Hunger Pains

Hunger is not a film to be enjoyed, but to be appreciated…for its artistic merit and for its unflinching portrayal of a period in relatively recent history.  It is primarily the story of Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender), one of the Irish Republican Army members imprisoned in the late 1970’s in Northern Ireland for “political terrorism” (a divisive and debated term in and of itself ~ Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed there was no such thing as political terrorism, only criminal terrorism).  In 1981, Sands led a hunger strike in protest of the British Government’s refusal (under Thatcher’s rule) to grant the IRA prisoners political status as well as of its failure to acknowledge the prisoners’ requests for more humane prison conditions.

Director & Co-Writer Steve McQueen

Hunger is British visual artist Steve McQueen’s (not to be confused with the actor Steve McQueen) directorial debut.  (McQueen teamed again with Fassbender for last year’s Shame.)  He does a strikingly effective job of portraying the inhumane and brutal conditions that existed within the infamous Maze prison in Belfast, as well the ways in which both the prisoners and those working within the prison were effected by the politically-sparked unrest.  It is harrowing to watch…yet, at the same time, McQueen has his supremely artistic eye on exhibit in every single frame of the film.  It is a wonder to behold…you could quite honestly hit the pause button at any moment in the entire movie and see a work of art.  That he is able to make feces smeared on prison cell walls look like a painting is a revelation.

Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands

McQueen is masterful at putting you THERE, through a sort of naturalistic audio-visual language.  He uses virtually NO soundtrack in the film, other than the organic sounds within a scene.  The long silences speak volumes (you feel the time ticking away in those lonely, cold prison cells); they also serve to create a marked contrast for the uncontrolled noise that erupts at other times, making it that much more jarring and unnerving when it does (such as the rhythmic thumping of the batons the prison officers use to beat the prisoners). There are many long, static shots in which we are simply observers of whatever “happens to happen” within the frame, which truly does seem to mimic being there.  You can almost feel the chill and smell the stench of urine, feces and rotting food (which made me incredibly grateful I wasn’t there). Continue reading

Fish Tank ~ Reeled In By the Bait

Consider yourself forewarned that this will be the first of many reviews to come on films featuring Michael Fassbender.  After seeing him at year’s end in films such as A Dangerous Method and Shame (a stunning, searing performance for which he should have earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination), I have become a full-on Fan (yes, that’s with a capital “F”).  I have caught Fassbender Fever…in a big way.  And am therefore working my way through his filmography.  Yeah, he’s more than easy on the eyes ~ and as some may know, offers plenty of himself on which to feast the eyes (see Shame for full-frontal Fassbender).  BUT there is much, much more to this man than just a handsome face (and breathtaking body).  He is a terrifically talented actor, who shows great range and has yet to disappoint in anything I’ve seen.

His performance in Fish Tank is no exception.  Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, the film won Best British Film at the 2010 BAFTAs ~ with good reason.  It is a unique coming-of-age story centered on Mia, a foul-mouthed, back-talking, rebellious teen who has been kicked out of school and is struggling to find a way out of her stifled, unsupportive home life in a British housing project with a bitter, unloving single mother and feisty younger sister.  (Father, whoever he is, is nowhere in sight nor is he ever even mentioned.)

Changes are set in motion when the girls’ mother brings home new boyfriend Connor (Fassbender), who ultimately has a profound effect on each of the women in the family (in various ways and for various reasons), but on no one more so than Mia.  It is fascinating to observe the changing dynamics and ripple effects created by Connor’s charismatic presence, which, in the beginning is primarily positive for these women lacking any sort of stable, supportive male figure in their lives.  It is Mia’s struggle to differentiate between Connor as a father figure and a man to whom she has a burgeoning attraction, that ultimately proves to be the stimulus for change ~ and growth ~ in Mia’s life.

Continue reading

Monsieur Lazhar (Canada) ~ From the Heart, For the Heart

Monsieur LazharI fear no words can do this extraordinary film adequate justice.  A Foreign Language Film nominee for this year’s Academy Awards, it simultaneously filled (to the brim) and broke my heart.  Quiet and gently-paced, director and screenwriter Phillippe Falardeau’s film is an exquisite depiction of the universality of loss and grief.  None of us, no matter our age or circumstances, are immune to tragedy touching our lives.  Yet in that sobering reminder, there is also a message of hope, for through that shared experience is great potential for healing.

Monsieur Lazhar has fled his native Algiers (for reasons to which we become privy) for Montreal, Canada, where he is seeking asylum.  He convinces the principal of a grade school to hire him as the replacement for a well-loved teacher who has committed suicide in her classroom (the reveal of which is tastefully handled, so please don’t let that bit of information dissuade you from seeing this lovely and powerful film).

It is deeply moving to witness the relationships that develop between this kind, gentle, Monsieur Laznharpatient man and his classroom of students, as well as the ways in which they are ultimately able to help one another to cope and come to terms with the emotions they are each experiencing.  There is something so pure and honest about what unfolds between this teacher and his pupils ~ they all possess both innocence and innate wisdom in relation to their grief, regardless of age or experience.  And thus the lines between teacher and student are touchingly blurred.  Continue reading

A Separation (2012, Iran)

Director: Asgar Farhadi

Around year’s end, I began to see this film on nearly every Top 10 film list I laid eyes on.  (And indeed, it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars.)  So after all the hoopla, I must say I expected to like it more than I did.  That said, I certainly appreciated it…particularly the immense complexity of the situation which ensues and how each and every character is effected by it.

The film does a spectacular job of presenting each character in such a way that you empathize with every one of them, even if at times you also want to scream in frustration at them and/or question/disagree with their actions.  All sides and all of the reasoning and thought processes of the characters manage to be conveyed, which is quite a feat considering how intricately layered the story is.

We are looking at issues as far-ranging as familial loyalty (on multiple levels ~ care of elderly parents as well as of children), the collapse/disintegration of a marriage and its effect on the couple’s (wise beyond her years) adolescent daughter, trying to make ends meet and the lengths to which one must go in order to survive, religious beliefs and conviction, accusations of theft and murder, the Iranian legal system, honesty vs. dishonesty (or perhaps more fittingly here, truth vs. lies), trust vs. doubt…all within the context of two hours.     

It is an emotionally daring and draining film, one which actually left me feeling rather cold and empty, which is somewhat surprising given that all of the characters involved in the story are sympathetic and ultimately just trying to survive and care for those they love.  It’s most disturbing to see the detrimental (and it is assumed permanently scarring) effect the events have on the children of the parents involved, particularly the 11-year old daughter (who appeared much older and far more mature than most 11-year-olds I know), who is, more than once, left (forced?) to determine the course of the fate of both her parents and herself, a cruel and unusual punishment for one so young and innocent. I felt SO deeply sorry and sad for her for the pain, confusion, fear, sadness, doubt, pressure and trauma she was clearly experiencing.  Which makes the movie’s conclusion (or more accurately lack thereof) all the more effective (if not emotionally torturous), as we are left waiting outside a courtroom, alongside her parents, to learn with which parent she has chosen to live.  We feel at once both the anticipation and the helpless resignation of each parent as they await word of their only child’s decision.  And truly, I couldn’t say which she would choose.  A wrenching ending to a wrenching story.