Monday 27 June 2011

Cars 2

Re-posted from Rowthree.

Though filled with their typical beautiful animation and penchant for including a myriad of little touches and background jokes, Pixar's 2011 summer entry "Cars 2" is easily their least significant piece of work. It's not as horrible as many people expected (and even seemed to want it to be), but it doesn't feel like the same effort has gone into the story and characters as even their lesser films. There's a great deal of creativity here (in the details - particularly when they take their car society to other parts of the world), but for the most part it's flash and brash and gets bogged down with chase after chase after chase. The story isn't propelled by the characters this time around - and everything suffers as a result. There's some fun to be had, but not really a great deal of humour and not a speck of warmth.

The majority of the film is based around a conspiracy to ensure alternative fuel sources are ridiculed, oil and gas remain as the primary source of energy and that cars that were regarded as "lemons" (Gremlins, Yugos, etc.) get more respect. Through a World Grand Prix sponsored by the discoverer of a brand new clean source of fuel, Lightning McQueen and, primarily, his rusty sidekick Tow Mater become wrapped up in spy hijinks to prove that the conspiracy exists. This all provides the backdrop and impetus for a multitude of car chases topped by a barrage of weaponry. As mentioned, Larry The Cable Guy's voice takes centre stage when Tow Mater accidentally and unwittingly becomes involved in the spy efforts to bust open the criminal activities. As two agents try to fit the pieces together (voiced by Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer), they believe Mater to be their American contact. While they bounce through different corners of the globe meeting up with the 3 races of the World Grand Prix (in Japan, Italy and England), the spies close in on the cartel of dud cars who plan to control the world's gas supply and embarrass the top race cars while they're at it. Mater gets the lion's share of the action while Lightning McQueen simply battles an Italian F1 car and considers what his friendship to Mater really means to him. The rest of the "Gang" from Radiator Springs are shuffled to the sidelines and are only occasionally glimpsed throughout the movie.

Therefore, your mileage will depend heavily on how much Larry The Cable Guy you can take in one sitting (when things aren't blowing up that is). Speaking as someone who actually enjoyed the first film and has no major issues with Larry as a voice actor or even as a stand-up comedian, Mater wears thin as a compelling character pretty quickly. The plot gets moved forward by Mater continually doing something stupid or naive and even though he always shows he has a good heart (or should I say pistons?), there's little arc available for any of these characters. Short of a minor fight between McQueen and Mater, there's little to resolve for the denizens of Radiator Springs and so it's all up to the machinations of the spy plot to keep your interest. Each chase is clearly designed with great care and there's always something inventive going on, but there's simply nothing to latch onto except for spotting the details (the references to previous movies, character names, the kaleidoscope of colours, etc.). I smiled and chuckled occasionally, but not once did I laugh out loud. And, more importantly, neither did the two 10 year-olds I brought to the screening. Even after the film, neither of them spoke a single word about it - when asked, they said they liked it but did not proffer up any examples of why or relive any of the moments.

I can't quite get to the point of of accusing Pixar and Disney of being completely cynical by making an hour and fifty minute long toy commercial, but it probably wouldn't take a great deal or persuading since there is a definite lack of effort to build something original this time around. Lasseter obviously likes these creations and still has his boyish sense of fun, but he's lost (at least this time out) his adult radar for character-based humour that pulls you in and provides the deeper pleasure. Or perhaps just blinded by the shiny lure of residuals from the sales of little Tow Maters. Ka-ching!

Monday 20 June 2011

One Of Those Moments - "Kes"

I posted the following on Rowthree as part of its Finite Focus series and thought it might fit nicely with my own "One Of Those Moments" posts.

Suppose a man has a hundred sheep. lf one of them strays, does he not leave the other 99 on the hillside and go in search of the one that strayed? And if he should find it, I tell you this, he is more delighted over that sheep than over the 99 that never strayed.

The bible passage above, as spoken by a young girl at a school assembly in Ken Loach’s magnificent film Kes, is pretty straightforward in its message: embrace those who are different and who wander away from the expected. It’s a shame none of the adults in the movie actually pay attention to it and quite ironic that they spend a great deal of the time bemoaning how “these kids” never listen.

