Friday, September 24, 2010

TIFF 2010 Review: "Tabloid"

(Reel To Real)

(USA, 2010, 87 minutes)

Directed by: Errol Morris

Cast: Joyce McKinney, Keith May, Kirk Anderson

Following the grim, all-too-timely subjects of Errol Morris’ last two back-to-back documentaries The Fog Of War and Standard Operating Procedure, the simply-titled Tabloid is every bit as frothy and ultimately throwaway as the term would promise.

Still, even Morris working in “fun” mode remains an inventive and poignant chronicler of the eccentricities, foibles, and flaws that make us delightfully, and wickedly, human—while I often found myself asking “where does he FIND these people?” I couldn’t help but regard him as the modern-day equivalent of Charles Darwin in the Galapagos Islands—constantly unearthing a new species. His subjects are complex, contradictory, frustrating, whether a criminal on death row (who actually sued Morris after his film set him free), an execution technologist (and Holocaust denier), or the architect of the Vietnam War (and automotive CEO)—if you subscribe to the old adage that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”, then in theory, Tabloid would be about MENSA members.

Well, not exactly

One would assume that a blonde, voluptuous former Miss Wyoming back in 1977 could have any man she desired, and as it would have it, that man was Kirk Anderson, who also happened to be a member of The Church Of Latter Day Saints (they’d met when she attended Brigham Young University). When he was sent to England as a missionary, McKinney assumed it was a grand scheme on the church’s part to separate them, so, logically, she procured the services of an ex-mercenary, who just happened to have his own plane, to fly her and her friend Keith May to the UK, disguises and weaponry in tow.

May was rather easily able to locate her objet d’amour in the town of Surrey, where Anderson claimed McKinney kidnapped him at gunpoint and held him hostage in a remote farmhouse in Devon, where he was either chained or roped to a bed (his story changes) and forced to have sex.

The Fleet Street tabloids got wind of this and, of course, had a field day—the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the advent of The Sex Pistols and now this? Reporters from rival hepatitis-yellow dishrags The Mirror and The Express were sent to the U.S. to find dirt on McKinney and didn’t have to look to hard—she’d been involved in nude modeling and possibly prostitution and pornographic film production. While awaiting trial for “The Case Of The Manacled Mormon”, McKinney and May fled the country while on bail, disguised as members of a deaf-and-dumb acting troupe. The courts didn’t pursue extradition because, well, at the time there really wasn’t a law against the rape of a male.

She and May would return to England to grant interviews to the papers, disguised as East-Indians in costumes and unconvincing grease paint right out of “Team America: World Police” (of course, Morris has photos to prove it), but enough to convince England’s customs officials at the time, who would’ve found a suitcase of clippings on the case had they also bothered to inspect her luggage.

Considering Anderson now-and-then was/is a diminutive schlub only slightly less masculine than Julia Sweeney in “It’s Pat!”, why a strapping, corn-fed, blowsy babe like McKinney would travel the big pond to secure his sexual services remains a mystery. This is a woman, after all, who claims to have an IQ of 168…

Thankfully, for Morris and especially us, McKinney is alive and well and only too willing to recount her version of the tale in the first person. Recorded in three sittings, she ebulliently and breathlessly revisits 1977. Did she really rape Kirk, as the tabloids alleged? Molesting a male, according to her typically trenchant flair for simile, would "be like squeezing a marshmallow into a parking meter".

To my question “where does he find these people?”: Morris apparently came across a story, quite accidentally, in The Boston Globe about a woman who had her dog cloned, and who was also a former beauty queen. He decided to investigate, and hit the proverbial jackpot.

McKinney would continue to stalk Anderson well into the 80s, at his workplace at Salt Lake Airport cleaning the residue off of jet hulls from ejected bathroom waste (when authorities searched her car, they found handcuffs and rope). At some point, she came to her senses, and devoted herself to worthier pursuits, like attempting to recruit a teenager into burglary so she could purchase a prosthetic leg for her three-legged horse (whom she’d ride in a parade as Lady Godiva).

That arrest must’ve set her on the straight and a narrow, as the world wouldn’t hear from her again until she paid $50,000 to a South Korean genetics lab to clone her dying pitbull.


Yes, "Tabloid" climaxes with McKinney presenting her four adorable clone pups and seemingly, turning a corner, although once suspects we haven't heard the last from her...

Amazingly, despite my lifelong fascination with offbeat crime stories, I’d somehow never come across McKinney’s globe-hopping scandal despite its relatively recent history—but then again, in 1977 I was busy building TIE fighter model kits and anxiously awaiting the next episode of Saturday morning’s “Space Academy".

Morris wisely lets his eccentric subject command the stage, but has unearthed a wealth of archival material to punctuate each incredible, jaw-drawing development.

"Tabloid" has yet to secure a release date at the time of this writing but it will no doubt create quite a stir when unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

©Robert J. Lewis 2010

Thursday, September 23, 2010

TIFF 2010 Review: "The Promise: The Making Of 'Darkness On The Edge Of Town"

(Gala Presentation)
(USA, 2010, 89 minutes)
Directed by: Thom Zimny
Cast: Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt, Jimmy Iovine, Max Weinberg, Roy Bittan, Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Nils Lofgren, Garry Tallent, John Landau, Patti Scialfa, Chuck Plotkin, Patty Smith

"It was both self-indulgent, and the only way we knew how to do it."

A wealth of ultra-rare rehearsal footage from the turbulent birth of Bruce Springsteen's 1978 album, "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" is the main draw of this gripping documentary, which gives us fly-on-the-wall access to the creative mind, obsessive perfectionism, and conflicted persona of a serious artist who before the age of thirty had unwillingly become rock-and-roll's Great Hope.

