Tuesday 26 May 2009

A Brief Almodovar Pause...

My first Pedro Almodovar film (like many people) was the Oscar winning "All About My Mother". Though gorgeous looking, the story never really caught my interest - probably due at least partially to the fact that I wasn't (and unfortunately still aren't) very conversant in the story of "Streetcar Named Desire". So I put him off for awhile...

Next was the pretty damn terrific "Talk To Her". Filled with deeply flawed, but interesting characters, it had my attention throughout. But I still put him off...I felt his earlier films would be even less interesting than "All About My Mother".

Well, he hasn't disappointed me since diving 3 films deeper into his work. First was "Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown". With zip to spare, this film wove great subtle and slapstick comedic moments through numerous strong yet troubled female characters. I was totally surprised by it and resolved to catch up with as much of his work as possible.

I don't have the above three films on disc, otherwise I could paint an even brighter picture of Almodovar's use of colour, framing and focus on little details. But I figured I'd show all three of those characteristics with some screenshots from "The Flower Of My Secret" and then wind up with just pure visual splendor from the end credits of "Volver". Just because I want to post something purty...

Marisa Paredes character of Leo Macias has such a great face...It sparkles, rages, sulks, laughs and shows the wear of so many emotions always being writ large.

And yet, Almodovar constantly obscures her features behind curtains, parts of mirrors, partitions, etc. Along with the many straight mirror reflections and her many emotions, she seems to not quite be whole and possibly unravelling before us.

The little details are everywhere. A set designer's dream...I love all those collectibles items behind Leo - the little chairs and colourful pots and containers.

The details combine with colours - contrasting or just rich and vibrant - when the frame is filled with just objects.

And there's the fiery dancer in red...

"The Flower Of My Secret" probably ranks for me just a shade behind "Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown", but it's still an excellent film and creates a wealth of good will and sympathy for its main character.

As a bonus, a little eye candy from the end of "Volver". It contains a powerhouse performance by Penelope Cruz (I could listen to her speak Spanish all day...) and ties its theme of "coming back" (or more accurately translated from the title - "to return") really well into several different plot lines.

And yet all I want to show for now are these snippets from the continously flowing and always changing colours and patterns of the final credits:

That's all I got...I just needed a good Screencap post.

I'm hoping to gather more as I dig into "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" and "Live Flesh" - the next two Almodovars in my sights.

Monday 18 May 2009

Nikkatsu Noir - Eclipse Series 17

Oh joy, oh bliss (via J-Film Pow-Wow). Being released August 25th:

I Am Waiting
Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1957

Rusty Knife
Toshio Masuda, 1958

Take Aim at the Police Van
Seijun Suzuki, 1960

Cruel Gun Story
Takumi Furukawa, 1964

A Colt Is My Passport
Takashi Nomura, 1967

Screw these lazy days of summer...Get me to the end of August now!

Sunday 17 May 2009

Hot Docs 2009 - Wrap Up

The 16th annual Hot Docs Film Festival ended last weekend and press reports were released stating it had been the most successful yet. Pshaw...I didn't need any announcements to tell me that. At the halfway point of the festival when pretty much every screening felt like it was completely packed, you knew things were going well.

I still want to review a few more films in full, but now that the fest has ended (I haven't seen a documentary in a week - I'm kinda feeling strung out...) I figure I should throw together some final thoughts about the fest.

While I was considering what to include below, I got tagged by my friend James at Toronto Screen Shots with a specific Hot Docs meme started at Indiepix Blog. I wasn't really doing any of the industry events other than screenings, so I can't quite answer all the questions, but I'll include a few of them in my random comments about the fest.

Random Thoughts

  • Favourite film - "Best Worst Movie". Most cathartic laughter I've had in some time.

  • Most inspiring film - "The Cove". I actually predicted this would win the Audience Award right after its screening and lo and behold it did (Hey Trista! Back me up here!). Big standing ovations will give you that feeling.

  • Overall Best film - "Love At The Twilight Motel". The characters, the surprises, the humour, the cinematography and the shared search for love all wrapped up in this beautiful film. Even a little redemption.

