Netflix Gener-a-thon: Emotional movies featuring a strong female lead (Post 3/5)

The Tree (2010)

Director: Julie Bertuccelli. Her first feature film after years of playing AD to the likes of Krystof Kieslowski.

Country: Australia/France

Cast highlights: Possessing androgynous, unusual looks and a wispy British accent, Charlotte Gainsbourg –the offspring of British model Jane Birkin and French singer Serge Gainsbourg- has been a favorite of art-house film directors, most notably Lars von Trier.

Netflix User’s Rating: 3.2/5

One – sentence Synopses: After the death of their father and husband Peter (Aden Young), a family tries to deal with their grief while suspecting their loved one’s soul lives on in the giant fig tree in their backyard.

Emotional? : Like last week’s Secret Sunshine, The Tree explores the all-encompassing effect of grief on an individual’s life. Dawn and her four children fall apart after the death of, what we imagine to be, their incredibly loving husband and father. They are left in stasis, as stuck as the giant over-grown fig tree in their backyard.  The tree provides an obvious parallel for the family’s inability to let go of the memory of their father and husband, as it’s overgrown roots increasingly infringe on the space of their home and threaten to tear it apart. When it appears as if Dawn is starting to move on with her life, finding a job and becoming romantically involved with her employer, any progress is hindered by the looming presence of the tree. The supernatural metaphor offered here is tenuous at best, bathing The Tree’s narrative of emotional struggle in a wash of sentimentality. Despite some truly stunning landscape cinematography that brings early Terrence Malick to mind, the overt symbolism that the film leans on prevents it from imparting the kind of emotional impact it wants to.

Strength of the female lead: The Tree focuses its attention on two female leads, Dawn and her daughter Simone. Unfortunately, both of the female characters are underdeveloped and, at times, outright grating. The stronger of the two is the feisty Simone, the child most psychologically affected by her father’s death. She is the first to develop a belief that her father is speaking to her family through the tree, using her connection with the tree as her strategy for coping with his death. While Simone’s fierce attachment to the tree is understood as her devotion to her father’s memory, it stands in conflict with the well-being of the family as it begins to destroy their home. Simone has a precocity and world-awareness to her that is a familiar trait in child characters cast in emotional dramas. But instead of these qualities endearing her with an admiring sympathy, in the context of this particular story she comes off as bratty and unruly.

Doing little to help her daughter’s case is Dawn, virtually incapacitated by her own struggle with grief. Gainsbourg – usually a redemptive presence in any film – is given little to work with as Dawn, a woman left utterly disempowered and confused by her husband’s death. We come to understand that this is a result of Dawn’s upbringing and early marriage, a consistent co-dependency on others that makes her just as emotionally immature as Simone. Dawn is infantilized, unable to make decisions for herself or her family until another man- the bland plumber she works for- comes in to her life. While Dawn’s actions at the end of the film suggest she has gained some independent agency, it comes too late to redeem what may have been complex facets of her character.

 Add to instant queue?: Not nearly as emotionally rooted as the title would suggest, The Tree feels more like a lily pad as it wistfully floats of the surface of deep emotional themes it attempts to tackle. Let this one glide along the peripheries of the Netflix shelves.

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Netflix Gener-a-thon: Emotional Movies Featuring a Strong Female Lead (Post 2 of 5)

Secret Sunshine (2007)

Secret Sunshine

Ain’t no sunshine when she’s home

Director: Chang Dong-Lee, also notable for Poetry, a film that garnered wide praise and appeared on many critics 2011 top 10 lists.

Country: South Korea

Cast highlights: Do-yeon Jeon is somewhat of a Kate Winslet in her home country, excelling in a wide range of dramatic roles. She may also be familiar to viewers from her turn as a nanny who seduces the man she is working for in The Housemaid.  

Netflix User’s Rating: 3.2/5

One – sentence Synopses: A recently widowed mother moves with her son from Seoul to the small and close-knit town of Milyang and experiences various stages of immense grief when her son is kidnapped and murdered.

