Killer Joe

August 8, 2012

Killer Joe Cooper suffers psychopathy. He is a manipulative, egocentric, unempathetic, guiltless symbol for the patriarch and the Name of the Law – penal, and later, familial. His character commands control and receives submission from both on-screen characters and viewers alike. Therein is the problematic in “enjoying” Killer Joe.

There are five central characters; after Joe there is Ansel, the endearing but incompetent patriarch before Joe enters and assumes the throne in their domestic domain, and Chris, Ansel’s rogue, harebrained son who comes up with central plot device of killing his own mother to collect on the life insurance. Whilst Ansel and Chris are depicted as unintelligent, foolish and are often the subject of some particularly base jokes, they are kept just barely on the right side of audience alignment by the film’s further and more persecuting jokes aimed at the female characters. Of whom there is Adele – the absent mother mostly referred to as a bitch and only shown once where we see her dead – or at least near-dead – body during the patriarch’s removal of her impotent reign. Then there is Sharla, the deceitful, scheming, unfaithful woman who represents whore. Joining these two already glowing representations of women is Dottie, the virginal, naive, slightly affected and potentially mentally challenged daughter and ultimately little more than the retainer following a contract transaction between aforementioned patriarchal figures Joe, Ansel and Chris. After the film removes the impotent, it condemns the whore and finally rapes and damages its virgin. Dottie is almost the film’s innocent charmer until the final scene where she too forgoes any previous sense of morality, ethics, empathy, compassion – heck, humanity, and callously kills the only people she supposedly loves and cares for. The final sting being that all the concern for the weak and seemingly innocent version of the feminine was still a waste of male time and energy as she, like all women, was only to turn on the males in the end.

But what’s most concerning about Killer Joe is the guise that it is a “Black Comedy”. The entire Smith family are depicted as pathetic and parasitic to society. Although the focus is never on Joe as an officer of the law, we are always aware that he represents the penal code, societal structure and of course the Name of the Law. Here, with a family that are willing and eager to turn upon themselves, leaving one another out to dry, Joe is the only character with whom the audience are even close to aligned. Are we to take then that psychopathy is preferable to those who are depicted here as the economic dregs of society?

Certainly it is possible to take controversial, uncomfortable subject matter and satirise it in a way that is bleak and comedic; depictions of depravity that leave the viewer with feelings of uncomfortable self reflection on their ability to find such material amusing or films that expose their protagonists as weak, unstable – Happiness is a great example of such an achievement; but Killer Joe does none of these things. It may well be true that Matthew McConaughey’s performance is brilliant and even that the character of Joe captures onscreen the displays of psychopathy to perfection, but enabling that character control over the audience and their responses is a curious and pivotal choice for the film’s ultimate success. The result, unfortunately, is a room full of laughter – not at the suggestion of a misogynist act – but at the humiliation of the act carried out.

There are further issues in the film and certainly this is a gloss in terms of examples but what’s problematic about Killer Joe isn’t that its lead character suffers psychopathy, nor that it employs humour in a tale of such subject matter, but that it uses the psychopathy as a tool for seduction through which it repeatedly revels in the successful delivering of dangerous ideology.

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Despite the plethora of TV comedy out there, it isn’t actually all that often that I find myself truly and consistently tickled by a TV show. Luckily for me, Adult Swim exists. And whilst I find most of what I’ve seen from them very, very funny there is one show in particular that rises above their own very high standard and deserves far more attention and accolade than it receives. That show is The Venture Bros. Having waited for what seems like an eternity to an avid fan, Season 4 Part 1 is now available to purchase on DVD in Australia thanks to Madman Entertainment. And it’s every bit as absolutely awesome as the three incredible seasons that precede it.

At the end of Season 3 viewers were left wondering not only where the line between “good” and “evil” lay with relation to key characters but also who exactly would make it back alive for Season 4. Well, I’m not going to spoil things by answering those rather excellent questions but what I will say is that you needn’t worry because – one way or another – all your favourites will be returning and, as has been the case all along, the “plot” (I think we can just about call it that) thickens. There are important updates afoot with regard to The Guild of Calamitous Intent, The Sovereign, budding romances between certain young characters, the mental health of various other characters and of course, the very complicated, legal minefield that applies to the world of Arching.