Amidst a lawsuit with his former manager and alienation from his roots following his overnight transformation ("mutation" as he puts it, in present-day interviews) into an arena superstar, Springsteen resisted a speedy rehash of the jubilant Spector-influenced anthems that made his 1975 "Born To Run" an instant classic, and instead conceived a stripped down musical novel of haunting, exhausted hymns (as author Nick Hornby has defined Springsteen's less bombastic efforts) to the painful surrender to "adulthood"--much to his label, producer, and his faithful band's, chagrin.

Hours of videotaped footage chronicling the exhausting recording sessions at Springsteen's farmhouse in Holmdel, New Jersey (far enough away so as to not disturb the neighbours) have been edited down into a surprisingly-dramatic chronicle that should do much to shatter the woefully inaccurate stereotype of New Jersey's finest son as a purveyor of knuckleheaded barroom barnstormers and patriotic anthems that has, for some, endured to this day.

A sullen, grumbling Springsteen (sometimes subtitled) taxes his band mates' patience as he pours over notebooks of scribbled lyrics and demands retakes of near-Kubrickian intensity as he labours to craft the "sound picture" he'd envisioned.

"More than rich and more than famous and more than happy, I wanted to be great" confesses current-day Springsteen, with a chuckle at his youthful pretensions.

Springsteen's reams of notebook scribbles yielded so many songs--70, by engineer Jimmy Iovine's estimate--that he saved many of them for 1980's "The River", although the majority went unheard until the 2004 anthology "Tracks". The most famous of his rejects would become major hits for The Pointer Sisters ("Fire") and New York punk "godmother" Patti Smyth. Smyth is present to talk about the creation of her only hit, the achingly erotic lament "Because The Night", which was given to her by Springsteen through engineer Iovine, for which she completed the lyrics during an evening of romantic longing over her future husband.

In a "Scrambled Eggs/Yesterday" moment, Springsteen admits that "Badlands" began as a simple melody and a single chant of the title and that lyrics and arrangement came later. It's also surprising to learn that Clarence Clemons' involvement on the album was oft-debated and intended to be minimal, given that Springsteen couldn't figure out where his saxophone would fit in given the punk-and-country influence simplicity of the production. For such an immortal track, it's astonishing to consider that The Big Man's rousing solo on this particular song was an afterthought to the original guitar arrangement, and included more out of fraternal debt than anything else...

Springsteen's former manager Mike Appel, amazingly, appears on camera to give his side of the story with little bitterness or regret. Springsteen, seemingly still smarting from the battle, diplomatically defines his contract with Appel as "not so much evil, as it was naive". Appel's insistence on approval of every stage of production kept Springsteen out of the studio for years, while the band ("My soldiers", admits Springsteen with touching sincerity) finds their collective rock-and-roll dreams put on hold...

The band members, likewise, pull no punches in their candid reminiscences over an experience that for many, still stings: "A bit sad" is how keyboardist Garry Tallent regards the hours-long recording of the beat of a single drum stick. Long-time musical partner Steve Van Sandt regards his friend's willingness to blithely chuck material “a bit tragic, in a way...he (Springsteen) would have been one of the great pop songwriters of all time.” Still, there was much fun to be had during this incredibly fertile creative period, evidenced by Springsteen and Van Sandt's goofy after-hours burn through what would later be refined into "Sherry Darling" on "The River" and "Talk To Me" (which was ultimately recorded by Southside Johnny And The Asbury Jukes).

Ultimately Chuck Plotkin is brought in by Iovine to mix the album and save the day: a producer by trade, and not a mixer, he found a sonic place, according to Springsteen "between the dull and the shrill".

Briskly paced and edited, the documentary disappoints only in that it doesn't provide in-depth coverage of the album's eight tracks in their entirety. "Badlands", "Factory", the excluded "Because The Night", and the majestic "Racing In The Streets" receive the most screen time, while "Adam Raised A Cain" and the title track are barely mentioned beyond the album art and glimpses of notebook scribbles. "Streets Of Fire", which inspired an entire feature film, and "Candy's Room", a concert favourite, go entirely unmentioned.

Even the cover shot is documented: photographer Frank Stefanko reveals alternate takes of the iconic album photo that was shot in his own home in Haddonfield, NJ, complete with distinctive cabbage-leaf wallpaper.

"The Promise" will debut on HBO this October, and will be part of the CD/DVD package commemorating the album's 25th anniversary in November.

©2010 Robert J. Lewis

TIFF 2010 Review: "Cave Of Forgotten Dreams"

(Reel to Real)

(2010, USA, 95 minutes)

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Filmmaker, documentarian, actor, and all-around bad-ass Werner Herzog has become something of a fixture of TIFF in the past decade, remaining more prolific than ever as he nears the end of his sixth decade but never failing to surprise with each successive endeavour. Whether it be the rousing straight-up thrills of "Rescue Dawn" (a shockingly un-ironic celebration of American might) or the polarizing double-whammy of last year's "My Son, My Son What Have You Done?" and the don't-call-it-a-sequel-sequel "Bad Lieutenant: Port Of New Orleans", an evening with Herzog will be something entirely unexpected and stimulating.

Although an eclectic and ambitious feature director, Herzog's most acclaimed and distinctive works are generally found in the documentary medium, where he has not been afraid to tamper with tidy notions of so-called "reality" in order to spin a good yarn and attempt to illuminate truths that are spiritual and intellectual over those merely factual (which is why, perhaps, he's yet to receive a single Oscar nomination from the Academy bluenoses).

