Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Hollywood Messes Up a Canadian Classic

Early slasher cinema will be forever indebted to Bob Clark's Black Christmas, a low-budget Canadian film starring Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder. And yet - Hollywood went ahead and screwed it up in a reckless attempt to remake and modernize the story, clumsily relying on the foundation of Psycho.

(Beware of Spoilers)

Sadly, Glenn Morgan’s 2006 remake of Bob Clark’s 1974 film Black Christmas is not a terribly coherent film. In a messy effort to do too much, the film does too little - it loses the essence of the first one which was all about the actual terror of suspense. Here, Billy’s extensive backstory crosscuts throughout the plot, exposing a set of reasons why he is incapable of functioning ‘normally’ in society. Moreover, the theme of sexual harassment, overly present in the original is played down by having the calls no longer be perverted, and yet Billy as a voyeur becomes a major theme. Meanwhile, the film seems to try to use the themes of voyeurism and the breakdown of the family to create an intertextual relationship to Psycho

Subequently, the film is no longer explicitly about the vulnerability of women as there is no sexual harassment (save for the one scene in which Billy secretly watches Lauren shower as an obvious and out of place homage to Psycho). Instead, it becomes more traditional in its exploitation of the bad mother/good mother myth through its use of the virgin/whore dichotomy, albeit updated to embroider the good mother/virgin (Kelli) with feminist characteristics such as rationality, and authority and vigor when necessary. By the end however such characteristics are subdued when she is taken home by her mother in a traumatized state. Somehow, she becomes just another victim.

The recurrent victimization of women in slashers has been discussed by many, including William Schoell who asserts that this tactic is connected to the fact that the idea of women needing protection is simply “ingrained in the public consciousness”, and is therefore unlikely to ever go away. Ultimately though, Billy’s violence becomes a consequence of his life and psychosis rather than being explicitly about women as it was in Clark’s version. Instead, violence is all he knows. This is another example of the way the film may be thought of as borrowing from Psycho

Speaking about Hitchcock’s film as a pre-cursor to the slasher, Clover notes the significant conventions as follows: “the killer is the psychotic product of a sick family, but still recognizably human; the victim is a beautiful, sexually attractive woman; the location is not home, a terrible place...”. Unfortunately, Black Christmas certainly lacks both the cinematic and narrative sophistication of Hitchcock’s film. Instead, major themes such as voyeurism, consumption, and the virgin/whore dichotomy, seem to be simply thrown together in a blender with little to no use of critical thought. 

Despite the story being founded on Clark’s original ideas about the character Billy, the film is seriously lacking anything that resembles finesse. It’s all about the spectacle of the wet death (a phrase by which Isabelle Christina Pinedo describes all post-modern horror), denying the viewer any reason to care about anyone or anything that’s going on. 

In a word, it’s a MESS.

Click Here for my look at the original and why it is such an important film in slasher history

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Sexuality, Nationalism, and Religion in Deepa Mehta’s ELEMENTS Trilogy

From 1996-2005, the Toronto-based-Indian-born female filmmaker, Deepa Mehta, produced three films that have now become known as her Elements trilogy. The films, Fire (1996), Earth (1998), and Water (2005), written and directed by Mehta, are all critically acclaimed as well as highly controversial. Her intent was to make three films that she would find meaningful in dealing with the politics of sexuality, the politics of nationalism, and the politics of religion, respectively. Despite the fact that the films deal with specific events in Indian history, and are thus set between 1938 and 1947, by producing them in a time when issues of citizenship and national identity are being publicly confronted, Mehta is able to present a new perspective on “past” issues. In fact, bringing these past events to the forefront at such a time employs them as reminders that these issues have long been in existence, even if they were not being addressed. The films challenge what it means to be Indian, and question the status and rights of Indian women. The bold storytelling Mehta takes on with this three part project must, I argue, be considered a form of feminist and social activism, and is thus worth serious attention for their willingness to consider issues of gender and citizenship. 
In a chapter on Globalization and Women, Valentine Moghadam points out that the interpretation of globalization as westernization was a major prompt of Fundamentalist groups which are very concerned with sustaining traditional ideologies about gender, among other things (45). This frame of thought has caused quite an uproar surrounding Mehta’s films. For instance, during the making of Water (a film about Hindi widows who are bound by religion to live lives of self-denial, starvation, and chastity), it took only two days of on-location shooting for fundamentalist groups to fight against the production hard enough to have it violently shut down by authorities. The film was subsequently shot in Sri Lanka. The reason fundamentalists are so enraged about the film is because it suggests that the sacred Hindi texts are being used as a guise for the society to mistreat women and strip them of their right to be full citizens, to the benefit of men who remain rich and powerful by the same laws.

In Earth, Mehta takes on the division of India, which created Pakistan and was the cause of much bloodshed. This film highlights the problematic nature of the idea of national identity and the issue of multiculturalism. Earth is bloated with debates about who belongs where based on religion, and about how the Indian people negotiate their “English” identity. Significantly, the political arguments and terrorist style violence are all led by men in the film, while the women are shown as lacking political voices, but also as being deeply emotionally affected by not knowing where they “belong”. The film therefore strives to portray the problematic social structures created by the concept of nationalism, especially in relation to gender. The concept of globalization finds its way into this discussion because it seems to have informed Mehta’s perspective in telling this story. If, as Scholtz suggests, modernization is one way to understand globalization, then it can be argued as being relevant to Mehta’s film, which is underlined with the idea that individualism and rationalism are lacking in the situation. The characters seem to possess these qualities before the division, but quickly revert to traditional ideas about nation and religion informing a group-identity once Britain puts independence on the table. 

