Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Around The Block: Christina Ricci Does Hamlet In The Hood

                    Hunter Page-Lochard as Hamlet In The Hood    

...Hamlet In The Hood. Petite Christina Ricci displays a big heart and radiates warmth and resolve, as she gets in touch with her inner maternal instinct - apparently both on and off screen right now. Ricci portrays a high school teacher transplanted from the States to inner city Australia, coaxing the initially less than enthused local Aboriginee teens into a culturally conscious production of the Shakespearean play. And linking the alienation, passion, frustration and despair at the heart of Hamlet to disaffected youth of color today, who knew. First time writer/director Sarah Spillane elicits raw, genuine, organic performances from her young cast, though compromised by an afterschool special conventional story. And tossing into the mix that lesbians turn gay because men have bad personalities, was a gratuitous addition.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Calling: Mysticism, Maniacs And Assassins With Assisted Suicidal Tendencies

The summer season is not exactly shaping up as a showcase for positive images of the priesthood in movies. On the heels of Irish writer/director John Michael McDonagh's comedic crime thriller Cavalry, in which a mystery avenger is obsessed with gunning down a countryside cleric, The Calling sort of flips the sacramental script. As a felonious religious fanatic, possibly in league with a local Catholic Church parish, seeks out victims for homicidal redemption, don't ask.

Susan Sarandon is Detective Hazel Micallef in The Calling, a rural Canadian down in the dumps detective suddenly up against an elusive serial killer stalking the vicinity. And the rising body count is initially not only seemingly random, but gruesome and bizarre as well. With open mouthed corpses that appear to have died while singing, and dogs dining on one victim's severed human stomach in a frozen field.

Meanwhile, afflicted with a bad back and even worse disposition, Hazel is furiously on the case, even as she alleviates whatever ails her with ample infusions of alcohol and drugs - some of the pills surreptitiously swiped from crime scenes. Soon joining Hazel in the investigation to her dismay, is Ben (Topher Grace), a young, overly enthused big city cop sent on assorted wild goose chases around the country, courtesy of mom's frequent flyer mileage.

In any case, what eventually comes to light is exceedingly murky evidence referencing ancient scriptures, Christian mysticism, toxic tea sipping, tattoo cleansing, terminal illness chatrooms, a highly suspect online link at, and one odd combo assisted suicide assassin. Or possibly two. Also on hand to toss in their two cents are Ellen Burstyn as Sarandon's nagging resident matriarch, and Donald Sutherland as a reclusive cleric who ponders in Latin.

The Calling is a somber and suspenseful twisted tale with lots of lapsed Catholicism to say the least, not to mention lapses in logic. But a story that is nicely held together owing to vigorous performances and moody atmosphere. The production is also layered with quite of bit of strange elements of its own. Including The Calling's South African filmmaker Jason Stone's previous dabbling in supernatural weirdness as the writer/director of Jay And Seth Versus The Apocalypse starring Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel, and the screenwriter Scott Abramovitch's prior televangelical comedy, Prayer Hour.

Along with Inger Ash Wolfe, whose novel The Calling was adapted for this film, not being Inger Ash Wolfe at all. But rather Canadian writer Michael Redhill - who only just outed himself as to his real identity in 2012.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet: Intellectual Consciousness And Brutal US Capitalist Conformity

While a movie directed by an outsider delving into American life may suffer the pitfalls of idiomatic mishaps lost in translation so to speak, a detached point of view can on the other hand, shine a sharper and less hesitant, self-conscious light on the native foibles and fears at hand. Such was the case last year with British director Steve McQueen's unprecedented, uncompromising scrutiny of that shameful, brutal period of buried US history this country has always been averse to confronting, with his scathing dramatic biopic, 12 Years A Slave.

Not nearly as raw and revealing, but certainly striking a few sensitive nerves with its gently probing satirical bite, is French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet. Bringing his bold and cutting edge wit to this scrutiny of peculiar when not outlandish American customs and bad behavior, Jeunet's mischievously playful cinematic reputation precedes him, with raucous gems like Delicatessen and Amelie.

Derived from Reif Larsen's illustrated debut novel, The Selected Works of TS Spivet, Jeunet's adaptation is deceptively crafted as a child's adventure. But within that visually stunning,  imaginative tale is an excursion through the darker heart and paradoxically damaged soul of America.

Kyle Catlett is the T.S. Spivet in question, a beyond precocious ten year old genius and rural Montana boy whose scientific knowledge and analytical powers have rendered him a local alienated outcast in a rigidly conformist culture. Where reactions to the boy tend to narrowly range from ridicule to the irritated displeasure of his baffled teacher at school.

And Spivet fares no better at home, where he's emotionally rejected by a cowboy obsessed rancher father who'd rather the boy be more like the macho males around him, and scorned by a sister aspiring to beauty pageants. And though he shares an intellectual and apparently genetic bond with his mother, played by Helena Bonham Carter - a woman who must limit her own passionate scientific inquiries into the lives of insects to her domestic downtime between household duties - she herself is dismissed as a designated eccentric as well.

Following Spivet's groundbreaking invention at home of a futuristic, power harnessing gadget, he's summoned to the Smithsonian Institute in D.C. to receive a top award, though they're unaware that he's a mere child. Concealing his age on the phone to the crafty official (Judy Davis) who invited him - and who harbors an agenda of her own to exploit the boy for her own ambitions - Spivet secretly sets off on the long journey from Montana to D.C. via boxcar. And in a tale morphing into a visually enthralling road movie, equally enchanting for children and adult audiences alike. Even when encountering a flaky truck driver war veteran offering Spivet a lift, as he explains with difficulty how he signed up to see the world which necessitated killing people in the process.

