Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

I don’t hate Christmas. I really don’t, even though I am a bit of a godless heathen and dislike being stalked by a leering fat man for one entire month of the year. But I definitely loathe Christmas movies, and haven’t subjected myself to one since watching the execrable Christmas with the Kranks over two years ago.

That particular lowlight of holiday cinema exemplifies the worst impulses of the Christmas movie, masking its inherent nastiness in a syrupy ending. A couple decide to opt out of Christmas and spend the holiday on a cruise, rather than face the melancholy prospect of their first Christmas apart from their only daughter, who is off in South America. The film turns this couple into objects of scorn, but my initial reaction was sympathetic: what’s so wrong with them skipping a depressing, lonely holiday? It’s not like they shot Santa Claus. They just want to take a goddamn cruise, for pity’s sake.

Ah, but this is Christmas, most holy of days, and a celebration of peace and love, you jerk. Get with it or suffer the consequences.

Naturally, some obnoxious comedy of the feuding neighbour variety breaks out. A mean-spirited, smugly conformist tone overwrites the proceedings, and the bullshit saccharine message conflicts with cartoony slapstick excess—spasms of unfunny violence that are the film’s contempt for its characters bursting to the surface. It’s a thoroughly ugly film, and one that makes the very concept of community odious and inhuman.

By comparison, the naïve universalism of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is positively refreshing. These days, the war on Christmas is well on its way to replacing eggnog around the fire with sodomite orgies in the street, but back in 1964, apparently all baby Jesus had to fear was Martian invasion.

In order to bring some Christmas cheer to their listless children, the Martians kidnap Santa, who remains hilariously unflappable throughout his ordeal, chuckling idiotically at every menace and defending his kidnappers to a plucky pair of Earth children abducted alongside him. Not to spoil the ending for viewers who might not have noticed the film’s title, but the old man’s implacable jolliness wins out over Martian dourness. The climactic fight scene, involving children bombarding a villainous Martian with toys, is such a chaotic flurry of bubbles and flailing limbs and ecstatic faces that it feels like an elementary school production of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures.

Along the way, the Martians recant the error of their kidnapping ways and everyone learns the true meaning of Christmas: kids like loot (a cosmic truth, apparently). It’s a bit dopey, and no less conservative than a movie like Christmas with the Kranks, but certainly nowhere near as vicious. That film essentially bludgeons its characters into a false conformist utopia, but Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has this rather innocent view that the sheer wonderfulness of the holiday will always win over any doubters. It doesn’t matter if you’re human or Martian, Catholic or Muslim, or whatever—everyone loves getting free stuff and eating lots of chocolate, right?

Okay, so perhaps if I were a Muslim or a Martian I would find that notion a tad condescending (it’s always easy to say your own values are good for everyone else), but the culture has certainly shifted in the years between these two films. You can see the disillusionment in the later film, as we move from an earlier era where it was just assumed that Western Christian traditions were good for everyone to the present-day conservative resentment at the people who would dare reject these values. The two films trace a line between naivete and bitterness.

If they remade Santa Claus Conquers the Martians today, what would it look like? I imagine Santa would pack a gun, shooting smart missiles from his sled as he dismantles the oppressive old regime and promises the Martian children a new era of peace and plenty. Unthinkingly, he would give them little blond dollies and baseball bats for Christmas, angering the children who would try to explain to the oblivious fat man that they’re not little blond children and baseball isn't a very fun sport to play in space (every hit would be out of the park). Things would deteriorate from there. Claus would ignore criticism that he was out of touch with the Martian children. Elves would suppress dissidents. Finally, one night, the children would creep into his workshop, knives aloft, and they would reach into that fluffy white mane, slowly, a snowy hill, little red rivers…

I’m sorry, but it’s that old heathen instinct flaring up again. Something about these Christmas movies sets off my grumpy side. What can I say? These movies always bring out a mixture of our worst inclinations and best intentions and combine the two into something completely indigestible. Whether naïve or nasty, they break down into a celebration of community at the expense of any outsiders, all glossed over with a generic message of universal peace and harmony. Never mind the war on Christmas—what about Christmas’ war on us?

(Note: Oh, glories of the public domain! You can find Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on archive.org in a decent, if slightly abridged, copy. However, a better way of experiencing the film would be Cinematic Titanic’s mockery of it, which you can read more about here.)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Me and Orson Welles

I’ve always thought Zac Efron looks more like a doll than a human being (I envision some giant 10-year-old girl combing his hair incessantly and setting him up on dates with her other toys). Fortunately, his dewy blankness is ideal for his role in Me and Orson Welles as Richard, an eager young actor coming to grips with the dispiriting realities of art and idolatry. He's an empty vessel craving substance, and the charismatic, commanding Welles (here played by Christian McKay, superbly mimicking the master) offers a template any uncertain adolescent could adore. When Richard lucks his way into a bit part as Lucius in Welles’ 1937 black-shirt version of Julius Caesar, he finds himself with a front-row seat for the full pyrotechnics show of a young genius about to burst onto the scene.

What follows is a fairly familiar coming-of-age tale rendered with some buoyant backstage hustle and nicely observed period detail (although the fascist allusions of the play suggest a different version of 1937 than the apolitical one we see here). I was utterly charmed by the film, imperfections aside—like so many other Richard Linklater projects, the whole is so smart and welcoming that it’s easy to forgive a few flawed parts. Even just as an illumination of Welles’ theatre work, the film is quite rewarding: the condensed re-enactment of his Julius Caesar that we see here is so thrilling and enticing I wish some brave director would take on the thankless task of bringing it to the stage for real.

Me and Orson Welles could easily get by on its abundant surface charms, but beneath the inside jokes and rich atmosphere the film does have some ideas about Welles and genius in general. In the span of his one week at the Mercury Theatre, Richard begins to realize the dark side of these artists he idolizes as he learns of the volatility—indeed, the immense, gaping vulnerability—that often accompanies the most brilliant creators. He witnesses the sobbing terror of George Coulouris before the man goes on stage (ultimately reduced to something cringing and baby-like as Welles coddles and comforts him), and even Welles hints that his own insecurity and self-loathing are at the root of his acting.

In death—as in life too, come to think of it—Welles is valued more as a myth than a man. He’s become this symbol for the pitfalls of precocious genius, the battle of ego and fame versus art and inspiration. This is a trap many have fallen into while attempting to capture Welles in fiction. One of the biggest weaknesses of Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock—another period piece about Welles’ theatre work—is the oversimplified treatment of Welles and the readiness with which Robbins accepts the received notions of the director’s persona. By contrast, Linklater’s treatment is a little more affectionate, while still exploring the sharp edges of Welles’ character. Even if he’s still more symbol than flesh, at least the film has something to say about it.

The film is ambivalent about the nebulous quality that is genius—admiring its fruits, yet wary of the cost. After Welles tosses aside Richard, the boy seems at first hurt, but eventually acquiesces to his fate with what seems like relief. It’s a terrible burden, this being a tool of greatness, forced to submit to its every whim (again, I imagine poor doll-like Efron in the hands of that infant ogress, finally stuck in a toy car next to Hannah Montana).

Fittingly for such an enchanting yet minor work, there’s a fable-like quality to all of this, as if the whole week with the Mercury Theatre were somehow a dream that Richard has woken from by the end. Unwisely, the film tries to cling to that same wistful, daydream atmosphere in its final scene and tempts mawkishness as a result. What's so wrong with just waking up?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Goodbye Solo

Having neglected the much-lauded director Ramin Bahrani for far too long, I finally caught up with his recently released third feature, Goodbye Solo. There are certainly some nice points to this low-key drama about the relationship between a gregarious taxi driver from Senegal and a dour, possibly suicidal old man—for one thing, it’s not as trite as that description might sound. But are we really so starved for sincere, intelligent independent movies that we’re ready to roll out the carpet for this bit of soft-sell sentimental pap? True, the film at least avoids descending into an obnoxious homily about the beauty of life and all that junk, but its misty final scenes—set in a lush, multi-coloured forest in autumn—project a gauzy, hopeful-sad aura that’s almost worse. The moral and emotional complexities of the suicide question are buried beneath a mound of cotton-fuzz feeling, and Bahrani wrings unearned impact out of the climax with some lazy contrivances—the worst being when the cab driver discovers the old man’s diary and reads it out loud for our benefit, helpfully explaining away all the loose ends while turning the gruff man into a more sympathetic figure. I’m sorry, but I call bullshit on the attempts to canonize this often facile, strained film as part of the vanguard of a new wave in realist cinema—this is nothing more than old-fashioned treacle dressed in self-seriousness. A three-act structure is a three-act structure, and if this is reality then I guess that means I don’t exist.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Drag Me to Hell

After years of toiling away on blockbusters, Sam Raimi returns to his B-movie roots with this snappy little horror-comedy. I was a little cool to Drag Me to Hell at first, mostly because of Alison Lohman’s performance as Christine Brown, a loan agent who forecloses on a gypsy and as a result is cursed to eternal damnation (Justin Long, who is rarely interesting enough to sustain my interest for 30 seconds, let alone a whole film, hardly helps as her boyfriend). Compared to the walking cartoon that is Bruce Campbell, Lohman feels like a rather colourless protagonist—too passive, too doe-eyed, too generically pretty. Her good-girl looks tell us to like her, which somehow only makes her more unlikable, especially considering her generally dishonest, entitled behaviour throughout the film.