  • Great double features - I just happened to precede each of the films above with somewhat similarly themed movies (in order: "Zombie Girl: The Movie", "Big River Man", "Invisible City") which made for three separate great double features.

  • Recurring theme #1 - Absent fathers: "Invisible City", "Love At The Twilight Motel", "When We Were Boys".

  • Film that Tugged at My Heartstrings the Most (meme question #1) - "A Good Man" had two moments that easily helped put this at the top of the list in this category: Rachel flashing back to the day of her stroke and then later her 15 year old son Kieron putting his head down and crying in sympathy for his Mom.

  • Strangest Cinematic Moment (meme question #2) - "Big River Man" pretty much has the top 10 for this category. Sort of like what you would get if Werner Herzog directed "Hearts Of Darkness" and edited it with Tony Scott's help while they were both on acid. But weirder. The moment that jumps out at me is after the completion of the trip in Belem when the Big River Man's son brings his Dad's final speech into the ambulance to read it to him. I'm still not quite sure what I saw there.

  • Recurring theme #2 - Get involved: "The Cove", "The Yes Men Fix The World", "Let's Make Money".

  • Overall High Point (meme question #4) - Being at the Bloor Cinema for my second showing of "Best Worst Movie".

  • Most beautiful images - "Love At The Twilight Motel" comes close even though it is essentially seven separate interviews spliced together. "Objectified" continues to show Gary Huswit's love of design. But "Act Of God" has to win out with the stunning footage of lightning spread throughout the film - worth the price of admission and of a DVD too.

  • Recurring theme #3 - Really crappy governments: "Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country", "The Red Chapel", "Audition".

  • Moment that brought bile into your mouth - "The Cove" certainly provided many of them, but it was likely the moment in "Let's Make Money" when the investment banker in Hong Kong states that there's no reason why he should worry about ethics of the companies he invests in - that's their problem. He just has to care whether they will make money. Jackass.

  • Most disappointing film - "When We Were Boys" probably suffered because I had just seen the superior "Invisible City" the day before, but it just didn't seem to invest the time required to really see how these two boys were growing up and growing apart. It felt like they forced the story they wanted through the editing.

  • Documentaries can be sexy too award - "Love In India" delves into the 64 arts of sex and the story of Krishna and his lover Radha. It also has some really, really, really good looking women in it.

  • Best additional effects - "Another Perfect World" adds to its story of virtual worlds and those who inhabit them by tossing in occasional virtual aspects into the real life interviews - I especially liked the cat who kept showing up.

Festival Awards

A more detailed list of awards can be found here. Announcement of Audience award winner here along with Top Ten.

Hot Docs Audience Award

Best Canadian Feature Documentary

Special Jury Prize - Canadian Feature

Best International Feature Documentary

Special Jury Prize - International Feature

Best Mid-Length Documentary

Best Short Documentary

documentary’s Don Haig Award
Brett Gaylor
Tracey Deer

The Lindalee Tracey Award
Laura Bari
Will Inrig

HBO Documentary Films Emerging Artist Award
Chung-ryoul Lee

Hot Docs Outstanding Achievement Award
Presented to Alanis Obomsawin by the Hot Docs Board of Directors

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2009 - Last Call for Entries!

Hot Docs 2009 has just wrapped and there's already more film festival fun on the horizon...

As great as Hot Docs is and as deep and rich as the Toronto International Film Festival is, my favourite festival may be Toronto After Dark. Head honcho Adam Lopez has worked hard over the first 3 festivals to make this not only a successful yearly tradition for genre film fans, but also to make it a whole whack of fun. I hope to provide a bit more focus on what's upcoming with the festival in the next few months, but right now they are looking to spread the word to filmmakers who may have something they would like to submit.

Have a short film that's desperately looking for an audience? Got something in the can (short or long form) that would be of interest to fans of horror, sci-fi, animation or just general "WTF was that?!" cinema? Adam and his team are the folks to contact. Not only do they typically feature at least one short film before each feature presentation (I believe last year, each of those shorts was Canadian), they also have Shorts Only programs that include both Canadian and International films.

