The unvarnished performances and intimate, unadorned camera work make Andrew Haige’s film Weekend one of the most touching and real romantic stories captured on the screen this year. Describing to friends the simple premise of two men spending the entire weekend together after a causal hook-up betrays the depth Haige plumbs into relationships, loneliness, identity, and sexuality. Yet, in this simple story, the two main characters played by Chris New and Tom Cullen transfix the audience and each other with bold, truthful, and electrifying performances.
Weekend was written, directed, and edited by Andrew Haige and feels deeply personal. This type of love story has not often been explored on film and even the characters remark on it, especially Glenn (Chris New) who rails against the relentless, pervasive, heterosexual images in media. Yet, Weekend is about more than scoring a point for homosexual audiences. The concerns of the story focus on the broader concerns to trying to be who you are and finding someone to accept you.
The opening scenes of Weekend, brilliantly establish character relying more on camera movement than dialogue. We meet Russell (Tom Cullen) on his way to a party with friends. The camera starts off distant, showing his isolation in his cramped flat in a council estate outside of London. Once he arrives at the party, the camera trains on him, showing his peculiar stillness and silence as friends jubilantly enjoy the evening. The loneliness we observed in beginning scenes is a trait that follows him wherever he goes. Russell’s closest friend Jamie senses something is wrong, but Russell has become too adept at evading his friend. Russell leaves the party to go to a gay club. He looks even more uncomfortable being pawed by a stranger, while failing to catch the eye of a more appealing man.
The next morning, we see Russell back in his flat making coffee for two. Haige builds tension in this simple scene, holding the reveal of Russell’s liaison. When the camera pans to Glenn, my hearts skipped a beat for Russell- he got the guy he wanted after all. If Russell is shy, quiet, and almost hiding his sexuality; Glenn is out and proud. Eager to agitate shy Russell, Glenn whips out a tape recorder and instructs Russell to narrate the events of last night while Glenn fires pointed questions about his feelings and desires. As Russell watches Glenn leave his apartment, we can feel something has shifted in him.
Thankfully, Russell and Glenn don’t stay apart for long. The rest of the film shows their successive hook-ups and conversations, each increasing in intensity because Glenn will be leaving for Portland, Oregon for two years, maybe indefinitely. Through these scenes it became clearer that Glenn and Russell were not two stereotypes of gay life- the quiet semi-closeted man and the gay crusader- but two responses to the same loneliness. Both men have grown accustomed to not being truly seen by others, even those closest to them. No one challenges them or goes that extra step to show care. With each other, their walls forcefully break down and each man is pushed in directions he never considered before this weekend. We see and feel that change in the beautiful and powerful final scenes. The theme of being seen for who you are extends beyond the arc of the characters to the relationship of the film and the audience. We in the seats, gay or straight, have to consider if we truly see these men and their relationship as they deserve to be seen: as natural and human.
The effects of Martha Marcy May Marlene still have their hooks in me almost a week after our screening. Lacking all vanity and testing the limits of your sympathy, Elizabeth Olsen’s performance as the multi-tilted character was a revelation. Sean Durkin’s well crafted script along with his direction skillfully blurs the lines between Martha’s past in a rural cult and her present struggle to readjust to life with her sister kept me constantly on edge, while feeling oddly comforted knowing I was on a clear path. In Martha Marcy May Marlene I saw one of the most heartbreaking and real depictions of a woman without a home.
Elizabeth Olsen is almost too good in her lead performance. In early scenes, we react with compassion to her confused and wounded character as her odd behavior agitates her sister Lucy, played really well by Sarah Paulson. Martha has obviously undergone some sort of abuse- the details of which are chillingly revealed in flashbacks- yet she remains suspiciously silent about the details when prompted by her sister.
As we see more of the character in these opposing environments I started to notice and appreciate how similar Olsen reacts to things. She initially bristles at all invitations of community whether coming from her sister’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) or the earnest cult companions. John Hawkes as the group’s leader Patrick constantly and fiercely chastises her to share herself and give in to the mores of the community. She’s criticized for acting against the “rules” of both communities. It occurred to me that this woman really has no place in the world. The middle class comfort of her sister’s life disgusts her, while the spare, communal life strains her freedom and compromises her flimsy, but present moral conscience. Olsen really is none of the identities listed in the title, but someone utterly unknown by everyone around her. That quality makes her performance both pitiable and frightening.
The most powerful aspect of the film for me was the portrait of sisterhood in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Compared to life in eerie and exploitative cult, I sighed with relief when Durkin turned the dial of the narrative back to Martha’s life with Lucy and Ted. They seemed to offer troubled Martha the space, comfort, and protection she needed. However, as the strains in Martha and Lucy’s relationship pushed their way to the surface, I started to worry these two sisters would tear each other apart. Lucy’s judging gaze betrayed her disappointment and depleted patience with languid Martha. In return, Martha meets Lucy’s every action and gesture with contempt for her lifestyle and some unspoken act of neglect too long past, but too deep to possibly forgive. These two sisters are each other’s only family, but are complete strangers. The film gives no easy answers, yet prevents us from blaming either party.
