Sunday, 29 April 2012

Hot Docs 2012 - "Tchoupitoulas"

New Orleans is a city vibrant with colour, steeped in music and chock full of fantasy. The streets of the French Quarter are, on just about any given night, filled with feathered costumes, seductive dancers behind window shades and skeletons rattling about in every corner. I daresay, though, that the entire city might not have as many flights of fancy and dreams as 11-year old William does. After winning 6 Superbowls with the NY Giants, he plans to become a lawyer and then shift into architecture. He doesn't think that seeing Michael Jackson live is terribly realistic at this stage, but still holds out hope that he could be the first person to actually fly. The ladies would really love him for that...

William tells us all about these dreams in exuberant tones like only a young boy can. It's refreshing to see the world through his eyes and listen to him still full of life. It's easy to see why the Ross brothers (Turner and Bill) chose him as the central filter for their own dreamy excursion through Century City's nighttime streets: their latest film "Tchoupitoulas" (following up their remarkable "45365"). William and his two older brothers make the ferry journey over from Tchoupitoulas for an evening of walking through the French Quarter with the expectation to catch the last ferry home at midnight. When things don't go quite to plan, they end up wandering the city for the entire night until the ferry gates reopen in the morning to take them back home. The Ross Brothers are along with them for the adventure and document what they see and how they feel.

Of course, you may want to use the term "document" a bit loosely here - even though that single evening is the foundation for the film, many of the scenes and voiceovers by the three boys are recorded at other times and merged into one "experience" (to quote the directors). However, if you complain about this, you'd be completely missing the point of the film. It's one of the finest documents of a city I've ever seen. As we meet different characters along the way and as we are surrounded by music (very literally encircled by music from every inch of the city), the culture seeps through to us. The pulse of the city is a wicked funk rhythm and its people are right in step. Not simply as "characters", but as people who have been marinating in this gumbo of a metropolis for quite some time. This includes the clown dancing to a side street accordion player, the fire juggler, the strippers on break singing "Iko Iko", the riffing oyster shucker, the sparkling flute player giving a quick lesson to William and the transvestites dancing on the bar (which leads to an amusing teaching moment between William and his older brother).

The three brothers have that rapport which is instantly familiar to anyone with siblings (and shared by the directors if the after screening Q&A was any evidence). Vacillating between squabbling and boisterous chatter, they gawk, explore and wind their way through the quarter from Cafe Du Monde to Louis Armstrong Park and back. Many of the situations and brief stops in clubs (blues, hip-hop, burlesque) are without the boys, but lend themselves to the overall feeling. The lovely cinematography and very full soundscape do the same and this is where the additional planned footage and post-production piecing together add so much to the entirety of this joyous experience. It's obviously not all laughter and happiness, but the film isn't about portraying the politics and problems of the area - that's for another film and another set of filmmakers.

The best sections of the film are with our guides though. When they come upon three young women busking on the street in perfect harmony (I dare you to find a city with better street musicians) playing guitar, violin and saw, William mimes along with his practiced fingers playing what I can only assume would be perfect notes on his invisible recorder. Then there's the deep-into-the-night exploration of an abandoned ferry boat which comes complete with a gorgeous working chandelier, dance floor (where William provides a quick MJ tribute) and possibilities of collapsing floor boards everywhere. It's quite invigorating to join their illicit walk through the crunching glass and dusty rooms. As the Ross brothers stated afterwards: during those moments there were 5 kids on that boat. And finally, the last close-up shots of William's face on the morning after the trek where he sits quietly staring off into the distance looking slightly older and wiser - possibly just thinking about his "girlfriend" or maybe those transvestites, but looking like he's formulating brand new dreams.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Hot Docs 2012 - "¡Vivan las Antipodas!"

Narration is a difficult device to use in filmmaking. The adage has always been to "show" not "tell". That rule is usually given a bit more leeway when it comes to documentary filmmaking, though, due to specific needs to impart information or put across very specific views. This is even more likely when there's not a talking head to be found. However, the makers of "¡Vivan las Antipodas!" decided early on that they would forego all commentary over top of their footage. Instead, they simply do a great deal of showing. Anyone chattering over the gorgeous imagery of 4 different sets of the planet's antipodes (ie. locations on Earth that are on the exact opposite sides of the planet from each other) would've been tuned out anyway. Not only is commentary not required during the languid comparisons of life and environment between the antipodes, but you probably wouldn't even have noticed the narration due to being so enveloped by the scenic beauty and the unique presentation. Director and cinematographer Victor Kossakovsky has not only taken great care in choosing and framing his landscapes (Russia's Lake Baikal is stunning to say the least), but has also taken delight in playing with transitions between scenes and locations - using tricks like rotating cameras upside down and visually rhyming his edits. It provides a joyful sense of connection between locations and, even while pointing out some great disparities, ties the entire planet together.

