Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Blindspot - "Ride The High Country" and "Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid"

The Wild Bunch is not my favourite Sam Peckinpah film. There, I've said it. Even worse, though, is that I don't particularly like it. The stylized violence in the opening and closing battles is everything I expected and more, but it's all the stuff in between (if memory serves that is) that was thoroughly disappointing. The "characters" and their attempts at manly bonding felt forced and hurt the whole experience of the movie for me. Granted, it's been quite a while since I've seen it and I owe it a rewatch, but I found that two other views of the Old West by Peckinpah - Ride The High Country and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid - provided much stronger and more interesting characters while still splashing the blood around a bit. But they did it in very different ways...

Ride The High Country is, for the most part, a classic Western. Told mainly via interactions between its male characters, its straightforward story reveals its themes of good, evil and redemption fairly early on and builds on them. Steve Judd (Joel McRae) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are two former partners who reconnect in their later years to help bring back a deposit of gold to the bank. With the Gold Rush winding down, many questionable characters are trying to get a final crack at a stake and the bank doesn't believe their gold will be safe without some protection. What Judd doesn't know is that his old friend Gil and his young impetuous associate (named Heck) plan to keep the gold for themselves - whether Judd wants them to or not. Along the way up to the mining town, they stop for a rest at a ranch run by a strict religious man and his daughter Elsa (an impossibly young Mariette Hartley). She's looking for a way out of the restrictive setting of the ranch she's never been allowed to leave, so she tags along with the men when they leave the next day. She's decided to go to the mining town to marry her fiancee who works there with his brothers. Somewhat predictably, all doesn't go as planned...Elsa's fiancee and his progressively creepier brothers see her presence as being useful for only so many purposes - mostly sex and cooking - and to be shared by all. On the way to the mining town, Heck and Elsa flirt a bit and Heck makes a pass at her. She rebuffs him, but he insists and she needs Judd to pull him off. Judd knocks Heck to the ground and is followed by Gil giving him the same treatment. Though it shows the goodness in these two old timers (both saving the poor "defenseless" woman), it creates an awkward follow-up scene when Elsa actually apologizes to Heck (I guess for not allowing him to fully take advantage of her) and he seems to be sulking. It is quite jarring from a modern day perspective to see Elsa do this, but it almost makes sense given the obvious hierarchy of man over woman in this early part of the 20th century and her desperation to keep moving away from her father's ranch. It also establishes firmly where Heck's morality is based and how he can only crawl up from there.

The morality in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid is somewhat sketchier. Most of these men have done bad things, but their moral centres revolve around respect and honour to their friends and partners. Pat Garrett and Billy are old friends, but when Garrett goes to meet Billy at the beginning of the movie it is solely to give him a warning: that Garrett will be his executioner. They part on good terms and Billy considers several options for leaving the town and his gang behind. With deputies in tow, Garrett manages to capture Billy after a shootout, but Billy escapes by gunning down two of the deputies (one self-righteous fool and one honourable man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time). From here, the chase resumes until its foregone conclusion. There really isn't much more to the story than that. Given the scarcity of dialogue, some gorgeously shot scenes and an unspoken fondness for the Old West, one can easily understand why the film often gets described as being poetic, evocative and elegiac. However, the film as a whole is far too scattered and littered with half-drawn characters and scenes that it's hard to see it as a complete work. There have been a few versions of it though: the studio edited theatrical release which Peckinpah disowned, a "preview" version which TCM put together that attempted to pull together Peckinpah's vision (the version I saw) and a director's cut which theoretically comes closest to Peckinpah's intent. Along with numerous production issues, Peckinpah was in full alcoholic mode during the shooting of the film, so it ran over-budget, over-schedule and certainly caught the attention of the studio suits. And yet, for all its problems (e.g. way too many cutaway shots to Bob Dylan, an odd soundtrack, scenes left adrift, etc.), there are some absolutely glorious moments.

