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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Carlos’ Review Round-Up

Here’s a quick sampling of my week’s watches. You can find more of my reviews at Always Good Movies.

 

Sing Street (2016)

Directed by: John Carney
Country: Ireland / UK / USA

Dedicated to brothers everywhere, “Sing Street” is an Irish comedy-drama, directed by John Carney (“Once”, “Begin Again”), which straddles the line between homage and romance. If he did great in regard to the former, a wonderful tribute to the pop-rock scene of the 80’s, he stepped into crowd-pleasing territory in the latter.

Nevertheless, he comfortably shapes compelling characters and give them appropriate dimension by placing them amidst realistic situations that combine daily life problems, relationships, and talents. Then, and in a smart way, all these aspects are even more enhanced through the addition of appealing pop-rock original songs that are played by one or more personas.
“Sing Street” employs this formula and goes even a little bit further by addressing themes such as family and school bullying.

» I can handle the truth...


The film, set in Dublin in 1985, opens by giving a perspective of the tense atmosphere lived at the Lalor’s. The catholic family is having some troubles in living peacefully together because the patriarch, Robert (Aidan Gillen), a broke architect, seems unsatisfied with his life while his wife, Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy), is having an affair. They have three children: Anne, who doesn’t have great expression in the story, Brendan (Jack Reynor), a depressed loser who doesn’t know what to do with his life, and the sensitive Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who at the age of 15 resolves to form a pop-rock band after meeting the beautiful Raphina (Lucy Boynton) whose dream is to become a model.

Enthusiastically, Conor, the vocalist, and his new friend Darren (Ben Carolan), the producer, make an important acquisition for the band: the multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna), who becomes his right hand in the composition process. The other three members arrive naturally, and they both agree on the name Sing Street for the band. Influenced by Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet, The Cure, and many more, they record a first song entitled ‘The Riddle of the Model’, obviously inspired on Raphina who agrees to participate in the music video.
Despite having a cool dude as a boyfriend, Raphina becomes closer to Conor, giving him hope by responding affectively to his passionate impulses.

In the meantime, and besides the amorous frustrations, the brave Conor tries to find non-violent ways to deal with the frequent intimidations he’s been suffering at the new school. The villains are Barry (Ian Kenny), a troublesome boy, and Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley), the ridiculous school principal.

Carrying a strong, positive message, the film, so wonderfully captivating at times, ends up disappointing heavily in its finale.
The talented Mr. Carney blurs the painting with the ultimate stroke. An unlikely conclusion that was more impetuous and strategic than genius.

» ...Hide the truth



The Treasure (2015)

Directed by: Corneliu Porumboiu
Country: Romania / France

There’s a cynical ridiculousness in the low-key “The Treasure”, the fourth fictional feature from Corneliu Porumboiu, author of “12:08 East of Bucharest” and “Police, Adjective”.
I confess I expected more from the Romanian director/screenwriter, especially if we take into account the more valuable cinematic treasures mentioned above.

All the features that characterize Mr. Porumboiu’s directorial approach can be found in his new deadpan comedy, which starts in a curious way, becoming overdetailed in its midsection, only to resuscitate in its laughable final part.

Costi (Cuzin Toma) is a caring father, despite arriving late at school to pick up his son, Alin (played by Cuzin’s real-life son, Nicodim), a Peter Pan enthusiast who’s often beaten up by another kid.
When his neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), pays him a visit with the intention of borrowing 800 Euros, he never imagined how his monotonous daily life would turn into a singular adventure with an authentic treasure hunt.
Adrian discloses he wants the money to rent a metal detector and hire someone professional to operate it, envisioning spotting an old treasure that was buried by his grand-grandfather in the garden of his propriety located in the countryside, province of Ostenia.

Even if financially unstable, the intrigued Costi manages to skip work and get the money, heading immediately to a company where he negotiates an acceptable price with Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei), a metal expert.

» I can handle the truth...


The neighbors set off to the country, eager to find and split a fortune in gold, but also aware of the necessity to report whatever they may find to the authorities, having the right to keep just 30% of its value. So, Adrian’s plan consists of selling the gold to the gypsies who would melt it, evaporating any trace of its provenience.

Once arrived at the place, they are joined by Cornel, whose character clashes with Adrian’s. An eternity goes by just to read the detector’s data and to discuss what are the chances of the beeps coming from the device refer to gold, silver, copper, or aluminum.

The plain, absurdist script contains a few wry commentaries on politics, economics, and history, keeping the film minimally interesting. However, the dragging excavation and the moments that preceded it were a bit discouraging in terms of fluidity, almost putting me to sleep before the ultimate stimulus.

» ...Hide the truth


Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015)

Directed by: Amy Berg
Country: USA

American filmmaker, Amy Berg, continues to do what she knows best: documentary films. Titles like “Delivers Us From Evil” (an Academy award nominated), “West of Memphis”, “An Open Secret” and “Prophet’s Prey” deserved every accolade they got. In 2014, “Every Secret Thing” probes fiction and mystery with disastrous results. Her new documentary about the iconic singer Janis Joplin, graciously entitled “Janis: Little Girl Blue”, is probably the less riveting but still properly built.

