2018: A Few of my Favorite Things

Well we offer cheers once again to the end of another year. I like to think of 2018 as a pretty good year for me in the long run, both personally and professionally.

I’m hesitant to focus too much on the personal aspects of my life in this blog, suffice it to say, I’ve had some ups and downs as most people do. Yet this year for me I think had more ups than usual so forgive me if I happen to look forward to 2019 with some optimism.

The world stage I know can be looked at with far more pessimism, as we are entering into an unknown future with some of the wrong people still running things. It’s a world full of “healots” which is a word coined by Walter Brennan’s Colonel character in “Meet John Doe”, a film I recently revisited over the holidays which even though was made in 1941 can say much about our current state of affairs and how messed up everything is. In fact the more I watch older movies, the more each of them feel like a dire warning of hard times ahead.

But as Bruce Springsteen reminded those of us who happened to watch his Broadway special on Netflix “The future is not yet written”. Maybe it’s hearing that comforting thought from the king of rock n roll troubadours that makes me believe not all hope is lost and for every bad person in the world, there is someone who is good.

Now with that rather simple sentiment behind me, without further adieu I wanted to celebrate the end of 2018 with highlighting a few of my favorite things I’ve discovered this year. All of them I would say land in the realm of popular art or pop culture whatever category you prefer. Since movies, music, and television are often seen as highlights in my every day life, I just thought it best to focus on them specifically and what the ones I picked were so meaningful to me. So here we go…

Favorite Film Discovery:

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

This category is reserved for the film I’ve seen that was not released in 2018 but is new to me nonetheless. I saw a lot of great films I would consider classics I had not seen before, but the one that just floored me is this from beginning to end with its intriguing premise and great performances is “Sorry, Wrong Number”, a rather compact film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck in another stand out performances (she received her fourth and final Best Actress Oscar nomination for this role), as well as Burt Lancaster. Stanwyck plays the invalid rich wife to Lancaster’s bitter office drone to her father’s pharmaceutical company. The film begins with Stanwyck accidentally overhearing a murder plot over the phone when he lines get crossed, after which we get the impression that she might actually be the person who is set up to be killed. The film has a great use of flashbacks as it leads up to a riveting finale that actually had my jaw drop with shock and surprise. There’s nothing like a great film noir to get your blood boiling, and Stanwyck and Lancaster both made a great career of being in some classics of the genre. It was nice treat playing off of each other. The film is a brief bare-bones affair that looks to have been shot with quick, cheap, efficiency. But the whole piece is stunning from beginning to end and just when you think it’s going to work out the way you think it is, it takes a fatal twist which leaves you gasping in disbelief.

Honorable Mentions:

Godzilla (1954): It actually took me this long to see the original classic monster movie, and it did not disappoint

Black Sunday (1960): Classic Italian horror film stylistically realized from Mario Bava and starring the stunning Barbara Steele.

The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)/ Love Me or Leave Me (1955): I have not really seen a lot of Doris Day films before this year and it’s a shame because I really think she was an underrated actress/singer when it came down to it. Today it may be easy to see her films as mostly light and bubbly romantic comedies, or musicals but there was some real artistry going on under the surface, and Day could be an actress with both some real comedic chops or dramatic depths. Two of her films I wanted to highlight are Glass Bottom Boat which is a highly spirited riff of the James Bond 60s spy drama, as well as a screwball comedy also featuring Rod Taylor. Love Me or Leave Me is a musical drama with Day giving a great dramatic performance opposite James Cagney who is also great.

Altered States (1980): Fascinating, trippy sci-fi film starring William Hurt and directed by Ken Russell

I Married a Witch (1942): Utterly charming romantic comedy starring Veronika Lake as a witch who puts a love spell on hapless Fredric March

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) French farce from Jean Renoir starring Michel Simon as a homeless man who is saved from suicide by book shop owner, then suddenly causes him nothing but grief.

Favorite Movie Going Experience:

2001: A Space Odyssey in IMAX: Truly the biggest thrill I had at the movies was going to see Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece which was brought back to the screen for a limited engagement on the IMAX screen. I saw a few other films in IMAX this year and some of them pretty impressive like “Mission Impossible: Fallout” and “First Man”, but “2001” was given new life. Still based on its original 35 mm print, it’s never looked more crisper and clearer. The images remain timeless as if the film was made yesterday, and there is a real epic scope to the whole proceedings. This new experience almost felt like I was watching the film for the first time.

Honorable Mentions:

First Man: Still quite impressive in IMAX with stunning visuals

Blackkklansman: The biggest gut punch in the theatre I had.

Cold War: Classically filmed in black and white, a tender love story, and old fashioned jazz music made this feel like the coolest looking film

Altered States: Seeing this for the first time in a theatre not knowing what to expect, made for an insane though entertaining film

Mandy: I saw this in a late showing with a rowdy crowd of cult movie enthusiasts and they just ate this crazy movie up.

3 Faces: A humble setting for a humble movie, this was not on my radar but it struck a chord. A reflective and relaxing film to watch, I see it again and again and again.

Some Favorite Movie Moments

Cold War: Every glance made by the two lovers at each other from across a room, gives us everything we need to know about them and how much in love they are.

Blackkklansman: The final five or so minutes of the film where we are whisked from 70s America into modern times.

The Other Side of the Wind: The sex scene in the car.

Let the Sunshine In: Anytime where Juliet Binoche smiles.

