Hot Docs 2016 Review: Operation Avalanche

OperationAvalanche

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.)

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Trailer: Kill The Messenger

It is telling that all of our ‘investigative journalism’ stories are now period pictures. Jeremy Renner here plays San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb who uncovered the fact that the CIA was smuggling cocaine into the United States for the purposes of funding Central American Contra activities. (On a side note: This is also why former LA police detective Michael Ruppert turned down CIA appointments and became a full time investigative journalist and conspiracy researcher, and the subject of the 2009 film, Collapse. And while Ruppert is not in any way involved in this particular story, in real life, both Ruppert and Webb eventually committed suicide.)

Adapted from Webb’s 1999 book Dark Alliance and directed by Michael Cuesta (TV’s Homeland and Dexter) this looks very solid stuff, in a genre of film that isn’t made as often as I would like. The massive supporting cast is stacked to the gills with great actors: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Michael Sheen, Oliver Platt, Michael K. Williams, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Tim Blake Nelson, Berry Pepper, Robert Patrick, and Rosemarie DeWitt.

Cinecast Episode 277 – He’d Pass a Polygraph But He Ain’t Innocent

In which Andrew and Kurt Argo fuck ourselves trying to get at the pleasures and the frustrations of Benna-fleck’s latest film. We grade homework in the middle (lots of good choices in there). Then we encounter the same set of frustrations and pleasures in counting up the Seven Psychopaths in Martin McDonagh’s latest offbeat violent comedy. The Watchlist is mainly Kurt as he digs through a diverse trio of films (Bernie, Watchmen, The Living Daylights) before waxing rather prosaically (sorry folks) on the great George Carlin. We have a fun time chatting Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” to close out the show.

Thanks to Nat Almirall for this week’s poster promo sitting to the right. Yeah! (sorry, we had to censor it. Non-censored version can be found HERE.

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


 

 

 

To download the show directly, paste the following URL into your favorite downloader:
http://rowthree.com/audio/cinecast_12/episode_277.mp3

Full show notes are under the seats…
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Something New from Wright

The select few of us around here who will watch anything from Joe Wright nearly unconditionally should be fairly excited about this news. While we love Wright and his excellent sense of period film making (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice), this will be a welcome departure for fans and mainstream movie goers alike.

As Indian Summer (starring Cate Blanchett) fell by the wayside due to budget issues and a sense that the public isn’t too into period drama pieces at the moment, Wright switched gears completely and is going for a straight up action picture with the likes of something as tantalizing as La Femme Nikita meets Bourne.

from Heat Vision

The story centers on a 14-year-old Eastern European girl who has been raised by her father to be a cold-blooded killing machine. She connects with a French family, forms a friendship with their daughter and goes through the pangs of adolescence. When the girl is dragged back to her father’s world and discovers that she was bred as a killing machine in a CIA prison camp, she must fight her way to a free life.

With “legendary” directors such as Danny Boyle and Alfonso Cuarón originally interested in the idea but ultimately passing on it, I’m super interested to see how well Joe Wright will make the transition from tears to blood. Keira Knightley to star?

 

All You Suckers Gather ‘Round for New Black Dynamite Awesomeness!

BlackDynamiteMovieStill

We’ve talked about Black Dynamite so much, I’m starting to think October 16th can’t come soon enough.

Scott Sanders’ film about an African-American badass brother who saves kids from smack addiction by putting away bad dudes while also managing to kick kung-fu ass and making love to the ladies…this appears to have everything any good Blaxploitation film should and according to Kurt, it marries it all beautifully.

I’m not a huge fan of the genre, mostly because I haven’t seen a lot of good ones, but Black Dynamite is certainly selling itself highly and if previous reception is any indication, we’re in for a treat.

New trailer is tucked under the seat!

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Toronto After Dark: BLACK DYNAMITE

bdposterThe challenge in spoofing Blaxploitation flicks is that really, most of the classic entries in the genre are well into self parody already (Dolemite anyone?). The solution brought to the table by writer-director Scott Sanders and writer-producer-star Michael Jai White is to make the film look as authentic as possible (re-purposing lots of 1970s b-roll footage in establishing shots) while picking at the overstuffed nature of the more serious entries (Shaft, Coffy). Police Procedural? Check. Neighborhood Vigilantism? Check. Kung Fu Island Assault? Check. Racial Conspiracy? Check. Revenge Plot? Check. It may be busy, but Black Dynamite is certainly Baadasssss.

