Wednesday, 31 July 2013
A PEOPLE UNCOUNTED - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The most vital portrait of genocide since Lanzmann's SHOAH.
That genocide continues to be perpetrated in the modern world seems almost unfathomable and yet the 20th Century and now, as we move into the new millennium, we still bear witness to the seeds of hatred being sown to continue the wholesale slaughter of people in the millions - based solely upon race, ethnicity, religion and even economics (the latter typified by the aggressive military actions of Western regimes as they pillage the Middle East in the name of a purported "war on terror").
After the Holocaust had been perpetrated against European Jews by Hitler during World War II, we often encountered the phrase: "We must NEVER forget, lest it happen again." Yet we do FORGET and in many cases, "we" do not even know or adequately acknowledge the existence of genocide being perpetrated against so many groups throughout the world - the Turkish genocide of Armenians, Stalin's purges and Holodomor against 10,000,000 Ukrainians, the recent and various "ethnic cleansings" within the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda's decimation of Tutsis by the Hutus - to name but a few.
The most egregious myopia of genocide continues to be the murder of up to 1,500,000 Romani people by the Nazis.
Aaron Yeger's A People Uncounted is an important film - the most vital documentary on the subject of genocide since the groundbreaking Shoah by Claude Lanzmann. Yeger's superbly researched and emotionally wrenching film focuses upon the racism and genocide against the Roma Nation - commonly and disparagingly referred to as "Gypsies." This distinct cultural group originally migrated from Northern India to the rest of the world - primarily Europe - over 1000 long years ago. They are, as the title of this film states, a people who have been "uncounted".
My response to Yeger's film included, I must admit, a deeply personal connection to the material that only managed to strengthen my belief in the film's unquestionable artistic achievements as I was reminded, once again, that the best cinema must always maintain a passionate voice that speaks to viewers emotionally on a variety of personal levels. A People Uncounted has this strength in spades.
I had always been sensitive to a myriad of repressive and racist attitudes to "gypsies", but it really hit home for me - personally - during the mid-1990s. This was when I first became aware of the racist policies towards the Romani people in Romania. They stemmed officially from the dictator/butcher Nicolae Ceausescu, then continued in a vaguely unofficial fashion after his death.
One of the results of Ceausescu's legacy was an almost nationwide hatred of the Roma with vigourous campaigns to drive an already impoverished minority ethnic group (the poverty not their choice, nor, as was commonly assumed, of their own doing) into a position of even greater desperation. A combination of death by starvation (parents sacrificing food to feed their children) and the belief that their children would be better off in the care of orphanages, led to the almost unbelievable situation where 80% of the orphanage populations in Romania were comprised of Romani children.
My wife and I were so appalled by this that we targeted Romania and began the arduous process of international adoption with the hopes we might make a difference in the lives of one or two Romani kids. After a whole year of endless bureaucracy on the Canadian side to receive the official go-ahead on behalf of our own government, we began the process of moving further with the assistance of agencies specializing in Romanian adoptions.
After attending several orientation sessions with a variety of agencies we were shocked to discover that the racist attitudes towards the Romani extended even to Romanian-Canadians who presided over the adoption facilitation. Whenever we expressed our desire to adopt children of Roma background, our requests were met with - at worst, derision and at best, lies. "Oh no," we'd be told, "There are no Romani children in the state orphanages of Romania." The lies seemed almost more despicable than the open hatred when, after considerable research we discovered that orphanages in Romania would go so far as to hide all the Romani children when westerners came to visit the orphanages.
The few who were sympathetic to our desire - those doing mission work as opposed to straight-up adoption agencies - corroborated the research. They would cautiously admit it was not impossible to adopt children of Roma heritage, but that in reality it would be near-impossible. They painted a portrait of endless bureaucratic gymnastics, coupled with forking over insane amounts of bribe money and then - more often than not - still the possibility existing of ending up childless or being offered non-Romani children.
It was even suggested that orphanage officials might falsify medical records in order to offer a non-Romani child that was stricken with some debilitating ailment that would be enough for our own government to reject the child on medical grounds. This, of course, would be done out of spite that someone from the west would dare be compassionate towards children viewed as little more than cockroaches.
That put an end to that and we moved on, but a day doesn't go by that the thought of all those children forced to suffer in state-run orphanages doesn't hang over me - a living death perpetrated on innocents whose only crime was to be hated.
Seeing Yeger's film opened the floodgates of those haunting personal memories and in a way, opened an even deeper wound within me. I had always felt an added affinity to those in Eastern Europe and the Balkans who suffered from racism, oppression and systematic genocide and culturally, as a Ukrainian-Canadian, I felt closer, for example, to the Roma and Jews than Russians, even though the language, cultural traditions and religion of Russia was oddly closer to that of Ukrainians than the others, but those similarities were surface only. The weight of one thousand years of Russian (and occasionally Polish, Mongolian, Turkish and Austro-Hungarian) tyranny almost forces one to inadvertently choose sides with those whose collective suffering match one's own.
And what degrees of suffering Yeger's film exposes!
He introduces us to a variety of Romani Holocaust survivors and children of said survivors amidst commentary from a number of scholars, artists and experts who paint a portrait of a people who were continually hated and on the receiving end of prejudicial acts based upon utterly idiotic sterotyping. The most common is that "gypsies" were liars, cheaters and thieves and that these traits were somehow genetic. This not only led to a history of persecution in every country in which they settled, but often resulted in wholesale slaughter.
The other common stereotype was the itinerant nature of "gypsies". Well, I'd be "itinerant" too if I was forced to either live on the fringes because of my race or worse, forced to ALWAYS be on the move as no town or country was amenable to having me live there - again, because of my race. These stereotypes were often enforced in the literature, art and popular culture of the "dominant" societies/races - mostly in blatant negative terms.
Typically, when artists chose to paint positive portraits of "gypsies", it almost always fell into the "noble savage" stereotypes (similar to those popularized in North American cultures with respect to Aboriginal peoples). In these works (which included even the likes of Victor Hugo) we were presented with a downtrodden people who cavorted about their den of happy thieves in brightly coloured costumes - infused with a "life force" of cheap alcohol, lively dancing, fiddle-playing, sooth-saying and almost childlike superstition. (Michael Ignatieff, Canadian politician, privileged egghead and grandson of a Russian Count once described Ukrainian culture in terms of "embroidered peasant shirts" and "the nasal whine of ethnic instruments.")
In addition to the Nazi atrocities perpetrated against the Roma during World War II, Yeger presents a variety of horrendous actions and violence from ALL European peoples - not just Germans. We are even introduced to contemporary actions of racism - some of which seem all too believable in a kind of almost unbelievable fashion: entire political parties devoted to eradicating and controlling the "scourge" of "gypsies", huge ghettos to keep Romani in their place (not unlike reservations for North American First Nations peoples) and overall hatreds intense enough to inspire those Roma who can, to escape European persecution and emigrate to countries like Canada where they can live free and decent lives.
The core of Yeger's film, however, are the war crimes against the Roma during World War II. Yes, "gypsies" got their own special "final solution". Hitler wanted them to be obliterated as passionately as he wanted to rid the world of Jews and homosexuals.
The witnesses presented to us deliver acts of cruelty so sickening that the film is another vital, important document of the utter inhumanity of these actions. We see an entire people who are stripped of their humanity (where it might even be grudgingly acknowledged as such) and subjected to torture and extermination. Death squads that don't even bother to round people into boxcars, drag them out into the streets and execute them, or force them to dive into huge pits where they're machine-gunned to death and appalingly, in non-German countries, the actions of the Nazis are seen as accepted by local communities - a welcome extermination of little more than pests.
Finally, though, as the title of the film suggests itself, we are presented with the reality of the fact that the suffering of the Roma is unknown and/or unacknowledged. These people were considered so inhuman that proper census records were never even kept to be able to place a remotely accurate count of how many Romani people existed to be fodder for Hitler's final solution. For many years, an image of a young woman looking out from a boxcar had become a symbol specifically of the Shoah until she was eventually identified as a "gypsy".
Not that it ultimately mattered. One Roma survivor describes the mingling of Jewish ashes with those of the "gypsies," suggesting that all who died before, during and after World War II, did so in the name of what must surely be the most heinous human act. Ultimately, genocide, based as it is in both ignorance and hatred, is what surely binds all of us as victims or potential victims.
And yes, we MUST remember. As people, the count is what roots genocidal actions in reality and it is thoroughly and utterly unacceptable for any people to remain "uncounted" in the past, present and future histories of mass murder of staggering proportions.
