fascinating things present in a bustling and multi-faceted urban centre (like Montreal in the ’60s, or like Toronto in 2013), one’s personal problems become writ large as a kind of political-aesthetic conundrum that begs to be addressed, and this is exactly the kind of discourse that Groulx, Godard, and their contemporaries aimed to push forward.

The concluding excellent news is that you can watch Le Chat dans le sac (as well as many, many other films) for free on the National Film Board’s website. A stunningly sharp and poetic piece of Canadian history lives online, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t make the time to check it out.

Le Chat dans le sac Production Gallery

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Cinema Revisited: Denys Arcand (even masters make mistakes)

First of all, doesn’t Denys Arcand kind of look a little bit like John Waters? Hm. Despite this jarring similarity, let’s take a look back at the work of one of Canada’s most internationally-renowned auteurs. But when we aim to “revisit” cinema, what is it exactly that we are doing? In my view, it is one of two things: recuperation or time-testing. In the act of recuperation, a formerly-maligned film might be re-read to excavate some previously unnoticed qualities, or perhaps to highlight the usefulness of those of its qualities which were used against it in contemporary criticism (think of Paul Verhoeven’s now-cult-classic 1995 film Showgirls ). In the act of time-testing, we try to see how a film “holds up”, and whether the praise it originally received is still relevant today.

One of the first films that garnered Arcand major notice was the Oscar-nominated and multi-Genie-winning Le déclin de l’empire américain (1986), a comedy-drama about the intimate conversations and relationships among a group of intellectual friends (professors, no less) before and during a dinner party. As the first of the “unofficial” trilogy, onto which 2003’s Les invasions barbares and 2007’s L’age des tenebres were added, Le déclin…   offers a not-so-subtle critique of contemporary capitalism and Western sexual morality. The critique, however, is not an outright attack; rather, Arcand’s skill as a writer (he wrote the script, too) allows the seamless and engaging dialogues coming from the fleshed-out characters to speak for themselves. The film doesn’t “take a stand” on the issues it explores; rather, it opens the door for a viewer to observe, collect and, individually judge information about the characters and their situations. Indeed, the characters are so eloquent, verbose, and almost   annoyingly opinionated that the film lays its themes bare without much evident construction, as when the character of Dominique, the chairperson of the Université de Montréal’s History Department, goes on an extended tirade about the decline of the influence of history, the decline of both personal and social responsibility, and the inevitability of these destructive processes.

The Oscar-winning Les invasions barbares   revisits the same kinds of situations, debates, and characters that we met in the previous film, but it’s actually   L’age des tenebres that takes the philosophy of moral, sexual, social, historical, and political decline to a whole new (and hilarious) level. Our sad little protagonist, the family man and civil servant Jean-Marc, is in a sort of personal decline (his teenage daughter is rebellious and promiscuous, his wife is aloof and snappy, his coworkers are despondent and sarcastic) that is mirrored by a mysteriously unnamed yet instantly recognizable socio-political decline (Jean-Marc dons a germ mask over his mouth as he enters a crowded commuter train to travel to work; he isn’t the only one wearing it). In the context of its ostensible ridiculousness (who wears a germ mask in public? Come on!) the film actually approaches the brilliance of the kind of quasi-contemporary science-fiction that offers the harshest criticism of modern life due to its proximity-yet-distance from our own recognizable world. While Les invasions.. . and Le déclin…  certainly stand the test of time as smart, character-driven, dialogue-rich dark comedies, it’s L’age des tenebres that really pushes the envelope with its daringly unlikely yet familiar scenarios (hint: the film’s conclusion veers into LARP territory).

Jessica Paré in "15 Moments"
< Jessica Paré in “15 Moments”

Outside of the trilogy of decline, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, dear reader: obviously, I had to revisit 15 Moments (2000), in light of Canadian beauty Jessica Paré’s sudden stardom as Don Draper’s second wife Megan on Mad Men.   The conclusion? This film does not pass the time-test. The attempt here is interesting: the story follows a young female hockey player in Cornwall, Ontario, as she is “discovered” for her photogenic beauty and thrust into the world of global fame and fortune. Obviously, Arcand’s usual concerns (social and sexual relationships, contemporary capitalism, Western popular culture) are central again, but the film’s execution is perhaps delusionally ambitious and the work eventually turns into a satire of itself (intentional? Hard to tell.) All the “millenial” signatures are there: frantic editing, dystopian media criticism, and a self-consciousness bordering on narcissism all infect the film deeply and make it difficult — almost impossible — to watch. Despite the fact that the film is intriguingly star-studded (Frank Langella! Dan Aykroyd! Robert Lepage!), it’s sadly unwatchable and proves that even the most attuned master of cinema can take a bad misstep or two. One wonders to what extent the film’s failure has to do with the fact that it is one of Arcand’s only English-language works; this is not to say that the filmmaker is somehow incapable of communicating in this language/culture, but only to suggest that perhaps some of the tropes and issues with which he is centrally concerned in his oeuvre may translate differently to another milieu.

I hope I have not been too harsh here on Monsieur Arcand; let us end on an achingly beautiful note with the supreme, seminal, and inarguably timeless Jésus de Montréal (1989). A group of actors is gathered to perform a contemporary revival of the Passion Play but their private lives and relationship begin to both mimic and contrast the play’s events and philosophies in complicated ways. In addition to the admirably self-reflexive commentary on performance and fiction that the film aims to get across, it’s also a heartbreakingly honest, character-driven study of love, loss, and mortality. As a non-religious person myself, a film like this really communicates effectively the very important binding role that faith plays in relationships and communities. We might even say that a faith like Catholicism isn’t so far removed from the passions and desires found in a faith like cinephilia; Arcand’s film toys with both. With Jésus de Montréa l , and his trilogy of decline, it’s no wonder Arcand has secured himself a spot in world cinema as a consistent and thoughtful master of cinematic narrative. At least he recovered fairly quickly from the mess of that awful Paré thing. The lesson to be learned is that even masters make mistakes.

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A hard-hearted look at kids’ films

I stand before you ready to fully admit my perhaps excessive serious-mindedness. I’ve rarely been able to enjoy a film “just for fun”. There have   been a few exceptions, of course: Wayne’s World (1992), The Cutting Edge (1992), and maybe even, on an exceptional day, something saccharine yet playful like   Home Alone (1990). But for the most part, when my twenty-something friends suggested a couple of years back that we all go see   Madagascar (2005) in the theatre, I groaned pretentiously and declared I was going to stay home to read post-structuralist literary theory instead. I know, I know… even I hate myself. Well, time to make a change! As part of TFS’ Kids’ Cinema Month, I’m going to jump into those dad-joke-filled puddles of optimism, earnestness, and joy known as kids’ films.

james-and-the-giant-peach
The remarkably dark sensibility of “James and the Giant Peach” somehow translates well into children’s fare

Of course, kids’ films can be as wide or narrow a category as you want it to be. I decided to stick to the last couple decades or so of English-language films, for no particular reasons other than to narrow it down. I began by asking myself what I was like as a kid, and what kinds of things I actually enjoyed, thinking this might translate into some clues about what kinds of kids’ films my adult self might enjoy. My answer was singular and immediately obvious: Roald Dahl.

As a kid, I voraciously consumed the man’s fantastical and charmingly high-brow tales of kids outsmarting adults, so I decided to watch two recent adaptations: Matilda (Danny DeVito, 1996) and James and the Giant Peach (Henry Selick, 1996). I immediately remembered what I liked about Dahl: both of these films have a remarkably dark sensibility, and yet it somehow translates well into children’s fare. Matilda is, quite frankly, a delightful and light-hearted romp through severe child abuse and neglect. James (he of the Giant Peach) loses his parents to a murderous rhinoceros and goes on to befriend a peach-dwelling spider and his Gothic insect friends. Indeed, the latter is a film obviously infused by the Gothic sensibility of Tim Burton, spindly legs and cavernous skulls and all.

