Wednesday 28 March 2012

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Blind Spot #3 - "The Tin Drum" & "Stand By Me"

I knew when I started doubling up on these Blind Spot entries that some of the relationships between the films might only be tenuous at best. I also figured that might be half the fun - trying to tease out parallels or commonalities where I hadn't even realized they might exist. For this month's pairing I started with a pretty basic bond: both films have children as their central characters. Nothing more. I'll admit it, I was reaching. But you never know what will spring up upon closer reflection.

In the case of the 1979 winner of both the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and the Cannes Palme D'Or (shared with "Apocalypse Now"), it's central character is really only a child for a portion of the film. "The Tin Drum" follows the first 20 years of the life of Oskar from his birth (which we get to see from Oskar's point of view) through to the end of WWII. After turning three years old, he decides he doesn't want to grow anymore and throws himself down a set of stairs. He physically stops growing after this and becomes very attached to his tin drum which he plays so often it requires regular replacing due to the holes he pounds into it. He refuses to give it up just as he refuses to grow into an adult - a terribly hypocritical creature (from everything he has witnessed so far) that he would prefer not to become.

The four adventure seekers in Rob Reiner's 1986 film "Stand By Me" are also trying to hold back their forward momentum towards adulthood. Sure they smoke, talk about girls and are venturing out to locate a dead body before anyone else, but upon closer inspection each boy is concerned about the transition from elementary school into the big bad world of middle school. They fear the loss of their friendship, the challenges ahead and, similarly to Oskar, becoming adults. There aren't a whole lot of good adult or parental role models in either film so there's a strong pull to stay in childhood and stave off the moral swamp that appears to be the natural habitat of grown-ups. Both films move swiftly through their stories due to being structured as a series of scenes - Oskar's across 20 years and the 4 boys over one single weekend at the end of a 1950s summer - that build towards character changes and moments of self-realization.

Oskar passes through a wide variety of hurdles - bullying, first love betrayal, sex, knowing about his mother's affair with his uncle - and continues to drum away refusing to join the ranks of the adults. And given what he sees all around him, why would he? In particular (and talk about hurdles) the creeping influence of Nazism pulls in his father while his uncle remains on the outside. The story takes place in the "free city" of Danzig (now known as Gdansk) which was neither Polish nor German at the time (due to terms from the treaty of Versailles) and though there has always been a good standing relationship between Oskar's father, uncle and mother (almost an agreement that the affair could go on), things begin to splinter. Oskar's mother retreats, his uncle is marginalized and Oskar eventually joins a troupe of travelling entertainers (he's 18 or 19 by this time, but still no taller).

The boys of "Stand By Me" pass through their own set of obstacles as they journey alongside the rail tracks to the location where they think a dead body may be found. It's a far more compressed timeline than Oskar's story of course, but they all have their own trials and tribulations to work through as their bonds are challenged, they reflect on their parents lack of support, and wonder how their lives will change when school starts up again. Gordie can't even get his parents' attention since his older brother died (played by John Cusack in flashbacks) and can't see the point of it all. Fortunately, he has friends to try to convince him otherwise - in particular Chris (played by River Phoenix in easily the best performance of the film) who insists that Gordie will be the one to escape from their small town and make it as a writer.

While "Stand By Me" works in a gentle nostalgic tone within its episodic structure, "The Tin Drum" prefers to play in more surreal waters. This meshes well with the huge wide eyes of Oskar (played by 12 year old David Bennent) and the entire lead up to WWII. One of the best scenes in the film is an early Nazi rally in Danzig that pulls in the whole town. The local leader quips that the Germans had to teach the Poles to read in the first place (which elicits a chuckle from a small boy - a subtle way of showing the indoctrination of the young) and there seems to be little resistance to ideas being thrown out. As the speeches wind down, the fanfares start and the assembled crowd waits for a guest of honour (a ranking official in the party), Oskar slips under a set of bleachers and starts to loudly play his drum. This has the effect of slowly changing the band's music to a waltz and the crowd shifts from giving the one armed salute to dancing with each other and blocking the path of the arrived guest of honour. The film plays many of these scenes broadly to get its satire across and becomes very effective at it after a rather fractured first 10-15 minutes (it may take a while to get your bearings as you piece together the location and character relationships). It's none too subtle sometimes as when Oskar talks to a circus performer about his ability to shatter glass with his screams:

"I prefer to be a member of the audience and let my little art flower in secret"
"Our kind must never sit in the audience. Our kind must perform and run the show, or it's the others that will run us. And the others are coming..."

