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Vision (2009)

In Film Reviews on December 19, 2010 at 10:47 pm

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“Vision” is the true story of 12th-century nun Hildegard Von Bingen (Barbara Sukowa), a remarkable woman who broke the conventions of her time to become a naturalist, musician, and divine Seer.  Her ability to communicate directly with God puts her at odds with the repressive Catholic hierarchy, and she is repeatedly forced to defend herself, her fellow nuns, and the truth of her convictions.  Eventually her persistence paid off; hundreds of years later, her legacy remains intact.

Before her face-offs with priests and bishops, acclaimed German director Margarethe Von Trotta shows us Hildegard’s progress as a child.  She is dropped off at the convent as a tithe from her wealthy parents, grows attached to the nun who takes care of her, and forms a complicated relationship with another young nun, Jutta (Lena Stolze), who becomes her spiritual sister.  When the Magistra, or head nun, dies suddenly, Hildegard rejects the head priest’s attempt to appoint her to the position; she insists that the other nuns vote for the successor, and maintain control over their own order.  It’s the first in a long line of Hildegard’s rebellions towards male authority, but in the end the result is the same: she becomes the new Magistra.

Eventually, Hildegard decides to form her own convent.  In order to break away from the monastery and its male rulers, she makes connections with local lords, landowners, and other church officials—all of which she does with panache, even, at one point, taking advantage of her own illness to sway her critics.  The political machinations in the film are fascinating—rich families bequeath their daughters to the convent in order to prop up their own names, and knights call on Hildegard to tell them their futures.  Hildegard’s resilience in the face of the Church’s intimidation is striking; indeed, a sort of proto-feminism is evident within the convent, where the women rely only on each other.

Hildegard’s relationships with other women are really at the heart of the film; she has an especially complex connection with a much younger nun, Richardis (Hannah Hertzsprung), which can be read as both maternal and romantic.  The lines are very blurry—Hildegard and Richardis frequently speak of their love for each other, and it’s impossible to know exactly what they mean.  Von Trotta is known for her portrayals of strong female characters, and her foregrounding of female relationships; her film “Marianne and Juliane” (1981) was both her big break and that of Sukowa, her frequent collaborator.

“Vision” is gorgeous to look at, and Sukowa gives a bravura performance; she’s someone whose name should be better known in the US.  The film also makes a point of showcasing Hildegard’s music, which is fascinating.  Though the

New German Cinema director Margarethe Von Trotta

pace can drag a little at times, it’s well worth sticking it out.

“Vision” opened in limited release in New York on October 13th.

Vanishing on 7th Street (2010)

In Film Reviews on December 15, 2010 at 7:53 pm

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I would’ve expected more from Brad Anderson.  The director of the overrated but effective “Session 9” (2001), and “The Machinist” (2004), Christian Bale’s most impressive vehicle since “American Psycho,” knows how to create a creepy mood and ratchet up the tension bit by bit.  But the premise of his new film, “Vanishing on 7th Street,” doesn’t lend itself well to subtlety or sophistication: people suddenly begin disappearing as soon as they become engulfed by the dark—which is unfortunate, since the city the film is set in (Detroit, in real life) has just lost power.

Hayden Christensen stars as Luke (no, really) in an attempt to recast himself as a hardened, manly sort, which isn’t terribly successful.  Soon after the city loses power and everyone disappears, Luke finds his way to Sonny’s bar, where somehow the neon lights are still flashing—an oasis in an ocean of blackness.  Once inside, we meet the other protagonists: James (newcomer Jacob Latimore, the best of the lot), Rosemary (Thandie Newton), and Paul (John Leguizamo).  We get flashbacks of everyone’s lives, and get to witness their devastation at the loss of parents, children, lovers and friends.  These parts of the story are bleak to be sure but, like the characters, not very inventive.

