Monday 15 February 2010

Zombie Chickens are Kreativ-ly Bankrupt

I have been remiss...

About a month ago, fellow bloggers Kimberly (at the wondrous Cinebeats) and Mad Hatter (at the always fun The Dark Of The Matinee) were both kind enough to bestow upon me one of those meme awards floating around. And I'm finally acknowledging it.

Though he only lives a single subway stop away from me, Hatter still delivered the Kreativ Blogger award to me electronically. Don't go out of your way there Hatter...I guess it's OK though - he's a newlywed and I don't think he gets out much.

So here are the rules for the Kreativ Blogger award:

1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award.
2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.
3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award.
4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting.
5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers.
6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.
7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated

Kimberly had received both the Kreativ and Zombie Chicken awards, so when she tagged her recipients, she gave us the option of choosing either one. Chicken it is. So here is the one simple rule for the Zombie Chicken award:

The blogger who receives this award believes in the Tao of the zombie chicken – excellence, grace and persistence in all situations, even in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. These amazing bloggers regularly produce content so remarkable that their readers would brave a raving pack of zombie chickens just to be able to read their inspiring words. As a recipient of this world-renowned award, you now have the task of passing it on to at least three other worthy bloggers. Do not risk the wrath of the zombie chickens by choosing unwisely or not choosing at all…

Though it may disqualify me from both awards, I will skip nominating others this time - it's already late in both memes' life cycles and I just can't whittle down the list of great bloggers I follow to a few select candidates. If you're on my blogroll (or even if you aren't - I haven't updated it in awhile, so I may be following your blog through RSS and just haven't added it yet), then consider yourself worthy. I only follow the best.

However, I will still take a stab at the 7 things about me. A warning though - the likelihood of them being "interesting" is pretty freaking small.

1. My son's interest in Lego (and the sprawling collection that has taken over our basement) comes to him honestly. The Lego Mindstorms robotic kit in the house is not actually his - it's mine. I bought it before he was born and though I haven't quite created anything as intricate and sophisticated as you'll find out on the net, it's provided a great deal of amusement. It's also a pretty amazing educational tool. About a decade or so ago, a co-worker and I managed to get funding from our work to purchase 6 of the kits and use them for Take Your Kids To Work Day (it was actually his idea). We figured it was probably enough for the 14 year-olds to shadow their parents for the morning, so we developed a competition challenge using Mindstorms for the afternoon (each team would have to build a Sumo-bot and try to push the other robots off of a mat). The event also became part of the EXITE Camp that is hosted annually at our site - it stands for Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering - and is focused on middle school girls (usually around 12 years-old). The EXITE Camps were typically much more fun as the girls already had an interest in the topic and were much easier to engage in the challenge (we eventually changed it to a Sweeper-bot project - which team can clear out blocks from their area of the playing field first - and it has now evolved into a robot dance competition now that we've turned over the reins to it). Our Communications folks brought the media in occasionally and one year a short piece ran on the evening news. They interviewed a young girl who excitedly exclaimed that she didn't know programming could be this fun and she wanted to be a computer scientist when she grew up. Call me crazy, but that made me very happy.

2. The words "home renovation" give me hives.

3. One of my favourite places in the world is a small section of a brook in northern Vermont. Located near the beautiful Lake Willoughby, we called it "The Falls" because the water had smoothed out the rocks at this point and made for a great 3-section slide. We'd spend hours there on warm sunny afternoons as kids and then hours there on chilly summer evenings as teenagers. Short of being with my wife, it's the closest thing to being at "home".

4. Even though I feel that one of the fundamental flaws of humanity is the overwhelming need to feel superior to others (which keeps a variety of "news" commentators on the air), I am hopelessly addicted to At least I can recognize the inconsistency.

5. If I could, I would eat chips (just about any flavour) every meal of every day for the rest of my life. However, given my body's propensity towards collecting high levels of cholesterol, the rest of my life wouldn't be overly long if I followed that regimen.

6. My wife and I took part in the National Geographic Genographic Project a few years ago and I learned that my Scottish ancestry came up through Spain. This may explain my complete fascination with Antonio Gaudi. As for my Quebecois roots, I'm told that my Mom's side goes straight back to Charlemagne.

7. I think I mentioned this in a previous post, but I'm going to be published (along with many others) in the upcoming Directory of World Cinema: Japan (published by Intellect). It's not like it's a paying gig, but since editor John Berra has somehow cobbled my jumbled thoughts together into occasionally coherent paragraphs, I'm pretty psyched to get my copy in the mail (soon apparently...soon).

