TIFF Review: Monsters



There are monsters amoung us – figuratively and literally – in the simple yet aptly titled not-quite-creature-feature, Monsters. Sometime in the near future a wee spot of primordial alien matter got all tangled up with a returning man-made space probe. After about 6 years the effects of the tag-along DNA have resulted in some rather large and terrifying beasties that call about half of Mexico, from Mazatlan to Tampico and all the way north to the American border, home. The Americans respond by building a towering and intimidating 30 meter high concrete wall that makes the $1.2 billion 2006 mandated (by Bush and company) fence looks like no more useful than to pen in goats. The term “Fortress America” is starting to sound rather closer to reality. It being the US-Mexico border, stuff is bound to penetrate and be met with an overabundance of force. Not quite Don Johnson in Machete, but you have to wonder if the response creates half the problem. While Monsters is no Starship Troopers, it is about as far from the crazy violence or anti-fascist bombast as possible, there is a satirical streak hidden under it all that probably would make Paul Verhoeven concede a knowing nod to its sub-textual, humanist slant.

Apparently, it was director Gareth Edwards’ goal to make the most ‘realistic’ movie about gigantic monsters invading earth as possible. If that means a quieter, more mundane tone, more a movie of our collective environment altered by the presence of alien beings rather than the typical crash-and-smash mayhem caused by invaders from Mars then so be it. He has succeeded in an act of alternate-future that feels real, it feels lived in, and there is a sense of the mundane and normalcy that is almost always lacking in pictures of these type. Shooting in the central American wilderness and small towns therein make for a gorgeous movie on top of its unconventional execution. To say it defies expectations, the constant comparisons to District 9 are, on one hand, appropriate yet still quite misleading. Monsters is not an action picture, it is a contemplative road picture. That it defies easy comparison is simply because there are not enough of these movies made to draw accurate comparisons. I was rather reminded by the opening hours of the 1980s TV miniseries “V” or perhaps Alien Nation; where the presence of extra-terrestrials make a large-scale change on society merely by existing in it. But it also evokes the social journey-films of Alfonso Cuarón, pick either Y tu mama tambien or Children of Men, there are similarities to both. We exist in our environments even as a collective societal shift from panic to uncertainty to ‘the new normal’ follows any major global ‘sea change.’ Of course, all of this inferred shock and awe happens offscreen, only implied by a few title cards. The Monsters could just have easily been another country’s military occupation of modern Mexico, or how the world at this point is rather used to the quagmire in Iraq after 6 years of US entrenchment. As it stands, the gigantic walking squids are here, and they have left their mark, but are now simply a part of the fabric of North American life. This is the greatest achievement of the film, and one that allows for a bit of consideration and politics, although, really the joy is simply existing in this plausible new world order. Part of me wishes that if someone is going to make Max Brook’s overcooked novel World War Z, Gareth Edwards would be the man to leaven out the breathless hyperbole of the ‘letters from the front’ and make it a mature allegory for adults.

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TIFF Review: Confessions




A lot of people are going to have problems with Japan’s submission to the 2011 Foreign Film Oscar race. I know I do. There are levels of cynicism, cruelty and exploitation that run very deep. And yet, if I’m being totally honest with myself, the film grabbed my attention from the start and kept my level of engagement in it as it went along. Its style and pacing are remarkable – in particular the opening 30 minutes, which consists almost entirely of junior high teacher Yuko Moriguchi’s monologue to her class. The oppressive greyness of the classroom, the timely short flashbacks and the non-stop barely audible pulsing soundtrack all work toward making the entire sequence riveting. By the end of Ms. Moriguchi’s half hour tale of her daughter’s death at the hands of two of her students, you feel completely drained. It’s at this point that the rest of the confessions begin and I still haven’t yet figured out whether or not it should have simply ended here and remained a perfect short film.

Yuko’s class is filled with self-involved and very cruel 12-13 year-old kids. They jump at any chance to make fun of a classmate, show no respect for their elders and love to make huge assumptions about others that they quickly turn into fact. As she informs these kids, on this last day of term, that she is leaving the school they barely pay her the slightest bit of attention, except perhaps for a brief celebratory cheer. Until, of course, she begins to make the accusations. As she winds through her thought processes and sleuthing work, she claims that students A and B were responsible (she doesn’t reveal the names right away to the class) – one for the initial act that was intended to cause the harm and the other for unwittingly actually finishing the job when he tried to cover things up. As it becomes obvious to the class who students A and B are, the audience reaches an inescapable conclusion: the entire class of kids is really screwed up. Not just because they’re rude and selfish, but because they don’t appear to have any capacity to care for others. Yuko wonders if they can actually appreciate the preciousness of life at all. As the film shifts from Yuko’s monologue and initial revenge to the individual confessions of the others, it seems to state that they can’t.
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Don’t Interrupt his Kung Fu in any Media Format! Black Dynamite to Kick Comic Book Ass and TV Too.


