Wednesday 30 April 2008
Every day for 8 years and 5 months Billy Pappas worked on a single drawing. "Everything works faster than me" he quips, "except geology". It's pretty clearly an obsession for him, but is it art? Or a little slice of insanity? While the terrific documentary "Waiting For Hockney" may pose these questions, it fortunately doesn't actually try to answer them for you.
As a young artist, Pappas meets his future benefactor (a guy who dubs himself "Dr. Lifestyle") and they put their heads together to come up with something that has never been done before. They settle on creating the most detailed picture ever drawn by hand. Using magnifying glasses, special tools and an astounding process, Pappas aims for 3000 marks per square inch (in the end they believe they reached 10000) and uses the photograph of a famous person - a rather uninteresting one in my opinion - as his model. The filmmakers purposely hold off on showing the final work as they build towards the unveiling.
The unveiling itself is a curious thing...My first reaction was actually one of disappointment - it looks like any other drawing of a photo. But of course it's a difficult thing to really capture that kind of fine detail on film when looking at the picture as a whole. It's when they begin to zoom in on the different features - the peach fuzz on the cheeks, the chapped lips, the little veins in the eyes - that you begin to think "Holy crap this thing is amazing". But without that examination of the detail and understanding of the process, would anyone really notice the picture if they walked by it?
Once the drawing is finished, the next part of his plan begins: getting his drawing in front of David Hockney. If only he could show it to that titan of the art world, he surmises, he would be set. The commissions would roll in and he could make a fine living. He's based pretty much the last decade of his life on creating this one thing to bring to a single meeting with this one individual. It's a classic setup for failure and a portrait of naive dreams running into reality. And reality has a way of changing things up on you...
The movie moves along at a great clip. Using archive photos, Pappas' own sketchbook, his datebook and interviews with family, friends and others involved, it never once lags as he closes towards his ultimate goal. Especially once we meet his mother. She provides some of the film's highlights and is the emotional centre of the story. Her rambling monologue to her husband while unable to help Billy during a key section of the story is both heart-wrenching and terribly sweet. She can't bear the thought of him possibly being crushed by disappointment.
Whatever the final outcome is for Pappas' picture and his career in art, he does end up realizing he can't simply wait for it. Waiting for Hockney is one thing, but waiting for your life to start is another...
Tuesday 29 April 2008
A few weeks ago Jay over at The Documentary Blog had a post about the difficulty in reviewing documentaries - in particular how you handle a review of a movie that you simply end up disliking even though it deals with an important subject. Is it fair to be negative about the way a film looks or was put together when the topic was so relevant and noteworthy? I couldn't help thinking about his comments during and after "The Last Continent" - a film documenting a team's 430 day trip to Antarctica and their research regarding global warming effects.
Beyond the subject matter and the highly significant effects to our climate that are discussed, I really wanted to like this film. The idea of going to Antarctica, letting your ship get frozen in the waters and forcing yourself to stay there throughout the entire winter is brillant, if not perhaps also a little daffy. The crew are at times very engaging and fun. And the scenery...There's some staggeringly beautiful shots in this film taken underwater, from the top of the ship's mast, in the middle of storms and from just about any vantage point that could best show the natural beauty around them.
But it fails in several key areas...
1) I never felt they gave any quality data of their own to support their global warming statements. It's not that I don't believe them (they came in armed with quite a bit of evidence to show the continent has had an increase in average temperature), but I didn't feel they contributed much to the research themselves. Any of the statements they made about the time they were there were just generalizations regarding the anecdotal information they picked up. Just because the water took much longer to freeze in your one particular area this one particular winter doesn't necessarily make your case. It's only one single instance to add to the volume of data.
2) It's overly self-important. Director and leader Jean Lemire often has the camera film him writing his diary of the trip and during these sections we get to hear him recite his own words in serious dramatic tones ("How fragile our little planet seems..."). This continues with his narration during other sections of the film and it's just too much - let the story speak for itself. And stop comparing you and your team to Shackleford.
3) The music is overbearing and there's rarely a moment without it. Again, it's just too much. I can tell that the crew is struggling to save the ship and therefore their own lives. I don't need swelling strings and booming tympani to tell me that. When they let the sound of the natural surroundings take over and drop the music (or at least let it fall to the background) is when the film works best - hearing the wicked wind or the various animals is so much more effective at giving an impression of what the continent is like.
4) The camera never seems to blend into the background - short of the frantic battle against the storm, there's rarely a time when you feel the camera is just listening in on the natural conversations or events of the crew. It felt like they reshot and properly staged certain team events that had previously occurred.
