Category Archives: review

When Voices Intertwine (Book Review)

Robert Bringhurst is often described as a modern-day renaissance man. Few writers could navigate fields as diverse as poetry, translation, typography, cultural history, and philosophy as interwoven vocations. Through an adherence to polyphony as a mode of deep ecological thinking, Bringhurst works to make accessible the wisdom of poets and thinkers past, from Sophocles to Haida mythtellers Ghandl and Skaay.

As Bringhurst puts it, “when two voices intertwine, the space they occupy gets larger, and the mind gets larger with it”; no wonder poet Denis Lee calls him “a man of massive simple-mindedness.” Bringhurst has a way of chiselling complex thinking down to that part of being that ineluctably binds all living matter together. Bringhurst’s ontological approach is more aligned with ancient Greece than the modern academy, which is why editors Brent Wood and Mark Dickinson make clear that he doesn’t neatly fit within the “twenty-first century university’s rubric of knowledge production and transmission.” As such, Bringhurst is most comfortable in the role of an independent public thinker, bound by neither institution nor strict cultural protocol, which has irked some of his critics.

Click here to read my full review at Canadian Literature.

Top 5 Records of 2015

There was a lot of great music released in 2015. I could easily compile a list of the 50 Best Albums of the year, but instead I am keeping things simple and mentioning the 5 albums that made the deepest impact on my listening last year. If the list was longer, it would include such fantastic releases as Jamie xx’s In Colour, BadBadNotGood and Ghostface Killah’s Sour Soul, Panda Bear’s Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, Four Tet’s Morning/Evening, Max Richter’s Sleep, and Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld’s Never Were the Way She Was, among many others. Here’s the list of my 5 favourite albums of 2015 with a selected track from each record.

5. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear

Josh Tillman’s second release under the moniker Father John Misty tells the story of his courtship of his wife, Emma. This is a really fun record that reads like one long self-reflexive joke that we are let in on. This album is all about juxtaposition, placing caustic irony beside blunt declarations of love.


4. Kasami Washington, The Epic

For those of us who listen to jazz, it’s exciting to see how the genre is being taken in new directions. Last year’s You’re Dead! by Flying Lotus drew on the spiritual jazz of Alice and John Coltrane to the progressive jazz fusion of Weather Report to the humourous and cosmic tones of Sun Ra. Kasami Washington’s The Epic, also on Lotus’s Brainfeeder imprint, builds on that format in a three hour jazz odyssey that digs deep into the past and pushes forward as a kind of generational intervention. The Epic features a 10-piece jazz band with augmentation from a string section and a full choir and holds its own with the best of fusion records. This is consciousness-raising music and it is getting lots of spins over here.


3. D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah 

14 years after the critically acclaimed Voodoo, D’Angelo returns with the militant, powerful, and funky Black Messiah. The album is incredibly layered with murky vocals, unsettled grooves, and fuzzy guitars, with deep roots in rock, funk, jazz, and gospel. It’s an album that recalls Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 funk album There’s a Riot Goin’ On. An unbelievable comeback record from D’Angelo.


2. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens’s beautiful Carrie & Lowell has been on repeat in our house since its release. The songs on the album are inspired by the 2012 death of his mother, Carrie, and the family trips they took to Oregon in Stevens’s childhood. For me, this album is up there with Seven Swans and Illinois. This album is Stevens’s most personal and mature and it is also his most stripped down record, which allows his abilities as a songwriter to shine through.


1.  Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly provides an Umwalzung—that is, revolution—through a complete overturning of prior mainstream hip-hop album templates, as Lamar enacts one of the most ferocious black chants ever to appear on a hip-hop record. The album’s unforgiving blackness is important, because it reminds white listeners that sometimes we need to sit down and listen to the conversation that is taking place rather than try to control or shape it. This is art and music that is both relevant and functional, showing that you can make music that is both rhetorically powerful and aesthetically pleasing. Without a doubt, Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is my favourite release of 2015. It certainly restored a lot of my faith in mainstream hip-hop. As David Jeffries puts it, “To Pimp a Butterfly is as dark, intense, complicated, and violent as Picasso’s Guernica, and should hold the same importance for its genre and the same beauty for its intended audience.”

DJ Phoenix (my son) getting into the mix. #DJPhoenixDailyRecord
DJ Phoenix (my son) getting into Lamar’s powerful record. #DJPhoenixDailyRecord

 

 

The Presence of the Past

Winfried Siemerling’s The Black Atlantic Reconsidered and Austin Clarke’s In Your Crib prioritize transatlantic Black perspectives from within national paradigms to explore Black Canadian identity, belonging, and the presence of the past. The two works are quite different: Clarke’s text is an introspective long poem that channels the radical spirits and rhythms of the civil rights movement, and Siemerling’s text is a considerable historical undertaking that reconsiders Canada’s place in the Black Atlantic. However, both texts deepen our understanding of Black writing and radical thinking within a Canadian space that belongs to a larger historic transatlantic nexus.

Click here to read my full review at Canadian Literature.

90 MUST SEE HORROR FILMS (1960-2015)

This post is updated (and still in process) from my original 50 must see horror film list (2013). Next year I hope to finalize the list at 100 films! While I could include older classic such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), I’ve used Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as a turning point in horror and as the starting date for this list. 

