Friday, 26 May 2017

POPULATION ZERO - Review By Greg Klymkiw - How To Get Away With Murder in the U.S.A.

In Yellowstone National Park:
You can legally get away with murder,
a bear once chased a burning bison and
a documentary filmmaker buys a really stupid hat.

Population Zero (2017)
Dir. Adam Levins, Julian T. Pinder
Scr. Jeff Staranchuk
Prd. Tyler Levine

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Three young men go camping in the majestic Yellowstone National Park. They are shot at point blank range. Their killer calmly turns himself in and confesses to his crimes. He cannot be charged with murder. After serving 60 days for illegal possession of a firearm in a national park, he goes free.

Documentary filmmakers Julian T. Pinder and Adam Levins want answers. Why does an American constitutional loophole exist so that anyone - I repeat, anyone, can commit an act of first-degree homicide (or any crime of their choosing) in a tiny stretch of the Yellowstone National Park?

That is the question.

This mere 50-square-miles of parkland spills over into Idaho and Montana, but since it is federal land, the powers-that-be have morphed the entire shooting match (as it were) into Wyoming's federal district.

Sure, American Presidents commit murder all the time whenever the country engages in spurious wars, but if, say, President Trump was a guest on The Late Show and he blew Stephen Colbert's head to smithereens with a handgun, even he would face murder charges. If, however, he went camping and ran into Stephen Colbert on this isolated stretch of Yellowstone in Idaho or Montana, he'd be able to rearrange Colbert's face with a shotgun blast and not be charged with murder. That is because President Trump would not be able to face a jury since the population of this region is zero and every American has the God-given right to face twelve peers.

With Levins operating the camera and Pinder on camera, Population Zero is a quest for truth. Who were these young men? Why were they murdered? Who was their killer? And why, oh why, did he get away with murder - legally and constitutionally?

As documentaries go, Population Zero is a strange duck. Sometimes it feels like a cheesy piece of true-crime reality TV blended with a kind of Michael Moore-like filmmaker-as-obsessive hunter/detective. It's ultimately better than the former, but its dalliances with the latter are mildly flawed since the filmmakers' personalities, agendas and back stories don't quite connect with their quarry, nor are they adequately presented in contrast.

All that said, Population Zero is compulsive viewing. As things ramp up, especially when the filmmakers uncover increasingly shocking clues and get closer to the killer, the film is flat-out chilling and during its last third, genuinely scary. It's one thing for this geeky pair to interview family and friends of both the victims and the killer, it's quite another when it seems like the whack-job, who has all but disappeared upon release from jail, begins leaving a trail of clues for the filmmakers - intentionally. Along the way, the filmmakers also uncover an environmental tragedy in Williston, North Dakota which, actually might tie-in to the horrible crimes.

I had certainly heard about the oddball American constitutional loophole (God knows, I listen to enough George Noory, Art Bell, Linda Moulton-Howe and other alt-news personages to be acquainted with it), but what forced me to keep watching (in spite of suffering as co-director Pinder insists upon wearing one of the ugliest hats I have ever seen anyone choose to wear) is that the story of these three sweet young men being murdered and their killer getting away scot-free was completely new to me. I try not to pay too much attention to world events, but when the film ended, this fella was scratching his noggin furiously over the fact that this was one item, the mass killing in the park (and subsequent constitutional controversy), that had inexplicably slipped well below his radar.

It turns out that there's a very good reason for this. If you want to know why, stop reading, watch the movie, then come back and read the rest of this review.

Exhibit A: a press release
Exhibit B: a producer

As any of my regular readers (and friends and colleagues) know, I do everything in my power to know as little about any movie I see before I see it: No trailers, no puff pieces, no reviews and even averting my eyes to posters, ads and social media babbling. When I get press releases for new movies, I never read them - or rather, I can't help but read the first few lines when I open email missives from the publicists.

In the case of Population Zero, all my eyes bothered to register was the title (a pretty good one), the logo from A-71 (a very cool Canadian boutique distribution company) and, conveniently positioned on the right-hand bottom of the credit block, the name of the film's producer Tyler Levine (a former student from when I taught at the Canadian Film Centre).

OK. Three good reasons to request a screener link (yeah, critics almost seldom pre-screen indie films in theatres). Password-protected Vimeos are the cinema of choice. Besides, I have the luxury of not bothering to review movies I don't like, so if the movie stinks, I can turn it off and not write about it. (Oh, don't worry, I STILL enjoy crapping on any bad movie I am forced to sit all the way through.)

So I watched this movie. All the way through. Then it ended.

So why the hell had I never heard about this crime (and lack-of-punishment) before?

I went back to the press release. Ah, this is NOT a documentary. It is a narrative constructed AS a documentary. Pretty decent job, dudes. You fooled the shit out of me. I also should have wondered why some of the documentary subjects looked familiar. Uh, a few of them are character actors on TV and in the movies.

