Dir. Nancy Savoca
Mia Sorvino and Tammy Blanchard star as two estranged sisters in this indie drama. The product of three women compelled to just shoot something, this hidden festival gem was predominantly shot in producer Neda Armian’s apartment in Union Square. Lucy (Sorvino) is a questionably-attired woman from the Bronx who is on the verge of a mental breakdown. She decides to visit her sister, Jenny (Blanchard), who can barely feign enthusiasm when Lucy appears at her doorstep. It has been three years since their last get-together, and the two women realize that they know little about one another.
Although spatially restricted, the budget had no bearing on the quality of the narrative. The apartment changes with the tone of the script, which jumps from elation to suspicion in an instant. Nancy Savoca skillfully shatters female stereotypes with these unexpectedly expressive female leads. Just over an hour, this film triumphs in its portrayal of the bond between two wounded sisters.
A Dangerous Method
Dir. David Cronenberg
Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is subtle and patiently executed, though hopefully only a temporary departure from his usual gritty settings and overwrought characters. The film revolves around the hostile relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), or two psychoanalysts working on the eve of the First World War. Both actors deliver well-paced, composed performances. Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a patient of Jung’s, forces him to reconsider the sexual bent of Freud’s work and introduces the main chaotic force of the film. Mentally burdened with memories of abuse, Knightley brilliantly demonstrates the physical pain of disturbance, becoming a contortionist with her body and face. However, she slips in and out of Sabina’s thick Russian accent, resulting in a comically self-aware performance.
Ultimately, A Dangerous Method lacks any real danger. There is much discussion by theorists hoping to discredit psychoanalysis, but we never see any heated debates or confrontations. The crucial moment when Jung and Freud sever their connection is demonstrated through streams of letters sent back and forth, draining the moment of any substantial drama. The script is intelligently written, and the sexual indulgence is a definite draw, but the real significance that this time period held for psychoanalysis is left unaddressed.
Dir. Jeff Nichols
A desolate, rural Ohio town is the setting for a reserved man’s battle with mental illness — at least that’s how Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) and his doctors understand Laforche’s series of nightmares. A construction worker with a wife and disabled daughter, Curtis is the main source of income for his small family. The household’s emotional and economic stability comes under pressure when Curtis’ visions begin to affect his conscious behaviour.
When birds begin falling from the sky in large numbers, and rain as thick as motor oil gushes down from above, it becomes clear that Curtis is dreaming. The visions leech off his energy and mental health, leaving him exhausted and physically injured.
Director Jeff Nichols plays on the terror of not being able to trust your own state of mind. Shannon’s versatile performance grabs hold of our sympathy while refusing to free us from the fear of Curtis’ increasingly volatile behaviour. Whatever you take from this film’s ambiguous conclusion, Take Shelter will prompt a reconsideration of the boundaries defining mental health.
Dir. Kris Elgstrand, Dylan Akio Smith
Doppelgänger Paul (Or A Film About How Much I Hate Myself), revolves around Karl, a self-loathing part-time writer. After a near-death experience caused by a simple bee allergy, Karl becomes fixated on the last person he sees before blacking out — a scrawny copy editor named Paul. After recovering from the blackout, Karl can’t seem to get Paul off of his mind and soon begins following him, leaving letters in which he claims to be Paul’s double. When Paul agrees to meet this supposed doppelganger in person, he is instantly aware of the fact that Karl looks nothing like him. However, Karl is relentless, as he clings to their mutual love of travel agents and cheap-smelling dollar stores as evidence of a deeper connection.
This straight-faced comedy rightly points to every individual’s innate desire for recognition, even if it is completely fabricated. While Paul initially resents the idea that Karl is his binary, he unintentionally begins borrowing details from Karl’s life to recreate his own bloated self-image. This dark Canadian indie film proffers a witty look at the understandably strange methods some use to find meaning in life, and the degree to which arbitrary run-ins can significantly alter one’s sense of self-worth.
Dir. Julian Farino
David and Paige Walling (Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener) and Terry and Carol Ostroff (Oliver Platt and Allison Janney) are two middle-class couples from Jersey who do everything together, from jogging to Sunday dinners. Their ties are shaken, however, when Terry and Carol’s daughter, Nina (Leighton Meester), returns home after a few years of jetting around the world. Nina instantly sparks drama when she hooks up with David one night as he shares details about his unhappy marriage. Alia Shawkat, who plays David and Paige’s daughter, Vanessa, sinks her head into architectural designs and recreational drug use to drown out the image of her dad in bed with her childhood best friend. Adam Brody plays the Ostroff’s son, Chris, delivering a repeat performance of his role as Seth Cohen from The O.C., as he unenthusiastically deals with two clashing suburban families. It is ultimately hard to buy the “connection” between Nina and David. Hugh Laurie comes off as an incredibly awkward sex object, and Nina seems driven more by boredom than true passion. You can predict the outcome long before the news of this unusual relationship becomes neighbourhood gossip. You just have to wait a good hour-and-a-half before the one-dimensional cast finally gives in to the stretched-out formula we all know and dread.