5) The big storm is a terrific sequence, but it's drained of most of the tension it could have created because from the opening shot of the film you already know how it's going to turn out.
I suppose I'm being overly critical of the film. It has to be said that there were some great moments:
- The seals and the whales under the ice
- The massive jellyfish
- Catching the World Cup on the satellite dish
- The first time the crew brings out the hockey sticks on the Antarctic ice
- Several emotional scenes involving the crew and discussion of their families (especially the sole parent on the crew talking over the phone with his young son)
But I just can't get past the heavy-handed preachiness that comes through...I suppose it's totally unfair, but once or twice the name Steve Zissou flashed across my mind. And I don't think that's what they were intending.
Monday 28 April 2008
"Watching documentaries is like practicing to be human." - Albert Maysles
The above quote greeted each and every 2008 Hot Docs attendee throughout the fest during the pre-show ads projected on the screens. It's quite apt...In the 16 films I saw this year, it felt like I got schooled on mankind's possibilities: from nursery school to elderly care; artistic failures to crowning achievements; scientific curiosity to religious dogma; the destruction of our planet to the creation of geminoids (android twins).
I figure that a wrap-up post should actually happen relatively close to the actual wrap-up of a festival, so with 11 pending reviews to finish off (I'll get to them!), there's no time like the present to sum up my feelings after Sunday's close. Essentially, the festival rocked.
Some random thoughts:
- Favourite film - Are you kidding me? Just one? "The True Meaning Of Pictures" might be up there, but it was part of one of the retrospectives. "All Together Now" was an early favourite as it left me inspired. "Waiting For Hockney" caught me off guard with some really warm and honest emotional moments. But the last day of the festival brought me 3 greatly entertaining films (including two I didn't think I would get to see, but managed because of encore screenings): "S&M: Short and Male", "Nursery University" and "Anvil: The Story Of Anvil".
- Funniest moment - "I can answer that in one, no, two, no, three words...We haven't got good management" ("Anvil: The Story Of Anvil")
- Most cringe inducing moment - The surgery to add height to the young Indian boy in "S&M: Short And Male" and his painful recovery. To all parents: Never, NEVER allow your child to go through with this...
- Most emotional moment - After a major accomplishment, David Pappas talks to his Dad on the phone in "Waiting For Hockney".
- Call To Arms moment - Pretty much the entirety of "The Fallen". Mexican mine workers are barely given a moment's thought by either the mining company or the government - even after 65 of them die in a mine collapse.
- Creepiest moment - The young girl talking to her dad's android equivalent in "Mechanical Love".
- Coolest director at a Q&A - Liz Mermin ("Shot In Bombay").
- Most obvious audience plant question at a Q&A - After screening "The Rise And Fall Of The Grumpy Burger" the first question to the star of the film was --> "Hi, yeah, so you're from London Ontario, eh? Do you know ...?" - the person lists three separate individuals by name - "No? OK, I just thought I would ask."
- Antarctica is a stunning part of the world. So are the Appalachians. And arctic Sweden. And Stonehenge too.
Not quite as prestigious as my own "awards", the festival had its own recognition to give out. The Jury Awards were announced Sunday and "The English Surgeon" came out on top in the Best International Documentary while "Junior" won for Best Canadian Documentary.
The Audience Awards were announced Monday. Here are the Top 10 (of which I only saw 2):
- TAKING ROOT: THE VISION OF WANGARI MAATHAI (D: Lisa Merton, Alan Dater; USA)
- PLANET B-BOY (D: Benson Lee; USA)
- DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER (D: Kurt Kuenne; USA)
- THE ENGLISH SURGEON (D: Geoffrey Smith; UK)
- TRIAGE: DR. JAMES ORBINSKI’S HUMANITARIAN DILEMMA (D: Patrick Reed; Canada)
- ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (D: Sacha Gervasi; USA)
- THE BEETLE (D: Yishai Orian; Israel)
- DADDY TRAN: A LIFE IN 3-D (D: Siu Ta; Canada)
- STRANDED, I’VE COME FROM A PLANE THAT CRASHED IN THE MOUNTAINS (D: Gonzalo Arijon; France)
- ALL TOGETHER NOW (D: Adrian Wills; Canada)
And thanks to every single Hot Doc volunteer who were never less than helpful and always seemed to actually enjoy being there.