I do wonder how I'd have responded to the movie if I knew, from the get-go, that it was a fake doc. Well, I'll never know now. What I DO know is that it's a damn enjoyable movie as it stands and I highly recommend that everyone stop going to see movies knowing what they're going to see. It's so much more edifying.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: *** 3-Stars

Population Zero is being released in Canada via A-71 Entertainment.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

McCABE & MRS. MILLER - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Heartbreaking Altman on Criterion Blu

Booze, brothels, love and tragedy in the Old West.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Dir. Robert Altman
Nvl. Edmund Naughton
Scr. Altman and Brian McKay
Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, René Auberjonois, Michael Murphy,
Antony Holland, Bert Remsen, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine, William Devane,
John Schuck, Hugh Millais, Jace Van Der Veen, Manfred Schulz, Corey Fischer

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Under the big grey skies of Washington State, a stranger slowly rides from out of the wet greenery of a boreal forest and heads straight for the tiny, squalid, muddy little mining town of Presbyterian Church. His name is John McCabe (Warren Beatty). On the outskirts, away from prying eyes, he removes the bulky fur coat he's been wearing to shield himself from the damp cold of the Pacific Northwest. He's all about appearances, you see. As soon as he reveals what's beneath the fur we know this all too well. Wearing a clean burgundy sport jacket, crisp white shirt, handsome black diamond-shaped tie and grey vest, he pops a smart bowler hat on his head - all in marked contrast to the grimy attire of the town's denizens.

In the old west, when a stranger rides into town, people notice. Anonymity becomes just a fleeting memory. John McCabe is a gambler, businessman and, it is whispered, a gunfighter. He wants to make an impression and he wants it to stick, like flies to shit, like peanut butter in the craw and the ties that bind.

Though his entrance is adorned with the surface tropes of the genre, director Robert Altman, like his protagonist McCabe, is all about appearances too. He wants us to know we're watching a western, but good goddamn, it's not going to be like any western we've ever seen.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a true original - the kind of movie we seldom see anymore, at least not from any major Hollywood studio. Ah, but it was 1971 when this picture first rode into town and it was, for all its bold, fresh innovation, a movie that was produced under the aegis of Warner Brothers, a studio which, up to that point always broke molds (think: the first major sound picture The Jazz Singer, Busby Berkeley, gritty dirty 30s crime pictures and, uh, Casablanca anyone?). These days we're more likely to see the Warners' banner in front of machine-tooled Harry Potter movies, the turgid Dark Knight turds of Christopher Nolan and (God Help Us!!!), Peter Jackson's unwatchable Hobbit series. (In fairness to the studio, they have, of late, delivered the unique Zack Snyder and David Ayer re-imaginings of the DC comic book universe, though all of those pictures have been panned by most of the contemporary scribes purporting to be "critics".)

Oh, but this was the 70s, the greatest decade in movie history and Warner Bros. (my personal favourite of all the studios) green-lit McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a haunting, leisurely-paced and decidedly elegiac western. I had, of course, seen several million westerns in movie theatres with my Dad, but at the age of twelve, as I sat in a first-run movie theatre (a 1500-seat picture palace, no less), positioned next to dear Pater, I knew, I knew even then, at that tender age, based solely on the aforementioned first few minutes, that I was watching something I'd never seen before and now, so many decades later, as I sat in front of my Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of Robert Altman's movie, I thought, "You know, I've not seen anything like this since".

Of course it's different. These are not wide open dusty spaces with the phallic ancient outcroppings of Monument Valley rock under sunny skies. We're surrounded by mist, virtually claustrophobic greenery and most of all, as Vilmos Zsigmond's floating camera captures the rain intermittently pouring, streets filled with murky pools of water, soupy streets of mud, somber, peppery clouds above a ramshackle village, the soundtrack is neither Elmer Bernstein bombast nor, even, Ennio Morricone whistles and twangs.

We hear, Leonard Cohen.

"It's true that all the men you knew were dealers
who said they were through with dealing
Every time you gave them shelter
I know that kind of man
It's hard to hold the hand of anyone
who is reaching for the sky just to surrender,
who is reaching for the sky just to surrender. And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
you find he did not leave you very much
not even laughter
Like any dealer he was watching for the card
that is so high and wild
he'll never need to deal another
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger
"

Cohen's "The Stranger Song" is not only the opening theme music of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but its haunting lyrics and melody become a main theme throughout the picture. Along with other great works by the late Canadian troubadour, we hear lively fiddles as source music played by Presbyterian Church local musicians and a series of haunting guitar riffs performed by Cohen. Most notable is the location sound and very subtle foley, capturing the unique aural qualities of life in an isolated community during the latter part of 19th century America, but lest we forget, there is the unique Altman dialogue recording. When people speak, we hear what we'd hear in any crowded room - the blend of voices, overlapping conversations and the only time any words are crystal clear is when we absolutely need to hear them.

Mumbling is also a recurring auditory motif, but brilliantly, Altman uses it mostly for McCabe himself as a delightful character trait. McCabe mumbles - only when he's alone. He's a man used to being alone for large periods of his life and as such, he thinks aloud. (The first time McCabe speaks he's alone, on the periphery of the town and yes, mumbling to himself.)

Yes, this is a western. On the surface we've seen this story many times. A stranger comes to a small town, immediately spots the burgeoning glory of opportunity, sets up a successful business, spurns the advances of corrupt powerful corporate interests to buy him out and is then swiftly assailed by hired killers, their goal to rub him out permanently and secure his valuable holdings for zilch.

