Author Archives: Matt

TJFF: Future ’38

How do I explain this? . Future ’38 was filmed last year but is pretending to have been filmed in 1938. It is set in 2018 but, remember, this is the 2018 as imagined by fictional filmmakers from the 1930s. Or present day filmmakers imaging what 1930s filmmakers would think 2018 would look like.

Film historians or whoever’s job it is to uncover lost screwball comedies about time travel from 1938 have recently uncovered a lost screwball comedy about time travel from 1938. After a brief introduction by a real life scientist who praises the scientific accuracy of all the time travel bits, the film begins in black and white in the height of World War II. Essex (Nick Westrate) is the most dependable GI this side of the Atlantic. His mission: Leap 80 years into the future in search of the powerful isotope Formica which, according to Dr. Elcourt from the Laboratory of Science, will be strong enough by 2018 to win the war for the Allies.

Essex wakes up (in Technicolor) in 2018. A version of 2018 you just have to see for yourself. On the one hand, it’s a startlingly accurate picture of 21st century life. On the other, it’s filtered through the limited imagination of a fictional 1930s science fiction writer. They have a 24 hour news cycle, for example. it’s just a guy on a unicycle though yelling “Extry Extry”.

In 2018, Essex almost immediately meets Banky (Betty Gilpin), a streetwise hotel manager who thinks he’s just “a little queer” because he’s from Pasadena. Once she agrees to show Essex around (“I could use a little fun and you’re Coney Island without the smell”), Future ’38 quickly finds its rhythm. The way they get the 21st century both right and wrong at the same time is funny enough. But Future ’38 is at its absolute funniest as a straight 30s style screwball comedy that mimics the fast-paced dialogue, slapstick, and romance more than it mocks it.

There’s a joke or two here that are maybe just a bit much. Most do land though even once the novelty of the outrageous style and concept has worn off and Gilpin and Westrate play off each other like true stars of the 30s. This could have easily been unwatchable had the writing, casting, and attention to detail not been so spot on. I think you’ll like it.

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TJFF: Another Planet

Over 70 years later, we’re still trying to make sense of the horrors of Auschwitz. Architects, historians, game designers, and prosecutors have started using 21st century virtual reality technology to help see history in new ways but, to paraphrase the great prophet Jeff Goldblum, just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.

I’m not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t. I am saying that it’s unnerving to see VR Auschwitz. We begin with a tasteful black and white recreation designed by an architect and a historian for a VR museum exhibit. They mention that the museum wanted it to be in black and white so that it doesn’t look like a comic book.

Cut to an unsettling full-colour model designed to aid in the prosecution of a Nazi war criminal. The defendant claims, as many apparently do, that he didn’t actually know what was going on at the camp and that he worked as a cook. Using this fancy new technology, forensic experts can estimate what he was likely to be able to witness from his position in the kitchen. They say that they are sure to make sure that their model doesn’t fall into the wrong  hands. What if, for example, someone were to want to make a game using their replica? Wouldn’t that be in bad taste.

Cut to an actual escape from Auschwitz virtual reality game. And this is where things get really weird.

To be fair, everyone interviewed in the film, including the video game designer, has an explanation for how their work is respectful to victims of the Holocaust and none of them are unconvincing. It’s just a little jarring. And it’s fascinating to think of technological advances can change the way we look at the past. It’s a great subject for a documentary that is sure to start some lively conversations.

SXSW: The World Before Your Feet

Within the thousands of neighbourhoods in the five boroughs of New York City, there are 8,000 miles of streets, bridges, parks, beaches, and cemeteries to explore. For the past six years, 37 year-old Matt Green has been on a mission to walk every single one of them.

Go ahead and ask. He won’t mind. People ask him all the time. “Why?” He really doesn’t know, other than that he loves the city, wants to be doing this, and for reasons he can’t put his finger on he feels that he’s doing something important.

How does he find the time to do all this? He doesn’t have a job. “Are you like independently wealthy or something?” one skeptical onlooker asked. “No, I’m… I’m independently homeless”.