If everything I wrote in the last paragraph means absolutely nothing to you then I suspect you are unfamiliar with the best cartoon ever made, in which case, you really ought to start with Season 1 and catch yourself up. Don’t worry, this recommendation is about as iron clad as anyone’s sanity, so if you have a sense of humour (and particularly if things that are a little bit not quite right so happen to tickle your fancy) go buy Seasons 1-4 NOW.

The only negative thing to be said about this DVD is that once you’ve finished watching the eight wonderful episodes it boasts, you’ll no doubt wish you had the next eight at the ready (sadly, they are not yet available over here). But, on the up side, you can go back and watch those eight episodes all over again which, so far as I’m concerned, is actually pretty bloody exciting because if Seasons 1-3 taught me anything, it’s that The Venture Bros. only gets better with repeat viewings.

The Venture Bros. Season 4 Part 1 was released on DVD on Thursday February 16 through Madman Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Black Swan

January 20, 2011

Binary opposites are often used both visually and thematically in mainstream cinema to provide simple and stark contrast with disappointingly little examination of the grey area in between. Taking into account Jacques Derrida’s theorising that there are inherent hierarchies within these dichotomous pairings, there exists a more compelling standpoint from which to consider, not only the way in which the two might interact, but also how it is that they might then begin to break down. A dynamics of power, the interplay between the two is necessarily relational. As such, in even considering the hierarchical structure there exists the possibility that the relationship is organic and that the two might then traverse, confront and collide with one another in their struggle to appropriate the higher ground. This rather striking contemplation of binary opposites is what Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller Black Swan (2010) exemplarily explicates.

Natalie Portman gives her finest onscreen performance as Nina Sayers, a young ballerina who has, until now, always been a great technical dancer with incredible dedication and discipline. Straight-laced, and having lived a sheltered life at the hands of her controlling mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), Nina is also ambitious. Like any performer, she is driven by the desire to not only achieve but also to embody perfection. When long-standing prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) is to be replaced – an inevitable fate for an aging ballerina – the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) casts Nina in the leading role, but, not without hesitation. Although he believes she absolutely embodies the White Swan; elegant, innocent, graceful; he labels her “too frigid” to play the darker side of the Swan Queen, the Black Swan. As such, Nina is, from the outset, anxious about the role and determined to achieve something in self-discovery that will prove her skeptics wrong. When the equally beautiful and certainly as talented Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the ballet Nina becomes irrationally scared of being replaced (a symptom of her guilt felt in replacing Beth) and begins to project the manifestation of all her anxieties onto Lily; slowly, and then psychotically. Whilst in reality Lily poses little threat to Nina and if anything, offers only friendship and support, this is the first of many in Nina’s erratic and delusional interpretations of events.

Though it is certainly true that Aronofsky paints with broad strokes in terms of the motifs to indicate light and dark, rigid and free, it is a very detailed and accomplished contrast that is drawn. From the pastel pinks and delicate jewellery Nina wears, right down to how tightly she secures her bun, she is always shown as a picture of aspiring perfection. Conversely, Lily wears black, adorns herself with chunky bangles, bags and an iPod, and lets her hair down even in rehearsal. But it is not so simple as Nina being “good” and Lily being “bad”. Far from it, Lily is actually a beacon for what Nina must aspire to: a freer, more natural self. In fact, even with Nina’s sexual awakening and her performative journey blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, her taking on the role of the Black Swan is a positive, emancipatory experience. Finally freeing herself from the little girl who turns to mummy for every little thing and finally engaging in something of a life outside of her own discipline and rigidity, Nina’s partial submission to her binary opposite, though difficult and even traumatic, is both healthier and liberating.