Ah, but that's merely the outward narrative coat hanger. The picture is so, so much more than this simple exterior. The heart and soul of the movie is a love story. After all, Altman has chosen to eschew the simple "McCabe" title of the Edmund Naughton novel the film is based on and append the "& Mrs. Miller" to the title of the movie itself. And then there are the songs by Leonard Cohen. In addition to "The Stranger Song" we also get to hear "Sisters of Mercy" and "Winter Lady" (all three released in 1971 as a 7" single on vinyl which, I still own). Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) is the gorgeous, classy (in spite of her Cockney accent) prostitute/madame who goes into business with McCabe, helping him wrangle a stable of women. Like the song says:

Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can't go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who've been travelling so long.

Indeed, it is the whores who offer McCabe some fleeting glory and solace and in turn serve the needs of men in the village - those who stay, and those who pass through. Inevitably, and perhaps most sadly of all, it is the sisters of mercy who remain a constant presence. Others might come, and others, most notably McCabe himself, may go. The women, however, are ever-present.

Mrs. Miller, the "Winter Lady" of Cohen's song, will indeed remain.

Trav'ling lady, stay awhile
Until the night is over.
I'm just a station on your way,
I know I'm not your lover.


Ah, but he is her lover. Though they are business partners and though Mrs. Miller charges McCabe for all their evenings of bedroom gymnastics, she indeed experiences a love she's never known. The sorrow she eventually will feel is so devastating that she will be drawn to the mind numbing properties of opium. The town is misty, not just with the fog of the Pacific Northwest, but the haze of poppy seeds.

This is a movie that seems fuel-injected with sorrow and though it's set in a time and place so long ago and far away, Robert Altman has crafted a film that is not only perfect in every respect, but is as universal in its exploration of both corporate exploitation and humanity (specifically in the complexities of love) - now, as much as it was in 1971.

The character trait of McCabe mumbling to himself is not only a wonderful "quirk", but it's used to great effect in one of the most moving and tragic on-screen monologues in movie history. After McCabe has attempted to "reason" with one of the assassins, we find him in the deep darkness of an early morning winter, burning the midnight oil. Downing a few shots of booze, putting some final grooming touches to his appearance and slowly loading bullets into his gun before handily affixing his holster, he looks out his window and notices the warm glow coming from across the way at the whorehouse where Mrs. Miller is servicing a client.

Whilst performing his ablutions and the rituals of preparing for what will, no doubt, be a series of urgent encounters, McCabe does indeed mumble to himself, maybe for the last time:

"I tell ya', sometimes, sometimes when I take a look at you, I just keep lookin' and a'lookin' so I won't feel your little body up against me so bad I think I'm gonna bust. I keep trying' to tell ya' in a lotta different ways... well I'll tell ya' something, I got poetry in me, I do, I got poetry in me, but I ain't gonna put it down on paper. I ain't no educated man. I got sense enough not to try."

Eventually, Altman expertly stages one of cinema's most tense western showdowns. The church is burning down. The whole town is empty and desperately trying to quell the flames. Snow is falling heavily. Three armed dangerous killers are on the hunt. McCabe is alone. Guns will blast and blood will spill, spattering crimson upon the white blanket resting heavily upon the ground of Presbyterian Church, Washington.

There is no urgent musical score; only the sounds of breathing, footsteps upon the snow and the wind - oh, the howling wind. And every so often, we are jolted with shotgun blasts and the sickening sounds of shattering glass.

Mrs. Miller is nowhere to be seen. There is, you see, an opium den in town.

Well I lived with a child of snow
When I was a soldier,
And I fought every man for her
Until the nights grew colder.

A man of poetry is fighting for his life. A sister of mercy wants to forget.

Life is just like that sometimes.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is available on the Criterion Collection and includes a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray, a 2002 commentary with Altman and producer David Foster, new making-of documentary, new conversation about the film and Altman’s career between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell, 1970 production featurette, 1999 Art Directors Guild Film Society Q&A with production designer Leon Ericksen, excerpts from archival interviews with Vilmos Zsigmond, gallery of on-set stills, excerpts from 1971 episodes of "The Dick Cavett Show" featuring Altman and film critic Pauline Kael, the trailer and an essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

VIOLET - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Portrait of adolescent grief an emotional powerhouse

Leading the bike of a dead friend on a lonely road of grief.

Violet (2017)
Dir. Bas Devos
Starring: Cesar De Sutter, Mira Helmer, Raf Walschaerts, Fania Sorel, Koen De Sutter

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Is there anything more complex and powerful in human existence than grief? If there is, let me know. That horrible waking and dreaming state in which we respond to loss seems beyond all that is - in any way, shape or form - quantifiable. We can feel it, alright. It might be the heaviest emotional and physical weight anyone can possibly bear and yet, it's not often something we can so easily recognize, in others, as well as within ourselves. Grief has properties we all purport to understand, but on the spectrum of human emotion, loss - or rather, our response to loss - is infused with an import that is as rock-solid foundational as it is fleeting.

