Netflix Gener-a-thon: Cerebral Independent Movies (Post 1/5)

Another Earth (2010)

Director: This is Mike Cahill’s first foray into fiction filmmaking after his 2004 documentary Boxers and Ballerinas.

Country: USA

Cast Highlights: Brit Marling has become somewhat of an indie darling in recent years. After Another Earth, she went on to star in 2012’s The Sound of my Voice  – a film I have heard great things about but which I have yet to catch up with. I’m also looking forward to The East, another film she co-wrote which premiered at last month’s Sundance film festival.

As an ‘Independent Film’:

Like most films from new directors, Another Earth feels like a sketch of a film. It has an incomplete, rough quality to it – the limited budget the filmmakers were probably working with reveals itself in a narrative that seems patched together. And while these gritty elements worked for the film’s human drama, it’s more ambitious sci-fi narrative stumbles as the result of ideas not fully formed.

The product of the collaboration between writer Brit Marling and director Mike Cahill, Another Earth can be described as a human drama come sci-fi fantasy. Marling also stars in the film as Rhoda, a young woman recently released from prison after a drunk-driving accident that that kills the wife and child of esteemed musical composer John Burroughs and leaves him in a coma. Once an intelligent and ambitious young student, Rhoda is resigned to working as a Janitor in a local high school in the wake of the tragic accident she caused.

Reeling with residual guilt, she tracks down John, who has recently recovered from his coma. As Rhoda was a minor when the accident occurred, her identity is unknown to John. In a move reminiscent of Sean Penn’s character in 21 Grams, Rhoda poses as a maid from an at-home cleaning service, coming weekly to clean John’s dirty and neglected home. The two slowly begin to develop a friendship, through which John is able to release some of his grief and depression. Their friendship eventually becomes romantic, further exacerbating the fallout when Rhoda’s secret is revealed.

Rhoda and John’s relationship is set against the discovery of a mirror planet Earth – an exact replica of the one we live on. Rhoda – whose dreams of becoming a world-class astronomer were dashed by the accident – enters an essay contest to be the first person to travel to Earth 2. We learn that this alternate world is inhabited by every individual’s double, as scene in news footage where a government official communicates with her ‘twin’.

As a ‘Cerebral Film’:

The film works well as a human drama exploring the harsh realities of action and consequence. Britt Marling does an excellent job of carrying the film. As Rhoda she embodies both despair at the outcome of her drunken mistake and the hope that things can be made right. With her long blonde hair and tall thin frame, Marling is conventionally pretty. But she chooses to play against it here.  There is a sad irony to the sight of Rhoda in her grubby janitorial work jumper – suggesting a life where things have gone much different than planned. This is the first film that Marling has starred in, but I look forward to seeing more from her. William Mapother – known to me from his role as Marissa Tomei’s crazed and abusive ex-husband in In the Bedroom – does fine work as a man filled with bitterness at the hand the world has dealt him.

The story falters when it introduces existential possibilities with the science fiction elements. The ‘other earth’ acts as a somewhat obvious metaphor for the concept of redemption – can we erase our past and start again? This idea is not explored to any significant depth. It comes to feel like a contrived add-on, placed in the film to make the character drama more unique. When the two storylines are finally united in the final act of the film it doesn’t pack the philosophical punch it aims for.

If anything, Another Earth signals the coming of director and actress with loads of potential. I look forward to seeing what else comes from the obviously creative minds of Cahill and Marling.

Add to Netflix Instant Que?: A flawed but compelling drama that is definitely worth a watch.  

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Side Effects Review: Thrilling therapy

Stephen Soderbergh has been somewhat of a cinematic chameleon in recent years. Nearing his supposed retirement from film, he has explored everything from infectious diseases (Contagion), assassins (Haywire) and male-strippers (Magic Mike). With Side Effects, his stated last feature film, he has forayed into the world of mental illness and psychiatry. Fittingly, he manages to put a distinctly Soderberghian spin on fare that, in lesser hands, would be a ridiculous and muddled mess. Demonstrating a directorial finesse he has accrued over a particularly lengthy cinematic output, he crafts a tight and suspenseful thriller that shows why he is one of our most compelling contemporary filmmakers.