For the viewer, as it is for Nina onscreen, the certainty of what is real and what is imaginary becomes increasingly indistinct. This lack of clarity is Aronofsky’s presentation of the grey area. As Nina allows chaos into her life the previous order begins to break down. However, it is not the case that she ever truly gives in to it and ultimately the rigid version of herself, driven to perfection, still reigns. She says early on in the film, before her encounter with the opposite, “I just wanna be perfect”. Dancing the White Swan she stumbles; dancing the Black Swan she flourishes. Returning to both her real self and the White Swan, reality is restored. Nina realises that the freedom she experienced from herself existed for only a moment onstage and that she is now, as she ever was, incarcerated in a prison she built for herself. Achieving, however fleeting, the culmination of two binary opposites working at so beautifully both against and with one another, Nina reached the summit of perfection: “I felt it. I’m perfect. It was perfect.”

The last note is bittersweet: perfection is reached through destruction. The break down of hierarchy within these binary opposites creates an internal implosion whereby union can only result in the annihilation of one. The White Swan, Nina’s troubled, ill self is tragically what persists and though she is content, having reached perfection, its resonant lesson is deafening: perfection is imperfect. An engaging and visceral presentation of thoughtful thematics, Black Swan is as ambitious, and as perfect, as its lead.

Black Swan is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday January 20 through Twentieth Century Fox.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

The Loved Ones

November 2, 2010

After having its release date pushed back several times and subsequently being withdrawn from this year’s AFI Award Screenings, The Loved Ones (2009), which premiered at MIFF in 2009, is finally getting its release in Australian cinemas. Assuredly worth the wait, The Loved Ones is simultaneously a relief and a pleasure as an Australian film that can honestly boast both an original script and a unique directorial vision. Taking my hat off to writer/director Sean Byrne, for whom this is a feature film debut, I’d like to talk a little about the role of performativity within the film and how it is so wonderfully amplified by an inspirational kitsch-horror aesthetic.

The film opens with Brent Mitchell (Xavier Samuel), a seemingly happy teen, driving along a highway with his father. At this point Brent fits the stereotype of a young, carefree, plaid-shirt wearing, country boy-next-door. But when an ill omen appears in front of them in the form of a blood-drenched young man, causing Brent to swerve suddenly and crash into a nearby tree, killing his father, there is a clear break with this idyllic presentation of reality and Brent undergoes a deeply Freudian experience of trauma. Blaming himself for his father’s death, and becoming increasingly distant from his own “loved ones”; a grief-stricken mother and a concerned girlfriend; some six month later Brent is displaying early signs of “emo” behaviour and from here we are introduced to a group of teenagers who each perform hyper-real stereotypes of misplaced teen angst and overzealous sexual desires.

In addition to “emo” protagonist Brent there is; goth Mia (Jessica McNamee), stoner Jamie (Richard Wilson), pretty, popular girl Holly (Victoria Thaine) and invisible wilting wallflower Lola (Robin McLeavy). Each teen carefully performs both their stereotype and their gender in order to establish their individual “role” and “function” in an environment where identification and semiotics are everything: high school. In order to judge, categorise and somewhat misguidedly “understand” one another it is acceptable for teens to almost over-perform these roles in order to establish a clear, unspoken order, and from that order derive a set of acceptable and unacceptable social codes. Once established, we see these codes at play in almost every scene as gender and type conversely allow and forbid the various social and sexual encounters that take place in the narrative film world.

Stoner Jamie is emo Brent’s best mate, acceptable within the established social code because 1) they are both gendered male and 2) they are both in roles that operate as counter to popular or mainstream teen stereotypes. Each of our male protagonists then performs his straight heteronormative sexuality by taking up with a performed female counterpart. Jamie, nervous and introverted (qualities becoming of our typical stoner friend) asks gorgeous goth Mia to the school dance. She accepts with little enthusiasm with confirms her goth stereotype through 1) nonchalance and indifference and 2) by taking up with a stoner who is an acceptable date for a goth as they, again, both occupy positions counter to the popular majority.

