Friday, February 24, 2012


Wanting and Not Having                        
by Mark Dispenza

Billed as a film about sex addiction, Shame is much more about desire and alienation in modern American society.  Protagonist Brandon Sullivan, played to perfection by Michael Fassbender, has a powerful need to connect with other human beings, but his phobia of intimacy leads him to manifest his desire in the form of anonymous sex.

Brandon's porn addiction takes him closer and closer to the edge, as he is driven to viewing it not only in the privacy of his home, but at work as well.  Strangely, those closest to him miss what is right in front of their eyes.  Even when his boss, David (James Badge Dale), with whom he frequently socializes, discovers that Brandon's hard drive at work is full of porn and infected with a virus, he immediately assumes that some intern is responsible.  It doesn't even occur to him that Brandon has a problem, or perhaps he simply doesn't care enough to notice.

When Brandon actually engages in sex with a real human being, it is anonymous--a series of one-nighters after a night of clubbing and back alley encounters.  After a coworker to whom he is attracted (Nicole Beharie) actually gives him a shot at real human intimacy, he is unable to perform and quickly loses her.  

Michael Fassbender and Nicole Beharie

Brandon's routine of casual sex is disrupted when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to town and crashes at his place for an extended period.  She is just as messed up as he is and takes him from living on the edge to pitching over it in short order.  Even though they are family, they find it as difficult to connect with one another as they do with others.

Brandon resents the emotional baggage Sissy comes with and wants to get rid of her as soon as possible, but Sissy pushes to connect with him even harder.  She tries to get through to him and astutely observes, "We're not bad people.  We just come from a bad place."

Carey Mulligan

This is filmmaker Steve McQueen's second feature and reunites him with Fassbender, who was also lead actor in his first feature, Hunger, about the 1981 prison hunger strike of Irish Republican, Bobby Sands.  McQueen has already earned a solid reputation for his adroit handling of challenging stories and is coming into his own as a filmmaker of note.

Fassbender has been the subject of multiple Best Actor nominations for his role in Shame this season, and they are well-deserved.  The actor has a gift for conveying the complex emotions underlying the characters he plays, often with hardly a word of dialogue spoken.

Shame is one of the most unique and interesting films to emerge this past year, and it is well worth a look.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

In Darkness

by Zac Sanford

The Holocaust is a time in history that has been covered in such great detail where every Oscar season there is at least one film in the running detailing the grave subject matter. 2012 will be no different as Poland’s official entry In Darkness is nominated for a best Foreign Language Oscar. Like Schindler’s List and The Pianist, Darkness tackles a true-life story of a man who must work against the Nazi regime to help save the lives of a select few.

Leopold “Poldek” Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), has been using the underground sewers he works in to hide goods he’s been able to loot from the abandoned houses in the ghetto of Lvov, Poland. While stashing the latest loot, he comes across a group of men that have dug out a hole from their home into the vast underground. Poldek decides to let them hide out, not because he is a man with a solid heart, but for the hefty weekly sum he can take in by keeping them hidden. Plus, once he feels he’s bled them dry, he can turn them into the Nazi forces for a handsome reward.

When the war hits its feverish pitch, Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup), his family, Mundek Margulies (Benno Fürmann), and several other Jews take cover within the swampy underbelly of the city. The group instantly clashes as there is little in common except for their will to survive. Chiger is rich and refuses to speak in Yiddish, but ultimately is the one who is responsible for saving those who have come with him. Yanek Grossmann (Marcin Bosak) is the least humane of the bunch, deciding to forgo a future with his wife and kids, but instead to spend the time with his mistress.

As the war continues on, the group slowly begins to fracture. Above ground, Poldek must battle the ever increasing chances of being caught. Not only is his own life in danger, but he is also putting his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and daughter at risk. She too easily flip-flops between chastising her husband for not being compassionate enough, to touting he should stop doing the right thing for the safety of his family.

Director Agnieszka Holland knows the material well. Two of her previous works, Europa Europa and Angry Harvest have tackled the Holocaust in such detail allowing her to go deeper into the world and characters for In Darkness. With the help of her cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska, the contrasts between the two worlds are staggering. Just as your eyes are becoming accustomed to the underground darkness with its lack of light, the story shifts to the bright light of Poldek’s life above ground, leaving the viewer as uncomfortable as the characters below the surface.

