Thursday 27 June 2013

Blindspot - "La Dolce Vita" & "Farewell, My Concubine"

After watching La Dolce Vita and Farewell, My Concubine back to back, several parallels became apparent. The stunning cinematography and gorgeous frames of both are obvious (one in high contrast black and white, the other using a rather generous and wide palette of colours), but there's also a strong commonality between two of the main characters since both Marcello and Shitou simply are unwillingly to ever really commit to anything - neither ideas nor people. My favourite similarity between the films, though, is each one's ability to make 3 hours glide right on by...

Like most films in my blindspot list, these two had been lingering for a long time on the backburner and, to be honest, were there mostly because of their pretty epic lengths. Each is a shade over 170 minutes and appeared to be short on narrative and long on indirect references to central themes. Those, of course, aren't bad elements in a film, but can certainly press you to "find the right time" to view them. What I hadn't realized is that each is broken up into episodic pieces that felt like whole entities unto themselves and totaled up to something far greater. Fellini's La Dolce Vita, for example, travels from an iconic opening of Jesus flying through the air (carried by a helicopter), through terribly desperate parties and finishes with a fourth wall breaking stare into the lens showing you that there was at least one person who understands what "the sweet life" is all about. That someone, though, is certainly not the central character Marcello (played by the great and incomparable Marcello Mastroianni). The film follows him through several evenings of existence (by the end of the movie, you feel that calling it a "life" would be somewhat charitable) in his gossip columnist job that drifts him - usually as a hanger-on - through a multitude of parties and gatherings. He never seems to work, though, since he's only looking for that special something to startle and excite him, that something to draw out his passion, that something to finally get him to exclaim "Yes! This is it!". He's not actually looking that hard, so his approach is that he wants it to find him and until it does, he simply won't commit to anything that might prevent him from scooping it up. He hangs on to his girlfriend Emma and saves her from a suicide attempt, but won't even promise her that he'll be home for dinner. He hates his job and talks about having been a serious journalist, but he won't act on offers to set him up with editors at newspapers. He doesn't seem to own anything but his car, black suit and sunglasses - tools that allow him to worm his way into any event that may attract somebody or something interesting. But aside from a gorgeous American starlet that he tries to woo (who turns out to be less than the perfect image he had in mind), nothing really interests him. Religion, art, poetry, music, booze, sex - nothing quite galvanizes him. It's all rather tragic...

In director Chen Kaige's case, he places his tragic story of two opera singers across 50 years of turbulent Chinese history: from the Warload era in 1924 through the Japanese occupation all the way to the end of the Cultural Revolution. It begins with a prostitute attempting to drop off her young boy with a performing troupe - her inability to properly care for him leads her to these drastic measures and even to chopping off his extra pinky finger just so that the troupe will accept him. Further pain awaits, though, as the masters of this acting school resort to tortuous methods with these boys to instill the proper discipline to become opera stars. The masters themselves face potential imprisonment if their students don't meet the grade when commissioned to perform by the wealthy elite. This is the environment in which young Douzi finds himself and when the slightly older Shitou shows him some kindness, he latches on to him. As their skills accelerate and they begin to impress - particularly with their rendition of the classic opera "Farewell, My Concubine" - the boys become a famous act and grow closer. They reach adulthood in 1937 while war with Japan is about to begin and decide to take on new stage names (Cheng Dieyi for Douzi and Duan Xiaolou for Shitou) to fit their increasing fame. In the opera, due to his effeminate manner and voice, Douzi has always performed the female role of the concubine to Shitou's imposing king. The film also implies that Douzi wants their real life relationship to turn sexual, but it's careful to show his feelings to be far more than just lustful. Shitou feels strongly as well - though whether it is out of dependence, brotherly love, sexual attraction or all of these, the film never states explicitly - but he resists giving in and eventually marries the prostitute Juxian (played by the hypnotizing Gong Li). His "proposal" is simply an immediate tactic to get out of being beaten up at the brothel, so he becomes caught between these two relationships that he never full commits to. The tensions within this triangle burst several times, but over the years they continue to perform and must deal with the demands of whoever happens to be in power. Further complications arise as the communists take over since they wish to eradicate the country of any old world culture or signs of its decadent past.

