Thursday, 11 May 2017

VIOLET - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Portrait of adolescent grief an emotional powerhouse

Leading the bike of a dead friend on a lonely road of grief.

Violet (2017)
Dir. Bas Devos
Starring: Cesar De Sutter, Mira Helmer, Raf Walschaerts, Fania Sorel, Koen De Sutter

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Is there anything more complex and powerful in human existence than grief? If there is, let me know. That horrible waking and dreaming state in which we respond to loss seems beyond all that is - in any way, shape or form - quantifiable. We can feel it, alright. It might be the heaviest emotional and physical weight anyone can possibly bear and yet, it's not often something we can so easily recognize, in others, as well as within ourselves. Grief has properties we all purport to understand, but on the spectrum of human emotion, loss - or rather, our response to loss - is infused with an import that is as rock-solid foundational as it is fleeting.

Grief exists somewhere between the tangible and the invisible.

Grief is the subject of the extraordinary feature-length debut by Bas Devos, a film that is indelibly infused with the delicate beauty and subtlety of the everything its title, Violet, represents.

As both a flower and colour, violet is rife with significance. My own first thoughts, possibly due to my very lapsed (but never-forgotten) religious roots in Christianity, are associated with Holy Mother Mary's deep modesty, her reverential devotion and the world's first blossoming of the unique flower upon Angel Gabriel's deliverance of the message that She would give birth to the Son of God. In more practical terms, violet is the last colour in the visible light spectrum, nestled twixt blue and the invisible ultraviolet.

Violet exists in the provocative dichotomous properties of death and rebirth. Beginning with the grain and pixels of CCTV monitors in a Brussels mall bathed in fluorescent light, we witness the violent death of a teenage boy. His body lying in a bloody heap, the picture slam-cuts to a shot of the corpse in the foreground as the tentative figure of teen Jesse (Cesar De Sutter) slowly approaches as he calls out his friend's name. "Jonas?" he asks. He wants his friend to answer, but he knows (as we do) that there will be no response.

From here, Devos takes us on the haunting journey of this frail adolescent as he wends his way through a mourning process that is filled with such sadness and confusion that the film is as unbearable as it is compulsively relentless in its exploration of loss. Presented as a series of single shots, gorgeously composed and lit by cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (Bullhead), we are constantly in Jesse's company as he faces confused solace from his parents, spies upon the mother and father of dead Jonas from outside their house, goes BMX riding with his buddies, faces their questioning, their blame and in one extraordinary sequence, drowns himself in a sea of bodies at a concert whilst the music blasts and pulsates hypnotically, charging him with a cacophonous aural barrage that drains him of the heavy weight of grief, if only fleetingly.

Devos wisely employs the standard-frame Academy ratio, most recently used to such astonishing effect in Son of Saul by Laszlo Nemes, its intimate qualities that were also the domain of cinema for a half century before the development of widescreen processes, Violet eschews the horizontal expanse that contemporary audiences have become so used to and instead explores the virtues of figures on a vertical landscape (via Karakatsanis's partial use of 8-perf 65mm film). Though some might jump to the knee-jerk response of equating Violet with the work of Gus Van Sant's Elephant and Paranoid Park (perfectly acceptable due to their subject matter of grief, adolescence and formalist qualities), I couldn't help but think of the sheer humanity of William Wyler's pre-widescreen compositions in such emotion-charged works as Dodsworth, The Best Years of Our Lives and most notably, The Heiress.

The academy ratio, with its emphasis upon the height of the frame, rather than the width, places us with the characters in such a way that our eyes move up and down rather than right to left. We not only get the force of depth, but the sense of the world's weight from above and the gravity which roots us to the ground. Jesse viewing the parents of Jonas from outside their house is especially evocative of this - it drives home his grief and that of the parents of the dead boy.

Violet is cinematic storytelling in its most powerful, evocative form. Devos uses image to express emotion, but to also evoke it within us. There are indeed images in this film that nobody will ever forget - Jesse riding his bike, grasping the handlebar of his dead pal's bike as he leads it down the dark, tree-lined streets of twilight or even more stunning, a final 10-minute shot as the camera slowly wends its way through the suburbs twixt magic hour and the setting of the sun.

It's a film that leaves you in a state of grace. Kind of like Mother Mary and the blossoming of violets upon Gabriel's revelation of the impending birth of God's Son. Life leads to death. Death leads to rebirth. And grief is that delicate spot on the spectrum of human existence - at once vivid and yet, so close to invisibility.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars

Violet opens May 12, 2017 in North America. In Canada, it can be seen at the Carlton and Kingsway Cinemas in Toronto.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

HOUNDS OF LOVE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Sickeningly Effective Aussie Thriller Will Shock

Preamble: Between 1990 and 1992, loving Canadian couple Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered three schoolgirls (including Homolka's little sister). Bernardo, on his own, and sometimes in collusion with Homolka serial raped dozens of women. The final numbers of those raped and/or murdered might never be known. Bernardo will be behind bars forever. Homolka struck a grotesque plea-bargain and today walks free. These crimes continue to haunt Canadians. Any such crimes will shake anyone's foundation, but that these acts of evil against women were committed with the willing complicity of a woman in the leafy, seemingly safe suburbs of Canadian cities seems so unthinkable, so appalling that the idea of any dramatization of similar acts seems beyond the pale.

During Bernardo's trial, I personally attended the courthouse on the morning audio tapes were played of Bernardo raping one of the schoolgirls. I staggered out at the official recess and never returned. What I experienced that morning is branded on my brain forever.

Watching Australian filmmaker Ben Young's horrifying thriller Hounds of Love brought it all back. Though Young's film is only loosely based on similar cases in Australia, I could not help but be transported back to the horrible experience of hearing Paul Bernardo calmly barking out orders to his weeping victim. Hounds of Love is, first and foremost, a thriller. No two ways about it - the film's intent is to scare the shit out of us. Was it necessary for Young to make this film? Was it necessary to subject myself to it? Is it necessary for anyone to see it? Read on.

Aussie thriller will resonate chillingly with Canadian audiences aware of schoolgirl killers Bernardo/Homolka. 

Hounds of Love (2017)
Dir. Ben Young
Starring: Emma Booth, Stephen Curry,
Ashleigh Cummings, Susie Porter, Damian De Montemas

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Through the driver's side window of a slow-moving car, teenage girls in school uniforms play volleyball within a caged court. Their movements are so dreamily-measured that one thinks the scene is unfolding in a series of still-life images. Once the car is parked, we catch sight of two steely eyes peering forward in a rearview mirror. From this perspective, we're afforded a series of closeups involving the almost lethargic slow-motion movements of the athletic young girls. All we see are body parts - knees bending, thighs jiggling ever-so slightly, breasts pressing forward under crisp white shirts as hands clutch a volleyball and thrust it forward.

These young women are reduced to faceless objects of desire.

Eventually, we're handed a new perspective. Through the driver's side window of the parked vehicle, we watch as the girls leave the court - some in cars, others on foot, but all in groups. All that is, except for one.

The car starts. The quarry is clear. The hunt is on.

Mayhem will follow.

Hounds of Love marks the feature film debut of Australian writer-director Ben Young and there is no denying that he's crafted a thriller with intelligence, resonance and sheer-DNA-hardwired filmmaking bravura. Inspired by two notable true-life serial killings in the Land Down Under (the "Night Caller" and "Moorhouse" murders), Young's film is set in 1987 amidst the sunny suburbs of Perth in which demented couple Evelyn and John White (Emma Booth, Stephen Curry) stalk, kidnap, torture, rape and murder teenage schoolgirls.