His latest, making its world premiere at TIFF 2010, is Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and given its unique subject, there couldn't possibly have been a better marriage of artist and subject than Herzog and the discovery of the possible cradle of mankind's creation of visual narrative.

The anyone, filmmaker or otherwise, could enter the Chauvet cave at all is something of a miracle: approximately 20,000 years ago, a random rock slide shut off the entrance to a large cave set in the limestone cliffs above France's Ardèche River. It remained completely sealed up and untouched until 1994, when it was discovered, quite accidentally, by a trio of explorers (one of whom was Jean-Marie Chauvet, hence the name). Within, they discovered chambers adorned with Paleothic-era art, some abstract, some alarmingly figurative and sophisticated, chronicling species of animals extinct since the Ice Age. The government immediately declared the site off-limits to the public, many of whom will have their first, and likely only, encounter with this incredible spectacle via Herzog's 3D lens.

That's right: 3D. Herzog seized the opportunity to record his first and possibly only encounter with by recording it for posterity with the very fashionable extra dimension.

Because of near-toxic levels of radon and carbon dioxide that were trapped inside the hermetically-sealed cave like a snow globe, no one is allowed to stay in the cave for more than a few hours at a time. Herzog was allowed just two additional crew persons: a DOP and sound recordist. They brought in battery-operated equipment, which didn't emit heat. Six shooting days of four hour durations were granted, under the conditions that the trio remain, confined to a two-foot wide metal walkway.

Much of the art is believed to date to the Aurignacian, era (30,000 to 32,000 years ago). It is simply, breathtaking in any dimension: along the walls and stalactites can be seen dynamic, dramatic representations of lions, panthers, bears, rhinos and hyenas. The smudged depiction of a quartet of horses even suggests an attempt at motion blur. Spacial relationships between elements are enhanced by the recesses in the walls and odd angles, as if the artist(s) instinctively knew how to utilize the surfaces to create drama. There's evidence that the walls, in some cases, were scraped clear of debris and smoothed to create and a lighter "canvas" upon which to etch.

Some of the images suggest a shamanistic intention--the presence of a buxom fertility statue allows Herzog to make a Pamela Anderson joke.

But there's evidence of at least one previous visit to the cave during the Gravettian period (25,000 to 27,000 years ago): hauntingly, a child's footprints, amidst the remains of ancient hearths and carbon smoke stains from torches used to light the interior, and the red-stained handprint of a man with a crooked finger.

Herzog uses his camera to not only give the rest of us a chance to witness a unique spectacle that will likely be inaccessible to the public for quite some time, but also to allow scientists to see parts of the cave that were previously not viewable due to the delicacy of the terrain (early tours of the cave were cancelled when it was discovered that bacteria from people's breath was eroding the art). He has quite a bit of fun interviewing the eccentric panel of experts (offering an excuse to hoist a spear directly at the 3D lens), and as for the albino alligators--well, I won't spoil that one for you...

©2010 Robert J. Lewis

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

TIFF 2010 Review: "Machete Maidens Unleashed!"

(Reel To Real)

(Australia, 2010, 90 minutes)

Directed by: Mark Hartley

Cast: Eddie Romero, Roger Corman, Judie Brown, Joe Dante, Sid Haig, Lee Ermey, Colleen Camp, Steve Carver, Sam Sherman, Celeste Yarnell

As a life-long fan of exploitation films, critic of shrill anti-horror/anti-porn/anti-videogame demagoguery (often against my better judgment at social gatherings), and champion of most marginalized art forms, I probably have Gerardo de Leone to blame: I was something like 9 or 10 when my hometown's Centre Theatre offered its usual matinee double-bill for the kiddies and I was exposed to the miracle that is/was "Brides Of Blood". I haven't seen it since the late 70s, when "Star Wars" and home video materialized and killed the matinee tradition, nor have I come across it on bootleg VHS or, no doubt, some brand-spankin' new Blu-Ray deluxe edition limited to 5000 copies. I recall it involved a group of Yanks who journeyed to "Blood Island" for various uninteresting reasons. What was most interesting was that the island natives had to appease some jungle-dwelling monster night with sacrificial virgins. Breasts, blood, beasts--Joe Bob Briggs' "The Three B"s right there--were emblazoned onto my young cranium and pretty much corrupted me for life (and this wasn't the worst thing that was screened for us over the years). Not that I'm complaining--if I hadn't have seen BOB I might have ended up a certified public accountant. You've gotta have fun with this stuff.

There's much fun to be had with "Machete Maidens Unleashed!, a riotous tour through 60s and 70s Filipino exploitation cinema that's a worthy companion piece to Hartley's "Not Quite Hollywood", his adrenaline-surged chronicle of Aussie B-movies. It offers up a treasure trove of vintage clips, trailers, (punctuated with witty graphics) and latter-day interviews with many of the surviving participants (many who are lucky to have survived their film careers at all) and unabashed fans of "Pinoy" potboilers.

The history of how the Philippines became a back lot for the American grindhouse is a bit murky, but essentially, Americans were still viewed as liberators after World War 2, so despot Ferdinand Marcos, perhaps in a bid for acceptance of his "New Society", opened his country's doors to filmmakers (lead by Roger Corman, of course) more than welcome to fly over the ocean to pillage cheap exotic locations, cheap labour, access to government resources (esp. the military) with no pesky union rules to hamper speedy production. There were few rules, period.

Despite Marcos’s corrupt Bagong Lipunan campaign of martial law over the entire nation, visiting and even native filmmakers were given free reign to put just about anything up onscreen they desired, and a great many of their efforts featured anti-authoritarian plots.

Not that plot mattered: in a little under two decades, schlock-meisters and starry-eyed ingénues and their betrayed film school idealists churned out monster yarns, women-in-prison sexploitation melodramas, and action scenarios featuring heroes that ranged from washed-up American matinee idols to midget martial-artists.