The film starts Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor, a prim New York white collar worker who is awaiting her husband’s pending release from prison. Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum), who we understand as some kind of venture capitalist, is completing his sentence after being thrown in the penn for insider trading. After Martin is released and able to rejoin Emily in their swanky Manhattan loft, she spirals into a crippling depression. During a particularly bad emotional episode she crashes her car into the concrete wall of her parking garage, putting her in the hospital. There, she connects with the charismatic Dr. Jonathan Banks (a perfectly cast Jude Law), a psychiatrist who takes her on as his patient.  Emily, who has had a long history of depression, proves to be a tricky case. On the advice of her former doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Dr. Banks puts her on Ablixa, a new drug for depression. The drug is so new, that the ‘side effects’ are not fully know, positioning Emily as a kind of guinea pig. While the drug initially snaps her out of her funk, it ends up having disastrous effects on her relationship.

This is only the starting point for a film that takes many unforeseen twists. This is the kind of film where to reveal too much of the plot would be to spoil to the entire experience, so I’ll say little else. I will say that I did not see many of these twists coming, and it is a tribute to both the writing and Soderbergh’s direction that it held my suspense for the majority of the film. What I imagined would be an exploration, and criticism of, psychiatry and the prescription drug industry ended up being something completely different. Including the kind of out of left field turns that would make M. Night Shyamalan shake his head in disgrace, this is the rare thriller that offers legitimate thrills.

The story is further elevated by Soderbergh’s fine direction. As films like Traffic and the Ocean’s trilogy have shown, the director is a master of creating atmosphere. It is a quality that he puts to good use here, situating us in the clinical and cold world of New York’s upper class. This frames the film exploration of the distinction between image and reality, a thematic preoccupation Soderbergh has shown throughout his oeuvre. Here it is used to provide a criticism of the excesses of the one percent – where an obsession with keeping up appearances is the ultimate mental illness.

The performances are also topnotch, aside from a miscast Channing Tatum whose naturally warm demeanor did not suit the part of an enterprising corporate player. The standout is Mara, who ditches the black eyeliner and motorcycle jackets of her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo character for a prissy professional wardrobe. Called on to be a turns both delicate and weak and at others calculating and manipulative, I bought her performance every step of the way. There is something mesmerizing about her presence that, as of yet, she hasn’t been allowed to show on screen.  Law’s natural charisma works well here as the convincing doctor and I was surprised by the range he showed when the character’s life becomes desperate. And Soderbergh favorite Zeta- Jones is in top form, as commanding and smooth talking as ever.

The weakest portion of the film is in the last 30 minutes, which begin to feel like contrived and schlocky as the twists keep piling on. But the film has a slight winking self-awareness in this final bit, a campy sensibility that saves the last act from sinking the whole story. If this is going to be Soderbergh’s last film for a while, he is certainly going out on a good note. The film world will be a lot less interesting without his distinct brand of risk-taking.

4/5

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Netflix Gener-a-thon Round-up: Emotional Movies Featuring a Strong Female Lead

And there you have it, I have come to the end of my sampling of Netflix’s Emotional Movies Featuring a Strong Female Lead. Based on the five films that I viewed, I found that Netflix’s categorization of these films is pretty accurate. While certain subjective aspects of the films should be accounted for – such as the degree to which one finds them ‘emotional’ – on the whole Netflix precisely characterized what a viewer can expect from these films.

The lack of female roles in contemporary cinema is a point that has been belabored plenty by film journalists and critics. If anything, this categorization of films is valuable for compiling a pretty decent selection of strong female characters across a range of time periods, genres and national cinemas. Of course this does not come without issue. I question the need to set aside a category specifically for films with female characters – does this really signal progress toward an even playing field for women in film? Additionally problematic is the association between ‘emotional movies’ and ‘female characters’.  Regardless of these issues, I commend Netflix for bringing together a broad array of films with (mostly) strong and dynamic female leads.

