Review: Tickled


Tickled is a documentary about power when one is the ‘tickler.’ Tickled is a documentary about the sudden whiplash from silly to terror when one is the ‘ticklee.’ Tickled is David Farrier’s investigative reporting magnum opus, a deeply engaging ride-along that is darn near impossible to properly review without spoilers. In fact that last sentence, and the two preceding it are probably spoilers to those sensitive about such things.

We will proceed with caution, but if you wish to go into Tickled as clean as possible (at this point), read on at your own risk, I will attempt to tread lightly.

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Trailer: Tickled

We have talked about Dylan Reeves and David Farrier’s investigative documentary Tickled several times on this site. I caught it at Hot Docs and loved it. Magnolia have cut a very minor spoiler-ish trailer for the film that gets you to the mouth of the ‘tickling rabbit hole’ that the film takes you down. It’s not the best trailer in the world, but the film presents unique challenges in how to cut a trailer to get bums in seats without spoiling all the surprises. Watch at your own risk.

Tickled will be in theaters June 17, 2016.

Hot Docs 2016 Review: Beware The Slenderman


If you have not heard of the Slenderman at this point, trust me that your kids have. He is a tall think man in a suit usually seen looming in the background of locations where children play or blending into a sparse forest of tall trees, that came about from unconscious desires of the internet to create its own digital folklore.

The opening minutes of Beware The Slenderman promise an experience along the lines of The Blair Witch Project meets Seven. It begs the question on whether HBO contractually mandates swanky opening titles on the various properties they develop for broadcast. The former mock-doc was made famous through savvy use of the internet in building its own mythology, and the latter was a cold thriller featuring sensationally violent murders as the mission statement of warped ideology of a mysterious John Doe.

The actual content of the documentary is far more interesting than what the credit sequence (or poster) pledges. Director Irene Taylor Brodsky goes deep into the specific case of two Wisconsin preteen girls who brutally stabbed one of their friends, nearly 20 times, and left her in the woods to die of her injuries. The victim, Peyton, (somehow) survived, and the perpetrators were were caught in short order. It is one of those stories you might have heard on the news in a couple years ago, registered the shock of it, that they did this due to belief in an internet meme, and then went on about your life. Documentaries like this one serve the place of an increasingly neutered long-form print journalism in that they allow a focused look at the context and consequences, well beyond national headlines.

Featuring extensive courtroom footage, candid interviews with the family members of the accused girls, and the online origins of the crowdsourced boogieman, Beware The Slenderman, plays like bizzaro world version of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills, the superb West Memphis Three doc released by HBO in the 1990s (followed by two sequels). In that film, three teenage boys were convicted of committing gristly murders in Arkansas, and convicted mainly on the grounds that they listened to Metallica and read books by Aleister Crowley (coupled with unreasonable coercion by the police to confess.) The questionable idea that heavy metal music and satanic books could induce impressionable teens to murder was taken seriously to the point of putting blinders on due process.

Here in 2014, via videotaped interrogations which provide the through-line for the film, Morgan and Anissa, separated, both freely admit that their belief of an internet meme made them do it. One of the key, but unspoken messages of Beware The Slenderman is that even in a case where pop culture actually did made the girls do it, the legal system is still utterly broken when it comes to youth. Deeply disturbing to a bleeding-heart-Canadian such as myself, was fact that neither of the accused 12 year olds could have any body contact with their parents during the trial period (now in its second year) and were tried by adults by a tough-on-crime Wisconsin court. No hugs. Morgan’s mother has theories, but no answers because she has been prevented from speaking to daughter since the arrest. The girls were not given phone calls. Both fathers spend much of their on-screen interviews in tears. One gives an impassioned, but pragmatic, monologue on technology, parenting, and the punishing stress of trying to move forward with any sense of normalcy.

