Monday 30 April 2007

Hot Docs 04/29/07 - Campaign and The Foreign Eye


Yamauchi Kazuhiko is a first time candidate for city council in Kawasaki Japan. He's eager, full of energy and willing to do just about anything to get across his party's message of government reform. His campaign consists of impassioned speeches via bullhorns to commuters, learning how to bow properly and having his wife take extended vacation from her job (their only source of income at the time). Oh, and he has to pay for all expenses out of his own pocket.

His experience navigating the traditions, processes and people of the Japanese political system are documented in "Campaign". As well, we get an additional look at pieces of Japanese society and culture via city scenes and the personal interactions. And as interesting as the campaign was, those additional scenes are my favourite part of the film. It's not a deep look at the society, but the glimpses of little children at play, the packing of passengers into the subway and Yamauchi's stops at different cultural events create a feeling of wanting to experience Japan directly.

Unless of course you want to get into politics...Though there are a number of female politicians and candidates that we see in the film, the general environs seem to be strongly patriarchal. So much so, that when Yamauchi's wife joins the campaign trail, she must refer to herself as his housewife and not his wife. She's a strong, intelligent and independent woman - and it doesn't sit well with her.

But Yamauchi is willing to go along with the Liberal Democratic Party's rules. He bows and defers in all cases and really tries hard during speeches to show his political meddle. But he's not a politician. You can see him slowly wilt throughout the movie as he gives in to the party's standard approaches and campaign tactics. Tradition and hierarchy hold sway over just about everything. And that seems to hold for the other parties and candidates since they all follow the same techniques (somewhat limited by Japanese rules about using TV and other media for campaigning).

Although somewhat long at 2 hours, it's an excellent look at an entirely different political landscape than anything in North America. Not necessarily better or worse, but most definitely different.

The Foreign Eye

What's the first thing you think about when someone says "Brazil"? Soccer? Beaches? Beautiful women? Beautiful women playing soccer on a beach? And likely every move choreographed to a Samba beat. With nudity.

This, at least, seems to be Hollywood and many other filmmakers' perception of Brazil. "The Foreign Eye" documents through interviews and clips from many films (many really bad films at that) how these stereotypes are reinforced over and over via movies. Looking for an "exotic" locale to set your story in or perhaps a getaway spot in which your character can lose themsleves in the free spirited locals? Apparently nothing beats Rio!

Director Lucia Murat uses her stature as a Brazilian filmmaker to get these interviews and confronts her subjects about their usage of these stereotypes. There's a broad range of reactions including denial, rationalization, embarassment and humour. The French directors in particular seem to have no regrets about their knowing usage of exaggerated generalizations to get across their intended settings and comedy. Hollywood folks tend to either address the issue with backpedaling or self-deprecating humour.

Speaking of humour, there is still much to laugh at in the film. Specifically the number of clips from the cheese-oid cluster of craptastic movies. More well known fare like "Blame it On Rio" and "Anaconda" are shown alongside lesser known titles like "Lambada". The audience laughter during the clips of the latter title indicate that perhaps I'm reading it wrong - nothing that generates that kind of joyous response can be all bad...Amongst all the drivel, though, there is one excellent film - Brad Anderson's "Next Stop Wonderland" is featured due to the appearance of a Brazilian "latin lover" type character (whose accent was apparently really awful). Apart from that, it's truly a well-constructed romantic comedy.

Adding to the generalizations from these movies, throughout the film we see random requests of different people for their thoughts on Brazil. Unsurprisingly, they tend to fall into the exact same stereotypes. But what is surprising is that Stanley Donen - director of "On The Town", "Singing' In The Rain" and "Charade" - also made "Blame It On Rio".

Now that's hard to rationalize.

Saturday 28 April 2007

Hot Docs 04/27/07 - Circus School and Intelligence

Circus School

The film "Circus School" - about young Chinese children practicing their different acrobatic routines in preparation for a competition - is structured pretty much exactly how you would expect. Start several months out from a target date, introduce individual children and follow them through the ups and downs of their training. What you don't expect is the emotional involvement you end up having with these kids.

Granted, a good deal of your attachment to the kids is because they are so young. Little Xu Lu is a 9 year old trapeze flyer and 13 year old Cai-Ling performs a floor exercise routine that defies all expectations of what the human body can do. But it's the struggle they endure to become accomplished that is so draining to watch.

Both of these kids show exceptionally strong will in working through pain and long sessions, but it's not because they are necessarily so driven. The film, without using any narration, paints a picture of parents and teachers who feel the children must at all costs succeed at what has been determined to be their vocation. After the film, several attendees wondered if this was any different than North American culture in comparison to kids being driven to excel at sports or school. I can't say, but it provides a frightening example of pushing children to their limits.