As Oskar tries to find his way, he wonders if he'll ever reach a point where he can comfortably be himself and have others accept that.

"Stand By Me" plays things much more straightforwardly. Though I'll admit that it didn't work completely for me, the film does have a lot of charm to it and easily transports me back to my own "off in the woods" adventures when I was a boy. That freedom to explore and take risks is integral to the film and some of its best scenes. The crossing of the long train bridge (and subsequent arrival of a train as they reach the midpoint) is the most recognized scene for good reason. There's enough involvement with all 4 of the kids by this point, so you've been caught up in their adventure. As well, let's face it, you can't help but imagine yourself on that same bridge and wonder if you could out run that same train...The development of the characters is handled well and their back stories come up in natural fashions. The film stops a bit dead in its own tracks whenever it flips to the story of the older bullies who are searching for the same body since there's really nothing of interest in this arc and nothing new in any of the stock bully characters. I can see why they were somewhat necessary in the plot to create that final showdown and tie back to the film's title, but I can't help but wish that the film stayed solely with the kids. Though they aren't always completely interesting as their twelve year old selves (their in-jokes, etc.), at least they feel like very honestly written characters who stay true to their nature and to themselves.

In both films, the central characters not only need someone to believe in, but someone to believe in them.

Saturday 24 March 2012

Hot Docs 2012

Amidst the usual bevy of clips, images and detailed descriptions, Tuesday's Press Conference for this year's Hot Docs Film Festival (April 26 - May 6) had two other big announcements:

  • An experiment to simulcast several movies to different Canadian cinemas at the same time and have a live director Q&A as well.
  • Free coffee/espresso for people waiting in rush ticket lines.

OK, that second one may not be quite as impressive (even if it did garner pretty enthusiastic response from the assembled crowd at the Bloor Cinema), but the two items together show why Hot Docs is one of the top film festivals in the world: they go after the big and even risky ideas while always taking into account the attendees and the little details that make an event memorable.

The simulcast events (called "Hot Docs Live") do indeed sound chancy for the organizers, but there's a genuine feeling of excitement from the festival staff that they are bringing the festival to the rest of the country. Those screenings will be announced on March 30th and the broadcast will happen to 50 theatres in Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver and several other cities. Along with their DocIgnite program (please go support the "How To Build A Time Machine" project at the link - we need to hear the full story...), Docs For Schools and their many other programs, Hot Docs has also now set up their base in the newly renovated Bloor Cinema. The press conference was my first visit there and it was suitably impressive - it's smaller inside the theatre, but cozy, comfortable and beautifully put together. Can't wait to see a film projected there.

As for the actual films during the festival, the opening night selection will be "Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry" about the Chinese activist and artist. The film is a first time effort by Alison Klayman and plays twice on the opening night of April 26th. Charlotte Cook, the new director of programming for Hot Docs, calls it a "perfect story of art as a means for change" as Klayman had deep access to follow the artist who, over the last few years, has bridged from being an artistic consultant for the Beijing National Stadium (for the 2008 Olympics) to being arrested for two months by Chinese authorities.