Many of those moments are created by the leads (James Coburn as Garrett and Kris Kristofferson as Billy) since how they say things (or more often, don't say) becomes extremely important due to the paucity of dialogue. Whether it was Peckinpah's direction or their own decisions, the actors bring these characters fully formed to the screen. Coburn's silent glares speak volumes and Kristofferson has a natural charisma that definitely surprised me. And then you have Slim Pickens...Now it's always great to see Slim in anything, but his short yet unforgettable appearance in the film is one for the ages. Even though we had just briefly met him a few minutes earlier, his death scene is both heartbreaking and beautiful. After being shot in a gun battle as another of Garrett's recruits, he stumbles to the river and sits and waits for his life to fade out like the setting sun. Most of the other famous cameos in the film, though fine, don't have any of that staying power. Perhaps Peckinpah was going for the feeling of a rich tapestry (mixing in a bit of Dylan, Jack Elam, Jason Robards, Barry Sullivan and more), but none of them are given much with which to play and instead they feel somewhat wasted. Ride The High Country, in contrast, does far more with its characters and provides enough meaty dialogue not just for its central roles (Scott and McRea), but also the supporting roles with weight (Heck, Elsa, Elsa's fiancee) and the rest of the cast (the brothers, the drunken judge, the brothel owner). Both Scott and McRea truly stand out and, like Coburn and Kristofferson, add a great deal more to their characters. They manage to create something perfect in the delivery of their lines. It's not that the line readings are particularly realistic, but just that the words seem to tumble effortlessly out of their mouths. Even when they say things like "The Lord's bounty may not be for sale but the Devil's is...if you can pay the price" (and other phrases that essentially state themes of the movie) it just sounds right coming from them.

Judd tell Westrum at one point: "All I want is to enter my house justified". By the end of the film, after Judd's consistent take on what's right and what's wrong, you feel as if he has succeeded in his quest and even tugged along Westrum and Heck while he was at it. Garrett, on the other hand, may very well have been trying to reach that same lofty goal, but by the time the opening scene replays itself at the end, you realize that he may have gone about things the wrong way. After deciding to throw in with the businessmen looking to clean up the West (in particular, to get rid of people like Billy), no amount of rationalizing his decision could make it feel right. Though we don't see his life between the killing and the years-later bookends, one gets the feeling that Garrett has struggled with trying to justify his actions and has paid a price. In High Country, there's an understanding of that grey area between good and bad: "My father says there's only right and wrong - good and evil. Nothing in between. It isn't that simple, is it?" "No it isn't. It should be, but it isn't". That seems to be a statement about how people are always in transition - becoming bad from their natural good state or trying to get back to being good through redemption. In Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, it's more a statement of fact - everybody has some of both, so choose your actions carefully. Some have called Peckinpah's final Western a eulogy for the Old West, but it feels more like one for the films about the Old West. One that leaves you feeling quite melancholy.

If Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid didn't completely win me over with its ramshackle nature, it certainly left an impression - in particular in relation to its main characters. Ride The High Country has a much greater hit ratio (and even shows some early bits of Peckinpah's different view of violence), but also leaves its strongest impression through its two lead characters. And that's where The Wild Bunch left me cold - the characters. But both of these Westerns have left me considering Peckinpah's other films (in particular The Wild Bunch) and has made me eager to revisit them and fill in the ones I haven't seen (The Battle Of Cable Rogue and Major Dundee for example). I think that alone is pretty high praise.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Blindspot - "The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin" and "The Five Deadly Venoms"

You may notice a distinct difference in the quality of the screen caps contained within this post. 36th Chamber Of Shaolin has a proper widescreen aspect ratio and clear image (straight from the Dragon Dynasty DVD) while Five Deadly Venoms has a poorly cropped 4:3 image that was obviously recorded years ago off TV to well-worn VHS (and then transferred to YouTube where I found it). Was I desperate to catch that second film and willing to watch anything I could source? No. It was actually a bit of a design point.

Several months ago when I first mentioned this pairing of Shaw Brothers Kung Fu films for my Blindspot, it was suggested to me that I should swing on down to Chinatown and get my viewing copies there. After all, crappy, English-dubbed copies are how most people get introduced to Kung Fu in the first place. Though I completely saw the merit in the idea, I was against it for two reasons...First and foremost, I really can't handle cropped films and bad dubbing - hell, even Fellini films dubbed afterwards back into their own language (as Fellini intended) drive me a bit crazy since things like intonation never quite match up quite properly when dubbed. I've been a stickler for proper aspect ratios since realizing what they were (somewhere during the mid-point of the VHS years) and mostly seethe if I come across a film on TV or DVD in a bastardized form. Secondly, I already had that copy of 36th Chamber on DVD sitting at home on my stack of unwatched films. But the idea of watching at least one of the films in the format in which I would've seen my first taste of Kung Fu was still somewhat appealing. My knowledge of Kung Fu is not extensive (loads of Jackie Chan, the more serious Come Drink With Me, the much less serious Mad Monkey Kung Fu and all sorts of clips and scenes from Sunday afternoons long ago), but when I think of it, I do indeed think of desaturated videotape stock, people being cut out of the frame and halting English dubbed over to attempt to match with the characters on screen. Oh, and enough wooshing and whacking sounds to make a foley artist break into a sweat.