Throughout Marcello's "adventures", he never quite bursts, but seems to come to a roiling boil almost every night. He tags along like a fifth wheel, makes love simply as something to do, comes to realizations without ever acting on them and continues to slip deeper into his own world. Though the film never delves into fantasy elements, it does flirt with the surreal which adds to the feeling that Marcello and his acquaintances simply live in a different reality than the rest of society. His crowd is a mix of the wealthy and famous as well as desperate hipsters and leeches (looking for fun or profit at others' expense). One of Marcello's cohorts is a photographer named Papparazzo who (along with the rest of his cronies) doesn't care about anyone's privacy and will even stoop to getting into a young mother's face to capture her reaction to news of family tragedy. It is widely believed that the origin of the term papparazzi derived directly from this character's name (Fellini apparently said that he chose the name to reflect an annoying noise like a buzzing mosquito), but others claim it was coined earlier. Little tidbits of information like that simply aren't relevant in Marcello's world as his crowd seem only to wait for something big to excite them and look perpetually bored while they do so. On one of his assignments, Marcello "covers" a sighting of the Madonna (no, not the singer...) by two young children. As the whole event turns into a circus (with cameras, lights, actors that pray on command, etc.), Marcello becomes more and more agitated while he looks for a miracle to happen. Meanwhile he misses the smaller, more poignant real life moments around him, like the woman with the sick child who slowly approaches the tree where the Madonna was allegedly seen in order to quietly pray for help. Emma notices this and points it out to him, but it's just a momentary distraction. Emma finds herself praying to Madonna to bring Marcello back to his old caring self, but at this stage she should be praying to Saint Jude (the patron saint of lost causes).

Stuck between Douzi and Juxian, Shitou is also somewhat of a lost cause - certainly at least by the time the Japanese invade. His fortunes tend to falter when he leans towards either of them (they remain faithful to him) and thus he remains in a no-man's land that leads to tragic betrayal when the Revolution targets them all. Douzi is specifically in the sights of Xiao Si - a young sympathizer of the communist cause and a proponent of new opera - who was saved by Douzi as an abandoned baby, but now rejects him. Their big falling out boils down essentially to old culture versus revolution for the "labouring masses". Throughout the film, Kaige is very adept at weaving the storyline into the historical milieu while also tying into the central fable of the "Farewell, My Concubine" opera. There's an underlying anger at China's leaders - whether it is the wealthy, the military or the communists - that they show no honour or faithfulness to their people and culture. Kaige was among the "fifth generation" of Chinese filmmakers and his denouncement of government (particularly the communists) got the film censored, but it's many thronged story, stellar performances and full bore beautiful recreations of the Peking Opera led to China's first ever win of the Palme D'Or. Leslie Chung is remarkable as the adult Douzi and slides between being demure, calculating, enraptured, heartbroken and drug-addled. But like the other privileged characters in this story, Douzi always seems slightly detached from reality and only really notices societal changes according to how they affect him and Shitou. This only makes the power grabs that much easier to implement - as the Cultural Revolution begins, it is positioned as something that will touch the soul of the people, but it's main goals seem to be to eradicate the old society and anything to do with it. By the time Douzi sees this, it's far too late.

As wonderfully complex, interesting and entertaining as both films are, neither film can claim to be quite perfect. La Dolce Vita suffers at times with that plague of many Italian films of the 60-70s - woeful audio sync. Whether it began with the neo-realist films of Rosselini (which allowed no control of the environment to get on-location audio) or because Fellini's Cinecitta studios were too close to the airport, all dialogue and sound effects were added later and it's far too apparent. One could be charitable and say that it adds to the surrealistic tendencies of the film (which is somewhat true in several scenes), but it truly is distracting at times. The post "sync" line readings occasionally come through with completely different beats to the physical acting on screen. Farewell, My Concubine has no such technical issues, but occasionally shortcuts its plot points. Easily forgiven in such a wide-sweeping historical drama, but moments like Xiao Su's betrayal don't quite sting the viewer as much due to its almost random nature - a disagreement in philosophy towards staging operas, a quarrel about training techniques and suddenly Xiao Su is leading a squadron of soldiers with what appears one purpose: discredit and dishonour Douzi. But it's also a minor quibble since shorthands are commonplace tools to allow for more on-screen conflict (the filmmakers assume that the viewer will fill in the gaps). And when both films are shot in such stunning fashion (I could barely contain myself to 40-50 screenshots per film - dropping down to 7 shots for each felt almost criminal), I can forgive just about anything.

There's a sense of fate at work in both films (Marcello slightly more at fault for setting himself up for it), but all the main characters are presented with either ways out or fair warnings that are ignored. Granted, sometimes these possible solutions are muddied. Marcello is drawn to his friend Steiner's domestic bliss, but comes to realize it's all a false front - his wife, the children, his art and his nature recordings are all superficial. It initially appears as a sanctuary for Marcello, but collapses when Steiner tells him that "a more miserable existence is preferable to one protected by an organized society". In Farewell, My Concubine, Juxian shows kindness to Douzi while he goes through opium withdrawal, but his mush of a brain can't recognize this potential olive branch even though she is one of the reasons he's able to come out the other side. Instead, both films shows us over and over again that the poet's words "don't choose - even in love it is better to be chosen" (from one of Marcello's many parties) may not be the most practical advice one could receive. Letting fate take the wheel instead of plotting out your own course can get you lost.