Sunday 27 April 2008
George Harrison had an idea. Well, OK, he had lots of ideas, but in this particular one he envisioned (after meeting Cirque Du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte) that a whirling musical feast for the eyes show should be built around Beatles tunes. He passed away before the concept made it to development, but his passion seemed to stay with it. Not music rights issues nor creative differences nor even the threat of massive backlash from Beatles fans could stop the idea from coming into being. This film is more than a simple chronology of events leading up to the unveiling of the final creation (eventually to be entitled "Love") - it's a celebration of the Beatles and their music.
Director Adrian Wills takes a goldmine of access (Ringo, Paul, Yoko, George Martin, all the Cirque staff, etc.) and subject matters that really speak for themselves and manages to create a whole that is larger than the sum of those parts. Instead of just a simple behind the scenes film, he skillfully weaves several storylines together without missing a stitch. In one of the main components of the film, musical director Sir George Martin (along with his son Giles) struggles with showing reverence to the original material while also creating something new. His solution was to use only music originally recorded by the Beatles, but to incorporate versions or takes that are not on the studio albums. By piecing together these bits and mixing songs together, the soundtrack becomes a brand new work.
In another of the main arteries, we follow the creative process of show director Dominique Champagne. Somewhat saddled with the looming presence of Yoko and Olivia, the wives of the departed Beatles, he must keep to the original vision of the show. Cirque Du Soleil are just as fierce as The Beatles when it comes to creative control, so of course there are stumbling blocks to overcome. The wives are incredibly loyal to their husbands' legacies so it never once feels like any of the problems are of the useless meddling type. Further interviews with Olivia and Yoko add to the story and expand on the Beatles past. Of course there's also plenty of archive footage and Beatles music thrown in and this leads to interviews with the surviving Beatles. Paul and Ringo both come across as open, relaxed and friendly.
A young African dancer completes the mix of stories. Not only does he need to cope with the Montreal winter (as the show prep is handled there before everything is moved to their new home theatre based in Las Vegas), he isn't used to the gymnastic nature of the Cirque. His story falls somewhat by the wayside as the movie gets closer to the premiere date, but it still adds a great deal to the experience of putting something of this size together. His dancing fits in with the troupe though, since the show doesn't seem to be quite as acrobatic as previous ones. The bits of the final show we do see certainly are dazzling though - in particular a scene with a white VW Beetle that flies apart into dozens of pieces after striking a woman in red.
Terrific applause followed our screening and led into a relaxed Q&A with Giles Martin. He spoke of how wonderful it was to collaborate with his Dad for two and a half years on this project. Time well spent - for both him and the rest of us.
And just because I can, here's the song "All Together Now" from "The Yellow Submarine":
Flip Scipio builds guitars. One at a time. Very carefully.
The film "Talking Guitars" gives us a better idea of why Flip does what he does and why he spends so much time carefully bending and shaving the wood he uses for these custom built musical instruments. Even more light is shed on the craftsman through interviews with some of his famous customers (Jackson Browne, David Lindley, Paul Simon, etc.). Fortunately, they also play their instruments, so we're treated to some joyous sounds from these various guitars - which I think is the real message of the film.
The filmmakers take their time is letting Flip's story come out and this does tend to make the beginning of the film drag a bit. But once we get into a bit more of his family history and meet the parents back in Holland, things get a little bit clearer. There's a strong sense that much of his work has sprung from his relationship with his folks - his father always regretted that Flip never made more use of his skill at languages, but Flip says that he just chose a different form of communication. Since he grew up surrounded by miscommunication, he revels in being able to talk with others (even people he barely knows) through playing music. "Musical instruments are a kind of Esperanto" he says at one point. He must be fluent because he has an instinctive feel for how to pull sounds from the different shapes he creates. He fine tunes them for his customers specifically gearing them to their quirks and preferences.
The musical performances are low key for the most part, but very natural. One of the best moments is his visit to Carly Simon as they casually talk about music and her writing methods. At one point, Simon runs to the basement to search for a particular guitar and you can hear her singing to herself as she rummages around for it. We also get to see the technically proficient guitarist David Tronzo put corks in between his strings and tap them with drumsticks to duplicate the sounds of gamelan gongs.
The film is in no hurry, but that's OK. The guitars certainly aren't in any rush...
