Hot Docs 2016 Review: De Palma

depalma

Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s feature length interview could have easily been called “De Palma on De Palma.” It features prolific director Brian De Palma, now in his late sixties, in front of a blueish coloured fireplace mantle for its entire duration as the man, in his own casual way, walks through his filmography in order. He offers stories and offers opinions, slags a few people and ideas, and expresses varied regrets, bon mots and tangents along the way.

The experience is delightfully simple, involving cutting away to film clips to underscore what is being discussed, with the editing offering only an occasional hint that there are two younger indie directors on the other side of the camera.

De Palma’s 40 year career, from shoe-string indie pictures to Hollywood blockbusters. De Palma discovered Robert De Niro in college (and made the noteworthy pre-cursor to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Hi Mom! in 1970 – it is noteworthy in that Hi Mom! is quite excellent! In his twenties he directed a late career, quite addled, Orson Welles along with a cantankerous Tommy Smothers in a film called Get To Know Your Rabbit and would go on to direct a slew of movies both big and small with many of the biggest actors of the day: Sissy Spacek, Cliff Robertson, Geneviève Bujold, John Travolta, Melanie Griffith, Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Kirk Douglas, Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, Tom Hanks, Jean Reno, Tom Cruise, and a music video with The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen (yes, that music video, so you can thank De Palma or blame him for giving to the world, Courtney Cox.)

I don’t believe a lengthy review of this documentary is entirely necessary, as De Palma is a blunt man who does not mince words. Perhaps Hollywood’s most significant acolyte of Alfred Hitchcock, De Palma makes no bones about borrowing from the ‘Master of Suspense’ at every turn: from the macguffin concept, to doubles, lurid voyeurism, and a fascination with the ‘bomb that is about to go off’ style of storytelling. De Palma has always taken shots he loves (the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin for instance) and tried to build on them in modern stylish ways. It is no surprise that in kind, Quentin Tarantino happily and regularly pilfers from De Palma in a similar fashion. It is the nature of cinema, of art itself really. De Palma just did it with a bit more blood and sleaze and split screens.

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Trailer: Cash Only

CashOnly

I fell pretty hard for Malik Bader’s Detroit set, ethnic Albanian crime drama Cash Only when I caught it at last years edition of Fantasia. It is gritty, high energy, and bleakly funny in a way that recalls Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher Trilogy (particularly the 1990s-shot first film).

Elvis Martini is in deep shit. His dilapidated Detroit apartment building is about to be foreclosed on by the bank, most of his tenants are behind on rent, and he’s in big debt to bookies in the dangerous Albanian underworld. The only light in his dark world is his nine-year-old daughter, Lena; he’s in debt to her school, too. Elvis finds some ill-gotten cash in an evicted tenant’s apartment and is able to briefly keeps the wolves at bay, but he soon learns that the money belonged to an even bigger wolf – one that wants his stolen money back. When Lena is kidnapped by the mysterious menace he’s accidentally messed with, Elvis has 24 hours to come up with $25,000 to save his daughter’s life: cash only.

Small distributor FilmBuff is giving the film a well deserved cinema and VOD release on May 13. The trailer is below.

Trailer: De Palma

depalma

“Being a director is being a watcher.” Indeed, in the decades of TIFF, it was not uncommon to see Brian DePalma in the regular public screenings at the festival taking in a variety of cinematic offerings. Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow shot filmed untold hours of conversation with Brian DePalma and edited it into a 107 minute documentary on the stylized, love/hate director of Sisters, Body Double, Carrie, Blow Out, The Untouchables, and so many more . The film is set to play HotDocs film festival in Toronto next week, and a trailer has landed. Not suprisingly, DePalma has a lot to say about the state and business of film-making today. Have a look.

A24 is releasing the film on June 10.

(If you are in Toronto, Hotdocs is playing the film in three festival screenings: Sunday May 1, Monday May 2 and Friday May 6)

Hayao Miyazaki @ 75

With Japanese auteur, manga artist, animator, and former Studio Ghibli co-chief Hayao Miyazaki celebrating his 75th birthday today, it is worth giving consideration to his influence over the past 50 years. While Ghibli is not the quite the world-wide corporate juggernaut that is Disney, nor is it the household name among children and families, the influence of Miyazaki (and Isao Takahata) on the art and creativity of the animated world is deeply entrenched. Pixar head John Lasseter (who is also the chief of all Disney animated projects) never misses an opportunity to praise Miyazakai-san as one of the key mentors and aspirations in the early days of storytelling at Pixar.

