Monday, April 30, 2012

Hot Docs Review: Legend of a Warrior

“The way I have to connect with him is go into his world, to dive into the ocean of the gym, of the fight club...” These are the words uttered by director Corey Lee as he explains to his mother how he plans to step into the martial arts ring that his father has made famous. At first his mother assumes it is a joke, but when Lee assure her he is serious, she simply responds “I think you’re nuts.” The truth is the audience is thinking the same thing. The idea of Lee, who now has a family of his own to take care of, stepping into the ring to train to be a fighter seems far-fetched. One cannot help but question how sincere Lee’s motives are at first. However this is far from a mere ploy, Lee’s quest is one that ultimately takes him, and the audience, on a surprisingly rewarding journey.

Legend of a Warrior is ultimately a tale about a son’s desire to reconnect with his father at all cost. Fearing that his children will grow up not knowing the Chinese side of their heritage, Corey Lee sets out to give his children an education on his family’s past. The problem is that Lee only knows the ”superhuman” side of his father, Frank Lee, that the public sees. Lee has no idea who the real Fraank is. At age 70, Frank is still treated like a rock star in most circles. Creator of the White Crane martial arts technique, Frank became a huge name in both Hong Kong and Canada. Now owning his own gym, Frank is the “Sifu”, which means teacher, for several of the world’s top martial arts champions. In order to try and understand what makes his father tick, Lee decides to let Frank train him so he will be able to compete on a professional level. However, neither Lee nor Frank anticipate how their relationship will forever be altered as a result.

One of the things that will strike you immediately about the film is the glorious use of animation. Lee uses the black and white animated segments to explore many of the key moments in Frank’s past. These sequences provide the documentary with a wonderful film within a film feel. The best thing about the way Lee uses the animation is that it never overpowers the film. He provides just enough to keep the pacing of the film upbeat, while never losing sight of the central father and son narrative.

Corey Lee crafts a film that is both engaging and touching without ever feeling forced. By time the film is over the audience feels as if they have a better understanding of not only Lee and Frank’s relationship, but the men as individuals as well. Despite the estranged relationship that Lee has with Frank, he never paints his father as the villain. Frank is portrayed as man who never claimed to be more than what he is. This does not mean that Frank does not have his share of regret. One of the reasons that Legend of a Warrior is such a captivating film is because Lee not only successfully peels away the guarded layers of the wall that his father has spent years building up, but also reveals his own insecurities. Some of the most telling moments come when Lee is describing how envious he was of kickboxing champion Billy Chau, who was Frank’s star pupil.

Though Lee is nothing like his father, we start to see parallels to what Lee experienced through his own children. By being away from his own family for so long, the audience gets a glimpse of how the separation is affecting Lee’s own children. Legend of a Warrior is a marvelous film that not only shows the effects that decisions have on a family, but also the importance of a father/son relationship regardless of what age it begins. Legend of a Warrior is a crowd pleasure that should not be missed.

Screening: Monday April 30th 9:15 pm – Cumberland, Thursday May 3rd 1:30 pm – The ROM Theatre, Friday May 4th 4:00 pm – Isabel Bader Theatre.

Hot Docs Mini Review: Shadows of Liberty

Exposing how conglomerates have influenced legislative change in order to control major media outlets, Shadows of Liberty is a startling wake up call. Director Jean-Philippe Tremblay’s film dissects how corporations, and even the government, are manipulating the news information most American’s receive. What was once a vessel for unbiased stories about real issues, many newspapers and television news channels are now spinning more mindless entertainment driven pieces. Speaking to the likes of Dan Rather, The Wire creator David Simon, Julian Assange, Amy Goodman, and numerous others in the media industry, Tremblay is able to show how hard hitting investigative journalism, is being swept under the rug. For example, the working conditions of Nike factory workers in Asia never made it to air because it would affect the company’s bottom line. It is hard for CBS to air a story saying anything bad about Nike, when Nike is one of CBS’ major Olympic advertising partners . The same goes for government related scandals, whether it be tales of weapons of mass destruction or stories of selling secrets to the enemy, media outlets are no longer doing the digging and simply taking the word of the government as being fact.

The quest for the financial bottom line by CEO’s of corporations such as Viacom, Time Warner, Disney, and General Electric, to name a few, has crippled the state of modern day journalism. Similar to the film Inside Job, Tremblay’s intentions are clear from the start. As a result, the film is a little too one-sided without shedding much light on the smaller media outlets that still produce insightful content. Tremblay’s documentary is concerned with only the major media outlets. Regardless of whether or not you agree with Tremblay’s methods in regards to what is being featured in the film, Shadows of Liberty raises an important issue that needs to be discussed. It is especially timely considering the troubles media mogul Rupert Murdoch has found himself in over the last year. Shadows of Liberty is an effective film that will get the audience questioning everything they read and see in the news.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Hot Docs Review: The Frog Princes

In a world where everyone seems to be expressing themselves daily on social media, it easy to forget that, for many people, self-expression does not come as easily. For individuals with special needs, it is not only important to build up the strength to express themselves to others, but also to have the confidence to believe they can do it. Since the theatrical stage is one of the oldest vehicle for letting individuals express themselves, it seems fitting that the bulk of documentary The Frog Princes take place there.

