Bodies of Work: From JFK to X-Men (Toronto Event)

Hurray! The fine folks at the Revue Cinema have given me a reason to leave the house next week.


Next Wednesday kicks off a three-night series showcasing the work of Toronto-based special effects artist Gordon Smith. His work in JFK, X-Men and Jacob’s Ladder will be on the screen and on display as the cinematic experience is fleshed out with choice props and Q&A’s with the man behind the visuals. I am especially interested in the JFK evening which includes a life-size effigy of the deceased president on display. I have, as of late, become something of a JFK nut, not quite to the point of holidaying in Dallas but enough to know the name of Oswald’s landlady (and own the quite terrible Martin Sheen miniseries). I look forward to revisiting Oliver Stone’s film theatrically.

Here is the press release for the event:


A Special Effects Show and Tell at The Revue

TORONTO — Gordon Smith has always been unnerved by the sight of blood. He calls it a serious phobia. That’s what makes his journey from stage actor to master of prosthetic makeup and special effects for the movie industry all the more remarkable.

Smith and his Toronto-based company, FXSmith, helped recreate the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Oliver Stone’s JFK. He’s responsible for vampire gore in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, the nightmarish hallucinations in Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder, the visual realities of war and death in Stone’s Platoon and Salvador and mutant designs in the first and second X-Men.

In the course of his career, Smith has revolutionized his industry, a remarkable accomplishment for a Canadian who never moved to L.A. His silicone prosthetic technology is now the special effects makeup standard for filmmakers around the world.

The Revue Cinema is proud to present Bodies of Work, three evenings with Gordon Smith, in what can only be described as the ultimate show and tell.

He will introduce three films for which he designed and executed the special makeup, bring appropriate props for the audience to see up close, explain how he built them, entertain with behind-the-scenes anecdotes and be on hand for post-screening questions from the audience.

1. JFK, Wednesday, March 16, 7 p.m.

The life-sized effigy of Kennedy, which Smith refers to as Jack in the Box, has resided at Smith’s studio since the filming of JFK. He will bring it to the cinema for viewing. To build the body, Smith conducted his own forensic study, compiling information from all available sources, even some not made public. He could only conclude that the findings of the Warren Commission had little to do with the truth.

2. X-Men, Wednesday, March 30, 7 p.m.

A presentation mannequin of the blue character Mystique will attend the screening. Her last appearance was at MOMA in New York as the centerpiece for the “Superheroes in Fashion” show. X-Men was one of the easier films to pull off, Smith says: “If the character is blue with a tail, no one’s going to compare him to all the other blue people with tails.”

3. Jacob’s Ladder, Wednesday, April 13, 7 p.m.

Working with the film’s British team, which fully appreciated his work, was an exceptional but stressful experience, so much so that Smith broke out in hives. “Unfortunately, we were filming in New York. I thought it was bed bugs,” he recounts.

Smith’s 30 years in the film industry leave him a wealth of stories to tell: hair-raising experiences, like the heart that inexplicably began to inflate in Threshold (1981), starring Donald Sutherland as a cardiologist; Hollywood politics and a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse at Academy Award nominations; industry trends; and powerful personalities like Oliver Stone.

Smith considers his greatest accomplishment to be the prosthetic technology he developed, thereby raising the bar for an entire industry. In Toronto, he was able to assemble an exceptional team, including sculptor Evan Penny, whose arrestingly realistic work has gained international recognition.

Tickets for the event are $10 for Revue members and seniors; $12 for non-members. The doors open at 6 p.m.

Meek’s Cutoff Trailer

The team that brought you Wendy & Lucy are back to entrance you with another, albeit historical, take on the dire Oregon experience. Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Shirley Henderson and Paul Dano saddle up with writer/director Kelly Reichardt for the art film western, Meek’s Cutoff. I had the opportunity to catch the film at last years Toronto International Film Festival and it handily made my end of the year top ten list.

The year is 1845 and Stephen Meek is a for-hire guide leading a handful of immigrant families across the Oregon Trail in search of the American dream. As hours turn into days since their last discovery of fresh water, mutinous thoughts and paranoid rumors abound among the families over the ability and motivations of their delegated leader. Part suspense story, part historical drama, part meditation on the frailty of life, Meek’s Cutoff is a mesmerizing feat that, while deliberately paced, is continually engrossing to watch. My TIFF review can be read here.