Before defining in text the term antipode (and listing the eight locations), the film opens with a quote from "Alice In Wonderland":

"I wonder if I should fall right through the Earth! How funny it'll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards! The Antipathies, I think... didn't sound at all the right word."

Initially, it seems that perhaps "anti" is indeed the proper prefix for these opposite locations. The first pair of antipodes are the massive city Shanghai, China and a remote spot in the province of Entre Rios in Argentina. The construction of a makeshift bridge by the two brothers who live next to it (and who collect tolls from those who wish to drive over it) is contrasted with the huge building projects in Shanghai. But as the film continues with its comparisons and contrasts - lambs being sheared in Chile versus running around the hillsides in Russia; a single car crossing that wobbly bridge in Argentina to the streams of traffic in Shanghai - you start seeing a whole lot more commonality. Sometimes it's in the landscapes, but more often within the way people live and relate to each other.

One of the best tricks used by Kossakovsky to imply this is the edited reflection of one location in water to be that of another. My favourite of these is the most subtle - the reflection of a beached whale in New Zealand to a large rock teaming with insect and reptile life in the hills of Spain. The film also sometimes replaces the soundtrack of a location with its opposite and it's not always immediately obvious. The most memorable of these moments happens in Botswana where the children, animals and adults of a community seem to be milling about, playing and dancing to Hawaiian music. It fits wonderfully. That same scene provides another exquisite moment: the setting sun's rays reflecting off the beach in Botswana slowly begin to glow red off the sand and look for all the world like lava is rising through the ground. The edit to encrusted lava on the big island of Hawaii isn't even required (though a later one between the cooled black lava to an elephant's hide is remarkable).

The scenes of wildlife and the truly stunning landscapes will rival any of your favourite PBS nature documentaries and are filled with creative angles, shifting light and textures and patterns that emerge slowly. The long spells we spend in certain locations truly give an appreciation of a variety of lifestyles - the solitude of Chile and Russia; the communities of Hawaii and Botswana and the natural surroundings of New Zealand and Spain. It's pretty amazing to see a single film that embraces that vast diversity of the planet while also showing its many similarities.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Blind Spot #4 - "Kramer vs Kramer" & "Terms Of Endearment"

As my tastes have changed and morphed over the years, my willingness to try different things has increased. I now relish, particularly in the universe of film, diving into something heretofore unknown (e.g. I dabbled in some Czech new wave films a little while ago and now can't wait until that new Eclipse set rests in my hands). One example of a "genre" or type of movie I typically avoided in my younger days was the family drama - especially if it was a critical darling or Oscar nominee.

I'm not sure why, but at the time most of them struck me as dull, unlikely to have much visual splendor and probably designed to wrench undeserved emotion from its viewers. In recent years, two such films have moved into my "I'm kinda curious now..." ruminations after having stared balefully at me over the last 30 years constantly reminding me at any opportunity that they remained unwatched like that hole in my fence remains unpatched (which I swear I'll fix next weekend): "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Terms Of Endearment", both of which hogged Oscars in their respective years. I mention the Oscars mostly to tie back to my young feelings of "it won awards, so it must be boring", but far more interestingly because each film won almost the exact same 5 statues: Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay plus two acting wins (Kramer won for Best Actor and Supporting Actress, while Terms flipped that to garner Actress and Supporting Actor).

I'm very much enjoying these random additional parallels that creep up while I'm watching these back to back Blind Spots. Another one occurred to me for these two films: it took only mere moments for me to completely dislike and feel unsympathetic towards both films' main characters. In Kramer's case, Meryl Streep's Joanna leaves her husband and young son knowing full well that neither knows much about the other. Her husband Ted doesn't escape my scorn though - he's completely focused on his job and has missed out on raising his son while also ignoring his wife. Shirley MacLaine's Aurora in "Terms Of Endearment" took even less time to dislike - within seconds of the opening scene of her checking up on her baby daughter, she came fully formed as a completely self-involved individual who could see no point in recognizing other's happiness or heartbreak. This proves correct later in the film when she can't even be happy for her own daughter's first pregnancy and instead focuses on the fact that she may be seen as a grandmother.