I think Matilda , in particular, is actually a remarkable film: at the core of it, our protagonist suffers what would otherwise be unendurable abuse, and yet she’s crafty, witty, self-confident, and ultimately victorious against her oppressors. What a positive role model, not only for kids, but adults alike! Watch this film and you’ll find yourself taking a deep breath and standing up for yourself against all kinds of bullies, whether they’re of the schoolyard or the office variety.

madagascar
You could watch “Madagascar” with full-grown friends and some wine and not have a horrible time

I decided I should make it up to my friends from 2005 by actually watching Madagascar and… breaking news: it’s actually pretty good. Look, it’s not Great Cinema… but it’s pretty good. The lively animation and undeniably catchy musical numbers can’t fail to stop you from nodding along with a grin. There: I’m broken. I’m watching a kids’ film and I’m smiling and I’m liking it. Sigh. It certainly helps that marketing gurus have caught on to the lucrative potential of making so-called kids’ films that adults actually enjoy. The trio of mafia-esque penguins in Madagascar   frequently crack jokes that I’m pretty sure kids don’t get, and the hedonistic, languishing King Julian is basically a play on the stoner cliché (hardly kid-appropriate material). Anyway, let’s just say you could watch Madagascar with full-grown friends and some wine and not have a horrible time. Plus: there are two sequels.

rango
“Rango” is just plain good. Plus, it’s an homage to “Chinatown”. Yeah, that’s right.

Moving along with contemporary animated kids’ films that contain a suspicious amount of jokes addressed to an adult audience: I sat down to watch Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011) on a particularly low sick day. Guys, this movie rules. For kids, for adults, I don’t even care. It’s the best. From its opening moments, the film plays with such an incredible degree of absurdim that I thought maybe David Lynch had decided to make an animated film. Not so. This little slice of avant-garde pie is for the weird kids. Yes, the plotline is conventional: confused pet lizard sets out to find himself, becomes hero, saves an oppressed town, gets the girl in the end. But the film looks, from beginning to end, like something out of an LSD nightmare. My eyes were dried-out from not blinking throughout the film. If you truly want to see some of the most imaginative and creative art direction in recent cinema, Rango has it. Plus, it emerges as a charmingly light homage to one of my favourite films of all time: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). You’ll have to watch Rango to see just how this homage plays out.

hugo
Who knew “Hugo” would be an interesting and heartbreaking look at the history of cinema?

To return briefly to the Roald Dahl train of thought: I recalled the fuss of a couple of years ago, by kids and adults alike, over the apparently remarkable Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009), a stop-motion animation adaptation of Dahl’s book. At the time, I just considered the film too unbearably adorable to even give a second thought. Well, it turns out Mr. Anderson was faithful to the complexity and nuance of Dahl’s book: the film is a joyfully destructive critique of contemporary capitalism and its attendant labour exploitation. Who knew?! And George Clooney (as the voice of Mr. Fox) obviously charms the pants off anyone (par for the course, Clooney). Last year’s critical hit Hugo   (Martin Scorsese, 2011) also seemed to me to be a bit too Jumanji -esque to stomach, but I decided that, as part of this project, I should check it out. Who knew this would be a heartbreaking story about humanity’s love of the magic of cinema! I’m tearing up even as I think about poor old Monsieur Méliès (Ben Kingsley) and his dashed passions!

I stand before you having learned an important lessons about not only kids’ films but also about myself. With respect to the former: they often harbour a depth, creativity, and darkness of a kind I never expected to find in what I formerly considered light-hearted and joyous fare. With respect to the latter: I need to stop being so sour!

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TIFF launches Trintignant-Riva retrospective to accompany release of Haneke’s Amour

Not only is Michael Haneke’s Amour destined to clean up at all sorts of glitzy awards shows, both Hollywood and otherwise, but the film itself is bringing two living legends back to the big screen. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva were   both pillars of French cinema across a span of decades in the mid-to-late 20th century, and the TIFF Bell Lightbox celebrates their re-appearance in Amour with a carefully-curated retrospective comprised of some of the most influential 20th century European films.

The program, “A Man and a Woman: Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva”, is running now until February 24, 2013, and includes such indisputable classics of cinema like A Man and a Woman (Claude Lelouch, 1966), Les Biches (Claude Chabrol, 1969), and, of course, the seminal Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959). You can see the full list of films in the retrospective here, but for the moment, let me pick out a few recommendations of my own. The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970), in which Trintignant plays a repressed homosexual who joins up with Mussolini’s Fascists in a desperate effort to, well, conform , is a must-see for anyone who has ever wondered about the politics and psychic machinations of mass delusions. The film is a scathing portrait of the pre-WWII fascist Italian state, and the conformist in question is the vapid, paranoid, violent, and insipid Marcello (Trintignant). In a properly Marxian gesture, the film underscores the inauthentic “sheen” (as Marx would have described) that reified commodities take on (are not the female characters’ formal ball gowns remarkably, and quite literally, shiny?) The film is visually stunning and a must-see at the level of eye-candy alone: indeed, Bertolucci’s excessively stylized and inarguably gorgeous ­mise-en-scenes “suggest the artifice and insincerity of Marcello’s belabored normalcy.” Burn.

In Ma nuit chez Maud (Eric Rohmer, 1969), Trintignant plays the subtle nuances of a Catholic engineer who falls into romantic trysts with both an atheist doctor whose sexuality is as sharp as her intelligence, and also a young science student whose devout faith outdoes his own. The film’s allure, for me at least, is admittedly partially an escapist one: it transports the viewer back into a time when launching into an intense repartee about the theological philosophy of Pascal over copious amounts of cigarettes and wine was a socially acceptable way to have a conversation with a friend (yes, I still have friends like that in2013, but there’s something about boozy, black-and-white 1960s France that accentuates the appeal of such a scene).

Moving into a patch of sunlight, there’s the delightfully colourlful (literally) …And God Created Woman (Roger Vadim, 1956), the vehicle almost universally acknowledged for starting the Bridgitte Bardot sex kitten craze (indeed, it was a well-deserved craze: Bardot’s stunning breasts frequently appear covered only in the thin, sun-soaked transparency of a white t-shirt or bed sheet; it’s no wonder the film was heavily cut by censors in the United States upon its arrival across the pond). Bardot plays what basically amounts to a wild, hedonistic party girl; while she finds herself in love with a man who only wants to use and discard her, she also ends up married to his kind yet naive younger brother (played by Trintignant). The tragedy of repressive sexual morality and what we might today call “slut-shaming” ensues. I still haven’t quite figured out the shared degrees to which this film is both exploitative and critical of Bardot’s (and her character’s) sexuality, so I intend to do some reading up on that. No doubt, it’ll be a heated debate. For the time being, however, I intend to take joyful cues from the film’s southern-France setting, with its brightly-coloured furnishings and never-ending sunsets on the beach.

Watching Trintignant and Riva in action across decades of acclaimed cinema will no doubt warm you up for what it certain to be the bummer of a ride that Amour is — Haneke at his finest.

Trintignant & Riva Production Gallery

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Meet the TFS Writers: Jovana Jankovic

Here I am! When I was ten, my parents pressed pause and sent me to my room when Geena Davis’ character started to get raped in Thelma and Louise (1991). They, of course, didn’t know the scene was coming up, and they were just letting me hang out around the movie because I was in the room. But after that, I couldn’t quite figure out what the big secret was, and I never knew what I had missed in Thelma and Louise until I saw it again, many years later, with a much more thorough knowledge of the politics of gender and sexuality. I’ve admired the film ever since. But, on the other hand, I certainly indulged in much less highbrow fare, too. At age 14, my best friend Katie and I watched Speed (1994) fourteen times. Why? Not sure. But, to this day, I can quote the film as though I wrote it.

