Archive for September, 2013

Girl Rising

Sunday, September 29th, 2013—Film

Girl Rising (USA 2013, Documentary), Writers: Various; Director: Richard Robbins

This weekend, I had the privilege of seeing Girl Rising, 10×10’s gripping documentary about nine girls from around the world, and why educating them—and every girl—is vitally important to our future.

Each of these amazing, resilient girls comes from one of nine countries: Afghanistan, Cambodia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Nepal, Peru and Sierra Leone. They all have incredible stories to tell, each with unimaginable hardships, but also with hope.

Girl Rising features a beautiful mix of live-action, animation and narration, of reenactments and reimaginings, as well as real-life footage. It’s stunningly made, with fabulous cinematography, impeccable writing, and a unique approach to each story—fitting for nine unique and utterly captivating girls.

The film is also fair. It gives the girls a voice, which sadly has a lot to say about abuse at the hands of men, and being subordinated by both men and women. But it makes an effort to show positive male figures, like protective brothers and nurturing fathers.

Interestingly, the film is directed by Richard Robbins and its central narrator is Liam Neeson. To me, involving these men shows solidarity and an emphasis on healing the world together.

But that’s not to say the male voices overpower the female in Girl Rising. Women leave a lasting mark all over the film, from the producers to the writers to the rest of the narrators, who are all female and include the likes of Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Salma Hayek, Alicia Keyes and Meryl Streep.

See Girl Rising and I believe you’ll be deeply moved. The girls’ stories are sometimes painful, but always lead to powerful, triumphant endings. And between each one, you’ll discover overwhelming facts about the benefits of educating girls—benefits for them, their countries and the entire world.

I’m not sure when/if the film will get a wider release, but for now, you can visit GirlRising.com to arrange a screening, get more information and, of course, donate to one of the most important causes.

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Thanks to JW and LG for spreading the good word, and to CARE Canada for helping make Girl Rising possible.

Don Jon

Sunday, September 29th, 2013—Film

Don Jon (USA 2013, Comedy/Drama), Writer/Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Don Jon is the feature film debut from writer/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In it, he plays a New Jersey guy named Jon who’s addicted to porn, not to mention church, cleaning, road rage and bedding women—the rituals that get him through the week (or day, as the case may be).

Jon is sexist, shallow and one-dimensional. So, not surprisingly, he winds up with sexist, shallow and one-dimensional Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), whose addiction to romantic movies feeds her unrealistic expectations of the opposite sex just as much as Jon’s addiction to porn feeds his.

The relationship plays out as you might expect. And then Jon gets to know Esther (Julianne Moore), who’s older and far more self-aware than either Jon or Barbara. She has rituals of her own to get her through the day (to lose herself, as Jon might say). But they don’t stop her from trying to make a connection to Jon.

There are two reasons I’m writing about Don Jon: First, because it’s part of a long line of exceptional work from Gordon-Levitt, and an early indication of what he might become as a director. Second, because, in spite of its focus on porn and countless close-ups of women’s bodies, the film offers a welcome counterpart to some of the other pop media out there today—the kind that doesn’t bother to show a different angle.

I have a particular piece of pop in mind, but I’ll get to that a little later. For now, it’s first things first.

In case it needs to be stated, Gordon-Levitt is a highly prolific and unusually gifted actor. He’s been in tons of first-rate films, including Brick, Looper, Inception, 50/50, The Dark Knight Rises and Lincoln.

He’s also founder of a really cool open-collaborative production company called HITRECORD. They’re putting out a slew of fascinating, high quality pieces, including books and even a forthcoming TV show. (Check out this call for artists for a documentary segment on unity.)

As a fan of Gordon-Levitt’s work, I was eager to see Don Jon. And I wasn’t disappointed. Already, with his first feature film, he comes across as an assured director with a strong grasp of visuals and editing. It’s not like he’s a rookie; he’s been on sets for nearly three decades and has already directed several short films. Still, Don Jon is an impressive first feature.

I’m looking forward to seeing Gordon-Levitt go further into creating mood through cinematography, and develop more complex storylines. But as it stands, Don Jon presents a lovely character arc, as Jon stumbles through romantic entanglements, and offers poignant observations on how we treat one another and the dangers of falling prey to the influence of popular media.

Which brings me to my secondary point. Because Robin Thicke’s idiotic song Blurred Lines certainly doesn’t deserve to be front and centre. It’s the kind of thing I hate so much that I wouldn’t normally give it any space on this blog. But it came to mind while I was watching Don Jon, so here it is.

I’d heard bits of Blurred Lines on the radio, and let it play because it’s catchy. But when the lyrics sank it, even just those approved for the radio stations I listen to, I tuned out; something about wanting a “good girl” who still likes to “get nasty” was a little off-putting.