Saturday 26 April 2008
"Shot In Bombay" is ostensibly a behind the scenes look at the making of a Bollywood action film, but it layers on several different storylines that make it so much more interesting and entertaining. Of course it helps when the director of the film within a film is a young ego-driven hot shot whose favourite expression is "Mind blowing", a star who has done over 50 films in the last decade in which he has also been on trial for weapons possession and a script (of the film within the film) that embellishes quite a bit on a re-telling of the true story of a public gun battle between police and gangsters. Sprinkle with liberal amounts of a full-of-himself co-star, a cynical cinematographer and a short history of recent sectarian violence in Mumbai and you've got quite the balancing act. Fortunately, director/editor Liz Mermin handles all these threads quite well.
The action film we see in production is to be called "Shootout At Lokhandwala" and as the documentary starts we get to meet the slew of characters - the star, the villain, the hero cop, etc. It's loosely based on an early 90s standoff between a couple of hundred policemen and a group of gangsters holed up in a residential section of Mumbai. Via flashbacks and current day interviews with the police officers who were involved (including the lead cop - who also gets a small role in the film about those events), we start to learn a bit more about public attitudes at the time and the possibility that this was more of a Dirty Harry scenario of street justice than an actual police intervention. This is actually one of the most interesting sections of the film - were the police justified in doing what they did or should they be considered to be just as bad as the gangsters themselves?
Further flashbacks also give some inkling as to the feeling in the city in the early 90s which eventually led to rioting and what then led to the Bombay Blasts of 1993 (single day explosions that killed around 300 people). Actor Sanjay Dutt is arrested in connection to these bombings because of some weapons that were found in his possession (including an AK-57) and after years of bail hearings, he is finally found guilty of possession and the sentencing hearings take place during his filming of "Shootout At Lokhandwala". Combined with his shooting several other films at once, this tends to impact the production schedule - the director may only get him for a few hours on any given day.
With all this background, we are also treated to the typical day-to-day problems and issues of shooting a Bollywood film and the confusion of making things up as you go. The cinematographer of the film states at one point "This is Indian cinema - you don't go by logic, you go by emotion". He also states in a deadpan voice at another point that "Filmmaking is a waste of time". But far and away the most entertaining of the characters we meet is the young chain smoking director who needs a hit. He thinks he is much funnier, charming and intelligent than he really is and you wonder if he'll be able to hold it all together by the end. There's a very funny scene where he is showing someone how to slap one of the stuntmen and he proceeds to essentially beat the man up - treating him like a punching bag and barely even registering his existence since it's of little or no impact to him. If you are one of the stars though, every scene you do is "Cut. Mind blowing!"
In the end you feel amazed that they managed to finish "Shootout At Lokhandwala" at all and then that people actually went to see its overblown dramatics and heavily romanticized look at cops and gangsters. Hopefully "Shot In Bombay" and its wide ranging cast of characters finds an audience as well - there's got to be some minds out there ready to be blown...
Thursday 24 April 2008
I like to think I try to do what I can when it comes to the environment: I recycle as much as possible, take advantage of Toronto's green bin program for food waste disposal and (last I checked anyway) don't have massive PCB tanks in my back yard. And it's been years since I started any tire fires...But Andrew Nisker's shoestring budget "Garbage! The Revolution Starts At Home" shows us we can all do more - and without much difficulty. Fortunately, he manages to do this without a great deal of preaching down to the audience.
Nisker borrows the post exclamation mark title of his film from the late Bob Hunter (co-founder of Greenpeace). It fits the film well as it touches on many wider issues, but continuously comes back to how what we do as individuals touches the larger whole. The jumping off point for much of the discussion of these downstream affects comes from the premise of the film: what happens when a single family keeps (inside their garage) every bit of garbage they produce over a span of three months? If you're the MacDonald family (3 kids under 8, 2 SUVs, large urban house, etc.) it gets a little messy. And smelly. And there's maggots.
But that's not really where the film focuses the majority of its screen time. Through the MacDonalds, we see how our every day activities contribute to environmental issues: our electricity consumption ties back to the blasting of the Appalachian mountains; driving your car contributes towards road runoff (a particularly nasty impact to local rivers); packaging from grocery food creates an awful lot of landfill; etc. During each of these segments, there is typically an expert of some variety who discusses, say, the direct affects to our water supply of most household cleaners. Nisker has managed to find experts who speak calmly and logically about their fields and who keep away from politics and fear mongering. Any fear the viewer may feel is derived solely from their own logical conclusions to facts layed out.
Not sounding like a barrels of laughs at this point? Here's the trailer:
Again Nisker makes a wise choice - the MacDonalds are lively, interesting and honest about their habits. They are fun and help keep the pace of the film moving from one topic to another. The little bits of animation (vary basic animation) also provide a bit of respite from the handheld home video footage. Throughout the heavy messages of the movie, there's a good deal of humour to be found and the crowd at our screening (including a bunch of young kids) seemed to enjoy it a great deal.