To think any of us is immune from being either the target or perpetrator of genocide is to ignore how much work our species still needs to do in order to ensure it never happens again.
For me, it always comes back to the children. Children are the future and when they are not spared these indignities, we might as well be killing ourselves. One of the survivors in Yeger's film describes the actions of Josef Mengele upon him. Mengele not only conducted medical experiments of the most insane variety, he took special delight in carving up children with no anasthetic. The screams of the children not only gave him pleasure, but he was not immune to torturing a child so high-ranking Nazi colleagues could take his place in the room and rape the children while, as the survivor describes his own torture to us, he presents the soul-draining experience of having a long metal spike inserted into his groin and shoved up deep into his body until it rests precariously near the heart - still beating. And he screams as he feels pain so intense he feels like he will die - as he is raped by a sweating, grunting, pleasure-twitching Nazi.
And the pain, and the shock, and the realization - as a child - what one human will do to another is but one example of one human being's bravery - to survive, to never forget the pain, to relieve it again and again and to tell us, so that we too, will never forget.
"A People Uncounted" is in theatrical release via Kinosmith."
Tuesday, 30 July 2013
THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF ROSALIND LEIGH - DVD Review By Greg Klymkiw - Atmospheric Canadian Supernatural Thriller is now on DVD. Presented by Raven Banner, Rue Morgue and released in an extras packed DVD via Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada
The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (2012) ***
Dir. Rodrigo Gudiño
Starring: Aaron Poole, Vanessa Redgrave, Julian Richings
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Review of Extra Features
(original review of film below):
THE COMMENTARY TRACK:
Now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada, Rue Morgue Magazine founder and publisher Rodrigo Gudiño's feature length debut as a director comes as an extras-packed DVD for fans of the film. First and foremost is the superb commentary track with director Gudiño which focuses on practical aspects of the production as well as thematic issues with respect to the tale he chose to tell (and the manner in which he chose to tell it). Part of the success is due to the expert moderation/interview technique of Stuart Andrews who nails every question on would hope to get answers to as one watches through the feature (well most questions were covered, but knob that I am, there were a few I wanted to ask). For me, the most interesting aspect of the commentary is just how much emphasis Gudiño places on thematic elements. This is a fine goal for any filmmaker and one I especially appreciated listening to. That said, I made a point of seeing the film three time prior to wending my way through the film with the commentary on and prior to listening to the track, I made a special point to examine my major speed bumps in the middle section and I feel I need to stick with my original reaction when I first saw/reviewed the film for its Sinister Cinema theatrical launch across Canada. When I listened to the track, I was able to pinpoint a common mistake first time feature filmmakers make wherein they put more emphasis on thematic layering rather than narrative and in so doing, tend to muddy the works. That said, the film still works in its first and final third extremely well and Gudiño's responses to Andrews are always intelligent and deeply considered. My ONLY disappointment here is that nobody thought of including (or if they did, exigencies of time, money and/or availability prevented it) a commentary track (perhaps also moderated by Andrews with lead actor Aaron Poole who delivers a brave performance and who might have added a very unique perspective on the film.
THE OTHER EXTRAS:
Other extras include the de rigueur "making of" documentary which is well enough done, but ALWAYS my least favourite element of any DVD extra. I find they zap too much out of the magic of both the film and movie making process. Included on the DVD is Gudiño's short film (co-directed with Vincent Marcone) which is certainly a very interesting cinematic experiment, and as such, is mercifully short. All of the usual publicity materials are included, but one of my favourite extras is an interview profile with Turkish-born Canadian composer Mercan Dede which presents a compelling portrait of this highly creative musical artist and, though NOT the intent, still offers enough incentive for someone to be possessed with a sudden need to get as many of his CDs as possible. I enjoyed the transfer a bit better this time round and suspect my original fears about the darkness and contrast not being high enough. Still, it's probably a matter of taste, but I balanced my monitor to add 3 points below the zero mark on the brightness control and upped the contrast to about the 2/3 point. This afforded me a viewing that was far more atmospheric and did indeed address my concern with the look of the house itself and to add a bit more depth and richness to the superb cinematography. The price point on this DVD is indeed worth considering the purchase if you're a genre fan and look forward to watching a very unconventional approach to haunted house movies. In its own way, it's far more interesting, original and intelligent than the overrated James Wan feature "The Conjuring".
AND NOW, THE REVIEW OF THE FILM ITSELF.....
A voice from the dead - at times determined, at others tremulous - cascades through the large, dark and cluttered house as if it were a living, breathing, moving thing. It is as much a will and testament as it is a warning - infused with portent - rendered for the benefit of one who's been gone for too long, but has now appeared to both claim and dispense with a lifetime of worldly goods.
You, Sir, will spend the night.
This is perhaps not the wisest move when, in life, you broke away from your mother for the longest time and have returned, after her death, to profit from an antique-filled treasure trove. You're riddled with memories of a difficult childhood past, a strained relationship, a fundamentalist - nay, downright fanatical upbringing. As much as you want to rid yourself of all the things that bring back flashes of a pain long-repressed, your mere presence in this, your recently deceased mother's house, infuses you with second thoughts, upon second thoughts.
You will slowly seek truth, but if the truth finds you first, it could kill you.
And, dear sir, there appears to be a creature you don't want to mess with.
Suffice it to say that Rue Morgue Magazine's founder/publisher Rodrigo Gudiño has crafted an unexpectedly restrained genre picture for his feature length debut as a director. Restraint in horror can be a very good thing and The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh is nothing if not restrained. Fans used to a preponderance of gore, lightning bolt pacing and an emphasis upon cheap shock tactics will be less than enthralled, but if patient, many of the film's rewards will creep up on them and bite them most indelicately on the ass.
That said and in spite of the picture's considerable virtues, it would only be fair to point out that the film is saddled with a few elements that don't quite gel. In terms of narrative and pace, the film takes a profound dip in its middle portion. We're treated to a slow, measured and riveting first act and a final act that delivers very nicely in the drawer-filling department. Part of the problem stems, I think, in Gudiño's screenplay. Not adequately tying the central character Leon (Aaron Poole) to his late Mother's mania (or at least rooting it more firmly within the mise-en-scene) is something the film has a hard time shaking. This is one of the causes for the movie to sag in its second act.
Another problem is the house itself. An exterior shot reveals a standard and seemingly (or at least relatively) modern suburban home. Once inside, the decor of the structure itself shrieks modern or at least, modern reno. As well, many of the set decorations and props feel out of place - either in and of themselves or within the context of the interior's physical structure and look. Given the character of Rosalind Leigh herself, the "antique pieces" are not (at least for this fella') reflective enough of who we think she is. When Leon steps into that house, we expect, but do not experience the kind of bygone atmosphere necessary for us to check our thought process at the door because the stately and (often) effective pace give us too much time to notice when touches like these are amiss. Where this hurts the film most is that it loses a lot of the "creepy" factor in the middle act that both the pace and narrative are begging for.
A major speed bump that keeps the movie from attaining stratospheric heights might seem unfair to level at Gudiño, since the picture is what it is at this point, but here goes. Maybe it's just me (I don't think so, though), but even genre-bending efforts like this gain a whole lot more mileage when you have the presence of a female lead. A young, hot, preferably nightie-and/or-undie-adorned babe is what I'm talkin' about here. Think Catherine Deneuve in Polanski's Repulsion, the final half hour of Ridley Scott's Alien and a goodly portion of one of my all-time low budget faves, Richard Stanley's Hardware.
Just do the math:
Hot babe + monster/ghost/robot/weird-shit = Unbeatable Combination.
Not that Gudiño's lead Aaron Poole doesn't acquit himself nicely - it's a finely textured performance, but changing the character to a woman and having a babe in the role would have worked wonders. Even when Polanski re-imagined Repulsion as The Tenant and cast himself in the perverse twist on Deneuve's loner in the apartment role, he made damn sure to find numerous opportunities to slide the ravishing Isabel Adjani into the picture (in addition to putting himself in drag).
More math: Polanski in Drag + Hot French babe = DynOmite!!!
Not meaning to be a Philistine here, but I do think something changes when you have a woman in peril - not in a stereotypical, misogynist sense - but to actually address a myriad of issues within the framework of cinematic storytelling that ultimately allow for more compelling viewing. Then again, I always recall the hilarious story of a genuinely famous Canadian producer who once cautioned a young filmmaker about to embark upon his first feature with a litany of Old Country advice. It culminated with: "Goddamn son of bitch, you want to show man too much! Is not to my taste. Is to be truthful, very distasteful to have too much man. But I tell you something for sure, everybody like to see the woman. The man, he like to see the woman. And the woman, she like to see the woman too."
