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  • MSPIFF 2014 Review: Intruders

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    Director: Young-Seok Noh
    Writer: Young-Seok Noh
    Producer: Sun-hee Choi
    Starring: Suk-ho Jun, Tae-kyung Oh
    MPAA Rating: NR
    Running time: 99 min.
    Country of Origin: South Korea

    Intruders screens tonight, April 10th at 9:50pm
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    If you can generalize about a single country’s cinema, I think the safest statement you might be able to make is “Korean films blend genres better than anyone else”. Whether it’s comedic dark crime thrillers, melodramatic heist films or goofy family drama monster movies, Korea’s filmmakers seem to have a natural desire (perhaps even a need) to morph genres, combine them or simply blow them apart – sometimes within a single scene. Of course, like any other generalization it doesn’t always hold, but it does draw me to their films on a regular basis. Hence my immediate curiosity to see Intruders. Once I realized it was directed by Noh Young-seok (whose previous film Daytime Drinking was one of the best hidden gems from TIFF several years ago), it became a must see.

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    Like Daytime Drinking, Intruders begins with a young man from Seoul trekking up North by bus to spend some time in the cold and snowy mountainous region of South Korea. While he just wants to get to his friend’s currently unused resort to focus on finishing some writing work, he’s a bit out of place there and this doesn’t go unnoticed by the locals. He manages to grab the attention of a recently released convict who insists on giving directions, providing uncalled for assistance and doing his best to get a good solid drinking session going. The humour is deadpan and is based on the city’s guy’s baffled reactions to the rural guy’s odd yet still friendly behaviour. Unlike the previous film, our city dweller this time manages to avoid too much heavy drinking at the outset, but it’s not like he’s any better focused. He’s a champion procrastinator and keeps finding other ways to waste time and avoid his writing, including traipsing through the woods out back, discovering trapdoors in the woods and running into a bunch of other people – all of whom seem to be just a wee bit off…
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  • Hot Docs 2014 Preview

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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  • Review: Cheap Thrills

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    A near perfect title (targeting viewers as well as certain characters within the film) for a near perfect exercise in escalation, Cheap Thrills follows two desperate souls as they dive deeper into a game of cruel one-upmanship (for cash and prizes!) There can only be one possible direction for the game to finally take and the film steps you there in believable (and, fortunately, entertaining) fashion. As our contestants Craig and Vince out-do and under-bid each other at each step, the comedy turns darker and an uncomfortable reality sets in to the viewer – are we just as guilty as the two hosts of this private party?

    The party in question is for Violet’s birthday (played by Sara Paxton and looking far different than her tom-boyish character in The Innkeepers) and it’s being hosted by her husband Colin (David Koechner). The party-hardy Colin chats up Vince at a bar (where he and Craig were catching up on old times) and manages to rope the two of them into celebrating the beautiful Violet’s special day (even if she seems totally uninterested in just about everything but her phone). Craig hasn’t exactly had the best day – he just got fired from a crappy job on the same day he received a final eviction notice on the apartment he shares with his wife and infant child – and he was just considering bailing on home when Colin and Vince convince him to stay for an additional drink or two. He really has no reason to stay (he had only accidentally ran into his old “friend” Vince at the bar anyway), but Colin’s ease with flashing money and willingness to make little side bets (e.g. “I’ll give you $20 if that girl slaps your face…”) has him intrigued. He’s in dire straits and currently has no immediate options for making any money. Since his going-nowhere writing career won’t provide for his family any time soon, he decides to stay…

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  • Finite Focus: A little bit of seduction in Children Of Paradise

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    In a beautiful poetic film of many diverse and wonderful characters, my favourite moment comes down to pure carnal desire. It’s a simple look and casual statement made by a sleepy-eyed woman to a man. Contrary to what he may think as she stands near a bed, she’s not tired in the least. Her gaze is direct and her smile is anything but coy.

     

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    It’s a wonderful sensual act which isn’t lost on her male companion – especially when it’s followed by the delicate positioning of her fingers on the bed and a deliberate reveal of her long legs.

    It’s sexy as hell.

     

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  • Finite Focus: The Pool Party in Boogie Nights

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    Whether you want to call it homage or straight up borrowing, P.T. Anderson’s great Boogie Nights certainly shows off its influences. Altman and Scorsese figure prominently, but another inspiration is Mikhail Kalatozov and his film I Am Cuba (which also happens to be a big Scorsese favourite too). Aside from being drop-dead gorgeous and a remarkably poetic piece of propaganda, I Am Cuba is known for several incredible long takes that, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, will still take your breath away. One of them starts 2 minutes into the film as a camera roams through a decadent hotel party and bathing beauty contest, moves down several stories, through a crowd of people and into the water of a pool to capture the swimmers under the surface. Anderson states in his commentary on Boogie Nights that they not only wanted to try the same thing, but have the camera come out of the water too.

