Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Real Place

With a few screeners in hand, I'll be trying to get in some early reviews of films playing at this year's Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto (April 30 - May 10).

I love the NFB.

Oh sure, I don't pay it enough attention, forget its birthday and kinda take it for granted, but by now I think it pretty much expects that of me. Just like it expects that of most other Canadians. When I really look at what it does though - things like the stunning "Madame Tutli-Putli" (Part 1 and Part 2), those great animated classics like "The Cat Came Back" and "The Sweater", the old vignette TV commercials that taught us (whether we liked it or not) little bits about our own Canadian history, funding for important documentary work, etc. - I want to bring it a huge bouquet of flowers and apologize for my neglect.

Where else can you find a film like "The Real Place"? Meant solely as a 5 minute recognition of an artist (playwright and librettist John Murrell) on the occasion of receiving the Governor General's 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award in Performing Arts, it becomes an animated summation of an artist's thoughts, history, motivation and work. And a true piece of art of its own.

"In opera and in Shakespeare, in locations that were both natural and supernatural, I escaped the limitations of my life," Murrell says. Animator Cam Christiansen uses collage and a vast palette of colours to give us an idea of what Murrell sees in his own mind, how he would play with his friends (Whitman, Melville, Wagner) and why he feels he has "lived the luckiest life".

In all honesty, I'm not sure I would've come across John Murrell's work in any other context but this one and even if I did, I'm not sure I would've really paid a great deal of attention to it. I love the creativity on display here though and the attempt to show why this artist is lauded and how he came to be who he is.

An artful piece about an artist who makes art about art. All in 5 minutes.

I love the NFB.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country

With a few screeners in hand, I'll be trying to get in some early reviews of films playing at this year's Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto (April 30 - May 10).

The term "fascist" gets bandied about a lot in North America. In the political arena, it's seems to be typically used by people to describe anyone who simply opposes or disagrees with them. It's a fascinating term though, since it can be used equally wrong by both the far left and right sides of the political spectrum. A much more appropriate usage of the word, however, would be in regards to the government of Burma.

"Burma VJ" is a mix of actual footage smuggled out of the country plus some recreated scenes that help to connect everything into the story of a recent public uprising. In the Summer of 2007, the authoritarian government of Burma (under military rule since a coup in 1962) decided to remove fuel subsidies which led in some cases to huge increases in prices. Due to the ripple effect this caused (transportation prices throughout the country rose), the public was feeling restless and were reaching their limit - however, few dared to rebel because of the government's stance against any form of dissent (ie. immediate jail time, etc.). This time, however, the monks helped lead the protests - and that's a message that frightens the government.

Through the surreptitious videos taken (the cameramen are all members of the Democratic Voice of Burma - led remotely in the film by "Joshua"), we follow the initial sparks of dissent to the vast monk-led marches to the initial blockades and to the eventual quelling of protest. A dead foreign photo-journalist (shot at point blank range) and numerous captured and beaten monks (including at least one dead, floating body) will tend to take the wind out of the public's sails...Much of the footage taken during these events however made it to the airwaves in the rest of the world through the efforts of the DVB.

I'd like to go on a bit more at length about the effectiveness of the film, mention some of its key turning points, point out that the leader of the government opposition party has been under house arrest for near 20 years or perhaps discuss how the mixture of recreated moments ("Joshua" in Thailand working on his computer and on the phone) meshed with the grainy jumpy video from Burma, but the film is apparently under embargo and only short reviews are currently allowed.

I'm not quite sure what that means, but what I do know is that the next time someone uses the term "fascist" in an improper context, I'll make sure I remind them of a few examples of true fascism.

Here's the trailer:

"Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country" screens:

  • Monday May 4th at 6:30PM (Bloor Cinema)
  • Wednesday May 6th 1:45PM (Isabel Bader Theatre)
  • Sunday May 10th 7:15PM (The ROM Theatre)

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Bloody Mondays & Strawberry Pies

With a few screeners in hand, I'll be trying to get in some early reviews of films playing at this year's Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto (April 30 - May 10).

"Life could be so wonderful if only we knew what to do with it." - Greta Garbo

This is the kind of film that people describe as "a meditation". In this case, one about the passage of time, the value of boredom and how you view the meaning of your own life. The meditation description is pretty valid here since we aren't really provided with a story arc to follow nor do we really get to know about any of the characters that we meet in fits and starts. It's not even about the different issues and philosophies the talking heads raise.