3 Faces: The final shot which remains cautiously optimistic.

Black Panther: The South Korean car chase

Mission Impossible: Fallout: Tom Cruise jumps out of a plane

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Tom Waits’ face when he realizes someone is behind him with a gun, and also when he christens his gold claim “Mr. Pockets”.

Ready Player One: The final scene with Mark Rylance which feels like he’s standing in for Spielberg reflecting on his life’s work.

Unsane: The final freeze frame shot of Claire Foy evoking 70s paranoid thrillers.

Avengers: Infinity War: Thor enters Wakanda

Ant-Man and The Wasp: Michael Pena’s telling of a story as performed by Paul Rudd and Evangaline Lily.

Roma: The hospital scene all of it.

Won’t you Be My Neighbour?: The final moment when the film asks something for the audience to do.

The Commuter: The opening montage showing twenty years in the life of one man.

Game Night: “Oh no he died!”

First Reformed: Floating off of a floor, while images of hope and despair flow by underneath.

First Man: Landing on the moon.

Mandy: Nicolas Cage shouting “You ripped my shirt!” while fighting with an other worldly biker demon.

Leave No Trace: When the father and daughter say goodbye

Climax: The opening dance sequence

Three Identical Strangers: When the truth about the triplets’ separation is revealed

The Great Buster: A Celebration: Basically the final thirty or so minutes of the film giving us what we came for, clips of Buster Keaton in all his glory.

Hereditary: When a certain someone loses their head.

Favorite TV Show

The Good Place Season 2: Television was pretty scarce with me this year. But one bright spot for me was when I caught up with everyone’s favorite existential sitcom. While season one was thoroughly enjoyable with, season two really upped its ante, giving us more surprises and fodder for comedy, while completely re vamping the series yet again by the end of it. I’m not sure where “A Good Place” will be going next, but I’m on board to find out.

Honorable Mentions:

Bob’s Burgers: Last year found my introduction to “Bob’s Burgers” a show with a lot of heart, humor, and winning characters

Alias Grace: Mini-series based on the Margaret Atwood novel by the same name, is positively a great drama and mystery.

Ken Burns’ Civil War: I’ve been wanting to catch up on this documentary series forever, being a huge fan of both Ken Burns and the history of the Civil War, this did not disappoint.

Ken Burns’ The War: Burns later war film about World War 2, is a bit more drawn out than Civil War, but still worth a look

American Vandal Season 2: Being a fan of the first season, I had to check out the new one, and was left pleasantly surprised as it was another indictment on certain High School stigmas that can haunt students, while at the same time be funny and timely.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Season 1: While this show was not without its flaws, I was charmed by it to say the least. Blending horror, comedy, and teen drama isn’t always easy, but the cast here make this work.

Favorite Book/Reading Material

Henry IV Part 1: I suppose part of the joy of going back to school like I ended up doing is I get to read things I never thought I’d ever read, then end up loving some of the things I’ve read. Granted this is a Shakespeare play, so it’s hard for anything to compete, but it’s a play I found myself drawn to by its characters, charm, wit, and melancholy. It has actually become one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, though I did not have time to read part 2 yet, it is on my list by the end of the year.

Honorable Mentions

Dr. Faustus: Another school assigned reading I found to be very enjoyable written by Christopher Marlowe

Alias Grace: Margaret Atwood’s novel of a young housemaid accused of being an accomplice in the murder of her employer and his lover is a wonderful read and quite compelling.

Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise: A wonderful biography on one of my favorite directors.

Favorite Music

Finally I want to highlight the album of the year for me. Although this was the year I discovered the wonderful beauty and humor of Randy Newman, as well as albums by Blondie and The Beach Boys I had not heard before, I have to say the album that was played constantly since I bought just a short two months ago is the new Elvis Costello album “Look Now”. Costello has been a favorite of mine since my teenage years, and I’ve been aching to listen to new music by him for years. Finally I was not disappointed, and “Look Now” sounds like the kind of music I listen to for comfort food. I can’t say I listen a lot to the newer music these days with few exceptions, so hearing someone like Costello perform at the top of his game is just a real treat. So I’ll close with a couple of samples from his album, two songs that I love and grow on me the more I listen to them. Farewell 2018.

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Playtime

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I sometimes wonder how a film like “Playtime” can exist. Imagine being Jacques Tati going to a studio asking for financing to basically create your own city. The exteriors would be buildings big enough to pass for skyscrapers, while the interiors would be functional looking offices, restaurants, apartments and airports. All the while it would be shot on 70mm and released only in theatres that would accommodate that type of screening. Oh yeah, also the film doesn’t have much of a plot, but at least it’s a comedy.

It’s no wonder Tati went bankrupt creating his magnum opus. He may not have gotten rich, but at least he left an indelible mark in the world of cinema, and created a truly unique film that cannot be duplicated.

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“Playtime”  is a film we are invited to experience. It isn’t held together so much by plot, but rather a series of occurrences that include not just astute, and amusing observations on human beings but also the world they inhabit. We are presented with a modern-day Paris, which is more preoccupied with showcasing what is current and new to the city rather than focusing on the older aspects. Classical iconography such as the Eiffel tower and the Arc de triomphe are shown only through reflection giving us traces of a world gone by.

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Tati enters (or stumbles) into the film as his memorable character Monsieur Hulot who appeared in his last two films and became a phenomenon. Here he navigates through as if he’s lost in a maze, trying to comprehend how to operate each new modern obstacle. Whether it’s a newly cushioned chair in a waiting room, or a parade of cubicles designed for efficiency but operate with the opposite effect, Tati seems to revel in the ridiculousness of these technological deathtraps. Much of the humour from these contraptions come from the needless complications they bring to daily life. For Hulot, it’s a struggle just to get from one area of a building to the next.