It’s only after a couple of degrees in Film Studies (B.A. Hons. – Carleton U.; M.A. – York U.) that I finally seem to have some grasp about what my attraction to cinema is. It has to do with the incredibly diverse ways in which films are so real and yet such a fantastical escape from reality at the same time. Maybe Thelma and Louise isn’t exactly the paragon of realist cinema, but it perfectly toes the line between being relatable and utterly fantastic. I think every film is, in some sense, composed of these two seemingly   opposing poles. You can find the most realistic experiences and emotions in a film like Brazil (1985), or the most awfully overblown spectacles in realist gems like the films of Robert Bresson.

My taste eventually settled into a kind of Lynchian-Hanekesque dyad, a grouping of films composed predominantly of over-lit nightmarish campy fantasies and sombre European social criticism, the meeting of which one could argue persists in the work of Paul Verhoeven (whose Basic Instinct (1992) is absolutely one of my favourite films ever — if you haven’t seen it, stop reading this right now and go watch it, then write to me in the comments section below). But other than watching films, and loving every minute of them, I suppose I’ve often asked myself what it is that I enjoy so much about writing about films. Putting aside the fact that I consider myself (perhaps erroneously) to be a clever and hilarious observer with sharp intellect, one could also assume that I simply have a lot to say, and I need a place to say it. Ever go out for drinks with friends after a film, and one person simply cannot stop discussing the film itself? That would be me.

Writing about films gives me an outlet into which I can pour all kinds of thoughts: not only thoughts about the film, but thoughts about the ways in which it reflects the world and our society, whether its fantastical or realist or somewhere in between. I believe everything we say, hear, see, and do is political. I believe apathy is worse than any political belief with which I may disagree. And I believe it is art’s job to reflect our life experiences back to us, with a little added glitz, action, and fiction, of course (here I am, in this picture above, with a Jackson Pollock painting: “Convergence”, 1952). Even a supremely awful film that may have nothing to do with your personal life experience can tell you a little something about the state of the contemporary media industries (hint: they’re out of ideas). One of the most stimulating experiences I ever had was at this past September’s Toronto International Film Festival, when I absolutely could not decide whether Spring Breakers (2012) was critical or exploitative. I still don’t know. But I know one thing: this superb ambiguity marks a great cinematic achievement, and I only wish I had films like that to write about every day.

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The Year in Movies: 6 films that were awesome in every way except for their weird politics

For those who know me well, you’ll know I hover around in a perpetual Marxist-Feminist vigilance. I’m also a hopelessly cinephilic sucker for a cool-looking, nail-biting thriller of a film. What happens when the former meets the latter? Can’t… process. Too… many… contradictions. Here’s my list of this year’s Films That Were Awesome In Every Way Except For Their Weird Politics.

bane

The Dark Knight Rises

Forgive me in advance for my reluctant recourse to that overexposed and overdetermined academic spectacle, Slavoj Žižek, but the man makes some very interesting points in his essay about the labour and class politics of The Dark Knight Rises . What else could capitalist popular culture have done with the Occupy movement but turn labour and class activism into a violent, dystopian war of exclusion? And, believe me, the fact that Bane (Tom Hardy) was so awesome in that filthy sheepskin coat and that voice made even me doubt my own politics for a moment or two. I wanted to join him and get down with his bad self! It’s moments like this, when you catch yourself letting go of your staunch beliefs for a perfectly-constructed movie villain, in which one must be careful to remember that it’s just a movie.

 

Emily Blunt;Joseph Gordon Levitt

Looper

Oh man, this movie was awesome! Beautifully choreographed action scenes, a gripping and twisted narrative, sharp bleakness in the futuristic set design, stellar performances by both Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis, and non-stop thrills to boot! What more could one want? Oh wait a minute… all men are uncontrollable rage/party monsters (including the little kid) until they are tempered by the generous, selfless, gentle love and care of A Good Woman (Wife/Mother)? Give me freaking break. What a sad way for an incredible film to go.

 

iron lady

The Iron Lady  

I actually liked this film quite a lot, and Meryl Streep’s Oscar was well-deserved. The early parts of the film are filled with some very touching and impressive ball-busting scenes, as Margaret Thatcher infiltrates the Boys’ Club of British Parliament. I almost found myself cheering for her from a feminist perspective. But let’s get real: she totally goes on to gut the public trust and insinuates that people’s problems are solely their own fault. Libertarian at her worst. Blech.

 

Headhunters

Headhunters

Don’t you love a good “caper”? You know, lies, money, heists, schemes, mysteries, and double-crossings? This is exactly one of those films, and it’s excellent. Moreover, it’s an art forgery caper (and if there’s one thing I love more than my politics, it’s art). But then you get to the end of the film and you find out that the main character embroiled himself in all these crazy, dangerous schemes for one reason and one reason only: he’s shorter than his wife. Eye-roll extraordinaire.

 

Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe Cooper in ``Killer Joe.''

Killer Joe and Spring Breakers  

These two are tough ones. I’m a big fan of both. They’re incredible, unique, and skillfully-executed films. I’d watch both again, and repeatedly, for sure. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with their politics, per se , and in fact, both films could be read as scathing, incisive critiques of American consumerism and the hyper-sexualisation of young women. The only reason I’m including them on this list is that they’re related to a contentious new trend in media exploitation which has to do with the so-called “trashy” demographic (see: Here Comes Honey Boo Boo et al). Where do we draw the line between laughing with and laughing at these people? I certainly don’t have the answer, but it’s a thought-provoking question.

Toronto Film Scene’s “Best of 2012” series continues throughout December.

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Review: Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher is a recurring protagonist in the crime thriller literature of Lee Child. The film Jack Reacher (an adaptation of Lee’s novel One Shot ) is confusingly named after the brooding anti-hero, and stars Tom Cruise, who also produced. Reacher is a highly-decorated former military cop who is now a drifter/vigilante living off the grid. He’s the type of guy who does what’s right, whether it falls within the law or not. He’s incredibly clever, highly trained in combat, and always successful in whatever vigilante missions he undertakes. In the film, he’s caught in the investigation of a mass murder by a military-trained sniper. The victims appear to be average citizens out for a stroll on a sunny day, shot dead from a distance by a madman. But Reacher smells a proverbial rat, and digs his way in to a conspiracy at the highest levels of corrupt law enforcement and global capital. Car chases, gunfights, and Rosamund Pike’s breasts ensue.

Two good things about the film: first, I can tell it would have made a good thriller novel. Second, Werner Herzog (!!!) plays a comical one-eyed former Eastern Bloc prisoner who chewed off his own fingers in prison amidst frostbite. Other than that, this flick is pretty much dead in the water. The noir dialogue, while probably effective in literary form, is delivered with such literalism and lack of imagination that you’d think the actors were at a table reading. The film is shot with absolutely no nuance or imagination; it’s a textbook, by-the-numbers, plodding adaptation with nothing to recommend it except Herzog. Indeed, one wonders how the celebrated cult figure ended up in Jack Reacher anyway . His character is so over-the-top and ridiculous as a villain that my movie-going companion was tempted to say that Herzog was basically trolling the film. He probably thought it was fun and hilarious (and it was). Jack Reacher could have been a good film: the plot twists are many and intriguing. But the way in which it’s executed is wholly cardboard, amusingly literal, and inescapably dull. Addendum: I bet the marketing gurus behind this film would give anything to be able to push the release back. The mass gun violence perpetrated (and glamorized) in the film is all to close to the recent tragic killing of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut. But even without this awful coincidence, the film would still be just plain bad.