Grief exists somewhere between the tangible and the invisible.

Grief is the subject of the extraordinary feature-length debut by Bas Devos, a film that is indelibly infused with the delicate beauty and subtlety of the everything its title, Violet, represents.

As both a flower and colour, violet is rife with significance. My own first thoughts, possibly due to my very lapsed (but never-forgotten) religious roots in Christianity, are associated with Holy Mother Mary's deep modesty, her reverential devotion and the world's first blossoming of the unique flower upon Angel Gabriel's deliverance of the message that She would give birth to the Son of God. In more practical terms, violet is the last colour in the visible light spectrum, nestled twixt blue and the invisible ultraviolet.

Violet exists in the provocative dichotomous properties of death and rebirth. Beginning with the grain and pixels of CCTV monitors in a Brussels mall bathed in fluorescent light, we witness the violent death of a teenage boy. His body lying in a bloody heap, the picture slam-cuts to a shot of the corpse in the foreground as the tentative figure of teen Jesse (Cesar De Sutter) slowly approaches as he calls out his friend's name. "Jonas?" he asks. He wants his friend to answer, but he knows (as we do) that there will be no response.

From here, Devos takes us on the haunting journey of this frail adolescent as he wends his way through a mourning process that is filled with such sadness and confusion that the film is as unbearable as it is compulsively relentless in its exploration of loss. Presented as a series of single shots, gorgeously composed and lit by cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (Bullhead), we are constantly in Jesse's company as he faces confused solace from his parents, spies upon the mother and father of dead Jonas from outside their house, goes BMX riding with his buddies, faces their questioning, their blame and in one extraordinary sequence, drowns himself in a sea of bodies at a concert whilst the music blasts and pulsates hypnotically, charging him with a cacophonous aural barrage that drains him of the heavy weight of grief, if only fleetingly.

Devos wisely employs the standard-frame Academy ratio, most recently used to such astonishing effect in Son of Saul by Laszlo Nemes, its intimate qualities that were also the domain of cinema for a half century before the development of widescreen processes, Violet eschews the horizontal expanse that contemporary audiences have become so used to and instead explores the virtues of figures on a vertical landscape (via Karakatsanis's partial use of 8-perf 65mm film). Though some might jump to the knee-jerk response of equating Violet with the work of Gus Van Sant's Elephant and Paranoid Park (perfectly acceptable due to their subject matter of grief, adolescence and formalist qualities), I couldn't help but think of the sheer humanity of William Wyler's pre-widescreen compositions in such emotion-charged works as Dodsworth, The Best Years of Our Lives and most notably, The Heiress.

The academy ratio, with its emphasis upon the height of the frame, rather than the width, places us with the characters in such a way that our eyes move up and down rather than right to left. We not only get the force of depth, but the sense of the world's weight from above and the gravity which roots us to the ground. Jesse viewing the parents of Jonas from outside their house is especially evocative of this - it drives home his grief and that of the parents of the dead boy.

Violet is cinematic storytelling in its most powerful, evocative form. Devos uses image to express emotion, but to also evoke it within us. There are indeed images in this film that nobody will ever forget - Jesse riding his bike, grasping the handlebar of his dead pal's bike as he leads it down the dark, tree-lined streets of twilight or even more stunning, a final 10-minute shot as the camera slowly wends its way through the suburbs twixt magic hour and the setting of the sun.

It's a film that leaves you in a state of grace. Kind of like Mother Mary and the blossoming of violets upon Gabriel's revelation of the impending birth of God's Son. Life leads to death. Death leads to rebirth. And grief is that delicate spot on the spectrum of human existence - at once vivid and yet, so close to invisibility.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars

Violet opens May 12, 2017 in North America. In Canada, it can be seen at the Carlton and Kingsway Cinemas in Toronto.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

HOUNDS OF LOVE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Sickeningly Effective Aussie Thriller Will Shock

Preamble: Between 1990 and 1992, loving Canadian couple Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered three schoolgirls (including Homolka's little sister). Bernardo, on his own, and sometimes in collusion with Homolka serial raped dozens of women. The final numbers of those raped and/or murdered might never be known. Bernardo will be behind bars forever. Homolka struck a grotesque plea-bargain and today walks free. These crimes continue to haunt Canadians. Any such crimes will shake anyone's foundation, but that these acts of evil against women were committed with the willing complicity of a woman in the leafy, seemingly safe suburbs of Canadian cities seems so unthinkable, so appalling that the idea of any dramatization of similar acts seems beyond the pale.

During Bernardo's trial, I personally attended the courthouse on the morning audio tapes were played of Bernardo raping one of the schoolgirls. I staggered out at the official recess and never returned. What I experienced that morning is branded on my brain forever.

Watching Australian filmmaker Ben Young's horrifying thriller Hounds of Love brought it all back. Though Young's film is only loosely based on similar cases in Australia, I could not help but be transported back to the horrible experience of hearing Paul Bernardo calmly barking out orders to his weeping victim. Hounds of Love is, first and foremost, a thriller. No two ways about it - the film's intent is to scare the shit out of us. Was it necessary for Young to make this film? Was it necessary to subject myself to it? Is it necessary for anyone to see it? Read on.