Thursday 20 June 2013

The First 7 Minutes of The Warriors

The MovieClub podcast was kind enough to ask me to join them late last year for a roundtable discussion of John Frankenheimer's 52 Pick-Up and Walter Hill's The Driver. I had a great time, learned a thing or two about Elmore Leonard (thanks Kurt!), discovered a link between 52 Pick-Up and Jacques Demy's Model Shop (thanks Jandy!) and used Google Hangout for the first time. This made the whole conversation almost exactly like a real roundtable since it included video of whoever was speaking in the main view and the rest of us down along the bottom. It also enabled us to drop images into the stream during the conversation, so we could illustrate several points. Pretty spiffy stuff.

Anyway, in preparation for the discussion, I rewatched Walter Hill's cult-fave The Warriors and was more than happy to do it. It had been quite a few years since I'd seen it, but it held up great and doesn't suffer from the standard dated feel that many 70s and 80s films typically do. It's not that it doesn't contain relics of 30 years ago, but just that it doesn't feel stuck there. As a matter of fact, it even has a vaguely futuristic feel to it - not in the shiny-chrome kind of way or even as a post-apocalyptic tale, but simply as a point in time in the city that might be headed our way. The one thing that really impressed this time around was the film's opening: those first seven minutes set up the story, characters, environment and even background in an impressively efficient, creative and engaging way. I just picked up the BluRay and was once again wowed by that opening sequence.

It starts out with that beautiful nighttime image of The Wonder Wheel - a Coney Island ferris wheel that immediately helps set up where The Warriors gang comes from (and later indicates how long their journey back from The Bronx will be). That wheel, by the way, is of a type called 'eccentric' which means that not all the chairs are fixed directly to the rim. This allows some of them to slide along rails towards the centre as the wheel spins and creates an almost random looking pattern of blinking lights to help contribute to the feeling that something is a bit askew. Immediately following that rather hypnotic image is a subway snaking along the tracks, neon blue lights emanating from it while synths start to burble in the background. As it passes through what look to be almost empty stations, that blue glow seems to pulse along with that spacey, now percolating music. Along with that soundtrack and a lack of normal passengers (and pedestrians when the story hits the streets), those coloured lights add to that "some time in the future" vibe.

And then Hill and his editors give us (in a short time span) the context for the movie, gang member introductions and a look at the numerous other gangs in the city all while splicing in the constant motion of the subway that's bringing all of them to the same meeting spot. It's quite remarkable actually - by splicing together wordless footage of the Warriors gang already on the subway with conversations they had beforehand in Coney Island (separated by blurred shots of subways roaring past the camera), the film manages to do its early needed exposition while also giving you a good idea who the individual gang members are. All that information simply by showing their actions on the train mixed with very short snippets of dialogue. We learn about the gang's leader, the strong & silent second in command, the young innocent one, the loose cannon troublemaker, the worrier, the laid back guy, etc. and how they are all congregating in The Bronx to listen to Cyrus ("The One") lay down his word and try to bring some peace. We also see the progression towards their goal via updated views of the subway system map while that train keeps moving, moving, moving into the city.

To further add to the incredible efficiency of the sequence, as the music chugs along and guitar chords are hit we get to see glimpses of those other gangs moving through the subway system too. Each is attired in matching uniforms ranging from garish & bright to rough & tumble. Those red suited mimes provide further evidence that this isn't the New York City of present day - either now or 30 years ago when the film was released - and also hint at more of the comic book styling that Walter Hill was trying to get with the film (though budget and a rushed production prevented his full vision from coming together).

So when you get to the start of the big meeting 7 minutes into the film, you are primed, prepped and pumped. Can you really ask for more from the start of your movie?

Sunday 16 June 2013

Hot Docs 2013 - Wrapping Up The Rest (Belatedly)

This year's Hot Docs Film Festival had its last screening a good six weeks ago, so I guess it's about time I put a period on this year's coverage. At the very least, I should point out that this is the first time EVER that the Audience Award has matched my own pick of the festival. Muscle Shoals walked away with the popular vote and was also my favourite theatrical experience of the fest. Depending on the day, I might lean towards Valentine Road as the top thing I saw out of the 30 odd films, but the great music of Shoals gave it an unfair advantage. What can't be questioned was how strong a lineup the programmers put together this year - a common refrain amongst friends, strangers in line and a variety of critics was that the selections this year made for one of best festivals Hot Docs has put together yet.