The trailer is tucked under the seat.
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TIFF Review: Another Year



Another Year, Another Mike Leigh film, another masterpiece. Early word out of Cannes was strong and Mike Leigh has been a consistent favorite of mine, but even with these built-in expectations the sustained emotional punch of Another Year was unlike anything I was prepared to experience. Not since Naked has Leigh so perfectly devastated me with his interplay of pathos and comedy. The trademarks are all there: aging British blue collar existence fretting away the monumental baggage of unfulfilled lives, top-shelf character actors such as Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville (even a cameo by Vera Drake herself, Imelda Staunton) and a largely improvised script injecting a lived-in naturalness to the performances. The vision of Britain is dour, characters are drunk or depressed or insecure or all of the above in the case of Mary, the mile-a-minute talker and wine connoisseur who leaches onto a co-worker’s family in her aged loneliness.
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TIFF Review: Blue Valentine




[Now Playing at a Theater near you!]

Quite by accident I had the opportunity to watch back-to-back films at the festival ruminating on the destructive force of love, ignited first in Tracy Wright’s haunting monologue in Trigger, and then extrapolated in fine detail through the anatomy of a divorce that is Blue Valentine.  Director Derek Cianfrance took twelve years to stew on what he wanted to say about love and marriage in his film Blue Valentine, the principle actors, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, had over half a decade to think about how they would bring Cindy and Dean to life – this rare gift to the creative process paid off astoundingly as the final product is second only to Ingmar Bergmans’ Scenes from a Marriage in its capacity to lay bare the wounds of love after the veil of the honeymoon phase has been lifted.  Like in Bergman’s film, the destructive force at play in the marriage of Cindy and Dean is not one of particular abuse or issue but rather emotional illiteracy. Try as they might to understand one another or even have a civil conversation, the lack of a common grammar keeps them perpetually on edge.  Complicating the matter is their mutual love for their daughter who goes through the majority of the film oblivious to the underlying fissures of their family unit.

The film intercuts moments of the first blush of love with scenes of the last gasp and inevitable destruction of their union, the two timelines building towards the harshest of contrasts by the final scene.  This play with chronology is reminiscent of Francois Ozon’s 5×2 and a far, far superior handling of what was attempted in 500 Days of Summer.  Out of this collage of moments a sense of who these people are emerge, the realization is slow in coming as pertinent information about their relationship is teased out, just when you think you understand a character motivation or takes sides on an issue, a new development in the story challenges your assumptions.  The effect is intoxicating.  When Cindy attempts to casually tell Dean of an encounter of a old flame in the liquor store, it’s like the air in the car is slowly escaping, and having not been privy to the history underlying their conversation what you are left with is visceral drama, is he going to lash out? Is she going to burst into tears? The scene teeters on the edge as does the bulk of the denouement. When the fireworks come, literally and figuratively, you know it has been a long time coming. Would you like to know more…?

Review: And Everything is Going Fine

[With its single screen release by IFC this week in New York, it seems like a good time to remind folks just how good this Soderbergh editing project, a collage-style monologue of Spalding Gray’s life and times, is.]


With only a desk, a glass of water, a few props and some cursory notes, Spalding Gray would sit before a live audience and tell them his story. Whether about his knowledge of death and sex before age fourteen or his mind-altering experiences in Thailand, his physical ailments or the suicide of his mother, what transpired in each monologue was half theatrics, half confession. Late in his career, when he grew tired of telling his own story, he would invite audience members on stage and interview them, hoping to uncover the germ of theatre in their unassuming candor. His role as ‘poetic journalist’ remained the same, his title as master of the monologue preceding him wherever he went.

This cottage industry of telling his story kept him busy throughout the eighties and nineties, onstage and onscreen, affording him the chance to work with some of the finest filmmakers working at the time, including Jonathan Demme and Steven Soderbergh who both saw something cinematic in his monologues worth pursuing in that medium. Under very different circumstances, Soderbergh returns again to tell Spalding’s story, this time as a documentary in tribute to his friend that six years ago took his own life. The film, And Everything Is Going To Be Fine, never addresses the tragic event, nor does it try to consolidate a life with anything other than Spalding’s own voice. Piecing together archival footage of interviews and performances, Soderbergh has forged a new monologue, a summation of the life of Spalding in his own words (albeit rearranged). Would you like to know more…?

Now Playing at the Row Three Rep: The Revolutionary

*I had to repost this because the Wikileaks ‘hacktivists’ activity going on right now is as close to a global revolution as we have got lately, and this triple bill puts some of that spirit in context.