Aussie thriller will resonate chillingly with Canadian audiences aware of schoolgirl killers Bernardo/Homolka. 

Hounds of Love (2017)
Dir. Ben Young
Starring: Emma Booth, Stephen Curry,
Ashleigh Cummings, Susie Porter, Damian De Montemas

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Through the driver's side window of a slow-moving car, teenage girls in school uniforms play volleyball within a caged court. Their movements are so dreamily-measured that one thinks the scene is unfolding in a series of still-life images. Once the car is parked, we catch sight of two steely eyes peering forward in a rearview mirror. From this perspective, we're afforded a series of closeups involving the almost lethargic slow-motion movements of the athletic young girls. All we see are body parts - knees bending, thighs jiggling ever-so slightly, breasts pressing forward under crisp white shirts as hands clutch a volleyball and thrust it forward.

These young women are reduced to faceless objects of desire.

Eventually, we're handed a new perspective. Through the driver's side window of the parked vehicle, we watch as the girls leave the court - some in cars, others on foot, but all in groups. All that is, except for one.

The car starts. The quarry is clear. The hunt is on.

Mayhem will follow.

Hounds of Love marks the feature film debut of Australian writer-director Ben Young and there is no denying that he's crafted a thriller with intelligence, resonance and sheer-DNA-hardwired filmmaking bravura. Inspired by two notable true-life serial killings in the Land Down Under (the "Night Caller" and "Moorhouse" murders), Young's film is set in 1987 amidst the sunny suburbs of Perth in which demented couple Evelyn and John White (Emma Booth, Stephen Curry) stalk, kidnap, torture, rape and murder teenage schoolgirls.

Much like the aforementioned Canuck killers Bernardo and Homolka, the pair use the safety net of being a "normal couple" to dupe teen runaway Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) into their bungalow of horror to have their way with her. John has wifey Evelyn wrapped round his finger and she's a willing participant in these grotesqueries.

Young's screenplay pays special attention to layering the characters - in particular the used/abused wife and her sorrow from losing her two biological children in a custody dispute from a previous marriage and victim Vicki's woes due to her parents' recent break-up. Much of the film is a survival tale in which the teenager uses her wits to get wifey onside by exposing how little hubby John actually cares about her.

I will admit to being more than a little mixed about this subject matter being used to raise hackles. This is clearly something that happened and will continue to happen in real life and though Young handles the proceedings with considerable "taste", it's impossible to watch the film (or even think about it afterwards) without feeling the bile rise.

Still, this is first-rate filmmaking. There are a number of suspense set pieces that will have audiences squirming. The synth-driven score and clever use of period music is especially effective. I guarantee that "Nights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues can NEVER be listened to in the same way EVER AGAIN after the manner in which Young employs it here.

Though I understand why Young has written the harrowing final act to focus upon the whole notion of a mother's love for her child (children), there's something a touch too pat about the Silence of the Lambs nod employed as a key turn in the events. It's not exploitative (at least not in the wrong way), but so much of the film (especially the astonishing performances delivered by the picture's key trio of players) has a sickening ring of truth to it and one can't help but feel that we're left with a denouement that's resorted to the kind of trope that the film goes out of its way to avoid.

Still, the picture is a shocker and directed with the skill of a master. The fetishistic qualities of Young's "eye" conjure up the sort of frissons employed by Master Alfred Hitchcock himself. One can only imagine what terrific pictures Ben Young has in store for us.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** Four Stars

Hounds of Love is an ABMO Films presentation that opens May 12, 2017 at:
Toronto – Carlton Cinemas – 20 Carlton St.
Ottawa – Mayfair Theatre – 1074 Bank St.
and May 19, 2017 at:
London – The Hyland Cinema - 240 Wharncliffe Rd.

Friday, 5 May 2017

GHOSTS OF OUR FOREST - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 Hot Docs Hot Pick - Music Lives

The music of the Batwa survives amidst displacement.
Ghosts of Our Forest (2017)
Dir. Daniel Roher

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The Batwa of Uganda have been displaced from their centuries-old ancestral home in the jungle for some twenty five years. They live between two worlds. Forcibly removed (at gunpoint no less) from the natural habitat of the dwindling mountain gorilla population, these people were dumped on the outskirts of the city with no compensation nor training to prepare them for a way of life in diametric contrast to the one they knew. They have suffered prejudice, poverty, substance abuse, exploitation and Christian colonization.

Their land is now a national park and they are not allowed to enter the lush forests without permission. Some even have official sanction to take white tourists into the park on tours in which they reenact the way of life of these gentle, pygmy tribes. What the Batwa retain is music - singing is their very soul and now they hope to use it to educate younger generations of Batwa in the history and culture of their people, but most importantly to expose their plight to the rest of the world.

Daniel Roher's fine documentary Ghosts of Our Forest is as sad and haunting as it is joyous and uplifting - his deft natural filmmaking instincts allow us to have our cake and eat it too.

The primary focus is on the Batwa Music Club as the prepare for a big concert in Kampala. Whether the group is practising or delivering the film's climactic live performance, the film allows us to soar with these brilliant musicians as they fill our hearts with the sheer beauty of their people and historic way of life.