But that’s actually the point here, and one of the main pleasures of this film lies in how Raimi constantly tweaks our expectations of how we’re supposed to react. Shifts in tone leave us off balance, whether it be the dopey loud-music-sudden-crash shocks setting up more elegantly crafted jolts, or humourous scenes turning serious (and vice versa). A well-played, violent encounter between Christine and her shadowy demon tormentor gives way to an outrageous ritual sacrifice of her cat, complete with Norman Bates-style stabbing and buckets of blood splattering all over the place (I think the amount of fake blood used probably weighed more than the cat). The unstable mood builds to a bracingly acerbic conclusion that is at once unexpected and completely reasonable. After all, for all his love of slapstick silliness, Raimi is actually a very plain spoken and sensible director—qualities that shine through in this sardonic comment on status seeking and moral dishonesty.

Okay, so only a few scenes—such as a lively fight between Christine and a demon in a moving car, as well as the mud-soaked, grave-desecrating finale—reach the freewheeling heights of Raimi’s best work. And truthfully, you’ll probably laugh more just watching Army of Darkness for the umpteenth time. But where else can you go these days if you want to see a geriatric gypsy-demon gumming her victim because her dentures fell out? Raimi sees a need, and he fills it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Love Exposure

At its core, Love Exposure is just a simple, modest story about young love straining against the bonds of repression. And were this nothing more than a simple, modest film, who would care? Fortunately, Love Exposure is thoroughly convoluted and immodest—a delirious four-hour epic that blows up its emotions to billboard size and demands attention with every outrageous plot twist and shocking image.

There’s always a risk of Stockholm syndrome with something this size—who wants to admit they just wasted four hours, after all—but I can only express shameless admiration for what writer/director Sion Sono has done here. Never would I have thought that I would find myself touched by the story of a teen photographing the panties of unsuspecting women, but there you go.

The son of a sexually frustrated priest, Yu has turned to tosatsu—peak-a-panty photography, turned into something of a martial art by the film—in order to find a sin worth confessing to his father. It seems his usual confessions, typically consisting of minor transgressions like forgetting to offer up his seat on the bus to a mother with child, aren’t enough to satisfy the old man’s hunger for sin. With the eagerness of a puppy, Yu sets out to bring home some fine sins, but his enthusiasm goes to far—disgusted by his son’s perversity, Yu’s father banishes him from the church.

There is no sexual charge in Yu’s hobby, however. These random women bring him no pleasure. All he wants is to find his true love, a woman like the Virgin Mary. He finds her in the form of Koko, a surly punker who suffers an abusive father and has a part-time job knocking down houses (she delights in imagining the deterioration of the families that once lived there). She burns with contempt for men, getting into knock-down chopsocky brawls with random guys on the street, although she likes to begin with a brief prayer: “Jesus, forgive these morons.”

Unfortunately for Yu, he first meets the love of his life while dressed in drag as Miss Scorpion (it’s more fun if I don’t explain, so don’t even ask), and Koko falls madly in love with this mysterious “woman.” At this point, the film takes a distinctly Shakespearean detour into gender-bending romantic triangles with the entrance of Koike, a coke-dealing agent of a cult called the Zero Church, who obsesses over Yu, bugging his house and filming his every move. Oh, the delicate blossoming of young love.

In her mad, all-consuming plot to finally win Yu—who of course only has eyes for Koko, who of course can’t tolerate the creepy, panty-photographing twerp—Koike convinces Koko that she was Miss Scorpion all along. The two develop a bubbly little lesbian romance, much to the anger of the increasingly frustrated Yu. And all the while, Koike deepens her control over every figure in Yu’s life, finally turning everyone against him and moving Koko and Yu’s father into the Zero Church, where they all learn to hate and fear sex (you know, like any normal religion).

I could go on. This doesn’t even touch on Yu’s adventures as a pornographer, his coterie of loser friends/dedicated disciples, his experience as a priest of perverts, a kidnapping attempt, a sojourn in an insane asylum, and various other mad sights you’ll discover on this strange trip of a film. To think this was apparently cut down from a six-hour version.

Now, I doubt the six-hour version of Love Exposure will gain the same mythic stature as, say, the lost nine-hour version of Greed, but I can’t deny the sheer bravura, even grandeur, of the epic four hours that remain. Reeling between the extremes of high and low culture, this film is unique in that it can contain both a scene of a woman reciting Corinthians 13 to the lilting strings of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and also of a woman using a pair of scissors to snip off the erect penis of her comatose father, luxuriating in the geyser-gush of blood that erupts. (This film single-handedly does more to resurrect the art of the comedy erection than the entire last century of pop culture.)

A film that hits the four-hour mark is making a claim to its own importance, no matter its contents. Even a four-hour film of a man reading a phonebook would demand to be viewed as art—perhaps just some sort of conceptual, anti-art-but-actually-secretly-art prank, but still—and Love Exposure tests the limits in its own way. Out of what could have been nothing more than a wacky rom-com, Sono creates a sprawl of religion, sex, and guilt, a vortex of shame that sucks in the helpless characters and drags them to the depths.

The lead actors all do an exceptional job with what surely must have been challenging roles, although I have to single out the remarkable Sakura Ando as Koike. As Yu’s nemesis, she is the motor behind most of the key sequences, and she provides the frenzied charge of the film’s strongest moments. She's a commanding figure, this angry girl who mixes leering power with flights of youthful playfulness, which only remind us of her own fragility, her doomed need for Yu, the man who despises her. The Yu and Koko story may form the heart of the film, but the more fraught and violent relationship between Yu and Koike is its soul, where all of this sexual need and fear plays out to its full tragic end.

Shot on digital, Love Exposure is hardly eye-candy (and some scenes, like Yu’s visions of Koko as the Virgin Mary, are even played for gaudiness), but it burns with inventiveness and energy. Sono possesses a stylistic range that can include a comedic montage sequence, such as Yu training under the tutelage of a sleazy old tosatsu master, or an emotionally devastating monologue delivered in a single take, or even a hand-held sequence of domestic turmoil that feels as raw as something out of Cassavetes.

Regardless of where you stand on Sono’s combination of bawdy and absurd plotting with aspirations to profundity, I think it would be hard to deny that he has made a film here that is beautifully alive and honest, devoid of calculation or false notes. Even at its most ridiculous, the film stays true to itself. Everything is invested with such savage passion that it becomes moving, the story told with such aching sincerity that to call it camp would feel somehow callous. It’s a remarkable film that can celebrate perversion with such gusto and still remain fundamentally innocent.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Before we get this bitch-fest started, let me be clear on one matter: Fantastic Mr. Fox is undoubtedly one of the loveliest films you will find playing in the multiplex during this grim season of gloomy Oscar-bait and gaudy holiday cash-ins. Wes Anderson, ever the playful stylist, has created an overstuffed toy box here, brimming with curious inventions and childish wonders. It’s hard not to succumb to the tactile delights of such first-rate stop-motion animation as you watch the fur on Mr. Fox’s face bristle, seemingly nudged by some modest breeze. Anderson’s characteristically flat images have rarely conveyed such a sense of abundance—a fair trade for visual depth, I suppose—and little jokes and details suggest a care and craft that exceeds the vast majority of animated films. Even the vivid autumnal colouring of the film is a satisfying pleasure in itself. (Such a rich confluence of reds, oranges, and browns probably hasn’t been seen on screens since She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.)

But even as I admired these exquisitely composed and executed visuals, I was unable to give myself over to the film’s enchantments. While certainly a step above the usual pop-culture-quoting crassness of most children’s animation these days, the film still indulges in self-conscious gestures that continually break the spell and undermine attempts to build up an enveloping world. Annoying meta-conversations about Mr. Fox’s trademark whistle—itself a fairly irritating flourish—take the viewer out of the story and into a realm of self-commentary the film has no real interest in pursuing. Similarly, the gesture of showing Mr. Fox turning on the little radio on his belt as a cue for the soundtrack is another unfortunate incident of the film giving into self-awareness. Besides, how distracting is it to hear the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” in a rural fable?

Equally disruptive, as Deborah Ross points out in this review, is the use of celebrity voices—a charge I would love to see leveled against more of these star-studded animated films. You can really feel how damaging this tactic can be every time the fox family got together—all I could see were the faces of George Clooney and Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman in front of a bunch of microphones somewhere. Even though the performances are fairly satisfying, the celebrity wattage proves detrimental to creating fully realized characters. It was really only characters voiced by unfamiliar names—Eric Anderson’s Kristofferson, Wally Wolodarsky’s Kylie—that truly seemed to belong to the world of the film. By contrast, Clooney's Mr. Fox seemed to hover somewhere just outside this carefully constructed reality.

However, the most significant problem with Fantastic Mr. Fox lies in the script itself—another typical Anderson concoction of neurotic sons craving validation and reckless fathers struggling with responsibility. Once again, we are forced to confront the problem of Wes Anderson himself, a surely talented filmmaker who routinely frustrates and disappoints.

Now, I don’t want to criticize Anderson just for returning to these familiar characters and plots again and again. The family tensions he addresses are timeless, and in theory there is nothing wrong with returning to the same theme if you can justify it. Most great subjects not only reward repeated examination, but in fact demand it. Consider Yasujiro Ozu, who made the family his great theme. His Late Spring follows a woman struggling with the dilemma of marrying and abandoning her aging, lonely father. Later, in An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu essentially retells this story, shifting the emphasis to the father's perspective. Both films are extremely similar in terms of plot, but each one takes on a very different mood—the daughter’s version being more hopeful, the father’s more melancholy.