We have no idea what kinds of lives our children live inside their heads, and increasingly, the internet allows to magnify and participate the collective imagination, in ways that the brothers Grimm (or Metallica) could never have comprehended. Morgan’s mother thinks back to the time where her daughter had no empathic reaction to the mother die while watching Bambi. It is a powerful anecdote, but one wonders if this experiment were conducted formally on hundreds of children, if Morgan’s reaction is more common than we intuit. Perhaps from a lack of media comprehension or simply the universal built-in-narcissism of those who are so very young.

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Critical Mess: Spoilers and Censure


The first rule of Tickled is you don’t talk about Tickled.

The second rule of Tickled …. YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT Tickled.

Such was my experience, and that of conceivably every other media outlet, in regards to this years Sundance and Hot Docs sensation. An outstanding documentary about the seedy underbelly of competitive endurance tickling, David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s documentary is a superb investigative thriller.

But I can’t tell you why.

Let me start off by saying that this film truly is, without reproach, outstanding. It will leave you incredulous, baffled, and have you on the edge of your seat. It is insightful, intelligently constructed, and eye opening. The questions it answers seem to leave more questions bubbling below the surface – the sign of a successful documentary.

While some publications, such as The Hollywood Reporter, have opted to break down the film, plot point by plot point, publicists involved in its distribution have been diligently trying to put perhaps excessive boundaries on what gets written. I have been asked to write carefully, and to explicitly avoid talking about certain reveals. Meanwhile, suggestions were made that I reconsider my interview questions, the answers of which may reveal too much.

What this all comes down to is a major issue now plaguing media critics, columnists and other surveyors of cultural documents – **THE SPOILER**.

These publicists are doing incredible work trying to protect their product. If a review gets out revealing too much about the film, people may be less interested in seeing it. As with films like The Sixth Sense, for example, people were angry if the final plot twist was spoiled for them. Oft times, they then saw no point in even going to the theatre to see the film.

While something like this won’t do too much damage to a major Hollywood film, it could be a crippling blow for a small documentary out of New Zealand.

An article was published on May 5th by Matt Zoller Seitz on Vulture titled, Spoiler Alert: This Post Is About Spoiler Etiquette. Seitz raises several astute questions about the nature of spoiler culture: Why television shows and movies are somehow more delicate than, say, a sporting event, where the responsibility to avoid news of the game’s outcome, or a spectacular play, falls solely on the shoulders of the person consuming the media. In film and television, however, the responsibility falls on those who produce the criticism, the interviews, and the think-pieces. In other words: It is our fault, as critics, for doing our jobs.

Are there bits of information we should leave out of a piece in order to avoid spoiling rather large bits of the story? Absolutely. There always are. And, often times, that is very easy to do. However, it is becoming progressively more and more difficult to filter out what information is going to piss someone off. Our hands are tied, and it makes it incredibly difficult to do our jobs.

In the case of Tickled, there is so little I can talk about that I felt it more important to use the film as an opportunity to open a dialogue about spoiler culture.

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Hot Docs 2016 Review: How To Build A Time Machine


The famous Serenity Prayer of american theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is as follows: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Jay Cheel’s beautifully rendered How To Build A Time Machine tells the stories of two men who are on the verge of that wisdom, and in the act of telling, examines line between our boundless imagination and the rigorous nuts and bolts of acquiring the knowledge required to achieve some measure of it.

Shot over five years, the film follows former Pee Wee’s Playhouse animator Rob Niosi who has been building a replica prop of the time machine from George Pal’s 1960 film adaptation of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine. What started as a fun 3 month project has, through is own peculiar, yet charming, Sisyphean nature, has blown out to nearly a decade. This is a peak into the psyche of a stop-motion animator whose entire working day might yield only seconds of usable film. Rob’s father took him (and his brother) to see The Time Machine when he was a little boy, where they both became fascinated with the central machine. His father was instrumental in encouraging his son toward a career in animation, providing tools and encouragement and advice along the way. Implicit in Niosi’s recreation of the time machine is to recapture the pure impression he had of that perfect day at the cinema with his family.