Tati himself was a traditionalist, with all of his films inhabiting the spirit of silent comedy. “Playtime” is a sound film with bits of dialogue said throughout, but it’s mostly inconsequential, and plays as background noise. Even the look evokes a black and white quality with most of the actors in greyish outfits. Hulot himself is seen sporting darker colour tones than usual. The sets give off the drab feeling of sameness with white flooring and glass imagery displayed throughout every building. We do see splashes of color here and there which refer to a brighter, more innocent past that Tati seems to long for.

This aesthetic sounds as if it would fit in today’s modern dystopian visions of the future or maybe even the present, yet Tati’s sensibilities don’t allow for such bleakness. Rather he seems more interested with how human beings adapt and function in such absurd surroundings. This is never displayed better than with the film’s penultimate set piece, that of a newly opened high-tech restaurant which hasn’t worked out all of its kinks yet. The scene is a slow build starting with minor disruptions such as a tile from the floor coming unglued. Pretty soon the entire building is falling apart and is even exemplified by one unlucky waiter who begins to lose a piece of his uniform one by one as the evening progresses.

“Playtime” could be seen as a cautionary tale about the frenzied pace of the modern world, especially when viewed today, where technology has pretty much taken over. But there is so much joy to be found in this film, amongst the chaos. Tati seems to be at odds with the modern era but also fascinated by it. Take the film’s finale which is a traffic jam. Everyone seems to be driving in a circle, in what strangely resembles that of the Earth rotating. It’s a jolly scene depicting something of an amusement park ride. I feel that Tati is making a comment on the human race itself. The journey through life is like a ride, exciting and absurd, it’s here for us to enjoy and explore, even if it may lead one day to oblivion. Play on.

 

First Man Review

I don’t think we ever get to know Neil Armstrong in “First Man”, but I don’t think you’re supposed to. This isn’t a criticism of the film, rather it works as a strength. The film doesn’t try to understand Armstrong, or why he seemed so compelled to walk on the moon, but it does try to engage him as an interesting character study of someone who could not express himself, or at least didn’t know how to.

“First Man” tells the story Armstrong’s nearly decade long ascent in the world of NASA culminating with his immortal first steps on the lunar surface. We see him early on as a test pilot, who reaches the heights of Earth’s atmosphere without actually making it into space. He pauses for a moment to take in the majesty of his surroundings, but as the film shows, Armstrong is a pretty clinical guy who doesn’t lose sight of his main objectives, which is to finish his mission.

In his home life, Neil is a caring husband and father, but early on, tragedy strikes when with the death of his young daughter. It hits him in a way it would any loving father, but Neil takes special precautions to hide his emotions. At her funeral, he locks himself in a room, covering the blinds so he can take this moment to cry, it’s the only moment the film gives for him to convey such outward emotion.

The film treats the death of his daughter as a catalyst for him to join NASA’s Gemini program, which is designed to train pilots and test them for the eventual Apollo missions to the moon. We see the rigorous preparation Neil and the other Astronauts are assigned as each new mission brings other challenges, as well as more casualties in the process. Death surrounds much of the failed missions, as friends of Neil die in unfortunate mishaps, and we see how this does (or doesn’t) effect his overall demeanor.

With this film, co-writer, and director Damien Chazelle seems to have two objectives in mind. One is to give a complete visceral, and memorable experience of what it feels like to be inside the cockpit of a NASA rocket. As viewers, we feel the claustrophobia of the astronauts, as they deal with the shaky rattling of such an enclosed area. It might be the same feeling of being a rag doll strapped inside a tin can. The sound design is tremendous with these sequences, and composer Justin Hurwitz adds to the experience with a score that can add to the intensity, but also complement the intimacy. The actual moon landing is a masterpiece of all of these tools working in unison giving a breathtaking experience. It’s safe to say it would be a crime not to see this film on the biggest screen you can find.

The second objective is to try to depict truthfully, a rather impenetrable person such as Neil Armstrong. I have read criticisms of the film saying Armstrong is not a very interesting character, and comes off as rather boring. I found him to be completely fascinating, in the way that he remains so passive. This reading may sound contradictory, but Chazelle seems to understand he could only define Armstrong through his actions, rather than seeing what makes him tick.

There are moments where we see Neil almost opening up, and wanting to defy his instincts of staying hidden, and I found these moments to be the most heartbreaking. Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast to play such a character, especially with his unique, subtle acting style. I find myself leaning in more when I watch a Gosling performance, I’m not using hyperbole when I say he’s one of the most nuanced film actors ever to grace the screen. Every glance, with his eyes, or tilt of his head is like a cue from Gosling to invite us into what he is thinking. How could one say Armstrong is a boring character when Gosling’s interpretation speaks so many volumes?

However in the end Armstrong remains an anomaly, Chazelle often frames him in ways where he is cut off from other people. Sometimes it’s behind a screen door when his son invites him to play, or it’s behind a pane of glass which separates him from his wife (Clair Foy). Even when he’s on the moon, his helmet visor becomes extra protection, so we can’t see his face, and he’s careful to lower it to hide his tears.

It’s easy to criticize a person who seems to be embarrassed of their feelings the way Armstrong was. There have been deconstructions of this type of character in our modern world, and we have learned it is unhealthy to keep our emotions buried. Watching this film, I felt sadness in the fact that Neil Armstrong was able to accomplish what very few people did; he faced insurmountable personal and professional tragedy, he overcame unspeakable odds, and became the hero of a nation, yet despite all of this, he remains unknown to us.

