Hot Docs 2017 Review: Shiners


 

Opting for nothing less than an examination of the purpose and philosophy of 21st century labour – in short, how and why do we work in an era of automation and disposable consumerism? – Stacey Tenenbaum’s re-evaluation of the humble shoe shiner smashes any and all Dickensian or Jim Crow notions of the trade with smiles and (mostly joyful) tears.

She travels the globe, from Times Square to La Paz, Bolivia and from Sarajevo to Etobicoke to assess the evolution of the most local of services: cleaning and burnishing shoe leather in a public space. Shiners addresses socioeconomic hot buttons issues of the day, such as race, class, ecology, automation of labour, addiction, politics and human dignity. But, it is first and foremost a character study in a waning trade that has always attracted interesting characters. Combine this with Van Royko’s low-f-stop cinematography and you almost smell the oil, leather, and Kiwi.

Tactile close-ups of fingers and cloth, skin on skin, are mixed with medium shots to emphasize the ‘power-difference’ between the person ‘in the chair’ (which is not always a literal chair) and the shiner, which the film then smoothly undoes. Finally, a healthy mix of wide shots to show their labour employed inside the context of their city. Shiners has a craftswoman’s ebb and flow as Tenenbaum effortlessly flits back and forth across their stories.

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Hot Docs 2017 Review: PACmen


 

How many people have selfies taken with Dr. Ben Carson on their phones that they will probably never look at again? For a few shining moments, the former neurosurgeon whose stab-to-scalpel story was adapted into a television movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr., was an outsider-candidate for the U.S. Republican presidential ticket in 2015.

This stemmed from a promising keynote speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, where Carson brazenly lectured President Obama on the moral decay of America, as Obama sat ten feet away. It is fitting that his political potential started with prayer, as PACMen shares the story ‘Run Ben Run’ from the inside.

As Donald Trump often blathers, “America does not like losers,” And while the orange authoritarian bafflingly blazed his way through the primaries and election cycle to the highest political office in the world, he was right in this case — outside of a small political bubble, Dr. Carson was exactly and going to be always that, one of politics’ many losers.

Aussie director Luke Walker has unprecedented access to Carson’s Political Action Committee, “Extraordinary America,” (in common parlance, a super-PAC), the body of wealthy evangelical Christians and Tea Party-ers who are responsible, in a large way, for getting Carson to run for the Republican nomination, and also handled the logistical and financial details of his ‘ground game’ in the early state primaries. Walker structures his film between the nuts and bolts of running a behind the scenes political leadership race with Dr. Carson’s ill-informed, often outright goofy series of blunders in front of the news cameras on the national stage.

Your ability to catch the vibe that Walker seems to be laying out with PACmen — decidedly Christopher Guest but for real this time — might depend on your penchant for schadenfreude. At the beginning of the many conference calls and hotel-ballroom meetings, there is a collective prayer for success that often gets hyper-specific: “Let us pray that the liberal biased media stop attacking Ben.” This is amusing in and of itself, if not for the dramatic irony that they are being filmed by a director who has structured a vision of their worst fears into a divine comedy. For PACmen is a story of faith and hubris and unintended hilarity, writ large.

As the numbers of the campaign, both the fundraising, and the chances of securing the number of delegates required to win primaries, approach ‘mathematical zero,’ Carson fails to concede to reality and keeps running. Behind the scenes, the prayers are amplified. The old white guys with bluetooth headsets and ornately carved wooden desks, including Jeff D. Reeter (owner of said desk), Terry Giles and John Philip Souza IV increasingly grasp at a miracle. A volunteer helpfully offers, “God is in the business of miracles.” Meanwhile, the media is in the business of calling out ridiculousness for what it is. To be fair, it seems increasingly to be the late night talk shows shouldering this responsibility over the cable news networks.

The will to laugh at shenanigans and cluelessness, however, may be tested as you see the on-the-ground staffers, volunteers and believers slowly get fired as the Carson campaign wheezes to an ignoble end and the Super-PAC might secretly realize that backing a certain horse after really only one convincing speech might have been a bit presumptuous, although I am unsure if presumptuous is a word in the vocabulary of people who exist in the extreme subsets of American politics. (Notably, Carson ended up in government after all, bizarrely; he endorsed the candidate far outside his values, and was made Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for his political endorsement, praise be to God!)

PACmen espouses the truism that someone cannot pray their way into power — especially if they pontificate on national television that the Egyptian pyramids were built by the Jews for grain storage. Carson had a penchant for demonstrating a woeful lack of foreign policy knowledge, and he combined it with a quiet perplexity, most tellingly demonstrated when he missed his queue to take the stage at a national debate, and looked the nonplussed fool in doing so. Trump managed to make a greater share of policy and political gaffes and scandals (minus the pyramids), but it was his brand, and by owning it, he waltzed straight into office to the profound disappointment of the evangelical Right.