We must pay a price for this joy, however, and the film presents a series of harrowing interviews in which we learn about the suffering of the Batwa. One story is especially chilling; an old woman describes how she was collecting dead firewood on the edge of the forest when she was approached by park rangers who beat and tortured her. If it hadn't been for the quick thinking on the part of a farm boy who witnessed the brutality and sounded an alarm to the rest of the Batwa community, she would have been dragged deeper into the forest and executed.

This is but one of several sad stories related. Roher spends a good deal of time letting us in on the former way of life these people had in their jungle paradise; much of this is extremely joyous and deeply contrasts the present conditions of the uprooted Batwa. He even points his cameras in the direction of the gorillas who now live alone in the forest. We realize how the Batwa and gorillas would have co-habitated in peace for so long and that the government's forcible removal of these people was cruel and frankly, just plain stupid.

And then there are the "ghosts", the ancestors who roam the forests without the benefit of the living spirits of their progeny. Through both music and rich imagery, Roher's film instills us with an indelible sense of a time and place that seems long ago and far away, yet close enough that we, along with the Batwa can see it, touch it and feel it.

It's an important film. One hopes it will help the government of Uganda see the light and perhaps, someday soon, allow the Batwa to return to their ancestral homeland, to reunite with their ghosts and the natural spirit of their culture.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars

Ghosts of Our Forest enjoys its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2017.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

JACKIE BOY - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Angry Young Men in Grotesque Canuck Kitchen Sink

Jackie Boy (2015)
Dir. Cody Campanale
Starring: Alino Giraldi, Shannon Coulter, Edward Charette,
Andrew Di Rosa, Chloe Van Landschoot, Christina Bryson

Review by Greg Klymkiw

This grim, powerful slice-of-life exploration of male bonding and misogyny is the best feature film of its kind since 1997's In the Company of Men and is, in fact, far more aesthetically whole and bereft of the quick, easy moralistic turns taken in Neil LaBute's foray into manly meanness. Though it lacks LaBute's satirically-edged humour, this is not a problem at all since writer-director Cody Campanale is clearly burrowed into the kitchen sink realism of mannish hatreds (not unlike films from the 60's British New Wave such as This Sporting Life, Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger).

Here we find three layabout buddies in their late 20s, living aimlessly in the dreary post-war suburbs of Hamilton. The group's Alpha-Male is Jack (Alino Giraldi), the strikingly handsome and sexy cocksman who lives in a morass of drugs, booze and one night stands in the clubs. After finding out that one of his female conquests has a boyfriend, he snaps a bunch of nude provocative photos of her and uploads them to social media, just to humiliate her and brag to his buddies about how badass he was. Kal (Edward Charette) might even harbour deeper feelings of hatred towards women and we get considerable clues that he is, in fact, repressing his homosexuality. Tony (Andrew Di Rosa) is a major loser with a hot life partner who puts up with his general untidiness, unemployment and increasing weight gain, but she's near the end of her charitable rope.

These men are pigs. They have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. This is a good thing. Campanale seeks not to explain away their behaviour, nor does he attempt to falsely attribute positive aspects to their foul personae. Watching the film is uncanny - sickeningly so. I know these men and even recognize (to my shame) bits and pieces of myself. Campanale's sense of observation is masterly and he's offered considerable support to this end from his cast, cinematographer and an outstanding score.

However, watching these guys be pigs for a whole film would be too much and Campanale's deft screenplay realistically provides a spanner in the works. Jack meets Jasmine (Sharon Coulter), a smart, funny and unbelievably sexy young woman who refuses to succumb to his bullshit. This makes him want her even more - so much so, that the unthinkable happens and he begins to fall in love with her. Having normal feelings for a woman pisses off his buds mightily and the film creepily edges to a shocking climax.

Unfortunately, I wish Campanale had trusted in the inevitability of the story's actions and had not succumbed to working a "surprise" sub-plot in to deflect attention away from the said (and sad) inevitability. It's the one false note in a movie that is refreshingly without them (and keeps the picture from attaining masterpiece potential). Still, it's a terrific film and to its undying credit that this one glaring flaw doesn't keep the movie from sinking too deeply into a quagmire of disappointment.

Ultimately, Jackie Boy is the real thing. So is its director.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4-Stars

Sidenote: Campanale's film weirdly reminded me of a short film I wrote and directed for the now-defunct OMDC Calling Card Programme in 2000 called Zabava. The short swam about in the bucket of piss known as Ukrainian-Canadian man-boys treating women like shit. Though not derivative of my film in any way, there are narrative elements in Campanale's feature that are strikingly similar to my short, proving only that misogyny carries over in similar ways from generation to generation.

Jackie Boy opens May 5 at The Royal Cinema via A71.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

ASK THE SEXPERT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017HotDocsHotPick - Nonagenarian Sex Tips

Dr. Mahinder Watsa is 90-years-old.
He knows EVERYTHING about sex. Ask him ANYTHING.
Ask the Sexpert (2017)
Dir. Vaishali Sinha

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Is there anything you want to know about sex? Well, have no fear. If you live in India, that is. Here you can pick the enormous sex-drenched brain of nonagenarian expert on all things nookie-related, Dr. Mahinder Watsa. Yes, he knows everything you always wanted to know about sex (but were afraid to ask).