[Row Three programming if we owned a Rep Cinema]

The Revolutionary Triple Bill

V for Vendetta – 1pm
Hunger – 4pm
Che (both parts) – 7pm

When does a terrorist become a freedom fighter? How much would you sacrifice for a belief? How does the power of myth distort reality? This programme is about revolutionaries that live by a code as the world around them tires. We begin with fiction, a comic book dystopia in V for Vendetta. Out of the ensuing chaos of a plague-stricken England, an Orwellian police state forms, and as the populace resign themselves to their lot a revolutionary known only as V attempts to make everyone remember what happened on the 5th of November. When Vendetta originally came out, slotted as a summer blockbuster and the first big project associated with the Wachowski Brothers since The Matrix, it’s fair to say, and with no pun intended, it bombed. Taking from the densely political graphic novel and making something with as much levity as 1984, it disappointed the popcorn crowd, as it did me on the first viewing; on revisit, and in context of this triple bill, the potency of some of its ideas rise to the surface. Even this far after 9/11 the bite of Vendetta’s role reversal with the audience sympathizing with the terrorists is still there (in one scene V says blowing up a building is about destroying the symbol of power it represents). Vendetta satirizes the complacency of the modern world and the fascist undertones of the global village all from a particularly English perspective, which flows nicely into the otherwise stylistically diverging entry of this programme, Steve McQueen’s Hunger.
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My Favorite People of 2010

Funny People

It’s that time again, so begins the onslaught of end-of-the-year lists for everything! Keeping with tradition I thought I would start this post a month early and celebrate those fine individuals whom have most entertained me in 2010. The year will go down as one of my all-time favorites, when the time comes for the official top ten films list, I will be struggling to whittle down from my short list of 26 films and counting. It has been a solid year for American and Canadian movies, and unlike years past, the most anticipated tent-pole pictures of the year lived up to the hype (Inception, Shutter Island, 127 Hours, The Social Network, etc.). Feel free to share your favorites in the comment thread, but for now, without further ado, my pivotal players of 2010:



Bruce McDonald: God bless you, Bruce McDonald. I am ashamed to admit, I was late coming to the party. With the exception of Pontypool which I did actually see in a timely manner, and which I loved like all else who have loved it, I have been something of a snob towards Canadian cinema most of my life and as a result have missed the bulk of your output. Due in part to Pontypool being still affectionately fresh in my memory, and to my piqued interest in the concert doc concept of the trailer, I decided to catch This Movie is Broken, admittedly not expecting much, and not even all that familiar with the music of Broken Social Scene; I came out a believer. It is one of my favorite concert documentaries of all time, and I am now a fervent fan of BBS, with you to thank. Shortly after, Trigger premiered at TIFF and I was one of the first to get a look at it; this too, rocked my world. This two-punch of Toronto stories has inspired me to watch your back catalogue, and last week I finally caught your Magnus Opus, Hard Core Logo, which has now firmly cemented my love for you, and I wait feverishly for the sequel that is in the works.

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From Our Netflix Queue

With the growing popularity of Netflix instant streaming in the U.S. and its most recent arrival into Canada, we at Row Three would like to highlight some of the great choices available at the press of a button.

To Die For (Gus Van Sant)

One of those little films that I’d been meaning to catch up with and had yet to find the time for, I finally sat down and while cruising through the recommended titles, came upon Van Sant’s crime comedy about a woman with too many aspirations. Starring Nicole Kidman in the lead role of Suzanne Stone, the weather girl with dreams of bigger things, I was surprised to find a supporting cast of stars in the making including Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck. I really didn’t know what to expect and was surprised by the amount of comedy splattered through the film but Kidman’s cold determination is the main appeal and she pulls it off beautifully.

it! (Canada)



Red Road (Andrea Arnold)

Being blown away but Arnold’s Fish Tank, the time seemed ripe to check out her previous film. I remember when Red Road had a theatrical run in Vancouver a few years ago – the poster was haunting but there was always something more pressing to see and it came and went before I had a chance to see it. If I’d only known that I was missing out on one of the best new voices in film. Arnold’s thriller is magnetic. From the opening scene, it’s clear that Arnold is working on another level and her control of the story, characters and pacing is extraordinary. At every turn she reveals another piece of the puzzle and yet, when Jackie comes up with a plan, it’s not clear how that plan will unfold until the actions appear on screen. I love that Arnold plays her cards close and has faith that the audience is following along on the edge of their seats, waiting to see how things will play out and when they do, it’s a devastating, emotional blow. Brilliant.

it! (USA & Canada)

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5 Hidden Treasures of 2010

[While some of these may have had a theatrical release, in some cases I consider it 2010 because outside of festival showings, it only became available on dvd this year, at least here in Toronto, the center of the universe]

Bjorn Lomborg


Cool It!