Here's the rest of the films I saw:

15 Reasons To Live - Filmmaker Alan Zweig has made a career out of delving deep into his own psyche. Movies like Vinyl and Lovable show him working through issues he's struggled with over the years like obsession and self-worth. When a friend of his wrote up a list of 15 reasons to live (in other words "why should I keep living?"), Zweig felt he needed to find examples for each of those reasons. He settled on a single story to represent each of the 15 list items ("Love", "Art", "Critical Mind", "Humour", "Intoxication", etc.) and in 5 minute increments builds up a wonderful portrait of all the big and little reasons why life can be so grand. Each of the characters (including himself in a couple of stories) seems to get a new lease on life as they battle obstacles, look for meaning or simply experience an amazing event. For example: a man who walks around the world, a writer who loses the ability to read, a whale rescue, etc. Zweig identifies with more than just one of these stories and he provides his own feelings throughout - most notably in the truly heartfelt final chapter on "Death". 15 Reasons To Live was easily one of my favourites of the entire festival since Zweig has found interesting stories and extraordinary people. You know he's succeeded when just about every story leaves you wanting to know more about the people and what happens to them next. You can't help but want more details and closure on their stories, but at least you know that in all likelihood they are OK now...As the central figure (a figure on the Canadian film scene) in the story on Death said before she passed away: "Everything wants to live".

Brothers Hypnotic - I was excited when I heard that Hot Docs had an entire documentary focused around the excellent Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and it made for a great final screening of the festival. You would think that a band comprised of 8 brothers on horns and a drummer might have an interesting background and you'd be right. But it's much more than just the family history (a famous jazz musician father, several different mothers and a great deal of activism) - there's also the sibling squabbling, the push to stay independent with their music releases, the joy of playing on the street, Mos Def, playing on stage with Prince, a European tour and a love of music.

Dragon Girls - Young children in China are often sent away from home for education in specific disciplines if they show promise and Dragon Girls covers the stories of three such girls enrolled at the Shaolin Tagu Kung Fu school (right next to the Shaolin Temple where Kung Fu was born). The film avoids the typical method of hopping between these three stories which somewhat hurts its pace, but it makes up for it in spades by providing an overall clear look at the impact to the childhood of these young kids. In particular, there's a heartbreaking scene of a 9 year-old realizing that her 2nd and 4th place finishes in two major competitions weren't good enough for her parents to come visit her. Stunning footage of the region and the art form is almost a just a bonus.

Blood Brother - After being a big winner at Sundance and finishing in second place for the Audience Award at Hot Docs, Blood Brother looks poised to be one of the bigger docs of the year (and a likely Oscar candidate). There's good reason too...Director Steve Hoover follows his friend Rocky back to India to attempt to discover what he saw there that has transformed him and why he has decided to shift his life permanently to that corner of the planet. What we find is a gargantuan range of emotion from pure love to absolute despair...Rocky's work in a hospice devoted to the care of women and children with AIDS is remarkable and the warmth of the kids is alone enough to make you understand his decision to stay. There's tragedy (watching a father break down while looking at pictures of his recently dead young daughter was just about too much for me to bear), but it's oddly uplifting at times.

Mistaken For Strangers - Definitely not the Rock Doc that some fans of The National may have expected, but it turns into something far more interesting (and I include myself in the fan category). Lead singer Matt Berninger lets his slacker brother (and the film's director) Tom join the band on tour under the guise of roadie. So while Tom sees himself as more documentarian than worker and mostly wants to party and hang with the group, he's also shirking his responsibilities and the differences between the two brothers becomes pronounced. Funny, fun and touching, this is highly recommended.

Alcan Highway - "It's the journey not the destination" may have never been so clearly expressed as it is in Aleksi Salmenperä's look at his friend Hese's plan to pull up stakes and live in a mobile home. The trek starts in Finland, stews in Alaska for awhile (as Hese and two Canadian friends refurbish a big ol' truck into his dream house on wheels) and then hits the road looking for the perfect place to park for good. The beast of a truck is somewhat nightmarish, but after a few months strip and rebuild, it looks like it just might do the job. Might. They hit tech issues, get into arguments and meet some pretty fine people along that highway (I'd travel to Prince George just because of the kindhearted souls the film gets acquainted with there) and by the end of the film you realize you don't really want his journey to end - that's where life is happening.

The Human Scale - A companion piece of sorts to Urbanized, this less politicized and more open look at the state and future of our world's cities is fascinating, hopeful and often quite depressing. Looking through the lens of Danish architect Jan Gehl's ideas, numerous cities are examined and discussed - where they are headed, what they should be doing differently, what they are doing right, etc. Madras comes up terribly short (growing at a rate of 1000 people a day, the city has already burst), but a city like Christchurch (after its devastating earthquake) is choosing to look a bit closer at how to rebuild with its citizens in mind. Gehl proposes a more intimate architecture and way of planning to meet the needs of our species growth. It's not only a very logical approach, it's terribly appealing.

