Tuesday 25 March 2014

Blindspot - "Best Years Of Our Lives" and "Ashes And Diamonds"

Though I was correct in assuming that an American viewpoint on post World War II would be, shall we say, slightly different than one from Poland, I was wrong in how I expected each film to handle the framework of their viewpoints. Best Years Of Our Lives (the 1946 film from William Wyler) takes the approach of covering personal individual stories to try to give a wider perspective of the variety of issues soldiers might encounter upon their re-integration into North American society. It does it with the expected melodramatic flair, but also manages to keep things reigned in enough to retain some actual emotional connection to the characters and enough engagement in their stories to keep things entertaining throughout the long 2 and a half hour run time (one of my main reasons for holding off on seeing this Hollywood classic). Meanwhile, the Polish Ashes And Diamonds (shot 12 years after Best Years in the late 50s) focuses less on the individual ramifications of having been at war and more on the direct impact to its society and culture - not to mention the continuing struggle its people faced in a post-war political landscape. But again it surprised by keeping the story very localized to a hotel bar and through the eyes of only a few characters during a single day.

Wyler's film tracks the return home of three different soldiers trying to restart their lives after they were put on hold at different times: Air Force Captain Fred Derry is newly married (less than a month with his new bride before shipping off); Army Corporal Al Stephenson has two older children, a long term marriage (with the always gorgeous Myrna Loy - talk about a reason to get back home) and a high ranking job at the bank; Sailor Homer Parrish returns to his family and the girl next door. The three men meet at the airport and share a ride back home in the gun turret section of a bomber. They quickly bond since they all come from the same city and vow to keep in touch after getting home. As the single cab drops each successive one off at their homes, the film sets itself up to be over the top melodrama and a top shelf weepy (I gauged it at half a box of Kleenex at least). Homer's house is first, but he's reluctant - he lost both his hands in the war and fears that he will be treated differently even though he can handle himself just fine. His girl welcomes him with open arms, but his parents can't hide their sadness and desperately try not to call attention to the hooks at the ends of his arms. Al finds it hard to reconnect with his now grown up kids, his wife and a position back at the bank, and so he takes to drinking. Fred finds it hard to get work and falls back to being a soda jerk at the pharmacy while realizing that his new wife may not be the woman of his dreams after all.

There's certainly some unnecessary swelling music at times, but it rarely begs for emotion like I half expected it to. Similarly Ashes And Diamonds also keeps the overt emotional scenes mostly at bay. In its case, though, it feels like the citizens are just so worn out from constant conflict that they just don't have any strength left to show much of anything. The film is set on May 8th 1945 (the day of Germany's surrender) as a political struggle for independence rages and a possible civil war looms. "The end of the war isn't the end of our fight" says a member of the Home Army as he waits to ambush a local district's Secretary named Szczuka outside a church. He and his partner wish for the old days of Warsaw and, as part of the resistance to the government, are trying to chip away at the new Communist rulers. Unfortunately, they end up killing the wrong men and only realize this later on back at the hotel. They now must wait for their chance to kill Szczuka after a banquet for the mayor. Maciek, the younger of the two men, spends most of his time flirting with the gorgeous, poker-faced young bartender Krystyna while his older superior is all business. They both assumed that they were fighting for Poland's freedom during the war, but now they question whether the results (ie. Communist leadership) are worth what they went through. On the last day of the war, a new skirmish within the borders of their own country is about to begin. People who fought side by side are now ready to fight against each other.