The film juxtaposes magnificent montages of Niosi meticulously crafting each brass or mahogany part for the prop replicate together with the academics of Dr. Ronald Mallett, a physicist at the University of Connecticut whose scientific career has been a pursuit of the hard science of time travel.

Significant is the muse that drives these men, completely different relationships with their respective fathers, which gives the movie a surprising emotional resonance. If father-son stuff affects you as much as it does me, you might want to pack some tissue. Mallett lost his father to a heart attack when he was about the same age that Niosi was in rapture watching Morlocks fighting the Eloi at the movies. The core motivation of decades of complex theory and practical experimentation is the dream of the possibility to go back and warn his father of his weak heart, and the young boy, who idolized him, that would be left fatherless at such a young age. And yes, Mallett also idolized a comic book version of H.G. Well’s science fiction story which he believes put him on the circuitous path to a doctorate degree.

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Hot Docs 2016 Review: De Palma


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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Hot Docs 2016 Review: Tickled


Tickled is a documentary about power when one is the ‘tickler.’ Tickled is a documentary about the sudden whiplash from silly to terror when one is the ‘ticklee.’ Tickled is David Farrier’s investigative reporting magnum opus, a deeply engaging ride-along that is darn near impossible to properly review without spoilers. In fact that last sentence, and the two preceding it are probably spoilers to those sensitive about such things.

We will proceed with caution, but if you wish to go into Tickled as clean as possible (at this point), read on at your own risk, I will attempt to tread lightly.

Would you like to know more…?

Hot Docs 2016 Review: Brothers


In Aslaug Holm’s gorgeously shot documentary on her own children – make no mistake, this is no home movie, but a rigorous 16mm film production by a veteran filmmaker – a recurring image is laundry hanging out on the line on the breezy Norwegian coast. In a sense Holm is airing her laundry figuratively as well, in Brothers, a decade long project capturing her two boys, Lukas and Markus, from ages 5 and 8 all the way into their teenage years.

The sparse images, photographs and film, Holm possesses of herself as a child, and even less media her own parents and extended family, led the urge preserve her offspring on film in a way that captures the hopes and dreams of children when their future remains completely ahead of them. The document she herself never had. She is not shy of bringing herself into the film, insofar as a reminder of the strings and mirrors of doing this sort of activity amongst the bustle of family life. As any good scientist knows, to observe an experiment is to affect the results in some capacity, and Holm and her camera factor into the frame honestly.

Markus loves soccer, and there are many shots of him practicing on a dirt pitch with his father and younger brother. Lukas has a more love-hate-love relationship with sports in general that is summed up with another recurring shot, that of the boys on the edge of a dock-house daring to jump into the water (as metaphors go, it’s powerfully obvious in that it is both obvious and powerful) at various ages.

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Friday One Sheet: How To Build A Time Machine


Hot Docs is here once again for those of us living in Toronto! Making its world premiere at the documentary festival is Jay Cheel’s How To Build A Time Machine, the latest film from a good friend of Rowthree (and occasional guest on the Cinecast). To this end, the long-in-production film gets a shiny new poster for its debut. A sheet that makes excellent use of negative white-space to imply the classroom of physicist Ronald Mallett (who keeps a tiny photo of Einstein near his chalkboard) one of two principal subjects of the film. Looming above is the both the cosmos, and the original prop from George Pal’s The Time Machine, with the lever about to be pulled, I assume by Rob Noisi, the other main character who has been building a replica of the famous victorian contraption for many years. The tagline on the poster, located in the space in between, correctly asks, “Where you would go?” As in ‘what route?’ Would it be through unimaginably difficult science in tiny increments (note the box on the chalkboard), or would it be through imagination and craft and the memory of cinema?

If you are in Toronto next week, How To Build A Time Machine plays on these dates during the festival:
Monday, May 2, Isabel Bader Theatre
Tuesday, May 3, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Saturday, May 7, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2