Part 1 of the film is dedicated to the run up to a presentation of the trapeze routine and the stress and strain put on Xu Lu. There are other children and routines touched on, but the focus is on Xu Lu's growth. Essentially treated like a rag doll as she is thrown from one trapeze to another, she suffers one very painful fall and a myriad of dressing downs from the coaches. In the end she succeeds beautifully, but should a nine year old girl really be put through this?

In part 2, Cai-Ling has his own struggles with weight gain and what should really be soul-crushing verbal attacks by his own coach. Even while you are admiring phenomenal abilities in balance and flexibility, the coaches continue to criticize the boy because it isn't perfect. Previous scenes showing the abuse the teachers themselves get from the principal dovetail nicely with these scenes and show a continuum of insane expectations. The film actually ends by showing the entire final performance by Cai-Ling and it's stunning. Just incredible.

I just hope someone gave these kids a hug at some point.


How do you tackle a subject like intelligence in a single 90 minute film? Well, first of all, you don't try to actually answer any specific questions. Attack it from several angles, raise doubts about convention and try to keep things within a vague framework. This was a similar tactic by director Kevin McMahon in another of his films screened at this year's fest ("McLuhan's Wake"), but in this case it succeeds.

Actually, he does try to answer, or at least dismiss one specific question --> Can intelligence be measured? Rather quickly in the early going, I.Q. tests are discussed and set aside as really being nothing more than an indicator of how good someone is at doing an I.Q. test. Having always agreed with this assessment of these intelligence standards, the film gained my good graces.

Less awkward than the framing device used in "McLuhan's Wake", here the story of The Emperor's New Clothes is used throughout the film. This is used to good effect when highlighting how people try to compare intelligence and how and why it is valued to the extent that it is.

As part of the Focus On series, this was one of McMahon's earier films (almost a decade old) and that timeframe is important to understand another major theme of the film. Artificial intelligence (or at least the possibility of it) is discussed extensively and concerns are raised about the potential changes to society. It seems a bit paranoid at times, but given the topic and the time period it's not too far afield.

The film must have resonated somewhat with the audience. Normally the Q&A's after the films are filled with interesting, but fairly expected questions. At this screening, at least 4 separate people had overly long, verbose statements to make regarding the film itself as well as their philisophical approach to the subject at hand. Like the characters in The Emperor's New Clothes, it was almost like they were all trying to show off their own intelligence - for fear that the rest of us might not see it.

Hot Docs 04/25/07 - McLuhan's Wake and Losers & Winners

McLuhan's Wake

This year's target of the Focus On series at Hot Docs is Canadian filmmaker Kevin McMahon. With over half of his films tackling uniquely Canadian subjects and perspectives ("The Falls", "Cod: The Fish That Changed The World", "An Idea Of Canada", etc.) as well as not being widely known, he appears to be a great choice.

Another of these Canadian subjects is Marshall McLuhan - he of the pronouncements on media, communications and culture ("the medium is the message", etc.). Like most people, I had just a vague knowledge of McLuhan and his theories, so I was really hoping to get a better feel for his field of study and his contributions to it. So I had expectations going in...

As a director, McMahon's style has been described as a "poetical, lyrical approach to the essay film" and this seems to fit spot on. Though this same style works very well for another of McMahon's films - the broad topic of "Intelligence" that I saw a few days later (I never promised timely reviews...) - it just doesn't work as well here. At least not for what I was expecting.

There is some great footage of McLuhan speaking in interviews and lectures, but these short snippets just aren't enough to give you much of an idea of either the man or his views. Then again, that may not be possible - several interview subjects stated that they rarely actually knew what the hell McLuhan was saying. But he certainly drops enough interesting tidbits that keep you curious...

The film does actually try to set up a few frameworks to guide us through McLuhan's ideas. It opens by showing an animated take on Edgar Allan Poe's "Descent Into The Maelstrom" and returns to the central part of the story (a young fisherman whose boat is being pulled into a vortex) throughout the film. It also shows us his Laws of Media (the theory that all media and human artifacts do 4 things --> enhance, retrieve, reverse and obsolesce) and dives down into each of them. Everything else in the film is shoehorned into both of these frameworks and ends up making things harder to follow instead of clarifying any specific theme.

Again though, that's probably more my desire to hear McLuhan do more of his own speaking and to get more than just a surface idea of what he was trying to say. The film does throw out some interesting ideas and information from the interviews. One of the interview subjects states that McLuhan's many TV appearances - he much preferred to talk about his ideas than write them down - actually harmed not only his arguments but his overall standing within the field. As well, we learn that the sudden dissolution of his curriculum at the University of Toronto really hurt him in his later years. Perhaps it's just a very difficult proposition to pigeonhole McLuhan in any timeframe whatsoever. At least I've come away from the film with a greater sense of wanting to understand McLuhan.