In Darkness was adapted from the non-fiction book “In the Sewers of Lvov” by Robert Marshall and tells an often overlooked bit of history of the Holocaust. One of the survivors, Krystyna Chiger also has a novel detailing her time in the sewers of Lvov called The Girl in the Green Sweater.

In Darkness is currently in limited release and may expand outside major cities if it is successful in its nomination for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Santa Barbara International Film Festival Wrap-up Part 2

This is the second of a multi-part series covering the 2012 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

by Zac Sanford

My First Wedding (Mi Primera Boda)

It’s your big wedding day and you’ve lost the two rings, so what do you do? If you’re Adrian Meier (Daniel Hendler), you stall in every which way you can. But this day has been planned down to the finest details. The wedding will take place, followed by the dances, then speeches, then the cake, then more dancing, with every minute of the day tied up with one event or another. So to give himself a little more time, Adrian sends the Priest and the Rabbi in the wrong direction.

Sound a little absurd? Well it is, but in a fun and light way. Director Ariel Winograd keeps the tone light and allows the worst fears of many couples big day to come front and center. As the hours tick away and the bride (Natalia Oreiro) believes her husband-to-be may have cold feet, Adrian must do whatever he can to find the rings before the future of his love life explodes.

Pina 3D

While preparing to shoot his documentary on choreographer Philippina “Pina” Bausch, production was halted when the teacher of modern dance suddenly passed away. To pay homage to their mentor, the dancers of the Tanztheater Wuppertal pushed for the film to be completed.

The documentary is a beautiful mix of dance numbers and talking heads. Well not the normal talking heads, instead Wim Wenders lets his camera focus on the dancer’s face as a voiceover recounts countless stories of the woman known only as Pina. The use of 3D shines, especially in the segment for Café Mueller, a basic theater stage layered with chairs as multiple dancers have to weave between them.

While the documentary was full of wonderfully choreographed numbers, none of the participants delved deep enough into their passion for dance, nor talked about the passion of the documentary’s subject in too deep of detail. I wanted to know a little more on what made these dancers tick and what drove them to be part of Pina’s dance company.

Sassy Pants

As a fan of the MTV show Awkward, this film sat pretty high on my priority list for the film festival. A quirky coming-of-age story about Bethany Pruitt (Ashley Rickards) who is the valedictorian of her high school, not because of her brains or wit, but because she is home schooled by her over protective and over bearing mother (Anna Gunn). To escape her mundane and overly pink existence, she escapes to what she hopes will be greener pastures with her father (Diedrich Bader) and his boyfriend (Haley Joel Osmont), whom she quickly bonds with.

While the film was loaded with laughs, it felt that Bethany was in a different film than the rest of her cast. While she was grounded in reality, everything and everyone around her was heightened to such high levels that she seemed out of place and in a whole different world. Once Bethany finds out about F.A.T.I. (the Fashion Art Technology Institute), she makes it her goal to escape this crazy world and hopefully find some sanity among the others who share her passions. But knowing many others who have landed in the fashion world, I’m sure she’ll feel just as much out of place there as she does in this current existence.


Who would have thought a film about masturbation and the donation of sperm could be so funny and heartwarming at the same time? David Wozniak (Patrick Huard) can’t seem to get his life in order. He’s constantly a disappointment to all those around him. He can’t make deliveries on time for the family run butcher shop and he is always neglecting his girlfriend who is expecting what she believes is his first child. Problem is, to pay his way through his early twenties, David donated many times to the local sperm bank and has just been notified that he may have fathered up to 533 kids. Talk about an extended family!

The movie turns from the absurd to the dramatic when David goes on a quest to track down each of the kids one-by-one. He doesn’t let them know he is the father they are searching for, but instead finds ways to help them out. As the tension grows, he must choose whether to make his identity known or counter sue to protect his identity, especially once the news outlets start raking his name through the mud.

The film has the perfect balance of humor and heart, which was the right combination to take home the audience award at this year’s film festival. The film recently landed domestic distribution and should have a limited release this coming summer.

West of Memphis

The case to exonerate the West Memphis Three has been an ongoing legal battle since they were first convicted back in 1994. HBO’s ground-breaking documentary “Paradise Lost” has covered the history of the murders of three kids at Robin Hood Hills, the eventual conviction and the constant battle to try to have the court’s decision over turned. While the series became a little repetitive, West of Memphis compacts the eight year battle into a tight 150 minute run time, covering plenty of new ground, evidence and supporters (Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and the film’s producer Peter Jackson).