Is Jack Reacher Opening Weekend Worthy?

You should see this film if you want to laugh at how ridiculously bad it is, or if you yourself have bad taste, in which case you’ll think it’s good. Granted, evaluating the degree to which your own taste is bad is a difficult thing to do. Ask yourself this: did you enjoy any of these films? If yes, then go treat yourself to some Jack Reacher this weekend.

More About Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher Trailer

Jack Reacher Production Gallery

 

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Reel Asian Review: Floating City

In Ho Yim‘s   Floating City , we follow a young man on his lifelong journey from Chinese fishing boat to pedigreed employee of the East India Company. Bo Wa Chuen is abandoned as a baby, a mysteriously blue-eyed Asian tot (his mixed-race heritage is unknown), and taken in by a poor family who lives on a fishing boat. While his six siblings are eventually left off at orphanages themselves, since the fishing boat mother cannot feed them after their father leaves, Bo pursues a life of climbing the ladder. He works his way up from lowly labourer to esteemed engineer for the colonial Brits; while he seems to take gladly to his new role, his wife Tai, with whom he has grown up since childhood, doesn’t like the transformation much. Following Bo throughout the film are the questions: who is he, who was he, who does he want to be, and where does he come from?

It’s difficult to tell whether the film is critical of the desire to leave one’s culture and family in order to participate in capitalist colonialism, or whether it engages in the unfortunate narrative of the “noble savage”. Perhaps it’s somewhere in between. Either way, the film’s execution is a bit heavy-handed. The drama is high, the music is sweeping, and the dialogue is excessively indicative of the themes (early in the film, Bo stares at his reflection in the mirror and whispers “Who am I?” to himself; I mean,   come on .) That being said, there is a kind of historical value to the film, insofar as it takes us on an individual journey that’s indicative of the millions of such journeys that probably took place throughout the British colonization of China and Hong Kong. In a stunningly telling piece of dialogue, a customs officer insists that Bo has no nationality because he is merely a subject of the British colonies; when Bo protests, the officer dismissively remarks, “That’s history for you.” That’s history, indeed. The film is smart and emotionally truthful, but it takes an unfortunately textbook approach to epic historical filmmaking.

Is   Floating City Essential Reel Asian viewing?

Depends. If you’re into historical epics, this one’s well-made, thorough, and thought-provoking. If you’re in the mood for innovative and nuanced cinema, this one just ain’t it. It’s a paint-by-numbers film, although sometimes that’s just what a viewer might be looking for.

Floating City   Screening Time

Floating City Trailer

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Unknowns: my own personal intro to Asian cinema

As a lifelong cinephile, I’m disappointed in myself because I don’t know very much about Asian cinema. I suppose we all develop our particular fandoms and traditions of viewerships based on something we’ve seen, loved, and chosen to follow (for me, it was Lynch, Haneke, and mid-century American film noir, among other things). But this doesn’t mean we should keep our blinders on forever, and so I decided to jump right in to the admittedly vast and varied waters of Asian cinema. Watch me flounder! Spoiler alert: I even catch a fish or two.

So, where does one start? As astutely observed in this month’s Letter from the Editor , Asia is the world’s largest continent — it’s cultural products are hardly easily characterized. Thinking of Asian cinema, of course my interminable years of academic Film Studies came rushing back to me (Ozu! Kurosawa! Ôshima!). I was quite blown away by  Ã”shima’s Death by Hanging in a Film Studies class (it’s recommended viewing for all who interrogate existentialism, post-structuralism, and the politics of the gaze — all yummy stuff). But the gaps in my knowledge existed primarily in contemporary Asian films. Narrowing it down, I blocked off the last two decades; then I set about asking for recommendations from my well-informed cine-friends, and off I went.

Ask anyone about contemporary Asian cinema, and they’ll tell you to watch Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, S. Korea, 2003). For lack of a better phrase, it’s really something else . A man is kidnapped and locked in a hotel room alone for 15 years. After his release, he embarks on a quest to solve the mystery of his imprisonment, but he only finds a manipulative maze of double-crossing, hypnosis, and faked realities, all set up to target him as the centre of an elaborate revenge scheme. Not only does the film establish one of the most consistent and effective senses of suspense I’ve ever experienced, but it’s also stunningly fearless. It’s one of the weirdest, boldest, and most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. As the expression goes, Oldboy really “goes there” — and it’s not alone. I also came across Noriko’s Dinner Table   (Shion Sono, Japan, 2000), sequel to the 2001 film   Suicide Club , and it’s similarities to Oldboy , while perhaps not readily apparent, are interesting: the false/true memories of family experiences are blurred by both deliberate and unknown intentions. Performance and delusion play a part in all human relations. Most of all, lies and trickery threaten to overwhelm characters to the extent that those very falsehoods become the truth. (In case you’re wondering, Noriko’s Dinner Table is about a group of girls who play the parts of loving family members to people who request such a service — creepy, right?) I completed my trilogy of over-the-top violence and manipulative delusion with — what else? — Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, Japan, 2000). Apparently you can’t not have seen this film, as I discovered when I was reprimanded by a friend for my ignorance. In a nutshell: teenage schoolkids are set free on an uninhabited island to kill each other with a variety of weapons; last teen standing wins. The concept may be familiar cultural territory (think The Most Dangerous Game and Lord of the Flies , both literary and cinematic versions), but the execution is… pleasantly odd. The adult ringmaster of the bloodbath is quirky, and even — dare I say — funny, as many other parts of the film are, in a dark and teasing way. The stereotypical characters (innocent girl, “bad” girl, handsome leading guy, clumsy fat kid, etc.) somehow don’t grate: they’re meant to be cardboard cut-outs and they function well as, at the very least, placeholders for the unbelievable violence that ensues.

I was quite pleased that I liked all three of the aforementioned films very much, since I had been so unimpressed and turned off by another recent Asian film that deliberately goes too far with violence, 2010’s I Saw the Devil (Jee-Woon Kim, S. Korea) — sorry fans, that movie was awful! But after my trilogy of delusion, violence, and excess, I decided enough was enough… off to the crushingly lyrical and poetic works of Wong Kar-Wai! Seriously, are you craving the kind of saturated colour tones we see in The Wizard of Oz paired with the troubled romance of Casablanca and tossed in with the costuming and set-dressing of Mad Men ? Then you must be  In the Mood for Love (Hong Kong/France, 2000). Just typing the title made me utter a dreamy sigh. And that’s exactly what the film is: a dreamy sigh itself, although with none of the vacuity one would expect of such a characterization. The levity and depth of the simple yet engrossing story of two neighbours whose spouses are having an affair is constructed with a light touch and a heavy brow. Never would I have thought that the trip down a communal flight of stairs to fetch a thermos of rice from a street vendor could be so… romantic [another dreamy sigh].

The interesting melange of an Asian director whose works also include mainstream English-language films, as Kar-Wai’s oeuvre does, brings to mind 2007’s Lust, Caution , the impeccable historical drama/spy thriller by Ang Lee (a USA/China/Taiwan/Hong Kong coproduction). The obviously painstaking and meticulous care with which this almost-three-hour epic is built is astounding, and the narrative climax is both politically and romantically explosive. Finally, let’s not forget the staggeringly weird films of global cinema’s darling du jour , Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. You can see his short Mobile Men here, or you can delve right in to the heart of his oeuvre with 2010’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand/UK/France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands). Less of a narrative per se , and more of an experience , the film follows a man who is close to death in more ways than one; he is visited by spirits, creatures, and shadows in the thick nighttime Thai forest, and his memories, dreams, and present existence all begin to blend into one. As a side-note, let me just say that this film contains some of the most haunting and accomplished sound ever heard in cinema. Again, as with Kar-Wai and Lee, the meticulous construction of the film’s most minor details pays off big time in it’s creation of an overwhelming atmopshere.

