Tag: film

Thoughts on The Crucible

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Watched a filmed production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible on Sunday night. No doubt the production lost some of its theatrical magic with the transition onto the screen, but I can’t thank Digital Theatre enough for bringing this production to cinemas worldwide. Here are some of my quick thoughts on the stunning production:


Yael Farber’s production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a primal force that tears at the seams of this classic play, usually remembered for its place on the dusty shelves of the American theatre canon than for its vivid storytelling.

The plot is simple: a group of young girls are caught dabbling in the dark arts. To save themselves they lie about having been possessed by the devil and proceed to accuse various others in the village of being witches. John Proctor, a well-meaning man becomes entangled in their lies when his wife is accused of being a witch. But, instead of merely being a play about the Salem witch trials we get the journey of a good man whose sense of self is tested and tortured.

Attempting to praise the uniformly excellent cast within this short non-review is an act of futility. Paragraphs upon paragraphs would be  required to do them justice. Richard Armitage is the definitive John Proctor, a walking bruised soul. But the rest of the cast are more than willing to match his level of performance. It is doubtful I will ever see a more conflicted Revered Samuel Parris, a more terrifying Abigail Williams, or a more stoic and frail Elizabeth Proctor. Even the various girls complicit in Abigail’s crimes are absolute perfection.

One suspects the keyword for the production Farber had in mind was VISCERAL; the atmosphere of the play easily surpasses the intensity of any conventional Hollywood thriller. The small town of Salem is a place of repressed emotions and waking nightmares, but it never feels that foreign, never feels like something out of a fairytale. We cannot forget that this is history, or that it is relevant today (and always).

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a demanding play at over 3 hours. But this is a definitive modern interpretation that never slogs. More theatre of cruelty than socio-poltical agitprop, Farber summons the claws of Artaud and grabs you by the throat, threatening to never let go.

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Film Review: Two Days, One Night

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My review for the Dardenne’s latest film can be found here at The Lumière Reader.

Film Reviews: Venus in Fur, Under the Skin

img_venusinfurimg_undertheskinCheck out my reviews for Venus in Fur and Under the Skin at the The Lumière Reader.

Film Reviews: Love Is Strange, Lilting

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My reviews for Love Is Strange and Lilting can be found here at The Lumière Reader.

Notes on Masculinity, Part Two: Five Easy Pieces; Night and Day

THE WOMEN
These lusty, lost boys.
So in love with all the
Girls – their toys. So often
Praising the wonder
Of their bodies and breasts
But often failing to
Understand what lies
Yonder.

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Movie Lessons: The Threepenny Opera (1931)

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Movie Lessons: Days of Being Wild (1990)

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Yasujiro Ozu’s The Only Son

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Best known as Ozu’s first talkie (sound film), The Only Son (1936) is a highly accomplished domestic drama that would set the bar for all his subsequent features. It tells the story of a hardworking single mother who sacrifices what little life she has left to give her only son a chance at a future. She sends him to study in Tokyo, the city of opportunities, as she is led to believe that’s the right thing to do, after a talk with her son’s schoolteacher. Then time passes. Thirteen years, to be exact. The mother goes to Tokyo to visit her son and discovers he has a wife and a baby. He is also, to her disappointment, working as a night school teacher. Not quite what she had imagined for her son’s future. Not quite what she thought she had given up so much for.

If the plot sounds familiar it’s probably because it is. The central theme of shared disappointment between parent and child is a recurring motif in Ozu’s ouevre. It seems to be a precursor to something like Tokyo Story. The theme is even highlighted at the beginning of the film with a quote by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutogawa: “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child.” This may as well be Ozu’s mantra.

What makes The Only Son standout is its narrative and structural elements you don’t normally find in Ozu’s films (at least not the ones I am familiar with). The first 15-minutes of the film are devoted to the life of the mother, dealing with her job as an employee at a silk-weaving factory, exploring her financial restraints, and showing her initial reluctance to give her son a proper education. And then, as previously mentioned, time passes. Such elliptical storytelling isn’t unique to Ozu’s films, as he often would omit essential plot details and jump ahead in time, but it was rare to see him jump so far ahead that actor’s have to be cast to play their older counterparts.

The remaining 65-minutes of the film are fascinating in their introduction of storylines that seem to mirror the central one: the reappearance of the son’s school teacher, who also moved to Tokyo in search of greener pastures, now working in a seemingly dead restaurant; and a neighbour’s son who is injured trying to impress his friends into letting him play with their baseball glove, because his mother can’t afford to buy him one.