Reality management, a time honoured political endeavour, and faith (also) collapse under the hard light of scrutiny, and the sharp blade of comedy and wit, the very Judas that the Carson campaign labelled as Ted Cruz, was actually the Australian filmmaker hanging about and quietly capturing comedy gold.

Hot Docs 2017 Review: 78/52


 
 
Director: Alexandre O. Phillipe (Doc of the Dead, The People vs. George Lucas)
A Documentary on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, specifically the shower scene.
Producers: Kerry Deignan Roy, Robert Muratore
Starring: Walter Murch, Elijah Whood, Karyn Kusama, Peter Bogdanovich, Danny Elfman, Jamie Lee-Curtis
MPAA Rating: PG
Running time: 129 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found at TheMatinee.ca

 


In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller PSYCHO redefined the horror landscape.

In the process of bringing his cinematic vision to life, Hitchcock was afforded a whopping seven days to film the iconic shower scene. From the moment the shower faucet is turned on to the moment the Marion Crane meets her fate, a mere 146 seconds pass. In two minutes and twenty-six seconds, there are 78 setups and 52 cuts.

78/52 is an examination of that incredible cinematic execution, the psychology at play, and how it affected pop culture for years to come.

Throughout the doc, PSYCHO’s shower scene is broken down detail by detail – including precisely which melon was used to create the sound effect of the knife stabbing the skin. Artists and fans of all sorts discuss the impact and psychology of the work, all in tones that are equal parts reverie and delight.

There is an inherent joy in seeing the talent gathered for 78/52 just watch PSYCHO. Elijah Wood, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Guillermo del Toro are but a few of the fans that gather for the documentary. Repeatedly, the documentary pauses for a moment, and we can see studious delight on their famous faces as they watch Hitchcock’s twisted tale unfold before their eyes.

PSYCHO is a film about coveting through watching. So, what about it do these fans covet? What, in turn, do we?

The temptation with a documentary like this is to geek-out a little too hard. Hitchcock is a master who has inspired volumes. His works have been broken down frame-by-frame and studied to the enth degree. Could there possibly be more to say? Well yes, as it turns out.

As we close in on sixty years past the PSYCHO’s release, it’s easy to take for granted the films place in the lexicon. Like STAR WARS, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and JAWS, PSYCHO has become “something other”. It is a touchstone, cinematic shorthand, something people know even if they don’t know – but there’s the rub. So very many now do not know PSYCHO. With that in mind, the time is right to examine the work, and concentrate so much time on the most iconic scene in this truly iconic work.

For films like 78/52, the trick is to find the sweet spot. Remind people of things they may have heard before, bring ideas to the table that few may have considered, and wrap it all up with talk of impact and legacy on works that would follow. If the film doesn’t do enough, it gets met with a shrug. If the film does too much, it loses the audience. The happy medium is about as wide as a knife’s edge.

Happily, 78/52 knows just how to wield that knife.

Hot Docs 2017 Review: The Road Movie

If you have spent any time lost in the YouTube wormhole, and we all have, you have probably seen some of the car accident footage that has been uploaded and archived by witnesses, usually from cheap cameras mounted at the front windshield of their cars. It might surprise you (or maybe not, if you are a Reddit regular) that the vast majority of these clips come from Eastern Europe, mainly Russia. Why?

Director Dimitrii Kalashnikov opined at the Q&A of the film that trust is not a big thing in Russian public life, and more than half of Russian drivers have dash mounted cameras to avoid situations of other drivers lying about what happened, and also rampant police corruption.

The tagline for The Road Movie, a sumptuously curated and exquisitely edited collection of dash camera footage is “Everything can happen on Russian Roads,” and for 67 white knuckle minutes, he more than makes the case that the Russian (and surrounding regions of Belarus, Serbia and Bosnia) sense of humour about such absurdity is a remarkable one. In spite of all the crazy ass driving, coldly observed in wide-angle static single takes (the nature of the medium) — high speed roll-overs, road rage fist fights, head on collisions and several very likely fatal situations — the Slavic sensibility towards all this adrenaline pumping madness, is that of casual nonchalance. Shock is one thing, this is something else entirely: a cultural touchstone.

We rarely see the passengers in the cars, but we hear their reactions, and we see other witnesses in other cars or pedestrians on the street. Take an incident where a five tonne dump-truck goes up on two wheels and capsizes over a city curb. All the while, a posh woman in a white parka sporting a designer purse takes notes of this incredibly vivid occurrence, but then casually crosses the intersection on the walk signal (two crossings) and goes on with her life.