Emotional? : Secret Sunshine, with it’s many scenes of crying, screaming and depression-induced lethargy, has many of the same conventions we expect from films about parent’s who lose their children tragically and unexpectedly. Central to the film is the way Shin-ae (Do-yeon Jeon) deals with the immense tragedy before her. But unlike so many films about grief -one’s that tend to linger in the protagonist’s sorrow in a kind of self-indulgent, pitying, hermetic purgatory-director Chang-dong Lee challenges this conventional arc by making the loss experienced by Shin-ae a catalyst for a series of additional challenges that provide additional obstacles to an easy relief from anguish. The film sees the woe begotten Shin-ae finding solace in Christianity at the urging of her local pharmacist. Far from providing permanent relief from her recent traumas, religion proves to be but a flimsy band-aid in healing her pain. After attempting to forgive her son’s incarcerated killer, Shin-ae discovers that he too has found salvation in God. Implicit in Shin-ae’s renunciation of religion as a means to peace is a critique of the hypocrisies of organized religion, or anything that claims to be a quick fix for immense pain and suffering. Secret Sunshine is unique in this willingness to take a discerning look at the way we deal with grief and immense personal pain. Aside from providing a soft cushion for characters and viewers with an easy ending and absolution from pain, the film faces up to the hard truth of grief as an indefinite part of the experiencing individual’s life.

Strength of the female lead: Beyond having a female lead driving the story, Secret Sunshine provides a uniquely female perspective on the experience of loss without leaning on the cinematic tropes that often follow films about grieving mothers and widows. The film resists viewing Shin-ae as a victim by having her stubbornly oppose any kind of support. Even though she eventually falls into the religious fold put out to her by her neighbors, she comes to reject this and in a move of fierce independence. The film also displaces the traditional romantic story arc that we initially suspect will ‘save’ Milyang by having the overtures of a local car repairman seem like an unnecessary annoyance rather than a saving grace. If anything, the film inverts any judgmental perspective we may have of Shin-ae by pitting her against the oppressive small-town mentality of Milyang.

Add to instant queue? : Give this one a watch, especially if you are interested in contemporary South Korean cinema. Chang Dong-Lee’ brief oeuvre excellent alternatives to the ultra-violent revenge flicks the country’s cinematic output is normally associated with.

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Life of Pi Review: Crouching Tiger on a Boat

life of pi review

At least there’s no hidden dragon (Image: 20th Century Fox)

 Ang Lee is one of the more underrated directors in contemporary cinema. With a body of work spanning both cultures and genres, Lee has put out a consistently good, and sometimes great, slate of films over the past two decades. He employs a lush visual style and flare for natural beauty that acts as a backdrop to his frequent themes of morality, consequence and alienation.

These qualities are perhaps what make him perfectly suited to the film-adaptation of Yann Martel’s highly successful book. The 3-D adaptation gives Lee the chance to reach new level of artistic mastery, enabled by visual effects and surprisingly believable CGI-generated imagery. But where Lee’s visual style never under-cut the narrative content in Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Life of Pi’s visual content tends to exceed its thematic resonance.

Staying close to its source material, the film begins with Pi as a grown man (Irrfan Khan) retelling his story to a writer, who has been sent by Pi’s uncle to hear a story that will make him ‘believe in god’. Named after the Piscine Molitor swimming pool in Paris by his uncle, Pi was raised in his father’s Zoo in Pondicherry, India. In the first third of the film, Pi youth is characterized by his spiritual explorations with many different religions. Although a Hindu by birth, the existentially curious young boy dips into Christianity and Islam. At turns, Pi reads comic books about the God Vishnu, contemplates the significance of the suffering of Christ, and prays during the Muslim call to prayer. Pi comes to subscribe to the philosophy behind all religions, developing his own hybrid belief system. This has the effect of universalizing Pi as a spiritual every-man, free-floating in his trust in a higher power.

When his father decides to move the family zoo to Canada (Winnipeg of all places) the family and their menagerie of animals board a sea vessel on sailing across the Pacific Ocean. In a highly affecting visual sequence, a fierce mid-ocean storm leaves Pi stranded in the middle of the ocean with the surviving animals – a zebra, hyena, an orangutan and a Bengali tiger. After a sequence of animal homicides – toned down significantly from the book to appeasethe film’s G-rating – Pi is left alone with the tiger (named Richard Parker) in circumstances that would make the fishermen on Deadliest Catch tremble. Far from the inanimate volleyball that provided Tom Hank’s company in Cast Away, Richard Parker provides just another obstacle in Pi’s against-all-odds survival tale. A highly-believable CGI-creation (that the tiger was a CGI illusion did not occur to me until after the film), the tiger’s slinky movements and carnivorous overtures are palpable and terrifying. Pi – perhaps with a little help from the big guy above – turns Richard Parker from nemesis to a companion by which he survives the journey with. The presence of the tiger is well-enhanced by first-time actor Suraj Sharma, who gives a natural and believable performance as Pi.

