a Healthy Disdain


THE 2011 TIFFSRAVAGANZA: Reviews of SHAME, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, SAMSARA, SNOWTOWN, WHERE DO WE GO NOW?, RESTLESS, THINK OF ME, KILL LIST, DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, MONSIEUR LAZHAR & THE SKIN I LIVE IN

Partly to consolidate some of my TIFF 2011 coverage, and partly to alleviate my post-festival withdrawal, I’ve collected a second set of capsule reviews, all of which were originally published via blogTO or Sound on Sight. These represent some of my final contributions to blogTO, as I’ve formally jumped ship to the new-look Torontoist, but I’ll continue to contribute to Sound on Sight in the future, and in fact, just finished recording an episode of Sound on Sight Radio with Ricky D and the S.O.S. crew.

Our discussion touched on Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was among my favourites of the festival, as well as Take Shelter (another favourite), and Melancholia, both of which I reviewed in my previous post. Below you’ll find reviews for two more of my personal TIFF top 5, Samsara, and Snowtown, as well as a pre-People’s Choice Award panning of Where Do We Go Now?.

SAMSARA (USA, Ron Fricke)

Covering TIFF has been a privilege for many reasons, but particularly for the opportunity to screen Ron Fricke’s awe-inspiring Samsara. The follow-up to 1992’s breathtaking Baraka, Fricke surpasses even that brilliant film with an effort I can only describe in superlatives, and with what sounds like hyperbole, but isn’t.

Like Baraka before it, Samasra is something akin to a human-centric, arthouse Planet Earth, surveying the globe in a series of astonishing, dialogue-free, 70mm vistas, and underscored by a mixture of traditional instrumental and choral music. Fricke further demonstrates his mastery of time-lapse imagery, a technique that invests even familiar sights – say a helicopter shot of an L.A. freeway – with a hypnotic, organic rhythm. That Samsara is instantly one of the most visually-stunning films in the history of cinema is reason enough to cherish it, but Fricke and co-editor Mark Magidson also achieve a number of truly profound juxtapositions, brimming with meaning and emotion.

It sounds preposterous, but it’s true: In 99 minutes, Samsara achieves something approaching a comprehensive portrait of the totality of human experience. If you’re even remotely fond of being alive, Samsara is not to be missed.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (USA, Sean Durkin)

A hauntingly beautiful, artfully structured, pitch-perfect psychological thriller, Martha Marcy May Marlene is easily among the best of this year’s festival offerings. The film is an achievement that any director ought to be proud of, but the fact that it’s Sean Durkin’s debut feature is frankly staggering.

Also surprising is the performance of Elizabeth Olsen (as a character née Martha, later labeled Marcy May and Marlene), younger sister to the better-known Mary-Kate and Ashley, who, on this evidence, could yet become her family’s brightest star. Here she holds her own even against another excellent performance from John Hawkes, who is both fearsome and tender as Patrick, the charismatic head of a commune-come-cult that, like its leader, is at once seductive and terrifying.

Supporting turns from Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy, meanwhile, as Martha’s well-meaning sister and brother-in-law, respectively, contribute to a subtle but pointed critique of bourgeois banality. Durkin mines his material for optimum suspense, as well as an acute evocation of post-adolescent uncertainty.

SHAME (UK, Steve McQueen)

In 2008, a lesser-known tandem of Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen combined to devastate TIFF audiences with the indelible Bobby Sands biopic, Hunger. Three years on, the duo, now two of the festival’s big buzz names, are looking to repeat the feat with Shame, an equally fearless portrait of sexual addiction. As the secretive, smut-obsessed Brandon, Fassbender bears all and then some, giving perhaps the best performance of a career that is already frighteningly accomplished.

Both insatiable and believably irresistible, his habitual, compulsive conquests are interrupted when his impulsive, self-destructive sister (Carey Mulligan, straining resolutely against type) turns up uninvited, cramping his compact Manhattan apartment as well as his style. Visually, McQueen, too, continues to enhance his reputation, rendering Brandon’s constant, near-predatory sate of arousal with consummate skill.