Vaishali Sinha's slight, sleek and thoroughly entertaining portrait of the kindly, old doctor isn't about to set the world ablaze, but it opens a window into the world of a genuinely great man who has devoted his life to shattering the taboos associated with sexuality in the decidedly patriarchal and repressive country of India. He's a sex advice columnist for a large Mumbai daily and he's read and beloved by millions. He also offers one-on-one counsel to couples and individuals from his home.

The film provides a thorough biographical history of Sinha, from his earliest days in medical school, through to his ongoing research and practise in the area of sexuality and right up to his current status as one of the biggest celebrities in India. Though he lives quietly, modestly and sadly alone (his beloved wife has passed on), his ongoing work keeps him busy and fulfilled. His family wants him to slow down and they worry about all the strangers he lets into his home, but he pays it no mind and continues with his life's work - unabated, unstoppable.

There is much humour in the film - some of the questions imparted seem so ludicrous as to border on a kind of Dali-like surrealism and certainly the picture does not ignore the opposition in India to the good doctor's frankness. Perhaps this film wasn't the place to address the more serious concerns on violence against women and rape culture in India, but at the same time, it feels skirted over almost unnecessarily. Yes, the movie exposes and promotes the good doctor's open approach to sexuality and while this, in and of itself, provides some answers and contrast to the tough questions, it seems hardly enough.

Still, he's a great subject and viewers will have a fun ride on the 90-year-old's magic carpet of all things sexual.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: *** Three Stars

Ask The Sexpert enjoys its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2017

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

ISLAND SOLDIER - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017HotDocsHotPick - Military Colonialism USA

Colonialism Means Dying for Someone Else's Country
Island Soldier (2017)
Dir. Nathan Fitch

Review By Greg Klymkiw

You can never go wrong with a God's-eye view and the gorgeous shots at the beginning of Island Soldier are an especially appropriate way to introduce us to the deep blue waters surrounding the lush green islands of Micronesia and the strange, sad and beautiful world of the citizens of Kosrae.

It's immediately clear that the indigenous population of 6500 have a decent enough living to choose from in fishing, farming, forestry and/or tourism. Once our lofty perch shifts to Earth, we join a young boy working on his boat, the expanse of ocean on one side, the hilly boreal forest on the other.

The idyll doesn't last long - at least not for us. We immediately join a grieving family as a military escort removes a coffin from an airplane. Though all present are indigenous Island people, the coffin is draped in an American flag and followed by the wince-inspiring multi-gun salute that seems more suited to the gardens of stone across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. at the Arlington National Cemetery and not this paradise of over 200 volcanic islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Deftly using a mix of title cards over gorgeous images and period archival footage, we get a short-form history of Micronesia, its centuries of colonial rule and eventually being recognized as its own country. That said, we also learn that Micronesia is an official protectorate of the United States and as such, perfect recruiting grounds for the American military.

Director-Cinematographer Nathan Fitch doesn't waste much time with any formal informational proceedings - this is a film about the land, and most of all, its people. As glorious as it is to see the residents of Micronesia in this dazzlingly photographed Pacific Shangri-La, the film is infused with a deep melancholy that is often profoundly moving.

An older generation continues to toil in the traditional ways of the island (agriculture and fishing), but the youth of the island seeks something more. They want freedom, training, education and a "better" way of life.

Sadly, this means that many of them leave. Sadder yet, many leave permanently - serving the United States military in the far-flung regions of the Middle East. For so many young people, the permanence of their flight from the islands is the permanence of death on whatever battlegrounds America chooses to exercise its might. Bouncing between sequences of an old man preparing taro twixt attempting to Skype with his soldier son via a bad internet connection, to the rigorous basic training in Fort Benning and "action" in the field and a mother honouring her dead son by running a restaurant named after him - these amongst many other moments of life on and off the islands contribute to one of the more powerful and elegiac films about the continued "legacy" of colonialism - an ever-changing world of tradition yielding to conformity.

The "politics" of the film are well served by its first rate production value, bravely languorous cutting and accent on the changing landscape of humanity against the backdrop of a "land" that remains ever-constant.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ Three and a Half Stars

Island Soldier enjoys its International Premiere at Hot Docs 2017

Monday, 1 May 2017

A BETTER MAN - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 HotDocs HotPick - An Abused & Abuser Kaffeeklatsch

Scumbag Abuser Meets Victim 20+ Years Later.
You don't see this everyday.

A Better Man (2017)
Dir. Attiya Khan, Lawrence Jackman

Review By Greg Klymkiw

About halfway through A Better Man, I bolted from the cinema and puked my guts out. I'm still not completely sure why. What I remember is feeling mounting rage whenever one of the documentary's subjects, a scumbag abuser, was onscreen. I suspect the desired effect of the film was not to make me want to find this piece of garbage and fucking tear him limb from limb. I'm not exaggerating. Whenever I had to look at this pile of shit, I started to close my eyes or just turn away and look somewhere else and all the while I kept having fantasies about the delectable myriad of tortures I'd apply to him. I won't share them with you, but rest assured, they're pretty horrendous. As the movie unspooled they got sicker and meaner. I mean, really sick, really mean. As I write this, I'm so tempted to share them with you, but no - I'll keep them to myself.