In our house, we watch an intense thriller or horror film about once a month. We ramp it up every October to around 10 horror films to celebrate Hallowe’en. I admit there were a couple films on this list my wife couldn’t finish and I don’t blame her… although she did make it to the end of Martyrs, so who knows what qualifies as too much? And why do we enjoy scary films, anyway? Probably, on some primal level, it is purgative and cathartic to live and survive someone else’s suffering. Catharsis is employed by Aristotle in the sixth chapter of his Tragedy as a defense of literature for its ability to release ourselves from the reception of our experience of shock and horror.

I’ve also included atypical horror films: the Pasolini film, Salo: 120 days of Sodom, which is not a horror proper but is still included on this list, is a visual representation of the Sade novel; the film is full of abject horror, grotesque materiality and torture, and yet the violence in that film is infused with representation— symbolizing fascism, corruption, and power. Horror films provide both abject representation and escape, and some—perhaps the Saw and Human Centipede franchises—might be simply what is often referred to as “torture porn.” Brazilian theatre director and pedagogue Augusto Boal argues against theatre as an Aristotelian construct because he saw it in this form as coercion to support the dominant ideology. And while Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, which clearly states that the only liberating theatre is the kind that directly engages the spectator in action, hence allowing the people (spectators) the means to production in order to rehearse and potentially engage in revolution, I wonder if Boal somewhat misjudges the power of the directly uninvolved spectator, or at least his reading of spectators who, while they might not be able to control the production of a fixed text, they do, in fact, control its interpretation. And while theatre and film serve different yet similar purposes, I think it’s important to remember that horror and tragedy and its representations have a history that extends to the earliest of artistic practices.

I’m not justifying our watching of horror films so much as stating that all humans experience fear and nightmare. We as a species will continue to find ways to represent those experiences. Despite our somewhat laid-back lifestyle, my wife and I tend to watch a lot of horrifying and disturbing films. Here’s a list of some of my favourites—although the list is hardly exhaustive—in time for All Hallows’ Eve. I’ve provided micro reviews of each film with horror haikus for the top 13! Enjoy these cinematic nightmares!

(Any suggestions for other films I should watch that are deserving to be on the list? We have a long list of films to view over the next year, including A Tale of Two Sisters, The Final Girls, The Witch, The Beyond, The Bird and the Crystal Plumage, Dream Home, and Sleep Tight, among others.)


90 MUST SEE HORROR FILMS (1960-2015)

90. Creep (2015): Black humour at its finest; Creep offers an idiosyncretic and fresh interpretation on found-footage horror films.

89. High Tension/ Haute tension (Switchblade Romance) (2005): One of the crazy bloodbath French slashers you need to see to believe. The ending could be a little stronger.

88. Night of the Living Dead (1968): George A. Romero’s debut is a seminal horror classic and it almost single-handedly created the template for the zombie film.

87. We Are Still Here (2015): A smart and fun twist on familiar territory.

86. Housebound (2014): There’s a few horror-comedies on this list, and this madcap Australian film straddles both genres with equal measures of laugh and gore.

85. Army of Darkness (1993): A well mixed horror brew of action, gore, and comedy.

84. Fright Night (1985): Lots of thrills and humour in the original Fright Night.

83. The Devil’s Backbone: A great film from Guillermo del Toro with equal parts ghost story and political allegory.

82. Resolution (2013): Genre-bending low-budget horror flick that takes place at a remote cabin.

81. We Are What We Are (2013): I guess there is such a thing as a smart cannibal film. Honourable mentions for Cannibal the Musical and Ravenous.

80. In Fear (2014): A high tension and immersive experience where most of the fear and violence takes place in your head.

79. Pontypool (2009): Canadian films have to earn their right to be on this list, and this psychological thriller, in which a deadly virus infects a small Ontario town, is a tense, abstract, and unique contribution to the zombie canon.

78. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986): A chilling and disturbing portrait of a psycho killer.

77. The Dead Zone (1983): A strong Stephen King adaptation from Canadian director David Cronenberg. Both Cronenberg and King (unsurprisingly) appear on this list multiple times.

76. Session 9 (2001): While the ending feels a little abrupt, this film is a masterclass in creating atmosphere.

75. Frozen (2010): Not to be confused with the Disney musical, Frozen is a tense film about three snowboarders who must fight for their lives in the freezing cold after getting stranded on a ski lift.

74. The Descent (2005): Great performances from an all-female cast in this creepy and claustrophobic decent into nightmare.

73. Misery (1990): James Caan and Kathy Bates are both fantastic in what is certainly one of the better adaptations of Stephen King’s work.

72. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976): A young Jodie Foster plays the title role in this taut Canadian thriller.

71. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): A powerful remake that expands on the themes of the original.

70. Big Bad Wolves (2014): A disturbing (and strangely humourous) film that gives new meaning to vigilante justice. Tarantino’s favourite film of 2014.

69. Funny Games (2007): Michael Haneke remakes his own film with a strong performance from Naomi Watts. Easier to watch than the crime drama Irreversible, but that isn’t saying much. Is this voyeuristic sadism? You decide.

68. Candyman (1992): I love the score from Philip Glass, which fits well with the nuanced and chilling premise of Candyman.

67. Inside/ À l’Intérieur (2007): I think the French make the most messed up horror films, and this film, which is part of the New French Extremity, is about as bloody, visceral, disturbing, and engrossing as they come. As Rob Gonsalves of eFilmCritic put it, “Leave it to the French to make Suspiria look like a ’30s drawing-room comedy.” I can’t actually recommend this one, and kind of wish I could un-see it.

66. [Park Chan-Wook’s Revenge Trilogy] Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance (2002); Old Boy (2005); Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005): While these films fall more into the mystery/thriller category, their grimy violence and high style allow them to verge into the horror genre (certainly in gore and subject matter) and presents the viewer with both shock and thought.