His screenplay, however, co-written by McQueen and Abi Morgan, accounts forShame‘s only notable shortcomings. Most problematically, Morgan and McQueen follow a remarkable climactic moment with an unfortunate contrivance, and a series of false endings that pack all the subtlety of a runaway train. Otherwise, Fassbender and his director deliver another stunning collaboration.

THE SKIN I LIVE IN(Spain, Pedro Almodóvar)

A debauched, high camp mashup of Face/OffOldBoy, and the world’s glossiest telenovela, The Skin I Live In takes Pedro Almodóvar’s signature, soapy sensibility and applies an ingeniously effective genre (plot) twist.

Antonio Banderas is terrifically deranged as Dr. Robert Ledgard, a world-renowned plastic surgeon capable of effecting the sort of fanciful transformation that turned John Travolta into Nicolas Cage. He’s likewise capable of acts of vengeance that are positively South Korean in their extremity, and, fittingly, also demonstrates a proclivity for sexual transgression that would make Chan-wook Park proud.

Beyond these (hopefully) enticing teases, the less you know, the better, save that Almodóvar springs what would be a lesser film’s crowning reveal just past Skin‘s midpoint. This paves the way for a superbly subversive third act, wherein the tropes of the rape-revenge fantasy are turned inside out. Almodóvar clearly delights in an unhinged exploration of his favored themes, including the consuming, self-destructive nature of passionate desire, and the malleability of sexual identity and orientation.

I was cooler on his last film (Broken Embraces) than most, but The Skin I Live In is a thrilling surprise in more ways than one.

THINK OF ME (USA, Bryan Wizemann)

Though less masterful than either Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, or the Dardennes brothers’L’Enfant, Bryan Wizemann’s Think of Me is a noteworthy thematic companion, and a compelling entry in American neo-neo-realism. Lauren Ambrose – of Six Feet Under fame – delivers a formidable performance as Angela, a Las Vegas single mother on the margins, in both economic and geographic terms.

The glittering decadence of the Strip is ever-present, albeit distant and intangible, reinforcing the precarious state of her personal finances. Serving a similar purpose (if rather more on-the-nose) is her baby’s literal need of a new pair of shoes. “Baby”, in this case, means the 8-year-old Sunny, played by newcomer Audrey Scott with a precocious, affecting naturalism.

When a co-worker (Dylan Baker) notices that Angela has stretched herself desperately thin, he casually informs her that his sister, an affluent Torontonian, recently failed in an attempt to adopt a child. His implication escapes Angela at first, but Wizemann’s intentions are immediately clear.

That Think of Me succeeds despite a predictable third act is testament to characters that are convincingly drawn and artfully performed, and its sensitive evocation of a struggle that is all too believable.

WHERE DO WE GO NOW? (France, Lebanon, Italy, Egypt, Nadine Labaki)


Hash-laced baked goods are the opiate of the masses in Nadine Labaki’s cartoonishly over-broad quasi-musical, Where Do We Go Now? Religion, in contrast, proves to be a potent source of antagonism for the inhabitants of an isolated, unnamed Middle-Eastern village. Initially, the townspeople – all either devoutly Christian or Muslim – manage to cohabit in peace, but news of sectarian violence in surrounding regions quickly provokes a series of farcical misunderstandings.

Innocent mishaps are misinterpreted as acts of mutual religious intolerance, giving rise to increasingly sacrilegious reprisals among the suddenly senseless, belligerent menfolk. Possessed of cooler, more cunning heads, the women hatch a collective scheme to heal the widening rift, involving a troupe of Ukrainian showgirls and, yes, lots and lots of hash.

