Winter’s Bone

Debra Granik takes us deep into the Ozark Mountains in Missouri with Winter’s Bone, where  17 year old Ree Dolly struggles to take care of her 12 and 6 year old brother and sister while her father is in jail and her mother is mentally ill. The sheriff tells her that if her father doesn’t show up for his trial, the family will lose their house as it was put down as collateral for bail. Ree then sets off on a  journey to find her father, which proves to be extremely dangerous as she is dragged into a community of violent crystal meth addicted country folk, who are set on scaring her to keep her silent. Her tattoo covered wife beating uncle, Teardrop, won’t help and as she is met with closed doors from aggressive strangers she is forced into extreme actions.

The harsh rural landscape emulates Ree’s struggles in poverty and sets an eery atmosphere for the dramatic events which unfold. We are transported into a bleak reality where independence is a necessity from a young age (we witness a 6 year old girl shooting a squirrel with a hunting rifle) and where life’s horizons go as far as joining the army (providing a tempting $40,000) or being confined to domestic bliss.

Part of the feeling of authenticity from the film comes from the fact that this is a cultural reality for many people and while we are guided through banjo playing parties where people eat fried deer and have unique speech patterns (which I found often tricky to decipher) y’all get a sense that the bleak social deprivation is genuinely problematic in the deep south.

The acting was superb, especially that of Jennifer Lawrence in the role of Ree Dolly, who is rumoured for Academy nominations next year, while the film has already received a deserving win of the Grand Jury Prize from Sundance earlier this year.

Winter’s Bone is  showing at Dundee Contemporary Arts until Friday.

-Flossie Topping

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Eat Pray Love

Perhaps it’s because I am a bit of a literary snob (although I feel licence should be granted here as an English student) but I have never been enamoured with the kind of popular ‘Chic-Lit’ novels exemplified by Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. I therefore confess I went into the cinema not as a devotee of the worldwide phenomenon but merely as an admirer of the smouldering good looks of Javier Bardem and the prospect of two hours of pure escapism.

The story of a divorcee Liz (Julia Roberts) leaving behind her mundane city life in search of exotic food, men and spiritual contentment promised a refreshing change from the generic Rom-Com formula which has become all too familiar. However, I was disappointed by the film’s many pitfalls. If, like me, you haven’t read Gilbert’s original memoir, you may find the structure rather baffling:  Liz travels between New York, Rome and Bali seemingly without a sense of progression, which results in a lack of cohesion between the major chapters in the film.  Despite compelling performances from the supporting cast, a weak script and Roberts’ own limitations as an actress mean we are never able to fully empathise with her character, who at times appears distant and self-absorbed.  Moreover, the central premise of the film (the search for identity through adopting the practices of different cultures) ends up feeling clichéd and superficial rather than poignant and revealing.  My Italian friend was mortified by the outrageous stereotypes on offer in the form of Liz’s Roman friends, whose sentimental speeches contribute to the sense of the characters being cartoon-like rather than real individuals. Bardem, arguably the most talented of the actors on offer, was clearly enticed by the money rather than a dazzling script as his character is bland and one-dimensional; a watered- down version of his role in Woody Allen’s Vicky, Christina, Barcelona.

Ultimately therefore, Ryan Murphy’s adaptation falls short of being a compelling tale of self-discovery and female empowerment. Nevertheless, if you just fancy a girly night out at the cinema (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) then there’s more than enough eye candy and stunning shots of India to keep you interested.

Kate Bone

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Machete (Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis)

Robert Rodriguez’s Machete will, without a doubt, delight grindhouse fans and with every screening at the film festival sold out, is sure to be a box office success. Luckily, my trusty press pass guaranteed me a ticket and so I squeezed into the theatre at the last minute. The film follows Danny Trejo, ex-federale turned vigilante, on a mission of revenge and redemption using his sword fighting skills to slice and dice his way through the corrupt politicians (Robert De Niro) and mobsters (Steven Segal) of Mexico. The film’s all star cast brought wild applause, as well as many wolf whistles at Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez who became leather clad bad-ass babes on bikes.

Although the film was laughter dynamite, there was a political undercurrent throughout which gave a more serious note to the proceedings. Blowing up stereotypes of Mexicans to the extreme and exposing political tension over immigration laws, was done with over the top violence and side-splitting gags. Rodriguez claims that his film has created a new sub-genre of  ‘Mex-ploitation’ cinema, providing a Mexican action hero and empowerment that people need to feel proud of their Mexican roots. The film’s explosive entertainment was greeted with wild applause, as was the hint at imagined sequels Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again.

At a press conference yesterday Alba gave the impression that the team had as much fun making Machete as it is watch, saying ‘making the film was a lot of laughs. I get to play a kick-ass chick! I mean, who doesn’t want to stab a guy in the eye with a stiletto!’. Indeed.