All of which can make a Kung Fu film somewhat hard to take seriously. But then I started to watch 36th Chamber Of Shaolin...Its opening sequence of Chia-Hui Liu (aka Gordon Liu) framed in different manners executing solo Kung Fu moves was enough to show that there was a great deal of artistic craft going on here. Not that I doubted there would be, but it completely settled me into being able to look upon the film as a complete entity. It also validated my decision to see this film on its full canvas - what a shame it would've been to miss the entirety of each of these opening shots. Not only the backdrops and art direction, but the perfectly sculpted body of Liu and each one of his refined moves. When the story starts, though, his character San Te is somewhat less attuned to the ways of the Shaolin monks than he is in those credits. He is a frustrated young student watching his surroundings get overrun and manhandled by the Manchus of the Qing Dynasty. His protests get him in some trouble and he manages to escape to the Shaolin monastery. He seeks to become enlightened in the ways of the masters of martial arts so that he may return and help get back ownership of his old village to its denizens. After being left to tend to menial jobs for awhile, he figures out that he can now ask to be taught Kung Fu. He discovers that it is a painstaking process and that he must focus on and master individual skills one at a time in 35 separate chambers. The film glides by quite easily as it works through a straightforward three act structure: young student in village; student at monastery working through the different chambers one at a time; monk leaving school to seek justice.

There's less straightforward about Five Deadly Venoms. The plot description is easy enough: a student of all five major disciplines of fighting (Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard, Toad) is instructed by his dying teacher to find 5 previous students. Each of the five had mastered one of the five styles and the teacher is worried that some of them may turn evil. The student knows all five styles, but has mastered none and so must team up with one of the five to ensure none of the others commit any crimes. The teacher does not know the names or faces of any of these masters, so the student is left to his own devices to find them. Like 36th Chamber, the film opens with some great montages as we see each of the five masters (in their masks) performing their specialized skills. The choreography and filming is definitely leaning to the sillier side of things (Centipede smashes plates falling from the ceiling, etc.), but it certainly sets up the rest of the film to be a battle between these five with the wildcard of the student thrown into the mix. And it is to a certain extent, but also continually falls apart into over-explanation, needless plot points and the occasional bits of goofy humour that don't work very well (at least not for me). Worst of all, there seems to be a definite lack of actual Kung Fu throughout the film. The final fight is great and helps to redeem things, but short of the little bits sprinkled here and there, it becomes somewhat tiring as we flit between Centipede/Snake and Lizard/Toad as they try to outmaneuver each other (while the student observes). Meanwhile, Scorpion is unknown to everyone.

Admittedly, I have to firmly blame the crappy quality of the video and the annoying dubbing as prime reasons for not enjoying Five Deadly Venoms as much as I likely should have. A pristine copy probably wouldn't have vaulted it above 36th Chamber, but with blurry faces continually being chopped at the edges of the frame and English sentences being chopped into odd meters, I found it hard to stay with the story and get pulled into the film. I expect it is still a few notches below 36th Chamber in terms of its action, story, pacing, cinematography, etc., but I feel I need to see it again in much better circumstances. The concept is terrific - 5 different styles of attack based on reptiles and insects held by 5 hidden masters and only one student left to find them. There are moments of real mystery as you try to figure out who is who at the same time as the student, but it never felt like a cohesive story. Only the final fight really gels as the student finally dives headlong into battle with and against the masters and we witness a variety of well planned choreography. As with 36th Chamber, there's certainly some "fantasy" in some of the moves (leaping on the sides of walls and staying there, hovering in air longer than gravity would allow, etc.), but it all fits into the reality of the worlds in the films so there's no issue. 36th Chamber's Kung Fu moments easily win out - the battles are more crisp, there are more elements in play (various weaponery for example) and even the training sections as San Te moves through the chambers are really entertaining. My favourite is probably the Head Chamber where he solely practices using his head for different Kung Fu moves (initially getting battered by having to bat heavy sandbags around with it) as well as the first time he crosses the water using only the floating pieces of wood. This is where 36th Chamber excels - in treating its slightly ridiculous set pieces with serious tones while finding the right mix of physicality from its actors and the added "effects" (e.g. editing, wires, and huge dollops of additional sound).