What I can say for sure, and again, whether this was the intent of the film or not, it made me feel hatred. Deep, genuine hatred. It made me think about who I am, my own experiences, my own place in the world, as a man, and most notably, it left me asking questions, some of which I'd wished the film itself answered. Though it didn't, it forced me to try and answer them all by my lonesome.

It made me think about my own sweet teenage daughter and what I would do if she ever had to suffer what the film's co-director and chief subject Attiya Khan suffered 23-years ago when she co-habited with the wad of stinking excrement who purportedly loved her, but inflicted endless, brutal physical abuse upon her. I know one thing. I would want to do many of the things I fantasized about last night - I'd really, really want to do them.

Wanting and doing are, however, two different things. Doing any of those things would result in being separated from someone who would need me to be around for her sake. Incarceration, no matter how unjustified it would be for exacting true justice, would be no substitute for being present and free to offer the kind of love and support that would be needed - the love and support that supersedes any violence that could/should be applied to turds like him.

A Better Man is an important and original film. I actually don't think anything quite like it has ever been made. What you will experience in the picture feels almost unprecedented. Over two decades after suffering abuse, Khan gets her abuser to agree to be in this film with her to discuss the horrors he inflicted. They meet alone, face to face, they share time, together and alone, with a counsellor and in one of the more harrowing sequences I've ever experienced in a movie, they journey to the shithole of Kitchener-Waterloo to visit the locations where the physical abuse took place.

The film clearly wants to explore the notion of healing - for both the abused and the abuser. What ends up happening, and this is (I think/hope) not the fault of the filmmaking, is that the abuser continually avoids digging deep. He never fully articulates the extent (and details) of the violence he committed. Even more maddening is that he never fully reveals what he might have suffered in his life prior to living with and meting out continued assaults upon his live-in girlfriend.

What's creepy about this stinking landfill on two legs is that he seems even a bit smug about the "bravery" of agreeing to be in the film. Worse yet, his bravery even seems to take on fetishistic properties. It's like he's getting off on doing this. I couldn't help but imagine him watching the movie at home alone and having a right happy masturbation session over it. The bottom line, is that I have no fucking use for him. It sickens me that he's wasting air that others could breathe.

The movie itself will certainly have its place in film history, but it would be remiss of me to avoid the fact that it's not nearly as good as it could be. First of all, it feels oddly truncated - as if there are huge, vital chunks on some cutting room floor somewhere. Secondly, it doesn't go nearly as deep into the subject of domestic abuse as one wants it to. In both cases, my criticisms here seem linked to the many unanswered questions which, ultimately, need to be part of the experience of seeing this film.

Where, for example, were Khan's family in all this? She describes her extremely visible wounds. Did she hide this from her family? If so, why don't we get some insight into this? (At one point we find out her teachers at school had an inkling of what was going on, but the film leaves us wanting in terms of why more, if anything, wasn't done by authority figures.)

We watch the movie waiting for sequences that penetrate the issues of why the abused stayed and why the abuser abused. These are addressed, but not nearly with the dogged, deep detail the movie seems to demand. The movie is missing a pit bull - someone or something to grab hold with its teeth and jaws and never let go.

Yes, the movie was made. Yes, the movie forces us to think about and address the issue of domestic violence. Yes, it has power. Yes, it's original.

But sorry, it's not enough. It oddly feels like a film with too many cooks tossing in and/or removing ingredients into the pot. This might not be the case, but that the movie feels this way suggests that it wasn't worked hard enough. (And if there were a few too many cooks, they all need to go back to cooking school and leave filmmakers alone.)

There is one very strange thing about the experience of first seeing the film that stuck out for me like a sore thumb. As the movie begins, the following title card appears:
The film describes scene of intimate partner violence which may be painful for some viewers. Please exercise care and compassion for yourself and any fellow viewers.
Huh?

What's this supposed to mean? Whose not-bright idea was it to assail us with these words? Given the bravery and importance of the film, its worth (in spite of its flaws) as a work of art, giving us this boneheaded non-warning warning about nothing, is an insult to the film and, frankly, its viewers. What's the point of telling us what we're about to see? What's the point of telling us how potentially horrific it's going to be? And then, what, pray tell is the point of telling us how fucking touchy-feely sensitive we have to be about ourselves and fellow viewers while we watch the movie?

Seriously, this is one of the most idiotic things I've ever witnessed in any movie.

I beg whoever is responsible for this to cut it. Treat your audiences and the film with respect by not telling us a load of nonsense and tainting the purity of the picture.

And speaking of cuts, I must reiterate - this movie feels truncated. Something tells me the picture needs to be pulled and a rethink on what's probably sitting on the floor somewhere needs to happen. This movie needs breathing space. It needs to be the best it can possibly be. It's too original and important not to have this lavished upon it.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: *** Three-Stars

A Better Man is an NFB production enjoying its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2017.