Of course, those aren't slights at either film. The writers and directors accomplished what they set out to do by saying "Here you go audience - deal with these people!". And so I did...with differing results. One of the films dragged their character through many different and unpredictable scenarios, but didn't provide a great deal of growth from start to finish. The other gave us that growth and a good deal more sympathy, but did it in a fairly straight line with little variance from where I expected things would go. That latter one is the story of Ted and Joanna's separation, divorce and custody hearing mixed with Ted's struggles to juggle work and new parental duties. It's not overly surprising to see where the story goes next and how it ends, but it did surprise with a reasonably strong emotional component. Granted, I'm a sucker for father/son stories (especially at this stage of my life - with my Dad recovering from a helluva year and my son mere months away from diving into the murkiness of middle school), but as Ted and his boy Billy try to deal with the uncertainty of the custody outcome, it's easy to get caught up in it too.

Though Dustin Hoffman is very good (and Streep even better as his Ex), the secret weapon here is Justin Henry as Billy. I was worried out of the gate as I thought he would be one of those annoyingly cute, smart aleck style kids that Hollywood just loves to encourage (he just had that look about him), but he ended up being pretty much perfect. In particular, during the highly intense or emotional moments (I swear I thought they were actually stitching up his face during the hospital scene). Not that the Oscars mean a whole lot, but Henry deserves to hang on to the title as youngest person ever to receive an Oscar nomination.

I'm not as convinced that MacLaine deserved her nomination. Not that she's bad, but I couldn't help but feel every bit of "acting" that took place - the pause here, the curled smile there, the screaming everywhere, etc. That's probably more at the feet of James Brooks, though, since he both directed MacLaine and created the character of Aurora - a woman who is constantly at odds with just about everyone. Once her daughter (played as an adult by Debra Winger in a performance that most people love, but that didn't hold together well for me) marries and leaves home, she becomes Aurora's daily confidante. It's an odd relationship that does show some understanding arising between the two of them, but it's still very much one-sided. Aurora initiates the calls, focuses on her own relationship issues with her astronaut neighbour Garrett (Jack Nicholson being Jack Nicholson in mostly entertaining ways - though fortunately kept to short bursts) and dismisses Emma's issues with her husband (a young Jeff Daniels). Even towards the end of the film when Emma is struggling through some difficult circumstances, her Mom can't help but centre the conversation around herself. Again, that's a Brooks decision (so I suppose MacLaine did a fine job in creating what he wanted on screen) and could be construed as Aurora's way of handling the circumstances by avoiding dealing with the emotional issues in front of her. However, a truly selfish and mean-spirited decision by her towards the end (when she doesn't wake Emma's husband at a critical junction) shows that she hasn't grown at all throughout the course of the last 40-odd years. I don't have to like the character on screen, but I couldn't even really sympathize with Aurora and saw little reason to cheer on any changes she might go through. And with the exception of a brief hopeful moment at the end and a scene at the airport with Garrett (the one really human moment I got from MacLaine's performance), she showed very little capacity to change at all.

Which is where the two films vastly differ. Where "Terms Of Endearment" certainly didn't play to expectations of character, it didn't involve me as much in their reasons for their behaviour, so when the story shifted and changed, it didn't mean as much to me. "Kramer vs. Kramer" provides the expected transition of characters through the dissolution of a marriage, but I couldn't help feeling, scene to scene, much more engaged in their lives. It's not a perfect film for me due to the impression that boxes are being checked along the way - early scrambling to balance work and child, emotional breakthrough with child, collapse of work at the same time as custody battle begins, sacrifices made to accommodate, etc. - but it managed to do it in a fashion that still allowed it to flow. One of its surprises was the friendship that evolved between Ted and Joanna's friend Margaret (played by Jane Alexander who scored an Oscar nomination as well). It never strayed into awkward possibilities of romance or threatened to be a secret ploy from Joanna to get more information - it was simply a friendship between a man and a woman (and how sad is it that I'm surprised by an occurrence like that in a Hollywood film?). I also appreciated that Joanna did not become the stock shrill ex-wife and was far more sympathetic. The film is obviously from a man's perspective, but I didn't feel it tried to specifically take a position. It's really a simple story of two people coming to the realization that they have to focus on what's best for their child.