But saying that these films were accurately categorized isn’t to recommend them all. There was a pretty broad scale of quality among the films I viewed, some far more watchable than others. For your viewing convenience, here are the best and worst of “Emotional Movies Featuring a Strong Female Lead”.

Most emotional film: Imitation of Life

Strongest female lead: Shin-ae (Do-yeon Jeon) Secret Sunshine

Worst female lead: Dawn O’Neil (Charlotte Gainsbourg) The Tree

Least emotionally affecting film: Like Crazy

Most misplaced film: XXY

Best to Worst:

  1. Secret Sunshine
  2. Imitation of Life
  3. XXY
  4. Like Crazy
  5. The Tree

Next Netflix Gener-a-thon: Understated Independent Dramas

  1. Another Earth (Mike Cahill, 2011)
  2. After Fall, Winter (Eric Schaeffer, 2011)
  3. It’s Kind of a Funny Story (Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, 2010)
  4. Curling (Denis Côté, 2010)
  5. The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell, 2010)
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Netflix Gener-a-thon: Emotional movies featuring a strong female lead (Post 5/5)

Imitation of Life (1959)

Cover of "Imitation of Life"

Director: Douglas Sirk, king of the ironic 1950’s melodrama.

Country: USA

Cast highlights: Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner are stand-outs in the stronger of the film’s two narrative strands. Both actresses were both nominated for Academy Awards for their performances.

Netflix User’s Rating: 4/5

One – sentence Synopses: A struggling actress and single mother takes in a black housekeeper and her daughter, and the two experience the various challenges of motherhood as they raise their daughters.

Emotional?: In typical Douglas Sirk fashion, Imitation of Life undercuts the artifice of 1950’s American film with deeply embedded social commentary about race, class and gender. Starkly progressive for the time in which it was made, the film plays as both an over-wrought melodrama and a sharp critique of 1950’s America. But, despite the many attempts to intellectualize Sirk’s work, the true impact of his films lie not in their cerebral qualities but in their ability to affect audience emotion. As Tag Gallagher puts it in his article on Sirk’s melodramas “We understood Sirk’s melodramas because we felt them. In fact his movies work less as “texts” than as physical emotions. They need to be felt.” As far as ‘tear-jerkers’ go, Imitation of Life stands in the upper-echelons along with Bambi and Terms of Endearment.

The film is a classic mother-daughter story, considering two parallel sets of single-parent relationships. One concerns a typical working-mother conundrum: Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) is a woman chasing her dream of becoming a famous actress, all the while trying to raise her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee). But when Lora’s career takes-off and she finally achieves the theatrical success she has always craved, her relationship with her daughter becomes increasingly strained. Housekeeper Annie – who is taken in by Lora after the two meet at the beach – ends up taking the bulk of the mothering responsibilities, caring for Susie along with her own daughter, Sara Jane.

This brings us to the alternate, and far more emotionally affecting, mother-daughter relationship – that of Annie and her light-skinned daughter, Sara Jane. Born to Annie and her deceased, “almost white” husband, Sara Jane grows up with a feeling of deep shame and anger at her black heritage. Most of this anger is directed at her long-suffering mother, who persists in trying to get her daughter to accept her identity. Sara Jane attempts to pass for white in her daily life, continually denying her black identity.

The heartbreaking aspect of their relationship comes in the way Annie’s unconditional love for her daughter persists despite Sara Jane’s outright rejection of her mother. As Sara Jane grows into teen years, this self-hatred manifests in rebellious behavior. In the most emotionally affecting scene in the film, Annie tracks Sara Jane down after she has fled to Hollywood to dance burlesque in a nightclub. Accepting the fact that she can no longer be a part of her daughter’s life, she asks simply to hold once more like when she was a baby. Despite whatever resistance I had to the flagrant melodramatic display at work here, things certainly got dusty.