Meanwhile, the earliest installment of the trilogy, Fire, demonstrates women’s dependency on their husbands, without whom they have no place in society. It was the first mainstream film to deal explicitly with homosexuality (specifically lesbianism), inspired by the feminist Indian writer Ismat Chughtai. Again, Mehta is challenging national policies by wondering why women must assimilate to patriarchal heterosexual ideologies in order to have rights in their country. Not surprisingly, this film was heavily protested in India as well for both its critical nature and its “deviance”.

Speaking Overall, Mehta’s films are especially interesting to analyze within the framework of globalization because of her own relationship to transnationalism. All three films deal explicitly with the contentious issue of belonging within a national framework, a subject Mehta cannot be unfamiliar with as a Canadian citizen for over 20 years. That she continues to make films that challenge the politics, and gender politics, of India affords her a distance from the subject that may make tackling these difficult issues easier, if not only for her access to Canadian government funding. And yet as an Indian woman, she is afforded a certain level of authority which allows her a privileged position from which to criticize. What she goes through to get these stories told is remarkable and for that will alone she must be commended. 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Lucky Girl (John Fawcett 2001): It's a Long Hard Fall From the Top

Like many Canadian directors, Fawcett has headed some exceptional feature films, but often sees much of his time and creativity dedicated to guest-directing on outstanding Canadian TV shows. This is the even case for some bigger names such as Bruce McDonald (Hardcore Logo, The Tracy Fragments) and Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Adoration). It's one of the unavoidable consequences of the Canadian industry which has long been more adept to television - subsequently some of our best movies are also made for TV.

Hence Lucky Girl A.K.A. My daughter's Secret Life.

Immediately following his great success with Ginger Snaps in 2000 (easily one of the strongest werewolf films ever made), Fawcett directed this dark drama featuring the then up-and-coming Elisha Cuthbert. In it, she plays 17 year old Kaitlin, who in her final year of high school is looking for quick ways to make quick cash as she excitedly plans a trip to Europe with her best friend. As something of a mathematician, when she stumbles upon a knack for cards she is thrilled by the thought of how much money she can make. But it's not long before her luck runs out.

This is not a movie about a card-shark, it aims only to show how easily a young girl can get herself into a whole lot of trouble. Eventually, Kaitlin owes more than she can pay, and a sudden romance with a 22 year old gambling addict only makes things worse. From being jumped in a bathroom, to robbing a house, to being held hostage in another - it's safe to say Kaitlin completely loses control over her life.

Although the film is completely different from Ginger Snaps, Fawcett develops some undeniable thematic links, especially in the depiction of the home. Again we have a "typical" middle-class family featuring the passive father whose relationship with the mother is disconnected, to say the least, and a mother who is delusional about the bond she shares with her daughter. This atmosphere heavily informs how the girls view the world and their place in it. While in Ginger Snaps the girls rebel aggressively against the status quo which they see "caricaturized" at home, here Kaitlin simply has no sense of how to properly connect with people - nor does she understand herself as having any responsibility to do so within the world. She is not a sympathetic character, and yet there is a desire to see things work out for her because despite all of her mistakes it still seems as though the people around her are failing her more than she is failing them. Much of this has to do with the depiction of her parents and their inability to actually parent.

All in all, it is an interesting story with interesting characters, no one is particularly likeable and yet everyone seems to have a side worth getting to know. It is one of the better TV movies I have seen, with an impressive 7 star rating on IMDB. Originally a CTV production, the film is also available on American Netflix.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

BITTEN Season 2?


The new Canadian Fantasy Series Bitten, based on Kelly Armstrong’s book series Women of the Otherworld, is coming up on its first season finale, so naturally the question is, will it be back? 

Premiering as an original Space network production on January 13, the story follows Elena Michaels (played by Laura Vandevoort of Instant Star), a werewolf who has left her pack to attempt a “normal” city-life in Toronto, Ontario. Things become complicated, however, when she is asked to return in order to help her pack track down serial-killing “muts” who seem to be targeting them. The show also airs on Syfy.
Although the supernatural has been becoming increasingly popular with record-breaking viewerships for shows such as True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries, the female werewolf is a character of a much more rare variety, hardly seen in the lead role aside from the rare film - notably Ginger Snaps in 2000. In a recent interview Vandevoort took some time to reflect upon her position as the only Lady Wolf lead in mainstream pop culture, stating: 

“I’m very proud of the show for that alone… But honestly I don’t know why it’s like that. We’ve all grown up with the male werewolf… perhaps it’s hard for audiences to accept a female playing this strong and dominant werewolf. I don’t know why it hans’t come up until now but I’m glad that things are changing and that it’s accepted” ( 2014).

Clearly, this fresh angle allows the show to stand out from similar shows such as Lost Girl and Being Human, but will it be enough?

We’ve all experienced the disappointment of losing our favorite TV shows, and we all know ratings and viewership has a lot to do with the decision to cut a series loose. While there has been official no word yet on the fate of Bitten, it has garnered mostly positive reviews, with adoring fans turning to comment pages hoping for a renew. Critics have had more mixed reactions. The Philadelphia Inquirer has referred to the show as a “sexy, diverting drama”, so that although it may be limited by its tight budget, it remains “smoothe” with “solid performances” (Tirade Derakhshani). Meanwhile, the Boston Herald argues that the show moves far too slowly, giving it a C grade (Mark Perigard).

Of course, adaptation can be tricky. People tend to get attached to the original work, however, Armstrong has been good enough to address such concerns on her tumblr page. She expresses her own excitement about the show and explains “There’s enough of a demand that I’ve never felt I could refuse to sell the rights”. Whether this demand has manifested into dedicated viewership that will keep the show going is yet to be seen, but there is certainly reason to tune in and check out TV’s first Female Wolf lead. 

The season finale is set to air Monday, April 7th.