Every single adult – parent, teacher, boss, social servant, etc. – appears to obstruct the children from pursuing their own paths. They berate them constantly, push them towards the same dull existences they were forced into and seem to demean them at every turn. The assembly scene is a precursor to the school’s principal admonishing a group of boys (most of them innocent) for various “crimes” and, before caning them, essentially telling them all that they are worthless and that it is pointless for him to even try talking to them since they never listen. It’s comical, yet very sad due to the very realistic style of the movie and the picture it paints of the working class of 1960s England.

It’s the scene that follows this, though, that is one of my favourites of the film and one that shows that you can occasionally find hope (even if at some point it may be dashed) in dire circumstances. The titular character of the film is actually a falcon (a kestrel to be precise), but it is his owner, the young schoolboy Billy Casper, that is the focus. Picked on by just about everyone and having just come from his own caning (simply for having fallen asleep at the assembly due to his early morning chores), Billy is pulled into his class’ discussion about “Fact And Fiction”. His teacher Mr. Farthing is asking students to define what a fact is and to tell the class a factual story or event that occurred to them. Catching Billy not paying attention, he singles him out and appears to be yet another adult trying to assert his control.

You’re going to tell us a story about yourself.

I don’t know any sir.

His classmates, fearing they will all suffer if he can’t come up with a story, inform the teacher about the hawk. Gradually, Mr. Farthing coaxes out the details of the bird, Billy’s care of it and what he has done to train it.

Are you gonna tell us about it? How have you trained your hawk?

Billy begins to open up as Mr. Farthing has him come to the front of the class and write on the board some of the terms he uses when describing the training methods (“jesses”, “swivel”, “leash”). It’s at this point that you realize his teacher is different – he sees a light in Billy, he knows he’s different and he’s trying to find a way in to encourage him. While the class listens quite attentively (they even ask questions) to his gradual training methods and how he would slowly expand the distance his feathered (but tethered) friend had to fly to his food, Billy begins to describe the most exciting facet – the first free flight he allowed Kes. In a breathless tone that only young kids can really get away with without appearing to be overly dramatic or succumbing to exaggeration, Billy keeps his audience (both the class and the viewers) on pins and needles as he describes how he “were terrified” to let Kes roam free. After putting it off for awhile, he got mad at himself and realized that he had to just let Kes go and see what happened. He follows this thought with a wonderful tale of the first flight:

I saw her flying. She came like a bomb. About a yard off the floor, like lightning, head still, and you couldn’t hear t’ wings. There weren’t a sound from the wings – and straight onto the glove – Wham! And she grabbed me for t’ meat.

Billy finishes by saying “I trained her sir and that were all I could do”. There’s no posturing, no great big grin to his classmates, no great finale. He finishes with more of a whisper than anything. It’s all a sharp contrast to pretty much everyone we’ve seen previously – in particular, his bullying physical education teacher (who boasts of his soccer skills and punishes Billy for letting a goal in). It’s a terrific scene that puts a smile on your face and grants some possibilities for Billy. A later scene which shows Mr. Farthing watching Billy fly Kes and then joining him in the bird’s shed is equally as wonderful. Kes is beautiful – just as gorgeous sitting on a perch as he is in full flight. As Farthing says, it’s almost as if we have an instinct to give it respect.

However, this is 60s working class England and Loach doesn’t want to leave you with too much hope…The very next scene after Billy’s classroom tale has a much larger boy taunt him in the schoolyard which leads to a fight between the two – it’s as if the kids realized he had an upper hand on them. Billy actually had something he was good at, enjoyed and made him happy. How dare he. He had to be reigned in, controlled and brought right back down into the mud and filth (they end up fighting in a pile of coal). Just like the rest of the adults treat him. Sobering, but a truly fantastic telling of a great story.

Friday 10 June 2011

Hot Docs 2011 - Short Cuts #7

Finally...My final post on this year's Hot Docs festival...