The Frog Princes is a film that follows Ray-Man, named after modernist artist Man-Ray, as he and his theatre troupe attempt to stage a production of The Frog and the Princess. However, Ray-Man is no ordinary actor and this is no ordinary theatre group. Ray-Man is a 24 year-old with Down Syndrome and all of the members in his theatre troupe are special needs individuals as well. Led by Dr. Stephen Snow, who hopes to instil confidence in the group through the use of theatre, Ray-Man and the troupe must learn to trust in themselves and each other in order to successfully stage the production.

It is easy to draw comparisons between The Frog Princes and the popular film Autism the Musical, as they both focus on individuals with developmental disabilities attempting to perform a stage production. However, The Frog Princes has its own unique story to tell. While Autism the Musical focused primarily on the children with Autism and their parents, The Frog Princes focuses more on the actual production side of the play. Directors Omar Majeed and Ryan Mullins follow the actors from their initial meeting all the way to the final dress rehearsal. It is fascinating to see how the actors struggle with differentiating between what is just acting and what they consider to be real. For example a simple scene where characters in the play laugh at the frog, takes on a whole other meaning for the actor playing the frog. This nice thing about The Frog Princes is that it is not so much a documentary about people with special needs, as it is a film about the importance of maximizing each person’s potential.

Majeed and Mullins use the play to symbolize both artistic and personal freedom. One of the subplots in the film involves Ray-Man’s desire to move out of his mother’s house and be his own man. The fact that Ray-Man still needs his mother for certain things causes both conflict and uncertainty for him. Ray-Man is nicely contrasted with another troupe member, Tanya, who has tasted the freedom that Ray-Man so desperately seeks. In her mid-thirties, and living with Prader-Willi Syndrome, Tanya lived with her boyfriend for several years before her insecurities caused the relationship to end. Where Ray-Man displays confidence on the stage but not at home, Tanya is the exact opposite. Her insecurities lead to several breakdowns during rehearsals, some of which are genuine and some of which are clearly attention seeking. It is interesting watching Ray-Man and Tanya co-exist in the same production. Just when you think you have them all figured out, the final production completely changes your view of what each person can do.

Speaking of the final production, this is one area where the extensive focus on the behind the scenes elements hinders the film a bit. Considering that the bulk of the film is devoted to the preparation, it would have been great to see a little more of the final production in the film. While you do get some key scenes here and there, most of the attention of the final production is focused on the backstage reactions. Though I guess this is ultimately the point of The Frog Princes, it is not the end result that really matters, but the journey in which it took to get there. The Frog Princes does a good job of showing that having a developmental disability does not mean a person cannot achieve their goals. It only means that the path they take will be slightly different than most, but still equally rewarding.

Screening: Sunday April 29th 7:30 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1, Tuesday May 1st 4:45 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 2, Saturday May 5th 9:45 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 2.

Hot Docs Mini Review: Petra’s Poem

Based on a poem recited by Petra Tolley, a young artist with Down Syndrome, Petra’s Poem is a documentary short that takes a unique look at what it is like living with Down Syndrome. As an independent person with Down Syndrome, Petra finds herself stuck “in the middle” of society. She finds herself isolated as she struggles to identify her role within modern society. An interesting piece of performance art, the film as offers much to think about visually as it does verbally. The film blends live action and animation to emphasize Petra’s conflict. In the live action sequences, all the actors involved are persons with Down Syndrome. However, director Shira Avni uses these actors to represent both those living with Down Syndrome and those in “regular” society. As Petra’s Poem is basically Petra working out her own issues, the film is more concerned with posing questions than providing answers. Which works well for this short as the goal of film is not about evoking pity, but rather generating discussion on an issue that often goes unnoticed.

Screening: Sunday April 29th 7:30 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1, Tuesday May 1st 4:45 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 2, Saturday May 5th 9:45 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 2.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Hot Docs Mini Review: The Imposter

The Imposter tells a story so outlandish that you would not believe it had it been a fictional film. The fact that the events actually occurred, makes the film even more intriguing. The Imposter is the story of Frederic Bourdin, a 23 year-old Algerian man who successfully assumed the identity of a teenage boy, Nicholas Barclay, from San Antonio who went missing four years earlier. The most shocking thing about this story is that Bourdin was not only able to fool authorities in both Spain and the United States, but that he was able to trick Barclay’s family as well.

The fact that Bourdin looked nothing like Barclay, with the exception of one or two features, makes the whole thing even more baffling. The Imposter is a film that is full of twist and turns. Director Bart Layton, manages to weave together a narrative that not only ponders what happen to Nicholas Barclay? But also why would the Barclay family welcome this obvious, to most people, imposter into their home. Even Bourdin himself admits that he believed that alternative motives were in play on the family’s part. Though how can the words of Bourdin, a serial imposter, be trusted at all?

Deciphering who is telling the truth is the hardest part of this complex tale. Even the colourful private investigator, Charlie Parker, who almost single-handedly steals the film, seems stumped as to what happened to Barclay. Layton leaves it up to the audience to come up with their own hypothesis as to what happen to Barclay and whose story to believe. The film features heavy use of dramatized re-enactments to tell the various stories of the many individuals involved. This will surely bring comparisons to Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, but The Imposter’s use of dramatization works on a completely different level than Morris’ famed film. While the dramatized re-enactments may be seen as a controversial move by some, Layton never exploits the device. In fact it allows the film to feel more fully realized than many fictional films today. Layton crafts a film that manages to be full of mystery, and often quite humorous, despite it incredibly sad subject matter. The Imposter is one of the best films this year. This is not a film to be missed.

Screening: Saturday April 28th 1:15 pm TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Monday April 30th Isabel Bader Theatre.