The deadline is, yipes, May 15th, so get cracking. It looks like the deadline is simply for submitting your form, so you may not even have to have your little masterpiece completely wrapped up. For more details, here's the full press blurb below:

Toronto After Dark Film Festival - Final Call for Entries!

A quick announcement for any horror, sci-fi, action, animation or cult filmmakers out there. This is the final week to submit your short or feature film to the 2009 Toronto After Dark Film Festival. If you're looking to gain added exposure for your genre film it could be well worth your while taking the few minutes to enter. While this is only the fourth annual edition of the fest, Toronto After Dark has already established itself as one of North America's leading genre cinema showcases. Over 8,500 fans came out for last year's record-breaking Toronto event and all the films programmed including LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, REPO THE GENETIC OPERA, TOKYO GORE POLICE and I SELL THE DEAD scored extensive media coverage. This year's Toronto After Dark brings its cinematic mayhem for the first time to Summer and runs Aug 14-21, 2009. But if you want to enter, you'll have to hurry. To be considered, your film entry details must be completed online by end of day, this Friday May 15. Full details, including a fast and easy to complete online submission form, are available at the official festival website here:


Last year was the most successful yet - 4 of the feature screenings sold out and the Pub After Dark was great fun for discussing everyone's thoughts after the films. Particularly since last year many of the filmmakers who attended the event for Q&As joined in at the pub afterwards. If my fuzzy brain remembers correctly, last year one of my friends raised a time line discrepancy with one of the film's producers. He mulled it over, thought that my friend had a point and made a slightly drunken phone call to the director at 1:30AM. I've been curious to revisit that particular film again to see if they cleared it up after the fact...

The festival is moving from its previous end of October home to mid-August this year. That just means that the fun and frivolity is gonna be here sooner.

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Love At The Twilight Motel

"There's something missing."

Alison Rose's "Love At The Twilight Motel" was initially pitched as being about the 20 motels on 8th street in Miami that set their rates based on hourly occupancy. One can easily envision a rogue's gallery of characters and bizarre situations to be found at these motels that might provide a glimpse into the vast depravity of humankind. Instead, we get seven very intimate stories from seven different patrons of these establishments - all of whom are indeed missing something in their lives. If perhaps they don't realistically believe they will find love at the motel, every single one of their stories touches on lost loves, hopes for love and love betrayed.

The people are without a doubt the focus of the film, but the motels themselves are worth a few words as well. They aren't the cockroach infested pits you might have in mind, but come across as extremely clean, freshly painted and quite lovely. They have private garages and back entrances, but otherwise look like reasonably nice places to stay - as long as you don't need a suitcase stand and don't mind mirrors on all sides. If you're looking for a last minute room, though, avoid trying to check in between noon and 2PM on a weekday. During this peak time, according to one of the motel's guests, many office workers in Miami go to these rooms instead of restaurants. Apparently they are used to dealing with their hunger pangs and look to satisfy other urges. For all that client traffic, though, you rarely see anyone but the cleaning staff use the outdoor hallways that connect the front doors of all the rooms.

The whole film looks gorgeous and is beautifully composed. As the camera occasionally roams those outdoor hallways, the parking lots and even Miami itself, you get a feel for the rich colours of the distinctly Cuban environment. On the inside, those ever present mirrors help make the cramped rooms feel much bigger than they really are, but also allow the characters to be shot from several angles so that we can see all the sides of their double lives. The visuals stay dynamic by occasionally showing only portions of their faces or having audio out of sync with what's on screen. This only further highlights the duality of their lives. The editing pieces their stories together wonderfully - allowing for long unbroken explanations and well-timed revelations that keeps us involved with all seven characters. Not that these filmic devices are really needed - these people are fascinating all by themselves. Sure they all have problems and I wouldn't want to be in any of their shoes, but they are smart, engaging, well-spoken and simply natural born story-tellers. They touch upon numerous common themes across their stories: the need to fill the voids in their lives, definitions of fidelity, absent or abusive parents, the effect drugs had on the paths they chose, etc.

