December 2, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)


Director: Steven Soderbergh

77 min

In between the diminishing returns of the Oceans franchise, Steven Soderbergh has rediscovered his radical, experimental impulse, almost as if in reaction to the commercial dross that he’s worked on since his career was revived with 1998’s ‘Out of Sight’. There was 2002’s ‘Full Frontal’ and 2005’s ‘Bubble’, films he could probably only get made because of his connections and success with more mainstream films. Now we have the next instalment of this type of film making – ‘The Girlfriend Experience’. The critical reception of all of Soderbergh’s more esoteric, arthouse films has always been mixed. It probably doesn’t matter to Soderbergh one iota – as far as he’s concerned, pushing the boundaries of what he’s capable of is what motivates him with these smaller chamber pieces.

The basic premise of ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ is observing the life of a high-class Manhattan escort during the economic downturn. The intriguing casting decision here is to use a real-life pornographic actress in the lead role. I’m assured Sasha Grey is one of the most prolific and successful actresses in her field, but her experience here might only be part of the reason why she was cast. Ms Grey is actually an interesting woman in her own right, with various non-pornographic interests and an apparent rich knowledge of cinema. Indeed, before she settled on her stage name, she toyed with naming herself Anna Karina. As to whether Ms Grey is a competent ‘straight’ actress or otherwise is a matter of debate. Part of the issue is the role she’s assigned. Her Chelsea is a somewhat vacant, vapid woman, who might have a boyfriend who accepts her choice of occupation, but she herself is an emotionally blank canvass. How much did Soderbergh have to encourage her to act or is this just how Ms Grey is, and she is effectively playing herself? Not that this probably matters especially.

The metaphor of prostitution as capitalism has been widely used in cinema since its advent and is hardly in itself original. Godard’s twin films of ‘Vivre Sa Vie’ and ‘Two of Three Things I Know About Her’ are strong examples of this and were reported to have been influences upon ‘The Girlfriend Experience’. But arguably it’s less a film about prostitution per sé and more a film about capitalism in the 21st century. Set against the economic downturn and presidential election of 2008, Soderbergh looks uncertainly at the future. Many of Chelsea’s clients are struggling businessmen and they readily divulge their anxieties about the depression. Chelsea’s own boyfriend, Chris, is an ambitious personal trainer who attempts himself to climb the greasy pole of business, much as his girlfriend does. But is one form of capitalism more ethical than another? Chris ingratiates himself with a bunch of yuppies on their way to a blow-out in Las Vegas, hardly established as the most sympathetic of characters. When Chelsea, newly separated from Chris, lets her emotions and business mix, the results are unsatisfactory. There are hints though at something beneath the surface of Chelsea, though this moment of hubris is a little misjudged.

Where Soderbergh really impresses is with his visuals, as you would expect. The director himself revealed two main influences in terms of the use of colour; Antonioni’s ‘The Red Desert’ and Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’. Notwithstanding the film’s meagre budget, it’s still a striking piece of work. The framing of shots is often distorted for effect, which ties in with the glacial emotional feel of a film that’s clearly under the influence of Antonioni (one of Ms Grey’s favourite film makers as well apparently). It’s very much a non-chronological film, with frequent flashbacks and fast-forwards. Soderbergh remains radical in his approach to film making, controlling all aspects of it from start to finish. However, the film lacks bite and substance. If it is an attack on capitalism and the current financial climate, it’s a pretty vague one. We learn little more about contemporary corporate America than we do about Chelsea herself. ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ is a worthwhile experiment and worth seeing, but with reservations attached.


April 2, 2009

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)


Director: Atom Egoyan

112 min


‘The Sweet Hereafter’ features a non-linear narrative, including flashbacks. In a small Canadian town, the present day. Mitchell Stevens, a slick lawyer, is called by his estranged daughter Zoe. He questions why she’s calling and tells her he doesn’t even know who she is anymore. Stevens visits a town that recently suffered the death of many of its children in a bus crash. The grieving parents are approached by Stevens, who offers to represent them to find answers, sue whoever’s responsible and obtain a large cash settlement. Although initially reluctant to pursue a legal case, Stevens visits each family in turn to persuade them to do so as the best means of coping with their grief, although one bereaved father, Billy, resists and asks Stevens to leave the community alone.

Stevens’ case rests on the testimony of 15 year old Nicole, who was seated at the front of the bus when it crashed and is now paralysed. However she accuses Dolores, the school bus driver, of driving over the speed limit, therefore causing the accident. Although Stevens and the community know she’s lying, only her father knows the reason why but he cannot say. The case collapses because of her testimony.