    It’s a showy scene for sure, but it also ties together numerous threads and characters from the story and emphasizes how these lost souls are all together in this porn “family” – whether as complete avoidance of the real world or as a temporary waystation. We see Buck Swope’s (Don Cheadle) search for an identity continue as well as Maurice TT Rodriguez’s (Luis Guzman) pleading to Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) to be included in one of their films. Midway through the scene, Buck and Maurice go inside the house together as the camera picks up another character, but we reconvene with them a few minutes later in another scene that closes on Amber’s newly discovered fascination with Eddie Adams.

    My favourite part of the party scene, though, is the last part of the clip above and comes right after the first cut that follows the long take into the pool. Eddie (who hasn’t yet become full blown pornstar Dirk Diggler) is asking his new buddy Reed Rothchild if his just completed pike dive into the pool looked awesome. Reed is looking to play a mentor role for the young lad and decides to reign in his confidence a bit. “I’ll show you what you did wrong.” Reed lines up a full flip, but only manages about 75% of it and lands flat on his back. As Eric Burdon and his sexy sounding female vocalist continue to pulse on the soundtrack, there’s a great edit underwater to Reed’s pained expression as he slowly floats to the surface with his back arched. It’s one of the funnier moments in a film teeming with them (as much as it’s also terribly dark at times), but it serves a purpose too – once Reed pops above the surface and Eddie says “You gotta brings your legs all the way around!”, that mentoring relationship has ended. Reed’s final “I know…I know..” comment is a realization and acceptance that he’ll be playing the supporting role to the star that Eddie will become.

    Once we see Amber hoover a line of coke and then gaze intently at Eddie landing a full flip properly (in slow motion of course), we are fully prepped to dive headlong into the downward spirals that lie ahead.

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  • Blindspotting: West Side Story and 42nd Street

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    One of the reasons why you may not often hear as much about plot or character when discussing musicals is that they tend to use age old stories at their core. More often than not it’s all about those tunes and performances, so those familiar tales are used to provide a familiar landscape from which to launch the song and dance routines. As I sat down to catch up with a couple of classic musicals with well-worn structures – a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet set in the big city and a backstage look at the lead up to a performance’s premiere with a big break for a young ingenue – I wondered if either of these tales could be given new life via more than just their music and production numbers…While each brought moments of wonderful creativity and sparkling entertainment (in different amounts), the stories were, for the most part, still born.

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    That’s not enough to dismiss either film though. In particular, West Side Story is a monument to production design and choreography. Just about every shot in the film is packed with colour from mixed pastels to bright primaries to everything in between in just the right combinations. As a series of stills it would make for an incredible photography exhibit. Of course, much of the secret to the film is its motion in the form of Jerome Robbins’ choreography (he’s also credited here as a co-director along with the master of many genres Robert Wise). It feels novel and exciting even 50 years down the road. It’s sharp and quick and powerful – in short, it’s incredibly physical. It’s an expression of the character’s youthful energy and their inability to find a place to put it, and so it ends up working perfectly during the confrontation and fight scenes where the dancing is essentially the fighting itself. If not every tune fully landed with me, the vast majority did and mostly kept me with the 2 and a half hour runtime. Mostly.

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  • Blindspotting in 2014

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    Let’s review…This whole idea behind the Blind Spot series (kicked off 2 years ago by top notch Toronto blogger/writer dudes James McNally and Ryan McNeil) is solely meant to poke and prod slackards like myself into finally getting around to those films that we not only feel are classics we should see, but ones we really want to see. Whether the titles are standard “Canon” fodder or some goofy grindhouse flick that you found for a dollar and have had sitting at home for 5 years, the point is to nudge us to watch something that has obviously caught our eye, but keeps getting passed over. Indeed, life is too short to watch something dull/crappy simply to “get through it” and check it off a list, but we’re talking about movies that sparked some kind of interest at some point and now vie for your attention with a vast array of other possibilities. The vast majority of the 44 blindspots I’ve seen and written about over the last 2 years (pairing movies for each post) have been well worth the wait and typically confounded expectations that had been in place for years. Even the ones that didn’t do much for me at least gave me something to consider.