No one would accuse Ozu of being a weak filmmaker just because he rarely strayed from this terrain, and yet Anderson’s recurring familial obsessions feel like a weakness, not a sign of a singular, brilliant vision. He simply doesn’t bring enough insight to his repetitions. While an artist like Ozu could bring out new depths in stories that are essentially the same, Anderson has resorted to hiding his unimaginative tales behind surface distractions (first an aquatic adventure, then an Indian excursion, now a foxy fable). Why not, for example, try telling one of his neurotic family tales from the perspective of one of his mother figures, and reinvigorate his usual father-son conflicts? Because the mother is always relegated to the background, or altogether absent, leaving us with the same sons and fathers playing out the same dramas.

So all we have here is a visually rich and thematically poor film, and it seems like a damn shame. In Anderson’s world, there isn’t a family conflict that can’t be resolved by simply having everyone break out into dance as the camera pulls back and the film ends (this abused flourish feeling increasingly like a retreat from all the problems Anderson can't address). The cracks in the script are plastered over with a lot of sentimental goop about respecting differences and acknowledging our own animal natures, which sounds lovely except that’s what the problem was in the first place. Fantastic Mr. Fox is at best like a pleasant walk on an autumn afternoon—you see some pretty colours and nice sights, and then end up back where you began, a little rosy cheeked perhaps but otherwise unaffected.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

In the Loop

A very funny and profane vérité farce, In the Loop is a vicious, cynical and thoroughly edifying skewering of the run-up to the Iraq war, albeit thinly disguised behind references to a generic Middle Eastern war and fictional stand-ins for real-life political players. (Presumably, it didn’t want anyone to confuse it with a documentary, so names had to be changed to protect the guilty.) Armando Iannucci directs this adaptation of his excellent BBC series, The Thick of It, transferring a couple of characters from the series and otherwise finding new parts for his usual cast. Perhaps that’s why this film doesn’t feel like a weak retread of the series—as is usually the case with most television adaptations—but rather an expansion into fruitful new realms of comedy.

It helps that the series has yet to really push the juxtaposition between high-powered international politics and mundane local riding affairs—a fairly rich source of comedy, to judge by the film. Scenes set in Washington where officials plot the fate of nations butt against scenes in a British neighbourhood where the collapsing wall of a minister’s riding office threatens to crush an old woman’s greenhouse (Steve Coogan provides a fine cameo as her indignant son). The local scenes do a nice job of deflating the glamour of authority, but even more impressive is how dexterously Iannucci weaves the international and local plots together, providing the film’s gut-punch ending.

But be it on television or in the movie theatre, the primary appeal of Iannucci’s comic creation remains the same—that of a relentlessly verbal comedy that exuberantly savages the power of language in politics and the compromised relationship between press and government. In one notable gag, Tom Hollander’s dithering cabinet minister has to bury his reservations about a war in the Middle East behind ambiguous comments to the press, as per the dictates of his party. As a result of his fumbling evasions, he finds himself turned into a tool in the debate between the hawks and doves in the American administration, both sides using the minister’s cryptic statements as proof of the British government’s support for their own stance on the war. He even gets turned into a bumper sticker, with one of his more baffling lines (“Climb the mountain of conflict”) taken out of context and turned into a hawkish motto. You couldn’t ask for a more concise summary of the problems of reasoned political debate in our reductive age.

Even more to the point is the film and series’ signature comic touch—the imaginative, elaborate torrents of invective spewed by the spin doctors, director of communications Malcolm Tucker (a masterful turn by Peter Capaldi) and Jamie McDonald, his chief attack dog and “the crossest man in Scotland.” Aside from the curious pleasure of hearing thick Scottish accents rain curses down upon priggish Brits and Americans, both characters revel in the brute power of language, each spouting endlessly inventive inventories of where to stick what until the people around them are left cowed. It’s commonplace to laugh at the linguistic manipulations employed in political spin, but the film takes this to new heights of absurdity by showing language used to bludgeon people into subservience.

The handheld camera—The Thick of It is not just a title but also a stylistic manifesto—always keeps the farce from becoming too overdetermined. Jokes jump out of the steady buzz and commotion to grab you by the throat unexpectedly. You might very well find yourself laughing before you even realize what’s so funny. This is a rare kind of comedy, one that is vulgar and yet perceptively intelligent, angry and yet still hilarious. If you think satire means some sort of annoying kind of comedy where you never laugh out loud, this film should put those illusions to rest—along with any lingering notions about the efficacy of the press and government in modern democracy.

Monday, November 9, 2009

El Olvido

Oblivion is first of all a state of forgetting or being forgotten. It is an eternal present in which the past is erased, and the future along with it. It is not the end of history but the complete suppression of it. It’s not forgetting where you put your car keys—it’s forgetting you own a car.

But oblivion is also a place. And in Heddy Honigmann’s documentary El Olvido (Oblivion in English), this place is found on the streets of Lima, Peru, in the crosswalks where children do cartwheels and then beg for spare change, behind the bars of the nicest clubs where the bartender smiles through his contempt for the rich and powerful who he must serve. This is a place forgotten by history, and it’s everywhere you look, as long as you care to see it.

Fortunately, our guide to this land of amnesia—where a bandit can become the president for an hour and people drink frog juice to restore their memory—is someone with so sensitive a touch as Honigmann. The film is tender and lyrical, suffused with sorrow for these people who live their lives outside the walls of history. Outrage grows from empathy, but Honigmann’s anger at the many problems of Peru—which include hyperinflation, dirty wars with guerrilla groups, and corruption and incompetence in the halls of power—arises naturally from these very personal character studies, ideas flowing from observations, not the reverse. This is more poem than polemic.

Focusing on a motley collection of characters, ranging from shoeshine boys to street performers to waiters, Honigmann sketches out the lives of people who exist on the fringes of national history, granted only the role of spectators or, at best, servants to the powerful men who have caused so much despair and damage. We meet a tailor, for example, whose father created the presidential sash worn during inauguration. One day, the government came looking for the man’s father, declaring that he had botched the job: no one could see the emblem because the sash was inside out.

No, the old man simply explained, the president just put it on wrong. Flip it over and the problem is fixed.

It seems so blindingly obvious—after all, how does one make a sash inside out? All you have to do is take it off and put it on the opposite shoulder. But to punctuate this episode, Honigmann shows footage of the inauguration, during which the president puts the sash on incorrectly and then looks down in confusion at the covered emblem, fidgeting awkwardly with the sash as people applaud.

It’s a funny episode, but with a chilling undertone—the president would just as soon blame the maker instead of risking a sliver of embarrassment by acknowledging his own mistake. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the service workers in the film, mostly bartenders and waiters, take a bemused view of their leaders, acknowledging personal niceties (“He was a good tipper”) while laughing and sighing about “semi-democratic elections” and other farces of power. One bartender takes great pride in his story of slipping vodka into an unsuspecting president’s orange juice, causing the man to grow tipsy enough to stumble at a big public event later that same day. “My own coup d’etat,” the man beams.

But the most remarkable moment of all might be when a jovial waiter, a self-described clown who smiles through any insulting customers and forgets their offenses immediately, takes us on a tour of his humble home. He has served the wealthy and the powerful, and yet his house is cramped and dirty, his wife unable to afford to eat where he works. But he is a proud and welcoming host, and when he tells the camera he wants to play a song from his native province for us, you expect a buoyant folk tune, or maybe a sentimental old ballad.

Instead, we hear a fierce protest song, lamenting innocent villagers being gunned down. “The blood of the people,” a woman sings, her voice enflamed, “has a rich perfume…” The man tells of how his sister was murdered by "special forces," a term that seems to include rebels and the police, as no one is quite certain who was responsible for the slaughter.

One wonders how anyone in this situation could even bear the sight of the country’s president happily gorging himself on fine food, let alone pouring the man a glass of wine. Smiling through the insults, indeed—who could function in his position without occasionally accepting a momentary amnesia? Oblivion is also apparently a way of life in this melancholy city.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Wise Blood

Wise Blood, John Huston’s adaptation of the Flannery O’Connor novel, brings to mind Robert Duvall’s The Apostle (probably the best American film about religion) in that both films explore the intersection of hucksterism and faith. And while Huston’s film contains a sardonic touch that distinguishes it from Duvall’s, both maintain complex views of morally complicated figures, avoiding pious judgments and instead reveling in the paradoxes of human nature. Huston, playing the skeptic to O’Connor’s believer, does get his digs in at the exploitation of spiritual fervor, but he’s also fascinated by the peculiar convictions of Hazel Motes, an angry young man who preaches a church without Christ and ends up a martyr to his own esoteric belief system. Brad Dourif taps a rare self-immolating energy in his brilliant depiction of Motes, bringing lacerating intensity to the most mundane conversations. Even something so simple as gassing up his rickety car becomes an ordeal for this man. All of life becomes Motes’ personal Passion play, with himself in the roles of both Christ and Pilate—making for a film that is at once funny, tragic, and gloriously strange.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Limits of Control

The latest from Jim Jarmusch, The Limits of Control exalts the incidental pleasures of narrative filmmaking—mood, scenery, quiet moments and little mysteries—by turning its own story into such an abstraction that nothing else remains. All we are left with is a man walking through glorious architecture projecting an aura of undefined purposefulness. But if we are meant to enjoy this film for its supplementary charms, then why does it seem so drained of pleasures? Is this a work of audacious genius, or merely a stale art-fart of a film?