The cycle came to an abrupt end as political realities made the living conditions perilous: as Marcos' dictatorship unravelled, so did violence increase. The advent of home video would offer the exploitation circuit a new avenue of profit.

Too many anecdotes to even attempt to recount here come fast and furious like verbal mortar rounds: director Brian Trenchard Smith recalls that the Mitchell camera he used was so old it's serial number was "6" and that he'd have to remind the military brass to replace their choppers' live rounds with blanks after a morning strafing the country. Amazingly, there were performers labelled “breakables,” in that for a few bucks, they gladly jumped through glass windows, were set on fire, or jumped from moving vehicles.

Legendary producers Sam Sherman, Roger Corman, veteran performers Sid Haig, Pam Grier, and Colleen Camp, and directors Allan Arkus and Joe Dante, who earlier in their careers edited the trailers for many of these films, talk candidly and humorously of their participation in this bizarre cycle (the latter duo, specifically, on the circumstances behind their notorious helicopter-cutaway shot). Director John Landis, who never directed a film in the Philippines but operates here as a fan and commentator, doesn't really buy the whole "female empowerment" subtext of the women-in-prison cycle, and when some of the actresses--particularly "The Big Dollhouse"s Judy Brown--tell of their treatment, he might have a point...

Two more memorable bits: Roger Corman visibly miffed at having to defend his reputation as being "cheap", and Lee Ermey confessing that he felt "Apocalypse Now" did the men who served in Vietnam a disservice (there some time devoted to Coppola's turbulent and legendary shoot, already well-documented in "Hearts Of Darkness").

There's a fair bit of screen time devoted to acknowledging the contributions of Pinoy cult stalwart John Ashley, who died in 1997. His collaborators speak affectionately of his contributions as actor and producer, which were the polar opposite of his experiences as a teen idol for American International Pictures.

Good-humoured, articulate Edie Romero exudes a sophistication and scholarly knowledge of cinema his actual movies certainly did not. It's perhaps not so strange then, to learn that he was later an ambassador of cinema appointed by Marcos (which is something akin to Andy Milligan getting a Kennedy Center Honour).

No release date as of this writing, but if you're at all remotely interested in the subject matter, you'll find "Machete Maidens Unleashed" a dizzying, dazzling experience. One that's superior to actually having to endure many of the films covered themselves...

©2010 Robert J. Lewis

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

TIFF 2010: John Carpenter's "The Ward"

(Midnight Madness)

(USA, 2010, 88 minutes)

Written by: Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen

Directed by: John Carpenter

Cast: Amber Heard, Danielle Panabaker, Lyndsy Fonseca, Jared Harris, Mamie Gummer

I must 'fess up: there are few people on this earth who are bigger fans of director John Carpenter than myself. He became one of my favourite filmmakers (for a period of time, THE favourite) immediately when I first saw "The Fog" on a double-bill with "Jaguar Lives" in the winter of 1981. He was the only celebrity to whom I've ever written a fan letter (he responded1), and I've since written essays on his body of work in high school and in university film studies (my senior thesis) and have marked his every subsequent release as a major event. A master of widescreen composition and that rare auteur who can make genre personal, I've long held him in the highest esteem amongst 70s/80s directorial darlings like Coppola and Scorsese. It's taken nearly two decades, but the critical community seems to have finally caught up...

Sadly for fans, it's been more than a decade since Carpenter has helmed a theatrical feature, and while his two instalments for HBO's "Masters Of Horror" cable TV series were impressive (esp. "Cigarette Burns", scored by his son Cody), his devotees have been pining for a follow-up endeavour. How could the man who gave us "They Live" stay so silent during two successive Bush administrations? Where was John Nada to save us all?

Several titles have been announced over the years, and one, "The Ward", saw the light of a projector beam.

The first John Carpenter film ever to play the Toronto International Film Festival (it's about bloody time), this modest little shocker bears the director's title above the credits--as per usual--but Carpenter did not conceive or write the film (nor did he score it), so there's something about it that smacks of "work for hire". Still, it shows that the iconoclastic director's skills as the one-time master of screen terror have hardly atrophied during his absence, and delivers on his press kit promise of old school, straight-up chills that he pretty much wrote the patent for in 1978 with his still unequalled "Halloween".

Carpenter's not exactly pushing himself as an artist here, but as comfort food, "The Ward" is entirely nourishing...

It's 1966. Authorities arrest a young woman, Kristen (Heard), after she sets fire to remote farmhouse. She's brought to North Bend Psychiatric Hospital, where she's admitted to the care of Dr. Stringer (Harris), who attempts to unlock the cause of her breakdown and violent act, but she's unwilling to explore her past. Kristen strikes up a friendship with four other patients: sassy Sarah (Panabaker), artistic Iris (Fonsenci), aggressive Emily (Gummer), and the innocent Zoey (Leigh), who clings to a stuffed bunny. The other girls speak of a phantom figure who haunts the halls of the secret ward at night--a ward where few make it out alive...

Comparatively subtle, slow-paced, and even elegant to most modern offerings (hard to believe that not all that long ago, Carpenter was dismissed as a purveyor of misogynistic violence), the director's approach confidently and deliberately echoes the great suspense yarns of yesteryear, acknowledging Jacques Tournier, Sam Fuller, and of course, his own influential early work starting with "Assault On Precinct 13" (although dare I suggest Frederick Wiseman and William Peter Blatty?)...