65. Pulse (2005): Fantastic Japanese horror flick that uses the power of suggestion to provide real scares.

64. Leprechaun (1993): I could write an essay on all the reasons I love this B horror film. Perhaps the highlight of Jennifer Aniston’s acting career?

63. Salo: 120 days of Sodom (1975): The film updates Marquis de Sade’s most extreme novel to fascist Italy in the final days of WW II. I can’t actually recommend this film, as you probably won’t enjoy watching it, but it does a great job in showing how we are often complicit voyeurs of the world’s most disturbing and real horrors.

62. Red White & Blue (2010): Well-acted and taut thriller that is also a severely distressing revenge film with a surfeit of torture. Need I say more?

61. Honeymoon (2014): Leigh Janiak was badass in Game of Thrones and she’s just as badass in this slow building thriller.

60. The Blair Witch Project (1999): Set the standard for all the mock-doc horror films that are now so popular.

59. Scanners (1981): Another sci-fi horror classic from David Cronenberg with mind-blowing visuals.

58. Scream (1996): Nice homage to early slasher flicks—many of which were Craven’s own—and revival of the genre.

57. Se7en (1995): I was a little reluctant to include a mystery thriller because there are many I like even more than Se7en, but Se7en is unique for its disturbing exploration of the seven deadly sins, and does so in a more creative way than most horror films proper do.

56. Don’t Look Now (1973): With haunting imagery and and a bone chilling score, Don’t Look Now is a must see for fans of the horror genre. It seems that Donald Sutherland was in a lot of these kinds of films in the ’70s.

55. A Field in England (2013): Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is a British historical (although revisionist) thriller/horror shot entirely in black-and-white and set during the mid-17th century English Civil War. The film is a gumbo concoction odyssey that breaks free of the historical thriller genre through the use of experimental film techniques: mixing humour, horror and hallucination, with a dissonant kaleidoscopic audio score—an homage to 60s psychedelia. See my full review, here. Also, for another unconventional “horror” film from Wheatley, see Sightseers.

54. The Thing (1982): John Carpenter’s remake is such a fantastic and engrossing film. After seeing this, watch the episode called “Ice” from the first season of The X-Files for some close parallels.

53. Black Christmas [also released as Silent Night, Evil Night(1975): One of the first slasher pics ever made, and it’s Canadian! Interestingly, it is one of Steve Martin’s favourite films.

52. The Conjuring (2013): Well-crafted horror film that reminded me of classics like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror.

51. Jaws (1975): Spielberg’s Jaws remains a benchmark in blockbuster thrills, and has given sharks a bad name to this day.

50. Los ojos de Julia/ Julia’s Eyes (2010): Full of Hitchcockian suspense. Your eyes will be glued to the screen.

49. 28 Days Later (2002): One of the best zombie movies out there; in addition, it has a fatal political bend to it.

48. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987): As much fun, and almost as good, as the first installation!

47. Lost Highway (1997): I love Lynch and this is a bizarre drive worth taking.

46. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992): Not as good as the T.V. show, but it has many of the same themes that make this disturbing and vivid surrealist dream worth viewing.

45. Carrie (1976): Teen angst horror-prom blood fest at its best.

Rewatching Carrie a little while ago I noticed that Buck 65 samples the theme in his song, “The Centaur.

44. Oculus (2014): A recent film that blurs reality and perception, showing that fright can be more effective than gore.

43. An American Werewolf in London (1981): Pitch perfect genre-crossing horror-comedy.

42. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014): Such an amazing debut from Ana Lily Amirpour. It’s not often you’ll come across an Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western.

41. The Fly (1986): Wow, horror films before all the special effects crap were so inventive. The Fly is a macabre romance with all the early fleshy Cronenberg trademarks. Oh, and Goldblum.

40. Halloween (1978): A Hallowe’en horror film list would feel inadequate without this film that set the bar for modern slasher films like Scream.

39. Eden Lake (2008): This British horror film is brutal, but features incredible performances from both Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender.

38. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Featuring Johnny Depp in his screen debut, Nightmare on Elm Street showcases Wes Craven at his finest. Freddy Krueger remains as frightening as ever.

37. Goodnight Mommy (2015): There’s been some fantastic horror films lately, and this is one of them. This unsettling identical-twin psycho-thriller is a riveting nightmare.

36. What We Do in the Shadows (2015): One of the funniest horror-comedy films I’ve ever seen, and a great update on the modern vampire flick.

35. The Wicker Man (1973): While the Cage remake would likely end up on a slew of worst lists, the original is a classic with a truly unforgettable ending.

34. Videodrome (1983): Videodrome is a disorienting, wholly strange experience about technology and cybernetic flesh and lust that still resonates today.

33. Ringu (1998): I have to go with the Japanese original. Elemental nightmares with a dose of technological anxiety create an unnerving mix.

32. The Cabin in the Woods (2012): Meta-horror flick that is funny, scary, weird and wonderful, often within the same scene.

31. The Innocents (1961): Atmospheric British classic based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

30. It Follows (2015): While it falters at times, It Follows is a smart and terrifying offering that reminds us that modern horror has plenty to offer.

29. The Red Riding Trilogy (2010): This British crime drama might not quite classify as horror proper, but it is an immersive and gritty neo-noir epic based on the Yorkshire Ripper.

28. Alien (1979)/ Aliens (1986): A poetic sci-fi horror tour de force. The more visceral Aliens is also fantastic and so I cheated and lumped it in with Alien.