4 Stars out of 4

On Loneliness

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“Loneliness is a good thing to share with somebody” Coach Ernie Pantusso

Is it my fault? Did I say the wrong thing? Did I do the wrong thing? Am I just not that interesting? These are the questions that usually go through my head when I feel alone. It’s a sick feeling that can drive you nuts and make you think you’re utterly worthless . We wonder why we develop these social anxieties, or neurotic tendencies towards people. Speaking only for myself I think part of it stems from that fear of being alone, that some day you might lose someone who is close to you without any warning. Maybe it’s someone you shared your secrets with, or someone you felt understood you in a way no one else did, and when they’re gone, it leaves an empty crater that can’t be filled.

Loneliness can be a scary thing, but what helps me through it is that practically everyone in their life at one time or another has felt alone. It’s one of the things that as a human race we have in common. Few people ask to be alone, but more often than not, it can’t be helped. Sometimes it’s nice, I like to revel in the solitude that is given me, I can pop in a movie, or read a book, or do what I’m trying to do now which is write. It gives us time for contemplation or reflection, and we can come out of the other side stronger and maybe wiser.

But often times, the feeling of being alone can overwhelm you to the point of desperation. It’s like a blanket that covers you with doubts, and sadness, binding you to those bad thoughts inside your head you can’t escape until you are rescued by some utterance of human connection. When that relief comes, it’s like a life raft wading in the ocean saving you from drowning. I don’t mean to sound morbid, and I usually try to write pleasantly, but the subject of loneliness tends to carry that sort of weight.

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For the sake of some levity, I want to focus on my favorite television show of all time: “Cheers”. “Cheers” is a proven classic with jokes that never seem to get old, yet I’ve always found it poignant because at its heart it’s a very melancholy show about lonely people. “Cheers” ran the gamut of different comedic genres, whether it was the Tracey/Hepburn witty banter of Sam and Diane (or later Sam and Rebecca), or a door swinging farce as in the “Woody’s wedding” episode, it bent the conventions of the traditional sitcom. But what it came back to time and again, and what was reemphasized in the closing moments of the show’s series finale was how Cheers itself became a haven for its lonely band of misfits. The bar, (and the show itself) stood in as a place to be when you really had nowhere else to go. You could come in, drown your sorrows and share your sadness with everyone else, and the worries of the outside world could just melt away until Sam rang for last call. It was no wonder why anyone didn’t want to leave, and no wonder for me why I revisit “Cheers” almost every year since I first saw it as a kid. It’s so I can revisit those characters that I feel a kinship with, I can be a part of their commeraderie and their hyjinks which feels like an escape from the harshness of the real world. Like them, I feel less alone being invited into that bar.

I’m often quite moved just by the depiction of loneliness and I don’t think anyone shows it off more beautifully than my favorite director Yasujiro Ozu. I’ve spoke about Ozu on this blog on numerous occasions, as one might expect from a site called “Pillow Shots” ,but no other filmmaker has had so much effect on my life. At the end of almost every Ozu film, we see the image of someone who is alone, whether its a parent who has just seen their daughter married off such as “Late Spring” or “Late Autumn”, or it’s the elderly grandfather who’s wife has just died in “Tokyo Story”. Ozu’s films always come to the same conclusion in that loneliness is unavoidable, yet it is never something to despair over. Ozu never resigns to a feeling hopelessness or nihilism, rather he is filled with humanity, and warmth. His characters do grapple with loneliness, but it’s a common thread with all of them, in that you could say it’s a shared experience. I think Ozu would say loneliness comes with the passage of time, and it can’t be stopped much like the moving trains in his films. Instead it’s important to cherish the time we have with the people who are important to us, which is something that could so easily be taken for granted.

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Without beating around the bush too much, I will say I felt compelled to write about this particular subject tonight because I have felt alone lately. I’ve recently moved to a new city, and while my friends aren’t very far away, it’s difficult to see them as much as I used to. My family is scattered around, though we were never ones to share our feelings very much. It’s difficult to pick up the phone and admit you are feeling alone, and you hope someone might be out there on the other end ready to listen. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, and you have to move on. What I have learned is nothing is hopeless, and sometimes the support you crave can come from unexpected places. It’s also important to try to be open, and knowing some people are hurting just as much as you are, maybe even more so. Reaching out can not only help heal you, but maybe someone else as well. Perhaps that mutual understanding and listening to each other can help bridge some gap to a clearer communication. Or maybe it’s late and I don’t know what I’m saying anymore.

Now to try to end what I’m trying to say, but I’m not sure how. Loneliness is so elusive and it can mean different things to different people. I guess I was just trying to share what it means to me. I wanted to share my thoughts on the subject that’s all, and with that I’ve been able to stave off my own loneliness for a brief period of time. I know I’m not really alone, as in I know there are people out there who care about me, and I care about them. Yet I’m alone, and I know this feeling I have will go away in time and I will be granted a reprieve from my solitude as one often does in time. Its dealing with the here and now that’s the challenge. The struggle is real, let’s be kind.

#Calgary Film Correspondent: Final Report

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Well folks, that’s a wrap on the 29th annual Calgary International Film Festival and with that my first attempt at covering a film festival as a critic/media. The festival was gracious enough to admit me some clearance into some red carpet premiers as well as some general passes to a few of the films, and for that I’m grateful.