Not quite the "return to form" one hoped for, Carpenter delivers what he does best: the ghost is as scary as Michael Myers (and seems to have been inspired by Dick Smith's underrated work on John Irvin's "Ghost Story"), the cast of young women endearing and sympathetic (as was his cast in "Halloween"), and people coping with exterior menace while in a confined space has long been his speciality since "Dark Star".
The third act twist telegraphed a bit early, I thought, but actually makes psychological sense so doesn't seem like quite the rug pull as it did--POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT--in the similarly-themed "Shutter Island".

It's nice to have you back, John. But don't make us wait so long for the next one, okay?

"The Ward" is scheduled for release in January in the UK, but as of this writing, no release date for the US has been set, which is a shame...

©2010 Robert J. Lewis

TIFF 2010: "The Trip"

(Special Presentations)
United Kingdom, 90 minutes)

Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom

"The Trip" is a uproarious confection, alternately brash and bittersweet, that finds TIFF stalwart Michael Winterbottom dialing-it-down after his usually confrontational efforts like "Welcome to Sarajevo", "9 Songs", and this year's controversial Jim Thompson adaptation "The Killer Inside Me".

A few years ago, the versatile British filmmaker indulged his lighter side with the inventive meta-comedy/faux-literary adaptation "Tristam Shandy: A Real Cock And Bull Story, a mockumentary about a chaotic attempt to adapt one of the world's most notorious "unfilmable" novels, featuring UK comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing fictionalized versions of themselves (or were they?).

Winterbottom reunites Coogan and Brydon here--as, well, themselves?--and this time unencumbered by powdered wigs and waistcoats. The hook is simple: When Coogan is asked by The Observor to embark on a paid restaurant tour of Northern England (specifically, the Lake District, Lancashire, and the Daleson), he accepts it to impress his actress girlfriend. But when she suggests they take a break from each other and visits the U.S., Coogan scrambles to find a companion and ultimately has to settle on his friend/comedic-rival Brydon. A week-long gastronomic road trip ensues, but food is often an incidental concern:

Who does the better Michael Caine impersonation? Coogan insists he'll work only with auteurs, but pines to sell-out to Hollywood (he's none-too-secretly jealous of Brydon's mainstream success--his "small man in a box" character has spawned an iPhone app!). Riffs on Coleridge and Wordsworth (on location at the poet's home at Dove Cottage), a unique take on the Bronte sisters and the easily-missed power of ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All" are among the many subjects argued and deconstructed along many restaurants and hotels.

While largely improvised, there is a semblance of a narrative: Brydon is content with the state of his career and pines to return home to his wife and newborn baby, while Coogan feigns revulsion at his friend's domesticity while obviously searching for companionship through his various sexual conquests and validation by mainstream Hollywood success.

Edited down from a British television series, but nothing seems missing. The feature version is highly recommended but if given the choice I'd go with the original broadcasts, after all, sometimes "more" is "more", esp. when involving comic geniuses of this calibre...

©2010 Robert J. Lewis

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

TIFF 2010: "Brighton Rock"

(Gala Presentation)

(United Kingdom, 2010, 111minutes)
Written by: Rowan Joffe
Directed by: Rowan Joffe
Cast: Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Andy Serkis, Helen Mirren, John Hurt

Someone must’ve decided what the world needed now was the umpteenth restaging of the Brighton Mods/Rocker riots, since this opulent but inert adaptation of the Graham Greene novel shifts the action from 1930 to 1964 but won’t make anyone forget John and Roy Bolting’s classic 1947 screen version any time soon.

Otherwise, it’s more or less the same classic tale: this time, Pinky Brown is played by Sam Riley, the Ian Curtis-lookalike from “Control”, who’s a bit too clean-cut to be a hood, despite having earned a prominent facial scar. Only 17 and already a rising star in the local underworld, he takes charge of his gang when their leader is assassinated. Pinky ruthlessly enacts revenge against his mentor’s killer (he’s nothing if not handy with a blade), but when he finds out his act was possibly photographed by a naïve young boardwalk waitress Rose (Riseborough), he schemes to romance the girl and find out just how much she really knows (not to mention, wait for the photo to be processed—no iPhones in 1964!). Rose’s boss Ida (Mirren) isn’t quite so charmed by Pinky’s boyish demeanor, however, and enlists the help of Corkey (Hurt) to unearth his true intentions (old pros Mirren and Hurt can do these broad character turns in their sleep, but they provide some much needed energy and humour to the film’s second half, along with Andy Serkis in a rare human role as the effete thug Mr. Colleoni).

Handsomely mounted and effectively cast with newcomers and old pros, “Brighton Rock” suffers from what I call “Prestige Picture Sag”. Rowan (not Roland, his father) Joffe, making his directorial debut (he’s the screenwriter of “28 Weeks Later” and “The American”, which opened the same weekend TIFF 2010 launched) and his cast seem to be revel in the fetish-y aspects of the era--all fedoras and switchblades and scooters—but yet there's something maddeningly contemporary about the film, as if we're watching people play "dress up", despite Greene’s crackerjack plotting and generally misanthropic world view.

There’s an abundance of foul language—“f bombs” abound (I’m aware that profanity existed in real life long before it became acceptable onscreen, but there were times when I felt the script had been written by Irvine Welsh). Motivations seem a bit murky—Pinky is alternately timid and reserved and then explosively violent (whereas Richard Attenborough’s Pinky was all coiled menace, Riley’s more like a Vulcan), and after several scenes of being treated so shabbily one wonders why Rose puts up with so much abuse (1964 was surely a more enlightened year than 1938, although maybe not by much).