    So here is my initial cut at the pairings I’m looking at for 2014 (with me reserving the right to scrap them and alter my choices based on nothing more than a whim). What about you? Any particular film or films you’ve been meaning to see, but keep avoiding?

     

    Breaking The Waves (1996)
    Shanghai Express (1932)

    One of the pairings I didn’t get around to last year, so let’s give it another shot. Almost 65 years separate these two stories of women and their sacrifices – it just takes one of them exactly twice as long as the other to tell its version.

    Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
    Ashes And Diamonds (1958)

    The other pairing I didn’t do last year was Best Years Of Our Lives and From Here To Eternity (I decided to swap them out for a couple of Westerns). On reconsidering their inclusion again this year, I still wanted to get to Best Years, but this time out I thought I would match it up with another post-war story. I’m expecting the view from Poland to be in sharp contrast to the one from the U.S. though.

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    West Side Story (1961)
    42nd Street (1933)

    Busby Berkeley’s flights of imagination seem to be a good match for the colour and choreography of West Side.

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  • Blindspotting: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and The Grapes Of Wrath

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    My last Blind Spot of 2013 (before picking my 2014 ones) – dedicated to the gents of MAMO.
     

    As pre-WWII statements of America, Mr Smith Goes To Washington and The Grapes Of Wrath both warn against allowing the powerful elite control over the little common man – a call to arms often heard on the cinematic landscape and relevant to today’s political and economic climate as well. But even though they were filmed within a year of each other (1939 & 1940 respectively), they reach much different conclusions about the country via very different storytelling methods. Their biggest commonality might actually be that each film was a showcase for a blooming star – a 31 year-old Jimmy Stewart looking perfectly young and naive as a hick junior senator in Mr. Smith and Henry Fonda, still with boyish good looks at 35 and piercing eyes that illuminate the black and white landscapes of Grapes, bringing some more mature depth to the strength of Tom Joad. They had each been in the business for about 5 years, had each recently come off star-making lead roles for the first time (Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life and Fonda in Young Mister Lincoln) and then never really looked back. They became Hollywood staples now destined for big things, gorgeous starlet co-stars and future best-of lists.

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    Looking at these films for the first time almost 3/4 of a century later, only one film stands out for me with a story that equals its message – John Ford’s The Grapes Of Wrath. A big reason is Fonda’s focused take on Joad, but it may be mostly to do with the film’s staged approach to releasing its message about the rights of workers. It’s not that it’s always subtle mind you, but the plight of these migrant farm workers builds throughout the story and allows you to feel more than just sympathy for these poor homeless people. Particularly since Tom becomes someone you can respect and even attempt to emulate as he learns different ways of disarming volatile situations. The junior senator Jefferson Smith, on the other hand, starts out naive as the day is long and – though his intentions are good and “wholesome” – seems to flail against whatever he can’t immediately break through. Early on after his move to Washington, the press make fun of his hick background and Smith reacts by going around and punching every writer in the face (including an old man getting into a car). This transition from friendly aw-shucks yokel to rage-filled vengeance seeker doesn’t really endear him to you, so when he gets frustrated that his lone idea and cause is threatened due to a bill allowing the creation of a dam (on the property earmarked for his boys camp project), you can’t help feel that the day long filibuster that results is mostly a temper tantrum. He ends up on the right path fighting corruption and greed, but he stumbles into it and needs help to navigate the terrain.

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  • My Movie Moments of 2013

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    Though I didn’t keep very good track throughout the past 12 months, I think I’ve cobbled together some of my favourite moments from 2013′s films as well as some older movies I saw for the first time. So here’s a random walk through them…

     

    2013 films:

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    • Best spine-tingling, goose-bump raising moment of the year: Merry Clayton’s rendition of “Southern Man” in Twenty Feet From Stardom. You can almost feel the spittle as she tears into the song while her backup band shreds it.
    • The joy of playing music when you’re young in We Are The Best! and Metalhead.
    • Mark Ruffalo’s music producer imagining the instruments and arrangement backing up a solo acoustic performance in Can A Song Save Your Life?.
    • “Who starts a song like that?” – Christian Bale’s American Hustle hustler talking about “Jeep’s Blues” by Duke Ellington.
    • “Five Hundred Miles” performed in Inside Llewyn Davis.
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    • The red waterfalls in Byzantium and Neighboring Sounds – one a recurring motif reflecting the “birth” of a vampire and the other a shocking sudden foreshadowing.
    • The effective use of colour in Stoker.
    • The bright colours in Only God Forgives and Trance.
    • All those gorgeous sunsets in Spring Breakers.
    • The opening shot of billows of dirty water cascading down like an avalanche in Watermark.

