Thursday 28 April 2011

Hot Docs 2011 - "Beauty Day"

"Beauty Day" opens with a most decidedly not-beauty moment for Ralph Zavadil (otherwise known as Cap'n Video). As his camera rolls and documents yet another of his solo "stunts" for his cable access show, the jovial Cap'n (looking like David Lee Roth after a week-long bender) launches himself off a high rung on the ladder he's propped up against his fence. The plan is to plunge right into the middle of his tarp covered pool to demonstrate a new way of opening it for the season. As the 14 year-old videotape footage shows, things go horribly wrong - the ladder yields from Ralph's push off, he drops short of the pool and lands square on his neck on the concrete breaking 2 of his cervical vertebrae. "Unfortunately, I didn't think it through all the way" says current day Zavadil - not with any bitterness, sadness or regret in his voice, but with the self-deprecating tone of someone telling a really good story to his buddies. Of course, when you're wearing what appear to be reindeer antlers with multicoloured headlamps on them, you need to make sure you aren't taking yourself too seriously.

So why has director Jay Cheel decided to focus his feature length debut on the star of a decade old cable access show from St. Catharines, Ontario who sounds like a bad impersonator mixing French and Newfoundland accents? You can certainly see the initial appeal - Cap'n Video was a staple of the TV diets of teenagers in St. Catharines in the early 90s (a "Jackass" show before "Jackass" existed) and that failed stunt gave him world wide attention (a "Real TV" segment, Japanese TV, talk shows, etc.). However, there's got to be more than just that, right? You bet there is. As with many of the best documentaries, the people themselves become just as fascinating as the central storyline. By the end of the film, I had not only become somewhat attached to Ralph and his friends and family, but quite disappointed that I couldn't spend more time with them. They are interesting, funny and show a great spirit towards how they live their lives.

By folding in the old video clips from the Cap'n Video shows with present day footage following Zavadil through his daily paces, interviewing him and others about his life and tracking his attempts with his best friend Robert to put together a 20th anniversary show, the film does a tremendous job in slowly pulling us into Zavadil's world. There's no mean-spirited tricks up his sleeve in such stunts as "rooftop tobogganing" or "clothesline skiing" - all his "skits" were about goofy fun and being inventive. Granted, "chocolate covered puppies" was probably not his best idea, but it's easy to see it was simply a lapse in judgement and nothing more. As Robert says "I don't know how much thought he put into these things". He chuckles about this, but actually shows some sadness at missed opportunities - a bit more effort, money and help may have given Cap'n Video more polish and more attention. That's not Zavadil's way though. Since he beat cancer at an early age, his viewpoint has been to live life large and day-to-day. As his father did, he spends his days "just given'r".

There is a strong sense of detail in the film. Cheel (who also snags writer and editor credits) gets acquainted with the environment of these people and focuses his lens on things like Zavadil's Mom's cookie tray or Robert's glass artwork along with, of course, some of Cap'n Video's more interesting gadgets and methods (e.g. using a couple of old VCRs to edit his show). Attention to detail also applies to pretty much every other aspect of the film. Director A.J. Schnack has long campaigned that documentaries shouldn't have to look bland or feel they should sacrifice or skimp on things like cinematography. A trip to a ferris wheel at dusk and a cruise up and down a beach with Cap'n Video and his homemade scooter are proof positive Cheel is solidly in Schnack's camp. They're both gorgeous scenes. Then there's the music: The Talking Heads' propulsive "Thank You For Sending Me An Angel" chugs through the opening credits and a checkerboard of video clips; Triumph's "Hold On" works perfectly as Zavadil's soundtrack as he goes to work (particularly when it increases in volume to make it feel like he's getting lost in the music and his own thoughts); Ohad Benchetrit's (from the terrific band Do Make Say Think as well as Broken Social Scene) original songs and music fit seemlessly into the whole.

It's a temptation to go for the obvious and mention it's a beauty film, but that doesn't do it justice. It's truly a wonderful, detailed and completely engaging character-based story. I can't wait until more people see it.