Or dare I say neither? I find it hard to share in the indignant rage so many critics have unleashed on this difficult, often lovely film, just as I can’t quite work myself up to the impassioned praise voiced by others. Instead, I remain respectfully intrigued. Jarmusch and cinematographer Christopher Doyle seem to be working towards an austerity that would shame Ozu, but I can’t deny that they still held my imagination throughout the stillness and quiet. The empty spaces of this film are eminently inhabitable.

A good thing too, considering how much emptiness you’ll find here. At times, I found myself missing Jarmusch’s usual dry wit, which is all but absent here, with what little humour there is submerged on the formal level. True, there is something droll about the film’s little verbal and visual repetitions, but this is hardly enough to relieve the stifling air of seriousness that occasionally threatens to choke the life out of the film.

Lifelessness, however, is a fitting theme for The Limits of Control, which isn’t so much a living, breathing narrative as a story under glass—a rare creature stuffed and mounted, all the better for us to appreciate its elegant shape and colourful plumage. Similarly, as the Lone Man, Isaach de Bankole seems encased in metal, so stoic as to border on inhuman. It’s rather fitting that his character eats the little encrypted messages he receives on pieces of paper hidden in matchboxes—like a robot, he is fed code and then acts with mechanical efficiency. If you look to this film hoping to appreciate the unruly mess of life, brace for disappointment.

Actually, the film’s refusal to create a vivid narrative is not quite a failing, but really its whole purpose for being. I admit this sounds like making excuses, but bear with me, please—the film’s meaning is easily grasped on broad terms, even if the details are somewhat fuzzy. Jarmusch is primarily preoccupied with the limits of power and perception (interchangeable terms in the cinematic world, where the camera eye exerts god-like control over reality), suggesting that the subjective perspective imposed on the world by any authority, be it artist or autocrat, can’t escape the judgment of arbitrary reality. That might sound like rather vague philosophizing, but this really just means that even the mighty must feed the worms sooner or later, and even the best director must lay down his camera at some point and allow reality to roll on out of sight.

For such a dense and complex delivery system, that’s a fairly plain message, and viewers may wish for something more worthy of Jarmusch’s obscurantist strategies. But this is a film not so easily sunk, despite all the broadsides aimed against it. It remains so resolutely on message that it never betrays its purpose, never suggests that it is aware of its own absurdity. As such, I find it hard to dislike The Limits of Control, just as I would find it difficult to feel fervently against a tree or a rock (this is a film that simply is, implacably and beautifully, itself). Really, all you can do with a film like this is accept or reject its game, and much to my surprise, I’m willing to roll the dice with Jarmusch on this one.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Serious Man

Aren’t the serious questions such a drag sometimes? I’m talking of those lofty concerns that have spurred on great minds and dullards alike to pontification throughout the ages. Does god exist? Why do we suffer? And finally—exude a soul-weary sigh here, if you like—just what’s the point of it all?

Yes, just what is the point of it all? That’s a question that could easily be asked of A Serious Man, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen. As they often have in the past, the brothers tempt seriousness while simultaneously belittling that same sobriety. This is a caricaturist’s version of existential agony, a cartoon rendition of the calamities visited upon a hapless humanity. Viewers might suspect the Coens are hiding some sort of profound truth somewhere beneath the elegantly designed chaos of this film, but I remain skeptical—strip away the mask, and all you will find is a bemused smirk.

Diverging from their usual meat-grinder approach (toss a bag of money in and watch a gaggle of dimwits leap headlong into the blades trying to catch it), the Coen brothers look to an anonymous Minnesota suburb in the late 1960s for this tale of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor whose life has suddenly collapsed into a series of increasingly cruel and ridiculous indignities. He discovers that Judith, his wife, wishes to get a divorce and marry Sy Ableman, a bald, liver-spotted man at least twenty years older who comforts the distraught and confused Larry, thwarting the cuckolded husband’s urges to rage and self-pity. Larry obligingly moves into a motel, taking with him his deadbeat brother, who is constantly draining the cyst on his neck while working on an incomprehensible mathematical opus called “The Mentaculus.”

Marital crisis is but one aspect of the shit-storm tornado that upends every aspect of Larry’s routine existence. A Korean student attempts to bribe Larry into giving him a passing grade; when the student is rebuffed, the boy’s father threatens to sue for defamation in retaliation for Larry’s accusations of bribery. As things get worse and worse, Larry frets over money and whether or not the university will grant him tenure—anxieties not helped by the fact that the tenure committee is receiving unsigned letters accusing Larry of “moral turpitude.” And this doesn’t even touch on Larry’s intimidating redneck neighbour, or the angst-ridden spawn of the Gopnik clan, which includes pot-smoking Danny preparing for his bar mitzvah and bratty Sarah stealing money from dad to pay for a nose job.

Many more incidental or minor humiliations beset Larry as he wanders through the film stunned and harried by his transformation into the punch line of some cosmic joke. Even when he goes to three different rabbis seeking solace and wisdom, he receives little comfort. The youngest (the “junior rabbi”) merely rhapsodizes about how the hand of god is apparent even in a parking lot, while a middle-aged rabbi recites a stock story he apparently tells everyone and then offers a few platitudes about being good and helpful. The oldest declines to speak to Larry, but after Danny’s bar mitzvah, he offers the boy a few words of appreciation for Jefferson Airplane and that’s it—apparently, the only wisdom that age brings is brevity.

Of course, in the world of the Coen brothers, brevity is a mighty high source of wisdom indeed. Their characters often pollute the air with all sorts of incessant, nonsensical chatter, and that is especially true in this film, which is filled with blissfully absurd, frequently hilarious exchanges in which people talk in circles around an empty centre. More than any of their previous films, the Coens have created a kind of music out of this noise. Phrases and words repeat—Santana Abraxas, “Out in a minute!”, “I didn’t do anything!”, Dick Dutton—until they become meaningless, just more of the empty noise of Larry’s world. The best way to come out of a Coen brothers film looking smart is to keep your mouth shut.

Still, just as the Coens seem to be laughing at Larry’s crisis and dismissing his quest for higher answers, so too might viewers look at this film and shrug it off as pointless and snide—just another typical shooting gallery from the Coens, they might say, just another film about stupid people doing stupid things, albeit with less bloodshed than usual. So what?

The film boils down to this: life is cruel and unfair and will just screw you over in the end, so just try to be good, okay? And then, keep boiling, let the pot start to smoke and you will find this: life is cruel and unfair and will just screw you over in the end, so why bother doing good, right? And then, fuck the pot, leave it on the stove until it’s just a black metal lump, and you’ll realize this: I just wrecked a perfectly good pot, and I haven’t learned a damn thing. That's what you get for taking a lesson in life philosophy from two terminal wise-asses. Granted, there's a kind of wisdom here, but if you take it too seriously you may find yourself the only one not laughing—and isn't that really the definition of a serious man?

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Incubus feels like a film from a foreign country that doesn’t exist, a fantasy land somewhere beyond the borders of reason and good taste. In this strange place, everyone speaks Esperanto, sex demons plague the countryside like mosquitoes, and William Shatner is the biggest leading man in Hollywood. Also, everyone walks backwards and wears pitas on their heads like hats and instead of shaking hands and saying hello they all just rub bottoms and fart on each other.

Well, it’s just one theory. Take it or leave it.

In reality, Incubus is simply a rare Esperanto-language film, a daffy art-horror oddity starring a pre–Star Trek Shatner. I have to give credit to writer/director Leslie Stevens for the outrageousness of the Esperanto gambit, although it’s debatable whether or not the language is ultimately a liability here. The actors certainly struggle with speaking this strange tongue, resulting in some fairly clumsy line readings and distracted performances. You can almost see the beads of sweat on their foreheads as they enter another dialogue scene, all of them no doubt thinking, “Oh shit, how do I say this again…?”

But Stevens obviously wasn’t just trying to torture his actors, and there are benefits to this initially baffling choice. Even though it was filmed around Big Sur in California, Incubus really does come across as the product of a foreign culture, the use of Esperanto giving the story an alien quality that makes it much more palatable. This sort of simplistic supernatural allegory wouldn’t fly if it was played on familiar ground, but in an exotic language, it comes across as an obscure foreign folk-tale, the mythology of a lost culture. Plus, I am quite certain the only way the actors could keep a straight face while spouting this ridiculously baroque dialogue was to translate the words into a language they wouldn’t understand. Lines like “My hands tremble with desire!” at least make for a kind of overwrought poetry when appearing as text at the bottom of the screen, but spoken in English they would probably only prompt laughter.

Objectively speaking, this actually isn’t a particularly good film, even though it does have some assets to draw upon. Most notably, the famed Conrad Hall provides some gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, moving between sun-dappled pastoral idylls and hellish nighttime murk with great facility. Dutch angles, underwater shots, and distorted close-ups abound. The film is riotously stylish.

But the story is overly simple, even a touch silly—and definitely too thin to really hold together a worthy feature film. A demon named Kia stalks the countryside, luring men to the sea and drowning the poor schmucks in order to claim their tainted souls (one of the more memorable images in the film is Kia building a sandcastle on the corpse of one of her victims). In a moment of arrogance, Kia decides to corrupt a pure soul and deliver it to her master, the Incubus, otherwise known as the God of Darkness. That pure soul happens to be Marc, a wounded soldier played by Shatner.

