Sunday 23 March 2008

Hot Docs 2008 - WooHoo!

Last year's Hot Docs film festival was a terrific experience for me. Out of the 10 films I saw, 9 were excellent while only one didn't quite grab me. I suppose that high hit ratio may have been due to my superior psychic selecting ability, but it's likely more a result of the festival organizers and their amazing work at finding interesting, puzzling and entertaining films that make you think and ask questions.

The 2008 festival kicks off on April 17th here in Toronto and runs until the 27th. With over 170 films at the festival, I somehow managed to find a couple that caught my interest...Below is a list of what I hope to take in this year.

Note: The short descriptions of each film are summaries I cobbled together from the longer descriptions at the Hot Docs web site (I tried not to borrow too much of their phrasings). Each film is linked to its description there, so please visit the site for more relevant details on each documentary.

  • All Together Now - A document of the music (from rights acquisition to final creation) behind Cirque Du Soleil's recent show "Love" (which was based around Beatles tunes).
  • Blast! - A team of astrophysicists attempt to launch an incredibly complex and expensive telescope via a high altitude balloon in order to help delve deeper into the questions about the creation of the Universe.

  • A Crime Against Art - A mock trial purported to be about a "crime against art" is filmed and tries to break down many of the current issues the art world faces - including how art and industry can coexist.
  • Dance With A Serial Killer - The search and capture of one of France's most brutal serial killers is told by the detective who headed the investigation.

  • Emoticons / Kids & Money - A double shot of shorter films (both under an hour): the first shows 6 young girls immersed in online social networks and how real social environments aren't meeting their needs; the second shows the gulf between how young teenagers in L.A. view money.
  • The Fallen - The scandal behind the corruption and greed involved with the February 2006 mining accident in Mexico that trapped 63 miners and the subsequent delay in the rescue is covered.
  • Jesus Loves You - Missionaries from all over the world come to Germany during World Cup 2006 to try to convert soccer fans to Christianity.
  • Killer Poet - Convicted double murderer Norman Porter escapes prison, becomes Chicago's poet of the month and gets caught again with the help of Google Search.
  • The Last Continent - A global warming study of the Antarctic lasting for more than a year provides beautiful landscapes and underwater photography while the crew face danger and excitement.
  • Mechanical Love - "Can robots offer a substitute for human love?" is the main thrust of this film that exams robots being built for companionship to the elderly.

  • Planet B-Boy - Dancers from 18 countries face off at the "Battle Of The Year" to display their amazing moves and show who is the baddest b-boy.
  • Rise And Fall Of The Grumpy Burger - A document of sorts about Marshall Sfalcin's (apparently Canada's answer to Ed Wood) own attempt to film the story of how his family - and not MacDonalds - invented fast food.
  • S&M: Short And Male - An "investigation into the relationship between male height, self-esteem and success."
  • Second Skin - The culture wrapped around Massively Multiplayer Online games and environments like Second Life is examined.
  • Shot In Bombay - While documenting the making of a Bollywood gangster movie, this film promises to also cover the Bollywood industry as well.

  • Steypa - The film's title refers both to Icelandic terms for "concrete" (the material of choice for one of the film's sculptors) and "something weird" (which likely covers off much of the Icelandic contemporary art scene the film focuses on).

  • Talking Guitars - A portrait of Flip Scipio - a master guitar craftsman sought out by some of the biggest names in the music industry.
  • Tonight Let's All Make Love - I have a soundtrack CD by Pink Floyd from this, so it's time I set some visuals to the psychy tunes from the 60s British rock scene.
  • The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia - I loved Jennifer Baichwal's "Manufactured Landscapes" and since the festival has carved out a special spotlight on some of her films, I felt I should sample...So this document of yet another photographer - Shelby Lee Adams and his photos of poverty in the Appalachians - seems a good place to start.
  • Waiting For Hockney - Billy Pappas sets out on a 10 year process to draw the most detailed portrait ever and then present it to renowned artist David Hockney.