Losers And Winners

The jury awards for Hot Docs have already been handed out and the Best International Feature was declared to be this film about the Chinese purchase of a German coke producing plant. Coke in this context is a solid carbonaceous material derived from destructive distillation of low-ash, low-sulfur bituminous coal. The film documents the dismantling of the facilities by Chinese workers with supervision by German engineers. The Chinese are to bring the skills they learn back home to build their own coke plant.

Of course, you can tell already that the film will be about more than just the specific transfer of a single plant...We begin by getting to know a few of the German engineers who seem to be resigned to the task at hand - tearing down their work environment of the past 8 years and handing it over. But there is also some resentment. Not only are they losing their jobs once the demolition is finished, but they are helping to speed that process by training those that are doing it.

The two cultures certainly clash along the way. There are condescending comments towards the Chinese by the engineers, but it really feels to be coming directly from radically different approaches to process and not any racial issues. The Germans are sticklers for details and safety. The Chinese just want to get the job done. In the early stages, the frustrated Germans continue to hammer home the proper steps for cautious work and mandate filling out safety forms. They opine that they won't be able to watch the work all the time because the Chinese will be working 7/24. Fed up at one point with the dangerous practice of tieing two ladders together, one engineer knocks down the only ladder up to the roof - stranding the workers currently up there.

The Chinese aren't intimidated though. They've done this before and are more than happy to take the technology and skills back home and further refine the business. The plan is to rebuild this plant in China - and then build even more of them. They are equally confused at times with their hosts. They don't understand the need for regulations and the shorter working hours. They are, however, impressed with the respect for the environment...As one Chinese manager says, "If we had this many doves at one of our sites, by now they would all be killed, cooked and eaten". To this he adds a big hearty laugh.

Much of the middle of the film is focused almost entirely on the Chinese as we get to see what it's like to work extremely hard in long stretches and be that far from home. This leads to a few requisite scenes of calls home and shots of the Chinese workers sticking out in the German towns. One of the directors mentioned after the film that they didn't really get much footage of how the workers meshed with townspeople because it was pretty rare that it happened at all. Certainly none of the workers were encouraged to go exploring individually.

Another interesting part of the film is the plant itself. It's immense. And what a disaster that site is after the deconstruction has taken place. To think that this same plant, and more just like it, will pop up in China soon with their rapid growth makes you wonder about an environmental cost we may be paying up front (there was reference to environmental cleanup issues in the film, but we never actually find out if either side took the pains to get it done).

Although I ended up missing the interactions between the two cultures as the focus stayed with the workers, it's a film that works on several levels at once and remains entertaining and informative.

Monday 23 April 2007

Hot Docs 04/22/07 - Manufacturing Dissent

At the very least, what can be said about "Manufacturing Dissent" is that it certainly creates a lot of discussion. And though its specific target is filmmaker Michael Moore, it's the more general questions that it raises which are far more interesting and relevant to the current state of documentary films.

I suppose "target" isn't a fair term to use since the film began initially as a profile of Moore by supporters of his films. It turns out though, that Moore's a bit of an arrogant weasel, a liar and not the nicest guy around. Probably not a big surprise to many people, but the question you start asking yourself is whether it's really relevant to his role as a documentary filmmaker...Well, it depends.

It certainly puts some of his interviews and statements into a different context and shows him to be a filmmaker crying wolf in many cases. I mean, would you get your news and form your opinions based around his statements? But having said that, is it really useful to attack Moore himself when a common criticism levied against him is his use of ad hominem attacks on individuals he doesn't agree with? Several attendees at Sunday night's Hot Docs screening felt that the film shouldn't in turn do the same back to him (two questions in particular posed to the directors afterwards --> 1) "Why did you choose to do this tabloid style...?" and 2) "Why did you focus on the man?").

I should back up a bit though...This is by no means a hatchet job out to get Moore. As mentioned above, there were no agendas being met as the filmmakers actually began the film as fans of Moore. After several interview requests were placed (in person and written) and promises were made, nary a response had been received by them. Their persistence as well as interviews with acquaintances of Moore's leads them to a different picture of both the man and his working style - even from before his first film. I don't necessarily have a big problem with the film pointing out Moore's personal flaws, but after a short time it's just not overly interesting. But in these interview segments we also see some flaws in Moore's methods.

If you've read anything about any of Moore's films, you know he has been "called out" for various transgressions with timelines and half-truths. Although I've never been overly fond of these techniques, I've never thought they've been bad enough to throw out the rest of his films. But "Manufacturing Dissent" highlights some of the more relevant ones and certainly, at the very least, makes you wonder why he left out footage of his interviews with GM CEO Roger Smith from "Roger & Me"...