Much like the aforementioned Canuck killers Bernardo and Homolka, the pair use the safety net of being a "normal couple" to dupe teen runaway Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) into their bungalow of horror to have their way with her. John has wifey Evelyn wrapped round his finger and she's a willing participant in these grotesqueries.

Young's screenplay pays special attention to layering the characters - in particular the used/abused wife and her sorrow from losing her two biological children in a custody dispute from a previous marriage and victim Vicki's woes due to her parents' recent break-up. Much of the film is a survival tale in which the teenager uses her wits to get wifey onside by exposing how little hubby John actually cares about her.

I will admit to being more than a little mixed about this subject matter being used to raise hackles. This is clearly something that happened and will continue to happen in real life and though Young handles the proceedings with considerable "taste", it's impossible to watch the film (or even think about it afterwards) without feeling the bile rise.

Still, this is first-rate filmmaking. There are a number of suspense set pieces that will have audiences squirming. The synth-driven score and clever use of period music is especially effective. I guarantee that "Nights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues can NEVER be listened to in the same way EVER AGAIN after the manner in which Young employs it here.

Though I understand why Young has written the harrowing final act to focus upon the whole notion of a mother's love for her child (children), there's something a touch too pat about the Silence of the Lambs nod employed as a key turn in the events. It's not exploitative (at least not in the wrong way), but so much of the film (especially the astonishing performances delivered by the picture's key trio of players) has a sickening ring of truth to it and one can't help but feel that we're left with a denouement that's resorted to the kind of trope that the film goes out of its way to avoid.

Still, the picture is a shocker and directed with the skill of a master. The fetishistic qualities of Young's "eye" conjure up the sort of frissons employed by Master Alfred Hitchcock himself. One can only imagine what terrific pictures Ben Young has in store for us.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** Four Stars

Hounds of Love is an ABMO Films presentation that opens May 12, 2017 at:
Toronto – Carlton Cinemas – 20 Carlton St.
Ottawa – Mayfair Theatre – 1074 Bank St.
and May 19, 2017 at:
London – The Hyland Cinema - 240 Wharncliffe Rd.

Friday, 5 May 2017

GHOSTS OF OUR FOREST - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 Hot Docs Hot Pick - Music Lives

The music of the Batwa survives amidst displacement.
Ghosts of Our Forest (2017)
Dir. Daniel Roher

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The Batwa of Uganda have been displaced from their centuries-old ancestral home in the jungle for some twenty five years. They live between two worlds. Forcibly removed (at gunpoint no less) from the natural habitat of the dwindling mountain gorilla population, these people were dumped on the outskirts of the city with no compensation nor training to prepare them for a way of life in diametric contrast to the one they knew. They have suffered prejudice, poverty, substance abuse, exploitation and Christian colonization.

Their land is now a national park and they are not allowed to enter the lush forests without permission. Some even have official sanction to take white tourists into the park on tours in which they reenact the way of life of these gentle, pygmy tribes. What the Batwa retain is music - singing is their very soul and now they hope to use it to educate younger generations of Batwa in the history and culture of their people, but most importantly to expose their plight to the rest of the world.

Daniel Roher's fine documentary Ghosts of Our Forest is as sad and haunting as it is joyous and uplifting - his deft natural filmmaking instincts allow us to have our cake and eat it too.

The primary focus is on the Batwa Music Club as the prepare for a big concert in Kampala. Whether the group is practising or delivering the film's climactic live performance, the film allows us to soar with these brilliant musicians as they fill our hearts with the sheer beauty of their people and historic way of life.

We must pay a price for this joy, however, and the film presents a series of harrowing interviews in which we learn about the suffering of the Batwa. One story is especially chilling; an old woman describes how she was collecting dead firewood on the edge of the forest when she was approached by park rangers who beat and tortured her. If it hadn't been for the quick thinking on the part of a farm boy who witnessed the brutality and sounded an alarm to the rest of the Batwa community, she would have been dragged deeper into the forest and executed.

This is but one of several sad stories related. Roher spends a good deal of time letting us in on the former way of life these people had in their jungle paradise; much of this is extremely joyous and deeply contrasts the present conditions of the uprooted Batwa. He even points his cameras in the direction of the gorillas who now live alone in the forest. We realize how the Batwa and gorillas would have co-habitated in peace for so long and that the government's forcible removal of these people was cruel and frankly, just plain stupid.

And then there are the "ghosts", the ancestors who roam the forests without the benefit of the living spirits of their progeny. Through both music and rich imagery, Roher's film instills us with an indelible sense of a time and place that seems long ago and far away, yet close enough that we, along with the Batwa can see it, touch it and feel it.

It's an important film. One hopes it will help the government of Uganda see the light and perhaps, someday soon, allow the Batwa to return to their ancestral homeland, to reunite with their ghosts and the natural spirit of their culture.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars

Ghosts of Our Forest enjoys its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2017.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

JACKIE BOY - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Angry Young Men in Grotesque Canuck Kitchen Sink

Jackie Boy (2015)
Dir. Cody Campanale
Starring: Alino Giraldi, Shannon Coulter, Edward Charette,
Andrew Di Rosa, Chloe Van Landschoot, Christina Bryson

Review by Greg Klymkiw

This grim, powerful slice-of-life exploration of male bonding and misogyny is the best feature film of its kind since 1997's In the Company of Men and is, in fact, far more aesthetically whole and bereft of the quick, easy moralistic turns taken in Neil LaBute's foray into manly meanness. Though it lacks LaBute's satirically-edged humour, this is not a problem at all since writer-director Cody Campanale is clearly burrowed into the kitchen sink realism of mannish hatreds (not unlike films from the 60's British New Wave such as This Sporting Life, Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger).

Here we find three layabout buddies in their late 20s, living aimlessly in the dreary post-war suburbs of Hamilton. The group's Alpha-Male is Jack (Alino Giraldi), the strikingly handsome and sexy cocksman who lives in a morass of drugs, booze and one night stands in the clubs. After finding out that one of his female conquests has a boyfriend, he snaps a bunch of nude provocative photos of her and uploads them to social media, just to humiliate her and brag to his buddies about how badass he was. Kal (Edward Charette) might even harbour deeper feelings of hatred towards women and we get considerable clues that he is, in fact, repressing his homosexuality. Tony (Andrew Di Rosa) is a major loser with a hot life partner who puts up with his general untidiness, unemployment and increasing weight gain, but she's near the end of her charitable rope.

These men are pigs. They have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. This is a good thing. Campanale seeks not to explain away their behaviour, nor does he attempt to falsely attribute positive aspects to their foul personae. Watching the film is uncanny - sickeningly so. I know these men and even recognize (to my shame) bits and pieces of myself. Campanale's sense of observation is masterly and he's offered considerable support to this end from his cast, cinematographer and an outstanding score.

However, watching these guys be pigs for a whole film would be too much and Campanale's deft screenplay realistically provides a spanner in the works. Jack meets Jasmine (Sharon Coulter), a smart, funny and unbelievably sexy young woman who refuses to succumb to his bullshit. This makes him want her even more - so much so, that the unthinkable happens and he begins to fall in love with her. Having normal feelings for a woman pisses off his buds mightily and the film creepily edges to a shocking climax.