Due to some personal time constraints, I was unable to cover the festival as thoroughly as I wanted to, plus it was a challenge navigating myself through some unfamiliar territory. As a relatively shy person, it was a personal goal of mine to come out of my shell, ask more questions and actively engage the film community, something I was somewhat successful at when the occasion presented itself.

My one regret was not being able to attend more of the films being shown at the festival, particularly on the local end. It is definitely a gateway for young Canadian filmmakers to get their foot in the door for the first time, and it’s probably the best reason for a festival like this to exist. Special awards were given out Sunday evening for Best Canadian Narrative Feature, Best Overall Short Film, Best Alberta Short, as well as best Documentary Short. To find out who one, you can check out the link here.

Being a part time/non-paid critic,  I had to be choosy on the films to see, so I definitely decided to partake on the “International” side of the festival. Although Calgary is very good at getting a wide number of American independent films into the area, foreign films can be a little scarce, so I decided to soak up as much of them as I could. The five films I saw ran the gamut of world filmmaking ranging from countries such as France, United States/Denmark, Poland, Iran, and China. Although I can’t say I enjoyed all of them, they all brought a unique perspective to the art of filmmaking, which I found to be very refreshing and exciting.

It was actually nice not knowing what to expect in every film, we sometimes forget that we live in a world full of spoilers, internet speculation, and trailers that like to show more of the movie than we really want to see. With all of these films, I went in cold, and with little or no idea of the story or plot. I found this type of viewing experience much more fulfilling, as if my senses were a little more awake, and receptive, I could remain attentive and engage with the film in an active way, mainly because I wasn’t sure what would happen next.

There were so many more films I wish I could’ve seen, but the festival just wasn’t long enough, and my schedule just couldn’t allow for it. I was able to meet some very nice people who helped put the festival together, and were kind enough to show this rookie some of the ropes.

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Lastly, I cannot end this entry without mentioning the biggest highlight for me which was meeting and listening to Leonard Maltin. Maltin is probably the most famous living film critic today, and his knowledge of old Hollywood and classic films probably exceeds anyone I have ever met. It was a great pleasure to meet him as well as his lovely daughter Jessie who actually chatted me up about the festival and gave me some great advice on how to cover one.

Leonard and Jessie came for a panel discussion to discuss today’s film criticism in the age of the internet and Rotten Tomatoes. Leonard spoke about the importance of film critics having the knowledge of film history, and what came before in order to give new films some context as well as some perspective. He cited legendary critics such as Siskel and Ebert, as well as Pauline Kael who had that knowledge and helped them create powerful arguments for films they would be critiquing.

Along with that, Leonard and Jessie also regaled the audience with classic stories of some celebrity encounters. Whether it was with Al Pacino who recently guested on the duo’s podcast “Maltin on Movies” or Mel Brooks who Leonard remembered meeting in 1964 in a movie theatre while watching a short film called “The Critic” which played right before “Dr. Strangelove”. The crowd was eating up all of the great conversation, and the panel actually went a half an hour longer than scheduled. Personally I could’ve sat in the theatre all day listening to the father and daughter team tell more stories, and give more opinions, they were a lively and entertaining duo.

At the end of it, Leonard took some pictures with  fans in the lobby, and I was able to tell Jessie how much it meant to me to have an article published on the Leonard Maltin website under their New Voices banner. The New Voices was started by Jessie and Leonard as a response to the growing concern of more inclusion in the film critic community. The fact remains that most critics who review movies are still mostly white men, which includes Leonard himself, as well as ,,,,me  I guess (although I’ve never been paid). However New Voices is set up to include anyone who just wants write about movies, or television and the website gives them that exposure as more experience in the writing field. I know speaking for myself, I was able to email Jessie my back and forth, as she would help me edit my piece into a much more cohesive article. I personally recommend it to all of my fellow film writers out there who have the same passion I do. It was definitely something that gave me more confidence to explore new film terrain such as this festival which I have learned a lot from.

The one thing, I know I can take away from this whole experience is I need to get a better phone. I have held off on getting a new phone for so long because I’m not much of a photographer, and I don’t take many photos. I usually just use my phone as a….well phone, but I learned right away that my pictures were not up to snuff at the red carpet. So I intend to get a new phone by the end of this week, in my quest to take this film writing thing a bit more seriously.

With that, I will say thank you #Calgaryfilm, I hope to see you next year, or maybe….Toronto?

For those of you who have missed my reviews on the films I saw at the Festival here are links to those pieces.

Climax

The House That Jack Built

Cold War

3 Faces/ A Long Day’s Journey Into Night

#Calgary Film: Correspondent Review: 3 Faces/A Long Days Journey Into Night

riufezqslddf73webkyc6uamawo_aa6_d7a5ejwijw6enrgwmo7w1diizwsmydmvgiqvp0n0hej1vespxxrh9sjxnmijwaxqzye9rmpkwnejv3aede8kqxnp_1ha8gurxmxcpbyjw1440-h735-1Catching up on the last two films I was able to view at #Calgary Film Festival. Here are some brief thoughts about each.