Due however to Brent’s transition from a happy-go-lucky boy-next-door type to outsider emo, we see two very different female gendered performances present themselves to him and, in lieu of their rivalry, a truly fascinating break down of these established social codes ensues. Brent already has a girlfriend: an attractive, fun-loving girl-next-door type. She is compassionate and caring and even though Brent’s recent emo behaviour has put a strain on their relationship it still functions because 1) she operates as a nurturer, intent on “saving” her wistful, broken partner and 2) because their relationship presumably pre-dates Brent’s performative change it can supposedly withstand it. But, unbeknownst to Holly, Lola has read Brent’s present emo performance as a coded opportunity to ask him to be her date for the school dance. Of course he declines, in a kind but dismissive way which one would ordinarily assume, from Lola’s performed wallflower exterior, would sadden and probably even humiliate her. But what no one could have predicted is that it would anger and provoke her own change in performativity. And when Lola’s shy violet facade fades, it reveals a terrifyingly promiscuous pink psycho-killer in its wake.

Abducting Brent and inflicting her pent-up psychotic desires upon him, Lola performs the stereotype she would rather embody: a perfectly pink prom queen. Outside of the coded grounds of high school, Lola is a “Princess” who gets whatever she wants; the spoilt, brattish embodiment of “Daddy’s little girl”. Dressing Brent in a tux she tries to force him to perform the available role of prom king to her queen, and failing thus his resistance is met with bloody violence.

The violence that then takes place, though I am sure many will crudely call it torture-porn, actually operates as a manifestation of misplaced and misrepresented teen angst and sexual desire as well as a subtle indicator for the breakdown of cohesive, functional familial structure – Lola’s relationship with her father, known disturbingly only as “Daddy”, being decidedly less than kosher. Not wanting to give too much away, the most interesting violent act Lola exacts is the attempt to home-labotomise her victim using a power drill. The required removal of Brent’s agency is demonstrative of the intense break-down of Lola’s performed fantasies and her failed need for an implicit co-performer.

With the pinkest of pinks you could possibly imagine (and probably pinker), Lola is a vision in satin, glitter and lip-gloss, which, set against the cruel and unforgiving mise-en-scene of rural depravity offers up a kitsch backdrop for the tremendous splashes of blood that homage a plethora of horror films from the ’70s and ’80s. In lieu of this, and as the only central teen character not shown to be sexually active, Lola’s excess in blood-spill make her an exemplary model for Barbara Creed’s “monstrous feminine” or Laura Mulvey’s “bearer of the bleeding wound”. A modern-day Carrie if you will, Lola abjectly performs and embodies the inverted object of the male gaze, she who  “can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it.” (Laura Mulvey)

Intercutting between our stoner and goth couple getting it on whilst Princess tortures her victim, there is also an interesting juxtaposition of Freudian life and death drives whereby alternating actions intended towards creation and calm represent a terrifically twisted view of teen survival. Fantastically shot against devastating and pathetic surroundings of; a tackily decorated school gym, the unromantic, unmemorable car park setting for a sexual encounter and the disturbingly child-like bedroom of our femme fatal, right up to the final moments where the highway plays cyclical host to the horror at its very heart; The Loved Ones offers a fantastically kitsch aesthetic and is nothing but pure unadulterated entertainment from beginning to bloody end.

The Loved Ones is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday November 4 2010 through Madman Entertainment.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Father Of My Children

August 24, 2010

It is always impressive, if not somewhat daunting, to me when someone of my own age has produced so polished a work of art as Mia Hansen-Løve, whose second feature film, Father Of My Children (Le père de mes enfants, 2009) hits Australian cinemas this week. An unsettling film in the first instance for its abrasive narrative shifts, Løve’s filmmaking slowly reveals a perceptive, provocative vision.

Any film that leads with a “film in film” narrative, as Father Of My Children does, draws attention to the craft of filmmaking, most often with a view to comment on its significance to the reception of the finished product. With this particular film however, the emphasis is placed upon the idea that the juxtaposed “moral projects” of an artistic process and its financial viability creates two distinct final pictures and, moreover, pictures that do not necessarily share any common ground. Without saying too much about the story itself (the affect of the film works best if you know only a little), it is fair to say that if you remove one individual’s interiority and subjectivity from a project it does in no way mean that the picture will not persist. On the contrary, what Løve is offering is the idea that one’s internal conflict can affect the image up unto a point and, ultimately, the image(s) will live a new life separate from their creators and most significantly that they will come to mean something else to someone else (the viewer).

