It’s a Family Affair – Comic-Con: Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope

Comic Con Episode IV A Fan's Hope

Popularity is context and situation specific. In the case of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Comic-Con: Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope, the context is Nerdom and the situation is the famous 42 year-old comic book conference held annually in San Diego. For those who have never skimmed the frail pages of a comic book, or fallen prey to the lure of the newest video game, Spurlock’s film will come as a surprise that a bizarre world of ambitious geeks and obsessive nerds exists on such a grand scale. For everyone else, the documentary is an exposé and ode to their pseudo Promised Land which allows nerds, geeks and gamers of all shapes and sizes to feel accepted into their own tribe. As Spurlock presents it, Comic-Con: Episode IV – A Fan’s Hope champions the allure behind the event’s progressive success.  The initial buy/sell comic book zone of close to 300 attendees in 1970 has since morphed into a pop culture arcade marketplace that boasts over 125, 000 people each year. Its phenomenal success is rendered as a two sided coin. Yes, the event seems to have choked its comic book roots in order to integrate new film and digital mediums, but it is these evolving mediums which continue to attract throngs of fans each year.

The five fold expository structure of the film follows, Skip, “The Geek” an amateur illustrator who also works at a Sci-fi Fantasy bar in Colombia, Missouri; Holly, the tireless “The Designer” who hopes to catch a break in the costume design industry; Chuck “The Collector” and owner of Mile High Comics who laments the passing glory days of comic book popularity; Eric “The Soldier” from a small town hoping to catch a break in illustration, and finally James and Se Young “The Lovers” who publicly celebrate their love in an unorthodox way.  The pastiche of each story spans a full-scale of emotions from desperation to happiness, to relief.  Few might understand the connection between Holly and her passion for Mass Effect. But having passion for something is a topic that most people can identify with. Knowing this, Spurlock is less concerned with shaping each Subject’s plight into a common ground story; he wants us to root for them, regardless of if we understand their cause or not.

In a change from earlier films such as 2004’s Supersize Me and Freakanomics (2010), Spurlock has acutely chosen an observational approach to construct the meaning and importance behind Comic Con. Famous fans from Seth Rogan, Seth Green, Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon (who is also a credited writer) to the everyday sci-fi junkie in a cape, straight talk to the camera about their personal attraction to Comic Con and it’s significance in their lives. As Eli Roth so delicately puts it, Comic Con is the only place where you can take a piss between a ‘Klingon’ and a ‘Strom Trooper’ – at least on Earth anyway.

 

 

Christina Stimpson

April 26, 2012 / By

‘If You Can’t Trust Your Friends’ – A review of Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave

Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave Criterion cover

Good roommates are hard to find. Especially ones that share an equal disdain for humanity and can be easily cajoled into precarious situations. Like for example, dismembering a body and stealing a suitcase full of cash?

Danny Boyle’s early feature film Shallow Grave – set to be rereleased by Criterion on June 12th – will have fans of dark comedy and thriller heist films absorbed in its quick witted script and disturbing tale of spoiled friendship. It is Reality Bites sans heartstrings existing in an insensitive horror world.  David (Christopher Eccleston), Juliet (Kerry Fox) and the fresh faced Ewan McGreggor appearing in his debut leading role as Alex, together form an ensemble cast who exude a disproportionate amount of selfish and immoral behavior. Residing in an enormous Edinburgh New Town Flat, the trio is in search of a fourth roommate who will match their wild temperaments and barbarous whims. A series of harsh and embarrassing interviews with unlikely candidates leads them to the mysterious Hugo, a presumed ‘writer’, who they immediately latch onto, but not for long. There is no spoiler in recounting of Hugo’s unpleasant death, or Alex’s discovery of Hugo’s curiously hidden suitcase full of cash. The film’s question to the unscrupulous trio becomes one of righteousness. Should they return the cash along with the body to the police? Or should they risk the more sinister route of theft, desecration and dishonesty? Their chosen path unleashes a downward spiral of greed and paranoia that piles up the bodies along with their lies.