Many documentaries attempt to simply record the facts and shy away from a point of view (let's steer clear of the "as soon as you make an edit, you've chosen a point of view" argument for the moment). But many others do indeed have an issue to raise or a theory to prove. In these cases, to what lengths is it acceptable to go in order to serve the greater purpose of the movie's message? Since Moore typically doesn't consider his movies to be documentaries (closer to "essays"), he feels he has more latitude.

Which leads to the assumption that he believes "the end justifies the means". But if, as Errol Morris states in the film, the resulting work of "Fahrenheit 9/11" is essentially preaching to the choir, then what was it's end purpose? It further polarizes the ends of the political spectrum - in 9/11's case it cordones off a portion of the left and almost begs the far right to tear down it's errors and misdirections. The argument soon focuses on these issues of the film and what is then lost is any reasonable discussion about some of the more salient points that were and could have been raised.

And that's my biggest problem with Michael Moore - the missed opportunities for inciteful debate. He's a talented filmmaker (I thought "Bowling For Columbine" was terrificly entertaining), but he seems to prefer taking up the pundit role to counter his far right opponents who use similar non-constructive methods. "Manufacturing Dissent" does a decent job (though not always entertainingly) at pointing out specific flaws in Moore's approach and raises broader questions for documentaries - Do you want debate or concurrence? Are you looking for the facts to present or do you want to flog an opinion?

Sunday 22 April 2007

Hot Docs 04/21/07 - Scott Walker and Helvetica

Saw 2 films Saturday night at Hot Docs...

Scott Walker: 30th Century Man

I know that describing an artist's music by comparing it to others is a somewhat "lazy" critical method, but I'm not a critic (and I am lazy). When it comes to Scott Walker, I'm not really sure there's any way to truly give an impression of his music in any written form, but I'll give it a shot:

Nick Drake, Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen get drunk and put together a band using home made instruments found in a junkyard to play songs by Laurie Anderson with arrangements done by Tom Waits.

Hmmm, probably not quite accurate. But not having heard Scott Walker's music before going into this film, that will have to suffice as my untrained initial impression. Even so, it's not fair. From his early days doing folky pop songs with The Walker Brothers (not really brothers) to the more grandiose orchestral arrangements that followed and moving into more experimental music as time went on, he has covered a wide range. As the film went on you could see how his influence (particularly in the U.K. where the Walker Brothers had some huge hits) was very widespread. His deep baritone, bordering on tuneless occasionally, can be found in David Bowie, Echo & The Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch and others, while his restless experimentation is all over the late Punk and New Wave artists (in particular it seems he was inspired by and then further re-inspired folks like Brian Eno).

My personal tastes kick in more around the time of a 1978 Walker Brothers album (they reunited in the mid-70s) called Nite Flights. The Scott Walker penned tracks that were sampled in the movie sound quite startling in comparison to the earlier pop sound and any 'twee' leanings have been scrubbed away with steel wool. This seems to nicely set up the darker and darker sounding songs that the rest of the film focuses on which are culled from 1984's Climate Of Hunter, 1995's Tilt and last year's The Drift.

The film jumps around between a straight chronological history of Walker with recent interview footage. For all the mystery that surrounded him during his earlier days and articles that described his reclusive nature, he comes across as a very well-spoken and rather normal person. Though he admits he can't really ever simply be happy. And if there's a common trait in his music, that would be it. It's dark, depressing and kinda scary. But it's incredibly intriguing.

Other sections of the film show him in the studio recording "The Drift" using pieces of raw meat, empty wooden crates and other objects to bring specific sounds from his mind to life. It's not just gimmickery - it truly feels like he is trying to recreate what only he can hear in his head. Since we hear a lot of his music in the film, there has to be something on screen while we're listening. In some cases the filmmakers simply leave the camera on the face of an interview subject and we watch their reactions to the music. In others, specially created patterns and morphing visuals float across the screen - probably the closest he'll come to a real music video. Neither are perfect, but both convey a good deal of the feeling of the music.

It's not a perfect documentary or even always entertaining, but it's made me very curious about Scott Walker's music. I can't imagine the makers of this film could really hope for more than that.


"I wish every non-designer I know could be forced to watch this." (single line summation heard on the way out of the theatre).

It's an odd topic for a feature length film, but this look at the typeface extensively used across the world managed to completely sell out its initial showing at Hot Docs. And though it was slightly dry in some of the early going, you could understand why it was so popular. With gentle humour, a couple of very interesting and even cranky interview subjects and some really great scenic examples of Helvetica (in all its marketing glory), this doc perfectly mixed information and entertainment.

Let's start with those scenic examples which break up the talking heads in the rest of the film. Via city scenes filmed at interesting angles and complimented by well-selected music (I've had the band El Ten Eleven on my "check them out" list for awhile and they've now moved higher up), you not only get a really strong feeling for how pervasive this particular font is, but are treated to an artistic approach to how these signs and messages are incorporated into our daily lives.