So here I am, now knowing a little more about all the diverse and contradictory kinds of Asian cinema there are in this world. On my still-to-watch list: Korean director Joon-Ho Bong’s Mother (2009) and Memories of Murder (2003), and maybe if I’m feeling soft-hearted (unlikely), Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2001). Bottom line: there’s just too much to see. I’ll take further suggestions in the comments!

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Media Impact: Cronenberg crawls from low to high and back again

For better or for worse, the horror genre has been slapped with the reputation that it is somehow a “low” form of art, or that it is even thoroughly artless, which is perhaps why you often overhear surprised remarks that a certain horror film is “smart” (gosh, wow!). Among the Jasons, Freddies, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, and, well… more Jasons (and his mom) of the late 1970s and 1980s, David Cronenberg somehow managed to marry a remarkably intellectual and allegorical approach to horror with enough blood, guts, creatures, and screams to play with the best of ’em (see, for example, the penis/turd-shaped blood-splattered worm-parasite that turns everyone into a rape zombie in 1975’s Shivers — a.k.a. They Came From Within ). I’d argue that Cronenberg’s early oeuvre (say, mid-’70s to mid-’80s) admirably elevated the complexity and serious ambition of horror while simultaneously leaving in all the entertaining excess and gore that makes horror films what they are. Cronenberg was reaching from “low” to “high” art, and back again. And again. Perhaps even more significantly, the “media impact” to which this column refers was doubled by the fact that Cronenberg’s films often commented on the horrifying aspects of the very media in whose cultural landscape they exist.

Frequently credited as advancing the notion of “body horror“, Cronenberg’s early films typified the term perfectly: the chilling The Brood (1979) offers a portrait of a mother’s womb-facilitated psychic connection to her little brats, whose murderous tendencies she can activate telekinetically. The threatening and horrifying nature of the human body is accentuated by the fact that the monstrous children are filmed from behind wearing adorable, brightly-coloured snowsuits of just the kind you’d expect a child’s body to wear. Our expectations of the child’s body (docile, cute, soft, helpless, innocent) are overturned by the eventual revelation of the kids’ violent nature (seriously, one of them will smash your face in with a hammer). Ditto in Shivers (1975) and The Fly (1986): the former turns the placid, well-dressed, upper-middle class (and mostly white) bodies of its characters into a ravenous band of rape zombies, while the latter recounts the decay into monstrosity of the handsome and charming Jeff Goldblum as his character experiments with, well, becoming a fly (no spoiler there).

While some of these early films are hardly mainstream or respectable ones (in fact, the inexperienced acting in Shivers is so bad that it threatens to distract from the film’s admirably complex and thought-stirring themes), they introduced brand new ways of thinking about horror, and especially the horror of the body and its bodily functions, in an era in which the physical perfection of a young and virginal Jamie Lee Curtis is unproblematically represented as a clean slate for Michael Myers’ deadly appetite. While Cronenberg certainly didn’t invent the “smart”/”allegorical” horror (there was, of course, Rosemary’s Baby , The Shining , and The Exorcist , to name only a few), his   stimulation of deep thought about the excesses of our bodies, and especially our sexual desires, married the horror genre with a kind of latent Freudianism and, at the same time, a pathological curiousity about the natural sciences (Cronenberg himself studied science at the University of Toronto before switching to a degree in literature). On a much more measurable (that is to say, financial) scale, the media impact of these early films goes down in history as a seminal moment in the continual struggles of the Canadian film industry: Shivers, produced for $380 000, grossed close to five million Canadian dollars. The film certainly doesn’t lack longevity, either; for a film with so much  overt and seemingly crass blood, sex, and violence, Shivers brings up curious new intellectual questions with every re-viewing: how do you know that your desires are your own? From whence do they come and what animates them? When it comes to desire, and acting on it, who can you trust?

Cronenberg’s “body horror” isn’t only limited to the blood and guts out of which we’re made: in films like Scanners (1981) and the consistently critically-admired Videodrome (1983), the abject, diseased, and decaying human body is married with the supposedly sharp cleanliness of technology (the theme is revisited in Cronenberg’s later works too, like 1999’s eXistenZ and 1996’s Crash). It is here that the media impact of Cronenberg’s early and mid-career horror films doubles over on itself: what secret, ominous intentions lie behind the ostensibly “neutral” cameras, projectors, videotapes, television screens, and computers we use to view, and indulge in, films? (Is the computer you’re staring at right now going to attack you?) The stakes are especially high when the films in question are full of the delicious kinds of gore from which we cannot look away. In addition to the overtly threatening nature of technology, and the mysterious ways in which it invades the body (James Woods’ body meshes with both a videotape and a handgun in Videodrome , while the telekinetic and telepathic characters in Scanners are themselves used as technologies by en evil weapons manufacturing corporation), these films comment on the very same cultural and media landscape that allows them to exist. The character of Max Renn in Videodrome is speculated to be modeled on self-proclaimed “media innovator” (!) and corporate mogul Moses Znaimer. No doubt, the role of the evil corporation in the media-cultural landscape has been a central, and influential, Cronenberg trope (ahem, Antiviral ).

On one hand, Cronenberg’s early horror films somehow managed to reach for the highest echelons of psychology and smart allegory while remaining true to the blood, guts, and monsters (and hammy acting) that populate horror films and make them fun. On the other, he also somehow managed to launch a scathing critique on the very apparatuses we use to experience cinema and other media themselves. It’s not only a talented filmmaker that can perform such intellectual acrobatics, but a gutsy one, too. The interest, controversy, and acclaim that surround Cronenberg’s most recent works (like the impressively original and theatrical Cosmopolis ) attests to the extent to which his work continues to impact the very media landscape which it feeds off like a bloodthirsty parasite.

Image from The Brood.

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Planet in Focus Review: The Carbon Rush

Among hot-button environmental issues, carbon trading perhaps doesn’t get the limelight as often as it should, as its one of the most environmentally (and socially) destructive practices going on today. Large (Western) corporations are allowed to emit set amounts of carbon, and if they wish to emit more than their allotted amount, they can “purchase” so-called carbon credits through “offset projects” like, say, planting a field full of eucalyptus plants in rural Brazil (the plants’ environmental benefits offset the increased carbon emission of the large corporation). However, as Amy Miller’s documentary The Carbon Rush is quick to point out, the single-minded and narrow focus on offset projects inevitably ignored the larger social and environmental costs they create (ie. those eucalyptus trees wiped out an entire village’s water supply; when locals protest, large corporations send henchmen to threaten and assault anyone who makes a fuss). The story is a familiar one: small communities are helpless in the fight against global profits.

While it demonstrates a commitment to its subject matter, the film’s execution lacks sophistication and structure. Too many disorganized sob stories from victimized communities (with the film occasionally slipping into a facile representation of the “noble savage”) yet the description of the complex policies and procedures by which the global carbon trade is allowed to function are basic at best. The pacing also proves confusing: from a rushed infographic back to another meandering tale of woe. The message is certainly not new, or contested: yet the film’s indictments are treated as though it’s breaking new ground, but it isn’t.

Is The Carbon Rush Essential Planet in Focus Viewing?

It depends. If you like to approach social and political issues with the complex context of policies and practices within which they exist, then don’t see The Carbon Rush . It’s inadequate. If you’re simply looking for a cursory introduction to the notion that global capital ruins lives (and you’re in the mood for hearing a bunch of sob stories), then go for it.