A note from Scott Sanders, director of Michael Jai White’s wonderful blaxploitation homage/parody, Black Dynamite (Kurt’s Review) that we fell in love with last year sees the eponymous hero taking it to the Man in Comics and Animation on the TeeVee. If you haven’t caught up with this film, which is very much in the vein of Edgar Wright’s brand of loving-tribute-yet-still-very-much-its-own-film, then check it out on DVD or BLU-RAY before the blue leisure suit and the nunchucks make it to the hand-drawn world. The film was criminally unreleased by Sony, who only put it out in 6 cities (none of them in Canada, outside of the festival circuit.)

In 2011, our hero will bring his badass brand of kung-fu to two new mediums: the comic book and television.

Released by indie publisher Ape Entertainment with a story by Michael Jai White, Byron Minns, and myself, the one-shot Black Dynamite: Slave Island follows our hero as he seeks to put an end to a mysterious island… where an insidious 19th century legacy of The Man still exists.

As well, we are hard at work on Black Dynamite: The Animated Series for [adult swim]. The show is Executive Produced by Carl Jones (The Boondocks) and will take BLACK DYNAMITE to a new level.

TIFF Review: Machete Maidens Unleashed




Blood is not the only thing they suck!”
“They caged their bodies, but not their desires!”
“She’s a one Mama massacre squad!”
“They’re over-exposed but not under developed!”
“Their guns are hot and their bodies are hard!”
“Filmed in Slimerama!”

Blood. Breasts. Beasts. Interested yet? If that and the above tag lines don’t tickle your fancy than perhaps the documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed is not for you. However, if you can see the humour in these attention-grabbers, you’ll likely have a great deal of fun with Mark Hartley’s (director of ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood) look at an era of low budget exploitation films made in the Philippines. Like his previous film, it’s a mostly fast-paced overview of the silliness of these old B-movies (made mostly for consumption at Drive-Ins from the late 60s to the early 80s) and the stories behind the making of them. It also manages to inject some fascinating information about the era, the nation of the Philippines and the nature of the film industry at the time. How’s that for added value?

The movie titles alone should be enough to get across the type of films were dealing with here: Mad Doctor Of Blood Island, Savage Sisters, Student Nurses, Cover Girl Models, T.N.T. Jackson and Humanoids From The Deep were all made at rock bottom prices in the south seas. The primary reason for choosing this filming location, of course, was the incredibly cheap price of production and labour, but side benefits included stunt men who would literally do anything, the absence of requirements for safety guidelines and the occasional assist (via equipment and troops) from the military. Apocalypse Now wasn’t the only film that benefited from the government’s willingness to court the money of film production teams. Roger Corman even admits that after he saw the bottom line “my scruples went away and I said let’s do another”. Corman wasn’t the only eye looking towards the Philippines, though, as plenty of producers saw the benefits. These B-movies were staples of the American movie going experience at a time that drive-ins pulled in sizable audiences. Of course, Filipino producers and directors were cranking out product for this hungry audience as well. One of their biggest successes (and an embarrassment to the government when it became one of the only films picked up for distribution at that year’s Manila Film Festival) was For Y’ur Height Only starring pint-sized Weng-Weng as a James Bond style secret agent.
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Film on TV: September 20-26

La Pointe Courte, playing on IFC on Thursday.

Quite a few new ones to highlight this week, as well as a bunch that we have featured before but don’t play very often. Be sure to check out first films from John Cassavetes (Shadows late Monday/early Tuesday) and Agnès Varda (La Pointe Courte on Thursday), plus the full edit of Erich von Stroheim’s plauged Greed on Wednesday, classic mockumentary This is Spinal Tap late Wednesday/early Thursday, Bruce Lee’s magnum opus Enter the Dragon later on Thursday, and more!

Monday, September 20

6:00am – IFC – Broadway Danny Rose
It’s lesser Woody Allen, but it’s still Woody Allen. Danny Rose (Woody) is a theatrical agent whose clients always leave him when they start becoming successful. His current client, a has-been tenor trying to make a comeback, gives him further grief by having an affair with a young woman (Mia Farrow) with gangster connections. Not very substantial, but enjoyable.
1984 USA. Director: Woody Allen. Starring: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Nick Apollo Forte.
(repeats at 10:50am and 3:30pm)

11:30am – TCM – My Darling Clementine
John Ford’s version of the famous confrontation at the OK Corral actually focuses more on Wyatt Earp’s fictional romance with the fictional Clementine than on the real-life Earp/Clanton feud, but history aside, this is one of the greatest and most poetic westerns on film, proving yet again Ford’s mastery of the genre and of cinema.
1946 USA. Director: John Ford. Starring: Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell, Cathy Downs, Walter Brennan, Tim Holt.
Must See

1:30pm – TCM – Topper
Cary Grant and Constance Bennett are hard-living young couple who crash their fancy car after a night of drinking and end up as ghosts. They choose to spend their afterlife haunting Grant’s uptight boss Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) and teaching him to enjoy life again. Something of a screwball comedy without the battle of the sexes part; slight but a lot of fun.
1937 USA. Director: Norman Z. McLeod. Starring: Roland Young, Cary Grant, Constance Bennett.

