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Friday, 15 April 2011

Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats & I Killed My Mother


Is there anything as annoying to a teenage boy as the sound of his mother eating? Or the sight of her messily scoffing a cream bun, with a gob of jam at the corner of her lipsticked mouth? This is the immediately recognisable scenario at the start of Xavier Dolan’s feature debut, I Killed My Mother. Dolan was a 17-year-old former child actor, living in the Montreal suburbs, and struggling to make the leap into adult roles. So he wrote and directed one for himself, appearing as the spoilt gay teenager, Hubert, fighting against his exasperated, and admittedly very annoying mother (played by Anne Dorval). The film received three awards and a standing ovation at Cannes in 2009.

Last year, the prodigiously talented and, it’s got to be said, quite stunningly handsome, 21-year-old Dolan followed up his debut with another wonderful film, Heartbeats – which won the $60,000 Sydney Film Prize (2010). Heartbeats proves again that the young French-Canadian actor/filmmaker has a gift for rendering familiar emotions with panache and humour – this time it’s unrequited love and jealousy as two friends fight for the affections of a third. Dolan is shamelessly ‘arty’ yet always accessible and never pretentious. A simple narrative wends its way through colour, music, straight-to-camera monologues and gorgeous clothes (Dolan also takes on the costume design and editing himself). I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Heartbeats and I Killed My Mother will screen together at Melbourne’s ACMI 7 – 28 April. Heartbeats will screen at Sydney’s Dendy Newtown from 31 March. Both films will release on DVD in August.

Note: This column originally appeared in The Big Issue, #377.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Girl Can't Help It: Sucker Punch


The only chicken nugget in the puddle of cinematic gravy that is Sucker Punch is that it’s kinda sorta aware of what it’s doing. Of course, knowing that you’re making a film built entirely around putting woman in sexy outfits then having them act out adolescent boys' panel van art fantasies doesn’t exactly make it right, but viewed in a certain light it is sort of a step forward. After all, when the first Tomb Raider movie was made to be just as vacuous and pointlessly “sexy” as Sucker Punch, Hollywood claimed that it was merely “post-content” and therefore the future of cinema. Considering it’s now the future and we have Sucker Punch, perhaps they were right.

So, to get it out of the way: the story makes no sense. Well, it makes sense in a “Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is put in an insane asylum by her lecherous father after she accidentally kills her little sister (uh, what?), then tries to escape only to spend most of the movie re-imagining her escape attempts as a lurid fantasy where her captivity is represented by a strip club / brothel and her longing for freedom is symbolised by over-the-top fantasy action sequences.” Which makes it sound a lot more interesting than it actually is - that is to say, it makes it sound interesting.

For starters, who thinks like this? Well, writer director Zac Snyder (300, Watchmen) for one. So why not simply make a film where he’s the star dreaming up all this wacky stuff while being bored during Hollywood business meetings? The fantasy sequences are so out there and over the top they tell us nothing at all about the character of Baby Doll, let alone why we should give a crap about anything that happens to her – apart from the fact she’s kind of hot if you like pouty lips and vacant expressions.

But that’s the point; if Baby Doll had a character – if we knew anything at all about what kind of person she was apart from she doesn't like being lobotomies and thinking sexy dancing is a good way to get men's attention – then the fantasy sequences couldn’t just be enjoyed as spectacle. We’d be reading them looking for insights into why she was thinking about, say, a B-25 bomber fighting a dragon and a bunch of orcs, and that’d get in the way of thinking “Coooool”. Which is all the response this film is looking for from a viewer.