The foley editing of arms and weapons whooshing through the air and fists connecting with bodies is certainly overdone and can feel comical at times. It obscures and wears down Five Deadly Venoms (though with what feels like additional music, I can't say for sure how much is present in the original cut of the film), but feels just fine in The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin. I don't profess to be a Wu-Tang Clan fan (a neglected area of my musical background), but the seminal rap group was heavily influenced by 36th Chamber. It's easy to see how San Te building towards creating a new 36th chamber in order to share Kung Fu with the common man could have been inspiring to a group of diverse rap artists. One could also develop an entire philosophy simply from the words of wisdom spoken by the many monks from the different chambers. Five Deadly Venoms had much less depth, spirit and entertainment within its restricted walls, but there was still enough there to possibly draw me back for a revisit with a superior copy of the film. At the very least I could get some better screencaps from it...

Monday, 28 July 2014

A Momentary Lapse Of Reason-able blogging

Short of my recent post on Lucy, I've been missing from the old blogosphere for a good solid 4 months. Looks like things have continued on without me well enough, but this was easily my longest break since I started scribbling my opinions on the Internet. So what happened? Nothing really...There's no big dramatic story here. No period of self-reflection followed by life-changing revelations. No turning point event that has altered my view of what life is about. And (fortunately) no major family tragedies.

Sure there are trials and tribulations like everyone else. My folks are getting older and life is getting a bit harder for them both (we as a family need to figure things out in the next 6-12 months), but it's far better than 2011 - a bad year when we lost several friends, my beloved Aunt and almost my Dad. So grand scheme of things? Life is good. I like my job (most days), I love my wife, and my son (just turning 14 - how the hell did that happen?) is the absolute best thing ever.

So what's wrong with me? Along with this dearth in posting (I can never quite get to the point where I call it "writing"), there has also been a major drop in the simple act of watching film. As of right now, I've seen 134 films this year (theatrical, DVD, BluRay, streaming) including new, old and rewatched movies. That's abysmal for me. I've usually hit that number before the end of the first quarter. The simple answer is that I've been focused on other things:

  • In the sidebar, my little lame "About Me" section says that music occasionally crowds out film as my number 1 obsession. Well, that's certainly been part of the shift...After getting myself an Rdio subscription, I've been diving into my lists of albums I've always wanted to hear, slowly making it through the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (I'm not getting much younger you know) and keeping reasonably on top of 2014 releases (Mogwai, The Souljazz Orchestra, Moonlit Sailor, Djam Karet, Tycho, Gord Downie & The Sadies, Collapse Under The Empire, The War On Drugs, Kongos, Manchester Orchestra, Band Of Skulls, Against Me!, Broken Bells, Lost In The Riots and Bob Mould would make a nice Top 15 at this stage).
  • Work has never been busier for me. Note, that's not necessarily a complaint. Oh, there have been moments of absolute frustration, but also some of great satisfaction. Since February, it's been a much more devoted focus during the day and spots of additional work at home in the evening. I'm fine with that, but it nibbles at the free time and makes my brain crave some respite.
  • The Boy too has been snatching more and more of my cycles - again, not a complaint! He's been wanting to watch more movies with me (usually ones I've seen, but that's good) and has been trying to push his film boundaries to match with what the Internet proclaims are the best movies ever (ie. mostly male dominated films slightly above his pay grade). It's been great as we typically go back and forth between something I think he should watch and something he wants to watch. I should probably take a stab at a post on that sometime soon...He's also going to bed a bit later which means he commands the basement (where the computers and video game systems live comfortably next to the DVD collection and TV) for longer periods of time in the evening. Again, I've no issue with that as it was completely expected and somewhat of a design point. We don't have the biggest house in the world, so we wanted him to have some space. It also allows him to have his buddies over for weekend (and mid-week in the summer) movie or game nights. And having your child comfortable with having his friends over is gold.

When I was watching movies during this time, I would often think of little tidbits I'd like to post (the many different things being fired by men in The Hidden, my son's reactions to what he watches, etc.), but then 2 things would happen: 1) I'd feel like I should actually be watching something instead of blogging (so much to see) and 2) the process of typing up a post would start to feel a bit like homework. There's another side to it as well - is anyone really reading? Over the last few years my hit counts have been bottoming out (rightly so in that I haven't been providing consistent updates or content) with most hits coming from Google Image searches (I've always been a bit image heavy). It's somewhat self-propagating as I wonder what came first: the lower hits or the dropoff in posting? Also, there's been quite the change in landscape since I first started tossing out my missives back in 2007. It used to be much more of a - dare I say the word? - community (at least for me). There was a set of bloggers who sought each other out, commented on others' posts, discovered new sites/writers and pulled them into the ranks, etc. I'm overstating it somewhat, but there was much more daily contact with other people who wanted to discuss film. And by far that's been the most enriching part of this whole experience - the many friends I've made. Both the virtual online folks (a few of which I've managed to meet in the flesh) and the countless Toronto bloggers, writers and film buffs who have become a pretty damn important part of my life.

