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.
“Feminism wasn’t about burning your bra and not shaving your legs. Feminism was shaving your legs and working in a bar as a sex object, but knowing that you were. […] And not selling your pussy and your soul for a wedding ring.”
Burlesque is a profession shrouded in public scrutiny. Callously written off as little more than strippers, selling their bodies, the women who’ve performed this art of seduction have often been shamed for their less-than-conventional career choice. Arguments are made that these women mark a regression for Feminism. That they behave unladylike, crass, twisted, and vile. In actual fact, these women embody one of the fundamental rules of Feminism; it’s all about choice. Alongside equality with men, a woman’s right to control her life, and her body, is solely her own.
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
It’s that time of year where Documania runs wild in Toronto for the city’s second highest profile festival, one I myself have come to prefer every year. The selections for Hot Docs 2016 are stacked and wonderfully curated. If you pick a bad one, it’s probably on you. While the selections below are reviewed based on screeners, I highly encourage who can to get out and see these in the cinema. It’s so rare to see a documentary with a packed crowd, and the Q&A’s that happen during Hot Docs are so much more special than the ones you see at TIFF by nature of centering around real stories and real characters rather than the cloud of celebrity. You never know what to expect.
MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE
(dir: John Dower, 100 minutes) Tickets
After a decade of videos from Wise Beard Men, numerous expose books, countless articles, and most recently, the dense info dump of Alex Gibney’s Going Clear, you’d think we’d had enough Scientology documentaries. And maybe so. But along comes John Dowler and well known UK presenter Louis Theroux to pull an Act of Killing by hiring actors, who with the help of former Scientologist Marty Rathburn, recreate bizarre and violent events from David Miscavige and others that he had witnessed during his decades as a high ranking church official. MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE is far less concerned with the usual informative points of interest regarding Xenu and obsession with celebrities than it is fascinated with the justifications in behavior made by past and present members of their secretive organization. What results is a lot of cameras directed at other cameras, paranoia, intimidation, and cheeky provocation. This documentary is in no way a great starting point for anyone wishing to learn more about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, but for those of us who thought we’d seen and heard everything, this fresh angle is for you.
TONY ROBBINS: I AM NOT YOUR GURU
(dir: Joe Berlinger, 115 minutes) Tickets
Speaking of cults, Tony Robbins and his self-help seminars have themselves often been thought of as such, and similarly have been behind closed doors as well as very expensive. From Joe Berlinger of PARADISE LOST / METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER fame comes this unprecedented look at Robbins’ Date With Destiny series, and if there’s a twist to be found, it’s that Tony Robbins comes out of this looking really really good, to the extent that some have accused I AM NOT YOUR GURU of being an informercial. While the film generally takes Robbins at his word and some subtle touches (fonts, establishing shots) might give off a brochure esthetic, these criticisms fall on deaf ears when Berlinger lets the confrontations take center stage, where attendees are pushed to their emotional breaking points by the charismatic, foul-mouthed, no-bullshit-taking Robbins. Robbins operates as a Gordon Ramsay for your life, and Berlinger’s concert film/cinema verite approach allows the viewer to walk away deciding for themselves if this is a good thing. Robbins is appearing at Hot Docs which makes this an especially hot ticket, but you can catch this when it comes to Netflix on July 15th.
LO AND BEHOLD: REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD
(dir: Werner Herzog, 98 minutes) Tickets
I have to wonder if I could have accepted a film like this from anyone other than Werner Herzog. LO AND BEHOLD is a meandering series of anecdotes about the wired age that almost feels like a proof of concept for a Cosmos-type TV series. Which is to say, it’s entertaining and Herzog’s trademark calm, collected nature makes it feel like a stream of consciousness. From the unbreakable box that represents the invention of the Internet to the solar flares that will destroy us all to all of the harassment in between, Herzog’s fascinations and questions make this a very personal look at the increasingly impersonal. A favorite segment finds Werner visiting with those suffering from the very real EHS that fans of Better Call Saul will recognize, literally having gone off the grid, paying a personal price for our need to Google the name of that one guy who was in that thing. Admittedly, LO AND BEHOLD does feel like it could end at any moment, and there is an opportunity for a stronger final thought that isn’t there, but 98 minutes with Herzog is always worth your time.
CREDIT FOR MURDER
(dir: Vladi Antonevicz, 87 minutes) Tickets
If there is one documentary I have been pushing people to see, it is this film from Israeli director Vladi Antonevicz, a jaw-dropping, cinematic undercover procedural adventure which finds him posing as a white supremacist in Russia to solve the horrific murder of two immigrant men which had been posted to Youtube and ultimately became an infamous viral video. CREDIT FOR MURDER draws you in with the sordid allure of your first convincing conspiracy video and never lets up. The intricate detective work, superb presentation of event timelines, and mind-boggling admissions from far right nationalists are astounding. These Neo-Nazi antagonists fear nothing and if anything are trying to impress the viewer with how hateful they are. They are too trusting of the man with the camera, and too secure that there will be no reckoning for their actions, which makes for great viewing. This is provocative, detailed, vital documentary filmmaking and will almost certainly be in my year end top 10.