Shallow Grave is a first glimpse into the confident and energetic style later groomed in Boyle’s smash hit Trainspotting, yet it remains to be the polar opposite of his delightfully touching Slumdog Millionaire. Here, we are dealing with relentless cruelty, where the most disturbing element is our lack of knowledge around motivation. The amount of money left in Hugo’s suitcase is never discussed, making it even more difficult to comprehend the ease in their immoral behavior; these are after all average people. Yet their savagery would more aptly be suited to perpetrators surviving in the underbelly of crime. What Shallow Grave spares us in blood and guts, is plentiful in psychological thrills, specifically concerning David who rises to the role of puppeteer in his effort to control the impending fate their senseless crime.

The three slowly divide from inseparable threesome transcending into individual survival mode until the unforeseen end where trust among friends is no where to be found.

Christina Stimpson

April 19, 2012 / By

Who are you, what are you? – A Film Review of Beyond the Black Rainbow

Beyond the Black Rainbow film poster

If Andre Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas had collaborated to create an über strange art house sci-fi film it would most likely resemble the inner workings of Beyond the Black Rainbow. Canadian filmmaker Panos Cosmatos’ first feature film is an amalgamation of the ethereal crawl of Solaris, set in a Kubrickian vision of the future with a plot akin to THX 1138. The clinical aesthetic of Beyond the Black Rainbow has been drawn upon as backdrop for countless ‘asylum’ centered films and there is no question of where Cosmatos’ creative inspiration stems from. His predecessors are boldly acknowledged through the futuristic set design and intricate mise-en-scene, yet the film still stands unique and begs to be understood on a conceptual level.

Premièring at the Tribeca Film festival in 2011 and the Montreal Fantasia Film Festival the same year, Beyond the Black Rainbow has been gaining a cult following despite its narrow release, which is set to change next month thanks to Magnet Releasing (Magnolia Pictures). Undeniably, the film will appeal most to a niche of cinephiles who devour visual feasts or alternatively to those who prefer a ‘pharmatose’ viewing experience. Nevertheless, it is a stunning film of accomplishment for a first time filmmaker whose roots in music video production are present in the astute attention placed on sound design. The haunting score, designed by Jeremy Schmidt of Black Mountain, is sure to slowly immerse you into a trancelike viewing state.

Set in 1983, as previous generations would have imagine it to be, Beyond the Back Rainbow takes place at the Arboria Institute, a hidden den that claims to help you find true happiness and solace. Once inside the institute, it is clear that the only patient of importance is the ingénue Elena (Eva Allan). The young and beautiful capture is forced to endure ‘therapeutic’ sessions facilitated by the ultra creepy Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) who transforms from pill-popping junkie to supernatural zombie psychopath as the film progresses. With an 11 page script, it is evident that dialogue is a mere accessory here, as Cosmatos’ chooses to execute his film through an experimental vision in the same vein as a curated video installation. Spellbound by the beauty of this dystopian nightmare, questions concerning the loosely woven plot are allowed to remain unanswered. Beyond the Black Rainbow will blow your mind, if you let it. Leave your expectations at the door, dowse yourself in its hypnotic rhythm and engage in this experimental misadventure.

Christina Stimpson

March 29, 2012 / By

‘Weekend’ – A Film Review

Weekend, written, directed and edited by Andrew Haigh, is a gently nuanced, poignant film about an attachment that forms between two strangers who meet one night when neither is looking for love. The worst fate for this film would be if it suffered from an unfounded judgment call. Pigeonholing this film as a boy-meets-boy romance would be a dire mistake, as we rarely see such care given to gay love stories in wide release. The winner of the Audience Award Emerging Visions at SXSW, the Grand Jury Prize for Best Film and Best Actor (Tom Cullen) at the Nashville Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize for International Feature at OutFest Los Angeles, Weekend is a film that will resonate regardless of sexual orientation, gender or politic.

Starring Chris New and Tom Cullen, their roles are so natural that watching their interactions feels almost intrusive, the connection explored here is real, relatable and proves undeniable for both. Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glenn (Chris New) feel an intense attraction to each other as each embodies what the other is lacking in themselves. Glenn is a confrontational charmer who can incite intense debate with anyone about almost any topic, and isn’t afraid to wield an opinion. Russell isn’t the complete opposite, but he is more cautious when it comes to fully embracing an ‘out’ lifestyle. The direction that their union takes shifts them both closer to completion and growth.