While following Green as he walks, couchsurfs, and catsits his ways around the city, director Jeremy Workman captures way too much beauty, detail, and history to be absorbed properly in a single viewing. And his documentary The World Before Your Feet will make you want to absorb every detail. That’s what Green’s journey and Workman’s film are all about. The beauty of travelling on foot, according to Green, is that you notice things. And with nothing to do but walk and take notice, he never misses a chance to stop to smell the roses, read the signs, and meet the people.

The World Before Your Feet can seem a little episodic at times but how can it not? Green has six years worth of photos, stories, and research to share and this delightful and inspiring documentary does its best to show and tell as much of it as it can. Green and Workman answer most of the hows and whys as well as they can but really this is a film about enjoying the moment which offers a whole lot of moments of its own for us to enjoy.

 

SXSW: They Live Here, Now

Since 1986, Casa Marianella has provided housing and assistance for thousands of recent immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from 40 countries around the world. Dedicated staff help create a healthy sense of community within their walls and help their guests learn English, find jobs, and see immigration lawyers.

Nayeli is a recent addition to the Casa Marianella community. She is 16 years old and would rather not say her last name. The story of her journey from Mexico (she’d rather not say what part) to Austin is a harrowing one, filled with loss, violence, and fear. She is seeking asylum in the US but, as a lawyer tells her, her chances aren’t great. It’s impossible not to feel for her while listening to her story and watching her make connections at Casa Marianella. Unbeknownst to the staff and residents, not to mention me as I was watching the film, she is a fictional character being played by an actress.

Knowing that the documentary I thought I’d been watching was in fact a “fiction/doc hybrid” changes the way I think about the film. My initial review, had I not bothered with some post-viewing research, would have admired the film’s subject and intentions but complained that, with only a 63 minutes running time, we don’t get enough chance to get to know the people staying thereI would have cited Nayeli as an exception because she gets the most screen time. I also probably would have said that this is one of those rare movies that I’d actually wished had been longer.

I now think that maybe I’d been asking a lot of filmmaker Jason Outenreath and his participants. Outenreath spent a year visiting Casa Marianella and forming relationships and building trust. He did not conduct pre-interviews but instead asked his participants “Tell me whatever you feel comfortable with, about your experience as an immigrant coming to the United States”. The answers he gets vary both in length and in how much detail they are willing to provide. Many of the residents have been through unspeakable trauma and some have good reason to fear for their safety. When I think of what they’ve been through, I appreciate even more how giving they are with their trust in Outenreath and the audience and in how much they are willing to share.

What struck me the most about many of the interviews was the gratitude of the film’s subjects. Many take the time to thank the camera for the opportunity to speak, which is something I don’t see a lot of in documentaries. Outenreath sought to give voice to immigrants and refugees who are too often left out of the much politicized discussion on immigrants and refugees. With all the statistics and rhetoric being thrown around on both sides of the debate, Outenreath reminds us to take the time to listen to the people that we’re arguing about.

SXSW: From All Corners

Quick question: How do you feel about cardboard?

Unless your name is Fuyuki Shimazu, the subject of this documentary, your honest answer would probably have to be “I don’t have strong feelings about it either way’. Until day, it was virtually impossible for me to imagine anyone responding any differently. Well, Fuyuki Shimazu loves cardboard.

It all started when he was a poor student wanting a wallet of his own but not able to afford one. Left with only two choices- do without for awhile or get creative- he made himself one out of cardboard. I can’t remember offhand if he made it from cardboard he found in the garbage or if he started doing that later.

Fuyuki’s outside the box thinking turned into a passion and eventually a career.  Searching the warehouses and dumpsters all over japan, he began to collect cardboard that caught his eye and began to make a living off of making and selling wallets. And they’re nicer than you might think. Seen through Fuyuki’s eyes, yeah, I can sort of see it. I wouldn’t have noticed before but there are a lot of cardboard boxes out there with eye-catching designs.

It’s not easy to know what to make of Fuyuki at first as he travels the country to various factories to learn the stories and inspirations behind his favourite cardboard boxes. he worked at a prestigious advertising firm for 3 years as an art director where his colleagues said things like “Whenever you talk, it’s always about cardboard”, “He’s a different kind of species”, and “We have all sorts of employees so he was not the only weird one, but…”. He’s a likable guy though and seems to be able to make friends with anyone. His enthusiasm, if not exactly contagious, is endearing, inspiring, and unquestionably genuine. He’s a great subject for a documentary and director Ryusuke Okajima is smart to keep the focus mostly on him.