So I suppose my bias towards "Kramer vs. Kramer" can't be helped in some ways. I did find it odd in the end that I preferred the film with the more straightforward approach, but I couldn't help enjoying its overall arc for both story and characters. I'm disappointed that I didn't appreciate the more female-centric angle of "Terms Of Endearment", but its characters (including the male ones) never really garnered much interest from me to care about their own arcs. So I guess the "family drama" genre appears to be like any other - you win some, you lose some.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Coincidental Parallels - "House Of Pleasures" and "The Secret Of The Kells"

Two obviously vastly different films that I recently just happened to watch back to back, "House Of Pleasures" and "The Secret Of The Kells" did not strike me as candidates for sharing anything in common. The first is a beautifully lensed story of prostitutes in turn of the century (19th to 20th) France while the other is an animated tale of one boy's quest to complete a magic book and show that enlightenment is the strongest protection from evil. Yet each one - for different purposes - uses a three way split screen at one point ("House Of Pleasures" uses a four way split - in quadrants, not side by side - in a few sections as well), so you just never know where you might find these little connections between films...

Shinsedai Cinema Festival 2012 - An Early Look

OK, I'll be honest up front - I'm very biased towards the Shinsedai Cinema Festival. My good friend Chris MaGee is one of the founders of the fest (along with Jasper Sharp of Midnight Eye) and I've seen him work his butt off to make the festival not just successful, but relevant. As it prepares for its 4th year (they've announced a chunk of their films which I'll get to below), it's clear Chris and Jasper have grown the reputation of the event each time out and are beginning to attract more and more attention. Chris will be on this year's jury for the Nippon Connection in Frankfurt (the largest Japanese film festival outside of Japan) and filmmakers are starting to ask if they can bring their films to Shinsedai. The mandate for the festival is to expose young, independent filmmakers to a wider audience and the focus has remained on exactly that. Things branch out occasionally - e.g. a wonderful showing of the silent Mizoguchi film "The Water Magician" (complete with a live soundtrack) a few years ago; this year's double bill of Pink Films - but the core of the festival has been about giving the new generation a forum for their films outside of Japan.

Chris has also done me the honour of asking me to be part of the Board of the festival - a role that doesn't exactly tax me at the moment since Chris and Jasper are the drivers and brains of the fest. This year has proven extra challenging due to a location shift away from the lovely Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre to a downtown theatre (The Revue Cinema - one of Toronto's fine repertory theatres), but, as the kids today say, it's all good. With much easier access to the theatre via public transportation and much more engaged PR help, the festival is definitely going to create more of a stir in 2012.

Particularly with the lineup so far announced:

Ringing in Their Ears

Described as an irreverent rock comedy/drama, Yu Irie's "Ringing in Their Ears" kicks off this year's Shinsedai with a mix of fact and fiction. Real-life band Shinsei Kamattechan moves from indie stardom to the majors and the film follows the attempts of their manager to preserve their artistic integrity while also keeping tabs on some of their odd fanbase. Live concert footage is mixed in to what I can only guess will be a wonderfully energetic way to start the fest.

"Ringing in their Ears" screens on Thursday, July 12th at 7:00PM.

Zero Man vs. The Half Virgin

The scriptwriter of two of Takashi Miike's more well-known films ("Ichi the Killer" and "Gozu") and the director of "Tokyo Zombie" have come together to bring us the story of Zero Man - a cop with amnesia who realizes he has the strange gift of being able to see numbers on people's foreheads. The match of scriptwriter and director is a perfect one since they both happen to be the same person - Sakichi Sato. He's also one of the biggest character actors in Japan and plays triple duty by also taking a supporting role in this surreal tale of policeman Sakuragi and his odd ability that only manifests itself when he is aroused. He comes to believe that these numbers indicate the amount of sexual partners each person has had (he sports a zero on his own forehead), but what does the 0.5 mean on the mysterious young woman who attracts him?

"Zero Man vs. The Half Virgin" screens on Friday, July 13th at 9:00PM.

The Naked Summer

Each summer famed butoh dancer Akaji Maro invites professional and amateur dancers to participate in an intensive retreat to study the avant-garde art form. Maro and his students are followed in this documentary through one entire summer as they explore the movements and philosophy of butoh and work towards a final performance out in the countryside.

"The Naked Summer" screens on Saturday, July 14th at 1:30PM.