While these ingredients might make for a dynamite half hour of South Park, at 100 minutes, Labaki’s feature begins to bludgeon you with its facile theses: religious violence is asinine, we’re all the same on the inside, men are hot-headed dumb-dumbs. Add problematic shifts in tone, flat characterization, and an aimless inter-faith romantic subplot, and you’ve got a muddled if well-meaning misfire.

RESTLESS (USA, Gus Van Sant)

Even accounting for the considerable diversity of his previous efforts, Restless is a curious addition to Gus Van Sant’s filmmography. Granted, as an exploration of the emotional tumult of adolescence, its subject matter is of a piece with some of his most lauded work (ElephantParanoid Park), but in tone and style, Restless feels like the debut feature from an indie up-and-comer, rather than a filmmaker of Van Sant’s seasoned pedigree. (Indeed, as the first film from twentysomething screenwriter Jason Lew, that’s precisely what it is.)

The problem is, Restless doesn’t feel like a debut in the sense that it’s uncommonly fresh or vibrant, but, on the contrary, gives the impression of a film that strives, a little too earnestly, to be “different” (Mia Wasikowska’s chosen term, as the terminally-ill Anabel, for Henry Hopper’s funeral-crashing protagonist). “Different”, in this case, means morbid and mawkish and quirky, but also a film that hews closely to indie romance formula, down to its invocation of a manic pixie (dying) girl.

Wasikowska maintains her recent high standards, but struggles to elevate maudlin material that seems distinctly out of place in TIFF’s Masters programme.

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (USA, Whit Stillman)

Chronicling the romantic misadventures of the odor-obsessed coeds who run an upper crust university’s suicide-prevention center, Whit Sitllman’s long-awaited Damsels in Distress is a wry, absurd delight.

Indie darling Greta Gerwig is wonderfully deadpan as Violet, the verbose leader of a preening, pretentious, but well-intentioned pack, whose notion of philanthropy involves dating one of the school’s farcically simpleminded frat boys, and whose chief life ambition is to kick-start an international dance craze.

Her priggish, privileged existence is thrown into disarray when her unsolicited relationship advice duly backfires, but tap choreography and sunshine-scented bar soap offer an unlikely path to redemption. Meanwhile, Violet’s transfer student protégé (Annaleigh Tipton) is torn between the sly, faux sophistication of a French post-grad (Hugo Becker) and Adam Brody, as a preppy, posturing playboy.

All involved are perfectly cast and Gerwig shines, but it will come as little surprise to Stillman fans that it’s Damsels meticulously mordant dialogue that truly steals the show. Evidently, despite a 13-year hiatus, Stillman’s rapier wit and delicately skewed sensibilities remain firmly intact.

MONSIEUR LAZHAR (Canada, Philippe Falardeau)

For what is ultimately such an airy and agreeable film, Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar is prefaced by an act that is difficult to interpret as anything but willfully hostile: A primary school teacher has hanged herself in her classroom, presumably knowing full well that her students will be first to discover the horrific scene. Beyond the bald statement that this woman – despite being widely beloved – was “unwell”, the implicit motive for her astoundingly inappropriate choice of venue is revenge on a manipulative pupil with whom she’d had a row.

What details eventually emerge on this point are anticlimactic, and the result is a film that, for all its general virtues of craft, is premised on an event that remains, distractingly, both provocative and opaque. Oddly for an “inspirational teacher” film, its characters also remain relatively developmentally inert. The students are basically a bright, well-adjusted bunch, and brief moments of distress aside, they remain so throughout. Similarly, genial refugee claimant-come-substitute-teacher Bachir Lazhar (Algerian humorist Fellag) arrives to less a culture shock than a gentle culture surprise, and is only cursorily perturbed by an ostensibly tragic past event.

Offering vague answers to its own pointed questions, Monsieur Lazhar disappoints, especially as a follow-up to Falardeau’s delightful TIFF 09 coming-of-ager, It’s Not Me, I Swear!