Stevens twists around the corruption angle so that the demons are appalled to find Marc’s love has defiled Kia’s evil (“holy rape” is the charming phrase they use). In retaliation, they unleash the Incubus on Marc’s sister, and after a bit of rape and general mayhem, the love between Kia and Marc vanquishes the God of Darkness, appearing in the climactic scenes as a goat-headed beast that squeals like a pig. Incidental weirdness aside, this is basically the old song about love triumphing over evil, which you would expect to make for a great yawn of a movie, even with all the sex demons and goat monsters running around.

And yet, the stupid thing is so damnably watchable. Sure, I rolled my eyes and chuckled derisively from time to time, but the sheer strangeness of the whole enterprise justifies the experience. Even the weirdly archaic values behind the story—an evil, loose woman redeemed by the love of a good man and the promise of a holy union—only lend to the sense that we’re watching an ancient foreign fable.

As an object exiled from a time that never was and a place that does not exist, Incubus prompts fascination, if nothing else. Look at it as a kind of anthropology experiment, and try to deduce what sort of society could birth such a curious mythology. It’s a trick question, of course—as is almost always the case in these exercises in cinematic exoticism, the foreigners are us.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

EIFF: Day Nine

Okay, so I've blinked away the scum that coated my eyes after watching Pirate for the Sea, and I've cleared my head and thought only positive thoughts all day. Now I'm ready to write up the last two films I saw at the film fest.

Dammit, I don't want to hate any more movies. I'm so tired of hating movies, and I feel my prose growing gnarled and hunchbacked as I scowl through another review of more EIFF mediocrity. Just give me a bright spot to go out on, that's all I ask. Not just for me, I ask, but for the suffering few who might read this blog. Oh lord, please, spare the innocent.

Passenger Side

And yet, here I am tempting my own wrath by going to see a quirky Canadian comedy-drama that seems aimed straight down the middle-road of independent filmmaking. Perhaps I bring this on myself.

A sometimes charming but clearly flawed film, Matt Bissonnette's Passenger Side follows a pair of brothers as they drive across Los Angeles in a day. Various eccentric characters are encountered along the way, their chief reason for being apparently to help the film reach feature length. Some moments are funny, to be fair—an encounter with a hermaphrodite hooker is downright surreal, actually—but mostly these digressions just add to a sense of a film lost and struggling to find its bearings.

But let it not be said that Passenger Side is not without its virtues as well. I found myself enjoying the fraternal interplay of Joel Bissonnette and Adam Scott, even as they were saddled with sometimes overwritten, unnatural dialogue (call it a case of DCD, or Diablo Cody's Disease). And Matt Bissonnette finds some surprising emotional depths in these two characters as we move from glib, jokey exchanges to more complicated family dynamics. There's some meat to this rather slender premise.

Unfortunately, the film stumbles in the final moments, and not just a minor, slip-on-the-wet-grass kind of fall—this is a full-on, tumble-face-first-into-a-brick-wall-because-your-pants-fall-down kind of wipe-out. It's as if the film is afraid to follow through with its modest ramble of a tale and has to somehow instill a sense of narrative payoff at the end of the journey. Inexplicably, we end with a plot twist, which feels somewhat incongruous considering the film's general lack of a plot in the first place. Sensitive little dramedies just shouldn't have big "gotcha" moments.

Love at the Twilight Motel

Ah, final film of the fest. At last we reach the end. Tell me, little film, what will you offer me? Pleasure, or pain?

Perhaps both? A compelling documentary about the pain of pleasure, Alison Rose's Love at the Twilight Motel offers a glimpse into the lives of the clientele at a shady Miami motel that charges $25 for the first two hours. Rose interviews seven different people, ranging from Cadillac (a recovering junkie) to Gigi (a 46-year-old overweight escort) to Richard (a Cuban rafter who works as a massage therapist and claims he was destined to have lots of affairs with married women).

The use of the word "love" in the title might be misleading, as this motel is not really in the business of love, but rather sex. The interviewees muse on what it means to be faithful and the distinction between sex and love, in the process offering insight into the torturous ways we rationalize and compartmentalize our lives. It is to the director's credit that she doesn't try to force an artificial argument on the film, but rather allows each interview to provoke its own conclusions.

Mr. B, for instance, is a happily married man who professes to adore his wife, even as he admits that she can't satisfy him sexually. However, his use of the motel goes beyond mere infidelity, as he elaborates on his use of heroin and shoots up for the benefit of the documentary crew. In one remarkable moment, he even receives a text message from his wife asking where he is. He sighs—"I hate lying," he explains—and then decides to pretend that his phone has died. The problem isn't that he's bad at lying, according to him, but rather that his wife seems to believe whatever he says, suggesting a certain contempt for her gullibility even as he emphasizes his love for her. Near the end of his interview, he concludes that he is a functional junkie. Considering the vast schism between his family life and motel behaviour, functional schizophrenic might be more accurate.

And this is just one of the twisted personal stories we discover. All of the interviewees offer some startling personal revelations—so many, in fact, that the film might start to feel like a bit of a gratuitous exercise in revelling in the sordid underbelly, a walk on the wild side for us all-too-boring gawkers in the audience.

But the film is too thought-provoking (and beautifully composed, incidentally) to be dismissed. Issues of how and why people isolate sex from emotion arise, as do questions of how repression affects our personal lives. We meet prostitutes struggling with past sexual abuses and self-justifying philanderers who seem blind to their own contempt for women. We see people filled with self-loathing and, surprisingly, others serene and content. All people struggling to find a measure of peace, but none quite sure of the route.

It's a fine film, and certainly an excellent way to conclude my festival-going for another year. Thankfully.

Friday, October 2, 2009

EIFF: Days Seven and Eight

Fair warning: this is a pretty dire post. Three films, only one keeper, and that by Michael Haneke no less, which is a bit like saying the best part of your vacation to Singapore was the caning.

Enter if you dare. I'll try to remember to go see some good films tomorrow.

Those Three

I'm struggling with how to summarize this one. Maybe try to imagine a version of Andrei Tarkovksy's Stalker that is somehow half the running time and yet feels twice as long—that captures some of the stultifying power of this film, which often does feel like a clumsier version of Tarkovsky's mystical wonders. Better yet—how about a humourless version of Waiting For Godot in which everyone dies and then a pregnant woman walks on stage and delivers a baby.

No, wait, that actually sounds kind of fun.

Or at the very least, more fun than this monotonous little Iranian film about three military deserters who wander a snowy plain where they meet a pregnant woman and then die of exposure. Along the way, there are a few other incidents of note—a few squabbles, a random encounter or two, but nothing of great significance. Essentially, we watch three figures wandering an endless white landscape, blotted out by the environment. Aside from the occasional tree, there are no landmarks, just a seemingly eternal, numbing haze.

I suppose writer/director Naghi Nemati is going for a spectral anti-military film in which our three protagonists head off in dangerous terrain rather than stay in the army. They face the inclement world, suffer at its hands and die, while a baby comes into this same cruel environment at the end as a symbol of future hope or continued suffering or—who cares, really? I get bored just writing about this earnest, thoroughly unimaginative attempt to convey so many banal concepts. Never before have I been so conscious of the fact that going to the theatre is nothing more than staring at a white sheet for an hour and a half.

The White Ribbon

I'm a little ambivalent about the films of Michael Haneke. He's undeniably a brilliant director, but his depictions of middle-class alienation often have the feeling of an expert marksman with a barrel of fish. Sometimes I just wish he would apply all that formal rigour of his to something completely outside of his comfort zone instead of gunning down the same easy targets each time.

As it stands, The White Ribbon does seem like a bit of a broadening of Haneke's usual world, however slight that expansion might be. True, this depiction of an Austrian village set just before the First World War is in many ways a typical Haneke excursion into cinematic water-boarding, but there are also surprising moments of tenderness and humour. The narrator, Lehrer, is a schoolteacher who behaves honourably and kindly, without even a trace of the wanton cruelty that defines so many Haneke characters, including a great many of those who populate this film. And I never would have believed people might laugh at a Haneke film unless I heard it myself, but the scenes revolving around a pastor's son discovering the joys of masturbation are surprisingly quite funny.

Of course, this being a Haneke film, the innate cruelty of human society is always lurking around the corner. The little village is rife with inexplicable crimes, including, most gruesomely, the torture and blinding of a young mentally handicapped boy. The mystery unfurls with Haneke's typical commanding grace, and ultimately implicates the entire society (of course), suggesting the seeds of Nazism that lurk in the younger generation will come to bloom because of the willful blindness and cruelty of the older.

Also typical of Haneke are the instances of button-pushing horror, including the aforementioned child mutilation, as well as some gratuitous incest and even a bit of nasty animal violence (the guy just can't give up on his usual cinema of shocks, I suppose, although he does show some admirable self-restraint for most of the film). Still, the black-and-white cinematography is excellent, and Haneke's command over his material is as sure as ever. Even if Haneke's conclusions are pretty much predictable from the start, the unfolding of this plot is still a thing of terrible beauty, and worth beholding.

Pirate for the Sea

Ugh. Now we're really hitting the dregs of the fest. This tedious piece of agit-prop focuses on Paul Watson, a co-founder of Greenpeace who went on to form the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organization dedicated to defending marine life. With their own ship—named for Farley Mowat, who also appears in interviews in the film—the Sea Shepherds attempt to block the Canadian seal hunt and illegal Japanese whalers near Antarctic.