Unfortunately, I wish Campanale had trusted in the inevitability of the story's actions and had not succumbed to working a "surprise" sub-plot in to deflect attention away from the said (and sad) inevitability. It's the one false note in a movie that is refreshingly without them (and keeps the picture from attaining masterpiece potential). Still, it's a terrific film and to its undying credit that this one glaring flaw doesn't keep the movie from sinking too deeply into a quagmire of disappointment.

Ultimately, Jackie Boy is the real thing. So is its director.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4-Stars

Sidenote: Campanale's film weirdly reminded me of a short film I wrote and directed for the now-defunct OMDC Calling Card Programme in 2000 called Zabava. The short swam about in the bucket of piss known as Ukrainian-Canadian man-boys treating women like shit. Though not derivative of my film in any way, there are narrative elements in Campanale's feature that are strikingly similar to my short, proving only that misogyny carries over in similar ways from generation to generation.

Jackie Boy opens May 5 at The Royal Cinema via A71.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

ASK THE SEXPERT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017HotDocsHotPick - Nonagenarian Sex Tips

Dr. Mahinder Watsa is 90-years-old.
He knows EVERYTHING about sex. Ask him ANYTHING.
Ask the Sexpert (2017)
Dir. Vaishali Sinha

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Is there anything you want to know about sex? Well, have no fear. If you live in India, that is. Here you can pick the enormous sex-drenched brain of nonagenarian expert on all things nookie-related, Dr. Mahinder Watsa. Yes, he knows everything you always wanted to know about sex (but were afraid to ask).

Vaishali Sinha's slight, sleek and thoroughly entertaining portrait of the kindly, old doctor isn't about to set the world ablaze, but it opens a window into the world of a genuinely great man who has devoted his life to shattering the taboos associated with sexuality in the decidedly patriarchal and repressive country of India. He's a sex advice columnist for a large Mumbai daily and he's read and beloved by millions. He also offers one-on-one counsel to couples and individuals from his home.

The film provides a thorough biographical history of Sinha, from his earliest days in medical school, through to his ongoing research and practise in the area of sexuality and right up to his current status as one of the biggest celebrities in India. Though he lives quietly, modestly and sadly alone (his beloved wife has passed on), his ongoing work keeps him busy and fulfilled. His family wants him to slow down and they worry about all the strangers he lets into his home, but he pays it no mind and continues with his life's work - unabated, unstoppable.

There is much humour in the film - some of the questions imparted seem so ludicrous as to border on a kind of Dali-like surrealism and certainly the picture does not ignore the opposition in India to the good doctor's frankness. Perhaps this film wasn't the place to address the more serious concerns on violence against women and rape culture in India, but at the same time, it feels skirted over almost unnecessarily. Yes, the movie exposes and promotes the good doctor's open approach to sexuality and while this, in and of itself, provides some answers and contrast to the tough questions, it seems hardly enough.

Still, he's a great subject and viewers will have a fun ride on the 90-year-old's magic carpet of all things sexual.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: *** Three Stars

Ask The Sexpert enjoys its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2017

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

ISLAND SOLDIER - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017HotDocsHotPick - Military Colonialism USA

Colonialism Means Dying for Someone Else's Country
Island Soldier (2017)
Dir. Nathan Fitch

Review By Greg Klymkiw

You can never go wrong with a God's-eye view and the gorgeous shots at the beginning of Island Soldier are an especially appropriate way to introduce us to the deep blue waters surrounding the lush green islands of Micronesia and the strange, sad and beautiful world of the citizens of Kosrae.

It's immediately clear that the indigenous population of 6500 have a decent enough living to choose from in fishing, farming, forestry and/or tourism. Once our lofty perch shifts to Earth, we join a young boy working on his boat, the expanse of ocean on one side, the hilly boreal forest on the other.

The idyll doesn't last long - at least not for us. We immediately join a grieving family as a military escort removes a coffin from an airplane. Though all present are indigenous Island people, the coffin is draped in an American flag and followed by the wince-inspiring multi-gun salute that seems more suited to the gardens of stone across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. at the Arlington National Cemetery and not this paradise of over 200 volcanic islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Deftly using a mix of title cards over gorgeous images and period archival footage, we get a short-form history of Micronesia, its centuries of colonial rule and eventually being recognized as its own country. That said, we also learn that Micronesia is an official protectorate of the United States and as such, perfect recruiting grounds for the American military.

Director-Cinematographer Nathan Fitch doesn't waste much time with any formal informational proceedings - this is a film about the land, and most of all, its people. As glorious as it is to see the residents of Micronesia in this dazzlingly photographed Pacific Shangri-La, the film is infused with a deep melancholy that is often profoundly moving.

An older generation continues to toil in the traditional ways of the island (agriculture and fishing), but the youth of the island seeks something more. They want freedom, training, education and a "better" way of life.

Sadly, this means that many of them leave. Sadder yet, many leave permanently - serving the United States military in the far-flung regions of the Middle East. For so many young people, the permanence of their flight from the islands is the permanence of death on whatever battlegrounds America chooses to exercise its might. Bouncing between sequences of an old man preparing taro twixt attempting to Skype with his soldier son via a bad internet connection, to the rigorous basic training in Fort Benning and "action" in the field and a mother honouring her dead son by running a restaurant named after him - these amongst many other moments of life on and off the islands contribute to one of the more powerful and elegiac films about the continued "legacy" of colonialism - an ever-changing world of tradition yielding to conformity.

The "politics" of the film are well served by its first rate production value, bravely languorous cutting and accent on the changing landscape of humanity against the backdrop of a "land" that remains ever-constant.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ Three and a Half Stars

Island Soldier enjoys its International Premiere at Hot Docs 2017

Monday, 1 May 2017

A BETTER MAN - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 HotDocs HotPick - An Abused & Abuser Kaffeeklatsch

Scumbag Abuser Meets Victim 20+ Years Later.
You don't see this everyday.

A Better Man (2017)
Dir. Attiya Khan, Lawrence Jackman

Review By Greg Klymkiw

About halfway through A Better Man, I bolted from the cinema and puked my guts out. I'm still not completely sure why. What I remember is feeling mounting rage whenever one of the documentary's subjects, a scumbag abuser, was onscreen. I suspect the desired effect of the film was not to make me want to find this piece of garbage and fucking tear him limb from limb. I'm not exaggerating. Whenever I had to look at this pile of shit, I started to close my eyes or just turn away and look somewhere else and all the while I kept having fantasies about the delectable myriad of tortures I'd apply to him. I won't share them with you, but rest assured, they're pretty horrendous. As the movie unspooled they got sicker and meaner. I mean, really sick, really mean. As I write this, I'm so tempted to share them with you, but no - I'll keep them to myself.

What I can say for sure, and again, whether this was the intent of the film or not, it made me feel hatred. Deep, genuine hatred. It made me think about who I am, my own experiences, my own place in the world, as a man, and most notably, it left me asking questions, some of which I'd wished the film itself answered. Though it didn't, it forced me to try and answer them all by my lonesome.

It made me think about my own sweet teenage daughter and what I would do if she ever had to suffer what the film's co-director and chief subject Attiya Khan suffered 23-years ago when she co-habited with the wad of stinking excrement who purportedly loved her, but inflicted endless, brutal physical abuse upon her. I know one thing. I would want to do many of the things I fantasized about last night - I'd really, really want to do them.

Wanting and doing are, however, two different things. Doing any of those things would result in being separated from someone who would need me to be around for her sake. Incarceration, no matter how unjustified it would be for exacting true justice, would be no substitute for being present and free to offer the kind of love and support that would be needed - the love and support that supersedes any violence that could/should be applied to turds like him.