27. Drag Me to Hell (2009): Horror veteran Sam Raimi delivers a modern campy thrill ride.

26. The Babadook (2014): Such a fantastic horror film that relies on genuine scares rather than gore. A modern classic in my opinion.

25. Suspiria (1977): This abstract, glossy, and gory giallo horror is full of phantasmagoric style. The soundtrack is incredible.

Check out the original theme, and then listen to hip-hop producer RJD2’s use of the sample in his track “Weatherpeople”:

24. Let the Right One In (2008): Reenergizes the vampire genre. See Twilight if you want bad horror romance (I assume, as I haven’t actually seen it), but watch Let the Right One In if you want an intelligent film with affecting storytelling.

23. The Brood (1979): The perfect example of David Cronenberg’s body horror cinema, offering a take on how repressed demons of the psyche worm their way to the surface. The Criterion print of this film is a work of art.

22. Mulholland Drive (2001): “Silencio.” In many ways this film parallels Lynch’s Blue Velvet as we gradually awaken into a living nightmare. Once Pandora’s box is opened the film enters into a mysterious realm that few, if any, films can travel, traverse, and transcend as beautifully and as well as this film does.

21. Spoorloos/ The Vanishing (1988): The original, of course. I mean how many great foreign horror films has Hollywood unnecessarily remade? This film slowly unravels until we are presented with one of the most shocking endings in any film.

20. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): Also host to a surfeit of bad remakes, the original is low-budget exploitation gore at its optimum. Is this where chainsaw nightmare are made?

19. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Polanski’s iconic thriller is a spellbinding film that will turn expectant mothers to prayer for safe passage.

18. You’re Next (2013): This film has it all: energy, brutal gore, a strong female lead, and pitch black humour.

17. Repulsion (1965): Schizophrenic decent into psychosis. One of Polanski’s best.

16. Antichrist (2009): Shocking and controversial art house horror. Another film on this list that is not for the squeamish. Check out the trailer below:

15. [REC] (2007): My favourite zombie film and one of the best uses of POV found footage.

14. Kill List (2012): Slow burn crime-thriller that gradually becomes a corporal horror.

13. Audition (1999)

the girl of his dreams?
eyes open, kiri, kiri
nope: mistress slasher

12. American Psycho (2000)

classic Christian Bale
psycho psychomachia
elegant malice

11. Martyrs (2008)

witness grisly form
french do more than wine & cheese
take your filmy skin off

10. Eraserhead (1977)

surreal & bizarre
reptilian cries pierce night
parenthood is hard

9. Silence of the Lambs (1991)

psychological
thriller: cannibal killer
hear screams: then silence

8. Dead Ringers (1988)

gynecologists
a trifurcated cervix
twins: macabre game

7. Blue Velvet (1986)

she wore blue velvet
Hopper wore a bug-like mask
I heard Lynch meditates

6. The Loved Ones (2012)

observe with bright eyes
lobotomize your hard skull
prom’s complicated

5. The Evil Dead (1981)

old woods . . .
the dead come in
evil’s sound

4. The Exorcist (1973)

Friedkin’s freaky film
fact, fiction, or fantasy?
exorcise some faith

3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Clockwork

viddy this brothers
blood oozes like eggiweg
on moloko world

2. Psycho (1960)

shower with lights on
psycho thriller that Hitchcock:
master of suspense

1. The Shining (1980)

blood: redrum, RƎⱭЯUM
what’s in room two-three-seven?
surprise: here’s Johnny!

Need a reprieve from all the scary carnage? Here’s The Shining à la Seinfeld with a laugh track.

Book Review: The Inconvenient Indian

Thomas King is one of Canada’s most prolific writers: a renowned novelist, broadcaster (The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour), screenwriter, one-time NDP electoral candidate, and the first person of Aboriginal descent to be chosen to give the Massey Lectures (in 2003). In The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America Thomas King shares his extended reflection on Native (King’s chosen term) identity through history, humour, and personal meditations. For King, stories define who we are and The Inconvenient Indiantakes this maxim and displays—through the weft and warp of history—why the stories we tell matter, especially since Canada’s story is often about the country’s strained relationship with First Nations people.

To read the full review over at The Bull Calf, click here.

Book Review: Dennison Smith’s Fermata and Catherine Owen’s Trobairitz

A Sound Withheld

Dennison Smith’s Fermata and Catherine Owen’s Trobairitz are two poetic texts significant not only for the sounds they make, but for what they withhold. For all the cacophony and multivoicedness sustained in each text, there are plenty of moments that give the reader pause. Fermata (a lyrical text of Zen-like suspension) and Trobairitz (a text that weds twelfth-century troubadours and their female counterparts, the trobairitz, with twenty-first century metalheads) are worlds apart; yet, both texts resonate with silences, shift between suffering, love, and desire, and combine and reclaim traditional materials with the alchemical power of the fearless poetess who conducts language at the centre of each narrative.

To read the full review at Canadian Literature, click here.

Top 15 Films of 2013 & Oscar Predictions

Below are my top 15 films of 2013. As a rule I didn’t include documentaries, which given the slew of great docs released last year (The Act of KillingBlack Fish, The Square) would have made compiling the list more challenging.