To let us know both the successes and defeats of this incredible talent of the blues-rock-soul scene of 60’s and 70’s, Ms. Berg uses the classical approach, interweaving archival footage, a strong narration by Cat Power, and interviews with many personalities close to Janis. From band mates to producers to former boyfriends and lovers, everyone gives a valuable contribution so we can better understand the sadness behind the contagious energy present in the performances of ‘Pearl’, as she was known among her friends.

» I can handle the truth...


After explaining why she likes music so much and how this was the perfect vehicle to express her feelings, we are faced with ugly realities that characterized her youth, especially the traumatic high school days, when angry boys pick on her to win a contest called ‘the ugliest man on Campus’. However, Janis never attempted to change her ways, embracing progressive ideas and a particular way of dressing with bold individuality.

In 1966, she literally fled from her conservative hometown, Port Arthur, Texas, and from her parents, who wanted her to become a teacher, to give wings to a creative freedom when singing in the clubs of San Francisco. There, she formed the successful Big Brother & The Holding Company whose highlight performance was in 67′ Monterey Festival. Her popularity turned out to be bigger than expected provoking some adverse reactions in her band mates, Peter Albin and James Gurley. The band didn’t last much longer and Janis, feeling guilty and depressed, started her solo career with a new band, carrying a constant interior conflict that found some delusive ease in alcohol and heroin, a problem that tended to aggravate.

She seemed to have the strength to kick the addiction when she met the love of her life in Brazil. According to her words, David Niehaus made her feel like a woman for the first time, not a pop star. However, he decided to proceed with his scheduled trip to Africa, leaving her in a grievous state that brought back the dependence on drugs.

Janis stepped into the famous Woodstock Festival bearing a visible emotional instability and counting on the support of her new friend and lover, Peggy Caserta, who wasn’t exactly the help she needed to get rid of her obstacles.

“Janis: Little Girl Blue” was competently directed and structured, but I was unable to feel a similar arresting empathy and vibrancy of other recent documentaries about musicians such as “Cobain: Montage of Heck” or “Amy”.

» ...Hide the truth


 

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Hot Docs 2016 Review: The Last Laugh

The Last Laugh

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.

Hot Docs 2016 Review: Brothers

Brødre

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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Hot Docs 2016 Review: League of Exotique Dancers

League of Exotique Dancers, Hot Docs 2016

“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.”

  • Judith Stein

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.

Even if that means showing some skin.

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VOD Review: Dark Places

Dark_Places_2015_poster
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Sarah’s Key, Walled In, UV)
Novel: Gillian Flynn
Producers: Azim Bolkiah, A.J. Dix, Matt Jackson, Beth Kono, Stéphane Marsil, Matthew Rhodes, Cathy Schulman, Charlize Theron
Starring: Charlize Theron, Sterling Jerins, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Corey Stoll, Tye Sheridan, Chloë Grace Moretz
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 113 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 
For an alternate take, Kurt’s festival review of the film can be found here.


After Gillian Flynn’s third novel, Gone Girl, and its subsequent David Fincher film adaptation, took the world by storm, it was only a matter of time before her two previous works were adapted to the screen in one form or another. While her debut work, Sharp Objects, is still in the process of being turned into a television series, the film adaptation of middle child Dark Places has finally been released after having been shot almost two years ago, and the results are less than impressive. Often times writers aren’t usually the best option when it comes to translating their work from the page to the screen, but with Gone Girl Flynn demonstrated a ruthless pragmatism in terms of what needed to be altered and excised for the new medium. Her hands are sorely missed in Dark Places, as director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Sarah’s Key) takes on adapting duties as well, and misses the mark by a thousand miles.

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Dark Places tells the exceptionally bleak story of Libby Day (Charlize Theron), the survivor of the brutal massacre of her family decades earlier, for which her brother Ben (Corey Stoll) was convicted, largely based on her testimony. Libby has coasted through her life of squalor on the donations of people who felt sorry for the poor young girl ever since, as well as payment from a hokey tell-all that she’s never read, let alone had actually written. As her finances begin to dry up, she realizes that the only people left who even care about this old tragedy are those belonging to a seedy underground society called The Kill Club. Led by Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult), this group of makeshift detectives is obsessed with grisly true crimes, with Lyle in particular leading a faction to try and discover what truly happened that night at Libby’s Kansas farm so many years ago. Desperate for cash, Libby agrees to help Lyle investigate the truth and see if they can help free the brother who she helped put away. If he’s truly innocent, that is.
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Blu-Ray Review: The Ninth Configuration

Director: William Peter Blatty
Screenplay: William Peter Blatty
Based on a Novel by: William Peter Blatty
Starring: Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Robert Loggia, Tom Atkins, William Peter Blatty
Country: USA
Running Time: 118 min
Year: 1980
BBFC Certificate: 15


William Peter Blatty is best known for writing the novel and screenplay for the hugely successful horror film, The Exorcist, but it’s not well known that prior to that he made his name writing comedies such as A Shot in the Dark (co-written with Blake Edwards). To follow up The Exorcist however, Blatty went in a bizarre new direction, taking cues from both sides of his career. He took a book called Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane he’d written in 1966, wrote a new version called The Ninth Configuration, released as a novel in 1978, and then turned that into a screenplay which would become his directorial debut, released in 1980.