Strength of the female lead:

Long before the ‘can women have it all’ debates raged across the blogosphere, Sirk created a female character who attempted to have career success while raising a child and balancing a romantic relationships. And while the film takes a pessimistic stance toward life-work balance, having Lora’s relationship with her daughter suffer due to her career ambitions, her defiant desire to become a famous actress puts her ahead of her time.  The most interesting example of this is when Lora runs out on a burgeoning relationship with the handsome Steve Archer in order to take her first major role in a theatrical production. Rejecting Steve’s attempts to support her and Susie if she steps back from acting, she insists “I’m going up and up and up – and nobody’s going to pull me down!”

But, undoubtedly, the real backbone of the film comes from Juanita Moore’s Annie. Although Annie is dis-empowered by her position and the times in which she lives, she maintains a quiet strength throughout the film. Lora’s problems seem pithy in comparison to Annie’s. She has to contend with racial prejudice not only from society at large but from her own daughter, and yet she handles them with far more grace than the over-dramatic actress with delusions of grandeur. While Annie’s struggle instills in the viewer a deep sense of anger and injustice, these are traits which she herself never displays. She has a set of strong moral convictions, influenced by her religious leanings, which she never wavers from. It is her willingness to grin and endure, both for her own good and the good of her daughter, which characterizes her courage.

Add to instant queue? :  Highly recommended – as long as you are armed with a full box of Kleenex.

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Netflix Gener-a-thon: Emotional movies featuring a strong female lead (Post 4/5)

(Writer’s Notes: Due to lack of variety in this current Gener-a-thon, I have made a few changes to my selection of films for this particular slate. I was originally going to review The Stoning of Soraya M. (Cyrus Nowasteh), but I have already included a couple weepy dramas and I felt I should diversify. I added Like Crazy because I was interested in looking at how the female lead is handled in a romantic film where ‘strength’ isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite. Next week, I have replaced Assassins Next Door with Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life – a classic film that will be a good point of comparison to the other works I’ve discussed.)

Like Crazy (2011)

Like Crazy

Like Crazy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Director: Drake Doremus. Not familiar with his oeuvre, but judging from his IMDB page he is an off-shoot of the mumblecore movement.

Country: USA

Cast highlights: The film’s mostly little known, yet young and good-looking, cast features Anton Yelchin of Charlie Barlett and Alpha Dog and Felicity Jones as the two romantic leads. Also look for a pre-breakout Jennifer Lawrence in a small supporting role.

Netflix User’s Rating: 3.3 stars out of 5

One – sentence Synopses: A British college student from a well-to-do family and an aspiring American furniture designer fall in love while attending college in Los Angeles, but find their relationship tested by geographical distances and citizenship complications.

Emotional? :  Like so many sentimental Hallmark cards, Like Crazy tries in earnest to touch an emotional chord with the viewer. Unfortunately, the film’s attempt at a meditation on young love feels about as sincere as the schmaltzy, cursive poems churned out en-masse for Valentine’s Day. You are aware of what the film wants you to feel, but  just don’t feel it. That’s a problem for a film that has little narrative action, where success rests on the impact of intricately woven emotional moments. Like Crazy falls flat because those moments feel like surface level snapshots of a relationship between two people I felt mostly apathy towards.

The film concerns the relationship between British exchange student Anna (Felicity Jones) and an American furniture designer Jacob (Anton Yelchin) over the course of several decades. The two meet while studying in Los Angeles and quickly fall deeply and passionately in love while listening to Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and running around the Santa Monica pier. Their romance is shown in a series of wispy montages that look like the bastard child of a shelved Fuji TV spot and a John Mayer music video. A cog is thrown in this Ferris wheel of love when Anna over stays her visa, and is subsequently banned from visiting the United States. A long-distance struggle ensues and eventually they decide to take a break allowing them to pursue other relationships. But alas, true love never dies and Anna and Jacob never really forget one another. But time and space have weakened their initial passion, and the film ends on a bittersweet note that leaves us wondering if their relationship has been fractured by the long period of time spent apart.