3 Faces: This is the most recent film from acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Panahi gained notoriety after being put under house arrest for trying to make a film that was deemed anti-government. He was put under a 20 year filming ban, but he has been able to make four films including this one since then. In the film Panahi plays himself as he is escorting a famous Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari in his car across the country side to try and find a missing girl. The girl left a video message to Jafari stating how she had always wanted to be an actress but she was held back and forced to marry by her conservative parents. In the video the girl looks to have killed herself, but it may or may not all be a trick. This is a wonderful film, and even though the premise is set up to be a mystery, there is more here than meets the eye. Panahi focuses his camera on the people and the culture as he and Jafari travel around trying to find this girl. They meet many people, all of them interesting, funny, and thoughtful in their own way. This is a very humane film and Panahi has a very warm touch with his camera, using it less as an obtrusive director, but more as an observer, or a witness. And yes it has to be said, his simple camera set-ups and long takes reminded me of an Ozu film making me bias in this respect. The film however is not passive in making a political message in the way women are still sometimes treated in this culture, but it also dismisses any misconceptions some people may have about Iran which is still a largely misunderstood country. The final shot, becomes one of hopefullness, and I felt elated when this small little miracle of a film was finished, easily one of my favorites of the year. I admit this is my first film I’ve seen by Panahi, but with this as well as a few films I’ve seen by his contemporary and mentor Abbas Kiarostami, I am very interested in exploring more Iranian cinema.  4 stars out of 4

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A Long Days Journey into Night: Long is the operative word in the title to describe this hugely labyrinth, and experimental, but ultimately disappointing film from China. There is definitely a lot here to appreciate, with a lush production design and lighting throughout evoking an air of mystery and dreams. There is even one long extended take, which lasts for almost an hour, and filmed in 3D and the atmosphere and camera work gives you a lot to look at. However, the film tries your patience unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. By the end of it, I was squirming in my seat like I have never done in a movie, as the slow pace became shear torture. It was a different kind of torture than the one I exprienced when I saw “The House That Jack Built” but it gave off a certain discomfort I never want to have again. The story concerns a man searching for a woman from his past, and the film jumps back and forth in time to reveal their relationship and the mystery behind it. But the plot  becomes so discombobulated, you become confused as to what entirely the whole meaning of it is. There is certainly the idea of the movies acting as dreams metaphor as a central theme, yet this is hardly the first film to explore that idea. I tried to engage with this film as best as I could, and there were moments I was taken by it, but those moments soon turned to restlessness and a feeling of being trapped in my own theatre seat waiting impatiently for this slog to finally end. 2 stars out of 4

#CalgaryFilm Correspondent Review: Cold War

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“Cold War” is a love story that reminds us how it feels to be in love. It’s a film that focuses on faces, and the looks two lovers give each other from across a room. It deals in moments, some of them small, and some of them large, but all of them are about longing, passion, and heartache. It’s also about how the changing of the world can keep two people apart, and how their love can transcend time.

“Cold War” opens in 1949 Poland. We are drawn in by the faces of local villagers singing or playing folk songs. Their songs, most of which are mournful folk tales, are being recorded by Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) two artists who are preparing to produce a travelling road show based on traditional Polish music. They soon begin auditions with young singers, and one of them happens to be Zula (Joanna Kulig), an enigmatic young woman who seems to con herself into an audition by performing a non-traditional Russian song. Wiktor sees something in the young Zula, and decides to put her in the group, and it isn’t too long before the two begin a passionate affair.

The troupe becomes a success, but the world has changed, and pretty soon the show is forced to alter their format to sing the praises of Stalin and the communist party. This doesn’t sit well for Wiktor who plans to leave for Paris with Zula. The two prepare to escape together, but Zula ends up staying behind, while Wiktor smuggles himself out. The two will meet again at different times in the total span of fifteen years, some of them are small moments, such as Wiktor seeing Zula in a concert but unable to speak to her. Other times, it could be an extended period where they do share a life together in Paris but that moment is also cut short.

The film was directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, who’s previous film “Ida” won the best foreign film Oscar of that year. With that film, as with this, he composes his shots in black and white as well as reverting to the standard Academy aspect ratio evoking the classical look of films from the 30s and 40s. At the beginning of the film, there is a sense of authentic time and place of post-war Poland which brings to mind Italian neo-realism, yet when we move to mid-fifties Paris, there is a much more romantic approach with smoky jazz clubs, and softer lighting, where everyone seems to be smoking a cigarette. It’s a small subtle change but the tone never shifts from the intimate lives of our two main lovers.

The film is very economic, and the scenes play out almost like a memory. Even though the time covers roughly fifteen years, it never lingers, it’s more interested in conveying the emotion and subtle gestures of human interaction. One could imagine a Hollywood film with a similar story such as “La La Land” or any iteration of “A Star is Born” which might concern itself with story beats in order to get to a forgone conclusion, but “Cold War” plays its beats like a dream where conventional time becomes irrelevant. The black and white brings us back into the past of these two people so it already seems like their story has been played out. In some ways it’s like looking at a scrap book, and seeing images that pop out at us that leave a lasting impact. Sometimes it can just be one moment that tells us all we have to know.

Pawlikowski is a master of showing and not telling us, he gives us these moments to view and ponder, and sometimes he leaves it to our imagination. Personally speaking when I was watching some of these images wash over me, I was taken back to that feeling of being in love. Seeing Wiktor and Zula together, or just seeing them look at eachother from across a room, where the focus is on their faces, and everything else seems to drift away, filled me with so much emotion, it became heartbreaking. Their story unfolds in their gaze and in their touch, sometimes words don’t have to be spoken. Love is a universal language, and this is one of the strongest love stories I’ve seen in a long time.

4 stars out of 4

#Calgaryfilm Correspondent Film Review: The House That Jack Built

matt-dillon-the-house-that-jack-built-lars-von-trierLars Von Trier is a sadist, and I’m sure he would agree with me on that point. He is probably the leading provocateur in cinema today. He can manipulate his audience by going from one extreme to the next without hesitation, at one point you could be laughing, while soon after you could be turning away in disgust. “The House That Jack Built” is Von Trier’s latest attempt at provocation, but it is such a thinly veiled exercise in artistic self-reflection, I was turned off by its ego and lack of empathy.