But it is different now - or at least it feels different. There's more emphasis on being FAST with your opinion. It's less about sharing and questioning, but a bit more about telling and marketing. Seeing a new release on opening night? Too late...You've already missed the boat if you didn't catch the preview screening. The conversation may already be done. I could blame Twitter, but that's too easy and likely only a bit of the reason. Also, Twitter can be a fantastic tool at quick connections and is particularly invaluable during a film festival (sharing your early impressions of films you've just seen, getting immediate reactions about ones you're hearing rumours about, and finding moments to meet up with others). I'm equally culpable during these periods in trying somewhat to be first out of the gate - the credits are still rolling and I'm trying to put together my 140-character "bon mots" about a movie that no one else has seen yet. But hey, it's pretty cool to get re-tweeted by a filmmaker or distribution company, so I will totally cop to that.

So this is really all apropos of nothing...That's just the new landscape. I never expected or even wanted to be a full time critic, so it's not like dreams are shattered for me. I have friends putting in the hours and the work to try to make it. I respect the hell out of them (and the other online critics and writers) as they make progress and even seem to occasionally enjoy it. The job does come with some new and necessary skills though: doing self-publicity and working social media. Neither are my forte, so it only increases my appreciation of those who do it well.

But as I've started getting back into the viewing habit over the last couple of weeks, I have a bit of an urge to start jotting down a few thoughts along the way. Though I have no expectations that I might do it on a consistent daily basis, I have been missing it...So even though I'll always have competing interests, obligations and distractions, I certainly plan to carve out some time for writing. Or whatever it is you might call this...

Thursday, 24 July 2014


In response to those grumbling about the experience of watching Lucy (Luc Besson's latest big effects action film - this time with Scarlett Johansson as the kick ass lead), I'm of two minds...Going in to the movie, I was simply hoping it would at least be a somewhat fun trifle of a summer flick on the order of Limitless. On that scale, it hits its target the majority of the time (though you'll have to decide for yourself if it deserves bonus or penalty points for its rather kooky ending that is part 2001: A Space Odyssey, part Isaac Asimov and part "You've gotta be kidding me..."). However, I can't help but think about what the film could have been...How it could have explored the nature of the brain from Lucy's perspective and touched on how the organ evolved, continues to do so and manages to have such a vast array of amazing abilities and structural flaws. That probably would have departed drastically from what I hoped for going in, but the possibility is just so tantalizing...

The movie you do get is patently ridiculous. That's OK though - even though it's not overly thrilling, has laughable science, is best when no one (except maybe the always menacing Choi Min-sik) is talking and has CGI effects that get in their own way sometimes, I'll be damned if I wasn't at least somewhat entertained. Most often that was due to the built-in ridiculousness, but at some point it's easy enough to roll with the whole thing and realize that it's just one of "those" movies. As it slowly but surely ramps up the silly, it lets you reset your approach to it, laugh with and/or at it and then settle back with a bit of a grin on your face.

To its credit, the story doesn't waste much time at all in jumping into the thick of things. Within a few minutes, Lucy has been tricked into delivering a suitcase to a Korean businessman in a swanky hotel lobby and before you know it, she's been snatched upstairs and forced into a drug mule operation. The new drug in question (synthesized from a chemical that pregnant mothers transfer to their still developing babies) purports to give users a superman effect, but when Lucy accidentally ingests a rather large quantity, it begins to expand her brain's capacity to allow engagement with all the matter and energy around her. During these early stages of Lucy's adventure, we occasionally check in with a brain researcher named Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) who is giving a lecture about that old (and disproved) adage that we only use 10% of our brains. He's been working on theories about what humans could do if we tapped that extra bandwidth within our skulls and he suggests we could control more than just our own bodies.

As Lucy's brain starts increasing the percentage of utilization (handily flashed on screen whenever she reaches another milestone: 20%, 30%, 40%, etc.), she realizes that she will need more of the drug to stay alive and pass along the knowledge being gained from the experience. Given her new "powers" (e.g. language translation, a new found ability to drive a car, tapping into people's thoughts, controlling objects, etc.), she goes back to the Korean drug kingpin (Choi) to get more of the blue crystals. She also contacts Professor Norman to learn more about her brain's evolution and a French detective to help her recover additional quantities of the drug that have been dispatched to other corners of the world.

Though the script fumbles through some oddly phrased moments and goofy jargon ("cracking the nucleus of the cells"), it is somewhat refreshing to see a movie that assumes its audience not only accepts evolution as the guiding force for the diversity of life, but hopes that they can extrapolate from there (and even alludes to man being its own creator as Lucy "meets" the original Lucy). Granted, as mentioned, the rest of the film's "science" is pure gobbledygook, but I was happy to give it a wide berth since at its core it does wonder how the human species will evolve to meet the more and more hostile environment that it is creating for itself.

