Archive for January, 2013

Kitchissippi Times features WIDE OPEN: A Canadian Perspective

Thursday, January 31st, 2013—News

Thank you to Kitchissippi Times for writing a wonderful article about WIDE OPEN: A Canadian Perspective. The piece, in papers today, features John Bagnell and Dwayne Brown, two of the book’s 10 photographers.

Beasts of the Southern Wild & Daughters of the Dust

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013—Film

Beasts of the Southern Wild (USA 2012, Drama/Fantasy), Writers: Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar; Director: Benh Zeitlin

Daughters of the Dust (USA/UK 1991, Drama/Romance), Writer/Director: Julie Dash

I almost wrote about Beast of the Southern Wild in my 2012 year-end “wrap-up,” but I just couldn’t crunch it in; there’s so much to say about it. I still won’t be writing it justice here, largely because it’s been too long since I’ve seen the movie. But here it is anyway. It’s too special not to include. And it continues to remind me of another unique film, which I saw even longer ago, in my film school days, but still want to call to your attention: Daughters of the Dust.

Beasts and Daughters are both first-time feature films by American directors, who explore American subcultures (or co-cultures) by stirring up fantasy and “reality” to create highly unusual, very impactful works. They’re more multimedia poems than traditional narrative movies, relying heavily on atmosphere and setting to capture the spirit of a place and time, and to create lyrical, poignant worlds. The films are also both narrated by otherworldly young girls.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is based on Lucy Alibar’s stage play Juicy and Delicious. Its narrator is the film’s main character, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old living in a Louisiana bayou community called the Bathtub. With a missing mother and an ailing, alcoholic father named Wink (Dwight Henry), Hushpuppy is left to raise herself, and she does so with great courage and imagination. As the Bathtub braces for a Katrina-like storm, and Wink’s health deteriorates, the young girl carries on, even as she sees her world flooded with rising waters and stampeding aurochs—fantastical prehistoric creatures that symbolize the impending destruction.

Daughters of the Dust is narrated by the unborn child of the one of the characters. (Though being unborn doesn’t prevent her from gracing the screen now and then, in the form of a spirit.) The film is set in 1902 on a small island off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, which is home to the women of the African-American Peazant family—all members of a Gullah community. As the family prepares to migrate north, their story serves as something of a microcosm, exploring the clash of ancient cultures against modern influences.

There’s a lot more to know about these fascinating films. In addition to being significant and powerful as finished products (Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film by an African-American woman to get a general theatrical release in the U.S.), they each have interesting production backgrounds (Beasts of the Southern Wild involved casting non-actors and working from an unfinished script that was developed throughout the filming process). If you’re interested, check out writer/producer/director Julie Dash’s book, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, or the Creators Project documentary on the making of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

I hope you’ll be able to watch the films, too. Beasts of the Southern Wild should be easy to find, as it’s nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress (Wallis). Daughters of the Dust will be a little more elusive, but it’s around—try treasure troves like Ottawa’s Glebe Video International.

The Sessions & Zero Dark Thirty

Sunday, January 20th, 2013—Film

The Sessions (USA 2012, Drama), Writer/Director: Ben Lewin

Zero Dark Thirty (USA 2012, Drama/History/Thriller), Writer: Mark Boal; Director: Kathryn Bigalow

In the last couple weeks, I saw two wonderful films. Both recount true events, both explore extraordinary resilience in the face of tremendous adversity, and both had a very big impact on me.

The Sessions is based on the autobiographical articles and poems of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), an American man who contracted polio as a child and spent most of his adult life in an iron lung. The movie joins Mark at age 38, when he sets about trying to lose his virginity with the help of his priest (William H. Macy), his caretaker (Moon Bloodgood) and a sexual surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt).

Mark’s story is treated with such frankness that the scenes, no matter how intimate they get, never feel voyeuristic or exploitative. He’s spent more than three decades having to submit to others tending to his bodily needs; for Mark, even when it may be embarrassing, discussing his body and putting it in the hands of his caregivers is just a matter of fact. It also helps that Hawkes wickedly captures his character’s sense of humour, injecting the film with a healthy dose of levity.

What I loved most about The Sessions were the performances, and the way it sheds light on so many different ways to live, and look at, life—which is made all the more poignant because the film is based on real people.

The cast is fantastic all-around, from the supporting actors who play Mark’s fleeting caretakers, to the luminous lead actors. I’ve written about Hawkes’ amazing versatility in my reviews of Me and You and Everyone We Know and Winter’s Bone (he was also fantastic, and once again very different, in Martha Marcy May Marlene, which I didn’t get around to writing up). In The Sessions, he does it again, this time in a very physically challenging role. Hunt is also excellent, in spite of a laughably uneven Boston accent (I mean that literally; every time the accent resurfaced, my friend, GR, cracked up beside me).

As for the second reason I loved The Sessions, there are plenty of insights shared about contrasting views of the world. They come throughout the film, sometimes from Mark’s caretakers and priest, but most significantly from Mark and Cheryl. Mark’s perseverance and determination to find a way no matter what are the epitome of inspiration. This is a man who, in spite of being effectively paralyzed from the neck down, manages to attend Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, go on to have a successful career in writing, and even co-found a publishing press dedicated to poetry by people with disabilities. Not to mention lead an active sex life. You can read more about Mark’s story in this The New York Times article and in a piece he wrote for The Sun called ‘On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.’

Cheryl’s story is also unique and inspiring, from her deep empathy for her clients, to her unusual approach to marriage, to her unfailing (and all too rare) open-mindedness. I’m curious to read her book, an intimate life: sex, love and my life as a surrogate partner.

The Sessions turns out to be therapeutic for more than just Mark. It leaves you with a lot to think about: that there isn’t only one way to do things; that happiness can exist even in very trying circumstances; and there are wonderful people who not only accept difference, but embrace it.

Now, onto a horse of a different colour: Zero Dark Thirty. This is director Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant depiction of the hunt for, and killing of, Osama Bin Laden, following the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centers. Intriguingly, it centres on a female CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain), who played a major role in keeping the investigation going and in discovering Bin Laden’s hiding place in Pakistan.

Bigelow brings the same standard of excellence and realism to Zero Dark Thirty as she did to The Hurt Locker. Her latest film is utterly captivating from start to finish. I can’t comment on what liberties may have been taken with real life events, but what I saw was an absolutely mesmerizing account of an important piece of recent history.

As with The Hurt Locker, Bigelow assembled a first-rate cast to pull off the complicated, often upsetting storyline in Zero Dark Thirty. Her team is impeccably led by Chastain, who stole the show in The Tree of Life and delivers again with Zero Dark Thirty. Not surprisingly, she’s up for a Best Actress Academy Award. (The film is also up for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.)

I would have liked to see Hawkes up for Best Actor for The Sessions, but ah, well… His time will come. And he did score a Best Actor nomination at the recent Golden Globes.

Awarded or not, both these films deserve to be seen.