Using voice over readings from Dostoyevsky's "Notes From The Underground" and Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho" to guide us throughout the entire film (as the opening titles say, the voices of the universally bored), director Coco Schrijber bounces us between stockbrokers, desert dwellers, factory workers, artists, WW II spies and a variety of other walks of life. Occasionally overlapping comments mix with overlapping images and the editing cuts between unrelated environments, but we still eventually begin to gather some different perspectives on what people believe we should be doing with our time.

Goran the New York stockbroker, for his part, doesn't see much worth in having nothing to do: "Work, family, friends...What else is there? This is what it is". Lovely young factory worker Lena sees a world of opportunity and beauty: "I have to discover this world in order to be happy. But the world doesn't give you things. You must take them." Her acoustic guitar songs and apartment filled with art books and literary works show she's been trying. There's also the artist who has been painting numbers (starting from '1') for the last 42 years - it wasn't clear exactly where he was, but he passed a million at some point. In his mind, it's been a valuable way to spend his time. In a completely different part of the world, for some who live out near the desert the day of the week has pretty much lost its meaning. They find a sense of irony in seeing tourists who come to experience the silence of their surroundings - and then ruin that silence by behaving as they do at home.

If the whole thing doesn't quite coalesce into a grand unifying thematic work, it certainly provides moments of interest, reflection and certainly visual beauty. Though it is almost experimental in nature at times in its approach to editing scenes with sound and other images, it also manages to take its time to show some quiet and beautiful scenes. I don't think Schrijber is particularly looking for that grand statement anyway. There's too much thrown into the mix here - particularly when you add John Malkovich's narration.

If there is something frustrating about the film, it's the stories that are incomplete. Both Lena and Goran show flashes of deeper stories underneath. The stockbroker job alone would make an interesting film as the glimpses of the young brokers making cold calls and the hard sell tactics they use are as fascinating as they are ugly. Then there's The White Mouse - the 96 year old former WW II female spy who briefly recounts a few memories of being beautiful and so alive. The stories she could tell...

The Bloody Mondays of the film's title refers to Brenda Spencer - the "I Don't Like Mondays" girl who shot 11 people because she thought it would be interesting and a good way to pass the time. She bookends the film as part of footage from her initial arrest to a recent parole board hearing where we learn that she seems quite at ease with her daily existence. The Strawberry Pies are assembled partially by Lena through her very manual and very repetitive daily tasks in the factory. And yet, I find her outlook on life much more optimistic and interesting than the more "successful" stockbroker. For example:

  • Goran: "There's only so much relaxing and reading and absorbing the other things in life that you can do" (a comment my wife described as showing a complete lack of imagination)
  • Lena: "The world is everywhere. It has endless possibilities. It's up to me to spot them."

Here's the trailer:

"Bloody Mondays & Strawberry Pies" screens:

  • Thursday May 7th at 10:00PM (The Royal Cinema)
  • Saturday May 9th 1:30PM (Isabel Bader Theatre)

Ashes Of American Flags

With a few screeners in hand, I'll be trying to get in some early reviews of films playing at this year's Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto (April 30 - May 10).

I get it now. I think I finally get Wilco.

I've read much praise of the band over the years (starting from their early days branching out of alt-country darlings Uncle Tupelo) and even though I own one of their albums (2002's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"), I haven't really had too much of an opinion of them. The few listens I gave to YHF never yielded much for me and I only had vague memories of odd pacing and long moments of quiet.

But seeing a band perform live - even if it's just on your TV screen - can change your mind pretty quick. As a matter of fact, by the third song of Brendan Canty and Christoph Green's concert documentary of the band, I was fully converted. That single song (the wonderful "Handshake Drugs") pretty much encapsulates the band's qualities as shown throughout the rest of the music presented in the film. The opening bars of the song, for example, seem to jump right into a chorus-like melody (and an odd one at that) and it takes awhile to adjust to the flow of the song. Within less than a minute though, it feels completely natural and fits the song snugly. Since I had not heard most of these songs before, this was not an uncommon feeling during the 90 minute run time and I loved seeing how the songs would grow from these sometimes hesitant beginnings. The band's country influences pop up over and over again, though usually in more subtle ways, and there's also a strong vibe coming straight from The Band - particularly during "The Late Greats" and "Kingpin" at the Tipitina's show.

Jeff Tweedy's rough, slightly thin vocals appear to be packed with life-experience and feel somewhat like negotiating a mine field. There's just a slight tension I couldn't escape while he sang that felt like a specific lyric or entry to a chorus could trigger an emotional barrage. Guitarist Nels Cline also seemed ready to burst due to his almost apoplectic guitar playing. On the flip side were the steady melodic bass lines of John Stirratt and the infectious (and also very sweaty) drumming of Glenn Kotche. Another repeated characteristic was for occasional walls of noise to erupt while the melody and structure of the song underneath continued unabated.