SNOWTOWN (Australia, Justin Kurzel)

Just as in 2010, a first-time Australian filmmaker has delivered an uncommonly accomplished debut crime drama, about an innocent teen corrupted by the poisonous, sociopathic tutelage of a deranged father figure. The principle difference, though, between David Michot’s Animal Kingdom and Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown is that the latter film is based on a horrific true story. In fact, the real distinction isn’t merely that Snowtown is based on a true story, but that, thanks to hugely authentic, partly improvised performances from a cast of non-professionals, it feels like a true story, both tragic and terrifying.

In a convenient piece of symmetry, the notable exception is Daniel Henshall, who plays John Bunting, known as “Australia’s worst serial killer.” Henshall gives one of the festival’s standout performances as the charismatic Bunting, his magnetism enhanced by the fact that many of the cast – drawn from the depressed area where the crimes occurred and the film was shot – knew him from his work on Australian TV.

It’s a bleak, disturbing film, but as much as the murders themselves – which mainly occur off-screen — it’s Kurzel’s portrait of the prevailing, festering deprivation that devastates.

KILL LIST (UK, Ben Wheatley)

Apart from all else, Kill List features the best buddy-assassin duo since Quentin Tarantino treated cinephiles to the legendary Pulp Fiction pairing of Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega. But where Jules and Vince traded QT’s signature, pop-culture repartee, Kill List‘s Jay (Niel Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) share the genuine banter of lifelong best mates.

How director Ben Wheatley manages to balance elements of social realism – TIFF’s synopsis invokes Mike Leigh with good reason – with caustic humour, extreme, graphic violence, and plenty of frantic WTF-ery, is a mystery nearly as indecipherable as the one that propels the film forward like a speeding, high-calibre slug. But balance those elements he does, and with a deftness that belies his stature as only a second-time filmmaker. (His debut was 2009’s dark crime comedy, Down Terrace.)

On the evidence of Kill List’s late film insanity, I won’t rule out with a deal with devil. Indeed, Satanic inspiration almost seems likely, given an ending that will live in infamy, topping perhaps even Se7en’s anguished “What’s in the baaaahx?” conclusion.



THE 2011 TIFFSTRAVAGANZA: REVIEWS OF DRIVE, THE ARTIST, MELANCHOLIA, TAKE SHELTER, TAKE THIS WALTZ, THE PATRON SAINTS, AMY GEORGE, & THE ODDS

Having weaseled my way into an official TIFF 11 press accreditation via my official regular gig at blogTO, I fully intend to subject myself to all the films I can physically withstand once press and industry screenings begin in earnest on September 8. In the meantime, here are reviews for the films I’ve seen at pre-festival media screenings, most of which appeared in part one of blogTO’s TIFF 11 review roundup.

THE ARTIST (France, Michel Hazanavicius)

To borrow a reference from TIFF invitee Mr. Brainwash, The Artist is the “Bat Papi” to Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic homages: Where QT often fetes 70s grindhouse fare, French director Michel Hazanavicius has penned a love letter to Hollywood’s silent heyday. In contrast to Brainwash’s dubious credibility, however, there’s nothing suspect about The Artist‘s craft.

Painstakingly authentic and as lavishly mounted as any 20s epic, it’s a ceaselessly charming marvel of gesture and spectacle, charting Tinseltown’s seminal transition to the talking picture era. Jean Dujardin dazzles as the strapping, Fairbanks-inspired George Valentin, a waning star undone by hubris and a disdain for synchronized sound. Opposite, Bérénice Bejo is similarly enchanting as Peppy Miller, the fresh face who earns her big break thanks partly to Valentin, and who proceeds to become a leading light of the talkie revolution.

Both warmly familiar and wittily inventive, and aided by a magnificent score, The Artist succeeds to an improbable degree. Postdating popular silent cinema by nearly a century, Hazanavicius gives new meaning to the notion of a late-period classic.