Hot Docs Review: G-Dog

Although Father Gregory Boyle may look like your typical Jesuit priest, he has one thing that some would consider more valuable than money...street cred. Nicknamed “G-Dog” by the locals in the Los Angeles community which he serves, Father Boyle is even highly respected by those in rival gangs. How did a simple Jesuit priest attain such a high level of praise amongst those who usually kill without hesitation? In her latest film, G-Dog, Academy Award winning filmmaker Freida Mock sets out to answer this question.

G-Dog examines how Father Boyle took the philosophy that “nothing can stop a bullet like a job” and turned it into a life changing movement. Hailed as a visionary by ex-gang members and celebrities alike, Father Boyle’s Homeboy Industries is changing the way the United States looks at rehabilitation. The largest, and most successful, gang intervention and rehab program in the US, Homeboy Industries is an organization that not only provides former gang members with jobs, but teaches them important skills to ensure they do not revert back to a life of crime and violence. Created and run by Father Boyle, Homeboy Industries has managed to defy the skeptics, and become a lucrative business.

Mock spends the majority of the film focusing on both Father Boyle and the individuals that he helps. The film offers good insight into not only the various businesses that Homeboy Industries runs, but also the many educational and social programs too. In fact, this is where the film is the most captivating. Mock does a good job of not only showing how the former gang members, many coming straight out of prison, get started with the organization, but also how Father Boyle uses reformed gang members to teach many of the programs. Having instructors who have incurred the same struggles with drugs, violence and other issues that come with gang life, is a brilliant move on Father Boyle’s part. Though even this has its limitations as Boyle points out that some things, such as parenthood, are not easily relatable if you have never had a parental figure in your life.

The challenge of educating those who have a different perspective, and value, of life is one that provides Father Boyle and his team with both great joy and sorrow. In one touching moment, Mock shows Father Boyle at his most vulnerable when the harsh reality that he cannot save everyone hits close to home. This helps to reinforce not only the importance of Father Boyle’s work but also the thin and dangerous line that many of the people Father Boyle is trying to help are walking. Despite these moments, G-Dog is an uplifting film at its heart, documenting how the community rallies around Homeboy Industries during its darkest hour.

Though an inspirational film, G-Dog does play things a bit too safe at times. Mock only lightly touches on the criticism that Father Boyle received in the 1990’s. Father Boyle makes reference to the fact that some assumed he was protecting a lot of the violent gang members instead of turning them into the authorities. A little more exploration into areas like this would have given G-Dog greater balance. While the point of the film is to celebrate Father Boyle’s accomplishments, a little more insight into his personal adversities would have only enhanced his accomplishments. Still, as it stands, G-Dog is a solid tribute to both the man and the organization that has changed so many lives for the better.

Screening: Saturday April 28th 9:30 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1, Monday April 30th 6:45 pm – Cumberland 2, Saturday May 5th 4:00 pm – Isabel Bader Theatre.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Hot Docs Review: Mom and Me

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Some of us wanted to be athletes, some doctors, and some wanted to be fireman. For director Danic Champoux the answer was simple, he wanted to be a member of the Hells Angels. In his film Mom and Me, Champoux reflects back on his youth and the major role the notorious biker gang played in his upbringing.

At an early age Champoux would spend hours staring out the window at the Hell’s Angels bunker across the street from his home in Sorel, Quebec. While the police and media painted the Hell’s Angels as a danger to the community, Champoux saw them as heroes who lived a lifestyle that he found immensely fascinating. Mom and Me not only examines the path in which Champoux’s life takes as a result of his childhood fascination, but also looks at the life of Maurice “Mom” Bouchard as well. A notorious criminal who rises through the Hell’s Angels’ ranks, Bouchard was at one point, one of the most feared individuals in Quebec. Considering that Champoux idolized the Hell’s Angels, it was only a matter of time before Champoux and Bouchard crossed paths.

Mom and Me is a surprisingly entertaining film that does not glorify the Hell’s Angels, but shows how easily an impressionable child could be swayed by the organization. Champoux offers insight into how the Hell’s Angels functioned in Sorel, Quebec. He presents the gang as a community conscious group who were seemingly more effective in deterring crime than the local police. A few of the film’s more humorous moments come when Champoux is getting accounts from former neighbours about what is was like to live on the same street as the gang.

The flaw with Champoux reminiscing about the Hell’s Angels influence on his childhood is that the film feels rather uneven at times. Champoux spends so much time setting up the history of Maurice Bourchard and the Hell’s Angels, that it takes longer than expected for Champoux to really delve into his own story. A good portion of the first half is focussed on Champoux’s childhood obsession with motorcycles and bikers in general. By time the audience is completely engulfed in Champoux’s own experience, the film is near the end. This causes the director to wrap things up in a quick and unsatisfying manner. This is a bit of a shame since Champoux’s life has more than enough twist and turns to carry the film on its own. It is hard not to get caught up in the film when Champoux is detailing his troubled teen years in which he starts to follow Bourchard’s son down the criminal path. These sections, coupled with the director’s relationship with his own father, adds a nice layer to the film.

On the other hand, Champoux’s examination of Bouchard’s life feels more fully realized. In regards to the focus on Bouchard, the interviews that provide the most insight are the ones with journalist, police officers and acquaintances of Bouchard. One segment that does not work as well is when Champoux gets a numerologist to chart Bourchard’s life. These scenes in particular feel more like a gimmick than anything else. Fortunately the film’s fun, and at times raunchy, use of animation more than make up for any of the other pitfalls in the film. The rough style of animation not only fits the subject matter perfectly, but also allows Champoux to provide several unexpected moments. Despite some uneven parts, Mom and Me is a film that offers an entertaining look at both the Hell’s Angels and one boy’s fascination with them.