The film doesn't break new ground as a concert documentary, but when it does everything this well you likely won't care. It lets the band play - every song is played start to finish with no interruptions - and you get a good feel for each band member's contributions. The camera work is dynamic and feels pretty spontaneous giving additional energy to the performances (and no goofy special effects thrown in either). The tour lands us in Tulsa, New Orleans, Mobile, Nashville and Washington D.C. with about 3 songs per location and it never makes you wait for long periods of time between songs.

That makes the "road" sections of the film pretty short, but they excel in several different ways. The cinematography is lovely (it won a Best Cinematography award at the Big Sky Film Festival) as we see highways, countryside and small towns pass by. There's a certain feeling from the film that much of what they are experiencing is slowly slipping away - whether it's due to greater success and bigger halls for the band itself or the slow erosion of small town life they see as they travel. Tweedy handles most of the interview portions and all the little bits of information we learn about the band and its members are usually interesting and unique without being cliche. My favourite of these are the comments about drummer Kotche's impending fatherhood for the first time. His approach is to research and read as much as possible about parenting, but Tweedy warns him that the child will more than likely be a Cecil Taylor clone and be a master improviser that you can't really prepare for anyway.

I can't imagine long time Wilco fans not loving this film, but hopefully it also helps expand the reach of their music. I'm pretty glad it finally got to my ears.

Here's the trailer:

"Ashes Of American Flags" screens:

  • Friday May 8th at 9:15 (Bloor Cinema)
  • Saturday May 9th 4:30 (The Royal Cinema)

Monday, 20 April 2009

The Logical Mind

Although this is primarily a blog about film and my hazy thoughts about it, the title of it also touches on my appreciation of critical thinking...The video below (thanks to a pointer from this Jim Emerson post from his Scanners blog) pretty much crystallizes my general view of logical thought (in a high school primer kind of way - I'd love something like this to be more prevalent there). As some commenters to the post pointed out, it does deal in some exaggerated examples and focuses on both religious and supernatural statements, but I think it still provides a good foundation for what "open-mindedness" really is.

What it isn't meant to be is any kind of statement regarding the superiority of critical thinkers' intelligence. First of all, I don't think intelligence is easily quantifiable, so how can you rank mine versus yours anyway? Also, it's not like I don't fail spectacularly sometimes in holding true to the basic principles of logical thought - if I have a knee jerk reaction or let emotions take over, I take a short cut and typically miss some vital piece of information. These are essentially tools though and when used properly are some of the best ways we have of drilling down to a root cause or discovering a new solution to an old problem.

And it also has a nice little reference to "Eraserhead", so I'm still within my "film" bounds...

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Random Notes #10

Blindness (2008 - Fernando Meirelles) - One of the more visually amazing films I've seen in some time...No, it's not like an eye-popping, colour-filled, Bava-lensed romp, but I found it extraordinarily inventive in its representation of how blindness set in on several characters. As well, throughout the film doubling occurs via repeated patterns, colours and mirrored images in many scenes and I liked how this tied in with the good and bad aspects of the characters. The often drab palette drew some criticism, but I found it perfect for the story and the unflattering look at how our society might respond to such an outbreak.

Having said all that, the film loses its way in some spots. It takes the pessimistic view of the situation down several notches below something that Von Trier might conceive on a really bad migraine day and it also takes some clunky short cuts (e.g. as the camera wanders through a group of people you hear individuals say very awkward things simply in order to get across the basic status of a situation to the audience). I can handle some of the stage-y dialog, but it gets a bit too much at times.

A terrific use of visual story telling though.

A Matter Of Life And Death (1946 - Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) - I've long wanted to see this entry in the Archers catalog, so when it was released recently in a double disc set with Powell's lesser know 1969 "The Age Of Consent", I picked it up blind. Damn, I'm smart sometimes...

OK, I suppose there was little risk in picking up one of their most praised and beloved films, but it truly is lovely. A sweet tale of the redeeming power of love that's slightly corny and without a trace of irony would likely get labelled as a "chick flick" these days - which would be a shame since a large portion of the audience would bypass it (a goofy thing to do by the way - like any "genre", the dreaded label of chick flick applies to some great, some good and some abysmal films). David Niven and Kim Hunter bring to life the couple who fall in love at first hearing (via radio contact) while Niven's plane is about to crash into the sea. Because of an error up in the great gig in the sky though, Niven is given a chance to live and the couple get to meet. It all ends up in what amounts to a big trial in heaven to decide if he should live or die and it's all so much more believable than you might think. In typical Powell and Pressberger fashion, the film is also stunning - whether it's the rich colours of the real world or the black and white of the spiffy architecture up in the clouds.