That we are spending the entire film with these two characters requires them to be interesting and complex for their relationship to carry any emotional weight. Unfortunately these are perhaps two of the least compelling romantic leads I’ve seen in a film. Their time together seems uninspired and dull- carrying none of the passion they seem to feel for each other. Jacob- who supposedly inspires Anna’s interest enough for her to leave a love note on his car by way of introduction- is about as intriguing as canned fava beans. I’ve met paint chips with more charm. Anna fares a little better, but not much – I’ll get into facets of her character later. I get that this may have been the point – suggesting that the overwhelming nature of love is more powerful than their individual personalities or inclinations. But the characters are so bland that it gives us little reason to care about their relationship. This is in part due to the fact that the film doesn’t leave much space for character development, insisting on revealing the romance in a series of pretentiously shot fragments. While these were probably intended to show the frenetic nature of young love, they felt like an unnecessary showiness – like Doremus was trying to show us all the cool things he learned to do in film school. Not helping matters is Yelchin and Jones’ complete lack of any sexual chemistry. For a film that is supposed to be about the fiery passion of a first love, it does not bode well that I was left feeling cold.

Strength of the female lead: The weakness of the female lead is in no way the film’s greatest flaw. In fact, one could make an argument to the contrary. Sure Anna is bland, but she cannot wholly be described as weak. She is the one to initiate the romance, boldly leaving a note on Jacob’s car asking him out for coffee. She has a strong career in her home country, and is consistently getting promoted at the magazine where she works. She certainly has more spunk, seems more alive than Jacob, and thus more preoccupied by their romance. Felicity Jones handles the part as well as she can- while the scenes she shares with Yelchin seem amateur, her solo breakdowns make palpable the sense of longing that the rest of the film fails to impart.

The one weakness of Anna’s character is the relationship she has with her hovering parents. While Jacob’s relatives are entirely absent from the film, Anna’s mother and father are a constant presence. They appear in a number of dinner sequences throughout the film, giving their subtle reactions to her daughter’s romantic relationships –with Jacob, and a subsequent relationship with another man.  While I grant that this may have been the director’s clever employment of a Greek Chorus to give an outsider reaction to the couple’s relationship, it has the consequence of making Anna appear co-dependent. It hearkens back to outmoded traditions of a girl’s family judging her potential suitors and deeming which one they feel suitable for their daughter. And while the film doesn’t go so far as to suggest Anna’s romantic fate rests on her parent’s decisions, the same kind of familial influence does not exist for Jacob.

Add to instant queue? :  Maybe those who have been in passionate love before will appreciate Like Crazy, but I just did not ‘get it’. Not crazy about it.

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Gangster Squad Review: Subtle Schlock

Gangster Squad is not a good movie. It regurgitates a plethora of gangster-genre tropes in a paint-by-numbers narrative fluffed out by a derivative script. The characters are paper cut-outs, not complex or well-developed enough to care about, reciting lines of dialogue that are as uninspired as they are daft. But worse than this, while the film teeters on the edge of being ‘so-bad-its-good’ it never quite embraces its schlockier moments to allow for an ironic and humorous viewing of the film. It is a film that seems to reach for a level of quality that will place it alongside L.A. Confidential and The Untouchables, while featuring the kind of exaggerated superficiality that makes it more comparable to a duller Dick Tracey.

Based loosely on true events, Gangster Squad tells the story of Mickey Cohen’s (Sean Penn) ruthless takeover of 1940’s Los Angeles, and the undercover police squad who collaborated to take him down. A tyrannical sadist who believes it his divine calling to control the city, Cohen exercises his power through a series of insidious underground businesses, including heroin trafficking and brothels. Penn- who seems to be entering the ‘Nicholas Cage-batshit crazy phase of his career – plays Cohen with over-the-top gusto that leaves no scenery left un-chewed.

Enter Sgt. John O’Mara, a war-veteran cum police officer, who is tasked with taking Cohen and his brood down and restoring peace. The team O’Mara assembles is filled out with a set of prescribed personality types: the ‘smart-one (Giovanni Ribisi), the ‘street-wise one’ (Anthony Mackie), the ‘crusty old gunslinnger’ (Robert Patrick) and his ‘token Mexican friend’ (Michael Pena). The team wages war against Cohen in what feels like an endless series of poorly staged shoot-outs and commonplace undercover investigation drawn straight from the how-to guide for gangster films (they wire-tap Cohen’s house!).