Screening: Friday April 27th 6:30 pm – Cumberland 2, Sunday April 29th 3:30 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 4.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hot Docs Review: GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling

The world of wrestling has come a long way since its carnival sides show days. Wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan, The Rock, John Cena and Andre the Giant have become household names to both wrestling fans and novices alike. However, names like Mountain, Fiji, Tina Ferrari, Little Egypt and Roxy Astor have gone unnoticed despite their important contribution to professional wrestling. In the male dominated industry of wrestling the plight of the female wrestler often gets lost in the shuffle. Fortunately Brett Whitcomb’s engaging documentary, GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, does a good job of giving the women a voice and the recognition they deserve.

Up until the 1980’s, female wrestlers were nothing more than a gimmick. That all changed when GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling hit the airwaves and made televisions ratings history by being the first all female professional wrestling show. Whitcomb documents the rise of GLOW from its inception, including the show’s misleading casting calls, all the way to the over-the-top sketches and wrestling moves that made the show a hit in the late 80’s. However, GLOW was not all body slams and bad acting, as the show evolved so did the women. Not only did they start to embody their characters, but an unbreakable bond was formed between many of the women. When GLOW was unexpectedly cancelled in 1990, at the height of its popularity, the women found themselves looking for closure on a brief, but important time in their lives.

There have been several documentaries, such as Beyond the Mat and Memphis Heat for example, that have done a good job of capturing both the larger-than-life personalities and overall history of wrestling. However, it is the fact that GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling manages to capture the cheesy fun that wrestling programs often provide, that sets it apart. The film features several hilarious clips from the show including the musical promos that the cast often had to rap. This helps to establish a good understanding of what GLOW had to offer and why it would appeal to both children and frat boys alike.

Despite the absurdity of some of the antics that happened onscreen, Whitcomb makes a point to show that many of the female wrestlers on the show were simply average women looking to break into Hollywood until they got bit by the wrestling bug. Some of the most engaging moments of the film come when women are describing their transformation from auditioning for a “children’s program” to the toll that wrestling has taken on their bodies. In a revealing discussion with Mando Guerrero, patriarch of the legendary Guerrero wrestling clan, we get a glimpse of the turning point in which professional wrestling became more than just an acting job for several of the women. Those who had a previous wrestling background share stories of the hardships they endured, such as having to wrestle animals, before GLOW and their obsession to continue wrestling despite the health risks.

Although the documentary keeps the tone light throughout, there are some brief moments that allude to a darker side of the industry. Most notably the way the women were manipulated verbally and mentally by show director Matt Cimber, a Hollywood film director who also provided GLOW with its initial funding, to ensure they managed their weight. The fact that the women were also encouraged to stay in character at all times , not to mention a strict curfew being unforced is a bit unsettling, but Whitcomb does not dwell on these moments. His film is meant as a celebration of the women and on that level he greatly succeeds. GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling is a fun, and surprisingly touching, tale of both friendship and overcoming the odds, without ever being too sentimental. The film will bring a smile to your face while in the theatre, and have you surfing Youtube for more classic GLOW moments when you get home.

Screening: Friday April 27th 11:30 pm – Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Saturday April 28th 1:30 pm – The ROM Theatre, Saturday May 5th 6:30 pm – The Regent.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What’s Hot at Hot Docs 2012 (Part 4)

Hot Docs kickoffs tomorrow! Starting tomorrow we will have a new Hot Docs review for you each day during the festival. Until then here is the last edition of our four part (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) Hot Docs preview:

Big Easy Express
Three bands set out on a musical adventure through America by vintage train. Journeying through six cities and covering thousands of miles, L.A.’s Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Nashville boys Old Crow Medicine Show and Londoners Mumford & Sons climb on board in Oakland and embark upon an adventure that will lead them to the heart of New Orleans. Making pit stops along the way to play sold out shows, this is a journey of late-night musical discovery, enrapturing golden landscapes and adoring crowds. From renowned music documentarian Emmett Malloy, this rock ‘n’ roll “tour of dreams” allows us to ride the rails with a group of musicians as they collaborate and celebrate their love of playing music on one very memorable trip.

Screenings: Saturday April 28th 9:45 PM – The Royal Cinema, Sunday April 29th 1:15 PM – Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

The Imposter
The Imposter is probably the most unusual story in this year’s Festival. In 1994 a 13-year-old boy disappears without a trace from San Antonio, Texas. Three and a half years later he is found alive, thousands of miles away in a village in southern Spain with a story of kidnap and torture. His family is overjoyed to bring him home. But all is not quite as it seems. The boy bears many of the same distinguishing marks he always had, but why does he now have a strange accent? Why does he look so different? And why doesn’t the family seem to notice these glaring inconsistencies? It’s only when an investigator starts asking questions that this strange tale takes an even stranger turn…

Screenings: Friday April 27th 9:00 pm - Bloor Cinema; Saturday April 28th 1:15 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Monday April 30th 11:00 pm – Isabel Bader

Late one night three teenage boys sneak out of the house and take the ferry across the water to embark upon a clandestine adventure through the French Quarter in New Orleans. We participate in their wonderment as they begin a forbidden night of peeking behind cabaret curtains and playing in back alleys, encountering burlesque dancers, hustlers, drag queens and street musicians as they go. The beauty of Tchoupitoulas (pronounced chop-ih-TOOL-us) is that the Ross Bros’ modern vérité style allows us to re-experience childish wonder, the camaraderie of adventure and the joy of discovery. Subtle and gorgeously enveloping, Tchoupitoulas is a nighttime piggyback ride through a city of music, debauchery and dancing, with a cast of characters and an atmosphere that only New Orleans could offer.