When the film abruptly ends, I had the lingering feeling that I would probably not be able to shake John Hawkes’ steely stare from my mind’s eye, but Martha’s vacant stare, absent of feeling, concern, or awareness of who or where she was would be the enduring image haunting my nightmares.
Martha Marcy May Marlene comes out October 21st
Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double seems to ask persistently, which side of death would you rather be on. Each scene plays like a challenge to our central figure, Latif Yahia as he is threatened, pushed, and sickened by the actions of Uday Hussein, the man he is chained to for life. Both brilliantly played by British actor Dominic Cooper, Latif struggles to the point of taking his own life to maintain some sense of humanity and integrity, while Uday destroys everything in his reach. The son of Saddam Hussein, Uday Hussein acts as if he’s entitled to things and people only for the pleasure of torturing, raping, shooting, and snuffing them from existence.
From that you should trust The Devil’s Double is a violent film and does not gloss over real atrocities committed by individuals and regimes. Along with the live action havoc of Uday Hussein, we see stock footage of American bombs flashing across the Baghdad sky, the dead being carried away on stretchers, and people being tortured in Husseins’ prisons. The Devil’s Double never lets up showing us that evil is real, war is hell, and in trying to extricate yourself from this may cost your soul, along with your life. With that, I never felt the violence was gratuitous or played for enjoyment. We, as an audience, are never allowed to settle in the lavish scenes of decadent parties or gleaming pool decks. There is nothing beautiful or human about the arrangement Latif is stuck in.
Dominic Cooper plays both characters so distinctly that I had to keep pinching myself to remember this was a dual performance. Cooper draws out so many distinctions in the characters that I could feel the tension constantly through the film. It seems like his Uday Hussein has wholly different facial muscles than his Latif Yahia. The Uday character is both clown and madman, almost never standing straight with limbs splaying completely out of his control. Latif has a soldier’s stance with composure flowing out of his eye balls. In impersonating Uday, Latif’s swings and jumps around with a cool grace. Cooper’s commitment to the physical characteristics of these men roots the film and injects real danger and terror.
The film focuses like a laser on the struggle of these two men and effectively tells a compelling story that also stretches beyond itself to comment on the nature of violent people and corrupt leadership. Uday is greedy, insane, and lonely, but wants a comrade in destruction, prodding Latif revel in his deeds alongside him. Latif’s fight to distance himself from Uday stems more out of fear of Uday’s twisted affection, than his wrath. In one scene, Uday threatens to slaughter an entire hospital if doctors do not repair a single finger on Latif’s hand. Being loved by the Devil is worse than being forced to play him for occasion. Latif fears, even as he escapes, that Uday has infected him. Even as I watched Latif’s escape and revenge on Uday, I feared Uday’s blood-lust had crossed through the screen to me as well. I wanted to see this miserable and disgusting being suffer. Yet all I needed to remember in that moment was what Latif Yahia did to keep the devil at bay: remember who you are and that a good man can never remain good doing the devil’s work.
★ ★ ★ ★
Miranda July manages with one scene to completely lose all the good will I invested in her low key and whimsical film The Future. Up until that point I was with the premise of this couple, Sophie and Jason, feeling the pressure to live more exciting lives as they commit to caring for an injured cat. With one month until the cat comes to live with them, they decide to shirk their boring day jobs and seize their last days of freedom before the demands of caring for a cat dictate their time. Jason gives up his soul-sucking telemarketing gig to promote environmental causes. Sophie (played by July) stops frittering her dance talent away on bouncy toddlers and intends to choreograph a new dance per day.
July acutely captures the restlessness matched with inertia we all feel around January 4th when we realize its takes a lot more that a new year to jump start our lives. At one point, Sophie muses longingly at her neighbor across the air shaft, “She’s really got her shit together” as said woman simply brushes her hair. When you feel like a screw up, everyone looks highly functioning and happy. I thought the film explored that envy and frustration well and I was on board for what lay ahead.
However, the good feelings I developed for the story, the characters, and even the film’s playful use of time, were all completely betrayed when Sophie starts an icky (to me) relationship with a complete stranger. Nothing in the film prepared, prompted, or ever justified this character trajectory. As this narrative continued the film devolves from a pleasing look at two people wanting to break out of ordinary existence into a romp of needless suffering and pathetic navel gazing. My dislike of the film increased as July suspends one character in an almost effective state of pain, while the other indulges in odd childish behavior. This disjointed narrative only made me stew in one character’s bad behavior without the balance or release of the other to condemn the action.