The set pieces aren't terribly exciting (the car chase pales in comparison to The Raid 2's well-orchestrated affair due to its reliance on CGI cars and crashes), but at a brisk 90 minutes it almost never lags. Though Johansson does what is necessary for most of the role, the direction and script don't do her many favours at times - particularly when she is encouraged to act in robotic fashion or needs to describe her feelings out loud as she explores her own brain. A call to her mother early in the film has her detail the energies all around her as she grasps at how to explain the permanent change that has occurred. As frustrating as that monologue is, the scene is doubly frustrating for giving a glimpse as to what the film could have been.

Specifically, Lucy's ramblings about memories flooding back, revelations about the world and the sudden realizations about the energy flowing around her reminded me of this wonderful and emotional talk by the real life brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor. In it, she recounts how she tried to understand and study her own brain as she lived through a stroke. She tells of her brain flipping between its two hemispheres - the logical part reminding her to get help since something was obviously wrong while the sensitive, empathetic side felt it had reached nirvana and had become one with the entirety of the energy around her. It may sound a bit new-agey, but the decoupling of the brain's mechanism as described by this neuroanatomist is fascinating, dramatic and far more alluring than the powers realized by Lucy. It strikes similar chords as the tales of hallucinogenic drug users and dangles the prospect of ideas well beyond our current imaginations. I don't know if there's a movie in Bolte Taylor's real-life blow by blow record of her brain coping with its twin halves splitting from each other, but the 18 minute talk is far more compelling than the ideas only partially worked out in Lucy.

So I couldn't help but want more - much more - from Besson's thriller. But that's my right hemisphere talking...My left side would say that if you simply don't expect more than what was intended - a pleasant summer diversion - you won't leave too disappointed. So like I said, I'm of two minds...

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Blindspot - "Best Years Of Our Lives" and "Ashes And Diamonds"

Though I was correct in assuming that an American viewpoint on post World War II would be, shall we say, slightly different than one from Poland, I was wrong in how I expected each film to handle the framework of their viewpoints. Best Years Of Our Lives (the 1946 film from William Wyler) takes the approach of covering personal individual stories to try to give a wider perspective of the variety of issues soldiers might encounter upon their re-integration into North American society. It does it with the expected melodramatic flair, but also manages to keep things reigned in enough to retain some actual emotional connection to the characters and enough engagement in their stories to keep things entertaining throughout the long 2 and a half hour run time (one of my main reasons for holding off on seeing this Hollywood classic). Meanwhile, the Polish Ashes And Diamonds (shot 12 years after Best Years in the late 50s) focuses less on the individual ramifications of having been at war and more on the direct impact to its society and culture - not to mention the continuing struggle its people faced in a post-war political landscape. But again it surprised by keeping the story very localized to a hotel bar and through the eyes of only a few characters during a single day.

Wyler's film tracks the return home of three different soldiers trying to restart their lives after they were put on hold at different times: Air Force Captain Fred Derry is newly married (less than a month with his new bride before shipping off); Army Corporal Al Stephenson has two older children, a long term marriage (with the always gorgeous Myrna Loy - talk about a reason to get back home) and a high ranking job at the bank; Sailor Homer Parrish returns to his family and the girl next door. The three men meet at the airport and share a ride back home in the gun turret section of a bomber. They quickly bond since they all come from the same city and vow to keep in touch after getting home. As the single cab drops each successive one off at their homes, the film sets itself up to be over the top melodrama and a top shelf weepy (I gauged it at half a box of Kleenex at least). Homer's house is first, but he's reluctant - he lost both his hands in the war and fears that he will be treated differently even though he can handle himself just fine. His girl welcomes him with open arms, but his parents can't hide their sadness and desperately try not to call attention to the hooks at the ends of his arms. Al finds it hard to reconnect with his now grown up kids, his wife and a position back at the bank, and so he takes to drinking. Fred finds it hard to get work and falls back to being a soda jerk at the pharmacy while realizing that his new wife may not be the woman of his dreams after all.