There are a few films I still want to see, such as The Dirties, Fruitvale Station, and Nebraska, along with a few foreign films, and any list is subjective (and in this case a little androcentric), but if I had to choose 15…

1. 12 Years a Slave: The best film of the year. No, it doesn’t change history, and no it doesn’t provide the full picture of slavery, but it is a riveting and powerful two hours of cinema. 12 Years a Slave offers no artificial Hollywood catharsis; rather, it presents an honest and harrowing parable of the evil of slavery as told through the real life experience of a man who was sent to hell and lived to tell about it. Read my full review, here.

2. Prisoners: Given the incredible performances from the entire cast, there should have been some Oscar nominations for acting, especially for Jackman’s and Gyllenhaal’s standout performances. Given the subject matter, this is hardly a film for everyone, but it is a spellbinding English-language debut from Villeneuve. Read my full review, here.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street: Martin Scorsese’s latest offering The Wolf of Wall Street has divided audiences into two camps: those who praise the work as a masterpiece of cinematic verve, and those who say it glorifies white-collar crime along with the film’s antihero, real life penny stock criminal, Jordan Belfort. The Wolf of Wall Street is an irreverent and potent satire about greed, excess, and the perversion of the American dream. The writing is spot on, Scorsese’s directing is inspired, providing lots of room for his actors to improvise, and DiCaprio gives the most dynamic performance of his career. Matthew McConaughey, who also gave a great performance in Dallas Buyers Club, steals a scene in the movie. Read my full review, here.

4. Her: Spike Jonze’s Her is a fantastic film that merges science fiction with romantic dramedy to explore the state of modern human relationships in the age of technology. Joaquin Phoenix proves once again why he is one of the best actors working in cinema today (I thought Phoenix should have won Best Actor last year for The Master). It would have been really cool if Scarlett Johansson as Samantha (voice) received an acting nomination given she never physically appears on screen.

5. Dallas Buyers Club: Matthew McConaughey is on fire lately. He’s gone from romcom melodramatic hamming to a first rate actor who is a serious a contender for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars. He’s even taking on T.V.—well, HBO—in True Detective. In Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey’s character, a homophobic electrician and rodeo cowboy, finds out he has AIDS and is told he has only 30 days to live. He ends up smuggling unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas when he finds they are effective at improving his own symptoms and then distributes them to fellow AIDS sufferers through the eponymous “Dallas Buyers Club,” drawing the ire of the FDA. Dallas Buyers Club is a formidable film that deals squarely with the AIDS crisis in the 80s, which along with Leto’s spellbinding acting is carried by a scrawny McConaughey  who gives one of his finest performances.

6. The Wind Rises: Likely maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song, The Wind Rises is a beautiful and devastating lament concerning the distortion of beauty. A visually magnificent celebration of the ingenuity and creativity of prewar Japan the film hints at what is possible, but then shows how easily dreams can become impossible nightmares. While I was surprised like many that the protagonist was a warplane designer, and although the film skirts around some important political issues, I was, nevertheless, drawn deeply in by the story, images, and wonderment that will—like all Miyazaki films, from Totoro to Spirited Away—stay with me for a lifetime.

7. The Place Beyond the Pines: The only logical reason this film was completely snubbed at the Oscars is that is was released too early in the year, as the trend seems to go. The Place Beyond the Pines contains the best cinematic twist I saw on screen last year. The film—which veers towards Greek tragedy throughout—provides a salient discourse about the moral ambiguity we walk in order to protect our loved ones. Unlike most films of its style, there are no heroes, only shared fears and truths manifested through the ripple effects of a violent past.

8. Upstream Color: This film flew a little under the radar, perhaps because the unusual content alienated most viewers. Upstream Color is written, directed, produced, edited, designed, cast, and stars Shane Carruth whose last film was his 2004, Primer. Upstream Color focuses on two people whose lives and behaviours are affected by a complex parasite—that they are unaware of—that has a three-stage life cycle as it passes from humans to pigs to orchids. You need to see and experience this transcendent film to believe it.

9. Frances Ha: Directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, and co-writer with Wes Anderson of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox), Frances Ha is a quirky indie film with an endearing performance from Greta Gerwig. I agree with Stephanie Zacharek of The Village Voice who praised Gerwig’s acting, writing: “No other movie has allowed her to display her colors like this. Frances is a little dizzy and frequently maddening, but Gerwig is precise in delineating the character’s loopiness: Her lines always hit just behind the beat, like a jazz drummer who pretends to flub yet knows exactly what’s up.” If you don’t know what’s up, check out this off beat picture.

10. All is Lost: This film has a similar feel to Gravity, only it takes place at sea and is, in my opinion, more riveting. This film captivated me in the same way that 2001: A Space Odyssey did, except instead of classical music, the majority of sounds emit from a perilous ocean. Robert Redford is literally the only actor in this film, and his performance is one of his best. The lack of a Best Actor nomination for Redford is perhaps the biggest Oscar snub this year, but that’s hardly a surprise since this isn’t a Weinstein Company film.

11. Blue is the Warmest Color: The most controversial film of the year, entirely because it depicts two women having sex for 7 minutes (although that’s less than 5% of the film’s running time). Aside from offending puritans and some lesbians who contend it got the “sex” wrong—not that there is ever a right way to have sex—the film is an artful treatment of love in its many colourful brushstrokes, although blue is the primary colour. I found the polemical performances truly inspired, and the story feels very real, which sadly seems to be a rare treatment in same-sex love depictions in cinema, sans a few films I’ve seen such as Pariah and Weekend.

12. In a World… One of the best comedies of last year, In a World… is written, directed, co-produced, and stars Lake Bell. The film feels fresh with a straightforward plot focusing on a young woman doing voice-over work for film trailers. Bell’s performance is magnetic as she takes on the cutthroat male-dominated world of voice-over.