River - A rambling and shambling road movie documenting the Ross Brothers' (filmmakers Bill IV & Turner plus their younger brother) journey down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers with their friend in the crappiest house boat you'll ever see. It's episodic, sporadic, goofy, repetitive, funny, odd, surprising and pretty much what you'd think a month-long trip from Ohio to New Orleans would be with 4 hard-drinkin' buddies. As always with the Ross Brothers, they seem to know exactly what to film and edit into the mix to give you an incredible sense of place and at just under 3 hours long, it sometimes feels like you're right along for the ride with them.

William And The Windmill - Highly subversive in its view of the First World's approach to how we help out the Third World, this is the story of a young African boy who had a bright idea, a strong will to make it happen and then has to spend the next several years living up to it. William built a windmill on his own to bring electricity to his village using a bit of research, whatever he could find and some intuition. After being invited to a TED talk to tell the story of this quite amazing feat, he gets swept up in a full bore promotional gambit to bring him to North America, raise awareness of his deed and get him to attend a U.S. university. William seems somewhat befuddled as many of these events unfold without much input from him. He seems thankful for the opportunities and appreciative of the funds going towards his home town, but also slightly confused as to why he just can't go back to his family. His "benefactor" seems to mean well early on, but as the story moves ahead, there feels like there is less and less of a concern about William and far more about the fact that "something" is being done for this poor African boy. My friend Kurt called it the angriest movie he's seen this year. He's right.

Searching For Bill - One of the more remarkable films of the festival, this somewhat anti-narrative experience begins with a search for a stolen car and slowly evolves into a search for meaning in a slowly collapsing society. We follow Bob from New Orleans up to Detroit, over to Slab City Utah (an incredibly fitting name) and then to the West Coast as he tries to follow the trail of Bill, the man who stole his car. Along the way we meet a variety of different people who are or have been down & out, but as they tell us their stories and we spend a bit of time with them away from Bill, we start to realize that perhaps this story isn't quite playing out in linear fashion nor is it all necessarily footage captured by happenstance. The overall tale it tells about the state of these people and their country, though, becomes more powerful due to the tinkering and creative editing as characters get introduced and back-stories filled in at appropriate times. Keenly observed, this small film demands a wider audience.

The Manor - Shawney Cohen works for his Dad's business and decided to make a movie about it. So why was this fairly straightforward idea chosen to open this year's Hot Docs Film Festival? Two reasons spring to mind: 1) his Dad's business is a strip club in Guelph Ontario that he has owned since Shawnee was six and 2) the film is far more than just a look at what it's like to work for Dad. Cohen's father is about to undergo surgery to reduce his tremendous girth while at the same time his mother is wasting away from what could be described as an avoidance of food. The family dynamic is tense, loving, frustrating and fascinating to behold, but don't get this mixed up with one of those pseudo-reality shows on TV. Cohen's look at his family is deeply personal (perhaps showing a few too many flaws as it gets uncomfortable at times), but never descends to a "look at us! look at us!" level. As a matter of fact, being set in a strip club is almost secondary (short of the fact that there's a direct correlation to the family's struggles since the purchase of the club). An entertaining look at a dysfunctional family.

Interior. Leather Bar. - This hour long jaunt pretends to be a recreation of the 40 "lost" minutes from William Friedkin's 1981 thriller Cruising, but is actually an exploration of the levels of discomfort even open-minded people might feel with homosexual activity. James Franco is one of the behind-the-scenes people for this recreation, but is in front of the camera while they interview candidates for the lead and supporting parts. Whether it was their initial goal or not, they end up putting their choice of lead actor through many of the same uncomfortable moments that apparently Al Pacino experienced himself while working on the film. You can tell the actor wants to be casual about the whole thing, but he can't quite contain his natural reactions to the events around him. Granted, in keeping with the premise of the film, some of those events are quite explicit.

The Unbelievers - Daniel Dennett once said that "There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear" and I was concerned going into The Unbelievers that the dynamic duo of Richard Dawkins and Lawerence Krauss (incredibly brilliant men in their fields and long-time opponents of religion-based policy) might leave me with that very same state of mind. Not that I'm smarter than they are - goodness no - but they have typically been moving towards a more confrontational style of debate and a belittling of their opponents. I'm not above all that and I certainly understand how those involved in these debates may get tired of being condescended to, but I can't help but feel that nothing good will come of that mode of argument. Fortunately the film only seriously descends to that style in the last 20 minutes or so and previous to that is at times inspiring (particularly when these scientists talk about their own fields of evolutionary biology and physics), funny and warm. We follow them as they go on tour and are privy to many off stage moments and side discussions. It's simply a pleasure to listen to intelligent people express ideas and stray thoughts - even if only about mundane matters. But the last section of the film preaches to the converted who want nothing more than to scoff at those with whom they disagree. The film won't change anyone's mind which is to be expected, but one would have hoped that it might spur some discussion and even some understanding of how the "other side" got to their beliefs. It's unfortunate it won't do that as much as it could have.