A Better Man is an important and original film. I actually don't think anything quite like it has ever been made. What you will experience in the picture feels almost unprecedented. Over two decades after suffering abuse, Khan gets her abuser to agree to be in this film with her to discuss the horrors he inflicted. They meet alone, face to face, they share time, together and alone, with a counsellor and in one of the more harrowing sequences I've ever experienced in a movie, they journey to the shithole of Kitchener-Waterloo to visit the locations where the physical abuse took place.

The film clearly wants to explore the notion of healing - for both the abused and the abuser. What ends up happening, and this is (I think/hope) not the fault of the filmmaking, is that the abuser continually avoids digging deep. He never fully articulates the extent (and details) of the violence he committed. Even more maddening is that he never fully reveals what he might have suffered in his life prior to living with and meting out continued assaults upon his live-in girlfriend.

What's creepy about this stinking landfill on two legs is that he seems even a bit smug about the "bravery" of agreeing to be in the film. Worse yet, his bravery even seems to take on fetishistic properties. It's like he's getting off on doing this. I couldn't help but imagine him watching the movie at home alone and having a right happy masturbation session over it. The bottom line, is that I have no fucking use for him. It sickens me that he's wasting air that others could breathe.

The movie itself will certainly have its place in film history, but it would be remiss of me to avoid the fact that it's not nearly as good as it could be. First of all, it feels oddly truncated - as if there are huge, vital chunks on some cutting room floor somewhere. Secondly, it doesn't go nearly as deep into the subject of domestic abuse as one wants it to. In both cases, my criticisms here seem linked to the many unanswered questions which, ultimately, need to be part of the experience of seeing this film.

Where, for example, were Khan's family in all this? She describes her extremely visible wounds. Did she hide this from her family? If so, why don't we get some insight into this? (At one point we find out her teachers at school had an inkling of what was going on, but the film leaves us wanting in terms of why more, if anything, wasn't done by authority figures.)

We watch the movie waiting for sequences that penetrate the issues of why the abused stayed and why the abuser abused. These are addressed, but not nearly with the dogged, deep detail the movie seems to demand. The movie is missing a pit bull - someone or something to grab hold with its teeth and jaws and never let go.

Yes, the movie was made. Yes, the movie forces us to think about and address the issue of domestic violence. Yes, it has power. Yes, it's original.

But sorry, it's not enough. It oddly feels like a film with too many cooks tossing in and/or removing ingredients into the pot. This might not be the case, but that the movie feels this way suggests that it wasn't worked hard enough. (And if there were a few too many cooks, they all need to go back to cooking school and leave filmmakers alone.)

There is one very strange thing about the experience of first seeing the film that stuck out for me like a sore thumb. As the movie begins, the following title card appears:
The film describes scene of intimate partner violence which may be painful for some viewers. Please exercise care and compassion for yourself and any fellow viewers.
Huh?

What's this supposed to mean? Whose not-bright idea was it to assail us with these words? Given the bravery and importance of the film, its worth (in spite of its flaws) as a work of art, giving us this boneheaded non-warning warning about nothing, is an insult to the film and, frankly, its viewers. What's the point of telling us what we're about to see? What's the point of telling us how potentially horrific it's going to be? And then, what, pray tell is the point of telling us how fucking touchy-feely sensitive we have to be about ourselves and fellow viewers while we watch the movie?

Seriously, this is one of the most idiotic things I've ever witnessed in any movie.

I beg whoever is responsible for this to cut it. Treat your audiences and the film with respect by not telling us a load of nonsense and tainting the purity of the picture.

And speaking of cuts, I must reiterate - this movie feels truncated. Something tells me the picture needs to be pulled and a rethink on what's probably sitting on the floor somewhere needs to happen. This movie needs breathing space. It needs to be the best it can possibly be. It's too original and important not to have this lavished upon it.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: *** Three-Stars

A Better Man is an NFB production enjoying its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2017.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

WHITNEY "CAN I BE ME" & INTENT TO DESTROY - Reviews By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 HotDocs HotPicks - Veteran Filmmakers Respectively Deliver Moving New Docs on Music & Massacre.

Houston Decimated by drugs and a broken heart.
Armenians decimated by Turkey.
Whitney "Can I Be Me"
Dir. Nick Broomfield, Rudi Dolezal

Intent to Destroy
Dir. Joe Berlinger

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Veteran filmmakers Nick Broomfield (Tales of the Grim Sleeper, Kurt & Courtney) and Joe Berlinger (Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger) both have new feature documentaries that serve up plenty of extremely moving content.

Broomfield's biographical portrait of the late pop music icon Whitney Houston utilizes concert/tour/personal footage shot by co-director Rudi Dolezal from many years earlier along with new interviews conducted by the incisive Brit auteur of her friends, family and associates. It's inconceivable to imagine anyone not shedding copious tears throughout this finely-wrought piece in which we learn about Houston's early years with a gospel-singing Momma, her rise to fame as a machine-tooled pop-star, the grand Diva's desire to sing her own way and the loves of her life - a best friend (and longtime "secret" lesbian partner) from the 'hood and "fly" singing sensation Bobby Brown. It's especially interesting to see behind-the-scenes interplay twixt the married couple - contrary to my gossip-influenced notions on the matter, the musically-gifted pair seem to genuinely be in love.

Mostly, what we walk away with is a film portrait of a woman dying, almost from the get-go. It's impossible to not feel she's wasting away ON CAMERA before our very eyes.

While the movie eschews Broomfield's trademark wise-ass, sardonic presence in front of the lens, we hear his distinctive voice poking, prodding and penetrating his subjects. Happily, the film is structurally blessed with Broomfield's finely-honed skills as a master film storyteller.

Joe Berlinger's picture is very strange, but also one in which it's hopeless not to shed Iguazu Falls-like torrents of tears. It is a documentary about the horrific 1915 Turkish genocide of over one million Armenians. We learn about the racist policies of forced relocation and wholesale slaughter of the Christian "infidel" and Turkey's continued (to this day) refusal to acknowledge the country's complicity in the first genocide of the 20th century.

The interviews and use of archival footage is first rate. What's less successful (and renders the movie into oddball territory) is the framing device and through-line of the windbag hack director Terry George's production of the absolutely horrendous Armenian massacre drama The Promise. Though Berlinger works hard to relate this part of his film to the real subject of the proceedings (the genocide), this Terry-George-tainted stuff often feels like glorified EPK and/or DVD-extra material for George's dreadful movie.

Still, Berlinger's picture (and much of it is very fine), sheds considerable light on one of the least-know genocides in modern history. This is enough to make it worth seeing.

Alas, Terry George as a subject certainly didn't ingratiate himself upon me (being, as I am, a perogy-slurping Uke Hunky from birth). Aside from the fact that I have little use for George's by-the-numbers work as a director, he rattles off a list of modern genocides in an interview at the start of Berlinger's picture, but fails to mention the Russia/Stalin/Kaganovich murder of 8-10 million Ukrainians during both the Holodomor and Purges.

This is a pretty boneheaded omission. It was, of course, to be expected. Terry George's own Armenian Holocaust picture, The Promise, turned out to be plenty boneheaded.

THE FILM CORNER RATING (Whitney): ***½ Three-and-a-Half Stars
THE FILM CORNER RATING (Intent to Destroy): *** Three Stars

Whitney enjoys its Canadian premiere and Intent To Destroy enjoys its International Premiere at Hot Docs 2017.

Friday, 28 April 2017

LAST MEN IN ALEPPO - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 HotDocs Hot Pick - Do NOT Miss This!