This central story is sidelined by a romantic complication between the team’s ladies’ man Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) and Cohen’s etiquette coach-slash-mistress Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Gosling and Stone attempt to reignite a chemistry that was so evident in Crazy Stupid Love, but come up short in a relationship that feels like a dispassionate narrative convenience. Gosling, playing the role with a strange, high-pitched affectation in his voice, is vacuous and confused throughout the film while Stone, as the stand-in feme-du-jour, isn’t allowed to play to her natural charm and comedic strengths.

Directed by Rueben Fliescer, who demonstrated a flare for genre-spoofing comedy with 2009’s Zombieland, has all the makings of a really good gangster-film send-up. But instead, Gangster Squad chooses to aim for sincerity, missing the mark and landing in the ditches of mediocrity. The film lacks a cohesive tonality – over-playing certain moments while under-playing others. The rest of the film never gets on board with the over-the-top grandiosity of Penn’s performance, whose scenes are, if not great, really fun to watch. Reflecting this confusion is the film’s visual style, which oscillates between highly saturated, digitally altered cinematography and more natural, ‘realistic’ colour schemes. Gangster Squad, by ignoring it’s inclination to schlock, flat lines, existing as a vacant carcass of clichés and plot holes.

Rating: 1.5/5

 

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Anticipating: January/ February Releases

Rooney Mara: ditching the dragon tattoo for linen and a Urban Barn couch.

The first few months of the year are somewhat of a waste-land for new releases. January and February usually bring steady riff-raff of shelved studio offerings and other innocuous junk (the worse of which is surmised in this hilarious article by Tom Reimann on cracked.com). But, persisting against low expectations, I see a few hopeful gems to be found a midst the dumping ground.

Gangster Squad (January 11th)

The trailer for the start-studded Gangster Squad made me squeal with the type of excitement reserved for only a select few films. Filmed in highly saturated cinematography that is equal parts “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “L.A. Confidential”, it is based on the real-life story of a special unit gathered to take down mob boss Mickey Cohen – played by with over-the-top gusto by Sean Penn. The film also reunites Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, re-igniting their great chemistry from Crazy Stupid Love.

On the Road (January 14th)

Although it received negative reviews when it premiered at Cannes, I’m still looking forward to this long-awaited adaptation of Jack Keroac’s tenant of Beat literature. I read the book for the first time this past summer, and I’m curious to see how Walter Salles – director of The Motorcycle Diaries – will handle the material. Salle’s seems to have a knack for capturing the road movie’s sense of reckless abandon and youthful idealism, sentiments that are central to On the Road’s post-war ideology. At a bare minimum, I’m just hoping they won’t tarnish my memory of Sal, Dean and Mary Lou.

Side Effects (February 8th)

Steven Sodeberg reteams with Magic Mike star Channing Tatum for a psychological thriller about a clinically depressed woman (Rooney Mara) who begins to abuse anti-depressant medication while in anticipation of her husband’s release from jail. Maintaining a filmic output that makes Woody Allen seem lazy, Sodeberg continues to delve into a wide range of subject matter. After exploring escorts, male-strippers and infectious diseases, he takes on mental illness in a film that, judging from the trailer, could turn out to be a provocative thriller or an over-indulgent mess. But I’m never one to miss out on a Sodeberg because, even when his work is bad, it is always highly watchable.

Stoker (February 28th)

Director of the acclaimed Korean revenge-trilogy Park-Chan Wook makes his first foray into English language film with Stoker. This horror film-cum-family drama is about a young girl’s (Mia Wasikowska) creepy uncle (Matthew Goode) moves in with her and her grieving mother (Nicole Kidman) after the death of her father. As the title would suggest, the film is influence by horror other Bram Stoker, but not directly related to Dracula. I’m interested to see how the classically good-looking Goode will fare as a ‘creepy uncle’ but something tells me it might be a bit of a stretch.

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