Due to some scheduling issues on my side, I won't be able to see much of anything during the middle of the fest, but I'm hoping to cram as much as possible in at the front and back ends (I'd like to at least double my output of last year). Since the festival is set up with double screenings of all the films, there aren't too many that completely bump up against my scheduling issues. Here are a couple, however, that I'd love to see but probably won't be able to:

  • At The Death House Door - I'd want to see this simply because of Steve James' involvement, but throw in the investigation of a death row inmate who may be innocent, a pastor's crisis of faith and a wider look at the death penalty and it sounds like this could be an amazing film.
  • Man On Wire - Missing this one will hurt a bit as I'd heard some terrific reviews...The film tracks the planning and execution of Philippe Petit's high wire walk between the World Trade Center Towers in 1974. How they managed to string a wire between the two towers without permission and actually allow Petit to do his walk across (8 times!) is beyond me...I'm hoping this will come out to DVD later this year.
  • Nursery University - What could be more entertaining than parents battling for spots in crowded Preschools? Apparently, in order to properly set up your child for a prestigious future, you need to be in the proper Nursery school.
  • Wild Blue Yonder - The Maysles brothers were pioneers in documentary filmmaking with films like "Salesman" and "Gimme Shelter". Years after David has passed away, his daughter Celia tries to look back into his past work - but remaining brother Albert refuses to help and even blocks Celia's access to some of David's material.

Thursday 20 March 2008

R.I.P. Arthur C. Clarke

On one of our last nights of vacation in Florida (with my parents in Siesta Key - just South of Sarasota), I had just finished reading to my son before bedtime when my wife came into the room and mentioned the sudden death of Anthony Minghella. She paused and then added "And Arthur C. Clarke passed away as well".

Minghella's passing is obviously quite sad. At 54, he was still young and had many years of creativity left. Clarke was 90 and had a remarkable life and string of achievements. But Arthur C. Clarke was a giant for me.

His 1972 novel "Rendezvous With Rama" is still my favourite book of all time. It was the first thing I ever read (short of perhaps "Encyclopedia Brown" when I was a boy) that I literally could not put down. Every page had something new and usually jaw dropping on it and (along with the books of John Wyndham) it opened up the world of sci-fi to me. Of course the rest of Clarke's other books followed - some great ("2010" was another favourite with its central plot point that Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, contained life...and that it was being guarded) and others not so much (diminishing returns on every subsequent Rama book). His imagination, his ability to tie in real science and plausible theories into his stories (solar wind sailors for example) and his encouragement of rational logical thought were all things that I greatly respected about the man.

So later on the same evening I heard of his death, after returning from a short errand, I walked out to the beach on Siesta Key and soaked in a bit of the pounding Gulf of Mexico surf and late night breeze. Straight out over the ocean was the constellation of Orion and behind me an almost full moon blotting out all the other stars but gleaming so bright that it cast my shadow ahead of me. It put me in mind of Clarke's early book "Childhood's End" and I half expected small children to begin walking out of the water...I suppose that should be creepy, but it brought a big smile to my face.

Thank you Mr. Clarke. Thank you very, very much.

Thursday 6 March 2008

Split Screens and Frames

A few weeks ago, in response to my comments about the effectiveness of split screen use in "The Tracey Fragments", Ed from Shoot The Projectionist left a comment mentioning that it was also used effectively in the film "More American Graffiti". So I figured I'd rent it and give it a spin.

Of course, if you're going to watch "More American Graffiti", you really should watch "American Graffiti" first. I hadn't seen it in years and it was great fun revisiting the characters, the music and just the entire feeling of its overly romanticized environment. So, you know, at least that was worth it...

The sequel, however, loses pretty much all the warmth and good will Lucas' 1973 film built up. Unfortunately, all the characters from the original are missing. Oh sure, the same actors are back and they are playing people with the same names and they look the same, but all the interesting aspects of the previous characters have been brought to cliche heights - Steve Bolander's (Ron Howard) less charming qualities in the first are ballooned into full chauvinist unlikeability, the awkward Terry 'Toad' Fields (Charles Martin Smith) becomes a buffoonish complainer, Laurie (Cindy Williams) is now simply whiny, Debbie (Candy Clark) is...ah nevermind. You won't care about any of them anyway (actually, John Milner as the hot rod driver turned drag racer remains pretty consistent) because they don't really do anything interesting. Though the film spans 3 years in the middle part of the sixties and tries to pull in larger cultural touchstones (Vietnam, student demonstrations, hippies), it reduces everyone to the same standard stereotypes. The stories and characters were simply boring.