NOTE: If your government is not allowing Syrian refugees into your country, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!!! If you believe Syrian refugees should NOT be allowed into your country, you are an ASSHOLE. If after seeing this film, Last Men in Aleppo, you feel the same way about Syrian refugees or, frankly, any refugees from war-torn and/or repressive regimes, you are clearly BRAIN DEAD.
The child is awake. The child is alive.
You can thank Allah, the God of Abraham or Jesus Christ,
but mostly, you should be thanking
The "White Helmets" of Syria.
Last Men in Aleppo (2017)
Dir. Feras Fayyad

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The bodies of battered, crushed babies removed from under rubble. The love in a father's eyes as he Skypes with his little girl before he dies. Children happily playing outside during a cease-fire until the threat of bombings, in spite of the cease-fire, paralyzes them with fear. A sweet, young man staring blankly after retrieving corpses and body parts from a missile strike site. The planes and helicopters of a Syrian dictator and his dirty Russian allies whooshing over a decimated city as they look for large groups of innocent, unarmed civilians to target.

These and so many other images are branded into my memory banks. I cannot shake them. I'm still shuddering and feeling tears welling up in my eyes. After all the movies I've seen in my life, well over 40,000 of them, I suspect that Last Men in Aleppo will hold a place in my very soul. (And if truth be told, even trying to write about this film inspires the emotions that the film instilled within me.)

This is a documentary portrait of Syria's "White Helmets" - firemen, paramedics and other rescue workers who volunteer (with their very lives in many cases), to search through the carnage of fresh bomb strikes in the city of Aleppo to save those still breathing and to retrieve the remains of those who are dead. Shot in 2015 and adhering with considerable rigour to the style of Cinéma Direct, it follows two primary subjects - Khaled, a burly, gregarious family man (obsessed with raising goldfish in an outdoor fountain amidst the carnage around him) and Mahmoud, a young man who seems utterly fearless yet is, in fact, continually terrified that his baby brother (who works with him) will be killed in the line of (volunteer) duty.

From beginning to end, the cameras are up close and personal with both men - through both their harrowing, dangerous, often deadly rescue missions and their private lives. These are people who love their city and country (in spite of the fuckwads running/ruining it) and it's made clear time and time again, they will stay or die. Most importantly they are wholly devoted to preserving human life after repeated attacks upon the city.

The movie is so plunged into the thick of the madness and chaos of this civil war (masqueraded as such on behalf of Syria's official government of dictatorship) that as we watch the film, we are not only on the edge of our seats with respect to the safety of the men onscreen, but we're equally fearful for the filmmakers.

And make no mistake, this is NOT journalism/war correspondence.

THIS IS REAL FILMMAKING OF THE HIGHEST ORDER.

Director Fayas Fayyad, co-director/co-editor Steen Johannessen, cinematographer Fadi Al Halabi, Sound Recordist Morten Groth Brandt and the entire team have not only risked life and limb to bring this vital story to the screen, but have done so with the most vivid artistic aplomb. You know you are watching a documentary, the real thing (so to speak), but so often you forget all notions of this and feel like you're watching an edge-of-the-seat action film that is putting every mega-budgeted Hollywood nonsense generated, machine-tooled by poseurs, to utter shame. The film's structure is, miraculously, sheer drama of the best kind.

It's thrilling, exciting, terrifying, sad and sickening. And ultimately, it is so very, deeply and profoundly moving. Last Men in Aleppo is a masterpiece and will, as time marches forward be regarded as a classic of brave, brilliant cinema.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars

Last Men in Aleppo enjoys its Canadian Premiere at Hot Docs 2017.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

ABOUT MY LIBERTY - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 HotDocs Hot Pick - Protests for Peace

Our youth are our only hope and salvation.

About My Liberty (2017)
Dir. Takashi Nishihara

Review By Greg Klymkiw

There are few things in democratic society more appalling than when a government reinterprets its constitution for nefarious purposes and against the will of its people, rams through legislation that not only has far-reaching implications within that specific nation, but speaks to the notions of "liberty" (or lack thereof) in an international context. Japan's President Abe committed such a heinous act - a veritable crime against the country of Japan, but by extension, a chilling reminder that all of us, no matter what "free" society/country we live in, are susceptible to the abominable whims of the "ruling" class.

About My Liberty is an important work of Cinéma Direct documentary filmmaking that details the response of young student activists to Abe's horrendous actions when he rammed through legislation that contravened the 70-year-old Japanese constitution and in particular, Japan's unique place as a country devoted to peace. The constitution declares Japan will never actively go to war and that its military is only to be deployed in the nation's self-defence. This basic tenet of the country's nationhood is an important fabric of the culture and society of Japan.

The film focuses upon three young university students who create a national protest of increasing fervour and numbers. Using a wide variety of "millennial" tools (social media, clever bite-sized protest slogans, even Japanese rap music), the protest proper involves congregating outside of the Japanese government buildings with speeches, chants and accompanying cheers for peace. It begins with a veritable handful, but week after week, the numbers mount. Things reach an astonishing head when over 500,000 students hold a nationwide day of protest.

This is epic documentary filmmaking. At 165-minutes, it never lags. Structurally, it is the protests in the streets which are the tie that binds. These scenes have a hypnotic power and when the protests unravel, it's impossible to keep one's eyes off the screen. Between protests, the film focuses upon all the behind-the-scenes activities of the students. (This student movement is especially important in modern Japanese history as it's the first time young people in the country having been motivated to such extremes and on such a scale to actively engage in the political process.)

When the film concentrates on capturing all the aforementioned, it soars. Less successful are some of the scenes involving interviews with the participants. Given that so much of the movie adheres quite brilliantly to its Cinéma Direct roots, these moments tend to stick out like sore thumbs. This is, however, not enough to detract from the overall sweep and power of the film.

What About My Liberty hammers home are two things:

1. Our youth are not only our future, but they, more than any of us, have more of a stake in the future generations that follow them.

2. When peace is threatened in a nation that has peace chiselled into its constitution, we are all under threat. All of us, in spite of "democracy", can have our lives turned topsy-turvy by the borderline fascists so often at the helm of supposedly "free" nations.

The young people in this film are an inspiration to all of us. I'm thankful About My Liberty exists and that it's as good as it is.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ Three-and-a-Half Stars

About My Liberty enjoys its International Premiere at Hot Docs 2017.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

MANIC - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 Hot Docs Hot Pick - Nutty Daddy Scary Shenanigans

Creepy Daddy, Cocksman Extraordinaire

Manic (2017)
Dir. Kalina Bertin

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Gee whiz! If my Dad managed to sire 15 kids, part of me thinks I'd be, "Whoa, dude! Pass me a bottle of that cocksman DNA!" However, if he was anything like filmmaker Kalina Martin's father, I'd be compelled to add: "Uh, but hold the crazy, dude! Don't need any wing-nut juice coursing through my veins." (Actually, I have plenty of it roiling around within, but that's another story, for another day.)

Manic is compulsive viewing. This personal documentary sees its director on a mission to find answers to the reasons why mental illness is "tearing" her family apart. Her siblings are fraught with all manner of bats in the belfry, including bi-polar disorder. Right at the beginning of the picture, we get a brief glimpse of the filmmaker looking into a mirror, and she does not look super-happy. She immediately declares in her voice-over what this movie is going to be about.

We hit the ground running and the picture never lets up.

This is personal documentary filmmaking of a very high order.