In total, the fest will be providing over 400 screenings of 189 films (chosen from 2085 submissions!) from 51 countries. There's a small drop in the total number of individual films being shown, but an uptick in how many will receive three showings. I've barely skimmed the surface of the extensive list, but a few standouts already:

  • The Beaches Of Agnes - Previously reviewed here after seeing it at TIFF in 2008, I'm thrilled Hot Docs is giving this another chance to be seen on the big screen. The wonderful Agnes Varda takes a look back at her own life and career in art (mixing in film, painting and the kitchen sink) in this incredibly charming work. I'm biased because I love the films of her and her late husband Jacques Demy, but I'd find it hard to believe anyone could resist the fantastic creativity on display here. Part of The Documentary Plays Itself program (including other documentaries about films and their filmmakers).
  • Beware Of Mr. Baker - To say that Ginger Baker is a might ornery is like saying he's a pretty decent drummer - a huge understatement. Great reviews came out of Sundance for this and it's pretty much my most anticipated since I love him not only as a rock drummer par excellence, but also due to his interest in African rhythms, his work with Bill Laswell and a variety of other projects.
  • Bones Brigade: An Autobiography - As far as I'm concerned, Stacy Peralta can continue to document every little piece of minutia regarding the southern California skateboarding and surfing history for his whole career. Both "Dogtown And Z-Boys" and "Riding Giants" were fantastic (in story, execution and style), so I have high hopes for this closer look at the skateboarding team he created which helped launch the massive popularity of the sport.

  • Charles Bradley: Soul Of America - You like soul music? Then you're gonna love Charles Bradley. At 62 years old, he's just now breaking through in the music business after building a wealth of hard won experience. Likely a crowd pleasing doc of the best kind.
  • Detropia - Hurt more than most urban centres by the economic issues of the past few years, Detroit has essentially crumbled and is struggling to keep itself afloat as a vibrant city. "Detropia" takes a look at the current state of affairs through the eyes of people who have lived through the bad yet still haven't abandoned their city.

  • Gambler - Another of the The Documentary Plays Itself films is 2006's "Gambler" which chronicles the story of current hot director Nicolas Winding Refn's attempt to pull himself out of personal bankruptcy following his second film "Fear X". Part of his solution was to make the sequels to his first film "Pusher": the excellent "Pusher 2" and the bordering-on-insane "Pusher 3" (meant in the best possible sense of the term).
  • Indie Game: The Movie - Were it not for my son, I would have no idea what the title "Super Meat Boy" referred to...Fortunately his knowledge has filtered through to me, so when I saw it mentioned as one of the angles to be examined in this look at the new independent way of creating video games, I actually became somewhat excited. I'm really hoping I can get The Boy to see this with me.

  • Los Angeles Plays Itself - Yet another entry in the The Documentary Plays Itself set and another that I've seen before. In this case, though, I haven't seen it on the big screen and would love to get that chance. It's long (about 160 minutes), but flies by in a wonderful series of images and clips from movies set in L.A. with very evocative narration.
  • The Revisionairies - A documentary bound to make me very angry as it explores the creationist leader of the Texas School Board and his re-election bid. Every hair on my body bristles at how creationists try to cloak their religious agendas in science, but I really should try to better understand the other side of an issue I feel very passionate about.

  • Shadows Of Liberty - I'm expecting even more anger to surface as I watch a detailed analysis of how the reporting of news through different media channels has slowly lost any semblance of objectivity. Granted, I don't expect this will be the least biased film I watch, but I'm hoping it provides some interesting insights.
  • Tchoupitoulas - The Ross brothers first film from 2009 entitled "45365" is a remarkable look at the people and area within one specific zip code. This time they tackle New Orleans and that means a can't miss screening for me.

Coincidental Parallels - "21 Jump Street" & "Alice"

I was watching Woody Allen's lesser known "Alice" last night when I reach a point in the film where the character of Dorothy (the great Blythe Danner) tells her sister Alice (played by Mia Farrow) that she had spoiled her children. Her example was the multitude of stuffed animals that clogged her children's room.