Now I have to admit that the job title of a typeface designer has made me previously think "well yeah, but what do you do the other 364 days of the year?" But the film does a fine job in showing considerations into which a designer must delve such as the relationships between each character in a typeface, height versus width ratios, blank spaces within characters (that little teardrop shape inside a lower case 'a') and different creative design approaches. The Swiss seemed to hit upon a goldmine with the efficiently designed Helvetica.

Even more interesting though is the direct and indirect impact a font can have on segments of our lives and our environment. A number of the people on camera wax a bit too poetically about how a font can breathe life into a billboard or capture the spirit of an entire nation, but at least they aren't dull in their attempts. Two of the best segments: 1) the comparison between a 1957 Life magazine and its myriad of styles of lettering in the advertisements and a more recent modern Helvetica inspired direct approach and 2) the cranky typeface designer who bemoans the usage of Helvetica and its even worse clone 'Arial'.

By the time you walk out of the theatre, you'll be spotting Helvetica everywhere. To reinforce this, every single subtitle or screen description in the film is also rendered in Helvetica.

And of course, so was this post.

Saturday 21 April 2007

Hot Docs Opening Film - In The Shadow Of The Moon


You would think that one of the biggest events of the 20th century would be documented up the wazoo by the actual people involved with descriptions of their feelings and experiences. Short of the terrific For All Mankind which used only NASA footage and narration from the astronauts and mission control, I don't think there have been many attempts to really have the astronauts themselves talk about humanity's first ever journey to another world.

There have been plenty of fictionalized accounts (The Right Stuff, From The Earth To The Moon, etc.), so the stories aren't completely unfamiliar to most people. But In The Shadow Of The Moon sits down most of the remaining Apollo astronauts and, cut in between more NASA footage, has them talk to the camera.

Each of the former astronauts come across as highly intelligent, warm and completely genuine people. Frankly, a film that only showed the interviews would still have been endlessly entertaining and interesting. Even though they've accomplished things that few of us can even imagine, they still just feel like someone's Grandpa. Though a Grandpa with REALLY great stories.

Michael Collins and Alan Bean were probably the funniest of the bunch, but each and every one of them had an amazing ability to convey their unique thoughts of their own experience. And the intensity is still there...You feel the drive hasn't left any of them. Simply a remarkable bunch of people.

In the Q&A after the film, the director addressed the absence of Neil Armstrong. He admitted that Armstrong never actually said 'No' to being involved, but he never said 'Yes' either. He's a very private individual, never wanted any of the fame or recognition and mentioned this in emails back to the director. As the interviews started piling up with the other astronauts, the filmmakers eventually decided to simply leave Armstrong alone...And in some ways it adds an additional bit of mystery to the first man on the moon. Though I'd love to hear Neil Armstrong speak about his memories, the film doesn't suffer from his absence.

The footage from NASA is stunning. I suppose that's an obvious statement, but my goodness it's glorious to see this on a big screen. The photos taken of Earthrise over the moon are literally breathtaking - I heard most of the audience suddenly inhale quickly as the first image came up. My favourite portion was likely the footage taken from the lander as it blasted off the moon on its way back to the capsule. As it rose quickly off the surface, you could first see its own shadow shrinking as they left the ground. Then the entire set of tracks that were left by their rover. Then the actual remaing portion of the lander that was left behind.

If you don't get some kind of emotional punch from some of this film, your sense of wonder really needs a tune-up.

Esoteric Picks Of The Week #13 (04/16/2007)


Laura - Radio Swan Is Down (2006)

Imagine a shorter and more to the point Godspeed You Black Emperor and you're close to the sound of the band Laura. Churning guitars and a wall of sound emerges from slow and even occasionally delicate beginnings. Five of the six band members are credited with "noise" on the album, but it's all incorporated into the music and you probably couldn't isolate any specific "noise" being "played". The cello in the sound mix adds a great deal of dramatic buildup and any vocals tend to be mixed a bit in the background to further heighten that feeling. But they have a unique quality that sets them apart from just a mere comparison.

Classic English Language Film

Out Of The Past (1947)

This film hits just about every noir characteristic there is. Robert Mitchum plays a small town nobody who pumps gas and finds that his past has returned to deal with him. He has down pat the cool character who is accepting of his fate while his co-star Jane Greer plays one of the greatest femme fatales to ever toy with the male gender. Throw in Jacques Tourneur's direction, use of light and some tremendous dialog and that leads to a single simple conclusion - Best Film Noir ever.