In another clip, we hear two men question what is the cause of thunderous rumbling before we see a tank roll out from behind a building. The reaction is the equivalent to ‘you have got to be shitting me…is it ours?’ When the see the tank is in fact rolling up to the public carwash for a power-scrub, it is ‘fuck this country.’ Laid-back Russian pop music grooves in the background.

What sets The Road Movie from just a simple YouTube super-cut is that Kalashnikov has a sense of timing, and a bigger story than just action and mayhem (although there is plenty of both). He has a way of trimming the found footage to precisely calibrated lengths and in effect, to have a conversation with the audience.

Each ‘single take scenario’ has a set-up, an incident, and a resolution, but the way they are assembled (like a good album) set a rhythm that keeps the audience on their toes, seek and searching around the frame at the beginning, will this be a fist fight story or a spectacular car crash? Just when you have a handle on things, he will hit you with a rapid montage, a flurry of stuff, and transition to a wedding gone wrong, a mentally unstable person jumping on the hood of the car, or a litany of other ‘stranger than fiction moments.’ The often incongruous audio, be it song or conversation, sets its own comedic soundtrack.

While the assembly is not quite as ambitious or ambiguous as last year’s other YouTube found footage psychology experiment, Fraud, it is far more hella-entertaining. Where else would you have up-close video of the massive meteorite that rocked Chelyabinsk in 2013 bumping up against a man pulling a sledge hammer out of his trunk to get another driver to move his car, or an epic boreal forest fire filmed from the inside?

I learned the wide variety of situations Russians can mould the word “BITCH” to suit, and that in spite of all the violence that happens on the byways of Russian life, the people have a no-fuss way to recover and move on, that is utterly at odds with the West. But I would certainly think twice about renting a car and hitting the open road in the world’s largest country, at least not unless I was hoping to be in the sequel.

One final note, I am sure that the collective effect of The Road Movie is amplified by seeing it on the big screen, where one’s eyes (and head) have to more actively scan the screen. Oscilloscope Pictures has picked up the 67 minute film, and hopefully will put it out in limited release. If you are not of the faint of heart, you had best seek this one out at a festival or moviehouse for the maximum experience.

Review: Personal Shopper

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French critic-turned-filmmaker Olivier Assayas has always had a knack for combining verité, day-to-day life with stylish genre elements. His previous film, The Clouds of Sils Maria, coaxed a assured performance out of Kristen Stewart as a confident personal assistant to a French movie star; to the point where she almost overshadows the glamourous lead of the film, Juliette Binoche. Assayas collaborates once again with the young star in Personal Shopper – again in the employ of a famous actress – but here, he places her in practically in every shot.

Mixing the abstract with the mundane, Stewart plays Maureen, a budding amateur medium who is trying to commune with her recently deceased twin brother. The movie starts almost like a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, with Maureen attempting to make contact with the beyond by spending the night in a dark old French country manor. Her day-job involves buying insanely expensive clothing and jewelry for a wealthy young movie star. It is clear that Maureen hates this job, she confesses this outright to her employer’s sleazy boyfriend, but it pays the bills while she tackles her unfinished spiritual business.

Not content with just restless spirits and luxury goods, Assayas also drops in an anonymous sexual stalker and murder-mystery to boot. And yet, Maureen spends nearly the entire film alone, in shops, on her scooter, or on the train between England and France. Her boyfriend is in Morocco and occasional talks to her via skype. Her boss is always in one city or another, for a film shoot or a fashion show, and communicates with Maureen via notes left in her upscale Paris apartment. And the stalker sends copious amounts of anonymous text messages. I mean a LOT of text messages. For a film that has its lead spend a good chunk of its run time glancing down at her phone, one would think it might get boring, but it is not so. Processing our existence through screens is very much on the artistic agenda of this film.

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Review: Nocturnal Animals

For the engaged cinephile, right from the opening credit sequence of Nocturnal Animals, you will know you are in good hands. Hyper-glossy and daringly un-commercial in the same breath, it puts some fine Lynchian bonafides on the table early. Then the camera pulls back from this tone-setting overture to reveal that these seemingly context free images (which will remain unspoilt by me, but might prevent the film from playing in a multiplex near you) are very much present, and in fact are part of the gala launch of a Los Angeles art gallery.