Perhaps I am jumping the gun calling this Ondi Timoner documentary on controversial Climate Change skeptic, Bjorn Lomborg, a ‘hidden treasure’. It is set to come out theatrically this month and people may flock to it in droves; I truly hope so as it is one of my favorite documentaries of the year. Timoner has her niche following in the documentary world (with Dig! and We Live in Public), as does Lomborg in his, and maybe the time is right for this counter-argument to An Inconvenient Truth to burst onto the scene. Cool It! is an issue driven documentary that, for once, is not preaching to the choir. I went into the film presupposing Lomborg to be some kind of fringe denier, and the persuasiveness of his opinions and the way Timoner builds upon his thesis in the film completely overturned my presumptions, of him and of the international climate change movement en masse. Despite being steeped in the issues, the documentary has a buoyancy to it, chiding Al Gore’s influential documentary or playing off of the addictive enthusiasm of Bjorn, it breaks free of the talking heads information-spewing propaganda documentaries and becomes something full of heart and hope and courageous fringe ideas about the world and how we can protect it. Coming to a Theater near you, November 12th!





The Misfortunates

Forget any kind of biases you may have to the description European coming of age story, The Misfortunates is not a weepy art film creaking at a languid pace full of moments you admire but don’t enjoy: it is a balls to the wall tragic romp on par with the manic energy of Trainspotting, mixed with some heartfelt pathos the likes of a Mike Leigh film. Meet the Strobbes’ men, a Flemish clan of layabout misfits with an obsession for Roy Orbison and penchant for beer (and lots of it). Following the youngest of the family, Gunther, as he tries to reconcile his love for his repeat offender uncles and father and his want of a normal life, The Misfortunates depicts the fury of a life on the wrong side of the tracks, and how a past of hardship comes to define the person he is to become. Visually rich, cleverly written, and choked full of characters and performances that are unforgettable (Gunther’s dad is like the fourth member of Spinal Tap), The Misfortunates is not to be missed. Newly available on dvd. Read full review here.
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TIFF Review: Inside Job




[Now Playing (at least in Toronto). Go see it!]

A more apt title for Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job would be: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Financial Crisis but Were Afraid to Ask. More so than the heist movie the title suggests, this definitive documentary on the origin, impact and repercussions of the global financial meltdown of 2008 attempts to provide an oral history of the event for future generations to heed. The messages of films like Collapse, The Corporation and here, Inside Job, challenge more than a particular group or issue, they make us confront our very survival and way of life. We ignore at our own peril.

A talking heads documentary? Sure, but with one hell of a story to tell. Inside Job showcases a who’s who of economic and political personalities (those culpable and/or unwilling to be interviewed are called out by name). A considered and comprehensive inquiry into the crisis, the documentary never shies away from explaining the minutiae of the ‘heist’, whether by making intelligible the predatory tactics of derivatives, the bubble of bank leveraging, or the incestuous relationship between credit rating and insurance agencies with mortgage-backed securities. Not exactly a sexy subject, and no amount of Matt Damon’s narration and tongue-in-cheek musical cues can alleviate the weight of what this film is burdened to tell, but by design Inside Job appeals to the mind more than the heart. Would you like to know more…?

Catfish: Why the ‘Hoax’ is Probably Fake


***Warning: In-Depth Spoilers of Catfish to follow***

Since its premiere at Sundance, the documentary Catfish has had more than its share of controversy. Many critics, bloggers and industry types have loudly challenged the filmmakers’ ethical stance towards their subjects and the credibility of their document (on occasion citing the film to be, if not liberally fabricated, then an outright hoax). Having had some time to mull over the fine points of the debate and my own distilled impressions of the experience, I wish to defend the documentary against what I consider to be largely baseless accusations of its lack of authenticity. I do not claim to know the whole story and if any undiscovered evidence one way or the other should grace the comment thread I would welcome any revision to my opinions, but as it stands Catfish, though fortuitous, appears sufficiently plausible.

With the cover my ass clause out of the way, let’s proceed.

First, I dismiss wholesale the claim that everything in Catfish is faked, my mind cannot process how that could even be possible, and in particular, how mentally handicapped children would be used as props in such a deceit (forget ethics, what about commonsense?). This rebuttal is in response to the claims that Nev and the filmmakers (hitherto known as ‘the protagonists’) covered-up their foreknowledge of the peculiarities of the online encounters; whether they knew that Abby, Meghan and Angela were all manifestations of the same person or knew in vaguer terms that something was fishy earlier than the Colorado visit, it becomes an accusation of entrapment and exploitation for what transpires in Michigan. I believe the integral part of the official story in Catfish to be true: until Colorado, the protagonists were unaware of any deception. For me their version of the story hinges on the authenticity of one scene: the discovery that Meghan did not perform the songs she claimed to. If some of the interviews of Nev were staged at the beginning because of lack of footage that, to me, is excusable and no different than what a lot of documentaries engage in. If the song scene is genuine and place-time specific in Colorado before deciding to surprise visit ‘Meghan’ in Michigan then everything that follows has a strong probability of being authentic.
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