Recent English Language Film

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004)

In the early 70s, Los Angeles cable subscribers were very fortunate to find the Z Channel on their TVs. It focused on bringing uncut foreign and classic films to audiences and had a successful and very influential run. The film does a great job at bringing across the joy of many of these movies (with excellent clips from 8 1/2, Black Orpheus, Fitzcarraldo, etc.) via interviews with people like Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman and others. But there's a dark side to the documentary...It's not only the rise and fall story of the channel, but also of the main program director Jerry Harvey and his obsessive nature. This helped him in being doggedly determined to find full length cuts of lost films, but led to a terrible personal tragedy as well.

Foreign Language Film

Z (1969)

Superb political thriller which is based on the true story of the downfall of the Greek government. It follows the story of the murder of a leftist politician through to the connections to the current government and military that are unraveled by a prosecutor. Tense and disturbing (I found myself almost getting angry at the cover ups along the way), this was the first film to be Oscar nominated for both Best Foreign Film and Best Film during the same year (it won Foreign).


Acacia (2003)

Don't expect another Asian horror film going into this. There's supernatural elements and certainly some unsettling moments, but it's the slow realization of what has happened towards the end of the film that truly gives you the willies. Halfway through, a young adopted boy disappears from his parents' home and the viewer is led to believe that he ran away (due to his parents not understanding his love for an acacia tree in the backyard). But as we see the relationship between the couple deteriorate and flash backwards in the story, you wonder what really happened.

Thursday 19 April 2007

Hot Docs begins!

I expect most people if forced to write a sentence that proclaimed the start of a film festival consisting of nothing but documentaries would not likely end the sentence with an exclamation mark.

Yeah, well tough. I love a good documentary. I previously posted about 40 odd ones that I really like, so I'm hoping to discover a few more in the next week or two. I had been thinking of going to the Toronto Hot Docs Festival for the last 5 years now, but there was always some reason I couldn't make it (you know, silly reasons like not buying any tickets...). This year though, I happened to stumble across a link to the hot docs site before the full schedule was up and they had a sampling of titles that would be featured. When I realized that I could easily pick ten features just from that early list, I figured this was the year to finally pull up my socks and book something.

I picked the following 10 films that I'll catch between April 19th and April 29th:

In The Shadow Of The Moon
Scott Walker: 30th Century Man
Manufacturing Dissent
McLuhan's Wake
Losers And Winners
Circus School
The Foreign Eye

I could easily have picked another 10...

Monday 16 April 2007

Maggie May...Not?

Maggie Cheung puts movie career on hold

Not the most devastating news around, but still somewhat sad if indeed she never does another film again. It's her own decision and she will continue to dabble in other arts, but it would be a shame to never see her in another film role.

And I don't just say that because she's stunningly beautiful...

...though she is indeed.

Most people would know her from her role in Hero or one of Jackie Chan's early movies and most critics would hail her for one of Wong Kar Wai's films (in particular her incredible acting job in In The Mood For Love). For me though, her most memorable role is from a film called Irma Vep directed by her husband (at the time anyway) Olivier Assayas.

The film is a behind the scenes look at the making of a modern version of the classic French silent film Les Vampires with Maggie playing, well, herself. She has the role of Irma Vep in the movie within the movie, so in all the behind the scenes sections, she's really playing herself. So it's perhaps not much of a stretch, but it ends up being one of the most watchable (I just can't think of a better word to describe it) performances I've ever seen. She's charming, intelligent, patient, curious and you can't take your eyes off her.

And yeah, she's pretty good looking too, eh?

Finally, here's a recent interview with her from a few weeks ago:

Wednesday 11 April 2007

Esoteric Picks Of The Week #12 (04/09/2007)

I actually wrote all of these while performing my civic duty of sitting on my butt waiting to be called for Jury selection.


KBB - Lost And Found (2001)

Very strong instrumental prog from Japan. The riffs and melodies throughout this album are well composed and are kept interesting by mixing predominantly keyboards (synth, piano, organ) and electric violin (think FM, "Losing It" by Rush and a fiery Jean-Luc Ponty) with a little guitar and then building on variations of those themes. Occasionally some of the synth or piano opening statements suffer some of the overly dramatic cheesy-ness of the worst neo-prog, but it doesn't last long once the rest of the band starts interacting with each other. They've also done very well to ensure flow is kept in each tune as they transition between solos and themes.

Classic English Language Film

Hopscotch (1980)

Without my really noticing it, Walter Matthau has become one of my favourite actors. It goes without saying that he's freaking great in both "The Odd Couple" and "The Sunshine Boys", but he gives one of his most entertaining performances in this 1980 film as a retired secret agent going through a final set of deceptions. It's not that the role requires a huge stretch for him (his character is essentially always right, ahead of everyone else and in a jovial mood throughout), but it just feels like he's having so much fun. I'll forgive him the tremendously awful "Gangster Story" from 1960 which he also directed. Barely though...