Sage words from a wise member of the Eastern European diaspora.
Aside from my aforementioned niggles, this is a worthwhile effort that signals a directorial talent we'll want to hear more from. In fact, Gudiño's displayed enough filmmaking savvy and chutzpah here to make you grateful you got in on his ground floor, so to speak. On the level of fashioning an ideal low budget movie, the screenplay cleverly approaches a few supporting roles that not only work perfectly within the context of the narrative, but allowed the filmmaking team to affordably cast and get a super performance from Vanessa Redgrave (not to mention fine work from the inimitable Julian Richings and Steven Eric McIntyre among others).
My dissatisfaction with the look of the house and its interiors notwithstanding, I was delighted with cinematographer Samy Inayeh's work. His compositions are first-rate, his moves infused with grace and his lighting is both delectably and suitably moody. Frankly, I think there's a lot of latitude in his footage to go back into the colour timing suite and darken the picture substantially to deal with the less than stellar interior design. Inayeh has done his bit to make the house's interiors look like Miss Haversham's home in David Lean's Great Expectations or the mysterious house the old crone in Val Lewton's Curse of the Cat People lives in, but he's only able to go so far and I'm really convinced one could safely heighten contrast whilst maintaining detail in a John Alton noir style. (By the way, every filmmaker, D.O.P. and production designer needs to read Alton's great book "Painting with Light".)
"The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh" can be purchased from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada).
Monday, 29 July 2013
Paradise: Love (2012) *****t
dir. Ulrich Seidl
Starring:Margarethe Tiesel, Peter Kazungu
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"Never have I looked so directly into hell."
-Werner Herzog on Animal Love, by Ulrich Seidl
One almost imagines an off-screen Julie Andrews singing "These are a Few of My Favourite Things" as the lens of filmmaker Ulrich Seidl greedily drinks in globs of fleshy pink corpulence jiggling like mounds of jello, streaked with road maps of stretch marks boring through virtual mountain ranges of cellulite and grotesque cauliflower-like skin tags gripping desperately to spongy thighs like bats in a cave. But no, as the blonde blob adorned in a sun hat flip-flops onto the sunny airport tarmac of a Kenyan resort, surrounded by her equally porcine 40-50-something Austrian maidens, she is greeted with the happy voices of a welcoming party as they joyfully croon "Hakuna Matata." Once happily ensconced in the paradise of the resort, our jolly Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) ogles the rich, lithe, cocoa bodies of her male hosts, salivating with the same delightful desire she might express when gazing upon a platter of rich Viennese pastries, imagining the joy of stuffing them all down her expansive, greedy gullet.
That said, Teresa looks like someone's mother.
And indeed she is. She's left her nasty, blubbery smart-phone-obsessed daughter in the capable care of an aunt. Also behind her is the daily toil of caring for extremely mentally challenged adults. However, the loneliness permeating her single parent existence will soon be filled to overflowing. "Filled" is indeed the operative word here.
She will soon enter the pleasurable heart of darkness known as sex tourism and we know, within seconds, that we have plunged ourselves yet again into the wonderful world of Ulrich Seidl. As noted by director Werner Herzog upon seeing Seidl's early documentary Animal Love, we too are looking "directly into hell".
Seidl is no ordinary obsessive. He's an artist with one of the most unique voices in contemporary cinema. His early documentaries exposed things about humanity (and by extension, ourselves) that we all try to deny as being within us and the rest of the whole wide world. Where Seidl differs from traditional documentarians is his insistence upon shooting in long takes - expertly composed shots with exquisite lighting (or in some cases, starkly appropriate such as when his camera trained itself upon the aforementioned individuals who truly loved their animals - a lot!)
All this went several steps further, however, once Seidl switched gears in 2001 and began to apply his unique mise-en-scene and obsessions in the world of drama with what is inarguably still his greatest picture Dog Days.
Paradise: Love isn't too far behind in terms of its brilliance and impact. The tale of the aforementioned Teresa might prove far to unsettling for some, but like all Seidl, patience and perseverance with pay off.
Some accuse him of being little more than a cinematic equivalent to a freakshow impresario, but this is to remain myopic to what he's really up to. Seidl is indeed a humanist who seeks his quarry amongst the extremities of mankind (and most notably in the backyards of Austria).
With Paradise: Love, Seidl unflinchingly charts a woman's descent into satisfying her most basic sexual needs by exploiting those who are so poor they will do whatever they have to do in order to survive.
Teresa parades along the Kenyan beaches in outfits that accentuate her strudel and schnitzel induced corpulence. It's her fat face emblazoned with lustful wonder that ultimately betrays her slatternly desires. Surrounded by eager, young and almost criminally gorgeous Kenyan men who vie for her attention in the hope she'll buy a lot more than the trinkets they have on offer, Teresa eventually sets her sights on one young lad who, on every level, offers just what she wants.
And as Seidl's camera unflinchingly reveals, what some of these young lads have to offer is jaw-droppingly succulent. I dare even strictly heterosexual male viewers to not fantasize about dropping their own jaws to take in the stunning magnificence that dangles between the thighs of these heartbreakingly beautiful young men. With their smooth gentle voices, glisteningly ripped bodies and irrepressibly insistent promises of the love they will provide, it's not hard to believe that Teresa and her ilk might actually believe it is LOVE they are paying for, not sex.
As per usual in Seidl's dramas, the script is a springboard for the drama created in lengthy, intensive improvisations between professional actors and real people. This results in a number of especially harrowing moments. For all the genuine dark humour the movie generates, there are just as many sequences when Seidl's camera catches the eyes of the beautiful young men (who are indeed - in real life - dirt poor and who have provided their services to women like Teresa many times in their lives).
Their eyes betray desperation and terror. The performances of non-actors and actors alike are imbued with reality and poignancy - so much so that it eventually becomes impossible to laugh and you are, in turn, indelibly overwhelmed and saddened with the naked truth of the world we live in. Humanity is indeed at the top of the food chain, but as it devours its own with through-the-roof relish and frequency, one can only despair at where it will all lead us.
Seidl leaves us with a Kenyan folk music group performing "Hakuna Matata" which, in Swahili is literally translated into English as "There are no worries."
No worries, indeed.
"Paradise: Love" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2012 (TIFF 2012) and is currently available on DVD via Strand Releasing.
Sunday, 28 July 2013
FRUITVALE STATION - Review By Greg Klymkiw - A Day in the Life of a Human Being: The strength, the beauty, the power, the goodness and yes, the sorrow of a dream cut short by one act of senseless violence.
Fruitvale Station (2013) *****
Dir. Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Ariana Neal, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ahna O'Reilly
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Fruitvale Station proved to me that I'm not crazy about trying to see movies without knowing about them (to the extent it's even possible in our hype-saturated world). Even as I write this after being alternately battered and caressed by one of the most moving and devastating contemporary films currently on screen, I still have not read any interviews, puff pieces or reviews nor seen any of the trailers. I know I'd have still loved this movie, but going in with no prior information yielded an extremely pure and raw movie-going experience.
The movie is infused with considerable gravity and hammers home the fact that we all live in a Police State within our supposedly democratic North American existence. There can be no denying or escaping this fact. Witness the appalling verdict in the recent trial involving the gated-community-dwelling vigilante or, if you must, a "concerned citizen" infused, no-doubt, with redneck values who, whilst carrying a loaded, ready-to-fire gun, fatally shot the innocent Trayvon Martin. Witness peaceful demonstrations against corporate greed that are either ignored by the bought-and-paid-for mainstream media and/or met with the violence of police thugs. Even upon the supposedly complacent Canadian landscape we all witnessed a prominent politician going scotfree after running down a cyclist and we recently shuddered while watching the cel phone footage of a trigger-happy Toronto cop emptying his revolver into a clearly disturbed young man who stood ALONE in an EMPTY streetcar, armed with only a 3-inch boxcutter - a young man crying for help, not bullets.
The movie humanizes the disenfranchised in ways that allow us to see pieces of ourselves in those less blessed and acknowledges how we're all equal in the eyes of the Universe. Sadly, it also firmly establishes just how alive and well racism is in North America - especially in the seemingly endless and repeated statistics proving that cops continue to commit racially motivated (and/or class-related) murder - no matter how slanted and/or fudged the stats are to protect the guilty (our protectors, lawmakers, lawgivers, corporate rulers and politicians).