THE PATRON SAINTS (Canada/USA, Brian Cassidy & Melanie Shatzky)

When I label The Patron Saints “a pitiful aggregation of geriatric decline”, I mean it in the most complimentary terms. Shot on dreary-looking video in a dreary-looking facility for the aged and infirm, it’s an unconventionally lyrical doc, confronting the stark realties of what it means to be old, lonely, and wholly dependent on others for one’s most intimate needs.

It’s about the sorts of indignities we’d all rather pretend we’ll never have to face, but which are, statistically, increasingly inevitable. Thankfully, co-directors Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky don’t actually provide any stultifying statistics or captions of any kind, and forgo a traditional framework of interviews and narration. Instead, they present a series of arresting, impressionistic portraits – momentary glimpses at physical and psychological frailty, unadorned apart from the gossipy voiceover of Jim, a resident who is both surprisingly lucid and shockingly, hilariously candid.

Most remarkably, the juxtaposition of his astonishing quips against images of desperation and dementia somehow isn’t exploitative, but thoroughly and affirmingly human.

TAKE SHELTER (USA, Jeff Nichols)

Michael Shannon captivates as a portrait of paternal paranoia in Take Shelter, the terrifically affecting sophomore effort from Jeff Nichols, an apparent master in the making. When rural Ohio everyman Curtis LaForche (the typically indelible Shannon) is wracked by tempestuous dreams of his family’s annihilation, his maternal history of schizophrenia makes the potential implications doubly ominous.

Aware that he’s predisposed to delusion, his visions are nonetheless so vivid and violent that he’s compelled to act. Unbeknownst to his wife (Jessica Chastain, in the midst of a deservedly meteoric rise), he invests in costly renovations to a derelict backyard storm cellar, despite the impending expense of surgery to restore his daughter’s hearing. That his frighteningly-realised hallucinations also begin to tax his workplace relations adds to the film’s charged, foreboding air.

Purely on the level of psycho-familial drama, award-worthy performances from Shannon and Chastain justify the price of admission. But it’s Nichols’ powerful allegory for contemporary economic and political uncertainty – punctuated by awesome evocations of natural fury – that girds Take Shelter with a timely, haunting resonance.

DRIVE (USA, Nicolas Winding Refn)

For sheer testosterone-infused, blood-spattered badassery, few films at this year’s fest will compete with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Like Hazanavicius, the Danish directorial darling embraces the trappings of Hollywood homage, echoing the slick detachment of Michael Mann, and most conspicuously and directly, Walter Hill’s 1978 chase thriller, The Driver.

Via Hill, Winding Refn also channels Melville’s Le samouraï: with tone and style calibrated for maximum cool, Drive is the story of a brooding, highly-skilled and honorable wheelman with a fateful weakness for women in peril. Despite his clean-cut look and disarmingly nasal drawl, Ryan Gosling achieves the requisite stoic magnetism, and crucially, is convincingly menacing when he needs to mean business. So too is the normally affable Albert Brooks, who, as an utterly ruthless LA crime boss, means some very nasty business indeed. Meanwhile, per the film’s male-centric tradition, Carey Mulligan is asked only to look adorable and endangered, and is adept at both.

As popcorn entertainment with an art house veneer, Drive satisfies immensely. Only its premium ticket price and imminent Cineplex arrival impede a “must-see-at-TIFF” recommendation.

MELANCHOLIA (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany, Lars von Trier)

As a director with a credible claim to the title of “world’s most polarizing”, Lars von Trier’s latest feat of cinematic nihilism inspired more ambivalence than I’d anticipated. Certainly, conceptually, von Trier’s apocalyptic tragedy of manners is supremely accomplished, and approaches Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life as a work of outrageous beauty. Emotionally, though, Melancholia mostly left me cold (unexpectedly, coming from an arch provocateur).