Downloaded - Though the vast majority of people I spoke to about Downloaded enjoyed it as a summary look back at the history of Napster and its rise and decline, there were two consistent criticisms: 1) it didn't really provide more information to the story than most people already knew and 2) it didn't tell its story in any kind of new fashion. And I agree completely with both points. It's completely fine as a document, but doesn't do a whole lot to engage someone who may not know the story and doesn't give back enough to someone who does.

TINY: A Story About Living Small - Have you ever read any of those home decorating articles that try to focus on how to better use your "small" living space? And then you realize that to them "small" means around 2500 square feet? Well, try under 200 square feet. The filmmakers spend a year building their own tiny house and hope to transport it to a remote piece of land to live completely off the grid. While they struggle through the build, we get to meet several other people who have decided to shrink their living quarters. Not all of them have decided to completely remove themselves from other people (many of these tiny houses exist right within typical neighbourhoods), but each person or couple has their own reason for going small. The houses alone are pretty fascinating pieces of engineering (with numerous storage space tricks), but the most interesting aspect of the film is that it challenges you to imagine yourself in these same spaces. A bit too claustrophobic for me, but there are many valid points made towards reducing your need for space and acquisitions.

Terms And Conditions May Apply - We've all clicked the "I Agree" button during a software install without reading the lengthy set of terms to which we've just agreed. And we all know that we should probably read them, but it's probably nothing overly dangerous right? In this fast moving doc (a little too fast moving sometimes - it should slow down and concentrate on several of the bigger issues), we walk through not only the challenges of privacy policies, but also the complete shift of our culture in the last 10-15 years towards a willingness to share our personal lives with the world. The doc is refreshing in that it uses numerous clips of movies & TV and screenshots of actual web sites as well as asking an abundance of good questions about privacy versus commerce, but it also fails by being overly broad in its general scope while also focusing far too much time on Facebook (you start thinking there might be a grudge against the site towards the end). Its most interesting sections are its stories and anecdotal tales of experiences on the Internet that have led to unexpected outcomes. For example, there was the man who went to Target to complain that his daughter was receiving emailed baby ads from them and that they were essentially encouraging her to get pregnant. However, her recent purchase history (pregnancy tests, etc.) showed that she was already likely pregnant and so Target essentially found out she was pregnant before her father did. In another case, a company in The Netherlands sold GPS info that people willingly provided to them for free (because they were provided with quicker routes around traffic) to authorities who then used it to give those same people speeding tickets. The film is also quite happy to call out hypocrisy: Google's Eric Schmidt once said "if you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place", but was angered when someone published a picture of his house. The film flips a bit between self-serving and curious, but it does raise some interesting points overall and keeps most of its politics in check.

Big Men - "Oil - a blessing not a curse". Well, that's the marketing pitch in Ghana anyway...But you'd be hard pressed to explain that to the people of Nigeria after years of the "big men" (the wealthy individuals who reaped rewards from the country's oil deposits) taking all their monetary gains out of the country and putting nothing back in. The opening quotes from Milton Friedman and The Treasure of The Sierra Madre ("But when the piles of Gold...") give you a good indication of the film's opinion of this selfish pursuit of money at the cost of the welfare of so many other people. Norway has a warning to other countries about this resource curse - the politicians get lazy and forget to invest the money back into the necessities. Therefore, they've decided the oil belongs to the people and any foreign companies will be taxed heavily. Of course, the U.S. Businessmen making a claim for Ghana's treasure don't feel quite the same way. The film chronicles the different viewpoints and issues while the big men keep getting bigger.

I Am Breathing - The slow deterioration of someone's life is not a pretty thing to see, so it's probably a good thing that this film's running time is a scant 73 minutes. And what more can you say? It could easily have tried to pull at your heartstrings as Neil Platt spends the last year of his life withering away in front of the camera and his young son, but instead it shows the simple brutal truth of a terrible disease and a child not quite ready to understand the death of a parent. Compelling and emotional without forcing a reaction from the audience.

The Life And Crimes Of Doris Payne - One of the most disappointing films of the fest for me. The story of Doris Payne sounds fascinating - a 60 year life of crime stealing jewels without ever using violence or fear tactics - but the film doesn't serve it well at all. Told mostly via talking head interviews and several flat recreations, it never trusts its story. In order to validate that this is indeed an interesting person and life, the film keeps coming back to an interview with a screenwriter who is turning Doris' life into a movie script. Unfortunately, the screenwriter never says anything of interest herself and leads you to believe her treatment of the story will be abysmal. As well, the film never has a minute where there isn't background music (what sounded like pretty cheap stock music to me) playing behind the interviews and story. Every moment is filled with a specific music to make sure you know how to feel. It turned me off almost completely and I eventually even came to dislike Doris by the end. In other hands this might have been a barn-burner.