(dir: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, 92 minutes) Tickets
The less said about TICKLED is to your benefit, and the filmmakers would prefer it stay that way. All you need to know is that co-director and journalist David Farrier found a video online for something called “competitive endurance tickling”. Huh. Considering that we have pillow fight and ax throwing leagues, it was not absurd to want to make a short quirky news story about this oddball sport. But it became clear very quickly that the people behind this “sport” did not appreciate the publicity, opening the door to an investigation that keeps paying off sinister revelations and mysterious puppeteers. TICKLED easily surpasses Catfish in the WTF is With People department, and will keep you guessing.
(dir: Morgan White, 90 minutes) Tickets
Just a bit over a year ago I finally laid eyes on THE REP, Morgan White’s excellent documentary about the rise and fall of the beloved and sadly out-of-business Toronto Underground Cinema. I went into this follow-up unsure if a focus tracing the cultural impact of a single piece of film memorabilia could sustain a feature length, and was more than pleasantly surprised to see that not only will THE SLIPPERS satisfy film lovers let alone Ozheads, but that White has significantly leveled up in his craftmanship in a short period. This is a slick, professional piece of work that indicates a passion for the subject matter that rivals that of his wealthy subjects. The story of the titular ruby slippers keeps going into unexpected places – conspiracy theories, capers, failed dreams, and deep envy. The lively talking heads, including a healthy dose of Debbie Reynolds, collectively reveal the rise of memorabilia collecting and how these props take on iconic and symbolic significance that transcend their original context into objects of inspiration, achievement, and how sad it can be to watch what happens when they fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t appreciate them.
HOW TO BUILD A TIME MACHINE
(dir: Jay Cheel, 82 minutes) Tickets
Like THE SLIPPERS, Jay Cheel’s first documentary feature since 2011’s terrific, hilarious BEAUTY DAY dials back the lunacy into a more contemplative but equally compelling place through two obsessed men and an iconic piece of film memorabilia – the HG Wells time machine. Animator Rob Niosi has been replicating the prop for years in extreme nitpicking detail. Rob Mallett became a theoretical physicist for tragic reasons. Cheel’s Errol Morris influences shine through even more so than his previous effort as he ties both stories together via the power of cinema as it’s own time machine, and milking emotion out of hobbies and fields of studies often thought of as cold and impersonal practices. If any film has convincingly proven that the journey is as important as the destination, it’s this one.
SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR
(dir: Deborah S. Esquenazi, 89 minutes) Tickets
The wave of interest in true crime stories laced with a dose of injustice is still in full swing, and another to add to your list is this film, which like PARADISE LOST before it, comes out of the last gasp of the Satanic Panic, and led to four Texan women subject to a homophobia-driven, literal witch hunt. This film, faced with the problem of not much footage from the time of the trial, forgoes suspense for an emotionally charged story about the exoneration process 15 years later, the difficult reintegration process, solidarity in clearing their name as one, and the regret and trauma of someone who had been manipulated into a false confession as an act of revenge.
*ANOTHER* cult documentary? Actually, HOLY HELL might be *THE* cult documentary. Director Will Allen spent 20 years within the Buddhafield, a hippie-ish cult, where he served as the official documentarian and too-close friend of Michel, a guru clad mostly in speedos, obsessed with his own appearance to levels that would make Liberace blush, and of course – dangerously drunk on power, spiritually and emotionally abusive. Michel is as creeptastic as they come, always staring through you, looking like a melted Martin Short even as he holds himself up as a paragon of beauty through the bizarre films and awful 80s-tastic music videos Will Allen created to glorify his master. This is an escape film, a revenge film, an ode to lost friends, and it has the most satisfying ending sequence(s) of anything I’ve seen from this year’s festival. And it may be coming to a theater near you sooner than later.
MAGICIANS: LIFE IN THE IMPOSSIBLE
(dir: Marcie Hume, Christoph Baaden, 85 minutes) Tickets
Of all things, MAGICIANS reminds of the Jerry Seinfeld COMEDIAN documentary, as well as the pro wrestling documentary BEYOND THE MAT. In all cases these are entertainers who face a stigma around their chosen profession, a struggle to attain a certain level of skill, and an even greater struggle to stand out among the field. And then there’s the unique hits to relationships, jealousy and finances that almost all performers face. Hume and Baaden’s film follows four extremely talented magicians in different stages of their careers, from a Tonight Show regular to a master of cards to the flashy Vegas showman who has to worry about bigger names stealing his act right when he’s finally on the edge of his big break. There’s something wonderful about watching people who are so very good at one specific thing weave their (wait for it) magic. Not being told how they do it just adds that extra level of intrigue, and finding out why these wonderful weirdos do it more than makes up for it.