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  • Blindspotting: Phantom Of The Opera and Creature From The Black Lagoon

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    Yes, this would have made more sense in October. Conspiring forces and all that…
     

    It’s odd to think that two vastly different films with 30 years between them could both be lumped together under the same generic genre banner. But that’s what happens when you start classifying anything old as “classic” – like, for example, the 1924 silent feature The Phantom Of The Opera and the mid-50s monster flick Creature From The Black Lagoon both being labelled as Classic Horror. The fact that the technical tools available to the filmmakers were worlds apart and their aims were very different don’t seem to matter. If it wasn’t for alphabetical order, you’d find them side by side on a video store shelf.

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    Of course, both films are even further removed from modern day fare. Some might claim they suffer for that, but it really does depend what you want from a horror film. Do either of these films shock or scare you? Likely not in an immediate, jump out of your seat kind of way (though the iconic reveal of the Phantom’s face can still unsettle), but that’s not necessarily the only thing horror can do to you. There’s something chilling about the idea of unseen monsters living in a foreign environment right under your feet which could – at a moment’s notice and through no fault of your own – rise up and destroy your life. As well, both films provide haunting images of their monsters in close-up that can leave rather disconcerting feelings within you (put the dead-looking eyes of the Creature alongside the contorted, deformed face of the Phantom and your sleep may be interrupted tonight). The jump scares are few and far between, but good horror leaves an impression, not just a brief quickening of the heartbeat due to the crash of sound and image. So the two films do have a good deal in common I guess.

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  • A Month of Horror 2013 – Chapter 5

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    Not sure if she’s winking, squinting or wincing? Neither am I…Anyway, these were all watched in October (so it still counts towards my month): Visiting Hours, We Are What We Are, Omen IV: The Awakening and Basket Case.

     

    Visiting Hours (Jean-Claude Lord – 1982)
    You can only suspend belief for so long, you know? I can forgive much of the silliness in the plot of this killer-stalks-hospital slasher – especially when it handles several early scenes with pretty decent tension – but the last 30-40 minutes so obviously contrives a final showdown that you can’t help but throw your hands up (several times). It’s sheer laziness really – I get why they wanted to have Lee Grant run through long empty hospital corridors with the relentless Michael Ironside chasing her, but couldn’t they be even slightly creative in figuring out how to clear out other people? With all the commotion that had been going on in the busy hospital and with it crawling with cops, the film (without any explanations or reasons) has the killer chase his intended victim across 3 separate floors without running into a single person. Well, except for the nurse he recently wounded who was lying on a cart completely unattended (even though she was moments earlier hurriedly wheeled in due to him stabbing her). Even William Shatner couldn’t make me forget that.

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  • Toronto After Dark 2013: Cheap Thrills Review

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    A near perfect title (targeting viewers as well as certain characters within the film) for a near perfect exercise in escalation, Cheap Thrills follows two desperate souls as they dive deeper into a game of cruel one-upmanship (for cash and prizes!). There can only be one possible direction for the game to finally take and the film steps you there in believable (and, fortunately, entertaining) fashion. As our contestants Craig and Vince out-do and under-bid each other at each step, the comedy turns darker and an uncomfortable reality sets in to the viewer – are we just as guilty as the two hosts of this private party?

    The party in question is for Violet’s birthday (played by Sara Paxton and looking far different than her tom-boyish character in The Innkeepers) and it’s being hosted by her husband Colin (David Koechner). The party-hardy Colin chats up Vince at a bar (where he and Craig were catching up on old times) and manages to rope the two of them into celebrating the beautiful Violet’s special day (even if she seems totally uninterested in just about everything but her phone). Craig hasn’t exactly had the best day – he just got fired from a crappy job on the same day he received a final eviction notice on the apartment he shares with his wife and infant child – and he was just considering bailing on home when Colin and Vince convince him to stay for an additional drink or two. He really has no reason to stay (he had only accidentally ran into his old “friend” Vince at the bar anyway), but Colin’s ease with flashing money and willingness to make little side bets (e.g. “I’ll give you $20 if that girl slaps your face…”) has him intrigued. He’s in dire straits and currently has no immediate options for making any money. Since his going-nowhere writing career won’t provide for his family any time soon, he decides to stay…

    » Read the rest of the entry..

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