Indeed, Melancholia is virtually the anti-Tree of Life. Both films pair candidly intimate family portraits with humbling scenes of celestial violence, but reach opposing conclusions. Malick views the world with a rapturous, spiritual reverence. Von Trier, ever morose, wouldn’t be bothered if it ended tomorrow.

His self-admitted bouts with depression and anxiety are represented, respectively, by sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Both are participants, as bride and hostess, in an implosively calamitous upper-class wedding, before it emerges that a once-hidden planet will collide, catastrophically, with Earth. Performance-wise, both are superb, as is von Trier’s staging of these decidedly unhappy events. But as for the actual characters they play, I’m genuinely unsure that I care.

TAKE THIS WALTZ (Canada, Sarah Polley)

A TIFF sensation in 2000, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love seems to have served as potent inspiration for two wunderkinds of Canadian filmmaking. Last year, Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats lovingly appropriated Wong’s slow-mo tracking shots, while, with TIFF 11 gala selection Take this Waltz, Sarah Polley delivers a slow-burn infidelity drama that evokes Mood‘s lush palette and erotic restraint.

Michelle Williams and Luke Kirby may not share the same smoldering magnetism as Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, but, apart from its forbidden-soulmate-nextdoor conceit, Waltz is more mumblecore than melodrama, and, above all, exudes an awkward honesty. That’s not to say there aren’t false moments (even allowing for Polley’s creative reconfigurations of Toronto’s West End streets).

An audacious and variously climactic late film montage, in particular, beggars belief, but by and large Waltz is a sensitive, evidently heartfelt depiction of marital ennui, typified by Seth Rogen’s sober, against-type turn as Williams’ well-meaning husband.

AMY GEORGE (Canada, Yonah Lewis & Calvin Thomas)

On the subject of Canadian wunderkinds, Amy George is the debut feature from Calvin Thomas, 24, and Yonah Lewis, 25, a writer-director partnership out of Oakville’s Sheridan College. With just $10,000 at their disposal, the duo settled on a subject both intimately familiar and inexpensively explored: the peculiar perversities of adolescent boys.

Their protagonist is Jesse, (the excellent Gabriel del Castillo Mullally, 13), a mopey Riverdale teen tasked with capturing a non-literal self-portrait. In search of inspiration, he happens upon an obscure quotation that asserts sexual experience as a prerequisite for “true” artistry, with the result that his creative aspirations and innate pubescent curiosity become purposefully entwined. His subsequent clumsy fixation with a high school-aged neighbour (the titular Amy) builds to an ingeniously organic exploratory exchange.

Granted, Thomas and Lewis do venture on some less focused artistic sojourns of their own, but, inevitable rough edges aside, Amy George demonstrates considerable promise.

LUCKY (South Africa, Avie Lathura)

As much as I’m reluctant to kick a doe-eyed orphan when he’s down, Lucky is difficult to recommend because, for the majority of its running time, the South African production depicts a succession of scoundrels doing exactly that. Of course, as an ardent misery porn fanboy (I happily endured Biutiful at TIFF 10), it’s not that I object to the mere fact of the ironically-named protagonist’s misfortune. Rather, it’s that Avie Lathura’s feature adaptation of his own award-winning short doesn’t so much tug at the heartstrings as subject them to repeated, calculated yanks.

Lucky’s uncle, most notably, is a transparently manipulative caricature, seemingly conjured of pure cruelty. He not only shuts his door to the destitute 10-year-old but also embezzles his meager inheritance, denying him his heartfelt wish to go to school. And then there’s the elderly Indian widow who first shuns Lucky, and then exploits him, before abruptly seeing the error of her lifelong, anti-African prejudice.

A unique look at South African social stratification, Lucky is by no means a bad film, but heaps early hardships on its young lead with slightly too heavy a hand.

THE ODDS (Canada, Simon Davidson)

TIFF’s temptation to synopsize Simon Davidson’s The Odds via a comparison to Rian Johnson’s Brick is understandable. Both films are feature debuts, both are murder mysteries, and both star out-of-their-depth teen sleuth protagonists. Beyond these admitted similarities, though, references to Brick deal The Odds a losing hand.