Bertin has a great head start. Her family, most notably Daddy Dearest, were seemingly obsessed with taking home movies. This stuff is worth its weight in gold. As first, we get the portrait of a pretty cool, handsome and quite probably brilliant man - a dude who eschewed the status quo and had his family living in all manner of far flung locales. The kiddies look pretty happy too. They're a bit like a hip, hippie Von Trapp family. Alas, the hills are not alive with the sound of music.

And remember, the movie is called Manic. Creepy shit is going to happen and Oh, does it ever. We get the portrait of a devious, dangerous, unhinged con-man-cult-leader who will stop at nothing to achieve total acquiescence from all those around him - not just his kids, but the women who fall madly in love/lust with the hunky Canadian "Chuckles" Manson-like dick-dipper.

This guy is insatiable - not just for sex, but power.

Sadly, he has kids and what we discover is just how mental illness is ripping them to shreds. His legacy is not enviable. Manic is not just a creepy-crawly scary film, but it's savagely, relentlessly heartbreaking.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** Four Stars

Manic, from EyeSteelFilm, enjoys its World Premiere at Hot Docs 17.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

BECOMING BOND + 78/52 - Reviews By Greg Klymkiw - 2017HotDocsHotPicks - About Movies

PSYCHO dissected. BOND Lazenbyed. Movies on Movies.

Becoming Bond (2017)
Dir. Josh Greenbaum
Starring: George Lazenby, Josh Lawson,
Kassandra Clementi, Jeff Garlin, Jane Seymour

78/52 (2017)
Dir. Alexandre O. Philippe
Starring: Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Richard Stanley, Scott Spiegel, Leigh Whannell, Bret Easton Ellis, Illeana Douglas, Marli Renfro, Tere Carrubba, Stephen Rebello, David Thomson, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Movies about movies are certainly a treat for movie aficionados, critics and fanboys, but all those nuts can be the toughest to crack since most movies worth making movies about hold a special place in the hearts of the "converted" being preached to. Becoming Bond is an in-depth biography of George Lazenby, the only actor ever to play 007 once (in one of the greatest Bonds of them all) and 78/52 (the number of setups and cuts in the Psycho shower scene) examines the three-minutes of watery, bloody Hitchcock mayhem with more anal detail than Oliver Stone (no doubt) studied Abraham Zapruder's footage of JFK's assassination. Both documentaries have merit, but both also have a few bones to be mercilessly nitpicked at by geeks.

Walter Murch analyzing the editing of PSYCHO. Wow!
"I felt I'd been raped," says Peter Bogdanovich after describing his first helping of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. He's one of many worthy interview subjects to talk about the shower scene in Psycho. His description of the audience reaction to the sequence in the Times Square cinema he saw it in, is alone worth the price of admission to 78/52.

Happily, Phillipe's documentary offers a sumptuous buffet of perspectives.

Some of the best include:

- an astonishing dissection of the editing from Walter Murch (so amazing that one could have simply made an entire film of Murch discussing it with clips);

- a series of insightful analyses from the brilliant Hardware director Richard Stanley whose passion and appreciation seems so deliciously bonkers (and spot-on) that his demeanour seems almost malevolent in its glee;

- Janet Leigh's nude/stunt body double Marli Renfro who not only provides a cornucopia of production tidbits, but does so which such natural zeal and talent one wonders what we lost from her not being a more prolific actress in movies herself;

- filmmakers Eli (Hostel torture-porn-gore-meister) Roth, Neil (The Descent) Marshall and Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy), all proving they've got the chops to be film professors of the highest order if directing ever turns out to be a dead-end for them and;

- ace composer Danny Elfman brilliantly discussing Bernard Herrmann's game-changing, shriek-and-heart-attack-inducing string score.

Of course, no such documentary would be complete without a stellar passel of eggheads and Phillipe doesn't disappoint in this regard by including film critics/historians Stephen Rebello and David Thomson, PLUS an art history expert casting light on the strange Baroque painting Hitchcock chose as the instrument by which Norman Bates would, peeping-Tom-like, spy upon Janet Leigh.

Oh, but there are several questionable inclusions in the picture which only serve to add unnecessary longueurs and head-scratching to the whole affair. I mean, really. Was it absolutely necessary to waste our time with the "insights" from those responsible for the Saw sequels and Hostel IV? And come on, why even acknowledge that Gus Van Sant's idiotic remake of Psycho exists, much less spending any time on it whatsoever?

However, this is kind of like picking out undigested bits of corn and peanuts from a good, healthy turd deposit and 78/52 is, for most of us fanboys, robust and satisfying.

The Many Facets of George Lazenby in a kilt.
Not so with Becoming Bond. This biography of actor George Lazenby has so much going for it; namely Lazenby himself, that one wonders why director Josh Greenbaum made the decision to tell this fascinating man's story with dramatic re-enactments.

To be in the up close and personal sphere of Lazenby, the 77-year-old former-model-turned-actor, is to be in the presence of a master raconteur. He tells a marvellous tale of his life as a mischievous kid, auto-mechanic, master cocksman and finally, one of the biggest movie stars in the world. We're privy to the most intimate details of his prodigious sexual hijinks and very movingly, the story of the first love of his life (and how he blew it, big time).

The story of Lazenby's wild days as a male model and the extraordinary turn of events that led to him being cast as James Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (Peter Hunt's film is still one of the greatest Bond pictures ever made) is the stuff of legend. Even more astonishing is the aftermath - when Lazenby did the unthinkable and walked away from a multi-picture, multi-million-dollar offer to continue in the role as a very worthy successor to Sean Connery.

The elder Lazenby is a joy. One doesn't want to take one's eyes of the guy, except when the picture cuts to film clips and archival footage. Whenever we're flung into the dramatic re-enactments, our hearts sink. We can hear his voice, but alas we're forced to watched a strange amalgam of Richard Lester London Swing with sniggering Gerald Thomas Carry On shenanigans. It's not that I have a problem with either, nor do I have a problem with blending them, but the overall tone of these sequences seems tonally off and too often comes across as pallid, by-the-numbers recreations of a particular period of film history as well as Lazenby's life. (In fairness, there are two excellent performances in these recreations - Jeff Garlin as suitably bombastic producer Harry Saltzman and Jane Seymour as Lazenby's sexy, no-nonsense agent.)

Look, I don't want to be one of those assholes who wishes a filmmaker had done a different movie, so ultimately, I won't. My hat is off to Greenbaum for doing something this audacious, but sadly, it's all too close-but-no-cigar.

I am, however, going to be an annoying movie geek, though. How could someone make a documentary biography of George Lazenby and not refer to the lunch he was supposed to have with Bruce Lee that never happened on the very day the martial arts star died? Or the three Golden Harvest action pictures he starred in? And, most notably, one of Lazenby's strangest post-James-Bond roles in Peter Bogdanovich's masterpiece Saint Jack? (In Bogdanovich's amazing film adaptation of the Paul Theroux novel, Lazenby played the politician with a penchant for little Asian boys who is tailed by Ben Gazzara's Jack Flowers, the two-fisted Singapore pimp-turned-stoolie.)

Well, movies are like life. We can't have it all.

THE FILM CORNER RATING (for 78/52) ***½ Three and a Half Stars
THE FILM CORNER RATING (for Becoming Bond) *** Three Stars


78/52 enjoys its Toronto Premiere and Becoming Bond, its International Premiere at Hot Docs 2017.

PECKING ORDER - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 HotDocsHotPick - Here, chickie, chickie.....