There’s a more universal point to all this, of course, about upcycling. With Earth’s resources dwindling as they are… Oh never mind. Just watch the movie. I promise it’ll be worth your time. And if you’re as burnt out on documentaries about the environment as I am, you’ll be relieved to know that Okajima doesn’t belabor this point and only mentions it in any detail towards the end. Fuyuki Shimazu and his wallets are fascinating and From All Corners is wise to keep the focus mostly on them.

 

Justice League

“What movie are you seeing?” the waiter asks.

“Justice League!” I answer with all the enthusiasm of someone who has been waiting for this night and all the sheepishness of someone who is fully aware that this movie is going to suck.

“I didn’t even know that was out yet. Are you a fan of Marvel?”.

“DC,” I quickly correct him.I remind myself not to be offended, that it’s an easy mistake for anyone with a life to make.

“Whatever,” he replies.

That’s the thing though. It’s not whatever. For many comic fans, the rivalry between the two publishers is as bitter as that between Star Trek and Star Wars. And I’m a DC guy. It’s not that I can’t admit when Marvel does something right. I can admit that their movies- especially within their respective shared universes- have generally been much better than DC’s. It’s just that Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Spider-Man will never mean as much to me as Superman, batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg, or even Aquaman.

I’m such a DC guy that I could even find something to love in the colossal messes that were Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. I have rooted for this universe since it began with Man of Steel and celebrated when they finally did something amazing with Wonder Woman. But there’s something about Justice League that’s hard for even me to defend.

Maybe I’m just getting tired of making excuses for mediocre movies. Or myabe it was just different sitting next to Jay. I couldn’t help putting myself in her shoes and worrying about how painful this must be for her. Because a fan can find lots love if they’re feeling generous but those who haven’t read the comics are sure to have a harder time. Those who are unfamiliar with the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg are counting on this movie to give them a reason to care about them  and it’s here where Justice League fails the most.

Ben Affleck continues to be a much better Batman than I ever would have expected him to be and he’s in most of the film’s best scenes. Wonder Woman continues to feel like a fully realized character mostly thanks to Gal Gadot’s performance and all the good work that she and Patty Jenkins did in her much better stand-alone film. The new characters are a little more awkward. Ezra Miller’s charm goes a long way in making Barry Allen?The Flash likeable (although, for the record, TV’s Flash is better) but his backstory feels vague and rushed and we don’t know nearly enough about who he even is or what makes him special. Aquaman and Cyborg get barely any introduction at all. They’re just there.

The good news is that Justice League is shorter and more focused than Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad were and is almost never boring. The bad news is that it’s not nearly as exciting as it should be, especially considering what a dream come true this big-screen live action team up really is for me and so many others. There’s just not nearly enough attention paid to what makes these characters great and what’s worse is that there is even less attention paid to their relationships with each other. The Zack Snyder era of DC movies has not ended on a high note.

NHFF 2017: An Exceptional Year for Documentaries (Part 1)

Last year, the New Hampshire Film Festival was as swept up in the 2016 election drama as I was. They featured an impressive selection of politically themed documentaries and even hosted a standing-room only panel discussion on Politics in Film. I couldn’t get enough last year and took in as much of it as I could.

The documentary selection this year was noticeably less overtly political, presumably because the NHFF is as burnt out on American politics as I am at this point. Still, in keeping with tradition, the New Hampshire Film Festival remains the one time of year that I favour documentaries. The four docs I saw this year have very little in common in either subject or structure but are all challenging and depressing in their own way.

sacred cod

Sacred Cod: The Fight for a New England Tradition– Due to climate change and overfishing, the cod population in the Gulf of Maine has been dwindling like never before. As a result, fishing communities in New England that have thrived for generations are now struggling as many are forced to sell their boats.

Far from being just another climate change documentary, Sacred Cod focuses instead on the people who are affected by federal government restrictions that severely limit the number of cod that they can catch. To many of them, it feels like government over-regulation is costing them not just their livelihood but their way of life and proud community traditions. Some even doubt the science that the government is citing, given that you can still cherry pick areas that are still rich with cod.