With a dialogue driven script that teeters between comedy and melodrama, what we get from Haigh is high caliber filmmaking akin to Cassavettes free form. His vérité style echoes a type of voyeurism where Haigh is content to keep the camera at a distance and the characters out of focus so that the subtleties of becoming acquainted can organically emerge.

The success in Weekend resides in capturing the magnetic urgency of love and inexplicable attraction then translating it into a low energy, calming film that is almost devoid of climax. On the surface it seems like nothing of great importance transpires in the events over the weekend that Russell and Glenn spent together. But with a closer look, it is evident that Haigh’s intention is to surge the characters towards their arch, as they push and pull each other into change.

It happens, and we see it, ever so slightly and tastefully executed in the bittersweet end.

Christina Stimpson

March 15, 2012 / By

Post graduate delirium – A film review of ‘Tiny Furniture’

Tiny Furniture

There are two undeniable conclusions which can be made after watching Tiny Furniture. The first will be that twenty-six year old director, screenwriter and actor Lena Dunham is fearless in her pursuit to normalize the female body on screen (specifically her body). The second is that being the child of a successful New York artist probably has its cons, especially when you’re not fazed by its exclusive, alluring world.  A uniquely crafted and darling indie film, Dunham’s second feature debuted  in late 2010 at SXSW, winning the award for Best Narrative Feature. In early 2011, it won Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards, yet my recent discovery of the film was due to its release on the renowned Criterion label earlier this month. It’s a hybrid of existential boredom a la Lost in Translation with the urban wit of a Noah Baumbach script. It’s arthouse – but accessible arthouse, that is dialogue driven and emotionally (and comedically) effective. Loosely associated with the immerging Mumblecore movement that is defined through non-actors playing out twenty-something strife, Dunham plays the lead and casts her real mother and sister in the respective roles with success. Of course it also helps when your mother is already the successful New York artist Laurie Simmons, and you were raised as a child of the lower-east side liberal avant-garde. Dunham knows this world, and presents it through the case of Aura a recent Film Studies graduate who finds herself amidst the scariest part of her twenties, the stage between student life and real life.

While most college grads pack up their dorm room belongings along with their dreams of success in the big city, Aura’s return home is the opposite. Her ‘post graduate delirium’ begins with her homecoming from stable Midwest Ohio to the slightly unconventional, minimalist Tribeca loft of mother Siri (Laurie Simmons). With no sense of self, no space to call her own and no close friends, Aura faces a second inception into adulthood. Yet, the why me,  what now, and how can I make it happen set of dilemmas may be too much for this down-to-earth character to handle as she struggles with being a child of privilege and a propensity to be useful.

As is often the case, the trailer for Tiny Furniture misrepresents the film. It presents it as a sort of romantic comedy, yet in actuality the film is the antithesis of romance. Aura is surrounded by people who use each other with no consequence to the point where she becomes seduced by their flakey ways. There is a large distinction between a film set inNew York and a New York film. Dunham’s feature is the later in the sense that the story of Aura’s plight would not have been as convincing had it been transported to any other location. This is an unadorned New York story which excludes the grandeur of its skyline.

It’s tiny, but it’s real.

Christina Stimpson

March 1, 2012 / By

Chaos and destruction: A film review of ‘Meek’s Cutoff’

Poster for Meek's Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff may be set in the old American West, but it is hardly a western. With its components defying all convention of the genre, this tale of a pioneering trek across the Oregon Trail is reminiscent of Gus Van Zant’s Gerry, and has the pacing of Sophia Coppola’s Somewhere. It’s slow. But it has to be. The year is 1895, and everything takes time and has its due procedure. The film is a hard sell, but it’s a work of Kelly Reichardt, and in true form she delivers exactly what we expect of her – challenging, subtle cinema that features the beauty of the North-western landscape, and embraces the female perspective.

Sharing the similar themes of hopelessness and travel that exists in her previous films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, in Meek’s Cutoff the prospects shrink to a narrow bleak desperation. Bathed in the warm light of the setting sun, Thomas Gately (Paul Dano) carves the word ‘lost’ into a dry, dead branch. It is the first word communicated in the film, but its blatant explanation is not necessary. The opening montage of long takes, (although sensual in their exposition of the land’s rich tones) present the unforgiving details of this arduous journey. The women’s dresses are stained by mud, and their filthy fingernails and sun burned faces silently divulge the imminent tragedy of the coterie. Mr. Meek, a callous mountain man played by the unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood has been hired to lead the wagon settlers through the Cascade Mountains into the promise land of Columbia. The families are caught in a maze of disorientation as they realize Mr. Meek might be leading them astray. No one trusts him. The men keep watch over their shoulders and the women whisper among themselves, as each gender group discusses his fate and motivation. Has he purposely taken them off track or is he is too coward to admit that he doesn’t actually know the way? Is Mr. Meek ignorant or evil?