What’s more—with Pinky established as a cold-blooded type so early on, why does resist every opportunity to take Rose out of the picture (he even marries her, and records a bitter monologue lamenting her very existence at a recording booth on the pier). There’s a curious focus on Catholic iconography, to, that might have been intended to be ironic, but comes off as heavy handed, esp. when augmented by a screechy, overwrought score that had me thinking of Mel Brooks’ Hitchcock parody “High Anxiety”, where every time the orchestra kicked in, a bus with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra on it passed by.

As for the riot--never really acknowledged within the narrative other than to provide Pinky with a crowd to slip into--it plays out in the background like something out of a manic Monty Python sketch, with Joffe sticking to the familiar Frank Roddam playbook.

©2010 Robert J. Lewis

Monday, September 13, 2010

TIFF 2010: "Super"

(Midnight Madness)

(USA, 2010, 90 minutes)
Written and directed by: James Gunn
Cast: Rainn Wilson, Liv Tyler, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, Nathan Fillion, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, and Rob Zombie as “God”

James Gunn's demented "Super" pretty much is--and considering there hasn't exactly been a shortage of "home-made superhero" yarns lately, and especially with this year's Marvel adaptation "Kick-Ass" offering up some mighty, twisted tights to fill, following equally ambitious and mostly successful efforts like the Hamilton-shot "Defendor", and the sadly-mostly-forgotten "Special" with Michael Rappaport. Gunn's followup to his delightful 80s creature feature spoof "Slither" shows his Troma roots loud and proud, albeit with better production values, sustained comic tone, and performances (but there is a Lloyd Kaufman cameo).

Once again, an anonymous schlub finds his calling via four-colours: doughy Frank D'Arbo ("The Office"s Wilson) cooks in a diner and clings to a mere two pleasant memories from his otherwise unremarkable life: an incident where he pointed a police officer in the direction of a suspect, and more significantly, his brief marriage to Sarah (Tyler). When Sarah, a reformed junkie/stripper who has clearly failed in the "reformed" column, leaves him for her drug dealer Jacques (Bacon), Frank receives a spectral visitation from TV-personality Jesus Man (Fillion), who, via no less an authority than God (Zombi), anoints him a new role as the superhero The Crimson Bolt.

No actual powers come with the honour, so Frank must improvise. Embracing the life as a would-be superhero is not without its growing pains--Frank has a hard time with the nuances of what constitutes a "criminal offence". To The Crimson Bolt, butting in line at a movie is as worthy of his wrath (in the form of a pipe wrench) as drug dealing or child molestation.

Thankfully, there's a comic book shop nearby with fetching Libby (Page) more than willing to coach Frank on superhero lore. As The Crimson Bolt's curious public appearances become the stuff of local news and YouTube, Libby becomes suspicious of Frank's regular "research" into non-super-powered crime fighters, and offers her assistance as the sidekick "Boltie"...

Well-worn terrain by now, sure, but Gunn's take lacks the lugubriousness and brow-furrowing that bogs down a lot of latter-day superhero vehicles as their reluctant do-gooders wrestle with morals, responsibility, and blah blah blah. But while he gleefully cranks up the gory violence and outrageous fantasy sequences (Fillion's "Jesus Man" deserves his own series of web shorts at the very least), the characterizations are strong, thanks to pitch-perfect casting. Wilson reels in the broad strokes of his Dwight character from "The Office" and creates a broken man as pitiable as that found in any non-genre drama, and current indie "It-girl" Page (who shared a memorable exchange with Wilson in "Juno") invests what could have been a stock character--charming comic book geek--with just the right touch of reckless, pathological delusion (Frank's desire to right wrongs is obvious, but what's her motivation?). Reliable character actors Henry, Rooker, and even Kevin Bacon anchor reality with brief, memorable turns.

"Super" was one of the first big sales of TIFF 2010, and should be in wide release from IFC in early 2011.

©2010 Robert J. Lewis

Sunday, September 12, 2010

TIFF 2010 Review: "Bunraku"

(Midnight Madness)

(USA, 2010, 90 minutes)
Directed by: Guy MosheCast: Josh Hartnett, Ron Perlman, Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore, Kevin McKidd, Gakt Camui

The title was, at first glance, intriguing--suggestive of classic hoary melodramas of yesteryear like "Hatari!" and "Mogambo". What it is, however, is yet another of those "another time/another place" genre mash-ups confined to stylized environs that arguably started with Walter Hill's "Streets Of Fire". That particular underrated 80s effort was (according to the director) "mock heroic in structure, comic book in dialogue" and while it was no box-office sensation, its influence can be found in countless films since ranging from "Sin City" to "Sky Captain".

"Bunraku" is apparently Japanese for "puppet theatre", but while there's a considerable smattering of Asian influence on the spirited, stylish yarn, I found myself thinking an awful lot about Simon Wincer's "Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man". Bear with me...

Past, present, future converge in Moshe's stagebound Never-Never Land, where guns are illegal and wars are won by fist and blade. An unlikely team-up of timeless archetypes the American Cowboy and the Japanese Ronin launches the expected quest tale to dethrone a despot (well, unlikely to anyone who's never seen "Red Sun" with Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune).

The Drifter With No Name (Hartnett), wanders into the town of "Little Westworld" (nice), hell-bent on revenge, teams up with Yoshi The Samurai (Camui), who seeks to reclaim his family's precious ancient Dragon medallion. The Bartender (Harrelson) an old-timer with intimate knowledge of the region's history and key players, guides them towards their mutual foe, "The Woodcutter" (Perlman, shambling around like Bionic Bigfoot), but first, they must fight their way through his greatest warriors, the Nine Killers, climaxing in an encounter with the seemingly unstoppable Killer Number 2 (McKidd--guess who's Killer Number 1?).

Meanwhile, the Woodcutter's bride (Moore) plots with the local Proletariat Peasant to overthrow her husband...