Director Ron Colby gets some suspense from these tense, often violent confrontations, but make no mistake—this is a ham-handed, dull, at times even downright dim-witted documentary. The film takes a fair cause—outside of Ottawa and the Maritimes, who even supports the seal hunt anymore?—and makes it seem almost unlikeable. Watson is surely a charismatic fellow with a powerful sense of conviction, but I like some ambiguity and nuance in my documentaries (or at least a bit of originality or insight), and Colby really has little to offer viewers looking for anything other than a confirmation of their own rightness.

Instead, we get a fawning, uncritical portrait of a controversial figure who could surely provoke more interesting work than this. Pirate for the Sea is a film so unthinking that it can show the crew on the Farley Mowat being warned that if the hull is breached they could easily die, and then later capture that same crew ramming a Japanese whaling ship with a device called "the can-opener" intended to rip open the enemy ship's hull. Yet still Colby allows Watson to claim the moral high ground of having never harmed anyone in his actions, even as the man engages in activities that could result in the deaths of people on both ships. And this doesn't even touch on the disturbing fact that Watson supplied AK-47s to a ranger station on an island conservation area, supposedly for the purpose of warding off illegal fishing. I hate to be a nag, but whatcha gonna do with those Kalashnikovs, Paul? Shoot the fishing nets?

The detail flashes by so quickly you have to wonder if Colby is embarrassed to mention it, or simply doesn't give the matter a second thought. Sadly, the film isn't interested in such contradictions. Instead, Colby settles for broad gestures toward easy sentiments that reveals a failure to employ any rigorous critical attention to his subject, or, for that matter, his craft (the general blandness of the film's style suggest nothing more than a corporate recruitment video). Good intentions don't excuse bad art.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

EIFF: Day Six

A Prophet

Here I am, reaching the end of the week, and I'm starting to feel my resolve sapped by one too many mediocre films (I think Getting Home might have pushed me too far). But then I see a film like Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, and I'm a little embarrassed by my lack of endurance. First, because this is a quality piece of work and it shouldn't feel like a chore to drag my lazy ass out the door to see it, and second, because Audiard manages to sustain a remarkable level of tension for two and a half hours without relenting—a rather impressive feat of endurance in itself.

One could take this tale as a sly commentary on the immigrant experience, but A Prophet offers a great deal of satisfaction simply in the twists of its tight narrative. Malik El Djebena enters a French prison with nothing, slowly working his way up in this world of rival factions. A group of Corsican gangsters strong-arm Malik into assassinating one of their enemies in prison, and the young man finds himself playing the role of their lackey, sneered at for being an Arab and yet increasingly essentially to the operations of the gang. As Cesar Luciani, the group's leader, finds his partners whittled away through paroles and murders, he increasingly relies on Malik. And yet still the young man has to jump when his boss calls, doing errands and making coffee.

All the while, Malik is quietly gathering power, creating a drug-running operation outside of prison and forging alliances with other gangs both inside and outside the prison. This is a difficult character to capture, and Tahar Rahim does an excellent job, depicting Malik's transformation from helpless to powerful in a way that feels plausible and natural. After the initial shock of being forced to murder a man, Malik effaces himself, gives himself over to the role of servant, only to find that his dutifulness and loyalty is a kind of power in itself. And Cesar, as portrayed by Niels Arestrup (in a performance that nicely complements his work in Audiard's last film, The Beat My Heart Skipped), inspires some pathos as he travels an opposite trajectory, transforming from a fearsome, domineering figure into an isolated, helpless old man.

Audiard's direction is often tactile and vivid. He casts his eye on little viscous details that make for some striking images. Yes, it's an engrossing, intense story, but much of the film's power lies in those small touches that make the most sensational moments feel tangible. I'm struck by the sight of Malik washing the blood from his hair after a particularly grisly hit, which makes a surreal bit of movie violence suddenly seem horrifically real. Or what of that string of blood and spittle that arcs between his hand and mouth before that first assassination? The blood comes from a razor hidden in Malik's mouth—the only way to get a weapon this close to the intended victim—and it drives the weight of the moment straight into my gut. Aside from a few ill-conceived excursions into the supernatural, this is a film that remains firmly rooted in a queasy, inescapable present.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

EIFF: Day Five

When I can, I like to find a unifying thread between all the films I'm watching, and today I have a handy theme: things I'm ignorant about. In particular, today I'm talking about Chinese cinema and Pedro Almodovar. So let's blunder through this together, you and I, faithful reader, and see if we can't crack these nuts.

Getting Home

My experience of contemporary Chinese filmmaking is limited mostly to art-house fare like Zhang Ke Jia, so I was quite curious to see Getting Home, a more mainstream example of the Chinese cinema. Director Zhang Yang does a solid job balancing the sadness and humour in the story of Zhao, a construction worker carrying the body of a dead friend to be buried near his family home at the Three Gorges. It's a charming film, but not without some serious problems.

The plot takes on an episodic shape, with Zhao encountering various figures along his journey who are moved by his plight to help him. Some episodes veer a bit too much into tear-jerking terrain—a fact not helped by the obnoxious score, which underlines each emotion and then adds five exclamation marks in case we missed the point—but others have a nicely understated droll whimsy to them, such as the scene where Zhao fakes mourning at a funeral in order to get a free meal, only to be joined at his table by the man from the coffin. Other comedic moments carry on that tone of low-key weirdness, such as a nice bit of underplayed physical comedy when Zhao tries to commit suicide by knocking his head against a tree.

The problems with the film are deeper than structure or performance, and have more to do with its treatment of the Three Gorges Dam, which has caused environmental devastation and lead to the relocation of over a million people. The unspoken intention of the film seems to be turning these larger issues into minor and ultimately harmless inconveniences. By the time a kindly police officer takes Zhao under his wing, the film had lost me. Getting Home ends as nothing more than a paean to the benign, all-knowing state apparatus in China; Zhao's biggest error is his foolish attempt at self-reliance. The implication is that he should have simply given himself over to the wisdom of the authorities, who will care for all Chinese citizens like a dutiful parent.

Oh, horseshit. Maybe films like Zhang Ke Jia's Still Life and The World don't represent the mainstream of Chinese culture, but at least they don't swallow the government agenda with uncritical loyalty. Give me some intelligent, idiosyncratic filmmaking instead of obsequious nationalist propaganda any day of the week.

Broken Embraces

I must shamefully confess that Pedro Almodovar is a major blind spot for me. Yes, I'm aware this man is one of the major figures in the Spanish cinema at the moment, much lauded for a body of work stretching over thirty years. And yet, I just can't find the motivation to dig into his work, and what little I have seen has only spurred on my galloping indifference. What can I say? It's carried me this far, so I haven't had a reason to stop.

But I found myself enjoying Broken Embraces, his latest collaboration with Penelope Cruz, which makes me wonder if it's time to start digging deeper into Almodovar's work. Strangely, most critics so far seem to have yawned through this one as it makes the rounds on the festival circuit, and I'm not sure what to make of that. Does that mean I too would be bored by this film if I was actually familiar with Almodovar's work? Or is this merely an indication that a good director on familiar terrain can't really excite jaded critics who crave something new, not just another solid film from a well-known director? Your guess is as good as mine, and I won't bother trying to fathom the mysteries of the professional film critic's mind.

In all fairness to the lukewarm reviews so far, I should be clear that this is not a flawless film by any means. For the work of such an experienced director, Broken Embraces is surprisingly clumsy at times as it jumps between different time periods while trying to build up a somewhat overstuffed plot. There comes a point when plot twists start to feel gratuitous, as if Almodovar was throwing in surprises that are justified by the film's themes, but which only provide more unnecessary clutter to the narrative itself. And the ending is a bit limp, with people explaining away the convoluted story instead of allowing events to unfold before our eyes.

So, there are weaknesses. But there's also a lot to enjoy in this weirdly referential comedy-melodrama-noir mash-up, even if it lacks the expected grace of an old master exploring his craft. In fact, the sheer amount of things going on in this film may be its biggest charm.

I'm not even sure I can summarize the film. We begin with a blind writer named Harry Caine, who was once a director by the name of Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), and then go deeper into his past, into a passionate, doomed love affair with Lena (Penelope Cruz), the lead actress in one of his films. But Lena is the mistress of the film's producer, a controlling old business man who instructs his son to follow Lena around, filming her every move on set in order to watch for any potential infidelity.

From there, I'm not sure if I can explain much more without giving away the whole game, but suffice it to say, there is a mess of double identities, secret relationships, and so many movie references I can't even begin to process the elaborate conversation Almodovar seems to be having with the entire history of film. In fact, the easiest way to pick apart this film might be to figure out all of its references. There are telling allusions to Vertigo and Peeping Tom, and a glimpse of one of Ingrid Bergman's collaborations with Roberto Rossellini, a real life example of a leading woman in an affair with her director. I can only imagine how much more I'm missing.

Perhaps that's the source of some people's dissatisfaction with this film. It seems like a minor pleasure, and yet it is still so dense that it feels like much of it passes by the viewer at first. Still, the incidental charms of this film are often enough to satisfy, whether it be hilarious glimpses of Girls With Suitcases, the farce Mateo is making with Lena, or the eerie sight of Lena's sugar daddy watching the soundless video of his lover leaving him while she stands behind him, reciting the words she spoke in the video (it makes sense when you see it, honest). Despite the frustrations and the flaws of the film, it's hard not to like a work brimming full with so many striking ideas and images, rich with poignant performances and broad comic turns, often from the same actor.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

EIFF: Days Three and Four

Okay, two things: first, I'm sort of cheating in the title to this post. I didn't actually go to see anything at the film festival on day three, but I felt weird jumping from day two to four, hence why I threw it in there.