Although given only a limited range of space to work with, Lee creates some truly awe-inspiring images in this section of the film that suggest its other-worldly mystical bent. Visually, the film occupies a space somewhere in between Deliverance and a Salvador Dali painting. Night-time sequences show a clear sky filled with stars reflected on the mirror-like surface of the water creating a lost-in-space sense of infinity. Overhead compositions show the diminutive boat in constant flux with the sea-life around it. In a surrealist sequence, the camera reach deep into the bottom of the ocean discovering deep sea creatures among lost zoo animals, the face of Pi’s mother and the wreckage of the ship itself. And this isn’t to mention the flesh-eating Island of meerkats Pi and Richard land on, a place of refuge that provides false hope.

Of course, as we have already deduced from the presence of Pi at the beginning of the film, he survives his ordeal and is rescued on the shores of Mexico. The final section of the film leaves the legitimacy of Pi’s ordeal ambiguous. It is an ending that feels unsatisfying as it does not fully realize all of the elements the film has introduced. It seems to wrap complexities that then ending suggests under the comforting, but flimsy, blanket of dogmatic acceptance and a belief in spiritual causality. It leaves us wondering how Pi’s father, a rationalist ever suspicious of his son’s religious endeavours, would have understood his survival.

Life of Pi can be recommended almost solely on the scale and beauty of its visual achievements. It is a film best seen on the big screen, in the 3-D format it was made for. And while the lush images of the film will stay with me for quite some time, the story will probably not.

Rating: 2.5/5

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Netflix Gener-a-thon : Emotional Movies Featuring a Strong Female Lead (Post 1 of 5)

Cover of "XXy"

You know a film is artsy when you see someone’s bare back on the cover.

XXY (2007)

Director: The first film of Lucia Puenzo, daughter of Luis Puenzo, who directed critically acclaimed The Official Story (1985). That film is also available on Netflix under the same cateogry as XXY. Like father, like daughter.

Country: Argentina

Cast highlights: Viewers may recognize Ricardo Darin from the Academy Award winning The Secret in their Eyes. 

One – sentence Synopses: Alex, an intersexed teenager, experiences sexual awakening, concerned but loving parents and social alienation while living in a small seaside village in Urugay.

Emotional ? :  XXY is a sensitive portrait about what it truly means to be inter-sexed. As Alex, an inter-sexed teenager, experiences life at a sexually tenuous age while her loving and fiercely defensive parents come to accept how to best allow for their child’s well-being. The emotional aspects of the film come from family drama. Ultimately, this is a film about what it truly means to care for your child beyond measure. Ricardo Darin gives a heartbreaking and layered performance as Nestor, Alex’s concerned father. Also touching is the friendship cum romance between Alex and the son of a visiting surgeon and his wife. Sad and disturbing notes also come from the alienation and abuse Alex experiences living as an inter-sexed individual.

Strength of the female lead: That Netflix decided to drop XXY in a category of ‘female leads’ suggests that they may not have seen, or understood, the film at all. It is a mis-categorization, considering that the film attempts to defy all traditional gender conventions. Puenzo reveals little about Alex’s state until very late in the film, require the audience to develop their own assumptions about sex and gender. Alex is referred to as both male and female, daughter and son. She is never explicitly aligned with one sex. This does not lead to a Crying Game- esque shocker, but a subtle realigning of the viewer’s expectations. The film requires the viewer to question the true significance of an individual’s gender and whether or not it matters at all. The final – and somewhat radical – final revelation in XXY suggests that it does not.

Add to instant queue?:  Yes – perceptive directorial insights and authentic character relationships ground a film about a topic rarely explored on film.

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Netflix and the Invention of Genres

Image representing Netflix as depicted in Crun...

Most film lovers have already spoken their eulogies to the video store. For those of cinephilic stripe, the excitement of going into a video store and serendipitously stumbling upon a gem hidden among rows of DVDs is now but a wistful memory. Aside from a few choice independent retailers in Vancouver (Limelight, Black Dog), most video stores here and in many other cities have fallen like so many vinyl record stores before them. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

What to do to fill the void? I’ve begrudgingly come to accept that online streaming and video-on-demand outlets, no doubt responsible for the death of your beloved local rental establishment, are the digital rebirth of the video store. Where we once went to Rogers and Blockbusters to get our flick fix, we now log-in to Hulu Plus*, click on through the selection offered by Shaw Video on Demand or sit through the sluggish load of iTunes.