One of my favourite people in the film is Gigi, a 46 year old escort who is by her own admission slightly heavier than she used to be. Though pessimistic about sex and her opportunities for finding respect and romance, she still clings to some hope. Her tales of the treatment she received from her father are sad and heartbreaking - particularly when she talks about the mental abuse she suffered from her father. Though still a virgin at 23, he called her a whore and accused her of all kinds of immoral behaviour so much that she eventually just decided to start dressing and acting the part. She reached the point of wishing she would be found murdered in a sleazy hotel room just so that he could see where he had pushed her. She also relates one of the more darkly funny anecdotes of the film regarding a suicide attempt gone awry. It results in a 911 operator asking "You tried to commit suicide by shooting yourself in the foot?". Of course, Gigi tells it a whole lot better...

There's also Rose, a beautiful young woman from Haiti who seemed to be on track during her early high school days. She was studying in an enriched program, but never felt like she belonged to the group and eventually fell in with the wrong crowd simply because she was accepted by them. As if to underline that point, she describes how she did ecstasy the first time at the urging of her boyfriend: "I was scared and I thought I might die, but I didn't want him to stop being my boyfriend". After a falling out at home, she struck out on her own at 14. Her current job is being a "connector" (attaching people to others that can help them score drugs or sex) and is hoping this may provide her enough distance from her previous issues so that she can get her children back.

Mr. B is, by all accounts, a total jackass. He claims to love his wife more than life itself, but will have sex with pretty much anything that moves ("man was not made to be monogamous"). He's a rationalizer's rationalizer. He also happens to be a heroin addict (another of the activities he engages in only at the motel), but considers himself a "functional junkie". Touching again on the dual lives these people lead, he believes that "man has two faces, one outside the home and one inside". And yet, he fully recognizes and admits all his double standards, regrets choices he made and knows the consequences of being caught.

I haven't even mentioned Richard the Cuban refugee massage giver who adores married women or Sara the small town Christian-raised swinger. All the characters have equally compelling stories with many sad moments as they search for something that will fulfill them. "We're not talking about love here" says Gigi about her encounters at the motel. True enough about her typical business, but love is indeed very much at the root of every single one of these stories.

Sunday 10 May 2009

The Cove

The story of "The Cove" revolves around Ric O'Barry, the former dolphin trainer for the old TV show "Flipper". Due to the enormous success of the show, he feels that he helped build an interest in dolphins which has led to their popularity. A multi-million dollar industry has grown up around this interest, including places like Sea World and people's desire to swim with these beautiful creatures. So why is he so sad when the dolphins look so happy?

According to Ric, the dolphins' smile is "nature's greatest deception". That happy expression is just by evolutionary chance and he claims that the many captive dolphins are actually not happy at all - their treatment actually amounts to cruelty. Being confined to seaquariums introduces the dolphins to a far wider variety of constant sound which prevents them from properly communicating (acoustics are their primary sense), stresses them out and leads to early deaths. O'Barry admits he feels a terrible guilt for helping to perpetuate this stereotype of the happy captive dolphin, so he has tried to raise awareness. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of money involved. In the small Japanese fishing village of Taiji, dolphins are corralled in a cove and the best ones (ie. the ones that look like Flipper) are sold for upwards of $150000 each. That's bad enough and O'Barry has been fighting against these captures for some time, but Taiji has another secret...The dolphins that aren't selected for sale aren't simply released back to the wild. They are brought around the corner to another cove - a smaller one, hidden from public view, where each one is slaughtered.

The word "slaughter" is, of course, a loaded word since there's certainly the potential to use it in very biased ways. And "The Cove" certainly has its biases. There are numerous instances of anecdotal information being used as fact and a dependency on manipulation of the viewer's emotions - after all, dolphins are beautiful creatures and are known to have levels of intelligence closer to ours than just about any other species. There's also the question of the fishermen - what if their own livelihoods depend on those additional sales of the remaining animals (which are sold as meat at much smaller rates than the live sales)?