Finding The Funk - This look at the history of funk music has a great set of interview subjects waxing both philosophically and rhapsodically on a topic that has needed a much deeper focus for a long time. It's just a damn shame that most of it is squandered. Though it's understood that the lack of actual music in the film is most likely due to the prohibitive cost of music rights (and when you are funded through Kickstarter, you're going to care about cost), it's a terrible disservice to the genre and those responsible for it to leave you without any fat funky riffs. Several funk tunes waft in and out in the distance (I assume that the rates for the songs are much less if the volume is kept at a low enough level?) and a few licks are played by the people live on screen, but it is nowhere near enough to give any indication at all of the power and pleasure of funk music. The talking heads of the musicians (Sly Stone, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, old James Brown clips and a whole raft of expected and unexpected people) fill the dead air with some great background, but when you never fully hear a slapped bass, never have someone step you through samples of songs with their beats "on the one" and don't get to experience a single moment of any of those great 60s, 70s and 80s bands funking it up live, well I'm not sure I see the point...

The Auctioneer - Though this hour long NFB film feels about twice that, it really is a perfect little slice of Canadian farm life. We follow the day in and day out life of a farmer who sidelines as an auctioneer and meet several of his customers as they prep their equipment for sale. Though it may not quite be a fair portrait of life in rural Western Canada, it seems to capture the unhurried pace and community feel. But get a good night's sleep before watching it...

Fuck For Forest - Good intentions don't always count for much - which can be said about the characters in this film as well as the film itself. For a movie about a group of protesters who have sex on the Internet in order to raise money to save land in the rainforests of Brazil, this is one terribly dull and uninteresting 85 minutes.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Blindspot - "Shane" & "Gunfight At The O.K. Corral"

I called an audible this month and decided to do a couple of classics I hadn't listed in my initial Blindspot post back in January. It was simply a matter of circumstances - poor planning and being away from my normal supply of movies at the end of the month had left me scrambling. Fortunately, I was able to grab hold of a couple of Westerns I've had on the list for quite some time now (Shane and Gunfight At The O.K. Corral). Unfortunately, time started to slip away from me and I ended up being 2 weeks late with this post anyway...And though I'm just now sitting down to write and it's been awhile since I've watched them, I don't think it'll be an issue since both movies easily left impressions. One about a man trying to avoid the violence of his past and the other all about the lead up to a violent showdown.

Both make lovely use of technicolor to bring out the big blue skies of the Old West, but the earlier Shane (from '53) loses some of the grandness of the vistas around its characters by having been shot in straight academy ratio (as widescreen wasn't quite the default at this stage). However, I could see it as having been an intentional choice by director George Stevens even if it had been a decade later. The film is very much a "small" Western and focuses specifically on this localized area and its people. From the moment Shane rides up to the homestead of Joe Starrett at the outset of the film, you know that he has a history - possibly even a legendary one - but it never supersedes the immediate story of the small community of farmers (which includes Joe, his wife and son). They are all fighting to keep their little plots of land from the clutches of a cattle rancher named Ryker and his greasy sidekicks, but tensions have been escalating even more of late since he has upped his bullying tactics. He sees all these farmers as simply squatters on tiny parcels of land that prevent him from laying claim to the entire area. His plan of driving them out one by one seems like it might just work, but just Shane happens to stumble into this simmering boil while riding through. After stopping briefly to get some water from Joe, he sees Ryker and his men make their regular muscle-flexing round to Starrett's place and provides some needed backup as Joe stands up to them. After a meal in return, Joe asks Shane if he'd like to stay on with his family and get paid for working on the farm. Not really knowing what he's looking for (only what he's trying to avoid), Shane accepts. He's quickly become fond of little Joey (who sees him as a courageous gunslinger) and is a bit smitten by Joe's lovely wife Marian (played by the great Jean Arthur). As much as Shane wants to avoid his past fighting ways, though, it's obvious that further confrontations are imminent. However, the story is less about Shane's past catching up with him and more about the personal issues of trying to change your own nature.