Of the documentaries I saw at the festival, Sacred Cod is the most traditional in style but is exceptional in its compassion. The decreasing cod population and the necessity of government intervention is indisputable at this point and directors Steve Liss, Andy Laub, and David Abel know it but they show as much empathy to those affected by the quotas as they do commitment to the facts.

the reagan show

The Reagan Show– “So, what is a Canadian doing in New Hampshire watching a documentary about our greatest president?”. A young guy I met in line asked me this before The Reagan Show and I have no idea whether he was being sarcastic or not about that last part.

Nor can I tell you with any confidence what the filmmakers behind The Reagan Show thought of America’s 40th president. There are no narrators or even original interviews with which they can betray their political biases. They rely exclusively on footage from the White House archives and TV news segments to tell their story. Specifically, they’re focused on the story of how Reagan exceeded the expectations of most critics in his arms race negotiations with then Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.

If The Reagan Show has a point of view, it’s that Reagan was the first President to really understand television and how to play to the cameras in shaping the public’s perception of him. As far as politics goes, your own point of view will likely be challenged. I went in with an anti-Reagan bias and found that point of view challenged just as I’m sure the Reagan enthusiast I talked to earlier had his challenged too.

TIFF 2017: Chappaquiddick

I contemplated walking out on Chappaquiddick before it even started.

Those who’ve been following TIFF this year may know that the festival chose this year to experiment with assigned seating for their Roy Thomson Hall and Princess of Wales screenings. I really hope they don’t try it again.

The Roy Thomson Hall screen looks surprisingly tiny from the second to last row of the furthest balcony. I know because that’s where I got stuck sitting despite arriving nearly two hours early and waiting near the front of the line. From that distance, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy or even follow a complex political drama. I was afraid it would be like trying to watch my neighbour’s TV from a living room across the street.

It turns out I was able to follow the film just fine but I’m not nearly as confident in my review of Chappaquiddick as I am in my scathing review of the assigned seating policy. Following a complex political drama from that distance takes concentration and every time someone takes a bite of popcorn or unwraps a candy counts as a distraction that threatens to take me out of the movie.

I’m still pretty sure that director John Curran (Tracks, The Painted Veil) intended his docudrama about Ted Kennedy and his team’s handling of the drowning of aide Mary Jo Kopechne to be far more gripping than it turned out to be. Jason Clarke does a pretty good Kennedy and Kate Mara is heartbreaking in Kopechne’s terrible final hours. Ed Helms is especially good as Kennedy’s cousin, lawyer, and conscience. But there’s something missing.

Or maybe I missed it. Maybe that missing element that would have made Chappaquiddick truly powerful was a line that was uttered while my neighbour distracted me with a coughing fit or by checking their phone. Probably though, the missing element is truth. There’s just so much that we don’t know about the Chappaquiddick incident and so much of what happens onscreen is conjecture. The story feels incomplete and maybe that’s the point. It just makes for an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying and forgettable movie.

 

TIFF 2017: High Fantasy

High_Fantasy_06Lexi is a white South African millennial who has recently inherited a ridiculous amount of farmland in the middle of nowhere. She is fully aware that her family stole this land from some black people and she gets a little touchy whenever the subject comes up. Which it often does when she brings her three black South African millennial friends on a camping trip on her family’s land.

The four friends (3 girls and a guy) have very different histories and worldviews, but the mood is light and friendly on the first day. Things take a turn for the awkward on Day 2 though when they wake up to discover that they’ve somehow swapped bodies overnight. The fallout is brilliantly captured by director Jenna Bass on her iPhone in found footage/mockumentary format.

Whether in South Africa or even right here in Canada, 2017 is a tricky time to make a film about racial tensions. The worst thing one can do is to reinforce the myth of easy answers just to get your Hollywood ending. Bass -and her four stars who co-workers the script with her- are very careful to avoid this trap. The interaction between the characters are every bit as messy and unpredictable as they should be. It’s a little bleak, refreshingly honest, and avoids the typical lazy talking points.