Finally, Fruitvale Station proves just how sacred an artistic medium cinema is and how it can provide a lot of entertainment value AND social commentary - without robots and Godzilla-like monsters pulverizing each other or mindless superhero antics for no other reason than to profit from both propaganda and violence.
Thankfully that horrendous title card "based on a true story" does not open Fruitvale Station, but instead we get a shaky, murky cel phone video wherein a group of young men are rousted by the police on a subway platform. The film then jumps to a point that's clearly from the past and we begin a powerful and moving - almost Neo-realist tale - of a young man who's made more than his fair share of mistakes during the first 22 years of his life, but then experiences an epiphanous moment in the early morning in which he knows what path he wants and needs to take.
The simplicity of the tale is what yields such remarkable emotional and thematic layers. Following this young man (Michael B. Jordan) as he begins to fulfill his potential as a life partner to the woman he loves (Melonie Diaz), a father to his sprightly daughter (Ariana Neal) and a son worthy of the love bestowed upon him by his Mother (Octavia Spencer) is, at least in recent memory, quite unparalleled. What we see is a turning point in his life amidst all the things that society throws in the way to thwart this gigantic change in his life.
Fruitvale Station is tremendously moving and inspiring as it depicts one day in his life. Set on New Year's Eve and also the night of his Mom's birthday we see him prepare for the party but also face the conflicts and hardships of poverty. As the film inches ever closer to the New Year celebrations, we sense both joy and portent.
By the picture's end, I indeed realized I knew about the actual "true story" - the senseless murder of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old African-American who, on New Year's Day 2009 was beaten, handcuffed, then shot by racist cops (Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray).
Director Ryan Coogler doesn't pull any punches and there isn't a second of this movie that feels false, forced or contrived. If, by picture's end, you aren't quaking in your seat - wracked with shock and sobs - I feel sorry for you.
Most of all, I feel sorry for humanity. Fruitvale Station is proof positive of life's infinite mystery, wonder, joy and sorrow. We are all better for the fact that this picture exists, but mostly, that it sheds light on how one man's existence (and indeed all humanity's) touched and continues to touch the lives of all others.
"Fruitvale Station" is in theatrical release via E-One.
Saturday, 27 July 2013
ANTISOCIAL - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Bad Script. Promising Director. Premieres at FanTasia Montreal 2013
Antisocial (2013) **1/2
Dir. Cody Calahan
Starring: Michelle Mylett
The final 20 minutes of this low budget Canadian horror film's 92 minute running time features some truly mind-splitting gore and suspense. From a directorial standpoint, the movie kicks into the sort of high-gear one wants from a low budget genre film and though Writer-Director Cody Calahan's feature debut has a few frissons slithering throughout, much of its first two-thirds is a slog on a number of fronts.
Basically, it's a one-star movie boosted a notch by a terrific climax and the potential of its director to eventually make a good movie. The setup is typical of most no-to-low budget genre items - a group of college kids are trapped in a house while an infection rages outside and in addition to threats of the external variety are those from within as the college kids start catching the plague - beginning, middle and end of movie.
Ho-hum. Been there. Done that. The only thing that's going to keep us watching is a combination of directorial flourishes, new twists on the now-stale set-up/backdrop and, of course, good writing (if not narratively, at least on the level of character and dialogue).
On the directorial front, Calahan (the first assistant director and co-producer of Monster Brawl and Exit Humanity) knows a thing or two about delivering scares in a solid fashion. Alas, there are weird pacing and spatial issues when he's not focused on pure terror. For example (and there are many similar such scenes throughout), we get two characters in a room, bad shit happens in there, the other characters come upstairs to see what's wrong, we cut back into the room, a long conversation takes place, we wonder why the characters in the hallway who have expressed considerable interest and urgency haven't burst in long before this and then, when the lines of dialogue (which aren't especially good anyway) have been uttered, the door opens and the rest of the characters saunter in.
At least when stuff like that happens in an Ed Wood movie, it's funny.
As a director, Calahan seems either incompetent or uninterested in pretty much everything other than visceral thrills which, yes, he can handle well enough. A good part of the problem, however, is the writing and for that, he merely needs to look in a mirror. Though derivative of much better films like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse, Calahan's script at least steals a good idea from it by rooting the source of the evil in computers. The nice twist is that it manifests its victims via a Social Networking site. This is good. Tons of potential. Alas, the possibilities - narratively and thematically - are not mined in any intelligent way.
It sits there, ever-so nicely, like the good idea it is.
"Look at me, Ma. I'm a good idea, but my writer isn't doing anything with me."
"Don't worry, child, someday he - or someone, will."
As far as the characters go, they're pretty much stock for this kind of movie. Is it always necessary to populate these films with vapid college kids who really have no depth beyond the perfunctory? Of course, it isn't, but this is exactly what Calahan does. We get a group of dull, average losers with pretty low and petty personal stakes. One might charge Sam Raimi with a similar crime in his first Evil Dead outing, but his viciously black sense of humour, the appearance of the genuinely brilliant Bruce Campbell and the utterly creepy, horrendous shit he puts them through makes it a winner all the way. Calahan probably needed to remember that washouts of the kind he's populated his film with REALLY need MAJOR punishment.
The dialogue is especially wretched and of the variety wherein something happens on-screen and one of the characters tells us and his fellow characters what we (and they) have just seen. The first time this happened, I was close to throwing in the towel, but hung in hoping things would get better.
Even the tropes of substandard straight to video genre fare are handled with a kind of dull conservatism in Calahan's film. The initial symptoms of the infection include copious bleeding from facial openings like the ears, eyes and nose plus paranoid hallucinations. That's okay, I guess, but when I think about the blood parasite infecting Barbara Steele in David Cronenberg's first feature Shivers by slithering up into her vagina, or the disgusting pustules all over the deformed baby's face and the gloopy blood it coughs up from its mush-filled infected mouth in David Lynch's first feature Eraserhead or the little girl stabbing her mother repeatedly with a garden trowel in Romero's first feature Night of the Living Dead, nosebleeds just don't cut the mustard.
Rectal and vaginal bleeding, however, might have been what the doctor ordered to grease things up a bit. I suggest that next time Mr. Calahan listen to his knowledgeable G.P.
Eventually Calahan's virus-infused victims turn into raving homicidal maniacs. I can live with this, but again, I think back on Cronenberg's Shivers where the infected victims become raving homicidal SEX maniacs. In fact, Calahan's characters could use a little sex to begin with, but instead we get the main female character moping around from being knocked up by her loser boyfriend who dumps her via social networking just prior to her heading off to do remedial work after flunking a criminology test. Ugh! She's not only a drag, but stupid.
She is, thankfully, a babe, but even though the actress playing her is indeed a knockout, we know there won't be any boinking going on when she hooks up with her handsome male friend who seems vaguely more intelligent and far more worthy of the supple charms twixt her thighs than the bonehead she was being dinked by.
Worse yet, another vapid couple gets it on in the bedroom, but ONLY manage to strip down to their undies. Come on, for Christ's sake! Can we get a little bare breast action from the babe or a smidgen of schwance from her studly male partner? No. It's not that kind of movie. (Though actually, it IS that kind of movie, but too precious to deliver the goods.)
The nice thing about low budget genre features is when, like the aforementioned Monster Brawl and Exit Humanity, the movies - for whatever flaws they possess - at least try to do something different and go well beyond the tropes.
That doesn't happen here, but if you do bother with the film, I can assure you that in its final third, on a purely visceral level, the film will wag a drill in front of your face and bore itself into your skull.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, IS entertainment!!!
"Antisocial" enjoys its world premiere at the FanTasia 2013 film festival in Montreal on Wednesday, July 31, 2013 at 9:15 pm at J.A. De Seve Theatre and Monday, August 5, 2013 at 5:00 pm at J.A. De Seve Theatre.
Friday, 26 July 2013
COMPUTER CHESS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - A creepy contemporary relic of 80s exploration and paranoia comes to life in a movie that's as funny as it is creepy and unlike most anything you'll have seen (or will see).