Davidson’s screenplay is most harshly exposed, demonstrating neither the precocious wit nor the intricate plotting that earmarked Johnson as a noteworthy talent. And where Brick‘s dialogue made artful use of noir anachronisms, Davidson’s script simply feels a tad out of touch. An early, non-ironic utterance of 90s relic “As if!” sets a try-hard tone, embodied throughout by Paul (Jaren Brant Bartlett), the tough-talking proprietor of a peewee gambling ring. He’s putting the squeeze on our hero, Desson (Tyler Johnson), who, despite his grating self-satisfaction, is pretty poor at cards. He’s a marginally better detective, at least, and scents foul play when a poker buddy turns up dead.

Naturally, he’s soon in over his head – a little bit like his director. The Odds is a serviceable first effort, but Brick it certainly ain’t.



Review: THE BANG BANG CLUB

Apart from being uncommonly pretty people, Ryan Phillippe, Taylor Kitsch and Malin Akerman share a conspicuous inability to perform a credible South African accent. That the trio are also the principle cast of The Bang Bang Club – adapted from the late apartheid era memoirs of prominent South African conflict photographers – is telling of the film’s priorities.

Writer-director Steven Silver succeeds at capturing the violent spectacles amid which the titular protagonists made their names, but just as his actors flub the region’s linguistic subtleties, Silver fails to illuminate the complex ethnopolitical context of the bloodshed he reenacts. Beyond a token introductory caption, the film offers precious little to explain its frequent scenes of black-on-black brutality, focusing instead on the cadre of photojournalists whose fearlessness, and whose whiteness, afforded them neutral, bipartisan access to the township battlegrounds.

Greg Marinovich (Philippe), Kevin Carter (Kitsch), Ken Oosterbroek (Frank Rautenbach) and João Silva (Neels Van Jaarsveld) earned their “bang bang” moniker for their crossfire-dodging exploits in Soweto’s embroiled settlements, but the quartet apparently also won plenty of female admirers. Silver juxtaposes their foolhardy photographic forays with raucous post-shoot celebrations, as the renown and royalties brought by global syndication quickly turn the group into combat-snapping rock stars (requisite sex and drugs included).

The incongruity of the pairing – anguished subjects, jubilant journos – implies what Silver otherwise makes explicit. When Marinovich angrily chides his editor/girlfriend (Akerman) for struggling to steady a lamp as he preps a composition of a murdered baby, we can’t help but get the picture: it’s all too easy to misstep the line between journalistic detachment and callous exploitation.

It’s particularly ironic, then, that The Bang Bang Club falls afoul of a similar quandary. Silver’s set pieces are thrilling, and authentically savage, but he appears less concerned with the human causes and costs of the upheaval. Even his leads remain emotionally and motivationally distant, and this is doubly true of the anonymous African masses tasked with filling out his frames.

If there’s a partial exception, it’s Carter, who’s the film’s most conflicted character, if not its least clichéd. Both he and Marinovich won Pulitzers for gut-wrenching depictions of extreme suffering, and their contrasting reactions come to represent the film’s central dichotomy. Philippe’s Marinovich is unperturbed by questions of ethical propriety, but Kitsch, as Carter, is tortured. Carter, in fact, committed suicide in 1994, overcome by guilt and devastated by the death of Oosterbroek, who was struck by a stray bullet three months before. Marinovich was severely wounded in the same exchange.

The film depicts both events, but these reenacted tragedies, like South Africa’s larger turmoils, never fully register. Silver’s background is in documentary filmmaking, and it’s difficult to escape the notion that his material is ideally suited to an archival account. Rather than recreating the indelible originals, he might have devoted his abilities to better conveying the broader circumstances in which the famous photos were taken.