The most gut-wrenching scene of the film occurs when the titular son wakes up to find his mother unable to go to bed. He understands why. She is concerned for his wellbeing and disappointed by his position in life. He too is disappointed by life’s meagre offerings, but doesn’t know what else to do. She insists he must overcome all the necessary obstacles – to try harder. To be a great man, like he promised as a child. He says he cannot. She says he must. After all, she has given up everything for him and is now stuck living in the very factory she works; her house was sold to fund her son’s future. And, suddenly and unexpectedly, we hear crying. The only son’s wife has been listening to the conversation – awaken by their distress. She, like the audience, understands how filled with disappointment their lives are.

This scene is impeccably constructed. Ozu presents a domino effect of disappointment. Each character in the house is presented in a series of consecutive shots, each one visibly upset, except the final character, the sleeping baby. Ozu then bookends this moment of great tragedy in his usual way, with a pillow shot (narratively-unrelated shot of scenery). Perhaps he does this to let us digest the profound sadness we have only just witnessed. This pillow shot – of and empty room in the house – lasts for approximately a whole minute. We are forced take this moment in, to contemplate it, whether we want to or not.

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In Ozu’s world, people are faced with disappointments throughout their day-to-day lives, the weight of responsibility and expectation. He wants to show us the world in all its relatable imperfection. The least we can do is accept and acknowledge the existence of these truths rather than blithely ignoring them. After all, he must have gone through great pains to show us these things. No art this honest is made without some sort of suffering.

What Happened to Queer Cinema?

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Somewhere along the line, after the shift towards mainstream gay acceptance, queerness in cinema died. Queer in the truest sense, not just films with gay characters, but unabashedly gay characters who challenge the status quo.

What do I mean I say “queer?” I mean strange, odd, different. And, most especially, transgressive and possibly shocking. Something that feels at odds with the rest of both mainstream heterosexual and mainstream gay culture. I’m talking about  films by directors such as Derek Jarman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Kenneth Anger; or the earlier efforts by guys still working in the business today: Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and John Waters. But, if contemporary LGBTI film festivals are any indicator, these transgressive punks of cinema have been replaced by a new wave of gay filmmaking. Films aimed at gay audiences but with commercial sensibilities, filled with contrived plots and lazy characterizations – like Eating Out (2004) or Another Gay Movie (2006).Blue-is-the-Warmest-Color

Palme d’Or-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) was a welcome addition to the gay film canon, but it wasn’t queer in the truest sense. It was encumbered by – a term I generally avoid – the “straight male gaze.” A film etched in class differences more so than concerns of queer expression, though it was undoubtedly a film with queer content: romantic and erotic female relationships, explicit lesbian sex scenes, and the questioning of one’s sexual orientation. At the end of the day, director Abdellatif Kechiche made a beautiful film, arguably great even, but it is a film in the vein of (but much better than) Brokeback Mountain (2005) – successful in intention and execution, but aimed at a non-queer audience. They are studies of characters with an ambivalence towards their sexuality rather than a celebration of it.

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In Gus Van Sant’s debut feature film, Mala Noche (1986), we meet Walt, a gay store clerk. He falls in love – sudden, unrequited, obsessive love – with a boyish Mexican immigrant. At one point he even declares, “I have to show him that I’m gay for him.” Gay. Gay. Gay. This film is very gay. It’s not the sort of politically-charged work Van Sant’s later, but still successful, Milk (2008) is, with big stars and big locations. It’s free from the shackles and burdens of money, as well as its obvious benefits. It’s the work of a young gay director attempting to share something intimate. It is queerness personified, unfettered by any studio system or mainstream accolades.

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That is not to say that contemporary cinema lacks radical queer filmmaking. Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004) and Patrick Wang’s In the Family (2011) are all striking examples of queer films made within the last decade that feel unapologetic and radical in their own ways. Weekend for its unabashedly gay riff on David Lean’s Brief Encounter and authentic male-on-male sex; Tropical Malady for its unrelenting elliptical take on homosexual desire through surprising narrative structure; and In the Family for its endlessly empathetic depiction of the domestic drama from an outsider’s perspective.

Maybe it is the growing acceptance of the gay community in most of modern society that is the very cause for queer cinema’s lack of queerness. There is no desire to fight for something the community believes they have won. No longer do filmmakers want to offend the heterosexual sensibilities of others – or the heterosexual sensibilities they themselves have adopted. I’m personally not quite ready for queer cinema to assimilate and lose itself to cheesy rom-com sentiments or mainstream-arthouse sensibilities. There is always something to rebel against. Now we just need to find it.