Owing more than a little visual debt Stephen Chow's "Kung Fu Hustle", the combination of Western-and-Eastern archetypes, with a healthy dollop of Damon Runyon/"Guys And Dolls", "Bunraku" is certainly an arresting feast for the senses, providing one doesn't expect much in terms of narrative.

A western-with-swords isn't exactly fresh following two "Kill Bill" films and Miike's "Sukiyaki Django Western" and "Six-String Samurai", but Moshe manages to mine the hook for some impressive action setpieces, with Camui's martial arts prowess betraying the reality that he's in fact a Japanese pop star and not a journeyman stunt performer. "
Rome"s McKidd has a ball brandishing his blade like Zatoichi in a zoot suit.

"Bunraku" plays like one of those cannily-conceived, would-be "cult" efforts that seems a lot of fun to make, but as a ticket buyer, one wishes some of that spirit had spilled over into the viewing experience, which by the umpteenth sword battle, becomes wearying (I found myself counting down to Killer #2, and then realized there was still a Killer #1 to deal with before I could go home). It's easy to champion the undertaking on a technical level, but to be honest, it's not terribly enchanting or engrossing beyond that...

©2010 Robert J. Lewis

Saturday, September 11, 2010

TIFF 2010 Review: "Into The Wind"

(Real To Real)

(USA/Canada, 2010)

Directed by: Steve Nash and Ezra Holland

Terry Fox's heroic 1980 "Marathon Of Hope" has cemented itself in latter-day Canadian lore--it is now arguably our nation's primary narrative, eclipsing Banting's discovery of penicillin and the building of our national railroad (although he finished second to Tommy Douglas, the founder of our nation's Medicare system, in a recent CBC poll)--but this new ESPN-produced documentary manages to unearth some fresh insights and materials almost 30 years after Fox's too-young passing in 1981.

In a lean 51 minutes, we're retold what still plays like a truly astonishing scenario:

Just 21, Port Coquitlam, British Columbia-native Fox decided to do something for those stricken with cancer, having already lost a leg to the disease (that didn't stop him from becoming a high school wheelchair basketball champ). Inspired by American Dick Traum, the first amputee to complete the New York City Marathon, Fox plotted a course from east coast to west with friend (and driver) Doug Alward, and with typical Canadian indifference and aversion to anything resembling "hero-worship", his launch initially went largely unheralded in the national media went he took his first steps (with the aide of a prosthetic limb) from the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in St. John's, Newfoundland. Incredibly, even the Canadian Cancer Society, to whom he'd written a mission-statement, was reluctant to sponsor him until he'd secured additional financial sponsors.

But by the time he'd reached Ontario, his brother Darryl had joined him and Fox was heralded as a major celebrity. The PR machine was in full force: Fox was persuaded to delay his arrival in Ottawa until Canada Day, photo-ops were arranged with hockey legends Darryl Sittler and Bobby Orr. He'd kick the first ball at a CFL game, and a huge celebration in his honour was held at Toronto's City Hall. Fox was offered everything from a car to a chance to promote Planter's Peanuts, which he entertained only if he could wear the Mr. Peanut outfit.

Fox would be forced to abort his journey on September 2, 1980 in Thunder Bay, Ontario, when he was once again diagnosed with cancer that had now spread to his lungs. By then, he'd raised $1.7 million (although his intention was to raise just $1 from each of Canada's then-24 million citizens). He remains the youngest person ever named a Companion of the Order of Canada.

In a pre-wired era united by a single national television network, Fox's mission didn't exactly explode on the national scene (the CBC was reluctant to pay a cameraman overtime to cover Fox's launch in New Brunswick, and tellingly, the early momentum--such as it was--stalled in Quebec, where Fox assumed "people mustn't get cancer"). Nonetheless, Fox's trek electrified a nation, and a six-year old Steve Nash took daily notice of his integrity and passion.

Yes, that Steve Nash. The basketball sensation-turned-director (with assistance from his cousin, Ezra Howard) has studied his Errol Morris and Ken Burns well. No mere earnest talking-heads marathon, "Into The Wind" ambitiously attempts to recreate Fox's physically-and-emotionally tasking trek via location visits, dramatic restaging, first-time access to his personal journals (some achingly candid remarks voiced by Friday Night Lights’ Taylor Kitsch), and playful animations amidst the expected archival footage.

But it's the surviving personalities, friends and family close to Terry, who give the film its majesty and lingering resonance. Alward still seems affected by the events as if they happened yesterday, but he gamely revisits (and acts in restagings at) key locations--he's clearly still carrying the fire. During shooting, Alward's missing Econoline van was located by biographer Douglas Coupland, where it had been found in the possession of a young musician who'd inherited the vehicle, still in vintage 1980 shape, complete with shag carpet--from his father.

Fox's brother, father, and mother exude a salty grace despite their considerable loss and the weightiness of Terry's legacy. Betty Fox's reminiscences are particularly bittersweet despite her arch humour, given that--as Alward puts it so eloquently--"she never had time to grieve".

Even Fox's prosthetics specialist is still alive--and a impressive stop-motion animation assembles the prosthetic leg in all of its primitive intricacy.

Regrettably, the dirt bag reporter who wrote that Fox drove through Quebec (a flat-out lie that destroyed a lot of the boy's confidence) is never named or brought out to explain himself.

But Toronto Star reporter and biographer Leslie Scrivener ("Terry Fox: His Story") coins the best line: "we have no Martin Luther King, no Nelson Mandela. But we have Terry. His is a gritty story--head down, he worked hard. We work hard".