While the West Memphis Three are able to walk free, the ending of the battle is one that should rile up a lot of people. The film also goes deep into how the justice system is flawed, especially when it pertains to the use of DNA evidence that should have set the WM3 free years ago, but instead, the biggest twist comes in a suspect that the police never even fully investigated. Instead, the local police took the easy way out, blaming those who looked different as a way to try to put faces to the horrendous crime.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Santa Barbara International Film Festival Wrap-up Part 1

This is the first of a multi-part series covering the 2012 Santa Barbara International Film Festival
by Zac Sanford

The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best

Recently dumped by his girlfriend and his two-man band, Alex (writer/director Ryan O’Nan) meets Jim (Michael Weston), an eccentric musician that has the ultimate plan. Dump everything and head west in a beat up car, playing gigs along the way before landing at the Battle of the Bands in San Diego. Jim is an undiscovered musical prodigy and feels Alex is the ultimate band mate. On the way to their first gig they start writing songs together, instantly bonding and connecting on multiple levels. From the first gig, and for the remainder of the trip, road bumps will be felt along the way.
First time writer/director O’Nan keeps the mood light by never delving too deeply into the characters and their bigger issues at hand. Alex’s biggest problems are not expressed through expository dialogue, but instead through the lyrics of his songs. The characters the “Brothers” meet along the way are almost as eccentric as the band, which consists solely of Alex on an acoustic guitar and Jim playing an eclectic mix of childhood toy instruments. Ultimately The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best is a light-hearted romp with a wonderful soundtrack.

While Brooklyn Brothers may have been a light and fun experience, Bullhead lands on the opposite side of the coin. Dark, disturbing and downright uncomfortable to watch at times, it delves deep into the underbelly of the Belgian mafia and the hormone-fed beef industry. Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) is the Flemish man front-and-center of the film. He’s loaded up on testosterone and has a chip on his shoulder for a tragedy that was inflected upon him as a child. After the murder of a policeman investigating the underground hormone trade, Jacky finally must confront his past as everything starts to crash around him.
Another first time director, Michael R. Roskam has delivered one of the best foreign films of the last couple years. A crime thriller that is light on the crime and heavy on the drama, this film could have easily won the Best Foreign Language Oscar if it weren’t for A Separation also being in the mix.

In April of 2010 a drilling rig exploded off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico spilling millions of barrels of oil into the ocean as BP tried to fix the disaster. During the fiasco, lives were lost and many more were put into upheaval as the local fishing industry was impacted and still hasn’t fully recovered.
This documentary covers the lives of those affected by the disaster, the government cover-up and the long-term effects to the local environment on a more global level. While the film is completely one-sided, the filmmaker goes deep into his research to give a compelling argument to deliver his thesis.

With age comes knowledge, so when two brothers are forced to make life-altering decisions, they are apt to make one poor decision after one another. Danny and Zak are those two brothers, both left to survive on their own at their late grandfather’s house while their parents are abroad for the summer. When the cash supply runs short and there is no other adult to turn to, they rent out their house to the local drug dealer.
A bit juvenile at times, the performances of the three young actors carry the film more than anything else. As the stakes grow, you hope the tides will turn and send the kids back onto the right path. But will the kids learn from their past mistakes or continue going along the same path until someone older and wiser steps in to save the day?

After surviving a flood that killed her daughter, Delia now struggles to raise her two sons in the slums of Caracas, Venezuela. Years later, the eldest son has turned to a life of violence and gangs, sending Delia on a mission to save as much money to finally get her family out of the slums.
Heavy on the drama, the film slips into a heavy hand of melodrama and never lets go. When you think things can’t get any worse for Delia and her family, something else happens to make the matters worse. While there was a great story to be told about a mother’s struggle to save her family, The Rumble of the Stones feels too much like a movie destined for Lifetime.

When the British Prime Minister’s spokesperson (Kristin Scott Thomas) needs to find a good-will story to fight against the Middle East backlash, she helps orchestrate a Sheik’s plan to bring salmon fishing to Yemen. Fisheries expert Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor) laughs at the idea, spouting off facts on why the plan would never work, but since money is no object, he throws outlandish ideas and figures out to Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), the Sheik’s aide.
The Sheik believes anything is possible, as long as you have faith. He’s willing to spend big money to bring his passion to his home country as he feels it creates a bond between man and nature, ultimately benefiting the locals. Simon Beaufoy adapts the inspirational and uplifting story from the best-selling book by Paul Torday.

My review can be found here