The lack of empathy might be expected in the film, seeing how it’s about a serial killer. Jack(Matt Dillon) is the titular character going about murdering different people in different circumstances. At the beginning of the film he’s quite a compelling character even amusing. Von Trier lets us identify with Jack much like Hitchcock did with Norman Bates in “Psycho”, he comes off as rather sympathetic.

The film is broken up into five sections or as Jack puts it “Five incidents”, each one depicting one of his murders and the idea behind them. The first couple of incidents are rather abrupt, and Von Trier adds elements of dark humour and tension within them. By the time we get to the third incident, there is a switch to the nasty and depraved as we watch Jack toying with a woman and her two children before he sadistically does away with them. Things get even more unsavory from there.

There is a sub plot involving Jack trying to build a house. He’s usually able to get a skeleton of a house completed, before he realizes it’s not what he wants and he has to start all over again. There is also a constant voice over in dialogue happening throughout the film between Jack and a mysterious man known as Verge (Bruno Ganz). Jack explains to Verge his methods and how he sees his victims as works of art, and the men sometimes have debates as to what makes great art. Jack seems to find the beauty in the decay and death of humanity, and Von Trier emphasizes this point by juxtaposing it with images of the great monsters of history like Hitler or Mussolini showing their atrocities as works of art. It’s hard not to see this and not think back to the 2011 Cannes film festival where Von Trier made the tasteless joke of saying he sympathized with Hitler. Sometimes I felt this whole film was just him trying to explain what he meant by that comment.

It became abundantly clear that the character of Jack is a bit of a conduit to explain Von Trier’s cinema to us. Jack’s atrocities are like Von Trier’s aesthetic, shocking, violent and dehumanizing. Jack can’t finish his house because he can’t work with the conventional tools, his home is a world of rotting corpses which he can mold into whatever he wants, for him that’s where he finds his art. Von Trier is kind of doing the same thing with his films, he even makes it even blatantly clear when he inserts scenes from his own earlier films into this one as Jack is talking about his love for the grotesque and decay of the world. There is a sense that he’s aware of his misdeeds, but he’s careful not to condemn them. If anything he might show a need to move past these ideas as might be hinted in the film’s final moments and the cheeky use of the song “Hit the Road Jack” in the end credits.

The problem of this self-awareness is it lacks any real insight, Von Trier rejects any change, he would rather wallow in human misery. Take his treatment towards women in the film. At one point Verge calls out Jack that his murders tend to favor women and they are depicted as ignorant and stupid. Jack states that women are easier to manipulate and fool even though he says he murders men equally. This seemed to me the meanderings of an unapologetic misogynist and narcissist. Coming from the mouth of a serial killer, it could be taken in context of the character, but by this time it’s so obvious Jack is Von Trier’s mouthpiece, it feels more like a clear confession by the director on his own thoughts on women.

“The House That Jack Built” has few redeeming qualities save for a brilliant performance by Matt Dillon,  who, had he been given a real character to work with and not variations of the Von Trier psyche, one wonders what he could’ve done with it. Looking back at the film, I am reminded of some of the great depictions of serial killers of past films such as Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, and Patrick Bateman, all of whom were more interesting that Jack. The difference being they were real characters and not manifestations of the male ego of its creator.

It might be speculative of me to insert Von Trier in the role of Jack, perhaps too much so. He is after all an artist who can take liberties, but there is such an apparent knowing, and audience winking in this film I feel the idea of a meta commentary isn’t so far-fetched. Von Trier is celebrating himself in every frame, it’s not about Jack, or the people he butchers, it’s about him. Everyone in the film is just a product of his own narcissism and ego that he has created. It’s his rules, his world, and we are meant to suffer with him. I wasn’t going to play his game, I suffered, but it was the same kind of suffering I felt from watching a speech by Donald Trump or one of his minions going on about how great he is. It’s an inflated male ego steering the boat, and we are meant to recognize his greatness and complexities, give me a break.

This will probably be the last film by  Von Trier I see, unless I get a real film critic job some day and I’m actually paid to go see one. I don’t find what he says to be all that profound, he is disappointed in the world and he wallows in its decay. If that’s what he wants to do, he certainly has that right, I also have the right to not be impressed and raise myself up from his depravity. I hope some day he’s able to do the same.

Half a star out of 4

There will be an encore presentation of “The House That Jack Built” on Saturday Sept. 29th at 10:15pm at the Globe Cinema.

 

#Calgaryfilm Correspondence Film Review: Climax

climaxIn Gaspar Noe’s “Climax”, there isn’t much difference between dancing and sex, or life and death for that matter. This is a film about living to the extreme in order to feel alive, and finding that extreme in any way possible whether it’s through dancing, sex, drugs, violence or a combination of all of these. It explores letting go of one’s inhibitions, and finding freedom in that moment, but is also asks if that’s a good thing. Can that sort of freedom come at a price?

“Climax” opens with a series of video interviews on what looks like an 80s throwback television and VCR as we are introduced to the principle cast of the film. They are all sexually promiscuous, multicultural dancers who seem to be auditioning for a dance troupe with a chance to tour America. In the interviews some of them open up about their feelings towards dance, and at times they talk about their sexual preferences holding nothing back.