The first 5 minutes or so of the film gave me pause though...Sappy music, a little boy playing on a slide and Nisker's narration about his fears for the world his young son will inherit. It's not that I don't share some of those same feelings, but it didn't bode well for a fact-based presentation of his concerns. But apart from a few debatable conclusions arrived at by some of the people interviewed, the movie doesn't stoop to much further nonsense. As a matter of fact, by the end of it you'll likely think of "convenience" as quite the dirty word. Of course, I'd be lying if I said the movie has completely changed the way I live my life - but I'd like to think it's started to.
Web site of film (buy the film now on DVD)
12 Things You Can Do Right Now
My first screening at this year's Hot Docs fest ended up being an older film: Jennifer Baichwal's 2002 portrait of photographer Shelby Lee Adams entitled "The True Meaning Of Pictures". It was screened as part of a retrospective of Baichwal's work the festival is doing this year and - like last year's "Manufactured Landscapes" (about photographer Edward Burtynsky) - it wasn't solely about the artist. We certainly learn a great deal about Adams from the film, but the central question is in regards to art and its context: is it the artist's responsibility to ensure that everyone knows the proper context and story behind a piece of work?
Adams grew up in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia and seems to exclusively use the area for his photographs. The beautiful forests and mountainous region is shown to great effect in the opening shot of the film - drifting above the trees like rolling over the tops of row upon row of broccoli in the supermarket. The hollers (valleys in between the mountains that stretch for 10-20 miles at a time) are where Adams goes to work...The deeper one gets into the holler, the poorer the region seems to get and the living conditions become closer and closer to what everyone thinks about when the term "hillbilly" is used. As with any cliche or stereotype, there are grains of truth but typically little else.
Adams' photography is at times stunning, disturbing and quite breathtaking - and Baichwal highlights it beautifully by cutting all sound from the film as the photos are shown on screen. Mostly consisting of black and white stills of the faces of the people from these ramshackle areas, he employs lighting to great affect giving angelic/demonic appearances to his subjects. And what subjects! Their faces are pock marked and covered with their own hollers - sometimes looking much like the destroyed mountaintops of the mining area of the Appalachians. One of the more memorable people in the film is a handicapped woman who lives with her siblings and elderly father. Though an initial glance would likely leave the viewer shaking their heads in sadness for her, the footage we see behind the pictures shows her to be an incredibly loving and sweet person - hugging her brothers and engaging with Adams himself.
Which is partially the point of some of Adams' critics. They say that not only does he not provide the background of these people in the pictures, but that he emphasizes the "hillbilly" nature of their existence, occasionally stages scenes and completely neglects the rest of the region. They worry that entrenched stereotypes of Appalachians will remain and that Adams does a disservice to these people. There's no doubt that Adams does indeed create his own world by altering lighting and setting scenes, but the people are genuine. They live in these environments, they look the way they do and they like these pictures.
It seems like the critics are placing their own contexts around these photos...The most telling is an interview with a woman who has "made it out of the hollers" and who criticizes a particular picture of a young girl who is a relation of hers. She claims Adams has disgraced her family and wonders why he had to take the picture in front of a broken screen door and why the girl had to look all disheveled and ugly. The picture she refers to is below (clicking on it will give a larger size version of it):
Personally, I think it's a great picture and that young girl is gorgeous. So who is doing the disservice to these people? Adams or that woman who wants to change the context of his art to suit herself ("Why couldn't he just take a pretty picture")?
A great film that allows you to consider what art is and what you think it should be.
Wednesday 16 April 2008
Yasuharu Hasebe's 1966 film "Black Tight Killers" is the kind of film that puts a smile on my face. It takes what could have been a lame Z grade picture and enlivens the story by using the medium - showing lots of colour, sets, shadows and angles to move the story forward instead of relying on too much exposition. Of course having a whole whack of go-go dancers, female ninjas and guys in trenchcoats helps keep things fun as well.
Though there's some pointed references about the aftershocks that remain from the damage caused during WW II (by both U.S. and Japanese decisions), the main push of the story is the war photographer in pursuit of the kidnappers of his stewardess girlfriend. But back to the go-go dancers:
And the use of colour:
And the Ninjas (the Ninja chewing gum bullet is my new favourite weapon):
And the shadows:
And the Bond-like spy vs. evil men stuff:
And the dream-like environments (the first three below are actually from a dream):
Barely need subtitles, eh?