Special Note: This is the second film at this year's Hot Docs about farm animals I own (the first being Do Donkeys Act?). I was hoping for a hat-trick. Sadly, this is not to be. Festival Director Shane Smith has informed me that there surely must be some goats that appear somewhere in the festival, but I have yet to find them.
These people LOVE chickens. Then again, so do I.
If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Pecking Order (2017)
Dir. Slavko Martinov

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Full Disclosure: I own chickens.

Even if I didn't I'd have been able to enjoy this thoroughly entertaining and well-crafted look into the world of competitive poultry showcases in New Zealand. Director Slavko Martinov trains his cameras upon several members of the Christchurch Poultry, Bantam and Pigeon Club (which, in this year of Our Lord, 2017, is - like Canada - celebrating its sesquicentennial). Within a variety of sleepy rural Kiwi enclaves surrounding the club's head offices in the burgh of Riccarton, several members prep and preen over their flocks of fowl, the best of which will be presented for eventual inspection and judgement at a major exhibition of "chocks" (in the delightful vernacular of chickie-poo-fanciers).

It is to Martinov's credit that he presents the proceedings with a good, balanced eye, but also allows enough breathing room for the eventual hilarity that can - and must - ensue in any movie devoted to obsessive chicken lovers. Even better, Martinov never treats his subjects like wing nuts (which many of us chicken enthusiasts, admittedly, are). With a subject like this it could have been very tempting to apply a nasty tongue-in-cheek to the mise-en-scene, but he lets his charges (human and feathered) acquit themselves with dignity.

Not that there isn't mudslinging, though. One of the more fascinating elements in this examination of competitive chicken rearing is the crisis which develops within the club itself - a fairly stirring power struggle amongst its members. The rift is twixt the old and the new - yes, Martinov's film carefully focuses upon the wide age-range of chicken wranglers; seniors, middleaged, teens and kids are all represented here.

The bottom line, though, is that we're allowed to laugh with the subjects and not at them. Throughout the movie, while there are a series of cute title/chapter cards with a variety of chicken puns, none of them are there derisively and act simply as jovial, good-natured tools to drive the "drama" forward.

There is one thing in the film that disturbed me. It has nothing to do with the filmmaking, however. It has to do with an attitude amongst a few of the subjects that, uh, ruffled my own chicken-loving feathers. Yes, I do own chickens. I do so to allow them to live out their lives naturally and happily in a free-range environment (with a ridiculously sturdy, clean and comfy coop to retire to when the sun goes down) for the rest of their lives.

What made me raise more than a few of my two eyebrows (yes, I think I sprouted some new ones) was how I happily observed flock upon flock of domestic fowl living so happily in a free-range manner and thinking, "Wow! These people don't kill their chocks!" But as soon as I settled into this comfy idyll, it started: more than once did I hear comments about how the "bad" chickens (those not suited to chickie-competition glory) would have their necks wrung and end up in stewing pots.

That said, I was extremely happy when one of the subjects addressed the issue of the chickens having individual personalities. Yes, they do! God knows I'm aware of this in my own sweet chocks. And if there's anything for me to find fault with in the filmmaking is that I'd have loved to see a brief sequence demonstrating the joys inherent in said personalities. However, given how exhaustive Martinov's film is, I suspect this was an aspect which was covered, but merely ended up on a cutting room floor to keep the proceedings as sprightly as they are.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: *** Three Stars

Pecking Order enjoys its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2017

Monday, 24 April 2017

PLAYING GOD - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 HotDocsHotPick - Ambulance Chaser as GOD

Ken Feinberg assessed value of 9/11 victims.
Playing God (2017)
Dir. Karin Jurschick
Starring: Ken Feinberg

Review By Greg Klymkiw

It's a dirty, dirty job, but someone's got to do it. When tragedy strikes, when a wrong must be righted, when you need someone to assess the value of a human life, not just any ambulance chaser will do. The American Government's learned counsel of choice is none other than "Special Master", Attorney Ken Feinberg. Karin Jurschick's well crafted documentary Playing God provides a compelling, journalistically-well-balanced portrait of the man who presided over the granting of compensation to victims of government cutbacks to pensions, Agent Orange, the BP oil spill and most notably, the 9/11 tragedy.

From start to finish of the film, Feinberg proves to be a straight-shooter with flair. The camera loves him. This is not lost on Jurschick. There is a sequence early on wherein she has her camera in just the right spot upon him in a nicely-framed shot of his upper torso as he sits in his office and explains the facts of life.

"If you get hit by an automobile, if you fall off a ladder, if you eat poison food, if you trip on a sidewalk," he says, and then, with the flourish of a dramatic pause and the tell-tale symbolic physical gesture of rubbing of his forefinger, middle finger and thumb together, he declares:

"Money!"

He continues:

"We will rectify the wrong by having the guilty party, the tort-feasor, pay the victim."

But, according to Feinberg, there's a simple (albeit harsh) reality to all this. "Now, if it's a stockbroker, or a banker who fell on the sidewalk, you're going to pay a lot more than if the person who fell was a waiter or a soldier or a policeman or a fireman."

And it's here where Jurschick displays her flair, as a filmmaker.

Feinberg buttons his speech with this declaration:

"That's the way the system works."

Here there's a breathtaking cut from the office window. The sound of a whoosh and roar overtakes the shot as an airplane passes by, followed by the sound of a sickening impact as we get another breathtaking cut into the maw of 9/11 Hell.

Wham! This is powerful stuff. We're not dealing with just anyone slipping on a sidewalk, we're dealing with the families of those who lost loved ones when terrorists slammed planes into the Twin Towers, Vietnam veterans suffering from the cancer-causing properties of Agent Orange, fishermen's livelihoods ruined by BP's scumbaggery, and the list, goes on. And on.

However, Jurschick doesn't utilize her considerable craft simply to take the wind out of Feinberg, but rather the cold, hard-hearted truth of the "system". Her film doesn't let him off the hook, but it doesn't tar and feather the dude either. She gives us as full a portrait as would be humanly possible, given what it is that Feinberg does for a living. Her style isn't as insanely intense as that to which someone like Errol (The Fog of War) Morris might have brought to bear on the subject, but her voice, though occasionally a wee bit too balanced for my taste is still very clear and definitely all her own. She transcends the pitfalls of so many documentaries that eschew film art in favour of journalism and this is to be celebrated.

Yes, there is balance here, but it ultimately serves the film, the subject and the audience. She gives us a unique opportunity to know and understand this extraordinary individual.

Tellingly, we learn that Feinberg wanted to be an actor, but that he took his father's sage advice to take his passion into something more practical. Hence, law. We also experience a cultured, intelligent, erudite human being who is also filled with deep compassion. This takes some doing since Jurschick's film applies equal balance in presenting a series of harrowing points-of-view from a wide variety of victims. Feinberg is charged with assessing the "value" of their suffering, the value of their very lives and/or those whom they have lost.

We see a man who, on one hand, must figure out the precise amount to "award" corporate pigs in the bank bailouts and, on the other, determine if the government has a legal right to severely cut the pensions of simple working people.

Yes, it's a dirty, dirty job, but Playing God is ultimately all about humanity - on both sides of the coin, and most of all, what resides within each side - no matter how slender or thick the coin actually is.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4-Stars

Playing God enjoys its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2017.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

LET THERE BE LIGHT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 Hot Docs Hot Pick - Fusion is no illusion

The ultimate fusion reactor is within our reach.
Let There Be Light (2017)
Dir. Mila Aung-Thwin, Van Royko
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"Stars have a life cycle much like animals. They get born, they grow, they go through a definite internal development - and finally they die, to give back the material of which they are made so that new stars may live." - Hans Bethe, "Energy Production in Stars"
Fusion is the future of energy. It is created by slamming two hydrogen nuclei together. When these two positives collide, we get - Voila! - mega energy. Simple, yes? Uh, no. Our sun, and in fact all stars, are essentially fusion reactors. To create energy from fusion, we essentially need to create our own version of the sun.