Recent English Language Film

Overnight (2003)

What started out as a bunch of Boston friends documenting the selling and production of a script written by another friend turns into a rather sad protrayal of an individual becoming totally self-involved and deluded. Troy Duffy wrote "Boondock Saints" and with the help of his friends managed to secure Miramax involvement as well as the ability to direct it. As things progress and Troy gets involved in the Hollywood machine (and manages to get a record deal for his band as well), his ego not only grows but it explodes. So much so that his relationship with his friends, including those making this film, fractures into fights and lawsuits. Troy even pisses off Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein with verbal assaults. As you can imagine, that doesn't help matters much...A fascinating look at someone shooting themselves in the foot over and over and over again.

Foreign Language Film

C.R.A.Z.Y. (2003)

This Quebecois film (by Jean-Marc Vallee) ended up being one of my favourites of 2005. It tracks the ups and downs of a family of 5 boys growing up through the 60s and 70s - mostly from the point of view of son number 4. Not only does it do a great job of building interesting characters and tieing the story arcs together, but it creates a vivid depiction of Quebec's culture and people during those decades. A fun, sad and very involving film.


Pulse (2001)

I hope at least some folks were curious to check out this terrific creepy Japanese film after last year's poorly received U.S. remake. It would be a shame if people missed it. The ghostly images of recent suicides begin showing up as it appears that the dead are spilling back into this world. Where the remake appears to focus on plot driven scares, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa uses his story as a framework on which he can hang his set pieces but also to build an interesting commentary on the growing disconnectedness (if I may be allowed to use a 16-letter non-word at this point) of Japanese society. As for the scary stuff, it's all about the atmosphere - slowly building with subtle shifts of mood. You're not likely to jump out of your seat (though there are a couple of jarring moments), but you may notice about halfway through that you're curled up in a ball on it. The sound design is key in a film like this and here it's masterful. Particularly at moments when the sound completely drops away. One of the best of the J-horror bunch.

Sunday 8 April 2007

Pistol Opera - Trashy Movie Blog-A-Thon

The Trashy Movie Blog-A-Thon is happening here.

Out of necessity (likely in order to preserve his sanity), sometime in the early 1960s director Seijun Suzuki began a somewhat different way of telling the B-movie scripts being handed him. Depending on your point of view, he either became a master of indirectly moving plots along via visuals and non-linear scenes or he just no longer cared about his audience and perhaps had lost a grasp of reality. I'm in the former camp, but unfortunately his studio in the late 60s was more in the latter. They fired him after he delivered the terrific Branded To Kill - the story of an organized crime killer who becomes a target of his peers after failing an assignment. He had previously been warned to get back to more straightforward storytelling. I expect Suzuki had his walking papers within the first 10 minutes of the studio viewing Branded To Kill.

Now I suppose a director who has had 6 of his features released by The Criterion Collection may not qualify as being misunderstood or as the maker of trashy films. But his 2001 release Pistol Opera is typically considered (if at all) as an example of a director losing his freaking mind. Or perhaps more simply going overboard with no idea of what he wanted to accomplish.

Bah I say! It's glorious art. Not just for the colours bleeding through from one scene to the other or the, ahem, unique acting stylings of his cast. But it's his unconventional and essentially experimental method of telling the story that seals the deal for me.

I guess some discussion of the story couldn't hurt. Stray Cat is the number 3 ranked killer within organized crime syndicate The Guild. There seems to be some infighting and jockeying for position going on as the killers end up getting pitted against each other. There are a variety of other characters - her agent that gives her assignments, the retired killer who gives her advice, a young girl giving help who wants to be taught how to kill as well as a raft of other professional killers (with names like Hundred Eyes, Painless Surgeon and Bumbling Man). The No. 1 killer is Hundred Eyes who seems to be dispatching most of the other ranks and has given Stray Cat notice.

A follow-on of sorts to his last studio picture of the 60s (the above mentioned Branded To Kill), Pistol Opera pushes Suzuki's style right to the edge. That style focused less on the need to carry the viewer through the narrative via dialogue but instead using visuals that implied the action. It's carried to its absurd limit here. But that's what's great about it. There's enough information provided so you get an idea of the plot and then you can sit back and enjoy the visuals. Each individual scene is its own piece of art - sometimes surrealistic and sometimes like modern pop art. So the story is really just something on which to hang the beautiful images.

The dream like nature of the visuals adds a great deal to what is otherwise a well-worn genre. Strolls across boardwalks with orange seas behind and wandering ghosts. Blue painted men dancing with a character before she is fatally shot. A huge backhoe dumping red flowers into a house. The constantly changing background colours and spatial relationships between people. All this serves not only to give a feeling of what the characters are imagining but it also keeps the viewer in a perpetual state of amused bewilderment.