Computer Chess (2013) ****
Dir. Andrew Bujalski
Starring: Gerald Peary, Patrick Riester, Gordon Kindlmann, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Page, Jim Lewis, Freddie Martinez, James Curry, Robin Schwartz, Chris Doubek, Cyndi Williams, Tishuan Scott
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"Cos you're the joke of the neighbourhood,As written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, Computer Chess is a great, visionary new picture reflecting a strangely familiar world so close we can almost touch it, yet finally feeling so long ago and far away that we have to pinch ourselves on a regular basis to prove any of it might have happened at all. Our breath is constantly snatched from within us as we bear witness to its subjects as they veer wildly between the extremes of both the mundane and the spiritual. Everything in between those two points is never what you expect it to be and the picture chooses directions that are near impossible to predict. The movie is laugh-out-loud hilarious, always compelling and might be the most aggressive expression of stylistically bold choices taken by any American film in recent memory.
why should you care if you're feeling good,
Take the long way home,
take the long way home..."
-Richard Davies, Roger Hodgson (1979)
It's also really creepy. The creep factor served up by Bujalski's one-of-a-kind experience creeps in (as it were), ever-so surreptitiously from a number of odd vantage points.
Weekend conferences, for example, are plenty creepy. A group of like-minded individuals descend from far-flung locales upon the neutral territory of a cut-rate hotel to share ideas, convey new inroads, engage in discourse or activities with a competitive edge and ultimately, to experience fellowship of an almost unrivalled intensity because the commingling is tightly scheduled and packed into a time frame of two or three days. The official portions of the conference take place under the flickering, pulsating glare of fluorescent lights in nondescript meeting rooms, the walls decorated with pale colours and the floors lined with wall-to-wall carpets notable only for the industrial strength fibres they've been hewn from.
This is where Bujalski's finely etched characters find themselves.
The evenings are spent in casual discourse - usually in one of the conference participant's hotel room and accompanied by copious amounts of booze, drugs and bowls of salted, mixed nuts. Sex is on the mind of some, but the potential of getting any is remote, save perhaps from hookers and/or from such unlikely sources that the mere thought of engaging in any coital gymnastics would be enough to inspire dry heaves.
One of the greatest scenes I've seen in any recent dramatic film is a lively late night discourse during an impromptu get together in a hotel room involving Carbray (James Curry) a young corporate geek feeling forced into justifying his very existence by John, a cynical older "casual" observer (brilliantly, hilariously and malevolently played by Jim Lewis) who baits him with an aggressive line of questioning. The verbal jousting is ultimately rooted in the subject of Chess and how it's being used in both computer science research and the experimental demonstrations on display.
And damned if the game of Chess - at least to me - isn't as creepy an activity as attending weekend conferences. It's a game that can only be played between two people with little to no real interaction save for that which is devoted to the quiet, heightened concentration required to move game pieces upon a board of light and dark squares. Often thought of as a thinking man's recreational activity, it involves such a single minded degree of strategizing on the part of the opponents that there can be no genuine communication, no interruption and certainly no idle chatter. Every ounce of brain matter must be used to move the pieces about in hopes of capturing the pieces of one's rival player - pieces representing Kings, Queens, Bishops, Rooks and Pawns.
The aforementioned cynic suggests that Chess is a game of war - so much so that the very use of the game at this conference might well be of interest to dark agencies like either the CIA, FBI or the Pentagon. John, the testy, curmudgeonly cynic might well be the creepiest character in the entire film. In fact, he may or may not be an operative with one of the shady agencies he brings up. He is one thing for sure - a drug dealer.
The Geek defender Carbray doesn't buy into the belief that he could possibly be engaged in activities that are exploitable as strategies of Totalitarian aggression. That said, he semi-concedes that even if his research leads to others using it to choose a darker and perhaps more militaristic path than he ever intended, his work is far too important to worry about the potentially ill-use of his efforts. Besides, Carbray reasons, if he wasn't doing the work, it might mean the Russians are doing it and might "get there" first. The cynic retorts that this is a poor argument - and one that "justifies any atrocity" - suggesting that Nazi scientists might also have used such arguments in the development of wholesale extermination techniques of "undesirables" during the Holocaust.
It is here where both men are handily shot down by an uncharacteristically and surprising interjection from someone far more stoned than anyone in the room. Freddie (Freddie Martinez), a dusky, long-haired, handsome young stoner, who appears to be the cynic's friend and partner, offers a sage retort to the entire argument. "Chess is black and white," he says emphatically. "It's not war. Chess is not war...War is Death! Hell is Pain! Chess is Victory! I'd rather play Chess than go get killed in war, get a bullet in the eye. I enjoy it. I enjoy playing it."
The cynic hands his handsome, dusky, thoughtful, philosophical and stoned young friend a joint. Time to move on. The conversation morphs into a discourse on artificial intelligence. The cynic pops some pills and heads to bed with the words, "I'm gonna let you guys figure this one out."
This particular centrepiece in the film reminded me of why I found and continue to find the game of Chess rather creepy. I remember an odd fellow from a similar time frame in the 80s. He was probably in his mid-40s at that point and my pals and I knew him to see him. We never spoke to the guy, nor he to us. We referred to him as Shakespeare since he vaguely resembled the stereotypical images of The Bard which adorned the myriad of publications in University book stores as well as various posters dotting the city for Shakespeare in the Park and the like.
By night, Shakespeare worked as a busboy in a little deli-cafe that we - for all intents and purposes - lived in. By day, he hung around the same deli-cafe, silently playing chess with an equally silent opponent. Once the game ended, his silent opponent would silently depart and Shakespeare would sit alone - in silence - reading science fiction novels until his evening bus-boy shift was to begin. Soon after the dinner rush ended, a new opponent entered. He'd sit there the whole evening - silently playing chess with Shakespeare - who'd silently make his moves on the chess board between table-bussing activities.
At one point, not even being aware of how much time my slacker friends and I were planted idly in this same deli-cafe, I detailed the aforementioned routine to one of my more, shall we say, cynical pals. His response was a straight-faced: "It's a quality life!" I guffawed uproariously. When my laughs subsided, I caught my breath and realized that my mirth had mutated into a thorough chilling to the bone.
I began to repeatedly experience this feeling all over again as I watched Computer Chess, this strange, murky and dazzlingly original film. Bujalski allows us to be flies on the wall while several teams of scientists, researchers and academics - computer AND chess geeks all - engage in a collegial cage match to determine which one of them has designed the ultimate computer chess-playing program. The stakes are high. Fuelling the various geeks is a generous cash prize along with a sense of manly (and academic) pride that might eventually translate into added funding for future research and development.
At the same time, my personal queasiness with respect to weekend conferences, chess and the aforementioned tale of Shakespeare the Busboy correspond directly to the deft intelligence of Bujalski's film and most of all, its true power. Much of our experience on this planet is akin to looking in a mirror. Sometimes, we like what we see, but more often than not - no matter what our ultimate worth is in terms of contributions to the world and those around us - we don't care to recognize ourselves in images that bear a clear resemblance on many levels, but at the same time make us wish they were different. The movie is like looking into a mirror - we laugh heartily, not at the characters, but with them. It's the recognition factor that cements Bujalski's film on a fairly lofty pedestal of excellence and potentially, some kind of greatness.
There are surface and stylistic details that add to the recognition factor. First of all, the film is shot in black and white analogue video on an actual camera from the dawn of home movie video in the early 1980s, the time frame in which the film is set. Everything is framed in the standard aspect ratio of 4:3 (or in theatrical terms 1:1:33) which is, essentially a box-like frame. Not that I have a problem with this ratio at all.
In theatrical terms I actually miss the qualities of composition that many filmmakers - William Wyler, George Stevens, John Ford and even Stanley Kubrick, for example, were able to achieve with standard frame. Rather than widescreen rectangular vistas of 1:1:85 or 1:1:35 (the current TV equivalent being 16:9), we'd get a much greater sense - particularly in interiors of things like the height of staircases in relation to the rest of a room (Wyler), the variety of images that could blend into each other in dissolves (Stevens), the painterly quality of human figures against the limitless heavenly skies (Ford) and the sheer height of ceilings in vast spaces (Kubrick).
Bujalski's shots - mostly interiors - are magnificently composed in this aspect ratio. The sheer softness of the image within the box-like frame is like some terrible beauty unfolding before us. At first, we think we're in a documentary, but for many film geeks, the first appearance of the legendary author, film critic, film professor and documentary filmmaker Gerald Peary in the role of a bookish, though delightfully sexy and curmudgeonly appealing academic conference moderator, is both a pleasant surprise, but also a tip-off that we're in mockumentary territory. For those who don't recognize Peary, another tip-off occurs that takes us into territory of another kind altogether. Once Bujalski turns the camera operator into an onscreen character with his camera in hand, the point of view continues in the same vein as before. Someone is not only observing the action, but creepily photographing it, and it's almost always not our onscreen character, the camera guy.