Once again, thank you to both Kimberly and Hatter for even thinking of me in the first place.

By the way, if you've been thinking "Damn...Zombie chickens...What a great idea!", Lloyd Kaufman beat you to it with his movie Poultrygeist. All the good ideas are taken already aren't they?

Sunday 14 February 2010

For The Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blog-a-thon

I'm not sure I'll have anything to contribute to the Film Preservation Blog-a-thon that kicked off today, but it really does merit more than just a passing mention.

Co-hosts Marilyn (from Ferdy On Film) and Farran (from Self-Styled Siren) have both been on my blogroll from just about Day One of my own blogging. They've done something special here though - the blog-a-thon they are both sponsoring is not only a celebration of the treasures that have been saved from being lost forever, but also a fundraising event. Specifically for the National Film Preservation Foundation. As the co-hosts state:

The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.

They have more details at their sites (which you NEED to visit) with master lists of the participants so far, but also feel free to just go ahead and donate to the fund. They'd be mighty pleased if you did.

The blog-a-thon runs until February 21.

Self-Imposed Limitations

This a re-post of a list I published over at RowThree about a month ago.

A short while ago I was in my local Video rental outlet (the bountiful Videoflicks) and stumbled across an old 1952 film entitled The Thief. Not the most creative of titles, but it had Ray Milland's name splashed across the front and appeared that it might be a spiffy Noir. It was enough to make me pick up the case, but it was the description on the back that instantly sold me. Though it might be described as a gimmick, its main raison d'etre seemed to be that it contained not a single word of dialogue. The limitation of no spoken words that the filmmakers imposed on themselves made for a fast moving and lean thriller - there's few wasted scenes and a good solid build up of tension which made a pretty basic story all the more compelling. So it turns out it was indeed a pretty spiffy Noir.

It made me think (like Lars von Trier doling out assignments to Jorgen Leth in The Five Obstructions) of some other films that had limits or restrictions on how they were being made purposely placed on them. Sometimes as gimmicks, but also sometimes for a specific intent such as bringing focus to certain aspects of the story or simply as a challenge to the filmmakers. These limits can be restrictions on dialog, music or additional effects as well as constructs like a single point of view on the action or even a restriction on editing. Avoiding short films and obvious experimental efforts, here's a few examples that came to mind:


(1948 - Alfred Hitchcock)

One of Hitchock’s more experimental efforts, Rope tells the story of two young men who believe they can commit the perfect murder. The interesting aspect is that each of the 7-10 minute long scenes (about the length of a film magazine at that time) was done without an edit and many of the scenes were “seamlessly” merged with the next one so that it looked as if the take was even longer. Of course, the seamless quality is not quite there (it’s pretty obvious where some of the edits are – a zoom into someone’s back, cut and then pull out, etc.) and there’s actually a couple of normal edits in the film as well. It’s a great idea that occasionally works wonderfully well (some moments are particularly tense specifically because the camera doesn’t cut away), but it also becomes the reason why you’re watching at times and has a tendency to pull you out of the story.


(2000 - Mike Figgis)

Very much an experimental film, Mike Figgis’ 2000 effort takes the single take to almost ludicrous extremes – four simultaneous continuous unedited takes are filmed and shown at the same time in the four corners of the screen. Each of the four individual sections follows characters and story lines that intersect with each other (occasionally people “jump” from one corner of the screen to another by being followed by a different camera) and the ebb and flow of the different stories guides the viewer’s focus. I enjoyed it for what it was and liked thinking about the different complexities of the shoot, but if you’re looking for story this is not the place.


(2007 - Spiros Stathoulopoulos)

Filmed entirely in one single take, the events of this story are based on a real occurrence in South America (a piece of PVC tubing is used to hold a home made bomb and strapped around a female prisoner’s neck in order to extract ransom money). It begins with a home invasion by the masked criminals where they afix the bomb to the woman and then follows her for the rest of the movie as time starts to run out. Though the idea of a real-time experience sounds perfect for a situation like this in order to heighten the tension, it actually ends up slowing the story to a crawl at times. There’s some effective moments, but the single shot forces the need for several long stretches of simply nothing happening.