The one thing that does work about The Future, and it pains be to say it, is the cat. With July’s voice, this sickly, sad sack cat waiting to be adopted, loved, and cherished by these two misfits was a welcome presence. The cat speaks of the deep longing for change that Jason and Sophie say they want, but fail to execute. I deeply disliked this film and say skip The Future and put your present to better use by seeing Beginners-(from July’s husband, Mike Mills)- a film that plays with time and lovingly shows characters breaking out of their everyday to live fully.
All week I’ve been quoting one of the many hilarious and true lines from Stephen Cone’s IN MEMORIAM, “All I’m trying to say is there’s something and its rubbing me, in a way that is not right, you know- wrong.” Jonathan, the guileless speaker of that awkward utterance is talking about the death of two co-eds who were found naked outside their dorm. A night of drinking and adventurous naughtiness turned tragic for Jay and Candace: on a misplaced dare they attempt to make love on the roof and fall to their deaths. The news was met with merciless ridicule from the public.
Jonathan (Ian Forester) becomes fascinated with their death, not in a creepy way - although his manner sometimes sways in that direction- and delves into the case. First, trolling Facebook for pictures of the couple and moving to interviews with family members and the group of friends who last saw them alive. It amazed even me how accessible the life of a stranger can be to us through the Internet. Jonathan’s interest turns into a need to take action and tear down the humorous reaction to Jay and Candace. He decides to direct a re-enactment of their last day and enlists the friends and family of the subjects to assist in telling the story.
IN MEMORIAM delicately mixes incredibly hilarious scenes with a surprising heartwarming story about the power of art to reflect and illuminate a life. Jonathan’s fascination with Jay and Candace’s death begins to consume him and his reaction seems out of place. Yet, Forester plays it well by not totally assuaging our suspicions of his character, but conveying a genuine desire to see these young people remembered with love and respect. During the making of the tribute film, Jonathan includes many of the victims families and friends, allowing them to make casting choices, act in the film, and watch the filming. The scenes of cast and crew re-creating Jay and Candace’s last day are incredibly powerful and beautiful. As their parents look on, I could feel the wonder and gratitude for this chance to see their children as they remembered them one last time.
IN MEMORIAM has heart and humor in all the right places. We leave Jonathan, after creating this beautiful art piece, realizing the film was only the start of memorializing the death of these two lively young people and perhaps taking a small step to living his life with more of their adventurous spirit. It affirms for film lovers the power of the medium and challenges us to make that vitality a part of our daily lives.
While watching “Battle for Brooklyn”, a documentary about the fight between residents and a moneyed block of developers, politicians, and business people, I had the famous Gandhi quote pounding in my head, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” As a former community organizer, I was solidly on the side of Daniel Goldstein and the group of residents, local politicians, activists, and lawyers fighting to stop the Atlantic Yards project and reach a compromise that would bring amenities to the area without uprooting people. I realized, through hopeful documentaries of David over Goliath triumphs, I had been trained to hope for the victory Gandhi promised with the application of diligence, intelligence, and perseverance. I was so longing for the catharsis of victory, that I almost missed the truly wonderful gift of the film. “Battle for Brooklyn” succeeds in illuminating the birth and tracking the growth of one person’s public life through political action.
Daniel Goldstein starts the film as a miffed and idealistic homeowner in the cross-hairs of the Atlantic Yards Development. His house is located where the envisioned basketball stadium is being planned. Goldstein joins up with other neighbors, attends rallies, and makes flyers. As developers proceed with clearing the building site, Goldstein finds himself the only resident of his condominium not to take the property buy out. This shock to his system becomes the fuel for the cause. Speaking at his first press conference Goldstein smiles saying, “I think it went really well and that I like this.” As his political involvement increases his apartment becomes more of a war room for him and his new girlfriend, a fellow activist, to coordinate the campaign.
Goldstein learns about power, influence, and how well money organizes people to do things that simply aren’t logical. On the side of the developers emerges BUILD, a community group praising Atlantic City Yards and touting the jobs, housing, and basketball. In hearings and press conferences, BUILD’s line comes out simple a quick, while Develop, Not Destroy must back track and explain the merits of their case. Goldstein bemoans the division between residents in his community knowing that together they would have the power to beat the project. It comes out later, BUILD is on the take and completely discredited.
Even after scandal, outcries from the community, alternative plans, and the credit crisis, Goldstein and company cannot break the momentum of Atlantic City Yards. As the project breaks ground in a star-studded ceremony, Goldstein leads a protest march and must barrel through police and private guards to get to his home. The fight is over and Goldstein has to move out with the new family he’s built in the intervening years. Yet, he’s become a different person- agile with the press, steadfast with private guards trying to limit his access to his home, and connected to the community he’s worked to preserve. ”Battle for Brooklyn” shows that public action may not always lead to the just result, Atlantic City Yards proceeded without the affordable housing and amount of jobs it promised, but it can still transform the lives of the people that engage in it.