Father Of My Children is the story of independent film production company, Moon Films. Despite financial difficulty and emotional strain, Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), owner and founder of Moon Films, gives a significant proportion of himself to supporting and producing independent films and filmmakers whose often indulgent and arrogant ways he puts down to “artistic genius vision”. Constantly placing the needs and desires of others before his own, Grégoire reaches desperation, his own family unable to intervene. With wonderful subtle reserve, the supporting cast (with special mention of Chiara Caselli in the role of Sylvia, Louis-Do’s onscreen wife) who constitute his family and professional colleagues, convey a strong sense of stoicism in the wake of one man’s lost subjectivity.

Filled with “metaphysical worry” and emphasis on integrity above fulfillment; Sylivia tells Grégoire, “I’d like you to decide to be happy”; Løve takes on a variety of complex issues pertaining to both filmmaking and life in a wider more inclusive sense. An intelligent film with a carefully split vision between that which is onscreen and that which is not: one reflecting or imitating the other ad infinitum yet still somehow ultimately distinct, persisting perhaps in spite of, not necessarily because of, each other.

Father Of My Children is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday August 26 through Palace Films.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision

Catfish

August 9, 2010

Everyone said it was best not to know anything about Catfish (2010) before seeing it. So, trusting in at least some of the illusive collective, I refrained from reading the write-up, was sure not to watch the trailer and wouldn’t allow any of my fellow MIFFophiles to speak of its content in my company. Attending its second screening at the festival, I found the film to be highly enjoyable but not so incredibly shocking or perhaps even surprising as I had been led to believe it might be. In lieu of my own post-viewing assessment, be warned, the words that follow do talk about what actually happens in the film.

Documenting filmmaker Ariel Schulman’s brother Nev, a twenty-four year old photographer, and his incredibly funny yet incredibly sad experience of taking a Facebook “friend” to the next level, Catfish is about the fundamental desire we have to connect with other human beings. Now, the idea of finding interesting people via social networking sites and later meeting them in real life isn’t exactly foreign to me (hi to the many friendly twitter folk I’ve met during MIFF), however, Nev’s “connections” happen in a very different – and far more intense – manner than most of us (I at least speak for myself here) are familiar with.

Connecting first with an eight-year-old girl named Abby who is a talented painter, followed by correspondence with her mother Angela and finally “friending” Abby’s beautiful, older, dancer/singer-songwriter sister Megan, Nev has found himself a “Facebook family.” A seemingly great connection with an interesting and artistic family, Nev is happy to call, email and Facebook the entire family and their friends – until Megan records and posts a song that sounds suspiciously similar to a professional post on YouTube – suddenly it becomes clear that at least one of member of the family isn’t all she says she is…

Exposing a sad individual for the pathological liar she is comes across as a fault that resides ultimately with both parties; Nev’s involvement being implicit despite his naiveté to the contrary, “They didn’t fool me, they just told me things I didn’t care to question.” Handling the apparent situation with more than the appropriate level of tact and kindness it warrants, Catfish is a film that hopes to warn the gullible and lecture the weak. Entertaining if inconsequential viewing.

The Killer Inside Me

July 30, 2010

Although Michael Winterbottom’s films are for the most part formally faultless, I often find that they fail in terms of cinematic affect. It was only after seeing Genoa (Genova, 2008) that I began to suspect his films might ultimately be lacking in tone. But after seeing the trailer for The Killer Inside Me (2010) I once again allowed myself to get my hopes up for what looked like a contender for best film of 2010. Sadly, and despite being; formally excellent; visually stunning so far as art direction and mise-en-scene are concerned; and showcasing some absolutely stellar performances; The Killer Inside Me just wasn’t dark enough in its overall tone to truly leave its audience feeling something. Anything.