Screenings: Saturday April 28th 9:45 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Monday April 30 4:00 pm – Isabel Bader Theatre; Saturday May 5th 10:00 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Dragan Wende – West Berlin
In the eyes of his nephew, Dragan Wende was a myth. The stories of his uncle chronicled a man who left Yugoslavia to seemingly became the king of the common man in 1970s West Berlin. Dragan’s disco-era world was filled with strippers, champagne and a crime racket with guys known as The Crow and The Baker. Over three decades later, Vuk decides to seek out his uncle. In place of the hedonistic playboy, he finds an aging bordello security guard longing for the days before the Wall came down. Soon Vuk becomes directly entangled with Dragan’s skewed world, where doing street-side bordello promotion is a hard day’s work, smuggling jackets is a perfectly logical way to make quick cash and political correctness is never a priority. This is not a tourist’s guide to Berlin; this is Dragan Wende’s version.

Screenings: Saturday April 28th 9:00 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 3; Sunday April 29th 9:00 pm – Cumberland 2

Shut Up and Play the Hits
On February 5, 2011 the message went online:

good people of earth: lcd soundsystem are playing madison square garden on april 2nd, and it will be our last show ever. we are retiring from the game. gettin’ out. movin’ on.

James Murphy, the creative force behind LCD Soundsystem, posted the message on the band’s website, officially announcing that the end is here. With only three full studio albums and a handful of EPs, the band’s swift rise and relatively quick exit only added to their frenzied appeal. The film depicts the pre-show anticipation with footage from the incredible event along with Murphy’s revealing interview with pop culture journalist Chuck Klosterman. Blending the concert you never want to end with the intimate personal moments that follow (where the ringing of the show can still be heard), the film appropriately echoes the title of the band’s final album: This Is Happening

Screenings: Tuesday May 1st 9:30 pm – TIFF Lightbox; Thursday May 3rd 9:30 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox; Saturday May 5th 6:30 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

All film summaries are courtesy of the Hot Docs website. Please visit the site to purchase tickets and find out about the other great films playing at the festival.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Blind Spot: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

“Why don’t you just say you did not like it!” That was the response I received from a co-worker after sharing my thoughts on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I was taken aback by this remark as it dawned on me that for the last ten minutes I had been pointing out everything that bothered me about the film. The truth is I quite enjoyed the film which is what made the experience so frustrating at times.

Andrew Dominik’s film is not your typical western film, although there are a few moments of action, the film is more a meditative look at the events that led up to the death of famed outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt). The film follows Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) as he joins the James-Younger Gang as they are about pull off their last train robbery. A fan of James from when he was a boy, Ford, now approaching twenty, is delighted to work alongside his idol. However, as time passes, Ford’s relationship becomes strained as both resentment and paranoia begin to set in. Jesse James knows it is only a matter of time before his number is up, but the question becomes who in his group will be the one to pull the trigger. As tension rises, and secrets are kept, the gang begins to crumble paving the way for Robert Ford to grab the spotlight he always desired.

If there is one word that came to mind as the credits rolled, it would have to be “exhausting.” The major issue I had, and I assume several others will have, with the film is the pacing. While I am always willing to dive into a meditative film, there is something about the overly contemplative nature of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford that drove me mad. I struggled for a long time after watching the film trying to figure out what it was. A few days removed from the film, it has dawned on me that it wasn’t so much the contemplative elements that bothered me as it was the fact that it unnecessarily delays the film from moving forward.

This is most noticeable when you look at whose story the film is actually telling. The film is not only about the relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford, but also the insecurities and paranoia that each man must eventually deal with. However, the film spends a lot of time focusing on sub plots involving supporting characters. This is a bit of a blessing and a curse for the film. On one hand some of the sub plots are extremely entertaining, but they do not necessarily enhance the main story. In fact it often does the main story a disservice as they overshadow many of the pre-assassination Robert Ford moments. When looking at the film as a whole many of the sub plots could have easily been summed up in a few lines of dialogue.

Again, I do not want to sound like I am trashing the film as, like I mentioned to my co-worker, I actually did enjoy many aspects it. From a visual standpoint, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward of Robert Ford is endlessly fascinating. Whether it is the use of soft focus whenever the narrator speaks, or the beautifully framed shots of Jesse James and his masked crew as they are waiting for the train which they are about to rob, Dominik’s film offers much to fawn over.