But...If you can watch the hidden camera footage from the secret cove (which closes the film) and NOT think of the word "slaughter", then you have a very different definition of the word. It's actually quite difficult to watch and several people in the audience covered their faces during this section. I tend to see a lot of gray when it comes to examining issues and ideas and feel there's rarely black and white sides. Complex issues require in depth information gathering to figure out the large continuum of possibilities and answers. However, from all appearances, what's happening in Taiji is simply wrong. Shockingly, disturbingly and inhumanely wrong.

The film sets up this final hidden camera footage early on. You know it's coming and there's a certain tension that stays with you as the story moves forward. Until that time though, you get some interesting background on Japan's involvement in the whaling industry, meet a wide spectrum of characters, see absolutely stunning underwater footage and get involved in "Mission Impossible" style capers. In other words, it's extremely entertaining all the while it's trying to get its message across.

Sneaking in under the cover of night to rig the cameras and microphones in the tightly secured hidden cove is the only way the filmmakers feel they can capture what's going on there. To do it though, they need a special team: special effects people, deep divers, crazy adrenaline junkies, etc. We meet the members of the team and via night vision cameras see them gradually move all the equipment into the area. All this spy action is incorporated nicely into the flow of the film as we also get to see some of the villains of the story - particularly the Japanese representative to the International Whaling Commission (who frames dolphins as pests) and a local man in Taiji dubbed "Private Space" (after the only two English words he seems to know).

On top of all the excitement and information the movie imparts, the cinematography is at times just breathtaking. It's understandably gorgeous since director Louis Psihoyos has worked for National Geographic in the past. The entire film looks great (except for some of the hidden camera and night time video), but specifically anything to do with the dolphins is spectacular - whether it be diving and swimming with dolphins or tracking them along their playful journeys.

Japanese culture, according to the film, likes to ensure that "the nail that sticks out must be pounded down". This seems to apply to the country's continued push for whaling as well as the consequences that are suffered by the two Taiji council men who block the pushing of the dolphin meat to the school lunch program. Beyond the fact that it would lead to more killings, there's a very real health issue - mercury poisoning from the dolphins. It's yet another head-shaking and baffling moment in the whole issue.

It all adds up to a fascinating, entertaining, beautiful, sometimes depressing and inspiring experience. One of the participants of the team was on hand for a Q&A after the film and conveyed a strong message to the audience - whether we contributed to their cause or not, he emphasized that at the very least we should get involved in a cause we believe in.

Saturday 9 May 2009

A Good Man

14 years ago, Chris and Rachel told their parents they were planning to get married and that a baby was also on the way. The very next day, Rachel suffered a stroke that left her a quadriplegic for the rest of her life. A life, by the way, that her doctors didn't expect would last more than about 5-6 years. Director Safina Uberoi heard about the couple through her brother and decided to follow and document their current daily lives. Despite the tragic circumstances, while introducing the film Uberoi told the audience that it was OK to laugh at any point - Chris and Rachel have seen the movie and they laughed throughout it.

Maybe laughter is indeed the best medicine...Rachel has far exceeded the life span expected, given birth to 2 healthy sons (both that first one and the newborn we see in the film were both accidents) and is cared for by Chris on their farm in Australia. 14 years previous, a determined young Chris insisted after her stroke that the wedding go on as planned, that he would take care of her and that he would raise their child as well. He would not accept that she be placed in a home for the rest of her life. With help from both sets of parents as well as a caretaker for Rachel during the day, Chris manages to keep both his and his paralyzed wife's spirits up and to enjoy life as it comes. The laughter in the movie comes easy and often.

Of course, that doesn't mean everything is a breeze. Rachel still requires almost constant supervision and can only communicate emotions and basic Yes or No answers with her eyes. Uberoi doesn't shy away from the reality of Rachel's existence as she keeps the camera close on her face while she is fed, while she drools and while she has strong mood swings. As easy as Rachel laughs, she also wails with sadness. At one point Chris is discussing the day of the stroke and you can almost see it all replay in Rachel's eyes - and then it pours out.