Netflix currently seems to hold the throne when it comes to the most used, accessible and comprehensive streaming site. No, it is certainly not perfect (especially the Canadian version). And yes, there are still times when I long to browse the DVDs on the musty shelves of my local video stores looking for an obscure nugget, the enthusiastic chatter of acne-laden teenage clerks geeking-out  in the background. But the digital age makes an evolution in the way we consume films a necessity. At present, no one seems to be doing a better job of transferring the internal cultural of the video store online than Netflix.

One of the ways Netflix has sought to replicate video store culture is through their user recommendation system. As a stand-in for the wealth of knowledge previously provided by video-store clerks, Netflix recommends films for each individual user based on the films they have already watched. As an indirect result of this, the site has developed an entirely new set of genre categorizations. As other Netflix users will note, the Netflix home page shows films grouped under ultra-specific groupings that defy traditionally broad genre categorizations. In addition to the traditional “Romance” and “Action” categorizations films are labeled “Understated Independent Dramas” and “Romantic Movies featuring a Strong Female Lead”. The genre categories offered to users on their account are specific to their taste, based on films that they have previously watched.

I am both fascinating and bemused by the highly specific way Netflix categorizes their films, and I think it warrants a closer look. What does an “Understated Drama” look like? Just how strong are the female leads in “Emotional Movies featuring a Strong female lead” ? I hope to answer these questions by investigating a different Netflix genre categorization each month. I’ll look at five films in that genre and review each film, both as a standalone piece and in terms of the genre that Netflix has assigned it.  I hope to learn a bit more about the accuracy of Netflix’s genre titles and to evaluate whether or not this constitutes a need for more specific categorizations in film. I also hope to uncover some unsuspecting Netflix gems, so that we can all get our $8 dollars a month worth.

First up: Emotional Movies Featuring a Strong Female Lead


  1. XXY (Lucia Puenzo, 2007)
  2. Secret Sunshine (Chang-dong Lee, 2007)
  3. The Tree (Julie Bertuccelli, 2010)
  4. Like Crazy (Drake Doremus, 2011)
  5. Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)

Note: This project was partly inspired by the fabulous Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast hosted by the unparalleled Matt Singer and Alison Willmore (the duo that brought you the IFC News Podcast). A spin-off of the also excellent Filmspotting podcast, SVU reviews films available on-demand via streaming. I’ve yet to find commentators more fun to listen to than Willmore and Singer, and their suggestions are always reliable. Check em’ out!

*Dear Hulu, Please make your service available to Canadians. It’s cold and barren enough up here as it is.


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Lincoln Review: Persistently Picturesque Politics

Daniel-Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln
(DreamWorks II Distribution Co.)

I had a professor at university who would often preface screenings of historical films by saying that movies often say more about the times in which they were made than the times they are about. This is a concept that can be wholly applied to Lincoln. Released just weeks after the re-election of Barack Obama, Stephen Spielberg’s historical drama about the 16th president of the United States is particularly timely considering the highly contested election the country recently experienced. Scenes of battling political factions, bribery and verbal lashings between the republican and democratic parties will bring back not-so distant memories for many viewers. And in an era where every month was Movember, there is no shortage of nineteenth-century facial hair on the faces of the film’s largely male cast.

Based partly on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s novel “Team of Rivals”, the film is focuses on Lincoln’s (Daniel-Day Lewis) struggle to pass the 13th Amendment while in the midst of the Civil War. His aim to pass the amendment to abolish slavery often stood in conflict with a desire to end the war and make peace with the Southern states. These competing ideals are made literal by the many advisers competing for Lincoln’s attention, most notably his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and the amendment’s author Thaddeus Stephens (Tommy-Lee Jones).  Also competing for the president’s attention are his emotionally unstable wife, Mary-Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) and his quarter-life crisis ridden son Robert (Joseph-Gordon Levitt).

The standout of the piece is, unsurprisingly, Day-Lewis’ uncanny embodiment of the president. The star plays Lincoln with a restrained gentility – a man whose power lay in his ability to command a room with calm dignity. But the heavy cadence by which he carried himself betrayed the world-weariness of the immense task that lay before him, but to which he was tirelessly committed.

The remainder of the cast (a hefty slate of character actors) do a solid job, only speckled by a few misses. Tommy-Lee Jones infuses a good helping of his signature churl as the gruff, determined Thaddeus Stevens. James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson provide welcome comic relief in the film as a trio of aides trying to hustle democratic votes for the amendment.