There's certainly some unnecessary swelling music at times, but it rarely begs for emotion like I half expected it to. Similarly Ashes And Diamonds also keeps the overt emotional scenes mostly at bay. In its case, though, it feels like the citizens are just so worn out from constant conflict that they just don't have any strength left to show much of anything. The film is set on May 8th 1945 (the day of Germany's surrender) as a political struggle for independence rages and a possible civil war looms. "The end of the war isn't the end of our fight" says a member of the Home Army as he waits to ambush a local district's Secretary named Szczuka outside a church. He and his partner wish for the old days of Warsaw and, as part of the resistance to the government, are trying to chip away at the new Communist rulers. Unfortunately, they end up killing the wrong men and only realize this later on back at the hotel. They now must wait for their chance to kill Szczuka after a banquet for the mayor. Maciek, the younger of the two men, spends most of his time flirting with the gorgeous, poker-faced young bartender Krystyna while his older superior is all business. They both assumed that they were fighting for Poland's freedom during the war, but now they question whether the results (ie. Communist leadership) are worth what they went through. On the last day of the war, a new skirmish within the borders of their own country is about to begin. People who fought side by side are now ready to fight against each other.

Filmed during "The Thaw" in Poland (a period when the communist government became a bit more lax in some of its social policies), Andrzej Wajda was able to flex some more "poetic" muscles throughout Ashes And Diamonds instead of the previously mandated "realism". A gunned down man bursts into flames, a row of vodka shots are set aflame to look like candles in a church and a drunken walk across a banquet table with a fire extinguisher are just a few of the images that are left with you long after the film has ended. The images tie together the upending of religion in the country with the confusion of national identity - even within the ranks of the 3 main Home Army sympathizers, we get a clash of views. One is a soldier fully dedicated to the cause, another an opportunist who will help the cause in order to help himself and the third (Maciek - played by the "Polish James Dean" Zbigniew Cybulski) begins to get conflicted as he spends more time with Krystyna and actually envisions a life with her outside of political struggle. Things become even more difficult for Maciek as he meets Szczuka and they quickly develop somewhat of a father/son relationship. In Best Years Of Our Lives, Fred (Dana Andrews) and Al (the great Fredric March) also become close - but their father/son bond becomes complicated when Fred falls for Al's daughter Peggy. The film particularly shines in a scene where Al and Fred meet at their favourite bar and try to talk through the issue of Fred being interested in Peggy while also being a married man. It's a conversation that feels real - each man listening to the other and pulling their thoughts together. Though the film loses sight of Homer's story (his treatment as a cripple by his parents is heartrending at times) and even Al's (Myrna Loy gets pushed off to the side a bit) to focus on Fred and Peggy, there are enough fully-realized moments and actual issues raised that the story never felt contrived or sentimental. Much of the film must have felt somewhat shocking to a 1946 audience. Harold Russell (who played Homer) was an actual double amputee, so his portrayal of the difficulties of re-entering society on your own terms (and not those which society wants to put on you) was more than just "realistic".

Both of these WWII films share what feels like an honest view of how it feels to come out on the other side of a war - from a nationalistic point of view as well as a personal one. Best Years Of Our Lives provides a great deal more hope in its conclusion than Wajda's film, but they both show that a great deal of effort must be put into finding those diamonds within the ashes of a war-torn society.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Hot Docs 2014 - Preview

So how do you go about choosing what you want to see at a film festival like Hot Docs (running from April 24th to May 4th in Toronto)? With a roster of 197 films from 43 different countries and a reputation for superb programming, you could probably randomly select 20 films and be exceedingly happy with the results. Or you could just let the staff do it for you - for example, as I listened to Director of Programming Charlotte Cook talk about a small portion of the lineup at this week's press conference for the 21st annual festival (the largest documentary film festival in North America), I felt that I should simply just see the movies she mentioned. I expect those picks alone would make for a hell of a schedule.

One of those movies unveiled by Cook was the festival opener The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swarz. Before he took his life at the age of 26, Swarz was known for co-founding reddit (and several other companies), fighting SOPA and leading many internet activism causes before the U.S. government came after him with a variety of charges. The film will also screen as part of the festival's "Big Ideas" series and will have on hand Cory Doctorow, Gabrielle Coleman and Lawrence Lessig for a post-viewing panel discussion.

"Big Ideas" was quite successful last year, so they've upped the count to 5 separate films that will be covered in much greater depth via after film discussions with relevant guests. Along with the Swarz doc, there will also be Mission Blue (about environmentalist and oceanographer Sylvia Earle - also in attendance), The Case Against 8 (featuring the two couples who, along with a pair of lawyers, fought and won to strike down Proposition 8 in California that denied same sex marriages) and To Be Takei (about - you guessed it - George Takei and his eclectic life).