The heart of the film rests is in Michelle Williams’s performance as Emily Tetherow, a strong willed settler who maintains the social norms and politeness of society even though she is trapped in the jungle of the Wild West. She fetches water, mills grain, starts the morning fire, yet has an opinion and is not afraid to wield it – a female perspective rarely seen in this environment. For the first half of the film, the men participate in spurts of non-expository dialogue which are shot at a distance, excluding audience from information which would normally be integral to the story. But here, the story is secondary to the experience. As the women are kept at arm’s length, Reichardt subsequently chooses to keep the audience out of the loop. The woman watch and the men decide, until a fateful moment that challenges the status quo of male centered decision making, when Emily  Tetherow takes their collective fate into her own hands.

The painstaking form of Meek’s Cutoff is sure to alienate the average movie go-er and the film itself can be used as a prime example of the polarizing power of cinema. I was drawn to it for this exact reason. It has been a consistent inclusion in many critics’ 2011 top ten lists, yet the gleaned audience response to the film has been an epic fail. Knowing the background of where this film comes from helps to have an open perspective. Kelly Reichardt has a day job. Her films are not money makers, but she is passionate about cinema and devoted to giving us unique works of art that simmer in the back of your mind, and have a lasting impression. It’s a great film, if you give it the time and space it needs to unfold naturally.

Christina Stimpson

February 16, 2012 / By

Time and Emptiness – A Film Review of Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life

In Texas, they execute their “bad” people. The years spent waiting on Death Row are compressed into a grim yet succinct ceremony which is carried out with callous precision and cold order. The journey from holding cell, to gurney, and “into the abyss”- post lethal injection – is completed within minutes. The case file is closed and all those affected try to move on with their lives. In his film Into the Abyss, documentary leader Werner Herzog introduces two inmates, whose crime is used to explore the societal environment of Conroe, Texas, prison life, and capital punishment in America.

Murder is always senseless. But it becomes even more disturbing when murder is committed on a whim, ‘just because’ and over a material possession. The crime in question begins with the coveting of a hot red Camero owned by Sandra Stotler, a middle aged mother living in a gated Texas community.  Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, both aged 19, both raised in a town where camper trailers and dilapidated trucks were the substitutes for warm beds and stable homes, wanted to take the car for a joy ride, so they killed her, her son and his best friend. It’s as simple as that. Using police footage from the crime scenes, and a participatory approach to questioning, Herzog leads Perry and Burkett through informal conversations that reconstruct the events of that night and the days subsequent to the murders. We learn that Perry sits on Death Row, and Burkett, who resides in the same prison as his father, was sentenced to life. Allowing the most poignant moments to occur organically, what emerges from the film’s discourse is the contrast between the thoughtless crime against the focused urgency of Perry’s fight for his right to life. Eight days away from being executed, Perry, disillusioned and appearing unremorseful, thinks he might still have a chance. Herzog objectively presents the case; can robbing a victim’s life actually be compensated through the arranged death of the perpetrator.

The circumstances of the events presented in Into the Abyss, are sad and gut wrenching, yet my emotional response was not peaked during Perry and Burkett’s exposés but rather, when the environment of living in Conroe, Texas was probed. Burkett’s father plays a significant part in describing their impoverished society, his regrets as a father and his profound feeling of failure. Also affecting are the scenes with Stotler’s daughter, who recounts the tragedies that have infected her life, pre and post murder.