Russian Ark

(2002 - Aleksandr Sokurov)

Undoubtedly one of the most impressive technical achievements I’ve seen, this 90 minute single unedited take slowly walks through not only the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, but a huge portion of Russian history. Filmed 5 years before the above mentioned PVC-1, it necessitated a great deal more technical wizardry to allow for 90 minutes of continuous footage (of this quality) to be stored. Even with those additional requirements, the complexity of the shot is enormous – thousands of cast members, changes in lighting conditions, moving in and out of many different rooms, etc. I fully understand how the “story” might not engage everyone, but not only was I mesmerized by the beauty of the images floating by, but I actually became curious to learn more about the many, many areas of Russian history that were touched upon.

Nick Of Time

(1995 - John Badham)

A young accountant (Johnny Depp) finds himself in a desperate race against time – either he assassinates a famous politician within the next 75 minutes or kidnappers kill his daughter. It's a bit of a quandry to say the least. The film unspools in real time as we see Depp’s character try to figure out how to get himself, his daughter and the politician out of this situation - all while the kidnappers watch his every move. This is definitely a case where the constraint of showing things happen in actual time works to the advantage of the story by dumping us into the character’s situation with him. You can't help but think throughout the film as time keeps ticking away, "What would I do?" Al Pacino’s recent 88 Minutes is apparently along the same lines (racing against the clock in order to avoid his own death in this case), but I haven’t seen it and, truthfully, I don’t really want to.

The Celebration

(1998 - Thomas Vinterberg)

The Idiots

(1998 - Lars von Trier)

Whether you like the idea of the Dogme 95 manifesto and its rules for filmmaking or hate it, its films certainly belong on this list. The Celebration and The Idiots were the first two official Dogme 95 films, though apparently they both circumvented a rule or two. I loved Vinterberg's entry, but have less fondness for von Trier's - in both cases that's due to the story and characters created. I've always found the ideas of the movement interesting as long as the filmmakers were using these restrictions (location shooting only, no props, no additional music, hand held cameras, etc.) as ways to help them focus on other aspects. Unfortunately, some people look at it as an entire philosophy.

My Dinner With Andre

(1981 - Louis Malle)

Louis Malle's film is similarly set almost entirely in one location - the table at a restaurant where two good friends are having a meal. In this case, though, the film really lives and dies by the conversation itself. Malle lets the actors talk and talk and talk and is never obtrusive and allows for an easy, relaxed flow to the evening's discussion. Though Andre Gregory has a fascinating delivery, for me his philosophies on life fell flat and amounted to a lot of blather. Wallace Shawn is game to call him on much of it, but he can barely get a word in edgewise.

12 Angry Men

(1957 - Sidney Lumet)

Apart from a short opening courtroom scene and final epilogue outside the courthouse, the entirety of this classic (one of my all time favourites) takes place in a single room. All 12 members of an all-male, all-white jury deliberate the fate of a young Hispanic boy charged with murdering his father and it seems like a slam dunk – except for one single dissenting vote. The amazing cast (Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Ed Begley, etc.) each get their moments as the discussion bounces around the details of the crime and questions start to mount. The script and the acting are good enough that it could’ve been filmed with a single static camera, but Lumet manages to shift perspectives and play with angles and light to add to your perceptions of the different characters.


(2001 - Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater is no stranger to mixing in some experimental filmmaking in between his more commercial works. With Tape, he too jumps into the single location subgenre with this three character story based on a stage play. Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman talk about their pasts and debate sets of events that may or may not have occurred. Linklater keeps the tension mounting via his camera positioning, editing and visual style. This is a good thing since the story itself wasn’t as engaging as it might have been (it would be interesting to see the one room stage play version of this since I would think it would lose interest fairly quick).

The Disappearance Of Alice Creed

(2009 - J Blakeson)

Another three-hander (in this case, moving out of the single location restriction) is this recent thriller of a kidnapping that may not be what it seems. It has a great look to it (both in the “hideout” as well as during the external scenes) and involves numerous deceptions and surprises. The film manages easily to circumvent any issues with only having three speaking parts to it (it was nice not to have to cut back to police detectives, worried parents, etc.), but didn’t quite get around some of the holes in the plot (there were several – if memory serves – moments where one character could have easily resolved an issue, but didn’t). Still a pretty solid entry to the thriller genre and hopefully it will get a 2010 release. Both Andrew and I saw this at TIFF this past year and I believe he was a much stronger advocate for the film.