Filmed during "The Thaw" in Poland (a period when the communist government became a bit more lax in some of its social policies), Andrzej Wajda was able to flex some more "poetic" muscles throughout Ashes And Diamonds instead of the previously mandated "realism". A gunned down man bursts into flames, a row of vodka shots are set aflame to look like candles in a church and a drunken walk across a banquet table with a fire extinguisher are just a few of the images that are left with you long after the film has ended. The images tie together the upending of religion in the country with the confusion of national identity - even within the ranks of the 3 main Home Army sympathizers, we get a clash of views. One is a soldier fully dedicated to the cause, another an opportunist who will help the cause in order to help himself and the third (Maciek - played by the "Polish James Dean" Zbigniew Cybulski) begins to get conflicted as he spends more time with Krystyna and actually envisions a life with her outside of political struggle. Things become even more difficult for Maciek as he meets Szczuka and they quickly develop somewhat of a father/son relationship. In Best Years Of Our Lives, Fred (Dana Andrews) and Al (the great Fredric March) also become close - but their father/son bond becomes complicated when Fred falls for Al's daughter Peggy. The film particularly shines in a scene where Al and Fred meet at their favourite bar and try to talk through the issue of Fred being interested in Peggy while also being a married man. It's a conversation that feels real - each man listening to the other and pulling their thoughts together. Though the film loses sight of Homer's story (his treatment as a cripple by his parents is heartrending at times) and even Al's (Myrna Loy gets pushed off to the side a bit) to focus on Fred and Peggy, there are enough fully-realized moments and actual issues raised that the story never felt contrived or sentimental. Much of the film must have felt somewhat shocking to a 1946 audience. Harold Russell (who played Homer) was an actual double amputee, so his portrayal of the difficulties of re-entering society on your own terms (and not those which society wants to put on you) was more than just "realistic".

Both of these WWII films share what feels like an honest view of how it feels to come out on the other side of a war - from a nationalistic point of view as well as a personal one. Best Years Of Our Lives provides a great deal more hope in its conclusion than Wajda's film, but they both show that a great deal of effort must be put into finding those diamonds within the ashes of a war-torn society.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Hot Docs 2014 - Preview

So how do you go about choosing what you want to see at a film festival like Hot Docs (running from April 24th to May 4th in Toronto)? With a roster of 197 films from 43 different countries and a reputation for superb programming, you could probably randomly select 20 films and be exceedingly happy with the results. Or you could just let the staff do it for you - for example, as I listened to Director of Programming Charlotte Cook talk about a small portion of the lineup at this week's press conference for the 21st annual festival (the largest documentary film festival in North America), I felt that I should simply just see the movies she mentioned. I expect those picks alone would make for a hell of a schedule.

One of those movies unveiled by Cook was the festival opener The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swarz. Before he took his life at the age of 26, Swarz was known for co-founding reddit (and several other companies), fighting SOPA and leading many internet activism causes before the U.S. government came after him with a variety of charges. The film will also screen as part of the festival's "Big Ideas" series and will have on hand Cory Doctorow, Gabrielle Coleman and Lawrence Lessig for a post-viewing panel discussion.

"Big Ideas" was quite successful last year, so they've upped the count to 5 separate films that will be covered in much greater depth via after film discussions with relevant guests. Along with the Swarz doc, there will also be Mission Blue (about environmentalist and oceanographer Sylvia Earle - also in attendance), The Case Against 8 (featuring the two couples who, along with a pair of lawyers, fought and won to strike down Proposition 8 in California that denied same sex marriages) and To Be Takei (about - you guessed it - George Takei and his eclectic life).

The fifth one of the "Big Ideas" is the one that hits me close to home - I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. I vividly remember, back in the day, watching the very first season of Sesame Street before toddling off to afternoon kindergarten. The show was a joy for me then and can still - without much effort - cuddle me in its warm embrace. Big Bird was a big part of that, so I'll be bouncing in my seat before, during and after the film. Especially as Spinney - Big Bird AND Oscar The Grouch's puppeteer - will be on stage to talk about the movie and his life.

And if that wasn't enough, here's a few others mentioned at the kickoff event:

Super Duper Alice Cooper - The world's first Doc Opera. No interviews or voice over, just graphics, animation and footage of Alice from his life and career. The event will be simulcast across Canada to 40+ theatres and the man himself will be on hand as well. A big ticket for sure.