The fifth one of the "Big Ideas" is the one that hits me close to home - I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. I vividly remember, back in the day, watching the very first season of Sesame Street before toddling off to afternoon kindergarten. The show was a joy for me then and can still - without much effort - cuddle me in its warm embrace. Big Bird was a big part of that, so I'll be bouncing in my seat before, during and after the film. Especially as Spinney - Big Bird AND Oscar The Grouch's puppeteer - will be on stage to talk about the movie and his life.

And if that wasn't enough, here's a few others mentioned at the kickoff event:

Super Duper Alice Cooper - The world's first Doc Opera. No interviews or voice over, just graphics, animation and footage of Alice from his life and career. The event will be simulcast across Canada to 40+ theatres and the man himself will be on hand as well. A big ticket for sure.

Harmontown - After being fired from his own show "Community", creator Dan Harmon hits the road for a 20 city comedy tour. The film promises a mix between Harmon's sharp, quick humour and his darker side coming together in an entertaining portrait of a complex individual who can tend to be his own worst enemy. It will also be one of the films being given a free screening outdoors.

The Agreement - This Danish film documents part of the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo and focuses on the mediators and the myriad of issues they face. The trailer that was shown indicates that perhaps even deciding on lunch might be an all day affair between the two sides.

Harlan County U.S.A. - The fantastic 70s doc about a coal miner's strike gets revisited on the big screen with filmmaker Barbara Kopple in attendance. I totally plan on going to see it again as it is a classic of the genre..

An Honest Liar - The Amazing Randi has long been a debunker of pseudo-science and charlatans - first as a magician showing how many tricks were done (e.g. Uri Geller's spoon-bending trick, etc.) and then as a leader of the JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation). His foundation has long had a million dollar prize on offer to anyone who can provide proof of some kind of psychic power or supernatural/occult entity - it should go without saying that the prize has not been won yet. Though I've often had a few problems with some of his comments (sometimes taking ad hominem attacks at those he is debunking), I expect he has grown weary of the constant environment of lying and deception he is exposed to. Which is why this could be a fascinating look at the man and a piece of deception within his own life.

Beyond Clueless - Using clips from over 200 teen movies from the last 20 years (ie. after Clueless became somewhat of a touchstone of the modern teen film), the "genre" is explored via the discovery of themes and common stories while Fairuza Balk narrates over it all. I'm a sucker for any kind of documentary about film, so I'm eager to see how this might fit together.

Red Lines - Due solely to the trailer screened, this is an early candidate for most moving doc of the fest. The film follows two Syrian activists as they try to get information out of the country and do what they can for the people within its borders. Though there obviously won't be a tidy happy end to this attempt to regain freedom for the population of Syria, it promises to be a reminder that hope springs eternal.

That's just a sampling of the films and 96 world and international premiers that were presented at the press conference. The event took place inside the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema and the revamped venue is still going strong 2 years after it opened as one of the only theatres in the world that focuses primarily on documentaries. It's welcomed over half a million visitors since that time and will be adding to its total as it fills (along with numerous other theatres in the city) for the fest.

There's plenty more as you skim through the deep, deep lineup. Here's just a couple of additional ones that jumped out at me:

112 Weddings - Though likely better known for his 2005 doc 51 Birch Street, Doug Block won me over completely with his 2009 effort The Kids Grow Up which covered his own daughter's growth from child to young woman as well as his own growth as a parent and husband. Outside of filmmaking, Block has also been a wedding videographer for almost 20 years and his latest film shows him revisiting all that old footage. He also reconnects with the couples themselves to see how things have worked out since the big ceremony.

Demonstration - Viktor Kossakovsky was an unknown entity to me until 2 years ago when I saw his glorious film Vivan Las Antipodas! at Hot Docs. Now I want to see anything and everything he has a hand in - including this year's entry to the fest which is a collection of footage from 32 of his own students that documents a demonstration in Barcelona.

The Power Of Nightmares - As part of its Outstanding Achievement Award Retrospective series, Hot Docs this year is showing some of Adam Curtis' TV documentaries. This 3 episode feature (subtitled "The Rise Of The Politics Of Fear") feels legendary due to the number of times I've heard it mentioned in relation to expert historical documents of trends and the temper of our times.

What else is there? Well...

  • Denmark is this year choice for the festival's featured country spotlight
  • A live documentary entitled The Measure Of All Things which covers some of the most interesting characters and stories from the "Guinness Book Of World Records" while filmmaker Sam Green does a live reading over it and is accompanied with a live score by the band The Quavers
  • A 4 film retrospective of John Zaritsky's work
  • A focus on numerous Canadian filmmakers

It's no wonder that the Hot Docs press conference always lines up pretty close to the first day of Spring. The festival always instills feelings of rejuvenation and hope in me.