13. A Field in England: Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is a British historical (although revisionist) thriller shot entirely in black-and-white and set during the mid-17th century English Civil War. The film is a gumbo concoction odyssey that breaks free of the historical thriller genre through the use of experimental film techniques: mixing humour, horror and hallucination, with a dissonant kaleidoscopic audio score—an homage to 60s psychedelia. Read my full review, here.

14. Blue Caprice: A cerebral and chilling depiction of the triviality of evil, based on the notorious Beltway sniper attacks from the point of view of the two killers. Blue Caprice is a striking and engrossing debut for writer-director Alexandre Moors, and the taut psychological thriller is made all the more eerie thanks to a  great soundtrack provided by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld.

15. Philomena: Based on the true story of Irish Catholic nuns who sold babies to the States because they were conceived out of wedlock, Philomena concerns injustice and hypocrisy, only to teach its audience a potent lesson about how forgiveness is far more difficult and significant than outrage. The film gracefully teeters between the BBC reporter’s slightly unrestrained antipathy (Steve Coogan) and Philomena’s (Judi Dench) heartfelt and humble demeanour.

~

Some other films (sans documentaries) I enjoyed, but didn’t quite make it to the top: Gravity, Enough Said, Blue Jasmine, Enemy, American Hustle, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Side Effects, Before Midnight, and Inside Llewyn Davis.

And a few of my picks for the 86th Oscars:

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf, but will likely go to Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club)
Best Actress: Judi Dench (Philomena)
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Best Directing: 12 Years a Slave
Best Documentary Feature: The Act of Killing
Best Animated Feature: The Wind Rises

Happy Oscars day!

The Shining: Does Kubrick’s film Redrum King’s novel?

Over the last week I’ve read—or rather engulfed myself within—Stephen King’s The Shining. It is one of my favourite films, and so I thought I should give the novel a chance. In fact, despite the thousands of books I’ve read, studied, and written about, I’ve never actually read a Stephen King novel, and so I wanted to correct this overlook on my part. Fortunately, the hardcover edition I have also contains Carrie and Misery, and so I will likely read those soon, as well as perhaps The Stand, which I’ve heard might be King’s finest work.

Most of the book was read in our cozy 700sq foot apartment as Toronto was hit with one of its biggest snowstorms of the year. While I haven’t quite suffered writer’s block, I have had ten to twelve-hour days cooped up inside the house (I continue to work diligently on my PhD thesis, which is a little over a month away from a full first draft) where I feel like I am going a little crazy. Not that I admire or identify with Jack Torrance as he struggles with his own writing and budding insanity, but I certainly felt a detached and sinister sense of camaraderie with him: all work and no play make Paul a dull boy. The main difference between King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation is that King’s novel is more human. King is concerned with familial relationships and the internal psyche of his characters; by comparison, Kubrick focuses his lens on larger metaphors, structure, and allegory.

To say one is better than the other is to do both works a disservice. They are vastly different. Personally, I prefer the film. It helps that Jack Nicholson gives one of his most inspired performances and that I am an immense fan of Kubrick’s work. I think the film’s visual images are more potent than in the book, and its finale is more operatic and horrifying. And yet, I appreciate the imaginative prowess and humanity of King’s novel. The love and strong relationship between Jack and Danny was hardly emphasized in the film. Jack’s alcoholism and gradual descent into madness, related to King’s own struggles with alcohol, is also much more developed in the book. Further, in the novel, Wendy is a multifarious and resistive character whose internal struggles are largely reduced to shrieks on the screen. Lastly, and perhaps the most shocking character change—although this one feels like an assassination—is that Dick Hallorann’s role is greatly reduced in the film. He is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, and in Kubrick’s film he is abridged to just another black man dying on the screen. He is not even mourned by Wendy or Danny. Like all the characters, Danny is much more complex in the book, but it is his lack of complexity on the screen that makes him so damn creepy. We are not meant to identify with Kubrick’s characters; we are victims of Jack and the Overlook Hotel’s history of violence, which makes for a more unsettling film than the book.

Once again, if the medium is the message then Kubrick’s stylistic choices are suitable to the cinematic force of his adaptation. Kubrick’s visual choices have been written about in great detail and even inspired the satisfying, although a little too drenched in conspiracy theory, documentary Room 237. The most arresting element about Kubrick’s adaption is the engrossing labyrinthine structure of the film, which adds a dizzying effect as we get lost deeper and deeper in the film’s maze. Replacing King’s topiary (hedges that come alive) with a maze adds plenty of cinematic verve to the adaptation. Topiary just isn’t scary; on the other hand, a demented Minotaur of a man running through a maze to kill his kid in the dead cold of winter is bone chilling. In fact, I found that, at times, King’s haunted house clichés and ghosts were just not that frightening, although the build-ups in the novel are very captivating. Nevertheless, Kubrick’s version was much more terrifying, for me, largely because instead of ghosts—although mysterious elements are present—we are shown a more mythic and immediate evil. Evil exists in the world of the living and it is our responsibility to contest it. Wendy and Danny do escape Jack (the Minotaur) in Kubrick’s The Shining, but rather than the burning (I will not spoil the ending) and warm ending of King’s book, Kubrick’s finale is ice cold: the world freezes over and evil still waits in the halls of the Overlook Hotel.