The Patron Saints
Dir. Brian M. Cassidy, Melanie Shatzky
Canadian documentary, The Patron Saints, offers a dark and voyeuristic glimpse into a nameless nursing home for the disabled and the elderly. Shot over four years, directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky employ an atmospheric lens that floats through the pastel walls of the institution, dropping in on various residents along the way. By structuring the narrative around the candid stories of Jim, a frank and upbeat man who is the youngest resident of the institution, The Patron Saints effectively avoids the common problem of condescension. Instead, the film’s lyrical approach to documentation distinguishes it as a haunting reflection on human frailty. The film taps into our fears of seclusion, making us dread the day that we no longer self-reliant. Jim’s anecdotes introduce us to a vast array of cases — some sweet, some a bit disturbing. For instance, there is Roro, a disabled woman who was molested by her brother, her only regular visitor. However, even that one visit seems preferable when juxtaposed with scenes of distraught mothers crying over their children’s lack of concern for them. A trying emotional experience for all, The Patron Saints lets viewers wrestle with the significance of the fading minds and static bodies presented throughout the film.
Dir. Ben Wheatley
Jay and Gal are suburban ex-soldiers who decide to revive their posts as hitmen in order to save their cash-strapped families. Shel, Jay’s wife, constantly pushes him to find work so that they can pay off escalating debts. Jay’s former partner, Gal, convinces him to re-enter the realm of assassins. The reason for the pair’s extended leave from a life of crime is only ever implied — references to a former botched job in Kiev continuously threaten the completion of their latest assignment. Everyday settings and Blair Witch-style camera work define the look of Kill List, bestowing the small London town with a tense atmosphere. Unanswered questions and mysterious symbols are thrown into the plot alongside Jay’s increasingly erratic behaviour; initially eliminating targets with a gun, he begins to prefer the unhurried satisfaction of hacking limbs and burning faces.
The reason Kill List has garnered so much critical attention is its unorthodox approach to the horror genre. Director Ben Wheatley transitions between story modes at a cleverly calculated pace. What initially starts off as a character study unexpectedly transforms into a gruesome thriller/horror amalgam. At the film’s conclusion, the bloodbath reaches such a level of excess that you’ll surely forget when the spats about buying groceries ended and the cult-like death matches took over.
Dir. Tanya Wexler
Hysteria is the best kind of big budget, high-gloss gala presentation, featuring a star cast and a beautifully captured period in history. Director Tanya Wexler’s first feature film in 10 years, the premise — the very true story of the invention of the electronic vibrator in the 1880s — provides a light-hearted and surprisingly comical take on the Victorian era medical scene. Wexler explains that “If there’s any critique of the film, it’s that Hysteria isn’t salacious enough. But I think it’s more subversive to make a film about the vibrator that you can bring your mom to.”
With little velvet curtain sliders dividing the doctors from their patients, the nether-regions explored are alluded to in the most amusing way. Historical figure Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is the protagonist of the film. Frustrated with the application of dated practices such as bloodletting and leeching among London’s medical establishments Granville moves from one hospital job to the next, in constant despair over the high rate of patient mortality. Granville soon stumbles upon the private practice of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) who has a booming business dealing with bourgeoisie housewives afflicted with “hysteria” — a catch-all diagnosis for everything from insomnia to depression, or anything else a man doesn’t understand about the female sex. Unable to properly attend to his growing clientele, Dalrymple takes on Granville as his assistant in the treatment of manual massage, a therapeutic procedure applied to a woman’s vaginal area. Though the women clearly enjoy the procedure, reacting with operatic singing and shouts of “Jolly ho!”, Dalrymple stresses that the treatment is not sexual in the least (orgasms still being an unfamiliar concept at the time).
Dalrymple’s daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who goes against her father’s wishes by running an East-End settlement for the poor, is a spirited woman who pokes fun at Granville for wasting his medical talents pleasuring bored housewives. When persistent hand cramps prevent Granville from getting the job done, he is discharged. Shortly thereafter, he joins forces with his wealthy mate Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), whose love of power tools is transferred to the invention of a hand-device capable of inducing paroxysms in women — in half the time a manual job ever could!
Maggie Gyllenhaal, no stranger to sexuality in her acting repertoire, stated that Hysteria presented an opportunity for her to address the taboo behind female sexuality. “It’s about vibrators and women’s orgasms, and I don’t think people really do talk about it very much, and I think it does still make us flushed and uncomfortable.”
Wexler stated that she was well aware of the taboo-status surrounding depictions of women reaching climax; she got around the stern American rating system that would have limited the scope of her film by situating the unmentionable topic within a comedy. Dancy’s interest in the topic led to parallels between Hysteria and Cronenberg’s latest, A Dangerous Method: “In reference to the Cronenberg movie, it’s interesting that they’re dealing with hysteria but even with the time shift between the two movies, it’s completely different. In this case, it goes from a completely fabricated physical diagnosis, to an arguably fabricated psychological diagnosis.” What Dancy found most outrageous about the film was that men in the field of medicine were “without any irony, without any deception, diagnosing this nonexistent condition and doing what they were doing manually…failing to see there might be anything sexual about it.” With Gyllenhaal’s character serving as an advocate for women’s independence, the hilarity and strong social discourse of the film stems from everyone else’s obliviousness.