From the Great White North: Yubari Fanta Special

The Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival takes place every year in Hokkaido (Japan's northern island) and has become one of the most important events for indie Japanese filmmakers. In collaboration with Yubari, Shinsedai presents "From the Great White North: Yubari Fanta Special" - a set of three short films selected with the help of Yubari festival director Yasuhiro Togawa - which captures part of the diverse and slightly skewed spirit of Yubari Fanta. There's the high school girl who has developed her own brand of sexual martial arts in "Hole And Pole", a short documentary entitled "The Student Wrestler" which shows the benefits of social misfits getting out their frustrations through professional wrestling and "Mrs. Akko and Her Husband" which tells the tale of a couple that needs to pull themselves out of their apathetic relationship.

"From the Great White North: Yubari Fanta Special" screens on Saturday, July 14th at 4:30PM.

End Of The Night

After Tamegoro assassinates a married couple, he decides to take their infant son home and raise him. The boy, Akira, ends up being a sociopath which just happens to be the perfect attribute to follow in Tamegoro's footsteps as a hired killer. But what happens when you meet someone who has survived one of your old hits? Director Daisuke Miyazaki (who was the assistant director of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2008 film "Tokyo Sonata") gives us "a 1960's Nikkatsu action film filtered through the deadpan aesthetic of Takeshi Kitano". Sounds pretty good to me.

"End Of The Night" screens on Saturday, July 14th at 7:00PM.

Battle Girls & Bondage: A Pink Film Double Bill

Shinsedai Co-programmer and Co-Director Jasper Sharp is somewhat of an expert on Japanese pink films (in fact, he authored the book "Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema") and the festival has finally managed to bring a few examples of the genre to Toronto (the first ever theatrical screenings of the genre here). In cooperation with distributor Pink Eiga, "Battle Girls & Bondage: A Pink Film Double Bill" will feature two hour-long examples: "Sexy Battle Girls" and "New Tokyo Decadence: The Slave". It goes without saying that you must be 18 or older to attend this particular event. Though one of the more controversial selections the festival has made, it may also prove to be one of the more surprising.

"Battle Girls & Bondage: A Pink Film Double Bill" screens on Saturday, July 14th at 9:30PM.


David Lynch and Takashi Miike's names are mentioned as comparison points in Masafumi Yamada's story of a man running from the yakuza who ends up hiding out in a unmapped portion of Kyoto. He finds a job at a construction site and encounters a raft of characters while the tale drifts from comic to haunting.

Tentsuki will screens on Sunday, July 15th at 8:00PM.

You can check out trailers for all these films at the Shinsedai YouTube channel. The final round of films will be announced sometime next month, and tickets and passes for the festival go on sale June 21st. For more information on the fest be sure to visit the Shinsedai Cinema Festival website.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Shame About Ray...And His Hair

"The Attic" - the only directorial bow from the scribe of the quite spiffy "The Killing Kind" - is a mostly entertaining (if slow) psychological horror-ish warning about the evils of controlling parents. Carrie Snodgress stars as Louise, a mousy librarian stuck taking care of her wheelchair-bound father while she pines for a fiancee who disappeared two decades previous. The great Ray Milland plays her Dad (her really awful, cruel Dad) and I didn't even recognize him initially. His weathered and bald dome seen above actually reminded me much more of my own Dad (my really fantastic, kind Dad). As he continually puts Louise down, he also negates anything good that she may have done in her life and places far too many demands on her. It's wearying watching her slouch through life and Snodgress does an admirable job in bringing that across in her character (except for perhaps a few too many "she's a bit off her rocker" scenes).

So given all that, you wouldn't really expect a laugh out loud moment during a particularly revelatory moment for Louise would you? As we close in on the resolutions of several plot points, though, there's a humdinger of an unintentional howler. The film has a bit of a 1980's made-for-TV feel, but is mostly quite competently made - except, that is, for a moment of confrontation on top of a hill late in the picture. Louise has wheeled her father up to the peak as part of his regular Sunday morning stroll and, as one thing leads to another (and since the film is good enough not to spoil, I won't say what leads to what), her Dad tumbles down the hill - suddenly with a full head of hair...

And dark brown hair at that (in contrast to the little bits of grey seen in the screenshot at the top of the post which occurs only moments before the ass over tea kettle trip down the hill)! I totally get why they needed a stunt man since I doubt that Milland (who was 75 years-old at the time and appearing in one of his last feature films) was going to tuck and roll through branches and rocks just to get the shot. But could they not afford a little makeup? Maybe one of them bald "wigs"? Perhaps at least some creative editing?

Then again, I guess I wouldn't have had my belly-laugh for the evening...