Sounds like science fiction to you, right? Well, mankind has been actively studying the potential of fusion for over 50 years and now, with the complex participation of 37 countries and the best/brightest scientific minds, this reality is so close, yet so far.

Let There Be Light is a fascinating, gripping study of what might be the most expensive scientific experiment ever undertaken (ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor).

Filmmaker Mila Aung-Thwin with co-director/cinematographer Van Royko serve up everything you always wanted to know about fusion, but were too uninformed to even bother asking about. Using a dazzling blend of animation, digital effects, penetrating interviews and stunningly shot coverage of the complex mechanics and construction of an actual star-making machine deep in the bucolic countryside of France, this is a science-based documentary with a difference.

It's absolutely thrilling, because what we're watching are real scientists racing against the clock to make this important dream a reality. It's a Michael Crichton thriller come to life, only the stakes are much higher. What Let There Be Light serves up is the future of the Earth itself. Stakes don't get much higher than that.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4-Stars

Let There Be Light, from EyeSteelFilm, enjoys its Canadian Premiere at Hot Docs 2017.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

HOPE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 Hot Docs Hot Pick - Zweig Casts New Gaze on Fonyo

The following is a review of the new film HOPE, a sequel to Alan Zweig's HURT (winner of the Grand Prize in the prestigious 2015 Toronto International Film Festival’s 40th anniversary Platform competition). The subject of both films is cancer survivor and Canadian hero Steve Fonyo. When you finish reading the review, feel free to read my Open Letter requesting Steve Fonyo's reinstatement to the Order of Canada HERE.
Canadian Hero Steve Fonyo Seeks Redemption.

HOPE (2017)
Dir. Alan Zweig
Starring: Steve Fonyo

Review By Greg Klymkiw

During the extraordinary opening shot of Alan Zweig's HOPE, it's impossible not to think about the words from Matthew 6:22, "The eye is the lamp of the body," especially within the context of the old expression, the eyes are windows into the soul. Indeed they are. As King David says in Psalm 101:
I will not look with approval
on anything that is vile...
My eyes will be on the faithful in the land,
that they may dwell with me.
David slew Goliath for the glory of God and the freedom of his people, but even heroes fall. David fell hard, but he eventually sought redemption. After many trials, King David of Jerusalem let the light back in:
"Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit."
The eye that Zweig's film opens on, in extreme close-up no less, belongs to Steve Fonyo. The camera pulls back slowly from within the iris to reveal the full watery ocular orb of the film's subject, a genuine hero, a man who fell hard and as this film opens, he begins a journey to let light back into his life.

Fonyo is a man who is given, by the film itself, a shot at hope - the hope that he will find redemption by finding the strength within himself to change his life, to heal his body and mind, to move forward, to get better. But will he? Is he even capable of it? The cameras trained upon him provide some answers, but only the viewer can judge, and even then, it's all going to be up to Fonyo. And as HOPE proves, it's not an easy ride.

In 2015's HURT, we learned that Fonyo, like David, did indeed slay the Goliath that is the disease of cancer when he made an 8000 km cross-Canada run on a prosthetic leg in 1984-1985 to raise over $14 million for cancer research. We learn about his brave, virtually Herculean achievement and we watch as he is bestowed with the Order of Canada.

However, much of HURT charts Fonyo in a living Hell, the results of 30 years of abject poverty, homelessness, struggling from the diseases of alcoholism and drug addiction and often living against the backdrop of the criminal underbelly. This once bright-eyed youthful hero is now a middle-aged miasma of inner demons. Even his Order of Canada is disgracefully revoked by callous pencil-pushers in the Canadian Government. By the end of HURT, with a tiny shred of hope dangling itself before Fonyo, he is brutally assaulted in a home invasion and barely survives a coma and massive stroke.

HOPE opens not long after these events. In a superbly structured opening credit sequence we get the whole backstory and Zweig launches us immediately into Fonyo's new challenge - to enter a top-flight rehab facility in Powell River, British Columbia. We follow Fonyo and his girlfriend as they pack up their squalid digs in Surrey, hit the road and eventually part company as he enters the facility. We follow Fonyo's experience in the facility and the aftermath in which Fonyo hopes to begin a new life in the veritable Garden of Eden, Powell River. We meet with his chief analyst, his oldest friend and biggest supporter during the historic run and yes, Zweig's penetrating eye gives us a glimpse into the fractious love twixt Fonyo and his girlfriend (occasionally venturing into bilious George and Martha territory).

Of course, Zweig, as in all of his films, is present; off-camera, but his unmistakeable voice of gravel pierces through like some omniscient spirit. Supporter and needler, prodding Fonyo to cough-up hard truths, Zweig not only creates cinema, but takes the very act of cinema to the extremes of being the very helping-hand Fonyo needs. (Zweig, the ever-present pitbull, seems vaguely suspect of Fonyo's 12-Step Higher Power choice in the faith of the Jehovah Witness Church, but his probing is always tinged with care and genuine love.)

Most viewers want things served up simply. They won't get that here. Yes, Zweig's film is the very reason why Fonyo makes this decision to go into rehab and bravely the cameras keep rolling as Fonyo somewhat petulantly puts this juju on Zweig. He makes it clear that he's doing this for the film and that he expects the film (and filmmaker) to provide him with what he needs. One of the more fascinating moments is when Fonyo's analyst admits to Zweig that the rehab process might go more smoothly if the film wasn't being made at all. He claims that even when the cameras aren't rolling, Fonyo responds to the therapy as if he was on camera.

Well, of course he would. This is a guy who had cameras on him constantly during his greatest achievement thirty years ago. He's used to the cameras being there and even though three decades have passed, it's old hat for Fonyo. Being in the public spotlight and working it as well as he did is kind of like learning to ride a bicycle.

Is the film, in this sense, exploitative? Sorry, folks. What film isn't? Exploitation in cinema is at its worst when there is a pretence to try and hide exploitative elements. The best cinema lets it all hang out - warts and all. HOPE exposes its own warts as well as its subjects.

This is an extraordinarily moving experience. I can't even begin to affix a value, numerically or otherwise, to the amount of tears I squirted throughout this film, the number of times my breath was taken away by a great shot, or cut or riff in the score. HOPE overflows with heartbreak, melancholy and yes, on occasion, even something approaching joy. There are times when we feel like we're peering into Fonyo's soul beneath the layers of the many masks he dons.

This is the beauty of cinema, however, especially when wrought by a true master like Zweig. The eyes are everything - those of the subject, the filmmaker and the camera lens itself.

HURT so often felt like it was infused with the spirit of the 70s existential palookaville angst of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. HOPE continues this feeling, but at times we feel like we're in John Cassavetes A Woman Under the Influence/Killing of a Chinese Bookie territory. Add the light (albeit murky) of redemption to this mix and you have the documentary equivalent of Coppola's achievement when, with The Godfather: Part II, he made a sequel as stirring, powerful and vital as The Godfather. When a film knocks us on our ass, we seldom expect its sequel to do the same thing. With HOPE, Zweig achieves this with the same dogged, gritty artistry that's made him one of Canada's greatest filmmakers.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5 Stars

HOPE enjoys its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2017.