7:35pm – IFC – Annie Hall
Often considered Woody Allen’s transition film from “funny Woody” to “serious Woody,” Annie Hall is both funny, thoughtful, and fantastic. One of the best scripts ever written, a lot of warmth as well as paranoid cynicism, and a career-making role for Diane Keaton (not to mention fashion-making).
1977 USA. Director: Woody Allen. Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane.
Must See
(repeats at 3:00am on the 21st)

10:00pm – TCM – The Red Shoes
Almost all of the films Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger made together are incredibly good, but The Red Shoes might just be the best. In the film, a mix of the tale of Svengali and of Hans Christian Anderson’s story about a ballerina who couldn’t remove the red shoes and was doomed to dance to her death, actual ballerina Moira Shearer is the dancer made successful by a jealous ballet impresario, though she loves a poor composer. The centerpiece of the film is a Technicolor extravaganza performance of the titular ballet, still one of the greatest ballet sequences on film.
1948 UK. Directors: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. Starring: Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Anton Walbrook.
Must See

12:30am (21st) – TCM – Shadows
John Cassavetes’ first film is a super-low-budget proto-indie about a trio of siblings moving through New York City’s music scene – one brother working to be a jazz musician, the sister dating a white man until he meets her darker-skinned brothers. The highly improvisational style mixed with the subtle racial commentary gives this a lot more layers than its meandering narrative at first seems to hold.
1959 USA. Director: John Cassavetes. Starring: Ben Carruthers, Hugh Hurd, Lelia Goldoni, Anthony Ray.
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TIFF Review: You Are Here



Here is an experiment. Take the name of six colours, write them in random order several times using a coloured pen that does not match the name of the colour. Time yourself reading this list of colours. Write the same list of colours using only black ink and time yourself reading the list. The mind works is strange ways, and has trouble if preconceived associations to familiar things or objects get too close to one another. Daniel Cockburn, a Toronto video artist has just made a wild and crazy jump into features with a film-slash-brain-experiment that wants to perform a witty and colourful brain massage. He wants to play with your cerebellum in the same way that the perception of film works: ‘Persistence of Vision’ as shutters push single frames to form the illusion of movement. We will ignore the contradiction that he mainly shoots on video. Contradictions are what the film is about.

Cockburn wants to expand your consciousness or provide the illusion of expanding your consciousness or expand your consciousness while providing the illusion that he has not. You Are Here. The statement is both a location as well as a confirmation of existence. Different things, really. The red dot that defines your location on the map can be just as much of a misleader as a guide. The meaning of the film goes beyond the dual-nature of the title into something that is both profound and a profoundly funny. It is science. It is art. It is absurd and hilarious sleight-of-hand. It is an ultra lo-fi version of Inception in which the filmmakers might as well be Leonardo Di Caprio and company (in shabbier clothing mind-you) and the audience are simultaneously the beneficiary of planted ideas and the mark of a baffling grift. The TIFF catalogue labels the film as Dr. Seuss meets Samuel Beckett, and I cannot really argue with that. It is an apt a description as you are going to get without telling you much. When it ended after an all too brief 75 minutes, I was upset. I wanted to see how many more times the filmmakers could fold their narrative in upon itself while keeping me in its spell. Riding the wave, before it collapsed. Like any good performer, Cockburn knows to keep the audience wanting more. Or they ran out of money, drugs or the ability to keep a hold of the reigns. I am sure the director will never tell.
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TIFF Review: Lapland Odyssey




Director Dome Karukoski sure knows how to set a tone. In order to get you into the spirit of his occasionally blackly comic single night road trip film Lapland Odyssey, he introduces you to a tree – a long-dead pine tree that has served as the hanging spot for 5 generations of suicidal Finnish men. From the early settlers of the area who were enticed via promises of cheap land to modern day young men who have no jobs, see no future and can’t even catch a break when Finland makes it to the final of the Hockey World Championship (how cruel is it to be up 5-1 against rival Sweden and then still lose?) there have been a long line of swinging bodies. Around Christmas time – a period of typically very high unemployment, massive amounts of snow and very little sunlight – that dead tree is looking pretty good.

Our narrator informs us he even did an elementary school report on it as part of a project on local tourist attractions – apparently the highlight of his academic and professional careers. You get the feeling he’s considered visiting that tree up close and personal. This isn’t his story though – it’s the tale of his best friend Janne’s journey to find a digital TV recorder before 9 AM the next morning. If he doesn’t, his live-in girlfriend will leave him. Before you think, “Well, that’s harsh”, understand that she’s been asking him for 3 years, has actually given him the money to pay for it and specifically asked for him to do it that day so that they can watch Titanic together later that night. Since he failed at even getting that simple task done before the stores closed – wasting time sleeping and hanging with his similarly lethargic friends – she’s laid down a final ultimatum.

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