A multiple prize winner at Cannes (as well as the recipient of two Academy Award nominations), ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ was Egoyan’s first attempt at a mainstream picture and the first adaptation he’d made from external material, following a series of low-budget, personal films. Relocating the Russell Banks’ novel’s original setting to rural Canada, he remains otherwise faithful to the narrative, although he’s more coy about certain plot developments from the novel to allow us to make assumptions about relationships between characters and what has taken place in the past.

For instance, Banks is quite unequivocal about the incestuous abuse against Nicole by her father. Egoyan merely hints rather subtly. The first instance we see the pair together, we might easily mistake them for lovers. There’s an age gap for sure, though her father has a youthful appearance and their body language suggests something more than just a father-daughter relationship. Nicole’s sudden utterance of the word “Daddy” changes everything. This is almost the complete opposite of what happens in ‘Exotica’, when the relationship between Francis and Christina initially seemed paedophilic but actually had a more tragic and innocent dimension. It’s one of many ways in which Egoyan keeps us guessing. However, this is in keeping generally with Egoyan’s teasing approach to film making.

Like his previous ‘Exotica’, the narrative here is fractured and non-linear, told through the perspectives of Stevens, Dolores, Billy and Nicole – the latter three describing their accounts of what caused the crash, although it’s the failure of the three of them to gain a consensus that makes any legal action ultimately futile. Events occur out of sequence and what we think we see in certain scenes only becomes clear later on when other information is given. It never feels as if Egoyan’s repeating a technique used in previous films for its own sake. It’s no gimmick. Much like with ‘Exotica’, ‘The Sweet Hereafter’ deals with the aftermath of tragedy and how those involved come to terms with it. The grieving process, which involves memory and recollection in order to make sense of what’s happened, is best served by Egoyan’s non-linear approach.

Motivation has always been an important feature of Egoyan’s work; why people behave the way they do. Take Mitchell Stevens. Why does he offer his services for the case? Although he announces his fee, one third of anything won, he doesn’t appear to be financially motivated. He’s not your standard Hollywood lawyer, searching for redemption after a professional career wasted. We see flashbacks to his turbulent relationship with his daughter, a homeless drug addict who claims she’s HIV positive, but it’s the flashback of the younger Stevens that is crucial – when Zoe almost died as an infant. Whether Zoe knows about the incident herself or not, it’s evident that Stevens is storing a huge amount of guilt about her near-escape from death and also at being unable to stop her going off the rails as an adult – but then Egoyan never clarifies how this happened. Maybe it’s unimportant. Stevens has lost his own child so perhaps he can empathise with the community who’ve lost theirs, but of course they don’t know this.

Egoyan indicates however that ultimately Stevens’ presence isn’t good for the facade of the community and that the promise of money won’t compensate for their loss and will only re-open old wounds. Stevens first visits the owners of a local motel who seem to have nothing good to say about anyone, although the irony is that the wife is secretly conducting an affair with Billy. There are numerous intrigues within the small town; each interviewee that Stevens meets had a point to score against someone. The big secret of course, of child abuse, cannot be told. If there is nothing that Nicole can do about this, especially now that she is paralysed and dependent on her parents (note how ominously her father asks her to “not try to remember” when she leaves hospital as if other memories might be suppressed), then she can scupper the chance of a large financial payout. That’s the best revenge she’s able to claim. Even to the end, with the accident underplayed and shown in such a matter of fact fashioned, the truth is never clear as to what really happened, although Egoyan’s devotion to withholding the truth from his audience is now his stock in trade.

‘The Sweet Hereafter’ is justly referred to as one of the finest films of the 1990s and demonstrates that Egoyan can adapt his standard themes and cinematic techniques within a more conventional, mainstream (if still low budget) framework. He brilliantly captures the communal grief of a small community, yet reveals the cracks beneath the surface and realises that gaining any kind of closure on the accident might threaten to expose what’s really there. The recurring theme of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, read by Nicole to Billy’s children in scenes prior to the accident are intriguing; do they refer to the impending loss of the children or the arrival of Stevens to save the town? It’s just one of many unexplained questions in this mature, highly successful film.

March 5, 2009

Entranced Earth (1967)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:03 pm
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Director: Glauber Rocha

106 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

El Dorado (a thinly disguised Brazil), the 1960s. At Senator Vieira’s palace, journalists and armed forces congregate. The President has demanded his resignation. Paulo, an idealistic poet/journalist asks Vieira to defy these orders but Vieira wants no resistance because of the civil war and bloodshed that would follow. Paulo leaves with Sara, Vieira’s secretary and denounces Vieira’s weakness. Driving through a roadblock, Paulo is fatally shot. What follows is Paulo’s life flashing before his eyes, a series of memories and events.