The curator and architect of the exhibit (but, tellingly, not the artist) is Susan, played by Amy Adams in heavy make-up, and chunky jewelry. The deep lighting makes her red hair stand out like smoldering coals in the dark. Forget for the moment director Tom Ford’s penchant for enhancing surfaces, Adams delivers an understated inner-performance entirely with her eyes and posture. Mere seconds on screen and you can immediately deduce she is unhappy with the not only the exhibit but with her many if not most of her life choices.

Later that evening, Susan is abandoned to stew in her own juices by her husband (Armie Hammer) who is the kind of high-stakes businessman that is required for a cross-continental flight upon a moments notice. Nocturnal Animals is a film about we process our thoughts when alone, versus reacting in the company of others.

It is also a master-class in ‘show-don’t-tell’ filmmaking. A brief domestic conversation, prior to her husbands exit from the film, is practical and efficient. We learn that their glass and concrete mansion and designer lifestyle is on the verge of bankruptcy, but again, the body language and framing suggest that money, in and of itself, is the least of their problems, matrimonially.

The very same evening, Susan receives a package in the mail from her previous husband, whom she has not spoken to in nearly two decades. The manuscript of his soon-to-be published novel is included with a personal note thanking her for the inspiration (and life experience) provided finally write something significant. The book shares the name of the film, but the film is adapted from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel, “Tony and Susan.”

Tony is the name of the character in the book that Susan reads, a man whose family is threatened and jeopardized on a lonely West Texas highway by a gang of good ol’ boys led by an extraordinary effective, and completely unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who has come a distance from Kick-Ass and wins the Tom Hardy award for chameleon-like disappearance into a part.

It is exceptional that Ford has made a film about a woman that spends the bulk of the runtime sitting on her couch (or bed, or in the bath) reading a book, into one of the most compellingly ‘lean-in’ films of the year. Half of the film is devoted to the novel, which is anchored by a Zodiac or Nightcrawler calibre performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, and a scene-stealing Michael Shannon as a cancer stricken Texas Sheriff who is endearingly funny, and yet, simultaneously scared the absolute shit out of me. The remainder is split equally between Susan’s languorous present, and flashbacks to her optimistic courtship with her first husband and youthful writer, Edward; also played by Gyllenhaal.

The cross-cutting and transitional matching shots (note a certain red couch, for instance) provide an invigorating road-map to what the movie is actually about. The editing in this film, the fimmaking in general, is among the best films of the year. And, it is in a genre, the psychological thriller, that is so radically absent, presently, that make this is a breath – a gale? perhaps a tempest – of gloomy air.

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Toronto After Dark Review: The Lure

Mermaids are apparently popular again. Disney is currently remaking their animated hit as an expensive live-action feature, and Stephen Chow’s, The Mermaid ended up being an epic-sized cash-machine of a blockbuster in his native China. But whoa there now, here is a first feature, and one of the most confident film debuts, particularly for a style this tricky, to come along in some time. If you love weird yet meticulous filmmaking that is simultaneously both classic and fresh, then you are going to want to remember the name Agnieszka Smoczynska. Her deeply unorthodox adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson classic fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, as a Polish period musical he has given the original title Córki Dancingu, literally translated to Daughter of the Dance, for domestic release, but for the rest of the worlds as simply called, The Lure, comes with a wheelbarrow full of superlatives: shocking! sexy! subversive! sublime! entertaining! visionary! And just plain catchy.

Smoczynska takes the classic, literal, fish-out of water tale, and places it in a burlesque club in 1980s Poland. When a family of musicians (whose main gig is to play back-up for the strippers at a night-club) discover two mermaids in the water while drinking and singing on the beach, they bring them aboard as part of their act. Sort of like adopting two new children, and drop them right in to soft-core sex trade. This hardly sounds like it could be the beginning to a mainstream Hollywood film, but trust me, it kind of is. However, I doubt, if it were, there would be the scene where the owner casually examines the ‘tail-vagina’ on the one of the ‘maids and declares, ‘it is fishy, but I like it.’ Nudity and sexual hunger, both casual and intense, are rampant in The Lure, but because of Smoczynska’s acute sense of how to stage-dress, light, and shoot the film like an Blondie video on steroids, these things are not off-putting or controversial, they are part of the films sense of style and sensibility. Somewhere in Iceland, Bjork is going to see this movie, slap her forehead and say, “Shit! How did I never make this movie?!” Furthermore, if in 2016 you still need an argument for more women directors, well, here is another great one to put on the pile.