It should also be noted that the acting from the ensemble cast is outstanding. Brad Pitt brings the perfect mix of melancholy and unstable fire to the character of Jesse James. He provides a good sense of what made James so fearsome to others. However, at no point do you ever feel like Pitt is dominating a scene. Each actor is equally up to the challenge of matching Pitt. This is especially true in regards to Casey Affleck, who has one of the toughest roles in the film. Affleck must be both unabashedly ambitious as well as the group whipping boy. He has to go through the most changes in the film. Another example of how strong the performances are can be found in the the interplay between Jeremy Renner’s Wood Hite and Paul Schneider’s Dick Liddil. Though the Hite and Liddil sub plot overshadows the films at times, the actors successfully mix both humour and tension into their escalating feud.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a film that I feel will probably play better on repeat viewing. Now that I am more aware of where the pacing issues occur in the film, I might be more incline to look past them and explore more of the themes that Andrew Dominik is striving for. However, as it stands, the film is both frustrating and enjoyable at the same time. I know this is not the best way to sell the film but I am just being honest. There is a lot that I loved about the film, but there are also elements that I cannot easily ignore…yep, I will need to watch this one again.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is also part of our "The Must See List" series.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Patricia Clarkson is quite the chameleon

Patricia Clarkson seems like one cool chick.  Maybe it’s because she’s played liberal, laidback moms a few times; a role that she plays so naturally that it seems to be an extension of her true self.  She’s an amazing supporting actress who pops up in dramas and comedies and is such a memorable presence in every film that she’s in.  There’s something so natural, powerful and engaging about her acting style.  Even in a minor role, like her lone scene in Shutter Island, Clarkson commands the screen, carves out a pivotal role and leaves a memorable impression.  Like her character in the film, Clarkson’s appearance was unexpected since I wasn’t aware that she was even in the movie.  I find the movie-viewing experience a little extra special when Patricia Clarkson shows up for a few scenes or even more.

She starred in a few early films that I had seen, like The Untouchables, but it wasn’t until The Green Mile that Clarkson really appeared on my radar.  She was heartbreakingly perfect as Melinda Moores, the terminally ill wife of Warden Hal Moores.  She was at times rife with anger because of the physical pain she was in and then perfectly calm and retrospective when talking to John Coffey about her dream of them wandering in the dark and finding each other.  Her role was small, but her impact was immense.

I’m a big Frasier fan, and just yesterday I was watching re-runs on TV while having dinner and there was Patricia Clarkson playing Claire, Frasier’s love interest.  In that recurring guest role, it seemed like Clarkson was playing herself – a lady with elegance, class and a great sense of humour.  She also earned two Emmys for her memorable supporting role in another great show, Six Feet Under.

What’s incredible about Patricia Clarkson is seeing how effectively she can transition from comedy to drama and, more importantly, to infuse drama with comedy.  In Pieces of April, she plays a mother who is dying of breast cancer and she uses her mortality as a source of brave humour.  She asks for silence to reflect on an impending crisis and while her family expects her to mention her illness, she instead wonders how they’ll hide the food they don’t eat.  The film is quirky and enjoyable and Clarkson takes her moments onscreen and makes them shine.  She was deservedly nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in the film.

Just as she can play funny and play light amidst darker themes, she can play mean and dichotomous with the best of them.  She was superb as the nasty neighbour pretending to be sweet opposite Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven.   Then she made a string of films and played a number of different characters for a variety of interesting directors.  There was The Pledge for Sean Penn; Dogville for Lars Von Trier; Good Night, and Good Luck for George Clooney and Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Whatever Works for Woody Allen.  I can’t help but think about Lars and the Real Girl when I think about Clarkson’s filmography.  That film was so special and it left such a lasting impression, and the fact that Patricia Clarkson was in it only adds to its appeal.  I sat down to watch that film knowing nothing about it apart from the fact that it starred Ryan Gosling as a young man who falls in love with a doll.  I had no idea that Clarkson was in the film, but I was so thrilled when she appeared as the family doctor and psychologist who treats Lars.  I was surprised and happy to see her!

The laidback moms to which I referred earlier were comedic supporting roles – and great roles – in two comedies that I rather enjoyed.  I didn’t sit down to watch Friends With Benefits with any expectations whatsoever.  I actually thought I wouldn’t like it, but I did.  It was nothing special, very formulaic and unoriginal, but it was entertaining nonetheless.  What did impress me about it, though, was the stellar supporting cast in it including Woody Harrelson, Jenna Elfman, Richard Jenkins and Patricia Clarkson.  Once again, Clarkson appeared in a movie that I had no idea she was in and she was delightful!  She played a hip, cool mom who can talk to her daughter about anything.  In another comedy that I liked a lot better because it was smarter and more effective, she played a cool mom again, but didn’t just have conversations with her daughter about sex and men, she was a sharp-tongued, witty and clever mother who shared amusing barbs with her daughter, yet never lost her loving and caring edge.  When she learned that her daughter was carrying on a ruse about losing her virginity to a college guy at school, she responded with equanimity rather than freak out about it. 

She finally got a chance to play a starring role in Cairo Time and she was as engaging and as wonderful as ever.  Now in her 50s, Clarkson’s career seems to be heating up and I think she’s firmly established herself as a formidable character actor that can play everything from cool mothers to desperate, tortured characters to difficult relatives to strong, independent wives.  She’s enterprising, smart and interesting and one of the things that I continue to appreciate as I watch movies is seeing Patricia Clarkson appear in a film that I didn’t know she was in.  It’s always a lovely surprise.

What are your favourite Patricia Clarkson films?  Let us know in the comments section.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blow out the Candles: Jack Nicholson

Born April 22, 1937

Where does one begin to talk about Jack Nicholson?  His off-screen persona is just as famous as his on-screen one.  He’s made many films over his long and storied career and he’s played some wacky, wonderful and unforgettable characters.  When I think of him, I don’t think first of any particular role he’s played or about a certain film he’s been in.  Rather, I picture him sitting courtside at a Lakers game, wearing dark shades and hollering at the players, cheering and smiling from ear-to-ear.  Good ‘ol smiling Jack.  That’s the Nicholson that first comes to mind for me.  I think, too, of the mischievous, beguiling devil he played in The Witches of Eastwick.  When I first saw the film, I remember thinking that perhaps Jack Nicholson is a little bit like his character Daryl Van Horne.  He seems wild at heart and mischievous thanks to his sly grin, arched eyebrow, signature drawl and the ever-present twinkle in his eye, and he’s never had trouble finding the ladies.  