Second, I've decided to skip the usual orgy of verbiage that I seem to require whenever writing one of these things. No, I've resolved to keep my words chaste from now on. More films, less chatter. My promise to you.


Kirby Dick is clearly pissed off, and rightly so, in this documentary about gay Conservative politicians who hide in the closet while pursuing an anti-LGBT agenda. The film begins with an astounding audio recording of Larry Craig's police interrogation after his failed bathroom tryst with an undercover officer, begging the question: is Craig seriously in such deep denial that he believes having sex with other men doesn't make him a homosexual? Or is he simply that dedicated a liar and hypocrite?

Sadly, we'll probably never know. Dick obviously can't get direct interviews with people like Craig or his wife (who I am sure would have some whopper stories to tell if she cared to talk), but he does get some insights from formerly closeted politicians like Barney Frank and Jim McGreevey. He also follows the work of people like Michael Rogers, who runs BlogActive, which is dedicated to outing gay politicians. And while some people might feel uncomfortable with this sort of prying into the private lives of public figures, Dick's film makes a persuasive case that the self-deception required by living a double life often leads to a dangerously homophobic legislative agenda. Many of these closeted politicians seem to adhere more closely to an anti-gay agenda simply for fear of being associated with their own denied identity.

What's especially chilling is seeing someone like Charlie Crist, current governor of Florida, who has left behind a fairly impressive trail of evidence for his own homosexuality, but continues to deny his sexual orientation, even to the point of getting married—seemingly just to help his chances at a VP slot on the McCain 2008 ticket.

The film's most significant flaw might be its occasional lapse into conspiracy thinking. A note at the beginning of the film declares this to be a "brilliantly orchestrated conspiracy," which is perhaps a slight overstatement. There's no real deep organization behind this history of lies, but rather just a large group of powerful men who have internalized years of homophobia and turned it into a corrupt lifestyle. When Dick starts trying to suggest that the mainstream media is complicit in some sort of conspiracy to hide the truth, I think he starts to overreach. Yes, the mainstream press ignores many of these outing controversies until they blow up to Larry Craig proportions, but more than anything else that seems to be a function of the same homophobic discomfort that informs the politicians in the scandals.

There are times when Dick panders to paranoia when some good hard-nosed documentary filmmaking is really just required. The worst example of this is when he points out an episode of Larry King Live was edited after its first airing to remove a comment from Bill Maher outing Ken Mehlman, chairman of the RNC and crony of Dubya.

The film leaves the incident suggestively open, as if it were sign of a conspiratorial censorship. Is it not plausible that a major news corporation would not have the guts to stand behind a potentially libelous offhand remark offered without backing evidence? This is surely the same kind of self-censorship that keeps people like Ken Mehlman in the closet, but there's no real proof that it is somehow directed by the halls of power instead of ass-covering legal departments. Even more troubling, the film gives no indication that Dick bothered to interview anyone involved in the incident in order to uncover what actually happened—suggestive possibilities being better here than facts, apparently. The righteous rage and sense of purpose Dick brings to this documentary is vital and necessary, but unfounded conspiracy-mongering isn't really needed. The simple truth is frightening enough.

Tales From the Golden Age

It just wouldn't be a film festival without something from Romania, would it? And so we have Tales From the Golden Age, an omnibus film consisting of five different stories set during the twilight of Ceausescu's rule. That's right, an omnibus film—the Romanian New Wave is all grown up now.

The film benefits from being solely written by Cristian Mungiu, who directs one of the stories while handing over the reins to four other directors for the rest. None of the directors veer too far from the same deadpan style Mungiu effects, and the whole film maintains a consistency of purpose and general quality that is rare in these types of films. Admittedly, it's a minor work when compared to Mungiu's last film—the brutally powerful 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—but still quite enjoyable.

In fact, I like Tales From the Golden Age as a sort of complement to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. In that film, set during the late Ceausescu era like this latest one, Mungiu depicted a young woman's attempt to get an abortion as a cold-sweat nightmare. It was intense and immediate, narrowing the widespread political repression of the Communist regime into personal bodily subjugation.

By contrast, this latest film takes a more detached, absurdly humorous approach. Each of the five tales is treated as an urban legend of life under a repressive regime, all told with a dryly mocking tone. In one story, a student decides to earn some extra money by scamming people out of their empty bottles and getting the deposits for herself. With her partner in crime, she goes through apartment buildings posing as a member of the Ministry of Chemistry taking air samples to measure pollution from nearby industrial factories. The plan sounds ridiculous, but it works—largely because every person they talk to admits to having filed numerous complaints about the stench. Indeed, most people are surprisingly easy to scam. They're just happy to see someone from the bureaucracy doing something.

The rest of the stories maintain a similar balance between the absurd and the bleak. People create little black market enterprises to get by, while others struggle to hide the occasional bit of good fortune lest it be taken away (one of the funniest sequences in the film involves a policeman and his family trying to figure out how to silently slaughter a pig so that none of their neighbours find out they have meat). The film very nicely captures the farce of living under a crumbling dictatorship while not covering up the tragedy of the situation. In short, a worthy example of police-state humour.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

EIFF: Day Two

I may never understand the pitfalls of celebrity. Save for one unfortunate brush with small-town fame—when I was eight years old I won a giant four-foot tall stuffed rabbit from a grocery store, which resulted in my picture running in the local paper—I've managed to remain thankfully obscured from the public eye. Granted, should I ever become a Pynchonesque media-shy author, this grainy, faded picture of my young moppet self squeezing a giant bunny might come back to haunt me, but I remain hopeful that this image has buried by history, just as the rabbit itself has long since been lost.

In fact, I've even managed to achieve a certain anonymity in my everyday life. Co-workers have mistakenly confused me with the following people: Robert, Bryan, Ryan, and Hey You. Best of all, a woman who had worked with me for months inexplicably took to calling me Mark for almost three weeks—a mistake I encouraged, as it allowed me to hide from her dithering ineptitude. "Where's Mark?" she would ask, only to receive a chorus of confused shrugs, finally wandering off, her dazed, wide-eyed look resembling nothing so much as a deer caught in a world of headlights. I was rather disappointed when my supervisor finally corrected her. How liberating it was to be a Mark and throw off all the baggage of my old name, even if only for a few weeks.

There's a point to all of this, I assure you. Some fortuitous scheduling at the festival allowed me to take in two complimentary documentaries that deal with the perils of unwanted celebrity, and both films feature people confronting past embarrassments. In Best Worst Movie, this fame comes from the shame of appearing in Troll 2, which was once listed as the worst movie ever on IMDB (it has since relinquished the crown to Pocket Ninjas). In Winnebago Man, it is the questionable notoriety of a viral video phenom. But in both cases, people find their pasts coming back not just to haunt them, but to drag them into the spotlight. And oh, how that brightness burns...

Winnebago Man

Nearly twenty years ago, a video of outtakes from a shoot for a Winnebago promotional film began circling among people who trade these sort of underground tapes. The appeal of the "Winnebago Man" video, as it was called, lied in the foul-mouthed star of the film, who flubbed lines, cussed out the intern, and said baffling things like, "I want no more bullshit from anyone—and that includes me." It was viral video before the concept even existed.

Of course, when YouTube took off, the tape was uploaded and found an even larger audience. For most people, it was just a cathartic bit of fun—look at this guy having a terrible day and simply letting that vitriol fly. But documentary director Ben Steinbauer was obsessed with discovering the man behind the video, and began a search for the "Winnebago Man" that would result in this film.

The man in the video is named Jack Rebney, and it turns out the tape was created by the disgruntled crew in order to get him fired. Their plan worked, and Rebney seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth while the tape began its second life in underground tape-trading circles before graduating to the dubious distinction of an Internet video phenomenon.

Now 76 years old, the man lives alone in a secluded cabin on a mountain in California with only his dog Buddha for company. At first, he seems polite and modest, disinterested in the documentary but amiable nonetheless. But as he warms to Steinbauer (and perhaps realizes the documentary offers a chance to redeem himself after his Internet humiliation), Rebney begins to drop his guard and reveal the full force of his opinions and personality on film.

It's bracing, to say the least. He's very much the definition of a crotchety old man, but also absolutely charming despite (or perhaps because of) his obvious crustiness. He's rightly wary of the new fame Steinbauer wants to bring to him—this is a man whose fame rests on a tape specifically designed to humiliate him, remember. But he's also possessed by a restless, talkative demeanor, and he can't help but pour out a torrent of words the instant he's prodded. There are times when you want to roll your eyes—he's working on a book called "Jousting With the Myth," which is apparently a "heretical analysis" of politics, sex, and religion, whatever that means—but the man is also sharp-witted and quite endearing. As one fan in the film notes, "He's everyone's angry grandpa."

In fact, one of the highlights of the festival so far had to be the post-screening q-and-a with Steinbauer and co-writer/producer Malcolm Pullinger. In response to one question from the audience about Rebney's book, Steinbauer offered to call the man himself. Speaking through a cellphone, Rebney regaled the audience with his own mix of eloquent charm and cussedness. Steinbauer barely had to say anything and the man was off and running—praising Canada, thanking us for our generosity, complimenting his director, describing his swearing as "Anglo-Saxonese," making jokes about lutefisk, and just generally saying whatever occurred to him.