Road House (1948 - Jean Negulesco) - Released as part of the Fox Noir line, Negulesco's film is more melodrama than noir, but it doesn't matter - when it's entertaining, the specific genre doesn't matter. Ida Lupino is front and centre here and though some have argued that she's too old for the love-stricken Cornel Wilde (who plays Pete), she's 1) only a year older than him in real life and 2) sexy as hell. Lupino plays Lily, a bar room singer who lands a gig in Pete's road house / bowling alley and uses her deep, almost gravel-like voice to win over the patrons. Wilde doesn't actually own the joint though - it belongs to Jefty (Richard Widmark) who brought in Lily in the first place and has plans to marry her. So when Lily and Pete fall for each other, Jefty tries to turn things back in his favour with some devious tricks. During all of this, Celeste Holm gives a great, quiet performance as Susie, the long suffering bar maid at the alley who has always loved Pete. It has many of the noir characteristics of course (just the lighting alone is enough to qualify), but enjoy it for the story and for Widmark's obvious delight in playing the jealous Jefty.

The Demon (1978 - Yoshitaro Nomura) - "The Demon" isn't filled with fire-breathing winged creatures or appearances from Satan's messengers, but it doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of extremely disturbing moments in this tragic tale. You may even wish for a couple of actual demons to suddenly appear surrounded by flames - just to liven up the mood a bit.

A harried young woman brings her three young children - one year old Shoji, three year old Yoshiko and Riichi, the eldest at six - into the city to track down the location of the children's father. We find out he is actually married to another woman and has been supporting her all these years. But as his business has faltered and her children begin to grow, there just isn't enough money coming in - so she decides she wants to settle this once and for all. The affair is now out in the open and the mistress demands to be supported while his wife wants nothing to do with the children. The arguing continues in heightened melodramatic fashion until in the middle of the night, she runs off and abandons her kids with their father. As he meekly tries to figure out what to do, his wife ignores the kids unless it is to hit, punish, slap or otherwise physically abuse them. The disturbing nature of the film settles in at this point - through many scenes of ominous music, you know that something has to give and that something, likely nothing good, is going to happen.

Several scenes jump out: little Shoji playing with dishes and food around the table until the wife grabs him and begins stuffing his mouth with balls of rice; Yoshiko being dragged to her father by the wife who then dumps laundry detergent all over her stating she is dirty and smelly; the father's attempts to desert Yoshiko at Tokyo Tower. As things begin to cave in on them, the couple start to lose sense of right and wrong. She's previously mentioned that he should just strangle the brats, but she becomes more intent on "resolving" their situation. Her casual suggestions of how to get rid of the children individually - particularly when she describes how they should poison Riichi or push him off a cliff - are quite terrifying.

Yoshitaro Nomura's film is by no means a fun time, nor is it really an entertaining one. It does a terrific job though of painting a picture of a nightmarish scenario and the corners into which an individual can paint themselves - especially with society's help.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Four Times That Night

Mario Bava's "Four Times That Night" is an odd beast. A broad and at times farcical account of a couple's first date from three different perspectives, it meanders down strange paths, spends too long in some scenes, makes light of certain serious items (even though the film was made in 1972, I can't imagine attempted rape was considered funny business back then) and makes absolutely no sense at several junctures.

And yet, it's still kinda fun and just looks amazing throughout.

The conceit of the film is that we all interpret reality in different ways just like we would a Rorschach test. Where you might see a butterfly and someone else a dead body, I might see a beautiful woman (these are all interpretations that come out in the animated title sequence). Since this is a comedy though, the different views of the first date aren't interpretations as much as they are completely different accounts for the characters own self-serving purposes.

Since I don't have much more to say about the story itself, I thought I'd try something along the lines of what Jeremy does over at Moon In The Gutter. In many of his Images From My All Time Favorite Films posts (please excuse his misspelling of the word favourite...), his screenshots of the film contain many shots of simple objects framed in very careful ways. Sometimes his posts completely ignore the fact that there may be humans in the film at all - and I love that approach. So I thought I'd stick to some of the lovely shots of things and environments found throughout the film.

The club at which the couple goes dancing could have filled an entire post of screenshots, but I love this sequence focusing on the lights.

A bit more of the environment:

How great does that club look?

Yes, as a matter of fact I do want that room...

Not one of my top Bava films, but it certainly gets across his amazing visual sense and his love of colour. It's also a grand example of his sense of humour - whether you like it or not.