Several years before, Paulo was an associate of Diaz, a right-wing politician who carries the support of the religious establishment. He is Paulo’s role model and attempts to set up a political career for Paulo, but he wishes to choose his own path. Paulo visits Vieira, his populist left-wing rival, who explains his own political origins and ideology. Paulo soon realises that Vieira, despite his popular slogans, is just as part of the country’s problems as Diaz, unwilling to help the rural peasantry because he’s financed by wealthy farmers. Disillusioned, Paulo sinks into a life of bourgeois decadence. He makes a television documentary designed to undermine Diaz and supports Vieria’s presidential campaign. The right, headed by Diaz is setting in motion a coup, which returns to the film’s start of Vieira refusing to resist.


Glauber Rocha (‘Black God, White Devil’) is the most well known and respected director of the Cinema Novo movement, which flourished in Brazil in the 1960s. A remarkably creative and fertile period for film making, it sought to reflect the realities of life in Brazil such as the poverty and disadvantage experienced by the majority as well as modernise Brazilian national cinema. Crucial to this was the turbulent political climate in Brazil, which is at the very heart of ‘Entranced Earth’. In March 1964, the army organised a coup against the left-wing President Goulart, which resulted in two decades of military dictatorship. Although Rocha’s film is set in the fictional South American country of El Dorado, it’s quite obviously a reflection of events that were taking place in Brazil at the time. What’s surprising is that given this lack of subtlety, Rocha utilised state resources to make his film and avoided censorship in his home country.

‘Entranced Earth’ is not simply a leftist response to the right-wing coup though. Rocha isn’t even claiming that the left has the answers to solve the crisis in Brazil. Instead, his outlook is far bleaker; that Latin American politics is systematically corrupt and almost needs to be destroyed in order to start over. Within the current political system, even supposed reformers are blinded by their lust for power. Diaz is the voice of the right-wing establishment, backed by the church, army and international powers, and Paulo’s own television portrait of him is designed to undermine his political career, but his left-wing rival Vieira isn’t shown in any more of a sympathetic light. He’s considered gutless by Paulo for refusing to resist the coup and shown as all too readily betraying the rural peasants who are the backbone of his support. Vieira gives the impression of wanting to offer reform without actually backing these promises up. As Paulo suggests, at best he’s ‘paternalist’.

The El Dorado populace are also described by Paulo as idiots, so impressionable as to believe what they’re promised and too docile to ever take matters into their own hands. But what of the impetuous Paulo? A self-described anarchist who rejects both sides of the political spectrum (only choosing Vieira as the lesser of two evils but even then becoming disenchanted), perhaps he can be seen as the tortured soul of Brazil, let down by whichever candidate he associates with. Therefore it’s a never-ending scenario from which change is impossible.

Those who’ve seen ‘Black God White Devil’ will be used to Rocha’s unique cinematic style, which is 0ften complex and abstract. ‘Entranced Earth’ is deliberately alienating, to the point where it has been described by some as Brechtian. The central protagonists are almost stereotypes rather than fully-fledged human beings, representing their ideologies and political class in all their shortcomings and nothing more. The deliberately jarring editing, which often shows scenes repeated (when Sara visits Paulo at his newspaper offices) or cuts rapidly from one scene to another, sometimes with conversations taking place across different scenes, means further disorientation for the viewer. There’s a high level of artificiality running throughout the film, with realism left firmly behind. Influenced by the early Soviet masters such as Dovzhenko and Eisenstein (who influenced the Cinema Novo movement just as much as Italian neo-realism or the Nouvelle Vague), ‘Entranced Earth’ comes across as Soviet-style political propaganda, relying on poetry, symbolism and montages of iconic images rather than conventional narrative. The film ends precisely as ‘Black God White Devil’ began, with an overhead shot of the sea and then is shortly followed by the striking image taken in long shot of Paulo holding a gun to the sky; an image that recurs as the end of the film to represent Paulo’s desperate and ultimately futile individualistic mission. The overall effect is somewhat detached and difficult to follow, though one can be assured that second viewings and an understanding of the social, economic and political climate of the time certainly helps.

Rocha’s trilogy of political films about contemporary Brazil was completed with ‘Antonio Das Mortes’, which won the Best Director award at Cannes, and he shortly after left Brazil under voluntary exile. His work revived Brazilian cinema, placing it on the international map and the current generation of talented Brazilian film makers (including Walter Salles) surely owe a debt to him. Whilst ‘Entranced Earth’ can be a difficult cinematic experience at times, the ambition involved and the passion Rocha shows regarding the current state of his homeland makes it a fascinating, often dazzling landmark piece of cinema.

‘Entranced Earth’ was released on DVD on 23 February 2009 by Mr Bongo Films

November 24, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:31 am
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Director: Atom Egoyan

103 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

‘Exotica’ features a non-linear narrative, including flashbacks. A series of characters’ lives are interconnected through the Exotica gentleman’s club. Thomas, a gay pet shop owner, smuggles eggs by endangered species into the country. Christina is a young dancer at the Exotica. She is the preferred personal dancer of Francis, a troubled middle aged man whose mind is not on sex but on something more substantial. Christina’s ex-lover Eric is the club’s DJ, who is clearly not happy with the end of their relationship and jealously watches Christina’s dances with her clients.