That's fortunate actually because the Image Entertainment DVD has very poor quality subtitles rife with spelling and major grammatical mistakes. There's even a few instances where I couldn't figure out what the hell they were talking about.
But no mind. The film is a blast and still packs a punch.
Sunday 13 April 2008
"Precious Images" is the name of Chuck Workman's 1986 Oscar winning short film that edits together 100 years of moments from film (English language film that is - it was made for the Directors' Guild Of America). I just stumbled across this in IMDB while looking at the details of another film. And go figure - the whole thing is on YouTube.
With only 8 minutes, it'll of course leave out some great stuff. As well, if you were up in arms about the lack of imagination of the AFI Top 100 lists, you may have similar feelings after watching it ("Argh! Why don't they ever include blah-blah-blah in these things!?"). However, it's still quite an amazing collection of clips covering some great films and has some great editing and choices of segues (e.g. from Esther Williams to Jaws). I had to go back and pause the video a few times because the images were zooming by so fast - and you really want them to linger.
Monday 7 April 2008
The Mighty Imperials - Thunder Chicken (1996)
Funk out yo face old school with a group that could easily be mistaken for James Brown's old backing band. Complete with wakachaka-wakachaka guitar, bubbling organ, punchy horns and a bopping rhythm section, these kids (and apparently not a single member of the band was over 18 when the record was recorded) sound like a bunch of well-seasoned studio players. Singer Joe Henry brings his gospel background to some soulful vocals on 4 of the albums tracks. The rest of the album is filled with solid on-the-one funk played with joy and a deep respect to the Godfather Of Soul.
Classic English Language Film
House Of Wax (1953)
Andre de Toth's remake of 1933's "Mystery Of The Wax Museum" is another case of a terrificly fun Sunday afternoon type movie that is also crafted exceptionally well - with a strong visual sense as well as solid (enough) acting and a good story. I'd love to see this in its original 3-D - if only for the scene where a barker is playing with one of those paddleball thingies and bouncing it straight at the camera (you would be forgiven if you suddenly thought of Dr. Tongue at this point...). Vincent Price is the star here and he may very well be having more fun than the viewer. OK, so the story doesn't quite hang together perfectly, but the concept of using dead bodies for the wax sculptures and then needing to kill for more models is just too good not to work on some level. You can even see a young Charles Bronson as the assistant Igor. If you haven't seen it, you couldn't possibly need more convincing than that.
And if you have some 3-D glasses, here's part of the paddleball scene:
Recent English Language Film
The Ten (2007)
A bit of a dicey pick here - not just because the quality of the 10 different sketches varies minute to minute, but because it's obviously trying to offend across a wide swath. Of course if you're easily offended, you really shouldn't be watching comedic riffs based around the Ten Commandments...Each story has a different cast of characters played by the likes of Winona Ryder, Jessica Alba and Ron Silver, but as the film goes on the characters start crossing over to the different stories. Even nominal host Paul Rudd (who isn't that great here) gets into one of the stories. It's during these meshing of storylines and interesting little tweaks (like how each story opens up) that the film wins extra points. It's also always welcomed to be reminded how incredibly lovely Gretchen Mol is.
A young man and his son reach a deserted ghost town after drifting from mining job to mining job. They've been managing a meager existence doing what they have to in order to survive, but now a man in a white suit is following them and taking their picture. Hiroshi Teshigahara builds a fascinating debut film from this by using a number of different tools - cinematography (Criterion's crisp transfer really showcases the beautiful and striking Black and White photography), brillant use of the sound field, numerous themes (voyeurism, man vs. nature, etc.) and a range of genre and stylistic conventions. The movie is not only an unsettling ghost story, but also a murder mystery, a tragic tale of human desperation and what seems to be a criticism of authority (in general, but also specifically the mining industry of the times). The outlook of the film is bleak, but if you want a terrific example of the craft and artistry of film making then look no further.
Here's the Japanese trailer (without subtitles, but should still give you an idea):
The Great Happiness Space (2006)
Thinking of writing a futuristic tale of how our modern day relationships have failed so badly that the beautiful young people who sell their time for companionship to others, must in turn buy their own? You'd be hard pressed to write something better than this documentary about young Japanese men who sell themselves as dates in specially created clubs. In an odd circular twist, the majority of their clientele is made up of prostitutes - women who are so desperately in need of some kind of companionship after selling their bodies that they end up buying it from these pretty young men. It's fascinating, yet terribly sad...