Then, when the damn thing got stuck in my head again (“‘Catchy’ is not a redeeming quality,” says my wise buddy ACR), I looked the lyrics up and was totally appalled. The original version is beyond sexist; it’s misogynist and threatening. I’m thinking of one line in particular, but the whole thing is just grotesque. Now when it comes on the radio, I always change the station, never mind how addictive the beat.

Anyway, I was really appalled and wanted to see what kind of reaction others were having to Blurred Lines. So I went online and found an interview in which Thicke acknowledges that his song is degrading to women, but says that it’s okay because he’s married and has respected women all his life. How big of him.

If that kind of “context” is going to carry any weight, it has to be established within the song. Take Eminem’s Love the Way You Lie, a far superior listen; yes, it’s got references to violence against women, but its lyrics have a clearly ironic tone. And by including the woman’s voice (Rihanna’s, no less, a woman who has borne evidence that abuse is no joke), he brings her perspective into it, redefining the lyrics and underscoring the irony.

Coming back to Don Jon, I’m not sure exactly at what point in the film I was reminded of Blurred Lines. But when Gordon-Levitt took care to show that people—of both sexes—are more than just their appearance, it made me very grateful that we also have men like him contributing to popular culture. And that he understands the importance of losing yourself with a real-life human being, one you can look at, but also one who is able to really see you.

Here’s to more insights like these, from Gordon-Levitt and all artists who want to create works that will bring people together, rather than further divide, isolate and objectify.

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“You better lose yourself in the music, the moment… You better never let it go.”
– Eminem, Lose Yourself

Prisoners

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013—Film

Prisoners (USA 2013, Crime/Drama/Thriller), Writer: Aaron Guzikowski; Director: Denis Villeneuve

I owe a thank you to Kickass Canadian Sam Hudecki for pointing me towards Prisoners—or, more to the point, for reintroducing me to the fascinating work of writer/director Denis Villeneuve.

Sam was a storyboard artist on Prisoners, not to mention a graphic artist on The Incredible Hulk and assistant art director on Splice. I met him at Queen’s University when we were both in the film program, and, to my great fortune, he wound up working as 1st assistant camera on my first non-student short, Sight Lines. He’s done amazing things since; check him out on IMDB.

Several weeks ago, Sam mentioned he’d had the pleasure of travelling to Georgia to work on Prisoners. So naturally I couldn’t wait to see it, especially when I realized it was one of Villeneuve’s films, and that its cast was ridiculously good: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano. If I had a list of favourites, all those actors would be on it.

I saw Villeneuve’s 2000 feature, Maelstrom, back in my film school days, when my pal TS and I were regulars at Kingston’s The Screening Room. It’s been more than 10 years now, and I have to admit I don’t remember the movie too well. But what I do remember is all good. It was narrated by a soon-to-be-departed fish, starred the fabulous Marie-Josée Croze, and demonstrated Villeneuve’s ability to reflect on and appreciate women’s issues (for example, abortion).

I was very struck by that, much as I was when I saw 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a staggering Romanian film that was also written and directed by a man, yet showcases a remarkably sensitive and insightful look at the particularities of being a woman. In both cases, I found it moving and reaffirming to see that kind of appreciation from male filmmakers.

Anyway, my own appreciation for Maelstrom, coupled with Sam’s connection to Prisoners, made me want to get reacquainted with Villeneuve before seeing his latest film. I finally got around to renting Incendies, the writer/director’s crushing 2010 drama that won eight Genie Awards (including for Best Motion Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay) and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Incendies was just as good as I’d heard. It had a very different flavour from what I remember of Maelstrom, but again it showed a real sensitivity to women’s issues, including rape, enforced pregnancy and a mother being separated from her baby.

So that’s where I was coming from when I saw Prisoners—from a place of great respect for Villeneuve’s profound humanity and artistry, and his talent for aligning himself with the views of the opposite sex. (I haven’t felt ready to watch his film Polytechnique, based on the horrific shooting of 14 young women in Montreal, but I’ll get there.) And while Prisoners doesn’t show the same sensitivity to women in particular as do some of Villeneuve’s other films, it still reveals the director’s underlying sensitivity toward the human condition in general, both in his touch with the actors and his ruminative, insightful camera direction.

Unlike Maelstrom and Incendies, Prisoners isn’t written by Villeneuve, and its lead characters aren’t women; instead, they’re two very macho men—Keller Dover (Jackman), a man on the hunt for anything that will lead to his missing daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), and Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), the man officially charged with finding her.

There are many themes and symbols in the film. Religion, entrapment, prisons of all kinds—both of one’s own making, and those imposed by others—not to mention puzzles, snakes and deer.

Prisoners opens with a gorgeous shot of a deer, standing unknowingly in the crosshairs as Keller guides his son in making his first kill. From there, the film takes us through a maze of characters and storylines, as Anna and her friend disappear over Thanksgiving, and Keller takes the law into his own hands when a suspect is released from custody.