But within the colorful layers of humor and heartbreak summoned in equal measure by Jeunet's magical powers of visual storytelling, are stinging perceptions pertaining to oppressive cultural tendencies playing out in this country. Including difference intolerance, and the ostracism of knowledgeable minds and probing intellectual inquiry beyond the narrow constrictions of stunted mass conformity. And aggressive competition counting militaristic driven adventurism and unquestioning tragic gun love derived from the capitalist mentality, and even over science in the pursuit of a better world.

Prairie Miller

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Female Bonding And Unbonding In Movies, And The New Digital Universe

Very Good Girls: Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen: Fempatico Friends Without Benefits

The digital age has no doubt expanded access to the media universe for masses of people on the planet, both as creators and consumers. But what about the more subtle side effects on cinema itself. Not so much the more readily available tools to produce movies, but rather the influence on content of gadget culture.

And where there was at one time in the last century the existence of a collective reality of people in a human bond, gathering in front of a radio or television - or in the case of the now progressively diminishing reign of the movie theater. Yet all that changed radically, when capitalism came up with a shrewd new idea of huge profit generating individual and strictly private devices, rather than just buying simply one per residence. Whether digital rather than home phones, and single viewer movie or music gadgets.

And in turn, the effect on human interaction - or the absence of it - on screen. Ad what may be termed The New Loneliness. With a trend in movies as seen in the examples below, more often than not with everything and everyone else pushed into the background - or not there at all. And more likely than not inevitably starring a trio of notoriously narcissistic characters - Me, Myself And I.


Taking the bratty teen genre out of the sitcom and into the South African wilds doesn't seem to do either much good in the female action hero thriller, Heatstroke. Not that Maisie Williams and Stephen Dorff don't dramatically impress as the estranged offspring and resented divorced dad respectively.

But to equalize and thereby diminish the barely touched upon, real life, breaking news back story of the alarming extinction of threatened wildlife existence in remote Africa by profiteering poachers for bickering nuclear family faceoffs, leads to a case of the narrative in need of rescuing as well, and suffering as much as the endangered creatures. Not to mention an Africa minus Africans.

Nor the fact that the main source of conflict here and Dad's new love interest, is played by Russian actress Svetlana Metkina. An odd choice considering that she's a whole lot more accomplished at the facing up to the physicality of wilderness survival and delivering the ungrateful kid to safety, than delivering her lines with any emotional depth.

And while director Evelyn Purcell may or may not have been drawn to the project as a kind of dramatic closure regarding surviving herself as stepmom to actress Josephine Demme when she was married to her famous father, Jonathan, the same is not likely to be said vicariously. That is, for audiences not sharing that particular label in the real world.

Heatstroke: A feelgood fantasy for primarily harassed stepparents everywhere.


The emotional intricacies of female teen friendship rarely receive authentic treatment on screen, mostly about female gazing as an object of desire from the male point of view. And though Naomi Foner's Very Good Girls does just that as well, this portrait of coming of age female bonding and unbonding has much more on its mind. And in uniquely probing, sensitively evocative ways.

And though much too old for the just graduated high school girls they play - Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen are 20 and 25 years old respectively - they get a pass here for the extraordinary depth, passion and complexity they bring to their coming of age characters.

Lily (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen), best friends since childhood, are about to painfully part ways one emotionally turbulent summer, following high school graduation. Raised in an affluent New York City suburb, the inseparable pair have experienced little of the world, including sex, as uptight Lily prepares to go off to college while a more free spirited Gerry sets her sights on a folk singing career.

But following an encounter while biking around Brighton Beach - with a mysterious artist (Boyd Holbrook) making ends meet as an ice cream vendor - the best friends are drawn into a mutual infatuation with the not quite displeased seductive stud. Giving rise to competitive twin infatuations which threaten the female bond between them.

This potentially trite tale written and directed by Naomi Foner (Running on Empty, Losing Isaiah), is salvaged by dramatically stirring performances from its exceedingly charismatic crew. Including Ellen Barkin as Fanning's bitter mom, along with a far too little seen and heard from Demi Moore and Richard Dreyfuss as Olsen's offbeat, social activist parents.

Though you have to more than wonder about Dreyfuss as the combo capitalist patrician dad vocially championing the workers of the world as he barbeques at his upscale abode, regarding whom exactly in his sumptuous lily white world, he might be addressing this to. Not to mention. Foner's exceedingly peculiar decision to insert an erotically charged, impulsive sex scene between a panting Fanning and her summertime employer played by Peter Sarsgaard - who just happens to be Foner's son-in-law in real life, married to her daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal.


The less said about this Mark Jackson directed post-battlefield psychological drama, the better. Which is likely what this less is in no way more style that filmmaker Mark Jackson may have had in mind anyway. Exemplary actress Catherine Keener, through seemingly no fault of her own, is stuck in this moody, one note melodrama as Lee. She's a US photojournalist and PTSD survivor, just returned from conflict in Libya where her partner was killed by her side.

Holed up at an Italian lodge on her way home to the States, Keener is burdened with the weight of both traumatic memories and this fractured script devoid of much substance, as she wanders sulking about in a perpetually grouchy silent mood. And dividing her time between snapping abrasively at strangers or stalking them with her prying camera, for the duration. At one point, she latches on to an irritated pregnant young Libyan refugee, butting into her business until the woman almost but never quite allows herself to be befriended.

As for the conflict in Libya, forget about it. The movie could have just as well been about clinical depression brought on by a bad hair day. End of story.

And regarding what all these recent hermetically internalized female bonding films may have in common, let's just say it's all about what you don't see. Namely, the world around them in this age of digital narcissism, that is best described here as Africa without Africans, the Libyan conflict without Libya, and a racially, ethnically and economically diverse New York City without a multi-cultural or economically deprived demographic presence in sight.

Prairie Miller