The Ninth Configuration is an unusual film that sees military psychologist Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach) sent to a remote mansion where a group of mentally ill and AWOL soldiers are being kept under observation. Supposedly the army couldn’t fathom why so many of its men were returning home from Vietnam with mental health problems and wanted to see if they were faking or not and what could be done about it in either case.

Once there, Kane finds the patients more troubled than he imagined and, following an interesting theory about Hamlet from one of the patients, he decides to indulge their strange requests and fantasies. One patient in particular catches his interest during this time, astronaut Capt. Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson). He completely snapped just before being due to pilot a rocket to the moon and now questions the existence of God in amongst his wild behaviour. Kane is determined to prove the existence of God to Cutshaw by giving a true example of self-sacrifice to help others, but in doing so, he starts to crack himself.

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Blu-Ray Review: Man With a Movie Camera (and other works by Dziga Vertov)

Man With a Movie Camera, the silent Soviet documentary from director Dziga Vertov, has an incredible reputation. Not only did the prestigious British publication Sight and Sound proclaim it the greatest documentary ever made in a poll of filmmakers and critics, but in the last of their once-a-decade polls to select the out and out greatest films of all time, it appeared at number 8. I’ve seen it before and have it on DVD, but when Eureka announced it as the latest addition to their Masters of Cinema series on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD, packaged with four other films by Vertov, I felt it was time to revisit it.

The films included with the set alongside Man With a Movie Camera are Kino-Eye (1924), Kino-Pravda #21 (1925), Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1931) and Three Songs About Lenin (1934). Below are my thoughts on the individual films.

Man With a Movie Camera

Director: Dziga Vertov
Screenplay: Dziga Vertov
Starring: Mikhail Kaufman
Country: Soviet Union
Running Time: 68 min
Year: 1929


I actually watched the films in the set in chronological order, but thought I’d start my review by looking at the tentpole title. After busily producing at least 45 short and feature length documentaries from 1918 (according to the IMDB), Vertov’s final silent film, Man With a Movie Camera, took many of the techniques and ideas he’d been developing for over ten years and put them into a boldly experimental look at a ‘day-in-the-life’ of four cities in the Soviet Union. Also looking at the role of the camera at the time, the film is a showcase of cinematic techniques as well as a celebration of city life.

Well, I imagine some of you are thinking, ‘an experimental silent Soviet documentary from the 20’s? No thanks, I’ll stick with the latest Marvel release. I’ll maybe whack it on if I fancy a nap on the sofa’. I can appreciate this opinion. On paper, Man With a Movie Camera sounds incredibly dull. However, it’s one of the most thrilling films you’ll ever see. Vertov pulls out all the stops to bombard us with a multitude of camera and post-production tricks, from super-imposing a man setting up a camera on top of a seemingly huge second camera in the film’s opening shot, to the wildly fast-cutting crescendo of visuals that draws it all to a close. Most of the effects haven’t dated much either. Yes, the superimposition is obvious compared to modern standards, but it’s not that bad and effects such as some slow motion footage of sportsmen are as smooth as any modern techniques. There’s even some stop motion animation used to great effect.

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Blu-Ray Review: Grey Gardens

Director: David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer
Starring: Edith Bouvier Beale, Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale, Brooks Hyers, Jerry Torre
Country: USA
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 1975
BBFC Certificate: 12


Well, I’m gleefully happy to be able to say this and I never thought I’d see the day (particularly now that physical media is struggling to stay relevant), but the world renowned home entertainment distributors The Criterion Collection are going to be releasing titles in the UK. The first wave is upon us this April and I have been offered the initial releases up for review. The eclectic titles to become available over the next couple of weeks are Grey Gardens (1975), Macbeth (1971), It Happened One Night (1934), Speedy (1928), Tootsie (1982) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Now I was very tempted to review every single one of them, but family and other review commitments forced me to take just one, so I went for the highly acclaimed Maysles brothers documentary Grey Gardens, as it’s a classic title I’ve never seen and I do love a good documentary, as regular readers will know.

Anyway, enough gushing over the exciting news and on to the film at hand.

Grey Gardens is a ‘fly on the wall’ look at the lives of mother and daughter Big and Little Edie Beale, two former members of high society and cousins of Jackie Onassis, who at the time of filming were living in relative poverty in the remains of their derelict mansion in East Hampton, New York. We observe their empty lives as they shuffle around, endlessly bickering and reminiscing about the days when they had wealth and their lives showed promise.

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