Once the players are in place the film turns from a melodrama into a straight survival story, at which point it begins steadily losing momentum.  Eventually almost all the characters are dispatched by the monstrous darkness, and the film devolves into a mildly evangelistic, existential passion play.  The film’s failing is a common one: it doesn’t really know what it wants to be.  It’s not really a horror film, because it’s not terribly scary; the thing we’re supposed to be afraid of—the wandering souls in the darkness—aren’t well-defined enough to really chill us.  The film’s philosophical message, which somehow involves a centuries-old conspiracy theory, is similarly bungled.  It seems that Anderson is longing to either confront God and the afterlife head-on, or debunk those concepts all together.  The problem is, you can’t tell which.

Christensen gives this new, adult type of role a good try.  It’s refreshing to see him lash out and curse at people while he’s not in outer space, but he’s unconvincing as a hardened survivalist.  Newton is similarly disappointing in her ultra-stereotyped role of the bereft mother.  The children in “Vanishing” are by far the most compelling—and perhaps that’s a good way to tell when you’ve wandered into a film that is aiming for an adult audience, but not really getting there.  If you’re looking for an end-of-days type of film to escape the holiday cheer—and who isn’t, really?—check out “The Walking Dead” on AMC.  It’s not great, but at least there are zombies.  Pass the eggnog!

“Vanishing on 7th Street” will be available on demand starting January 7th, and in theaters on February 18th.

The Price of Pleasure (2008)

In Uncategorized on December 7, 2010 at 6:21 pm

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“The Price of Pleasure” (2008) is a documentary all about porn.  Specifically, it seeks to expose this massively profitable segment of the entertainment industry for what it truly is: profit-driven and utterly misogynist.  If you didn’t already know that about porn—or the fact that many major TV networks produce and profit from it—this film might come as a revelation.  But to anyone even vaguely aware of our culture’s gender-equality status quo, it isn’t terribly enlightening—it’s just a recapitulation of everything terrible about being a woman in America today.  But even so, it’s both compelling and repellent, and definitely worth seeing.

The film’s writer/director, Dr. Chyng Sun, is a professor of Media Studies at NYU with a specific interest in how the act of watching porn seeps into people’s everyday actions and relationships.  After introducing the viewer to the basics of the porn industry—the too-young women, the sleazabag producers, the feeding-frenzy conventions—Sun begins to ask what happens to regular people after they’ve been inundated with porn.  Essentially, the film’s thesis is that it’s impossible to watch contemporary porn without internalizing its attitude towards sex in general and women in particular.  Some of the male interviewees talk about how difficult it is to interact with women in real life when, through porn, they’ve been taught that all women want sex all the time, even when they say they don’t.  Sun also interviews workers at a battered women’s shelter, who provide more supporting evidence of the fact that men watching porn often ends up having a detrimental effect on their real-life female partners.

While Sun’s interviews and clips from actual porn films (most of which are beyond nauseating) form a coherent argument, she neglects to examine porn at large from any other point of view.  All of it seems equally evil and repugnant, enough to make you want to burn your bra, paint a placard and protest in favor of censorship.  However, Sun spends relatively little time on the more nuanced aspects of her research: her analyses of racial representation and the increasing role of extreme violence and torture in contemporary porn.  Had she spent less time introducing the audience to her subject and more of her 56-minute runtime deconstructing these less obvious phenomena—and perhaps connecting them to mainstream movies, television, and advertising—the film would be far more thought-provoking.

Sun also doesn’t address the issue of so-called “feminist pornography,” the existence of which would seem to go against her argument.  Instead, she posits that any gain women get out of being involved in the production of porn is inherently problematic, since women are always subjugated in the porn industry, both physically and economically. (Indeed, she’s authored a scholarly paper about how women-directed porn isn’t really any better than regular porn, but this doesn’t get discussed in the film).  It’s not that I disagree with her; it would just make the film stronger if these issues were explored in more depth in the actual film rather than being relegated to the “bonus feature” section.

Despite these issues, “The Price of Pleasure” is great in at least one way: it takes the most coveted of all images and deconstructs them in a way that’s impossible to argue with.  As soon as the illusion of pleasure is lifted, all that’s left is horror and pain.

“The Price of Pleasure” is available on DVD at