-Flossie Topping

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I’m Still Here (Casey Affleck)

Directorial debut for actor Casey Affleck is I’m Still Here, a documentary about his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix as he tries to change his career from actor to rapper. To be placed in the Out of Competition section of the festival program is an honour for first timers as this section is reserved for ‘directors already established in previous editions of the festival’ and therefore one would assume Affleck’s star status had something to do with it. Venice loves the stars.

The film has received mixed responses so far, as Affleck has kept audiences guessing whether the film is part of an elaborate hoax or not. So much of the film concerns Joaquin’s frustration in the public not taking him seriously, that as an audience you want to believe in him and see him succeed. Yet, the rap music he creates is so incredibly bad that speculation is inevitable.

In the beginning we see Joaquin as a child star and then we see him as an adult telling us how much he hates being an actor. He says he longs to create something, and hates being part of someone elses vision,  a puppet. We then see him claiming his retirement from acting in interviews and people laughing at him. You begin to feel sorry for the guy, he just wants to rap. Then the film takes a bit of a turn for the crazy and we see Joaquin spiraling out of control of his life- he looks a mess (we see people around the world wearing Joaquin; a bushy beard and sunglasses, he has let himself go), he specializes in public humiliation (wherever he goes there is a cringe worthy scene of him rapping and people laughing) and his friends abandon him ( his personal assistant poos on his face while he sleeps). Things are not good for the dude. Worst of all, hip hop ledge P.Diddy thinks his music sucks- his life is over.

I found the film hard to invest feeling in because I spent most of it thinking that it was a big hoax. However, Joaquin’s goofy stunts were often hilarious, as was his apparent belief in his own talent .  Perhaps leaving the audience wondering is the mark of a successful documentary. In any case, all eyes will be on Joaquin to see where his career turns next.

-Flossie Topping

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Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame (Hark Tsui)

The year is 689 AD and the first woman Empress of China is about to be crowned. A statue is being built of Buddha in her honor, of tremendous height and with lava flowing through its centre. However, days before the inauguration of Empress Wu, people start spontaneously combusting.  An exiled detective  (Dee) is hired to solve the mystery. A strange choice as he is known for being a rebel, Dee now claims allegiance to the throne. It becomes apparent that the people who have caught fire and burned to death have been poisoned by ‘fire turtles’, creatures which only come from Infinity mountain. Detective Dee and the assistant to the Empress, must go there and find out how people are being poisoned and by whom.

The film was a true epic, filled with elaborate sets and grand martial arts sequences. It was filled with enjoyable yet impossible fighting scenes where characters flew from building to building with ease and people’s faces morphed into other faces randomly. Although I found parts of the film difficult to understand and found it hard to keep track of who was fighting who and the significance of that one in particular,  there were comedic moments- mostly ones featuring the talking deer. The film left open the possibility of sequels (although nothing has been formally announced) as it ended before a battle that had been previously mentioned.

View the trailer here

-Flossie Topping

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Ovsyanki (Silent Souls)

Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls begins in a small town in West-Central Russia where Miron, the manager of a paper mill, asks his friend Aist to help him cremate his recently deceased wife in the traditional way. The pair set out on a journey cross-country to Lake Nero, where the couple spent their honeymoon. Throughout the journey we are told of the quirky customs of this Russian town, for example, when a woman is to be married, her friends and family tie coloured threads and beads to her pubic hair. The activity is repeated upon the woman’s death.  In this way, the film was tied to its origin. However, the film also showed universality in the emotions it presented, people in mourning, people in love. There was a great sensitivity in the handling of the subject matter as Fedorchenko managed to show the fragility and beauty in human life.

Miron tells memories of his wife on the journey, how he remembered washing her hair in vodka, how she was a obiedient wife and he like that about her. Aist pretends to listen but is actually thinking about the little birds in the cage beside him and his childhood and his dead father who threw his typewriter into the sea (because to do this makes it immortal). The film managed to describe feeling in images, and in doing this, moved the whole audience to tears, and then, to a standing ovation.

-Flossie Topping

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Happy Few

Another film competing for the Golden Lion is Happy Few, French romantic drama by Antony Cordier. The plot is simple, two married couples meet each other and become friends but they feel a strong attraction towards one another’s partners. The couples agree to sleep with their other halves, understanding that it won’t lead to anything serious. Since both the couples have children the sexual exploits have to be in secret. Inevitably emotions become involved and the situation becomes very difficult with a dramatic outcome. I won’t spoil it.

I found the film intense and exciting, well acted and well written, but in parts un peu unbelievable! For example in one scene Franck and Teri are lying on the sofa, having just had sex, and Teri’s husband Vincent walks in and doesn’t bat an eyelid. Then Franck says that he can only have sex if the furniture has been moved because he believes Feng Sui makes for better lovin. Then all four lovers have a lot of sex in a big pile of flour, in a barn, and then jump in the river. I was a little bemused. In my opinion, not a contender for le grand prix.

-Flossie Topping

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