I kinda shook my head for a second because it was a moment of deja vu - where the heck did I just hear about a mother buying too many stuffed animals for her child? Fortunately I'm not completely senile yet, so it didn't take too long to realize that it had come earlier in the evening while seeing the recent "21 Jump Street". There's a scene where Jonah Hill relates his experience of being a bit smothered by his Mom buying him every stuffed animal she could. An odd little coincidence, but feeling better having solved that little riddle, I continued with "Alice" (it's uneven, occasionally awkward and has a lead character that didn't quite allow Farrow to work her normal Woody Allen magic, but still a better overall film then its rather unknown status among the director's work might indicate). And then - just 3 minutes later - I had another occasion to pause as Alice talks to her friend Sue in a schoolyard. Though I recognized the actress Caroline Aaron playing Sue, it struck me that I had just seen recently...

Then it hit me and I dove for IMDB to verify. Yep, Caroline Aaron played Jonah Hill's mother in "21 Jump Street" - the same character that had smothered him with stuffed toys.

I love it when that kind of thing happens.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Scribblings Of A Random Nature #23

Small Time Crooks (2000 - Woody Allen) - I was on a good run with Woody Allen films for awhile there - "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy", "Broadway Danny Rose", "Radio Days", "Shadows And Fog", "Zelig", "Manhattan Murder Mystery" - a top notch string of 80s and early 90s films that ranged from very strong to some of his best work. Now that I've cracked into the 2000's, it appears that I'm reduced to sorting through the chaff...His first entry of the millenium seems rushed, underwritten and without much love for its characters. In fact, it's downright bad - possibly the worst Allen film I've seen so far (though the next four in sequence after this film do NOT exactly have stellar reputations). The jokes (except for one or maybe two) flop with thuds and even though both Tracey Ullman and Elaine May do their best to wring some kind of character based amusement from the film, it stalls at every turn. After planning to rob a bank by tunneling from a nearby shop, those original plans are scrapped when the store itself (turned it into a cookie shop as a cover for the digging by Ullman's Frenchy) becomes a goldmine. You'd think that premise itself was a goldmine, but Allen can't even pan a few nuggets from it. As the story scraps several characters while it focuses on Ray (Allen) and Frenchy's new rich lifestyle, it just totally dries up. Allen's own acting and line delivery drags down everything around it, but I can't even blame him for that - the lines he's been given are terrible. The script writer has to take...Oh. Wait. Yeah, I guess I can blame him. A very poor effort by a previously very consistent director.

Silent Movie (1976 - Mel Brooks) - Though I appreciate that Brooks was going for a broader slapstick style than what normally works for me, he still seems to come up short in the gag department this time around. I suppose it isn't for lack of trying since he packs in guest star appearances, sped up chases and a multitude of sight gags throughout this completely dialogue-free film (except for one single line), but the ratio of good/original to kind-of-lame/slightly-tired is not overly high for my taste. I feel bad for saying that since Brooks really seems to want to return to an older style of comedy and I'm totally on board with basing laughs around people getting hit in the face with pies or just simply falling down (for example, the cafeteria scene with our three heroes - Brooks, Dom Deluise and Marty Feldman - completely clad in suits of armour crashing about the place had me laughing out loud). Unfortunately there's a bit too much mugging for the camera (perhaps that's why the armour worked so well - I couldn't see their faces) and telegraphing of jokes. There are moments for sure (I could watch Harold Gould all day long), but not enough to even come close to Brooks' 1-2 punch from 1974 of "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein". I suppose that's not a fair comparison, though, is it?

A Chorus Line (1985 - Richard Attenborough) - I quite enjoyed the documentary from a few years ago called "Every Little Step" that focused on the casting process for a revival of "A Chorus Line". Not only did the stories of the dancers keep me interested, but so did the stories of the characters within the play. The songs seemed catchy, the dance pieces looked creative and I liked the concept of building the play around the dancers' individual stories. I finally got around to watching the film version from 25 years ago and within 30 minutes or so was checking IMDB to make sure that I hadn't slipped a memory disc and picked the wrong musical. The characters were annoying, the songs dull and inept (except for the two obvious standouts "At The Ballet" and "One" - how the hell did "Surprise, Surprise" get an Oscar Nomination?) and everything was completely forced. Granted, filming something meant for the stage is tricky business - what comes across as forced on film can be far more successful on stage as the performers project in broad terms to the audience. There are a few scattered numbers where Attenborough brings some needed flair with lighting, staging and framing, but otherwise the whole thing became quite grating. It's hampered by lackluster casting - good dancers, but hammy actors for the most part - dragged further down by the sub plot of the director's (Michael Douglas) old flame showing up for the auditions and then totally sinks when the emotional group-bonding disaster strikes one of the dancers. I'm feeling less fondness for that documentary due to having watched this.