Love Arranged (2011 - Soniya Kirpalani) - The concept of an "arranged" marriage may seem completely strange to some people, but it depends on your approach. For the two young but modern women who are the focus of Kirpalani's hour-long documentary, an arranged marriage (or at least the process of being presented possible suitors) can be viewed as less of an emotional minefield than the dating scene and much more efficient at pruning out the dregs to find the safe, eligible candidates. One of the two is focused on her business and her partying with friends while the other is much more quiet, reflective and logical. They both find that there is still a great deal of "old ways" thinking in current day India (regarding castes, lightness of skin colour, etc.), but decide to push through to see what awaits them. Even though the film only has two focus people, it really could have used some tightening up (in particular when it came to the self-involved women's own problems and ideas), but also could have benefited from further expansion of wider issues, historical reasons for the process and other modern viewpoints.

The Lumberfros (2011 - Stephanie Lanthier) - The brush cutters of Abitibi (in northern Quebec) lead pretty simple lives - cut during the day, back to the barrack-like trailers at night. Repeat. They are each given specific parcels of land from which they need to clear undergrowth to allow easier access for lumber cutting and use heavy hand-held motorized tools through their long working days. It may not sound like a thrill-a-minute experience watching them and initially I thought the same thing, but the film grows on you...Specifically because of the people. The term "lumberfros" actually designates foreign workers who take on these jobs and we meet several of them from Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia. They all have interesting stories and views on the work and strangely mix well with the Quebecois old timers (whose stories are equally interesting). The boisterous young African with the infectious laugh has big life plans, but many of the other men are content just to have work to support their families back in the city (typically in Montreal). A far better film than I had any right to expect and an interesting slice of life I had no idea existed.

The Chocolate Farmer (2011 - Rohan Fernando) - Through the life of one cocoa bean farmer in Belize and his large family (the number of children he has is easily into the double figures), this National Film Board of Canada feature shows how the encroaching culture of the "Western" world is changing long held ways of life. The farmer loves his work - in particular he loves his forest and the ability to spend so much time with nature every day. His kids aren't quite as interested, though, as he tries to get his sons to follow him and works on marrying off his daughters. It's hard to choose the most interesting aspects of this fine film - watching the choices of his kids as they realize there's a whole other world out there or learning the secrets of a rainforest farmer.

Thursday 9 June 2011

Hot Docs 2011 - Short Cuts #6

Bury The Hatchet (2011 - Aaron Walker) - I've been to New Orleans twice (though not since Katrina) and love their approach towards ensuring their mix of cultures is less of a bland "melting pot" and more a tasty gumbo. One such example is the Indian Big Chief during Mardi Gras - a tribute to the Native Americans who helped runaway slaves. Over several years, Walker's film follows several tribe leaders through their annual preparations for the big day (mostly via the creation and donning of their wondrous costumes of brilliant coloured feathers and sparkles), their tussles with local police, other leaders and tribes and, of course, Katrina. Even with an Interstate running right over their old parade route, the chiefs maintain their traditions and ensure they get passed down through to the next generation. As the chiefs strut their stuff in these huge costumes, you can't help but be reminded of a peacock proudly displaying its tail. They may seem boastful as they talk of their costume designing, sewing, singing and songwriting skills, but the pride comes from a deep respect of their heritage. If you've ever wondered what a flagboy is, they will be glad to tell you and provide even further education on their living breathing culture. And the music is fantastic.

Gnarr (2010 - Gaukur Ulfarsson) - What happens when a comedian starts up his own political party and enters them into an election? In North America, it typically garners some good headlines, a fistful of jokes and a few well-targeted potshots at current policies and leaders. But in Iceland, well, it ends up being a different story...As Jon Gnarr and his "Best Party" (friends and all manner of artists - including a former member of The Sugarcubes) mount their campaign in the mayoral race in Reykjavik they actually start making inroads and begin to gather support. They never waiver from their stated goals (including making sure the zoo gets a polar bear) and it seems to be an effective strategy against the overly serious "professional" politicians. As much fun as some of the film ends up being, it never really explores why the polls start to favour The Best Party nor does it look at the downside of running this kind of race. It's a bit of a frustrating film in that you are continually waiting for it to start, to get at the heart of something...anything. Entertaining to a point - or rather, entertaining without a point.