(1991 - Richard Linklater)

And back to Linklater for a moment…His first film is a prime example of low-budget filmmaking as it takes an interesting idea and runs with it straight through to the end (and a bit into the ground too). The camera follows one character until they meet another and after a “conversation”, the camera then follows the new person until they meet someone else new. It continues in that manner for the length of the film and though it’s a unique device that enables you to get an idea of the surroundings of Austin and a wide variety of characters, it also requires either interesting “conversations” or at least something visually diverting. Not much of the latter and you can probably guess how interesting I found the former from my repeated usage of quotation marks. Still, I do love the fact that Linklater made the attempt.

Umbrellas Of Cherbourg

(1964 - Jacques Demy)

A gorgeous and bittersweet story that rightly earns its place as one of the best musicals ever made. The difference here is that every line of dialog is sung – some of it in actual songs, but the rest in a sing-song-y style that is a bit reminiscent of stage musicals. There's a danger in having dialog done in that latter style since it can be difficult to make it actually sound musical, but everything works wonderfully here due to 1) Michel Legrand’s memorable score (if you’ve never seen the movie, I guarantee that you’ll still be familiar with many of the main themes), 2) Jacques Demy’s direction and 3) Catherine Deneuve. My goodness she's lovely here. Oh, and the best wallpaper ever seen in film.

The Blair Witch Project

(1999 - Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez)

Paranormal Activity

(2007 - Oren Peli)

There’s a wide swath of opinion regarding “found footage” horror films - in particular the low-budget variety that The Blair Witch Project essentially kicked off a decade ago. The possibilities are certainly huge for first time filmmakers and the single camera point of view enables them to bring the audience right into their spooky situations. Personally, I liked both of these films and appreciated whatever creepiness the filmmakers could conjure up, but I’m not sure there’s a huge re-watch co-efficient with either.


(2007 - Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza)

Probably my favourite of the numerous "found footage" horror films. One of the tricks of getting the audience to buy into the concept is to give them a good reason for the camera to actually be on and recording. It doesn't always work, but I thought [rec] did a fine job in convincing us that the video needed to be continuously rolling in order to document the happenings. It's when you can buy into that device and get sucked into the feeling of actually being there that these types of movies work best.


(2008 - Matt Reeves)

This should get lumped into the same category as the above, but it deserves special mention for: 1) being the least convincing of these films in its explanation as to why the camera was always rolling and 2) creating some pretty excellent effects within the frame of the cameraman. I didn’t buy many of the decisions of the main characters or believe the timelines, but some of the individual scenes were very well done and it made for a much more compelling and on the edge of your seat experience than if it had been a big budget Roland Emmerich production.

The Lady In The Lake

(1947 - Robert Montgomery)

In this Noir, the entire film is shot from the point of view of private eye Philip Marlowe, so there are lots of people talking to the camera and opportunities for Marlowe to walk in front of mirrors and other reflecting objects (so that actor Robert Montgomery - playing Marlowe – could be seen). It’s an interesting idea and contains a few clever shots, but completely fails at engaging the audience or conveying the story appropriately (it occasionally cuts back to Marlowe in his office giving further details directly to the camera). As well, the acting suffers a great deal as most of the reactions to Marlowe's dialog seemed overly forced.

Man Bites Dog

(1992 - Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoorde)

A documentary crew follows a serial killer through his paces (prep work, exercise, execution of plans, etc.) and slowly become involved with his crimes. This faux documentary is an odd beast, but for my money one of the better single-camera viewpoint films. Certainly not a mock-umentary as it really touches on some dark areas and manages to focus on an examination of the reality show concept while asking “Do cameras affect actions”?.

Songs From The Second Floor

(2000 - Roy Andersson)

Roy Andersson's beautifully framed look at a purgatory-like society is done completely (except for one single instance) with static shots. The lack of camera movement allows the eye to roam freely over every frame and take in all the details - the muted colours, the background events, the depth of field and the expressions of each person. Andersson's follow-up, the amazing You, The Living, uses an almost identical restriction (with a few additional camera movements) and is also incredibly effective - though in a very different way.


(2003 - Lars von Trier)

A different set of parameters for von Trier this time around as he begins the first part of his "USA - Land of Opportunities" trilogy (I've heard it called several different things). Who says you can't make a three hour movie without sets or scenery and just a limited amount of props? Why not use chalk outlines on the floor to represent walls and rooms? I mean, Les Nessman did it (pardon my unnecessary WKRP reference - can't be helped). I put off seeing this for along time as I expected it would get a bit dull if the story didn't engage me, however I shouldn't have feared that - it's actually remarkably cinematic and visually rich and inventive. There are certainly differing opinions as to whether these restrictions helped or hindered the film as a whole, but I can't help thinking it would have been far less effective had it been done in a straightforward manner. The director saves his biggest gotcha for the end credits though.