We now cut to a rehearsal hall, with vibrant colors which for a moment reminded me of an MGM Technicolor musical from the 50s. The camera pans down to the same people in the video as they begin a choreographed dance number that is beautifully realized. The number is energetic and violent accompanied by pulsating beats which blare throughout the rest of the film. The dancers move like living pieces of art contorting their bodies in ways one might find difficult to think possible. It’s an aggressive number, but you get the sense this is what these people live for, even how they live.

Afterwards things slow down, as the camera (which at this point has moved seamlessly through the dance number without a single cut) weaves in and out like a voyeur listening in on everyone as the party begins to start. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves as they taste up the sangria which was prepared by the group’s dance leader Emmanuel (Romain Guilermic). We then settle in to some individual character scenes as Noe cuts back and forth between mostly two-hander conversations within the group. Here they talk and flirt with each other, with sex mostly the main topic of conversation. Everyone is pretty much all bi-curious so one could imagine anyone being fair game in the coupling up department. We do get the hint that a few people in the group have some violent tendencies which may be a precursor of things to come.

It’s about at the 45 minute mark when the gears begin to shift into an entirely different film.  It is revealed someone has spiked the sangria with some LSD and that’s when the small character moments are taken over by a psychedelic drug trip. There will be blood and not everyone will be spared, violence turns to depravity, which turns into tragedy, which then turns into torture and self-mutilation. Even some incest is thrown in as everyone is devolving into a more animalistic behavior. Everything is thrown in but the kitchen sink as the saying goes, however there is a bathroom sink, which someone uses when their hair catches fire.

Noe’s steadicam is unrelenting following the characters through their own versions of hell. Some of them might find solace in sex, while others will find pain in their own actions. There is shock value in this film, a woman who reveals she is pregnant is kicked in the stomach, while a small child gets locked in an electrical room which doesn’t end well. I mention these less as spoilers but more as warnings, this film wants to provoke you, at times its effective, but other times clumsy.

There’s quite a bit of lingering in the film, sometimes it’s with a scene, or a shot, or a certain sequence. I believe it’s Noe’s way of rubbing our noses in his excess, he wants us to look away, he wants to keep the camera on what makes us squirm for an uncomfortable amount of time. As I sat there in my seat,  I couldn’t help but think sometimes Noe looks to be in love with his own style. It’s as if he is so impressed with himself, he can’t help but keep the camera on his own magnificence. Noe has done so many of these films, I feel at this moment he is just feeding his own ego.

Still there is a good reason to fall in love with his style. In the moments the film works, we can tell we are in the hands of a master filmmaker and provocateur. There are so many wonderful fluid moments with the camera which are coupled with a dense sound scape, and highly expressive lighting they bring a boisterous cinematic quality to the proceedings. Then there are the performers who flow through the film as if their dancing never stopped. The standout for me was Sofia Boutella who plays the group’s choreographer. She gives a very unorthodox performance, but she is an actress so aware of her body, she moves as if she is floating through space or on a different plain. If the main purpose in film is to capture motion in real-time then Bouttella and her ensemble create little masterpieces of movement with their bodies which I would say are most compelling parts in this otherwise frenzied film. Had this been an all out musical like the opening number was setting it up to be, this could have been one of the best films of the year.

There is so much to admire with “Climax”, I wish it fully worked for me, but it becomes too repetitive and lost in its own excess. Still I am recommending it for the moments I mentioned above. It’s tempting to live a life in the mind of these dancers, where movement seems to possess us and take us out of our bodies unaware of our inhibitions. But “Climax” shows us that sort of freedom can cause chaos in our wake. However it might be in that chaos we can truly be alive. Do we stop dancing, or keep going till the music stops? Approach life and this film at your own risk.

3 stars out of 4

 

Calgary Film Correspondence #1: Opening Gala

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Calgary’s best, and brightest came out to shine last night to inaugurate the 19th annual Calgary Film Festival at the Jack Singer Concert Hall. The red carpet was laid out to welcome some local celebrities, political dignitaries, and  key figures who helped bring the festival together. The film chosen to open the festivities was the acclaimed western “The Sisters Brothers”, adapted from the novel of the same name by Canadian author Patrick DeWitt. The film is the English language debut by Cannes Palm D’Ore winning director Jacques Audiard (“Dheepan”)  and stars John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jake Gyllenhaal.  While it did receive its Canadian premier a few weeks ago at TIFF, this was the first time it was shown in Alberta.

Among the honored guests walking the red carpet of the evening were Calgary’s district legislative member of Assembly Sandra Jansen, two of the festivals key programmers Brenda Lieberman and Brennan Tilly, as well as Loose Moose alumni Andrew Phung who currently stars on the hit CBC sitcom “Kim’s convenience”. Other attendees included artists and filmmakers who worked on some of the films that will make their debut at the festival. The director Gillian McKercher appeared with her cast of the film “Circle of Steel” , a satire about life in the oil and gas industry. There was also representation of the short film “Painkillers” with director Matt Embry and producer Holly Dupej. Producer Paul Zimic was also on hand in support of his film, the documentary “The Woman who Loves Giraffes”.

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The night was glamorous with the lobby of The Jack Singer Concert Hall decked out in wonderful decorum and everyone in their best dressed to celebrate #Calgaryfilm. For the next 12 days, Calgary will be the epicenter for the best in films around the world. Regular festival showings will begin tonight with four features debuting at The Globe theatre, including the Andrew Garfield vehicle “Under the Silver Lake” and the genre busting horror/comedy “Assassination Nation”. Showtimes and tickets are available at calgaryfilm.com. Special events are scheduled throughout the festival’s run as well. There is definitely plenty to soak up for any film lover in Calgary.