It was funny and ridiculous, but it also makes clear why this simple film is so engaging. Steinbauer never really quite deciphers the mysteries of viral video or Internet fame; quite naturally, the film evolves into a character portrait of Rebney himself, and Steinbauer contents himself to get lost in the strange and fascinating personality of this sweetly embittered old man. By the end, Rebney finds his redemption as a man willing to speak his mind, letting loose with anger, gratitude, or simply whatever curious thought happens to be drifting by at the moment. We should all be so uninhibited.

Best Worst Movie

I suppose there are worse fates than having a picture of your chubby-cheeked cherubic little self squeezing a plush rabbit printed in a small-town newspaper. For instance, as a child you could be cast in a film called Troll 2, only to realize your hope of becoming an actor has been forever destroyed because you just appeared in what will come to be known as the worst movie ever.

That's the fate of Michael Stephenson, who starred in the famously awful Troll 2 and also directed this film, Best Worst Movie, chronicling the growing cult legend of that legendary bit of crap cinema. After years of running from that dire credit (one of his costars who has continued with acting admits she never puts the film on her resume), Stephenson has decided to embrace it with this film, and turn that liability into a bit of camp celebrity.

He rounds up the bulk of the cast, although the film mostly focuses on George Hardy, a gregarious small-town dentist who also once harbored dreams of acting, only to have them dashed by Troll 2. The film follows the reunited cast as they attend enthusiastic fan screenings, re-enacting scenes from the movie to giddy applause and hysterical laughter. As the film enters its second life as a cult object, the cast—Hardy and Stephenson in particular—struggle to turn this embarrassment into something redemptive, like a second shot at fame.

Best Worst Movie has its charms, but I found myself liking it less than I thought I would. Of course, there's a fair bit of humour to be found in excerpts from the brilliantly awful Troll 2, just as there's some enjoyment in seeing the grown actors replay the most bizarre scenes or reminisce about the difficult, confused shoot (the crew was Italian, and the ensuing language barrier meant the cast had only the frantic hand gestures of the director to explain what was required of them).

At the same time, there are some more ambivalent strains in Stephenson's film that he seems unable or unwilling to address. There is the disturbed Margo Prey, female lead in the film and a clearly troubled, lonely woman whose life seems a shambles. There's the self-deluding Claudio Fragasso, volatile Italian director of Troll 2, who defends the worth of the film while twisting himself into knots rationalizing the mocking adoration of his film (at one point we see his patience finally break as he berates the cast for making fun of the film, calling them "dog actors").

Finally, there is George Hardy himself, who—while clearly charismatic and goodhearted—is something of a narcissist finding his ego fed by this dubious celebrity. It's simultaneously funny and painful to watch him foist his awful movie appearance on clients at his dental clinic, and there are points where you can't quite tell if Stephenson is simply mocking this poor guy. It brings to mind a point in Winnebago Man where Steinbauer muses over the wisdom of putting Rebney in front of a camera again, especially if it only provides new humiliation for the man.

Stephenson, who seems to be a less nuanced director than Steinbauer, doesn't even really pause to consider this possibility. For that matter, he might be too complicit in this story to really pick apart the Troll 2 experience with any real insight beyond his own bemusement. I was amused for a while, but the film itself never really becomes genuinely compelling. And by the end, it becomes clear Stephenson intends his film to serve as a sweet conclusion to a bitter memory, which unfortunately requires the film to gloss over its more contrary elements.

However, I should note that I've never seen Troll 2, so I don't really fit into the group of devotees who would most likely lap up a film like this (myself, I'm holding out for a Gymkata revival). For those of us outside of the cult, Best Worst Movie is at most a minor pleasure and mild curiosity, and little more.

But there are still valuable lessons to be learned here. Like this: there is no sense in running from notoriety. Hiding from your past doesn't necessarily stop it from finding you. Embrace it; only when it is close can you get your hands around its throat. Also, Italian directors are crazy. And according to Jack Rebney, Karl Rove deserves to have a hot poker stuck up his ass. Amen.

Now, I believe there is a four-foot-tall plush rabbit I need to find, lest I be on my deathbed calling out in a weathered croak, "Foo-foo Bunny," and then dropping my cherished snow globe.

Keep on truckin',

Saturday, September 26, 2009

EIFF: Day One

Another autumn in Edmonton. After outrageously record-breaking heat earlier this week, you can start to feel the chill setting in as we prepare to dive into months of snowy hell. The leaves, feeling a heart-sinking terror at the coming cold, leap to death rather than face the agonies of frost. The cracks in the asphalt are fairly panting with anticipation for the ice to come and pry open their maws, turning the Edmonton streets into a giant car-eating beast. It hungers. You hear its stomach growl as the weather begins to change.

And just as we feel our spirits sagging with the weight of the coming winter, the Edmonton International Film Festival (23rd edition) comes along offering some sort of shelter from the dismal spectacle of nature committing hari-kari en masse before first snowfall. Yes, let us seek comfort in the antiseptic environs of City Centre Mall (speaking of dead things) and warm ourselves beneath the glowing lights of the cinema.

But is there enough combined friction in this slate of films to even generate the heat needed to offset the chilly blast of the theatre's air conditioning? Will we all freeze to death sitting before some middlebrow mediocrity so devoid of spark you could lock it in a room full of dry tinder and not lose a wink of sleep? We shall see.

Cooking With Stella

The beginning film sets the tone, as festival producer Kerrie Long noted in her introduction to this year's opening gala. In that case, what does Dilip Mehta's Cooking With Stella presage for the rest of the week? It's not a terrible film, but certainly a bit of a clunker. Set in New Delhi, the film focuses on a Canadian family new to India: Maya, a Canadian diplomat (Lisa Ray), and Michael, her chef husband (Don McKellar, who answered questions with Mehta after the screening), along with a young baby. They're greeted by Stella (Seema Biswas), a cook and household servant who has served visiting diplomats for thirty years.

For years, Stella has conned her employers with little scams, overcharging for laundry and food and earning commissions from the complicit shop owners. She also steals the duty-free western groceries and sells them on the black market, and even, on occasion, simply swipes jewelry. But when Lisa and Michael hire a nanny for their baby, Stella finds her cash cow under threat by an honest outsider.

Mehta plays this mostly as a comedy, and while the quality cast helps in this regard, I'm not sure if the film really works. The director said after the screening that he wanted the audience to laugh and then feel a "pinch," as he called it, when they considered what they were laughing at. His real intention, he made clear, was to make a comedy about the economic disparity between the servants and their employers. Certainly, that element is there, but the humour is often too broad to really connect with the actual themes of the film, and the plot requires far too much credulity on the part of the audience to really hold together.

Mehta might be the film's main weakness. Primarily a photojournalist, he confirms my (potentially unfair, I admit) bias against photographers-turned-filmmakers. For every Stanley Kubrick, there are ten Dilip Mehtas—directors who possess a fine understanding of light and composition, and yet do not seem to have a clear grasp on how to make good cinema. The film, at first glance, does not seem ugly, but it is certainly flat and inert, possessing an aesthetic with the depth of a made-for-television movie.

Scenes in a crowded Indian marketplace, for example, feel as if they were filmed in a studio with twenty extras. Most likely, these scenes were actually on location (the film was made in New Delhi), but Mehta hits a barrier here where his abilities as a photographer cannot help him as a director. He does not lead us into his images, but rather cuts right to the primary information in the shot. There is no sense of the scope of the marketplace—no establishing shots, no stray details of the bustle and vitality of the crowded place—just Michael walking through it, close to the camera. Mehta's frame makes the world smaller, less real. And this from a director who claimed his editor needed to work in New Delhi in order to take in the flavour of India.

Not Quite Hollywood

EIFF has a particular fondness for documentaries about crap cinema and figures on the margin of the film industry, which makes Not Quite Hollywood a good fit for the festival. Mark Hartley's energetic documentary chronicles the heyday of Australian exploitation cinema in the 1970s and '80s (or Ozploitation, if you prefer), when a flurry of low-budget filmmaking in that country produced a series of violent, sexed-up cheap thrillers that have grown in cult popularity over the years.

The tone of Not Quite Hollywood is celebratory, although for a bit of variety Hartley also talks to a couple of film critics who mostly sniff disdainfully at the parade of vulgarities relished by the film. There are some interesting little movies that Hartley puts under the spotlight, like Roadgames (Rear Window set in a truck on the highway, apparently) and Long Weekend (obnoxious couple go camping and are attacked by vengeful nature, from plants to weather to animals), but mostly there is just a lengthy parade of cheesy gore and sex.

It's entertaining, if a bit tiring at times—those montages of naked women or over-the-top murders start to get a bit monotous, you know—but when Hartley focuses his attention on a single picture the film gets more interesting. Tales of Dennis Hopper's debauched adventures during the filming of Mad Dog Morgan are particularly enjoyable, as are anecdotes of the difficult Chinese action star Jimmy Wang Yu. The film also makes a fair point in how genre cinema often serves as a necessary foundation to more respectable filmmaking (which echoes the development of the Canadian film industry in the 1970s in some ways), but mostly, this is just a celebration of using naked women as living hood ornaments and the art of setting actors on fire.