In order to try to improve their financial situation, Chris and a partner are building a house that they intend to be the town's first brothel (named "First Choice"). They've worked out the business plan and they figure that once the operation is running smooth, they only need 10 "jobs" a night for the girls in the house to start making some profits. Uberoi admitted that this somewhat unique angle to the story was what clinched the decision to make the film. Not only does the building of the brothel keep Chris busy and away from the farm, but the business part is more challenging than he expected. They run into more opposition and less customer traffic than they planned while also having to deal with some of the dark side of the business - in other words, the customers. Chris' Dad gets off the best line of the film when asked about some of the moral outrage regarding the brothel: "Everybody's got a right to go to Hell in their own way".

Which brings us back to the family. Their moments together are the best part of the film and are quite touching at times. While interviewing the teenage son Kieron, he seems almost blasé about his Mom's condition: "I never knew her any other way". But as the conversation shifts to Rachel herself, he crumbles into a little boy weeping for his Mom. Chris and Rachel's parents have been through the ringer obviously (at one point her Mom admits that shortly after the stroke she had wished Rachel had simply died), but it's her Dad's face that bottles up all the emotion. It speaks volumes.

All four parents firmly believe that the only reason Rachel is still alive is Chris. Whether or not you really believe he can interpret Rachel's eye movements correctly or if he ever did have that affair that Rachel believes he did, he certainly appears devoted and dedicated to his family. "I'm not a bad man, but I'm not a good man" says Chris near the end of the film. At the very least, you could do a lot worse.

As the film fades to black at the end, you can hear both Chris and Rachel laughing. How fitting.

Thursday 7 May 2009


"Everything that fills your world has been designed."

"Every object tells a story if you know how to read it." - Henry Ford

"Design is the search for form."

Gary Hustwit's previous film "Helvetica" played to sold out audiences at Hot Docs a couple of years ago and made people ask the question: "Who knew anyone cared about fonts?" A big part of its popularity was also its style - the great cinematography showing the Helvetica font used in everyday life combined with carefully composed frames and the rhythmic score of the band El Ten Eleven.

The follow-up, "Objectified", stays firmly in the very same mold and is yet another stylish, carefully composed film about design. This time out the subject is a bit wider in scope as Hustwit takes a crack at industrial design. Cars, computers, utensils, kitchen gadgets, chairs and pretty much any other object that can be mass produced is up for consideration. Actually, it's less about the objects themselves than simply the concept of design - what does design accomplish, what should design be accomplishing and when should we even be doing it? In comparison to "Helvetica", the questions are bigger, the ideas are grander and the discussions provide much more to chew on. It's just not as entertaining.

As mentioned above, the style remains very similar and is executed brilliantly at times (the presentation of objects is just beautiful throughout the film), but it just doesn't bounce along at anywhere near the same speed. Perhaps it's because there's less passion coming from some of the designers being interviewed. Their ideas and statements provide excellent insight into what we consume, how we consume it and whether we should be consuming at all, but I missed the vigour and humour with which the font designers argued their sides. There's far fewer laughs in "Objectified" and it's the poorer for it.

Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't some compelling ideas expressed in its 75 minute run time. One of the most important concepts raised is that of sustainability and how major companies are having a hard time adapting and adjusting to "green" requirements. Typically, it seems that design caters to the 10% of the population that already have too much stuff. The other 90% simply need the basics, but they aren't the target. It's those that want what's "Now" and what's "Next" that are buying, but what they are buying typically doesn't last. So that leads to more buying...

The point could be argued that design came about simply as a requirement for mass production. One of the talking heads in the movie relates the story about archers in ancient China who all made their own customized arrows for their bows. However, if they were killed in battle someone else couldn't simply use their arrows to keep fighting. So the Emperor insisted that a common bow and arrow be made and given to all soldiers. And thus design and production was born. In the modern age though, for the longest time it was thought that designers should simply give individual character to something that is produced. Don't worry about end to end design, just finish the product with some nice flourishes. Today, designers say things like (and I'm paraphrasing all of these):
  • Understand the extremes when designing and the middle will take care of itself.
  • Remove what is unnecessary.
  • If you are frustrated that something doesn't exist (something you want to see), that will drive the creation of that thing.
What do these new models of thinking lead to? Well, for one thing: Apple. The company's Senior VP of Industrial Design has a prominent role in the film as does the recent iPhone. Interaction design, as shown by the thought put into the iPhone's interface, has now become a field unto itself. People will always tweak the designs given to them to meet their own specialized requirements, so how do you better understand how they interact with the products they buy?