"Gritty" perhaps, yes, but as the archival footage illuminates, there was also such authority and passion in his voice for one so young. Canada--no, the entire world--not only lost an athlete, but a true ambassador of inspiration and goodwill. He could've been our Bill Clinton, the way he spoke of such universal truths with such conviction and humility.

"Into The Wind" will debut on ESPN this month as part of its "30 For 30" documentary series.

©2010 Robert J. Lewis

Friday, September 10, 2010

TIFF 2010 Review: "I'm Still Here"

(Special Presentations)
USA, 2010, 108 minutes)
Directed by: Casey Affleck
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Larry McHale, Sean Combs, Ben Stiller, Edward James Olmos, David Letterman

So it was all a big meta-hoax after all.

There, that's it...and more brain power than any further discussion of the subject of "I'm Still Here" deserves. Still, I returned to TIFF for yet another year to review movies, and it was my first screening of the event, so....

In the days between the press screening (my first of the fest) of Casey Affleck's is-it-or-isn't-it "documentary" "I'm Still Here" and the completion of my final draft of my review, it became confirmed that the proverbial "jig" was "up". And from the official camp, no less--perversely, the director himself admitted during an interview with the New York Times that the much-ballyhooed undertaking--an alleged verite chronicle of actor Joaquin Phoenix' renouncement of his craft to pursue a career as a hip-hop artist--was an entirely staged affair. Immediately, I thought of John Waters' essay "Whatever Happened To Showmanship?"--why in hell would Affleck (presumably a smart guy), and star/accomplice/brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix (presumably a smart guy, too, even if he's playing a dumber version of himself onscreen), atomize whatever chance the film had at box-office success, or at the very least water cooler talking point, before the press tour was even competed?

Chalk it up to the glib brattiness that permeates the exercise on both sides of the lens--now that we know "I'm Still Here" is a preening stunt its conspirators are now trying to defend with a lot of film school babble (although Affleck assures his interviewer that he "never intended to trick anybody...the idea of a quote, hoax, unquote, never entered my mind.”), what, if any, are its merits as an entertainment experience?

Not much--and I would've said the same before Affleck's confession.
Phoenix--ordinarily a dynamic, risk-taking actor--slums in the role of "River Phoenix" (much like Chuck Barris played "Chuck Barris" in "The Gong Show Movie") with enough Method-y baggage to infuriate even Brando. Fed up with the sham of the acting profession, he seeks to unmask the "real" Joaquin Phoenix to the world via his self-composed, self-produced hip-hop tracks, but his vapid lyrics and awful-white-boy-rapping reveal nothing but a pitiful imitation of better artists (and clearly, one of them is Heavy D, considering JP's astonishing weight gain within months of his "retirement").

(but it's all an act)

Ditto his droning, nasal, drug-and/or-booze fuelled soliloquies to the lens that reveal nothing more than an insulated, self-pitying pillar-of-salt too stupid, stoned, or brain-damaged to appreciate his good fortune.

(remember, it's an act)

Leaving the shallow pond of Hollywood for the even shallower puddle of the rap music industry, Phoenix, accompanied by his faithful manservants Antony (a recovering drunk) and Larry (a frequently naked enabler), dogs Sean "P. Diddy" Combs (who really wears his own clothing line) from New York to Miami, and ultimately, to Washington, where he's part of newly-elected President Obama's inauguration (inspiring JP to declare "an inauguration is just another Hollywood premiere, but with less pussy"--one of his classier bon mots, actually).

(did I mention that it's an act?)

The often-scatological tedium is occasionally enlivened by some surprising cameos: Ben Stiller visits Phoenix's pig-sty home to offer him a role in "Greenburg", Mos Def reacts "diplomatically" to Phoenix's news of a career change when they meet at an airport, and Edward James Olmos (or "E-Jo") of all people pays an evening visit to deliver a bewildering zen-homily about being a "waterfall on top of a mountain".

Thankfully, the notorious
Feb. 11, 2009 appearance on Late Night With David Letterman is played out in its entirely, given that no matter what the backstage machinations, it remains a classic bit of gonzo television. Letterman's camp insists that the host wasn't in on Phoenix's joke, so their unheard exchange at the commercial break will remain as unknown as Bill Murray's farewell to Scarlett Johansson in "Lost In Translation", and at least provide "I'm Still Here" with a bit of sustaining mystery (Phoenix is scheduled to return to the Ed Sullivan Theatre in October--no doubt the appearance will make for a worthy DVD supplement).

The revelation that the film was a staged lark wasn't entirely surprising, as my smug-o-meter went into overdrive more than a few times, given that some of the plot turns seem a tad too obvious and Syd Field-approved, straining credibility. Mind you, documentary filmmakers have been massaging the truth since Robert Frank asked Nanook to build a larger igloo that would better accommodate his camera equipment, so it seems moot to argue about authenticity these days.

(But in retrospect, the credit "co-written by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix" in the end crawl should've tipped me off...ditto the credit to Affleck's father in the role of
Phoenix's dad...)

And please, can we knock it off with the "post-modern"-shtick? When Andy Kaufman--an undeniable avante garde genius--pulled this kind of public stunt, it was genuinely ground-breaking, challenging, and even endearing, esp. at time when the world found fascination in The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and deemed Shields And Yarnell worthy of a weekly variety program. Since then, it's become a tiresome defence for crappy art and lazy irony that died along Baudrillard back in 2007.

Shakier than "Cloverfield" and featuring a scarier monster, "I'm Not There" is a wholly repellent sensory experience--the unlikely marriage of Frederick Wiseman and Michael and Roberta Findley--and the very definition of a "tough-sit" by even the most forgiving moviegoer's standards.

©2010 Robert J. Lewis