(This content originally published via Next Projection, August 18, 2011)



Review: EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Far and away the most fascinating of 2010’s crop of high-profile “prankumentaries” – and one of the year’s best in any genre – many critics found Exit Through the Gift Shop, from iconically anonymous street artist Banksy, literally too good to be true. A shockingly entertaining blend of humour, insight, coincidence and subversion, it’s been commonly suggested that, like Joaquin Phoenix hoax I’m Still Here, Gift Shop was an elaborate con, playfully but purposefully crafted to expose the absurdities of the commercial art scene.

After half a dozen viewings, I remain a believer, and if the film’s Best Documentary nomination is any indication, so does the Academy. That said, I appreciate the skepticism. Banksy, after all, is a professional trickster, renowned for audacious feats of artistic disobedience, and it’s prudent to approach with caution. Suspicion is also a fair response to the shadowy artist’s bait-and-switch introduction: Claiming to have turned the tables on his would-be documentarian (“he was actually a lot more interesting than I am”), Banksy surrenders the spotlight to a personality as comically improbable as any Sacha Baron Cohen alter ego.

That man is Thierry Guetta, a bumbling, lushly-mutonchopped, cartoonishly French L.A. expat, who, after arriving as a boy in the early 80s, became a surprisingly successful entrepreneur, importing second-hand streetwear at a tidy markup. Conveniently, Guetta also cultivated a near-clinical obsession with his video camera, capturing thousands of hours of candid footage of himself and his family, which, more conveniently still, happens to include one of street art’s original leading lights. Gift Shop, in turn, is the extraordinary story of what transpired when Guetta gained access to street art’s other prominent pioneers, and was allowed to train his obsessive gaze on their agitprop underworld.

Acting both as a videographer and an ever-willing accomplice, Guetta facilitated his new idols in their midnight raids, recording priceless footage of countercultural ephemera inherently at odds with commercial valuation. By 2006 he’d established a reputation as a veteran street art sidekick, and was at last introduced to Banksy himself, the only major player to have eluded his lens. It was as an accessory to the artist’s Guantanamo-themed Disneyland installation that Guetta would decisively prove his worth, stashing incriminating tapes and withstanding a four-hour interrogation from irony-averse authorities. Banksy adds that he was able to escape the park thanks partly to Guetta’s detention, and that thereafter he trusted the tight-lipped Frenchman completely.

Indeed, Exit Through the Gift Shop originated as Life Remote Control, a film Guetta cut together at Banksy’s behest. Concerned by street art’s sudden, lucrative cachet among private collectors – for which he was significantly, if inadvertently, responsible – Banksy asked Guetta to assemble his footage in the hope of publicizing the movement’s egalitarian, anti-establishment foundations. When Banksy was shown the torturously inept final product, however, that hope was replaced by concern for Guetta’s sanity. It was at this point that Banksy claims to have taken the filmmaking reins, and to have casually suggested that Guetta occupy himself by producing some art of his own.

The ensuing role reversal is astonishing (imagine F for Fake meets Face/Off), and must be seen to be believed – or disbelieved, as the case may be. This third act turnabout is the crux of Gift Shop conspiracy theories, such is its success in revealing the willingness of both the general public and alleged connoisseurs to embrace even the most vapid pop culture regurgitations, provided they’re heralded with sufficient hype. For skeptics, it’s difficult to believe that Banksy merely documented, rather than deliberately engineered, a sequence of events so ripe for satire.

Again, I accept Gift Shop as essentially genuine, but would only be more impressed if Banksy had premeditated such an intricate farce. On that understanding, he’s not only provided an account of the origins of a vibrant guerilla art form, which simultaneously lampoons efforts to commercialize that art form, but has done the former whilst duping the commercial art world into lampooning itself. Apart from its general sardonic brilliance, what makes Gift Shop so remarkable is that, whatever manipulations it might be peddling, as a cultural indictment it remains very much valid.

(This content originally published via Next Projection, August 8, 2011)




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