Harmontown - After being fired from his own show "Community", creator Dan Harmon hits the road for a 20 city comedy tour. The film promises a mix between Harmon's sharp, quick humour and his darker side coming together in an entertaining portrait of a complex individual who can tend to be his own worst enemy. It will also be one of the films being given a free screening outdoors.

The Agreement - This Danish film documents part of the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo and focuses on the mediators and the myriad of issues they face. The trailer that was shown indicates that perhaps even deciding on lunch might be an all day affair between the two sides.

Harlan County U.S.A. - The fantastic 70s doc about a coal miner's strike gets revisited on the big screen with filmmaker Barbara Kopple in attendance. I totally plan on going to see it again as it is a classic of the genre..

An Honest Liar - The Amazing Randi has long been a debunker of pseudo-science and charlatans - first as a magician showing how many tricks were done (e.g. Uri Geller's spoon-bending trick, etc.) and then as a leader of the JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation). His foundation has long had a million dollar prize on offer to anyone who can provide proof of some kind of psychic power or supernatural/occult entity - it should go without saying that the prize has not been won yet. Though I've often had a few problems with some of his comments (sometimes taking ad hominem attacks at those he is debunking), I expect he has grown weary of the constant environment of lying and deception he is exposed to. Which is why this could be a fascinating look at the man and a piece of deception within his own life.

Beyond Clueless - Using clips from over 200 teen movies from the last 20 years (ie. after Clueless became somewhat of a touchstone of the modern teen film), the "genre" is explored via the discovery of themes and common stories while Fairuza Balk narrates over it all. I'm a sucker for any kind of documentary about film, so I'm eager to see how this might fit together.

Red Lines - Due solely to the trailer screened, this is an early candidate for most moving doc of the fest. The film follows two Syrian activists as they try to get information out of the country and do what they can for the people within its borders. Though there obviously won't be a tidy happy end to this attempt to regain freedom for the population of Syria, it promises to be a reminder that hope springs eternal.

That's just a sampling of the films and 96 world and international premiers that were presented at the press conference. The event took place inside the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema and the revamped venue is still going strong 2 years after it opened as one of the only theatres in the world that focuses primarily on documentaries. It's welcomed over half a million visitors since that time and will be adding to its total as it fills (along with numerous other theatres in the city) for the fest.

There's plenty more as you skim through the deep, deep lineup. Here's just a couple of additional ones that jumped out at me:

112 Weddings - Though likely better known for his 2005 doc 51 Birch Street, Doug Block won me over completely with his 2009 effort The Kids Grow Up which covered his own daughter's growth from child to young woman as well as his own growth as a parent and husband. Outside of filmmaking, Block has also been a wedding videographer for almost 20 years and his latest film shows him revisiting all that old footage. He also reconnects with the couples themselves to see how things have worked out since the big ceremony.

Demonstration - Viktor Kossakovsky was an unknown entity to me until 2 years ago when I saw his glorious film Vivan Las Antipodas! at Hot Docs. Now I want to see anything and everything he has a hand in - including this year's entry to the fest which is a collection of footage from 32 of his own students that documents a demonstration in Barcelona.

The Power Of Nightmares - As part of its Outstanding Achievement Award Retrospective series, Hot Docs this year is showing some of Adam Curtis' TV documentaries. This 3 episode feature (subtitled "The Rise Of The Politics Of Fear") feels legendary due to the number of times I've heard it mentioned in relation to expert historical documents of trends and the temper of our times.

What else is there? Well...

  • Denmark is this year choice for the festival's featured country spotlight
  • A live documentary entitled The Measure Of All Things which covers some of the most interesting characters and stories from the "Guinness Book Of World Records" while filmmaker Sam Green does a live reading over it and is accompanied with a live score by the band The Quavers
  • A 4 film retrospective of John Zaritsky's work
  • A focus on numerous Canadian filmmakers

It's no wonder that the Hot Docs press conference always lines up pretty close to the first day of Spring. The festival always instills feelings of rejuvenation and hope in me.