[if you’re unsure of why this film is sexist when it clearly shows a bunch of “empowered" women kicking ass while all the men are fat sweaty creeps, that’s why: without any characterisation to back it up, everyone in this film is just an image to be gazed at. And when the images of women are so PG-13 / Maxim Magazine “sexy”, this becomes nothing more than a wank fantasy, a caricature of female empowerment without the danger to the male viewer of any actual females being empowered. Basically, their bodies are all these women have to offer us: if Snyder didn’t want to be sexist, he should have spent some time lingering longingly over their minds]

Not that there was ever going to be much room for character development here, what with the sexy dancing and pop culture references crowding everything else out. Knowing that the whole “I’m escaping in my mind” plot is lifted from Brazil (along with the giant samurai who bleeds light) or that the two main villains are basically Boris and Natasha from Rocky & Bullwinkle doesn't add anything more to the film than does Scott Glenn’s inane “advice” as the fantasy all-girl kill-team’s supremo (though if he reminds you of Bill from Kill Bill, consider that another reference spotted). The references are here because they're cool, not because they say anything about anybody inside the film; they're merely another way this film works entirely as surface, finely crafted fantasy art that means less than a half-decent Iron Maiden album cover (my pick: Powerslave).

Without character though, every argument this film could try to make about being empowering falls in a heap. Yes, there aren’t a lot of obvious T&A shots in the film, but considering what it’s actually about that feels more like a cop-out than anything else: these women are in sexy outfits because they’ve been objectified by the male gaze, yet the male gaze doesn’t want to stare at their backsides? The metaphor for Baby Doll's sexy dance numbers and their impact on men is bizarre action sequences? Sorry, but when I see something supposedly jaw-droppingly sexy I don't think of gunning down a bunch of robots on a speeding train and I doubt many men do - and arguing that it's Baby Doll's metaphor for what she's doing might work if Baby Doll had any character to construct metaphor with. The film builds to a sexy dance, then cuts to an action scene: well, it certainly works as a symbol of how Hollywood works these days.

Occasionally there are glimpses of a more interesting film here. Baby Doll’s fantasies seem to almost slightly trace America’s involvement in global conflict – steampunk trench warfare for World War I, fantasy creatures versus a World War 2 bomber, a Vietnam-era helicopter versus killer robots on a futuristic train – but it’s so muddled there’s nothing else to be drawn from that. Setting it in the 50s seems to have been done solely for the opportunity to highlight the casual nature of devastating brain surgery performed back then, but as Baby Doll's fantasies are so unrooted in time (guns from her future! Don't they look cool?) the film's “real world” time period, like so much else here, is merely surface dressing to attempt to justify whatever the hell it is Snyder wants to throw up on screen at any given moment. The 1950s had cool cars and a Gothic atmosphere, so the 50s it is, even if it means Baby Doll's fantasy life is packed with elements that make no sense except that they're, you guessed it, "cool".

Once you get past the cool elements - which is remarkably easy to do, because they mean nothing (unless you actually believe that, say, cutting open a baby dragon's throat to obtain crystals to cause fire is an insightful metaphor for trying to steal someone's pocket lighter while they're hypnotised by a strip-tease, in which case I have a bridge you might like to purchase) and exist solely to make you think they're cool - all that’s left is a film that for the most part does what it sets out to do, but constantly tries to sneak in apologies for it. As is often the case, this would work better if it was more sleazy and unpleasant – and yet, even with the rumours of deleted scenes and heavy edits, it sounds like all we lost there (a sex scene between Browning and Jon Hamm) was more of the same. Giving strippers guns empowers them, huh? Not unless they get to shoot the audience gawping at them it doesn't.

It’s a gutless, arse-covering approach that means this ends up being a good time for no-one: relentlessly sexist but prudishly unwilling to have any fun with it, cravenly apologetic about the clumsy sleaze it desperately wants to revel in. The tag-line is "You Will Be Unprepared", but that's an abject lie: anyone who's seen an action movie in the last decade is fully prepared for yet another incoherent film packed with ball-busting hot chicks who dress to impress and shoot to kill without ever hitting a target that matters once the lights come up. At least they got the name right: it might make no sense as far as the film goes ("sucker punch" means "surprise blow"; nothing in this story comes as any kind of surprise, even to the characters themselves), but with Sucker right there in the title you can't say you weren't warned.