Before filming, Kubrick told King on the phone he didn’t believe in hell, and that he “thought stories of the supernatural are fundamentally optimistic.” No wonder King was so disturbed by Kubrick’s film, since King’s book is both supernatural and optimistic, and Kubrick’s film is not. Love conquers evil in King’s novel, and Danny receives some practical advice at the end of his trials: “But see that you get on. That’s your job in this hard world, to keep your love alive and see that you get on, no matter what. Pull your act together and just go on.” It’s hard to think how Danny and Wendy will go on at the end of Kubrick’s film, but somehow they must. Both films are powerful allegories for the darkness of the human spirit. King’s novel is just much more optimistic since love, not perseverance and survival, overcomes evil.

Personally, I enjoyed Kubrick’s film more than the novel, but the source text was a pleasure to read, especially since the novel switches between so many different viewpoints. Most great film adaptations, I also enjoyed Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange more than Burgess’s novel, are successful because they ignore their source text. King was so angered by Kubrick’s adaption that he eventually remade the movie himself, in what many have described as a painfully boring and uninspired adaption, although wholly faithful to the original. Perhaps King’s version is closer to translation than it is to adaptation. Comparing the book to the film is like comparing apples and oranges. And yet, I’ve been doing that somewhat here, but largely to emphasize they are very different works, and should be thought of as separate entities. Kubrick uses the novel as a starting point for his own unique vision. Maybe the film version should open with the preface: inspired by Stephen King’s The Shining. And while the film has certainly outshined the book (inspiring many other riffings such as in The Simpsons), perhaps another reason King was so frustrated by it, both deserve a place on your bookshelf. In some ways, both the film and novel  complement one another, presenting a fuller picture of how, as King puts it in the book, “Sometimes human places, create inhuman monsters.”

The Story of Film: An Odyssey

I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.
-Francis Ford Coppola

Film is a language of ideas: each shot a director’s thought, every film a magical world of its own. Recently, on Netflix, I watched Mark Cousins’s monumental The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which consists of 15 one-hour chapters and some 900 minutes covering the history of film. The experience was like taking a semester-long film studies survey course spanning the birth of cinema to the movies of today and the future. Except, rather than travel to campus, take notes, or write an examination, I leisurely embarked on this odyssey from the comfort of my home, often in 30-minute increments over my lunch. Cousins’s thesis is a relatively straightforward one: the story of film is the history of innovation. From the opening chapter it is apparent that The Story of Film is hardly the tale of Hollywood, as Cousins’s radical, at times revisionist history covers not only studio pictures, but also film mavericks on the fringes of the studio system in America, Japan, India, Africa, Mexico, Italy, Britain, China, Korea, France, and elsewhere.

The Story of Film is global in scale, affording the viewer numerous opportunities to engage with the history of cinema from a non-and-decentering American perspective. By the mid-point of the series Cousins’s diatribes against Hollywood start to feel a little predicable and exaggerated, perhaps harder for some to digest given his metric vocal delivery and lilting Irish accent, but it was a pleasant reminder that film hardly belongs to America or Europe, as many of cinema’s greatest innovators/innovations were/happened in India, South America, Africa, Japan, China, or even, Canada. Through dozens of interviews with some of film’s most important progenitors and nonconformists, and hundreds of selected film clips with nuanced analysis from Cousins, the documentary is certainly an epic quest. The documentary played at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and I could only imagine what the experience might have felt like for those audience members who watched all 15+ hours over a few days. Watching The Story of Film reminded me that film is much more than a fascination of mine. Like my dedication to reading and music, film viewing is an Odyssean expedition where the discoveries are ongoing and illimitable, often far outside the American moviemaking machine. I also appreciated that The Story of Film introduced me to many great films I’ve never heard of, or had forgotten I had at one point or another intended to watch, or in the case of a few, rewatch. I’ve seen thousands of American films, including most of the AFI Top 100, and so the majority of films on my list were made outside America. I might have to visit an actual video store to find many of these titles, but here are some of the films featured in The Story of Film I hope to watch this year, ideally in chronological order:

Excessus Mentis: A Defence of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street

How manye maladyes ffolwen of excesse and of glotonyes.
Chaucer, The Pardoner’s Tale 514

Martin Scorsese’s latest offering The Wolf of Wall Street has divided audiences into two camps: those who praise the work as a masterpiece of cinematic verve, and those who say it glorifies white-collar crime along with the film’s antihero, real life penny stock criminal, Jordan Belfort. While not quite the magnum opus some call it, I think The Wolf of Wall Street is an inspired parable and cinematic opera about greed, excess, and the perversion of the American dream.

Perhaps there was a time, as Percy Shelley writes in “A Defence of Poetry,” when “poets [were] the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I say this with some unease, since my primary field of study is poetry, but today it seems that filmmakers are the cultural legislators of the Western World. Hollywood, like the stock market, is big business, netting profits in the billions every year. In many ways, Hollywood is emblematic of the American dream; certainly the cinema is a place where we exchange money to watch our dreams, fantasies, and even nightmares unfold on a big screen in a dimly lit room. Scorsese, who often challenges Hollywood sensibility, continues to be one of American cinema’s great dream makers and storytellers, gifting the world films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and The Departed (2006).