Some might think about the dark, serious and even scary roles Nicholson’s played over the years.  His career has been so diverse that it’s quite astounding to think about all of the different characters he has played.  There was classic Jack with iconic films such as Chinatown, Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces.  There was crazy Jack in films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining.  There was sensitive Jack in films like Terms of Endearment, Ironweed, As Good As It Gets and About Schmidt where he showed that he could play vulnerable, sensitive and damaged characters just as effectively as he could tough and scary onesThere was violent Jack in films like The Postman Always Rings Twice in which he played a drifter plotting murder with Jessica Lange, The Departed where he played a ruthless mob boss and A Few Good Men where he played the intimidating, hard-nosed Col. Nathan R. Jessup.  The dark, violent and intimidating roles are ones that Nicholson appears to absolutely relish and savor maybe because that old adage is true – it’s fun being bad.  

Then there is funny Jack in films like Anger Management, Something’s Gotta Give and The Bucket List.  He’s proven over the course of his career that he can be funny and mix it up by making comedies as well as suspenseful thrillers and serious dramas.  And finally, there’s lovable bad guy Jack in films like Prizzi’s Honor, Hoffa and Wolf, where you find yourself rooting for him over the good guy because the character he has created is more interesting and demands it.  The most memorable of Nicholson’s lovable bad guys has got to be The Joker in Batman.  His magnetism as a person and an actor along with his irascible charm and unique characterizations made watching him as The Joker fascinating.  His charm, confidence and devilish visage made The Joker a captivating character that still reverberates with audiences today.  

Jack Nicholson is an undisputed screen icon with literally dozens of acting accolades to his name.  Because of his accomplishments and notoriety, he has been the subject of numerous imitators and impressions.  Christian Slater has mimicked his acting style and stand-up comedians have done many Jack Nicholson bits, and the best part is that he is notorious for enjoying it.  One thing is for certain, no matter how many imitators or impressions there are of Jack, he has established himself as one of the all-time great actors and though he can be imitated, he will never be replaced.

What are your favourite Jack Nicholson films?  Let us know in the comments section.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sharing the Blogging Love

Wondering what bloggers have been chatting about this week?

Here is Your Reading and Listening Schedule for Today:

9 am: Episode 68 of the Movie Moxie podcast looks Lockout.

10 am: Episode 21 of The (title pending) Movie Podcast discuss The Three Stooges.

11 am Wilde.Dash shares part six of the 100 best uses of songs in movies.

12 pm: Patrick shares his favourite scene from Submarine.

1 pm: Addison took in To the Arctic.

2 pm: Steven’s latest editions of his The Auteurs series focuses on Guillermo del Toro .

3 pm: Elliot reviews Into the Abyss, Texas Killing Fields, and The Rum Diary.

4 pm: Kevyn list the 10 Best Non-Indian Films set in India.

5 pm: Andrew shares his Top Ten Prison Films.

6 pm: Chip Lary talks about Bound as part of his Girl Meets Girl week.

Friday, April 20, 2012

What’s Hot at Hot Docs 2012 (Part 3)

Hard to believe that Hot Docs is only six days away! As part of our continuing coverage of this year’s Hot Docs, we are offering up another edition (Part 1, Part 2) of our Hot Docs 2012 preview. Here are the titles we think you will want to catch at this year’s festival :

The Ambassador
Sundance award-winning director Mads Brügger returns with his latest film of “performative journalism.” Obtaining backdoor Liberian papers, he travels to the former French colony of the Central African Republic masquerading as a businessman on a diplomatic mission with the public intention of creating a match factory. Privately, however, his aim is to gain access to the country’s diamond-rich power brokers. In this clandestine, darkly humorous and often disturbing endeavour, Brügger exposes how power truly works in the seedy world of those who abuse diplomacy, and reveals the multitude of perks afforded to corrupt ambassadors. This is the story of Africa for the affluent and of those who flaunt a system in which the winners and losers are often the most unexpected.

Screenings: Friday April 27th 4:00 pm – Isabel Bader Theatre; Friday May 4th 4:45 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Saturday May 5th 9:00 pm pm – The Regent.

The Invisible War
The Invisible War, the latest groundbreaking investigative documentary by award-winning director Kirby Dick, is about one of America’s most shameful and best kept secrets: the epidemic of rape within the US military. Today, a female soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. The number of assaults in the last decade alone reached the hundreds of thousands. Focusing on the powerfully emotional stories of several young women, the film reveals the systemic coverup of the crimes committed against them and follows their struggles to rebuild their lives and fight for justice. The Invisible War features hard-hitting interviews with high-ranking military officials and members of Congress that reveal the perfect storm of conditions that exist for rape in the military, its history of coverup and what can be done to bring about much needed change.

Screenings: Friday April 27th 3:30 pm - Bloor Hot Docs Cinema; Saturday April 28th 9:00 pm – The ROM Theatre; Saturday May 5th 3:15 pm – Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

The Frog Princes
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.