The Carbon Rush Screening Times

  • Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012 at 9:15 PM at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 1

More About This Movie

The Carbon Rush Trailer

The Carbon Rush Production Gallery

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TIFF Review: All That Matters is Past

All That Matters is Past is Norwegian filmmaker Sara Johnsen’s third film. It’s the story of rival brothers, one of whom displays distinctly psychopathic behaviour. The “evil” brother (Ruud), as he is referred to in the film, has always been obsessed with the “good” brother’s (William’s) other half, Janne (the latter is played masterfully by Maria Bonnevie). The three characters have a history of mutual love, torture, and jealousy that stretches all the way back to their childhood. As adults, Janne and William are reunited after years apart, and decide to hole up in a rustic cabin in the woods for some idyllic fireside love-making. Ruud, of course, cannot leave them in peace, and his campaign of harassment and torture doesn’t end until someone ends up dead.

It’s a stereotype that the Northern European peoples are somehow morbid or prone to fixations on the perverse; in this case, the stereotype rings true. The film is packed full of disturbing imagery: graphic animal butchery, rape, a roadside childbirth, and a toddler’s beheading in a car crash (no spoilers here, just a good old-fashioned warning about what you’re in for — 3 people left the theatre in my screening). Jarring images aside, the film is a captivating and subtle story about what it means to live in and outside of society; it’s about the complexity of companionship and the utter torture of jealousy and obsession. The film could have scaled back on some of its more heavy-handed elements (in addition to the graphic imagery, the classical score is a bit over-the-top at times, especially for a film so subtle, quiet, and methodical). But the themes and characters are presented with remarkable depth and complexity. It’s a testament to the film’s intelligence that we even feel some sympathy for the “evil” brother, despite his horrifying acts of abuse. Visually, the film is stunning: a heartbreaking shot of Ruud lying in a field of goats during a thunderstorm is the height of cinematic poetry.

Is All That Matters is Past Essential TIFF Viewing?

For a certain kind of viewer, I’d highly recommend this film. But you have to be prepared for the pairing of disturbing imagery with a slow, methodical, poetic, and complex narrative about the human psyche. If this sounds like your cup of tea, the film is certainly an achievement, and will definitely spark heated discussion over post-screening cocktails.

All That Matters is Past Screening Times:

  • Friday, September 14, 2012, at Scotiabank Cinema 11 at 9:45 pm

More About All That Matters is Past

All That Matters is Past Trailer

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnnCNRfU8ds

All That Matters is Past Production Gallery

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TIFF Review: Spring Breakers

The saccharine Disney starlet Selena Gomez plays the least bad-ass of a group of four college girls who head out to Florida for spring break to get away from what they perceive to be the mind-numbing boredom of their nameless and nondescript hometown. The girls, however, don’t have enough money to fund their trip, so the other three (played by Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine — director Harmony’s wife — and Ashley Benson) rob a local store with squirt guns, a giant hammer, and a generous dose of profanity. After some fun in the Florida sun, the girls end up in jail for partying too hard and eventually get bailed out by the corn-rowed drug-dealer-slash-aspiring-rapper Alien (James Franco). The adventure turns dark, and some of the girls handle the noir much better (or worse?) than the others. Absurdity, violence, perversity, and adventure ensue.

If there was ever film about which you could use the acronym “OMFG”, this is it. Director Harmony Korine‘s screenplay for 1995’s   Kids (Larry Clark) was about young people who act like horrifyingly high, violent, and promiscuous   idiots, and Spring Breakers unapologetically revisits this territory. The debate about whether this film is exploitative or a scathing social commentary should be reserved for another (essay-length) article, but suffice it to say that the it’s both, and proudly so (social commentary is sometimes inevitably also exploitative). Picture this: a beach full of young people (wow, how old am I?) engaging in the raunchiest body movements you can imagine (Middle finger! Crotch grabbing! Beer-soaked breasts! Booty!), shot in slow motion and set to the filthiest song Skrillex could possibly come up with. And that’s only the film’s opening scene; it all goes downhill from there. Part violent fantasy, part critique of American entitlement, consumption, and hypersexualized youth culture, Spring Breakers pulls out all the stops. The film is sure to be divisive. I, personally, loved it, although not without numerous caveats. You may hate it. All the more reason for everyone to see it.

Is Spring Breakers Essential TIFF Viewing?

The film will certainly get decent distribution in the art house realm (and perhaps beyond, due to its big-name stars), so you don’t need to rush out to see it at the festival. If, however, you want to see what all the fuss is about (and there will be fuss), you might want to catch it at the festival in order to get a head start on forming your opinion. And form it concretely! You will get challenged by someone, at some point, no matter what you think of the film, so prepare your argument and get set to fight.

 Spring Breakers  Screening Times

  • Friday, September 14, 2012, at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, at 9:00 pm

More About Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers Production Gallery

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TIFF Review: Short Cuts Canada Programme #4

While the diverse themes in TIFF’s Short Cuts Canada Programme #4 showcase the variety of up-and-coming talent in this country, a common thread joins the films in this programme: all deal with weighty issues with a hint of humour, and even compassion. Reem Morsi’s Their Feast follows a post-Mubarak Egyptian family as they prepare a homecoming feast for their imprisoned relative. Kelvin Redvers’ The Dancing Cop dabbles in surrealist melodrama while facing the very real problem of racial profiling. In Elizabeth Lazebnik’s Safe Room , we’re given a child’s perspective of the oppressive absurdity of war. Jeanne Leblanc takes a tense look at the daily grind of city life (and traffic jams) in Sullivan’s Applicant . The darkly adorable The Worst Day Ever by Sophie Jarvis describes just that: a precocious kid’s day-long streak of bad luck. When You Sleep by Ashley McKenzie watches a young couple’s relationship fall apart against the backdrop of their rat-infested apartment. Jeremy Ball’s Frost   takes place in an unnamed and seemingly timeless frozen landscape in which a young woman makes a shockingly otherworldly underground discovery.

The stand-out piece in the program is The Worst Day Ever . It’s an over-the-top and blackly hilarious portrait of an unbelievably mature youngster’s awful day. While hardly realistic, the film is a charming, on-point reminder of what it was like to be a grumpy kid. Their Feast also packs a punch, although in a much more realist aesthetic style: the daily existence of post-revolutionary Egypt is oftentimes unpredictable and undeniably difficult, but the film presents its characters with hope. Sullivan’s Applicant is, at first, seemingly unremarkable, but ends up surprising with some effectively heartwarming and genuine human interaction between its characters.

Is Short Cuts Canada Programme #4 Essential TIFF Viewing?

Given that most short films find it incredibly difficult to get the kind of wide distribution that feature-length films do, I’d say you should definitely catch this one while you can. And you never know from whence emerging talent can come: you could one day brag about having seen a notable filmmaker’s early shorts at TIFF 2012.

Short Cuts Canada Programme #4 Screening Times

TIFF’s Short Cuts Canada Programme #4 shows on:

  • Tuesday, September 11, 2012, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 4 at 6:30 pm, and
  • Wednesday, September 12, 2012, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema at 4:45 pm.

 Short Cuts Canada Programme #4 Production Gallery

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TIFF Preview: Show Stopper: The Theatrical Life of Garth Drabinsky

The documentary programming at the Toronto International Film Festival is thick this year, and included is a sure-to-be divisive biographical doc about Canadian entertainment/cinema mogul Garth Drabinsky. A divisive biographical documentary can only mean one thing: an even more divisive subject.

Synopsis

You can basically thank Drabinsky for what we know as the modern multiplex in cinematic spectatorship. Founder of Cineplex (along with Nat Taylor), Drabinsky wanted to bring the most spectacular (and, according to some, the most depraved) aspects of the film industry from Hollywood to Canada: the sparkle and pizzazz of big money, big names, and big productions. In these goals, he was undoubtedly successful (he produced the infamous Canadian horror film The Changeling (1980) and founded the now-defunct live theatre production company Livent). But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses: Drabinsky was as revered as he was detested, for what some perceived to be his brash, spontaneous, and abrasive character. He and Livent partner Myron Gottlieb were eventually convicted and jailed for defrauding investors with some, um, creative bookkeeping.