The Birds

(1963 - Alfred Hitchcock)

It's only proper that we finish with The Master after starting with him. Though composer Bernard Herrmann was a sound consultant for the project, there's not a single bit of musical score in the entire film. What’s even stranger is that you don’t really even notice its absence. Hitchcock manages to work all his magic, build all his tension and deliver all his scares without using a single shred of music to create his atmosphere.

Of course, there are plenty of others. What other films have had intentional limitations and restrictions put on them? I'd love to hear more suggestions...

Saturday 6 February 2010

Random Notes #13

The Final Programme (1973 - Robert Fuest) - Even if you don't quite know what's going on in this early 70s sci-fi freak out (or you do, but don't care too much), from scene to scene there are enough fantastic and fun details to keep you interested. The story has its moments as our "hero" searches for the design of a self-replicating human that his father invented, but it also loses steam in several spots. However, when you've got some great 70s visuals, a whacked out Sterling Hayden and Europe bordering on the apocalypse - well, you can't really go too wrong now can you?

Lorna's Silence (2008 - Dardennes Brothers) - The Dardennes' "L'Enfant" didn't quite grab me the way it did for many (including the Cannes Jury in 2005), but their most recent made a much stronger impression. Lorna is involved in a complicated scheme to gain access to Belgium citizenship by marrying a junkie, waiting for his inevitable overdose and then marrying a Russian in order to get him access to the country. Only after she's worked through both of these false marriages will she then be free to marry her true love. At least, that's the plan. I thought the film did a great job in painting Lorna in a very sympathetic light while also showing that there are consequences to her own silence.

In July (2000 - Fatih Akin) - It wasn't until the opening credits rolled that I realized this was an older film from director Fatih Akin. I had picked it off the shelf solely due to Moritz Bleibtreu (from "Run Lola Run" and Akin's recent "Soul Kitchen") being on the cover and a vague indication of it being an unpredictable road trip. Though not a laugh out long comedic romp, the film is consistently enjoyable throughout and it's actually quite charming in spots. A young school teacher meets and becomes smitten with a beautiful woman who is off to Turkey the very next day. Since it is vacation time and he seems to be the only person without any plans, he decides to go off to Turkey to find her. He is accompanied on the journey by a young hippie woman who is smitten with him. The main characters are likeable and they meet numerous other interesting people along the way between Hamburg and their destination. Sure the ending is never really in doubt and familiar situations occur along the way (misunderstandings, car crashes, fights, border crossings, etc.), but it was a great deal of fun and Akin adds in little surreal touches throughout. Bonus: I nearly jumped out of my seat when the soundtrack kicked in with a song from Korai Orom's "1997" album (a favourite Hungarian band of mine).

Paper Moon (1973 - Peter Bogdonavich) - During the Great Depression, a con man (Ryan O'Neal) finds himself stuck with a young girl after stopping to pay his respects at an old lover's funeral. The girl (Tatum O'Neal) is the deceased woman's daughter and since there's the possibility that the con man could be her father (even though he denies it), he is asked to transport to her Aunt in Missouri. As the road trip through small towns and small cons goes on, the two develop a working relationship and the girl proves to be somewhat skilled in the ways of lying, cheating and stealing. It's a gorgeous film to watch - the black and white cinematography highlighting the wide open prairies and hard times being faced - and an easy one too. The rapport between the characters is genuine, the con games fun and the pace is quite perfect. And Madeline Kahn is cast as Trixie Delight (do I really need to explain why that's good?). A very entertaining film.

Never Give Up (1978 - Junya Sato) - A half hour into Junya Sato's "Never Give Up", we've seen a special forces boot camp, an attack on revolutionaries via hang gliders, a crazed mass killing in a small village, a murdered newspaper reporter, crooked cops, an orphaned little girl, corrupt politicians, contaminated crops due to industrialization and a crime syndicate boss who pretty much owns the region. Every time you think the story may be settling in, it spins out another direction. That's not necessarily bad though - given some of the silliness of the beginning (the hang gliders swoop down on the revolutionary gang standing on a roof without them noticing), it's good to know that you can accept that things won't be overly realistic and sit back and enjoy the constantly moving plot.