In The Frog Princes that man is Ray-Man (named by his parents after artist Man-Ray), a young adult with Down syndrome who lives at home but plans to move out, has a girlfriend and is part of a theatre troupe of developmentally challenged actors staging a unique adaptation of The Frog and the Princess. Missed cues, forgotten lines, romances and rivalries highlight the backstage drama as troupe members gain independence and confidence while guided by their charismatic mentor, Dr. Stephen Snow. If life imitates art, The Frog Princes is cleverly framed as a play within a play. As the performance’s third act reveals the hero’s true identity, Ray-man and his fellow thespians discover a new world before them and the transformative power of theatre.

Screenings: Sunday April 29th 7:30 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Tuesday May 1st 4:45 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Saturday May 5th 9:45 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 2.

The Queen of Versailles
Meet Jackie, former Mrs. Florida 1993 and current wife of David Siegel, the self-styled king of a vast timeshare empire. She loves her husband, eight children and shopping. A leggy blond teetering on high heels, Jackie is thrilled to show us her work in progress, the largest single-family home in America. Modeled on the palace of Versailles but arguably more lavish, it features 30 bathrooms and a skating rink. At the same time, David is building the largest timeshare property in Las Vegas, selling average citizens a small piece of the good life for just a little money down. Then the financial crisis of 2008 hits. As the threat of losing it all looms, David’s personality undergoes a marked shift from boastful billionaire to tired old man, but Jackie soldiers on with a bright smile. One wonders what it will take to wake this queen from her American dream.

Screenings: Wednesday May 2nd 7:00 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Thursday May 3rd 9:15 pm – Isabel Bader Theatre; Friday May 4th 8:45 pm – Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

Brooklyn Castle
Public school I.S. 318 is a chess powerhouse, producing national champions straight out of junior high. The secret to the school’s success? Coaches who hold leadership skills and divergent thinking above standings and trophies, and students eager to learn and improve. Brooklyn Castle follows the challenges and triumphs both on and off the chessboard as the financial crisis brings severe budget cuts to after-school programs. With three-quarters of the student body living under the poverty line, will the chess club survive the economic downturn? Will the students realize their goals? Will Rochelle become the first female African-American chess master? Will sixth-grade prodigy Justus conquer his stage fright? Will Patrick overcome his ADHD by honing his powers of concentration? In life, as in chess, the answers aren’t clear. The truth is not about right and wrong, it’s about infinite moves and the choices we make.

Screenings: Sunday April 29th 6:30 pm – Cumberland 3; Tuesday May 1st 9:00 pm – The ROM Theatre; Saturday May 5th 1:15 pm – The Regent.

All film summaries are courtesy of the Hot Docs website. Please visit the site to purchase tickets and find out about the other great films playing at the festival.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Which is Better?

Rose Byrne
10 sample films:

Wicker Park
Marie Antoinette
Get Him to the Greek
28 Weeks Later
X-Men: First Class


Emily Blunt
10 sample films:

The Devil Wears Prada
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Sunshine Cleaning
The Wolfman
Gnomeo & Juliet
My Summer of Love
The Young Victoria
The Jane Austin Book Club
The Adjustment Bureau
Gulliver’s Travels

Which do you prefer? Let us know in the comments section

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

I Have Scene it Before...

Considering I have been immersing myself in preparation for Hot Docs over the last few days I did not feel up to writing another review, let alone a non-documentary one, today. So instead I decided to have a little fun and post a few scenes from films I have seen over the years. Your job is to name the films, easy enough right? I thought so...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Scene Stealer: Edward Scissorhands

I remember being totally mesmerized the first time that I saw Edward Scissorhands. It marked the first collaboration for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, and boy, was it the start of a beautiful moviemaking relationship. The film is a whimsical and haunting modern fairy tale about a young man with scissors for hands who is created by an old inventor who dies before he can replace the scissorhands with human hands. The discovery of this isolated young man living alone in a deserted castle atop a hill and the way that he is at once embraced and then reviled by the residents of a cookie-cutter suburban community is a thing of beauty brought to life by the creatively brilliant mind of Tim Burton and the inexplicably beautiful acting of Johnny Depp. It’s a wonderful tale about love, kindness and acceptance as well as rejection, estrangement and isolation.

The film is full of many wonderful scenes that explore the ideas of tolerance from the people who’ve welcomed Edward into their lives. The scene that I always think of first is the one where Edward is eating dinner with Peg, the Avon lady who found him, and her family. Edward tries so hard to use his utensils and struggles terribly. Peg does her best to make the experience feel as normal as possible and scolds her son for staring. It’s not that her son, Kevin, is put off by Edward or frightened of him. Quite the contrary – he’s absolutely fascinated and thinks Edward and his scissorhands are cool. Peg’s husband, Bill, is a good-natured soul just like his wife and treats this meal like any other meal at their table. At one point he watches hopefully as Edward nearly succeeds in eating a pea and then looks empathetic when Edward drops the pea just before it reaches his mouth. It’s very clear that Peg and Bill are trying to create a sense of normalcy and inclusion for Edward, and it’s quite a heartwarming scene in the film.

The real magic in this scene is in the way that Johnny Depp plays Edward with a sweet, determined sensibility. He tries so hard with his large blades to dine with this family and to feel at home in this unnatural situation. And he finds a way! He realizes that the peas are too small, but that he can stab, pick up and eat the larger vegetables and he even butters his own bread. It’s a spot in the film where for a brief moment, Edward finds a way to belong apart from dazzling people with the things that he can create with his blades. Though the tone of the film turns from sweet benevolence to cruelty, the goodness in people is highlighted in this scene, and so too, is the desire by Edward to be embraced and to belong.