Maelstrom (2000 - Denis Villeneuve) - A movie certainly befitting its title - at least from the point of view of its main character. Never mind the coincidental connections that arise, the film tackles the swirling, crumbling world of its central female character in very effective ways (both visually and structurally) as she slowly gets sucked into her own vortex. The talking fish narrator (which is in the midst of being chopped to pieces) adds to the confusing and surreal landscape and strangely adds to the story. Villeneuve's recent "Incendies" probably hits harder with its ending, but "Maelstrom" is supremely adept at unspooling Bibianne's descent and making you sympathetic for a decidedly unsympathetic character.

Thursday 8 March 2012

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Sequences Of A Titular Nature #9

A raft of end titles this time around (ie. opening style credits at the end). I must say that I have a fondness for films that encourage you to stay in your seat just a little bit longer by adding just a little something to that end crawl (also, typically, interesting end titles mean interesting music choices).

Soul Kitchen (2009 - Fatih Akin) - Speaking of great music selection, a prime example is Fatih Akin's comedic follow-up to a couple of critically well-received, but very serious films. "Soul Kitchen" may have surprised and even disappointed some, but I had a great time with it's wild abandon and tales of different ways to satiate your soul. The entire soundtrack is pretty butt-shakin' (including the outro) and these splashy end credits are a perfect high energy way to end the party. While you're tracking this down (and you really should - I believe its on NetFlix in Canada), try to find his earlier "In July" (from 2000) which is a really solid rom-com-road-movie.

X-Men: First Class (2011 - Matthew Vaughan) - Though I understand the feelings of several friends who dislike "X-Men: First Class", I greatly enjoyed the cartoonish aspects of its approach to telling yet more of the origin stories: enough to set it in the proper context, but never quite over the top in its goofiness. The simple geometric patterns of DNA and genes in these credits, along with the slightly muted splashes of colour, were an appropriate and welcome way to finish off this fun mutant superhero story. They also highlight the importance of the small genetic differences the mutants had (in comparison to the rest of humanity) that manifested themselves in such large ways.

Black Dynamite (2009 - Scott Sanders) - A movie this fun needs titles that match it, so the team behind the fabulous blaxploitation spoof "Black Dynamite" transferred their film's hero into their credits and gave him free reign to beat the living crap out of them. Given the tone and surprises of the film, it makes for a fantastic final set of jokes that would've meant far less at the start of the movie - though they are so good they can stand alone as well.

Bourne Ultimatum (2007 - Paul Greengrass) - I considered not including these since their key element (along with the identical in nature ones from the previous two parts to this series) is motion - the constant motion of lines and shapes moving from one graphic to another that twins Bourne's own constant and restless movement (here is the full credit sequence). Though they are all created as graphics on computer, the titles feel like a single take as there are no distinct "edits" to a new scene. Each line or shape morphs into something new depending if we are following it, zooming in or pulling out. With the same Moby tune ("Extreme Ways") closing off each film, it keeps a nice through line going across the three segments. Since Paul Greengrass kept that concept from Doug Liman's first film, it'll be interesting to see if Tony Gilroy continues it for the new fourth installment ("The Bourne Legacy").

Machete (2010 - Robert Rodriguez) - Simple and kinda perfect considering the kind of exploitation B-movie film "Machete" was trying to emulate. I didn't love "Machete", but I can't help but want to see "Machete Kills" and "Machete Kills Again".