Although Into the Abyss makes for a compelling documentary in terms of subject, there is an emerging trend in Herzog’s last two documentary features that has me worried. In his previous works, up until Encounters at the End of the World, equilibrium between form and content was assured. Respectful of his documentary’s focus, the subject matter explored was always coupled with the Herzog magic of awe-inspiring landscapes and photojournalistic sensitivity. What we expect from the Herzog brand is visual and oral poetry within the very real and often dark subject. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams I felt the Herzog charm slipping, and in Into the Abyss it is below the surface. His distinctive narration, which is the quintessential element that forms the rhythm and creates a profound connection to his films, is unfortunately absent.  The emotional content of a Herzogian documentary is still present, yet the empire of inspiring images has been replaced with convention. Perhaps it is his preference for digital format over film format that causes that special something to escape. It may also be that I no longer have the capacity to be amazed by a Herzog documentary. I really hope it’s not the latter. With twenty-five documentary features, nineteen fiction films, and countless shorts under his belt, Herzog is a prolific and masterful filmmaker. His connectedness to the human condition is unparalleled in cinema, and it would be a shame to see such empathy disappear.

Christina Stimpson

February 2, 2012 / By

A film review of ‘Newlyweds’

The poster for Newlyweds

It happens to the best of us. The slight comment from your partner that leads to a greater argument, or when the forgotten special occasion becomes symbolic of an underlying issue. It would be enough if these catapulting moments stood alone within a couple’s relationship, but when the noses of family members sniff their way in, the thin ice can become even thinner. Ed Burns’ film Newlyweds (2011) is a romantic comedy about family, loyalties, and the moments of debacle that creep into a relationship and affect change. Shot in the traditional Burns style, on the streets of New York, a la cinema vérité, the film’s script, written by Burns himself, is a genuine vignette on the subtleties of marriage that cause it to function or fail when we must navigate the stormy waters between in-laws and lovers. As a companion piece to Sidewalks of New York (2001), Newlyweds uses a similar pseudo-documentary structure, provoking the most honest answers from his seven-character cast.  In tandem with the loosely improvised script, each character benefits from an interview expose, which is weaved into the narrative. This vérité montage not only provides a depth to the characters, it helps to unravel the hypocrisy behind the opposing views they are only comfortable to reveal behind closed doors.

Katie (Catlin Fitzgerald) and Buzzy (Ed Burns) are newlyweds, whose nascent “I Do’s” hold the naïve perspective that a relationship should be a breeze if you, (A) abide by an opposite schedule, and (B) tell each other everything. The logistics of the first part don’t prove to be that hard, as Buzzy works days and Katie works nights. It’s the second option, the honesty policy, which begins to complicate their life when Buzzy’s sister challenges the couple’s territory in her impromptu visit from L.A. Kerry Bishé, plays Linda, a sexy, free-spirited blunderer who quickly becomes the unwanted house guest in their modern Tribeca apartment. Within the first 12 hours of her stay, Linda’s disastrous  presence pushes all the wrong buttons. The tornado trail she leaves behind is enabled by Buzzy’s guilt at being an absentee brother, causing a ripple effect that is felt through all seven characters. Simultaneously, when Katie’s sister Marsha (Marsha Dietlein) voices concern about her 18 year marriage to Max (Max Baker), chaos, misunderstanding and spite move in.

Unquestionably, Newlyweds, is Ed Burns’ best work to date. Although Sidewalks of New York still encompasses the charm of a young director trying to make his mark in the canon of American independent filmmaking, in Newlyweds he has arrived. His camera, usually loyal to the handheld aesthetic, has more constraint this time around, maintaining close-ups in soft focus and exploring the use of natural light to fill the frame. Although elevated from past works in terms of composition, the production of Newlyweds was a throwback to Burns first film The Brothers McMullen. It is romanticized filmmaking. With a starting budget of $9,000,  locations borrowed from friends, a shooting schedule spread over 12 non-consecutive days dependent on the availability of the small cast and crew (who worked during their free time), it is evident that Newlyweds is a labour of love by all who contributed to seeing this poignant film through. Ed Burns enthusiasts will follow him wherever he may go, even if it means cutting out the traditional major theatre distribution method. The only venues where Newlyweds can be accessed are digital, through Video-on-Demand, through iTunes or at edwardburns.net.

This film is important, both due to the respect that it pays to its subject matter, and because the efforts of independent filmmakers who seek to show us truth through representation need to be supported. When I finished Newlyweds, I immediately followed it up with the classic Woody Allen’s Manhattan, which I hadn’t seen in years. And I think that was a wise choice.

Christina Stimpson

January 19, 2012 / By

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