Want Sexual imagery? You might just find a few examples throughout the film...The gun, of course, is ever present. Stray Cat states at one point it is her man. But her agent, who seems to long for a lesbian encounter with Stray Cat, denies her the gun. And then there are the less subtle scenes...But they're all stand alone instances and don't necessarily add up to a grand statement or work towards a unified theme.

And that's fine. It's great actually, because the film absolutely wants you to enjoy and revel in the craziness. You can't help but laugh with the glorious absurdity of it all. Let it wash over you and know that you simply will not be able to predict what will come next.

The music oddly fits the film, though again, it's nothing you would really expect. Jaunty reggae rhythms and loungy jazz riffs dominate the incidental music throughout. The opening theme song kicks the film off in appropriate style using an off kilter 30s swing and really sets the mood for what is about to follow (if you seriously think something normal is about to occur after that opening blast, then you just aren't paying attention).

You can hear it here as part of the film's trailer.

Prowl IMDB and you'll certainly see a range of opinions with many posts proclaiming this the worst film they've ever seen. That's fine. But for those of us who love it, there's no claim that it's deeper than others can fathom. Don't try to understand it scene by scene or line by line. Just let it roll over you. It's no wonder that I've included so many screen shots that do a much better job describing the film than my few words...

Friday 6 April 2007

Esoteric Picks Of The Week #11 (04/02/2007)


JPT Scare Band - Sleeping Sickness (2000)

Imagine you're in the Fillmore West around 1969 or so. Maybe Mountain is playing or some other bluesy stripped down band who likes long exploratory tunes with a certain amount of "wanking" on guitar (but controlled wanking over chord progressions that still sounds good). Might sound a whole lot like this. This CD is a compilation of their first 2 releases in the 90s (which were both on vinyl). JPT is an acronym of the first letters of the band members, but it's the only short thing about this release - 4 of the 7 tracks are over 12 minutes in length and 2 of the others around 7 minutes. That's a lot of glorious fuzz and wah wah feedback.

Classic English Language Film

Christmas In Connecticut (1945)

Barbara Stanwyck plays a happy homemaker type columnist who describes to her readers the idyllic farm life she and her family share (with old fashioned recipes, garden tips, etc.). Thing is, she's a single city girl living in an apartment. At Christmas time, her boss decides that she should host a war hero for the holidays and her secret is in danger of being exposed. Thus begins the screwball antics that lead to misunderstandings, confusion and an elaborate ruse. It's all quite silly, but it's deftly handled with some sharp writing and the antics aren't ever too over the top for me so they remain funny and quite endearing. And Stanwyck is as radiant as ever.

Recent English Language Film

Ocean's Twelve (2004)

This movie actually made some people angry as they wanted more of the same after "Ocean's Eleven". That initial film (a remake of an old Rat Pack heist film from the 60s) was a whole lot of fun as a caper flick, but for me "Ocean's Twelve" was even better. It took the fun caper and added an art film around it by using different editing techniques (used in introductory segments for people and places), lots of flashbacks, subtle clues and spiffy camera tricks. Too much technique for some folks, but I love how they spent time on scenes just for the fun of it. The plot demands you really pay attention if you want to follow the twists and turns of the group's attempt to steal the Faberge Eggs. Outstanding cinematography (using light to terrific effect in many scenes) and a superb soundtrack puts this into my favourite films of the 00's so far. Hmmm, I think I need to watch this again tonight...

Foreign Language Film

Sonatine (2003)

Takeshi Kitano is a Japanese Renaissance Man. He's a painter, author, poet, comedian, TV personality (in North America known for the redubbed "Most Extreme Elimination Challenge" or MXC on Spike TV), actor and director. He took on those last 2 roles in 1993's "Sonatine", where he plays a member of a yakuza gang who is getting tired of the life. He and his followers are sent to stop a gang war, but when things don't quite work out as planned, they retreat to a house by the sea. Much of the film is quite slow paced and almost playful in showing these gangsters bonding, killing time by the beach and playing tricks on each other. But the violence (depicted in brutal, quick and non-stylized terms) is never far away.


Battle Royale (2000)

Kitano reappears in this Japanese blockbuster directed by Kinji Fukasaku. Because of the breakdown of Japanese society in the fictional future of the film, the youth have turned to violence, school boycotts and other measures that have frustrated the government. To counter this, they choose one Grade 9 class every year to compete in the Battle Royale which is a fight to the death between the kids on a remote island. Only one can survive and there is no escape...Kitano plays the former teacher of the class who presides over the students as they run through all the possible reactions - denial, panic, banding together, becoming lone assassins, etc. Kitano also lends cynical encouragement to the students via loudspeakers on the island as he gives regular death toll results. If you can buy the concept, it's a terrific film.