Now this is the bit where I admit to not having read the book, an admission I imagine is met with a plethora of “tsks” and shaking heads from the pedants amongst LV’s readership. But to your “tsks” and shaking heads I say this: it is irrelevant for two basic reasons; 1) the film was not made with the intent of being seen by only the relative number of people who have read the book (even with wide readership this is limiting when one considers that it is the primary aim of film distributors to make money, ergo this would be counter-distributor-intuitive) and 2) because a film has to be able to stand up on its own regardless of its “source material”. So, despite my being assured that for the most part the film is a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel (I have pedant friends who keep me well-informed I’ll have you know), I have it on good authority that the one thing evading the film is the novel’s successfully “oppressive, sweaty, horrible tone” (Anthony Morris.)

The atonal tale itself is of Lou Ford (expertly performed by Casey Affleck), a self-professed “man and a gentleman” who happens also to harbour sociopathic and insatiably sadist desires that confuse pleasure and pain with love and vengeance. And whilst this makes for a fascinating premise, its execution is only successful up unto a point. Preferencing aesthetics above tone, The Killer Inside Me is occasionally brutal in its visual violence though never actually dark in depiction. But perhaps leaving the audience as cold as what witnessing the narrative actions of a sociopath ought is the intent behind the adaptation- in which case I’d say choosing Winterbottom to direct was an absolutely smashing idea.

The Killer Inside Me screens as part of this year’s MIFF and will be screening again on Monday August 02, 9.15pm at the Forum Theatre.

Robert Carlyle is once again to grace our cinema screens, and all because of Justin Kerrigan’s burning desire to tell a deeply personal (and so, self-serving) story about the special relationship he shared with his father. Straddling a multitude of genres from dramatic thriller to coming of age weepie, I Know You Know (2008) is as deeply confused about its own generic identity as its central character is about the boundaries between fiction and reality.

Carlyle plays Charlie, a man whose mind is at the precipice of sanity; failing to comes to terms with a bleak reality. Convinced he is under surveillance both in and out of his home, Charlie can’t help but involve his son Jamie  in his crazed world of conspiracy. Loyal to his father, Jamie is something of a curious and disobedient child which only serves to further entangle him in Charlie’s complex web of plot and intrigue. Promising Jamie a new life and a slice of ‘American Dream’ pie, it understandably follows that Jamie, young and impressionable, falls for his father’s story, hook, line and sinker. Although ultimately, mustering up a little savvy, he comes to realise that the enemy exists only  in Charlie’s head. What follows is the exploration of a young boy’s coming of age experience as it parallels the coming apart of his mentally unstable father’s mind. Just as Charlie must learn to face reality, Jamie must now face the world.

Although the premise for the film is not entirely without merit, I Know You Know is, sadly, unable to sustain even its short 81 minute run time, failing at every turn to engage or affect. A large proportion of the cast struggle with the Welsh accent, not least protagonists Carlyle and kid newcomer Arron Fuller. As one of the most difficult accents for a non-native actor to achieve, it makes one wonder why Kerrigan preferenced ‘a name’ over a suitable cast? One can only assume it is because he hoped the pull of Carlyle would distract from his own substandard screenplay and direction. But alas, Carlyle’s acting isn’t exactly up to scratch either which, for everyone concerned, is indeed a crying shame. The use of non-diegetic music is heavy handed and over sentimentalises anything that might otherwise constitute a heartfelt moment.

Unashamedly aspiring towards being the best British film release for 2010, I Know You Know is just another contender that wildly misses the mark. Writer/director Justin Kerrigan, by his own assertion it would seem, can’t decide upon the film’s identity, “This is my funny, heartfelt, fast-paced, adrenalin-rushed coming of age film.” The attempt to embrace so many different styles/adhere to a variety of generic codes, has achieved nothing more than a schizophrenic yet undeniably average film. Instantly forgettable, it fails miserably to hit even one of the disparate tonal qualities its generic hybridity boasts. An unfortunate exercise in filmmaking, I’d suggest Kerrigan stick with pop culture and stay well away from stories with sentiment.

I Know You Know is released in cinemas on April 9 2010 through Network Releasing. There will be a preview screening and Q&A at The Apollo Cinema in London on April 7 in aid of The Big Issue and Mind.