As strange as it is to say in a film this broad in its aim, much of the best humour derives from exposing the structural short cuts of lower budgeted ‘give-em-what-they-want’ action flicks. There are a lot of things adding up to the conspiracy Black Dynamite aims to uncover, and the movie has no problem jumping from one set-piece to the next to keep things moving along. In the case of stretching things to the expositional breaking point, a scene that pulls all of this together is sublime in its unexpected lunacy. BD and the gang get together for a ‘chalk-board’ session to pull together all the clues and connects Asclepius to Malt Liquor, M&Ms to Little Richard and incidentally causes the invention of Chicken and Waffles. This is worthy of whiter-than thou comic genius of Monty Python or at least the Ealing inspired Without A Clue. More obvious sight gags like boom mikes dropping into the frame, choppily edited car chases, and a shoot out involving a man in a donut suit (with an uzi) are equally plentiful and interspersed with wordier gags like that mentioned above, or, for example a co-op of wildly nick-named pimps going through their blow and ho business plan. But to merely list the successful chuckle-worthy gags and ‘great’ scenes would be both exhausting and pointless. Suffice it to say that they are both a plentiful cocktail of both subtle and obvious. The only tricky part is to decide whether some of the clunkier moments, characters or side-plots in the film (and there are a few) are errors in judgment or a play for further authenticity. Perhaps one could make the argument on whether or not this sort of endeavor is worthwhile considering that there are boatloads of classic black-cinema out there waiting for discovery and enjoyment. The emphasis on comedy and style here is highly likely to be a catalyst in getting people to go back and look up many of the originals and that in and of it self is pretty cool. You dig.

blackdynamte-r2Michael Jai White, who is perhaps best known as the man in the Spawn costume or Direct-To-Video fare (although he has a blink and you’ll miss him role in The Dark Knight), gets a chance to really strut his stuff as a Robin Hood of the ‘hood with a CIA secret ops, Kung Fu and ‘Nam background. He is Richard Roundtree, Jim Kelly and Chuck Norris all rolled into a virile and buff lead who can deliver the Kung-Fu and Nunchaku along with tongue twisting monologues and wild wakka-chikka-wakka-chikka moments with the ladies. His comic timing is as impeccable as his martial arts. His reaction to meeting ‘the man’ and his wife at the very top of the food chain results into a worthy climax of the film, consecrating his superhero status with the destruction of the good china, that will be hard to top any future Black Dynamite sequels (BD in Africa?).

To put it quite simply, Black Dynamite is a the best parody/spoof film to be made in some time. It stomps on the line between gag-a-minute classics such as Airplane! and Top Secret! (I’m surprised Black Dynamite does not also have an exclamation point at the end of its title, it is certainly deserving of it) and more indirect homage films like Hot Fuzz and Austin Powers. While there have been a couple of quite passable parodies that have mined this territory (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Undercover Brother), Black Dynamite is best of breed. It understands and takes precise aim at the idiosyncrasies of Blaxploitation flicks and delivers an entry of pure popcorn entertainment. It keeps much of the spirit of good old fashioned (em)power(ment) to the people, even as it often pokes ‘the classics’ in the solar plexus.

blackdynamite-r1After picking it up at Sundance, Sony Pictures is giving Black Dynamite a limited 5-6 city release on October 19th, and hopefully this will expand outward after that. With a serious lack of black action heroes out there, “We need you Black Dynamite, now more than ever!” The “R” rating that this is destined to receive (due to mondo mammaries) may help or hinder its wide-release chances. But if this picture does make it into wide release, here is hoping that it shows the folks that flock to the soulless and offensive ‘____-Movie‘ parodies just how things ought to be done.

Cronenberg, Washington, Spies; Oh My!

David CronenbergIt’s clear that I’ve been out of the loop for a few days (sorry) because this would usually be headlining news around here but alas, better late than never and in this case, I divided on whether never may have been best.