As for the fantasy gimmick, it works and it doesn’t. It does provide some opportunity for some comic relief that seems to emerge organically from the situations without resorting to too many Freaky Friday clichés. It is confusing though; I did spend a lot of time trying to remind myself who was in whose body. Which is a bit of a problem. Given how much of the story lies in subtext, it becomes important who’s saying what.

That’s all fine though. I don’t mind having to work to keep up with a film this sincere and well-acted. It just seems that much of the conflict between the characters boils to the surface due to extreme stress and not always specifically because they’ve swapped bodies. So I had to wonder if this all would have been less confusing had they just ran out of gas.

High Fantasy is exactly the kind of film that most of us go to festivals for. It’s a low budget and unique film that is surprising and challenging. You’ll probably be begging your friends to watch it so you can have someone to talk about it with.

Originally published at www.cinemaaxis.com

TIFF 2017: Bingo! I Got Bingo!, Part 3

So if you’ve made it this far, you know that I’ve thanked some volunteers, watched 3 movies from female directors, and carried around a dead phone. Impressive, if I may say so myself, but it’s not enough to get TIFF Bingo.

Make a New Friend in Line

With hours spent sitting in uncomfortable theater seats punctuated by hours spent standing in line, the people you stand with and sit next to can really make or break your TIFF experience. A good conversation can make the two hours spent waiting for the perfect seat just fly by. Just as an annoying person can make the minutes drag on like hours. And if you’re thinking “Wait a second, I wonder if he’s talking about me. I am a total jackass after all and I did spend all of Euphoria with my elbow in his personal space,”, yes. I’m talking about you.

downsizing_01

Downsizing– If Downsizing isn’t my favourite movie at the festival this year, it’s definitely close. I couldn’t wait for the latest from Alexander Payne, a filmmaker whose nearly every imdb credit (Election, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska, and even Downsizing) has been praised by one of us at one point or another. Fans of his work may be surprised by the science fiction elements of his latest film but Payne, who introduced the film, sees this as a disappointing rehashing of the same themes. “Just a poor {‘schmuck’ I think was the word he used’] from Omaha middling his way through life trying to make some sense of it all. Just this time with some science fiction thrown in,” he joked.

Downsizing has lots of subtext to ponder and debate but it’s hard to take it all in on your first viewing because it’s all way too much fun to watch. This may be Payne’s most entertaining and laugh-out-loud funniest film so far and I’m quite sure that I’ve missed some of the best jokes because they were drowned out by the Elgin Theater crowds’ laughter.

The new friends I made while waiting to see Downsizing took TIFF just as seriously as I did. Like me, their rough drafts of their schedule looks like the wall of an insane person trying to solve a murder. The thing is, once the line starts moving, you lose each other in the crowd . So if you’re reading this and you bought seven 10-packs to share with all your friends and you think you may have stood in line with me, leave a comment. I’d love to hear what you thought of the movie. And I hope that Karen has finally paid you back.

Pronounce “Saoirse” Correctly

 

The Current War– Saoirse Ronan wasn’t in The Current War but I did talk about her in line to see it. “Who’s in Lady Bird again? Is it Saoirse Ronan or Elle Fanning?” I asked the nice couple in line ahead of me. I pronounced Saoirse correctly. Everyone seemed really impressed. What’s ironic, I realize now, is that I got her last name wrong. I always say “Rowan”. But TIFF Bingo said nothing about “Ronan” so it still counts.

I wish I’d seen Lady Bird instead of The Current War. It’s not like The Current War is a bad movie, it’s just more forgettable than it should be. The second feature from Alfonzo Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) dramatizes the rivalry between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) as they race to heat and light the entire country with electricity. So it’s got potential. Cumberbatch and Shannon are pretty much the Pacino and DeNiro of leading men born in the mid-70s who specialize in playing eccentrics so the thought of seeing them go head to head put this at the top of my list. I passed on Suburbicon for The Current War!

There is some really good writing in this script but for every scene that captivates there are two more that look and sound like they were filmed for a Made for the Edison Museum movie. Both actors are good but are usually even better and they share disappointingly little screen time.

There’s a good movie in here somewhere. The Current War’s best scenes concern the lead-up to the first execution by electric chair and, for a movie that suffers from lack of focus, this subplot may have worked even better as the main plot.