But as much as I didn't like the film due to story and characters, it did have some interesting aspects - namely that each of the 4 storylines takes place on a different New Year's Eve and uses different aspect ratios.

New Year's Eve 1964

New Year's Eve 1965

New Year's Eve 1966

New Year's Eve 1967

Ed's right about the split screens in Debbie's section of the film - they are effective and make the very dull hippie story watchable. The concurrent view of different angles helps make the action scenes slightly more exciting and also works at establishing relationships between characters (e.g. Debbie and her boyfriend being in different frames while she talks about them getting married). I must admit, I was most happy when this section of the film came back simply because I wanted to see how they would use the various frames at once to move the story forward - even though I just didn't care a wit about Debbie. The 4:3 ratio worked to a certain extent in the Vietnam story since you end up getting a bit of a documentary feel to the footage (after all it was really the first TV war), but just nowhere near enough to cover the poor qualities of the story and writing. So overall, an interesting use of film techniques that just can't overcome very weak material.

Coincidentally, later in the week I watched for the first time the 1955 musical "It's Always Fair Weather" starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. It also used split screens, though only in two specific sections of the film:

The first use of it helps differentiate the paths taken by all three of the former war buddies as they integrate themselves back into society after VE Day. It's handled quite well and you get a nice summation of their lives over the last decade in a matter of a couple of minutes. The focus is always determined for the viewer since each frame comes into view after the other has frozen.

Later in the film (after the three have departed from their reunion), we get a dance routine of the three of them synched across three different locations. It's not a particularly dazzling showpiece of dancing, but having the three of them in different frames matching their moves is great fun to watch.

The film certainly has its slow spots and there are some odd choices. There's only a single dance routine with Cyd Charisse (only one!), so you have to wonder what the hell they were thinking there - you have Cyd Charisse and her legs...Use them! Also, one of the three main male characters goes missing for an entire stretch of the middle section of the film. We follow two of the characters through their day leading up to the climactic TV show at the end of the picture (being kept busy by others to ensure they show up later on) and though we know how the remaining member of the trio is being kept busy we just never see him until he walks into the TV show taping. It feels like they just decided to cut out whatever scenes they shot because they didn't work.

After the three friends have reunited and agreed on a lunch spot there's a bit more playing around with frames within the film. As each of the three starts to think that the reunion was a bad idea, the camera locks on their faces and the frame shrinks a bit to emphasize that the voiceover is their own thoughts.

It doesn't work perfectly as there's some mugging going on here, but that's quibbling...Overall, it's an immensely entertaining film. And if you want dancing showpieces, there are two in particular that are just fabulous, hugely energetic and terrific fun - the trash can lid sequence and the roller skating through city streets sequence:

But my favourite use of split screen is probably John Frakenheimer's "Grand Prix". Throughout the beginning of the 3 hour film's titles, we're treated to numerous frames of wheels, cars, road surfaces, etc.

This really helps set the tone at an F1 race course during preparations by all the crews - in particular when the screen shows a single item (say a spinning wrench on a nut) and then shows two and then four and then sixteen...In quick succession it gives off the feeling of many teams and mechanics all bustling around.

After the race starts, the split screens continue from within the race as we see (all at once) a driver's feet on the pedals, the driver's hand on the gear shift and the driver behind the wheel:

...or perhaps the hands, the feet and the road surface speeding along:

...or different angles on the exit of a tunnel:

It sets up the film beautifully and creates added tension and excitement along with the feeling that so much is happening at once.

Of course there's many other films that play with split screens and framing. Notably "Timecode" (which sectioned the screen into four single takes for the duration of the film - not a great story, but a cool experiment), "Woodstock", "Sisters", "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Pillow Talk". And of course early innovators like Dziga Vertov ("The Man With The Movie Camera") and Buster Keaton (whose short film "The Playhouse" was an obvious inspiration for the "It's Always Fair Weather" split screen dance number).

Used well, it's another film technique that can add a great deal to the telling of a story.

Monday 3 March 2008

Saul Bass Does Star Wars

Via Greencine, Looker posits the question "What if Saul Bass did the credits for the original "Star Wars"?" And it comes complete with jazzy theme too!