The Wolf of Wall Street continues Scorsese’s fixation with crime, identity, and machismo, as well as his Roman Catholic concerns around guilt and redemption. However, unlike Scorsese’s other gangster films there is hardly any graphic violence in Wolf, although there remains, perhaps more than any of his films, his liberal usage of profanity. It could be argued, and probably should, that Belfort’s obsession with controlling women’s bodies, as well as his betrayal of his victim’s trust, is violence. The narrative techniques and do-it-yourself rise to power in Wolf parallels Goodfellas, but instead of mob bloodshed and revenge, Scorsese focuses his lens on robber baron, capitalistic sociopath, and real life penny stock criminal/self-made multi-millionaire, Jordan Belfort.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an orgiastic, hurly-burly, dizzying cornucopia of sex, drugs, and total debauchery. It is Scorsese’s most excessive film, with a three-hour running time (even after he left an hour on the cutting floor), and so many scenes of Belfort (manically acted by DiCaprio) and Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) popping Qualuudes (a very powerful pill based drug) and having sex with prostitutes that you feel, perhaps, an additional hour of the film could have been cut. However, the excessive use of excess in the film highlights the vulgarity of Belfort’s lack of morality, as he travels far beyond the prescribed limit of acceptable capitalist criminality (in the eyes of regulators) and gets lost in the rapturous trance of the game he is playing.

Does the film glorify Belfort’s despicable swindling his clients out of millions, failing to show the effects of his actions, as one victim, Chistina McDowell, insists in an Open Letter? Or, does it sicken the viewer and take Belfort down through its use of raucous and unrelenting satire? For starters, I don’t think the film glorifies white-collar crime, just like I don’t think 12 Years a Slave glorifies slavery. Humour and satire are effective in making the audience realize just how absurd and excessive Belfort’s greed was. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was extremely risky in 1939 as it used satire to effectively depict and make fun of Hitler and dictatorships, and it was banned in many countries. Film is representation; otherwise there would not be films about the Holocaust. Great art is often confrontational, and if art is to challenge it needs to be provocative enough to start some important conversations, which Scorsese is thankful that this film did (Screen Rant). DiCaprio has called Wolf a punk rock film about the darker nature of humans. While McDowell’s point is well taken, I don’t think the film would be as punchy, effecting, or vicious if it showed the effect Belfort’s actions had on his victims. It would be Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, Wall Street. 

Unlike many of Scorsese’s films whose protagonists or antiheroes often burst into flames at the end of the film, Belfort hardly suffers for his incendiary crimes. Rather, we are reminded that Belfort is a real person: a cog in a larger system of oppression that makes his actions possible in the first place. People like Belfort often get away with, or face minimal retribution for the crimes they commit. In the end Belford informs on his own associates in order to save his own ass. Henry Hill does the same in Goodfellas, deciding to enroll in a Witness Protection Program, with real-life Hill serving four years and six months of his 10-year sentence in prison. The Wolf shows Belfort entering prison with a look of fear in his eyes, which quickly dissipates when he realizes that prison for him, with tennis courts and other luxuries, would not be that bad: “For a brief, fleeting moment, I’d forgotten I was rich and lived in America.” It should sit uncomfortably with viewers that Belfort never really gets the justice he deserves. In one of the final scenes, FBI agent Patrick Denham (played by Kyle Chandler) apprehends that his pursuit of Belfort and his organization has changed very little about how America operates.

Watching the film I was reminded of the CEOs of the big three automakers who flew in luxurious private jets to Washington to plead for a $35 billion bailout in taxpayer money, or AIG, whose executives, after receiving some 85 billion bailout dollars, headed for a week-long retreat to a luxury resort and spa. Belfort is the bastard child of a much larger malaise of greed in corporate capitalism. Some reviewers have commented that Wolf is essentially propaganda for Belfort’s motivational speaking career, but I can only assume that the individuals who would hire a man like him are already deeply lost in the sea of excess. Or, like millions of Americans, they are chasing a dream. There are those who will watch The Wolf of Wall Street and identify with Belfort. Steven Perlberg of Business Insider described watching the film near the Goldman Sachs building and reported cheers by the audience of financial workers at inappropriate moments, such as “When Belfort—a drug addict who later attempts to remain sober—rips up a couch cushion to get to his secret coke stash, there were cheers.” I’m sure there were also those who watched Christian Bale in American Psycho and wanted to be Patrick Bateman, although they hopefully didn’t cheer openly in the theatre. There will be those who admire DiCaprio’s sinister portrayal of Belfort, similar to how Michael Douglas has had hundreds of people come up to him and say, “I wanted to be like Gordon Gekko” (Greed is Not Good). Many, mostly young men full of bravado, will want to be like Belfort. Can you blame them, especially since our society often promotes men (and sometimes women) who are willing to do anything to get rich? This is hardly Scorsese’s or DiCaprio’s fault—it is simply poor viewer analysis. Think of how many different interpretations there are of Shakespeare, or the Bible? Just because some misguided and bullied kids listened to Marilyn Manson before they shot up their school, hardly means that Manson was the root cause. Such would be an evasion of the larger issues, often ignored by mainstream media.

For me, the film was a little like travelling through Dante’s fourth circle of Hell (greed/avarice) for three hours, although I do admit that I laughed a fair bit, which is sort of the point of the grotesque parody. The Wolf of Wall Street is an irreverent and potent satire about greed, excess, and the perversion of the American dream. The writing is spot on, Scorsese’s directing is inspired, providing lots of room for his actors to improvise, and DiCaprio gives the most dynamic performance of his career. Matthew McConaughey, who also gave a great performance in last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, steals a scene in the movie. Some might feel the film glorifies greed. Jordan Belfort glorifies greed. America glorifies greed. The film does not. In some disturbing ways, Belfort was simply being American. As Belfort belts out in one of his many excessive speeches in the film:

This right here is the land of opportunity. This is America. This is my home! The show goes on!