The Castle (2011 - Massimo D'Anolfi, Martina Parenti) - A completely observational film that looks behind the scenes at Milan's International Airport, "The Castle" may occasionally be slow moving, but it's rarely boring. Partially that's due to some lovely cinematography and interesting choices of shots and framing and partially it's because you get to be a fly on the wall as numerous interesting items are examined before being let into the country. Of most interest, though, are the human beings trying to get into the country. The drug smugglers, the refugees and the simple tourists all need to pass through what seems to be a phalanx of experienced customs agents and their probing questions. It's apparent that sometimes people get stuck in the airport as well - as evidenced by the one old lady that appears to cook and clean in the public washroom. Being strictly observational, the film doens't have any narration to lead you from one situation to another or explain what eventually happens to several of these people. It's not really required though - the film easily makes its own statements about why many people take chances to get to another country other than their homeland and the strange and sad stories that lie behind them.

Sunday 5 June 2011

A Single Image #15

Still Walking (2008 - Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Hot Docs 2011 - Short Cuts #5

Hot Coffee (2011 - Susan Saladoff) - Remember that "crazy" old lady that sued McDonald's because the hot coffee she spilled in her own lap was too hot? What was the first thing you thought when you heard that she won? Before you answer, did you ever see the actual injuries she sustained? Or really hear the full story? Saladoff's film covers not only the details of this case and horrific damage caused to Stella Liebeck (I've rarely seen so many people turn away from the screen in unison as when they showed photos of her burned and charred flesh), but also shows 3 other stories where the real details of the cases may have been obscured by those who didn't want them coming to light. What resulted from some of these poorly covered cases was an easy time of convincing the American public that the time was right for "Tort Reform" - after all, was it fair that these corporations were getting robbed in court by frivolour cases that were wasting tax dollars? If Saladoff's film leans perhaps a bit heavily to one side of the general argument, it makes some extraordinarily effective points about how big business used (and does to this day) its heft to ensure that it controls the court of public opinion and has it cater to their own whims.

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery Of The Toynbee Tiles (2011 - Jon Foy) - A mystery akin to Fincher's "Zodiac" in the way its twists and turns flow down many different threads and in how its main detective becomes completely immersed and obsessive about his quest, Jon Foy's first film tracks his friend's investigation into the Toynbee Tiles - a set of tiles found throughout the Eastern U.S. (and even South America) spelling out cryptic messages referring to Kubrick's 2001, the dead being resurrected and other seemingly disparate things. As they search via the Internet and follow up leads here, there and everywhere, it's the search that becomes fascinating and not really the mystery itself. The various dead ends and odd theories that arise are far more interesting and fortunately Foy recognizes this and gives each its due. Unlike Zodiac's protagonist, though, there's a point where the sleuths looking for the tiles origins are able to stop and let go - and it's a wonderful and very human moment.

Recessionize For Fun And Profit! (2010 - Jamie Kastner) - The secondary title of Kastner's film states "15 Simple Steps!" and refers to the 15 sections into which his 60 minute Michael Moore-esque jaunt of a doc is broken. And "broken" is a pretty apt description. It's supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek look at the various ways people retool their businesses during tough times to continue to make money (from German hookers offering "green" discounts to classes teaching young children the joys of capitalism), but it comes across as condescending, smug and quite lacking in anything to say. At least it's not dull, though, since it does feature some occasionally interesting people and ideas (some good and some so very not good) and switches gears and stories every 3 to 4 minutes. Unfortunately, Kastner inserts himself into the movie and though he tries, he doesn't even have Moore's sense of humour (which admittedly isn't exactly finely tuned). I've tired of Moore by this point and find him just as bad as the far Right fear-mongers he targets, but at least I get his points (whether I agree or not). Kastner just comes across as thinking he is better than essentially everyone else in the film without showing any just cause.

A Single Image #14

Stop Making Sense (1984 - Jonathan Demme)

Saturday 4 June 2011