I like the word “Youthquake” that critic Owen Gleiberman applied to the film when he caught it at Cannes this year. American Honey gives the vibe of what you would get if Spring Breakers was directed by a Brit instead of an American. That’s my two cents, but don’t let me oversimplify, there is some incredible energy, cinematography, intimacy and overall film-making going on at work here. I can’t wait to see the latest film from the director of Fish Tank and Red Road. In fact, I’m due for a full Andrea Arnold marathon pretty soon.
It seems now that Japan’s Studio Ghibli is awaiting auteurs to step up on native soil, they have turned to some international co-productions to keep the lights on. If Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit is any indication of this new collaboration arrangement, I am happy to see the direction things go. The Red Turtle looks gorgeous, has a hand animated aesthetic, with a flair for visual and emotional storytelling. The film premiers at Cannes this week. The trailer is below.
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.
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.
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.
One of Werner Herzog’s many pieces of advice for filmmakers, documentary or otherwise, is to “carry bolt cutters everywhere.” With that in mind, Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche blurs a slew of ethical lines in the giddy cause of cinema-or-bust enthusiasm. He, quite convincingly, gets away with it too.
Set in 1967, as the US and Soviet space race phase of the cold war kicked into high gear, the faux 16mm doc follows two low level CIA agents, in the nascent A/V department of the spy organization, who are investigating whether or not Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was a piece of Soviet propaganda. After ‘proving’ that Kubrick is indeed not a spy, they get pulled into (or rather browbeat their way onto) a mission looking for a mole in NASA. The plan is to pose as film students making a documentary about the Apollo missions, get inside and bug some key players’ phones.
In fact, the filmmakers play the two lead film students in Operation Avalanche. Johnson along with his The Dirties co-creator, Owen Williams, and their tiny crew, did exactly the same thing to make this film. This creates a rabbit hole of life-imitating-art-imitating-ciniphilia perpetual motion machine that powers the film. How Johnson and company managed to catch the right people wearing clothes close enough to pass as period dress, and edit them into the film without any permissions, well, that remains for Lionsgate, who acquired the film, to perhaps legally smooth out as the film makes its way through the festival circuit to commercial release. Suffice it to say, the logistics of a micro-budget film to get impressive period production value in ‘hot’ locations which include inside NASA’s Huston Mission Control, London’s Shepperton Studios and a couple Toronto back lots.
Through a convoluted series of events that put these two spy/cinephiles (and some their CIA handlers) way in over their head, they are eventually tasked with faking a moon landing for NASA in a way that recalls Peter Hyam’s Capricorn One as much as it does Orson Welles F For Fake (although Johnson prefers a Steenbeck to a Moviola). A signature scene in the film involves them sneaking onto the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey and ‘stealing’ Kubrick’s execution of front projection. The scene is constructed through a marvellous series of special effects involving body doubles, a shit-ton of high resolution archival photos, and shoe-string ingenuity. Things have come a long way in 20 years that a such tiny film such as Operation Avalanche can outdo the whiz-bang archival integrations of something like Forrest Gump. Along with persuasively low-key special effects, it also doubles a love letter to a particular era of delightfully analog industriousness (see also: Berberian Sound Studio.)
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.
When I was 15 years old, I worked at the local movie theatre. One of my coworkers, who wasn’t Jewish, decided he wanted to tell me a joke about Jews. Against my better judgment, I told him to go ahead. “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza?” he asked. I cringed, worried about the answer. “What?” I asked. “The pizza doesn’t scream when you put it in the oven!” He laughed to himself for a solid minute, eventually stopping when I didn’t join in. He didn’t realize I was Jewish, for starters. Nor was he aware that my maternal grandfather had survived a Siberian work camp, having escaped the Nazis that killed his parents and sister: my great grandparents and great aunt. I snapped at him, declaring not only how unfunny the joke was, but also how stupid and insensitive it was to make a joke about the Holocaust. He felt immediate remorse, but still didn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to make the joke.
In some ways, this dichotomy, the issue of censorship and a complicated right to jest, is at the heart of The Last Laugh, a documentary that explores humour and the Holocaust. Interviewing entertainers like Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Rob and Carl Reiner, Judy Gold, Susie Essman and Harry Shearer, director Ferne Pearlstein explores the nature of humour and propriety.
The only thing that separates the The Producers (1967, 2005) from History of the World: Part I (1981), argues Brooks, is time. We have enough chronological distance from the Spanish Inquisition, Brooks suggests, that no one batted an eye at his outstanding musical number. However, when The Producers was released, both its original incarnation and its later Broadway rendition, some Jews were morbidly offended at his audacity. The suggestion is made throughout The Last Laugh, by Brooks and others of his generation, that to mock the Holocaust itself is verboten, but to mock the Nazis was empowering, and still is. Portrayals like that in “Springtime for Hitler”, or Charlie Chaplin’s depiction in The Great Dictator, aim to remove their authority, and therefore their power, through humour and mockery. For this generation, and those surviving the Holocaust, to laugh was to disarm.
In speaking to Holocaust survivors, including entertainer Robert Clary (Hogan’s Heros), we come to understand the integral nature of humour in the ghettos, and the death camps. Survivor Renee Firestone recalls laughing to herself when receiving a full physical exam from Dr. Mengele himself, knowing full well that most of the Jews being examined were about to be gassed. The redundancy of the exam gave her, and others, enough of a giggle to help survive.
Pearlstein brings to the forefront the question of why laugh? How could you find humour in such horror? The answer, resoundingly from survivors, is that without laughter, they would never have survived during or after the Holocaust. The Nazis couldn’t understand finding humour in anything that was happening, so their control was usurped through Jewish laughter.
But in answering the complicated questions of how one could laugh in the face of such turmoil, more questions are unearthed. Who has the right to laugh at such things, and who has the right to joke? Do you jest about the Holocaust, or is it only allowed to make fun of the Nazis? How far is too far? And are only Jews allowed to investigate the murky waters of humour and this particular strife? Are younger generations of comedians incapable of truly grasping the weight of the Holocaust now that older generations of survivors are dying? It evokes issues of censorship that are unavoidable.
In many ways, The Last Laugh raises more questions than it answers. However, it encourages its audience to be thoughtful in their laughter, to ruminate on why they laugh, and what is appropriate to laugh at. To laugh at screaming Jews in an oven, for instance, is grossly insensitive. However, there is humour to be found in Dr. Mengele telling you that, should you survive this, you should have your tonsils removed. They’re rather large.
The Last Laugh has its International Premiere on Sunday, May 1st at 1:15pm at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, with two more screenings on Monday, May 2nd at 9:00pm, and Saturday, May 7th at 10:30am.
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.