★ ★ ★ 1/2
Intro: After discovering their best friend Nikki’s suicide was incited by rape, three friends start to fight back against the people stealing their dignity at home and school. Patti, Angela, and Emma speak for Nikki in acts of vandalism, art, and revenge. Each young woman finds a stronger sense of self and they become bound as friends and advocates for each other.
I first saw Jim McKay’s GIRLS TOWN as a teenager and its raw storytelling, unvarnished performances by Lili Taylor, Bruklin Harris, and Anna Grace, and 90’s hip-hop soundtrack had a profound effect on me. Re-watching the film, I was heartened how the themes and struggles of the three heroines remained fresh and significant.
Plot Summary: In their gang of four, Nikki was the smartest, most organized, and creative. Bound for Yale, her suicide disjointed the worlds of her three best friends Patti, Angela, and Emma. Out of the tragedy, Emma reveals she was also raped by an acquaintance, Josh a jock at school. The friends take their revenge vandalizing Josh’s car. Patti too recognizes Eddie, her ex and daughter’s father, as abusive and disrespectful. The girls break into his house and steal things that ought to have been paid in child support to Patti.
Angela, even a loner among her friends, finds solace in her poetry. She does have a fight with her mother, but I think the scene ends with them finding a bit of common ground. However, their exploits do not give them greater peace with Nikki’s rape and death. The girls decide to confront the man who raped Nikki, her supervisor. The scene doesn’t give us the justice Nikki deserves or the release the girls wanted, but we are left with hope that these bright and angry young women continue to fight for their dignity and win.
Verdict: GIRLS TOWN is a film teens, male and female, should seek out and discuss. Date rape, domestic abuse, bullying, and distracted parents plague teen girls and stifle their boundless talents and voice. Lili Taylor, who went on to “Six Feet Under”, is tough, but wonderfully vulnerable as Patti. Taylor has a great scene confronting a catcalling city worker played by the Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli. Patti, tired of being disrespected by men, challenges Imperioli’s Anthony to think about how his language degrades her and all women. They meet a second time with Anthony approaching her with respect. Taylor lets us see the shy girly side of tough talking Patti, who is now flattered by his advances.
The film ends with Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y” playing as our three heroines take their separate and distinctive walks to school. The lyrics perfectly match their anger and new found confidence.
You say I’m nothing without ya, but I’m nothing with ya
A man don’t really love you if he hits ya
This is my notice to the door, I’m not taking it no more
I’m not your personal whore, that’s not what I’m here for
And nothing good gonna come to ya til you do right by me
Who you calling a bitch!?!
Steven Silver’s BANG BANG CLUB tells the true story of photo journalists capturing the chaos, atrocities, and devastation in South Africa during the bloody end to Apartheid. Many of the criticisms leveled at the central character Greg Marinovich (played solidly by Ryan Phillippe) could also be applied to the film. Whiteness allows Marinovich and his comrades to get so close to the action because their skin isn’t politicized for the mobs they photograph. A black photographer would instantly have to take a side or be targeted. Yet, the white dominated society instituted the system that precipitated the violence central to the film. Additionally, questions of moral responsibility arise as we see the lines between a reporter, bystander, and abettor blurred.
Most of the characters, especially Phillippe’s Marinovich, graze this territory. However, the GREAT Taylor Kitsch (number 33 of the Dillon Panthers) devours his role and plays the truth of these questions, instead of merely stating them. Kitsch plays photographer Kevin Carter, a gregarious and reckless member of the Bang Bang Club. He’s hilarious in a rare light scene of hearing he’s won the Pulitzer Prize while completely drunk. Kitsch becomes the heart of the film in a wonderfully tense and pointed scene as Carter is challenged for not helping a starving child he photographed. Kitsch articulates the point of the film, “You see bad things happen and you take a picture that asks a question” with the incredible sincerity that made Tim Riggins a surprise hero on “Friday Night Lights”.
Visually, Silver vividly creates movement and action out of actual pictures taken by the Bang Bang club photographers. His camera puts us close to the action, sometimes at a disorienting and disturbing proximity. Yet, the sound of the film kept me at an unfortunate distance from the characters. In BLACK SWAN, over the booming score we could hear Natalie Portman’s pained breathing. That small detail bound the audience to her struggle and point of view. The clicking sound of the camera could have been that link in BANG BANG CLUB. We could not feel the difference between a good shot and a tremendous one until a character explained it. The sound of the camera should have greater weight against gunshots, yelling accusations, and explosions because of how much these men were willing to risk in order to capture those images.