I’ve liked David Cronenberg’s last few films (I’ll venture to say that I down right love Eastern Promises) but I’m not thrilled by the recent news that Cronenberg has signed on to adapt Robert Ludlum’s “The Matarese Circle”. The first book in the “Matarese Dynasty” series, it is the story of Brandon Scofield (an intelligence officer) and Vasili Taleniekov (a KGB agent) who end up working together to solve the riddle of the Matarese, an organization that has infiltrated all levels of society and politics. I’m sure it makes much more sense when you’ve read the novel but the wikipedia entry is a bit bare bones but it sounds to me like this is basic spy stuff though it has some resemblance to a few of the overarching themes in his past two films (powerful over reaching “secret” organizations, power struggles, control issues) and I can only imagine that Cronenberg will incorporate, however mildly, his fascination with body alteration/mutilation but I too can’t help but shake my head at the casting news that go along with the production announcement.

Denzel Washington has been slated to star in the film as Scofield, the American agent, and there is a bit of speculation as to who else may be cast in the film. The folks at /Film feel, not all that surprisingly, that recent Cronenberg favourite Viggo Mortensen could also join the cast though I also found some information over at CBC that Tom Cruise is in talks to star in the film, likely as the KGB agent. I assume that Cruise will forgo the Russian accent which could make for interesting back-story (or are we simply to pretend that he’s actually speaking in a Russian accent?)

Though on any given day I would probably be at least mildly interested in a Washington/Cruise pair up, the fact that they could end up together in a Cronenberg film is both exciting and disappointing. Who knows? Maybe this will be an out-of-the-ballpark hit but a piece of my heart agrees with Heather Buckley’s editorial and like her, I too will take him back as the master of “the New Flesh” but I haven’t given up. He hasn’t given me a reason to; at least not yet.

DiCaprio and Crowe in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies Trailer

Body of Lies Movie StillI had completely forgotten this film was even in production never mind getting ready for release but with the trailer premiering with The Dark Night, the web has been abuzz with talk of Ridley Scott’s new film.

An action drama titled Body of Lies, the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a former journalist injured in the Iraq war who is hired by the CIA, represented in all its might by Russell Crowe, to track down an Al Qaeda leader in Jordan. The film is based on a novel by acclaimed journalist and novelist David Ignatius.

The trailer isn’t bad but it’s not particularly attention grabbing either. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think I’d seen a lot of it before in a load of other recent films. There seem to be bits of everything from Rendition to Syriana with a dash of The Bourne Ultimatum in for good measure. Frankly, this story does nothing for me and if someone else was directing and starring in this, I might completely overlook it but how does one say no to the triple threat of Scott, DiCaprio and Crowe? Can one even resist?

We’ll be finding out soon enough. Body of Lies is scheduled to open on October 10th.

Trailer is tucked under the seat!

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De Niro to Make Sequels to The Good Shepherd?

Over the years, I’ve found that I generally agree with overall critic consensus. I stress “generally” because there are undoubtedly exceptions, of course, but usually a quick glance over at a movie’s score over at Rotten Tomatoes can give me an idea if its worth catching in theatres or not if I can’t decide.

One of those major exceptions was 2006’s The Good Shepherd, a movie that was blasted by critics, but one that I went and saw opening day anyway. The film mesmerized me, a movie that I felt was teetering on the tot of being brilliant. I guess I could understand why the general public didn’t eat it up – it was almost three hours and slowly paced and Matt Damon’s Edward Wilson was a brutally uncharming and maybe even unlikable character – but it seemed like a movie that critics would rave about (only 56% of mainstream critics gave it the thumbs up). If nothing else, the movie was risky and ambitious and felt like it was a film straight out of the 1970s.

Robert De Niro doesn’t seem to care what the critics thought though. According to Variety, he said he wants to make two sequels that further explore the life of CIA covert head Edward Wilson, one bringing the story to 1961 through 1989 and the other right up to the present day. He hasn’t begun research yet, but while being in central Europe recently, he’s been thinking quite a bit about the material.

Interestingly enough, unrelated to these sequels, De Niro went on the say he is hoping to collaborate with Martin Scorsese at least two more times, because they have always had so much fun. In fact, he’s already working on his next project with Scorsese and it should be ready by next year – but he won’t say anymore.

So – is anybody else on board for some sequels to The Good Shepherd? Is it possible that he could win critics and viewers over with further movies now that the character is established? What about his comments about already working on a film with Scorsese? Is this Silence, about the Jesuit priests in Japan, or perhaps the Teddy Roosevelt biopic? Hmm…