Michalina Olszanska (a major rising actress in eastern Europe, who for lack of a better explanation is a blend between Juno Temple and Kristen Stewart) and Marta Mazurek (here exquisitely channeling Sissy Spacek) play the pair of mermaids, Golden and Silver. They are, in essence, the aquatic version of twenty-something party girls looking for shits and giggles up for a quick stop in Poland before swimming onward to America. But Silver beings to fall in love with their blonde young band-mate, Mietek. She is strongly warned by her ‘sister,’ as well as another air-touring underwater creature named Triton, who looks like the Kurgan and rocks a riotous punk act in Warsaw. Unsurprisingly, Mermaids and Mermen are obviously great, charismatic singers-of-songs, and The Lure has a seemingly endless capacity for incorporating classic mer-mythology among the drama and the musical numbers. The crisis of the films (after a quick rise to fame) is that if Silver falls in truly in love, but the love is not returned, then she will cease to exist. In an honest, if not particularly wise, sacrificial gesture to earn the love of her bright young thing, she decides to remove her tail and become a human. (Wait for that set piece! It’s a serious OMG bit of genre craft!) The mermaids may want to fall in love human-style, but they are vicious, cunning, and selfish creatures when they want to be. They make no bones about it, and neither does the filmmaking.
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Cinecast Episode 459 – De-Scarify

Some differences of opinions on this week’s episode. Because Gamble is not here, we are civil about it and it never comes to blows – sorry about that. We might try to step things up a notch on the tension scale for future episodes, but perhaps we will stay in casual discussion mode for a while. At any rate, this week we are reviewing Benna Fleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, et. al. in Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant. Next up, we pre-cover a little bit of Toronto After Dark Film Festival with their Friday screening of The Lure.

For The Watch List, both of the guys look back a month or two at previous 2016 releases. Kurt is hopeful that there is an extended version of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children out there somewhere to enjoy, while Andrew is kind of wishing that Nerve never existed in the first place. As a quick side tangent, Kurt relished Thirteen Days after last week’s discussion. Andrew secretly watched most of it again too.

As always, please join the conversation by leaving your own thoughts in the comment section below and again, thanks for listening!

We’re now available on Google Play!

 

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Toronto After Dark Review: In A Valley Of Violence

In Sergio Leone’s classic The Good The Bad And The Ugly, one of many iconic scenes involves a gunfighter sneaking up to murder Eli Wallach’s Tuco in the bath-tub. The anonymous heavy lost his arm in a shootout with Tuco in the opening scene of the film, and seeking bloody revenge, as is par for the course in so many westerns, he stops first for a smug monologue about how it took months to learn how to shoot with his other hand. As the grimy Italian blonde savours the reversal of fortune (again, a staple of this superb film) with words, Tuco turns the table because he has his pistol in the bath-tub. He blows away the smug, would-be killer through the soap suds. To the corpse, he lectures, “When you have to shoot, SHOOT. Don’t talk.” It would not surprise me in the slightest, if it was this scene alone that inspired Ti West to make In A Valley of Violence, a film that seems a full featured examination of what amounts to a throwaway 2 minutes in a 179 minute film. More recently, HBO’s Deadwood, The Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake, and the recent pair of Quentin Tarantino gunslinger film have set out to prove that excessively loquacious, but nevertheless savoury, dialogue is a wholesome part of the Western that bears at least some consideration.

Ethan Hawke plays civil war deserter Paul, who, after a Shakespearean styled prologue with a drunken Irish priest (Burn Gorman doing what he so wonderfully does) about the nature of where he finds himself, ends up nevertheless caught up in the local toxicity of a friable futureless village-slash-movie-set called Denton. He tries to keep his head down and sip his drink at the bar as the local blowhard and sadistic bully, Gilly (Generation Kill & The Wire‘s oily-but-wide-eyed James Ransome), who also the deputy and son of the town’s sheriff, picks a fight with him for no reason other than that Paul a stranger in a place that, you guessed it, don’t like no strangers.

Pestered to the point of violence, and equally important to the point of speaking (mainly to the audience) he says that he just wants to hang out with his preternaturally cute, Lassie-like, dog and make for Mexico to forget the horrors of the war. Anyone who has ever seen a western, hell anyone who has ever seen some movies, can spot what is coming a mile away. Don’t get me wrong though, the point of the film seems less about realistically defined characters or completely reinventing the wheel (West even shoots on 35mm film, although he favours 1.85:1 over cinemascope to keep things somewhat small) and more about playing with familiar tropes of the western. This auto-critique of the genre, whose often deadpan and straight-up approach to many familiar situations is sure to be abrasive to some.

Paul being forced to deal revenge to many of the denizens of Denton is without question a given in this sort of thing. As Paul reluctantly returns to town with guns a-blazin’, it is more through dialogue than gunfire that the showdown at high noon takes place. If there is a mission statement to In A Valley of Violence it is (as stated above) when to speak and when not to speak.

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