Why should you see it?

It’s rare that we debate the merit and downfalls of such an obviously egoistic and ambitious figure in Canadian culture (ahem, Conrad Black). We aren’t exactly a nation known for our self-aggrandizing nature. And yet Drabinsky was a singular personality with a unique and powerful vision that inarguably shaped the state of the entertainment industry in Canada. I’m practically licking my lips with the thought of the salaciousness and gossip in this film.

Screening Times

Show Stopper: The Theatrical Life of Garth Drabinsky is screening on:

  • Tuesday, September 11th, 2012 at 6:45 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 1, and
  • Thursday, September 13th, 2012 at 2:00 pm at the Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 7.

Production Gallery

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Building a movie wardrobe: insider tips on where Toronto’s costume pros shop

So, you live in Toronto. Great! And you’ve been reading Toronto Film Scene’s August issue on fashion in the movies? Great! But how can you incorporate all of the fantastical images and information you’ve gleaned into a practical application within this great city of ours? Are you a crafter or a sewer? Are you just a beginner who’s interested in learning about vintage clothing, costuming, and fashion design? Or perhaps you’re a student of fashion or costume design. Either way, it’s always best to ask the pros.

Meet Alex Kavanagh and Victoria Dinnick

We’re lucky enough to have  been able to chat  with Alex Kavanagh, Toronto-based costume designer extraordinaire for such productions as Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008), The Vow (2012), the Saw franchise ( II through VI and 3D ; 2005-2010), and Splice (2009), among many others. On the other side of the costume equation is Victoria Dinnick, owner of a vintage boutique called Gadbout, which rents and sells plenty of good stuff to costume and set decoration folks in the film industry. Dinnick is also on the resource committee of the Costume Society of Ontario, and so has plenty of good info to share. Currently, Dinnick is selling items to the new Global TV series Bomb Girls (cute outfits!), among a few others.

Let’s get shopping

Let’s start with the basics: anyone who has strolled around Toronto’s Queen West area has probably noticed the abundance of fabrics and sewing accessory stores that populate the strip between Spadina and Bathurst. But while it’s probably the most well-known area, it’s certainly not the only or main one. “Little India is a mecca for fabric and findings,” says Dinnick,”[and] Roncesvalles and Kensington are pretty popular too.” If you’ve ever strolled through Kensington’s colourful alleys and streets, you’ll know what she means. Perhaps more ambitiously, “many designers will shop online or order from L.A. if they have really specific need[s].   In the east end [of Toronto], Gadabout gets a lot of business from the movie/television industry. And MacDonald-Faber [a.k.a. MacFAB] has moved to 755 Queen East from the west end and have been catering to the costume industry for fabric and costumes since 1955.” Kavanagh has a great tip for a quirky little hideaway: “the hidden gem fabric store [in Toronto] would have to be Mrs. Bobrowski’s [at] 1306 St Clair W. She has some vintage fabrics and is a real character. Sometimes I make the pilgrimage to Ann’s Fabric Shop in Hamilton for knits. They really cater to the figure skating crowd and have some great finds.” As for her usual haunts, Kavanagh says: “Leo’s is always my first stop for fancy fabrics, and their other store Trendy Fabric for more casual and unusual textiles.”

The philosophy of fabric

And what kind of design philosophy drives these purchasing behaviours? Kavanagh says: “I design based on character. I like to create a closet for each character that is a mix of new and old (depending on the character, of course). New purchases, vintage finds, and custom pieces help to create a more believable, lived-in look. My secret for finding really interesting finds is the Toronto Fashion Incubator. I have put out messages on their bulletin board requesting wholesale items for characters in films such as Splice and The Vow and been able to use locally-designed clothing and accessories.” Dinnick’s philosophy for dealing in the business (and pleasure!) of vintage clothes comes from her earliest days: “I had to wear a uniform to school and perhaps that made me want to look completely different out of uniform.   When I was in my 20s I loved the 1950s and dressed in hugely full-skirted prom dresses whenever possible.   I went to my first auction in 1988 and took to buying odds and sods like a duck to water. To be honest there’s nothing I dislike about this business. Finding great items means it’s like Christmas everyday.”

Tips for finding quality vintage

Now, there are obviously two ways you could put together a costume: sew it or buy it. The latter is where the importance of the vintage clothing and accessories market comes in. If you’ve ever tried to go shopping for a vintage piece (and I frequently have, because older clothes are of a much higher quality for the same price than today’s “fast fashion”), you’ll know that one of the most frustrating things about it is the fact that you can’t quite get to know enough about the product (what fabric is it made of? How do I wash it? How do I care for it and repair it, if necessary?) Dinnick, ever the professional vintage shop owner, comes to our rescue here: she says it’s best to, first of all, “look at how the item is made. How does the item do up (is it [put together with] hooks and eyes, snaps, or zippers, and if so are they metal or plastic?)” This can help you date the item, since, for example, “in the year 1935 the words zip and zipper were not yet in general use.”

Also ask: “where does the item do up (upper back, side, full back, cuffs)? Would it take you and your mother and younger sister working together to get into the world’s most beautiful dress?” Probably not worth it. Finally, “you’ll need to hold the piece that you’re thinking of purchasing up to the light to see if it has any pin holes or moth damage.   Check the closures for rust [and] check the seams to see if the thread is still holding or starting to go. Also, the best vintage resource I’ve found is the Vintage Fashion Guild site. It’s a fabulous reference for all things vintage.” Kavanagh agrees that evaluating vintage pieces is difficult, but has an insider tip: “I would refer you to Ian Drummond of the Ian Drummond Collection. He rents to film, TV, and theatre, but also has items for sale. He is one of the top people in Toronto for vintage [items].”

For the craftier crowd

But if you’re feeling extra crafty, you could, of course, start from scratch instead of buying vintage. The only sewing I’ve ever done is a couple of holes in socks here and there, but I did recently buy my first-ever sewing machine in the hopes that I might one day be able to make simple pieces from high-quality fabrics in designs and styles that are not necessarily the ones being sold in most stores. If you’re like me, then here’s everything you need to know, courtesy of Kavanagh, to fulfill your sewing aspirations: “I buy most of my costume-related [sewing] supplies at Wotever. It caters specifically to costume departments. It has everything (whatever we might need) for working in wardrobe including Jiffy Steamers, Rowenta irons, sleeve boards, etc. If they don’t have something, they will usually track it down and get it for you. Best service ever;  love Wotever.” But Kavanagh admits to a simple secret, too: “I often get craft supplies at dollar stores out of sheer convenience.”

There you have it, folks; some excellent tips on how to build your own movie wardrobe direct from the pros.

[box]This month Toronto Film Scene is unzipping the mystery surrounding  Fashion in Film. Who are the people behind the clothing choices, where  in Toronto do they shop and what are some examples of great costuming? We’ll also check in with CAFTCAD,  revisit  the relationship between Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock and look at films that have inspired fashion trends.

All dressed up: on fiction, belief, and costume design

Take a minute to try to remember the last time you thought about the costumes in a film; surely, something fantastical pops into your head. The infamous yellow jumpsuit in Kill Bill ? Sure. Maybe Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz ? For me, it’s always Jean Paul Gaultier‘s futuristic and utterly confounding designs for the otherworldly outfits in The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover . Perhaps equally as confounding and impressive were the Genie award-nominated costumes for Canadian  auteur Guy Maddin‘s The Saddest Music in the World (costume designer Meg McMillan won the award). Ask yourself this: what kind of shoe would a woman whose fake leg is filled with beer wear? Hmm? According to McMillan, this kind:

The Saddest Music in the World

Costume design: an unnoticed art?