Hot Doc screenings of "Beauty Day":

Friday April 29th at 6:45PM - Isabel Bader Theatre
Saturday May 7th at 4:15PM - Isabel Bader Theatre

Friday 22 April 2011

Hot Docs 2011

"...and perhaps best of all, they remind us that there is an audience interested in intelligent conversation."

Coming in just shy of cracking the 200 film mark, the stuffed lineup of this year's Hot Docs Film Festival was released a few weeks ago. The quote above is from festival Executive Director Chris MacDonald as he kicked off the Press Conference which announced the headliners, special events, retrospectives and other highlights among the many shorts and features to be screened between April 28th and May 8th in Toronto. The photo above is Cap'n Video engaging in some of that thoughtful debate...

Here's a short preview of this year's festival:

Some of the Main Events

  • Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold - Morgan Spurlock's latest film appears to be trying to have things both ways - while purporting to be a close look at product placement in our culture and the seeping influence of advertising, Spurlock actually financed the entire film via the placement of ads within the film. His pitch to advertisers is that the film is about his pitch to advertisers - including them. I expect that it may show some interesting board room discussions and give numerous examples of insidious marketing, but it's going to be an awful tricky line for him to walk. The film is the opening night gala for the festival.

  • Project Nim - Seriously, isn't Nim Chimpsky the best name ever for an animal? Particularly when it's a chimpanzee (wouldn't be quite as great if it applied to a kitty now would it?). James Marsh's newest film (and first documentary since "Man On Wire" after sneaking in one of the Red Riding trilogy films) documents the life of Nim as part of an experiment to see if one of our closest relatives on the evolutionary scale could be raised as a human, take on our characteristics and relate to us. From everything I've read, it sounds fascinating.

  • Conan O'Brien Won't Quit - While O'Brien was in between gigs (and prohibited from appearing on TV), he staged a whirlwind tour to vent his frustrations and his comedy to adoring fans (is Team Coco still a relevant term these days?). The doc promises not only some of the best footage of those live shows, but behind the scenes and reflective interviews.

  • Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey - OK, I'll say it here: Elmo kinda bugs the crap out of me. Don't get me wrong - I love Sesame Street (I watched its first season when I was in Kindergarten) and consider Jim Henson a personal hero, but the bright red, grating-voiced little guy never appealed to me. However, the clip showed at the press conference fits the film's title - it's more a behind the scenes look at puppeteering and a story of the man who controls Elmo. In fact, the 2 minutes were so engaging, that the film is right near the top of my to see list.

  • Magic Trip - Of little interest to me - at this stage anyway - is Alex Gibney's latest venture (with partner Alison Ellwood) which is described as a recreation of Ken Kesey's acid-induced 1964 journey across the U.S. with the Merry Pranksters. It's not that I have no interest in the history or the story, but I can't get overly excited about recreated footage mixed with old audio recordings. Maybe Gibney can pull something interesting out of the idea.

My Picks

  • Abendland - The film's title translates to "The West" and is apparently a visual essay of Europe at night with scenes from crematoriums, TV studios and a variety of different locations. Focusing on the industrialized sections of Europe, I expect gorgeous visuals and odd details meshing together to paint a picture of the good and bad of a modern wealthy culture.

  • The Battle For Barking - As much as I love political documentaries and the chance to see what happens behind those closed doors, this could be a difficult watch as it shows a particularly vicious British campaign from the 2010 federal election in the London borough of Barking. I can barely stomach the North American approach to campaigns ("Fear! Fear!"), but this seems to amp it all up by really playing to racial divides. And yet I'm still drawn to it - the human need to break down complex issues so that they can blame one particular reason (or preferably, one particular group of people) fascinates me.

  • Beauty Day - Jay Cheel's feature length directorial debut focuses on the star of a 90s local cable access show called Cap'n Video and his attempt to put together a 20th anniversary show. It's easy to call Cap'n Video an early version of "Jackass" (he'll do anything for his camera), but there's far more charm to his one man show. I've seen a screener of the film already (so I hope to get a longer review out soon), but I may not see a better film at Hot Docs this year. I was truly sad to have to say goodbye to these people at the end of the film.

  • Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo - The film with the best title of the festival takes a look at why Japan, more than any other country, has a fascination with insects. While the rest of us typically have a desire to remain as detached from bugs as possible, the Japanese put plastic ones in their Happy Meals. The film works its way backwards through history to trace the roots of this long lasting love affair.

  • The Bully Project - Director Lee Hirsch spends a year in the American education system to paint a picture of bullying in high schools. My guess? It's not a pretty sight.

  • The Future Is Now! - Gary Burns and Jim Brown return with another docu-drama (after their terrific look at the suburbs in 2006's "Radiant City") that follows the Everyman through interviews with different leaders in fields of arts and science to show not only the possibilities of tomorrow, but those of today. The trailer might seem a bit off-putting, but I trust Burns and Brown to weave their themes around the ideas of really interesting people.

  • Gnarr - Comedian Jon Gnarr created The Best Party as a jab at the left and right sides of the political system in Iceland, but he somehow managed to tap into a segment of the population that were tired of only hearing the ends of the political "spectrum". Apparently, a pretty large segment, since Gnarr becomes an actual viable candidate for mayor of Reykjavik.

  • Hot Coffee - Remember that crazy lady who sued MacDonalds over their coffee being too scalding hot? Ha! What a fool, right? Not so fast there bub - there's more to the story and much more to its aftershock effects. The case was essentially tried in the court of public opinion and so many details never made it out. The film submits that a better case of Corporations using the media to distort legal issues against them will likely not be found.

  • Incident By A Bank - A single take 12 minute short recreating a failed bank robbery in Stockholm, this film focuses specifically on the reactions of the bystanders and sounds like it could be a fascinating exercise.

  • Lovable - One of the films being shown in the retrospective series focusing on director Allan Zweig, "Lovable" is his rumination on being single in a culture that implies there's something wrong with you if you are. In order to dig deeper, he interviews many single women to get their own views.

  • The National Parks Project - 52 filmmakers and musicians celebrate Canada Parks centennial year by putting together a composite of this country's gorgeous landscape and the richness of our National Parks. A big screen viewing is a must.

  • A Simple Rhythm - This 52 minute "visually immersive meditation on the beat that binds us draws on music, science, medicine and the cosmos to better understand nature’s irrepressible forces." Sold.

  • Superheroes - After several fictional films about regular everyday people trying to be superheroes, there's now a documentary about them. Scattered across the U.S. and Canada, the vast array of characters and their alter-egos (e.g. Mr. Xtreme) tell us why they take to the streets at night to fight, as best they can, whatever crime they come across. Costume making tips are also handed out liberally.

Special Programs & Events

  • Alan Zweig Retrospective - This year's "Focus On" series will look at the work of Toronto filmmaker Allan Zweig. The only film of his I've seen (and possibly his most famous) is "Vinyl" - a great look at those who obsessively collect and search out specific records (Zweig knows a thing or two himself about this compulsion). His films tend to be personal and include his own thoughts on the subjects at hand, but never (from what I've seen and heard) in any overly self-involved way. Looking forward to finally seeing "Lovable".

  • Made In Italy - Each year the festival chooses a specific country to spotlight and this year Italy gets the nod with a series of 8 new films. My pick is "The Castle" which is a cinema verite look at the behind the scenes work of border security guards at Milan's airport.

  • Workers Of The World - Another series is focused on documentaries looking at the working class from all over the world - their struggles on and off the job and the variety of work humans end up doing - from a Czech Hyundai plant in a small farming community to the closure of a large shipyard in Germany to Panamanian maids and their rich employers to life in Cambodian villages. Even Santa pays a visit.

It all starts on Thursday April 28th. Get your viewing goggles on...

Thursday 14 April 2011

Abandoned Theatres has a lovely set of images of 75 Abandoned Theatres From Around the USA that has been making the rounds on my Twitter feed. It's a set that is at once gorgeous and depressing. You can't help but imagine the former audiences rustling in their seats or chatting away before a show or a movie starts - in particular for some of the theatres designed for plays (with the seats encroaching on the stage and almost swallowing it up).

You can also be forgiven if you happen to think you see a ghost or two roaming around the debris or, as the photo above brings to mind, actually becoming one with it.