Francis, a tax auditor investigates Thomas’s accounts, realising that he oversees a smuggling operation. Eric convinces Francis to touch Christina, even though this is against the policy of the club, and when Francis does so, Eric throws him out. Francis offers to overlook Thomas’s smuggling if he visits Exotica to speak to Christina and assist him killing Eric. Francis’s final showdown with Eric reveals the relationship between the characters that had been increasingly suggested. Christina was Francis’s babysitter a few years before. Francis knew she had problems at home and has looked out for her ever since. Francis’s unfaithful wife and daughter were killed in a car accident, found by Christina and Eric who had just met. Francis and Eric embrace in mutual empathy.


Nominated for the Palme D’Or in 1994, where Egoyan won the FIPRESCI prize, ‘Exotica’ remains the director’s most acclaimed film and perhaps the best and most subtle examination of the themes which many of Egoyan’s films have concentrated upon, including sexual fantasy and sensuality, obsession and melancholy, and trauma and healing.

One of the strengths of ‘Exotica’ is Egoyan’s confident use of non-linear narrative, a device which can be self-indulgent and risky, but in the case of ‘Exotica’, it does not just work but is absolutely necessary. As ‘Exotica’ begins and progresses, the relationships between Francis, Christina and Eric become more apparent, partly due to the use of flashback, and only in the final scenes are these relationships fully realised and explained. Since Egoyan provides information gradually, we ask ourselves various questions about the motives of the film’s protagonists, and then we must continually revise our assumptions and judgements about them. Most notably, we are continually considering what the relationship between Christina and Francis is. It clearly is not sexual, more a mutual understanding but it later becomes apparent, and this relationship inparticular highlights how successfully Egoyan manages his labyrinth narrative. Interweaving narratives are nothing new in cinema; jumping from one character to another, from one location to another, but ‘Exotica’ uses this structure as the means to sense the urgency of its characters and the circumstances that create the ‘present’.

This technique also allows Egoyan to explore the issue of memory, one of the key themes of the film. Flashbacks frequently occur during ‘present’ conversations between characters. For instance, one scene involving Eric and Christina cuts to their first meeting a few years ago, and the conversation from the first meeting overlaps into the present scene. Francis in particular is haunted by memory; his rememberance of his family and past life is solely demonstrated by home movie footage of his wife and daughter during happier times, and this scene juxtaposes with the present increasingly more as the film progresses, culminating in the scene being revealed as it really took place.

Egoyan also uses his camera in interesting ways to further enhance his ideas. The first time we see the Exotica nightclub is with an extend tracking shot from the rear of the nightclub to the centre stage, revealing a lurid and ornate environment. The scenes within Exotica uses a roaming camera on most instances; certainly more so than the more conventional use of camera movement outside of the nightclub. Exotica is the place where these characters all connect, less so in the ‘outside world’. Equally intriguing are the camera angles he uses within the nightclub to demonstrate the tense relationship between ex-lovers Eric and Christina. Eric intensely observes Christina’s dances for her clients, and these are usually shown from a bird’s eye view so to speak, to reflect Eric’s jealous gaze.

For a film set in a strip club, complete with nude dancing, there’s a fiercely unerotic undercurrent to the film. ‘Exotica’ is too concerned with the melancholy and trauma of its protagonists to offer cheap sexual thrills. Christina’s dancing is soundtracked by Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’, a curious selection of music. As Eric suggests, the Exotica nightclub is therapy, it heals. Francis’s need to visit the nightclub is not motivated by sexual interest, but the bond that emerges between him and Christina, which is revealed to us as a paternal protection when it is implied that Christina had problems at home. In the aftermath of his tragic loss, this bond is all he has – note how paying Christina to dance for him echoes the fact she used to babysit for him. For Francis, maybe this arrangement is an act of continuity after tragedy or a memory he can maintain from before his world fell apart.

‘Exotica’ is an esoteric thriller, encompassing adult themes that Egoyan has spent his entire directorial career investigating, and the results are incredibly moving and effective. The film inhabits its own universe, exemplified by the eponymous nightclub, rather than existing as an exercise in realism. There is a distinct dream-like feel to ‘Exotica’, the world where these damaged individuals live, the only place where they can confront or resolve their demons. Egoyan’s form of storytelling allows the characters and their respective stories to develop and his resolution of their mutual dependency seems genuine. ‘Exotica’ though is a film that rightfully leaves just as many questions unanswered as it seeks to answer.

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