The film stumbles when it shifts to Lincoln’s personal life. Sally Field’s performance as Mary-Todd Lincoln feels strained, but she is not helped by a script that restricts the first lady to a series of hysterical emotional outbursts and needy pleadings. Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s performance echoes shades of Paul Dano in There Will be Blood as a younger actor crushed by the sheer weight and charisma of Day-Lewis.

I suspect that the most lasting value of the film will be as an educational tool. As a Canadian outsider who knows very little about a very complex and distant time in American politics, I learned a lot from Lincoln. Spielberg does a good job of making scenes of dry constitutional discussion absorbing. In what is largely a dialogue driven movie, Lincoln has an evocative visual style that makes smoky back-room political deliberations seem artfully poignant.

The film is also valuable for elucidating the immense struggle of abolishing slavery. It portrays the mountain of entrenched racial prejudice that abolitionists faced. One a personal level, Lincoln affirms a commitment to one’s ideals in the face of derision. But more significantly, as a portrayal of an iconic time in US history, the film upholds that America is a nation of progress. It is no accident that the film is bookmarked by various readings of the Gettysburg Address at the beginning by soldiers reciting the speech to Lincoln and at the end a scene of Abe reading the speech itself.  Like the Gettysburg address, Lincoln promotes a distinctive brand of US optimism that believes in the democratic process and the positive change it can bring. It is a sentiment that Americans cling to as much today as they did in 1864.

Rating: 4/5

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Anticipating: November/December Releases

Brad Pitt’s hair truly outdoes itself in December’s Killing Them Softly (Photo: The Weinstein Company/

Alright folks! Welcome to my very first post – so pure and untouched by the eyes of internet trolls.

“Anticipating” will be a regular feature on my blog, whereby I discuss the films I’m most excited to see in the upcoming month. I thinking of it as a ‘to do’ list of films that I either want to see, or feel- with deep FMO (fear of missing out) that I should see. Since we are already halfway through November, I’m combining it in to one year end extravaganza. After all, I find that this portion of the year blends into a flurry of wet toes, eggnog lattes, and particularly bad muzak versions of “Frosty the Snowman” heard while browsing for toques in the mall. Release dates listed are for Vancouver theatres.

Lincoln (November 16th)
Daniel Day Lewis bears an uncanny resemblance to the 16th president of the United States in Stephen Spielberg’s epic war drama. The story will concentrate on the tumultuous final months of Lincoln’s life as he fought for abolition near the end of the Civil War. Considering Spielberg’s track record with historical material, I’m hoping this will be more Schindler’s List and less War Horse.

Silver Linings Playbook (November 16th)
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence meet cute as two mentally unstable people trying to find the ‘silver linings’ in their lives (see what I did there). My giant girl crush on Jennifer Lawrence is the primary motivation for my desire to see this, but I’m also interested to see how David O Russell follows-up on the success of The Fighter.

Life of Pi (November 21st)
I tend to roll my eyes at the blatantly commercial impetus behind big screen adaptations of popular books, but I have a particular fondness for Yann Martel’s fantasy novel of the same name. Like countless other teenagers, I read the immersive story of a young boy trapped at sea with a Bengali tiger for a high school book project. Judging from early reviews, the prestigious source material is masterfully dealt with in Ang Lee’s well and able hands.

Hitchcock (November 23rd)
A heavily made up Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock! Making Psycho! From that guy who directed the Anvil movie!

Killing Them Softly (November 30th)
I have been looking forward to Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to the visually stunning The Assassination of Jesse James for months. The modern day gangster drama has a seriously stellar cast and received strong reviews when it was screened at Cannes. I expect Dominik to infuse the same visual flare that distinguished his previous film into this blood-soaked revisionist noir.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December 14th)
Small little independent drama from Peter Jackson – you may have heard of him? I’m not so much anticipating the film itself as I am anticipating the wave of praise or derision that will come from the legions of fan-boys once it is released.

Rust and Bone (December 21st)
I regrettably missed out on this one when it played at the Vancouver Film Festival in October last month, as it was a favorite among festival goers. Jaques Audiard of A Prophet directs Marion Cotillard plays a killer whale trainer who develops a relationship with a single dad after she suffers a horrible accident.

Django Unchained (December 25th)
Time to start taking bets on whether Spielberg or Tarantino will provide a more compelling version of pre-emancipation era south. My vote goes to the latter. Particularly excited to see Leonardo DiCaprio ham it up as a comically evil plantation owner.

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