This is not a documentary, nor is it a mockumentary. We're in the territory of a dramatic film and while I hesitate to suggest we're in the horrific "meta" territory, Bujalski boldly tosses some added visual frissons that remind us that we are indeed watching a movie, but does so in ways that are integral to both narrative and thematic aspects of the film. When a truth is being exposed, Bujalski shifts to a negative reversal image, when a conversation framed in a simple medium two shot shifts into seemingly dangerous territory, he slams us into a split screen and among other brave, bold choices, he even allows one scene wherein the black and white drain from the image into full, garish 80s video colour.
The camera or, rather, point of view, becomes as relevant a character as those appearing onscreen. Given the science fiction elements of the story in terms of exploring the potentialities of artificial intelligence, Bujalski manages to inject a state of paranoia into the proceedings. WE are not the camera. That would have been the easy way to proceed and frankly wouldn't have delivered a movie as richly layered as this one. At certain points it becomes very clear that the point of view is being manipulated by someone. Who or what this operator represents instils even more paranoia.
Paranoia, of course, makes perfect sense within the context of the world Bujalski presents. First of all, we're in the 1980s - the North American reality of Reaganonimcs, Rompin' Ronnie's nutty "Star Wars" explorations into new forms of defence and warfare, a resurgence in survivalism, even chillier Cold War relations between East and West and the weight of the previous decades of the strife tearing the world apart (Vietnam, the riots, the assassinations of beloved politicians and public figures, etc.).
In terms of American cinema in relation to the period Bujalski has set his film in, one is reminded of two important works by Philip Kaufman: his end of decade 1978 remake of Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers which replaced 50s hysteria with late 70s paranoia and his monumental 1983 epic of the American space program The Right Stuff which placed emphasis on individuality within the context of larger, perhaps even more insidious New World Order desires. Among a handful of others, Kaufman's two films present as fine a portrait of those times actually made in those times. One can believe that Computer Chess is as much product of the 80s as Kaufman's work was.
The sense of scientific exploration within the digital world of computers is very much tied in with this period of history. The big box-like computers were, at this point in time, early forerunners to the nano-technology that allowed them to be easily transportable. In our current day of powerbooks, notebooks, net books and iPads, these agent behemoths looks cumbersome, but at the time they represented the very exciting portability of new computers. And each night, while a clutch of participants find themselves in Bacchanalian revelry (which, for computer and chess geeks amounts to sitting around in hotel rooms), an equal number are exploring their programs to implement the results and discoveries of the day into perfecting their work.
One such young man is Peter (Patrick Riester), a teaching assistant to Dr. Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann) an esteemed academic and a junior programming partner to Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins) a senior project leader who is, in actuality, a Psychology professor. Their program during the competition is fraught with glitches and seems to almost be giving up. The T.A. is chastised and scrutinized by his highly regarded overseer, yet clearly it's the pupil who's more on the ball than his teacher. Peter is obsessed with finding an answer to the mystery of why the computer is "committing suicide" and Schoesser patronizingly suggests that such an act is impossible in a computer as it's not human and is merely working on the basis of code that's been written.
The divide between "old" and "new" is clear in an earlier scene when Peter is in the professor's hotel room and looks at various articles of domesticity whilst Schoesser's persnickety wife is burping her baby and whispering to her hubby in low tones. Hubby approaches Peter and, obviously on the wife's orders, asks him to please use the bathroom to wash his hands. Later on, as the two men are going over the computer glitches, the professor is agog that Peter is able to withstand all-night hacking sessions. Well of course Peter would be committed to working, if need be, 24/7. Schoesser's priorities are bourgeois to say the least. "Look, I've got to get back to my wife and child," he says - as if Peter (and by extension, the audience) is supposed to applaud the priorities of familial complacency over those of discovery at any and all costs.
With the help of a young female computer geek (Robin Schwartz), the T.A. believes he's made an obvious, but extremely phenomenal discovery - one that ties in with the notion of artificial intelligence. The woman, by the way, is one of the few non-males in the world of the film who isn't a hooker, desk clerk or a horny, dumpy, swinging housewife. Much is made, as per the period, of her being the first woman involved in the conference and computer programming in general. It's a breath of fresh air in a world dominated by pathetic male geeks - who, as it turns out, aren't as pathetic as their stereotype suggests anyway - especially in the case of the younger men.
Peter's discovery, for example, is perfectly in keeping with the youthful ideals of the younger programmers. As such, Schoesser is - to be blunt - an asshole and dumps on the young man for basing his theory on limited data and not properly applying the scientific principles of experimentation. Schoesser terms Peter's theory as "outlandish". Peter, on the other hand prefers using the word "unconventional" to describe it which frankly seems far more appropriate.
People like Schoesser in virtually every power position anywhere in the world during most periods of history are little more than unimaginative pencil pushers. Peter tries to explain his enthusiasm by bringing up the brilliant Nikola Tesla (who, by the time frame in which Bujalski's story takes place had fallen very much out of the establishment scientific community's favour). "I do not think that Tesla is a good role model for your academic career," Schoesser snipes before lowering his voice with straight-faced portent: "That is the path to madness."
One wants to punch this loser in the face at this point of the story. Tesla, of course, almost never slept more than a couple of hours each night - pulling like Peter, endless over-nighters. Schoesser, like most glorified bureaucrats is not the kind of guy who's ever going to invent or discover anything truly great without stealing it from someone more talented than he. He has his priorities - a good night's sleep, a big breakfast and his stupid family.
Later in the film, Beuscher, the senior project leader even confirms to Peter something the good Professor has only the vaguest notion of and it indeed ties in with Peter's theory and worse, Schoesser's working on a nefarious deal to profit from it.
As per usual, nests are feathered by the real losers. In this case, the prospects of the research falling into the wrong hands are absolutely chilling - and yet another reason why Computer Chess springs well beyond its "meta" dabbling and satirical edge. I reiterate - the picture is downright creepy.
Another odd nest-feathering type amongst the motley assortment of programmers is the very funny Mike Papageorge (Myles Paige), a purported independent who eschews all the corporate-and-academic-institute-styled teamwork. He sees himself as a maverick and far above all the others. He's a pushy chauvinist pig who keeps trying to hit on the lone female at the conference - harassing her with no class or subtlety. And of course, he holds himself so far above his colleagues at the conference that he's forgotten to do the most basic thing one needs to do when attending such events. He's not booked a room for himself at the hotel and spends the whole weekend in search of places to crash - stairwells, lobby couches, hallways, other peoples' rooms and finally, under a table in the meeting room where he encounters the other group of geeks in the hotel.
Yes, there are two conferences going on at once. The other involves a group of individuals led by a charismatic Rasputin-like figure (Tishuan Scott). What he's up to with his charges is perhaps best left for an audience to slowly discover and get to know on their own, save for the following details - the other conference begins with everyone feeling up loaves of bread like doughy vulvas. There will, however, potentially be some offerings of solace, salvation and sex from the members of this swingin' cult concurrently doin' their 'thang in the hotel.
Doin' one's 'thang is ultimately what life's all about, but in the world of Bujalski's brilliantly subversive Computer Chess, the real question is this: Are we prepared for a time when a computer will be able to do its own 'thang?
In life and great art, there are never easy answers.
"Computer Chess" is in theatrical release via FilmsWeLike and currently playing in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. To experience the exquisite beauty of analogue ugliness, one must TRULY see the film on a big screen.
Thursday, 25 July 2013
Thursday Till Sunday (2013) ****
Dir. Dominga Sotomayor Castillo
Starring: Santi Ahumada, Francisco Pérez-Bannen, Paola Giannini, Emiliano Freifeld, Axel Dupré
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Children know everything. We know nothing. Their sense of intuition is so intense, so acute and so otherworldly that very little escapes them. What keeps kids kids, is innocence, but it doesn't take long for them to slowly lose it.
And it's all our fault.
Some call it growing up - which, I suppose it is, but I sure wish it was not such a necessary evil and most of all, that it could come without having to experience the heartbreak of loss.
Thursday Till Sunday is all about loss, but as such, it provides a bedrock of hope that delivers the illusion that through their pain, they will experience a light we sometimes find elusive, that they will, from our mistakes create a world of more perfect balance for themselves. Most of all, we hope - no matter how much pain we've tried to suppress to keep them pure - that this pain has not seeped to deeply into their pristine state of being.