But these are all examples of films in which costumes take centre stage (science fiction, fantasy, etc.) What of the costume designer in a so-called “realist” film, one dedicated to, as André Bazin would say, “the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality”? Adrienne Munich, scholar of material culture and fashion theory, makes an interesting claim in her edited book Fashion in Film : if a film’s costume designer escapes notice, it is a sign that they are doing their job well. If costumes blend so seamlessly into the character and fiction of which they are a part, then nobody takes notice of the designer. Does this mean an unnoticed designer is an excellent one? Or does it simply excuse easy ignorance of the thankless hard work put in by all those “behind the scenes” film industry types? I had the good fortune to pick the brain of celebrated Canadian costume designer Brenda Broer recently (check out some of her work here) on these and related topics.

The importance of believability

“I couldn’t agree [with Munich] more!” says Broer. “That is what is so exciting about costume design for film and television. Viewers should believe that the character owns their clothes. We launder the clothes like the character would do. We break down the clothing to make it look lived in. This is a multistage process, from washing the clothing several times, sanding fabric to simulate wear, dying the articles with dirt-like shades of brown and grey and weighing down the pockets with bags of rice […] to sag out areas that naturally have lots of use. Running shoes get sanded and scuffed and painted. We use real paint on everything so our masterpieces of grime don’t come out in the wash!”

It seems the importance of believability takes the lead role; in a more “fantastical” film like, say, Beetlejuice (another one of my personal favourites for costumes, which were done by Aggie Guerard Rodgers), it seems irrelevant to the experience of viewership whether the eponymous guy has laundered or scuffed his signature black-and-white striped suit. Indeed, neither he nor his suit really “exist” in the film’s diegesis (or do they?)! But in a subtle, character-driven drama like Cairo Time , on which Broer was the Costume Designer, the understated, elegant, and perfectly complimentary costumes worn by Patricia Clarkson’s character, a middle-aged woman who finds unexpected companionship with a stranger while traveling in a foreign land, work towards creating a sense of authenticity and genuine feeling in the narrative.

Creating personal, fictional fashion

How does that kind of authenticity come about through costumes? “Research,” says Broer. “This is the fun part. You try to sort out what is ubiquitous about a sub-culture.” And again, the careful and thorough ‘processing’ of costumes is integral: “the breakdown artist is invisible behind the scenes in movie making. This artist paints and dyes clothes all day long so that they look worse than when they started. Without their artistry so many types of characters would not be believable: pan handlers, punks, construction workers, adventurers, mechanics, rugby players, fishermen, cowboys, surf instructors, painters, chefs, soldiers, prisoners, and pirates, to name a few.”

That’s quite a cast of characters; and yet, if we take a minute to consider the list, many of these types of character go unnoticed within a film’s fiction (with the exception of pirates, perhaps). To what degree is our ignorance of these types of ‘regular’ characters (and their seemingly ‘regular’ costumes) a significant part of our enjoyment of the fiction? We rely on background normalcy in order to solidify the fiction into which we want to buy. But even though Brenda Broer’s work may, at times, be invested in realism, she, like all artists, also indulges in the fantastical, the un-realistic, the utterly imagined. Asked what some of her favourite costume designs in film are, Broer immediately mentions The Rocky Horror Picture Show (costumes by Sue Blane). Of course, who could forget Tim Curry’s thigh-high stockings and heels? Broer also admires the costumes in True Stories (by Elizabeth McBride), The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (by Monique Prudhomme, whose work I also particularly enjoy),   and Appaloosa (by David Robinson, who also recently costumed the incredible Shame , in which the sad and confused Sissy, played by Carrey Mulligan, is perfectly decked out in every scene with the kinds of dilapidated hats, sequined lounge-singer frocks, and faux-fur coats that exactly convey her   tristesse ).

Broer’s tips for beginners

Finally, we couldn’t possibly quiz someone as successful in her field as Brenda Broer without teasing out a few tips for beginners. If you’re an aspiring costume designer, “Volunteer,” says Broer. “You meet hundreds of people on a film set and anyone of them could give you a great recommendation for the next paying gig. Contact the Canadian Film Centre for their excellent short film residency program. Another great way to meet costume professionals is through CAFTCAD [The Canadian Alliance of Film & Television Costume Arts & Design]. They have great events all year long and it’s a perfect way to meet all types of costume professionals. Networking is the fastest way to getting jobs in film.”

Even if you’re not an aspiring costume designer, though, CAFTCAD is a great resource for both cinephiles and fashion lovers. A couple of months ago, they held a massive Movie Wardrobe Sale, in which new and vintage clothing that has been used for film/TV costuming was sold to the general public. I attended with a couple of friends, and was overwhelmed by the selection. It took us at least 2 hours to even walk through the space, let alone pick out item to try on. After a full day of browsing and fantasizing myself as a cinematic character, I left with a gorgeous 1960s sleeveless, knee-length green, white, and blue patterned dress that hugs my waist like I’m on Mad Men . And then there’s the most important lesson to learn about costumes: whether you’re a supernatural cinematic character or just a regular gal like me, putting on a particular piece of clothing is always a subtle creation of a fiction. Whether you choose to believe it or not depends on your imagination.

This month Toronto Film Scene is unzipping the mystery surrounding Fashion in Film. Who are the people behind the clothing choices, where  in Toronto do they shop and what are some examples of great costuming? We’ll also check in with CAFTCAD,  revisit  the relationship between Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock and look at films that have inspired fashion trends.

TIFF 2012 announces Cinematheque programme of restored and rarely-seen classics

The Toronto International Film Festival continues to roll out the blitz of announcements (each one of which makes us more excited than the last!) with a few more programs that will make up the upcoming festival (Sept. 6-16, 2012). The astoundingly pedigreed Cinematheque contains a carefully-curated selection of film classics from Canada and abroad, and is an indispensable must for the true cinephile.

The gem in this collection is undoubtedly the newly-restored version of Roberto Rosselini’s Stromboli (a film often shown and circulated in severely cut versions). The film was absolutely deplored upon it’s release (with the exception of a few curious minds), since it was one of the first to play with narrative economy in a way that frustrated the mid-20th century cinematic audience; indeed, even today, we don’t always realize how reliant we are on the narrative conventions so thoroughly normalized by our cinematic spectatorship. John Flaus calls the film’s ending “transcendent but ambiguous.” The film stars the breathtaking Ingrid Bergmann as a young woman caught in the traps of a patriarchal postwar society.

What could be more timely, in the wake of reclusive and brilliant filmmaker Chris Marker’s recent death at the age of 91, than a screening of Loin du Viêtnam . A collaborative project between the activist filmmakers of the day (Varda! Godard! Resnais!), the film is a scathing criticism of the United States’ entanglement in the Vietnam war. Moreover, the film is rarely (actually, from what I’ve heard, almost never) shown, so this might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to add to your May ’68 Marxist-semiotic agitprop mental viewing collection.

Finally, a little Canadiana gets thrown into the mix, and rightfully so. Larry Kent‘s 1963 The Bitter Ash belongs amongst seminal cinema, no doubt. Kent’s debut feature, The Bitter Ash is the restless and sexually-charged tale of a young man’s indulgence in the pleasures of a fling. Raucous jazz music accompanies the nouvelle-vague -ish camera movements and cuts, all attesting to the uncertainty of a cultural era in flux. This film is also rarely seen; check out a clip from the forthcoming documentary about the making of The Bitter Ash :

Other films in the Cinematheque program include Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954), The Cloud Capped Star (Ritwik Ghatak, 1960), and Tess (Roman Polanski, 1979). Screening dates will not be announced until August 21, so you can’t quite mark your calendars yet. Better to keep the whole festival period open just in case; that’s what I say.

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