By Jennifer Merin
WeNews film critic
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
'Payback' probes the human consequences of debt and is a great companion film to 'Surviving Progress,' which explores the serious traps of new technologies. Both offer the insight of Margaret Atwood.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Two movies this month--"Payback" and "Surviving Progress"--offer great food for talk, thought and encounters with Canadian writer Margaret Atwood.
"Surviving Progress," opening April 6, is Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks' provocative documentary based on Ronald Wright's "A Short History Of Progress." Here Atwood appears along with Wright, Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, David Suzuki and others to discuss how the human species falls prey to "progress traps." These are technologies and belief systems that serve immediate needs but put the future at risk. Replete with dramatic reenactments (herding wooly mammoths, for example) and clever graphics, the documentary entertains while making you think deeply about human nature.
It would make an intense and perfect double bill with Jennifer Baichwal's "Payback," opening April 25. This is a masterful documentary based on Atwood's provocative eponymous treatise plumbing the effects of debt on human behavior. Beautifully shot and brilliantly edited, the film interweaves clips of Atwood reading from her book and commentaries from the likes of British author Karen Armstrong, International Crisis Group's Louise Arbour and social justice author Raj Patel. Stories include a reformed thief and drug addict who's guilt-ridden about victimizing an elderly woman, a farmer who takes a stand against the cruel exploitation of workers in Florida's tomato fields and Canadian media mogul Conrad Black's fraud conviction. Moviegoers owe Baichwal a debt of thanks for "Payback."
Another look at the mishandling of money comes from Pamela Glasner and Deborah Louise Robinson's documentary, "Last Will and Embezzlement," opening April 13. It follows the troubling case of Glasner's elderly parents, whose life savings were drained by a predatory man who befriended them. The film shows such crimes to be commonplace, indicating that perpetrators preying on elderly marks often cannot be brought to justice. Mickey Rooney, who suffered a similar crime, speaks out in this important, eye-opening documentary.
For more on the intersection of money and aging, there's Fred Schepisi's "The Eye of the Storm," opening April 20. It stars Charlotte Rampling as a fading, yet still vain and overbearing socialite who's frittering away her wealth. Her un-adored children (played by Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis) have returned to their mother's Sydney mansion and greedily eye their evaporating inheritance. Judy Morris's intensely dramatic script, based on Patrick White's novel, presents a gripping, often uncomfortably amusing account of family relationships and money. Brilliant performances and superb cinematography.
Another notable release this month is Malgorzata Szumowska's stunning "Elles." It opens April 27 and stars Juliette Binoche as Anne, an investigative journalist. While researching a story on student prostitution, the protagonist befriends two bright, beautiful young women (played by Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig) who've become sex workers to escape poverty and pay for their education. The students' frankness about their work and life expectations leads Anne to reflect on her own sexuality, marriage and social attitudes.
Szumowska and Tine Byrckel's script has great characters, but skirts the risk factors of prostitution. There are no manipulative pimps. Explicit sex scenes are nonviolent. Johns are shown as pitifully needy, repressed and inept. "Elles" is neither crusading nor exploitive, but it's bound to be controversial because it deals with such an explosive subject in such a relaxed and lenient way.
Mia Hansen-Løve's "Goodbye First Love," opening April 20, deals with sexuality in quite a different way. Teenage Camille (played by Lola Créton) is devastated when her boyfriend leaves her to explore the world. By the time he returns, six years later, she's gained self-confidence and a new boyfriend. This is a lovely, intimate, girl-centric, coming-of-age film.
"Sound of My Voice," produced, co-written by and starring Brit Marling, also casts investigative journalists as protagonists. In this narrative feature opening April 27 documentary filmmaker Peter (Christopher Denham) and his girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius) enter a spiritual cult with a leader who claims to be visiting from the year 2054. They intend to expose the leader Maggie (Brit Marling) as a fraud. Instead, they begin to become indoctrinated, or should we say seduced?
Smartly conceived, beautifully filmed and full of surprises, "Sound of My Voice" is a grippingly mysterious psychological sci-fi thriller that spotlights Marling as a writer and actress.
The April 4 re-release of "Titanic" in 3-D arrives in time for the April 11th 100th anniversary of the sinking. This version adds to the visual depth-of-field but the obvious Hollywood ageism still rankles. The script favors a concocted Romeo and Juliet tale over the true-love story of Ida and Isidor Straus. Sure, the tale of young Jack (Leo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslett) is beguiling, but that of Ida and Isidor, two elderly New York philanthropists, is so much more. Ida relinquished her lifeboat seat to remain onboard and die with Isidor (40,000 people attended their memorial). This story is sadly relegated to a clip showing an unidentified couple reclining on a bed, surrounded by rising water. Fortunately, you can now read about the Titanic's real romance in June Hall McCash's "A Titanic Love Story: Ida and Isidor Straus," published in March.
April 6 brings Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress," a thoroughly refreshing indie comedy starring Greta Gerwig. She is the leader of a clique of college lasses whose life mission is to save others (and themselves) from being depressed. They treat hopeless people as good causes. Among other antics, they turn tap dancing into therapy. The quirky behavior and deft dialogue is utterly delightful. If you're in a funk, this will get you out of it.
There's nothing light-hearted about "Player Hating: A Love Story," Maggie Hadleigh-West's compelling documentary about talented young rapper Jasun Wardlaw (aka Half-A-Mil, his hip-hop name) and his crew. Wardlaw chronicles life in the crime-riddled Albany Housing Project in Brooklyn, N.Y., where rapping represents an escape from paralyzing poverty for those lucky enough to avoid imprisonment or violent death. An important film. Opens April 6.
Opening April 13, Canada's Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar, adapted from Évelyne de la Chenelière's stage play, is the profoundly moving story of how a sixth-grade teacher's suicide affects her students and colleagues. Into the classroom's emotionally-raw environment comes substitute teacher Monsieur Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), a Middle Eastern refugee. He has a remarkably reassuring effect on kids until authorities discover he's not who he claimed to be. Magnificent storytelling illuminated by brilliant performances. A must see.
In her first feature, "L!fe Happens," writer/director Kat Coiro takes a light-hearted look at Los Angeles housemates--Kim (Krysten Ritter), Deena
(Kate Bosworth) and Laura (Rachel Bilson)--whose lives turn topsy-turvy when Kim gets pregnant from a one-night-stand. The easy-going trio deals with serious issues raised by single motherhood, one laugh at a time.
Opening April 27, Nicholas Stoller's "The Five Year Engagement" stars Emily Blunt and Jason Segel as an affianced couple who repeatedly postpone their wedding due to their work schedules. A common concern, pleasingly presented in this engaging romcom.
"The Moth Diaries," Mary Harron's highly anticipated vampire movie, is a grave disappointment. Based on Rachel Klein's novel, it deals but superficially with themes of teen lust, angst and peer pressure. The story is predictable and effects are boring, two flaws fatal to the horror genre. And, it doesn't help that the vampire girl resembles a Charles Addams cartoon. Unless you're a die-hard Harron fan, let "Moth Diaries" flutter by.
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In addition to covering film for Women's eNews, Jennifer Merin writes about documentaries for About.com (http://documentaries.About.com) and is president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (http://www.AWFJ.org), a nonprofit organization of the leading women film journalists in the U.S. and Canada. She is also a member of the Broadcast Journalists Association.