Writer-Director Dominga Sotomayor has crafted a film of great truth and even greater drama by allowing her camera to capture endless small details of life through long, perfectly composed shots - often in close proximity to the exquisitely etched characters.
She begins her alternately poetic and Neo-realist tale under the cover of darkness as parents secret their sleepy children into the back seat of a car. There's nothing at all malevolent about this - nothing most parents haven't done when setting off on an early morning road trip to make the most of the day.
We do, however, get a hint that all is not well when a brief verbal exchange between the husband and wife suggests some confusion as to whether or not both of them will be coming along. It's not a big thing, but the movie, like life, is full of these small details signalling that which can be so much bigger.
So it is that we begin a movie set firmly on the road as the family of four - Mom, Dad, the older sister and the little brother - engage in an extended long weekend trip from their home in Santiago to the wilds of northern Chile to take in some sights, some swimming, some camping and a gander at a parcel of land that Dad's father has left to him in his will.
Anyone who has been on a similar road trip with their parents will knowingly recognize the endless nature of the proceedings - especially to kids. Dominga brilliantly and steadfastly sticks to the older child's point of view. Lucia (Santi Ahumada) is 12 - that annoying, frustrating cusp of burgeoning hormonal and psychological changes that allow for moments of recognition that cannot be fully understood, nor acted upon.
It is ultimately, through Lucia's eyes and/or in her presence, that we slowly realize the portent and utter weight of this road trip - one that will be the last these four will ever take as a family. Separation looms like some dark cloud of inevitability and it is painful - not just for the parents and the children, but for the viewer also. Even more astonishingly, one almost senses the filmmaker's pain by the manner in which her clever mise-en-scène never waivers from its resolution to create such rich dramatic truth.
Dominga plants the camera in one position (often within the car) and events play out the way they would in life. When cuts are employed, they're not so much jarring as they are fluidly leading us ever forward into the story. They're there, but many of the transitions feel invisible - as they should in a story told with such a measured pace and an eye for detail. In fact, some might even feel the details are of little interest, but Dominga manages to craft the film in such a manner that most audiences will give over to its rhythm early on and catch small details that do indeed provide important pieces of the story's puzzle.
There isn't a single performance in the film that feels off. Ahumada, though, is exceptional. The camera loves her and she displays intelligence and maturity, but also dollops of all those elements that betray her age. The film almost seems to build on her performance and character. We're bored when she's bored, angry when she is, joyful when she is and most heartbreakingly, though we catch on much earlier to the clues and facts of the matter than she does, we are indeed caught by surprise when she is during those moments of painful realization.
Ahumada, through Dominga's insightful eye, ultimately takes our breath away and we're led to a point where it's simply impossible not to share in the sorrow of a child, to shed the tears we've experienced and continue to experience as adults, but with the special and deeply painful pangs of recognition that remind of the tears of childhood - those tears that stream down our cheeks and never seem to end.
We can almost taste their salt.
It's a beautiful film.
"Thursday Till Sunday" opens theatrically July 26 via Vagrant Films Releasing and Publicity and plays in Toronto at the Magic Lantern Theatres Carlton Cinema and Kingsway Cinema.
Wednesday, 24 July 2013
REAL STEEL - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Based on a story by Richard Matheson, it's a science fiction Fat City
Real Steel (2011) ***1/2
dir. Shawn Levy
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lily, Karl Yune, Olga Fonda
By Greg Klymkiw
"Battling Maxo, B2, heavyweight, accompanied by his manager and handler, arrives in Maynard, Kansas, for a scheduled six-round bout. Battling Maxo is a robot, or, to be exact, an android, definition: 'an automaton resembling a human being.' [...] This is the story of that scheduled six-round bout, more specifically the story of two men shortly to face that remorseless truth: that no law can be passed which will abolish cruelty or desperate need - nor, for that matter, blind animal courage." - Rod Serling's introduction to Steel, written by the legendary Richard Matheson in Season 5, Episode 122 of The Twilight Zone, the greatest TV anthology series of all time.
There is virtually nothing original about Real Steel, an amalgam of Rocky, The Champ and based partially upon Richard Matheson's short story and Twilight Zone teleplay Steel, and in spite of the fact that it's cobbled together by as many old parts as its hero, a fighting robot, this is one of the most entertaining, satisfying, uplifting, thrilling and, uh, original movies to hit the multiplexes in ages. Even its most "original" element, however, isn't even all that original, but given the state of current American mainstream cinema, it's fresh as a daisy.
The element I refer to is one that seems to have many reviewers' tits/nuts in a wringer. Many of them are whining about how unsympathetic the central character Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is. Cry me a river.
Oh woe is me, the hero is a prick!
And yeah, for a good chunk of the film's running time, Charlie is no poster boy for sympathy. He's a washed-up former boxer in a not-too-distant future where humans have been replaced in the ring by mega-robots and controlled by human beings at computers. Charlie owes money left, right and centre. He owns a ramshackle robot that he tours on the rural rodeo sideshow circuit - competing in sleazy affairs where rednecks cheer as hunks of metal pummel animals with their steely fists.
Unfortunately for Charlie, also an inveterate gambler and womanizer, the tables turn and a 2000 lb. bull destroys his robot in the ring while our "hero" is flirting with some corn-fed inbred babe in the audience. Broke, in debt well beyond his means to any number of thugs and bereft of his only means of money, he's more than delighted to find out that his ex-wife has died and that his 11-year-old son Max (Dakota Goyo) needs him. Well, if Charlie didn't need dough. he'd ignore the order to appear in court and let his flesh and blood be taken in as a ward of the state. Luckily, he knows his wealthy in-laws desperately want to adopt the child so he grudgingly shows up and makes a back room deal. He "sells" his son to the in-laws for $100,000.
Alas, he must agree to take the kid for the summer as the in-laws have a previously scheduled and very extended European vacation ahead of them. With a whack of cash in hand, he hightails over to his on-again-off-again girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lily), the owner of a ramshackle robot training gym and robot mechanic. His plan is to dump the kid in her care while he buys a new robot to hit the circuits again.
What a guy! He's a loser, a gambler, an itinerant no-account AND he's happy to abandon his kid after the death of his mother - not just once, but twice. And this is just the first twenty minutes or so of Real Steel. Plenty of running time for more uncaring, anti-social behaviour. BUT, also plenty more running time for - YOU GUESSED IT!!! - REDEMPTION!!!
Here's the deal. Within the context of contemporary American studio pictures, characters like Charlie almost never exist. Oh sure, there's occasionally a few meagre nods to "darkness" in such recent boxing pictures as Warrior and the overrated The Fighter, but Charlie is truly a character whose soul belongs to that great era of 70s cinema where central male characters could be major pricks, but we kind of liked them in spite of this.
And sure, while even Real Steel charges predictably to those inevitable moments where he re-connects with his child, his girlfriend and with the help, love and support of both, clambers out of the gutter and eventually becomes a winner again, what keeps it going is a first-rate script, great performances and superb direction. More importantly, it's a BIG picture - bigger than life!!! Big emotions! Big battles! High stakes! It has the scope of a great studio picture, but it actually feels like it's been made by people who know and love movies.
Watching the movie, I had two odd feelings pulsing through me - one, that I was loving every second of the picture and two, that I KNEW it was the kind of picture - exactly the kind of picture in terms of plot, theme AND craft - that I'd have absolutely loved as a kid. It's a wonderful, tingly feeling to be watching a big studio picture as an adult that allows you to experience a flawed mature central character against the backdrop of pure fantasy - engineered with precision and heart.
The Real Steel screenplay does not only tap into familiar territory in terms of great uplifting boxing pictures of the past, but it also comes from the seed of a very dark place - THE TWILIGHT ZONE! The picture's inspiration is from one of the greatest episodes of Rod Serling's extraordinary television anthology series. From his own short story "Steel", Richard Matheson - arguably one of the best, if not THE best genre writer of the 20th century - wrote the sad, dark tale of a washed-up ex-boxer (played by Lee-FUCKING-Marvin) who, like Hugh Jackman's character in Real Steel is trolling the dregs of a robot boxing circuit and has to make some tough decisions when faced with the possibility of losing what precious little he's got. It's an astounding episode - one that devastated me as a kid when I first saw it, haunted me for years and still gets to me whenever I see it again.