There's plenty more ideas and objects strewn throughout "Objectified" and it's already made me want to see it again to pick up on things I may have missed. However, with fewer entertaining subjects, shorter musical interludes and less fun overall, I'm not looking forward to my second viewing as much as I'd hoped I would.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Zombie Girl: The Movie

"I was 10, so there was like no character development..."

So says Emily Hagins about the first draft of her own script for her feature length debut "Pathogen". It speaks volumes about the young filmmaker by not only showing her preternatural interest in movies and in making them, but also the typical overconfidence and know-it-all views of a 12 year old. Her determination is clear though and with the help of her very understanding and helpful parents she embarks on creating her own zombie movie. Each step of the way is documented in the Slamdance award winning "Zombie Girl: The Movie".

The story and all those expected steps and plot points (initial fumbling, gradual improvement, bouts of frustration, a major mistake, final push to the end, hometown premiere...) are all there and its a fun ride through the bumps, but what really makes the film hugely enjoyable is the relationship between Emily and her Mom. Emily is a lovely, fresh faced, young girl on the verge of bursting into her teenage years, but already willing to engage with people and learn. Especially if it has something to do with movies. It seems her face is always smiling even when she is most certainly not.

Her Mom also seems delightful. She encourages and helps Emily at every step, even being part of the film crew (boom mic and set/costume design is her forte). She tells us how she just simply enjoys being with her daughter and we see through old photos that they both went to innumerable screenings at the famous Austin Drafthouse - including Harry Knowles' "Butt Numb-a-thon". Given Mom's requirement to actually work her day job as well, she seems to have a remarkable amount of patience and encouragement for her child (Dad is also very present and helpful, but the major relationship on view here is Mom and daughter). There's likely a fairly large portion of people who might be critical of how loose the parents are with restrictions regarding the amount of time and money Emily pours into the project, but she also seems to be a very well-adjusted kid.

Of course, conflict arises. Tiredness, frustration and even creative differences work their way into the ups and downs of the process. Particularly during the last bit of filming that encompasses the big zombie scene at the convenience store. Emily is not overly prepared for the shoot and seems less interested in staying on schedule than in getting a perfect shot. It's yet again a telling sign of Emily's age that she doesn't quite see the effort that not only her family are putting into this, but also her friends and other recruited actors. Worse yet is the scene at the Drafthouse when they are waiting to see if they have won a filmmaking grant - while her Mom had just previously told her that they could really use the money to pay bills, Emily wanders the crowd and tells people (including I would guess some of the judging panel) "I don't really care if we get the grant..."

Don't let me sell her short though - she has obviously impressed a number of people with her dedication and drive. Several critics and many other industry types are curious and supportive of her work. There's some discussion regarding new film technology and its ability to allow for a younger set of people, especially girls, to get involved in all aspects of filmmaking. Though I wouldn't want any of "Zombie Girl's" storyline changed, there appears to be an entirely separate documentary waiting to be filmed just on that topic alone.

As mentioned above, the journey along the plot points is very fun and interesting. Emily's issues with holding a clapboard and her camera at the same time or walking into signs while filming are all parts of her learning experience and she seems to take it all in stride. Even more fun is meeting the other people involved in the film - the goofy 13 year old boy who seems delighted to be playing the annoying guy who gets killed, the little girl who would be happy to be a zombie as soon as she finishes her nap and the young male star of the film that really needs to wrap for the day by 6:00PM because he has to go see Riverdance.

"Zombie Girl" is obviously shot pretty cheaply (almost on a par with Emily's own "Pathogen"), but when you get to meet great people like this and are treated to pretty much an entire process start to finish (it's not a bad little film school primer), I expect most people won't seem to mind. If there will be one complaint it will likely be the paucity of actual finished footage of Emily's film. I'll admit I was just as curious as the next person, but that's not what this film is about. "Pathogen" may be a masterpiece from a young genius or (more likely) a sllightly more elaborate home movie project, but that all takes a back seat to the relationships and the actual process of making your own film.