From his early work as an animator at Toei Studios where he worked on projects such as Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, Future Boy Conan, Gulliver’s Travels, and significantly, the feature film Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, which almost much as Tin Tin, was a key pre-cursor/analogue to Indiana Jones. From there, he worked with his friend co-worker, Takahata-san, to form Studio Ghibli and translate his sprawling manga, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds into an epic sized feature. Note at the bottom of this post, that several people have noted the similarities between scavenger-warrior-leader Nausicaa and The Force Awakens scavenger-soon-to-be-Jedi, Rey.

After the success of their first feature, Miyazaki and Takahata would go on to make parallel features in their new studio. Miyazaki the all time classic My Neighbor Totoro, perhaps the most universal movie about discovery and play ever made, while Takahata would make one of the greatest (and saddest) anti-war movies in the history of cinema, The Grave of the Fireflies. Miyazaki, for his entire career, ending with the biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, a designer Japanese planes the second World War, would come back again and again to themes of environmentalism, aviation, and the balance between self-reliance and social responsibility. These themes are often tacked in a fantasy setting, but their adult complexities made his animated features rather unique. He almost always had a girl as the protagonist which as exceptionally forwarding thinking in 1984, and was still unusual by the time he won the Animated Feature Oscar with his Alice In Wonderland / Wizard of Oz inspired masterpiece, Spirited Away. The epic adventure Princess Mononoke was the highest grossing movie in Japan until James Cameron’s Titanic.

Although the director only directed 8 animated features over the course of his time running Studio Ghibli, all of them are bonafide classics of animation. And while the future of Ghibli is uncertain after his retirement a few years ago (along with the retirement of Takahata-san a year later), he has left an impressive legacy, including the final Ghibli feature, 2014’s When Marnie Was There which often plays like a ‘grown-up’, melancholic version of My Neighbor Totoro.

Also worth checking out is the 2013 documentary on Miyazaki’s life and his working process, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.

Albert Maysles 1926-2015.

“Making a film isn’t finding the answer to a question; it’s trying to capture life as it is.”

he elder half of the famous Maysles documentary filmmaking team, Albert Maysles died yesterday at 88. David (who passed on in the late 1980s) and Albert documented The Rolling Stones in one of the best documentary films ever made, Gimme Shelter, shot during the infamous Altamont Concert; a touch-point considered the end of the Hippie movement, and the beginning of the flower-power narcotics hangover. (We did a Movie Club Podcast on the 1970 doc here.) They were leading proponents int the Direct Cinema Movement which aimed to minimize cinema tricks in the documentary form to represent their stories honestly (and as the name states, directly.) They also documented The Beatles, IBM, The extended Kennedy family (Grey Gardens)the dynamic of the modern salesman in the classic documentary, Salesman. In his solo career Albert Maysles made an equally diverse stretch of films from the 1950s all the way up to 2009. Maysles was a titan of the documentary field, as important to its development as Robert J. Flaherty, Frederick Wiseman, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.

The New York Times has more.

Mamoru Oshii and The Sky Crawlers

Mamoru Oshii’s criminally under-seen existential ariel-combat science fiction film, The Sky Crawlers, recently screened in Toronto as part of Techno/Human retrospective on the master animators body of work. Oshii was on hand to discuss the film prior to the screening, which I captured on video, and subtitled via the interpreter. If you are a fan of films like Blade Runner, Code 46, Solaris and Never Let Me Go, than consider picking up the BLU. I will let the director give to you skinny on the ideas and craft behind the film, which was animated by Production I.G.; the same folks behind the Ghost in The Shell OVA/TV show and the O-Ren Ishii animated sequence in Kill Bill Vol.1

My original review of the film is below:

“Somewhere, in a country similar to ours There are children who do not become adults. They are very similar to us.” goes the tagline of Mamoru Oshii’s 2008 film. One that carried the promise (during its production cycle) of a more linear form of story telling after the convoluted Ghost in the Shell: Innocence and the strange Tachigui. I am overjoyed to report that while the story is linear, it is anything but straightforward or simple, and not the least bit diluted or dumbed down in regards to his philosophical and social musings – basically the essence of what makes Oshii stand out from his generation of masters of the Japanese animated feature. Using a pastiche of elements of contemporary science fiction (From “Ender’s Game” to “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”) mashed up with stirring World War II aerial dogfights and a his unique brand of austere and cold melodrama, The Sky Crawlers certainly will not be for everyone. The film is a feast for the senses, not only in the gargantuan fighter plane battles, which may be safe to say are the best ever committed to celluloid (and yes, that includes Hell’s Angels and the space climaxes of any of the best of the Star Wars pictures). This is true in ever single detail of the film (bravo Production I.G.) even the small moments: The cigarette smoke swirls, a Vespa engine hums as it idles, the airplane hangars and living quarters are textured, lived in, and the apple pie and coffee diners are gorgeously rendered down to the most minute detail. And the sound design (courtesy of Skywalker Sound) is among the best work they have ever done.

But wait, much this technical praise could be more or less said of, say, Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s equally well crafted Steam Boy, and that movie was more or less a failure due to overly convoluted and stilted story telling. The narrative may be cool and deliberately paced for a film with designs on a gigantic canvas, but that dovetails beautifully with the story Oshii is trying to tell. Make no mistake, this is social science fiction, and tonally controlled storytelling at its finest.

The world of The Sky Crawlers is a social and geographical fusion of 1950s America, Japan and Western Europe where propeller styled fighter planes co-exist along side satellite television, large multinational corporations and cloning science. While it is a time of apparent peace and prosperity, the large corporations conduct ‘real wars’ (mostly over the border ocean zones), televised of course, to placate any unrest or rebellion from the masses. Contrary to Orwell’s “1984”, where London is a perpetual war wreck and society fragmented and controlled, Oshii (and the writer of the original novel, Mori Hiroshi) postulate that for the most part, this ‘perpetual war’ has actually benefited society. Wars and equally importantly, all the social problems of an idyll, purposeless populace, involving real people can be avoided if they are fought in a fully manufactured way which has ‘real consequence’ built into the equation. The fighter pilots that fight for their parent corporations are of a genetically modified race who never age, fittingly called Kildren. Set in state of perpetual adolescence, they live to fight and pilot the fighter planes, and die for the entertainment and attention of the worlds citizens. The fact that this race is immortal otherwise, only ups the ante and the dramatic spectacle of flaming angels falling from the sky from the fantastic machines.

The Sky Crawlers Movie StillThe story revolves around one of the bases of Kildren and the little ecosystem in which they inhabit. Yuichi arrives to a new posting for the Rostock Corporation. The pilots there are kept under tight wraps from their base commander Suito Kusanagi (a fellow Kildren) and the lovingly stern chief mechanic (and ‘adult human’), both of whom immediately have an eye on Yuichi. This sets Yuichi on edge along with the stories of the non-Kildren ace pilot, a Red Baron type named ‘The Teacher’ who fights for the ‘enemy’ Lautern Corporation. The first half of the film focuses on the ecology of the air-base with a few combat laden sorties to get the adrenaline flowing. The drinking and sexual exploits of Yuichi’s roomate pull Yuichi into a few encounters of his own that strike odd chords of familiarity. This leads to Yuichi questioning his bosses mysterious past while the Rostock Corporation plans its biggest offensive to date. The findings of Yuichi in regards to his bosses and himself are the engine of the plot, but really not the films chief concern, and thusly the storytelling is not the least bit concerned with ‘twist endings’ or other high-concept gimmickry so often favoured within the genre.

Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful novel (and to an extent, Mark Romanek’s film adaptation) Never Let Me Go, Oshii does not bury the mystery or secrets of the narrative so deep that a conscientious observer won’t have things figured out within the first quarter of the film. But the joy here is in how things reflect and refract current social trends, and draw commentary and observation into the forefront of the storytelling. The film is postulating some big questions in amongst the lives of pilots, war melodrama and simply stunning action set-pieces. It is a film concerned for the future, while not necessarily nostalgic of the past. There is a character, one that goes unnamed, in the film (in the background really) that sits alone and silent on the front steps of a diner. The Kildren all look at him, but never make any real contact. This old man weeps for the world as it is, a peace bought at a curious price of static non-progress and cyclic stagnation. A moment in the film when another adult human, the lively cook and bartender at the diner, joins the old man in his silent withdrawal. This moment resonates. Oshii, who was 57 at the time was (and probably still is) concerned with the consequences of the punishing media distractions and general white noise of modern Japanese society, which leaves many young folks in a state of perpetual adolescence. He has constructed a curious epic that is evocative of history, while starkly original in tone and execution. A message movie that is subtle, urgent, and most certainly worthy of your time and consideration.

The Director’s Club: SAM FULLER

I recently made a guest appearance on the Director’s Club Podcast talking at length with Patrick Ripoll about the career, craft and overall style of the great Sam Fuller. Over the course of a few hours we also talk about Do The Right Thing, the short films of Kenneth Anger, the bawdy polish mind-melt film, The Saragossa Manuscript, and many more tangents and such.

Specific Fuller films covered at length are The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor and Pick Up On South Street, but we touch upon many others with the exception being his film and TV westerns.

You can find the full podcast over at The Director’s Club.

Errol Morris on The Unknown Known

A Q&A I recorded at one of the Toronto International Film Festival screenings of Errol Morris’s new documentary on Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Morris talks a bit about language, and a bit about the contradictions and snowflakes of a political lifer that is still in his bubble of denial. It is a rather excellent 12 minute supplement to the film itself.

TIFF Review: Jodorowsky’s Dune

Dune

One of, if not the, most famous films never made was Dune. Sure, we got the mid-eighties David Lynch version – admittedly that is a significant guilty pleasure of mine – and some terrible TV miniseries in the early 2000s, but every science fiction cinephile worth their salt has drooled over the folklore behind Chilean writer-director-mime-surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version which would have starred Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Udo Kier and Salvador Dali and scored by Pink Floyd. The implosion of the project in the mid 1970s and the scattering of the creative and technical team resulted in Ridley Scott’s Alien, but also, according to the storyboard matches inside the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, inspired imagery from Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Flash Gordon, Contact and a host of other classic blockbuster science fiction epics. It was something like all the musicians that were at that one Sex Pistols show went on to create almost the entire Punk movement.

This documentary may be a talking heads and animated cut-away straightforward but when you have the burning energy of Jodorowsky as the main subject, even at 84 years young, there is more energy and passion (and more than a bit of crazy) to burn. His vision of the coming of a cinema version of Frank Herbert’s culty science fiction novel was as the coming of a cinematic God. It was to be something sacred, with more than a touch of madness. That he had never actually read the book, well that wasn’t going to stop him. He assembled his creative team, his ‘spiritual warriors’ in Paris from all over the world, young special effects and writer Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alien), graphic artists Moebius, H.R. Giger and Chris Foss and preached to them, almost like a cult priest or guru, for months in designing the storyboards and production design element. None of the creative team had read the Frank Herbert novel either, trusting to Jodorowsky’s unrelenting passion for his own ideas and vision. To say there was hubris and grandiosity going into the project is an understatement, but this is the writer director of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the former film birthed the idea of a “Midnight Movie,” a practice which still continues (to a degree) today, and the latter, perhaps the strangest movie ever made. Trying to raise money from Disney, Paramount and the Other studios proved fruitless, as nearly everyone speculates, it was too visionary (and its runtime likely too epic) for the Hollywood Studio system, and too expensive to make anywhere else.

Thus, the project lives on as a dream. The perfect dream that exists in the minds of a few, because it was never relalized, has become idealized. Something that was to be made by spiritual warriors to mutate young minds has, after 40 years, passed into kind of a legend, almost myth, and it is now collected here as kind of a bible insofar as the storyboards and concept art collection that resulted and how it is further (and handsomely) eulogized by way of this documentary.

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