Where this new feature film parts company with the original source, however, is that it's set in a world where people have become bored watching human beings fight and actually prefer seeing machines do the battle. Matheson's story is set in a future where human boxing matches have been outlawed altogether. The latter, while plausible to Hollywood Liberals in the 50s and 60s and, in fact to many of those watching at the time, would not work as well in a contemporary context since it's become so clear that the Great Unwashed will never really tire of watching destruction, but in a world of cel phones, computers, the internet, Playbox, Wii, Twitter and other electronically mediated forms of living, I'd buy that people could get bored and stupid enough to want to see huge cool-looking robots kicking each others steely butts.
And it's the fight scenes of Real Steel that provide all the necessary set-pieces to give us some rock 'em sock 'em action (not unlike the old Rock' Em Sock 'Em Robots we all used to play with as kids) on a mega scale. The robots have personality and are designed so brilliantly that they are completely recognizable as distinct entities (unlike the mish-mash of robots in the Transformers pictures). This probably has a lot to do with the fact that the robots are puppets controlled by humans with digital enhancements and are not PURELY digital, but in fairness to director Shawn Levy, his cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar) and editor Dean Zimmerman, the Real Steel fight scenes are gorgeously choreographed, shot and cut. We actually get to see the choreography of the fights instead of all the close-to-medium-shot herky-jerky shooting and cutting so many films resort to.
Most importantly, the screenplay by John Gatins is NOT action packed with just fight scenes. It has - gulp - characters, a compelling (if familiar) tale and what's surprising - especially given the two-hour-plus running time - is that it's never boring and seems actually much shorter. The bottom line is that the movie has enough well-etched breathing space to allow for action scenes that have emotional resonance to the characters and plot (and hence, for us) instead of serving merely as grinding, noisy, visceral thrills. That said, it also hits the sort of satisfying demographically-influenced check-marks to ensure big success. Jackman is a driven handsome tough-as-nails prick hero in need of redemption, his girlfriend is a babe, the villain (mouth-watering Olga Fonda) is a babe and the kid - yeah, he's cute. Real cute - especially when he does hip-hop moves with the robot. On paper, something like that would sicken me, but in execution, it works.
These, of course, are hallmarks of great studio pictures in any age and I'm actually pleased to see they're not abandoned. It's all part of a great package. We get an uplifting action picture for the whole family - for kids AND kids of ALL ages.
For me, the true revelation in Real Steel is Hugh Jackman. He's a terrific actor with definite screen presence, but the "negative" characteristics of his character are what he attacks with a vengeance. He's such a prick that we hope he won't be. At times, he embodies the sort of figure that might have haunted John Huston's world of tank-town punch-drunk losers in Fat City and yet, here he is in a movie from the director of (!!!!!) Night at the Museum, executive produced by Spielberg and from a division of Disney Studios.
That's pretty cool.
Tuesday, 23 July 2013
Lord of the Flies (1963) *****
Dir. Peter Brook
Starring: James Aubrey, Tom Chapin, Hugh Edwards
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Some movies just stay with you forever. You can't shake them out of your memory banks and when you see them again, they feel as fresh and vital as they once were - in some cases, even more so - especially if your first helping was in childhood and subsequent screenings were spread out over different periods of your life. Peter Brook's extraordinary 1963 film adaptation of William Golding's immortal novel Lord of the Flies is just such a film.
My first viewing was as a child on television at some point in the late 60s - at nine or ten years of age. The movie had such a profound effect upon me. This, of course was during a time when kids were allowed all manner of toys that replicated guns of many kinds and "war", "cops and robbers", "cowboys and indians" were frequent play amongst young boys. Here, though, was a film, that at the time, featured kids my own age - some a bit younger, others a bit older. Even with British accents (not uncommon on Canadian TV back then anyway as British programming was considered equal to indigenous Canadian programming), the movie spoke directly to myself and so many friends. The difference is that the on-screen play-acting was in the context of a boys' adventure set on an island. Even more telling for us was the fact that the games got deadly and when they did, the kids in the movie couldn't pick themselves up and continue playing - they were dead and gone.
The movie was so profound I ended up getting a paperback copy at my local Coles bookstore - a yellow cover with a photograph of the chubby young "Piggy"(Hugh Edwards), holding a conch and staring up, squinting into the blazing sun - and I read it voraciously and many times after. There was, after all, no other way to see the movie again in those pre-homevideo/cable TV days and the William Golding book proved very readable for most kids at the time and delivered any number of indelible moments to remind one of the movie, but also flesh out what was already a compelling story. I didn't see the movie again until I was 14 years old when the book was taught in Grade 9. After all the lectures and class discussions and assignments were done, our Language Arts teacher screened the film in the classroom - on actual 16mm via the trusty Bell and Howell movie projector which had to be stopped and rethreaded for each of the film's three reels. At that point, the study of the book and movie took on added resonance since by that point, Social Studies for kids included history lessons involving the World Wars as well as various battles involving the colonial periods of Canada. Though the Vietnam War was now in our collective as-it-happened consciousness, it seems odd, in retrospect, that the nightly news footage of carnage in the jungles of Vietnam played no role in the teaching of the book or movie, but I vaguely recall making note of this to myself at the time anyway.
Luckily, the film became quite an accessible work over the years and it was a movie that I saw many times at various stages throughout the 70s and 80s when I eventually acquired my own 16mm projectors and gained access to free movies from the local film exchanges (due to my youthful employment in the exhibition business) and throughout various phases of home entertainment formats including Beta, VHS, Laserdisc and eventually a great Criterion Collection DVD.
Now, however, the film appears in all its original glory in the sumptuous new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray. The story of a group of British boys marooned on an uninhabited island and their eventual regression to various stages of savagery for survival and control of power and resources seems as engaging, thrilling and powerful as it did when I first saw it. The performances of the children, the stunningly realistic black and white photography, the overall mise-en-scene which veers from neo-realist to classical to expressionistic and back again to neo-realism are all powerful attributes that contribute to a work that has not dated in the least and politically, feels as vital today as it did then - even more so.
The film's value as entertainment is unquestionable, but as a tool for teaching and discussion - especially if used in conjunction with the study of Golding's novel - has considerable virtues in a world continually torn by war, strife, unrest, terrorism and even gang warfare amongst inner city youth.
The new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray is a masterwork of the medium and offers several elements that will enhance the film. The exquisite new restoration and transfer of the picture and sound yield a movie that looks, frankly, like it could have been made yesterday. Its power in terms of story also feels incredibly modern. The first-rate extra features provide a great deal of background on the making of the film that the new Blu-Ray is valuable for both fans and scholars. It's also a must-own item for all burgeoning filmmakers as it details the remarkable manner in which the film was made. Its financial resources were, even when adjusted for inflation, far below what first-time filmmakers can acquire even now and Brooks' approach is so phenomenally sound that there's much to lean about the process of movie-making.
Universality is ultimately what defines classic work. This is doubly true for the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray which not only presents a genuinely great picture, but a bevy of materials to flesh out the entire experience so that it stands as a classic of the home entertainment medium itself.
"The Lord of the Flies" is available on Blu-Ray via the visionary Criterion Collection. It's a must-own title. Whatever you do, avoid the dreadful Harry Hook film adaptation. The Criterion version includes the following items: New, restored digital transfer (box set edition); new, restored 4K digital film transfer, supervised by editor and cameraman Gerald Feil, ASC (two-DVD and Blu-ray editions), with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition, Audio commentary featuring director Peter Brook, producer Lewis Allen, director of photography Tom Hollyman, and Feil, Audio recordings of William Golding reading from his novel Lord of the Flies, accompanied by the corresponding scenes from the film, Deleted scene, with optional commentary and Golding reading, Interview with Brook from 2008 (two-DVD and Blu-ray only), Collection of behind-the-scenes material, including home movies, screen tests, outtakes, and stills, Excerpt from a 1980 episode of The South Bank Show featuring Golding (two-DVD and Blu-ray only), New interview with Feil (two-DVD and Blu-ray only), Excerpt from Feil’s 1973 documentary The Empty Space, showcasing Brook’s theater method, Living “Lord of the Flies,” a piece composed of never-before-seen footage shot by the boy actors during production, with new voice-over by actor Tom Gaman, Trailer, PLUS: An essay by film critic Geoffrey Macnab (two-DVD and Blu-ray only) and an excerpt from Brook’s autobiography The Shifting Point, New cover by Kent Williams (two-DVD and Blu-ray editions); new cover by Olga Krigman (box set edition)