We’re privy to many points of view, and each is somewhat obscured as the story moves from one character to another, not always stopping to catch us up on what we missed in between. In this way, Prisoners creates a scattered feeling, like waiting helplessly (hopelessly?) for the missing pieces to fall into place. With the film’s emphasis on faith, maybe we’re meant to imagine that this is what it’s like to live in a godless world.

Still, for all its twists and turns, Prisoners has a strong emotional pull. That’s thanks to strong performances; dark, moody cinematography that calls to mind the graininess of film stock; and, most of all, Villeneuve’s artistic eye. Because of the director’s great vision, he turns what could have been a fairly typical thriller into something more layered and impactful.

Villeneuve is a gifted filmmaker and, by all indications, a remarkable person with a lot to say. I definitely want to hear more. (For more on this, see my Kickass Canadians article on Villeneuve.)

I’m looking forward to Villeneuve’s next film, Enemy, due out in a few months. It’s based on José Saramago’s book The Double, which I intend to read before the movie comes out. Saramago’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, Blindness, made an interesting film (see my Blindness review), and with Villeneuve reteaming with Gyllenhaal, a multi-faceted actor who excels onstage as well as the silver screen (see If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet), this next adaptation is bound to be worth watching.

Plus, Sam returned for motion graphics and storyboarding on Enemy. How could I resist the work of so many great artists?

‘Bliss’ to screen at 2013 Ottawa International Film Festival

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013—News

I just got the happy news that my short movie Bliss will screen at the Ottawa International Film Festival (OIFF) on Friday, October 4 at 8:30pm in the Saint Paul University Theatre. The program also includes the documentary Fire in the Blood, a favourite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. To buy tickets, visit the OIFF website.

Thank you again to the fabulous cast and crew: Kickass Canadians Miles Finlayson, Matt West & Ben Wilson and Clarke Mackey, plus the awesome Adam McLaren, Kate Smith, William Somers, Maxime Forgues, Alexi Merkis, Grant Schelske, Dave O’Heare, Laura Gauthier, Margaret Jensen-Palmer and Gavin Thompson.

The Champion’s Mind features Kickass Canadian content

Friday, September 13th, 2013—News

Sports psychologist and author Dr. Jim Afremow, who kindly featured me and KickassCanadians.ca on his blog last year, is gearing up to release his new book, The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive. It features a piece I wrote on Kickass Canadian Glenroy Gilbert and is available now for pre-order on Amazon (with a January 2014 release). Check it out!

KickassCanadians.ca founder deemed “notewordy”

Thursday, September 12th, 2013—News

I’m honoured to be among the “wordy” Canadians chosen for Sheryl Gordon’s A Rewording Life project, alongside Kickass Canadians Rob Cohen and Shelagh Rogers. Follow @ARewordingLife on Twitter and read the story as it unfolds.

Blue Jasmine

Friday, September 6th, 2013—Film

Blue Jasmine (USA 2013, Drama), Writer/Director: Woody Allen

What can I write about Blue Jasmine that hasn’t already been written? The film has been widely heralded as a modern-day Streetcar Named Desire or Gone with the Wind, with Cate Blanchett’s brilliant depiction of a formerly well-to-do socialite, who grapples with newfound financial struggles and desperately tries to outrun a full-on breakdown, lifting Jasmine to the iconic status of Blanche DuBois or Scarlett O’Hara.

Blue Jasmine is a fantastic film that had me hooked from the moment I saw its trailer at a screening of Before Midnight. It’s one of Woody Allen’s finer works, and definitely his best in recent memory.

Thanks to Kickass Canadian Geoff Morrison for pointing out a great Entertainment Weekly review that outlines why Blue Jasmine is also the writer-director’s most relevant, topical film to date. The article is spot-on; Allen’s focus on the sharp downward spiral of a woman suddenly stripped of her financial and social status is a keen reflection of today’s economic uncertainty and spiritual void.

Because Jasmine defines her self-worth by such superficial and, evidently, evanescent qualities, she loses a lot more than dollars when her accounts are seized—she loses her fortune, her identity. Without a solid core to return to, Jasmine has nothing left. She starts to unravel, floating away scene by scene, her sanity practically vanishing before our eyes.

As with all his films, Allen assembles a strong supporting cast, including Sally Hawkins as Jasmine’s sister Ginger, and Alec Baldwin as Jasmine’s former husband Hal. But it’s Blanchett who takes the lead. She’s so mesmerizing and fully in the moment that I felt as if I were watching her onstage, in person, rather than a projection on a screen. It’s a staggering, note-perfect performance that builds to a quietly magnificent end.

Bravo to Blanchett, and to Allen for recognizing that all he needed to do was step back and let his star shine—and burn out, and come crashing down.

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For some reason, I’ve always associated Cate Blanchett with Tori Amos. Maybe it’s because both are so gifted, versatile and prolific. In any case, here’s an Amos song that reminds me a bit of Jasmine: Bells for Her.