Gunfight At The O.K. Corral's widescreen compositions are more suited to its bigger, broader scoped legendary tale (not to mention its big stars - Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas). The entire film is really just a build-up to the titular battle that involved Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Doc Holliday blasting away at the Clanton gang. This epic fight takes up less than a tenth of the running time, but due to the snappy pace director John Sturges applies, everything feels part of a whole (by the way, if you want see possibly the tightest film ever, check out Sturges' Bad Day At Black Rock). Earp had been trying to clamp down on the Clantons' cattle rustling ways and had wired ahead to the local town sheriff Cotton to delay them. He's unaware that Cotton is already in the bag for Clanton, so Wyatt now has to find a new source to help him track down the rustlers all over again. His best hope is to ask the troubled Doc Holliday, but that won't be easy due to some history between them and Doc's burgeoning dependence on alcohol and gambling (not to mention a wee bit of a death wish). And thus begins their back and forth dance - neither man ever easily giving an inch to the other or willing to swallow their pride, but eventually allowing a strong trust and respect to grow. Aside from one major "freak out" moment by Douglas (as he confronts "his woman" late in the movie), the two stars are quite subtle in the way they play each character as very closed off and reserved. It helps to reinforce the legends of each man as they track down some bank robbers and face a showdown in Dodge City. Once Wyatt becomes a Marshall and has his brothers on his side to stop Canton's march of his cattle, Canton decides to bring things to a head by setting up the showdown at the corral. Both Doc and Wyatt are begged by their women not to go through with it, but since we're in a classic Western, the protestations of the ladies are simply ignored.

Gunfight actually minimizes the influence of its female characters quite consistently. Not that it purposely wants to belittle women - after all, Earp's love interest is the gorgeous Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming) who is always the smartest player at any card table and has a reasonably full personality - but their feminine wiles and charms in the Old West just don't hold water against manly bonds, a desire for justice and personal pride. Even Mrs. Clanton herself can't hold back the rest of her boys from joining up against Earp. Doc's lady Kate suffers the most in this world - not only is she ignored most of the time by Doc and treated with contempt, but she also seems to have only two states of being: simpering victim or nasty bitch. It's possibly the movie's only flaw (at least for me) that her character is so thin while the other women in the movie - even those with much less screen time - are much richer. Shane's universe is also male-centric (with the "little woman" baking apple pies at home, etc.), but if Jean Arthur's Marian doesn't exactly seek equal footing in the decision-making processes, there's a more complex relationship afoot as she is drawn to Shane (and he to her) without ever once showing any indication she would stray from Joe. Shane himself is a bit different than your typical Western hero even though his tight closeups and big white hat certainly provide some iconic images as reference points. He's a man of his word and stands up to the bad guys, but avoids confrontation and violence if at all possible. He's a reluctant hero due to his gunslinging past and is worried that he'll have to yet again resort to it, that people will die and that he'll be moving on yet again. After all, "There's no going back from a killing".

Shane uses close-ups of its main characters extensively throughout which adds to that "small" film feel. The faces crowd the frame and sometimes make you forget about the wide open spaces around them while the action takes place in only a few tight spaces - even the big brawl in the town bar feels a bit claustrophobic. Gunfight on the other hand revels in placing characters and action in its frames - Sturges likes to place characters in opposite corners, in the foreground and background and allows them to roam around the huge tavern. And, of course, the final battle is spread across the entire corral. That's handy, though, since the film sports a helluva cast that needs some room to flex their chops. Aside from Douglas and Lancaster (and isn't that enough?), Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Dennis Hopper, Earl Holliman, DeForest Kelly and Martin Milner all have sizeable roles. That's not to say that Shane is any slouch with its star power - alongside Arthur, Alan Ladd plays the almost too pretty Shane while Van Heflin takes on the role of her husband Joe and Elisha Cook Jr and Jack Palance add a great deal of colour to the additional characters (Palance is in top menacing form - he even makes a dog slink away). Both films look great in their technicolour presentations (and would look even better projected I imagine) and enjoy spending a few moments with nature - a deer roaming through the garden in Shane, a few quiet moments in amongst the trees near a stream in Gunfight. Their approach to the score is slightly different though - each definitely feels like a Western, but Gunfight takes the more heroic path using timpani, horns and clarinets while Shane goes a bit sweeter (occasionally a bit too sickly so) with a preponderance of strings, harmonica and flute. It's just as "classic" a score, but tones the picture down somewhat from a sweeping tale and again puts the focus more on the immediate story.

Overall, I easily prefer Gunfight At The O.K. Corral's ripping yarn about legendary characters in a legendary time. In the great buildup to that final fight, few words are spoken between the men - they know what's at stake and consider their actions to speak for them. Shane, while still deserving of its place in the Western pantheon, is less sprightly and the story doesn't quite keep you as fully enthralled. Though both films have main villains that aren't well drawn (mean and greedy straight through with no sign of respect or code), Shane's lack of one hurts the picture more as it tries to tackle what it means to "be a man". Through the eyes of Joey, Shane is being hero worshiped and expected to fight and shoot. Though the story is set up to allow Shane to show him another way, it essentially states that a man should behave situationally - avoid violence if possible, but meet it head on if necessary ("A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it"). The message struggles somewhat to get out because Joey is far too dense to consider it (one of the film's drawbacks is any moment the child is on screen), but it doesn't shy away from the fact that there are always consequences to your actions. So be careful - that pride'll get ya...