Sunday 3 May 2009

Best Worst Movie

"If you're unhappy, just watch Troll 2".

Going into my first screening of "Best Worst Movie" (a film about what is widely considered to be one of the worst movies ever made), I was a bit apprehensive. I love bad movies as much as the next person I suppose, but I don't quite revel in them. I had feared that the movie would focus on the fans of the film - those who can only laugh AT movies and those who have an ironic "isn't this great" viewpoint. Many of the fans of "Troll 2" indeed show up in the film, but there's an honest genuine love for "their" movie that they want to share with everyone. As well, it became apparent very quickly that "Best Worst Movie" is about the people behind it - an affectionate, sweet, sometimes sad and often times hysterically funny look at a group of people who had such great intentions...and failed miserably.

Note that I said my "first" screening of "Best Worst Movie". I went right out and caught it again the very next night.

Of course, it helped that this second viewing was a midnight screening at the Bloor Cinema - one of the very theatres that will sometimes screen this 1990 pseudo-horror film to packed houses and actually shows up in the documentary. Over the last few years, fans of "Troll 2" have grown in number and began to reach out, via the Internet, to those who were in the film. One of them was Michael Paul Stephenson, the 12 year old star of "Troll 2" and now, at 31, the director of "Best Worst Movie". As he became aware of the growing cult for the film, he thought there was a story to be told. His first point of contact was George Hardy - his movie father.

The documentary opens with George at his home in Alabama. He's a successful dentist, gregarious, loved by his community and possibly one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. As he travels with Michael to the many screenings of "Troll 2" all over North America - Chicago, Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Toronto are a few - they and the rest of the cast members are treated as bonafide celebrities. And it's with such honesty and good-heartedness that you can't help but embrace them as well. "Best Worst Movie" is filled with laughter - not just by its fans at the screenings or by the viewers of the documentary (my friend Trista stopped breathing for a good 20 seconds or so at one point...), but by the subjects of the film as well. George and Michael in particular laugh a great deal and have no illusions as to the absurdity of everything around them. Their own relationship is the heart of the film.

Of course, there's always other viewpoints. Director Claudio Fragasso and his screenwriter wife Rosella Drudi, veterans of ~20 movies, were quite intent on putting together a parable of our modern age and still firmly believe they made a good movie. As they attend screenings in the U.S., Stephenson lets these Italian filmmakers discover for themselves how their movie is viewed and this makes Claudio's love/hate relationship with the fans and actors of his movie become one of the more intriguing aspects of this story. The fans never make fun of him and instead respect and appreciate the effort he put into his little masterpiece.

As one critic says, this is certainly not the worst movie ever made. There's a certain knowledge of the craft and obvious care for the end result (from the clips in the documentary, you see zooms, a variety of angles, different uses of lighting, etc.). It's just that it feels like it was made by "people who know how to make movies, but suffered a blow to the head". And a certain sense of delusion: the editor of the film is interviewed in the present day and insists that his film paved the way for the later popularity of productions like the Harry Potter movies.

Not all reunions are as jovial or side-splitting though. In particular is the somewhat sad story of Margo Prey. She played the mother character and now lives a very reclusive life caring for her elderly mother. She is obviously a bit delusional herself and not only because of her comparisons of her film to "Casablanca". She's the only cast member that doesn't participate in any of the reunions and there's something almost tragic about her current state. Having said that, the recreation of the "Row, row, row your boat" scene in her living room with Michael and George is tears-streaming-down-your-face funny.

There's many other surprising and even troubling moments that follow, but the overall feeling is one of warmth. As noted in the film, there's no cynicism in "Troll 2" and its fans have taken that to heart.

So if you're unhappy and can't find "Troll 2", just watch "Best Worst Movie".

Note: "Troll 2" will be showing at the Bloor Cinema on May 12th at 9:30PM.

"Best Worst Movie" trailer:

"Troll 2" trailer: